OH, WOW, LOOK!! Another Little Britches AU. WAH-HOO!!

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, ‘God! Like we need another AU? And another LB at that?’

And, of course, you are right. We have so many Mag7 AU’s now that I can’t keep up with them anymore. Heck, I can’t even write in the ones I already have, much less a new one. Now, that either means that I need to write faster, stop creating alternate universes, or win the lotto and do nothing but write. I choose…


But since that probably won’t be happening or I can’t seem to write faster or stop creating new AU’s, guess ya’ll just have to bear with me.

Now, the reason that I’m writing this…seems that Marian and I were talking one day and we were wondering about this whole Maude and Josiah thing. Okay, so it’s more of a Josiah thing for Maude, but anyway…we decided to explore a world where Josiah marries Maude. And, thus, a new AU took a small breath of life. Funny thing, though-no Maude. But you’ll see.

Basically, this is like ‘Bonanza’ with the Seven. Ezra, Vin and JD are children while the others are adults. It plays out in the mountains of Nevada…well, like I said, just think of ‘Bonanza’ only with more good-looking guys.

This is the story of them all coming together. Thanks to Marian for providing the ideas and the push to finish in time. The two of us co-wrote this for the zine and we really hope that you enjoy it. We certainly had fun writing it.

A special thanks to Kay for the great picture for our story.


Nathan hummed as he drove along. The winter had finally released her hold on the mountain and the forest was coming alive. He had only been in Nevada for a year and a half, but he was more at home here than any place he had been before. The best decision he had ever made was to search out Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington and take them up on their offer of a home.

The war had been over for seven years, but the prejudice remained in many parts of the country. Even in the northern states, he could not find work in the hospitals unless he wanted to clean up the wards. After serving in the army as first a stretcher bearer and then a surgical helper, he had hoped to get medical training in the northern colleges. He soon learned that he might be a free man, but he was not equal.

The only men that had ever treated him as an equal, the only white men that is, had been the two men he now worked with. He had met them both after an encounter with enemy troops that left Buck badly wounded. Chris had dragged the man into the hospital tent and threatened everyone if Wilmington was not helped, ‘now’.

The doctors froze, but Nathan Jackson had stepped forward to help, gaining two friends in the process. He had only been twenty at the time, but had lived a lifetime in those short years. These two Union soldiers taught him the meaning of friendship. It wasn’t in the words people spoke, but in their actions. And Chris and Buck’s actions had been to invite him to go west with them, to join their families and start a new life.

He lost track of the two after they left to pursue their dreams and it was only after he followed them out west that he learned of the tragedy that had befallen both men. They had lost their families to disease on the trek west. Buck’s bride of only three months and Chris’ wife and son all died of cholera along with more than half the people on the wagon train. Nathan couldn’t help but feel that if he had only joined them, he might have been able to save some of the pioneers, especially Katherine, Sarah, and Adam.

The tall dark-skinned man was drawn from his musing by the sound of horses' hoofs drumming on the hardened road. His hand slid down to grasp the rifle stock as he turned to glance over his shoulder. Recognizing the approaching horses, he released the weapon and straightened up. He pulled the team to a stop as the men neared.

“Nathan.” Larabee nodded slightly in greeting, a smile pulling at one side of his mouth. He sat relaxed in the saddle, his wrist draped across the horn as he pulled his black to a stop.

Buck, on the other hand, rode close enough to the wagon to dismount onto the seat and begin pawing through the supplies it contained as he spoke. “Nathan, ya get everything? Gloria have the order ready for ya?”

“Yeah, it was all there, waiting for me.” Nathan stared at the tall man as he foraged through the boxes bent over the back of the wagon seat with his tail stuck in the air. Glancing at Larabee, Jackson winked. “At least most of it was ready. Seems the supplies from Carson City hadn’t arrived yet, so there was a few things she didn’t have for us. The salt licks should come in next week, as well as the coffee.”

Buck bounced up like he was spring loaded, a look of horror on his face. His voice squeaked as he responded, “NO COFFEE? There’s no coffee?” He turned to Larabee. "There's no coffee."

The man jumped down from the wagon. He grabbed the dangling reins of his horse and leapt up on the gelding’s broad back. “I ain’t standing for this. That woman has got to have some coffee.”

He wheeled his mount around and shook his finger at the man in the wagon. “I ain’t drinking anymore of that…that…stuff, you call tea. I’m goin' back into town and find some coffee, if I have to steal it.”

He started to kick the gray, but a chuckle from Larabee had him glancing around to see Nathan holding a sack of coffee, smiling.

“Dang it, Nathan. That ain’t funny. You can’t just mess with a man’s coffee. Why that’s like… like messing with his horse.” Buck reached for the sack as he spoke, but Nathan pulled the bag back.

“No, you ain’t taking this. It’s going to the kitchen where it belongs. Ain’t none of us had coffee all winter long, so you can just wait.”

Buck sighed as he sat back in the saddle. “All right, Nathan. You’re in charge of the coffee.” His eyebrows waggled as he asked, “So, did Gloria send any sweets? She always sends a bit of something.”

Nathan shook his head as he drew a small sack from his pocket. “That woman knows what a sweet tooth you have. She forced me to take this.”

Buck reached out only to have the sack pulled out of reach also. “Ah, Nathan, don’t tease a man like that.”

Finally, the man pulled the sack open to expose the sweet candies it contained. Holding the bag securely in his hand, Nathan held it out to Buck.

“Only one piece, Buck. It’s going to be a while ‘til we get back into town for more.”

Buck nodded and reached into the bag. He whooped as he grabbed two pieces and then kicked his horse into motion. He rode off down the road, laughing.

Chris shook his head as he watched the antics. Calmly he took a piece of peppermint as Nathan held it out. “I sometimes wonder about Buck.”

Nathan chucked the team into motion as he mumbled, “Other times we know for sure. Man ain’t never grown up.”

Larabee sighed at Nathan's words, his mind flashing back a few years, as he and Sarah sat watching Buck and two year old Adam, laying on the ground watching a spider spin its web.

"That man is just a big kid. Can't imagine him ever getting' married."

Sarah had reached out and taken hold of his hand. "The child in Buck is his charm; it’s what I love about him. And one day, he'll make a wonderful husband; protective, loving, intense to the point of hurting. And, Lord, when he has children? Never will a child be more loved."

She had stared out at this man/child that was Chris' best friend and he remembered the spark of jealousy that ignited in his stomach. That spark prompted his next statement. "Maybe you should have married him instead of me," his hand pulling away from hers.

Sarah had laughed as she looked into his eyes. "Why, Mr. Larabee? Are you jealous?" She patted his hand as she leaned her head against his shoulder. "That would be like marrying my brother. If I had one."

She pulled back to look into his eyes. "I love Buck, but I'm in love with you. Only you."


Larabee shook his head, the memory fading.

"You coming?" Nathan called.

With a nod, he tightened his legs around the black, following the wagon.

+ + + + + + +

Buck hummed to himself, sucking on the sweet hard candy and smiling, as his mount trotted down the road. The ranch he and Chris owned was finally beginning to make money. It had taken almost three years, but things were looking up. The first year had been the hardest. The loss of everything had thrown the two men into a downward slide.

Chris had been the hardest hit, having lost a son as well as his wife of five years. They had been away hunting when the sickness struck the wagon train. By the time the men who had been hunting returned, the cholera had devastated the train, swiftly moving from wagon to wagon. Entire families were gone. The few left were too sick to even bury the dead. That task had been left to the returning men, most of whom were burying family along with the other settlers.

Sarah was still alive when Chris found her, but died only hours later. Adam and Katherine were already gone. As Chris tended his wife, Buck had buried two of the people he loved most in the world. Soon after, he was digging another grave for another person that had stolen his heart.

By the time the disease released its hold on the settlers, the death toll was over seventy-five men, women, and children. The survivors gathered themselves together and continued on…but without Larabee and Wilmington. The two men left the wagons behind, turning north to the mountains. They took only a few things with them, carefully packed on four horses. What was left was sold or given away.

For six months, they had wandered, unsure of their future. They finally ended up in Nevada and decided to settle in the lush meadowland surrounded by tree rich mountains. Pooling their resources, they acquired ten thousand acres of rich meadows and mountain timberland. What they didn’t know about timber, they learned. And while they had planned to raise cattle, both soon discovered that there was a better market for horses and that was something they both knew about.

Buck was happy with his life. His love for Katherine Maloney was strong as ever, the fiery redheaded woman a good match for him. The tall dark-haired man still loved and wooed women, but knew that he would never marry again, probably never love as whole-heartedly as he had with her, but he was satisfied.

