"Little Britches" Universe

Disclaimer: 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.
Remarks: This is a continuation of the events in Echoes of Past Deeds

Gloria Potter looked up from the counter as the door to her store was pushed forcefully open. "Gloria! What's been going on with those boys of mine?" Nettie Wells demanded.

"Vin and JD?"

"All four of them. I'd barely set one foot off the stage when Anne Carson dragged me into the hotel to repeat some ridiculous tale."

"Oh Nettie, some dreadful things have been happening." Gloria wasted no time in repeating what she knew of recent events. "I'm sure people don't really believe a word of the story, but they are repeating it. Its only one or two who started this and won't let it go."

"Which one or two?" Nettie demanded.

"Edith, from the dressmakers has been very difficult about it. I tried to speak to her but I really don't have much influence there. I'm not hearing a lot of this directly Nettie. I think they know not to repeat anything around me. Even Charles Peterson from the bank tried to confront Vin when the boys were in town the other day. He seems to have changed his ways, but that was more Vin's doing than mine."

"Vin? They're attacking him directly?" Nettie asked, outraged.

"Very much so. I think if he has his way he won't be setting foot back in this town. And with all this I haven't welcomed you back from your trip. How was Colorado Springs and your friend?"

"Fine, fine." Nettie dismissed the subject. Her trip was of no concern. "I think I'll stay in town tonight and attend church service tomorrow."

"You're welcome to stay with me," Gloria offered.

"Thank you Gloria, but no. I believe I'll treat myself to a night in the hotel."

Nettie would have preferred to head straight out to the ranch to check on Vin and find out exactly what had happened. She put her concern aside for the moment, knowing that Vin was in safe hands, and contemplated the other problem. Gossip was difficult to fight, but if the trouble-makers were silenced at the source, then the topic would usually die.
Sunday morning dawned clear and bright. Nettie enjoyed her rare treat of breakfast being served to here at the hotel. She then set about completing yesterday's plan. She had only just stepped from the hotel when she heard the young voice calling from down the street.

"Nettie! Nettie!" JD pulled his hand from Vin's as he ran down the boardwalk to greet Nettie.

Nettie Wells caught the youngster's shoulders before he barrelled into her.

"Sounds like somebody missed me?" Nettie laughed, pleased at her joyous welcome home. She stooped down low to receive a hug.

"We all missed you Nettie," Vin had arrived quietly, but stopped a few steps away.

Nettie received her first real look at Vin and tried to hide her dismay. His left arm still rested in a sling, and the bruising on his face was a sickly yellow and green. He offered her a tremulous smile, not quite sure of his welcome. If Nettie was here in town, then she had surely been told about him.

Nettie took Vin's hand and drew him closer. Nettie took his hesitancy as a wish to avoid contact, so she settled for leaning forward and kissing his cheek.

"You've been in the wars, haven't you sweetie," she whispered in his ear. Vin's eyes widened at the name, and turned sharply to make sure no one else had heard. "I didn't shout it," Nettie laughed, understanding Vin's action. Vin relaxed a little at Nettie's gentle teasing. Nettie reached over and took a hold of JD's hand, drawing him in as well. "Well I've missed you both as well. I was going to surprise you later today. What are you all doing in town?"

Chris and Buck had finally caught up with the boys.

"We thought we'd attend church today," Chris explained. "You should have sent word that you were arriving and we would have met you."

"Well, we've met now, so everything worked out perfectly."

"Nettie," Chris began, unusually hesitant. He knew Nettie would want to know what had happened to Vin and he dreaded telling her. He felt he'd failed Vin so badly.

"I've already been made aware of the current town news, Chris."

Chris heard the underlying anger, and thought it was aimed at him.

"I'm sorry Nettie. I know the talk, and they're wrong," he began.

"Christopher, don't be ridiculous. I certainly didn't believe a word of it," she admonished.

Buck cleared his throat loudly. "Why don't I take the boys off and run some energy out of them before they have to sit inside."

Vin pulled away, knowing what Mr Chris was going to tell Nettie. "No. I want to stay here," he refused. He wanted to be sure Nettie would understand what he'd done and wouldn't hate him like the others.

"Vin, I'll see you at church," Nettie reassured him.

