"Little Britches" Universe
Author's Notes: Credit is due to Kathy Poffenberger and Suze Berry for creating the Little Britches A/U and for generously opening their A/U to others. Thanks to Judy, a most excellent beta, and thanks to Christine for her willingness to share her knowledge of the old west. Feedback is welcome.
"Hold still, Vin," Chris Larabee said, as he tried to brush the child's tangled curls into order. They were standing in the main room of the cabin, which was now home to seven year old Vin Tanner and five year old JD Dunne. Six weeks earlier, the two orphaned cousins had been taken in by both Chris and Buck Wilmington, Chris's partner in their modest horse ranch. Buck and little JD were interested spectators watching Chris get a fidgety Vin ready for his first day of school.
Vin had intially been excited when Chris and Buck had talked to him about starting to school. Chris had taken Vin into Four Corners and had bought him new shirts, pants, suspenders and boots, as well as the supplies required for school. Now that the day had actually arrived, Vin was feeling more apprehensive than excited.
"Maybe I oughta stay here, Mr. Chris, and help you and Mr. Buck break in the new horses 'stead of goin' to school."
"You're a little young, son, to be breakin' in horses," Chris responded, trying to brush Vin's longish hair out of his eyes. "Besides, you remember what Buck and me told you boys about gettin' too close to the horses. They're wild and dangerous until they're broke in."
"Don't you need me to help you build fences or somethin'?" Vin asked hopefully.
"Aw, you wouldn't wanta miss school," Buck put in. "Why, you're gonna have a good time bein' with all the other kids and learnin' new things. It'll be a lot more fun than bein' here at the ranch."
Vin turned skeptical blue eyes on Buck.
"I wanta go to school, too," JD insisted, dropping his lower lip into a pout.
Buck picked up the little boy, balancing him on his hip. "Money's kinda tight right now, JD. There ain't enough to send both of you to school this year, and you wouldn't like havin' to sit still in school all day long. After Chris 'n' me increase our herd and sell off some of 'em, things'll be different. You can go to school next year, little britches."
JD's lower lip started to tremble. "I wanta go now," he wailed loudly.
Sensing a temper tantrum coming on, Chris looked up from straightening Vin's suspenders. "Buck, maybe you could take JD out to the barn and get started on curryin' the horses."
"Good idea, pard." He addressed JD. "You wanta help me take care of the horses? After that, we can check and see if some baby chicks have hatched out since last night. It's about time for them to arrive."
The distraction worked. "Baby chicks? Can I play with 'em?"
"You can play with 'em some, but you hafta be real careful and gentle with 'em," Buck cautioned.
"Okay." JD was reconciled to the loss of school. He looked over Buck's shoulder as he was carried out the door. "Bye, Vin."
"Bye, JD," Vin responded solemnly.
Chris gave Vin a final inspection. Vin was wearing some of his new clothes -- a blue and tan plaid shirt, tan pants, dark blue suspenders and brown boots. Chris could find nothing wrong with his appearance. "Ready to go, son?"
"Vin answered softly. "I reckon."
Vin rode behind Chris on the way to school, his arms around Chris's waist. Noting how quiet Vin was, Chris made an effort to abandon his usual laconic state. With false enthusiasm, Chris tried to reassure the child by relating how much he had enjoyed school when he was Vin's age. Chris glanced back to gauge Vin's reaction and saw Vin still looking doubtful.
"If I don't like it, can I quit?"
"Let's don't talk about quittin'. I want you to promise me that you'll do your best."
"Yes, sir," Vin answered dutifully.
The one room schoolhouse was located just outside of town. With a mixture of curiousity and trepidation, Vin eyed the structure when he and Chris rode into the schoolyard. Noisy boys and girls of various ages were entering the unpainted building. A well was located in front of the school. Behind it, and off to the side, was a privy. A large shade tree grew next to the school.
Chris and Vin dismounted, and Vin followed behind as Chris entered the building. Vin glanced around. The teacher was directing the newer students to the front desks and the older ones to the back. Chris removed his hat and strode to the front of the room to where the teacher stood.
Chris's tone was respectful. "Mornin', Miss Finch."
"Good morning, Mr. Larabee," The teacher was formal and businesslike.
