"Little Britches" Universe

Vin climbed up onto the hitching post and sat waiting. He drew a quite a few looks but only the occasional greeting. He sighed resignedly as he considered his last trip into Four Corners. JD had been with him then and people had stopped and said hello. People just liked JD better.

Vin startled when a hand tapped his knee but then instantly relaxed. “Hey, Ezra.”

“Welcome home Mr Tanner.”

“Ain’t there yet,” he corrected, watching as another person passed by.

Ezra watched a number of people pass by them, very few stopping to even acknowledge them with nod. Ezra wasn’t too concerned. Many of the residents of Four Corners would sit in a darkened saloon and exchange cards with him but few would exchange greetings on a sunlit public street. Yet another reason not to bother to rise early to greet the day.

Ezra easily read the looks as the two horses were identified, the waiting boy inspected and the less than subtle looks toward the clinic. Most people in town had heard of Larabee’s injury although no one yet knew any details. By the knowing looks and nods, it appeared that the town had already decided on it’s own version of events.

Ezra wondered if Mr Larabee was aware that the distance the townsfolk maintained with him now also encompassed his young shadow. He saw that Vin had stopped looking up at the passing people, disappointed by too many and no longer expecting a polite greeting or wave.

Ezra leaned up against the end of the rail, surprised when Vin shifted a leaned a little into him. Vin seemed to be tired and Ezra doubted that Mr Larabee had expected Vin to be sitting out here for any length of time.

“Do you want to see if Mr Larabee had been delayed by our healer?”

“He’s comin’.”

Ezra wasn’t sure if Vin meant that he knew Chris would imminently arrive, or it was just his general expectation.

Vin felt the rub of the old book under his shirt. He’d seen all the guns as the people passed. He’d never noticed before that nearly everyone had one. Even Ezra. Vin’s plan had seemed simple enough when they’d left Caulder and travelled alone. He considered the questions he needed to ask Ezra but his eyes were drawn upward as Chris appeared at the top landing. His shoulders slumped. Chris was moving around amongst all these guns. How could he watch his back?

“Mr Tanner?” Ezra had seen the worry and tension as Larabee appeared. “Mr Jackson will ensure Mr Larabee is sufficiently well to continue home.”

Vin spared the man by his side a quick nod as he slid from the rail. He intended to ensure Chris stayed that way. Vin untied the horses as Chris appeared at the bottom of the steps.


“Welcome home, Mr Larabee. I see you have weathered the journey home remarkably well.”

“Well enough.”

Vin pulled himself up onto Peso and waited for Chris to do the same. It took a lot more effort than usual for Larabee to swing up on to his own horse, the healing wound pulling at the movement. Chris couldn’t help the grimace that escaped and Vin didn’t miss it either, his brow furrowing in concern.

Chris reached over and rubbed a thumb over the frown lines on the forehead beside him. “Stop worrying. You’ll look like an old man by the time you’re twelve.”

“Ya sure yer all right?”

“I’m fine,” he reassured the boy. “Let’s go home. Ezra, we’ll catch up with everyone soon.”

Ezra nodded and waved them off.
The weary travellers were welcomed home by a relieved Buck Wilmington and an excited JD Dunne. Knowing his friend, Buck had tried to clear as much of the backlog of work as possible so that Larabee would have no reason to exert himself. The few telegrams back during his recovery had made light of the injury but Buck knew what the delay in returning home had meant. Larabee had not felt fit to ride and it would take a serious injury or illness to do that. The pale, drawn features were evidence of the effort the journey had taken and Buck steered his friend toward his bedroom.

“Why don’t you lay down for a while and I’ll take care of things with the boys.”

Chris kicked off his boots and wordlessly complied, concerning Buck more at the lack of argument. Vin appeared torn between JD’s call to tell him every thing that had happened in the last week, or keeping his vigil over Chris.

“Vin, do you want to rest too?” Buck offered to the hovering boy.

“I’m fine.”

“We’ll why don’t you go with JD?” Vin looked like he needed to stop worrying for a while and JD could usually lift his spirits. “I’ll watch out for Chris,” Buck reassured him as the boy still hesitated.

JD latched a hold on Vin’s arm and dragged him into their room to show him his project for school.

