The dark haired little boy crawled out of his hiding place and looked around. He had been in Four Corners for almost a week, living under the boardwalk. He had hitched a ride on the stagecoach from Spring Creek where his mother had died over a month ago. An intelligent, precocious child, he quickly realized that he would be carted off to the orphan's home if the authorities caught him. He had managed to hang around for almost three weeks, long enough for the flowers he'd left on his momma's grave to wilt.
Hunger was his constant companion. He had been foraging in the trashcan behind the restaurant for most of his meals. The nice lady that ran the general store had given him a couple of apples. He put his hands in the horse trough and raked his fingers through his hair, resettling the curls back from his round face. There were very few children in the town so he knew he would have to move along soon.
Vin stepped down from the saddle and handed his reins to Yosemite. The livery owner would untack the animal and brush him down before putting him in the corral. He headed for the saloon to get his breakfast. He saw the dark haired child before he darted into the alley and disappeared. The sharpshooter had seen the child a couple of times, he assumed that he belonged to one of the new families in town. Chris was already seated at the table when he spun the chair around and sat down.
"See anything new out there?" the blond asked.
"Nah, peaceful as a newborn baby," Vin replied.
Buck peered out from behind the barrels to see that no one was coming. He darted to the outhouse to tend to his needs and then headed for the alley behind the restaurant. He was disappointed to see the big dog rooting through the remnants of breakfast. The mongrel growled at him as he edged up and he decided to leave the animal alone. He heard some children laughing and he tried to hurry around the building to catch up with them.
"Hey, what's your name?" A blond boy in coveralls questioned as he approached the trio of other kids.
"Buck," he answered, smiling and hopeful of being included.
"Wanna play ball with us?" Billy Travis asked.
"Yeah!" Buck answered excitedly. The four boys darted off toward the open field behind the hotel where they played until Mary called out to her son.
"Billy, would you and your friends like a snack?" Instantly, all four boys were eagerly standing at the edge of the porch. "Hello there, you must be new in town. What's your name?"
Suddenly, Buck began to back away. He had forgotten that he wasn't like the other kids he had been playing with. The blonde woman looked puzzled as he backed away and took off running. She opened the door and led the other boys into the kitchen and handed out some oatmeal cookies.
Buck ran blindly, imagining someone following him, ready to grab him up and carry him off to an orphan's home. Spying an open doorway, he ducked inside and burrowed into a corner. With his knees drawn up to his chest and his head down, he was nearly invisible. When his racing heart had calmed, he peered around. The livery was filled with soothing sounds, horses snuffling and blowing, shod hooves making clopping sounds on the sandy ground, tails flicking away an occasional fly. Not as scared as he had been, he uncurled his body and crept out of the corner.
A long, dark nose stared down, the blaze down the center of his face sharply defined. Peso's nostrils flared as he sniffed at the youngster who was practically under his feet. The little round face tipped up, eyes wide in awe, as a small hand touched the velvety, supple skin. The horse blew again, stirring the dark curls and causing the child to giggle. Hesitantly, Buck stood, reaching up to touch the horse on the jaw and over the mane. Peso lipped at the boy's collar, drawing louder giggles.
"You might want to be careful, he bites," Vin called softly from the doorway. He had been coming to get something from his saddlebags when he noticed the child standing in front of the stall. It was amazing that the fractious equine was being so gentle with the boy. Even as his mind was considering how shocking it was, the boy turned and took off running. "Hey! Wait a minute! Come back!"
The little boy dodged and darted as he made his way down the road. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the longhaired man still following him. Turning sharply, he ducked in between a couple of the buildings and scooted through an opening that led under the Potter's store. He crawled and scrambled under the floor supports, ending up in a corner, trapped and frightened. Drawing into the smallest bundle possible, Buck stared at the opening, some fifteen feet away. He could just imagine the arm that would come through and drag him out.
Chris and JD came out and saw Vin standing there, staring at the boardwalk that ran along the front of the Potter's store. They both walked over and turned to see what he was staring at.
"I just saw a kid crawl in there. He was in the livery petting Peso and I scared him off. I've seen around here the past few days. I figured that he belonged to one of the new families here abouts."
"Dark curly hair, about so high?" JD questioned.
"Yeah, that's him," Vin replied, "You've seen him too?"
"Mrs. Potter asked me about him. She said he's been digging through the trash behind the restaurant. She gave him some apples."
"We gotta get him out of there," Chris said as he squatted down and peered into the dark hole. "Come on out of there kid!"
In the corner, Buck shivered in fear. He recognized the voice of the tall, darkly dressed gunman. He looked all around, trying to figure a way out of the trap he was in. He crawled toward the other corner and pushed against the boards.
"Come on out, kid. It's alright," JD called. He didn't notice Vin walking around the building.
A section of boards was loose and Buck squeezed out, crawling on his hands and knees as fast as he could. A hand closed on the back of his coveralls and he began to struggle, thrashing and screaming. He was lifted into the air and then held by a strong arm.
"Let me go! Let me go! I didn't do anything! Let me go!" Buck yelled as he was carried around the building, only stopping when the blond gunslinger's eyes fell on him. He went still then, shaking all over in fear.
"What's your name, son?" Chris asked. The boy's dark blue eyes were enormous and his lower lip began to quiver. "It's alright, kid, we're not gonna hurt you."
"Why don't we take this indoors?" JD suggested.
Vin carried the boy into the jail and sat on the edge of the desk with him, not letting go for an instant. Chris stood directly in front of the pair, staring at the wide-eyed child. Tears now welled up in the dark eyes and spilled down his cheeks. Chris reached out to brush away the tears only to have the boy recoil in fear, pressing back into Vin's chest.
"What's your name, son?" Chris said softly.
"Buck Wilmington," was the whispered reply.
"How old are you, Buck?" the blond continued.
"I'm fixin' to be six in a month or so."
"Where are your parents? Do you live around here?"
Silence was the only answer the boy would give. He stared at the toes of Chris's boots. JD edged in and tried his hand at getting an answer.
"Your folks must be worried about you. I can give you a ride home if you'd like. Do you like to ride horses?" The boy looked up for a moment, excitement flashing in his eyes before he went back to staring at the floor.
"Run and get Nathan. He can check Buck over before we figure out what we're gonna do with him," Chris said. "And get Josiah, maybe he knows the kid's parents."
While JD was gone, Chris turned his back on the boy and poured himself a cup of coffee. He didn't like the strong, protective feeling that was aroused by the intense blue eyes. He felt like he should know the kid. Nathan arrived a few minutes later and Chris asked him to check the boy for injuries.
"Why don't we go over there?" he indicated the cell, where the boy could sit on the bunk and the light was better. Vin was unprepared for the sudden flurry of activity as the child began to wail, turning and wrapping both his arms and legs around the tracker.
"No, no, no, no," Buck whimpered as he burrowed into the man's arms.
"Shh, it's alright, kid. No one's gonna hurt ya. Nathan just wants to have a look and make sure you ain't hurt anyplace. Calm down," Vin said softly as he rubbed circles on the boy's back.
Vin stood and carried the child over to the cell and sat on the bunk. He tried to untangle Buck's arms from around his neck so Nathan could look at him. He felt the warm wetness and realized that the terrified child had wet his pants.
"Hand me that blanket, Nathan," Vin asked. He took the blanket and spread it out to cover both of them. A waft of air brought the scent to the healer's nose and he nodded in understanding.
Chris was confused when Nathan backed out of the cell and urged him out to the boardwalk. He drew a breath to demand an explanation and an upraised hand stopped him.
"Boy's so scared he's done wet himself. Would you ask Mrs. Travis if you could borrow some clothes for him?"
