"Little Britches" Universe

Sometimes youth is halted and children are drawn into the doings of the adult world where no one is there to say, ‘share, don’t hit, and play nice with others.’

-Ariah Baxter-


In Vin Tanner’s earliest memories he retained an implicit recollection of voices. He remembered his father’s deep easy drawl, his mother’s hint of laughter before her voice turned raspy from illness, and Joe Standing Hawk’s calm, clear, soft baritone. Being at Chris’ ranch seemed to bring his memories back with a sudden clearness. More often than not, if he wasn’t having nightmares, it was because he had fallen asleep from their memory. No longer scary or horrifyingly sad as they had been just weeks ago and he hoped it would stay that way.

He was uncertain still with his current situation, afraid to attach himself to either Chris or Buck. The open land surrounding their ranch however, held no fear for him and he was unawaringly attaching himself to it. It seemed so long to him since he had been able to stand and stare across open fields and open sky. More than once in the last few weeks Chris and Buck had panicked when in the night they had found Vin sleeping not in his bed but on the porch.

Vin never offered an explanation, he simply shrugged when they expressed their concern and got better at sleeping inside for fear of their anger, fighting the urge to slip outside when awakened from a silent nightmare or afraid of awakening his cousin with his restlessness.

Tomorrow they would be going into town. They went in almost every two days and though Vin didn’t mind it he was wary of all the people. They made him nervous. If he let his mind dwell on them too much, the trapped feeling that prevented sleep would seize him. Tonight he tried to settle and call the voices of his past to him. He controlled the memories well enough at first.

Four-year-old Vin Tanner leaned against his father’s chest trustingly as he allowed his "Da" to wrap a pillow around his shoulder. With some difficulty, he lifted the heavy gun his father had given him and then just as he’d been taught, he pointed to the target on the far end of the field and fired, his father’s body keeping him upright when the recoil would have knocked him down. Time and time again his father helped him fire the gun and not once did he miss.

"It's incredible," his father had stated. Vin didn’t quite know what that meant but he loved to hear his father say it. From behind them Standing Hawk would chuckle and in his native tongue that he’d spoken to Vin since his birth, would remind both father and son that Vin was not yet old enough to be a warrior.

That day Jack Tanner had ruffled Vin’s hair, telling him he loved him before leaving with Standing Hawk to, "catch a bad man." The good of the memory faded as Vin recalled that his father had never returned. Standing Hawk had, though, and he’d sat Vin down as though he were a man and explained to him patiently what had happened to his hero.

Vin had stayed close after that, no longer groaning when his mother called him in-doors, and reluctant to separate himself from Joe Standing Hawk’s side when he was out. Though he was little, Vin knew the ranch suffered from his father’s absence.

Gradually they whittled down to only a few ranch hands and after some months he knew instinctually that his mother had suffered from the loss as well, knew instinctually that she was going to leave like his Da. She would be following the already dead into a place that to Vin was far off from being known.

He remembered the night she died. Her voice had become raspier still. He had lain with her on the bed Joe had moved outside so that her spirit would not be trapped indoors at its passing. It was a tradition of their tribe and Vin’s mother’s wish to honor the beliefs of her husband’s people. In the twilight she sang to him, "Sleep, sleep tonight, and may your dreams be realized," it was an ancient prayer for a future unseen, a future that undoubtedly held hardships, "and if the thundercloud passes rain, so let it rain, rain down on thee."

Then in the dimming twilight of life his mother spoke to him with a clairvoyant mandate, "Boy, you’re a Tanner if there ever was one. You’re a Tanner. Don’t you ever forget that." Vin had risen not long after the words had faded, knowing she was gone and feeling the ache in his soul. He wandered over to where the old Indian was waiting for him. Climbing up in his lap he allowed himself to be held and they sat in silence for a long, long time.

Somewhere in the memory of those quiet moments with Joe, Vin fell asleep. Sleeping soundly in that anguished peace. Hoping he had found a better life. The next morning when he mounted in front of Chris for the ride to town he allowed himself to slump trustingly against the gunslinger. Bringing a slight smile to his keeper’s face.

+ + + + + + +

Roy Haly was a happy man. Very rarely seen without a smile, this particular Tuesday the man’s simper was particularly large. He’d ridden into Four Corners, making a pit stop on the way to "someplace else." The next scheme, the next deal, the next opportunity to get enough money to pay off his debt to Darry Carter, buying his freedom from the man forever. That was all he was looking for. Once he discovered how to get the obsessive man off his back he could travel freely around the country without dogging his one time partner at every turn. He was smiling bigger because he’d found it sooner than he thought. Vin Tanner.

