Witness Enhanced

by Jan

Note: A challenge from the Vinfeedback list to enhance one of the episodes. I'm hoping this helps fill in some of the blanks. Original story written by Melissa Rosenberg.

Part 1
Young Billy Travis was laughing as he and his father played the new toy he had made for Billy. The smile dropped when Billy noticed the tension in his father at the sound of approaching horses. Steven Travis left Billy to look out the window.

Horses weren't the only sounds as they heard a man say, "Go around that way."

A second man added, "Get to the back."

Steven was heading back to where Billy stood when they heard the first man say, "You two, come with me."

Not believing this was a friendly visit Steven Travis did what he could to protect his son. Hiding Billy quickly he said softly, "Don't worry, son. You just be real quiet for me. Don't make a sound."

Confused and scared Billy asked, "What's happening?"

Steven turned to the door ignoring Billy's question as the men entered his home. Anger filled him at their violation of his home when he heard. "Get yourself in."

Righteous indignation filled his voice as Steven said, "Get out of my house."

Ignoring Steven, one of the men sneered, "Keep your nose out of our business."

The man pulled his gun and pointed it at Steven, who said, "How dare you? What do you think you're doing?"

Steven and the man wrestled with the gun, the man's voice hard as he said, "I'm warning you!"

Steven feared for both his and Billy's safety as he pushed at the man causing the man's watch to fall out of the pocket on his vest and hang open from its chain. Steven cried, "Stop!"

The man didn't care what Steven wanted, pointing his gun at Steven he sneered, "Stay out of this."

Billy caught glimpses from his hiding place. The sound of the gunshot caused Billy to drop his toy at the same time his father fell to the floor dead.

Billy startled awake from his nightmare looking around to find himself in the stagecoach with the elegantly dressed lady. They heard the stage driver holler, "Hyah!"

She smiled at him as she continued to shuffled her deck of cards saying, "Go back to sleep, child. Your dreams are obviously more entertaining than this coach ride." She noticed him watching her shuffling and added, "Just a little exercise for my rheumatism darling... unless, of course you indulge in games of chance. I didn't think so."

Continuing to shuffled the cards while the bright light from outside shined through the moving coach the lady sighed, "Lordy, lordy."

The stagecoach rolled through town, the driver hollering, "Watch yourself, Mister."

"Stage is in town. The stage is here." Came the cry from an onlooker, the arrival of the stage was something people looked forward to.

Mary walked out of the Clarion's office in time to see the stage pass by, excitement at Billy's arrival cause her to throw manners to the wind and run over to greet her son.

"Whoa," the stage driver said as he pulled to a stop in front of the stage depot.

Mary excitedly pulled open the stage door for Billy to step out. "Billy! Oh! Oh, sweetheart. Oh, I missed you so much." She hugged her son with joyous abandon then held him at arms length. "Let me look at you. You're getting so big."

Neither Billy nor Mary saw the woman on the coach give them a look of disgust at Mary's undisguised joy at seeing her beloved son.

The stage driver lifted Billy's bag and smiled at the scene below saying, "Good boy you got there ma'am. Didn't give me an ounce of trouble."

Smiling at the driver as she clutched Billy's hand Mary said proudly, "Well, of course. He's my son. Thank you for watching him." Taking Billy's bag Mary turned back to him saying, "I couldn't wait for your school holiday to begin. I missed you so much! I know. I already said that. Oh! We are going to have so much fun together. Oh, baby, you must be tired."

Billy was quiet and subdued when he replied, "I'm okay."

Holding Billy's hand and bag Mary said, "Yeah. Let's go."

One of the stage hands began to unload the huge pile of luggage that belonged to the other passenger, looking over at his friend he said, "Well, come on, give me a hand."

The elegant lady stuck her head out of the coach reprimanding them by saying, "Well? Be careful with my luggage. It's genuine French leather."

One of the men came over to assist her out of the stage, holding out a hand to her he said, "Let me give you a hand there, Ma'am."

Smiling graciously she took his assistance saying, "Thank you, Sir."

Vin was sipping his coffee as he sat in front of the jail with Ezra and Josiah watching activity over at the stage stop. He smiled when he saw Mary's reaction to Billy. Mary was normally so proper, he was happy to see her relax and let herself enjoy the reunion with her son. Mary been so excited when she told the Seven that Billy was coming to stay for a month during his break from school. She tried to hide it but Vin knew she missed Billy something fierce and as much as it hurt her to send him away she did it from a love for her son.

Vin watched Mary and Billy walk off before looking back at the stage coach. Taking in the pile of luggage Vin said, "Who the hell needs that much stuff?"

Seeing the elegant lady Josiah stood up straight from the post he was leaning on saying wisely, "Now, that, my friends, is proof there is a God."

Vin and Ezra also had stood up, Vin adding, "Amen, Brother."

Vin and Josiah managed to hide their shock when they heard Ezra say in a unbelieving tone, "Mother?"

Watching Ezra walk over to greet his Mother, Josiah commented, "Mother?! I always thought Ezra was raised by wolves."

Vin took another sip of his coffee as he glanced over at Josiah before looking back at Ezra and his Mother. The two men watched the second reunion today between a Mother and her son, this one much more subdued and dignified.

Josiah looked over at Vin and asked, "Think we should go over and meet Ezra's Mother?"

Vin looked at the growing pile of luggage then back at Josiah replying, "Ya know if we do who's gonna be carrying all that stuff don't you."

Josiah studied the pile then noticed Ezra looking their direction, "You're right, I say we make ourselves scarce until she's checked into the hotel."

Vin nodded his agreement as the two men turned their backs on Ezra to head over to the saloon.

Ezra watched his friends walking away and muttered "Cowards" under his breath, knowing full well he wished he could have stayed with them rather than deal with Maude.

Maude asked, "What did you say dear boy?"

"I was commenting on obtaining some assistance to transport your luggage to the hotel, Mother."

"That's my boy," Maude replied fanning herself while Ezra made the arrangements.

Chris was sitting on the boardwalk in front of the Clarion carving, as Mary and Billy approached he heard her saying, "...and your grandfather said you've been such a good boy. I am so proud of you."

Mr Wheeler approached Mary and Billy greeting them with, "Is that little Billy Travis? No, that can't be. He couldn't have gotten so big in just one year."

Billy attempted to move behind Mary clearly uncomfortable around Mr Wheeler. Mary tired to reassure Billy when she told him, "You remember Mr. Wheeler, don't you? He owns the hotel." When Billy still refused to talk she turned to Mr Wheeler adding, "He's a little tired from the ride."

Mr Wheeler nodded and offered, "Oh, probably hungry, too. Well, what say we get my cook to hustle up some sandwiches for you?"

Mary quickly agreed, "Yes. That sounds like a fine idea."

"Well, come along. You can tell him what you want," Wheeler said leading them to the hotel.

Billy held back not wanted to go anywhere with Mr Wheeler so Mary suggested, "Hey... You want to wait inside while I get the sandwiches? I'll be right back then, but I'm going to miss you."