With the gunslinger off gathering clothes, Nathan slipped back into the jail. The dark haired child had calmed and was staring in fascination at the harmonica Vin held in his hand. As the tracker explained, Buck blew gently into the instrument and smiled at the sounds. He looked up as the door opened and the slight smile disappeared from the cherubic face. He pressed back against Vin and stared at the healer as he walked across the room.
"Now, how about you let me have a look at you?" Nathan said as he knelt down.
"Don't hurt me ... please?" Buck begged, his lip quivering and his eyes filling with tears.
"I won't let Nathan hurt you, kid. He's taken care of me lots of times," Vin explained.
The child's head dipped and the tears flowed freely as he whimpered. "I had a ... a accident."
Gentle hands undressed the child, noting that there were no bruises on his sturdy little body. He was ticklish and embarrassed to be standing there naked. Chris returned with a change of clothes and the frightened look returned to Buck's eyes.
"Let's get him over to the bathhouse and get him clean before we put him in clean clothes," Nathan suggested. Vin wrapped the blanket around Buck and picked him up, carrying him across the street. Chris put down a coin for the tub. It was apparent to all three men that the child was looking forward to getting into the water. JD and Josiah popped in a few minutes later and the child trembled at the gentle giant staring down at him. Immediately, Buck squatted down, becoming as small as he possibly could.
"Buck, what is it?" Vin asked as he brushed his hand across the dark curly hair.
"Don't let him see me!" the terrified boy begged.
"Buck, look at me. This is my friend, Josiah. He's not going to hurt you," Vin assured the shaking child. "Let's get you in the tub."
After a bath and clean clothes, Buck was feeling more comfortable with the regulators. He hesitantly told them of his mother's death and the fact that he had no place to go. Casting hopeful eyes on the tracker, he asked if he could stay with him.
"Well, I ... uh ... I ain't exactly set up to take care of a kid," Vin stammered.
Throwing his arms around the man who had caught him, Buck begged. "Please mister? Don't send me to the orphan's home. I'll be good! I won't cause no trouble."
Surprised, Vin slowly placed his hand on the boy's back and held him. He wrapped his other arm around Buck and lowered his cheek to press the top of the dark head. How the boy had managed to hit the exact right phrase to make the tracker's protective instincts flare up he didn't know, but there was no way he was going to send the child to one of those awful places. When he raised his head, Chris saw the defiance burning in the pale blue eyes. The blond nodded, the silent communication between the two men agreeing to the child staying with Tanner for the time being.
It was a temporary solution at the very best and Vin knew it but he just couldn't help getting attached to the boy. Buck wasn't any trouble. He did exactly what he was told and stayed wherever they put him. Although Vin spent the most time with him, JD also took a shine to the boy and took him for a ride in the desert. Because of his curious nature, Ezra found the child to be a willing student and he taught him to play cards. Buck seemed uncomfortable with Josiah, for some reason, and the older man took great pains to try to win him over.
Not having to hide anymore, Buck eagerly played with Billy Travis and the Potter children. Mary and Gloria donated some warm clothes for the boy. They also made sure that he ate regularly. Buck was a pleasant child and they didn't mind having him around. He had a natural charm and was eager to help in any way that he could. Mrs. Potter allowed him to dust the shelves in the store, something her own children hated to do. Mary supervised him as he handed out the paper, smiling as he made other people smile. The newspaperwoman hoped that he ended up in a good home. Her father in law was arriving in a few days and would find a place for him.
Buck was playing hide and seek with the other kids when he saw the mongrel dog again. A man was chasing her and yelling. The dog yelped when the man kicked her and Buck flew out of his hiding place.
"You leave her alone! You're mean! She's just hungry!" Buck yelled as he stood between the man and the dog.
Jack Conklin paused in his chase to look down on the little boy standing so bravely in his way. "You're that orphan kid the lawmen have been looking after, aren't you? Well, you'd better get out of my way because I aim to put that rabid bitch down before she bites someone." He drew his pistol and aimed over the boy's shoulder and fired.
Buck screamed as he felt something sting his shoulder. Another loud sound deafened him. He faintly heard the dog yipping in pain as he fell to the ground. His left arm was not working properly as he tried to crawl to the dog. Suddenly, the alley was filled with people, all of them focused on the injured child and the growling and snapping dog.
"What in the hell are you doing, Conklin?" Chris demanded to know as he snatched the gun from the man's hand. He turned to see Nathan and Vin tending to the bloody wound on Buck's shoulder. In all the confusion, the dog managed to slink away.
"Buck, talk to me buddy," Vin urged as he watched Nathan examine the damage to the boy's shoulder.
"Vin ... don't let him ... hurt her. She's ... starving," Buck pleaded as he tried to turn so he could see the dog.
"You just be still now," Nathan scolded. "I need to get him to the clinic."
Panic contorted the boy's face as he began to cry and claw at Vin's arm. "No ... don't make me die! I'll be good!" Buck pleaded.
"I'll take him to my room. You get what you need and meet us there," Vin said, his blue eyes clearly stating that he wouldn't take no for an answer. He gathered the child into his arms and walked out of the alley toward the boarding house.
Ezra and JD had stopped near Conklin, freeing Chris to follow the tracker. "You better be a praying man and on good terms with God if anything happens to that child," the gambler threatened as he pulled his gun and shoved the man toward the jail.
"I was aiming for the dog! It was rabid and I thought it was going to attack the boy!" Conklin protested, directing his words to JD. He knew that the younger man was more likely to believe him than the other man.
"I don't see a dog, do you Ezra?" JD said as he pulled one of his guns and pointed it at the man.
Buck was trembling by the time Vin got to his room and put the boy on the bed. Chris was right there, pulling off the little dusty boots and putting a quilt over Buck. Josiah came in, out of breath from running, and began building a fire in the stove.
"Am I gonna die like my momma?" Buck asked softly.
"Nah, you're gonna be fine," Vin assured the frightened child. He could feel the tremors that shook the small boy and wished that he could take his pain away. Nathan hurried in and began to set out his supplies on the top of the bureau. He came to the side of the bed and lifted the pad of cloth he had put over the wound to see if the bleeding had stopped. "The bullet's still in there, isn't it?" Vin asked.
"Yeah, I'm gonna have to get it out. I need some hot water and open those drapes to let the light in. I want to get started right away."
"Nathan?" Vin began, only to let the question die on his lips as Buck's little hand grasped his fingers. He shook his head and turned to the child on the bed. "You're gonna be fine. I promise."
"Buck, I need you to take some medicine for the pain. It'll make you sleepy and I want you to go to sleep, alright? I'm gonna take care of you," Nathan said as he poured a few drops of laudanum into a spoon and offered it to the child.
"I'm scared!" Buck announced, his eyes overflowing with tears.
Chris sat on the bed and put his hand on Buck's forehead, causing the boy's gaze to turn. "I know you're scared. It's normal to be scared. Vin's gonna be right here with you and I'm going to be here. Nathan's gonna fix you right up."
It was a testament to the trust Buck had for the blond gunslinger that he opened his mouth and took the bitter medicine. He shuddered again and Vin reached out to pull the quilt higher on his chest. It was oppressively quiet in the room as Buck's eyes became glassy and he fought to keep them open. Finally, he stopped fighting and his eyes stayed closed, his breathing deep and even.
"Alright, let's move him to this table by the window so I can see what I have to do," Nathan said.
Vin pulled up a chair and sat at the head of the table, keeping both of his hands on Buck's head as he watched the healer work. JD and Ezra slipped silently into the room and moved to stand near Josiah, JD leaning into the large hand that came to rest on his shoulder.
"I found it," Nathan said as he took up the forceps and gently fed them into the hole the bullet had made. He caught hold of the lead ball and pulled it out. Chris tightened his hold on Buck's ankles as he felt the child tense. Nathan flushed the wound with water and then with a diluted solution of carbolic. He pressed a clean pad of cloth over the hole and prepared to secure it into place. Vin helped to lift the child, his head resting against Tanner's neck as strips of cloth were wrapped around the small body. "Well, I've done all I can do, the rest is up to him," the healer said as he turned to wash his hands.