It had been nearly a year since he’d seen the boy but it was still him. Darry would be awfully happy to get him back. He’d pay a mighty big price too. He’d never ask another favor from Happy Roy Haly. So with freedom in his mind, he strode into the saloon to do some research on his target, taking care to stay out of the boy’s visage as he traversed the boardwalk. It wouldn’t do to tip his hand.

It took a little longer than normal for his charm to work on the grim faced bartender but eventually it paid off and he casually, and without suspicion, asked his questions. "Say, last time I came through here I don’t recall seeing so many little ones runnin’ around. I mean just now I nearly got bowled over by a long haired tike with eyes bluer than the sky. Kid didn’t even apologize. How is it that all y’all let kids run around when the bad element is on the rise?"

"...humph," the bartender snorted, "The bad element ain’t just on the took over. Ain’t you ever heard of the peacekeepers? They keep the peace here and pretty much make it safe for the kids to run free ifn’ they want. Bunch a lawless gunslingers in the beginning. I figure the Judge that put ‘em in charge had the right idea, though. With the bad element as the law it kinda cancels out the threat."

Roy released an apathetic chuckle. They were getting off track. "It still doesn’t seem the environment for a spirited child like that one. Don’t these...peacekeepers...get annoyed?"

"Oh they get about as worn out as the rest of us but I wouldn’t go around calling that kid annoying to their faces. Chris Larabee is the boy’s guardian and the peacekeepers’ leader. Ain’t no one gonna mess with that."

"The boy’"

"Yeah. The kid came in on the orphan train with his cousin. Came to Four Corners by wagon. He was supposed to go to some rancher widower out of Eagle Bend but he run off. Larabee made him a deal that he and his cousin could stay with him ifn’ they didn’t run and cause people panic anymore."

"He’s actually going to keep the boy?"

"Looks like it. Heard tell the man lost his own boy a few years back. Maybe he wants another chance."

"Huh," was all Roy had to offer in the end. He’d discovered what he wanted to know and it wasn’t what he expected. It complicated things but he could still work it out. Vin Tanner was his ticket to...wherever he wanted. He’d find a was time to form a plan.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was sitting on the steps of Josiah’s church. He still wasn’t sure of his place here in Four Corners but he wasn’t looking forward to the day he had to leave to live with whatever family Josiah found. He couldn’t get himself to relax. When he sat still he was rigid, tight, and his mind filled with scenarios of his future life both bad and good. And when he wasn’t sitting still he was working. He mucked the stalls at the ranch. He chopped wood behind Josiah’s church, panicking both Nathan and Chris until they realized he knew what he was doing. Ha. Of course he knew what he was doing. He’d had to do it enough in his life. If he didn’t know by now, he’d be pretty dense.

Josiah was currently trying to get him to go "play." The concept sounded easy enough but Vin couldn’t help wonder if it would just lead to trouble. He was tenuously holding onto the little control he had. He didn’t want to screw things up. Billy and JD were throwing bean bags through a cut out target by the Clarion. Billy made it most of the time, being a year and a half older than JD who still had trouble with his aim. Vin thought it looked like a stupid game. He looked up at Josiah and shook his head. His back was hurting anyway.

"Go on Vin." Josiah squatted down next to the serious boy. "You know there is no crime in just..." Vin looked at him, with that direct and silent gaze that could pierce you to the core. There was a lot of power in that little body, a lot of hurt too.

Two years separated Vin from his cousin. Maybe more than that since they suspected Vin, despite his small size, was almost eight. But more separated them than time. He wondered what Vin would have been like at JD’s age. Would he still be old, with that inherit sense of responsibility he seemed to carry like rocks on his shoulders? Maybe some of it had to do with his upbringing. Vin was a Texan by birth, and children of the West often learned the harshness of life earlier than those of the city...though that wasn’t entirely fair since he knew a lot of city folks that came west for a better life...and found it. Maybe children of the west learned to see more of the unknown dangers and city folks tended to take things at face value. Out here, not looking twice could get you killed. Maybe that’s why JD believed everything they said and Vin waited for it to be proven ...maybe ...maybe ...who knows? All he knew for sure was that Vin seemed part child, part adult and he held sorrow that no child should have to hold.