Chris looked down at his ward. "Vin, I want you to meet Miss Octavia Finch. She's goin' to be your teacher. Miss Finch, this is Vin Tanner."
Vin warily regarded the teacher. He and JD had previously encountered grownups who hadn't treated them kindly, and he tried to decide what to expect from this one.
She don't look like she smiles much, and she looks old...maybe as old as Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck. She ain't ugly, but her dress is ugly and so is her hair, pulled back in a knot like that.
Looking at her and at the faces of so many strangers, Vin felt his apprehension grow. His hand crept into the warm, callused palm of his guardian and received a reassuring squeeze.
"Vin, you're the only student with whom I'm not already acquainted. We're pleased to have you with us." Miss Finch addressed the pupils. "Boys and girls, this is Vin Tanner."
Vin shyly looked down at the floor as the eyes of the other students were focused upon him.
The teacher turned her attention back to Chris. "How old is Vin? Has he had any previous schooling?"
"He's seven, Ma'am, and this is the first time he's had a chance to go to school. I'm his guardian now, along with Buck Wilmington."
The teacher raised an eyebrow. "Mr. Wilmington? With his reputation, he hardly seems a suitable person to care for a child."
Annoyance flashed in Chris's eyes. "We're takin' care of Vin and his five year old cousin. Buck's crazy about both of the boys. He's a good man."
Miss Finch ignored Chris's defense of his partner. "I'll put Vin with the other children who are just beginning school this year."
Chris leaned down and spoke softly to Vin. "Everything's goin' to be fine. You be a good boy and mind the teacher. I'll come back for you when school is over."
Vin nodded, but his soulful gaze followed Chris out the door.
Miss Finch put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Vin, you can have a seat here in the front row between Margaret and Ruthie."
I don't wanta sit with girls.
Vin looked up at the teacher. "But, I don't wanta..."
Miss Finch was firm. "Vin, one of the first things that we learn in school is to follow directions and to do as we're told."
"Yes, ma'am," Vin mumbled, reluctantly taking his place between the two little girls.
The teacher handed out assignments to the more advanced students and then turned her attention to the beginning students. Using a ruler, she pointed to the alphabet written on the blackboard. "Today, children, we're going to learn the letters of the alphabet. I'll point to each letter and name it. Repeat each letter after me."
Dutifully, Vin repeated the letters along with the other children. The teacher went through the letters over and over again, and Vin grew bored and restless. Looking through the window at the shade tree beside the school, he wished that he could be outside climbing it, instead of being stuck inside.
When the teacher began asking the students to identify individual letters, Margaret and Ruthie raised their hands to volunteer the answers. Margaret's blond ringlets and Ruthie's brunette braids bounced as they eagerly sought to claim the teacher's attention. Vin remained silent. Some of the letters confused him with their similarity to others, and he didn't want to appear dumb. Besides, it was more interesting to think about what was happening at the ranch with the horses being broke in.
Lost in his thoughts, Vin was unprepared when the teacher called upon him. She was pointing to one of the letters. "Vin, which letter is this?"
It seemed to Vin that the entire room had gotten quiet and was waiting for his response. It was one of the letters that looked like another. Was it an "E" or an "F"? His mind froze.
Ruthie gave Vin a sympathetic look. "F", she hissed in a loud whisper.
Miss Finch didn't look pleased. "'F' is correct, Ruthie, but we do not furnish answers to other students. Vin, if you had been paying attention, you would have known the correct answer. We come here to learn. School isn't a place for daydreaming. You won't learn anything if you don't pay attention. If you fail to keep up, you'll have to stay after school."
Vin looked down in embarrassment. School was getting less enjoyable by the minute.
Before Miss Finch could continue, a scuffle among the bigger boys in the back of the room drew her attention. She reprimanded one of the boys. "Willie Purvis, stop that this minute!"
While the teacher was dealing with the culprits, Margaret turned to Vin with a smug expression. "Miss Finch likes me because I know all the right answers."
Vin resisted the urge to stick his tongue out at her. "She's never goin' to like me," he muttered.
Margaret looked him over more closely and seemed to come to a decision. "Yes she will, because I'm going to help you."
"I'm going to help him, too," Ruthie insisted. She gave Vin a dimpled smile.
