"Little Britches" Universe

Special Thanks: to J. K. Poffenberger, who created the "Little Britches" A/U in her fics The Train West and In The Arms of Love.

“It´s not fair!” The shrill cry of injustice echoed across the corral, shattering the quiet of the early spring morning.

“Now, JD just calm down. Vin is older and bigger than you and Chris just happened to have that saddle…”

He had heard it all before from both Buck and Chris but this morning he wasn´t going to listen. So what if his cousin was older? And taller? And sure, he was sorry Chris had lost his son and yeah, it was nice of him to let Vin use the saddle but gosh darn it! “I don´t care! I want a horse of my own! I want to ride by myself too!”

Buck Wilmington rolled his eyes heavenward and pulled on the ends of his mustache. It was a look that had crossed his face many times in the last few weeks and the cause was a little orphan boy who stood about knee high to a grasshopper. But what he lacked in height he more than made up for in lung power. And it was becoming ever more apparent that the boy was part mule. Same stubborn, set in his ways, ornery…


“Yeah, kid, I heard ya. In fact, I´m pretty sure the folks in town heard you as well. And you can go on yelling all you want, ain´t going to change the facts that you´re too young and too small.”

“Am not!”

“Are to!”

“Am not!

“Are …!”

“Buck. I don´t think that´s an argument you can win.” Chris´ quiet observation heralded the man´s arrival at the corral with his own miniature shadow in tow. Buck and JD both halted their ‘discussion´ long enough to greet the new arrivals.

“Morning, Chris. Vin. Maybe ya´ll can talk some sense into this boy.” Buck waved a hand to where JD sat perched on the top rail of the fence with his arms crossed defiantly across his chest and his bottom lip stuck out in what had to be the deepest pout in the west.

Vin looked up at his younger cousin and felt a warring mixture of emotions. JD was the only real family he had left and even if he hadn´t promised his dying aunt that he would look after his cousin he still would have done the best he could. And even though he was only seven going on eight, he thought he had done a fairly good job. At least he seemed to have found them a decent home to live in and two really nice men to take care of them. Sure, it might have happened in a sort of round-a-bout way, but his failed attempt at escaping with his cousin to the Indian camp had definitely played an important part.

But the last few days had been an especially trying time for the two ranchers. Chris and Buck bred horses for a living and they were finding it just a might difficult to divide their attention between the livestock, two boys and peacekeeping for the town of Four Corners.

Vin may have been young in years but the events of his short life had given him a wisdom far beyond his peers. Not to mention a highly developed natural instinct for survival. And right now survival meant having a home and adults to care for him and his cousin. JD´s temper tantrum reminded Vin of their first night at the orphanage.

It had been a scary time and JD had cried for the stuffed toy dog that his maw had made for him out of an old scrap of corduroy. Knowing it was his job to look out for his small cousin, Vin had gone to the old man that ran the shelter and asked politely if he could go back to the house and fetch the toy. That was the moment that Vin discovered just how bad it was to be an orphan. Not becoming too attached to material possessions was the hardest but most important lesson that Vin had learned since the deaths of his mother and aunt. It seemed that if you lived in an orphanage, you weren´t allowed to have belongings like the children with parents and real homes. Oh, you were allowed clothes and a bag to keep them in. And no one seemed to object to an orphan having a family bible; but then it did fit in the old carpet bag along with the clothes.

He did his best to protect JD from learning the same hard lesson and for the most part he had been successful. But now it was coming back to haunt him as JD continued to make demands and become an all around nuisance.

Looking up at Chris´ face, Vin racked his brain for a solution that would make JD and even more importantly, the two men happy. Sure, neither one of them seemed very upset right now but how long would that last? Well, the problem seemed to be with Vin getting to ride by himself on the saddle that had belonged to Chris´ son; so once again it looked like the situation was mostly his own fault. He imagined how he would feel in JD´s place and knew he would be just as jealous. He should never have accepted the saddle or shown Chris that he could ride by himself. But maybe it wasn´t too late to fix things.

