"Little Britches" Universe

Saturday morning found Vin plotting again. They were all supposed to go into town today, but Vin didn’t want to cause a problem there. He eyed the stall at the end where Buck had just returned Furnace, their big chestnut stallion. He often petted Furnace and occasionally fed him a carrot, but always from the outside. Neither he nor JD was allowed in the stall. He could hear someone approach and although he was unsure if it was Buck or Chris he decided to tempt the fates. He was slowly climbing through when a hand on the back of his collar jerked him from between the rails. He was spun around to face Chris and froze, waiting for it to happen. Chris could only stare in shock and anger at the blatant offence.

Buck had walked in just behind to witness the stand-off. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know,” Chris replied. “Vin?”

Vin remained silent, heart-racing. He could only see disappointment in Chris’s face and that hurt even worse.

“If you’ve got nothing to say for yourself then go outside and wait for us.”

JD had also witnessed this with shock, dragging his cousin aside as soon as he was out the door.

“Why’d ya do that? You know your not allowed.” JD had been in trouble from Vin enough to know the rule about Furnace.

“Just ‘cause.” Vin had no explanation he could really use.

“Why are you makin’ Chris mad at you?”

“I’m not,” Vin denied.

“Yes y’are.”

Both men had heard the accusation and Chris almost agreed. Vin just seemed to go out of his way lately. They had plans today that Chris wanted to see through. He’d have to deal with Vin later.

“Why did we have to wear Sunday best? It’s only Saturday,” JD asked of his neat shirt and trousers. He’d even had to wipe down his boots.

“Judge Travis is in town, so we’re all going to lunch with him. So, no getting your good clothes dirty,” Buck warned.

Vin watched warily but Chris just pointed him toward Peso. “We’ll finish this later Vin, we have to leave.”

JD and Buck were the only ones to converse on the journey to town, the other pair travelling in a brooding silence. Chris kept a careful eye on Vin as if somehow he could just see what the problem was. Chris had become accustomed to the comments and jokes that he’d been lucky to get the quiet one, but Vin had many types of quiet and today’s had a tense, nervous quality to it that wasn’t good.

They stopped at the blacksmith first to arrange for replacement brackets for one of the pumps to be made. The brackets wouldn’t be ready until the afternoon but they had planned to be in town most of the day anyway.

“Mr Larabee.” One of the Judge’s office clerks came running over with a small note. “Judge Travis asked me to give you this when you arrived.” He disappeared again, clearly not requiring an urgent answer.

“Trouble?” Buck asked.

“No,” Chris shook his head. “The Judge just wants a meeting if we’re available before noon.” Both men looked to their young companions. They’d find someone to keep on eye on the boys then settle any business with the Judge.

A likely candidate was soon found as Ezra had taken up his usual position on the boardwalk to await the arrival of the morning stage.

“Ezra, can you keep an eye on these two for about an hour?”

“You may impose upon my goodwill for a short period of time.”

“You waiting on someone in particular?” Buck asked.

“Just reviewing potential profit.”

“Boys, you stay with Ezra,” Chris instructed.

JD loved to watch Ezra and his card tricks and soon had the gambler running through his vast array. Ezra drew Vin in but found the older boy’s attention wandering.

It wasn’t a long wait before the stage rattled down the main street. Ezra heard the voice issuing orders even before alighting from the stage. He closed his eyes automatically against the headache he knew would bloom. He opened them to the curious concern in the blue eyes aimed up at him.

“Weren’t you waitin’ on them?” Vin asked of the odd look on Ezra’s face.

Ezra didn’t try to explain. “Waiting but not expecting this.” The words were no sooner spoken than the rich, melodious tones were heard.

“Ezra darling.”

“Mother.” Ezra stepped forward, bringing the boys with him.

“My, my, my who do we have here?”

“Mother, this is JD Dunne and Vin Tanner. Boys, this is my mother, Mrs Standish.”

The boys were rarely tongue-tied but JD appeared star-struck by the woman before him his mouth hanging slack. Ezra gently tapped the lower jaw back up. Vin however was clearly unimpressed with the new arrival. He remembered Ezra telling him that he’d been left with other’s to be hurt. This was the woman who had left him. Vin turned to Ezra, uncertain as to what he should do.

“You can stay with me and JD,” Vin offered.

Ezra was surprised to find Vin’s hand curling into his. It took a moment for Ezra to comprehend what Vin meant. Ezra was touched that Vin remembered the shared secret and that he would try to shield him from further harm. “Thank you Vin, but everything is fine now. It was all a very long time ago.”

Maude was curious at the older boy’s response. “Well you’ve become quite the fawning uncle, darling.”

“I appreciate such youthful company with no great demands for time or affection. I’m sure you’re not encouraging me to procreate and grant you title of grandmother.”

Maude Standish gave a delicate shudder at the thought.

