"Dadgumit Buck! Knock it off!"

"Thought that's what I just did." The womanizer chuckled as the sheriff scooped his hat from the boardwalk, before turning his attention back to the checker game.

"How'm I 'spose ta win if I can't concentrate?"

"What makes ya think yer gonna win. Ya can't beat me and Josiah's better than me." Wilmington teased.

"Reckon there's a first time for everything." JD grinned.

Buck bit back a retort, seeing the seven-year-old, standing next to the ex-priest, give a barely perceptible shake of his head as Dunne's fingers moved for one of the red chips.

Casually leaning against the porch support, he bent down to the small boy and whispered, "Ya know that's cheatin'."

Wilmington immediately regretted the teasing remark as the emerald eyes widened and shame washed the color from the boy's face.

Considering the statement a moment, Ezra met Buck's gaze steadily. "On the contrary Mr. Wilmington. It might be considered cheating if I had a wager on the outcome. I'm merely assisting Mr Dunne in his endeavors to improve his game."

"He does need all the help he can get." Josiah chuckled.

"I's just funnin ya Ez." The jovial peacekeeper rumpled the boy's hair, laughing as Ezra immediately used his fingers to comb the mussed strands back into place. 'Kid's gotta answer for everything.'

They had all noticed the subtle changes in the small southerner since Travis had placed him in Vin's care. The reserved often silent child who had faced down a cougar, stood up to Larabee, shot a man in defense of Tanner and rarely smiled, now laughed more often, chattered like a magpie when someone took the time to listen and charmed most of the people who made his acquaintance.

If he wasn't with one of the men who protected the town, when the independent kid wasn't 'plying his profession' in an attempt to pay his own way, the little gambler spent most of his time reading or playing with the litter of kittens who resided in the livery.

The boy seemed determined not to owe anyone, and in an effort to curb Ezra's gambling, while allowing him his pride, each of the peacekeepers had found a chore for which to pay the southerner. Anything from sweeping the church to grooming their horses.

Vin had later discovered, having refused to let the boy pay for the boarding house room, Ezra had used some of the money he earned from them to help pay the tracker's tab at the Merchantile. The money made from his Three Card Monte game or the few times they'd allowed him to sit in on their poker game was hoarded away.

Money wasn't the only thing Ezra hoarded. Tanner had accidently found the food stock the little southerner had hidden in a small box behind the carpet bag stored in the closet.

Buck glanced to where several boys knelt in the dirt, shooting marbles, near the small building that was used as a makeshift school. While he attended the random classes held by Mary or Josiah, except for Billy Travis and the Potter kids, Ezra had yet to make a connection with the other children in town seeming to prefer the company of adults, especially the peacekeepers.

The good natured lawman had to wonder if Ezra knew how to be a kid. From the little they'd learned about the small southerner's upbringing, in the two months, since he'd arrived in Four Corners, Buck suspected the boy had never spent enough time with other children to learn the games of childhood or how to truly play.

He knew, except for perhaps JD, each of the other regulators had noticed the same thing and each in their own way had tried to introduce the little boy to what should be the joys of childhood.

"Damn it's hot enough ta fry an egg in the dirt." Wiping a sleeve across his forehead, Buck used his hat to create a small breeze.

"That would be quite unsanitary." Ezra quipped.

"A man's hungry enough, he'll eat anything." Josiah stated, jumping two of JD's pieces.

"And Buck's always hungry." Dunne added, ducking before Wilmington could knock the bowler askew once more.

"Hey Ez, what say we take a ride out to the swimmin' hole?" The womanizer suggested, hoping some of the other children would be there.

Ezra's emerald gaze shifted to road leading north.

Buck understood the child's hesitation. The little boy who unsuccessfully tried his best to keep people at arm's length had begun to care about the peacekeepers who watched over him but the emerald eyes postively lit up and a dimpled grin appeared with the mere presence of Vin Tanner. "Reckon Chris and Vin won't be back for a couple hours yet."

"Think I'll tag along." Josiah pushed back from the table chuckling as JD stared in frustration at the board which now contained only black pieces.

Before Ezra could think of a reason to remain in town, the large ex-priest scooped him up tossing him over his shoulder as if he were nothing more than a piece of cloth and strolled with Buck toward the livery.

*******

The men listened indulgently as the small southerner excitedly wove a tale of the afternoon spent at the swimming hole, causing lots of hearty laughter as he described the antics of the womanizer and ex-priest.

A few children from the surrounding area, having finished their chores, had also sought solace from the heat at the water hole and Buck and Josiah had played to the little gambler's competitive nature, organizing a variety of games and contests among the youngsters.

As the boy talked, Vin slipped another biscuit slathered with butter and honey onto his dinner plate. Always worried Ezra wasn't eating enough, Tanner was glad to see the child had worked up an appetite. Usually, it seemed as though the little southerner was afraid of taking what might be considered more than his share

"Sounds like you had a high ol' time, little Pard." Tanner grinned, watching as the southerner, his napkin forgotten, licked the honey from the corner of his mouth before it could run down his chin. So much for gentlemanly table manners.

"It was quite enjoyable, " the child agreed. "Mrs. Travis said Billy could go next time as long as an adult goes along because he's just learning and doesn't swim very well. He'll get better with practice though," he pointed out.

"Maybe she oughta let you two organize the celebration activities," JD commented, snatching the plate of fried potatoes as Wilmington reached for it.

"What celebration?" Taking the plate, Buck forked some of the browned slices onto Ezra's plate before helping himself to more.

"The Independence Day celebration. Fourth a July's in three weeks," Dunne declared with such indignation someone overhearing would have thought he'd signed that important document himself. "Was over at the newspaper office this afternoon... Mrs. Travis' is printin' up a special paper about it."

"Most towns have big doin's for that day." Tanner shrugged noncommittally. He'd been to a few celebrations, but mostly chose to avoid the crowds such activates drew.

"Well, Mrs. Travis says the town's gonna start celebratin' when people arrive on Friday right up until they're just plum wore out Sunday night. She said there's gonna be hoe downs and a rodeo and all kinds a contests. She said a travelin' circus show is even plannin' on bein' here at the same time." The young sheriff was as wound up about it as if he were no older than the child seated between Vin and Buck.

Larabee mentally groaned, remembering the last time a traveling show had stopped in Four Corners. If the town crowded with people wasn't going to be enough trouble, adding traveling carnie folk would only make for a more volatile time.

"...I don't remember the name of it, but Mrs. Travis said the travelin' show has a real camel and a big lion from Africa and a couple a monkeys," JD continued.

"Actually, I believe they're chimpanzees," Ezra corrected. "People associate monkeys with the kind of animal used by organ grinders, but the chimpanzee is larger and darker with no tail and more human like tendencies." Realizing the six adults were staring at him in bewilderment, the boy blushed. "I do apologize, Mr. Dunne. I shouldn't have contradicted you. I certainly meant no offense."

"Ain't nobody offended, Ezra," Nathan was quick to reassure the child. "Guess we was just surprised and was wonderin' how ya know all that."

Uncertain how much he should tell them, Ezra carefully chewed a mouthful of biscuit as he stalled for time. "Mr. Randall's traveling show was camped near Bristol when I was there. He brags about being the only show of that kind to have such exotic animals. He charges a nickel to see that pitiful specimen of African wildlife he calls a lion. And for four bits you can ride the camel in a circle around its enclosure."

