by Jean Williams
Sadly Jean is no longer with us, but we're sure her daughter, Jenn, would love to hear from you if you enjoy this story
Disclaimer: Ah, if only they were mine, but, alas, they're not. Unfortunately, the privilege of ownership of "The Magnificent Seven" characters belongs to the Mirisch Corp., Trilogy, and MGM, and no infringement on the copyrights held by them is intended. I merely wish to dust the boys off and bring them out to play occasionally for the entertainment of those of us who still miss them dearly.
Warnings: Some strong language, a small amount of violence and a large dose of smarm. An open mind and a good imagination are needed in order to fully enjoy this story.
Author's Note: If you'd like an idea of how Lit'l Ezra sounds, I suggest you watch the Adam Sandler movie, "Big Daddy." Just imagine the little boy in the movie with a Southern accent,and you'll know exactly how Ezra sounded in the dream that inspired me to write this story.
Completed: February 20, 2000
Back to: Part 1
Ezra stared curiously at Buck for a minute, wondering why he was waiting til last, and then turned his attention to Chris, who was walking towards the bed carrying a square package tied with a bright red ribbon.
"Well, little guy... looks like it's my turn. I don't know if this is going to measure up to all these other fine gifts you've gotten today... but it made another little boy I knew happy, so I'm hopin' it'll do the same for you." Chris hesitated for a second as he stared at Ezra. A slight trace of confusion shone in the gambler's green eyes, but he still had a big smile on his face as he waited patiently for his gift. Chris finally laid it on the bed in front of him, and leaned over to place a light kiss on the younger man's forehead. "Merry Christmas, Ezra."
"Mewwy Chwistmas, Chwis." Ezra stared up at the older man and patted the bed beside him. "Sit wif me? Pwease?"
Chris sank down on the bed next to the Southerner and smiled as Ezra sidled closer and leaned against him while he opened his present. Chris automatically let his arm go around the smaller man's shoulders as he watched him struggle with the ribbon. It kept sliding around the package until the gunslinger finally reached down and held it still for him.
Ezra finally got it unwrapped, and stared down at the book that was revealed. His hand reached out and ran lightly across the picture on the cover, and he turned and grinned up at Chris. "It's Jack and d' Giant, Chwis!! D'is is d' storwy you werwe tewwin' me yesterwday!" The gambler slowly turned the pages, pausing at each of the pictures to try and puzzle out what that particular story was about. "D'ese w'ook w'ike grweat storwies, Chwis... but I can't w'ead d'em yet."
Buck started when he saw what Chris had given Ezra... Adam's book. He raised an eyebrow at his friend and smiled at the shrug and sheepish look he gave him before turning back to Ezra. Buck had known the Little One had gotten to Chris... he'd just had no idea how much.
"Well, I... um... I thought maybe I could read them to you... as a kind of bedtime story." Chris got a little anxious over Ezra's silence. "Just until you learn to read them yourself, of course... or one of the others can read them to you... whatever you want... I just thought you might like-"
The other men stared open-mouthed at their leader... they'd never seen him so nervous and unsure of himself before. All because of his need for the approval of one small boy.
Ezra hadn't heard the worry in Chris's voice... he'd been too busy concentrating on the idea of someone actually wanting to read him a bedtime story. This was something he'd always wished for on those nights when his mama had left him home alone... someone to be there to hold him and take him away from all his loneliness and fear by transporting him away into the make-believe world of a story. He'd seen his uncle Matthew read to his own children while he'd been doing his chores... seen how happy and safe they looked curled up on his lap in the big old rocking chair. He'd have given anything to have that for himself... and now Chris was offering it to him.
Suddenly Ezra heard Chris fumbling to explain away his gift, and he quickly turned and stared into the older man's startled face. "No, Chwis! I don't wanna be able to w'ead it to myself... and I don't want one of d' ovverw guys to w'ead it to me!" He shot an apologetic look at his other brothers and then turned back to the older man who held him. " I want *you* to w'ead it to me! I... I want you to howld me in yourw w'ap... an' w'ock me... an' show me d' picturwes whiwle you w'ead... an'... an'..."
Ezra's words just seemed to pour out of him, tumbling over themselves in his rush to explain what he needed... what he knew he'd missed out on with his strange and lonely childhood. His next words were slower and spoken so low, even Chris had trouble making them out. "I jus' want you to make me feewl safe an' not so a'wone anymorwe."
