by Aramis

"Little Britches" universe

Disclaimer: The characters belong to Trilogy, MGM, Mirisch etc and were used without permission. No copyright infringement was intended and no money was made.

English spelling has been used in this story.

"NO!" The young voice was loud and determined, not to say rude, but Buck Wilmington smiled indulgently.

"What’s the matter, JD?" he asked.

"Don’t want that stupid book any more!" JD announced imperiously.

"I thought ya liked it."

"Nope! It’s boring. I want to read something else."

"What about you, Vin? Are ya tired of the book too?" Buck asked, turning to the older boy.

Vin licked his lips nervously. He was enjoying the book, but how could he ask Buck to go on when JD was clearly so adamant? The younger child would be sure to kick up a fuss and then Chris might intervene and decree there would be no bedtime story that night. In any case, he figured his cousin was Buck’s favourite and so Buck would really want to please JD. "I-I don’t mind," he said. "I liked the story, but iffen JD wants somethin’ else I s’pose …"

"I do!" JD interrupted firmly.

"Well, what do ya want to read?" Buck asked.

"This!" JD thrust a much folded and rather grubby sheet of paper at him.

"And what’s this?" Buck asked, reaching for it.

However, JD snatched it away. "It’s my story. I wrote it and I’m going to read it to everybody," he announced.

"You wrote a whole story by yourself?" Buck asked.

"Yep! Mr Smith said it was the best story he’d ever read," JD boasted.

"But, JD, he …" Vin started, only to be cut off by Buck.

"The school teacher said that, did he?" he asked, pride clear in his voice.

"Well, the best one for someone my age," JD admitted, "but it’s really good. It’s about a horse and there’s this cowboy and …"

"Sounds great!" Buck enthused. "Ya’d better read it to us, JD. Wait a sec though." He stood up and called through into the main room. "Hey, Chris, are ya listenin’? JD’s goin’ to read us a story he wrote."

"Yeah, I gathered that," Chris Larabee said, with only the mildest trace of sarcasm in his voice, as he put down his own book. He would have had to be stone deaf not to have heard JD’s every word. He stood up and dutifully joined the others in the boys’ room.

Buck was sitting on the side of JD’s bed and the boy was bouncing up and down with excitement as he waited impatiently to begin to read.

Chris sat down on the edge of Vin’s bed and looked expectantly at JD. "Well, let’s hear it then," he said.

In an excessively loud, but surprisingly fluent, voice, JD proceeded to oblige.

When he had finished both men clapped, genuinely impressed by how much the child had learnt in the weeks he had been at school. "Wow! That was great, JD," Buck said. "He’s doin’ real well, ain’t he, Chris? He’s been at that school for less than a term and look at all he’s learnt. All that talkin’ we had to do to persuade that teacher to let him start early was worth it."

The teacher had indeed been most reluctant, but JD’s mother had already made a start on his letters and JD had been determined that he was not going to stay home if Vin was going to go to school. Desirous of avoiding the inevitable tantrums and aware that it was going to be awkward if Vin was not around to keep an eye on his impetuous cousin while he and Buck were working, Chris had added his support to Buck. Finally, unwilling to try to gainsay the more than somewhat intimidating gunman Mr Smith had caved in, albeit reluctantly and ashamed by his inability to stand firm.

What neither man had realized was that someone else was now paying the price for this victory. Angry at his failure to deny Larabee’s wishes and possessing in full measure a weak man’s spiteful nature, Smith was out for revenge.

Deciding that the younger boy was clearly the one that mattered to Larabee and Wilmington, since the whole discussion had centred on JD’s needs, Smith had at first been tempted to retaliate in that direction. However, he was no fool and so was too aware of the necessity for self-preservation to pick on the child, who he rightly suspected would not have suffered in silence. Also, he respected intellectual ability and JD had quickly shown himself to be exceptionally clever and eager to learn. He was going to be a real credit to Smith’s teaching skills.

However, there was another, far easier, target was available to satisfy his need to redeem himself in his own eyes. The reticent, older boy was fair game and he had gone out of his way to treat Vin harshly. And he felt well able to justify his actions. After all, the stupid brat was two years older than JD and had absolutely no idea of reading or writing even after Mr Smith’s considerable efforts to literally pound the information into him. Why he could not even copy accurately, continually writing letters back to front and seemingly unable to see that what he had written was not the same as what he had been told to reproduce. No, he fully deserved all the punishments Smith chose to dole out to him. Indeed, Smith had told Vin outright that he could not comprehend why smart men like Larabee and Wilmington had chosen to saddle themselves with a stupid brat like him.

So now Vin kept himself out of the flicking lamplight, hiding himself miserably in the shadows, as he listened yet again to JD’s story. Mr Smith had read it out in class, with the intention of shaming some of the older children into greater effort by comparison, and had yet again made a direct scathing reference to Vin’s lack of prowess. He listened to Buck’s glowing praise of his cousin and fought to suppress a twinge of jealousy. Why wasn’t he smart like JD? He tried so hard. He had so looked forward to going to school, but now weekdays filled him with dread.

School was even worse than the orphanage. He wished he had not given his word to his aunt, when she summoned him to her deathbed, to look after JD. If he had not, he would have taken off. After all, JD now had a happy home, with two men who seemed to love him and who would do their best for him. He did not really need Vin. Nobody did. He tried his best, but he knew he could not work hard enough to really earn his keep and he could see no other reason why anyone would want him around. Sure JD did not earn his keep either, but he was cute, had a sunny personality and made people laugh, so everyone liked him for himself.

