"Little Britches" Universe
Special Thanks: to J. K. Poffenberger, who created the "Little Britches" A/U
Author's Note: This is a story about the real Peso, not the mean horse he is so often portrayed to be!
Chris Larabee stood on the porch sipping coffee. The morning was tranquil and Chris savored the quiet. The silence was broken as Peso neighed in anticipation of his food. Chris smiled as he watched Vin, laden with an armload of hay, walk out of the barn. Life on the small ranch changed dramatically two months ago when two small boys came to live with Chris and his partner, Buck Wilmington. Seven-year-old Vin Tanner and his five-year-old cousin JD Dunne brought new life to the place. Chris had forgotten just how much energy children had. Adjustments were hard at first. Vin was always worried they would send them away if he didn't work. He would get up early and feed the animals then do their stalls. Chris finally made the boy understand he wouldn't be sent away if he didn't do chores. Now Vin did the horses because he liked to not because he had too. Chris knew there would still be some awkward times but they were managing. Chris smiled as the big black nudged Vin as he walked closer. Peso preferred to be scratched than eat breakfast and Vin was more than willing to oblige him. Peso took an instant liking to Vin the day he arrived at the ranch. Now they were inseparable.
"Hey, Vin," Chris called. Vin looked up at Chris. "I think Beavis and Pony are getting jealous."
Vin grinned sheepishly as he left Peso and got the food for the other two horses. Fire, the ranch's stallion, was in his stall and Chris knew Vin fed him first. Once the horses were fed Chris went into the house and wrapped some biscuits in a napkin. He walked back out to the porch and saw Vin petting a contentedly munching Peso.
"Come on, Vin, let's go for a walk."
Vin smiled, scratched Peso one last time, then dashed under the fence and over to Chris. Chris held out his hand and Vin's smile got even bigger as he took Chris's hand. They didn't say anything as they walked they didn't have to. Chris didn't understand it but he was able to anticipate what Vin wanted or needed. Chris walked to the pond and over to the rocks. He sat down by the edge of the pond with his back against the rocks. Vin climbed in his lap and they sat there just watching. Chris smiled as Vin leaned back to get comfortable and all he could smell was hay. Chris put the napkin on the ground next to him and untied it. He handed a biscuit to Vin. They ate quietly and were rewarded by a fox coming to drink at the pond. Chris could feel the excitement in Vin building as the fox drank on oblivious to their presence. When the fox was done he darted into the tress.
"Did you see, Chris! Did you!" Vin exclaimed excitedly sitting up.
"I was sitting right here wasn't I?" Chris teased.
"How come he wasn't afraid of us?"
Chris smiled as he heard Vin lisp when he said 'us'. Vin tried very hard to say things correctly but when he was excited or tired he forgot.
"Lick your finger and hold it in the air," Chris instructed.
Vin watched as Chris licked his finger and held it up. He did exactly as Chris did and was surprised when he felt a cool breeze on his finger.
"Feel the wind?" Chris asked and Vin nodded. "We were down wind from the fox. He didn't smell us. If the wind was blowing from behind us he never would have come to the pond."
"Because he would smell us?" Vin asked.
"So now you know if you go hunting you always want the animal in front of you and the wind blowing in your face."
Vin nodded and leaned back munching on his biscuit. Nothing else came to the pond but it didn't matter. They enjoyed just sitting there. The quiet was broken when they heard JD yelling for them. His voice was getting louder when suddenly JD appeared from amongst the trees.
"Mornin'!" JD yelled as he ran over and jumped into Vin's lap.
"That had a hurt," Buck cringed as he heard Chris stifle and oath.
"What ya doin'?" JD asked.
"Just sitting watching the pond," Vin answered.
"Wanted to see what would come for a drink."
"Because we knew the two of you would sleep the morning away," Chris said growling and tickled JD.
JD laughed and tumbled off Vin's lap. Vin got up so Chris could stand. Buck smiled and picked JD up. Josiah marveled at how much the boys complimented each of the men's personalities. Vin and Chris were both blonde and quiet, whereas Buck and JD both had black hair and were boisterous. They started back to the cabin for breakfast. Vin ran ahead and JD valiantly tried to keep up. The smaller boy was finally forced to call to his older and taller cousin to wait for him. Buck smiled as Vin waited for JD to catch up and took his hand so they could run together.