He didn't think it prudent to mention the shirt tail cousin Maude had left him with that particular time had hired the little southerner out to Randall to clean cages, feed the animals and whatever other manual labor the show people demanded while they laid over for a two week rest.

Ducking his head, not wanting to seem too forward he quietly added, "I might suggest you request Mr. Randall keep the camel out of town. Its bellow seems to wreck havoc among horses and other animals who aren't used to such an ungodly noise."

"What's it sound like?" the sheriff questioned.

Wilmington lightly smacked the younger man on the back of the head. "Where's yer manners, boy? Ya expect Ezra there ta be hollerin' like an animal at the dinner table?"

"Dinner table or no, I'm afraid, Mr. Dunne, I could not make that sound even if threatened at gunpoint." Ezra giggled. "I promise you, it's like nothin' ya ever heard before."

"Guess ya'll just have ta wait till it gets here, kid, and hear it fer yer ownself." Tanner laughed. Pleased to see Ezra had eaten everything on his plate and was heartily starting on the pie they'd ordered for dessert, Vin made a mental note to make sure the child visited the swimming hole more often.

*******

Seated in front of the jail with the other peacekeepers, the problem of schedules and patrols settled, Tanner watched Ezra enter The Clarion office, his arms laden with colorful decorations. Exiting a moment later, emptied handed and accompanied by young Billy, the little southerner headed toward the meadow where several men were building a stage for the celebration's musicians and laying boards for a dance floor.

Anticipation rose as each passing day brought the Independence Day celebration a little closer. Wagers were being placed on the rodeo events as men boasted of their abilities and friendly rivalries among the ranches escalated, each man certain his friends would prove the best.

Not to be left out, the women excitedly looked forward to long chatty visits with seldom seen friends. Their time was consumed planning menus and working on quilts, baking pies and cakes for judging and sewing new dresses to wear to the evening dances.

The town's children practiced for the contests they planned to enter and bragged to one another about whose mother's dessert would bring the highest price at the auction and whose pa would win the various events they'd entered.

Against Banker McMurty's objections, the town counsel had voted to spend funds and now bright, fluttering banners and bunting decorated the town's weather worn buildings. As the date moved nearer, discussions inevitably turned to the traveling show and what magnificent wonders the citizens might see.

Only the little southerner seemed immune to the contagious excitement which invaded their corner of the territory faster than yellow fever.

"...Mary says he ain't signed up for none of the kid's contests," Chris casually commented, following the tracker's worried gaze.

"He don't seem interested in the doin's at all, 'cept for the money he can make," the healer stated with a sad shake of his head, vocalizing once again his disapproval of what the little gambler called his 'profession'. "Reckon he's got that little book he carries plum filled up."

All the lawmen had seen the little book Ezra used to keep track of his wagers. While each of them had tried to discourage the questionable pastime, Tanner had refused to let any of them outright forbid it. Each of them and especially Vin, understood the young southerner's need to hold onto to that part of his life. It not only gave him a sense of independence, allowing him to feel as if he could pay his own way, but it also gave him a feeling of still being connected to the mother he loved and missed.

Other than his Three Card Monte game or an occasional poker game, Tanner was aware the boy had curtailed his gambling to the bare minimum and was equally certain it was an attempt on Ezra's part to please the peacekeepers.

The Texan pushed to his feet, and strolled in the direction the two boys had taken. The truth was Vin missed his small southern shadow. Between the endless patrols and helping with the holiday preparations these last two weeks, the most time the tracker had seen the little gambler was over the dinner table and the few moments spent together before Ezra fell asleep. Yet, during that time, other than in the context of dinner conversation raised by one of the peacekeepers, Ezra seldom, if ever, spoke about the upcoming festivities.

It just wasn't natural, especially in a small child.

As hard as his own childhood had been, Vin could still remember looking forward to any celebration, whether it was a simple homemade birthday cake his mother had made or the dancing the Comanche performed thanking their Great Spirit for a successful hunt.

It baffled the long haired tracker. Why wasn't Ezra more excited? Nathan was right. The Georgian behaved as if this celebration was nothing more than a business opportunity.

Well, the tracker tried to reason.... perhaps Ezra still thought he would be gone before then and was simply trying to avoid any disappointment of getting his hopes up and making plans. Having spent much of his own life on the move, Vin could understand the youngster's attempts to keep people at arm's length and avoid any type of disappointment. Moving on at the drop of a hat didn't hurt as much if a person didn't become attached to anyone or anything.

Despite knowing these things about the boy, Vin wanted the child to believe the tracker would always be there for him, even after Ezra's mother returned to claim him. As Buck had pointed out, it was important the youngster knew he would always have place to go and that he would always have someone who cared about what happened to him. Tanner knew it would take time to convince the cynical southerner who had been hurt before but it would be time well spent.

The rhythmic sound of hammers pounding against metal and wood reached Vin's ears. As his gaze settled on the group of boys a few yards away, the ex-bounty hesitated, lingering back out of sight among the trees. He could see Ezra and Billy facing several boys he knew to be their ages or a little older. Tanner couldn't hear the conversation over the ringing of the hammers, but he immediately recognized the southerner's stance and blank expression.

Vin wasn't sure what was happening, but he had seen that same expression more than a few times since Ezra had arrived in Four Corners. He knew the child had erected his mental walls and was hiding behind them, shutting himself away, protecting himself in a vain attempt to keep from being hurt by what was being said to him.

Vin watched as, gripping Billy's arm, Ezra dragged his companion toward the path to town ignoring the jeers being tossed at his back by the other boys.

The tracker hurried back the way he came. He knew asking Ezra what had taken place would be a waste of breath but perhaps there was another way he could find out.

*******

Taking the red, white and blue decorations which had arrived with the latest freight wagon to The Clarion's office, Ezra had hastily agreed to accompany Billy to the meadow near the church to see how preparations were coming along for the makeshift stage and dance floor. Mary had pulled him aside confiding she knew the little southerner would be a better judge of the work's progress than Billy who would be certain the workers were nearly finished or hadn't even started.

Now as they made their way to the construction site, Ezra listened in amusement as Billy happily chattered about the upcoming festivities.

It seemed the entire territory was aquiver with anticipation and little else was being discussed. Ezra himself had avoided any such discussion. He was certain if he allowed himself to look forward to the upcoming event it would only end in disappointment.

He had also vowed not to be any trouble to the tracker and he intended to keep that promise. He knew too well ol' Moneybags McMurtry didn't like the peacekeepers and had wholeheartedly disapproved of Judge Travis' decision, allowing Ezra to stay with Vin.

The child had overheard comments from the other youngsters' mothers -- which they credited to the town banker -- talking about what a bad influence Ezra was on the other children, therefore he chose to avoid being with those children. He couldn't influence them one way or the other if he avoided lengthy association.

In his short time in town, Ezra had done his best to prove the opinionated banker wrong. He wanted everyone to know what a good guardian Tanner truly was. Kind and gentle, the tracker treated the southerner as if he were actually his son, behaving the exact way the child always imagined a real father was supposed to treat his offspring.

