"Little Britches" Universe
Chris stood on the porch, sipping coffee. He loved this time of day. The sun was just peeking over the horizon. The air was crisp and cool, nothing like the heat that would increase as the day wore on. This was the time of year when the days were hot and the nights cold. He stood a few more minutes and then, tossing out the cool coffee, he turned and entered the house. Time to roust the boys out of bed. He sat the cup on the table and headed to the little room off the back of the house.
He pulled back the curtain and stepped into the boys' room. He slapped the foot of the first bed. Seeing the small form curl up tighter brought a chuckle to his throat. Glancing across the room at the second bed, he saw the blanket tossed back to reveal the young boy. Chris turned back to the first bed. He patted the lump and called, "JD? Come on, son, time to get up." He watched as the lump rose and slowly worked its way to the head of the bed. Black hair appeared, followed by the small body.
JD flopped over on his back and stared through the black hair hanging in his eyes at the blond gunslinger. He grinned at the man. Chris smiled back and patted the boy's stomach. "Time to get up. Let's go, JD."
The five-year-old threw the covers back and crawled out of the bed. As Chris helped the boy get dressed, he looked over to see Vin dressed and straightening the bed clothes. Together, the man and dark-haired boy pushed the small stockinged feet into a pair of boots. Chris stood.
"JD, make up the bed. After you boys take care of your business, why don't you gather the eggs and grab some wood and I'll start breakfast."
Chris moved back into the front room and poured himself another cup of coffee. He could hear the morning noises as JD came fully awake. Suddenly, the two boys burst out of the room and ran across the floor and out the front door. Chris smiled as he started breakfast.
Thirty minutes later, the three were sitting down to eat. The eggs had been gathered, the chickens fed and the wood box filled. As JD stuffed his mouth full with a biscuit, he asked, "Whe's 'uck?" Crumbs sprayed across the table as he spoke.
"JD!" Vin cried as he put his head in his hand. Sometimes his cousin could be so bad-mannered that it was embarrassing. Vin just shook his head.
Chris chuckled at the antics. Vin was so quiet at times, but when it came to his cousin, he could become very outspoken. The gunslinger turned his attention to the younger boy.
"Wheres Buck? Was that the question?"
Dark hair bounced as he nodded.
"Buck had patrol with Ezra this morning. Remember? Buck told you last night, JD"
Eyes widened as the memory returned. The mouth smiled around the biscuit. "I fo'got. Will 'e ve 'ome soo?" More crumbs showered the table. Chris heard the groan from the older boy as he was covering his own mouth with his hand.
Regaining control, Chris lowered his hand and cleared his throat. "JD, you shouldn't talk with food in your mouth. It's not polite. Now as to your question, Buck will home later today. He's gonna stay in town 'til noon."
JD opened his mouth to say something, but stopped and grinned. He visibly swallowed the biscuit. Grabbing his cup, he washed it down with the milk. Wiping the white mustache with the back of his hand, he turned to his cousin. "Vin, we can help Chris with the horses."
Chris started shaking his head. "Ive got a lot to do today, boys. I dont really have time to keep an eye on you. But if you get your chores done and stay out of trouble, well go fishing after Buck gets home. Hows that sound?"
"Yeah!" they both cried as they vigorously nodded.
"Good, lets get done with our chores and well be ready when Buck gets home."
They cleaned up the dishes and headed outside. Chris told the boys to feed the horses in the corral. After putting out fresh hay, the boys added water to the trough and shoveled the droppings into a wheel barrel to be moved around back.
Meanwhile, Chris had told the boys to stay out of the barn while he attended to Fire. The stud had a gash in his hind leg that needed to be cleaned each day. The big horse was restless at the best of times, but all the handling in the confining stall had him a bit more edgy than normal. The last thing Chris wanted was those big hoofs kicking out at one of the kids.
"Look, JD. The baby horse is moving real good."
