"Little Britches" Universe
Vin stayed huddled under the hot canvass until he was certain that he heard the sounds of the town around them. He hadnt dared show himself before in fear that Chris would simply take him home and return to town again.
Chris made the first stop in town the Mercantile, planning to purchase a few extra items of underclothes for both boys. Neither man was much use with a needle and thread so JD could probably consider himself luck that he was unlikely to have too many of Vins hand-me downs. Not that many items would survive Vin. He was a little hard on his clothes. It wasnt that either boy was particularly careless but both seemed to find adventure in the dirtiest and roughest of places.
Chris was just stepping down from the wagon when he saw the movement in the pile of canvass behind the seat. The mop of tangled hair and wary blue eyes appeared from the shadowed covers.
Vin! Chris demanded. What are you doing here?
Come ta town with ya.
I said you were to stay at home. Chris couldnt see much repentance in the stubborn boy before him. There was little he could do about it now so he flipped the rest of the covers off and let Vin clamber down. You stay with me, Chris instructed, still planning this to be a quick trip.
The shopping at the mercantile was taken care of easily and the items parcelled up in brown paper. Larabee hooked his fingers through the strings as he ushered Vin from the store. For all his eagerness to accompany him, Chris found that Vin had remained quiet whether in the store or out on the street. Vin seemed more fascinated with the others around him than in Chris company. Whatever the interest was in the others, it hadnt drawn Vin from Chris physically as the young boy kept in step as they left the store. Once or twice Vin walked so closely that he clipped the back Chriss heels. Chris had experienced this in Caulder and understood its cause as Vin had fretted over his injury. He hadnt expected Vin to still be concerned yet, if anything, Vin was dogging his steps even closer as Vin bumped lightly into his hip.
Vin, Im going to tread on you if you keep that close.
Vin spun at the call from across the street, his hand snapping out to grasp a fistful of black shirtfront as he leapt in front of his father.
Chris stumbled as Vin tangled with him, recovering to lift the boy bodily and setting him aside. What is the matter with you today? he asked gruffly tucking the dislodged shirt back into his waistband.
Vin saw Mr Willoughby from the Bank approaching and realised his mistake. He shifted back again quickly to take up his vigilant stand, ignoring the adults conversation and trying to slow down his thudding heart.
Larabee exchanged farewells then quickly stepped aside for the passing womenfolk, again bumping Vin. Remembering the little boy who would never stand within striking distance made Chris decide not to complain about the close steps today. If youre going to stand that close, Chris grasped a small hand firmly in his. At least Ill know where you are.
Vin looked up in surprise at the joined hands, his own engulfed in Chriss much larger hand. The contact eased his heart but he couldnt be diverted. He turned his attention back to the others in the street. Chris couldnt help but notice the continued study of all the men who passed them.
What are you looking for?
Vin debated asking Chris about what he really needed to know. It still didnt seem right so he tried to ask a different way. A lot of men have guns. Are they all gunslingers?
Recent events and words like that made Chris a wary. Most people wear guns just for protection. Why the sudden interest?
Vin shrugged, trying to appear disinterested in the topic. Some boys at school are playin at fast draws.
I dont want you playing with guns, Vin. Chris could only hope that it was just co-incidence. It wasnt uncommon for boys to play at stagecoach robbers, or cowboys and Indians. Practicing quick-draws was nothing knew.
It was just pretend, not even with a wooden gun. I wasnt playin anyway, Vin added in a mumble.
Another pistol and holster passed by at eye level. Vin had never really noticed just how many people had guns but now that he looked they were all right there in his face. How could he watch all of them? How was he supposed to stop it happening? He heaved a dispirited sigh at the thought.
Vin? Chris prompted at the pitiful sound. Vin wasnt one for idle chatter. Hed ask questions, hed talk about things that interested him but he didnt just ask about everything and anything. Larabee knew this was somehow important. He led Vin over to the bench seat outside the saloon. Vin? Why all the interest in guns today?
Vin just shook his head. Nothin.
I can sit here all day and wait for an answer, Vin.
They all got guns. What if they want to shoot you?
Chris could tell that this wasnt just coincidence. Why would they want to shoot me, Vin
cause. Vin mumbled, uncertain himself why it was allowed to happen. They might call out. The Sheriff even said so.
