"Little Britches" Universe

Special Thanks: to J. K. Poffenberger, who created the "Little Britches" A/U in her ficThe Train West. This follows the events that take place in her "Little Britches" story In The Arms of Love.

Chapter 1

Vin woke with a start. He looked around the unfamiliar room and tried to remember where he was. He was reassured when he saw the dark head of his cousin JD poking from the top of the blankets. Vin relaxed when he realized where he was. The past few days had taken its toll on the seven-year-old and he had a hard time sleeping. Vin knew he wouldn't be able to go back to sleep and decided to get dressed. He looked out the window and noticed the sun was just coming up. He figured he would go out and take care of the horses. Vin wanted Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck to see he was a good worker and maybe they would keep them. Vin quickly dressed and tiptoed outside.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was instantly awake when he heard the front door open. He rolled out of bed and pulled on his pants and boots. He grabbed his gun from the bedside table and left his room. The main area of the house was empty and Chris decided to check the room where his two guests slept. When he realized there wasn't any threat he slipped his gun into the waist of his pants. Chris opened the door and found a pile of blankets with two small feet sticking out from the bottom. Chris shook his head and pulled the blanket down to cover JD's feet. Vin wasn't in the room and Chris noticed the shirt he'd been sleeping in on the floor. Vin's clothes were missing and Chris figured he's gone out to use the privy. Chris left the room and headed back to his.

+ + + + + + +

It was chilly outside and Vin wished he had grabbed his coat. He was afraid to go back inside in case he woke someone. Vin continued to the barn and stepped inside. It wasn't like the stable in Boston. Vin started working in the barn when he was five helping to brush and feed the horses. Those stables were made of dark wood and brass not rough planks. Vin wasn't sure where anything was but he figured he would find out. He wandered around looking for the food for the horses. A big chestnut stallion watched him as he picked up the lids of several barrels. He was able to find the hay but no grain. Vin shrugged and picked up as much hay as his small arms could carry. He fed the fancy stallion first then carried hay out the other horses in the corral. Mr. Buck's gray and Mr. Chris's black were in a corral together. The gray nickered as Vin walked out carrying the hay. Vin dropped the hay over the fence then went back for more. The last horse he fed was a black with a white stripe down his face. The gelding was in a corral close to the house. Vin climbed under the face and dropped the hay. The big black was more interested in Vin than his breakfast. The horse blocked Vin's path so he couldn't leave. Vin wasn't sure what the horse wanted and scratched its cheek. Vin smiled as the horse leaned against him wanting more.

"Hold on, I'll be right back," Vin said and went under the fence

The gelding watch as Vin disappeared inside the barn. Vin came out a few minutes later carrying a brush. He climbed on the fence and sat on the top rail. The black came closer and put his head over the fence so Vin could brush him.

"You're friendly," Vin said as he ran the soft brush over the horse's face. "Maybe we can be friends. I ain't never had one before."

The horse flicked its ears forward as Vin began to talk. Vin began to pour his heart out about everything that happened since his Aunt Rachel's death. The horse was taken by surprise as Vin flung his arms around his neck. The big black stood quietly as Vin started to cry.

+ + + + + + +

Chris lay in bed waiting to hear Vin come back. The sun was slowly creeping through the window and Chris knew something was wrong. He was glad he'd left his pants on. The blonde swung his legs over the side of the bed and pulled on his boots. Would Vin runaway again? Chris doubted it; the boy wouldn't leave JD. Chris pulled on a shirt and buckled on his gun before walking out to the main area. He grabbed his duster and opened the door to step out on the porch. He was surprised to see the horses contentedly eating in their corrals. Chris was about to walk to the barn when he heard crying. He walked to the edge of the house and peered around the corner. Chris saw Vin crying with his arms wrapped around Peso's neck. The big black was usually never still and Chris was surprised to see him standing so calmly. Chris listened and he could hear Vin talking to the horse.

"Done promised my Aunt Rachel," Vin said with a hitch in his voice. "Ain't gonna let nobody separate us. If I show Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck I can do all the chores maybe we can stay. I won't eat much, I promise. I'll even sleep in the barn. I just want someone who won't beat us. They don't gotta love us, but I won't let them take JD. I won't!"

Chris couldn't listen to any more. No child should have to wish for someone not to beat him. Chris left Vin with Peso. He was just glad the boy had found someone he thought he could trust, even if it was a horse. He stepped into the cabin and saw Buck standing in the doorway to his room.

