Working Girls

by Estee

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

The episode, Working Girls, was written by Melissa Rosenberg.

Nora tried to remain still, praying that it would be over soon. She didn't know why he always chose her, but he did. She knew if she cooperated it would be over even sooner, but she just couldn't bring herself to do that. His manner, his hands and his voice were always so rough, and the pungent smell of his breath, the stale odors trapped in his beard, threatened her with nausea, every time. Still, she dare not resist. If she struggled or fought she knew what would happen -- the marks and bruises were still fresh on her skin from the last time.

How had she ended up in this place, she wondered, and would she ever be able to escape? Sometimes Lydia and the others talked about it, but the truth was, even if they could escape they had nowhere to go. Who welcome them or give them a chance? How would they earn a living? It was something she thought about quite often, but no solution had come to her, yet. She'd read about Wickes in the newspaper, an advertisement for talented young ladies, to be entertainers in return for chance to go west. She'd been so foolish, but how could she have known that her escape would lead her onto this life of bondage?

If only she could go back in time . . .. Perhaps she would have been better off married to old man Scoggins, like her pa had planned? She knew that he'd always treated his animals with a gentle hand, so perhaps he would have been kind to her, too?

Wickes slapped her hard and she fell to her hands and knees. "Pay attention!" he demanded then yanked her up by the arm. She couldn't help but cringe away from him, and could tell by the look in his eyes that she'd just angered him more. He raised his big, meaty hand again, ready to strike and she backed up, trying to flee, although she knew there was nowhere to run. She made it outside the tent when she felt him grab her hair and yank her backwards. Her head hurt, her eyes were burning, her ears were ringing and the sharp pain in her side made it almost unbearable to take a breath. Wickes pulled her up by her hair and she cried out, then he slapped her again and pushed her back down to the ground.

Through the blur of tears and smeared mascara she saw Lydia trying to stop him, putting herself between the two of them. "Lydia," she called weakly, not wanting her friend to put herself in danger. Wickes would have no qualms over hurting Lydia, and Nora couldn't stand the thought of Lydia being injured on her account.

"God," she pleaded desperately, having no one else to turn to. "Please, help me!"

She didn't truly believe the Lord listened to her prayers anymore. She didn't blame him. She had sinned; she had broken His commandments. She had not honored her father and mother, she had stolen food and other things, she'd cursed and coveted, was living a life as sinful as anything she could have imagined. But when she saw the tall, dark-haired stranger approaching, when she heard his voice, low and threatening, saw the dangerous, deadly look in his eyes, she couldn't extinguish the spark of hope that began to kindle.

That hope wavered as she saw two of Wickes' men grab a hold of the tall stranger, holding him as Wickes began assaulting him with his fists. She closed her eyes, unable to watch, and despite her doubts, found herself praying again, pleading for intervention. She understood if God disapproved of her life, but she couldn't believe He would be so cruel as to give her hope only to take it away again.

"Buck, we're leaving." Another voice, quiet and firm, penetrated her foggy consciousness. "We're taking her with us." And then the tall stranger was helping her to her feet and lifting her up to another man - a grim, dangerous looking man, dressed all in black.

As they rode away from Wickes' camp, Nora heard Wickes shout after them, "This ain't over!" And she figured he likely meant what he said, but she directed a silent 'thank you' toward Heaven, anyway. For surely this man who looked as dangerous as the devil was really an angel in disguise.

Next Morning:

From the doorway of the bathhouse, Vin watched Chris climb the stairs to Nathan's Clinic. He hadn't heard Chris or Buck come back to the boarding house last night and he'd been awake half the night. It had been hard to fall asleep after Josiah told them that Bible story about the little fella named David bringing down the big, bad giant Goliath with his slingshot. It wasn't that he'd been too afraid to go to sleep; it was that his mind had been too filled with images of him and Chris riding together, side by side, bringing down all the bad guys in the territory.

This morning, at breakfast, Vin had told Chris the story, sure that Chris would see him in a new light and let him help out more, instead of always keeping him out of the way, like he was a baby or something. Chris had chuckled and said something about having to remember to thank Josiah. Vin hadn't been too sure what he'd meant by that. Still, he'd been hopeful that things might change . . . right up until Chris told him he had some business to take care of and sent him off to help Josiah. Again.

He looked back into the bathhouse, gauging his chances of escape. JD was naked as a just borned baby, making Buck chase him around a tub, while Josiah stood shaking his head at the spectacle. No matter what Buck and Josiah said, he didn't need a bath yet. He'd just taken one a few days ago, and besides, a little dirt never hurt no one. He glanced back once more, to make sure nobody was looking, then hurried toward the clinic to see what Chris was up to.

Cautiously, he poked his head inside, thankful to spot Chris right away. Before he could get any further, Chris looked over his shoulder and said, "Vin, I thought you and JD were supposed to be helping Josiah?"

Vin made a face. "We were helping him," he said.

Chris turned around toward him, bent down and gave him a once over. Then he smiled. "Looks to me like you been rollin' in the dirt."

They had been rolling in the dirt, sort of. "Me and JD was seeing who could roll down the hill the fastest. It was a ex-spearment."

The hill behind the church was as fun of a place as any. Sometimes him and JD stuck targets at the top and shot at them with Vin's slingshot. Vin always hit his targets and JD . . . well, he was getting better. Sometimes they dug for buried treasure and that was fun, too, although the only treasure they'd found so far was a broken arrowhead and some interesting rocks.

Today JD had gotten to the top of the hill, lost his balance and accidentally tumbled back down. It had looked fun enough to Vin that he'd decided to try it, too. Then they'd decided to have a contest to see who could roll down the fastest, but they hadn't really kept track. No matter what they did, it was hard to avoid dirt, 'cause dirt's everywhere.

Chris took out a handkerchief and tried to wipe away some of the dirt, but all he seemed to do was smear it around. "No help for it, I guess," he said with amusement.

Vin shrugged and when Chris stuffed the kerchief back in his pocket, he took the opportunity to approach Nathan, who was tending a lady in the bed. The lady was real pretty, even though her face was real beat up. She had a black eye and a bloody lip and it looked like she was hurting.

"She's in bad shape," Nathan told them. He said that he suspected someone had been treating her pretty rough for a while.

"I got to get back," the lady said, and struggled to sit up. "He'll be mad."

