"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.

JD was almost bouncing as he stood beside Chris’s chair on the porch. Chris had attempted to take a moment to enjoy a quiet coffee and a smoke but that had quickly been shattered.

“Do it again!”

Chris exhaled, letting the smoke disperse this time.

“Just one more,” JD begged.

Chris regretted ever starting this, taking a long draw on the cigarillo and letting the smoke curl lazily from his nostrils only to be caught in a streaming loop back through his mouth as he redrew the smoke back down to his lungs.

“Enough JD.” He was beginning to feel like a sideshow as he saw he’d caught both boys’ rapt attention. “Go find something else to study.”

“But it’s my turn soon for show ‘n tell. Will you come an’ do that at school?” JD asked.

“I don’t think that I’m what your teacher is expecting.”

“But you’d beat Lyle’s bug collection.” Show and tell had become a hot rivalry among the boys to outdo each other in either gruesome or spectacular.

“I don’t know JD,” Vin shook his head doubtfully. He had been very impressed with the collection of creatures. “They were really good bugs, even a horned beetle as long as my finger.”

“Please Chris,” JD begged trying the bottom lip trick that worked so well on Buck.

“No JD.” Chris hoped his refusal wouldn’t come to be repeated anywhere. “I can’t beat a horned beetle. Go find something else.”

“Yeah JD,” Vin agreed. “You need to find something dead, but no squirrels or birds. You need something bigger, like a raccoon.”

“No dead animals,” Chris ordered.

“Or ask Nathan,” Vin suggested.

“Yeah,” JD agreed enthusiastically. “Nathan’ll have somethin’ he cuts up people with or he’s taken out of someone.”

Chris let that suggestion go, happy to have their attention diverted from him.

“But what if he doesn’t have anything good.” JD didn’t want to leave this to chance.

“Let’s go see what we can find by the pond.” Vin suggested. Chris was relieved as the two boys ran off.

The pond proved a dismal failure. There were two green frogs but not large or ugly enough to be impressive. The boys moved further away into the trees, hopeful of some treasure appearing. Vin paused, certain he’d heard something. He grabbed JD to stop him, clasping a hand over his mouth to ensure silence. The sound came again.

“What?” JD demanded.

“I heard somethin’.”

“Heard what?”

“I don’t know. I wouldn’a said somethin’ if I knew.” Vin pointed off deeper into the trees. “That way.”

The something soon became apparent. The boys had found their dead animal, but much larger than they intended and still held fast by the jaws of an old trap.

“Eeww,” JD exclaimed at the dark blood that was already attracting insects. Vin moved in quietly, poking with a long stick to ensure the creature was dead. A coyote had stumbled into an old trap but would go no further. The source of the noise that had attracted Vin originally made itself known. Two little pups came tumbling back out of the underbrush to nose around their dead mother.

“What’ll we do?” JD felt sorry for them and the pitiful little cries they were making.

“Take ‘em home. They’ll die all alone out here.” Helping them was the only option. Each boy took a tiny bundle of grey fur and gently cradled the small body in their hands. The pups didn’t know what their rescuers were, but they quickly folded up against the warmth of another living creature.

Chris watched the boys return, hunched over a little oddly. He wondered what they’d found at the pond. As they got closer he could identify the squirming bundles in their arms.

“Can we keep ‘em please? They’re only little,” Vin rushed out in a quick breath.

Chris sighed at the expected question. There was no way these animals could be raised as pets, even if they had been old enough. He knew he’d have to disappoint the boys.

“They’re too young, Vin.” The pups didn’t look like they were even weaned yet. “Coyotes can’t be pets, they’ll grow up as wild dogs.”


“No, Vin.” Chris would be firm in this.

“But Chris pleeeease,” JD added to the plea.

“We’ll look after ‘em,” Vin begged.

“No. These pups are too young to survive away from their mother. They have to go back.” He held his hands out as the boys reluctantly handed over the furry little bodies. Chris hated knowing what he would have to do to the two trusting little creatures in this hands, and the two trusting boys.

“But she’s dead. That’s why we took ‘em,” Vin explained.

Buck arrived to see what all the fuss was about. Larabee volunteered the answer by presenting the pups by the scruff of their necks. “Oh, aren’t they coyote?” Buck’s gaze bounced from the two hopeful faces back to the grim-faced man.

“Buck, please can we keep ‘em?” JD tried both avenues.

“I’d say Chris has already told you they’re too young. They not weaned so they still need their mama.”

“But she’s dead,” Vin tried to explain. “She got caught in a trap. They don’t have a mother to look after them, that’s why we have to.”

