by MMW

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

The original episode Serpents was written by Mark Haskell Smith, Melissa Rosenberg and Richard Kletter.

Note: Many thanks to Marnie for all her help with doing the beta work and suggestions to make this story work.

Vin sat up a little straighter in his seat and peered out the church window, the noise from outside having caught his attention.

"Vin?" Josiah inquired softly.

The blond head whipped around, a guilty flush brightening his features. "Sorry," he whispered, turning his attention back to the writing he was supposed to be doing.

JD looked up from the book he was reading, curious. As his concentration was broken, he, too, noticed the sound of chanting. His small face crinkling in concentration, he asked, "What's that mean?"

"What does what mean?" the former preacher asked.

"Join the great. Be a state," the young brunet clarified. "Mrs. Travis sure is bein' loud about it."

A smile spread on Sanchez' face as he glanced out the window. "Well, why don't you put away your book, and Vin, you put away your writing and we'll go find out," he suggested, thinking some hands-on history would be a great educational opportunity.

In the saloon, Buck was chuckling over the contents of Ezra's letter when JD wandered in and climbed up on his lap, smiling at Inez when she brought over a small glass of lemonade.

"Wait, wait," Ezra cautioned, fighting his own amusement. "My mother goes on to say, 'Leave your dust bowl behind, dear son, and become my partner in St. Louis' new historic Riverfront casino. It's high time we get stinking rich'. "

Buck's laughter joined Ezra's at the thought of Standish going into business with his mother. Still, knowing Maude as he did, he had to ask, "How much does she want this time?"

Scanning the letter further, Ezra came upon the amount. "It says here, the ante is a mere two thousand dollars."

"Do you think she's on the level?" Buck asked, growing more serious. He knew as well as Maude did that owning a casino was one of Ezra's dreams.

"I do," Ezra replied solemnly, seeing his heart's desire so close at hand. Then, with a deep breath, he shook off the melancholy and longing that threatened. "Not that it matters," he denied, a wry smile appearing on his lips. "Sadly, I find myself one thousand nine hundred and ninety nine dollars short this week."

"Join the crowd," Buck admitted.

JD looked from one man to the other, trying to figure out what they were discussing.

Lifting his mug, Ezra took a sip and leaned back in his chair. "However did I allow myself to fall into a career in law enforcement?" he wondered.

Any answer Buck would have made, as well as any questions JD might have asked, were cut off when the doors to the saloon burst open and a beautiful, vivacious redhead stalked in, a piece of paper clutched in her hand. She immediately had the attention of every person in the saloon.

In a loud voice and without preamble she launched into her attack, "Ladies and gentlemen, see that spittoon? In the state of Rhode Island, it is illegal to spit. You there, playing cards... In the state of Vermont, gambling is against the law." Seeing that she had her audience enthralled, she continued, "Now, some folks around here want us to be a state. Now, I don't know about you, but I like to spit and play cards."

The crowd cheered her. Looking around, she noticed the handsome brunet shifting to get closer. "I don't want a bunch of lily-livered eastern toadies making laws for me. No, sir. If we remain a territory, we know what we have - federal money without giving up local control. "

Buck picked JD up off of his lap and settled the boy next to him, he finally made his way close to the vision of loveliness. There was something about this woman, something indefinable that called to him as none other had before. "Oh, well spoken," he breathed, enchanted by her fire and her voice.

Seeing his father's attention was focused on the pretty lady, JD picked up his now-empty glass and announced, "I'm going to see Miss Inez."

The words his son spoke made a vague impression upon his mind. Nodding absently, his eyes never strayed from the redhead.

The focus of Buck's attention found herself distracted at the nearness of the mustached man. A part of her brain was telling her to focus on her job or something unwanted would happen. She ignored that voice.

"You're just a lackey for those ranchers. And so's that Governor you work for," a man from the crowd shouted out.

"Only thing dumber than a sheep is the man that herds them," she retorted without thinking. And just as that little voice had whispered at her, things were suddenly completely out of control with glasses, chairs, tables and fists flying. Dismayed at her flippant words and the resulting chaos, she tried to correct her mistake, "Gentlemen, please. Let's discuss this in a more civilized manner." She wasn't successful.

Seeing a mug coming at her she froze and then suddenly found herself on the floor, the man who had caught her attention, sheltering her under his own body. She liked the way she felt with him so near. "Thank you," she managed, slightly breathless.

"Don't mention it," came the deep voiced reply. A quick glance toward the bar showd Inez holding JD far behind the bar. Knowing his son was safe, he turned his attention once more to the vision of loveliness beneath him.

A shiver coursed through the woman as the man's voice seemed to caress her. Business, she reminded herself. She was here on business. "Name's Louisa Perkins. I work for Governor Hopewell," she introduced.

Struggling to maintain his composure around this woman, Buck's voice deepened as he introduced, "Name's Buck Wilmington. The law around here." His breath came more rapidly as he saw the spark of desire in Louisa's eyes.

The sound of a table splintering nearby caused both Louisa and Buck to turn their heads. They saw Ezra lift his glass and stand. "Now, that was rude," the Southerner complained.

Just then the batwing doors opened and Chris stepped in. Buck noted Vin slip in behind the man in black and take a place next to the door, sling-shot in hand. He would have to have Chris talk to the boy again. Vin was too young to help out with the peacekeeping duties, even if Tanner did feel it his duty to watch Chris' back. Wilmington was thankful that JD was safe with Inez.

"That's enough," Chris declared, his voice carrying above the din. When the people didn't respond quickly enough, he let loose a shot from his Colt.

At the sound of the gunshot, all action in the saloon stopped. All action, that is, except for the chair aimed directly at Ezra's back. The sound of splintering wood and a body dropping insensate to the floor were the last sounds before silence reigned.

Holding a cold towel to the back of his head, Ezra groused, "Next time there's a brawl, I'll curl up under a table with a good book. We don't get paid enough to endure these indignities."

"We all take the same risks," Chris said as he leaned against a post outside the saloon, keeping an eye out for more trouble. He hadn't been happy when he turned around and found Vin watching his back, slingshot in hand, still, nothing had happened and they could talk about it later.

"Yeah," Vin agreed. "But Pa says nobody else complains about it."

Green eyes shot toward Larabee, wide with disbelief. Chris had the good grace to look embarrassed before clearing his throat and looking away.

Before the guilty man could form an excuse, or Ezra a complaint, the hotel owner, Mr. Heidegger approached the group. "Mr. Chris, I ask you, what am I to do? When the mouse has your cheese, you call the cats, yes?"

Larabee turned to face the man in question, thankful for the interruption. "What's the problem, Mr. Heidegger?"

With a small nod, the hotel owner continued, "For three days, Mr. Smith does not leave his room or allow the maid to enter or pay his bills. Now, please tell me, what in God's name is going on in there?"

Intrigued, Chris stood straighter. "Let's go have a look," he suggested. "Come on, Ezra," he encouraged, shooting a look at Vin that very clearly communicated he expected his son to stay where he was.

"Oh by all means. Wouldn't want to give myself a chance to heal," Ezra grumbled, wincing as the pain in his head increased as he moved.

Vin had seen Chris' look and knew he should stay where he was, but, in truth, the boy was as curious as his father to find out what was going on in the hotel. Waiting until Chris, Ezra and Mr. Heidegger were halfway across the street, Vin stood and followed.

The door to the room in question flew open under the power of Chris' booted foot. The man in black leaned back as an awful stench wafted out of the room to envelope the three men and the boy who had followed behind.

"Oh, good Lord!" Ezra decried as he pulled out his handkerchief to cover his mouth.

Chris fought the urge to vomit at the awful smell. Mr. Heidegger's nose wrinkled at the odor. Vin pulled his shirt up to cover his nose.

"Is he, uh, dead?" the hotel owner asked, nearly gagging on the scent that invaded his mouth.

"Well, if he weren't, the stench would kill him," Ezra observed, heading over toward the closet to see what he could find about the man there.

Chris moved closer to the bed. And looked the man up and down. There was no sign of blood on the body or on the bedding. "Don't look like foul play. Maybe his heart gave out," the blond man surmised. "We should get Nathan. He'll have a better idea," he suggested to Ezra who was pulling a satchel down from the closet shelf.

"I believe he died of happiness," Ezra advised, his mind quickly calculating what he held. "By my eye... There's close to $10,000 here." He could feel the quickening of hope within his heart as he came to the conclusion that he might just be able to make his dreams finally come true. Ten thousand dollars divided among the five peacekeepers would leave him with exactly the amount he needed to buy a share of Maude's casino.