Vin didn't just provide him with room and board, buy his meals and needed clothing, the Texan listened to him, patiently answered his questions and never jumped to the conclusion Ezra was in the wrong. He punished Ezra only when it was deserved and never without explanation; and the punishment -- hard on both of them -- was always appropriate for the offense.

Ezra knew, while they didn't out right forbid it, the peacekeepers worried about his 'profession', so he had made concessions. He'd been very careful about who he chose to gamble with. He only played poker or made wagers with people he knew, such as Wyatt and the cowhand's friends or the peacekeepers. Hoping to stay out of the banker's way, Ezra had arranged with Inez to use a corner table for his Three Card Monte and if a known troublemaker approached, the southerner immediately closed the game, promising the losers another chance later.

He went out of his way to help, not only the peacekeepers, but any of the townspeople when needed. He accepted payment only when someone insisted and used most of the funds to help pay the money Vin charged for meals and supplies.

And constantly, the little gambler reminded himself to reinforce the protective walls around his heart. Vin didn't belong to him. He wasn't the tracker's son. Ezra knew his time in Four Corners would end either when Maude came for him, when Tanner got tired of having him around or surrendered to the town's pressure and sent him on his way.

Knowing it was only a matter of time before that happened, every afternoon, the child slipped into the boarding room, checking or adding to the small cache of canned goods, money and other necessary supplies he had hidden in the closet. He would be ready when the time came for a hasty departure. No matter how right it felt, Ezra couldn't and wouldn't allow himself to become comfortable in this little town. Becoming comfortable was dangerous.

Becoming comfortable was a sure fire way to get a person's heart broken.

For now, he was content to just spend the afternoon with Billy Travis. As they approached the site, several other boys, most of them older than either of the new arrivals, were watching the construction.

Leaving Billy to talk with his friends, Ezra strolled to where Mr. Brayden was filling his pockets with nails explaining that, knowing how busy the men were with their own responsibilities, Mrs. Travis was wondering if they would be able to finish in time for the ladies to decorate. He could see for himself that with diligence the work would be done in plenty of time but he had learned long ago most adults didn't like being second guessed by a mere child. It was better to let them state the obvious. Receiving the man's assurance they would be done with time to spare the southerner turned and walked across the grass to rejoin his friend.

"...Ezra would beat ya hands down!" Billy was confidently defending his friend when Ezra approached the group standing at the edge of the meadow. "He runs faster than anyone I know!" he proclaimed proudly.

"He has to," one of the older boys sneered, jostling his friends. "They get their hands on 'im and he'll get whopped good cause everybody knows he cheats."

"He don't neither!" Billy declared adamantly before Ezra could respond. "Yer just jealous cause he's smarter than you." That remark drew a barrage of insults and slurs aimed at the young outsider.

The little southerner stood silent against the jibes and insults thrown his direction. 'They can only hurt you if you let them.'

Finally taking Billy's arm, reminding him his mother was waiting, Ezra urged the boy back down the path toward home.

*******

"Good afternoon, Vin." Mary smiled. "If you're looking for Ezra, he's running an errand for me and should be back soon."

Tanner nodded absently. Knowing, unlike Ezra, Billy wouldn't be able to hide his feelings, the tracker had hoped to elicit the newspaper woman's cooperation, yet, upon entering the office, he had realized it would be nothing more than a waste of time.

He knew the little southerner, afraid of drawing McMurtry's unwanted attention, went out of his way to avoid trouble and remain unnoticed. And knowing the child as well as he did, he was aware Ezra would have had Billy promise to say nothing and that little boy would do his best to keep his word when he had given it to his friend.

Vin knew he could outright ask Ezra what had taken place with the older boys, yet somehow he knew this was one time the child would go out of his way to evade answering or he would make light of the issue as if it didn't matter. No, this time, the direct approach wasn't the best approach.

"Hi, Vin!" Billy called out cheerily, quickly glancing around to see if Larabee had accompanied the ex-bounty hunter.

The boys had entered as Tanner had considered, and then tossed aside, several alternate plans. As his gaze settled on the little southerner, Vin was pleased to see the sadness in Ezra's emerald eyes momentarily replaced by pleasure. Yet even that pleasure faded to worry as the boy questioned the tracker's presence.

"Told Chris I'd pick 'im up a newspaper. Ya know he's a big one fer keepin' up on current doin's." Using the only excuse he could think of under that unnerving emerald stare, Vin handed Mary a coin. "'Sides, it's time for lessons."

Ezra's smile widened, anticipating the rest of the afternoon spent with his guardian. A short time after Ezra's arrival, he had accidentally discovered what the Texan considered a shameful secret...He couldn't read or write.

Since than, at least one afternoon a week, the tracker would purchase a paper and he and the child would spend a few hours alone while the boy taught the adult his letters.

"But Josiah taught school yesterday," Billy objected on his friend's behalf.

"Hush, Billy," Mary reprimanded. "It wouldn't hurt you any to spend a little extra time on your book learning."

Politely thanking Mary for the cookies she'd wrapped for him, the little southerner happily followed after the Texan as tipping his hat to Mary, Vin moved outside.

*******

The six adults gathered around the dinner table pretended not to notice how quiet the seven-year-old southerner was or that more of his food was being maneuvered around the plate than reached his mouth.

Earlier, Tanner had called the others together after noticing a change in Ezra's attitude when the two of them had been working through the newspaper, and came across an article about the Fourth of July festivities.

"Sure sounds like everybody's gonna have a fine time," Vin commented as Ezra read aloud the activities scheduled to take place.

"I'm sure you're right. They've certainly planned a celebration to rival that of any of the larger cities," Ezra agreed insipidly.

"Ya been ta them celebrations in the big cities?"

The child hesitated, running his thumb over his bottom lip. "A couple of years ago, when Maude had business in Atlanta, " he disclosed finally, figuring he wasn't giving away anything by admitting that small amount.

However, he didn't think it necessary to add he'd been forced to watch the activities from the hotel window. While the brilliant fireworks had brightened the night sky, he'd been sitting patiently in the saloon waiting for his mother to lure in the suckers so he could take his place at the poker table. It was no lie to keep the truth to himself…let the tracker assume whatever he wanted.

Vin noticed Ezra quickly moved on to a different article, directing the conversation to a safer topic when he tried once again to discuss the games and contests.

Afterwards, while Ezra bathed and prepared for dinner, Vin had described the child's reactions to the other men, receiving confirmation of his suspicions from Josiah.

"Ya know, I really hadn't paid attention before, but most of these games are set up for partners. Siblings...mother and daughter..." Reading over Larabee's shoulder, the preacher took a deep breath before glancing at Tanner with a sad smile. "Father and son..."

"So, we can partner up with him." JD stated the simple solution. A solution which the older men knew wouldn't be that simple.

Now, receiving a nudge from Larabee, Vin took the last bite of his meal, picked up his coffee cup, tilted his chair onto its back legs and set in motion the plan he and the others had devised. "Ya know, Ez, I got me a bet with ol' Chris there that you and me can beat 'im and Billy in the three legged race."

"That ain't fair, cowboy!" Buck protested before the child could respond. "'coz I's gonna ask Ez ta be my partner."

"Then ya shoulda opened yer mouth a mite sooner, Bucklin." The Texan grinned.

