"Little Britches" Universe

Surprisingly, Vin had been able to eat the beans. He felt oddly grateful for the food in his stomach. As soon as he’d eaten, the nausea had settled down. After the meal, Roy had attempted to engage him in conversation, and didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest when Vin never answered and eventually stopped even looking at him. When the strange man had talked his fill he threw the seven year old a blanket and secured his hands behind his back again. The ground was cold, the blanket not helping much, but Vin’s exhaustion soon took over . . . his subconscious continuing the history he’d been relaying in his mind.
Five-year-old Vin quickly learned to hate the orphanage and hide from the orphan director. As much as he tried to be good and stay out of his way, it didn’t seem to help him much. Vin soon became the director's favorite target anytime his frustrations grew too high. To the women of the church group down the street, he was simply a clumsy child and orphan boys were not high priority on their "to help" list. They came once a week bringing a decent meal for the skinny wards of the institution and talked about what a shame it was they couldn’t have a strong Christian upbringing. They were nothing like his ma and Vin hated them.

It was they, however that would turn out to be his salvation. One day after church one of the old ladies asked him if he had any kin at all. Full of hope that there was someone who would listen, he gave his aunt’s name, "Laurie Dunne," and the location his mother had taught him, "Boston." Surprisingly within a month word had been sent and a reply returned. All that remained was finding someone willing to escort the boy northward. Darry Carter had stepped out of the shadows explaining he had been a ranch hand for Vin’s folks and that he would be glad to take him to Boston. Two months after arriving at the orphanage, Vin gratefully left, but he knew that if Darry Carter had his way, he would never see his mother’s family.

Curious at first as to what Darry wanted with him, Vin tried not to think too much about the foreboding feeling in his gut. Soon it became apparent what Darry’s desires were and Vin wished he’d never wondered. He wished he’d never picked up a rifle, for Darry had remembered one incredible thing from his time as a Tanner ranch hand. He remembered a four year old who could shoot and never miss. For a while they went town to town. Roy joined them occasionally to help advertise their exploits and cash in on the hustling. At Darry’s mandate, Vin demonstrated his skill to disbelieving and paying spectators, out-shooting some proud adults and angering others. Darry never wrapped a pillow around his shoulder and neither Darry nor Roy ever stood behind him to keep him upright. Time and time again, unless he found something to brace himself against, the kick from the rifle would knock him off his feet, but he never missed. The one time he’d done so had been on purpose and the criss-crossed scars on his lower back were reminders that he would never do that again.

Eventually he found himself brave enough to attempt escape but as many times as he ran, he was found, beaten badly and locked in a trunk for causing trouble.

Gasping for breath Vin struggled to break himself from the memory, believing himself to still be locked in the box. After a few moments his head cleared and he realized he had been asleep, on the ground tied next to a large tree with a blanket tucked loosely around him. The gray of the dawn was still present but passing. Most in the camp were still asleep but across from him, leaning against a strong sycamore, sipping a cup of coffee, was Darry and even as Vin recognized him, the man turned to him and smiled. A cold evil smile that allowed Vin to see his sharp incisors gleaming, even through the morning mist.

"Morning, Vin," he said calmly. Vin felt a shudder course through his body. He was in trouble now. If only . . . if only Larabee would come for him.

+ + + + + + +

Chris awoke, realizing from the light outside that he had overslept. In a fury he got up, dressed and strode quickly out of the boarding house and into the saloon. The other gunfighters were already assembled and Chris noticed that Josiah was back from the reservation with Kojay sitting on his right. They looked haggard and worried, sipping on their coffee slowly with slumped shoulders as though they had given up.

"Why didn’t you wake me?" demanded Chris.

"There weren’t no call to . . . we’ve been through the town twice this morning and we talked to Peter. He didn’t see nothing that anyone else didn’t see. We figured to let you sleep so your mind would at least be clear for our next course of action. Do we have a next course of action?"

"Where’s Toby?" Chris spoke of Inez’s hired bartender. He wanted to cover all his angles.

"Inez said he’d be here soon . . . you reckon he’ll have something new?"

"I don’t know but I’m hoping. All I know is that whenever I’m in a strange town, I always get the layout from the bartender. It stands to reason that if anything odd was going on Toby or Inez would have seen it or heard it whether they know it or not." The others couldn’t fight with that logic.