"I want that man locked up," Vin said to Chris.
"Already done, Vin. JD and I accompanied the cretin to the jail before coming here. He was none too happy about it. He kept insisting that he was shooting at some mongrel that was preparing to attack the boy," Ezra explained.
Vin turned to look at the gambler. "Did you find the dog?"
"I didn't see it but Mrs. Potter did and she said she didn't think it was rabid, just hungry," JD answered.
Looking at the boy leaning against his chest, Vin nodded, "He said she was starving and not to let Conklin hurt her."
"I'll go and find the dog," Josiah offered. "You just attend to our boy."
Gathering the child into his arms, Vin carried him back to the bed and waited for Chris to pull back the blankets. He settled Buck on the pillow and covered him to his chin. His fingers brushed over the dried splatters of blood that dotted the boy's chin and cheek and Nathan handed him a warm, wet cloth to wipe them away. Handing the cloth back, he settled in to wait for Buck to awaken.
It took Josiah and Ezra only a few minutes to find the animal. She had dragged her bleeding body behind some barrels and was licking her wounded shoulder. A warning growl sounded low in her chest as the two men approached.
"Easy now, we aren't going to hurt you," Josiah said calmly as he extended his hand for her to smell. She shrank away slightly but didn't try to bite him. The graying man pulled off his coat and draped it over her before gathering her up in his arms. Ezra shook his head in awe as he followed Josiah to the church.
Buck moaned softly and Vin's eyes instantly opened. Chris turned up the lamp, giving more light to the darkened room as the tracker soothed the child. Vin gently lifted Buck's head and tipped a cup of water to his lips. When Buck finished drinking, Vin wiped his chin.
"How do you feel?" Vin asked.
"My shoulder hurts," Buck whined.
"I know it does. I'll get you some more medicine for the pain," Vin said as he started to roll away from where he had been lying beside the boy.
"No, I don't want that stuff. It's nasty. Hold me?"
There was no way he could refuse to hold the boy in his arms. Vin carefully slipped his arm under Buck and pulled him closer as Chris tucked the blankets in and put another pillow behind him to keep him in place. Buck's hand closed on the collar of Vin's shirt and he nuzzled in the flannel material for a few minutes before drifting back to sleep.
"He asleep?" Chris asked.
"Yeah but he feels warm," Vin answered.
"I'll wake Nathan," the blond offered.
"Nah, let him sleep a little longer. It isn't too high."
"Have you given any thought to what you're going to do when Travis finds him a permanent home?"
Vin swallowed hard. It was the thing he had been dreading ever since the boy clung to him and begged not to be sent to an orphanage. In that instant, he had become bonded to the child in a way that none of the others would be able to understand.
"Nope, ain't thought about it. Ain't gonna worry about it until it happens. I just hope we get to keep him 'til after Christmas."
"That's still over a month away, Vin. I don't imagine the judge is gonna let him hang around here that long."
In an effort to hide the emotions scrolling across his face, Vin nuzzled into Buck's curly hair and closed his eyes. Chris nodded, recognizing the avoidance tactic. He reached out and turned the lamp down again. On a pallet in the corner, JD brushed away tears as he thought about what would happen to the little boy they were caring for.
+ + + + + + +
In the church, Josiah and Nathan were tending to the injured dog. The healer had cleaned the wound and stitched it closed. Fortunately, Conklin was a lousy shot. Ezra slipped in quietly and poured something into a bowl that he held out for the dog. After sniffing hesitantly, the dog began to lap up the beef broth.
By morning, Buck's fever had climbed and he was writhing in the bed. He cried out in pain and called for his mother until Vin broke down and cried. Chris soothed the fevered child while he watched the tracker. They all knew that Vin had lost his mother when he was about the age that Buck was now. Nathan had brought over some willow bark tea and a bottle of alcohol to wipe the child down. Ezra brought breakfast for all of them and reported that the dog was alive. Vin smiled in gratitude at the news, he knew it would make Buck very happy. JD had gone to the jail to tend to the prisoner.
By midday, Buck was still burning with fever and Nathan had sent Vin to Chris's room to rest. Ezra was sitting at the jail with Conklin and Josiah had gone on patrol, leaving JD with the dog. Chris and Nathan took turns bathing Buck and coaxing him to drink anything they could get him to swallow. He didn't like the herbal tea and would eagerly drink either the broth or cool water to remove the taste from his mouth.
That night, as the sun set, Buck's fever broke. Vin and Josiah changed the child into dry clothes and bedding and left him to sleep. Chris had gone to the jail, while JD got some sleep at the church to keep an eye on the dog. Ezra was at the saloon, playing cards and putting out a visual presence for the townspeople. Nathan was finally persuaded to return to his room and get some rest.
The early morning light was shining in his eyes as the small, warm bundle at his chest began to move. Vin opened his eyes and smiled as Buck cuddled against him. Feeling that he was being watched, he looked across to see Chris shifting on the chair in the corner. A muffled thumping had the tracker stretching to see that JD had brought the dog from the church and she was now lying on an old quilt by the dresser. Vin's eyes drifted closed and he went back to sleep.
Buck opened his eyes and winced at the throbbing pain in his shoulder. He snuggled into the reassuring warmth that was wrapped around him for a moment. Something made a thumping sound and he turned over to see what it was. A wide smile lit his face as he saw the dog. Reaching out with his hand, he wiggled his fingers. The dog rose slowly and hobbled over to the side of the bed to lick the outstretched fingers.
A soft giggle awoke Vin and he lay absolutely still as he watched the dog licking Buck's fingers. When the little mongrel started to get up on the bed, Chris spoke up.
"Not until you've had a bath, girl," he said as he got up and crossed to sit on the edge of the bed. The dog shrank away from him, watching warily. After a moment, she returned to her blanket.
"Can I keep her?" Buck asked, hope shining brightly in his eyes.
Looking toward the other occupant of the bed, Chris knew Vin was playing possum. "We'll have to see about that. Now, how do you feel?"
"My shoulder hurts."
"It will for a while. Are you hungry?"
"Uh-huh, and I need to use the outhouse."
From behind Buck, Vin spoke, "Me too, how about I give you ride on my back?"
Leaning against Vin, Buck smiled brightly as he nodded. Chris gave a questioning look to the tracker, knowing that he had trouble with his back. Vin shook his head, he wanted to do this and he would take his chances. They quickly maneuvered Buck into pants and a shirt, gently working his arm so as not to cause pain in his shoulder. As soon as his boots were pulled on, Chris picked Buck up and set him on Vin's back. When Tanner had a good grip on the boy's legs and Buck had one arm securely around Vin's neck, Chris stepped up close in case one of them slipped. The dog was up and headed for the door when he stopped her and told her to go lay back down.
They ran into Nathan on their way to the restaurant and he turned to follow them. Josiah was just taking breakfast in for the prisoner and he called that he would also join them. JD came out of the jail with Josiah, they both figured that Conklin could eat all by himself.
Seated around a table at the restaurant, Buck sitting in Vin's lap, they ordered breakfast. Buck ordered pancakes with peach topping. JD decided that sounded pretty good and he ordered the same. The others ordered the special and a pot of coffee. The waitress brought Buck a glass of milk and he tried to reach for it with both hands, whimpering in pain.
"Easy there, kiddo, let me help," Vin said as he brought the glass closer. When Buck's meal arrived, Vin adeptly cut it into manageable bites before handing off the fork. The hungry boy dug right into his meal. By the time the adults received their food, he was finished and beginning to doze.