Chris could only stare at him for several minutes... his mind reeling after everything Ezra had requested of him. Then it hit him... all Ezra wanted was exactly what he'd hoped to give Adam with that book. A reason for him to crawl into his papa's lap when he thought he was too old for it... to be hugged and cuddled while being spirited away to a land of fantasy... and the absolute certainty that he was safe as long as his father was holding him in his arms. Ezra just wanted the same things most little boys had... the same things that he'd been denied as a child.
Chris pulled Ezra against him and held him tight. "That's all you want, Ezra? Just to be rocked and read to?" He felt the gambler's head move against his chest. "Then that's what you'll have. Tonight before you go to bed, you and I are gonna rock and read a story together... just the two of us. How's that sound?"
Ezra sighed and leaned back to look at Chris. "It sounds grweat, Chwis. But Nafan doesn't have a w'ockin' chairw." The younger man looked down at himself and then gazed sadly at the gunslinger. "'Sides... I f'ink I'm too big to sit in yourw w'ap."
Chris rubbed his hand up and down Ezra's arm and smiled at him. "Don't you worry, little guy... I know where we can get a rockin' chair, and you'll fit in my lap just fine. Every little boy needs to be rocked and read to at least once in his life. I'd say it's about time you got that chance."
Ezra stared at Chris, looking deep into his eyes, and then glanced down and touched the book with his fingers before wrapping them around the older man's hand. Looking back up at Chris, he asked, "Was d' book forw yourw w'ittle boy?"
Chris frowned and looked around the room at the other men.
"No one tol' me, Chwis... I jus'... I jus' *know* somehow." Ezra looked confused and a little scared when the older man turned his gaze back on him. "His name was... it was Adam... wasn't it, Chwis? Why would I know d'at?"
Chris glanced at Nathan, but the healer just helplessly shook his head and motioned for him to answer Ezra. The gambler didn't seem too upset, so maybe it would help to let him talk about it.
"That's right, Ezra... his name was Adam. He was about your age the first time I gave him this book." Chris found it easier than he thought to talk about his son with the younger man seated in front of him. "He left it outside and it got ruined. I bought this one to replace it."
"D'en why arwe you givin' it to me instead of..." Ezra stared at Chris, and he could see the fear in the younger man's eyes as he struggled to remember something. Suddenly Ezra's eyes snapped into focus, and Chris saw them fill with pain as the Southerner whispered, "Oh, Chwis... he died, didn't he? An' his mama, too."
Chris could only nod as he fought the tears that burned and threatened to fill his eyes. Ezra's fingers tightened around the older man's as he saw the hurt his memories were causing. "I'm so sowwy, Chwis... you must w'eawy miss him, huh?"
"Yeah, I still miss him... and his mother... a lot." Chris pulled Ezra back into his arms and bent his head next to the gambler's. "But I'll tell you what, Ezra... havin' you here with us this Christmas has made things a whole lot better. It's almost like having my son back again."
Ezra trembled as Chris's words made him realize how much he'd actually missed having a father of his own. "Maybe you w'eadin' to me wiwll be good forw bof of us, Chwis. You can pwetend I'm yourw w'ittle boy an' I can pwetend yourw my papa."
Ezra waited breathlessly for a reaction to his words and was relieved to hear Chris whisper in his ear. "I'd like that, Ezra... it would make me proud to think of you as my son."
"An' I'd give anyfing forw you to be my w'eal papa, Chwis." Ezra blinked rapidly, but couldn't quite stop the tears that began trickling down his face.
Chris hugged the gambler tight one more time, and then helped him sit back up in the bed. He smiled at the smaller man, and wiped the tears gently from his cheeks. "You look through your book later and pick out a story... I'll get the rocker... and then tonight we'll snuggle up together and make each other feel better. Okay?"
Ezra nodded and grinned back at him. "D'at's easy, Chwis... I want you to w'ead me d' biggest storwy in d' book... d'at way it'll take a w'ong, w'ong time forw you to finish."
"Sounds good to me, pard." Chris touched his face once more and glanced over at Buck. "Now I think I'd better let ol' Buck have his time with you... he looks like he's about ready to come over here and shove me right off the bed. I think he misses you."
