"Little Britches" Universe

Vin woke up several times before morning. Each time they encouraged him to drink water and once Nathan had kept him awake by re-cleaning and wrapping the numerous cuts he’d sustained. He never complained. In fact, he never said anything at all. It was starting to make the adults worry and they talked about it in hushed whispers on the far side of the room where they thought he couldn’t hear.

He decided as he blinked his eyes open in the early morning light that he didn’t care if they were worried or not. He didn’t care...he wouldn’t care. Suddenly, the boy’s whole bed started to shake. He cast his eyes to the side and felt tears prickle behind them at the sight of his cousin. JD was noisily clamoring onto and over the bed. Vin winced when the dark-haired boy’s knee bumped some of his bruises along his journey.

Finally JD was up by Vin’s face. With one hand planted on either side of his older cousin’s head he peered straight down at the blinking blue eyes. "Are you awake?" he whispered loudly. The grimacing face nodded. One hand reached up to touch JD’s brow and then flopped back to the bed.

Completely undeterred by Vin’s silence, JD launched into a discourse of everything he’d wanted to tell his cousin during his absence. "They wanted me to teww, Vin but I nevewr did and I won’t even though Buck said the bad man is gone and won’t hurt ya no mowre. I wremember what ma said about other bad men (comma) too and I towld ‘em I couldn’t teww nothin’...and Buck say’s (says) that the men you’s with awre in jail and they can’t take you away again...nevewr evewr!" Abruptly the small boy stopped, drawing his face down closer to Vin’s he whispered in his ear, "I’s scawred, Vin. I didn’t wanna be but..." Fat tear drops started to descend from the hazel eyes.

Vin struggled once again to control his aching joints. He lifted his arms and wrapped JD in them, grunting slightly when the small child collapsed against him. He felt something, a small wad of something get trapped between them. Blindly he fumbled for it. As he pulled it to freedom, he realized it was slung around his own neck. He brought it closer and stared at it hard.

Standing Hawk? He knew it was stupid, Joe was dead, but that didn’t stop him from casing his eyes around the room. Not sure what he was expecting to see, he closed his eyes and clutched the pouch to his chest. The feel of it was soft, the leather and stitching fine and beautiful. He couldn’t stop the tears that were suddenly flooding down the sides of his head and into his ears. He hated the feel of liquid anywhere near his ears but he couldn’t seem to stop the tears from falling. They were good tears though. He knew the difference. He was safe, the symbol of all that was safe and sacred to him remained clutched in his hand, right over his heart.

The voices in corner had ceased, which meant, Vin knew, that they were watching him. He didn’t care. He kept his arm carefully around his cousin and closed his eyes to pretend he was asleep.

He was overjoyed to be back with his cousin and to know he, too, was safe. He took a deep breath and tried to relax but something was keeping him from falling back into slumber.

He thought on the words that Chris had said to him earlier. The gunman had tried to convince him that he was home. Home to stay. Was he? In the end Chris had come for him. He’d felt so safe the instant he’d surrendered to the hard man’s embrace. He wished he could feel that secure all the time.

The back of his mind was niggling him about something else. Something that JD had said, something that he’d heard Chris say to Buck. Two facts called out loud and clear. The first was that none of the men knew his secret. Neither Roy nor JD had told. How long would Vin be able to hold onto it? What would the men do if they ever found out? The second was that Roy was in the jail. Vin suddenly felt an unnatural desire to see him. He suddenly wanted to see an adult that knew his secret. Roy had never been Vin’s favorite person, but he’d never been Darry’s either.

The clinic door clicked shut. Vin realized that he and JD had been left alone to their supposed sleep. He shifted away from JD’s snores and crawled off the bed. When he took all of his weight on his feet the edges of his sight curled with blackness. He took a deep breath, releasing it and dragging in another before feeling confident enough to cross the room. His gait was still unsteady and his body hurt but he made out the door, down the back stairs, and over to the jail at a slow pace with nobody noticing.