"Ez, ya wanna be my partner for the egg toss?" The mustached man countered. "I reckon if the two a us work together, nobody else'll stand a chance a winnin."

"Ya reckon that, do ya?" Josiah chuckled.

"Sure." Wilmington nodded. "Ya gotta have gentle hands and Ezra just makes them cards dance for 'im---"

"That still leaves you," JD interjected.

"Well, boy, just ask the ladies! They'll all tell ya ain't nobody got gentler hands than me." Buck wiggled his eyebrows suggestively, causing laughter as JD roll his eyes in exasperation.

The little boy stared at the men seated around him in bewilderment. Perhaps he wasn't hearing them correctly. Were they really willing to collaborate with him in the upcoming contests?

'Ya got no family and no one wants to partner up with a cheat!'

The older boy's jibes from earlier in the day, echoed through his mind as the six men argued over the privilege of being his partner.

Larabee and Tanner watched the silent child, seeing the puzzlement on his face. Finally, waving a hand for silence, Chris sipped his coffee before stating softly. "Ya know, there's one thing ain't none of us thought of... Maybe Ezra already has a partner or he might not want any of us."

Still stunned, Ezra simply shook his head in denial of both statements, his gaze finally dropping back to the plate in front of him.

'Ya got no family and no one wants to partner up with a cheat!' The cruel hurtful words continued to repeat their litany in his mind.

With the words, came a memory of the previous year. Maude had taught him the bottom of the deck deal but she had forbidden him to use the skill until he could use it against her without detection.

What no one, especially Maude, seemed to understand was Ezra loved the game of poker and while he could deal from the bottom, or stack the deck in his favor, he truly preferred to play without cheating or manipulation.

He could read people almost as easily as he could the cards and preferred matching his own talent and skill against that of the other players.

Granted, he was aware most people assumed gamblers always cheated to win. What they didn't understand was, for a true gambler, the thrill -- the challenge -- was not in the money won but rather in the game itself.

'Ya got no family and no one wants to partner up with a cheat!' continued to hover over his thoughts like a wet blanket.

So why did these honest, honorable men want to enter any games with him? Didn't they realize how much it would hurt their reputations among the citizens? McMurtry would be certain to use the lawmen's further association with him against them. It was one thing for the six men to watch over him as the judge had instructed and quite another to actually treat him as if he belonged in the small town. Correction, he amended, to treat him as if he were one of them.

The banker would certainly use the regulators' actions as proof they themselves were nothing more than cheats and liars, too, and all too ready to use their positions to exploit the good people of the territory.

"Guess we didn't think about that." JD muttered contritely. "Just reckoned bein' Ez's uncles, it'd be natural for 'im ta wanna partner up with us."

If possible Ezra's eyes grew even larger. "Uncles?"

"Of course, son," Josiah nodded. "We think of Vin as our brother and since the judge assumed he's your uncle that kinda makes us your uncles, too."

"Got me enough uncles," Ezra muttered bitterly.

Heavy silence hung over the table and Ezra suddenly realized he'd mumbled the thought aloud. His emerald eyes full of horror and shame, his cheeks flushing bright red, the little boy pushed back from the table, rushed from the dining room and ran up the stairs to the room the town provided for Tanner.

Throwing himself across the bed, the child half sobbed aloud. 'Oh God, what have I done?' The southerner curled up, wrapping his arms around his knees. 'Damn! Why had he said such a thing?'

These men were nothing like the other 'uncles' Maude had left him with. They hadn't demanded he work from sun up to sundown to earn his keep. None of them had raised a hand to him even when others thought he might have deserved it. Even Josiah, unlike Uncle Bradley, hadn't tried to show him the error of his ways either with a heavy hand or by browbeating the Bible into him.

These men had shown him nothing but kindness and caring. They had, in truth, given him the freedom to be a child… something no one else had ever done.

Now it was over. They would surely send him packing as soon as possible. Why would they continue to waste their time on such an ungrateful urchin? It broke his heart that one misspoken statement had cost him the best temporary home he'd ever had....and worse the only father he'd ever known.

Crawling off the bed, Ezra dejectedly crossed the room, wiping away his tears as he pulled his old carpetbag from the closet.

"Whatcha doin', Ezra?"

Startled by the quiet baritone voice, Ezra whirled to find Josiah leaning against the doorframe, watching him.

"Preparing for my imminent departure." Trembling, the boy pulled his few undergarments and shirts from the dresser drawers. "I'll purchase a ticket on the next stage."

"Don't ya like it here?" Josiah's expression became even sadder as closing the door, he saw Ezra instinctively recoil when the big man moved into the room.

A few minutes earlier, when Vin had immediately risen to follow as the little boy had hurried from the room, the preacher had asked that he be allowed to handle the situation. Josiah was certain he had caused the problem and he wanted a chance to fix it.

"Of course I do!" Ezra declared adamantly, surprised the man would think such a thing. "I just assumed..." The boy trailed off, his gaze dropping to the floor.

"You assumed because of what you said downstairs we'd want you to leave." Careful not to frighten the boy further, Josiah pat the side of the bed, before taking a seat in the rocker.

"Come here, Ezra. Sit down." He waited patiently as the tense little southerner cautiously obeyed; seemingly prepared for the punishment he was so sure the preacher was going to dole out.

"Look at me, Ezra." Josiah bit back a smile at seeing the hint of defiance visible in the frightened green gaze which rose to met his. "No one's angry at you, Ezra, and we most definitely don't want you to leave." This time the ex-priest did smile, hoping the boy would not only hear the truth in the words, but see it in his eyes as well. "Now, would you tell me why you said that?"

Ezra shrugged, dropping his gaze once more, the soft words barely audible in the silent room. "Uncles are mean."

"Not all uncles are mean," Josiah clarified quietly.

"The ones I know are." Ezra exclaimed sharply, then sighed. "The ones I know don't have to care about the pawned off kid because he ain't theirs. Therefore, they make him work for his keep, 'cause a kid that ain't theirs ain't nothin', but free labor to 'em."

Gaining a bit more insight into the relationship between Ezra and the uncle he'd been visiting before arriving in Four Corners, Josiah took a deep breath, getting a better grip on his anger. As much as he wanted to learn more about the people who had patterned young Ezra's thinking, the preacher didn't think now was the time.

"Ya know, Ezra, we like to think of ourselves as your uncles for no other reason than we care about ya. We enjoy havin' ya around." He hesitated, searching for words to make the child understand and believe. "We hoped you like havin' us around too---"

"I do!" Ezra half-sobbed. " I-I mean...I'm sorry about sayin' that....I didn't---"

"It's alright. No one's mad at you, son." Josiah carefully reached out, patting the child's knee.

"No one's going to get mad at you or send you away for sharing your feelings. It helps if we understand why you feel like you do and you need to understand, while we may get mad at the circumstances which caused you to feel that way, it doesn't mean we're mad at you."

Swiping at the tears which escaped to roll down his cheeks, Ezra stared at the big man. This preacher had nothing in common with his Uncle Bradley. In fact, each of the peacekeepers was as different from anyone he'd ever known as a working girl was from a Covent nun.