"Ya mightn't want to."

"I will never believe a bad word about you Vin."

"But it's true. I just gotta explain!" he cried plaintively.

"Vin, we talked about this. It's not true. You didn't do anything by choice." Chris had tried to explain that being forced to steal hadn't made Vin a thief. He'd been protecting himself and JD. "I'll explain it all to Nettie," he reassured the boy.

"Come on Vin," JD called, tugging at Vin's good arm. "Lets go play in the jail."

Vin gave in to the tugging at his hand. He cast a silent plea to Nettie for understanding as JD hustled him away.

Larabee drew the widow over to the chairs near the general store. "Let me fill you in Nettie," he sighed. Nettie listened to the story without interrupting, but heard more than just the basic events in his quiet words.

"You're blaming yourself Chris Larabee. You did everything you could, and you saved him. It could have been far worse."

Chris dropped his head forward into his hands. He rested a moment before rubbing a hand across his eyes and straightening. He couldn't forget seeing Vin's face for what he thought was the last time. "I know how much worse it could have been." He turned anguished eyes to the widow beside him. "I didn't save him. By some miracle he didn't slide down that cliff. I don't know what I would do if I lost him too."

"You're not having second thoughts about him are you? It's hard to lose a piece of your heart as you well know." Nettie asked, suddenly concerned that Chris would panic at the close-call.

Chris laughed sadly. "No, its taken something like this to make me realise that I haven't given him enough of it. Certainly this town doesn't think he means anything to me if they think I'd ever raise a hand to him."

"It's not the whole town Chris, just some trouble makers. It's not their business what you and Vin have."

"But if they don't see it, maybe Vin doesn't either. I haven't been very open with him. He trusts me, but I couldn't tell you of any time I've hugged him in public."

"Now don't go comparing you and Vin to Buck and JD. You're all different people. Vin doesn't like attention in public," Nettie assured him. "How are you all getting on now?"

"Better. The boys are staying close and Vin's still not sleeping well. This is only the second trip into town. The first trip was a disaster. I hate to have to make him face-down these people."

"It's not your fault, Chris." Nettie reassured him. "You had no reason to expect some of the people here to react like this. Gloria told me what happened in her store. I'm sorry I haven't been here for you." She patted Chris' knee as she arose from the chair. "I have a few people to speak to before church. Things will get better."

Chris watched curiously as the widow strode away. He'd heard the promise in her voice.
Nettie Wells saw her target standing with two others down by the dressmakers.

"Ladies, please excuse my interrupting. Edith, I'd like a private word with you." At the hesitation, she added a forceful "Now."

"Why Nettie!" the seamstress exclaimed. "We haven't seen you in town for some time."

"You'll be seeing far more of me if the current gossip doesn't end. Chris Larabee, Buck Wilmington, Vin Tanner, JD Dunne. You mark those names. I consider all four to be family and I don't take kindly to the vicious talk that's been going on."

"Now Nettie, I'm sure you misunderstood."

"I misunderstood nothing Edith. You inform your circle they're off-limits."

"Nettie, I haven't been gossiping. This is just town news. You can hardly ban folk from talking about the current town news."

"Edith Worthing, I suggest you recall some town news that doesn't circulate regarding your husband and his Tuesday night outings."

"Nettie Wells, I'm surprised that you would stoop to such things," Edith exclaimed, outraged at the threat.

Nettie just smiled pleasantly. "I don't gossip Edith. But as you've said, it's all town news."

"I really don't see why you need to take such a stand. It's just a little harmless chatter." Edith was outraged at having to defend herself.

"It's not harmless Edith. He's just a child and I will not see him hurt by anyone." Nettie indicated the gathering of the townspeople as they mingled in front of the church before service started. "There's a good place to repeal your words. I want it silenced now."

Nettie saw Buck arrive with the boys and moved to join them in waiting for Chris. She saw the cautious question in Vin's eyes. Nettie ran her hand down the boy's hair to rest against his cheek. "I will never doubt you and never stop loving you. Nothing anyone does or says is ever going to change that," she promised.

Vin bit his lip, so relieved he almost wanted to cry. He reached out and entwined his fingers with Nettie's, clasping the weathered hand tightly.