Seeing Vin struggling with the sleeping child, Josiah offered to hold him for a while. After gazing fondly at the limp body, Vin allowed the older man to take him. They each tucked into their food, pausing from time to time to smile at the sleeping child. When they finished, they sat for a while just drinking coffee and talking softly. Finally, Nathan suggested that they get Buck into bed so he could check his bandages. They got up and started for the door, JD going back at the last minute for something and jogging to catch up. In a small canning jar, he had some more beef broth with pieces of bacon soaking in it.
Judge Travis arrived on the stage and went directly to the Clarion to visit with Mary. After renewing his acquaintance with her, he headed for the jail to speak with Chris. When he got there, he didn't find the gunslinger. Instead, Ezra was playing solitaire on the desk. Orin was surprised to see a prisoner in the cell.
"Mr. Standish, would you like to tell me about him?" he asked as he indicated the man in the cell. Conklin immediately rose and began to protest.
"You gotta let me out of here, Judge. They locked me up for shooting at a rabid dog!"
"Is that true, Standish?"
"No Sir, we locked him up for shooting a five-year-old boy."
"A five year-old-boy? Is he alright?" Orin stepped closer to the gambler.
"He will recover. Nathan was able to remove the bullet. His fever broke early this morning," Ezra explained.
"Where is he?"
"I believe the rest of my compatriots are ensconced in Mr. Tanner's room at the boarding house watching over the child."
"I'll just go there and talk to them," Travis said as he tipped his hat to the southerner.
They had finished changing the bandage and Buck was still asleep when the judge knocked. Josiah was the closest and he opened the door, stepping back in surprise at seeing the graying jurist on the other side.
"Judge Travis, come right in."
"Thank you, Josiah. I stopped at the jail and Ezra informed me that you were all up here with the child that Mr. Conklin shot."
The little mongrel dog was under the bed and began growling loudly as she fixed her eye on Travis. Chris squatted down and glared at her and she began to wag her tail. When he stood, she gave another low growl before going silent.
"Conklin said that he was shooting at a rabid dog. That wouldn't, by chance, be the dog he was shooting at, would it?"
"Yes Sir, he hit her too. But she's not rabid and we locked him up for shooting the boy," Chris said.
"Certainly he didn't intend to hit the child. I know the man is a loud-mouthed irritant but even he wouldn't shoot a child."
"If you want, you let him go. But if I see him with a gun on around town again, I'll lock him up. The man's a menace," the blond said forcefully.
"Now, Chris, there isn't any law against carrying a weapon in town. You can't lock him up for it. I'll have a word with Conklin and remind him that he was lucky not to have seriously injured the child, that should be enough of a deterrent."
"How seriously would he had to have been shot for it to be serious enough?" Vin asked, his eyes flashing blue fire.
"Now Vin, I understand that you're upset. But it's been pretty clear ever since I hired all of you to watch over the town that you and Conklin haven't exactly seen eye to eye. I will discourage him from carrying the gun around the town but you can't jail him if he chooses to wear it. Do I make myself clear?"
All five of the adults in the room scowled at him before he turned and left. It didn't occur to Orin to ask after the boy's parents until he'd returned to the jail. He decided to ask Standish rather than go all the way back to the boarding house.
"The child who was shot, who are his parents?"
"He's an orphan, Judge Travis. He's been sneaking around and stealing and going through the trash ever since he got to town," Conklin yelled.
"That was the orphan Mary wired me about?"
"Yes Sir, his name is Buck and his mother is dead," Ezra explained.
"Why wasn't he taken to the orphanage over in Red Fork?"
"Because he begged us not to take him."
"And since when does a child dictate what you will or won't do?" Travis asked sarcastically.
"Since Mr. Tanner has experience with those kinds of places and decided to keep the boy with him, Sir."
"Vin Tanner is in no position to be raising a child, Judge Travis. The boy should go to Red Fork where they can find him a proper home," Conklin shouted.
Orin heaved a massive sigh and walked over to pluck the cell keys from the nail on the wall. He unlocked the cell and glared at the annoying man. "Mr. Conklin, if I see you on the street with a gun again, I will lock you up for a public hazard. Now I would suggest that you go about your business."
The disgruntled man stepped meekly past the judge and hurried for the door, pausing to toss a dirty look at Standish before he left.
"Judge Travis, Buck is all alone in the world except for the six of us. We've been caring for him and looking after him these past weeks and he's really no trouble at all," Ezra said quickly.
"That doesn't alter the fact that none of you are in any way able to provide a proper home for him. A child needs a mother and a father."
"I seem to have done well enough with only one parent," Ezra countered. "And Mr. Jackson was bereft of his mother at an early age. Mr. Dunne knew only the love of his mother and your own daughter in law is a single parent. Certainly you don't mean that she is unfit to raise your grandson?"
"That isn't the same and you know it! At least they were related to the person who raised them. This child isn't related to any of you."
"And biological ties automatically make a person qualified to love a child?"
Orin paused to consider Ezra's words before walking out of the jail and slamming the door just to vent his frustration at realizing that the man had struck a nerve. He'd taken only a few steps when Chris and Vin came out of the boarding house and started in his direction. He took a deep breath and prepared to do battle with the both of them.
Chris was the first to speak. "Orin, about the boy."
"Yes, Standish was just telling me that he's the orphan Mary wired me about. Let's go some place where we can talk."
They followed Travis back to the Clarion and into the living quarters at the rear of the building. He gestured toward the kitchen chairs and they sat. Orin checked the coffee pot before setting it on the stove again.
"Gentlemen, I realize that you have grown attached to the child. I understand that. However, it isn't in the boy's best interest that he be raised by a single man who might be cut down any day out in the street. It would be better if he had a home with two parents."
"You got a family in mind?" Vin spat angrily.
"No, not at the moment. But at the orphanage over in Red Fork," Orin began.
"He's not going to an orphan's home!"
"Now Vin, calm down. I understand that you don't have pleasant memories of the home where you were placed after your mother died but that doesn't make them all bad."
"I won't let ya take him to one of them places," Vin swore as he rose, his fists clenched at his sides. "I'll take him and find a place where I can take care of him."
"Vin, calm yourself. If you attempt to take the boy, you will be guilty of kidnapping. You can try to find him a place with a family here in town if that will soothe your concerns."
"What would it take for one of us to adopt him, Orin?" Chris asked.
"A mother and a father," Travis answered. Vin huffed in anger and turned on his heel to leave as the older man continued. "I expect that he won't be fully recovered for a few weeks. I'll wait until then to make my decision. You can keep taking care of him until then."
Vin glanced back before turning and striding to the door.
Orin sent a wire to the orphanage, asking them to begin seeking a family for the boy. He left on the stage the next afternoon.
Buck was awake for a short time a few times each day. When he was awake, one of the lawmen read to him or played with him or just talked to him. One time, Vin walked in to find Ezra and Buck cuddled together on the bed reading from a book the Ezra had gotten from Mrs. Potter.
"Vin! Come sit with us while Mr. Ezra reads to me!" Buck cried happily. The tracker pulled the chair up and stretched his legs out to rest on the corner of the bed. In moments, he was laughing right along with Buck as the southerner entertained them both. When Ezra stopped reading, Vin was surprised to see that the child had fallen asleep again. He was struck by how easily Ezra handled Buck, reading to him and teaching him the letters that made up the words.
The mongrel dog recovered along with Buck and he called her Lady. The two of them were inseparable. It was a rare thing to see the boy without the dog on his heels. Not having to scrounge for her meals any more, Lady filled out and her coat shone with health.
Vin watched as Chris helped Nathan to bathe Buck. He marveled over the sure and firm hands that knew just how to support the boy without hurting his healing shoulder. After the bath, Chris sat in the rocker with him until Buck was soundly asleep.
Chris had told all of them what Travis said, that they only had until the first of the year to find a family for Buck. It was a tiny seed of an idea that began to grow strange sprouts over the next few weeks.