"When somethin's botherin' ya, Ezra, we want ya ta feel free ta come ta any of us about it," the preacher continued. "It may seem strange ta some people 'cause we ain't rightly blood kin, but the six of us are a family of sorts... and now, if ya want, you're a part of that family."

"Me?" Ezra questioned, his tear bright eyes shimmering with wonder. "You want me to be part of your family?"

"Yes, you." Josiah chuckled; hiding his sadness the little boy seemed so surprised anyone would even want him. "Tell ya what....How 'bout you think of us as brothers, rather than uncles?"

If possible the child's green eyes grew even wider. "Really?...Brothers?"

"Can't think of another southern gambler I'd rather have for a brother than Ezra P. Standish." The man grinned, ruffling Ezra's chestnut hair. "Vin, would ya come in here, please?" Josiah called, certain, worried about his little charge, the tracker was patiently waiting in the hall with the other regulators.

Confirmation came when the sound of several feet scurrying away, filtered into the room as Vin stepped through the door, his expression one of guilt at being caught eavesdropping.

Smiling, Josiah silently began unpacking the carpetbag as taking a seat beside Ezra Vin slipped an arm around the little southerner. "Everything okay, lil pard?"

Sniffling, Ezra nodded, leaning into the embrace.

"Josiah says y'all want me ta be part a your family." Ezra couldn't bring himself to look at the Texan, afraid he'd see denial in the man's azure eyes. "He said ya can be my brothers."

"You are part of our family. We love ya, lil pard." Tanner declared simply. "We'd be proud being your brothers."

"But," Ezra bit his lip, then blurted, "I don't want you to be my brother, Vin!" The little southerner missed the sad painful hurt that flickered in the tracker's blue eyes at his words. Hitching his breath, he softly added, "I wish you could be my papa."

His heart swelling with emotion, Tanner pulled the child closer as he swallowed around the lump in his throat. "I wish I was, too...but we can always keep pretendin'," Vin whispered emotionally.

The ex-bounty hunter held the little boy for several moments before finally tilting up Ezra's face, blue eyes meeting emerald. "So what'd ya say, Ez? Ya gonna help me whop Chris and win my bet?"

"I can't." Ezra's face flushed red again as he scooted away from the man he admired. "I...I...don't know...I've never...If you want to win, it would be beneficial to ask someone else to be your partner for the upcoming games."

"It ain't about winnin', Ezra." Josiah told him, exchanging an understanding glance with Vin. "It's about havin' fun."

"But---"

"No buts, lil pard." Tanner shook his head stopping him before Ezra could voice his protest. "We done picked who we wanted. We're just waitin' on 'im ta decide iffen we're good enough for 'im ta partner with."

Minutes later, Josiah grinned proudly as tightly clutching Vin's hand, walking between the tracker and priest as they returned to the dining room, Ezra timidly slipped his other hand into the preacher's huge one.

"Got an announcement, fellas," Josiah proclaimed as the southerner reclaimed his seat. "Ezra has decided he'd rather be our little brother than our nephew, if that's alright with you all."

Happy agreements filled the air as the men assured their little gambler how pleased they were by his decision, everyone raising their glasses as Buck made a toast welcoming their youngest brother into their ragtag family.

"This means yer gonna be our partner for the games, right?" JD questioned.

"I would be most honored to partner with any of you gentleman..." The boy graced them with a dimpled grin. "And yes Vin, I'll help ya whop the tar outta Chris."

Chatter filled the air and Ezra was surprised to discover how hungry he truly was when his appetite returned with a vengeance as Mrs. O'Riley exchanged his cold dinner for a fresh plate of hot food.

Full of friendly teasing and good-natured bantering, the discussion turned once more to the upcoming festivities and which events the peacekeepers had entered or should enter, who was likely to win, and who would be the most competition.

"I hear Mr. Mayfield is providing his sow's newest litter for the piglet catch," Nathan commented. "As quick as ya are Ezra, ya oughta think about signin' up for that one."

The fork stopped before reaching Ezra's open mouth as he stared at the healer in shock. "Why on God's green earth would I want to do such a thing?" He finally questioned, his voice finding its way past his disbelief at the dark man's suggestion.

"Because it sounds like fun!" JD seemed surprised by the child's question. "They let the piglets out into a big corral and the first kid to catch one gets to keep it."

"I know how the game is played, Mr. Dunne. Just what would I do with the creature if, by chance, I managed to win?" The southerner searched for an argument that would allow him to win the debate graciously. "I don't think Mrs. O'Riley would appreciate having the beast as a boarder in her lovely home."

"Heck, Ezra, if ya win ya got the choice of keepin' the pig or sellin' it back ta Mayfield for two dollars," Buck jumped into the conversation.

Remaining silent, not wanting to pressure the child, Vin, Chris and Josiah exchanged looks of amusement as the child weighed this new information.

Larabee watched Ezra over the rim of his coffee cup, wondering what thoughts were whirling behind those emerald eyes as the southerner's glance continued to dart from his plate to the healer.

Ezra didn't taste the food, his mind searching for an escape that wouldn't insult the peacekeepers. Or worse yet, disappoint them again. But he could find no exit. He understood they only wanted him to have a good time and to them, enjoying the celebration meant joining in. Hadn't they just been talking of the events in which they planned to participate?

"I'd enter if it wasn't just fer kids," JD pronounced.

"Hell, youngun', ya still qualify," Buck teased. "But I know what ya mean. I'd enter, too. Know I could catch one a them critters afore you."

Seeing the glimmer in Ezra's eyes, Chris wisely kept quiet as hoping to offer the boy encouragement the other men all quickly agreed they would gladly join in the fun if only they were young enough.

"If it will please you gentlemen, I'll be more than happy to sign my name to the entry form." Ezra informed them, shoveling another forkful of food into his mouth to hide the threatening grin.

*******

"Now what the hell is goin' on?" Larabee growled.

The town was quickly beginning to fill up as people began to arrive for the weekend festivities. It seemed as if everyone in the territory was traveling to Four Corners and the peacekeepers had already broken up two arguments before they escalated into all out war.

Setting aside the broom, he'd been using to clean the jail floor, Ezra hurriedly followed the gunslinger and tracker outside. The thunderous beating of a large bass drum preceded the arrival of the traveling show and people crowded onto the boardwalk, excitedly talking and pointing as several colorfully painted wagons came into view.

The watching crowd cheered and clapped as several acrobats following the conveyance performed cartwheels, flips, hand stands and other tricks. Two men in funny looking clothes and face paint made a great show of pulling different colored scarves from thin air, pennies from children's ears and presenting wild flowers collected from the prairie to the townswomen.

Children squealed with delight, the men laughed and smiling mothers protectively kept their little ones close, as they watched the two chimpanzees marching in the parade, one dressed as a cowhand, the other in a calico dress and bonnet. Each was dragging a pouch of flyers denoting the many offerings of the show.

Everyone nervously moved aside as chattering noisely, the two animals suddenly scampered down the road toward the jail. Uncertain what to do, their hands resting on the butts of their weapons, Vin and Chris watched in amazement as the small southerner sitting on the edge of the boardwalk, hugged the creatures who practically threw themselves at him.

"Hello Mr. BoJoe, it's good to see you again. Why Miss Melly is that a new dress?"

