"Little Britches" Universe
Thanks to the AOL Chat for your encouragement and hounding. I am told this story needs a hankie warning. Special thanks to Kerry "McMuse" who managed to beta in spite of difficult circumstances. To better times, my friend.
Vin tugged at his matted hair, tears filling his eyes as he pulled frantically at the gummy knots. His heart pounded in panic. He had to get it out. Mr. Chris had told the seven-year-old that he was old enough to make decisions about his own hair, but he had to take care of it himself, and now it was impossibly entangled with the black tacky substance.
No one truly understood the significance of the length of Vin's hair. People told him all the time that he should cut it, but they saw it only as hair at a nuisance length. To Vin it was a symbol that held the memory of his mother. He didn't have the Bible and picture of his ma like JD had. All he had was his hair. He could remember his mother brushing his hair, singing to him, running her fingers affectionately through the long curls. She loved his hair long, but it was even more than that. How many times had she washed his hair, fluffing it dry with her fingers and telling him his hair was just like his papa's? Vin only had vague images of his father and his hair had become the symbol of that connection.
'Dang it all. Why had JD climbed that dumb ol' ladder and gotten stuck on the roof anyway?' thought Vin as he continued his struggle with the sticky mess in his hair. They had been playing with their homemade boomerangs trying to get the curved sticks to fly back to them like the ones Mr. Ezra had showed them in the book. The sticks never did fly back to them and while he was helping Billy retrieve his stick from the watering trough, JD had managed to climb the ladder to the roof of the mercantile trying to retrieve another stick.
"Help Vin! I's stuck!" called JD frantically.
Vin's heart nearly stopped beating when he saw his five-year-old cousin perched precariously near the edge of the roof. "Stay still JD!" Vin raced through the alley from the back of the building to the street. He glanced up and down the street. He knew Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck weren't due back until supper and there was no sign of Mr. Ezra, Mr. Nathan, or even Mr. Josiah. He didn't have time to go looking for them. JD could fall at any moment. Vin raced back down the short alleyway. He'd have to help JD himself.
As Vin stepped on the bottom rung he knocked over the bucket of black goo at the foot of the ladder. The roof tar substance slowly blubbed from the bucket to the dirt. He yelled to Billy to go get Mr. Josiah as he began to climb. "Hang on JD!" Little did he know that when JD said he was stuck, he meant he was stuck. When Vin reached the top of the ladder, he could see JD trying to tug himself free of the tar like substance that Mr. Sims had been using to seal up the holes in his roof.
"Let go of the stick, JD," said Vin calmly though his heart was pounding.
"No. I want to fly it," replied JD with a scowl.
"Then drop it on the ground," ordered Vin.
JD didn't want to drop the 'boom-rang' but he figured Vin knew best so he dropped the stick off the edge of the roof. Both boys tugged on JD's boot until it loosened. Then they had to free JD's britches, tearing part of the cloth as they pulled him away from the shingles and tar. Carefully Vin urged JD over to the ladder. He knew he wasn't big enough to carry his cousin down the ladder, so he guided JD onto the ladder and coached his way down the ladder before following his cousin. When Vin reached the bottom of the ladder JD threw his arms around his rescuer, hugging him tightly. Hands gummy with tar flung around Vin's neck and into his hair. Neither boy noticed the problem until JD let go and pulled his hands away taking a clump of Vin's hair with them. Vin yelped in pain and fear, grabbing at his now sticky hair.
"My hair! You got it in my hair!" he cried desperately picking at the hardening clump.
"Master Tanner, Master Dunne? Are you all right?" asked Ezra as he hurried to the back of the building with Billy.
"JD? Vin?" called Josiah as he appeared from the other side of the building. He had only turned his back for a moment and the boys had disappeared. He saw JD holding his hands as far away from his chubby body as he could. The boy had one boot in his hand. It took only moments to discover the problem. Tar.
Josiah exchanged glances with Ezra. "You take Vin, Ezra. I'll see what I can do with JD."
