The New Law

by MMW

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

The episode The New Law was written by Melissa Rosenberg and directed by Christopher Cain

The two boys sat together in the front part of the Clarion's office. Chris had asked Mary to watch over Vin and JD while he and the others dealt with the gang who was coming their way.

The boys were both sitting quietly, their anxiety evident in their stillness. They knew better than to disobey and, as they had before, would stay with Mary until one of the men came to get them.

Billy had been upstairs in his room, cleaning it, when the boys arrived. Mary called him down, but, since he was almost done, he stayed in his room and finished. Sure that his friends were outside waiting, young Travis went charging down the stairs, wanting to spend time with his friends. Calling out, "I'm going out to play with Vin and JD!", he charged out of the building and froze at the sight before him.

"Billy!" Mary scolded as she grabbed her son and dragged him back inside.

Turning wide eyes up at his mother, the boy could only stare in surprise for several seconds before his natural excitement reasserted itself. "Ma! They're going to have a gunfight!" he exclaimed. "Maybe the bad guys will get all shot up and then..."

"Billy!" his mother snapped, cutting him off. "Go over and sit with Vin and JD," Mary instructed, indicating the couch where the two nervous boys were sitting.

The sound of gunfire and men calling to each other filtered into the room as Billy headed over toward his friends. Seeing the very real fear in their eyes, he felt bad for his earlier comment. Sitting down next to JD, he said, "They'll be alright. Chris is out there."

"Would you boys like an apple?" Mary asked, hoping to distract the children.

"No thank you, Ma'am," Vin said quietly, eyes never straying from the window across the room.

"Yes, please," JD replied.

"Alright, then. You three sit there and I'll get the apple," Mrs. Travis instructed.

While she was still retrieving the fruit, quiet descended on the streets. Unconsciously grasping hands, JD and Vin tensed, waiting for the door to open which it did a moment later.

"They're fine," Nathan said, immediately catching sight of JD and Vin.

The two boys were off the couch and out the door before he could utter another word.

Vin and JD pushed past Nathan in their rush to assure themselves Chris and Buck had emerged unscathed.

As JD dashed past Josiah, he waved and called out a greeting, not really paying attention when the peacekeeper in question bodily hauled an outlaw to his feet and encouraged, "Arise sinner. Get up peacefully now."

Eyes trained on Buck who was talking to Miss Millie, JD stopped for no one and nothing, nearly running over Ezra. Reaching his goal, he stopped and waited patiently, knowing better than to interrupt Papa when he was speaking with a lady.

Buck unconsciously reached out for his boy and drew the small form toward him. Lifting JD, Wilmington settled the brunet on his hip, the whole time maintaining his conversation with Miss Millie.

More sedately, though no less intensely, Vin's eyes locked onto his Pa. Relief flooded him at the sight of the blond dusting himself off. As he approached, Tanner scanned the man from head to toe, satisfying himself that Chris was really unharmed.

Hazel eyes rose from where they had been focused on a small tear in the black jacket to lock onto the boy approaching him. Though in some ways it was an unfamiliar gesture, in the most important ways, it was perfectly natural for Chris Larabee to drop to one knee in the street and open his arms to his son.

Any hesitation Vin felt at approaching his Pa disappeared when the blond dropped to one knee and opened his arms. Stepping into the embrace, he hugged the man fiercely, reveling as his hug was returned with equal ferocity. "Love you, Pa," he said quietly, still a little afraid of the new words and feelings.

"Love you, too, son," Chris whispered back, squeezing once more before releasing the little sharpshooter. Pulling away, Larabee met his son's eyes and informed, "I need to go bring some of this garbage to jail. I'll be right back."

"OK," Vin agreed, stepping away to let his father continue on with his business. Watching as Chris left, the boy's attention was drawn by a man in army uniform walking and yelling at one of the outlaws. He remembered the man from a day before when he was brought to Mr. Nathan for healing. Now the man was pushing one of the injured attackers toward the jail.

"Go on now, move it! Picked the wrong town to mess with. Get over there," the man commanded as he limped behind.

Vin watched as Josiah approached and gently took the prisoner away from the army man.

"Murderin' pack of thieves. Rode into the wrong town, didn't ya? You boys are looking at a stiff neck and a short drop," the man in army uniform taunted.

"Easy there, Sergeant," Josiah cautioned, tilting his head toward Vin who was standing nearby.

Glancing to the side, the sergeant felt his cheeks flush slightly as he spotted the child. Not willing to forget his anger, though, he explained, "He killed my driver and left me to die, stole my artillery wagon." His ire overcoming propriety, he lunged at the man Josiah had taken from him. "Where's my artillery wagon, you?" he demanded.

Vin perked up at the last question. Stepping forward he asked, "Mr. Sergeant, sir, was your wagon loaded?"

Stopping in his tracks, the injured soldier looked down at the boy, confused for a moment as his tirade was interrupted. "Yes," he replied, eyes flicking toward the outlaw.

"Loaded wagon should be easy tracking," Tanner observed, eyes lighting at the thought of being able to help the soldier.

"You volunteering?" the sergeant asked, half amused, half perplexed.

Vin's eyes narrowed. He knew people often got paid for helping the army and the thought of helping to pay for his room and food pleased young Tanner. "You paying, sir?" he asked.

Blinking in astonishment, the sergeant realized the boy was serious in his offer. "Son," he began, "I know you think you can track and I'm sure you might even find my wagon, but the men who took it are mean." He saw no wavering in the determined face before him. "They wouldn't hesitate to hurt or maybe even kill you. I can't have you going after them alone, it's just not right."

"I'll go with him," a voice said, approaching the soldier and boy.

Vin didn't have to turn to know that Chris was there. He just leaned into his father, as Larabee rested his hands on the Vin's shoulders.

Looking from man to boy, the soldier nodded his agreement. Looking into the hazel eyes of the man and doing some quick math to figure out how much he could spare as a reward, he offered, "Five dollars."

Shock was what Vin was feeling at the mentioned amount. Five dollars was a whole lot of money. He would find that wagon! "You'll get your wagon back, then," he assured, sticking his hand out to seal the deal.

Looking down, the corner of the soldier's mouth turned up in a smile. Taking the smaller hand in his own, he shook it and then looked back up at the blond peacekeeper. "I'll get a unit together and haul these dogs away for you," he assured, heading off to find some of his men.

"You sure you want to come?" Vin asked, smiling as he looked up at Chris, unaware of the hope and fear that were in his voice or of how he tightened his grip on the man's hand.

"And let you out of my sight?" Larabee asked back. "I don't think so, there's no telling how much trouble one little sharpshooting Tanner could get into on his own." This response earned him a boyish giggle. In truth, the thought of having Vin out of his sight still caused fear to well within him. After his Jericho experience, there was no way he wanted to let the little blond out of his sight, especially for something this potentially dangerous.

Grinning up at his Pa, Vin squeezed the large hand more tightly and teased, "Well, I'll just go to make sure you don't get lost then."

"I'll show you getting lost," Larabee retorted, reaching down and tickling the boy's sides, enjoying the giggles he got in return.

On the other side of the street, JD had just been rescued from the fawning attentions of Miss Millie as Buck returned from the jail. He liked ladies well enough and was learning all sorts of things about being charming from his Papa, but he could only take so much before he wanted to get away. "Finally," he sighed as Buck said goodbye to the lady in question.

"Now you should never rush a lady," Buck instructed, smiling down at his son and knowing the little brunet had done about all the polite visiting he could stand. Taking JD's hand in his own, he was about to suggest they take a ride just outside of town when he was distracted by a call.

"Coach comin' in!"

Pulling JD a little closer, he waited until the conveyance stopped and then stepped out to see who had arrived. He and JD were soon joined by the other peacekeepers and Vin.

The first person to step off of the stage was a familiar figure.