Mary put Billy's bag down outside the door and headed down to the hotel to pick up the promised sandwiches. Billy started to go inside the newspaper office when his attention was attracted to Chris. Curiosity gave Billy the courage to approach Chris and watch him carving. Mary looked back from the door of the hotel smiling when she saw Billy with Chris.

Chris held up his carving and showed it to Billy asking, "What do you think? Think that looks like a horse? It's yours."

Billy smiled shyly as he took the horse from Chris then walked into the newspaper office. Billy was looking around with someone grabbed him from behind. A hand clamped over Billy's mouth stopping him from crying out as he struggled to get away. A harsh voice whispered in his ear. "Too bad you had to come back to town. You say one word and I'll kill your mother. I'm the devil! She can't hide from the devil."

As quickly as he was grabbed Billy was released. Billy didn't hesitate to run out of the office and past Chris into the street. Stopping in the middle of the street Billy was frozen with fear at the sight of the wagon bearing down on him. Mary had walked out of hotel just in time to see Billy dart into the street, she dropped the basket she was carrying yelling "Billy" as started toward her son.

Chris had also saw Billy in danger and was rushing to his rescue before the wagon driver could holler, "Get out of the way!"

Chris' quick reflexes paid off when he scooped Billy up and rolled them both out of danger barely being missed by the wagon as it rolled by. They had just stopped rolling when Mary was at their sides, clutching Billy to her she cried, "Billy! Oh, my... oh, God!"

Chris reached out and stroked Billy's hair asking him, "You all right?"

Mary, shaken by the events, continued to clutch her son tightly to her saying only, "Oh...!"

Satisfied both Mary and Billy were only shook up Chris rose up to find Nathan and ask him to check Billy for Mary's peace of mind. When he past Nathan already heading over to see if he was needed, Chris smiled thinking he should have know Nathan would come.

Chris walked up to Vin and Josiah who had come out of the saloon at Mary's scream and saw Chris' heroic actions. Vin slapped Chris on back and with a wink said, "You did good, pard."

Josiah added, "Beers on me."

As soon as Nathan reached Mary and Billy he helped Mary stand and led her into the Clarion's office. He knew Mary would need to calm down a little more before she would be willing to let Billy down from her secure embrace. Talking to them both he helped them upstairs to Mary's living quarters, Nathan's hand resting on Mary's back gave her support and it also gave him a gauge to tell when she was calm enough to Billy go. Nathan knew the Mother in Mary was at war with herself, part of her wanted to hold her son tight to her while the other part didn't want to frighten Billy by giving in to her fears. As soon as they reached the bedroom Mary sat Billy down on the bed then stepped back to let Nathan check him over for any injuries.

Not finding any Nathan said, "Yeah, it looks all right, ma'am. I think his nerves are just a little razzled up. A long ride and a near miss with a wagon will do that to a boy."

Mary needed to know why Billy acted as he did so she asked him, "What were you thinking, Billy running into the street like that?"

Billy was still frightened by the Devil so he replied, "I want to go back to Grandpa's."

"What's the matter, Honey?" Mary asked gently.

"He... he's going to get you." Billy answered.

Confused Mary tried for more information. "Well, who's going to get me?"

"The... the devil." Billy said trying to warn them.

Not understanding Mary thought it was a dream he had. "Honey, have those nightmares been coming back? Your grandma said they went away."

"Maybe coming back home stirred them up again." Nathan suggested.

Billy tried again to make them understand, "But I saw him."

"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..."

Frustrated Billy turned away and buried his head in the pillows. "Go away."

Nathan saw they wouldn't get anymore out of the scared little boy so he said, "Uh, Miss Travis I think the boy could use a little rest."

Nodding that Nathan was right Mary told Billy, "I'll be out here."

Part 2

Meanwhile, Ezra had found one of the stage workers and a cart for most of Maude's luggage. Even with the cart Ezra was forced to carry four of her bags himself. Ezra decided to wait to see if she gave anything away before asking the question he was most anxious to know.

"Well, this is a sweet little town, Ezra."

"Wonderful. Just what I want to hear," Ezra replied concerned by her presence in town.

Maude understood exactly when Ezra meant but played innocent by saying, "What on earth are you talking about?"

Ezra decided just to come out and ask, "Mother, what are you doing here? Did something happen in St. Louis?"

Maude hedged with, "Well, things got a bit complicated there."

Knowing there was more to the story Ezra pressed on, "Oh, really?"

Maude tried to play it off as nothing by waving her handkerchief and saying, "I thought it prudent to disappear for a while. Your letters spoke of this town's potential."

Ezra could stop the words the flowed from his mouth, "I knew I should have left off my return address."

He watched Maude deliberately drop her handkerchief in front the Mr Elliot, the local banker. Just as Maude planned Mr Elliot picked up her handkerchief and said, "Oh, madam... might this belong to you?"

Maude was in full flirting mode when she smiled and said, "Thank you, kind Sir. I hadn't realized I had dropped it."

Mr Elliot replied, "Not at all."

Ezra couldn't resist calling Maude on her actions. "A handkerchief? The oldest ruse in the book."

"One can always rely on the classics." Ezra managed not to glare at Maude when one of the bags he was carrying fell open spilling out nothing but bricks. Maude didn't miss a beat as she whispered in Ezra's ear, "Appearances are everything, darling," before she walked off leaving Ezra to deal with the mess and the stage hand.

Ezra covered by saying, "Rare masonry from ancient Rome. Very valuable."

While Billy was sleeping Mary decided she needed to take action to help her son. Quietly leaving the building Mary saw the object of her quest relaxing while he read a book. Walking up to him Mary said, "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."

Chris was confused what she wanted so he asked, "Talk?"

Mary was worried about Billy so she swallowed her pride and explained, "You see, he's... never spoken about the night his father was killed."

Chris knew about keeping painful things to himself. "Well, I can understand that."

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

"You think he saw what happened that night?" Chris questioned.

Relieved at his concern Mary continued, "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's too many ghosts here." The look of pain in Chris' eyes reminded her that he also knew about loss. Not wanting to cause Chris anymore pain she cut short her explanation.

The situation was bringing up memories Chris wanted to forget. He wasn't sure he could help Billy so he held back saying, "Could be he just needs a little more time. Best to just leave him be."

Mary saw Chris with Billy earlier and knew Chris was the one to help Billy through this. "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."

Chris still held back, "I don't know, Mary. I'm just not sure I'd be much help."

Mary knew she couldn't force Chris so she accepted his opinion, "All right."

Further down the street JD was doing his best to impress Virginia Elliot. After twirling his guns he grabbed a rope saying, "You know, I can do rope tricks, too. You want to see some?"

Virginia could care less about what JD was doing but she didn't want to hurt JD feelings so she tried to soften the blow by saying, "Um, maybe later, JD."

JD wasn't ready to give up yet so he added, "Well you sure? I got it right here."

Right about that time Buck walked up saying, "Hey, Kids."

Virginia fell all over herself wrapping her arms through Buck's arm then saying with a laugh, "Hey, Buck!"

Buck, being Buck couldn't help himself from flirting back. "Hey."

JD had a look of disgust on his face as Virginia gushed all over Buck saying, "How are you?"