"It's okay, honey." Nathan told her, gently. "You're safe here."

"No," she protested. "I'll just owe more."

Nathan looked at Chris then back to the lady. "Owe who? Wickes?"

She nodded. "He paid my way out here. I have to pay him back . . . with interest. I came because he promised so much. But the more I work, the more I owe."

Vin thought about that for a minute. It sounded like a real good deal. For this Wickes fella, whoever he was.

He was startled when there was a knock on the door. Then it opened and Miz Travis poked her head into the room. "Mr. Larabee? May I have a word with you, please?"

"I think we lost one," Josiah announced after checking outside the door and finding no sign of Vin.

"He probably spotted Chris and took off."

"Then, I reckon he'll be back soon enough."

Buck laughed. "Reckon you're right about that, Josiah. Now, close your eyes, little bit." Buck waited until the boy's eyelids were squeezed shut, then he poured water slowly over his head. "What in the world have you two been doing?"


"Well, you weren't this dirty the last time I saw ya."

"I like dirt." JD grinned up at him.

Buck winked. "I think it likes you, too."

"Hey, Buck?"


"Where'd ya go last night?"

Buck cleared his throat, suddenly looking uncomfortable. "Well . . .."

"Mr. Buck went out of town," Josiah supplied with a wink in Buck's direction.

"Out of town?"


"Where outta town?" JD asked and then decided to shake his head to see the water spray all over, just like a wet dog.

"Um," Buck leaned away, trying to avoid the shower, "well, just some little place."

"Oh," JD seemed fine with that, then asked, "What did ya have to go there for?"

"Uh . . .?" He looked to Josiah for help.

"A meeting."

"Yeah, a meeting."

"Who'd ya have a meeting with?" JD's dark eyes lit with excitement. "Some bad guys?"

"Well, uh . . . actually, it was some ladies."

"Oh." The excitement died, replaced with a look of resignation. "That kind of meeting."

"Yeah," Buck grinned and lifted the boy out of the tub. "That kind of meeting."

Once he was dried off and dressed, Buck held him at arms length. "Now, ya think you can stay clean for a few hours?"

JD shrugged.

"Dirt can be a powerful temptation to resist," Josiah said, winking at the boy. "Isn't that right, JD?"

JD nodded to Josiah, then looked up at Buck with wide eyes. "Buck?"

"Yeah, little bit?"

"Did you kiss any of them women at the meeting last night?" he questioned, suddenly serious.

"Wh-what?" Buck spluttered, nearly choking with laughter.

"Well, Vin said when two folks kiss that means they're fixin' to get married."

Buck couldn't help laughing, especially when his mind conjured an image of Vin's solemn little face as he relayed this piece of information to a quizzical JD. When he realized how serious JD was, he managed to get a hold of himself. "JD, I can honestly say that I didn't kiss a single one of them gals last night."

"Whew!" JD's whole body relaxed.

"And, one more thing," Buck continued, "I got no plans to get married, no sir-ree, not anytime soon."

He couldn't help but smile at that. He knew how friendly Buck always was with the ladies, but he couldn't stand the thought of Buck getting married to one of them and not having any time for JD anymore. And even if that didn't happen, if he did still have time for JD, well, the truth was, he just wasn't ready to share his Buck with anyone . . . well, except for Vin.

"We should find Vin," he said, suddenly. "He was lots more dirtier than me."

"Now, I'm not rightly sure that's possible."

"Since I had to get a bath, Vin should have to get one, too."

"That sounds fair enough to me."

"Vin," Nathan said, before Vin could follow Chris and Miz Travis outside, "could you run down and get me a bucket of fresh water?"

Vin sighed and took the bucket Nathan handed him. He wanted to know what Miz Travis had to say to Chris, but Nathan needed his help.

"I'm not telling you what to do," Vin heard Miz Travis say as he walked slowly, very slowly, past them.

"You're suggesting awful strong." Chris didn't sound too happy.

"Look, she's your responsibility." Vin paused at the top of the stairs, hoping nobody would notice him.

"I brought her here 'cause she needs looking after."

"When she gets better, you'll take her elsewhere." Sometimes, Vin thought, Miz Travis was a bit uppity.

"Well, that's, uh . . . that's mighty Christian of you, Mrs. Travis."

"Vin," Miz Travis called to him. Dang it, they noticed him. "Run along, now." Vin sighed, and Chris gave him a look that said he'd better mind. Slowly, he started down the steps. "Mr. Larabee," he could still hear Miz Travis, "things are hard enough for this town without her kind here."

"The hurt kind?"

"The working kind."

Vin continued down the stairs. The working kind? What was that supposed to mean? Miz Travis was a working kind, wasn't she? She worked.

Once the bucket was full, he set it aside then cupped his hands under the spout and splashed some water on his face, hoping everyone would forget about the bath that had been threatened on him. He scrubbed his face then wiped his hands on his pant legs and carefully lifted the bucket. It was heavy. He needed to be careful so he didn't spill any of the water going up the stairs.

As he approached the staircase leading up to the clinic he halted in his tracks. There was a noisy bunch of people crowded around a wagon in the street. Chris was there, and Nathan, and Miz Travis, too.

Most of the water was still in the bucket by the time he got it up the stairs, even though he hadn't been as careful as he should have been. The hurt lady, Miss Nora, looked to be sleeping so Vin set the bucket on the floor as quietly as he could and hurried back down to see what was going on.

He weaved through the small crowd to stand as close to Chris as he could get. The wagon was full of ladies in fancy dresses with their faces painted up real pretty. Vin noticed one 'specially pretty one, with long blonde curls, who was paying a lot of attention to JD. She was bending down, giggling and running her hands through his damp hair, fussing over how cute he was. JD got a lot of that from ladies, Vin had noticed, and he seemed to like the attention.

"We snuck out at dawn." He heard another one of the ladies tell Chris. "Grabbed everything we could. We looked over our shoulders the whole way here."

Vin turned away from JD and sidled closer to Chris, hoping Chris might need his help for something. The moment Chris noticed him he put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Come on."

"Where we going?"

Chris just smiled at him and started guiding away from the crowd. "We got an appointment to keep."

"We do?" Vin asked, pride beginning to swell up inside him.

"I'm asking you for a safe place to stay here, to protect us." Vin heard the lady say and turned to look over his shoulder. "We can pay you."