Chris’s muscles vibrated with the necessity of staying still when he wanted to be out looking. He barely touched the meal Inez brought him with a sympathetic look and nearly pounced on Toby when he casually strode into the establishment not twenty minutes later. The others pulled him back, giving the nervous Toby some room before Ezra took over the questioning using surprisingly simplistic words.

"Mr. Call, Vin is missing. He has been since last night. We were hoping that you may have seen or heard something that could point us in the right direction to search. We are certain now that his disappearance couldn’t have been accidental." After a long pause the wary bar tender shook his head.

"I’m sorry, Mr. Standish, didn’t see nothing but those drifters and didn’t no one say anything unusual."

"I hate to press this, Mr. Call but it's important. Did anyone mention the boys in any way. It may not mean anything but if we just had a place to start."

Toby leaned back in his chair reviewing his conversations scowling deeply as he thought. "Only time the boys came up was with that smiley blond-haired drifter but it weren’t nothing unusual. He come in huffing a little but real easy going. Casual-like ya know. Told me he’d been through here before a while back and didn’t remember no kids running around. Asked me how it was possible. I told him about you fellas. He asked if you all didn’t get plum annoyed with the kids traipsing about tripping everyone. I remember telling him he better not call Vin annoying to your faces, seein' as how Larabee is his guardian. And that was the end of it."

"Toby, why did you single out Vin?" asked Buck while Nathan elbowed him. "Stop it Nathan, I don’t mean anything accusing by it. It just seems as though he were talking about all the kids but it got focused on Vin. How come?" The others turned puzzled eyes to Toby while he considered that.

"Well now, as I recall, the conversation started because Vin nearly bowled the man over while he was walking down the boardwalk. He described Vin to the letter but never said his name. Just came in and told me he’d nearly caught his death by a wiry, blue-eyed, toe-headed critter. Yeah, that’s how it started." The peacekeepers sat back to consider that.

"Wait a minute, Mr. Call. Did you say Vin nearly bowled him over?"

"That’s the impression I got."

"About what time was that?"

"It was still morning but not too much before noon. Why?"

"Josiah, didn’t Vin haunt your steps in the brooding way he usually does when he comes to town, not moving, and not speaking to a soul? Sitting and watching the town like normal?"

"Yes, brother," Josiah confirmed, and seeing now where Ezra was headed with this he continued, "yes, Vin chopped wood in the back, then sat on my steps like normal. We ate lunch and he sat on the steps again. Didn’t join the other boys till after noon and they played out of town. And when in the last three weeks have you seen Vin bowl anyone over or not look where he was going for fear of interrupting even an ant’s passing?"

"You reckon the man was fishing, Josiah?" asked Buck.

"Sounds that way, brother. Chris?" All eyes turned toward the man in black, waiting.

"Lets ride," ground Chris. "Nathan get your supplies, just in case. Ezra, you’ll help me get some provisions packed up. Buck, you can ready the horses with Tiny and find out which way the dead man went. Josiah, you can help Buck but I may have you and Kojay start looking for whatever tracks you can find. Kojay thanks for coming."

"It would have been dishonorable of me not to. If my Chanu were missing, I know you would help."

"...a debt I’ll gladly owe you then." nodded Chris.

"Mr. Larabee, if I may make a suggestion."

"Anything you’ve got would help, Kojay."

"As we were riding in this morning I took note of what tracks I could find. It seems as though every man that left here left on a horse but one. I noticed only one set of wagon tracks. If you were going to remove a child unnoticed from a town, that would be the way to do it." Chris considered that, cursing himself for not following such a simple logic before.

"Alright. I’m with you on that. I think we should divide into two groups. Half of us will try to pick up the trail of the blond drifter and the other half the wagon tracks. Maybe they’ll end up at the same place.

+ + + + + + +

It wasn’t long before the peacekeepers were assembled and ready to ride. Tiny had noted that the man they were looking for was headed on the main road south and his horse’s left hind foot was sporting a shoe with a cut across the back where a nail had bent and been pried loose. Hopefully, it would be enough to go on. With fall drawing closer, less travelers were coming through. It would be easier to pick out the distinctive tracks. The only confusion was that Tiny was certain the man had left alone. Chris wasn’t about to let that fact waylay one of the only leads they had. He had a determined set to his jaw as he started to swing up into the saddle of his horse but was stopped by Buck’s strong hand on his shoulder. "What?" It came out as growl.