Chris found he could make little sense of Vins story. The Sheriff? Sheriff Brady?
Yeah. When you were shot he said they were backshooters and that they should have called out but I didnt hear em.
They didnt call out because they were trying to sneak up on us. They were after the horses. Chris turned further toward Vin, one hand resting lightly on a knobbly knee. Whats this about?
Sheriff Brady said I did a good job watchin yer back but I didnt. I gotta do better.
No you dont, Vin. Chris was at a loss. Hed been aware of Vins study and concern but hed thought it was only because of his injury. He hadnt considered that Vin somehow thought he should be protecting him.
They can call out and shoot ya, but what it they dont call? Ya need me!
Chris saw fear in Vins eyes. He wouldnt borrow trouble. Hed only consider what had actually occurred. No, Vin. No ones allowed to shoot me whenever they want. They were bad men and now theyre in jail. Everythings fine now. He guided Vin back to the wagon to move their discussion somewhere more private. Lets go home.
Vin was not so easily dismissed. He considered Chris words as the wagon rolled from town. It couldnt be fine if nothing had changed. Those men with guns were still out there.
Chris felt Vins eyes glue to him again. Dont worry about things that havent happened. Everythings fine.
No it aint, Vin complained impatiently as the wagon lurched forward. Seeing all those guns in town it had only reinforced to Vin how unsuccessful his earlier plan would be.
Vin could see only one solution. Chris simply needed to not wear his gun. Even the other boys said you had to have a gun to play, that it wasnt allowed to shoot someone who was unarmed. Vin rubbed at his aching head as he tried hard to find an excuse to ask Chris to take off his gun.
Chris ignored the silence beside him on the return journey, certain Vin was still mulling over his earlier words. Hopefully he had finally reassured the fretting child that the incident in Caulder was over.
The wagon was drawn to halt in the yard before Vin spoke again. It wasnt a question that Larabee had expected.
Will ya take off yer gun?
Chris turned, stunned at the question. Hed thought hed convinced Vin that this was over.
Dont wear em, Vin begged. Please.
Vin, I wear a gun for protection. Vin was simply too young to understand this. This is not something Im going to discuss with you. Okay?
No! Vin snapped angrily. It wasnt fair. He couldnt do this alone and Chris wouldnt listen to him. He jumped down from the wagon to confront Chris.
Why wont ya? Vin demanded. Theyll kill ya!
Its not that simple, Vin. Chris was surprised at Vins tone. He didnt want an argument about this but he found himself unable to explain this to the boy.
Vin slapped away the hand reaching for him. Ya wont try, he accused. Vin was tired and clawed desperately at the only plan that remained. He accepted the fact that he couldnt watch Chris back. It would all be fine if his Pa would just help him. I tried n tried. Ya gotta do this! Why wont ya do this?
Chris had never heard Vin raise his voice to him, not like this. He tried to calm the boy down but as Chris finally grabbed a hold of a flailing arm, a small booted foot lashed out and connected with his shin.
Damn, he cursed, caught by surprise and moving swiftly to avoid another kick. He wrapped Vin up and hoisted him off the ground, leaving the kicking legs no purchase. Vin was tumbling into a full tantrum so Chris had no choice but to force him down onto the ground and pin him bodily. Vin, calm down. Stop this!
His words had no affect but Vins yelling had brought the others at a run. Buck was stunned at the sight before him. Chris was holding Vin to the ground as Vin thrashed beneath him. He couldnt understand why Chris would do that as they both knew how Vin reacted to restraint.
Chris! Get off him, Buck ordered, joining the melee and pulling his friend backwards.
Chris couldnt shake Buck free and didnt want to hurt Vin, so he released his hold hoping Vin wouldnt continue to fight. Chris found himself dragged back a few feet before Buck lifted him to his feet and spun him around.
What the hell is going on? Buck demanded. You know better than to do that to him.
Buck turned back to check Vin, expecting to see the boy running for the barn or any other private haven. Instead, Vin was standing his ground, red face and chest heaving.
Chris tried to move toward Vin but was met with a stiffened arm from Buck. I just needed to calm him down, he tried to explain.
By holdin him down?
