Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series
Original sceen play by Neil Landau
"Gimme a drink. Whiskey!"
JD jumped and sloshed some of the lemonade he had just started to sip down the front of his shirt. He looked down at the spreading wet spot and sighed.
Young Vin Tanner glared at the loud, abrasive man who was demanding service, and he noticed that people were scurrying out of the way. He didn't like the look of things. This man was really being mean to Miss Inez. "Reckon ya' better go get Pa and Uncle Buck," he whispered to the younger boy.
"But what about you?" JD pouted. He hated to be the one who always missed everything. Vin wasn't that much older than him. When he saw Miss Inez throw a bottle at the man and the mean man crack a whip at her, he didn't even wait for Vin to answer him. His feet were running when they hit the floor.
A few moments later the pint-sized brunet pointed to the man with the whip. "That's him." He puffed up with an air of importance as he identified the man who was now threatening Miss Inez again. He had run into his papa just outside. Chris and he were already on their way after seeing people fleeing from the saloon.
Buck Wilmington stepped on the end of the whip, before the man could crack it at Inez again, and slammed the man into the bar. "Hey, that ain't no way to treat a lady. Gimme that. Gimme that," he repeated as he twisted the attacker's arm behind his back and yanked the whip from his hand.
"Fight's over," Chris called out over the din in the room, and he was satisfied to see most of the ruckus come to an abrupt halt. But there was always one who had to try his patience. One quick shot sent the fool's gun flying out of his hand.
Larabee's jaw dropped when barely a second later a rock barely missed the man's hand. If his hand had not jerked when Chris's shot hit him, the rock would have hit dead on target. The gunman glanced at his boy and fought back a smile when he saw the little sharpshooter's slingshot still poised with the rubber sling still swinging from its rebound. Forcing a stern expression he faced down his boy, but he saved his comments for later. He would not embarrass his son by calling him to task in front of everyone.
"It's about time." Inez slapped her hands down on the bar and glared at Buck.
"Your knight in shining armor, darlin'." The ladies' man grinned at the pretty barmaid as he pulled his prisoner upright and pushed him toward the door.
A minute later Chris shoved the second antagonist through the batwing doors, followed closely by the two boys, one wide-eyed and apprehensive, and the other glaring at the wounded man who had dared to point a gun at his pa.
"Mr. Nathan, he got hisself a little scratch. Can you fix it?" As angry as the tiny sharpshooter was, his kind heart could not justify leaving the man's wound untended.
"Sure can, Vin. That's right nice of you to make sure he gets patched up." The healer patted the boy on the shoulder affectionately and led his patient over to a chair outside his clinic.
Vin basked in the praise and was still smiling when he felt another hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Chris's face. His father's expression left no doubt that he was in trouble.
"Vin, what have I told you about shooting that thing at people?"
"But Pa, he was gonna shoot you." The boy's serious blue eyes locked with his father's.
"Vin," Chris prompted him again.
Suddenly the toe of his boot became very interesting. Vin dropped his gaze and mumbled, "I ain't s'posed t' shot at people or critters."
"That's right." Vin chanced a glance and saw his pa's expression had not softened any. "I couldn't just let 'im shoot ya, and ya let us help ya before," thinking of helping his pa fight the men who wanted to take Mr. Nathan's Pa. Chris hadn't been mad at him then.
Chris dropped to one knee to put himself at eye-level with his boy. "Son, I know you were trying to help, and there are times when you giving that help can be acceptable, but this could have gone bad so easy. What you did today could have gotten one of us killed, probably me since he was aiming at me. Being at close range inside a room like that isn't like being out on the open streets." His heart went out to Vin when he saw the fear in his eyes that his last remark had caused, and he quickly pulled the child into his arms and held him in a tight embrace. "If that rock had hit his hand his reflexes could have caused him to pull the trigger," Chris explained. "I know you thought you were protecting me, but you're just a little too young yet to be able to think ahead to what might go wrong and to judge when it is all right to take that risk. That's why Buck and I have rules for both of you boys."
Vin swallowed hard, fighting back the urge to cry. He knew Chris loved him, but there was still that lingering doubt, that Chris might not want him any more if he kept messing things up. "I'm sorry, Pa." His voice was slightly muffled from where he had his face pressed against his father's shoulder to avoid seeing if there was disappointment on his pa's face.
Larabee loosened his hold on Vin and held him out at arm's length again. "Look at me." He waited until he saw his little sharpshooter look up at him, and then he smiled. "I know you are, but you need to trust me, and your Uncle Buck, to know what's best for you. I love you, and I want us both to be around for a long time." This time he opened his arms and let his son decide if he wanted the hug he offered. It was always a relief when he felt the small body launch itself into his arms and wrap its skinny arms around his neck. Man and boy clung to each other for several long moments.
"You boys been cuttin' up?" Josiah asked as he joined them.
"Expect more of it now that the railroad's layin' track nearby." Buck has been standing back, holding JD on one hip and waiting for Chris to finish talking to Vin.
Their attention was drawn by the approach of two Chinese men. "Ahem. We hear of five men who protect this place. Brave men it is said."
"My papa's braver than anybody." JD grinned proudly, until he noticed the frown on Vin's face. "Well, 'cept maybe Uncle Chris," he amended. "They's both brave; nothing scares 'em."