Shocked by the declaration, Chris walked across the room, to stare at the money for himself. "Ten thousand dollars. That'll buy you a lot of dreams."

While the men had been looking at the body and in the closet, Vin had been looking around the rest of the room. He had spotted a case sitting on a small table. Licking his lips and shooting a look at the adults to make sure they hadn't seen him, he reached out and touched it. He knew what cases like this held. He'd seen one once before.

Working the latches, the boy lifted the lid and couldn't stop a whistle of awe. "Oh," he breathed, reaching out to trace his finger across the pieces of metal.

Chris' head snapped around at the whispered exclamation. His visage darkened as he spotted Vin standing in front of an open case. His lips thinning into a line, Larabee walked over to his son.

Hearing the footsteps behind him, the shaggy blond head whipped around, his eyes wide. Seeing the unhappy look on Chris' face, Vin knew he was in trouble. He had known perfectly well that Chris had wanted him to stay in front of the saloon, but had allowed his curiosity to get the better of him. Turning back and hanging his head, Tanner waited for Chris to reach him, his eyes unconsciously seeking the rifle.

Resting a hand on his son's shoulder, Chris looked into the case and frowned. "This ain't no cowboy's rifle," he muttered, lifting the openwork metal stock out of the case.

"Sure is pretty," Vin whispered, his eyes glued to the shining piece in his father's hands.

His breath catching, Larabee's eyes darted to the child. "Vin," he said, his voice heavy with meaning.

The blue eyes widened as Vin realized he had spoken aloud. He was really in for it now. "I'll go get Mr.Nathan," he offered before heading for the door.

"Vin!" the man in black called out before his boy could leave the room entirely.

"Yes, sir," came the anxious response.

"We'll talk about this later. I don't like you disobeying me."

"Yes, sir," was the resigned reply.

Replacing the rifle stock, Larabee took a closer look at the weapon. A sudden inspiration struck him as he realized what sort of man might need a rifle like this one. He crossed the room and, flipping the bedspread off of the dead man, he cursed softly as his suspicions were confirmed. "This man's name ain't Smith," he declared, his voice laced with disgust. "This is Lucius Stutz."

"Long range Lucius Stutz?" Ezra asked, his eyes widening in amazement. He had heard some interesting stories about the man over late night card games.

"And who would that be?" Mr. Heidegger inquired.

"A hired assassin," Standish informed, turning his attention to the case of money in his hands.

"One of the deadliest," Chris confirmed. "That ten thousand, there? That's blood money."

"The question is," the gambler asked, snapping the case closed, "who is he here to kill?"

Spying his son still standing next to the rifle, Larabee instructed, "Get Nathan." He turned his attention back toward the man on the bed when Vin left.

JD and Vin stood outside the hotel with a group of other children watching the activity.

"They say he picked off his targets from so far off that he'd be gone before the bullet even hit. And he never missed," JD explained excitedly, repeating what he'd heard from some of the adults he'd been standing near when the news spread as his uncles and the undertaker carried the body out of the building.

Chris followed the men and body out the door, a satchel securely held in his hand. He glanced over and caught sight of Vin and JD.

"JD, best go off and play while you have a chance. We're going to be eating soon and I need to talk to Vin," he informed.

"OK," JD said brightly.

Vin's head drooped as he realized he would find out the consequences of his actions. "Yes, sir," Tanner acknowledged quietly, the guilt of his earlier disobedience weighing heavily upon him. He hadn't meant to defy Chris, but he wanted to be there for his father, watch his back and protect the man, just as Chris had protected him. And then he had just been so curious to see what was going on, he just had to go and look.

Seeing the young blond's downcast visage, Chris was about to say something, but Ezra approached and distracted him. A portion of his mind registered Vin's presence a step behind him, but Standish held his attention.

"Mr. Larabee," he began, waiting for the blond head to turn his way. Normally, Standish would have recognized the look in Chris' eyes and the dejected demeanor of his the boy, but ever since seeing the money in the room, the thought Maude's offer had been niggling at him, tempting him. As the body had been carried across the street, his quick mind had run through various scenarios and finally landed upon one that would allow everyone to get what they wanted.

Chris looked at Ezra and saw the intent stare his friend was giving the satchel of money. Knowing what a snare that much money could be, especially to his friend, he strode off toward the bank. "The money's going to the bank, Ezra," he informed.

"But think of the wonderful things we could do with the money. Why if it were me..." Ezra said, his pulse racing as visions of his casino came to mind. "A casino in St. Louis, now, that's what I'd buy," he shared, his voice wistful. Then shaking himself, he continued, "But there's plenty in there for all of us. And you, for example, could buy yourself a sprawling ranch and some beautiful quarter horses," he enticed.

Larabee took a deep breath. Ezra didn't mess around, the Southerner knew that Chris had been thinking of starting a horse ranch again, one that he and Vin could work together. Still, he found he had no desire to take this money, blood money. He wanted to earn the money himself. "Sounds real good, Ezra," he admitted. "There's only one problem - it ain't ours."

Unwilling to give up on his dreams so easily, Standish tried another argument. "But custom dictates that if it goes unclaimed, it reverts back to the finders, namely us." Not receiving a response to this argument, a spark of hope ignited within him, encouraging him to continue. "We get paid a miserable $7.00 a week to get shot at, abused, and generally disrespected. Call it a bonus, if you like." That should do it, he thought. Certainly Chris could see the justice of that argument.

Stopping and turning to face the gambler, Chris instructed, "This money is going in the bank, Ezra. And be quiet about it. If this gets out, every yahoo west of the Missouri will be laying claim to it." He held Ezra's gaze with his own until he saw acceptance of his declaration. With a nod, he turned and continued on to the bank, glancing over his shoulder to make sure Vin was still following.

Disappointed at having lost this battle, Ezra sighed and replied, "Fear not. Sharing the wealth would not be my first instinct. "

JD wiggled in his seat at the table, settling his glass of lemonade before him. The boys with whom he had been playing had chores to do and were called home. More than able to entertain himself while Chris was talking to Vin, JD made his way to the saloon to see if Miss Inez would give him a lemonade. After asking very nicely, she had.

Seeing Buck sitting at a table looking at one of the girls, young Dunne wandered over and sat down. "Who you lookin' at, Papa?" he asked, not quite sure if it was the strange lady with the pretty red hair or Miss Melanie who was standing behind her.

"Louisa Perkins," Buck sighed, tearing his eyes away only long enough to check his son and make sure the boy was okay.

"She's real pretty," JD agreed, guessing the mustached man meant the lady with the red hair. "Is she going to have dinner with us?" he asked, knowing that his father frequently asked ladies to join them for dinner.

Buck released another sigh. "If beauty had a name, it would be Louisa. That's what I'm gonna say to her. And then I'm gonna invite her to supper and for a walk in the moonlight."

That sounded good to the little brunet. He liked having ladies at dinner and he liked walking with his papa at night. Seeing that Buck wasn't moving, he asked, "Well, what are you waiting for? Aren't you going to ask her?"

Buck turned and stared at his son. "You don't just walk up to a woman like that and start spouting," he advised in disbelief. Hadn't he taught his son anything? "Timing is the key. You have to wait for the perfect moment."

JD grinned wider as he saw the pretty lady come up behind his papa.

"Evening, Buck," the lady said, her eyes trained on the ladies' man, not even taking note of JD, or anyone else in the bar.

"Miss Louisa," Wilmington greeted, breathlessly.

"I thought perhaps if you weren't otherwise engaged, you might join me for supper," she invited. A small giggle drawing her eyes temporarily away from the man who haunted her every thought for a moment. "Both of you."

"Oh, I... we could eat, Ma'am," Buck agreed, rising to take her hand.

JD grinned.

Vin sat at the desk in the empty jail, his chin resting on his hands. He was miserable. He hated letting his pa down and that's just what he did. He couldn't even explain why he didn't obey, just that he wanted so badly to be with his father, to be like his father.

Now he was going to have to go straight to bed after supper. No story, no play, no games. Straight to bed.

A sigh escaped the small blond. He knew he could go out and play or find JD, but he just didn't want to do anything right now. Well, almost anything.

Interest sparked in the blue eyes as he caught sight of the rifle case across the room. He really couldn't explain why he liked the rifle so much, but there was just something about it.

Slowly rising from his chair, he walked across the room and undid the latches. Once the case was open, he used both hands to lift the stock of the gun out of the case. It was heavier than he thought, but solid and even in his small hands felt right.

"Wonder what kind of monster uses a weapon like that?" Nathan asked.