Chris was only asleep for an hour before he reappeared but even with that short rest Buck could see a marked improvement. Nothing replaced the comfort of sleeping in your own bed. Larabee filched his coffee cup in passing, ignoring Buck’s protests and settled down into a chair. The discomfort from the still healing injury was obvious as he sat at an awkward angle.

The men took advantage of the boy’s distraction and both filled in the other of their week’s events. The chatter from the boys’ room drifted out as the men fell silent. Vin appeared to be giving an abridged version of their adventure to JD.

Chris’ shoulders slumped a little at every ‘Chris this’, ‘Chris that’. Vin had reverted to using his name since they’d hit the town limits.

“Chris, something wrong?” Buck asked, seeing the dispirited face.

“Yeah, but it’ll be fixed.” Chris knew that he’d made a mistake and it was about time he set things right. “Tell me what’s left to be done.”

“No way, you’re supposed to rest. I’m not taking you’re word for it either. I expect Nathan will be out here in a couple more days to check too. I’m not gettin’ into trouble from him.”

The two men bickered, bargaining backward and forward until a new work schedule was agreed on.
Dinner was a quiet affair and Buck had tried not to laugh as Vin and Chris, heads nodding in unison, nearly ended up face first in their mashed potatoes. The boys were settled into bed with little protest, Vin exhausted and JD simply relieved to no longer be alone in their room.

Buck was surprised when Chris didn’t retire to bed too, instead returning to the table carrying two glasses and a bottle. It was the good whiskey, the one that Ezra had supplied to them.

“What’s the occasion?”

“An apology.”

Buck raised an eyebrow. “Well, that sure qualifies as an occasion.”

“No, I’m serious.” Chris poured the drinks and pushed Buck’s into place, silently asking him to sit. “Some time ago I forced a decision on you. I was wrong and it’s taken me a long time to set it right. Too long.”

“What are you taking about?”

“You want to be JD’s father in name.” Chris made it a statement because he knew there was not question about it.

“Look Chris, we don’t need to go over...”

“We do,” Chris interrupted. “You let it ride because you didn’t want to hurt me or force me into something. I returned that by forcing something else on you.”

“Chris, there’s two boys to be considered. I could hardly offer it to JD if Vin wasn’t included.”

“I know you’ve heard Vin call me Pa but he doesn’t always seem comfortable with it and I want that to change. I’m going to encourage him and I want you to talk to JD. I know you want this.”

“More than anything, Chris.” Buck had noticed the gentle shift recently, willing to wait for his turn. Chris’ abrupt leap forward had caught him by surprise.

“There’s something else I want done. Formal adoption, me and Vin, you and JD.”

“Chris, is there something I should know?” Buck asked warily.

“You don’t want this?”

“Of course I do but why now?” All this had remained unspoken for all this time. Even the fact that the men had let the temporary custody of the children slide into adoption, however informal, had been set aside as day-to-day living took over. “What happened?”

“Nothing. At least nothing more than what I told you. I was lucky this time, Buck. I haven’t been prepared.”

“Chris, you can’t see everything, you can’t always be on alert.”

“I know that Buck but I also know it could happen again. Vin deserves better.” Chris raised his eyes slowly. “You all do.”

“Chris, it ain’t like you’re wearing a big sign. This was random. You said it was just horse thieves. You haven’t had any of that other trouble for a while. You’re a rancher now.”

“I’m still wearing a gun.”

“You wouldn’t...” Buck was stunned at what he thought was being suggested.

“No, being unarmed wouldn’t stop some.” Larabee knew the sort of enemies he had acquired in recent years.

Buck raised his hands attempting to placate Chris. ”What ever the reason, we’ll just get it done. Set everyone’s minds at rest.”

“I know Josiah made the arrangements with those Sisters from the orphanage but it’s not enough. I want the Judge to draw up full adoption papers for JD and you, Vin and I. I want them named as legal heirs and I want to name additional guardians.”

Buck could hear that Chris had been thinking a lot about this. “Not just cover each other? What else are you expecting?”

“I’m not expecting anything and I hope it never happens. But if anything happened to both of us, then I want to be sure those boys are looked after. I want to know that they will never go to another orphanage, that they’ll get this ranch and have some sort of security and future.”

“We’ve got friends that’ll make sure that they’re looked after.”