Tanner and Larabee shared a grin as the animals seemed to respond to the child, the female hugging his neck and resting her head on his shoulder.

"I'll be damned!" Josiah chuckled joining the two regulators. "Ya ever seen anything like that in yer life? Beginnin' ta think that boy could charm the birds right outta the trees."

"Reckon we oughta keep a close eye on these here show folk." Buck chimed in as he approached, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively, as several women in low cut gowns and fancy head-dresses flirted with the cowhands, handing out the same flyers as the chimps. "I mean, after the last time..."

"The last time the woman ya was flirtin' with turned out to be a man." JD chuckled, ducking Buck's playful swipe at his head. Working his way through the children who'd gathered around, the sheriff stooped beside Ezra. "See ya made ya some friends there, Ez. Kinda cute ain't they?"

"And very intelligent Sheriff Dunne." Ezra smiled as the larger chimp held out it's arms to the sheriff for a hug.

Both chimps' heads snapped around at the sound of a shrill whistle and Melly scurried after the last wagon. Ezra caught BoJoe's paw as he pulled away from JD, giving the animal another quick hug. No one noticed the child slip his hand into the pocket of the tiny trousers the chimp wore removing the sheriff's pocket knife before sending Mr. BoJoe on his way.

"I believe you dropped this Mr. Dunne." His gaze on the last wagon, Ezra returned the knife to its owner as still talking about the impromptu parade the crowd around them began to disperse.

*******

Seated in front of Tanner, Ezra worriedly chewed at his bottom lip as the regulators walked their horses through the sideshows. The child's pleasure at riding along with the peacekeepers had vanished with the discovery they intended to visit the traveling show's owner.

What if the lawmen discovered he hadn't told them the entire story of how he knew about Randall's show? Was an omission of facts still considered a lie?

"Lot bigger than the last travelin' show ain't it?" The young sheriff's comment drew Ezra's attention back to his surroundings. He couldn't help noticing the few glances given the peacekeepers as tents were erected, games set up and animals fed, were full of suspicion.

The small southerner's grip tightened on the saddle horn and he ducked his head hoping no one would remember the urchin who'd lived among them for two long weeks.

"Yer head turns any faster kid and it's gonna come right off yer shoulders." Wilmington chuckled as JD swiveled in the saddle trying to see everything at once.

Before Dunne could answer, a raucous roar filled the air. The regulators fought to control their mounts as with nervous whinnies and neighs the startled animals bucked, reared and danced about, fighting their riders in an effort to escape.

"What the hell was that?" Jumping from the saddle, JD grabbed his horse's bridle stroking the animal's sleek neck as the others quickly dismounted, attempting to soothe their own mounts.

"That's what you wished me to imitate at the dinner table." Ezra giggled as setting him safely aside, Vin turned his attention to calming Peso.

"Guess we know now Ez was right about not letting them bring that critter inta town." Larabee commented, securely tying the black's reins to a nearby stringer line. "Let's go lay down the law to this Randell fella."

"Ya don't really think he'll bring it into town if he's plannin' on chargin' folks ta see it do ya?" Nate questioned as he securely hitched his horse.

"I'm really surprised it wasn't part of the parade. What better way to make people wanna spend their money then to whet their curiosity with a glimpse of what they'll be getting?" It was the little southerner who answered the healer's question.

"Guess we should make certain he don't decide to whet them appetites." Tanner grinned.

Ezra hesitated as the men set off in search of Randall. "If you gentlemen don't mind, I think I'll wait here while you talk to Mr. Randall."

"Don't ya wanna look around Ez?" JD's own wide eyed gaze continued to roam over the activity taking place in the large grove.

"I already know what Mr. Randall's show has to offer." The little boy took a seat on a log near the horses. He didn't think it was likely at the moment but Ezra knew belongings had a way of disappearing from saddlebags when the crowds arrived.

"Somethin' wrong Lil Pard?" Tanner stooped in front of the child, wondering if perhaps he should have left the child in town.

In truth he had two reasons for bringing the small southerner with them. He had suspected there was more to Ezra's knowledge of the traveling show than a mere visit when the show passed near town, but after imparting that small bit of information at the dinner table, the child had said nothing more about his experience.

Vin had hoped Ezra would not only enjoy the short ride to the campsite but might also decide to tell them the whole story behind his acquaintance with the chimpanzees, who when spotting the child in the large crowd had made a beeline for the little boy. Almost as amazing was the fact the had hugged them without fear or reservation and called them by name.

Yet, while Ezra had appeared calm, the closer they came to their destination, Tanner had felt the growing tension which seemed to radiate from his passenger.

"Of course not Mr. Tanner." Ezra quickly searched for an explanation that wouldn't be an outright lie. "It's just not appropriate for a child to be present while adults discuss business." 'Unless of course they're involved in the con.'

"After we get done here how 'bout the two a us, take a ride out ta the swimmin' hole?" The tracker suggested. "Then tanight we'll go down ta the barn dance, eat some a the desserts the ladies are bringin' and see iffen we can find ya a pretty wife." His smile widened as gently poking the boy's belly his remarks drew forth a happy giggle. Patting Ezra's shoulder, Tanner pushed to his feet and followed after the other lawmen.

Ezra watched the peacekeepers as they moved across the grove, JD dragging Buck off in search of the exotic animals, leaving the others to deal with the show's owner.

"So little one, the spirits were correct."

Ezra whirled at the heavily accented voice, his dimples deepening as a smile graced his face. "Madame Marishka!"

An older woman dressed in colorful garb denoting her as a gypsy took a seat on the log beside the southerner returning the hug he offered without hesitation.

This wise old woman had treated the child kindly during his stay with the travelers, watching over him, making certain he had meals and a warm place to sleep. She'd entertained him with stories of her ancestors, tales of her own adventures and had taught him a few small tricks of her trade.

The woman's age was indiscernable. She could have been forty or eighty but her soft dark eyes held the wisdom and strength of a thousand years.

She kept a comforting arm about the little boy who leaned against her as they spent several moments catching up, the small southerner asking her to warn Randall the show should leave the area with only the money spent by the customers. He thought the show man should know the regulators took their job of protecting the citizens very seriously.

Ezra suddenly straightened. "What do you mean the spirits were right?"

Marishka made a tsking sound. "Do you not remember the night before we left?"

Ezra remembered. He had spent the night in Madame's wagon. He had refused to show the overwhelming sadness that gripped him at the thought of her leaving but hadn't been able to bring himself to beg her to take him with her, yet she had known.

Over dinner that night, Madame Marishka had let the child down as gently as possible, subtly making him understand how much she had come to care for him and how happy she would be if he belonged to her. Then she'd offered him a reading.

Having been around con artists entire his young life, Ezra had seen most scams but not wanting to hurt her feelings had hid his skepticism as the old woman had lit the candles and read his future in the tarot cards.

Just as she did with her paying customers Marishka had explained how the cards were mere instruments the spirits used to tell mortals of their destiny.

"Did the spirits not say you would find your true family?" She smiled. "Did they not say you would have brothers who would love and care for you?"

Ezra's emerald gaze darted to where Vin and Chris stood talking with Randall. 'How about you think of us as brothers rather than uncles.' Josiah's words ringing in his ears stopped the boy's protest before it was spoken. He remembered the happiness which had washed over him as the six men gathered around the dinner table welcomed him to their family.

