"Little Britches" Universe

No infringement is intended in regard to The Magnificent Seven, owned by MGM and Trilogy. No profit is being made from this activity.
Thanks: To J. K. Poffenberger and S Berry, the originators of the Little Britches Universe, who have kindly opened it for all of us to play.

Follows Keepsake

The last month had been busy at the ranch. Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington were working hard to build the ranch into a successful horse breeding business. Their ideas for the ranch's future had become even more important now that they had two young boys dependant on them. Chris and Buck had been taking turns on the recent buying trips away from home. This Spring had brought a number of quality horses available across the neighboring counties, so the men had spent time looking for good brood mares. They had tried to make the trips short, the new towns not holding the gloss and excitement now that they had the boys awaiting their return at home.

Chris looked down the line of post holes already dug and the long distance still to go. A new paddock was needed so Chris had begun work early, leaving the boys in the distance to attend their own chores around the barn. Buck was away this time. Just a short overnight trip. He thought of his own trips away. On one of those trips, Chris had been held up by rain and delayed an additional night. On his return, Buck had informed him that Vin hadn't slept. Buck had watched Vin as the boy had watched the door all evening, concentrating on the sounds outside. Buck had tried to convince the seven year old that Chris was just delayed, but Vin had continued on with his private vigil. Buck had fetched the boy back from the rocking chair in the main room four times, until finally he'd given up and left the boy there wrapped in a blanket. On his return, Chris had spoken to Vin to try and ease his worry. Vin had confided that he did trust Chris, that he knew Chris had promised he wouldn't leave him, but he also knew that sometimes adults just couldn't keep their promises. Chris couldn't deny the truth of that, so he'd let the matter drop. Chris looked back to the ranch and tried to shake away his depressing thoughts. The future was the focus now.

A rider was approaching. It looked like Buck. Empty-handed. He and Buck were being very selective. They only had limited funds, so they were selecting the brood mares carefully. Chris smiled at his friend's early arrival home. It wasn't so long ago that he would expect Wilmington to delay any trip for an additional evening's entertainment in a new saloon. Chris decided to pack up the fencing equipment and head back to the house.

JD heard the arrival in the yard and ran over to Buck as he dismounted.

"Did ya buy one? Huh? Buck, did ya buy one? Is she white? Ya promised ya'd git a white one like I asked?" JD hopped from foot to foot, firing questions without giving Buck any time to answer.

Buck grasped a tight hold of the little hand that was tugging on his coat and raised the bundle of questions up into his arms. He hugged JD close, laughing at the never ending flow of questions. How he'd missed this.

Vin came out from the barn and moved to take the reins of Buck's horse.

"Welcome home Mr Buck!" he greeted, smiling cheerily. JD's exuberance was catching.

Buck lowered JD and quickly grabbed Vin up into a hug as well, spinning him around until the laughter spilled out.

"Me! Me!" JD demanded, not willing to miss out on more fun.

Vin wriggled to be released, so Buck let him go quickly. As Vin slid down, Buck was pleased to note that the young body was beginning to fill out a little. Buck had been shocked by they bony spine and ribs the first time he'd picked him up.

He turned his attention back to JD and spun him around too, delighted to be welcomed home to such laughter.

"Did ya get a white one?" Buck winced at the sound so close to his ear. Excitement had raised JD's usual loud tones to a bellow.

"No. No white one yet, but let me tell you about all the other things I saw." He lowered the five year old and led him back to the barn with Vin, knowing the boys wanted to hear all about his travels.
Chris Larabee rode out to the Wells' homestead the following day. He had discussed with Buck the idea of inviting Nettie to become a more formal member of their family. He'd recently been thinking that she would make a perfect Grandmother. Vin was already firmly attached to the fiesty widow and while JD spent less time with Nettie, he was generally open and friendly with everyone. He and Buck agreed that another stable figure in their lives would be good for the boys and a woman's hand was very much missing in their current raising. He and Buck were the first to admit that they struggled to run a ranch, watch the boys and keep a well-tended home.

Nettie had seen Larabee's approach and met him on the front porch. She ushered him into her home and settled him at the dining table. The coffee on the stove was still hot so she poured two cups and re-joined her sombre visitor.

"What brings you out this way Chris? Everything all right with those boys of yours?"

"Yes Nettie. They're fine. Although what I'm here for is very much related to them. Buck and I have discussed this and we'd like you to become a Grandmother to Vin and JD. They could do with a good woman in their lives."

The question took Nettie's breath away for a moment. She'd been widowed many years with no children or grandchildren of her own.

"I'm more than willing Christopher. It would give me the greatest pleasure to be a part of those boys lives. Have you asked the boys yet?"

"No. I wanted to know if you'd agree to this before raising their hopes."

"You just make sure they know its their decision," Nettie warned Chris. "Don't go forcing this on those boys. They've had a lot of changes in their young lives."

"The boys like you Nettie, and frankly Vin adores you. I don't think that Vin has settled in very well. He still rarely speaks to most of the town folk."

"Chris, he's been handed off to any number of people in his life and none of it by his choice. You let him decide. If he doesn't want this then I'm just as happy to continue on as we are now."

Chris considered her words. The boys hadn't really chosen Chris or Buck. It had been simple chance that they were in town that day and helped in the search. Chris cringed inwardly that he could be glad that Vin had been so angry and frightened at being separated from JD that he'd run off with his younger cousin. It was Vin's spirit that had place him in Chris's path, so he would do as Nettie suggested and let the boys decide for themselves.