Ezra nodded and steered Vin toward the bathhouse. Getting the tar out of his hair was going to be difficult. He stopped by Mrs. Potter's store on the way and asked for some lard. It worked with tree sap. Perhaps it would work with tar.
As much as Vin didn't want a bath, he was desperate to get the substance out of his hair. His ma would be sad if he couldn't get it out. Almost distressing the little boy even more was the thought that it was Mr. Chris who had given him a responsibility to care for his hair. Worry gnawed at him that he had let Mr. Chris down and maybe he would be sent away. He gasped in surprise when Ezra poured the bucket of water over his head, unprepared for the onslaught of warm water.
"I'm sorry, Master Tanner," said Ezra. "Let's see if we can get this tar out."
Vin nodded with tearful eyes. Ezra wrinkled his nose in displeasure as he reached into the bucket and pulled out a handful of lard. He swallowed down the bile in his throat as he began to massage the fatty substance into the knotted hair. It was a repulsive job, but he could see how distraught little Vin was even though the boy hadn't said a word. Vin grasped instinctively at his hair and Ezra pushed his hand away. "Let me, Master Tanner," the gambler said soothingly.
Vin dropped his hand back into the bath water. Despite his fears, the water was soothing, the heat easing the ever-present pain in his back. Vin began to relax a little, trusting that Mr. Ezra would help him.
Josiah was faring slightly better with JD. He had taken the boy to Nathan's for the healer's assistance. They had removed JD's tarred clothing, leaving him in his long johns. Josiah was now holding the boy on his lap, soaking his hands in the bowl of herbal oils Nathan had provided.
"Will it come off, 'siah?" asked JD, swiveling his head to see the preacher behind him.
"With some work, it should," said Nathan. "But your hands might be a bit sore." Nathan began to gently rub at the tar-covered hands. The oil seemed to be helping loosen the substance as it began to roll into balls as he worked it.
"Do you think Mr. Buck will be mad?"
Josiah smiled gently at the worried face. He brushed JD's black hair out of his eyes. "Dont think he will be mad about the tar, JD but he might be upset seeing that you were up on the roof. Why were you up there?"
"I didn't know it was sticky."
Josiah watched the smile crack the healer's face as Nathan quickly turned away from JD.
"Well, I'm not sure that really matters, JD. I believe you were told not to climb onto the roof?" answered Josiah.
JD shook his head vigorously, black hair dancing with the quick movement. "Nope. Mr. Buck never telled me not to climb the ladder and get stuck in the sticky stuff."
Josiah took a deep breath and let it out slowly. How could you reason with that? Buck sure had his hands full with this little one.
"Ouch!" hollered JD, jerking his hand away from Nathan.
"Sorry, JD, but it's got to be done."
JD glanced at his hand and saw that most of the tar had been removed. He grinned and put his hand back in the bowl. His hands weren't going to be black and sticky forever. He'd be able to hug Vin and Mr. Buck without getting stuck to them.
A knock sounded at the door and Nathan called for them to enter. The door pushed open and Mrs. Potter's oldest girl peeked in. "Mr. Jackson, my mama said I should bring these clothes for the boys. My brother outgrew them."
"Thank you, Molly. And thank your mother," said Nathan. Molly smiled and ducked out the door.
"Well at least you won't have to run around in your underwear," said Josiah with a chuckle, knowing that running in his long johns wouldn't have bothered the boy in the least. Now Vin, that would be a different matter. The boy was unbearably shy at times. Josiah wondered how Ezra was fairing with the older of the two cousins. With tar in his hair, it was likely that they would have to cut it out, something he hoped they could avoid. For some reason Vin's hair seemed somehow sacred to the boy and it would be hard on him to have it cut. Josiah grimaced. It was going to be hard on Josiah when Chris and Buck found out the boys had gotten into trouble under his care again.
