"Little Britches" Universe

It wasn’t long after Nettie left the resting Vin that he became fully cognizant. He was surprised and disoriented to discover himself lying on a soft bed with warm blankets, the smell of fresh bread and something spicy wafting through the open doorway. He took stock of his surroundings. Discovering his now mud-free shirt and pants were laid out in front of the room’s tiny fire. He dizzily approached them and pulled them on.

His boots he couldn’t locate but he could now hear voices beyond the door. He couldn’t hear what they were saying but the older voice sounded both soft and strong, just like his ma’s. With caution he opened the door and crept down the short hallway to peer into the kitchen where the voices were coming from. After only a short moment, the woman turned to look at him.

"Well hello there, honey. I didn’t know you were awake." Her face was kind as she spoke but Vin didn’t know what to make of her. Where had she come from?

"Son, why don’t you come in and take a seat and I can get you some soup?"

He was pretty sure he was being rude but he didn’t know who she was, let alone the little girl sucking her thumb by the woman’s skirts. He slowly shook his head to decline the offer. The woman approached and crouched down in front of him. He wanted to retreat but didn’t know to where, so he stayed still.

"My name’s Miss Nettie Wells and that there is my niece Casey. What’s your name?"

Vin almost wanted to tell her but felt his throat tighten up and settled on just staring at her and holding his arms in tight to his body.

"Don’t want to talk, huh?" She reached out to touch his face and he flinched, "Well I don’t blame looks like you’ve had a rough time of it. Sometimes, when I’m having bad days I don’t want to talk to nobody either. Can you tell me, are you from around here?"

He wasn’t sure how to answer that. He wasn’t entirely sure where exactly he’d ended up so he just shrugged, wincing at some pain in his side. He cast his eyes around wondering if this could be some sort of dream or if Darry wasn’t waiting around some corner. At the thought of Darry he suddenly remembered his horse. His horse. He’d bought and paid for it. Where was it? He darted his eyes around faster and faster and slipped back from the woman who was touching his face to find the door to go out.

When he reached the front door and flung it open he was relieved to see the gelding dancing in the small corral. A gentle hand touched his shoulder. "Are you worried about that horse of yours? I took care of him right after I took care of you. He’s a fine one but not to keen on being penned up."

Vin looked at her and nodded. She eased an arm around his shoulder and started to lead him to the kitchen, saying, "Its okay, son, I don’t know where you’ve been but you’re safe here."

He wanted to believe her. He was thinking that he liked this woman. He gave one more hesitant glance toward the closing door as he allowed her to lead him toward the kitchen. He tried to cry out at the shadow he saw pass over the window but his throat was pinched again. He stopped in his tracks and stood frozen as the door was kicked inward. Darry Carter entered looking full of menace and malevolence.

Vin was surprised that Miss Nettie didn’t scream. He was surprised that she instinctively pulled him to her. He was not surprised that Darry easily overpowered her in order to yank him out of her grip, nor was he surprised by the hard fist that set his nose bleeding again and his side to fire up its previously under control pain.

+ + + + + + +

To say that Chris Larabee was relieved that they were drawing so near to Four Corners would have been an understatement. Ever since the group left the ugly shadow that called itself Purgatorio, equipped with fresh horses from an only slightly begrudging liveryman, Chris had felt as though he were running a race. The unfairly designated prize had become Vin. During their swift chase, both Buck and Nathan had commented upon Vin’s apparent ingenuity and ability to endure. Their leader knew they were trying to give him hope as well as convince themselves but the fact remained that somewhere, a nearing eight-year-old boy had been forced to make decisions and survive burdens that no boy should ever have to endure.

It was pure agony for Chris to think that Vin’s kidnapper might overtake him before they would but the nearer they drew to town and the more Chris believed Vin could make it, the more he believed they’d ride in and see him sitting safe and sound with their resident gambler and preacher. It heartened him that Vin was running towards Four Corners. He hoped the boy believed he was running towards home.

"Chris..." Buck had called his name at least three time and finally risked injury by reaching over to catch the horse’s bridle. Both mounts reared to a stop. It was then that Chris noticed that Nathan was dismounting and holding tight to the bridle of their taxed prisoner. The blithe blond had been wondrously silent during the pursuit, for which they were all wondrously grateful.