“Buck, some do-gooder takes one look at them and what happens? Ezra’s a gambler, Nathan’s black, Josiah’s a man of the cloth but he’s got a few years on us. Not many people would consider them suitable to raise children. The only reason we got the boys is because no couple would take them together.”

“But Chris...”

“Nathan would never be given guardianship of two white boys but maybe the Judge can word it somehow. Josiah’s age doesn’t make him the best choice in the world but we can trust him and Ezra would protect the boys with his life. I know they would look after the boys if anything ever happened but I want to be sure no one else can interfere. The Judge can draw the papers up.”

Buck could see Chris had been thinking on this for some time. “Fine by me Chris. We can see the Judge next week. When do we talk to the boys?”

“Tomorrow. I know it’s Sunday but I don’t really feel like going back into town. I’d like to just be home for a while.”
The men waited until after breakfast to talk to the boys. Chris had tried to reassure Vin who was worried at being asked to stay indoors. “We just want to talk you both about something important. No one’s in any trouble.” He touched Vin’s shoulder lightly as he drew their chairs closer.

“Hey, Li’l bit. I got something to ask you.” Buck paused until he was sure he had JD’s full attention as wide brown eyes were turned on him. “You’ve heard Vin sometimes call Chris Pa?”

“Yeah.” JD glanced across to Vin, unsure if he was in trouble. “It sometimes slips out ‘cause I know Vin wants it real bad.”

Vin flushed at the comment. Chris didn’t really seem to mind but Vin had been unsure, deciding to only use the title when no one else was around.

“And you?” Buck continued. “Do you want it?” Buck’s heart sank at JD’s horrified expression. The liquid brown eyes dropped to study his fingers as he plucked fretfully at his shirt cuffs.

“Can...I...Could I ?” JD stumbled awkwardly with his question.

“JD, it’s okay.” Buck hugged him close, fearful of having upset the small boy. Buck felt JD turn to wrap his own arms around Buck’s neck.

“I want you,” came the whispered request. “Can’t you be mine.”

“What?” Buck asked, sure he’d misheard.

“Please? I like Chris but he’s Vin’s.”

“JD, that’s what I meant. You and me, Vin and Chris.”


“And longer.” Buck loosened his hold as he felt JD pushing at his shoulders.

“Buck?” JD leaned back a little, peering intently into the dark blue eyes before him. “Papa?”

Buck wondered if it was possible for a heart to explode as his swelled to fill his chest, the pressure so painful that his eyes began to tear. He showered kisses on to the soft cheeks of the little face before him.

“Papa? Is it all right?” JD asked confused as Buck was suddenly laughing and crying.

“More than all right JD. Son,” he corrected. Buck stood, retaining his hold on JD and carried the little boy outside as he tried to compose himself. He turned back quickly to Chris in apology but Chris just nodded in gentle understanding.

JD remained relaxed, sure of his safety in Buck’s arms stretching out as the broad chest beneath him expanded. Buck inhaled deeply and slowly released it, along with some unexpected tension that he hadn’t previously been aware of. He’d thought it hadn’t really bothered him when Chris had chosen to hold himself back from the boys but now he realised that he had fettered himself in the process and the freedom was sweet. He’d loved this little boy since he’d met him but now there were no limits, no barriers.

Chris watched Buck through the open door. They’d intended to do this as a family but he knew his friend was overwrought. Vin had sat quietly through the exchange.

“Is this ‘cause I’ve been callin’ ya Pa?” Vin hadn’t intended to force anything. “I tried not to do it, but sometimes it just came out.”

“I want you to call me Pa. Buck and I are making sure that you’ll always be our son’s.”

“Weren’t we ‘dopted before?” Vin asked in surprise.

“Yes, you were. But we’re going to get some pieces of paper that mean you have every right to everything of mine. This ranch and even my name.”

Vin paled at the words. He’d never considered this part of having Chris. “I…I…promised my Ma. I have to be a Tanner,” he stammered anxiously. But in his heart he also wanted to be a Larabee. It had never crossed his mind that he could only have Chris if he broke his promise to his Ma.

Chris crouched down before the boy at the thread of distress he heard. “Vin, don’t fret. You don’t have to do anything now or ever. But you’ll have the choice and maybe one day you might want to be Vin Larabee. Maybe one day you’ll need another name,” Chris laughed softly trying to ease the worry.