"We have some explaining to do before we leave, pard'." Buck answered calmly with a tilt of his head. Chris followed the nod to the Clarion, where JD sat on the steps staring at them forlornly and with confusion in his eyes.

"Ah, hell," muttered Chris. How were they going to explain this to JD? Chris’s gut twisted. He was already having a hard time holding the memories of Adam at bay. The fact that JD was the age Adam was when he died could put Chris into a tailspin right now. He didn’t want to deal with the happy-go-lucky dark haired boy. Very slowly, he turned from his horse, meeting Buck’s eyes in a moment of regret as they turned to make their way towards the young questioning gaze.

After they approached, Chris leaned against the post on the walk where Mary was standing, while Buck hunkered down in front of the boy. Not wanting to hear the conversation, Chris deliberately turned to Mary and asked her if she was okay to look after JD while they were gone. Mary replied, "of course," and was about to say more, when they heard Buck’s fingers snap, cuing them into the conversation with the boy at their feet.

Buck didn’t know what he would say to JD. In many ways he was thinking this would be a lot easier to deal with if it were JD that had gone missing and Vin they had to explain things to. Vin already knew of and accepted the ugliness of life and while that was regretful, you didn’t feel like you were the one killing his innocence as Buck now felt he was doing with JD. He felt a need to protect him from the truth and with JD, the right words just might work. Vin had a way of seeing through placations. What were the right words now?

"JD, we have to leave for a bit."

"Are ya goin’ ta get Vin?" he asked with a serious set to his eyebrows, all business.

"Yeah, Little Bit, we’re going to get Vin."

"Where’d ‘e go?"

"Well, we think...we think that maybe Vin left town with someone yesterday by mistake and we’re gonna go bring him back."

JD’s serious eyes had gone a little wider and after scanning the street, he leaned toward Buck, and in a staged whisper, he asked, "Was it the bad man?"

Buck paused, considering JD’s question quizzically. Bad man? He remembered he’d told Adam a story once of the Big Bad Wolf, just before he and Chris had gone to help a posse bring in bank robbers from Eagle Bend. When he and Chris got back, Adam had asked them if they’d found the big bad wolf. Buck knew children often associated their bedtime stories to reality and he wondered if that was what JD was doing. Something about the way he’d asked it, made Buck think that perhaps it wasn’t just a story. "What bad man, JD?"

JD looked flustered, like it was a stupid question. "The bad man! The one that hadded Vin."

Nope, not just a story then. Buck looked up to see if Chris was listening and when he realized he wasn’t, he snapped his fingers to draw his attention as he asked, "There was a bad man that had Vin?" JD vigorously nodded. "When?" JD shrugged. Chris was into the conversation now. He dropped to a crouch and forced himself to stay calm.

"JD, why did the bad man have Vin?" JD opened his mouth but his face flashed with horror and he clamped it shut.

"I can’t teww ya. I ‘romised." He folded his arms across his little chest and with a quivering lip, dropped his head down. For the next few minutes both gunslingers attempted to cajole the information from the boy but realized for the first time that JD could hold onto a secret just as tenaciously as Vin and they perceived, also for the first time, how the boys might be related.

+ + + + + + +

Ironically, Vin was thinking along the same lines as Buck, that is, he was thinking about the stories his aunt had read to him and his cousin. Particularly, "The Three Little Pigs." It had been the first time Vin heard the story but instead of listening to it with a child’s ears, Vin had analyzed it to figure out what the pigs had done wrong.

The first thing they’d done wrong was split up. He’d decided that if he and JD ever had to go out on their own, Vin would keep them together and they’d both have a house of bricks. He was thinking now as he watched Darry approach him, that he’d been too late in finding that house for himself but at least maybe JD was safe.

Without saying a word, Darry fisted one large hand in the front of his shirt and yanked him off the ground. Vin stared at him defiantly. With his other hand, Darry viciously backhanded him, sending him crashing back onto the ground and into unconsciousness, into his memories.