The two boys stood on the outside of the corral and watched the animals moving around. JD stuck his hand through the rails and talked gently to the young foal. The mare moved over and nibbled at the little fingers. Vins hand stroked her velvety nose. He watched as the foal moved close and stuck his wet nose against JDs hand. The little boy giggled causing the young animal to whinny and toss his head around. Vin reached over the stroked the nervous little head. JD scratched the soft nose, smiling at the little horses antics. Both boys continued to stroke him. The mare had moved away to the fresh hay. After a couple of moments, the young animal noticed that his mama was gone. With a whinny, the foal took off in a tangle of legs, his tail flicking in the air.
Vin smiled as JD laughed and danced around. "Wait until I tell Buck that the baby horse let us touch him. Im gonna go tell Chris." The dark haired boy was gone in a heartbeat.
Vin suddenly remembered they werent supposed to go in the barn.
"No, JD, wait!"
JD rounded the doorway just as Chris was moving out of the stall. "Chris! The baby horse let us touch him."
Chris turned towards the noise, smiling. He never saw the studs ears move back, but he felt the muscle twitch under his hand. Before he could return his attention to the animal, Fire kicked out and connected with the mans hip. Chris felt himself propelled forward. He saw the center post, but could not stop his forward momentum. He slammed into the post headfirst and went down in a heap.
Vin ran around the corner just as Chris was kicked. He ran past a wide-eyed JD and threw the stall door closed. The boy didnt want to take chance on the big horse pulling the rope free and backing out of the stall and over the prone body of the man.
"Chris? Chris, can you hear me? Please, Chris." The boy pulled at the mans shoulder and slowly rolled him over. Vin was aware of JD moving alongside him, but did not acknowledge him. He focused on the blood that trickled down the side of Chriss head. Vin was scared. He couldnt think what to do for the man who had opened his home to the two boys. As he looked at the blood, he became aware of a voice.
"Im sorry. Im sorry. I didnt mean to scare Fire. I just wanted to tell Chris about the baby horse."
Vin looked around. He should do something, but he didnt know what. He pulled his kerchief out of his pocket and pressed it against the gash on Chris head. He wished Buck would come home. Maybe he should go into town and get him. Or get Nathan. But he couldnt leave Chris alone with only JD to help. He was scared. And he turned that fear lose on his young cousin.
"JD. Just hush up. I cant think with you jabbering away."
"Can I do something? I can do something," the dark haired boy said hopefully.
"Dang it, JD. You done enough. You know we wasnt supposed to come in here. Now Chris is hurt and its your fault. I cant even tell if he's breathing. Why cant you just do what youre told to do? Sometimes you make me crazy, always jabbering and never doing what youre told."
JDs eyes filled at Vins outburst, but he bit his lip and watched as Vin checked Chris again. "Is he hurt bad?" The question was asked in a tiny voice that shook with emotion.
Vin looked up and JD could see the tear streaks on his face. "I think hes dead. I dont think hes breathing," he whispered.
JD began to shake. He clenched his fists as he said, "I didnt mean to.."
Vin never looked up as he yelled at the small boy. "SHUT UP, JD! Chris is dead and its your fault. He's all I got and now hes gone. You still got Buck, but Chris is gone. I got no one, JD." He turned to look at the dark haired boy as he continued, two years worth of resentment washing over him in his grief. Vin unleashed that resentment on the boy standing in front of him. "Ever' body always talking bout how smart you are or how cute or sweet. I aint as book smart as you, but I can track and ride. And I can take care of my horse and myself. Cause Chris showed me how. He dont care if I dont read good or do my numbers fast. He just liked me. ME!" Vin had turned back to the man lying in the dirt. The last words were spoken softly, but they were heard. "Sometimes I hate you. Cousin or not, sometimes I hate you."
He leaned over and laid his head on Larabees chest and cried. He didnt see the look on the younger boys face. He didnt see the boy turn and walk slowly out of the barn. He didnt see anything as he lay there and sobbed for the lost bond that he and Chris shared.
+ + + + + + +
Vin wasnt sure how long he had cried. He didnt know how long he sat next to the body of Chris Larabee. The first thing he really became aware of was movement. Chris forehead crinkled and then his head turned slightly.
