Lady Killers

by Nancy W.

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

The original episode Lady Killers was written by Melissa Rosenberg.

Warning: Children are abused in this story, and there's some profanity.

Author's Note: Since this is supposed to be a Little Britches story, it devotes far less time to Mattie and Kate than the original script (which, in my opinion, should have given us so much more of that lovely Buck-JD h/c!). Also, don't look for the characters to be exactly as they were in the original episode. Some of Kate's lines and scenes have been given to Mattie, since Kate is different from the original character in this story, and in a couple of scenes, their roles are reversed.

Disclaimer: Any similarities to the 1956 film The Bad Seed, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson, were probably just too hard to resist!

Thanx: To Marnie and Joy, for beta-reading and helpful suggestions.

"Lookit me, JD!" Casey called from atop the gallows. "I'm gonna get hanged!"

JD wanted to climb up there with her, but, Buck had told him he was not supposed to play up there. None of the kids were. "You're dumb, Casey, they don't hang little girls."

Casey laughed. "I ain't a little girl. I'm a bad, mean bank robber!" She jumped up, trying to reach for the noose, but she was too short.

"Casey Wells! You get down from there right this minute!" Vin hollered. "Or I'm gonna tell Miz Nettie!"

Casey sighed and began her descent of the gallows steps. "I wish they'd hang somebody so's we could watch," she lamented.

"Girls don't get to go to no hangin's," JD spoke with authority.

"Why not?" Casey demanded.

"A-cause they jus' don't," JD told her. He was pretty sure Buck wouldn't let him go to a hanging, either, but he didn't say so.

"Hey, who is that?" Casey pointed to a blond child walking in the middle of the street. The child was dressed like a boy, but she had long pigtails and clutched a baby doll close.

"Dunno," JD said. He was about to follow Casey across the street when the sudden sound of thundering hooves stopped him in his tracks. Del Spivak and his friends Pud Garber and Scout Kirkland were racing their horses through town again, even after Chris and Buck had told them not to do that.

They were coming awfully fast, and they were so busy trying to outrun each other that they didn't notice the child in the street. Eyes wide, the youngster looked up at oncoming  horses and froze.

Vin, who was safely out of the horses' path, saw what was about to happen, and he ran into the street. "GET OUT THE WAY!" he shouted and then pushed the little girl to safety at the last moment. She tripped and fell into JD, smashing right into his nose!

JD was knocked on his butt, stunned by the blow, but not so much that he didn't notice one of the horses slam into Vin and knock him down.

He'd barely had time to register that shock when from out of nowhere, a girl in a buckskin jacket appeared and fired a shot at the boys as they galloped away. Scout Kirkland fell from his horse and landed in a heap in the middle of the street.

"WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?!" Buck shouted as he dashed from the Grain Exchange where he had been talking to Miss Marnie, the school teacher. "JD! Are you okay?" He ran to his son.

Nathan had come running, too, when he heard the shots. He looked briefly at Scout Kirkland, but then ran to Vin, instead.

JD put his hand to his face and it came away bloody. He thought about crying, but he was too scared that Vin was hurt. He was lying in the road, not moving.

"Vin!" Nathan shouted, carefully approaching the little boy, who moaned softly and tried to raise his head. "Take it easy, now," Nathan told him, and gently, he tried to roll Vin over.

"OW! OW!" Vin shouted, his face contorting in pain. "I'm all busted up, Nathan," he said, not even trying to hold back tears.

Ezra had come running, too. Very gently, he helped Nathan lift the little boy.

"Is Vin all right?" JD asked nervously.

Ezra looked questionly at Nathan, who said, "He may have a broken arm, maybe some ribs... Take him up to my clinic... I have to go check on that Kirkland boy."

Buck handed JD his bandana for his bloody nose and squatted down so he was eye-level with the youngster. "What happened?" he asked.

JD pointed to Scout lying in the street. "They were racin'! Del and his friends! I'm gonna go kick him in the butt!"

Buck held the little boy back. He watched as a young girl, not any older than Scout, who was 14 or 15, walked over to the fallen boy. There was a smoking gun in her hand.

A little blond girl in boy's clothing who had been standing next to JD ran up to the older girl. "Ya got him, Mattie!" she said triumphantly.

"You go with Ezra," Buck told JD, and then walked towards the two girls.

Chris had just made his way from the saloon, as yet unaware that Vin had been hurt. "What the hell is going on here?" he echoed Buck, looking first at the girl, then at the Kirkland boy.

"I'm Mattie Stokes. This here is my little sister, Kate." Mattie holstered her gun. "This piece of shit just 'bout ran her down."

Buck raised his eyebrows slightly at the girl's language, but told Chris, "He was racin' with Del Spivak and Pud Garber."

Chris sighed. Those three boys were destined for a bad end if they didn't change their ways.

"He looks dead," Buck said nervously, examining the unconscious boy.

"If I wanted him dead, he'd be dead," Mattie said.

Nathan affirmed that the boy was still alive, and his wound not likely life-threatening. With Josiah's help, he carried him off to the clinic, too.

Buck cautioned  the young woman, "Honey, you don't want to mess with Del Spivak and his gang. They're bad kids."

The girl looked at him defiantly. "Del Spivak has somethin' that belongs to me," she said. "Otherwise, I would'a shot him, too."

Judge Travis had joined the group by this time.

"I suggest you hand over that gun of yours," Chris told the girl.

"It's my gun. You ain't got no right to take it away."

"You shot somebody," Buck told her.

"They was tryin' to run us over!" JD protested. From where he saw it, Scout deserved what he got.

The simple truth was that Scout Kirland, like his friends Del and Pud, were as rotten as they came - no one in town was going to shed tears over him being hurt, except maybe his mother, if anyone could find her. She was a 'working girl' who spent most of her time in Eagle Bend. "Don't leave town," the Judge warned Kate.

"Don't plan to. Not 'til I get what I come for. You got a saloon in this here cowtown?"

Buck and Chris looked at each other, eyebrows raised. "A saloon ain't a place for a young gal like..."

"It's over there!" JD pointed her in the right direction.

Mattie grabbed her sister by the hand and headed in the direction JD indicated. "Are we in trouble?" the little girl asked.

"No, now shut up," Mattie said, and jerked Kate's arm roughly.

"Hard to believe those are girls," Chris said as he watched them go.

"Buck, is Vin okay?" JD asked again.

Chris's face clouded. "What happened to Vin?"

Josiah followed the girls to the saloon to keep an eye on them.

Mattie had sidled up to the bar and was downing a shot of rotgut like it was water. She ordered up another one, and Josiah looked down at little Kate. She couldn't be more than six, but seemed right at home in the saloon.

He winked at her. "I bet you'd like some lemonade."

