Chapter 6

Damn. Damn. Damn. The twists and turns of the canyons pushed Kaylee's piloting abilities to the maximum. Careful now. Flexing her cramped fingers, she tried to ease the ache that settled over her hands that was the result of her near death grip that she held on the steering column. As she realized she was hunched uncomfortablely over the controls, she took a deep steadying breath and straightened. Her mind conjured an image of smiling Wash.

She slowed the shuttle down to as slow as it could go and still remain airborne. What's that noise? Her attention was briefly diverted from the danger of the tricky terrain as she sensed something off in the deceleration. She hadn't flown the shuttle for a long time and she couldn't help but notice the slight imperfections in the flight performance. Can't think about that now. After this mess was settled she'd tend to it. After they found Simon and Inara.

"I know. I know," Kaylee said, cautiously accelerating. Focus. You can fix the shuttle later. Kaylee concentrated on only flying trying her best not to get distracted by her diagnostic evaluation of the shuttle's performance.

"I could…" River was dying to take charge of the shuttle's controls.

"I'm sure you could, sweetie." But you're doped up. Sure, not as much as night. Last night, Kaylee acutely felt the absence of Simon. Kaylee glanced over at River hoping she wouldn't sense her fear of River life without Simon.

She heard River's sharp intake and realized she was heading for a canyon wall. She turned sharply, over correcting so she had to turn again to get straight.

"How much farther?" Kaylee asked, not looking at River again.

"At this speed?" River teased before looking down at the nav. "We're almost there. I can't tell you exactly how many minutes away because you keep varying the speed."

"I ain't goin' faster."

River started to speak but Kaylee shushed her. "Don't want to hear it. I know you're a fine pilot but-"

"There it is!" River exclaimed, pointing out the window.

They flew into a wide clearing. As expected, there was no sign of Shuttle One. Kaylee had tried every possible method of locating the shuttle but all homing devices on board had been disabled. She hated the sense of déjà vu that crept over her as she guided the shuttle around the valley.

"There's something ahead!" River unbuckled the seatbelt, leaning forward to see better out the window. "Stop here!"

River jumped up and waited by the hatch as Kaylee set down the shuttle. Once on the ground, River opened the door, running outside. Kaylee stepped out of the shuttle but couldn't walk any further. From where she stood, she could easily see the bodies on the ground.

Kaylee stood frozen outside the shuttle. "I'm gettin' awful tired of coming across dead people."

River ran back to her. She looked happy. "They're not here! That's good. They're not here! No dead Simon. No dead Inara. Unless..."

Kaylee held up her hand. "No unless. Let's just hang on to that good bit o' news." Kaylee walked around examining the people for herself and felt guilty about her relief. "Guess Simon and Inara put up a good fight."

River's face scrunched in disbelief. "Do you really think they killed all these people?"

"Some… I hope." Picturing Simon and Inara as deft warriors was comforting. They could do it, she reasoned, they were plenty smart. But not exactly great shots.

River hopped down onto a small ledge to look over the landscape. "What do you think is in there?" She pointed toward the mass of trees that poked up out of the canyon.

Kaylee looked disinterestedly down the ravine. "Trees and such. Let's not waste time sightseeing."

"Now what?" River asked, turning around to look earnestly at Kaylee.

Kaylee pushed away her sudden panic at being in charge. "Bet them rascals took the shuttle and them. We got to find the shuttle. We find the shuttle, we find Simon and Inara."

They walked back to Shuttle Two, taking care to steer clear of the bodies. Kaylee paused just before entering the shuttle. "Seems wrong to just leave 'em."

"It's none of our concern." River said, pulling her inside the shuttle.

"Oh, no!" Kaylee cried, once they closed the hatch behind them. "I just realized. They're awful pretty."

River's face looked appalled.

"Not them," Kaylee explained with a horrified look on her face.

River looked blankly at Kaylee.

Kaylee waved her hands dispelling her fears. "Nothing. "

"What's next on your plan?" River asked as she slid into the co-pilot's seat.

Kaylee looked out over the trees that popped up over the canyon. "Let's get back to Serenity and get the mule. We're going to town."

"We?" River couldn't keep the excitement from her voice.

"We." Kaylee nodded. She flipped the switch to power up the shuttle. "I think we need to try for a jail break."

Jayne had staked out his territory in front of the small cell window. If he stood at just the right spot, he could catch a small glimpse of the bordello across the street. If he stood on his tippy toes and craned his neck, he had a pretty good view of the bright red front door. Jayne invented a game where he would, by the looks of the lucky fellow, guess how long it would be until he emerged. If this were a betting game, he'd be winning. He didn't know why he tortured himself watching men walk in and out of that house of tasty but observing the satisfied faces of men engaging in late afternoon sport was sure better than having to give his attention to his cell mates.

Activity at the bordello seemed to wane as the heat rose. Tired of watching the tumbleweeds tumble down the street, Jayne left his post by the window to stroll around the cell. Stretching and popping joints, he swung his arms around disregarding the irritated snap coming from the captain's direction.

