by Jeanne

Part of the Magnificent Little Britches series

Original story written by Melissa Rosenberg

Seven year old Vin Tanner sat in the shade of the boardwalk swinging his legs occasionally as he listened to Mr. Josiah talk. He wasn't really paying attention to what the man was saying, he just liked to listen to his voice. The tip of his tongue was sticking out as he tried to copy his letters like Mr. Ezra had written them. It was hard to do, though because, Mr. Ezra wrote real fancy.

Judging by the shadows it was past time for the stage. JD was off somewhere with Mr. Buck, and Mr. Chris was talking to Mrs. Travis. The rattle of the stage sounded down the road and he heard a man call, "Stage is in town. The stage is here."

The coach roared around the corner and stopped. Vin watched as the driver began to lower baggage down. He was surprised as Mrs. Travis hurried away from Mr. Chris and crossed the dusty street calling, "Billy! Oh! Oh, sweetheart. Oh, I missed you so much. Let me look at you. You're getting so big." He watched as a boy about his age got out and Mrs. Travis hugged him.

The coachman called down, "Good boy you got there ma'am. Didn't give me an ounce of trouble."

The blonde woman smiled at the compliment and answered without taking her eyes off her son. "Well, of course. He's my son. Thank you for watching him." Then she said to Billy, " I couldn't wait for your school holiday to begin. I missed you so much! I know. I already said that. Oh! We're going to have so much fun together. Oh, baby, you must be tired."

Billy tried to brush her hand away. "I'm okay."

Sighing slightly Mary took his hand. "Yeah. Let's go." They walked across the street and then down the boardwalk.

Vin's attention was drawn back to the stage when he heard a man call to another man, "Well, come on, give me a hand."

A woman's voice came loudly from inside the coach. "Well? Be careful with my luggage. It's genuine French leather."

The man reached inside the coach and said, "Let me give you a hand there, Ma'am."

The voice from inside the coach said, "Thank you, sir."

Vin tried counting all the bags and boxes that were being stacked on the boardwalk. Shaking his head he looked up at Josiah. "Who the hell, I mean heck, needs that much stuff?"

Josiah watched as the beautiful blonde woman climbed down the steps. "Now, that, my friends, is proof there is a God."

Vin looked up at the strange remark. "Huh?"

But before he could ask what Josiah meant, Ezra was walking past him toward the stage. As he did, he said, "Mother?"

Josiah watched open mouthed as Ezra hurried away. "Mother?! I always thought Ezra was raised by wolves."

Vin looked at Josiah again. "Really? Mr. Ezra don't act like no wolf I ever seen."

The preacher looked down at the boy who seemed to take things so literally. "Not really, Vin. I just meant...well, I just never thought of Ezra having such a young and attractive mother."

"Oh," Vin said as his attention was drawn back to Mrs. Travis and the boy.

She was saying, "...and your grandfather said you've been such a good boy. I'm so proud of you."

They stopped suddenly as Mr. Wheeler stepped in front of the boy and his mother. "Is that little Billy Travis? No, that can't be. He couldn't have gotten so big in just one year," the man said in his best 'please the customer' voice.

"You remember Mr. Wheeler, don't you?" Mary asked, noticing only the man's complements, "he owns the hotel." To the man in front of them, she added, "He's a little tired from the ride."

Wheeler bent down and said in that oily voice that always made Vin cringe, "Oh, probably hungry, too. Well, what say we get my cook to hustle up some sandwiches for you?"

"Yes. That sounds like a fine idea," Mrs. Travis said, trying to be nice.

"Well, come along," Wheeler said, still trying to win over the boy, "you can tell him what you want."

"Hey..." Mary said, feeling Billy hold back, "you want to wait inside while I get the sandwiches? I'll be right back then, but I'm going to miss you."

Vin had crossed the street while listening to Mrs. Travis talk. He now watched as Chris whittled, sitting beside the man on the edge of the boardwalk. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the boy come toward them.

Chris looked up at him and said, "What do you think? Think that looks like a horse?"

When the boy nodded he added on impulse, "It's yours."

Billy smiled, taking the horse, before walking back inside.

Vin looked down at his hands. Mr. Chris had said he was making some horses for him and for JD.

Chris reached over and patted Vin's knee, seeing the slump in the little boy's shoulders. "Don't worry, I'll whittle you another, better one."

"It's okay, Mr. Chris. I don't mind." He watched as the man smiled down at him. "I didn't know Miz Travis' boy was coming."

"Me either, Cowboy. I imagine she missed him."

Vin sat thinking about what Chris had said. He could feel the vibration of a wagon coming down the street fast. Ignoring the rumble he said, "Yeah, I guess, Mr. Chris?" But before he could ask anything Billy streaked past them and they heard Mrs. Travis shriek his name.


The driver yelled, "Get out of the way!"

Vin looked up and saw the huge horses running down the street. They looked so big it seemed they could trample anything in their path. Before he could move or say anything Chris jumped up and started running. He grabbed the terrified boy and rolled with him out of the way of the rushing wagon.

"Mr. Chris!" Vin shouted and then added, "Mr. Chris?" in a whisper. The dust from the horses' hooves and the wagon blocked his view of what happened to the man in black and the little boy. "Be alright, please be alright," Vin continued to whisper until he could see the man and boy rolling in the dirt on the other side and trying to get up.

"Billy! Oh, my... oh, God!" The woman cried as she grabbed her son.

Chris looked at the boy. "You all right?"

The boy nodded.

Vin ran across the street and focusing only on the gunman, he placed his hand on the man's arm almost afraid it would disappear.