"They are good men yes?" Madame quizzed softly.

"The best...but..."

"But you fear you will disappoint them." It was a simple statement which didn't require an answer. "They will understand and forgive, little one."

Ezra gazed up at Marishka, suddenly warmed by her smile but unable to hide his overwhelming doubt.

"Trust me little one, these men love you, just as you love them."

*******

His 'excuse me' going ignored, Ezra tried to push his way through the mass of people and, still unable to see, finally climbed up on the railing in an attempt to see over the heads of the crowd.

Standing on tiptoe, the little boy could just barely see Vin Tanner. The tracker was seated at one corner of the long table that had been set up outside the restaurant. Ignoring the other men sitting at the table, the longhaired man’s hungry gaze was fully focused on the pie in front of him.

Ezra could see Chris stood behind Vin, ready to replace the empty tin with a full one when necessary.

His gaze sweeping over the crowded street, Ezra had to admit despite his numerous, but fully unfounded trepidations, he had enjoyed the festivities arranged to celebrate Independence Day.

That first day, he'd nervously followed the sharpshooter around the traveling show, finally starting to relax only when the barkers and performers didn't appear to recognize him. To his delight, using Ezra's warning about the games offered, Vin had compensated for the sights on the guns in the shooting gallery and won the child a tin cup and matching plate to use when they went camping.

When they had returned from the swimming hole, Tanner had insisted the little southerner eat the evening meal provided by the boarding house. Desserts had been in abundance at the barn dance and Ezra found his plate constantly refilled with a variety of pies, cakes and cookies each time one of the peacekeepers passed by. Miss Nettie had finally come to his rescue, scolding the men they were liable to make the child explode before they fattened him.

Ezra'd awakened Saturday morning surprised to find he was actually looking forward to the upcoming competition. The previous games had been amusing to watch and he couldn't help but smile thinking of the fun he'd had participating in them.

Neither Chris nor Vin had won the bet on the three-legged race as both teams had ended up in a pile with several other racers when the team in the lead had tripped, sending half of the contestants sprawling in a heap of tangled arms and legs.

The peacekeepers had cheered when Buck and Ezra took second place in the egg toss, and afterwards, JD had teased Wilmington about his so-called gentle touch as the womanizer washed the broken egg from his hand.

They had watched as Nathan won the blue ribbon in the horse shoe tournament and Ezra had yelled himself hoarse cheering for Josiah who eventually lost the arm wrestling competition to the town's burly blacksmith.

Larabee had surprised everyone by winning the bronco busting competition in the small rodeo portion of the celebration and everyone had attempted to console JD when his horse threw a shoe which kept him from winning the horse race.

Tanner had finally carried the exhausted southerner to bed after Ezra had fallen asleep at the evening’s dance. Ezra had tried to stay awake, but sitting at the table, after taking only a few bites of Miss Travis' lemon cake, he hadn’t been able to keep his eyes open.

"Whoa there, Lil' Pard!"

Wilmington’s voice drew Ezra's attention back to the street as the big man slipped an arm around his waist, keeping him balanced as the boy wobbled precariously on the porch rail.

"Don't reckon Vin's gonna be able ta win this one," JD commented, warily eyeing the other pie eating contestants as he and Sanchez strolled up to join them. "Look at the size a them other fellas. I'll bet any one of 'em could eat a side a beef in one sittin'."

The other participants did indeed seem to out-weigh the lean Texan by more than a few pounds.

"I don't think it's about winning as much as it is the chance to have as much pie as Vin can eat …without having to share it with all y'all.” Ezra grinned, his dimples flashing. "At least as much as he can eat in the allotted time."

"Yer probably right about that, little brother," Josiah laughed, ruffling the boy’s hair.

"Good thing ‘cause I don't reckon he's got a snowball's chance in hell." Buck muttered.

Ezra glanced from the pie in front of his guardian to the womanizer. "Would you care to make a small wager on the outcome, Mr. Wilmington?" The little southerner innocently questioned, his green eyes twinkling mischievously.

"Now, Ezra, ya know..." The womanizer hesitated his dark blue gaze scanning the table. "Aw, hell, I got eight bits says Grady wins."

"Buck, tell me ya ain't encouragin' that child’s gamblin'." Nathan admonished, seeing the boy furiously writing in his notebook, nodding agreement as several men moved to place bets with the child.

Knowing how the healer felt about his 'profession', Ezra hurried to finish, hoping not to further anger the man.

Flustered by the healer’s reprimand, Wilmington searched for a quick reply. "Think of it as Ez learnin' a lesson about the foolhardiness of gamblin'. He's got it in his head Vin's gonna win this go round."

The ex-slave opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again, his dark eyes straying over Vin’s competition as preparations were being finished and Judge Travis moved through the crowd. "Bet ya two dollars he's right."

"You're on." Wilmington quickly agreed before Jackson could change his mind. "Gonna make me three easy dollars, just standin' here enjoyin' the show."

Ezra gave the healer a dazzling grin, once again rapidly jotting down bets.

*******

"I still can't believe it!" Wilmington muttered, not for the first time as he glanced to where the lean tracker, his arm around the little southerner's shoulders, laughed at some comment from Ezra. "Two and a half pies in ten minutes! Who the hell woulda thought it?"

Vin's closest competitor had just been finishing his second pie when Orrin Travis had called the allotted ten minute time limit.

"Well, evidently Ez and Nate." Josiah chuckled.

"How come ya bet on Vin, Nathan?" JD questioned. "I mean, all them other fellas was alot bigger. Common sense tells ya he shouldn't a won.” He shrugged. “I reckon maybe Ezra only bet on him ‘cause he felt obligated."

"I doubt that. In case ya forgot, Ezra keeps tellin' ya he's a gambler." Chris joined in on the conversation. "He might feel obligated ta Vin, but he gambles ta win."

"Like the rest of us, I guess Ezra just knows how much Vin loves Miss Nettie's peach pie." Nathan chuckled. "And iffen ya'd been very observant at all, ya'd have noticed those pie tins had her initials scratched on the side of 'em."

"Sonuvabitch!" Wilmington moaned, as laughing, Chris slapped Nathan's shoulder and they moved off to join the Texan and southerner.

*******

Ignoring the sneers of the other boys, with a last look back at the peacekeepers who called out encouragement, Ezra gingerly stepped into the large corral. Tugging at the stiff overalls Tanner had purchased for him, the boy attempted not to flinch as the mud squished beneath his boots.

At the rail, Vin smiled and nodded as Ezra took his place on one end of the line of boys waiting for the piglets to be released for the pig catching contest.

Also along the rail, judging the contest, Orrin Travis was more than a little surprised to see Tanner's small charge standing in the corner of the corral. Dressed in overalls and Billy's old boots, the boy certainly didn't look like the little gentleman who had stood before His Honor a few weeks earlier. Travis was well aware that child wouldn't have gotten within ten yards of a muddy corral.

Suddenly, cheers filled the air, mixing with squeals of the frightened animals as the brood of piglets was released into the corral.

Oblivious of the shouted directions and laughter of onlookers, as the other boys dove into the mud in vain attempts to capture the quick creatures, Ezra remained standing in the corner, his only movement was to step back closer to the railing.

