"Little Britches" Universe
Thanks to JK Poffenberger and S. Berry for the Little Britches AU. Thanks to Winter and Ronnie and the Bad AOeLement for bouncing around the ideas which transformed into this story. Thanks to Winter for Josiah's ark animals and for the "hot" bath water. Thanks to Kerry for fixing my boo-boo's and helping me express my ideas more clearly.
The two boys had been staying in town all week with Josiah, spending their days playing and sleeping in the drafty church at night. Chris and Buck had dropped them off with the big man before they left to trail a bank robber who had taken off with the money from the towns vault. Josiah kept an eye on the boys as they played around town as he and Nathan worked on the church. JD loved the arrangement since he got to play with Josiahs carved animals to his hearts content. On their third day in town, Vin and JD met a couple of older boys who lived in town and spent a lot of time with them. They enjoyed the normal games that any boy their ages played. Swimming, racing down the main street, playing hide and seek took up the majority of their time. One afternoon, Vin and JD found themselves peeking around the far corner of the saloon with two of their new friends, Eddie and Johnny.
"That's him," Eddie whispered. "See? The guy over there by the water barrel. Thats Old Four Fingers!"
"He doesn't look so scawy," said JD.
"That's because we're over here and he's over there. If you were closer, you could see that he has really mean eyes," the blond boy retorted with a menacing look. "He only has four fingers on his left hand."
"Yeah," agreed Johnny. "My brother Jeff told me that some mean old man cut off his finger when he was little because he broke a window."
Vin glanced across the street at the man in question with a frown. Eddies story sounded like a tall tale to him, but he could see that JD was soaking in every word.
"He owns that new store across from the newspaper office," said Eddie.
"Yeah," said Johnny, "my dad won't even shop there because that guy's so scary."
"And your dad ain't scared of nothin'!" agreed Eddie.
"I bet Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck ain't scared of him," said JD, tossing his dark hair out of his eyes. "Ain't that right, Vin?"
Vin nodded and grabbed JD by the sleeve, starting to pull him toward the church. He was just as curious about old Four Fingers as JD, but had the feeling that this was leading to no good. "Come on, JD. It's about lunch time and Mr. Josiah will be wondering where we are."
"Aw, Vin," complained JD, trying to tug his arm out of his cousins grasp. "I wanna see him up close."
Vin scowled. Even though he wanted to see the strange old man up close, he could feel it in his bones that if they stayed with Eddie and Johnny any longer, they would be headed for trouble. "Now JD," ordered Vin. "We ain't supposed to be getting in any trouble," he added reminding JD of their promise to Buck and Chris. Vin pulled his cousin by the arm again, away from the older boys and towards the church. They could hear the older boys laughing at them, and calling them scaredy-cats.
"Dont pay them no mind, JD," Vin said as he threw his arm around the smaller boys shoulders.
JD kept looking back over his shoulder at the strange old man as the two of them headed to the church. He squinted in the midday sun, trying to grab a glimpse of the hand that was missing a finger. Between Vins fast pace and the fact that the man had his hands stuffed in his pants, JD disappointedly found himself inside of the church without any success.
Thursday morning Josiah received a telegraph from Chris stating that the two men were finally on their way home and would be back by nightfall. The boys were excited, knowing that their family would be together shortly. The two of them took off right after breakfast to spend some time at the creek after telling Josiah where they were headed. They had been there for a couple of hours before Eddie and Johnny showed up. Pretty soon, the four boys were engaged in an intense stone skipping contest. Johnny, been the biggest of the boys, could throw the farthest, but Vin had the most accurate aim. JD was very satisfied with himself when he could get his stone to skip more than three times before sinking.
As the boys returned to town, they made a game of trying to hit specific objects with their pocketfuls of rocks they had collected at the creek. They would pick out the odd tree stump or wagon rut to take aim at and see who could come the closest to the target. Eddie, Johnny and Vin could all throw a rock clean over the roof of the livery but when JD flung his rock with all his might, it hit the roof about three feet above the wall and rolled back down. Johnny and Eddie laughed when it landed back at JDs feet. Vin smiled, torn between being one of the older boys and watching out for his younger cousin. Their next target was Nathan's sign for healing. Eddie, Johnny and Vin all bounced a rock off the sign but, when JD flung his rock, he frowned as it thunked and rolled on the deck of Nathan's second floor office, missing the sign by more than three feet.
"It's okay, JD. You ain't as big as us," whispered Vin as Eddie and Johnny laughed at the younger boys miss. "When you're bigger, you'll be able to throw farther."
"I know!" shouted Eddie. "Let's hit old Four Fingers' sign."
"Yeah!" said Johnny, running a few steps before flinging his rock. The ten-year old grinned as it hit the sign with a satisfying thunk. Eddie and Vin followed, both hitting the sign. Shading his eyes with a grimy hand, JD looked up at the brown sign and sighed when he saw how high it was. He didnt like it when Eddie and Johnny laughed at him and he knew that if he missed this target, they would never let him live it down. He rolled his rock in his hand, studying the sign, trying to find the easiest angle. He held the rock up and thought that maybe if he had a bigger rock, he would have a better chance at success. He reached in his pocket and pulled out all his rocks and spread them on the ground, picking out the biggest stone. It was flat and smooth, almost two inches long. 'This one will make it,' thought JD.
"Come on, kid," Eddie prodded. "Are you gonna throw it or just stand there looking at it?"
Vin watched as JD hurled the rock with all his might. The grin faded from his face as he realized the rock was not going to hit the sign. It was arching beautifully heading right for Four Fingers' storefront window. "No!" he yelled helplessly.
