by MMW

Little Britches Universe

Disclaimer: Not mine. Don’t own them. Can’t even claim the universe, that’s thanks to J. K. Poffenberger (thanks for inventing it!)

Author’s note: This is the sequel to Ezra Claus, so you probably want to read that first. I hadn’t initially intended to write a sequel, believing the short piece stood on its own, but Beth Taylor and IndigoCat both asked for the rest of the story, so here it is. I hope it answers all the lingering questions. J

JD and Vin had been having a hard time getting to sleep. They had managed to keep quiet long enough to convince Chris and Buck that they were sleeping. Trying their best to remain silent in order to give the two men time to fall asleep, the boys found themselves starting to doze.

Their excitement at spending their first Christmas with their family had nearly overwhelmed the two boys and chased sleep away. They didn't

Want to miss a single minute of it, so they had decided to remain awake all night. The stories their teacher had been telling them about how

Christmas was celebrated in other countries had only fed into their dreams. But what excited them most was the idea of spending an entire day with their adopted family having fun.

Vin woke suddenly, unaware that he’d fallen asleep. He hadn't been sleeping deeply, but found himself disgruntled by having fallen asleep at all. Then he heard a small noise. Freezing in place, he tried to process what it was. Somehow, he couldn't figure it out. The noise had definitely come from the front of the house, but it didn't sound like an animal. Trying to figure out if it sounded like someone trying to get in, Vin thought about what it sounded like when the door opened.

Deciding no one was trying to get in, Vin gave in to his curiosity and slowly headed toward the front of the house, aided by the dim glow of the lantern they kept burning on dark nights. Quietly making his way to the window, he lifted the corner of the curtain and peeked out. He gasped quietly at the sight. He had just caught a glimpse of a man dressed in dark red slipping out of sight of the house.

All the stories of Saint Nicholas and Father Christmas came flooding back to his mind. Too stunned to move for several minutes, Vin tried to understand the sight he had just seen and what it could mean to him and JD.

Trying to plan out what to do, Vin jumped when he felt a hand on his arm. Spinning to confront the threat, he saw a sleep tussled JD rubbing his eyes. "JD," Vin hissed, "what’re you doin’ out a bed?"

JD blinked up at his cousin and shrugged.

Vin sighed, at least JD was being quiet. Keeping his voice as low as possible, Vin explained, "Thought I heard something and when I went ta look, I saw someone in a red coat walkin’ away." Vin watched as JD’s eyes grew large, reaching the same conclusion he had a few minutes before. "I’s goin’ ta take a look out on the front step."

JD nodded, now fully awake. He couldn’t tell if he was excited about the visit from what he assumed was Father Christmas, or if he was scared that a stranger could get so close to their home. He did know that he was scared for Vin. Opening the front door at night was scary.

Licking his lips nervously, Vin slowly approached the front door. Moving as quietly as possible, he eased the door open, hoping the sound wouldn't wake Chris, Buck or JD. Opening the door just wide enough to see out, Vin spied an oddly shaped flour sack on the front step.

Watching it with equal parts of suspicion, expectation and trepidation, Vin slowly opened the door enough to allow him to reach the sack. Pausing just before touching it, he drew his hand back. "JD," he whispered, "go get the lantern so’s we can see."

Padding across the floor, JD carefully picked up the lantern and made his way back to his cousin.

Reaching out again, Vin gently placed his fingers on the opening, afraid of what he might find inside. Though it was dark out with the cloud cover, Vin managed to just make out that there were a number of packages in the bag thanks to the light of the lantern. Wrapped packages. His eyes grew wide as the realization dawned on him, PRESENTS!

Unable to suppress it, an audible gasp escaped.

"What is it Vin?" JD whispered loudly enough for his voice to carry across the room.

Grabbing the bag, Vin opened the door wider and began pulling the bag into the house. Vin felt a hand suddenly land on his shoulder and jumped in shock and surprise. Heart beating wildly, he turned quickly and found himself face to face with a sleepy looking Chris and Buck.

Buck had picked up JD and was holding the lantern the youngster had struggled with. His expression reflected his puzzlement at the sack in Vin’s hands. His curiosity was piqued, but before he could ask, Chris interrupted.

"What's up, cowboy?" Chris asked, concern lacing his words as his eyes darted around the darkened yard.

