Wagon Train Part 2
Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series
The original episode Wagon Train (Part 2) was written by Richard Kletter and Neil Landau.
Author's Note: I tried to talk LaraMee into letting me fix things so that Mary could live happily ever after with Gerard on the new homestead, far, far away, but she didn't go for it. L Thanks to Marnie for all her help!
Charlotte was happier than she'd been in a long time; she only wished Will was here to share it with her. He'd had so much pain in his life, just as much as she'd had, but when she'd offered him this second chance, this new start, he'd acted like she was crazy. "He ain't ours," Will had said. "We got no right to take him."
She had tried to talk him around, but he'd refused to see things her way. So, she'd done what she thought was best, and she didn't regret her actions. She was convinced that Vin needed her, just as much she needed him.
Vin had lost his ma, just like she'd lost her child, and he didn't have a pa. Not a real pa, anyway. She knew he considered the gunslinger, Mr. Larabee, to be his pa, but what kind of a life could a gunslinger offer a little boy?
It would have been nice if Will could have been his pa - if the three of them could have been a family -- but since that didn't seem likely to happen, well, the two of them would do just fine on their own.
Vin was having mixed feelings about what he was doing. In a way, he wished Chris would come along and make them go back. He didn't want to leave Chris and Buck and JD, and the others, but he couldn't let Miz Charlotte run off all by herself. She needed someone to look out for her.
Chris and the others had been taking turns searching for Vin and Charlotte Richmond. He'd just stopped back to check on things, when Richmond rode in. "Any sign of 'em?" he asked.
"They're gone." The man looked angry, but that wasn't anything new. "I told that boy to stay away from her."
"Well, I get the feeling he didn't kidnap her."
Richmond didn't say anything. He didn't want to turn these men against his wife. It was his own fault that his wife and the boy were gone. He should have kept a closer eye on Charlotte.
"Those sodbusters are gonna plant a bloomin' garden on my property," Dicky O'Shea ranted. "Where are those blasted gunmen I paid for?"
"They'll be here soon enough, Dicky."
Powder Man tried to tune them out and focus on his work. "Blind hoss stickin' in a big mud hole, doo dah, doo dah. Can't touch bottom with a 10-foot pole . . .."
"Hey! I'm short on patience, see? How long?" O'Shea shouted.
He hated when people were impatient. He hated to be rushed. Good things come to those who wait. "Depends. You want 'em scared or dead?"
O'Shea just looked at him. "Which is quicker?"
Buck was doing his best to keep the kids occupied, keep himself occupied, too. He was worried about Vin. What had possessed the boy to run off like he had? JD was worried, too, and Chris . . .well, if they didn't find the boy, Chris would be devastated. "Throw it to me, JD," he called out. "Throw it to me. I got the ball. Come on. Get it. Go get it. Quick!" He walked over to Chris, keeping an eye on the kids. "So, what are we gonna do, pard?"
"Gettin' itchy, Buck?"
"Oh, yeah. This place is peaceful as a prayer meetin', and I miss the smell of beer," he admitted. "I know we got to stick around 'till we find Vin, but . . .." He paused for a moment, wondering if he should even say the rest of what he was thinking.
"We've been looking for two days now. I guess if he don't want to be found . . .." He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. "Well, let's give it another day or so. I don't want to give up yet, and I still don't think we've seen the last Dicky O'Shea."
Buck nodded. "All right."
At first Chris had been worried, but now he was a little angry, too. He was pretty sure Mrs. Richmond hadn't forced the boy to go with her, and the more he thought about that the angrier he got. After all they'd been through, how could Vin have run off on him?
A few yards away, JD, Billy and Katie were kneeling in the dust, examining something. "Hey, Chris," Billy called over his shoulder. "What's this wire?"
A jolt of alarm shot through both men. Chris lurched to his feet with a shout, "Get away from there!"
They reached the kids and were able to pull them away barely an instant before the explosion.
Vin guided the horse alongside the riverbank. They weren't in a hurry, there wasn't anyway anyone could follow their tracks, and truth be told, he almost wished someone would find them . . . as long as that someone was Chris.
He wondered what Chris was doing, what Buck and JD were doing. He hoped they weren't too worried about him. But then again, maybe Chris was busy and didn't even know he was gone yet.
Besides, he'd been spending a lot of time with Billy Travis. Maybe, since he had Billy with him, he wouldn't even care that Vin was gone. His stomach made a gurgly noise, and he rubbed it absently.
"You getting hungry?" Miz Charlotte asked him.
"No, ma'am." The way he was feeling, he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to eat again.
He was always trying to get Chris and the others to let him help them; he was always trying to prove to them all that he wasn't just a little kid, but maybe he wasn't as grown up as he'd thought. He hadn't expected to miss them so much - to miss Chris so much.
He kept telling himself that he needed to be a grown up, that Miz Charlotte needed him - needed him more than Chris -- but so far, it wasn't helping him feel any better about leaving.
The worst part of it was that deep down he had a feeling in his gut that Chris might be worried sick about him.
When Buck was relatively sure there would be no more fireworks, he stood, lifting JD and hugged him tight. "Hush, JD . . . it's okay."
JD clung to him and continued to cry. "I don't like this! I wanna go home!"
"I know, I know," he soothed. "Just try and calm down."
"I want Vin!"
"Yeah, me too." He looked around at all the debris, the fires had been put out and the injured were being tended to. In a way he was thankful Vin hadn't been there, because there was no way to tell if he'd have been hurt . . . or worse. But now, he wished more than anything that they could find Vin and get the hell out of there.
He heard a familiar voice shout from the distance and held JD all the tighter.