Before Vin could decide how to deal with this unexpected turn of events, Miss Finch returned and resumed her instruction with Vin and the other beginners.
The day seemed endless to Vin, but at last Miss Finch dismissed her students. Vin ran out of the schoolhouse, eager to find Chris and go home. Chris was seated on his horse waiting for Vin, and Vin hurried over to him.
"How did it go, son?" Chris asked.
Vin gave a noncommital shrug and scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt, refusing to look at Chris. "I got mud on my britches," he said in a small voice. He raised his eyes. "I didn't mean to. Are you gonna be mad at me?"
Chris saw that dried mud was caked down the side of one pants leg. "Nah. If a boy don't get some dirt on him, he ain't a real boy." He reached down and pulled Vin up behind him. After turning the horse towards home, he glanced back at the boy. Vin no longer looked worrried, but he still didn't look happy. "What happened? Did you fall down?"
Chris tried to question Vin further about school, but received only shrugs and evasive answers.
As soon as they reached home, Buck and an excited JD ran out of the barn to meet them. The words tumbled out of JD in a rapid stream. "Did ya like school, Vin? Did ya learn lotsa new stuff? Can ya count to a hunnert yet? Did ya learn how ta read? What's your teacher's name?"
Vin slid off of Chris's horse. "You ask too many questions, JD. I wanta see my horse." Vin ran into the barn, with JD right behind him and still peppering him with questions.
"Seems like Vin didn't think too much of school," Buck commented to Chris.
Chris dismounted and started toward the barn, leading his horse. "Appears that way. He wouldn't talk about it."
During supper, JD chattered enthusiastically about the new horses, the baby chicks and his anticipation of helping Buck build a new corral. Vin said little and toyed with his food, pushing it around on his plate.
"Vin, you're gonna need to eat more'n that," Buck said, "if you expect to keep up in school."
"I ain't really hungry, Mr. Buck." Vin gave Chris a beseeching look. "Mr. Chris, do I hafta go back to school?"
Chris leaned back in his chair and lit a cigar. "Yeah, Vin, you have to go back, but I think it's time to do somethin' about this Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck business." He looked across the table at Buck. "What do you think about comin' up with somethin' else for the boys to call us?"
"Mr. Nathan calls Mr. Buck a rascal," JD promptly responded.
Buck made an exaggerated frown. "Oh, he does, does he?"
"Mr. Buck's a rascal," JD giggled.
Vin found JD's giggles contagious. "Mr. Ezra said that Mr. Chris was scary," he chortled.
Chris pursed his lips at Vin, causing the child's giggles to continue. "Mr. Ezra just might find out how scary Mr. Chris can be."
"Rascal Buck and Scary Chris ain't exactly what I had in mind," Buck said. "What about Papa Buck and Papa Chris? How's that sound to you boys?" He looked at JD. "You like that, little britches?"
JD's giggles subsided, and he nodded vigorously, his dark hair falling into his eyes. "I like it."
"I like it, too," Vin declared.
For the first time that day Vin looked happy, and Chris felt more optimistic about getting Vin to open up. He caught Buck's eye. "Let's leave off clearin' the table for now and go out on the porch for awhile."
"Yeah, let's do that," Buck agreed. "C'mon, boys." Buck poured himself another cup of coffee and followed Chris and the children outside. JD immediately dashed into the yard, running around and working off excess energy. Buck sat down on the top step, the board creaking loudly beneath his weight. Mindful of tender ears, Buck swore softly under his breath and examined the piece of wood. "We need to replace this step, pard. It's startin' ta rot."
Chris stepped over for a look. "When we get the new horses broke in, we need to sell off some of 'em and use the money to make some repairs around here."
"We need a new roof before the winter rains set in, and we oughta make the house a little bigger since we got the boys livin' here with us," Buck said. "They can hardly turn around in that room o' theirs. If it was bigger, each of 'em could have his own bed."
JD had returned and sat down beside Buck, listening intently. "I want my own bed," he pouted. "When Vin's asleep, he kicks me."
"No, I don't," Vin argued.
"Yes, ya do," JD insisted
"You wet the bed sometimes," Vin retorted.
"Boys," Chris broke in, "you'll each have your own bed as soon as we can manage it."