Ezra looked at Buck and smiled. "I miss him, too... I aw'ways miss him when he's not w'ight herwe wif me." He turned back to the gunslinger and picked up his new book. "F'ank you forw sharwing Adam's book wif me, Chwis... I'll take w'eal good carwe of it."
Chris took the book from him and set it on the nightstand with the chess set. "I know you will, Ezra... thank you." He moved off the bed and nodding at Buck, led the rest of his men out of the clinic.
Ezra watched them go in confusion and then turned to see Buck approaching him with a gift in his hand. "Wherwe arwe d'ey all goin', Buck? How come d'ey didn't stay to watch me open yourw pwesent?"
Buck glanced at the door and then sat on the bed facing Ezra. "Well... they're goin' after breakfast for us... aren't ya gettin' hungry, little guy?"
Ezra nodded and looked at Buck, who was staring down at the package he was holding in his hands... he knew the older man was just making excuses, but he wasn't sure why. He reached out and touched Buck's hand. "You aw'w'ight, Buck?"
Buck looked up into the younger man's green eyes... eyes just a little too wise for a five year old... <Nathan's right... he *is* comin' back to us>... and gave him a soft smile. "I'm fine, Ezra... here ya go, Little One. Merry Christmas."
The package was small and light. Ezra sat and stared at it for a few moments as a strange feeling began to stir in his stomach. Finally, he set it down on the bed, and with Buck's help, slowly untied the bow and peeled back the paper.
Buck watched Ezra's face carefully as the watch was revealed. The Southerner stared at it for a moment, and then reached down to run his fingers along the delicate pattern that was etched into the shiny gold cover. At first he'd thought it was his watch, but then he'd remembered his didn't have anything on the front like this one did. Suddenly an image flashed across his mind of Buck's hands holding this exact same watch... that's why it seemed familiar... it was-.
Ezra raised his eyes to Buck's and spoke softly. "D'is is yourw watch... isn't it, Buck?"
Buck stared at him. He knew Ezra hadn't seen his watch since the accident... so he had to be remembering from before. Nathan had told him to take it slow if it seemed like the watch was jogging Ezra's memory, but to go ahead and let him work through it if he wasn't getting too upset by it.
"Yeah, pard. I figured since yours quit workin', you'd be needin' a new one... and... well, I just kinda wanted ya to have mine." Buck's voice shook slightly as he spoke. He was scared to death he would handle this all wrong and hurt Ezra instead of help him.
Ezra hesitated a moment longer before finally flipping the watch open and glancing at it. "But I can't tewll time yet, Buck... w'ememberw when I trwied to-" His eyes had just begun to lift towards the older man's face, when suddenly he stopped and quickly looked back down.
"I remember, pard... I thought maybe I could try teachin' ya how to tel-" Buck stopped when he noticed Ezra staring intently down at the watch... his long, slender fingers running lightly over the glass encased numbers. "Ezra?"
His eyes still glued to the watch, Ezra mumbled softly, "It's half-past nine."
Buck saw Ezra's fingers begin to tremble as they continued to skim the surface of the glass. "I w'ememberw..." The gambler raised his head slowly until he was staring into the older man's worried blue eyes. "I w'ememberw how to tewll time, Buck... how come I..." He swallowed nervously, his green eyes shining with the fear that was quickly building in him. "How come I didn't know beforwe... but now I do? H-how could I d-do d'at, Buck?"
Buck reached out and ran his hands up and down Ezra's arms, trying to keep him calm enough to continue. "Take it easy, pard... it's okay. You'd hit your head... remember? That's why you'd forgotten how to tell time before."
Ezra nodded. "My head huwt a'wot when I firwst woked up... an' it doesn't huwt anymorwe."
Buck smiled at him. "That's right, little guy... it's gettin' better an' that's why ya can remember now." He felt the trembling beneath his hands ease somewhat and saw a little bit of the fear leave Ezra's eyes.
Ezra picked up the watch and for the first time noticed that there were letters etched on the inside of the cover. "What's d'is say, Buck?"
"It's just a little inscription I had Mar-... um... Mrs. Travis scratch on there for me." Buck felt a blush of embarrassment creep up to warm his face.
