"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.

Vin yelped as his hair was grabbed and his head was jerked back roughly.

“Well, when did you escape your cage brat?”

Vin froze at the familiar voice. Barrett. He thought he’d escaped the man when they’d gotten the train west. The hand jerked his head again.

“Someone’s forgotten their manners. I asked you a question.”

A heavy hand on his shoulder spun him around then the blow to his cheek sent him sprawling to the ground. He braced himself for another blow, but the movement he saw wasn’t coming toward him. Instead his tormentor was thrown against the wall. A hard punch delivered by a black clothed arm sent Barrett to the ground.

“You raise your hand to him again and I’ll remove it from the end of your arm.” The voice was chilling, the threat real. Larabee was tempted to shoot the man but was annoyed to find him unarmed.

“Protect him if you want, but he’s a thief.”

Chris was surprised at the shock and guilt that he saw wash over Vin’s face. Whispers from the crowd caused the boy to shrink back against the clapboard wall of the store. Chris was seething at the situation.

“Mister you keep away from him and keep your mouth shut. Vin Tanner is no thief.”

Barrett moved as if to respond only to be confronted by another man. He towered over him, a blue glare freezing him in place.

“I’m a great believer in an eye for an eye brother. I believe your tongue would be due compensation for any more ill spent words. You’d best consider carefully your next action.”

Barrett considered the raging preacher before him and decided a whisky was his best recourse. He’d allowed himself to be driven by anger in the surprise of seeing the boy here. He’d dealt with one loose tongued child and barely escaped. If this one was confident of protection he might talk as well. Barrett stepped away from the fight.

Josiah nodded his approval at the man’s departure and escorted him at a distance. The stranger was taken care of temporarily, so Chris turned to the small figure behind him. He knelt down and slowly reached for Vin’s shoulders, concerned at the wide blue eyes, swirling with shock and some other shadowed memories. The red mark across his cheekbone stood out harshly against the white face.

“Vin? You okay?”

Vin only nodded, unable to find a voice. Vin swallowed the tears that had brimmed at the sudden attack and moved closer to his savior. Chris reached out to the small shoulder, his eyes narrowing as Vin flinched in response. His anger flamed at the stranger who’d caused this.

“Vin? Its okay, he’s gone.” Vin nodded his understanding, but still held himself stiffly, as if expecting further punishment.

Vin couldn’t believe that ‘the Rat’ was here.

Larabee watched the shadows leave as Vin seemed to return from his shock. But the blue eyes didn’t clear, they just turned dark and infinitely sad.

Vin looked at the man before him, saddened as he realised that being with Mr Chris had made him forget his most important rule. He’d forgotten that he needed to pay attention to what the adults around him were doing. The Rat shouldn’t have been able to surprise him like that. He’d grown careless.


“I did steal Mr Chris. I am a thief.”

Chris crouched down to look Vin in the eye. “You’re no thief.” He ran his fingers lightly across the red mark on Vin’s cheekbone. He’d wanted to beat the stranger to a pulp for hurting Vin, but he also didn’t want Vin to witness that sort of violence from him. He’d speak to Josiah later and see if he could find out anything about the newcomer.

“Lets go home Pard. You want to ride back with me?”

“No Sir. I’m fine.”

Sir? Chris couldn’t remember Vin ever addressing him like that. At least, not since the first day. Vin was looking past his shoulder, so Chris turned as well. Some townsfolk were still hovering around. Chris recognised the regular town gossips and glared at them for their intrusion.

“Well I guess we should get our horses then,” Chris offered as he stood up. He kept a comforting hand on Vin’s shoulder as they moved of to the livery.
William Barrett entered the saloon in the hopes of making some money until the next stage left. Four Corners was no metropolis. His failing business had left him with only his fast mouth and hands as his tools of trade. He spotted the gambler at a side table. The local gambler was not always a safe mark, but in this hick town he should be easy. Certainly if he was any good he wouldn’t still be here.

Standish had seen the newcomer enter and scan the room. The man appeared to be a salesman. He was dressed in the standard eastern attire. A rather boring, basic brown ensemble. However, he wasn’t carrying the usual heavy merchant’s case. He didn’t appear to be a man of many means, so he dismissed him as a possible lucrative player. The newcomer seemed to have made a different decision as he approached the table.

“This table open?” Barrett asked.