“Chris,” Vin tugged on the man´s sleeve to get his attention. “I don´t need to ride by myself. I can go back to riding behind you until JD is big enough to use the small saddle and then you can let him borrow it.”

“NO! I want to ride now!”

Vin frowned in annoyance at his cousin and stepped forward to pull him off the fence. “JD, hush up! It´s fair if neither one of us gets to ride alone.”

As he reached up for JD´s waist, Vin suddenly felt a strong hand settle on his shoulder. He couldn´t help the flinch that set him back a step and made him duck his head to instinctively avoid the blow that might follow.

Chris quickly withdrew his hand as he saw the effect it had on the young boy he had come to care so deeply about. Vin would never replace Adam in his heart, but that didn´t mean he couldn´t find his own place there. And the rancher had been surprised at his own capacity to still love and accept a child into his life after the terrible loss of his wife and son. The more he came to know Vin, the stronger his feelings became and it was with great difficulty that he controlled the swell of anger at the unknown persons that could instill such a defensive reaction in a boy so young.

Of course it wasn´t just physical responses that spoke of a difficult past. Chris had noticed the thoughtful look that would sometimes come over Vin´s face when presented with what he considered a serious problem. The blue eyes that should have held the innocence of youth would darken and take on the look of a much older, more experienced person. Like the moment he offered to give up riding alone just to appease his cousin and thereby make things easier for the two ranchers.

Damn it! It just wasn´t right for a boy his age to be even thinking of making sacrifices to keep the peace. Chris could remember a time in his youth when he and a friend had fought over a bullfrog. Their fathers had let them go at it until the first blows were landed. After all, boys would be boys and they were expected to get into fights. Just like boys JD´s age were expected to throw tantrums and ask for things they couldn´t have. It was a part of being a child. But somewhere in his recent past, Vin´s youth had all but been stolen from him and it was painful to see him flinch at just being touched or to hear him offering to give up something that brought him happiness.

“No, Vin. You keep using that saddle and riding Peso. It´s going to be a few years before JD is big enough to ride alone and there´s no point in letting the saddle just sit on a rack and collect dust.”

“It ain´t fair!”

“Now hush, JD.” Buck grabbed the scowling boy before the threatening tears could make their escape from the dark brown eyes. With a well practiced toss, he quickly had the child perched on his shoulders and a firm grip on his ankles. “If you think your such a good rider, let´s see how you do with a bucking bronco.”

Giving a loud, whooping yell, Buck started jumping and prancing around the corral while JD squealed and held on tightly. Chris laughed to see the antics of his old friend. It reminded him of the days spent with his son Adam but for some reason the memory held none of the pain that such remembrances used to carry. Looking down at Vin, Chris began to understand why.

Vin chewed on his bottom lip as he watched Buck and JD cavort about the ring. Now it was his turn to feel jealous but he knew there was nothing to be done about it. He half suspected that it was more for JD´s sake than his own that the two ranchers had taken them in. Buck obviously liked his small cousin and the two of them were practically inseparable. Chris on the other hand … Well, he had lost his son and it was probably memories of him that made the man accept an orphan into his home. But that was all right, as long as JD was taken care of.

So lost in his thoughts, Vin didn´t notice Chris coming up behind him until it was too late. With a startled gasp, he suddenly found himself high in the air perched on the blond man´s shoulders. A lasso was thrust into his hands and he heard Chris shout, “C´mon, Vin! I think we need to rope that wild horse before he does some damage!”

Laughter filled the air as the four played in the golden rays of the morning sun. Past sorrows and future troubles were set aside for the time being as two men remembered what it was like to be young and two boys were given another chance to be care free and happy.


Buck watched as Vin carefully handed the eggs he had gathered to his cousin to be placed in the basket. The dark-haired man shook his head and sighed before turning back to his friend and business partner.