Vin felt proud to be a part of this town, these folks who tended to care more about folks in need than most places he'd been to. He almost tripped over his own feet when he heard Miz Travis tell the woman, "I'm sorry, but it's best if you just move on."

He turned his face up to Chris, sure that he'd stop and tell Miz Travis she was wrong, but all Chris said was, "Got a tub full of hot water with your name on it."

A tub? "But, Chris--"

"No buts," Chris gently ushered him in the direction of the bathhouse.

Vin's shoulders slumped in defeat. He shoulda known. They all thought Vin was just a little kid, like JD. Nobody ever let him get in on any of the important things.

"You gonna help them, Chris?" he asked, curious that Chris had walked away from the ladies.

"I'll help, if I can," Chris said as he helped Vin out of his filthy clothes and into the tub.

"You're gonna let 'em stay in town, ain't ya?" He knew Miz Travis wouldn't be happy if Chris let the ladies stay. Sometimes he just didn't understand Miz Travis. She was always stickin' up for folks she felt weren't being treated fair-like . . . like Doc Nathan, the Indians, and other women who needed help . . . but she seemed not to like these women, who, Vin thought, needed someone to stick up for them more than anyone.

"Well, I don't know if it's a good idea they stay here in town."

"Why not?"

"Oh, there are a lot of reasons," Chris soaped Vin's hair. "For one thing, I don't think it's a safe place for them. The man they're running from, Wickes, can find them easy enough if they stay here. It'll probably be the first place he looks."

Vin nodded and scrubbed his hands and arms, hoping to get this bath business over as soon as possible. It wasn't that he minded the bath, for some reason, he never minded doing anything with Chris, but he wanted to get back outside and see what was happening.

"Of course, we can't make someone leave town, unless they've done something against the law."

Once he was clean, Chris lifted him out of the tub and handed him a towel. He yelped and tried to cover himself as the curtain parted, until he realized it was only Buck.

With a grin, Buck picked up the clean clothes they'd had waiting for him from before, and set them on the chair close to Vin. Then he turned his eyes toward Chris. "So, what do you think, Chris?"

Vin dried himself as hastily as he could. As he pulled his clean shirt on he could feel he'd missed most of his back, but he didn't care. He was too worried that someone else was gonna walk in on him.

"About what?"

"About the ladies."

Vin pulled his pants up and then started to button his shirt, not really paying attention to what he was doing. Chris stopped him after he'd only gotten a few buttons done up.

"It's a problem," he said, focusing his attention on re-buttoning the buttons on Vin's shirt.


"But you can handle it," Chris assured, and began tucking the long shirttails into Vin's britches.


"You're the one who picked the fight."

Vin struggled to pull his boots over his damp feet, only to have Chris halt him, shake his head and wave a pair of socks in his face.

"You're the one that carried the girl away."

"You carried a girl away?" Vin paused, looking up at Chris with amazement.

Chris winked at him, then turned to Buck. "You started it, you finish it."

"Fine. Then, the ladies stay." Buck picked up a comb and went to work on Vin's dripping hair. Vin scowled, but allowed him to do it, mostly so he could keep listening to their conversation. "Need more women around here anyway."

"I disagree."

Vin jumped at the sound of Miz Travis' voice. What in tarnation was she doing in here? Thank the Lord he was dressed already. What was the world comin' to when a girl could just walk right into a bathhouse . . . what if there'd been nekkid men? What if he'd still been nekkid?

He glared from Buck to Chris and back again, waiting for one of them to tell her to get out, to tell her girls ain't allowed in there, but neither of them said anything about it. Buck finished combing his hair, then set the comb down and stood up like there was nothing wrong with Miz Travis walking into the bathhouse, where moments before Vin had been nekkid.

Miz Travis folded her arms across her chest, giving Buck and Chris an exasperated look. "This girl's beating is typical of the kind of behavior prostitution incites."

"Not exactly polite behavior to throw 'em back to the wolves now, is it?" Buck said, as they all stepped out onto the boardwalk. Vin wasn't really paying attention to them anymore. He was thinking about how he wouldn't be takin' no more baths, not ever again.

"I'm just saying . . ."

"If they want to stay it's a free country. It's their right."

Vin was all for freedom and girl rights. As far as he was concerned, he thought all girls oughtta have the right to go anywhere they wanted . . . as long as they stayed out of the bathhouse.

"We have the right to a safe and decent community to raise our children."

Miz Travis had a boy around Vin and JD's age, but he didn't live here; he lived back east with his grandparents, so Vin wasn't sure what children she was so worried about raising. Hearing the thunder of hoof beats in the distance, he tugged on Chris' sleeve. "Got company."

Vin leaned against the railing, keeping watch over things.

They'd all scrambled to get the women hidden as best they could on short notice. They hoped to fool Wickes and his men into thinking the women weren't there, at least long enough to give them time to come up with a better plan.

"Tear this place apart! Find them girls!"

Vin was pretty sure that the girls were safe, for now. Chris and Buck and the others wouldn't let the bad guys hurt them.

He was supposed to be down at the livery with JD, helping Yosemite, but he figured it made more sense for him to stick around here, so he could keep an eye on these fellas. One of the men approached Vin, bent down so his face was right in front of Vin's. "We're looking for some girls."

"Girls?" He made a sour face. "What would ya want girls for?"

The man straightened then shoved Vin aside. "You best stay out of the way while we look around."

Vin shrugged and pretended not to care, but he kept a watchful an eye on what the bad guys were doing.

He saw them heading up to Nathan's clinic, and took out his slingshot, deciding to trail them from a safe distance, incase there was any trouble. Just as he started up the stairs, someone grabbed a hold of the back of his shirt.

"Where do you think you're going?"

Sighing, he looked up at Chris. "I was staying out of the way."

"Oh? What were you planning to do with this?" Chris took the slingshot out of his hand. "Vin--"

"It's for just in case." Why couldn't Chris understand that he wanted to help, too?

"I know you want to help, pard, but these guys are bad news. You saw what they did to Miss Nora. Do you think they wouldn't do the same to you if they got the chance?"

Vin shrugged. He wasn't planning to give any of 'em the chance to get a hold of him.

"I need to know you're safe," Chris said, bending down to look him in the eye, "so I can do my job."