Ezra looked up at Buck, curious at his reluctance to explain. "But what's it say, Buck? I can't w'ead it."
Buck dropped his head, took a deep breath, and ran his hand over his chin nervously before finally looking back at the gambler. "It says, 'For My Little One'... 'You'll Always Be In My Heart'."
Ezra just stared at Buck... not moving, not speaking, barely breathing, as his eyes captured and held the other man's attention.
Buck felt his heart lurch with the intensity of emotion he saw etched on Ezra's face. He tried to tear his gaze away from those piercing green eyes, but stopped when he saw something appear in their emerald depths. It was an awareness... a *knowing*. Ezra knew what the inscription meant... knew somewhere in his mind that he would eventually be leaving. But thankfully it wasn't filtering through into his consciousness yet... otherwise Buck knew Lit'l Ezra would be terrified. As it was, only Buck was terrified... he was losing his Little One.
Finally the spell Ezra was under broke, and the adoring little brother Buck had come to know and love was back. The gunman watched in amazement as Ezra's features softened until he once more had the youthful expression of a little boy, and his eyes again held the sparkling excitement of Christmas.
"Buck... you w'eawy mean it? D'at I'm in yourw hearwt?" Ezra's voice was low and husky with emotion as he struggled to believe that anyone could love him that much.
It killed Buck to see that even after all they'd said and done, Ezra still had trouble understanding just how much he'd come to mean to them all. Buck reached out and tenderly cupped both hands around Ezra's face and drew him closer.
"Ezra Payton Standish... will ya *please* listen to me? From the first moment ya woke up here in the clinic and looked into my eyes, you've been in my heart. Since you've been here, you have become absolutely the most precious and important person in my life... and I love ya more than I ever thought I could love anyone. You've filled my heart completely... do you understand?" Buck saw Ezra nod, and watched his incredibly bright green eyes fill with tears. "Those better be tears of happiness, Little One... or you're gonna break my heart."
Ezra gave him another weak nod. "D'ey arwe, Buck."
But Buck could see it in his eyes... he still just didn't believe that he could be loved that much. Suddenly he had an idea... he'd have to be tough on the little guy, and that was going to be hard, but it might just work.
"You wanna give me a Christmas present, Ezra?" Buck smiled when Ezra's head immediately bobbed up and down.
"Morwe d'an anyfing, Buck." Ezra's face fell and the tears flowed even faster down his cheeks. "But I don't have nuffin' to give you, Buck... nuffin'."
"Yes, you do. You've got the one thing in this world that I want." When Ezra stared at him in confusion, Buck continued. "The thing I want more than anything is for you to love me as much as I love you."
Ezra literally shook with the emotions that surged through him as he pulled out of Buck's hands... his eyes widened in disbelief at the older man's request. "Buck... how could you say d'at? I tol' you how much I wuv you! Didn't you bewieve me?!"
"But can you explain *why* ya love me, Ezra?" Buck watched the gambler's mouth open and close as he struggled to find the words to express what he was feeling.
All the reasons Ezra loved the man sitting there with him flashed through his mind, but none of them seemed adequate enough to explain why he loved Buck as much as he did.
"I can't, Buck... I'm sowwy... I jus' can't find d' w'ight... it's jus'..." The expression that came over Ezra's face at that moment was a heart-wrenching combination of misery and frustration as he realized words just weren't enough. Ezra's voice was choked with tears as he finally just pressed his hand over his heart and sobbed, "I jus' feewl it, Buck... in herwe. I wuv you so much it huwts... pwease bewieve me, Buck... pwease?"
Buck finally gathered him up in his arms, and began whispering quietly in his ear. "I believe ya, Ezra... and that's exactly why I love you. Now... do you believe me?"
Ezra slowly stopped crying and pulled back to stare into Buck's face. Reaching his hand out, he placed it over the older man's heart and whispered, "You feewl it in herwe, too? D'at's why you wuv me?"
"That's right, Little One... I feel it just like you do. And there's no reason for it, Ezra... it just is." Buck touched his forehead to Ezra's. "It hurt when I didn't believe ya, didn't it?"
Ezra nodded and brought his soft hand up to stroke Buck's face. "It huwt a'wot, Buck. I'm sowwy I made you huwt d'at way... I w'eawy am."