“What brings you to these wilds, Mother?”

“A private conveyance was unavailable, so I had to squeeze aboard that lumbering contraption. They can surely afford to repair the springs at the price they charge for tickets.”

“The reason not the means, Mother.”

“I’m merely passing through and thought I should like to visit with my only child. What Mother would pass up such an opportunity?”

Ezra decided that an answer to that question would not be appreciated.

“And what of your young companions here?” Maude inquired.

“My two young friends and I are keeping company for a short while.”

“A nanny Ezra? I do hope a trust fund is involved here.”

“Not unless Mr Larabee or Mr Wilmington have recently come into wealth. Just what are you doing in Four Corners, Mother?”

Maude eyed the two boys and considered their coloring. “Who would have thought? They do appear to have left it a little late to discover their indiscretions,” Maude added with a slight nod in Vin’s direction.

Ezra stopped to correct his mother’s assumption but then reconsidered. No, with any luck his mother would voice that opinion in Mr Larabee’s presence. That conversation would be ample recompense for his Mother’s surprise visit.

“I’m travelling onward to Denver but I decided to break my journey to visit with you. Surely I’m not an inconvenience to you?” Maude enquired archly.

“Never Mother. How could your company be other than delightful?”

JD and Vin exchanged glances, not understanding the conversation going on. The words were familiar but they couldn’t determine if both parties were actually happy.

“See to my luggage, Ezra.”

“By all means, let us remove ourselves from the street.”

Ezra knew his Mother’s penchant for portmanteau and acquired the services of another passer by. Directing the boys to the smallest items the entourage trailed down the street in the wake of rustling green silks.

At the hotel’s reception, Ezra made the final arrangements for the luggage to be delivered to his Mothers’ newly acquired room and returned to the boys.

“I need somethin’ for Monday. I can ask,” JD insisted. The boys were now perched on the pile of suitcases in the hotel lobby.

“No ya can’t.”

“But she’s all glittery.”

Ezra’s attention was caught by the description, certain the conversation was regarding his wayward parent.

“No. You were gonna ask Nathan. You don’t want somethin’ girlie.”


“May I be of assistance here?” Ezra was intrigued by the debate.

JD burst in before Vin could stop him. “Will your Ma come to show ‘n tell for me at school?”

“Show and tell?” Ezra asked, bewildered. “Show what and tell whom?”

“We gotta bring somethin’ different or special and talk about it in front of the class.”

“And you want my Mother to speak before your gathering?”

“No, she’d just have to stand. I gotta do the talkin’. See, I bring her to show, then I tell, show ‘n tell.” JD explained.

Ezra was now enlightened and amused. Different or special would certainly describe his Mother. Much as he would enjoy seeing such a display, he didn’t want to lead the boys down a path destined for disappointment. “I don’t believe my mother would be a suitable display. Have you spoken to Mr Larabee?”

“He just said nothin’ dead.”

“While that does still leave my mother eligible for this honor, I fell that I must decline on her behalf.”



“Told ya,” Vin agreed.

“Come. The hotel staff can handle my Mother from here. Let us go in search of your keepers.”

The gentlemen in question were soon located, as they had just concluded their business with the Judge. Ezra handed his two charges back into parental care.

“Are you joining the Judge for lunch as well, Ezra?” Buck enquired.

“I did have plans to attend, but I shall have to send my regrets now. My mother has just seen fit to descend upon our quiet little town so I shall now be otherwise engaged.”

“Invite her as well. Nathan and Josiah won’t be there, but Mary will be joining us. Hell, it’ll be a party,” Buck encouraged.

Ezra could see the appeal of numbers at a luncheon engagement. “I shall pass on the invitation and unless otherwise informed, I believe you can expect us to join you.”

+ + + + + + +

“I don’t want to go here.” Vin made his opinion known as they stopped outside the hotel. He had just assumed they’d eat at the café. He didn’t like the hotel restaurant. Normally he didn’t mind eating with the adults, but that was Josiah, Nathan and Ezra. He didn’t really know the Judge, or Ezra’s mother and now it would be at the fancy restaurant.

“We’re all guests so we’re going into that dining room to sit down quietly and eat.” Chris didn’t want Vin starting anything here.

Chris would swear he could see Vin’s heels dig in to the boardwalk. It wasn’t much, just a shift in his weight, a tilt to his chin. Vin had never thrown any sort of tantrum but Chris suspected that he might be getting close to seeing one. Chris went on straightening Vin’s shirt collar and re-tucking loose tails back into Vin’s pants.

Vin begrudged every tug and tuck, pulling away as Chris tried to slick his hair back out of his eyes. He didn’t want to eat in this fancy place. He didn’t want to be polite. He didn’t want people and he didn’t want vegetables. He was tempted to really push this time but it was between he and Chris, not all these nosey strangers.