Vin was so afraid he was dreaming that he froze. Silently, he prayed that he was really seeing the man move; that he was wrong about Chris being dead. Before the man moved again, though, the boy heard horses enter the yard and he leapt to his feet and ran outside. His breath hitched when he saw not only Buck, but Nathan Jackson tying their horses to the rail at the front of the house.
The mustached rancher turned at the call and saw the boy running toward them. He bent down and held out his arms, even as he scanned the area for some sign of Chris or trouble. He swept the lean frame of Vin Tanner into his arms and stood up. Vin had wrapped his arms and legs around the big man and was crying into his shoulder. Buck frowned when he failed to see Chris or JD following in the boys wake. He rubbed the slender back and spoke gently to the frightened boy. Finally, the boy drew a hitched breath and pulled his head up.
"Chr.. Chris is hurt." That was all he had to say. He pointed to the barn and both men took off at a run. Nathan arrived first, with Wilmington close behind, still carrying the boy.
They found Larabee still lying on the ground, his eyes closed. Nathan knelt next to the man. His touch caused Chris to moan and toss his head as he fought to regain consciousness. Larabee raised a hand and reached for the source of the pain in his head.
Nathan pushed the hand down as Buck squatted down on the other side. He placed the boy upon his knee as he looked down at his partner. Reaching out, he placed a hand on the mans chest.
"Chris, you just be still while Nathan has a look at ya." He smiled at Larabees response.
"Im fine. Besides, this damn ground is damp." His eyes opened as he spoke and he glanced from one man to the other. He frowned as he asked, "What the hell happened?"
Nathan assisted Chris in sitting up. It was easier than arguing with the man. Buck placed a steadying hand on his friends back as Jackson examined the gash on his head. Buck turned his attention to Vin. The boy had stood and moved closer to Larabee as the man sat up. The relief was evident on the young boys face.
"Vin, can you tell us what happened?" Wilmington asked.
"Fire kicked im and he fell against that post."
Nathans eyes scanned Larabee for further injuries. He noticed the dirt on the mans hip that was vaguely in the shape of a hoof print. Nathan placed his hand on the spot. He was going to ask if that was where the horse had connected, but got his answer when Chris hissed and moved away from the touch.
"Damn, Nathan, that hurts."
"Then you should be more careful around hurt animals. Buck told me bout Fire getting cut. Thats why I came out with him. Thought maybe he might need some doctoring."
Vin piped up at the accusation that Chris had been careless. "Wasnt Chris fault. JD ran in here yelling and scared Fire. We wasnt suppose to come in here, but he did anyway."
Buck looked around as Vin explained what happened. "Where is JD, Vin"
The boy shrugged. "I dont know. I guess he went to the house." His tone hinted that he knew something more, but wasnt telling. Buck chose to ignore it for now.
"How long ago did this happen, Chris?"
Larabee frowned as he tried to think. "It must have been around mid-morning. We'd been out here for a while."
"Well, its after two. That means you been out for four hours at least, Chris. I think we better get you inside and have a closer look at your head and that hip." Nathan stood and held a hand out to the gunslinger.
It took both men to get the injured Larabee to the house. Vin ran ahead and opened the door. He held it open as the three men maneuvered through the doorway and into Larabees bedroom. Placing him on the bed, Buck removed the mans boots while Jackson started on his shirt.
Chris slapped at Jacksons hands. "I can get it," he insisted.
Nathan smiled at him as he said, "Fine, Ill get these pants off so I can get a look at that hip."
Larabee rolled his eyes as he struggled with the shirt. He looked up into Bucks grinning face and snarled, "We dont need your help, Buck. You can just go sit in the front room."
Buck slapped the blondes knee. "I understand. Youre embarrassed about getting kicked in the derriere as Ezra calls it. Thats fine by me, Chris. I aint interested in seeing your white behind anyway. Sides, I need to check on JD."
Buck tipped his hat as he gathered Vin into his arms.
