"Little Britches" Universe
JD had dressed and was ready for breakfast and still Vin hadnt reappeared. He didnt know what to do. So far, Mr Buck had just assumed Vin was out in the barn starting early on the chores.
JD ! Vin! Buck called the boys to the table. Buck grumbled under his breath as no one appeared. JD had finally come from his room but Vin and Chris were still outside working. It was bad enough he had cooking duties today. The least they could do was turn up. The eggs were going cold.
Chris finally made an appearance. Buck peered around the man trying to see if there was another small person behind him.
Wheres Vin? Buck grumbled.
Isnt he in here. Ill go back out and check the barn.
Buck thought JD was looking a little guilty, moving his eggs about without eating. It was only minutes until Chris reappeared with the news that neither Vin or Peso was in the barn.
JD found himself the target of two very serious looks. He gulped. He couldnt lie to Mr Chris or Mr Buck.
Vin had to go get somethin. Hell be back real soon, JD explained.
Whered he go JD, Chris asked.
He went back to the fishin spot. He left your little knife there and went to get it.
Buck forgot the eggs hed worked so hard over. He and Chris exchanged a glance, concerned that Vin had managed to slip away from them.
JD thought Vin was in trouble now. Mr Buck and Mr Chris both looked really serious.
He left real early. He should be back real soon, he offered, trying to help.
How early? Chris asked.
Before light, when its kinda gray.
The sun had been up for 2 hours already. If Vin had left before daybreak then hed had plenty of time to reach the river and return.
You stay here Buck. Ill take a ride.
Give me an hour, then head to town. Buck understood without explaining in front of JD. They couldnt leave JD alone or a target, so Buck would drop JD back in town and bring help out.
JD watched Mr Chris ignore breakfast, check his guns and then head outside. He looked to Mr Buck, suddenly afraid.
Buck pulled the boy up onto his lap and hugged him close. Dont you worry Lil Bit. Chris is just gonna make sure Vin gets home safe.
Buck! Chris called urgently from the yard.
Buck stepped out onto the porch to see Peso approaching the ranch. He could see why Chris had yelled. There was no rider.
Buck? Wheres Vin? Buck had forgotten the young boy he carried. He hitched him up a little higher in his arms.
Chrisll find him JD. Well go into town and wait for em there. You go back inside and get some of your toys together.
With JD temporarily occupied, Buck was free to talk to Chris.
Nothing, Chris replied to the unspoken question. Hed checked Peso carefully. The horse was okay and there was no blood from an injury to Vin. He still could have fallen, although Peso wouldnt normally have left Vin. Ill start at the river and leave you sign.
Buck met Chriss worried eyes. Youll find him Chris. Ill take JD into town and bring out help. We wont be far behind you.
I got a bad feeling Buck. Chris swung up onto Pony and headed out fast toward the river.
Vin stumbled over the rocky ground, falling to his knees. He was dragged forward, unable to get his tired legs underneath him to stand. The cloth on the knees of his pants tore and the rough ground scraped the exposed skin. The horse before him slowed to negotiate the close trees on the slope. Vin took advantage of the pause and pulled on the rope and raised himself up. His feet were burning from blisters, but that was far better then being dragged. He was gasping for breath, thirsty and tired. Theyd been going for miles like this.
Barrett had kept the boy trotting behind him for the last two hours. The little brat had lasted longer than hed expected but now he was slowing him down. They were still less than halfway up the hill. He stopped the horse and turned to drag the rope close.
Vin let out a relieved breath as the horse before him stopped. His relief was short-lived as he was jerked forward again as the rope was gathered in.
A treat for you brat. You can ride from here, Barrett laughed as he hoisted the rope up, dragging Vin up by his bound wrists. Barrett reached over and grabbed Vins belt pulling the boy until he lay on his stomach across the horses hindquarters.