Vin spun around in surprise, nearly dropping the piece. He hadn't heard the door open or the healer come into the room. Feeling his cheeks color, he quickly returned the stock to the case. "Don't rightly know," he said, rubbing his hands against his pants and backing away.

Nathan smiled and stepped up next to Vin. Resting a hand on the thin shoulder, he moved them both back to the case. "It's a beautiful weapon," the healer observed, leaning down to get a closer look. He was curious as to what Vin thought about it, why the boy was so enthralled by the weapon.

Forgetting his fear at being caught looking, Vin stepped forward to caress the barrel. "If I were grown and had a gun like this to hunt buffs..."

"Big difference between buffalo hunting and murder," Nathan pointed out.

Blue eyes growing impossibly wide, Vin drew his hand back as if burned and gasped in horror. He'd been so taken with the gun he forgot what Chris and Ezra had said about it. It was a gun used to kill people, people who didn't even know someone was aiming at them. That was wrong. The man who owned the gun was a monster and there was no way he was going to become a monster.

"It's just a gun, Vin," Nathan said, easily reading the boy's fear and guessing at the cause. "It can be used for good, too."

"But with a gun like that it would be so easy to kill," Vin whispered, paling as he remembered his own thoughts.

"A lot of men would think that," Nathan agreed, turning to let Vin know that the healer was including him in the group of men. "Except the one who knows better," he finished, watching as his words were absorbed by the young Texan.

Drawing himself up straighter, Vin nodded. He knew better.

With a nod of acknowledgment, Nathan stood and looked toward the door. "Reckon we best head over to dinner before they eat it all," he said with a grin.

Vin returned the grin and nodded his agreement.

Vin stood next to Mr. Josiah and stared at the loud, noisy group of people. After his early bedtime last night - his punishment for being disobedient - the little sharpshooter had been up before the sun. Of course, his early rising had allowed him to hear Uncle Buck return from wherever he had been and his pa and uncle discuss what had happened the previous night.

From what Vin understood, his pa and Mr. Ezra had been in the saloon when the hotel owner had come in and demanded his money loud enough for everyone to hear. It was easy to tell that Chris had not been happy about Mr. Heidegger's revelation the way his voice got low and growly as he spoke to Buck.

Now, standing out on the street next to Mr. Josiah, he could easily understand why his father had been so upset.

Looking over, he could see Mr. Ezra stepping out of the saloon.

"Best go help the bank manager before things get any more out of hand," Josiah recommended.

"Indeed," Standish agreed, stepping off the boardwalk in order to cross to the bank.

Not wanting to remain on his own, Vin followed closely behind Josiah. As they reached the crowd at the bank, he pressed himself against the former preacher's leg and stayed close, only letting out a sigh of relief as he, Josiah and Ezra entered the bank.

"Money sure does bring out the best in people, doesn't it?" Josiah asked as he forced the door closed against the press of bodies.

The bank manager was standing inside looking scared and nervous. "What am I going to do with all these lunatics?" he demanded of the peacekeepers. "Every one of them says that they have a legitimate claim."

"What a disgusting display of greed," Standish observed, looking out into the mass of humanity and seeing one man elbow another in the nose in order to get closer to the bank's door. Turning away from the ugly scene, he smiled at the bank manager and soothed, "Now, sir. You may rest assured that no one's taking my... uh... that money out of here."

Tanner was puzzling about the slip Mr. Ezra had made when a loud crash distracted him. Spinning on his heel and reaching for the slingshot he almost always carried with him, Vin spotted two men smashing through the window. Mr. Josiah was heading after one of them, but the other was just picking himself up. Seeing the gun in the outlaw's hand, the blond boy quickly dug a rock out of his pocket and loaded his weapon. It was only a matter of seconds for him to aim and fire.

He hit the would-be thief right where he aimed, on the forehead. The man was momentarily stunned by the impact and staggered backward for a moment before blindly bringing his gun upward. Whether or not he intended to fire, no one would ever know because, at that moment, Ezra's gun barked, ensuring the man would never take any action again.

With the second man securely bound, Vin watched wide-eyed as Josiah walked over to the fallen man. Seeing his friend bow his head, Tanner felt his stomach roll slightly. Sure he'd seen dead bodies before and he'd seen men shot, but never quite so close. It wasn't pretty and he could only hope he wouldn't have nightmares.

"Another poor soul whipped to a frenzy over the temptation of money," Sanchez observed quietly, closing the man's eyes one final time.

The confrontation and resulting demise of one of the claimants seemed to curb the enthusiasm of the rest of the crowd. When Josiah went outside and ordered them to disburse, they did.

The former preacher had then sent Vin down to the undertaker. Tanner had readily agreed to run the errand, anxious to get away from the grisly scene inside.

After accomplishing his task, the boy had returned to the bank and taken up a post outside, waiting for his father, who he knew would be by shortly. He wasn't disappointed. A few minutes after his return, Buck, Chris and JD appeared heading toward the bank.

When the trio finally got within speaking distance, JD excitedly asked, "What'd we miss?"

Vin didn't even try to respond, he just went to stand by his pa and leaned against the black-clad leg.

Josiah stepped out of the bank a moment later followed by the bank manager. "Couple of bandits looking to get shot," Sanchez informed as the undertaker carried the body of one of them out, Ezra had left to drop the other one off at the jail. Watching the body pass by, Josiah couldn't help but feel sorrow for the life lost. "Five minutes ago he was poor and desperate," he observed sadly. Then, the heaviness seemed to leave him and a sigh escaped. "Now... maybe he's found some peace," he finished.

Interrupting any other conversation, the bank manager chose to speak. Holding up the satchel that had been found yesterday he informed, "I won't have this in my bank. It is too risky." Setting the bag on the boardwalk, he stepped away and insisted, "It's your problem now." He then turned on his heel and walked back into his damaged bank.

After locking the second would-be robber in the jail, Ezra had returned in time to hear the bank manager's declaration. "I'll just see to that, then," he volunteered, moving toward the money. "Large amounts of money don't unnerve me in the least."

Before the gambler could reach the bag, Chris snatched it up and tossed it to Josiah. "It'll be safer over at the church," he informed everyone.

Vin didn't care where the money went as long as his family didn't get hurt. He watched Josiah leave with the bag and was about to greet his father when Ezra appeared before them.

"I... I... I know I've appeared a tad mercenary," the gambler began, "but I'm quite capable of seeing to its safekeeping."

A small smile was Chris' only response to the gambler, at least, from his angle, Vin thought it looked like a small smile. Glancing over at Ezra, he could tell the man wasn't happy.

"Mr. Larabee, am I to assume that you have doubts as to my honesty?" Standish demanded, offended by the slight.

"Josiah can look after it," Chris replied, ignoring the question. Resting a hand on Vin's shoulder, he nodded toward the restaurant, silently asking if Vin wanted to get something to eat.

Though he wasn't really hungry after what he'd seen in the bank, Tanner nodded his agreement to the suggestion, wanting the security that came from being near his father.

Breakfast with his father, Buck and JD had been good for Vin. After a while, he even ate some of his pancakes and jam. Though he knew he and JD would need to spend some time after lunch doing lessons with Josiah, who was helping them while Miss Marnie was out of town, for right now they could go out and play.

Vin was all set to take off running as soon as he was outside. That idea disappeared as soon as he saw the large crowd milling about on the street. He really wasn't all that fond of crowds, and decided to stick close by Chris until they were free of the press of people.

As they stepped out onto the boardwalk, the smaller blond saw a stranger holding a book out to some people. There was something odd about the man, but he couldn't quite figure out what.

"And the Good Book can be such a comfort in these times of sin and temptation," the stranger informed. "This beautiful edition here is fully illustrated for the youngsters."

Whatever else the stranger might have said was lost to young Tanner as the sound of a bugle blowing and a coach rolling in seemed to override the crowd noise. Sticking close to his father, Vin moved forward through the press of people to see what was happening.

A fancy, white wagon slowed to a stop and a man in a suit stood up and began speaking. "Good morning! Good morning. Come on around," the new arrival encouraged, waving people closer. "I'm your territorial governor Clayton Hopewell, and I'm here to help you beat back this brushfire of statehood. So, come on out to the rally noon tomorrow and bring your friends and neighbors. And I'll tell you the truth about statehood." Murmurs raced through the crowd before Hopewell concluded, "And there will be plenty of free beer to boot!" This last pronouncement was met with rousing cheers.

Vin saw Mrs. Travis work her way through the crowd to the front.

When the newspaperwoman was standing next to the governor, she waited for the man to step down before introducing herself. "Governor Hopewell, I'm Mary Travis," she greeted.

