"Little Britches" Universe

Thank you to JK Poffenberger and S Berry for this fun little Alternate Universe, and for letting others play! This the first M7 story I ever wrote (August 2000) but never posted. (I just had to get Vin and JD settled in with Chris and Buck). This story immediately follows Little Britches - The Train West and Little Britches 2 - In the Arms of Love.
Thanks to Kerry for beta-ing and to Nancy, Winter and Ronnie who kept encouraging me to finish this story.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was awakened a couple hours later to another sound but couldn't figure it out for a few minutes. No one was moving around this time. Softly he made his way to the boys little room. As he got closer, he could distinguish the sound. One of the boys was crying, sobbing in his sleep.

"What is it?" whispered Buck over Chris's shoulder.

Chris held the lantern a little higher so they could see the boys. Both boys were on their backs. JD was laying half atop Vin, snuggled under the older boy's chin, and sucking his thumb. Vin was the one with tears trickling down his cheeks, crying while he slept.

Chris stepped forward and lightly brushed Vin's cheek. Vin turned his face towards the touch and seemed to quiet. Buck tucked the blankets around the boys and they went back to the main room. Buck saw Chris take a deep breath and sigh. Smiling to himself, he made his way to his own bed. These kids were starting to get to Chris. That hard exterior was cracking rapidly.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was up early and watching JD amusedly while he started breakfast. Little JD was up and standing by Buck's bed watching him sleep. JD turned and looked at Chris. "Mr. Buck sure makes lots of noise when he sleeps," said JD.

"That he does, JD. Is he awake yet?"

JD peered over Buck's face and with his pudgy little hand he pulled up one of Buck's eyelids. "Are you awake, Mr. Buck?" asked JD.

Buck groggily took hold of the little hand that was prying at his eye. "I am now, Little Bit. What'ya doin' up so early?"

"Mr. Chris is makin' breakfast."

"Oh, I see," said Buck as he sat up. He glared at Chris, who was making no effort to cover his laughter.

"No!" Vin yelled from the boys' tiny bedroom.

Faster than either Buck or Chris could move, JD made a beeline across the room and onto the bed with Vin. As Buck and Chris reached the curtain they could see JD shaking Vin's shoulder saying, "Wake up Vin. It's 'k. It's jes your dream... jes your dream."

Chris and Buck both turned away and walked quickly from the little scene as Vin awoke.

"Your dream?" asked Buck softly.

"Your nightmare." Chris shook his head sadly. That boy was carrying the world.

"You 'wake Vin?" JD's little voice carried through the small house.


"You had your dream."

"Yeah. Git off me, JD." The words were harsh, but Vin's voice was shaking.

"Sowwy," said JD, ducking his head.

"It's okay. I ain't mad at ya," assured Vin.

"Okay," JD brightened. "Mr. Chris is making breakfast."

"Is he mad?" asked Vin anxiously. "Did I sleep too long?" Buck and Chris could hear the alarm in Vin's voice. The boy was fearful that he had done something wrong.

"He dinna say nuthin, Vin. He jes wanted ta know if Mr. Buck was awake."

"Git your clothes on JD... Hurry," whispered Vin frantically.

Chris and Buck heard the boys rustling around getting dressed. The next words broke their hearts. It was only a whisper, but in the silence of the cabin, it was deafening.

"JD, remember, only eat what they put in front of you. No seconds. If you're still hungry, eat mine."

"I 'member Vin. 'Cause no one wants boys who," JD struggled to remember, "who eats too much or doesn't work hard enough."

In moments, the two boys were lined up in front of Chris and Buck, hands to their sides, heads down.

"Mornin' boys," said Chris.

JD glanced over at Vin, but when Vin didn't respond, JD quickly put his head back down.

Buck and Chris looked at each other, not understanding what they were watching. Their hearts were still reeling from the overheard conversation. Buck knelt down in front of JD. "What'ya doin' JD?"

"We's supposed ta line up and not say nuthin in the mornin'." He stole another glance at Vin.