The only time the boy seemed to relax was when they were away from town. Two and a half weeks ago, 4 days after the boys’ arrival, they’d gone fishing and in a private moment Josiah had observed Vin. He was standing alone on the riverbank, away from the rest of them and unaware he was being watched. He had stood tall, lifted his face to the breeze and the sun, closed his eyes, and...smiled. How had the boy survived in Boston with his aunt?

Josiah was jolted from the memory to find Vin looking at him curiously. He remembered his sentence, "there’s no crime in just being a kid," he finished. Vin cast his eyes down...and shrugged. Slowly he stood. He clenched his teeth to fight the twinge of pain in his back and without a backwards glance at Josiah, made his way toward the tossing contest. When he got there he didn’t play.

"Ain’t ya gonna pway wif us?" asked the small Bostonian.

"Naw, jest came ta watch." JD nodded, expecting the answer, turning back to take his turn at the toss. As Vin watched, his mind drifted again, returning to the memories he’d left unfinished the night before.

After a while, Standing Hawk had lifted Vin to his feet and led him by the hand to a secluded area far past the small barn. There he built a fire and Vin sat still where Joe indicated he should. Where most five year olds would be beyond the capacity of holding still Vin had been with Joe enough to learn the control and ability to listen that other children did not possess. So when Joe finally sat, stripped to the waist, and began to speak in his native language, Vin regarded him and his words intently. Joe started where most natives of the land started their stories, the beginning, slowly telling the boy in glaringly simple detail all the things Vin had heard before but could quite possibly be hearing for the last time.

He reminded the boy of how his father had come to dwell among the people as a boy and how he had been adopted into Standing Hawk's family. He told Vin again of the wars between the people and the white man. He familiarized him with the battles that were waged and how his father had fought among them as a young but mighty warrior and as his son.

And finally he came to the part that always gave Vin chills. He told of how one night while the people slept the soldiers had come. "We fought hard but they were many," explained Standing Hawk. "Many were killed and when it was over, of our family, only your father and I remained alive. The soldiers took my son with them and I stood alone." Joe always broke off in that part of the story, returning momentarily to English so he could use the word slaughtered. He told Vin that they had been slaughtered. In his five year old mind he wasn’t exactly sure what the word meant but he knew it wasn’t good, knew he never wanted to be a part of it. Joe related then the recovery of those that survived and how he’d had a vision telling him to follow his son, telling him he should be with the last of his family.

At that point the wise man added an element to the speech not heard before. "My son, you are the last of that family now and you have a great legacy to carry. I have dreamed and I fear the road will not be easy. There are two paths for you to walk. My heart desires to take you with me to the people but you have family, an aunt and a cousin in a place far from here and very different but their hearts would be glad to have you. I fear to start on either road will bring much pain. You are young but the choice is yours to make."

The choice had been easy. He was not willing to leave the last of all he recognized and answered formally, "Grandfather, my path is with you." Again there had been silence as Joe considered the answer, finally smiling but retaining the apprehension and foreboding in his eyes. He marked Vin that night, with a small tattoo on his shoulder so the people would know him to be one of them...should anything happen to obstruct the path that they had chosen.

With the formalities over, Vin returned to being the five year old that he was. Crying and clutching Standing Hawk tightly as they walked back toward the house, back toward his dead mother.

Vin was startled again from his reverie by Billy’s boisterous voice and the realization that they were done with their game. "I’m hot, lets go inside. Maybe my ma will let us have lemonade," suggested Billy. Vin grinned a little and nodded. That was a plan he could go for.

When they entered the house Mary was in the front room struggling with the printing press.

"Ma? Can we have some lemonade?"

Mary glanced back at the boys and finally finding her excuse for a break, she sighed in relief.

"Of course. I’ll get it."

The lemonade was cool flowing down Vin’s throat and he actually felt himself starting to relax. When it was done he followed the other boys as they left in a rush. They were headed to the stream flowing near the tree past the edge of town. It wasn’t much but they figured they could wade. And wade they did, splashing each other in earnest. Vin felt himself relaxing even more and joined in on the fun. He didn’t even worry about what Chris and Buck would say when they saw the mud on their clothes. This was a nice spot.

After the splashing they decided to play "peacekeepers and robbers," as Billy called it. They took turns but more often than not Billy and Vin made JD be the bad guy, only chuckling when he complained. In the final round, Vin let JD get the drop on him and enacted a spectacular death as JD unholstered his finger and shot him. Billy was laughing as he in turn whipped out his finger in gun formation to avenge his partner’s death. Then the two dropped to the earth next to Vin and the three stared up at the sky.

"I’m gonna be da bestest gunfighter ever when I’s big. I’m gonna be as fast as Buck."

