And So This is Christmas

by Beth Green

Universe: This takes place in KT's Runaways OW AU, in which Chris is eight years old and Buck is four years old. For further info, check out the stories that inspired this: Arrivals, and its sequel, Closures. Thanks to Katy, and to the creators of the Little Britches AU.

Ezra Standish was enjoying the warmth of the day. With winter coming on, the December days had been growing progressively shorter and colder. Ezra was pleased to note that his toes were not threatened with frostbite the minute he stepped out of bed this morning. The afternoon had delivered on the morning's promise, and Ezra was able to lounge on the boardwalk with no additional coat other than his suit jacket. He removed his hat, closed his eyes, and turned his face up into the heat of the sun. His repose was interrupted by the arrival of Vin Tanner.

Vin leaned comfortably against a nearby post. "Hell, Ezra, you look just like a snake sunnin' himself on a rock."

Ezra shrugged, otherwise not bothering to change his position at the implied insult. "Mister Tanner, you may utter any verbal slurs that happen to occur to your tiny little brain. It is too nice a day for me to bother to respond in kind." He straightened from his slouched position and opened his eyes to better examine his companion. His nose wrinkled in distaste. "However, I shall offer a suggestion. In respect to the break in the weather, might I recommend that you avail yourself of the opportunity to air out that hide coat? Otherwise, you may find yourself the amorous object of some myopic bull's affection." At Vin's uncomprehending look, Ezra continued. "The animal would be attracted by the stench of your garment and misled into thinking that he had stumbled across another of his kind."

Vin raised an arm over his head and bent to sniff at his exposed armpit. "Smells okay to me. 'Sides which, I paid a visit to the bathhouse just last week."

Ezra grimaced, fanning at the odor wafting toward him. He coughed delicately into a fisted hand. "Might I also suggest that the warmth of the day might encourage you to visit the bathhouse again today, rather than waiting for the weather to turn cold again."

Before Vin could come up with a suitable reply, the men were joined by Mary Travis.

Ezra stood. "Good morning, Mrs. Travis."

Vin tipped his hat. "Mornin' Miz Travis."

Mary returned their greeting then quickly stated the object of her visit. "Gentlemen. First, let me again thank you for helping us to become the calm and civilized town that I always knew we could be. You and your fellow peacekeepers have been a Godsend. However, now that you have taken on the additional responsibility of raising two small boys, you need to be mindful of raising them with the knowledge of proper tradition."

Vin straightened, preparing to take offense. He felt sure that the woman was referring to his own decidedly nontraditional upbringing. It hadn't done him any harm, and he was damned if he'd let a woman tell him how a boy ought to be raised. He was none too impressed with how she was raising her own son, Billy. In Vin's opinion, the boy was in need of a man's steadying influence to temper his mother's female frills.

Ezra sighed, wondering what particular crusade the newspaperwoman was about to embark upon. He remained silent, not wanting to know the answer to his unspoken question.

Nevertheless, Mary supplied it. "I am referring to the celebration of Christmas."

Vin frowned. "If you're talkin' about church-goin', if Josiah wants to hold a service, we'll be more 'n pleased to have the young 'uns attend."

Mary shook her head while saying, "Yes, that's a part of it. But it is not the only thing that I am referring to. In the spirit of the season, I am encouraging the town's residents to decorate using the traditional greenery and ornamentation. Moreover, I strongly encourage everyone to participate in the exchange of gifts."

Ezra stated, "Mrs. Travis, whether or not we choose to exchange gifts is frankly none of your concern."

Mary shook a scolding finger. "Mr. Standish, I cannot help but be concerned regarding the impression that you will leave the boys with should they see everyone participating in the season's festivities with the sole exception of their caregivers."

Ezra waved off her concern. "I am afraid that you are giving the local residents far too much credit if you believe that they will all choose to display an excess of holiday cheer upon your urging."

Mary seemed to be looking down upon both Ezra and Vin despite the fact that both men were taller than herself. She stated, "And you are giving them far too little credit. It may interest you to know that everyone that I have spoken to so far has agreed to show that the people in this town know how to conduct a proper holiday celebration." It seemed as if she realized the harshness of her previous statement, as her next words were less of a scold and more of a plea. She turned to place a hand upon one of Vin's folded arms. "Please, think about it, if for no other reason than the children's sake. Good day."