"Just about breaks your heart, don't it?" Buck asked.

"You heard?"

"Hard not to," Buck replied as he stepped over to the stove. "He's right outside my window. That youngun's shoulders are too small to carry such a heavy burden."

"I know," Chris sighed. "But what can we do?"

"We could keep them."

"No, Buck," Chris said emphatically. "We ain't proper parents. Two small boys need a woman to care for them. Not a womanizing bachelor and a gunslinger."

"I could change," Buck said sincerely.

"No you couldn't," Chris argued. "Neither could I."

"You know there ain't nobody who will take both of them," Buck said. "Then what?"

"I don't know, Buck," Chris answered honestly.

Buck was about to argue more when they heard JD calling for Vin. Buck pushed open the door to find JD sitting in the middle of the bed crying.

"What's wrong little britches?" Buck asked as he sat on the bed.

"Vin left me," JD wailed and fell into Buck's arms.

"No he didn't," Buck chuckled and hugged JD tight. "He's outside."

"He is?" JD sniffed and pulled away from Buck.

"He sure is," Buck smiled and wiped the tears form JD's face. "He's out playing with the horses."

"Can I go too?" JD said excitedly.

"Sure," Buck laughed.

Chris shook his head as he watched the rapid change in JD. One minute he was crying and the next laughing. Chris had forgotten how quickly children could change emotions. Chris remembered Adam doing the same thing. Thinking about his son no longer had a devastating effect on Chris. Oh, it still hurt, but now he was able to bare the pain where before he would have looked for the nearest saloon to drown his sorrows.

Chris watched as Buck got JD dressed. Once awake JD was a bundle of energy. The five-year-old was talking up a storm and asking all sorts of question which Buck tried to answer. Chris was surprised at how opposite the two cousins were. JD was dark-haired and gregarious. Vin, on the other hand, was blonde and very quiet. Chris was roused from his pondering when JD pulled on his pants leg.

"Can we go out now?" he asked.

"Why don't you an' Buck go and I'll get breakfast ready?" Chris suggested as he took down JD's coat and put it on the boy.

"Sounds good," Buck said as he took JD's hand. "Come on, little britches, let's see what that skinny cousin of yours is up to."

"Buck take this," Chris said, throwing him Vin's coat.

Buck caught it as JD pulled him towards the door. They went out and JD slipped out of Buck's hand and raced for the corral as fast as his little legs would go. Buck quickly caught him before JD could crawl under the fence.

"Now hold on a minute," Buck said. "You just wait for me."

"But Vin is in the fence alone," JD protested.

Buck looked over by Peso and saw Vin inside the corral brushing the horses as Peso ate his hay. Buck was glad the youngster had cried himself out. He decided the only way to get JD to not insist on going in the corral was to make Vin come out.

"Vin you want to come here a minute?" Buck called.

Vin looked up and reluctantly left the corral. As he walked towards Buck JD ran over to him and took his hand. Buck watched as JD smiled up at his older and taller cousin. Buck also noticed the only evidence that Vin had been crying was the smug of dirt across each cheek where Vin had wiped his face.

"Did ya give the horse grain?" Buck asked as he handed Vin his coat.

"No sir," Vin replied and gratefully pulled on his coat.

"Well come on then, I'll show you where we keep it," Buck said and took JD's other hand.

The three of them walked into the barn and Buck showed the two boys where everything could be found. He grabbed a couple of buckets and filled them with a measure of grain. Buck told Vin to give one to each of the horses outside. He then grabbed one of the buckets and picked JD up so he could help feed Fire. The big stallion neighed as JD helped Buck put the bucket in his stall. They were watching him eat when Buck heard a cry from behind him. He turned to see Vin shaking his left hand with the grain spilled on the floor all around him. Buck put JD down and walked towards the older boy. He was surprised by the frightened look in Vin's eyes.

"I didn't mean it," Vin said as tears welled up in his eyes.

"It's alright," Buck said kneeling down and giving Vin a hug. He felt Vin stiffen in his arms and let him go. "We can get some more and the chickens can eat that."

Vin nodded but wouldn't look at Buck. The mustached rogue sighed. He didn't understand why Vin wouldn't let anyone touch him or would cringe when they showed him any sort of affection. Buck let the chickens out of the coop and they quickly went after the spilled grain. JD cried in delight as he chased one of the hens.

"No JD!" Vin scolded.

"I wasn't gonna hurt it," JD said. "I just wanted to pet it, can't I pet the chickens Mr. Buck?"

