by MMW

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

Original script by Don Michael Paul

Note: Note: Many thanks to Marnie for her beta work.

When the shout first sounded, JD perked up from his position on Buck's lap. The ladies' man had settled onto a chair outside the saloon for the afternoon, his young charge having refused to enter the boarding house for a much-despised nap. The compromise had been for Buck to find someplace relatively quiet to settle for a while. Judging from JD's avid interest in the happenings, naptime was officially over.

Setting JD on the boardwalk, Wilmington took the small hand in his as he rose and moved to the edge of the walkway. Leaning against a post, he watched as the commotion moved toward them, mentally noting when Ezra and Nathan joined them.

"Folks!" the barker called. "Come one, come all! There's room for everybody! Don't be shy! Come on out! See what you're made of! Don't miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an experience of a lifetime! The McCormick Brothers Traveling Gun Competition, where you can test your skills against the fastest racers and the best ropers and the best sharpshooters this side of the Mississippi! Win yourself a brand-new Winchester rifle! Folks, come one, come all!"

"I don't see what all the fuss is about," the little brunet stated, staring at the noise.

"Oh, these fellas are as full of wind as a bull in corn time," Buck dismissed.

"Huh?" JD asked, his little brows drawing down in puzzlement and his nose crinkling slightly as he tried to understand what his papa had just said.

"Well, you know what they say," Ezra interrupted before the boy could find out what the ladies' man meant. "Those who can, do, and those who can't, watch."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Dunne demanded, frustrated that he could no longer follow the conversation.

"That means he's trying to get Buck to enter the race," Nathan explained.

"Oh," replied JD, as he turned his eyes to his papa to see if the man was going to race like Mr. Ezra wanted. When he saw Buck staring at the new rifle the lady was holding, Dunne asked, "So you gonna race and win the rifle?"

Looking down at his son, Buck felt the corners of his mouth lift in a small smile. "Well, I could JD, but I wouldn't want to make those cowboys feel bad by losing."

"I wouldn't worry too much about that, Buck," Ezra taunted, pointing to the red-shirted cowboy riding by, doing fancy tricks.

"Wow!" JD said, seeing what the man was doing, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. Turning to his hero, he stated, "You can do fancy tricks like that, too, Papa."

"That's a lot of frosting - no cake," the mustached man informed, showing no interest in the fancy tricks. Seeing the anticipation on his son's face, Buck shot a glare at Ezra who only looked amused and then turned to the trusting brown eyes. "Maybe, JD. But a race wouldn't be the right time for me to show off." His attention was diverted by the arrival of a familiar horse and rider. Josiah had returned. He was about to greet the older man when he saw something far too familiar in the blue eyes. The last time he had seen that look, though, it was in Larabee's eyes and there was only one way to describe it - hell.

Seeing the movement out of the corner of his eye, the young boy turned his head and beamed. "Hey, Mr. Josiah!" he greeted. His brilliant smile turned to a puzzled frown as he watched the man push past him into the saloon. "What's wrong with Mr. Josiah?" he asked, concerned for the man.

"This wind kicking up has got everybody's skin crawling," he offered as a strong gust tugged at his hat brim. Though he didn't believe the words even as he said them, a small portion of his heart hoped they were true.

"Maybe something happened to him in Vista City," Nathan offered, not knowing what to tell the boy. "That's where he said he was going," he added to the two men who were looking at him questioningly.

"Vista City?" Ezra repeated, puzzled. "If I recall correctly the only cultural attractions in Vista city are dust and watered down whiskey."

"Well, there's only one thing for sure is there," Buck began, deciding to share his insight with the others. "Josiah's own personal hell." Wilmington made a mental note to let Chris know about the potential trouble when he and Vin returned from their fishing trip.

Vin stared at the shadows dancing on the ceiling of their room. Chris had been called out to an outlying ranch and wouldn't be back tonight. He trusted that his father would be fine, but he still slept uneasily whenever they were separated.

He'd woken up from a nightmare not long before when Buck entered their room to check on them. Vin knew both men would look in on them at some point, but it had been a few months since the nightly ritual had woken him up.

Not wanting to worry his uncle, Tanner had stayed still and waited for the man to leave. He almost gave away the fact he wasn't sleeping when he felt Buck brush some hair off his forehead. It was a safe feeling when he did that and a sigh escaped the young Texan.

That had been a few minutes ago, now he was watching the shadows on the ceiling, feeling the tiredness once more creep into his body and begin to weigh down his eyelids as he thoughts slowed. The whistle of the wind through the hotel combined with the sounds of things bumping and rattling outside merged together to form a natural lullaby the pulled the boy even further into slumber.

Just before he slipped into sleep, he thought he heard a woman scream, but reasoned it was just the wind.

Young Tanner stood at his post dancing from foot to foot, waiting for Chris to return. His father had been called out to an outlying farm very late last night and had yet to return. As he waited, Vin thought back on what had happened earlier.

He, JD and Uncle Buck were just leaving the hotel when they heard someone cry out.

Sprinting toward the sound, Wilmington's long legs allowed him to quickly outdistance the boys. He came to an abrupt halt when he came upon the scene and Vin saw the man turn almost white at what he saw. Turning rapidly, Buck ordered, "Boys! Stay put."

Knowing better than to disobey that particular tone of voice, Vin came to an abrupt halt and felt JD run into him. The two boys watched as the peacekeeper ran a hand over his face, his eye inexorably drawn back to the sight before him.

"JD," Buck called to the boy. "You run and get Ezra. Then I want you to stay with Miss Inez in the saloon." The tiny brunet nodded and ran off to fulfill his mission. "Vin," Wilmington continued, "You run and get Nathan, then I need you to keep an eye out for Chris and let him know we need him as soon as he comes in."

Vin heard the instructions, nodded and took off running for the other end of the road, right past the scene. He didn't take the time to look, though. Not then. After getting Mr. Nathan, however, he saw that the crowd of people had grown. He noticed Uncle Buck still looked a little sick and he could tell Mr. Ezra looked very upset.

Bobbing his head in all directions, he tried to see around the adults. Finally they parted enough for him to get a good look at what held their attention. When he saw, Vin wished he hadn't. It was Miss Irene. She had silver coins on her eyes and there was a lot of blood on her neck. The Texan didn't need to get closer to know what had happened. When he'd been with Missouri Pete and Irish Jim, he had seen them kill many animals and knew that wounds to the neck would bleed a lot. Eyes wide with horror, he realized what must have happened to the seamstress.

One of the curious townsfolk jostled Vin, snapping him out of his daze. Turning quickly away, he took up position by a hitching post nearby. His instincts were in conflict. Part of him wanted to run away from the horrible sight, another part wanted to run to Uncle Buck for comfort. Mostly he just wanted his pa. He knew Chris would make everything better.

Vin didn't have long to wait before a small speck on the horizon caught his attention. He waited for it to come a little closer and sighed in relief when he identified the black-clad form of his father. His need for his pa overriding every other need, Tanner pushed away from the hitching post and ran down the street toward his source of safety.

The two blonds met at the edge of town where Chris pulled his horse to a stop and looked down with concern at his boy. "What's wrong, Vin?" he asked, his worry evident in his voice as he reached down and pulled the lad onto the saddle in front of him. The lack of protest at the position coupled with Vin's burrowing his face into Larabee's chest only served to heighten Chris' anxiety. "What is it, Vin?" he asked again, his worry increasing as he spotted the group of people gathered in the street.

"Miss Irene's dead," Vin said softly. Pulling back, he tilted his head to look up at the man who was the center of his world. Tears brimmed in the blue eyes as Tanner gave into the intense feelings that he'd been holding back. "Throat's cut," he choked out in a sob.

Drawing Vin to him tightly with one arm, Chris set his jaw and urged his mount forward. He wanted to be with Vin, but his duty was to the town. He would have to view the body and gather what information he could. "Where's JD?" he asked, knowing Buck would never intentionally let the boys see such a sight.

"With Miss Inez," Vin admitted.

"I want you to go stay with her and JD until we come to get you," Larabee ordered. The small hand that had fisted in his shirt tightened as the boy tensed. Reaching down, he covered the small fist with his own hand. "Vin," he said softly as he pulled his horse to a stop. A small face with two large blue eyes looked up at him. He tried to think of the best way to keep Vin away from what he knew must be a horrible sight. "Trust me," was what finally came out.

Vin's eyes searched the hazel ones looking down at him. "'K," he agreed softly, allowing Chris to swing him down to the ground. He waited until his father had dismounted and secured his horse before heading toward the door of the saloon. When he reached the building in question, he slipped just inside and kept an eye on events down the street.

"Stand back, now. We're in control," he heard Buck call.

Vin watched as Chris drew closer to the crowd and disappeared in its midst. He saw Mrs. Travis cross the street and approach as well. He almost called out to the lady to not look, but his attention was drawn away by a horse and rider entering town. The man was in a suit and as he rode past Tanner's position, the boy shivered. Something just wasn't right about the man. His brows drew down in puzzlement as he realized the horse didn't have much dust on it and didn't look like he'd been ridden hard. The man, however, seemed to have a lot of dust on his clothes. Glancing over at his father's horse. It looked like it had been ridden and the dust and dirt on it from the blowing wind seemed to be getting worse by the minute as dust devils swirled down the street.

Moving a little closer to the entryway, he watched as the man called out, his voice carrying down the quiet street, stopping the peacekeepers from lifting the body into the carry basket from the undertaker's. "Don't touch or move anything! I want everybody clear of this scene. Who's in charge here?"

Tanner saw Chris rise from where he was crouched beside the body. "I suppose that'd be me," he admitted.

"All right. This woman... She was unmarried. Lived alone. Probably ran her own business. Am I correct?" the man said, pulling out a pad of paper and crouching down.

Vin saw Chris stiffen and felt his own muscles tense. How could the stranger know?

"What do you know about this?" Larabee asked.

"I've hunted the devil who did this for two solid years. I've traced his every move. Ah. Name's Cyrus Poplar," the man in the suit finished, handing his card to the man in black who, in turn, passed it to the blond newspaperwoman.

"You're a Pinkerton detective?" Mary asked.

"That I am, ma'am," Poplar confirmed. "That I am."

"Wait a second," Vin heard Nathan interrupt. "Two years? So there have been other murders?"

Poplar nodded, "This makes seven and unless I catch him soon, there's going to be an eighth. Two girls per town."

Just then Ezra shouted, "Step aside!"

The stranger stepped aside and instructed, "Give us some room. Be careful with her. I'm going to want to examine her later." While the body was being loaded into the basket, Poplar turned and addressed the peacekeepers. "I've just returned from Greely, where a young lady fell under his knife. I nearly had him there, too. But I have deduced that's he's working on a trail headed directly due south of the railroad."

