Interlude: Making Arrangements

by LaraMee

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

Note: This is a short interlude that takes place after Beth’s version of One Day Out West. We felt that we needed a little description of how the boys and their benefactors settle in to a life as a family.

Judge Travis made his way into the newspaper office, finding one man and two small boys dancing around and crowing. He winced as the sounds cut through his aching head like canon fire, one hand pressing against his forehead as the room swayed slightly. He suddenly found the tall blond standing beside him, holding onto his arm to steady him. Not quite ready to trust his voice, the older man managed a wan smile of thanks.

“Buck, you and your brood wanna quiet down a little?” Larabee asked pointedly.

Seeing the Judge, Wilmington offered a heartfelt apology and quickly shushed the boys.

Chris and Mary managed to settle the injured Travis in a chair. The older man looked up, studying the two men before him. “I’d hoped I’d catch you two before you disappeared.”

Frowning, Buck asked, “What can we do for you, sir?”

“I appreciate what you men did for me back there. I could use men of your caliber. Would the two of you consider sticking around for a while; keeping an eye on things? I’ve already spoken to Mr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez. I’ve even offered Mr. Standish a pardon. However, after watching you… both of you… in action, I can think of no one better suited to oversee this rather… unorthodox arrangement. What do you say, gentlemen?”

Chris and Buck looked at one another, and then looked down at the small boys. If they were going to take on child-rearing, they needed to consider staying on one place for more than a day or two.

Reading the same thing in the other man’s expression, Larabee turned toward Travis. With a nod, he said, “Reckon we could give it a try.”

The strange little foursome stepped out onto the boardwalk, Buck closing the door to the newspaper office as he tipped his hat to the blonde woman inside. Then he turned to his old friend, nodding toward the restaurant down the street. “Don’t know ‘bout you, Pard, but I’m about hungry enough to eat the south end of a northbound mule. What say we take these two desperados down and get ‘em something to eat?”

Rolling his eyes at his friend’s colorful description, Chris nevertheless had to agree. With a nod, he asked the two little ones, “You two hungry?”

JD’s “'Course I’m hungry” blended with Vin’s nod, letting their new caregivers know that two little tummies were, indeed, in need of fuel. Larabee laid a hand on the diminutive blond’s shoulder as they headed down the boardwalk. Behind them, Buck swung the tiny brunet up over his shoulder, carrying him like a sack of potatoes. The little Easterner, hanging upside down over the broad back, squealed and giggled as they moved quickly down the street.

At the door to the restaurant, Chris turned and gave Buck an exasperated look that told him the noise really wasn’t needed, nor wanted, at the table. With a big grin, the tall brunet swung his cargo to the ground, swatting the little behind as they entered the establishment.

A few minutes later, the foursome was seated at a corner table, Larabee choosing the seat that allowed him the best view of the rest of the room. Vin sat beside him, the little blond worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth. Beside him, JD astonished them all with his ability to read the neatly printed menu. As the bigger boy stared at the paper, his recently acquired ‘brother’ announced the selections.

“They gots fried chicken… I like fried chicken. And they gots steak, but you can’t eat steak with your fingers like you can chicken. They gots mashed ‘tatoes and gravy… cornbread… biscuits… oooo! They gots pie, Vin!”

The two adults, shaking their heads at the precocious child, watched to two little ones. Chris couldn’t help but notice that, the more JD read, the more withdrawn Vin seemed. It wasn’t hard to figure out that, given the child’s deprived life, he couldn’t read; or at least not well. He tried to figure out how to address the fact that JD’s ability was farther outside the norm than Vin’s ignorance of the printed word. To his relief and dismay, Buck solved that small dilemma.

“Little britches, where’d you learn to read like that?” He reached out and ruffled the long, dark bangs.