Ezra inclined his head to the chair opposite, deftly moving the cards from hand to hand.

“A man of commerce in our dusty little town. What manner of costume or condiment do you ply?”

Barrett followed the question easily. He was a man of many words himself when the need arose.

“Fine leather goods, wallets, some fine silks for the gentleman or the lady.”

“You will have little success with such items here in Four Corners.”

“No. My market is further west. The new wealth.”

Cards were dealt, the winning of hands very even.

“I saw a young lad in the street. He seemed familiar, and I do have some family in the area.”

“We have many lads in town. Does he have something distinguishing about him?”

“If you call a rather violent, black dressed gentleman with him a distinguishing mark.”

“I believe I would. I know the boy. I doubt he’s related as he’s not from these parts.”

Standish was undecided. He didn’t like this man’s fishing for information, but stringing him along could reveal his purpose. Besides, the man had palmed cards in the last two hands. He needed a few lessons in gentlemanly conduct.

“Perhaps you could look in on your relatives to be sure?”

“They’re out of my way on this journey. I shall be leaving again on tomorrow’s early stage.”

“Perhaps you should ask Chris Larabee of the boy.”

“He’s a relative?”

“He’s that distinguishing black mark.”

“Ah,” Barrett nodded.

Standish saw no recognition of the Larabee name. Easterners, and certainly the commercial ones had little interest in gunslingers and the west. They followed the trail to gold not lead. Ezra easily won the next few hands. He and Barrett parried questions, each getting no further in useful answers. Barrett realised he’d underestimated his opponent’s skill at cards. His winning hands were being trumped, but he couldn’t see the gambler cheating. Annoyed at his failure to get funds or answers, he rose from the table.

“I believe I should return to the hotel. Good day Sir.”

Standish accepted the withdrawal and pocketed the deck and the winnings. He decided he’d find Larabee and warn him of their new arrival. He hadn’t been able to rise before the chair beside him was pulled out and Josiah took a seat. His description of the events added further to Ezra’s questions. He decided to keep a watchful eye on the newcomer.
Vin and Chris arrived back at the ranch where Vin slipped quickly from Peso and offered to look after both horses. Vin wanted to avoid the questions that he knew were coming. Staying busy in the barn was his best option. Chris saw Vin’s avoidance tactic, but he decided not to press the issue until after dinner.

Dinner was an unsettled affair. JD had been suspicious of the ‘he fell’ excuse that was used to explain Vin’s bruise. Vin had jumped in with the explanation and then decorated the tale enough until JD was satisfied. Chris wasn’t sure why, but Vin didn’t want to share the details of the meeting in town with JD. Buck hadn’t been satisfied and Chris had taken him aside later to explain the events.

The two boys helped clear the table after dinner then washed up and prepared for bed. Chris decided to question Vin now that everyone was settled for the evening. Buck took JD and tucked him in, quieting his questions with a long and exciting bed-time story.

Vin took his place at the table. He knew what would be asked, and he knew he owed this man the truth.

“Vin, tell me about the man in town.”

Vin turned back to check the boy’s room. JD had only recently gone to bed.

“Only if JD’s asleep. He doesn’t know about it.”

“We’ll wait for Buck to get him settled.” Chris preferred that they both heard what Vin was going to say. Chris moved to the stove and poured some milk into a pan to warm. Vin was tense and the waiting was stretching his nerves. He poured a glass out and returned to the table. Vin accepted the offering silently, turning back to the boy’s doorway to watch for Buck’s arrival.

Finally he appeared. Chris waved him over to join the sombre meeting.

“JD asleep? Asleep real good?” Vin asked quietly.

“He’s drifted right off, Vin. Have you been waiting on me?”

“Vin doesn’t want JD to hear, and I thought we’d only tell this once,” Chris explained. “Okay Vin, how do you know that man in town?”

Vin leaned his elbows on the table and took a breath, releasing it slowly. He looked down at the scarred tabletop.

“The orphanage used to hire us out if we was big enough. We’d do regular jobs for different folk. Sometimes clearin’ out coal chutes, or cleanin’ in stables.”

“And the money all went to the orphanage?” Buck asked.

“Yeah, ‘course. We worked for our keep, once we was big enough.” Vin explained, surprised at the question.