Vin was too exhausted to do anything more than grunt at the uncomfortable pressure on his stomach. He felt the rope looped around his waist but didnt care. He was off his feet. The horse started to move again, and awareness slowly crept in. His head ached and felt swollen from the earlier punch. The bouncing movement of the horse while he hung upside-down made him nauseous. He tried to slide off. Maybe he could just slip off and escape down the slope. He felt the restraining tug at his waist, and angled his gaze upwards at the saddle. Hed been tied on like a bedroll. He turned his head toward the back trail.
Still no one was there.
Chris returned to the river where the remains of yesterdays camp fire sat gray and cold. The ground around showed clear sign of another horse and boot prints. He surveyed the flattened grass, following the trail that seemed to lead back over itself. At first he wondered if the rider was trying to confuse the tracks until he noticed the marks of a smaller set of prints in the same path. He focused his anger as he felt the rage begin to boil. Vin had been pursued by someone on horseback. He found the single trail eventually leading away from the river. Still both sets of prints continued. Larabee stopped and leapt down from Pony to closely inspect one of the particularly clear prints. The smaller print was on top. Vin had stepped after the horse. Chriss head snapped up to peer in the distance as if willing his quarry to appear before him. Vin was being made to run behind the horse.
The urgency somehow increased. He didnt know why, but he felt he needed to find Vin now. He followed the trail, the rider making no attempt to disguise direction. The trail was leading up the slope, and finally intersected with the old ridge trail. Larabee didnt think Barrett would simply steal Vin. He was heading away from the trails into town, instead going up into the mountain trails. The trail wound through steep drop-aways. The harder surface made tracking far more difficult, but Chris was certain of his direction.
Barrett finally reached a clear edge. The area looked high enough. It didnt matter if the body was found. Barrett had been careful not to use a weapon. Hed just look like hed fallen.
He untied the rope holding the boy, dragging Vin forward off the horse by his still bound wrists. Vin was too dazed to try to slow his fall, and hit the ground in a crumpled pile. The sudden change in direction as the blood rushed back from his head made the world spin and black spots dance in his eyes. He wretched what little contents were in his stomach. Hed already thrown up twice on the ride here, unable to hold out against the pounding in his head and against his stomach. He felt himself dragged across the ground and tried to make sense of where he was. He knew the area vaguely. They were up on the ridge trail. The movement stopped and he gathered his wits together. He realised how close he was to the edge.
Now the little runaway just wasnt careful enough. Was he? Barrett laughed, shaking Vin. He pulled his knife again. He needed all the ropes off the boy. Vin saw the knife coming and lashed out with his feet. He had little strength left, but was filled with determination. Barrett tried to parry the flying feet but couldnt hold his grip.
Angry and frustrated he backhanded Vin.
The boy flew backward, rolling toward the edge. The edge was loose and the gravel rolled under Vins legs as he started to slide backward, momentum sending him over the edge.
Vin looked up at the last moment, only to see hands reaching out. He was too far away.
Vins fingers scrabbled in the dirt, but the bindings on his wrists limited his movements. In the end, those cruel bindings saved him. He hadnt slipped over a sheer cliff edge. It was a steep rocky slope of ledges and outcrops, broken intermittently by deep vertical crevices. Vins sliding arms caught on one of the small outcrops, his bound wrists catching as a loop over a rocky point. Vin gasped in pain as his bruised shoulder was once again jerked harshly upwards and the ropes cut deeper into his already bloody wrists. But at least hed stopped sliding. He hugged his face against the rock, warmed by the afternoon sun, desperately holding still.
He dragged a breath deep and made a last broken cry for help.
Larabee heard the scuffling and cries ahead and drew his gun. He rounded the curve in the trail but was seconds too late. He saw the backhand from Barrett that sent Vin flying backward to the cliff edge. He dived from the saddle and leapt forward to grab the boy, but his outstretched fingers found only dirt as Vin slid away. He and Vin locked eyes in horror as he disappeared from sight.
Chriss second dive forward ended when Barrett tackled him.
Bastard! Chris raged, swinging an iron fist at the man who restrained him.
Barretts head was snapped sideways, but he moved to try to pin the gunslinger with his weight. Chris had dropped his gun in his desperate bid to grab Vin. He swung a vicious right to the mans eye and split the skin above.