"Aimin' to fix up the place?" Jayne asked, pausing in front of where Mal rested on the cot idly leafing through a catalog. "Them pillows look to come in all kinds of colors."

Mal didn't look up as he flipped another page. "Go back to doing whatever you were doing."

"Being bored is what I was doing."

"We're in jail, Jayne, bored is the notion."

"Not in this jail," Jayne said. "Manny said they have games. Checkers, dominoes, battleship-."

"Ain't in the mood for games." Mal looked up giving Jayne his best 'shut the hell' up look.

Jayne frowned, his feelings a little hurt by the continued coldness of Mal and Zoe. He walked toward the bars separating Zoe's cell from his and Mal's.

"No," she said before he could say anything.

Easy for her seeing as she got her deck of cards and was enjoying her hundredth game of solitaire. Damn, if it weren't for these two he'd have a right pleasant stay in this jail. He lingered in front of the oscillating fan that had been placed on the floor outside their cells. The Law here was decent enough. They treated them with courtesy, provided comfortable beds and diversions. Plus, the cook was a fine one indeed - pancakes and sausage for breakfast, ham sandwiches for lunch. He looked forward to seeing what Manny cooked up for dinner. Any other time Jayne would have loved this jail and that was a fact he didn't hesitate to tell Manny when the deputy came for a visit.

But the interminable time between meals was nigh on unbearable. He didn't know how long Mal and Zoe would last with their ignoring each other. A fight was brewing that was a solid actuality. Jayne both dreaded and looked forward to when their tensions got the best of them.

He returned to his position by the window. Earlier, he'd caught sight of one of the cat house lovelies and, damn it all, she was just his type – pretty, curvy, long hair begging for a brush. And, she was not shy about displaying her ample wares.

"Hello!"

Jayne jumped a little at the sound of Kaylee's cheerful greeting. He stretched higher on his toes so he could look down outside the window. There she was smiling and waving at him.

"Get outta here!" he growled even though he was pleased to see a friendly face.

"How is everyone?"

"Shiny. What do you think?"

"Any chance of gettin' out soon?"

"Not unless you count three days as soon," he said before he shifted to make room for the cot Mal pushed against the wall.

"Kaylee, what are you doing?" Mal asked after hopping on the bunk. He glowered down at her.

"Just checkin' in, Cap'n."

"You go through the front door, you hear? We don't need more trouble."

Kaylee glanced around. "We're thinkin' about bustin' you out."

Jayne snorted. "Ya'll plannin' on breaking us out?" He laughed harder. "You and Simon and Inara and moonbrain break us out?"

"Ain't so stupid…" Kaylee straightened, offended by Jayne's laughter.

"Don't even think of doin' somethin' stupid," Zoe said. She had climbed up on the cot in her cell and was looking out her window.

"Yeah," Mal said. "That's a gorramn bona fide order. Kaylee, I don't cotton to stupid notions."

"Only when you're making them," Jayne muttered loudly.

"How 'bout I slip you some guns through the bars here?" Kaylee asked.

"Gee," Jayne drawled. "Bet no one never thought of that before."

Kaylee looked at the bars doubtfully. "These don't look like they're secured."

"Course they're secure. Don't let the lack of signage fool ya."

"Never been in a jail that didn't secure their windows," Mal said. "Where's everybody?"

Kaylee looked toward the town. "Around."

Mal nodded absently. "Kaylee, there is something you can do."

"Yeah?"

"Get Inara to wave our contacts. See if she can sweet talk them into getting us another meet."

"That will be difficult," River said, suddenly appearing underneath the window. Kaylee poked her in the back.

"What? Why?" Mal asked.

"Oh, Cap'n, don't pay her any mind. She's just answerin' a question I asked her on the way over."

"What'd you bring her to town for?" Jayne asked, suddenly suspicious. "Where's Simon and Inara?"

"We're trying to find -" River started.

"Something to do!" Kaylee interrupted River excitedly. Smiling brightly at Mal and Jayne, she put her arm around River's shoulders, pulling her close in a chummy hug. "Trying to find something to do is all. Simon and Inara are…browsing at the mercantile. But I'll tell Inara to wave them. You bet!" Her tone was bright but strained.

"Well, gather them up, get on the mule and get your asses back to the ship. No more trips to town, got that?"

"But—" River began. Kaylee hugged her close again shushing her.

"Whatever you say, Cap'n!" Kaylee gave River a stern look before waving goodbye.

"That was odd," Jayne observed. "They act peculiar to you?"

"Peculiar as in their offer to break us out of jail?" Zoe asked as she pushed her cot back against the far wall.

"Well, yeah," Jayne looked back out the window watching River and Kaylee walk away. Kaylee seemed to be chastising River. "Somethin's up."

"Ain't a thing we can do about whatever messes they make for themselves," Mal said with a quick look in Zoe's direction.

Zoe saw his look and straightened. "You got somethin' to say?"

Jayne held his breath as he waited for the inevitable confrontation. It was coming. He knew it. They knew it. Hell, the sheriff and deputies all knew.

But Mal just sat back down on his bunk and picked up the catalog. He leaned against the wall and lifted the jaunty colored mag so that it blocked his face.

