"Little Britches" Universe
Disclaimer: No infringement is intended in regard to The Magnificent Seven, owned by MGM and Trilogy. No profit is being made from this activity.
Thanks: To J. K. Poffenberger and S Berry, the originators of the Little Britches Universe, who have kindly opened it for all of us to play.
Vin peered around the edge of the makeshift stage curtains, the heavy blue drapes borrowed from the hotel's dining room just for the occasion.
"He ain't here," he whispered to the man crouched down beside him.
"He's coming, Vin. The stage is a little late because of the bad weather." The stage had been cancelled but Buck didn't have the heart to tell Vin the truth just before his big performance.
"I ain't goin' out there."
"JD's scared too but he's going out there."
"I don't wanna do it no more, please!" Buck wasn't sure how to resist the begging. Vin, who asked for so little was begging to be released from this duty. "He ain't here. I don't want to do it if he ain't here."
"Shhh," Buck rubbed Vin's upper arms trying to soothe the distressed boy. "Calm down Vin, you'll do just fine."
The school had decided to reenact the story of the birth of Jesus in celebration of Christmas. Josiah had offered use of the church, providing a makeshift stage and resetting the pews for the Saturday afternoon performance. Vin hadn't been the most enthusiastic of participants but every child had been given a part to play. It had taken all of Larabee's persuasion and encouragement to convince Vin to take the stage but now he wasn't here to see it completed. JD, on the other hand, had taken to performing, outgoing and unconcerned at being placed on display.
After many practices the big day had finally arrived and as the seats in the church filled, nerves and stage-fright were beginning to show in the little performers. Buck, like a few other parents, were still back stage trying to sooth nerves and calm anxieties.
"He ain't here, he won't see me." Vin's problem was not stage fright but heart-breaking disappointment. This was the first time for many of the children to participate in such an event, its importance to them far exceeding the thirty minutes of haphazard entertainment that most patient parents were expecting.
"I'll be watching you Vin and Nettie came into town just to see you. Take a big breath," Buck instructed but he heard the sniff trying to hide in the sound. "Will you go on out there for us?"
Vin nodded slightly, reassuring Buck that his slightly red-eyed shepherd would take his position on stage. Now all he needed was to locate his very short, very enthusiastic innkeeper. Buck snagged the running bundle of colored robes. "JD, slow down. You need to quiet down and listen to your teacher. You want to be ready when it's your turn."
"We have no room at the inn!"
Buck sighed. He'd heard about the inn's accommodation problem for the last week. He was ready to offer his own bed to the traveling Mary and Joseph if it would put an end to his little innkeeper's declarations.
"I've gotta send Joseph away, Papa." JD knew the story but it still just didn't seem fair to him.
"Yes y'do, Li't Bit." Buck saw all the other parents being hustled away. "I'm going to have to go now. I'll be out in the second row JD, so I have a really good view of you and Vin. Okay?"
JD just waved him off, confident and excited, twirling his robes. Buck could see his miserable shepherd slumped near the other two, not interested in his flock in the slightest. Buck hoped for the best and left to take his seat.
The heavy blue drapes were drawn aside to the polite applause of parents, friends and other townsfolk persuaded to attend. Buck was thankful Vin had a small speaking part, only having to agree to follow the bright start to Bethlehem. Buck didn't think Vin would be able to squeeze many words out past his disappointment.
Josiah had taken on the role of narrator his deep voice setting the scene as the angels appeared, fluttering carefully from atop some dark draped bales of hay. The shepherds showed appropriate awe, looking off to the large star that was suspended from the ceiling. Or at least two of the three were awestruck. The third was instead struck dumb by the figure in the church doorway. Buck, like the rest of the audience turned back to see what could be more important than the arrival of this great shining star. A muddy and damp Chris Larabee nodded awkwardly at the interruption, gave a small wave to Vin and quickly took his seat next to Buck.
Vin waited until Chris was properly settled and watching him before happily declaring he would accompany the other two shepherds, allowing the play to move on. Children scampered off and on the stage to change scenes as Josiah introduced Mary and Joseph, scouring the streets of Bethlehem looking for a place to rest for the evening.
Buck waited for JD's line, grinning proudly as the little boy stepped forward and flipped his robes aside.
"We have no...," but JD stopped abruptly to reconsider. He knew his line but it just didn't seem fair. "You can stay in my room," he proudly offered.
A bewildered Mary and Joseph looked across to their teacher standing off-stage, uncertain what to do at the unexpected offer. Laughter rippled across the audience and urgent whispers could be heard from off-stage.
"What?" JD turned behind him at the prompting. He had never mastered whispering so his reply carried clearly across to the waiting audience. "But they can't sleep in a barn. Chris don't let Vin sleep out with Peso no matter how he asks."
JD debated back and forth as the other children fidgeted, unsure what to do now that the story was changing. "You sure?" he asked one last time of the voice behind him. Finally JD faced the audience again. "You can't stay here," he informed the nervous Mary and Joseph. "But it ain't my fault if Chris gets mad about it."
Chris slumped a little lower in his seat as Buck nudged him with an elbow. Some snickers could be heard amongst the audience at the thought of Larabee's wrath being brought down on the heads of the biblical travelers.
The arrival of the baby Jesus went off without a hitch, even if some of the narration was lost to the enthusiastic lowing of cows and braying of donkeys, the two-legged variety. The audience cheered loudly as the cast gathered together on stage for a hearty high-pitched rendition of Away in a Manger. Their performance completed, the children ran in all directions in search of family.
Chris swung Vin down from the makeshift stage, suspending him for a moment for a welcome home hug.
