Wagon Train Part 1

by Estee

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

The original episode Wagon Train (Part 1) was written by Melissa Rosenberg and Sara Davidson.

Vin and JD pushed their faces against the dusty window of the Grain Exchange, trying to get a glimpse inside. All they could see was that it was filled with people, and most of them were yelling.

"Can ya see anything, Vin?"

"Nope, there's too many people."

"Come over here." JD motioned toward the door, which was wide open. The view wasn't any better, but at least they could hear some of what was being said.

They heard Judge Travis' voice above all the others. "Quiet down! Quiet down!" he shouted, then banged his gavel.

"All right," the judge said, " the court rules in favor of the homesteaders."

The people inside cheered.

"What are you two doing?"

It was Chris' voice behind them, and without thinking, both boys said, "Shhh!"

"Excuse me?"

Vin looked up with regret. "Sorry, Chris," he said and elbowed JD.

"Sowwy," the younger boy apologized, then he grinned and added, "We're tryin' to hear."

"This is an outrage!" a man yelled, and both boys instantly turned back to the action. "Now, this claim says that land is mine. Look there, you see? 'Mr. Dicky O'Shea.' I peaceably come to the first legal court I could find to assure my claim was legal. But this--this bloody woman here tells these thieving farmers about it, and, sure, don't they go off and invent a bogus deed of their own."

"I knew of their claim long before I ever heard of you, Mr. O'Shea," Mary Travis said, reasonably.

The man, Dicky O'Shea, was real mad, and a little scary, but Vin knew the judge didn't scare easy.

"The homesteaders' claim predates yours. So I suggest you set your sights on another piece of land."

"I want that land!" O'Shea shouted. "By the saints, it's mine!"

"Not anymore," Buck said quietly.

Josiah added, "Might want to go take it up with those saints of yours."

Apparently, Mr. O'Shea realized he wasn't going to get anywhere. In a voice Vin could barely hear, he said, "Safe journey, Mr. Richmond."

"All right, folks, we'll get back on the trail first thing tomorrow," Richmond called out. "Let's get those supplies loaded up."

"Who's that with Miz Travis?" Vin asked when Mary walked past them on the arm of a stranger.

"I wouldn't know," Chris answered.

Judge Travis came out of the building and approached them. "Could be a rough road for those folks. Might not be a bad idea for you men to, uh, stick with them for a day or two. Maybe escort them out of the territory."

"We don't need them," Richmond snarled, looking angry with Chris, although Vin didn't understand why. "We've done just fine on our own all the way from St. Louis."

Chris just smiled at the man. "That was before Dicky O'Shea knew you owned that land."

"I've heard about these men, Judge," Richmond said. "Not the kind of company we want our women and children keeping."

"Better safe than sorry," the judge reasoned.

"I'm telling you, if--"

"Mr. Richmond," Judge Travis cut him off, his voice firm, "this may sound like a suggestion. It's not."

Mr. Richmond glared at them before stomping away. Vin thought Chris would be upset, but instead there was laughter in his eyes when he said, "Looks like we're going on a wagon train."

Chris, Vin, and JD, along with Josiah and Ezra stayed the night with the wagons, while Buck and Nathan had ridden out to Francis Corcoran's place, to see if he was able to help them out. They had just finished breakfast and were getting set to leave when Nathan and Buck joined them.

"Morning, gents," Buck greeted them cheerfully.

JD was the first to respond, equally cheery, as he usually was in the mornings. "Hey, Buck!" he shouted, leaping into his arms for a hug.

"We ready?" Vin wondered, looking around at everyone. He was ready. In fact, he'd hardly slept at all the night before. He was trying to appear nonchalant, but in truth, he was thrilled to be able to help Chris escort the wagon train.

Ezra squinted up at him from his seat by the fire. "Mr. Tanner, the only thing I am ready for at this ungodly hour is the comfort of my down pillow." Ezra was always grumpy in the morning.

Vin smiled then turned to look around the camp, to gauge how everyone else was coming along. He spotted a lady struggling to pick up a heavy wooden crate and hurried over to assist. "Here, let me help you with that," he offered politely.

"I got it," the lady told him, even though it was obvious that she could hardly lift it alone. Vin just smiled and helped her anyway. Once they had it in the wagon, the lady reluctantly said, "Thanks, but I had it."

Vin nodded, giving her a mischievous grin. "Looked more like it had you, Ma'am." Then he touched the brim of his hat, like Chris and Buck always did, and went to look for Chris.

To his surprise he saw Mary Travis and her boy, Billy, ride into their camp. Vin couldn't help notice that Billy sure had changed since he'd come to live with his momma. He hardly looked like the same boy.

"Morning, Gerard," Mrs. Travis greeted the man they'd seen her walking with yesterday.

As soon as Billy was on the ground, he took off like a shot in Chris' direction. "Hey, Chris!"

Grinning, Chris lifted the boy and spun him around. "Hey, you, kid."

"I'm going on the wagon train with you!"

Vin sighed. Whenever Billy was around, he tended to latch onto Chris like a tick latches onto a mangy dog. Vin understood why Billy liked to be with Chris so much because Vin liked to be with him, too. Chris had explained that Billy needed him, because he'd lost his pa. Vin thought Chris seemed to need Billy, too, but the reasons for that were kind of hard for him to understand.

"Is that a fact?" Chris asked, seeming happy enough to have him along.

"Don't look so surprised, Chris," Mrs. Travis said. "There's no telling where a journalist's job will take them."

"Mary, you gonna introduce me?" the man, Gerard, asked.

"I'm sorry," she said, looking a little embarrassed. "Um, Chris, I'd like you to meet my old friend Gerard."

Gerard smiled and stepped over to shake hands with Chris. "Good to meet you."

"Gerard and my late husband went to school together," she continued, still looking uncomfortable.

Gerard, looked plenty happy, though. "In fact," he explained with a grin, "I proposed to Mary first, but Frank had already won her heart."

Vin scratched his head, wondering, Who's Frank?

"When Gerard wrote and told me that he and his daughter Katie were planning on making a new start," Mary explained, "I knew it would make a great story, so . . .."

"Mary invited herself and Billy along," Gerard said with humor.

"Oh, I invited?" Laughing, she batted her hand at him.

Vin decided it was a good time to interrupt. "We're ready to go," he said, leading the horse over to Chris. Then he glanced shyly at Mrs. Travis. "Miz Travis."

Chris climbed into the saddle, then reached down and pulled Vin up behind him. "All set?" he asked and when Vin nodded, he shouted out the order, "Okay, move 'em out!"

Someday, JD thought, he'd be bigger and he'd be able to ride his own horse. For now, though, he was content to sit in the saddle with his papa and hold the reins. It made him feel tall - sitting up high where he could see everything for miles around - until Buck pulled up along side one of the wagons.