"Grandpa!" Billy Travis cried, darting out of the newspaper office and practically tackling the older man.

"Billy my boy!" the Judge identified, barely keeping his balance. He bent down and hugged the little boy. Pulling back slightly, he asked, "How are you doing?" Before Billy could answer, Mary stepped closer.

"Judge, we weren't expecting you," she said, happy to see her father-in-law and greeting him with a hug.

"I have a trial in Watsonville," he admitted. "I'll have to leave in a couple of hours," he added sadly.

Then, turning his attention to the small boy beaming nearby, he observed. "Billy boy, you've grown so fast." Seeing past the boy for the first time, he noticed the destruction in the town. "What happened here?" he asked, baffled.

"It's all been taken care of, Judge," Nathan assured his boss.

Nodding his understanding at the man's answer, he pulled Billy to the side and began asked, "Billy, how's school going?"

As Billy began relating tales of school and his teacher, Miss Marnie, another man stepped off the stage, his chin high, his shoulders back. An air of self-confidence surrounded him. The peacekeepers and boys took in the new man's appearance.

The new arrival seemed to be doing the same to the peacekeepers. When his eyes locked on the gun at Buck's hip. "Gentlemen, I have a long-standing policy - no firearms within city limits. I'll have your guns, please," he instructed. Then, catching sight of the slingshot in Vin's pocket, added, "And your weapon as well, young sir."

"Who is this... gentleman?" Ezra asked in disbelief, bristling at the air of authority the man had assumed as well as the demand for his weapon.

"Federal Marshall Walter Bryce," Travis introduced dryly, his face reflecting his distaste. "He's the new law in town."

The man in question scanned the men and boys before him. He then looked pointedly at the gun resting on Buck's hip once more and held out his hand.

"Mister, you better be prepared to fight for these guns, 'cause that's the only way you're going to get them," Wilmington growled at the newcomer, hand settling on the butt of his gun.

Meeting the hard, challenging eyes of the man who had just threatened him, Bryce allowed his own grit to show through. "If it comes to that, so be it," he agreed.

"You don't want it to," Chris informed, stepping forward. The move placed Vin to his side and slightly behind him.

Not wanting tensions to escalate any further than they already had, Nathan stepped in and pointed out, "Without us, you got no backup.".

Seeing what Nathan had, Josiah added, "Except the good Lord... and He's got lousy aim." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Josiah knew they had fallen on deaf ears.

"You must be the defrocked priest," Bryce identified, an air of smugness surrounding him. "I know about you. All of you,' he explained, his eyes drilling into Ezra's. "And I know about your arrangement with the Judge."

"Well then, I guess you know what you can do with your policy," Buck informed, stepping in front of JD, ready to protect the boy should things escalate.

Finally seeing the danger he was and realizing he couldn't face down these five men at once, Bryce decided to back off slightly on his demands. "I know this all seems rather abrupt," he soothed, "but I'm a reasonable man. I'm going to give you twenty-four hours to comply, after which, you leave town, check your guns or go to jail."

Chris had heard enough. Turning on his heel in disgust he headed off toward the livery, aware that Vin was following him. Shortening his strides so the boy could walk next to him, he glanced down and thought that perhaps it was time for he and Vin to be moving on anyway. Reaching out he placed a hand on his son's shoulder and was rewarded with a smile. "We've got us a wagon to find," he said.

"Yep," Vin agreed, grinning.

"Let's go check our tack and make sure it's all set," Larabee encouraged. He was answered by a large smile.

With their destination in sight and a discussion about the best way to track the wagon keeping their attention, neither man nor boy saw the evil grin on the dusty stranger as they walked by.

Back in the group that included the other peacekeepers and the Marshall, Ezra observed dryly, "How very reasonable." He took no pleasure in the fact his barb had hit home as he watched the newcomer bristle.

Choosing to ignore the acerbic remark, Bryce continued, "In the meantime, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." Then with the barest acknowledgment to the men and the remaining boy, he walked away.

Turning his attention to the man standing by Billy, Buck asked, "Care to explain this to us, Judge?"

Judge Travis looked at each man and sighed heavily, knowing it was his job to explain, even though the decision hadn't been his to make. "The railroad has been pressuring folks back in Washington," he began. "They're going to start laying some tracks through this territory, and they want it to be safe."

The Judge's displeasure with the decision was evident in his voice and in the look on his face. It was also obvious he could do nothing about it.

"So, just tell them we're already in good hands," Mary tried, drawing Billy closer. She was afraid of what would happen if the men protecting the town were to leave.

"Yeah," Buck agreed, not wanting to leave this place that had become another home for him, the first since Sarah and Adam died. "The cattle ranchers are on the run," he pointed out. "We got new settlers coming in here all the time."

The Judge sighed and headed toward a nearby chair, sinking into it with a sigh. He watched as little JD wound an arm around Buck's thigh, holding tight. It didn't take much imagination to know that Billy would be losing his two best friends if some other solution couldn't be found. His grandson had lost enough in his young life, he hated for him to lose his friends as well. "Already told them all that," he informed, feeling every one of his years. "But the railroads want to ensure they have a badge out here, someone... official," he concluded.

"Lot of good official will do when all those bullets start flying everywhere," Nathan scoffed.

Releasing a sigh that revealed more of his personal feelings than it should, Travis sat straighter and proceeded to do the job expected of him, setting aside his own fears and seeing the Marshall installed in the town. "Marshall Bryce has been doing things his way for a lot of years," he informed the men, his voice stern and leaving no room for argument. "He's got a rock solid reputation for clearing out a lot of tough towns back in Kansas."

JD's brow furrowed and he looked up at his papa. "This ain't Kansas," he declared. "Is it?"

Buck just smiled ruffled the little brunet's hair. "No, it isn't, Little Britches," he agreed.

The judge watched the exchange and fought off the urge to sigh. With an almost wistful note in his voice, he observed, "Time was when I could have stopped it." His jaw tightened in anger at the next thought. "But now, with the damned railroads pulling all the strings..." his voice trailed off as he took in the destruction on the street once more. "And, I might add, a mess like this isn't going to help you any." Seeing the men had listened to as much as they were willing to listen to, and knowing he was getting close to losing control of his own temper, Orin rose from his seat. "Alright, I've got to catch that stagecoach and I've only got time to visit with my grandson." Taking Billy by the hand, he smiled down at the boy, only to pause once more before entering the Clarion office. "Nothing more I can do," he admitted. "I'm sorry."

Not fully understanding what the words meant, JD piped up with his question, "Mr. Judge Travis, sir?" he called, waiting for the man to turn and look at him before continuing. "You pay Papa and Mr. Chris and Mr. Josiah and Mr. Ezra and Mr. Nathan to protect the town. How do you expect them to do that without guns?" he asked, trying to imagine Mr. Ezra using a slingshot to fight a bad guy.

Looking sadly at the boy, he replied, "I don't." Then, looking at the men, he added, "You're relieved of your duties as of now." Having said what he needed to, he turned and sadly entered the building.

Worried hazel eyes rose to meet dark blue ones. "You're not going to take this, are you?' he asked pleadingly. He didn't want to lose another home. Looking around, he asked, "Where'd Mr. Chris go?"

Having left Billy with his grandfather, Mary stood in the door of the livery, seeing Chris and Vin both checking over their saddles and tack. Stepping forward, she observed, "Seems Marshall Bryce is here to stay."

"Yeah," Chris agreed as he continued checking over his saddle to make sure it was set. He wasn't sure how long he and Vin would need to track down the wagon, but it was getting late. He figured they would just go out and see if they could locate the tracks today, then tomorrow they could begin following it.

"Well, I suppose a town can never have too many peacekeepers," she observed hopefully. All of these men had become an important part of her and Billy's lives. She wasn't ready to lose them.