Darry had chosen to push Vin on his distance. Farther and farther away he’d line up the shiny bottles and Vin would shoot them down. Soon he started to work Vin on moving targets, not caring about Vin’s swollen shoulder and aching body when the six year old sobbed himself to sleep, locked in his tiny back room.

It was well after Vin’s sixth birthday when Darry made the mistake of settling. At least Vin thought it was well after his birthday. All he really knew was that when the leaves changed color, he was a year older and it was far past that time now. Past Christmas, though it hadn’t been much of one for Vin.

Darry had found New Orleans to be a perfect spot to hustle. There was never an end to the spectators and he had thought it would be easier to manage the kid in one spot. Roy stayed with them a while, making it easier to mind the kid. Vin actually didn’t mind that Roy stayed. He usually kept Darry from hitting him while he was drunk. The sign on the door where they lived simply stated, "The Phenom." Vin couldn’t read it and he didn’t know what a Phenom was but he knew it was something he didn’t ever want to be.

Down the rickety old steps of their second floor room lived a gypsy. Vin had never met one before. Her room was covered in brightly colored cloth and sparkling things the six year old shootist couldn’t identify. She was old and wrinkly, she smoked a lot and she smelled bad. Sometimes when Darry and Roy would leave him alone in the evenings, locked in his room, the woman would talk to him from her porch below and he would listen through the window. At first, she scared him more than Darry ever could but soon he found himself crawling outside his window where a small balcony allowed him to see and hear her better. It led to nowhere, was too far off the ground to jump down from and held only the swampy view of the bayou and the scary old gypsy on her porch below. Staring at her through the slats one night, waiting for her craggy voice to start telling him the horrifying stories she usually told to see if she could shock him, he was startled when instead, she asked him a question.

"Why do so many people want you, boy?"

Vin sucked in a breath before daring to answer. He had never spoken to her before, just listened. "No one wants me," he finally whispered. How many times had he heard it from the orphan dictator (a new word the gypsy had taught him). ‘No one wants a boy as small as you, no one wants a boy that eats a lot. No one wants a kid that can’t work hard, and no one will ever love a kid like you.’ "No one wants me." he repeated.

"That’s not what I see."

"What do you mean?" Cautious still.

"Boy, haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said all these nights?"

"Yes, ma’am."

"Then you know that sometimes I can see things other people can’t and it seems that these two men lock you up here for a reason. You say’n they don’t want you?"

"They want me ‘cause I c’n shoot." Vin confessed.

"That you can, boy, but if you don’t want them, why don’t you leave?"

"They lock me in," he stated confused, then paused before adding, "I tried to leave before and I couldn’t."

"You couldn’t leave before because you were in unfamiliar territory. Now you have resources."


"Resources. It means you got things around to help you. You just have to plan how to use them. Anything can be a resource. People, places or things. You think on it boy, come up with a plan and let me know what it is. But there ain’t no use in pining over a situation unless you’re doing something to get yourself out of it."

Vin didn’t respond, not for a while. He’d never considered trying to come up with a plan. Wasn’t sure if he could but it sounded like something Standing Hawk would want him to do and like something his mother and father would approve of. It sounded like something a Tanner would have done long ago. He thought on it, long and hard till (until or 'til) once again the scraggly voice split the silence. "Boy?"

"Yes, ma’am?"

"You got an aunt and a cousin north of here."

"Yes, ma’am."

"I get the impression they're waiting on you. You got others waiting on you too, they just don’t know it yet. Where do you want to be, boy?"

"Away from here...with them...west," he answered slowly, hoping the incoherent sentence would be understood by his spooky salvation a floor below.

"Then get to it, boy. Get to it."

As it turned out, the tracks they followed did converge. High noon found the reunited group of men standing around muddy creek silently waiting for Kojay to tell them what he could devise from the situation. Finally, he spoke.

"Three men. They didn’t stay long. Tracks indicate they left last night. Headed south. No sign of the boy."

Chris sighed in frustration. He felt as though he was grasping at straws but they had nothing else to go on. "Lets keep heading south then." The rest just nodded.