"You're between a rock and a hard place, lads," Dicky O'Shea taunted the group. "Hand over that deed and save yourselves."
Francis Corcoran shouted back, "Come on, and show yourselves, cowards! Fight like men!"
As Buck paced, trying to think and soothe JD at the same time, he overheard the voices of the homesteaders discussing whether or not they should surrender the deed. Some of them seemed ready to give up, while others wanted to keep fighting for what was rightfully theirs.
"O'Shea won't want to leave any witnesses," Chris tried reasoning. "Hangin' on to that deed could be the only thing that keeps you alive."
The discussion continued with more voices speaking out trying to convince the reluctant ones to stay and fight, until finally they were all once again united.
"Then we're agreed?" Gerard confirmed. "We will not be driven off our land by outlaws."
JD had quieted; his chest was still heaving but his eyes were closed and his body relaxed. Buck was pretty sure he had cried himself out. "We sit here, they'll blow us all to hell," he said quietly to Chris. "Maybe we ought to take the fight to them?"
"All right." Chris nodded. "Let's find out what we're up against."
"You hear me, Dicky?" Whitman shouted out for all of them. "We will not be driven off our land by outlaws!"
Vin took a drink from the canteen and handed back to Charlotte. Wiping his sleeve across his mouth, he waited until she was finished drinking. "You got any ideas on where we're goin', Miz Charlotte?"
Charlotte smiled at him as she capped the canteen. "Well, I been thinkin' on that."
"Just so ya know," he felt obliged to tell her, "I ain't no farmer."
"I know that," she said, tousling his windblown hair. "You're Mr. Wild and Woolly."
Vin ducked his head.
"Don't worry, we'll figure out something."
Vin nodded, although he wasn't feeling as certain about that as she apparently was. In truth, he had no idea of where to go or what to do. And his stomach was still feeling queasy, even though he'd been trying to ignore it. . . . and trying to ignore how much he wished he was back with Chris and the others.
"We could go anywhere," she said in a dreamy voice as she looked out at the horizon, apparently not noticing his unease. "We could go to Mexico or Brazil or anywhere you want."
"I been to Mexico," he said, making a face. Mexico weren't no place to take a lady.
"How about Brazil then?"
Vin shrugged. He had never heard of Brazil, but he figured anyplace was better than Mexico. He wondered if it was very far away, and whether or not Chris knew how to get there? Whether Chris would even bother to look for him?
It was times like this when Ezra wondered why on Earth he had ever agreed to stay on in Four Corners. Why any of them had? It was far too dangerous, and the pay wasn't nearly enough. He should have listened to his mother and never allowed himself to become entangled with this bunch of deviant humanitarians.
He watched as Nathan worked fervently on one of the wounded men, the fiddler who'd entertained them all for days. If the man lived, Nathan would consider it payment enough and if he died, the healer would take it personally. By the look on Nathan's face, Ezra could tell that there wasn't much hope.
The fiddler began mumbling something to Nathan, and Ezra leaned closer to hear what he was saying.
"Nathan... Nathan, don't let anybody take this land."
Nathan nodded. "Mm-hmm."
"I want you to have my land."
"No, I wouldn't feel right about that," Nathan told him gently.
Ezra couldn't believe his ears. "Nathan . . . the man is facing his final summons. Give him whatever it is he wants."
"He wants to sign over his share of his homestead to me, and I don't feel right about that."
"Well, you never deny a deathbed bequest, or his -- his soul could be condemned to wander the Earth in search of another recipient." Why was it, he wondered, that nobody ever offered him a gift like this? At least he wouldn't be so insensitive . . . or so foolish as to turn it down.
JD hadn't let Buck out of his sight for hours, and Buck couldn't blame the kid. Hell, he was scared and practically jumping at shadows. It was one thing to fight outright in the open; it was another thing altogether to have to sit around, not knowing what the enemy was up to or when they'd strike.
"We figure out a way in there," Chris asked Gerard, "your people willing to fight with us?"
"I don't know. They're still reeling from the last attack."
"But they didn't come all this way to quit." He had to hand it to Mary; nobody could call her a quitter. She'd stuck it out in Four Corners after her husband had been killed, mostly because she refused to give into her fears.
"I know. You're right," Whitman yielded. "We'll be ready whenever you need us."
"All right, that's it, then."
Buck lifted JD into his arms, surprised when the boy giggled.
"What's so funny, pard?"
"Look!" He pointed, and Buck turned his head in time to see the widow running up to Josiah. It was still a sore spot that she chose the preacher over him, but he had to admit he was happy that something could make his boy smile.
"Oh, it's Josiah! Josiah!" The widow latched onto Josiah, and Buck couldn't figure out if he was more amused or uncomfortable.
Eugene was right there with her. "Josiah!"
All Josiah managed to say was, "Ohh!"
"The thought of you out there made Eugene's skin get up and crawl all over him. Are you all right? Did they get you?" Mother and son fawned over the big man as if he were a precious heirloom.
"I'm fine, I'm fine. I'm-- I'm fine." Josiah all but yanked himself out of her grasp and JD snorted and covered his mouth to try and hide his laughter.
"Ohh! Don't you ever disappear on us again! We get inconsolable with worry!"
Josiah looked so damned uncomfortable, like he'd rather the ground swallow him up than have to deal with their attentions. Buck hugged JD tight and joined him in laughter.
Charlotte stood by the calm, peaceful river, letting the sun warm her face. She was so happy, happier than she'd been in a long time. The only thing she regretted was that Will hadn't seen things her way. If he would have just opened his heart, seen what a sweet boy Vin was, then the three of them could have made a family -- lived happily ever after on their new homestead. But Will hadn't wanted this second chance to try and find a little happiness with her -- with the two of them, so they were on their own, but that was okay, too.