"How do, ma'am," Buck said when he noticed the lady driving the wagon. "Beautiful . . . day." He grinned and JD wondered why the lady was all dressed in black? Maybe she was a relative of Chris? "It's a beautiful day." JD rolled his eyes, and wondered why there had to be ladies on the wagon train?

"Hey, Buck, hold up," Ezra called out from behind them.

"Hi, Mr. Ezra!" JD shouted in greeting when Ezra came up alongside them.

"Hello, JD. How are you faring on this . . .tedious journey?"

"I get to hold the reins!" He lifted his hands, proudly showing that he was in control of the horse.

"And, a fine job you're doing." Then Ezra glanced at Buck and said, "I see you've espied our comely young widow."

"Widow? Oh, I do love that word."

"Widow?" JD asked, puzzled as to why his papa would love that word. "Isn't that a lady whose husband got dead?"

"Yep, they're so in need of comfort."

"Ain't Miz Potter a widow?"

"Uh . . ." Buck cleared his throat, seeming slightly chagrined. "Yeah, yeah she is, son."

JD nodded, unable to figure out the workings of Buck's mind.

"Well," Ezra said, hoping to steer the conversation away from where it seemed to be headed, "unfortunately, despite her undeniable charms, she's a tad difficult to get close to."

"Ezra, no offense, but you're no match for ol' Buck."

Ezra grinned. "I'll admit that I'm not as indiscriminate in that area as yourself, Mr. Wilmington. However the point is, there's another rival for her affection."

"So she has a beau?"

"He's a formidable opponent. A rapacious, insatiable thief, stealing her time and attention like a rogue bandit in the night."

JD hadn't gotten past beau. He opened his mouth to ask what's a beau, but before he managed to get the question out, a boy appeared in the back of the wagon, his arm drawn back as he got ready to throw something at them.

"Who is this devil?" Buck asked just as they were pelted with . . . fruit? "Hey!"

Ezra laughed, nodding to the boy seated at the back of the wagon. "That's the gentleman over there."

Buck glared at him, ducking and trying to shield JD at the same time. "Why didn't you tell me that thing belongs to her?"

JD stared in amazement at the boy who continued to hurl fruit at them. He was making faces at them and sticking out his tongue.

"Ha ha!" the boy taunted then launched a half eaten apple in their direction.

Stunned, JD looked up at Ezra, then at his papa, wondering why they were allowing that dumb kid to get away with such terrible behavior? Why wasn't anybody was taking him over their knee? If he or Vin ever did something like that, they'd get a tanning for sure. In fact, they'd probably never be able to sit down again -- for the rest of their lives!

"If one were to win its affections," Ezra said, catching a large green apple, as if they weren't being bombarded, "one might be able to win hers."

Buck gave him a challenging look. "You saying I can't take him?"

"Not in a fair fight. Actually, I just think I could win him over first."

Win him over? Were they crazy? "I bet neither of you can," JD said, not even realizing he had spoken aloud.

"Bet?" Ezra's gold tooth flashed. "I do love the sound of that word."

Vin sat behind Chris in the saddle, wishing he could have ridden his own horse. He wasn't a baby, after all.

"How's it look?" Chris asked as Francis Corcoran rode up to them.

"Not so good," Corcoran reported. "The pass has been washed out by the floods."

"Whoa!" Mr. Richmond's wagon approached them, and Vin felt his hackles rise. The man just rubbed him the wrong way. "Is there a problem?"

"We were just discussing the best route," Chris told him.

"Got that worked out already," Richmond stated. "Straight over the pass."

"Sir, the pass looks pretty rough," Corcoran explained. "It will be easier on the wagons if we ride around the ridge."

"Will," his wife tried to reason, "maybe we should—"

Richmond ignored his wife as if she hadn't even spoken. "It'll take longer to get there."

"Well, at least we'll get there in one piece."

"Mister, we've been on this journey for two months. I got us this far. Reckon I know what I'm doing. We're going straight through as planned." Then he snapped the reins and moved his rig past them.

Grinning, Vin tipped sideways to get a look at Chris' face and said, "At least he's willin' to discuss it."

Chris looked down at him with narrowed eyes, "You ever heard of the saying, Kids should be seen and not heard?"

"Only from Mr. Ezra," he answered, then laughed when Chris intensified his glare.

He hadn't been this happy for a long time. Oh, he loved working for the railroad, blowing up land and trees and boulders, but he was only allowed to use his talent and expertise when they deemed it necessary. And there was always someone looking over his shoulder, telling him how to do the thing that he already knew how to do. He favored jobs like this one where he would get to use his creativity, where he could take joy in his work and nobody would question him.

The big burly Irishman turned to them, "So, you're the powder man, then, are you?"

He'd always felt that Irishmen had smaller brains than most, but he did appreciate that the man called him 'the powder man'. He liked that so much better than his real name, Aloysius. The Powder Man defined everything about him. "Yes, sir. Yes, I am," he said respectfully.

"Well, Powder Man. I got a pesky wagon train headin' for a piece of ground that should belong to me."

"Wagon train? Oh, that's easy." He could picture the chaos now: planks flying, crates bursting, canvas bursting into flame . . .. He watched some pea-brains chasing down a rabbit, and tried to stifle the urge to blow that rabbit, and the men, to kingdom come. "Just a bunch of wood and flesh. No solid rock."

O'Shea continued, "I don't need them dead, mind you. Just scared off, like."

"Scared off." He nodded, focusing on the beauty of the explosions he would soon make happen. "Yes."

The men chasing the rabbit ran past him. He pulled out a stick of dynamite. "Doo dah! Doo dah! Oh, yeah!"

It was a small sample of his potential, but it seemed to be enough to convince the Irishman. "So when do I start?"

Vin was bored, and about worn out. He leaned against one of the wagons, wondering how much further they had to go. JD had asked 'Are we almost there, yet?' several times, and Vin was pretty sure the men were getting tired of hearing it, so he'd been trying hard not to ask, even though he wanted to know, too.

"Water?" The soft voice startled him and he turned to see Mrs. Richmond, holding out a canteen for him. She wasn't like her husband. She was nice and real pretty, even though hers eyes were kinda sad.

"Thank you." He took the canteen and uncorked it, taking a long swallow before handing it back to her. Then he looked out at the scenery and said, "Y'all could just stop now and put down stakes here. It's a pretty nice spot." They'd only been riding with the wagon train for a short time, and already he was ready for the trip to be over.

"New homestead's gonna be nicer," she answered, with no hint of how much longer it was going to take.

"Think so, huh?" Vin scanned the landscape. He couldn't imagine a prettier spot. If he was in charge, he'd stop here.

"I haven't seen it yet, but I know it's got a river and mountains and fine, rich soil as far as the eye can see. And when we start farming it, it's gonna be heaven on earth."

Vin tried not to make a face; it didn't sound like heaven to him. "I reckon, if you're akin to that kind of thing," he said.

"Only a fool wouldn't be."