Hopewell shook the hand that was offered to him and smiled at the woman. "Editor of the Clarion, am I right?" he inquired. Smiling as he received a nod of agreement. "You know, you've become quite the spokeswoman for statehood, my dear. Your articles have been reprinted all over the territory," he observed.

Hearing the words, Vin frowned. It sounded like the man was being nice, but there was something about the way he said those things that didn't sit right with the boy.

"I'm gratified to hear that," Mrs. Travis replied.

"I must say, I never imagined my chief adversary would be so young and beautiful," the governor flattered.

Forcing a smile on her face that didn't reach her eyes, Mary replied, "Thank you, sir, but all the flattery in the world won't change my mind."

His own smile becoming hard, Hopewell answered, "I welcome the opportunity to try, Mrs. Travis, perhaps over dinner this evening."

"I look forward to it, Governor," Mary accepted. "But I think I'll be the one persuading you."

Before the two could exchange any more words a cry distracted those still gathered.

"Hey! It's liver-eatin' Jones!" the man who had arrived with the governor exclaimed. "What are you doing here?" he demanded of the dusty man in question.

"All right, let him go," Chris demanded, striding over to the newcomer and the man in question. When Hopewell's man didn't release Jones, Larabee commanded, "Break it up."

This time the governor's man did let go of Jones and looked toward Hopewell, who had approached with Vin and Chris. "He's liver-eatin' Jones, notorious killer," Hopewell's man informed his boss.

The man in question chose this time to speak up. "I've seen the light boys," he declared. "I've changed my evil ways."

The governor's man snorted in disbelief.

"Horace," Hopewell cautioned.

"Yeah, sure you have," Horace commented, turning to face Larabee once more. "The governor's got a lot of death threats," he explained. Then, turning toward Jones, he continued, "And he's just the weasel to do that sort of thing."

"Can you prove that accusation?" Chris demanded.

Vin looked over at Horace and instantly knew the man couldn't. Taking in Jones' appearance, Tanner decided the man may not be the nicest ever, but he seemed a lot more likely to tell the truth than Horace.

"Who are you?" the governor's man demanded, ignoring the question of his identity.

"I'm the law in this town," Larabee informed.

Jones stepped up a little then and explained, "My gun's hung up. And I swore off drink, too." Then, turning a challenging eye on all those around him, he concluded, "Now I'm drunk on God."

Horace' face turned an interesting shade of red as he pointed a finger at the man in question. "You're a liver-eatin' liar," he accused.

Vin's eyes narrowed as he looked at Mr. Horace. There was something about the way he was accusing the other man that didn't sit right.

Stepping forward, Chris informed, "Unless you can back up those charges with facts, this man is free to go." When there was no answer forthcoming, Larabee looked at Jones and encouraged, "Go on, get out of here." As the man turned and began to walk away, the older blond called out one last warning, "Jones," when the man turned to meet his eyes, Chris finished, "we'll be watching you."

Meeting Larabee's look dead on, Jones assured, "I won't so much as spit on the street."

Vin had seen Jones' f. ace when he said that and knew the man was telling the truth. Glancing up at his father, Tanner could tell that Chris knew it, too. The whole exchange left the little blond puzzled. He didn't understand everything that was going on, but he knew that he didn't like Mr. Horace much. Vin liked Mr. Horace even less a moment later when the man stepped right up into Chris' space.

"Any harm comes to the governor," Horace threatened, "it's on your head."

Chris just stared the man down and watched him leave.

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" he asked, turning to look over his shoulder.

Vin glanced up. He hadn't seen Mr. Nathan approach them and was surprised to see the healer there. Looking around, Tanner also spotted Mr. Ezra on the other side of the street and Mr. Josiah on the far side of the wagon. He wondered when they had shown up.

"Some folks might consider $10,000 a bargain to get rid of a man in the Governor's position," Jackson observed.

Chris nodded slowly in agreement. "Well, anybody who's willing to pay that kind of money for a killin' ain't gonna give up easy," he asserted.

Nodding his head, Vin softly agreed, "Yep." Feeling his pa's eyes on him, he turned to meet the hazel gaze, wondering at the considering look he saw in them.

"Reckon we should keep an eye on Mr. Jones," he said thoughtfully. "Think you could handle that while you're out playing?" Larabee asked his son.

Eyes widening in amazement that he was being allowed to help out, Vin nodded eagerly. "Yes, sir!" he replied.

A smile broke out on Chris' face, hearing Jackson's soft chuckle behind him, he decided this was the right thing to do. Though he knew any man in the West could be dangerous, something in the man's demeanor told him he could trust Jones. "Don't get too close, just make sure you know where he is," Larabee instructed his pint-sized helper. "You can still go ahead and play, but if you see him get ready to leave town, you run and let one of us know."

"Yes, sir," Tanner replied seriously.

"Keep your eye on Jones," he commanded, dismissing his son.

Vin was thrilled that he was being allowed to help just like any of the other peacekeepers. Spotting JD just coming out of one of the buildings, he hurried forward to tell his brother the good news. As he left, he heard Chris ask, "Governor, can I have a word with you?" Still, whatever Chris might have to say to the governor couldn't be half as exciting as keeping an eye on Mr. Jones.

JD spotted Mr. Ezra and Mr. Nathan standing on the boardwalk in front of the jail, talking. Vin had sent him to get one of the other peacekeepers to keep an eye on Mr. Jones. It was time for the boys to have lunch and then have their lessons for the day.

Standing and waiting as patiently as his five years would allow, JD soon figured out the two men were discussing what happened with the money at the bank that morning. He could tell Mr. Ezra was upset.

"What's wrong, Mr. Ezra?" JD interrupted, his patience finally wearing out.

Looking at the boy, Ezra sighed. "It's... When it comes right down to it, I do believe Chris considers me a larcenist," he replied, his disquiet coming through loud and clear.

While JD didn't understand all the words that Mr. Ezra had just said, he did understand that his friend wasn't happy about something Chris did or said. Figuring it might have something to do with the fact the gunman had given the money to Josiah rather than to Ezra, JD shrugged and replied, "Nah, Mr. Ezra. I think he just doesn't trust you with money."

Staring in disbelief at the boy, who seemed completely unaware of what he had said, Ezra and Nathan could only stand mutely by as Dunne took a deep breath and explained that it was "their turn" to go and watch "that man".

With a quick shake, Ezra shed the stupor that had overcome him at the boy's words and looked at Nathan, intent on finishing their conversation. "I'll admit I made a strong case on our behalf. But he can't seriously think that I'd, uh, uh, abscond with it."

Nathan looked helplessly at his friend as he prepared to follow JD. "I wish I knew what to say, Ezra," he replied honestly. He really didn't know what to tell his friend and knew it was unwise to step into any argument between friends.

JD let out a sigh as he waited for one of the men to come with him. He saw Mr. Ezra's face turn pink when Mr. Nathan had answered him. He silently wondered if those were tears in Mr. Ezra's eyes. Maybe Mr. Ezra could use a hug, he decided.

"You know, I can endure the torments of Hell, and I believe I have to the benefit of this entire town," Ezra replied, strong emotion causing his voice to quiver and his hands to tremble. "But I cannot abide the fact that my associates don't trust me. No, sir," he finished before turning and walking away.

Surprised by the move, JD observed out loud, "I think he needs a hug." Looking up as a hand came to rest on his shoulder, the brunet found Nathan smiling down at him.

"Reckon you're right," the healer agree. "Now, show me where you're watching Jones," he encouraged.

JD jumped down the last few steps of the church and scanned the street. He didn't immediately see his papa, so he decided to head toward the saloon to take a look.

As he approached the building in question, he noticed Miss Louisa reach over and rip down one of the papers Mrs. Travis had been hanging around town.

The action caused JD to stop in his footsteps. It was only when Buck stepped out of the building in question and took the paper away from Miss Louisa that young Dunne continued on his journey.

As he approached the couple, he heard Buck say, "Why you naughty girl."

Miss Louisa just stood straighter and pouted a little. JD was well aware that pouts only sometimes worked on Buck, after all, hadn't he tried pouting and failed that morning to get lemonade with his breakfast rather than milk?

"I just have strong beliefs," the lady explained.

Standing next to the mustached man, JD just watched the two adults, relishing the warmth of Buck's hand as it rested on his shoulder. He jumped when Mrs. Travis spoke up behind him.

"Except forthe First Amendment - Freedom of Speech," Mrs. Travis accused, folding her arms across her chest.