The trail had been amazingly easy to follow, even in the rain, owing to the sturdy yet deeply impressionable mud. The prints of the horse Vin had "purchased" and that of his pursuer had sunk deep into the clay-like material typical to the surrounding farmers and homesteaders of Four Corners. Puddles had filled the markings but not washed them out.

Kojay was now kneeling by some of these deep indentations, where he was soon flanked by the other three men. They’d observed over the last miles what the tracks of Vin’s horse had been indicating. The mount had begun to slow dramatically, the imprints indicative of a beast shifting his stance to even out a weight on its back. The child was most likely losing his control over the horse, meaning he was at his limit but none had wanted to claim their observations as truth. They waited now for their tracker to spell it out for them.

He did so with as few words as he possibly could. His gaze fixed on the different horizons in turn. Finally he faced the anxious and exhausted men, and said, "He could not have lasted much longer."

Chris’s heart weakened in the wake of the harsh sounding statement. They couldn’t be too late, not after all this.

"They will not be far," Kojay encouraged, speaking directly to Chris. He’d caught the downcast face and read its despair. "It would not be wise of us to give up now."

Chris felt both Buck and Nathan clamp a hand on his shoulders and grip their patronage. The worried leader gave a nod. I won’t lose now...I won’t lose now...not now...not too late...not too late...not too late. The mantra reverberated in his brain again and again. As he mounted his horse, he caught his old friend’s eye and knew the rogue was seeing into his soul and suffering the same torment. Neither one of them would accept being too late. Not this time.

+ + + + + + +

Darry Carter watched in obsessive disgust as the small boy struggled to gain his feet from where he’d dropped him. This boy had to learn a lesson, one very important lesson. Darry was in charge and always would be. Ever since he’d seen the youngster’s incredible talent, he knew that he could harness it and he had done what he set out to do. Loss in this situation was not acceptable. His need to harness Tanner had gone beyond a plan for money. It had gone beyond a quest of exploitation. It had gone beyond fixation.

Ever since the boy had vanished from New Orleans, things had gone downhill for the hustler. The boy had wounded the man’s pride, confidence and power all in one blow. Power to him was the important thing. Power was everything. Roy had told him once, months after the kid’s escape that, "he’d been mean before but he now he was downright monstrous." Carter hadn’t appreciated the statement and it wasn’t long before even his happy-go-lucky-nothing-can-phase-me friend had fled the picture.

The man’s escape had not been unlike Tanner’s. Darry had threatened him about leaving, countless times but had come home in the dead of night to find him gone. And then there was that deal with Sanders. Roy had left before they could follow through with the job. Darry’s vendetta to recover the money Haly lost him had become all consuming. But Vin. Now that Vin was back in the picture, Darry could gain back what he’d lost. He wouldn’t lose it again.

In one swift motion Darry had his gun unholstered and pointed dangerously at the stoic woman’s head, preventing her from fulfilling her intent to sweep past him to the aid of his boy. She froze and glared at him, shifting her eyes toward the struggling child only once. From the doorway of the kitchen a loud wail sounded. Casey Wells had picked up on the danger. She was almost five years old and she was making her displeasure known.

Carter swung his colt till it was straight in the face of the little girl. Nettie stepped forward. "If you want to point a gun at someone, mister I suggest you keep it pointed at me. No power was ever brought by threatening little children. Now you best tell me what it is you want." The woman held out her hand and her little niece came scurrying to her side, latching onto her leg with fisted hands. Vin had made it to his knees and was breathing heavily.

Darry did adjust the aim of his weapon, saying, "Mighty bold words, comma ma’am. I think you best realize that all the power in this room lies with me and it won’t do for you to be speaking to me like that. I’ve just come for what’s mine." He flicked his chin toward the boy, continuing, "I’ll be collecting him and take my leave. You don’t get in my way and no one will get hurt." Just then a distinct snap of a twig was heard from outside the house. Darry spun around so that the woman and child were in front of him, shielding him from the door. With his free hand, the one not holding the gun, he stretched out to fist his claw into the back of Vin’s shirt. In one swift motion he’d yanked the boy up and over his shoulder, ignoring the gasping breaths he was emitting.