"No, I want to stay," the boy protested.
"Nah, you come on in here with me. You can go back in as soon as Nathan finishes up. That a deal?"
The boy reluctantly nodded. The two left the room and headed to the small room that the boys shared at the back of the house. Buck pulled the curtain back and walked in. He set Vin on his feet as he scanned the room, but saw no sign of the little dark haired boy. Frowning, he moved back into the front room. It was then that he saw the slate that JD used for school laying on the table. He strode across the room and picked it up and read the words.
Vin watched as Buck read the note from his cousin. He knew something was wrong by the look on the man's face. "What does it say?" he asked even as he tried to pull the slate down low enough to read.
Buck sat in a chair and turned the young boy to face him, his hands wrapped loosely around the skinny arms. "Vin, I'm not angry at you, but you have to tell me what happened. JD has run away. Can you tell me why he thinks that you hate him?"
The look in the boy's face told the man what he wanted to know, but he waited as the boy decided what to say. Vin's eyes filled with tears and his chin trembled.
"I told him I hated 'im," he whispered. He head began to shake slightly. "But I don't, Buck. I was scared and I thought Chris was dead." The small mouth snapped closed as he remembered all the things he said to his cousin.
Buck felt the tremors start in the small arms his hands rested against. Vin tried to back away, but the man gently pulled him close. "Vin, we all say things we don't mean when we're upset."
"NO! I said terrible things to him. I wanted him to hurt as much as I did and I said bad, terrible mean things to him." The seven-year-old began to struggle against the light clasp of the man, but Buck would not release him. The long blond hair fell into Vin's face as he finally gave up his struggles and collapsed into Buck's lap, weeping.
The man picked up the boy and held him close, rubbing his back as he wept. Wilmington caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned to see both Nathan and a wobbly Chris standing at the other side of the small room. Buck stood up, still holding Vin.
"I need to go find JD. Will y'all watch out for Vin?" Something in the way Buck phrased the question had both men looking hard at the little boy. Buck's face wore a serious expression as he indicated that they go back to Chris' room. Nathan helped Chris back to bed and Buck placed the young boy next to him. Buck shook his head at the questioning look on Larabee's face. He then patted Jackson on the shoulder and headed back to the front room with Nathan following close behind.
"JD ran off. Vin said some things to him when he thought Chris was dead. Would you mind watching them while I go find the boy? I don't want them trying to follow. Neither of 'em is in any shape to help much right now."
"I'll be right here. Are you going to go for help? Josiah is in town along with Ezra."
"No, I'll see if I can find him first. He's only five. Maybe he didn't get very far yet." Buck turned and headed for the door.
"Good luck, Buck. I'll make sure those two stay put."
"Thanks, Nathan. Hopefully, I'll be back soon. With JD." Buck closed the door gently as he left the small house.
+ + + + + + +
It was becoming dark and still no sign of the little boy. Buck Wilmington was frustrated and more than a little scared. Nights were cold and he wasn't sure if the small child even had the foresight to take a coat. He was pretty sure he hadn't. JD was never very good at planning ahead.
After closing the door earlier, he had moved around the house and found the small footprints where JD had climbed out the window and ran into the rocks behind the house. It had been easy to follow him at first, but the boy's tracks were faint on the hard ground. Buck felt like kicking himself. He should have gone into town and gotten some help. Hours were lost while he searched alone. Now, more hours would be lost as he gathered help and returned. In defeat, he turned and started back to the house. He was not looking forward to telling Chris and Vin that he could not find the dark-haired waif.
When he opened the door, Nathan and Chris were at the table. Vin sat in Chris' lap with his head resting on the man's shoulder. Three pairs of eyes turned at the sound of the opening door. Their disappointment was so strong, he could taste it.
"Tracks were too light. I lost 'em about half a mile from here." Buck fell into a chair and tossed his hat on the table.
"Nathan, would you go to town and get some help?" Larabee asked.
The black healer nodded and stood up. "I'll get Josiah and Ezra. I can probably get a couple others, too. I should be back in three hours or about."