"You sure you're going to be able to handle them alone?" Chris asked.
"It's only for the day," Buck replied. "I think I can handle it."
"I could always drop them off at Nettie's on my way to town."
"I got the whole day planned," Buck assured him. "You just go into town and have fun giving your statement to the judge."
"Damn bank robbers," Chris cursed. "Not only do they ruin my day three weeks ago, I now have to spend today talking to the judge."
"That's what we get for being the law in these parts," Buck laughed.
They got back to the cabin but didn't see JD or Vin. Everything was quiet until the chickens started squawking and ran out of the barn being chased by JD. He was carrying a small tin and stopped just outside the barn. The chickens clustered around him as he threw corn to them. Chris went into the cabin while Buck waited for the boys. Vin came out of the barn carrying a basket full of eggs. The chickens were laying more eggs than they ever did which Buck couldn't figure out. Obviously they liked by chased by a rambunctious five-year-old. Vin walked to the cabin followed by JD.
"Looks like we're gonna have a lot of eggs for breakfast," Buck said as he took the basket from Vin.
They went into the cabin and Chris made breakfast. He wasn't the greatest cook in the world but he was a whole lot better than Buck. The lady's man seemed to burn everything he tried to cook. When breakfast was finished they cleaned the dishes then followed Chris out to the barn. Vin took Pony from the corral while Buck made sure Beavis didn't get out. Chris came out of the barn carrying his tack to find Vin and JD brushing Pony.
"Thanks boys, you did a great job," Chris said as he threw the saddle blanket over Pony's withers.
"Can't I come with you?" Vin asked as Chris put the saddle on Pony's back.
"I'll be in a meeting all day," Chris said as he bent down to reach under Pony for the girth. "I can't watch you."
"I can stay with Ezra," Vin said hopefully.
"Sorry," Chris said as he adjusted the girth and pulled it tight. "Ezra will be in the meeting with me."
"You have stay with Buck," Chris said firmly.
"Alright," Vin said disappointed but he knew better than to argue when Chris used that tone of voice.
"Don't worry, Chris, I'm gonna take them fishing," Buck said when Vin walked away. "We'll be okay. Now go on."
Chris swung into the saddle and picked up the reins. He pulled Pony's head in the direction of town and tapped his heels to the horse's flanks. Pony moved out at a trot and vanished through the trees. Chris reined Pony to a stop at the hill over looking the ranch. He knew Vin would be waiting for him to turn back before he went on. Chris smiled as he saw Vin still standing by the corral. Vin raised his hand and waved. Chris returned the wave then continued on his way. He knew Vin would stand there until he was completely gone from sight. Chris just hoped this meeting didn't take all day. He was pretty sure Buck was going to have more fun than he would.
Buck smiled as Vin came into the barn. He knew Vin would wait until Chris disappeared from sight before joining them.
"Chris gone?" he asked.
"Yeah," Vin said grumpily.
Buck smiled at Vin's expression as he opened Fire's stall. He put a halter around the big horse's head and the boys stepped back. Buck led the stallion to his corral and let him inside. As Buck let go the stallion kicked up his heals and trotted around. Fire neighed loudly challenging anyone in the area. Peso and Beavis just ignored him.
"Well the mornin' chores are all done," Buck announced. "Let's go fishing."
"Yeah!" JD screamed in delight.
Vin didn't say anything but Buck could see the smile on his face. Buck knew fishing would take Vin's mind off Chris. He grabbed Beavis's tack then turned to Vin.
"Saddle or bareback?"
"Bareback," Vin said eagerly.
They weren't going far and Buck knew the boy could stick to Peso like a burr. Chris didn't like him going bareback for long distances. He was more comfortable if Vin rode in his small saddle. Buck walked out of the barn carrying the tack and placed it on the fence.
"Let's go inside and get what we'll need," Buck said.
He took them in the cabin and they put together some lunch. Buck loaded everything into a sack and put it by the door. JD went into the bedroom to get some toys. He came back with all his toys and put them on the table.
"JD, you can't take them all," Vin said in dismay.
"Pick two, JD," Buck said.
"Only two!" JD cried. "But they all want to come."