Thanksgiving was coming up and Mary suggested that they all celebrate it together. Vin and Josiah went out and brought in a couple of turkeys. Inez volunteered to make pies. Mrs. Potter supplied some canned fruit and offered a ham. Nathan offered up all of the foodstuffs that people had been paying him with. It had all the makings of a feast and they decided to have it in the saloon because it was the only place big enough to house all of them.
The barmaid noticed that Ezra seemed nervous about something. She caught him several times, looking as if he was about to speak, only to turn away suddenly.
"Is there something you wished to discuss, Senor Standish?"
"Inez ... I was wondering ... if you would do me the honor ... of accompanying me to the festivities ... as a couple?" Ezra stammered.
"You are asking me for a date?"
"Yes, a date. I would very much like to be your escort."
"I think I would like that. Gracias, Senor Standish, I would be honored," she said, blushing as he placed a kiss on the back of her proffered hand.
Gloria watched as Josiah paced on the boardwalk outside of her store window. He had been out there for the better part of an hour. Curiosity got the better of her and she opened the door and invited him to come inside.
"Is there something wrong, Josiah?"
"No, nothing at all, everything is just fine, no problems," he hurriedly answered.
"Well, I was just wondering, because you've been pacing up and down out there for a while. It got me to worrying."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cause you worry Mrs. Potter, Gloria. You don't mind if I call you Gloria, do you? I know we've known each other for a while, I see you every day. I really never got around to asking you how you felt about that, all the formality and all," Josiah said, shifting from foot to foot as he glanced around the store.
"Was there something you wanted to talk to me about, Josiah?"
"Some ... Oh, well, now that you brought it up, there is something. I was wondering ... if you would mind accompanying me to the Thanksgiving festivities? If you don't already have someone to escort you, that is," he amended.
"Why ... Josiah ... how nice! Of course, I would be willing to have you escort me to the festivities. That would be wonderful!" Gloria fairly glowed with joy at the invitation.
"That's great. I'll ... I'll arrive early in case you need any help carrying things across ... the way there," he stammered again. "Thank you." Josiah turned and walked out, starting toward the church and then turning to go to the livery instead, causing Gloria to laugh aloud.
Chris was much more straightforward in his approach. He simply followed Mary as she delivered her papers in the morning. When they were out of earshot of everyone, he asked if he could escort her to the Thanksgiving celebration they were planning.
"Of course, I'd be delighted to have you escort me," Mary said with a smile. "It's a date."
The judge's words echoed in Vin's mind each night as he tucked Buck into bed. He'd been giving it every bit of extra time he could manage. He kept coming to the same solution each time, if he wanted to keep Buck, he had to get married. To that end, he had begun to consider the women he knew. Mary Travis was out of the question, she intimidated him. Nettie and Mrs. Potter were too old for him. The only suitable choices were Inez and Casey. He liked Inez, and she was a good cook. He liked Casey too, he was just worried that it would hurt JD's feelings if he pursued her. He thought about Chanu's cousin and the pretty young maiden he'd met at the Seminole village. He didn't know if the judge would let him keep the boy if he married an Indian, though. It really left him with only one choice and he set out to capture the woman's heart so he could marry before the judge took Buck away from him.
Inez smiled as Vin came into the saloon. He came directly to the bar, looking around to see if anyone was watching him. He rested his elbow against the bar and leaned against it, trying to look casual and failing. She continued wiping the bar until she reached him.
"Is there something I can get you, Vin?"
"No, uh, Inez I was just wondering ... if ya have someone to go with ya to the Thanksgiving dinner. I'd ... uh ... be proud ... to take ya."
"Oh, Senor Vin, if only you had asked me sooner. Senor Standish asked me only a little while ago and I said yes."
Crestfallen, Vin turned away so that she wouldn't see the hurt in his eyes. Nodding, he left as quickly as he could without running. Once he reached the boardwalk, he crossed the street and headed for the livery. Saddling Peso, he let his mind roam over his options. He had to find a woman and get married in a month. Leading the horse out to the street, he mounted and headed out.
When Vin didn't pick Buck up from Josiah, he and the others entertained him for several hours. But Buck missed Vin. Josiah and Nathan had bathed the dog and brushed her until they could see that she was quite pretty. Buck sighed as he stroked the dog on the head. He looked up hopefully every time the door opened, only to be disappointed. Ezra was quick to pick up on the fluctuating emotions and slipped out to try to find the tracker. He immediately discovered that Vin had apparently gone out of town. He returned to the boarding house to find that Buck had fallen asleep, clinging to JD. The young sheriff glared until he recognized Ezra.
"Did you find Vin?"
"He has apparently gone out to commune with nature. I'm sure he will return very soon."
"He'd better, the poor kid cried himself to sleep. What's going on with Vin?" JD whispered.
"I would also like to know. Would you like for me to take him?" Ezra offered.
"Nah, I'm fine. It's kind of strange, you know, the way it feels to hold him."
"I would hazard to guess that he has aroused a paternal instinct in you. I have also begun to consider settling down and starting a family."
"You think Travis would let one of us keep him if we got married?"
"I'm uncertain, but I'm not giving up on Vin finding a way to convince the judge that he is the best choice for the child," Ezra said as he smiled fondly at the sleeping boy. "I should go relieve Josiah at the jail," he said as he left the room.
Vin watched the sun dip below the horizon still no closer to a solution to the problem. If he couldn't convince Inez to marry him so he could keep Buck, he would have to come up with another plan. His mind kept returning to the only other person he thought might agree, Casey Wells. He hoped that if he let JD in on the plan that maybe he wouldn't lose a friend in the process. Reining Peso around, he nudged him into a cantor so he could get back to see Buck.
When he returned to the livery, there was someone waiting for him. The single spot of burning tobacco at the end of the cheroot and the telltale odor informed him that Chris was standing in the shadows. He tossed the saddle over the rack and began to brush the sweat from Peso's coat. The blond continued to stand silently, watching. Vin shook out the horse blanket and draped it over Peso before slipping out and locking the stall.
"You got something to say?"
"Where were you? Buck's been going out of his mind with worry! He cried himself to sleep," Chris growled softly.
"Had to think," Vin replied crossly as he walked out of the livery and toward the boarding house.
"You couldn't have let one of us know?"
" 'm sorry, I had somethin' to think on and I do 'm best thinkin' out in the open," Vin replied as he stepped up on the boardwalk.
"That what's gonna happen if Travis lets you keep him? You just gonna ride off and leave him to wonder where you are?"
Blue eyes flashed in anger as Vin spun around to face Chris. "I trusted 'm friends to watch 'm back and his too. If'n that's too much, you'll tell me, right?"
Realizing that he had pushed too hard, Chris stepped back. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way. It's just that we were worried about you. And Buck was upset, JD's with him right now."
Vin nodded and turned to resume his journey to his room. He let himself in and turned the lamp up so he could see. JD was in the single bed with the child curled tightly to his side. He reached out and gently brushed the back of Buck's head before moving soundlessly to the other side of the room. In no time at all, he was stretched out and falling asleep. Some time later, he heard JD slip out. As soon as the door closed, he got up and crawled into bed with Buck. The child immediately murmured softly in his sleep and snuggled up against him.
The next morning, Buck woke him with an elbow to the ribs. Vin shifted and looked out the window to see what time it was. He could see that it was very early, the sun was just beginning to turn the sky from inky black to gray. An idea came to him and he decided that it was now or never.
"Buck, wake up kiddo. What do you say to you and me takin' a ride, jus' you an' me an' Peso?"
The child's eyes popped open and he began to try to scramble out of bed. Vin helped him to dress and they crept out of the boarding house. Vin carried Buck so as not to tire him. The boy seemed to understand the need for stealth and was quiet as a mouse. He saddled Peso and led him out of the livery, pulling his bedroll down and shaking it out to wrap around them. Buck trembled with excitement as he was boosted into the saddle and Vin swung up behind him. Peso walked quickly out of town, heading east as if he knew exactly where his master wanted to go. Vin kept one hand resting lightly on Buck's chest as they rode, he could feel the boy pressing back against him.
