"Little Britches" Universe

The rancher had just enough time pull the five-year-old close to his chest and swing off the ledge as a large boulder landed where he and JD had been moments before.

"Chris!" Vin’s scream got him breathing again as he tried to find another toehold to stop his and JD’s momentum.

"I’m all right! We’re both all right," Larabee called, as he and his precious cargo bounced back and forth along the rock facing like a pendulum.

Buck was still helping Ezra and Vin up the last few feet of the Devil’s Horn, and was unable to steady the line that Chris and JD were hanging from.

His heart had almost stopped when he’d heard the rumble and Standish’s yell for heads up. Worry and fear spurred him to move faster and he discovered a strength he’d never known he’d had as he brought the gambler and his passenger to safety with three more hard pulls.

Catching his friend’s hand, Buck nearly pulled Ezra and Vin on top of him as he drug them over the ledge. Standish stumbled but was able to shove Vin into Wilmington’s waiting arms before he fell flat on his face.

"Vin!" Buck breathed, wrapping his arms around the seven-year-old and burying his face in the boy’s long blond hair. "Thank God, you’re all right, boy. Thank God."

As quickly as he’d grabbed him, Buck placed the little boy gently on the ground and flashed him a smile. "Don’t move. I’m going to get..." Buck had almost said your pa and JD, but he caught himself. It struck him how the truth could strike you at the most inopportune times. "I’m going to get JD."

Chris had finally stopped his and JD’s bumpy ride and they now dangled from the rope, braced against another small outcropping farther down from where they’d been. He wasn’t sure if it was the sudden movement or the loud beating of his heart that woke JD, but slowly the little boy lifted his head.

Eyes fluttered open, but JD looked as if he was having a hard time focusing on Chris. The five-year-old took a couple hitched breaths and then let out a scream that could have easily brought down the rest of the mountainside on top of their heads.

"JD," Chris kept his voice soft, trying to calm the child before he could get worked up. But the sudden realization of pain must have set in and just as he feared the little boy began to move wildly in his arms, and let out one anguished cry after another.

Sobbing disconsolately, JD fought the arms holding him as if they were the things causing his obvious misery. "It’s all right, JD." The rancher tried to hold the little boy tighter with his one free arm. "It’s all right. I’ve got you. Just calm down. You’re safe now."

"Buuuuuccccck!" The first intelligible word out of the child’s mouth tore at Larabee’s heart. He could only imagine the fear JD was experiencing, not to mention the torment his oldest friend was enduring on top of the cliff. "My...Bucckkk!"

JD’s cry had startled the dark-haired rancher as he had bent down to retrieve the other lifeline. At first it had been music to his ears. JD was alive and well enough to shout with his usual vigor, but then he realized that there was nothing normal about the boy’s screams.

In all the four months he’d had JD, he’d never heard the child cry like that. Not even when he’d had nightmares, or when Vin had been hurt, and not even when he fell into some briar bushes a couple of months back and had to endure Chris’ doctoring.

No, this was different, and the sound of it tore at the core of Wilmington’s very soul. It was as if someone had ripped his heart from his chest with a dull spur and was now grinding their heal into it as they simultaneously rubbed salt in his open wound. JD was in pain, and there was nothing Buck could do to stop it.

"Pull, Mr. Wilmington." Ezra was behind him now, his hands wrapped around the rope. "Pull, damn it."

Buck glanced back at the southerner and held his fiery green gaze for a brief second before he was able to comprehend what his friend was saying.

"Buck, hurry!" Vin’s plea was all it took and the rancher grabbed onto the rope and added his might to Ezra’s. They had family to rescue.

"Hush now, JD," Chris said into the little boy’s ear as he felt the sharp tug on their line. He hoped he wasn’t hurting JD more by squeezing him as tight as he was, but it was the only way he could keep a hold on the rope and still not drop the child. "We’re going to see Buck. You’re all right now."

"Me...hurt!" JD was howling now, between gulping breaths, as he tried to reach up and touch his head. "Me...hurt!"

Chris clenched his jaw and held tighter to the rope. "I know, son. I know."

"Vin!" JD wailed, fighting the hands holding him still. "I want Vin!"