“Anyway, I didn’t get picked for much of the regular work. I don’t think they thought I’d be much good ‘cause I was kinda skinny. But they eventually decided I was good for somethin’. The Rat, that man in town, he used to come regular. But he wanted the scrawny kids.”

“The Rat? Do you know his real name?” Chris asked.

“Barrett. Don’t know any other part of his name. He wanted the skinny kids cause they could get in through the small upper windows.”

Buck frowned then he made the connection. “He made you break into people’s homes.”

Vin kept his eyes down. “Houses, shops, anythin’. Don’t know what he took. We’d have to come down and unlock the bottom doors or windows. Then we left.”

“Why didn’t you tell someone,” Chris asked astounded. He knew Vin understood he was breaking the law, and the boy was basically honest.

“Tell who!” Vin demanded. “Orphanage made us go. You didn’t do your job you got a beatin’. I tried, but when I just took the punishment they started to threaten JD.”

“I’m sorry Vin, I didn’t mean to sound like you wanted to do that,” Chris explained. He didn’t want to blame Vin. He was just angry at what Vin had been forced into.

“But I didn’t do anything to end it. Mickey ended it for us,” Vin added, his voice heavy with guilt.

Chris didn’t like the hollow voice and sorrowful eyes before him. What else was there?

“Who’s Mickey?” he prompted.

“Mickey was a little older than me. Barrett used him on a lot of jobs 'cause he was a really good climber. The last job he and I worked together. Mickey managed to get away that night, but the law brought him back to the orphanage. They said he was a runaway.”

“They didn’t believe him?”

“Believe a thievin’ little runaway,” Vin scoffed harshly. “They dumped him right back into Barrett’s hands. He beat him real bad.”

Chris ran a hand over his eyes, trying to push images away. “You saw it?”

“Yeah. Barrett got real angry with Mickey and laid into him with a cane. I tried to help but I couldn’t do much.” He didn’t tell Chris that he couldn’t help Mickey because he’d been chained. Barrett hadn’t wanted to risk losing another boy, so he’d chained him around the neck, like a dog on a leash.

“What happened to Mickey?” Chris dared to ask.

“He never woke up. He died.”

“But Barrett didn’t go to jail?”

Vin shrugged helplessly. “Headmaster knew what Barrett did. One less to feed was all that mattered to him.”

“He murdered a child Vin. He should be punished,” Chris explained.

Vin snorted softly…sadly. “I know that. Don’t mean anyone will believe me.”

“You’re a witness Vin. We’ll stand with you.”

“They’ll say I’m lyin’. I heard ‘em in town. Some of ‘em already think I’m a thief just ‘cause he said so.” Vin pushed his chair away from the table. “May I go to bed please?”

Chris noted the return of the formal manners. “Sure Vin.”

“Let me tuck you in and make sure JD’s stays asleep,” Buck offered.

Vin pulled the blankets back and climbed in. Buck pulled them back up and tucked them snugly around the little figure.

“Buck? You promise ta look after JD, not matter what?”

Buck swallowed hard at the intense blue stare. He could see the deep fear that lingered there.

“Vin. Vin. Always. But Chris and I will always look after you too. You close those baby-blues and sleep now.” Buck brushed his hand over the tangled dark blond curls then quietly left the room. He found Chris standing just outside the door.

“And I used to think I had it tough ‘cause I got called a few bad names. Where all goin’ fishing tomorrow. I want to hear him laugh.”

Chris nodded silently in agreement.
The offer of a fishing trip was met with cheers the following morning. Everyone still had morning chores to do, so it was decided to pack a lunch and spend the afternoon at the river. Buck and Chris worked the chores, careful to ensure that one of them had the boys in sight. The two men had discussed Vin’s revelation late into the evening. The arrival of Barrett in the town may have been an accident, but the man was a murderer and he’d just seen his witness again.

Their preparations were interrupted as Ezra rode into the yard.

“Ezra, you’re up early today.”

Ezra ignored Larabee’s jibe at his usual morning habits. It was still before noon but his purpose had seemed urgent.

“Josiah informed me of the altercation in town between you and Barrett. How is Vin faring?”

“He’s a little bruised. He told us the history behind this. I think we’ve got a problem.” Chris then repeated to Ezra what Vin had told them last night.

“Vin would not have a chance in the judicial system Mr Larabee. He would also have to admit to assisting in criminal activities.”