Turning to face the blonde woman, a wry smile found its way to Chris' mouth. "Why do I get the feeling our new marshal doesn't agree with you?" he asked before glancing over to see how Vin was progressing.

Shifting on her feet, she placated, "Well, Bryce may not want you here, but the people of the town do."

Vin had overheard the comments and snorted in disbelief. He might just be a kid, but he knew what the town thought of Chris and the others.

The two adults looked over at the child who blushed and muttered an apology when he saw Chris' disapproving look. Larabee then turned to face Mary, his disapproving look turning to one of disbelief.

Blushing at the accusation she read in the hazel eyes, Mary amended, "Alright, not everybody, but..."

With a smile, Chris shook his head slightly, cutting off whatever she had been about to say. "I... We've been here long enough as it is," the gunslinger offered, including Vin in the comment.

Giving up the fight for the moment, she asked, "So, what are you going to do now?"

With a look over his shoulder at his son who was fussing over his horse, he replied, "For now, I'm helping Vin track down a missing artillery wagon." Turning back to face Mary, he admitted, "After that we'll have to see." His thoughts turned to six months before when Cletus Fowler had died rather than reveal the name of his employer. It was a trail that was getting cold and something with which he needed to deal.

"Billy will miss you," she said, looking into the gunman's eyes, unwittingly letting him know more than Billy would miss him.

"We'll be back," he assured. "We can say goodbye then." Turning away from the newspaperwoman, he asked, "You all set?"

"Yes, Pa," Vin replied, walking over to where Chris was standing.

Later that afternoon, in the saloon, an anxious JD was urgently checking to make sure that all the important people in his life were still going to be there for him. "So, Mr. Nathan, are you stayin'?" he asked, holding his breath as he stared expectantly at the man.

Nathan smiled down at the small boy, his heart warming at Dunne's concern. "I'm all this town's got in the way of a doctor," he assured the small boy with a smile, ruffling the dark hair. "May be no more guns, but there's plenty of other ways for people to get hurt."

"Good. Good," he replied, letting out a deep sigh of relief. Smiling up at Nathan, he assured, "That's really good." Looking around, he spotted his papa just getting some beer. It struck him that he wasn't sure even they were sticking around. "Papa!" he called. "Are we going to stick around?"

Eyes and mind focused on Millie far more than JD, he replied, "You couldn't drag me out of here with an eight-horse team."

"So we're staying here in town even if you don't get to carry a gun?" the boy clarified.

"Huh?" Buck asked, brows furrowed. Looking from the lovely lady waiting for him to the small boy beside him, he thought about what JD had asked. "Sure, thing, son. At least for a little while," he replied before heading back toward the table where Miss Millie sat. Buck had invested three months of time and energy in courting Miss Millie, he wasn't about to leave so close to achieving his goal.

JD let out a loud sigh of relief. "We're staying," he said.

This was good; they were staying and Mr. Nathan was staying. He took a moment to look around the saloon and see who else he could ask. Mr. Josiah was nowhere to be seen. He spotted Mr. Ezra sitting at a table with Vin, who had returned with Chris about an hour before. It looked like they were playing Go Fish. The young boy watched as his friend picked up his cards and then glared at Mr. Ezra as the man laid down four of his seven cards.

Approaching the table JD heard Vin ask, "Got any threes?"

"Go fish," Mr. Ezra replied, earning another glare from his young opponent.

Stepping up to the table, he greeted a little uncertainly, "Uh, Vin, Mr. Ezra, you sticking around?"

Ezra glanced from his fierce looking opponent, who harbored far too much suspicion for a little boy playing cards, to the brunet who had asked the question. "As for myself, I'm a few well-played poker games away from owning this saloon. And with no guns in town, there should be fewer ways for disgruntled losers to seek reprisal."

Tanner scowled at the card he had just drawn which didn't match any of the others in his hand. Stuffing the offending card in with the others, he grumbled, "There's always tar and feathers."

Ezra flashed a look at the boy, smiling at the disgruntled look on the other's face. "Ha, ha, ha," Ezra laughed sarcastically, causing the young blond to look up and blush, realizing he'd said the comment about tar and feathers aloud. Standish offered a grin, letting the boy know there were no hard feelings.

"Vin, how about you?" JD asked, already confident of the answer, but knowing his friend had been out riding earlier.

"Pa and I are going to hunt down the Sergeant's artillery wagon," Vin supplied, looking at Mr. Ezra and waiting to see what card the man would ask for.

"Artillery wagon?" JD said, excited by the thought of adventure. Glancing over at his papa, he realized that the man would be with Miss Millie for a while. "Well, maybe I'll go with you," he declared.

Ezra saw the flash of disappointment cross Vin's face. He knew that, although several months had passed since the incident at Jericho, Vin still needed to be near his father without any outside interruptions. "I don't believe he invited you, son," Ezra coached gently.

Before JD had a chance to feel hurt by the dismissal of his offer, the entire saloon was distracted by the sound of a hammer pounding a nail. The boy watched as Marshall Bryce finished hanging a piece of paper and then wandered over to see what it said.

"Well, JD, what oracle of wisdom has our new marshal revealed?" Ezra asked, knowing the boy enjoyed reading. It was something that reminded him of his ma.

His small brow creased with concentration as JD attempted to make out all the words. "By order of the mar-shal, a cu-cur-few curfew shall be en-for-ced at 11 p. m. after which time there shall be no lo-it-er-ing, no im-bib-ing of al-co-hol, no gamb-ling. Ef-fec-tive im-mediately." He turned and smiled at Mr. Ezra, proud of his accomplishment. His smile faded as he saw the stunned look on Mr. Ezra's face and watched as the glass the man had been holding fell to the floor and shattered.

JD scuffed his feet as he walked down the street. After Mr. Ezra broke the glass, Buck had quickly ushered Vin and JD out of the saloon. Vin had gone off to see if he could find Mr. Chris, leaving JD to entertain himself. He saw a large group of people standing around another one of those papers that upset Mr. Ezra so much. Moving closer, he listened to the people.

"No spitting, no open fires, no open liquor bottles," one of the men read. "It's about time," the man decided nodding his head.

"No five men to watch over us," Mrs. Potter countered, thinking of the men who had stood up for her husband when the rest of the town turned their backs.

"And I say good riddance," the first man declared, bitterness in his voice. "We're moving into a modern age. What do we need with a bunch of gunslingers?"

JD's attention was drawn away from the angry words by a motion across the street. A large sigh escaped him as he spotted Casey. "As if this day couldn't get worse," he muttered, knowing the girl had spotted him.

Looking both ways on the street, JD barely noted the unpleasant looking man who was grinning as he listened on the other side of the crowd. Right now, he needed to cross the street and get to Casey before she made a big deal about seeing him. Reaching the other side of the street, he greeted, "Hi, Casey."

"Hey, JD," the girl greeted back, grinning as she stopped next to her friend. "I heard about the show this morning."

"Yeah," JD said, suddenly thinking that it might be the last time his family and friends were together.

Seeing how sad her friend had become, Casey asked, "So it's true? You seven are breaking up?"

"We are not breaking up," JD denied, anger flashing as he heard his fears expressed aloud. He finally had a papa, a brother and a Mr. Chris. The thought of not having Mr. Ezra, Mr. Josiah and Mr. Nathan around just didn't sit well with him. "We're just..." his voice trailed off slightly as he tried to think of the right words. "We're just... just doing something different for a while," he finished, not completely satisfied with his answer.

"What are you going to do?" the girl asked, wanting her friend to stay around, but knowing it depended on his father.

"Me?" JD asked, puzzled. "I'm staying with Papa," he said.

Casey sighed, thinking that sometimes JD was a little dense. "I know that," she replied. "I meant what is Mr. Buck doing?"