Nettie took Chris's cup and refilled it.

"Why don't you and Buck bring the boys out for Sunday lunch. It doesn't matter what they decide, we can set aside some regular meals anyway. Vin helps out here often enough. You can drop both boys off a little more often. You and Buck could probably do with a break now and then," Nettie suggested.

Chris thought about the ranch and all the trips they'd been making recently. As the work around the ranch increased it had become difficult to juggle all the tasks and mind the boys.

"We'll do that Nettie. Thanks. We can return the hospitality and have you over for meals as well."

Nettie looked at Chris in disbelief. "Vin has described some of the contents of your pantry. Lets just start with a few meals over here."
Chris wandered around the house gathering the laundry together. He counted up the pieces, not wanting to have to make another trip into town later with another sack of odds and ends. Maria, the laundress, had teased him about the three trips last week. Chris was mystified as to how two half-pint boys could generate more dirty clothes than two hard-working men.

"Buck, you got those boys ready?" he yelled.

"We're all out here just waiting for you Chris. How hard can it be to pack up the washing. Hurry it up, we're starving here!"

The Saturday morning trip to town had become a regular outing. The little group would drop off the laundry, head to the café for an early lunch, then gather the next week's supplies from the General Store.

"JD! Where's your nightshirt?" Chris called, finally giving up.

JD came running back into the house.

"Here Mr Chris!" Chris came out of the boys' room to be handed the nightshirt by the grinning boy. "It was on the wood-pile. Can we go now?"

"Yeah JD, we can go." Chris decided not to even bother asking why a nightshirt would be on the wood-pile. Some days it just wasn't worth knowing. He slung the last sack up onto the wagon and lifted JD up beside Vin.

"All right!" exclaimed Buck. "Lets roll!"

The journey to town was filled with JD's chatter about all the exciting things he would do today. Vin nodded, listening to his cousin and amending the plans when JD became too fanciful.

Buck and Chris looked back at the two boys. Buck just shook his head and smiled to his friend.

"And folks wonder why Vin doesn't say much. JD doesn't take a breath very often to let him get a word in." Buck received a smile of acknowledgment but saw the slight tension in Chris. "You want to ask them today?"

"Yeah, I think it's a good time."

Vin was listening to JD, but he was well practiced at keeping up with his cousin and paying attention to everything else that was going on around him. He'd felt that Mr Chris wasn't quite as relaxed as usual. Saturday was usually one of their best days. He heard Buck's question and wondered what could be going on.

The wagon rumbled into town and Buck headed straight for Maria's to drop off the bags of laundry. They were planning on staying in town for a while so Buck headed to the livery to unhitch the wagon.

"You go on. I'll meet you fellas at the café. Make sure you leave me some hot rolls!"

Chris took the boys and headed down the street. The café served good food and often got busy at lunch, so they always arrived early to ensure they got a table. The bell tinkled over the door and Chris ushered the two boys through.

"Hey Mr Ezra! Mr Ziah!" JD ran over to the familiar faces, Vin following along a little more sedately. The Saturday outings had become so regular that they often arranged to meet the other men to share a meal. Ezra, Josiah and Nathan had all become fond of the boys and enjoyed the time together. Chris automatically counted the place settings.

"Nathan arriving later?"

"Yes. Our medical benefactor was called upon urgently, but he did expect to arrive with a minimum of delay."

The waitress stopped by and put some fresh rolls and butter on the table.

"Coffee and two glasses of milk please." Chris didn't see the look, but he felt it just the same. "Can you also bring a pot of honey with that."

"No problem Mr Larabee. I'll be back in a minute."

The waitress was true to her word, returning with the drinks and honey. Chris automatically pushed the pot toward Vin.

"Chris, it is possible to have too much of a good thing!" Chris turned to the voice from behind. Nathan had just arrived, with Buck just a few steps behind.

"It's only honey."

Nathan tugged his chair out from the table and sat, looking askance at the eating habits being encouraged. Chris followed his gaze to watch Vin slather a roll with the golden goo, then up-end a spoonful into his milk. Chris had become used to Vin's sweet tooth. As long as Vin was eating, he didn't mind at all.

Everyone settled into a relaxing meal, exchanging news. Buck decided to use his recent travels to entertain his fellow diners with wild stories of his latest conquests. A hard kick to his shin brought an abrupt change of topic. Ezra quickly moved the conversation on, asking the boys about their latest mischief. The waitress returned to clear the dishes from the table and refilled the coffees. Buck nudged his friend. Josiah had an inkling as to what was going on as Chris had discussed his new family proposal. Ezra and Nathan waited curiously.

"Boys. Buck and I have something important would like to ask you."

Vin went very still. This would be the thing that he'd heard in the wagon. He studied Mr Chris carefully. He didn't seem angry, or sad. Just really serious.

"Would you boys like to have Ms Nettie as your Grandma?"

JD and Vin exchanged looks, but remained silent. Chris and Buck were a little disappointed. They thought the boys would be excited by this, or at least a little happy.

"Boys?" Chris encouraged.

The silence was broken by a voice who's whisper to Vin was clear to everyone. "What do we do with a Grandma, Vin. Will she play with us? I don't think she'll play if she's old." JD had never had a grandma, but he was quite certain that he'd never seen old ladies playing games.