The gentlemen bid her goodbye. Once she was out of hearing range, Ezra added, "And good riddance."

Vin's lips twisted as he stated, "Well, that was innerestin'."

"Yes, in an annoying, judgmental way. Thank God that woman never offered to take in the boys. At least with us, they stand a chance of growing up to be the kind of men you'd want covering your back in a fight."

Vin smiled as he added, "Not to mention the kind 'a fellas who'll never get took in a poker game. Think we ought to warn the others Miz Travis is out to get 'em?"

Ezra's immediate impulse was to decline. He wanted nothing more than to return to his previously interrupted sun bath. He quickly reconsidered. "Yes, I believe that would be the best course of action. Mr. Tanner, I suggest that you depart posthaste."

Vin nodded and began to step away. He reversed course to ask, "What're you gonna be doin'?"

"I shall wait here and warn Josiah and Nathan, should they choose to make an appearance. Also, by remaining in such a public locale, I shall be able to gauge the temper of the town as its residents are exposed to Mrs. Travis' forceful suggestion."

Vin knew darn well that Ezra didn't want to stir from his present spot. He also knew that nothing that he said would sway the man from his inactivity. Giving in to the inevitable, he decided to leave Ezra with a parting shot. The tracker clapped a hand a bit too enthusiastically along Ezra's back, nearly toppling the man from his perch upon the boardwalk. Ezra quickly righted himself, brushing off any dust that he may have accumulated from his contact with the less than pristine tracker. He whined, "Please do not do that again."

Just to be contrary, Vin slung an arm across Ezra's shoulders, pulling the resisting man close against his hide coat. "Sure, Ezra, whatever you say."

Ezra pushed himself away, offering a colorful stream of curse words in return for his friend's physical display.

Vin laughed off the profanity. "I'm gonna go talk to the others, see what they think about this Christmas business." Vin laughed again when Ezra quickly encouraged him to be on his way.

"Yes, Mr. Tanner, please do." He added to Vin's retreating back, "And you might want to stop in at the bathhouse along the way."

Vin laughed and waved a hand over his head, not bothering to turn around at Ezra's parting shot.

+ + + + + + +

With no prisoners currently needing his attendance at the jail, JD had taken the boys off to Josiah's church. The older man had generously offered a small patch of ground adjacent to the building for the boys to practice gardening. JD was more than happy to take him up on the suggestion.

He didn't think that it was so long ago that he had been a boy himself. However, there were days that Chris and Buck made JD feel positively ancient. The boys were still uncertain of their security. They were more comfortable in the presence of their adult caregivers and each other than in the company of the local children. There were days when JD found himself straining his brain to come up with ways to keep the boys busy and out of trouble.

The younger of the two boys, four-year-old Buck, seemed to have a knack for getting into things that he shouldn't. Although most of the time Chris was able to hold Buck back from giving in to his more thoughtless ideas, Chris himself was only eight years old. The older boy would sometimes not only accompany Buck on his misadventures, but once or twice Chris had actually instigated some less than well thought out activity. JD welcomed the many hours that tending a garden would occupy.

The boys were currently engaged in clearing their 'land' of rocks. They were presently working together to try to lift one of the larger rocks. It was rough going. JD took pity on the youngsters, and moved to offer his assistance. Unfortunately, his timing couldn't have been worse. He arrived just as the boys had managed to shakily hoist a large rock between them. Chris asked, "You got it, Buck?"

Buck grunted his reply. "Yep."

Buck's 'Yep' was immediately followed by JD's arrival. He bent down toward the boys. "Hey, guys, let me help."

Whether it was because he was distracted by JD's sudden appearance or his small hands could no longer hold on, the result was the same. The small boy let out a cry of dismay as Chris yelled, "Buck!" The older boy could not support the rock by himself. The rock crashed down upon JD's foot.

Despite the protection offered by his boot, JD felt his bones crack with the impact. He let loose a colorful stream of curses as he began to hop around on one foot.

With an exquisite display of poor timing, Mary Travis chose that very moment to appear. Her eyes widened at the stream of profanity. Outraged, Mary scolded, "Mr. Dunne!"

JD dropped to the ground, grimacing. His voice strained, he apologized. "Excuse me, Ma'am, I had no idea there was a lady present."

Mary was not appeased. "Oh, and I suppose that if it were simply you and the boys, such language would be perfectly acceptable?"