'Oh no! Why'd he go and say that?' thought Vin desperately. 'Yer not supposed ta talk, JD! We gotta be good. We can't do bad things. They'll send us away.'

"What!" exclaimed Buck in surprise at JD's revelation.

Vin, thinking Buck was angry and fearing for JD, stepped between them. "It ain't his fault, Mr. Buck. He's too little to know the rules. Please - don't hurt him." He spread his arms protectively and backed into JD, pushing the smaller boy a little further away from Buck.

Chris had heard enough. "Boys, sit down. You too, Buck. We're all going to have a little talk." Chris smiled sadly as Vin positioned himself between Chris and JD, holding onto JD’s little hand tightly. The kid would do anything to protect his cousin. Chris sat down too, hoping that it would help the boys not to be afraid of him. "First of all, I want you both to hear me good. No one is going to hurt you here. You don't have to line up in the morning. There's nothing to be afraid of here. You can eat as much as you want. You might have a chore or two, but it ain't gonna be more than you can do. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir," mumbled Vin.

"Yes sir," echoed JD.

'Great,' thought Chris, 'They think I'm angry.' By their responses, they either didn't understand or maybe didn't believe him. Chris looked at the fearful faces. Both boys were clearly expecting reprimands, maybe even a beating.

"Boys, why don't you go use the privy and wash up for breakfast," Chris said gently. As they complied, Chris noticed Vin looking around the room for something before they went out. Vin seemed to settle his mind and followed JD out.

Buck sighed. "Them sure are good kids, but we got our work cut out for us."

"We sure do," agreed Chris as he busied himself with breakfast. After several minutes, Chris said, "You'd better check on them, Buck."

As Buck opened the door, there were two boys about to step in. JD was carrying a piece of firewood and Vin was carrying four or five. They carefully moved into the room and stacked the wood into the wood box.

JD brushed the wood chips off the front of his shirt on to the floor. Buck grinned at him, realizing that he would have done the same thing. But his smile faded as Vin practically dove at the spot and quickly picked up even the smallest pieces and put them next to the wood box in the stack of kindling.

With trembling hands, the seven-year old picked pieces off his own shirt and did the same. He had tried to do something good and it just made things worse. Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck were going to get rid of them for sure now. Vin remained silent, dropping his head sadly.

Chris tried to diffuse the obvious fear. "Thank you, JD. Thank you, Vin. We needed more wood. That was real thoughtful of you."

"Welcome, Mr. Chris," said JD enthusiastically, not understanding his cousin's silence.

Vin wouldn't look up. He moved silently to the table as Mr. Chris directed them to sit down to eat.

+ + + + + + +

The next few days were very similar. Chris and Buck with the help of Nathan and Josiah were beginning to understand the fears that drove little Vin. Most of their understanding came from asking JD questions when Vin wasn't nearby. JD didn't feel the same fears, because he had every confidence that his older and wiser cousin, Vin, would take care of him. JD knew that as long as he was with Vin, he was safe.

The men understood the boys' fear of being separated. The two cousins were all each had left of their families, and Vin had made a promise to keep them together.

After watching him during mealtime, they had figured out that Vin wasn't really a light eater. Someone had told him somewhere along the way that nobody wanted two boys because they were too much to feed. Vin somehow thought that if he shortchanged himself so JD would have enough to eat, they could stay together.

They soon discovered that Vin's problem with letting Nathan take care of his back wasn't caused by his shame about his scars. He was afraid that Chris would think he couldn't work and would send him away.

One by one, they did battle with Vin's fears. Some things were simple, such as dishing up the food for the boys. They dished up man size helpings for the boys and JD found it hard to finish his, so he wasn't eating Vin's any more, but this only brought on a new fear for Vin. A fear that they would be tossed out for wasting food. After many reassurances, Vin began to settle in and gradually was eating more.