Im sorry. The small voice behind them turned both their heads. Vin didnt understand what had just happened, he just been so angry. It was all so unfair. Im sorry, he apologised again helplessly. He didnt mean to hurt Chris. Vin slowly started to shuffle backwards, remembering the punches and kicks hed aimed at his father. At the first movement from the adults, Vin spun and ran to the house.
Buck watched as JD kept one eye on the adults in the yard and he too shuffled backwards toward the house, unsure what had just happened. Trusting old instincts JD turned and fled after Vin.
What just happened here, Chris?
He got a little angry, then he got a little wild. Kicking, hitting. I was just trying to calm him down and keep him still. Chris made a move toward the house. I need to....
No, you need to tell me. What was Vin so angry about?
That I wouldnt take off my gun.
He thinks I wont get hurt if Im not wearing it. There was some talk in Caulder about me. Chris didnt need to explain to Buck just what the town might have been talking about. He seems to think thats why I was shot. Vins been watching me since then. I knew he was worried, but I didnt think it had gone this far.
What are you doing to do? Buck looked across to the house where both boys had taken refuge.
Try and make sure I didnt just scare him to death.
No, about the rest of it.
Whats to do, Buck? What can I possibly tell him? Chris pulled away but this time Buck released him, following him back inside their home.
The men stepped quietly into the boys room. Vin was stretch out face down on his bed, arms hugging his pillow. JD sat silently on the end of Vins bed, back to the wall and knees drawn up to his chest. As the men appeared, JD wrapped a hand around Vins ankle but both men were uncertain if it was intended as comfort or warning. Vin remained still blocking them all out, not even responding to JDs touch.
Vin? Chris didnt want to set Vin off again, but he couldnt explain this to the back of Vins head. He lifted Vin and turned him over but this time instead of a fight the slender boy stayed lax in his arms, not responding at all to the touch.
Vin no longer looked angry or upset with him. While it relieved Chris that Vin appeared to have calmed down, there was a resignation in Vins eyes that concerned him.
Vin. I cant do what you asked. It just isnt possible. I made some choices a long time ago and I cant change them now. Chris looked helplessly to Buck at the lack of response. Vin?
Finally Vin responded with a slow nod. I understand. Im sorry I hit ya, I didnt mean it. Vin had scared himself with the sudden outburst. I dont know why I did it n Im real sorry, Vin offered, confused with his own behavior. I wont say nuthin about it again.
Chris thought that Vin did finally understand as his statement was tainted with disappointment. I know youre sorry, Vin. I want you to stay here in you room for the rest of the afternoon. The next time you get angry about something I dont want to see you hitting anyone or anything.
Chris knew he shouldnt be surprised that Vin could or would lash out physically if pushed to anger. It was a response that Vin had witnessed so often in others. Chris wasnt sure if it had occurred this time because Vin was so stressed about recent incidents, or if Vin somehow felt confident enough to truly feel his anger for the first time, no longer required to suppress his own honest anger and resentments as he did at the orphanage.
Vin rolled back over as the others left and pressed his face into his pillow. He was truly distressed that hed tried to hurt Chris. It would have been so easy if Chris had just agreed. It would all have been over. If he knew that Chris would get up in the morning and not wear his guns, if he went into town like that then he was safe. Vin had tried and failed to stop Chris from going alone. Hed tried and failed to convince Chris not to wear his gun. Vin had only one alternative left and he knew it would destroy all that he had if he did this.
Vin tried to refuse supper that night but it had already been noticed how little he was eating lately so he was not excused from the meal. Vin refused to speak but it was not from spite. He simply couldnt keep his attention on those around him, his mind too full of his plan for the evening, too full of the disastrous consequences.
Chris continued to prompt Vin to eat as most of the food was pushed around his plate. Finally everyone gave up on the meal, the strained atmosphere putting off everyones appetites.
How about I serve up dessert in the living room and find us a story to read? Buck suggested.
Yes please, Papa, JD agreed, taking his own plate back into the kitchen.
The suggestion caught Vins attention. They often sat together in the evenings as one of the adults read aloud. It had become a favorite family gathering for Vin. He realised this may be his last opportunity so he left his seat to reach Chris before he too could rise.
Im very sorry, Pa. Vin begged forgiveness for all that hed done today and all that he would tomorrow.
Vin, Chris hugged the sorrowful boy gently. Everything will be fine.