Chriiiss! Both of them heard the terrified cry.
Chris wasted no more time and snapped a kick to Barretts chest to force him back. But Barrett stood too close to the edge and began to overbalance, his arms wind-milling. The loose ground betrayed him, like it had done to Vin. In that frozen moment before gravity took a hold, Chris met the mans eyes and deliberately turned away to where Vin had disappeared. The scream trailed off. The end fitting, but too quick to douse Chriss rage.
He moved quickly to the edge where Vin had disappeared, careful not to send anymore rock and dirt sliding over the edge.
Vin! Vin! He lay flat, leaning over the edge for a careful view. Chris found Vin hooked over a small rocky outcrop. But Vin hadnt responded. He was staring off to the side, the side where Barrett had fallen. Vin was caught about six feet past the edge. Too far for Chris to reach. Vin! Come on, look up at me!
Slowly the boy turned his head upward. Chris winced at the sight of the dirty bruised face, the blue eyes wide in shock.
Dont move Vin. Im coming down to get you.
Vin heard the voice. He was here. He didnt care what the words were. He was too tired to understand. The heat from the sun reflected back from the rock. Vin turned his face in toward it and lay his bruised cheek against it. The warmth made it throb more. The pain from his shoulders and wrists could no longer be ignored. Barrett was gone. It was over. But the pain was still there. The tears hed held back all day slowly and soundless overflowed, trailing down the red rock like tears of blood.
Larabee grabbed the rope that was laying near Barretts horse and tied it off to a sturdy tree. Doing this himself was dangerous, but he wasnt leaving Vin there until the others arrived. He looped the rope around himself to control his descent and stepped carefully over the edge. He was beside Vin in moments.
Vin? he called quietly. He didnt want to startle the boy. Vin? I need you to help me here. Chris looked at the torn wrists, unhappy at what he was going to have to do. Vin turned toward him, his eyes showing his drop into shock and exhaustion. Chris tied the rope securely so he couldnt slip down and reached across to Vin. Vin, I need you to put your arms over my head. He couldnt hold Vin and climb. Hed have to make use of Vins tied arms. He raised Vins weight up from the rock, unsure if he was aware of what was needed. He ducked his head down. Vin? Vin followed the instruction slowly with only a small whimper at the movement.
Vin felt the arms around him instead of the hard rock. He leaned forward, trying to grip with his legs but too tired to do more than loosely hook his legs around Chriss waist. He felt the arms loosen around him and whimpered softly as his weight settled onto his wrists and shoulders again.
Chris regretted having to do this, but he needed his hands to climb back up. A shout from above was like a miracle.
Buck! he yelled back. Haul up the rope! He took Vins weight in one arm and was easily brought up and over the edge by eager hands. Buck, Nathan and Ezra all stood ready to relieve him of his burden but Chris held Vin close and settled down onto the ground.
Barrett? Ezra asked, concerned at any further threat.
Over the edge, Chris replied with satisfaction. Nathan?
Vin whimpered as hands tried to remove him from Chris. He clung tighter, trying to lock his legs around Chriss waist and burying his face against his neck.
Vin, I just need to check you and see where youre hurt, Nathan tried to explain.
Vin refused to answer and Chris didnt have the heart to try to force him to let go. He didnt want to let him go.
Its better that those open wounds are treated now Chris. Ill get something to calm him, Nathan reassured him.
Nathan poured a small amount of laudanum into a spoon. He hated to use this on Vin but they needed the boy to calm down. Chris coaxed the spoonful in between the barely moving lips. He continued to hold Vin until he felt him grow heavier in his arms. Nathan had cut the ropes carefully from Vins wrists and gently eased his arms from around Chriss neck. He didnt want to add to Vin's pain by using carbolic, so he washed the wounds in an herbal mix and bound them in clean strips of cloth. The carbolic would be necessary, but that could wait until they were back in town.
