The Collector

by LaraMee

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

The Collector was written by Gregg Champion

Vin Tanner looked up from where he and JD Dunne were shooting marbles with some of the other children in town. The sound of a wagon had called his attention, and he saw an old woman and a little girl on the wagon seat. The woman was driving the team just a little too fast, and he saw a grim expression on her face as she passed by. The little girl was leaning against her and it looked like she'd been crying.

"Who's that?" Vin nodded toward the wagon, figuring that one of the others would know her. Sure enough Tommy Johnson answered.

"That's Ol' Missus Wells and her great niece, Casey. They got a homestead outside 'a town. Casey's a real brat, always actin' like she's better 'n any of us boys. She... "

Vin stopped listening to Tommy, who always talked too much. His keen eyes were on the wagon, which stopped at Mrs. Travis' newspaper office. Frowning, he said, "JD, can you take care 'a my marbles? I'll be back in a minute."

Looking indignantly at his friend, JD asked, "Where ya goin', Vin? I wanna go, too." Then he huffed when Vin just walked away. He didn't like it when the bigger boy bossed him around. He thought about leaving Vin's marbles, but Jesse Wade was looking at them like he wanted them. Tommy had just told him the other day that Jesse was a sneak-thief. So, he diligently began to collect their marbles, separating them into their rightful bags.

Chris Larabee looked over his shoulder at the sound of the Clarion's front door opening. He smiled at the little boy who entered the room before turning his attention back to the map he'd been studying. Lifting it from where it hung on the wall, he carried it over to the table. Studying it another moment, he turned to where Nettie Wells was drinking the coffee that Mary had just handed her. Pointing to a spot on the map, he asked, "Is this your place?"

The older woman moved over to where the map lay, keen eyes taking in the notations he pointed to. "Yep. Uh, Burgharts, Tacketts, Olsons, and that farm is Cody Porters'." She turned to look at him. "I guess he'll be next."

Vin had been studying the map as well. His line of sight, just over the top of the table, gave him a unique perspective. He had heard rumors around town, and looked up at the tall blond. In an excited voice, he pointed out, "All in a line. Must be where it's gonna come when it comes!"

Chris looked down at the child in surprise, then nodded when he deciphered the child's comments.

Mrs. Wells looked from man to boy and back again. "When what comes..." She settled her gaze on the man. "Mr. Larabee?"

Turning a level gaze to the woman, Chris said simply, "The railroad."

Mary stepped up to join the conversation. "Of course. And they'll have to deal with whoever owns that land."

JD climbed up onto the boardwalk, intent on going inside the newspaper office to see what was going on. As he reached the boardwalk, a little, dark-haired girl, with big brown eyes and a dirty face, stopped him.

Standing in front of the door, arms crossed in front of her, Casey Wells said, "You can't go in there."

"I can, too!" JD protested angrily.

"Nu-uh, they're talkin' 'bout important things in there!" She popped a peppermint stick into her mouth, the end poking out like one of Mr. Chris' cigars, and stared at him defiantly.

JD figured that the candy had belonged to Vin until a few minutes ago. That explained how the older boy had gotten inside so easily. He knew he didn't have any candy to bribe her, so he puffed out his chest and declared, "I'm one 'a them!"

"Ain't neither, you're just a little kid!"

Before the argument could go any farther, Buck came up the walk at the same time that Chris came out the door.

Nodding to his old friend, the big man called out "Hey, little britches!" He ruffled the child's thick black hair even as he turned back toward Chris. "I hear we got trouble."

Nodding, the blond said, "Guy Royal tried to run Mrs. Wells off her land... looks like he's trying to buy up anything that the railroad may have in mind to own. Would you be interested in partaking in a little show of force? "

"Show of force? Why, hell, that's my middle name." He reached down and scooped up JD. "You'll be here to take care of the young'ns, right?"

With a brief smile at the other man's 'mother henning', Chris nodded. "Get out to Royals. I'll be here with the boys."

As Wilmington strolled off, seeming not to be in any hurry, JD on his hip, Vin came out of the office. He was walking beside Nettie Wells, holding onto her hand. As they moved onto the boardwalk, he stared up at her with concern on his little face. "You oughtn't stay at your ranch alone, Ma'am."

Smiling at the child's concern, Nettie replied, "I'm puttin' up at the hotel, son."

Vin nodded his approval. "I reckon that's a good idea. Why'nt I see you over there?"

"Well, much obliged," the woman said warmly. Then turning, she called over her shoulder, firmly, "Casey, you come with me."

As they walked down the street, Nettie said, "I ain't used to such gentlemanly behavior."

"Ah, he -- heck, I ain't no gen-a-man, ma'am. Just reckon you deserve an escort..." Nodding as he looked up at her with a respectful expression, he added, "you're real brave, ma'am

Smiling at the child's words, Mrs. Wells responded, "It ain't bravery. It's my dander that's got up."

Buck and JD were strolling up the boardwalk in the opposite direction. JD had a frown on his little face, as he pondered something intently. Looking at the small child, Wilmington asked, "What's on your mind, little bit?"

Shaking his head, little Dunne said, "That girl gets on my nerves, Mr. Buck. Shoot, you can't even hardly tell she's a girl, wearin' them overalls and all."

Buck hid his smirk, considering the child's words. Almost to himself, he replied, "JD, if you were any blinder you'd be running into walls."

JD's frown deepened and he said, "Whattaya mean, Mr. Buck? I can see just fine, you know that! What's that got to do with that Casey girl...?"

Nearing the hotel, Nettie Wells was chatting amicably with the little blond. "I've lived in this territory since I was a girl. It was wilderness when my husband and I came out here. He couldn't stand it, but it agreed with me. I got seven notches on my old Spencer carbine. Man or beast, you name it, and I've had to kill it."