Chris felt Vin's small hand on his arm, and he looked at the frightened child he was beginning to think of as his boy. The boy's face was pale with worry.

"Are you all right, Mr. Chris?"

"I'm fine, Vin. Can you run and get Nathan for Mrs. Travis?" Chris asked him as he dusted himself off, hoping that giving the boy something to do would put some color back into his face.

Vin sat watching as Mr. Nathan looked over Billy and when he was finished the boy came and sat beside him. "You live here?" Billy asked.

"Yeah, me and JD live with Mr. Chris and Mr. Buck," Vin answered.

"He's not your pa?" the boy asked, puzzled.

"Uh-uh, I ain't got no folks but Mr. Chris is like a pa."

"Oh, my pa's dead, too."

"I know, Mr. Chris told me."

Mary came over and interrupted the boys. "What were you thinking, Billy, running into the street like that?"

Billy hung his head and whispered, "I want to go back to Grandpa's."

With a worried voice Mary asked, "What's the matter, Honey?"

"He... he's going to get you," he said still whispering.

Puzzled, Mary asked, "Who's going to get me?"

"The... the devil," the boy stuttered out.

Rubbing her hands up and down her son's arms she said, "Honey, have those nightmares been coming back? Your grandma said they went away."

Nathan interrupted and said, "Maybe coming back home stirred them up again."

"But I saw him," Billy said, desperate to make his mom understand.

Shaking her head, she said, "Where did you see him, sweetheart? I know you miss your father as much as I do but sometimes forgetting everything just makes it worse. Maybe we need to just... talk a little bit. Billy..."

"Go away," Billy said, shaking his head and turning away.

"Uh, Miz. Travis," Nathan said trying to help, "I think the boy could use a little rest."

Mary nodded and said, "I'll be out here."

Chris placed a hand on Vin's shoulder and said, "Come on, let's let Billy rest, maybe you can play later."

Vin nodded and followed the gunslinger out.

Meanwhile Ezra looked around and spotted JD sitting outside the jail. "JD? Would you come help me carry some of these traveling cases?"

JD looked at the con man, "Mr. Buck said to stay here and wait for him."

"I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you were to do a good deed and help me and my mother."

JD looked at the pretty lady with Ezra. "Your mama?" he asked as he hopped down from the chair and went to stand in front of Maude.

"Why, yes, Mother, this is young Master JD Dunne. He and young Master Tanner have been taken under our protection, if you will."

Maude looked at the small urchin and held out her gloved hand. "So nice to meet you."

She was totally surprised when the boy took her hand lightly and bowed as he said, "How do, ma'am."

"Well, what a delight to meet a young man with manners."

Ezra cleared his throat, "Yes, well, Mr. Dunne, if you would be so kind as to carry those two small cases, it would help me greatly."

"Okay, Mr. Ezra."

Maude raised an eyebrow. "Mr. Ezra?"

"The young gentlemen have my permission to call me by my given name."

"I see, well, this is a sweet little town, Ezra," she said absently as she walked down the street.

Hefting the many bags, Ezra glanced at his mother as he walked. "Wonderful. Just what I wanted to hear."

Maude continued to watch everything and everyone. "What on earth are you talking about?"

Deciding to be blunt, Ezra asked, "Mother, what are you doing here? Did something happen in St. Louis?"

Glancing back at the small boy who seemed to be taking in every word said, Maude evaded giving Ezra a direct answer. "Well, things got a bit complicated there."

"Oh, really?" Ezra prodded, ignoring the widening eyes of the small boy.

"I thought it prudent to disappear for a while. Your letters spoke of this town's potential. But you neglected to mention the children," Maude said, her words reproving but her tone light and carefree.

JD was totally confused by the conversation. It sounded strange and he knew there was lots of 'grownup' stuff being said, he just couldn't quite figure it out. Except that Mrs. Standish was here and Mr. Ezra wasn't real happy to see his mama.

Ezra said the strangest thing next. "I knew I should have left off my return address." Didn't he want his Mama to know where he was? He would have been very happy to see his mama.

Then the crabby Mr. Elliot to walked by them. He watched as Mrs. Maude dropped her hanky and the man stopped and picked it up.

"Oh, madam... might this belong to you?" he said smiling and handing it back to Maude.

"Thank you, kind sir. I hadn't realized I had dropped it."

JD gasped; he knew she was telling a fib. He'd seen her glance at the man just before she dropped it. He tried not to say anything, like Mr. Ezra had told him but he would ask Mr. Buck later. Mr. Buck knew everything about grownups especially about grown up girls.

Elliot smiled at her again. "Not at all."

Then they started walking again.

In disgust Ezra said, "A handkerchief? The oldest ruse in the book."

"One can always rely on the classics," Maude said lightly.

Starting to turn, Ezra saw the confusion on the boy's face and said, "I'll explain later, JD." Suddenly one of the heavy bags he was carrying popped open and bricks fell out. Ezra looked around at the puzzled looks from the townsfolk near by.

Maude leaned close to him and said, "Appearances are everything, darling."

Ezra swallowed, licked his lips and lied his best. "Rare masonry from ancient Rome. Very valuable," Ezra explained as he and JD put the bricks back into the suitcase.

The man nearest to them simply nodded and said, "Mm-hmm."

Mary followed Chris and Vin out the door. She called to the man, "Mr. Larabee? I'm in your debt for saving my son. I know this may be a bit... presumptuous of me to ask. Well, I was hoping that you might be willing to have a little talk with Billy."

"Talk?" Chris asked puzzled.