They tried to reassure the boys at every turn that they would find a family to take both boys. They gave the boys simple chores to do, nothing too strenuous for Vin, giving his back a chance to rest up some. They understood though, that most of the fears would be settled only with time - proving that what Chris and Buck said was true.

JD was adjusting easily. He was so trusting and willing to take life as it was. He hadn't had time enough for the loss of the world to settle on him as it had Vin. The lively boy had made an immediate attachment with Buck. They were inseparable. JD re-lit the little boy in Buck. He played with JD every chance he got. And JD played with Billy Travis when they were in town.

One sunny afternoon found them all having a picnic down by the creek. JD, Buck and Billy were roughhousing while Vin sat by himself, on a rock, watching them. Chris, Josiah and Mary were sitting together in the shade of the trees. Chris was observing Vin, wishing that the kid would just get up and play.

"Don't ya wish he'd just get up and play?" said Josiah.

Chris looked at him, startled that Josiah seemed to have been reading his mind. "That boy's got the whole world on his shoulders. It ain't right. He should be able to just be a kid."

Josiah kept his eyes on Chris.

"What?" asked Chris, annoyed at the stare.

"Sounds like someone else I know," said Josiah quietly.

Shaking his head at the preacher's interference in his private life, Chris got up and made his way over to where Vin was sitting. As Chris stood next to Vin, he could see Vin had a little grin on his face watching the antics as JD squealed when Buck tickled him. The grin disappeared as Buck got a little too rough and JD had the wind knocked out of him. Vin was off the rock like a shot and at JD's side.

"JD?" he asked anxiously.

Buck stepped in. "It's alright, Vin. He just got the wind knocked out of him. Let me take care of him."

It was totally done in innocence, but Chris, Josiah and Mary saw the change in Vin's body language. As Buck stepped in between Vin and JD, Vin stiffened and stepped back. Vin stepped forward again and Buck held him back with his forearm, so he could check on JD. When JD responded to Buck's help, Vin turned and ran.

"Vin!" Chris called after the fleeing boy.

Buck looked at Chris in confusion. "Stay here," Chris said. "I'll get him." He hurried into the trees after Vin.

+ + + + + + +

Chris hadn't figured on this. He thought it would be as easy as it was the first time the boys had run away. But this time, Vin wasn't protecting a five-year old, only himself, and he knew how to hide. After thirty minutes of looking, Chris went back to the creek.

"Chris?" asked Buck as he saw him approaching without Vin in tow.

"Need some help looking," said Chris simply. Mary volunteered to take Billy and JD back to her house and send Ezra and Nathan to help.

"Is Vin lost?" asked JD with fear in his voice.

Chris knelt down in front of JD. "JD, he's upset about something. He just wanted to be alone for a bit. We'll find him." He gently rubbed JD's head before straightening back up.

"Ok, Mr. Chris."

+ + + + + + +

The creek wasn't far from town so Nathan and Ezra found Chris, Buck and Josiah easily. Chris led them out and showed them where he had already looked for the missing boy.

"Why'd he run off?" asked Buck.

Before Chris could answer, Josiah said, "Brother Buck, I think he felt he was no longer needed to protect JD... and therefore was no longer useful."

"He run off 'cause I helped JD?"

"Looked that way to me, Buck," said Chris. "It's just something he's got to adjust to."

Buck nodded and they continued searching.

+ + + + + + +

Vin could hear Mr. Chris and others calling for him but he didn't answer. JD didn't need him anymore. He had Mr. Buck now, and that was okay even though it made his chest hurt. Mr. Buck was very nice and JD really liked him. Vin figured JD's chances were better with Mr. Buck than the two of them being placed together, so it made perfect sense to him to run off. Once he had had time to think, he knew he didn't want to lose JD. He didn't want to be alone. He wanted to be with Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck, too. He wanted to go back, 'cept now he couldn't because Mr. Chris would be mad.

So he hid.

