PROLOGUE

(1 year after Serenity Valley)

The midmorning sun cast long shadows across the damp, green fields of White Hall. Mold grew up the sides of the low, stone fences that covered the countryside for miles. Fresh rains prompted an early spring and colorful flowers dotted the hillside. The sheep were grazing in the highlands, soon to be herded downhill for shearing. The town of New Glasgow went about its business of producing more wool than food and the city council met again to fruitlessly discuss methods of protecting the sheep from hungry vagrants.

At a small ranch about five miles from town, crouched between a low fence and a shady lean-to meant for picnics, Jayne Cobb's black boots trampled the fresh spring grass. His steely blue eyes scanned the green hills, his stomach twisting in fear. Just beyond the stone fence his adversaries took cover in a barn. They were confident and beginning to encroach on his position. The loose stones of the fence offered little in the way of protection and rising only three feet, kept him uncomfortably stooped.

Jayne cast a sidelong glance at his cousin who, being pixyishly small, found the fence ample cover. Her hazel eyes met his, her determination lending him strength. They were surrounded. Clutching his Mauser automatic pistol, he checked the location of the five men again as they took strategic positions at the doors of the barn. His cousin held a rifle to her chest; it looked almost comical next to her small frame. Her gaze was fixed on the strongest of the five.

"That one," she said, indicating the burly man, next to whom even the 6'4" Jayne seemed dwarfed.

"Shouldn't we take out the Captain?" Jayne asked. He was new to this kind of situation. The Captain with his Cofer revolver—an antique at best—looked like an easy target to start with.

His cousin shook her head, brown locks rustling. "Captain's depending on the strength of that guy right there. We take him out, the rest will retreat."

Jayne nodded, seeing the logic. They both shifted behind the fence to get better aim. Then a glint caught in the corner of Jayne's eye. "Wait," he whispered hoarsely. He squinted at the mountain top, making sure his eyes were not cheating him. The lean-to partially obstructed his view, but there could be no doubt. "There's a sniper up there."

His cousin didn't look, just accepted. For a moment, he worried her trust was misplaced. "Six to two," she said, her lips curling into a smile at the adventure. "Jantis must have been really mad. He sent six men to kill you."

"Kill me? Naw, they came to kill you," Jayne joked, trying to keep his fear from showing. She was playing with him, trying to keep him at ease.

"You pulled the job," she said.

"Your name is on it! I could disappeared right now, these men would kill you and think they got their man." Jayne shifted, uneasily, wishing he could disappear. Still, his cousin's adventurous smile made the whole situation thrilling.

"You'd do that, Jayne?" his cousin asked with mock innocence. "You'd leave me here to take the rap for this?"

"Course not," Jayne said quickly, getting concerned about the passage of time. Every second that went by, he knew the sniper was maneuvering for a better shot. He shifted the Mauser from his right hand to his left, then back again. He had no shot from this position; and despite his cousin's confidence, he was getting tenser with each moment.

"Now what do we do?" Jayne asked.

"Take the rifle," she answered, holding out her weapon to trade.

"What?"

"Jayne, we've been sharp shooting since we were kids. You can hit that sniper."

"What if I miss?"

"You won't miss," she said confidently. "We go on three."

Jayne took the rifle tentatively, handing her his pistol

"One." Jayne set up his shot.

"Two." The sniper aimed his weapon.

"Three!" Before he could think, Jayne let off the shot and the sniper fell. His cousin simultaneously took out the large gunman. The two then sprang from behind the fence, weapons at ready, but the other four men were already dashing toward New Glasgow, firing rounds over their shoulders as they went. Within minutes, the gunfire ceased and the farm was quiet.

"Whoa!" Jayne whooped, running a circle around his cousin. She remained cautiously crouched, one ear toward the wind. She approached the dead gunman—the only evidence of the standoff. Jayne picked up the man's gun—a Callahan, customized somehow. He ran one hand along the barrel, breathing deeply the scent of victory. His cousin's voice cut the excitement with dreadful calm.

"Jayne, take the shuttle and get yourself out of here. Now."

Although confused, Jayne complied and headed into the highlands where they had hidden the shuttle. Realizing that his cousin had not followed, he turned back. "You're not coming?"

"I'll find another way. Now go!"

Jayne hesitated. "I don't get it. They're gone. We win!"

When she didn't move, he trotted back to her side. Her attention was on everything and nothing at once. Jayne paused and listened, trying to find whatever sound may have her on alert. He pulled her into the barn, the only sure cover he could find.

"What's going on?" he whispered.

She leaned against the wall of the barn, nearly disappearing into the shadows. "I didn't tell you this earlier, because I wanted your head clear. He's killed my family."

"He – what?—who?—all of them?—who?" Jayne sputtered, unable to complete any thought.

"Jantis," she said slowly. "Jantis has found all of them. My parents. My siblings. Nieces. Nephews. All of them are dead."

Jayne saw a tear glisten in his cousin's eye. His mind was reeling at the thought of his aunt, uncle, and cousins dead. He wasn't sure how to respond.

"Jantis won't stop looking for me," she continued. "If he finds out that you're connected to this job, he'll kill you too. And your family. Uncle Frank I wouldn't mind, but Aunt Judy…"

The two managed a weak chuckle at the joke.

"You have to go."

Jayne nodded, still trying to process the information. He failed. He offered her the Callahan as a good-bye, but she shook her head.

"Keep it. You've earned it. Ditch the Mauser, though. They'll know you by your piece."

"You're going to disappear aren't you? I'll never see you again." His attempt to not be emotional was met with only moderate success.

"It's a small 'verse," she answered with a smile. "You get good enough at tracking, you can find anyone or anything you want."

"Then I'll become the best damn tracker this 'verse has ever seen," Jayne vowed.

Her attention was gone again, listening for enemies. "Good," she said, distantly. "That's a marketable skill. But don't keep too close tabs. Remember, the goal is to stay alive. Now go!"

Jayne poked his head out of the barn looking for adversaries. The coast was clear. "Where are you going?" he asked her.

"To track down Jantis. Kill him before he kills me."

"Good luck," Jayne said with a wink and a smile, taking her cue and accepting this new danger as an adventure. She returned his smile with a mischievous one of her own.

"Who needs luck when you have mad skills like me?"

With that, the two left the barn. Jayne headed for the highlands, his cousin for town.

"Enjoy your gun!" she called.

"If anyone asks, you ain't part of this story," he replied, holding the Callahan in the air.

She turned away from him and broke into a run and murmured, "Good man."

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