"Little Britches" Universe
Clem Evans was an irritated man. His plans were blown to hell and hed spent all day chasing down his two witnesses. He was furious that the brats had outsmarted him, but he was intent on finding them again. He didnt know where they lived, didnt know these trails. He stopped to water his horse at the river, simmering at the defeat. He couldnt remain any longer, lifting his head to decide a new route. Movement in the distance caught his attention. A hard, grim smile appeared as the movement became a clear silhouette. Two little figures were outlined clearly on the crest of the hill. Elated, he urged his horse through the ford and renewed his pursuit.
Vin dragged JD to his feet, both shivering as the breeze cut through their wet clothes. JD doggedly followed behind Vin, wet socks, soggy boots and torn blisters now adding to the misery of the day.
Netties just over that rise, Vin encouraged.
No, I promise JD. Just a little further.
Vin studied ahead and behind but couldnt see anyone. Theyd lost so much ground. He was thankful of the setting sun, even if it was getting cold. The shadows would help protect them over the open ground. He pushed onward up the hill that stood between he and Nettie.
Netties house was finally in sight. Vin had stopped well outside the yard trying to convince JD to go on alone. The closer theyd come to Nettie, the more certain Vin was that they would be caught.
You go JD, Ill lead him away.
No, I wont leave you.
Nervously Vin looked behind, prickles at the back of his neck driving him to impatience. Vin tugged at JD to start him moving. JD yelped at the pull on his sore wrist.
Come on, run! Vin hated to drag JD this way but there was no alternative. Faster! he urged. Nettie! Nettie! Vin started yelling before he was even in the yard, relieved to see the front door open.
What in the blue blazes are you two doing? Nettie was surprised by the ragged appearance so late in the day.
Take him. Vin pushed JD toward Nettie, but the elder woman reached out and snagged Vin as well.
Whats going on?
No Nettie, I gotta lead him away. Were being chased.
Nettie could see this was no game, both boys damp, dirty, scratched and clearly exhausted. She pulled them both inside trying to make sense of the jumble of words.
No Nettie! Vin cried out as the front door closed behind him. He put us in a cave but we escaped, then we ran, but hes chasing and I saw him, hes here, hell hurt you.
No Vin, calm down. Youre safe here.
JD crumpled down, the long held tears finally emerging. The sound of a horse in the yard brought all their heads up. Nettie slid the bar across the door and picked up the shotgun she kept by the door, checking that both barrels were loaded.
No Nettie, you cant. It wasnt right for her to have to do this. Vin stopped her, knotting a hand into her skirts. Please Nettie, youre a girl.
Its been a long time since I was a girl Vin. This old shotgun doesnt care what I am, it only cares if Im aiming it straight.
Nettie knew the range of the shotgun was limited. It had been a long time since shed had to defend her home against a raid but one or a dozen, she knew what was needed.
Come with me. Nettie drew JD to his feet, hustling both boys into her bedroom. I want both of you to hide and not make a sound. Nettie unlatched the door of the armoire.
Vin eyed the darkened space and started to back away. No .no, no, no.
Youll be safe. Please Vin, I need you to protect JD.
Its not safe in there. No Nettie, its not
You have to hide in here. You stay here and stay quiet, no matter what. Nettie hardened her heart. Scared was better than dead. JD climbed in with only a little pushing. Vin she had to drag forward. Nettie tried to reassure those pleading eyes as she shut the door. Ill be back to let you out.
Nettie hurried to the window to see the new arrival. She stood carefully to the side, not about to make a target of herself. Who are you?
Im helping Mr Larabee search for his missing boy. I just wanted to know if youd seen any kids.
I havent seen any boys.
I thought I saw some running this way. Mind if I look around?
Yes I mind. You just get on your way.
Well Im gonna have to look anyway.
I got both barrels loaded Mister.
The stranger ignored the warning, swinging down from his horse. Nettie raised the gun through the window and emptied the first barrel into the ground at the mans feet. He wasnt discouraged by the flying dirt, instead running toward the house and drawing his own weapon.
Bullets thudded around the window and Nettie tightened her finger on the trigger, firing as the man reached the front steps. She didnt see the result as a bullet shattered the window frame sending timber flying toward her. Tripping in her rush to avoid the debris, Netties head clipped the edge of the sideboard and she slid bonelessly to the ground.