"What's he look like?" Vin whispered from his post at the doorway.

"Any idea what this devil looks like?" Chris asked.

Vin beamed at his father for asking just the question he wanted to know.

"I've never seen him as far as I know," the newcomer informed.

The strong gust of wind kicked up just then and drowned out most of what his Uncle Buck said, but Tanner was pretty sure he's said something like, "All these traveling cowboys in town, it could be anyone."

Whether that was it or not, Vin saw his father nod and heard him reply, "Better set up patrol tonight."

A sound from behind him in the saloon caught the boy's attention. Turning, he spotted Miss Inez moving in the back room. It looked like she was getting ready to carry some glasses out. Vin knew that, once he was discovered, he would have to go back with JD, so he focused on the conversation in the street once more.

"Who was the last person to see her alive," the Pinkerton agent asked.

It was Mrs. Travis who spoke up, "I saw her. There was a cowboy making trouble for her last night. Josiah saw it, too. I think it was one of the McCormick brothers."

Vin missed all further conversation when a hand landed on his shoulder causing him to jump and gasp in surprise.

"You should not be watching this," Inez scolded, turning the boy to face into the saloon. "You will come with JD and I and eat breakfast now," she insisted.

Vin shot one last glance over his shoulder before allowing his feet to head indoors.

Vin stood on the boardwalk, torn as to what he wanted to do. Buck and Chris had stopped by the saloon briefly to let the boys know they were free to go outside and play. JD hurried off to find Billy Travis, but the older boy stood on the boardwalk, undecided as to his course of action. Glancing down toward the church, he saw the man who called himself Cyrus Poplar approach the building and Chris following behind. He could also hear JD and Billy already having fun.

The realization that he hadn't seen Mr. Josiah yet was the deciding factor. Stepping off the boardwalk, he took a few steps. When he saw Poplar climbing the steps to the church, he broke into a run, catching up with Chris as the blond began mounting the stairs as well. Trying to ignore the frown his father was giving him, Vin reached for the door and opened it for the man in black.

As they entered the dim interior of the building, Tanner tried to locate his friend. After his eyes adjusted, he was able to see the top of Josiah's head resting on the arm of the first pew.

"Josiah?" Cyrus asked.

"What do you want?" Sanchez asked back, his voice gruff from too much whiskey and not enough rest.

"Well, I want to ask you some questions," the detective continued, undeterred.

The former preacher turned slightly on the pew, putting his arm over his eyes to block the painful light. "Too early for answers," he replied, meaning it as an end to the questions.

Poplar raised an eyebrow at the reaction, his lips pursing slightly as he noted the response. "A witness informed me that you stopped a cowboy from harassing a young lady last night," he offered, his voice harboring no accusation for the moment.

Sighing heavily at the realization he wouldn't be getting any more sleep, Josiah fought the blinding headache that pierced his skull and forced himself into a sitting position. "And who would you be?" he asked, resting his head in his hands.

Chris stepped forward, making his presence known. "Josiah, this is Cyrus Poplar. He's with the Pinkerton agency," he informed, a look of concern crossing his face at the state of his friend.

"To what do we owe this honor, Mr. Pinkerton?" Sanchez asked, sarcasm edging his voice.

A speculative glint entered Poplar's eyes as he took in every detail of his suspect's appearance. "This young lady in question was murdered last night," he informed. Then, noting the wound on the other man's head asked, "Where'd you get that wound on your head?"

Josiah paled slightly at the news. "Murdered?" he asked, puzzling over the word. "Miss Irene?" he repeated in disbelief as if he couldn't quite put the two ideas together. He had a vague and fuzzy recollection of seeing Miss Irene the night before and trying to help her. The thought of the woman he had rescued having never made it home settled heavily upon the former preacher's soul. Guilt soon reared its head leaving Sanchez to wonder if Irene Dunlap would still be alive if he had insisted on walking her home.

Seeing that he had the man ripe and ready for a confession, Poplar pushed, "Can you account for your whereabouts last night?"

Seeing guilt cross Mr. Josiah's face, Vin knew the man wasn't feeling well. He'd seen Chris look the same way once or twice and knew better than to try and talk to the man before he'd had coffee. He guessed his friend would be the same way. "Now, hold on, there, sir" he said, darting in front of the Pinkerton man and staring up at the other's face. "What kind of question is that?"

"Vin," Larabee called out, his voice indicating his displeasure with his son's actions. He saw the fierce blue eyes turn his way and felt a flash of pride at the boy's loyalty to his friends, but this was not a time or a situation where boys should be. Without saying another word, he held his left hand out away from his body, palm facing his son and crooked his finger, a silent command to come.

Tanner saw the gesture his father made and knew he would obey. Shooting one last glare at the stranger, he walked over to stand by his pa, taking comfort in the weight of the gunslinger's hand resting on his shoulder. He leaned slightly against the black-clad leg, but his attention remained riveted on the two other men in the room.

For his part, Josiah seemed to have missed the little drama unfolding beside him as he tried to focus his hazy thoughts on the night before. "I was...," he began, trying to make sense of the images. "I was with her," he admitted. "Tried to walk her home. I was there to save her, but...," he swallowed as bile rose in his throat. "She's dead." These final words were almost more of a question than a statement. Given how drunk he was he couldn't be positive, but he was fairly sure she had still been alive when he'd left her. Thoughts of another failure rose within him, the weight of guilt bearing down on his soul. "God forgive me," he whispered.

Turning to Chris, Cyrus asked, "How long have you known this man?"

"Long enough," Vin piped up before Chris could respond. He felt his pa squeeze his shoulder gently to show his displeasure and Tanner closed his mouth, biting off the other words he wanted to say.

"We know him," was Larabee's response. "That's all you need to know." His eyes met those of the Pinkerton detective and drilled into them. "Perhaps you have some other clues you should check," he suggested, his tone brooking no argument. "Like the body."

Poplar held the gunman's gaze for a few seconds before nodding his head. "You are correct," he admitted, a tug at the front of his vest the only sign of his nervousness at the glare he was receiving. Moving toward the door, he opened it and stepped back out into the sunlight.

JD sat quietly outside the saloon, looking at the picture book he had borrowed from Billy. Mrs. Travis had called her son in to do some chores and none of the other children he normally played with were outside yet. As he viewed the pictures, JD swung his feet. His attention was drawn away from the fascinating images as a shout sounded in the distance.

"Good people, come out! Don't let this tragedy force you into your homes. Show the world this is your town! Sign up for the big race tomorrow and win a brand-new rifle to help protect your loved ones. Come one, come all... "

It was the same man who came through town yesterday and the cowboys were with him. Looking carefully, JD tried to spot the boy on the stilts and felt his breath catch as he caught sight of the prize.

Without realizing it, he set down his book and headed toward the edge of the boardwalk to get a better look. Images of walking down the street, eye to eye with his papa began to form in his mind. If he had the stilts, he wouldn't be small anymore; he could maybe even go up to the bar for his lemonade and not need to stand on a chair.

"Race against Pace McCormick, fastest man on earth. He'll take on anybody with a heart and a horse. If you've got one and not the other, don't waste your hard-earned money. We want competition, not charity. And Andy McCormick is ready to take on any boy who thinks he's fleet of foot! Ha! Come on, men and boys, sign up. Let's go. Let's get on to this food. One and all. Pace and Andy McCormick..." the man continued to call.

Dunne watched as people began to come out of the buildings and crowd around the loud man. It looked like they were signing up for something. He saw some money being put down on the table and wondered why that was happening. A sound from behind him drew his attention away. A smile creased his face at the new arrival. "Papa!" he cried.

"Hey there, Little Bit," Buck grinned, dismounting. When he was standing on the ground, he quickly lifted JD into his arms, hugging him close and cherishing the boy all the more after seeing the devastation the news of Irene's death had wrought on her parents. "What have you been up to?"

"Billy and I played but then he had to go inside, so I borrowed a book and was reading, but the people from yesterday came back to town and talked about the races and how if I raced against Andy McCormick I could win the stilts and be as tall as you!" he relayed excitedly. "Can I sign up for the race, Papa? Please? I'm a real fast runner. I know I can win."

Wilmington smiled at the boy. He loved JD's feisty spirit and didn't want to quell the fire in the boy, but racing and having fun so soon after a good woman's death just didn't sit right with the ladies' man, not to mention the fact that these sorts of competitions weren't offered by traveling shows unless the people running the show were almost positive they would win. "I know you're fast, JD," Buck agreed. "And I'm sure you'd be able to leave that boy in a cloud of dust, but I just don't think it's right to race so soon after Miss Irene passed."

Disappointment descended rapidly over the boy's face and he let out a loud, heavy sigh. He understood that you were supposed to be respectful when good people died, but he really wanted those stilts. Still, he knew he wouldn't win an argument with Papa just now. "Alright," he agreed, his voice displaying his lack of enthusiasm.

As Buck stepped up onto the boardwalk, he felt something fall on top of his hat before the item in question was pulled off of his head. "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" Buck called, as the tug on the rope that removed his hat nearly toppled him. He felt anger begin to simmer as he turned and found himself facing two smirking cowboys. Normally, the incident wouldn't bother him, but he was holding JD at the moment and the thought of dropping the boy was not a happy one. "Hey!," he called before forcing a grin onto his face. "That's good," he chided, settling JD onto the ground next to him. His son wasn't the only one in the family with a competitive streak.

"Looks like you don't think you've got what it takes, cowboy," Pace McCormick taunted as Andy stood nearby, eyeing JD.

Buck bristled at the smugness of the other man. People like the McCormick brothers had never sat well with him. Too many times had he seen unscrupulous people such as these fleece towns and cause problems, all the while thinking they were better than everyone else. Clearing his throat as a way of ridding himself of the vile words he wished to say, he turned toward the younger McCormick, indicated the rope in the boy's hands and asked, "May I?" When Sledge handed over the rope, the mustached man said, "Well, thank you," before he began twirling the rope, showing obvious experience with it. While everyone was watching him make the rope dance, he performed a quick flick of his wrist and the loop settled over Pace's head. A quick tug and the loop tightened.

JD clapped at the trick and laughed aloud in his glee, especially when the older McCormick brother made a face like he'd eaten a lemon.

"That's a cute trick," Pace observed dryly as he removed the lasso from his person. If there was one thing he knew, though, it was how to goad a man into racing. "Man enough to play with ropes... But not to race a horse, huh?" he taunted. He saw the flash of anger in the other man's blue eyes and wondered if he'd made a mistake. The man had seemed easygoing and friendly. It was only now Pace realized there was something very deadly about the man as well. He'd have to be sure to keep Sledge and himself out of this man's way.