"I know." Chris was trying to make him feel guilty, and doing a good job of it. On one hand, Vin kinda liked having someone watch out for him, but on the other hand, all he really wanted to do was be with Chris.

They both glanced up the stairs as the men came scrambling out of the clinic.

"One down," Chris said after the men had practically trampled over them in an effort to get away from the clinic.

Vin nodded with satisfaction.

"Where's JD?"

"He's still with Yosemite, taking care of that horse he thinks is his."

"Well, why don't you get on over there and make sure he stays our of the stall . . . you know how he is."

With a heavy sigh, Vin started for the livery. He'd made it about halfway when he spotted some of the bad men heading for Josiah's church. He looked around, not seeing any sign of Chris. He would go straight to the livery, after he swung by the church. How could Chris get mad at him for wanting to go to church?

He stood right inside the doorway, and listened to Josiah's voice. He was talking real quiet, not like he usually did when he was preaching. Josiah's voice could get real loud when he was standing up there preaching, even though most times there weren't no one in the church to hear him

"Join me in prayer, my brothers."

Vin removed his hat and bowed his head, just incase it was a real prayer.

"Lord, forgive these sinners who enter your house with instruments of death. Please do not send them into a fiery . . . agonizing grave where a thousand flames eat away at their flesh for all of eternity."

Suddenly the bad guys didn't seem to want to be there anymore.

"Though thou art mighty and these men are lowly . . ."

Vin snorted trying to keep from laughing when Josiah's voice grew louder and louder.

"Do not smite them, Lord!"

"How was that?" Josiah gave him with a toothy grin, and a second later a giggling lady climbed out from behind the pulpit.

Vin smiled, shaking his head as he headed back outside to see where they were going next. He was relieved when he saw them climbing into their saddles.

"Let's go, boys!" The one in charge hollered, reining his horse around. The other men scanned the town one last time and followed him down the street and out of town.

He spotted Chris a ways off and figured there was no reason he shouldn't be outside, now that the men were gone. He ran to catch up to him. "They're gone," he pointed out.

"For now, at least." Chris stopped in front of one of the lady stores and reached for the door handle then paused. "Vin, Miss Lydia's in here, and I need to talk to privately. Not that I'm trying to run you off again, but what I need to say . . . well, it'll be better if I say it in private. Why don't you go find JD?"

"Okay." Vin stuffed his hands in his pockets and shuffled slowly down the boardwalk, grumbling.

Chris waited for a moment before he went inside the dark shop. He called, "Lydia," and heard her behind a curtain. "Uh, they're gone. You can come out now."

"I'll be out in a while," she said, and Chris tried not to watch as she leisurely ran a soapy sponge over her bare shoulder.

"Well, we need to have a little talk."

"Come on in."

Lord, wouldn't he like to do just that. The thought of Mrs. Potter, or worse, Vin or JD walking in cooled him down a bit. "Come find me in the saloon when you're decent."

"You know I ain't shy."

Obviously, otherwise she wouldn't be flaunting all that skin. Okay, if this is how she wanted to play this out, he could handle it.

"I think it's best that you ladies, uh . . . went on your way."

"Little Miss Muffet does have a say over you, then."

Chris tried not to smile too much. "It's got nothing to do with her. Next time, it'll be Wickes who shows up and I don't want to see anyone get hurt, especially you."

"He won't rest till we're back with him," Lydia said, grimly, "or dead."

"We'll take you to Ridge City. Y'all can catch a train there."

"And what if he follows us?"

"We'll protect you." Although, he figured if they got that far, they wouldn't be in need of protecting.

"From what I've seen a man like you could protect me just about anywhere."

"Lydia, you're leaving."

"I think we'll stay make a stand right here."

Fine, if she wants to make things difficult. "If you stay, you're on your own."

"Always have been, always will be."

Chris backed away, with a muttered curse. Stubborn woman. He wasn't at all surprised to find Vin outside waiting for him. In fact, the way things were going, it would have surprised him more if the boy would have actually obeyed him. Apparently nothing was going to be easy today.

"I thought I sent you to find JD?"

Vin honked an offkey note on his harmonica then smiled up at Chris. "Yosemite said he went with Ezra. So, what do we do now?"

"Now, well . . ." He wasn't sure what they were going to do, now. Lydia wouldn't listen to reason and he couldn't force her to leave, even if it was for her own good. It wasn't in his nature to turn his back on someone who needed help. And, no matter what Mary Travis thought, he knew that none of the women had been given half the chance she'd been given in life. If they had they wouldn't be doing what they were doing for a living. He wanted to help them get away from Wickes so they could have a fresh start, but he also had a responsibility to protect the town, and that was the dilemma. He needed to figure out another way to protect the women without compromising the town. "Now, it looks like we need a new plan."

"Okay." Vin tucked the harmonica into his pocket and stood beside Chris. "Let's start plannin'."

Chris shook his head, but couldn't stop the smile spreading across his face. "Sorry, cowboy. I'm heading for the jail, and you're going to go find JD."

"But Chris--"

Chris was saved from argument when Ezra rounded the corner, JD at his side. "Mr. Larabee," Ezra greeted. "Mr. Tanner, would either one of you be interested in sharing repast with myself and my young companion here?"

JD giggled. "He means supper."

"Vin?" Chris looked down at him, one eyebrow raised. Vin could tell by his face he wasn't going to change his mind. Resigned, he nodded and took Ezra's other hand. He liked Ezra well enough, but he really wished he could stay with Chris.

"See you boys later."

"Vin," Ezra said, giving him a funny look.

Vin reluctantly glanced up from his beloved mashed potatoes and gravy. They were his favorite thing in the whole world. If he could eat them for every meal he'd be a happy man.

"Try chewing your food, instead of inhaling it."

Vin looked down at the potatoes, then back up at Ezra. "They're mashed 'tatoes, ya don't have to chew 'em."

"Yes, well--"

Ezra's response was cut off by the approach of Josiah, who smiled broadly at the sight of the two boys. "Hello, Vin, JD."

"H'lo Mr. 'Ziah, we's eatin' mshtatoes an' gravy." JD swallowed, licked his lips and continued. "If we finish it all we get to have cherry cobbler!" Shoving another spoonful into his mouth, he continued, "I'n't reaw sure what dat is, bu'f it's ma' from cherries 's gotta be good."