The boy slipped in through the back entry where he waited to hear if anyone beside the three prisoners was there. He was scared, he realized. Why was he doing this? Pushing those thoughts away, he moved forward. Al and Wix were in one cell, Happy Roy in the other. Except maybe, Vin thought, Roy didn’t look quite so happy anymore. It didn’t take long for them to notice the small visitor.

"Well, hey there," called Roy, "I didn’t expect to see you again." The blond man stood with fluid grace, striding over to the bars and crouching down his lanky frame to look Vin in the eye. As usual he was undeterred that Vin wasn’t talking, and not having ever known how to speak to children, despite the time they’d spent together in the past, he spoke to him as if he were just another man. "I don’t reckon you’ll put much valor on my words but I want you to know I’m sorry," he began. "We were both looking for freedom. You found it before I did and I had no right to trade yours for mine." Vin was just staring at him. "I guess I hope some day you could take it in your heart to forgive me? I’m hopin’ that, anyway. Looks like you got yourself a real nice setup here. Your own personal bodyguards and everything. I for one didn’t know men like this existed. You’ll sure make them proud one day...especially that man in black. Now that is one scary hombre. I mean if I had a mind to be scared of something, he’d be right on the top of my list. That’s good though. He’ll be able to protect know...keep your secret and all that. I didn’t tell him about your gift. I figured I’d taken enough from ya and that the tellin’ should be your doing. I hope that was okay? I bet he’ll be real surprised when he finds out...I mean I surely was...the first time I saw it. Couldn’t believe it. Best thing in the world."

Haly realized that he was rambling, but he did love to talk and the boy was a good listener. He was standing there now looking at Haly as though he was hanging on every word. "Well, ain’t someone gonna be missing you here pretty soon? I mean, I didn’t think they’d let you out alone so soon. That blond fella. He seems to worry about you a whole bunch. You may not know that but I was watching him. He was about ready to go mad with worry. I reckon he’s your pa now, huh? Kid like you should have a pa...someone to help keep you away from men like like me."

Roy shifted and coughed, breaking eye contact. "Well, run along now...before they think I’ve run off with ya again." Standing with a shooing motion, he waited for the boy to go. The boy didn’t go, not right away. With obvious caution he approached the cell. After a wary glance at Al and Wix he focused on Roy and stretched out his hand. Reaching through the bars Roy extended his to meet it, awed at what the boy was extending to him. They shook hands firmly and afterwards Happy Roy looked a little more happy as he watched Vin walk to and exit from the front. All he could see was the back of him as he was scooped up by the black clad man and held close.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was frantic when he’d entered the clinic just moments after leaving to find JD asleep on the bed and Vin gone. Gone. Not again....not again. They’d just gotten him back. They couldn’t lose him again. His mind whirled with every possible scenario until he was dizzy. At the forefront of his brain was a picture of a downed seven year old unable to call for help.

He’d dashed down the steps nearly toppling Buck at the bottom. "Chris? What’s wrong? Is Vin alright?" Chris quickly gave him an update and they split up to search. Chris immediately decided to start with the only source he could imagine knowing anything. In panicked anger he charged toward the jail, ready to extract information from the jailed hustlers by any means necessary.

The talking stopped him as he drew near. Suspiciously he leaned in to listen. After a moment of hearing Haly’s voice he figured out who he was talking to, figured out that Vin was in no danger and had in fact escaped there on his own. What was Vin trying to do? How could he convince him he was home? How could he convince him to trust him with the secret that he felt he had to harbor? Would Vin even be able to tell him? The boy hadn’t spoken since his return. Nathan insisted that his throat hadn’t been damaged but that didn’t change the fact that for some reason Vin either would no longer talk or could no longer talk.