Well, then I'm a fool, Vin thought to himself, but he said, managing to sound polite, "Guess I never been interested in tamin' no land." He didn't mind helping Miz Nettie with her garden, once in a while, but he couldn't imagine anyone wanting to be a farmer, all the time. He might like to be a rancher, or a mountain man, or a peacekeeper . . . well, he wasn't exactly sure what he wanted to be, but he definitely didn't want to be a farmer.

"Oh," she teased, pinching his cheek, "the wild and woolly type?"

Vin liked the sound of that. "Woolly to the bone," he answered proudly, making her smile. When she smiled, he noticed that all her sadness seemed to disappear. "You oughta smile more often, ma'am. Kinda lights up your face."

Her smile faltered a little and she reached out, brushing his bangs out of his eyes. "Where's your momma?"

Vin shrugged, trying not to show his own sadness. "She died a while back, ma'am. Now I live with Chris. He's my new pa."

"Oh," she replied, gazing at him with a puzzled frown. "Isn't he one of the gunslingers?"

Before he could answer, Mr. Richmond shouted, "Charlotte!"

"I'd better--" Looking embarrassed, she shrugged and hurried away.

JD loved his new papa, even though sometimes he thought he had to be out of his mind. He watched, hardly able to believe his eyes, as Buck walked up to the bad boy who'd been sticking out his tongue and throwing apples at them.

"Howdy there, son."

"Go away," the boy said, shooting a rock from his slingshot. "I'm busy."

JD couldn't believe the boy was allowed to act that way. And it seemed completely unfair that the kid had the biggest slingshot JD'd ever seen - especially since he and Vin had been ordered to leave theirs at home.

"Well, now, a boy is never too busy to go huntin'. Hmm? Now, what do you say? You and me, just loaded up for bear, just ridin' on out."

JD scowled. Buck never took him huntin' for bears!

"I hate horses," the boy answered, "and guns give me bad dreams."

JD's eyes nearly popped out of his head. How could anyone hate horses? And guns? Vin had a gun, and JD would give anything if he could have one, too.

"You hate horses?" Buck looked a little shocked, but apparently he wasn't about to let it stop him. "Well, um, what do you like?"

"I like stories."

Yeah, JD liked stories, too. And, his Buck was the bestest storyteller, ever. Josiah told pretty good stories, too, but he liked the way Buck's voice got all soft and smooth when he was telling them a story.

"Oh, you like stories. Well, I know what kind of stories boys like. And, uh, me, I got a peck full of them."

JD leaned closer, wondering which story his papa would tell. Maybe the one about the pirates and the buried treasure? Or the one about the lost goldmine? Or the scary monster with the big feet that roamed around the mountains?

"Ahem." Buck cleared his throat then began the story. "Now, there was this time I met this sweet little conchita named Juanita down in Mexico. And let me tell you, that little gal, she was ready and willin', if you get my drift."

"What do you mean?" Eugene asked, looking puzzled.

JD wanted to know, too, but he suddenly found his ears covered.

He could see Buck's mouth moving, but he couldn't hear what was being said. When he managed to look sideways, to see who was preventing him from hearing the story, Ezra winked at him.

The next thing he knew, Eugene's momma was there, still dressed like Chris, swatting at Buck and tugging her boy away from him.

A short time later, Ezra released his ears and called out to Buck, "Well done."

"We got company." Nathan stood up, eyes fixed on a bunch of riders coming up to the camp.

Mr. Richmond stalked out in front of the wagons. "What do you want?"

Just before Mr. Ezra lifted him into the back of one of the wagons, JD saw that one of the riders was that Dicky O'Shea fella. A moment later, Vin was also set into the wagon, with an order from Captain Francis to 'Stay put'.

"I've come with a very generous offer for you fine people," Dicky O'Shea said pleasantly.

"We're not interested in any offer," Mr. Richmond snarled in reply.

Vin whispered, "Must be mighty special land."

"Must be something special about this land." JD shook his head. Sometimes it was almost scary how Chris and Vin seemed to think the same things.

"Oh, it's just got all 40 shades of green," Mr. O'Shea told them, seeming friendly enough. "I get homesick something awful since I left Ireland."

"Then go back, 'cause you ain't gettin' our land." Mr. Richmond didn't sound friendly, at all. "We rode long and hard to get this land. We ain't sellin' it to nobody."

"Is that right?"

"Now get outta here," Richmond ordered.

"Me Da used to say you'd do well to mind your manners, lad. Make things go a mite easier on ya."

"You and your da can go straight to hell." Both Vin and JD's eyes went wide. They both knew that was a very bad thing to wish on someone.

Then they heard Chris again. "Sounded like a no to me, Mr. O'Shea." And a second later, "You gonna pull that piece or are you just resting your hand on it?"

When Vin heard that, he leaned so far out of the wagon, he nearly fell to the ground. He could just picture Chris, his hand near his own piece, that dangerous smile on his face.

"Well, maybe something will happen to make you change your mind," Mr. O'Shea said. "Be seein' ya."

When they heard the horses ride off, Vin and JD jumped down from the wagon.

"If you had any sense," Captain Francis said to Mr. Richmond, "you would have listened to his offer.

Richmond squared his shoulders, glaring at Captain Francis. "You got a problem?"

His wife tried to coax him away, but Richmond shoved her and said, "You stay out of this, woman."

"Mr. Richmond," Captain Francis said, sounding polite, as always, "the only one who seems to have a problem is you."

With one last glare at the men who'd just stood with him against Dicky O'Shea, Richmond stalked off after his wife.

Later that evening, Vin stood beside Chris, guarding the camp and half listening as Mr. Whitman told the little kids a story.

"A bellowing voice called out, send out your best and your bravest. And there stood a thirty-foot-tall towering giant who ate little children for breakfast. His teeth were as sharp as knives. And his arms were as big as oak trees."

Vin rolled his eyes. He was much too old for listening to stories. Well, most of the time, anyway. He did like it sometimes when Chris or Buck or Mr. 'Siah told them bedtime stories, and Mr. Ezra was pretty good at telling stories, too.

"It sure is nice and quiet," he said to Chris when they were away from the campfire.

"Don't you want to hear the rest of the story?"

"Naw, I'd rather stay and help you."

Chris grinned. "Is that so?"

"Yep." Matter of fact, there was no place he'd rather be.

"Well, I hate to tell you this, Cowboy, but as soon as that story's finished, it's your bedtime."

"Aw, Chris." Vin scowled at the unfairness of that. He should be able to stay up later, since he was much older than them other kids.

"We need to get an early start in the morning."

The sound of angry voices caught his attention and he looked toward the Richmond's wagon where he could see two shadows in confrontation.

"You have no right to talk to me that way!" Mrs. Richmond shouted.

"Damn right I do, if you're fool enough to butt into my business!" her husband returned.

"Our business! Our business! Oh, I can't take this anymore!"

"Get back here. Charlotte!"