Chris supported Vin while Buck and Nathan quickly stripped him down. He looked up at Buck's harsh intake of breath. Chris turned Vin a little and saw the livid boot print on his back. Nathan tried to check for a break in the shoulder, but the mottled swollen area was too tender and Vin cried out against the pain.
Ill have to check later Chris. Ill strap it now so that he cant move it around.
Nathan could find no sign of concussion, although one eye was blackened and both cheeks were bruised. He washed out the scrapes on Vins hands, arms and knees, covering the deeper wounds with small bandages. There was nothing he could do at the moment for the multitude of bruises. Heat packs would help ease them, but that too would have to wait until town.
Will it hurt him to hold him awhile?
No Chris. It wont hurt him.
Chris made sure Vin was asleep then told the others what he knew. They wouldnt have the details until hed had a chance to talk to Vin.
The group decided to move lower down on the trail to avoid any reminders for Vin. It was too late and too difficult to travel in the fading light. They settled on another small area where Buck rounded up some dinner and Ezra prepared the fire and coffee. Nathan checked Vin after the short trip and found the boy starting to rouse.
Chris saw the flickering eyelids and leaned over to ensure he was the first thing the Vin would see. Vin startled awake with a gasp and Chris grabbed him gently.
Ive got you Vin, he whispered, leaning the boy against him.
Vin pulled back a little, gazing at the face before him, then reaching a small hand up to run it down Chris face and neck.
Chris saw the tears build, and pulled him close as the first sob burst out. The small shoulders jerked roughly and Chris felt his shirt dampen as he rocked Vin through the torrent of tears. Vin finally lay against him in exhaustion.
The others offered what privacy they could as Chris whispered quiet words of comfort and rocked the boy in his arms. Vin stayed quiet, exhaustion drawing him back into sleep.
The camp was shrouded in silence as Ezra stoked the fire a little higher to keep the chill from encroaching too near his sleeping companions. After two more hours he stepped over and woke Larabee, only to have the gunslinger open his eyes in response to his approaching steps. Chris stretched and rose to take his watch. He automatically looked to Vin, seeing the small figure huddled under extra blankets.
Thanks Ezra. He can have mine now.
Dont disturb him. I can suffer your threadbare offering for one evening. You really should pass it to your horse and purchase something far more suitable.
Chris smiled, allowing Ezra to brush over his kindness. Ill give it some consideration. But he noticed the gambler didnt take the time to shake out the blanket, or barely straighten it. He seemed to sleep as soon as he lay down.
Chris settled in close to Vin for the last watch. He watched Vin in his sleep, settling him with a gentle hand as dreams came to close.
Chris felt the gaze and looked down.
I didnt get yer knife back. I left it near the river.
The little folding knife. You lent it to me and told me to be careful of it. Then I went and left it there.
"Come here." Chris eased Vin up, still bundled in blankets and held him close. I didnt care about the knife, I wanted you to be careful not to cut yourself.
But its old. It must be important.
Yes its old, but its not important. Not like your important. Chris had been given the knife by his grandfather and carried it for years. But it would never be worth the shocking price Vin had paid for trying to retrieve it.
You have nothing to be sorry for. Chris was the one who was sorry. He tightened his hold, knowing hed failed in his vigilance, and while hed saved Vins life, he hadnt saved him from the pain.
Nathan checked Vin carefully again in the morning. There was little that wasnt bruised. Nathan was concerned at the marks on his stomach and hips, but Vin explained they were from the horse, not from being struck. Vin answered the questions of each of the marks, but he was uncertain himself where some of them came from. The journey behind the horse was not entirely clear.
The men had tried not to show their anger at Vins treatment, not wanting to frighten him further. They noticed that Vin settled into silence when he wasnt addressed directly. It wasnt his usual quiet. This had a certain heavy sadness to it. None could blame him.
Chris convinced Nathan to return to the ranch rather than town. Vin would be more comfortable there. Nathan agreed as Vins injuries were numerous, but none dangerous. Ezra offered to ride ahead to town and bring JD back to the ranch.
JD looked at the bruised still figure of his cousin in the bed. He carefully crawled up to lay close beside him and gently petted his hair.