"We don't mean to brag." Wilmington ruffled the JD's hair and then tweaked his nose, causing the boy to giggle.
"My brother has disappeared. Also other men from the railroad camp. All Chinese. I believe they were murdered," the older man said.
"Why would someone want your bother dead?" Larabee asked
"He asked for changes to make things better for our people. But all those who speak out disappear." The Chinese man glanced around nervously, but stood his ground.
"They are gunfighters, father. They work for money. They will not help us." Wo Chin gave the peacekeepers a look that could have curdled milk. He was obviously unimpressed with the town's peacekeepers.
"My pa, helps people all the time." Vin spoke up before he recalled that he had just gotten into trouble for poking his nose into grown-up business.
"I can pay. This jade is all I can offer you." Wo Chin's father unwrapped his precious bundle to show the jade to Chris and the others.
Josiah said something to the Chinaman and his son, causing them to look at him in surprise.
"What the hell was that?" Buck looked dumbstruck by hearing one of his friends rattle something off in another language, at least another language that wasn't Mexican.
"Justice will prevail," Wo Chin's father translated.
"You can talk to 'em?" JD looked up at Mr. Josiah in awe.
"A word or two. My father did missionary work with the Chinese up in San Francisco." Sanchez grinned at the small boy, and gave him a wink.
"Ya' gonna help 'em?" Vin asked his father
Chris thought on it a moment and then looked to his friends. "Well, boys... what do you think?"
"We got no say there. That's private property. But that never stopped us before." Buck responded, as he tickled JD and chuckled at the boy's fit of giggles.
"No harm in lookin' around," Josiah agreed.
"All right. But only if you keep this." He handed the jade back to Wo Chin's father. He had no intentions of giving off the impression that the only way they would help was if they got paid.
The Chinaman looked around fearfully, hoping that his meeting with the town's lawmen was going unobserved by any of the railroad men. "No one must know I asked you to come."
"Never seen ya before." Chris tugged the brim of his hat in acknowledgment as the peacekeepers moved away from Wo Chin and his father. None of them noticed that the railroad man that Nathan was tending had been watching the whole exchange.
Vin rode next to Chris as they all rode into the railroad camp. He had promised his father that he would be on his best behavior. He knew that Chris had thought about leaving JD and him in town with Mrs. Travis, and he didn't want to be left behind again.
"Are we there yet?" JD asked for about the sixth time in the last half hour. He tilted his head back so he could look up into his father's face from were he rode in front of Buck.
"Just about, Little Bit. Just over that rise." Wilmington was still surprised at times at just how rambunctious this one precocious child could be. He could be like spit on a hot griddle, seeming to scatter off in all directions at once and just as impossible to control. But when that bundle of energy hit his limit, he would just drop. A Texas cyclone couldn't wake that boy up once he went to sleep.
Two wide-eyed boys tried to take in everything at once when they rode into camp with their fathers. Everywhere there were interesting sights, sounds and smells. Vin's curiosity was in full bloom, but he was saved from asking questions himself by JD's nonstop chatter.
"Where can we find the rail boss?" Chris asked a man in a suit, who looked like he might have some authority over those from the camp.
"That, sir, would be me. Rupert Browner's my name. I see you've met a few of my employees." He nodded to the men who had started the altercation in the saloon and noted that they looked a little worse for wear.
"A little dustup in town," Chris explained.
Browner shook his head in mock exasperation and shrugged. "I lecture 'em. I fine 'em. I fire 'em, and still they need to blow off steam. I guess I--I'll try to see that it doesn't happen again, uh...Sheriff.
"No badges. We're just hired to keep an eye on things." Larabee felt instantly unimpressed with Rupert Browner.
"I want to thank you for returning my men." Rupert pointed out the man who cradled his arm in a sling. "That one there, with the wounded shoulder, is my best foreman. Go on, Kyle, get out of here."
"Tell me, Rupert, if a man or two were to go missing off the site, you notice?" Buck spoke up for the first time.
"We got several hundred men workin' here--comin', goin' every day. So it's kinda hard to keep track of 'em all." Browner indicated all the people milling around the camp as if that should be explanation enough.
"I reckon so." Chris looked around casually, seeming to accept the rail boss's explanation at face value. "Since we're here, you mind if we take a look around."
"No no, not at all. Just spread a little money around." Browner smiled and gestured for the men to feel free to check out the camp.
Everyone had split up, each going to a different part of the camp. JD trotted along behind Buck. He did his best to be patient whenever his papa stopped and tried to get someone to talk to him about the trouble at the camp. But no matter how hard Buck tried, no one would talk to him. During one of those fruitless attempts, JD's attention was caught by a table full of shiny bottles and other interesting little tidbits. He glanced at Wilmington, who showed no signs of moving on yet, so he edged closer to the table.
The old Chinaman behind the table motioned for JD to come closer. When he got all the way up to the table the Chinese doctor pointed to the bottles and other items and explained that they were potions for all sorts of things, like making someone sleep better, or feel better when they were sick, or to fall in love.
"Ya got a lot of 'em, Doctor." JD fidgeted and looked at the bottles again. The doctor said he had a potion for everything. "Any of 'em make me grow bigger?" He hated being so small. There was so much more he could do if he was taller.