JD's brow furrowed. He knew that right now his father was with Miss Millie, but wasn't sure how long that would last. Thinking on the words he'd overheard the crowd saying earlier, he shrugged and said, "Don't know. I guess he could always find work as a hired gun." The thought of guns and peacekeepers brought to mind another group of men he looked up to as heroes. His eyes shining at the thought, he said, "Maybe Papa will head off to Texas and join the Rangers."

Casey felt tears threaten. "So, you want to leave?" she asked, fighting her feelings of loss.

JD looked at his friend and saw the tears. Not liking tears any more than his papa did, he said, "I didn't say that."

Brightening instantly at the thought of her playmate remaining in town, Casey observed, "So you want to stay."

JD felt uncomfortable at the rapid change of emotions. "I didn't say that either," he advised cautiously.

"'Cause if you do, there's plenty of work Mr. Buck can do around here," she said anxiously, knowing that jobs were important to adults.

"There is?" JD asked, his curiosity piqued. He might not admit it aloud, but he liked being here and even liked having Casey around as a playmate. "Like what?" If it was good enough, he could always tell Mr. Buck about it.

"He could always get a job," Casey said hopefully.

"Papa? A job?" JD asked, trying to think of his father working in a store sweeping like Vin did. He just couldn't imagine it. "No," he decided, that just wouldn't work.

Seeing the denial as a denial of their friendship, Casey pushed JD and said, "No one cares if you go or stay anyway!" She then ran away, not wanting to think about losing someone else from her life.

"This day just keeps getting worse," the boy said shaking his head. That opinion changed quickly, however, as he spotted Buck heading toward him without Miss Millie. A smile split his face as he ran toward his papa.

Chris had asked Vin to go to Mr. Nathan and see if he could have some bandages "just in case". Always willing to run errands for his father, Tanner was quickly on his way. He spotted Mr. Nathan climbing the steps to the clinic and followed. A frown marred the boy's features as he spotted that mean Marshal Bryce with Mr. Nathan's sign. Stopping at the top of the steps, he overheard their conversation.

"Can I help you?" Nathan asked politely.

"I hear you're the doctor in town," the marshal said.

"No, I just heal folks best I can, but I ain't no doctor," Nathan explained, wondering how many times he had offered this same explanation.

"That's exactly what I wish to discuss," Bryce said, an unpleasant look appearing in his eyes. "I've been doing this job a long time, and I've seen a lot of snake oil sold off the backs of wagons."

The boy saw Mr. Nathan straightened in indignation. Vin felt his own anger flare at what the man was suggesting about Vin's friend.

"Snake oil?" Nathan snapped, any pleasantness gone. "You call sewing up gunshot wounds and setting broken bones snake oil?"

Bryce had faced more deadly men than Nathan Jackson, though not many, and had walked away unscathed. He knew now would not be the time to give in to the quiver of fear he felt in his stomach. Setting his jaw, he replied, "No. I call it practicing medicine without a license." Lifting the sign he had taken down, he continued, "And from this point on, you're out of business." Thrusting the sign into Nathan's hands, he walked past Nathan and didn't even glance at Vin before heading down the steps.

Walking cautiously up to the man who had only shown him kindness, Vin asked, "Mr. Nathan?"

Hearing the question in the familiar voice, Nathan shook off his anger and looked down into the concerned blue eyes. "What is it, Vin?" he asked.

He knew he had to get the bandages, but he had another question to ask first. "What are you going to do now?"

Nathan sighed and looked out over the town he had called home, a town he had only helped, a town in which he was no longer welcome. "I don't know, Vin," he admitted. Then turning back and seeing the worry in the blue eyes, he smiled and said, "I may go stay with the Indians for a while, see what I can learn from them. Now, what can I do for you?"

The next morning, Buck stood with JD on his hip as they watched the four men and one boy mount their horses. It was just past breakfast. A lot had happened in the past day and it was taking its toll not only on him, but his son as well.

"So you decided to go?" JD asked Mr. Josiah as he saw the man lead his horse to where the others were gathered. The slight wavering of his voice and tremble of his lip was the only sign of his distress.

"Fate decided. I'm just following," he replied, cupping the boy's cheek in his hand. He would miss young JD. Stepping back, he looked at his horse. "We were just passing through, anyway," he finished, hoping to get a smile from the boy. Unfortunately, it didn't work.

"The town's going to be a preacher's dream," Buck said, hating how much Josiah's leaving was hurting his son. "No drinkin', no gamblin'..."

Josiah smiled at the father and son, a part of him wanting to stay, but he knew he wouldn't fit in here anymore. "Not much to do for an old reformer like me," he advised. "Besides, if God's everywhere, best to start lookin' sooner more than later."

Walking up to the group, Nathan laughed and explained, "That means he's going to find a burning bush to talk to."

JD's face crinkled in puzzlement. "I thought you said you were staying," he stated, his voice somewhere between a question and an accusation.

Nathan shook his head, sorrow in his eyes. "Not where I ain't needed," he said softly, looking back toward the room that had been his for so long. "I figure folks up at that reservation might appreciate my help more," he added, letting the boy and Buck know where he would be.

Walking up with his horse, Chris paused by the group before asking his son, "You got a fix on that artillery wagon?" The two of them had gone out the previous afternoon looking for tracks. Vin hadn't said anything at the time and Chris hadn't pushed, knowing they could always find them today.

"Found some tracks headed east," he admitted, leaning forward and resting his arms on the saddlehorn. It would be nice to be out there with his pa all to himself. He just wished the others weren't leaving.

Ezra rode up just then to say his own brief goodbye. "I suggest we leave before the cold shroud of Puritanism smothers us all," he suggested.

With one final look at the others, Ezra, Josiah and Nathan headed out. Chris met Buck's eyes. "We'll be back," he assured as he and Vin headed east.

"We'll be waiting," Buck responded as he watched them go.

As the others finally left the confines of the town, Buck spotted Marshal Bryce headed his way. With a sigh, he put JD on the ground and removed his gunbelt. He felt almost naked without it, but if he was staying here until Vin and Chris returned, he figured he might as well abide by the rules sooner rather than later.

"Marshal," he greeted, holding out his guns.

"Thank you, Mr. Wilmington," the man said, taking the proffered guns. "These will be safe in the jail."

Watching the man leave, Buck reached down and patted his hip, not liking the feeling of being unarmed. A quick glance down showed JD staring up at him. With a smile he picked up his son and headed down the boardwalk.

They had just gotten to the newspaper office when JD wiggled to get down. "Hey, Billy!" he called as his feet hit the boardwalk. "Mrs. Travis."

"Miz Travis," Buck greeted with a grin and a tip of his hat.

"I've been looking for you," Mary said with a smile at the sight of the ladies' man.

Puzzled, Buck asked, "There something I can help you with?"

"Actually, yes," Mary said, not quite at ease. "Mr. Wilmington, Buck, would you be interested in working for me?"

"A... a job?" Buck asked incredulously. "What? Here at the paper?" he queried, thinking that there were many people far more qualified to work with letters and words not to mention all the fine typeset and little parts that were involved with printing a paper. "Why me?" he asked, wondering at the sudden offer.

"'Cause she asked ma to ask you," Billy informed, pointing toward the small girl peering around the corner of the building.

"And what did she say, Billy?" JD asked, his eyes not leaving the place he'd last seen Casey.

Flustered, Mary admitted, "Well, she, um, she might have said a little something." She could feel her cheeks color as she explained herself as much to the boy as to the man. "You know, but I do need the help. My printing press has got a mind of its own. Will you just think about it?"

Buck smiled at the sight of Casey trying to duck back around the corner. He realized it wasn't just his own small family that was affected by the changes, nor was it only JD and Vin who had lost too much too soon. "Uh, think about what?" the ladies' man asked, his attention returning to the matter at hand.

"The job," Mary prompted.