Chris pulled over a straight backed chair and sat down, taking Vin into his lap. Shy and hesitant at first about accepting physical affection, Vin was now much more comfortable with it. He settled back against Chris, and Chris spoke softly to him. "Why don't you tell me exactly why you don't like school?"
Vin was silent for a moment and then took a deep breath. "To start with, you hafta take baths when you go to school." He looked at Chris. "I don't understand why you and Mist...Papa Buck take baths when there ain't nobody to make you do it."
Buck took a sip of his coffee. "Well, Vin, when ya get ta smellin' kinda ripe, folks don't much like ta be around ya, 'specially the ladies. You'll understand that when ya grow up some and start hangin' around with girls."
"Girls ain't worth takin' a bath for," Vin muttered.
Buck grinned. "You'll change your mind about that, son. Take it from me, there ain't no females that like dirty, scruffy fellas."
Vin looked unconvinced.
"Not likin' school has to be about more than not wantin' to take a bath," Chris said. "What else happened today?"
"Well, it wasn't fun like you and Papa Buck said it was goin' to be." Vin gave both men an accusing look.
Buck cleared his throat and winked at Chris. "It's been a long time since Chris 'n' me went ta school. Could be that we both sorta forgot what it was like."
Vin pondered this. "I reckon you coulda forgot. You and Papa Chris are kinda old. Miss Finch is old, too." He frowned. "She's fussy. She ain't nice like Miss Nettie."
"Maybe we can get Buck to sweeten her up a little," Chris suggested with a smile.
"Yeah," put in JD. "I want her ta be nice when I start ta school"
"Ol' Buck is up ta any challenge."
"Considerin' her opinion of you, Miss Octavia Finch would be a challenge all right."
"I don't like her," Vin grumbled. "She made me sit with two girls. I don't like girls either."
Buck looked amused. "Why don't ya like girls, son?"
"There ain't nothin' to like. They're afraid of gettin' dirty, they don't like to play rough, they don't wanta touch frogs, and they scream if they see a snake, and the tomboy ones always wanta beat you at everything. They're silly, too, 'specially the ones that wanta kiss you," he added in disgust.
Chris and Buck tried not to smile. "What's this about kissin'?, Chris prompted.
"Tell us what happened," Chris urged. "We men have to stick together against these females."
Reluctantly, Vin began. "Miss Finch made me sit with these girls named Margaret and Ruthie. When we went outside for recess, they wouldn't leave me alone. They kept followin' me around and then they both kissed me." His distaste was evident. "I didn't do nothin' to 'em, but they grabbed me and tried to slobber on me and told me that I was goin' to be their boyfriend. They said they was goin' to share me."
"You don't know what Papa Buck would give to have some ladies make him an offer like that," Chris murmured.
Vin looked mystified, but continued. "They told me I was cute. I ain't cute!"
"Of course not." Chris responded. He found the child endearing and amusing in a way that he thought he'd never experience again after losing Adam. He fingered Vin's brown curls. "Is that all that happened?"
"No, sir. I finally got away from them girls 'cause I wanted to play with the boys, but one of the big boys said I was too little and skinny to play with 'em. He pushed me into a mud puddle, and that's how I got my britches dirty."
"What's this boy's name?" Chris demanded.
"Willie Purvis. He's big, and he's got red hair."
"I know him and his family. He must be one of the oldest kids in school." Chris was unprepared for the degree of outrage that he felt over the bullying of "his" child. Adam had never been subjected to bullies.
"With his old man bein' a loudmouth drunk who beats up on his wife and kids, it's no wonder that the boy's a bully," Buck observed.
"Yeah, well, I ain't makin' excuses for him when it comes to Vin." Chris hugged the child tighter to him. "If he keeps on botherin' you, I'm gonna hafta have a talk with his pa."
"I think ya oughta teach Vin how ta beat him up," JD asserted.
"Yeah," Vin agreed.
"You're a bit scrawny to be takin' on the big boys," Chris replied, "and Miss Finch sure wouldn't like any fightin'. We'll hafta think of some other way to deal with a bully like Willie Purvis." He paused. "Did I ever show you how you can make folks back off if you glare at 'em just right?"
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org