"Take it easy, JD." Chris held on to the squirming boy, trying not to cause any more injuries. "You’re all right, son. You’re all right," he repeated over and over again.

"I hurt, Chriiiiis!!" JD screamed at the top of his lungs, nearly choking he was crying so hard. "Icky! Where’s Icky?!"

"JD, calm down. You’re safe now. You’re okay." He knew he should keep the little boy as still as possible, but reassuring him seemed the priority at the moment.

"I fell, Chris...I fell," JD sobbed, between his screaming.

"I know," Larabee closed his eyes and tried to keep his mind clear. "I’m sorry, JD."

JD continued to struggle as he and Chris were quickly pulled to the top of the cliff. A hand appeared in front of him and instantly Buck was grasping his arm, hauling him and JD over the lip of the cliff.

Chris collapsed onto his side, but kept JD in front of him, across his chest.

"You all right?" Buck’s voice was tight as he helped Larabee get to his knees. He’d dropped to his own knees, but hadn’t met Larabee’s gaze, instead keeping his eyes on the crying child in his arms.

Chris nodded and instinctively held JD a little closer when he got a look at the complete helplessness written on his best friend’s face. "How is he?"

Larabee shook his head, and let out the breath he’d been holding. "Hurt."

"I’ll take him." Buck held out his hands and it was then that JD must have realized they were on solid ground again and the voice talking registered with him.

"Buuuckk!" JD reached one hand out to the rancher ."Get...me!" he cried.

Buck gently took him in his arms, cradling him to his chest. "Shhh, little bit, everything’s going to be all right."

Ezra smiled wearily at Larabee as he bent down and pulled Chris the rest of the way to his feet. " At least we know his lungs are still in top form."

Chris nodded, swallowing hard as he ran his hand down JD’s dark hair once more as Wilmington got to his feet. He met Buck’s gaze and held it for a moment before turning and taking off towards the spot where Ezra had moved Vin away from the edge.

"I hurt, Buck!" JD screamed. "I want my, mama!"

Buck swallowed hard, fighting to keep his lunch down. "I know, JD. I wish I could get her for you, son."

"Me, bleedin’." The little boy raised his head from Buck’s chest and lifted his hands for the rancher to see. Tears streamed down his face, mixing with dirt and blood. "Bleedin’," JD screamed again.

"I know, little bit," Wilmington tried, "but you’re going to be okay. Ol’Buck’s got ya’ now. Just take it easy."

Blood did cover the palm of JD’s hands from the scrapes on his fingers, but what worried Wilmington more, was the blood flowing down the side of the child’s face. "Bleedin," JD sobbed again, dropping his head back to the rancher‘s shoulder and tightening his grip on the lady‘s man.

"Ezra," Buck reached up and one-handedly undid the bandana from around his own neck, "see if you can get this around his head."

Standish stepped forward and JD screamed louder. "No, no, no!" He clung to Buck. "No go! NO!"

"I won’t let go, son." Buck looked helplessly at the southerner. "I’ve got you, and I’m not letting go, but Uncle Ezra’s going to stop your bleedin’, all right?"

JD shook his head and cried harder, but Wilmington nodded for Standish to go on.

"This is going to warrant you several bags of sweets from Miss Potter’s mercantile, I assure you, Master Dunne." Ezra met Buck’s eyes and the rancher easily read the trepidation and unease in the green eyes. "I’ll be as quick as possible."

As soon as the bandana touched the large gash on JD’s head you would have thought that the southerner had used a hot poker, instead of the gentle touch of a father. The five-year-old tried his best to get his head away from the gambler, but Buck used one of his large hand’s to hold him still.

"NO!" JD cried, "Mama!" The last shout broke Buck’s heart, and he was sure Ezra had flinched, but the conman continued his task until the bandana was tightly tied around the little boy’s head.

"Shhh, JD," Buck brushed his lips against the dark hair as he tried rocking the inconsolable child in his arms, like he’d seen Sarah do Adam. "Shhh. It’s all right."

JD had either calmed down some due to Buck’s soft litany of reassurances or he was going into shock. He had stopped screaming now but Ezra wasn’t quite sure if he preferred the nerve rattling tantrum or the small whimpers the boy had been reduced to.