JD suddenly felt very nervous standing between the two women and shifted to the other side of Buck.

"Perhaps you've heard of it?" Mary inquired of the redhead.

Louisa squared her shoulders and looked the blonde lady right in the eye. "I would hate to see this town fall victim to economic collapse," she threatened. "Or, worse, be ravaged by Indians."

JD wasn't sure what ravaged meant, but all the Indians he had met had been really nice, so he couldn't figure out why that would be a bad thing.

A smirk appeared on Mary's face. "Oh, yes. The old Indian threat," she replied. "That's worked well for your side out here, hasn't it?"

JD looked over at Miss Louisa, still not sure why having Indians around would be a bad thing.

Her eyes narrowing slightly, Miss Perkins countered, "Do you seriously think that they'll just sit by and let their tribal lands be turned over to the state? Not a chance. We'll have war. And you, with your yellow hair and your green eyes will make a prized Indian bride."

JD shifted slightly behind his father, his eyes growing wider. He'd seen men fight before, but that wasn't half as scary as watching Mrs. Travis and Miss Louisa not-yell at each other.

Mary scoffed in disbelief at the threat. "Oh, please," she countered. "The only ones afraid of statehood are the ranchers because they'd lose their hold on the land." Then, with a not-so-nice smile on her face, she added, "And your Governor Hopewell, he's in their pocket."

At these words, JD saw Miss Louisa's face turn an interesting shade of pink and there was no doubt she was very angry. Hiding completely behind Buck, he eyed the street to see if he could make a quick getaway.

At that moment, perhaps because he could feel the tension in his son's little body, decided to take his life into his own hands and interrupted. "Now, ladies," he soothed. Seeing that neither was willing to break eye contact, he physically stepped between them, causing both women to look at him. Suddenly feeling like prey in some predator's sight, Buck held up his hands and soothed, "Ladies."

Seeing how uncomfortable she had made her friend, and the little boy behind him, Mary took the paper that Louisa had torn down and tacked it backup. That accomplished, she began walking away.

"Good day, squaw," Louisa taunted as Mary walked by. When the blonde woman had gone about three steps down the boardwalk, Miss Perkins reached over and tore down the paper once more.

JD saw Mary stop in her tracks and her back go perfectly straight. Turning to face the trio behind her she looked at the redhead and threatened, "You do that again, I'll have Mr. Wilmington here, arrest you."

Only wanting to get away from the situation, Buck hastily tacked the sheet of paper to the wall and then found himself pressed up against the boards of the building with his arms full of Louisa as she kissed him thoroughly.

JD just stared at the woman. He couldn't believe it, Miss Louisa was kissing his papa right there on the street where everyone could see!

Breaking off the kiss, Louisa explained, "Nothing like a good debate to get my blood astir." She then took Buck's hand and led him away.

JD just shook his head and decided to go looking for Vin. Right now the last thing in the world he wanted was to be around girls.

If he remembered right, Vin was still at the church finishing some of his schoolwork.

Vin sighed as he finished the last of his reading. He couldn't decide if he liked having Mr. Josiah teach him or not. Mr. Josiah seemed to like to make him read a lot more than Miss Marnie, but, on the other hand, with Mr. Josiah there were only he and JD as students.

Just as he was about to ask permission to leave, the door to the church opened and the Bible salesman he'd seen earlier walked in. Studying the man, Tanner felt a shiver run down his spine. He wasn't sure what it was, but something about the man just didn't seem quite right.

He watched quietly as the man approached Mr. Josiah who was picking up a water bucket over and over again. Vin made a mental note to find out why Mr. Josiah was doing that.

"A wise man is strong," the newcomer stated aloud, settling his case on a nearby pew. "Yea, knowledge increaseth strength."

Josiah set the bucket on the floor and picked up a rag that had been sitting on the pew behind him. Mopping his brow, he observed, "Well, you know your Proverbs, son."

"Hope some of your congregation might wish to learn 'em, too," the young man enthused, a black book clutched in his hand. Holding the book out to the other man, the salesman continued, "Each page is lined in genuine gold leaf, and it's fully illustrated - see," he explained, flipping the book open to an illustration.

Vin noticed that, while the stranger was talking, he seemed to be carefully looking around the church, as if searching for something. When the stranger's eyes turned toward him, Vin quickly looked back at his lesson, wondering what the man could be looking for. His own eyes scanning the area, he quickly spotted the bag with the money in it and decided that must be it.

As he forced the book into Josiah's hands, the Bible salesman continued his pitch. "The Preacher in the last town bought a whole case for his congregation," he tempted.

With a grunt of acknowledgement, Josiah closed the book and handed it back to the reluctant salesman. Scanning the empty pews, he informed, "Well, you're looking at my congregation, son. But, ah, thank you very much."

Not to be deterred, the young man set the sample down on a nearby pew, picked up his case and offered, "Consider it a gift. Maybe it will grow on you." Then he left.

Staring at the door another minute or two, Vin was startled to see the door open again. Only, instead of the salesman, JD walked through the portal and into the building.

The brunet made his way up to the former preacher and asked, "Can Vin come play with me?"

Josiah glanced over his shoulder, surprised, as if realizing the other boy was still there. "I think so, JD," he agreed, nodding to the blond.

Vin quickly put away his lesson and chased JD outside into the sun.

JD sat on one of the high chairs at the counter in the restaurant. It was a real treat for him to be here, having dinner with just his papa. Of course, Buck was working, watching over the Governor and Mrs. Travis, but still, it was nice to have it just the two of them.

The only bad thing about this meal was that his papa seemed kind of sad and distracted. Trying to figure out something to say to get the mustached man's attention, he decided to repeat a comment he heard earlier. "It's a great job, huh?" he asked, taking a sip of his milk. When the mustached man turned toward him, JD finished. "Getting paid to watch people eat."

The only response he received was a small smile.

Frustrated by the lack of response, JD decided he needed to be more direct. "What's the matter, Papa?" he asked, causing the man in question to turn toward him with a puzzled look, the man's question easy to read. "You look like your horse died," young Dunne replied, having heard that phrase once or twice himself.

A real smile bloomed on the man's face as he looked at his son. A gentle warmth filled him as he realized that, no matter what happened, JD would be there to love him, to be loved by him and to make him smile. "Oh, you wouldn't understand," he said quietly, reaching out to ruffle the boy's hair.

JD frowned slightly and blew his bangs out of his face. He could still see the sadness in his father's eyes. Thinking hard about the past few days, he realized it was the first time in a while he'd seen his papa without Miss Louisa. "This have something to do with Miss Louisa?" he asked.

Surprised by the boy's astute observation, Buck stood a little straighter. He knew he shouldn't be surprised by JD's observation, after all, the boy was smart, but it still took him by surprise. "All right," Buck said with a resigned sigh. Wondering at the fact he was discussing this with his son rather than another adult. Still, maybe if he just explained it out loud, he would see a solution. "I don't know. She's not perfect, all right? And I know I'm not perfect," he explained, reaching out a finger and silencing JD as the boy was about to protest that last comment. "But we're perfect together. There's something about her."

Hearing the dreamy voice the older brunet used to explain, JD knew that Buck really liked Miss Louisa and wondered if Miss Louisa would be his new mother. That realization made it harder for him to understand what the problem was. All women loved his papa and it sounded like his papa had finally found a woman he loved, too. "So, what's the problem?" the boy asked, puzzled. Adults could be so confusing.

Smiling down at his son, Buck explained, "It turns out that the woman of my dreams is a rambling rose." The confusion that marred JD's face at this pronouncement almost caused Buck to laugh. "She's not the settling type," he explained.

"Oh," JD said, thinking that over. Not finding any answer that made sense, he asked, "Why don't you make her stay?"

Buck actually laughed at the question. "Lincoln freed the slaves, JD," he teased, shaking his head at the boy.

JD let out a large sigh of frustration. That wasn't what he'd meant at all. "No, papa," he explained, trying to be patient with the man. "What I mean is... marry her. Make her my new mama."

Buck's soft laughter stopped as he was struck by the simplicity of JD's solution. He had never really pictured himself as someone to marry, but then, he'd never pictured himself as raising a son, either. Thinking over his son's statement and finding nothing wrong with the suggestion, he observed, "You know, there's something really wrong if I'm listening to you about women."

"Yeah," the boy sighed in agreement. Then, with a shrug, he turned his attention back to his milk. Sometimes adults just made his head hurt.

The father and son fell into silence for a while as their food was delivered. Though he couldn't make out the words, JD listened to the rise and fall of voices in the room. He looked at Mr. Horace and couldn't figure out why Vin didn't like the man. He just seemed like a grumpy man to JD.