"Well, its either you or the toys," Buck reasoned. "Can't fit everything on the saddle so you decided.
" 'Kay," JD sighed and chose the two carved horses from Josiah's arc.
"Now put the other back in your room," Buck said. "And get your coats. It might be cold by the lake."
Buck handed Vin the fishing basket they would need to carry the fish back. Vin draped it over his shoulder as Buck took everything else out to the corral. Buck tacked Beavis while Vin got Peso. Buck watched as the big black lowered his head so Vin could put on his bridle. Peso opened his moth and let Vin slip the bit between his teeth. Buck, on the other hand, had to force Beavis to take the bit by sticking his fingers in his mouth. Beavis didn't like that and opened his mouth and Buck quickly slipped the bit inside. Vin led Peso out of his corral and made him stand next to the fence. Peso stood patiently as Vin climbed the fence to get on his back. Vin went to swing his leg over but the fishing basket kept getting in the way. Buck saw his problem and lifted Vin off the fence and put him on Peso's back. Vin smiled at Buck as he picked up the reins. Buck finished tacking Beavis and looped the sack of food over the saddle horn. He placed the fishing poles in his rifle sheath.
"Ready to go?" Buck asked as he handed Vin his jacket.
"Me too," JD added.
"Well all right," Buck said grabbing JD and putting him in the saddle.
Buck swung up behind JD and they moved out. Peso started trotting and Beavis followed along. The lake was three miles from the cabin and they arrived in no time. Vin hopped off Peso and tied him to a tree. Buck swung off Beavis and took JD down. As soon as he was down JD ran to the water's edge.
"Don't go in the water," Buck yelled.
"It's too cold," Buck said. "And I didn't bring a dry clothes for you."
"I'll go watch him," Vin offered and went over to JD.
Buck tied Beavis next to Peso and made sure horses could put their heads down to forage. He loosened the girth but left the saddle on Beavis. Buck grabbed the fishing poles and their lunch and walked over to the water. He found the boys digging in the dirt looking for worms. Buck smiled knowing JD liked to get dirty as much as he liked to get wet.
"You boys ready," Buck asked holding up the poles.
"Yeah," JD said running over to him. "Got worms."
"So you do," Buck laughed as he looked at the squirming mass in JD's hand.
Buck led them over to some trees and they got comfortable in the shade. Vin preferred to sit in the sun and sat a few feet away. Buck helped JD put a worm on his hook then threw the line into the lake and handed the pole to JD. He glanced over to Vin and saw him carefully put the worm on the hook. Buck smiled as Vin's tongue stuck out as he concentrated. Vin threw his line into the water and sat down to patiently wait. JD wasn't so patient.
"When I gonna get a fish?"
"You have to wait for it."
"Oh," JD pouted and leaned his chin on his upraised knees.
Buck knew JD wouldn't be quiet for long. The ladies man leaned back and got comfortable against the tree.
"Now?" JD asked.
"Nope not yet," Buck smiled. "Tell you what. I'll dig a hole for you to put your pole in so you don't have to hold it."
Buck made a hole and placed JD's pole in it. With that done JD sat next to it and contentedly played with the toys he brought. Buck glanced over at Vin and saw he hadn't moved. Every once in awhile Vin would move the pole so the hook would move. As Buck watched Vin got a bite. Vin stood up and jerked the pole. His efforts were rewarded as a large rainbow trout landed at his feet. Vin quickly grabbed the flopping fish by the mouth and removed the hook. He walked over to Buck with his catch. Buck held open the basket and Vin put the fish inside. As they were doing that Buck noticed the line on JD's pole jerk.
"JD you have one!" Buck yelled. JD jumped up and grabbed his pole. He tried pulled it but the fish was strong. "Let me help you."
"No I do!" JD yelled.
JD held on tight but Buck could see he couldn't hold the pole. He quietly got behind JD and wrapped his hands around JD's. At first JD yelled that he wanted to do it but quickly realized he couldn't. He let Buck help him bring in the fish. The large mouth bass finally landed at his feet and JD tried to grab it. Buck laughed as it wiggled out of his fingers. JD grabbed the fishes tail and tried to hold it up. Buck gave him a hand and took the hook out of the fish's mouth and put it in the basket. Buck put another worm on JD's hook and threw the line into the lake.