Buck huffed a breath at that news and looked back to Chris.

“They have to go back to the wild. I’m sure there’s more of their family out there.” Chris was not going to be moved by their pleas. “I’ll take care of it.”

Buck winced at the thought of just how they would be taken care of.

“We didn’t see any others,” Vin argued.

“Vin, you can’t keep them.” Chris was adamant. The discussion was over.

Buck started to herd the boys away, understanding the need for Chris to take care of this alone. “They have to go back to their real home in the wild, boys. You go on over to the corral and you can help me start schooling those new colts.”

Buck hung back for a moment as the boys began to reluctantly leave.

“I don’t suppose you want to take care of this?” Chris asked half-heartedly.

Buck hated having to do these things as well. He glanced over to where the boys were still slowly walking, both dragging their feet. “I don’t think...if you really want me to,” Buck finally offered.

“I want you to, but I’ll do it.” Chris sighed sadly. “I used to believe my father too when he told me the new batch of kittens from the barn ran away.”

“They’ll forget all about it in a few days Chris.” Buck was hopeful anyway. He left Chris to the sad task.

Vin watched the nervous little colt as he darted away from Buck’s hand. He couldn’t help but think about those sad little puppies having to go back to where their dead mother lay. Vin suddenly realised that Chris didn’t know where they’d taken the pups from as he and JD had walked beyond the pond. He ran from the paddock and retraced his steps. As expected he saw Chris had stopped at the edge of the pond. He was about to call out to tell him to go further when he saw what Chris was doing. Chris untied the wet flour sack, removed the two soggy grey bundles and tossed the sack aside.

Vin was too shocked to make a sound, moving back behind a tree and leaning against it for support.

Chris hadn’t taken them back to family.

Chris had drowned them.

Chris had lied.

An image long forgotten returned, a damp cavernous room, hard stone floors and deep troughs of water. The laundry room at the orphanage, the lye soap scent never quiet covering the mildewed odour. Then it hadn’t been a quiet green pond and a flour sack, it had been the deep vat in the corner. When too many kittens began to appear then it was used for something other than linens. The boys’ protests and the kittens’ pitiful mewling was always ignored by the housekeeper, everyone ordered not to open the vat. The housekeeper had always glared at any of the boys who dared to interfere, taking pleasure in reminding them that this was done because they were too many, too young and too much trouble. Just like the boys. Vin was never quite sure how young was too young. JD was one of the youngest in their dormitory so Vin ensured he was never too much trouble, never risking that he would be disposed of like those kittens.

And now Chris had done the same thing only he’d also lied. He peered around the tree carefully but Chris was already walking away, shovel in one hand. He left his hiding place, disappointed and confused.

“Hey, I wondered where you’d run off to,” Buck called as Vin reappeared at the corral.


Buck frowned as Vin appeared even more upset. “I’m sure those pups will be happy.”

Vin looked hard at Buck, undecided if he didn’t know or he too was lying.


“Can I take Peso out for a while?”

“Okay, but don’t be too late.”

The hours ticked by until Chris eventually stood watch on the porch. Buck had told him he’d given permission for Vin to ride, but lately Chris had become concerned as Vin’s disappearances grew longer and longer. While Chris had chided him on the habit he was prepared to be a little more lenient today after the morning’s disappointment. His vigil was eventually rewarded as Vin and Peso rode up, safe and relaxed.

“It’s late Vin,” Chris reminded him as he stopped beside the horse.


Chris touched a hand to Vin’s knee before he moved away. “You okay?” Vin only gave the briefest of nods before taking Peso to the barn.

Buck was still working in the barn when Vin returned. He was surprised when there was no greeting, Vin seeing to Peso’s comfort in silence. Buck soon finished but as he left he found Vin hadn’t returned to the house. Instead he was leaning over the rails at the corral. Vin didn’t respond to the approach but Buck could see he was bothered by something.

“Something I can help with?”

Vin looked up slowly, deciding he’d rather know the truth of matters. “Did you know Chris drowned them pups?”

Buck exhaled slowly, not expecting that one. He looked back towards Chris on the porch then down again to Vin.

Vin saw the answer in those deep blue eyes, apology and guilt. He turned his gaze back to the horizon.

“Now Vin, we just didn’t want to upset you or JD. It just had to be done.” Buck realised that if Vin knew, perhaps JD did as well. “Does JD know as well?”

Vin looked back, offended at the suggestion. “No. He’s too young to know about that stuff.”

“And you’re not?”