He could hear Mrs. Richmond crying and wished more than anything, right then, that he could get her to smile again. Chris pulled him close and rubbed his shoulder. "Why don't you go on and get ready for bed, Cowboy?"

He stared at the canvas covered wagon for a long moment, then nodded his head. "Okay."

As he headed off to get his bedroll, he saw Mrs. Richmond walking over to the horses and followed her. "Miz Richmond, you all right?" At the sound of his voice she jumped. "Sorry," he said, "I wasn't trying to spook you."

She sniffed and wiped her eyes. "I'm fine."

"Don't be sad. It'll be okay." He hated to see ladies cry, and didn't know what else to say to get her to stop.

Mrs. Richmond wiped her eyes again. "It didn't used to be like this. If you'd just seen him before. Like when Allison was born. He was so happy. You never seen a man more proud."

"Allison? Is that your daughter?" He didn't know the Richmond's had a daughter; he hadn't seen any little kids with them, anyway.

She nodded. "She was taken by the fever two winters ago."

"Oh." Vin looked down at the ground and tried not to think about his own loss. "I'm sorry to hear that, ma'am."

"I never did and never will make peace with it. Figured I best get on with life anyway," she explained. "But, Will, he, uh--he just can't seem to--I wanted this move. The new land to be a second chance for us, but . . .."

"It's all right. You can still get a second chance." He'd gotten a second chance with Chris and Buck and the others - when he hadn't even been expecting it. Mr. 'Siah had told him once that ya can't catch no fish if'n your line ain't in the water . . .or something like that. He was pretty sure what 'Siah had meant was: you can't get what you want if ya don't even try.

He was still pondering the words when the night was suddenly lit up. In the next instant, he was knocked off his feet by the force of an explosion.

He sat stunned for a few minutes, until Mrs. Richmond picked him up, and set him back on his feet. "You okay?" she asked, bending down and looking at his face.

"Y-yeah." Nothing hurt, but his ears were ringing so much he could barely hear anything.

She patted him on the head. "Go on now, go find your pa."

Vin nodded and a bolt of panic shot through him. Chris! What if . . .? Before he could start to worry on that, he heard Chris' voice shouting orders. "Get a blanket!"

He ran toward the sound of Chris' voice and spotted Nathan kneeling on the ground. One of the homesteaders had been hurt bad. When Nathan saw him, he yelled, " Vin, Vin, get my kit! Hurry up!"

Vin nodded and went in search of the bag. When he found it, he hurried back and set it on the ground beside Nathan. With wide eyes he backed away, until he ran right into Chris. Turning, he wrapped his arms around Chris' waist, not planning to let him out of his sight for the rest of the night.

JD could feel the tears sliding down his cheeks, even though he wasn't hurt. He knew his Buck and Chris and Vin were okay, too. But the sound had scared him, and the man lying on the ground had blood all over his face, and he was telling Mr. Nathan that he hurted. He wanted to do something, to help the man, but he didn't know what to do.

Then he saw the man's wife. She was going to have a baby and she was crying. "Ma'am, he's gonna be all right. Mr. Nathan'll fix him." Nathan always fixed him and Vin when they got owies.

He didn't think the lady heard him, though; she dropped to her knees beside her husband and started to rock him back and forth. "Oh, Jack, Jack. Come on, Jack, stay."

Then he heard the deep rumble of Mr. 'Siah's voice and when the big preacher lifted him into his arms, JD laid his head on Josiah's shoulder and closed his eyes.

"He has out soared the shadow of our night. Envy and calumny and that unrest which men miscall delight can touch him not and torture not again. He is secure and now can never mourn a heart grown cold, a head grown gray in vain. He lives, he wakes, 'tis death is dead, not he."

"O'Shea's pretty serious about that land," Captain Francis murmured quietly.

Chris nodded. "Must be something special if it's worth killing for."

Corcoran looked at him thoughtfully. "A couple of men, riding straight through, could reach it in a day or so."

Mr. Nathan felt real bad that he couldn't save the man who'd been injured. Vin heard Mr. 'Siah tell him that it wasn't his fault, but Mr. Nathan didn't seem to believe him. He was always hard on himself when he couldn't fix folks. Vin remembered one time that 'Siah had told him that life and death was in God's hands, not man's. That if the good Lord wanted someone home, then home he'd go, no matter what a man did to try and keep him here.

Captain Francis approached Nathan. "Chris wants two of us to go take a gander at that new homestead."

"Yeah, I'll ride," Nathan agreed. "I ain't doing much good here."

Vin watched Nathan and Captain Francis leave, then Gerard Whitman walked up to them. "Under the circumstances, you think we should send the women and children back?"

Personally, Vin thought they'd be safer if they all stuck together.

So did Chris. "Be stronger if we all stick together."

Then Mr. Richmond added his opinion. "We'll stick together. But you men, your job is done here."

"Will, please," his wife tried to reason.

"Nobody died till they showed up to protect us."

"Didn't know what we were up against." Chris said. "Now we do."

Still, Richmond wouldn't let it go. "People like O'Shea make a game of going against hired guns like you."

"These men aren't what O'Shea's after," Mrs. Travis spoke up, trying to make the man understand. Even Vin knew that the reason this O'Shea feller was doing these things was to scare the homesteaders off.

"Mr. Richmond," Mr. Whitman said, "I got two young children with me and I want as many men as possible between them and Dicky O'Shea."

Vin was surprised when Mrs. Richmond folded her arms over her chest and said, "We all feel that way, Mr. Whitman," she said in a firm voice. "We all do." Then Mr. Richmond stalked away. Vin couldn't understand why the man was always so contrary.

They had the wagons traveling fast, trying to make it as far as they could in a day's time. Buck and Josiah had ridden out earlier to scout around and see if they could locate O'Shea and his men. Vin was riding with Chris, and watching JD and Billy Travis and Katie make faces at them from the back of the Whitman's wagon.

When they galloped up alongside the wagon Chris must have noticed that Mrs. Travis wasn't sitting there, and asked, "Where's Mary?"

"She's over there." He pointed, and there she was, lookin' kinda silly dressed in one of her fancy dresses, while her horse ran like its tail was on fire. "She wanted to be alone. Think it's safe?"

Probably not, Vin thought; then he wondered if there were many gophers living around there.

"You think she'd listen to us if we told her to stay in the wagon?"

"I don't mean to pry, Mr. Larabee, but I notice that you and she have something of a friendship."

Vin scowled at him. What was that supposed to mean? He tilted his head, trying to see Chris' face, and was surprised to find him smiling. "Sure, you could say that."

"Anything else to it?"

Vin opened his mouth to shout, NO! but Chris spoke first.

"What are you askin'?"

"Forgive me, that was unfair. My competitive nature sometimes overwhelms my manners. But then again, a man would have to be blind not to notice her charms."

They all turned to gawk at Mrs. Travis, and Chris grinned again. "Well, I ain't blind."

Vin shuddered, then decided him and Chris needed to have a long man-to-man talk when they got home.