Buck smiled as he replied, "I'm fine, Miss Virginia. Thank you kindly."

Now that she had his attention Virginia wasn't about to miss her chance. "Me and Sugarplum were hoping that we'd see you on our ride today."

Mr Elliot came out of the bank and seeing what was happening put a stop to it by saying firmly, "Virginia... I need your help inside."

Virginia knew better that to argue with her father so she replied, "Yes, Papa."

Buck tipped his hat to her as she walked off. "Ma'am."

Frustrated that he could barely get Virginia to talk to him JD confronted Buck, "What are you trying to do to me, Buck?"

Buck tried to explain saying, "Hey, can I help it if I've got animal magnetism?"

"Animal what?" JD asked.

"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?"

Disgusted JD replied, "Take a bath?"

Mr Elliot also wasn't happy with Buck giving him a warning, "Mr. Wilmington... I know my daughter may seem very mature but perhaps you should keep company with people your own age."

Buck nodded replying, "Sir," as Mr Elliot walked off.

As he was leaving Mr Elliot said to his guard, "Keep an eye on him."

Buck turned and told his horse, "Sometimes this animal magnetism, it's a curse."

That night Maude was holding court in the saloon while she played poker with Josiah, Vin, and JD. They were all relaxed and enjoying themselves, laughing often while they played poker. She had them eating out of her hand using her natural charm and stories about Ezra's childhood.

She was in the middle of one story when Ezra walked in and heard Maude laughing as she said, "He takes his little skirt, and he puts it on the poor dog and makes her dance the cancan..." Her telling of the story had the others laughing right along with her. Showing her cards she announced, "Full house," collecting her winnings as she continued her story with a flourish. "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..." Hearty laughter filled the room as Maude made a snapping motion with her hand and barked finishing with, "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.'"

By this time Ezra was standing almost behind Maude. She was so intent on telling her story she was surprised when Vin greeted him with, "Ezra... we're just hearing about you and your dog."

JD had them laughing again as he added, "The naked dancer."

Ezra masked his feelings saying, "If you'll excuse us, gentlemen. My mother needs her rest."

Maude knew her best option was to go along with Ezra's statement so she started to gather her winnings saying, "My, my."

Josiah was totally smitten by Maude, eyeing her he said, "She looks just fine to me."

Vin added, "She done cleaned us out."

Ezra had hoped she wouldn't take advantage of his friends but wasn't surprised at all that she had. "Well, how about that?" he replied.

Maude lifted her glass in toast to the men at the table saying, "Well, I thank you gentlemen for the libations," before finishing her drink.

Josiah wasn't ready to part company so he offered, "Uh, you need some help carrying my money?"

Laughing Maude replied, "I think I can handle it."

"Good night, Maude," Josiah said.

"Good night," Maude replied as she walked off with Ezra.

Once they were out of hearing range Ezra confronted her. "I've never had a dog named Elsie and I certainly never dressed her up."

Never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story Maude defended herself saying, "Well, it's still an adorable story."

Back at the table Josiah had picked up the deck of cards and started to deal. "All right, gentlemen this game is called read 'em and weep."

Vin decided to also call it a night replying, "I'm out."

Not wanting to lose any more money JD added, "I'm already weeping."

Since the other two weren't willing to play Josiah declared, "This game is called solitaire."

That night while Billy and Mary slept, Billy was having the same dream he had on the stagecoach. Even though Billy was sleeping on the floor next to her bed, Mary's sleep prevented her from hearing the soft moans her son was making as the nightmare came alive in his mind. He heard the wood toy clacking and horses approaching.

Man was saying, "Go around that way. You two, come with me."

Steven hid him and told him, "Don't worry son. You just be real quiet for me. Don't make a sound."

Billy even heard himself asking, "What's happening?"

Billy heard a shuffling sound then his father say, "You're making a mistake."

The man warned, "You keep your nose out of our business."

Steven tried to reason with him, "Don't do this, Frank."

The man sneered, "I'm warning you."

Steven tried again to make him listen and Billy remembered the watch he saw when his father said, "Stop!"

The man refused to listen, snapping back, "Stay out of this. Let's get out of here."

Vin had woken up at his usual early hour. He enjoyed the early mornings quiet listening to the sounds of the town waking up to start its day. Vin stretched and took his time dressing. After pulling his boots on Vin jumped out of his wagon, his jacket laid just inside waiting to be put on. One last stretch and Vin reached for his jacket, startled to hear Mary's panicked voice yelling, "Billy?! Billy?! Billy, where are you?! Billy!"

The fear in her voice had Vin running out of the alley pulling on his jacket as he went. Finding Mary standing in the middle of the street in nothing but her nightgown Vin approached her saying, "Miss Travis..."

Mary interrupted him as she continued to yell, "Billy!"

Vin tried again to calm her down and find out what the problem was. "Miss Travis, what's wrong?"

Mary grabbed Vin's arm, her panic growing as she said, "He's gone! I woke up, and he was gone!"

Vin knew he needed to get her calmed down so he tried to talk to her again, "Miss Travis..."

Mary was past listening, she turned and running down the street hollered, "Billy!"

Vin finished his thought even though he knew she didn't hear him say, "He's probably just wandering around town."

Vin turned the opposite direction from Mary figuring he better get some help if they were going to search all the hiding places in town. Chris was also an early riser and had heard Mary's distressed calls so was coming out of the boarding house just as Vin started in.

"What's going on?" Chris asked.

"Billy's missing," Vin replied.

"You go for Nathan and Josiah, I'll get the rest. We'll meet at the Clarion," Chris instructed.

Vin nodded and headed to the clinic to wake Nathan. It wasn't long before all Seven of the men were searching the town. After a quick search Vin looked over to Chris, as they made eye contact Chris nodded knowing Vin was thinking the same thing he had, Billy had left town.

"Buck, you and Nathan keep checking around town," Chris said taking charge. "The rest of you get your stuff together to ride out looking."

No one questioned the orders, they just moved to do their jobs. Chris was checking his saddle bags when Mary came out of the Clarion's office. She was dressed and carrying her own saddle bags which she put on the horse next to Chris'.

Walking around his horse Chris told her, "You'd better stay."

The thought of just sitting there waiting wasn't something Mary thought she could handle so she replied, "But I want to help."

Chris understood how she felt but he also knew in town was the best place for Mary to be. Placing a reassuring hand on her arm Chris looked her in the eye and said softly, "What if he comes back?"

Mary was torn, she understood why Chris wanted her to stay but she wanted to help. She wasn't there for Billy the night his father was killed, she wanted to be there this time. It was the thought that she could be out looking when they found him and it would take longer for her to see him again that had Mary saying, "I don't know. Maybe you're right."

Nathan and Buck came running up. Nathan reported, "We looked all over town. He ain't here."

Buck wanted to be reassuring so he added, "He's probably just hiding. I was pretty good at that myself when I was a boy."

Nathan thought one more look couldn't hurt so he said, "Well, let's give it a second try you being the expert and all."

Ezra had stopped by the hotel to tell Maude he would be out of town while he assisted in looking for Billy. Maude insisted on walking back to the Clarion with him. She couldn't understand why Ezra would leave making her ask, "Since when do you go riding after little runaway boys?"