“Vin, I want you to behave in there.” Chris wasn’t sure why, but he felt Vin needed reminding today.

“Yes sir.” Vin knew it wasn’t the right time so he slowly eased his stance, huffing out a disgusted breath to make his feelings known. Just because there was no escape didn’t mean they could make him enjoy it. Vin trudged along after Chris.

The group arranged themselves around the joined tables. Some quick footwork on Buck’s part had Chris seated beside Mary. This left Ezra and himself as the adult buffers for the boys at the table.

“Ezra we didn’t tell you about our puppies. We had to give ‘em back but Chris took ‘em back to their family.”

“Shut up JD, they’re gone.” Vin snapped. He hated being reminded of the lie and now people were frowning at his outburst.

“Coyote,” Chris explained, silencing Vin with a look.

“Yes, they’re getting to be a real problem. I hear they’re coming down and starting to take smaller livestock,” the Judge commented.

“Yes, there’s been calls to do something about it,” Mary agreed, not wanting to speak about the details with the boys present.

Chris glanced at the boys to see if they were paying attention to the conversation. Clearly Vin knew what was going to be done about it as Chris found himself the recipient of an accusing stare.

“The color of his eyes he must get from his mother, but that glare is definitely all yours Mr Larabee,” Maude remarked.

It took a moment for the meaning of the words to sink in for Chris and then anger flared at the slur he felt cast on his vows to Sara. “He’s not…”

He stopped, not feeling the need to explain and certainly not with Vin present. There really wasn’t anything to correct in the broad assumption. Vin’s looks may well be from his mother and no one would argue that while Vin may have been stubborn before, he’d certainly honed that talent under Chris’s tutelage.

“…in a good mood,” Chris finished, hopeful that no one had noticed the slip.

The waitress interrupted the small talk at the table as she began setting dishes down. Vin had been nervous about eating in the grand restaurant of the hotel and now knew that he’d been right to be concerned as he viewed the array of cutlery and plates before him. He studied Ezra’s actions and carefully followed them, silently nudging JD to do the same.

Maude noticed the mimics going on across the table. “Aren’t they just the sweetest things, Ezra?”

JD had selected one of the rolls from the basket. “Better with honey Ma’am,” JD added smiling brightly, having misunderstood the target of her comment.

Maude paid careful attention to the boys as the meal was served. The older boy was clearly unsure of his environment but remained remarkably composed as he watched and copied Ezra’s every move. He was definitely a quick study, but the younger one had more potential, that soft baby innocence still apparent. Both appeared to be eager to please Ezra.

Vin moved to take the plate Ezra was passing but accidentally clipped his lemonade glass. It clattered down, spilling it’s remaining contents across the cloth. Ezra quickly dropped a napkin down to soak up the spillage.

“I’m sorry,” Vin whispered as all eyes turned to him. He ducked his head and flushed with embarrassment.

“No harm done, Mr Tanner.” Ezra handed the soiled napkin to the hovering waitress and indicated a new class for Vin. Ezra tried to offer the plate of food again but this time Vin refused with a quick shake of his head.

Vin was content with the potatos and small amount of meat already on his plate. He doubted he could even manage to eat that. Vin moved the food around on his plate occasionally picking up a small forkful and putting it in his mouth, but his throat seemed to close up and it hurt to swallow. He was sure everyone was looking at him in disapproval.

Ezra eyed the lack of progress next to him. The glass of lemonade that had been replaced was not touched again. Clearly Vin was upset but he couldn’t see that it would be over something so small as the spilling of lemonade. Buck and Chris were both occupied in conversation with his mother and the Judge. Ezra took a roll from the basket, split and buttered it, then placed it on Vin’s plate. He knew Vin hadn’t taken nearly enough food.

Maude broke from her conversation with the Judge, attracted by Ezra’s paternal actions and again studied the boys for a few minutes. Vin felt the interest and looked up to find Ezra’s mother staring intently at JD. He knew that look. Ezra noticed the unusual interest and he too became wary.

“Ma’am?” Vin drew the attention from JD.

“Yes Vin?” Maude turned to the young inquisitor.

“JD’s my cousin, so I look out for him.” It was a declaration rather than a simple comment. The words were softly spoken but Ezra easily heard them. He had to smile at Vin’s well-honed survival instincts.

“Well I’m sure you do a very fine job.” Maude was a little surprised at the challenge she heard there. She had been considering a few scenarios but she doubted the child would be aware of her interest.

“A number of people look out for both the boys, Mother.” Ezra warned her softly. He would not tolerate anything here.

“As it should be Ezra darling.”

The challenges had been made muted and casually, the rest of the table unaware of the conversation going on.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra retired to the saloon after lunch and considered the odd goings-on at lunch. He could see no possible interest his mother could have in the boys. None of the local residents had sufficient funds to be of fiscal interest and the boys were too well known for any other stories. Ezra leaned back in his favorite chair in the saloon, sliding the cards between his hands in a soothing rhythm. His solitude didn’t last long has his Mother took a seat opposite.