Looking around, she wondered what was taking Vin so long. "Vin?"
She hoped that he hadn't gone far, then she heard the bushes rustling and smiled. "Vin? Vin, quit teasing me, now."
Instead of Vin, a stranger popped out from behind the bushes. "Hello!"
Charlotte was so startled, for an instant she couldn't move. She just stood there and screamed.
The man leered then grabbed her, holding on tightly, groping her as she struggled to break free. The sound of a rifle being cocked made them both pause.
"Whoa," the man said when he saw the gun barrel aimed at him. He stood still for a moment, sizing up the boy with the gun. "There's twenty gunslingers just over that hill. Even though that's just a little bitty thing," he said gesturing to Vin's rifle, "you fire it and that shot will surely bring 'em runnin'."
"Twenty gunslingers?" Vin questioned, not lowering the rifle -- thankful that he'd remembered to bring it, even if it weren't grown-up sized. Why would there be twenty gunslingers all the way out here, in the middle of nowhere? "Who you ridin' for?"
The man hesitated, apparently not too happy about being forced to answer to a kid. "Calls himself Dicky O'Shea. We're the reinforcements to help keep them sodbusters off his land."
"That's my husband's land."
The man glanced at her, but his attention was focused on Vin. "Put that gun down, kid, before ya hurt somebody."
Vin kept it held steady. "I might be a kid, but at this range, I ain't likely to miss what I'm aimin' for, mister," he said, lowering the barrel so it was pointed directly below the man's belt. "If I was you, I'd get myself gone from here."
When the man had ridden far enough, he lowered the gun. "You all right?"
Charlotte was shaking but she smiled and said, "I'm fine."
"We gotta go back.
Charlotte looked at him with dismay. "Vin, we can't go back. This is our chance, we might not get another one."
There was no way Vin could keep going and ignore the fact that twenty gunslingers were waiting for Chris and the others. "We gotta go warn 'em," he said firmly and climbed up into the saddle. "Come on."
Ezra sighed. It was a sad day -- sad for the homesteaders and sad for him. He actually missed the fiddler, but more than that, he couldn't believe Nathan was going to hand over the land he'd been offered free of charge. It was a travesty. "You know," he said, hoping he sounded reasonable, "it's times like this when the fiddler's mellifluous strings will be sorely missed. You know, someone should do something to . . . honor his memory."
"I suppose so."
He'd hoped for a little more enthusiasm than that. "You know, this is just a thought, but . . . perhaps you could build something on the land he bequeathed. A shrine or a . . . a business in his name."
That got more of a reaction, but not the one he'd hoped for. "This ain't about you and that damn saloon, is it? Lord, you got no shame, Ezra."
"Actually," he said as another idea struck him. "I was envisioning a medical facility, but if you're not interested . . .."
Nathan looked at him as if he had sprouted another head. "You want to build a hospital?"
"Yes." It was an idea with merit. A hospital, with the right person running it, could be a most profitable endeavor. "In which, instead of being an itinerant sawbones, you would be a full-fledged practicing physician. Think about it."
"Hmm . . .."
Buck saw JD sitting on the ground, a stick in one hand, his eyes vacant as he drew abstractedly in the dust.
"Hey, buddy, what are you up to?"
He hadn't meant to startle the kid, but he jumped and dropped the stick.
"Sorry, pard, didn't mean to scare ya."
JD scowled. "I ain't scared!"
"Okay, okay." Buck put an arm around the small shoulders. "You just a little nervous?"
Buck smiled. "It's okay. Sometimes being nervous, or scared, is what'll keep you alive."
JD took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Every time the big boomers happen," he said solemnly, "it's just lucky that we ain't the ones that get hurted, ain't it, Buck?"
Buck hugged the boy close, not sure what to say to that. It was true that it had been pure luck that none of them had been hurt or worse, because there'd been no warning at all.
"Are you nervous?"
"Sure, Little Bit," he said, trying to keep his voice on the lighter side. "I'll bet everyone here is nervous."
Maybe especially Chris. "Even Chris."
"If I get killed, I won't never have a chance to...be a Ranger, or an Indian, or see San Frisco. And then . . ." he probably should keep this to himself, but just incase he died, he figured maybe he ought to let Buck know, "Casey'll be a widow and have to wear black clothes like Chris."
"Caseywhat? What are you talking about, JD?"
JD heaved a sigh. It was all Casey's fault. She'd tricked him. She'd made him play wedding, and she had kissed him when he hadn't expected it! Then, she'd said since he'd kissed the bride that meant they was really married. JD had told her that he wasn't never getting married, especially not to no dumb girl, like her, and so she'd pushed him down and rubbed his face in the dirt 'till he'd 'pologized and agreed they was married.
Of course, he'd only let her get him down and rub his face in the dirt, though, on accounta she was a girl and it wasn't right to fight girls. He coulda won, if he'd really tried. Now, he felt his cheeks burn at the memory, so he took a breath, cleared his throat and mumbled, "Casey'll be a widow."
Buck grinned, assuming he was talking about plans in the future. "I don't think you need to worry about that right now, son, but if you want, you could pen a letter to Casey, just like soldiers pen letters to their sweethearts . . . to show them that they're thinking about them. You can write, can't you?"
JD knew some of his letters. He could write his name and Buck's and Vin and Chris and some other words. So, maybe . . .?
Before he could reply, Chris called out, "Buck! Let's go."
Buck winked, "Come on, buddy. Let's go."
Vin had known it would be hard coming back, but he hadn't expected it to be this hard.
Chris didn't look happy to see him. "You okay?" he asked guardedly.