"Have ya gone to sleep, Vin?" Buck’s quiet question bought him out of his depressing reverie.

"Wh-What?" he stammered.

"So ya are awake! I was askin’ what ya thought of JD’s story?"

"I-It was r-real good," he said hurriedly.

"I guess we’ll hear lots more of his stories in the future," Buck said, fondly ruffling JD’s hair.

"I’ll write another tomorrow," JD promised.

"Have you written any stories, Vin?" Chris asked. He had detected the strained note in Vin’s voice and thought perhaps the boy was waiting to be asked. He knew Vin would never put himself forward and only ever spoke up if he was seeking something on JD’s behalf. And what an effort that always cost him. His tendency to stammer became more pronounced and he always looked like a wild animal poised for flight in case his request was met with a blow. He wondered if JD’s mother had had any idea just what a burden she had placed on the child’s thin shoulders when she asked him to care for JD. The boy seemed to devote his whole time to carrying out her request, never for a moment putting his own needs ahead of JD’s frequent demands.

Of course, Buck did not help. He simply adored JD and found everything the child did or said a source of vast amusement. The kid could twist the ladies’ man around his little finger. Indeed, the cute and sturdy little boy, with his brilliant smile, confident air and chattering tongue, had charmed most of the inhabitants of Four Corners. Every time they were in town, he seemed to wheedle treats off someone.

Chris himself was not immune to the lad’s charms and frequently allowed him a latitude that he would not have allowed another, but in his mind Vin was the one. Vin was special. Larabee frequently found himself talking to the boy as if he was another adult. The child was so mature and sensible. He never asked for a thing, was grateful for any kindnesses no matter how small and would stick to any task Larabee gave him until it was complete, regardless of how arduous or boring it might be. Indeed, he sought ways to help as assiduously as JD tried to avoid any activities that did not promise fun or food.

So now, aware of Vin’s natural reticence, Larabee offered him the opportunity to read a story of his own, but was also unsurprised when the boy declined. "I-I’d rather … I d-don’t want … p-please, Mr Ch-Chris, I don’t want t-to r-read."

"That’s okay, Vin, you don’t have to," he said reassuringly. "It’s time the pair of you were asleep anyway."

"But I want to read my story again," JD said.

"No, it’s time for sleep," Chris said.

"But I want …" JD whined.

"JD, it’s sleep time," Vin said, anxious as always to try to make his unruly little cousin do the right thing.

"No! You don’t want me to read just ‘cos you’re stupid," JD retorted. He knew that was right. Mr Smith had said Vin was stupid. Mr Smith said that every day and Mr Smith knew everything. That was why he was a schoolteacher.

Larabee did not see Vin flinch in the shadows, but he heard the pejorative adjective. "JD, behave yourself," he reprimanded sternly. "You’re not to speak to Vin like that."

"But, Mr-"

However, the boy did not get a chance to point out that he was merely echoing Mr Smith’s oft stated opinion, as Chris cut him off. "No more, JD! Tell Vin you’re sorry."

"Sorry, Vin," JD said somewhat grudgingly. He turned to Buck and flashed him his best smile. "Now I’ll read my story," he stated, in happy certainty that he would have an eager and admiring audience.

"JD, I said no," Larabee pointed out.

"But I ‘pologized," JD responded, pouting at the injustice.

"C’mon, Chris, it ain’t very long and I’d like to hear it again," Buck said indulgently.

Chris threw up his hands in defeat. Any attempt he made at discipline always seemed to be undermined by Buck. He could almost hear Sarah scolding Buck for spoiling Adam, but unable to resist the cheeky grin the scoundrel gave her in return. Hell, he was as much a sucker for that beaming smile as his wife had been. "All right! One last time and that’s it."

The story finished, Chris hurriedly extinguished the lamp to forestall a third reading, said good night and moved through to the main room. Buck planted a quick kiss on JD’s forehead, said sleep well to Vin and followed him.

Sleep well! If only he could. JD slept like the proverbial log, but Vin found sleep increasingly elusive. Every night he lay there thinking over what he had done wrong that day and dreading the next.

There was simply no pleasing Mr Smith. Vin tried so hard, but it seemed the harder he tried the worse he did. The words seemed to swim before his eyes and no matter how carefully he worked, the letters turned themselves around.

Next Mr Smith would ask him questions and his tongue would not work. Then Mr Smith would make nasty comments about how stupid he was and the other children would laugh and that made it worse.

And it always went the same way. He would be punished. A ruler would come down hard across his knuckles, the strap would sting his shaking palm or, worst, he would suffer the humiliation of a caning in front of the class. Sure others suffered these punishments, as Mr Smith firmly believed in the old adage of "Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child", but nobody else ever seemed to be in half so much trouble.

Usually, he spent his lunchtime in detention, but even when he had miraculously been allowed to join the others outside, things were not much better. The other children had clearly decided they did not want to associate with someone so stupid, except for occasionally teasing or bullying him.

By contrast, JD was popular with the other children. He was full of fun and jokes and much sought after for games.