He ran a frustrated hand over his face as the voice inside the jailhouse ceased. It took all his control to wait and listen for the boy’s unsteady footsteps to approach and open the door. As soon as he did Chris reached out to him, pulling him gently but tightly into his arms. He was gratified and nudged with hope when for the second time in two days he felt the boy’s complete surrender to his care.


"Are you sure he’s okay Nathan? He still hasn’t said a word. It’s been almost three weeks now." Basically things had been okay since retrieving Vin. The presumed eight-year-old appeared to be settling well. He relaxed even more once they got him out of town and back to the ranch. He was still sore, especially from the broken ribs he’d sustained, but that hadn’t stopped him from waking at the crack of dawn and trying to do the chores he knew how to do. The others in the little family tried to keep a close eye to make sure he didn’t push himself, because he didn’t always heed their concerns. Chris was worried about just one thing. Vin still wouldn’t talk. He wouldn’t make a sound, not even to laugh or to cry.

"He still needs to take it easy. His ribs are healed up for the most part but still fragile. He’s lost weight." Nathan pursed his lips as he spoke.

This too, Chris had noticed.

"As for not talking," the tall, gentle man continued, "sometimes hurts aren’t just physical...I think we just need to be patient with him. Keep him close, remind him that he’s safe, give him time."

Chris nodded, knowing there was nothing more he could do. "Thanks,’ve been great with him. He hasn’t liked to be touched got the gift."

"So do you, Chris...just a different kind."

Chris smiled, an easy smile that indicated he just might believe what the healer had claimed. He hoped that their presence and will to heal the unsure boy would be enough. As he opened the door to the clinic he could see that Vin was almost finished buttoning his new blue shirt. "Ready to go get JD?" he asked.

Vin turned and nodded.

Chris moved in to help him tuck in his shirt, wary of the still tender torso. Vin let him without complaint or struggle. "Nathan said he’d keep an close eye on the town so I figured we’d go visit Nettie this afternoon, what do you think about that?"

Again Vin indicated agreement and Chris thought he might have seen a shadow of a smile in the soundless face. The youngster seemed to have created a bond with Nettie. The woman had come into town twice to check on the child. Chris and Buck both found themselves drawn to her strong character and JD appeared to like both her and her little niece. The two dark haired children had galloped and scampered all over town, speaking a language that apparently only they could understand.

She’d brought them treats during her second visit. As she’d handed JD one of her home made peppermint sticks, he’d gotten a good laugh from everyone when he’d asked, "Are you my grandma?"

The small child hadn’t thought the question was funny. He remembered Billy telling him that whenever his grandmother came to visit she would bring him a treat. The correlation made perfect sense to the five year old. JD was gratified when Nettie had bent down to look him in the eye and said, "You bet."

Vin tugged on his blue shirt until he released an uncomfortable wrinkle before adjusting the strap on his pouch. Although the boy obviously hadn’t said anything about it, somehow Chris knew he was aware of its significance. He hadn’t removed it since it’d been placed there, not even to bathe. Easily Vin clutched Chris’s hand, exiting with him onto the lazily bustling boardwalk below. "You still have to take it easy, Vin," the older of the pair declared with a hint of sternness.

The shadow of Vin’s smile briefed across his face again as he looked up with innocence and nodded.

Chris scowled, getting into the game, awed that he could understand so well what the boy was saying even when he had no apparent voice. "Don’t give me that look...I’m getting to know you too well."

The shadow of a smile peeked out into the sun for just a moment.

Chris’s grin broadened as he continued, "I reckon I’m just gonna have to keep you real close, huh?"

A glimpse of seriousness settled on the young face. He looked up and nodded again, holding tighter to Chris’s hand.

The gunslinger tightened his grip in return and then went the extra mile by swinging the light boy into the security of his arms. Vin allowed the close contact, for which Chris was grateful. "JD’s over playing with Billy," Chris informed him as they headed in that direction. The boys had been staying in town at Ezra’s with Chris since last night. Buck, Ezra, and Josiah had left with a posse the previous day in order to track a suspected pair of bank robbers who’d been spotted headed their way. Chris would have gone but the other regulators recognized that it was still too soon for him to be away from Vin and vise versa.