"You see, he's... never spoken about the night his father was killed..."

"Well, I can understand that," Chris interrupted, not liking where this was going. He didn't talk about losing his family either.

Forging ahead Mary said, "But I think he needs to or... it'll keep haunting him."

Curious this time the blond asked, "You think he saw what happened that night?"

The worried mother shook her head, "I hope not... but the loss of his father alone is enough to... well, he, uh... he hasn't been the same since. That's partly why I sent him to live with his grandparents. There are too many ghosts here."

"Could be he just needs a little more time. Best to just leave him be," the gunman said, he still did not feel comfortable with the idea of talking to a boy he barely knew about something that was too close to his own loss.

Shaking her head Mary said, "No, we've done that, and he hasn't gotten any better but when I saw him with you earlier-- the way he looked at you-- he even smiled. You've shown you have a way with boys, with Vin and JD and now Billy," she added in desperation.

"I don't know, Mary. I'm just not sure I'd be much help." Glancing down at the little boy standing beside him, "Maybe Vin would be better at that than me."

"All right, perhaps when he's rested he and Vin can play, it might help if he had a boy near his own age to talk to," she said, realizing that the man was uncomfortable with the idea of talking to her son.

After Ezra and Maude went into the hotel JD headed back to the jail only to spot eight year old Virginia waiting for her father. She was the prettiest girl JD had ever seen and it was his mission to get her to notice him. Doing somersaults toward her he stopped beside the girl and seeing she was unimpressed he said, "You know, I can do rope tricks, too. You want to see some?"

"Um, maybe later, JD," the little girl said, looking around for the boy's handsome guardian. In her mind Mr. Wilmington was the best looking man in the territory.

JD shifted from one foot to the other. "Well, you sure?"

That was when Buck walked up and said, "Hey, kids."

"Hey, Mr. Wilmington!" the little girl said with all the flirting talent an eight year old possessed.

"Hey." Buck smiled politely at the child.

"How are you?" Virginia asked, desperately trying to keep his attention.

"I'm fine, Miss Virginia. Thank you kindly," Buck answered.

"Me and Sugarplum were hoping that we'd see you and JD on our ride today," she said, not noticing her father coming out of the bank.

The man noticed who his daughter was talking to and called, "Virginia... I need your help inside."

"Yes, Papa." Virginia knew she was in trouble now, her father had told her to stay away from JD and Mr. Buck. He'd said, "We don't associate with their kind unless it's business, Virginia. You are a young lady of class."

Buck touched the edge of his hat just like she was a grown up lady. "Ma'am," he said.

"What'd you do that for, Mr. Buck? I's trying to get her to talk to me," JD said kicking at a rock in the street.

"Hey, can I help it if I've got animal magnetism?" Buck asked forgetting he was talking to a five-year-old.

"Animal what?" JD stopped and looked up at his guardian puzzlement.

"Animal magnetism. I read about it in a magazine. It's-it's-it's a power I've got no control over. Once women get a whiff of it. What can I do?" Buck explained as best he could.

"Take a bath?" JD said, thinking of one of the worst things he could suggest.

Elliot walked over to where they were standing and said, "Mr. Wilmington... I know my daughter may seem very mature but perhaps you and your, um, boy should keep company with your own kind of people. After all, she's a young impressionable child really." He turned on his heel and walked past one of his hired men, saying to him, "Keep an eye on him."

Buck just looked at the man's retreating back. "Sometimes this animal magnetism, it's a curse." He said, refusing to take the implied insult to heart. "Let's go, JD, it's lunch time."

Later that evening Vin and JD were sitting at the table with Josiah and Nathan while Chris and Buck were walking the town. Maude was telling outrageous stories about Ezra when he was a little boy. Ezra joined them in time to hear Maude say, "He takes this little skirt, and he puts it on the poor dog and makes her dance the cancan." She laughed, making everyone else laugh, too. "Full house-- and I said, 'Ezra, honey you better be careful. Elsie's going to bite you,' but he keeps dancing around and 'round until she goes..." Maude barked to show how the dog sounded. "And she nips him on the kisser. So he pulls off her skirt, and he says, 'Well, fine, then, you'll just have to dance naked.' "

Vin looked up, laughing, "Mr. Ezra... we're just hearing about you and your dog when you was a little boy like us."

JD was giggling so hard he could barely say, "Yeah, the nekked dancer."

Ezra frowned and said, "If you'll excuse us, gentlemen. My mother needs her rest."

"My, my," Maude said, looking up at her suddenly solicitous son.

Josiah grinned at the blonde woman. "She looks just fine to me."

Vin looked at the pile of chips in front of Maude, "She done got everybody's money."

Ezra raised an eyebrow and commented, "Well, how about that?"

Sensing her son's determination to stop the game Maude added, "Well, I thank you gentlemen for the libations."

"Uh, you need some help carrying my money?" Josiah asked with a grin.

Maude laughed. "I think I can handle it," she said as she stood and raked in the chips.

Josiah stood and motioned for the boys to stand also. "Good night, Maude."

Maude smiled graciously at her enraptured audience. "Good night."

Josiah started shuffling cards and looking at Nathan and the two boys said, "All right, gentlemen, this game is called go fish."

Nathan shook his head. "Nope, it's bed time for these two. I promised Chris and Buck that they'd be in bed at a reasonable hour."

Both boys looked up with big eyes. "Awww, Mr. Nathan."

"Nope, you're both going up stairs to bed, now. Scoot!" Nathan shook his head again.

Josiah watched them disappear and said to himself, "This game is called Solitaire."

