"Little Britches" Universe

Al and Wix, as Chris and the others had learned them to be named, were tied up together under the shade of an unusually large juniper. Ezra was lazily holding a gun on them. Not twenty feet from there Roy leaned lazily in the shade of a large outcropping of boulders. Larabee paced angrily in front of him.

The conversations between the peacekeepers and the kidnappers had quickly determined that Al and Wix were nothing more than followers. They knew nothing, not even Vin’s name. The one that called himself Wix admitted that he’d been sent to North Junction the day before, to wire a man by the name of Darry Carter. All he’d been told to put in the note was that Darry was to meet them to pick up a package. The information Al had was much less useful.

The conversation between Roy or "Happy Roy Haly," as he had introduced himself, hadn’t gone quite the same and it was driving Chris crazy. He wanted to kill him, he wanted him to stop smiling. He wanted him to tell him all the answers to his questions about a missing seven-year-old boy.

"Well now Mister...I don’t know that you could really call it kidnapping...the boy being an orphan an’ all."

"He’s not an orphan," Chris stated emphatically. He was getting unnerved at the man’s verbose nature.

"Really, now?" asked Roy. "You saying he’s yours, then?" He didn’t give Chris a chance to respond before continuing, "...’cause when I first met him, I don’t recall you being there."

Larabee’s jaw clenched so tightly that anyone watching would be cringing at the thought of his grinding teeth. "I’m here now," he said.

"You got some sorta legal claim? Way I see it, the boy’s a runaway. I simply returned him to his previous guardian."

Chris tried to ignore what the man was inferring and grasp at the information being offered. "Darry Carter?"

"That’s right."

"Where did he take him?" There was a long pause after Chris’s question. Roy mulled over in his head what he thought he should do. If he were honest with himself he was feeling a bit guilty for giving the boy to the likes of Carter, but staring down the face of the cold faced, darkly dressed man had him wondering if the boy had been any safer in this man’s custody and he thought that maybe he’d taken in Vin for the same reasons that Darry had.

However, Vin wasn’t really the one in danger from the black-clad man’s wrath. He was and in the interest of self-preservation, he decided to submit with a sigh. "I reckon ol’ Darry was plannin’ on takin’ the boy on down to Mexico. Reckon Purgatorio would be the right place to start."

Larabee glanced to his left, catching Kojay’s eye. He wanted to know if he thought Roy was telling the truth. Kojay gave a slight nod, which Chris returned. "Boys," he called, "lets get going. Josiah, Ez, take those two back to Four Corners and wire the Judge. Mr. Haly will be coming with the rest of us." He could see that Josiah and Ezra wanted to stay with the main group but weren’t arguing about Chris’s order, for which he was grateful.

"I answered your questions, Mr. Larabee but you didn’t answer mine." Roy knew he was pushing the man but something was driving him to know what this man’s motivations were.

Chris looked at him blankly.

"You know...about taking legal claim. You going to be the boy’s father? Is that little tyke really going to be better off with you than with Darry?"

Chris didn’t have to answer this. He didn’t have to listen to this low life’s accusations. Something, however, compelled him to answer and defend himself. "Vin Tanner belongs with us. I know how to be a father. I can be the father Vin needs and if I can’t, we’ll find the family that can."

"The family that can? You honestly think that a happy little ma and pa family is going to be enough for a kid like that? There is no way they’d be able to keep him from men like Darry." Roy had the feeling he was saying too much but since he was on a roll, continued, "But you could, couldn’t ya? Oh yeah, that’s right. You know how to be a father because you were a father once before...weren’t you?" Happy Roy Haly was sure he would be smiling with a few less teeth after Larabee’s fist laid him out and he was more than surprised that when he counted, he found all of them in place.

+ + + + + + +

Straining against his bindings, seven-year-old Vin Tanner, marksman extraordinaire, could just see out the window. He could see that there was a small balcony outside his hotel room. It wasn’t as big as the one he’d fold himself onto to listen to the gypsy’s stories in New Orleans but he thought it might be big enough to help him with the loose plan he was forming in his brain.

He’d been tied and alone for hours now. He wasn’t anxious to see Darry again but he was starting to wonder if he would ever come back. The anxiousness of waiting was always hard and he thought back to the last time that he’d really had to do it, when his freedom had depended on it.