Just as the two were about to cross the street to the Clarion, the loud rumble of a wagon could be heard approaching fast. Chris waited to see what the commotion was about, acknowledging Nathan when he saw him descending the steps to back him up.

"Is there a doctor in town?" yelled the driver of the wagon.

"I’m a healer." Nathan stepped forward.

The driver of the wagon took a moment to scrutinize him. Chris thought he saw a spark of disgust cross through the man’s face but didn’t comment. Finally, the man nodded and Nathan moved forward to help the three men in the back of the wagon carry out an injured fourth. Including the downed member of this group, their number was five. A number that could be difficult to contend with if they decided to cause trouble.

"What happened?" Nathan was asking. Chris moved closer to hear the answer. The boy in his arms had gone still.

"Cave in out at the mine," one of them answered, "...he’s got a wood piece stuck in his leg...looks infected...we figure it’s pretty bad."

"Bring him up here and I’ll see what I can do," directed the healer. Two of the four healthy miners carried the injured up. The other two bee-lined for the saloon.

Larabee sighed, "I think I have a bad feeling about this."

+ + + + + + +

Chris had decided to forgo the trip out to Nettie’s and both Vin and JD seemed to understand why it was necessary. All through the afternoon and through most of the night he kept a close eye on the four healthy miners. They weren’t causing any trouble. They’d gotten a little drunk in the saloon that evening but that was all. None of them seemed overly concerned about their injured friend.

Larabee himself had gone to check on Nathan and the injured man almost as much as he’d gone to check on his sleeping boys. Nathan hadn’t been very hopeful. He’d said gangrene had already caught hold with a vengeance. He didn’t expect him to last through the next day.

For some reason the whole situation was bothering Chris. He was reluctant to go to sleep until Nathan finally convinced him that at least one of them needed to get some rest. Still, it was almost two in the morning when the gunslinger conceded and trudged up the back steps of the saloon to Ezra’s second story living space. He sighed when he saw his little Texan asleep on floorboards of the veranda. It was the first time he’d been found sleeping outside since his ordeal. Chris noticed that he’d at least pulled pants on over the long johns he wore to sleep. Lifting him gently, Chris carried him back to his bed.

+ + + + + + +

It was a combination between the shrill voice of Mary Travis and the pounding on his door that woke both Chris and the boys. What time was it? Chris wondered, noticing sunlight was already streaming into the large room from the lightly curtained windows, before moving to the door and cracking it to see where the fire was.

"Inez?" Hadn’t he been hearing Mary?

"Senor Larabee...Nathan is in trouble." Inez’s voice was trembling, her Spanish accent thicker than normal.

"What?" Why did it seem he was saying that word a lot lately? Chris was fully awake now. "What’s going on?"

"The men from anoche...their man died...they’re blaming Nathan...dijeron que él tiene la culpa...que él lo mató." She was rambling now but Chris got the picture.

"Get the boys up to Nathan’s...they’ll be out of the line of fire...Billy too, if you can..." His orders were cut short by the penetrating shout of Mary’s voice.

"Somebody DO SOMETHING," she was shouting, "He saves lives and they’re gonna..." Chris got to the front window just in time to see the proud blond shoved down into the street, Steven’s rifle still clutched in her hands.

"Get going, Inez," barked Chris, indicating they should use the outside exit as he finished buckling his gun-belt and started to move out the opposite door. He paused a moment when he felt Vin’s piercing blue eyes lock onto his back. Quickly he paused to briefly hug both children in one motion. "I’ve got to go watch Nathan’s’s what families do, okay? Be safe...I’ll see you soon."