“Seen it before,” Vin shrugged. “Y’all shouldn’t have lied about it.”

That seemed to be the crux of the matter.

“It wasn’t lying Vin. There are just some things we think you and JD shouldn’t have to know about just yet.”

Vin didn’t comment, his mind now considering what else Chris might think he didn’t need to know about.

“It’s time to go in Vin.”

Buck had a quiet word with Chris later that evening to tell him they’d been discovered. Chris hadn’t really considered it a lie either. It was just one of the harsh realities of life that he didn’t want the boys to have to deal with yet. He should have known it was already too late to protect Vin. Buck had said Vin wasn’t angry but that didn’t mean that all was right. Chris tried to draw Vin out after supper but Vin ignored his attempts. Chris let it go as the boys retired for the night.

The lamps had only been doused a few minutes, Chris not yet even in bed when he heard the movement outside. He expected to hear the creak of the old rocker, but instead the only sound was the front door opening. Concerned, Chris followed. It was a bright star filled night, the summer evening still pleasantly warm. Vin was standing on the porch.


“You didn’t have to lie. I’m sorry I took them but I didn’t think you’d punish ‘em like that.”

“Vin, I wasn’t punishing anyone. Those pups were too young to survive without their mother.”

“They were orphans too, just too young and too much trouble,” Vin echoed hollowly. “I didn’t think you’d do that.”

Chris crouched down to look Vin directly in the eyes. “It’s not something I wanted to do Vin. When puppies are that young they still need a mother’s milk. No one could have saved them. I didn’t think you or JD needed to know about some of the sad things in life.”

Before Chris could rise, Vin snagged his shirt. Something else had been preying on his mind with the return of other memories. “Do they do that to babies?”


“There were never no li’l babies at the orphanage. Do they drown the ones too little to survive without their ma?”

Chris blanched at the thought. “No Vin, they aren’t killed. Babies need special care so they’re taken to a different orphanage than older children.” Chris placed his hands on Vin’s shoulders. “Where did this come from?”

“Jus’ thinkin’.”

Chris sighed at the closed grim look that came over Vin. “Do you want to sit out here for a while and maybe think about other things?” Chris offered.

“I should go to bed now.” Vin didn’t wait for a response, simply disappearing back into the house.

“Sleep well,” Chris whispered into the empty space.

+ + + + + + +

The pattern of the school week was beginning to test Chris’ patience. For the last three afternoons Vin had returned from school, raced through his homework and chores then ridden off on Peso. Today was no different.

“That boy is late again. I told him to be back before dusk,” Chris complained to Buck.

“He’s done all his chores, Chris.”

“That’s not the point. I told him I wanted him home. He’s too young to take that horse out all hours of the day.”

“Why can’t you enjoy it? Vin is just being a normal kid. Doing what you’re not supposed to just makes it more fun. I think it’s great he’s not afraid to push us a little.”

“I don’t want Vin running wild just because he thinks we won’t punish him. He was supposed to be back before dark and he’s supposed to stay off that ridge.”

“You don’t even know he’s been up there.”

“Well, we’ll know soon enough.” Chris stood arms folded as the culprit rode boldly into the yard. “What time is this Vin?”

“I’m a little late but it was dusk.”

“I told you to be home before dusk, not to start heading home then. It’s not safe for you to be out this late.”

“I’m fine.” Vin argued, sliding down from Peso.

“Where were you?”

“Not on the ridge.” Vin’s exasperation was clear.

“Don’t take that tone with me Vin.” Chris saw the tell tale marks on Vin’s trousers and ran an experienced hand over Peso girth. “You’re wet. You took Peso into the river.”

“It was hot so I just took a quick swim.”

“What have I told you?”

“Not to go beyond the north pasture without asking.” Vin recited. “But I would have had to come all the way back to ask, then there wouldn’t be time to go.”

“You’ve been told before and you continue to ignore me. Finish with Peso then come straight into the house. You won’t be riding unless it’s to and from school for the rest of the week.”

“What? That ain’t fair!”


Vin understood the tone and scowled as he led Peso away. All his chores were done, he was only a little late and nothing had happened. “It ain’t fair,” he continued to grumbled under his breath.

Buck didn’t enjoy the tension that was building lately between Chris and Vin. He knew Chris saw all the unusual rule breaking as a challenge to his authority but Buck had to admit he was a little pleased by what he saw as Vin’s very normal growing.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning seemed to arrive too quickly, catching everyone a little slow-footed and late. Buck had the lunch pails packed and ready on the table as the boys rushed through breakfast.