Joe Standing Hawk had always told Vin that the best way to win a game was to do the opposite of what the other would think you to do. He knew when he was making his plan that Darry would expect him to run as far away as possible. It was for that reason he decided to not run far at all. Just one floor down to the gypsy’s rickety castle. It smelled weird to the boy but he was willing to ignore that in exchange for being hidden.

She’d been waiting for him, opening the door before he even had the chance to knock. She read the letter from the orphanage for him and then copied down the address of his aunt onto a separate peace of paper. Darry had often used the letter to prove that he had legal claim to the boy and Vin didn’t want to chance someone sending him back to Darry because they thought he belonged there. When the old gypsy was finished, she threw it, envelope and all, into the fire and hid Vin among the trinkets of her back room.

It was a small room and Vin was certain the claustrophobia would overtake him before long. Still, he forced himself to wait and to be silent. He forced himself to be calm, even when he heard Darry and Roy return. Even when he heard their shouting, their searching, and their pounding feet on the stairs. They pounded up and down the stairs many times that night after their fruitless searches for the missing boy. Vin’s stomach tightened a little more each time but it never occurred to them to look in the "crazy woman’s" downstairs room.

The group traveling south toward Purgatorio was moving much slower than any of them would have liked but for the safety of the horses, they had to keep their desire to push in check. It was early evening and Chris was lost in thought as he noted the gorgeous sunset from his cantering horse. He found it bothersome that a day could be so beautiful when storms raged in his head and heart.

Buck had taken up riding next to the trussed up Haly, who was riding next to Chris. He was contemplating the amount of territory that they’d covered that day. He was shocked about how much they’d ridden and the amount of land he knew they would still cover. Exhaustion was pulling at him but he knew they couldn’t stop, wouldn’t stop, until their missing boy was back at home. He’d overheard Chris’ words with Haly and was secretly glad that the kidnapper had been able to get his old friend to admit what the rest of them had not.

Wilmington was watching Chris now, noticing how lost in thought he was. He hoped that Haly’s words hadn’t shaken him too much. He hoped that the memories of Adam weren’t causing him to have second thoughts about his earlier declaration of being Vin’s father. With effort he pushed those concerns out of his head and turned his mind to the other questions that were as of yet unanswered.

Who was Darry Carter? Why did he want Vin and how had the boy ended up with him in the first place? With a sidelong glace at their prisoner, he decided he would ask but Chris beat him too it. They were far enough away from Ezra and Kojay that only the three of them could hear the conversation.

"You said that this Darry person had been Vin’s guardian before. When and how?" It was like Chris to be laconic and straight to the point but, if Haly was phased by the demanding demeanor, he didn’t show it.

"The way Darry told it to me, he’d worked for the boy’s family for a time...saw the boy in an orphanage gettin’ on a year later and took custody. Don’t reckon the boy was any worse off with Darry than in that place."

"What happened?" It was Buck’s turn to ask a question and it came out much less threatening.

Roy turned a brilliant smile on him and told not exactly the whole truth, "Well, it seems he had an aunt somewheres up in the North. Ended up with her, I reckon."

"If you and this Darry actually thought you had legal claim to Vin, why the kidnapping?"

"Ah...well, Darry and me have been looking for that boy ever since we figured his aunt was dead," another half-truth. "Darry especially...maybe it weren’t exactly legal and maybe Darry ain’t the best a folks but if it weren’t Darry comin’ for that boy it’d be someone else. Ain’t a boy like that comes along every day. Talent is talent. Eventually someone’s gonna want to capitalize on it. It’s the American way."

Chris actually agreed with part of Haly’s statement but he had the feeling that the reason he thought Vin was so unique was very different than the reason that this man did. He didn’t say anything but his confusion must have been evident.

"Well all I’m sayin’ is ya can’t blame us for wanting him."

"Yes, I can," said Chris, not letting a beat pass between statements, "I don’t know for what sick and twisted intention you have or had for him but I can blame you for it."

