by Nancy W.

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

The Magnificent Seven episode, Achilles, was written by Mark Haskell Smith.

Warning: Animals die in this story.

Author's Note: Since these are the little guys we are working with, Achilles is not quite as mean as he was in the original episode, and there's less bloodshed. However, there is still an incident or two that might tug at the heartstrings. Thanks to Marnie , Joy and Calla for beta-reading and helpful suggestions.

JD liked watching the stage roll into town. Sometimes, there were interesting people on the stage, like today. A big man with fancy clothes got off and was looking around like he was lost. He looked like Mr. Ezra, only older, and taller, and fatter, and... well, when JD thought about it, he didn't really look like Mr. Ezra at all, he just wore fancy clothes like him.

The man turned in JD's direction.

"H'llo," JD said.

"How do you do?" the man said. He had a nice smile, like Mr. Ezra. He reached his hand out and JD knew they were supposed to shake. It was good manners.

"I'm JD Dunne," he introduced himself.

"Pleased to meet you, Master Dunne. I'm Mr. Lester Banks. Can you perhaps tell me where to find the saloon?"

JD pointed directly at the building. "It's right there. If ya like to play cards, Mr. Ezra will play with ya, but don't cheat 'cause he'll catch you."

Mr. Banks laughed a funny kind of laugh that JD didn't understand. It wasn't a mean laugh, though, and Mr. Banks thanked him and gave him a whole nickel!

He headed straight for Mrs. Potter's store to buy some candy, but then, he spotted a cart full of big, red apples. He was torn. He loved candy, but, he liked apples, too.... and Nathan had told him 'An apple a day keeps the doctor away' which meant apples helped keep you from getting sick. Besides, with a whole nickel, he had enough to get an apple and candy.

JD paid for his apple and was on his way to Potter's store when he saw Casey with a group of girls. Usually, Casey didn't like to play with girls, because she didn't like to wear dresses and she didn't like dolls. She liked to do fun stuff, like look for bugs under rocks. Just the day before, they had found a tarantula! It was big and hairy and even JD was a little bit scared of it. It was Casey who had poked it with a stick, even though she ran away screaming right after she did. The tarantula didn't move, though, and they thought it was dead, so they put it in a cigar box and took it to Nathan. Nathan told them it wasn't really a tarantula at all, just tarantula skin - he explained that tarantulas had to change their skin just like people had to change their clothes. JD was kind of disappointed, but then Josiah had told him he would varnish it and JD could keep it in the box and pretend it was a real tarantula. JD couldn't wait until it was dry so he could scare someone with it.

Casey was with Elizabeth Neuhaus and Molly and Holly Pruitt. JD could never tell which was Molly and which was Holly, even when they weren't dressed alike, which they usually were. Elizabeth was carrying her cat, Annie, and the other girls each held two of Annie's kittens. They said they were taking them for a walk, although, they were really carrying them. Annie seemed happy. Draped over Elizabeth's shoulder, she was purring loudly. The kittens sqeaked and tried to look around, even though they were just opening their eyes.

JD loved the kittens. They were soft and fluffy and had little tiny cat claws. Miss Nettie said Casey could have one, because it would eat mice that came into their cabin. Holly and Molly were each getting one, and Mrs. Potter wanted one for the store, and Yosemite wanted one for the stable. That left one, and JD wondered if him and Vin could have it. He'd asked Buck, but Buck had said they'd have to wait and see when the kitties didn't need to drink milk from their mama any more. JD hoped they could have one. They sure were cute.

JD spotted two men that he'd seen earlier near the stage. He wasn't sure if they'd been on it or not, but he didn't like the way they looked. They were dirty and JD could tell their saddle bags were heavy. Neither man had paid him any attention and as they headed for the bank, and JD decided to follow them and see what they wanted. He bet their saddle bags were full of money, and he wanted to see it.

He set his apple down and peeked inside the bank as the two men talked to the bank man. He seemed glad to see them - he even took them back to his office place, and they didn't have to wait in line with the other people in the bank. That didn't seem fair. JD squeezed in the door and moved to where he could peek in the bank man's office.

As he did, one of them men pulled his gun and said, "Truth be told, we'd like to make a withdrawal."

Bank robbers! Those men were bank robbers!

He slipped back out the door as quickly and as quietly as he could . Then, he ran to the jail to find Buck or Chris, only to discover neither of them was there. He didn't know where else to look for them, and time was wasting. Those bad men were going to get all the money in the bank!

He spotted Vin's rifle on the rack with the others. He had been told not to ever touch it, but, somebody had to stop the bank robbers! He knew where the bullets were and he'd seen Vin put them in so he knew how to do it. It was harder than it looked when Vin or Chris did it, but he finally managed to load one shell. He ran back to the bank just as the bad men were stepping out.

There was a barrel lying on its side in the street, and JD hopped onto it to make himself taller. "YOU BETTER STOP THAT!" he shouted, aiming Vin's rifle at the men.

One of the bank robbers turned and pointed his gun right at him. "GET OUT OF HERE, YOU LITTLE BRAT!" he shouted.

JD's heart thumped in his chest. He was afraid the man was going to shoot him - and then, suddenly, shots were being fired, all around him. Startled, he lost his balance as the barrel rolled slightly beneath him. Then, he was falling. He landed in the street with a hard >THUD< and his finger accidentally pulled the trigger on the rifle.

He sat up slowly, stunned. Chris had shot one of the robbers and had him down in the street.

"You shot me in the butt!" the man screeched. "What kind of man shoots another man in the butt?"

"What kind of man pulls a gun on a five-year-old?" Chris shouted back, and bopped the man on the head.

JD was about to laugh at the man's shot butt, but then he heard a high pitched scream behind him and he turned around to see that it was Elizabeth.

Her dress was covered with blood.

Nathan had come running and he ignored the two fallen bank robbers and ran straight to Elizabeth. She caught her breath and was crying really loud. Nathan scooped her up and asked her where she was hurt.

Elizabeth's dad had heard the shooting, too, and he ran to Nathan. "Bethie! Oh my God!"

He took her in his arms as Nathan continued to examine her for wounds.

"It's okay," Nathan assured him, finally. "I don't think she's hurt, but..."

JD watched Nathan show Elizabeth's dad something, and Elizabeth wailed, "ANNIE!" and cried even harder.

Mr. Neuhaus set the cat down in the street and held Elizabeth tightly in his arms. JD at first thought it was odd that the mama cat would be sleeping with all the noise and commotion around her, but then he noticed the funny way her head fell back and he saw that even though she wasn't moving, her eyes were wide open....

Annie was dead.

JD looked down at Vin's rifle. It was still pointed in the direction where the girls had been standing.

Suddenly, Buck was picking him up off the ground. "JD! Are you all right?!"

JD nodded, still staring at the mama cat lying unmoving in the dirt. "Some men were robbing the bank..." he said softly. Pointing to the cat, he sniffed. "...and Annie got dead."

Buck carried JD to the saloon and sat him down. Ezra looked up when they walked in.

"I heard the distinct report of gunfire emanating from the street. Everything all right?" he asked, looking questioningly at JD.

"Everything's fine," Buck assured him, and then ordered a beer for himself and a glass of milk for JD. He set the mug in front of the boy, but JD shook his head.

"Don't want any," he said softly, his eyes downcast.

"It's okay now, JD. The bad men aren't going to hurt anyone now."

JD looked up at him forlornly. "I'm not a-scared of those stupid bank robbers."