Josiah and Buck came riding up to them. "O'Shea's keeping his distance," Josiah said. "Probably hoping we'll leave the wagons to hunt him down."

"I hate to say it, but it might be best just to wait for his next move."

"All right," agreed Chris, "let's be ready for him.

That night around the campfire, Vin couldn't help notice how sad all the folks seemed. He figured they had a right to be down, with everything that had been happening, but the mood seemed to hang over the entire camp like a black cloud. The melancholy songs the fiddler kept playing was only making things worse. Even he was starting to feel sad, and JD had been whining about anything and everything ever since they'd finished their supper.

"These folks are sadder than an old woodpecker in a stone forest," Buck said, making both Vin and JD giggle. Buck had a gift for saying things that could always make them smile.

Josiah had picked up some spoons, and he started clapping them together in a lively rhythm. "What we need is a little divine inspiration."

"Well, come along, fiddler," Ezra called out to the man. "Render us a more jovial tune."

"Yeah!" Buck cheered when the fiddler changed songs. "That's more like it!"

"Well, come on, folks. What more do you need? Your very own pied piper."

Vin watched warily as Buck started strutting and dancing around like a rooster, then he grinned when JD started dancing right along with Buck. He backed away from them a little. There weren't no way he was gonna dance. No way. He scanned the other folks around the fire, glad when they started to liven up.

He caught sight of Mr. Ezra leaving the fireside, and followed him with his eyes. Mr. Ezra walked over to where that troublesome boy, Eugene, was seated outside his wagon, and Vin wondered why Ezra would want to talk to him?

"Good evening, young sir. Now, now, I would not describe that as a long face, but . . . you're obviously in a dour mood due to our limited resources."

Vin couldn't help but grin at the long face comment, and it was even funnier because he was pretty sure that the round-faced boy looking up at Ezra hadn't caught the words. Probably because he was trying to figure out all them other words Mr. Ezra was spoutin' at him.

"Feeling a bit peckish, are we? Fear not, my friend. Uncle Ezra's middle name is Resourceful."

Resourceful? Vin shook his head. All this time he'd thought Mr. Ezra's middle name was Pea. He kinda liked the sound of Uncle Ezra, although he didn't quite understand why Uncle Ezra was being so nice to some awful kid that he didn't hardly know.

"And that is not all. I have brought you a veritable cornucopia of goodies. Beef jerky. Candy. Enjoy. Uh . . .uh."

Vin's mouth fell open as he watched the kid practically inhale the goodies without taking a breath.

"Uh . . . uh. Slow down, son. You're liable to asphyxiate yourself."

The kid chomped loudly, stuffing more food into his mouth before he'd even swallowed. When he groaned, Vin wondered if asphyxiate meant choke to death or explode and he kept a close eye on the boy, not wanting to miss whatever it was if it happened.

"Good God, boy. You'd think we were the Donner party."

Vin snorted at that. He knew that the Donner party had been a wagon train trying to cross the mountains too late in the year. They'd gotten stuck in a winter storm and lots of the people had died because they didn't have any food.

"Here, take a little sip of this here and wash it down. There we go. A sip. A sip, not a guzzle, you little lush. Now give me that. Give me-- you're welcome. Lovely child."

When the kid burped right in Uncle Ezra's face, Vin wasn't sure if he was more awed, or disgusted. The burp was impressive, but he'd burped in his Ezra's face. That was just plain disrespectful and Vin didn't like it at all. He decided he didn't want to watch anymore, so he stood up to go find Chris. He hadn't made it very far when Mrs. Richmond grabbed his arm. "Care to dance, sweetheart?"

Sweetheart? Vin scowled. "You can call me Vin, ma'am." No, he didn't want to dance, but she was pulling him forward.

"Well, all right, Vin," she agreed. "You can call me Charlotte."

Suddenly he found himself in the midst of the dancing, and he had no clue how to dance. He was near panicking, but Miz Charlotte was laughing, looking so happy that he forced himself to calm down. She had a hold of his hands and seemed to know what to do, so he took a deep breath and followed her lead.

"Seems a shame to interrupt an Irish wake," O'Shea said, standing uncomfortably close to him. "You about ready?"

"It's all about precision and timing," Powder Man tried to explain, although he knew he was tossing pearls to pigs.

"Sure, it is," O'Shea agreed. "Only last time, your timing was precisely wrong."

He didn't like that word, especially when it was directed at his work. "People get in the way on occasion." Like trees get in the way, and bushes, animals . . ..

"Well, you put me in a tight spot, now, haven't you?" O'Shea continued to complain. "Brought a murder down on me head."

"It won't be the first one we've done," he heard someone else comment.

"It's the first one with witnesses, you idiot! Get it right this time, friend. You follow?"

"Yeah, I follow," he replied, following as well as he could when his mind was focused elsewhere. Maybe when he was finished with the job, he'd teach the Irishman a lesson in precision and timing.

Ezra could not believe that the little troll beside him had eaten all of the goodies he'd collected, and then drank his entire flask of brandy - not just any brandy, it had been the good stuff.

"I don't feel so good," Eugene moaned.

In the dim light of the campfire, Ezra noted that the boy's face had taken on a most unhealthy hue of yellow-green. "Son, the whale that swallowed Jonah doesn't eat like you. Now, next time, listen to me--"

His sage advice was cut off by the lad's mother. "There you are, Eugene."

Ezra worried briefly as to whether or not she'd be able to detect the scent of brandy on her beloved offspring's breath. "Hello," he greeted the real object of his desire.

"My tummy hurts," Eugene told his mother.

"Now, now, a gentleman never complains." He smiled reassuringly at the woman. "He'll be fine."

Apparently she wasn't going to take his word for it. "Eugene, sweetie, what's the matter?"

Ezra was about to explain that the endearing child had just eaten his own weight in goodies, when the boy made the most repulsive noise, then promptly bent over and retched. On Ezra's favorite boots. Good God.

"Oh, oh, honey! Oh, my," she gasped, then picked up the brandy flask.

"Is that mine? You know, someone must have stolen that from me. When I catch the blackguard who--"

"If you come near my baby again," the woman shouted, "I swear I will find a rifle and I will use it." She grabbed her son and pulled him away. "Come on, baby."

Vin wasn't any good at dancing, and unlike Buck and JD, he didn't like looking silly in front of folks. But, he reminded himself, he was making Miz Richmond smile, so maybe it was worth it for him to look silly, just this once.

Suddenly Mr. Richmond was there, taking hold of his wife's arm. "Come on, Charlotte."

"What's the matter, Will?"

"I don't want you dancin' with this . . . this--" he made a sound of disgust, and turned to lead his wife away.

"We're just trying to have a good time." Vin shrugged, not knowing what he'd done wrong.