Vin grinned up at her. He'd seen the Spencer in action more than once. With an agreeing nod, he said, "You can do that with a Spencer carbine."

They continued on their way, both of them feeling a warm companionship in the others company. Behind them, Casey Wells tagged along, throwing looks over her shoulder from time to time. The object of her perusal, riding high on the tall brunet's hip, had no idea that he was being watched.

Vin and JD were wandering down the boardwalk, disappointment on their faces. Mr. Buck and the other men were going out to square off against that mean old Guy Royal and they had to stay in to stay in town with Mr. Chris. Even though the grown ups tried to make it sound important, there wasn't anything going on in town, and they figured that Mr. Chris really didn't need them to be his deputies.

"Vin, what's a gar - ter?" JD asked.

Shrugging, the older boy said, "Dunno, why?"

Pointing to the colorful poster, with the pretty ladies, they'd watched being hung earlier, the smaller boy said, "That sign says... Get-ting Ger-ties Gar-ter... I just wondered what a garter is and why someone wants to get it."

Vin sighed. He hadn't known many people who could read, and none of them were as little as JD. He had seen how impressed Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck had been when JD read. It must be a real important thing to be able to do. He couldn't even figure out his name if it was written down.


"What?" the blond replied sharply.

A look of puzzlement screwing up his features, JD asked, "Are you mad at me?"

Ducking his head, the older boy said, "Nah, I'm not mad at you."

Any further discussion was dropped as they watched four riders cantering up the street on their horses. Mr. Josiah broke away from the others and came over toward them, a strange look on his face.

Vin perked up. Maybe Mr. Josiah understood that he could be helpful when the men went out to that Guy Royal's place. He watched as the big man stared in his direction, sighed, and put his hand over his heart. Then Mr. Nathan rode up beside him.

"What's wrong with you?" Nathan asked, wondering at the 'lovestruck' look on the other man's face.

"Yahweh has answered my prayers."

"Who's Yahweh?"

"God, to you," Sanchez explained.

Squinting at the poster, Jackson asked, "You been waitin' for... Gettin' Gertie's Garter' to come to town?"

Josiah responded with a broad grin before turning his horse and with a loud "Hi-yah!" galloped back down the street.

With a chuckle, Nathan shook his head and followed the other man to where Buck and Ezra waited. The four men continued out of town together.

Behind them, Vin's shoulders slumped. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he scuffed down the walk, head down. JD followed his friend, trying to figure out why he was so upset. He had already given up trying to figure out grown ups.

It seemed to take forever before the men rode back into town. Vin had set up camp outside the hotel, in case someone came into town, looking to hurt Mrs. Wells or her great niece.

He was sort of worried that JD might want to hurt Casey. The younger boy had been grumbling all day about her; talking about how bossy she was and how she thought she was so much better than anybody else. He didn't get it. Girls were just girls; you ignored them until they went away, or you made them your friend. It was as simple as that.

Finally, Mr. Buck and the others rode back into town, looking as serious as they had riding out. Mr. Buck was carrying a chair over one shoulder, and Mr. Ezra was leading two horses. Buck stopped in front of the hotel and dismounted, giving Mr. Nathan the reins to his horse. He smiled at the boys as he stepped up on the boardwalk.

"Howdy, boys. Anything happen while we were gone?"

Vin huffed, still angry at being left out, but didn't say anything. JD, on the other hand, was as talkative as ever. "Nothin' much, Mr. Buck. It was pretty quiet, 'specially since that Casey girl went upstairs with her auntie. Me an' Vin's been watching, in case any depsparados came into town. But they didn't, so it's been real quiet."

Nodding, the tall brunet said, "Well, glad to hear it. I got back Mrs. Wells chair and Casey's music box that Royal took; reckon I'll take 'em on up to the ladies. You boys wanna come along?"

They shook their heads no, JD adding, "I don't wanna go nowhere 'round that Casey girl."

With a smile, the big man strolled into the hotel, whistling a tune. Behind him, the two boys went back to watching for trouble.

The next morning, Nettie Wells was set on going back out to her place, leaving Casey in Mrs. Potter's care. Mr. Chris sent Mr. Buck, Mr. Nathan, Mr. Josiah and even Mr. Ezra to escort her home. And, with only a little persuasion, he allowed Vin to go with them. JD opted to stay in town to help Mr. Chris. Vin couldn't figure out why, since that Casey girl was in town, too. He was even more confused when he watched his adopted brother run off down the street, giggling as he was chased by the little girl.

Vin sat on the wagon seat, beside the gray-haired woman. Whenever Mrs. Wells turned his direction, he always responded with a smile, feeling warm inside. He wasn't certain what it was, but he felt very close to the widow, even though he barely knew her.

They arrived at the homestead and began unloading the material Mrs. Wells had bought before they left town. Everyone but Mr. Ezra, that is. Vin watched as the fancy-dressed man dismounted and immediately settled himself onto a chair. Tipping it back on two legs, he pulled out his hip flask and took a drink of whiskey. Taking a deep breath and shaking his head, the little blond walked away.

With the exception of the Southern grifter, they set to work putting things right. Vin was happy to help Mrs. Wells mend the corral fence. While she held the board in place, he managed to pound a nail into it to hold it in place. His tongue kept poking out between his lips as he worked, as if it helped him work better.

From time to time, the little blond snuck looks at Mr. Ezra. He couldn't understand how anyone could just sit there, doing nothing, while there was work to be done.

Mrs. Wells must have guessed at what he was thinking because she started talking loud enough for everyone to hear her. "You know Vin, my Daddy had a favorite saying... a man never drown himself in his own sweat. Reckon he might have had folks like Mr. Standish in mind?"

Vin giggled, the sound growing louder when he saw Mr. Ezra glance their way with a strange look on his face. Giggling again, he said, "Reckon he might 'a, ma'am."