Buck rubbed his chin thoughtfully not sure if that was a good thing or not. Still, something was bothering JD. "So what's the matter? You can tell ol' Buck."

JD looked downward again and sniffed. "I shot Annie. That's how she got dead." He started to cry softly.

Buck lifted his chin. "JD, what do you mean? How did you shoot her?"

JD looked away and mumbled softly, "I shot her with Vin's rifle."

"What?" Buck tried to keep his voice calm.

"I shot her. I was trying to scare the robbers, an' I fell an' shooted the gun on askident."

"JD, what were you doing with Vin's rifle?" This time, Buck's voice was a bit more stern.

JD turned big brown eyes up at him. "I didn't want them to take all the money. We'd all be poor and starve and die."

Buck sighed heavily. "JD, how many times have you been told not to touch that rifle? Or any gun?"

JD didn't answer.

"How many times, JD?" Buck pushed.

JD's tiny shoulders collapsed as he sobbed.

Buck stroked his head gently. "We're going to have to talk about this later," he told the boy. "Where is the rifle?"

"I left it in the street," JD choked.

"Well, you best go find Vin and tell him where it is. Then, you go up to your room and stay there until supper."

JD nodded and obediently left the saloon.

Vin didn't like to look at dead people. They were scary. But, he felt he had to tell Chris what he knew. "I've seen this man before," he pointed to the bank robber with the spectacles.

Chris looked up from pulling the other bank robber out of the street. "My wound is gettin' dirty! C'MON!" the man whined.

"You've seen him here in town?"

"No, on a wanted poster at the jail."

Chris nodded. "We'll find out who he is, then wire the territorial marshal and let him know we have him."

Vin's heart burst with sudden pride. Chris hadn't even asked him if he was sure - he had just believed him, no questions asked.

"This is inhumane!" the other bankrobber shouted. "Downright inhumane!"

"Don't you even care your friend is dead?" Vin looked at him with all the indignation the 7-year-old could muster.

Just then another man walked up. He was a Negro, like the dead bank robber. The robber who was still alive turned to him and said, "Achilles... it was Hector's idea to rob the bank. I just went along to keep him company, is all..."

Chris looked at the Negro man. "Do you know these two?" he said.

The man looked sadly at the body on the boardwalk. "That man is my twin brother. He know better... than to do somethin' like this." He looked at the dead man as though he could hear him. "You were a hero at Harper's Ferry. John Brown himself said so. Look how far you have fallen."

Vin felt sorry for him. It was sad his brother was dead. But, his brother shouldn't'a robbed the bank.

JD walked up to him slowly. Vin could see he was crying. "What's'a matter, JD?" he frowned.

JD pointed down the street. "I took your rifle, Vin," was all he said.

Vin spotted his rifle in the mud and manure, and instantly became angry. JD was not supposed to touch his rifle. Not ever, never! And now it was all dirty and full of horse poop. "Why'd you do that?!" he shouted at JD. He was really mad.

JD usually had an excuse for everything, but, he just shrugged.

As Vin marched off to retrieve his prized possession, JD watched Josiah gather Annie's babies from the little girls. Elizabeth was still sobbing on her daddy's shoulder, but JD heard Josiah tell Mr. Neuhaus that he'd take the kitties to Nathan, and they'd do what was best. JD was a little bit happier when he heard that. Nathan would know what to do for the kitties, now that they didn't have a mama no more.

Vin had cleaned his rifle, with Chris's help, and now Chris had to take care of important business. Mr. Achilles wanted to take his brother away to bury him, but Chris had told him he couldn't do that until they found out if there was a reward. Mr. Achilles got real mad about that, but he finally left town. The other bank robber was in jail and all he did was complain. He was making Vin get a headache, so he left.

JD had to stay in his room until supper time, and Vin didn't feel one bit bad about that. No siree. JD shouldn't'a took his rifle and then left it in the street. Still, without JD, he found himself bored and looking for something to do.

He passed the saloon and noticed there seemed to be an unusual number of people gathered around the table nearest the door. They were watching something, so Vin decided to check it out. He took a spot next to Buck, who was watching a stranger playing cards with Ezra.

"I'll call ya. Show me what you got," the stranger said.

Ezra smiled. "Well, I must be the chosen one because it would appear that the three wise men... have come to pay me a visit."

Ezra laid down three kings and everyone standing around went, "Ooooooh." Even Vin knew three kings were good, even if you weren't playing Go Fish.

"Well, Sir, that there deck of yours must be especially blessed 'cause, you see, I, too have been paid a visit." The stranger laid down three kings, too.

"A deck with six kings! That is somethin' that you don't see every day," Buck said.

Vin frowned. He thought there were only four kings in a deck.

Ezra's smile faded. "You, sir, have violated me," he told the stranger.

"I beg your pardon?"

Vin could tell Ezra was mad when he said, "Cheated! Oh, you're an accomplished cheater, I'll give you that, but you're still a, uh... help me out here, Buck..."

Buck made a wavy motion with his hand. "You are crookeder than a yellow-bellied snake making his way through a prickly pear patch."

Vin frowned. The man looked normal to him. Grown ups were so weird sometimes.

He ducked back out the door, deciding that watching Chris do paperwork at the jail was at least as much fun as this.

The bank robber was still complaining when he returned. He talked more than JD.

"My rear is killing me! When do I get to see the doctor, huh? I'll bleed all over your jail, I swear I will! You might get rid of the stain, but you'll never get the smell out. Blood stinks. You don't believe me, do ya?"

"I believe you. Now, shut up," Chris told him. He was trying to find the wanted poster Vin had told him about. He gave Vin a stack to look through, too.

The door opened with a soft click and both Chris and Vin were surprised to see it was JD. He usually entered a room like a tornado.

"Is your sentence up?" Chris smiled at him.

JD nodded. "Buck said I could come out now."

"You know you shouldn't have taken the rifle," Chris reminded him.

JD nodded, his little shoulders slumped.

"But, you took your punishment like a man," Chris smiled. "Just don't do it again, okay? Someone could have gotten hurt."

JD looked up at him. "But Annie got dead," he said.

Chris nodded. "True, but, you could have hurt Elizabeth, or Casey, or some other person."

JD was confused. Chris acted like it didn't even matter that Annie was dead.

"Here it is!" Vin said excitedly. He handed Chris a wanted poster with a picture of the dead bank robber on it.

"Hector Thompson..." Chris read. "Wanted for robbery in three states..." He continued to read the poster, then smiled at his son. "You done real good, Vin."

JD quietly slipped out the door.

Vin approached the lady trying to nail a piece of paper on the wall. She was the new school teacher. She had been here a couple of days, and was getting the school ready. She couldn't start until the school books she ordered came, though. Chris and Buck said him and JD would have to go to school, so Vin hoped the books took a long time to get there.

She hit her thumb with the hammer, and Vin winced. He knew that hurt.

Josiah had shown him how to hammer. You had to keep your eye on the nail, or else you hit your finger. Shyly, he walked up to the lady. "I can do that," he said. He tried not to sound like he was bragging, just being helpful.

He guess it worked, because she smiled and said, "Why thank you, young man," and handed him the hammer.

Vin neatly tacked the piece of paper to the wall. He was wondering what it said, but then the lady introduced herself. "I'm Miss Marnie. I'm the new teacher in town."

Vin smiled. "Yes'm. I know that. I'm Vin."

She pointed to the poster. "I wanted to let every one know when school will be starting."

Vin nodded, wondering if he could take the poster down when she was gone so Chris and Buck didn't see it.