Nathan started to the door, but a soft voice stopped him. "We got a secret place."
Chris looked down at the small boy in his lap. "Vin?"
Blue eyes turned up at him. "JD and me, we got a secret place we play in."
Chris turned to the two other men. Buck's eyes widened as his breath quicken. Nathan came back to the table.
"Vin? Could JD get there by himself?" Nathan asked.
The little boy nodded his head. Chris pushed the long hair out of the boy's face. "Vin, will you take us there?"
Again he nodded. Chris set the boy down and stood up shakily.
"You just hold up there, Chris. You ain't going nowhere." Nathan informed him.
Buck agreed and said as much. "Chris, there ain't no need in you going. Vin and me'll go. Nathan, you stay and keep an eye on him. Vin, you come with me."
Buck held out his hand and the little boy joined him. The man pulled their coats down from the rack and helped the little boy into his. Shrugging into his heavy coat, Buck turned and grabbed a lantern. The two went out the door. Buck set the boy onto his horse and swung up into the saddle.
"Buck!" Nathan trotted up and handed him a blanket. "Boy don't have his coat. He'll be cold."
Buck nodded and wheeled the horse around. Vin pointed south and they were off.
+ + + + + + +
Thirty minutes later, Vin pointed to a small hill. Buck moved closer and dismounted. He helped the boy down and lit the lantern. Together, they went toward the hill.
"It's around this way." Vin moved to the left and stopped in front of what appeared to be a pile of rocks. As Buck held the lantern up, he noticed the shadowed area behind the rocks.
"We piled rocks in front so's no one would see it. The stream's just over there. We come up here to play while ya'll are fishing and stuff." Vin's voice was so soft that Wilmington could hardly hear him. But he heard the sniffling.
Buck placed a hand on the boy's head. "It'll be all right, Vin. You don't worry." The man felt the boy's head begin to shake. Buck gripped the small head and rocked it forward and back in a nod. He leaned down close to Vin's ear. "Yes. It will. You just gotta believe."
Blue eyes looked up. "I'll try."
"Good. Stay here. I'll check inside."
"It dont go back very far."
Wilmington moved closer. He knelt down, holding the lantern in front of him. He crawled past the rocks and looked into the cave. It wasn't much more than depression, but it was deep enough to hide two small boys.
Tears sprung to his eyes when he saw the huddled form against the back wall. He took a calming breath and set the lantern down outside the cave. Lying on his belly, he wiggled in and reached out. JD didn't move at the touch. Buck rolled the little boy over onto his arms. Wiggling backwards, he inched his way out of the cave while cradling the little boy. Once outside, he sat up to examine the child.
Vin ran over and stood next to Buck. He had picked up the lantern and now held it high. In the weak light, they could see the dirt on the young face. White streaks created by his tears made the dirt show even more. Grass and twigs were tangled in the black hair. Buck checked the boy for injuries. He found numerous cuts and scrapes. The shirt and pants had rips on the elbows and knees. Wilmington could find nothing seriously wrong with the boy and he smiled for the first time in several hours. He looked at Vin and nodded.
Buck stood up. "Lets get im home, Vin." The boy nodded, but he never smiled.
Wrapping the blanket Nathan had sent along around the boy, Buck swung up onto the big gray horse. Vin blew out the lantern and it was hung over the saddle horn. Then he took hold of Vins hand and hoisted him up to sit behind the saddle on the horses rump. Buck told him to hold on and they headed back to the small ranch house.
+ + + + + + +
Getting home took less time than going and the three soon arrived back at the ranch. Nathan and Chris, having been alerted by the sound of the horse approaching, greeted them.
"Buck?" Chris voice questioned.
"I think hes okay, but he hasnt woken since we found im."
Nathan reached up and lifted Vin from the saddle. Then he reached up and took the bundle from Buck. Turning, he went into the house, not waiting for the others. Chris tugged a reluctant Vin into the house. Buck took time to loosen the cinch around his mare, promising her he would return soon to take care of her. He quickly entered the house and hurried to the boys room. There he found the others. Chris and Vin sat on Vins bed, watching as Jackson examined JD.