"I'm hungry," JD announced as Buck put the pole back in the hole.
"You want to eat now?" Buck asked.
Buck grabbed the sack and handed each of them a sandwich. Vin went back over to his pole to eat while he tried to catch more fish. The morning drifted into the afternoon and they caught three more fish. JD was sitting on Buck's lap while the ladies man fished. Buck glanced over to Vin and saw he was still sleeping. An hour ago Vin had curled up by his fishing pole and fell asleep. Buck wasn't surprised since Vin always got up so early. They usually found him somewhere around the ranch, at this time, fast asleep. JD was a different story. He never took naps. The afternoon went lazily by and Vin stirred around two o'clock.
"Howdy, Vin," Buck smiled as he walked over. "We ready to go back?"
"Yeah," Vin said.
"Me, too," JD added.
"How many we catch?" Vin asked.
"You got three, JD got two and I got four," Buck said as he watched Vin counted them on his fingers.
"Nine," Vin said timidly.
"That's right," Buck said smiling and Vin beamed.
They packed everything up and walked over to the horses. Buck put the poles back in the rifle sheath then tightened the girth. He helped Vin up on Peso they put JD in the saddle. He swung up behind the smaller boy and they headed home. Once back at the ranch they put the horses in the corral then Buck told the boys to play outside while he went to clean his guns. He didn't like the boys being close when he did this chore. He took the fish inside with him to clean when he was done. He got what he needed then sat down at the table to get started. Buck left the door open so he could watch them play. After his nap Vin had his second wind and ran wild around the yard. JD chased him and Buck smiled as the older boy let himself be caught every once in awhile. Buck finished his rifle and reloaded it then leaned it on the chair. He pulled out his colt revolver and unloaded it so he could clean it. As he was cleaning the revolver he saw Vin running into the house followed by JD. He went to yell at the boys but never got the chance. Vin ran right in the door and knocked into the chair. The rifle fell over and Buck heard a loud boom then felt a searing fire explode in his arm.
"Buck!" Vin yelled and raced over to him.
Buck blinked and shook his head. His right shoulder was on fire and he couldn't figure out why. All he knew was JD was screaming and holding his left arm. Buck lay there for a few minutes to let his confused mind try to sort things out as he heard Vin talking to him.
"I'm sorry Buck," Vin cried. "Chris told me not to run in the cabin. I didn't mean to knock the rifle over. It's all my fault."
Damn, Buck thought as all the pieces fell into place. When his rifle fell it went off. It was stupid of him to leave it leaning against the chair.
"Not your fault," Buck said as he tried to sit up.
Vin tried to help Buck sit up but he was too heavy. On the third try Buck was able to sit up and pull himself over to the wall. As he leaned back he stifled a groan so he wouldn't worry the two small boys.
"Vin," Buck said in a pained voice. "Go get me some towels."
"Alright," Vin said wiping his eyes and bolting out of the room.
"JD, now you gotta stop crying," Buck said as he stroked JD's hair.
Vin came back with some towels and Buck managed to stuff them inside his shirt and against the wound. As he put pressure on the wound he couldn't stop the groan and JD started to cry harder.
"I'll go for help!" Vin declared and stood up.
"No!" JD and Buck cried in unison.
"I gotta!" Vin protested. "Gotta get Chris, he'll know what to do. Nathan too."
"Vin!" JD cried and grabbed his cousin's hand. "No go!"
"JD you're gonna have to be brave," Vin said looking at his cousin. "You're gonna have to watch Buck."
"Too little," JD cried. He didn't want his cousin to leave.
"I know," Vin said biting his lip. "But I gotta ride fast. I can't take you with me. Can you do it?'
JD nodded as huge tears rolled down his cheeks.
"Vin, no," Buck said reaching for Vin as the boy ran out of the cabin. "Chris will be home soon."