Kate looked uncertainly at Mattie, who glared at Josiah. She picked up her second drink and said, "You're drinkin' alone, mister," and started to walk away.

Josiah sighed. "As usual, just me, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost."

Mattie stopped short. "You're a preacher!"

"Not anymore."

"Once a preacher, always a preacher. Well, you stay the hell away from us. You preachers are bad luck."

She moved to a table as Ezra entered the saloon. He pulled up a chair beside her. "That was some exceptional shooting I saw out there," he commented, attempting to begin a conversation with her. "You,  young lady, certainly have this little town all abuzz."

"What do you want?" she cut him off.

Undaunted, Ezra continued, "Well, it's not what I want that should interest you, but what I have to offer. You see, with your skill and my business acumen, well, my dear, I could make you famous."

"Or I could make you dead," she scowled.

"And so charming, too."

Her little sister tugged on her sleeve. "Can I go play?" she asked.

Mattie jerked her arm away. "Just stay out of trouble. You caused me enough grief for one day."

JD was playing marbles with Casey. Niether of them had really mastered the technique of using the shooters, so they were mostly just rolling them at their targets. JD, his tongue poking between his lips in concentration as he attempted a particularly difficult shot, didn't notice Kate was watching them.

Casey did though. "There's that new girl," she whispered to JD.

As he turned, Kate approached timidly, clutching her rag doll close. "Will you play with me?" she asked.

"Yes," / "No," JD and Casey responded simultaneously.

Kate looked confused. Casey relented. "Well, okay, but, you gotta use yer own marbles."

"Ain't got no marbles," Kate said.

"We could play something else," JD suggested helpfully.

"I wanna play marbles," Casey huffed.

JD didn't want to be mean to Kate. "You can use some of mine," he told her.

Despite her boyish attire, Kate seemed reluctant to sit in the dirt. Casey sighed. Most girls were such sissies.

"How come you dress like that?" she asked.

Kate looked down at her britches and her brown vest and jacket. "A'cause Mattie says ya can't ride in a dress. But, I had a dress once. It was blue with white flowers."

"I hate dresses," Casey said, and then, she picked up her marbles.

JD took that to mean that it was okay to think of something else to do, but then Kate told him she wanted him to be the daddy for her doll. No way JD wanted to play with dolls!

But Kate took him by the hand and dragged him away while Casey watched with her hands on her hips. There was nothing JD could do. Kate was bigger than he was and he wasn't supposed to hit girls, so he couldn't make her let him go.

They found some crates in an alley, and Kate started to set up a pretend house. She made JD sit at the "table" so she could serve him pretend food.from an old lard tin she found. JD thought that game was really boring, but Kate told him she didn't have any other toys except her doll.

He was kind of glad when Casey showed up again, but then Kate glared at the other girl and said, "Go away. JD is playing with me!"

"No, he ain't!" Casey protested. "We's married, so he can't play with you."

"Can, too. He told me he doesn't like you anymore."

JD's eyes popped open wide at that. He hadn't said any such thing! "Casey, I..."

But, Casey was mad. She grabbed Kate's doll and threw it in the dirt and then kicked it. Then, she turned and stomped off.

Kate picked up her battered doll started to cry and JD didn't know what to do. Kate had told a big lie, but then Casey was real mean to her. He figured he should just go find Buck and not bother with dumb girls anymore!

"OW!" Vin yelped as Nathan touched an especially tender spot. The little boy sat in Chris's lap, stripped to his drawers. He had a massive bruise on his left side that was slowly creeping around his chest. His ribs didn't feel broken, but, Vin was a child and his bones were soft - they could have been cracked and just sprung back into place. It was clear the little boy was in pain. His left shoulder was bruised, and his wrist was swollen and sore, also, but Nathan was pretty sure nothing was broken. All in all, Vin had been lucky. So had Del Spivak and his hoodlum friends. Chris was so angry with them that had Vin had been seriously hurt, Nathan feared he might have done something rash, even though they were only kids. As it was, he had insisted that Nathan tend to Vin before he did anything for Scout Kirland.

Nathan had dosed Vin with laudanum and once it had time to take the edge off the worst of the boy's pain, he'd gone to work binding his little chest. Keeping his ribs stable and supported would make him more comfortable, even if nothing could be done but to let nature take its course. When he was done, he carefully rigged a sling for Vin's injured arm.

"You're gonna have to take it easy for a few days," he told Vin, then smiled and added, "No bronc bustin'."

Vin returned the smile, even though his eyes were half closed.

"He should be put to bed," Nathan told Chris. "Prop him up with some extra pillows, give him the laudanum only if he needs it. He should be right as rain in a couple of weeks."

Chris very gently lifted Vin, tucking his arm under the child's skinny little butt and taking most of Vin's weight on his chest.

"C'mon, Pard, let's get you home," he said gently, but at the same time cast a murderous glare at Scout Kirkland, who was clearly in need of Nathan's attention, but had enough sense to keep his mouth shut.

After bandaging the bullet hole on the Kirkland boy's side, Nathan went to get a bite to eat and to check on Vin again. The little boy was already clamoring to be out of bed, and Nathan was pretty sure he wasn't just trying to be tough. His breathing was steady and regular, and his color was good. He didn't have a fever, and thanks to the laudanum didn't appear to be in too much pain. Nathan suspected the real reason he wanted out was so that everyone could admire his sling. Little boys, he had discovered, were enormously impressed by bandages.

When he returned to the clinic, he heard screams of pain coming from inside as soon as he reached the steps. The Kirkland boy was not that badly hurt, so he was immediately suspicious as he raced up the stairs two at time and found Mattie Stokes standing over Scout with a hunting knife.

"Don't let her cut me!" the boy screamed. His eyes were round with fright, and Nathan could see that someone - no doubt Mattie - had tied him to the bed frame so that he was helpless to protect himself.

Nathan rushed the girl and took the knife from her. "What the hell's the matter with you?!" he demanded.

"Boys are such babies about pain," she smirked and then sauntered out the door.

Nathan would have to deal with her later. He checked on his patient and found that his wound was bleeding again, the bandages over them soaked through. "What did she want?" he asked the boy as he undid the ropes that bound him to the bed.

"None o' yer damn business."

Nathan sighed, exasperated. With his mother off plying her trade in Eagle Bend, Scout pretty much took care of himself. Nathan couldn't bring himself to send the injured youngster off to the run-down shack he called home when there was no one there to care for him. But, given the boy's unpleasant nature, he could be easily convinced to reconsider.

"What - did - she - want?" he repeated, emphasizing each word.

Scout looked away. "She wanted to know where to find Del."

Nathan knew that could only mean trouble. "Did you tell her?"

Scout shook his head. "She didn't do nothin' to me that Del wouldn't do five times worse."