"He's just a little boy, Will," she tried to explain. "He lost his mother, just like I lost--"

"You think you can replace our daughter with that?" He looked and sounded angry, but Vin still couldn't figure out why, or what, if anything, he'd done wrong. He looked around at the other people, feeling his cheeks burn, and was so relieved when he saw Mr. Josiah coming toward him.

"It's all right," Josiah assured him and put a hand on his shoulder. Then he took another step toward the Richmonds and said, "A little dance never hurt nobody."

"He comes near my wife again," Richmond warned, pointing a finger at Vin, "and he'll be sorry." When Richmond gave his wife a rough shove in the direction of their wagon, Vin lunged forward, ready to defend her. Even he knew that a man shouldn't treat a lady like that.

"Vin, Vin, Vin . . .." Josiah intercepted him and easily lifted him off the ground. "It's over now, leave it be. Leave it be."

A moment later, it was all forgotten. There were several thunderous explosions, one after another, and the whole camp seemed to go up in a blaze.

"Everybody, find cover!" he heard Buck shout.

Josiah had already pulled him down, and covered him with his body. He couldn't see anything, so he just squeezed his eyes closed and waited for the next explosion.

Finally, after what seemed like a long time, Josiah slowly released him and asked, "You all right?" When Vin nodded, he stood up and the two of them began checking the others around at the camp. "Everybody all right?"

Vin found JD looking scared, but not crying. He sat down and put his arm protectively around JD. He was getting real tired of all this, and although he'd never admit it, he really, really wished they were all tucked in, safe in their beds, back in town.

"Charlotte. Charlotte! Charlotte!" It was Richmond, staggering around the camp in a daze, calling out for his wife. "They took Charlotte. I wouldn't sign over the land deed. Now they want it by sundown tomorrow or they're-- Oh, God. What have I done?"

Nathan and Francis Corcoran steered their mounts down a slight incline, halting at the bank of the river.

"This is it," Nathan said, dismounting to look around.

"It's an awfully nice spot."

Nathan nodded agreement then raised a questioning eyebrow. "Worth killin' for?"

"Take a look at this," Francis said, as they walked along the bank. "Some old mining equipment."

"Seems like someone's been mining the homesteaders' river."

"Yes, it looks fairly recent, too," Francis agreed. Suddenly he stopped and lurched backwards. "Ah, good Lord!"

Lying half in the river was a dead body, partially decomposed. The smell was enough to make them gag, even though both men were all too familiar with death.

"You think the old gent struck gold?" Francis asked.

"Yep. Probably got killed for it," Nathan speculated. "That land deed O'Shea was waving around probably came off this old bastard. Nothing makes men kill each other faster than gold."

Vin still couldn't believe he was getting to ride with Chris and the others to search for Mrs. Richmond. He hadn't even asked to go, Chris had just offered to let him! They'd said it was probably no more dangerous than being with the wagons, and to top that off, he was riding a horse all by hisself, and he'd been allowed to bring his rifle! Chris had said they'd make better time on the way back if there weren't two adults on the horse. Vin was still expecting that, at any moment, Chris would change his mind.

As he was contemplating all this, Will Richmond stalked toward them. "I'm going with you, damn it!"

"Nathan and Francis won't be back for a day or two," Chris tried appealing to the man. "That leaves you and Josiah to keep these wagons moving."

"She's my wife, and I want her back."

So bad you wouldn't trade a bunch of dirt for her, Vin thought to himself. He woulda liked to have said it, but he didn't, mostly because he was kind of in shock that he was being allowed to go along, at all. If he smarted off, he knew he'd find himself sitting - or more likely, not sitting - in the back of one of the wagons.

"You're not coming with us," Chris said, his tone final. "We'll bring her back. I swear it. Josiah, keep it moving."

Josiah nodded, "Along with heaven and earth if I got to."

"Look!" Vin whispered loudly. "There she is!"

"Looks like the only way in is through the front door," Buck said, after appraising the situation.

"I suggest we agree to Mr. O'Shea's demands," Ezra said, cryptically. "Give him his ransom."

Buck squinted at him. "We ain't got the deed, remember?"

"Well, fortunately," Ezra pulled a sheet of paper from his inside pocket, "I had the foresight to bring it along."

Buck snatched the paper from Ezra. "Let me take a look at that. You don't mind do you? Let's see here, 'Dear Mother, can you believe these fools now have me baby-sitting a wagon train, of all things?'"

Chris snatched the paper out of Buck's hands.

"It goes on to say what a delightful time I'm having," Ezra said, mostly for Vin's benefit.

Chris didn't bother to read the letter. "Looks like a deed to me," he said, enough appreciation in his voice to put Ezra at ease. When Buck started down steep embankment, Chris stood up and shouted to distract the men below. "Dicky! Hey, Dicky! I got your deed. Send the girl out. Come on."

O'Shea looked up at them. "Mighty Christian of you to ride all the way out here to bring it to us, Gunfighter. Now why don't you be a good man and bring it here?"

Chris grinned, still holding out the paper. "Why don't you come on up here and get it?"

O'Shea shook his head. "No, I think not." He turned his head in Buck's direction, but Buck already had Mrs. Richmond and they were half way back. "Hey!"

"Damn you, there on the ridge! Up on the ridge there, Boys. Damn your eyes!

As soon as Buck and Mrs. Richmond were topside, Buck put a hand on Vin's shoulder and looked him solemnly in the eye. "You start back for camp, now, just the way we came. You remember?"

Vin nodded. He'd kept track, just like they'd told him to.

"We'll hold them down," Ezra added, as Buck lifted Vin into the saddle. When Charlotte was seated behind him, Ezra swatted the horse on the rump. "Get going."

JD sighed. He was bored, bored, bored. It wasn't fair that Vin got to ride with Chris and Buck, and he had to stay here with the other kids. He wasn't a baby.

Although, if he'd have gone with them, he wouldn't have this, he thought, pulling his newest marble out of its bag. He held it up to the sunlight. It was clear with blue swirls in it. He couldn't wait to show Vin, and to tell him how he'd won it from Billy Travis. Billy was in trouble, because his momma had told him he wasn't supposed to play for keeps, but she hadn't made JD give back the marble, and his papa Buck had never told him not to play for keeps, so JD wasn't too worried about anything. Except that he was bored.

A few feet away, Mrs. Travis was telling that Richmond fella that Chris and the others would find his wife.

"I should have just given him the deed right then and there. Hell with everybody else. But I got my back all up and--"

JD didn't like Mr. Richmond much, but he sounded real worried, and he couldn't help but feel a little sorry for him.

"What's done is done," Mrs. Travis said. JD looked again at his marble and agreed.

"If I lose her, too, I don't know what I'll do."

Suddenly that dumb Eugene was there, skipping around Mrs. Travis and Mr. Richmond in a circle.

"Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah . . .."

"Eugene, please," Mrs. Travis tried to get him to stop. JD was of the mind that nothing would stop him, short of a good, hard tanning.

He saw Mr. Josiah walking toward the kid, and wondered if maybe he was gonna tell God to stop him?