When it got dark, Vin really regretted his decision. It was cold out in the woods. He didn't have his coat to block the wind. He didn't even have his socks and shoes and he was really hungry. "Dumb move, Tanner," he said to himself. The words made his chest hurt as he remembered that horrible man saying the same words to his pa. He shuddered trying to close out the memories before they got started. He didn't need to have his dream while he was awake.

"Think Vin, Think. What would Pa do?" Vin said. "Fire. He'd make a fire. I know how. He showed me. I just have to remember..." Vin set about finding a better place to camp for the night as well as gathering the wood he'd need for his fire.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was very upset when they had to stop searching because of darkness. It was just too dangerous to continue. All he could think about was a little kid was out there alone and anything could happen. He reluctantly went back to town with the others to rest and gather what was needed for the next day.

There was no calming JD when they returned without Vin. He was still crying as they bedded down in the boarding house. Chris watched as Buck held the boy close, trying to comfort him. "Vin will be fine JD. He'll find a safe place to sleep."

JD shook with silent sobs as he tried to pull himself together. "I know that, Mr. Buck. I just miss him," said JD.

The men exchanged surprised glances. "You know that?" prompted Buck.

"Vin slept out lots of times with his pa." Seeing Buck's questioning face, he continued. "Vin's papa took him everywhere. His papa was a sheriff."

"A sheriff?" encouraged Buck. At least the Little Bit wasn't crying anymore.

"Yep. With a badge an everything," said JD with pride. "Vin knows how to ride a horse and shoot a gun and make a fire and find frogs... and... all kinds of things."

It was a little reassuring to know that Vin had at least slept out at night, so maybe he wouldn't be too frightened. But camping with your father was a lot different from being a seven-year old alone. Chris prayed that nothing happened to him.

"What happened to Vin's pa, JD?" asked Buck.

JD's eyes got real big and he pushed himself away from Buck's chest. "I's not supposed to say." Buck nodded thinking that was all JD would say, but the little guy felt totally safe with Buck. He figured that if it would help them find Vin, it would be okay to tell Mr. Buck.

"His papa was kilt by a bad man. He hurted Vin bad and kilt his papa." JD leaned over and whispered very loudly, "That's how Vin got them scratches on his back... but don't tell him I said."

Buck smiled sadly over the bowed head. "I won't, Little Bit. Now let's try to get some sleep. We're going to get up real early to look for Vin."

+ + + + + + +

It was a rough night for all of them. The two men and the lonely little boy slept restlessly as the lost seven-year old waged his battle against fear under the stars. Despite the fire Vin had built, he was still cold. The young boy hunched as close as he could to the fire, knowing that he not only needed the warmth but also the protection from animals that it offered. He didn't dare sleep, afraid that his dream would come and JD wasn't there to rescue him from its clutches.

As daylight came, he cooked the rabbit he had snared and devoured it. It tasted good in spite of the lack of seasoning. Looking over his situation, he decided to wait where he was for Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck. He didn't think he was really lost, but Papa had always told him to stay put if he could and someone would find him. He had decided that he had to go back even if it meant getting beat and sent away from JD. If anything, at least JD would have a good place.

+ + + + + + +

Chris was frustrated. It was already mid-afternoon and there was still no sign of Vin. He glanced over at Buck and JD. JD looked so sad and Buck didn't look much better.

"What do you want to do, Chris?" asked Buck.

"I don't think he could have come this far on foot. I think we must have missed him. I'm going to work my way back toward the creek."

Buck nodded in agreement and they turned the horses back towards the creek. They continued to search and call for Vin all afternoon.

When Chris cursed as the sun began to set, JD looked over at him in fear. Trying to reassure the small boy, Buck patted JD's shoulder. "It's okay, Little Bit, he's just worried about Vin. He ain't mad at you."

Chris looked up at JD. "I'm sorry, JD, " he said as he scruffed JD's hair lightly. "I just don't want Vin to have to sleep out here another night. When it gets dark, we can't look for him."

"I know, Mr. Chris." Buck held him a little tighter as the tears ran down his cheeks.