Nathan figured maybe Scout would be better off at the jail where Mattie - and Del - couldn't get to him easily. He'd certainly be happy to be rid of him.

Chris had followed Mattie Stokes into the saloon, and was now keeping a surreptitious eye on her as he drank at the bar with Judge Travis. She stood a few feet away, guzzling beer like a trail hand as little Kate played with the filthy sawdust on the floor.

A cocky young cowboy sidled up alongside Mattie and, obviously making assumptions from her attire, made the mistake of asking, "What you got under them buckskins there, pretty lady?"

In a flash, her beer mug was slammed into his face. The young man yelped in pain as two of his teeth went flying from his mouth.

Mattie grabbed Kate roughly by the arm and headed for the door, passing Buck on his way in. He'd arrived in time to see what had happened, and laughed softly as he joined Chris at the bar.

"That little gal is a tough customer," Travis remarked.

"Oh, I suspect there's something nice and warm underneath it all," Buck smiled.

"I wouldn't count on it," Chris said. If the girl wasn't so young, he would have sent her packing by now.

"Anyone else worried that she's looking to call out Del Spivak?" Buck asked. Nathan had told him about her encounter with Scout Kirkland.

"I think Buck's concerns are valid," the judge replied. "Even if she were a boy, she couldn't take on Spivak and his gang by herself."

"From the looks of it, Buck should be concerned for Del," Chris remarked.

"I wanna have a talk with that boy," Travis said. "If you find him, bring him to me. I want to know what this is all about."

Vin took his time walking to the jail. Nathan was right - if he tried to walk too fast, it made his ribs hurt. He kind of hurt all over, but it wasn't too bad if he was careful. He'd gone to the stable to check on Peso, and Yosemite had admired his sling and told him how brave he had been to push that little girl out of the street, and then gave him a penny.

He went to buy candy at Potter's store, but Mrs. Potter told him the same thing - that he was a hero - and she let him have a penny's worth of candy and didn't even take his penny!

He was kind of embarrassed by all the attention, but, he kind of liked it, too, even though it meant he wouldn't be able to ride Peso or shoot his rifle for two whole weeks. All things considered, he was feeling pretty good - until he spotted Pud Garber, ducking into an alley ahead.

Silently, he crept up to find out what was going on, and found Pud talking to Del Spivak.

"Where's Scout?" Del wanted to know.

"They took him over to the jail. They know it was you an' him an' me racin' in the street."

Del seemed very displeased by this. "How come he ain't with Nathan?"

Pud shook his head. "I dunno, Del, but I seen that girl go up there while Nathan was gone, the one who shot him. She's lookin' for you, Del."

Vin watched, horrified, as Del grabbed Pud by the front of his shirt. He took out a knife and pressed it to Pud's cheek. "You tell Scout that he better keep his mouth shut."

Pud nodded quickly, nervously. "I... yeah... yeah... I will... Del... Yeah..."

And then Pud cried out as Del nicked him with the knife and then pushed him down. "That..." He pointed to Pud's bleeding cheek. " so you remember to keep your yap shut, too."

Pud got up and, nodding quickly, he ran from the alley.

Vin decided he'd better get out of there and go tell Chris what had happened, but as he turned to run, a heavy hand clamped down on his sore shoulder.

"OW!" he cried out as he was spun around to face Del.

"You listenin' to my business, you little shit?"

Vin shook his head quickly. He wasn't afraid of Del. He wanted to tell the bully that if he hurt him, Chris would find him and peel his hide from his bones. But, right then, all he wanted was for Del to let go of his injured arm. "Ow, ow, ow... lemme go..." he pleaded.

To his surprise, Del did let him go, but he pointed the blade of his knife directly at Vin's face. "You keep yer mouth shut, or I'll cut yer ears off."

Vin cradled his injured arm. "Butt hole," he muttered as Del walked away. When Chris got a hold of him, he'd be sorry!

The next morning, Buck was leaving the restaurant after breakfast when he spotted Mattie on her horse with Kate in front of her. They were headed in the direction of the Spivak ranch. Del normally didn't spend a lot of time there - the boy's father had long since given up hope of making a useful human being out of him. But, it was the place he was most likely to go if he wasn't staying in town, and for some reason they had yet to figure out, he was avoiding Mattie.

As abrasive as she was, Buck hated to see such a young woman riding into trouble, especially dragging her little sister along. He stopped at the jail long enough to tell Chris he was going to follow her.

"Can I come, too, Buck?" JD asked hopefully.

"Well, I don't see why not," Buck grinned.

"Do you think that's a good idea?" Chris asked, nodding in JD's direction.

"I ain't expecting to let things get out of hand," Buck said.

"Buck, just 'cause she's young and a girl don't mean she ain't trouble."

Buck laughed, "Aw, hell, Chris, how much trouble could she be? I'm just gonna see to it that she and Del Spivak don't get carried away is all. You know how kids can be."

Chris shook his head. He had a bad feeling about this. Buck saw Spivak and his gang - and Mattie - as just ornery adolescents. Chris feared they were more dangerous than his friend gave them credit for, especially Mattie. "I'm comin' with you. We'll get Josiah to ride along, too." He turned to Vin who was resting on the cot in the cell not occupied by Scout Kirkland. That he didn't jump up and ask to come along was evidence of how stiff and sore the little boy was from his encounter with the horse the day before. "Vin, you go find Ezra and stay close to him until we get back."

"What about me?" Scout Kirkland asked.

Chris unlocked the cell. "Go home. And stay away from Del, or I'll put your butt back in here for good."

Clutching his injured side, Scout quickly made his way to the door.

Vin slowly got to his feet. "Watch yer backs," he said, echoing a phrase he heard Chris use often.

Vin was on his way to the saloon, where he was pretty sure he would find Ezra, when he heard someone crying in the livery. Yosemite wasn't around, so he wasn't sure he should go inside, but his curiosity got the better of him. He discovered Casey sitting in one of the stalls by herself, with her marbles scattered in the hay.

"What's'a matter, Casey?" Vin asked. He didn't think he'd ever seen the little girl cry before.

"JD don't like me no more. He likes Kate. They won't play with me."

Vin wasn't sure what to say to that. He remembered what Chris had said once about Buck having lots of lady friends, so he thought maybe the same thing was true for JD liking two girls. "Aw, Casey, that don't mean he don't like ya, he's just... uh... sowin' his oats." Yeah, that was the expression Chris had used.

"Sewing his oats?" Casey frowned. She didn't know what Vin meant, but she didn't like the sound of it if it meant JD was going to like Kate more than her. "SEWING HIS OATS?" she huffed, standing up and getting closer to Vin than he would have liked. Casey was little, but she could hit and push as good as any boy.