"Ya made it, Pa."
"Told you I'd be here. I wasn't going to miss your first ever Christmas Pageant. You two were wonderful."
"We're havin' cake 'cause I asked Nettie to bring chocolate." Chris just looked to Buck who informed him that the ladies were providing a light supper, now being set up at the side of the stage.
"How about you two let the ladies get organised first. Are you going to change out of those costumes?"
"Nope. Come on, JD!" Vin grabbed a handful of JD's robes and yanked him out the door, following the other children out into the small churchyard at a run.
Chris watched the excited departure, rubbing at his aching butt with one hand. "You know I rode five hours straight through after they cancelled that stage, just to get here on time to sit on a rock hard pew." Buck draped an arm consolingly across his friend's shoulders as the men wandered outside to keep an eye on the boys.
It was difficult to identify individuals as the children, still in costume or at least partial costumes ran like a wild herd, shouting rules of the game in progress.
"Trust me Chris, it was important to him," Buck reassured his friend. "Now, did you get 'em?"
The two special Christmas gifts Buck and Chris had ordered from the catalog had failed to arrive in the last delivery, apparently left waiting at the rail depot in Silverton. The men had set their hearts on these gifts so Chris had decided to make the journey himself and pick up their order. Stage had been the quickest method but bad weather on the return journey had forced him to hire a horse to ensure he wouldn't miss the boys' big event.
Chris opened the saddlebags to give Buck a quick look, unwilling to leave the items anywhere after the trouble to retrieve them. Buck caught a glimpse of the tin train and the shiny harmonica.
"Pa! Pa!" Chris turned at the gleeful laughter as a breathless Vin stumbled up to him. "Can we get our tree tomorrow...please!"
"Yeah, pleeeese, Papa?" JD added his own plea, tugging at Buck's pant leg.
Buck hauled the little boy up and slung him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, headless of the hysterical giggles.
"Yes, we can go tomorrow," Chris agreed.
"Yes!" Vin jumped, punching the air. Vin snatched JD's cap from his hanging head and took off down the street. JD squirmed until Buck let him loose and chased after his older cousin. Vin slowed a little to let JD snatch it back then the pair joined the pack again to continue with the game.
"What have you been feeding them?" Chris demanded. "They're never going to sleep tonight."
Buck ignored the complaint and instead followed the other parents back into the church to take advantage of the ladies' fine provisions.
"I hear you have something chocolate here, Nettie."
Nettie provided the men with the cake having already set aside some slices for Vin and JD.
"You are too good to us, Ma'am." Buck complimented.
"And you ignore those boys if they badger you for chocolate." Chris knew the ingredient was expensive.
"It's no problem Chris, I needed it for some of the Christmas cooking."
"Boys are going tree hunting tomorrow so I thought I'd warn you that we'll probably turn up at your place in the afternoon." As they had last year they would cut two trees, Vin's designated for Nettie's home.
"I'll have the decorations unpacked and you'll stay for dinner."
Chris didn't bother to argue with the older woman. Nettie Wells hadn't been making an invitation, she was making an order. Neither of the men would argue with any heart. They might have meals at home but it somehow still wasn't home-cooked. Nettie added whatever that special ingredient was that was missing from their own kitchen.
The afternoon performance and the light supper afterwards left parents enough fading daylight to travel home safely. The adults eventually cut their offspring from the pack, removed costumes and loaded buggies, buckboards and horses for their respective journeys. Weary parents and children waved each other off as groups separated from the main trail to take their own roads home.
One family, unencumbered by a wagon, turned their horses off to a narrow trail and let the silence settle around them. The cool of the early evening was just starting to show in the misting breath from the horses' nostrils.
JD was riding with Buck, settled comfortably in front and having dozed off some time ago. Chris had left his rented horse at the livery and rode behind Vin, the small saddle not suitable for himself. As the temperature dropped, Chris could feel the cold seeping in as Vin began to shiver. He wrapped a hand over the clenched white fingers on the reins, icy to touch.
Chris pulled the reins from Vin's grip and looped them up. Vin made no protest as Chris encouraged him to turn around, instead he hooked his own legs over Chris' thighs and snuggled deep under the coat to clutch tightly to the warm chest. Chris couldn't button his coat around the shivering form, so he left the reins hanging, wrapping both his arms around Vin and guiding Peso with his knees.
A quite hum started at his right and Chris recognised the soft low strains of Christmas carols.
"And who said they wouldn't sleep?" Buck smiled, pausing mid verse.
Vin popped his head out of his warm space at Buck's comment. "I ain't sleepin'," he denied blearily.
Chris tucked him back under cover, not wanting a chill to penetrate Vin's uncovered head. "Yes you are, you're just dreaming you're awake."
"Close your eyes and you'll find out." Vin obediently closed his eyes, happy to tuck his frosty cheek back against the warm chest.
Chris smiled to himself as Vin relaxed, leaning more heavily against him as he drifted into sleep. The shared body warmth was comforting and Chris tried to keep his hands splayed over Vin's back, as the boy's winter coat never seemed to warm him once a chill set in.
Buck maintained a low toned selection of carols, keeping a wary eye as Larabee's head drooped lower, his cheek resting on the top of Vin's head. Buck wasn't overly concerned as Chris had dozed off in the saddle more than once and his long day provided him sufficient excuse.
Buck kept a careful vigil as dusk had fallen leaving the moonlight to cast misleading shadows across the familiar trail. He sorted through his favorite carols but the quiet clip of shod hooves on the hard packed trail made the decision for him. Matching time, the slow haunting strains of Silent Night accompanied the riders on their journey home.
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