"Little Britches" Universe

Vin stayed huddled under the hot canvass until he was certain that he heard the sounds of the town around them. He hadn’t dared show himself before in fear that Chris would simply take him home and return to town again.

Chris made the first stop in town the Mercantile, planning to purchase a few extra items of underclothes for both boys. Neither man was much use with a needle and thread so JD could probably consider himself luck that he was unlikely to have too many of Vin’s hand-me downs. Not that many items would survive Vin. He was a little hard on his clothes. It wasn’t that either boy was particularly careless but both seemed to find adventure in the dirtiest and roughest of places.

Chris was just stepping down from the wagon when he saw the movement in the pile of canvass behind the seat. The mop of tangled hair and wary blue eyes appeared from the shadowed covers.

“Vin!” Chris demanded. “What are you doing here?”

“Come ta town with ya.”

“I said you were to stay at home.” Chris couldn’t see much repentance in the stubborn boy before him. There was little he could do about it now so he flipped the rest of the covers off and let Vin clamber down. “You stay with me,” Chris instructed, still planning this to be a quick trip.

The shopping at the mercantile was taken care of easily and the items parcelled up in brown paper. Larabee hooked his fingers through the strings as he ushered Vin from the store. For all his eagerness to accompany him, Chris found that Vin had remained quiet whether in the store or out on the street. Vin seemed more fascinated with the others around him than in Chris’ company. Whatever the interest was in the others, it hadn’t drawn Vin from Chris physically as the young boy kept in step as they left the store. Once or twice Vin walked so closely that he clipped the back Chris’s heels. Chris had experienced this in Caulder and understood its cause as Vin had fretted over his injury. He hadn’t expected Vin to still be concerned yet, if anything, Vin was dogging his steps even closer as Vin bumped lightly into his hip.

“Vin, I’m going to tread on you if you keep that close.”


Vin spun at the call from across the street, his hand snapping out to grasp a fistful of black shirtfront as he leapt in front of his father.

Chris stumbled as Vin tangled with him, recovering to lift the boy bodily and setting him aside. “What is the matter with you today?” he asked gruffly tucking the dislodged shirt back into his waistband.

Vin saw Mr Willoughby from the Bank approaching and realised his mistake. He shifted back again quickly to take up his vigilant stand, ignoring the adult’s conversation and trying to slow down his thudding heart.

Larabee exchanged farewells then quickly stepped aside for the passing womenfolk, again bumping Vin. Remembering the little boy who would never stand within striking distance made Chris decide not to complain about the close steps today. “If you’re going to stand that close,” Chris grasped a small hand firmly in his. “At least I’ll know where you are.”

Vin looked up in surprise at the joined hands, his own engulfed in Chris’s much larger hand. The contact eased his heart but he couldn’t be diverted. He turned his attention back to the others in the street. Chris couldn’t help but notice the continued study of all the men who passed them.

“What are you looking for?”

Vin debated asking Chris about what he really needed to know. It still didn’t seem right so he tried to ask a different way. “A lot of men have guns. Are they all gunslingers?”

Recent events and words like that made Chris a wary. “Most people wear guns just for protection. Why the sudden interest?”

Vin shrugged, trying to appear disinterested in the topic. “Some boys at school are playin’ at fast draws.”

“I don’t want you playing with guns, Vin.” Chris could only hope that it was just co-incidence. It wasn’t uncommon for boys to play at stagecoach robbers, or cowboys and Indians. Practicing quick-draws was nothing knew.

“It was just pretend, not even with a wooden gun. I wasn’t playin’ anyway,” Vin added in a mumble.

Another pistol and holster passed by at eye level. Vin had never really noticed just how many people had guns but now that he looked they were all right there in his face. How could he watch all of them? How was he supposed to stop it happening? He heaved a dispirited sigh at the thought.

“Vin?” Chris prompted at the pitiful sound. Vin wasn’t one for idle chatter. He’d ask questions, he’d talk about things that interested him but he didn’t just ask about everything and anything. Larabee knew this was somehow important. He led Vin over to the bench seat outside the saloon. “Vin? Why all the interest in guns today?”

Vin just shook his head. “Nothin’.”

“I can sit here all day and wait for an answer, Vin.”

“They all got guns. What if they want to shoot you?”

Chris could tell that this wasn’t just coincidence. “Why would they want to shoot me, Vin”

“’cause.” Vin mumbled, uncertain himself why it was allowed to happen. “They might call out. The Sheriff even said so.”

Chris found he could make little sense of Vin’s story. “The Sheriff? Sheriff Brady?”