"They don't really like it," Buck smiled. "Come on let's feed the boys outside."

Buck picked up the three buckets and headed outside. JD eagerly walked with him and helped carry one of the buckets by holding onto the rope handle. Vin didn't like the way JD was becoming attached to the dark-haired man. He didn't want JD to be hurt when they had to leave. That's why he wouldn't let Mr. Buck hug him. He didn't want to like him but it was hard not too. Vin sighed and followed them out.

+ + + + + + +

Chris finished breakfast and walked outside to call Buck. Buck was in the corral with Beavis and Pony. JD was sitting on the gray's back while Buck held him. Vin was nowhere in sight and Chris walked around the house. Vin was in the corral brushing Peso.

"Come on, Vin, time for breakfast," Chris called.

"Alright," Vin yelled and patted the horse. "Bye, Peso."

Buck was already carrying a laughing JD towards the house as Vin walked over to Chris. Chris made all three of them wash their hands before they ate. Buck good-naturedly did as he was told then sat down at the table. There were only three chairs so Buck held JD in his lap. Chris placed scrambled eggs and biscuits on the table. Buck made a plate for himself then one for JD. Chris loaded up his plate then passed the eggs to Vin. Vin carefully took a small spoonful but no more. Chris sighed picked up the spoon and put more on Vin's plate.

"Don't worry the chickens will make more," Chris said before Vin could protest.

Vin nodded and ate his eggs. Buck smiled at Chris and ate his own breakfast. The food was quickly finished and they all helped wash the dishes.

"Buck what don't you pack up the boys' clothes?" Chris said. "We'll head into town to get them a bath. I'll go saddle the horses."

"All right," Buck said. "Come on JD you can help me."

"Think you can give me a hand with the horses?" Chris asked Vin.

"Yes sir," Vin said.

Chris walked out the door and Vin followed close behind like a miniature shadow. Chris went into the barn and handed Vin two bridles. The lean gunslinger then grabbed both saddles for Beavis and Pony. He walked out to the corral and threw then over the middle rail. Chris took the bridles form Vin and walked towards the horses. He quickly slipped them on then led the horses over to Vin.

"Think you can hold Beavis and Pony for me?" Chris asked.

"Okay," Vin said and took the reins. "Mr. Chris can I ask you somefin?"

"Sure," Chris answered with a smile at the boy's slight lisp.

"Why do you call your horse Pony?" Vin asked. "Cause you know, he ain't one. He's too big."

"Well the Indian I bought him off of was named Two Ponies," Chris said. "So I decided to call him that. After awhile I got lazy and stared calling him Pony and that's what it's been ever since."

Vin smiled when Chris finished the story. He would like to meet a real Indian. Vin watched as Chris finished tacking the horses. When he was done he took Pony's reins and led him out of the corral. Chris let Vin lead Beavis and he watched as the boy held the reins tight. They walked towards the house as Buck stepped out on the porch with JD close behind. The ladies' man threw the carpetbag he was carrying over the saddle horn and picked JD up. He put the boy in the saddle then mounted behind him. Chris swung up on his horse then reached down to grab Vin's hand. It took no effort to swing the small boy up behind him.

"Ready?" Chris asked.

He felt Vin nod and wrap his arms around his waist. He tapped his heels to Pony's side and the black eagerly moved out. JD laughed in delight as Buck let him steer Beavis. Chris made a mental list of things that needed to be done in town. As they rode Chris kept telling himself not to get attached. It was too late to tell Buck that. Chris knew his friend was caught hook, line and sinker. He wasn't surprised. JD was a sweet little boy. Vin was also adorable with those big blue eyes. Chris stopped that train of thought and rode on. He never realized when he reached down to squeeze Vin's fingers just to make sure he was there.

Chapter 2

Josiah sat on the stairs leading into the church. He'd been up early trying to fix the front door that kept sticking. The late morning sun was warm and he took a break to get a drink. He was sipping water from a clay mug when he heard laughter up the street. From where he sat Josiah could see Buck's big gray walking up the street. Sitting in front of Buck was JD. The boy was laughing and Josiah could only guess the reason. Chris followed on his black. Josiah couldn't see Vin but figured he was behind Chris. He watched as the disappeared around the corner of the building heading for the livery.

Chris stopped Pony next to Beavis and let Vin down. Chris dismounted and took JD from Buck. The two boys stood to the side as Chris and Buck led the horses in the stable. They returned a few minutes later and started walking up the street. JD took Buck's right hand since he was carrying the carpetbag in the left. Vin followed behind Chris like a miniature shadow.