“You´re right, Chris. A boy his age shouldn´t be trying so hard to make a place for himself. And the way he looks out for JD… Hell, he´s more of a parent than I am.”

Chris nodded his head in silent agreement. He and Buck had learned the hard way that whenever they wanted to discuss their two charges, they needed to do so with both boys in sight and out of earshot. Vin seemed to have a knack for overhearing conversations and jumping to conclusions that caused him to make hasty and sometimes risky decisions. Yet another example of the damage done by his stay at the orphanage.

“Until he feels secure, my guess is he´s going to continue to be over protective of his cousin.”

“Huh. Well, I guess only time is going to fix that. But I do have an idea that might solve our problem with JD.”

“Oh?” Chris glanced over at Buck and was dismayed to see a big grin on his friend´s face. When Buck got a look like that, it usually meant he had a plan that was only half thought out. It would be up to Chris to either fix the problems or shoot the whole thing down all together.

“You know the McAllistar´s boy just got himself a horse. His father finally decided he´s old enough to stop riding that little Shetland pony and …”


“Now, hear me out, Chris. I spoke with Henry and he offered to sell the pony dirt cheap. Hell, he don´t need it and there ain´t anybody else in town that wants it.”

“And what were you planing to do for a saddle?”

“Well, that comes with the pony.”

“With the pony or for a little bit extra?”

Buck squinted up into the sun and adjusted the brim of his hat. “Well…”

Chris shook his head. “How´s it going to look to Vin if we just up and buy JD a horse and tack?”

“But you gave Vin a horse and saddle.”

“I ‘loaned´ him the horse and saddle.”

“Well, now you can ‘give´ them to him.”

And it was that kind of logic that made Buck a great uncle but lousy father material. “It´s not the same, Buck. We´re spending money on JD that we didn´t spend on Vin. He´ll know the difference and he´ll think the worst.”

The dark-haired rancher frowned in honest confusion and Chris went on to explain.

“Vin will think that you like JD enough to go out and buy him just what he wants. If I give him the saddle and horse after that he´ll believe I´m doing it just to keep him from feeling bad, not because I ‘want´ him to have them.”

“You sure?” Buck stroked his mustache and shook his head in doubt. “Seems like a pretty big leap in logic for a kid that age.”

“Trust me, I think I´m starting to understand how he thinks and it sure ain´t the way a normal eight year old does.”


“What?” Now it was Chris´ turn to be confused.

“Vin is still seven. He said he turns eight sometime this summer.”

Chris grinned as the solution to their problem suddenly became clear. “Has he mentioned JD´s birthday?”

Buck quickly caught on and returned the happy grin. “Spring time! Hell, we might have missed it already.”

“Should be easy enough to find out. Let´s take a look in their family Bible before we ask them. If it´s written there, we can make it a real surprise.”

Suiting action to words, Chris returned to the small cabin while Buck remained behind to keep a watchful eye on the two young egg gatherers.


Vin put his hand back in his pocket and checked for what had to be the hundredth time to make sure his penny was still safe and secure. He still didn´t know what kind of gift he was going to get JD for his birthday but he hoped he would be able to get something nice. He had been to the general store a few times with Chris but had never really looked at the things inside with an eye to buying something. But as soon as Chris had told him about the surprise birthday party for JD, Vin knew he would have to do a little shopping. Even if it did mean spending the first and so far only penny he had ever earned.

The party was just a week away and Vin was truly happy that Buck and Chris cared enough about JD to celebrate his birthday. Buck had even asked Vin the date of his birthday but he couldn´t really tell him an exact date. He knew it was during the summer and he reckoned it was sometime after the Fourth of July since he remembered saving a firecracker once to have at his party.