Chris was his main worry now. The man he had grown to know while in the army, and in the years after, was gone. There was very little joy in Chris Larabee’s life. He wouldn’t allow himself to celebrate life while his wife and child were dead. The blond merely existed, waiting for his time so he could join the two people stolen from him by the fates. Wilmington’s smile faded slightly as he pondered again on how to bring the spark back to his friend’s eyes, to make him want to live another day and love that he had that day to savor.

A sound up ahead drew the man from his contemplations, caution drawing his hand to his hip as he slowed his mount. He rounded the bend in the road slowly.

Up ahead was a wagon, precariously leaning to one side. A man was struggling to lift the wagon as a teenager attempted to hoist a wheel onto the axle. The situation didn’t look good, but the area had been plagued by bandits and Wilmington was taking no chances. He drew his pistol and laying his arm across the horn of his saddle, he called out.

“Hey. The wagon.”

His eyes narrowed as the man turned his way, dropping his load to the ground. The boy flung the wheel down and reached for the rifle that lay on the seat.

Buck’s arm sprung up, the pistol pointed at the pair. “Hold it.”

Both figures froze. Wilmington kicked his gray and moved slowly toward them.

The man was broad and powerfully built, though Buck figured he was not as tall as Wilmington, himself. His hair and the scruff on his chin were heavily sprinkled with gray, but he did not appear too much older than Chris. The man’s blue eyes watched as Buck drew closer.

“We don’t have much to steal, mister, but you’re welcome to it.” The man’s voice was deep and rich. His words had Buck smiling.

“Well, that’s right generous of ya, but, seeing as how I wasn’t planning to rob ya, I guess I’ll have to decline your offer.” Buck sat up straight and, making a quick judgment of the pair, holstered the pistol. “Name’s Wilmington. Looks like you could use another pair of hands.”

“Josiah Sanchez.” The man stuck out his hand and Buck accepted, taking note of the rough palm as they shook. “The Lord must be watching out for us today, to send a kind soul to assist.”

Buck tied his mount to a young sapling near the back of the wagon. As he peeled off his jacket, he commented, “Well, I don’t know if it was the Lord or the fact that you’re on the road to my place, but I’m glad to help out.”

Rubbing his hands together, he moved to the front of the wagon and took a matching stance to Sanchez.

“Okay, Ezra. I’ll count to three and we’ll lift. You slip the wheel on as far as it’ll go, all right?”

“I understand perfectly, Josiah.”

Wilmington grinned at the look of displeasure the teenager displayed as he lifted the wheel up and held it ready.

“One. Two. Three.”

The men grunted as they lifted and the wagon creaked as it slowly rose. Sweat began to pop out on their foreheads as they struggled to raise the wagon high enough for the wheel to go on.

“Just another inch and the axle will be accessible,’’ the boy said.

Muscles quivered as they fought to straighten for that last inch. The metal across metal sound greeted their ears and then the boy proclaimed, “Got it.”

The two men released their burden and slumped over, relaxing the tense muscles in their backs. Buck stood and stretched his long arms out and up, while Josiah twisted his frame from side to side. Finally, they moved away from the wagon and surveyed the wheel.

Buck cocked his head to one side, rubbing his chin with his left hand as his right one rested on the butt of the pistol on his hip. “That axle is bent.”

Sanchez stood with his arms crossed over his ample chest. “Well, it seems that I am to be tested this day.” With a sigh, he turned and extended his hand. “I surely do appreciate the help, Mr. Wilmington. This will allow us to get to town, hopefully. Thank you for your kind assistance.”

Once again, Buck accepted the man’s hand, but disagreed with the statement. “Ain’t no way that wagon is going to make it to town. That wheel won’t last.”

“Well, every mile we cover, will be one less that we’ll have to walk.”

Buck looked from the man to the boy and back. Making a quick decision that he was sure Chris would not agree with, he spoke, “I got a ranch just a couple of miles from here. You’re welcome to bring the wagon there. We got a forge that you can use to straighten that axle with.”

“And what, pray tell, is in it for you?” the boy’s soft southern drawl was lilting, though his words suspicious.

“EZRA” the man admonished. “Please, forgive the boy. While a good lad, he has a suspicious streak when it comes to the generosity of the human spirit,” Josiah told the rancher as his eyes blazed at the teen.

The teenager’s green eyes flashed at the words, but he kept his mouth firmly closed.

Buck laughed and clapped a big hand on the teenager’s shoulder, only to have the boy step away. Holding both hands up, he said, “I only offered because I know that axle ain't going to last and I wouldn’t want to be stuck out here. This road you’re on only goes one place. My place. If you want to get to town, you’ll have to go back and take the other fork in the road.”

Before anything else could be said, the sound of a wagon drew the trio’s attention to the bend in the road. Buck immediately explained.

“That’s my partners, Chris and Nathan.” He moved toward the wagon and mounted rider as they were clearing the bend and drew to a halt near Buck’s gray gelding.

“Chris. Nathan. This is Josiah Sanchez. And… Ezra?”

The boy’s head inclined in concurrence.

“Their wagon broke down.” Looking at the mounted blond, he blushed slightly as he continued. “They got a bent axle. I told ‘em they was welcome to come to the house and use the forge.”

Larabee’s eyes narrowed as he studied, first his partner and then the two strangers. Chris had grown to rely on Wilmington’s instincts when it came to reading people. If the man deemed the pair trustworthy, Larabee would consent to their coming to the ranch, but… “You’re welcome to the forge. You can bed down in the barn.”

Buck nodded, knowing that would be the best offer the strangers would get from Larabee. Turning, Buck held up his hands, “So, what ‘cha think? Barn’s a bit drafty, but it’ll keep ya dry, if rain comes.”

Just then, noise came from the right and the three ranchers went for their guns as two bodies crashed through the underbrush and onto the road.


Josiah and Ezra both cried out.

Two young boys slid to a halt, their faces paling as they tumbled into a heap at Buck’s feet. The younger boy began to sob at the sight of the guns and the older boy wrapped his body around the youngster, effectively covering the smaller child.

“God Almighty” Buck declared as he quickly pointed his pistol into the air. A moment later, he shoved it back into the holster and squatted down. “I’m sorry, boys. You kind ‘a scared me for a minute there.”

Hazel eyes peeked up at him from under a protective arm and the younger boy asked, “We scared you?” The words were full of wonder and ended with a hiccup.

Buck’s mouth twitched as he fought the smile that threatened to appear. He pulled his features into a serious expression and nodded. “Why, I thought some wild animal was about to attack us. Maybe even eat us alive.”

The older boy had sat up by now, but kept a firm grip on the young boy. The little boy’s response was a giggle as his hands came up to wave around. Then he dropped them, saying, “We ain’t no wild am-a-nals. You’re silly.”

Buck’s eyebrows shot up and his mouth formed an ‘O’. “Me? I’ m not silly. I think you’re silly.” And he pointed to the little boy.

Slapping at the pointing finger, he said in a loud voice, “I’s not silly. I’s JD. Who ‘re you?”

Josiah squatted down behind the boys and placed a hand on each one’s shoulder. “JD, Vin, this is Mr. Wilmington and his friends. He helped us put the wagon wheel back on. What do you say?”

“Thank you, Mr. Wil-m-on” the young boy said, stumbling over the name.

Buck smiled and stuck out his hand. “You’re welcome. And you can call me Buck. It’s a little easier to say.”

Pumping the large hand with his tiny one, the boy grinned back. “Thank you, BUCK.” The boy beamed at being allowed to call an adult by their given name.

“Thank you, sir.” The older boy spoke for the first time, his voice soft and low in comparison to JD’s.

Buck turned his eyes to the boy. He was slim to the point of being gaunt, his blond hair long and wavy, but it was the pale blue eyes that caught the man’s attention. They belonged on the face of an adult, not a child. A sad smile graced his face as he asked, “You’re welcome. And who would you be?”

But the littlest was the one that answered. He had stood and now wrapped his arms around the blond’s neck, he informed the tall rancher, “He’s Vin. He’s my cussin. He’s ‘leven.”

Buck held out his hand which the boy took. “It’s nice ta meet ya, Vin.”

The boy smiled but did not say anything. His eyes moved from the dark blue of Wilmington’s to the green of the man that now stood behind the mustached rancher.

Buck glanced back. “Chris Larabee, this is Vin.”

Larabee stared at the boy for a moment and then nodded. Vin’s head dipped slightly in acknowledgement.

After a silent moment, Buck stood up, drawing the boy up with him by taking hold of his hand. JD smiled up at him and the man’s heart rate doubled. The unexpected emotion had him shakily smiling down.

Josiah reached out and scooped the boy up as Ezra placed his hands on Vin’s shoulders, quietly guiding the boy to the wagon. Josiah stood for a moment, then spoke.