The next morning Vin was sitting on the window sill pulling on his boots when he heard Mrs. Travis. He looked down and she was running through the street in her nightgown, screaming.

"Billy?! Billy?! Billy, where are you?! Billy!"

Vin leaned out the window. "Miz Travis..."

Not hearing him she called again, "Billy!"

This time Vin shouted louder, "Miz Travis, what's wrong?"

Mary looked up at the boy leaning half way out the window. "He's gone! I woke up, and he was gone!"

Vin started back inside and then shouted at the distraught woman, "He's probably just wandering around town. I'll find Mr. Chris and help you look."

The boy ran outside and to the saloon where he knew Chris was having his morning coffee. Slipping under the batwing doors he looked around the almost empty room and spotted his mentor sitting in the corner.

Running over to the man, he said, "Mr. Chris, you gotta come, Billy ran off and Miz Travis is screaming and running all over the street in her night dress."

Chris frowned. "She's what?"

"She's running around screaming 'cause Billy is gone. She's in her night dress. We got's to look for him."

"Okay, let's go."

Chris was waiting for the others to join him when he saw Mary come out and throw her saddle bags over the back of the saddle. "You'd better stay."

"But I want to help," Mary protested.

"What if he comes back?" Chris asked trying to give her a reason to stay in town. It would be harder to look for the boy if she were along.

"I don't know. Maybe you're right," Mary sighed.

Nathan and Buck walked over and joined them and the healer said, "We looked all over town. He ain't here."

"He's probably just hiding. I was pretty good at that myself when I was a boy," Buck added.

"Well, let's give it a second try you being the expert and all. Take JD with you since he can still get into all those little boy places you remember," Nathan said shaking his head.

"What do you say, Little Bit, shall we go look some more before we ride out?" Buck smiled down at the small boy.

"Sure, Mr. Buck, I can help lots."

Buck ruffled the boy's dark hair. "I know you can, JD."

Maude watched as her son threw his saddlebags behind his saddle. "Since when do you go riding after little runaway boys?"

Ezra glanced in exasperation at his mother. She'd never understand how this town and the people in it had become so important to him. "Well, the kid's mother wields considerable influence around here. It'll be good to have her owing me a favor," he said, telling her the thing she'd understand best.

Maude smiled. Maybe Ezra isn't as lost as I'd feared. " That's my boy. Always working an angle."

Chris led his horse over to where the others waited. He glanced down the street, watching the familiar horseman come closer. "Cochran," he said.

The Irishman nodded, "Larabee."

"You got urgent business?" he asked carefully. He hated asking for help.

"Nope, just came into town for some supplies," the ex-soldier said, looking around at the others for the first time.

"Miz. Travis's little boy disappeared during the night, so we're going out to look for him now. Care to join us?" Chris said quietly.

"Be glad to help. Didn't see no kids coming into town, but we might try Baker Pass and then head south from there."

Josiah was the first to notice Maude joining the group. He turned and tipped his hat. "Ma'am."

Chris looked at the distraught mother, placing a hand gently on her shoulder. "Mary? We'll find him."

Maude sat on the bench and watched the men ride out. Maude saw Mary's fear and uncharacteristically she tried to help. "Kids... you just never know what kind of crazy thing's going to get into their heads. Why, when Ezra was a little boy he got his hands on a tomahawk playing Injun or some such thing. Next thing I know, his little cousin's fingers are all... Well, honey, it all worked out in the end." She realized about half way through the story she wasn't helping.

Mary sighed as she watched the last of the dust settle. "I should've seen this coming. I should've done something."

"By the time you're my age you realize there's a million things you should have done, and each one will stick you in the heart like a knife," the older woman said, for once being honest.

Startled the young blonde turned, asking, "You're saying it never gets easier?"

Maude shook her head and said regretfully, "Never. But once in a while you'll see something you did right and it helps. It does, it helps a lot." Then she spotted the very rich Mr. Wheeler coming toward them.

"Any luck, Mrs. Travis?" the tall man asked.

Maude saw Mary's distress from the question and intervened. "Why, didn't I see you at the hotel?"

Turning to the older woman, Wheeler smiled, flattered by the attention. "Well, very likely, since I own it."

Smiling Maude held out her hand to the gentleman. "Well, I was just on my way over there now. Perhaps you could escort me. I'd just love to hear the finer points of hotelling."

"Well, there's not much to tell," Wheeler said, flustered.

Maude slipped her hand around the man's arm and guided him away from Mrs. Travis without him even noticing. "It must be a very lucrative business."

Vin rode bending over the side of Peso, watching the tracks before him. "We're getting closer. He managed to cover a lot of ground for a little kid."

Chris and Francis exchanged looks at the seven-year-old calling Billy a 'little kid.' Looking at the tracks the gunman said, "Then he must be scared."

Nodding, Francis asked, "What do you think made him up and run off like that?"

Chris scanned the horizon and said, "I don't know. He's running from something."

Vin glanced at his protector and muttered under his breath, thinking of the orphanage in Texas. "Ain't we all?"

Ezra, Josiah, and Buck rode looking for any sign of the runaway boy. They occasionally called the boy's name in hopes he'd answer. JD rode behind Buck, holding on to the big man.

"Billy!" Ezra called again.

JD leaned around Buck. "I sure hope we find Billy soon, his mama looked like she was gonna go crazy. I thought she was going to cry. Do mama's cry?" the boy asked, looking up at Buck.

Buck nodded sadly. "Sometimes they cry, Little Bit."