JD was saved from answering by Josiah's arrival. The older man pretended that he had not heard JD's profane outburst. "JD, is there something wrong?"

JD held his booted foot, rocking with the pain. He was pale and sweating. He swallowed against a suddenly dry throat, swallowing once or twice before he was able to get the words out through gritted teeth. "I think I broke my foot."

Buck and Chris had been looking on, horror-stricken at the sight of their obviously injured caregiver. With JD's pronouncement, Buck's threatened tears became a storm of sobbing. Mary approached the distraught child, only to have Buck push her away. "No" . . .*sob* . . . *sniff* . . . "Want Chri-i-s." Chris wrapped his arms around his sobbing friend, ignoring the tears that were trailing down his own face.

Mary stood back, feeling decidedly out of place. Josiah was busy helping JD to stand on his uninjured foot. His voice low and soothing, he called to the boys, "Let's all go and see Nathan. He'll have JD's foot set to rights in no time at all."

Mary finally found a way to be of use. She stated, "I'll go and let Mr. Jackson know what's happened." She paused to ask, "What exactly did happen?"

At Mary's words, Buck's sobbing, which had slowed up some, renewed in strength and vigor. Between hiccoughing breaths, he cried, "It's all my fault."

Josiah's voice held a threat that was visible in his face as he declared, "Mrs. Travis, you'd best be on your way."

JD's voice betrayed his pain as he turned toward the boys. "Buck, Chris, it was nobody's fault. You hear me?"

Chris' slow nod was belied by the guilt in his eyes. Buck simply continued to sob. Josiah sighed. After JD got taken care of, there were two small boys who needed a big dose of reassurance.

+ + + + + + +

Once Josiah had turned JD over to Nathan's care, he gathered up the small boys and headed away from the clinic and toward the jail and home.

Although his hysteria had died down, tears still slipped down Buck's face. His right sleeve was sodden from doubling as a handkerchief. The boy's eyes were red and swollen. His feet dragged along in the dirt as they set a slow pace.

Chris walked at his side, holding tightly to his hand. Josiah had tried to take Buck's free hand in his own but the boy curled his fist tightly against his chest, silently refusing the offer. Josiah crossed to Chris' other side. The older boy was more than happy to have a trusted adult to hold his hand, the one that was not occupied by Buck's tight-fisted grasp.

Ezra had encountered Mary Travis. The woman had urgently summoned him as she made her way to Nathan's clinic. She shared what little she knew of the accident. Ezra immediately set out to find Vin. After locating his friend in the saloon, the two men joined up with the sad procession moving toward the jail.

Ezra pressed for further details. "What happened? How is Mr. Dunne?"

Buck's silent grief gave way to an exhausted, weak cry at Ezra's words.

Josiah stated, "Nathan is working on JD right now. It looks like he might have a broken foot. Why don't you go see how he's doing?"

Ezra was more than happy to comply with Josiah's request. He was not at his best in dealing with weeping, be it man, woman, or child. He nodded. "I shall do so. I will see you gentlemen later."

Buck felt no comfort when they arrived at their home adjacent to the jail. He turned to Josiah. "Am I . . . goin' to jail?"

Josiah couldn't stand the pain in the heart-broken voice. He bent down to put his eyes on a level with Buck's own. The boy refused to look at him. Josiah placed his palms gently along either side the boy's face, giving him no choice but to look up. Josiah declared, "You are not going to jail. You don't have to tell me what happened. I know that you would never purposely do anything to hurt JD."

Josiah ignored the tears against his fingers as Buck sobbed, "It was a accident. I dropped the rock. It's all my fault."

Josiah picked up the sobbing child, cradling him in his arms as he headed through the door. "JD's going to be fine. It's not your fault. It's okay to be sad that JD's hurting, but don't you go blaming yourself." He turned to Vin. "I think me and Buck are gonna go and have ourselves a lie-down. Why don't you keep Chris company for a bit?" Josiah headed into the boys' bedroom. He placed Buck upon the bed, removing the child's boots and then his own. He settled himself alongside the exhausted child.

In a conversational tone of voice, he began to speak. "You know, when I'm feeling sad about something, I find it helpful to talk to God about it. The nice thing about talking to God is you don't always have to say the words out loud. You can say them in your head, and God will still hear what you're saying. A lot of the time, folks don't even know when I'm talking to God. Like right now. Ever since JD got hurt, I've been saying, 'Dear God, please help JD to feel better'. You want to try praying with me now?"

