by KT

Little Britches Universe

Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.

Note: Thanks to Helen for the proof reading.

Buck yawned and stretched as he came out on to the porch of the small cabin. He'd pulled a long night shift at the jail. Normally Thursday night was an easy day, but a cattle drive had encamped just outside town and most of the crew had come in search of a drink and a good time. Thursday night suddenly became very lively indeed. He pulled his pocket watch out, and checked the time; four o'clock, the boys would be home soon. Sure enough, not half an hour later he spotted one horse and one small pony coming down the track toward the small ranch. He frowned, usually they sped up as they reached the house, but Peso and Toffee plodded along slowly.

Worried, he stepped off the porch and headed off to intercept the two boys. As he neared them he could clearly see something was very wrong. The first thing he noticed was that both boys were covered in dust. As the distance between then closed he could see that Vin appeared to have a black eye.

"Boys!" he called, picking up his pace to a jog.

Intently both boys looked up, but instead of calling to him, smiling or even waving, they just continued on their weary way. Buck sped up and intercepted them. It was now clear that Vin had been in a fight and JD had been crying.

"What happened?" he asked as he stepped between the two horses, taking hold of Peso's reins before he could bite him.

Vin didn't answer, so he looked over at his son. JD's little lip quivered and then the dam burst; fresh tears began to overflow from puffy red eyes, etching fresh trails in the grime that covered the small boy. Dropping his reins he reached out for Buck with both arms in a silent plea. Helpless to resist, the tall man lifted his adopted son off the pony and into his arms.

"Hush up now Little Bit, I'm here, Buck's here, I got you." He kept up this reassuring litany as he began to walk back to the ranch, having just managed to grab one of Toffee's reins, Vin and Peso following forlornly behind them. Once they reached the barn, he tried to put his burden down, but JD was now clamped to him like a limpet.

"I can take care of Toffee," Vin offered as he slid down from Peso.

Buck reached out with one hand and gently turned the waif-like boy's face to him, gently turning it to the side, the better to see the damage.

"Gonna have yeah self one hell of a shiner there come the morning boy," he commented. "I'm gonna take JD and clean him up a bit, you come on over to the pump as soon as you're done."

Vin nodded. "Yes sir," he acknowledged.

+ + + + + + +

Fifteen minutes later Buck had washed JD's face and hands and sat him down on the edge of the porch while he helped Vin wash up and clean out all the small cuts and grazes he has acquired. With that done, he took the boys inside, sat them at the kitchen table, gave them both a glass of water and a cookie and asked what had happened. No information was forthcoming.

"Boys, remember, this is your home now, no matter what, no one is going to send you away, no one is going to beat you or lock you in a closet, no matter what you've done - okay?" he sought to reassure.

Vin kept his head down while JD sniffed, he too kept his head down, but every now and again he'd glance at Buck.

"Come here Little Bit." Buck got the distinct feeling, that if he could get JD away from Vin, he might talk.

Once he had the small brunette on his knee he gave him a big hug. "Come on, tell ol' Buck all about it," he encouraged.

JD's little head shook.

"Tell you what, why don't whisper it to me?" Buck suggested.

JD looked briefly at Vin, then began to whisper in his father's ear. As JD spoke Buck's look of concern changed to anger. It was a change not lost on Vin, who visibly shrank back. JD pulled back a little and looked up pleadingly at his father.

"Right," Buck took a long breath, trying to calm himself. "JD asked me a question, but before I answer it I want you two to tell me what happened at school today - all of it."

Vin studied his face, Buck wasn't Chris, but he trusted him, but the little voice that told him if he was bad or a bother he'd be sent away gnawed at him. Yet Buck had promised they wouldn't be sent away, no matter what. Before he had made up his mind, JD began to speak.

"There's this new boy in school, Jacob, he's bigger than Vin, and he went to Ridge City with his Papa and he said he saw a train with lots of children on it and he said his Papa tolded him it was an Orphan Train. So I tolded him me and Vin came on the Orphan Train." He looked up at Buck. "'Cause we did, didn't we?"

Buck stroked his hand over JD's black locks. "You sure did Little Bit."

"And, well, he said, his Papa said that the children on the train was all dirty, smelly, fatherless bastards and he wasn't to have nothing to do with them. An' I told him we wasn't 'cause we have baffs all the time and we don't smell and we got fathers 'cause I got you and Vin's got Chris."