Vin had seen the posters in the sheriff’s office with people who had lots of names. “You mean if I did something bad like those men on the wanted posters?”

“What?” Chris was suddenly lost as Vin continued on his own tangent.

“In the jail. Those men have other names.”

“No, Vin. You’ll never do something bad and need to take another name like that,” Chris tried to soothe the boy. Chris was sorry he’d even mention it, ‘taking a name’ just a turn of phrase to him that had slipped out automatically. He tried to return to the original discussion.

“No Vin, you don’t have to change your name. The papers will say that Vin Tanner is Chris Larabee’s son.” It wasn’t important to Chris and the papers he intended to have the judge draw up would ensure that different names between father and son would never become an issue in the future. “The only names you need to worry about are Father and Son. I want you to call me Pa and I want to call you Son. Is that okay with you?”


“Anywhere, anytime.” Reassuring Vin was all that mattered as he pressed a soft kiss to the furrowed brow. “Forever.”

Vin stayed frozen at the promise. It was everything he’d ever wanted, even beyond his dreams as he looked over Chris’ shoulder and saw JD still in Buck’s arms. Now he just had to make sure that he could keep his Pa safe. Watch his back. He wrapped his arms around Chris’ neck keeping his hold light instead of the tight hug he wanted, unwilling to hurt the man before him.

“Vin?” Chris tilted Vin’s head back to look directly at him. The worry and fear that had been swirling in those deep blue eyes was still there. “Is this all right Vin?” Chris suddenly realised that perhaps he was being selfish. Just because he was suddenly ready didn’t mean Vin might not have second thoughts. As the Sheriff in Caulder had said, it was a hell of a thing for a family man. “I know you were scared when I was hurt. Was it too scary? Do you still want this?” Maybe Vin had been scared enough on this last trip to change his mind.

Vin blinked at the question. He didn’t see that there was a choice. It was simply the way it was, the way it should be.

Chris waited at Vin’s serious expression. Two small hands cradled his face as Vin leaned in and pressed a light kiss to his forehead, mirroring Chris’ earlier response. Chris was moved by the open affection from the skittish boy who’d been so unwilling in the beginning to even be touched. Now he was content to be encircled in Chris’ arms, to even offer his own comforts.

Vin leaned back again, a small rueful smile gracing his face. Chris needed no interpretation of that expression. This little boy thought his Pa was asking a very stupid question.

There was very little work done that Sunday. The men were too content to watch the boys at play and Chris still tired easily enough to comply with Buck’s continuing orders to rest. It was the best sort of Sunday, simply drifting easily from dawn to dusk.

JD remained joyous in his new privilege, unable to utter a single sentence all day without the word ‘Papa’ included. Even his evening prayers had included an announcement to God so that he would be aware of who the small boy was speaking about.

The men tucked the boys in and left the small room quietly.

“You know you’re gonna be taken to school for show ‘n tell now,” Chris warned, completely serious.

“Wouldn’t bother me one bit,” Buck grinned.

Chris knew that was true. His friend was ablaze tonight. Buck had always shared his feelings with others, let them bask in that easy warm spirit but tonight Chris could feel the wash of joy, so tangible and rich, so achingly familiar. Adam had brought out something similar in Buck but this was more intense because it hadn’t been filtered through Chris. Before, Buck had been a wonderful Uncle, a treasured playmate. This was Buck, beloved father. Chris blinked sharply and looked away but Buck caught the sharp plunge in his sprits.

“What?” Buck prompted at the abrupt change. It had been a wonderful night.

“I stole all this from you, for nearly a year.”

Buck paused for a moment. “No. You didn’t steal it, Chris.” Buck knew that his feelings for JD had been set almost instantly. “It was always there. I just didn’t think you wanted to see it just yet. Now you, the town, hell, the whole world’s gonna know.”

“You’re a great father, Buck.”

“We, are great fathers,” Buck corrected. “How can we not be when we’ve got such great kids?”
Sunday hadn’t been busy yet still everyone was caught sleeping late the next morning.

“Move it! Come on boys!” Chris called. The two boys were worse than a herd of cattle to round up.

“Ya sure?” Vin asked again. “I’m gonna be itchin’ and leavin’ skin all over the place.” Buck winced at the unattractive picture that presented but Vin had been working on skipping school since breakfast.