He didn’t want to look to see what their responses would be. He was thinking it would kill him if he looked and saw the fear he knew was there, but something compelled him to look back at Vin’s eyes. The serious boy was looking so intense Chris felt himself being drawn in to the electric gaze. The child gave a confident nod and Chris was off. He barreled down the steps and out the batwing doors, his eyes fixed down the street where they were already dragging Nathan out of town. Even from that distance, he could see that there were only three of them.

Three? Where was the fourth? Suddenly something hard smashed into the back of Larabee’s skull, knocking him face first into the hard ground. Immediately, he started to stagger to his hands and knees, cursing himself for not seeing the trap. His upward progress was halted when his hands were yanked behind him, sending him back to the dirt. They were tied tightly before he even had a chance to move again.

+ + + + + + +

Buck Wilmington was anxious to get back to town. Leaving for too long made him worried for the child now in his care. He knew that they couldn’t be together every minute but after what had happened to Vin, he didn’t want to take any chances. The others, however, were having a little fun at his overprotective manifestations.

"Why on earth did we have to get up at such an unheard of hour?" Ezra’s cultured voice rang out clearly in the soft dawn. The fake yawn he supplied completely failing to convince his companions. "Why, the sun is barely awake itself and here I am sitting on a horse bound for a lonely town that is surely not going anywhere."

"I thought you wanted to get back to sleep in a real bed?" returned Wilmington. "I thought you said you couldn’t sleep one more second on the ‘cold rigid ground.’"

Ezra smiled sheepishly, his own concern having been so obviously pointed out to attempt further denials.

"You two brothers do seem awfully concerned about getting back to town so soon. And I don’t think its it’s prudent to lie to yourselves about your reasons," the wise preacher counseled.

"I didn’t lie about nothing, Preacher," claimed Buck. "I said straight out that I wanted to have breakfast with Miss Molly. What’s your excuse?"

Josiah chuckled, "The sooner we get back, the more work I can get done on that dilapidated building I convince people is a church."

"Seems we better hurry then," concluded Ezra, "we must not be derelict in our calling duties."

Together the three quickened the pace of their mounts just a little bit more."

+ + + + + + +

On a third floor veranda, outside of Nathan’s clinic, not much of the town could be seen. It was slightly blocked from the main view of the street but it did have a spectacular view of the large tree next to the creek just past the edge of town. The same tree poised on the bank of the stream the boys had been playing in less than a month before. Even with the distance presented, both children could see exactly what was going on at the once peaceful spot.

If Inez had still been with them she might have made them go inside, but she’d gone down to check on Mary and find Billy, so the boys’ view of the proceedings was unobstructed.

The men had thrown Nathan up onto a horse with a rope around his neck. The other end of the rope was being tossed over a sturdy high branch and secured. The man in black, Chris Larabee, fearsome to all who knew him, now lay in a heap on the ground at the base of the tree. Vin could see he was moving slightly. He could imagine that he was trying to undo the bindings that held his hands so securely and felt his helpless frustration as though it were his own. In fact, it was his own. Angrily he pounded his small hands on the railing he leaned against. He had to do something. He had to try to do something!

He shoved himself past JD and into the clinic. He had seen where Nathan kept his rifle. Pulling it out of the cabinet in the corner, he found bullets and loaded it. It was bigger than he cared for, so he’d have to find someway to balance the weight.

"Vin?" JD asked. He looked up at his cousin with haunted blue eyes. "What about the bad men?"

Vin felt his chest constrict and his throat tightened. He swallowed hard against the feeling, tried to give his cousin a look with something other than the despair he was feeling, and moved outside to mark his target.

+ + + + + + +

Chris lay on the ground and tried to not make it obvious that he was untying the ropes they had used to bind him. The man who’d knotted them hadn’t been extremely thorough, leaving dangling ends that the gunslinger could work through. Even so, his wrists were feeling both raw and bloody. Larabee looked up at Nathan’s stoic face as he sat easily on the horse, looking more like a proud king than a man about to be lynched. Larabee admired that. He just hoped he could get his hands free in time to save him.