Vin nodded. His throat seemed to constrict, making it hard to speak. "We came to warn you. There's twenty hired guns right on our heels."
Captain Francis looked around. "Twenty more guns? This will get interesting."
"You think we got time to deal with O'Shea and his men before they get here?" Buck asked.
Vin shrugged. He didn't know how long before they got there.
Richmond came stalking over to them then. "You got five seconds to get that boy off my land."
"Knock it off," Chris warned.
"This is my land, Larabee."
Josiah stepped in, trying to calm the man. "All right, now, fella . . . we're all in this together."
Mary approached Charlotte, and put an arm around her. "Charlotte, come with me. Let's get you cleaned up."
Chris looked at Josiah. "Find me as much powder as you can."
JD concentrated hard on sounding out the words as he wrote. He knew how to spell Fish . . . so, he figured he just needed to add i-n to make it fishin'. Before he was able to make the little mark at the end of the sentence the paper was snatched away from him. "Hey!" he shouted, jumping up and trying to snatch back the piece of paper. "Give me that. Give it to me!
Buck grinned and held the paper out of the boy's reach as he tried to make out the words. "Dear Casey, how are you?"
"Buck! Give it to me!
"'I miss . . .'" Buck squinted but couldn't make out the letters, so he turned the paper towards JD and asked, "What's this word, here?"
"Fishin'? I miss fishin' with you?" Buck raised his eyebrows, shook his head in disbelief. "What is that?"
JD grabbed for the paper again. "What?"
"It sounds like you're writin' your sister."
JD just scowled.
"Women like love talk," Buck teased.
"What?" JD's brown eyes went wide. "Love talk?"
"Well, I'll tell you. It's something like . . ." Buck smoothed his moustache, a dreamy look on his face. "I love the taste . . . of your rosy red lips . . ." he glanced at JD who looked like he was going to be sick. "And that sweet honey nectar . . . ooh! That sway of your hips."
"Ew!" JD hit him in the leg. "Buck, that's awful!" He jumped for the paper again. "Give me that."
Buck had a thoughtful expression on his face as he contemplated the poetry he'd just created. "That's pure gold. Gotta remember that."
There had always been a spark of attraction between Chris and Mary, but he'd never acted on it. He was pretty sure Mary was waiting for him to take the first step, but whenever he thought about it he just couldn't picture the two of them having a future together. He figured it was better for all involved if they just remained friends, because taking it further would likely lead to hard feelings.
"I've decided to marry Gerard," she told him, and he wasn't at all surprised. He'd seen the two of them together and knew that something serious was going on.
Chris smiled. "He's a good man."
"Yeah," she agreed, with little enthusiasm. "I think a boy deserves a father growing up."
"So do I. Billy seems to get along just fine with him." It wasn't his business, but he asked anyway, "What about you?"
"What about me?"
"Do you love him?"
Mary just sighed, which was an answer in itself.
"A little bit?" Chris tried to lighten things up, a little sorry he'd asked in the first place. He should be happy for her, but he had to admit that if she stayed here with Gerard the town just wouldn't be the same.
Chris had been keeping an eye on Vin, although he hadn't gotten a chance to really talk to him. He was still angry that the boy had taken off with Charlotte Richmond. He knew Vin probably felt he had a good reason for doing so, but it still hurt. At the moment, Vin had his looking glass up to his eye and was gazing out at the land.
Annoyance welled up inside him as he watched Charlotte approach Vin, and he felt perfectly justified listening to anything she might say to him.
"What do you see out there?"
"It's quiet, so far," he replied, then held the looking glass out for her. "Here, have a look. What do you see?"
"Hmm. I see... Brazil. But it's fading. I don't know how much longer I can see it."
She gave the glass back to Vin and he peered through it again. He didn't see Brazil; he only saw the flat, green land that belonged to the homesteaders. He put the looking glass back in his pocket then stared at the ground, feeling uncomfortable. He didn't know what to say. He was confused, sad and he felt guilty for running out on Chris, even if it had only been because Miz Charlotte needed him. He was pretty sure Chris thought Vin had chosen Miz Charlotte over him, but he hadn't really meant to do that; he'd only meant to help her. But now, he'd gone and ruined everything.
Chris overheard Mrs. Richmond mention something about Brazil and was about to call Vin away from her when all hell broke loose.
"Down!" he shouted. "Everybody down! Everybody take cover!"
He watched the folks scramble for cover, adults grabbing children, husbands grabbing their wives.
"Get the kids! Take cover! Take cover! Here they come!" He made sure Vin and JD, and Billy Travis were as safe as they could be under the circumstances, then called out, "Hold your fire! First shots are Francis' and Buck's! Hold it! Get down!"
Richmond scrambled over to him, holding a weapon. "I can shoot."
"Good! Get down!" He shoved the man down then watched as O'Shea's men neared the gunpowder. "Hold it! Buck! Fire!"
First Buck, then Francis fired their shots, both hitting their targets with perfect precision. The powder they'd set out exploded in a chain reaction, startling O'Shea's men and their horses and giving Chris and the others the chance to take control. In less time than Chris had expected, O'Shea and his men were retreating.
In the aftermath, he realized that Richmond was down and he shouted for Nathan, who rushed over to help.
"Hold still, now," Nathan instructed as he tried to get a look at the damage.
Richmond was groaning, writhing in pain, but apparently his thoughts were on his wife. "Charlotte! Charlotte!"
"Get my bag!" Nathan said, in a way that made Chris take another look at Richmond. He didn't care for the man, but he didn't want him to die. The homesteaders needed him, and they'd lost too many, already.