"Nyah, nyah, nyah . . .."

Josiah snagged the boy's arm, and started to haul him away. "Familiar with the Bible, son? 'Cause there's a little place called Hell I'm gonna tell you all about."


As they passed JD, Mr. 'Siah winked at him and with a grin, JD blinked back.

Vin had been riding pretty hard, trying to make up for lost time, and get back before dark. They weren't taking the way back that they were supposed to. Once they'd ridden away from the place where O'Shea had been holding Mrs. Richmond, he'd seen a couple of riders ahead in the distance, and turned off their trail, just to be safe. Now, he could feel the woman leaning heavily to the side, and he knew he needed to stop for a rest.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Vin pulled back on the reins until the horse obeyed.

Behind him, he felt Mrs. Richmond jerk upright. "What happened?"

"I was afraid you was gonna fall off. I reckon you're tired, and ya probably ain't had nothin' to eat today?"

"I'll be all right."

"We're gonna stop now, see if I can scare us up some supper. Why don't you sit down there on that rock and get some rest?" He hoped there was something around there he could find to eat. Chris hadn't let him bring his slingshot, but he'd let him bring his rifle and his pocketknife.

Amazingly, it didn't take long for him to spot a jackrabbit. It was kinda scrawny, but better than nothing.

When he got back to Mrs. Richmond, she was leaning back against a rock, sound asleep. "Well," he said to himself, "now, all I gotta do is make a fire."

Vin let Mrs. Richmond eat most of the rabbit, not that there'd been a whole lot there. The little bit of jerky he had was enough for him. When she was finished, she smiled at him. "I didn't realize how hungry I was."

"I reckon you been through enough to work up a heck of an appetite."

She nodded, laughing a little.

"I suppose we should be going. Your husband's probably on the worry."

"And Mr. Larabee is probably on the worry over you, too."

"Nah, Chris knows I can handle whatever comes along." It wasn't entirely true, but he sure wished it was. He knew Chris was probably worried about him, and he didn't want to think about that too much.

"Vin, I want to thank you . . . for saving my life."

Vin felt his cheeks burn. Words like that sure could go to a fella's head.

"Well, you're worth lots more than some land." He hoped he hadn't overstepped his bounds, but he just couldn't understand how her husband could have let her be taken away by those men - all over a land deed. In his eyes, people were more important than anything, and who knows what could have happened to her if they hadn't found her in time.

"Don't blame Will for this," she said in defense of her husband. "You don't understand. That land is everything. Giving it over would have been too much to lose. That deed doesn't belong to him alone."

Vin sighed. "If I was him, I'd never let anyone take you away."

"Vin." She looked like she was going to protest, but then she smiled and bent to kiss his cheek. "You're just the sweetest boy."

He tried not to roll his eyes. Girls always got so sappy.

"The same goes for me, Vin," she said, hugging him close. "If you were my boy, I'd never let anyone take you away from me, neither."

Chris and Buck had gone out twice looking for Vin and Charlotte Richmond, but so far, they hadn't found anything. Chris figured most likely something had spooked Vin and he had found someplace to hide out for the time being. He knew the boy was good at tracking, but this was unfamiliar territory, and he couldn't stop himself from worrying that they'd somehow gotten lost. He was ready to ride out again when he spotted Richmond pacing back and forth.

"Has he been up all night waitin' on them?" Chris asked when Buck and Josiah joined him.

Josiah checked his cinch, and looked worriedly at Chris. "Do you think they've run into trouble?"

Buck snorted. "Oh, he's in trouble, all right. If not already, he will be when I get hold of him."

"Get in line," Chris murmured, finding it easier to talk like this than to show how worried he really was

Richmond suddenly brushed past them. "Riders comin'!"

Mr. Richmond hurried over to the horse Vin and Charlotte rode in on. He grabbed Vin and roughly hauled him out of the saddle.

"Stop it!" his wife shouted, hurriedly climbing down to put herself between her husband and the boy.

"I oughtta beat you, you little ba--!"

Chris grabbed Richmond by the front of the shirt before he could get the word out of his mouth. "Back off," he said in a deadly tone.

"Shouldn't you be askin' if your wife's all right?" Vin said with more attitude than Chris cared to see.

Chris clutched the boy's shoulder firmly. "That's enough!"

"Will," Charlotte pleaded, "we just stopped for food and rest." Then she smiled at Vin. "Vin caught a rabbit and cooked it up for me."

"She was real tired and hungry," Vin said, mostly to Chris.

Richmond glared at them all. "I can't fight all of you. But tomorrow, we'll reach my land. That kid steps one foot on it and I swear you'll all regret it." He started to stomp away then turned to his wife. "You comin'?"

"What is his problem?" Chris asked, staring after him in astonishment. What would possess a grown man to be so hostile toward a small boy?

"Nice piece of land," O'Shea said. "Don't blow it up too much."

He hated when people said that. As far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as blowing up too much.

"Happy. Take a ride down to Lennox. See Paddy McDowell. Tell him I'm in need of some men. Tell him there's more gold if they can get here by sundown tomorrow."


Oh ye of little faith, he thought. "Won't need no extra men with what I got planned."

"I'll take no more chances with these dirty farmers or those hooligans."

"Did ya know there's gold on the homeland?" JD asked Vin, his big brown eyes wide with amazement.

"They don't know that for sure, JD." Vin leaned back against one of the wagon wheels. He'd heard that Mr. Nathan and Captain Francis had found a miner, and some equipment or tools that folks use to get gold, but they hadn't actually found any gold.

"Yeah, but there could be!"

Vin shrugged. All JD could think about since he'd heard about the gold-miner, is that there might be gold. While finding gold did sound kind of exciting, Vin had other things on his mind. He just couldn't stop worrying about Miz Charlotte. So far, he hadn't once seen Mr. Richmond act decent to anyone, but he was even worse to his wife, and what upset him more was that nobody seemed to care how he treated her.

"Look, there's Papa and Mr. Ezra," JD announced. "Let's ask them if we can go look for gold!"

Vin sighed, watching as JD attached himself to one of Mr. Buck's long legs. "Papa, are we gonna go get some gold?"

Buck looked down at the boy. "Get some gold?"

"Yeah, then we can be rich!"

"What a bright, sensible lad you have there, Buck."

"Don't I know it," Buck grinned, then he leaned over and nudged Vin with his elbow. "So, little pard, you gonna spill the beans about what's goin' on between you and that nice lady?"

Vin shot him a deadly glare, which only made Buck grin more.

"Oh, for shame, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra pretended to admonish. "You know a gentleman never tells."

Vin ground his teeth together and tried to ignore them.

"It's a long, lonely trail, Vin," Buck continued, oblivious to Vin's dark mood. "Can't you just throw a couple of old hungry dogs a bone?"

"After all, the lady in question is quite lovely, and what could be more tantalizing than an illicit affair?"