Not hearing the rogue speak, Ezra said, "My mother lost her mind long before I was born."

"It's a mother's curse to worry over her kids," Josiah said, hearing Buck's answer.

Looking up at the big man JD frowned. "What about Mr. Ezra's ma, Mr. Josiah?"

Josiah grinned to himself. "She's a charming woman."

JD frowned then his face brightened. "Oh, know what? She told me my fortune, Mr. Ezra-- didn't even charge me."

Turning and looking at the child, Ezra tried to keep the sarcasm from his voice. "And what did she see from the great beyond?"

JD shook his head, answering, "She said it wasn't real good. That something bad was gonna happen..."

Josiah shook his head. "Except..." he prompted.

With wonder in his voice JD added, "Except she did this ancient rit-oual and it lifted the curse and now I'm going to be fine."

"And the cost of said ritual?" Ezra asked in resignation.

JD shook his head. "Well, she said usually it's ten dollars. But I told her I didn't have no money 'cept for the four pennies Mr. Buck gave me for taking a message to..."

Buck cleared his throat. "JD."

JD looked up at the rogue. "Sorry, Mr. Buck."

Curious where the story was going, Josiah again prompted JD to finish his story. "But for you she'd lower her price to...?"

"She said she'd do it for two pennies. Why are you mad, Mr. Ezra?"

"I am not angry, JD, I shall just have a talk with mother when we get back to town. But in the mean time we need to find Billy."

Looking across the meadow Vin jumped down and began running toward the boy, barely hearing Chris shout, "Vin, Vin, there."

Being the faster boy, Vin ran and tackled Billy. Struggling, he said, "Hey, Billy! Billy, don't run! I got you! It's okay."

Billy fought like a wildcat, screaming, "Let go! Let go! Let go!" until he felt the man's hands on him.

"Hey. We're going to take you back to your ma". Chris said, trying to soothe the boy.

The terrified boy suddenly became still. "No, no! He's going to kill her."

"Who...?" Chris started to ask as gunshots sounded. He pushed the two boys down and looked around and back at Cochran. Drawing his gun he shouted, "You see him?"

Taking a shot the Irishman called back, "Yeah. He's up there on that ridge."

Billy began struggling against Vin's hold on him. "Hey! Let go!"

Vin glanced up and then said, "He's gone."

The frightened boy shook his head in disbelief. "No, he's not! He's going to kill her!"

Holding the boy by the arms Chris asked, "Who, Billy, who's going to kill her?"

Sobbing Billy answered, "The devil! It's him! It's the devil! He's going to kill us, too! He's coming!"

In confusion Chris followed his father's instinct and pulled the boy close saying softly, "All right, all right. All right."

Later Mary sat holding her son and rocking. She tried to explain to the peacekeepers what happened when her husband died. "I was off visiting neighbors that night. Billy was supposed to go with me, but... he wanted to stay home with his father. When I got back, I saw... men riding away."

"How many?" Nathan asked.

"Two. But it was dark. I, um... I couldn't really see their faces but they must've heard me coming and that's probably what stopped them from finding Billy," she added hugging the boy even tighter.

"Anyone you can think of that would've wanted your husband dead?" Chris asked.

Shaking her head no, Mary added, "Well, Steven upset a lot of people with his newspaper. He fought for the truth; published it."

"I remember afterwards, there was an investigation," Nathan said.

"Yes, and... they decided that it was a... a robbery that the guilty men were... long gone. I guess they've come back."

"Or never left," Chris said with distain.

Nathan squatted down beside the woman and the boy. Reaching out he stroked the boy's hair and asked, "Son... now, I know this is hard for you but I have to ask-- did you see anything that night?"

When Billy didn't say anything Mary pleaded, "Billy, please, we can't hide from this anymore."

Shaking his head the frightened boy whispered, "The devil's going to get us."

Hugging her son even tighter the distraught mother tried to soothe her child. "No. No. I won't let them, honey. Just talk to me."

Later that night Josiah stared into his shot glass. "Satan's up to his old tricks again, eh?"

Chris nodded, watching the stairs he'd sent the boys up. "Apparently, he's using a .44 these days."

Josiah shook his head slowly. "Except this time Satan ain't no all-powerful demon. If he was, he'd know Billy couldn't finger him."

"Yet," Chris said. His eye caught a slight movement in the shadow of the top of the stair.

"So, how we going to flush this guy out?" Vin asked from his hiding place.

"I thought I told you to go to bed?" Chris asked the boy.

"I got JD to sleep. I can help, Mr. Chris. You gotta let me help. Besides, I got Billy back," the seven-year-old pleaded.

Chris started to answer but was interrupted by Josiah. "Could put an advert in Mary's newspaper."

Turning from the boy, Chris smiled and said, "You know... advertising might not be a bad idea."

The next day JD ran down the street, delighting in his role in helping Billy. He called at the top of his five-year-old lungs, "Hey, Mr. Buck, Mr. Josiah. Did you hear that Miz. Travis and her boy are leaving?"

Josiah looked up from his cup of coffee. "Already?"

JD stopped for a minute. "Yes, sir."

Josiah said thoughtfully, "I thought he was planning on staying for a month."

Before JD could start running and shouting again Buck scooped him up and settled him on a hip. Walking back the way JD had come Buck yelled, "Hey, Nathan, did you hear the Travis boy's leaving?"

Nathan acted surprised at the news. "Billy? He leaving already?"

JD answered, "Yes, sir."

Walking beside Buck, Josiah asked, "You know what made him change his mind, JD?"

"I think he got scared and wanted to go back to his grandpa's."