“Yeah. When you were shot he said they were backshooters and that they should have called out but I didn’t hear ‘em.”

“They didn’t call out because they were trying to sneak up on us. They were after the horses.” Chris turned further toward Vin, one hand resting lightly on a knobbly knee. “What’s this about?”

“Sheriff Brady said I did a good job watchin’ yer back but I didn’t. I gotta do better.”

“No you don’t, Vin.” Chris was at a loss. He’d been aware of Vin’s study and concern but he’d thought it was only because of his injury. He hadn’t considered that Vin somehow thought he should be protecting him.

“They can call out and shoot ya, but what it they don’t call? Ya need me!”

Chris saw fear in Vin’s eyes. He wouldn’t borrow trouble. He’d only consider what had actually occurred. “No, Vin. No one’s allowed to shoot me whenever they want. They were bad men and now they’re in jail. Everything’s fine now.” He guided Vin back to the wagon to move their discussion somewhere more private. “Let’s go home.”

Vin was not so easily dismissed. He considered Chris’ words as the wagon rolled from town. It couldn’t be fine if nothing had changed. Those men with guns were still out there.

Chris felt Vin’s eyes glue to him again. “Don’t worry about things that haven’t happened. Everything’s fine.”

“No it ain’t,” Vin complained impatiently as the wagon lurched forward. Seeing all those guns in town it had only reinforced to Vin how unsuccessful his earlier plan would be.

Vin could see only one solution. Chris simply needed to not wear his gun. Even the other boys said you had to have a gun to play, that it wasn’t allowed to shoot someone who was unarmed. Vin rubbed at his aching head as he tried hard to find an excuse to ask Chris to take off his gun.

Chris ignored the silence beside him on the return journey, certain Vin was still mulling over his earlier words. Hopefully he had finally reassured the fretting child that the incident in Caulder was over.

The wagon was drawn to halt in the yard before Vin spoke again. It wasn’t a question that Larabee had expected.

“Will ya take off yer gun?”

Chris turned, stunned at the question. He’d thought he’d convinced Vin that this was over.

“Don’t wear ‘em,” Vin begged. “Please.”

“Vin, I wear a gun for protection.” Vin was simply too young to understand this. “This is not something I’m going to discuss with you. Okay?”

“No!” Vin snapped angrily. It wasn’t fair. He couldn’t do this alone and Chris wouldn’t listen to him. He jumped down from the wagon to confront Chris.

“Why won’t ya?” Vin demanded. “They’ll kill ya!”

“It’s not that simple, Vin.” Chris was surprised at Vin’s tone. He didn’t want an argument about this but he found himself unable to explain this to the boy.

Vin slapped away the hand reaching for him. “Ya won’t try,” he accused. Vin was tired and clawed desperately at the only plan that remained. He accepted the fact that he couldn’t watch Chris’ back. It would all be fine if his Pa would just help him. “I tried ’n tried. Ya gotta do this! Why won’t ya do this?”

Chris had never heard Vin raise his voice to him, not like this. He tried to calm the boy down but as Chris finally grabbed a hold of a flailing arm, a small booted foot lashed out and connected with his shin.

“Damn,” he cursed, caught by surprise and moving swiftly to avoid another kick. He wrapped Vin up and hoisted him off the ground, leaving the kicking legs no purchase. Vin was tumbling into a full tantrum so Chris had no choice but to force him down onto the ground and pin him bodily. “Vin, calm down. Stop this!”

His words had no affect but Vin’s yelling had brought the others at a run. Buck was stunned at the sight before him. Chris was holding Vin to the ground as Vin thrashed beneath him. He couldn’t understand why Chris would do that as they both knew how Vin reacted to restraint.

“Chris! Get off him,” Buck ordered, joining the melee and pulling his friend backwards.

Chris couldn’t shake Buck free and didn’t want to hurt Vin, so he released his hold hoping Vin wouldn’t continue to fight. Chris found himself dragged back a few feet before Buck lifted him to his feet and spun him around.

“What the hell is going on?” Buck demanded. “You know better than to do that to him.”

Buck turned back to check Vin, expecting to see the boy running for the barn or any other private haven. Instead, Vin was standing his ground, red face and chest heaving.

Chris tried to move toward Vin but was met with a stiffened arm from Buck. “I just needed to calm him down,” he tried to explain.

“By holdin’ him down?”