Chris had explained to him that they´d found JD´s birth date in the bible the two boys had in their bag but not Vin´s. Well, that particular bible had belonged to JD´s mom. Vin didn´t know what had become of his mother´s bible and he was sorry he couldn´t tell Chris the exact date of his birthday. He reckoned that meant he wouldn´t get a party this year or ever again. He thought briefly of making up a date but he reckoned that would be the same as lying and he knew that wasn´t right. No, it looked like birthday´s was just one more thing he was going to have to live without. But that didn´t mean he couldn´t enjoy JD´s party.

“Well, hello there Chris, Vin. Got a list of supplies you need filled?”

Vin looked up to see Mrs. Potter smiling down at him. Answering her smile with one of his own, Vin pulled out his penny and held it up for her to see.

“I need to buy a gift for JD for his birthday. He´s going to be six next week and we´re having a party but you can´t tell him because it´s going to be a surprise. Are you coming to the party? It´s going to be at Miss Nettie´s house so´s she can decorate and JD won´t know until we get there. I think it´s going to be at noon because we´re having a picnic for lunch.”

Chris stared down at his young charge in amazement. That was the most talking he had heard from Vin since the boy had come to live with him. Maybe it was a sign that he was finally getting over the trauma of being orphaned and was starting to feel secure in his new home.

“Well, as a matter of fact I am coming to the party. Nettie invited me yesterday as we were leaving church. Now, as for a gift for JD, did you have anything in mind?”

Vin shook his head. “No ma´am. Do you have any toys that I can buy for a penny?”

“Hmmm, I don´t really sell toys but I think I may have something here that JD would like.” Stepping over to a shelf at the end of her counter, Mrs. Potter began climbing a small footstool to reach a box up near the top.

While he waited, Vin glanced inside the case and gave a small gasp as his gaze was captured by the bright, silvery shine of a harmonica. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Pressing his hands against the glass, Vin put his face as close as possible to get a really good look at the small instrument. A faded memory seemed to float up out of the back of his mind. Big, strong hands wrapped around a worn, battered version of the same mouth organ. A soft, sorrowful tune filling the night and lulling him to sleep while warm arms held him close.

“There now, just take a look at these.”

Vin jumped slightly as he was suddenly pulled back into the present. It was hard for him to look away from the case and Mrs. Potter noticed his hesitation. A quick glance told her exactly what object had probably caught the boy´s attention and she looked up to see if Chris had also noticed. She frowned in annoyance as she saw that the rancher was completely oblivious, all his attention being focused on a stack of blankets. Thinking she would set him straight soon enough, she looked back to Vin and held out a box where he could see inside.

“Josiah will sometimes bring in things that the Indians make to trade for supplies. Do you think JD would like a headband like the warriors wear?”

“Does it have a feather in it?”

“No, but I´m sure Chris could help you find one to put in it. Won´t you, Chris?”


“Help Vin find a feather for JD´s present.”

As soon as he had seen the headband, Vin knew JD would love it. But it would need a feather in it to be absolutely perfect and it couldn´t be just any old chicken feather. Vin looked up from the beaded strip of leather to check the expression on Chris´ face. The man was busy examining some folded blankets but Vin was reassured by a slight nod of agreement. Turning back to Mrs. Potter, Vin held out his penny to make the purchase.

“Thank you, Vin. Would you like me to wrap it in a little brown paper so JD can´t see it?”

“Yes, please.” Vin bounced on his toes as he watched the headband being carefully wrapped and tied. When it was already, he reached to take it but Chris´ hand intercepted the parcel.

“You´d better let me carry it. If JD sees you with it he´s going to demand to know what´s inside.”

Vin bit his bottom lip and quickly stuck his hands in his pockets. ‘It don´t matter,´ He silently scolded himself. ‘Don´t matter if it´s the first thing I ever bought. Not like it´s for me anyways.´ His blue eyes followed the small bundle as Chris tucked it up under his arm.