Josiah shook his head, remarking, "Tough world."

Vin stood in front of the stage and held out his small hand to the other boy. "You have a nice trip, pard, Mrs. Travis. Billy, when you get home... you can write me a letter about how many jack rabbits ya seen. I'll... I'll write you back."

Billy nodded, wide eyed.

As Mary got on the stage she looked around at the men. "Thank you. Thanks to all of you."

Still playing his part JD started to shout and wave as the stage rolled away. "Bye now. Bye, Billy! Say hi to the Judge for me, will you?! Bye, Ms. Travis! Bye-bye!"

Buck patted the small boy on the back. "Hey. They're gone."

JD put his head on the big man's shoulder and said, "Oh." The little boy hoped this worked; he wanted Billy to stay in town. It would be nice to have someone else almost his age to play with.

With a smile Buck said, "Let's go."

The stage raced down the road, the horse's hooves pounding the loose dirt into a dust cloud. The coach man pulled the reins when he saw several men waiting, guns pulled. One of the villains shouted, "Hold it, there."

The aged voice of the coachman hollered back, "Don't shoot. Whoa!"

Again one of the masked men shouted, "Hold it up, there. Hold up."

The coachman yelled, "Whoa!" And once the horses were stopped he bent over in seeming defeat and said, "You boys lookin' to rob me?"

The would be robber walked to the coach door and said, "Shut up, old man." When the door opened he stared down the barrel of a big gun and the large man holding it said, "Hey," and smiled at him.

But it was the whirlwind of a woman screaming and throwing herself at him that truly got him off balance. Her weight and the pounding of her fists knocked him to the ground. "A child! A little boy! What kind of animals are you?! God!"

Buck tried to lift Mary off the man, "Ma'am..".

The befuddled villain begged, "Get her off of me."

Mary screamed as Buck tried to lift her off the man, "No! No!"

Buck dodged a small fist and said, "Let's go."

Throwing one last punch Mary said, "That was for Billy."

With Mary out of the way Buck gestured with his gun. "Get up. We got some questions for you."

The blond gunman opened the door and let the two boys enter. "We're going to stay here in your old house until your ma gets back. It's safe, Billy."

Billy looked around the room his eyes wide. Vin watched him and then leaned close to the boy and whispered, "It's just a room, there ain't no ghosts here."

Chris noted the boy's hesitation and Vin's whispered assurance, and said, "You know, you don't have to do this. Listen, Billy, I've met the devil. More than once. And he ain't beat me yet. All right."

Billy looked up at the tall man and the long haired boy beside him and nodded. "I can do it."

Later, Chris watched as little Travis sat beside him trying to copy his moves as they whittled. Vin sat on his other side looking outside through the window. The boy never missed a thing and never stopped looking. The blond turned his attention back to Billy. "You're pretty good at that. Your pa teach you? Bet you miss him a lot, huh? Billy... it wasn't your fault."

Billy hung his head and said softly, "I was scared. Bet you've never been scared, nor Vin either."

Chris took a breath, glanced at Vin, then looked at the lost little boy beside him. "You'd lose that bet. It was after I lost someone real special. Someone a lot like you. Most scared I've ever been was having to go on without him. Sometimes the bravest thing you can do is to keep on living."

Young Travis watched the man, wanting to believe him.

Mr. Elliot, respected town banker, stepped onto the boardwalk and tipped his hat to one of the ladies of the town. "Afternoon." He walked over to the buggy his daughter was waiting in.

"Sorry I'm late, Papa," she said as he came up beside her. "You sell Mrs. Travis' house?"

"Not yet," Elliot said as he put his briefcase behind the seat.

The girl frowned. "I'm afraid she's got some squatters."

Elliot looked at her in surprise. "Squatters?" he asked.

"I passed it on my way out here. I think I saw someone go inside."

"Well, I'll send somebody out..." the man started to say when he saw some of the peacekeepers pushing tied men into the jail.

Abruptly Elliot said, "You go on home without me."

The girl looked at her father, "Where you going, Papa?"

Impatiently Elliot said, "You just go on."

"But Mama said..."

"Go!" Elliot growled at his daughter. She quickly slapped the reins and pulled away. The nervous banker turned to his guard. "Is the boy with them?"

The guard watched closely and answered. "Don't look like it."

"Get Jack and Willie. Meet me at the old Travis place at ten o'clock." Elliot growled as he left.

JD sat perfectly still on the bar beside Mrs. Maude. He'd begged to come down with her earlier and with a sigh she'd said, "Very well, young man, on one condition. You must not say anything even if Mr. Ezra comes over and says things that confuse you. You may ask questions when I say you can. Agreed?"

Eagerly JD nodded his head. "Alright, I'll be quiet. But I'm a big boy. I can help, Miz. Maude."

Leading the way the woman said, "I know you are, sugar. You help by just being quiet." Checking her reflection in the mirror she'd said softly to herself, "Showtime!" and then led JD down to the bar below.

Maude was sipping her drink when the hotel owner joined her. Then she began, as if talking to herself, "You raise them, you shower them with love and what happens? They grow up to despise you. What's the point in having them in the first place?"

Not expecting this conversation Wheeler tried to answer the woman. "Well, I wouldn't know, ma'am. I never had any."

Maude smiled up at the mark. "Smart man. And good-looking. It's a deadly combination."

On cue Ezra joined them. "Bartender! A whiskey, if you please. Well, we saved him. He's safe and sound."

"Saved who?" Maude asked in a disinterested way.

With a surprised tone in his voice Ezra answered, "The Travis boy."