“If your offer still goes, I’d be obliged if we could take you up on it.”

“Sure. We’d love to have you.”

Josiah went back to the wagon and placed the young boy in the back. Ezra assisted Vin in and climbed up onto the seat. After securing the wheel on the axle, Josiah climbed up.

Buck had mounted the gray and now sat next to the wagon. “Josiah, let Nathan go first and you can follow. I’ll follow you in case you have any trouble with that wheel.”

The big man nodded as the other wagon moved past, Larabee following behind. Josiah eased the wagon in behind them and Buck rode drag. It was not a chore he normally liked to do, but this time he was enjoying himself. Little JD was looking out the back of the wagon and they began a game of making faces at each other. They were laughing by the time the wagons arrived at the ranch.

Nathan pulled up close to the house to unload, while Chris directed Josiah to the barn and the small blacksmith shop on the side. Both ranchers dismounted and walked to the wagon. Josiah pulled up and he and Ezra jumped down. Buck couldn’t wipe the smile from his face as JD held out his arms to be lifted out of the back. With Beau’s reins in one hand, the man took hold of the small child and lifted him out of the wagon and onto his hip. The little boy wrapped his arm around the man’s neck and together they walked up to the front of the wagon to help to unhitch the team.

Ezra was standing to one side, watching the interaction between the boy and man. He frowned as he watched. JD was his, JD and Vin. He had found them and he took care of them. The teenager jumped as Josiah dropped a hand on his shoulder.

“Ezra, would you help with the team, please?”

“Certainly, Josiah.”

Chris stood at the back of the wagon and had watched as Buck lifted the small dark-haired boy out. He hadn’t seen that level of joy on his friend’s face in years, not since the death of Adam. He watched as the tall man walked away, animatedly chatting with the child. He started to walk away when movement drew his eye to the wagon again to see the blond boy climbing slowly over the tailgate.

“Hey, son. Let me help.”

Chris placed his hands on the boy’s waist and lifted him up and set him down. He couldn’t help but hear the small gasp as the boy’s legs took his weight.

“Are you all right?”

Josiah stepped around the end of the wagon as the question was asked. He bent down and looked into the boy’s eyes. “Your back?”

The little boy nodded.

Chris leaned over, his hands resting on his knees. “Nathan is a healer. You want him to check him out?”

Josiah rubbed the slender arms as he answered. “That’s up to Vin. Do you want the man to look at your back?”

A sniff preceded the response. “Do ya think he could help?”

“Couldn’t hurt.”

Slowly, Vin nodded. Chris smiled and patted the man on the back. “Nathan’ll be up at the house.”

Josiah stood and looked from the man to the boy. “Would you mind taking him? Do you mind going with Mr. Larabee, Vin?”

Before Vin could give an answer a commotion could be heard from the front of the wagon with Ezra’s voice growing in volume.

“Sir, I must insist that you remove young Mr. Dunne from the back of that animal immediately.”

“Now, now, son, there’s nothing to fear. Ole Buck won’t let anything happen to him.”

“I am not your son.”

“It’s just a saying boy; no harm intended. How ‘bout I call ya Ez?”

No, that most assuredly is not all right. My name is Ezra. E-z-r-a. And I’ll not answer to anything else.”

“Well, all right then…” Before Buck could continue, Josiah’s booming voice was heard.

“EZRA P. STANDISH. You apologize to Mr. Wilmington right this minute.”

The older man came around the wagon to see Ezra glaring at the tall man that had helped them with the wheel. The man stood relaxed next to the big gray, on which a tearful JD sat astride the saddle.

The teenager turned to glare at his guardian, but could not match the glaring blue eyes. Dropping his gaze, Ezra spoke softly.

“My apologizes, sir. I fear I have overstepped my bounds. I…young JD and his cousin have been in my care for several months now and I can be overly protective at times.”

Buck heard the tremor in the young voice and reached out to place a hand on the teen’s shoulder. He felt him tense, but not move away.

“No need to apologize, Ezra,” Buck said. “I’m sure that you are only concerned about the boy’s safety.”

The man turned to see the dark haired boy wipe his sleeve across his nose and, smiling, he reached up and took the child down. Setting him down to stand next to the teenager, Buck, said, “Why don’t you two boys follow Chris up to the house? I know for a fact that Nathan has a sack of sweets in his pocket that he’d be glad to share in exchange for helping unload.”

JD’s eyes grew wide at the idea of sweets and he grabbed Ezra’s hand. “Can we, Ezwa? Pwease?”

Green eyes turned from the boy to the man. With a slight tilt of his head, Ezra looked down at the boy. “Race?”

The two youths took off for the house and Buck noticed that the older boy ran just behind the little one, his hand poised to grab the child’s shirt if he stumbled. The tall rancher’s attention was drawn back to Sanchez as he spoke.

“I have to apologize for the boy’s insolence, Mr. Wilmington. Sometimes…”

“Buck,” he said with a grin. “Call me, Buck. And no…you don’t have to make excuses for the boy. He was only expressing his concerns for his little brother. He don’t know me and he sure don’t know my horse, but Beau is too good-natured to swat flies. Or maybe too lazy; I ain’t sure which. I took no offense at his concerns.”

Josiah’s teeth flashed as he grinned. “Thanks, Buck. Sometimes Ezra gets a little…protective … when it comes to the boys.”

Buck unharnessed the team as he said, “He’s a good big brother. I’d probably be the same way.”

Josiah mimicked Wilmington’s moves on the second horse. “Actually, Ezra isn’t JD’s brother. He found those two living on the streets and convinced his mother to take them in.”

This statement caused the mustached man to stop what he was doing. “Living on the streets? The little ‘n can’t be more than four.”

Sad blue eyes looked over the animal’s back. “He’s just turned five. Ezra says he found them almost two years ago. Vin was nine at the time.”

“So where’s your wife? Did she pass?” Buck asked gently. He knew how it pained him to speak of Katherine and Chris couldn’t even speak of Sarah and Adam.

Each time he thought of them, he would go on a drinking binge that ended with fists and foul words. Nathan and Buck would toss him in a wagon and take him back home. Buck took the man’s abuse only because he knew the pain Larabee was in. Nathan, though there, was never an object of Chris’s rage. Maybe because he wasn’t there when Sarah and Adam died. The blond never apologized, never thanked the younger man. Once sober, he would clean up and fall right back into the daily chores that owning a ranch dictated. His only acknowledgement was a nod to Buck, a silent thanks.

Josiah’s face took on a wistful expression as his head tipped back. “Ah, the fair and lovely Maude Standish. A more full-bodied and loving woman has yet to cross my path. The mere thought of her sets my heart to pounding.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, Josiah. Was it recent?”

The graying man’s head whipped to the side before meeting Wilmington’s gaze. “She passed only four months ago. Headed off to town for some material to make a dress. Never came home.” He laughed out loud, drawing a confused grin from the other man.

“Yeah, she went to town, cleaned out all the money we had in the bank, and disappeared on my best mare. Left the boys without a word, though I have a feeling that Ezra knows how to reach her. Just hasn’t had the urge to act on that knowledge yet. Hell of a woman.”

“You don’t sound real upset by your wife stealing your money and leaving,” Buck remarked.

“Truthfully, brother, I’m surprised she stayed as long as she did. We were only married to keep her out of jail on a larceny charge. That was…eight months ago. Was a little surprised when she abandoned Ezra, though.”

“So, he’s not your son?”

“Ezra? Lord, no! Boy would die of embarrassment if I was his natural father. He’s too ‘refined’ to be the son of a preacher man. Oh, don’t get me wrong. He’s a good boy, but his mother taught him a few odd ways. Good heart though. He loves those two kids.” Josiah shook his head as he spoke.

They walked to the corral and released the horses to feed and drink. Josiah continued. “And I’ll tell you right now-don’t play poker with the boy. Best damn card handler I’ve ever seen. Not that I would tell him that,” Josiah said, clapping a big hand on Buck’s shoulder. “ Course, don’t need to-he already knows, but can’t let the boy get a big head.”

They moved to the barn to get the tools to remove the wheel and the two men talked about their eclectic families. Josiah told of marrying the southern woman with three kids. He had found out later that, while Vin and JD were cousins, they were not related to the Standishs’. Ezra had come upon Vin digging through the trash in back of the hotel Ezra and his mother were staying in. Though trained to bilk people of their money since the time he was old enough to walk, the teenager had a heart of gold under the expensive clothes.

They returned outside and set about bracing the wagon to remove the wheel, talking as they worked.

"I met Maude back east in a… delicate situation. She had been arrested for fraud." He smiled widely as his mind drifted back. "She's a lovely, fragile creature. I knew I had to help her, the moment I saw her."