"Good glory! Good dang stars in don’t even know, do you? You don’t have the slightest clue what I’m talking about," Haly said and took his life in his hands and actually began to laugh, continuing, "here you claim to be the boy’s guardian and you don’t even know. How do you plan to protect him from the big bad world if you don’t even know. Here I thought for a minute that you boys actually knew the kid...that you knew what you were talking about. You think that kid is sitting with Darry waiting for you to barrel down and rescue him? That kid don’t say much but he knows what’s what."

"You better explain what you’re talking about, Mister Happy." Buck was growling.

Haly shook his head. If he owed that kid anything at all, and he probably did for all that he’d taken from him, it was to keep his secret since it seemed the boy hadn’t been freely giving the information. If the seven-year-old hadn’t shown these men or told them what he could do, he didn’t figure he should be the one to enlighten them. Happy Roy Haly could demonstrate some honor. "No way...threaten me all ya like...if your boy’ ain’t said nothing, I sure ain’t gonna." He was smiling again but this time was actually partially disgusted. "I ain’t the best of men but at least I’m honest about my intentions. Tell me something, Larabee...why do you want that boy?"

Chris said nothing. He was starting to regret having this conversation with this particular low-life. But before he could stop it, the low-life continued.

"Hell, I don’t figure what we wanted ‘im for is much more unmoral than you wanting him to replace your dead son. It still comes down to what’s in it for you." Chris’ jaw clenched and he saw red.

"You don’t know anything about my dead son." It was said in a voice of steel, and then in an unnatural need to defend himself, he continued, "We were just holding onto the boys until we find a family that will take ‘em both but it started to be more than that. Vin is special and I want Vin for being Vin," the black-clad man justified, wondering why he felt he had to defend himself to this lowlife kidnapper.

"Ha, Darry wants him for being Vin too. And ya know as long as he can do what he does...people are gonna come for him. What do you plan to do with that little tyke? What do you really know about him? You just hanging on to him until a good family comes along? You think he don’t know that? Feel it? I don’t know a whole bunch about kids but I know that one can read a situation like a book. If you plan on keeping him...for whatever reasons, you’d better tell him. I’ll repeat myself, Larabee. Don’t know why I’m telling you this but you should know if you plan to be that boy’s guardian...a regular little old family ain’t gonna be able to protect what that boy’s got and as long as he’s got it there will me men like Darry Carter who’ll come for him." For a slightly gregarious, nothing ruffles my feathers, criminal, Roy was sounding pretty insightful.

What did Vin have? And was Roy Haly right? In part of his mind, Chris had kept waiting to see if Vin would settle more, open up more...he thought that if he saw the boy do that, he might know then whether it would be right to keep him, that unconsciously, he’d been waiting for that as a sign. But if this man was right, Vin was waiting for the same thing...waiting for the assurance that he could settle...that he could stop worrying about the next gigantic shift in his life. How could he get comfortable and totally trust them if he wasn’t sure where he would be handed next? Did Vin, knowing about Adam as he did, really think that the gunslinger was solely keeping him around to resurrect the memory of his dead child? Larabee was uncomfortable admitting that there was so much that he didn’t know about the boy and hadn’t bothered to find out. What was worse was that Roy knew and wasn’t about to tell him.

"He’ll be with us," Chris stated firmly. "Vin will be with us. We’ll get him back and we won’t lose him again." The declaration was firm and after he said it there was a flash of black as he rode away from the conversation preventing any disputations from being made.

+ + + + + + +

"Billy honey...I don’t think JD is feeling up to playing tonight. Besides, it’s been a long day already and I think we should turn in early." Mary had said it gently. She knew her son was only trying to cheer up the despondent boy but he wasn’t in a mood to be cheered up. She hoped that the peacekeepers would return soon with good news. If they didn’t, she knew neither herself nor the dark haired five-year-old would be sleeping at all that night or any night.

Mary watched concerned as JD slid a few feet away from Billy to wrap his arm around the porch’s support beam. He had sat there most of day, staring into the distance where he obviously hoped his cousin would appear. Billy complied with his mother’s request and retreated from the darkening town into the house.

His mother lingered, wanting to say something...anything to the boy. She hoped she wasn’t overstepping her bounds when she asked him one more question, "JD?" He actually turned to look at her, "Who did you promise...who did you promise to not tell about Vin?"