He felt the ropes give some more but knew he was too late. One of the miners shot a round into the air while another slapped the horse hard on the flank. It bolted and for some horrifying seconds, Chris could do nothing but watch his friend gasp and swing at the end of a rope.

+ + + + + + +

On the far side of town, the three returning regulators heard the shot but Ezra was the first to recognize where it had come from and bolt in that direction. They had known something was wrong the minute they rode into their home. They’d caught a glimpse of Inez running with Billy toward the livery and watched as Mary fumbled to load an empty rifle. It was obviously something that was not second nature to her and when she looked up at their approaching steeds she looked like she would cry in relief. Instead, she’d simply pointed in the other direction, just before the shot rang out.

+ + + + + + +

Inez reached the third floor with Billy just in time to see Vin Tanner positioning himself with the large gun. She was about to rush forward but JD’s big eyes stopped her. The five year old was standing back from the older boy and to the side. He had his hands behind him and was leaning against the wall, the stance of someone who had experienced this before.

She held her breath as she watched Vin balance the weapon on the railing and hook his leg in one of the side slats for further support. She was awed as she saw him seemingly meld with the weapon and flinched when she heard it bark. The boy was thrown back, the weapon clattering at his side, the slat where he’d hooked his leg was broken in half with two jagged edges. She could already see from where she stood that one edge had gouged his calf, the telling blood of the injury soaking his pants.

She could tell though, by the triumphant look in his eye when he pulled himself to his feet, that he’d hit what he’d been aiming at.

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee released a deep resounding sound of rage. In a few seconds...Nathan didn’t have any more seconds. He tried to stumble to his feet to support his friend but a boot effectively shoved him back.

Unexpectedly, the sound of a rifle’s fire slit the air and Nathan dropped to the ground and started coughing. Chris stared at him for a moment with wide eyes. Where had that come from? Mary?

Not having time to think about it, he gave one last jerk with his wrists. Finally the ropes gave and Chris dived for the man nearest him, pulling him to the ground and robbing him of his weapon. He turned swiftly, using the miner as a shield while firing on the other three. The last one might have had him if not for another shot that rang out from an approaching galloping horse.

He hurried to Nathan, who had managed to slip the noose from his neck but not untie the ropes that bound his hands in front of him. He pulled the knife out of Nathan’s boot to cut them and rubbed his hand in circles on the healers back as he sucked in great lungfuls of air.

"Can I assume we will get a proper explanation for what we just rode into?" Ezra stood above them, concern and anger on his face.

"Miners came into town with one hurt...he had gangrene and was too far gone for me to help. The others took it a bit personally." Nathan’s voice sounded raspy and painful. He started to cough when he was finished.

"Mr. Jackson, that explanation will suffice and I do suggest you refrain from voicing further explications." Ezra was now crouched in front of them, fingering the remnants of the noose, Buck and Josiah flanking him only a few feet back. "You’re lucky that Chris is such a good shot."

"Huh?" The confusion was issued from both Nathan and Chris.

"Somebody shot through the rope...I’m assuming it was Mr. Larabee." Ezra eyed the confusion on both their faces, "It wasn’t Mr. Larabee? Where did it come from?"

Nathan reached out to take the noose as Josiah stepped forward to help him to his feet, Buck doing the same for Chris on the other side.

"It was a rifle shot," offered Chris, remembering the sound and calculating the distance and direction from his memory, "from up there." The last part was in a barely heard murmur but his destination was clear when he started jogging toward the stairs that led up to the clinic.

+ + + + + + +

Inez was still standing shocked as she took in Vin’s proud stance, her mouth was still hanging open when he turned to look at her. In one instant his face changed from triumphant to horrified. His forehead creased, his eyes darkened and step by step he began to back away from her until he was next to JD. He slid down the wall in despair, wrapping his arms around his bent knees and dropping his head so his face was out of sight. He’d broken his promise. Now they would know, and now maybe JD wouldn’t be safe. Maybe he would have to leave. He had only been thinking of what Chris had said, "Families watch each other’s backs." He couldn’t stand up there and just watch Nathan die.