“I’m sorry.” The small voice behind them turned both their heads. Vin didn’t understand what had just happened, he just been so angry. It was all so unfair. “I’m sorry,” he apologised again helplessly. He didn’t mean to hurt Chris. Vin slowly started to shuffle backwards, remembering the punches and kicks he’d aimed at his father. At the first movement from the adults, Vin spun and ran to the house.

Buck watched as JD kept one eye on the adults in the yard and he too shuffled backwards toward the house, unsure what had just happened. Trusting old instincts JD turned and fled after Vin.

“What just happened here, Chris?”

“He got a little angry, then he got a little wild. Kicking, hitting. I was just trying to calm him down and keep him still.” Chris made a move toward the house. “I need to....”

“No, you need to tell me. What was Vin so angry about?”

“That I wouldn’t take off my gun.”


“He thinks I won’t get hurt if I’m not wearing it. There was some talk in Caulder about me.” Chris didn’t need to explain to Buck just what the town might have been talking about. “He seems to think that’s why I was shot. Vin’s been watching me since then. I knew he was worried, but I didn’t think it had gone this far.”

“What are you doing to do?” Buck looked across to the house where both boys had taken refuge.

“Try and make sure I didn’t just scare him to death.”

“No, about the rest of it.”

“What’s to do, Buck? What can I possibly tell him?” Chris pulled away but this time Buck released him, following him back inside their home.

The men stepped quietly into the boys’ room. Vin was stretch out face down on his bed, arms hugging his pillow. JD sat silently on the end of Vin’s bed, back to the wall and knees drawn up to his chest. As the men appeared, JD wrapped a hand around Vin’s ankle but both men were uncertain if it was intended as comfort or warning. Vin remained still blocking them all out, not even responding to JD’s touch.

“Vin?” Chris didn’t want to set Vin off again, but he couldn’t explain this to the back of Vin’s head. He lifted Vin and turned him over but this time instead of a fight the slender boy stayed lax in his arms, not responding at all to the touch.

Vin no longer looked angry or upset with him. While it relieved Chris that Vin appeared to have calmed down, there was a resignation in Vin’s eyes that concerned him.

“Vin. I can’t do what you asked. It just isn’t possible. I made some choices a long time ago and I can’t change them now.” Chris looked helplessly to Buck at the lack of response. “Vin?”

Finally Vin responded with a slow nod. “I understand. I’m sorry I hit ya, I didn’t mean it.” Vin had scared himself with the sudden outburst. “I don’t know why I did it ‘n I’m real sorry,” Vin offered, confused with his own behavior. “I won’t say nuthin’ about it again.”

Chris thought that Vin did finally understand as his statement was tainted with disappointment. “I know you’re sorry, Vin. I want you to stay here in you room for the rest of the afternoon. The next time you get angry about something I don’t want to see you hitting anyone or anything.”

“Yes sir.”

Chris knew he shouldn’t be surprised that Vin could or would lash out physically if pushed to anger. It was a response that Vin had witnessed so often in others. Chris wasn’t sure if it had occurred this time because Vin was so stressed about recent incidents, or if Vin somehow felt confident enough to truly feel his anger for the first time, no longer required to suppress his own honest anger and resentments as he did at the orphanage.

Vin rolled back over as the others left and pressed his face into his pillow. He was truly distressed that he’d tried to hurt Chris. It would have been so easy if Chris had just agreed. It would all have been over. If he knew that Chris would get up in the morning and not wear his guns, if he went into town like that then he was safe. Vin had tried and failed to stop Chris from going alone. He’d tried and failed to convince Chris not to wear his gun. Vin had only one alternative left and he knew it would destroy all that he had if he did this.

Vin tried to refuse supper that night but it had already been noticed how little he was eating lately so he was not excused from the meal. Vin refused to speak but it was not from spite. He simply couldn’t keep his attention on those around him, his mind too full of his plan for the evening, too full of the disastrous consequences.

Chris continued to prompt Vin to eat as most of the food was pushed around his plate. Finally everyone gave up on the meal, the strained atmosphere putting off everyone’s appetites.

“How about I serve up dessert in the living room and find us a story to read?” Buck suggested.

“Yes please, Papa,” JD agreed, taking his own plate back into the kitchen.

The suggestion caught Vin’s attention. They often sat together in the evenings as one of the adults read aloud. It had become a favorite family gathering for Vin. He realised this may be his last opportunity so he left his seat to reach Chris before he too could rise.

“I’m very sorry, Pa.” Vin begged forgiveness for all that he’d done today and all that he would tomorrow.

“Vin,” Chris hugged the sorrowful boy gently. “Everything will be fine.”

Vin shook his head silently against the worn cotton shirt. No it wouldn’t.