"Little britches, why don't you help me carry the bag," Buck suggested. He wanted the keep his right hand free in case he had to get to his gun.

"Okay," JD said and walked around to take one of the handles.

Chris glanced behind him and saw Vin pushing his hair out of his eyes. "Looks like someone needs a hair cut."

"No!" Vin yelled and ran passed them.

Chris gave Buck an odd look. Buck shrugged and Chris was about to go after Vin when they heard JD talking.

"Vin's hair used ta be longer," JD said. "He cried when they cut it at the orpnage."

"The orphanage?" Buck asked.

"Yeah," JD smiled.

"Do you know why Vin likes it long?" Chris asked and glanced at where Vin stood across the street.

"Can't tell ya," JD said shaking his head no. "I 'romised."

"You can tell us," Buck said kneeling in front of JD.

"Vin 'romised his ma," JD whispered loudly in Buck's ear.

"I see," Buck said. "But why did he promise not to cut it?"

"Cause Vin said his ma liked to run her fingers in his hair," JD whispered.

Buck looked up at Chris. The blonde was watching Vin. The boy was standing across the street trying to make his hair neat. Buck shook his head and stood up.

"Buck why don't you take JD and go over to the Clarion?" Chris suggested. "See if we have any mail."

"Sure, Pard," Buck smiled knowing Chris would take care of Vin. "Come on, little britches, let's go."

Chris watched as the walked away. He turned and walked towards Vin. The boy watched as Buck led JD away. Vin looked up as Chris approached. He couldn't decide if he was mad or not. Chris stopped by Vin and looked down.

"Guess you're old enough to decide what to do with your hair," Chris commented. "But it'll be your responsibility to care for it."

"Yes, sir," Vin nodded.

"Come on," Chris said moving along the boardwalk. "We need to get some supplies."

Chris started walking and Vin fell in line behind him. Vin looked around the town as they walked. He noticed a few of the stores were empty and wondered why. Vin watched the people as he walked also. There were mostly men in town and only a few women. The streets were dusty and dry. The town was nothing like Boston. Vin stopped behind Chris as he opened a door to one of the shops. He followed Chris inside and looked around. A woman stepped from behind the counter and greeted Chris.

"Good morning Mr. Larabee."

"Morning, Mrs. Potter," Chris said with a tug to his hat. "Need some supplies and some things for Vin and JD."

Vin glanced up from the knives he was looking at when Chris mentioned his name. He followed them to a shelf and waited. Vin watched as the woman pulled down a pair of pants his size. Vin moved closer to Chris and tugged on his pants leg.

"Mr. Chris," Vin called.

"Yeah, Vin," Chris said looking down.

"I ain't got no money," Vin said biting his lip.

Chris went to say something but Mrs. Potter stopped him. She had heard the story from Mary Travis how Vin had run away so he could keep his cousin with him. Gloria also suspected Vin didn't want to be a burden.

"No money, huh," she said.

"No ma'am," Vin replied hanging his head.

"Tell you what," Gloria began and grabbed the broom. "How about you helping me sweep the porch in exchange for the things Chris is getting for you?"

"Yes, ma'am," Vin said eagerly. "I can do that."

"Then we have a deal," Gloria said handing him the broom.

Vin took the broom and went outside. They watched him sweep for a few minutes then Gloria laughed.

"That one's going to be a handful," she said. "He's proud."

"You can say that again," Chris sighed.

"He seems like a good boy," she said as she turned back to the shelf.

Chris didn't say anything as Mrs. Potter expertly picked some clothes for Vin. When she finished she took Chris's list and began to get the other items. The wind began to pick up and Chris looked outside to see dust devils dancing in the street. They watched as Vin valiantly tried to keep the swirling dust off the porch. Gloria took pity on him and made him come inside and dust the shelves. Vin didn't mind dusting the shelves. He was able to look at all the interesting things. As he was wiping the glass case he heard the door open and an old woman walked in. She glanced at Vin then continued over to the counter.

"Morning Gloria, Chris," she said.

"Hello Nettie," Chris greeted from where he leaned on the counter.

"What can I get ya Miss Nettie?" Gloria asked.

"Chris was here first, you can finish with him," Nettie said gruffly. They knew there would be no arguing with her and Gloria smiled at Chris as she continued to fill his order.

"Everything okay out at your place?" Chris asked.