As he finished up the last of his dinner, the sound of a shot and glass breaking caused the boy to drop his fork.

One minute he was sitting in his chair and the next, he was smothered under Buck.

"Stay down, son," Wilmington whispered to his boy as he rose and headed over toward the now broken window. "Everybody stay down!" he commanded as he spotted some of the people beginning to stand. Reaching the window, he couldn't see anything outside. A quick scan of the room lead him to the frightened face of Mary Travis. "You all right, Mrs. Travis?" When he received an affirmative nod, his eyes slid back over to the counter where JD remained huddled on the floor.

"I'll watch him," Mary assured the ladies' man, having seen JD's wide, frightened hazel eyes.

"Stay low," he cautioned. Then, turning toward the door, announced, "I'll see what I can find."

Vin saw Buck coming out of the restaurant as he and Chris came racing from the jail.

Drawing abreast of the man, Chris asked, "Buck, what was that?"

"Shot at the governor through the window. Just missed him," the mustached man explained.

"JD?" Chris asked.

"Mary's with him," was the quick reply.

The rapid fire exchange had Vin's head looking back and forth between the two men. He knew a shot had been fired, and that JD was fine. Anything else his pa and uncle would take care of.

"Jones," the old friends said at the same time.

Frowning, it took Vin only a moment to figure out what the two men meant. They were talking about the man he had watched earlier in the day and that Mr. Ezra was watching now. That seemed to puzzle him a little because the man had seemed truthful. At least, he had seemed more truthful than Mr. Horace.

Jogging to keep up with the long-legged men in front of him, the boy slipped through the doors of the saloon only a moment after Chris and Buck. Looking at the two men, he could tell they weren't very happy with Mr. Ezra.

"Where's Jones?" Chris demanded of the gambler. When he didn't receive an immediate answer, he pressed, "He been out of your sight?" Standish's reply was to open and close his mouth several times as if trying to figure out the right answer. "I asked you if he's been out of your sight?" Larabee demanded forcefully.

"Surely you don't expect me to follow him into the outhouse?" Ezra finally replied.

Vin's nose wrinkled in disgust at the thought. He couldn't blame Mr. Ezra for not following the man in there.

Just then Mr. Jones stepped back into the building and Chris drew his gun.

"Get 'em up!" the blond peacekeeper demanded.

Lifting his arms, Jones calmly explained, "I ain't got no gun. I didn't do nothing."

It was easy for Vin to tell that his father wanted to believe the man.

"You can do nothing just as easy in jail," Larabee finally decided indicating the man in question should go before them.

JD raced into the hotel lobby, looking for Buck. Casey had asked if Dunne wanted to go home with her and Miss Nettie to play. It sounded like a lot of fun and Vin was working at the store this morning, so JD was on his own.

Remembering that his papa had gone to the room to change after breakfast, JD had first stopped by the hotel. When he couldn't find Buck there, he asked Mrs. Potter, who was outside her store sweeping, if she had seen the man in question. She had pointed to the other hotel, the one where Miss Louisa was staying.

Allowing a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness of the lobby, JD spotted his father standing by the foot of the stairs. Before he could reach the man, Miss Louisa came down the stairs in question and Buck swept her away into an alcove.

Crossing the room, JD waited on the other side of the curtains for his father to finish talking to Miss Louisa.

"Mmm. Buck, good morning," JD heard Miss Louisa say.

"I've got something to say," Buck explained. "And if I don't spill it fast, I'm not, not gonna get it out, OK?"

JD's eyes grew wide as he listened. He had a feeling he knew what was going to happen. His papa was going to ask Miss Louisa to become JD's mother! Moving a little closer, JD peered around the corner and watched the adults.

"But, I..." Louisa began before Buck cut her off.

"Shh. Louisa, darlin'," Buck hushed, cutting off whatever Louisa had been about to say. "I have never met a woman like you in my life before, and I'm pretty sure I'm not gonna meet one like you again. And I have never pictured myself parking my boots in one place for too long, but now, I can't imagine my life without you. What I'm tryin' to get at is...Will you marry me?"

A huge smile broke out on JD's face and he began to bounce in place slightly as he waited for Miss Louisa to say yes.

"Marry you?" Miss Perkins asked, stunned. Of everything she might have imagined, a marriage proposal from Buck was the last. "I..." she began to say, before realizing she didn't have a clue what to say.

"Marry me," Buck instructed, almost begged, having seen the shock on his love's face. Struggling to find the words, Buck stumbled onward. "I know I... I... I... it's nothing and I don't have much to offer, but I love you and... I love you."

"I love you, too," the redhead finally admitted.

"Yeah?" Buck smiled back, his voice almost breathless.

"That's what makes it so sad," Louisa said.

JD frowned at the lady's response. If she loved his papa and his papa loved her enough to ask her to marry him, what could be sad?

His voice reflecting the puzzlement his son was feeling, Buck asked, "Sad?"

Nodding her head, a few tears slipped down Louisa's cheek as she explained, "Buck, I'm not cut out to be a wife. My life, my work - it's on the road. You may be ready to park your boots, but I'm not." Having said that, she broke out of the shocked man's grasp and ran out of the hotel, not even noticing the sad little boy staring after her.

Seeing the tears in his father's blue eyes, JD rushed into the room and lifted his arms, wanting nothing more than to comfort his father and take away all the hurt.

When he was settled against the broad chest, the little brunet wrapped his arms around his father's neck and squeezed as tightly as he could. "I love you, Papa," he averred. "And I'll never leave you."

Though he couldn't see it, JD could feel the smile on his fathers face as the man kissed his cheek.

JD jumped off his chair when the noise started inside the jail. He and Nathan had been playing a game of checkers while Buck caught up with everyone in town and JD waited for Miss Nettie and Casey to come get him so he could go out to their house and play.

Following the healer inside, JD stared at the man in the cell who was running a cup against the bars and shouting. "What are you hollerin' about, Mr. Jones?" he asked as he drew closer to the cell, confident in Nathan's protection.

Looking from the boy to the man, Jones locked eyes with Nathan and explained, "The Lord spoke to me, told me I got a chance to save a life to pay for some of the ones I took."

"You might start by telling us who hired you," Nathan offered, not believing the man for an instant.

"I ain't fired a gun in almost a year," Jones defended.

"Come on, now. That shot fired last night was fired from long range. Missed the Governor by an inch," Nathan scoffed. "Sounds like your style."

Jones stared hard at the healer, doing his best not to give in to anger. "Only I never missed," he stated.

JD swallowed, he believed the man.

"I ain't proud of what I was," Jones continued, "but I was good at it. It had to be Stutz."

"Stutz is dead," Nathan chastised, smarting that he had believed the man, even for an instant.

"Not Lucius," Jones corrected. "His boy. They're partners."

"What's this boy look like?" Jackson asked, believing the man, though he didn't want to.

Jones considered a moment before replying. "Regular as you or me, 'cept he's got a dead eye. Wears a glass one now. Looks almost normal. Almost."

JD stared at the man, his mouth open slightly in surprise. "A sharpshooter with one eye?" he asked in disbelief.

"Yeah," Jones confirmed. "Made him a better shot, so he's happy about it. But the Mayor of Kettleston ain't. They killed him last week."

"How do you know that?" JD asked, wondering how this man knew so much.

"Read all about it in that newspaper of yours. Long range, right between the eyes. Had to be one of the Stutz', he averred.

Turning to look at the boy who was still staring at the prisoner, Nathan encouraged, "Why don't you find everyone and have them meet us here at the jail?"

"Yes, sir, Mr. Nathan!" JD agreed, proud to be helping. He raced out of the jail at full speed, intent on gathering everyone.

JD had done an amazing job of quickly gathering all of the peacekeepers and Vin at the jail. The seven had decided to meet outside the jail on the boardwalk, rather than make their plans in front of Mr. Jones. Now the little brunet stood next to Buck almost bouncing with excitement.

Nathan had quickly explained what Jones had told them. All present were trying to remember if they had seen a man with a glass eye.

"Glass eye?" Josiah mused. "I've seen that guy," he stated with confidence. "He was sellin' Bibles."

"All right," Vin said, ready to go. "Let's find him."

Chris quickly placed a hand on his son's shoulder to stop the boy from charging off into a potentially dangerous situation.

Before he could say anything, Miss Nettie pulled up in her wagon with Casey sitting beside her.

"JD!" the girl squealed, seeing her friend.

JD sighed, realizing he wouldn't be around to help find the man with a glass eye.