"How old are you, Vin?" she asked.


"Oh, so you'll be a second grader," she smiled.

Vin didn't know what that meant, but it sounded good, so he smiled agreeably. "Yes'm."

"Say, do you know most of the children in town?" she asked.

"I know all of 'em," Vin said proudly.

"Excellent. Can you do me a favor?"

Vin shrugged. "Sure, I reckon."

She opened her purse and handed him a tablet and a pencil. "Can you write down all of their names for me? I'd like to know how many pupils to expect."

Vin wanted to run away. He knew all the kids in town by name, but he didn't know how to write. His heart thumped in his chest when he realized that second-graders must be kids who already knew their letters. Vin had never been to school. He was seven years old and he was too stupid to even write his own name.

He swallowed nervously as he took the pencil and paper. Miss Marnie smiled. "Don't worry if they aren't spelled correctly. Just sound them out. I'll manage."

Vin didn't know what she meant, but he didn't want to be rude. "Yes'm."

"Six kings. Nobody's that damn proficient. I'd have seen him palm it. I know every trick in the book. Hell, I wrote the book..." Ezra mumbled.

Vin wondered who Mr. Ezra was talking to. There was no one at the bar but him.

"Mr. Ezra?" he looked up at the gambler.

"Ah, Mr. Tanner! A votre sante."


"How are you this fine evening?" Ezra's voice was happy, but it sounded funny.

Vin could see that Ezra was trying to shuffle his cards with one hand. Usually, he was pretty good at that, but tonight, he was having trouble. Vin spied the whiskey bottle in front of him and saw it was half emptied. He wondered if that was the reason he couldn't do the cards and why he was talking like he was.

He sighed. He thought Ezra could help him write his list of names. Ezra's writing was real pretty, all curly and everything. But, he was pretty sure Ezra was kind of drunk. People couldn't write good when they were drunk.

"I was wonderin' if ya'd do somethin' fer me," Vin said. Then, he shrugged, "But, I'll come back when ya sober up."

Ezra stopped playing with his cards as he watched the little boy leave the saloon. He looked at the bottle in front of him, then raked his fingers though his hair. He'd obviously disappointed his young friend. "Vin! Wait! Come back!" But the boy was already gone.

Tucking his cards in his pocket, he decided to head for the boarding house and some nice, strong coffee before facing Lester Banks again. He'd be damned if he could figure out how the man was cheating, but he wasn't going to find the answer in a bottle.

JD walked softly up the stairs to the clinic. He had heard Josiah tell Buck that Nathan was going to put the kitties to sleep, and he didn't want to wake them. He wanted to see them, though, and help Nathan take care of them, since it was him who shot their mama dead.

He carefully opened the clinic door. Nathan's back was to him, but JD could see that he was unwrapping something on the table. He crept up next to him and saw it was a towel. All the baby kitties were wrapped in it. Nathan picked one up and held it to his ear. Then he put it to the side. He did the same with a second one, then a third, before it hit JD that the kitties were limp like rag dolls, and they weren't making that funny mewly kitty sound.

"Mr. Nathan, what's wrong with the kitties?" he asked.

Nathan jumped. He hadn't realized JD was there. Quickly, he re-wrapped the kittens, but it was too late.

"What happened to them, Mr. Nathan?"

The alarm in JD's voice tugged at Nathan's heart. He hated what he'd had to do, but there was no point in lying, not now.

He knelt down so that he was eye level with the little boy, trying to find words the child would understand.

"JD... now you know those kitties was still nursin'... they still needed their mama to give them milk."

JD nodded. The baby kitties didn't even have any teeth.

Nathan sighed heavily. "JD, they were too little to live without their mama. They would have been thirsty and hungry, so thirsty and so hungry that it would have hurt them real bad, do you understand?"

JD nodded, his lower lip quivering.

"They would have died anyway, but it would have taken a long time, and they would have suffered terribly. So, I gave them some special medicine and they just went to sleep."

Nathan thought JD understood, but to his dismay, he asked, "When are they going to wake up?"

Nathan put his hands on the boy's tiny shoulders. "JD, they aren't going to wake up. They're gone, like their mama."

JD stood there for a moment staring at him with his big dark eyes, his head shaking slightly side to side. Then he suddenly jerked free and shouted, "NO!"

He bolted out of the room and before Nathan could stop him, he was down the stairs and gone.

JD kept his head down as he walked down the street. Annie and all her babies were dead and it was all his fault and he felt like everybody in the whole town knew that. Every time he thought about the poor dead kitties, he wanted to cry.

He passed a group of older boys standing in front of the blacksmith's. It was Del Spivak and his dumb friends, Pud Garber and Scout Kirkland. They were so stupid. They thought they were outlaws because their folks let them wear guns. They thought they were a gang.

"Hey, lookit there!" Del called out. "It's JD Dunne, the world famous marksman!" All of the boys laughed.

JD felt his cheeks burning, but he just kept on walking. "Hey, JD!" Pud hollered. "Did ya carve yerself a notch on yer gun fer that BIG MEAN pussy cat ya killed?"

They laughed some more and then started meowing like cats. Del suddenly grabbed his throat and fell down like he had been shot. "Meeeowwwwrrrrrr.............." He made a choking sound and then lay still.

JD walked faster. He didn't even know where he was going, he just wanted to be away from there. He ducked into an alley and sat with his head resting on his knees. He felt so sad about the kitties. How could Del laugh about it?

Del Spivak got up on his feet and he and his friends doubled over laughing. Their merriment was cut short when the large, strong hand of Buck Wilmington grabbed Del and Pud by their shirt collars and gave them a good shake.

"Does it make you feel like big men to pick on a little boy?" he asked them. When they didn't answer, he squeezed their collars tighter. "Does it?"

When they still didn't produce an answer, Buck gave them a hearty shove and said, "Go on, get outa my sight."

Hiram Neuhaus, Elizabeth's father, was standing nearby. "What are you going to do about that kid of yours, Wilmington?" he asked.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Buck retorted.

"He's an orphan... you don't know anything about him or what he's capable of."

Buck bristled. "For Pete's sake, Hiram, he's FIVE!"

"Then what was he doing with a gun?!" Neuhaus demanded. "My daughter could have been killed instead of her cat!"

Buck softened his tone. "I know that, Hiram. But, that shooting was an accident. It could have happened with anyone's kid."

Hiram moved his face close to Buck's. "But, it happened with some foundling you took in off the street!"

"What do you want me to do, Hiram?" Buck pulled himself up to his full height as he spoke. "Run him out of town?"

"There's an orphanage in Santa Fe. Maybe he'd be better off there, where he'd have some supervision."

Hidden in the alley, JD heard the word 'orphanage.' Vin had told him about the orph'nage. It was a bad place. Surely Buck wouldn't send him there, would he?

Buck's reply to Hiram Neuhaus was angry. "And maybe you'd be better off where I don't have to look at ya..."

Suddenly, Chris was behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Okay, you made your point, both of you. Time to go, Buck."

As Chris dragged his friend away, he shot Neuhaus a glare that told him he didn't want to hear any more of what he had to say.

Vin was headed for the saloon. Ezra was going to play another poker game with Mr. Banks. Vin had never seen anyone beat Ezra at cards. He knew Ezra thought Mr. Banks was cheating, so he was going to watch real careful and see how he did it.

"Hello, Vin," he heard a familiar voice call to him. It was Miss Marnie. Dang.

