"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.
Notes : This story makes minor reference to the events at the end of Settle For Less.

Stan Bellmer waved his hands franticly in the air to ward off the words. “I’m not killing a kid.” Stan desperately needed the job but he disliked having to work with a new partner. Clem Evan’s idea for how to run a job just didn’t seem honorable. He was a good tradesman who had patiently honed his skills for locks and safes. Certainly he was a thief but he wasn’t a murderer or kidnapper.

Clem was sick of explaining the strategy. “We don’t need to kill him. We just need Larabee and his friends distracted. You open the safe and we’re out of there.” Clem lacked certain skills and now found himself forced to deal with a mealy-mouthed safe breaker.

“What do we do with the kid?”

“Nothing,” Clem explained again with exasperation. “We do nothin’ but leave Larabee a note. They go and get the kid so we’ll be in the clear to get out of town.”

Slightly appeased, Stan finally agreed. “So how do we find this Tanner kid? If we walk in and start asking around people will get suspicious.”

Clem unfolded the worn telegram. “No address and only Larabee’s name on this thing.” The telegram he’d picked up from the streets of Clear Creek those few months ago had lead him to this idea.

“Maybe this is a bad idea,” Stan argued again. Putting extra people into a deal always complicated it, but putting a kid into it was insane.

Clem waved the yellowed paper at him. “This is our ticket. You only get an opportunity like this once in a life. If word gets around that Larabee’s got himself a whelp then he might start getting cautious. We need to strike first. Four Corner’s bank hasn’t been hit in three years. This job can set us up for life.”

“There’s a reason why no one’s been able to take the bank. They’ve got a lot of guns in that town.”

“And my plan will take out one of the big guns before we even start.”

Stan knew it was a losing battle. “So how do we find this kid?”

“Where is every kid during the day? School. Someone’s bound to call his name then we watch who comes running. We just pick him up on his way home. There’s a lot of open country and old mines where we can stash him for a day or two.”

“I’m not sticking him in some old mine. Hell, I’m not even going into one to put him there.”

“This is not a vacation Stan, this is a kidnapping.”

“But we don’t hurt him. I do safes, not kids.”

“We just keep him outa sight and get Larabee running in circles. Easy money.” Clem slapped Stan heartily on the back.

Stan ignored his misgivings and the pair continued on to Four Corners. The school was easy to find, located just out of town. The men staked out the school yard, finally rewarded when a group of boys started a chasing game.

The yell of “Your IT Vin” brought their heads up. A young, slender boy with over-long hair was now chasing the others. There would be no trouble keeping tabs on this one when he left the school yard.

The boys turned off the main trail and on to the path that led toward home. Vin kept turning back in the saddle, checking over his shoulder and around JD. He jfelt like someone was watching him. His wriggling was annoying JD, who poked him hard in the back of his ribs for attention.

“Watcha doin?”


“Well ride proper, or give me the reins.”

The boy’s argument distracted them for a moment. Peso’s sudden stop brought Vin around in the saddle to find their path blocked by a smallish man on a heavy-boned bay.

Vin pulled Peso back but found another horseman had come up behind them. Peso began to fidget at being hemmed in and tried to move clear himself. Vin could do little as he was suddenly lifted clear off his horse and swung across another saddle. Vin kicked and twisted at being manhandled like this, his struggle over-balancing the rider and the two landed on the ground at the horses’ hoofs.

Having two boys traveling together had disrupted the kidnappers’ plans for a moment. JD was too small to cause very much trouble so they decided to simply take him as well. JD then found himself being pulled from Peso. Stan found that removing the smaller boy was more difficult than he’d expected. He tried to control the squirming bundle, placing a hand over the mouth to stop the indignant yells. Stan dropped the child as a set of small but sharp teeth sunk into the fleshy past of his hand.

Clem was having his own problems with Vin, finally resorting to snapping a short jabbing punch at the boy’s head to stop his fighting. JD, seeing Vin drop to the ground ran to help, but Clem pushed him to the ground and he and Stan finally tied and gagged him. His only restraints used on the younger boy, Clem now found himself glad the older boy was unconscious. He slung Vin over his saddle and then dragged the other kicking bundle to its feet.