Buck watched as JD crept forward to the corner of the building and peered around it. "Yeah," Wilmington agreed absently. "Yeah, I'll give it some thought." Stepping away from the lady as JD disappeared around the corner of the building, he added, "Thanks for the offer, Mary."

Mary watched Buck follow JD around the corner of the building. Looking down at her son, she informed, "That was supposed to be a secret."

Chris glanced over at Vin. They were taking a break to rest their horses. Though he knew this wasn't the type of life he wanted for his son, he couldn't deny how good it felt to be on the trail with him. Chris was also very impressed with Vin's tracking ability. He had seen the boy track before, but never to this extent.

Vin looked out at the horizon and then down at the tracks. "We should catch him by nightfall," he advised.

A blond eyebrow raised at the statement. "Oh?" he asked "And how did you determine that?"

Vin shrugged. "Just a feeling," he answered.

"And how do you know there's only one man?" Chris asked.

Vin looked up at the hazel eyes, wondering if his pa was just testing him. "The horseshoe prints," he admitted, walking back over to the small stream where they had watered their horses and filled their canteens. Pointing to the ground, he said, "See here in the mud? There are the prints our horses made." He waited for Chris to come over and look. Moving downstream a little, he pointed again and said, "See here? There are three more sets of horse prints and only one set of boot prints. The sergeant said there were two horses pulling his wagon. The third one would belong to the man who stole it."

Chris nodded. He had noticed that before, but hadn't stopped to think on the meaning of what he'd seen. Smiling proudly, he rested his hand on his son's back and encouraged, "Good work."

Vin beamed at his pa.

"I can't thank you enough, Buck," Mary said as she picked up her pad and pencil.

"No problem, Miz Travis," he assured with a smile, hopefully hiding the doubts he had about his ability to set all the small type.

"I shouldn't be too long in the interview with Marshal Bryce," she assured, heading for the door, pausing only to check and make sure Billy and JD were playing quietly.

"Don't worry, ma'am," Buck soothed. "I'm on the job."

Mary smiled and left.

Buck turned back to the task laid out before him and muttered, "God help me."

"So what do you think?" Chris asked the boy by his side. They had caught up with the artillery wagon not long after their water break.

Vin watched the scene before them thoughtfully. After a few moments, a mischievous smile appeared on Tanner's face, causing his eyes to sparkle. "Wanna play a joke on him?" he asked his father, remembering the joke they had played on Mr. Buck so long ago.

Larabee smiled widely at the suggestion. With only one man, and that one sleeping, he thought they might just be able to pull something off. "What have you got in mind?" he inquired.

Vin scooted closer and began outlining his plan.

JD and Billy just stood in awe as they stared at Buck. Both boys were amazed by the series of misadventures that had led to Buck taking off his smock and quitting. It had started as soon as Mary left to interview the marshal when Buck had reached for one size letter and knocked over an entire tray of smaller ones. Then, as he finished picking those up, Wilmington had hit the shelf holding the printers ink and the mostly empty bottle fell down, covering the ladies' man in the dark liquid. A quick trip to Buck's room and a quick wipe down got the worst of the ink off, but when they returned, they discovered the ink had soaked through the first ten pages of newsprint. When he finished removing the damaged sheets, he had turned a little quickly and walked right into a lever on the side of the press. When he had caught his breath, he reached up to gain a handhold in order to help lift himself to his feet. Unfortunately, his hand landed in such a way that it started parts of the press moving and three of his fingers had gotten pinched in the metal. As he freed his fingers, which were, thankfully, otherwise unharmed, Mary had returned. It was then that Buck stripped off his apron and quick.

"Buck, it's a great job," Mary pleaded, trying to hold back her amusement at the way things had turned out. "Just give it some time."

Buck sighed and looked down the street.

Feeling the need to defend his father's actions, JD piped up, "Ma'am, Papa says he's a gunslinger, not an inkslinger."

The two adults turned and looked at the boy, amused by his declaration. Neither adult could deny the truth of the statement, however.

Before Buck could apologize again, Millie came running up. "Buck!" she cried, reaching out and clutching the man's shirt. "You need to come. Daddy needs help. Something took down one of our cattle last night."

Unable to deny a woman in distress, Buck straightened and then turned to Mary. "Ma'am can you watch JD?"

"Of course," Mary assured, seeing the urgency in the young woman's eyes. "We'll be here when you get back."

"Thank you, ma'am," Wilmington said, tipping his hat. Crouching down to be eye level with his son, he advised, "You be good for Miz Travis while I'm gone."

"Alright," JD agreed readily, watching as he father and Miss Millie walked off toward the jail to retrieve Buck's guns.

Vin looked down upon his target, thinking this is how an eagle or hawk must feel. Taking careful aim, he dropped a bullet onto the sleeping man's hat brim. A wide smile split his face as the man twitched. He glanced to the side and saw Chris ready to make sure the man didn't get away.

His smile growing wider, he dropped another of the bullets and watched his prey twitch again. This time he was unable to stop the giggle that welled up. He heard the man snort as he woke up. A moment later, his prey looked up and Vin greeted, "Howdy!" When the man reached for his gun, the boy dropped the rest of the shells. "Looking for these?" The wagon thief began looking around. "The sergeant needs his wagon back," he informed seriously, fighting a smile at the very confused look on the man's face. "Now why don't you make it easy on both of us," he started as the man caught sight of Chris and started running in the other direction. "Hell," Vin cursed as he saw a black blur dash past him, "so much for easy." Jumping off the top of the wagon, he took off after his pa and the thief.

JD watched as the large group of men rode into town. He jumped as a hand came to rest on his shoulder. Looking up, he could see the concern in Miss Travis's eyes.

The blonde smiled at the little boy before turning and heading to the jail. As she stepped into the building, she announced, "Marshal, there's trouble. About 20 gunmen coming into town."

The man nodded and picked up his shotgun, making sure it was loaded before heading toward the door.

Mary stared at him, incredulous. "One shotgun won't stop them," she insisted.

"I don't have any choice," thelawman informed, the thought flitting through his mind that he should have let the peacekeepers stay.

"Let me help," JD piped up, pulling his ever-present slingshot from his back pocket.

The man smiled down at the small boy. "No," he said as kindly as he could. "Allowing a little boy to go out and face twenty gunmen goes against my principles." That said, he pushed out the door and walked to the middle of the street to greet the new arrivals.

Mary and JD exchanged a look before peeking out the door.

"I have a long-standing policy - no firearms within city limits," he stated clearly to the gang. "I'll have your guns, gentlemen, if you please."

"He's going to get himself killed," Mary muttered under her breath.

JD just shook his head. He'd learned enough from his pa, Mr. Chris and the others to know what the Marshal was doing wasn't too smart. "That stupid fool," JD said.

A brief smile tugged at Mary's lips. She knew JD shouldn't say such things, but he sounded so much like Buck just then, she couldn't help but be amused.

"You have 24 hours to comply," Bryce finished.

The man who was in charge of the gang looked at him and replied, "Well, how about if we just give you the bullets."

Pulling JD quickly into the shelter of the building. She felt the boy flinch at the sound of gunshots and prayed her Billy would stay inside.

"All right, people," the leader shouted loud enough for the whole town to hear. "We're going to burn this town to the ground. Now get out of it! Every man, woman and child!"

Cries of panic could be heard on the streets as people began racing toward their homes. "You have twenty-four hours to comply," he added, laughing at the sight of the bleeding lawman.

Instructing some of his men to bring the injured man into the jail and lock him up, he barely glanced at Mary and JD as he followed his men. "Don't worry, Marshal," the leader said. "We'll keep you here nice and safe until we're done."

"Here you go, boss," one of the men said, handing the leader the keys after locking Bryce in.

The men stepped out onto the boardwalk and the man in charge confided in the others, "It all gets torched at sunrise."