Buck nuzzled into the younger man's hand and then leaned back and held out his arms. "It's okay, Ezra... as long as ya believe me now. You do, don't ya?"
Ezra threw himself into Buck's loving embrace, clinging tightly to the older man's neck. "I bewieve you, Buck... do you bewieve me?"
Buck squeezed him tight and smiled. "You bet I do, pard... and thanks for that great Christmas present. It's the best one I've ever gotten." Buck pulled away and reached up to wipe the tears off of Ezra's cheeks. "Now... how 'bout I look an' see if those guys are comin' with breakfast yet. I don't know 'bout you, but I'm starved!"
Ezra gave Buck one of his famous grins, gold tooth glinting in the light from the candles, and nodded. "I'm hungwy, too... an' Buck? I pwomise that you'll aw'ways be in my hearwt, too."
Buck stared at Ezra and felt the tears begin to fall again as he prayed that his Little One would be able to keep that promise. He hugged the younger man tight and began to chuckle. "You know, Ezra... if we keep takin' turns cryin' like this, we'll never get to eat."
Ezra giggled and nuzzled his face into Buck's neck. "D'en you betterw quit bein' such a big crwybaby and go get bweakfast."
Buck grabbed Ezra's arm and used his nightshirt to dry his tears, and then while the smaller man struggled to pull away, the ladies man began tickling him. "Who you callin' a crybaby? Hmmm?"
Ezra squirmed on the bed, trying desperately to get away. But with only one arm free, he was pretty helpless... until he frantically grabbed at Buck's mustache and found he finally had a weapon to use. The more Buck tickled, the harder Ezra tugged, until the room was filled with the gambler's giggles and the older man's exaggerated cries of pain.
The door opened and six heads peered around the edge to see what the heck was going on. Chris stared at the two wrestling on the bed, and then grinned at the others. "Okay, I've got five dollars on Ezra... any takers?"
While the others were calling out their bets on the wrestling match, JD turned around and saw the Judge and Mary approaching the clinic. They were each carrying a box draped with a towel, and Judge Travis had something tucked under his arm... it looked like a Christmas present.
JD reached around the other men and tapped Chris on the shoulder to get his attention. "Chris... we've got company coming."
Chris and the others moved away from the door, shutting it quietly behind them and stood waiting for the pair climbing the stairs.
"Judge... Mary. We were just headed over to the saloon to rustle up some breakfast, care to join us?" Chris smiled at the two of them, but they could see he was firmly diverting them away from the clinic. They'd decided at the beginning of this whole situation that they would keep Ezra away from the prying eyes of the town... and they'd managed to do just that so far.
"Gentlemen." The Judge greeted the men and raised the box in his arms slightly. "Mary and Evie got carried away with the cooking this morning, and we thought maybe you'd appreciate a nice home-cooked breakfast to hold you until dinner. Thought maybe we'd join you for a bit and help Ezra celebrate his first Christmas here." The Judge stared pointedly at Chris... he expected to have his offer accepted.
Mary blushed slightly and shrugged her shoulders at Chris, indicating that none of this was her idea. He nodded understandingly at her and smiled, then turned his full attention on the Judge.
"I thought we'd decided you'd wait til tomorrow morning to talk to Ezra? We want him to just enjoy today with his family." Chris stressed the word family and hoped the Judge would take the hint and back off.
"I understand that, Chris... but I really think the talk tomorrow would go easier if I got acquainted with Lit'l Ezra while he was in a setting where he felt relaxed and safe. He'd be more comfortable telling me everything if he knew I was a friend and no threat to him." Orrin stared around him at the five men, and felt nothing but admiration for them for wanting to protect one of their own. His voice softened, and he tried to reassure them. "I just want to help Ezra, Chris... you know I wouldn't want to do anything to hurt him, or to hinder his recovery."
Chris looked at Nathan and waited. The healer glanced at the clinic door, thinking carefully about the Judge's request, and finally nodded at Chris. "I don't think it could hurt... the Judge's right, it might make things easier on 'im tomorrow."
Mary saw the others glance at her, and hurried to explain. "I'm just helping Orrin carry the food... I had no intention of staying. I understand you wanting to keep everyone from gawking at Ezra-"
Chris stopped her, waving a hand dismissively. "We appreciate that, Mary... but you've done nothing but help since this whole mess started, without trying to intrude in anyway... I think you deserve to spend some time with our little visitor. But brace yourself... he'll have you wrapped around his little finger before you know what the hell happened." He turned to open the door. "Give me just a minute to explain it to Ezra and Buck, and then you can come in."