He didnt fall did he, Mr Buck?
Buck wasnt sure how much he should tell JD. Then he realised what conversation JD was referring to.
The other day when he came back from town. He used to say hed fallen. Did ya get the man who hurt him?
Chris stopped him. He wont hurt Vin again, Buck reassured him.
JD kept up his gentle petting. You promise ta look out for him til I get big enough?
I promise JD and Chris does too, Buck told him solemnly, remembering a similar promise extracted from him just a few nights ago.
Buck raised JD a little and slipped the blankets out from under him to allow him to snuggle closer to Vin. Buck tucked the blankets up around their shoulders. He placed a gentle kiss to Vins brow without disturbing him, then gave one to JD. He noticed JD had started to suck his thumb again, a sure sign of his distress. Buck stayed with them, slowly stroking the small frown from between JDs brows until he relaxed into a deeper slumber. Buck eased himself up from the edge of the bed, his knees protesting.
Youre looking old there Buck. Chris was standing in the shadows of the doorway.
Im feelin old, pard. Buck couldnt raise a smile. He meant every word. He looked back at the two boys huddled in the bed. Are we back at the beginning?
Chris stared intently at the two boys as well. If we are, then well just do it all again.
Vin recovered well over the next few days, at least physically. Nathan made daily trips to check the wounds on his wrists and finally approved his shoulder for a sling as it was heavily bruised but not broken. The muscles in Vins shoulders and arms had been badly strained and Vin found he could hardly use them.
Buck and Chris had worried over the affect of Vins abduction for the first few nights. Nightmares bothered both boys and they returned to sharing the same bed, ready to comfort each other. JD was first to settle back into his usual sleep patterns, even abandoning his thumb-sucking. Vin however remained a little more withdrawn. Chris was thankful that he didnt pull away from them physically. He didnt seem to associate them with the abuse hed received from Barrett. If anything, Vin seemed to allow Chris even closer. His withdrawl was evident in his silences. The boy who had just been beginning to open up and enjoy life had disappeared again.
They needed supplies again, so Buck hitched up a wagon and they all headed into town. Chris watched Vin carefully as they drove down the main street, passing the storefront where Barrett first appeared. Vin showed no interest, instead carefully keeping his head down.
Its been a long five days Chris, Buck commented.
The group noticed the curious stares as they pulled up near Mrs Potter's store. They didnt intend to stay long, just load the wagon with the supplies and visit with friends.
JD and Ill go check the new posters at the jail, Buck offered. Both he and Chris had been too busy lately to carry out many of the duties as regulators. Ezra, Nathan and Josiah had willingly covered for them.
Vin noticed the change and felt the stares of the townsfolk. He looked down the street, but shifted in closer to Mr Chris. He didnt like being looked at and there were too many people here to keep track of. Vin bumped into the back of Chriss leg, not noticing hed stopped.
Chris was used to attracting some attention in town, but this was ridiculous. Ezra had warned them of the talk in town, but Chris hadn't really paid it any mind.
You can visit with Mrs Potter while I load up the heavy items.
But Vin closed his mouth suddenly. He was being a baby.
Chris pushed the door open and ushered Vin in ahead.
Morning Gloria. Can I leave Vin with you while I pick up the grain from the feed store. I'll get it loaded and then pick up our other supplies here.
Oh my! Gloria Potter exclaimed as she caught sight of Vin. Shed heard about the trouble in town with some stranger. Of course the gossip was vile and she didnt believe a word. Mr Larabee wouldnt kill a man for naming Vin as a thief, and even less would he beat Vin as punishment. The evidence before her stunned her momentarily. She thought she should warn Mr Larabee as Vins appearance would only fuel the gossip.
We had some trouble a few days ago, he explained to the shocked woman.
Of course Ill keep an eye on him. Vin can help me here at the store, but you really should know whats being said. I know youre not one for gossip
Chris raised a hand to silence her, not wanting to involve Vin any further. I know about it Gloria. Chris nodded to Vin as he departed. You be good Vin.