Ezra knew he would have gone looking for any lost child but it wouldn't do to tell Maude that. "Well, the kid's mother wields considerable influence around here. It'll be good to have her owing me a favor."

That answer satisfied Maude who said with a stroke of Ezra's cheek, "That's my boy. Always working an angle."

By this time Vin, JD, and Josiah had joined Chris and Ezra. By silent agreement they had all decided that Vin was the tracker in the group, he would be the one to call the shots. Once everyone was mounted JD looked at Vin and asked, "Where do you want us to start looking?"

Vin already had the search patterns mapped out in his head, he didn't have to think about his answer before he told JD, "Why don't you start at Baker Pass then head south from there."

With that Ezra, JD, and Josiah headed toward Baker Pass. Josiah took the time to nod to Maude saying, "Ma'am."

"Mary? We'll find him," Chris promised just before he rode out with Vin in the opposite direction.

Part 3

Maude felt the need to say something to Mary as they watched the men ride out. "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..." Maude wasn't so caught up in her story that missed Mary's reaction, deciding to end the story she finished with, "Well, honey, it all worked out in the end."

Nathan and Buck were searching the stable. "He ain't up here, Buck. I don't know where he is."

Buck agreed but he also wanted to take the time to talk to Nathan privately saying, "I don't know. He ain't here, either. Nathan... you're a doctor-type fella, aren't you?"

Nathan wondered what Buck was getting at so he replied, "Yeah, I suppose."

Buck hesitated, not sure if he really wanted to know but he had to ask, "Uh-huh. You heard about this animal magnetism thing, haven't you? I mean, women-- they can smell it on you. Now, medically speaking if a man's got it, it's not his fault, right? I mean, it's more like a condition. It's... it's like a rash or an ailment. It won't ever go away, will it? It won't... will it?"

Nathan just shook his head and walked off to check the next building.

Back in front of the Clarion Maude was keeping Mary company. Feeling like she failed as a Mother Mary sighed then said, "I should've seen this coming. I should've done something."

Maude was trying to help when she said, "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."

Mary stopped pacing and turned looking shocked at Maude. "You're saying it never gets easier?"

Maude wasn't one to mince words unless there was something in it for her. This woman could be a powerful ally so she found herself being honest with her saying, "Never. But once in a while you'll see something you did right and it helps. It does, it helps a lot."

Mr Wheeler approached the two ladies, asking Mary, "Any luck, Mrs. Travis?"

Maude could sense money in her sleep and in this man her senses were going crazy. Turning on the charm she said to Mr Wheeler, "Why, didn't I see you at the hotel?"

Mr Wheeler puffed up with pride as he replied, "Well, very likely, since I own it."

Standing Maude took his arm cooing, "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."

Mr Wheeler was hooked, charmed by Maude as the two walked off he said, "Well, there's not much to tell."

Mary watched them leave, the last thing she heard was Maude saying, "It must be a very lucrative business." Mary resumed her pacing as she waited for news on Billy.

They weren't far out of town when Vin found some tracks that he thought could be Billy. Chris offered to go tell the others but Vin told him, "Ain't sure these are Billy, need to follow 'em a little more. Wouldn't be a good idea to call off the search yet."

Chris nodded in agreement, knowing he could trust Vin's instincts on this. Once Vin was sure it was too late to round up the others so Chris and Vin decided to find Billy and met the others back in town.

Vin was on the ground studying the tracks. Walking back to his horse he reported to Chris, "We're getting closer. He managed to cover a lot of ground for a little kid."

Chris thought it must be serious for Billy to come so far. "Then he must be scared."

Vin mounted Peso again, asking Chris, "What do you think made him up and run off like that?"

Chris was thinking maybe he should have helped when Mary asked. Wishing he knew what scared Billy he replied, "I don't know. He's running from something."

Vin thought about Chris' answer and thought about his own situation before saying, "Ain't we all?"

Back on the trail Vin and Chris headed closer to Billy. Meanwhile Ezra, Josiah, and JD were also searching in the opposite direction. "Billy!" Ezra called hoping Billy would reply.

JD was concerned about Mary's reaction to Billy running off. He told the others, "I hope we find the boy all right. Mrs. Travis looked ready to lose her mind over him."

"My mother lost her mind long before I was born," Ezra replied sarcastically.

Josiah tried to protect JD's innocent view of Mothers when he said, "It's a mother's curse to worry over her kids."

JD noticed Josiah was smitten with Maude at their poker game the night before. Wanting to get a better idea of Josiah's feelings he asked, "What about Ezra's Ma, Josiah?"

Josiah wasn't ready to tell them how he felt and wasn't aware that his actions had given him away already when he said, "Charming woman."

JD's innocent came shining through when he told them, "She sure is. You know, she told me my fortune the other day, Ezra-- didn't even charge me."

Ezra and Josiah shared a knowing looking. Ezra needed to know so he asked, "And what did she see from the great beyond?"

"To tell you the truth, it wasn't that good. She told me I was going to be meeting my first and last bullet within six months," JD answered not seeing the looks his two companions gave each other.

Josiah prompted, "Except..."

"Except she did this ancient ritual and it lifted the curse and now I'm going to be fine," JD finished happy with Maude's fortune telling ability.

Ezra forced himself to ask, "And the cost of said ritual?"

"Usually it's ten dollars," JD replied.

"But for you...?" Josiah asked.

"Five," JD said acting like he had been given a wonderful deal.

Both Ezra and Josiah called out, "Billy!" They knew their young friend had been conned but JD was happy so they didn't want to burst his bubble.

Vin and Chris were on the ground, Vin knew the tall grass was hiding Billy. The two were separated as they searched the area. Spotting Billy, Chris said softly, "Vin, Vin, there."

Missing where Chris pointed Vin asked, "Huh? He's around here somewhere." Vin was looking around when Billy bolted, chasing after him Vin yelled, "Hey, Billy! Billy, don't run! I got you! It's okay."

Billy struggled to be free when Vin caught him and scooped his up. "Let go! Let go! Let go!"

As soon as Chris knew Vin as seen Billy, Chris was running over to join Vin in calming Billy down. "Hey, hey. We're going to take you back to your ma." Chris tried to calm him down.

Trying to protect his Ma Billy cried, "No, no! He's going to kill her."

Just as Chris asked, "Who?" a gun was fired in their direction.

"Down!" Chris yelled as he scooped Billy up and with Vin protecting them the two men and little boy hid behind a fallen log. A second shot was fired in their direction. Vin looked up quickly but the man was too far away to his mares leg to reach.

"You see him?" Chris asked when Vin dropped back down behind the log.

"Yeah. He's up there on that ridge," Vin said disgustedly. From his tone and their location Chris knew the shooter picked a spot far enough away for a handgun to reach him.

The lack of sleep and being shot at panicked Billy, who said, "Hey! Let go!"

Noticing the shooter leave Vin relaxed and told Chris, "He's gone."

"No, he's not! He's going to kill her!" Billy protested.

Confused Chris asked, "Who?"