Vin ran as fast as he could out to the barn. He grabbed Peso's bridle and his saddle. Chris made it clear to Vin he didn't want him riding long distance without it. Vin struggled out of the barn and over to Peso's corral. He placed the saddle on the bottom rail of the fence then crawled under to get Peso. The black didn't run away as Vin came closer. Peso waited patiently as Vin fumbled with the bit. Vin was all thumbs as he tried to get the bit in Peso's mouth. Peso didn't shy away when Vin dropped the bit and it hit his teeth. When Vin finally got the bridle on he led Peso out of the corral and over to the saddle. Vin tied the horse to the railing and picked up the saddle. He valiantly tired to raise his arms high enough to get the saddle on Peso's back but it was no use. Vin dropped the saddle on the ground in frustration and leaned against Peso crying. Peso turned his head and butted his nose against Vin's back. Vin turned to Peso and wiped his eyes. He grabbed the bridle and pulled Peso over closer to the fence. He climbed on the fence and jumped on Peso's back. He picked up the reins and headed Peso for town. He kicked the black and Peso eagerly leaped away and galloped along the road. Vin knew he had to get Nathan quick. He was sorry he shot Buck because he knew how much it hurt. They came to the bend in the road and Vin pulled Peso to a stop. The road made a loop at this point before heading back to town. Vin figured that if he cut across he'd get to town quicker. Vin pulled on the reins but Peso was reluctant to leave the road as dusk settled over the area. Vin insisted and Peso finally complied. Once off the road Vin kicked Peso into a trot. As he grew confident that the area was level he urged Peso into a canter. Peso ran for awhile when suddenly the horse tripped. Peso went down on his knees and Vin was thrown over the horse's head. Peso staggered up and stood blowing loudly through his nose. When the horse was satisfied everything was all right he shook the dirt and dust from his coat. Peso walked over to the one who fed him and nibbled his hair. When the horse got no response he put his head down and began to eat the grass close by.
+ + + + + + +
Chris was on his way back to the cabin but he wasn't alone. When Chris told Josiah Buck was taking the boys fishing the preacher invited himself to dinner. Next thing Chris knew Ezra and Nathan were also coming out the to ranch. It took all day for Chris and Ezra to give their statements to Judge Travis. When they were done the judge was satisfied there was more than enough evidence to go to trial. Chris was thankful it was over and was looking forward to a quiet evening. Dusk was setting on the ranch as the four men rode into the yard. Chris got a bad feeling when he saw Vin's saddle laying in the dirt next to Peso's empty corral. Fire was still in his corral and kicking at the boards. Beavis greeted Pony as Chris pulled up by the corral.
"Where's Peso?" Josiah asked.
"I don't know," Chris replied as he tied Pony to the fence.
The hair on the back of Chris's neck stood on end and he walked quickly to the cabin. As he pushed the door open he was prepared for what he found. Buck was against the wall unconscious with a bullet wound in his right shoulder. JD was lying across Buck's legs crying hysterically. Nathan had followed Chris and pushed passed him to go to Buck.
"What the hell happened!" Chris demanded.
+ + + + + + +
Vin couldn't figure out why his head hurt. He slowly opened his eyes and was greeted to Peso's whiskered nose tickling his cheek. Vin slowly sat up and looked around. As his head started to clear he realized what he was doing riding in the dark. He jumped up but immediately fell back to the ground as his left ankle gave out on him. Vin lay on the ground crying knowing that Buck was gonna die because he hadn't gotten help. He kept punching the ground and crying that it was his fault. Peso wiggled his lips along Vin's back and the boy got an idea. He'd send Peso for help.
"Peso you gotta go to town and get Chris," Vin said pushing the horse. Peso was content to stay where he was. "Peso you gotta!"
Vin kept pushing at Peso but the horse wouldn't leave. Vin started calling him all sorts of names and telling the horse he wasn't his friend any more, anything to get the black to leave. Vin finally broke down and cried clinging to Peso's front leg.
"Why won't you go?" Vin asked piteously. "You have to go."
Peso just stood there as Vin pushed against him. The horse knew he was better off staying where he was.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris, take JD," Nathan said as he checked Buck's shoulder.
Chris bent down to pick up JD. The boy started screaming and wouldn't let go of Buck. "Easy JD, its Chris," JD looked up with tears streaming down his face.
"Buck hurt," JD wailed as he jumped into Chris's arms.
"I know, JD, I know," Chris said rubbing his back.
"Josiah, Ezra, give me a hand getting Buck to his room," Nathan instructed.
They picked up the ladies man and carried him to his room. They laid him on the bed and Nathan started to remove Buck's shirt. He told Josiah to boil some water and sent Ezra off to get some sheets to use for bandages.