Vin reconsidered what he'd said. "Uh.... that's just a 'spression, Casey."

"Well, I got oats, too," Casey said. And she could sew with a real needle. Auntie Nettie showed her how.

Vin wasn't really sure what oats were - except for the kind you fed horses. He was getting all mixed up now. "I'm sure ya do."

"I think I'll be married to you, instead."

"HUH?" Vin backed away. No way he wanted to be married. Casey was only five. He was too old for her.

"Yeah, I'll be married to you instead of JD."

"No... NO!" Vin squeaked in horror as Casey walked towards him. He backed away, but Casey followed him, until he backed into the wall and bumped his sore arm. "Ow!... I don't wanna be married to ya, Casey, and I don't wanna play with ya, neither!"

Casey picked up a fistful of hay and dirt and threw it at him before she stomped out the door.

"Aw hell," Vin sighed. Dang, girls were sure hard to figure out.

Vin took his time walking to the saloon. He was sore, for one thing, but for another, he was keeping an eye out for Pud Garber. Just because Del wasn't in town didn't mean he wasn't.

When he got to the saloon, he saw Ezra at his usual table and was surprised to see Casey there, too.

"Do you think I'm pretty, Mr. Ezra?" she asked. Vin rolled his eyes.

"As a picture, Miss Wells."

She crawled up onto a chair and with a sigh, rested her head on her arms. "JD don't think I'm pretty."

"Well, my dear, JD is young. His tastes have yet to mature."

"Vin says he's sewing oats with Kate... what does that mean?"

Ezra was about to take a drink when she said that, and he almost choked on it.

"Uh... well... um.... I would like to tell you, but, you know... "

"It's a boy secret?" Casey huffed.

"Well... uh.... somethin' like that," Ezra stuttered.

"Well, I think you're all stupid! Ex-peshly JD!"

She stormed out of the saloon, and Vin wasn't able to get out of the way in time. She smacked his sore arm with one of the batwing doors as she left.

"OW!" he yelped. But she didn't even say she was sorry or nothing. She just ran off. Dang.

"Why're you following us?" Mattie demanded. She'd stopped to reset her saddle and when she had spotted Buck, Chris and Josiah , she didn't hesitate to confront them.

"Just thought we'd go on a little hunting party with you, darling," Buck said. He climbed off his horse, and JD jumped down beside him.

"This is between me an' Del Spivak. Ain't none of your concern."

"Suit yourself," Chris said. "But we're still gonna follow you. You ain't gonna shoot anyone else."

Mattie glared at him. "Just stay out of my way."

A cold chill went up Chris's spine. This girl had no respect for authority, and no fear of anyone. "Well, at least leave your sister out of it."

"She's my business, too."

"Can I stay here an' play with JD?" Kate asked.

"NO! Now shut up!"

She tossed the little girl up onto the horse so roughly that she dropped her doll.

JD moved to pick it up. "Ya shouldn't be so bossy," he told Mattie.

Mattie grabbed the doll. "You shut up, too, you little piece of dirt."

The three men bristled, and it was clear that JD didn't think he had to take that from the older girl. But before the five-year-old could think of a response, Josiah attempted to diffuse the situation.

"You sure know how to sweet-talk a man," he joked.

Mattie wasn't amused. "I told you to keep your bad luck away from me."

"What makes you think I'm such bad luck, anyway?" Josiah asked.

She climbed onto her horse. "Every time a preacher's around, somebody dies. Last preacher I let near me was standing over my mama's grave, and I will shoot you dead before I'll have you standing over mine."

Chris's tone was more serious. "When we find Del, I want you to leave your sister back out of the way."

Mattie scowled at him. "Who cares what you want?"

She spurred her horse and rode off.

"Why don't you ease up on 'er, stud?" Buck said as he put JD back on his horse.

"Something about that girl ain't right," Chris said. He wasn't used to people openly defying him. The ones who did were usually stupid or crazy and he didn't think Mattie Stokes was stupid.

Despite Mattie's protest, the men continued to follow the two girls. Buck pulled his horse up alongside of her. "You don't have to worry about Spivak, you know. Chris can take care of him."

JD remembered the gallows. "Can we hang him?" he asked.

To Buck's horror, Mattie pulled her gun and pointed it directly at the little boy. "Don't talk about hangin', you understand me?"

Josiah rode quickly between the two horses and pushed Mattie's gun down.

Once again, he tried to reason with the girl. "Preachers and ropes. Any other superstitions we oughta know about?"

"Nope. Just don't like talk of hanging, is all."

"What is it you want with Del Spivak, anyway?" Buck asked.

"That ain't none of your business."

"He stoled-ed our mama's treasures," Kate volunteered.

"Treasures?" JD asked.

"Yeah, her necklace and her brooch an' her earrings."

"That's what this is about?" Chris asked incredulously.  "Jewelry?"

Mattie pulled her horse up. "We was travelin' together on a wagon train, three years ago. Ma died along the way. Pa didn't even take the time to give her a proper burial. Just piled some rocks on her. I left her jewelry box there to mark the grave. Later, I saw Del with it. My Pa wouldn't let me get it back, but I made a vow I would, even if I had to kill him."

Mattie's story was a sad one, and Chris could tell Buck's big heart was going out to the girl. Chris, though, made a note of the lack of emotion in her voice - and the way little Kate was looking at her as though she were telling a bedtime story.

"We'll see to it he does what's right," Buck assured her.

"I don't need your help," Mattie scowled. "Just stay the hell out of my way!"

She spurred her horse and trotted off.

"I don't like her," JD said. "She's mean."

"Well, she done lost her mama, JD," Buck tried to excuse her behavior.

JD stated the obvious. "I lost my mama, too, and I ain't mean."

Buck had no answer for that. They three men rode on in silence.

They had come to a stop on a small ridge where they had a good view of the makeshift camp Del and his friends had set up. Chris was somewhat alarmed to see that there were eight boys - and that didn't include Scout Kirkland who had obviously taken his advice to stay away from Del. He knew Del was a ringleader for troublemakers, but he didn't realize his little gang of hoodlums was as large as it was. He was also dismayed to see that not all of the boys came from bad homes like Scout's. Most of them appeared to be younger than Del - perhaps drawn to the excitement of being in the company of the older boy. He'd remember who they were and haul their sorry little butts into the jail for a good talking to when this was over.

For now, though, he thought it best that they proceed with caution. Even though they were kids, most of them were still armed.

Buck took JD off his horse and sat him down on a fallen log. "You stay right here, Little Bit. Don't move until I come back for you."

Mattie lowered Kate to the ground.

"You're staying, too," Chris told her.

"The hell I am!"

Chris reached over and pulled her gun from its holster. "You stay," he said.

He expected an argument, but she made no move to follow them. Maybe she wasn't as crazy as she looked.