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

Chris didn't hesitate to pull Billy into his embrace, giving him security and comfort. Stroking Billy's back Chris said, "All right, all right. All right."

Chris never questioned Billy about the devil, he just took the boy at his word. Feeling he was believed helped Billy relax. Once Chris got Billy calmed down, Chris and Vin discussed what to do next.

"You take Billy back to his Ma and I'll go scout around up on the hill," Vin told Chris. Neither man wanted to split up with a shooter out there but they both knew it would be for the best. The look they gave each other promised whoever was behind this would regret the day he attacked a little boy.

Chris mounted Pony, holding the reins aside while Vin handed Billy up to sit in front of Chris. Reaching out the two men clasps arms, Chris saying, "Watch your back."

Vin nodded and smiled letting Chris know Vin was hoping he would run it the shooter so he could teach the man a little something about terrorizing people.

JD, Josiah, and Ezra had made the loop Vin had instructed them to do, returning to town empty handed they could only hope one of the other groups had been more successful. Seeing Mary still pacing outside of the Clarion told them Buck and Nathan were also unsuccessful. Mary stopped pacing for a minute when she saw them, starting again as soon as she saw they didn't have Billy.

Ezra had gone to check on Maude and Josiah was in the church. JD and Buck were keeping a vigil watching for Chris and Vin to return. A young woman walked up the boardwalk. JD greeted her, "Good evening, ma'am. My name's JD Dunne. What's your name?"

She walked right by JD as if he wasn't even there, only to greet Buck warmly, "Evening, Buck."

Buck saw the look of disgust JD gave him and decided he should reconsider his plans to wait with JD.

Mary was relieved when she saw Chris returning to town with Billy. Chris rode right up to her, handing Billy down to her waiting embrace before dismounting himself. Chris caught JD's eye and with nothing but a look let JD know to go get Nathan.

"Vin?" Mary asked.

"Ran into to trouble on the trail," Chris explained. "He's checking it out."

Chris guided Mary and Billy to the living quarters above the newspaper office. Soon they were joined by Nathan who did is best to check out Billy who was sitting in Mary's lap.

Mary filled Chris and Nathan in on Steven's death. "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."

Chris believed Billy's tormentor was related to Steven's death so wanted to know as much as he could. "Anyone you can think of that would've wanted your husband dead?"

Mary didn't hesitate to reply, "Well, Steven upset a lot of people with his newspaper. He fought for the truth; published it."

Nathan was living in town when Steven was murdered, he added, "I remember afterwards, there was an investigation."

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

Chris thought it was more likely they had been around the whole time so he said, "Or never left."

Nathan calmly tried to ask Billy for some information, "Son... now, I know this is hard for you But I have to ask-- did you see anything that night?"

Billy just buried his head deeper in Mary's chest. Mary tried too, "Billy, please, we can't hide from this anymore."

All Billy would say was, "The devil's going to get us."

Mary tried to reassure him, "No. No. I won't let them, honey. Just talk to me." Billy turned his head into Mary's shoulder making it clear he wasn't going to say anything else.

Mary sighed not knowing how to help her son. Chris patted Billy's leg said, "Get some sleep, maybe things will look clearer in the morning."

Maude was waiting in Ezra's room when he got back. Wearily Ezra began to remove his outdoor wear. Maude looked at him and said, "I understand they found the boy."

"Yeah, scared out of his wits but we found him," Ezra replied.

"Poor boy. You've ingratiated yourself quite well with this town."

Ezra was wary of her motives so held back on offering too much information. "I've made a few acquaintances, nothing more."

Thinking she had Ezra's attention because he wanted to join her Maude began to tell him her plans, "A position rife with opportunity Wouldn't you say? I found the perfect mark-- a Mr. Wheeler owns the hotel. In fact he and I are spending this very evening together."

"Really?" Ezra added, playing it cool.

Convinced he was on board with her Maude continued, "We'll use the same con we pulled in Chicago. You know, the cotton gin investment."

Maude was surprised when Ezra said, "No."

"Excuse me?" she asked.

Not wanting there to be any doubt Ezra said, "I said no. Is that clear? The answer is no."

Maude wasn't ready to give up so she tried again, "Now, now..."

Trying to explain Ezra told her, "Listen, mother, I've got this town believing that they can trust me to protect it from people like you... hell, from people like me."

"I thought that protection job was just a front," Maude challenged.

"Well, of course it is," Ezra declared.

Unfortunately for Ezra Maude was not easily conned, she saw through him saying, "Now, you haven't gone and joined the ranks of the employed, have you? Now, that would be undignified. Ezra... Ezra... What a waste of your god-given gifts. I raised you better than that." Years of anger filled Ezra as he snapped back, "R-raised me? Did you say raised me? Come on, now, mother. You didn't raise me as well as, uh... as a stray cat raises a litter. You-you dumped me. Remember? At every aunt and uncle's house you could find. Unless, of course, you needed me... for a con."

"I taught you a trade. I did the best I could. I'm sorry if it wasn't good enough," Maude defended before rising and leaving him alone in the room.

Ezra sat on the bed thinking about what had happened, he knew that he and Maude would never have an openly loving relationship but they did love each other. He felt both better and remorse about what he had said to her. Better because he had finally told her how he felt, remorse because he had seen the hurt look on her face that his words caused. He had a feeling this was the start of a new relationship for them, one as equals rather than mother and son.

Part 4

In the saloon Vin and Chris were filling in Josiah on what he had found out about the shooter. "Satan's up to his old tricks again, eh?" Josiah said as he sharpened his knife.

Vin pulled out the cartridge shell he found from the shooter's position and added, "Yep. And apparently, he's using a .44 these days."

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

Chris wasn't convinced that Billy couldn't tell them who it was, Billy just need to get past his fear and into his memories. Thinking that could happen Chris added, "Yet."

Chris had already told them how Steven was killed and his suspicions that it was related so Vin knew what Chris was thinking. Vin didn't think they had time to wait for that to happen so he asked, "So, how we going to flush this guy out?"

"Could put an advert in Mary's newspaper," Josiah joked.

"You know... advertising might not be a bad idea." Chris said with a smirk.

Vin saw the light in Chris' eyes and knew he was going to like Chris' plan. A sly grin crossed his face as he asked, "What 'cha planning?"

Looking around the room Chris said, "Get the others and met me at the jail."

Once they were at the jail Chris told them his idea. They spent the next hour fine tuning it, adding suggestions and working out the details. By the time they finished all Seven of them left with a smile on their faces, knowing the devil wasn't going to know what hit him.

The next morning they began their plan. Everyone was in position for a carefully orchestrated series of events all designed to flush out the devil.

They had chosen the parts well as JD made an excellent town crier, he walked up to Buck and Josiah, saying loudly, "Hey, Buck, Josiah. Did you hear that Mrs. Travis and the boy are leaving?"

Acting shocked Josiah asked, "Already?"

JD knew not to overplay it so he simply said, "Yep."

Josiah was also a perfect choice for the advertisement as he said, "I thought he was planning on staying for a month."

Buck joined in by calling out to Nathan who was walking by, "Hey, Nathan, did you hear the Travis boy's leaving?"