At least the yelling had let him know that JD was still very much alive and with them. Something he hadn’t believed possible only moments before. But the impossible had occurred and both small boys were alive, and Ezra intended to do all that he could to ensure that they stayed that way.

"I’ll retrieve Misters Jackson and Sanchez from town and meet you back at the ranch."

Wilmington didn’t answer him, but instead squeezed his eyes shut as he hugged the quietly sobbing JD to his chest. Ezra started to lift his hands to the rancher‘s shoulder, but realized how badly they were shaking. He quickly raked them through his hair. "Did you hear me, Buck?"

"No." Wilmington opened his eyes and finally found his voice, although it was a hoarse imitation of his usually boisterous tone."The ranch is too far. Bring Nathan to the Indian village. It's closer for us, and Kojay and Red Cloud can help until Nate gets there." He nodded down to the foot of the cliff to where he and Chris had left their horses. "Take Pony. He’s faster than Beavis."

Buck swallowed hard, trying to hold off the wellspring of emotion threatening to overcome him. "Hurry, Ez. Please hurry."

Standish nodded, glancing to where Chris and Vin were before reaching out and squeezing Wilmington’s shoulder. "I’ll ride as if my life depended on it. I promise you."

"Vin?" Chris kneeled next to where the seven-year-old was sitting. "Are you all right?"

The little boy nodded, but Larabee didn’t look convinced. Vin was cradling his arm and he was visibly shivering. His large blue eyes were glued to the spot where Wilmington and Standish were working on JD.

The rancher placed both his hands on either side of Vin’s face and forced the seven-year-old to look at him. When he did, Chris wiped away the large, silent tears with his thumbs. "I know your arm has to hurt, but is there anywhere else. Your chest? Stomach?"

"Is JD okay? I ain‘t ever heard him scream like that." Vin‘s lip trembled. "’Cept when his ma died, and once when..." Vin stopped and his eyes pooled again.

"I’m sorry, Chris. I didn’t mean it. I just wanted to help Icarus, I didn’t want you to kill him. I didn’t want him to die." Vin said the words quickly, his tears falling faster. "Don’t send us away."

"Vin," Larabee breathed, letting his hands slide from the little boy’s face, "I’m not sending you away, and why in god’s name did you think I was going to kill that hawk? I know what he meant to you and JD."

" Because he couldn’t fly. You said if’n he couldn’t do it this week, you’d have to think of what was best for him. I couldn‘t let my spirit animal die. He watches over me‘n, JD. He helped us find you."

Larabee shook his head. " Vin, just because Icarus couldn’t fly doesn’t mean I would have killed him. Don’t you trust me by now?" Even as he asked the question, Chris knew it was a stupid one. Why in the hell should Vin or JD trust anyone. Everything they had loved in life had been taken from them, except for each other. This wasn’t the boy’s fault. Chris had failed to see what was going on. Damn it all to hell. He’d been blind as a bat.

"I trust you." Vin’s soft voice tore at the rancher’s defenses, leaving him feeling powerless. "But I was scared. I’m sorry."

Larabee wasn’t sure what to say. Buck was better at finding the right words to make the boys feel better. He was a natural at it. So, Chris didn’t say anything at all. He merely pulled Vin into his arms and held him as tightly as he dared. "I know, cowboy. I was scared too."

"Chris?" Buck was standing beside them now, holding onto a very still JD.

"Is he all right?"

Larabee let go of the seven-year-old, and looked up at his oldest friend. "His arm’s broken, but as far as anything else I think he’s just shook up. How’s JD doing?"

But shook his head. " He’s out again. I told Ezra to bring Nathan to the Indian Village. We need to get him to their healer."

"Is he going to be okay?" Vin wiped his nose on the back of his sleeve and looked from Buck to Chris. "He’s not gonna’ die is he?"

"No Vin," Buck was the one to answer, his voice as serious as Chris had ever hear it, "JD isn’t going to die."

Chris stood, carefully lifting Vin as he did. "Let’s get down to the wagon. You can take the boys in it and I’ll ride ahead with the horses to talk to Kojay."