"I’m gonna be as fast as Chris!" Billy answered.

"Is Chris the fastest?" asked JD later.

"Uh huh, Chris could beat any old gunslinger ever. He’s faster than all of ‘em. Ain’t that right, Vin?"

Vin grinned at Billy’s comment and nodded saying, "Reckon he is."

"My pa was gonna show me how to shoot a rifle..." Billy trailed off. Vin knew his friend’s father had died. He only vaguely remembered his own da, and most of his memories were of the stories Joe Standing Hawk would tell him before he too "passed on." Suddenly Billy rose to his feet. "Come on, I want to show ya somthin’."

"Whatcha gonna show us?" JD asked curiously.

"Just come on!" urged the small Travis boy.

Vin and JD raced after him. They ran almost all the way back to the Clarion. Enough running for Vin to grimace when they stopped and to know his back would be killing him later. He followed JD into the house section, slinging his hip against the wall and leaning to alleviate the pressure from his spine. He waited patiently as Billy opened a big latched box. Vin shivered slightly at the sight of the trunk, thankful that he wouldn’t be going in it.

From its depths Billy pulled a rifle. "It was my pa’s. I’m gonna shoot it someday. I know how to load it and everything. Want ta hold it Vin?"

"I wan ta howd it," pouted JD.

"You’re too little JD...Vin?"

"No," Vin had paled a little. For a moment the inclination had been there to reach for the rifle and show Billy he knew how to load it too. But he withdrew. He knew what could happen if he touched a rifle. "No, thanks for showing us Billy, but we gots to go." He snagged JD’s sleeve and dragged him out through the office.


"No, JD. We gotta go."

Just then Mary and Chris walked in through the doors. Billy wasn’t fast enough and Mary saw the rifle. "Billy Travis what are you doing?"

"I just wanted to show Vin the rifle ma, I wasn’t gonna try to shoot it or nothin’." Mary sighed giving him a hard look. It was the last thing Steven had promised his son...that he would someday show him how to shoot. Billy had worried that he would never learn because he didn’t have a father anymore. Mary kept the rifle, telling him it would be his when he was ready. "I’m sorry ma."

Chris’ face was hard. Vin flinched slightly and subtly stepped in front of JD. "It weren’t their fault. I wanted ta see the gun." he lied and was surprised when Billy jumped to his defense.

"No it wasn’t. Ma, they didn’t even know what I wanted to show ‘em. It's my fault."

Mary was about to answer when Chris stepped forward, "Mary...may I?" She nodded and went to the kitchen. Chris squatted down in front of the boys, laying a cautious hand on Vin’s shoulder, wary when he flinched but not willing to remove it. Chris could usually read Vin like a book and Ezra had pointed out to the gunslinger that Vin seemed to only truly relax we he was alone with Chris...and not talking, of course. Right now Chris knew the boy was scared.

"Men, we need to talk," began the gunslinger. Billy smiled a little at that and JD grinned but Vin wasn’t to be placated by false titles. He continued to watch Chris warily but made no attempt to step away from the hand on his shoulder.

Chris sat back on the chair behind him with a sigh. "First of all, Billy, you know not to touch that rifle without an adult with you."

"Yes sir," contritely said.

"Rifles are awfully big things for little boys to shoot and they’re not toys. Why do you think your ma was so worried Billy?"

"Because if I don’t know how to use it proper I could get hurt...or hurt someone else."

"You’re right. When the time comes I’ll show all of you how to shoot but until then, unless you know how to use don’t touch it. Got it?"

"Yes sir," Billy responded, his eyes having flashed hopefully at the prospect of Chris teaching him.

"That goes for all three of you boys."

"Yes, sir," responded both JD and Vin dutifully. In his head Vin knew it was a moot point. He already knew how to use it but he answered anyway trying to ignore JD’s poke to his side. JD knew he knew how to use it too, but Vin was sure he wouldn’t tell. The poke was JD’s way of letting Vin know he remembered.

Chris continued, his voice still somewhat stern, "Good. Billy, I imagine your ma is going to have a few extra chores for you this afternoon." The boy slumped his shoulders and nodded. Mary, who was listening from the doorway took this as her cue to re-enter the conversation.

"And an early bed time tonight."

"Yes, ma’am," Billy vocalized wearily, as though he’d just been made to carry the weight of the world.

Mary smiled, mouthing a "thank you" to Chris before saying her next phrase, "So, to start off you can help me get some things from Potter’s store."