"That’s right, you sure do," Buck confirmed with a grin.

"He said that don't count," Vin continued the explanation. "He said we don't have no real fathers and that makes us bastards and we're no good and we're gonna go t' Hell, 'cause God don't love us."

"And he said th …th …that" JD was crying again. "… he said our moms were in Hell 'cause they was bad."

"What!" Buck's sudden outburst made both boys cringe away. "Oh, no boys, no, I'm sorry, I'm not mad at you. But you have to know that's just not true, it's not."

"I know that," Vin stated indignantly. "I told him he's wrong!"

"Is that when the fight started?" Buck asked.

"No, not then."

"You better tell me."

"JD started shouting at him that he was wrong and he could ask 'Siah if he didn't believe him and called him stupid."

Buck looked down at JD. "You called him stupid?"

JD nodded slowly, looking very worried.

"Good for you Little Bit." Buck grinned at him, and was rewarded with reciprocating grin.

"Jacob didn't like that," Vin continued. "and he pushed JD, so I told him not to and pulled him away and then he hit me." Vin ran his hand lightly over the visible swelling around his eye socket.

"And you hit him back?" Buck asked.

"Yeah he did!" JD mimicked the blow. "He hit him lots, an' he made him cry even though he's much bigger then Vin. He cried like a little baby!"

Buck, while secretly proud of Vin, forced himself to look stern. "Now Vin, I know you had to defend JD, but fighting doesn’t solve anything, you know that, right?"

Vin gave a huge sigh and shrugged. "Yeah," he finally admitted.

"Where was the teacher?"

"This was after school, there was no one around 'cept kids," JD explained. "So, what does 'bastard' mean?"

Buck looked at the two boys, who in turn looked up at him with so much trust, awaiting his words of wisdom. Finally he pulled a chair close to him and patted it. "Come here Vin," he invited.

Once the older boy was beside him, Buck put one arm over his shoulder, while he held JD on his knee with the other. All his childhood people had used that word against him. 'Bastard' and worse were tossed at him as if he were a thing with no feelings. He never went to school, because no whore house brat was allowed near the 'respectable' children. As a very young man, he'd been stripped of his job as a sheriff's deputy when someone recognised him. Even now, he secretly flinched when people, good naturally and quite innocently, called him 'lucky bastard'. Now it was happening again, to two other boys, and he wouldn't let it, he wouldn't let that word ruin their chances of a better life than that of a hired gun. Tomorrow he'd go to the school and speak to the teacher. But first he had to explain some things to the boys.

"Okay guys, here goes. You know that men and women get married - yes?" Both boys nodded. "They go to church or a judge and promise to stay together and love each other for ever and ever. And you know that they can become moms and dads?"

"Babies grow in their mom's bellies," Vin supplied.

"That's right. And it's the dad that puts the baby in there. Now sometimes a lady can have a baby growing in her belly that was put there by a man who wasn't her husband. Some people think that is very wrong and they have bad and hurtful words for the baby when it’s born."

"Like bastard?" JD asked.

"Yes, that's one of them. But these people are all wrong, do you hear me boys, wrong. First of all we don't know if your mothers and fathers were married or not, personally I think they were, but even if they weren't it doesn't matter, it's just a word, and a word can't change the person inside." He gently tapped each boy over the heart. "God loves you and he loved your mothers and fathers too. Your mothers are not in Hell."

"I know that." JD responded indignantly. "My mamma's in heaven an' she's watching me, you said so and so did Chris and 'Siah so I know it's true. Right Vin?"

His cousin nodded, a fierce frown daring Buck to contradict him.

"You just remember that." Buck stoppped suddenly; aware both boys were now hanging on his every word. Finally he said, "Maybe I should tell you boys something. People called me bad names when I was a little guy - like you, I didn't have a father and they thought my Ma was a bad woman and so they called me bad names. But I knew it wasn't true, my Ma loved me, and that was all that mattered. The man you become is up to you. No word can change that."

JD had been sitting on his father's lap, now he turned around and knelt up, so he could wrap his arms around Buck's neck.

"I'm gonna be just like you when I'm a man," he declared. Buck just smiled. JD looked down at Vin. "Is you gonna be just like Chris?"

Vin shook his head. "I'm a Tanner," he stated firmly.

The End