“You two better get Peso ready if you’re going to get to school on time,” Buck hustled them along.

There was the usual jumble and clash of bodies as Vin and JD ran around collecting school books and whatever odd things they thought would be needed to get through the day.

“Bye!” the voices called in unison as the door was tugged open.

Chris was about to call them back when Buck raised his hand.

“Three…two…one…” He held out the neglected lunch pail and a small hand reached back through the doorway.

“Thanks Buck,” JD said breathlessly as he disappeared again.

‘And…” Buck added, swinging Vin’s books by their strap to dangle them near the doorway.

Vin skidded to a halt just before the threshold. “Thanks.”

“Straight home,” Chris reminded him.

Vin waved a hand in the air in acknowledgment and raced back to where JD and Peso stood waiting.

The morning spent at his desk was as dreary as Vin expected, arithmetic a sure way to ruin any day. He yelped in pain and surprise as the wooden ruler came down across his knuckles.

“Vin, you’re not even looking at your work. How many of those sums have you completed?”

Vin uncovered the work. He’d barely even started. It wasn’t that the calculations were difficult he just couldn’t seem to concentrate.

“You won’t be going outside until the work is completed. You’ll eat your lunch at your desk, understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Vin looked back to the work and tried to concentrate. He didn’t want to be stuck inside all day. He watched dismally as the rest of the class trooped out, their voices and laughter echoing outside. Finally the work was done, but he only had a few minutes left.

Tommy Rawlings stopped him as he exited the schoolroom. “I brought the rope today. We can set it up in the tree. Yer comin’ to the river, aint ya?”

“We’re s’posed to go straight home.”

“Come on, what’s a few extra minutes,” Tommy urged. “We’re all going. It’ll be great.”

Vin knew he and JD were expected to go home but he’d been stuck inside all day, the sun teasing outside the window. The river would be perfect. “Only for a little while.” They couldn’t get in trouble for just being a little late home.

The final bell was rung followed by a screech of chairs on the timber floor and the thudding of footsteps.

“Vin Tanner, please wait.”

Vin turned back at his teacher’s order.

“I want this note signed by Mr Larabee and returned to me tomorrow.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Vin pocketed the note, already knowing what its contents would say. He rushed outside where JD hovered impatiently. Untying Peso and scrambling on, the boys hurried to catch up with the others.

It wasn’t a large school with a class of only twelve but the addition of Vin and JD had helped boost the male population for the schoolyard games. The summer weather made the river a great attraction and the swimming hole was well protected from prying eyes, particularly for the adventurous few that dared to linger rather that actually attend class. Today the boys had all waited until after their lessons, a new game to be set up on the banks. They’d all debated over who should climb the tree to fasten the rope but while Vin was the more skilled climber, Robbie McLean knew how to tie knots better. Robbie was elected and with a little extra effort to propel him up the branches the job was soon complete and secure.

The boys stripped down, some to their drawers and some a little further, none too concerned for their modesty amongst the privacy of the screening trees. Vin had been swimming here before but he had always been careful as to how he entered and exited the water, still embarrassed by the scars on his back. Nathan had told him they would fade, but he didn’t see any change himself. The rope swing beckoned. He couldn’t possibly try it without the others seeing, but it was too good an opportunity to let pass by.

The boys gathered waiting for the first try.

“Wow! What’d you do to get a thrashing like that?” Tommy exclaimed.

Vin clenched his jaw at the attention he was drawing. “Nothin’.”

“Nothin’? It’d have to be something real bad. My Pa’s given me a couple of licks, but he’s never marked me up like that.”

Vin thought Tommy was just trying to talk big. “Pa’s don’t beat on their kids,” Vin scoffed. He stopped as he recognized the strange looks he was given. He’d said something stupid.

“’Ya get in trouble, ya get a thrashin’. That’s how it works,” Tommy argued. “Look at ya, ya must know that.”

Vin didn’t know how to respond. He and JD didn’t get hit anymore because they had Buck and Chris to protect them. That’s what a Pa was for. Vin was confused by the seeming agreement of all the other boys with Tommy’s words. He wanted to escape their attention.

“Are we gonna swim or not?” Vin demanded, pulling the rope back and taking a running jump. He landed with a splash and soon all the boys had forgotten the discussion, instead fighting over the next turn.

Vin watched as JD took his turn. He came up spluttering and coughing a few times, ignoring everyone’s advice to keep his mouth closed. Vin couldn’t help but laugh at the instruction. JD could never keep his mouth closed.