+ + + + + + +

It was mid-morning the next day before Vin had snared another rabbit. He cleaned it and began to cook it. He was tired and cold. After he ate, he was going to try to figure his way back to town on his own. When he heard a strange noise approaching his makeshift camp, he moved into the relative safety of the trees to watch.

Buck and Chris had headed out again at first light. This time they had left JD with Mary and Billy. It was too hard to watch his disappointment grow the longer it took to find his lost cousin. Chris reined his horse to an abrupt stop as his stomach growled.

"Chris?" Buck looked over and saw that Chris was concentrating on something. "Chris?" he asked again.

A grin spread across Chris's face. "Do you smell that?"

Buck paused and took a deep breath. "Lunch!" he said with a smile.

Chris reined his horse into the direction of the breeze and within a few moments, he spotted the fire, but there was no one in the camp. "Hello the Camp," he called.

"Mr. Chris?" replied a tiny voice.

"Vin?" asked Chris, swinging down from his horse.

The boy stepped out of the shadows of his hiding place in the trees, hesitating as he tried to see just how angry they were with him.

"Vin," Chris said again, softly, moving away from his horse. Vin ran to him and leapt into his arms. Chris was a bit surprised by the quiet seven-year old's open display, but didn’t let that stop him from swallowing Vin’s slight frame up in a big hug. The kid was shaking like a leaf. Chris held him tightly until he sensed Vin letting go.

He set Vin back on his feet and stepped back a couple of steps to get a good look at the boy. "Are you all right son?" he asked gently, being very careful to keep any anger or disapproval out of his voice.

Vin nodded. "I made a fire."

"I see that. What'ya got there? Rabbit?"

Vin nodded. "Ya want some? It's purty good even without salt."

Chris smiled. "Sure."

"Well, howdy," said Buck when he was sure Vin was calmed.

"Hi, Mr. Buck. Is JD all right?"


Vin dropped the stick he was carrying and froze. His frightened eyes flew up to catch the taller man’s serious gaze.

"He's worried about ya, Vin," said Buck softly. "Misses ya somethin’ fierce." He watched the fear fade from Vin's face as the boy realized his cousin was safe. Buck grinned as he said, "He needs ya Vin. You're the only real kin he's got. Nobody can take your place."

Vin dropped his head in shame. He had let them all down. JD must have been so scared. Chris moved closer and knelt down in front of him but he could barely hear what Vin had to say. "I'm awful sorry, Mr. Chris."

"I know you are Vin. You wanna tell me about it?"

When Vin finally met his eyes, Chris could see the desperation and hope there. "I made a mess a' things."

Chris nodded. "We all make mistakes sometimes, Vin. What happened?"

There was almost a moan before Vin spoke. "I thought... since JD has Mr. Buck... well he don't need me... and... and..." Tears were starting to roll down the tracks already there on the dirty face. Chris felt compelled to hug him, but knew that Vin needed to be a little man and tell him first. "...I thought..." his voice was a whisper now. " I thought you'd keep JD if I wasn't I ran away."

Chris's heart nearly broke at the desolation in the boy's voice, grimacing as he realized he was starting to get attached to the kid. Somehow, this boy really believed that if he were out of the picture, JD would have a good home with the two men. "What happened out here?"

"I hid... I was stupid... I figured I should go back... but, I didn't know 'xactly where I was." Vin squared his shoulders, looking Chris directly in the eye. "Papa told me if'n I was lost to sit down and stay put. So, I did... I made a fire like Papa taught me... and snared a rabbit that night... couldn't find one yesterday, but I got another today...Mr. Chris?"

"Yes Vin?"

"I'm real glad you found me... and I'm real sorry for the trouble I been. Please," Vin hesitated, "ya can hit me, or…or…or send me away if ya gotta, but please...JD didn't do nuthin'."