Smiling, enjoying the sound of the boy's laughter, Nettie said, "Why don't you call me Miss Nettie, son? That's what my friends call me."

Beaming now, the young boy tried the name on for size. "I'd like that... Miz Nettie."

The repairs to the Wells homestead progressed nicely. Vin overheard Mr. Nathan asking Mr. Josiah about some lady and Mr. Josiah was showing the other man a picture he carried. He shrugged it off and went on helping Miss Nettie make repairs. He loved being near her; helping her and making her happy. It gave him a good feeling; almost as good a feeling as he got when he was around Mr. Chris.

Just as they were finishing things up, a horse and buggy rushed into the yard, Mrs. Travis at the reins. As soon as the horse stopped, the blonde woman climbed hurriedly out of the buggy and ran toward them. The entire time she was calling "Nettie! Nettie!"

Everyone gathered around as the two women met. Mary Travis was obviously upset and she took hold of the older woman's arms as she spoke. "I just saw Guy Royal. He bought the mortgage on your ranch. He's coming to call in the loan."

"Damn him," the older woman cursed. Looking around at the others she asked, "Can he do that?"

"I'm afraid so," Mary answered.

"Miss Nettie," Vin asked, "What's wrong?"

Looking down at the little boy, the widow Wells said, "Mr. Royal's gonna buy my place if I can't pay him the money I owe."

Not quite certain he understood it all, the little boy asked, "How much you owe?"

"A few pennies over $300. I never even seen that kind of money. What am I going to do?"

While the grown ups were talking, Vin looked over at Mr. Ezra. Mr. Chris had sent them all out to help, but so far he hadn't done anything but sit around. With a smile, the little boy had an idea of a way to get the man to help.

Ezra frowned as he caught the boy looking at him strangely. "Something wrong?"

Not answering, the seven-year-old turned back to the woman. "Miss Nettie you prob'ly don't know this, but Mr. Ezra is a gam'ler... that means he gets lots 'a money playin' cards."

"He sure ain't a ranch hand," Miss Nettie said with a disapproving look at the man.

For some reason, Mr. Ezra tipped his flask toward her and said, "Thank you."

"He's saving his winnings to buy a s'loon," Vin said with a nod.

Not liking what he was hearing, Standish asked, "What are you attempting to suggest, Master Tanner?"

"I reckon you got a lot 'a money tucked right there in yer boot." He had seen Mr. Ezra putting several bills in there just the other evening.

Looking angry now, the Southerner said in a shocked tone, "Which you think I'm going to donate to this wizened crone?" Turning his attention back to Nettie, he said "No offense, ma'am." Then back to Vin, while he finished with, "Have you taken leave of your senses, young man?"

Folding his arms across his chest, Vin gave the man a stern look. Usually he wouldn't speak so to a grown-up, but this was Miss Nettie, and he wouldn't see her hurt if Mr. Ezra could help her. That thought alone gave him the courage to say "Give her the $300."

Barely able to contain her shock, the woman said firmly, "I ain't taking charity."

Josiah wasn't certain exactly what the boy had in mind, but he decided to give the Vin a hand. With a grin, he said. "It won't be charity, ma'am. Give her the money, Ezra."

"When the sanctified dead rise from their graves to receive judgment, I'll start doling out cash," Mr. Ezra retorted angrily.

Laying a hand on the little boy's shoulder, Mr. Josiah tempted him with "We'll pay you back in an hour."

Smugly the gambler said, "Really? I'll tell you what-- I'll lend it to you... at ten percent interest if you pay me back within the hour. After that 20%... per day. Deal?"

"Just get it out of your boot and give it to her," Mr. Nathan said impatiently, folding his arms across his broad chest.

"With pleasure." The fancy-dressed man reached down and pulled a large stack of bills out of his boots. Vin didn't think he'd ever seen that much money in his entire life. He wondered how many pennies he would have to earn to make that much folding money.

Mrs. Wells shook her head at the sight of the stack of bills. "My stars and garters. Look at all that money."

Vin took the bills that Mr. Ezra offered, moving quickly as if he thought the man might change his mind. Moving the few steps to where Miss Nettie stood, he held the cash out to her. "There you go, Ma'am."

Smiling down fondly at the boy, Nettie said, "I appreciate it." Looking over his head to where Ezra sat, she acknowledged his generosity, no matter how coerced it was. "Thank you."

With a cocky expression on his face, Mr. Ezra said, "Oh, no, don't thank me. Thank, uh, Robin Hood over there." He nodded toward the seven-year-old.

Vin wasn't certain who "Robin Hood" was, but Miss Nettie smiled down at him as she ran her hand through his hair, and that was enough to tell him that being this "Robin Hood" person was a good thing.

Vin huffed angrily as he watched the men ride out, leaving him behind with the women. He kept getting left behind and he was very tired of it.

On the other hand, they expected that Guy Royal and his men, and he'd been asked to stay behind in case there was trouble when they arrived. Looking up at the old woman, he had to smile. He didn't mind it at all, if he got a chance to help Miss Nettie again.

They were sitting on the porch of the house, the ladies drinking coffee and him with a glass of milk. It was a very peaceful time, and Vin found himself almost relaxing as he listened to the ladies talking.

Then the relaxation ended as he heard the sound of horses' hooves. Setting his glass aside, he rose to his feet and walked to the steps. Shielding his eyes against the sun, he saw half a dozen horses riding their way.

"Vin?" Nettie said softly.

"Them fellas are comin', Miz Nettie."

The two women rose and came to stand with Vin. They tried to gently move him behind them, but he stood firm. As the horsemen reined in at the steps, Nettie smiled coolly at Guy Royal while he told her about buying her deed. Before he could order her off her land, she handed him the money. The look of shock and anger on Royal's face was priceless as he spit and spluttered at the realization that he had been bested. Defeated, he handed over the deed.