“Go,” Chris ordered. “You’ve missed enough lately.”


“You’ll live, now outside.”

“Ya sure yer gonna be home?” Vin asked.

Chris sighed in exasperation but replied again. Vin had already asked the same question three times this morning, apparently still worried for him. “Yes I’m sure. I’m not going anywhere. Buck won’t let me get too tired, okay?”

Chris turned him gently toward the door, ushering him through just as Vin appeared to protest again. Chris shook his head at the worried frown on the young boy who was now studying the road and distant hills. He faced Vin and let his hands rest gently on the narrow bony shoulders.

“Vin, there’s nothing to worry about. You concentrate on school and I’ll be waiting here for you when you get home.”

“Promise you’ll stay home.”

“I promise, cowboy.” Vin finally nodded agreement, even if he didn’t look particularly reassured. Chris could only put the fretting down to the fact that this was their first separation since his injury. It was only reasonable that Vin would worry given the circumstances the last time Vin had said goodbye to him.

“You want me to ride to school with you?” Chris offered, thinking that might help to settle him.

“No!” Vin thought that was the worse possible suggestion. Chris would have to ride alone back to the ranch.

Chris was a little startled at Vin’s reaction but let if go. He needed one more child out front. “JD!”

“Ready!” JD yelled as he ran toward them. “But Peso’s gone.”

“Peso?” No the morning just couldn’t run smoothly for Chris. “Now we have to round up the damn horse as well?”

JD and Vin snickered at the bad word but knew better than to point it out. Chris looked around in exasperation. “You two, stand by the gate and don’t move, not one inch.” The boys took up their position but Vin spotted Peso just beyond the house. He’d only taken one step when he heard the yell.

“Stop right there. What did I say about moving?”

“But…” Vin pointed at his target.

“I can see him and I’ll get him. Buck?”

“Nope. I clearly heard you say you were getting him.”

“Fine,” Chris growled. He wasn’t even going to try for good behaviour from the obstinate animal. He went inside and grabbed an apple. Peso was more than happy to come back toward the fence at the offer of a treat. Larabee knew he’d just set a dangerous precedent but the end justified the means this morning.

Larabee handed the reins over to Vin as Buck boosted the boys up. “Have a good day,” he instructed.

And it was a good day, up until the lunch break. As always the children broke up into clusters of friends to play games. One such group were trying to discover the truth of the current rumour.

“It was a real shootout, right in the middle of the street.” The others turned to the more reliable source after all, Vin Tanner had been right there.

“Hey, Tanner!”

Vin looked over suspiciously, signalling to JD to wait for him. Josh and Cody weren’t really friends and more used to taunting in the school yard than joining games. “What d’ya want?”

“Mr Larabee got called out didn’t he? A shootout right in the main street.”

“No he didn’t.” Vin wondered why they would think such a thing. He’d heard things said in Caulder, but why were they asking him here.

Vin’s denials were ignored as the idea of gunslingers had taken hold. Other boys soon joined in to compare their knowledge and pressed Vin for information. Vin found himself the target of a dozen questions, none of which he knew the answer to. Just how low did Mr Larabee’s holster sit? Did Mr Larabee wear his gun in bed? Did Mr Larabee practice every day to stay fast?

“Bet ya he never goes anywhere without a gun,” Josh persisted. “Come on Tanner, you were right there.”

“Weren’t no shootout,” Vin insisted, tired of the pestering and turning away from the group.

“My Pa said it was. Mr Larabee’s a gunslinger so they always have shootouts. That’s how they get to be the fastest draw. They get called out and then they shoot the shoot the other person ‘n kill ‘em.”

“He ain’t no killer,” Vin defended.

“All gunslingers are, it’s why everyone’s afraid of him.”

Fear. He knew what that looked like and he had seen it on some of the faces in town. Why should anyone fear his Pa?

“My Pa ain’t no killer. You take that back Josh Purvis,” Vin snarled, shoving the other boy in the shoulder.

“He ain’t yer Pa and he is a killer.”

Vin didn’t care for either insult, throwing himself at his opponent. “Is too my Pa,” he yelled as the pair rolled in the dust, punches thrown wildly.