“I know that Ezra. But there should be justice. I still want to talk to the Judge.”

“He won’t be back until next week. This man would be prudent to silence a witness.”

Chris glared at the gambler who’d voiced so plainly his own fear. Ezra ignored the response, knowing it was aimed at the situation, not himself.

"I think Vin knows what could happen. Vin asked Buck to look after JD for him.” He saw that it disturbed Standish as much as it had both he and Buck. “I don’t want to worry them too much, but we’ll keep an eye on them.”

“Where are you off to?” Ezra asked of the preparations going on near the barn.

“Just some fishing. You’re welcome to join,” Chris asked, but knowing the gambler would decline.

“Hardly Mr Larabee. I catch far more by sitting in the comfort of the saloon and casting cards. Barrett left town, but he rented a horse rather than taking the stage,” Ezra warned him. “Take care.” He bid them farewell and headed back to town considering what else could be done about the situation. Perhaps he could find out some further information. There were many paths to justice.

The boys were disappointed that Ezra didn’t stay to fish. Their chores were finished and lunch and the fishing gear were packed. The group arrived right on time at their fishing spot. It was just a short stretch in the river where the banks widened and the riverbed deepened. The water slowed its ripples into a smooth expanse. The trees, which bordered the river sat gracefully back to provide a even grassy clearing and access to the sandy bank.

The boys ran to the edge quickly to vie for the best spot while the adults unpacked the food. The boy's fishing tackle actually consisted of lines and some wire hooks, but the young fishing enthusiasts weren’t particular. Chris and Buck left them to it and started a small fire for coffee. An afternoon off together was a rare treat. Chris noticed Vin working intently over his line and walked over to check on him. He found the boy fighting with a tangle of knots, trying to undo the mess with his fingers and teeth.

“Try this,” Chris offered, handing Vin his small pocketknife.

Vin took it carefully and unfolded the blade. The knife was old but sharp, as it cut easily through the knots. He folded it closed again and handed it back to Chris.

“No. You hold on to it in case you get any more tangles. Just be careful,” Chris warned as he head back to the coffeepot.

JD was soon distracted by the dragonflies and other insects and dropped his tackle to chase the small invaders. Vin continued on, happy to sit quietly and watch the line drift. So far only two small fish had been caught. It was more of a snack than a meal. Chris moved over to the river's edge, settled down by Vin and picked up JD’s discarded line. He looked down at the two small fish and met Vin’s eyes. Vin nodded silent agreement. Two more fish at least. The two sat in happy silence, ignoring squeals from JD where Buck was chasing him through the underbrush.

“You two caught us something yet?” Buck called, dangling a giggling five year old over his shoulder.

The quiet fishermen had actually extended their pile to six fish.

“We caught ‘em, you clean em Buck!” Chris replied. “Come on Vin, the children have been playing all afternoon, so they can do the cleaning and cooking.” He was reward with a bright grin.

"So we get to sit back with a shot of whiskey?” Vin tried hopefully.

Buck covered a laugh with a short cough. “Yeah, a shot of red-eye all ‘round pard!”

“You might get a coffee, but no whiskey,” Chris informed him.

Vin rolled his eyes, then laughed as he saw Buck mocking Chris’s serious look. Vin then bit his lip and smothered any further giggles as Chris spun around to glare at Buck.

“Okay, coffee. As long as ya brought lots of sugar.” Chris made up the vile mix for Vin. Vin’s version of coffee required it to be heavily sugared and lots of milk. They hadn’t brought milk on the picnic, so Vin sipped it carefully before deciding to compensate with further sugar.

Buck soon had the fish cleaned and frying on a hot plate. JD hadn’t been able to contribute much to the cooking. He was far too distracted by the interesting pile of fish guts that had been removed from his dinner before its cooking.

“Leave that alone JD,” Buck called as the boy continued to poke about in the sticky pile. “I’m not cleaning him up!” Buck warned Chris. “I’m cooking. The least you could do is get him out of the guts Chris.”

Chris obligingly got both boys cleaned up for the meal. It was best not to rile Buck too much when he was in charge of food. Buck’s cooking was actually quite good, as long as you didn’t distract him.