Vin shook his head silently against the worn cotton shirt. No it wouldnt.
Vin had gone to bed after the evenings story telling but he hadnt slept. He dare not close his eyes lest he sleep through until morning and lose this opportunity. Vin waited until long after all the lamplights were extinguished. He waited until the house fell into a deep silence before he made his move. He crept from his own bed and tiptoed across the main room to Chris bedroom. He tried not to make a sound, tried not to even breathe, sure the Chris would hear his thundering heart. His hand touched the bone handgrips of the pistol, his fingers sliding forward onto slick steel. Its cold touch sent ice into his own veins and he shivered. He had to do this. Taking a firm hold, he lifted the heavy pistol from its holster and backed slowly out of the room.
Vin stood in the barn shaking. He couldnt believe hed done it. Hed already considered his next step and wrapped the stolen object in a sack and wedging it down into the feed bin. Panting with exertion and terror, he stumbled back against the stall door, eyes glued to the accusing bin and knees shaking.
He knew hed done a bad thing, stealing again and this time from the man he called father. Vin knew what hed done was wrong and he bent forward, arms wrapped around his stomach as the scary dark feeling inside him made his stomach churn.
Peso nickered softly at his pre-dawn visitor. Ignored, the horse tried to rub his muzzle lightly against the down-bent head of the figure leaning against his stall. Vin didnt respond to his four-legged friend, too lost in his decision. He was uncertain of what to do knowing that Chris would soon be awake. His knees gave out, leaving him to slide down to the barn floor to remain huddled in the darkness.
Vin lost track of time and was surprised when the weak rays of morning sun filtered into the depths of the barn to land accusingly on the feed bin. Vin knew that there would be no hiding from his actions. He pulled himself slowly to his feet and trudged back toward the house.
The rays of morning sun also brought Chris awake and the missing pistol was immediately noticed. Doubt flickered through his mind for an instant. Did he bring it into his room last night? The doubt whispered for only an instant, silenced quickly in the knowledge and habit of always keeping his gun in sight. It had been in his room last night.
Buck! Dragging on his outer clothes, he stumbled to Bucks bedroom door. It wasnt likely but he had to ask. Did you move my gun?
What? Buck called out groggy and confused at the abrupt awakening.
Its gone. Chris had already turned, prowling the living room in case it had simply been moved. He didnt want to consider the other possibility. You didnt move it? he asked as Buck finally shuffled from his room, raking his hair into shape.
Chris, I wouldnt touch it without you knowing. What do you mean its gone?
Gone, as in not in my holster. It had to have been taken sometime in the night. Chris couldnt help but let his eyes wander to the boys room.
Buck followed his gaze. No. No way. They know not to touch guns.
After yesterdays outburst, who else would it be?
Buck was closer to the boys doorway and peered in. Only one figure was still in their bed but it wasnt unusual for Vin to beat both adults out of the house in the morning. JD had been roused by the loud voices and looked around blearily.
JD, did you hear Vin get up?
Chris didnt have to go far, taking only one step out onto the porch to place him right in front of a very guilty looking boy.
Vin, have you taken my gun? Chris had no time for games and demanded a direct answer.
Yes, sir. Vin knew there would be no hiding this. Chris just needed to understand this was how it had to be.
Chris was surprised at the abrupt agreement. Not that he expected Vin to lie but he hadnt expected Vin to take the gun in the first place. You can explain this to me later but I want to know where it is right now. Chris ordered.
Vin just shook his head and remained mute.
The empty holster still hung in Chris grasp. Vin Tanner, youll answer my question now. Chris automatically took a step forward but Vin shrunk back. Chris was angered by the disobedience but also angry with himself for the rising fear he could see in Vin. He flung the empty holster to the side in frustration.
In that moment as it spun away, the belt slipped from the loosely hooked buckle, flying open to catch on the railing and spin off-course. Vin cried out as the buckle struck his face.
Chris stood frozen, horrified by what hed done. Vin! No, I didnt mean that.
Buck emerged from the doorway behind Chris drawn by the raised voices but found Vin already turned and running. JD had also heard Vins cry and pushed past the men, his small legs pumping as flew down the stairs and after his cousin.
What the hell just happened? Buck demanded only to find himself alone on the porch. He ran after the others, slowing as the caught up to JD and Chris at the fence.