Buck nodded. "Let’s go."

+ + + + + + +

The short ride to the Indian village had seemed a lifetime’s journey to Chris, who’d had entirely too much time to think.

His mind had wondered back to the moment when Josiah had conned he and Buck into taking the boys. Larabee knew he should have put his foot down then. The ranch was no place for children, two lawmen had no business trying to raise kids. No matter how much they wanted to.

Of course, he’d thought about the time Vin had been bitten by the rattler and how scared he was of losing the boy, but now that pain was intensified.

Over the last few months he and Vin had become closer, their bond almost eerie at times. It wasn’t like what he had with Adam. The two boys were completely different, but Chris would have been lying if he were to deny that the quiet, blond orphan had awakened a spirit in him that he thought long dead. The spirit of a father.

But it was more than that really. Theirs was a friendship, a kinship, he couldn’t quite explain. And the prospects of losing it was like a knife through his heart, but he wouldn’t allow his own selfish needs to put Vin in danger. Or JD.

JD was a story all of his own. More like Adam in a lot of ways. Smart and full of life, and amazed by every facet of the everyday world around them that others often took for granted. The five-year-old had a heart as big as Texas and was just as sensitive as Vin. He was as cute as children came and could melt the heart of most anyone he met, especially women, without any effort or awareness on his part. He could have easily been Buck Wilmington’s real son. Buck wanted that, and Chris hurt for him, because even if JD survived this latest trauma, he sincerely doubted the boys could continue to live with them. They’d both been foolish to think otherwise.

Buck would see that now. He’d understand Chris’ reservations. He had to, for all their sakes. Better that JD and Vin be with someone else, than not be at all.

The sounds of another horse coming brought Larabee’s attention from his own tortuous line of thinking. He gazed across the plains and wasn’t surprised to recognize the horse and rider. Kojay.

Chris pulled Beavis to a stop and greeted the Indian with a clasping of arms. "Kojay."

"The spirits told me you were coming, old friend." The Indian’s face was as solemn as ever and his dark eyes met Chris’ green ones. "Something has happened?"

"Vin and JD, the boys that have been staying at the ranch, they’re hurt. Buck’s coming with them in the wagon."

"Red Cloud is at the village." Kojay glanced up at the darkening sky, as a hawk cried out above them. "He will do what he can."

Chris knew what the other man was thinking. Kojay didn‘t look hopeful. Something he had seen had spooked him, and the large hawk circling in the air didn‘t help ease the tension. " The boys were helping him fly. They‘ve practically made a pet of him." The rancher wanted to explain. He wanted Kojay to understand that there was no significance to the bird being there. It was merely following the people who’d fed it over the last two weeks.

"A guide." Kojay nodded solemnly, apparently not seeing things the way Chris wanted him to. "The eagle’s soul brother."

The rancher sighed. He and Kojay would never see things on the same level. "Buck should be along any moment. I rode ahead to ask if you could help us until Nathan arrived."

This time the Indian smiled slightly. "There is no need to ask. You and yours are always welcome." The man turned his pony and nodded for Chris to follow. "Come, Black Eagle, we will prepare for your family."

+ + + + + + +

Buck had tried to take it easy with the wagon, not wanting to jar the injured boys more than he had to, but time was of the essence. He’d spent most of the journey watching the trail in front of him, and glancing back over his shoulder at the children. Vin still looked a little dazed and in pain, but he was holding JD with all the care and vigilance of his usual protective self.

Wilmington had tried to ease his worry, offering soothing reassurances that they were almost to the village and that his cousin would be fine. But his words seemed hollow, and he was sure that Vin could hear the fear in his voice. Again he wondered about making promises that he couldn’t keep. Chris had warned him about it. He’d promised JD that they would all be a family, that they would be together, now that looked unlikely. He’d seen it in Chris’ eyes.

When they did finally reach the outskirts of the Indian town, Chris was waiting for them with Rain. Rain was a part of the Seminole tribe that had been the cause of Chris, Buck , Nathan, Ezra and Josiah coming together in the first place. The five had joined together to help save her village from a madman’s army. During that time, she had become very close with Nathan and the two shared many common interests, including medicine.