The cold laughter sent a chill down Mary's spine. Feeling the small frame in front of her tremble, she looked down in to the frightened hazel eyes and fought to suppress her own anxiety. "We'll be alright, JD," she assured.

"I want my Papa," the boy said quietly.

"I know," Mary said.

"Mary," a soft, pain-filled voice called.

Turning toward the sound, Mary walked over to the cells and looked into the one holding the Marshal. She wished there was something she could do to help him, but without the keys, knew it was hopeless.

"Leave," the man commanded. "You should leave."

"I'm not just going to leave you here," she insisted.

"Mary," Bryce continued. "Think about your boy. You need to keep him safe."

An idea struck Mary just then. She knew what she needed to do, what she could do. Turning, she walked away from the cells and looked at JD. "Chris went east after the artillery wagon, didn't he?" she asked of the boy.

JD nodded his head, not sure why she was asking. "And Papa went with Miss Millie," he replied.

Mary smiled at the boy and nodded. That would be easier. Find Buck and then let Buck find Chris. He would probably have a better idea how to do that. "Ok," she said to the boy, taking his hand. "Let's go back to the Clarion and get ready. We have a few things to do and you and Billy need to get out of town."

"You did good, son," Chris said as he settled on the ground with a plate of food.

Vin beamed at the praise. A sound drew his attention toward the wagon thief. Blue eyes narrowing and projecting as much threat as he could, Tanner asked, "Should we set watch over him tonight?"

Larabee tried to suppress a smile at Vin's attitude and question. Had Vin been full-grown and asked that question in that way, it might have been intimidating. As it was, the threat and question just made him look adorable. "I don't think he'll give us any trouble," Chris assured, glaring at the bound man who quickly shook his head.

Pleased with the response, father and son settled in to finish their meal. They would give their prisoner something when they were done. It had been a good day. They had quickly located the wagon, were able to turn it around and begin their way back to town. Tomorrow, hopefully, they'd make it all the way back. Then they could meet up with Buck and JD and try to figure out where to go next.

JD stood at the edge of camp, looking back toward the town. He didn't like being separated from his papa, but Mrs. Travis hadn't given him any choice.

"Come back to the fire, JD," Mrs. Potter encouraged, stepping up next to the boy. "Your father's going to be fine."

The small brunet nodded and then looked up at the kind woman. "But if they burn the town, where is home?"

Struggling with that question herself, Gloria offered the only answer she could, "With your father."

Chris let out a sigh as the last tendrils of sleep fled from him. Opening his eyes, he could see that the sun hadn't even crested the horizon yet. This was the one part of being on the trail with Vin he'd forgotten about and the only part he didn't like.

True, Larabee was an early riser. He always had been. But when they were on the trail, Vin never failed to be up and ready to go before dawn Conversely, the boy was always ready to fall asleep as soon as the sun set, so there was, at least, some balance to the day.

"You're up," the boy said, his voice reflecting surprised pleasure.

Chris heard the shuffling footsteps and glanced over to see Vin headed toward him, a mug in hand.

"I made you some coffee," Vin announced, focusing on not spilling any of the liquid.

Larabee quickly pushed himself up and winced. The last and only other time Vin had made him coffee, he had nearly choked on the strong brew. The two of them had discussed coffee and the proper way to make it, but Chris had failed to forbid his son from making it in the future. "Thanks," he said, taking the cup and bracing himself for the flavor. No matter how awful the drink was, he would not let on to Vin that it was anything but wonderful.

Vin watched closely as his pa blew on the hot liquid. He could see Chris bracing himself to take a sip and fought to hide his excitement and smile. Though his father didn't know it, Vin had been practicing making coffee with Mr. Buck and Mr. Ezra. They both said he made a good cup.

Taking a tentative sip, Chris felt pleasure wash through him at the flavor. He relaxed as the caffeine worked its way into his bloodstream. "Good coffee," he said, successfully hiding most of his surprise.

"Been practicing on Mr. Buck and Mr. Ezra," Vin admitted before settling next to the gunslinger.

"Brave men," Larabee teased.

Vin looked up at his father and tried to glare, but the smile on his face ruined the effect.

"Since you made the coffee, I'll get us some breakfast," Chris suggested.

"OK," Vin readily agreed.

JD woke up with a start. He didn't know where he was, but he felt someone sleeping next to him. Looking to his side, he was surprised to see, not Vin, but Billy Travis. Then the events of the previous day came back.

With great care, he slipped out of the bedroll he was sharing, got dressed and moved to the edge of the campsite. He wanted his papa.

Chris and Vin stopped their preparations at the sight of two riders coming in. As the horses came closer, it was easy to identify Buck and Mary. The two blonds exchanged a look, knowing that this didn't bode well.

"Buck. Mary," Chris greeted as the two came to a stop.

"Been looking for you," Buck informed. "There's been trouble in town."

"How bad?" Vin asked, concerned about JD and his other friends.

The two men looked at the boy before Chris turned his attention back to his friend and repeated the question, "How bad?"

"You an me alone ain't going to be enough," Buck informed.

"The Marshal?" Larabee asked.

"Twenty men rode into town and shot him," Mary informed. "They locked him up in the prison and gave everyone twenty-four hours to leave town."

"JD?" Vin gasped, worried about the boy.

"With Mrs. Potter and Billy on the road out of town," Buck supplied. Glancing around, he frowned as he noted where they were. "This road," he clarified, wishing he had time to locate the travelers and see his boy.

Dismounting, Mary offered, "I'll stay with the wagon and Vin."

"You sure?" Chris asked.

"I'm going," Vin said, not willing to stay behind when so much was at stake.

"No, you're not," Chris said.

Tanner crossed his arms across his chest, his jaw set and all his stubborn coming out. "I can ride fast as you," he informed.

"Vin," Chris said, his tone warning.

"You're just going to collect the others and meet up back here," he said, his mind having already worked out that much of the plan.

"That's right," Chris agreed. "And that's why this is the best place for you to be. Right here where we'll meet you."

"But I can ride, too," Vin insisted.

Chris was about to deny Vin again, when he saw the worry and need for action written in the large blue eyes. Too many times he and Buck had been forced to leave the boys behind while they took care of things. There really was no danger in gathering the others. Or, at last, there shouldn't be. Letting out a breath of air, Chris finally nodded. "Alright," he agreed.

Vin nodded and headed back to get his horse.

"You sure you'll be alright?" he asked Mary.

"I'll be fine," she said, glaring at the prisoner and caressing the butt of her gun. She saw the man flinch.

"Let's go," Vin insisted as he walked up holding the reins to both his and Chris' horses.

As Vin, Buck and Chris rode toward the small encampment, they spotted Nathan almost immediately. He was kneeling on the ground, leaning over a man. The man had two others holding his shoulders down.

Coming closer, they spotted a metal object being held firmly by the healer and heard Jackson call out," 1... 2... 3!"

The patient cried out inarticulately, but seemed to settle back on the ground.

Nathan laughed softly as he eyed the tooth he had just extracted. He shook his head as his patient mumbled something.

Stopping his pony, Vin leaned forward in the saddle and smiled at his friend. "Mr. Nathan," he greeted, his voice filled with joy.

Jackson's smile faded as he looked from the boy to the far more serious men behind him. "I don't suppose you came to get your tooth pulled?" he asked, knowing the answer.

Chris' own expression became grim as he shook his head. "Town's in trouble," he informed.

"This the same town that's got Marshal Bryce?" the healer asked, his dislike of the man evident in his tone of voice and expression.

Vin understood why Mr. Nathan didn't like Marshal Bryce. In truth, Tanner didn't much care for the man either, but he knew this was important. "And a whole lot of other people who need our..." The boy turned his head, having heard Chris clear his throat as a warning. Releasing a heavy sigh, he corrected, "your help."