"Well, bully for you, Ezra. Now you can return him to the mother who cares," Maude said sarcastically. JD started to open his mouth but at the green eyed glare from Maude shut it without a sound.

Ezra chuckled, "Oh, my, my, how foolish of me. I actually thought you might take some maternal pride in all this but I forgot, you are bereft of such instincts."

Wheeler was becoming very uneasy with the conversation between mother and son. "Perhaps... I should be going."

"No, no. Don't bother. I'm the one who's going." Ezra turned and started to leave seemingly ignoring the small boy listening wide-eyed.

With a parting shot Maude laughed, "Where? To protect some little lost kitten?"

"Touche. As a matter of fact, I'm going back to the jail to find out who hired those men. Then I'm going to hunt the bastard down..." Ezra flipped a coin into the air and slammed it down on the bar. ":...and rip his throat out."

Maude seemed to grimace. "How pleasant."

Sending an icy glare at his mother Ezra said, "Well, then... I won't invite you to watch."

Voices in the background were heard saying, "Good idea. They shouldn't be doing that," in support.

Maude turned back to the bar and took a sip of her drink. "Vultures. Please don't feel obliged to stay. I just don't fancy watching a man being dismembered."

Wheeler gulped and said, "Di... dis-membered?"

"That's what a mob does to people who prey on little children. Oh, I've seen it before. Eyes gouged. Limbs torn clean off. Innards yanked out," Maude spit out, taking another drink.

Visibly shaken, Wheeler blurted out, "Excuse me, ma'am, but I really do have to go."

Maude smiled her brightest as the hook 'took'. "Well, certainly, Mr. Wheeler."

As an afterthought Wheeler added, "Call of nature."

JD watched as the man left and was startled to see Mr. Ezra standing beside his mother. "Shall we?" he asked.

"Of course, Darling. Come along, JD, and see what all that talk was about. You're a very bright boy, you'll learn quickly," Maude said taking Ezra's arm.

"Mother!" Ezra warned.

Wheeler rushed out the back door of the bar and ran into Josiah.

"Going somewhere?" the ex-preacher asked.

Looking around Wheeler saw Josiah, Cochran, and the two Standish's waiting for him. "It was all an act in there, wasn't it? Uh, this is a mistake. Uh... you've got it all wrong."

"Why is it that yer runnin'?" Cochran asked,his brogue coming through.

The frightened man saw Mary Travis walking toward him. More like stalking really and he tried to explain. "Mary... It-it wasn't my idea. I-I had to go along with it. I had no choice."

"You always got a choice," Josiah said in an unforgiving tone.

"You don't understand," Wheeler said in desperation. "You see, Steven was digging into the land deeds... And, uh... He would've found out that they were fake."

"So it's killing him that you did?" Cochran said.

"Oh, God, no. No! No, it wasn't me. I just wanted to talk to him. I-I wanted to get him to back off. He-he was going to cost me everything, Mary. I swear! I tried to stop it. I protected Billy as long as I could... I... and it wasn't my idea to hire those men. I wanted to let Billy go. Mary, please, you've got to believe me," the frightened man explained.

"It's a shallow grave ya'll be ending in. Ya'd best be tellin' me who your partner is and where we can find him," Cochran said, taking out a large and very sharp knife.

Larabee sat with one boy asleep on one leg and the other one on the other. He looked down at the two very different boys. Billy was still a child, still had most of the innocence of childhood while Vin sometimes seemed older than the gunslinger. Each boy still showed his trust by sleeping peacefully cushioned by his presence. It had been a long time since Chris had felt that kind of trust from anyone.

Chris gently reached down and brushed an errant lock of honey colored hair from the orphaned boy's face. So young, the same age as Adam had been. Oh God. Adam. The name conjured the face in his mind's eye. He saw once again the boy, felt his hug. Felt the pure total love the dark haired boy had given him. Larabee felt the moisture gather in his eyes and blinked it away only to 'see' Sarah standing before him as she had been that last time, waving with one hand while the other rested protectively pressed against her belly, with Adam leaning into her skirts, waving. It was only suppose to be goodbye for a few days, not forever. Again the unshed tears gathered. Sarah, Adam, I love you. I miss you so much.

The creaking of the porch boards interrupted his thoughts. Chris looked up at the shadow in the window. At the sound Vin was instantly awake and sitting up. The gun shot came as Chris was turning to move the boys and the bullet slammed through his arm just above the elbow. The gunman bit back a groan and the blood began flowing down his arm. In a desperate move to keep the men outside from coming inside, Chris threw the lamp at the door, the kerosene spreading over the surface and quickly spreading the flames.

Voices were carrying from outside. He didn't recognize the first one saying, "Go around the side."

Then came a voice he did recognize. It was Elliot, saying, "He'll have to come out of there now."

Another man then shouted, "It's going to burn down."

Taking advantage of the confusion outside Chris turned to the frightened boys. "Come on, Billy, Vin. Come on." Chris groaned at the movement and brushed away Vin's probing hands. "Listen, we're going to have to make a run for the barn, all right? You ready? Go, boys, go! Go! Stay down! Don't stop, boys. Run, Billy! The barn, Vin!" Chris kept urging the boys between clenched teeth, forcing the reluctant Vin to help the other boy rather than worry about him. Chris kept shooting, not to hit anything but to simply lay cover fire while the three ran. Once inside Chris slid down, pushing the door closed, and reloaded.

"Vin, get Billy on my horse, you get on yours. I want you to ride out as soon as I start shooting. I'll cover you."