In spite of the smelly goop in his hand, Ezra smiled when Vin sighed and leaned back in the tub. Vin didn't trust easy and Ezra knew from his own childhood how difficult it could be to let someone else take care of you. It moved him deeply that the child had bestowed the gift of trust on him. He closed his eyes as he continued to work the fat into the gnarl of tar and hair. Unfortunately it would be a short-lived trust. He had been working on this mess for close to an hour and had managed to remove very little. There was no way around it; the hair would have to be cut.
Vin shivered. The water was growing cold and the undernourished boy had no body fat to insulate him. Ezra briefly wondered how long it would take for the tiny frame to fill out a little. Vin shivered again.
"Master Tanner, let's get you out of the tub and dried off. It wouldn't do for you to catch cold."
Vin opened his eyes and Ezra reached for the towel. He turned his back to the boy and held the towel behind his back so Vin could reach it. He heard the slosh of water as Vin stood and snatched the towel. Ezra had learned from one of his earlier bathing experiences with Vin that the boy was incredibly shy or perhaps self-conscious about his body. In either case, Ezra was determined to give him the privacy he sought. He smiled as he heard the slap of wet feet hit the wood floor.
"Brrrr," said Vin.
Ezra grabbed another towel and dried Vin's skinny legs before offering him the long johns Mrs. Potter had sent to the bathhouse. Keeping the towel clutched tightly around him Vin stepped into the long johns, only dropping the towel when he was completely covered. Even then his cheeks flushed slightly as Ezra handed him the pants and he stepped into them. Vin slipped on the shirt, then a pair of socks. Vin looked around for his boots and grimaced when he saw them. The soles and toes of the boots were caked with tar.
Seeing his distress Ezra said, "We'll try soaking them in some oil, see if we can't loosen the tar."
Vin nodded. "Thank you for helping, Mr. Ezra."
"Don't thank me, yet, Master Tanner," Ezra reached for the looking glass so that Vin could take a look at himself. "I'm afraid it didn't work as well as I had hoped."
Vin gasped at the snarled globs on each side of his chin feeling his heart start to break. Mr. Chris warned him that he would have to take care of his own hair. He knew that just leaving the tar in was not a viable option. Mr. Chris wouldn't allow it. Besides the other kids would make fun of him, then he'd just get in a fight and get into more trouble with Mr. Chris.
"I believe we'll have to cut it out, Vin," said Ezra gently.
Vin shook his head, struggling to find a way out of this situation. He couldn't cut it. If he cut it he wouldn't be like his father anymore and he would lose his memory of his mother. On the other hand, if he didn't cut it, he might lose Mr. Chris and his new family. Tears began trickling down his cheeks.
Ezra could con most folks into thinking he didn't have a heart, but when it came to kids, especially Vin and JD, he was mush. He dried Vin's tears gently with a towel. "I am very sorry, Master Tanner Vin. I know that your hair holds great importance to you, but I'm afraid there is no other way around this." He watched Vin valiantly try to stop his tears and be a little man. He pulled the resistant child into an awkward hug. He was no more comfortable giving them than Vin was receiving them. "How about if we retire to my room? I have the necessary tools there and we can avoid the barber. I'm afraid he would take off entirely too much." Ezra felt rather than saw the nod. He picked Vin up, letting the child wrap his legs around the southerner's waist. "It won't do to get your socks dirty," he explained, "and we certainly can't put on those boots yet."
Josiah and JD came out of the clinic in time to see Ezra carrying Vin into the saloon. The globs in the boy's hair were still obvious.
"Where's Vin goin'?" asked JD.
"I think Ezra is still cleaning him up. We'll go over to the church and wait for them. And JD?"
"Yes, Mr. 'siah?"
Josiah looked at the puppy dog eyes and wanted to laugh. JD sure had them all wrapped around his finger. "This time, JD, you stay inside the church to play. You don't have any boots on."
JD nodded before snuggling under Josiah's chin.