Chris slipped into the clinic, closing the door firmly behind him. Buck and Ezra were sitting quietly on the bed now, inspecting Ezra's other gifts. Chris couldn't help but smile when he saw Ezra sitting on his knees beside Buck. His arm was wrapped around the older man's neck, his head leaning comfortably against Buck's as he chattered happily about them going fishing, about teaching him how to play chess, and about how Chris had promised to find a rocking chair to read him a story in.
Chris couldn't help think what a great father Buck would make someday... if he ever settled down that is. The tall, lean gunfighter chuckled at that one... Buck settling with one woman might be a problem, but after his experiences with Lit'l Ezra, he might just start thinking about it.
Ezra looked up, noticed Chris standing there, and smiled. "Hi, Chwis! Did you guys get bweakfast? We'rwe starwvin'!"
Chris approached the bed and sat beside the two men. "Well, actually we just had breakfast brought to us. You remember Mrs. Travis?" When Ezra nodded, he continued. "She and the Judge are outside with a couple of boxes of food... smells darn good, too. They'd like to come in and join us for breakfast... if it's okay with you."
Ezra slipped into Buck's arms and stared nervously at Chris. "A judge? Mama hates judges... she says d'ey arwe all mis... mis... miserwable old men who jus' wanna keep honest peopwle frwom earwnin' a w'ivin'."
Chris and Buck stared at Ezra for a moment, and then burst out laughing, startling him. He frowned at them, not appreciating being laughed at one bit. "Well... d'at's what Mama tol' me. Why arwe you w'aughin' at me?!"
Buck hugged him and tried to stop laughing. "We're not laughin' at ya, pard... we're just laughin' at what your mama said. Didn't ya tell me your mama was always runnin' cons on people?"
Ezra nodded and then grinned. "I guess she wouldn't w'ike judges much, would she?"
Chris shook his head, and smiled back at the gambler. "Nope... not much at all. Judge Travis is a nice man, Ezra... he just wants to meet you 'cause we've told him what a good little boy you are. And you said you remember Mrs. Travis, so she shouldn't scare you any."
Buck shot Chris a questioning look. He'd thought they'd agreed to keep today special for the Little One. "Chris?"
"It's alright, Buck... Nathan thinks it'll be good for him. I'll explain later." Chris turned back to Ezra and waited for his answer.
Ezra thought a minute and then looked at Buck.
Buck stared hard at Chris, silently warning him that he'd better be right about this, then turned his gaze back to the Southerner. "It's okay, Ezra... I'll be here with ya the whole time. Ya know I won't let nothin' happen."
With his protector's reassurance, Ezra nodded at Chris and finally agreed. "I guess it's okay, Chwis... it won't be forw verwy w'ong wiwll it?"
Chris patted Ezra on the arm and stood up. "Nah... they won't stay long, Ezra. And if it starts to bother you, you just tell Buck and we'll ask them to leave, okay?"
"Okay, Chwis." His voice was so small and shaky that Chris almost decided not to allow it, but he knew the Judge was right about it making it easier for Ezra to talk to him, so he forced himself to move to the door and open it.
"Ezra says it's okay, but take it easy on him, Judge... he's scared." Chris spoke softly as he stood back and let the others enter. He led the Judge and Mary over to meet their Little One while the others began setting out the food.
Buck had Ezra tucked tightly in his arms and had his head bent close to the trembling gambler's, reassuring him he'd be alright... that nobody was going to hurt him.
"Judge... Mary... this is Ezra." Chris sat beside the Southerner and placed his hand on his arm... stroking it gently to try and calm him. "Ezra... this is Judge Travis."
The Judge stared for a moment, trying to accept that the man cowering against Buck Wilmington was the same cocky, silver-tongued con man who he had hired as one of the seven protectors of the town. Recovering himself quickly, he moved slowly forward and smiled when after a gentle nudge from Buck, Ezra stuck his hand out and said, "How do you do, Judge Twavis... I'm Ezwa Standish."