Vin had gone to bed after the evening’s story telling but he hadn’t slept. He dare not close his eyes lest he sleep through until morning and lose this opportunity. Vin waited until long after all the lamplights were extinguished. He waited until the house fell into a deep silence before he made his move. He crept from his own bed and tiptoed across the main room to Chris’ bedroom. He tried not to make a sound, tried not to even breathe, sure the Chris would hear his thundering heart. His hand touched the bone handgrips of the pistol, his fingers sliding forward onto slick steel. It’s cold touch sent ice into his own veins and he shivered. He had to do this. Taking a firm hold, he lifted the heavy pistol from its holster and backed slowly out of the room.

Vin stood in the barn shaking. He couldn’t believe he’d done it. He’d already considered his next step and wrapped the stolen object in a sack and wedging it down into the feed bin. Panting with exertion and terror, he stumbled back against the stall door, eyes glued to the accusing bin and knees shaking.

He knew he’d done a bad thing, stealing again and this time from the man he called father. Vin knew what he’d done was wrong and he bent forward, arms wrapped around his stomach as the scary dark feeling inside him made his stomach churn.

Peso nickered softly at his pre-dawn visitor. Ignored, the horse tried to rub his muzzle lightly against the down-bent head of the figure leaning against his stall. Vin didn’t respond to his four-legged friend, too lost in his decision. He was uncertain of what to do knowing that Chris would soon be awake. His knees gave out, leaving him to slide down to the barn floor to remain huddled in the darkness.
Vin lost track of time and was surprised when the weak rays of morning sun filtered into the depths of the barn to land accusingly on the feed bin. Vin knew that there would be no hiding from his actions. He pulled himself slowly to his feet and trudged back toward the house.

The rays of morning sun also brought Chris awake and the missing pistol was immediately noticed. Doubt flickered through his mind for an instant. Did he bring it into his room last night? The doubt whispered for only an instant, silenced quickly in the knowledge and habit of always keeping his gun in sight. It had been in his room last night.

“Buck!” Dragging on his outer clothes, he stumbled to Bucks’ bedroom door. It wasn’t likely but he had to ask. “Did you move my gun?”

“What?” Buck called out groggy and confused at the abrupt awakening.

“It’s gone.” Chris had already turned, prowling the living room in case it had simply been moved. He didn’t want to consider the other possibility. “You didn’t move it?” he asked as Buck finally shuffled from his room, raking his hair into shape.

“Chris, I wouldn’t touch it without you knowing. What do you mean it’s gone?”

“Gone, as in not in my holster. It had to have been taken sometime in the night.” Chris couldn’t help but let his eyes wander to the boys’ room.

Buck followed his gaze. “No. No way. They know not to touch guns.”

“After yesterday’s outburst, who else would it be?”

Buck was closer to the boys’ doorway and peered in. Only one figure was still in their bed but it wasn’t unusual for Vin to beat both adults out of the house in the morning. JD had been roused by the loud voices and looked around blearily.

‘”JD, did you hear Vin get up?”

“Nuh uh.”

Chris didn’t have to go far, taking only one step out onto the porch to place him right in front of a very guilty looking boy.

“Vin, have you taken my gun?” Chris had no time for games and demanded a direct answer.

“Yes, sir.” Vin knew there would be no hiding this. Chris just needed to understand this was how it had to be.

Chris was surprised at the abrupt agreement. Not that he expected Vin to lie but he hadn’t expected Vin to take the gun in the first place. “You can explain this to me later but I want to know where it is right now.” Chris ordered.

Vin just shook his head and remained mute.

The empty holster still hung in Chris grasp. “Vin Tanner, you’ll answer my question now.” Chris automatically took a step forward but Vin shrunk back. Chris was angered by the disobedience but also angry with himself for the rising fear he could see in Vin. He flung the empty holster to the side in frustration.

In that moment as it spun away, the belt slipped from the loosely hooked buckle, flying open to catch on the railing and spin off-course. Vin cried out as the buckle struck his face.

Chris stood frozen, horrified by what he’d done. “Vin! No, I didn’t mean that.”

Buck emerged from the doorway behind Chris drawn by the raised voices but found Vin already turned and running. JD had also heard Vin’s cry and pushed past the men, his small legs pumping as flew down the stairs and after his cousin.

“What the hell just happened?” Buck demanded only to find himself alone on the porch. He ran after the others, slowing as the caught up to JD and Chris at the fence.

“Chris?” Buck demanded of the chaos.