"You got your blood money. Now get off my property," Nettie ordered firmly, a no-nonsense expression on her face.

"I'm gettin', but I'll be damned if I can figure how you come up with $300," Royal growled.

"Now, that's none of your business, is it?" Nettie challenged.

At the same moment, Vin said, "Ain't none 'a yer concern, Guy Royal."

His glare flashing from Nettie to Mary to Vin and back, Royal ordered, "Come on, boys."

The trio stood on the porch, watching the men ride off in defeat. After they were out of sight, Mary said, "Well, I'll be taking my leave as well."

"You sure you'll be safe?" Nettie asked.

Smiling, the newspaper editor nodded. "Buck and the others will be meeting Royal on the road to town, so I'm sure I'll be fine." She turned toward Vin and asked, "Would you like to come back to town with me, Vin?"

The little blond looked up at the woman but shook his head. "I'd like ta stay out here with Miz Nettie." He turned toward the older woman and finished, "If that'd be okay with you, ma'am?"

Smiling fondly down at the little boy, Nettie said, "I think that would be fine."

A few minutes later, the two of them watched Mrs. Travis drive out in her buggy, at a much more sedate pace then when she'd arrived. After she disappeared into the distance, Nettie reached down and ruffled the little boy's hair. "Would you like to try out some molasses cookies I made yesterday morning?"

Grinning up at her, Vin shook his head, a broad smile on his face. "Sounds real good, ma... Miz Nettie!"

Keeping the smile on her face, the widow wondered just what he had meant to say. Had he started to call her "ma'am" or had he nearly called her "ma"?

JD looked up from where he and Casey were playing, to see the men ride back into town. Chris had asked Mrs. Potter to watch over him when they saw Mrs. Travis ride out. Now he was coming back with the other men, Mrs. Travis riding beside them in her buggy. He stood up and moved to the edge of the boardwalk, waving to the group. "Buck, Buck!"

Wilmington smiled broadly and waved back at the little boy. "You been good, little britches?"

Folding little arms across his chest, the Eastern born lad protested with an angry expression. "'Course I been good. But that Casey girl - "

"Hey!" Casey Wells yelped, jumping up and running toward him. At the last second, JD moved aside and she fell face first into the dust.

His smile melting into a frown, now, Buck said, "John Daniel Dunne, me and you are gonna have a talk about that, soon's I take care of my horse!"

Protests formed on the little face, but JD could do nothing but watch as the man he was beginning to think of as his father rode down the street. Turning back toward the little girl he spat out, "You're not my friend no more, Casey Wells!"

Casey looked up from where she sat in the dirt, watching as the boy ran down the walk toward the boarding house. She frowned. It sounded like he was crying.

Vin sat in one of the straight back chairs, across the table from Nettie Wells. He smiled around a mouth full of cookie. It was his third, and there was still a plate full on the table. To his child's mind, that meant they were there for the taking, and he intended to see just how many he could eat.

On the other side of the table, Nettie watched the child as he enjoyed the treat of cookies and milk. Looking at his too-thin frame and worn clothes, she wondered just how long it had been since he'd had someone to truly care for him. She had heard about those gunslingers taking him in, along with the little boy Casey seemed bent on befriending. She wasn't certain how she felt about that; gunslingers led dangerous lives. It didn't seem like the best arrangement for two, small boys.

She had been sitting there, wondering about the situation for some time. It had served to keep her thoughts from her own trouble. It also caused her to worry more and more about the child before her. Never being one to beat around the bush, she asked, "Vin? Honey, can I ask you about your family?"

The little blond dropped his gaze, staring at the table for a full minute. Then he shrugged, "Which family, Miz Nettie?"

Frowning, wondering just what the boy had gone through in his short life, she said, "The one you were born too, sweetheart."

"Oh." He sat silently for another moment before he answered her with a simple, "They're gone, Miz Nettie."

JD sat in a chair beside the window of the room he shared with Vin. His tears had finally ended, but he was still sad, and not in the mood to be around anyone. He had come to think of this as home; and the other boy as a brother. He had come to think of the men as part of his family, as well.

And now that stinky girl had ruined it all.

Leaning forward, he rested his head against the glass. Looking down, his sad thoughts were distracted for a moment by the arrival of a bunch of strangers in town. He watched as most of the townspeople lined up at the edge of the boardwalk, watching the horses, wagons and buggies riding down the street. He saw several of the ladies wore feathers in their hair and around their shoulders, feathers the colors of the rainbow. He had seen ladies like that a few times, when his Ma had taken him to town with her. She called them "Show Folk" and warned him to never trust any of them.

JD's eyes were drawn to where Mr. Josiah pushed his way through the crowd, calling to one of the ladies. Even through the window he could hear the big man's voice, calling out, "Emma!"

The little boy huffed in annoyance. What was it about pretty feathers that got grown up men hollering and carrying on?

Chris reined in, in front of the Wells home. Nettie and Vin came out onto the porch, the little boy smiling beneath a milk mustache that was flecked with bits of cookie. Smiling at the sight, Larabee said, "Well, I was thinking about taking you back into town for dinner, Cowboy, but it looks like you're already full to the eyeballs."

Little Tanner grinned. "Me an' Miz Nettie's been eatin' cookies."

Sliding a wink toward the woman, Chris said, "You and Mrs. Wells, huh? Well, how come she's not sporting a milk mustache?"

"Ah, he-heck," Vin managed, scrubbing at his mouth with the back of his hand.

With a soft chuckle, Larabee said, "Well, even if you're not hungry, it's time to get back home." Turning toward Mrs. Wells, he said, "Ma'am, it might be better if you came on back, too."

Shaking her head, Nettie said, "I'll stay here, Mr. Larabee. This is my home, and I've held out against a worse than Guy Royal."

"Ma'am - " The blond began.