Vin looked around the store, worried that Mrs Potter would ask him to help stock shelves like he often did. His arms still hurt a lot, even if he did tell Nathan it was okay.
A customer moved forward and settled her business, looking disapprovingly at the boy near the counter. Gloria knew that gossip was causing this. Vin often visited the store, his presence rarely even noticed. She was surprised and appalled that the townsfolk believed the story circulating. This was the first time Vin had appeared since the argument in town between Chris and the stranger. The bruises were just feeding the gossip. Gloria saw Vin shift behind the counter as another customer entered. She could tell he wanted to avoid everyone. Well tongues would stop wagging right now.
Vin. Come over here and help me sort these buttons. All the tins were knocked over yesterday.
Gloria pulled the chair out from the small desk that was pushed up at the end of the counter. She usually did her book work here, but Vin would be in sight, but still have privacy. She set the box down in front of him.
Just separate them out into piles by their size.
Vin nodded happily, glad to be busy in the dim corner than out in the open store.
Vins desk was soon covered with small piles. Gloria put some peppermint drops down by his hand as the bell over the door tinkled again.
What have you got the likes of him in here for?
Gloria Potter looked over at Charles Petersen whod voiced the rude question. She could see him study Vin with disdain, as the boy sat quietly behind the store counter.
The boys a thief, and a woman on her own should take more care of who she lets in her business.
I certainly should Mr Petersen. Youre listening to lies and gossip and Ill ask you to leave my store now.
Vin climbed down from the stool hed been sitting on.
No maam, dont be losing business over me. Ill go wait out back.
Youll stay right there Vin Tanner. Mr Petersen, you can apologise or you can leave, Gloria demanded.
I dont owe anyone an apology for speaking my mind. Only thing more trouble than stray dogs in a town is stray children. You dont know where hes been or what hes done.
Vin Tanner raised his head and threw a glare from his still blackened eyes that would have rivalled his mentor.
Aint ashamed of anythin Ive ever done, Mister. Can you say the same.
Maybe you just got no shame. Standing there arguing with your betters.
Gloria Potter was horrified at what looked to be an escalating argument. Vin was usually so quiet. He never spoke up like this.
Vin knew he wasnt supposed to talk back to adults, but he was tired and achy and his head was starting to hurt again. He just wished Mr Chris would take him home and away from all these people. He had simply had enough.
You aint my better, yer just my elder.
Someone should take a strap to you boy.
Why dont you! Vin dared. He couldnt believe the words that were falling from his mouth. Was he asking for another beating.
Petersen looked at the defiant, prideful boy. He didnt normally pay attention to the gossip and certainly exaggeration ran hand-in-hand with anything involving Larabee. But most stories had truth in them somewhere.
Looks like someone else has already given you the beating of your life. Would it be Larabee?
Peterson was asking out of curiosity rather than any intention to intervene. He wouldnt have thought the man to be a child beater.
Chris Larabee wont ever hurt me.
Vins answer was delivered swift and sure. Peterson smiled to think the Larabee had found himself his own little defender.
Well I suppose some strays can turn out to be loyal if you treat em right. You do need some manners but Ill apologise for calling you a thief, until I know for sure otherwise, he warned.
Peterson nodded a farewell to Gloria Potter and turned to leave, only to come face-to-face with Larabee himself. Chris had returned to hear Vins swift defense. Chris delivered the man a cold stare as he departed.
Vin looked up, unsure if he would get into trouble for speaking out. Can we go home please? He couldnt make things any worse by asking.
Im sorry Mr Larabee. Gloria apologised, unsure if it was for allowing Vin to be approached, or for the words the town itself was speaking.
Not your fault Gloria. Well pick up those supplies now and get the boys back home. People would talk and while Chris was happy to ignore the opinions of others, he didnt want Vin to be a target. Josiah was preparing to share a few sentiments this Sunday.
Vin didnt want to be here, and that was all that mattered. Chris moved over and stood close enough to rest a hand on his shoulder.
We can go home, Vin. I think we've got some fishing to do.
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