"JD, why don’t you go with them. Vin will meet you down there in a minute," suggested Chris. He wanted a moment alone with Vin.

"Kay," answered JD, giving his cousin a worried look but dutifully taking Mary’s hand as she ushered them out the door, never noticing the happy man watching them from across the street.

+ + + + + + +

Roy smirked as he saw them leave and began to carefully cross the street toward the alley near the newspaper woman’s home. ‘Wait till he’s alone and pounce’ wasn’t the best plan in the world but it was all Roy had. If he was going to do this it would have to be soon. It would have to be today. "Patience is a virtue...patience is a virtue," he repeated to himself, hoping the gunslinger would leave the boy alone soon.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin, why did you take the blame for Billy?" Chris tried to say it gently. He didn’t want the boy to think he was in trouble. Vin just shrugged, dropping his gaze down to the ground.

"Billy has to learn to accept his own consequences, does JD."

Vin’s head snapped up at that statement.

"I know you want to protect him and you’re doing a great job but you can’t take everything on your own shoulders. Sometimes people have to carry their own weight. You didn’t do anything wrong today, Vin. You were leaving when we came in weren’t ya?"

Vin nodded.

"Listen to me. I would never hurt you. I would never hurt JD. And I definitely won’t hurt you for telling me the truth. You may get a few extra chores or something if you’ve done wrong...but I won’t hit you...ever. Got it?"

Vin was looking at him again, his eyes slightly pained, and he was shaking.

"And if anyone else hurts you, Vin, tell me. I’ll help you." Chris rested both hands on his shoulders giving a slight squeeze as he stood. He hoped Vin would talk but clearly now was not the time. As much as JD was an open book, Vin was a locked, encoded diary but as Chris made his way to the door he heard a small voice behind him.

"Chris." The gunslinger turned, waiting. "I didn’t know Billy had the the orphanage...they hit you...they hit you were too much trouble...I was too much trouble." The tiny Texan’s voice was shaking.

Chris moved forward and squatted in front of Vin. Again resting his hands on his shoulders. "They won’t hit you anymore...ever...not while I’m around. And me and Buck will help you protect JD, too. Deal?" Vin nodded not trusting his voice. He trusted Chris, believed him, but one looming question was still in his head. How long would Chris be around? It seemed as though he and JD were at the ranch to stay but the echo of Chris’s words to Josiah three weeks ago remained. "We’ll take him till you find a family." What about the next people they go to. Would they hit him? He let Chris lead him to the door, tight against his side. He almost lost it then. He was too old to cry.

Resting a hand tenderly on his head Chris told him to go catch up with Mary and JD while he talked with Josiah. Inside Chris was seething with anger at whoever hurt the boy under his hand, remorse that he hadn’t been there to stop it, and triumph that Vin had finally confided or admitted something. Up till (until or 'til) that point when they’d asked him about the scars he unwillingly brandished, he would answer with a shrug or an, "ain’t nothin’." He needed to talk to someone about his moment with Vin. The boy’s blond head gave a nod under his hand and Chris watched him for a moment before heading toward the church.

+ + + + + + +

Roy sneered gleefully, happy to see the aim of his plan walking down the nearly empty late afternoon boardwalk alone. Seeing the gunslinger disappear into the church, Roy knew this was his chance. The boy started past the alley and never made it to the other side.

A man’s arms snaked out, one around the boy’s middle and the other covering his mouth. He yanked him so hard his feet swung out into the empty air before settling back against him, and almost as immediately they began to kick...hard. Roy Haly forgot how feisty the boy could be and was reminded again as he felt teeth break skin on the hand covering the kid’s mouth. "Ow ow ow ow OWW!" He tried to whisper his discontent softly as he hauled his prize to seclusion behind the hotel. "Ow ow take him, Al, take him."

Al was prepared as he took the fighter off his leader’s hands. Quickly shoving a cloth into Vin's mouth, keeping it in place by securing a bandana around the kid’s head. Roy helped hold him while he tied his hands and feet in place. Behind the gag, Al could tell the kid was screaming and the glare he was sending them concerned him before he remembered the boy was only seven.

They unceremoniously dumped the kid in the crate. They knew it had cracks enough for him to breathe. Al felt a little bad at treating a kid like this but figured Roy must know what he was doing. He’d never known him to hurt a kid. Not that they encountered that many.