All four boys froze at the sound of the breaking window, staring at the spot where the glass had been.
"Vat da hell!" yelled Four Fingers from inside the musty store. Eddie and Johnny found their feet and ran as the storeowner came out of his store with a broom in his hand. Catching sight of JD and Vin who were still frozen in place, he stormed toward the boys, shaking the broom at them. "I told you boys to stay away from my store!"
Vins heart was pounding as he watched in morbid fascination as the old man came closer to them. His learned inclination was to protect his cousin, but his natural instinct was screaming at him to run as fast as he could. Eddie and Johnny had the right idea taking off like they did. This guy was the meanest looking man Vin had ever seen. He was startled into motion when the man tossed the broom aside and grabbed JD by his upper arms and began to shake him causing the rocks that were still in JD's tiny hand to scatter on the street.
"Leave him alone!" yelled Vin, kicking the man in the leg, trying to make him let go of JD. The man held onto JD tightly with one hand and shoved Vin down to the packed dirt with the other.
JD was so terrified that he didn't make a sound. His eyes were twice their normal size and fat tears were rolling down the mute boys face. He knew that he had broken the window and now Four Fingers was going to cut off his finger too. He began to cry even harder, his mouth wide open in a silent scream but couldn't seem to catch his breath long enough to give volume to that wail.
Vin felt the jolt of pain shoot up his back as he landed on his bottom but that wasnt important. JD was in trouble and Mr. Buck and Mr. Chris weren't here to save him from this madman. The seven-year-old scrambled back up to his feet and jumped on Four Fingers' back, pounding on his shoulder.
Not expecting the blow from behind, Four Fingers lost his grip on JD. The five-year-old, sensing freedom, did the only thing he could think of he ran as fast as his little legs could carry him away from his tormentor.
Four fingers grabbed for the wildcat on his back and pulled the boy over his head, dropping him in the dirt once again. Vin got up and tried to run but Four Fingers caught him with his left hand. Vin chanced a look at the hand that was keeping him from safety and what he saw caused the young boy to shake. 'Oh no!' thought Vin. 'It's true! He's only got four fingers!' He was doomed.
"I suggest youd better let go of the boy," said Josiah in that calm, low voice of his.
Still holding onto the struggling boy, Four Fingers looked at Josiah, sizing him up. They were comparable in size, but apparently Four Fingers didn't want a fight. "Da boys broke da vindow," he said with a Swedish accent.
"If they broke it, they'll pay for it," Josiah assured the upset man.
"I didn't break it!" cried Vin as the man finally set him free.
Josiah looked down to find Vin hiding behind him, peering around his long legs at the storeowner. "He's mean, Mr. Josiah. He hurted JD." Suddenly, realizing that JD wasn't anywhere to be seen, Vin stepped back out from behind Josiah, searching up and down the street. "JD!" he yelled. Not seeing his cousin, he darted off to look for him.
"Stop him!" said the Swede.
"No need," said Josiah. "I know the boys. I'm Josiah Sanchez, the preacher and one of the peace keepers here in town."
"Olaf Gustavson," replied the Swede.
"Mr. Sanchez, is there a problem?" asked Ezra, joining Josiah in the street.
"Ya. Some of da boys broke my vindow."
"Ezra Standish, this is Olaf Gustavson. He owns the new mercantile," said Josiah. "Apparently Vin and JD may have broken his window."
"It vas the little one. Da one with black hair. I seen it vith my own eyes." Olaf sighed and looked back at the window. "Dat vindow cost me six dollars. It had to come special order all the vay from Denver."
Ezra winced at the price. The peacekeepers only made a dollar a day and the cost to replace the storefront window would be most of a weeks earnings.
"The boys will make it right, Mr. Gustavson. Their guardians will be back tonight," said Josiah. "I assure you, Chris and Buck will pay you for your window."
"Very vell." Olaf headed back to the store and began to clean up the mess.
Ezra looked at Josiah. "That's a steep price for Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington. They only make seven dollars a piece a week, and they already owe Mrs. Potter for the boys' supplies."
The two men didnt notice that Vin had come back from his search. The little boy stopped cold in his tracks when he heard what Ezra had to say. He couldn't find JD anywhere, and now he found out they were costing Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck too much money. Tears were streaming down his face as he tugged on Josiah's sleeve. "Mr. Josiah? I can't find JD."
"Hold on there, Vin. We'll find him," assured Josiah.
"That's correct, Mr. Tanner." Ezra pulled a white linen handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Vin. "Have no fear. We will locate Mr. Dunne." Vin wiped his tears with the handkerchief, blew his nose, and handed the handkerchief back to the dismayed southerner. Ezra held the offensive cloth by his thumb and forefinger. "Yes, Well, why don't you keep it, Mr. Tanner? I have another." Vin snatched the handkerchief back and shoved it in his pocket.
"Where have you looked, Vin?" asked Josiah
"I looked in the barn and in Mr. Nathan's and at Mrs. Potter's and Mrs. Travis's and at the jail." The men smiled as they listened to the long list of places. Vin could certainly rattle on when he wanted to. Josiah took Vin on one side of the street while Ezra searched the other, looking in all the nooks and crannies he would have hidden as a child.
JD sat in the cool darkness, trembling with fear. His head was pounding and his back hurt. His arms ached where Four Fingers had held on to him. He wasn't about to come out of hiding because if he did, Four Fingers would cut off his finger for sure. JD began to cry as he bunched his fingers into two tight fists. He didn't want to have a finger cut off. He didn't mean to break the window. Heck, he wasnt even aiming at the window. The rock just missed the sign. And now, because he wasn't big enough to hit the sign, that man was going to cut off his finger. JD sobbed, "I want my mama."