+ + + + + + +

Kojay had been right. The group hadn’t ridden far before they’d approached the outskirts of a homestead. If Chris remembered right it belonged to an old widow by the name of Nettie Wells. Both Buck and Nathan confirmed this information. As they got closer, following the tracks on the fenced outskirts of and overgrown pasture, Kojay dismounted again, kneeling on the crest of a grassy incline, "He fell here. He went no further, not on his own."

Nathan’s healer instincts kicked in. He released a breath in a slow hiss. Every snippet of information the tracker could tell them was further proof that his skills would be needed when and if they caught up with the missing child. He waited with the rest to see what more Kojay could tell them.

The land’s native opened his mouth but was cut off by the shrill shriek of a child. Five heads instantly snapped toward the direction of not too distant house. Without having to give or receive orders, the group bolted toward the dwelling, none of them noticing their slick and content prisoner had slipped his hands from the ropes that had been securing them to the pommel of his saddle.

Chris could see as they neared that there was no back door. Gritting his teeth he gave orders, "Nathan, Buck, take the left...Kojay, you’re with me." Silently they all slipped from their saddles. They could hear voices from within, clipped voices, the muffled wails of a child still distinctive in the silence of the scattered raindrops. Larabee didn’t think the wails belonged to his stoic Vin. They sounded younger. He hoped the unfortunate wails would at least cover the sound of their approach.

Once the four men had disappeared around the edges of the habitation Roy looked back at the horizon. If he ran, these men would hunt him down. He had a feeling that they could be even more persistent then Darry when on a hunt. Coming to a decision, he swung his leg over his mount and dropped to the ground. He approached the black man’s horse and pulled his extra gun and ammunition from the saddle bag. Quietly, he followed the departed men toward the front of the house.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and Nathan crept stealthily around to the left. The both paused to peer into a window but could see nothing, nor could they get it open. Cursing under their breaths, they continued. Buck made eye contact with Chris as they reached the front and passed the porch. Suddenly there sounded a loud "snap." Buck looked down, horrified to see that his boot was responsible for the noise, having landed squarely on a felled branch that had stayed dry enough in the shadow of the house to be capable of snapping.

Without wasting time Buck watched as Chris dashed toward the door. He knew that Nathan wanted to follow but stuck out his arm to hold him back, following Kojay’s lead on the other side of the entrance. If whoever was inside only saw Chris, they might still have the upper hand.

"Show yourself!" shouted a heavy voice from inside.

Larabee slowed as he exposed himself to the man’s visage, his own weapon drawn and pointed. His breath caught as he saw the nervous woman and whimpering little girl blocking his aim. He sucked his air in deeper when he noticed Vin draped over the man’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

"I suggest you drop that weapon, gunslinger, before someone gets hurt." He accentuated his statement by moving his own weapon closer to the woman’s head.

"What are you going to do?" asked Chris, making his voice sound strong. He was worried by the apparition of Vin’s, apparently, unconscious form.

"I’m going to ask you to move out of the way so me and my boy can ride out of here...and if you don’t I’m going to shoot this fine woman."

Chris knew that if he allowed that to happen he may never see Vin again. He refused to allow the chase to progress beyond this point. "You let the boy stay...I’ll let you ride out." He didn’t really mean it, but this was negotiation.

"The boy’s mine," insisted the man, a crazed glimmer in his eye. "He leaves with me."

"Vin Tanner is not yours and he is not leaving with you." The glare Chris sent caused Carter to waver momentarily.

"What’s it to you? You want him for yourself? I say, first come first serve. I had him long before you did, whoever you are... and if you’ve been paying attention, I’m the one making the demands in this situation."

"I don’t think so." The black-clad man’s voice was a low lethal growl. "If you harm anyone here, you won’t be taking one more step alive...I think that clarifies who’s giving orders."

Darry released a guttural chuckle, "Well, well, this all seems to be about one thing, so why don’t we let him decide." The large man swung Vin around in his arm and dropped him on his feet, nudging Nettie threateningly with the barrel of his weapon when it appeared she was going to move. His next words were only for her. "You best get it in you’re head, ma’am, that if you twitch again bullets will start flying and someone’s going to get hurt." She swallowed and nodded but showed no fear.