Roy smiled and ruffled Vin’s hair. Leaning over the box he commented to the youngster, "Aw now, Vin, don’t be lookin’ at me like that. You know it ain’t nothing personal. I thought you’d be a might happy to see me after so long." The boy’s glare was anything but pleased and for a moment Roy’s conscience niggled him about the rectitude of trading this boy’s freedom for his own. Vin had escaped. The small child had done what not even full grown Roy had been able to do. Now he was taking that away from him. The hesitation was short and Roy shook himself, saying, "It may be a rough ride for a bit but don’t worry we’ll get a chance to be reacquainted . . . but right now we gotta close this lid. See ya on the flip side kiddo."

Vin watched the top of the crate drop with finality, heard it clipped into place. He started to panic in the darkness, breathing heavily through his nose. Sweat was matting his hair and he was praying hard that someone would get him out of this. Through the darkness he felt the box being lifted and amidst the void he recognized Roy’s voice, "Okay, Al, get going. I’ll meet you and the boy at Muddy Creek in a few hours and we’ll move on from there. Wix will be waiting for you." Finally, the tears ran unimpeded down the corners of his eyes and into his ears.

Vin felt the wagon bump beneath him. He felt nauseous and dizzy and was desperately trying to control his panic. Slowly, very slowly, he tried to get his breathing under control. He tried to call the calming voices of the past to him but it didn’t work. The next memories entering his brain were of the road he’d chosen to travel with Joe...and how quickly things had gone downhill from there.

Just two weeks after Emma Tanner’s passing, Vin and Joe had the affairs of the ranch settled enough to their satisfaction. With wariness they set out on horseback to a future Vin could only wonder about. He was content though, to be with Joe and to leave the sadness of this place behind. They hadn’t gotten far when they were cut off by a posse from town. One of the ranch hands must have told them they were leaving and with typical prejudice, the townsmen were unwilling to allow an Indian to keep custody of a white boy and it was apparent when they rode down on them hard and furiously, they had no compromise in mind and nothing in their eyes but blood. Three days later Vin was sitting on a stage bound for an orphanage on the Louisiana Texas border, no longer having any doubt in his mind what the word slaughtered had meant.

+ + + + + + +

Unfortunately, nearly an hour and a half passed before Vin was missed. And even then, the concern began as simple idle curiosity. Chris had left Josiah’s after a long conversation that made Chris feel as though there was some hope that he was the person to help the 7 year old in his custody and feeling in way over his head at the same time. He wondered if Josiah had an ulterior motive in placing them together. He tried to picture Vin with another family, a regular family and was pretty sure that wouldn’t be enough to heal Vin’s scars but wasn’t it arrogant of Chris to think that he could? Vin was more a mystery than Chris himself was and it was killing Chris not to know all that had happened so he could at least try to make it right.

He’d finally told Josiah about the tattoo he and Nathan had found last time they were checking Vin’s back. It was small and they’d missed it before with the scars there to distract them. Josiah didn’t know what it meant. He knew some of the native tribes often marked prisoners, slaves, or each other. A tattoo could mean something as simple as a family tradition, a badge of honor, or a brand meaning something much more sinister. When Chris told him, Josiah had wanted to see it but was hesitant to ask. Vin was skittish about being touched, was wary around Nathan, cautious around Buck, and relaxed only slightly with Chris. He would wait till an appropriate time.

He ended the conversation with Chris by sincerely expressing his gladness that Vin had confided in him about being hit at the orphanage and hoped the rest of his demons could soon be brought to light where they wouldn’t be as scary. He knew Chris had a connection with the boy but he also knew Vin wasn’t going to be easy to help. Finally, Chris left to take care of some business at the jail before he met the others for dinner, not concerned in the slightest, because he thought Vin was safe with Mary, Billy, and JD.

Buck came back from his patrol and found JD playing with his toy soldiers in front of the main store with Nathan standing by watching the tike while he discussed purchases with Mrs. Potter.

"Hey little bit," he called easily.

"BUCK!" JD leaped at him.

"Hey Buck," joined Nathan, having completed his business. "Everything quiet out there?"

"Not a ‘malfeasant peep’ anywhere. Here?" he asked after using one of Ezra’s favorite phrases.

"Same. Been pretty nice afternoon actually. Vin even played with the boys today."

"So I can assume he has mud on his clothes just like JD does?" Buck responded tickling the already grinning five year old."

"Yep," Nathan said as he lifted his eyebrows and grinned at Buck’s awed face. "You know, that’s the first time I think I’ve seen a parent pleased that his kid came home dirty."

"Ah he...heck," he began, quickly remembering JD’s penchant for copying everything he said, "No kid his age should be so fretted about keeping his clothes clean." Nathan nodded as Buck continued, "Where is he anyway?"