"How is he?" Chris asked standing in the doorway holding JD.
"Bullet went clean through," Nathan said. "You got any whiskey?"
"Yeah. I'll get it," Chris said and turned back to the common room.
"Here ya go, Chris," Josiah said handing him the whiskey. "Figured Nate would be looking for that."
"Here ya go Nate," Chris said as he brought the whiskey into the healer.
"Thanks, Chris," he said as he poured some into a cup then added water. "Here give this to JD."
"What!" Chris exclaimed still holding the hysterical JD.
"It will help calm him down," Nathan said smiling. "Besides there ain't hardly enough in there to hurt him."
"Mr. Jackson here are the bandages you require," Ezra said handing them to him.
"Thanks, Ezra," Nathan said. He was surprised the gambler had already ripped the sheets into strips.
"Mr. Larabee, where do you suppose Mr. Tanner is?" Ezra asked.
"I don't know," Chris said apprehensively as he got JD to drink the whiskey-laden water.
"You almost done Josiah?" Nathan asked.
"On my way brother," Josiah said as he carried the kettle to Buck's room.
"Chris, why don't you and Ezra wait in the next room," Nathan suggested. Josiah ushered them out and closed the door.
"JD," Chris called as he sat down. "Where's Vin?"
"Left," JD sniffed. "Hurt Buck."
"Do you mean Vin hurt Buck?" Ezra asked confused.
"Buck hurt," JD cried and buried his face against Chris's chest.
"It's getting dark," Chris said as he glanced out the window. "We have to find Vin."
"Perhaps he is frightened and is hiding in the barn," Ezra suggested.
"Doesn't explain where Peso is," Chris said as he tried to comfort JD.
"One problem at a time," Ezra said. "I'll check the barn."
Chris watched as Ezra went out the door. They knew they wouldn't get any information out of JD. The boy was too upset and wasn't making nay sense. There was no way Vin shot Buck. Chris glanced around the cabin to see if he could figure out what happened. He saw Buck's rifle on the floor by the door. Scattered over the table was various items Buck used to clean his guns. Chris didn't know how it happened but he figured the rifle must have gone off. He sat holding JD until he finally fell asleep with his thumb in his mouth.
Nathan used the hot water to clean the blood from around the wounds. Buck didn't stir and Nathan wasn't too concerned. Buck had lost a considerable amount of blood. Josiah was holding Buck's other shoulder just in case he did start to move around.
"You ready?" Nathan asked as he held up the whiskey. Josiah nodded and Nathan poured the rot gut on Buck's shoulder. Buck yelled and tried to sit up.
"Vin!" Buck cried.
"Easy, Buck, You're gonna be okay," Nathan said.
"He made it," Buck sighed and relaxed.
"Who made it?" Josiah asked.
"Vin went to get help," Buck said gasping from the pain.
"Vin never came," Nathan said.
"But..." Buck said confused then it dawned on him. "I gotta go find him!"
"You're not going anywhere," Josiah said as he struggled to hold Buck.
"No you don't understand!" Buck gasped. "Vin took Peso and went for help."
"Don't worry Buck, we'll find him," Nathan said.
"My fault," Buck said weakly. "Couldn't stop him."
"You better go tell Chris," Nathan suggested as he worked on the unconscious ladies man.
"Lord help us," Josiah said raising his eyes heavenward.
Vin curled in a ball close to Peso's front legs. As night descended and no moon rose to give off any light Vin's imagination ran wild. He was city breed and not used to the sounds of the wilderness. It was different sitting on the porch with Chris and listening to coyotes howl. There he was safe. Here he only had Peso to keep him company but oddly enough he knew the horse wouldn't let anything hurt him. Vin was glad that Peso hadn't left. The night was cold and Vin shivered in his thin shirt. Peso nudged him with his nose and Vin reached out and scratched him.
"I'm glad you stayed with me," Vin said through chattering teeth.
Peso was content to let Vin scratch him and stood quietly. Something caught Peso's attention and he raised his head quickly with his ears pricked forward. He scented the air and knew one of his herd was near by. The quiet night was shattered when Peso neighed loudly.