Chris was impressed with the Judge... he never even hesitated before reaching out and taking Ezra's hand, shaking it gently.
"Well, hello there, Ezra... I've heard a lot about you." Orrin pulled the package he'd been carrying out from under his arm and held it out to the Southerner. "Merry Christmas, son... this is from Mary and I."
Ezra stared at it, and then glanced shyly at Mary as she moved up to stand beside her father-in-law.
"Hi, Ezra... you remember me, don't you?" Nathan had explained to her while they were still outside that Ezra had had a flash of memory and knew who she and Billy were.
Ezra nodded and with Chris's encouragement, slowly reached out to take the package. "You'rwe Biwwy's mama an' you own d' newspaperw, w'ight?"
"That's right. How are you feeling? I heard you had a bit of an accident." Mary knelt in front of him and talked softly, trying to make him more comfortable with their presence there.
"Nafan says I'm gettin' betterw. He looked down at his arm strapped to his chest, and then back up at his two visitors. "I brwoke my arwm, an' Nafan had to put it in a s'wing."
Mary nodded and moved a little closer, touching his leg gently. "I see that. Does it still hurt?"
Ezra shook his head and looked down at her hand on his leg. "Nuh-uh... Nafan's jus' keepin' it w'ike d'is 'cause I keep bangin' it on f'ings." He sat up a little straighter as he slowly relaxed. "Wherwe's Biwwy?"
"He's with his grandma, playing with his new toys." Orrin explained, smiling at the young man. Chris was right, a few minutes of talking with Ezra and you couldn't help but believe he was really only five. The transformation was absolutely amazing.
Buck tapped the package sitting in Ezra's lap and smiled at the Southerner. "So ya gonna open your gift so we can go eat? The smell of all that food is makin' my belly growl."
Ezra grinned at Buck, and nudged him with his shoulder. "Yourw bewwy's aw'ways grwowlin', Buck!"
"Now, Ezra... you know I'm a growin' boy... I told ya that before." Buck gave the gambler a hug when he started giggling, and then held the present for him while he opened it.
Mary put her hand over her mouth to hide the smile that she just couldn't contain after hearing the very proper Ezra Standish actually giggle. <Oh my gosh... he's just so sweet!> Then she had to stifle her own giggle as she imagined Ezra's reaction to being thought of as sweet. She glanced up at Orrin and saw him struggling to keep a straight face, and knew he was just as taken with the gambler as she was.
Ezra carefully undid the ribbon and then let Buck help him pull the paper off. Chris reached out and helped the eager Southerner lift the lid off the box, then watched as Ezra pushed the tissue paper aside to reveal a small wooden train set. Everyone in the room smiled as they watched him quivering with excitement... picking up each beautifully carved piece and examining it thoroughly before handing it to Buck and reaching for another. As Ezra sat admiring the last part he pulled out, the caboose, Josiah announced that breakfast was ready.
Ezra glanced up at Buck, and then looked shyly at Orrin and Mary. "F'ank you forw my pwesent... I w'eawy wuv it."
Judge Travis reached out and patted Ezra's hand. "You're very welcome, Ezra... I'm glad you liked it. Now what do you say we go see if we can all squeeze around Nathan's table and find out if that food tastes as good as it smells."
Ezra nodded, setting his train carefully down on the bed. Then taking Buck's hand, led the Judge and Mary over to join the others.
Chris grinned at Orrin as they followed Ezra over to the table. "Nice train, Judge. Santa leave it in your stockin' by mistake?"
The older man smiled softly and glanced at Ezra as he spoke. "Well, Mary decided that Billy wouldn't miss just one present out of all those gifts Evie and I spoiled him with this year, and she thought maybe your young visitor might get some enjoyment out of it while he was here."
Chris looked over the Judge's shoulder and saw Mary smiling and shaking her head, and his grin widened. "Mary's idea, huh?"
Orrin scowled at Mary and then cleared his throat as a slight blush crept over his face. "Yes, well..."
Chris interrupted and spared him from having to come up with an explanation. "Thanks, Judge... it really meant a lot to him."
Buck and Chris helped Ezra get settled on the bench across the table from their guests and then sat down on either side of him. Some of them sat on the chairs and benches and some leaned against the wall, balancing their plates as they ate, and all of them joined in the friendly conversation that flowed around the table.
