Standing side by side on the dry, dusty surface of Haven, Mal and Zoe regarded the scene before them in stunned silence.
Finally, Zoe asked, "Are you seeing this, sir?"
"I'm seeing it," Mal replied. "As to whether I believe it, that's a different matter altogether."
In front of them, Jayne was down on his knees, weeping like a child.
It was 48 hours earlier when, as the crew gathered in the galley on board Serenity, Simon asked, "Does anyone else feel strange about going back there?"
Jayne, feet on the table, was cleaning his fingernails with the tip of a very large knife. "A job's a job," he opined. "We shy away from every place we got our butts kicked, the Verse is gonna get awful small real quick."
"Much as it grieves me to agree with Jayne," said Mal, "on this occasion he has a point. It's not getting any easier to make a living out here, and while we're not yet beggars, we can't afford to be choosy." He glanced at the others, noting that their eyes were averted. They really didn't want to be going back to Haven. "We all loved the Shepherd and hate what happened on this world. But we're still here. Still flying. And we need this job if we're going to keep it that way."
Kaylee looked up and tried to smile. "Well, my poor engine could sure use some spares. What's the job, Cap'n?"
Mal smiled gratefully back at Kaylee and nodded to Zoe.
"Should be a straightforward in-and-out," Zoe began. "Our contact on Haven already acquired some Alliance medical supplies that were targeted for the inner systems. But there's an outbreak on Higgin's Moon and people are dying. Those supplies will save lives. We simply transport them from here to there. Low risk, high pay."
"Low risk," muttered Jayne. "Think I'll bring along some grenades, just in case."
"You won't need grenades," Mal interjected.
"Now where have I heard that before?" Jayne pondered.
River set Serenity down on Haven in a discreet, sheltered area. Simon manned the cargo bay door as Zoe, Jayne and Mal headed to town on the Mule.
The pickup location was a two-story wood-frame building on the southern outskirts of town. Mal set the Mule down close by and waited.
After a minute, Zoe commented, "Seems very quiet, sir."
"It does at that," Mal confirmed. "Not a soul moving about on the street. No one in any of the windows. Something's not right here."
Picking up his rifle, Jayne said, "Well, if it's a trap, what say we go spring it?"
Zoe looked at Mal, who nodded. The three of them stepped out of the Mule, weapons drawn, and approached the rear entrance. On Mal's signal, Jayne kicked open the door, then Mal and Zoe entered, fanning left and right. Jayne remained at the entrance, guarding their escape route.
The room was large, taking up most or all of the ground floor of the building, and it was dark, dingy, and empty. Empty except for the four dead bodies sprawled near the far wall.
"It's clear!" Called Mal to Jayne. Holstering his weapon, Mal strode towards the bodies. They had been killed by gunshot at close range.
"Is he here, sir?" Zoe asked.
"He is indeed," Mal replied, kneeling down by one of the bodies. "But clearly our cargo is not. Someone got here first."
Zoe was examining the wall behind the victims. "Whoever it was is a good shot. Each man shot dead centre in the chest and no stray bullets holes."
Mal was about to reply when he caught movement in the corner of his eye. Whipping out his pistol, he whirled to the right. A dog, a mutt, came out from the shadows in a corner. It's ears were mismatched, one longer than the other, its snout short and flat, and its coat was a dirty amalgam of browns, black, and rust.
"I do believe," said Mal, holstering his gun again, "that that is the ugliest dog I've ever seen."
Jayne grunted. "And it's probably thinkin' that's one butt-ugly human."
Mal gave Jayne a sardonic smile. "Stay on watch here. I'm going to check out the rest of the building."
As Mal headed for the door, the dog barked and ran, stopping between Mal and the door. As Mal approached, the dog barked more fiercely, baring it's teeth.
"Not only is this mutt ugly, he's aggravating," Mal muttered. He took another step and the dog planted its teeth in his boot.
"Would somebody do something about this dog before I shoot it," complained Mal. He gave his leg a good shake but the dog was steadfast.
The next thing he knew, Mal was on the floor, his head spinning and his leg freed from the dog's surprisingly strong grip. He looked up to see Jayne in front of him in a boxing stance.
Getting to his feet, Mal bellowed, "Nee TZAO ss-MA? Nee-YOW wuh-KAI CHANG?"
Jayne backed up a step and drew a revolver. "You think that's any way to treat a poor dog, you idjit? Back away. You too, Zoe."
"Jayne," Zoe began.
"Can it," said Jayne. "I said back away, both of you. C'mon boy," he said and gave the dog a friendly whistle. The dog came up to Jayne obediently.
"By the entrance. Move. Now, did it ever occur to you that maybe the dog was trying to save your sorry ass? Watch this."
Raising his rifle, Jayne fired several powerful rounds at the door, which shattered suddenly in a deafening explosion.
"That dog saved your life," said Jayne, lowering the rifle. "Ain't no call to treat a dog that way."
"Well," said Mal, rubbing his jaw, "I might have been a tad hasty, it's true. Zoe, contact River. See if anyone has left this rock in the last while. Jayne, outside with me."
They exited the building, the dog obediently following at Jayne's heel.