"Hush JD. Yer not s'posed to say a lady's old," Vin admonished his younger cousin. However, he really wasn't sure himself what a grandma did. He'd never had one either.

"But Mr Buck says that older ladies is better. I don't see how. They won't play."

The snickers from around the table caused JD to pause, but Mr Chris was glaring at Mr Buck, not him.

"Don't look at me! I didn't tell him that!" Buck defended.

"Yes ya did Buck. Ya said old ladies is better 'n young ones is too much trouble."

Buck slapped a hand across the little mouth to silence the flow of words.

"But ya did Buck." Vin spoke up in defense of his little cousin. "Ya said it to Mr Ezra. Heard ya plain as day."

"Our conversation did not include you boys," Ezra clarified. "You should not repeat things you just hear on the street."

"Weren't on the street, we was in the Saloon," Vin replied.

"Buck." Buck knew that the low growl from Larabee meant he was in real trouble now.

"It was a hot day and I needed a cold beer. They had lemonade," he defended.

Chris ran a hand through his hair in frustration. God. Lemonade. At least Buck didn't have the boys drinking beer yet.

"Look Vin, JD, just forget about Buck's comments."

"All of them?" More snickers continued. Vin and JD exchanged looks, a little confused about what was wrong.

Chris decided he was just digging a deeper hole, so he gave up. He'd muzzle Wilmington later. His friend needed to be reminded he had two impressionable kids tagging around with him.

"For the moment, you can forget all of them." Chris returned to the original conversation. "We were talking about you two and Nettie Wells becoming your grandma. Would you boys like that?"

JD looked to Vin. It sounded like this was supposed to be a good thing, but he'd let Vin decide. Vin would know what to do.

"Ms Nettie want to ?" Vin asked cautiously.

"Yes she wants to. I've already talked to her about this."

"We have to?"

"No, Vin. This is something for you to choose if you want it."

Vin was uncertain. He lowered his gaze, staring hard at the scarred table top in front of him. Hidden under the table Vin clenched his hands together tensely. The adults watched the boy, unsure if he was going to answer. JD just waited patiently. Vin had his thinking look, so JD knew this grandma thing must be important. Even if he didn't think she'd play.

Vin finally looked up. He needed to be sure of where he stood before he made a choice. Chris was a little startled by the seriousness in he boy's gaze as he finally raised those blue eyes.

"Do you want us to go and live with Ms Nettie instead of with you?" Chris sighed at the clouding suspicion in Vin's eyes. He'd never had to explain how an extended family worked. He'd always just taken it for granted. Some days Vin could just crash through his way of thinking with one sentence. He could see where Vin's thoughts were going.

"No Vin. You don't lose us if you choose to have Nettie as your grandma. You live with us, just like you do now. Nettie will still be your friend, just like she is now, but this would make her officially family. You'll probably go visit more often, but I don't think you'll mind that."

Satisfied that he wasn't being asked to give up Mr Chris, he finally answered. "We'd like that. We'd like a grandma."

"Vin? Vin?" JD tugged at his cousin's sleeve. "Do we get to keep her?".

Vin grabbed at his cousin's hands to stop the tugging. "We got ourselves a grandma JD. We just got ourselves more family." The big smiles had finally arrived, causing everyone else at the table to add their congratulations.

"So when do we get a Ma?" JD closed his mouth at the sudden silence at the table.

Buck and Chris were both a little red-faced, but Ezra managed to compose himself quickly enough to reply.

"I believe young sir, that Mr Buck has so many fine women available to select from that it may take him some time to make a decision."

"Oh." JD nodded solemnly in understanding then reached out to pat Buck's arm comfortingly. "It's okay Mr Buck. I know ya been havin' trouble tryin' to find a good horse. I guess we can wait some 'til ya find us a good Ma."

Ezra could no longer keep up the façade, and turned away from the table in laughter. Chris decided he'd better break things up before they got themselves in any deeper. He slid a penny over to each boy.

"How about you two head over to Mrs Potter's store and pick out some candy for dessert.

"Thanks Mr Chris," the voices called in unison as chairs were scraped back and they headed out the door. Chris watched them through the front window as Vin caught up JD's hand in his own, keeping a careful hold of him as they crossed the street.

Josiah caught the moment of doubt flicker in Chris's eyes.

"Those are two very happy boys, Brother."

Chris looked to Josiah, then across to Buck. "But maybe we've denied them a chance at a real family. Maybe they should have gone to a couple."

"Don't read too much into JD's words," Josiah tried to reason. "Those boys are in the best place they could ever be. It would have destroyed Vin to be separated from JD, but no one wanted two boys. Vin would have been sent back to the orphanage."

"What!" outrage echoed around the table. While Vin rarely spoke of the place, it had become apparent over time that he'd been dealt with cruelly.

Josiah just shook his head. "None of us knew then what that place was like, but the Sisters weren't setting up a new orphanage here. Any children not placed were going to go back again and Vin is not the most personable of children."

"He's a good kid Josiah," Chris defended.

"I know that Chris. He's just not very trusting, and with good reason. But after running off that first time the family he was to go to refused to take him. They said he was too willful. No one would take him."

Josiah had never intended to tell the others what Vin's possible future had been. It hadn't come to pass. But if Chris wanted to second guess, then he was ready to supply him with the cold, hard facts. Vin had never been destined to a Ma and Pa and a white picket fence.