Vin stared in the looking glass as Mr. Ezra approached with the straight razor. He chewed his lip knowing that there was no other option, but not willing to give up his connection to his ma and pa. Mr. Ezra had explained that he would cut just above the tar and that eventually his hair would grow back. But still Vin gasped as if in pain when Ezra cut away the first clump of hair. Vin watched it fall to the floor along with his heart. Unable to bear it, Vin squeezed his eyes shut and sobbed.
Ezra turned away momentarily, choking back his own tears at the obvious pain Vin felt. He forced himself back to the task at hand knowing the quicker he finished the sooner Vin could come to accept it.
Ezra trimmed the hair as quickly and neatly as he could. If it hadn't been so traumatic for the child, he would have thought he had done a fine job. Vin's shoulder length hair had been shortened to his jaw line. He was fortunate that JD had not patted him on top of the head. A shorter cut would have been dreadful, considering the pain the boy was showing now. "I'm finished, Vin," Ezra said softly.
Vin brushed away his tears and looked into the reflective glass. Instinctively his hand explored where his hair used to be investigating the emptiness, the lightness of having less hair. He looked down on the locks that decorated the floor and sighed. Before Ezra could stop him, Vin scooted off the chair and carefully scooped up as much of the hair as he could. With great compassion for the boy, Ezra unfolded one of his linen handkerchiefs and spread it on the bed. He nodded to Vin with a sympathetic smile. Chris would have to help the child through this one.
Vin carefully piled the hair on the handkerchief and allowed Ezra to tie it for him. "Thank you," said Vin softly, but Ezra had seen the depth of despair in those blue eyes. He wished the boy would confide in him but knew that Vin would talk to no one but Chris.
"May I escort you to the church since you are still missing your boots?"
Vin sighed and nodded. Ezra picked the boy up and carried him down the stairs and across the street as Vin clutched the handkerchief wrapping his hair.
As the gambler entered the church, JD spied his cousin. "Vin! Hey Vin, look. I gots a bandage." JD held up his left hand, which was wrapped in cloth. "Hey. Where's your hair?"
Ezra winced. That was surely what Vin didn't need right now. Ezra felt the boy stiffen. Then the con man swelled with pride as Vin matter-of-factly said, "Had to cut it, JD. No other way to get the tar out."
"I's sorry Vin. I didn't mean to hug ya."
"It's all right JD. You was scared." Vin climbed down and moved over to his cousin. He examined JD's bandage. "Does it hurt?"
"A little. Mr. Nathan had to rub my hand really hard to get the sticky stuff off." JD looked at Josiah and Ezra. "Are we in trouble?"
"Weren't supposed to go on the roof, JD," said Vin.
"I didn't know it was sticky."
Vin rolled his eyes at his cousin. Somehow he figured that line would probably work with Mr. Buck, but Mr. Chris was a lot tougher to convince. He was the older of the boys so he should have made sure JD stayed out of trouble. Even with the looming threat of punishment, Vin found himself anxious for Chris to return. He didn't know exactly why but maybe it was just that he needed the sense of safety he felt around the blonde rancher. Mr. Chris would know how to make this all right.
He was wrong. They had finished supper and cleaned up the dishes. Chris hadn't talked to him about the incident other than a warning to be more careful, but Chris hadn't said a word about his hair. He hadn't even noticed or maybe he was just mad. As the sun was setting, Vin had settled into a depressed silence. He sat on the porch watching as Buck and Chris cared for the horses. JD was inside the house playing by himself, thinking that Vin was mad at him. Vin didn't feel like trying to tell JD otherwise right now. His heart was too sad. His hair had been cut, his memories of his ma and pa would surely disappear soon and Mr. Chris didn't care.
Buck finished up and walked past Vin into the house. Before the door swung shut there was a startled bellow. "JD!" Chris dropped the bucket and ran to the house. Vin ran inside to find Buck holding JD's hand, which held a large knife. Buck's other hand was pressed to JD's cheek. A clump of JD's hair lay on the floor.
"What the hell happened?" demanded Chris.
JD choked back a sob. "I'se just tryin' to make my hair like Vin so he won't be mad at me no more." He apparently was trying to cut his hair figuring that if he cut his too that Vin would like him again.