Vin would sit quietly watching the fun, thankful if he could get through the hour without drawing unwanted attention to himself. He knew only too well that if he got into a fight, Mr Smith would blame him no matter what the age, size or number of his assailants.

So now he lay quietly, salty tears stinging his eyes. He never cried at school. He had too much pride for that, but lying in the dark he could let the tears come. Indeed, he could not stop them.

Tonight he felt even more upset than usual. Sure it had been hard to lie there listening to the ease with which JD read and hearing Buck and Chris praise his cousin, but he knew things were going to get worse. That afternoon, Mr Smith had announced that report cards were being issued in two weeks time, at the end of the term, and that he would be speaking to parents and guardians about their children’s progress … or lack thereof.

For the first time Vin was relieved that his mother was dead. He thought how ashamed she would be to find out that she had a stupid son. He felt it was as well that she did not know, but then that thought made him feel guilty. It was almost like being glad she was dead and he was anything but that. His whole world had crumbled with her parting.

There had been no happiness for Vin until he had found Chris and Buck. He still could not understand why they let him stay and had been totally confused to find that his inadequacies and mistakes had not earned him the beatings that he had become accustomed to in the orphanage for the slightest infringement.

It had been different for JD. He had spent only a couple of weeks in the orphanage before the place had closed and the children had all been sent to the west in search of new homes. During that time, Vin had efficiently shielded his cousin and so JD had never experienced any of the mistreatment that he had suffered in his two long years there.

So the younger boy had retained his natural ebullience and had easily accepted Buck’s affection, treating him as a favourite and easily manipulated uncle, without any of Vin’s fears and misgivings. Not that Vin would have changed his cousin’s happy, rambunctious nature even if he could have done. Although, at first, it had worried him when JD had misbehaved or spoke out of turn lest the child be punished or they should be sent away, he had soon learned, that at least as far as Buck was concerned, JD could do no real wrong.

So, he figured JD had found the perfect place for himself. But was there a place for him too? He doubted that there was.

He knew Chris’ son had died in a fire and that often Chris was quiet and sad when he thought about Adam. He feared that having him around made Chris think of Adam more than he might otherwise have done. He also imagined that Adam must have been a wonderful person. If he was Chris’ son he would have had to be. Adam would have been clever like his dad, like JD … not stupid like Vin was.

Of course, Chris did not really know yet just how stupid Vin was, but he would once the report cards came out. Then he would go and see Mr Smith and the teacher would tell him how lazy Vin was, how he could not follow simple instructions, how he could not read or write or anything no matter how hard Mr Smith beat him. That would be the end, because as Smith had been at pains to point out, Chris could not possibly want a boy like that living with him.

As he lay there, torturing himself by going over and over his apparently insoluble problem, he could hear the low murmur of Chris and Buck’s voices, but could not pick up what they were talking about. That was probably just as well, as Chris was quietly remonstrating with Buck about his tendency to spoil JD and any criticism of his cousin would just have added to Vin’s fears lest Chris decide JD was not to stay either.

"You can’t let him have his own way all the time, Buck. It isn’t good for him."

"Aw, Chris, he’s just a little kid. He doesn’t understand …"

Larabee interrupted, "I suspect he understands a damn sight more than you do. He’s got you right where he wants you. Under his thumb! You need to be firmer."

"C’mon, Chris," Buck protested, "the kid’s had a hard time. He deserves to have a bit of spoiling."

"A bit maybe, but if you aren’t careful you’ll find yourself creating a monster."

"And I suppose ya don’t spoil Vin."

"That’s right, I don’t, and even if I had a mind to, he’s too responsible to take advantage of it."

"Yeah, that young’un don’t seem to know how to be a kid. Well, I want JD to enjoy his childhood."

"So do I, Buck. I want both of them to do so. I just reckon we’ve got to strike the right balance in what we let them do and what we don’t. I know we both let Adam do things Sarah would not, but then she was there to bring us back to earth."

"Yeah, I remember she went after me with a broom after Adam and I fell in the creek that time. I’d thought that bridge we made would’ve held us for sure," Buck said, smiling reminiscently. He could not help feeling how great it was that Chris could now talk rationally about Adam and Sarah. For months after their deaths, he had been incapable of doing so, being so eaten up with anger and grief. However, since the boys had arrived, Wilmington had observed a gradual, and most welcome change, in this respect. Their innocent questions had forced the gunslinger to speak of his family, and as he recalled the good times for their eager ears, he slowly became comfortable talking about them.

Both laughed as they recalled details of the infamous bridge and other amusing incidents.

Finally, Larabee stood up, yawned and stretched. "Time for bed, pard. I’ll just look in on the boys."

Hearing his step, Vin feigned sleep. However, he was wide-awake and was to remain so long after Buck and Chris had fallen asleep.

Vin lay there thinking about school and the more he thought the more desperate he became. He couldn’t go back. He just couldn’t. But how could he avoid it?

Perhaps he could pretend to be ill. No, that would not work. Chris and Buck would summon Nathan and the healer would expose the fraud.

More importantly, he did not want to lie to Chris and Buck. They did not deserve that. They had been so kind to him and JD that it would be wrong.

So what on earth could he do? He was so sick of school, sick of Mr Smith and sick of unruly letters that turned themselves backwards.

Then it hit him. Sick! His heart leapt. That wonderful word had two meanings. It couldn’t really be his fault if he said he was sick and people thought he meant he was ill, could it?