Buck had squatted down next to the big man and could see the wistful expression. "True love is a beautiful thing," he commented.

Sanchez laughed heartily. "Yes, but unfortunately that love was one sided. I talked her into returning the money, convinced the sheriff to release her into my custody on the condition that we marry."

He glanced at the rancher to judge his reaction and found only an open expression of concern and interest. "Love is truly blind."

"But a wonderful institution."

The two men laughed and then Josiah continued.

"Anyway, we married and she and the children moved into my house. It wasn't the ideal marriage, but I wouldn't trade those four months for anything. Not only was she a light in the darkness, but she brought with her three beautiful souls."

He lifted the wheel from the axle and stood up. "Ezra is fifteen. She was training him to run confidence games with her. But his soul rebels against that training, though he will not admit it."

"Ezra sounds like a good kid."

Josiah sighed. "Yes. Just don't tell him that. And it bares saying again, don't play poker with the boy. He has no need to cheat, he is very good."

They moved to the forge as Josiah continued, "While Ezra and Maude were in Boston, the lad came upon young Vincent, The two younger boys had been on the streets for several months and foraged in the garbage to feed themselves. Ezra convinced his mother that the young ones would be 'useful' in some confidence games. Their youth could be played up and extorted."

Seeing the frown on the mustached man's face, he quickly clarified. "They never did that. Vin stated that each time Maude tried to use them, Ezra came up with an alternate scam or an excuse. The teen is very protective of the two boys and they look to him for most everything."

"That's a lot for a fifteen year old to take on."

"He's an exceptional child."

Buck glanced outside before clapping a hand on the broad shoulder of Sanchez. "Josiah, it's getting late. By the time we get this forge hot, it'll be nigh on dark. Why don't we call it a day and go see what's for supper?"

"I hate to put you and your partners out."

Shaking his head, Buck smiled widely. "Heck, it'll be nice to have someone new to talk to. You can help me with our horses to pay for lodging. There's plenty of room in the bunkhouse for you and the boys."

With a nod, Josiah thrust out his hand. "I believe I'll accept. It's been a while since we've slept under a roof. I thank you for the hospitality." The two men headed to the house as the sun began its descent behind the mountains.

+ + + + + + +

"Ah, you win, little brother." Ezra wiped at his forehead, as if he had worked up a sweat in the short race. Smiling, he watched the small boy dance around with his hands in the air, giggling.

"Yea! I winned."

Ezra clapped a hand on the boy's shoulder, stilling the animated body. "Yes, you did, JD. Now, why don't we offer our assistance to the gentlemen who are assessing Vin's condition?"

Seeing the five year old frown, Ezra rephrased. "Let's see if we can help unload while they are checking Vin's back."

JD grinned, his dark hair flying as he nodded. He turned to the wagon and peered into the back. Ezra reached over him and pulled a box toward them. He pulled a small bag from the top and handed it to the small boy. Hefting the box, he used his chin to point to the doorway and the two entered the house.

"Does this hurt?" Nathan was asking as they came in.

Vin merely grunted as the tall black man pressed on his back. Seeing movement, blue eyes cut to the door. He smiled as his two brothers crossed the threshold.

"Hi, Vin. How's ya back feel?" JD asked as he ran across the floor to slide to a stop in front of the boy seated on an island in the middle of the floor. "Is the dark man gonna fix ya?"

"JD!" Ezra cried.

The boy spun around his eyes wide. Ezra looked from the boy to Nathan. "I apologize for my brother. He has a propensity of speaking plainly and somewhat indelicately."

Nathan smiled slightly as he continued to examine the young blond. "No offense taken." Bending over, he winked at the littlest boy. "Besides, I am dark."

JD looked at Nathan and then turned to Ezra. His head dropped as Ezra cocked an eyebrow at him. Head still down, the boy turned, and whispered, "I's sorry, mister."

Nathan looked at the boy, his face softening. He glanced to the teenager before turning to Larabee. Seeing an understanding look on the man's face, the healer stopped his examination and squatted down. Placing one hand on the table to balance himself, he extended the other. "My name is Nathan. And you are…"

The little boy looked from the man's eyes to his hand and back and then he smiled. "I'm JD." Looking at the large hand, the child shifted the sack in his arms to grab hold of Nathan's first finger and pump it up and down. Releasing his grip, JD pointed over his shoulder. "That's Ezra. He's my brother." The hand swept around, still extended and Nathan pulled back to avoid getting slapped in the side of the face. "And he's my cussin, Vin. And he's my brother, too. "

The two men chuckled, knowing that the child didn't understand the sometimes complex relationships. Standing back up, he replied, "Well, it's nice to meet you, JD."

"Is Vin okay? His back hurts a lot sometimes."

"JD, you gonna put that sack down or stand there and jaw all day?" Vin asked, the blush reddening his features.

"Oh, yeah." Thrusting the sack forward, he said, "Here Mr. Nathan. Me and Ezra bringed this in for you."

"Well, thank you, son." Nathan took the sack and set it on the counter.

"Mr. Buck said we could have a sweet for helping," JD stated.

"JD!" Ezra and Vin echoed. Hazel eyes blinked rapidly as the small boy's head swiveled around at two older boys.

"He did."

Nathan chuckled and drew the bag from his pocket, offering it to the young boy. JD studied the sweets and finally made his selection. He popped the hard candy into his mouth as Nathan turned to Ezra.

"Thank you, but I shall abstain, sir." Ezra crossed the room and placed the box next to the sack. "I'll get the other boxes and then, with your permission, take the wagon down and unhitch the team."

Chris had stood watching, his hand resting on the slender back of the young blond. He now patted the boy lightly and then turned to the teenager. Before Larabee could say anything, a small voice yelled, “Me too, me too.”

Ezra was about to respond when Chris said… “Well, then, I guess we best get that wagon unloaded.”

While they unloaded the wagon, the man in black began to question the teen.

“So, where are you boys and your father headed?”

“Sir, Mr. Sanchez is not my father nor is he father to the others. In fact, we are merely a group of wretched wanderers who have been brought together by my sainted mother.”

“Is that so? And where might she be?”

“That sir, is none of your concern.”

“O…Kay. Where is it you all were headed before your wheel trouble?”

“San Francisco.”

A voice close at hand caused the teenager to jump.

“Now, Ezra, I told you we would discuss that.” Josiah said.

The teenager drew himself up to his full height as he glowered at Sanchez. But after a moment, he inclined his head slightly before turning back to the wagon and its load.

+ + + + + + +

Inside, Nathan insisted that Vin pick out a candy and then concluded his examination of the young boy's back. Leaving the boy sitting on the table, he began to prepare a salve for Vin’s aching back.

“Vin, I’m going to rub something on your back. It’ll help relax them muscles," he explained.

The boy jumped slightly as the cold mixture was applied. "It'll warm up as I rub it in. Better?" The boy nodded and Jackson continued. "Then I want you to take it easy for the rest of the night. Come see me before you go to bed and I’ll rub you down again,” Nathan said as he wiped his hands off. Then he lifted the young boy from the table and set him on the ground.

“Thank you, sir.”

“You call me Nathan. And it’s my pleasure, son. I hope it helps some. Now, would you like to help me get some supper ready for the others?”

“OK, sir… I mean, Nathan. What can I do?”

“Well, while I get the meat ready, I thought you could butter the bread. How’s that sound?”

“Just like when I used to help my Mama. She let me lick the butter off the knife when I 's done.”

“We best get started then.”

In no time at all, the two had prepared a feast. There was fresh buttered bread, corn on the cob, homegrown tomatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, and fried chicken. The table was set for seven.

While Vin and Nathan finished the meal preparations, the others finished moving the supplies into the food cupboard behind the kitchen and took the wagon down to the barn. After wiping the horses down and releasing them into the field to graze, the five headed in the direction of the house just as Nathan stepped out to call them for supper.

After washing up, they all gathered around the large table that sat in a corner of the kitchen area and began to devour the feast. As the meal and conversation progressed, no one noticed as a very tired JD, no longer able to hold his head up, slowly slipped forward until his head rested on the edge of the table, the spoon still clutched in his fist. Soft snores soon drew the attention of the others. One look at Vin confirmed that, he too, was ready to drop.

Seeing the kids crumple in exhaustion, Josiah rose. “Well, boys, you have been more than generous with your home and food as well as your assistance. But it’s been a long day as you can see from my little ones, if you could show us where we’ll be bedding down for the night, I believe I should get the boys down for the evening. Nathan, thank you for a wonderful meal. As soon as I get them bedded down, I'll be back to help clean up.”

“No need, Josiah. I do have a little something for Vin. Just rub it on his lower back to ease the pain.”