+ + + + + + +

Al watched wincingly as Darry sent their captive into unconsciousness. He wasn’t a man of high morals but he didn’t agree with treating a kid this way. He didn’t understand why he was wanted by the men, either. How could a little tyke be worth all this fuss. He knew he wasn’t kin to Roy or Darry and couldn’t think why they would go to all this trouble to snag him. Unlike Roy, however, Al was not vocal with his opinions. From where the boy lay unconscious, Roy was complaining, "Oh come on, Darry. You keep hittin’ 'im like that and he ain’t gonna be any good to ya."

"I don’t see how it's any of your business, Roy. Unless you plan on coming with us."

"Nah, I think I’ll skip that chapter. I just want things to be square and for you to stop hounding me. It's not my fault we lost the kid in the first place."

"That’s debatable. You’re the one that gave him the gum."

"Well how would I know he would use it to jam the door lock? Besides, I got him back for ya didn’t I? And I think this more than makes up for the money we lost from Sanders."

"Money YOU lost," reminded Darry, "But you're right. This makes us even. And if you don’t plan on riding along, I don’t reckon you got much say in how I treat him from here on out."

"I jest don’t want ya ta kill him. Where you gonna take him, anyway? It may be that there’ll be people from that town come lookin’ for him."

"Ain’t nobody gonna look for a kid in Purgatorio. Figured I’d stay there for a bit."

"Mexico, huh? You plan to stay long?"

"Reckon they’d pay a lot to see the kid’s talent."

Al didn’t know what the kid’s "talent" was and he was starting to think he didn’t ever want to know. Roy and Darry were talking about people looking for the boy and hiding out in dirty Mexican towns. The kid was starting to stir. Roy hunkered in front of him and started telling him about Mexico and other things in a low voice that Al couldn’t hear. Al was starting to think that the sooner this kid was off their hands and they were away from this place the better and finally voicing his opinions, he told Roy and Wix so.

Vin stared warily at Roy as he came to crouch before him. "Aw, now, Vin, don’t look at me like that. It ain’t all that bad, is it? You gotta understand that Darry woulda killed me unless I found a way to pay him off. Shooting for money ain’t that bad a it? Why, I’ll bet you’ll be famous someday and Darry would have made it so." Happy Roy Haly’s words faltered at the unforgiving and accusing silent glare of the boy he talked with. "Okay, okay. You’re right, kid this stinks but I didn’t have another choice. I imagine you’ll be with him for a while, so don’t rile him up, okay? You’ll be fine."

In his mind, Vin was rebelling against Roy’s words. He wouldn’t be staying with Darry, not for long. He would find a way out. However many times Darry tried to catch him, he would escape and he didn’t care if he was caught again. At least he would know he acted like a Tanner. It worked once before. He could do it again.

"Darry says he’s takin’ ya down to Mexico so it ain’t much but I reckon you’ll need these." Roy held out his hand to show Vin five shiny pesos. He tucked them in Vin’s pocket before mounting his horse, tipping his hat to Darry and departing Bitter Water Creek with Al and Wix at a gallop.

Vin swallowed hard in scared defiance as he realized he was alone with Darry. He stared up at him from where he sat, feeling small and insignificant next to the huge, well dressed man, struggling mightily to hold to the resolve that would allow him the hope of escape. Seeing the defiance, Darry decided the boy should know immediately how things stood. He backhanded him again, splitting his lip anew. He’d hit him lighter this time. Not sending him into oblivion like before. He slapped him around a few more times, landing blows on his back and stomach. Vin fought valiantly to keep in the tears. He wouldn’t let Darry win this time. Finally, the man halted the abuse.

"Just a reminder, Vin. You’re the boy and I’m the man. Best not forget that."

The funny thing was that Vin did know that. But he’d learned that even boys could foil men.

Every night Vin had watched Darry and Roy. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for at first but slowly he started to notice their patterns. He knew where they put the money, he knew what time they locked him in his room. He even knew where they kept the key. When they went out he noticed things, too. Before, he had thought it was enough to just be away from Darry. Now, he realized, he’d need someone who could also keep him away.

When he enacted his plan it would have to get him all the way to Boston. He started to pay attention to how people traveled. He listened to the men and women buy tickets for the stagecoach or for the train. He paid attention to the destinations they spoke of and the prices they paid. He watched their expressions.