“Mother.” Ezra stilled the cards in deference to the interruption.

“You really have been lax in your duties Ezra. You have a wealth of opportunity with such beguiling youngsters available to you.”

“And what tale were you contemplating? Let me see, Mother and son would be a stretch of credibility so perhaps the doting elder Aunt.”

Maude narrowed her eyes at the unkind statement. “The younger of the pair has such a sweet face. He could go far with that look, perhaps even further than you,” she suggested.

“Am I no longer sweet-faced enough for your schemes? You wound me, Mother.”

“Your face is as sweet as ever darling Ezra,” she reassured him, trailing a finger down the line of his jaw. “But you’ve lost that engaging innocence.”

“How careless of me Mother. I can’t imagine where I misplaced it. Where was the last place you saw it?”

“Sarcasm does not become you Ezra.”

Ezra schooled his features to a benign smile. There was no point in an argument here. Whether his innocence had been lost or stolen it hardly mattered. However, he had been honest in his curiosity to know when he’d last looked as wide-eyed or innocent as JD.

“I shall be departing tomorrow, Denver awaits.”

Ezra disliked the fact that he still felt both relief and regret whenever his mother departed. While her visits were generally best short-lived, he still held a faint hope that each time it would be different. He knew the odds of that made it a long shot at best and as a gambling man he should stop throwing himself away on such a losing hand.

Ezra lingered at the saloon after his Mother’s departure but there was little chance of entertainment so early in the afternoon. He decided to return to the hotel, certain that his Mother intended to ignore all the earlier subtle warnings. He’d make it clear just who she would be taking on if she attempted to involve either boy in any future schemes.

His introspection left him inattentive to his surroundings as he passed down the street. His reactions were too slow to protect himself from the arm that tightened at his throat and dragged him stumbling into the alley. He cursed his own stupidity at being caught in broad daylight as he tried to take a choking breath.

Vin and JD had been left in the care of Gloria Potter while the men finished their business with the blacksmith. Vin had decided to wait outside the Potter’s store when he saw Ezra turn the corner. He had only just raised his hand to wave when Ezra seemed to stumble and disappear into the shadowed opening of the alley. Vin was certain he’d seen another larger man. Not stopping to even consider Chris’ instructions he sped off toward the alley. Vin slowed as he approached the opening, moving quietly past some crates. There he saw Ezra pinned against the wall by a giant of a man. Vin quickly scampered up the crates and onto the rooftop. He fleetingly realised that another of Chris’ instructions was being disobeyed but this was for a good reason.

Neither man had seen the boy arrive, both startled by the missile that landed on the assailant’s back. Vin clung on, small hands raking at the neck and face beneath him. Enraged, the attacker released his hold of Ezra’s throat and stumbled back into the far wall trying to dislodge the new weight. Vin was slammed back, wedged between the timbers and the giant’s body, suspended for moment before slipping to the ground stunned. Ezra gasped and coughed at the sudden release, dragging in air to recover and take advantage of Vin’s distraction.

As he flexed his forearm to release the mechanism on his derringer, Ezra saw a flash of movement as Vin ran forward. He hesitated, unwilling to fire a shot while the boy could be endangered, the gun pulled high at the last moment and the shot flew safely into the air. That delay was all that was necessary for his attacker to be on him again, a fist slamming into his nose, white-hot pain exploding in his face. Ezra moved to defend himself, ignoring the blood now running down his face. He suddenly found a new obstacle as Vin threw himself between the men intent on protecting Ezra. Ezra felt the impact and realising who it was, grabbed the boy and turned, the incoming blows connecting with his back and ribs. The impact hurt but at least the pain reassured him that he’d managed to turn Vin clear. Ezra crumpled under the steady blows taking Vin to the ground with him and shielding the smaller body beneath him. He stayed hunched down, grunting in pain as a boot connected solidly with his ribs, emptying his lungs and leaving him gasping. The boot came in again and again, thudding solidly into his thigh and back. He didn’t dare move to defend himself for fear of exposing Vin. Shouts and more thuds came, but this time thankfully not directed at him.

The earlier shot had brought the others running, Chris and Buck arriving first. The struggle was over quickly, a cold steel barrel to the back of the neck a fast deterrent. Buck hustled the stranger away to the jail, relieved as Nathan passed him at the alley entrance.

“Ezra?” Chris laid his hand flat on the man’s back, the pained, hitching breath an obvious sign of damage.