Vin heard only the raspy breathing of JD and himself. He kept trying to hold his breath to block out one sound in the hope the he would hear Nettie coming. There was nothing. He knew the sound of a shotgun. Nettie had fired her gun and someone else had shot back.
No light entered the darkened space in the armoire. He couldnt see the catch on the inside of the door but stared at the spot where he knew it was, hoping that somehow he could detect it moving. He wanted to get out. It was small and dark. But hed promised to be quiet and stay hidden until Nettie came back.
Nettie promised shed come back.
Shed come back.
Vin wasnt even aware of his slight rocking. JD, not understanding its source accepted it as comfort, wiping his tears on Vins shirtfront.
Nettie came to her senses, head pounding, the room dark and silent. Memories flooded back at once and she staggered in the rush to gain her feet. She prodded gently at the source of the pain, but found no blood. Damning her own stupidity, she gazed at the door and realised it was still barred. Cautiously she peered out the window. There draped across her front step lay the invader. Nettie slid the bar back cautiously and took a lamp out to check on her grisly handiwork. He was obviously no longer a threat, so Nettie chose to ignore him for the moment and return to those who did need her.
Oh Lord. She had no idea how much time had passed since her promise to Vin. She hurried into her room, lighting a lamp brightly and flinging the door wide.
Vin, its Nettie. Its safe to come out now.
She found Vin almost as shed left him, still facing her, those wide blue eyes seemingly locked on the same spot when shed closed him in. JD was huddled in Vins arms, the older boy keeping him crushed to his chest. She unlatched the other door and pushed it open, trying to let in as much of the lamp light as possible. Vin wasnt responding and Nettie had to pry his fingers away to release JD. She swathed JD in a blanket running soothing hands through his hair and down his pale face.
Is he gone?
Yes JD. Youre both safe. Vin? Vin?
Nettie reached out and brushed a hand down Vins face and finally he turned to respond to her voice. Vin blinked once and crawled slowly from the space. Keeping a hold of JD, Nettie wrapped her other arm around Vin, drawing him close. Both boys shivered damp, exhaustion and fright taking their toll.
Lets get you both clean and warm.
Nettie wanted to know what had been going on, why the boys were alone and by the state of them, running for their lives. Her heart stopped for a moment. Perhaps something had happened at the ranch. Perhaps Chris and Buck werent here because they couldnt be here. It wasnt a question she could voice to either child. Instead she concentrated on calming the boys. The rest could be answered in daylight.
The boys sat quietly, shoulder to shoulder on the edge of the bed after Nettie had stripped off their dirty, damp clothes. Neither protested the action only producing small winces and whimpers at the stinging as she bathed the scratches and blisters. Nettie applied liniment to the wrist JD was favoring but could do little to ease the bruising or soreness that was bound to appear tomorrow. Nettie shifted the boys further onto her bed, guiding and tugging to assist their sluggish responses.
Is Buck here? JDs voice came, quietly pleading.
No honey, but he will be soon, Nettie promised, hoping that she wasnt lying. She enfolded JD in a hug then eased him back onto the pillows, drawing up the covers.
Vin? A fine tremor ran through the slight frame and Nettie saw that his eyes were focused past her shoulder. Turning, she saw the doors of the armoire still standing wide. She turned Vin to face her. Im sorry Vin. I needed you to hide. She didnt know what other horrors may have been awakened. Vin too was folded into a warm embrace. Nettie felt him holding on tightly, even if he was yet to speak to her. She released him slowly, kissing his temple as she settled him down beside JD.
Nettie straightened up, unable to silence the low groan as she straightened her back. She touched a hand to her aching forehead thinking she should fetch a powder. The headache was making itself known now that she had time to slow down, but there was one more task to attend to for the boys.
Vin had seen Nettie touch her forehead and noticed the dark mark there. He knew he was in Netties bed but was uncertain of when that had happened. He remembered arriving, bringing trouble to Netties door and now she was hurt. Vin felt he needed to explain his mistake at the river and apologise for coming. He pushed the quilt back and slid out, moving carefully to avoid disturbing JD. The cool air struck him and he looked down in horror. He was completely naked. He didnt remember undressing. A sound in the doorway brought his head up and all thoughts of apology flew from his head.