Nathan bounded down the steps and ran for the jail. Chris looked up in surprise as the door burst open. "They're gone!" the healer exclaimed.
"I just stopped to check on Buck and they're both gone!"
"Did you check the privy?"
"The beds are cold, they been gone for a while," Nathan insisted.
Chris got up and started for the door. On the way to the livery, they passed Mary Travis, who had gotten up early to start cooking the turkeys. She watched the two men rushing down the street and her hand went to the cameo at her neck, something she usually did when she was nervous.
In the livery, both men stopped and stared at the empty stall. Chris was afraid that this was what the tracker had been thinking about the day before, that he was going to run with the boy. The blond pulled his horse from the stall and began to saddle it.
"I'll go find him, you keep things quiet here," he told Nathan.
Buck's body was limp against Vin when he turned the horse back for town. They had watched the sun come up over the desert. Vin had shown the boy some of the animals that came out of their burrows to hunt or to feed. When Buck settled back and yawned, Vin knew it was time to head back. He was just coming over the crest of the hill when Chris found him.
Hazel eyes swept over the sleeping child and he smiled. "Where'd you two go?"
"I jus' took him out to watch the sunrise."
"Scared me a little bit. I thought you were taking off with him."
"Thought about it. But that's no kind of life for a kid. So 'm gonna have to figure somthin' else out to get Travis to let me keep him," Vin said softly.
"We'll figure something out," Chris said as he offered his hand across the space between the horses. Vin reached out and took the offered hand before gathering his reins and nudging Peso toward home. When they reached the livery, Chris got down and took the sleeping child. Nathan and the others rushed out of the saloon and came to a stop at the edge of the boardwalk to watch as Chris handed Buck to Vin again.
By the time the meal was assembled, Buck had rested and was awake again. He was excitedly telling JD about the things he had seen. Ezra had already heard the tales and was smiling indulgently. Josiah arrived with the Widow Potter and her children just after Chris arrived with Mary and Billy Travis. JD and Casey arrived with Nettie and several loaves of freshly baked bread. Buck's head whipped around as the aroma carried throughout the room.
"Momma!" Buck whispered as his eyes scanned the crowd. Vin heard him and looked toward the doors. When he saw Casey, his heart clenched. A moment later, he gathered the boy in his arms and carried him over to introduce him to the others.
"Buck, this is Nettie Wells and her niece Casey Wells. Ladies, this is Buck Wilmington," Vin said as he indicated the women.
"It smelled like my momma," Buck said softly before tucking his face to Vin's neck.
The dinner was a big hit, with all of the adults enjoying the time together and the kids playing in the open clearing in the center of the room. Buck was laughing and playing with Billy Travis and Michael Potter while Amanda Potter clapped and cheered.
A child's cry of pain ended the pleasant conversations as Gloria, Mary and Vin leapt up and rushed to see what had happened. Tears were rolling down Buck's cheeks as he held up a finger sporting a very red mark.
"What happened?" Vin asked as he cupped the injured hand in both of his.
"M-M-Michael stepped on my finger," Buck answered. Even as Gloria turned to scold her son, Buck continued, "It was a accident."
Vin drew Buck's finger to his lips and placed a gentle kiss on the red spot. A tremulous smile lit Buck's face and he threw his arms around Vin's neck and hugged him before returning to play. The tracker smiled as he watched the kids sprawling on the floor to play with the small toys that Billy and Michael had brought with them.
"You're very good with him," Mary said, drawing Vin back into the adult's conversation.
"Thank you, Mary. He's a good kid."
The blonde woman closely watched the boy over the next few days. She knew that her father in law was concerned for the welfare for the child. He had serious reservations about a single man raising a child. She smiled as she watched Buck racing down the street with his dog running right on his heels. Buck turned and flung the rag ball that Josiah had given him. Lady barked and chased the ball, returning to the boy with her tail wagging. She smiled and returned to setting the type for the paper.
Just then, Conklin stepped out of the barbershop. He didn't even look as he strode down the boardwalk. His path came directly toward where Buck was sitting on the steps playing with the dog. Lady growled as soon as she recognized the man. Buck turned to see what had upset her and began to shake in fear.
Conklin looked down when he heard the dog growling. "Well, well, what have we here? The little orphan boy and his mongrel dog. Do you know what's going to happen to her when you go to the orphanage?"
"Vin said I could stay here with him," Buck replied, shying away from the man.
"But Judge Travis said that you have to go to the orphan's home as soon as you recover."
"That's not true! Vin said I could stay here!"
"We'll see, won't we," Conklin said before hurrying away as Ezra came around the corner.
The gambler stopped the second he heard the soft sobs coming from under the edge of the boardwalk. He bent down to see Buck huddled with his arms wrapped around his knees. Lady was whimpering and nosing at him, her entire body trembling.
"Buck? Is something wrong?"
"Vin lied to me."
"What makes you think that? What, exactly, did he say that was untrue?"
"He said that I didn't have to go to the orphanage," Buck whined.
"I don't believe that he was being untrue to you. He is trying to find a way to keep you here with him," Ezra explained, not wanting to lie to the child.
"What does he have to do?"
"Well, the judge feels that you would be better off with both a mother and a father. To that end, he is soliciting for a proper family for you."
"But I want to stay here with Vin."
Ezra held out his hands for Buck to come to him. He gathered the boy into his embrace and stood. Lady came out and stood with her head tipped up, intently watching the boy.
"Now, who caused you to feel that Mr. Tanner has been espousing untruths?"
"It was that man ... the one that shot me," Buck admitted.
Ezra managed to calm Buck and distracted him with the offer of a piece of candy from the Potter's store. Under his breath, he promised to hurt Conklin the first chance he could get. It also strengthened his resolve to do something to enable the child to remain with them.
+ + + + + + +
Peso snorted and pranced as Vin stepped down from the saddle. He hitched the horse to the corral post and looked at the house. His heart quailed at what he was about to do. Casey came out and started toward the barn, detouring when she noticed him standing there.
A warm smile curled her lips as she stopped and held her hand out to touch Peso's nose. "Hey Vin, what'cha doing here?"
"Hey Casey. How're you doing?" Vin shifted nervously from foot to foot. "I need ... I have ... there's something I need to talk to you about ... a favor."
"Sure Vin, I'll do anything I can to help," she said, her smile fading slightly in the face of his nervous fidgeting.
"Casey, you know that Judge Travis is looking for a family for Buck-"
"I thought you were going to keep him!"
"That's just it, Travis says he need a home with two parents. Casey ... I don't know what else to do. I've got to get married if I want to keep him."
"M-married? You're getting married? When? To who?"
"I don't know yet ... I haven't asked her yet."
"You haven't ... I don't get it. How can you be getting married if you don't know when or to who? You're not making any sense!"
Vin sighed, this wasn't going the way he expected at all. He put a hand lightly on Casey's arm to calm her before he spoke. "Casey, I need your help. I was wondering ... hoping that you'd ... that you'd be willing to marry me so I could keep Buck."
Casey's eyes went wide as she looked at the tracker. She was too stunned to even react.
"It'd only be until the judge signed the papers for me to adopt him. I wouldn't ... I mean we wouldn't have to ... sleep together or anything. As soon as he signs the papers, we could have it annulled or get a divorce or whatever," Vin said hurriedly.
"Vin ... I don't know what to say. I'm flattered ... honored ... but JD and I ... we ... we are kind of ... seeing each other."
"I know. That's why I said we didn't have to sleep together or anything. As soon as I have the adoption papers we can go some place and get divorced or get it annulled or something. Please Casey."