Ezra didn’t have the breath to respond, struggling upward to shift his weight from Vin. Chris helped to ease Ezra to the side, relieved as Nathan rushed up to assist. Vin lay stunned at the sequence of events then sat up. A quick check by Chris revealed the blood on Vin’s shirt was Ezra’s. Vin appeared to have been saved from any harm. Chris’ relief flooded forward, turning to anger at the risk this stubborn boy had taken. He instinctively tightened his grip on the Vin’s upper arms and drew his attention with a hard shake.

“What in God’s name did you think you were doing? “

Tears welled in shock at what had happened, but Vin wouldn’t let them fall. He didn’t respond as Chris moved him back towards the crate and out of Nathan’s way.

“You stay there this time.” Chris warned. Taking a calming breath, he carefully inspected Vin again, but the boy seemed shocked but unhurt. Chris turned his attention back to Nathan whose probing hands were eliciting pained grunts from Ezra.

Vin stared at the blood-covered figure curled on the ground. He realised with a guilty jolt that he’d failed and slowly backed further into the crates, wedging himself into the narrow gap.

Nathan cleared Ezra to be moved but he was too dazed to walk under his own power. Chris didn’t want to leave Vin alone but turning, he found the boy had disappeared again.

“God Dammnit!”


“Vin. He’s taken off again.”

Nathan looked from Ezra to Chris. “You want to go after him? I’ll get someone else to help.”

“No. Let’s take care of Ezra first, then I’ll go after Vin.”

Ezra was transported up into the clinic, already beginning to rouse from his stupor. Nathan waved Chris away, knowing he was fretting about the missing child. Chris returned to the alley in the hope that Vin had returned. A flash of color as he passed the crates caught his eyes, the blue out of place among the greying timber.

There folded up tightly between the stacks was Vin. He wasn’t even that far back, only missed earlier in Chris’ rush. Chris was sorry for his earlier outburst, his anger and relief merging into something he now regretted.

“Vin?” Chris moved Vin out into the open, tipping Vin’s face up when he refused to raise his head. “You should have gotten an adult to help Ezra. We would have taken care of it.”

Vin knew he’d broken lots of rules today. “I got Ezra hurt worse.” Vin chewed at his lip knowing he’d failed Ezra.

Chris decided not to sugar coat it. Vin had to start thinking about the consequences of some of his stunts. “Yes. Ezra was hurt worse because he had to protect you. I need to be able to trust that you will do as I say. You can’t just decide what rules you will and won’t obey. You’re not the grown-up here.”

Chris sighed and he laid his hand gently on the down bent head. Vin flinched at the touch. Feeling the movement, Chris gently ran his fingers over the scalp finding a nasty lump on the back of Vin’s head.


He received only a silent nod in affirmation.

“Lets have Nathan look at you, then we’ll go home. I think we need to have a serious talk.”

Vin flinched at the thought. He knew all about those sort of talks.

+ + + + + + +

Chris pushed the clinic door open and led Vin inside. Ezra was already sitting up on the edge of one of the cots, a linen cloth dotted in blood still pressed to his nose. He batted Nathan’s hands away from the ribs he was attending to, grasping Vin’s hand and pulling him in.

“Vin. Dear God, what were you thinking?” Ezra clutched the unresisting child to him, surprising the others with his action.

“He was hurtin’ you.”

A firm hand at his chin directed him to Ezra’s gaze. “You never do that again.”

“But…” Vin was surprised as Ezra often instructed him in things but he never ordered him like Chris would.

“No, never again. While I’m most grateful for your intentions Vin, you are not to endanger yourself like that again.”

Vin’s eyes were locked on the blood spilled down the front of the white shirt. “I’m sorry you got hurt because of me.” Ezra felt the small hand curl up around his own. He returned the clasp.

“I was hurt because of a foolish man with an ill temper. And you? Seeing you hurtle from a roof top on to him.”

“You did what?” Buck had only just arrived in the doorway, but his startled question lost in another’s angry outburst.

“God damnit Vin! How many times do I have to tell you and you still don’t listen,” Chris growled, shocked to hear even more news of recklessness.

Vin pulled his hand from Ezra’s, jumping at the angry voice. Although he’d intended only to help Ezra, he wondered if this time he’d finally driven Chris too far. He looked up to find Nathan, Chris and Buck all towering over him. This was more than he’d expected, worse than he’d intended. He eyed the open door of the clinic but his escape was blocked by the three men standing before him. He shuffled backward, trying to distance himself.

“You’re not going anywhere Vin. Nathan’s going to see to you then we’re going to have a serious talk.” Chris had intended to halt the attempted flight with his words.

Vin knew about talks, certain it was going to happen. He could have just gone on as before, but no, he head to make Chris do it. He now regretted wanting to know the truth. Vin instinctively put up a hand to ward them off, but Chris only stepped in closer.

“Gentlemen, move further away or sit down.” Ezra intervened quickly as Vin appeared to be ready to panic. “The three of you towering like that is more than sufficient intimidation for a hardened criminal, let alone one child who’s apparently having an appalling day.”