Dr. Chow looked through his wares and finally selected a tidbit that looked a lot like a lemon drop and handed it to JD. "Ohh... I give you this."
"Really?" JD looked at the small bit of hard candy in amazement. "I'll get bigger?"
About that time Wilmington realized his son was missing and started looking for him. He spotted him not too far away talking to an old man, who had just handed him something from among the things on his table, and he hurried over to join the child. "What you got there, Squirt?"
"Nothing? Doesn't look like nothing to me?" Buck tried to look around the boy to see what he was hiding behind his back.
The little brunet fidgeted under this papa's scrutiny and finally held out his hand to show his father what he had. "It's gonna make me grow bigger." Before Buck could take it from him, JD popped the morsel into his mouth and crunched it quickly between his teeth and swallowed it.
"JD, you hadn't ought to eat stuff like that. You got no idea what's in it." Buck chided the child, but he didn't think the old man meant any harm. The ladies' man grabbed up the boy and lifted him up high so he had to look up at him. "Oh, it's workin' already!"
"Do it again!" JD squealed as soon as his papa had set him back on the ground. He shrieked even louder when the big man scooped him up again and lifted him even higher this time before pretending to drop him, catching him again before he had dropped very far.
"Little Britches, that's enough. We got stuff to do." Buck didn't think he would ever get tired of finding ways to get his son to laugh and smile, even if sometimes things did get a bit loud. The look in his son's eyes was a reward unto itself.
"Okay, but I'll be too big for ya to pick me up real soon." He grabbed Buck's hand and turned him back toward the table. "Lookit! He's even gots stuff t' make people love each other."
"Son, I hate to tell ya' this, but all this here is just a bunch of hooey." He instantly regretted dashing the boy's enthusiasm when he saw JD's lower lip start to quiver, a sure sign that the boy was ready to cry. "It's all right, Little Bit. I'm just kidding. See, I'll try some, too."
Buck yanked the bottle from his mouth and grimaced. "Oh! Man, oh man! This stuff is God-awful. Damn well better make her like me."
"Oh, you want her to like you?" Dr. Chi-Chow asked.
"Yeah," the ladies' man thought that he had made that clear to start with.
"I thought you suffer from..." The old Chinaman grinned and made a wilting gesture with his finger.
"Huh? Now, hold on. There's nothing wrong with that." Buck sputtered indignantly and glared at the man. "No, that's fine, fine."
"I see, I got what you need. You give special lady to drink, and you become her special man." He handed Buck the small bottle and grinned knowingly.
"Yes, that's more like it. Special man." Wilmington tucked the bottle into his pocket and patted it to be sure it was secure.
Ezra Standish sat at a table surrounded by Chinese men and played dominoes. He had just won another game when Nathan found him.
Young Vin Tanner had stopped to watch Mr. Ezra play a game that he had never seen before. Chris had told him he could stay and watch as long as he stayed right there while he checked around nearby outside. Vin had promised he would stay put.
"What the hell you doin'?" The healer ducked inside the tent and was very annoyed to find the gambler indulging in his vices rather than taking care of the business at hand.
"Trying to ingratiate myself with these good people. Better to ascertain information." Standish collected his winnings and started trying to set up the next game.
"Hey, like to buy girl? She can do many things. Not only cook and clean." A scrawny looking man pushed a girl, who couldn't have been more than ten years old, forward for the men at the table to see.
"You can't sell that girl." Vin faced the man, chest swelled with indignation. He might be little but he knew it was wrong for one person to sell another.
"She my niece. I can do what I like with her."
Kyle, the foreman they had escorted back to camp leered at the girl, obviously not concerned about her tender years. "I'll give you a dollar for her."
"One dollar. You can have her for one dollar."
Vin looked at the healer, his mouth open to ask him to do something, but he should have known that he didn't need to press Jackson to help.
Nathan couldn't stand by and watch this happen, and he started digging frantically through his pockets. "Wait, Hold it. Two dollars." He waved the money for the girl's uncle to see.
"Three." Kyle wasn't going to give up easily.
"Help me out here, Ezra. You see that man's eyes? He's trying to sell his niece so he can buy opium." When the gambler wasn't forthcoming, Nathan dug out the rest of his money. "Four dollars."
"Ten," Kyle said and sneered at the black healer, knowing he wasn't likely to have that much money on him.
"You pay ten dollars? More than ten dollars?" His eyed the Nathan hopefully, his greed obvious in his actions.
"Wait," Nathan leaned close to speak to the con man so no one else could hear him. "You cough up that money, or else I'm gonna tell them where you're hidin' those extra dominoes."
"Mr. Ezra, you got lots of money, ya gotta help." Vin gave the gambler his mini version of his father's glare.
"Anybody pay more that ten dollars? All right you take." The Uncle started to push the girl toward Kyle.
"Eleven dollars." Ezra offered reluctantly and handed the extra seven dollars to Jackson.
"Eleven dollars. It's a deal. You buy. She's yours." He grabbed the money quickly and pushed the girl toward Ezra, before making a hasty retreat from the tent.