Ezra smiled sadly at the pitiful sound of a child crying. A child wanting his mama. He remembered feeling the same way when he was a small child.
"Mr. Dunne?" he asked curiously, trying to determine exactly where the sound was coming from. He smiled when he heard a hiccuping sound coming from underneath his feet. Ezra chuckled. "Under the boardwalk? What an ingenious place to hide. Mr. Dunne, I assure you, it is safe to come out now."
"I can't," the little boy whimpered.
Ezra sat down on the edge of the raised boardwalk, balancing his hat on his knee. "Why not, Mr. Dunne?"
"I don't want him to cut off my finger," he sobbed.
"Excuse me? Whatever are you talking about, Mr. Dunne?" Ezra slid off the walk, squatting down to see under the elevated walkway.
"Four Fingers!" cried JD. "He got his finger cut off when he broke a window. Now he's gonna cut off mine!"
'Four Fingers?' thought Ezra. 'Ah, undoubtedly Mr. Gustavson.' He had noticed that the Swede was missing his pinkie finger on his left hand. Ezra suppressed the laugh, knowing that to JD this was very real. "I assure you, Mr. Dunne, I will not allow him to cut off your finger." Ezra could hear JD scooting a little closer to where he was waiting. "Come on out, Mr. Dunne."
"I can't," JD whimpered again.
Ezra frowned. "Why not, Mr. Dunne?"
"He scareded me bad."
"Yes, JD," Ezra soothed, "but Mr. Gustavson is not here now."
JD sniffed loudly.
"I's so scareded," said JD, with great embarrassment, "I wetted my britches."
Ezra felt the boy's shame. "It's quite all right, JD. Everyone gets frightened sometimes, and things like that happen," the southerner said softly. "Come on out now, and I'll take care of you."
Ezra wasn't prepared for the five-year-old to dash out from under the wood decking, slamming into him and locking himself around Ezra's neck. After he got up out of the dirt, he tried futilely to remove the clinging child, cringing at the thought of the damage that JD's wet trousers would do to his fine coat. When it became evident that JD would not be removed, Ezra found himself somewhat enjoying the foreign feeling of being needed by someone.
When he saw Josiah step out of the newspaper office, Ezra waved to catch the preacher's attention. Vin spotted JD hanging from Ezras neck and came running across the street to meet them.
"JD! Are you all right?" Vin called, sidestepping along with Ezra as the southerner headed for the bathhouse. JD had his face buried in Ezra's shoulder and wouldn't look at Vin. His tiny arms were wrapped around Ezra's neck, with fingers still clenched tightly into fists, not about to let one get cut off.
"Mr. Sanchez, would you be so kind as to retrieve a change of clothing for Mr. Dunne? It was very dirty under the board walk, so we will be cleaning up at the bathhouse."
As soon as JD figured out exactly what it was Mr. Ezra said to Mr. Josiah, he pulled his head away from his shoulder to look him directly in the eyes. He was surprised that Mr. Ezra hadn't told them about his accident. Ezra winked at him and the two of them shared a smile before JD settled back against his shoulder, not clinging quite so tightly. Mr. Ezra still talked funny, but he was nice.
Vin took one look at the bathhouse and decided he would help Josiah. There was no way that Vin was going to willingly venture in there on a weekday. It was bad enough that he had to go every Saturday for his weekly bath. Mr. Ezra would take care of JD just fine.
Josiah smiled as he watched as Vin tried to wiggle out of entering the dreaded bathhouse. "Vin, why don't you go on in with JD and Ezra and get a bath too?"
"It ain't Saturday," Vin protested, backing up a step. "Besides, I ain't that dirty."
"I'd think you'd want to be as clean and neat as possible when Chris and Buck get back and find out about the window." Josiah watched Vin grimace at the thought of facing the two men.
"I didn't break it," said Vin softly.
Josiah crouched down in front of Vin so that they could see eye to eye. "Were you throwing rocks?"
"And JD was copying you?" asked Josiah.
Vin scrunched his eyebrows as he followed Josiahs line of thought. His shoulders slumped as he came to the conclusion that Josiah was gently leading him to. "I think I'll go take a bath," said Vin, trotting off into the bathhouse. Yep. He was as much to blame as JD.
For the first time, JD understood why Vin liked the bath water so hot. It made his back and neck hurt a little less. Mr. Ezra had seen a bruise on JD's arm and told him they would go see Mr. Nathan after the bath, just to be safe. With the dread of the coming discipline overshadowing their thoughts, neither boy played in the bath water like they normally would. Since they had come to live in Four Corners, neither one of the boys had done anything really bad so they had no idea how Mr. Buck or Mr. Chris would react. All they had to compare their present situation to was Vin's experience in the orphanage and that meant they would be getting a beating before the night was out.
After the baths were finished and they had paid a brief visit to Mr. Nathan, Vin and JD had an early dinner before being told to wait in Josiah's room at the church until Chris and Buck came home. The quiet time gave Vin too much time to stew on what he had overheard between Ezra and Josiah. The window was going to cost six whole dollars replace and Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck already owed other people money because of them. Vin was positive that Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck were going to think they were too much trouble now and send them away.
"JD, we gotta go," said Vin in an urgent whisper.
"We's supposed to stay here," the five-year-old protested. JD didn't want to go anywhere. His head was hurting more now. "I wanna sleep."