"You go on, son," Buck encouraged, lifting the boy into his arms. He made sure to give JD a firm hug before he deposited the boy in the wagon. "You have lots of fun and tell me all about it tonight on the ride back," he encouraged.

JD offered one, last, longing look at his papa before being swept away by Casey's chatter.

When all attention was once more focused on the matter at hand, Chris began handing out assignments. "Buck," he said, knowing the ladies' man would know exactly where he would need to be.

"Stick with the governor," Wilmington supplied.

Looking at his son, Chris knew that Vin wouldn't be comfortable searching through the crowds and made a quick decision. "Josiah, I want you and Vin up on that rooftop," he ordered, indicating which building he meant. "Vin," he said, looking squarely into the blue eyes. "I want you to bring your spyglass and keep a sharp eye out for the man. Josiah, just as a precaution, bring a rifle."

Josiah shifted a little uncomfortably. He was a fair shot, but hitting anything or anyone with accuracy from the roof wasn't going to be easy.

Seeing the unease on the man's face, Larabee flicked his eyes to the interior of the jail and he spied the rifle they had taken from the senior Stutz' room. "Take that," he advised, pointing to the rifle case. "Should help some."

Sanchez nodded and entered the jail in order to retrieve the rifle.

Vin waited for his father to dismiss them so he could go retrieve his spy glass. His blue eyes were twinkling as he thought about the important job he would be doing. Once again, Chris was including him in the important jobs and not leaving him out because he was too little. It felt good.

When Josiah returned, Chris was just finishing up his instructions to the others. "Remember, we want him alive." Turning his full attention to the former preacher, he asked, "Josiah, the money well hid?"

Most of his attention focused on checking out the strange gun, Josiah informed, "I give it to Ezra."

"Ezra?" Larabee asked, surprised. They all knew that money was a huge temptation to the gambler. Giving him $10,000 to watch over was like asking Chris to watch your bottle of whiskey on the anniversary of Sarah and Adam's deaths. "What's the matter with you?" he demanded, noting that Ezra was already gone.

"It's serving a purpose," Josiah affirmed, resting the rifle on his shoulder and calmly meeting the hazel eyes.

Nathan snorted at that comment. "Yeah, making Ezra rich."

"All right," Chris interrupted before things could turn ugly. "We'll deal with this later."

"Let's go catch some bad guys," Josiah said to Vin, offering the boy his free hand to hold.

Glancing once over his shoulder, Vin saw Mr. Ezra just stepping away from the jail wall. His eyes widened as he realized his friend had probably heard the mean things everyone else was saying about him. Before he could think of anything to say, or break away to speak to Mr. Ezra, he found himself outside the hotel and ran upstairs to his room to get his spyglass. He had a job to do.

Exiting the hotel, a thought occurred to Vin. He wasn't sure it was something his pa would approve of, but something told him it might be needed.

Walking up to his partner, he spoke tentatively. "Mr. Josiah?" he asked.

"Yes," the former preacher replied.

"I... I was thinking and I think I should have my rifle up there, too," he suggested, his mind already zipping through all sorts of reasons why. When he saw the question in his friends blue eyes change to a refusal, he quickly added, "We've never fired that rifle and don't know how it is. We sure wouldn't want it jamming at the wrong time."

Sanchez paused, thinking over what Vin had said. His eyes traveled down the length of the assassin's rifle and he nodded his head. It was never a good idea to go into battle with an unknown weapon. His own rifle would be too heavy for the boy to carry up to the roof and he wasn't sure he wanted to be walking around their high perch carrying two rifles. "All right, son," he agreed. Placing a hand on the boy's shoulder to stall his progress, he cautioned, "But you aren't taking it to shoot it. You remember the talk we all had about you shooting at men."

Vin swallowed hard and his eyes grew wide. He remembered the talk quite well and didn't want to think about shooting anyone. He sure didn't want to become a target himself. "Yes, sir," he replied.

Nodding his head, Josiah turned to walk beside the boy who would be keeping watch with him. "Let's go get it then," he said.

It took them only moments to cross back to the jail and retrieve the rifle in question. They then made their way to the ladder that would lead them to their chosen perch. With any luck, their shooting skills wouldn't be needed.

A heavy sigh escaped the boy as he rested the spyglass on the roof.

"Tired?" Josiah asked, feeling a little stiff and tired himself. Sitting still on a roof being attentive to every person in the town as well as every window and rise was a terrible way to relax.

"Can't see all their faces," Vin complained, indicating the crowd that was gathering in the street for the rally. "Stupid hats," he grumbled.

A grin broke out on the former preacher's face. "Yeah," he agreed. "Hats."

Vin looked at his friend and saw the teasing light in the blue eyes. Offering a smile in return, he picked up his spy glass and started scanning windows again. He had spotted Chris earlier going to see Mrs. Travis. Both he and Josiah had decided that Larabee was going to check out whether or not Jones had given them good information.

Now, as he scanned the windows above the saloon, he caught a glimpse of Ezra before the man pulled away from the window. A frown marred the boy's face as he tried to figure out what the look on his friend's face meant. It sure didn't look like Mr. Ezra was happy.

"What's wrong?" Sanchez asked, wondering if the boy had spotted something.

Chewing on his bottom lip, he decided this was something to share. "I just saw Mr. Ezra and he didn't look too happy," he explained." I know he overheard everyone earlier when you told Pa you'd gaved Mr. Ezra the money. He didn't look happy then either."

Upset that his words and actions had caused a friend pain, Josiah asked, "Do you know what he did look like if it wasn't happy?"

Vin stared into the blue eyes and shrugged. "Don't know," he said. "Just know it wasn't happy."

"All right, Vin," Josiah soothed. "I'll talk to him later."

"O. K." Tanner replied, scanning the streets once more. There sure was a lot going on down there.

"Ladies and gentlemen," a woman's voice boomed through the street.

Glancing down, Vin easily identified the redheaded lady Uncle Buck had been spending so much time with, Miss Louisa.

"Ladies and gentlemen, there are precious few moments in life when we get an opportunity to stand up for greatness, when the political tide threatens to sweep us away, but we dig our heels into the earth and hold our ground," the woman continued.

A movement by the livery caught Vin's attention. He realized as he looked more closely, it hadn't been a movement, but a color. Focusing his spyglass on that area, he spotted Mr. Ezra headed toward the horses when someone bumped him. The gambler's next actions confused the little sharpshooter.

After being bumped, Mr. Ezra had turned back to the livery, but then turned around again very suddenly. Once facing toward the crowd, he began to push his way through the people, knocking off every bowler hat in sight.

"Why's Mr. Ezra doing that?" Vin wondered aloud.

"Hmm?" Josiah asked, searching the rooftops once more.

"He's knocking the hats off," Tanner explained, baffled.

Turning his attention to his friend in the red coat, Josiah quickly realized what was happening. "Stutz isn't going long range," he explained. "He must be in the crowd."

Vin froze at that news. His father had just headed to the front of the crowd with Mrs. Travis. Shaking off his fear, Vin lifted his spyglass and searched frantically for his father. He spotted the man in black seconds later.

He watched in wonder as the scene played out before him. The governor was speaking now and Mary and the other statehood people were chanting again, just like they had before the governor came to town. Suddenly, a man in a brown suit and a bowler hat was standing in front of the statehood people. A second later, Mr. Ezra was there and then the sound of a gun firing echoed in the street.

People screamed and scattered, running everywhere.

Somehow the man in the brown suit caught Miss Louisa and was holding her in front of him, a gun to her head.

A curse slipped from the former preacher's mouth and Vin's attention was drawn to him. "What?" he asked, worried about his loved ones below.

"No one down there can get a clean shot," Josiah explained. "It's gotta come from me, but I can't get a line on his head. It keeps moving. All the rest of him is covered by the woman."

Focusing on the man and woman in question, Vin's keen eye instantly picked up what Josiah had missed. "Not his head," Vin instructed. "His leg! He's not moving his leg and it's showing."

Josiah shifted the assassin's rifle slightly and focused on the unmoving leg. It would be a near thing, but he was fairly certain he could make the shot, with a lot of luck and God guiding the bullet. Just as he was preparing to take the shot, a breeze blew past them, buffering them with sand and grit. A soft cry escaped Sanchez as some of the sand landed in his eyes. "I can't see," he cried, dropping the gun, his hands reaching for his eyes.

His gaze shifting from the desperate scene below to the man next to him, the boy could tell there was no way Mr. Josiah could help. With Mr. Josiah disabled, Vin could only see one way out of the situation. Taking a deep breath, the boy set aside his spyglass and reached for his rifle. "I can," he said, confidence in his ability adding strength to his voice.