"He was supposed ta come to Potter’s store wif me ‘n Billy," pouted JD.

"Mary told me Vin was with Chris. She left JD with me not more than 30 minutes ago. Josiah just left to patrol and Ezra is keeping vigil in the saloon. I reckon we should hunt them down and eat." It was already almost seven.

"Yeah, I’m hungwy."

"Me too Little Bit, me too."

So the hunt began. Ezra left the saloon and they journeyed on towards the jail. Chris heard them coming and stepped out the door before they had a chance to knock. Glancing around at the group, he asked the first thing that came to his mind, "Where’s Vin?"

"You mean he’s not with you?" And the search intensified.

+ + + + + + +

Three hours later, the town had been picked apart. It was concluded that Vin had disappeared between Mary’s and Potter’s store. No one had seen him since. Chris was trying to control his panic. Time and time again he reviewed his conversation with Vin, trying to come up with evidence that the seven year old had run away. He knew Vin often liked to be alone to ponder on serious things. A habit that had scared them more than once in the past few weeks, as several of his habits seemed to do. Time and time again Chris’ gut discounted that scenario. Something more was going on here. He could feel it.

"Are you confident he wasn’t persisting in his distress about the situation with Billy, Mr. Larabee?" asked Ezra for the fifteenth time. He wanted to be convinced that the missing boy was simply seeking time away from the pressures of the town and people.

"I’m positive, Ezra. He talked to me. He wouldn’t have done that if he was afraid I was still mad at him. Just call it a gut instinct, Ezra. Something’s wrong." The others assembled in the jail waited for Larabee to call their next move. JD had been tucked in at Mary’s with Billy, convinced that his cousin would be alright, but by morning the perceptive five year old would know something was wrong.

"Okay," the man in black said releasing the air from his lungs in a huff. It was just instinct and he didn’t know if the others would follow his logic on what he was about to ask them to do but he hoped they would, almost as much as he hoped that Vin had gone off to be alone somewhere and just fallen asleep. "We need to go through the town again. This time I want you to talk to all the proprietors. I know its getting late, wake them up if you have to. This time don’t ask them if they’ve seen Vin. Ask them what strangers came into the shops today. Ask them if they noticed anything out of place...had any unusual conversations . . . did anyone ask about Vin? That sort of thing. Got it?" the others nodded, not questioning his logic at all. "Oh and Nathan, I want you to ride out to the reservation. Come morning if we don’t have anything to go on, we may need a tracker."

"I hope not Chris...I hope not."

+ + + + + + +

Roy didn’t consider himself an evil man, or even a bad man, just a man who did what was needed to stay happy and stay alive. He never took things too seriously, didn’t understand why other people did either. But now, standing in the spread gully next to Bitter Water Creek, his conscience started to niggle him about leaving the boy in the box for so long. Or maybe the niggle came from the steady pounding that had been coming from within the box for the last hour. Darry would be here by morning and Roy would be on his way. With a sigh, Roy stood.

"What are you doin’, Haly?"

"Nothin’, Al, just lettin’ the tike out of his box. Reckon we ought to feed ‘em." Al and Wix both got up to follow him. Their merry little band didn’t usually deal with children, so the blue-eyed captive was a curiosity. Al popped the latch on the crate while Roy lifted the lid. For a moment all they did was stare curiously at the heavy breathing red-faced creature. "Lets get him out. Wix, go dish up a pile of them beans."

"Sure thing Roy...I’m on it." Despite the words he didn’t leave right away, kind of like watching a fire, it was hard for him to turn his eyes from the show.

Roy gripped Vin by the sides and pulled him out of the box swiftly, dropping him on his feet and waiting a moment to see what the trussed up boy would do. For an instant the kid swayed and Roy was sure he was going to pass out but the eyes shot open a second later, and though Roy was not the quickest, he knew what that meant. Hurriedly he removed the bandana holding the gag in place and almost as suddenly, the cloth from the mouth flew to the ground followed by the contents of the captive’s stomach. With his hands tied behind his back and his feet trussed together Vin couldn’t keep his balance during the heaving, dizzy anyway from his abrupt release and change in position, he collapsed to the ground, laying on his side he continued to vomit.

"What’s he doin’, Al?" whispered Wix.

"He’s upchucking, ya idiot. What does it look like?"

"Now now, boys, our guest has just had a bumpy ride. It ain’t no reason for us to bicker. Now Wix go get the beans. Al ‘n’ I will clean him up."