It had certainly been a good break to go fishing mid-week. JD had fallen asleep on Buck, and even Vin was napping lightly under a tree. Chris hated to disturb them, but it was getting late and they needed to get back. Vin woke at the sounds of Chris’s preparations to break camp. Buck easily stood, still holding the sleeping JD. JD wasn’t even disturbed at being passed back to Chris as Buck mounted up and then he was resettled in the front of Buck’s saddle. Chris had already packed everything and prepared the horses, so he and Vin just had to mount up and head home.
JD cracked his eyes open at the movement of his pillow. He was confronted by the disgruntled face of his older cousin in the dim pre-dawn light.

“Whatcha doin’ Vin?”

“Shh!” Vin was rubbing the shin he’d banged in the darkness, causing him to stumble onto JD’s bed. “Jus’ gotta go out early. I’ll be back in time for breakfast.”

“Where ya goin’? Can I come?”

“No. I gotta be quick. I’m goin’ back to the river where we were fishin’. I left the knife Mr Chris gave me.”

“But Vin…”

“No. Just go back to sleep. I’ll be back before anyone notices.” Mr Chris had given him the little fold up knife and told him to be careful. He didn’t want Mr Chris to think he didn’t listen to him. He’d get it back before anyone knew he’d lost it.

Vin moved carefully to the front door and picked up his boots, waiting until he’d slipped through and was at the barn before stopping to pull them on. He wanted to move quietly and the river was close so he ignored the saddle and led Peso out near the corral. He climbed the rails and pulled himself on to Peso’s bare back. He rode slowly from the yard, desperate to avoid waking anyone else.

Barrett had been watching the ranch, considering a plan to silence the boy, but he’d rarely been from the sight of the man in black. A call of nature in the early hours of the morning had provided him the perfect opportunity. He watched as his target headed off alone on horseback. Gathering his belongings quickly, he saddled his horse and headed after the distant figure. Barrett had considered his options. He didn’t need a body to be found. He just needed the brat to disappear, just another runaway.
Vin reached the river quickly and searched around for the small knife. He didn’t want Mr Chris to think he was careless. Peso snorted and stomped restlessly drawing Vin’s attention to the side of the clearing. The man burst forward as Vin turned to run. Vin was crushed to the ground in a tackle, then dragged to his feet while his lungs still labored for breath. He saw the face of the Rat before him and lashed out with all his anger and fear, kicking and punching wildly. A fist crashed into the side of his head, snapping him sideways. He was dragged to his feet and shoved up against a tree, one hand pushed hard against the center of his chest, and the other gripping under his jaw, where the fingers dug deeply into the sides of his face. He clawed at the hands as he was pinned there, shoved up so high his feet barely touched the ground.

“I got no problem killing you now brat, but I don’t want blood and I don’t want to tote a dead body up the hill.” He tossed Vin to the ground, where the boy lay gasping. “Figured you might get a little loose tongued now that you’ve got yourself a protector.”

Vin shook his head in denial.

“Well now you’re going to be just another runaway.”

“He’ll come.” Vin spat defiantly, sure of the man who would save him.

“In time to find your body brat. Right where you fell over the cliff.”

Barrett went to reach for the rope he’d brought on his hired horse. In the moment of inattention, Vin broke away and tried to escape toward Peso. But without a saddle he couldn’t mount him fast enough, so he dodged and continued to run.

Barrett mounted up and gave chase from horseback. He was too large to run down a young boy himself. Barrett easily caught up when the trees began to thin. He had nothing to trap Vin with so he swept by closely and lashed out with a booted foot, kicking Vin hard in the back of his shoulder.

Vin had heard and felt the thundering hoof beats. He even thought he felt the hot breath from the horse in his frantic race. He tried to dodge and weave, but the land was against him as the ground leveled out and the trees thinned. He turned to try for the river when he was slammed to the ground. He lay stunned for a moment until the deep throbbing pain in his shoulder made itself known. He knew he was caught, but scrambled to his hands and knees, ignoring the cuts and scrapes gathering on his exposed arms. A hand in his hair dragged him to his feet, tears stinging his eyes from the sharp pain in his scalp.

“If you’re so keen to run boy, then I can help you there,” Barrett laughed as he looped the rope over Vin’s wrists and knotted them tightly. He then mounted up and set his horse moving. Vin was jerked forward, his shoulder screaming at the sudden movement. Vin suddenly realised his predicament and stumbled along quickly, terrified of being dragged.

He looked back desperately, but no one was in sight.


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