+ + + + + + +
Chris felt like he was riding in circles. They'd been out searching for an hour when Ezra decided Vin must have left the road. If he hadn't they would have passed Vin as they rode out to the ranch. The only problem was in the dark it was impossible to know where Vin went off the road. They decided to split up to cover more ground. Josiah stuck to the road in case Vin was now in town looking for them. Ezra took the area to the East of the road while Chris took the West. Pony stumbled and Chris cursed the moonless night. He pulled Pony to a halt and scanned his surroundings. Chris sighed knowing it was futile. The tumbleweeds were all starting to look like a huddled boy to him. Chris unhooked his canteen from the saddle and took a swig. As he was replacing it back on the saddle Pony's head snapped up and his ears perked forward.
"What is it boy?" Chris asked petting the horse's neck. Suddenly a familiar neigh was heard in the distance.
Chris smiled as he felt Pony take in a lungful of air and answer his barn mate. Chris let the black have his head and Pony moved out.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was startled when Peso neighed. He grabbed the horse's leg afraid he would leave. Peso neighed again and was answered.
"Pony!" Vin yelled. He also knew who was coming. "Chris!"
Chris heard Vin call for him and scanned the ground. He saw Peso's dark silhouette against the night sky and turned Pony towards him. When they were close Chris jumped off Pony to find Vin sitting on the ground close to Peso.
"Chris!" Vin wailed.
"I got ya," Chris said as Vin grabbed him tightly around the neck.
"All my fault," Vin cried as he clung to Chris. "I was running in the cabin when you told me not too."
"Shhh, it's alright," Chris said patting Vin's back.
"Tried to get help," Vin sobbed and buried his face in Chris's shoulder. "I didn't do it and Buck's dead. Now you won't want me."
"Aw, Vin," Chris said hugging him. "Buck's alright."
This only made Vin cry harder releasing all his worries. Chris tried to check Vin for injuries as the boy clung to him. Vin cried out as Chris ran his hand over his left hip.
"Vin where else are you hurt?" Chris asked lifting Vin's chin so he could look at him.
"My...ankle," Vin sniffed.
Chris was relieved. Vin was only bruised but not seriously hurt. He picked Vin up and grabbed Peso's reins. Chris rubbed the white blaze on Peso's face and led him over to Pony. Chris was glad the gelding had stayed with Vin. Normally Peso would have made his way back to the ranch. Chris mounted still holding Vin then tied Peso's reins to Pony's saddle. Chris pulled his gun and fired once causing Vin to jump and hold him tighter. This signaled Josiah and Ezra that Chris found Vin. Chris pulled his jacket around the shivering Vin and headed for him.
+ + + + + + +
Era waited patiently on the porch for Chris to return. When he heard the shot signaling Vin had been found he headed back to the cabin. The gambler didn't know why he cared for these boys but he did. He smiled knowing his mother would be appalled.
"Anything?" Nathan asked from the cabin.
"Not yet," Ezra answered as he turned. Nathan was standing in the doorway to Buck's room. "How's Mr. Wilmington?"
"He's sleeping," Nathan replied. "Best thing for him."
"I hope Mr. Tanner is alright after his ordeal," Ezra commented.
"Me too," Nathan said. "I'm gonna check on JD."
Nathan disappeared into the room the two boys shared. Ezra continued his vigil on the porch. He didn't have to wait long when he saw Chris' silhouette against the sky as he topped the ridge over looking the ranch.
"He's here," Ezra called to Nathan then went out to met Chris.
Chris rode into the yard and pulled up by the corral. Ezra met him and took Peso's reins and tied him to the fence. When he was done he turned back to Chris still on Pony.
"I'll take him," Ezra said holding out his arms for Vin.
"I've got him," Chris smiled. "Besides he's got my shirt clenched in his fists."
Ezra stepped back as Chris swung his right leg over Pony's head and slid out of the saddle. Vin stirred and raised his head from Chris shoulder.
"Peso," Vin said sleepily.
"Ezra has him," Chris assured him. Vin put his head back down.
"I shall see you inside," Ezra said taking Pony from Chris.
Chris nodded and walked towards the cabin. Nathan met them at the door. He stepped aside so Chris could enter.
"Sit him on the table so I can check him over," Nathan instructed.
"Wanna see Buck," Vin declared.
"Alright but you have to be quiet he's sleeping," Nathan said.