Nathan joined the others adding, "Billy? He leaving already?"

Again JD kept it simple saying, "Yep."

Josiah made it look natural as he questioned, "You know what made him change his mind, JD?"

JD was enjoying himself very much as he replied, "I'm not for sure but I imagine the scare he got in this town helped."

The four men started on their way to watch the stage leave. Josiah added, "Tough world."

Vin was escorting Mary and Billy to the stage, he kept a wary eye out while playing the role of friend saying goodbye. Once they reached the stage Vin helped Billy in saying, "You have a nice trip, pard. Mrs. Travis. Billy when you get home..."

Mr Elliot stopped what he was doing to watch the scene playing out before him. Getting the attention of the man with him he said, "Look here."

Billy was safely inside the stage as Vin finishing saying, "...I want you to write me a letter about how many jack rabbits you saw."

Vin turned to Mary, taking her elbow he helped her in to the stage coach too. Before she boarded Mary looked around saying, "Thank you. Thanks to all of you."

JD was waving as the stage drove off, hollering, "Bye now. Bye, Billy! Have a safe trip! Say hi to the Judge for me, will you?! Bye, Mrs. Travis! Bye-bye!"

He was still waving when Buck came up and whispered in his ear, "Hey. They're gone."

"Oh," JD replied.

"Let's go," Buck told him as they left town to put the second part of their plan into action.

Josiah and Nathan stayed in town while Vin, Buck, and JD rode out of town the opposite direction from the one the stage coach took. Once they were out of sight of town Vin led them over to intercept the slow moving stage.

The stage driver pulled to a stop under the cover of trees. Vin walked out from the shadows leading Pony. "Boys," he said nodding at the driver and Chris who was climbing out of the coach.

"Vin," Chris acknowledged as he took Pony's reins from Vin. "Watch your backs."

It only took a matter of minutes for the next part of their plan to be set up and the stage on the road again.

Back out in the open the stage rolled along the driver hollering, "Hyah! Git! Hyah!"

The sound a rifle being fired had the driver pulling back on the horses, suddenly two men rode down from the hills in an obvious attempt to stop the stage. One of the men yelled, "Hold it, there."

The driver started to slow down the stage coach yelling back, "Don't shoot. Whoa!"

The two bandits kept up with the stage coach yelling, "Hold it up, there. Hold up."

The driver slowly was complying with their request telling the horses, "Whoa!"

Getting impatient the bandits yelled again, "Hold up that coach."

Coming to a stop the stage coach driver turned in his seat saying, "Whoa! You boys lookin' to rob me?"

One of the bandits stayed on his horse while the other moved to the stage snarling, "Shut up, old man," as he pulled open the door to the coach.

The bandit was surprised when instead of Mary and Billy he was greeted by Buck pointing a gun in his face, Buck smiled an evil smile and said, "Hey."

The cock of a gun alerted the other bandit to look at the stage driver, it was Ezra holding a double barreled shotgun at him. The cover on the luggage opened as Vin sat up gun ready and the look on his face told them he wouldn't hesitate to shot. Finally any hope the bandits had was lost when JD stuck his head out from the luggage holder on the back pointing both his guns at them. The bandits surrendered without a fight. Knowing the situation was under control Mary jumped out of the stage coach landing on the closest bandit screaming, "A child! A little boy! What kind of animals are you?! God!" Mary was hitting the man with each word, her anger finally having a target.

Buck followed her out of the stage and attempted to grab one of her flying arms to pull her off, calmly saying, "Ma'am..."

The bandit was trying to protect himself from Mary's blows, he begged, "Get her off of me."

Buck finally pulled Mary back, all the while she was yelling, "No! No!"

Buck was able to calm her down enough to listen to him as he said, "Let's go."

Not able to resist one last shot when Buck let go of her Mary walked up to the bandit on the ground and kicked him one last time exclaiming, "That was for Billy."

None of the men felt any sympathy for the man on the ground, feeling anyone who would attack a small child deserved anything he got. Buck snarled at him, "Get up."

While Vin and the others were capturing the bandits Chris had Billy with him. The plan was for the others to find out who was behind the attacks on Billy while Chris protected Billy. Opening the door to the homestead Chris said, "We're going to stay here in your old house until your ma gets back. It's safe, Billy."

Billy stood in the doorway, memories of the day his father died flashed into his head. He remembered his father saying, "You're making a mistake."

Billy remembered the man struggling with his father and a pocket watch the man was wearing. He thought about the man telling his father, "Keep your nose out of our business."

Then his father saying, "Don't do this, Frank."

Billy snapped out of the memory when Chris squatted down in front of him 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 was still scared but he knew this man would keep him safe so he swallowed down his fears to join Chris in the house.

Meanwhile the others had started their plan to find out who was behind Billy's troubles. They had both men tied up, one they tied a rope around his ankles and gagged him. Then they pulled the rope around his ankles over a branch and Vin told JD and Ezra, "All right, string him up!"

JD was on horseback, while watching the bandit he backed his horse up saying to his horse, "Back up boy. Back up. Come on, bring him up, Boys." Slowly he lifted the bandit until the man was hanging upside down from the tree.

Vin turned away to laugh as they heard the bandits muffled talking. The bandit couldn't see but they had Ezra behind the tree. Bracing on leg against the tree Ezra held the rope as JD moved his horse forward allowing some slack in the line.

In the bandits field of vision was Mary with his partner. He watched in dismay at they let the woman who was so angry lead his friend off with a rifle in her hands. He felt a little relief when he heard Buck say, "Hey. Hey. We're not going to leave her alone with him, are we?"

His relief was short lived with he heard the long haired man they called Vin reply, "I ain't going to argue with her." He stopped worrying about his friend all together when Vin turned back and walked up to him. Even hanging upside down they had him up high enough that his head was even with theirs.

Vin grabbed the bandits shoulder and spun him. Vin's eyes bored into the bandit's as he said, "Now, you look like a smart feller. How many times we going to have to drop you on your head before your neck breaks?"

Vin swung the bandit over to Buck as he walked away a huge smile on his face. Buck took over to add his own brand of intimidation by saying, "Now, Mister, I know you're not from around here but only a fool takes money from a stranger to do a killing. Now, I know you're not a fool, are you?"

Vin smirked at the bandits muffled groaning before he said, "Huh?!" Looking over in the direction Mary took the other bandit Vin said, "Maybe we should ask his friend."

Buck also turned adding, "Yeah. Let's ask his friend."

The sound of a gunshot had the bandit yelling, unfortunately for him with the gag all they could hear was muffled sounds. Vin struggled to keep the humor out of his voice as he said, "Well, too late for that."

At this point Vin and Buck were on either side of the bandit. The teamed up on him spinning him toward the one who was talking at the time. Buck asked him, "Now, we don't need A name, son but we do need a description."

Vin added to it saying, "Just a little description."

Vin pushed the bandit back to Buck who said, "I can't hear a word this boy's saying. Can you?"

Buck pushed him back to Vin who said, "No."

It was obvious to everyone, except the bandit, that Vin and Buck were having a great time terrorizing the bandit. JD wanted in on the fun, he piped up saying, "Maybe you should try your animal maggotism on him, Buck."