The big chested man nodded as he lifted the pliant JD out of his chair while Ezra came around to guide the droopy-eyed eleven-year-old to the doorway. Buck stood, and after a nod to Larabee, he headed to the back door of the house.

The big man led the foursome to the small bunkhouse. The building had been constructed to house hands, but, while the ranch was doing well, there was no need to hire more help at the moment. The workload was heavy, but manageable for now.

Throwing open the door, Buck paused to light a lantern just inside. "Ya'll can bunk in here." Chuckling, he watched as the two kids were stripped to their underclothes and put to bed. He spoke softly as he explained the empty building. "We got a little ahead of ourselves and built the bunkhouse before we actually needed help. Now that we need some help, we ain't got the money to hire 'em."

Josiah tucked the blanket around the youngest boy and then moved to Vin. He spoke softly and the young blond rolled over and the man rubbed the salve onto the boy's back, his hand making small, slow circles on the pale skin. Even from across the room, Buck could see the slender shoulders relax into slumber. Ezra was moving from one bed to the next, picking up and folding the abandoned clothes.

Buck watched for a few minutes before he began to feel that he was intruding. Clearing his throat, he announced that he would be leaving.

Josiah stood and, wiping his hands, moved to the doorway, extending his hand. "Thank you for the generous reception you and your partners have given us. The boys and I are most grateful."

"Glad to be of help. Ya'll sleep good tonight. I'll help you with that axle in the morning."

The rancher left the bunkhouse with a click of the door. Ezra placed the folded clothes on an empty bunk.

"Josiah?" he asked softly.

The big man had moved back across the room to pull the blanket up, over the boy. He straightened and cocked his head at the teenager.

"I do not believe that we should remain here for any extended period of time. Our timetable is very tight if we are to arrive in San Francisco at the agreed upon date."

Josiah approached the young man and, dropping a hand on his shoulder, directed young Standish to the bunks across the room from the sleeping boys.

Between the bunks sat a large table with two benches. Standish and his surrogate father each took a seat and when they were both settled, Josiah began to explain to the young man the problems that lay ahead with their plans to continue on to San Francisco.

“Son, with the damage to the axle and detour we took due to that landslide, we're two weeks behind and have divulged deep into our funds. I do believe the Good Lord has presented us with a means to replenish them and if these good people are willing to hire me, I believe we can recoup our savings as well as have a safe and warm place to rest. After we’re recovered our strength, we can reevaluate our situation before moving on.”

“But, Josiah, wouldn’t a town present us with more profitable ways of refurbishing our meager income as well as supply us with a real doctor for Vincent?”

“I don’t believe Vin could take riding in the wagon for much longer with his back the way it is. No, I feel it’s best that we stay here and allow the boy to heal. Now, off to bed with you it’s been a long day. I’ll be back in a little while; I want to check on the horses. Good night, Ezra.”

“Yes, sir. Good night, Josiah.”

As the man made his way to the door, Ezra got himself ready for bed and before the door clicked shut he was pulling the covers over his head.

+ + + + + + +

As they did each night before turning in, Buck and Chris had gone to the pasture to check on the horses before turning in for the night and now stood discussing the timely arrival of their guests as they watched the animals in the glow of the moonlight.

“I don’t know, Buck. What are we going to do with three young ‘uns running around getting under foot?”

“Chris, them boys could be a big help. Just think of all the little chores that we’ll be freed up from. And Josiah could no doubt do the work of two men; not that I expect it of him.”

“Well, we really could use the help. Won’t be able to pay ‘im much but food and a roof over their heads what with money tight as it is. That middle boy, Vin? He could sure use a rest. He doesn't look like he could take much more of riding in that wagon.”

“Well, all righty then, we’ll ask Josiah first thing in the mornin’”

It was at that moment that Josiah approached.

“No need to be asking tomorrow what you can ask now. What is it I can do for you kind folks?”

Chris glanced over at Wilmington before responding. “We’d like to offer you a job, give the boys a chance to rest up a bit before you continue your travels.” Larabee said.

“Yeah, we figured the boys could help as well by doing some barnyard chores and helping Nathan when need be. Wilmington replied.

“Well sounds like an offer too good to refuse. I just ask that Vin and JD aren’t worked too hard and that they have time for their schooling. Ezra’s been book learning ‘em every day for at least an hour.”

Larabee and Wilmington glanced at one another and after a small nod turned to Josiah and agreed.

“All righty then, now that, that’s settled how bout a drink to close the deal?”

Having checked the animals and securing everything for the night, the three men headed for the house to join Nathan and toast the newest members of the Treeline Ranch.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning the sun rose over the ranch in a blaze of reds and purples as a light wind sang through the trees. Nathan opened the door of the kitchen, allowing the smells of the morning meal to drift on the cool breeze as he clanged the bell to announce breakfast.

”Come and get it," the man bellowed out.

Two small boys came barreling through the open door and were making a grab for biscuits when a voice called out, causing the two biscuit thieves to jump.

“JD, Vin. Stop right there. Did you wash your hands? You will wait until everyone is seated and a prayer offered before beginning to eat. You know the rules. Where is Ezra?”

“He ’s still in bed last time we seen ‘im. Want us to go wake ‘im?” Vin asked.

“Yes, thank you, Vin. And tell him that if he doesn’t get up now, he’ll have to wait until lunch to eat.”

“OK, we’ll tell ‘im.” JD said. The two ran out the door, dodging around the entering Buck and Chris as they headed to the wash basin.

“Where 're those two going in such a hurry?” Buck asked as he helped himself to a biscuit.

"Buck Wilmington! Did you wash your hands?" Nathan reprimanded even though he knew the answer. He shook his head and muttered to himself as he turned back to the table.

Buck shrugged and continued to chew on the dry biscuit.

+ + + + + + +

In the bunkhouse, Ezra was sound asleep as two little boys came crashing through the door, wrenching him from a sound sleep.

“Vincent! John Daniel! What have I told you about slamming doors? Especially when I am sleeping?" he growled, throwing the covers back and swung his legs off the bed.

“Sorry, Ezra.”

“Ya, we’s sowry.”

“But Josiah told us we should fetch ya for breakfast.” Vin said.

“Can I tell ‘im the rest, Vin? Huh? Can I?”

”Go ahead before everything’s all gone and we don’t get any, either.” Vin replied.

“Papa ‘siah said, if you don’t come now. you don’t gets any till lunch.”

“Oh, good grief. Alright. I’m coming.”

The boys accompanied their brother out to the trough and watched as he performed his morning ritual. After fifteen minutes of grooming, Ezra declared himself presentable for the morning meal. As the three young boys entered the kitchen area, the discussion between Larabee and Wilmington came to an end.

“Well, now bout time you boys showed up; food's getting cold,” Buck said.

“We ’s waitin’ on Ezra.” JD responded.

“Yeah, he says that being clean when you eat is real 'portant,” Vin added.

“He even cleans his teeth!” JD said.

“Is that right?" Buck responded, his eyes wide in mock wonder. "Well, people do say you can never be too clean. Ain’t that right, Josiah?” Buck asked.

“I believe the saying is, ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’." Josiah corrected.

As the conversation continued, Nathan, with Josiah and Chris’ help, laid out the eggs, bacon, and coffee, with milk for the children. Gradually, talk turned to the conversation of the previous night.

“Josiah, Buck and I were just going over what we were talking about last night, that being the everyday running of the ranch alongside Nathan. There's always repairs that need to be done, but we never seem to have time to do them until it is absolutely necessary."

"Meaning the water is pouring in through the roof" Buck interrupted.

Chris nodded at the memory and continued. "We were thinking maybe if you could handle the maintaining of the buildings that would free Nathan up for the running of the household, trips to town. whatever comes up.”

“Chris, that sounds just what I’m looking for and as far as the boys are concerned, Vin and JD can help Nathan in the house while Ezra could work with the horses. He’s an excellent horseman.”

“Sounds good. As far as pay, right now things are tight. Best we can do is a dollar a day for now. Maybe more later if we can sell some horses. It's not much for the four of ya, but…”

“I accept, Mr. Larabee. You have yourselves four hired hands for the season at least. Oh, as we discussed last evening, the boys will be given time for their book learnin’ and Sunday’s I’ll need for the Lord.”

“Got no problem with that." Chris answered after a look at Buck and Nathan, both of whom nodded. "Then I guess all we need is to shake on it.”

The two men shook across the table and went back to their breakfast.

“Welcome to Treeline Ranch, Ez.”

“Please, sir, my name is Ezra, if you don’t mind.”

“Heck, no, I don’t mind if you don’t.” Buck said as he winked at the others. JD and Vin giggled at the big man's antics.

“Well, boys, this ranch isn’t going to run its self. Time to get busy.” Larabee announced.