Anyway, he was certain that Mr Smith would be a happier man if he did not have to deal with a stupid pupil, who could never do anything right.

What was more, if he played his cards right, he would not have to lie to Chris and Buck. They would just see him setting off for school each day and later returning home. Mr Smith would be so pleased to see the back of him that would never ask them how he was and whether he would soon be returning to school. So they need never know he was not going to school and what they did not know could not hurt them.

Yes, it was the best solution for all concerned. He snuggled down, feeling happy for the first time in weeks and fell into a deep sleep.

It seemed only a matter of moments before he awoke with a start, as Chris gently shook his shoulder. "Time to get up, Vin."

The gunslinger was a little worried. Normally Vin was up before everyone and was bustling about doing as many chores as he could while periodically trying to persuade JD to get out of bed. The orphanage had taught him only too clearly that the world held no sympathy for slugabeds that did not earn their keep, and Chris had been unable to convince him that he was not expected to work in order to be allowed to stay.

The gunslinger could see that the boy’s face was pale and his eyes dark rimmed from lack of refreshing sleep. "Are you feeling okay, Vin?" he questioned.

"Is Vin sick?" JD broke in.

Vin could not believe his luck. This was going to make things easier for him. "I’s fine," he said, scrambling quickly out of bed. "I’s sorry for oversleepin’. I’ll just get on with my chores."

"Woah, pard," Chris said. He was still concerned that the boy was really not well, but was hiding his indisposition. "You get your breakfast. JD and I will see to things."

"N-No, please … please I gotta … They’s my resp … resp … my job."

Chris sighed inwardly. He wondered if he was ever going to convince Vin that he did not keep him around for his labour, that he wasn’t going to kick him out or punish him if he didn’t always work hard. By contrast, JD had soon discovered how to get Buck to help him with his few small duties and was adept at finding excuses to avoid any tasks that did not appeal.

"All right, but don’t let your breakfast get cold."

Finally, chores done and breakfast over, the boys mounted their ponies and headed for the school. Privately Chris and Buck both worried about this, as the two seemed too young to ride the distance by themselves, but Vin had insisted. He knew it would take a big chunk out of the men’s working day to escort the boys there and collect them later and he did not want to be a bother. Anyway, so far things had gone smoothly.

However, today as they neared the school, Vin pulled his pony to a halt. ‘I’s sick, JD," he said. "I don’t reckon I’d better go to school."

JD stared at him in some surprise. It was not like Vin to admit to illness. Then he remembered his cousin’s uncharacteristic tardiness that morning and Chris questioning whether he was ill. "You should’ve told Chris you were sick when he asked," he said.

"I s’pose,"Vin replied. "Will ya tell Mr Smith I’s sick please, JD?"

"Yeah, but why don’t you come in and tell him yourself?"

"No!" Vin said hurriedly. "Ya know he don’t like me. He’d prob’ly not b’lieve me and would give me a thrashin’ for sayin’ it."

JD nodded. He knew that Mr Smith did not like Vin because he could not do the work. "Okay I’ll tell him."

"Don’t let on I’s nearby lessen he’ll come after me," Vin warned.


+ + + + + + +

Vin had a lovely day. He tethered Peso out of sight of the road and happily wandered through the woods. He reveled in the freedom. This was his element, not the imprisoning walls of a dingy schoolroom.

However, aware of his responsibility to his cousin as always, he kept an eye on the sun. Finally it was time for school to be dismissed and he headed back to intercept JD.

The latter was surprised and relieved to see him. He had been secretly apprehensive when he had emerged from the schoolroom and neither Buck nor Chris was in sight. He had expected one or other would have come. Of course, he was always saying he was not a baby and arguing for his rights and independence, but did they have to finally agree with him when he was facing a long ride home?

"Vin! You’re here! Are you feeling better now?"

"Yeah, I’m okay now so I thought I’d come and meet ya."

"I could have ridden home all by myself," JD felt obliged to say.

"I know ya could, but it’s more fun ridin’ with someone else, ain’t it?"


When they neared the cabin, Vin said urgently, "Listen, JD, don’t ya go sayin’ anythin’ about me bein’ sick to Mr Chris and Mr Buck. We don’t want to worry them."

"Don’t they know?" JD asked in surprise. He had assumed that his cousin had returned home for the day to rest and later had felt better and so had ridden to fetch him.

"Nope. I didn’t come home ‘cos I know they’ve got work to do and I didn’t want them stoppin’ 'cause of me. I just stayed in the woods. Ya know we mustn’t be a bother or they might not keep us."

That sounded reasonable to the younger boy, so he nodded his agreement. He was used to deferring to Vin’s superior knowledge on how the world worked. After all, hadn’t his ma told him to listen to Vin? In any case, he had far more pressing concerns. He had penned a wonderful new story that day and his mind was occupied with anticipating Buck’s admiring response to it.

The next day, the pair was approaching the school, when Vin suddenly announced he was sick again. JD was surprised, but duly accepted his cousin’s word and thus Tuesday followed Monday’s pattern.

However, the third day was too much. "You’re not really sick, are you?" JD challenged.

"Yes, I am," Vin insisted defensively.

"You’re just sneakin' out of school," JD retorted. "You’ve been lying to me."