“You keep on fightin’ and I’ll dump your friend here in the next river.”

JD’s eyes flew to Vin who lay broken across the back of the horse. He suddenly lost all fight at the thought of causing the men to hurt Vin any further. He too was lifted up but placed in the saddle before the smaller man.

The last step was to slip the note into the saddlebag and tie the horse. They didn’t want it wandering home and sending a warning too quickly. Loaded with their captives, the pair started their own horses on the trek into the hills.

Clem and Stan had found a suitable location the day before. A few miles away and high up the slopes a shallow cave had been found with an entrance small enough to block. Stan was again having doubts about the plan as they unloaded their cargo and placed the boys inside. Up close, the two were younger and smaller than he’d expected.

“Look Clem, why don’t…”

“You’re not backing out now are you? We’re in it. All we have to do is go to town, take the bank and get out.”

“But we can’t just leave ‘em.”

“They’ll be out tomorrow or the next day. We’ll tell ‘em exactly where to find ‘em.”

The men backed out and heaved the boulder slowly into place. It didn’t completely block the entrance, but the remaining gaps were too small to crawl through.

“Let’s get moving.”


“If those two are off playing, I’m going to tan their hides.”

“Oh yeah.” Buck scoffed at the empty threat, but he knew the boys would be in trouble for being this late home.

Chris’ frown of annoyance also contained traces of worry. The boys were never this late. He continued to pace until finally all patience elapsed. “Let’s ride.”

Chris and Buck followed the path the boys usually used. The path was well worn and hard packed providing little chance of picking any fresh sign. Buck hoped the boy’s had just been distracted, or even held back after school, but it was too late in the afternoon for him to really believe it. The last curve in the trail revealed Peso. The horse snorted, tossing his head against the tether that held him to the tree.

“Vin? JD?” Buck called as Chris moved Peso out into the open. The horse seemed uninjured.

“They wouldn’t go far from Peso,” Buck said. Chris eyed the unbuckled flap of the saddlebag. Flipping it open he found the boys’ books, but also a sheet of paper.

“Buck.” The writing was unfamiliar.


The world spun for a moment, leaving a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Someone’s taken him Buck.”


Both men automatically looked around, as if by some miracle it wasn’t true and the boys would just step out from behind the trees. The searched close-by but both boys had disappeared.

“Up there somewhere.” Chris jerked his head toward the hills. It was the only logical place. Away from town, away from the trail and up into the hills.

“God damn it. We waited while they were being dragged off.” Buck knew that there was less than an hour’s light remaining. This part of the trail was well traveled and it would take more time then they had to carefully work the area. His heart hammered in protest to the words he knew he must speak. “Chris, we have to wait until tomorrow.”

Chris knew they couldn’t risk ruining the trail by blundering around in the dark, but he couldn’t just turn his back and leave them. Both men stood torn by what their hearts demanded and what their heads told them was the right plan of action.

“Chris, you go back to the ranch. Maybe they’ll try and leave another note. I’ll go into town and tell the others.” The main trail was well ridden and safe even in the dark. Buck knew neither of them would stay behind tomorrow, so the other men had to be told now. “Chris?”

“I heard you.” Chris finally turned back. “Go.”

“You’ll go home?”

“I promise Buck.” Chris knew that Buck’s plan was the best. He couldn’t track in the dark no matter how much he wanted to be moving.


JD had squirmed over to Vin, unable to call his name to awaken him, hoping he was just sleeping.

Vin finally stirred, groaning as he rolled over. He winced as his head rolled onto the tender spot, reminding him of the afternoon’s event. He quickly sat up, swaying as the world spun around him. “JD?”

The darkness confused him, unsure of where he was or how he’d arrived here. He startled as something nudge against him, but quickly realised it was JD. Vin reached out, concerned at the grunts and snuffles and felt the bindings still in place.

“Hold still JD.” Vin remembered the attack but he had no idea where they were now. He slipped the gag from JD and began to work on the knots holding the ropes around his wrists and ankles.

“Where are we?” He hoped JD had seen some of the journey.

“Dunno. They took us on horses.”

“Do you know who they were?”

