"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe
Disclaimer: This is a creative tribute to and inspired by series The Magnificent Seven. I assert no copyright claim in the concept or trademarks associated with The Magnificent Seven, and have made no profit from writing this piece.
Warnings: strong language.
Notes: Thanks to those who have gone before, the creators of the ATF AU and the LB stories: hopefully I can give back a little of the enjoyment that you have given me.
JD kicked his heels idly against the fence rail. The horses were mostly ignoring him despite his calls and attempted whistles, but Lady, Buck's big grey wandered slowly over leaning her head over the fence huffing at the child, then pushing her nose against JD's chest. The small boy wobbled, and gripped fiercely onto the rail, one hand latching out reflexively at Lady's mane. She whuffled gently at him again, and he grinned, wrapping both arms around her.
"Hi, Lady," he said quietly. She nuzzled at his pockets and he giggled. "Got carrots in there," he said, whispering the secret into her ear. He looked cautiously over his shoulder to the ranch house. "Lady--" if Chris or Buck had heard him their instincts for JD- mischief would have been on instant alert, as it was, they were nowhere near and JD was free to get into as much trouble as his fertile brain could devise.
"If I give you carrots, will you give me somethin' back?" He fished a carrot out and held it out on his palm, smiling as she lipped his hand, crunching contentedly on the sweet vegetable. Her head dipped towards his pocket again, and he grinned. He knew perfectly well that if any of his family knew what he was up to they'd forbid it, probably with lots of shouting and yelling, and he'd never get to ride anything except like babies and stupid kids who were scared of horses did, doubled, or with lead lines until he was old. Buck had told him he couldn't ride by himself till he was bigger, and said something about his tenth birthday. JD acknowledged that Buck might have been teasing. He'd been laughing with his eyes when he said it, but it wasn't funny. JD pouted at the memory. He'd have to live his entire life over to get to ten, it was unimaginably far off. He might die before then! Waiting and waiting and dying of waiting.
So he'd planned. It had come into his head one day when he'd been feeding Pony. He'd been standing soooo close that JD could have just slid from the rails onto his back. But Chris seemed to have eyes where no normal person could possibly have them, and had told him firmly to not even think about it. But he figured that if he came and fed the horses every day after school, just like he always did, then sooner or later he'd get a chance. He didn't really think about it as lulling his family into a false sense of confidence. He was just waitin'.
And now he could stop waitin', and try riding instead. Buck had phoned fifteen minutes ago to say he was still at work, and not to expect him back until late. Chris was upstairs helping Vin with his homework.
JD grinned, and hugged Lady again, before sliding slowly and carefully from the fence onto her bare back. Finally he was there, sitting up high on the fence, all by himself. He clicked softly, like Buck did, and said, "Walk on," and she did! He was so astonished and pleased that for a long moment he just sat, gape-mouthed in delight that he'd told her what to do, and she'd done it. He wound his fingers into her mane, and sat upright, like Chris and Buck and Sophie at the riding school told him. The slow movement quickly became boring, and JD kicked gently with his bare feet and clicked his tongue again.
His grin spread wide across his face as the horse picked up speed. He clung low over her withers, wrapping his arms as far as he could get them round her neck. It was wonderful. It felt like flying; nothing had ever felt as good as this, and even with her mane in his eyes and mouth, he laughed wildly and thumped his small feet into her sides again in glee.
Lady was a well trained horse. She liked the small child on her back, he brought her treats, and petted her; he was barely any burden at all, so when he kept telling her to go faster, she did until inevitably they reached the far side of the field, where she had two choices--to stop or jump. And today, she didn't feel like stopping.... JD didn't really think, just clung tighter as she bunched her muscles and leapt the fence.
They really were flying. She launched herself high into the sky, JD's eyes wide with wonder and awe, and he gripped closer with knees clenched and his fists wrapped tightly in her mane as she thudded to the ground, nearly sending him over her neck onto the ground, but he hung on. She shook herself lightly, and came to a standstill. JD slid back into place whooping with joy, and praising her to the skies, pressing sloppy kisses into her coat, and urged her on.
They kept going, JD bouncing on her back in rhythm with her as she trotted. He leaned in close to her ear and pointed towards the hills. "Let's go thataway!" he ordered, and by some miracle, whether she felt his intent in the tugs on her mane or the pressure of his legs, she turned and they headed towards the hills.
"You are sooo beautiful, and clever and wonderful and amazing and -- uh-oh--" JD's adoration of his horse stopped abruptly as he spotted Buck's car turning into the bottom of the road. "Buck's home."