"JD, we cost too much money to keep." Vin grabbed JDs hand and gently tugged him in an effort to get his cousin to follow him. "Do you want Mr. Buck to be poor?"
"No. But I'm tired." JD pulled his hand out of his cousins grasp and tucked it up under his chin.
"Come on, JD." Vin headed to Josiah's window, but JD didn't follow. Vin sighed as JD curled up on Mr. Josiah's bed. JD was too big for him to carry. His survival instincts told him to run. He really liked Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck but he didn't want them to be mad at him and JD. There was only one way to get the money they needed to pay back Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck so that they wouldnt want to get rid of them, but he didn't like it at all. He knew that if he did this it was going to break his heart and, at the same time, it would break JD's heart. He looked over at JD sadly one last time knowing that he had to choose between JD loving him and Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck keeping them. He heaved one last sigh and then stiffened his shoulders with resolve. "I'll be back in a few minutes, JD." Vin scooted out the window and ran toward the livery, hoping that he could finish his business before Josiah found out he hadnt stayed in the church.
"Mr. Larabee. Mr. Wilmington," said Tiny in greeting as Chris and Buck arrived at the livery just as the sun was setting.
"Tiny," replied Chris, handing him the reins.
"Mr. Larabee, I need to talk to you for a moment," said Tiny.
Chris let out a slow sigh. He and Buck were both bone tired and all he wanted to do was get something hot to eat, hug the boys and go to bed. He glanced back at Buck who had just climbed down off his horse and was stretching. Buck lifted his eyebrows in question but kept his distance so that Chris could talk to Tiny. Chris threw his saddlebags over his shoulder and nodded to Tiny, encouraging the man to talk.
"I had a visit from Vin today. He wanted me to sell his horse for him."
"What!" said Chris in surprise. The boy loved that horse like it was his best friend.
"He seems to think you need the money. Wanted me to find the horse a good home and give the money from its sale to you."
Chris frowned and looked at Buck, who shrugged in response. "Don't sell the horse," Chris said to Tiny.
Tiny winked. "Wasn't plannin' on it, Mr. Larabee. Jest figured you should know."
Chris and Buck changed their plans as they left the livery. Instead of enjoying the homecooked meal they had been thinking about the last few miles home, they headed toward Josiah's knowing something was up. As they passed the new mercantile, both men noticed the boarded up window. Chris got a sinking feeling that somehow the boys were involved.
Josiah was just headed up the steps of the church when he saw them coming. "Chris. Buck. Welcome back."
"Trouble, Josiah?" Chris was never one to mince words.
"Of a sort," responded Josiah. He relayed the events of the day to Buck and Chris. Both men winced at the price of the window.
"Where are they now?" asked Chris.
"Waiting in my room," answered Josiah.
Chris grimaced. "Buck, I think I'm ready for dinner now. I don't see how it'll hurt to have the boys sweat it out a bit longer."
Buck nodded. It would give the two men a little time to sort out how they would apply discipline.
During dinner, they met Olaf. Initially they had been angry that Olaf had laid a hand on the boys, but they could see the man was genuinely sorry, and that he had no intention of harming the boys. They found Olaf to be a gentle man in spite of his size. He told Buck and Chris that he had warned the boys several times during the week about playing too close to the store but, come to think about it, he had to admit it had not been Vin and JD that he had warned. It had been some older boys.
Over coffee, the three men worked out a payment plan for the new window. Chris and Buck would pay Olaf a dollar a week for the next six weeks, and JD and Vin would "work" off the debt cleaning up around the store every afternoon for a couple of hours a day. Chris and Buck invited Olaf to the church with them to discuss the situation with the two boys, figuring that now was as good a time as any for the boys to apologize.
Ezra and Nathan were sitting in the church visiting with Josiah as the three men entered. Greetings were exchanged and Chris, Buck and Olaf went on back to Josiah's small room to find JD asleep on the bed and Vin leaning against the bed, snoring. Chris smiled in spite of the situation. Vin was still trying to protect JD even though he had fallen asleep.
Vin snorted in his light sleep, drawing their attention to him. He opened his eyes startled awake by his own snort. Vin's eyes widened as they focused on the first figure they fell on, one Olaf "Four Fingers" Gustavson. Four Fingers had come for them!
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he rattled, shrinking back as far as he could against the bed.
"No, no, no!" screamed JD in fear as the voices woke him and he saw Four Fingers. "Mr. Buck, help me!" JD shrieked, holding out his arms to the big man he knew would protect him from the monster.
Buck quickly moved over to the bed and scooped up JD onto his lap, holding the frightened boy tightly to his chest. "It's all right, JD. No one's gonna hurt you. Especially Mr. Gustavson here. He's real sorry he scared ya."
"I breaked the window. I didn't mean to," JD wailed.
"It weren't his fault. He's too little," pleaded Vin as he gasped for air. "Please don't cut off our fingers."
Buck, Chris and Olaf exchanged glances at the odd plea.
"Cut off da fingers? Vhy vould I do dat?" Olaf watched as Vin's eyes moved down to his left hand and began to smile. "Dat?" he laughed. "Somevun told you dat old story? No vun cut off my finger. It vas an accident ven da vindow broke many years ago."
JD was feeling a lot safer now that Buck was home. He sobbed a few times, catching his breath as he peered over at the strange man, entranced by his accent. "Did it hurt?"
JDs fear melted away when the man nodded. This man wasn't so scary. Those big boys were wrong about him. "Did you cry?"
Olaf smiled. "Ya. I vus frightened."
"How come ya talk like that?"
"JD!" Buck scolded.
"It's all right, Mr. Vilmington." He turned to address JD. "Vat is your name, young man?"