When the men were out of ear shot, Kate asked, "Ain't you gonna go get Del, Mattie?"

Mattie kicked the dirt with her boot. "Del ain't gonna stick around while those idiots throw down on him. He's gonna run, and then, I'm gonna catch him."

"Okay," Kate said, and clutched her doll close.

JD watched  Mattie reach into her saddle bag and pull something out. She had another gun! This one was smaller, like the one Mr. Ezra wore up his sleeve, but after what had happened with Annie and her kitties, JD knew any gun was dangerous.

"Well, well, well, if it ain't Mad Mattie," a voice called out, its owner hidden in the trees.

Mattie jumped, but instantly had her gun drawn. "That you, Del? Show yerself!"

When Del stepped out of the trees, JD thought he'd better call Buck back. He hoped his Papa would hear him. "BUCK!" he shouted.

"SHUT UP!"  Mattie screamed at him. Her eyes were round and scary. JD was afraid of her.

"Sweet as ever, I see," Del joked.

"I want my share, Del," Mattie said.

"Whatever do you mean?" Del laughed.

"You know what I mean. Half that stuff is MINE!"

"What're they talkin' about?" JD asked Kate, who shrugged.

"I told you to SHUT UP!" Mattie slapped JD so hard he almost fell off the log, then, she turned back to Del. "T'was me done all the work. You owe it to me!"

Del held up a canvas bag. "So, you think yer tough enough to take it?"

Mattie grabbed for the bag, but Del kept dodging her. Mattie was getting madder and madder, but finally, Del let her grab the bag. She forced it open only to discover it was full of rocks.

Mattie looked like she was going to explode, and Del just laughed.

Kate was sniffling now, clutching her doll and trembling in fear. Mattie hurled the bag of rocks at her, hitting her in the face. "SHUT UP before I give ya something to really cry about!"

JD was trying to hold back his own tears. Buck had to come back. Mattie was going to hurt someone. "BUCK!" he yelled again, as loud as he could. He stood up, ready to run if he had to. Even though Buck had told him to stay there, he was scared of Mattie.

"Hell," Del baited her, "You ain't tough at all, you an' that little pea-shooter. You ain't nothing but a soft little girl."

Mattie was fuming with rage. "You want to see soft, you bastard? I'll show you soft..."

She pointed her gun at JD, who threw his hands up to cover his eyes. "BUCK!" he yelled again.

Del laughed. "Go on, I dare you."

JD felt a wrenching impact that flipped him backwards over the log. He hit the dirt so hard that for a few seconds, he couldn't remember where he was. He'd heard a gun go off... Was he shot? Did Mattie shoot him?

"FUCK!" Del shouted. "You crazy bitch..." he gasped. "You CRAZY FUCKIN' BITCH! What'd you do that for?... SHIT!"

JD was dimly aware of Del running past him, and then Mattie grabbing Kate, and then the sound of a horse riding off... but all of these things were dimmed by the sudden wave of pain that crashed through him. He put his hand to his side, where it hurt the most, and then he held it in front of his face and discovered it was all bloody. "Buck..." he sobbed. "Where are you, Papa?"

Alerted by the sound of a gunshot, Buck, Chris and Josiah raced back to the clearing. Buck's heart raced when he discovered no one was there, and then, he heard soft cries and to his horror, he spotted JD's tiny body curled up in a pile of leaves. Numb with dread, he jumped off his horse and raced to the little boy.

JD blinked in confusion when Buck first called his name.  He carefully rolled him over. "Little Bit?" His voice quavered.

"She shooted me, Buck," he sobbed. "Mattie shooted me..."

"Oh dear God," Buck gasped when he saw the blood on JD's side. "It's okay, Little Bit. Buck's got ya now." Carefully, he lifted the little boy up and then handed him to Josiah while he climbed onto his horse. Josiah ever so gently handed JD up to him. The child didn't gasp or cry out. His head lolled frighteningly to one side. Buck clutched him close and wrapped him in his coat.

He was agonizingly aware that he had simply left JD with Mattie, never once considering she might hurt him, let alone do something like this. How could he have been so stupid, and so very, very wrong?

"Go after her, Chris," he said, his tone deadly. "Gun 'er down if you have to, but just get her."

Chris looked into the pain-stricken face of his old friend. He'd never gunned down anyone as young as Mattie, but seeing JD's lifeless little body in Buck's arms removed any qualms he might have had about doing it. He nodded and then turned his horse and rode off after Mattie Stokes. Josiah followed.

"NATHAN!" Buck yelled, riding into town at a full gallop as he tried to control his horse and hang on to JD at the same time. "NATHAN! JD'S HURT! NATHAN!"

Hearing Buck's cries, Nathan raced down the steps of the clinic as Buck pulled his horse to a halt.

"JD's hurt bad, Nathan," he said, his voice threatening to break.

Nathan carefully took the little boy from him. He moaned softly, but was otherwise unresponsive. "What happened?" Nathan needed to know.

"Mattie shot him. That little two-bit whore shot him!"

Vin and Casey had come running when they heard the commotion, and Buck's words froze Vin in his tracks. JD was all bloody.

"JD!" Casey cried. "What happened to JD?"

Vin took hold of Casey with his good arm so she didn't follow Buck and Nathan. He knew it was better if they stayed out of the way. What if JD was dead?

"Hush, Casey," he told the little girl softly. "Nathan'll take care of him. It's best we stay here."

"Will he be all right?" Casey asked fearfully.

Vin stroked her hair soothingly. "Sure he will. You'll see."

He wished he believed that.

Nathan carefully carried JD up to his clinic and laid him gently on the table. With Buck's help, he removed the little boy's clothing. JD was very fair, but even so, he looked unnaturally pale. His skin was clammy and felt unusually cool to the touch.

"Stoke up the fire," he told Buck. "He's in shock. We need to keep him warm."

Buck did as he was told as Nathan tucked a folded blanket under JD's feet and fetched the pot of warm water he kept on the stove. He soaked a rag and gently began to clean the blood smeared on JD's torso. Mattie had hit him in the right side - the same as she had Scout Kirkland. Nathan wondered if that was coincidence.

Judging from the fact that there was no exit wound, Nathan suspected JD had been shot with a small-caliber weapon, which was probably the only reason he wasn't dead. Even so, he was bleeding heavily and Nathan knew he'd have to get the bullet out quickly. His heart clenched when he realized he had never done this with a patient so small. He could only pray that he didn't do JD more harm than good, even though he had no choice. If he didn't operate, the child was going to bleed to death.

"Hold this against the wound," he told Buck, handing him a clean towel. He washed his hands and prepared his instruments, noticing that Buck was pale and shaking. "You all right?" he asked, concerned.