JD seemed to consider the question for a long time before finally considering it to be safe to answer. "My ma," he said, turning his gaze back out into the street. "She said we had to keep him safe and I had to keep it ma." The last part was a whisper and Mary knew he’d say no more.

For his part, JD was remembering the one and only time he’d seen Vin fire a rifle. It had been a windy day and somehow a wolf had gotten into the large pasture where his mother’s employer kept his many horses before he lost most of his money. The estate’s workers weren’t sure what they should do with the creature and they all tried to get the horses into the corral before they could get attacked.

"From all appearances, the wolf was rabid," the workers had said. JD didn’t know what that meant but it sounded ominous and horrible. He watched fascinated as his older cousin loaded a rifle and entered the pasture. He climbed up onto the fence, feeling the wind of the gray afternoon blow his hair back. He felt the presence of his mother as she came to stand beside him and heard the questioning voices of the men as they wondered what was going on. "What was that little boy doing with a gun?" they murmured.

Vin had raised the long rifle to his shoulder and he seemed to meld with it, despite its largeness. From one breath to the next there was a crack of sound and JD watched as his cousin flew back to land hard on the ground. He knew intuitively that his cousin hadn’t missed. One of the stable boys came running towards them proclaiming that Vin had hit it "right between the eyes."

Later, when his mother had been dying, he remembered what she told him. "JD," her voice came out in a whisper, "You can’t ever tell anyone what you saw Vin do." Her articulation was raspy, not light and springy like it had been. "Remember what I told you about the bad man?" He had nodded. "He might come again if people know what Vin can do. Keep it secret, JD. Keep yourselves safe. He must never pick up a rifle...promise me you won’t tell...the bad man could come back if you do..."

He had promised and so had Vin. Not once since that moment had either ever mentioned it.

+ + + + + + +

By the time Darry came stumbling into the hotel room it had been dark outside for a long time and in the distance Vin could hear the rumbling of thunderclouds. Obviously, the sky was not finished with the monsoon type rains that had been hitting the territory for weeks. Vin liked the rain. There was a freedom and freshness about it that he loved to feel and loved to smell. The smell of pre-rain had been strong in the room, blowing freely in through the half-open window, but was swiftly overpowered by the alcohol coming from Carter’s breath.

"Vinny, Vinny," he slurred, "I brought you something to eat." He yanked at the knots that would undo the boy’s wrists not noticing the cringe that he prompted by allowing the biting ropes to pinch into the boy’s skin during the process. Once freed, Tanner tried to rub some feeling back into his limbs. "It’s over there." Darry jerked his chin to the right, indicating a plate of unidentifiable leftovers on the corner table.

Vin simply nodded, waiting for the big man to step aside and give him clear passage to the food. He didn’t though. The two stood there staring at each other for a long minute. "Ain’t you got nothing to say?" demanded Darry.

Vin shook his head.

"Not even a thank you?" Darry slapped him hard but Vin had been expecting it and avoided most of the force by bending with the blow. "Ingrate," accused Darry, but stepped aside so that the slight boy could shimmy past him and cautiously approach the food. Vin didn’t know why but he was hungry and he thought that maybe the food would calm his anxious stomach as the beans had before.

He ate with careful precision and watched warily as Darry latched the door, sliding a chair against it for good measure. When Vin had finished, the bearded man once again flicked his chin to where he had laid a blanket between the bed and the wall with a window, obviously believing keeping himself between Vin and the door would prevent an attempt at escape.

Vin moved over to the folded blanket with obedience and real fear. He laid himself down and watched as Darry shed his jacket and threw himself across the bed. He hitched in a breath realizing that he wouldn’t be tied up...he wouldn’t be tied up. He forced air in and out of his lungs and the anticipation of waiting settled deep in his stomach. He tried to push his mind toward other things as he waited for this nightmare giant to fall asleep.

The next morning, the morning after Vin’s escape to they gypsy’s downstairs apartment, early when she usually did, the old woman packed up her cart, with scarves and trinkets and little boy. She rolled it carefully out of her room, past Roy’s slumped form on the steps and past Darry’s pacing rage on the boardwalk to head into the thoroughfares of the city. They never even looked at her. And if asked later, would not have been able to pinpoint whether they had seen her come and go or not.