"I'm JD Dunne. This is my cousin, Vin. And Mr. Buck and Mr. Chris are our Pa's," JD bubbled. Buck shook his head in wonder at the change in the little boy. The sheer terror of moments ago was totally gone.
"Vell, my name is Olaf Gustavson, and I am from Sveden."
"Is that near Boston?" asked JD. "Wes from Boston. Boston is a long way from here."
Olaf chuckled. "Ya. Sveden is across the ocean. It is a long journey."
Chris looked at Vin, who was still keeping his distance from Olaf. Vin didn't trust easily, and he knew that it would take more convincing than it would for JD that Olaf was not a bad man.
"Boys," Chris sternly said, "I believe you have something to say to Mr. Gustavson."
"I'm sorry I breaked the window," said JD. "I didn't mean to."
"Mean to or not, Little Bit, you're going to have to work off your debt," said Buck.
"As will you, young man," added Chris, staring at Vin who had not offered an apology.
"But, I didn't " Vin stopped. He could see on Chris's face that it didn't matter if he had thrown the rock that broke the window or not. He had thrown rocks and he had been told not to. "He was gonna hurt JD," protested Vin.
"For that I am very sorry, Master Dunne," Olaf said, looking directly in JDs eyes. "I did not mean to scare you. I vas very upset about da vindow."
"Vin," growled Chris, waiting for the apology.
Vin dropped his gaze to the dusty floor and swallowed hard. "Mr. Tiny is going to sell Peso so's you'll have enough money for the winda," answered Vin. He glanced over at JD as the younger boy began to wail over the loss of the horse. Having a horse was all JD had talked about since they got on that orphan train to come here. All Vin could think of was how he had messed up big time, knowing that he had taken away the one thing that JD wanted most in the whole wide world. Unbidden tears began to roll down his cheeks. He hadn't watched out for his cousin like he promised JD's ma and he cost Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck a bunch of money.
"I'm sorry mister," sniffed Vin as he addressed Olaf. "I'll do whatever ya want ta pay fer the winda."
Vin darted out the door, leaving Chris grimacing. It seemed that no matter how many times he tried to reassure the boy, Vin just couldn't seem to grasp that he wasn't too much trouble.
The men stepped out of Josiah's room into the main area of the church where Nathan, Ezra and Josiah were waiting. "Buck, you have a talk with JD. I'll go get Vin," said Chris as he walked out of the church. He knew exactly where hed find the boy.
He made his way over to the livery and found Vin was leaning on Peso, his head buried in his arms, crying his heart out. Chris stood nearby, letting Vin get it out for awhile. When the boy began to calm, Chris spoke. "Vin? Come here."
Vin obeyed, walking over to Chris with his head down. Vin flinched when he felt Chris wrap his arms around him and pull him closer. Chris sat down, leaning against the barn wall, and drawing Vin onto his lap.
"Do you trust me, Vin?" asked Chris in frustration.
"Then why don't you believe that I'm not going to send you away?" Chris waited as Vin gulped in a couple of sobbing breaths.
"I'm going to tell you again Vin," Chris said with a sigh, "I am never going to send you away and I'm not going to send JD away."
"I know," sobbed Vin.
"Then why do you think I'm going to send you away?"
"Because," said Vin, "maybe you don't want to send us away, but if we cost too much money, maybe you can't keep us."
Chris closed his eyes and blew out his breath. "That isn't going to happen Vin. Sure you boys cost a little extra money, but so does Buck," Chris said, poking Vin in his side, causing the young boy to smile slightly. "You've seen how much he can eat. Now, you did something wrong, and you have to make it right."
"But JD threw the rock," said Vin.
"And who was he trying to be like when he threw that rock?" asked Chris softly.
Vin didn't answer, but Chris knew he understood the point. "Vin, why were you throwing rocks after we told you not to?"
Vin thought of JD. He thought of Johnny and Eddie. He wanted Johnny and Eddie to like him, so he did what they did, knowing that what had happened was ultimately his fault. Vin let out a long sigh.
"Mr. Gustavson mentioned something about some other boys?" Chris felt Vin tense. "Who are they?"
"Weren't nobody but me and JD there when Mr. Gustavson came out," Vin hedged. He knew that the older kids would not play with him if he told on them.
Chris raised an eyebrow in question. "How did you learn about Mr. Gustavson's hand?" Chris pressed, knowing that Vin was trying to cover for the older boys so he could be part of their group.
Vin told Chris the story he had been told and in the process he absently mentioned Johnny's dad was afraid of Four Fingers.
"So one of the boys is Johnny Keller. And where Johnny Keller is, Eddie Carson isn't far behind. Are those the boys you were with?"
Vin was upset that he had spilled the beans, but nodded, knowing that the one thing Chris would never accept was him telling him an outright lie.
"Vin, those two boys are trouble. I don't want you hanging around with them," said Chris. "Do you understand?"
"But they are my friends. I just wanted 'em to like me. I wanted to play with 'em."
Chris sighed. "Vin, anybody who'd get you to do something wrong just so they'd like you, isn't worth being your friend. You're better than that."
Vin's head dropped a little lower.
"How'd JD get wound up in all this?" asked Chris.
Vin was getting frustrated. This talking stuff in some ways was worse than getting beat. It just kept making him feel worse. "It's all my fault," he blurted. "Is that what you want me ta say?"
Chris grimaced at the angry words. This was definitely new territory with Vin. It was good that the boy finally felt safe enough to express himself, but this was not what he wanted to hear.
"Vin, I'm not asking you to say anything but the truth."