Jayne sighed before looking back at his window. Wishing they'd just get it over with – the waiting was making his stomach ache. A loud group of young men were about to enter the whorehouse. He grinned, thinking on the fun those kids were going to have.

"Simon, let's stop here." They were the first words Inara had spoken to him in what felt like hours. "I think the sun is setting. There's fresh water and we can lean against the wall."

He squinted up, trying to see past the cover of trees. "I think you're right."

The night before, they quickly learned that once the light of the sun disappeared, the swamp fell into inky darkness. Simon had grasped Inara's hand, slowly feeling his way through the thigh high water until he found a dry spot. Dry wasn't even the right word; a less wet spot.

The rush of adrenaline that had sustained them after the fall into the ravine had worn off. They were so exhausted they lay on damp moss, falling asleep almost instantly. Inara couldn't remember the last time she had fallen asleep so fast. It was a deep, restful sleep and she's sure she would have woken up refreshed if it hadn't been for the snake.

The day went downhill from there. Inara had kept up a steady but slow pace behind Simon. Any enthusiastic walking, wading or trudging had been expended hours ago as they navigated through murky, smelly water that sometimes was ankle deep but other times waist deep. The only bright part of the journey was when they spotted a curve ahead. Each of them hoped that beyond the bend would be… something… anything except the seemingly endless swamp. Yet, each time they reached the bend all they found was more swamp.

The perpetual dimness was not helping her already depressed mood. Her skin was puckered, riddled with bumps left from insect bites. Her hair was dry but filthy and matted. And she was grouchy. Simon was, as usual, a perfect gentleman. Unfailingly polite, his courtesy and solicitousness was only succeeding in aggravating her further.

Glancing at Simon, she felt guilty for her day long snit.

"It smells better here. Cleaner," she commented as she looked around for a rock to sit on. Not finding anything adequate, Inara sank down on the damp ground.

"I no longer notice the smell." Simon, too, looked around trying to find a good place to rest.

"Then you're lucky." Despite everything, if she was to be lost in a swamp with someone, Simon was the best someone she could think of. She shuddered to think what the experience would be like with Jayne. Or Mal. She laughed to herself thinking of the many romantic stories about a man and a woman getting lost in the woods. The reality was very different and definitely not romantic.

"Oh, God, what is this?" Simon had been looking through one of the satchels they had taken from the dead horse. He held up a brown hard something. "Tell me this isn't food."

Inara couldn't help but notice the hair of whatever animal the "jerky" was made of still clung to the meet. The hair was wiry and thick. "Simon, I will never eat that. I don't care how hungry I am."

With a disgusted sneer, Simon tossed the meat into the water. "Of course that guy couldn't load his horse up with food!" He rose, pacing around the small clearing. "No, let's arm the horse! The more weapons the better! Is everybody out here insane?"

He finally sat down beside Inara. "I thought I…this just didn't turn out well, did it?"

She smiled, tilting her head as if she had to think over the question. "I'll admit it could have been better."

Simon didn't comment.

"But it could have been worse, too." She nudged his shoulder with her own. "We're still alive."

"She thinks I'm dead."

"I'm sure she doesn't. She would know, wouldn't she?"

Simon shrugged. "I don't know how…that…" he gestured absently with his hands," that psychic stuff works."

"Kaylee's taking care of her. She'll be fine."

"Why did you shush me?" River whined as she followed Kaylee back to the mule.

"Ain't necessary to worry them when they can't do a gorramn thing about it."

"The Captain will be mad you didn't tell him."

"That, River, is the junior of my worries." Kaylee leaned against the mule thinking. She still couldn't locate the shuttle - whoever took it, knew enough to disengage any beacons that would give its position away. She wracked her brain trying to think of another way to track it down. "I don't know where to start."

"Start with him," River said pointing to a young man walking purposefully toward Nick's café.

"Huh?"

"He knows something."

"Are you sure?"

"I think so."

"River, are you sure?" Kaylee repeated as she looked into River's eyes.

"Pretty sure."

"River…"

"He did something bad and he has a new job. He's excited and guilty. But mostly excited. His guilt is going away."

"What something bad did he do?"

River shrugged unconcernedly. "He's the one we need to speak with."

"We?" Kaylee glanced nervously toward the bar she would rather not return to.

"I can talk to him if you like," River said with a significant look.

Kaylee looked skyward for a moment, her eyes closed briefly before she looked back to River. "I'll talk to him."

"And do what?" River tilted her head to the side, her eyes focusing on the teddy bear on Kaylee's coveralls. "Sweet talk him to death? I don't think that will work."

"Sometimes people are helpful, you know."

"What world do you live in?" River looked angry. "Even I understand that no one is going to help. Nobody cares about us. We have only ourselves to depend on."

"That's a helluva attitude. Won't do you any good thinkin' like the Cap'n at your tender age." River looked as though she wanted to say something else but Kaylee raised her hand quelling any further discussion.

Kaylee started for the bar but stopped just a few feet from where River stood by the mule. "What do I do if he won't talk to me?" She asked without turning around.

"Let me worry about that."