Instinctively Buck's hand tightened into a fist. He'd hit men for saying less. Pace McCormick might be able to ride a horse or work a lasso, but there was no way Buck was going to stand by and be insulted in front of his boy. Wilmington knew he was good on his horse and that his horse was fast, maybe fast enough to beat Pace. He wondered if Pace knew that. "Well, you know," he began, his face showing none of its previous friendliness. "I wasn't going to race out of respect for the dead," he finished and noticed a flash of discomfort cross the other man's face. At least McCormick seemed to realize how tasteless and tactless this racing was, Buck allowed. "But I'll tell you what," he said, the light of competition flaring in his eyes, causing worry to appear in those of the man opposite. "I think you need to learn a little lesson," he finished, his voice carrying just a note of menace.

With that said, Buck turned toward the table where people were signing up, took JD's hand and walked over. Laying down his entry fee, Buck quickly signed his name to race. Feeling a tug on his hand he looked down and asked, "What, Little Bit?"

"I wanna race, too," JD said.

Buck allowed a small smile for his son and handed him the entry fee for the boys' footrace before stepping to the side to wait.

Jacob Potter was in front of JD at the sign-up. He was going on and on about how fast he was and how he could beat anyone. When Dunne was finally able to step up to the table, he overheard part of a conversation.

"That one going to be a problem?" the man asked Andy.

JD laid his coin on the table and replied, "Oh, he's all show. I'm your problem."

The man and boy looked over Dunne's diminutive form and smiled smugly, immediately discounting the boy's claim. "And you would be?" the man asked, pencil poised over the paper.

"I'm JD Dunne," the boy proclaimed proudly, "and I'm going to win those stilts."

After the Pinkerton agent left the church, Chris and Vin had stayed. Larabee had explained what had happened and what they had been able to determine. It was obvious to Vin that his father wasn't happy with Josiah. The way Chris was looking at the older man puzzled the boy. It was almost like his pa didn't like or trust Josiah any more.

When Josiah didn't respond to what Chris was telling him, Larabee had just turned and left, slamming the door behind him.

Worried about his friend, Vin stayed behind in the church. Sitting in the back pew, he watched as Josiah got up and began to pace back and forth. It was easy for young Tanner to see the pain his friend was feeling, but he could also tell that Josiah was angry about something.

When the former preacher tossed a table over as he released a loud, incoherent cry, Vin couldn't stifle the gasp of surprise and worry.

"Vin?" Josiah asked, finally taking notice of the boy.

"Are... are you all right, Mr. Josiah?" he asked, hating the hint of fear in his voice. Vin watched the expressions flit across the man's face. He identified, surprise, guilt, disgust, resignation and finally, anger and despair.

Rubbing a hand across his face, the former preacher made a decision. "I'm going to get drunk and forget..." His voice trailed off as he headed for the door, brushing past the boy.

Vin was stunned. The words brought back a memory from a few weeks after he and JD had been taken in by Chris and Buck. It had been Adam's birthday and Chris had said something very much like that when Buck found him drinking in the saloon. The mustached man's words came back to the boy now. Chasing after Josiah, Vin advised, "Mr. Josiah, climbing back into the bottle ain't going to make this go away."

Sanchez shot a disbelieving look at the boy and continued to stride toward the saloon.

Frustrated by the lack of response and angry that his friend was hurting and wouldn't listen, Vin ran in front of Josiah, causing the man to pause in his step. Meeting the impatient eyes of the former preacher, Tanner insisted, "Now, I'm trying to help you here..."

It was at that moment that both man and boy caught sight of Cyrus Poplar heading their way. Wanting to avoid the unpleasant man, Josiah looked at Vin and then toward the saloon, saying, "You can stop any time now."

Unfortunately, the delay was long enough that the Pinkerton agent caught up with them. "Mr. Sanchez!" the smaller man cried out, stepping up to the man and boy. "I have some more questions to ask you now that your mind is clear."

Clenching his teeth in frustration, Josiah picked Vin up and physically moved him out of his path, muttering, "Won't be for long," as he strode once more to the Saloon.

Shocked as he had been when Josiah physically picked him up, Vin had still seen the pain in the large man's eyes. Vin understood the kind of pain he'd seen; the kind you only experienced when your heart hurt. A flood of protective feelings filled the boy who turned and stood defiantly in the path of the Pinkerton man. "The man wants to be left alone," he advised, hands on his hips, jaw lifted, voice firm. As an afterthought he added, "Sir."

Staring at the boy before him, Poplar couldn't help but be annoyed. "Must be a reason he refuses to talk," the man accused.

Vin felt his back go stiff and straight at what the stranger was suggesting. Eyes narrowing in anger, his voice hardened and he stated, "I reckon your time would be better spent asking around about these traveling cowboys." Once again, as an afterthought, he added, "Sir", only this time the word lacked even the faintest hint of respect.

His lips pursed, angry color stained Poplar's cheeks. He glared at the impudent boy and replied coldly, "Perhaps you'll allow me the courtesy of conducting my own investigation." That said, he began to move around the small obstacle.

Moving in front of the man once more Vin reached up and placed his hand flat against the man's stomach. The move would have been more effective if he could have reached Poplar's chest, but the man stopped nevertheless. "All you need to know about Josiah is that he watches over me and JD. He keeps us safe and that's good enough for me."

Frustrated at wasting so much time with the boy, Poplar glared down at Vin. "I promised those girls I wouldn't let their deaths go unanswered, and I will keep that promise," the man declared. Then, removing the boy's hand, he gripped it tightly and leaned down, meeting the boy's eyes, and added, "Friend of yours or not." That said, Poplar released the boy's hand and headed off toward the saloon, satisfied he had cowed the boy.

Had Cyrus Poplar turned around, he would have seen a still defiant Vin Tanner staring after him, an expression on his face that his family and friends knew only too well. Vin had made up his mind about what was right and nothing and no one would keep him from doing what he felt was the right thing. And right now, the right thing was making sure that mean man left Josiah alone.

It was a little bit later in the day. Vin had taken up station outside the saloon, keeping an eye out for Cyrus Poplar. If the man came to bother Josiah again, the boy would be able to give Josiah plenty of warning. Of course, he'd also overheard some of the visiting cowboys talking and needed to let someone know. He would have told Josiah, but the man in question was currently working his way through an entire bottle of whiskey.

Tanner was leaning against a post, watching a piece of paper flutter down the street, dancing and twisting in the wind when he caught sight of Chris coming toward him. Straightening, he smiled at his father. When the smile was returned, Vin's own grin broadened.

"Hey, Vin," Chris greeted, stopping beside his boy.

"Pa," Vin greeted. Remembering his information, his face turned serious and he informed, "Got some news. The cowboy who harassed Miss Irene was Sledge McCormick." When he didn't receive a response to the information he had just given, the boy felt puzzled. They needed to go talk to this Sledge person so they could clear Mr. Josiah once and for all. "Maybe we ought to ride out to their camp tomorrow," Vin suggested, wondering why Chris hadn't suggested it himself.

"All right," Larabee finally agreed. "Josiah still inside with his bottle?" he inquired, tipping his head toward the interior of the saloon.

Vin nodded affirmative.

Chris scanned the street. "He's got a bad habit of losing his memory in it," he said, almost to himself.

Tanner's brow furrowed as he tried to figure out what the man was saying. Finally he gave up and asked, "What are you trying to say?"

Realizing that he had spoken his thought aloud and uncomfortable with the direction his thoughts were taking, he replied, "It's tough to be impartial when the party in question is one of us."

Understanding came for Vin and he nodded. It was hard to be impartial when someone you cared about was involved in a situation. Another thought struck the boy at the same time, "That's why you're giving that Pinkerton man free reign over this thing."

Larabee nodded and confirmed, "If he can help us find the ba... man responsible, I don't see how it could hurt."

The more he thought about his father's response and compared it to what he had seen happening between Mr. Josiah and the Pinkerton agent, Vin found himself disagreeing. "Could hurt Mr. Josiah," he observed. Then a horrible thought crossed his mind. He couldn't believe it was true, but he had to find out. "Unless you think it's Mr. Josiah who we're - you're looking for."

The older blond shifted on his feet, not pleased with this particular line of thought, but a small voice inside him insisted they look at all of the options. "You so sure it isn't?" he asked, not missing the horrified look on his son's face at the mention of the idea. Trying to communicate to Vin that there was more to look at than just friendship, he continued, "How well do we know Josiah?" Seeing that his boy was beginning to think, Larabee's eyes sought a distant point on the street. "How well do you really know anyone?"

That last statement caused Vin's stomach to twist slowly making him feel nauseous. Tanner wondered what would happen if Chris was right. If they were wrong about Josiah and he had done these things, could that mean Vin had been wrong about the others? About Chris?

Shaking his head slightly as if to clear it of those thoughts, Vin decided that he wasn't wrong about his friend. There was no way Josiah had hurt Miss Irene and he, Vin Tanner, would prove it.

It was dark out. Chris, Buck, Vin and JD had just finished a late dinner at the restaurant and were heading back toward their rooms to put the boys to bed when they heard a woman scream.

Forgetting all about bedtime, the two men and two boys took off running toward the sound of the screams. They soon spotted Mary Travis running toward them.

"Mary!" Chris called as he captured the blonde woman in his arms. It seemed to take Mrs. Travis a few moments to realize it was a friend who was holding her. When she calmed enough to realize she was safe, Larabee asked, "What happened?"

Mary stood looking at Chris and panting. She slowly pulled out of his arms. "Somebody grabbed me in the alley," she informed, obviously still shaken and upset by the incident.

"Are you hurt?" Vin asked, concern for Billy's mom evident in his voice. He noticed the look pass between Chris and Buck before the mustached man headed off to look at the alley.

Offering a shaky smile to the concerned boy, Mrs. Travis assured, "No. Just scared."

As she replied to Vin, Cyrus Poplar walked up to them and demanded, "Did you get a good look at him?"

Something about the way the man asked the question made Vin frown. Looking closely at the Pinkerton agent, the boy wished there was better light so he could really see the man's face. Looking up at his father, the small sharpshooter could see that Chris wasn't bothered by the question at all. Maybe he'd been imagining something being strange about the man, Vin thought to himself.

Mary shook her head in response to the question. By that time Buck had returned with a shake of his head. Obviously the attacker had gotten away.

Stepping up next to the newspaperwoman, Buck offered, "Mary, I'll take you home."

The momentary look of relief that flashed across her face was quickly replaced by concern. "But Billy - I was on my way to Mrs. Potter's to pick him up," she explained.