He knew it wouldn't be polite to run, so he turned around and said, "Mornin' ma'am."

"Isn't little JD your friend?"

Vin wasn't sure how to answer that. JD was his best friend, but he was much more than that. It would be hard to explain how they were brothers, so, he said, "He's... sorta my cousin."

Miss Marnie's face was sad. "I heard what happened. The poor little thing must be so upset."

To be honest, Vin hadn't really talked to JD about the bank robbery. JD hadn't said much of anything since it happened, which was kind of unusual for JD. Vin figured he must think he was still mad at him for taking his rifle, and truth be told, he kinda was. But all that was too hard to explain to Miss Marnie. "I reckon," he said.

"Well, you tell him if he wants to talk to someone about it, that Mr. Sanchez will know where to find me."


"Oh, have you finished that list for me?"

Vin was afraid she'd ask that. But, he had an answer ready. "I'm tryin' ma'am, but my scribin' is ugly as a toad," he hung his head. He hoped she'd feel sorry for him.

It must have worked, because she said, "Well, why don't you just come on by the school house when you have time, and you can just tell me the names and I'll write them down?"

Vin thought about that for only a second. "I'll do that, Ma'am."

Right now, though, he had a poker game to watch!

"Don't let these bloodshot eyes fool ya 'cause they'll be watching very closely to ensure that our little contest is on the up and up," Ezra said. Thanks in large part to his previous night's encounter with Vin, he'd managed to arrive at the gaming table sober as a judge.

"Well, I can assure you that Big Lester Banks has nothing up his sleeve. And to prove it... " Banks removed his coat, and Vin was amazed to see he had a little gun strapped to his arm. "Sometimes, people act uncivilized."

"Well, sir, I must concur... " Ezra removed his coat and he had a little gun, too! "...that I, myself, have known them at times to be... uncouth."

Buck dumped a bunch of money on the table. "In case you're countin' it, both you boys bought me a couple of beers last night. Thank you."

Mr. Ezra started dealing the cards. Vin understood poker only a little, but it was fun to watch the cards fly and all that money moving around. But, his attention was drawn to the little guns the men wore. Chris and Buck's guns were too big for him to hold and shoot, but those little guns would fit just right in his hands. He could practice his fast draw if he had a pair of those.

Suddenly, he was in front of the bank just as the robbers were running out. There were six of them, and he was alone!

He drew his little silver guns and said in his most Chris-like voice, "Drop that money and get yer hands in the air!"

The robbers didn't listen to him, at first, but then he fired off six shots with the gun in his left hand, and each man's hat flew from his head. "You hombres don't wanna see what I can do with my right hand," he growled.

He heard ooohs and aaahs from the crowd as he twirled his guns and dropped them neatly back into their holsters.

"Woohoo!" he heard Ezra yell, so close that the sound startled him. He blinked his eyes and discovered he was back in the saloon with his cheek resting on the soft felt of the poker table. He lifted his head and yawned, and then saw the reason Ezra was so happy. He had three queens in front of him, and Mr. Banks had three nines. Queens beat nines.

"Well! Uh... ladies and gentlemen, it would appear that lady luck has finally shone her light on me," Ezra said, and started to take the money.

"Hold the light," Mr. Banks said, and then laid down two more cards. "And two jacks."

Vin knew that was bad for Ezra.

"That's a full house, Mr. Standish. Luck of the draw," Mr. Banks said, and pulled the money back towards him.

"Wait! I saw those jacks... I saw those jacks..." Ezra seemed upset.

"You were the dealer. Are you accusing yourself of cheating?" Mr. Banks stood up with the money. "I have enjoyed our game immensely. Good day, sir."

Vin reckoned the game was over, because every one left, and it was only him and Ezra. Vin thought about asking Ezra to write his list of names for him, but he didn't. He could see Ezra was upset.

"Sorry ya didn't win, Mr. Ezra," he said softly.

Ezra sighed. "As am I, my dear boy, as am I."

JD was sitting on the boardwalk watching some ants that were making an anthouse in the street. Buck had cautioned him not to touch the shiny red insects. He had said they would bite him if he bothered them, so he just watched. He didn't feel like playing. He was still thinking about Annie and her kittens.

Nathan had said the kittens had to die because they were too little to live without their mama. He was too little to live without his mama, too. He missed her so much. He wondered if there was a cat heaven and if Annie was there with all her babies. He'd have to ask Josiah. He knew his mama was in Heaven. He was pretty sure that as much as he missed her, he didn't want to go be with her there, not yet. Not until he was real old, like Josiah. No... real, real old, like Miz Nettie....

He yelped as he was suddenly snatched up off the sidewalk and found himself in the girp of strong arms that completely encircled him, pinning his own arms at his side. In an instant he was face-to-face with Achilles, the brother of the dead bank robber.

He kicked his legs frantically. "YOU LET ME GO!"

Achilles' eyes were big and mean, but his voice was soft. "Settle down, now. I ain't gonna hurt ya."

"If my Buck sees ya, he's gonna shoot ya!" JD wiggled trying to get free but it was no use.

Achilles laughed. "Guns don't bother me. I already been shot eleven times."

JD, momentarily impressed, stopped struggling.

Achilles continued, "I once seen a bullet headed right towards my face take a turn rather than hit me."


"It's a fact. So see, your people shootin' at me, that don't scare me. Now, you an' I are gonna pay someone a visit, an' you're gonna be real quiet, so's I don't have to break your arm." To emphasize his point, he squeezed JD left elbow until he yelped.

Then, he carried him down the street to the undertaker. JD didn't want to go in there. Sometimes, there were dead people there. He closed his eyes tight as Achilles carried him through the door. He couldn't see anything, but he heard every word.

"What do you want?" the undertaker asked nervously.

"Where's my brother's body?"

"Ain't here..." the undertaker stammered. "They got it over at the jail."

Achilles pulled out his gun. JD felt the cold steel of the barrel against his head. He squeezed his eyes shut even tighter - so tight, they hurt. He didn't think Achilles was going to shoot him, but he was real scared, anyway.

"You tell Buck Wilmington to bring me my brother's body down the trail, few miles, under that stand of oaks. You tell him come alone, and bring him, and he'll get his boy back."

Achilles turned and ducked through an alley. JD was tossed up onto a horse and then Achilles climbed up behind him and covered him with a blanket before kicking the horse to a full gallop.

JD was too scared to even cry.

Chris had left Buck to watch the prisoner, whose name was Morris, while he and Vin had gone to get something to eat. He wasn't too surprised not to find him there when they got back. Morris wasn't going anywhere.

Vin carried a tray of food for the prisoner, who started talking the second they walked in the door. He never seemed to shut up.

"Well, hallelujah! You're here!" he said when he saw Vin. "I thought you were gonna let me starve. Look at my ribs! I'm wastin' away here!" He pulled up his shirt and Vin could see he was skinny, but that was probably because he used his mouth to talk so much, it was plumb too wore out to eat.

"Quit yer damn whining," Chris told him, taking a chair across the room.

Vin set the tray of food on the floor and then began to slowly nudge it towards the cell with his foot. Chris had taught him to do it that way so no one could grab him. He happened to glance at the adjoining cell where Hector Thompson's body had been.

"Chris, the body's gone!"

"The food you serve is so ghastly I went ahead and ate him," Morris said.

Vin blinked. "Ya did?"

Chris got up and moved Vin to one side as he checked the empty cell. "What happened to him?" he hissed.

"It's gonna cost you one steak and some potatoes."