“Nope. I didn’t do anything, did you?”

Vin couldn’t recall getting in enough trouble that this might have been the result. His head ached but he persisted with the ropes, finally freeing JD.

“Are you hurt?”

“No, he just tied me.”

Vin peered around, the enclosing walls only adding to his discomfort. “Is this a cave?”

“I’ll go look.” JD moved away before Vin could stop him. The space was small but both boys could stand up without touching the ceiling. Vin didn’t want to move further into the darkness, the space seemed even smaller there.

“JD?” Vin’s voice raised as panic began to set in. “JD!”

“I’m here.” JD stepped out of the shadows. “I couldn’t go far, it’s only a little cave.”

Little. Little didn’t help Vin’s feelings. He could taste the dust in his mouth stirred up by their feet, feel it clogging his nose. “JD, we gotta get out.” He gulped at the air. “We can’t breathe in here.”

“Yes we can Vin. They couldn’t block the entrance.” JD tugged at Vin, pulling him toward the boulder at the front of the cave. Vin pressed his face to the small gap, a trickle of clean air helped to calm him. Vin pushed his hand up to the gap, relieved by some small space, some small freedom. It was dark out now.

“They’ll come back. They said it was only two days.”

Vin shuddered at the thought of two days in here. “They might not. We should try to get ourselves out.” When people locked you away sometimes didn’t remember to come back.

“Let's try pushing it.” Both boys shoved against the rock but it wouldn’t budge. Vin’s hand slipped off the side, grazing his knuckles on the rough opening. A small drizzle of pebbles and dirt dropped down at the impact. “JD check all around it. Maybe there’s more gaps.”

The boys probed and pushed finding three openings, the larger at the top right.

‘We can dig our way out.” The boys found the sharp gravel was hard packed and difficult to shift, only succeeding in tearing at their fingers. Dispirited the boys dropped down by the opening.

“Buck and Chris will come. Won’t they?”

“Yes. They’ll find us,” Vin agreed.

“I’m thirsty.” JD had waited forever for Vin to wake up, but now all there was to do was more waiting.

Vin was thirsty too. The dust inside the cave seemed to coat his throat. “Did they leave anything?”

“No, they put us in here and left.” JD’s statement finished on a definite wobble as he recalled the darkness closing in as the boulder rolled into place.

Vin pulled JD in close. “We should rest and dig some more later.”


Josiah had convinced Ezra and Nathan to wait in town while he accompanied Buck back to the ranch. They couldn’t endanger the boys by sending a posse into the hills, so only Buck and Chris would search carefully while Josiah remained behind in case there was further word from the kidnappers. The household was somber. Josiah could offer little solace, instead preparing a meal for the two men who remained too worried to even consider food. Buck finally relented and came to the table to eat.

Chris stood at the windows staring into the darkness as if he alone could will the sun to rise.

“At least try to rest Chris. You’ll need your strength for tomorrow,” Josiah suggested.

“My strength is out there somewhere.” Chris finally turned away from the dark void to Buck who sat slumped despondently at the table. He wasn’t the only one suffering. “We’ll get them back Buck.”

“He’s so little.”

“Vin will look after him.”

“He’s too little as well. It’s our job to look after them.”

And we failed.

It wasn’t said, but they both felt it. Chris clasped his friend’s shoulder firmly. “We will get them back.” It was all he could offer at the moment, a hope, a promise, and a plan.

No one slept. Dawn was finally upon them and the supplies were already packed, the horses ready for departure. Chris had every intention to be tracking again as soon as the sun cleared the horizon.

“Josiah?” Chris needed one last favor from Josiah. “If we have news or not, I need you to go to Nettie tomorrow. She should be told what’s happened.”

“I’ll take care of it. Go with God, brothers.”


Buck’s news the night before had left Ezra on edge and awake uncommonly early. He understood the need for discretion in such a rescue but he felt useless just sitting and waiting. Restrained from any action he instead turned his thoughts to who and why. Perhaps he could still assist in the hunt, but from a different direction. Vin and JD were both resourceful and wouldn’t have gone quietly so it wasn’t a task for one. Ezra decided to study the recent arrivals in town. Someone had known of Vin’s connection to Chris.