Wanting to help the pretty lady, JD stepped up to the newspaperwoman and took her hand in his. "Don't worry about Billy, Mrs. Travis. I'll pick him up. Don't you worry."

Chris, Buck and Mary all smiled at the brave offer. "Thank you, JD," Mary replied leaning down to give him a brief hug.

"We'll bring him home, Mary," Chris assured quietly as Buck began leading the woman back to the Clarion's office.

Chris, JD and Vin headed off to Mrs. Potter's to get Billy. In a short time they returned the boy to his mother and the quartet was on their way, once more, to the hotel. As they reached the alley where the attack occurred, the men slowed and checked out the scene. Vin and JD, though beginning to feel sleepy after the recent events, took part in the quick search.

"Anything?" Vin asked as his pa and Uncle Buck returned to the head of the alley. He and JD had been searching near the boardwalk and hadn't found anything.

"Whoever it was, they're gone," Chris informed, having known that would be the case before he agreed to let Vin and JD help them look. Buck had checked out the alley earlier and found no one.

The Pinkerton agent had helped the men and boys search the alley. He now stood slightly apart from them. "What's that?" he asked suddenly, pointing under the boardwalk.

Vin frowned. He and JD had checked exactly where the man was pointing and found nothing. What could be there now?

"Over there," he said, walking over to pick up the object. "Do you recognize it?" Poplar asked, holding up a knife.

A gasp of recognition was torn from Tanner. He knew whose knife it was just as well as he knew it hadn't been there when he and JD had searched. Something definitely wasn't right.

"It's Josiah's," Chris confirmed, saying aloud what none of them wanted to acknowledge.

"Then it's time I spoke to Josiah," the Pinkerton agent replied, turning and heading toward the saloon.

Vin turned wide, scared eyes to his father, waiting to see what the blond would do.

Letting out a curse, Chris quickly strode after the man, Buck, JD and Vin close on his heels. Mary, having heard the voices, called something into the building, stepped out of the Clarion and followed the others.

They group entered the saloon just in time to hear Poplar ask, "And you have no idea how it got there?"

Josiah didn't even bother to look at the man questioning him; his eyes seemed to see nothing but the amber liquid in front of him. "I told you before, I never even knew it had gone missing."

"Mr. Poplar," Mary interjected, seeing how badly her friend was hurting and wanting to spare Sanchez whatever pain she could. "I know Josiah. He would never attack me."

"Then why won't he talk?" demanded the agent, frustration and anger communicating themselves in equal parts with suspicion and confidence.

The escalating argument and accusations had begun to truly scare Vin. He was very worried for his older friend and cautiously stepped a little closer. "Mr. Josiah?" he began, waiting for the man to look his way. Tanner could tell Josiah had drunk too much whiskey, but the softening of Sanchez' eyes as he looked at the boy gave Vin the confidence he needed to continue. "This man is saying some pretty mean things about you. Why don't you just tell him the answers to his questions so he'll leave you alone?"

A bitter smile appeared on Josiah's face as he responded, "Evil is wrought by want of mind as well as want of heart."

Vin's brow furrowed, baffled by the response. Looking over to his father to see if Chris had understood, he saw his pa frowning at him and motioning for Tanner to get behind him by the wall. Knowing that particular look, Vin realized he didn't have a choice and moved to obey Larabee.

As he was moving he heard Cyrus taunt, "Those silver dollars won't buy you penance, mister."

Scowling at the Pinkerton agent, Vin took up a position behind Chris and continued to watch. He glanced over at JD and saw the brunet standing next to Mrs. Travis. Looking at the others, he could see Chris and Buck were ready for trouble and watched as Josiah sighed and took another drink.

Anger flushed Poplar's face at Sanchez' apparent dismissal. "Now, you just got back from Vista City, didn't you?" he interrogated. "Yeah, I heard about that. But, you see, Greely is directly en route. And I found two dead girls in Greely." the Pinkerton agent paused slightly here. He had been moving closer and closer to Josiah's table. Now he stood only an arm's length away and was practically screaming. "Tell me what I'm gonna find in Vista City, Josiah. Tell me!" he shouted, pounding a fist on the table.

Unable to witness the abuse of his friend in silence, Vin stepped forward and shouted, "That's enough!" His forward progress was stopped when Chris' hand clamped down on Tanner's shoulder.

"You want a villain?" Josiah asked, his voice soft, but quivering with rage.

"Easy now," Buck cautioned, making sure he was between JD and anything that could go flying.

"You want a lamb?" he shouted, rising and flipping the table over. "I'll be your sacrificial lamb!"

JD cried out and Vin gasped, quickly running back to the wall behind Chris before making his way over to his brother who he clutched tightly to his side. He had never seen Mr. Josiah so angry or so scary.

"Josiah," Chris cautioned, one hand outstretched toward his friend, the other resting on the butt of his gun.

Taking a step closer to Poplar, Josiah's voice fell slightly in volume, but not in emotion. Ignoring Larabee, he informed, "My sins are between me and my God."

Seeing the Pinkerton agent make a move, Chris stepped closer to the two men and commanded, "No!"

Poplar stayed his hand and turned to face Larabee insisting, "That man belongs in jail. Now, I have the authority to incarcerate a suspect no matter whose friend he is."

Larabee's eyes narrowed as he hissed, "Not while I'm the law in town."

Several seconds of tense silence reigned in the room before the Pinkerton agent stepped back and headed out of the saloon. Vin didn't understand everything that had just happened, but he understood enough that it scared him. As he waited for Chris or Buck to notice him and JD, Vin thought about the confrontation and everything that had been happening. The more he thought about it, the more sure he was that Mr. Josiah was innocent. And, the more he believed in that innocence, the stronger became his resolution to do whatever he had to in order to help his friend and convince that mean Mr. Poplar that Josiah didn't kill all those women.

JD stood on the boardwalk next to Mr. Ezra. After all the scary things from the previous night, he was looking forward to the fun of the upcoming race. He knew without a doubt that his papa would win.

The first few racers had all lost to Pace McCormick, the one who offered the challenge, but young Dunne knew that none of those racers held a candle to his father. None of them would ever be as fast on a horse.

It was with great anticipation that he watched Buck line up at the starting line.

Bouncing on his feet a little, he let out a loud cheer as the race began.

"Hyah! Let's go! Let's go!" Buck encouraged as he reached the barrel around which they would need to turn.

Standing next to Ezra, JD was growing concerned about the race. His father was loosing!

"You got 'em now! Come on!" the barker shouted loud enough for everyone to hear.

A frustrated growl escaped the young boy as the cowboy crossed the finish line first.

"And the winner is the legendary Pace McCormick!" the barker announced. "Whoo! I hope all you people who bet against Pace McCormick learned your lesson. Never bet against the best."

A puzzled and disappointed looking Buck headed over toward his son and his friend. He paused slightly and a look of indignation crossed his face as he realized Ezra was counting winnings. "You bet against me?" he demanded of the conman, feeling a small sense of betrayal at his friend's lack of faith.

Picking up on his father's attitude, JD directed an angry glare in Mr. Ezra's direction. How could the man even think of betting against Buck?

Missing the note of betrayal in Wilmington's voice as he focused on counting his winnings, Ezra simply replied, "And a wise decision it was." Looking up with a smug smile on his face, he raised an eyebrow and continued, "That was, perhaps, the saddest race I've ever seen."

Feeling anger welling up within him, JD's fists clenched at his side. He didn't like Mr. Ezra anymore. You just didn't say mean things like that to your friends. Before he could demand the Southerner take it back, Buck let out a disappointed sigh, drawing his eyes and his thoughts back to the mustached man.

"Da...darn horse fell asleep on me," he admitted. Then turning toward the horse, he looked into the equine face and demanded, "What's wrong with you? Huh?" A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he heard the giggle JD tried to stifle. There was no better medicine for what ailed him than his son's laughter.

Just then, Pace and Andy McCormick walked by. Having overheard, Buck's question, they paused beside the trio. "You can blame it on the horse, blame it on the wind if you have to," Andy began, having said the same thing hundreds of times before in many different towns.

"But we all know it ain't the fiddle, it's the man holding the bow," Pace completed before he and Andy wandered off laughing.

JD's anger rushed back and he unconsciously fingered his slingshot. One good hit in the behind would teach Andy and Pace a lesson.

"Funny guy," Buck observed dryly, reaching down and rubbing a circle on JD's back.

Realizing that his friend hadn't guessed the truth about what was happening, or, perhaps, didn't know, and appalled by the behavior of the McCormick brothers, Ezra announced, "He's quite right, but I fear your fiddle was out of tune." Seeing the question on the two faces that turned toward him, he continued, "You'd have run poorly, too, if you'd been fed laudanum."

JD's mouth fell open in shock as his eyes grew wide. "He... he cheated!" the boy finally exclaimed, horrified by the action.

"Yes, he did," Ezra observed, his voice completely neutral.

"Laudanum?" Buck repeated, worried about his horse and any long-term effect the drug might have.

Growing more serious as he saw the worry in his friends face and the red color of JD's cheeks as the boy continued to fume quietly, Ezra replied, "Yes. It's an old hustler's trick utilized around the hippodromes back east." Seeing the unasked question as to how he would know, Standish continued, "I've employed it to great effect myself. You can tell by the eyes. "

Turning to look up at the horse, JD took a step back in order to get a better look at its eyes.

Buck looked more closely at his mount's eyes and saw what Ezra had. "Oh, da... darn, you're right," he said, his voice hushed with the new knowledge. "He's roostered."

"Yes, poor thing," Ezra sympathized.

It was at that moment that the full impact of Ezra's words sunk in and Buck realized what his friend hadn't said. "Now wait a minute. You knew that, and you let me make a fool of myself so you could make some money?"

JD frowned and stared up at the men. There was a whole lot going on here and he wasn't sure he followed all of it, but he could tell his papa was not happy with Mr. Ezra right now.

Realizing too late he'd made a tactical error, Ezra paused before continuing. As he looked Buck full in the face, he realized he wasn't in any immediate danger, his friend was just that, his friend and accepted Ezra and all his ways. "Well, your ignominy was an unfortunate byproduct of a most gainful venture," he admitted. "I am, however, prepared to share the wealth in this case," he concluded, smiling slightly to himself. He had planned on sharing the winnings with Buck all along, but he had planned to lose them to the ladies' man at the poker table.

"All of it," Buck said holding out his hand. Seeing Standish pause, he reiterated, "All of it."

JD looked up on the exchange with a sense of triumph. It was only fair that his papa got all the money.