Chris kicked the tray of food across the room, then reached through the bars and grabbed Morris by the throat. "You talk, or I'll be cookin' you up some hot lead."

It didn't take long for Chris to get the story out of him - how the undertaker had shown up and told Buck that Achilles had JD. He understood why Buck had taken Thompson's body, and he wasn't going to let him face Achilles alone, not with JD's life in the balance.

He took Vin's rifle from the rack, loaded it and then handed it to the little boy. "I'm going to send Yosemite over to watch the jail," he told Vin. "But if he moves before then, shoot him."

Morris laughed. "Ya expect me to be scared of some snot-nosed brat with pea shooter?"

Chris walked up the cell. "That snot-nosed brat can shoot a fly off a horse's ass a hundred feet away."

Vin grinned at that. He was pretty sure if he shot at a horse, he'd be in big trouble, but, he liked to hear Chris brag about him.

"That puny rifle don't pack enough punch to knock off one of my buttons...."

"SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP!" Chris silenced the prisoner. "Vin? If he moves, shoot his nuts off."

Achilles handed JD a cup of coffee. He had poured some extra water and put lots of sugar in it so it didn't taste too bad and it wasn't hot. He gave him a biscuit to eat, too.

Achilles had told him that Buck would be coming to get him soon.

"Yer gonna be sorry ya took me when my Buck gets here," he said defiantly.

"I ain't afraid of yer daddy, pup," Achilles laughed.

"He's gonna be real mad at you."

"Is he now?"

"He might even shoot you."

Achilles sat down next to JD. "Already done tol' ya, bullets can't hurt me. You know what my name means? Achilles?"

JD shook his head.

"My pa. He loved stories about ancient Greece. You ever heard of ancient Greece?"

"Is that by Boston?" JD asked.

Achilles snorted. "No. It's a place that existed a long time ago. In this ancient Greece, there was a hero named Achilles. That's who my pa named me after. He was the bravest, strongest warrior to ever fight in the Trojan War. Know why?"

JD shook his head again.

"'Cause nothin' could hurt him. You see, this mother had dipped him in this magic river... made him what they call 'invulnerable', meanin' he couldn't be hurt. Not with swords, not with arrows, not with nothin'."

JD listened attentively as Achilles continued, "I used to think it was just a story, but I come to realize... that I'm the same as him. I can't be killed. So, your Buck, he don't scare me."

"I ain't here ta scare you," a familiar voice called out. "I just want my boy back!"

"PAPA!" JD cried, and tried to run in the direction of the voice. Achilles grabbed him and threw him back down on the ground.

"Show yourself!"

Buck came walking out from behind a small clump of bushes, his hands in the air.

"Did you bring my brother's body?"

"It's in a safe place. You give me my boy an' I'll take you to it."

Achilles turned his face upward and screamed, really loud. JD got scared and covered his ears. Then, Achilles went for his gun, but before he could draw, a shot rang out and Achilles jerked sideways. JD didn't know who shot him. Buck still had his hands in the air. Achilles looked down at him and pointed at the blood on his shirt. He winked at JD and said, "Now you know."

"This doesn't need to go any further!" JD heard Chris shout.

But then, Achilles went for his gun again, and shouted, "Take 'em, boys!"

And suddenly everyone was shooting. JD heard Buck yell, "JD! STAY DOWN!"

JD covered his ears and closed his eyes real tight. He knew Buck wouldn't let anything bad happen to him, but he was scared something bad would happen to Buck. He started to cry, even though he couldn't hear himself for all the shooting.

"Withdraw!" Achilles shouted.

And suddenly everything was quiet.

The next thing JD knew, he was being scooped up into Buck's arms and being hugged real tight. He couldn't hardly breathe, but, it felt good. He quickly stopped crying.

"Are you okay?" Buck asked him when he finally caught his breath.

JD nodded. He was fine now that Buck and the others were here. "Did he hurt you?" Buck asked softly.

JD shook his head. "Can we go home now?"

Once they were back in town, Nathan examined JD and made sure he was really alright. Other than a couple of small bruises and a scrape or two, he appeared physically fine.

The events of the past couple of days had proved too much excitement for JD's little mind to sort out, however. He was clearly exhausted, but he was too keyed up to sleep.

Nathan had prepared a sleeping powder and mixed it into some lemonade. When he offered it to JD, the little boy looked up at him, questioningly. He never got to drink lemonade right before bed.

"It's all right, JD," Nathan said softly. "It's just something to put you to sleep."

JD's face looked suddenly horrorified and tears followed immediately. "I DON'T WANNA DIE!" he wailed.

Buck quickly pulled him into a hug. "JD.... shhhhh... you're not gonna die. What makes you think that?"

"Nathan put the kitties to sleep and now they're all dead," he sobbed. "I don't wanna get put to sleep. I don't wanna die!"

Buck looked at Nathan. The big healer looked positively stricken. He knelt down and gently patted JD's head as he set the lemonade aside. "Oh, JD, I'm so sorry," he said. "But, this is just medicine. It's not the same as with the kitties. I would never, ever hurt you."

Unfortunately, JD wasn't buying it. He refused to touch the lemonade, and instead, cried himself to sleep in Buck's arms.

Vin had slept in Chris's room so Buck could stay with JD, but now he had to go into his room to get a clean shirt. He had dropped his biscuit when he was eating supper the night before and now the shirt he'd been wearing had honey and butter on it. Chris had told him to be sure to put on a clean one before he came down for breakfast. As usual, Vin was up at sunrise, but he knew Miss Virginia had gotten up while it was still dark and that there would be eggs and bacon and more biscuits waiting for him when he got downstairs. He was really hungry.

He didn't want to wake JD up, so he walked on tiptoes to the dresser and took out his clean shirt. He spotted a glass just sitting there and sniffed at the pale yellow contents. Lemonade. Somebody had just left a perfectly good glass of lemonade there. It seemed a shame to waste it, so, he picked up the glass and drained it in just a few gulps.

"As I was shufflin', I saw those jacks. They were at the bottom of the deck. Even though he cut the cards, they'd end up somewhere around the middle. Oh, the treachery," Ezra complained. He and Nathan and Buck were sitting down to an uncommonly quiet breakfast. JD was still asleep. Vin had been down earlier, but had fallen asleep at the table. Chris had carried him back up to bed, hoping he wasn't coming down with something even though Nathan said he appeared okay.

"Oh, I don't know, Ezra. Maybe you just ran into a nasty patch of bad luck," Buck proposed.

"There's no such thing as bad luck. It's lack of skill that cost me...dearly."

"I know what you mean. I shoulda done better at explainin' to JD about them kittens. Hell, I probably should have tried to find another mama cat to nurse them."

"Ain't no other cats in this town," Buck pointed out, "'cept that old one-eyed tom that scrounges around the butcher shop."

"The Romeros have a cat," Nathan said.

"They live twenty miles from town," Buck told him. "An' like as not, it ain't even a mama cat."

"Well, a dog then... I've heard tell that sometimes a nursin' bitch will take to kittens..."

"You did the best you could, Nathan," Buck assured him.

Nathan pointed upstairs. "But it wasn't enough for that little boy, was it?"

JD shuffled his feet aimlessly as he walked along the boardwalk. Buck had given him a penny to buy some candy, but even that didn't make him feel good. He felt sad and alone and all empty inside and he didn't know why. At first he was scared that Achilles would come back and take him away again, but, Buck had explained that all he wanted was his brother and now he had him, so he wouldn't be bothering them again. Buck said Vin wasn't mad at him about the rifle any more, but JD hadn't heard that from Vin. Vin wasn't there to play with him because he was still asleep, which was kind of strange because Vin usually got up before everyone, but, not today. He didn't even wake up when JD pulled his eyelids apart to see if he was really sleeping.