"JD," Vin glared at the younger boy, then shoveled a spoonful of mashed potatoes into his mouth and whispered, "Ain't p'lite t'talk wi'yer mo'full."

"Sowwy," JD apologized to the grown ups, but gave Vin a measuring look. He leaned closer to Vin and whispered, loud enough for the whole room to hear, "YOU talked with your mouth full."

Vin swallowed. "Did not."

"Did, too."

Vin scooped more potatoes into his mouth. "Di'not."

JD pointed at Vin's mouth. "Did, too!"

Josiah cleared his throat loudly, causing both boys to quiet. Then he smiled and turned his attention to Ezra. "The ladies you wanted to see are down at the church waiting for you."

Ezra beamed, giving the boys a glimpse of his shiny gold tooth. JD had tried to pluck it out on several occasions, but it seemed stuck on pretty tight. Vin wondered whether any of his teeth would turn gold when he got old like Ezra.

"Come along, gentlemen," Ezra said, laying his napkin over his empty plate.

"But what about our dessert?"

"Well," Ezra frowned thoughtfully, then turned to Mrs. Percy. "Ma'am, if it wouldn't be a terrible imposition, would you be so kind as to put the boys' desserts into a portable container, so that they may consume it at their leisure?"

Mrs. Percy put her hands on her hips and tilted her head. "Ya want 'em to go?"

"Why . . .yes."

"Why don't ya just say so, then?"

Mrs. Percy fixed both of the boys up with a little tin to take with them. When they got to the church they opened them up to find huge pieces of the cherry dessert. Almost immediately the boys realized they had a big problem. The diner lady had forgot to send a fork . . . or a spoon, or anything. The only thing they had to eat with was . . ..

JD dipped his finger into the container, pulled out a lump of cherry cobbler and crammed it into his mouth. "Mmmm . . .."

Vin's mouth watered. Although he didn't particularly like getting his fingers all sticky, he was unable to resist the aroma of the warm cherry dessert. He scooped out a dollop on two fingers and slid it into his mouth. He closed his eyes in bliss. This was the bestest thing he'd ever eaten.

"Vin?" JD slid another scoop of cobbler into his mouth.

"Hmm?" Vin glanced up to find JD looking intently into his tin.

"You 'member what ya said about kissin' girls?"

With an absent nod, Vin swirled his fingers along the bottom of his tin. He wondered where Chris was and if he was doing anything interesting.

"Well, does that go for everyone?"

Vin licked his fingers and shrugged.

Buck came into the church, winking at the boys when they smiled up at him. Then he walked over to one of the ladies and kissed her hand. Mr. Ezra had said he wanted Buck to help the ladies practice their manners. He'd told them that what they were doing wasn't real; Buck and the ladies were just gonna be pretending, like in a play. Vin wasn't sure what a play was like, but if it was like this, he didn't plan on watching another one, anytime soon.

"Vin?" JD reached over and nudged him with his sticky fingers.


"Don't ya think I'm too young to get married?"

Sometimes JD asked the dumbest questions. "How should I know?" Vin didn't know a whole lot about getting married, only that he didn't plan to get himself married to no girl. He was going to stay with Chris forever.

JD sighed, his shoulders slumping against the back of the seat.

"Maybe you oughtta ask 'Siah since he's a preacher."

JD got a thoughtful look on his face then he smiled. "Yeah!"

Vin yawned, his eyelids drooping as he tried to pay attention to Buck and the woman he was talking to now. Beside him JD was already asleep. The red cherry sauce had crusted all around his mouth, which was hanging open as he snored quietly.

"I picked these just for you," Buck said with dramatic flair.

Vin rolled his eyes. Buck hadn't picked the flowers. He'd sent Vin and JD to pick the dumb flowers, but Vin wasn't ever going to admit that he'd picked flowers to anyone.

"Why, how lovely," the lady told him and batted her eyelashes. "Thank you, sir."

"You're welcome, ma'am, and may I just say that you are looking lovely today yourself. Perhaps I could interest you in a . . . a hayride later this evening?"

Vin made a noise that sounded like gagging and Ezra gave him a stern look.

"Oh, a hayride sounds lovely."

Vin mouthed the word 'lovely'. Before he could gag for real, Ezra put a halt to the awful scene.

"Stop. Stop right there," Ezra said, sounding almost as disgusted as Vin felt.

"Oh, for the love of... w-what is it this time?"

Vin hoped it was time to go, but he wasn't gonna bet on it.

"You said the word," Ezra scolded the lady, "but your intention was clearly lascivious. A lady . . ."

Lashwhat? Vin wondered, then looked toward the window and wondered if anyone would notice if he snuck out to go to find Chris. He glanced at JD, and found he was still sound asleep.

"A lady . . ." Ezra ranted, "would have slapped his oafish, drooling face."

That might be interesting, Vin thought, but he doubted he'd see any of that kind of action. Deciding it wasn't really worth waiting to find out, Vin rose from the bench and tiptoed out the door. He barely managed to duck around the corner and avoid Mr. Nathan, who was on his way into the church.

Vin walked through the batwing doors and pulled a stool up to the bar. He knew what the guys always ordered on nights like this, so he climbed up on the stool and made the same order, "One gut-warmer, please."

The barkeeper laughed, and Vin glared at him. He'd done everything the same as he'd seen Chris and Buck do, but the barkeep never laughed at them. A few seconds later, a beer mug filled with milk was set in front of Vin. He looked up at the barkeep with suspicion. This wasn't no gut-warmer.

"Are you supposed to be here this late?" A woman's voice, close to Vin's ear made him nearly fall off his stool.

He turned to see Lydia, the lady who was always staring at Chris, standing next to him. "Uh . . . sure," he shrugged a shoulder, then lifted the mug to his lips, trying to look casual. Suddenly he remembered that she wasn't supposed to be there, either. "Hey, shouldn't you be laying low? Somebody could recognize you."

The lady gave him a funny look then asked, "Did Mr. Larabee send you here to say that?"

The idea of Chris sending him into the saloon for anything almost made him choke on his milk. Instead, he set his mug down and gave her a surly look. "I look like a messenger boy?"

"Sorry. Mr. Larabee ain't as friendly as he usually is."

Vin thought Chris acted just like he always did, maybe a little more preoccupied than usual, but he knew that Chris was trying to figure out a way keep these gals safe, and keep the townsfolk safe and happy, as well. "Maybe he don't want to get caught 'tween you and the town.