Chris? Buck demanded of the chaos.
I didnt mean it, Chris didnt pause to explain, climbing the fence to follow as Vin disappeared into the trees.
Mean what? Buck demanded, halting Larabees chase with a firm grip on his shoulder.
I hit him.
Bucks eyes widened, concerned for the departing figure. He didnt have time to wait for Larabee to explain and Vin didnt need to have Chris thundering after him if he was afraid.
No, you stay here. Stay with JD, Buck ordered, jumping the fence. He knew his friend wanted to fix this but there wasnt time to argue. Vin knew how to run and hide. Let me get him. He doesnt need you chasing him to ground.
Buck followed into the trees worried that Vin would be too far ahead as he was an agile and fast runner. Buck was heartened to find Vin still in sight, not running in full flight. Bucks long legs were soon gaining on the boy and Buck called out.
Vin turned to look back at the sound of his name. The inattention cost him as he tripped over an exposed tree root and thudded heavily to the ground. The air whooshed from his lungs and he lay for a moment struggling for the next breath.
Buck made the last few strides in a rush when Vin didnt make any attempt to rise. He rolled the small figure over gently, unsure what to expect. Vins chest was heaving from the running and the fall, his blue eyes flooded with tears that remained determinedly dammed. Under the smear of dirt on his face the reddened cheek was obvious. Buck was worried at the lack of response and began to check the compliant boy for any other injuries.
Vin finally blinked and finally acknowledged Bucks presence. He didnt mean it, Vin explained with a sniff. Vin had been running from the Chris question, not his action.
Im sure he didnt, Buck reassured the boy. Lets get you up, hey? He lifted Vin slowly until he was sitting up, Bucks strong arm supporting him.
Vins shirttail had come loose and as he moved the tattered paperback that had become his recent companion fell from the untucked fabric. Buck automatically picked it up but his hand froze as he recognised the cover.
A small hand, gently tugging at his forearm drew his attention. I had to stop it. Vin explained, reaching over to take the book.
Buck moved it further away, looking from Vin to the book and back. Did you take the gun, Vin?
Vin just hung his head sadly. I had to do it, he mumbled. But they cant shoot him now, he explained in earnest.
Who cant shoot him? There was no question that Larabee was the him from Vins point of view.
No one. Anyone. They aint allowed if he aint wearin a gun.
Buck understood most of the rules by which Chris Larabee had lived although he didnt accept them himself. Given the book in his possession and his current confused confession, Vin appeared to be trying to come to some understanding as well. Buck had never accepted the rules but knew not to argue and stepped aside to keep Larabee as a friend. Vin appeared to be trying to change the rules, unwilling to just stand by.
Buck didnt continue with the questions as Vins weight began to sag more heavily against his arm. He lifted Vin gently to his shoulder and felt the narrow arms wrap securely round his neck. Buck walked him slowly back to the house.
As he approached the fence-line he heard the soft whisper.
Down. Small hands pushed at his shoulders to make his intentions clear.
I can carry you, Vin. Its not far. Buck wanted to comfort Vin and relished the opportunities to pick up either of the boys.
Down, Vin instructed more urgently, beginning to wriggle to be free.
Buck lowered him but as soon as Vins feet touched the ground his back stiffened and his head came up. Buck was at first worried that Vin had been injured, his stance perhaps hiding pain but Vin was focused on the distance. Buck followed his gaze. Just in sight was Chris, standing in the yard waiting.
Everythings fine, Vin. Vin turned at the comment but didnt appear convinced. Facing Larabee was an ordeal for an adult so Buck stooped down a little and took Vins hand in support, not surprised at the tight squeeze he received.
Vin refused to be carried home. He was a big boy now and he knew what hed done but every step to the house became a little shorter until Buck was almost shuffling beside him. When they were finally in the yard Vin found he couldnt look at his Pa. No, he correct himself, it was Chris. Hed stolen from the man who gave him everything and was now too ashamed to even look up.
Chris Larabee felt ill. Here was his child, scared, bruised, eyes pinned to the ground and it was his doing.
Buck took the book from his back pocket and thrust in at Larabee. This is what he was trying to stop. Ill get Vin cleaned up and when everyones calmed down well sort this out.