"C-chris," Vin stammered, "you scared me."

Looking down at his son, Chris's eyes softened as he bent down and pulled Vin into a hug. "Sorry, cowboy," he apologized. But I heard the door open and then heard you gasp and I got worried."

"Sorry," Vin apologized, staring at the floor, a part of him afraid he’d be in trouble. He hadn't wanted to wake anyone up.

"So," Chris said, trying to catch Vin's eye, "what's going on?"

JD was the one to reply. "Vin hearded a noise at the door and peeked out the window. He seed a man in red walkin’ away," he explained. "I think it was Father Christmas," JD finished, his voice hushed and eyes wide in awe and wonder.

"That right, little britches?" Buck asked, forcing a smile to hide the concern he felt over someone sneaking up to the ranch in the middle of the night. He exchanged a quick glance with Chris. They would take a look around in the morning to make sure everything was fine. In the meantime they would both sleep lightly.

"So, what’s in it, Vin?" JD asked, missing the interplay between the two adults.

Vin’s eyes grew wide with wonder. "Presents," he breathed.

Chris looked oddly at his son. "Presents?" he asked, confused. He took the sack hanging loosely in his son’s hands, bringing it over to the table where everyone quickly had a seat.

Exchanging another look with Buck, Chris cautiously opened the mouth of the sack. Peeling the slightly damp cloth back, Chris held his breath. Looking down, he saw colorfully wrapped presents. Releasing the breath and letting puzzlement show on his face, he looked at Buck who shared his baffled expression.

"Presents," Vin breathed again. JD’s eyes were wider if possible. Both boys reached out to reverently touch the mysterious packages.

"Vin!" JD exclaimed suddenly. "This one has your name on it!"

"It does?" Vin asked, moving to get a better look. The boys and their fathers began a closer examination of the packages. Each package was addressed to either Vin or JD with no indication of the giver.

Again, the two men exchanged a look. Could this be a trick? Could someone be trying to get at them through the boys? And what if they really were presents? Who would have gotten them gifts? Taking a brightly wrapped gift from Vin’s hands, Chris, put the package back in the sack. "I think some people need to get back to bed," he said somewhat sternly. "These can all wait until the morning." Chris tried to hide his smile at the groans coming from JD and Vin, even as their eyes blinked in exhaustion.

"Come on, boys," Buck encouraged. "The sooner you get to sleep, the sooner Christmas can come." The two men carried the boys back to bed where the excitement that had kept them restless all night gave way to exhaustion, leaving the two small forms sleeping quietly.

Slipping out of the boys’ room, the two men moved back toward the table in the main room where they had left the sack containing the presents. "Think it was the townsfolk?" Buck asked, always willing to expect the best from people.

Chris picked up one of the boxes, turning it over in his hands as he thought. "Don’t know, Buck," he admitted. "Hope it wasn’t someone with a grudge against us." Looking up he met his friend’s eyes. "We’re going to have to let the boys open these," Chris said, his tone showing his wariness and concern.

"Chris, you don’t think… Nah"

"What, Buck?"

"Nothin’," Buck responded. "Stupid thought." Standing and stretching, he headed toward his room. "Best be getting some sleep now. Reckon the boys will be up at the crack of dawn."

"Reckon so," Chris replied, rising and heading toward his own room.

+ + + + + + +

Just as the sky began lightening in the East, the sound of two sets of scampering footsteps could be heard in the otherwise silent house as JD and Vin made their way to their fathers’ rooms to announce the dawning of Christmas.

"C’mon, Chris," Vin practically shouted in his excitement, as he tugged on hand of the formerly sleeping man. "It’s Christmas! C’mon, get up so we can do chores and breakfast and open gifts and go to Miss Nettie’s and see everyone!"

His consciousness returning after its all too brief sojourn into the land of slumber, Chris smiled at the exuberance of the normally quiet child. A few more hours sleep would be welcome, but Chris would give up whatever sleep he had to in order to see the glow of excitement in Vin’s eyes that dwelt there now. Yep, sleep could wait. "Go get dressed and start on the chores," he mumbled before letting lose a jaw-cracking yawn. "I’ll be up in a minute."

"’K!" Vin exclaimed, hurrying back to his room.

Buck had been fortunate enough to hear JD’s approach, so he didn’t have to suffer JD’s normal means of waking him up – peeling back an eyelid. "’Sup, Li’l Britches?" Buck mumbled turning to face the young scamp who had entered his room.