Mrs. Potter saw the disappointment on the small boy´s face and knew the cause of it. “Chris, maybe you should …”

“Why, good morning Mr. Larabee, Mr. Tanner. Doing a little shopping?” The southern drawl was as unmistakable as the flashy red jacket. Ezra tipped his hat as he greeted his friend and fellow peacekeeper and his young charge.

“Getting some supplies and Vin just bought JD a birthday present.” Chris held up the small package so that Ezra could see it.

“Do tell.” Turning his attention to Vin, Ezra´s gold tooth gleamed as he gave the boy an encouraging smile. “And what, may I ask, did you decide upon as your celebratory offering?”

“Uhm…” Vin hesitated just a moment. It kind of sounded like Ezra was wanting to know what was in the package but why the man just couldn´t come right out and ask was sure a puzzler. “I bought JD an Indian headband and Chris is going to get me a feather to put in it.”

“Really? Well, that certainly is a worthy present. Perhaps I will be equally as fortunate in finding a suitable gift.”

“Ezra,” Mrs. Potter caught the gambler´s attention while at the same time deftly slipping Vin´s purchase out of Chris´ hand. “Why don´t you take Vin on over to the boarding house for lunch while Chris tells me what he needs.” Ignoring the blond rancher completely, she passed the gift to Vin who carefully took it in both his hands.

Confused at his sudden dismissal but willing to follow along, Ezra readily agreed and tipped his hat in farewell while holding the door open for Vin to proceed him from the store.

“What was that all about?”

“I swear, Chris, when it comes to spotting outlaws you´ve got the eyes of a hawk but when it comes to reading one small boy you´re as blind as a bat.”

That last thing Chris was expecting was a tongue lashing and he frowned in annoyance. “What do you mean …?”

Mrs. Potter explained exactly what she meant in no uncertain terms and by the time she got through it was a very contrite and reflective Chris Larabee that left the store to meet up with his friends for lunch.


Vin stared up at the bird´s nest perched high in the tree. It looked like it was at least a mile up and the limb it was sitting on sure was skinny. But the bird that lived in it had real pretty feathers and Vin just had to get one for JD´s headband. The party was the very next day and Chris hadn´t been able to help him find a feather. Of course, Vin had only asked him once in the middle of the week but Chris had said he was too busy and that he would do it later. Vin just reckoned that later was going to be too late and that he would have to do it on his own if he was going to have it in time for the party.

It had taken him two days to finally find the nest he now stood beneath and most of the morning of the third day to work up his courage to climb it. He couldn´t help thinking about the last tree he´d climbed and how bad it had hurt falling out of it. But he was older now and a little bigger so maybe this time he wouldn´t fall. Besides, he just ‘had´ to get a feather for JD´s present. What good was a warrior´s headband if it didn´t have a feather in it?

By standing on the carefully placed milking stool, Vin was just able to hook his arms over the lowest of the branches. Placing one booted foot against the trunk of the tree, he was able to push and pull his way astride the limb. Holding it tightly with both hands, he took a deep breath and looked first down then up. That hadn´t been so bad and all the other limbs were a lot closer together. Yeah, he could do this.

Slowly, limb by limb, Vin made his way closer to the nest. There were a couple of times when the soles of his boots slipped on the smooth bark causing his heart to thump so hard in his chest he thought it was going to bounce right out. But he would wrap his arms around the trunk and squeeze his eyes shut until the feeling passed then move on to the next branch. Just a couple more to go and then ….

“Vin! What´cha doing way up there?”

JD´s timing couldn´t have been any worse. Halfway between two limbs, feet precariously perched and one hand just reaching for the last limb….

“Vin!!” JD yelled even louder as he watched his cousin suddenly drop from the branch he had been standing on. He stood frozen until he saw that Vin had managed to stop falling by grabbing on to that same limb with both hands as he slid past it.