Vin realised they’d lingered longer than he had intended and called for JD. The boys dragged their clothes on, Vin hoping everything would be dry by the time they got home. The note crinkled in his shirt pocket. Late and a note, this was not going to be good.

“Who’s home today?” Vin knew that somehow JD always managed to keep track of which adult would be there to greet them.

“It’s Buck’s turn.”

That eased the pressure a little. Buck was less likely to make a fuss at their delay and hopefully would take care of the note for him. He knew Chris would have to be told but he could put it off for as long as possible.

“Hey you two, what time is this?” Buck had watched the pair trotting back into the yard.

“We’re just a little late Buck. Some of the boys just wanted a quick game before we all had to go and do chores.”

Buck was pleased that the boys were settling in well. It was nearly summer break and the weather too warm to punish anyone for a little playing in the sun.

Vin was relieved at the progress of their arrival so far. Chris wasn’t in the house, so he could honestly say he’d asked, but he hadn’t been there. “Buck, can you sign this note for me?”

“Note? What did you do?” Buck read the contents quickly, hoping Vin hadn’t managed to find himself any serious trouble. “Why don’t you wait until Chris is home to sign this,” he suggested knowing full well the boys thought he was the pushover in this arrangement.

“I didn’t want to forget, so I thought I’d ask straight away. Chris just isn’t home yet.”

“Well, he’ll be home at supper to ask.”

Vin rolled his eyes, not sure if he’d been caught out or Buck honestly wanted to wait. “Homework first, you know the rules.” Both boys grumbled but went inside, accustomed to the new routine. There was an hour of homework then chores and play, although the final two activities bore a remarkable resemblance.

Chris wasn’t home until after dark, some damaged fencing delaying his return.

“Hi boys, how was school?” Chris was treated to a vivid replay of the day while Vin simply shrugged and ducked his head back down again.


“Nothin’ special.”

“But?” Chris could hear a distinct problem in that reply.

“The teacher wants you to sign this.” Vin offered him the note from his pocket.

Chris unfolded the note and signed the bottom of the page as he had the previous two this month. Distracted and fidgeting during class, his teacher complained. They were two words he generally wouldn’t associate with Vin.

“Vin, I know you’ve been trying hard to catch up with your schooling. Why are you suddenly not paying attention to the teacher? This is the third time this month.” Chris tapped the paper lying on the table.

“Jus’ don’t like bein’ shut in the school room all day. It’s just so long,” Vin complained. Chris sympathized with the boy who so loved the outdoors.

“That may be Vin, but you’ll have to put up with it. School isn’t forever.”

“Feels like it,” came the disgruntled reply.

“You need to learn these things Vin.” Chris put the note back into the envelope and returned it to Vin for delivery. “No more notes,” he warned sternly.

Vin remained subdued as he took his place at the table. Chris called JD over to the table as well. Buck had served the meal but found that there was little interest in eating from those seated.

“Did I burn it?” Buck asked jokingly, noticing neither boy was eating much.

“Just not hungry,” Vin replied, stirring his peas and gravy around on his plate.


“I’m jus’ tired.” JD's response to Buck was listless as he continued to only pick at his food.

Chris reached over to try to check on Vin, also concerned at the lack of appetite but Vin ducked away from the questing hand.

“Can I be excused to finish my homework?”

“All right. JD, what about you?” Chris questioned.

“I’m done.” A huge yawn completed the statement.

Vin laid his books on the rug and moved one of the lamps close for extra light. JD soon joined him but became bored and wanted to play a last game with Vin.

“I can’t play now JD, please go away.” Mrs Connor had set him one whole chapter from his reader.

“Just one game,” JD pleaded.

“No. I gotta read this chapter.”

“Well how big’s a chapter?”

“This big,” Vin indicated, pinching the pages of the reader together.

“Well that’s not much. Let me read it to you, then we can…”

“No!” Vin yelled, slamming the book shut. He didn’t want to hear JD’s voice reading the words so smoothly like the other kids in the class. He hated having to read aloud in class, his only hope was to try to stay ahead of them all by reading it over each night. Vin dropped his head onto the closed book. He didn’t want to do this. “Go away JD,” he begged, opening the book again.

Buck came to check on the disturbance.

“Vin’s no fun. He won’t play with me. He’s just being grumpy,” JD complained.

“Sounds like he’s not the only one. Leave Vin to his homework, and you get ready for bed.” Buck ran the back of his hand down JD’s face as he passed, but his temperature felt fine and he didn’t appear flushed. Perhaps he was just over-tired today.