"Buck! It’s Christmas out and we gotta get moving, c’mon!" JD shouted, pulling at the big man to get him out of bed. "We’re going ta go and play and go to Miss Nettie’s and eat a lot and see Uncle ‘siah and Uncle Nathan and Uncle Ezra and Casey and Miss Rain, and… C’mon! We gotta get going!"

"Now, hold on there, Li’l Britches," Buck cautioned with a smile. "You need to get yourself dressed and the chores done ‘fore we can do anything else."

"OK!" JD shouted, racing for his room.

Taking a moment to stretch and dress, Buck slowly made his way into the main room of the cabin, grateful that Chris had put the coffee on. They would need it this morning.

Seeing the dark circles under his friend’s eyes, Buck smiled. Chris had looked very much the same the last Christmas before Adam died. He knew that this Christmas was bringing back memories for his old friend because he had been fighting the ghosts of the past himself. "Vin get ya up?" he asked, pouring some of the still warming coffee and sitting down.

"Yep," Chris replied, pouring a cup for himself and grimacing at the taste of the lukewarm beverage. At lest it would help him wake up some, he thought. "’Course, I could ‘a sworn it was JD from the amount of energy he was usin’."

Buck chuckled. "Yep, this sure is a special day for the boys," he agreed. His eyes wandered over to the tree that decorated a corner of the room, lighting on the additional presents from last night. "Wish we knew more about them presents," he said with a nod toward the gifts still sitting in the flour sack.

Chris frowned at the bag. "Would ‘a been nice to know who dropped it off," he mused out loud. "Wish we could’ve found it before the boys did. That way we could check it out and make sure everything’s OK," he finished, taking another sip of his coffee. The appearance of the presents just didn’t sit right with him, nor did Vin’s comment about seeing a man in dark red outside the house late at night.

Chris’ musings were interrupted by the crashing open of the door and the sound of two sets of feet racing over to the table. "What’s ta eat?" JD asked, practically bouncing in his seat.

Chris and Buck exchanged an amused, if somewhat tired look. "How do you feel about hotcakes?" Chris asked.

"Yum!" both boys chorused.

"Alright, then," Buck said. "Let’s get you boys cleaned up while Ol’ Chris starts cookin’," he instructed, taking the boys to clean up from their morning chores.

Soon the boys had finished their morning meal and waited as patiently as possible for the two men to finish. Sharing a smile at the antics of the squirming youngsters, Buck and Chris decided to have a little fun. "How long you reckon it’d take to whip up another batch of them hotcakes?" Buck asked, looking at his friend. "I sure could go for some more."

"Well, Buck," Chris said, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands over his stomach, "I figure I’ll have to clean everything up before I can start again. Of course, that means that the pan will have to cool down to be cleaned and then reheated… I’d say it’d take me a good hour at least."

Buck nodded sagely. "Sounds good. I think you should get started," he encouraged, a twinkle in his eye. This last statement brought whimpers of protest from both boys. Unable to hold back against the pained expressions on the young faces, Buck relented. "Nah, I can have hotcakes any old time. Let’s open some presents!" This new suggestion was greeted by unanimous cheers from the children of the family.

Racing across the room to take a seat by the tree, the boys waited impatiently for Chris to settle on the floor and begin to divide up the gifts, starting with the ones that had arrived mysteriously the previous night. The first gifts were opened with Chris and Buck sitting close by to make sure nothing unsuitable or dangerous was to be found within.

Neither man need have worried. JD opened his gift to find some picture books with cloth covers. The books had been folded into a box most likely to make wrapping easier. JD gave them a cursory glance and then stared longingly at the remaining gifts under the tree – more than he’d ever seen in his whole life!

Vin opened his first present to find a box of pencils. Seeing the slightly puzzled look on Vin’s face, Chris gently pointed out, "Those are artists pencils. You use them for sketching and drawing." A smile spread across the blond gunslinger’s face as he watched his son’s eyes widen in amazement, his mouth forming a perfect "O". Chris felt his heart soften and knew he would remember that look forever, silently thanking whatever powers that be for giving him another son.