“I didn’t mean it,” Chris didn’t pause to explain, climbing the fence to follow as Vin disappeared into the trees.

“Mean what?” Buck demanded, halting Larabee’s chase with a firm grip on his shoulder.

“I hit him.”

Buck’s eyes widened, concerned for the departing figure. He didn’t have time to wait for Larabee to explain and Vin didn’t need to have Chris thundering after him if he was afraid.

“No, you stay here. Stay with JD,” Buck ordered, jumping the fence. He knew his friend wanted to fix this but there wasn’t time to argue. Vin knew how to run and hide. “Let me get him. He doesn’t need you chasing him to ground.”

Buck followed into the trees worried that Vin would be too far ahead as he was an agile and fast runner. Buck was heartened to find Vin still in sight, not running in full flight. Buck’s long legs were soon gaining on the boy and Buck called out.

Vin turned to look back at the sound of his name. The inattention cost him as he tripped over an exposed tree root and thudded heavily to the ground. The air whooshed from his lungs and he lay for a moment struggling for the next breath.

Buck made the last few strides in a rush when Vin didn’t make any attempt to rise. He rolled the small figure over gently, unsure what to expect. Vin’s chest was heaving from the running and the fall, his blue eyes flooded with tears that remained determinedly dammed. Under the smear of dirt on his face the reddened cheek was obvious. Buck was worried at the lack of response and began to check the compliant boy for any other injuries.

Vin finally blinked and finally acknowledged Buck’s presence. “He didn’t mean it,” Vin explained with a sniff. Vin had been running from the Chris’ question, not his action.

“I’m sure he didn’t,” Buck reassured the boy. “Lets get you up, hey?” He lifted Vin slowly until he was sitting up, Buck’s strong arm supporting him.

Vin’s shirttail had come loose and as he moved the tattered paperback that had become his recent companion fell from the untucked fabric. Buck automatically picked it up but his hand froze as he recognised the cover.

A small hand, gently tugging at his forearm drew his attention. “I had to stop it.” Vin explained, reaching over to take the book.

Buck moved it further away, looking from Vin to the book and back. “Did you take the gun, Vin?”

Vin just hung his head sadly. “I had to do it,” he mumbled. “But they can’t shoot him now,” he explained in earnest.

“Who can’t shoot him?” There was no question that Larabee was the ‘him’ from Vin’s point of view.

“No one. Anyone. They ain’t allowed if he ain’t wearin’ a gun.”

Buck understood most of the rules by which Chris Larabee had lived although he didn’t accept them himself. Given the book in his possession and his current confused confession, Vin appeared to be trying to come to some understanding as well. Buck had never accepted the rules but knew not to argue and stepped aside to keep Larabee as a friend. Vin appeared to be trying to change the rules, unwilling to just stand by.

Buck didn’t continue with the questions as Vin’s weight began to sag more heavily against his arm. He lifted Vin gently to his shoulder and felt the narrow arms wrap securely round his neck. Buck walked him slowly back to the house.

As he approached the fence-line he heard the soft whisper.

“Down.” Small hands pushed at his shoulders to make his intentions clear.

“I can carry you, Vin. It’s not far.” Buck wanted to comfort Vin and relished the opportunities to pick up either of the boys.

“Down,” Vin instructed more urgently, beginning to wriggle to be free.

Buck lowered him but as soon as Vin’s feet touched the ground his back stiffened and his head came up. Buck was at first worried that Vin had been injured, his stance perhaps hiding pain but Vin was focused on the distance. Buck followed his gaze. Just in sight was Chris, standing in the yard waiting.

“Everything’s fine, Vin.” Vin turned at the comment but didn’t appear convinced. Facing Larabee was an ordeal for an adult so Buck stooped down a little and took Vin’s hand in support, not surprised at the tight squeeze he received.

Vin refused to be carried home. He was a big boy now and he knew what he’d done but every step to the house became a little shorter until Buck was almost shuffling beside him. When they were finally in the yard Vin found he couldn’t look at his Pa. No, he correct himself, it was Chris. He’d stolen from the man who gave him everything and was now too ashamed to even look up.

Chris Larabee felt ill. Here was his child, scared, bruised, eyes pinned to the ground and it was his doing.

Buck took the book from his back pocket and thrust in at Larabee. “This is what he was trying to stop. I’ll get Vin cleaned up and when everyone’s calmed down we’ll sort this out.”

Buck had only just led Vin over the threshold when JD appeared warily from the boy’s room. He’d followed Chris back to the house but had sought refuge in their bedroom. Relieved at his cousin’s reappearance, he came running forward. He didn’t utter word, instead falling in beside Vin and taking his other hand.