“Right behind, ya brother, right behind ya,” Josiah responded.

“Say, Chris, Ezra and me are going to go check on the south pasture. Be back in time for lunch.”

Before anyone could say another word, two small whirlwinds came barreling across the open yard followed by Nathan.

“What cha doing, Papa 'siah? We helped Mr. Nathan put the food away then the dishes and now we're goin’ to feed the chickens. Ain’t that right, Vin?”

“Yeah. If that’s ok with you, sir?”

“I think that would kind of you after the delicious meal he made all of us.”

“Lunch will be here before ya know it. I think we best be getting to them chores then,” Nathan said.

As the black man and two young boys headed towards the barn, Larabee and Sanchez went about fixing the bent axle. After straighten the axle, the two men moved on to mending a fence. They were just finishing the repair when Wilmington and Standish rode back in.

Wiping his brow, Chris looked up at the two. "How'd it look up there?"

Sitting back and pushing his hat back, Buck shook his head. "The runoff from the mountain swelled that creek. We're going to have clear it out or it'll back up and flood that area just like last year. Ground is too soaked to leave any animals up there right now. Most of the grass is ruined."

"Damn. I thought we fixed that last year."

Once again, Buck shook his head.

"Well, we'll just have to add that to the list," the blond sighed and Buck nodded.

Ezra and Buck dismounted and unsaddled their mounts. The saddles were put away and the animals wiped down before receiving some grain. Buck had watched the boy work with his mount during the morning and decided that Sanchez was correct when he said the teen was an excellent horseman.

Before anyone knew it, Vin was clanging the bell and calling everyone in for lunch. Nathan had another fine meal of sliced ham, pickles and fresh bread waiting for five hungry man and three young boys. As they ate, the conversation was lively as each of the children told of their day's events thus far.

After lunch was complete and the table cleared, the three boys headed to the bunk house for their lessons. It was agreed that Ezra would teach the boys each day for two hours. Their books had been removed from the wagon and placed in the bunkhouse and the three disappeared into the building.

+ + + + + + +

The seven soon fell into a daily routine. Everyone ate breakfast together and discussed the work that needed to be done that day. The two youngest boys took over the light chores from Nathan, allowing him to assist with the heavier work. Josiah had started repairing fences and outbuildings as well as helping with the forge work.

The two ranchers were amazed at the man’s skill with metal. They often times returned home in the evening to find him working on projects for the neighbors as word of mouth spread through the area. The rough mountain terrain was hard on people but harder on tools and equipment. Josiah’s skill was sought after for everything from wagon axles to plows to one cast iron cooking pot that the hook had given way on. Josiah had been reluctant to take the extra work at first, but the two ranchers assured him that they didn’t mind him using the forge to help out people. The work helped to provide income for the things that growing boys seemed to need more and more of.

Ezra worked with Buck and Chris to round up horses to break and sell. He accompanied Chris to town when the blond went for supplies. More than once, Chris had found the teenager at the poker tables. He was angry the first time and dragged the boy out of the saloon. They had argued all the way home and Josiah jumped in to referee. It was finally determined that Ezra was old enough to gamble if he so desired, but only if one of the men were present. Larabee had seen too many men gunned down by a loser that claimed he was being cheated. He did not intend to see the boy shot for being an excellent poker player, a fact that Chris had learned the hard way even after a warning from Sanchez. Ezra agreed to the compromise.

When Larabee and Wilmington decided to bid on a lumber contract, the teenager offered to help. Buck had laughed and the teen’s face flushed in anger. The jovial man was quick to explain that he found the paperwork too confusing and often left it to Chris.

“Hell, boy, I wasn’t laughing at the offer. I ‘s just giddy with relief. Seeing the books that you read at home, I figure you’ll be a heck of lot more help to Chris than me.”

While hesitant, Chris allowed Ezra to go with him and look over the specifications for the order. They returned home and sat down to figure out exactly what it would take to fill the large order, how many trees would have to be cut down, how many men it would take to meet the deadline, the cost of housing and feeding those men, how they could get the trees down to the mill.

While Chris and Ezra worked on the calculations, Buck played with the boys and Josiah and Nathan sat quickly on the porch, talking and sipping coffee.

Sanchez came in a little later to round up the two youngsters for bed.

“Come on, boys. Time to turn in.”

Amid soft groans of protest, the boys stood and told each person good night before being herded out the door to the bunkhouse. Ten minutes later, the big man was back.

“Looks like we’re in for a storm. Sky is getting ugly.”

Buck shook his head as he said, “This time ‘a year, we get some good thunderstorms. Probably be a good lightening show tonight. Them boys going to be okay by themselves?”

Josiah chuckled as he replied. “JD could sleep through anything. He was asleep before we got through the door. His little body was just going through the motions. Vin, he’s a little more responsive to things. He’ll probably wake up if the thunder is very bad, but he isn’t afraid of the weather. They’ll be fine.”

Buck nodded and the three men settled in for the evening, listening to the conversation that was going on across the room. It wasn’t too long after Josiah’s return that the first of the thunder was heard. The flash of lightening followed by the clap of thunder drew the attention of Larabee and he glanced up for the first time in over an hour.


Buck just nodded and he saw the blond sigh as his eyes closed briefly. Wilmington knew that Chris hated the big storms that spring brought to the mountains, but he had never asked the man why. Maybe someday he would find out, but he knew better than to push his volatile friend. He knew that Larabee was a private sort, learned that the hard way and had no intentions of repeating that mistake. Chris flinched again as the storm intensified outside. They could hear the sound of rain intermixed with the claps of thunder now and Josiah shook his head.

“Best get down to the bunkhouse before this gets any worse. Ezra? You coming?”

Glancing up, the boy responded, “I believe I shall remain a while longer if that’s agreeable. We are still working on the estimations for the contract and the achievability of a profit.”

Seeing Chris’ nod, Josiah nodded. After bidding a good night to everyone, he disappeared out door. Through the closed door, everyone heard the deep exclamation, “Good Lord, but that’s cold” as the man dashed through the downpour.

The four remaining men laughed, silently glad that they were not the ones having to brave the elements. Soon they settled back in to their evening activities as the storm continued to rage outside.

Chris sat back, his muscles protesting at the motion after sitting hunched over the desk for so long. He linked his hands and drew them over his head as he stretched the stiffness from his back.

Ezra stood and began to gather the papers together, forming a neat pile with the final tally sheet on the top.

Larabee stood and clasped a hand onto the youth’s shoulder. “Thanks, Ezra. It would have taken a couple more days to get this done if Buck had been helping.”

“HEY, I resent that remark.” A big grin split the man’s face and he held up his cup in salute to the teenager.

Ezra smiled slightly and inclined his head to the gesture before turning to the blond rancher. “It was my pleasure, Mr. Larabee. Fine calculations such as these are excellent stimulus for the mind. Now, I should be getting to bed.”

He stepped away, heading for the door as he asked, “Will we be going out to select a stand of timber tomorrow?”

“Nah. Best wait to see if we get the contract first. Don’t want to jinx the deal.”

Ezra nodded.

The brilliant flash of light and the deafening clap of thunder caused all four people in the house to jump. The sound of a cup hitting the floor closely followed the thunder.


Everyone turned to see Buck wiping at the growing stain on his pants as he jumped up from his seat. “That’s hot.”

The big man looked up as his hand waved over the coffee soaked area. “That sounded awful close. Maybe you best stay inside, boy.”

Ezra frowned and considered the offer, but shook his head. “I shall sleep better with my family, but thank you for the offer, Mr. Wilmington.”

Chris dropped a hand on the slender shoulder. “Weather like this is dangerous, son. I think you should reconsider.”

“I’ll be fine. I shall hurry. I have no desire to be outside for the show that God is putting on.” He moved to the door then and, nodding a good evening to the three, he turned the knob and stepped out with Chris and Buck right behind him.

The lightening flashed and ran through the clouds like fire and Buck saw Larabee shiver again. Ezra headed to the side of the house as the two men started back in.


The boy’s cry had the two men whirling around and running into the rain. As they rounded the corner of the main house, they saw Ezra running to toward the bunkhouse as flames leapt from the windows. The two ranchers continued running, catching up with the teen as he arrived at the structure.

The men did not hesitate and plunged through the wooden door, slamming it back against the wall. They paused inside to get their bearings. The two room building was full of smoke and flames licked at the walls and roof. They could hear Nathan telling Ezra to stay outside as he joined them inside.

“Look for the boys.” Chris called out. “Josiah should be in his room.”

The men split up, heading for the different sleeping areas. Chris was headed to the second room that Josiah used when he heard coughing. He veered off, searching the smoke filled room. He hadn’t gone far when a dark spot appeared on the floor in front of him. Dropping to his knees, he crawled forward and reached for the huddled form.