Chris was thinking over all their options, trying to figure out what it would take to finally end this all without putting the homesteaders in more danger than necessary when Gerard Whitman joined him. "I want to thank you for all you've done."
Chris was a little surprised at the words, and he wondered if Whitman and the others thought it was over. Did they really believe O'Shea would give up now? "Job's not over. O'Shea will be back."
Gerard nodded. "With more new men. The children can't stand another fight. O'Shea . . ." he sighed and Chris could tell the next words were painful for him to say. "O'Shea can have this place."
"Gerard," Mary said in an admonishing tone.
"Wait, now," Francis Corcoran stepped forward. "You're giving up now?"
"We took a vote. These folks don't want to risk it. Too many dead already."
"Whether you stay or go back," Chris said, not sure this had entered any of their minds, "he's not gonna want to leave any witnesses."
"That's why we're hopin' . . . you'll ride with us."
"Sure. We'll take you back." The others began to disperse, but Chris took hold of Whitman's arm before he could leave. "Gerard. How'd you vote?"
Gerard looked resigned and said, "Majority rules."
Against Chris' better judgment the homesteaders handed the land deed over to O'Shea, who was only too happy to accept it. Even though O'Shea and his men rode away afterwards, Chris was sure they'd show up again, before long.
"Got out of there awful easy," Vin said in that speculative way he had that made him sound like a grown man, at times.
"Seemed that way," Chris replied agreeably. He knew the two of them needed to have a serious talk, but he wasn't quite sure what to say or even how to start the conversation.
His first instinct had been to bend Vin over his knee, make him pay for running off the way he had. It had been difficult, but he'd managed to restrain himself from doing that, so far. Mostly, because he wasn't entirely sure he could trust his instincts where Vin was concerned -- and that made him even more angry because he didn't like second-guessing himself.
After giving it a lot of thought, the most logical conclusion he could come to was that Vin, most likely, felt Charlotte Richmond had needed him -- needed his protection. He'd probably felt sorry for her, and felt it was somehow his responsibility to help her out. Like he was some miniature white knight whose duty it was to right all the wrongs in the world, and rescue anyone or anything he felt was being treated badly.
Most of the time Chris admired the kid's sense of honor, but right now he couldn't stop the niggling doubts in the back of his mind. Was Vin only riding with him because Mrs. Richmond was busy tending to her wounded husband? Would he rather be with her right now? Would he run off with her again?
If that happened, Chris wasn't sure what he'd do.
Chris wasn't talking much, and while that usually didn't bother Vin, right now the silence was almost unbearable. Vin didn't know what to do, how to fix things. He was feeling lost and unsure of his place in the world, his place with Chris.
Chris had said he loved him, said he could call him Pa. It was everything he had wanted, and he'd gone and messed it all up. He wasn't sure he could ever fix things between the two of them. If only Chris would say something . . . anything. Even if he yelled at him, or punished him, anything would be better than his silence.
Finally, Vin couldn't take it anymore and said, "Chris?"
"I was wonderin' . . . can't we set things straight?" He'd do anything to make things right between them, if only Chris would let him know what he needed to do.
But all Chris said was, "We'll talk about it later."
"Reckon you think I'm in the wrong here," Vin tried again, grasping for any sign of emotion.
But Chris was remembering how it had almost killed him to lose one son, and trying to protect himself from having to go through that again. "What I think is you're already gone."
Vin didn't understand. "I'm right here."
Chris looked over his shoulder. "For how long?"
"What d'ya mean?" Was Chris saying he thought he was gonna leave again? Or did Chris want him gone?
Chris shook his head, trying to keep his voice flat. "I need to know I can depend on you, Vin. Let me know when I can."
"But--" Vin started tell Chris he could depend on him, then he stopped himself. What good would it do to say something that Chris didn't seem to want to hear? A minute later, he pushed himself down from the moving horse and landed on his feet. Chris paused briefly to look down at him, then spurred his horse on again.
Vin didn't bother looking up, he just started walking. He needed to think, to figure out what he was gonna do, now. If he couldn't make it up to Chris, if Chris didn't want him anymore, well, it was his own fault. He was a big boy. He'd been on his own before, he could take care of himself and didn't need nobody, he told himself, as he tried very hard to hold back the tears. It had been good being with Chris and the others, having someone to care for him and watch his back, but maybe this way was best.
Mr. 'Siah had told them to take a nap, but JD wasn't tired. Not far away, Eugene was snoring like a bear and he wondered how he could sleep in the back of the bumpy wagon, in the middle of the day. JD didn't much care for Eugene, and the only reason he rode in their wagon was because his papa had said it was too dangerous for him to ride out in the open. Since he couldn't ride with his papa, he didn't mind riding in this wagon, because he always felt safe with Mr. 'Siah.
He kept his eyes closed when he heard Eugene's momma. "Isn't he an angel when he's sleepin'?"
"That he is, Ma'am," Josiah said, glancing back at the small dark haired boy who he knew was only pretending to sleep.
"It's Alice. Remember?"
"Oh, right. Alice."
"Or you can call me . . . Honey or Sweetheart or my favorite: Pumpkin."
"Well . . . all right," he paused then decided to go with, "Alice."
"Of course, those'll just be our at-home names."
Josiah turned to look at the woman, and noticed JD struggling to sit up, his wide eyes fixed on the two adults. He lowered his voice. "What home?"
"Why, yours, of course. You do want Eugene and I with you, don't you? Josiah? We have no place to go."
Josiah flicked the reins, keeping his eyes straight ahead and ignoring the gasp he heard from the back of the wagon.
"We'd make . . . a wonderful family.
Okay, Lord, he prayed, I get your point. Pride cometh before the fall. Very funny. "Well, uh . . . we would make heavenly alchemy together, Ma'am, that's for sure."