Buck found himself surrounded in a miserable silence that disturbed him. The cheerful grin was missing from JD’s face, the younger boy appearing close to tears himself.

“Hey, none of that now,” Buck smiled confidently, ruffling the soft dark hair. “Vin’s fine. This was all just an accident.”

Buck gently wiped the dirt and grime from Vin’s face, his touch light on the one reddened cheek. “It was an accident,” he reassured Vin. “Chris would never intend to hurt you. Vin?”

Vin’s refused to raise his eyes.

Buck knew they needed an answer to the gun’s whereabouts. No one wanted a more tragic accident to occur but it would be better left for Chris and Vin to settle.

Buck opened a tin of cookies, snapping one in half and offering a piece to each boy. JD munched contentedly as the atmosphere in the kitchen started to settle. He didn’t know all that had happened but he knew what Vin had been worrying over.

“Is someone gonna shoot Chris again?” JD asked, his bald question shattering the fragile calm.

“No.” The voice from the doorway startled the other three.

“Let’s you and me go outside L’il Bit.” Buck smiled encouragingly to Vin then hoisted JD up onto his hip. He’d give the other pair a little privacy but only to the porch where he could still be close enough to help.

Chris led Vin over to one of the chairs and drew another close for himself. He didn’t want to loom over Vin. “Vin, this won’t solve anything.”

“It will, they can’t shoot you now. Please,” Vin begged for understanding.

“That’s not how it works. It’s not something that I’m proud of but it’s too late to change it.”

“So ya have killed people?”

Chris didn’t like Vin’s direction. “Yes I have.” Chris wasn’t sure how far to take this. Vin’s next words stopped his heart.

“Some people need killin’ to stop ‘em.”

While as an adult, Larabee might agree with that statement, it was a frame of mind he didn’t want Vin to develop. Vin had seen far too much already, hardened to violence with skewed perception of what was reasonable in this world.

“It’s about self-defence Vin. No one’s got the right to choose who lives and who dies. If someone does something bad, breaks the law, then it’s up to a judge to decide the punishment.”

“Why isn’t tryin’ to shoot ya against the law?”

Chris just couldn’t explain this. “Please don’t fret about this Vin. It all started a long time ago and it hasn’t happened for some time.”

“But everyone knows. It’s in that book.”

Chris again cursed the book’s existence.

“Can’t you please not wear it or not go out?”

Chris released a long slow breath. While it may have been about honor in the past he couldn’t just choose to back down if challenged now. His reputation firmly established, someone could still draw on him and then he’d simply die without ever having defended himself. He had a different live now. Answering a challenge wasn’t about honor it was about eliminating a threat to his family. A threat that he had hoped would fade as the dime novels dropped from circulation but here it was and this time inside his own home.

“That’s not how it works.” Chris kept his hands wrapped loosely around Vin’s upper arms, his thumbs rubbing soothingly back and forth. “Please just trust me, Vin.”

Somehow Vin had return from Caulder with Chris’ same fears. But while Chris had been trying to ensure that his new family would be taken care of, Vin simply wanted it to ensure it never happen.

Chris lifted the quivering chin, the glistening blue pools overflowed and he brushed the tears from the bruised cheek. “This isn’t the way, Vin.”

Chris folded Vin in toward him slowly, uncertain of his welcome after the earlier incident. Vin didn’t protest, just sagging forward exhausted by his night of turmoil.

“The feedbin,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re forgiven, Vin. You remember those extenuating circumstances?”

Vin paused for a moment, trying to recall the word again.

“This wasn’t the right thing to do,but I understand why. I want you to promise you’ll never do it again.”

“I promise.”

“My carelessness wasn’t a good response either,” Chris offered, touching the darkened cheek lightly. “And it won’t happen again.”

“Fair ‘nuff,” Vin nodded cautiously.

Chris knew Buck had been monitoring them as the front door was quietly slipped open. Chris waved him back out with a nod of his head, leaving JD and Vin to wait for them as they crossed the yard and entered the barn. The gun was quickly retrieved and checked, Chris sighing in relief at the thought of the possible tragedy. He strapped the holster back on and the familiar weight settled against his thigh. Another less familiar weight was dragging at his shirt pocket and he withdrew it.

He’d shoved it aside as he waited for Vin. Now he considered it’s odd presence. “How’d he get this?” It was ragged and creased. Chris was surprised that copies, however tattered, still existed.

“I don’t know. School maybe?”