Vin gasped as the muscles in his arms and back were jerked painfully tight. It was almost enough to make him let go but gritting his teeth he just managed to keep his fingers wrapped tight around the branch. Opening his eyes, he peered down the length of his body and past the toes of his boots he saw his cousin´s terrified face staring up at him.

“Hang on, Vin! I´ll get Buck and Chris!”

“No! Wait! JD!” But it was too late. JD was off and running through the trees like a jack rabbit. Vin quickly looked for a way to get himself down before JD returned with Chris. He knew the rancher would be mad at him. Lordy. Couldn´t he go a month without getting himself into bad trouble? But darn it, this time it hadn´t been his fault. Not entirely. Dumb ol´ JD braying like a mule…

Vin heard a noise and looking down again, he felt pretty close to crying. Sure enough, there was Chris, his green eyes flashing and his mouth set so tight and straight you almost couldn´t see his lips.

Chris stared up into the branches and felt an almost giddy sense of relief. He had been looking for Vin for almost half an hour and had just entered the small wooded area when JD had practically run him down babbling something about Vin and a tree. He was sure his heart had stopped beating as he finally made out what the small boy was saying. He got JD to point out the direction then ran ahead leaving the child to catch up as best he could. Half expecting to find Vin´s broken body lying on the ground, he had to grit his teeth hard at the surge of emotion when he spotted the light brown cowboy boots dangling just a few feet above his head.

The limbs that seemed spaced so far apart to a child of seven were like the rungs on a ladder for a full grown man. Chris quickly climbed up until he his head was level with Vin´s shoulders. Wrapping one arm securely around the trunk, he reached out with the other and carefully drew the boy toward him.

“You can let go now Vin. I´ve got you.”

Feeling the strength and security of the arm encircling his waist, Vin took a quick breath and released the limb he had been clinging to for dear life. There was a brief moment of panic as he felt himself drop but suddenly he was being held tight against Chris´ warm chest and he instinctively twisted until he could wrap his arms around the rancher´s neck.

“Easy, Vin. I´m not going to let you fall.”

Getting out of the tree with the boy hanging onto his neck was a little tricky but he was soon close enough to the ground to drop the rest of the way and land on his feet with a solid ‘thump.´

Bending forward, Chris gently pushed Vin away setting him on his own two feet. Kneeling down and gripping the boy by his shoulders, Chris gave him a little shake. He wanted Vin to raise his head so that he could see his face and make sure he wasn´t hurt.

“Vin, what were you …?”

“I´m sorry!” Vin jerked free and took two quick steps back. “I wasn´t going to …. I didn´t… you said….I …I…I´m sorry!”

He couldn´t explain and he couldn´t bear to see Chris angry with him. Avoiding the outstretched hand, he took to his heels and raced past his cousin. JD watched Vin disappear in the direction of the cabin then turned to look at Chris.

“Are you mad at Vin?”

Chris ran the fingers of one hand through his hair as he sighed deeply. “No, JD I ain´t mad at him. Do you know why he was climbing the tree?”

“No. But I reckon … I mean …he might not´ve fallen if´n I hadn´t surprised him.” The boy dug the toe of his right boot into the ground and hung his head, the very model of remorse.

“You weren´t with him when he climbed up?”

“No sir. I was looking for him ‘cause he promised to help me make a fishin´ pole. He´s been watching birds all week so I came up here to find him. I guess I shouldn´t have yelled when I saw him up there in the tree, huh?”

Watching birds? Chris stood and looked up through the branches. Sure enough, there was a large nest perched near the top. Now why would Vin …?

JD frowned in confusion as Chris gave a loud moan and wiped a hand down his face. Shaking his head, the rancher picked up the milking stool and carried it over to the puzzled boy.

“JD, do you think you could carry this back to the barn for me?”

“You bet! But ain´t you coming?”

“I´ll be along directly. There something I got to do first. Now get on with you and make sure you put that stool back where it belongs.”

“Yes sir!”