Buck looked up at him with tears in his eyes. "I don't know if I can do this, Nate."

Nathan acknowledged Buck's distress with a nod, but said, "I'll be as quick as I can. Hold his head and shoulders. He's unconscious, but the pain might wake him up."

"Oh God..." Buck gasped.

"I've got chloroform. If he's in pain, I'll put him out, but I don't want to give it to him if I don't have to."

Buck nodded.


Buck sucked in a deep breath. "As I'll ever be."

As Nathan worked, Buck gently stroked JD's damp hair and spoke softly to him, telling him he would be okay and letting him know he was there. He didn't know what was more frightening - the thought that JD could wake up while Nathan probed for the bullet, or, the fact that he didn't stir at all.

Nathan found the bullet quickly, but even after it was removed, blood continued to flow from the wound. Nathan knew that packing the wound would increase the risk of an infection setting in, but, JD had already lost a lot of blood, and he was so small that he couldn't afford to lose much more. Another alternative was to cauterize the wound, but JD would almost certainly be aware of the agonizing pain that would result, even if he was unconscious. The little boy was very weak by this time, and Nathan feared that a shock like that could kill him.

"Will he be okay?" Buck asked as Nathan packed the wound with clean gauze.

Nathan didn't want to dash the man's hopes, but he had to be honest with him. "I don't know, Buck. He's lost a lot of blood.... I've done all I can for him. He's in God's hands now."

They very carefully moved JD to the bed, then wrapped him in warm blankets. All they could do now was wait.

It didn't take long for Chris and Josiah to catch up with Mattie, because the girl had apparently not given them a second thought. She was obsessed with catching Del Spivak.

Chris raced to head her off, blocking her path and pulling his gun on her while Josiah forced Del to a stop.

"That's far enough!" Chris told her.

Mattie tried to lunge at Del. "Get out of my way!"

Chris cocked his weapon and pointed it right between her eyes. "I've never shot a woman before, but I'd love for you to give me a reason."

Little Kate looked up at her sister. "Mattie?" she said nervously.

"Hush!" Mattie commanded, then softened her tone. "It's gonna be all right."

Chris glared at her. "I don't think so."

Del and Mattie were tossed into the adjoining cells at the jail. Kate wanted to stay with her sister, and while no one thought it was appropriate for a 5-year-old to be locked in a cell, it was going to take time to make other arrangements for her. After all that had happened, it was not likely that there would be many folks in Four Corners willing to open their home to the little girl.

The fact was, as far as anyone could determine, the only thing Del Spivak was guilty of was racing his horse through town. But, it was clear that the boy thought he was in far more trouble than he was. Seeing an opportunity, Nathan arranged for him to be released so that he could speak with his "attorney."

Del looked incredulously at Ezra, who was attempting to balance a broom on his boot.

"This is my lawyer?" he asked uncertainly.

Ezra flipped the broom into the air and then caught it on his hand, balancing it there. It was an excellent trick, not entirely lost on the the teen.

Ezra set the broom down and tipped his hat. "Ezra P. Standish, attorney at law... At your service."

He extended his hand and Del took it cautiously. "What's the P stand for?"

Ezra grinned. "Persuasive."

"I thought you was a gambler," Del said.

Ezra ignored this observation and continued, "Now, the way I see it, you raced your horse through town, which constitutes a mere misdemeanor for unlawful abuse of a public thoroughfare. However, we need to get past your unfortunate association with one Miss Mattie Stokes."

"But I ain't got no association with that bitch!" Del protested.

Again, Ezra ignored him. "Well, it seems to me we need to offer the Judge something in the way of an exchange for leniency."

Nathan nodded. "The Judge is awful anxious to know what's going on between you and that girl in there.

"What if I don't wanna talk?" Del smirked.

"Then, you'll hang," Nathan told him.

Del's eyes grew wide. "Hang!? But I didn't do nothin'! It was all HER! She's mean... hell, she's downright evil."

"Did you see her shoot JD?"

Del almost looked ashamed. "Yeah. I couldn't do nothing to stop her. Hell, I didn't know she'd go that far, shootin' a little kid like that."

"Just where do you know her from?"

Del looked suspicious. "What did she tell you?"

"Never mind that," Nathan said. "We want your side."

"I know her from when we lived in Ridge City. She's been bad ever since I can remember. She'll tell you she's an orphan, that her pa used to beat her. Mebbe he did, but all I know is one day he turned up dead behind their barn. Shot. Her ma was inside, shot dead, too. Mattie said Injuns done it, but Injuns wouldn't'a left Kate. She was only a baby. They would'a took her an' made her an Injun."

"So you think Mattie shot her parents?"

Del looked around, as if he were wondering if Mattie would hear him. "I aint sayin' that. It just seemed suspicious is all. Injuns attacking a place and leavin' two young girls behind like that."

Both men noted that Del hadn't mentioned anything about a wagon train. "What about the jewelry?" Ezra asked, to see if it got a rise out of the boy.

"She done stole that from ol' Mrs. Hargrove. She said she found it, but, I knew it where it came from, and she told me I could keep half if I didn't tell."

"So, you took it all?" Ezra asked sarcastically.

Del shrugged. "We was movin' here, an' I figured no one in these parts would recognize the stuff. Turns out it didn't make no difference. It was all fake, anyway."

"Fake?" Nathan asked.

"Yeah... the stones. They weren't gems, just paste. Mattie killed that ol' lady for nothing."

Ezra frowned. "Killed her?"

Del nodded. "She said she found the old lady dead in her kitchen, like she just keeled over, but I ain't never believed that."

"Why not?" Nathan asked.

"'Cause when they found the old lady, she had one finger gone... " He indicated the third finger on his left hand. "...chopped clean off by her own butcher knife. It was set up to look like she cut herself when she fell..."

"What do you mean 'set up'?" Ezra frowned.

"I mean, Mattie's got the ol' lady's weddin' ring." The boy shuddered. "Still gives me chills."

It gave Ezra chills, too, but he laughed and said, "I'm sorry, but even I find it hard to believe that a sweet little thing like that could be so cold-blooded. Now, if you're gonna waste my time--"

"You want proof?" Del retorted. "Contact the sheriff in Ridge City. He'll tell ya about Mattie's folks... an' about Mrs. Hargrove's finger. An' that wedding ring? She wears it round her neck like some kind of prize. I swear."

"We're gonna check it out, don't you worry about that," Nathan said, shoving the boy back towards the jail.

Del looked up at him with fear in his eyes, and suddenly looked like the boy he was. "Are they really gonna hang me?"

Nathan doubted that would happen, but Del needed to learn a lesson. "If JD dies, you're an accomplice. You better pray he doesn't, and you better be ready to testify against Mattie either way."