The small dark head nodded against his shoulder. Josiah repeated the words, to have them quietly echoed by Buck. Josiah sent up a separate prayer of thanks when Buck's crying finally seemed to be at an end after their shared prayer. Josiah continued to talk. Buck's eyes began to droop as the distraught boy sought comfort in the childlike habit of thumb-sucking. Buck's eyes blinked slowly once, twice, and then stayed closed as a hitching breath of air escaped around his thumb.

Josiah sighed. "Oh, well, you aren't the first person who's accused me of putting them to sleep just by talking." He yawned, "What's worse, I seem to have bored myself. If you don't mind, as long as I'm here I'm going to close my eyes for a bit." The two were soon snoring softly side by side.

+ + + + + + +

Chris had been acting the role of adult for Buck's sake. Once he'd been relieved of the responsibility of caring for Buck, he melted into Vin's extended arms. Vin rocked the small body in his arms, feeling the silent sobs. After about five minutes of quiet grieving Chris leaned back. He did not remove himself from the shelter of Vin's grasp. He sniffed. "I know it's nobody's fault, I know JD's gonna be okay. It's just, Buck was so upset. He doesn't understand."

Vin squeezed Chris in a gentle hug. "I know. So does Josiah. I'm sure he's making Buck understand right now." They sat a while in comfortable silence. Vin was the first to speak. "So. You think you can tell me what happened?"

Chris nodded. "It was just a dumb old rock. Me and Buck were tryin' to move it out of our garden." He turned wide eyes toward Vin. "I thought the two of us together could move it. And we were. At least, we lifted it up. But Buck couldn't hold on. And JD came up to help right when Buck let go. And the rest, well, I guess you know." He turned away from Vin. "I guess if it's anybody's fault, it's mine for trying to lift something that was too big."

Vin turned Chris around in his lap so that the two of them were face to face. "Seems to me you already done forgot the part about it bein' nobody's fault."

Chris shrugged. "I guess."

Vin insisted, "No guessin' about it. That's why they call it an accident, when somethin' happens that wasn't meant to be, and isn't anybody's fault." Vin stared a minute longer, making sure that Chris believed what he was saying. He nodded, and they resumed their comfortable silence.

+ + + + + + +

An hour or so later JD arrived, leaning heavily against Nathan's side for support. Ezra followed behind, carrying a crutch. JD's foot was splinted and he could not put any weight upon it.

JD spoke before anyone else could get a word in edgewise. "Well, no surprise, I broke my foot. Chris, I am so sorry, this is all my fault. Here I am, always telling you boys to be careful, and I go and do something stupid like startle you when you're trying to lift a rock."

Chris echoed Vin's earlier words. "What happened isn't anybody's fault. That's why they call it an accident."

Vin smiled, pleased at the demonstration that Chris had taken his words to heart. He nodded over the blond head of the boy sitting in his lap. "Chris is right."

JD's eyes widened. "Oh." Then he remembered the other member of their makeshift family. His voice reflected his concern as he asked, "Where's Buck?"

Vin responded, "Him and Josiah headed off to the boys' room a while back."

JD tried to hobble toward the stairs, nearly falling in the process. "I'm gonna go check on them."

JD stayed upright thanks to Nathan's strong arm. The healer suggested, "Why don't you go sit down before you fall down?"

Ezra offered, "I shall go and ascertain their well-being."

Wanting to make sure he'd understood the fancy talk, Vin clarified, "Ezra 'll go check 'em out."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra stopped in the doorway, observing the sleeping duo. Upon first sight, a casual observer might be led to believe that Josiah would cheerfully tear them in half just for his own personal amusement. Were there a means of capturing this moment in time, anyone who saw Josiah would be disabused of the notion as soon as they saw the picture. The man lay sideways, his back to the door, curled protectively around his young charge. The half-smile upon his face hinted at pleasant dreams. Ezra stepped quietly out of the room to share his findings.

Over the next few days, Buck's friends and family continued to remind him that he was not at fault for JD's injury. They were unable to completely remove the boy's atypical melancholy. Part of the problem was that Buck was unable to sleep completely through the night. The first night after JD's injury, the entire household was awoken by Buck's terrified scream. In any other child, a simple incidence of bedwetting would not induce complete and utter panic. However, in Buck's case he had good reason to be terrified. Prior to finding their present home, Buck and Chris had fled from an orphanage that had subjected the young boys to barbaric treatment. Among other tortures, when young Buck had wet the bed at the orphanage, he was marched outside regardless of the weather and tossed in with the pigs.