"If Miz Nettie's stayin' here, I'm gonna stay here, too," Vin announced firmly.

Laying her hand on the narrow shoulder, the widow forced a smile. "He's more than welcome to stay, if he wants."

Chris found himself growing irritated, and that irritation moved toward anger. He felt something slipping from his gasp that he'd only recently taken hold of. The reclamation of that part of his soul that had died with his family. "Vin, I think it'd be best if you came back into town with me... now."

Bristling at the man's tone, Vin threw his chin out defiantly. But, before he could respond, Nettie squeezed his shoulder and said, "I don't want to cause problems between the two of you, but Mr. Larabee, answer me this. How much more safe will he be, staying with a gunman?"

Chris glared at her, but she didn't even flinch. And he didn't have an answer for her... he'd asked himself the same question again and again. Running a hand over his face, he heaved a sigh. In a soft voice he said, "All right. Vin, you stay out here if you want. But you promise you'll mind Mrs. Wells."

"Ain't gonna do nothin' foolish," Vin responded, evading a promise.

The blond gazed at the little boy, longing to just grab him up and ride out. But their relationship was tenuous at best, and he had no desire to destroy it by making demands on the child, when there was nothing that gave him that right. Tipping his hat, he turned his horse and rode back the way he'd come.

JD looked up at the sound of someone coming in the door. He ducked his head quickly, not wanting to see the look he knew would be on his Papa - no, Mr. Buck's face.


Slowly he looked up through thick, black bangs. "Y-yes sir?"

"I was lookin' for you. Casey told me you'd come up here. You okay?"

The little boy nodded, looking back down at the floor then. If Mr. Buck had been talking to that Casey girl, it was hard to tell what sort of thing she'd told him.

"Well, if you're okay, then how 'bout we go have some dinner?"

JD's head shot up and he looked at Mr. Buck for the first time. Maybe it was going to be all right after all. "Okay."

Smiling, Buck said, "Okay." As the little boy scampered across the floor toward him, he swept him up and carried JD from the room.

A short time later they entered the dining room. JD realized that there was someone sitting at the table they were heading for. With a shock, he realized it was that Casey Wells. Only she was cleaned up, her hair was combed, and she even had a dress on! He frowned, looking to Buck for an answer to his unasked question.

Wilmington just smiled before turning to the little girl. Bowing, he said, "Miss Casey, would you mind if my companion and I join you for dinner?"

With a giggle, the little girl said, "Sure!"

A despondent Chris Larabee arrived back in town sometime later. Tying his horse at the hitching post in front of the saloon, he stepped onto the boardwalk, moving inside like a wraith. Going to the bar, he ordered a shot, motioning for the bartender to leave the bottle.

The sound of several boots called Larabee's attention to the doorway just as Josiah, Nathan and Ezra entered. He frowned when he realized that the gambler was disheveled, and missing his jacket. As the other men reached the bar he realized, too, that Standish had a long, deep scratch along the side of his face. Before he could ask about it, though, Nathan spoke up.

"We've got problems, Chris. We just got back from Porter's. Royal's hired men hung Cody and burned his ranch," Jackson reported. He was angry that they hadn't arrived in time to save the old man.

"Damn," Chris muttered, his mind immediately going to Vin at the Wells homestead.

"There's something else. One of the men Royal hired knows you. Name of Top Hat Bob Spikes? He even said he'd cut your eye out."

"Top Hat Bob Spikes? I never heard of him," Chris replied with a frown, the name meaning nothing to him.

"He ain't one that it'd be easy to forget. He could kill a man with his breath alone," the healer remarked. Before the conversation could continue, a voice came to them from outside.

"Chris Larabee! Chris Larabee! I'm calling you out!"

Sanchez, Jackson, and Standish strode out onto the boardwalk, spreading out once they left the saloon. Chris came last, strolling out the door and ambling to the edge of the boardwalk. He registered the fact that Buck was strolling up the walk from the boarding house to join them. With a smirk, he stared up at the man closest to him, who he assumed to be this Spikes person. "Who the hell are you?"

"You're a low-down Yankee liar if you say we've never met," The man growled, leaning toward the standing man.

With the other men, now, Buck leaned against an upright and quipped, "Seems to me a man'd remember an ugly, one-eyed coward six-and-a-half-foot tall with no hair and a sissy hat."

Ignoring the comment, Spikes growled at the black clad man, "Damn you, Chris Larabee. You been scared of running into me since we met."

"There's a couple of ladies I'm scared of running into but you're not one of them," Larabee responded calmly. Then throwing his arms out slightly, he added, challengingly, "Well, here I am."

"I will not kill you without the satisfaction of you knowing why I'm doing it. I got other business." Spikes motioned his men to leave, still glaring at the gunman.

Almost cheerfully, Buck taunted, "Well, why don't you give him a hint?"

Leaning over his mount's neck, the top hat wearing man growled, "Rail-splittin', you pusillanimous son of a bitch!" Turning his horse, he started down the street after his men with a loud "Hyah!"

Chris turned to the others, looking at them with a puzzled expression. "Rail-splitting?"

Nathan spoke up. "If he's got other business it's apt to be with Nettie Wells."

With a wry grin, Buck added. "You sure know how to pick 'em, Chris."

Ignoring the jibe, his heart pounding harder by the second at the thought of Royal's hired men endangering Vin, Chris ordered, "Let's get on out to Nettie's."

Larabee led the others out toward the Wells homestead. His mind spun as he continued to worry that the child he thought more and more of as a son could be in danger. Even though, when they reached the Wells place, nothing looked out of place, he couldn't help worrying. Leaping off his black even before the gelding could stop, he ran toward the house, calling out, "Vin! Nettie!"

The gunman burst through the door, unheeding of the danger he could be placing himself in. The only thing on his mind was making certain that Vin was okay. He stopped quickly when he found himself on the business end of the old woman's rifle. Nettie Wells was sitting in a chair, gun at the ready.