As soon as the man had swung Vin to the ground, Chris was gratified to see his wide blue eyes indicating that he was conscious, but distressed to see him staggering to stay upright. He believed if it weren’t for the big man’s hand fisted in his collar that he would be in a heap on the ground. "Vin," he mouthed, but the boy didn’t seem to register any particular recognition.

Chris’s focus was drawn away from the boy by Darry’s deep voice. "If you think this kid really wants to come to you, I’ll let him...but he has to do it on his own," the man taunted. "If he can walk from here to there without falling, you can have him. If you make a twitch toward him I’ll shoot this woman...if he falls...I’ll shoot him. A boy ain’t worth much that can’t stand on his own."

What sort of sick and twisted game was this? Chris thought. Nevertheless, the gloves had been thrown down and the gauntlet revealed. He strained to see into Vin’s soul, hoping to see some sign that the boy was trusting him to get him home. However, the wary eyes were giving out nothing. Chris knew they had no choice. "Vin," he called while kneeling down on the step of the porch, ready to catch the child when he approached, "walk to me....walk to me, Vin. You can do it."

Darry was laughing as he let go of the boy’s collar and shoved him forward, disappointed that while Vin wobbled he was somehow able to keep his balance. "Walk to him, Vinny," he mocked, "if you can."

Chris ignored the mockery, keeping his gaze solely on the pained blue-eyed child, trying to transfer his strength to the small body by his gaze alone. Vin weaved and staggered for a moment before maintaining his balance and standing still. His eyes were darting around the room as if looking for other options. He wasn’t moving forward. "Vin....Vin...look at me. Come to me. Walk forward. I won’t let you fall. I won’t let anyone in our family fall."

Tanner finally cast his gaze upward and fixed his gaze on Larabee’s outstretched hand. He looked like he was trying to make a decision. He looked as he did just before he’d opened up and decided to tell Chris his fears from being hit at the orphanage. Shaking, trembling, and scared. Come to me Vin, Chris willed. Come to me!

Steadily, the boy moved forth. It was obvious that staying upright was taking immense effort but he was doing it. Step by step he faltered forward. The random spattering of the slowly falling rain became the only sound in the vicinity of the breathless homestead –that and the shuffle of a child’s unsteady gait.

The boy almost dropped twice but his determination was clear. And suddenly he was there, mere inches from Chris’s hand. His shining eyes burning their way into the man’s soul. Vin blinked, took one more step and surrendered full force against Larabee’s waiting build and the safety it offered. Instantly his head dropped onto the man’s shoulder, no longer being able to hold it up of his on volition. The small figure hung completely limp in his arms.

Larabee released a triumphant huff, casting his eyes up toward the perpetrator of the evil game. What he saw in the man’s face was undiluted rage. The gun in the man’s hand shifted its aim from Nettie to Vin in an instant. Chris didn’t have time to think. He stood and spun around hoping to shield the boy from the bullet he knew was coming.

Buck, Nathan, and Kojay advanced on them as the crack of a gun climaxed the moment. "NO!" Buck’s shout catapulted from his mouth, full of horror. He scrutinized man and boy up and down looking for the resting place of the bullet. He couldn’t find it! Where was it?

A thump from within the house drew his attention. There he saw the woman, Nettie, holding a crying girl in her arms with Darry Carter at her feet, his unfired gun dormant beside his head. Someone had gotten a shot off and killed him. He frantically looked for the source of the bullet. Standing on the porch beside the front room window was Roy. The gun he held was Nathan’s and smoke was still driveling from the barrel. He’d fired through the window, nailing his target.

Buck snapped his own gun up, training it on Roy, noticing that the others with the exception of Chris were doing the same thing. Roy let the gun swing down from one finger before dropping it to the ground and lifting his hands. "I figured...I figured I owed the kid," he said, "Maybe I shoulda done that a long time ago. I ain’t a law abiding man...but I ain’t a killer, or a gunfighter. I’m good with my aim but I ain’t never shot someone before...I owed Vin."

The youngster lifted his head from where it was draped against Chris’s shoulder. With effort he twisted it to look at Roy and then Darry’s dead body and back again. His eyes met Roy’s. He gave a nod then, dropping his head back to Chris’ shoulder and letting the darkness claim him.