Since they'd arrived at their new home, Chris always made sure that Buck used the outhouse prior to retiring for the evening. The night of JD's accident, Buck had napped while Chris remained awake. With the day's disruptions, Buck's toileting was the last thing on anyone's mind. With Buck's night terrors, they were quickly reminded. Chris shared a bed with Buck, so he was the first to become aware of the problem. He groaned when he awoke in the middle of the night to find the bedding damp. He prodded his sleeping companion. "Buck. Buck, come on, get up."

Chris was startled at the sudden and abrupt response to his action. Buck sat bolt upright in the bed and began screaming. "No! No pigs! NO!"

Vin came running as fast as he could. He hadn't taken the time to bring a lantern, and his eyes strained to see in the darkness. He could make out both boys as shadowy figures in the middle of the bed. Buck was incoherent in his hysteria, while Chris hugged the boy, trying to soothe him. "Shh, it's okay, you're okay, there's no pigs, it's okay, come on, Buck, we're okay." Vin grabbed for the lantern at the boys' bedside, quickly providing light. JD hobbled painfully into the room. By that time, Vin had joined the boys in the bed, and quickly figured out the problem.

The light and Vin's presence helped to draw Buck out of his nightmare. He began to softly sob. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

Vin soothed, "It's okay, you're okay. I'll just get you some dry things, and in the morning we can all head over to the bathhouse. Ezra's been naggin' at me to go, and this is as good an excuse as any." Vin did a quick cleanup, including the bedding.

JD had been bothered by the fact that he had not been available to comfort Buck during the day. He made darn sure he did so this evening. For the few hours of the night remaining, JD and Buck doubled up. That left Vin and Chris to share the other bed, something that neither of them minded. After everyone else returned to sleep, Buck remained awake, staring into the darkness of the night. JD's injured foot was a constant reminder of real-life nightmares.

The next few nights Buck's sleep continued to be disturbed. He would wake up on the edge of a nightmare that he could never quite remember, and he had a hard time getting back to sleep. More than once, JD would tuck Buck into bed for the night and wake up to find that the boy had joined his foster father some time during the night. JD did not have the heart to wake the boy and send him back to his own bed.

+ + + + + + +

Two days later, Vin was making a circuit of the town when he was surprised by childish laughter. He was sure that one of the voices belonged to Chris, and one of the others was . . . he entered the town's newspaper office to be certain. Yep. It was Buck. The third child was Mary Travis' son, Billy. The three boys were occupied in making paper garlands while Mary supervised. Vin smiled at the sight. Buck seemed to have rediscovered his usual sunny disposition.

Buck returned Vin's smile, holding up his project. "Look, ain't it purty? I didn't know it was almost Christmas already. Are we gonna make a wreath? And mincemeat pies? And fruitcake? Huh? Are we?"

Chris added, "I can help to cut up the fruit, if you want. And then maybe we could save some for the sourdough rolls?"

Vin raised his hands in surrender, knowing that he was already beat. "Whoa, let me talk to JD and the rest of the fellas, see what they think." He spared a glare for Mrs. Travis. That was darn sneaky of her, going around his and Ezra's objections by getting the boys on her side. The way Buck had been lately, he didn't see how they could refuse the boys' request to participate in Mrs. Travis' Christmas celebration. Especially as young Buck didn't seem to be giving him a choice in the matter.

Buck grabbed Vin's hand, pulling him toward the door. "Come on, you said we was gonna talk to the others."

Chris hopped up from his place by the table, adding his plea to Buck's. "Yeah, let's go!"

They headed off toward the jail where the other peacekeepers were currently gathered. The cell was occupied by a drunk who would not be released until he had sobered up. The man was snoring loudly, dead drunk. Ezra was dealing cards to Nathan and JD when Vin and his entourage arrived.

Buck led the assault. "Guess what? It's almost Christmas! Are we gonna make wreaths and garlands? My Ma and the ladies used to let me help, 'though not with the tree. They'd bring in a tree, and light it with candles. It was bee-yoo-ti-ful, like havin' the stars come down from the sky and be right in the room with you."