"Couldn't be better," Nettie said. "Except that blasted mule of mine got out and ate all the carrots in the garden."

Chris smiled at that but they were all surprised to hear a giggle from the corner where Vin was cleaning. When Vin realized they were looking at him he quickly turned back to the shelf and dusted furiously.

"Is that one of them orphans I heard you was watching?" Nettie asked quietly and Chris nodded. "He's that one that run away 'cause they were gonna separate him from his cousin?"

"Yup, his name's Vin Tanner," Chris replied.

Vin glanced up and saw the old woman walking towards him. He knew she was gonna yell at him for laughing. When she stopped next to him Vin turned and looked at her.

"I'm sorry for laughing at ya," Vin apologized.

"Whatever for?" Nettie replied. "It was funny. That damned mule just walked into the garden and ate all the carrots."

"Yeah, I guess it is funny," Vin smiled.

"Doin' some chores for Mrs. Potter?"

"Yes ma'am," Vin answered. "Ain't got no money for the things Mr. Chris wanted to get for me."

"So you're workin' for 'em," Nettie said in approval. "I like that. Good worker like yourself deserves a treat. Do you like licorice, son?"

"No ma'am, but JD does," Vin replied. "I'll take it for him."

"Who's JD?"

"JD's my cousin, promised my Aunt Rachel I'd care for him afor she died," Vin said. He didn't know why, but he liked this old woman and trusted her. "The preacher wanted to separate us so I runned away with JD. I couldn't let him do it. I promised my Aunt."

"I like a young man that can keep a promise," Nettie said. "I'll have Mrs. Potter give ya some licorice for your cousin."

"Thank you ma'am," Vin smiled. "JD'll like that."

"You just call me Miss Nettie," she said holding out her hand.

"Pleased ta meet ya, Miss Nettie," Vin said shaking her hand. "Name's Vin Tanner."

"Well I'll let you get back to work," Nettie said as she walked back to Chris.

"You're the first person he's really talked too," Chris said as he watched Vin. He's been really quiet around us."

"Guess he figures he can trust and old biddy like me," Nettie chuckled. "It's a good thing you and Buck are doing. If that boy broke his promise to his Aunt I think it would break his spirit."

"And his heart," Gloria added.

"It's only temporary," Chris affirmed trying to make everyone understand that.

"Alright, Chris, here's everything," Gloria said she placed a small bag in with the other items. Chris was glad everything was ready he was sure Nettie was going to argue with him about keeping the boys.

"Thank you, Mrs. Potter."

"Gloria throw in a bag of sweets from me," Nettie said. "Make sure you put in some Licorice."

"I already did," she laughed holding up a bag. "Vin, you want to come here a minute?"

"I couldn't reach the high shelves," Vin apologized as he walked over. "I'm too small."

"That's alright," Gloria said. "I'll get them later. Here's a penny for the work."

"But I thought I was doing it to get the other stuff," Vin said confused.

"The penny is extra for all the hard work," she smiled.

"Thank you," Vin said and held the penny in a tight fist.

"Mrs. Potter, would it be alright if I come get this later?" Chris asked indicating the box of supplies.

"Of course, Chris, but take this," she said holding out the bag of goodies for the boys.

"Come on, Vin, let's go find Buck and JD," Chris said as he put the bag in his shirt pocket. "I'm hungry."

Chris walked towards the door and Vin followed close behind.

Just before they left Nettie called to Chris, "I expect you boys over for Sunday supper."

"Yes ma'am," Chris said as he raised two fingers to his hat. Chris went out the door and Vin turned to wave before he followed.

"Isn't he just the sweetest thing," Gloria commented.

"Yup he is," Nettie agreed. "And he's exactly what Chris needs. 'Cept he don't know it."

"MEN!" they both cried in unison shaking their heads.

Chapter 3

After leaving Chris and Vin, Buck took JD over to the Clarion. The town didn't have a post office so the mail came to the newspaper. Buck pushed open the door to find Mary leaning over the press putting oil on one of the parts. JD looked around the small office.

"Kinda tiny," JD said honestly.

"Yup I guess it is," Buck said smiling at JD's candor.

"I don't need much space, JD," Mary said smiling down at the boy. "What can I do for you?"

"Chris sent us to see if there was any mail," Buck answered.

"Yes there is," Mary replied and walked over to her desk. She picked up a packet and handed it to Buck. "I have something else too."

Before Buck could thank her she disappeared into the living quarters of the shop. She returned carrying a neatly wrapped bundle in brown paper.