Buck knew that she visited Kojay’s village, not only to help Red Cloud, but also to help with teaching the children, another passion of hers. It was one she shared with Josiah, who‘d made it his mission to teach the children from both villages English and how to read and write. Wilmington was glad to see her concerned face. Not only was she beautiful and smart, she was loyal, and had always been there when Nathan or one of the others needed her help. "How are they?" She asked as soon as the dark-haired rancher coaxed the horses to a stop.

"They’re still with us." Buck looped the reigns around the brake and jumped down from his perch. "Nathan and Ezra should be here soon."

Chris had not spoken, but merely went around to the back of the wagon to check on Vin. "How you doing, cowboy?"

"JD’s still sleeping. He won’t wake up."

Larabee tried to keep his hand from trembling as he reached out and lifted the five-year-old from where he was sprawled across Vin’s lap. Seeing the slight rise and fall of the little boy’s chest did little to calm his runaway heart, as he passed the still unmoving JD to Buck’s awaiting arms.

"Come on, son." Chris held his hand out to Vin. "Your turn."

The blond used his good arm to reach out to the rancher and gasped slightly when he was lifted over the side of the wagon. "Easy." Chris held him close and looked to Rain. "Rain, here is going to check you over."

"JD?" Vin turned his head so he could watch Buck disappear into a teepee about ten yards from where the were standing.

"Red Cloud is a very powerful Medicine Man." Rain lifted a hand to brush some of Vin’s hair away from his face. "He will help JD."

Vin didn’t completely shy away from the woman’s touch, but watched her intently with unblinking blue eyes. His grip tightened on Chris. "Mr. Nathan’s the best doctor. Buck said so."

Rain smiled. "I agree with Buck. Nathan will be here soon. Until then I will look after you. Is that all right?"

Vin looked at Chris who nodded. "Yeah, I guess."

"Good." Rain motioned to another tent not far from the one Buck had gone into. "Follow me."

+ + + + + + +

"You can put him here." Kojay pointed to a pile of animal skins in the middle of the medicine man’s tent. "Red Cloud will be here soon."

Buck licked his lips and held JD a little tighter. "He feels cold."

"We will keep him warm."

"He doesn’t like to wake up alone." Buck explained, slowly making it to his knees. The rancher continued to hold on to JD. "He’s afraid of the dark."

The Indian chief smiled patiently. "Spirits are restless at night. Things from the past easily find us in the dream world."

Buck swallowed hard and nodded. "Not a lot of good things in his past. Way too much hurt for a boy his age." Wilmington pushed the images that always sprung to his mind away. During none of the countless times that he’d been awoken by JD’s screams, had he ever asked JD what his nightmares were about. The look on Vin’s face and the way the five-year-old cried and trembled were all the evidence he needed to know that he really didn’t want to know. The bridge troll under JD and Vin’s bed had nothing on the demons they’d brought with them.

"He is lucky to have found you." Kojay again nodded to the hides. "Red Cloud will do what he can to see that you do not lose him."

Finally Buck lay the little boy down and brushed some dark strands of hair away from his too pale face. "He’s a special kid." Wilmington met the Indian’s dark gaze. "As kind as they come. He deserves a chance at something good."

Before Kojay could say more another man entered. It was Red Cloud. The medicine man carried several leather pouches and a small girl followed behind him with several wooden bowls. The old man spoke in his native dialect and Kojay looked to Buck. "He wishes for you to leave."

"No!" Buck shook his head, and glared at Red Cloud. "He needs me."

Red Cloud spoke to his Grand son again, and Kojay placed a hand on Buck’s arm. "Grand father says your worry is thick and dark like the fog. He needs to see clearly now."

"Then tell him to get some glasses because I ain’t leavin’ JD."

Kojay frowned. "You are stubborn like the mule, my friend. Think of your son."

Buck’s argument died on his lips as JD stirred and moaned in his sleep. Little lines of pain marred his innocent face and Buck’s chest tightened. His glistening blues eyes raised to lock with Kojay’s once more. "You’ll come get me...as soon as he’s finished."

The Indian nodded and Buck looked at Red Cloud. "If he wakes up, I’m coming back."