"Too bad you wasn't Guy Royal. I'd of had me another notch in my old Spencer." Nettie saw the fear in the hazel-green eyes. She also saw something else. Something that made her begin to understand just how important Vin was to this man.

"Royal's still alive, ma'am, so we best get you back to town," Chris informed her. Then, still looking around, he asked, "Where's Vin?"

Canting her head toward Casey's bedroom, she said, "Child was plumb tuckered out; dozed off at the table. I put him in there to sleep."

Relief poured off the blond in waves as he made his way past Nettie and into the room she'd indicated. The widow Wells rose and followed him, after seeing that the other men were on guard outside her door.

Larabee heaved a great sigh of relief as he beheld the small boy. Vin lay curled up on one side, beneath a quilt. Reaching down, Chris gently shook the child. When a pair of sleepy blue eyes blinked open, the blond said gently, "Vin? We're gonna take Miss Nettie back into town. Will you come with me now?"

Yawning, the sleepy boy nodded, unconsciously reaching out thin arms to the man standing above him. When he was lifted up and settled against Chris' broad chest, he sighed and snuggled close inside those strong arms. One little hand found its way to the open collar of Larabee's shirt, and thin little fingers held on tightly.

Nettie watched it all; seeing the way the two of them interacted. She suddenly felt far less doubt that they belonged together. As Chris passed her, she smiled warmly, seeing an answering smile, tinged with relief.

JD had seen a lot of commotion around the door of the saloon. He had seen Mr. Josiah go in there earlier, dressed in a funny looking suit that looked too small for him. He wondered just what it was that was so interesting in there. He was bored waiting for Mr. Buck and Mr. Chris to bring Vin back to town. Then they could have some fun. In the meantime, he was still bored.

Sometimes being small was a good thing. He crept and crawled around the crowd of men until he made it to the open door. Pushing his way past and under the batwing doors, he made it inside. Up on the raised platform were several ladies, who looked like they were in their nightclothes. They were prancing around, waving long scarves and holding hands. One of the ladies stood in the middle of it all. She was real old and had on a lot of face paint. And she was singing.

"Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me... starlight and moonbeams are waitin' for thee... sounds of the rude world heard in the day... lulled by the moonlight, have all passed away... beautiful dreamer, King of my song... list' while I woo thee with soft melody... gone are the cares of life's busy throng... beautiful dreamer, awake unto me... beautiful dreamer wake unto me."

JD jumped as everyone in the saloon started clapping and yelling. Deciding he'd had enough, he hurried back outside, getting as far away from the crowd as he could. As he stepped out onto the walk, the men there started pushing toward the opening, and he began to get scared. Getting to the edge of the boardwalk, he looked up and down the street, seeing that it was clear. As quick as his little legs could carry him, he dashed across to the other side. Just as he climbed up onto the boardwalk, he was grabbed up by a pair of hands. He squealed and began to struggle.

"Hold on there, li'l bit. I thought we'd talked about runnin' across the street all alone."

Seeing it was Mr. Buck, the little boy spoke hurriedly. "You're home! I'm sorry, I just couldn't stand all that hootin' and hollerin', Pa...Mr. Buck! I'm sorry, I won't do it again!"

Wilmington stood still, an expression of shock on his face. Had the boy almost called him papa? Not certain of what to do, he decided to let it go for the moment. Instead he said, "Well, I know it was awful crowded and noisy over there, son, but you've gotta be careful. Folks drivin' wagons and buggies can't always see little sprouts like you."

"I ain't a little sprout!" JD argued indignantly.

With a grin, Buck said only, "Okay, well, lets me and you go on back over there and see what all the ruckus is." With JD snuggly in his arms, the big man strolled back across to where the crowd was just beginning to break up. He noticed that Josiah had managed to catch the attention of one of the performers.


"Hello. " Emma DuBonnet replied, her best theatrical smile pasted on her face.

"Emma? Emma, you were sublime."

"Well, hello again... " She focused on the man before her. She vaguely recalled him introducing himself to her earlier. Taking a chance, she used what she thought was his name. "Josiah. I saw you in the third row."

"Emma, when I saw you up there all I could think about were our walks on the Embarcadero. Do you remember?"

"That was fun, wasn't it?" She had no idea what he was talking about, but indulged him in his memories.

"Emma. I'm so sorry I had to leave you but... those two years of spiritual study were the most important in my life."

"Yes. Well, I'm sure they were." A missionary! She couldn't get away from this one fast enough. Penniless men had nothing to offer her.

"God, I missed you."

"Missed you, too." She smiled, hoping she could get away from him soon.

"Thank you, thank you."

"Don't mention it," she replied with a coy chuckle.

"Emma. Emma, the thought of you has sustained me throughout all these years of privation and spiritual search. Could-could you... could you ever think of marrying me again?"

Dropping her forced smile, the woman said, "Oh... well... let me tell you somethin', Josiah. I am taken for the evenin'. Besides, I don't think you could afford me anyway, sugar bear."

Just then a buggy pulled up in front of them. Josiah realized that her attention was there now. He turned to see Guy Royal sitting on the seat, a smug expression on his face.

"Let's get goin', Miss Dubonnet."

"I am ready and willin', Mr. Royal." She held out her hand to him, allowing him to help her into the buggy. Batting her eyes at him, she wrapped her arms around one of his, leaning against him seductively.

Behind them, Josiah Sanchez could do nothing but stand and stare, watching the woman of his dreams riding off on the arm of Guy Royal. Unaware of the laughter and whispers around him, he protested, "But... "

Buck slipped off before Josiah saw him witnessing such an embarrassing moment. He still had JD hitched on his hip. Looking across the street he saw that Chris and Vin were just sitting down for a game of checkers.

