PART 1:

"I heard that ya'll help people."

Vin and Ezra looked up from their table in the Brown Bear Tavern in Eagle Bend where they had been waiting as patiently as two hungry men could wait.

Maple Barlow stood stiffly before them with her husband Andy. Her hands were clasped on a carpet bag. Her head bowed. Andy had one arm wrapped around her waist. He was tall and broad shouldered. She was slight. Both were blond, but her hair took on the color of sunshine, while his was more like straw.

"Well," Vin spoke up, "we aim to help those who need it."

Ezra said nothing, but sighed as he gazed toward the kitchen for the dinner they'd ordered.

"We heard from others that you'd do the right thing and help us," Andy started, but stopped speaking and turned to his wife as she started to cry.

Ezra stood, offering his chair to the lady. "Now, now," he soothed. "No need for that. As my compatriot said, and against my better judgment, we'll help wherever we can."

She slumped into the offered seat and her husband moved in behind her, resting hands on her stiff shoulders.

Ezra asked, "What sort of trouble has found you?"

Maple steeled herself, sitting up stiffly. "Those boys tricked us. We trusted them and they..." she sniffled loudly. Ezra pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, and she took it from him with a grateful smile. "…they took it," she completed.

"Took what?" Vin asked.

"My necklace," Maple continued. "Andy gave it to me. Oh, Andy…"

"Maple…" was all he could say as his face scrunched as if in pain.

"Necklace?" Ezra cocked his head. "I don't recall you wearin' one earlier."

"It's too precious to keep out," Maple responded. "Far too precious."

"Precious?" Ezra repeated again, his attention honed. "Gold perhaps? Diamonds?"

Andy waved a hand, "Oh, it's not like that. It's glass, the gems are all glass. The metal is plated."

Maple's body shook. "But they were almost gems. So real!"

Andy smiled sadly. "It was my grandmother's. She'd been a maid at a great house in England. The master gave it to her as a wedding gift. It's pretty as anything, nicely made, but it's not worth much outside of the sentiment. My mother was given it when grandma passed," and then it was Andy's turn to get choked up. He sniffled. "Then it came to me when she got sick. It's the only thing I have to remember them by. I gave it to Maple on our wedding." And he rubbed the shoulders of his sobbing young wife. "She was so beautiful in her wedding gown, wearin' that necklace."

"Undoubtedly," Ezra said thoughtfully, which earned him a quiet smile.

"Who took it?" Vin asked.

"The Lopez brothers," Maple spat out, as she lifted her head and brought the handkerchief to her face. "While we were on the stagecoach."

The stage had come through Four Corners earlier that day, stopping for a short time to switch out horses and allow the passengers a rest. Two lawmen had come up with them from Bakersville because the Lopez brothers were jewelers on their way to San Francisco. Their cargo needed protection. The judge had arranged for a fresh escort from Four Corners for the remainder of the journey to Eagle Bend. Chris had been happy to volunteer two of his men.

Ezra and Vin didn't have much contact with the passengers during the journey, but had seen the young couple board the vehicle, followed by the three well-dressed Latinos. The men were young and handsome, wearing jeweled rings and well-made suits. One carried a heavy case, another held an impressive-looking toolkit. The third, and youngest, was the talker of the group. He quickly had the Barlows engaged in a cheerful conversation.

The chatter of the five young people had filled the stage for the entire journey, and as far as the lawmen were concerned, the passengers had parted as friends.

"Alonzo Lopez," Andy said, tapping a finger on the table. "He was the leader. Rudolfo, he's the one who did it! Jaime distracted us."

Maple wrung at the handkerchief. "They'd come from some rich man's property and were headed for their next appointment."

"At the Mamie Hotel!" Andy put in. "They're leavin' here on the evenin' train, and were damn proud of havin' a room at the best place is town for the afternoon. Then off to San Francisco to set up shop! I bet they'll use our necklace just for the setting. I bet they threw out what was worthless to them."

Maple made a sad gasp, and her crying began again. "They sounded so important, going to California, when we're just settin' to live in Roosterville."

"Roosterville…" Ezra repeated in a quiet voice, and Vin rolled his eyes.