Chris rolled it tightly, twisting and crumpling the pages until aged paper torn and old bindings snapped.

“It’s not all going to go away like that,” Buck warned him.

All the questions were starting to make sense. “Surely he couldn’t read it.” These novels would never be described as literature but neither were they intended for someone who was on his first reader.

“Would it make much difference? The cover picture is enough and your name’s all through it.”

“As if it didn’t cause enough trouble with it was first printed,” Chris sighed. His reputation had taken off like wildfire, fuelled by the thoughtless words of the author. The challenges had increased as he was lifted to the status of live entertainment.

Chris dragged fingers through his hair. “How am I supposed to tell him it’s all true? That piece of trash may have tried to turned it into something heroic but the truth is that it’s just killing.”

“Just because the truth is ugly doesn’t mean you should avoid it.”

“It can’t be explained to a child, Buck. Hell, not many adults understand it, even you.”

Buck couldn’t deny it. Chris had always been wild but after his family died it had turned dark and violent. Chris became a danger to himself and others and Buck had been unable to contain or even direct the explosions when they occurred.

“You were standing right there trying to offer me help but I ignored you and just kept right on going down that path.” Chris wasn’t making it an apology. No longer clouded by alcohol, he could look back now and see clearly what he’d done. Previously he hadn’t regretted the dark choices he’d made as he and Buck, although close friends, still walked their own independent paths. But it wasn’t the same with Vin. Vin depended on him, and when he’d reached out to the boy and been accepted he’d drawn Vin onto his path with all the threats and dangers that it held.

“Fine, you chose a path. If it’s any consolation, at least you kept moving,” Buck offered. “You didn’t just lay down and die as much as you wanted to in the beginning.”

“Not much consolation.”

“Probably is to Vin, because it brought you here. You did the best you could at the time. Looking back now you can see what you could have done better but all of us can say that of a lot of choices we’ve made. I think you’re more worried because you don’t want to get tarnished.”

“What, my reputation?” Chris scoffed.

“No, that big shiny gold star Vin thinks you’ve got pinned to your chest.” Buck ignored Chris’ sceptical look, sure of what he saw every day. “Tell me you don’t feel it pokin’ you in the heart every time he lays those baby blues on you.”

Chris could be honest with himself and he knew the loss of Vin’s hero worship would hurt. ““Maybe that’s true but this isn’t about me feeling good, it’s about Vin. I don’t want him afraid of me and I don’t want him afraid for me.” Little boys needed heros and Chris knew that his image had shattered.

“Not so long ago you told Vin that he did some things he’s not proud but he needed to do them just to survive,” Buck reminded his friend.

“I didn’t do this to survive.”

“I swear to god, Chris.” Buck wrapped a hand around Chris’ upper arm, dragging him around to face him. “If that violence and anger hadn’t spilled out onto the streets, then it would have eaten you alive,” Buck accused harshly. “Are you going to tell me you never once turned your gun on yourself? Never once pushed a bullet into the chamber wanting it to be for you?” Buck didn’t wait for an answer, didn’t want an answer. “In the end, they challenged you. You never murdered anyone.”

Chris shook his head and pulled his arm from Buck’s grip. He understood what Buck was saying but he knew Vin. He had tried to calm his fears without explaining the truth and failed. Vin needed to believe something and Chris knew only one thing that could be.

“It ends now.” Chris declared. “I’m going to tell him it’s not true.” It was a simple as that.

“That’s a mighty big risk.”

“I don’t care, Buck. Enough is enough. I’ve just spent a week with him watching my every move, watching every gun around me. He’s afraid.” Chris rubbed the heel of his hand against his temple, willing the tension to fade. “When we met you hadn’t worn those Union blues for much more than a week. We thought we were immortal and we weren’t much past teenage. It took a war to teach me otherwise then it took losing Sarah and Adam for me to realise it’s not my own death that I should have worried about. I have an eight year old who already knows that, who’s looking at me like I’ll just disappear from sight. He…” Chris dragged a ragged breath in. He was at a loss for words.

“I know you don’t want him to worry, Chris but is lying about it...” Buck waved away the immediate objection. “Okay, not telling him everything, going to solve anything? He’s a smart kid and he knows what’s going on around him. What are you going to do if he finds out you lied?” Buck couldn’t help but play Devil’s advocate. When it came to this pair, anything that could go wrong, would go wrong.

“If he ever finds out then can hate me, he can be disappointed in me. But today, tomorrow and every day until then he will be happy and secure. Every time he waves goodbye maybe he’ll look like he just expects to miss me, not terrified he’ll never see me again. I’ll risk it to give him that peace.”