Chris carried Vin over to Buck's room. A lantern was burning next to his bed and Chris could see Buck was propped up on a bunch of pillows. The ladies man was sound asleep.
"He gonna be okay?" Vin asked and wiped the tears from his eyes.
"He's gonna be fine," Nathan said.
"Can I see JD too?" Vin sniffed.
"Sure," Chris smiled.
They walked over to the boy's room and stepped inside. Nathan had a lantern lit in here also. Nothing could be seen of JD except for his dark hair sticking out from the sheets.
"Didn't want to leave him," Vin cried. "He was afraid."
"You did what you had to," Nathan said patting Vin's leg. "Now let's check you over."
Chris brought Vin over to the table and sat him down in the chair. Nathan started to take off Vin's shirt. Chris pulled off Vin's right boot but didn't know how to get the left one off without hurting him. He was finally forced to split the boot down the seam. Vin still cried out as he eased it off. Nathan touched it and Vin kicked him with his right foot.
"No!" Vin yelled and pulled his foot away.
"Vin," Chris scolded.
Ezra walked in to find Chris trying to hold Vin as Nathan wrapped a bandage around his ankle. Nathan finally finished and Era smiled as Vin glared at him. The effect was spoiled as tears ran down his cheek.
"Better be careful, Mr. Jackson," Ezra smiled. "If looks could kill."
"Yeah, I wonder where he learned that," Nathan said looking at Chris.
The healer continued checking Vin and found a huge black and blue mark on his left hip. They found another on his right shoulder. Vin's cheek and chin were scraped raw from where he hit the ground. They got Vin cleaned up and into his nightshirt. Chris carried him to the bedroom and placed him on the bed. Vin crawled under the covers and got settled.
"Good night, Vin," Chris said as he left.
"Mr. Larabee you might want to check Peso," Ezra said. "I didn't want to alarm Vin but the horse is injured."
"Thanks, I'll check on him in a minute," Chris said.
"Than I shall head back for town," Ezra said.
"Big card game?" Chris asked.
"No, but I hope to arrange one," Ezra smiled showing his gold tooth.
"Hold up I'll go with you," Nathan said.
"I just want to thank both of you," Chris started.
"No need to, Chris," Nathan said with a smile.
Chris went out with them to get their horses. He watched as they rode away. Chris went into the barn and got a lantern. He struck a match and held it to the wick. Chris gathered some rags and water then went out to check Peso. The black was eating contentedly but looked up as Chris stepped into the corral. Chris walked over and ran a hand along Peso side checking for any wounds. He finally found some on Peso's front legs. The horse's knees were all scrapped. Ezra cleaned them as best he could but Chris decided to clean them some more. Peso pulled his leg away as Chris tried to clean them.
"Easy, boy," Chris said soothingly.
Peso knew he wouldn't go away and let him continue. Chris stuffed the extra rags in his back pocket as he held the lantern up to see better. Peso couldn't resist and pulled them out with his teeth.
"Look, horse, I'm trying to help you," Chris said exasperated as he snatched the rag from Peso's mouth.
Chris finished cleaning the wounds and saw they weren't serious. Peso obviously tripped in the dark and landed on his knees. That's how Vin fell off. As Chris stood up Peso butted him with his head and Chris almost lost his balance.
"You flea brain!" Chris yelled as he caught his balance.
Peso was persistent and pushed him again. Chris knew what he wanted. He'd watched the gelding do the same thing to Vin. Chris finally relented and scratched Peso's forehead.
"Glad I never got rid of you, you old jughead," Chris said affectionately as he gave the black one last scratch.
Chris returned everything to the barn and blew out the lantern. He went back to the cabin and checked on everyone. JD was snuggled against his cousin sound asleep. Vin was on his back snoring softly and dead to the world. Chris looked around the small room and smiled. On a shelf over the bed the boy's handful of possessions were kept. A picture of both their mothers, and a bible. Guarding them both was a carved white wolf. Chris leaned over and blew out the lantern. His next stop was Buck's room. Buck looked pale but was sleeping soundly. Chris pulled up the covers before blowing the lantern out. He went out to the common room and banked the stove. When that was done he went to his room and got undressed. Chris settled back against the pillows and smiled, it was good to have something to care about again.
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