It was less than a month later that his aunt had died. Vin had known it was going to happen but it still struck him hard, almost as hard as JD. For the next few nights JD left his little bed to crawl in with his cousin and cry himself to sleep. Vin had to admit he didn’t mind. He didn’t want to be alone.

Mr. Peters was indeed a kind old man but financial trouble of his own kept him from being able to do anything more for the boys but send them to Sister Margaret who claimed she would send them west on the orphan train. The prospect of going west appealed to Vin, but even then they had to spend three weeks at the orphanage and once again, in his efforts to protect and shield his cousin, the young Tanner found himself on the receiving end of an impatient orphan director’s fist.

"Vin? Why is that man always so mean?" JD had asked one night after leaving his own space to curl up with his cousin.

"I don’t know, JD," he answered truthfully.

"Vin? Where we go on the train...will the people be nicer?"

"I hope so, JD...I hope so."

"Vin? Vin, wake up now. Vin, can you hear me?"

Groggy and confused, Vin Tanner opened his eyes. He felt as though his body weighed four tons. Everything felt heavy, including his eyelids. Memories began to rush through his waking brain. It occurred to him then that he should be scared but he felt safe even despite the captive quality of his limbs. He tried to peel his eyes open even further to identify where he’d ended up. Through the haze at the edge of his vision he saw a face. His brain formed a name. Chris.

"Vin...atta boy." Chris’s voice was full of relief. "Can you hear me?"

Vin could. He licked his lips lightly in preparation to answer the question but as he thought to do so something seemed to push down on his chest and make his throat constrict. The words wouldn’t get past his tongue. He knew they wouldn’t and wasn’t sure that he wanted them to. Instead he squeezed his eyes shut and managed a recognizable nod. That seemed to suffice.

He tensed as he felt Chris slip a hand behind his aching head and lift it slightly. For a moment he tried to pull away and lift it on his own. The feeling was returning to his leaden legs and arms. He was feeling the call of independence and control. That was how he was supposed to survive. If he gave in...if he gave his destiny over to someone else it would all tumble out of control. He had to take care of things. He struggled to make things move, struggled to get past the unbearable ache that seemed to permeate his whole being. It was then that fear finally returned. Why couldn’t he move?

"Take it easy," commanded Chris, recognizing the distress on the young face, "You’re okay, Vin. You’re safe. You’re home. Let me help you."

The voice was calming and if only for a moment the boy surrendered to it. His head was lifted higher and a cup was nudged to his mouth. "Drink," Chris’s voice mandated. With wariness he did so, finding relief in the cool liquid. "Good," Chris continued, "that’s good."

He could now distinguish where he was. Nathan’s clinic. He wasn’t exactly thrilled at the realization. The room was small and left him feeling somewhat trapped. He watched as Chris’s body shifted, allowing another face to appear. Nathan, he recognized.

"Hey there," issued the kind voice. "You’ve had a lot of people mighty worried about you. Will you drink some broth for me? We need to get some nourishment in you."

After a brief hesitation, Vin allowed Chris’s hand to slip under his hair again to lift his head. Slowly he drank what they eased into him. It wasn’t long before Chris lowered him back to the pillow, but Vin wouldn’t remember that. He was already asleep.

+ + + + + + +

Chris exited the clinic to find his long time friend eased into a chair with a sleeping five year old curled against his chest.

"How’s Vin?" Buck asked.

Chris could see that the man still had dark circles under his eyes. They’d been through quite an ordeal. The relief of the happy ending hadn’t yet won out over their exhaustion. Buck had been a rock throughout the whole thing, fully supporting him when after Nathan’s precursory exam of the boy at Nettie Wells’ residence, Chris had demanded they return to home immediately. Buck had taken Nettie’s offered blankets, wrapped the shivering child and held him while Chris mounted his horse, took the child and bolted for Four Corners.

Wilmington had even stayed behind, with Kojay for assistance, to ensure the health of Miss Nettie and her niece. He took extra time to clean the mess Darry had left in their home even though he wanted to be heading back to town in Chris’s wake. Even though he’d wanted to be with Vin and make sure JD was okay. It was good to be home. It would be good to done with this. If it truly was done. If this would, in fact, ever truly be over. There were still so many holes.

Chris realized that Buck was waiting for an answer, and replied, "He came to for a second...we got some liquid into him...went right back to sleep. Didn’t say anything. He’s been sleeping for over twenty-four hours. How’s JD?"