"These are some of Billy's old clothes," Mary said. "They should fit JD but I'm afraid I don't have anything that will fit Vin."

"Ain't surprised . That boy is too skinny," Buck said.

"Mr. Buck," JD said tugging on the tall man's pants leg. "I gotta go."

"Thanks. Mary, but nature calls," Buck smiled and held up the carpetbag. "Can I leave this here?"

"Of course," she said and took the bag.

Buck touched two fingers to his hat and left with JD. Mary placed the bundle she had in the carpetbag then put it on the floor by the door. She stepped outside and watched as Buck disappeared around the building with JD. The morning was warm and Mary greeted a few townspeople as they walked by on the street. Suddenly the wind picked up and Mary's long hair danced around her face. The newspaperwoman sighed as the autumn winds buffeted the town. The weather and the town had been peaceful for days. The wind picked up again and Mary was forced to retreat back into the newspaper office. She got a shiver up her spine thinking the rough weather was an omen of things to come.

+ + + + + + +

When Buck was finished with JD, they strolled along the boardwalk waiting for Chris. JD asked him all sorts of questions and Buck was hard pressed to answer them all. Buck was listening to JD when he saw Lily walking towards them. She was dressed in all her finery on the way to work at the saloon. She smiled as she stopped in front of Buck.

"Mornin', Buck."

"Miss Lily."

"Who's she?" JD asked.

"Miss Lily, I'd like you to meet JD," Buck announced.

"Aren't you just the cutest little thing," Lily cooed as she knelt down in front of JD.

"I hurt my finger, see?" JD said holding up the injured finger.

"I see," Lily said solemnly. "Does it hurt?"

"Nope," JD said shaking his head no. "Mr. Nathan made it all better."

"That's nice," Lily said patting his head as she stood. "Gonna come see me tonight Buck?"

"Can't," Buck sighed. "Gotta watch the little ones."

"Too bad," she pouted as she patted his cheek. "Maybe next time."

Buck watched as she sauntered down the street and sighed. JD glanced at Buck wondering what was wrong. Lily hadn't gotten far when JD made a comment.

"Mr. Buck why was she colored like a clown?" JD asked innocently.

Buck stifled a laughed and quickly walked down the boardwalk. JD didn't think he'd said anything funny. He just wanted to know why she looked like a clown. JD shrugged and trotted to keep up with Buck's longer strides. JD looked up to see Mr. Chris and Vin walking towards them. He pulled his hand out of Buck's and raced towards Vin.

"Vin!" JD yelled excitedly. "I just saw a clown."

"What?" Vin asked confused as he took JD's hand.

"Miss Lily was talking to Mr. Buck," JD explained. "She had all that stuff on her face like the clowns at the cirtus."

"Miss Lily, huh," Chris chuckled. "She does look like a clown."

"Now, Chris, that ain't fair," Buck said as he tried to keep a straight face.

"Why is they laughing, Vin?" JD whispered.

"I don't know," Vin admitted, shrugging.

"So, boys, what'll it be, lunch or bath first?" Buck asked. Just as Buck asked the wind picked up blowing the dust around. JD cried as the dust got in his eyes. Vin hid JD's face against his chest as he shut his eyes tight.

"We'll do lunch first," Chris decided as the wind lessened. "Giving them a bath now would be useless. Hopefully the wind will die down while we're eating."

"Come on up here, little britches," Buck said as he lifted JD. "You can hide your face against me."

"NO! I can do it!" Vin yelled and punched Buck's leg. "He's my cousin."

"Easy there, Vin," Chris said kneeling in front of him. "Buck knows JD's your cousin."

"JD needs me!" Vin protested. "Not him!"

"Buck's not trying to take your place," Chris reasoned.

"Yes he is!" Vin cried. Chris knew nothing he would say would make Vin believe him. He no longer knew how to deal with children since Adam death.

"I'm sorry, Vin," Buck said touching Vin's shoulder. "Didn't mean to have ya think I was taking your place. Next time I'll ask your permission, alright?"

"I guess," Vin sulked.

"Come on, let's get over to the hotel out of this wind," Chris suggested as he took Vin's hand.

Chris ignored the look Buck gave him when he took Vin's hand. He just didn't want the boy getting lost since it was hard to see. They started across the street when the wind kicked up again. Vin valiantly tried to cover his eyes but the stinging sand still got through. Buck had raced across the street with JD and Chris lifted Vin. At first the boy struggled but then surprised Chris as he wrapped his arms tightly around his neck. Vin buried his face against Chris's shoulder. Chris trotted to the restaurant and stepped inside. He was surprised as the door closed behind him and he turned to see Nathan.