Watery blue eyes looked. “I can’t find JD” he cried.

Gathering the child into his arms, Chris tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry. We’ll find ‘im.”

Chris stood but stayed low as he headed for the door and fresh air. He saw his two partners searching the room.

“BUCK! NATHAN!” They turned his way. He coughed slightly and nodded toward the back of the building. “Check on Josiah and JD. I found Vin.”

They passed him as he added, “I’ll take him out and be back.”

Stumbling out the door, Chris felt hands on him, helping to steady him.

Ezra led the man away from the building even as his eyes studied the form in the man’s arms. He glanced up and into Chris’ green eyes and saw the man nod. Relief from the motion loosened the teen’s features.

Chris moved to the wagon that sat to the side of the building and placed the child under the cover. Squinting in the limited light, he quickly checked the boy and not finding any burns, he patted the boy’s leg as he turned to the teenager. “Watch him. I’m going back to help the others.”

Seeing Ezra nod, he turned back to the burning structure. He paused momentarily as the flames leapt out at him, but the thought of his ‘family’ still inside pushed the fear aside and he once again entered the inferno.

Chris turned and headed for the room at the back. He found Buck and Nathan struggling to free an unconscious and trapped Josiah. Apparently the older man jumped up and had been attempting to get to the boys when a roof beam crashed down, pinning him to the floor by his legs. Luckily, the beam was resting on a small lip at the edge of the room and hadn’t crushed the man’s legs.

Buck was trying to lift the beam while Nathan waited to pull the big man out. Chris slapped a hand on the tall man’s back. “Let me. You help Buck.”

Nathan nodded and moved around the beam, that put the two stronger men lifting the solid beam as Chris gripped the man under the arms, preparing to pull when the beam moved. The smoke was getting heavier and all the men were coughing as they struggled to free the man. Feeling the man move slightly, Chris leaned back and heaved.

As Josiah’s legs slid out from under the beam, Nathan and Buck released the weight, allowing it to drop to the floor. Nathan wiped his arm across his face in an attempt to clear his watery vision and then he grabbed Sanchez’s legs. Buck came around and reached for the man, but stepped back as Chris called out, “We got ‘im. Find the boy.” And then he and Nathan moved toward the door with their load.

Buck immediately went back to the back room and began to search for the little boy. He wiped his tear filled eyes on his sleeve but it did nothing to relieve the sting. Pulling his shirt over his mouth, he kicked debris out of the way as he looked around the room. Seeing nothing, he turned and headed to the main room. He knew that the two younger boys slept closest to the man’s room with the outside door set in the middle of the wall and more bunks on the other side. That was where the teenager made his bed and where Wilmington headed.

He checked each bunk as he passed, his eyes flickered to the doorway and the safety that it offered. He steeled himself and continued past even as flames licked at the edges of the escape route.

He was almost to the cot that Ezra used when something caught his eye and he stepped back. A pudgy little foot, blackened with soot, was barely visible under a cot that was covered with blackened wood, smoke curling up from the debris.

Buck released his shirt as he dropped to his knees. He held his breath as his hand reached out to grip the tiny limb and pull. The man could feel his heart leap to his throat in fear of what he would find as he pulled the five year old from under the bed. The knot in his stomach relaxed slightly as the boy slipped out with no evidence of burns. But the child’s body was lax as Buck wrapped his arms around him and lifted the boy to his chest.

Standing, he headed back to the door and froze in horror as he stared at the flame engulfed doorway. Glancing around, he found himself surrounded by fire. He turned his head to study the room and seeing no other way out, he grabbed a blanket from one of the beds and draped it over him and the boy. Taking a step back, he said a quick prayer and leapt through the flames to the door.

+ + + + + + +

As Chris and Nathan staggered out the door with Josiah draped between them, Ezra gathered Vin into his arms and stepped out of the way, allowing the men to lay the man down on the wooden floor. Chris maintained a grip on the unconscious man’s shoulders as Nathan climbed in and pulled Josiah’s body under the cover.

“Ezra? Run up to the house and get some blankets. There are some in the first bedroom.”

The teen nodded and looked around. Seeing Larabee reach out, he placed the shivering eleven-young-old into the man’s outstretched arms. Once Vin was secure, the teen ran to the house.

Chris turned his attention back to the healer and his patient. Vin had wrapped his skinny limbs around the blond rancher and now hung on like a leech. The man’s response was to tighten his own grip on the boy.

“How is he, Nate?”

There was a few moments of silence but finally the dark man answered. “He’s got a broke leg. I ain’t sure about his head. Found a bump that he probably got when he was knocked down. Hope that’s why he’s not waking up.”

“He gonna be okay, you think?”

Glancing up, his face glistening in the flickering light, he nodded. “I think so. Really need to get him inside and cleaned up to be sure, but I think so.”

Ezra returned a few moments later, his arm laden with blankets. He placed them in the wagon, asking what he could do next.

Chris placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “Relax a minute. Let’s see what Nathan needs.”

A soft question drew Larabee’s attention to the boy in his arms.

“Where’s JD and Mr. Buck?”

At the words, the man spun around and stared at the now engulfed building. Not even the pouring rain seemed to diminish the flames. Larabee’s heart plummeted as the fire rolled at the door and windows, realizing that no one could survive the inferno and he gripped the boy tighter. The child’s shivering intensified and began to repeat ‘no’ over and over. Chris tore his eyes from the scene in front of him and looked at the boy. He saw the fear in the boy’s blue eyes and the man brought his hand up to cup the young face and push it into his shoulder, blocking the boy’s view of the devastating scene.

Ezra took a step forward and froze. He wanted to run into the building and find the twosome, but where his heart screamed to help them, his mind told him it was too late. And he simply stared at the building as it began to collapse.

Nathan had covered the injured man with the blankets and climbed out of the wagon to stand next to the trio, watching as their world was changed forever.

No one noticed that the tremendous storm had moved on, leaving the night silent and dark, the only sound the popping and snapping of the burning building, the only light the flames of the ruined structure.

Suddenly a shower of sparks burst from the doorway followed by a shadowy figure. Stumbling, the figure crashed to the ground and slid across the shallow pools of water.

Caught by surprise, Chris, Nathan and Ezra stood frozen for a moment and then they broke into a run to assist as the body fought his way out of the blanket.

Buck pushed at the blanket, fearing that it was burning even though he could feel the water that he had fallen into. He scooted away as the fear fueled his energy. Hands reached down and helped him to stand and he turned to the see Nathan and Ezra standing there. Chris stood to one side with Vin hanging on his hip. He met Larabee’s gaze and saw the relief in the man’s eyes.

All eyes dropped to the bundle in the tall rancher’s arms.

“How is he?” Nathan asked, a question on everyone’s mind.

“I don’t know. He ain’t moved.” Buck’s hand wavered over the boy’s face. “I don’t think he’s breathing, Nate.” The man’s voice broke as he spoke.

Nathan stepped forward and checked the boy.


Sad brown eyes glanced over at Larabee’s question and he shook his head. A whimper from the boy in the blond’s arm caused the healer to look away.

Buck watched the exchange and moved forward. “NO. Do somethin’, Nathan.”

The black man whirled on his friend. “What, Buck? The boy’s not breathing. I can’t make ‘im breathe. Maybe if I was a real doctor…but I ain’t. I don’t know what to do.”

“Well…” Buck stammered, not knowing what to say. Finally, he said softly. “Try anything, Nathan. It can’t hurt to try.”

Jackson looked around at the expectant faces and turned back to the boy. His eyes roamed up and down the short length, thinking how young the boy was. His words echoed in his head and he bent down to place his mouth over the boy’s and blew a small breath into the child. Feeling a puff of air on his cheek, he pinched the tiny nose closed and tried again.

“His chest moved, Nate. Try again.”

The black ex-slave continued to ‘breathe’ for the boy for several minutes as the others stood around silently. He was about to give up when the boy’s head moved under his hand causing him to pull back and watch. Suddenly the child took a deep breath and began to cough. A chorus of cheers went up as the rest of the group saw and heard the little boy come back to life.

JD opened his eyes as Nathan sat him up and patted him gently on the back until the coughing let up. As soon as the boy could take a deep breath, he began to cry and reached out blindly for support. Ezra stepped forward, but stopped as Buck scooped the boy into his arms and hugged him close.

“You’re okay. Everyone’s fine. Shh, no need to cry, now.” He patted the small back as the boy cried and coughed and cried some more.

Nathan looked at Chris and smiled at the man’s nod. Feeling a little embarrassed, he turned his attention to his other patient.

“Chris, we should get Josiah up to the house, so’s I can check him over.”