Through it all, he did everything that Darry asked and Darry mistakenly started to give the boy a little more freedom. Not watching him as closely, ready to pounce if the boy ran. And finally, finally Vin believed he had a plan that would work. He just had to ask the gypsy one thing. That night he crawled out onto the balcony and waited for her to appear. He hadn’t spoken to her since that night and they had gone back to the routine of Vin just listening to her mystifying tales. This night she didn’t start speaking right away and eventually Vin found the courage to ask, "Ma’am, will you be one of my re-source-es?"

Vin was overcome with a feeling of numbness. A mere five minutes after Darry had tied his feet to the stirrups of his horse and then mounted behind him Vin had tried to cut off all sensory input, letting nothingness feel the void. He had leaned forward, not wanting to allow any contact with his captor, twisting now and again to see if the ropes held any leeway. Darry didn’t seem to notice or care. He was apparently secure in the fact that Vin wasn’t going anywhere. They continued riding in silence, crossing the border into Mexico and coming upon a dusty, bad smelling town. Darry shifted behind Vin and stated, "Welcome to Purgatory, kid."

Vin hoped Purgatorio had resources he could use that presented themselves soon. He didn’t plan on waiting long to make his escape this time. He half-hoped Larabee would come but knew he shouldn’t count on that. He recalled again the gypsy’s words, "What are you doing about it?" and as they rode through the main street, drawing many curious stares, Vin started to take in everything he could.

+ + + + + + +

By the time Vin and Darry were entering Purgatorio, Chris, Buck and the others were deciding how to follow the leads discovered at Bitter Water Creek. When they had followed the tracks to this next location they’d been both fortuitous and upset with what they found, starting off with an empty wagon and a lot of tracks.

"Four men. One arrived early this morning. Vin was tied up here. The boy’s tracks don’t lead anywhere else. They kept him close." Kojay hesitated, knowing Chris wasn’t always calm at receiving information as a hunter needed to be but said, "The boy was sick here." Surprisingly, it was Ezra that began cursing and Chris simply dropped his head.

Buck clenched his jaw and asked what needed to be known. "Where did they go from here?"

"Three rode west. One rode south. The boy is with the one going south."

"Mexico," stated Nathan continuing, "Mexico can be a mighty big place."

"How long ago?" asked Josiah.

"Late this morning. The three moving west are not hurried," hinted Kojay and Ezra picked up on the rest of his thought.

"If we were able to overtake the three moving west, perhaps they would be willing to indicate the destination of our southern traveler and allow us to overtake them at a more instantaneous velocity."

"We’re burning daylight, boys," restated Chris.

+ + + + + + +

Back in Four Corners, JD was sitting as still as Mary had ever seen Vin sit, and as quiet as she ever thought any child could be. It worried her. JD was a naturally boisterous child and it saddened her to see him so despondent. Billy had tried as valiantly as any loyal friend to cheer him up but it wasn’t working and he had finally allowed himself to be led away to play with the Potter children. Mary sat tentatively next to JD. His dark hazel eyes were staring down the street where the men had left early that morning.

"JD? How are you doing sweetie?"

"I’s fine," he mumbled without looking at her.

"Chris and Buck are going to bring your cousin back. I know they will." She hoped it wasn’t an empty promise.

"Vin’s smawrt. He’ww get away." Still he stared at the street.

"Get away from who, JD?"

JD sighed wearily. Couldn’t these people understand? "Frwom the bad man."

Mary thought about what she should ask. He wouldn’t tell them that morning who the "bad man" was, so she tried a different approach, asking, "How do you know he’ll get away?"

"‘Cause he did before. Vin’s smawrt. He knows how to get away. My ma kept sayin’ he’s so smawt. She said she couldn’t believe he came by hisself. I wemember. Betcha he’s on ‘is way back alwedy. Chwis and Buck jest haffta find em on the road."

"JD...when Vin came to live with you and your ma, he came to your house by himself?"

JD nodded.

"No one was with him?"

"No. Ma thought he’s lost. I wemember. But then he came one day and wasn’t lost no more."

Mary thinking that since she had him talking, she would ask JD the question he’d refused previously. "Baby, why was Vin lost?"

JD shrugged.

"Was it because the bad man had him?"