Why? Why did he always have to be the one to get into trouble? Weren´t fair. Seemed like no matter how well he planned things out something always went wrong. It was no wonder he had gotten so many whippings at the orphanage. Old Mr. Mayfield must have been right about him. He was good for nothin´ and nobody would ever want to ‘dopt such a stupid little bastard for a son.

Vin crouched down beside the stone well and buried his face in his arms. He shouldn´t have run away from Chris. That was only going to make him madder. Might even finally make him mad enough to use his belt. Vin shuddered as he remembered the sound and the feel of Mr. Mayfield´s belt when he´d lost his temper.

Lost in his misery and the unhappy memories, Vin didn´t hear the approaching footsteps or see the dark shadow that fell over his hiding place.


Chris was careful to say the name softly but he still managed to badly startle the boy. No, not startle. A body didn´t cringe like that and look like it was trying to burrow itself into solid stone just by being startled. That was fear, plain and simple.

“Vin. I ain´t mad at ya.”

Well, Chris certainly didn´t sound mad. He wasn´t yellin´, that was for sure. Cautiously Vin lifted his head and blinked his vision into focus. His brow wrinkled in confusion as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Chris was kneeling beside him and holding between his fingers …

“The feather!”

It was perfect! Long and wide with black stripes against brown and a bit of white at the very tip. It was the perfect feather for a warrior´s head band. JD would love it. He reached for the feather but his hand froze in mid-air as Chris spoke again.

“Vin. Look at me. Please?”

Big blue eyes turned to regard the rancher and Chris had to fight the urge to simply reach out and grab the boy in a fierce, protective hug. He wished there was a way he could go back and erase every unhappy memory but he knew that such a thing was impossible. Time was the only cure and just like physical wounds, the pain of the memories would fade but the scars would still remain.

“Vin, when we were in the store, I agreed to do something for you and that was the same as giving my word. If a man gives a promise he needs to keep that promise or he ain´t much of a man. I never intended to go back on my word to you. I just got caught up in business and things that seemed important at the time.”

Chris carefully took Vin´s small hand in his and laid the feather across his palm. “But I want you to know there ain´t nothing more important to me than keeping my word to you. And I´m going to make you another promise right here and now. I promise I won´t ever raise a hand against you in anger and you never need to be afraid of coming to me with a problem.” Chris placed his hand on Vin´s shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I mean that. And if it turns out I´m the problem, you go get Buck and he´ll set me straight. Okay?”

Vin smiled tentatively at first but seeing the sparkle of humor in the rancher´s green eyes, his smile quickly grew to a happy grin. Holding the feather carefully in the fingers of one hand, the small boy gave in to his heart´s desire and once more threw his arms around Chris´ neck. His surrender was rewarded by the feel of strong arms pulling him close and the softly whispered words, “I promise, Vin. I promise.”


The birthday party was a wild success. And JD just plain wild. From the moment he learned that the party was for him he became unstoppable. Everything had to happen immediately. The fried chicken had to be eaten ‘now´. And no sooner had everyone settled down to enjoy the spread than he was ready to open his presents; ‘now´. Even Nettie couldn´t get him to sit still long enough to eat more than two bites of everything on his plate.

So while the adults ate JD began opening his stack of presents. Each gift was received with a squeal of delight before being tossed aside to make room for the next. From Billy and Mary there was a story book complete with pictures. Mrs. Potter gave him a big bag of candy which Buck was forced to take away from him before he choked trying to shove it all into his mouth at one time. Josiah gave him more animals for his Ark and Nathan´s gift was a real, honest to gosh pocket knife. Ezra´s present was tricky. At first it looked like nothing more than a fancy handkerchief but when JD picked it up, a whole quarter dropped out onto the table! JD demanded to know how much candy he could buy with it and was thrilled to learn it was enough for a whopping big tummy ache. Chris´ gift to him was a fishing pole and a can to put his worms in. And no, they couldn´t go fishing ‘now´, that would have to wait for another day.