Chris added his enthusiastic voice to Buck's. "I 'member Christmas time at my house was when my mamma would bake fruitcakes. She'd let me help slice up the fruit, and we'd take what was left over and make fruited sourdough rolls." He smacked his lips in remembrance. "Mmm, those were the best rolls I ever had."

Buck added, "And don't forget the mincemeat pie. Oh, and Ma and me would always do one gift apiece, 'cuz Christmas is about givin' as well as gettin'. Miss Lou helped me to make my Ma a angel, and Ma said it was the prettiest angel she ever did see." Buck's smile dimmed as he remembered, "And now my Ma is dreamin' with the angels, and I bet she's the prettiest angel they ever did see."

As the boys rambled on in their enthusiasm, Vin realized that he'd seriously misjudged Mrs. Travis. It seemed that the boys had no need to be instructed in Mrs. Travis' idea of what makes up a traditional Christmas. Buck and Chris had plenty of ideas of their own.

JD confessed, "I completely forgot that Mrs. Travis had talked to me about Christmas. It seemed to me like she had a lot of good ideas."

Nathan nodded. "Me, too. Anything that gets the whole town to agree on somethin', can't be too bad."

Josiah stated, "Well, I have already agreed to do a scripture reading as my gift to the town. If you all want to do as the boys suggest, I can't see as it would do any harm."

Ezra and Vin exchanged rueful looks. Ezra answered for the both of them. "Mr. Tanner, it appears that we are seriously outnumbered. It seems to me that our continued harmonious existence is dependent upon our concurrence."

Vin rolled his eyes. "In other words, count us in."

After further discussion, the town's peacekeepers agreed to limit the number and the value of the gifts, as Buck was adamant regarding the need to give as well as receive. Over the next few days, the men had fun observing the boys for gift suggestions. Buck came in one day muttering about the flannel wrapper around his head. "The doggone thing won't stay tied." He stomped a booted foot. "What I need is a hat."

JD stood over his young charge. Removing his derby, he promptly placed it upon Buck's head. The young boy's head was nearly hidden beneath the overly large hat. He leaned his head back, trying to see. Buck voiced a giggling protest. "No-o-o-o! I can't see!" He leaned his head far enough back that the hat fell off. When JD offered it to him again, Buck shook his head. "Nope. Don't want it. That's not a proper hat. I want a real hat, like a cowboy wears."

Chris had been silently watching and observing Buck and JD's antics. Buck included Chris in the discussion. "Chris does, too."

Chris questioned, "I do what?"

Buck clarified, "Want a proper cowboy hat."

Chris thought a minute before he responded. "The hat, maybe. I just don't want nobody callin' me no cowboy."

Buck asked, "Why not? Cowboys are great. They ride horses, capture desp'rate outlaws, an' shoot guns."

Chris shook his head. "Nope. Cowboys ride herd on cows, and cows are just about the dumbest thing on four legs. You won't find me out there steppin' on cow patties."

Buck wrinkled his nose in distaste at the thought. "Ew. Me neither."

+ + + + + + +

Later in the week, Ezra accompanied the boys to the Mercantile, wishing to gauge their reaction to a toy display. Chris pointed out a colorful train. "Hey, Buck, is this like the one your Ma got you?"

Buck shook his head, the sadness visible upon his expressive face. "Nope. There won't never be another train like it." With that pronouncement, the boys could not work up a proper enthusiasm for the display.

The next day, Vin observed Buck looking through the window at the display. He asked, "You see anything you like?"

Buck nodded. Vin continued, "You gonna tell me what it is?"

Buck smiled, and shook his head 'No.'

Vin loomed over him, pretending outrage. "No? No! Nobody tells me 'no.' Did you just say no?"

Buck giggled and shook his head. "No."

Vin raised his hands, preparing to attack. "What did I just tell you?"

Buck laughed. "No!" Vin swooped in for the kill, picking the boy up and flinging him over his shoulder, tickling him along the way. He shook the boy. "So, you gonna tell me what you were looking at?"

Buck responded the only way he could. "No!"

Vin grabbed him by the ankles, holding him upside-down. "Do you know what an upside-down 'No' means?"


Vin clarified, "No means yes when you're upside-down. That's the law."


Vin tickled and Buck giggled. Vin gave him one more chance. "So, does no mean yes?"

"No, yes, I don't know!"