Like the rest of the children, JD had coming running at the call of ‘fight’. He now stood in the ever-widening circle, hopping from foot to foot, anxious for Vin and shouting encouragement. He knew not to interfere as Vin had always instructed him to stay clear when any fight broke out at the orphanage.

“Boys! Boys! Stop it this instant.” Mrs Connell’s strident call drew little attention. She pushed her way through the circle and called on two of the older boys to separate the youngsters.

Each boy was finally held by his shirt collar, breathing hard. Maureen Connell eyed the damage. Both were a little dusty and bruised, Josh might have a black eye by tomorrow and Vin with a trickle of blood from a split lip. “What is this about?”

She saw the two exchange baleful glares but as expected neither spoke up. “Well, if you have enough energy that you can fight for no reason then I’ll just have to keep you occupied through lunch for the rest of the week. Inside now, the lunch break is over for you two.”

Josh turned back and mouthed ‘killer’ at Vin.

‘Liar,’ Vin silently returned.

Vin and Josh sat in their seats for the final ten minutes until lunch was over. Vin remained distracted the rest of the afternoon, earning himself two rebukes for not paying attention. His mind was too busy processing all the other boys’ information. They seemed to know a lot more about gunslingers than he did.

JD hadn’t had an opportunity in class to talk to Vin but now unleashed his questions on the ride home.

“Why were you fightin’?”

“It was nuthin.”

“It weren’t nuthin’. You don’t like Josh anyway so why’d ya talk to him?”

“Just did,” Vin regretted that choice.

“You’ll be in trouble,” JD told him.

“Will not.” Vin had been lucky to escape a note home this time.

“Will too.”

“Will not ‘n ya can’t say nuthin’ either.”


“No. Ain’t no note to take home so it’s not home trouble, it’s just school trouble. Our Pa’s don’t need to worry about this.”

JD had stopped at the ‘our Pa’ title. The words caught his attention reminding him of yesterday’s joy. No, they didn’t want to worry anyone and ruin things. If Vin said it was okay, then it was okay.

“I won’t say nuthin,” JD agreed, but he still didn’t see how it could be avoided. “Vin?”


“Your lips all puffy.”

Vin touched his lip gently and sighed. He’d forgotten he’d have to explain that. He could say he fell. It was sort of true. He just fell onto Josh’s fist not the ground. Too soon they were home and Vin still without a suitable story.

“Papa! Papa! We’re home!” JD intended to make sure the whole world heard his new word.

Vin grinned at JD’s call then pressed his sleeve cuff to his lip, the throbbing exploding as his unwise move opened the split again.

“Whoa, hold up there.” Buck grabbed Peso’s bridle before the riders could pass. “Vin?” Buck shook his head at the guileless look. “What happened?”

“Fight.” Vin found he couldn’t bring himself to lie.

Buck lowered JD easily to the ground then tapped Vin’s leg to take his feet from the stirrups to slide the older boy down. “Someone pickin’ on you?”

Vin scuffed the tip of one boot in the hard packed dirt considering how to answer. No, they’d been picking on Chris but he didn’t want to admit that.

“Pickin’ on JD?” Buck prompted at the continuing silence. “Vin, did you start this?”


Buck sighed at the one-word answers. “Who took the first swing?”

“I did,” Vin admitted. “But he was askin’ for it.”

“Who was askin’ for it?”

“Josh Purvis.”

Buck was at least satisfied it wasn’t just bullying as Josh was of similar age and build to Vin. Still, it was unusual behavior for Vin who was slow to anger and rarely struck out.

“Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Vin fidgeted as Buck dabbed at the lightly bleeding split, making a quick inspection for any other damage. Vin refused to play with JD making a big show of needing to do his homework to avoid any further trouble at school. Finally alone in his room, Vin dumped out the contents of his school bag across his bed and retrieved the book he’d hidden under his mattress. Obviously the other boys knew more about this than he did so he would have to try harder to learn. Vin lost track of time as he paged though the book, looking for sections with the word Larabee in the hope of finding his answers.

“Where’s Vin?” Chris asked Buck as he entered their home.

“He’s not outside?”

“No. Haven’t seen him all afternoon.”

“He had some trouble at school. Maybe he decided to stay in his room. He was trying to get his homework done.”

“Vin?” Chris called as he approached the bedroom.