Buck had only just led Vin over the threshold when JD appeared warily from the boys room. Hed followed Chris back to the house but had sought refuge in their bedroom. Relieved at his cousins reappearance, he came running forward. He didnt utter word, instead falling in beside Vin and taking his other hand.
Buck found himself surrounded in a miserable silence that disturbed him. The cheerful grin was missing from JDs face, the younger boy appearing close to tears himself.
Hey, none of that now, Buck smiled confidently, ruffling the soft dark hair. Vins fine. This was all just an accident.
Buck gently wiped the dirt and grime from Vins face, his touch light on the one reddened cheek. It was an accident, he reassured Vin. Chris would never intend to hurt you. Vin?
Vins refused to raise his eyes.
Buck knew they needed an answer to the guns whereabouts. No one wanted a more tragic accident to occur but it would be better left for Chris and Vin to settle.
Buck opened a tin of cookies, snapping one in half and offering a piece to each boy. JD munched contentedly as the atmosphere in the kitchen started to settle. He didnt know all that had happened but he knew what Vin had been worrying over.
Is someone gonna shoot Chris again? JD asked, his bald question shattering the fragile calm.
No. The voice from the doorway startled the other three.
Lets you and me go outside Lil Bit. Buck smiled encouragingly to Vin then hoisted JD up onto his hip. Hed give the other pair a little privacy but only to the porch where he could still be close enough to help.
Chris led Vin over to one of the chairs and drew another close for himself. He didnt want to loom over Vin. Vin, this wont solve anything.
It will, they cant shoot you now. Please, Vin begged for understanding.
Thats not how it works. Its not something that Im proud of but its too late to change it.
So ya have killed people?
Chris didnt like Vins direction. Yes I have. Chris wasnt sure how far to take this. Vins next words stopped his heart.
Some people need killin to stop em.
While as an adult, Larabee might agree with that statement, it was a frame of mind he didnt want Vin to develop. Vin had seen far too much already, hardened to violence with skewed perception of what was reasonable in this world.
Its about self-defence Vin. No ones got the right to choose who lives and who dies. If someone does something bad, breaks the law, then its up to a judge to decide the punishment.
Why isnt tryin to shoot ya against the law?
Chris just couldnt explain this. Please dont fret about this Vin. It all started a long time ago and it hasnt happened for some time.
But everyone knows. Its in that book.
Chris again cursed the books existence.
Cant you please not wear it or not go out?
Chris released a long slow breath. While it may have been about honor in the past he couldnt just choose to back down if challenged now. His reputation firmly established, someone could still draw on him and then hed simply die without ever having defended himself. He had a different live now. Answering a challenge wasnt about honor it was about eliminating a threat to his family. A threat that he had hoped would fade as the dime novels dropped from circulation but here it was and this time inside his own home.
Thats not how it works. Chris kept his hands wrapped loosely around Vins upper arms, his thumbs rubbing soothingly back and forth. Please just trust me, Vin.
Somehow Vin had return from Caulder with Chris same fears. But while Chris had been trying to ensure that his new family would be taken care of, Vin simply wanted it to ensure it never happen.
Chris lifted the quivering chin, the glistening blue pools overflowed and he brushed the tears from the bruised cheek. This isnt the way, Vin.
Chris folded Vin in toward him slowly, uncertain of his welcome after the earlier incident. Vin didnt protest, just sagging forward exhausted by his night of turmoil.
The feedbin, he whispered. Im sorry.
Youre forgiven, Vin. You remember those extenuating circumstances?
Vin paused for a moment, trying to recall the word again.
This wasnt the right thing to do,but I understand why. I want you to promise youll never do it again.
My carelessness wasnt a good response either, Chris offered, touching the darkened cheek lightly. And it wont happen again.
Fair nuff, Vin nodded cautiously.
Chris knew Buck had been monitoring them as the front door was quietly slipped open. Chris waved him back out with a nod of his head, leaving JD and Vin to wait for them as they crossed the yard and entered the barn. The gun was quickly retrieved and checked, Chris sighing in relief at the thought of the possible tragedy. He strapped the holster back on and the familiar weight settled against his thigh. Another less familiar weight was dragging at his shirt pocket and he withdrew it.
Hed shoved it aside as he waited for Vin. Now he considered its odd presence. Howd he get this? It was ragged and creased. Chris was surprised that copies, however tattered, still existed.