Four Corners was growing so new faces were not such a rarity. Ezra ignored the clothes and outward appearances of the newcomers, instead focusing his attention on the hands. Hands were the key, each smudge of dirt, stain or callus told their own story. Hands that worked ropes and leather grew different calluses to those that worked guns, or fingers ingrained with the soot of smithing or the dirt of farming. Those of most interest had hands like his. Hands carefully maintained because they didn’t work with tools, they were the tools. By mid-morning, Ezra found such a man standing just beyond the feed store.

Stan found himself overly nervous about this job. He liked to be relaxed when he worked, but he couldn’t, knowing those boys had been locked away. He was certain Clem intended to release them, or almost certain. His gaze flitted to each passer-by, sure that each one could see what he’d done just by looking at him. He found himself the study of a well-dressed gent. Swallowing nervously he moved away, intent on walking the perimeter of the bank one more time.

Ezra followed the stranger, the man’s destination only confirming his suspicions. Stan realised he’d been followed and changed course, but in his haste he dropped satchel from his hand. The old case clattered to the ground and tumbled open. It was only a small set of tools, nothing to attract the attention of passing pedestrians.

“Let me assist you there,” Ezra offered. “You appear uncertain of your destination. Perhaps I can provide directions as I am a resident of this fine little township.”

“No, no. I know where I’m going.” Stan scooped the items back into the case.

“I think not. Perhaps you should just take a little walk with me instead.”

“What? I got business.”

“A fine set of tools you have there, sir. A tradesman’s I would suggest.”

Stan looked over in surprise. Only a handful of the items were specialist. “I don’t want no trouble.”

“Neither do I. Walk.” Ezra was in no mood this morning for miscreants or marauders. He had more important concerns.

Stan turned around hoping to see Clem. “Look, I don’t have to go nowhere with you. I’m here on business.”

Impatient, Ezra let his gun slide down into his hand. “As a concerned depositor of this bank I believe you should explain to Judge Travis just what your business entails.” Ezra directed the man toward the jail, ignoring the continuing denials.

Stan panicked at the thought of a Judge and jail. “I didn’t do nothin’. I haven’t touched the bank and I didn’t want nothin’ to do with those kids.”

Ezra stopped short at the mention of children. “What are you blithering about?”

“Larabee’s kid. It was just a distraction, it wasn’t really kidnapping. I didn’t ask for money or nothing.”

“Vin?” Ezra hadn’t expected anything like this. “Where is he?”

“Some other little hellion was with him, but I’m not going to jail for no kidnap. I told Clem I only do…uuhhh.” A gunshot interrupted the sentence and the safecracker jerked and slumped to the ground. Ezra took cover, tugging the bleeding Stan behind a water trough. There were no other shots fired as help came running.

Ezra leaned over the wounded man, watching helplessly as blood welled from the gaping exit wound in the man’s chest. “Where are the boys?”

“Ezra, what’s happened?” Nathan arrived and tried to move the gambler out of his way. “Let me in there, Ezra.”

Ezra knew their best hope was for this man to live and provide answers but the volume of blood exiting his body gave this little chance.

“The boys?” he insisted. The only reply was a low gurgling as a final breath was pushed from critically damaged lungs.

Nathan could do nothing the wound to the right side of the chest had torn through lungs and by its position, probably nicked the heart. “Who was he and what boys?”

“Safecracker, by the tools of his trade. I fear he has had some connection to Vin and JD.”

“What connection? The kidnapping?” Nathan saw Ezra nod. “And the shooter?”

“I never saw a thing. I’ll make some inquiries. This one was already babbling about kidnapping but he appeared to be casing the bank. He said something about the boys just being a distraction.”

“I’ll get this one to an undertaker and get word out to Josiah.”

“Wait, maybe he’s carrying something.” Ezra swiftly checked the pockets. He unfolded a stained, yellowed paper and froze as he read the words.


“Oh my Lord. I handed him to them.”

“Ezra?” Nathan was concerned at the man’s sudden pallor. He took the paper and read it himself, not recognizing the words at first. Finally the sheriff’s name came to mind. “How are you involved? This is just a confirmation that Vin lived here.”