Chris stopped and saw that Vin was virtually cowering before them. Buck and Nathan backed away quickly as they too saw Vin’s reaction. Chris needed to settle things with Vin but this wasn’t the time or place.

Chris crouched down before Vin. The pained squint reminded him of their original reason for coming to Nathan. “Does your head hurt worse?”

Vin froze again. Suddenly it was that concerned voice again. Vin looked at the others, confused at the sudden change.

“I can help you with that Vin,” Nathan offered. “Can I come over and look at you?”

Vin shook his head in refusal.

“He has to be hurt,” Ezra interjected. “He was slammed back against the wall quite hard.”

Chris was still crouched low and turned Vin slowly to face him. He didn’t like how wary Vin seemed. “Nathan needs to make sure you’re not hurt before he can finish helping Ezra.”

Vin’s eyes flickered from Nathan to Ezra, the incomplete bandages obvious and dangling from Ezra’s chest.

“I must protest Mr Larabee,” Ezra complained at being used in this blatant blackmail.

Chris silenced him with a look then turned back to Vin. “Can Nathan do that so Ezra can get better?”

Vin didn’t want to cause Ezra any more pain “Okay,” he agreed slowly, allowing Chris to move him on to the second cot.

Nathan found the bump on the head easily enough. He also found a smaller one a little to the side. “Did he get hit twice?”

“That’s the second fall in as many days. Yesterday it was the school roof but he didn’t seem bothered by it.”

“No, it’s only minor, but this second knock has probably just rattled him up a little more,” Nathan explained. Nathan suspected his back would have taken some of the impact but found no damage to the ribs or spine. He’d definitely be showing bruises tomorrow.

“You drink this for me and it’ll feel better soon.” Vin barely tolerated medical attention at the best of times, but Nathan thought he was even more tense today. The tea would help ease that as well as the pain of the headache.

“He should just rest quietly,” Nathan reassured everyone, pressing Vin back down to the mattress as he began to rise. “You rest there, Vin.”

“How about you Ezra?” Chris stayed seated on the edge of Vin’s cot, watching over him as they sorted out the events.

“Nothing a hot bath won’t put to rights.” Ezra’s voice was decidedly nasal from the swelling and blood. He was certain he wouldn’t be able to appear in public for days.

“And some more strapping. I haven’t finished with you yet,” Nathan reminded the gambler.

Buck told them he’d delivered the stranger to the jail without further incident, the man explaining nothing other than yelling about cheats and swindlers. “Ezra, do you know what that was about. Was it someone who lost to you at poker?”

“I fear an acquaintance of my Mother’s chose to make their point with me. He was looking for some certificates and believed I was now the holder. Mr Tanner intervened during his rather crude attempt to interview me.”

“Shouldn’t we warn your mother?” Buck asked, concerned.

“I expect that she was aware of another parties interest, hence her divergence to here.”

“Well I suppose it would make sense to come to you for protection if she thought someone was following her.”

Ezra didn’t bother to explain that his mother was more likely to have arrived in the hope of diverting attention to him than seeking any protection. It appeared to have worked as it was assumed that he’d received those certificates for safekeeping.

“And the certificates?” Buck persisted.

“Passed along or transferred already I would expect. I will ensure there’s no other danger.” Ezra thought he might also pass on his opinion of her current scheme.

“Nathan, should Vin stay overnight, just to be sure?” Chris could see by the slow even breathing that Vin had fallen asleep under Nathan’s magic tea.

“I don’t think there’s any danger, but he’d probably be more comfortable travelling tomorrow.”

“You may take this one,” Ezra offered. “I believe I shall retire to that hot tub and my feather bed.” He stood with Nathan’s assistance, straightening slowly.

“I’ll take JD home tonight and you and Vin can travel in the morning,” Buck suggested. The group hadn’t planned to stay away from the ranch for the night and Buck and JD still had plenty of time to get home before dark.

+ + + + + + +

Vin appeared to be recovered although subdued the next morning but Chris attributed it to the lingering headache and the events of yesterday. Chris was doubtful of Vin’s ability to manage Peso if he still wasn’t feeling well and insisted that Vin ride back to the ranch with him, Peso on a lead line.

Vin curled his fingers into Chris’ waistband, not sure enough of his welcome to wrap his arms around the waist of the man before him. Chris found he couldn’t relax, knowing Vin was there but not feeling the secure hold, the bony knuckles nudging his spine not sufficient reassurance.

Chris stopped just outside of town. He turned to find Vin looking back warily. “Hop down, and come up front here.” Chris instructed, giving Vin a hand down. The boy was quickly hoisted back up into the saddle in front of him.

“I’m not a baby,” Vin protested. He considered riding double to be childish and certainly sitting in front was only for babies like JD.