Maple continued, "They tricked us by showing us their work, saying how they were experts at repairing anything."

Ezra looked interested. "Were they carrying many diamonds? Jewels? Any idea on what kind of jewels, and how many? Gold?" He flicked a hand. "I'm not needing specifics at the moment. An estimate will do."

"I don't know how much they have," Andy said. "A lot, I'd reckon. They didn't want to show us what was in their big case, and I'm sure that's where all their best things are. They just showed off what was being repaired in the kit."

Maple scrunched at the handkerchief. "One'd think that if someone could make such loveliness, they'd have beauty in their souls, too. They should be punished!"

"Wealth'll do that to a person," Vin said, giving Ezra a pointed look. "Tarnishes up a soul."

Ezra smiled back at Vin, "Tarnish is easily removed with a little effort, and no one is the wiser of the stain. And not all punishment is deserved." He then asked, "Exactly, how did they remove the necklace from your possession?"

Andy soothingly kept his hands on Maple's shoulders. "The clasp was worn. It wouldn't stay shut, so Maple… so we asked the brothers if they could fix it."

Maple smiled through her sad expression, "Rudolfo said they would and he wouldn't charge us a thing, since we were friends and all. He made a big show of fixing it, tellin' us that it was nicely made in spite of being just glass. He was impressed," she went on. "When he was done, he took a pretty velvet bag from inside his kit, like what a king would have. He put the necklace inside, all careful-like, saying it was a little gift to us, a wedding present."

"He kept fussing with that bag," Andy said in a low voice.

"And we thanked him," Maple said bitterly. "We couldn't stop thanking him. And I put it into my traveling bag, thanking him still."

Ezra lifted a hand to enter the conversation, "And might I guess, when you checked the bag later, you found it contained something altogether different?"

Maple scowled, as she brought out the red velvet sack. Disgustedly, she flung it onto the table.

Ezra regarded her a moment, then reached for it. He loosened the strings, and dumped out the contents - a cheap heavy jewelry chain.

"They took it!" Maple spat out. "It wasn't worth that much and they took it anyway! Just because they could." Her bottom lip quivered.

"Have you spoken to the local law?" Ezra asked, as he returned the chain to the pouch.

Andy shook his head. "Folks told us that he wasn't a good man, that he'd make things worse."

Vin sighed and nodded. Sheriff Stain's reputation spread quickly.

Vin asked, "Can you tell us what the necklace looks like?"

Maple spread her hands apart on the table. "It's about so big," she said. "With gems all woven together with gold. There's all this clear glass and blue and green, in the shape of a big bird."

"A peacock," Andy supplied helpfully, "with its tail all spread." He put his hand on his chest, just below his throat, "It's about this big."

"Substantial," Ezra noted, "and gaudy, by the sound of it. I take it that Mrs. Barlow doesn't wear it often. It must not go with everything."

"It's too important to wear every day," Maple stated. "And with the clasp the way it was…" and she trailed off. "Oh, Andy. If we'd only left it as is was…"

"We'll get it for you," Vin decreed. "I give you my word. You can count on that."

Ezra frowned, but nodded.

Andy and Maple smiled at them, their expressions full of relief and gratitude.

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"Do we really want to get involved in this?" Ezra quizzed. "It would appear that we're putting ourselves at risk for no gain."

"We'd be doin' the right thing, a good deed." Vin told him. "There's a saying about a good deed bein' like a candle in the dark."

"Shakespeare," Ezra responded, and then, putting on a theatrical tone, "'How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world'."

"That's the one."

"Well, the Lopez Brothers have certainly been naughty boys in this instance. But, the Barlows should have been payin' attention."

Vin responded, "What those men did was wrong. Took advantage of good folk. We're gonna fix it."

"I want to get a look at their case," Ezra said. "The necklace in question is piffle. But if the Barlows were right about the rest of it…" and he smacked his hands together, "… there might be plenty to interest me. When we get there, I'll do the talkin'. They might not take too kindly to the accusations, so you had best be ready for some trouble."

Vin stopped outside of the hotel. "You think it'd come to gunplay?" he asked.

Ezra shrugged and considered. "It's quite possible. If this is the way they do business, they may be desperate men, capable of anythin'. Ah, there they are."