“It was a little payback the Buck and I arranged for that Sheriff from Clear Creek.”

“And it’s come back to bite you,” Nathan added.

“No, it appears my lack of forethought has come back upon young Mr. Tanner.”


Clem had seen Stan begin to panic and knew he was throwing the whole deal out the window. Stan had been too weak from the beginning and silencing him was the only way. Stan would tell them everything before he had a chance to escape. He fired without a second thought. Clem moved swiftly to his horse, not rushing too fast and drawing attention. Every step further from the bank had him fuming. It was an opportunity wasted, all because of a weak partner. He couldn’t be sure how much of the plan Stan had spilled. He knew he couldn’t be connected in town, but there were two other witnesses. He considered simply riding away but he preferred to remove all the lose ends. There’d been enough mistakes made. He’d ensure that the last witnesses were removed.


The hard cold ground didn’t allow the boys to sleep for long. Vin had lost all track of time knowing only that it was still dark outside. Searching around they found some sturdy rocks and proceeded to dig at the cave entrance. The rocks still bruised their hands, but they seemed to be making progress. Dawn finally came and as the sun rose higher, Vin began to get a better idea of their predicament. The hole they were working at was shallow, but with the morning light streaming in they could direct their energies. The edge was soon crumbling away.

“You try JD.”

“No, I’m not leavin’ without you.”

As much as Vin wanted JD to be free, he also didn’t want to be left stranded here alone.

“You can dig from the outside JD.”

Satisfied with that option, JD started to struggle through the narrow gap. It was an awkward task with nothing to grasp on the other side. “Push Vin.” The dirt and pebbles slid around him covering his hair and sliding down the neck of his shirt. He kicked his feet out for leverage only to hear a pained yelp. “Vin?”

Vin rubbed at the spot on his shoulder where JD’s boot had clipped him. “It’s okay JD.”

Hands were again at his knees shoving him onward. JD squirmed and wormed his way through until suddenly gravity took control and his hips slid through the opening. He landed with a thud in on the other side.

“I’m out!”

“Shhh. Look around for anyone first, but don’t go far.”

JD had no intentions of wandering far from his cousin and could see no one else around.

“JD?” Vin hissed quietly.

JD leaned in close to the gap and whispered back. “No one’s here.” JD found a sturdy stick and began to grind and poke to widen the hole from the outside. The digging proceeded much faster and Vin continued to scrape away the falling rubble on his side.

“Okay, okay, let me try.” Vin squirmed into the narrow gap trying to ease his shoulders through one at a time. JD grabbed the first arm that appeared and tried tugging. He wasn’t strong enough to pull Vin through but Vin appreciated the leverage. Like JD, he squirmed and wormed his way through, thankful he was still so slight as his hips easily followed the path of his shoulders. He too impacted the ground in a dusty pile but the open sky above him was worth every scrape and bruise.

Vin froze at the sound of brush and leaves crackling under foot. “Someone’s comin’.”

“Buck or Chris?” JD was ever hopeful.

Vin wasn’t so sure and startled JD as he leapt to his feet grabbing his cousin by the arm and running. At the nearest heavy cluster of trees he stopped and pulled JD to the ground with him. If it were Buck and Chris then they’d show themselves. Both boys held their breath but the footsteps revealed only the assailant of yesterday.

Vin knew that the evidence of their escape was obvious and they weren’t very far from detection. He tried to lead JD back further but their quiet movement still drew attention. Vin saw the man go to his horse, so he urged JD into a run. As quickly as he started Vin stopped, JD slamming into his back at the sudden change. Vin realised he’d made a mistake.

“Vin? What?” JD asked nervously, checking behind for their pursuer.

“We can’t get home this way. There are traps set from the tree line all down the slope.”

“You sure.”

“Yep. Chris said so.”

“What’ll we do?”

Vin grabbed at JD’s hand. “You stay close with me, we’ll go the long way ‘round.”

The sound of the horse was getting closer.

“Run! Run!” Vin pulled JD down low to scramble through the underbrush. Branches snagged their shirts as they pushed through, Vin deliberately aiming for the tight tangled spaces in the hope that he and JD could slip through and evade their mounted pursuer. Vin aimed up the slope, away from the traps, but also away from home.