The lights from the car swung round and blinded him for a moment. He froze, pinned in the bright light, and Lady slowed in response. He squinted, blinking and frowning. In the distance the engine revved and there was a screech of abused tires up the drive. JD sighed. "I think Buck's gonna be mad at us." He bit his lip. "Maybe if I take you back an' leave ya where I found ya he won't be so upset."
And so it was, as Buck Wilmington sprinted towards the corral, shouting for Chris as he ran for the nearest horse, JD made his way home. Chris was running for the yard, and Vin was scrambling after him, only to be told in curt tones to sit still on the porch, and not move until they were back. Buck whistled shrilly, and half a dozen horses came crowding over. He haltered one, swung himself onto her back, and was moving before he was fully seated.
"Saw JD on Lady up in the high pasture."
"That stupid little brat!" Chris growled. They pushed their animals towards the back of the field, but before they got any further, heard hoof beats drumming, too close, and too fast.
"Shit! They're gonna kill themselves!" Buck said, horrified.
"Not if I get to him first," Chris said ominously, but both men were too far away from the fence to do more than watch as the child and horse headed far too fast towards the fence. Just as disaster seemed impossible to stop, Lady leapt fluidly over the fence and back into the corral, coming to a full stop just yards from the two frozen men, JD clinging to her neck like a very excited burr.
"Wheeeee!" JD shrilled, and Lady shifted uneasily. "Buck, Buck I flew! I flew! Me an' Lady we flew!"
"Do you want me to kill him now, or shall I wait until your heart's restarted," Chris croaked to Buck, his eyes fixed on the grinning boy.
"Did ya see Chris? Did Vin see?" He leaned down into Lady's shoulders and at some signal unseen by the two men, the horse turned and trotted towards the fence where JD's foster brother clung to the rails, wide eyed.
"I don't think I'm going to ever breathe again," Buck gulped. "I'm gonna kill that kid!" He dragged his horse's head around and set after JD. As he pulled level with him he reached out and scooped JD off of Lady's back into his arms. He brought his horse to a standstill then slid off, carrying JD in silent fury into the ranch house.
"Buck?" JD asked nervously.
"Don't say a word, little bit. 'Cause I'm not sure what I'm going to do with you, and if you say a word, I'm going to make it something we're both going to regret." He pushed open the front door and lowered JD to his feet. "Are you hurt?"
"No, sir," JD whispered.
"Then go to your room. You don't come out of there until I say so."
Chris came in to find Buck pouring himself too much whiskey. "Here." He handed Chris a glass. "God." He gulped back the alcohol in two swallows and tossed more into the glass. "He could have killed himself, Chris," he said softly, staring into the distance. It was dark outside, but Chris was absolutely certain he was seeing the corral, and the heart stopping jump that JD and Lady had made into it. He swirled his whiskey in the glass, and sighed. He'd sent Vin up to finish his homework, warning him not to speak to JD. Vin had looked anxiously at him until he'd smiled and hugged his son, ruffling his hair.
"Doesn't mean t'be bad," Vin said softly into his father's ear.
"We've told him not to touch the horses unless we're there."
Vin shrugged. "Wants to ride real bad," he said briefly, and Chris frowned.
"He goes riding."
"What's different about it, Vin?"
"Got to be with someone. Tied onto a rope, or holding onto you or Buck or me." Vin looked up, a fiercely independent glint in his eyes. "He wants to do summat for himself."
Chris sighed. "Sometimes he's just too little."
"He doesn't think so." Vin said simply. He shrugged lopsidedly and looked up at Chris with a proud little grin. "And he can ride."
Chris grinned back and tapped Vin's nose reprovingly. "That's not the point. Go on, go do your homework." Vin grinned widely at him, and trotted obediently up the stairs.
"He's a brave kid."
"He's a fucking stupid kid with a goddamn deathwish." Buck snapped. "He's never jumped anything before. She didn't even have a saddle or harness on."
It occurred to Chris that JD must have already jumped at least once to get out of the corral. On reflection, it was probably best not to mention that to Buck. "He's fine."
"He's lucky, is what he is. Can you imagine...?" They paused, both only too able to imagine. "God, Chris, what am I going to do?"
"Forbid him from riding without one of us?"
"Take away the riding lessons?"
"Yeah. Maybe that'll work." Buck scrubbed a hand over his face. "I don't think my heart is ever going to recover from seeing that."
"Ya know, Buck," Chris started thoughtfully.