I dont know. School maybe?
Chris rolled it tightly, twisting and crumpling the pages until aged paper torn and old bindings snapped.
Its not all going to go away like that, Buck warned him.
All the questions were starting to make sense. Surely he couldnt read it. These novels would never be described as literature but neither were they intended for someone who was on his first reader.
Would it make much difference? The cover picture is enough and your names all through it.
As if it didnt cause enough trouble with it was first printed, Chris sighed. His reputation had taken off like wildfire, fuelled by the thoughtless words of the author. The challenges had increased as he was lifted to the status of live entertainment.
Chris dragged fingers through his hair. How am I supposed to tell him its all true? That piece of trash may have tried to turned it into something heroic but the truth is that its just killing.
Just because the truth is ugly doesnt mean you should avoid it.
It cant be explained to a child, Buck. Hell, not many adults understand it, even you.
Buck couldnt deny it. Chris had always been wild but after his family died it had turned dark and violent. Chris became a danger to himself and others and Buck had been unable to contain or even direct the explosions when they occurred.
You were standing right there trying to offer me help but I ignored you and just kept right on going down that path. Chris wasnt making it an apology. No longer clouded by alcohol, he could look back now and see clearly what hed done. Previously he hadnt regretted the dark choices hed made as he and Buck, although close friends, still walked their own independent paths. But it wasnt the same with Vin. Vin depended on him, and when hed reached out to the boy and been accepted hed drawn Vin onto his path with all the threats and dangers that it held.
Fine, you chose a path. If its any consolation, at least you kept moving, Buck offered. You didnt just lay down and die as much as you wanted to in the beginning.
Not much consolation.
Probably is to Vin, because it brought you here. You did the best you could at the time. Looking back now you can see what you could have done better but all of us can say that of a lot of choices weve made. I think youre more worried because you dont want to get tarnished.
What, my reputation? Chris scoffed.
No, that big shiny gold star Vin thinks youve got pinned to your chest. Buck ignored Chris sceptical look, sure of what he saw every day. Tell me you dont feel it pokin you in the heart every time he lays those baby blues on you.
Chris could be honest with himself and he knew the loss of Vins hero worship would hurt. Maybe thats true but this isnt about me feeling good, its about Vin. I dont want him afraid of me and I dont want him afraid for me. Little boys needed heros and Chris knew that his image had shattered.
Not so long ago you told Vin that he did some things hes not proud but he needed to do them just to survive, Buck reminded his friend.
I didnt do this to survive.
I swear to god, Chris. Buck wrapped a hand around Chris upper arm, dragging him around to face him. If that violence and anger hadnt spilled out onto the streets, then it would have eaten you alive, Buck accused harshly. Are you going to tell me you never once turned your gun on yourself? Never once pushed a bullet into the chamber wanting it to be for you? Buck didnt wait for an answer, didnt want an answer. In the end, they challenged you. You never murdered anyone.
Chris shook his head and pulled his arm from Bucks grip. He understood what Buck was saying but he knew Vin. He had tried to calm his fears without explaining the truth and failed. Vin needed to believe something and Chris knew only one thing that could be.
It ends now. Chris declared. Im going to tell him its not true. It was a simple as that.
Thats a mighty big risk.
I dont care, Buck. Enough is enough. Ive just spent a week with him watching my every move, watching every gun around me. Hes afraid. Chris rubbed the heel of his hand against his temple, willing the tension to fade. When we met you hadnt worn those Union blues for much more than a week. We thought we were immortal and we werent much past teenage. It took a war to teach me otherwise then it took losing Sarah and Adam for me to realise its not my own death that I should have worried about. I have an eight year old who already knows that, whos looking at me like Ill just disappear from sight. He Chris dragged a ragged breath in. He was at a loss for words.
I know you dont want him to worry, Chris but is lying about it... Buck waved away the immediate objection. Okay, not telling him everything, going to solve anything? Hes a smart kid and he knows whats going on around him. What are you going to do if he finds out you lied? Buck couldnt help but play Devils advocate. When it came to this pair, anything that could go wrong, would go wrong.
If he ever finds out then can hate me, he can be disappointed in me. But today, tomorrow and every day until then he will be happy and secure. Every time he waves goodbye maybe hell look like he just expects to miss me, not terrified hell never see me again. Ill risk it to give him that peace.