After a few minutes, Nathan stood and pulled the covers over the little boy. He sat on the edge of the bed as he told them what he had found.
"Well, hes tired and dirty, but except for some scrapes and cuts, hes in pretty good shape. Hes got one real nasty cut on his knee and Ill have to clean that real good, but hell be fine."
Nathan had sat with one hand patting the childs arm as he spoke. "Ill get the things to clean these scrapes. Hell probably sleep through it. When he wakes up, you need to get some water and food into im."
Buck and Chris nodded at the instructions. Vin never moved. He sat close to Larabees side. Chris looked down as Vin wiped his face on his sleeve. Buck watched as Chris gently turned the boy's head so he was looking up at the man.
"Vin, he's going to be okay." The boy nodded. "But I think you should think about what you're going to say when he wakes up. You owe JD an apology."
Vin nodded again as he glanced over at his cousin. "Yes, sir. I surely do."
Buck moved to the bed and held out his arms. "Something tells me that nobody has had anything to eat since early this morning. How 'bout you and me rustle something up while Nathan cleans up those scrapes?"
The little boy nodded, crawled off the bed and stood next to the rancher. Vin looked up and smiled slightly.
"I need to wash up and then I can help."
Buck patted him on the back. "Okay, Vin. I'll be right there."
The boy walked out of the room and the men heard the door close as he went out to get water. Buck turned back to Chris. "You gonna stay in here or you want to come to the front room?"
"I'll stay. JD might wake up."
Buck nodded and pulled back the curtain as Nathan approached. Wilmington dropped the curtain back after Nathan carried his supplies in.
Chris moved over to sit at the head of JD's bed. He and Nathan removed the damaged clothes and tossed them aside. Larabee looked on in sympathy as Nathan cleaned all the scrapes and scratches on the boy's arms and legs. The gunslinger reached across and picked up a damp cloth and began to wash away the dirt on the young boy's face. Nathan watched from the corner of his eye as he worked on the child's knees. Jackson found himself smiling as he watched the infamous gunslinger gently bathing the child's features. The blond worked with a light touch as he cleaned the boy's face, ears and neck.
Nathan was astonished as Chris put the cloth down and started to gently remove the grass and twigs from the black hair. Without removing his eyes from his task, Chris spoke. "I swore I'd never allow anyone close again. But these two.."
Chris had finished his task. He placed the things he had removed from the boy's hair into the cloth. He stood up and then leaned over and kissed the dark hair.
"I'll be in the next room if you need anything, Nathan." Chris stated as he glanced over at Jackson. Then he left the room quickly, but not before Nathan saw the shimmer of tears in those hardened eyes.
Nathan chuckled softly. 'So much for the cold-hearted gunslinger image', Nathan thought.
+ + + + + + +
After supper, Buck and Nathan went out to the barn to examine Fire's cut. Nathan mixed a poultice to apply to the ragged wound.
"Can't stitch it, Buck, too ragged. But itll heal fine. Just won't be pretty."
Buck chuckled as he stroked the long neck. "Well, we ain't too worried about being pretty are we boy? Nah, them fillies don't care about pretty. Just as long as you get the job done. Ain't that right, Fire?" The horse's ears perked forward as the big rancher talked. This was a voice the animal was used to and he nuzzled the man's chest in return. "Yeah, me and old Fire, we understand each other."
Nathan shook his head. He gathered his supplies and stood. The healer stepped out of the stall while the animal's attention was centered on Wilmington. He placed the extra poultice on the bale of hay next to the stall gate.
"There's enough for two more treatments. Wound should be healed by then. If it ain't, I'll mix up another batch for ya."
Buck slapped the withers of the stud as he walked out of the stall. Closing the gate, he thanked Nathan for his help. "Nate, I don't what I'd 'a done if ya hadn't been here today."