Ezra was appalled that these people had given up their land so easily. They'd handed over the deed, free of charge! And apparently, Nathan thought nothing of it.
"That is your land, Nathan, and," he said hoping to stir some sort of indignation, "I'll fight O'Shea all the way to the Supreme Court for it!"
"You ever get tired of kickin' up so much dust?"
"What--?" It wasn't the reaction he'd hoped for, but then again, this was Nathan. "You're right. My . . . pecuniary interests do shame me.
"I'm glad something does."
So, maybe honesty was the best policy. He could do that. "But with my greed and your property, we could actually do some good. You see, if we use the gold to build a haven . . . for gamblers"
"A gambling hall?"
It was obvious Nathan needed help to see things from the proper perspective. "From which a healthy percentage of the profits would be dedicated to your hospital"
Nathan just shook his head. "Save your breath. I already gave my share of the homestead to Jack's widow."
Widow? He brightened, glancing around until he spotted the very pregnant widow in question. "Uh . . . would that be the obviously fertile beauty performing her ablutions?"
"You just don't give up, do you?"
Ezra was no longer paying any attention to the healer; he had more important things on his mind. "Huh?"
"Pardon me . . . ma'am," he said with well-practiced charm. "Can I give you a hand with that?"
Vin had been surreptitiously watching the Richmonds, and the more he watched the more he wondered whether or not things were as bad between them as Miz Charlotte had said. She didn't seem to be too scared of her husband, and he didn't seem so hateful to her, anymore, either. They were sitting real close together, looking at each other, and Vin thought maybe they might be able to mend their fences and get their second chance, after all.
He only wished it could be the same for him and Chris.
Vin was walking alongside the wagons, not in the mood to talk to anyone. He'd been walking for quite a while now, but he didn't mind walking because it gave him time to think. He had a strange, unsettling feeling that someone was watching him, but he wasn't sure if it was his imagination or not.
When he noticed a rock tumbling down the hillside, he paused to glance upwards but he didn't see anyone there. Still, something had to have made that rock come loose. He didn't know where Chris was, and nobody else seemed to be paying attention, so he detoured off the road and started up the side of the hill to investigate.
He didn't make it very far when the first shot rang out, whizzing past him and ricocheting off a rock, too close for comfort. He heard someone behind him shout his name, but he didn't pay any attention. Instead, he looked up and saw that somebody was standing at the top of the hill, looking down. What were they doing up there?
A moment later, he spotted the long fuse and followed it with his eyes. As soon as he realized it had already been lit, his only thought was that somehow he needed to put it out. If only he had his rifle he would have been able to sever the fuse with a bullet, but Chris had taken it after he and Miz Charlotte had gotten back.
When no other solutions came to his mind, he simply launched himself toward shortening fuse trying to ground it out with his boot. He heard Chris shouting for him to get down, and he managed to duck in time to avoid another bullet. He slapped his hand down on the fuse, but that did nothing but burn his palm.
By pure luck, he rolled at the same time another bullet flew past him. He crawled forward, taking hold of the fuse several feet ahead of the flame that was eating it. Then he reached for the nearest rock and frantically pounded the sharp edge into the fuse. He was near panic, sweat dripping down his face, when it finally severed.
Letting out a breath, he wiped his brow and climbed shakily to his feet. Before he could let the others know what he'd accomplished, there was a thunderous explosion and his body was hurtling through the air.
When he came to a painful stop, he laid there stunned, afraid to move or even open his eyes. His head was pounding and he couldn't seem to get his breath. Everything hurt.
A familiar voice penetrated the ringing in his ears, and when he was finally able to catch his breath, he couldn't stop himself from crying out for the only comfort and safety he knew, "Chris!"
Movement at the top of the hill had caught Buck's eye a moment before the first shot rang out. At first, he sputtered in outrage, unable to believe that anyone would shoot at a small, defenseless boy. In the next instant he remembered who it was they were dealing with. This was Dicky O'Shea, who hadn't shown any regard for life in his single-minded pursuit of the homesteaders' land.
Reining his horse around, he motioned for Francis Corcoran to follow him. They came up the other side of the hill, taking the men by surprise. After a short burst of gunfire, there was only one man left standing.
The Powder Man was thrilled by the challenge; adrenaline was rushing through his veins making him able to think and see with crystal clarity. He felt the power within him, he felt his invincibility and paused a moment to gaze steadily at the opposition, wanting them to see him and know that he was the Powder Man. He wanted them to know that it was their fate he held in his hands. Smiling, he imagined their last thoughts, knowing their time was--
"Whoo!" With a nod of satisfaction, Buck slid his gun back in its holster and followed Francis Corcoran back down the hill.
Chris felt as if his heart had stopped when he heard the first shot ring out and realized who was being shot at. When he saw the stick of dynamite, the rest of the world seemed to fade away and he found himself frozen in horror. Everything seemed to happen too fast, yet it played out in torturously slow motion. It was amazing how much love and regret could flash through a man's mind in such a brief period of time.
Chris dismounted, and rushed toward Vin before he hit the ground. He wasn't sure what he'd expected, but to find the boy whole and moving was enough to make him fall to his knees.
Vin was twisting, gasping for air. He'd landed on his back, probably had the wind knocked out of him. God knew what other injuries he had, but first things first. "Come on, buddy, relax," he said, placing a hand on the small chest, "breathe."
"You all right?" It seemed like a ridiculous question; how could he possibly be all right?
But Vin was struggling against his hand, trying to climb into his arms. He managed to answer, "M-most of me."
"Okay, okay, hold still." Chris tried to keep him down, while Nathan kneeled on his other side. The medic ran gentle hands over Vin's head and torso, arms and legs, checking for damage.