Nettie had splashed a little brandy into the warm milk and returned to the bedroom with the cups. As she stepped through the doorway she found Vin standing by the edge of the bed wearing only a confused and worried frown. Nettie tried to move carefully, not wanting to startle the boy but he heard her anyway. Her heart clenched at the horrified look that came into his blue eyes as he backed away from her.
Vin, whats wrong? Nettie put the tray aside and approached the bed only to have Vin scramble across the bed, dragging the quilt over him. Vin? Nettie stopped, broken hearted that Vin would fear her, hating herself for forcing him into the armoire.
Im naked! You made me naked! Vin was finally speaking to her, but Nettie was surprised to hear outrage instead of fear.
Vin? Nettie saw the deep rosy blush even in the dim lamplight. The color washed across his cheeks, his distress so great the rosy hue flooded his face from forehead to neck. All your clothes were wet, Vin. Nettie sat on the edge of the bed relieved that his rush to escape her was not for the reason shed suspected.
Im naked. The complaint came out with a quiver. This final indignity had proved to be Vins undoing. I dont want to be naked. You shouldna.
Nettie peeled the clenched fists off the edge of the quilt. Retrieving a discarded shawl from the end of the bed, Nettie wrapped the soft cloth around Vins exposed shoulders, folding him close to her as she did so.
Ya made me naked. The words were muffled against her as Nettie rubbed gentle circles on his back, quietly shushing him. Nettie felt the dampness seep through her blouse, a silent testament to the limit Vin had reached.
Eventually JD crawled over to the pair, kneeling on the rumbled quilt. Nettie, is Buck here yet?
Not yet JD.
Oh. JD heaved a sigh of disappointment.
Nettie knew she held a place in the heart of each of these children, but the center of their world was the two men that she desperately hoped were safe and on their way. At JDs voice, Vin drew back out of her arms and moved over to comfort JD.
Nettie recalled her original task. The milk was only lukewarm but it should still do its job and help settle the boys. She encouraged them both to drink then tucked them securely back under the covers.
Try and sleep for now JD.
I want Buck.
Nettie knelt down by the edge of the bed, the big brown pools of sorrow finally overflowing. She combed her fingers through his hair, but JD wouldnt be appeased. Nettie remembered some sewing repairs shed been doing, leaving the room for a moment and returning with a work jacket shed been mending. She rolled it up and slid it into his arms hoping JD would recognize it. JD buried his face in the folds of the heavy woolen weave, but the sobs eased.
Nettie waited until the boys seemed to be sleeping before finally attending to her headache. Unable to consider sleep, Nettie rested in her chair close enough to hear if the boys were disturbed by bad dreams. She had barely managed to settle when the sound of more horses arriving brought her back to her feet. Uncertain on the new arrivals intentions, she reloaded the old shotgun.
Chris and Buck rode the trail toward Netties, confident of the familiar trail even in the dark. The tossing of their horses heads was the first sign of a problem, the animals disturbed by the smell of blood and death on the air. The lump on the porch stairs became obvious as they drew close, the light spilling from the front windows highlighting the form.
Guns drawn, both men dismounted. Nothing moved.
They were relieved to hear a bar sliding clear. The door opened cautiously and the widow appeared, gun still held ready.
About time, she chastised, relieved to find both men alive and well. Leave that and get on in here. She didnt intend being callous, just more concerned for the living than the dead.
Whats happened? Have you seen Chris anxious question was never finished.
Vin and JD? Inside and safe. She could see the news was greeted with enormous relief. She dearly would like to understand all that had happened today, but there were more important matters. In with you. Theyre asleep, but could surely stand to be woken for your arrival.
Both men busted in as quickly as manners would allow. They paused as Nettie stepped back into the brighter light.
Nettie, what happened? Buck asked of the darkening bruise.
Except for the lingering headache, Nettie had quite forgotten the incident. My fault, its nothing. Go! Go! She waved them on to her room.
All day theyd searched for this. The outcome was more than theyd dared to hope for. There under a quilt huddled the heart of their small family. Vin was curled around JD and JD around a brown object.
Whats JD got? Buck asked.
Just an old jacket of yours that I was mending.
Buck felt a painful kick to his gut to know JD had wanted him so badly and he hadnt been here. He bent to pick JD up, but hesitated to take him from Vins arms before Chris was ready to substitute as well.