Vin tucked the book away quickly and rubbed at his tired eyes. He had managed to decipher some information from the book, but at the price of a headache from the tiny print and a backache from lying down to read.

Chris entered to find Vin struggling to sit up, rubbing at his eyes. He was worried that he may have disturbed Vin from sleep. Chris saw the swollen lip. “Hey there, cowboy. What’s this about?”


“That’s a mighty painful nothing,” Chris commented, tilting Vin’s face toward the light from the doorway. “Vin?”

“Someone was saying bad things.”

“Vin, you know I don’t want you fighting.”

“But it was real bad,” Vin defended. “He said you ain’t my Pa ‘n other stuff.”

“Well, you know the truth. You don’t have to fight to prove it, Vin.”

“It just...” Vin shrugged helplessly.

“Seemed like the thing to do,” Chris finished for him. Vin looked up at the understanding tone. “But it’s not the right thing to do,” Chris continued. “You’re in the right so you should just walk away.”

Vin scowled at the idea. Clearly Chris didn’t understand how important this was.

Chris wasn’t too concerned as boys were likely to get involved in scuffles at school. “Buck said you were doing homework. Have you finished?”

Vin nodded quickly, making sure the paperback was still hidden from sight. “You goin’ out?” He asked as he scrambled off the bed to follow Chris.

“No, why?”

“Jus’ askin’.” Vin considered what he’d been able to understand from the book. That, along with the other boys’ comments today only led him to believe that it was true. Someone could call out your name and try to shoot you. It had already happened once, although he hadn’t heard those horse thieves call out but then he hadn’t been paying attention. Only friends came to the ranch, so Chris was safe here. It was town that Vin needed to worry about.

Vin finally agreed to play with JD for a short time. While he’d decided that Chris was safe at home, he still preferred to keep him in sight so he refused to allow the game to leave the yard. JD was not happy with the arrangement as he couldn’t get Vin to chase him beyond the fence.

Buck called the boys to remind them that supper would be late tonight. Their work schedule was still behind and Buck was keeping the heavier chores to himself, finally having convinced Chris to stay on the porch and check all the tack for repairs. Chris couldn’t argue that it was a useless task as it was a boring, time-consuming task that both men had put off far too long already.

“Papa, can we go over to the pond?” JD asked, eager to explore now that they had a little extra time.

“No,” Vin insisted before Buck could answer.

Buck saw the quick look Vin made back to Chris as he refused JD’s request. “You two best stay close as it’s getting dark.”

Chris cleared the table after supper. He’d start insisting on doing more of the work as Buck was looking far too tired in the evenings. As he scraped the plates clean he realised that Vin had done an excellent job of pushing the food around his plate. It didn’t appear that he’d eaten very much at all.

“Something wrong?” Buck asked, places the cups down.

“Did Vin eat this morning?”

“Yeah, same as usual. Why?”

“He didn’t seem to eat much tonight.”

“Maybe his mouth hurts. I didn’t check his teeth, he could have knocked something loose.” Buck didn’t know quite how to say this. “Chris, did something else happen on that trip?”

Chris stopped his cleaning and looked at Buck, surprised at the suddenly serious tone. “Nothing I didn’t tell you. Why?”

“I know you got a hell of a wake-up call and you came back here ready for changes. Good changes, “ Buck reassured the man as Chris started to protest. “Vin just seems...” Buck didn’t want to say Vin was unhappy as that would surely break Chris’ heart, but something was not right.

“Vin had to do a lot of very big things.” Chris understood what Buck was trying to ask. “He acted brave but he was just as scared as me, Buck.”

“You’ve noticed you don’t leave his sight?”

“Yeah, but I think he’ll settle down again. I’m just going to give him some time.”
JD was disturbed from his sleep by the noises in the dark. The quiet whimpers were close, muffled by the covers but still a familiar sound.

“Vin?” JD called softly. JD pushed his own covers back, untangling his nightshirt as he slid from his bed and approached his cousin.

“Vin?” JD climbed onto Vin’s bed, kneeling on the edge and shaking Vin’s shoulder to waken him. Vin didn’t seem to wake but the pained sounds stopped. JD looked to the door but apparently the noise hadn’t been sufficient to disturb either of their fathers. Vin started to stir restlessly again so JD latched onto him and curled up close beside him until Vin quieted under the familiar, comforting presence.