Shrugging, JD replied, “My Ma teached me. When she wasn’t workin’, we’d go for walks ‘round town. We’d stop at ‘bout every sign there was, and she’d teach me what the letters mean. She said she wanted me to get lots of ed-a-casion ‘cause bein’ smart is ‘portant. She said that smart men runs the world.” The tyke paused then, sniffing and wiping at his eyes. Without looking up, he said, “I miss my Ma.”

Before the men could respond, Vin wrapped one thin arm around his friend’s shoulders, looking at Buck with a hint of anger in his eyes. There was also sadness in those big, blue depths that told them the older boy was missing his mother, as well.

Clearing his throat and begging forgiveness with his eyes, Wilmington said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you sad.” His expression said that comment was meant for both children.

Noisily sniffing and wiping away his tears, JD managed a trembling smile. “It’s okay, Mr. Buck. I like to think ‘bout my Ma… but when I do I ‘member that she’s up in heaven where I can’t see her no more.”

Any further discussion was stalled as the waitress came over to take their orders. Buck and Chris exchanged a glance that said perhaps they had gotten in over their heads with these two little boys. At the same time, something about the children drew the men to them. Call it a sense of stability or a reawakening of that part of them that had died along with the loss of the blond’s family. Whatever it was, the two nomadic gunmen suddenly found themselves with responsibilities and ties; to both the town and the two children seated between them.

Later, the foursome lingered at the table, the boys eating pieces of apple pie and washing it down with glasses of milk. Vin had requested lemonade, but Chris had convinced him that milk went better with pie. The blond and his old friend had relaxed in their chairs, drinking coffee and watching the children.

“I’ve been thinkin’,” Buck announced.

“That’s usually a dangerous proposition.” Larabee quipped.

Giving his friend a smile, the bigger man continued. “If we’re gonna be here for awhile, we might wanna think about the sleepin’ arrangements.”

“What’s sleepin’ ‘rangements?” JD asked; a frown on his little face.

“I think what Buck means is, you and Vin might be happier if you had your own room.” Chris explained. Then turning back to the other man, he said, “You think that’s wise?”

“Well, reckon we could check to see if the boarding house has any adjoinin’ rooms. We could put the boys in a room between yours and mine. That way we could keep an eye on ‘em, but we wouldn’t be all crowded up.”

“But I already got a room, ‘hind Mr. Watson’s store,” Vin announced.

“True,” Chris agreed.

“Yeah, but I’d imagine he wouldn’t mind if you moved out,” Buck reasoned.

Frowning, the little blond argued, “But I like workin’ for ‘im.”

“You could still work for him, even if you didn’t live in the store.” Wilmington wasn’t ready to let this go yet.

“Well…” little Tanner considered that for a few seconds. “Reckon he wouldn’t mind havin’ that part of the storeroom back. I reckon I could ask ‘im.”

Turning to the smaller child, Buck asked, “What do you think, little britches?”

Hesitating briefly, JD said, “If Vin stays in the room, too, I guess it’d be okay.” He wasn’t ready to share the fact that he had never slept in a room alone in his life. He had shared their cramped little room with his mother and, after she died, he’d slept in Granny’s room with her. Even on the trip west he’d slept on a pallet on the floor in the adults room. The night Vin had found him would have been his first time sleeping alone.

Vin had been studying his friend’s face and knew there was something he wasn’t saying. He wasn’t certain what it was, but decided that his friend didn’t like the idea of staying in a room alone. Turning back to Chris, he asked, “Can I be ‘scused? I’ll go an’ ask Mr. Watson ‘bout it. If yer sure ya want us stayin’ with ya?”

Larabee heard the silent plea and, despite his misgivings about keeping this child in his life, he smiled. “You go ask Mr. Watson about it, so we can go see to our new sleeping arrangements.”

His smile growing broader by the second, the seven-year-old nodded. Climbing down from his seat, he scurried from the restaurant.

Vin came back a short time later, beaming from ear to ear. Mr. Watson had, indeed, agreed to keep him on as his helper. He even increased his pay to seven pennies a week since he would no longer need room and board. The foursome left the restaurant and went to discuss things with the judge. It took a little persuasion, primarily in the form of Buck’s charm and Chris’ reputation, but the judge agreed to increase their room and board allowance to include enough for the third room and the food the children would require.