"Would you have sent him back Josiah?" Chris asked, almost afraid to hear what could have occurred.

At that moment the door to the café was pushed open and two small whirlwinds ran over to the table. JD dived onto Buck's lap, but Vin slowed as he felt the strange atmosphere at the table. Everyone seemed a little sad. Vin stopped behind Chris's chair, standing just behind his right shoulder. He leaned forward over Chris's shoulder and stretched a hand forward with its offering.

"Saved ya a lemon stick."

Chris turned slightly to the blond framed face so close to his own. He smiled gently at the matching candy protruding from the corner of Vin's mouth. Chris reached back to clasp the young boy gently around the back of his neck.

"Thanks Pard." He took the offered candy, ruffling the blond hair as he did so.

Vin laughed, pulling away to the side to try and straighten out his tangled hair.

Chris looked away from the boy and back to Josiah, the question still in his eyes.

Josiah responded, his deep tones calm and confident.

"I knew I wouldn't have to make that decision the day you found him."

Vin looked about the barn. He needed one more bale of hay to finish but there was none left against the back wall. He peered up at the loft. He wasn't supposed to move the bales around in the loft, or bring them down. He frowned in frustration. He only needed one more. Both he and JD had been working frantically through their morning chores, eager to be on their way to Nettie's for Sunday lunch. Looking around carefully, he decided to risk fetching the bale himself. He wanted to get the job completed now. He climbed nimbly up the ladder and looked around. Vin liked the loft. He often climbed up here to escape for some quiet. Some days JD could wear at his patience.

Vin had been relieved when he saw JD and Buck getting on so well. Vin was the one who was supposed to look after JD. He'd given his word to JD's mother. But two were better than one when it came to minding JD, so maybe he'd ask Mr Buck for a promise. Mr Chris and Mr Buck had said they could stay here at the ranch, but Vin wanted a real 'swear on your heart' promise that Mr Buck would look after JD if Vin couldn't.

Vin realised his thoughts had wandered and he was losing time, so he grabbed a bale and started dragging it toward the edge. He didn't want it to just flop over the edge and smash everywhere, so he tried to balance the weight and lower it slowly. A sharp pain suddenly knifed into his back and he released the bale on reflex. He clamped down on the scream of pain, instead crouching by the edge trying to control each hitching breath. Every attempt to straighten caused the knife to drive into his back. He reached behind carefully with one hand, certain there had to be something stabbing him. He could feel nothing there and resigned himself to the fact that he'd hurt himself again doing chores. His shoulders sagged in defeat. He was just too weak to do his share. Determined to finish, he stayed in a half crouch and moved tentatively toward the ladder. Supporting himelf on the ladder's upper edge he slowly straightened, stretching out a shaky foot for the first rung. His back pulled with every step, but he finally reached the bottom. Sweating and panting at the effort, he braced himself against the ladder and slowly straightened again. He turned slowly, testing the movements in his back carefully. The sharp pain had eased and now settled into a deep ache that he knew he could handle. He had before. He eyed the pitchfork and bale, dreading the task ahead of him.

"Vin? Ain't ya done yet?" JD called from just inside the door.

"JD, can you help me spread that last bale?"

"Sure." JD watched Vin's slower movements. "Did ya hurt your back again?"

"It's nothin' JD. It's just a little sore. If we hurry we'll still finish on time. We don't want to be late for Ms Nettie."

Vin distracted JD from questions about his back with practiced ease and managed to finish his chores. The boys then headed to the pump near the house to clean up. JD was eager and wanted to run, but was mindful of Vin's slower pace and stayed by him. The boys washed up carefully and were soon joined by Buck and Chris. All four made themselves clean and presentable and with just a change of clothes they would be off.

The group decided to ride over, JD doubling with Buck and Vin on Peso. Vin had clenched his teeth as Chris had helped him mount, Peso still being a little too tall for him. He had let out a sigh of relief when he found they were taking an easy stroll. The ache in his back hadn't eased and the jolting from a fast ride would be too hard to hide. Buck was loaded with JD and a bunch of flowers, so he was setting a sedate pace.

"Watcha got them flowers for?" JD's questions had been echoing up and down the trail since they had departed.

"You never go visiting a lady without a gift and flowers are always a good choice." Buck noticed the two heads turn to Chris. "Hey! Hey! What are you looking at him for?"

"Yesterday, Mr Chris said we was to forget what you said. We're just checkin' if this is a keep or a forget," Vin explained.

"That was a keep," Buck confirmed before Chris could interrupt. "Now that you two have a lady in your lives you'll need to pay more attention to my advice."

JD continued to cross-examine Buck on his flowers.

"But why can't ya pick those ones," JD argued, pointing at the cluster of small yellow flowers by the edge of the trail.

"They're weeds. You can't give someone weeds."

"But they got flowers."

"But the plant is a weed."

"But its got a pretty yella flower."

"We'll yes, but you just don't."

JD shook his head at the confusion. "So how do I know?" he demanded.

"Well big flowers are okay but little flowers are weeds." Buck decided on the simple approach.

"How little?"

"Little. Like those one's by the trail are little."

JD turned to Vin, looking for help. Vin just shrugged. "All look like flowers to me," he answered.

Everyone then turned to Chris, who also shrugged, now wanting to enter the discussion. "I'm with Vin. They're all flowers."