Vin himself realized later, after he was northbound for Boston, that even though he’d said, "thank you, ma’am," and given her some of the bills from his bag, that he’d never even known her name.

Vin counted in his head the seconds between Darry’s snores. He’d been snoring in a regular rhythm for what the boy figured was close to an hour. Taking deep silent breaths he braced himself for what he was about to do. "Sit up," he ordered himself inside the silence of his head, and then struggled carefully to do so. "Stand up," he continued. He hadn’t realized how dizzy he’d become as he did stand and he waited several moments for the dancing stars in his eyes to disperse. His body ached and there was still a crust of blood on his chin from the bloody nose he’d been given.

"Walk," his brain insisted. Putting one foot in front of the other he did so, making his way carefully over to the window. He didn’t want to make any unnecessary sound by trying to push it open further than it was. Instead, he carefully eased himself through the opening until he was standing outside on the window’s small ledge, staring three stories down into an alley, allowing a warm wind to tug at his body. He waited again for the dizziness to pass and then with precision, pulled himself onto the roof by shifting guardedly up the short drain pipe. Once safe on top, he contemplated the virtues of staying there because he didn’t think Darry would expect it. He rethought that idea as he considered his position. He was quite possibly the only child in town and no matter where he hid, he would not be hard to find. He had to get out. Fingering the pesos Roy had laid in his pocket, he made his way silently to the stairs. He hoped the rest of his plan would work.

+ + + + + + +

Mac was awake and waiting when he saw the silent boy skitter out of the shadows to approach him. He knew then that he’d read the kid’s questioning gaze correctly. He tried to look non-threatening as the stoic child stepped forward and held his hand out, palm upward, without making a single noise.

The old horseman leaned forward to see what was there. He saw from the moonlight that peeked through the clouds, five shiny pesos. "Ahh," he said, "you’ve come to buy yourself a one peso horse, is that it?"

Cautiously, the boy nodded.

"Well, I’ll tell ya give me the other four pesos and I’ll throw in the tack to ride him." It wasn’t a hard thing to do. In a town like this, a lot of men rode in that never rode out again. Dead men needed no saddles and it was fairly well understood in the town that if the horse was already in the care of the liveryman, he had claim to what the dead man left there.

Mac could see the boy was gauging his proposal. He knew he’d accepted it when he held out his palm higher, offering his five shiny pesos over to Mac’s taking.

"You want me to saddle old Peso up right now?" he asked.

Again no words came forth but the crystal wide eyes stared at him hard and after another brief hesitation, the boy nodded.

Fifteen minutes later, Mac waited anxiously to see if the gelding would throw his new owner. For some reason he wasn’t surprised when the blaze-faced horse stood as still and as calm as stone when the boy settled on his back. "You know where you’re goin’, kid?"

A sheepish expression passed over the young face as he shrugged his shoulders.

"Okay, listen," Mac searched the sky through the inter-mitten clouds and found the north star, and continued, pointing, "Do you see that star?" He waited as the boy tracked his finger toward the sky and gave a nod. "That’s never moves...its always in the north. You want to get out of want to go North. Find a bush or a boulder in the distance and line it up with that star...follow it until you get there and then pick another...but always north...okay?" The boy nodded. Mac took one more minute to make sure the boy could find the star again if he lost it, watched the silent boy nod again in understanding and then slapped the horse on the rump sending the kid away at a gallop.

Thirty minutes later Mac felt the steel of a six-shooter against his head. "I see you’re missing a have five minutes to saddle mine...if six pass, you’re dead."

Mac nodded mutely to acknowledge Darry’s control and saddled the horse in record time. He was surprised that Darry didn’t shoot him but not surprised at the pistol whip that left him unconscious on the ground where he was found only a short while later by an Indian, two dangerous looking gunmen, a concerned looking black man with knifes on his back, and a trussed up haggard, but happy looking blond. He made a mental note to stay out of everyone’s troubles and in the future to mind his own business.

"Well now, son, where is it you’re traveling to all by yourself?" The station master in Boston had a kind face but Vin was leery of him anyway, as he had been of all people during his long journey.