Mal, his face twitching with anger, said, "Jayne, the next time you knock me down, you better shoot me."
"OK," said Jayne, as he knelt down to scratch behind the dog's ears.
"OK?" Mal trailed off, not sure how respond to Jayne's matter-of-fact answer.
"And if someone else knocks you down," continued Jayne, "can I shoot you then, too?"
To Mal's relief, Zoe came out to join them.
"River says no one's been observed leaving in the last 24 hours. Looks like whoever took the cargo is still around."
"Most likely they're laying low," said Mal. "Waiting for their pickup. Somewhere where they can hide that cargo without raising attention. Where would you go if it was you, Jayne?"
Jayne thought for a moment. "There's an abandoned mine nearby. Saw it on the way here. Seems like a good place to stay hidden and stash some cargo."
Mal looked at Zoe, who nodded. "Sounds reasonable to me, sir."
"Then let's go and check it out."
As they climbed back in the Mule, the dog leapt up onto Jayne's lap.
"Jayne," started Mal.
Mal thought better of it. "Nevermind. Keep your eyes open."
Setting the Mule down out of sight of the mine entrance, Mal and the others crept forward, using the nearby outcrop of boulders as cover. Crouching behind the last boulder between them and the mine, they saw a man exit the mine, take off his hat, and scratch his head.
"Zoe," whispered Mal, "does he look familiar?"
"Too familiar, sir."
"That's what I thought."
Mal stood up. "Why Bester, as I live and breathe!"
The man jumped. When the surprise wore off, he smiled.
"Well, if it isn't the great Malcolm Reynolds. Still in one piece, I see."
"No worse for the wear," Mal answered. "So, this is quite a change from engineering."
Bester shrugged. "A man's gotta eat. Seems to me I had an engineer's job once."
"Seems to me you weren't very good at it," Mal replied. "It also seems you might have something that belongs to us."
Bester backed up slowly towards the cave entrance. "Is it robbin' to rob a thief, I wonder?"
"So you've seen your true calling and become a philosopher, is that it?" As he spoke, Mal's hand dropped slowly to his holster.
Before Mal could draw, an arm popped out from the cave and threw something.
"Hun dan!" Mal exclaimed as Zoe dragged him down. "That's a grenade!"
After it exploded a few feet in front of their cover, Jayne turned to Mal and said, "Boy, sure would be nice if we had some grenades, don't you think?"
Ignoring Jayne, Mal poked his head around the boulder and fired at the cave entrance. Bester had disappeared inside. Someone lobbed another grenade at them. It exploded closer to them.
"We'd best retreat," said Mal, "until we..."
But just at that moment, Bester's gang lobbed a third grenade. This one sailed overtop of the boulder sheltering them.
"Not good," muttered Mal.
Mal had forgotten about the dog. The mutt leapt up, grabbed the grenade in mid-air, then made a beeline for the cave entrance.
"No!" roared Jayne, standing up. Shaking off Zoe's attempt to restrain him, he dashed after the dog, only to be blown off his feet by the ensuing explosion within the cave. Rising, he walked shakily the rest of the way to the cave entrance. Peering inside, he froze for a moment, then dropped to his knees and wept.
The medical supplies were hidden deep enough in the mine that they weren't damaged by the blast. After the crew loaded them into the cargo bay, Serenity set course for Higgin's Moon. Now they were gathered in the galley, all eyes on Jayne, who was downcast and silent.
River, seated to Jaynes right, touched his arm and said, "It's OK to feel pain."
Jayne sniffed and blew his nose loudly. Then he started to speak.
"I wasn't always the big guy," he said. "When I was young I was the runt of the litter, leastways 'till my growth spurt hit. Always getting picked on. Beaten sometimes by the other kids. There was a stray dog seemed to live in the woods nearby. I found it while I was hiding one day, trying not to get beat again. We'd walk, he'd chase sticks, them come back and lick me all over my face.
"One day, the gang found me in the woods. Started beatin' on me. Bad. This time they decided I was too much of a runt to live. They was going to string me up right there and then. They'd just got the rope round my neck when the dog comes out of nowhere, barking and biting. Most of the boys ran. The dog snared one. Bit him good in the leg. The boy tripped, but then grabbed a rock and started beatin' on the dog's head. I tried to stop him but couldn't. He beat the dog 'till it didn't move no more. Then he spit on me and left.
"Way I figure it, that dog saved my life. Just for bein' it's friend, for playin' with it a bit. I was sick for a week, but afterwards I swore I'd never let anyone beat on me or my friends again. And now this."
And as he finished his story, Jayne wept again. River put her arm around his shoulder and hugged him close.
Mal found himself touched in a way he hadn't expected. Kaylee was teary-eyed. Simon and Zoe were lost in thought, pondering this new dimension to their crewmate.
Clearing his throat, Mal said, "Way I see it, we're all kin. We look out for each other. Your feelings do you credit, Jayne, and we see you as a stronger man than ever we did before."
"Here here," the others rejoined.
With a last sniff, Jayne let River go and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. Looking over at Mal, he said, "Ain't we got some job we got to be doin'?"
"Seem like we do," said Mal with a smile. "Let's man our stations. We got some folks on Higgin's Moon need saving."