After the girl's uncle had left, Nathan turned to her. "I've seen some low things in my life, but I ain't never seen nothin' like this." He smiled at the girl and nodded toward the door to the tent. "You're free to go."
When she made no move to leave, Ezra spoke up softly. "You heard the man. Best be on your way now."
"You got someplace you can go? Huh?" Jackson noticed the girl's hesitation and realized that she might not have anywhere safe to go. He saw her nod slightly and then hurry out of the tent.
"Well, Mr. Jackson, you're now indebted to me for seven dollars."
Vin watched the girl leave and hoped she found someone who would be good to her like Chris was to him, and Uncle Buck was to JD. Being all alone was scary for a boy, and he figured it would be even scarier for a girl, even if she was a little older than him.
Vin rode along next to his pa, mulling over all that had happened that day. Wo Chin's father had died in a freak accident. That just felt wrong to Vin. He could tell that his pa and Uncle Buck didn't believe it had been an accident either. Vin had pointed out that there was a trail showing that he had been dragged there by two or three men, and Mr. Nathan said that the man had bruises on his face that could not have been made by the rails falling on him.
"Pa?" Vin edged his pony closer to his father's horse.
"You've been awfully quiet? Got something on your mind?" Larabee knew his boy was on the quieter side, but he had been even more subdued than usual on the ride back to town.
"Yeah. Ya reckon that Mr. Browner had somethin' t' do with all those men gettin' killed?"
"I can't say for sure yet. What makes you ask that?" Chris watched as his son thought about his answer before saying anything. He was such a contrast to JD who tended to blurt out whatever was on his mind. Sometimes Chris wished Vin would say more, like JD, but ultimately he was glad he was the quieter of the two.
"Don't know. Just doesn't feel right, is all."
"No, it doesn't. But we'll get to the bottom of it."
Vin nodded, knowing that if his father said he would figure it out, he would. After a few more minutes, he spoke up again. "Why would someone try an' sell their own family?"
"I don't know, son. I know nothing would make me stoop to doing something like that. But, some people don't hold family that dear I suppose, or maybe they get so desperate that they can't see any other way." Larabee reached over and clasped his son's shoulder, and when he saw those concerned blue eyes turn toward him he smiled reassuringly. "You don't have to worry, Vin. I don't intend for anything or anyone to take you away from me."
Vin always felt all warm inside when his pa said things like that to him. It made him feel very special and loved, but he still had something weighing heavily on his mind. "What do ya reckon happened to that girl? What if she's all alone?"
"There is probably some other family there for her to go to, or one of the women will probably help her." Chris tried to sound confident, but if he were honest with himself, he wondered if she was all right, too.
Vin was still upset about the discovery of Wo Chin's father the day before. Now, on top of that, they discovered the young man's uncle buried in a shallow grave out side of the camp.
The little sharpshooter knew what it was like to be alone, and he felt bad for Wo Chin. He hoped that he would be lucky enough to find a new family like JD and he had. It seemed that there were people everywhere who needed to find new families.
While Chris and Josiah were still busy talking to Rupert Browner. Vin caught sight of a familiar figure walking away from the scene. Before the man could disappear from view, he took off tracking him through the throng of milling rail workers.
"Mr. McAfee," Tanner called out to the railroad man.
"Got nothing to say to you," McAfee tried to wave the child away but he underestimated the persistence of the boy.
"I think you do," Vin insisted. "How many more people gonna end up killed, 'fore you care about it?"
"He'll kill me, same as them." McAfee leaned down closer to avoid being overheard.
"I won't tell no one it was you that told me. I promise." The small blond did his best to imitate JD's puppy dog eyes that always had people going all mushy over him, hoping it would cause McAfee to trust him.
"They're looking at the wrong end," the railman finally responded. "It ain't about them being Chinese."
"Then what's it about?" Vin planted his hands on his hips, like he'd seen grown-ups do, and stared intently at the big man.
"They need to look at the money." McAfee paused to be sure the boy was paying attention. "Railroad pays a dollar a day for workers."
"So?" Tanner didn't like it when the grown ups talked in riddles.
"Don't, mean they're getting paid a dollar a day." With that McAfee stalked away from the boy, clearly not planning on giving up any more information.
Vin high-tailed it back to where Chris had been, but his pa wasn't there. He looked around anxiously, but before he could go chasing around looking for the man in black a huge hand clamped down on his shoulder from behind.
"Where have you been?" Larabee made an effort to keep the worry out of his voice, but didn't quite manage to keep the edge out of his tone.
"I was just talkin' to someone." Vin started to explain, as he turned quickly to face his father.
"I promised I wouldn't tell, but he said something that might be important." Vin paused, and when his father didn't press him for the person's identity he continued to pass on the information he'd picked up. "Do ya think that'll help?"
"Yes, son, I do." Chris patted his boy on the back and grinned. "You just found us a motive."
"What's a motive?"
Vin was still rattling off questions when he boarded the railroad car that Rupert Browner used as an office with his pa, but he stopped when he saw Browner look up at them from behind his desk.
"Sir, you have something to add to this investigation?" Rupert asked when he saw the grim expression on the peacekeeper's face.
"A motive," Chris glared at the rail boss, but kept his tone casual. Anyone who really knew the gunman knew that was when he was the most dangerous.