The pounding of footsteps could be heard on the wooden stairs. The approaching herd soon presented itself to be all five peacekeepers and Mary Travis.

Two things happened at once, Billy ran to his mother, and JD ran to Buck. Both boys began speaking simultaneously, one excitedly, one woefully.

"You shoulda seen it ma!" shouted Billy, "Vin just fired the rifle and..."

"Buck! He had to do it!" JD’s voice was barely heard for being buried in Buck’s shoulder, "Nathan was gonna die and..." JD wasn’t quite sure if anyone was gonna be in trouble but he was sure his cousin wouldn’t have broken a promise without a darn good reason. He was feeling the release of the weight the secret had been on him ever since Vin had disappeared. Without reservation, he began to sob.

Both Buck and Mary moved themselves and their children back, standing next to Inez who had shifted to let them get up on the veranda. Josiah stood still, his shock as apparent as the rest as both Nathan and Chris approached the distraught boy.

Gently, Chris laid a hand on his shoulder, prompting the boy to bring his head up, revealing the cascade of silent tears from dark blue saucers. Vin was swallowing repeatedly, as though trying to get rid of something that had caught in his throat. Chris wasn’t sure what to say. He had never expected something like this. Of all the possible things he’d considered, this was not one of them.

Nathan, on the other hand was noticing the blood on his leg and Chris could tell he was barely restraining himself from pouncing his healing hands on the boy. "Give him a minute," Chris whispered, even though he knew Vin could hear. He shifted his right hand to the boy’s forearm and ran his left along the bony shoulders, trying to get him to calm down.

"Vin?" The gunslinger was still struggling for the right words.

The small head rose a little more and seemed to glare at him in the eye for a long time. Taking a deep swallow one last time, he opened his mouth licked his lips and spoke, "I didn’t want Nathan to die."

Chris was so shocked that the child had spoken that he let the statement hang dormant in the air for what felt like an eternity. "Neither did I, Cowboy," he offered with a squeeze of his hand and a serious smile. His brain raced to consider the ramifications of what he’d just learned. Vin, a seven or eight year old boy, had just shot through a rope from the third story of a building, saving a man’s life. This is what he could do. The pieces all fell into place. Darry, New Orleans, the perfect place for hustlers and the perfect talent to hustle. JD had promised his mother that he would never tell because it could risk Vin getting used again. Vin had promised the same thing. He now knew what he would say.

"Vin, sometimes we have to take risks to protect those we care about, and sometimes we don’t always want to have to do that. Like me, for example. I didn’t want to leave you boys alone this morning but I had to try to help Nathan. You didn’t want to break your promise but you had to help Nathan, too. You did exactly the right thing and I think your aunt would understand what you had to do. When you made that promise she was afraid bad men like Darry would use you...but I think she also knew that someday there would be someone you could tell because you could trust them and they could help you and keep you safe. That’s who we are Vin. Your Aunt? I think she’d be proud of you, because I sure am."

Vin was crying again, but he undid his locked up posture and reached out for Chris to hold him. "I didn’t want you to die either, Chris," he mumbled, the broken voice was incredible soft.

"I didn’t, Vin. I’m right here. Okay? I’m right here." Chris had lifted the boy into a tight embrace and was rubbing his back. Nathan flicked his head toward the interior of the clinic and Chris complied, hearing Vin sigh resignedly against his neck.

+ + + + + + +

Vin’s leg injury wasn’t life threatening, but it was bad enough that Nathan kept him in the clinic for a few days, and gave orders to stay off of it for at least another week. He had showed Chris how to clean and care for the wound before finally releasing the grumbling boy to the custody of his guardian and the freedom of the ranch. The two days in the clinic had been hard for the boy. He was finally starting to settle, to feel confident and safe in his surrounding, and to speak again, albeit quietly. Now that he truly felt he was home, he wanted to explore it. Nathan hadn’t envied Chris’ task of keeping the boy from overdoing.