"Uhh!" Buck exclaimed. "You all need lessons. What flowers you give a lady are important. Flowers have a language all there own."

JD turned to look back at Buck. "You talk to the flowers Mr Buck?" JD was part in awe and part uncertain, for he didn't think people could talk to flowers.

Buck turned to Chris for assistance who again just shrugged. "You started it, you finish it," Chris laughed.

Vin rode quietly, not entering into the bickering between JD and Buck. He let Peso hang back a little behind the group, not eager to have Mr Chris notice his discomfort. He looked up, relieved at the sight of Nettie's house in the distance.

Nettie stepped out to greet her visitors as the horses moved into the yard. Everyone called out greetings.

Buck lowered the fidgeting bundle down from the front of his saddle and JD took off at a run up the porch steps. In the jumble of arrival, no one noticed Vin's awkward slide down from Peso's back. Chris took all the horses to settle them in while Buck, Vin and JD greeted their hostess.

"Good morning, boys"

"Morning Nettie." Buck prodded at JD who seemed to have suddenly discovered shy.

"Well somebody scrubbed up very nicely," Nettie greeted the smallest of her visitors.

JD tugged proudly at his new shirt. "We got all neat 'cause this is our first Grandma visit."

"Well, don't worry boys, I won't make you dress up in Sunday best every time you visit."

"Ma'am, for you." Buck offered the bouquet gallantly. Nettie accepted the gift with pleasure. Buck Wilmington may have a wild reputation with the ladies, but he could always raise a smile and lift your heart.

"Come on inside. Lunch is almost ready."

Chris joined them as Nettie was bustling between the kitchen and table, setting out warm rolls, butter and honey. Dishes of mashed potatoes, green beans, corn and roast chicken soon followed. Nettie seated herself next to Vin, passing the dishes around the table as everyone took helpings from the overflowing bowls.

"Ms Nettie?"

The quiet voice came from near hear right elbow.

"You need something Vin?"

"No Ma'am. I just wanted to say thank you. For JD and me."

"That's polite of you Vin, but you're both always welcome at my table."

"No Ma'am. Thank you for wanting us."

For wanting them. Nettie looked at JD across the table, then down to the earnest blue eyes by her side. She couldn't imagine anyone not wanting them.

"A pleasure Vin." The serious face turned back to his plate to pick tentatively at the chicken and potatos.

The rest of the meal passed in casual chatter with an animated JD keeping everyone entertained. Nettie notice that no more comments or questions came from her right. She tried to check, but the blonde head stayed slightly lowered. Chris had noticed the silence, and the stiffness in Vin's posture. He knew something was wrong but Vin had given no sign yet. Chris wondered if he was nervous. Chris's frown caught Nettie's attention but he answered her silent question with a shake of his head.

Vin noticed that he'd drawn attention. His back was aching from the hard chair and he squirmed around trying to find a comfortable position. He saw Mr Chris frown at him and held himself still. He was trying to remember all the rules he'd been told about table manners. He wasn't supposed to fidget. He didn't want to embarrass Mr Chris.

Everyone was too full for apple pie, agreeing it would make a fine afternoon snack with coffee. Nettie cleared the table as the men and boys moved outside. Nettie cleared up quickly, noticing Vin had moved his food around a lot, but actually had eaten very little. She went out onto the porch where Chris sat watching Buck and JD playing. Vin stayed quietly on the outskirts of the game.

"Chris? Are you sure the boys are happy with this new arrangement? Vin seems upset about something."

"No, Nettie. The boys are really excited about the whole family thing," he reassured her. "No, something's been bothering Vin today but I haven't got a sign of what yet."

At Nettie's curious look he explained. "Vin just gets stubborn if I try direct questions. I don't think it's that Vin doesn't trust me. He's been looking after himself and JD for so long that I just don't think he realises he's allowed to ask for help."

"He'll learn Chris."

"At the moment JD's our best gauge to Vin. If JD starts slowing down, or hovering around him, then usually Vin isn't feeling well or is hurt," Chris explained.

"Sounds like you're learning how to read those two."

"The should have come with an instruction manual."

Nettie drank in the welcome sounds of company as she and Chris passed the afternoon in quiet observation. The peace was suddenly shattered. Vin's scream brought Nettie and Chris to their feet and striding from the porch. Buck had let go of Vin, having suddenly grabbed him up from behind.

"Buck!" Chris shouted, then softening at the stricken look on his friend's face. Buck would never hurt either of the boys.

"Vin? Did I hurt you? I didn't mean to hurt you." Buck was beside himself that he'd hurt Vin during play.

"Nuh, Mr Buck. I'm fine," Vin gasped out, his eyes tearing. "Ya just startled me." But Vin's white face and quivering lip betrayed him.

Chris ignored Vin's denial. His pain was obvious. He reached out and held Vin still, both hands around his upper arms.

"You're not fine Vin. Don't say that when it's not true," Chris chided, attempting not to be too stern. But Vin was in too much pain to register anything other than a gruff male voice and two hands holding him.

He ripped himself free and ran.

Chris had felt Vin stiffen in his grip and then let him go as the fear and panic flared in the boy's eyes. Chris and Buck had both learned not to try to restrain Vin when he panicked this way. Vin would fight and rage until everyone was bruised and he was reduced to whimpers and tears. At home, Vin would run to his room or the barn and would calm down when left alone. Vin was usually embarrassed by his actions, but would recall little of what had triggered the event. Chris hoped that with time and trust Vin would grow out of his fears.