"Can't ya jest spank me?" asked Vin. He didn't like this think about it stuff.
"What would you learn from that?" asked Chris.
Vin sighed. "JD were followin' me. Eddie & Johnny didn't want him taggin' along but I told them I wouldn't play if JD couldn't come. We was just skippin' stones on the pond. Then 'fore I know it, we's trying to hit things. I could throw better'n Eddie, but JD could'n hit nothin'. They was laughin' at him."
Chris watched as Vin slid off his lap and sat beside him, still leaning against Chris. Vin was keeping contact in spite of the looming discipline. "JD tried real hard, but he's too little. He missed ev'rything. Mr. Gustavson's sign was the last thing we were aimin for. Johnny and Eddie was telling JD to hurry up and throw. He did. I saw the rock was gonna hit the winda but there weren't nothin' I could do ta stop it once he throw'd."
Chris felt the shudder run through Vin, but waited for the boy to continue the tale.
"Johnny and Eddie ran off when Mr. Gustavson yelled leaving me and JD behind. I wanted to run real bad."
"But you didn't?"
Vin looked up at Chris, shaking his head, no. "JD was so scared he couldn't move. Four Fingers, I mean, Mr. Gustavson came runnin' outta his store. He looked so mad. He grabbed JD and shaked him hard. I thought he was gonna hurt JD, so I kicked him." Vin absently rubbed his hand on his back. "He knocked me down. But he was still holding on ta JD, yellin' at him. So I jumped on him. He leggo of JD and throwed me down. He grabbed m'arm and Mr. Josiah told him ta let go." Vin sighed. "Then JD was lost. Then we had ta take a bath."
Chris smiled to himself. Only a boy would think taking a bath was a horrible thing. "So, what do you think is fair punishment, Vin?" asked Chris quietly.
"Well, we gotta work for Mr. Gustavson to pay for the winda."
"Yes," nodded Chris. "And?"
Vin grimaced. He had hoped maybe there wouldn't be more. "A spanking?"
Chris shook his head, no.
"No Dinner?" suggested Vin.
Chris shook his head.
Vin took a deep breath, fearing the words he spoke. "Ya could sell Peso to pay fer all me and JD has cost ya." Vin closed his eyes, hoping against hope that Chris would say no again.
Chris's silence made Vin open his eyes and look at him. He sat patiently, waiting until he had Vin's full attention. Chris almost melted when he saw the pleading in those blue eyes. "I think that's a bit extreme Vin. We aren't going to sell Peso. However, neither you or JD are allowed to ride him for a week."
"A week?" asked Vin.
Vin thought for a moment. A week was a whole lot better than forever.
"Come on," said Chris, pushing himself up off the livery floor. "Let's go get JD and head for bed." Vin got up and followed Chris back to the church. They'd be staying at the boarding house tonight instead of riding out to the ranch after dark. Vin sat down on one of the pews and hissed in pain.
"You all right?" asked Chris.
"Yeah. My back hurts some," answered the seven-year-old. JD scooted up on the pew next to his cousin and grabbed a hold of his hand.
"My back hurts some too," he added.
"Well, let me see, Little Bit." Buck pulled up JD's shirt and looked at his back. "Looks all right to me," said Buck with a chuckle. He thought it was cute that JD was imitating Vin. "Maybe we'll put some liniment on it tonight."
JD nodded, then closed his eyes tightly. It made his back hurt when he nodded, but Buck didn't see it because he had turned his attention to Chris who was telling them that they weren't selling Peso.
"Yay!" said JD.
"It mean's you gotta work JD," said Vin.
"I ain't big enough," protested JD.
"We's supposed to work for Four " Vin quickly corrected himself, "For Mr. Gustavson so's we can pay for the window you broke." Vin strongly emphasized the fact that JD broke the window. He still didn't think it was entirely fair that he had to work too. He hadn't thrown the rock that broke the window.
"I'se sowwy Vin," said JD starting to cry again. JD looked up to his older cousin and it made him sad that Vin was upset with him.
Vin didn't have to look up to know that Mr. Chris wasn't pleased with him. He didn't mean to make JD cry. He hugged his sobbing cousin. "I'm sorry, JD. I didn't mean to make you feel bad. It was my fault too. I shouldn't have been throwin' rocks, and I should'a stopped you from throwin' em." He squeezed JD and yelped as JD's fingers bit into his arm. Vin let go of JD and yanked his arm out of JD's grasp. "Damn it, JD! That hurt!"
JD couldn't help it. His neck and his back were hurting and when Vin squeezed him it made them hurt more. His hand grabbed something to hang on to and it happened to be Vin's arm.
"Vin Tanner!" said Chris sternly. Vin dropped his face into his hands, shaking his head. Could he do nothing right today? He tried to play with the big boys and they ended up laughing at him. He throwed rocks when he knew he wasn't supposed to. He didn't watch out for JD and the window broke. He costed Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck too much money. He couldn't find JD when he was lost and scared. He tried to sell Peso and made JD cry and Mr. Chris mad. Now he'd yelled at JD and made him cry again, and worst of all, he had cussed in church. Now God probably hated him too. Vin bit his lip trying to keep from crying. This had been a very bad day.
"I think it's time for someone to go to bed," said Buck as he scooped up the sobbing JD. The little boy squirmed, trying to make his back more comfortable as he lay his tired head on Buck's shoulder.
Vin looked at his cousin who was content to have Buck comfort him. It was a good thing JD had Mr. Buck, 'cause he was sure falling down on his promise to JD's mama to take care of his little cousin.