"I'm not going to like this, am I?" Buck replied, not even looking up.
"Give the kid his own horse."
"What? Are you insane! No fucking way!" Buck yelled. Chris scowled at him, and Buck dropped his voice, "I'll pay up later. I am not rewarding that kind of deliberate disobedience by giving him his own fucking horse! Brat knows good and well he's not to ride the horses without us around. If I've told him once I've told him a dozen times."
"He didn't fall."
"He's too young and too stupid to know how dangerous it is."
"You really think so?" Chris shrugged. "He's five, Buck. He's not going to get less independent. I wouldn't have thought you would want him to. Sometimes, kids will break a rule regardless of how much you punish them. Sometimes things just burn in their blood."
"He's too little. He just wants to do what Vin does."
"Doesn't mean he doesn't know his own mind."
"So you're saying I should just hand over Lady and let him break his fool neck?"
"No, I'm saying give him a longer rope."
There was a long silence.
"He's so little."
"You really think it would be okay?"
Chris quirked a half smile. "Did you see him take that fence bareback?"
Buck drew a deep breath, his expression half worried, half in dawning admiration. "Bareback on a full size horse."
"With his legs wrapped round her throat." Chris laughed. "Have you ever seen a child look that excited?"
"Not even JD." Buck shook his head. "I was going to whale the tar out of him."
"I'd'a whaled the tar outta you," Chris informed him, semi-seriously.
"You know me, Chris. I couldn't lay a hand on him."
Chris shrugged. "You looked pretty damn angry to me. And people sometimes do fool things when they're angry." He lifted his eyes to meet Buck's. "Don't want you making any mistakes like that."
"Sophie said he was pretty good." Buck said suddenly.
"Girl at the riding school. I asked how he was doing, and she said he was really good." Buck looked vaguely embarrassed. "I thought maybe she was just being nice to me about him because he's my boy."
Chris rolled his eyes. "Not everything is about your sex life, Buck."
"I can't take the risk. What if it was and I missed a chance with a pretty girl?" his friend replied seriously and Chris thumped his arm.
"So, I guess I ground him for a week, and we find him a pony next weekend. Something nice and quiet."
Chris suppressed a smirk. He'd lay money on the kind of horseflesh they'd be bringing home in seven days, and 'quiet' wasn't in the description.
"How the hell do I ground a five year old anyway?"
+ + + + + + +
JD huffed out another sigh, louder than the first half dozen or so. Vin hunched his shoulders, and said firmly, "I ain't talking to ya, JD."
JD bounced on the bed a couple of times, then flopped onto it dangling headfirst off and peering underneath. "D'ya think Buck'll find me under the bed?" Vin ignored him and glowered at his writing practice as he carefully shaped the letters in his awkward, spiky script. There was a thud and a slithering sound. Vin twisted round to catch JD's bare feet disappearing under the edge of the frame. He shrugged and carried on writing.
"There's dust under here. 'Normous dust bunnies. Whole farms of 'normous dust bunnies." JD sneezed, and a few of the enormous dust bunnies rolled out like tumbleweeds. There was a scuffling sound, and a thud of a small head hitting the wall. Vin ignored it.
"Ya think Buck'll hang me up by my toenails?" There were more scuffling sounds, and a few more dust balls made a break for freedom.
"'Cause he said he would when I put treacle in his sneakers, but he didn't. I wonder where he'll hang me from. Vin? Will he hang me from the laundry line?"
Vin stuck his fingers in his ears and started humming. Loudly.
"Boys-- where's JD?" Buck's voice went from solemn to resigned in a beat.
Vin kept humming.
Buck sighed. "JD? Where are you boy? You better not have left the room after I told you."
A muffled snort drifted up from behind the bed and Buck sighed again. "Come out."
"You can't find me!"
"JD. If I have to come in there after you I swear--"
"But my toenails'll come off!" JD's voice said plaintively, and Buck opened his mouth to reply. Closed it, tried again. Waved his hands in silent frustration and stomped away.
Moments later he was back, he stalked in, grimly pulled the bed out and grabbed a giggling JD by the scruff of his neck before the child could follow the path of the bed.
"You. Downstairs. Now." His words were clipped and JD cast a nervous look up at him. There was no sign of the laughter that Buck was dying to let loose, instead stern blue eyes met the wide brown ones, and JD stopped wriggling in his grip, his face crumpling into something dangerously close to tears. Buck put the boy down and turned him towards the door, swatting him on the bottom to encourage him to move. JD moved. "Wait for me at the bottom of the stairs. Don't go anywhere else."