Nettie held tightly to the smaller hand as the group waited for Larabee's arrival. Chris approached them, ignoring most of the other groups of family and friends. He had only a limited patience at these social events so he turned his family toward the church door.

"Me next to Nettie!" JD exclaimed, when he found himself wedged between Mr Buck and Mr Chris.

Buck obligingly shifted over and moved JD between himself and Nettie. The row was now seated with alternating adult and child.

"Nettie, did ya go on a train? Did ya go ov'r a big bridge?" JD rattle his questions out. Vin peered around Buck, curious at the goings on between Nettie and JD. Buck stood up and without asking, slid Vin down next to JD. Vin looked up, startled at the movement. He was pleased he could talk to Nettie and JD now, but now he wasn't next to Mr Chris. Buck saw Vin's quick check of Chris and stood once more.

"Slide down Pard."

"Buck, can't you just sit in one place?"

"Hey, it's not me!" he defended.

"You're the only one I see moving," Chris complained, but obligingly moved down next to Vin. Buck finally settled in the aisle seat.

The church was now filling quickly. Chris looked around, surprised and pleased for Josiah that his Sunday service was so popular. He knew the preacher had worked hard to establish the church here. Chris noticed the ripple of something in the crowd. He couldn't say exactly what it was, he just felt like they had drawn attention again.

Vin fidgeted on the hard pew. He stilled as Mr Chris tapped his leg in silent reprimand. There were people all around him and the closeness of the building caused Vin's eyes to dart about looking for an exit. The shutters on the church windows were all pushed open but there was no breeze. Vin couldn't feel fresh air and his vision was blocked by all the surrounding bodies. He hadn't realized that he was starting to take short panicked breaths.

"Vin?" Chris had realized that there was a problem. "What's wrong?"

"Hot," he gasped out.

Chris touched his hand to Vin's pale cheek. The boy didn't feel warm. In fact, he was a little cool to touch. Chris saw the blue eyes widen as Vin swallowed hard. Chris scooped him up quickly.

"Out of the way Buck!" Chris ignored the stares as he pushed past Buck and rushed up the aisle. He moved quickly. He knew Vin would hate to be ill so publicly. Chris ducked into a side alley and set Vin down. Breakfast didn't make its expected reappearance, but Chris waited until the tiny tremors eased.

"Do you require assistance Mr Larabee?" Ezra had just completed his late breakfast when he saw the rushed departure from the church.

"No thanks Standish. Vin just isn't feeling very well."

Ezra turned to the church and saw that there were only a few stragglers entering the church.

"Service should begin momentarily. Perhaps I should keep an eye on Master Tanner for you, while you attend to your civic duties."

"Buck's with JD. I'll take Vin and have him sit quietly until the service is over."

"I believe you would be best served to return to your pew. At the very least, having the devil incarnate in their midst would certainly be entertaining."

"I'm not here to entertain Standish." Larabee narrowed his eyes, thinking Ezra was making him the butt of some joke.

"No. You're here to dispel that very image, so don't waste the opportunity. Mr Tanner and I will entertain ourselves quietly until Mr Sanchez grants you all leave to enjoy the remainder of the day."

"Vin?" Chris laid his hand gently on the upturned face, checking for any sign of illness. Vin closed his eyes at the contact, turning into the touch for a moment before opening his eyes and paying attention to the rest of the words.

"…with Ezra until Church is over."

Vin nodded quickly. "I'll be good."

Chris ruffled the curls lightly. "I know you will." Chris watched as Ezra escorted Vin down the street. He then joined the few stragglers still entering the Church.

Buck slid over when he saw Chris moving down the aisle.

"Where's Vin?" Buck asked, concerned at the boy's absence.

"Ezra's going to keep an eye on him."

"Is he sick?"

JD's head popped up at that question and he tried to move past the men. "I wanna go see Vin."

"Vin's fine," Chris reassured all of them. "It's just a little too hot and crowded in here today."

"Maybe I should go and see to him," Nettie offered, feeling like she hadn't been able to comfort the boy much.

"Ezra suggested our appearance here would be of value today." Nettie could see that Chris was unimpressed with such thoughts. The group looked up as one when Josiah's voice called to the gathering in welcome.
Ezra led Vin back to the chairs that sat outside the saloon. Battling the so-called good people of the town was not the same as facing down bank robbers and horse thieves. It almost tempted him to test just how good these good people really were.