Ezra was disgruntled by the turn of events. It wasn't that he doubted he would get his portion of the money back, it was just the fact Buck had demanded all of it. "It's not your greed that offends me," he explained, hoping to soothe his pride. "It's your ingratitude."

"Thank you, Ezra," Buck replied folding the money and putting it in his pocket and feeling his anger toward the visiting cowboys grow. Pulling a stupid stunt like this was not something he could just let pass. "Now I'm going to kill that son of a... pollywog," Wilmington informed, catching himself at the last minute.

Seeing the very real anger in his friend's eyes and the wide amazement in JD's, Ezra stepped in and tried to redirect his friend's energy into something that would set a better example for the boy while satisfying Ezra's own need for payback. The truth was, though he had made a good deal of money off the race, he didn't like to see his friends used in such a way either. "Well, I agree that retribution is in order," he admitted slowly. "But perhaps a more effective method would be a taste of his own medicine. Literally," he finished.

Buck's eyebrows rose in interest at the suggestion.

"Huh?" JD asked, not understanding what Mr. Ezra had said or why his father looked interested.

Hearing the question, Standish looked down at the boy and smiled wide enough that the sun glinted off of his gold tooth. "Come, my friends, and I will enlighten you."

Vin sat outside the church on the steps. The horse races had started in town, but he just wasn't all that interested in watching the races right now.

That morning at breakfast, the peacekeepers, except for Mr. Josiah, had decided someone needed to check out the camp where the visiting cowboys were staying, maybe more than one of them. Mr.Poplar hadn't even taken a second look at them even though they had been everywhere he said the killer had been.

At breakfast, after the others left, Vin had offered to go with Chris and the others, but his pa had flat out refused to let him go into such a situation. Just then Miss Nettie had come into the restaurant. In speaking with her, it came up that she was going to drop off some things at the convent in Vista City. The name of the town sounded familiar to Vin and it took him only a few minutes to realize that it was the same place Mr. Josiah had been visiting before everything started.

It took little effort for him to convince both Chris and Miss Nettie that the lady shouldn't travel alone. His pa had debated for a few minutes but eventually allowed it. Miss Nettie said she was looking forward to the company.

Though he wasn't sure what he would do once he was there, Vin knew that he had to go.

After everything was arranged, Chris had headed over to the church to talk to Josiah. Vin had followed along, but had been told to wait outside. Needing to think over his own plans for the day, Vin had obeyed without protest.

That had been almost an hour before. Now, waiting for Miss Nettie to be ready, he waited outside the church, keeping an eye out for Mr. Poplar. He didn't have long to wait. The Pinkerton agent was coming toward him with Nathan walking beside.

"The man is sick," Nathan insisted. "He's in no mind to answer any of your questions."

"Look," Poplar interrupted, his voice reflecting his exasperation. "I just want to look around. If he's innocent, he's got nothing to hide."

Vin jumped up to his feet as the church doors crashed open.

"Come on in. I never shut my doors on those in need," Josiah informed, stepping aside to let the two men enter.

Following more slowly, Vin waited for Josiah to move away from the door before entering. He was horrified by what he saw. Mr. Poplar was going through everything in the church, turning things over and making a mess.

Obviously still angry, Josiah began throwing things on the floor and tipping over furniture. "Here. Let me help you," he growled.

Worried about his friend, Nathan stepped up and rested a hand on Josiah's arm. "Come on, compadre," he soothed. Sanchez pulled out of his grasp and knocked several things off a table. "Give it a rest," Jackson commanded, wanting to do something to help his friend. When the man staggered into a table, he called out, "Josiah!"

"Forbear to judge, for we are sinners all," Josiah quoted, stumbling slightly as he made a dramatic motion. As he knocked against the table, a bag fell to the floor. The clink of metal inside the bag brought all activity in the small building to a halt. Josiah seemed to deflate as he realized what the bag was.

Darting forward, Poplar snatched the bag and pulled it open revealing silver dollars. Pulling his gun, he aimed it directly at Sanchez.

Vin sat down hard on a pew. That couldn't be right. Those couldn't be Mr. Josiah's coins. They couldn't be! He knew his friend and Josiah wouldn't hurt anybody unless they really deserved it like bank robbers or someone.

"You satisfied?" Poplar demanded of Nathan, holding out the proof.

Getting no reaction from the healer, he motioned for Josiah to head out of the building.

As they passed by the pew where Tanner was sitting, the boy watched closely. Josiah didn't even look his way. It was almost as if his friend's mind was far away. Nathan paused by the pew and tipped his head indicating that Vin should leave with him. Exiting the pew, Tanner and Jackson followed the Pinkerton agent and his prisoner to the jail.

When they arrived, they saw Chris and JD already inside. Poplar was grabbing the keys from the hook where they were kept and escorting Josiah to the cell.

The closing of the door made a loud clanging sound in the silent room. Poplar turned and left.

Looking at the sunlight streaming in the window of his cell, Josiah simply said, "Thank you Lord, for atonement is finally at hand." He then bowed his head and began praying silently.

Tanner watched as Nathan turned away from the sight of Josiah in a cell. The look on the healer's face was almost one of pain. It was a look Vin could understand because seeing Mr. Josiah like this made his heart hurt. Glancing over at the younger boy, he was thankful to see JD's attention was firmly focused on trying to free a piece of paper from under the desk.

"He wouldn't talk to you either, huh?" Nathan asked, seeing his own emotions reflected on Larabee's face.

"He's acting like a guilty man," Chris growled in frustration. Rising from his seat, he walked away from the cell, unable to deal with his resigned friend. He stopped beside his son and rested a hand on his shoulder. "He's going to get himself hung," he finished, venting his frustration. He regretted the words almost immediately as he saw the color leech from Vin's face.

"We'll clear all this up when we find that McCormick cowboy," Nathan declared, his voice leaving no room for doubt.

The sound of a wagon outside caught Vin's attention and he remembered Miss Nettie. "See ya'll later," he called as he headed toward the door.

"Where are you going?" Nathan asked, surprised by the boy's quick departure.

"To Vista City with Miss Nettie," Chris supplied. The thought struck him that maybe he should go as well to find out what he could about what Josiah had done there. Remembering the McCormick brothers, though, changed his mind. Catching Vin's eye, he instructed, "Keep your ears open for anything about Josiah while you're there."

Vin offered up a wide smile and nodded. That was what he'd been planning on doing anyway, but he felt a lot better knowing his pa supported him. Pushing through the door, he headed off toward Miss Nettie's wagon.

"Can I come with you to the McCormick camp?" JD asked, his attention once more on what was happening in the office. He hadn't heard everything, but knew the men were planning on going out there. He wanted to look at the men one more time and laugh at them since he knew what Mr. Ezra and his papa were planning.

"I think you'd better stay behind," Chris advised. Seeing the disappointment on the small face, he crossed over to the desk and opened the top drawer. Pulling out the sheriff's badge none of them ever wore, he pinned it to JD's shirt. "Someone needs to keep an eye on things here in town, sheriff," he instructed.

A huge smile split Dunne's face and his chest puffed up with pride. "Sounds like fun," he said. Standing straighter, he looked Larabee in the eye and assured, "I'll keep a good watch out, Uncle Chris."

"You do that," the blond agreed before standing and motioning Nathan toward the door.

JD had been disappointed when he wasn't allowed to go with Chris and Nathan to see the traveling cowboys, but taking on the job of sheriff had been every bit as important.

As the two men rode out to find Sledge McCormick, JD leaned against the post outside the jail, just as he'd seen his papa, Uncle Chris and the others do. Shifting the slingshot he had retrieved earlier from the desk drawer to his front pocket, the boy shifted and felt the reassuring weight of stones in his other front pocket. He was armed and ready.

Things had been fairly quiet so far today. The last of the horse races had finished a while before and the streets had been quiet ever since. There was one near altercation between two of the local cowhands, but when he approached the two men and told them to stop fighting they had. He had been a little puzzled about why they kept looking over his head at the saloon doors, but when he turned to look, he didn't see anyone or anything there. The doors weren't even moving. That was fine, though. His father and Mr. Ezra were in the saloon and could handle anything that came their way. Sheriff Dunne would just concern himself with the rest of the town.

He wasn't sure how long had passed between the time Chris and Nathan left and the time he saw them coming back, but he knew it couldn't have been too long. Bouncing slightly on his toes as he waited for the men to show up, he returned the grins the men gave him as they turned their horses into the livery. He was sure they would have a terrific story to tell.

"JD," Chris called as he stepped out of the building. JD ran up to him.

"Did you find him, Uncle Chris? Did you?" he asked, falling into step between the two men.

"We did," the blond gunslinger informed.

JD looked up, puzzled. Chris didn't sound happy about it.

"We'll tell everyone in the saloon," Larabee informed as they passed the jail.

Nodding, JD walked along wondering if he would be getting a glass of lemonade out of it. Of course, he wouldn't mind a glass of milk either...

Stepping through the doorway with a peacekeeper on either side of him, JD felt himself straighten with pride as all eyes turned to watch the trio. He belonged here with Mr. Nathan, Uncle Chris and the others, since he was a peacekeeper.

Seeing that Buck was already settled at a table, JD wandered over and settled into one of the chairs, ignoring the fact that only his head was above the level of the tabletop. With a few quick movements, he got down, pushed the chair closer and then climbed up it again, this time kneeling in the chair. It was much better.

The men at the table were grinning at the boy's actions. Inez came over and took their order. Buck ordered a glass of milk for JD, which was fine with the boy.

"So, how'd it go?" Dunne asked after their drinks had been delivered and each of them had taken a sip. He picked up the cloth Buck dropped in front of him and wiped off the milk mustache he knew must be there.

Chris and Nathan exchanged a look and Larabee nodded to the healer to tell the story.

"Well, we rode up to camp and found there wasn't much going on," Nathan began. "The didn't notice us riding up at first because they were facing the wrong way, but they were alert like they might be looking for trouble and soon spotted us." Smiling as JD leaned forward a little further, Jackson began to weave his tale. "They didn't do anything as Chris rode right into the middle of camp and dismounted. 'Lookin' for Sledge McCormick' he announced bold as you please. You'd think he'd dropped a live rattler in the middle of the dinner table the way they reacted," he explained, enjoying the soft chuckles he received from Buck and Ezra and the smile from Chris.

JD was enthralled and amazed at the tale. He could just picture the two men riding into camp, ready to take on anyone who stood in their way.

Seeing the boy's rapt attention, Nathan continued, "Then that Pace McCormick stood up to answer. He said, 'You're fishing up the wrong stream, my friend. My brother ain't no saint, but he ain't no killer neither.' Ol' Chris here wasn't willing to just take Pace's word for it, though, and I didn't either."