Carefully opening the box, Vin reverently touched each pencil. He would have continued examining them had it not been for the impatient activity of his cousin. Noticing JD’s anxiety, Vin carefully placed his pencils to the side, a signal to Chris to pass out the next gifts.

With JD tearing through his gifts and Vin lingering over his, the unwrapping process evened out into a comfortable joyous time. Eventually the surprise gifts were all unwrapped and it came time to unwrap the gifts the small family had gotten each other.

Each gift caused exclamation and thanks to be given. When all was said and done, Chris had received a finely tooled bridal Buck had made, a pair of gloves from JD who explained their black color reminded him of Chris and they would match his clothes, and a new book from Vin. It had been one Chris had looked at and set back, thinking he didn’t have the time or money for such frivolity. The young boy, however, had noticed the gunman’s interest and had done odd jobs for various people to earn the money to buy it for his father. Inside he had even scribed a dedication, with the help of Buck who spelled the hard words for him.

From Vin, Buck received a shirt he had admired but had decided against picking up. Chris had gotten Buck something in a box that both men refused to let the boys see, though it made Buck’s eyes twinkle. From JD, Buck received a gift that made his eyes tear. JD had heard about a scrapbook from someone in town and decided to make a book to help Buck always remember how they came to live with them. Each page contained a picture, from the first page of a train to the most recent of four figures standing before a Christmas tree, JD had carefully drawn each memorable event in their life.

"Are you sad about my gift, Papa Buck?" JD asked, suddenly wondering if he had done something wrong.

"No, JD," Buck said, his voice horse with emotion, "I’m more happy than you’ll ever know about your gift." That said, Buck pulled his son into a fierce hug, only releasing the boy when JD insisted Buck stop "squooshing" him.

The boys each received a pair of warm socks, two apples and a small bag of candy. From Buck, Vin received a new shirt which Buck informed him was "blue like your eyes". From JD, Vin received some marbles, a new obsession for both boys. From Chris, Vin received a carved animal and a small Bible. Looking at his dad curiously, Vin waited for Chris to explain.

Licking his lips to hide his sudden nervousness, Chris explained, "When I married Sarah, she had this Bible and wrote down the date we became husband and wife." Swallowing back his emotion, he continued, "When Adam was born and we became a family, she wrote that down too. When they died," Chris fought the tears that threatened to overwhelm him. "When they died, Sarah had given me the Bible to carry so I would remember them, that’s why it’s not burned. I entered the day they died in the Bible too." Reaching across to the Bible and opening it to the page he had referred to, Chris directed Vin’s gaze to the new entries, "The day we knew you and JD were here to stay, I made a new entry for our family. Now it shows you, me, Buck and JD. This is our family Bible where we can record all the good and bad things in our life, when you came and we became a family, when you get married, when you have children… all of that. I want you to keep it Vin."

Looking up at his father, Vin didn’t know what to say. He returned his gaze to the page and traced the names and dates with his finger. The day they became a family: Chris, Sarah and Adam. The day they became a family: Chris, Buck, JD and Vin. Carefully setting the Bible aside, Vin reached over and hugged his dad.

JD received marbles from Vin, to which he exclaimed, "Now we both can play!" From Chris he received a shirt he had admired several weeks before. From Buck, he got what he thought was the best present of all, a picture of Buck and his mother from when Buck was a small boy. JD knew it was one of Bucks treasured possessions. He had often spent time staring at the picture, wondering what Buck's mom was like. From the stories Buck told, JD always thought he would like Buck's mom. "For me?" JD asked in a hushed voice, eyes wide in amazement.

Buck smiled down at the small boy. "Yep," he said as his son practically choked him in a tight hug. Best Christmas ever, the mustached man thought to himself.

Taking a few moments to clean up, Buck and Chris moved around the boys who were reviewing their treasure. "Still like to know who dropped off those gifts," Chris said quietly.

Buck smiled, "The boys think it was Father Christmas." This brought a smile to his friend's face. "Hate to disappoint them." Chris turned to look at his friend as Buck continued. "I know it ain't regular how this happened with the gifts just showin' up and all, but it really made the day even more special for the boys and it weren't nothin' bad..."

Chris sighed. He too felt relief that the bag had contained only presents, but a part of him worried about next year and what the boys would think when there failed to be a bag of presents. The sound of boyish laughter brought his focus back to the present. For today, he would worry about today and enjoy it. This was, after all, their first Christmas as a family, and Chris wanted to make sure it was special. Shrugging off his concerns, he corralled the two boy, bundled them and then himself up, making sure to wear his new gloves, even if they were a tad warm for the weather at the moment and got the horses saddled.