Vin's words chilled Chris, confirming what he had already thought. Someone had done terrible wrongs to this child. It was a very good thing Chris didn't know who - he would have let them know what it was like to live in fear. All little Vin wanted to do was keep his promise to JD's mama. Choking back his anger, Chris pulled Vin into his arms and held him tightly. "Vin, I'm not gonna hit you and I'm not gonna send you away, but you gotta promise me something." He pushed Vin slightly away so that he could look him in the eye.

Vin could see tears in Mr. Chris's eyes. He looked mad, but not at Vin since his fingers weren’t digging into his forearms and he wasn’t shaking him either. He was mad at something else.

"Vin, I want you to promise me you won't ever run away again. If something's bothering you, you tell me. But don't run away. No matter what. All right?"

Vin nodded. Chris pulled him back into a hug, and Vin relaxed a little in the firm embrace. Vin felt a touch on his arm and looked up to see Buck. He looked really sad for some reason but he didn't look mad either. "I'm sorry, Mr. Buck," said Vin.

"Me too, Vin," said Buck. Chris smiled as Vin broke his hug with Chris to hug Buck. The two men’s eyes met over the blonde head, recognizing yet another victory. "Hey Vin," said Buck as he broke the hug. "Got something for ya." He moved to his saddlebags and pulled out Vin's socks and shoes.

"Thanks, Mr. Buck!" Vin took them eagerly and put them on his filthy feet. Buck handed Vin the heavy coat as well, which Vin readily slipped into, shaking slightly. It wasn't cold, but he was still chilled from being out in the weather.

"That rabbit smells about done," said Chris.

Vin moved quickly to the fire and took his knife and cut a little piece off. He took a bite and grimaced. "Whew! Hot!" He waved his hand in front of his mouth, eyes watering with pain. Chris quickly gave him a canteen. Vin took a couple of gulps, wiping his mouth with his sleeve as he handed the canteen back to Chris.

"It's done," Vin said with an embarrassed grin.

Chris chuckled. "Yep. I gathered that. Buck, why don't you pull out them left over biscuits from breakfast."

"I was just thinking the same thing," said Buck as he pulled out the biscuits that were wrapped in a red checkered napkin and three tin plates. Normally, they would have taken care of the rabbit, but this was Vin's catch and his preparation. Buck handed Chris a plate and set one next to Vin, keeping the third.

With the worries of the world momentarily forgotten, Vin looked up at Chris with a devilish glint in his eye and then back at the rabbit. Knowing that the kid was up to something, Chris had to smile. Vin then cut off a nice size piece for Buck, and a similar sized piece for Chris, slipping them on their plates. Because Chris was waiting for Vin to take a tiny piece and back off, as had been his habit, he almost choked on his biscuit when Vin slid the rest of the rabbit onto his own plate. Blue eyes flicked over to Chris for a moment, looking for judgment but all they saw was Chris's big grin.

Buck, watching the exchange between the two, jumped in teasingly. "Hey! How come your piece is bigger than mine?"

Between hungry bites, Vin replied, "Well, I reckon I snared it... cleaned it... cooked it... I ought to get the biggest piece..." He grinned as he imitated Buck's habit of bobbing his eyebrows up and down when he made a joke. "Sides, JD ain't here so I git his share." They all laughed.

Chris looked at the little man before him, for that was what he was since he never had the chance to be a boy. The laughter was the sweetest sound he had heard in a long time. He was surprised to discover that he wanted to make sure this boy had some fun times. 'Stop it Larabee! You are not getting involved. This is just temporary.' Shaking off the thought, he took another bite of the savory meat. "Vin, this is really good. What did you use for seasoning?"

Vin swallowed his bite. "Just gotta find the right plants."

"Your pa teach you?" asked Buck.

"Nope. Tahshew showed me."

"Tahshew?" Buck continued.

"He was Pa's friend. He's Comanche."

"That why you went looking for the Indian Reservation when you first got here?" asked Chris.

"Yep. I heard Mr. Josiah say they wasn't gonna keep JD and me together. And he said the Indians were his friends. I figured that maybe I could find somebody like Tahshew. They'd keep us together."