At Nathan's nod of approval, Chris let go of Vin and lifted the boy into his arms. "It's all right."
Vin wrapped his arms around Chris' neck and clung to him, not caring about his aching head or anything else. As long as Chris was there, everything would be okay.
"Come on." Chris stood with Vin cradled in his arms and walked carefully down the hill.
"You sure you're all right?" Chris asked again, glancing at Nathan for his opinion.
Vin nodded, holding on even tighter. "I feel better than I look," he murmured into Chris' neck. Again, Nathan pressed gentle hands against his ribs and spine, and Vin closed his eyes, too busy breathing in the familiar scent of Chris to protest.
Chris held him for several minutes, but eventually had to let him go. He set him carefully into the back of Gerard Whitman's wagon.
"Vin!" He heard JD wailing as he ran toward them. The younger boy tried to scramble up into the wagon but couldn't manage it until Chris gave him a lift and set him beside Vin.
Vin's whole body was aching, but he didn't complain when JD hugged him too tightly. He was glad everyone was okay.
"JD, careful, not too tight" Buck appeared from somewhere, and leaned forward wrapping his arms gently around both of the boys. When he released them, he looked Vin in the eyes, and asked, "You okay, buddy?"
"Yeah." Vin licked his lips and then looked at Chris. He was afraid to ask but he knew Chris was going to have to go after O'Shea, and this was something he needed to know. "Are you still mad at me?"
"I was never mad at you, Vin." He was more angry with himself than with Vin. Vin had disappointed him, maybe hurt his pride, some, and instead of acting like a parent should, he'd been acting like a kid - trying to distance himself when he should have been doing the opposite. Why did it always take something like this to make him see the way of things?
"I gotta go now. We gotta go find O'Shea and what's left of his men." He gave the boy one last hug to reassure them both. "We shouldn't be gone too long, but I need you to do me a favor and promise me you'll stay here and rest."
Vin nodded, then took a shaky breath and whispered, "Love you, Pa."
Chris couldn't remember the last time Vin had called him that. He pressed his cheek into Vin's tangled, filthy hair. "Oh, Vin."
He held on for another minute, then he let go and stepped away from the wagon. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
Vin and JD rested their chins on the back of the wagon, resigned to wait. When the widow, Miz Alice, ran toward Mr. 'Siah, JD grinned and nudged Vin with his elbow.
"Josiah!" she shouted desperately. "No, don't go! You should stay here with us, let those other men go and fight. If anything happens to you--"
"Look at Josiah," Buck said with a grin. "Helpless as a cow in quicksand."
"Josiah, please be careful."
Josiah had a strange look on his face and all he said was, "I gotta go."
Chris was already mounted and ready to ride out. "Come on, Buck," he called, "Let's go find Dicky O'Shea."
"I gotta go," Buck told them and brushed a hand over both boys' heads. "You two be good 'til we get back."
Vin watched him walk away, then happened to catch a glimpse of the Richmonds in their own wagon. Miz Charlotte was fussing over her husband, not paying any attention to Vin. It hadn't escaped him that Miz Charlotte hadn't left her husband's side since he'd been hurt. When Vin went tumbling head over tail down the hill, it had been Chris, not Miz Charlotte, who had rushed to his side.
That was okay with him, because he had Chris and wouldn't trade that for anything. Sometimes a man didn't appreciate what he had until he thought he lost it. Maybe Mr. Richmond had learned that lesson, too?
"We're never gonna reach 'em from up here," Buck said as they watched O'Shea and what was left of his men from the top of a hill.
"Well . . ." Ezra grinned and pulled out a slingshot, "perhaps this will help." When the others stared at him like he was crazy, he added, "The dear boy lent it to me."
He lit the fuse, and fired the stick of dynamite down onto the riverbank. Sand, dirt, and debris burst in the air, then rained back down on the men as they tried to find cover.
Chris cupped a hand to his mouth and shouted, "Throw down your weapons!"
"Yeah, we're gonna send you into next year!"
O'Shea was either too stubborn or too stupid to know when he was beaten. He shouted back at them, "There's no quit in Dicky O'Shea!"
Buck grinned at the others, "I was hopin' he'd say that."
Chris flicked his horse's reins. "Come on, Boys, let's get after 'em!"
O'Shea and his men were out in the open. There was not much to use for cover in the spot they'd chosen. They scrambled around shooting aimlessly, not sure whether they'd be better off to turn tail and run, or stand and fight.
It was pure luck that Chris happened to run into O'Shea attempting to slither away unnoticed in the chaos. "Where you runnin', Dicky?" Chris asked. "Thought there was no quit in Dicky O'Shea?"
"All right. All right, Gunfighter," O'Shea answered, trying to sound compliant. "Here. You take the gold."
Chris wasn't as distracted by the gold as O'Shea had apparently expected him to be, so he was ready when O'Shea drew on him and in the blink of an eye, Dicky O'Shea was dead.
After Chris had rode out after O'Shea, Vin had been more worried than he could remember, mostly because he knew O'Shea and his men had all those explosives and he knew first hand what they could do. Him and JD had sat in the back of the wagon, waiting for the men to get back. He hadn't even realized he'd fallen asleep until JD had shaken him awake, saying, "They're back! They're back!"
Then he'd struggled upright, to see for himself that they were back, and everyone was okay. The way they'd been grinning and joking around with each other made it obvious that they'd gotten the job done, and none of them were the worse for wear.
Nathan had checked him over again last night and said that he was just bruised up good and would probably be stiff and sore for a few days. Vin had been tempted to tell Nathan that he already knew he was bruised and stiff and sore, but instead, he'd closed his eyes and hoped he'd be better by morning.