"Really?" Rupert acted genuinely interested.
"Railroad pays a dollar a day, but seems the Chinese workers are only getting fifty cents. Someone's skimming money off the Chinese wages, then killing anyone who speaks up against it. Only one person in a position to do that." Larabee watched Browner's reaction to the accusation.
"My good man," Browner laughed nervously and clasped the gunman's arm. "You can't be serious."
"Touch me again. You'll see how serious I am." Chris pulled his arm away and gave the rail boss a look that would have had any sensible man cowering in fear. "We're here to investigate the deaths of Chinese workers, and I think you're responsible."
"So prove it!" Browner spat out at him, just as a lantern crashed through the window and shattered on the desk, setting everything on fire. "Put that fire out. Save my maps!"
Vin leaned against his father's leg and stared wide-eyed as people scrambled to beat out the flames. When Chris reached for his hand, he instinctively grabbed it and allowed himself to be led out of the railroad car away from the smoke. Outside, Larabee dropped to one knee and grasped Vin by the shoulders and quickly checked him over. "You all right, son?"
"Yeah." The little blond jumped slightly and jerked around toward the abrasive sound of one of Rupert's hired men.
"Caught this little hellion red-handed," Johnson, shouted to his boss when he saw Browner step out onto the platform of the railroad car. He held Wo Chin immobile and pressed a cleaver to his throat.
"Now, that's hard evidence," Browner screamed, making sure everyone around him could hear him clearly. "I have a criminal proven guilty! Hang him!"
"Pa, ya gotta do somethin'!"
"Don't worry, son. I'm going to." The gunman eased his boy behind him.
"Let him go, now!" Chris's tone left no room for argument. "We are gonna ride out and take the boy with us."
A noise from his closet had Ezra instantly on the alert. His gun nearly flew into his hand as he turned toward the closet door. "Show yourself. Come on out of there."
Timidly, Li Pong eased the door open and slipped into the room, hanging her head to avoid eye contact. "I hang your coat?"
"I--I'd rather you just tell me what it is you're doing here." Ezra stared at the young girl, stunned to find her there.
"Folding your beautiful clothes for you." She dared a quick glance up at the gambler.
"That is most gracious of you, but I distinctly recall setting you free. What is your name, darlin'?" Standish found himself in the uncomfortable position of not knowing what to do next.
"My name is Li Pong," she answered with a bow. "I take your coat now?"
"Listen, Li Pong, you don't have to be here." Ezra was feeling very nervous about having this young girl in his room alone, but allowed her to help him out of his coat.
"Yes, I do. I have no where else to go."
At that moment a sharp knock on the door preceded it opening by only a second or two, and Nathan stuck his head into the room to talk to the con man. "Ezra! Hey, that girl's been lookin'--" He stopped abruptly in mid-sentence when the saw Li Pong standing in the room folding the Gambler's jacket. "Oh, you keepin' yerself a slave girl now, huh?
"Sir, I take umbrage at that heinous accusation. I emancipated that girl. You saw it with your own eyes." Ezra snapped at the healer and spun to face him.
"And those same eyes see this. I'm taking this girl with me, Come on, honey," he reached out to take the girl by the arm to lead her out of the room, but she resisted. "Come on."
Li Pong managed to get to Ezra and cling frantically to his arm. "Please let me stay. I have no where else to go."
"Now, now, darlin'. You don't have to go anywhere." He glared at Nathan before turning back to Li Pong. "You're quite welcome right here." He faced the healer again. "Assuming that a bedroll on the floor will suffice."
"Any place will do." Li Pong bowed to him, clearly grateful at not being thrown out to fend for herself.
"Sleepin' on the floor can be fun," Vin said from where he stood behind Nathan, trying to look around the big man's legs. Chris had sent him up to tell Ezra that they had heard the Chinese girl was in town looking for him. "Me and JD do it sometimes when we aren't stayin' in our own room."
At that moment and idea struck Ezra and he grinned, showing off his deep dimples. "Well, Mr. Tanner, would you suppose you and the young Mr. Dunne would like to sleep over here tonight, too? With your fathers' permissions, of course."
He looked smugly back at the healer. "Chaperone enough for you?"
"We'll see." Nathan backed out of the room and shut the door.
"Do ya think that mean man would try'n kill Papa and Uncle Chris?" JD had bombarded Vin with questions all the way back from the camp, and he still wouldn't let up, even though it was bedtime.
The little blond sighed as he scrambled under the covers of their pallet on the floor. "He's not that crazy."
"But what if he did?" JD fidgeted and refused to lie down, until a look from his Papa reminded him that he was supposed to be getting into bed. Reluctantly, he scooted down under the covers and waited for his papa to tuck him in.
"Boys, you two don't go given Ezra any trouble." Buck reached down and ruffled JD's hair. "You get settled there and go right to sleep."
"We won't be no trouble," Vin promised for them both.
"Yeah," JD added. "We got's to be good 'cause we're the chap..chap...What's that word again, Papa?" He heaved a heavy sigh and wracked his brain trying to think what that word was that Mr. Ezra had used.
"Chaperones," Wilmington supplied.
"Yeah, we're the chap'rones." The pint-sized brunet puffed up with the importance of their new position.