"I reckon," the boy answered, sounding suddenly astonishingly Vin-like.

"Why did the bad man have Vin?" she pushed.

JD scowled. "Can’t teww ya. I ‘romised." And with that the boy quit talking.

Mary mulled over what more she had gleaned. It seemed they’d assumed a lot about Vin’s history. They’d assumed he’d gone right from Texas to his aunt and then to the orphanage. But, if she were to understand what JD was saying, it seemed as though Vin had taken a detour, or rather been taken on a detour, and had one day...what? Just shown up at his aunt’s doorstep? What a mystery this was turning out to be.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was standing by the livery, watching as an ageing white-haired man with a red nose and neck made arrangements with Darry for the temporary up-keep of his horse. As Vin listened, he couldn’t help but notice that Darry spoke a little like Ezra, though he knew Ezra didn’t use all of those bad words. Darry was bigger too, gruffer. He had longer hair and a goatee to match.

At this point Darry had untied him. He knew Vin wouldn’t run. Not then. And maybe he didn’t want the citizens to see how he was treating the boy. Not that it seemed many of the citizens of this town would care much how Darry was treating him. They seemed to take note of him because he was a child and as far as Vin could tell...the only child in the town. Sadly, he didn’t figure he would find many resources here.

With a sinking feeling, he slumped against the corral fence watching a big, blaze-faced black gelding that looked just as trapped as Vin felt. He became so mesmerized by the animal that he completely lost track of the nearby conversation. Slowly, painfully aware of his bruises, he climbed until he could wrap his folded arms over the top of the barrier surrounding the corral. The horse pranced back and forth, tossing his head and snorting. It would calm momentarily and then prance rapidly to the other side of the enclosure, coming up on the fence as though to jump it and then halt, releasing frustrated snorts.

Vin felt just like that horse –so much frustration and no way to tell it to anyone and no one to listen even if he could. Vin sighed, copying the horse. The young observer didn’t know the sound would catch the horse’s attention but it did. The horse stilled almost immediately and turned in the corral to face the town’s new visitor. For several moments the horse and boy seemed to stare right through each other and then slowly, the gelding began to approach, pawing every few feet at the ground. Eventually they were nose to nose and Vin reached out to gently rub his hand up the horse’s long face. The moment was broken when Vin felt a hand fist in his collar and yank him off the railing to the ground.

"Boy, stay away from that horse. If that thing bites your hand off we’re both in trouble." Vin was yanked to his feet and kept close to Darry’s side. The horse had immediately began prancing again. Tossing his head in fury.

"That’s one wild horse," commented his captor to the livery man.

"To be sure," claimed the keeper. "Was once the most gentle horse I had but he ain’t worth a peso, now. Hell, I’d sell him for a peso just to get him off my hands."

"Don’t know that many would take you up on that offer."

"Yeah, reckon I’m stuck with him. Don’t have the heart yet to put him down." Darry snorted, showing exactly what he thought of that. He didn’t figure on finding a soft-hearted man anywhere in Purgatorio. But men here often loved their horses more than anything else, so maybe it did make sense.

Mac McIntish had been a horseman since he was born and he felt as though he’d been in Purgatorio even longer. He was used to seeing hard men, drunk men, and men that could and would kill with just a look. The goateed man approaching him fit just about all of those descriptions but the small child he had in tow was a novelty for this place. Mac dutifully engaged in conversation about the upkeep of the man’s horse but found his attention drawn to the boy time and time again.

He noticed the boy as he climbed up the corral’s railing and watched in fascination at the exchange between the two. Mac had first sold the wild gelding to the owner of one of the town’s many saloons. He still wasn’t sure what that man had done to the horse to turn it from its gentle nature to a fire-breathing dragon but it’d happened. No one in town could even sit on that snake without being thrown in seconds, and plenty of the men had tried. Mac was convinced the horse could judge the character of any man that sat him and since 90% of the town was just plain rotten, they all got tossed.

When Mac watched the man he was speaking with yank the boy off the fence to land painfully in the dirt he could see how the horse might have found a kindred spirit. He made eye contact with the boy as he was rising to his feet and dusting off his pants. The old horseman was surprised to see the boy’s stare go right through him as though he were trying to read his very soul.