In the lobby of the hotel, the three young men sat at a table, having dinner. They appeared comfortable and sure of themselves, without a care in the world. They were chatting quietly as they ate.

Vin frowned. "They should be ashamed of themselves. On the stagecoach, they seemed decent enough, open to makin' friends."

Ezra told him, "To spirit away something important in that manner, one must be rather… amicable," and he smiled pleasantly. "Still, if they were wiser, they'd be gone by now."

"Have you ever pulled that same scam on a person?" Vin asked pointed.

Ezra sighed, "Given the right circumstances, it's easy to pull off. It seems as if they took a big risk for little gain. And they'd be too easily caught. Did they do it for practice?"

"Could be."

"Perhaps, they knew that they could buy off Stains if it came to that. Not wise though. After making a decision like that, I believe that these men aren't thinking straight."

"Might become violent if pressed," Vin added glumly. "We don't need this to be rough. Maybe there's a way we can get it from them without accusin' anyone." He looked to Ezra. "Think you can pull that same scam on them?"

"Hmmm," Ezra rubbed his chin. "Doubtful, since they already know the trick. Can you see if they have their traveling boxes with them? If they don't have the jewelry at hand, we'll need to go after this a different way. "

Vin nodded and sauntered across the street. He didn't enter the hotel, rather he stood for a moment outside and adjusted something on his boot as he glanced through the window. From that angle, he could see enough of the room to tell him what he needed to know. He put his foot down, and continued down the boardwalk until he reached the corner. By the time he crossed the road, Ezra had moved to meet him, still keeping his eye on the Mamie Hotel's front window.

"Boxes aren't there," Vin told him. "We should contact the local law. Let them deal with this."

Ezra made a sound as if he was choking. "Do you honestly wish to bring this story to Sheriff Stains? Our last dealings with him did not end well."

Vin sighed, remembering the man who led the lynch mob to hang Nathan's father. "He ain't a good man." He sighed. "Think the cases are in the room they rented?" Vin said.

Ezra nodded, "Most likely."

"On the second floor, I reckon," Vin decided.

"Possibly that room," Ezra indicated a window with his gaze. "It has a good view of the street and doesn't have a balcony. That makes it more secure. Good light, in case they are planning to perform any further repairs. Not one of the best rooms. The Lopez Brothers have money, but they are not dripping with it."

"Might be that room, too," Vin said, indicating the next window.

"True. I'd bet on either of them."

"I could get to the roof using the stairs that run up the side. I can get to the roof from there, then swing down to that side balcony," Vin speculated. He continued to study the building. "Then come across the ledge. There's enough room to sidle along."

Ezra licked his lips. "Think of the wealth waiting there for us."

"I'll go," Vin decided. "You make sure the fellas don't come upstairs."

"But, but…" Ezra stuttered , "I'm quite able to swing myself up onto the balcony, as you well know!"

"Oh, I know," Vin responded.

"And I feel that I would be the best at helping you to determine which of the pieces to take with us, and which to leave behind. Certainly, these boys have tried the same scam on others, and it would only be right to help others reclaim their lost heirlooms. If nothing else, I'd help us to avoid picking out any other glass."

"We ain't taking anything but the right one, that fancy peacock necklace," Vin told him.

"But think of the other people who have suffered a similar loss," Ezra went on. "Think of how grateful they'll all be."

"We got no idea if they done this to other people."

"It's highly possible… quite probable. There's a good chance…."

"And what'll happen if we take other things, and we don't find the former owners?" Vin said, already knowing the answers.

Ezra smiled widely. "We'll split the winnin's," he said. "There's certain to be enough to go around." And he rubbed his hands together again, not even aware of his motions. "The brothers have been pulling scams on folks throughout the territory. Certainly, they deserve a little retribution. This way they receive their punishment without havin' to suffer Sheriff Stains." He raised his chin a fraction and gazed hopefully to the Vin. "Everyone comes out ahead."

"That's why you won't be comin'," Vin said, giving Ezra a hard poke on the breastbone. "Too temptin' for the likes of you."

"But…" Ezra protested, taking a step back to avoid the prodding.