"That you are, Little Britches." Buck leaned down to tug the blanket up over the boys, and gave JD's chin a quick tickle.
"They give you any trouble just send for us," Chris instructed Ezra.
"I don't foresee any difficulties, but rest assured that I will inform you if the need arises." The gambler opened the door, letting his companions know that he was ready for them to go.
"Night, boys," Buck and Chris called back them before starting off down the hall.
"You think he'll be able to handle them all night?"
"Don't know, but I'd like to be a fly on the wall in there tonight." Chris grinned at Wilmington and laughed. "Ezra won't know what hit him."
Standish carefully spread out the first blanket on the floor, under the watchful gaze of Li Pong. She waited patiently for him to finish, standing timidly, eyes downcast. He hated to think of what some unscrupulous person might have done, if he hadn't stepped in and bought her freedom.
"Mr. Ezra," JD sat up and whined. "I'm thirsty."
"One drink of water coming right up." The gambler paused in making up the pallet to take the little brunet a glass of water.
JD downed its contents and handed the empty glass back. "Thank you."
"You're quite welcome. Now off to sleep with you." The con man picked up another blanket to add to the pallet for Li Pong.
"JD ain't s'possed to drink a lot of water before goin' t' bed."
Standish stopped in mid-flip and the blanket crumpled in a heap around his feet.
"It never occurred to you to tell me this before he drank a whole glass?"
"I figured ya ought t' know that already, since you're the grown-up." Vin looked up innocently.
"Well, what's done is done. We'll just have to deal with the consequences." Ezra stooped to pick up the fallen blanket, and before he could finish spreading it over the first one he'd put down, he cringed slightly at the sound of another small voice.
"I've gotta go." JD squirmed under the blankets, his eyes scrunched up in discomfort.
"See, I told ya," Vin announced.
A few minutes later, JD scampered back under the covers with Vin, and rolled over to snuggle up against the older boy.
"My dear, your sleeping place is ready." Standish indicated the pallet of blankets, and watched as the young Chinese girl started to settle herself on the floor. "Oh, this is ridiculous. You can't sleep down there. I will not allow a lady to sleep on the floor while I enjoy the comforts of a feather bed." He gave the mattress a pat and motioned for the girl to climb into the bed. "Up you go. I'll be right down here on the floor."
"JD! Sleep on yer own side." Young Tanner pushed his younger sibling to put a little space between them.
JD's bottom lip stuck out and his chin started to quiver, as he flipped over, pulling the blanket with him.
"Hey, gimme back the blanket!"
"No! Yer bein' mean to me!"
"Boys! That's enough fussing. JD, let Vin have some of the covers." When neither boy made a move to redistribute the bedding, Ezra rubbed his temples feeling the first signs of a headache. He quickly crossed the room and tugged the blanket loose from where it was wound around the smaller boy, and smoothing it out over the pair of them. "Go to sleep, now."
Li Pong snuggled down against the pillows and felt the feather mattress. "So soft."
Ezra watched her from where he had just knelt on the pallet next to the bed. "Well, this can't be your first feather bed."
"In San Francisco, my family very poor. We always sleep on the floor."
The gambler's heart went out to the young girl. He stood and started fussing with her blankets. He covered her and sat on the edge of the bed. "Is that where your family is now?"
Li Pong nodded sadly. "My father, he became very ill, and mother, she could not take care of all of us, so I was sent to my uncle.
"You must miss them terribly." Ezra leaned over and kissed her gently on the forehead. "Sleep tight." He lowered the flame in the oil lamp until it was nearly out and crawled between the blankets on the floor, his mind racing over the events of the day.
"Mr. Ezra." Vin's small voice interrupted his musings. "I'm thirsty."
A soft sniff roused the gambler out of the light doze he had finally drifted into. It took him a few moments to register what the sound was; he flipped back his blankets and rolled over onto his knees. In the dim light from the lamp he could see Li Pong swipe her nose with her hand. A quick rummage through his pant's pocket unearthed a clean handkerchief. "What's wrong, little one?" Ezra gently wiped her nose and was nearly knocked over backward when the little china doll in his bed suddenly scooted across the mattress and wrapped her arms around his neck.
Automatically, Ezra wrapped his arms around her and pulled her closer. When her tears didn't subside right away, he lifted her in his arms as he stood up, and carried her to the rocking chair. She snuggled against his chest as he rocked her until she had cried herself out.
"It's so quiet here." Li Pong's voice was barely over a whisper.
"Just wait. The saloon hasn't emptied out yet." Ezra chuckled and rested his cheek against the top of her head.
"On the railroad, the workers, they work all day and night. There is always noise." Li Pong absently fingered a button on the front of the con man's shirt.
"That's hard work for half of what they were promised." Standish tensed and hugged the girl closer as he thought of the hardships she had to endure because of Browner's greed. He glanced over to where the two young boys slept, oblivious to everything around them, and he was glad that the two little urchins had found a safe haven with Buck and Chris. "If only we knew where he kept his books."
"Books?" Li Pong shifted enough to look up at Ezra. "What kind books?"
"The kind Browner would use to record what he paid the workers. He probably has two sets, one to show the railroad officials, and one for himself."