Chris sat down next to Vin on the pew as Buck and JD headed for the boarding house. He didn't know what to do. Up until today Vin and JD had toed the line pretty well. This was the first time he had seen any sign of selfishness in the boy. He wasn't thrilled with that, but Vin was a kid and now that the burden of responsibility for JD was being lifted from his shoulders, he was starting to look at his own needs and trying to find the right balance.
"Vin?" said Chris.
Vin groaned in remorse, raised his face up from his hands and banged the back of his head on the pew. He banged three times before Chris slid his hand between Vin's head and the bench. Vin stopped and the tears trickled down his cheeks. "I can't do nothin' right."
Chris smiled and pulled Vin's head against his chest. "Tomorrow's a new day, Vin. You get to start with a clean slate again, but I think now, it's time to get some sleep."
Vin nodded and the two made their way to the boarding house.
After breakfast, the two little boys stood in front of Gustavson's Mercantile waiting for Mr. Gustavson to open the store. JD had been limping and complaining all morning and Vin was getting annoyed at his cousin copying him. JD insisted that his back was sore, but Vin, Mr. Buck and Mr. Chris thought he was playing a game. Both boys were a little nervous at the prospect of having to face the large man on their own. Mr. Gustavson had seemed okay last night, but Mr. Buck and Mr. Chris had been with them. Now it was the two of them facing Four Fingers all alone. What if he was just fooling everyone last night?
The double doors swung open, a bell jingled, startling the boys and causing them to step back. "Good Morning, boys," Olaf boomed as he finished tying his apron. "Are you ready to vork?"
Vin and JD nodded, the younger boy wincing at the ache in his back. Olaf handed Vin a broom that was a good six inches taller than the seven-year-old and set him to sweeping the front porch. JD's eyes grew wider as he realized Mr. Gustavson wanted him to come inside alone. Subconsciously he balled his fingers into fists and hesitantly followed Mr. Gustavson inside. Mr. Gustavson gave him a dust cloth and showed him how to wipe things off before telling JD to do the all the bottom shelves in the store.
Both boys did the best they could, but Olaf noticed that JD would work a little, then he would sit down and rest. He would have thought the boy was trying to get out of work, but JD wasn't playing when he stopped working.
"JD, are you tired?" asked Olaf.
JD stood up stiffly and shook his head no. He bent over to pick up the rag, and when he straightened, Olaf could see big tears rolling down the boy's face.
"Are you still frightened of me?"
"No. You're nice," answered JD.
"Den vat is it?" asked Olaf. "Are you hurting?"
JD sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. "My back hurts," he said softly.
"Come little vun," said Olaf. "Let's go see Mr. Jackson." He took JD's hand and JD moaned softly. Olaf picked him up and headed out the front door.
"Where ya going?" asked Vin in fear. Olaf had JD and was taking him somewhere.
"Come along, Vin. Ve go see Mr. Jackson," said Olaf. "Close da door for me."
Vin scrambled to close the door and catch up with Olaf.
Buck stopped by the mercantile to see how the boys were doing and was surprised to find the closed sign in the window. He picked up the broom lying in the middle of the boardwalk and set it aside. 'Where are they?' he thought. Wherever they were, it was evident that Olaf was gone too.
Buck headed back towards the jail and bumped into Chris who was on his way to check on the boys. "They ain't there, Chris," said Buck.
"No one's at the store. It's locked up."
"Where would they have gone?" asked Chris.
Buck shrugged. "It's too early for lunch."
"Any signs of trouble?" pressed Chris.
"Nope. A broom on the sidewalk. That's it," said Buck.
Chris turned to face the street, leaning a hip on the wall. A slight movement down the street caught his eye. He began to walk toward the livery, quickening his pace to a jog when his eyes confirmed it was Vin sitting at the bottom of Nathan's stairs. Buck followed Chris's lead, and he too spied the forlorn figure on the steps, drawing in the dirt with a stick.
"Vin?" said Chris as they reached the steps, fearful of what could have happened now.
"JD's hurt," said the seven-year-old sullenly. "They won't let me see him."
Buck bounded past Chris and Vin, taking the stairs two at a time.
"What happened Vin?" asked Chris.
"Don't know. Mr. Gustavson just said to come. He was carrying JD." Vin looked longingly up the steps. "They won't tell me nothin'."
"Come on," said Chris, leading the boy up the stairs. He had Vin sit on the bench outside the door while he went in.
JD was asleep in Nathan's bed. "Nathan, what's going on?"
"I was just explaining to Buck," replied the healer. "Olaf noticed JD complaining of his back hurting."
"He was playing like that all morning," shrugged Buck. "Copying Vin."
"He wasn't playing Buck. He's got some strained muscles. Can barely turn his head," reported Nathan.
"What?" Buck's heart sank. How could he have missed that JD was really hurting?
"I'm afraid it vas my fault," said Olaf. "Mr. Jackson thinks it could be from ven I shook the boy." Olaf's remorse was obvious. He was crushed that he could have caused an injury to the child.
Buck growled at the admission, but a firm hand on his arm silenced him. "How bad is it, Nate?" asked Chris.
"I gave him some laudanum. He's going to need to take it easy for a few days. Give himself some time to heal up." Nathan looked at the worried faces and smiled. "He'll be just fine. He just needs to rest."
"I hurt him and then made him vork. I am so sorry," Olaf apologized.
Buck glared at Olaf, but didn't say anything. Instead, he walked over and sat down in the chair next to JD's bed.
Chris fingered the dollar in his pocket. He knew that Olaf hadn't meant to hurt the boy, but he had injured him just the same. He pulled out the dollar and handed it to Olaf. "Here's the first week's payment. I think it would be best if we didn't go through with the boys working for you."