"You mean between me and Mrs. Travis." The woman gave him a meaningful look, but Vin didn't understand. Then she sighed and continued, "Anyway, I'm tired of making decisions depending on what other people want. I'm going to go check in on Nora."

Vin watched her go. After a few thoughtful moments, he couldn't help but feel a little admiration for her. If he was growed up, he wouldn't want folks making his decisions, neither.

Sometimes, Buck thought, it was hard to tell whether Nathan and Ezra really hated each other, or just loved to bicker. All he knew for sure was that it was getting late, and he was getting tired of listening to them.

"Would you do me a favor, darlin'?" Buck asked the sweet young gal who he knew had caught little JD's eye.

"Sure, Mr. Wilmington." She coyly fluttered her long, thick eyelashes at him and giggled.

"Call me Buck, darlin."

"All right," her eyes swept over him, appreciatively, "Buck,"

"Uh," he cleared his throat then grinned a little sheepishly, "I was wondering if you could you take JD over there, across to the boarding house for me?"

"JD?" For a moment she looked puzzled, but then she turned her head toward the dark haired boy curled up asleep on the bench, and smiled sweetly. "Sure thing."

Buck wondered where Vin had gotten off to, and figured he was probably out trackin' down Chris, again. He didn't like it when Nathan and Ezra went at it, but in this case, if it would get him out of the church any sooner, he wasn't about to interrupt.

He smiled as he watched Miss Emily sit down next to JD. The boy shifted so he was half sitting up and with a yawn, rubbed his eyes tiredly. He heard her offer to carry the boy, and knew already what the answer to that would be.

"I'm a big boy!" JD declared with indignation. "I can walk!"

Buck waved as they left the church, and then, since Ezra and Nathan were still going at it, he strolled over to the doorway to make sure they made it to the boarding house.

"Wishing you were anywhere but here?" Josiah asked in a hushed tone of voice.

"Hell, yeah." As the two of them watched from the church doorway, Buck was a little concerned when instead of going directly to the boarding house, they ducked into the stable. He gave Josiah a puzzled look. "What d'you suppose they're up to?"

Josiah's eyebrows rose and he shook his head.

"Well," he glanced back at Ezra and his captive audience and decided nobody here needed them for the time being. "Let's go see."

They hurried down to the stable, but instead of going in, Buck gestured the preacher to follow him around the side of the building. Cautiously, they peered in through the window to see just what the two of them were up to. Buck was thinking that JD probably wanted to show her his horse - which really wasn't his horse, but one that Yosemite let him take care of.

So he was completely unprepared when he heard Miss Emily say, "JD, honey, I can't marry you!"

"Ya can't?"

Buck looked at Josiah, noticing that he seemed as shocked as he was.

"You're just a little boy!" Emily said, then apparently realized she needed to be a little more sensitive. "Now don't get me wrong, I think you're a very sweet little boy and who knows, in . . . 20 years or so, well, maybe we'll meet up again. But right now, well . . . I just couldn't! I'm too young to get married!"

"You're too young?" JD's mouth fell open for a moment. Then his mouth closed and Buck could see his face take on a more speculative expression. Slowly, he nodded. "In twenty years? We'll both be old by then."

"Well, not that old."

"But it's a long time from now."

"Yes, it is," she agreed. "By then just about anything might happen." Giggling, she pinched his cheek. Buck almost gave them away and laughed out loud when he saw JD beam a smile of pure relief at her.

"Now, I promised your daddy I'd see to it you got home."

"You mean Buck?" At her nod, JD set out to try and explain something he didn't really understand himself. "He ain't my daddy, he's . . . well," JD licked his lips and squinted his eyes as he searched for an appropriate word. Buck wasn't really his daddy, but it kind of felt like it, sometimes. He couldn't think of any word that seemed to express what Buck was to him. "He's . . . just mine." My Buck.

Buck and Josiah had crept to the corner of the stable. They watched until Miss Emily and JD disappeared inside the boarding house, and then they both roared with laughter.

As soon as Josiah was able to catch his breath, he managed to say, "JD . . . married?"

"I can guarantee he didn't get that idea from me."

Josiah was shaking his head, grinning, "I wonder who would put him up to something like that?"

And then they spotted a familiar, small figure coming out of the saloon.

"Lord, is that--"

But Buck was already stalking down the boardwalk to confront the boy.

"Vin Tanner!"

Vin froze in his tracks.

Buck towered over the boy, his hands on his hips, his eyes narrowed. "Tell me I didn't just see what I think I saw."

Josiah tried to hide his smile. He doubted Buck even realized how easily he'd fallen into this paternal role, but it was obvious to him, and everyone else who knew the professed Ladies' Man.

Vin chewed on his bottom lip, then looked cautiously upward. "Wh-what did ya think ya saw?" he asked, the last word coming out as a squeak.

Buck tilted his head to the side and jabbed a finger in the direction of the saloon. "I think I saw you just come out of that there saloon," he pushed his hat back, to make sure Vin could see that Larabee wasn't the only one who could glare, "but how can that be, since you know better than to go in there without one of us, especially after dark?"

Vin looked nervously at the batwing door, hearing laughter and loud voices, the sound of a piano being played in the background. He could make a run for it, try to get lost in the crowd, or hide under a table or behind the bar, or . . ..

"Does Chris know where you are?" Buck asked, although he already knew the answer to that. No way would Larabee let the kid run around town alone, at night.

Vin shook his head, his eyes flicking from Buck to Josiah to the saloon. The sheriff's office wasn't too far away. Maybe he could make it there, and maybe find Chris. Although, he'd still be in trouble -- with Chris, everything would be okay . . . probably.

Before Vin could bolt, Buck squatted down to his level, his hands encircling the boy's scrawny arms. In a quiet, gentler tone of voice, he said, "You remember why Chris and I don't want you boys going in there by yourselves, especially after dark?"

For a moment Vin had been afraid, but once again, Buck was proving that Vin didn't need to fear him. Buck would never hurt him or JD. Sometimes Vin knew that, but sometimes he forgot. "'Cause sometimes things get out a hand, and if we're by ourselves we could get hurt?"

"That's right." Buck nodded, still talking calmly. "Now, you got any excuse for being in there?"