"No, I ain’t! Well, not ‘xactly. I’s really sick … of school," he added lamely.

"But you can’t just not go. You’ll get in trouble," JD pointed out worriedly.

"Not iffen ya cover for me."

"I don’t want to. My ma said telling lies is wrong."

Then Vin said something most out of character, something that made him feel genuinely sick with guilt, but was a measure of his desperation, "Iffen ya don’t tell Mr Smith I’s sick, he’ll check up to see where I’s got to and then he’ll know ya lied to him on Monday and yesterday. Then ya’ll get a beatin’ too. And what’s worse is he’ll tell Chris and Buck and they might not want us anymore."

That was an incredibly long speech for his taciturn cousin and JD felt the weight of the argument. He looked at Vin in commingled horror and fear. He was so used to relying on his cousin’s good sense that he supposed Vin was correct … but it did not sit well with him. It just did not seem right. However, the alternative was far worse, so he nodded reluctantly.

Two more days followed and finally the weekend arrived. Vin breathed freely again. He had been racked with guilt about blackmailing JD and yet he still could not see what else he could have done. He just wished there was some disinterested person with whom he could talk things over.

This need for advice finally overcame his natural reticence on Sunday, when Chris and Buck took the boys into town to attend church.

Normally Vin quite liked church. He did not understand a lot of the words, but enjoyed Josiah’s deep voice as he preached. His mother had read the Bible aloud to him and going to church always made him think of her. The feeling of familiarity was usually a comfort, but not on this occasion.

Josiah based his sermon on Truth and that hit home, because not only had Vin lied, he had compounded his sin by making his cousin lie as well. Vin felt so ashamed. He could not shake the feeling that the preacher was looking right at him, condemning him for his sins, but Sanchez could not possibly know what he had done … could he?

He wondered if anyone had noticed Josiah looking at him. Glancing surreptitiously around to check, his eyes fell upon Ezra Standish. His heart leapt. There was the person to talk to.

Vin had liked and trusted Ezra on sight, which was most unusual as he was usually wary of strangers. However, he had since overheard Chris and Buck discussing the gambler and so was aware that the man was adept at twisting the truth to suit his purposes. It seemed that he didn’t lie exactly, but he looked at things a bit differently from most folks and acted accordingly. This did not sit well with Larabee and Wilmington, but they could rarely catch him out in an untruth as he had the gift of the gab and could talk himself out of virtually anything. However, he did this with such panache and had a kind heart, which he was at considerable pains to conceal, so they could not help liking the rogue.

As usual, Chris and Buck remained to talk to Nathan and Josiah after the service, while JD sought out some of his school friends, so seizing his chance, Vin followed the gambler.

Eventually Ezra realized he had a small shadow, so he stopped and said, "Good morning, Mr Tanner. How may I be of service to you this fine day?"

"I’s wonderin’ … I’s wonderin’ iffen … iffen …" He broke off unable to continue.

"Pray enlighten me as to what is amiss."

"A miss? I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout a girl," Vin said, blushing at the mere thought of mentioning one of those incomprehensible beings.

"You misunderstand me, Mr Tanner. I was merely enquiring as to the nature of your difficulty."


"Could you possibly furnish me with an explanation."

"I-I wanted to ask ya … somethin’."

"I am listening."

"W-Would ya mind iffen … C-Could we go somewhere … somewhere …"



"Certainly. If you would be so gracious as to accompany me to my rooms, I believe we will be able to converse without fear of interruption."

Once ensconced in the gambler’s rooms, Vin said, "Mr Standish, I’s in need of yer advice. I’s done somethin’ really bad."

Ezra smiled inwardly and waited. He had a lot of time for Vin and knew the boy tended to worry over trifles to which another child would pay no heed. Accordingly, he was expecting to hear of some very minor misdemeanour indeed.

"I’s got JD in lotsa trouble too." That did not sound right. Usually it was the serious and responsible Vin frantically trying to extricate his ebullient young cousin from some scrape his impetuous nature had got him into.

"May I presume that you have done something that has upset Mr Larabee." He did not bother to mention Buck. He knew Vin’s world revolved around the gunslinger, love and hero-worship normally shining in his expressive eyes whenever he looked at or spoke of the man. In any case, Ezra was also aware that the easy-going Wilmington was far more likely to laugh at the boys’ pranks, or even lend a hand, while Chris was clearly trying to provide a father’s care and to instill responsible values in the pair. Not that the skinny boy standing before him lacked those. Indeed, on this point, Standish found himself in the unusual position of agreeing with the ladies’ man. Both would have liked to see Vin showing a boy’s mischievousness and zest for life, rather that behaving like a miniature adult and carrying the weight of the world upon his thin shoulders.

"No!" Vin insisted and then added shamefacedly. "Well, not yet, ’cause he don’t know nothin’ ‘bout it."

"However, you are apprehensive that he will momentarily discover your misdemeanour?"

"Huh?" Vin looked at him in confusion.

"You think that he is likely to find out what you have done soon?" Ezra elucidated.

Vin nodded.

"And you fear the likely punishment?" Standish questioned.


"Vin, I doubt that Mr Larabee will beat you no matter what transgression you have committed."

"I’s not worried ‘bout a thrashin’. I deserve that. I’s worried that Mr Chris and Mr Buck won’t want to keep JD either. He didn’t want to do it, but I made him."