"Why's he just standin' there?" JD questioned his companions, shaking his head in disbelief. “He ain’t gonna catch nothin like that!”

"Maybe he's scared," Nathan suggested before loudly urging the little boy to join the chase.

Disparaging remarks about the boy made by several near bystanders were abruptly silenced by the glares thrown their way from the six peacekeepers.

"He agreed to sign up, but I don't recollect him actually sayin' he'd chase the critters." Buck chuckled. "Ya know how he feels about gettin' dirty."

"He's schemin'," Vin's voice was soft as he watched the child he'd come to love like a son. Six pairs of eyes remained riveted on the unmoving southerner.

Waiting patiently, Ezra’s green eyes darted about the area following the animals as they eluded the competitors. The child noted both human and swine beginning to tire. His gaze finally settled on the runt of the litter. With a loud squeal, the tiny animal squirmed out from under the body of one of Ezra's earlier tormentors and headed in his direction.

Ezra's only move as the piglet dashed past him was to turn and take a step closer to it, blocking the little animal's possible escape.

"It's all right, little fella, I ain't gonna hurt ya." Ezra kept his voice soft, taking another step closer to the animal. "I promise I won't let any of these ruffians hurt you...Oh, don't misunderstand, they aren't all bullies. Billy's nice and Jimmy Taylor is an all right fella although Josiah sometimes loses patience with his wise cracks in school." The boy continued to talk as he slowly approached the piglet, quietly describing several of the other boys to the small animal which stood watching his approach but did not run.

"Let's get you and your siblings back to your mama as quickly as possible, okay?”

The animal seemed entranced, almost snuggling against the boy as Ezra scooped him up and walked toward the corral exit. The child was smiling widely as he scratched behind the little swine's ears.

"We have a winner!" Judge Travis called out when Ezra reached the gate.

The peacekeepers, yelling and whistling, hurried forward, surrounding Ezra.

Applause filled the air as parents rushed to help their muddy children from the corral and to the nearest horse troughs.

"Only our little brother could win a pig catching contest without getting covered in mud." Nathan laughed as the littlest member of their family handed the little piglet to the surprised Judge and accepted the two-dollar prize, then, using the bandana Josiah offered, began wiping the dirty imprint of the piglet from the front of his overalls.

"Good job, Pard!" Tanner scooped the child into his arms, giving Ezra a bear hug before settling him on his hip.

"May I have your attention please?" Orrin Travis, having passed the little swine off to its owner, raised his hands. He called out several times before silence fell over the crowd which had started moving toward the corrals being set up for other rodeo events.

"First let me add my congratulations to the winner of our latest contest, Ezra P. Standish."

Ezra blushed as the crowd joined Travis' applause.

"I must say that was the most…. unusual method of catching a pig I've ever witnessed." Travis returned Ezra's grin as the little southerner gave him a slight nod, accepting the comment as the compliment it was meant to be. "Now, it was brought to my daughter-in-law's attention several of the adult males felt a little left out of this contest, stating they would love to participate if only they were a little younger."

Larabee didn't attempt to hide his own growing smile as he watched his men squirm uncomfortably, their gazes darting to the little boy in Tanner's arms. No one failed to notice the innocent smile didn't match the gleam in the child’s big green eyes.

"So Mr. Mayfield has graciously offered the use of several other animals to help us." Orrin continued when the cheers died down. Behind him, several half grown pigs were released into the fenced area. "Would the following gentlemen please step into the corral? JD Dunne, Buck Wilmington, Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez and Vin Tanner."

"I think you're bein' summoned, boys." Chris laughed, taking Ezra from Tanner before anyone could react. "Better not keep the folks waitin."

"Just a damn minute!" Buck protested as he slowly started to follow his fellow regulators. "How the hell come yer name wasn't called?"

"Because, old friend, I, was observant."

Getting into the spirit of the game, Tanner and JD exchanged grins and quickly shed their hats, Vin placing his on Ezra's head as Larabee set the boy on the top rail and wrapped his arms around the child's waist.

"Would anyone else care to join the contest?" Travis called out as, setting aside their hats, the five peacekeepers began removing their gun belts, hanging the weapons on the gate post. Laughter filled the air as men held up their hands in mock horror and friends tried to volunteer each other. "Come now, folks! Surely you're not going to let these five upstanding gentlemen entertain us all by themselves are you?…No one else?…Well then… Let the game begin!"

Larabee wasn't sure which he enjoyed more, watching the antics of his five friends or the little southerner's shouts of encouragement and peels of laughter as Ezra called out to each of the men, his arms waving wildly as he tried to send them after the closest swine. Certain the boy was secretly hoping his guardian would win, Larabee was impressed Ezra cheered for each of the men equally hard.

Chris almost lost his hold on the little southerner when they both succumbed to a fit of uncontrollable laughter as JD, Buck and Nathan all focused on capturing the same animal, collided, each landing in the muck while the animal scurried between their legs and out of reach.

Inadvertently knocked onto his rear by Josiah, his fingers missing his intended prey by inches, Tanner rolled over and wrapping both arms around the preacher's legs brought the big man down with a squishy thud.

In the end, sheer determination won out when, dragging a squirming, squealing pig by his hind legs, JD finally reached the gate, mere seconds ahead of Wilmington who clutched a wildly struggling animal in his arms.

All five men collapsed into the mud as Travis laughingly called out the winner.

Later, as night fell, Chris let his gaze wander over the crowd, searching for, but not expecting trouble. His gaze lingered on Mary, seated at his side on a blanket, with Billy on her lap, their faces turned skyward.

Every citizen in the territory seemed to have gathered at the edge of town, watching in awe the display of color which lit the summer night sky as the fireworks show signaled the end of the year’s celebration.

Without thinking, Larabee glanced at each of his men. JD and Casey shyly holding hands, their eyes on the heavens. Nathan, his arm around Rain, her head resting on his shoulder. Buck and Molly sharing a blanket, the saloon girl giggling as Wilmington whispered in her ear. Chris had to smile. He knew his old friend was no doubt promising the young lady fireworks of her own once they were back in her room.

Further beyond them, Josiah sat talking with Travis, smiling and nodding, both men's gazes straying to the blanket on the other side of Chris.

Vin Tanner sat next to Larabee, Ezra on his lap. The little boy leaned back against the tracker's chest, his head resting in the hollow of Vin's shoulder as Tanner’s arms lightly encircled the child, holding him safe.

It dawned on Chris the six men and their companions had gathered together to watch the fireworks display as naturally as any of the other families around them. Larabee nodded to himself.

Josiah was right: they were a family.

Now, looking to his side, a satisfied smile touched Larabee's lips at seeing the peaceful expression of contentment on Ezra's face as the little boy snuggled deeper into Tanner's arms. As the fireworks exploded overhead, highlighting the tracker’s lean visage, he saw that same expression of happiness mirrored on the Texan's face.

A smile tugged at the older man’s lips and he sighed contentedly. Tightening his arm about Mary’s shoulders, he turned his gaze towards the heavens, giving in to the age-old childlike pleasure of ohhing and ahhing with the others as the colors exploded overhead.

For the moment their family was complete…. And all was well in their little corner of the world.


THE END