In this case, Vin had turned and run, but never took more than five steps when he collided with Nettie.

"Vin! Look at me!" she commanded. Chris moved to warn Nettie, but instead found Vin had stilled.

Vin was aware of a woman's voice. It was enough to startle him from his flight. Nettie saw the tension in the boy before her, poised to run at the least threat. She held his face between her hands, trying to get him to focus on her.

"Vin, take a deep breath. Now hold it for me...and let it out. Do it again. Take a breath....now let it out."

Vin cautiously followed the instructions, not understanding why, but not being threatened either. Buck and Chris exchanged surprised looks at Vin's compliance, but happy that Nettie had been able to help.

JD moved up to his cousin and reached for his hand.

"Do you wanna do somethin' else. I'm done playin'," he offered. JD knew Vin got quiet after he had bad dreams. JD never had awake dreams, but he didn't think he wanted to because Vin never seemed to have nice ones.

"How about if we get you some of that pie and milk," Nettie offered.

None of the adults crowded the boys as they went back inside and settled at the table. Nettie headed into the kitchen returning with milk, coffee and the pie dish. Chris watched as Vin ignored the food before him, holding himself very carefully, much like he had through lunch.

"Vin, you're hurting."

Vin's gaze flickered over to Chris, judging if he would get in trouble. Chris knelt down by the chair, the white pinched face before him almost too regular a sight. "Is your back hurting you?"

He was rewarded with a small nod.

"I'm sorry Vin. I didn't mean to hurt you," Buck apologised again.

"Ya didn't Mr Buck. I hurt it this morning," Vin explained sorrowfully.

"Doing your chores?" Vin nodded but kept his head down, sure he'd be in trouble if Chris found out about the hay bale.

"Doesn't matter how at the moment," Nettie interrupted. "I've got some liniment that might help. How about we rub your back, then you rest for a while."

Nettie watched the bottom lip getting gnawed as Vin kept his eyes downcast.

"I'm sorry for ruinin' lunch," came the whisper.

Nettie reached out and raised the young face. The blue eyes where filling with tears as Vin became overwrought at the day's ending.

"I don't see that you've ruined anything. But I won't have little boys sitting at my table when they're hurt. You tell me next time, even if it's just a little bruise or scrape."

"Is that a Grandma rule?" Nettie paused, surprised at this new concept. He probably was accustomed to adults setting him rules, especially in the orphanage.

"Yes, that's a Grandma rule. I'll fill you and JD in on them as we go along."

"Is there a lot?" JD asked, licking his milk moustache off.

"There's a few, but they're not hard. Like, clean hands and face before sitting at the table to eat."

"That's a Mr Chris rule too," JD added.

"Not a Mr Buck rule?" Chris asked, knowing what his friend let the boys get away with.

JD looked thoughtfully at Vin.

"Ain't no Mr Buck rules is there?" JD asked.

Vin had to think about it. Not many rules came to mind. Oh yeah. "We can't interrupt when he's sweet talkin' a lady."

Buck rolled his eyes heavenward as Chris smirked. Why couldn't they have checked with Chris on that one.

"Well," Nettie huffed. "The rules in my house apply to all the boys, little and big, and it looks like I'll have to add a few more for Mr Buck."

Chris patted his friend's shoulder in commiseration. "Told you to watch your mouth around those two."

Chris turned to Vin to see to his back. He decided to risk the usual struggle, reaching down to easily lift Vin up in his arms. Vin wrapped his arms around Chris's neck and dropped his head to Chris's shoulder. Chris was relieved that Vin didn't fight him, but worried at the complete surrender he felt from the boy in his arms. He tightened his hold carefully and moved off to the bedroom Nettie had indicated.

Chris removed Vin's shirt as he stood quietly before him. His gut always clenched at the scarring on Vin's back. Nathan had assured him the marks would fade, but it wasn't the physical scars that Vin struggled with. A small noise at the door drew his attention and he turned to see Nettie. Nettie recovered quickly from the shock of seeing the evidence of Vin's mistreatment. Chris started to unbutton Vin's trousers but Vin suddenly grabbed at them, not allowing them to be lowered.

"Vin, I need you to take off your trousers so I can get to you back."

"Noooo!" Chris had to smile at Vin's horrified cry. The wide blue eyes were looking past him, but it was the flush of red across his cheekbones that struck him. He'd never seen Vin blushing before.

"Oh Lord, boys! Vin Tanner, you don't have anything that a woman my age hasn't seen already."

"Chriiis!" He'd never heard such a piteous cry for protection.

"Oh here," Nettie thrust the liniment at Chris. "I'll come back when you're decent," she told the pair.

Chris got Vin undressed and settled in the bed. He could see the red inflamed area on Vin's lower back, already heated without any application of liniment. Chris took some of the soothing paste, warming it between his hands before spreading it gently across Vin's lower back. He rubbed gentle circles, trying to ease the tight muscles.

"This is a bad strain Vin. What were you doing?" he asked quietly.

The reply was muffled by the pillow, but still came through.

"I got a bale down from the loft by myself. I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't ha' done it."

"That's okay Vin." He gently stroked down the boy's back trying to get him to relax. "I think you'll remember not to try it again." Chris had no heart to reprimand the hurt boy.