The astute gambler did not miss the significance of the word ‘either’. Clearly Vin had decided that there was no likelihood that he would be allowed to stay and so was now concentrating on protecting his cousin. He hastened to try to allay Vin’s fears. "Mr Tanner, I cannot believe that they would contemplate parting with either of you no matter what crime you have perpetuated."

"Crime!" Vin echoed aghast, the blood draining from his already pale face. "I-I haven’t … I mean it isn’t … I s’pose it might be," he conceded reluctantly. Had he broken the law by not going to school? Could Chris and Buck be in trouble for not seeing that he had? He had no idea and the possibility was terrifying.

Intrigued, but with growing concern, Ezra abandoned good manners and said, "I suggest you tell me exactly what you have done and that will enable me to better advise you."

"No, I can’t. It ain’t fair."

"What do you mean?"

"Iffen I tell ya, ya’ll be involved and that ain’t fair to you. It’s up to me to try to put thin’s right."

Ezra sighed inwardly. He knew Vin put great store by his honour. Not that the boy would have used the word, but he always did his best to live up to the high standards he set for himself and tried to set for JD. He just could not imagine what the boy could have possibly done to cause himself this upset or indeed what could have led him to transgress in the first place.

"What do you propose to do?"

"I’s goin’ to tell … him what I did and try to make him see that none of it was really JD’s fault." He started for the door and then turned back and held out one small, rather grubby hand, "I’s nearly forgot. Thank ya for yer help, Mr Standish," he intoned solemnly.

Ezra took the hand. "It was my pleasure, Mr Tanner. I just wish you could see fit to confide in me more fully so that I could be of more assistance."

"You’ve been lotsa help, Mr Standish," Vin assured him. "I just needed to talk to someone to help me sort thin’s out in my mind."

An hour or so later, Ezra decided to seek out Chris Larabee to find out what had transpired. As he had said to Vin, he did not imagine for one moment that Chris would send Vin and JD away, but he was not so sanguine about Vin’s chances of escaping a beating if what the boy had done was as bad as Vin implied. Although he suspected Vin was exaggerating in his fear for JD, he knew Chris might decide his role as surrogate father might require him to administer a spanking and Vin was clearly prepared for that. The gambler just hoped all was back to normal once more.

Accordingly he joined Chris and Buck, who were sitting on their favourite chairs on the boardwalk outside the saloon. "Good day, gentlemen."

+ + + + + + +

"Afternoon, Ezra," Wilmington drawled, while Chris nodded a greeting. "To what do we owe the honour of your company?"

"Curiosity, I confess. Well, perchance concern would be a better word. I trust Mr Tanner has confessed his sins and has been admitted happily back into the fold."

Chris stared at him. "What the hell are you talking about, Standish?" he demanded.

The gambler was caught off-guard. "You mean he has not told you? But he stated most resolutely that he was going to tell you immediately."

"Tell me what?"

"I have no idea," Ezra confessed.

"Have you been drinking, Standish?" Larabee inquired caustically.

"No, of course not."

"Then kindly explain yourself in words of one syllable."

"Mr Tanner visited me after church this morning. He was worried about something he had done. He would not tell me what it was, but he was most concerned lest you send JD away too because he had got his cousin involved in whatever it was. When he left me, about an hour ago, I was under the impression that he was going to make a clean breast of things. At least, that is what he said."

"Well, we’ve been here all that time, so he should have been able to find us."

"What the hell was he thinkin’ of gettin’ JD involved in somethin’?" Buck questioned angrily.

"Please calm down, Mr Wilmington," the gambler said. "We do not even know the nature of their activities as yet. It may well be that young Mr Tanner has a distorted view of the seriousness of the situation. We should not judge until we know the details." Catching a movement out of the corner of his eye, he turned to see Vin emerging from the alley alongside the saloon. "Why here comes our young miscreant now."

Vin moved slowly onto the street, shuffling his feet, his head down. Indeed, it appeared that he was going to go right past them, had not Buck called out, "VIN! COME HERE!"

He stopped and moved towards them, still using his long curls to shield his face. He knew from Wilmington’s tone of voice that he was in deep trouble. Perhaps JD had spilled the beans or Smith had been to see them, but no matter how Chris and Buck had learned about his truancy, the fact remained that they did know.

"Okay, boy, spit it out! What have you been up to?" Buck demanded.

"Has M-Mr Smith b-been to see ya already?" Vin asked hesitantly.

"Smith?" Larabee questioned. "No. Why should he?"

Cornered, Vin knew he would have to say something. "I-I didn’t g-go to school last week and I … Well, I made … I know I shouldn’t’ve, but I made JD lie and say I’s s-sick." Tears began to spill down his face. "It wasn’t his fault. He really thought I’s sick at first and then he found out and didn’t want to lie, but … but I made him."

"You made JD lie?" Buck questioned angrily.

Vin nodded sadly.

"What the hell did ya do to him?"

"I-I s-said he’d get a beatin’ iffen we got found out ‘cause he’d lied and you’d send us both away. B-But please, please don’t do that to him. It was all my fault."

"Yeah, I can see that and I reckon ya’ve got a wallopin’ comin’. Ya’d agree with that, wouldn’t ya, Chris? Wouldn’t ya, Chris?" he repeated when no immediate response was forthcoming.