"That wind sure is fierce," Nathan commented.

"Hope it dies down, people get a little crazy when it blows like this," Chris said.

"Vin, okay?" Nathan asked when he saw the boy clinging to Chris with a death grip.

"Hey, Vin, it's okay we're inside now," Chris said stroking his back.

Vin let go of Chris's neck and looked around. At first Chris thought Vin was crying from being afraid but realized the boy must have gotten sand in his eyes.

"Nathan, want to check him out?" Chris said. "I think the sand liked his eyes."

"Yeah it liked JD's too," Nathan smiled as Chris put Vin down. Nathan grabbed the bowl of water on the table by the door. He wrung out the towel in the water and wiped Vin's eyes. "There that should do it."

"Might as well wash his hands while you're at it," Chris said.

"What ya got Vin?" Nathan asked when he saw Vin had his fist clenched.

"I got a penny," Vin said opening his hand.

"That's nice," Nathan said. "Let's get you cleaned up."

Nathan washed one hand then waited patiently as Vin put the penny in the clean hand. When he was done Vin was as presentable as he could be. Chris led he way into the dinning area. Vin saw JD was sitting at the table with Mr. Buck and the preacher. Vin took the seat next to JD and Chris sat down on his other side.

"Hello, Vin," Josiah said.

"Hi," he answered quietly.

"Don't trust me now do you?" Josiah asked and Vin looked at him. "Can't say as I blame you. Not after I tried to separate you and JD."

"It's all right," Vin said.

"No it's not. You trusted that us grown-ups would do the right thing," Josiah disagreed. "I'll have to earn your trust again. Will you let me try?"

"I guess," Vin said.

"So what can I get ya?" Millie asked as she walked over to the table.

"What do ya have today, darlin'?" Buck asked.

"We got fried chicken, steak and chicken and dumplings."

"Why don't we make it easy on Millie," Chris said. "Everybody up for fried chicken?"

"Sounds good to me, pard," Buck agreed.

Nathan and Josiah nodded as well. Millie took down what they wanted to drink then smiled at Vin and JD.

"What can I get you boys to drink?" she asked. "I have apple cider and milk."

"Milk," JD said happily.

"Cider, please," Vin said and held up the penny. "Is this enough for me and JD? If not then we can share our food."

"That's plenty," Millie smiled and took the penny.

She turned to Chris and without Vin seeing gave the penny to Chris. He nodded and she walked back to the kitchen. The four men talked about how to split the patrols. It was decided Chris would go on patrol as soon as the boys got a bath. That way Buck could watch the boys while the others watched the town. They agreed and sat back as Millie brought the food. She placed a large plate of chicken on the table along with mashed potatoes. One of the other girls added a bowl of string beans and biscuits. Josiah thanked then and started to dish out the food.

"Now remember, JD, don't ask for seconds," Vin whispered. "If you're still hungry eat off my plate."

"I 'member," JD nodded.

They all heard Vin's instructions to JD and Nathan was about to say something. Josiah put his hand on Nathan's arm and shook his head no. The preacher just filled their plates and placed them in front of each of the boys. JD's eyes got wide as he looked at all the food.

"I hafta eat it all?" JD asked.

"JD!" Vin scolded.

"Just eat what you can," Buck laughed.

"Okay," JD smiled and started on the chicken.

Chris watched as Vin ate all the string beans first. When he was satisfied Vin was going to eat his fair share he joined the conversation with the other men. Vin looked around as he chewed on a chicken leg. A number of people were in the restaurant just to get out of the wind. He'd never been in a restaurant before and was curious to see what went on. Vin's tummy was starting to get full but he forced himself to eat everything Josiah had but on his plate. Even if it was more food then he'd seen in a month.

"I'm done," JD declared.

"Ya done good," Buck laughed when he saw the kid had quite an appetite.

"You don't have to eat everything, Vin," Chris said when he noticed Vin was still eating.

"I'm still hungry," Vin lied.

When they we're finished Millie brought out an apple pie and coffee. She poured more milk for JD and cider for Vin. Chris noticed Vin chewing his lower lip as Josiah cut the pie.

"I don't think the boys need pie," Chris said. "It will spoil their appetite for dinner."

"Oh good," JD sighed. "I'm full."