Ezra automatically took his favorite deck of card into his hands and began cutting and shuffling.

"Pardon my manners Mr Tanner. Would you care for a libation?"

Vin looked over, having settled himself comfortably onto the hard timber chair, rocking it back just enough to lean against the saloon wall. Vin frowned. He hadn't been paying attention again and that just made Mr Ezra even harder to understand. He had to concentrate more. He was supposed to pay attention to everyone.

"Would you care for a lemonade or water?" Ezra clarified.

"Nah. I'm fine Mr Ez."

"Mr Ez? What manner of appellation is that? Mr Standish, or Mr Ezra is acceptable," Ezra explained, horrified at the bizarre abbreviation.

"Mr Ezra sounds funny,"

"And Mr Ez sounds better?"

"No. But at least it's shorter."

Ezra shook his head at the logic and fanned the cards, offering them to Vin. Vin selected a card and slipped it back into the pack. Ezra casually shuffled and flipped out the selected card. Vin smiled at the trick and waited for Ezra to offer the cards again. Ezra was always glad to practice his skills and Vin didn't require undue effort to be entertained. The routine continued over and over. This time Ezra ran the pack through his hands twice before offering up a card.

Vin shook his head in denial.

Ezra frowned, uncertain where his mistake was. He sorted the pack slowly and offered another card.

Again Vin shook his head.

Ezra was carefully studying the pack when Vin's sudden laughter brought his head up. Vin dropped the front legs of the chair down with a thump and drew the card from the sling on his left arm.

Ezra scowled at the trick, embarrassed at his own lack of attention that had allowed Vin to succeed. "Don't let Mr Larabee catch you doing that," he warned lightly.

The smile abruptly left Vin's face. "I don't cheat. Didn't mean it like that," he defended softly.

"No, no. I didn't intend to infer such a thing. Just that you should keep such skills for card tricks and not your games," Ezra explained quickly, not meaning to upset Vin.

Vin accepted the explanation without further comment, but showed no further interest in the cards. Instead he let his eyes wander up and down the street. He tucked his feet up onto the chair and sat tightly folded up studying the near-empty boardwalks.

Ezra thought the boy looked exceedingly uncomfortable. His physical withdrawal had coincided with his study of the town. Ezra checked his pocket-watch. Another distraction was called for.

Surprisingly Vin initiated it.

"Mr Ezra, have you got a Ma and Pa?"

"That's a very personal question Mr Tanner." Ezra disliked talking about himself but the honest eyes in the bruised face could not be avoided. "I have a mother, but no father."


"No. I never knew my father."

"Neither did I."

Vin seemed to ponder the coincidence, until Ezra thought he'd lost interest in the conversation.

"Your Ma live 'round here? Did you have a house and everythin'?"

"No. My mother rarely visits. She travels almost continually. I did have a house growing up, well actually a vast number of houses. My mother commonly left me with many different relatives and friends."

"She hired you out too?" Vin exclaimed, horrified.

"No Vin, quite the opposite. They didn't pay for my company but I dare say they would have paid for my absence."

At Vin's small frown he explained. "Most didn't want me in their homes."

"Did they hurt you?" he asked quietly. Ezra looked around to see if they were alone. Ezra couldn't believe he was having this conversation with a seven year old.

"Sometimes," he acknowledged. At Vin's sad sigh he explained. "It was a long time ago Vin. It doesn't matter to me now."

"Mattered then." So true, Ezra thought. He didn't want to add to Vin's burdens, but he also didn't want the child to be alone in his pain.

"Do you think there really are kids with happy families and a nice home and everything the folks seem to talk about?"

"There are many fortunate children who have all that Vin. The fates have cheated you of those things, but they're slowly building around you now."

Vin nodded slightly. "Jus' don't think I've met any kid who has it all. Wondered if it had ever been true."

Ezra remembered as each of his own childhood dreams had crumbled. Each birthday seemed to bring a new reality, and destroy yet another fantasy. The truth left a lot to be desired. Ezra thought of the men he called friends. Perhaps only Larabee had grown up with Vin's picture of the perfect childhood. Even if Vin couldn't live his dream, he could know that it wasn't yet another lie.