"Vin," Josiah said, silently cursing his still-tearing eyes. Knowing Larabee and Wilmington would never forgive him for letting the eight-year-old fire at a man, he wondered if he could ever forgive himself.

Solemn blue eyes rose to look at the incapacitated former preacher. "It's the only way," Vin intoned.

Knowing the boy was right and hating every minute of it, Josiah simply nodded. They didn't have time to waste.

Vin took several deep breaths and began to tune out everything around him, just as he had been taught. First the sounds faded away until all he heard was the beating of his own heart. Then he settled into position and all the sights began to fade away as well until all he could see was the assassin's leg. He took several deep breaths as he let himself think of the knee as a target. When it was only a target, he took a breath, released half of it and squeezed the trigger.

He knew he had hit what he aimed at, but a sick sort of feeling began rolling around in his stomach as he watched the injured man roll on the ground, clutching his bleeding knee.

Dropping his head, he pushed the rifle as far away from himself as possible and dropped his head onto his arms.

He felt strong hands rest on him and lift him up, settling him against a broad chest as strong arms wrapped around him. Knowing he was safe, Vin let a few tears fall. There was no one here to see them but Mr. Josiah and Vin knew his friend wouldn't say anything.

"Shh, Vin," Josiah soothed the upset and shaking boy, tears still on his own face. He wondered how many from from the irritation his eyes had suffered and how many from what the shot had cost the boy. "You did good and Stutz will be fine. Nathan will see to it."

"I don't like it," Tanner said, his voice sounding small, lost and very much like the little boy he was.

"That's good," Josiah encouraged. When a baffled face rose to look into his own, Sanchez explained, "If you liked it, you would be just like Stutz. Because you don't like it you're just like your father."

Seeing the words were being taken deep within the boy's heart and mind, Josiah smiled and began to relax.

Just then, Chris' words floated up to them as he interrogated the injured man. "Who hired you?" the blond demanded.

Josiah was listening intently for the reply. He couldn't help jumping slightly and tightening his grip on the boy as another shot sounded.

Man and boy quickly glanced down into the street and spotted Stutz Jr. lying dead, the governor's bodyguard holding a slightly smoking gun.

Mr. Horace's voice reached them next as he defended his actions. "He was reaching for his gun."

Seeing Chris rise from where he had crouched to check on the would-be assassin, the two watchers on the roof witnessed the man in black turn and head toward his fallen friend.

"Reckon we should go down and see about Mr. Ezra," Vin said, wiping his face with his shirttail, wanting not only to make sure the gambler was alright, but also to be near his father, his source of peace and comfort.

"Reckon we should," Josiah agreed, seeing the boy's mind was set.

As they reached the back side of the roof where the ladder rested, Josiah stopped Vin and waited for the boy to meet his gaze. "I'm proud of you," he said. "I'll take full responsibility and tell your father about it." Receiving a nod of understanding, Josiah continued, "If you ever need or want to talk about it, you know where to find me."

Vin offered up a small smile and nodded his head as he placed his foot on the top rung of the ladder.

Noting the boy had left his rifle on the roof, a heavy weight settled upon the former preacher's heart as he quickly retrieved it before descending.

Vin was waiting at the bottom of the ladder for the former preacher who was carrying both rifles in one hand. His stomach churned again as his eyes locked on his rifle.

Seeing the boy pale as he stared at the rifle, Josiah suggested, "Why don't we leave this here for now and I'll return it to the jail later." He received a nod of agreement from the young blond.

Once the rifle was properly hidden, they walked around to the street and headed toward the small group standing around Ezra.

They managed to arrive in time to hear part of the conversation.

"You saved my life," Mary praised.

"I did?" Ezra asked distracted from his pain. A smile broke out on his face as he realized the veracity of the statement. "I did!" he agreed.

Smiles lit the faces of all those around. "You done good, Ezra," Chris praised.

Vin saw Nathan rooting around in the injured man's coat.

"He'd be dead if it weren't for this," Nathan observed, puling out several bundles of now bloody money.

All eyes turned to Ezra. Vin was surprised to see a smile tugging at his father's mouth and a twinkle in the hazel eyes.

Turning to face the blond, Ezra sincerely advised, "Mr. Larabee, in the future, I believe it would be best just not to burden me with other people's money."

With a quick pat on the shoulder, Chris simply agreed, "Yeah." He seemed not at all bothered by the fact Ezra was hiding the money in his jacket.

Later that day, just before dinner and after the men had been prevailed upon by JD to repeat the story of what happened while he was gone, Chris and Buck took the found money, which had been returned to its bag, and headed toward the wagon where the governor, Mr. Horace and Miss Louisa were all sitting in a carriage.

"You forgot your money," Chris said, resting the bag on the hitching post.

"I'm sorry?" Hopewell asked in confusion. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Stutz was paid this money to kill at least three statehood advocates," Buck informed. "But you wouldn't know anything about that, now, would you?"

The two boys stood in the background, turning their own version of their fathers' glares upon the men who had tried to hurt their friend and gotten Mr. Ezra shot.

"Are you insinuating that I had something to do with it?" Hopewell demanded, sounding offended as he rose from his seat in the carriage. "I resent the implication. I'm the Governor of this territory, and I will not stand by and listen to my good name be dragged through the mud." Taking his seat once more, he commanded, "Louisa, you handle this."

Looking at the man and seeing him as if for the first time, Louisa replied, "No."

Stunned into silence for several seconds, Hopewell finally managed to stammer, "L-louisa?"

With determination and the force of will that commanded attention everywhere she went, she drew herself up straight and informed, "I quit."

Though stunned, Hopewell's deeply inbred good manners wouldn't allow him to let her see her self off the carriage. "Horace," he coached and watched as his bodyguard helped the lady in question off the carriage before boarding it. "Well then," he began staring at the lady who had just left his employ. As he saw her move to stand next to the mustached man, anger filled him. He had just lost one of the best organizers in the country. Turning his fierce gaze upon the lawmen, he stated, "I suggest you gentlemen produce more evidence before you sully a man's good reputation."

Then, having said his piece, the governor indicated that they should leave.

As the wagon rolled away, Buck leaned toward Chris and observed, "He's lying so loud his teeth are rattling."

"I know," Larabee agreed. "Can't do anything about it."

The gentle swish of a skirt drew both men's attention to the lady who was waiting to speak to Buck.

Allowing a grin to appear on his face, Larabee took a hold of the bag of money and held out his other hand to the boys.

JD quickly took the proffered hand, his eyes still taking in the meeting between his father and Miss Louisa. A smile appeared on his face.

Vin moved around to the other side of Chris and relieved the man of the bag in question. Moving the item to his outside hand, Tanner then placed his free hand in his father's and the trio set off.

"Reckon it's time to get the others and head to dinner," Chris observed as they walked away from the couple. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the duo heading off toward the hotel. "Same old Buck," he murmured.

JD was spending more time watching his father than where he was going. A smile appeared on his face as the man and woman disappeared inside the hotel. Maybe Miss Louisa would change her mind about marrying his papa and being his new ma. The little brunet could only hope.

"What are we going to do with this, Pa?" Vin asked, lifting the bag slightly to indicate what he was talking about.

Pausing in his tracks, Chris realized they were about equidistant between Nathan's room and the church. "Why don't you bring that back to Josiah?" he suggested. "You can bring him to dinner then. I'll go ahead and get Nathan and Ezra."

"OK," Vin agreed trotting off toward the church, satchel in hand.

"Aren't you going with him?" Chris asked of the diminutive brunet standing beside him.

"Nah, I'll go with you," JD informed, grinning up at his uncle.

"All right, then," Larabee agreed, walking toward the clinic.

As the man and boy reached the base of the stairs, the looked up as they heard a door opening. They watched as Nathan and Ezra stepped outside and up to the railing.

"How you feeling, Ezra?" Larabee asked, concerned when he saw the man wearing a sling, but no shirt under his jacket.

"Well," the gambler stated, "I'll be, ah, shuffling one-handed for a while, but otherwise, I'm right as rain."

"All right," Chris stated, encouraged by the news.

JD grinned up at his friends, but the smile faded as he tried to understand the odd look that passed between the men.

"Oh, uh, by the way," Ezra continued. "What are we planning to do with that money?"

Dunne was a little surprised when Chris started laughing, and was puzzled when Ezra and Nathan joined him. Shaking his head slightly, JD decided grown-ups sure were strange people.

Next: Interlude: Tied to the Tracks