"Oh Vin, I wish I could help you. I really do! But ... getting married, that's a big step. What would I tell JD? And what's to stop the judge from taking Buck away from you when he finds out that we aren't married any more?"
He hadn't thought of that. Nodding to Casey, he gave the reins a savage tug and swung up into the saddle, tipping his hat to Nettie, who had come out on the porch. He pulled Peso around and kicked him into a gallop. There was only one option left to him if he wanted to keep the boy.
Casey stared after Vin until she couldn't see him any more. When her aunt called for her, she turned and walked back to the house. Nettie looked questioningly at her young niece as she passed, clearly reading confusion and regret in her face.
+ + + + + + +
Chris stood on the boardwalk staring across at the window of the Clarion office. He hoped that Mary would understand the proposition he was about to make. Drawing a deeper breath, he squared his shoulders and stepped down into the street.
Up the block, another man was considering making a similar offer to another woman. Ezra tugged his shirt sleeves down from inside of his coat and brushed a fleck of dirt from his shoulder before pushing the batwing doors open and crossing the mostly empty room. Inez looked up from where she was straightening the labels on the bottles on the shelf. She smiled brightly at Ezra. He had been especially attentive to her over the past two weeks and she was finding that she enjoyed his company.
"Buenos dias, Senor Standish. Is there something you needed?"
"There is. Inez, may I have a word with you?" Ezra asked.
"Certainly," she replied as he took her hand and led her out from behind the bar.
Chris knocked on the door, rather than just walking in even though it was her office and not her residence he was seeking to enter. Mary opened the door and smiled up at the gunslinger. She swung the door back and invited him inside.
"Can I offer you a cup of tea or coffee?" she asked.
"Yeah, that'd be great, Mary. I need to talk to you about something. It's important."
She gave him a curious glance as she set the coffee pot back on the stove to warm. Chris pulled out a chair and sat down, his hazel eyes darting nervously. Mary put out some fresh pastries and set out cups for the coffee. When it was hot, she poured each of them a cup and set out a small pitcher of milk and the sugar bowl.
"Thanks," Chris said as she filled his cup.
"Now, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?"
"I want you to talk to Judge Travis and convince him to let Vin keep Buck."
+ + + + + + +
Inez looked at Ezra curiously as he pulled out a chair and guided her to sit. He then began to pace back and forth. Finally, he seemed to have collected his thoughts enough to tell her what he wanted.
"Inez, there is something very important I have to ask you. Not so much for myself as for Vin."
"For Senor Tanner?"
"Yes. You know that he wants to keep Buck?"
"Very much, he is very attached to the boy. But everyone who meets Buck cannot help but love him," she replied.
"Well, Judge Travis has said that he wants the boy to go to a family with both a mother and a father. And to that end, I was wondering if you would consider ... giving me your hand in marriage?"
+ + + + + + +
Casey hitched her pony to the hitching post and scanned the street for JD. Spotting him coming out of the jail, she jogged to catch up with him. Some fifteen minutes later, it was JD's turn to stare, wide eyed at the petite woman.
"He what?" JD asked, not quite believing what she'd just said.
"He asked me to marry him so he could keep Buck."
The young couple talked about what Vin had suggested. Casey was surprised that JD wasn't angrier about it. He seemed to accept that there wouldn't be anything going on between his friend and the woman he was growing to love. Casey was a little nervous about it because she would have to live with Vin as husband and wife until the adoption was final.
Mary wrapped her hands around the coffee cup to still the trembling. Chris Larabee had just proposed to her. Even though it sounded more like a business deal than a marriage. It wasn't that he didn't love her, he cared for her, but it wasn't the deep emotional kind of feeling that she had hoped for in a husband. It wasn't love like she'd felt for Steven and he for her. And it was all so that the orphaned boy could remain in town and stay with Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Christmas was only a few days away when Orin arrived by stage. He had gotten a telegram from his daughter in law saying that he needed to come right away. He also had gotten word from the orphanage that a family had been found for Buck. They were coming to get him right before Christmas to meet him and they would stay for a week before taking him back to Greeley with them. He knew that it was going to break Vin Tanner's heart but it really was for the best. The boy would have a mother and a father and two younger sisters.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah stared at the pair sitting across the table from him. He was stunned beyond words. When they had invited him to join them at the restaurant, he thought they wanted to talk about the upcoming Christmas party. When they told him that they wanted to get married, he didn't quite know what to say. Earlier in the day, he had been approached by another unlikely couple seeking to join in the bonds of matrimony. He told them, just as he would tell these two, that they needed to think about it before rushing into marriage. Both couples had replied almost identically, by declaring that they would find another minister to marry them if he refused.
Buck's shoulder was completely healed and he was laughing and playing with Lady in Vin's room at the boarding house. Tanner had been busy all day packing clothing for him and the boy. He had made arrangements with Chanu to take care of Peso until he could send for him. He knew that Chris would be able to track the horse and he didn't want to be found. He was going to cross the reservation and head north with Buck. Chanu was going to provide them with a pair of Indian ponies and a small teepee. Hopefully, they could pass for Indians until they found another place to settle. It made Vin sick to his stomach to think of leaving the men he had come to think of as family but he couldn't see any other way to keep Buck with him. He had promised the boy that he wouldn't go to an orphanage and he meant to keep that promise.
"Are we really going to camp out in an Indian tent, Vin?" Buck asked.
"Yep, and hunt and fish like the Indians, too. You just have to remember not to tell anyone that we're going, right?"
"Because the judge wants to send me to the orphan's home," the suddenly solemn boy replied.
"I told you that I wouldn't let him do that and I meant it."
Chris's heart sank as he stood outside of Vin's room. He had heard enough to know that Tanner was planning to run away with Buck. He also knew that Travis and the family who had agreed to adopt the boy were coming in on the next stage. Sighing heavily at what he would have to do, he raised his hand and knocked on the door.
"Vin, it's Chris." He waited a moment before opening the door and stepping in. "I just wanted to let you know that Travis is coming in tomorrow."
"He's coming to spend the holiday with Mary and Billy?"
"Yeah, and he's bringing a couple with him, the Connor's." Blue eyes flashed anger and pain as they locked on him and Chris raised his hands to show that he was helpless to prevent it from happening. "I know that you're planning on taking Buck away. I can't let you do that, Vin."
"You planning to stop me?"
Chris looked down at Buck, who sat on the floor staring up at him with fear-filled eyes. He didn't want to tell them this way and it was tearing him up inside. "Do I have to?"
"I wanna stay with Vin! Please Chris, don't let them take me away!" Buck cried.
"I'm sorry, Kiddo. The judge found a family for you. You'll have a mother and a father and two sisters. They have a farm near Greeley, so we can come and see you from time to time," Chris offered. Buck leapt up from the floor and threw himself at Vin, sobbing and clawing at him.
"Don't let him take me! Don't let him take me! I don't wanna go with those people!"
Chris crossed the room and took hold of the boy. Buck's frantic screams increased in volume as he put a choke hold on Vin. Blue fire blazed from the tracker's eyes as he dared the gunslinger to take the boy from him. Chris slid his hand between Buck and Vin and tugged the child free, dodging the flailing hands and feet as he tried to hold the child in his arms.
"Chris ... please," Vin begged as the blond turned and walked away with the screaming and fighting boy in his embrace.
Ezra and Josiah watched as Buck tossed the blankets off of the bed for the second time. Both men's shins bore testament to the rage the boy felt at being taken away from Vin. His little cheeks were streaked with tears as he threw the quilt in the floor and attacked the sheet. He had already managed to break one of the windowpanes. Ezra slowly circled the bed and tried to reason with Buck.