After a boisterous ride filled with much laughter, the foursome arrived at Nettie's place. The widow was standing in her doorway, apron on and a huge smile for her family. "Come on in out of the cold," she insisted, ushering the men and boys into the warm house.

As they entered the living room they found Casey, Ezra, Josiah, Nathan and Rain already seated and comfortable. Chris and Buck made their way toward two open chairs, Chris stopping to pick up cups of hot cider for both Buck and himself. Vin and JD made their way over to play with Casey who had a new game.

The day passed swiftly and joyfully. Everyone enjoyed the festivities and at some point each of the adults had found themselves deeply involved with at least one of the games the children used to amuse themselves. As they sat down at the delicious Christmas feast Nettie and Rain had prepared, Chris' spilled a little of his cider on Ezra's bright red jacket as he accidentally bumped his elbow while sitting. Apologizing to the Southerner, Chris picked up his napkin and began trying to dab at the wet spots. His eyes narrowed slightly at the sight of the wet fabric. While dry, Ezra's jacket maintained a brilliant red, when wet, the red darkened. I saw a man in a dark red coat. Vin's words echoed in Chris' mind. He looked up at Ezra with a puzzled expression.

"Is something the matter, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked.

Chris stared at the Southerner another moment before responding, "Nope."

Dinner finished, the group retired once more to the sitting room where the three children begged and pleaded until the adults agreed to allow them to open the gifts that were there for them under the tree. Many smiles and thanks sounded throughout the room along with the joy-filled laughter of the people in it as the gifts were exchanged.

Everyone enjoyed seeing the expressions on the faces of each other as the gifts were opened and commented upon. The only question came from Vin. Upon opening Ezra's gift to him, he was initially disappointed. Uncle Ezra had gotten him a book. Not seeing a title on the outside, he looked inside and was shocked to discover nothing but blank pages inside.

Ezra sat in his chair and watched Vin. He saw the initial disappointment, which he had expected and smiled when he saw the puzzled look settle upon the boy's face. He waited patiently as Vin stood and made his way over. "Thanks for the book," Vin said, "but it ain't got no words in it."

Ezra smiled at his adopted nephew. "That's because it's a book that artists use to draw in," he explained. "I noticed you liked to draw and thought it might prove useful to you."

A huge smile bloomed on Vin's face as he reached forward and hugged his Uncle Ezra tightly. "Thanks Uncle Ez! Now I can use my new artist pencils!" he exclaimed joyfully, racing back to tell JD the news.

Ezra turned his head to meet the penetrating gazes of Chris Larabee and Buck Willmington. He had noticed the two head turn suddenly toward each other as Ezra explained about the book and then focus those gazes in his direction. Knowing he had been caught, Ezra put on his best poker face, smiled at Chris and Buck and asked, "Pray, tell, are you in need of some assistance?"

Chris narrowed his eyes, examining the gambler's face for any break in the mask. Not seeing one, he thought a question was in order. With just a hint of a smile on his face, Chris asked, "Been on any late night rides recently, Ezra?"

Ezra didn't give away anything. He wasn't an exceptional gambler and conman for nothing. "I have no idea to what you are referring, Mr. Larabee," he stated simply.

Easing back in his chair, Chris allowed his smile to grow. "Amazing how Vin got a box of artist's pencils from a mysterious midnight visitor dressed in red," he baited. He thought he saw Ezra flinch slightly, but couldn't be sure.

"That is a most interesting tale, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied. "You must tell me, did that really happen or did Master Tanner simply pay too close of attention to the stories they were told in school?"

Chris smiled. He wouldn't get anything from the gambler, but he'd bet his ranch that Ezra had been the mysterious visitor. Man probably bought all those presents and then panicked about the amount he bought, Chris thought to himself. Well, Chris would find some way to pay him back.

"Please," Ezra encouraged, "do relate to me the saga of the mysterious visit and its aftermath. I do believe it would provide an interesting diversion."

Buck chuckled softly, slapping the gambler on the shoulder and saying, "You’re a good man, Ezra Standish."

The End

Feedback: mmwert@yahoo.com