"I'm sure you would have managed, Buck. But I'm glad I could help. Now, I better be heading back to town or Josiah and Ezra will be coming to look for me."
"Its awful late to be riding alone. Why don't you stay the night? You can throw your bedroll in front of the fire."
"Sounds good, Buck, but I need to get back to town."
"Well, it's up to you, but your welcome to stay if you want."
The men left the barn and returned to the house. There, they found Chris sitting in the rocking chair that sat in front of the fireplace, dozing. Nathan roused the man and told him to go to bed. Buck quietly entered the boys' room. He found Vin lying on the bed with JD, his arms wrapped around his cousin. The man smiled at the sight. He knew the little boy felt bad about what he had said. Maybe this was the first step in his healing those wounds.
He stepped over and pulled the quilt over the slender shoulders.
He came back into the front room as Nathan was leaving Larabee's room. "He should sleep through the night. You come get me if he has any trouble waking up or don't where he is. Keep those knees of JD's clean and dry. They should both be fine." Nathan put on the slicker he carried in his saddlebags. "I'll see ya tomorrow or the next day, Buck. You take care."
"Thanks again, Nate. 'Night."
Buck watched until the man disappeared into the night. He banked the fire to keep it smothering and made himself comfortable as possible in the rocker. Propping his feet up, he settled in for the night.
+ + + + + + +
Something caused Vin to wake. Not knowing what had drawn him out of his sleep, he lay still and waited. He quickly realized that the warm body he was snuggled up to was wiggling away. He opened his eyes and saw JD trying to sneak off the bed. He reached out and took hold of the other boy's nightshirt.
"JD? What's ya doing?"
Tear filled eyes turned towards him. "I can't be here. I have to leave."
Vin grabbed his cousin in a hug. "No, JD. You belong here. I'm sorry about what I said. I didn't mean any of that stuff I said."
The dark haired boy wiped his nose on his sleeve. He shook his head as he said, "No. I was bad. I promised Mama I would be a good boy and I wasn't. I don't deserve to be here."
"Chris ain't dead, JD. I was wrong. He's asleep in his room."
"You wouldn't be funning me, would ya, Vin?"
The blond shook his head. "No, JD, I wouldn't lie to you about something like that."
"It don't make any difference, Vin. I still didn't do what I was supposed to. I was bad." JD whispered. "I broke my word to Mama. I don't think that Buck and Chris would want a bad kid like me."
Vin released his cousin and started backing off the bed. "Well, then, I guess I better go too."
JD sat up in the bed and stared at his cousin. "No, Vin, you can't leave. Chris needs you. You need Chris. You can't leave. Please Vin, don't leave."
Vin was pulling on his pants as he told the young boy, "If you were bad and have to leave, then I got to go too."
"But you wasn't bad, Vin."
"Sure, I was. I made a promise to your Mama too. I promised to take care of ya and watch out for ya. I didn't do that." He reached for his boots and stockings.
JD scrambled across the bed and sat down next to Vin. He placed his hand on Vin's knee. "But you always took real good care of me. You protected me from that snake and Geezer Neezer and lots of things."
Vin shook his head. "No, I didn't take care of you today. I said mean things 'cause I was mad at you. And I wasn't watching out for you when you ran away. No, I didn't keep my promise to your mama, so I got to leave." He stopped putting on his boots and turned to JD. "Can we run away together? Or do we have to go different places?"
JD's eyes filled with tears and his chin trembled. "I don't want to go by myself. If we have to go, can we go together?"
The little blond nodded. "Yeah, I think that we can do that." He wrapped an arm around the small boy. He received a hug in return. With a big sigh, Vin released the younger boy. He stood up and picked up his shirt. He turned back to the bed as he slipped the rough material onto his shoulders. JD still sat in the same position, watching him with wide eyes full of tears. The little head dropped and the tears spilled out. Vin walked over the placed his arm around his young cousin.
"JD, don't you want to go?"