"You really must cease this fit of temper immediately," he said as he reached out and caught hold of Buck. The small foot that struck his groin drove his breath from his lungs. Doubled over, he staggered backwards until he could sit on the other bed. The low chuckling behind him caused Ezra to glare at Josiah. In the stunned silence, he realized that Buck had gone silent. His eyes followed the direction of Josiah's gaze and he saw that Buck was staring at him with a look of pure horror on his face. "Buck?" Ezra asked, uncertain if the child had injured himself in some way.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Buck said as he ran to climb up on the bed with Ezra. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to hurt you!"
Ezra wrapped one arm around the contrite child as his other hand protected his tender groin. Buck cuddled to his side, still crying and apologizing. After several minutes, the cries gave way to whimpers and then to sniffles. Eventually, Buck was asleep, his hands clenched tightly in Ezra's clothes. Josiah helped Ezra off with his boots and covered both of them with the blanket from the other bed before kicking back in the chair in front of the door.
Down the street, Vin stood toe to toe in the jail cell with Chris. He was furious at the gunslinger for taking Buck away. JD watched with a kind of horrified fascination, fully expecting the men to come to blows before it was all over. Nathan had already come down once to look at the black eye Vin had given Chris when he came back from dropping Buck with Josiah and Ezra.
+ + + + + + +
Judge Travis stepped down from the stage and turned to offer his hand to Mrs. Connor. Rachael got down and accepted the bundled infant from her husband. Matthew Connor got out with his other daughter. After the birth of their younger child, the doctor had advised Rachael not to have any more babies due to her health. They both wanted a son to pass on the family name and to care for them when they were older. They wanted a boy that was young enough to have been theirs. When the orphanage contacted them about Buck, they couldn't wait to meet him. They hurried into the hotel to get a room for the duration of their stay. The judge had explained to them that the boy was attached to the men who protected the town and he wanted to give them a chance to get used to the idea.
At the restaurant, Josiah was pleading with Buck to eat his lunch. Ezra had already coaxed the unhappy child through breakfast. The gambler had begged out of the noon meal, wanting to be available to talk to Judge Travis as soon as he arrived. Josiah had refused to perform the marriage ceremony between him and Inez, as he had also refused JD and Casey, so Ezra was going to try to convince the judge to do it and then give them custody of Buck. Chris was keeping Vin out of sight so as not to upset the child before he could meet his new family.
Orin listened patiently as Mary explained the situation to him. He loved his daughter in law and trusted her opinion. He just couldn't believe what she was advocating. He was saved from having to discuss it with her by a knock on the door.
"Mrs. Travis, is the Judge available? There is something of utmost importance that I must discuss with him at once," Ezra said. At his side, Inez Recillos stood nervously holding his elbow.
"He's in the sitting room but we're in the middle of something right now, if you could come back later?"
"I'm sorry, Mary, but it is something of an emergency," Ezra insisted.
Even as Mary let Ezra and Inez into her home, JD and Casey came running down the boardwalk. She started to close the door until she heard the young man call out to her.
"Mrs. Travis, wait! Is the judge here? Did he come in on the stage? We need to talk to him right away!"
"Well, Ezra and Inez are in there with him right now-" Mary began.
"Then we have to talk to him too! It's important!" JD insisted.
Nathan escorted the Connor's over to the church to meet Buck. Gloria Potter was watching the girls for them. As soon as they opened the door, they could hear the heart broken sobs. Rachael and Matthew exchanged a glance before they moved toward the man they could see sitting near the front of the room.
"But I don't want a new momma, I want Vin! Please don't make me go with them!"
They could not understand what Josiah said but they could hear the gentle bass rumble of his voice as he soothed the boy. Nathan cleared his throat to let the older man know they were there. Josiah stood, holding Buck in his arms. Buck's face was buried tightly in his neck and he refused to even look around at the newcomers.
"Buck, this is Matthew and Rachael Connor. They're here to meet you. Can't you at least look around here and say hello?" Josiah prompted. He felt Buck shaking his head as the little arms around his neck ratcheted a notch tighter.
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Orin Travis looked from one couple to the other before sighing. "I'm sorry but I've already found a family for him. If the four of you really want to get married, of course I will perform the ceremony for you but it won't change things for the boy."
"Sir, I beg of you, don't send Buck away. Can't you see that this is the best solution? Buck can remain here where Mister Tanner can see him and-" Ezra was cut off by, surprisingly, Casey Wells.
"He loves that boy, Judge Travis! You can't just take him away like this!"
"Miss Wells, is it? The fact that the four of you are willing to get married so you can gain custody of the child when we all know that Vin Tanner will be the one raising him is why I am making the decision to place him with the Connor's."
"What if Vin and I got married?" Casey asked. "Would you let him and me adopt Buck?"
Orin, Mary, Ezra and Inez looked at the young woman as if she had taken leave of her senses.
"Young lady, you are trying my patience! Now, if the four of you will please be kind enough to leave, Mary and I were having a discussion," Travis said, his voice filled with barely controlled anger.
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In the church, they had finally gotten Buck peeled off of Josiah and talking to the Connor's. It hadn't hurt at all that Nathan had brought Lady over and that Matthew thought she was a fine looking watchdog. Buck was quick to explain that the bad man in town had shot her and that she was all better now. He, reluctantly, agreed to have supper with the couple so he could meet their daughters.
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JD slammed the door when he came into the jail and both Chris and Vin glared at him. "Judge Travis is unfair! Even if Casey and me got married, he still wouldn't let us adopt Buck. He said that he knew we'd just let Vin have him to raise. Casey even offered to marry Vin and he still said no!"
In the saloon, Inez poured Ezra another drink. He had offered, three times, to go through with the marriage and she had turned him down each time. She told him that if he still felt the same about her after a couple of months that she would reconsider. He had tenderly kisser her cheek and thanked her for being willing to try to help them to keep Buck.
That evening, Buck had supper with the Connor's, Josiah and Judge Travis. The boy was polite but his sadness was infectious. He picked at his food and sighed a lot. The older of the Connor's girls, Rebekah, was cranky and irritable, making it difficult for her parents to coax anything out of Buck. When they finally decided to try again in the morning with breakfast, Josiah got up to escort the boy back to the room they had used the night before. As soon as they reached the boardwalk, Buck spotted Vin coming out of the jail with Chris.
"VIN!" Buck yelled as he took off running. The tracker knelt down and caught the child, falling on his behind at the exuberant greeting. They clung to each other, laughing and crying. Chris looked to Travis for a clue to how he wanted to handle the situation. He seriously doubted that the judge wanted the prospective parents to see Buck torn, kicking and screaming, from Vin's arms.
Travis looked at the trio across the street and then at the Connor's. Rachael looked at her husband and then at Josiah. "Is that the 'Vin' he was speaking about this afternoon?" Once they had gotten Buck thawed out enough to talk to them, all he had done was sing the tracker's praises.
"Yes Ma'am, that's Vin," Josiah answered honestly.
Matthew saw the look in his wife's eyes and he shook his head. "I'm sorry, Judge Travis, it looks like the boy already has a loving parent to care for him. I don't think we could take him away from someone who loves him that much."
It was the same thing Mary had tried to tell him earlier. It didn't matter who had custody of the boy, it was who loved him the most. Vin Tanner loved Buck and was willing to do anything to keep him safe and happy. As much as she would have loved to accept Chris's marriage proposal, she knew he was only doing it for Vin and Buck. That kind of caring meant that the boy had a bevy of guardians who would safeguard him into adulthood.
Vin looked up when he realized that Judge Travis was standing over him. He tightened his arms around Buck and waited for the older man to speak. He fully expected for Chris and Josiah to tear the child from his arms again.
"I could find him another home with two parents but I doubt that they could love him any more than you do. If you stop by in the morning, I'll have the papers drawn up giving you custody of him. Good luck, Mr. Tanner."
Chris took Vin's hand and pulled him to his feet, clapping him on the shoulder and smiling. "Congratulations, it's a boy!"