"Meany," JD muttered in reference to the man who had cheated so Buck would lose the race.

The declaration caused a smile to twitch across Jackson's lips before he continued with the tale. "'Well, I'd like to hear him say that,' Chris responds, cool as you please. It was easy to see ol' Pace was getting a mite riled now, even if he didn't want to admit it. He shifted from one foot to the other and answered, 'I just said it for him.' But it was easy to tell he wanted to be anywhere but talking to us." Pausing, Nathan took a sip of his beer.

"So, what did you do?" JD asked, eyes wide and voice betraying his eagerness.

"I didn't do anything just then," the healer admitted. "Chris was still doing the talking and said, 'Don't suppose you'd mind if I looked around?' It was easy to tell it wasn't so much a question as it was a statement. Pace couldn't say anything against it and sat back down, keeping an eye on us. So your Uncle Chris started looking on one side of the camp and I started looking on the other. Sledge must have been somewhere between us, though, 'cause next thing I know, he's running away as fast as he can. 'I got him!' Chris called out just before catching the man and bringing him down. He turned to look at me and saw someone come up from behind. 'Nathan!' he called out and I whirled around with my gun in my hand. Sure enough that barker was sneaking up behind me, but stopped cold when he saw I had him. 'Back up,' I told him and watched as he moved. Still keeping an eye on him, I headed over toward Chris."

"And that's when Nathan saw someone else moving toward him. He pulled a knife with his free hand and pinned the man's sleeve to the wagon," Chirs supplied, not comfortable with the way his friend was giving him all the credit. "Then, when the cowboy tried to pull the knife out of his sleeve, Nathan cocked his gun and said, 'Go ahead and reach for it. I'll shoot it off. Ain't much work for a one-armed roper.' And sure enough the man stayed still."

The blush darkening Nathan's face and grin on Chris' caused the other two men to chuckle. "Wish I'd been there to see it," Buck said softly.

"Me, too," JD said. Then a thought came to him, "What about the cowboy you caught, Uncle Chris?" he asked.

Chris looked sheepish as he admitted, "He started to get away."

Jumping in to continue his narrative, Nathan explained, "In all the excitement of keeping those men from attacking me from behind, Chris had taken his eyes off of Sledge. The man took the opportunity to try and get away. Chris was on his feet and had the man down again in no time. 'Come here,' he called out. 'Get down. Where you going, huh?' And ol' Sledge just sat there on the ground, his hands up, shaking so hard his teeth were rattling around in his head."

The look of awe that JD turned upon Larabee had the blond man growling, "Nathan."

Heeding the warning, Jackson eased up on his descriptions somewhat. "Well, Sledge was scared and said, 'I didn't do nothin' to that lady, now. I swear it!'"

"Of course, Nathan had noticed he wasn't running quite right when he tried to run away. He called out, 'Where'd you get that bum leg?' I hadn't even noticed it," Larabee inserted, taking over the narration again. "Then Sledge says, 'I busted it when I fell off a bronc last month.' Nathan and I looked at each other and finally he said, 'Let me look at it.' So we switched places and I kept my gun on the two troublemakers while Nathan went to check out Sledge's bum leg. But Sledge didn't want us to look at it, so Nathan told him, 'Hold still. I want to check it.'"

"Of course, Chris didn't give him much chance to do anything else," Nathan informed, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He cocks his gun at the man and says, 'You hold still.' And sure enough he did."

"So did he do it?" JD asked. "Was he just pretending about his leg?"

"No," Nathan admitted. "He really did have a broken leg. There's no way he would be able to move fast enough to attack Mary and get away."

"But if he didn't do those things, why did he try to run away?" JD asked, puzzled.

"That's exactly what Chris and I wanted to know," Nathan agreed, lifting his mug of beer to take a sip.

"He told us, ''Cause I suspected that it was going to end up on my head, so I ran. I ain't going to lie to you guys. I done some bad things. But I don't kill no ladies.'" Chris informed. Before the boy could ask, he assured, "He was telling the truth. We asked him some more questions and there's no way he could have done those things."

"So where does that leave us?" Buck asked.

The men exchanged looks. "Don't know," Chris admitted as he took another sip of beer.

Vin and Nettie had spent a pleasant few hours traveling together. They would be spending the night at the convent where Miss Nettie was going to drop off her wagonload of things. While he didn't like being away from his pa for so long, Vin found he couldn't deny the fact he might need all that time to find out what he needed to about Josiah's visit, especially since he couldn't go to some places like the saloon.

As they rode into the tiny village, the boy looked around, taking in the sights and sounds. He heard a donkey, horses and chickens.

Pulling up in front of the convent door, Miss Nettie stopped the wagon. Vin managed to jump down and walk around to help his friend down, just as Buck and Chris had taught him to.

"Why, thank you, Vin," she said, accepting the help. "You're becoming quite a gentleman."

"Aw, Miss Nettie," Vin deflected, blushing slightly as the woman laughed and ruffled his hair.

Walking up to the gate, Nettie rang the bell and waited for one of the sisters to answer. When one of the ladies came to answer the call, Nettie explained what they were doing there. The woman nodded and said she would get the Mother Superior.

A few minutes later an older woman came to the door. "Thank you so much for coming," she greeted. "We will be happy to help you with the supplies and you are welcome to stay with us tonight. Unfortunately, your son will need to stay outside the convent. Perhaps the hayloft in the barn?"

About to correct the woman for saying he was Nettie's son, Vin stopped and thought about the second part of her sentence. It might be easier to ask around if Miss Nettie wasn't with him. Sleeping in the barn seemed to be as good a plan as any. Besides, It wasn't like he hadn't slept in worse places.

"I don't know about him staying so far away. No offense, sister, but this doesn't strike me as the safest town in the world for a boy to be on his own," Mrs. Wells informed.

Smiling at the other woman's concern, the nun hurried to assure her that the barn was perfectly safe. They had a family who lived next door to it and tended to the animals. The barn itself shared a wall with the convent. "They even have a boy about his age," she informed. This last piece of information settled things.

"You'll be all right?" Nettie asked.

"Yes, ma'am," Vin replied, smiling up at the lady.

"Then let's get started," she encouraged.

It had taken them several hours to unload the wagon and deposit everything in the correct places. By the time they were finished, it was time for dinner. That was an event that reminded Vin too much of his time at the orphanage. Even though the food was good, he was happy to see the meal end.

"Sister Catherine will show you to the barn," Mother Superior said.

Stepping closer, Nettie leaned down and drew Vin into a quick hug. "You take care and stay warm tonight," she admonished. "We'll leave first thing in the morning, so no disappearing."

"Yes, ma'am," Vin replied, feeling warm inside for her concern and nervous about what he still had to do. Then, turning, he followed the sister out of the building and toward the back gate of the convent.

As they walked, he thought he should probably ask if she'd seen Josiah. "Sister?" he asked, remembering that was how everyone had addressed the ladies. Seeing her turn and smile, Vin continued, "I was wondering if you could help me. They say the man I'm looking for comes up here from time to time."

"A man here?" the sister asked, her eyebrows rising at the thought of a man in their convent.

Vin blushed. He hadn't meant here with the ladies, he meant here as in Vista City. Deciding it would be better to push on with his questions rather than try and explain. "Maybe you've seen him around?" he asked hopefully. "His name's Josiah Sanchez. Big feller, hair going a touch gray..." The boy's voice trailed off. He thought he'd seen a spark of recognition in the woman's face, but was disappointed as her response.

"No," the lady replied. "No man comes here. I'm sorry."

By this time they had reached the back gate that the nun unlocked and opened.

Stopping before the woman who had served as his guide, he pleaded, "Sister, please. Josiah's my friend, and he's in a heap o' trouble. Now, I need to know if he's been here."

The sister just shook her head and motioned Vin through the gate.

Knowing when he was defeated, the boy walked through the gate and followed the nun to the barn where he was handed a couple of blankets and a pillow. "The ladder to the loft is over there. There's a cot on the far side by the window," she instructed before turning and leaving.

A sigh escaped the small sharpshooter as he slowly made his way up the ladder. He would need to find someone else to ask, but it would have to wait until morning. Even he wasn't brave enough to walk around a strange town at night on his own.

He had just gotten comfortable on the cot when he heard a noise.


Eyes flying open, he looked around. When the sound repeated, he silently made his way to the edge of the hayloft and peered over the edge. Spotting a boy about his own age, he took in the dark hair and Mexican style clothing. He knew a little Spanish from his travels and hoped he remembered enough words to ask what he needed to. Making himself known to the other boy, Vin softly asked, "Habla ingles?" When the boy shook his head, Tanner became a little worried, but knew that a lot of times kids saw things that adults didn't or wouldn't admit to. Making his decision, Vin motioned for the boy to come up.

Waiting impatiently for the boy to join him, Vin had to fight the urge to pounce when the lad finally arrived in the loft. Biting his lip as he tried to think of the right words, he eventually asked, "¿Has visto venir unos gringos por aqui?"

When the boy didn't immediately respond, Vin began to wonder if he'd said something wrong and hoped he hadn't insulted anyone. Thinking over the words again, he was pretty sure that he had asked the right question.

When the boy held up his hands and rubbed his fingers together, Vin suddenly understood. The boy wanted money for the information. Grumbling and reaching into his pocket, it took Tanner a few minutes to locate the two pennies his pa had given him for the trip. Vin was certain that Chris hadn't given him those pennies to be used like this, though. Showing the boy the money, he held it away from the greedy hand.

"Si," the boy replied, eyes on the coins.

"Si. ¿Y que vino hacer?" Vin asked. The boy looked down the ladder and indicated the money. Handing one of the coins to the boy, he indicated for the other to lead the way.

Back in town, night had fallen. Buck and Ezra were still in the saloon doing whatever they did and JD had left with Chris and Nathan, knowing that he wasn't supposed to be in the saloon after dark. Mr. Nathan had wanted to talk to Mr. Josiah again and Uncle Chris had settled in a chair outside the jail. Running in and retrieving some old wanted posters and a pencil, JD brought the items outside and settled himself on the boardwalk where he was drawing.

The sound of the door opening drew his attention away from his art. He watched as Mr. Nathan stepped out and settled next to the blond gunslinger.

"He didn't do it," Chris said, seemingly out of the blue.

JD was baffled by the comment wondering who didn't do what.

"He's just some dumb cowboy," Larabee finished.

The McCormick brothers, JD thought, suddenly understanding. He knew he wasn't supposed to listen to the grown-up conversations, but they were talking right there next to him so it was hard not to.

"Yeah," Nathan agreed. "Looks like we're back to square one."