"You should ask Chris. I think he can help you there," Ezra offered. "When school begins again you'll make friends. You'll see that there are happy families here."
"…and I'm encouraging you all to tame your tongues. The sin of the tongue is gossip. Its not a matter of truth or lies here, it's the intent with which you choose to voice the words," Josiah warned.

JD had grown quickly bored and the hard pew was uncomfortable. He squirmed around, hoping to see something or someone interesting but only drew Mr Buck's attention.

"Sit still JD and face the front," Buck whispered quietly.

JD huffed his displeasure and began to swing his legs. Buck let him continue as he wasn't disturbing anyone. Sitting so long was a trial for the active five year old. Buck turned his attention back to Josiah's words in the hope they would do some good.

"…and every man and woman will have to account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. You should all consider your own words today," he warned. Josiah completed the few local announcements then called on the congregation for a hymn. His church could not yet boast a piano or organ, but Josiah's powerful voice easily led them into the first verse.

Josiah waited patiently by the door, farewelling his congregation. The usual mingling occurred at the font of the church as neighbours and friends gathered. Josiah took particular interest in the uncomfortable looks being exchanged between some groups.

Chris shook Josiah's hand as he passed. "Thanks for your words, Josiah. I hope they do some good."

"Look carefully brother. I believe word is spreading again."

Chris looked at the groups, then saw Ezra and Vin approaching. Nettie and Chris watched as Vin ignored the people and headed straight for them.

Ezra had walked Vin back to the church just as the service had ended. Vin stopped abruptly when he saw the groups of people spread out in front of the church. Ezra could see the others still by the stairs, talking to Josiah. Ezra tapped Vin's shoulder.

"Head up and shoulders back, Mr Tanner. Appearances are everything." Ezra stayed in step with Vin's shorted strides, keeping defensively at his shoulder as they made their way through the chattering groups.

"Safely delivered Mr Larabee."

The group moved away from the church and back to the hotel. Chris offered to treat everyone to lunch before they took Nettie home. JD was excited at the offer, but Vin was less enthusiastic.

Larabee felt the hairs on the back of his neck raise at the whispers that reached him. He knew Vin had keen hearing and hoped he wasn't paying attention. Chris wasn't sure of the intent of the talk. Surprisingly, they were being greeted with polite nods and even a few apologetic smiles as they moved through the crowds.

Chris gently moved Vin across his path and kept the boy walking on the inside of their little group. No one was being threatening, but neither was he inclined to be too forgiving of the earlier attitude.

"Josiah should be impressed with the power of his words," Buck commented.

Chris looked knowingly at Nettie. "I think someone else had a few strong words to say this morning."

Buck looked back at the two. He saw Chris's accusing look and Nettie's studied innocence. "Tell all Nettie. Who do you know to get things moving this fast?"

"It's not who you know Buck, it's what you know about them," Nettie smiled. "No," she reassured them. "I just set a few individuals straight about some facts."

"You do work fast Nettie." Chris smiled his thanks.

Nettie had an image of Chris Larabee visiting the seamstress and trying to deal with this without shooting her. Buck possibly could have charmed his way through the front door. No, this had been her place to make a stand.

"Happy to help, boys."

The group settled at one of the tables in the front corner with a view of the street. Chris watched as Vin scanned the room, checking the other diners. Their waitress cheerfully informed them of the day's specials then went to collect their drinks. JD continued his earlier questions of Nettie and her grand adventure. Chris was content to stay out of the conversation, but then he noticed Vin turn for the third time as someone passed behind him. Silently he tapped Vin's shoulder and stood up. Vin moved over into the offered chair and Chris took Vin's seat at the table. Buck looked up at the movement opposite him. Vin was now sitting in Chris's usual place, at the side of the table with his back to the wall. Buck raised his eyebrow in question, but Chris's look warned him not to make any comment. Chris was satisfied as Vin relaxed and settled back to enjoy the meal.