Buck could see that any further discussion was over. He wasn’t sure this was the right thing to do but he didn’t have an alternative. The two men returned sombrely to the house.

Chris took the pieces of the book he still held and shoved them into the stove, the low embers catching the dry paper and igniting it to flame. The added heat warmed up the previously missed morning coffee.

The boys were quiet and timid with Buck’s attempts to return the household to normal were only partially successful. He prepared a simple breakfast, everyone having missed the meal in the early morning turmoil. He chased the boys outside to play horseshoes but didn’t miss the quick glance Vin took at the pistols once again strapped around Chris’ hips.

Buck poured fresh coffee and kicked a chair aside, dropping down heavily. He didn’t need to start too many days this way. “I suppose any gossip at school will die down soon,” he suggested, pushing another cup of coffee toward Chris. “Unless of course JD decides to take you in for his next book report,” he added after a considered pause.

Chris couldn’t help but spit the mouthful of coffee across the table as Buck pounded him on the back. He scowled at his friend’s poor joke.

“Sorry,” Buck grinned. “But you know he’d love the idea.”

“That’s not a book, it’s trash.” But the suggestion gave Chris another idea. There were more worthy tales for the boys to be interested in.
Chris decided not to explain his idea until the end of the day, after the boys had dinner and were changed into their nightshirts. He’d spent his time searching out an old box he’d long ago shoved into the dusty depths under his bed.

Chris needed to clear up one more thing with Vin. “Vin, you’ve had a book with you lately.”

Vin went white and still.

“It’s not a book you should be trying to read so I’ve thrown it away.”

Vin was surprised at the treatment of a book like that. He thought all books were supposed to be important. “But it was about you?”

“I didn’t have anything to do with it. Someone else told stories about me and a lot of it wasn’t true.”

“They lied?” Vin asked in confusion. What had everyone meant?

“It’s like when JD tells a story. It starts out as true but then he adds all those other things to make it sound exciting.”

Vin nodded in understanding. JD told big whoppers sometimes, but as Chris said they usually started in the truth. “But some of it’s true?”

“Some of it was true in the past.” Chris couldn’t deny all that had happened. “Yes, I have been in gunfights but I’m a rancher now. You don’t have to worry about anyone trying to kill me or calling me out.”

“Ya sure, Chris?”

Chris flinched at the sound of his name. Vin had reverted to old and Chris suspected that maybe the gold had tarnished. He didn’t see any of the wonder or pride or adoration, instead he still saw fear and worry.

“You’ve been here a while now, Vin. Have you ever seen anyone do it?”

Vin shook his head in denial.

“And that’s because I’m a rancher. I’m not a gunslinger anymore, just like you’re not an orphan anymore. Things have changed for both of us.” Chris rubbed his thumbs along the collarbone as his hands rested gently on Vin’s shoulders.

“What happened to Pa? You stopped saying it again.” Chris cradled the marred face gently in his hands, his thumb brushing lightly over the darkening bruise. “I won’t ever take it back Vin. I’m your Pa, no matter what.”

Vin hadn’t been certain after what he’d done. “But I stole.”

“Forever, Vin. Remember?” Chris reminded him of the original promise.

Vin knew he shouldn’t be surprised that Chris would hold true to his promise. Vin had been certain that it would be withdrawn after his theft. Promises were always seem to be made with conditions, conditions that he always managed to breach. “Ya mean it? No matter what?”

“No matter what,” Chris confirmed.

Chris led Vin over to the rocker where he’d placed his earlier find. “I’ve got a different book for you, Vin.” He handed over the old volume. “This is for you to keep.”

Vin turned the book over in his hands, his fingers reverently tracing the faded gold lettering on the smooth, worn leather. This wasn’t a school reader. He opened the pages, the paper silk smooth, each edged in gold.

“Robin Hood,” Vin read from the cover, a little daunted by the tiny print and the numerous pages.

Chris pulled Vin up to sit on his lap. Vin barely noticed the sway of the chair, his fingers still ruffling the delicate pages.

“We can read it together at night,” Chris explained as took the book and opened it at one of the illustrated plates. “It’s a story about a good man who lived a long time ago and tried to do the right thing.”

“Like you?” Vin asked as he traced a shape on the shirtfront before him.

At first the movement felt random, until Chris looked down and watched. He closed his own hand over the smaller one as he recognised that shape of a star. A little boy needed a hero. “A better man.”

“Ain’t no one better than my Pa.”

The End

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