Almost as one, both men scooped up their respective child. The boys were drowsy, mostly from exhaustion but assisted by Netties warm drink.
Buck pulled the substitute jacket free of JDs grip, sliding onto the bed to hold the small boy close.
Buck. One fist curled painfully into his hair, the other twisting the front of his shirt. Buck ignored the discomfort, covering the little face with soft kisses. You found me.
Always. The red-rimmed eyes seemed to indicate JD was cried out, his hand relaxing from the dark locks theyd clutched and resting against Bucks neck. Buck pulled the edge of the blanket up around the small naked body and tucked him in close, sure hed never let him go again.
Chris had pulled Vin into his arms, the tangle of limbs still encased in a shawl. Chris felt Vin begin to stir and saw the slits of blue as Vin blinked slowly. Vin lay his head down on the strong shoulder, his face turned in to the crook of Chriss neck, narrow arms reaching up to tighten around him.
Pa. It was a quiet whisper of relief, the words so soft it was almost just a sigh. The sound had been too faint for any but the nearest ear to hear. Chris felt his knees weaken in relief and joy and slid down the wall in response, Vin still safely cradled in his arms. Chris pulled his knees up to keep Vin balanced close, the boy draped limply in his arms.
Im here, Vin. Chris pressed his lips to the exposed temple, Vins eyelids fluttered gently, not really awake.
Nettie left the men to the privacy of their reunion and returned later to find them sprawled on her bed and the floor. Dont you want to move somewhere more comfortable? she asked of Chris.
No. Chris didnt want to move at all.
Nettie took a blanket from the chest and spread it over the pair. She noticed that Chris hands hadnt ceased their comforting movements across Vins back, even though the boy was lost to them for the moment. Vins head had slipped lower to rest over Chris heart with Chris bowed over resting his cheek on the soft tangled hair. The two were huddled together as closely as the pair shed taken from the armoire earlier, just another two boys seeking protection. Sadly, she pushed a few strands of hair back from Chriss face, drawing his attention without disturbing him.
I think you could both do with some sleep. It wasnt likely that Chris had slept at all the previous night.
Its not fair Nettie. Shed heard that complaint voiced many times before, but usually from the smallest of this pair. This plaintive cry had not ended with a stomped foot, but with a catch in a voice that was tight and hoarse.
No, life rarely is, but at least neither of you have to face it alone. She knew her words were no consolation.
A small cry drew their attention back to the bed. JD was still firmly encased in Bucks arms, but was now awake, scrubbing at bleary eyes. JD? Buck asked softly at this first real awakening.
The bad man chased us.
Hes not going to chase you anymore, Buck reassured him.
Chris had struggled to his feet but Vin had been too tired to stir, allowing himself to be settled back into bed. Buck moved aside, reluctantly placing his charge back under the covers.
Buck looked over at the guardian angel by the door. Are they okay?
Some scrapes and bruises. Theyre mostly exhausted and frightened, Nettie reassured him. I didnt really get much from them, other than they were running and fell in the river.
Buck looked over, concerned at the womans own injury. We can take the boys out into the main room with us for the night. You need your own bed.
Ill take the cot in the spare room. Im fine Buck.
Chris lowered the lamplight, but Nettie stopped his hand from dousing it completely. She shook her head and drew the men from the room, not wanting to explain around the boys.
Chris, I might have brought on more trouble for Vin.
How could you trouble Vin, Nettie? Chris couldnt see how this woman could possibly hurt Vin.
The lamps and the dark. I I asked Vin to hide for me, but he didnt want to.
Hed want to be in the middle of things.
No. I wanted him to hide in the armoire. He was scared to death but he did if for me, to protect JD.
Its not your fault Nettie. You protected them.
You didnt see his face Chris. I hate to think Ive brought anything dark back to his world.
Nettie, nothing you do could ever hurt him, Chris tried to reassure her.
Well keep the lamps lit for him, Buck added.
The hour had grown late and Nettie was sure that neither man had taken much time today to take care of themselves. Have either of you eaten?
No, but dont bother. We should explain
Nettie held up a hand. Theyre safe, youre exhausted. Explanations can wait until morning.
Well see to things outside Maam. You look like you need your bed as well.
Where is that famous charm of yours Mr Wilmington? Nettie laughed lightly as Buck tried to cover his words.