Looking down the street, he saw Casey, Holly and Molly in the little garden in front of Elizabeth's house. There were some other kids, there, too. Curious, he went to see what they were doing.

He stopped short when he spotted the neatly arranged sticks and stones next to the roses. There was one large mound of dirt surrounded by six smaller ones. A piece of wood was stuck in the ground nearby and on it someone had written:

Annie the cat
and her babys
shot ded and kilt
by J D Dun

Casey spotted him and stomped over to him. "We's havin' a fun'ral for Annie.You ain't s'posed to be here."

JD couldn't stop the tears. He didn't want Casey to be mad at him. "I didn't mean to!" he sobbed.

"One of those kitties was mine!" She pushed him, hard. "Go away, JD. We don't like you anymore!"

JD turned and ran, not even sure where he was running to.

He ended up at the church. It wasn't Sunday, but the door was open and Josiah had said he could come in any time. He walked softly and tried to be quiet. Buck had told him church wasn't a place to talk or make noise, except if you were singing hymns or something.

He sat down in one of the pews watching the candles flicker in their place by the altar. He liked to watch candles, and Vin had shown him how to poke the melted wax without getting burned so that big balls of wax formed on his fingers. He stayed away from them today, though. He was in enough trouble.

"Feelin' a mite lonely, son?" Josiah said as he came into the chapel.

JD nodded. "Nobody likes me anymore," he sniffed.

"Now, JD, that's not true. Everyone loves you."

"Not Casey. She hates me."

Josiah laughed softly and draped an arm around his shoulder and gave him a hug. "No, she doesn't, JD. She's just disappointed is all. She really wanted that kitten."

Josiah immediately knew that was the wrong thing to say when JD started to cry in earnest.

"How come they had to die, Mr. Josiah? They was just little tiny babies. How come their ma had to die?" He rubbed his eyes fiercely. "How come my ma had to die?"

"Awww, JD..." Josiah lifted him into his lap and rocked him gently. "JD, sometimes bad things just happen. Nobody but God knows why."

"Well, I think God is MEAN!"

Josiah rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I know it seems that way sometimes, JD, doesn't it?"

JD looked up, surprised that Josiah had agreed with him.

Josiah continued, "But when we think that, we need to think of all the wonderful things God does, too. There are lots of those."

JD thought about it for a moment. It was true, his mama was gone, and he missed her, but he had Buck now, and he knew his mama was in Heaven with the angels and she would never be sad or hurt or sick ever again.

"Do cats go to Heaven, Mr. 'siah?"

"Well, JD, no one knows for sure, mind you, but there's lotsa folks out there who don't think it would be Heaven without cats, and dogs, so, I'm guessing they do."

"And so Annie is in Heaven with her babies?"

Josiah gave the little boy another hug. "I'm sure she is."

JD looked down again. "I made a really bad mistake," he sniffed.

"Yes, son, you did. But, you're just a little boy, JD. Sometimes even grown men make big mistakes. All we can do is learn from them, and be truly sorry so that we don't make them again. Understand?"

JD nodded. He did understand. Sort of.

"Hey, I've got something for you!" Josiah changed the subject. "Come with me..."

They went to the part of the church where Josiah lived and Josiah handed him a cigar box. JD opened it and gasped in surprise. He had forgotten all about the tarantula! The varnish had stiffened the skin and Josiah had glued a sting to its back so he could dangle it in the air. It looked really scary! JD squealed with delight.

"Now, it would be best if you keep it in the box. The varnish has made the skin hard, but if you play with it too much it will break."

JD carefully set the spider back in the box and closed the lid. "Thanks, Josiah! I can't wait to show Vin!"

JD was feeling a little bit better as he headed for the saloon. He knew Buck would be there watching Ezra play poker with that nice Mr. Banks, and he wanted to show him the spider.

The stage had just pulled in and some passengers were getting off to have a meal while they were in town. The driver told them to be back in an hour. One of them was a lady with two little girls about his age. As he walked by, the younger one lingered behind staring at him, and when he stared back, she stuck her tongue out at him. He opened the cigar box and pretended he was walking towards her with it.

Her eyes grew round with fright and she screamed, "Maaaama!" and ran to her mother.

Laughing, JD shut the box and ran. Oh yeah, Mr. Spider and him were going to have lots of fun.

He sure wasn't expecting what he saw when he got to the saloon.

Mr. Ezra and Mr. Banks were playing poker, all right, but they were naked! At least, they didn't have any shirts on. JD edged his way through the crowd and peered under the table. Yup, they didn't have any pants on, neither! He noticed something funny about one of Mr. Banks' legs. It didn't look like a real leg. He was about to poke it when a big hand covered his eyes and pulled him back from the table.

It was Buck. "Don't look at that," he said, laughing.

"Where is our other young charge?" Ezra asked as he shuffled the cards.

"Who, Vin?" Buck said. "Seems he found some lemonade laced with sleeping powder that Nathan fixed for JD last night."

"That boy does love his lemonade," Ezra chuckled.

"Yup, he's dead to the world."

JD froze, mortified. Vin was dead?!


He ran from the saloon and then hurried to the boarding house, dashing up the stairs to his and Vin's room as fast as his short legs would take him. Vin wasn't there anymore. He ran down the stairs. "Vin!" he hollered, even though he wasn't supposed to yell in the house. "VIN!!"

Miss Virginia stopped him at the bottom of the stairs. "I won't have that cacaphony in my house," she scolded him.

JD ignored the rebuke. "Where's Vin?" he panted.

"Vin? I haven't seen him since Mr. Larabee carried him out of here this morning."

"Carried him?" JD gulped.

"Yes, he was asleep... he..."

JD didn't wait to hear more. He ran back up the stairs to his room and shut the door and locked it.

His head felt all mixed up, like his brain was going to explode. The empty glass of lemonade was still on the dresser. Nathan had told him it wouldn't hurt him, but Vin drank it and now he was dead. There was a big achy feeling in his tummy all of a sudden and his heart was thumping so hard that he bet if he took off his shirt, he could see it.

What was he going to do? Nobody liked him, and now Vin was gone. Vin. His Vin. No no no no no.

And with Vin gone, what if Buck decided to send him to the orph'nage?

He decided there was only one thing he could do. The stage driver said the stage would be leaving in an hour. JD would be on it.

He would run away and never come back.

Vin didn't know why he was so sleepy this morning. First, he fell asleep eating his breakfast, and when he woke up again, it was half past ten! He had gone down to the livery to check on Peso and see if Mr. Yosemite needed any help, but then, he fell into a pile of hay and it felt soft and warm and he fell asleep again.

Now, he was going to be late for the poker game, but he had told Miss Marnie he'd come by the school house and he figured he better get that out of the way, first. Sometimes, Mr. Ezra's poker games lasted until bedtime.

The school house wasn't really a school house. It was really just a room at the grain exchange. But, Miss Marnie was fixing it up so that it looked like a school. Or at least, how Vin imagined a school to look. He'd never been in one before.

She greeted him warmly and then had him sit in a chair by her desk. He'd been practicing so he could remember all the names of all the kids in town. He didn't want to miss any of them. If he had to go to school, so did they.