Turning to check their back trail, Vin tripped over an exposed root. He landed hard gasping for breath as JD tumbled down in top, unable to stop his own momentum.

Terrified, Vin felt the vibrations in the ground before he caught the flash of hooves. Gripping JD tightly he rolled to the side.

“Up! Go!” Vin shoved JD, propelling him onward.

JD spotted a hiding place. “There!”

Vin followed JD, not caring as he threw himself into the narrow gap in the rock. What ever it held in its dark center was better than what was behind them.

“You come out of there. I’m going to get you so running is only making me mad,” Clem raged.

The boys ducked instinctively as a bullet pinged off the rocks around them, echoing again and again as it bounced past them.

“Vin?” JD’s voice quavered.

“Keep going JD.”


“Don’t care. Just not back here.” The narrow space continued to run through the rock but Vin realised it wasn’t as dark. Peering up he could see a slither of light overhead. They weren’t in a cave, just a long, deep crack in the rock. He hoped it would lead somewhere. The crevice narrowed again, forcing both boys to turn and squeeze through the opening. Just when Vin thought they would be trapped, the space opened out.

“Can’t we stop?” JD pleaded, thirsty and tired.

“We have to see where this goes. He might be able to circle around.”

The rock did open up to show the river at the bottom of a steep slope. Vin realised they’d cut through the end of the ridge rather than going around. He’d never came down this side as it was too steep and not worth the bother. The main trail was back on the other side of the ridge, winding it’s way to this side only down by the river flats. Certainly, they could eventually be followed, but it had definitely been a short cut.

“Are we lost?” JD cried, turned about and confused by all the changes in direction.

“No. We just go straight down to the river. We can follow it back upstream to home. You’ll see,” Vin reassured JD confidently.

The slope was steep, the boys sliding on their butts from one scraggly plant to another. The method of descending was almost successful until one traitorous bush decided to uproot itself rather than take their weight. Surprised by the sudden loss of a foothold, both boys fell back, the slide increasing in speed. Unable to gain any control, they continued to tumble. Luckily they had almost reached the bottom, sliding only about twenty feet before the land leveled out by the riverbank.

Vin stirred first, climbing to his hands and knees, dazed by the wild ride. “JD?” He saw his cousin laying closer to the bank and staggered over, worried that JD was hurt badly. “JD?”

JD had his eyes wide open, staring straight up into the sky. “Wow! JD struggled to his knees, yelping as he pushed himself upright. “Ow!”

“What hurts?” Vin saw JD cradle his left wrist close, his lower lip starting to tremble.

“Everything,” he wailed. Finally he’d had enough. “I want Buck.”

Vin’s head dropped. He wanted Chris too, but neither man was here. He would have to fix this. “We gotta keep going. We’re nearly home JD.” It wasn’t entirely true, but every step would take them nearer.


‘Damn it, I’ve lost it.” The rocky surface was giving Buck little guidance.

“I don’t think they would have doubled back. Let’s split up.”

The pair walked in ever increasing arcs, sweeping back and forth searching for any small sign of passing horses. Hard open and wind-swept, the riders could have moved in any direction. Both chaffed at the delay until finally Buck found some small marks. Moving together they retraced the path and piece by piece the trail was reluctantly revealed. The sun had risen high but neither man suggested stopping to rest, already the task had been dangerously delayed. The scrub and grass of the lower slopes provided them easier passage.

“Someone else has come through here.” Buck pointed to fresh hoof marks, overlaying the old trail.

The men soon found that their earlier delay to locate the trail had cost them dearly. Once located, they had been led high up into the hills, far above the normal trail. Now they found them selves with a myriad of markings, scuffs, boot prints and hoof prints. Here and there the edge of a small boot print could be found. The boys had been here and on foot.

Chris eyed the boulder and the footprints so clear in the loose dirt surrounding it. He and Buck rolled it clear of the opening it guarded, hearts hammering at what they might find. The dim interior revealed only a small pile of rope. Buck knelt down and pulled the items out. Clearly it was new. Chris thought of the gap by the edge of the boulder and the loose dirt by the entrance.