Buck waited a moment until he was sure he could speak without collapsing into giggles, and gently shook Vin's shoulder. Vin jumped then settled as he recognised Buck.
"Are you done there?" Buck asked, nodding at his schoolwork.
"Can I go play with JD?" Vin nodded eagerly.
"JD isn't going to be playing much for the next week," Buck said grimly. "He knows to stay away from the horses--"
"But, Buck, he--"
"He didn't hurt her none!" Vin blurted.
"But he was forbidden to try. I'm not having this argument with you too, Vincent Tanner." Buck growled, and wondered when he'd turned into his own mother.
"Sorry, sir." Vin whispered, and Buck sighed, and ruffled his hair.
"JD's gotta learn consequences, Vin."
Vin's face was suspicious. "You going to hurt him?" he asked aggressively, and Buck shook his head, relieved that Larabee had saved him from himself, even if he was pretty sure he'd never have laid a hand on the child, on either of them.
"No. Absolutely not. Vin, I'm never going to hurt either of you if I can help it," he replied gently.
"Can I go?" Vin's expression said he wasn't convinced.
"Go on then. Chris is down in the living room."
He followed Vin down the stairs and hardened his heart against the pitiful huddle of five year old that sat on the bottom step. Big miserable eyes glanced up at him and then disappeared back into his folded arms. Damn.
He sat down next to JD at the bottom of the stairs and wrapped his arm over the kid's back. "Hey, JD."
He couldn't make out the muttered words muffled as they were by being buried in JD's chest.
"Come on, kid. Look at me?" He tugged JD closer and the small body tensed. "I'm not going to hurt you, lil' bit. C'mere."
"You ain't going to do that again, are you?"
The small black head shook. "Okay then." Buck sighed. He'd planned to dress the child down three ways from Sunday, but just couldn't bear to in the face of this silent misery.
"I's sorry." JD's voice was virtually inaudible.
"What was that, kiddo?"
"I's," he paused, sniffed, wiped his nose on his sleeve and lifted his head, "I's sorry. Don't send us 'way."
The unexpected lurch in Buck's heart stopped him from speaking for a split second. Then he was tugging the child up onto his lap. "Hey. Hey, shhh, hey, come on, it's okay." he rocked slowly, wiping away the big tears with his thumb. He glanced up, and Chris was watching him from the doorway, Vin clinging to his hip.
"Ain't nothing going to make us send you two away. You're stuck with us, like glue."
JD sniffed and whispered, "but you was mad."
"Sure I was, lil' bit. You disobeyed me an' Chris. You coulda been hurt bad, real bad, baby." He dropped a kiss into the soft dark hair, and shivered. "You scared us; that's why I was so angry. Ain't because I don't love you; ain't because I don't want you around no more. Was just 'cause I do love you, and I do want you 'round."
"Oh." JD appeared to be thinking about this. "But I wasn't."
"But you mighta been."
"But I wasn't -- I'm good at riding. Miss Sophie says so."
Buck's eyes flickered upwards unintentionally meeting Chris's laughter-filled ones.
"Yeah, well. Miss Sophie wouldn't want you to ride big old horses without bit or bridle or saddle. Little boys should stick to what they can chew."
"I wasn't chewing Lady."
Buck felt his facial muscles start to twitch with the effort of not losing it in front of the kids. "I meant --" He threw a pleading glance at Chris.
"What Bucklin meant was you can ride if we know where you are. Accidents happen, and if you ride a horse that's too big you're more likely to fall off than if you're on a nice pony that is the right size for a little'un. Vin's pony is only eleven hands."
"But I don't have a pony. I hadda ride Lady. None of the others would come," JD said plaintively.
Vin was grinning wildly and JD's eyes went wide.
"'m I gonna have a pony too?!"
"First you're going to be punished for disobeying," Buck intervened quickly, scowling at his openly smirking friend. The message in his eyes was clear-- next time you need a bad guy, forget it.
"Oh." JD's voice was small.
"No candy. No cookies. No ice-cream. No playing with your friends out of school for two weeks. No riding at all for two weeks. No computer except for school, no computer games. Only one hour of tv a day for the next two weeks."
JD's face grew more and more dismal with each pronouncement.
Buck felt like a heel, taking in the combined weight of Vin's scowl, JD's misery and Chris' frown. But dammit, the kid was going learn this lesson. If he didn't learn obedience now, it could be fatal, especially if, God forbid, their jobs ever came home with them and the boys ended up in danger.