Chris ignored the banter, his eyes wandering to the shattered window, thoughts of the body on the steps. Nettie noticed the shift in Chris attention.
Dont start fretting over that. Hes not the first raider on my property, and Ill always protect whats mine.
Buck took a weathered hand between his, gently kissing the older womans cheek. Thank you, for all you did.
Nettie heaved a tired sigh for a very long day. Both of you get some rest. Take anything you want from the kitchen if you change your mind.
The men went outside to put their horses into the barn and remove the body. Returning, they locked the house up and doused the lamps. Neither hesitated in the main room, each picking up a chair in passing and returning to the boys. Sleeping on a chair was no hardship if they could rest in the calm resonance of two sleeping children.
Accustomed to the silence of her home, Nettie was awake at the first sounds in the morning. Someones attempts to move quietly about in the kitchen only seemed to exaggerate the effect. Nettie moved cautiously, stiffness in her shoulder an unwelcome reminder of her use of the shotgun. She knew the men had kept to their word and all evidence of last nights activities had been removed. A clatter and a faint curse from the direction of the kitchen came to her ears. She tidied herself, ready for the morning and a few explanations.
Let me, Nettie suggested.
Damn, The spoon fell to the floor, the earlier riser unaware hed been caught. Sorry Maam.
How are you doing Buck?
Much better today than yesterday. We moved
Nettie nodded in understanding.
Buck? Bare-assed and bare-foot, JD tottered out and wrapped himself around Bucks lower leg. I gotta go Buck.
Nettie pointed out the dry clothes stacked on the chair. Buck sorted out the essential items, not taking too much care with the details considering JDs first request. He crouched down low for JD. Hop on and well keep those sore feet clean. JD climbed onto Bucks back and clung on for the ride to the outhouse.
Considering Vins reaction last night, Nettie decided to drop his clothes into the bedroom so he could dress as soon as he woke. She placed them gently on the end of the mattress not wanting to disturb the two. Chris it appeared, had been tired enough to still remain seated in the hard chair slumped forward across the edge of the mattress. He lay with one arm settled across Vins chest and in return a small set of fingers lay tangled in the short blond strands of the resting head.
Leaving them undisturbed, she quietly backed out of the room. Chris took his time to move, his spine cracking and popping as he straightened. Vin woke with him, both moving like old men as stiffened muscles protested at the activity. Chris raked a hand through his hair, scrubbing at blurry eyes. He helped Vin off the bed and into some clothes then the pair stumbled out to greet the others.
Everyones getting washed up. Buck and JD are still out there, Nettie informed them.
Chris headed outside, keen to find some cold water to waken himself fully. Vin hesitated, some business still to settle with Nettie.
Are you feeling all right Vin? Nettie was concerned by the serious tone.
Yes Maam. Im sorry you got hurt. I didnt mean to bring him here.
Nettie bent low and held his face between her hands. Dont you apologise. Im here to help protect you. Im also very sorry about making you go into the armoire. At Vins confused look she amended. Cupboard.
Oh, funny name. Its okay. Vin hadnt like being in there, but he knew Nettie had let them out as soon as she could. You came back.
Nettie brushed some long strands of hair away, softly caressing a dark bruise near his hairline. She sighed in quiet agreement with Chris. It was unfair. Vin and the odd, unbalanced scales he seemed to measure life with, where a promise held was acceptable recompense for a terror endured.
Go clean up and Ill get some breakfast on. Are you hungry?
Vin didnt need to answer, a loud rumbling growl from his stomach providing the evidence.
The boys returned to find breakfast a little delayed as Nettie had set the table with other items.
Strip down again and lets get you sorted out. Nettie had been unable to do more than a cursory clean on the boys scrapes and cuts last night. They would be thoroughly inspected before breakfast.
Vin eyed the little bottles suspiciously. Were fine. JD too understood the stinging contents of little brown bottles and nodded enthusiastically at Vins statement.
Their protests were ignored as Buck and Chris stripped the boys down again and carefully inspected all the damage. JDs wrist had swollen further and was lightly strapped and a few of the deeper scrapes on both boys hands were inflamed. There was nothing to be done for the bruises but both boys remained remarkably cheerful.
Satisfied that everything that could be done, had been done, Nettie put the medications away and exchanged them for bacon, eggs, fried potatoes and biscuits.
Boys, we need you to tell us everything that happened from when you left school. Chris decided they should finally get the details of events.