Carefully, he recited the name of every child and their age, ending the list with himself and JD.

Miss Marnie finished writing and then handed him the piece of paper. "Did I get everyone?" she asked him.

Vin looked at the paper self-consciously. He tried turning it sideways, but, it still didn't make a bit of sense to him.

"Oh, Vin," Miss Marnie said softly, "You don't know how to read yet, do you?"

Vin felt the blood rush to his cheeks. JD knew how to read, and he was only little. He was seven years old and he didn't know nothing! His face burning with embarrassment, he slammed the paper down on the desk.

"I don't need to know how to read any stupid words!" he shouted. "An' I ain't gonna come to your dumb school, neither!"

Miss Marnie called his name as he ran for the door, but he kept right on going.

He raced down the street towards the saloon, fighting to hold back the tears, only to have his anger suddenly evaporate when he spotted Ezra walking towards him - wearing nothing but his boots and a tablecloth!

Some ladies on the boardwalk were giggling and Ezra seemed to be talking to himself.

"He cheated. He cheated! I know he cheated!" He looked over at the women. "What are you lookin' at? Boo!"

"What happened to your clothes, Mr. Ezra?" Vin asked.

Ezra looked down at him. "I, young sir, have literally lost my shirt!"

Puzzled, Vin watched the gambler head down the boardwalk. He had lost a whole lot more than just his shirt from the looks of it.

It looked like he'd missed the poker game. He figured he'd go to the jail and see if maybe Chris would let him guard the prisoner again. He liked it when Chris gave him important jobs to do, especially when he got to use his rifle. That was the best!

JD didn't have a ticket for the stage, and he didn't have any money to buy one. He was little, though, and didn't take up too much room, and maybe if he just got on, everyone would think he was with one of the grown ups. He had thought about packing some stuff, but, he didn't want to carry it. Instead, he put on his Sunday clothes, so he'd look like he was traveling, and decided to take only the cigar box with the spider in it. He couldn't part with that.

The only people waiting for the stage were the lady with the two girls, and Mr. Banks. JD told the lady that Mr. Banks was his daddy. Mr. Banks remembered him, so he had to tell him that the lady was his ma, and they were taking a trip to Boston.

As he stood waiting for the stage to board, Casey walked up to him. "What'ch'a doin', JD?" she asked him.

"I'm runnin' away," he told her, and then wondered if maybe he shouldn't keep that a secret.

"How come?"

"'Cause nobody likes me, an Vin is dead."

Casey's eyes widened in surprise. "Vin died?" What surprised her most was that she had just seen Vin at Potter's store, buying candy. She was going to tell JD that, but the driver picked him up and put him in the stage.

"Up you go, little feller," he said.

Then he helped the two little girls get on. When the girl's mother and Mr. Banks had boarded, the driver shut the door and climbed up in his seat. JD looked out the window as the stage began to move.

"'Bye, JD," Casey said, waving at him. She sure didn't seem mad any more, JD thought. She was probably glad he was leaving.

He continued to stare out the window as the stage rolled down the street. Wiping away the tears that threatened to fall from his eyes, he thought about how he was going to miss Buck. And Chris. And Josiah. And Nathan. And Ezra. And especially..... Vin?!

He blinked his eyes. There, on the boardwalk, strolling along with a peppermint stick in his mouth, was Vin!

"HEE-YAH!" the stage driver shouted and the horses broke into a full gallop. JD shouted out to his friend, but the noise of the moving stage drowned out his words.

Vin thought he heard someone call his name, but he looked around and didn't see anyone.

That noisy prisoner at the jail was getting on his nerves, but Chris said a Marshall was coming to take him away that afternoon.

Something else was bothering him, too. He shouldn't have talked so mean to Miss Marnie that morning. It wasn't her fault he was dumb. He looked hesitantly at the grain exchange for a few moments, and then knew what he had to do.

He stood in the doorway of the classroom, ready to run if he had to. "Miss Marnie?" he said softly.

She looked up and smiled at him. How could she smile at him when he had been so mean? That made him feel even worse.

"Miss Marnie, I come to 'pologize. That wasn't very nice, them things I said."

"No, Vin, it's I who should apologize. I should have realized that with this town not having a school, there would be a lot of children who don't know their letters yet."

Vin lifted his head. Now that was news. "Ya mean I ain't the only dumb kid in the school?"

"Oh, Vin, honey! You aren't dumb! You are a very sweet and helpful young man who tried your best. It's not your fault you haven't learned to read... After all, that's what I am here for."

Vin smiled. He really liked Miss Marnie.

"I reckon I'll come to school then."

"I am looking forward to it." She held up the list of names. "And thank you again for these. You did an excellent job."

"Yer welcome," Vin blushed. "Uh... I gotta go now. I gotta help Chris at the jail."

"Ah, yes," Miss Marnie nodded. "I hear you're almost like Mr. Larabee's deputy."

Vin beamed at that assumption, but all he could manage was a shy, "Yes'm."

She winked at him. "Our town is in good hands."

Morris, the prisoner, was still complaining when Vin got to the jail. He continued to complain while Chris and Vin played three games of checkers.

Finally, tired of being ignored, he walked up to the bars.

"You fellas interested in making a little deal?" he said

Chris didn't even look at him as he set up the checker board for a fourth game. "No deals."

"It concerns that stagecoach that just pulled outa here."

This time, Chris did pay attention. "What are you talking about?"

"Do I get a little consideration?

Chris opened the cell and pushed Morris against the bars. "I'm gonna count to three. One... two...

"All right, all right!"

Chris slammed him against the bars really hard. "Three!"

"Okay! That stage is carrying gold from California to the mint in Denver."

"No it ain't," Vin said. "The stage with the money always has cavalry men with it."

Chris looked at the boy, impressed with his observation.

Morris continued to babble. "They thought they could do it real sneaky. No extra guards. Nothing that would attract attention."

"How do you know this?" Chris asked him.

"Achilles got an old friend working for the stage company."

Vin again impressed Chris by quickly putting two and two together. "They's fixin' on robbin' the stage?"

"Smart kid ya got there," Morris said to Chris, who banged him against the bars again to remind him to keep talking. "Yeah... yeah, they are. So was I 'til ya put a bullet in my rump."

Chris tossed him onto the cot and locked the door. "Vin, you go find JD and get on over to the boarding house. You stay there until I get back."

Vin wanted to go wherever Chris was going, but, he could tell Chris would say 'no' to that." He hurried off to do what he was told.

"What about our deal?!" Morris shouted as Chris followed Vin out the door.

Vin looked everywhere for JD. Potter's store, the church, the boarding house. Everyone had seen him, but no one knew where he was. Then, he spotted Casey playing in the dirt with her marbles. The girls wouldn't play marbles with her because most of them didn't like to sit in the dirt, and most of the boys wouldn't play marbles with a girl. JD played with her sometimes, though.

"Casey!" he shouted, running up to her.

"Hi, Vin! I knew you weren't dead!"

Vin frowned, but he didn't have time to figure out what the little girl was talking about. "Have you seen JD?"

"He ran away."


"He left on the stage. He said he was runnin' away."

Vin grabbed her shoulders. "Casey, you better not be tellin' fibs."

Casey pushed him. She was stronger than she looked. "I ain't tellin' fibs! He said nobody liked him no more and you was dead and he was runnin' away, so he got on the stage and left."

Vin didn't know what to think. Casey wasn't making a lick of sense, but she did seem certain about one thing - that JD was on that stage! He ran to find Chris.