Buck sneered into the bandits face as he answered JD, "It's animal magnetism, boy. And you can plainly see it only works on the ladies."

Ezra interrupted their fun by saying, "Gentlemen, if I may, this sack of manure is getting heavy."

Vin looked over at Ezra and nodded, Ezra dropped the rope letting the bandit fall to just inches about the ground. The sounds of laughter and muffled yelling filled the air.

JD had pulled the screaming bandit back up again. Buck spun the bandit around to look him in face before gleefully saying, "Whoo, that was lucky! You ready to start talking now?"

Vin reached out to hold one of the bandit's shoulders while Buck grabbed the other side and removed the gag. The bandit hardly took a breath before he started talking, "Whatever you want to know. What he looked like... What he wore, drank... I swear. Just let me down. Please, let me down."

Laughing Vin and Buck held the bandit's head while JD slowly moved his horse forward which lowered the man to the ground. Leaving him tied up, in case he needed another lesson they calmly let the bandit tell them his story.

Part 5

At the Travis homestead Chris and Billy were whittling to pass the time. Chris smiled as he looked up at Billy saying, "You're pretty good at that. Your pa teach you? Bet you miss him a lot, huh? Billy... it wasn't your fault."

Billy was ashamed at he admitted to Chris, "I was scared. Bet you've never been scared."

Chris was quick to reassure Billy there was nothing wrong with being scared. He looked Billy in the eye and said, "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."

Billy thought about what Chris had said, he couldn't explain it but this man telling him it was all right soothed his wounded heart. Billy stood up and walked across to sit next to Chris taking comfort in the man's strength.

Chris smiled down at Billy, sensing a slight change. Not wanting to push Billy back into silence Chris let it drop and the two resumed their whittling.

After the bandit told them all he could Vin gathered the others up and made some plans. It didn't take them long to map out their strategy then load everyone up in the stage to go back to town and put their new plan into action.

Mr Elliot was outside his bank when his daughter Virginia drove up in the buggy. "Afternoon," he told her.

"Sorry I'm late, papa. You sell Mrs. Travis' house?" Virginia replied.

Not thinking about he answered, "Not yet."

"I'm afraid she's got some squatters," Virginia reported.

"Squatters?" Mr Elliot questioned.

"I passed it on my way out here. I think I saw someone go inside," Virginia told him.

"Well, I'll send somebody out..." Mr Elliot started to tell her only to be distracted by the stage coming back with the town peacekeepers and Mary on it.

Buck pulled the bandits out of the stage saying, "Let's go. Come on!"

"Lock 'em up, Boys," Vin ordered.

Mr Elliot knew he had to deal with the new developments so he told Virginia, "You go on home without me."

Curious Virginia asked, "Where you going, Papa?"

Mr Elliot had no time to spare on her saying, "You just go on."

Virginia was confused saying, "But Mama said..."

"Go!" Mr Elliot ordered her before turning to the guard next to him to ask, "Is the boy with them?"

Without looking away from the scene at the jail the guard replied, "Don't look like it."

Remembering what Virginia had said about squatters Mr Elliot had a good idea where to find Billy Travis. "Get Jack and Willie. Meet me at the old Travis place at 10:00," he ordered.

Maude was in the saloon with Mr Wheeler, still stinging from Ezra's comments the night before she complained, "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?"

Mr Wheeler replied, "Well, I wouldn't know, ma'am. I never had any."

Maude went back into flirting mode saying, "Smart man. And good-looking. It's a deadly combination."

Ezra walked up to the bar, stopping next to Maude he said, "Bartender! A whiskey, if you please. Well, we saved him. He's safe and sound."

Pouting Maude asked, "Saved who?"

Ezra snapped back, "The Travis boy."

"Well, bully for you, Ezra. Now you can return him to the mother who cares," Maude told him snidely.

Ezra laughed a humorless laugh before saying harshly, "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."

Mr Wheeler was feeling uncomfortable with the tension in the room, thinking leaving would be good he said, "Perhaps... I should be going."

Ezra stopped him by saying, "No, no. Don't bother. I'm the one who's going."

Maude couldn't resist getting in one last dig. "Where? To protect some little lost kitten?" she said laughing at her joke.

Ezra also smiled, then his face grew cold as he told her, "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..."

Another man from the saloon heard Ezra's statement and grunted in agreement, "Uh-huh."

Ignoring the man Ezra finished, "...and rip his throat out."

Maude who was less than pleased added, "How pleasant."

"Well, then... I won't invite you to watch," Ezra told her as he left.

Several men in the saloon had overheard the conversation. Maude heard one say, "Good idea. They shouldn't be doing that." More of the men voiced their support for the peacekeepers. Maude turned back to Mr Wheeler voicing her disgust, "Vultures. Please don't feel obliged to stay. I just don't fancy watching a man being dismembered."

Mr Wheeler seemed nervous when he repeated chokingly, "Di... dis-membered?"

Maude was almost gleeful as she explained to him, using hand motions, what mobs could do. "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."

Mr Wheeler swallowed nervously excusing himself, "Excuse me, ma'am, but I really do have to go."

Maude smiled charmingly at as she said, "Well, certainly, Mr. Wheeler."

"Call of nature," Mr Wheeler said as he walked past Maude.

Mr Wheeler quickly walked out the back door only to come to a dead stop when he saw Vin Tanner blocking his path with a very unhappy look on his face. Turning to go another direction, he stopped again because Josiah was there asking, "Going somewhere?"

Again he turned to return to the saloon he found that entrance blocked by Maude and Ezra. Not being a slow man he realized he had been conned. "It was all an act in there, wasn't it? Uh, this is a mistake. Uh... you've got it all wrong," Mr Wheeler said trying to save himself.

Vin's look held no compassion for the man, only contempt as he growled, "Why are you running?"

Mr Wheeler knew he had no chance with Vin Tanner so he tried to appeal to Mary Travis who was standing slightly behind Vin. "Mary... It-it wasn't my idea. I-I had to go along with it. I had no choice," Mr Wheeler said, his voice cracking as Mary just stared at him.

Josiah answered for her, "You always got a choice."

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

Vin summed it up saying, "So you killed him."

Mr Wheeler turned back to Vin and Mary, desperate for them to understand, "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."

Vin saw the pain on Mary's face as she turned and walked away, never saying a word. Grabbing on to Mr Wheeler, Vin snarled, "I'm about to land you in a shallow grave. Now, you'd best tell me who your partner is and where we can find him."

There was no doubt at all in Mr Wheeler's mind that Vin Tanner would kill him if he didn't tell them everything he knew. Like the bandit earlier in the day Mr Wheeler told them all he knew. When he was through Vin shoved him to Josiah saying, "Lock 'em up." Vin knew they better go check on Chris and Billy. Heading toward the stable he said, "Let's ride."

Billy was sleeping peacefully while Chris kept watch. His time spent with Billy brought back memories of another little boy. Chris' eyes filled with unshed tears as he though about the last time he saw Sarah and Adam, Sarah mouthing "I love you" as he rode out with Buck.