He hugged JD tightly. No. Better he be the bad guy, and JD stay alive. "Let's get you to bed, okay?"
"Okay," JD sounded tired and miserable.
"Off you go. Get your pajamas and go to the bathroom. I'll be up in a minute."
"Buck--" Chris spoke quietly, his eyes on the slumped little shoulders trudging back up the stairs. "There's a fine line between what you're doing and breaking his spirit."
"He's gotta learn--"
"Which works better, carrot or the stick?"
"Besides, you've taken away everything that wears him out. What the hell are you going to do with him for two weeks with no sugar, no friends and no video, dvds, computer games..."
"Maybe you have a point..." Buck's voice trailed off as he realised that JD was going to have nothing to distract him from demanding attention every second of the day... "Oh my god."
And Buck ran up the stairs after JD. "Kid? Hey, kid, let's talk about this..."
Three weeks later
"JD! JD get back here!" Chris called, his annoyance rising along with his stress levels.
"Young Mr. Dunne is over with the equitation display to your right," Ezra said, not a glimmer of a smile betrayed in his face.
"Mr. 'Zra!" JD ran up and gripped an immaculately pressed trouser leg in a distinctly grubby hand. "Come 'n' see! They's goin' backwards!"
Ezra swung JD up to his shoulders, "It's called dressage, Master Dunne. And it is a skill of the highest order of complexity, requiring dexterity and intensive training for both the rider and the horse."
"They's dancin'" Vin breathed with awe, leaning against Ezra's leg.
"Yes, they are."
"Damn fool occupation for a decent horse if y'ask me," Buck muttered darkly. He had three ice-creams dripping slowly down one hand and a tray of drinks in the other. A wicked glint lit his eyes and he handed JD and Vin their ices. Ezra's eyes narrowed as he felt the first drips of chilly melted ice-cream fall into his hair.
"You may yet live to regret that, Mr Wilmington," he murmured. "One day, boys, you will see the Lippizaner horses dance, and you will realise that what you see here is the merest fringe of what is possible when the horse and rider are of sufficient calibre."
"I can ride," JD said boldly, and then pressed sticky lips close to Ezra's ear. "Only I mustn't if Chris or Buck or you or Nathan or J'siah or --" he hesitated, his rhythm broken. "If you ain't there, I can't go ridin'."
"Yes, I know."
"You coming over soon, Mr. 'Zra?" a small voice said guilelessly from above his head, and Ezra laughed.
"Doubtless I shall be inveigled into accompanying you on your equine follies."
"S that a yes?"
Ezra grinned. "That's a yes."
JD whooped with glee and bounced. "Did I tellya 'bout M'agro?" Ezra flinched and closed his eyes. When he opened them both his friends were grinning at him. JD was burbling for the eighth or possibly ninth time about the delights of his small bay pony, Milagro; ice cream was running down the back of his neck, doubtless ruining a very expensive silk shirt custom made for him the last time he was in London. Vin was tugging at his jacket and he leaned down and scooped the boy up onto his hip.
"Perhaps Ez can show you how to do some of that fancy dress-age," Buck said mockingly.
"Certainly," Ezra replied smoothly. "Just as soon as you explain the exact nature of your relationship with Lu-Anne Giordo, and the circumstances that led to her taking out a hit on your--" he paused and dropped his eyes significantly then raised them to Buck's suddenly scarlet face, "to Mr. Larabee."
Mr. Larabee appeared to be choking to death on his ice-cream.
"What was she going to shoot?" Vin asked anxiously.
"Nothing." Buck said firmly. "Nothing at all."
"Hey, Buck," Larabee coughed and cleared his throat one last time. "Next time you disobey the rules about keeping it in your pants I'll cut your tv for a month."
"Nah," Vin grinned wickedly up at his father. "Cut JD's tv."
"Cause then," Vin paused to slurp at his ice cream, "Buck can play with JD for a whole month."
Buck blanched white.
"Buck? Whatya keepin' in your pants?" JD's voice floated clearly over the busy horse fair and both Buck and Chris flushed a slow scarlet as everyone nearby turned to stare, and snicker. Ezra simply laughed, hugged Vin closer, and laughed harder.
"Young Messrs Dunne and Tanner, permit me to obtain more candy for you both," was the last thing the two foster-fathers heard as he disappeared into the crowd. "A remark that can reduce both your fathers to speechless embarrassment of that order is deserving of some splendid recompense. And Mr. Tanner, your threats are definitely improving. I would give that at least a nine."