“No you’re not.” Chris agreed, spreading his palm against Vin’s chest and pressing the stiff body back against him.

Chris kept the pace slow, the easy rocking motion providing a familiar comfort to the boy and he slowly relaxed back against the strong body behind him. Maybe up front was for babies but Vin decided it was kind a nice.

Chris thought Vin had dozed off on the journey home but found he slipped quickly down as soon as he drew to a halt in the yard. Vin stood by Peso’s shoulder and Chris released the lead. Peso was led off, Vin ready to lavish attention on the friend he’d forced into such an undignified position.

“How is he?” Buck asked, walking up to the late arrivals.

“Quiet. I’m not sure if he’s hurting or still fretting about something. How’s JD?” The younger boy had appeared to be recovered from his illness the other day but separating him from Vin was likely to have upset him again.

“He had a big morning helping me out here, but I’ve convinced him to take a short nap. I promised him another visit with those new colts if he rested. Vin up to it?”

“Maybe. I want a little talk with him first and see if I can’t get a few things straightened out.”

The pair waited for Vin to reappear but as Vin left the barn he turned and climbed up onto the corral rails.

“What’s he doing?” Buck asked.

Chris pinched the bridge of his nose in a hopeless attempt to relieve the growing headache. “These days, I just don’t know,” he sighed.

Chris didn’t want any unnecessary argument so he took the discussion to Vin rather than call him into the house. It was just as easy to do this outside. “Vin, we need to settle a few things about your behavior lately.”

Vin didn’t turn, but nodded. “Yes sir.” Vin had been hoping it wouldn’t prove to be true but that was not to be. He took a long steadying breath and climbed down off the rail. “In the barn?”

“Out here is fine Vin.” Vin’s hands trembled as he slid his braces of his shoulders. His hands were grabbed as they moved to undo the top button of his waistband.

“Vin, no!” Chris read Vin’s actions with surprise. “I said we’d talk.”

“Yes.” Vin was confused. “You said you and me were gonna have a serious talk. I know what that means.”

“It means a talk, Vin. Words.” Chris slipped the braces quickly back into position. He’d thought the boys understood that they wouldn’t be punished like that. “I thought you knew I’d never do that?”

Vin looked everywhere but at Chris. Finally Chris just took a hold of that chin and turned the small face toward him.

“I know you said you didn’t want to but I thought maybe that wouldn’t count if I made you do it.”

“You can’t make me hurt you Vin.”

“I always did before. They’d say I brung it on m’self, or I was askin’ for it.”

JD’s words yesterday came back to Chris. “Have you been trying to make me mad?” Chris asked confused by such an action. “I don’t understand Vin. Why do you want me to hurt you?”

“I don’t want you to, I just want to know for sure.”

That Vin had any sort of doubt cut Chris deeply. He ran his hand across Vin’s shoulders and down his back, more to comfort himself than Vin. He felt the slight flinch as his hand found the tender bruising. “Is you back hurting?”


Chris moved the shirt aside, the bruising from yesterday starting to show. Chris stared for a long moment at the lines of scarring across the darkening marks. Vin froze as he felt a finger trace a line across his back. He knew what that was.

“I always broke the rules. There were so many and some I couldn’t remember...”

Chris could tell there was something else there. “And?”

“And some I just had to break,” Vin confided in a whisper. “I know you don’t want to do it and I know it’s my fault if ya gotta thrash me.”

“I’m never going to do that Vin.”

“Tommy Rawlins says his Pa gives him a beltin’ when he breaks the rules.” Vin heaved a disappointed sigh. “I thought he was lyin’. I thought a Pa wouldn’t do that.”

“But you think I will?” Chris asked, disappointed that Vin could believe it of him.

“You said your Pa would have belted ya for stuff like I’d done.”

It was a few days ago, but Chris remembered the conversation with Buck not aware that Vin had been close enough to hear.

“I don’t know how to explain this to you Vin.” Chris traced his hand along Vin’s shirt where he knew the marks lay. The scars on the skin might fade but they were forever burned in Chris’ mind. Beatings Chris didn’t want to imagine had never deterred Vin from doing what he thought was right regardless of the current rules. He needed something else to make Vin understand.

Chris knew Vin thought of Peso as more friend than beast.

“If Peso refused to come to you when you wanted to ride would you hit him when you finally had a rope on him? Would you want him to come because you called or because he thought you’d hurt him if he didn’t.”

“I wouldn’t hurt Peso.”

“Not even to make him do something you wanted him to.”

“No, I love Peso.” Vin was horrified at the thought.

“I’m not going to hurt you to make you do something. I want you to do things because I asked, because you trust that I’m only protecting you. I’m setting these rules so that you don’t get hurt.”

Chris tugged gently at Vin’s hair, carding his fingers through the length. He’d have to convince Vin to at least get it trimmed, but not today.