"We will?"

"Yeah, we will. It ain't as bad as all that. He didn’t get none of it on his clothes, we just gotta get him up and wipe down ‘is face...say, maybe he needs water."

Vin Tanner lay on his side panting repeatedly, so grateful to be getting air that nothing else mattered. Seven years of life and two years of being an orphan had taught him enough to know it would be pointless to try to listen in on the stupid conversation occurring above him and there was nothing he could say to change his situation. He already knew everything he needed to. Roy Haly was going to turn him over to Darry Carter in the morning. Where one was seen, the other was never far. Though they pretended to hate each other, they lived life trying to get one up on the other. There was one big difference though. Vin had learned it from his time with them before. Roy’s meanness was more often than not born of stupidity while Darry was just plain mean.

The orphan felt himself being lifted awkwardly, felt a wet cloth being run over his face, and he felt himself being leaned against a tree. His arms had started to tingle. They were asleep from the pressure of his body and now were making their discomfort known. In earnest the body responded to that complaint, now that it could. Vin wished he could voice his protests just as easily, but he couldn’t seem to open his mouth, couldn’t think of anything to say that would make things better. Didn’t see the use in speaking anymore, didn’t remember how to get his shouts to travel from his brain to his vocal cords, so they remained locked inside and Vin’s eyes had to do the talking his mouth couldn’t.

"Wow, Roy, this boy has got a meaner stare than any kid I ever knowed. Sure wouldn’t want to cross him if he’s big."

"Well he ain’t. Now cut his hands loose so as he can eat." Vin didn’t think he could eat but Al cut his hands loose anyway.

+ + + + + + +

" have to get some sleep."

"I’m fine, Nathan."

"You’re not fine, Chris. Look, it's two a.m. We’ve been through the town over a dozen times. If he was here, he’s not now...even if he’s hiding. And no one noticed anything suspicious."

"Are we sure we talked to everyone?"

"Everyone except Tiny’s stable boy, but Peter would have headed out real early this afternoon because he was gonna check fences on the Conner’s land and who knows where he chose to spend the night, and Inez's man, Toby, slipped out early tonight too. Chris, I doubt they’re going to have anything new to add. We have a description of every stranger that came into town from the others and I ain't even sure how that’s gonna help."

And they did have a list. Buck had made it. No one had checked in or out of the hotel that day. The stage wasn’t due until tomorrow. All in all it was a slow day for business. That left three ranch hands that came in from O'Mally's to pick up supplies and five drifters with purposes unknown on the list. Two of the drifters were camped out not 30 minutes from town. Nathan had passed them on his way to the reservation with Josiah. They had been cowboying out of Eagle bend and were looking for better work. Just passing through.

The same was guessed of the other two drifters. They didn’t seem to come together or leave together. One left in a wagon loaded with food supplies enough for whatever journey the man was undertaking and the tall blond one with the easy going gait had ridden casually out of town just before dusk. Another man had ridden in with the blond but had ridden out before talking with anyone. As far as they could tell all he’d done in town was wash up and eat a hot meal. Many of the visitors to their small town came only for that, so it wasn’t unusual, it just didn’t give them much to go on. They needed unusual. Nathan had returned to town to tell Larabee of the cowboys while Josiah continued on to talk with Kojay.

"Chris, when morning comes we’re going to have to start looking again in the places we need light to look. You aren’t going to help us by being dead on your feet." Nathan matched Chris’ glare lance for lance, feeling as though he’d just single-handedly waged a bloody war, when Chris conceded with a nod to let Nathan know he’d won. As Chris turned toward the boardinghouse, Nathan followed wearily, knowing morning would come too soon for all of them.

Chris didn’t think he would be able to sleep. He lay in bed going over in his head all the possible scenarios that could account for a quiet seven-year-old’s disappearance. He was running out of plausible ideas and had long ago run out of ideas that allowed for any hope of Vin’s possible well-being. Had an enemy of the peacekeepers taken him? They would have heard by now if someone wanted revenge . . . right? Besides, who of their enemies could know in three short weeks that he and Buck had taken in two orphans? That left a few uglier possibilities that Chris shied away from. People who kidnapped random seven-year-olds seldom had any good intentions and though it had never been an issue in Four Corners, Chris knew there was a child-slave market that thrived in the west. It had begun with soldiers raiding Indian camps, taking the children and selling them to Mexico. There had to be a more acceptable explanation. In the end, it was the simplicity of the exhausting thought process that put him to sleep not 15 minutes after his head hit the pillow.


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