Larabee nodded reluctantly. He knew he was going to have to take action, especially after what he had said to Buck about the need to discipline JD, but the last thing he wanted to do was beat Vin. Too many people had laid rough hands on the boy in his short life. He hesitated wondering what to do for the best.

However, then Vin spoke up. "I know deserve a thrashin’, Mr Chris. Don’t worry about it. It ain’t yer fault. Please just do it, but please, please let JD stay."

"Vin, there is no question of either of you being sent away. Buck and I want you both to stay, but I guess I have to punish you. I suppose we’d better get it over with. Can I borrow your rooms, Ezra?"

"Of course, though I wish …"

Larabee knew exactly what the gambler wanted say. "I wish too, but I can’t let it pass."

Standish tossed him the key and the gunslinger took Vin’s hand.

Wilmington and Standish sat in uncomfortable silence, awaiting their return.

Suddenly, they heard Chris’ voice. Moving out onto the road, they looked up. Larabee was leaning out of the window. "Buck, go and get Nathan!" he ordered.

The tone of voice brooked no gainsaying and Buck took off at a run. Ezra ran too, but in the direction of his rooms. The patrons of the saloon were treated to the unaccustomed sight of the normally imperturbable and urbane gambler rushing through the room like a mad thing, and from the expression on his face, clearly very worried about something.

Scant moments later, he burst into his sitting room. The boy was nowhere in sight. "Where’s Vin? What the hell have you done to him, Larabee?" he demanded, abandoning both his polysyllabic speech and his normally circumspect behaviour in dealing with the deadly gunman, in his fear for Vin.

"He’s on your bed in the other room. And I’ve done nothing, but some bastard certainly has."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I was planning to spank him. Not hard. More as a warning than a punishment. Anyway, I was about to pull him over my knee when he dropped his trousers. I’d never have made him do that, but he obviously expected to have to do it. I told him to pull them up and as he did so he turned away from me and then I saw … I saw …"

"You saw?" Ezra prompted.

"Someone’s thrashed the hell out of him. He’s covered with cuts and bruises from his buttocks to his knees."

"But who would do such a thing?"

"I’m not certain, but I reckon it must be that damned schoolmaster since Vin asked if he’d been to speak to us. If I’m right the bastard is going to pay."

"Did you ask him?"

"Not yet. I carried him in to your bed and then shouted for Buck. I haven’t been back in. I’m so angry I don’t know what the hell I might say and I don’t want to scare Vin. I just … I just … I thought I’d better wait for Nathan."

A clattering of boots was heard and Nathan and Buck appeared. "Nate, you come with me," Chris said. "You’d better stay here, Buck. Vin won’t want a crowd. Ezra’ll tell you what’s going on."

The two men entered the bedroom. Vin was lying facedown on the bed, his face buried in the pillow. Hearing Chris’ tread, he asked quietly, "Have ya come to beat me now, Mr Chris?"

"No, and I’m not going to, pard."

"Wh-Why not? Please, I don’t mind, ‘cos it’s better’n bein’ sent away."

"Looks like someone has already done all the punishing needed, Vin, and a hell of a lot more. Now you lay still because Nathan’s going to put some salve on for you."

Jackson set to work, only to turn to Chris a few moment’s later to say, "Chris, some of these cuts and bruises are old."


"Look at this cut. It’s partly scabbed over, but it’s been reopened."

"Shit! How long has this been going on?" Larabee demanded, his voice angry.

Nathan felt Vin flinch at Larabee’s tone. "Calm down, Chris," he ordered. "You’re scaring Vin."

Chris quickly squatted by the bed and took Vin’s hand. "I’m not mad with you, Vin. I’m mad with whoever did this to you and I need you to tell me who it was."

Vin swallowed convulsively. He was not sure what to say. He knew Chris would go after Smith and that the schoolteacher would be no match for him, but it was not as simple as that. "It don’t matter," he whispered.

"Of course it matters, cowboy. He had no right to do this."

"Yeah, he does. He’s ‘lowed to beat kids iffen they do wrong … or are stupid," he added, the final phrase a mere murmur.

"Vin, nobody’s allowed to beat someone this badly."

"B-But at the orphanage … there they … there they …" Vin broke off in confusion.

Chris’ heart contracted. For the boy to be so accustomed to ill-treatment as to accept it as normal made his blood boil. He could feel the vein throbbing in his forehead. Fighting to keep his anger under control, he said, as calmly as he could, "Vin, please just tell me straight. It was Mr Smith, wasn’t it?"

Vin nodded reluctantly.

"Why on earth did he do it?"

"I went to see him to own up to skippin’ school. I knew he’d thrash me, but I hoped … I wanted … I wanted to make him see it was all my fault, not JDs. I-I thought iffen he knew that, he wouldn’t hit JD and …and …"

"And what, cowboy?" Chris prompted.

"He might think I’s punished enough and not tell you," Vin admitted shamefacedly.

"Vin, I wouldn’t have been pleased, but I’d never have hurt you like he has. However, he isn’t going to do it again," he said resolutely.

"No, Mr Ch-Chris, please don’t … please don’t. I don’t want ya to. I deserved what he did." He clutched frantically at Chris’ sleeve. All he could think of was, if Chris went to see Smith, the man might tell him about all the other times he had had to beat him, and then Chris would realize just how stupid and worthless he really was.