The next stop was the boarding house. They found that the second floor did, indeed, have a trio of rooms with adjoining doors. Apprising the woman who ran the establishment of their arrangement with Travis, they were allowed to move into the rooms later that day.

While Chris and Buck moved their things into the rooms on each side, the boys went to collect their meager belongings. Soon Vin was carrying a tattered bundle up the stairs, JD following him, his little satchel banging softly against each step as he dragged it up the stairs.

They crossed the threshold, Vin stopping so abruptly that JD ran into him with an annoyed “oof”. The little blond looked at the room, shocked and amazed that this would all be theirs. Most of his life had consisted of living out of the bundle he carried, sleeping in corners on blankets or beneath foul-smelling wagons on the ground. To him, this looked like a palace. Turning to the tall blond, he said “This is all fer us?”

Chris nodded.

Turning toward the brunet, now, he asked, “We don’t gotta share with no one else? Jist me ‘n’ JD’s gonna sleep in here?”

Buck nodded, adding, “Do you like it?”

To young Tanner it looked like a palace; with more room than he figured most houses had. He couldn’t quite make the words come, though, so he simply nodded, unconsciously mimicking Larabee.

Behind him, JD was slightly less impressed by the accommodations, having spent his life – until meeting these people – living indoors. It was far larger than the cramped quarters he’d lived in, however. His evaluation yielded, “Wow! We could run races in here!”

Putting away their things, with the help of their guardians, took only a few minutes. Then the boys were allowed to get used to the new living arrangements, opening and closing the doors and slipping in and out of the adult’s rooms while Chris and Buck saw to their own belongings. After the fourth time of having the children “practicin’ sneakin’ up on folks” by tiptoeing into his room, Buck explained about knocking. He also explained that, if his door was locked, that they shouldn’t knock unless it was a dire emergency. After trying to define ‘dire’ he simply told them that, if his door was locked and Chris was available, they should go to his room first. That earned him a brief glare from Larabee, who was leaning on the doorjamb.

The boys then settled in at the window, JD kneeling on the straightback chair in the room, while Vin stood leaning against the sill. They watched the townspeople coming and going, trying to put names to as many faces as they could.

“But I ain’t sleepy… yet,” Vin protested through a jaw-cracking yawn.

Shaking his head, Chris said, “That yawn tells me different, pard. Now, it’s time for you and JD to get some rest. It’s been a busy day, and everyone’s tired.”

Rolling his eyes, the little blond observed, “Mr. Buck ain’t tired if he went ta visit Miz Blossom.”

Barely refraining himself from laughing, Larabee said, “Well, Buck tends to perk up after he’s been calling on a young lady.”

The little blond frowned, wondering how anyone could ‘perk up’ by seeing some girl. It didn’t make a bit of sense to him. A brief snort caught his attention, and he turned to regard the boy sleeping on the other side of the big bed. Rolling his eyes, he said, “Ain’t sure I’m gonna git any sleep with JD makin’ all that noise.”

Chris observed the fact that the big, blue eyes were at half-mast and knew that a steam engine cutting through the room wasn’t going to keep this little boy awake much longer. “Well, you could pretend you’re sleeping in the livery and one of the horses has a bad cold.” That earned Larabee a tired giggle, even as little Tanner’s eyelids drooped even farther.

Without thinking about it, Chris reached out and stroked his fingers through the thick mop of blond hair. From a distant memory a lullaby came to mind, and he began to hum it softly.

Vin’s brows furrowed slightly and the strange sound, but found it comforting. He sighed as his eyes closed completely, tiny body twitching slightly as he began to relax.

Larabee sighed, a sense of contentment settling over him. It was a feeling he hadn’t known for so long; one he had never expected to feel again. One corner of his mouth quirked up in a relaxed smile. Life suddenly took on a whole, new meaning.

Next: Working Girls