“How we going to carry ‘im up there? Think we can use a blanket?”

“I can walk if someone will help” a groggy voice replied.

“Josiah!” Ezra exclaimed.

Deep blue eyes looked out from the wagon as the big man pulled himself up. “Is everyone okay? The fire…”

Chris moved forward and placed Vin on the wagon next to Josiah, where the boy placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Everyone is fine, Josiah. Except for a broke leg, you are, too.”

“Praise the Lord, brother.”

“Amen,” Nathan added. Reaching for the man, he said, “Come on. Let’s get you up to the house and get that leg fixed up.”

Between Chris and Nathan, they got the handyman up to the house and settled into an extra bedroom. The three boys were put in Buck’s room, though Ezra chose to sleep on a divan that set on the far side of the large room. Buck said he would stay up and keep an eye on the dying fire to insure that it did not spread.

Early in the morning, he heard the creaking sound of the stairs and turned his head toward the staircase as Chris descended.

“Hey, stud. Can’t sleep?”

Chris fell into a chair and scrubbed his face with both hands before running them up and through his hair.

“Thought I’d check on the kids.”

“They okay?” Buck asked, though he already knew the answer. He had gone up to check on them only an hour before, himself.

“Yeah, they’re fine.” Larabee dropped his head back and closed his eyes.

Buck waited patiently, knowing the man wasn’t resting. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Buck? Are we crazy? Having those boys here?”

The mustached rancher chuckled softly. “Hell, Larabee, you been crazy since I met ya.”

Chris rolled his head to the side to glare at his partner.

“But I have to tell ya…scared as I was tonight, I wouldn’t give up a minute of the time that we’ve had with ‘em boys. What are ya thinking?”

The blond sat up and draped his hands across his lap. “I ‘s thinking of offering them a home…permanent home.”

Buck cocked his head to one side, studying the man. “Why, Chris?”

The older man frowned. “I figured you’d be all for it, Buck.”

Smiling and tossing his hands up, Wilmington stated, “Hey, pard, I AM all for it. The thought of losing that little boy tonight… well, I don’t think I’m ready just yet for any of ‘em leaving.” He sat forward and leaned his forearms on his thighs and said, “I’m asking why YOU want them to stay.”

“I just…I…”

“That boy, Vin, he’s not much older than Adam would have been.”

Chris’ face turned hard at the man’s words and he sat forward as he growled, “That boy ain’t nothing like Adam. He’s…” Larabee stopped, his mouth pinched tight in anger. He stared at the floor as his hands tightened into fists on the arms of the chair. Several moments passed in silence as the two men sat.

Finally, Chris sighed and relaxed, his eyes came up to meet Buck’s and he explained, calmly, “I wasn’t thinking about Adam, Buck. I know that since him and Sarah died, I haven’t been exactly…fun to be around.”

“Well, now, there’s an understatement.” Buck relaxed back against the couch as he grinned at the man.

Chris rolled his eyes and shook his head at the man. He knew that Buck had put up with a lot from him in the last four years. The man was a good friend for staying and taking the hard words. Chris sometimes forgot that he wasn’t the only one to lose family on the trip west.

“I’ve come to realize that I like the noise the boys make. I like Josiah’s stories. I even like Ezra’s fancy talk. They’ve made this place a home. Not just a house or a business.” He looked at the dark haired man and frowned. “Does that make any sense?”

The smile on Wilmington’s face spoke worlds to his friend’s knowing eye. It was a smile of understanding, not humor; a smile of pride. His voice was soft as he replied, “Yeah, Chris. It makes perfect sense.”

They sat looking at each other for a few minutes and then Chris stood and stretched. “You want to sleep some and I’ll take a turn keeping watch.”

“Nuh, I’m good. You get some sleep. We have a lot of planning to do tomorrow.”

Nodding, Larabee headed to the stairs, calling softly over his shoulder, “Night, Buck.”

“Night, Chris.” The man disappeared up the staircase and Buck ran a shaky hand over his face. “Welcome back, my friend.”

+ + + + + + +

The next morning, everyone gathered in Josiah’s room for a morning breakfast of toast and eggs. The previous evening’s events had everyone wanting to stay close to each other, at least for a while, until everyone was sure of the others safety.

The normally quiet Vin was telling Josiah what had happened after the lightening struck the bunkhouse.

“…and I woke up JD and told ‘im that we had to get out cause the roof was burning, but he pulled away and disappeared in the smoke. I thought he was trying to get to your room, so I headed down there, but then I kept bumping into the beds and I got turned around and then Mr. Chris picked me up and carried me out and Ezra taken care of me. And then Mr. Chris and Mr. Nathan carried you out and I thought you was dead, but Mr. Nathan said you was only knocked out. But then the whole…” The boy’s arms went up and around in a circle as he said, “…building started falling in. And Mr. Buck and JD was still inside but suddenly, Mr. Buck came busting through the fire and he had JD only JD wasn’t breathing, but Mr. Nathan breathed for him ‘til he started breathing again and then you waked up.”

Josiah had ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ at the tale but the last part had him turning to the three ranchers. “I fear that I owe you gentlemen a debt that I’m not sure I could ever repay. How do you pay someone back for saving your sons?”

“You don’t even try. It’s not a debit that you should concern yourself with. We’re just happy that everyone is uninjured.”

As the adults nodded, Vin turned to his cousin. “JD? Why’d you run away last night?”

The little boy shrugged and answered, “I had to get Ezra’s sock,” as if that explained everything.

Vin merely stared at the boy as the adults looked on confused. Only Ezra reacted to the pronouncement.

“My sock?”

JD nodded and reached into his britches pocket to pull out a slightly sooty sock. He held it out to the teen who took it and stared.

“JD, why would you risk…” the teen fought to maintain his composure at the thought of what almost happened the previous evening.

Josiah looked at the teen and prompted, “Ezra?”

Glancing up, the green eyes went from the man to the sock and back. “It’s my winnings. From poker.” A flush crept up the boy’s face at the admission.

“Money? JD risked his life for money?”

“I didn’t ask him to do it. I don’t know why…” He turned to the little boy and asked, “Why, JD? Why would you run away from Vin for…for this?” He held the sock of money out.

The little boy shrugged and stated, “Cause it’s your mama money.”

Ezra remembered the day the youngster had spied him hiding the sock. He had told him that he was saving the money to join his mother in San Francisco.

“JD, it’s only money. You have been killed.” Ezra wanted the child to understand.

But the five-year-old didn’t understand and he countered, “But it’s for your mama, Ezwa. Don’t you want to see your mama?”

“Not if it meant losing you. Or Vin.” Ezra squatted down in front of the little boy. “She may have left us, but I won’t leave you or Vin. Nothing is more important to me than you two.” His hand reached out and stroked the boy’s cheek as a tear slid down. Ezra smiled at the boy and JD smiled back.

Ruffling the dark hair, Ezra stood and turned to Josiah. “Sir, I would like to offer this pittance to you for the replacement of items we lost last evening,”

Josiah shook his head. “No, Ezra, that’s your money. You keep it…in case you ever need to go ‘visit’ your mother.”

But the boy shook his head. “I no longer have a need to reacquaint myself with my maternal parent. I shall drop her a message by post informing her of our location should she wish to see me or the boys.”

Josiah did not take the sock, though, leaving the teen standing with his hand outstretched. “Very well, then. Mr. Larabee? May I be of assistance in a monetary way in rebuilding our dwelling?”

“Actually, Ezra, I wasn’t planning to rebuild. We don’t need that bunkhouse. Not yet, at least.”

The boy’s hand dropped and he lowered his head. “I assume that you would like for us to be moving on in that case,” he stated.

Larabee seemed to ignore the statement as he continued. “Now, what I would really like to do is add onto the house. Seems to me that we need at least two, maybe three more rooms for the family. Number of rooms would depend on whether or not you want to share a room with the boys or have your own area.”

Chris looked at the teen and then Sanchez. He cleared his throat and added, “What I mean is, we’d really like for you to consider making this your home. Not a job, but a place to live, a place for the boys to grow up. We’d offer you the same bargain we gave Nathan. A small portion of the profits and room and board in exchange for a lot of hard work. It’s up to you, Josiah.”

Buck smiled. “Ain’t something you got ta make a decision about right now. Think on it, talk to the boys and let us know.”

Josiah glanced at the kids and Ezra before looking back at the men. “I don’t think there’s any choice in it. I know that the boys are happy and I’m happy here. Sounds like a deal too good to turn down.”

Ezra held out the sock once again. “To add to the coffers. We shall be needing the cash to start the remodeling.”

This time Chris accepted the money and shook the boy’s hand first and then the man’s.

“Welcome to Treeline Ranch.”

Just the Beginning