Nathan smiled at the boy, knowing exactly how he felt at not being able to be included or to do anything to aid. "It's always good to be needed," he observed.

Vin nodded, though he didn't smile. He knew that they would need him, but the adults just wouldn't see it that way no matter how much he argued. Perking up as he remembered that Josiah had left to go with Nathan, he asked, "Where's Mr. Josiah?"

Nathan turned and scanned the small rise. "Uh," he began, unable to locate his friend. "Somewhere up yonder," he finished, waving in the general direction.

The trio nodded at their friend. Leaving him to gather his things and meet them, Buck, Chris and Vin rode up the rise, keeping an eye out for Josiah.

"There he is," Chris finally said, as they changed direction to head for the seated man. As they were approaching a dog ran up and settled next to the former preacher. Seeing Josiah talking and looking toward the sky, Larabee could only wonder what the other man had been doing. Coming to a stop nearby, he got down to business. "Josiah, we need your help," he stated, already knowing Sanchez would agree to go with them.

Nathan, who had joined the group, looking in puzzlement at the canine resting on Josiah's blanket. A smile pulled at his lips as he observed, "I thought you came up here to talk to God, not a dog."

Vin giggled, a sound which lightened Josiah's mood and brought a smile to his face. "Ha, ha, ha," he replied sarcastically and then sighed.

Seeing that Josiah was gathering his things, Vin's mind turned to the final missing member of their group. "Any idea where Mr. Ezra slithered off to?" he asked with a mischievous smile.

Chris turned and gave his son a look. He had once or twice referred to Ezra as being as slippery as a snake and obviously Vin had been listening. Still his disapproval faded as he saw the mischief in the boy's eyes and saw the smirks on his friends' faces.

"Probably the nearest gamblin' hall," Nathan provided, ready to ride out.

"Let's go get him," Chris encouraged as he turned and shook his head at his son.

"Come on, boy," Nathan coaxed his mount as he and Buck headed off to follow Chris, who was currently chasing Vin.

Josiah watched the quartet ride off and then looked down at his four-legged visitor. "God. Dog. The Lord loves a riddle."

As the four men and one boy approached the small settlement, they spotted a rider coming at them quickly and heard someone shout, "Come on! Giddyup!"

The person riding away was Ezra who paused in his flight as he other five horses blocked his passage.

"Ezra," Chris greeted, taking in the sight of his friend, the tar and stray feather on his face and the group of angry men behind him. "Where you headed?" he asked.

"Why to look for you, of course," he offered as he pulled the feather from his cheek.

"Is that tar on your face?" Nathan asked, amusement in his voice.

"Look," Ezra said, embarrassed and wanting to get away from his latest marks, "we really need to leave this municipality now."

Eyes widening as he heard some of the names the men were calling Mr. Ezra, Vin asked, "Make some new friends back there Mr. Ezra?"

Seeing the wide eyes of the boy and the disapproving look on Larabee's face as the insults being hurled became audible to all, he simply said, "Uh, I neglected to abide by a fundamental tenet in my line of work. Never gamble with an entire clan." Then, moving his horse forward, he encouraged, "Hyah!"

JD was not a happy boy. He did as he was supposed to and stayed with Mrs. Potter and Billy, but he also felt like he was getting further and further away from his papa. That did not make him happy.

On one of his frequent trips up and down the line of slow-moving wagons, he spotted something just off the road. It looked like another wagon parked near a tree.

His brow furrowed as he tried to figure out what was wrong with the image before him. It was the sound of Billy's voice that caused the pieces to fall into place. Mrs. Travis was by the wagon. That meant that his papa should be somewhere nearby.

"Mrs. Potter!" the boy shouted. Scrambling toward the woman who had been taking care of him, JD called up again, "Mrs. Potter! Mrs. Travis is over there by that tree. That means Papa is near too! We should go wait for him."

Gloria smiled down at the brunet before glancing in the direction of JD's excited pointing. "Oh," she gasped in surprise, recognizing the familiar form of the newspaper editor. Calling out to the others, the entire group was soon stopped as Mary ran forward to look for her son.

"Mrs. Travis?" JD began, when the woman was done hugging Billy. Waiting until he had her attention - Papa always said you had to wait for a lady - JD asked, "Where's my papa?"

"Oh, JD, honey," Mary said, bending down and caressing his cheek. "He went with Chris and Vin to get the others, but they should be back soon."

"Oh. OK," JD replied, disappointed that he had to wait, but relieved at knowing he would soon be seeing his papa again.

Moving off toward the artillery wagon, he climbed into the bed and then sat atop the crates there and stared out at the land around him, waiting.

The joyous reunion between Buck and JD had finally settled down and the townsfolk had all stopped their flight, waiting to find out how the peacekeepers planned to get their town back.

Chris scanned the mass of people. The problem wasn't that they didn't have enough people, and with the guns that were in the artillery wagon, they should have more than enough weapons. The problem was, they didn't know exactly what they were up against. A lot could have changed overnight.

Coming to a decision, Larabee said, "Alright, Nathan, you, Josiah and the boys stay here. Get those guns unloaded. Ezra, Buck! Let's go! Come on."

"But, Pa!" Vin cried as his father turned to walk away from him.

Pausing mid-stride, Chris turned and looked down at his boy. He had thought that by giving Vin the task of helping to unload the guns, the boy would realize he was helping. "Vin," he said, resting a hand on the lad's shoulder, "I need you here unpacking the crates with the others."

"But, Pa," the little sharpshooter said, squaring his shoulders and hoping hid father wouldn't take his comments as disobedience, "I have my spyglass in my saddlebag." Vin locked eyes with his father and waited. He really wanted to be the one to use it and spy on the town, but knew being allowed to ride to get the others was about the most dangerous thing his pa would allow. Still, maybe if his father used it, Chris would be safe.

Looking into the eyes of his son, Larabee failed to find any fight or stubbornness. Vin wasn't arguing to go, just offering a tool. "I'd sure appreciate you letting us borrow it," he said, smiling at the boy.

Vin smiled back. "I'll go get it," he informed, moving off toward his saddlebags.

Chris looked at the two men. "Ezra, I'll want you to use the glass to see what you can. Buck, you and I will see what we can find out on the streets." Turning, he saw that Vin had returned with the spyglass. Unfortunately, the boy also looked very worried. It didn't take more than a heartbeat for Chris to feel the same fear that was in Vin bloom in his own heart. Still, he had to make sure Vin understood that there were things that men had to do.

With a hand on his son's shoulder, Larabee nodded to the other men and took a few steps away. Kneeling down so he was more on-level with Vin, he stared into the blue eyes.

"I thought you would use the spyglass so you wouldn't have to go there," Vin said quietly.

A small smile appeared on Chris' face. "I wish I could, son," he admitted, but someone's got to be sneaky and go into town to see what everyone's saying.

"Mr. Ezra's really sneaky," Vin offered hopefully. "You said he's slippery like a snake and that would be sneaky."

Chris decided he definitely needed to be more cautious about what he said around the boy. "Vin," he said, hoping to find the words to explain. "Sometimes, in order to come up with the right plan, I need to see things for myself. I promise Buck and I will be fine. We're not even going to let those men see us."

"Promise?" Tanner demanded.

"You have my word, son," Larabee assured.

The boy's lips pinched tight as fear fought to escape, but instead of giving in to it, he simply nodded and held out the spyglass.

Pulling his boy into a quick hug, Chris accepted the spyglass and then rose to his feet. They needed to get going and soon. Time was of the essence.

JD stood in the midst of the open crates with a frown on his face and his hands on his hips. "Papa's not going to be happy about this," he stated to no one in particular.

Vin just shook his head and continued looking for stones to use with his slingshot. No one was particularly happy about this, but they didn't have much choice. Maybe his pa and Mr. Buck could come up with a plan when they came back.