Buck suggested they pick up some fresh supplies for Nettie while they had the wagon in town. He left the table early to get the wagon hitched, and met them again outside the Potter's General Store. The loading was done quickly, as Nettie kept JD and Vin entertained and out of the way. Chris assisted Nettie up onto the seat of the wagon and climbed up after her. Buck lifted both boys into the back then climbed in himself to get settled comfortably among the supplies.

"We'll get some of your chores done when we arrive Nettie," Chris explained. "We haven't been able to do much except the essential for the animals."

"Don't go apologising Chris. You've had more important things to do."

JD heard the word chores and decided they needed other plans.

"Wanna catch grasshoppers Vin. We can get lots at Nettie's. You can find 'em and I'll do the catchin' if your shoulder hurts too much," JD offered. Vin was awfully quiet and he wanted to spend the rest of the day playing.

"Okay JD," Vin agreed easily, content to go along with any of JD's plans.

"Green ones, not the brown ones," JD added adamantly.

Vin rolled his eyes as the rules started to unfold. "Okay," he agreed, but risked a question anyway. "What's it matter if it's brown?"

"I'm gonna keep 'em, so I want the green ones. They're friendlier," JD declared.

"Not in our room," Vin argued. He didn't want to find little creatures crawling all over him in the night. Frogs and the bigger lizards were okay because they were easy to catch when they escaped from JD's box.

"I want four," JD declared firmly.

"Why four?"

"'Cause that's what I want!"

"But what d'ya need four for!"

JD burst out giggling at Vin's funny sounding question.

"I need four for me. Four green 'hoppers!" he began to happily chant.

Vin rolled his eyes. He knew he shouldn't have asked questions when JD started thinking up games.

The adults had listened quietly as JD drew Vin out of his silence and into the plans for the rest of the day. Buck couldn't resist joining in.

"If you're going to catch grasshoppers, you'll have to do it properly," he teased.

"What's proper?" JD asked.

"Well, these grasshoppers grew up in cattle country, so they're really hard to catch. You've got to lasso 'em just like roundin' up cattle."

"Lasso 'em?" JD asked suspiciously.

"Ahuh," Vin agreed. "Just like the wild horses. Can't just walk up and grab 'em. Ya gotta keep yer distance and get a rope on 'em real careful like."

Buck held back the grin as Vin joined in.

"Got a special type of lasso you make for the job," Buck offered.

"But I don't know how to lasso a 'hopper," JD cried.

"That's okay JD. Mr Buck is a really good cowboy. He can show ya how it's done proper."

Buck found himself neatly trapped for the afternoon. He heard Chris and Nettie's low laughter. "Yeah, round'em up cowboy!"

"Laugh it up Larabee. I'm catchin' grasshoppers while you're going to be cleaning the barn."

The passengers in the back of the wagon soon succumbed to the sunshine and affects of Sunday lunch. Chris turned back at Buck's snore to see his friend laid back against the flour sacks with JD curled up against one shoulder. Vin was trying to fight sleep and Chris caught the wistful look as he studied JD and Buck. Vin looked up when he realised he was being watched. Chris gave him an encouraging nod and Vin slid a little closer to Buck. Buck had only been dozing and woke at the faint pressure as Vin moved to rest against him. Buck smiled and slipped his arm over Vin and pulled him close.

"No need to be gentle Vin," he laughed. "Climb right on. I've got two shoulders and one of them's for you."

Buck felt like hugging the stuffing out of the boy, but was mindful of the still tender bruises and kept his embrace gentle. Damn, but it felt good that Vin had made the first move. Buck thought of the times in the dead of night that Vin had gone to Chris for comfort. He looked over at the driver's seat and saw the knowing look in his friend's eyes. Buck surveyed the passing landscape and decided they still had a good twenty minutes of nap-time. He pulled JD up a little higher, and drifted off into a contented sleep, both arms heavy with precious cargo.

Nettie raised any eyebrow in question at Vin's unusual behavior.

"Gotta say we're making the most of it Nettie. Vin seems to rest better at the moment if he knows one of us is there. Even to the point of seeking us out if he's tired. I think this morning has upset him."

"But you think it will just pass, Chris?"

"Once he gets his confidence back and feels safe again, I think well have our prickly stubborn mule again."

The wagon soon pulled to a halt in the front yard of the Well's homestead. The sleeping passengers woke at Larabee's yells to get unloaded.