Buck could see that any further discussion was over. He wasnt sure this was the right thing to do but he didnt have an alternative. The two men returned sombrely to the house.
Chris took the pieces of the book he still held and shoved them into the stove, the low embers catching the dry paper and igniting it to flame. The added heat warmed up the previously missed morning coffee.
The boys were quiet and timid with Bucks attempts to return the household to normal were only partially successful. He prepared a simple breakfast, everyone having missed the meal in the early morning turmoil. He chased the boys outside to play horseshoes but didnt miss the quick glance Vin took at the pistols once again strapped around Chris hips.
Buck poured fresh coffee and kicked a chair aside, dropping down heavily. He didnt need to start too many days this way. I suppose any gossip at school will die down soon, he suggested, pushing another cup of coffee toward Chris. Unless of course JD decides to take you in for his next book report, he added after a considered pause.
Chris couldnt help but spit the mouthful of coffee across the table as Buck pounded him on the back. He scowled at his friends poor joke.
Sorry, Buck grinned. But you know hed love the idea.
Thats not a book, its trash. But the suggestion gave Chris another idea. There were more worthy tales for the boys to be interested in.
Chris decided not to explain his idea until the end of the day, after the boys had dinner and were changed into their nightshirts. Hed spent his time searching out an old box hed long ago shoved into the dusty depths under his bed.
Chris needed to clear up one more thing with Vin. Vin, youve had a book with you lately.
Vin went white and still.
Its not a book you should be trying to read so Ive thrown it away.
Vin was surprised at the treatment of a book like that. He thought all books were supposed to be important. But it was about you?
I didnt have anything to do with it. Someone else told stories about me and a lot of it wasnt true.
They lied? Vin asked in confusion. What had everyone meant?
Its like when JD tells a story. It starts out as true but then he adds all those other things to make it sound exciting.
Vin nodded in understanding. JD told big whoppers sometimes, but as Chris said they usually started in the truth. But some of its true?
Some of it was true in the past. Chris couldnt deny all that had happened. Yes, I have been in gunfights but Im a rancher now. You dont have to worry about anyone trying to kill me or calling me out.
Ya sure, Chris?
Chris flinched at the sound of his name. Vin had reverted to old and Chris suspected that maybe the gold had tarnished. He didnt see any of the wonder or pride or adoration, instead he still saw fear and worry.
Youve been here a while now, Vin. Have you ever seen anyone do it?
Vin shook his head in denial.
And thats because Im a rancher. Im not a gunslinger anymore, just like youre not an orphan anymore. Things have changed for both of us. Chris rubbed his thumbs along the collarbone as his hands rested gently on Vins shoulders.
What happened to Pa? You stopped saying it again. Chris cradled the marred face gently in his hands, his thumb brushing lightly over the darkening bruise. I wont ever take it back Vin. Im your Pa, no matter what.
Vin hadnt been certain after what hed done. But I stole.
Forever, Vin. Remember? Chris reminded him of the original promise.
Vin knew he shouldnt be surprised that Chris would hold true to his promise. Vin had been certain that it would be withdrawn after his theft. Promises were always seem to be made with conditions, conditions that he always managed to breach. Ya mean it? No matter what?
No matter what, Chris confirmed.
Chris led Vin over to the rocker where hed placed his earlier find. Ive got a different book for you, Vin. He handed over the old volume. This is for you to keep.
Vin turned the book over in his hands, his fingers reverently tracing the faded gold lettering on the smooth, worn leather. This wasnt a school reader. He opened the pages, the paper silk smooth, each edged in gold.
Robin Hood, Vin read from the cover, a little daunted by the tiny print and the numerous pages.
Chris pulled Vin up to sit on his lap. Vin barely noticed the sway of the chair, his fingers still ruffling the delicate pages.
We can read it together at night, Chris explained as took the book and opened it at one of the illustrated plates. Its a story about a good man who lived a long time ago and tried to do the right thing.
Like you? Vin asked as he traced a shape on the shirtfront before him.
At first the movement felt random, until Chris looked down and watched. He closed his own hand over the smaller one as he recognised that shape of a star. A little boy needed a hero. A better man.
Aint no one better than my Pa.
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