Flashback: we open in a swanky mansion and are told “Tam Estate – Eleven Years Ago.” Young Simon is studiously doing his homework. He looks like a tightly wound child – wonder how he’ll turn out. Little River is there too, demonstrating imagination and intellect as well as being a cute little girl. It is obvious that the siblings adore each other. Back on Serenity, River is much less cute and having a bit of a temper tantrum. Mal would prefer that she rein it in a bit so as not to stampede the cattle (remember the cattle from the end of the last episode?). Mal insists that Simon get control of his sister until after the trading is done. As the ship lands on-planet, some rough characters watch with greed in their eyes – and apparently little enough in their bellies judging from the scrawny rabbit they’re skinning for their dinner.
The crew has set up a makeshift corral to hold the cattle ‘til the buyers show up. Book mentions that he is a Shepherd only in the figurative sense of the word. Zoë thinks that the next time they choose to smuggle live cargo they might want to go with something smaller; Wash suggests “black market beagles” might be the way to go. Mal sends Simon and River on a walk, “someplace … away” until his deal is done, so the Tams go to the village with Kaylee and Inara. Inara is wearing a lot of makeup today. Kaylee wants to buy a present for Simon; her crush on him is painful to observe. Obliviously, he manages to insult her, the crew and Serenity and, because of who she is, she takes first offense at the demeaning of her ship. Inara shoots him a look as she follows Kaylee back to Serenity. In the meantime, River has wandered off and Simon chases after her. Mal’s cattle trading is not going all that well as a posse surprises them and attempts to arrest the buyers. The next scene is fantastic: quick cuts between the three-way gun fight at the Serenity corral and River dancing joyously at a festival in town. I love the music (a pennywhistle?) and Summer Glau, a classically trained ballerina, is clearly having a hoot. The dance ends abruptly as a bag is pulled over Simon’s head. River spins, terrified, searching for her brother. Back at the corral, the lawmen drag their prisoners away while Jayne and Mal discover find that Book has been shot. “I think I might be needing a preacher,” Book murmurs. “That’s good,” replies Mal, “You just lie there and be ironical.” Now, where’s that pesky Dr. Simon gone?
The crew brings Book to the infirmary (cool stretcher!) and prepares for some field surgery. Mal sends Wash to town to find Simon; Zoë cuts off Book’s shirt as the preacher starts to convulse. Flashback: grown-up Simon is trying to convince his parents that River is in trouble at the government “academy.” His parents refuse to believe that anything is wrong but Simon is wearing his resolve-face. Back on the planet, the scruffy hill-people have dragged the Tam siblings into the woods. Wash returns to the ship to report that Simon and River have probably been snatched. Mal says that he’s not losing a third person today and orders Wash to take off. Simon and River are stricken as they see Serenity leave them behind. Book regains consciousness for a couple of minutes and Zoë reassures him that he will be fine. Wash and Mal are trying to figure out where they can go to get medical attention for Book but all the possible planets are too far away. Inara barges onto the bridge and reminds them that they are overlooking an obvious solution with very good medical facilities: a nearby Alliance cruiser. Mal thinks that is a really bad idea. The hill-folk bring River and Simon to their village and everyone crowds around, giving thanks for the arrival of a real doctor; River gazes at the sickly people with wonder and compassion. On Serenity, Jayne is rummaging through Simon’s belongings (while wearing his stethoscope): “Dear diary, today I was pompous and my sister was crazy. Today we were kidnapped by hill-folk, never to be seen again. It was the best day ever.” Say it with me: I love Jayne. Kaylee and Zoë sit with Book while he is still unconscious. Kaylee hopes that they’re headed for help. Zoë tells her that the captain will come up with a plan. Kaylee: “Well, that’s good, right?” Zoë: “It’s possible you’re not recallin’ some of his previous plans.” Kaylee gives her a sad little smile. Inara has won out and Wash docks Serenity on the Alliance cruiser; Mal is quite anxious. In the village, Simon and River are taken to the “hospital” and Simon gets right to work. The nurse (?) is kind to both of them.
Zoë asks Mal if he is sanguine about the reception they’re about to receive on the Alliance cruiser. Yes, absolutely he is, but he doesn’t know what that means. She tells him: “Hopeful … plus, point of interest, it also means bloody.” “Pretty much covers all the options, don’t it?” grunts Mal as they let the troopers onto Serenity. The Alliance officers aren’t inclined to help until Book wakes up a little and hands them his ID card; they scan it and whisk him off to the infirmary immediately. Zoë and Mal trade “what the frack?” looks with each other. Simon gets a little testy with the nurse as they treat the sick people; River communes with a little mute girl. When River reads the little mute girl’s mind – Simon tries to pass it off as intuition but he’s shocked himself - the nurse screeches that she is a witch.
Flashback: Simon’s dad bails him out of jail for trying to spring River from the Alliance lab/academy. Dad is not pleased and says that he will not come to Simon’s aid again. On-planet, the nurse arouses the entire town with her witch accusations. River digs herself in deeper by some more mind reading and the townspeople decide to burn her at the stake. As Serenity is allowed to depart from the cruiser, Mal questions Book about why it is the Alliance was so eager to help him. Book demurs, insisting that he is just a preacher, but maybe someday he’ll explain. [Sorry: I’ve seen how this series ends, and we never do find out. It might have been interesting too.] The crew gets a summons from Badger who is antsy for his share of the money from the cattle deal. Jayne suggests that they don’t bother going back for the Tams and Mal admits that life would be easier without them. Simon tries to fight the mob but there are too many of them; resigned to martyrdom, he climbs up next to his sister, puts his arms around her, and tells the crowd to light the pyre. Just then, Serenity appears, hovering over the village with Jayne aiming a really big gun at the mob. Mal and Zoë stride up, also with guns. “Looks like we got here in the nick of time,” crows Mal, “What does that make us?” “Big damn heroes, sir,” says Zoë. Mal suggests that the townspeople let River go and not piss a cranky Jayne off any further. “She’s a witch,” protests one of them. “Yeah, but she’s our witch,” replies Mal.
Once everyone is aboard and Book has been checked on, Simon asks Mal why he came back for the siblings. “You’re on my crew,” says Mal. “Yeah, but you don’t even like me,” Simon points out, “so why’d you come back?” Mal all but rolls his eyes: “You’re on my crew. Why we still talkin’ about this?” [“Dumbass” is implied.] And we close with the Tam siblings sitting down with the crew for dinner, everyone at last safe at home.
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