Chris took the task very seriously and found it easier than he thought it would be due to the need Vin had to be close to him. Three days after being back at the ranch, the two found themselves alone in the house. JD and Buck had gone fishing.

The blond man leaned down to lift Vin onto the table top and began to roll up his pants leg.

"Aww, Chris, it’s okay." The petulant voice was rich and full as a child’s voice should be.

"Aww, Vin...we need to make sure," Chris returned, smiling. Vin scowled. The tall blond continued, "Nathan said to keep changing the bandage twice a day. He’ll be out to check it this afternoon, maybe then he’ll change the orders."

Vin gave a longsuffering sigh but acquiesced to the adult’s demands. Chris removed the bandage to see the ugly scab and stitches that covered where the jagged points of wood had damaged the leg. Vin would have more scars to add to his collection. He shook his head as he began to clean the wound, bracing himself to Vin’s deeply controlled hiss. He felt the child fist one hand in his shirt and place the other one over the pouch around his neck.

"There. That okay?" he asked as he finished. Vin nodded and he began to apply the ointment laden bandages. "Vin, I wanted to talk to you about something."

Vin’s eyes upturned expectedly, showing a lingering hint of fear.

"That pouch you’re wearing..." Vin’s hand instantly flew to cover it. "Easy Vin," Chris calmed before continuing, "I don’t want to take it away from you, I just want to tell you who gave it to you...okay?"

Warily the boy relaxed and nodded, curiosity evident in his eyes.

"Do you remember Josiah talking about his friend, Kojay? The Indian?" He waited until Vin nodded. "He gave it to you because he saw the mark on your shoulder." Vin stiffened slightly. "It’s okay, he told me what it meant. Can you...." he hesitated, unsure whether he would be pushing Vin to close up on himself, but pressed on, saying, "Kojay wants to talk to you about it...take you to visit the reservation when you’re healthy...He wants to teach you what it means. Vin can you remember how you got it?"

The boy laced his fingers around the bag again, his eyes darkened but he nodded, "My grandfather." Chris waited to see if Vin would offer more. He’d learned that the boy thought hard about what he would allow to come out of his mouth but you had to be patient or you’d miss it. "Joe Standing Hawk."

"Good man?" asked Chris.

Vin held the bag tighter and nodded.

"Think you’d like to tell me about him sometime?"

Vin looked up again and after a significant pause he nodded.

After that conversation things began to take on a feel of normalcy around the ranch. Chris and Buck still worried about the boys but began to accept that they were adjusting, even if they still occasionally found Vin asleep on the porch in middle of the night. Gradually, Chris came to realize that the child’s desire to sleep outside was not necessary evidence that he was troubled but simply born to a desire to breathe fresh air and that maybe it wasn’t really something they should worry about. The realization had come when he’d reached down to wake the outside sleeper and noticed that he was smiling. By mid-summer Chris had hung a section of translucent Cheese cloth around a section of the porch and moved a cot for Vin outside, which in turn led to JD’s cot being moved outside. Come fall they’d have to think of something.

In addition, little by little, Vin had begun to open up about pieces of his past. Usually just to Chris, in the early morning hours when only the two of them were awake. They were wonderful conversations, full of the logic and comments Chris remembered from Adam, yet different and mature in a way that was entirely Vin. Chris relished the moments, pleased in the relationship and memories he was building with his new son. Things would not ever be perfect, he knew, but that wouldn’t keep them from trying.

As Vin fell asleep one evening, hearing the crickets call out in the night, he called the voices of his current family to his mind. The sounds he could hear in his head were both rich and comforting. The fears of the past were fading more and more as the memories of his family, new and old, replaced what he thought would haunt him forever.

Es el fin!

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