The men were saddled up and ready to head out.

Vin ran up to them. "CHRIS! WAIT!"

Chris looked mildly annoyed, which made Vin cringe. "Vin, you can't come with us. Go stay at the boarding house, like I told you."

"But, Chris, JD is on the stage!"


"What did you say?" Buck echoed.

"Casey said he run away. He got on the stage. She ain't fibbin'."

"Aw HELL!" Ezra groaned.

"We'll take the short cut through Baker's Pass and try to head them off," Chris commanded. "Let's ride!"

JD tried to sit quietly so as to not draw attention to himself. Getting on the stage was a stupid idea. He was going to be in big trouble if the driver found out he didn't have a ticket. The only person who knew he didn't belong there was the little girl he had scared with the spider, and every time she looked at him, he touched the lid of his cigar box.

He was going to have to get off this stage and sneak on another one going back to Four Corners because Vin wasn't dead, so Buck wouldn't send him to the orph'nage.

Dang. He was in even more trouble now than he was before. Maybe he should just keep on going.

Suddenly, there was noise and shooting from outside the stage. The mother clutched her daughters to her. "What's happening?" she asked Mr. Banks as the stage pulled to a stop.

"I think the coach is being held up..." he said.

JD wanted to see! He climbed over Mr. Banks and looked out the window and saw two men with guns pulling the driver and the guard off. Both men had been shot in the arm.

"Want us to finish 'em off?" one of outlaws asked.

"No, just take their boots. Been enough killin' as it is." JD knew that voice! It was Achilles!

"What about the passengers?"

"We'll take 'em as hostages. 'Cept for the man. Leave him here with the other two. Someone will find 'em - if they're lucky."

The door opened and someone tried to pull Mr. Banks out.

"Kindly unhand me, Sir!" he said, and tried to push the man away. The outlaw lost his balance and to keep from falling, he grabbed Mr. Banks' leg.

To everyone's astonishment, the gambler's leg came right off, and money and cards spilled out of it.

The girls screamed and their mama nearly fainted, but JD saw that the leg wasn't real. He giggled in spite of being scared.

"Well, well...," Achilles said. "What you doin' here, pup?"

JD didn't answer him. Achilles scared him, lots.

They made Mr. Banks hop on one leg over to a rock and sit down, then they tossed his leg up on top of the stage coach after they took all the money out of it. Just in case, JD tucked his cigar box under his suspenders and pulled his coat closed so they wouldn't see it and take it away, too.

Then, Achilles climbed up into the driver's seat and said, "Give me the boy. He's our insurance."

One of the men pulled JD out of the coach and put him up on top of the stage. He thought he was going to get to sit in the seat, but Achilles told him, "You keep still back there now, or you're gonna bounce right off. If you do, we'll leave you for the buzzards!" Then, he turned to the men being left behind. "You tell them peacekeepers from town that I got the pup here. They'd be wise not to do anything stupid."

Riding on top of the stagecoach was really bumpy, but it would have been fun if JD wasn't with a bunch of stupid robbers. He was wondering how long it would be before Buck and the others came - and he knew they would - when he spotted five dust clouds in the distance. Slowly, he watched them close in, and they were almost caught up with the stage before the robbers noticed them.

Achilles yelled back at him, "You hold on, pup!" and he snapped the reins and yelled "HEEYAH!" and the horses broke into a run.

As JD clung to the back of the seat, the cigar box in his jacket rubbed against his tummy and suddenly, he got an idea. Using one hand, so he didn't have to let go of the seat, he worked the cigar box free and removed the spider. Making sure the string was where he could grab it, he tossed it over Achilles' shoulder.

Achilles was busy driving the stage, so at first, he didn't notice it. JD had to poke him in the side three times before he finally looked down.

Now, JD was thinking that seeing a big spider on him would just make Achilles stop the stage long enough to get it off - long enough for Buck and the others to catch up with them. But, the result was much more than he could have ever hoped for....

The instant he spotted the spider on the front of his shirt, Achilles eyes grew wide with fright and he frantically began to try to brush it away. But, since JD held the string it was attached to, it didn't go anywhere.

"AAAARRRRRGGGGGKKKKKK!!!!" Achilles screeched, and then started slapping at his clothing with both hands, letting go of the reins. The spider stayed with him, though, and finally, he stood up and twirled around trying to dislodge the creature, which only caused the string to wrap around his neck, making him think there was another spider there.

JD had to duck as Achilles whirled and twirled and screamed and flailed his arms and then, they hit a big bump and he went flying from the stagecoach, hitting the ground with a wrenching >THUD< that knocked him cold.

JD crawled over the seat to pickup the reins, but he could only find one set. He tugged with all his might trying to get the horses to stop, but, all they did was run off the road and start going in a circle. The stage bounced fiercely over the rough ground and JD had to let go of the reins so he could hold onto the seat with both hands.

Much to his relief, as soon as they came back to the road, the horses straightened out and started following it. JD was able to locate both sets of reins and tried to pull the team to a stop, but he was too small. The horses barely slowed down and soon, he could see Buck, Chris, Nathan, Ezra and Josiah heading right for him.

"WHAT THE HELL!?" Buck shouted, unnecessarily, as the others saw the same thing he did - a stagecoach coming at them at full gallop with a five-year-old in the driver's seat.

They parted and cleared the road as the coach barrelled towards them and then they turned and followed, gently boxing the coach team in and slowing the horses to trot.

Buck jumped up next to JD and took the reins, pulling the stage to a complete stop.

"Hi, Buck!" was all the kid had to say.

He climbed down with the little boy in his arms. "Are you allright, son?"

"Ya-huh. My spider is gone, though."

Buck frowned. "Spider?"

While JD proceeded to tell how Achilles had ended up face-first in the dirt, Ezra helped the woman and her two little girls from the coach. They were dusty and shaken, but not hurt.

"He saved us!" the older girl pointed to JD.

Buck eyed his son proudly. "I reckon he did."

"That turn was perfect, son," Chris praised, then teased,"Where did you learn to drive a stagecoach?"

"Dunno," JD answered honestly.

"Well, you saved the stage, you saved some folks a bunch of money, and you helped capture Achilles. I'd say that's pretty impressive for a little guy. It looks like you're a real hero," Buck told JD.

There was round of praise and gentle back-slapping from the men, and kisses from the woman and her girls, all of which JD endured with uncharacteristic shyness.

But then, he said, "That was a pretty good turn, wasn't it?"

Everyone laughed, including JD.

Achilles' men had ridden off without him, and Nathan and Josiah went to retrieve the outlaw, whose most serious injury appeared to be to his dignity.

Ezra climbed up onto the stage coach to drive it back to town and found the leg.

"What is this?" he asked JD.

"That's Mr. Banks' leg. The robbers took all his cards and money, though."

"Damn," Ezra muttered. "I knew I should have looked under that table."

They rode back to where the outlaws had left the three men. After Nathan tended to them, the two wounded drivers were placed inside the coach and, after he got his leg back, Mr. Banks climbed up in the driver's seat next to Ezra. Achilles was already tied up on Ezra's horse.

JD rode with Buck, and he snuggled close as they road into the sunset towards home.

"How'd you lose your leg?" Ezra asked Mr. Banks.

"Roulette. The odds are atrocious."

Ezra laughed. "Hell, everybody knows that.... How about a rematch?"

JD didn't know what they were talking about, but the sound of their voices made him feel happy, anyway.

Smiling, he sighed and drifted off to sleep.

Next: Penance