Buck detected the deep concern in Chris’s voice. "Slugger here? I figure he’s been sleeping almost as much as Vin. Mary told me he wouldn’t hardly sleep a wink while we were gone. She said she kept waking up to find him asleep on the boardwalk in front of the Clarion. He’s starting to remind me of Vin more and more."

"He’s been worried. Little boys shouldn’t have to worry that much. I’m glad though...that he feels safe with you."

Buck detected a bit of jealousy in Chris’s utterance. "Vin feels safe with you, Chris," he placated. "I can’t even imagine what this has been like for him. I’m shocked by what that little guy was able to accomplish all on his own." Buck watched Chris’s face as he continued, "He’s had to do things on his own...for a long time now, Chris. He does feel safe with you...he’s just gonna need some time to really feel settled...time to realize he doesn’t have to do it all on his own. And if you meant what you said back there when we were searching...if you really meant that Vin would be coming home to stay...then I think things will turn out just fine."

Chris nodded. He was quiet for a moment before making comment. "I meant it." He said it with deep conviction. "You know what the ironic thing is about this?" He waited for Buck’s quizzical eyebrow to lift. "Roy Haly was right." He waved his hand to prevent Buck’s protest, "He was right about a lot of things. There is so much that we still don’t know about these little guys...especially Vin. He gets more mysterious all the time...and...and...I was ready to just hand them off to the first couple that came along to claim them but a regular ma and pa wouldn’t be enough...they wouldn’t be able to protect Vin...and he was right about Vin sensing that he wasn’t here to stay. I should have told Vin. I should have told him he had a home so he didn’t have to worry about leaving. He should’ve been able to trust, when he was taken, that we would come for him but he didn’t. He did it all on his own because he thought he had to. In the end, when he was walking to me, trying his best to just stay standing...I wasn’t sure he really trusted that I’d really be there when he fell." Chris’s voice had dropped so low Buck could hardly make it out.

"He’ll know now, pard’," claimed the rogue, "We’ll make sure he does."

Chris nodded. "He’ll soon as he can stay awake more than three seconds...I’m going to make that as clear as I can." Chris stopped again to scrutinize Buck’s grayish face. "Are you okay? You look terrible."

The big man gave a tired grin, before saying, "I never look terrible Chris. We both know that. I’m just tired, same as everyone else. JD was real upset when we got in. By the time I finally got him settled down I guess I was a little wound up. Kept thinking, what if something like this happened to him...what would I do? Just wasn’t a real restful night."

"Well go get some sleep then. Ezra’s got that extra room with two beds. You’ll sleep better knowing JD is near by," Chris advised.

Buck nodded, said, "I’ll do that. What about Roy Haly?"

"What about Roy Haly?"

"Did he ever tell you why?" Wilmington was curious. They still didn’t know why all of this had happened...why Darry Carter had gone to his death to maintain his grip on a child named Vin Tanner.

"He won’t," said Chris. "I asked him again. He keeps saying it’s for Vin to tell. He told me how Vin escaped from them though...jamming the door lock with gum...kid’s smart alright. Haly said too that Carter was responsible for some of those scars on Vin’s back...but he also said he wasn’t responsible for all of them. He was already marked up when Carter got him. I don’t know if we’ll ever have the full story."

"You like him...don’t you?" Buck questioned.


"Roy Haly," Buck clarified.

Chris had to think about that. "‘Like’ would be a bit too strong a word. I’d sooner beat his face in for what he did but I get the feeling he was young when he hooked up with that man. I imagine he’s been under this Carter’s thumb for a long time. In the end he tried to do what was right by Vin and after the past lives I’ve lived, I don’t want to begrudge anyone a change of heart."

It was quite a speech for Chris Larabee to make. Buck had never expected words like that to come from his old friend’s mouth. He had to admit that for the most part he agreed with him. "What did the Judge say?"

"Said he’d be fair. They all denied a jury trial. The three are going to prison in Yuma, but he’ll take into account that in the end it was Haly that stopped Carter from making this a tragedy."

Silence dragged as the thoughts of how this might have turned out flooded the night air. Finally, Buck nodded as he stood with his cargo. It hadn’t turned out to be a tragedy. That was about all they could ask and be grateful for. It very easily could have. "I’m gonna take you up on your suggestion, Chris. Let me know if you need me."