“Vin?” It was unusual for Vin show any temper with JD. He studied the face over the open book and saw the pinched look around the blue eyes. “Do you have a headache?”

“It’s fine,” Vin replied, turning his attention back to the pages in front of him.

“It’s not if you’re taking it out on JD.”

“I’ll ‘pologise to him.”

Buck left them to sort it out. The boys rarely disagreed and when they did it wasn’t for long.

Chris and Buck lingered over coffee, discussing the plans for the next week. Eventually they headed to bed themselves only to discover that someone lay forgotten and sleeping on top of his books on the rug.

“Notes from school then working all night on homework.” Buck was bemused by the contrary behaviour.

“Well, hopefully no note tomorrow.” Chris tried to lift Vin without waking him but was unsuccessful. Vin turned at the first touch, his hand batting away the unwanted attention.

“Come on Vin, time for bed.”

“Sleepin’. G’way.”

“Let’s try your bed Pard.” Chris hoisted Vin up against his shoulder while Buck went ahead and drew the blankets down.

+ + + + + + +

Chris awoke to the quiet cries coming from the boy’s room and threw back the covers to investigate. He grabbed a lamp and lit it, turning up the wick to light the room in its warm glow. He found Vin trying to calm JD, the younger boy’s teary face flush with fever, his nightshirt covered in vomit.

“I didn’t wake quick enough. I’ll clean him up.” Vin was trying to remove the soiled nightshirt from the younger boy’s limp body.

“I’ll do that, Vin. You go get a basin from the kitchen for me.”

The noise and movement in the house finally woke Buck.

“What’s going on?” he yawned.

“JD’s sick.”

“What!” All remnants of sleep were quickly shaken off.

“JD, does you stomach hurt?” Chris asked.

JD sniffed and nodded miserably. Chris wiped the tears gently and checked the fever. He was definitely warm, but not dangerously so.

“Buck, see what’s taking Vin so long. He went to the kitchen, and bring back some new sheets and cold water.”

Vin returned just as Buck turned to leave.

“What’s wrong with him Chris?” Vin asked timidly.

“Just a stomach ache I think. Might just be something he ate. How do you feel?” Chris asked, remembering the lack of appetite of both of them at dinner.


“Well get back into bed anyway, Vin.”

Buck returned with the cold water and linens and took over from Chris. He held JD as Chris quickly stripped and remade the bed. Finally he settled JD down and started to wipe him with the cool water, quietly whispering in the young boy’s ear to calm him.

“Should we get Nathan?” Buck asked, worried at the sudden illness.

“No. We’ll keep an eye on him and get Nathan if he doesn’t improve by the morning.”

Buck eased JD up and offered him some water to drink. JD managed only a few mouthfuls when they made a sudden, violent reappearance. JD whimpered through the stomach cramps, tears rolling down his pale face. Buck pushed the dark bangs off the damp forehead, resting his hand on the sore stomach and rocking the boy gently.

“You sure Chris?” Buck asked again worriedly.

“Sometimes kids just get sick Buck. Vin, did you two eat anything else at school today, swap lunches with the other kids?”

“No, we ate what we took.” Vin started to scramble off his bed again.

“No Vin, stay there.”

“But JD…”

“He’ll be fine.”

“Maybe he got stung by something, or poison. Did you boys go anywhere different?” Buck clutched at all the possible causes he could think of.


Chris heard the uncertain note. “Vin?”

“Well it’s not different.”

“Where Vin?” Chris insisted impatiently.

“We went to the river, but we’ve been lots before. All of us went.”

“I told you not to go down there alone Vin.”

“The older boys set up a rope swing. It was new…we all went.”

“And JD tried?”

“Yeah. He didn’t get hurt. I’m watched him and made sure he came up.”

Buck’s heart was in his mouth at the turn of phrase. The boys were competent swimmers but who knew what they could have landed on jumping in like that.

“You knew you weren’t supposed to be there Vin. I asked you where you’d been and you said playing.” Buck saw the guilty look and knew its cause. He knew the boys played he and Chris against each other, but it hurt for them to do it so blatantly when they knew they had been in the wrong. Buck turned back to JD, wiping the damp face again.

Vin chewed at his bottom lip, he knew he’d made Buck angry. He’d let JD get sick.

Chris knew Vin would get little sleep between JD and his carer. “Buck take JD to your room, that’ll probably be easier for everyone.”

Buck could stand the wounded brown eyes for no longer and cradled JD in his arms, the only comfort he could offer.