They all laughed and Chris thought Vin looked just as relieved. They finished their pie and thanked Millie. They all went out together preparing themselves to face the wind. They were surprised as they walked out and found the winds had died down.

"Crazy weather," Buck said. "Chris I'll meet you at the bath house. I left the carpet bag with Mary."

Chris nodded and watched as Nathan and Josiah walked away. Chris started walking along the boardwalk and Vin took JD's hand and followed.

"Where we goin'?" JD asked as he skipped along beside Vin.

"Ain't sure," Vin replied.

They followed Chris as he opened the door to the bathhouse and stepped inside. Vin followed and looked around in surprise. He'd never been in a place like this before. They'd always took a bath in the kitchen where their mothers worked. They watched as Chris started to fill one of the tubs with hot water warming over a fire. Buck came in and snuck up behind the two boys who were looking all around.

"Hey!" Buck yelled and tickled them.

JD squealed and started to laugh. It took everything Vin had just to keep his lunch down. Chris finally got the water to a bearable temperature then helped Buck get the two boys undressed. Buck laughed as he dumped sand out of JD's shoe. Chris lifted Vin into the tub and he sighed in contentment as the warm water eased his back. Buck did the same for JD.

"Too hot!" JD complained.

"No it's not," Vin said. "It's just right."

"No!" JD shouted and tried to climb out. "Don't like it hot."

Chris rolled his eyes as Buck struggled with a slippery five-year-old. He grabbed a bucket of cold water and added it tot he tub. Vin frowned in disappointment when the water was no longer hot. Buck handed Vin some soap. Vin took it and began to wash JD.

"Can I help?" Buck asked and Vin nodded.

Buck smiled and rolled up his sleeves. Chris let Buck have his fun. He wasn't about to get wet. Chris took a seat and lit a cheroot then leaned back and pulled his hat over his eyes. Vin turned to look at Chris and Buck saw the longing in the boy's blue eyes. Buck handed JD the soap and turned to Vin.

"Need help with your hair?"

"No, thank you," Vin replied. "Mr. Chris said it was my 'sponsibility."

Buck watched as Vin ducked under the water to wet his hair. JD copied Vin but forgot to shut his mouth and came up coughing. Buck quickly grabbed him and patted his back.

"How many times I gotta tell ya," Vin sighed. "You ain't a fish and gotta keep your mouth shut."

"I don't know," Buck said. "He looks like a fish to me."

Buck puckered his lips and pretended to be a fish. That got a laugh from both boys, which surprised Buck. Vin was usually so serious you forgot he was only seven. Vin started to wash his hair while Buck did JD's. Buck finished JD's and saw Vin was having trouble with his. Buck didn't say anything and took the soap from Vin. He rubbed the soap in Vin's hair then dropped it in the tub. Buck larger hands quickly scrubbed Vin's hair. Buck smiled when Vin sighed in pleasure. Once their hair was finished it was time to play.

Chris watched Buck with the two boys. His friendly smiles and easy-going nature made both boys respond to him. Chris sat and remembered how Buck used to be with Adam. Buck used to give Adam his bath also. Chris also remembered the way it felt to help Sarah give Adam a bath. Maybe that was why he didn't help Buck now. He didn't want to forget what it was like with Adam by replacing the feeling with these two boys. Or maybe he just didn't want to become attached and be hurt again when they were taken away. Chris watched as JD splashed Buck and couldn't help laughing. He tried not to notice that Vin kept looking at him with those big blue eyes. You could read the boy's soul in those blue depths and Chris knew Vin wanted him to come over. Chris looked away and saw the disappointment on Vin's face. A short while later Nathan walked in.

"Chris I got some liniment for Vin's back," Nathan said. "Try rubbing this on his back if he'll let ya."

"I'll try," Chris assured the healer. Nathan was about to leave when JD started crying.

"What happened?" Chris demanded.

"He's alright," Buck smiled as he wiped JD's face with a towel.

"Vin got soap in my eyes," JD cried.

"I didn't mean it," Vin said almost crying himself.

"It's ok, Vin," Buck said pushing Vin's wet hair off his face.

"I guess it's time to come out," Chris announced.

"No," JD protested tears forgotten. "I want to play more."

"Alright," Chris sighed. "Nathan you want to give Buck a hand and I'll go out on patrol."

"Sure, Chris," Nathan said as he put his hand in the water. "Damn, Buck, this is cold."

Vin wasn't paying attention as Nathan added more hot water to the tub. He watched as Chris walked out the door and wondered what he did wrong.


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