"No, sir. I went in looking for Chris, but he wasn't there." Vin focused his eyes on the scuffed toes of his boots. 'Course, a little bit ago, Mr. Ezra had come in and started playing cards and he'd watched that for a few minutes, until Mr. Ezra had whispered in his ear that he really ought not be in the saloon at that late hour. Then Ezra had promised not to mention it to Chris, as long as he went directly to his room at the boarding house. Vin had thought that sounded like a pretty good deal and had been on his way home. It was just his luck that he'd get caught before he got there. And he had the feeling Buck wasn't going to be as easy going as Mr. Ezra.

"You gonna tell Chris?"

When Vin looked up through his lashes, he saw that Buck had a serious, sad kind of look in his eyes. "No, pard . . . I'm afraid you're gonna have to do that yourself."

"Me? Why?"

"Well, this is one of them things that I know Chris would want to know about."

"But, we could just keep it 'tween you and me, couldn't we?" Buck was usually pretty easy going, so he figured it was worth a shot to ask.

Buck stood up and put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "Are you kidding? Do you really think he wouldn't find out?" They bid goodnight to Josiah, then walked slowly toward the boarding house. "You think I want Larabee aiming his glare o' death at me for the next two weeks?" He shuddered, dramatically. "No thank you."

Vin wasn't sure if Buck was teasing or not. Chris did have a habit of glaring at folks when he wasn't happy with 'em. And, when he was glaring, well, sometimes he looked downright scary.

He was pretty sure Chris would be glaring at him, very soon, but, that was okay, 'cause he'd rather have Chris glaring at him than not have Chris at all.

The next morning, Buck knocked on the boys' door. JD had been sleeping, but Vin had been awake for a while. He'd gotten dressed, trying to work out what he was gonna tell Chris, then he'd sat staring out the window, watching the town come to life.

When Buck came into the room, he sent Vin off to the diner, assuring him that he'd see to it that JD got dressed. JD was smart as a whip; he could read and write and do numbers and everything, but when it came to getting his buttons straight, or his boots on the right feet, he was a lost cause.

Vin spotted Chris at a table across the room, and hesitantly made his way over to join him. He still didn't know what he was going to say. Should he just come out and admit that he went into the saloon, or should he think up a real good reason for doing it, first.

"What'll it be young fella?" Miz Percy asked as she set a plateful of bacon and eggs down in front of Chris.

Flapjacks sounded good, he thought, and maybe a big stack of 'em would take his mind of his troubles. "I'll have some flapjacks, ma'am."

"All right, be back in a minute."

Vin watched her leave, then turned to Chris who was sipping on coffee, looking through one of Miz Travis' newspapers. He cleared his throat and sat up in his chair, took a deep breath and then let it out slowly. Would Chris see through his excuse for going into the saloon? Would he get more mad if Vin tried to dance around rather than just being straight and fessin' up?

"Why don't you just say whatever's on your mind, son?"

Son. Whenever Chris called him that it made him get a warm, funny feeling in his tummy, even though he knew it didn't really mean nothing. It was just a word Chris used sometimes. He knew Chris used to have a son, but he was up in Heaven, now, just like Vin's momma, and nobody could ever take their places. But, still . . ..


He looked up to see Chris with one eyebrow raised, looking a little concerned. "You okay?"

"Uh . . .." Vin took another deep breath, ready to just tell the truth without any fancy excuses, but before he was able to get one word out Miss Lydia stepped up to the table.

"Mind if I join you?"

Great. Vin slumped a little in his chair. He could barely find a smile when Miz Percy set a great big stack of buttery flapjacks practically drowning in maple syrup right in front of him. "Thank ya, ma'am."

She winked at Vin then poured some coffee into Chris' cup before asking Miss Lydia what she could get for her. "Just coffee, please."

"You're up awful early this morning, aren't you, honey?"

Vin shook his head ever so slightly, trying to relay with his eyes that she shouldn't bring up the business in the saloon, but she didn't seem to take his hints.

"He's always up early."

"Well, after last night I thought," she shrugged and took a sip of coffee.

"What d'ya mean, after last night?" Chris asked, casting a quick suspicious glance toward Vin.

"Well, he was at the saloon pretty late last night."

"Oh, he was at the saloon last night, was he?"

Miss Lydia suddenly looked a little uncertain.

Vin slouched low in his chair and glared at his flapjacks. He wasn't feeling hungry anymore.

"Is that true, Vin?"

Vin wondered if Chris might put him in jail, a thought that, he had to admit, was a little bit appealing. Sometimes he wondered what it would be like to be locked up in jail . . . only he wasn't guilty, of course, 'cause he was a good guy. A real bad guy had set him up and now, if he didn't escape and find the real killer/bank robber/horse stealer he'd end up swingin' at the end of a rope for--

"Vin, answer me."

"Uh . . ." He was saved when another woman rushed into the diner and over to their table.

"Lydia! He took Mrs. Travis!"

"Who?" asked Chris.

"Wickes," the lady answered, and then Vin remembered her name was Nora. "He says we got to go back by day's end or he'll kill her."

Chris stood up, and so did Miss Lydia. "I'm coming with you," she said.

"No, you're not."

"It was my fault he took her."

"It's too dangerous." Vin had known Chris would say that. It's what he always said to Vin.

"But I can help, I know his type."

"Lydia," Chris looked her right in her eye, "you're staying. Vin you're coming with me."

Whoa! Vin might have felt a little sorry for Miss Lydia, but he was too happy for himself. Chris was letting him come with him!

"We gonna save Miz Travis?"

Chris gave him an exasperated look. "You're gonna go see Mrs. Potter."

"Miz Potter?"

"Sorry, Cowboy."

"But, Chris—"

Chris didn't slow down; he just kept walking, very quickly, down the boardwalk toward Miz Potter's store. "And as soon as I get back, we'll discuss what you were doing in the saloon last night."

Vin sighed then glanced up to see Mr. Ezra walking down Nathan's stairs, real girly-like, with a big ol' book on his head. "Next thing ya know, he'll be wearing a dress," he muttered, with mild disgust.

Chris paused to look up, too, a curious expression on his face. Vin wondered if Ezra really did put on a dress what would Chris do? He hoped he wouldn't shoot Ezra, 'cause most of the time Ezra was real nice to him and he taught him lots of stuff, too. He knew almost everything there was to know. And, the truth was, he sure did walk good with a book on his head. "He walks awful graceful, don't he?"