Black hair flew as he shook his head. "No. I love Buck and Chris. I love the ranch and horses. I'm going to miss them all. Plus Mr. Ezra and Mr. 'saih and Mr. Nathan. And I don't want to forget about Miz Nettie and Mary and Inez."
Vin giggled. "JD, by the time you get through naming people, we'll be all growed up. We might as well stay here."
Wide hazel eyes looked into his blue ones. JD's voice was a murmur. "Do you think Buck or Chris would want us?"
"We could ask."
The youngest smiled for the first time in almost a day. "Okay."
Before the boys could stand up, the curtain moved aside and the two men of the house walked in. The sight of Chris had JD quaking and he huddled up next to his cousin, his head hidden in the blonde's armpit.
Chris walked over and sat down next to the dark haired child. He didn't touch the boy, but spoke, "JD, what happened wasn't your fault. It was an accident. You know that I would never blame you for something like that, don't you?"
He got no response from the little boy. He placed a hand on the narrow back. And waited. Soon, the little boy slowly moved toward the man, ending up in his lap. After a couple of minutes, hazel eyes looked up.
"I'm sorry, Chris. I didn't mind you. I'm sorry."
Chris patted the young boy's back. "JD, we all make mistakes, but what we learn from them is the important thing. Do you understand?"
"Good. Now about this running off, please promise me that you won't do that. I dont think I could stand it if you went away. Will you promise me?"
Buck slapped his hands together. "Good. Now that that's settled, how about we get some food into you, JD?"
Buck reached down and held out his hands to the boy. JD stood up and kissed Larabee on the cheek. Then he held up his arms for Wilmington to lift him. Which Buck did. He picked him up and carried him into the front room.
Chris moved closer to the older boy. Placing a hand on his neck, the man squeezed lightly.
"Did you hear everything?"
"Most of it." He felt the small body shiver. "You did very good. You let JD make the decision to stay. That was very clever."
Vin blushed, but he smiled also. Larabee's praise was a rare thing and Vin glowed within it.
"How about we join Buck and JD?"
They found the other two eating biscuits and drinking milk. They joined them and the family ate in silence. JD watched the others as he ate and Buck watched him.
"You all right, little bit?" he asked.
JD's only response was a nod. Buck didn't like how quiet the boy was. He tried again.
"JD? 'bout what you wrote? I want you to know that it was a very brave thing to do."
"It was only fair. I thought Chris was.."
Buck reached out and cupped the boy's chin in his hand. He turned the boy's head around so he could see his eyes. "Very brave." JD blushed and smiled.
"Thanks for saying I'm a good pa."
JD shrugged. "You are." Buck smiled. "You take care of us and you show how to ride and take care of horses and ourselves. And you play with us."
Buck straightened as the boy rambled. The old JD was starting to come back. The boy was a talker, that was for sure.
"And Chris, he does the same thing. Only he don't play with us as much as you." That statement broadened the smile on Wilmington's face. Chris just stared at his friend. But the boy's next statement wiped the smirk off the man's face.
"Course, Chris can cook and you can't, so that gives you more time to play."
Buck's face fell as Chris and Vin laughed out loud.
Afterwards, the boys were put back to bed and tucked in. Buck sat on the edge of the bed and watched as the boys slept. Vin insisted on sharing a bed with his cousin and lay curled around the smaller body. They had both fallen to sleep quickly, the day's events having drained their usual boundless energy. He sat for a few minutes and then rose and joined Chris in the front room.
Wilmington poured a cup of coffee for them both and sat down across the table from his partner. He noticed the slight tremor in the gunslinger's hand.
"Ya feeling all right, Chris?"
Chris sat the cup down and looked at his partner. "Yeah, just thinking about what could 'a happened today. We could 'a lost both of them."
"Nah, Vin would 'a never left. And he wouldn't 'a let JD leave, either."
"But JD did leave, Buck."
"Only 'cause Vin was distracted. He takes the promise he made very seriously. He won't be distracted again." Buck chuckled. " Face it, pard, we're stuck with them two for good."
Chris stared at his partner and then smiled as he nodded. "Yeah, looks that way."
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