Vin finally set Buck back on his feet. "So what were you looking at?"

Buck looked at Vin, looked at the window, and looked at Vin again. He questioned, "Really and truly?"

"Really and truly."

A small finger pointed to a corner of the display case. "That horse. The brown one, right there."

Vin nodded. "Yep. That's a mighty fine horse." He winced at the price tag. It was obvious that the vendor didn't really want to sell the finely carved animal, as it was priced beyond even Ezra's means.

Vin sighed. "You know there's some real live horses don't even cost that much."

Buck nodded. "Yeah. I know."

Vin ruffled Buck's already tousled hair. "Come on, let's go find Chris."

+ + + + + + +

Day by day, Christmas decorations sprung up around town. Although Chris respected the peacekeepers' lack of participation, Buck was not so circumspect. The young boy's nagging finally paid off when Ezra showed up with an armload of greenery. He tossed it on the floor, stating, "There are your decorations."

The boys delighted in tucking springs of greenery anywhere they could think of. When they were finished, it looked more as if a tree had exploded within their quarters, and bore little to no resemblance to actual wreaths or garlands. Nevertheless, the boys seemed quite satisfied. Mary Travis continued to invite Chris and Buck to assist with her holiday preparations.

Thus it came to pass that Christmas Day itself arrived. Josiah was in particularly good voice. Even though most of those present were familiar with the biblical Christmas story, the townsfolk listened in rapt attention as Josiah described the story of the birth of the baby Jesus. The solemnity of the morning gave way to the celebration of the day. The boys accumulated sweets, little books, and toys as each of their uncles made his contribution. Despite their vow to limit their spending, the town's peacekeepers had pooled their resources to provide the boys with their requested headgear.

Both boys delighted in their 'cowboy hats'. Buck's was distinguishable from Chris' by color only: Buck's hat was tan, while Chris' was black. The boys had decided to gift their uncles with a share of their time, giving out written promises for services as diverse as boot shining to room cleaning. The boys halted the proceedings when they were down to their last to piece of paper. Buck, who'd been leading the gift-giving, suddenly stepped back in favor of Chris.

Chris raised his voice, gaining the attention of everyone in the room. "'Scuse me, everybody, this last bit's a little different. Mrs. Travis helped us write this up, an' it's from me and Buck both. It says here, 'We, Chris and Buck, hereby thank JD Dunne, Vin Tanner, Ezra Standish, Josiah Sanchez, and Nathan Jackson, for takin' us into your homes and hearts. We thought that we'd never have any cause to celebrate Christmas ever again, and we were very, very, VERY happy before Christmas even got here thanks to all of you. Your friends, Chris and Buck.'"

Buck began to clap, and his adopted uncles joined in as hugs and laughter were exchanged. JD declared, "I'm going to frame this 'Thank You' and put it up on the wall." He looked fondly at his charges, Chris and Buck. "Of course, all I have to do is see you guys every day to know that I'm the one who should be saying 'Thank you.' So, anyway, thank you boys for today and every day." He hugged each boy in turn, declaring, "I love you."

When the day gave way to evening, Vin approached Buck privately. He pulled out a tissue-wrapped package. "I didn't want to give this to you in front of everybody and if you didn't like it you'd have to pretend like you did. Anyway, I couldn't get you what you really wanted, but I'd been workin' on this a while and I never had any reason to finish it until I met you. Anyway, here it is, and it's okay if you don't like it."

Curious, Buck unwrapped the package. It was a small hand-carved horse figurine. Buck ran a finger gently along its mane and tail. He wrapped his arms around Vin's neck, being careful not to drop the horse. "Thank you. It's bee-yoo-ti-ful."

Vin gave a sigh of relief, awed at how much the approval of one small boy affected him. He whispered, "You're welcome, and thank you."

Later, when the boys were safely tucked in for the night, the men were sharing an evening libation. Ezra mused, "It appears that Mrs. Travis' idea of a traditional Christmas celebration was a good one."

Vin nodded, then asked, "You reckon we owe her an apology?"

Ezra frowned. "Vin, have you lost what little sense you had? The woman is insufferable enough without the additional card of an apology to hold over our heads. The answer to your question is most emphatically 'No'."

Vin visibly relaxed. "Good. I was hopin' you'd say that."

Ezra raised his glass. "A toast: to good friends and good ideas." The clinking of their glasses was the only Christmas music required by the family of friends.