"Come on ! Come on! Ya gotta get the lasso!"

"Now JD, we got to do some of the chores first."

"No Mr Buck. If you show JD how to lasso the 'hoppers first, he can keep practicing while we do the chores," Vin explained.

"Well, aren't you just full of good ideas today," Buck scowled, diving at the boy and tickling the unprotected ribs.

Chris decided to step in when Vin's laughter became interspersed with small gasps.

"Don't you worry too much about chores," Nettie said. "Its Sunday. I've got plenty of time next week to set everything right."

"We'll just make sure that there's nothing too heavy to do," Chris offered.

Nettie had been working her small holding on her own for many years now. She would deny that it was too much for her, but she was certainly beginning to feel the passing of years. The chores seemed to take longer, and everything seemed a little higher or a little heavier. She turned at the porch and surveyed the yard as the unloading took place. She hadn't realised all the little things that had begun to slide until the boys had started visiting regularly and helping.

"'Hoppers! 'Hoppers!" JD called.

"Now JD, we have to make a lasso and I'm not sure if we have the right things here. My special lasso is back at out ranch," Buck explained.

"Got the makings right here, Buck." Nettie handed him a ball of sturdy waxed twine.

"Well, thank-you very much Ma'am," Buck drawled sarcastically.

JD dragged Buck off down to the overgrown side garden. Buck cut a long length of string and tied a loose slip-knot. He turned as he realised he'd attracted a crowd.

"Thought you lot had chores," he complained.

"Just thought we should all know how this is done, just in case JD ever needs someone to help him." Chris explained.

"Well I can only catch 'em if there here."

"Here ! Here! He's green too!" The loud cry made Buck drop his head in disgust as his afternoon flashed before his eyes. Well, he started this and he'd see it through. He strode up confidently and started to twirl the string out in front of him. It wouldn't hold a loop well, so he needed to be fast. He flicked his wrist and the loop dropped down over an old tomato branch, the grasshopper blissfully ignorant on the other side of the plant.

"Aw, ya missed him. Go again." JD called.

"How about I show you how to spin this loop and you can try," Buck suggested.

He turned back to his audience.

"I'm a fair man Buck. I'll admit to seeing you try a lasso a grasshopper," Chris stated.

"You better not admit to it in any public place, or you'll get it back ten-fold," Buck warned.

Chris just smirked, confident of his hold. The evil gleam in Buck's eyes deepened. "I've heard lullabyes," he growled.

Chris heard Nettie's stifled laughter. "Okay. The grasshoppers never happened," he agreed. "Some of us have work to do."

He turned and headed off to the barn, only to realise Vin was with him. "You can play with JD. Buck will be along soon to help me."

"Naw, it's okay. I wanna help you."

"Well, until Buck comes in, then you go play with JD." Chris didn't want Vin doing chores all day. Buck escaped the grasshoppers quickly and shooed Vin out into the sunshine.
Chris stepped up on to the porch satisfied he'd finished the major work for today. He found Buck had already beaten him there, a cup of coffee in one hand and JD flopped across his lap asleep.

Chris turned to Nettie, who was sitting comfortably on the porch swing. She was also pinned down by a sleeping body.

"I'll help myself to coffee. You stay there," he offered.

He returned with the steaming cup and leaned back against the porch rail, drinking in the sight before him.

"I see you've been designated a safe haven too," he commented of the unusual napping.

Nettie ran her fingers gently through the soft locks. Vin had been sitting beside here when he'd fallen asleep. Nettie had been agreeably surprised when he had only murmured at being pulled down to lie on the swing with his head on her lap.

"I'd be very happy with this if I didn't know its cause," Nettie said quietly.

The head under her hand suddenly jerked and she looked down to meet the confused blue gaze.

"You're safe," she whispered, keeping her hand on the soft cheek. Vin seemed to let out a soft, relieved sigh and closed his eyes again.

Chris had moved forward at Vin's awakening but settled again as Vin dropped back to sleep. His thoughts echoed Nettie's soft words. He looked to Buck and JD, still dozing securely in the afternoon sun.

The sunshine was warm but he felt no comfort. He turned to the horizon and searched the distance for unseen threats and dangers. He could only hope Nettie's words would hold true.

The End

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