A creaking sound pulled Chris from his memories. Chris managed to dive over Billy just as a gunshot broke the stillness of the night. Chris groaned as the bullet pierced his arm.

Chris heard a man say, "Go around the side." Groaning Chris managed to throw the lamp at the front door, starting it on fire and preventing them from using it to enter the house.

Chris was paying close attention to the voices outside, only a little surprised when he heard Mr Elliot say, "He'll have to come out of there now." Chris never did think much of the man and wasn't at all surprised he was involved.

He also heard a voice he didn't recognize saying, "It's going to burn down."

Chris knew to stay in the house was suicide so groaning he stood up and said, "Come on, Billy. Come on." Leading Billy out the back door Chris added, "Billy, we're going to have to make a run for the barn, all right? You ready? Go, Billy, go! Go! Stay down! Don't stop, Billy. Run, Billy! The barn, Billy!"

Mr Elliot wasn't happy that the men he had brought with him weren't able to handle Chris. He hollered at them, "They're in the barn! Get up. Damn you."

Once in the barn Chris lifted Billy onto Pony's back. Billy realized Chris was going to stay behind to protect him but Billy didn't want that so he said, "But I want to stay with you."

Chris reassured him the best could saying, "You'll be all right. Keep your head down. Ride as fast as you can, Billy, go!"

Chris took a minute to reload his gun before he came out of the barn firing his gun, hoping to distract the men from Billy's escape. Dropping behind the water trough Chris groaned but kept firing until his gun was empty.

Mr Elliot watched Chris struggle trying to reload his gun. Thinking the man was unarmed made him bold. "Hold it! I got him," he hollered to the others before sneering at Chris, "You should have stayed out of this."

Chris was still trying to load his gun, his injured arm slowing him down. He heard a gun cock and saw the evil look on Mr Elliot's face as he prepared to shoot. Suddenly Billy cried, "No!" as he rode Pony into Mr Elliot knocking him down.

Billy got off Pony and ran to Chris, who knew they were still in trouble so he pulled Billy down saying, "Get down! Get down!"

Chris peeked over the side of the water trough and saw one of Elliot's men coming at him. A familiar gunshot fired, the man dropped to reveal Vin mounted on Peso behind him.

Ezra and Josiah stopped another of Elliot's men, Ezra saying, "Drop it."

JD also helped, yelling, "Hey!" before his man surrendered.

Mr Wheeler was struggling to reach his gun when Buck approached, growling at him, "That's enough."

Mary came running out of the darkness calling, "Billy!"

"Mommy...?" Billy answered.

Clutching him to her Mary said softly, "It's all right, sweetheart. You're safe now. It's all right, Billy."

Nathan was next to Chris saying, "Let me see that arm, Chris."

Billy looked over at Mr Elliot, he saw the pocket watch from his nightmares making a light chime tinkling. He knew that watch, standing Billy walked toward the man, he pointed at Mr Elliot and said, "He killed my father."

"It's over, Billy. He'll pay for what he did," Chris promised.

A few days later Ezra was escorting Maude back to the stage to leave town. Wanting to apologize Ezra said, "Listen, Mother... about some of the things that were said the other night, I..."

As they walked up to Buck sleeping Maude interrupted Ezra saying, "Good-bye, Buck."

Buck startled awake, wiped his mouth and tipped his hat said, "Oh! Now, Ma'am, you have yourself a good trip."

Maude smiled saying, "Thank you." Sniffing the air she said, "What's that smell?" "Smell?" Buck asked.

"Like animal, or something," Maude replied. Leaning towards Buck she sniffed again before adding, "P.U.! Well, it was nice meeting you."

Ezra and Maude walked off leaving Buck looking perplexed as he sniffed at himself. Ezra asked Maude, "What on earth was all that about?"

"Nothing. Now, what were you saying?" Maude replied.

Trying again Ezra spoke up, "Well, I just wanted to say with all that's going on I just didn't want you to feel as though I feel..."

He was interrupted again by JD this time, who handed Maude some money saying, "Thank you, ma'am."

Maude took the money replying, "Don't mention it. Yes?"

"Well, although harsh words were spoken I want you to know that, uh... in my heart..." Ezra tried again only to have Josiah interrupt him next.

Josiah's obvious affection for Maude led him to say, "Uh, ma'am. I do believe I'll die if you leave."

Ezra leaned over to whisper in Maude's ear, "Penniless."

Maude smiled a charming smile as she told Josiah, "So nice to meet you," then turned back to Ezra, "I'm sorry, darling."

Ezra gave up and just said, "Well, I... I just want you to... Take care of yourself."

Maude kissed his cheek saying, "I always do, Son. Good-bye."

Ezra kissed her back saying, "Good-bye."

Josiah walked up to stand by Ezra and watch her walk off. "Extraordinary woman," he commented.

"Oh, yes, indeed," Ezra replied.

Walking up to the stage Maude said, "Now, you be careful with that luggage! That's genuine French leather."

Billy came running out of the Clarion office pulling Mary with him as he said, "Come on, Ma. Chris said we should start early."

"I'm coming, I'm coming. Lord, the fish aren't going anywhere," Mary told him as he pulled her down the street.

Billy was too excited about going fishing with his hero to notice adding, "You know what else he said? He said he'd take me hunting, too."

"Just remember, Mr. Larabee has an injured arm," Mary cautioned.

Billy laughed it off saying, "Chris don't care. He says it's just a scratch."

Chris sat on Pony waiting for Billy, his arm was in a sling and he had fishing poles with him. Once Billy got to his side Chris reached down his good arm to lift Billy up in front of him. "Billy, you ready? On three, now. One... two... three! Leg over. Attaboy!"

The Mom in Mary made her say, "Just be careful, Honey."

"I know, Ma. I'm not a baby," Billy answered.

Turning Pony to ride out to the fishing hole, Chris said, "Come on, boy."

Mary stood in the street for awhile watching them ride out of sight. She wasn't the only person watching. Vin Tanner looked up from his place in front of the jail, where he was sipping coffee just as he had when Billy and Maude first arrived in town. He watched Chris and Billy ride out, smiling as he thought about the events of the last few days.

Vin had enjoyed meeting Maude, the more time he spent with her the less he believed her stories but they sure were entertaining to listen to, especially the ones about Ezra. Since they had arrested Mr Wheeler and Mr Elliot Billy was like a new boy, laughing and playing. Chris also seemed a little more relaxed, more at peace. Vin was convinced Chris and Billy had been good for each other, they helped the other heal some wounds and both came out of it happier people.

Vin had thought tricking Wickes was fun, heck getting those bandits to confess was even better. Vin chuckled at the memories of the bandit's face when they dropped him. Yep, he thought deciding to stay in this town and join the others had been a good one. It gave him a warm feeling to look around and see how the town was slowly changing from being scared rabbits to people who were proud of their town.

Sipping his coffee Vin pondered on his fellow peacekeepers, since his bounty he'd avoided making friends. It felt good to have friends again, he hadn't realized how much he missed friends until he found these men to stand next to him. Vin didn't know what the future would bring but for now, living here with his six friends, life was very good.

The End