Li Pong sat up and turned to stare at Ezra. A sly smile slowly spread across her young face, and even in the low light, the gambler could see the twinkle in her eyes. "If you had the chance to help my people, would you do it?"
"Well," Standish said, not sure where the girl was going with her question. "I'm not a Good Samaritan by nature, but what did you have in mind?"
"So he would get money for work I do, my uncle used to make me clean Mr. Browner's office. He did not hide his business from me; I was but a child to him." Li Pong smiled as she remembered how the rail boss had always treated her like she was invisible. "I saw more than he knows."
"Papa, how come, Mr. Ezra didn't want t' have breakfast with us?" JD stuffed another bite of bacon into his mouth and followed it with a big swallow of milk.
"It isn't that he didn't want to, Little Bit. He just said he had something he had to do." Buck ruffled the little brunet's hair and glanced across the room at the Inez. "Stay put," he told JD, and he got up and hurried over to the bar when the pretty Mexican went into the back room. After a quick glance around, he pulled out a small bottle and dumped it into the glass of water Inez had been drinking from a few moments earlier.
Buck hadn't much more than made it back to his seat when the barmaid came back into the room. She picked up a wet cloth, preparing to go clean some of the dirty tables, but stopped long enough to take get a drink of water before setting to work. Buck watched her expectantly, sure that at any moment he would finally have the woman of his dreams.
Inez picked up the glass and paused with it half way to her lips when she saw the wet droplets splattered on the bar around it. A quick glance out of the corner of her eye toward Buck, and she had no doubt that he had finally made his move with the love potion JD had mentioned when he was telling her about his growing pill. She didn't think anything in the water would really make her fall in love with the ladies' man, but she wasn't going to take any chances. Inez raised the glass to her lips and pretended to take a swallow of clear liquid. For a few seconds she let it seem that nothing happened, and then she paused, smiled wistfully, and allowed a look of absolute adoration to transform her lovely features.
Wilmington grinned and sat up a little straighter, waiting for Inez's gaze to find him. When she looked in the direction of their table he puffed up like a prize rooster that had just caught the eye of his favorite hen.
"Uncle Buck, what's wrong with Miss Inez?" Vin watched as Inez climbed over the bar and crossed the room toward them.
"Can't get enough of this fine coffee of yours, Senorita." Buck held up his cup and grinned at the approaching barmaid, only to pause in shock when the object of his affections, detoured toward his son.
"Would you like some more uh..uh... milk... JD?" Her voice practically dripped honey as she toyed with his hair and smiled sweetly.
"No, thank you, Ma'am. I gots plenty here." The boy picked up his glass and took another swallow. He smiled up at the lovely woman from behind his milk mustache.
"Well, a growing boy like you...probably needs more food."
"I gots enough here for two JDs, Ma'am." He illustrated his point by shoving a big bite of biscuit into his mouth.
Inez tenderly pinched his chubby cheek and scooped him up so she could take his seat and hold him on her lap. "You're no little boy any more. I think you're growing right before my eyes." She brushed some stray hair out of his eyes. "Are you getting taller?"
"Do ya think so?" JD practically bounced off Inez's lap when he shouted out to Buck. "Papa? Did ya year that? I'm gettin' bigger."
"Yeah, I heard." Wilmington slumped in his seat with a defeated expression on his face, when Inez kissed his boy on the forehead, before settling him back on his chair and walking back to the bar. Once she was there, she waved back at the child and blew him a kiss.
"Girls!" Vin shook his head at the scene he'd just witnessed and went back to his breakfast.
Nathan noticed motion outside the swinging doors of the saloon and frowned. It looked a lot like the Chinese girl they had rescued from the railroad camp. He decided to check it out and found Li Pong lurking outside on the boardwalk. "Hey. Is everything all right? Is Ezra vexing you?"
"He's not back yet?" The girl looked alarmed.
"Back from where?"
"He go to find books from Mr. Browner, so he can help my people."
"Oh, boy. We need to let Chris know about this." He took Li Pong's hand and headed toward the jail, but they hadn't made it half way when they met up with Josiah, who was headed in the same direction. "We got a problem," he informed the preacher. "Ezra's gone back to the camp."
"So's Wo Chin, and he took my gun." Sanchez exchanged worried glances with the healer, and they both picked up their pace, aware that there was no time to waste.
When they got near the railroad camp, Vin pulled out his spyglass and began to look around for anything that looked out of place. At first sweep he scanned right on past a trio of men off away from the camp, but when his mind registered what he had just seen, he jerked the spyglass back to where he had seen the men. "Pa! Mr. Ezra's in trouble!" He handed his prized possession to his father and pointed to the place where he had seen the gambler being held at gunpoint by two of the railroad men.
Chris reined in his horse so he could get a steadier view through the glass. "Stay here with Josiah, and Buck." He handed the spyglass back and kicked the horse into motion, racing to where he had seen Ezra being forced to dig his own grave. He hoped he would be able to get there in time.
The sound of a gunshot set Larabee's heart pounding. He jumped from the moving horse and hit the ground running, racing toward the sound of the shot. When he cleared the brush that had been obstructing his view, he was relieved to find Ezra struggling with one of his captors. Kyle, the railroad foreman, caught sight of the man in black racing toward him and attempted to save his own neck by abandoning his partner and making a run for it. It had been a futile attempt at freedom. In a matter of a few long strides, Larabee caught and subdued him.