"I'm just savin' you from yourself," Vin said. "You've said it some time ago, that you're not to be trusted around so much wealth. And you shouldn't be raking your dirty paws through all of it."

"Dirty," Ezra muttered, looking at his manicured nails. "That isn't possible." He nodded then, conceding to Vin's wisdom. "Are you sure you can choose the right thing from their case? Do you even know what a peacock looks like?"

"A bird that's too fancy for its own good – kinda like you."

Ezra didn't disagree.

"Not sure I feel right about sneakin' into someone's room to steal," Vin said as he considered what was ahead of him. "It ain't right."

"It's the quickest and surest way," Ezra told him, then reminded, "And those young men took advantage of a sweet young pair. And since you won't allow me to do the deed, it is up to you, my friend."

Vin pointed to the lobby. "Keep those fellas occupied. Don't let them leave the lobby. Think you can handle that."

Ezra smiled broadly in response.

Vin started to move across the street, but Ezra grabbed his arm. "Look in the toolkit first!" he suggested. "It'll be quicker to search, and the necklace is probably still in there after their scam."

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The Mamie was embarrassingly simple to break into. One would think, if it were the best place in town, they'd take better care to protect their guests. Apparently, lack of care was rampant in Eagle Bend.

Once he was out of sight, nobody noticed Vin swinging down from the roof. People have a tendency to not look up unless something is drawing attention, and Vin was a master ad avoiding detection.

He hung for a moment outside of the window of the first target room, surveying. The space had one large bed, a wardrobe, a bureau and a mirror. He could see his image reflecting back, looking ridiculous.

A hatbox sat on the dresser and a parasol leaned against the wardrobe.

Vin shuffled along the outside of the building, keeping silent as he moved to the next room. He reached the partially-opened window and stared in. The room had two small beds along with a low bureau and a wardrobe. Draped across the beds were men's jackets.

Satisfied that – at least – no women belonged to the room, Vin worked the window fully-open, and swung himself through.

He checked the wardrobe first – finding it empty. The drawers of the bureau were too shallow for the cases, so he moved toward the beds.

A sound in the hallway stopped him. Footsteps – headed in the direction of the room. Quietly, Vin drew his mares-leg and waited. The footfalls came closer – closer… and then stopped. He chewed his lip, waiting.

There was a click of a lock. Vin froze, and watched the door as the key clicked. The knob didn't move, and Vin let out a low breath as he heard the door across from the room open. It shut – and the footsteps were more muffled as the tenant moved within the other room.

Vin returned to his task, sliding his weapon to its place before he bent to check under the bed that was pressed against the wall. He smiled at his discovery.

He pulled the big case out, and then the toolkit behind it. He cracked open the kit, trying to be silent and quick. Inside, he found all manner of fine tools: needle-nosed pliers with tiny tips, tweezers, wee hammers, doll-sized clamps. Small covered boxes held brightly-colored stones, empty settings, chains and other bits and pieces.

He lifted out the top tray, and pushed around the larger tools beneath. No luck. Ezra must have been wrong.

He was about to unlatch the big case when he noticed how the toolkit narrowed. It may have been designed to keep the upper tray separated from the bottom, but there was another possible reason.

He pushed on one inside wall of the box, and the wood moved. A firmer push, and the wall slid upward, revealing a hidden compartment. He reached in and felt around. Something shifted.

Hooking his fingers into it, Vin drew out a shiny, flashy chain, with a heavy, colorful ornament, the peacock necklace, just as described.

He held it up to the light. It dazzled. The bird design was as big as his hand, attached to a rope of sparklers to surround the wearer's neck. Pretty pieces winked and metal shone.

It was gaudy as hell. How was Maple able to wear it and not feel like a fool? It looked uncomfortable.

Well, it was important to the Barlows. The Lopez Brothers certainly didn't deserve to keep it.

He moved the necklace to his pocket, and then ensured that the toolkit's sliding plate was snugged in place. He had returned the tray, and closed the lid when footsteps returned to the stairs. This time, they were moving at a quick pace.

Immediately, he slid the toolkit under the bed, and then the case after it.

The key was in the lock as Vin made it to the window. The door pressed open as his foot left the sill.

TBC

A/N: Whew... just made it!