Now that Vin was settled under the quilt, Nettie returned with a hot tea.

"It'll just make him sleepy and help with the pain," she explained. Together they eased Vin over and Nettie gently supported his head as he sipped down most of the cup.

"I'll get JD and we'll get these two settled for a quick nap," Chris said. Both boys were well past afternoon naps and would normally fight this treatment, but Vin was hurting and JD would stay close to Vin for comfort. Nettie got Vin settled again, although he wanted to stay on his side, curling his back against the ache. Nettie reached out and gently stroked the bony curve, watching as his breathing deepened and his eyelids drooped. She turned as the others entered.

"JD, Vin's back hurts him a lot, so you've got to be real quiet and gentle," Buck instructed.

"I can be quiet Mr Buck." JD quickly shed his outer clothes and crawled under the quilt to curl up close to Vin, his back to his older cousin. Vin automatically reached for JD, pulling him close, staying curved protectively around him. Nettie smoothed the quilt down over the pair.

"Why don't you two head outside," Buck offered. "Looks like I've already lost half my audience, but I'll tell JD a story."

Nettie settled onto the porch swing with a heavy sigh. Chris leaned back against the porch rail, lighting a cheroot and drawing back deeply. Nettie finally broke the long silence.

"No child could every do anything to deserve scars like that."

"He doesn't always react that badly. He's learning to trust us. You handled him very well."

Buck interrupted the conversation, stepping out onto the porch. "They're both out like a light," he answered the matching questions on the faces before him.

"You're both a godsend to those boys," Nettie told them.

"Works both ways Nettie," Buck answered with a laugh. "Come on Chris, lets earn our keep."

The two men headed off to the barn so Nettie moved back inside the house to watch over her new family. Both so young, huddled together like puppies. Nettie stepped closer as Vin stirred restlessly. She reached out and gently curved her palm to the smooth cheek. Vin's eyes fluttered and a sleepy blue gaze met hers.

"Hush, you sleep some more," she whispered softly, gently drawing her hand down to stroke his cheek. She received two slow blinks and the barest of smiles before he drifted back to sleep.

JD woke an hour later to find Vin still asleep beside him. JD bounce the bed gently hoping to disturb Vin enough to wake him.

"Vin? Vin?" JD called quietly, not daring to actually reach over and wake him. Vin gave no sign of hearing him, so JD jumped off the bed and headed out of the bedroom. He heard voices out the front and found the adults gathered again on the porch.

Buck noticed the new arrival first. "JD, you think maybe you forgot something?" he asked.

JD looked down at his drawers, not overly concerned at his lack of clothes.

"If you'll excuse us Nettie, I'll get this one into some clothes." Buck hustled JD back inside.

Chris rose to his feet as well. "Nettie, thank you for lunch. We should take these two home and get things bedded down at our place for the night." The light was fading in the late afternoon.

"You're welcome to leave Vin here if you don't want him to ride. My wagon's there if you prefer, but it's not sprung," Nettie offered.

"Chris?" Buck's concerned voice called from inside the house.

Nettie and Chris entered the bedroom to find Buck had uncovered Vin. The swollen, red area was apparent to everyone. Nettie noticed that Vin wasn't disturbed by the invasion and checked him carefully.

"It looks like the sleeping draught hit him really hard. He may sleep for hours," she apologised.

"It's for the best Nettie. I want to take him to Nathan. It'll be easier on Vin to leave him here the night, then I'll bring our wagon over in the morning. No point dragging him back to the ranch when you're closer to town," Chris explained.
Vin woke in the evening disoriented by the shift from daylight to dark. He moved to throw the quilt back, but the pull in his back reminded him of the afternoon's events. Moving a little more carefully, he climbed from the bed and dragged his pants and shirt on. The buttons were uneven and the shirt tail flapped at his hips but Vin was more concerned at the silence of the house than his appearance. He shifted to the door and peered carefully out. He saw the glow of a low fire in the hearth, but Nettie sat in the bright circle of light from a table lamp.

"Where are they?" he called tentatively.

Nettie looked up from her mending. The small figure stood slightly hunched and ghost-pale in the shadows of the doorway.

"They've gone home, sweetie."

Vin gulped down the flooding feeling of desertion. "JD too?" he managed to squeeze out from his tightening throat. He recalled his questions to Chris about grandmas. Chris had promised he'd still live with them. Maybe he'd changed his mind. Maybe he'd finally realised how much trouble he was when he couldn't even do his chores.

"Yes." Nettie put the mending aside. Vin had actually been asleep for many hours and it was almost her own bedtime. Vin had missed an evening meal, so she wanted to offer him something.

"Vin, are you hungry?" But the object of her question had disappeared back into the darkened bedroom. Nettie followed, lighting the bedside lamp but leaving the lamp low.

"Vin, would you like a warm drink or some eggs?" she offered again.

"No Ma'am." Nettie heard the unusual flat tone in Vin's voice and turned the flame in the lamp higher. The shadows were pushed back to the corners of the room, except for those that lingered in Vin's eyes.

"Vin, does your back hurt?"

"No. Its fine Ma'am."

Nothing about the little boy before her seemed fine. The stony face and flat eyes just warned off all efforts to approach him. Nettie was seeing for herself what Chris had been dealing with. Well, she was an old lady and getting older by the minute waiting for one boy to come out of a dark mood. A little prodding would move things along at a better pace.