"Yeah," Chris breathed out as he leaned forward, resting his arms on his knees. "Doesn't look good for Josiah."

JD's eyes grew wide. Mr. Josiah was still in trouble and if Uncle Chris and Mr. Nathan thought it looked bad, then it couldn't be good.

"You know, if you ask me, Josiah being locked away ain't going to keep those ladies safe," the healer commented. "Makes me glad Rain sent a message that she couldn't come out for a visit like we planned. I'm sure she'd be scared."

"She'd have a right to be," Larabee agreed.

"You know they're thinking of marrying her off in her village?" Nathan said softly, his eyes focused somewhere far away.

JD frowned. He remembered the nice lady from the Indian village and remembered how much she and Mr. Nathan liked each other. The little brunet didn't like the idea of her marrying someone else.

A grin tugged at Chris' lips as he observed, "Must not be thinking too hard if she was going to come here."

Nathan laughed softly. "I suppose," he agreed. "I mean, I wouldn't try to stop her. It's just... I'm not ready for that," he admitted.

JD thought about that comment. He remembered back when Miss Lucy had tried to trick his papa into marrying her and Buck had said almost the same thing. But then, thinking about girls just made his head hurt. After all, he and Casey were married and it hadn't been all that hard, but then again, being married wasn't all that easy either.

Turning his attention back to the men and their discussion he heard Chris say, "You got feelings for her. That's clear."

Nathan nodded his head and smiled. "Oh, yeah. I got feelings for her," he agreed. His face became more serious as he admitted, "Except they all mixed up."

"Mixed up how?" Chris asked.

JD nodded, relieved Chris had asked the question so he wouldn't have to.

Nathan sighed and looked away, gathering his thoughts. "I don't know," he admitted. "I mean, everybody I ever got close to... Sooner or later they was dead or... Sold off or something."

His attention focusing on Chris, JD waited to see what his uncle had to say.

Larabee thought about the words his friend had spoken. He had felt the same way, too. It was just one of the reasons it had taken him so long to finally admit to himself how he felt about Vin. Then a question someone had once asked him came to mind and he posed it to Nathan. "'Cause you lost 'em, are you sorry you ever had 'em?"

JD looked to see how Mr. Nathan would respond. When he saw the thoughtful look on the man's face, he knew there wouldn't be an answer. He figured that must be one of those questions Mr. Ezra liked that you weren't really supposed to answer.

Seeing that the conversation was over for now, JD turned his attention back to his drawing.

Vin had followed the boy through a hole in the back of the barn. There was a board that moved when you pushed it and was just big enough for a boy to get through. Finding himself behind the convent, Tanner quickly ducked down a little and followed his guide, not wanting to be seen.

The boy led him around the side of the building and stopped in front of a dark crevice. Peering into the darkness, Vin was able to see the outline of a door deep within the recess. When his guide simply pointed at the door, Tanner stared at him. It wasn't until the boy tapped his hand that Vin realized this was where he was supposed to be and that the boy wanted the other penny.

With a nod of thanks, Vin handed over the penny and watched the boy run back around the building. Taking a deep breath, Vin made his way into the dark entryway and knocked on the door. When there was no answer, he drew up all of his courage and tried the door. It was open.

As he tugged at the heavy wood, a thin stream of light began pouring out of the room and a voice praying in Spanish reached his ears.

Cautiously stepping into the light, he found himself in a room lit with candles. On one side of the room was an old woman, praying as she drew something on the walls.

His first instinct was to run away, but, thinking about Josiah, he took a deep breath and spoke. "Excuse me," he said, his voice barely above a whisper. Realizing the woman hadn't heard him, he cleared his throat and tried again. "Excuse me." This time the lady turned to look at him. Her hair was long and wild and there was something strange in her eyes. Shifting nervously on his feet, he continued, "Oh, I'm sorry to trouble you, ma'am. But could I talk to you for a minute?" The woman just continued to stare at him as if she'd never seen a little boy before. It was making Vin even more nervous. "I - I was wondering if you happen to know a friend of mine? Name's Josiah Sanchez."

Whatever reaction he had been expecting it wasn't that the woman would start whimpering and try to cower in the corner. Trying to understand how he had scared her, Vin fought his own fear and took a small step forward. "Do you know him?" When she began turning away from him, the boy called, "Ma'am, please! Just tell me what you have to do with Josiah." At the mention of his friend's name, the woman let out a wail and began beating the wall. His fear taking over, Vin darted out of the door, barely missing running into a nun.

Pausing around the corner from the room, Tanner tried to catch his breath. He heard the sister say to the woman, "It's all right, Hannah. It's all right, dear. It's all right, Hannah. Hannah, it's all right. Come here. It's all right."

Armed with a name, Vin carefully made his way back to the barn. It took him only a few minutes to locate the correct board, slip back into the building and up to the loft. He didn't know who the lady was, but was sure that she had something to do with his friend.

When Vin and Miss Nettie arrived back in town the next morning, the streets were already crowded with people. As word about the McCormick brothers using laudanum to slow horses spread, parents decided to keep a very close eye on their boys who would be racing later.

Standing on one of the chairs in front of the jail, Vin tried to find his pa. He needed to tell Chris about Hannah. No matter how hard he looked or who he asked, though, no one seemed to know where Chris was. All of them seemed more interested in the upcoming foot race and in trying to keep their hats on in the strong wind that was blowing.

Finally resigning himself to the fact he would have to wait to tell what he had found out, Vin stepped off the chair. As he did so, he glanced through the window and saw Mr. Josiah looking very sad while sitting in his cell. The thought struck him that he could ask Josiah.

Mind made up, he entered the jail and closed the door behind him. He didn't realize that it wasn't properly latched as he crossed room and didn't notice when it blew open behind him.

Stepping up as close as he dared, he called out softly, "Mr. Josiah?" Just as Vin was about to call out again, his friend's head rose and blue eyes met his own.

"Hey there, Vin," Josiah greeted, offering a small, sad smile.

Returning the smile with his own tremulous one, the boy took a deep breath and began thinking of how he could ask the questions he had. Finally deciding to just ask plain, he explained, "Mr. Josiah, I went to Vista City with Miss Nettie and while we were there I saw a lady who they say you visit, but she didn't say anything to me. Her... her name's Hannah. Who is she?"

Josiah rose from the cot, anger flaring in his eyes and hardening his face as he turned away from the boy. When he turned back, he was in control, but the anger simmered just below the surface and was evident in his voice. "You had no right to go see her, Vin." he chastised.

"But, Mr. Josiah," Vin pleaded. "If she can help you, then she needs to come forward and tell that man that you didn't hurt anybody!"

Josiah shook his head and repeated, "You had not right to go see her, Vin."

Angry that Josiah didn't seem to be listening. Vin stamped his foot and shouted, "I got every right , 'cause I'm trying to save your damn hide!" Fists clenched at his sides, Vin demanded, "Now who is she?"

As he took in the angry red face, tense posture and blue glare aimed in his direction, Josiah also saw the fear that filled the little boy, fear of losing a friend, fear of losing someone else close to him. Releasing his anger, knowing Vin didn't deserve it, he said softly, "A soul in torment. That's all you gotta know."

Anger fading to determination, Vin relaxed his stance and nodded. "Then I'll just tell Pa and we'll get it out of her."

"You stay away from her!" Josiah commanded.

Tanner stopped, surprised by what he heard. Josiah wasn't angry at him, he sounded like he was trying to protect her. He had heard the same tone in his pa's voice, in Uncle Buck's and had even heard Mr. Josiah use that tone of voice when looking out for him. Turning to face his friend, Vin encouraged, "Then talk to me!" When Josiah just looked down at the floor and remained silent, he turned again and said, "We'll give her your regards, Mr. Josiah."

Watching the boy head toward the door and realizing that he was just trying to help, Josiah said softly, "She's my sister." Relief filled him when Vin turned and came back to the bars, eyes wide with surprise. Continuing, Josiah informed, "She wasn't always like you saw her. Time was when she was real full of life." He saw Vin smile and was encouraged to continue. "Course, bein' a missionary's daughter ain't easy. My father... My father. He said she was, uh, on the road to destruction. He tried to rein her in. But the harder he pulled, the wilder she got. Like she had a demon inside of her."

Vin nodded a little at he words, he could understand that. When he was at the orphanage, sometimes he would act out just because he got tired of having to follow the rules all the time. Of course, the punishment was never worth it. He turned his attention back to Mr. Josiah as he continued the story.

"She started doin' crazy things," Josiah admitted. "Goin' off with men, drinkin'. He tried lockin' her up.... Sendin' her away... Beatin' her."

When his friend said this last, Vin couldn't help but worry at the look on Mr. Josiah's face. He wanted to go over and comfort the man, but wasn't allowed inside the bars.

" I should've stayed," Josiah continued, heartbroken. "I could've saved her. But I couldn't see past savin' myself. Every time I went home, she was worse off... Till she finally got to be how she is now." Seeming to notice his audience again, Josiah explained, "Every penny I got goes to keepin' her. And when I see her, it tears me up so bad... It takes me a week before I stop wantin' to die. And now the Lord is servin' up my penance, and I'm lookin' forward to it, Vin. I really am. I need to find peace."

Before Vin could deny Josiah's words, another voice spoke. "So you will, Josiah. So you will. Overly religious father, sexually promiscuous sister. Even the coins make sense when you think about the resentment he felt for paying for her care," Poplar observed, stepping up to the bars, not even noticing Vin.

Anger once again flared in the little sharpshooter, combined with his dislike of the man and came out with an accusation. "You're twistin' around everything he said," Vin charged. Then deciding he had had enough, he added, "And it's gonna end now." Stepping forward, he found himself fighting the desire to punch the man and instead jumped up to grab the keys for the cell from the nail where they hung. With the keys in hand, he strode forward, feeling not even the smallest twinge of guilt at the thought of breaking the rule about how close to the cells he could get.

"I have hunted him for too long to let him walk away now," Poplar informed, still ignoring the boy as a strange light lit the agent's eyes.

"You listen to me," Vin demanded, squeezing in front of Pinkerton agent who was in front of the lock. "You got the wrong man, Poplar." In his anger and fear, Tanner hadn't even noticed how disrespectful he was being by calling the man by his last name only.

The slight hadn't escaped Cyrus, though. Finally facing the boy, he raised an eyebrow and replied, "The judge will decide that." Seeing the boy take a half-step toward him and open his mouth as if to say something else, the Pinkerton agent fingered the butt of his gun and threatened, "Now you seem to be in an awful hurry to beat your friend to the grave."

Horrified at the threat, Vin stopped in his tracks. Cyrus Poplar had just threatened to kill him! Still, Tanner knew he was right and pushed aside the fear in order to fight for his friend.