The boys interrupted and corrected each other, the tale taking the listeners down a very convoluted path. Chris thought Vin seemed to skim over a few incidents, but neither of the boys seemed particularly upset by the retelling.
You both did a good job of escaping, Buck congratulated them.
JD found our shortcut. We got a neat way over the ridge now, cept I dont think yall fit. We were doin all right up until the river. We got washed down further than I expected. I was aiming for home, but Nettie was closer and hed found us again. I didnt mean to bring him here Maam, I was gonna lead him away.
You come to my door looking like that, Im not letting you go until youre washed and fed.
I was being chased, came the aggrieved reply.
Chris stopped them for a moment and left the table to peer out the window.
Buck had begun to move but the tension eased when Chris identified the rider. Its Josiah.
Small bodies pushed past to greet the tall preacher. siah!
Josiah stopped, stunned for a moment by the unexpected voices. Thank you God, he breathed, lifting both boys off their feet. You found them. Buck and Chris had both stepped out into the open.
Dont look at us, they found themselves and Nettie kept them safe for us.
Maam, Josiah swept his hat off as he entered. Its a pleasure to find Im no longer the bearer of bad tidings.
Join us Mr Sanchez. Nettie brought out another cup while Josiah drew out a chair from the table.
Were just sorting out what happened, Buck explained.
I can perhaps shed some light there. Ezra arrived at the ranch late yesterday with news from town.
Buck settled back with JD climbing contentedly back into his lap. Vin remained standing, shifting closer to Chris to lean against the side of his chair.
Whats happened? Chris asked.
It seems there was a scheme to rob the bank but Ezra happened upon one of the men before anything occurred. He panicked and tried to protest his innocence in the kidnapping of the boys.
You have him? Chris growled.
No. He was shot while Ezra was taking him to jail, probably by his accomplice.
Yes, the boys said there were two men involved, Chris confirmed. Ones been accounted for here. Well get a description of the one in town. JD got a good look at the men.
What did they want? Vin had waited quietly until now. We didnt do nothin and I never seen him before.
It wasnt anything you did Vin, Josiah reassured him. You were a distraction. They intended for Chris and Buck to be busy searching for you while the men robbed the bank and escaped.
Oh. Vin nodded, seemingly satisfied with something. Thats good then.
Chris turned Vin toward him. Good? What could be good about it?
He knew youd come after us instead of the bank robbers.
Well, yes, of course we would.
So theres a lot of money in the bank, the whole towns. Chris nodded, not quite getting the connection, or understanding Vins widening grin. Were worth more than all that money.
Much more Vin. Chris surprised them all by swooping down with a kiss to Vins forehead. Vin frozen in remembrance, sure hed felt that last night, but certain hed been dreaming. He frowned a little as he remembered what else hed dreamed. He was sure he hadnt really said it.
Chris rubbed a thumb along the frown lines that were building.
Did I...I didnt mean Vin began timidly.
Chris recalled the moment. Yes you did.
I was just scared.
When youre scared, when youre happy, when ever you want Vin.
Everyone was a little confused by the exchange but the pair involved seemed to understand completely.
Josiah was pleased at everyones safe return and knew that Nathan and Ezra were still fretting. I should get back to town and pass the good news along.
Chris walked him out and the two men hitched Netties buckboard, discreetly loading the body. Josiah would take care of this last detail for them.
The group left Netties later that day and arrived home only to have Ezra and Nathan arrive soon after them. Although Josiah had reassured him that the boys seemed uninjured, Nathan wanted to offer his services anyway. Ezra felt compelled to explain his part on the unfortunate incident.
Mr Larabee, I cannot apologise enough. I didnt give enough consideration to all the possible outcomes of my actions.
I was there too Ezra. Hell, I sent the thing, Buck added.
But it was my plan, my responsibility to see to these things.
Ezra, stop. Vin goes to school, to town, he is not a secret. Word is going to get around.
They would have found out by some other source. They used Vin because of me, not because of you.
Ezra knew there was no ill-will toward him but his own culpability stilled weighed heavily. He would accept their forgiveness but he would not forgive himself for such laxness.
Chris, Buck tried to divert Chris from taking on the blame.
No, Buck. After Sarah and Adam I didnt care who I pissed off or what sort of challenges I made. I was prepared to live by a reputation or die by it. I had nothing left to lose.