"No. You keep it. I cannot take it," said Olaf.
"You have to pay to replace the window. And whatever else happened, JD did break it."
"Ya, but your friends have already paid me four dollars," said Olaf. Chris looked at him in confusion. "Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Standish said dey should have kept better vatch over da boys. I vill not take any more money. Use it to pay for da boy's medicine."
Just then, Chris caught sight of a movement in the window to the small clinic. He could see Vin peering in with only his eyes and the top of his head showing over the sill. He knew the boy had to be standing on top of the bench, stretching to see in. Vin's sudden disappearance was accompanied by a crashing noise.
"Damn," hissed Chris as he hurried out the door. If he hadn't been so concerned, he would have laughed at the sight of Vin tangled up between the bench and the chair.
"You all right?" he asked, brushing Vin off as he stood up.
Vin nodded. "I just wanted to see JD."
Chris was checking Vin over as he answered. "JD's back is hurting him. He's going to have to rest awhile."
"He wasn't playing?" Vin looked shocked, then guilt settled on his face. He should have known JD was hurt.
"It's not your fault Vin. I didn't see it either. Neither did Buck." Chris set the bench back up. "He'll be fine."
Vin watched as Mr. Gustavson walked out the door and headed down the stairs. "He looks sad," Vin observed.
"He feels bad about hurting JD."
Vin watched Mr. Gustavson walk slowly down the street to his store. "JD won't be able to work. How're we gonna pay for the window?"
"It's taken care of Vin. You won't need to keep working for Mr. Gustavson," said Chris.
"But But, I gotta!" said Vin.
Chris looked at Vin curiously. Where had this change of attitude come from? "The window is paid for, Vin."
"But, can I work with him 'cause I want to?" asked Vin.
Chris looked at his charge. He had no idea what was running through Vin's mind. "All right. If we're in town, and Mr. Gustavson says yes, then you can help him." Vin looked at the clinic and then back to Mr. Gustavson. "Go ahead. JD will sleep several hours." Chris's words were choked off as Vin hugged him and then hopped down the stairs.
Vin disappeared for the afternoon. Chris came looking for Vin when he hadn't come back to the clinic. He stepped into the back room of the store. "Vin?"
"Mr. Chris!" Vin jumped and quickly covered the boards in front of him with his coat.
"What's this?" asked Chris.
"No! You can't see," said Vin, standing between Chris and the coat. Olaf nodded and smiled at Chris to let him know it was all right.
"JD's awake," said Chris. "It's time to head home." Chris watched curiously at the glances exchanged between Olaf and Vin. Sensing Vin needed him to leave for a few minutes, he said, "Meet us at the livery in ten minutes?"
Vin nodded eagerly and waited for Chris to leave before uncovering his treasure. Olaf helped him with some finishing touches and they carefully wrapped the treasure in Vin's coat. "Thank you, Mr. Olaf," said Vin as he hurried out the door.
"You're velcome, Vin," called Olaf, waving to the child running down the street.
Buck slipped the dozing five-year-old into the bed. JD had been awake for about half the trip home before nodding off. Vin carried his treasure into the house and set his coat carefully on the table. Chris grinned, wondering what Vin was keeping hidden.
"Can I see now?" asked Chris.
"I wanted to wait for JD, but I can't," said Vin anxiously. He pushed the folded coat across the table leaving it in front of Chris.
Chris carefully unfolded the coat revealing the most beautiful wood box he had ever seen. It was lopsided, the corners didn't meet, and the sanding was rough, but it didn't matter. It was beautiful because of the hands that made it.
"Look inside!" urged Vin. Buck stepped closer to see what surprise the box held.
Chris lifted the lid and set it aside. Looking inside the box, he found a rock. He picked it up, running his fingers over the smooth surface.
"It's the rock that broke the winda," said Vin. Chris looked at Vin, waiting for a complete explanation. "Mr. Olaf helped me make the box."
"It's a great box, Vin," said Chris. "But why the rock?"
"Mr. Olaf said it was a a symbol. Something to remind me that I can make somethin' good from somethin' bad. The rock was somethin' bad, but the box was somethin' good. And throwin' the rock and breaking the winda was bad, but makin' friends with Mr. Olaf was good. He says when JD gets better, he'll help him make a box too."
Chris smiled proudly and pulled Vin into a crushing hug. "Mr. Chris," squeaked Vin, "You're squishing me." Chris tickled the giggling boy, thrilled that Vin had found something good through his struggle.
A few days later, JD was at Olaf's store. His back was almost back to normal and Olaf had been helping him make his box.
"Know what, Mr. Olaf?" said JD.
"Vat, JD?" answered Olaf.
"You should marry Mrs. Potter. She's real nice." Olaf chuckled at JD's suggestion. "She ain't got a husband no more." JD leaned closer and whispered loudly, "A bank robber killed him."
"Is dat so?" said Olaf in mock shock.
"And you ain't got no wife, and the Potter's don't got a pa, and you don't got no kids, and you both got stores," JD blurted all in one breath. "Do ya wanna go say hello?"
Olaf laughed. "I already met Mrs. Potter. And just between you an' me, she is quite a voman." JD grinned. "You take your box and go now. Your family is vaiting."
JD picked up his box and started for the front door before stopping and looking back at his new friend. "Mr. Olaf, I'm glad I breaked your window," JD blurted out before running out the door and heading towards the jail carrying his new treasure.
"Me too, JD," said Olaf knowing exactly what the boy meant. He was glad for his new friends too.