As he'd been falling asleep, he'd heard them discussing whether or not they should wait and give him a day or two to rest. He'd been too tired to give his own opinion, which was: more than anything, he just wanted to go home.
This morning, he'd felt a little bit better. Enough so that he'd been able to join the others for breakfast. That was when Eugene had told them that his momma was gonna marry Josiah, which didn't make Vin or JD very happy. Mr. 'Siah belonged with them and they didn't want to give him up.
They'd spent the day spying on Josiah and the widow, following them around and trying to listen in on their conversations. They knew it wasn't right to listen in, but they thought it was for a good cause. They needed to find out whether or not Eugene was telling the truth about Mr. 'Siah marrying his momma. They were hoping to hear that it wasn't true.
Both boys looked at each other with dismay when they heard the widow tell Josiah, "We're heading back to town with you." Eugene was going to live in their town?
They leaned closer trying to hear Josiah's reply, but all they heard him say was something about a vow of silence and abstinence.
"Y-you're what?" They heard that loud and clear.
"What's a vow of asta-nence?" JD asked, looking up at Vin with a puzzled frown.
Vin shrugged. "I dunno."
"Oh, yeah. Sometimes they last for years. But you don't have to concern yourself with that. This one shouldn't take more than about six to eight months."
Vin wasn't sure what asta-nence was, but he had the feeling Mr. 'Siah was pullin' the widows leg.
"Oh, you would love the simplicity of it. You wear burlap robes and . . . eat only the things you find on the ground, you know, like--like twigs and crawlin' creatures. You really develop a taste for grasshoppers and ants"
JD and Vin looked at each other with horror. "Ew."
"Oh, my. W-well, you know Josiah-- would you mind unloading the rest of that furniture? I--I just-- I think it's best if Eugene and I wait for you here."
"Oh," Josiah said and the way he said it assured both boys that he'd been pullin' her leg.
Josiah told Eugene to get the rest of the stuff, then turned to walk away.
"Come on, Vin," JD tugged at his arm, then darted off to follow Josiah. Vin followed at a slower pace, his back and his behind and his legs and . . . well, everything hurt, even his hair.
He spotted Miz Charlotte at her wagon, and watched her for a moment. He approached her hesitantly. He felt like he should say good-bye, or good luck or something, but he wasn't quite sure.
He was a little surprised when she smiled at him and said, "I thought I'd unpack for him, and then I'm ready to go."
Vin didn't know if she was saying that for his benefit, or her own. Couldn't she see that this was the second chance she'd been wanting for so long? "How's he feeling?"
"Oh, he'll be up and around in no time." The smile on her face seemed a little too cheerful. "And me and you'll be in Brazil."
Vin took a deep breath and shook his head. "No, Ma'am, I ain't goin' to Brazil."
"Vin, I'm ready to go. I-I swear."
Vin didn't know why she was pretending she still wanted to go away? Maybe she was just saying it for his benefit, or maybe she didn't yet realize that she was finally going to get all the things she'd been wanting for so long? "Miz Charlotte, I'm sorry, but I can't go with you," he told her solemnly. "Your place is here, with your husband; he needs you. And my place is with Chris."
She tried again to protest but it was half-hearted, at most. Vin just backed away. Sometimes it was hard to let yourself believe that everything was finally going to be okay. He knew in time she'd be okay and so would he, because he was going home with Chris.
They were all packed up, ready to head back to town. Chris had promised him that as soon as they got back, the four of them would go out to their shack, maybe do a little fishing and hunting. JD had asked if they was gonna hunt bears, but Chris had said he didn't think there were many bears around there. Vin didn't really care what they did, as long as they were home, and all together.
JD was sitting in Buck's saddle and Vin was just about ready to climb up with Chris when Billy Travis ran over to them. "Chris! Ma said I can ride with you! Can I? Can I? Pleeease?"
It was obvious that Chris felt put on the spot and Vin wasn't about to make things worse by forcing him to pick between the two of them. He couldn't fault Billy for wanting to ride with Chris, so he just shrugged, trying not to look too disappointed. "It's okay."
"Mr. Tanner, there's plenty of room up here with me . . . if you'd like," Mr. Ezra offered.
Vin smiled and reached for Ezra's hand. "Okay, Uncle Ezra." He wondered if Uncle Ezra had any of that corncup of goodies left, then decided there probably wasn't much chance of that. It was a lucky thing that Ezra had survived Eugene's feeding frenzy.
Chris made room for Billy in front of him on the saddle. "There you go," he said, then he turned to Vin. "You all right?"
"Yep," Vin assured him, but he leaned sideways to get a little closer and asked, "I get to ride with you later, though, right?"
"You bet, Cowboy."
"Ya know, Buck," JD said, tilting his head back and looking upside down at the man behind him. "I still can't find my letter to Casey."
"You mean this?" Buck pulled out a piece of paper and began to read. "My darling love . . ." he made sure to hold it out of JD's reach.
"Hey! Gimme that!" JD tried to grab the paper, then tried for Buck's arm.
Buck just grinned at the boy. "I thought I'd post it for you, son."
"NO! Give it to me!"
"Ah . . . this is my favorite part," Buck crooned. "I love the taste of your rosy red lips . . . and sway of your hips."
"Stop it!" JD made a face. "That's 'sgusting!"
Buck sighed, holding the letter against his heart and said, "That's poetry."
Chris caught Vin's eye and winked at him. Vin smiled back, holding onto Ezra as the horses started forward. He was thankful for the familiar banter, thankful to be going home with these men who'd become his family. Most of all, he was thankful for second chances.
Next: The Trial