A low sound caught the boy's attention and he turned to look. There were three horses approaching. "They're back," he announced.

Within a few minutes, the three men arrived in the makeshift camp. Ezra presented the spyglass to Vin and thanked him for its use. Vin simply nodded and went to return it to his saddlebags.

Walking back to the others, he overheard Mr. Nathan say, "All the boxes are the same. No guns, just a bunch of uniforms and this old canon."

"Any canonballs?" Chris asked, wondering what they were going to be able to do with these things against so many men.

"This is it," Josiah said, holding up a single shot. "Just the one."

Still upset, JD let out a large huff of air, raised his hands in the air and let them drop to his side with a thwack. "What are we going to do now, Mr. Chris?" he inquired, the image of childhood indignation. "What are we supposed to do with a bunch of uniforms?" JD demanded, crossing his arms over his chest and tapping his foot on the ground.

Chris fought not to smile at the serious little boy. Looking out at the horizon for inspiration, a movement closer at hand caught his attention, Josiah and Nathan were picking up some of the uniforms.

"Use them for bandages," Nathan offered in response to JD's question.

Josiah just looked heavenward, thinking of the answer he'd received earlier in the day. "It's that sense of humor again, huh?" he asked no one in particular. Placing the cap he had been holding onto his head and adjusting it, he looked up to find Chris and Vin both staring at him. The father and son exchanged a look that made Josiah nervous. "What?" he asked.

Larabee bent down and lifted up a coat. Tossing it to Ezra he commanded, "Put it on. Get these townsfolk in them, too."

Meeting his old friend's eyes, a smile broke out on Buck's face as he realized what Chris was planning. "Come on, folks, let's go! Everybody get down here," he commanded. "Get some of them clothes."

Lifting a coat that looked like it might fit, Nathan mused, "Been a while since I put one of these on."

As he examined the coat he'd been given, Ezra added, "Never thought I'd wear the union blue, but I always did fancy being a colonel."

For several minutes chaos ensued as uniform parts were passed around. At one point Buck dropped a too-large hat on JD's head and the father and son laughed as JD tried to look out from under it.

Before long, though, everyone who could have a uniform had one and the entire town was assembled, awaiting instructions on their course of action from Chris.

The plan was simple, Ezra would ride in first in disguise and shout out warnings about the army coming. He would then leave town and rejoin the other peacekeepers. The five men would ride into town together and begin clearing out the remaining outlaws, while the townsfolk marched in columns as if they were really the army. Then, when the rest of the people reached the town, they could join in the fight as well.

With the plan set and everyone lined up, the large group of people began to move out.

Vin sat anxiously atop his pony at the head of the column, he wanted to be there with his pa and the others, but knew his job was important; he was in charge of leading all the townsfolk.

"Slow down a bit, Vin," Mary coached from the driver's seat of the wagon she was driving.

"Sorry, ma'am," the boy responded, his anxious face never leaving the town. He tensed when he was able to see that Mr. Ezra had ridden into town and was not riding out again.

"They'll be fine," Mary assured, knowing how scared the boy must be.

"Yes, Ma'am," Tanner replied, never once turning her way, his gaze transfixed on the five forms disappearing down the main street of town.

His heart quickened its pace a few moments later when the sporadic gunfire they had been hearing became more constant and intense. Unable to restrain himself any longer, Vin hurried his pace, the column followed.

By the time they reached the main street, most of the gunfire had died down and was only coming from one or two buildings. Several others were on fire and the townsfolk in their uniforms spread out to fight them and save what they could. As Vin stood next to the water trough, trying to figure out where he could help, he saw a man creep out of the store and aim at Mr. Josiah.

Without thinking, he pulled out his slingshot, placed a stone in it and fired. The shout of pain the man gave as the rock hit its mark, his ankle, was enough to alert Sanchez to the man's presence and eliminate him as a threat. The nod of thanks he offered to the little sharpshooter was enough to encourage Vin to help out where he could in the fray.

A few moments later Ezra called out a warning and then the canon fired into one of the stores, taking out the window and destroying most of the wall. It was also enough to put an end to the fray.

Looking across the smoky battlefield that was the main street of town, Vin spotted Chris and ran toward him, slingshot still in hand. Chris was standing in front of the store that had been blasted shaking his head.

"It's over?" Vin asked, stopping beside his father and looking in at the still bodies inside.

"It's over," Chris confirmed, smiling down at the living reminder of why he fought so hard to keep the town safe. "Let's go check on Buck and JD," he suggested, placing a hand on Vin's shoulder and beginning to walkaway.

Though neither of them would swear to hearing anything, all of a sudden both father and son knew there was a threat behind them. Spinning around in unison, Chris fired his gun and Vin his slingshot. The outlaw that had been about to shoot Larabee in the back, fell once more, this time absolutely dead, a bullet hole in his heart and a deep, red mark right between the eyes.

Exchanging a look to make sure each was alright, a small smile tugged at Vin's lips as he observed, "Now, it's over."

Larabee just smiled at his boy and picked him up, walking away from the devastated building and looking for Buck and JD.

After the hard day of putting out fires and cleaning up as much as they could, pretty much everyone had slept well. JD had fallen asleep before he finished his dinner and Vin hadn't even offered up a protest about going to sleep before the sun was fully down.

Now, in the bright light of morning, the business of rebuilding was underway. With everyone cooperating they would have the town rebuilt in no time.

Stopping for the mid-day meal, the five men and two boys settled on the steps in front of the jail.

Before long, Judge Travis walked up to them and settled on the top step. "All they'd say is Earl hired them," he stated without preamble. "Might be all they know."

Chris nodded slightly. "I got a hunch who's behind Earl," he said softly.

Releasing a sigh, Judge Travis noted, "Hunches don't get convictions in a court of law." With a quick glance, he took in the disgusted looks on the men's faces. "Doesn't sit well with me, either," he admitted. The sound of wood sliding on wood drew all of their attention to a wagon nearby. "Too bad about Marshal Bryce," he said softly.

"Where they taking him?" JD asked, not sure why they were loading the body on the wagon. "Home?"

Buck smiled down at his boy and nodded. Looking back up at the coffin, he admitted, "Can't say much for his ways, but the man did have some grit." Unconsciously drawing JD closer to his side, Wilmington looked at the judge and asked, "So, Judge, when are they going to send up another marshal?"

"They're not," Travis replied, a satisfied smile on his face.

"May we assume you had something to do with that, Judge?" Ezra asked.

"Damn right," he declared, before noticing the disapproving look on Larabee's face and the wide-eyed stare of Vin Tanner. "Sorry," he apologized. "Wired those railroad bureaucrats and told them how it was done in the west. Also told them I hired seven lawmen to look after their interests," he explained.

"I ain't workin' for no railroad," Chris stated firmly.

"I'm not wearin' no badge neither," Buck declared, smiling as JD nodded his agreement to that statement.

"You don't have to," the Judge assured. "It's unofficial." His voice softening, he turned to look each man in the eye before continuing, "The town needs you, just a little while longer."

Seeing an opportunity, Ezra said, "Perhaps if some sort of bonus were offered..."

"Well, a dollar a day plus board and room, just the same as before," Travis explained, leaving no room for doubt.

After a moment or two of silence, Chris rose to his feet and suggested, "Well, boys, what say we head over to the saloon and ponder the Judge's proposal?"

"Wonderful idea," Ezra agreed.

Looking up as his father looked down at him, Vin grinned and nodded. "Reckon I could use some pondering," he agreed, giggling as Chris tickled his side.

Buck swung JD up onto his hip and nodded.

"Judge," JD said respectfully before turning to see where everyone else was. He was happy. Everyone important to him was staying. Thing just didn't get much better.

Next: Sins of the Past