The medicine man ignored the rancher as he began to remove things from his pouches.

Buck turned back to JD and placed his large, calloused hand against the little boy’s face. The five-year-old quieted instantly. "I’ll be right outside, little bit."

The lady’s man pushed himself to his knees and stalked out of the teepee, fighting back the tears he could feel stinging his eyes. He wouldn’t lose it, not yet. He had to be strong for JD.

+ + + + + + +

"Why’s he got feathers?" An Indian boy near Vin’s age stood in the middle of the teepee that Rain had led the seven-year-old and Chris into.

"Vin, this is Chanu." Rain smiled at the dark-haired youth, and motioned for Chris to place Vin on the small cot that she had set up. "Chanu, this is Vin. He’s staying with Mr. Larabee."

"Are you of the Bird People?" Chanu leaned against the cot and eyed Vin with some interest.

"No." Vin glanced up at Chris. "I was trying to fly," He said shyly, straightening his shoulders some and wishing Chris had taken the stupid broken wing off his hurt arm, instead of using it as a make-shift splint.

"Like the eagle?" Chanu didn’t laugh, as Vin had half expected. Instead he seemed impressed at the white child’s courage.

Vin shrugged. "Like the hawk."

Chris and Rain exchanged glances and she placed a hand on Chanu’s shoulder. "Perhaps you and Vin could talk later, Chanu. I need to look at his arm."

"Will you show me how to fly too?" Chanu asked, hopefully.

"No!" Chris and Rain answered at the same time, and the two boys shared their own look.

"I better not," Vin winced slightly as Rain and Chris undid the belt holding his arm steady. When Chanu looked disappointed Vin was quick to add, "but I have a horse. You could ride him sometime."

"Your own horse?" Chanu looked impressed once more. "Father says I can not have my own pony for several more moons."

"Chanu," Rain pointed to the tent’s entrance, "out."

The Indian boy looked at Vin once more, sharing a silent nod, before leaving the teepee. "He broke his arm not too long ago also," Rain explained. She hoped to give the small boy something to concentrate on instead of the pain he was going to be feeling. "Chanu thought that he could tame a pony all on his own."

"We have some wild horses." Vin replied, turning his head as Rain unwrapped his arm the rest of the way. "Chris rides them and...Oww!"

Rain winced as she prodded the place right above Vin’s elbow. Definitely broken.

Larabee put his hand on the blond’s shoulder and left it there. " Easy, cowboy."

Vin’s lip trembled as he leaned against Chris. He was trying to be brave, but his arm hurt something awful, not to mention his knee, and several other places on his body. This was worse than some of the beatings he’d endured. "Sorry."

"I need to get some things from Red Cloud. Will you two be all right?" Rain gently released Vin’s arm and met Chris’ concerned green eyes.

"Can you check on JD for us, while you’re there?" Larabee glanced at Vin. "We’d both feel a lot better if we knew how he was."

Rain smiled. "Of course. I’ll be right back."

The seven-year-old slightly pulled away from Chris. His head was bowed. "Do you hate me, Chris?"

"What?" The rancher reached out and lifted Vin’s chin so that he could see his eyes. "Why would I hate you?"

"I got JD hurt. I disobeyed you. I caused a lot of trouble." The blue eyes filled and one single tear traced its way down a dirty face. "That’s plenty of reason for you to hate me."

"Vin," Chris had to swallow, "nothing could make me hate you." The lawman moved so that he was in front of Vin and knelt down so that he was looking up at the little boy. "Me and you will always be friends, cowboy. Remember that. No matter what else ever happens. That will never change."

The child bit his lip and fought the fear bubbling up from the dark recesses of his past. "What will change?"

Damn. Chris dropped his head. Kids were smarter than he remembered. He lifted his eyes to Vin’s once more. "We need to concentrate on you and JD getting better, son. That’s all I want you to think about right now." It was the coward’s way out and he knew it. But how could he give Vin answers that he didn’t even have for himself.

Vin nodded, but the worry behind the blue gaze was still there. "I understand, Chris."

Larabee stood and raked his hands through his own dark-blond hair. "Good. I’m glad one of us does."


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