"Vin Tanner, it's too late in the evening for you to be sulking."

"I'm not sulking." Vin looked startled at the unusual accusation.

"Well pouting. It's almost as bad as JD. That bottom lip is hanging so close to the floor you're going to trip over it."

"Don't pout. I'm not a baby!" Vin tried to hold on to his dark mood, but he was too fired up at Nettie's accusations. "And you can't call me sweetie!" he added, suddenly recalling her first words.

"I'm your Grandma and if I want to stand in the main street and call you sweetie then I can. Grandma rule 12."

"You wouldn't," Vin dared, but knowing it was all too embarrassingly possible.

Now that she had him talking, she tried again. "What was going through your head when you woke up?"

"Nothin'," Vin denied. Vin had been sufficiently distracted that Nettie's unbuttoning of his clothes had gone unnoticed.

"It's very late. How about you climb into bed again and I'll give your back another rub. Do you want anything to eat?"

Vin shook his head. Nettie watched the careful, stiff movements, the pain still obvious. She hesitated to give him any more of the tea. The first dose had affected him too strongly. Hopefully the rub would ease the ache enough for him to sleep the rest of the night through.

Nettie started low on his spine, but Vin flinched at the contact.

"Vin, tell me if this is hurting too much," she tried to encourage a verbal signal. She moved her hand a little to the right but again noticed the silent flinch. She softened her touch again disappointed at the stoic silence. As Chris had said, some things would take time.

"Should I call you Grandma?" Vin was laying on his stomach, but had turned his head to face her. Nettie noticed the 'should' not a 'could'. Vin was uncertain of what was expected, rather than asking permission.

"You don't have to if it doesn't feel right. Nettie is just fine." She'd noticed the boys still retained Mister for Chris and Buck, unless they were very excited or very tired. "Don't worry on it, it's not important to me."

"Nettie?" The voice was getting drowsy so Nettie continued the gentle rubbing up Vin's back. "Are they coming back?"

Nettie almost asked 'who' before it struck her that Vin was returning to their earlier conversation.

"Of course they're coming back. Mr Chris didn't want you to be hurt any further, so they left you sleeping and will bring back a nice comfortable wagon in the morning."

"But they didn't say goodbye."

"That's my fault. I gave you a tea to help you sleep, but it worked so well we couldn't wake you for them to say goodbye."

Nettie stopped and pulled the quilt up over the drowsy figure. Reaching over to the side table, she turned the wick low and blew out the tiny flame. The silver hues of moonlight poured in through the side window. Nettie moved to the door.

"You sure?" Nettie turned back at the desperate whisper.

She leaned over and brushed the fine hair from the side of his face and pressed a kiss to his cheek.

"I promise, sweetie. Chris will be here in the morning, just like the sun."
Vin's long hours of sleep had him wide awake in the grey light of dawn. He got himself dressed and moved outside to sit on the front steps. The sun had lifted clear of the horizon and the golden light now spread across the yard. Nettie had heard the movements around the house. Worried that Vin might try to do the morning chores, she dressed quickly to try to head him off. Instead, she found him sitting quietly on the porch steps.

"Good morning Vin"

" 'Morning Nettie. Sun's up."

"Come help with breakfast, Vin. You can slice the bread." Nettie hoped Chris was planning to arrive early. Someone was waiting.

Nettie and Vin had just finished breakfast when the sound came of a wagon rattling into the yard. Nettie watched as Vin rushed to the door, only to stop suddenly and step casually outside. Nettie followed him to greet her morning visitor.

"We've just finished breakfast Chris," Nettie called. "Would you like anything?"

"No. We were up early as well. Thanks for looking after him." Chris's eyes remained glued on Vin. Although JD had been home, the house had still seemed strangely empty.

"Hi Chris. Are we going home?"

Nettie smiled, knowing that Vin was impatient to be back with Chris even if he was trying to appear unaffected.

"Somebody's been waiting since dawn," Nettie explained.

"We're not going straight home. You're going to Nathan's to get your back checked."

"It's fine Mr Chris. Don't hurt." At Chris's hard stare he lowered his eyes. "Well, not as bad as yesterday."

"Because you've been resting, so lets get you in the wagon and into town."

Nettie stepped in as Vin looked ready to settle into an argument.

"Now Vin, you shouldn't argue with Chris. You're hurt so you should have Nathan see to your back."

"No Ma'am. I'm fine," he denied adamantly.

"What did I tell you about saying you're fine when you're not. Do you want me to come into town and use Rule 12."

Vin looked blank for a moment.


"No!" Vin exclaimed as he realised where he heard Rule 12. He couldn't have Nettie call him that with Mr Chris standing right there.

"Maybe I should come to town with you two. I might have things to do in the main street," Nettie said.

"You got lots to do here Nettie. Me and Mr Chris can go to town by ourselves."

Chris was bemused by the whole conversation, but was still quick to take advantage of Vin's sudden compliance. He lifted him up into the wagon where he'd placed layers of folded blankets.

"Do I want to know what that was about Nettie?" Chris asked.

Nettie just laughed. "Maybe in a few years. I think I'll need to hold onto that secret for a while longer."

"You two take care," she called as the wagon moved off. The waves from the back of the wagon continued until she lost sight of them on the curve in the trail.

The End

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