Chris quietly entered the clinic with Vin. Nathan and Buck sat on either side of JD's bed. The little boy had a raging fever and hadn't regained consciousness. He would occasionally thrash around, in the grips of pain and delerium, and Nathan would have to force laudanum into him. It broke both men's hearts to see the little boy suffering so, and they had questioned the wisdom of having Chris bring Vin to see him. In the end, though, they had relented. Vin and JD were like brothers, and it was only fitting that Vin should be with him if that was what he wanted.

Vin walked slowly to the bed, his eyes tearing at the sound of JD's labored breathing. He lowered himself carefully onto the mattress - both because he didn't want to jar JD and because he was still in pain from his own injuries. He took one of JD's chubby little hands into his own, as if trying to give some of his strength to the younger boy. After a few moments, he pulled a peppermint stick and rubber ball from his sling.

"I got these for ya, JD, for when you're better..." He looked up at Chris, who knelt down beside him. Then he turned back to JD. "Ya gotta get better, JD," he sniffed. "Yer my little brother. I need ya..."

The tears started to flow freely and Chris gently pulled the little boy into an embrace.

"Why'd she do it, Pa?" he cried. "How could she be so mean? JD's only little..."

Chris had no answer for that. He stood up and took Vin by the hand, but suddenly, Vin turned back to the bed. He leaned over and placed a soft kiss on JD's forehead. "I love ya, JD. Please don't die."

After he had taken Vin from the room, Chris returned. "How does it look?" he asked Nathan.

The healer shook his head as he mopped JD's feverish body with a cool cloth. "I don't know, Chris. He's a fighter, that's for sure. The next day or so will tell."

"Mattie's standing trial tomorrow morning," Chris told Buck. "Del Spivak is going to testify against her."

Buck nodded absently. "You know, I have spent my whole life thinking that women were everything good that warms the soul. And that got my little boy shot..." He put a hand to his brow and began to weep openly.

Chris rested a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You couldn't have known, Buck..."

Buck shook his head. "I should have been more careful. JD trusted me to keep him safe, and I just rode off and left him with that lunatic..." He turned a tear-streaked face up at Chris. "How could I have been so fuckin' stupid, Chris?"

Chris' heart ached for his friend. He was reminded of that extra night he spent in Mexico - the one that had cost him his first family. "You're only human, Buck," he said softly. "Only human."

Judge Travis had checked out Del Spivak's story and sheriff Rick Jardet of Ridge City had arrived soon after with more disturbing details about Mattie Stokes. The woman found shot to death with Mattie's father was actually Kate's mother and Mattie's stepmother. When she was seven, Mattie's own mother had hanged herself. She had inexplicably tried to hang Mattie, too, but the noose had slipped over the little girl's head. That no doubt explained why she didn't want anyone to talk about hanging in front of her. While it was likely that such a terrifying event may have turned Mattie into the unfeeling monster that she was, Jardet explained that there was speculation and gossip surrounding her two younger brothers, perfectly healthy four-year-old twins who had somehow managed to die in their sleep. The rumor was that Mattie's mother suspected Mattie was responsible - and that the pain had been too much for her to bear.

Josiah had talked with her at length the night before. He'd come to the chilling conclusion that Mattie was not so much sorry for anything she had done as she was sorry she had been caught. She had no remorse at all over shooting JD - hadn't even mentioned it, in fact. The sad truth was, the girl didn't appear to have any conscience whatsoever.

"I don't believe that people are born bad," Judge Travis told Mattie as she stood before him. "But, whatever it was that turned you so far around, I doubt that it's likely to be undoable." He held up the ring that had been taken from Mattie. She had been wearing it around her neck, just as Del had said. The sheriff confirmed it was the widow Hargrove's wedding band. "Mrs. Hargrove was a frail, defenseless old woman. You killed her for a few tiny baubles that had almost no value."

Mattie raised her chin in the air defiantly. "I thought they was real."

The Judge looked down his nose at her. "And that excuses killing her, in your eyes?"

Mattie's expression didn't change.

"And what excuse do you have for shooting JD Dunne?"

Mattie's face clouded. "I told that little brat to shut up... I warned him.. I..."

The judge slammed his gavel down. "HE'S FIVE YEARS OLD! And you gunned him down!"

Mattie winced slightly at the vehemence in Travis's voice.

"Miss Madeline Stokes. You've been found guilty of the cold-blooded murder of Willa Hargrove. You have been found guilty of the attempted murder of a child, JD Dunne. God knows what else you are guilty of. As far as I can tell, you have nothing to give to this world in return for what you've taken from it. I've never had to say this to a woman, let alone one so young as you, but I sentence you to hang by the neck until dead tomorrow at dawn."

Everyone in the courtroom gasped at the verdict - Mattie Stokes was only sixteen. However, no one stepped forward to plead for her life.

Mattie's face twisted with rage. "Who, who the hell do you think you are?" she yelled and lunged for the judge.

Chris grabbed her around the middle and pulled her away.

Little Kate didn't understand what was going on, and she began to beat Chris with tiny fists. "Leave her alone! Leave my sister alone!" she wailed.

There was no way Mattie could escape the courtroom, so Chris released her.

In an instant, her arms were around Kate, but what at first appeared to be an embrace between the two sisters was quickly revealed to be something else. Mattie had the little girl in a stranglehold and was choking the life out of her.

"I will kill her! I will kill her!" she ranted. "You hear me? I will kill her! You let me go, or I swear to God, I'll break her neck! You bastards! I'll...."

Suddenly, a shot rang out and Mattie dropped to the floor. Josiah rushed forward and picked Kate up. He ran out of the courtroom with her as the little girl struggled to get her breath back.

Inside, Sheriff Jardet holstered his gun. He looked at Judge Travis. "Willa Hargrove was my grandmother," he said. "Mattie Stokes is a mad dog. It's time she was put down."

Judge Travis adjourned the court. He would have to deal with Jardet later, but there were plenty of eyewitness who would attest that he had no choice. If he hadn't shot her, one of the other men there would have had to, because no one doubted she would have killed little Kate.

Perhaps it was better that it had ended like this, anyway. Travis hadn't relished the idea of hanging a girl barely into womanhood, no matter how evil she was. In any case, Mattie Stokes' short life was over, and she was now free of whatever demons tormented her. And, perhaps more importantly, the world was free of Mattie Stokes.

Nathan had been called away to tend to Kate Stokes, although no particulars were given as to what was wrong with the little girl. Or maybe Buck hadn't heard them. He had only half-listened to the conversation. His attention was on JD, who still lay burning with fever. Nathan had uncovered the boy in an attempt to cool him off, and the large bloody bandage on his side seemed to overwhelm his tiny body. Nathan said he still had a fighting chance, but  Buck wasn't stupid. He knew that the longer JD failed to show improvement, the less his chances were.