Buck couldnt argue with that statement. Hed witnessed the angry, drunken risk taking of a life he knew his friend no longer considered worth living.
Well that reputation is still there but Ive got something to lose now. Chris knew hed meet any challenge, but it was no longer about protecting a reputation, it was about protecting a family. He wouldnt have them taken and he wouldnt be taken from them.
The men kept the boys close to home for the next two days. The boys were stiff and sore from the mistreatment but happily played. It was more for the mens comfort that the boys remained on the ranch. Daylight found the boys were little affected, but darkness had again become a place of bad dreams. Both nights had been disturbed by quiet cries and muffled whimpers, the low-burning lamp not sufficient to drive all the shadows away.
The boys were packed and ready for school on the third morning.
You dont gotta ride with us. Were not scared, Vin declared.
Well, weve got business in town, so were going that way, Chris explained as he and Buck both mounted up and followed the boys from the yard.
Vin shrugged carelessly. Well if were not puttin ya out.
Buck and Chris exchanged grins at the bravado and set off. The group arrived safely at school and joined the other straggling arrivals.
Are you two sure youll be okay to ride home? Buck found he couldnt help but fret. Chris hadnt voiced the question but felt the same.
Well be fine.
Chris reached up at Vins confident statement and pulled the boy down from the saddle, hugging him close. Well I dont think I am.
Vin wriggled and squirmed out of the hug, quickly looking around to make sure no one else had noticed.
How about just to make me happy, you let one of us meet you here and ride home? Chris asked.
You gonna do that again when you come back? Vin asked suspiciously, uncomfortable with all the attention right in front of the school.
Go huggin me like that! Right out front!
I might, Chris laughed, happy to tease lightly. Do you want me to send Buck instead?
Wont do you any good, Buck laughed dropping a kiss on Vins forehead before he could duck away. JD was grabbed and given the same treatment.
Gawd damnit! Dont do that here! Vin exclaimed, scrubbing at his face. I gotta reputation to protect.
Watch your language, Chris chastised at the cussing. One reputation in the family is quite enough. Ill be here to ride home with you.
Okay, okay. Just to make you happy. Vin tried to placate them, backing away toward the schoolhouse. For the first time ever, Vin was happy to hear the school bell was ringing, calling the students inside.
Have a good day. Both men waved as the boys ran for the school house steps.
Chris? Larabee paused at Vins call. Not out front, well meet you down by that tree. Vin pointed off to a distant tree.
Buck slapped is friend on the shoulder. Aint it grand when you can embarrass your kids. I say lets get here early and wait by the steps.
Youre an evil bastard Buck. Chris agreed easily to the plan, secretly not even wanting to leave the boys here. Returning early would be no hardship
True to their plan the two men were waiting by the bottom of the steps as the final bell rang. The running children exiting the building slowed their steps as they passed the two imposing men. Vin and JD soon appeared but both were unfazed by the change in plans.
Buck swooped down on JD only just managing to stand clear as Vin launched himself from the top step.
Chris! Vin landed solidly on Chris, the man stumbling under the impact but still managing to swing Vin safely to the ground.
Vin secretly rejoiced in the extra attention. It was a rare treat for the boys to have the two men to themselves in the afternoon, even if it was just for the ride home from school. They turned off on the path back to the ranch, but Chris noticed as Vin directed Peso up between the other two horses. Vin ignored the snorting and chomping at the bit as Peso voiced his objections to the new position. Chris recognised the location as they approached, reaching across to lightly grip Vins upper arm in comfort and reassurance.
Vin acknowledged the touch with a slight nod, a little smile just raising the corner of his mouth. The hand on his arm tugged lightly but Vin shook his head in refusal.
Proud and strong-willed was how the world saw Vin, but Chris knew that sometimes he was just a scared little boy. Chris directed his horse in closer to Peso and slipped his boot from the near stirrup. He slid a hand high up under Vins arm, not pulling, just letting Vin feel the strength. Vin turned toward Chris and supported by the strong hand under his arm, he crossed between the horses. Vin settled easily behind Chris, wrapping his arms around the lean waist and resting his weight forward to lean into the strong back. The last few nights of broken sleep was now catching up with him. Chris kept one hand resting over a smaller one at his waist, happy to support the extra load on this journey home.
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