“They must have gotten out.”

“That’s our boys.” The two men were almost giddy with relief.

“Lets keep trailing them.” It was difficult to make any sense of the marks close to the opening, but finally Chris found two small sets of prints heading off into the trees. Chris realised where they were and stopped, horrified.

“What?” Buck asked of the abrupt stop.

“This slope. They’re trapping for wolves right down to the river.”

Buck pictured the narrow bones in the iron jaws. “Does Vin know?”

“Yes. But maybe he won’t remember in all this.”

The men were relieved to find that the trail turned away after only a few yards. “He remembered.”

Buck moved past Chris. “They’ve got trouble.” The new sets of hoof prints showed clearly over the top of the boy’s trail. “Someone’s after them.”


“Can’t we rest?”

“We can have a drink, but we can’t wait very long. That man can still find us if he just goes the long way around.”

Vin tried to clean JD’s face as much as possible, but nothing appeared to be broken or bleeding very badly. They were both covered in scrapes from the tumble down the hill. Vin tried soaking JD’s sore wrist in the cool river, but he didn’t know what else he could do. Both boys gulped greedily at the water, a cool blessing after so much running. They had nothing to carry supplies in, so Vin decided to stay as close as possible to the river as they followed it around. He eyed the fast flowing waters, unsure how deep this section was. He and JD could both swim, but they were exhausted. Home was on the other side, so they’d just have to risk crossing.

The two set out together, Vin keeping his hand wrapped firmly around JD’s arm. They fought the water but Vin began to doubt his plan as they’d barely reached halfway and the water was lapping at his waist. JD was struggling, the water pushing at his chest. They could only shuffle forward slowly, not daring to lift a foot too high and risk over balancing. Vin hesitated, considering turning back when the rock beneath his foot shifted. As he slipped under, the current pushed him into JD knocking the smaller boy off his feet as well. They were both carried off downstream, thrashing about in their water logged clothes. Coughing, two heads burst up through the water, a tangle of limbs trying to fight across the current to the bank. What little reserves of energy built from the brief stop at the river were lost in the fight against the water. Their paddling did little more than keep their heads above the water as they were carried further away from their target.

Vin lost track of the distance they were carried, focusing only on JD and trying to keep his head above water. Vin snatched his feet up as they touched something, surprise causing him to gulp a mouthful of water. Coughing, he kicked out hard toward JD, startled as his foot fit the riverbed. He tried standing, his toes barely scraping the bottom, his chin pushed up to the air.

“JD, JD, I can touch!” He made one more lunge for the smaller boy, pulling him up by his shirt collar, attempting to balance against the current. Edging toward the bank, he discovered that the water was moving more slowly allowing each step to be placed a little more securely. Finally it was shallow enough for both boys to get their feet under them and stumble out of the water, dripping and shivering. Coughing and exhausted both boys fell to their knees on the bank.

Finally raising his head, Vin saw the soft broken sandy edge with the well-worn wagon tracks. He groaned in dismay. They’d been washed down to the ford on the main trail. They had lost their had won lead, carried back by the river toward the trail rather than upstream as intended. If their pursuer had continued he could be ahead or just behind.

“JD?” Vin shook the still figure beside him. “Please JD, Nettie is just over that hill,” Vin begged.


Chris and Buck came to a standstill at the narrow crevice.

“Do you think they went through?” Buck asked.

“We could lose a lot of time trying to find out.”

“Stay with the horse trail?”

Chris studied the options. “The rider’s heading down, but he might just be going back to the main trail.”

“Why would the boys have gone down? I think they went through.”

“We can’t follow them either. Maybe if we keep on the other trail he’ll lead us to them.”

“We could lose them,” Buck argued.

Chris was torn. Where would Vin go? He might have tried to circle back home. “Nettie?” he suggested. “If they turned back to the main trail they wouldn’t be that far from Nettie.”

“And if they didn’t?”

“We have to choose Buck.”

Buck turned to stare at the rocky ridge.

“Buck, we’re going to lose light soon. If we’re lucky they went to Nettie. If not, then we’ll have to try the other side of the ridge. Either way we have to go down and circle around.”


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