Buck knew the meaning of the two entwined bodies the following morning. The choice of bed was usually the indicator for which boy had a difficult night, and this time it appeared to be Vin. Nightmares were now infrequent occurrences in the household but Buck figured that last week’s events were sufficient cause to reawaken some terrors. Larabee also had the look of disturbed sleep and Buck didn’t think it was all related to physical pain.

Buck woke the slumbering pair gently, a grin spreading across his face at JD’s sleepy “Mornin’ Papa.”

“Bad dreams?” he asked of both, although Vin’s sleeping late was a sure sign’

Vin was already squirming out of the covers, attempting to ignore the question. “Mornin’. Where’s Pa?”

Buck had to smile at that one too. He had heard Vin call Chris Pa before, but usually only by accident. Vin had been at pains to hide the word from him.

“He’s outside doin’ mornin’ chores.”

Buck hustled them both along to get washed up. He’d have to leave most of the breakfast to Chris and get moving.

Chris watched as the eggs were pushed listlessly around the plate. Buck had already informed him of Vin’s probable night and the young boy still seemed to be feeling the effects.

Chris touched the pale face lightly but could find no sign of illness. “Eat, Vin,” he encouraged gently.

Chris didn’t receive any argument but neither did much more food pass Vin’s lips. He crouched down in front of Vin, more likely to receive a straight answer when their eyes were at a level. “Vin, does your stomach hurt?”

Vin gnawed at his lower lip and shook his head in denial. “Ya gonna stay home t’day?”

“Yes I am, Vin. I’ll be here where you get home.” Each day the question and each day Chris tried to reassure.

Buck had already left the house so Chris finished packing the boys up for school. He loaded the lunch pails, adding an extra apple to each. Vin had eaten little this morning and he couldn’t afford to lose weight. Hopefully he’d be hungry by lunch.

The pattern repeated itself through the week and although the nightmares didn’t seem to reoccur, Vin continued to only nibble at his food. While Chris didn’t have to work so hard to reassure Vin of his presence, Vin still continued to ask his plans before leaving for school. The worry on the young face was clear to see.

The news at Saturday morning’s breakfast brought Vin’s head snapping around to his father. “Yer goin’ ta town?”

“I have to see Nathan and I’ll pick up a few essentials. It’s not a big trip.”

“Aren’t we all going?”

“No, it’s just in and out, I plan to be back before lunch. You won’t have time to even miss me.”

“No,” Vin insisted. “I gotta go with ya.” Vin couldn’t let Chris travel alone.

“Vin, I won’t be gone more than three hours. I can’t take you both and you don’t want to leave JD here, do you?” Chris knew that was a little unfair.

Vin’s insisting didn’t get him any closer and he could hear the impatience creeping into Chris’ voice. Vin decided to stop asking, instead waiting until the wagon was hitched and the men distracted before making his move. He knew how to hide, he knew how to keep quiet. He folded himself tightly into the corner for balance as the wagon began to sway and jerk.

“Papa, will you play wiv me?”

“What’s up Lil Bit? Won’t Vin play?”

“No, he’s got a job.”

Buck was surprised as he hadn’t assigned any unusual chores for the boys. He realised that he hadn’t seen Vin for a while.

“What sort of job, JD?”

JD just shrugged. “Dunno. Jus’ had to go.” JD clapped his hands over his mouth.

“Go?” Buck asked warily. “Go where?”

“Secret,” JD insisted, trying not to disclose anything else.

“But it’s my job to know where he is JD. What would I tell Chris if I lost Vin?”

“Vin ain’t lost. Chris’ll find him.”

“JD, no games.” Buck insisted as JD continued to talk in riddles. “Where did Vin go?”

“He went with Chris.”

“Chris left alone, JD.”

“Nu uh, Vin was in the wagon. He’s real good at hidin’,” JD added.

Buck sighed. There was nothing he could do about Vin now so he would hope that Chris discovered his stowaway.

“So can we play? Vin wouldn’t stay and play,” JD added with a woeful pout.

Buck decided to take JD with him to the upper fences as the longer ride would appease the disappointed young boy. “Well, give me two minutes to finish this and then you can come riding with me. Think you can last that long?”

“Sure can!” JD replied happily at the thought of riding with Buck.


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