"Well, as always, Mr. Larabee, your timing is impeccable." Ezra sat on the mound of freshly dug earth, regaining his breath, as he looked up at his rescuer.
"You got Vin to thank for that. He happened to see you through that spyglass of his." Chris's pride in his boy was written on his face for all to read.
"Remind me to thank, the young sir, when we rejoin him." Standish accepted the hand the gunman offered to help him up and lurched to his feet.
The peacekeepers rode into chaos in the camp. Workers scrambled off in all directions trying to get away from the scene of the disturbance. In the clear area ahead of them they could see Wo Chin aiming Josiah's gun at Rupert Browning.
Buck grabbed JD from his place on the front of his saddle and quickly deposited him on Peso's back with Vin. "You two stay right here. Don't you move." He urged his horse ahead after Chris and the others, as they all raced to stop Wo Chin from making the biggest mistake of his life.
JD watched his Papa heading right into the thick of trouble again. His lower lip began to quiver and he sniffed loudly.
"Don't you go cryin'," Vin warned him. "Ya keep sayin' ya ain't a baby, so don't act like one." The young tracker had little patience for JD's outbursts at the moment. He was too busy watching his own pa riding into the mouth of danger for the second time in less than half an hour.
"I ain't a baby," the little brunet pouted. Vin's harsh words had the desired effect, and had stopped the younger boy's tears by substituting anger for his fear. "I can't see nothin' yer in the way," he whined from his place behind Vin.
"It's okay, JD. They got all the bad guys, 'cept Mr. Browner." Tanner relayed information to his younger sibling as he watched the fight unfold.
Both boys jumped at the sound of a gunshot, and JD squeezed Vin around the ribs when he reflexively tightened his hold while the agitated horse started at the loud noise.
The older boy held up a hand to signal to JD to stay quiet. He could hear the tell tale signs that his younger sibling was on the verge of tears again, but this time he couldn't spare any of his own attention to try to calm the boy. At last, when the crowd thinned enough for him to see past them again, he was able to see that all of the peacekeepers were still standing, and Josiah was holding out his hand to take the gun away from Wo Chin.
"JD, they're okay." He grinned from ear to ear when he saw his pa glance back his way to see if he was still where he was supposed to be.
"Then who got shotted?" JD whimpered and leaned his head against Vin's back.
"Mr. Browner, but he ain't dead. He's still movin'."
It took several days to get everything straightened out at the railroad camp. Vin was glad to see McAFee got the job of being rail boss, since Rupert Browner was going to jail first, and then to get himself hanged for having those men killed.
They were all enjoying a tour around the camp again. Only this time, the Chinese were a lot friendlier. Some of them even responded when Josiah tried to speak Chinese to them. Chris and Josiah had seen to it that Wo Chin had someone to look after him. A friend of his father's took him into his own family, and Vin was glad that the Chinese boy wouldn't end up being all alone.
"What do ya reckon Mr. Ezra is doin' over there with that girl?" JD looked toward the gambler and the people he was talking to.
"Maybe he's gonna sell her, like her uncle did." The little sharpshooter still felt deep in his heart that it was wrong for one person to sell another. "Think we better check it out." Cautiously, he led young Dunne around the edge of the milling crowd to where he could eavesdrop on Ezra.
"You'll see your real family soon." Ezra reached out and caressed the young girl's cheek. "These fine people have agreed to take you with them to San Francisco."
"You want me to go?" Li Pong looked up at the gambler, with a wide range of emotions fighting for dominance of her expression.
"No! No, of course I don't, but ... it's where you belong." The gambler handed Li Pong a roll of money and then hugged her tightly to him, like he didn't ever intend to let her go. "I wish you could stay here and be my little girl, but you have a family of your own." Finally, he broke the hug and tipped her face up so he could kiss her on the forehead. "Good-bye, little one. I'll never forget you."
Reluctantly, he turned her toward the old Chinese couple that had offered to take her home to her parents. He placed Li Pong's hand in the old woman's and held their clasped hands in his for a brief moment before taking a deep breath and forcing himself to let go. "Thank you." He nodded to the couple and turned his back and walked away, before he could change his mind and refuse to let her go. He understood now, how JD and Vin had affected Chris and Buck, because this little China doll had stolen his heart, too.
Vin saw the slump of the con man's shoulders as he walked away from Li Pong, and he recognized the sadness in his eyes. He eased out of the concealment of the crowd and fell into step next to Ezra, counting on JD to do like he always did and imitate him. He wasn't disappointed to see his smaller sibling fall into step on the gambler's other side. Both boys reached up to take one of Ezra's hands, walking beside him in silence, offering what comfort they could with their presence, until Vin had an idea.
"Mr. Ezra?" His serious blue eyes locked on the gambler's sad expression. "Want me and JD to sleep with you again tonight, so ya won't be lonely?"
Ezra stopped walking and paused a moment. The con man had to swallow the lump in his throat before he could speak. When he felt he could trust his voice, he dropped to his knees and gathered the two boys close in a group hug. "I'd like that very much."