In only moments, the big man was dragging the boy away by the collar and Mac was wondering if he’d read correctly the question the boy was trying to ask him with his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

It hadn’t taken long for Kojay to track Roy and his cohorts, for which Chris was glad. He had an anxiousness rising in his stomach that was turning into a constant pain. He wanted to get to Vin and he wanted to get to him now!

"Put your hands in the air and drop your guns." Buck’s voice was clipped and angry. Chris had not heard his friend use that particular tone in long time.

"Then how do you expect us to drop our guns?" The smart Alec questioner was a smiley blond, depicted as the leader by the fact that he had urged his horse a few feet in front of the two others flanking him.

Chris cocked his gun and kneed his horse closer. "You want to try for funny with holes in your chest? Drop your guns." The three men complied and Ezra dismounted to gather them up.

"Get off your horses." Again the three complied with Chris’s terse order. Now he turned to speak to the other peacekeepers, "Separate them. Josiah and Nathan take that one," pointing to Al, "Ezra and Buck take him," pointing to Wix, "Kojay and I’ll take Mr. Funny."

+ + + + + + +

Locked in another room. Not just locked in but tied up. Vin Tanner was starting to think that this would be the story of his life. Things had been different with his aunt and Chris and Buck, if only for a time. Maybe that was all Vin could end up hoping for...the brief times of reprieve between the pain. Maybe that was all his life had to offer.

He squirmed where he sat on the cold wooden floorboards at the foot of the bed. Darry had tied him to the big bed’s frame and his head was pounding mightily. The other bruises were making themselves known as well and his back hadn’t felt this painful in a long, long time. The only good thing about his situation at the moment was the fact that he was alone.

Minutes after checking into what loosely passed as a hotel, the boy had found himself restrained and abandoned. He wasn’t sure where his captor had gone but he wasn’t wishing him back any time soon. Instead, the seven year old pushed down the nauseating pain and took in his surroundings. He needed to have a plan and he needed to think like a Tanner. He tried to remember exactly how it was he’d finally escaped them before.

Jamming the lock had been easy after Vin had time to think about it. He was disappointed in himself that he hadn’t thought) of it before the gypsy suggested that he think. What a simple concept. It had just never occurred to him that he could do it.

Roy often gave him gum. He usually gave it to him when he felt particularly bad about how Darry had been treating him. That had been the hard part of Vin’s plan. Early in the day, during his "skillful" demonstration on showman’s square, where crowds came to see all sorts of acts, including a "Buffalo Bill" imposter and many others, Vin had come close enough to missing his target just to make Darry mad enough to hit hit him just enough to prompt the sympathetic gift from Roy.

It had worked and at dinner that night, Vin had taken the chewy wad out of his mouth and held it tightly in his fist. He watched as Darry locked up their "winnings" and watched again where he hid the key. He obediently walked toward his tiny back room when Roy indicated that he should with a nod. And was relieved when Roy didn’t bat an eye at his fake stumble into the doorjamb where he pushed the sticky wad from his palm into the latch’s catch. He knew Roy would just assume he was dizzy from Darry’s slaps.

In a short time, the two were gone but the boy waited...he waited with butterflies in his stomach, a dry mouth and sweaty palms. He prayed while he waited, forcing himself to be patient. This had to had to.

He waited a full thirty minutes before pushing on the door, breathing a sigh of relief when after an insistent shove it swung open into freedom. The excitement that this just might work sent shivers up and down the boy’s spine. His hands shook as he found the key and unlocked the box in the closet of the main room. Every creek, every sound, caused his heart to leap into his throat.

From the box, Vin took the money. He took the money and the letter that Darry carried from the orphanage when they’d left. The young boy couldn’t read it but he knew it had his aunt’s address in it. He hoped it would be enough. He slipped the items into a small cloth bag with all the food he could carry and silently slipped out the door and down the stairs. Once he hit the bottom and tasted the fresh air of the evening, he wanted to run and never look back. He controlled the urge.

Deliberately, he dragged his feet through the mud in that surrounded the building. He stomped carefully down the street toward the bayou flats and swamp boats...away from the town and its commerce. When his shoes had run out of mud to track, he took them off and carefully padded back to the building where he’d come from.


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