Vin didn't know what the heck they were talking about, but he wasn't in the mood to listen to them. He was worried about Miz Charlotte, worried about what her husband might do.

"I ain't in the mood," he grumbled.

"Whoa, now, Vin." Buck ruffled his hair. "We're just joshin' with ya."

Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Little touchy, aren't we, Mr. Tanner?"

With a heavy sigh, Vin pushed away from the wagon, and went in search of some peace and quiet.

"Now look what ya did!" JD accused both of the men standing by him. "Ya made him mad!"

"Aw . . ." Buck looked down at the ground, slightly embarrassed at being scolded by a five-year-old. "We were just funning with him, son. He'll get over it."

Ezra was unrepentant. "I'd say our young friend has been struck by Cupid's arrow."

"Yep," Buck glanced at Ezra, "I remember when I was his age, there was this young widow who did laundry--"

"Speaking of young widows," Ezra cut him off, then tried to direct Buck's attention to another situation.

Buck ignored him. "She was the prettiest little thing, and I--"

Ezra shoved him lightly and pointed a finger in the direction he wanted him to look. Buck turned to look, but not before pushing Ezra back, slightly harder.

"Josiah! Josiah!" the lad, Eugene, seemed to have taken a liking to the former preacher. "I found some really neat rocks. You want to come and see them?"

Josiah seemed unaware of his good fortune. "Not just now, Eugene," he said dismissively.

"Josiah, can I ride with you? You're the best rider ever!"

Buck's jaw dropped in amazement, and Ezra shoved him again.

"I'm not sure, Eugene."

Buck shoved Ezra back, harder.

When Eugene's mother, the lovely young widow, smiled at Josiah and said, "Perhaps, maybe Josiah would agree to ride in the wagon with us, Eugene," Ezra shoved Buck again.

"Would ya? Would ya?" Eugene begged, clinging to Josiah's arm.

"That is, if you care to, Josiah," the widow said coyly.

JD grinned. Both Buck and Ezra had lost the bet, because Eugene hadn't picked either one of them, just like JD had guessed. But, he'd never thought that Eugene would have picked Mr. 'Siah.

Josiah finally gave in. "Why, Ma'am, what a charming offer. I'd be delighted."

Eugene's mother took hold of her son, guiding him back to the wagon. "Come on, baby."

Josiah looked straight at Buck and Ezra, victory barely detectable in his expression.

Buck gave Ezra a hard shove and JD burst into laughter.

Chris had told Vin that they'd be heading home as soon as they got the homesteaders to their land. Vin wasn't sure if he was happy about that. A couple of days ago, all he wanted was for this journey to be over, but now . . . while he did want to be home, he was also worried about Miz Charlotte. Chris had told him that what went on between a man and his wife was between them, but Vin couldn't stop himself from thinking that if his momma was still alive, and he weren't around, he'd want someone to help her.

"Hello, Vin." Miz Charlotte's voice jolted him from his thoughts.


"Looks like you're doing some hard thinkin'?" she said with a smile.

Vin nodded. "Yeah, Chris said we'll be leaving tomorrow. Once we get you to the new land."

She looked a little sad, but leaned closer to him and said, "Maybe it doesn't have to be that way."

"What do ya mean?"

"The two of us," she looked deeply into his eyes, "we're both missing something important from our lives, and I've been trying to come up with a way to fix that."

Vin wasn't sure what she meant, and apparently it showed on his face.

"Never mind, right now," she told him, brushing her fingertips down his cheek. "I'll talk to you more, later on."

"Charlotte!" Mr. Richmond's voice called from nearby. "Where are you?

"For the time bein'," she told him softly, "we just got to stay away from each other."

Vin nodded, and watched as she hurried off to her husband. A moment later he was startled by Chris' voice.

"She may have a point."

Chris has obviously been standing around the corner, listening to them. That didn't set well with Vin. If Chris wanted to know something, all he had to do was ask.

"I thought you said it was bad to listen to other folks talkin'?"

Chris smiled a little. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop on you, Cowboy, but I do agree that you two oughtta stay clear of each other."

"You just don't understand, Chris."

"Maybe I don't," he said agreeably, then with a stern look, he continued, "but I am tellin' you to stay away from her. We got enough trouble, we don't need Richmond getting all worked up again."

Vin watched the homesteaders cheer and carry on as they finally arrived at their destination. He understood their joy; they'd been traveling for so long to get here.

"Oh, Will, isn't it beautiful?" he heard Miz Charlotte say to her husband.

But all her husband did was growl, "Let's get this wagon unpacked. Got a lot of work to do."

No matter how nice she was to him, he never had a kind word for her.

"Let's scout the perimeter," Chris told the other men. "Make sure O'Shea's not lurking about."

Josiah nodded. "You got it."

"Teams of two."

JD turned his big eyes on Chris, "Can I be on Buck's team?"

"Sure ya can, kid," Buck answered, chuckling.

Vin watched as Mary Travis and Chris walked away from the rest of the folks, together. Vin had seen Mrs. Travis kissing Mr. Whitman, and wondered what she wanted to say to Chris. He wondered if it was true that she might marry Mr. Whitman, and if so, would Chris be sad? Vin knew that Chris cared for Billy Travis, and most times it didn't bother him. Billy had lost his pa, and Chris had lost his boy, so they had something in common, sort of.

Miz Charlotte had lost her child, just like Vin had lost his momma and for some reason, that made him feel differently about her than he did most ladies. It also made him miss his momma, more than he usually did. Sometimes, lately, when he tried to picture his momma's face, he couldn't remember it exactly.


He turned his head to find Miz Charlotte standing a few feet away.

"See that thicket over there?" she whispered, pointing toward the brush and trees a ways down the riverbank.

Vin nodded.

"Can ya meet me there in a little bit?"

He wasn't sure what she wanted, but he figured it must be important. Why else would she risk having her husband catch her talking to him. "Okay."

He watched Chris and Miz Travis talking, laughing and leaning close and decided maybe she wasn't going to marry that other guy. He hoped she didn't try to kiss Chris the way she'd kissed Mr. Whitman. It would be strange if she got married and didn't live in town, anymore, he thought.

After a few minutes, he stood up and looked around. When he was sure nobody was watching him, he made his way to the place Miz Charlotte had told him to meet her.

She was there, holding a horse by its reins. "I'm leaving, Vin," she said solemnly.

"Leaving? What do you mean? Where are you plannin' to go?"

"I can't take it anymore. I have to get away," she said, "He won't talk to me, or listen to anything I have to say."

"You're gonna go off, all by yourself?"

"Well," she paused to smile at him, "that's what I wanted to talk to you about."

"Would ya look at that?" O'Shea said, watching as a horse, carrying two riders, picked its way across the river. "We couldn't have asked for a better distraction."

It offended him, but nearly everything that came out of O'Shea's boorish mouth offended him. When it came to distractions, there was nobody better than the Powder Man.

Next: Wagon Train Part 2