The foursome settled down together around the table. After some negotiation, Vin and Chris were playing against JD and Buck. The three others noticed that JD kept staring off down the street, toward the hotel. Finally Buck spoke up.

"Looks like we got ourselves another lovesick calf on our hands." He ruffled the little boy's thick bangs.

"Hey!" JD batted at the big hand.

"Chris, you should've seen his face when he saw that little girl. And they just chattered like moonstruck magpies on the garden fence all through dinner. This young'n's got it bad!"

Little Dunne had been getting teased about Casey Wells for days. With a frustrated huff, he said "You think you know ever'thing."

Chris had been listening to the banter, a wistful smile on his face. Suddenly he straightened in his chair, a somewhat startled look on his face. "Bob Spikes. It was a rail-splitting contest back in Indiana-- I couldn't have been more than about 17 years old. It was a friendly contest. I won... he thought I cheated, threw a punch... turned into a brawl. Bob Spikes." He nodded. "That's right."

Buck looked at his friend thoughtfully. "Well, I could see how beatin' him might cause a fight but that don't seem reason enough to want to kill a man."

Softly, as if to keep the boys from hearing, Larabee responded, "No, but that's how he lost his eye in that brawl."

"That's a reason."

"You know what, Mr. Chris?" JD piped up. "If you don't ever tell Mr. Tophat that you 'member him, than he... he won't ever hurt you." The boys had received a rather 'watered down' version of exactly why Spikes was someone they needed to stay away from.

Vin spoke up now. "Know what, Mr. Chris? I think we ought ta ride out to that ol' Guy Royal's tonight, run off that Spikes feller before he sets fire ta Miz Nettie's place."

Chris ruffled the thick, blond hair. "Yeah? Well, I was thinkin' the same thing... but you're gonna stay here to protect Mrs. Wells." Ignoring the look of indignity on the little face, Larabee turned toward his old friend. "We leave now we'd get there by nightfall."

"Right. I'll get the others." Buck deposited the little brunet onto the chair and strode off to gather the other peacekeepers.

Vin sat on an upturned box, just outside the livery, watching the men readying their horses to ride. He had tried everything short of whining to get Chris to change his mind, but the gunman stood firm. He was to stay in town with Nettie Wells, to make certain she was safe. Vin knew perfectly well that Miz Nettie could handle herself just fine. After all, she had seven notches on her Spencer.

Chris came toward the door, leading his horse. "Vin, you need to go on over with Mrs. Wells."

Seeing the stern look on the man's face, Vin wanted desperately to argue, but knew it would do no good. Chris had said his piece, and that was all there was to it. Heaving a sigh that seemed to come from his toes, the little blond stood, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and scuffed off down the street. He looked over his shoulder once or twice, hoping to see the man have a change of mind. When that didn't happen, he dropped his gaze back to the ground and continued on to where Mrs. Wells was waiting on him.

"Vin? Are you sure you don't want more to eat?" Nettie tugged at the little blond's sleeve to get his attention.

Shaking his head, the seven-year-old said "I'm fine."

"I'm still hungry!" Casey announced.

At the same time, JD chirped up with, "I'd like more, ma'am!"

Smiling, the widow spooned more stew out for the two younger children. "I swear, you two are going to be growin' sideways rather than up and down!"

The two children giggled, then JD noticed Vin's glum mood. "Vin, how come you ain't eatin'? It's real good food." When the other boy didn't answer, he said, a little louder, "Vin?"

"He's just scared 'cause your papas are gonna go fight with that mean ol' Guy Royal and they could get bad hurt, like Mr. Porter got hurt!" Casey blurted out.

"Catherine Elizabeth Wells!" Mrs. Wells scolded. "You mind your tongue, missy, or you and I will be making a trip to the woodshed!"

"Yes, ma'am," Casey dropped her gaze, dark eyes already filling with tears.

Turning her attention to the two boys, Nettie saw the fear in JD's eyes and the resignation in Vin's. "Now, don't you two boys go on the worry. Mr. Larabee and Mr. Wilmington and all the others will be just fine. Now, who'd like some apple pie for dessert?"

Two little boys slept restlessly on a pallet on the floor of Mrs. Wells' hotel room. They had been out of sorts the rest of the evening, despite her reassurances that the men would be fine. She couldn't blame them; from what little she'd seen and heard about the boys neither of them seemed to have had a stable life.

Until now?

She still had her reservations about two innocent children in the care of gunmen. But she was realistic, too. She was raising her great niece because the rest of the child's family had died on the trip west, when fever hit their wagon train.

There were no guarantees in life.

Nettie stared out the window, watching for the men to return. As she did, she couldn't help remembering Vin and Chris Larabee together earlier. She remembered the ease with which the man cradled the boy to him, and the trust the sleepy child put in the man. There was something there... a bond... she wasn't certain how much store she put in such things, but they certainly seemed to have something special between them.

Perhaps she was just being an old busy body.

The night was half over when the faint sound of hoof beats came to the older woman. She jerked to wakefulness, sitting up straight in the rocking chair she'd been sitting in for more hours than her aging body appreciated. Rubbing her eyes, she watched out the window until she saw a shadowy group of riders heading into town. Most of them went to the jail, but a pair of riders came toward the hotel. She knew without a doubt who it was. With a smile, she moved quietly toward the door.

Buck and a somewhat battered Chris entered the hotel, moving quietly toward the stairs. Nettie Wells met them halfway, shaking her head at them.

"They okay, Mrs. Wells?" Buck asked.

"They're fine... sleepin'. You look like you had an argument with a grizzly," She added, looking Chris over.

"Had a... reunion... with an... old friend," Larabee remarked, with a wry grin.

"Yeah, an old friend who's coolin' his heels in the jail, about now," Buck added.

Making a tsking sound, the older woman said, "Why don't you men go clean up and get a little sleep. The boys are fine, and you can get them in the morning."