"Yes." Chris looked at the boy and said between clenched teeth, "You have to take care of Billy, get him to town. I'm depending on you to do this for me."

Vin gritted his teeth but climbed into the saddle and waited. Chris helped Billy get settled on the tall black, knowing full well that Peso would never carry double.

Billy looked down at the wounded gunfighter. "But I want to stay with you."

Chris reached up and put a hand on the boy's leg. "You'll be all right. Vin will take care of you. Keep your head down. Ride as fast as you can, both of you now, go!"

Chris pushed the door open and fired, clearing the way for the boys. He ran and dived behind the water trough just as his gun emptied. Lying on his back he forced blood smeared fingers to work as he tried to reload quickly.

He heard Elliot call, "Hold it! I got him. You should have stayed out of this." The overconfident man walked up to where Chris lay, hate pouring out with every word. The man pulled back the hammer with relish. He was finally going to get rid of the troublesome gunfighter and the boy.

At the sound of a horse neighing the banker looked up, only to be pushed down by the large black. Billy screamed, "NO!"

The second horse was pushing its way between the wounded gunman and Elliot.

In a fog of pain, Chris realized that the two boys had come back. Shaking his head to clear it he ground out, "Get down! Get down!"

Then through the fog came a welcome southern voice. "Drop it."

From somewhere Buck's voice came, "That's enough."

The others were here. They'd come just in time. Chris began to relax and give into the pain.

"Billy!" Mary called as she ran to her son.

The little blond turned, and jumping off the horse, looked around. "Mommy...?"

Hugging her son Mary tried to reassure him. "It's all right, sweetheart. You're safe now. It's all right, Billy."

Crouching beside Chris, Vin moved slightly as Nathan came over saying, "Let me see that arm, Chris."

Elliot slumped in defeat, trying to think of a way to explain all this away. Then the large watch hanging from the gold chain began chiming the hour.

Billy's head jerked around at the sound of the chime and it came back to him in a rush, he'd heard the chime and seen the watch through the curtain when his father was shot. Walking forward he pointed a finger, saying, "He killed my father."

Looking over at the determined boy Chris said with a pain filled voice, "It's over, Billy. He'll pay for what he did."

Vin smiled and leaned over, watching Nathan bandage the arm. "We need to go home, Mr. Chris, so's Mr. Nathan can care for your arm proper like."

"Couldn't have said it better myself," Nathan said with a grin.

Several days later Ezra strolled down the street with his mother. "Listen, Mother... about some of the things that were said the other night in private, I want to explain, that is, I never meant to sound so harsh..."

Only half listening, Maude stopped in front of the dozing rogue. "Good-bye, Buck."

Wiping his mouth, Buck stood up and tipped his hat. "Oh! Now, Ma'am, you have yourself a good trip."

"Thank you." Maude said and leaning toward the rogue she sniffed several times. "What's that smell?"

Startled Buck asked, "Smell?"

Wrinkling her nose Maude shook her head. "Like animal, or something." The blond woman sniffed again. "P.U.! Well, it was nice meeting you."

Dumbfounded Ezra asked as they walked away, "What on earth was all that about?"

"Nothing. Now, what were you saying?"

The gambler cleared his throat and tried to continue, "Well, I just wanted to say with all that's going on I just didn't want you to feel as though I feel..."

Again Ezra was interrupted, this time by the dark haired child coming up to Maude and giving her a quick hug around the skirts saying, "Thank you, ma'am." He handed her his last penny.

Maude smiled down at the boy, taking the coin. "Don't mention it, such talent, such a waste. Yes?" She turned her attention back to her son.

Trying again Ezra continued, "Well, although harsh words were spoken I want you to know that, uh... in my heart..."

Josiah was the interruption this time. Planting himself in front of Maude he gallantly said, "Uh, ma'am. I do believe I'll die if you leave."

Rolling his eyes Ezra leaned into his mother's ear and whispered, "Penniless."

Acknowledging what Ezra said, Maude gave Josiah an impersonal smile. "So nice to meet you. I'm sorry, darling," she said as they walked on.

Giving up, Ezra finished, "Well, I... I just want you to... Take care of yourself."

Turning to look her son in the face Maude reached up and placed her palm on his cheek. "I always do, Son. Good-bye."


Josiah walked up beside the bemused gambler. "Extraordinary woman."

"Oh, yes, indeed."

They both stood watching as Maude's voice carried down the street from where the stage was, "Now, you be careful with that luggage! That's genuine French leather."

Billy Travis was dragging his mother out of the newspaper office. "Come on, Ma. Chris said we should start early."

Laughing at her son's exuberance she said, "I'm coming, I'm coming. Lord, the fish aren't going anywhere."

Not paying any attention to what she said, Billy continued babbling, "You know what else he said? He said he'd take me hunting, too."

Trying to slow her son down, Mary said, "Just remember, Mr. Larabee has an injured arm."

"Mr. Chris don't care. He says it's just a scratch, Vin an' me been watching him real good."

The tall gunman sat on the black horse, his arm in a sling. Beside him on his own horse sat Vin. Fishing poles poked under the stirrup leather where the rifle case should have been. "Billy, you ready?" Chris asked. And taking the boy's arm to aid him in the jump he said, "On three, now. One... two... three! Leg over. Attaboy!" Billy nestled against the man in black and looked at his mother.

"Just be careful, Honey," Mary said, not being able to help saying it one more time.

The little boy made a face at his mother. "I know, Ma. I'm not a baby."

Looking at the two boys, Chris picked up the reins said, "Come on, boys let's catch some fish."

Next: Nemesis