Chris turned and saw Vin's mouth drop open in shock. The boy was breathing hard. Without warning, Vin turned and ran out the door.
"I got it covered, Chris. He just nicked himself," explained Buck. Chris nodded and followed Vin outside.
He hadn't gone far. Chris wanted to smile. Vin was huddled on the corner of the porch, his stocking feet keeping him from going any further. Chris had told them not to play outside without their boots. Chris walked over and sat down next to him. "You want to talk about it?" he asked cautiously. Vin had his knees tucked under his chin and his arms wrapped around them. He shook his head.
"Are you angry with JD?" asked Chris.
"No," said Vin. Chris didn't miss the slight hitch in the seven-year-old's voice. "Weren't his fault."
"You didn't make him climb up there."
"No. I's just supposed to watch him and keep him out a trouble." Vin mumbled something that Chris couldn't quite hear.
"What was that?"
Vin raised his head. "I said I throwed his stick up there."
"On purpose?" asked Chris.
"No, but it don't matter now. He could'a got hurt bad."
"But he didn't. You're both all right." Chris leaned his head to the side observing the tears on Vin's face. "Aren't you?"
Vin shook his head.
Chris knew that Vin hadn't been hurt physically, but Ezra had conveyed to him how deeply the haircut seemed to bother the boy. "Can you tell me about your hair?"
Vin sucked in a breath. Maybe Mr. Chris had noticed. Maybe he wasn't mad. "Had ta cut it. Got tar in it," mumbled Vin with tears rolling freely.
"I know that part, Vin," said Chris. "Can you tell me why that bothers you so much?" Chris pulled the boy onto his lap and wrapped strong arms around him. Feeling the strength and comfort Chris offered, Vin began to sob over his loss. He reached inside his shirt and pulled out the handkerchief and pushed into Chris's hand. In deep desperation he pleaded, "Put it back on."
He didn't have to be a genius to know what was inside the handkerchief. "You know I can't Vin." Chris pulled Vin against his chest, rocking slightly, trying to offer whatever the boy needed from him.
Vin sobbed for several minutes, finally slowing to hitching breaths. The sun had set and stars were beginning to show in the darkening sky. Crickets chirped in the silence.
"It's my ma and pa," Vin said softly. Chris didn't interrupt. Vin needed to tell him. "When I was little my ma always runned her hands through my hair to dry it. She always sang to me and told me my hair was just like my pa's." Vin gasped in a breath. "I don't 'member what my pa looked like, but I knowed my hair was like his." Vin closed his eyes. "I can't hardly 'member mama, but she smelled like flowers and she liked blue, and she liked my hair."
Chris waited quietly rubbing Vin's back, knowing he had more to say. Vin looked up at him. "You got that watch with the picture in it. Mr. Buck has his mama's comb. JD gots his Bible and the picture of his mama. I had my hair, but not anymore."
So that was it. Chris squeezed Vin a little tighter. He wasn't sure that this was something he could fix. "Vin, you did a very grown up thing taking care of your hair on your own. It must have been very hard to cut it." He felt a sob and hoped that Vin wasn't going to lose control again. "And I know it's not the same, but your hair will grow back, and until it does we will keep this in a box for you," he said, holding up the handkerchief. "Vin, I can tell you this, your mama and your papa aren't in your hair, they're in here." He tapped on Vin's chest. "And even if you can't remember your papa, I'm sure that I see him every day in the way you watch over JD. And I'm sure I see your mama when you relax and play with JD. So whether you have all your hair or not," said Chris, ruffling Vin's hair, "You will always have your mama and papa in your heart."
The little boy in his lap began to relax. His breathing became slow and steady and Chris knew Vin had fallen asleep. "And you will always have me," Chris whispered. A knowing smile broke on his face when he felt Vin squeeze his hand in acknowledgment. He lifted the boy and carried him inside knowing that it would take some time, but Vin would be all right. Their family would make it one day at a time.
Comments: Joy K