"You know I will," answered the man in black, settling into the chair to wait on Vin’s next waking.

+ + + + + + +

Chris eased himself into the seat Buck had vacated, looking out at the darkening twilight. The setting sun was still throwing brilliant shades of dim gold and swarthy red across the clouds. The fresh bout of rain showers early that morning had left the clear evening with a clean ambiance that settled on the gunslinger’s shoulders like a good omen. Things just couldn’t get worse from here, which meant they could only get better. He didn’t wish to repeat a moment of the horrid nightmare but he had to admit that he’d learned some things, important things, things he would need to know if he planned to be a father to Vin.

Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes and noisily sucked in a gust of air. Suddenly he sensed movement at his side. His eyes popped open and his gun materialized in his hand all in one moment.

"Do you plan to shoot me, gunslinger?" It was Kojay. He had appeared as quickly and silently as a gust of smoke.

Chris released the air he’d taken in and re-holstered his weapon. With another sigh he invited, "Have a seat?"

The Indian did.

"Thanks again for your help. It could have ended very differently without you."

Kojay sat in silence.

"Why do I get the feeling you didn’t just come here for my thanks?" asked Chris, warily.

"You are right. That is not why I have come." He paused, cocking his head to get a better read on Chris. "I have information I must give you."


"Vin." Kojay licked his lips and leaned back on the bench near Chris, relaxing his former posture, smiling knowingly when the tense gunslinger did the same. "He is one of ours."

"What?" Chris sat up straight again, "What do you mean?"

"When your healer was looking at him at the old woman’s house...I saw the tattoo on his shoulder. There was a time not too long ago when stealing children was a common thing. It sounds very horrible but even anciently, it was not unheard of. Many years ago there was a tribe in the area of Big Red Rock and Coyote’s Hill. There was a great sickness that killed most of their children. To many of the people, children mean honor, wealth. They mean the future. To recover the future they made a raid on our people, taking nearly one fourth of our new generation. It was years later before we were able to try to take them back. By then it was hard to know where they belonged. To prevent this from happening again the children were marked on their shoulders with a sign from our people. That is how we were to always know where they belonged, where they were tied to. After that it did not matter so much if they were taken. They were sorrowed after, of course...but even if they were raised away from their lands...every honorable thing that they accomplished became a testament to the power of my people...because even if they went by a different name, the mark on the shoulder told everyone who they really were and where they were from.

"This all began a long time is a story that was told me by my grandfather and he got it from his grandfather. For many years the tradition stopped, but with all the new peoples in the land, children again became a resource. Mexicans would raid us and use our children as well as other tribes. In each war, in each battle, children became another thing to be taken. The tradition was started again.

"The mark the boy carries on his shoulder...I would know it anywhere."

For a long time after Kojay had finished, Chris sat transfixed, awed by what he had heard but afraid of what it might mean. Finally, he simply asked.

"It means," Kojay answered, "that in some way, at some time, he has been a part of our people...enough to be considered one of our tribe. The mark was not used for visitors, or slaves. It was sacred. Wherever he went, he would always be accepted as one of our sons."

"Why are you telling me this, Kojay?" Chris was getting slightly agitated. Just when he thought he was finally figuring Vin out, despite the secret he and JD were holding onto like coyotes with a fresh kill. Now another mystery about the boy’s past was rearing up to haunt him. He voiced the one fear he had that truly mattered, "Do you mean to try and take him?" There was a hard edge to Larabee’s voice, the protective growl of a wolf pack’s leader. He knew logically that Kojay would never presume such a thing but...

"No," the Indian chuckled a little, helping the stressed man at his side to calm his grinding teeth. "No, he is yours. I would not presume to disrupt that path but I thought it should be known. I thought you should know what it meant. Eventually, too...he should know what it means. He should learn some of the ways of our people. It may help him find his peace...and his power."

Chris was smiling now, not grinning, but content. "Fair enough," he allowed, "I think you’d be the right person for that job."

"It would be my honor." The two men shook hands. Kojay inquired briefly of the child’s health, waiting for the answer before pressing a small medicine pouch into Chris’s hand and disappearing into the now black night.


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