“Tell me what’s going on Vin. You’ve been disappearing on me for a few weeks now. Is it school? The more notes I get the harder you seem to run from here.”

“I’m not runnin’ away.”

“No, but you’re late, you disappear on your own, you take Peso miles further than you should.”

“I’m just tired of bein’ shut in.”

“You feel shut in here?”

Vin wanted to shake his head, but didn’t want to disturb the entangled fingers. “No. School’s shut in.”

“It’s not all day, Vin.”

“Sometimes I get kept in at lunch because I haven’t finished the work,” Vin admitted quietly.

‘Because you can’t do it, or because you’re not paying attention?”

“I’m tryin’. I can do it mostly, but then I just stop thinking.” Chris hand moved down to rub at the slender neck.

“Just stop thinking huh?”

“Yeah. It’s just inside…I can’t think inside. At least it was better near the window. I could still see there was an outside.”

“When was this?”

“Before. Mrs Connor made us move desks and now I gotta sit in the middle of the row.”

“Did you move about a month ago?”


Chris could see he might have found his reason for the sudden spate of notes.

“You sure I gotta go there?”

Chris had the feeling he was sentencing Vin to prison, so woebegone was his expression. “I’ll talk to Mrs Connor about moving you back near the window. In the mean time, how about we reorganise things here.”

To encourage the boys to catch up on their class work they came home and completed their homework before playing. Chris thought it was time for a change. “Instead of coming home and doing homework, you and JD can play outside first. I’ll still want your chores and homework done before supper, but you don’t have to go straight from school into the house.” Chris supposed winter hadn’t been such a struggle as the dark, cold days were hardly tempting. Summer was upon them now and the call of the outdoors too much for Vin to ignore.

“I can do that,” Vin promised.

Vin stumbled a little as he stepped up alongside Chris. Chris steadied him, keeping an arm along the shoulders, the shorter figure hugged close to his leg as they ambled slowly back to the house. Vin couldn’t comfortably reach around Chris, instead satisfied by taking a firm grip on Chris’ waistband. Chris felt those knuckles rub against his spine again.

“You have Peso back tomorrow.”

“What?” Vin looked up in surprised.

“I said the rest of the week. That’s up at the end of today, so you can ride Peso again from tomorrow.”

“What about the trouble with Ezra? Aren’t you going to punish me for that?”

“I’m not forgetting about that but this time there were extenuating circumstances.” Chris saw Vin’s confused look. “It means I’ll overlook all the roof climbing this time because you were trying to help Ezra. But?”

“No jumping into adult fights,” Vin recited. He’d heard that from everyone yesterday. Vin considered this new concept and how it might be used in the future. “How will I know if I’ve got a exstens…ek…extends circumstances?”

“I’ll tell you.” Chris ignored the snort of disgust as Vin realised he hadn’t discovered an all-purpose excuse. “So, you think maybe we can go back to me asking you to do things and you obeying?”

“Yep…well, for most all things.” Chris caught the small grin starting to lift the corner of Vin’s mouth.

“Well, most all things will be a good start.” Smart-ass grin aside, Vin still looked a little pale. “How’s that headache?”

“S’kay,” Vin shrugged.

Chris thought otherwise. “How about you wash up and take a little nap.” He didn’t think Vin would need much convincing after his head hit the pillow.

“I don’t nap. Naps are for babies.”

Chris smirked at the indignant refusal, the ‘ask and obey’ arrangement already crumbling. Chris spotted Buck on the front porch, his feet up on the rail. “Buck’s napping and he’s not a baby.”

“No, he’s old. Old men nap too, I seen it in town.” Chris stifled a laugh at Buck’s expense, knowing he outnumbered him in years. He didn’t want to know if Vin placed him in the same category.

“Well, how about you take an old man nap with the rest of us old men out here on the porch. No washing up required, just a chair and some sunshine.”

Chris moved the chairs into a more cosy position then retrieved a pillow from inside so Vin could lean up against the rail.

“We’ll go with Buck and JD out to the colts later,” Chris suggested.

“You know JD’s picked out the colt he wants. He figures they’re little enough for him.”

“He has, has he? You didn’t think to explain to him about them growin’ up as big as every other horse.”

“Figured Buck could take care of that.”

Buck popped an eye open at the rustling and scraping going on at the other end of the porch. “Hey, I heard that.”

“His hearing’s still good for an old man,” Chris confided softly to Vin.

“I heard that too. Keep it down over there, some of us have got important sleeping to do.“

Chris had no intention of sleeping. He settled back comfortably and watched patiently as Vin struggled to keep his eyes open. Vin soon lost his battle.

There was something so completely different about Vin when he slept. So defenceless and innocent that Chris wanted to protect him from the world. But awake, Vin fought against that protection, not recognising the difference between a firm hand of guidance and a hand of punishment. It was a battle Chris intended to win.

The End

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