Disgusted and disturbed by the Pinkerton agent's threat against Vin, Josiah hoped it would be enough to cause the boy to leave. When that didn't seem to be the case, he nodded toward the keys in the boy's hand and coached softly, "Give 'em over, Vin. You ain't going to do me any good in trouble." Seeing the boy wasn't moving he stared straight at Poplar and added, "or dead." Something froze in Josiah's soul as Poplar failed to react at all to that addition, as if killing children was perfectly acceptable to the man and the beginnings of understanding began to coalesce in the prisoner's mind.

Vin wasn't happy about leaving Mr. Josiah alone with this man, but he also knew when to walk away from a situation. Now was the time to walk away. "I'll be back with Pa and the guilty man," he tossed at the agent before leaving the building.

JD perked up as Mr. Ezra and his papa stepped out of the restaurant. The owner had decided to offer a special breakfast to everybody who would be running in the big race. JD had felt very special that such a thing would be offered in his honor. Oh, he knew that it was for the other racers as well, but he was the one who was going to win.

"Ah. Agreeable breakfast, Mr. McCormick?" Mr. Ezra asked the older McCormick brother.

"Darn fine preserves, huh?" Buck asked, grinning at Pace.

JD frowned trying to figure out what was going on and why Pace looked unwell. Glancing at his competition, JD discovered Andy looked a little peaked, too.

Pace took a step forward and clutched his stomach. "Excuse me, boys. I'm off to..." his comment was cut off as he retched.

Hearing the noise Andy McCormick looked worse and clutched his own stomach. "I'm off to humiliate your friend here," he said, as he bent over.

JD was puzzled by their actions. If he didn't know better he would say both the McCormick brothers were sick, but they had looked fine before breakfast.

"You know, folks around here don't appreciate a horse poisoning," Buck said walking up and placing an arm around Pace.

Leaning in conspiratorially, he whispered to Andy, "I suggest you find a quiet alley somewhere. Ipecac takes effect quite suddenly from what I hear."

Andy retched this time in response to the comment and both McCormicks disappeared around the side of the restaurant.

Buck laughed aloud as Ezra chuckled.

It finally dawned on JD what the men had done. "Mr. Ezra, Papa, what did you just do?" he demanded, hand fisted and resting on his hips, foot tapping in impatience.

"Nothing," Buck said, trying to sound innocent, but JD had seen his father playing jokes before and knew the look.

"Come on now," he said, indignation taking over. "I can win this race on my own."

Realizing now what their revenge might look like to the boy, Buck knelt down and ran his hand over JD's hair. "Well, sure you can, son," he soothed.

"But it's a matter of principle now," Ezra added, feeling the need to soothe the boy.

Before he could say anything else, the lady who was with the traveling competition approached them, twirling her hair. Stopping between Ezra and Buck, she coyly said, "Ahem. I do believe I'm in need of an escort."

JD saw a look pass between Ezra and Buck, but wasn't sure what it meant. All he knew is that his Papa and Mr. Ezra looked like they were trying very hard not to burst into laughter. Adults were strange people, he decided.

"Ezra, would you care to..." Buck began.

"Oh, no, no, no," Ezra cut in. "You're the ladies' man, Buck. Please be my guest."

JD saw another look pass between them and waited to see what would happen. "All right," he agreed.

"Well?" the lady asked.

"Here you go," Buck said, sticking his elbow out. JD was puzzled. If he didn't know better, he would think his papa didn't want the lady near him.

"How charming," the lady said, taking the proffered arm.

"Have fun," Ezra said waiving at the couple as they began to cross the windy street.

"Buck always gets the girl," JD observed. He wasn't jealous or upset, it was just a statement of fact. The little brunet frowned when he saw Buck stop in the middle of the street. That was really unusual, normally, he walked the lady all the way across the street. It was one of the things he'd taught JD.

"Well, ahem... It's been a pleasure, ma'am," JD heard Buck say as he tipped his hat.

Just then a big gust of wind came and blew the lady's hair off!

JD's jaw dropped open as he tried to understand what he was seeing. Without the hair, the lady looked like a man! Clapping a hand over his own eyes, Dunne said aloud, "Don't look at that!" Still, he couldn't help peaking through his fingers as he heard his father's voice.

"I knew there was something different about you! You're a funny cowboy," the ladies' man announced as he made his way back toward the boardwalk and the laughing Ezra.

JD removed his hand from his eyes and just stared at his father and his friend as he realized the secret the two men had been trying to keep. They knew the lady was a man.

"Wait!" the person in the dress cried.

JD turned and caught sight of the person trying to put the wig back on and quickly looked away again.

Someone on the boardwalk cried out, "She's a he!"

It was then the person in the dress ran away and disappeared down an alley. JD just watched in bewilderment as Buck and Ezra continued to laugh.

Vin had pushed his way to the edge of the crowd and spotted his father standing in front of the jail. Fighting his way through all the bodies, he had one goal in mind, to tell Chris about that Poplar man bothering Josiah.

As he approached, the barker started shouting out to the crowd. The race was about to begin. "All right, ladies and gentlemen, finally, the race you been waitin' for, between the incomparable Andy McCormick and your very own sons!"

Vin turned and spotted the boys all lined up and ready to race. He knew JD could run fast and was pretty sure he would be able to beat anyone else lined up, but he had to get to Chris. Just as he approached the man, a crash sounded behind him. Turning, he saw Chris lift up a boot that had landed on the sidewalk and head inside.

Vin didn't even pause to think about what he needed to do, he followed his father inside.

"Josiah?" Chris asked, handing the man his boot.

"It's Poplar," Sanchez informed, slipping his boot on and accepting its mate from Vin who had picked it up by the door. "He's the one killing the women." As he slid his other boot on, Sanchez continued, "After Vin left, he confessed to me. His mother used to entertain men and charge them two silver dollars for the privilege. Man thinks his ma loved the money more than him."

"Where is he?" Larabee demanded.

"Out there," Josiah said tipping his head to indicate outside as Chris unlocked the door to the cell.

Vin just stood, eyes wide as he took in this information. A thought suddenly struck him. "Mrs. Travis!"

"We've got to stop him," Chris said, realizing his son was right. The man in black led the charge out of the jail and began looking for their prey.

The barker called out, "Are you ready? Place your bets. Place your bets."

Vin climbed on the chair to see if he could find the Pinkerton agent.

He heard Josiah shout down to Ezra, "It's Poplar!"

Both Ezra and JD turned at the call, Ezra immediately understood, but JD turned back to focus on the race. It was important for him to focus so he could win. Even sick, Andy McCormick was a lot taller than the diminutive brunet and he wanted to be sure he focused all his attention on running.

As the racers were told "On your mark", JD's mind finally realized what Mr. Josiah had meant. That Mr. Poplar was the one who killed Miss Irene.

It was Vin's cry of "There he is!" that drew the brunet's attention to the boardwalk opposite his brother. He could just see Mrs. Travis and Mr. Poplar.

"Get set," the barker warned.

"Mary! Get away from him!" Chris cried.

JD knew none of the grown ups could get to her fast enough, they were all on the other side of the street. But he could get there. When the gun went off, JD ran as fast as he could, putting all his effort into his goal. He didn't even realize when he pulled away from Andy McCormick and the other boys; he needed to get to Mrs. Travis.

As he drew closer to his goal, he saw a flash of steel in Poplar's hand. Crying out, "Mrs. Travis!" he caught her hand and pulled as hard as he could while still running. Both boy and woman went crashing to the ground in a heap, but Mary was free of Poplar's grasp.

Vin had seen JD drag Mrs. Travis down and away from Poplar. He then saw the man in question dart away.

"I got him!" Josiah called, breaking through the crowd and crossing the street.

"I'll go around back," Chris called back, trying to push his way through the crowd.

Vin jumped off his chair and followed his father.

As he was racing through the alley a few steps behind his father, Vin heard the Pinkerton agent call out, "Stay back!"

As he rounded the corner, Vin came to a quick stop. He was behind Poplar, but could see the knife in the man's hand. Ducking behind a rain barrel, he watched what unfolded next.

"Now, you can't undo what's already done," Josiah said softly, holding his hand out for the knife. "But you can put an end to it now."

Vin saw that the agent was standing still, seeming to listen to Mr. Josiah. He waited and watched, believing that Mr. Josiah could make it all turn out OK.

"They torment you," Sanchez said softly. "They haunt you, those women. You see them when you close your eyes. There's no rest. Pay your penance, Poplar. Pay it... And be free. Hand me the knife. "

Vin saw Poplar move a little, but didn't see what he did since Chris moved into his line of sight. What he did hear was the Pinkerton agent say, "Oh... Oh, God."

The boy was just about to move for a better view when his father called, "Vin, go find JD and stay with him." Tanner knew better than to argue when the hazel eyes met his own and the blond commanded, "Now."

Racing between the buildings, he began searching for JD and Mrs. Travis. Whatever had happened his father didn't want him seeing it.

Later that day after all the excitement had died down, Vin saw Mr. Josiah sitting on the steps to the church, enjoying the late afternoon sun. Walking up, the boy settled on another of the steps, wanting to talk to the man.

After several moments of sitting in silence, Josiah said, "Of all the tyrannies of humankind, the worst is that which persecutes the mind."

Vin nodded, not really understanding the words, but he used them as an opening for what he had to say. "Mr. Josiah," he began. Looking up to meet the man's eyes, he continued, "What you told me about your sister and all... I just want you to know that... That's between you and me."

Josiah smiled at the boy, remembering to his own childhood when secrets were a very sacred thing. It amazed him how some things never changed. "Appreciate that, Vin," he said sincerely. "But you know, saying it out loud kind of made it a little easier to bear."

Vin just nodded. He could understand that. He remembered how hard it was to keep the information about the orphanage to himself for so long and how good it felt to finally tell his pa about it. "Mm," he agreed, leaning back and enjoying the sun on his face. "Well, now you're free and clear," he said, thinking of the events that resulted in the death of Cyrus Poplar.

"Oh," Josiah said with a wry smile. "I'll never be free and clear."

Vin gave his friend a puzzled look, not understanding what he meant.

"You ready to go and eat some of JD's victory dinner?" Josiah asked, rising from the steps.

"Yep!" Vin agreed standing and stepping up to walk beside his friend. After JD had lost the race because of saving Mrs. Travis, the newspaperwoman had insisted on making JD and the others a special dinner, saying it was the least she could do.

Glancing down at the boy, Josiah asked, "You going to let JD have the first piece of pie?"

Vin grinned up at the man, mischief dancing in his eyes. "Nope!" he declared.

Next: Lady Killers