Unfortunately, Nathan chose this moment to interrupt. "This isn’t the first beating he’s given you by any means, is it, Vin? What were the others for?"

Vin’s heart sank. Nathan had zeroed in on just the thing he wanted to avoid. "Th-Things," he muttered.

"What things?" Chris demanded.

Just then JD’s shrill tones were heard from the sitting room. "Here you are, Mr Buck! I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Have you seen Vin anywhere?"

Buck tried to quieten him, but with no luck. "Ssh, JD. Vin’s in there with Chris and Nathan. Someone hurt him."

"Oh, that’ll just be Mr Smith," JD said loudly, in a matter-of-fact tone. "My friend Toby said he saw Vin going to his house."

"Why would Mr Smith do such a thing?" Ezra asked.

"He beats Vin all the time ‘cause he’s no good at lessons. He can’t write stories like I do. Mr Smith says he’s stupid and doesn’t try hard enough."

"And is it true?"

"No!" JD exclaimed, but then added, "Well, I suppose it’s sort of true. Vin can’t do the work, but he does try. Vin always tries his best at everything."

"I know he does." He locked eyes with Buck. "Mr Wilmington, shall we pay a visit to Mr Smith or do you think Mr Larabee will be displeased to find himself forestalled?"

Buck hesitated and then said, "I know I ain’t usually the voice of reason, but I reckon we should get the judge. All I can think of is smashin’ that bastard’s face in, but Chris might want to make his revenge a little more permanent and it ain’t gonna help Vin none if Chris ends up in jail for shootin’ Smith."

"True, but the way I am feeling at this moment, he might not be the one facing such an indictment," Ezra observed darkly. As he spoke, his derringer appeared in his hand.

At that moment, Chris and Nathan emerged. The gunslinger’s eyes immediately went to the small, but deadly, weapon. "It’s my job, Standish," he said coldly.

"No, it’s ours," the gambler replied. "Vin might live with you, but he’s important to Mr Sanchez, Mr Jackson and myself and I think we should all pay Smith a little visit. To be honest, I do not think the law would treat him as harshly as he deserves and would certainly not countenance his demise, but we can ensure that he receives a beating himself and that he ‘voluntarily’ resigns his post on the grounds of ill-health. I believe Judge Travis would be more than willing to witness his letter of resignation once the details of what has transpired are brought to his notice. After all, other considerations aside, I cannot believe that he would be desirous of entrusting such a man with the education of his grandson."

"And I’m certain Mary would raise the roof if he even considered allowing such a man to teach Billy," Buck added, thinking of the likely reaction of the fiery editor.

Larabee hesitated. He knew the gambler was speaking sense, but he had never felt such a desire to kill in cold blood. His right hand was unconsciously caressing his gun.

Then he started as a small hand settled over his. "Please don’t shoot him, Mr Chris," Vin begged. "I couldn’t bear ya to get into trouble ‘cause of me. Please promise me ya won’t."

Chris looked down into the pleading, sky-blue eyes that seemed to fill the small, tear-stained face. Then he nodded reluctantly. "It’s okay, Vin, I promise. Now I want you and JD to wait here with Nate. Buck, Ezra and I have calls to make."

Thus it was, that a scant two hours later, a somewhat worse for wear Smith was seen hurriedly boarding the east bound stage, while a grim-visaged judge stood holding a hastily penned letter that tendered Smith’s resignation on the grounds of extreme ill-health.

Chris, Buck and an excited JD watched the departure, from Ezra’s windows, but Vin sat morosely on the bed.

Then JD announced that he was hungry, as he had missed lunch, so Buck took him off in search of sustenance. That suited Larabee because he wanted to speak to Vin alone.

He turned to him and asked kindly, "Do you feel up to riding home tonight, Vin, or do you want to stay in town?"

"Am I ‘lowed to stay?" the boy questioned, his voice disbelieving.

"Of course you can. We can get rooms at the hotel."

"I-I don’t mean that. Aren’t ya sendin’ me away?"

"Vin, I told you I’d never do that."

"Y-Yeah, but that was afore ya knew."

"Knew what?"

"When JD and Mr Nathan and I were waitin’, JD said he told Mr Buck and Mr Standish why Mr Smith didn’t like me, and I ‘spect they will have told ya, so now ya know I’s stupid." He hung his head in misery.

Chris knelt down in front of him, and hesitantly, because he knew the boy was normally uncomfortable making physical contact with anyone, put his hands on the boy’s knees. "Vin, you are not stupid. Not everybody is cut out for book learning. I know you try your best and that’s all that matters to me."

Still unsure whether Larabee could really mean what he was saying, Vin raised his head and risked a peek at Larabee’s face. What he read there stunned him. There was no condemnation there, only concern … and love. Love? His eyes grew wide. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t! And yet …

Watching the expressive eyes, Larabee suddenly experienced that odd psychic connection he had felt the day he had first met Vin and on several occasions since. He knew exactly what the boy was thinking and what he desperately needed to hear, but felt certain that he never would. Well, Larabee could remedy that. "You’re my family now, Vin," he said, "and I love you."

And suddenly Vin was off the bed and in his arms, nearly knocking the gunslinger flat with the force of his arrival. Snuggling his face into Chris’ chest, he whispered, "And I love ya too, Mr Chris."

The End

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