Both men looked as if they'd argue, but sensibility won out. Nodding, they started back out the door, promising to be back at first light.

Nettie woke to the sound of whispers and an occasional sniffle. She had slept in her clothes, pulling her coat over her and stretching out next to Casey on the bed. Checking to see the girl was sleeping soundly, she turned toward the pile of blankets and quilts on the floor. Frowning, she realized that the rumpled bedding was empty; the boys gone.

Sitting up, the widow saw a pair of silhouettes against the graying darkness as dawn made itself known. "Boys? Everything all right?"

The two boys started, turning toward the woman. JD scurried back across the room, all but diving into the bedding. Vin moved more sedately, offering a quiet, "We's just seein' if it was mornin' yet, Miz Nettie."

Before she could say anything more, there was a soft knock at the door. Smiling and shaking her head; knowing who it was, Mrs. Wells pushed aside her coat and padded across the floor. Opening the door, her smile widened and she chuckled. "Land sakes. I didn't think you were being serious about 'first light'." Pushing the door opened, she moved back to allow the two men entrance.

JD and Vin were both watching curiously from beneath the blankets, wondering who it was coming to call. Then they both squealed excitedly when they recognized the shadowy figures, climbing out of the tangled bedding.

Vin scurried over to Chris, slowing when he got close enough to see the bruising on his face. "Are you okay, Mr. Chris?"

Leaning down with a slight grunt when bruise muscles protested, Larabee lifted the slight little body and gave the blond a hug. "I'm fine, Cowboy. Just had a little disagreement with an old friend."

Frowning, Vin could only respond with "huh?" followed by a yawn.

With a slight smirk, the blond said, "I think maybe you didn't get all your sleep out, young man."

At the same time Vin and Chris were reuniting, JD flew across the floor and launched himself at Buck. He was all but crying as he screamed, "Papa, Papa! You're okay! You didn't get hurted! You're okay!"

"JD!" Vin scolded, "Mr. Buck ain'cher pa!"

Coloring at the older boy's words, JD ducked his head. "I... I'm sorry, Mr. Buck. I was... I just got sc-scared."

Squeezing the tyke in a bear hug, the mustached man whispered, "I'm okay, Li'l Bit. And... if you want to... well, I wouldn't mind it at all if you called me Papa... if you want."

Hazel eyes shining with a mixture of tears and joy, the five-year-old smiled up at the man holding him. "You mean it? You don't mind it?"

"Not at all." Buck's voice was rough, the lump in his throat making it difficult to speak.

Wrapping his little arms around the man's neck, JD whispered, "I'm so glad you're okay... Papa."

The next day, it seemed as if half the town had converged on Guy Royal's ranch. They were cleaning out the man's stacked to the rafter's house, sorting through the stolen goods in order to get them back to their rightful owners.

Mary, who seemed to be in charge of sorting things out, pointed to the piece of furniture one of the townsmen was carrying. "Oh, that belongs to the Taggerts."

As the man nodded and carried it to the small pile of belongings, Ezra smiled as he neared her. Checking the bruised flesh under his eye in a handy mirror, he asked the newspaper woman, "What do you suppose the odds are you'll even find them?"

"Well, I know they moved up north. I'll find them."

"I'll bet you will."

Across the yard, Nathan and Josiah were taking a break from packing the belongings into wagons. Taking a drink from a metal cup, the black man said, "Sorry it didn't work out, Josiah."

"Sorry what didn't work out?"

"Your romance with Emma Dubonnet."

"That wasn't Emma Dubonnet," The gray-haired man corrected as he pulled out his wallet. Taking out the tattered picture, he said, "This is Emma Dubonnet."

A little way from the two men, Buck and JD were taking a break as well. Buck sat beneath a tree, long legs outstretched. The little boy was sprawled out on his lap, little head resting on his chest as he snored softly. Wilmington wore a grin that nearly split his face. It was a beautiful day.

Chris and Vin had opted to take Nettie and Casey Wells home. Chris and the older woman sat on the wagon seat, Vin and Casey in the bed behind them. Casey kept trying to get him to play silly guessing games, but Vin studiously ignored her.

Pulling up near the newly rebuilt corral, Chris set the brake and climbed down from the wagon. Reaching out a hand, he helped the widow down. He grinned when he saw that Vin was clambering over the side of the wagon, leaving Casey to climb down on her own.

Going to take care of the horses, Chris watched as Vin gallantly offered his hand to Mrs. Wells and escorted her toward the house. Then his attention was drawn away when he felt a tug on his pant leg. Looking down, he saw Casey staring up at him.

"Can I help you, Mr. Larabee?"

Managing a smile, hoping that she didn't get too under foot, Chris nodded. "Sure, come on."

As Vin and Nettie walked up the steps to her front door, the woman looked down at the little blond. Softly she asked, "Do you want to tell me about her? Your ma."

Vin hesitated, the memories of his mother still painful to draw on. Then, he smiled up at her and said, "Well... she raised me till I was five and then she got sick. A real bad fever got her. She put up a heck of a fight, though."

"Sounds like a strong woman."

His heart filling with pride, Vin responded, "Yes, Ma'am, she was. 'Fore she died, she told me, 'Boy, you're a Tanner. Don't you ever forget that.' Even though I was just a little feller I still 'member her sayin' that to me. I reckon I just want to live up to being a Tanner."

Grinning down at the little boy, the woman promised, "You do, son. You do."

Nettie turned and went into the house, leaving Vin on the porch. The child pondered her words, turning them over and over in his mind. Then he smiled broadly and turned around, spotting Chris just coming from the corral. He jumped from the porch, running quickly toward the tall man. As Casey hurried past him, she stuck her tongue out at him.


A few minutes later, Larabee and little Tanner were on their horses, heading back toward town.

Next: Manhunt