Chris had to admit to being a little disappointed. “Vin, no Peso and now no river. I don’t want to see you adding to the list.” Chris saw Vin’s attention was past him and through the empty doorway. “Vin, do you understand?”

Vin’s head turned back at the question, panicked by watching JD disappear from sight. No JD. He understood. “Yes sir.”

Chris hated to hear the sir, but understood how seriously Vin was listening.

+ + + + + + +

Vin was usually the first to rise, so when he awoke to an empty bed across the room he panicked for a moment. The events of the night finally returned to him and he scrambled out in search of JD.

Chris had breakfast on the table and Vin’s things packed up and waiting. He’d let Vin sleep longer this morning after the disturbed night, although he appeared unaffected by the river water himself.


“He’s still sleeping, but he hasn’t been sick again. I think he’ll be fine.”

Vin peered around the corner tentatively, not wishing to intrude into Buck’s room if the man was still upset with him.

“Vin, he’s okay. Get dressed and come eat breakfast.”

“I’m not very hungry.” Vin wasn’t looking forward to school alone.

“You hardly ate any supper, so you’ll have breakfast. I’ve got everything else ready for you.”

Vin changed into his school clothes, feeling a little odd to be doing so without having to bump and struggle around JD. The room they shared felt very empty this morning. He pulled out a chair at the table and slowly turned his attention to the eggs in front of him. Vin eventually cleared his plate then stopped for one more look at JD before setting out on his own.

“Note?” Chris asked.

Vin slid that paper into his shirt pocket then picked up his lunch pail.

“And straight back home after school,” Chris reminded him.

The morning in the classroom dragged itself out, long and boring. Vin worked hard to pay attention and managed to escape any further reprimands. Lunch finally arrived and food was rushed down in favor of some games. The fun however was short-lived as the only ball found itself wedged up on the school roof.

As the best climber, Vin was elected to retrieve it. Vin knew Chris didn’t want him climbing about on roofs as he’d already been in trouble for climbing around in the rafters of the barn. He couldn’t ignore the request and if he refused then someone else would just have to do it. He made quick work of the vertical post, swinging and pulling himself up and onto the shingled slope. The ball wasn’t far away, lodged amongst debris caught up on damaged shingles. The ball was tossed back to the ground but the old shingles slipped as Vin bent to climb down. He slid on the treacherous slope, his forearm scraping as he slipped over the edge. He hit the hard packed ground with a thump and lay stunned for a moment. His head spun and he gasped for breath as enthusiastic hands hoisted him back to his feet. He ignored the aches as he was cheered back to the game.

Vin found the afternoon back inside the schoolroom even worse than the morning, his headache persisting and his arm now throbbing. The final bell couldn’t ring soon enough. Some of the boys were returning to the river but Vin knew better than to go again without permission. He took Peso the long way home, riding fast to make the most of the time he had with his friend. He was only allowed to ride to and from school but he decided that if he didn’t stop then it still counted as straight home.

Chris eyed the hard blowing horse and the equally winded rider when they arrived back home but Vin hurried past, taking his time rubbing Peso down before reappearing. Chris immediately spotted the graze on the arm where the sleeves were rolled back.

“What have you done to yourself?”

“I fell.”

Chris took the arm and turned it over inspecting the scrape. His gaze automatically turned toward the barn, a fall from Peso being the most likely source considering the way the pair had arrived home.

Vin read that look. “No, not from Peso. I don’t fall from him.”

“Well what happened then?” Chris continued the questions as he led Vin over to the pump and rinsed the graze.

Vin was looking for any way not to actually admit to falling from the roof of the schoolhouse. “I fell getting the ball back.”

Chris waited, one eyebrow raised.

“At school.”

“Vin.” The warning was clear.

“From the roof.” Vin hated the way Chris would say his name like it was a whole sentence.

“You climbed on to the school house roof?” Chris enunciated each word slowly as if hoping he head heard incorrectly.

“We needed the ball,” Vin explained patiently.

“You can’t have needed it that badly. It’s dangerous to do that, you could have been seriously hurt.” Chris was already running a hand down over Vin’s head, the other hand holding the squirming boy still. The small hiss told him he’d found another injury.

“I’m fine,” Vin denied. “They asked me to get it and besides, I’m good at it.” Excelling in something, even if it was just games in the schoolyard gave Vin some confidence. He was selected on teams because he could throw accurately and run fast. “I’m the best climber. We needed the ball so someone else would have just climbed up instead.”

“I don’t want anyone hurt, including you. You all should have asked the teacher.”