Seeing all the wonderful presents, Vin worried briefly that his own offering wasn´t so good after all. But just before it was opened, he glanced over at Chris and was reassured by the rancher´s quick nod and warm smile.

“An injun headband! That makes me a brave!” And with a loud war whoop, the little warrior would have taken off across the field if not for a lightening fast snatch of his suspenders by Chris.

“Whoa, chief. You´ve got one more present and if you want it your going to have to close your eyes.”

Bouncing in place and giggling with delight, JD held his hands over his eyes, peeking just a little between his fingers. But Chris kept him facing in the wrong direction giving Buck enough time to get his present arranged just so.

“All right lil´ britches, you can look now.”

Brown eyes wide with surprise and mouth dropped open in a breathless gasp of delight; it was an image that would stay with Buck for the rest of his days. And if anyone noticed a little extra moisture in the big rancher´s eyes as he knelt to receive his ‘thank you´ hug, they were tactful enough to hide their smiles behind lifted cups of cider.


“But real braves don´t use saddles!”

“Yeah, well real braves don´t wear pants neither but that sure don´t mean you´re gonna run around butt naked.” Buck rubbed a knuckle across his mustache and bit back the words that he really wanted to say. Rather than fixing all the problems, it seemed like giving JD his own horse had just caused more. And Chris was no help, just sat there with his arms crossed and that smug little ‘I knew this would happen´ smile. Annoying enough to make a man want to shoot his best friend.

Vin watched the confrontation unfold from his saddle atop Peso and silently wished he had never given JD the headband. At first it had made him feel good to see his cousin wear it every day and even try to sleep in it; but now it seemed like once more his good intention was turning into trouble.

“It's not your fault.”

“What?” Vin turned quickly to look at Chris.

“I said JD's temper tantrum isn't your fault.”

“But I gave him the headband.”

Chris smiled and shook his head. He had seen Vin chewing his bottom lip and correctly guessed what was worrying the boy. “It ain't your fault, just like it ain't Nathan's fault that JD whittled the leg of Buck's chair so that it broke when he sat down. And it ain't Ezra's fault that JD bought a whole pound of candy and made himself sick eating it all by himself. And it certainly ain't my fault that JD brought his fishing pole inside and cleared off the mantel, breaking every piece of china we owned.”

Vin thought hard for a moment before hazarding a guess. “I reckon...maybe...it's all JD's fault?”

“You know why?”

“Cause he's a unholy pain in the ass?”

Chris chuckled as he reached over and ruffled Vin's hair. “Don't let me hear you repeating that and remind me to wash Buck's mouth out with soap when we get back.”

Making sure he had Vin´s undivided attention he carefully explained, “It´s because he´s too young to know better and sometimes the only way a little boy learns is by doing. That goes for older boys and some men as well.” Chris grinned and nodded his head towards the two still arguing. “You can help keep an eye on your cousin and try to keep him out of trouble but you can't take the blame for things he does on his own.”

Feeling like a heavy burden had just been lifted from his small shoulders, Vin sat up straighter in his saddle and grinned as he turned back to watch the outcome of the battle of wills.


“JaaaaayyyyyyyDeeeeeee. I heard you boy and ‘no´ is ‘no´. You either ride with a saddle or you don´t ride.”

“But Spot don´t like the saddle.”

“Spot don´t like nothin´ but eating and sleeping. Now you got two choices, you either ride to town in a saddle on Spot or you ride to town in front of me. Your choice.”

Wasn´t much of choice and JD´s pout was bigger than Texas and California put together but he finally allowed himself to be placed on the Shetland´s back, saddle and all. Of course once in the saddle and with the reins in his hands, all thoughts of riding like a real brave were quickly forgotten.

“C´mon Vin, I´ll race ya!”

“No races! You hear me? JD! Vin! Chris, do somethin´! Chris?! Hey! Wait for me!”

The End

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