Chris looked down at him then up at Ezra and grinned. "He sure does."

Vin had thought he'd seen just about everything, until he'd gotten a look at Mr. Ezra dressed up like a girl. He'd hardly recognized him with his face all painted up. Ezra had told him the lady's hair on his head was something called a wig. Vin hadn't said anything at the time, because he hadn't wanted to hurt Mr. Ezra's feelings, but in his opinion, Mr. Ezra was the ugliest girl he'd ever seen.

With a sigh, he tore off a piece of bread and then began crumbling it onto his plate. When he'd asked one more time to be allowed to go with them, Chris had pretended to think about it, then said, "Okay. But we'll have to see if we can find a dress your size." Then he'd nudged Ezra and said, "Hey, Ez, you got any dresses that might fit Vin?" And Mr. Ezra had looked real thoughtfully at Vin, then smiled and said, "Why, yes, I just happen to have a lovely pink one with lots of ruffles that I believe is just his size. I'm certain Mrs. Potter would be able to find some matching satin ribbons for his hair, too."

Vin had changed his mind real quick, but now that he'd had time to think about it, he was pretty sure Chris and Mr. Ezra had just been bluffing.

Now, he had to sit here with JD and worry.

JD sniffled and Vin took a closer look at the kid. He looked like he was about to cry.

"JD, what's wrong with you?"

JD sighed then let his spoon drop into his bowl. "I asked Miss Emily to marry me and she said no."

"You what?"

"I asked her to marry me. She kissed me, Vin! When all the ladies first came to town, and me and Buck had just got done takin' a bath and Miss Emily came up and pinched my cheek and said what a handsome little fella I was, and then . . . and then she kissed me! Right on the lips!" JD made a disgusted face. "And you said when a man and a lady kiss on the lips, they gotta get married."

"Yeah, but you ain't a man, JD."

JD sat up straight, with an indignant expression. "Am, too."

Vin squinted at him, "Yer just a little kid. Little kids can't get married."

JD seemed to deflate at the words. He sighed again. "That's sorta what Miss Emily said."

"Well, she's right." Vin shook his head and gave JD a bemused look. "Sometimes I worry about you, JD."

"Yeah," JD sighed, lifting his spoon and watching the cream dribble back into the bowl, "sometimes I worry about me, too."

It had seemed like a whole lifetime had passed by the time the men came riding back into town. Right away, Vin noticed they had Miz Travis with them, not that he'd ever doubted them.

Buck had told them the whole story, how as a distraction, Ezra had started a fight in the saloon tent. Then, in that fake girly voice that didn't sound like any girl Vin had ever heard, Ezra had said, "Well, what do you expect? One of them had the audacity to touch my person. They were being very ungentlemanly, indeed." They had all laughed at that, and then Buck had told them how Chris snuck into the bad guy's tent and found Miz Travis, how Miss Lydia had showed up unexpectedly and saved their behinds. And how Buck, from the corner of his eyes, had seen the bad guy move and he'd swung around just in time to stop him from shooting one of them in the back. Vin wished more than anything that he'd have been able to go with them.

Vin had been so happy to have them all back and so caught up in the stories and excitement that he'd almost forgotten about his incident in the saloon. Unfortunately, Chris had remembered.

After a long discussion, Vin was sentenced to two weeks of hard labor. That meant two whole weeks of peeling potatoes for Miz Percy, every single day. It was awful. He'd already peeled the tip of his thumbnail off, along with the skin on the knuckle of his thumb and a big patch along the side of his trigger finger, and that had been only the first day. By the time two weeks were up, he probably wouldn't have any skin left, at all.

Last night, had been the ladies' last night in town, because today they were heading for Frisco.

There'd been a celebration in the saloon, with music and singing and dancing. It had been lots of fun -- or so they'd heard. Him and JD had been sent to bed early that night. At first Vin had been disappointed, but it turned out okay in the end, because Chris and Buck had sat up with them talking and telling stories until they had fallen asleep. And they'd promised, as soon as Vin's hard labor was over, that the four of 'em were gonna head out of town for the weekend to do a little hunting and fishing and camping out under the stars.

Vin watched as the ladies climbed up into their wagon. They had spent most of the morning loading the wagon up, and now they were ready to go. They were all talking and smiling and looking so happy and he felt a rush of happiness for them. They were free from the bad guy, Wickes, and now they could go out and do whatever they wanted to, without having to worry about him coming after them, or ever hurting them again.

As he was pondering their freedom, he saw Erza come rushing up to them. Vin shook his head. Chris was right; he always seemed to show up after all the work was done.

"Ladies?" Ezra called out. "Ladies, I brought some candidates right here for you."

Vin turned to look at the bunch of fancy-dressed strangers gathered outside the store.

Miss Emily leaned forward, and with a smile said, "I'm sorry, Ezra but we're going to try our luck in Frisco."


Ezra woulda known that if he hadn't slept all morning.


"But what about these fine gentlemen?"

"Well, they've got them even finer in Frisco and you don't have to marry them."

Vin nudged JD. "Maybe when we get growed up we should head for Frisco?"


Ezra turned to the group of men who were approaching. "Uh, this is just, uh . . . just a temporary setback."

"What about our money?"

"Well, I'm sure we can find plenty of suitable . . ."

One of the men looked at Ezra. "Excuse me, Mister. Do you, by chance, sing?"

Everyone laughed at that, for some reason, and then Vin spotted Buck coming toward them and heard him call out, "Give us a song, Ezra."

JD appeared to be totally confused about what was going on, and when Buck squatted between the boys, he tilted his head and asked, "Ya mean they paid money . . . to buy girls?"

"Yep, reckon it looks that way," Buck told him, shaking his head sadly.

JD still looked puzzled. "Why?"

"I don't know for sure," Buck answered, matter-of-factly, "I've never had to do that, m'self."

"Well, if I had money," JD told him, with sincerity, "I sure wouldn't buy no girl. I'd rather buy candy."

Vin nodded his total agreement with JD. Sometimes, he just didn't understand grownups.

Buck laughed and hugged them both. Then he stood up, putting a hand on each boy's shoulder and nodded in the direction of Miz Potter's store. "Come on then, boys," he said, "the candy's on me."

Next: Safecracker