"You know, you really should have a spotter."
Turning his head stiffly towards the voice, a drop of sweat slid across Jayne's brow and nearly into his eye. With a final thrust, he swiftly heaved the barbell away from his chest, the weights clanking together as the bar touched down gently onto the stand.
Mal's footsteps chimed against the metal grating in a quick paced pattern down the incline of stairs into the cargo bay. His lips were taut and his eyes focused sharply like a hound narrowing in on his prey.
Bringing himself upright, Jayne straddled the weight bench. "A man can't get no privacy 'round here."
The ship's captain casually approached with shrug of his shoulders, his sing-song voice hardening with each word. "You'll have all the privacy you want while we're doing the drop off on Three Hills. Though it'd be mighty helpful if you came along and, I don't know, did your job."
"Sorry Mal, not settin' a foot on that rock," Jayne declared bluntly, taking a swig of water from his canteen.
Mal threw his hands in the air. "To hell with what Kaylee said, I knew being nice wouldn't work."
"You were being nice?"
Raising his chin, Mal curtly peered down at his insubordinate employee. "The pay off is substantial. But I understand if you don't want a full cut."
The words stung the mercenary worse than a taser to the groin, the very thought churning Jayne's stomach and sending a white-hot panic through his chest.
"That ain't fair, Mal," he grimaced.
"What ain't fair is that I got to put up with your whingin' when we have a job to do and that's more aggravation than I can bear at the moment. So the way I see it, if you don't work, what's the point of keepin' you around? Maybe Three Hills is your last stop."
"Fine," Jayne growled through his teeth. "What is it?"
"We possibly got ourselves a big run out of Cogburn if we play our cards right. And if I recall correctly, you spent some time there, know the place real well."
Jayne stood to heighten his eye-line, but the Oh-So-Brave-and-Oh-So-Bold-Captain Reynolds wasn't a man to be intimidated.
"I got a history there, yeah, but I ain't been back in years and didn't leave on the best of terms," he said, dropping his shoulders. "Believe me, there are no right cards when you're dealin' with Big Bing. He holds 'em all and only makes you think you're in the game."
"Lucky for us we're not dealing with Bing," Mal smirked.
"Everyone deals with Bing.
"Jien Ta Duh Guay! When? Wait...that don't matter...How?" Jayne excitedly exclaimed, turning his rough-and-tumble facade to child-like glee. "Don't spare me the gory details, Mal, I can take it."
Curling his upper lip, Mal took a few uneasy steps back. "I don't know..."
"Tell me he fell in a crag and buzzards ate his entrails like spaghetti!"
"Or better yet, he was finally run through by that swollen-balled bull at that gorram ranch of his?"
With a petulant shake of his head, Mal paced restlessly, Jayne's eyes following his every movement. "He was an old man up to his elbows in dirty distributions. He went one way or another. What do you care?"
"I care 'cos he had a price on my head," Jayne seethed, stomping his foot.
"This was different," grumbled Jayne, unable to convey the gravity of the situation. "Suffices t' say, it was real personal."
"They always are," Mal scoffed. "I was hoping you could help us navigate through the terrain, but you better sit this one out if it makes you uncomfortable. There's nothin' wrong with being afraid of a dead man's bounty."
"I ain't afraid! He sent six men after me and I gave 'em what for," the large man declared, puffing out his chest. "So if Bing's dead, who's doing the business?"
"The old coot's son, Mikas."
"And he wants to meet down in Caput Ravine?"
"Sounds like you know our man."
"We ran in the same circle. Wait-you didn't tell him I was workin' for you, did ya?"
Mal put his hand to his head, the frustration pressing firmly against his temple. An emotionally charged and erratic Jayne was more than he could handle. "It's starting to sound like your involvement is going to complicate matters."
"Listen, I got no qualms with Mikas. Just... he ain't gonna wanna see me."
"Maybe it's best if you stay behind."
Jayne furrowed his brow. "Them gullies down there are mazes and if you're going in Caput Ravine for an exchange, there's a chance you ain't comin' out. They got this sayin', Men go kaput down in Caput. And not to be sentimental and all, but if you don't come back, it means I don't get paid."
"You sayin' I'm walking into an ambush?"
"It's possible. Mikas ain't bad folk, just cautious."
"Can we trust him?"
Jayne hesitated to answer, biting his cheek. "Yeah, he'll follow through."
"You don't sound so sure."
Apprehension smeared across Jayne's face, his jaw slacking open and empty with a lack of words.
"I want you on recon," Mal commanded, folding his hands behind his back. "Me and Zoe will be making the trade. I need to know the ins and outs of that ravine, alcoves that could be laced with trouble, ditches, traps, smuggling tunnels, and shallow spots where Wash can fly over for rescue if need be. Then once we're in, you're to fall back and snuff out any watch dogs that are likely to get trigger happy if the deal goes south."
Jayne nodded, struggling to contain the enthusiasm for a little action.
Mal remained expressionless. "And I shouldn't have to say this, but be discreet. We're just playin' it safe, not riding in guns a'blazing."
"I'm with you on that one, Mal. I just want t' get in and out," Jayne assured him as a lazy smile twisted through his mouth. "But a shoot and scoot in Caput Ravine? Don't that sound fun?"
Three Hills. How long's it been?
Jayne lay in his bunk, riddled with thoughts. The more he tried to shut them out, the more vivid his memories became.
Nearly fifteen years ago. Or ten. Seventeen, maybe?
He attempted to do the math, but the numbers quickly escaped him despite the forceful prod of his index finger in the air. She was around sixteen and he was...older…
Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-three…Gorram! Old enough to know better.
Rolling over, he tugged the blanket off of the wall, his eyes scanning the arsenal of weapons concealed at his bedside. He took a strange comfort in the cold artillery. They were more than just firearms, but the best of friends, each with their own story and a sweet lullaby they'd sing with each round fired.
But in that moment, his attention went straight to the largest gun on the wall. His favorite.
He remembered how she would purse her lips together into a plush pink knot and how her left eye would start to drift when she was thinking too hard about something. She was skinny, hardly nothing to her at all (though she was scrappy enough to hold her own and still the best marksman he'd ever seen), and he wondered if she ever filled out and got herself a womanly shape. He squinted in brief contemplation before deciding that if she didn't, that was okay.
There were girls before her and plenty of trollops after, but he'd never forget the runs in her nylons and the way she wore her mother's old flower print dresses, cinched at the waist with a thick leather holster to keep her favorite revolver at her side. "Momma's long dead and her clothes are too pretty to let the moths eat 'em," she'd say and then she'd wipe the dust off her hands right down the front of her breezy little skirt.
Chuckling to himself, he let his eye-lids flutter shut as he reached for the light, Vera moseying about his head, overturning river rocks and shooting down mountain quail.