“Mrs Connor’s a lady, she can’t go climbing the roof. We’d have to wait a whole day for anyone else.”

“Then you should have waited.”


“No, Vin. No climbing up onto roofs, not here, not at school and not in town.” Chris knew better than to leave out any of the options.

“Okay.” The response was given grudgingly. Vin didn’t see where the problem was. He climbed trees that were higher. Vin restrained himself from using that argument, not willing to risk a ban on trees as well.

Chris knew Vin would look for a way around the rule. “Vin, we’ve been over this before. How many times have I told you not to climb?”

Vin bit his tongue sure this was one of those times when you’re not really supposed to answer. Chris however seemed to be waiting. “Lots,” he offered tentatively.

“But you go ahead and do it anyway,” Chris added.

“Sometimes it just needs doing.”

At Chris’ scowl, Vin realised he wasn’t supposed to have answered there.

“It’s disobedience Vin and there will be serious punishment if it continues. Don’t make me have to do that. Do you understand me?” Chris was becoming concerned that he and Buck were not being strict enough with the boys, giving them too much latitude because of their past.

“Yes Sir.” Vin swallowed hard and left. He didn’t feel like playing anymore, pleased in a way that JD’s recent illness had left him napping again this afternoon. Vin didn’t want any company.

Buck waited quietly at the corner, not wanting to disrupt the conversation. He moved around as Vin was dismissed.


“Buck, what the hell is happening? I’d never say Vin was easy to handle but he was never this much trouble.”

Vin flinched, the adults not aware that he was still within earshot.

“I heard what you said. How serious are you talking here?”

“My father would have had me across his knee already. I wouldn’t have been able to sit down for a week.”

Vin fled at the words but the conversation continued, unheard.

“Yeah, and how much did you learn from that? You just learned not to get caught.” Buck scoffed. “Vin understands about being hurt to be made to do what someone else wants.” Buck watched as Chris leaned forward scrubbing his hands over his face and knotting them in his hair. “You couldn’t do it.”

“I know I won’t resort to that, but can you imagine what he’ll be like at thirteen or fifteen if I can’t get him to mind me? He jumps off roofs, rides off into nowhere. He’s not going to come home one day. He’ll be lying in a broken pile on the ground, God knows where.”

“Whoa Chris! He’s eight not thirteen. I don’t even want to think about either of those two as teenagers yet.” Buck felt the gray hairs just sprouting at the thought. “Vin does stupid and careless things like every kid his age and he’s going to have to learn his limits. Don’t tell me you want blind obedience from him. That spirit is the reason you and he ever met.

“I don’t want him dead or crippled either.”

This was all new ground for Buck. He wasn’t sure what to offer to either of them other than a sympathetic ear and a safe middle ground.

Unable to take Peso out to escape, Vin had retreated to the corrals behind the barn. He stood by the fence staring morosely off into the distance. He thought Tommy had been lying or just talking big but now he knew it was true. Pa’s could give you a beating just like everyone else. Chris had always said he wouldn’t hurt him, but now maybe that was a lie. Maybe if was just one of those things Chris didn’t want him to know about yet.

He sighed tiredly. Chris had always said he wouldn’t, but Vin knew he could force him into it. They all said so.

You brought it on yourself.

You’re asking for a beating.

Vin gnawed at his lower lip and leaned over the center rail of the fence. He didn’t want to believe it but he couldn’t just ask. Vin considered the risks in testing Chris’ word then decided it was worth knowing for sure. His head was pounding again trying to sort through his choices. Finally he could only see one path. He needed to know for sure if things were going to go bad.

Vin tried to set his plan into action at supper but his heart really wasn’t in it. He did break rules but he did that when he had a reason. He wasn’t very comfortable ignoring Chris’ requests just to cause a problem. He baulked at outright refusal, instead only managing a delayed response to setting the table and completing his chores.

Chris stopped Vin as he left for his third trip to the woodpile. Generally filling the firebox was completed in one trip, but Vin was carrying only a few pieces each time. Chris felt Vin stiffen as he took a hold of one shoulder. He was worried that Vin had hurt himself more than he’d admitted after that fall at school. He had no trouble checking Vin’s eyes again, the blue orbs open wide and anxious.

“Vin, did you hurt your back when you fell? Is that why you’re not carrying very much?”

Vin had been prepared for the worst, thinking his plan was already taking affect. Instead he heard only concern in the question. “I...I...j...just.”

“Why don’t you have an early night,” Chris suggested. The slight stutter was a sure sign that everything was not all right.

Vin threw his plan aside for the moment, happy to see the end of this day.


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