"I’m going to live with my aunt," he asserted in a small but confident voice.

"Your aunt, huh? Do you know where she lives?"

Vin could see that the man was eyeing a police officer across the station. He could see the man trying to decide if Vin was telling the truth. Quickly, he nodded, pulling out the paper the gypsy had written for him. The station master read it carefully and then smiled. To Vin’s relief he simply commented that they would have to find him some transportation.

That had turned out to be easy. Vin handed over some of the bills to the driver of a wagon headed in the direction he was going. There weren’t many bills left but he hoped that wouldn’t matter. The driver also had a kindly face. "Your aunt must work for old Mr. Peters," he said conversationally. "He’s a nice man. One of the richest in this old city." Vin didn’t care. He just wanted to be there. He still worried...would his aunt take him in? Did she even want him?

Vin rode hard all through the night clinging to Peso’s back through bouts of dizziness and exhaustion. He knew that what the liveryman had told him was true. He needed to go north. Four Corners was north. After a while though, the clouds had thickened and he’d lost the stars. He traveled by instinct until the sun began to rise in the east and he was certain again of his direction.

The early light by the sun didn’t last long, however, as dark clouds closed it out and the boy found himself not only fighting the pain in his body and the murkiness in his head but the growing cold of the wind and the pelting drops of rain. He tried desperately to cling to his new horse but his body was fighting a losing battle. It wasn’t much longer until his hands slackened their grip and he slipped bonelessly from the saddle.

+ + + + + + +

Nettie Wells had lived in these parts for over forty years. She’d seen a lot of strange things. She’d watched the land, people and countryside, change. She’d watched the death of her husband, her son, her brother in law and finally her youngest sister. She wasn’t sure she was ready to take up the task of raising her sister’s little daughter but she had enjoyed having the company of the four year old these past few weeks. She found herself constantly straining to hear the chatter that little Casey made to herself wherever she went.

At the moment, Nettie could tell Casey was over by the chickens. She didn’t need to see through the sheets she was taking off the clothes line to know that Casey was getting dirt all over her clean frock and that the chickens were not enjoying her company but Nettie didn’t care. "Let her get dirty," she thought to herself, "let her get into trouble." Occasionally kids were just supposed to do that.

She hummed to herself as she moved the basket of wet laundry down the line and scowled at the gathering clouds in the distance. She had hoped the rains would stay at bay long enough for the bedding to dry completely but already fat rain drops were beginning to pelt the ground. Quickly and efficiently she finished cleaning the line and carried the basket up to the porch. Once there she strained again to hear Casey’s prattle but couldn’t find it.

Stepping of the porch to walk around the house and locate her niece, she was met by a most peculiar sight. Just beyond the rise of her near pasture she could see a large black horse running along the ridge and snorting. It would get to one end of the blockade and start back the other way. She’d never seen a horse trying to break into a corral before. Glancing to her left she noticed that little Casey had climbed up on top of the hay bales by the barn and was watching the same sight she was.

"Nettie, Nettie," cried the little girl, always liking to repeat names twice, "I see a boy."

The older woman looked at her quizzically and then came over so she could view the scene from the same angle. She caught her breath at the sight of the prone boy just beyond the dip of the fence. After demanding that her niece "stay put," she quickly crossed through the fallow pasture and through the fence on the other side. As she approached, the snorting horse slowed and neared, leaning over the child in a defiant stance.

"Now listen here, Mr. Horse," Nettie stated in a soothing voice, "I just want to help that boy and I can’t with you threatening to bite me, got it?" Step by step she drew nearer until she could gently grasp the horse’s bridle and lead him away from the boy to release him into the pasture. Once on the other side of the fence the horse began its pattern of snorting and pounding his hoofs on the ground. Nettie ignored him as she reached the boy and gently turned him over. Bruises and cuts were evident on his face and his breaths were shallow. He was wet, which made her think he had been riding through the rains that were now fast approaching her homestead. A million and one questions popped into her mind but she knew she wouldn’t get the answers to any of them right then.

"Lets get you inside, boy," she said, knowing he couldn’t hear her but she hoped he would be able to soon, as she gathered him in her arms and carried him the distance to her home.