"We're gonna do everything possible to keep you two together," said Chris. "Let's finish lunch and get back to town so the others stop worrying about ya."

"I can take care of myself."

Chris wanted to laugh at the defensive pride in the little voice. "Yep. You sure can, Vin. But you know what? You don't have to. You can let me and Buck do that for awhile and just have some fun and be a kid."

Vin looked at Buck. He knew Buck wanted JD, but Vin wasn't so sure the tall dark haired man wanted him as well.

"I ain't cute like JD."

Buck frowned. "What'ya mean ya aren't cute like JD? Yer mighty cute. You're a bit more growed up than him, taking care of him like you have. You're very special, Vin."

The impish look came again as Vin sliced a hunk off his still huge piece of rabbit. "I reckon ya kin have more fer sayin' that." He plopped the food on Buck's plate with a grin. Then he cut off another piece for Chris.

"No Vin, I have enough," said Chris.

"It's okay, Mr. Chris. I really can't eat that much. I ain't used to it. I'll save a biscuit for later in case I gets hungry." Chris nodded to him, realizing the boy was being totally honest with him.

+ + + + + + +

An hour later, they rode into town. "Let's get JD and head for home," said Chris as they pulled up in front of the Clarion office.

"Mr. Chris? I'd like ta talk ta Mr. Josiah fer a minute iffn that's all right?" asked Vin.

Chris saw Josiah and Nathan coming towards them. Evidently, they had just returned as well. "Sure, Vin." He lowered Vin carefully off the horse, watching as Vin walked up the street to meet Josiah.

"Vin, are you all right, son?" asked Josiah, kneeling down to Vin's height.

Vin nodded as he spoke. "Mr. Josiah. Mr. Nathan. I'm awful sorry I made such a big problem. I didn't mean fer folks ta go lookin' fer me. I weren't thinkin' right. M'sorry."

"Well Vin, we all make mistakes," said Josiah. "Even us big folks. We're all just glad you're okay." Josiah rose to his feet and walked towards Chris.

"I'd like to check you over, son," said Nathan gently.

"I's all right, Mr. Nathan. Honest. I was a little cold and a bit thirsty, but I had me a fire and cooked me a couple rabbits."

Nathan looked at him and had to smile. The kid was dirt from head to toe, but he didn't look any worse for the wear. Nathan put his hand on the boy's shoulder and walked him toward Chris and JD, who was now hollering with glee as he saw his cousin.

"Vin! Vin!" JD bowled into Vin, knocking him down. Vin just smiled and hugged JD.

"I'm sorry fer worrying ya, JD."

"It's okay, Vin. I ain't mad. Did ya have a 'venture?"

"I reckon, JD. But I'd rather not do it again."

"Come on, boys, let's get home," said Chris.

The two boys untangled themselves and JD headed for Buck as Vin headed for Mary Travis.

"Chris, I'll drop by tomorrow," said Nathan.

"Thanks, Nate. Come on, Vin," he said to the boy who had gone in the opposite direction.

Vin stood in front of Mary. "Mrs. Travis?"

"Yes, Vin?"

He had his head down, unable to meet her eyes. "Ma'am, I'm awful sorry about runnin' off. I didn't mean to worry folks. I was wrong... But, I want ta thank ya fer watchin' out fer JD."

She smiled. "Thank you for your apology, Vin. We all make mistakes." She took his chin in her hand and lifted his face to look at her. He pulled away from her touch, but kept eye contact. "And Vin, It was my pleasure to take care of JD. Now you head on home." She moved her hand to his shoulder and gently turned him to the horse.

Chris was smiling. He was proud that Vin had apologized to the others without any prompting. Josiah lifted Vin easily and settled him behind Chris, marveling at how light the boy was and that he was so thin. His bones were so close to the surface, they felt like sticks covered in paper. Josiah was certain Chris would do his best to get some meat on those bones.

"Thanks for your help boys," said Chris. "Mary." He tipped his hat and they headed back to the ranch.


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