He folded his large hands over JD's much smaller one, and kissed the pudgy little pink fingers. God, he would do anything to take back that moment when he had set JD down in that clearing and told him to stay there. JD was a good little boy - he had obeyed. Look what it had cost him.

"I'm so sorry, JD," Buck sobbed. "I'm so sorry."

He was dimly aware of soft footsteps behind him, and then of a tiny hand patting his shoulder. "He'll be okay, Mr. Buck," a little voice whispered. He turned to see little Casey Wells looking at him with her big dark eyes. He tried to smile for her sake, but it just wouldn't work. "He'll be okay," Casey said. "You'll see."

She pulled small footstool over to the bed and sat on it, resting her head on the mattress. Buck didn't have the heart to ask her to leave, so he sat there, drawing what strength he could from the faith of a tiny little girl.

Inez and Mary had been called upon to see to Kate Stokes. The little girl didn't realize that Mattie had been shot dead, and she was still traumatized by the fact that her sister had tried to kill her.

After the dust had settled, Chris went to let Buck know what had happened. Nathan's clinic was eerily silent when he walked in. Buck, who hadn't slept in God knew how long, had finally yielded to exhaustion and fallen asleep in his chair. Somehow, Casey Wells had found a way in and now sat with her head on the mattress, sound asleep with one of her hands wrapped around JD's.

As Chris got closer to the bed, he realized that a pair of large hazel eyes were looking up at him. He knelt beside the bed and felt JD's forehead. It was cool to his touch.

He smiled as Casey, who had become aware of his presence, looked up at him and then at JD.

"JD!" she said in an excited whisper. "JD! I was a-scared you was gonna die!"

"Mattie shooted me, Casey," JD said in a raspy voice.

"I know," Casey said. "And then someone shooted her an' she got dead!"

JD became more alert. "Really?"

"Ya-huh. They was gonna hang her like this..." Casey pretended to be choking with a noose around her neck, which caused Buck to wake up with a start.

"Whaa..... huh..." he blinked in confusion as Casey continued.

"...but she got dead, so now we don't get to see no hangin'."

It took Buck a moment to realize that Casey was talking to JD, that he was awake. His face erupted in a grin. "Well, hey there, Little Bit," he whispered, feeling the boy's forehead as Chris had done.

"Hi, Papa," JD yawned, and then his eyes closed again. "I knew ya'd come an' get me," he whispered, before he drifted back into a healing sleep.


JD was recovering from his ordeal better than anyone expected. He had no idea that he had come frighteningly close to the brink of death. He remembered being shot, but his next clear recollection seemed to be that of Vin being appropriately impressed with his wound, telling him it was way better than his dumb old sling.

He was feeling well enough that he was eager to be up and about, and Nathan had a hard time convincing him to stay in bed. He was still very weak, though, and it would be several more days before he was able to play outside again. Still, Nathan felt that fresh air would do him good, so he had agreed that JD could go outside for a short walk if he rode in the big wheelchair Nathan kept at the clinic. Of course, that was fine with JD - every kid in town wanted to ride in the chair.

Buck carefully helped the little boy dress. Nettie had seen to his clothes, carefully scrubbing away the blood and mending the holes left by the bullet. As he slipped on his vest, JD noticed the patch. It was a lighter color than the vest, so it stood out. JD's little hand carefully smoothed the odd-colored fabric. "Everyone will see this patch, an' I can tell 'em I got shot!" he beamed.

Buck grinned - he strongly suspected Nettie had exactly that in mind when she'd selected her darning thread. "That you will, Little Bit. Everyone will know what a brave boy you are."

After buttoning the vest, he carefully lifted JD and carried him down the stairs to where Casey, Vin and the wheelchair were waiting on the boardwalk. He sat him down and Nathan tucked pillows on either side of him for support . Then they wrapped him warmly in a blanket.

"Ready to go?" Buck asked.

JD nodded vigorously.

"Can I push him?" Casey asked. They let her try, but the chair was almost too heavy for her, so Vin took one side and together they rolled JD along as passerby greeted him and fussed over him and JD basked in the attention.

It wasn't until they spotted Kate Stokes that JD's enthusiasm waned. He stared at the little girl suspiciously. "Where's Mattie?" he asked Buck nervously.

Casey had told JD that Mattie was dead, but, the boy had only very dim memories of those early days of his recovery.

"Mattie's gone, JD," Buck assured him. "She can't hurt you no more."

From Kate, they had learned that Mattie's obsession with Del Spivak was not the only one she had pursued in the two years since their parents had died. Mattie seemed determined to hunt down everyone who had ever done her any percieved injustice and make them pay dearly for it. Mrs. Hargrove's "crime" had been to chase Mattie with a broom when she caught her stealing apples. Kate related stories of at least two other people whom Mattie had "made to pay" - although the little girl seemed unaware of exactly what form Mattie's retribution took. She didn't know her sister was a murderer. She was an innocent, and nothing would be served by telling her. They had simply told Kate that Mattie had to go away because of what she had done, and she seemed to accept that. Miss Marnie, the new school teacher, had offered to take the child in, but, Sheriff Jardet said the girl had kin in Santa Fe. Her mother had two sisters living there. He had sent for them to come and fetch her, and they had arrived two days later.

She hardly looked like the same little girl as she waited to board the stage with her aunts. The britches and other boys' clothing had been replaced with a yellow dress, and her long hair was done up in matching ribbons. She seemed to get on well with the two woman, and they had obviously taken a liking to her. As Buck watched, he dared to hope that little Kate might turn out all right after all, despite Mattie's influence.

As they drew closer, Kate ran up to them and Buck's first instinct was to push her away. He'd already trusted one Stokes with disastrous results.

But, she looked at JD and said, "I'm sorry Mattie shot you."

JD didn't say anything. He didn't want to talk to Kate ever again, in case she grew up mean like her sister.

Buck didn't want the little girl's apology to go unacknowledged, so he knelt down beside her. "Don't you worry about that," he told her. "Weren't none of that your fault, understand?"

Kate nodded and Buck tried to change the subject. He fingered her hair ribbons and said, "My, my, don't you look as pretty as a picture, all gussied up like that," he smiled.

Kate smiled, too. "I gots THREE new dresses!" she told him. "An' ribbons to match."

Buck patted her head affectionately. "An' I bet you look like an angel in all of 'em."

JD continued to glare at the girl. "I wanna go back," he said. "I'm tired."

Buck carefully lifted the little boy out of the chair, and held him close. "It's okay, Little Bit. Buck's got ya."

Kate looked on longingly. "I wish one day I have a papa like you," she told Buck.

"Maybe ya will," JD said. "But ya can't ever have Buck. He's mine."

Next: Serpents