With trepidation, little Vin Tanner knocked on the enormous oak doors of Mr. Peters’ estate. A butler answered and Vin irresolutely stated his purpose, aware that his voice was shaking.

"Laurie Dunne?" stated the man. "You’re her nephew? Why I do believe she thought you were dead." And it was true because when Laurie Dunne saw him she was so surprised she almost fainted. She overcame the impulse in time to pull Vin into a tight, welcoming embrace as she sobbed onto his shoulder.

Chris Larabee wanted to pound his fists against anything in reach. He wanted to scream and yell and throw things. He knew he had to keep focused. He knew he had to keep his emotions under control. He knew he had to get Vin back healthy, happy, safe and unhurt. He knew he had to convince Vin that he was home where he belonged and he wouldn’t be leaving again. Not ever. Not if Chris could help it.

It was just so maddening to the gunslinger that after their hard ride into Mexico, they’d had to turn right back around and head the other way. Maddening that they had missed the escaping young boy by less than an hour. Maddening that somewhere between them and him there was the dirty coyote that had held Vin captive in the first place.

With an anguished supplication to whatever powers were listening, Chris spurred his horse on to move faster. He refused to be too late again. He refused to accept it could even be a possibility.

+ + + + + + +

"Thump." Nettie wasn’t caught off guard by the sound that came from the far bedroom. She’d laid the boy in there and he had tossed and turned fitfully ever since, barely allowing her to strip him of his soaked outer clothing, flinching and tossing his head whenever she attempted to clean off the crusted blood on his face. She was somewhat distraught for not knowing what else to do. She entered the room to see Casey’s small Bible had been thrown the ground. She lifted it back up and placed it carefully on the table before settling beside the boy.

"Shhh, honey. You’re gonna be just fine. You go right on back to sleep now, okay?" His eyes were blinking steadily. She brushed his drying hair back as she spoke. Who was his mother? Where had he come from? "Shhh now, honey...we’ll get you home real soon." She sighed in mild relief as she watched him still within her soft touch.

Life at Mr. Peters’ manner was very different from their ranch in Texas. Everyone was a lot more formal and sometimes Vin felt very out of place. He had told his aunt some about Darry. She’d worried, he could see that she worried but instead of saying anything, she just hugged him and told him she was glad he was safe...and he felt in a way he hadn’t thought he would feel again.

He started to relax, until he noticed little by little that his aunt was losing energy and one afternoon during church he admitted to himself that his aunt was coughing much more than was normal. She’d had the cough for weeks but the bark was turning more pronounced. Her voice was turning raspy like his mother’s had and he knew that he shouldn’t be but he was angry. He was angry, with her, because he knew she was going to die and leave him alone again.

"Ma?" JD asked during the carriage ride home, "Are you sick?"

"I’m okay, baby...don’t you worry about me." The words had placated her son but not her nephew. He was staring out the window with clenched teeth and hard eyes. She sighed, knowing that he knew. When they reached the estate, the carriage driver left the wagon hitched to a rail in front of the stables. JD bounded out to go play but Vin didn’t follow. For a long time he sat with his aunt in the empty carriage.

"Vin?" she asked tentatively.

He didn’t acknowledge her for a long time but finally spoke. "You’re dying," he accused.

"I hope not, baby...I don’t want to lose you...but I am sick. I wish I weren’t, Vin, but I am."

"You’re going to leave us." His voice was still hard but when he noticed that she didn’t respond he at last turned to look at her. She was crying, crying hard and the boy’s compassionate side could be angry no longer. He allowed himself to be drawn into her embrace and without meaning to, started to cry himself.

"Vin, I don’t want to go, do you understand that?"

He didn’t want to but he did and he nodded, wiping at the salty wetness on his face.

"You’re such a smart boy, Vin. Your ma and pa must have taught you real good. You’re a good boy and I’m so proud to be your aunt. Please promise me that you’ll look after my son. Promise me that you’ll keep him safe. Stay together...promise me? I don’t want him to get hurt like..."

" I was." It was the first time Vin had said it out loud. He didn’t like to talk about Darry...ever.

"Yeah, you were. I’m so sorry that I didn’t find you." She hugged him again until he pulled back.

"I promise," he said, his voice thick. He hoped it was promise he could keep.


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