Judge Travis participated in the idle banter, all the while discretely observing the loving interaction between Ezra and his new family. Mary had been completely right, Ezra was having just as beneficial an effect on the six other men as they were on him. It was hard to believe these were the same hardened men who faced danger every day to keep this town and its citizens safe from outlaws, hired guns and drunken trail hands. What he saw before him now were six gentle and caring men who were doing everything they possibly could to take care of their injured brother.
The Judge was fascinated by the change in Ezra, and he had to keep reminding himself it was the same person. Gone was the man who shied away from any of the attempts his friends made to draw him further into their little family. He'd been replaced by an open, loving young soul who craved all the attention they wanted to lavish on him. And lavish they did. The change in the other six men was almost as radical as the one in Ezra. They all seemed perfectly comfortable returning the frequent hugs and 'I wuv you's' that the childlike gambler was so eager to hand out, and the love generated in the clinic that day was almost overwhelming in its intensity.
By the time breakfast was over, Judge Orrin Travis had absolutely no reservations about doing everything legally possible to ensure that Buck Wilmington would be able to obtain legal custody of Ezra Standish. Chris had not exaggerated when he'd talked about the incredible connection Buck had made with five year old Ezra, and Orrin knew that no matter how things turned out with Ezra's memory, Buck would always be there for him.
As soon as breakfast was done, Buck helped Ezra ease himself down on the floor so he could play with his new toy. The others gathered up the now-empty dishes and packed them carefully back in the boxes before moving out onto the landing to talk to the Judge.
Orrin and Chris were the last to leave, pausing in the doorway to take one last look back at the two men huddled together on the floor. Buck and Ezra were bent over the train set, brown heads pressed together as they carefully hooked the little cars in a line. The elderly judge watched as Wilmington playfully tried to put the caboose on the front of the train, sending a protesting Standish into a flurry of giggles as he gently placed a couple of well-aimed pokes to the gambler's stomach.
The Judge turned and hurried out of the clinic before the laughter he was trying so hard to hold back escaped. Chris followed and closed the door behind them, and then faced the Judge, waiting quietly for his impressions of their little visitor.
Orrin Travis studied the anxious faces of his men carefully. When had this group of hired guns turned themselves into such a close-knit family? They were brothers in every sense of the word... brought together not by blood, but by a slowly developed connection of the heart. And now here was their seventh brother, the last one to be slowly dragged into the fold, the one in the most need of a family, facing the threat of being torn away from them. Well, not if he could help it.
The door opened behind them and Buck stepped out. He turned back into the clinic and reassured Ezra that he'd be right back, and then closed the door. "Well, Judge?"
Orrin looked at Buck Wilmington's face, etched with worry, and nodded his head. "You get him to talk to me tomorrow, make sure he knows he needs to tell me everything, and then we'll fight Maude and her attorney tooth and nail to keep that young man here where he belongs. From what I just witnessed, no one could possibly take better care of him than the six of you."
Buck's troubled expression deepened. "What if we can't get 'im to talk to ya? His uncle's got him so damn scared... I'm not sure he'll be able to tell ya anything. It 'bout tore 'im up when he told us."
"You have to find a way to convince him. Without his direct testimony, I'll be forced to allow Maude to take him." Judge Travis wanted to help them, but it had to be done legally.
Buck's face tightened as anger surged through him at the injustice of it all. Ezra'd been put through hell by his mother and that uncle and now he had to relive the nightmare just to make sure they didn't get a chance to do it to him all over again. "Like hell she's gettin' 'im, Judge. She'll have to go through me first."
Orrin shook his head sadly. "I understand how you feel, Buck... it's grossly unfair that Ezra should have to go through this. But the law's the law, and if you interfere in any way, I'll be forced to have you put in jail for obstruction of justice."
Josiah put his arm around Buck's shoulders to calm him and stop the angry reply he saw hovering on the younger man's lips. "Don't worry... we'll get him convinced. If Ezra knows it's the only thing that'll keep him here with you, he'll find the courage to talk."
Buck took a deep breath, ran a hand through his mop of unruly brown hair, and apologized. "Sorry, Judge... I just can't stand the thought of Ezra bein' hurt again. He'll talk to ya, we'll make sure of it."
The Judge paused, staring at each one of them and saw the determination on each of their faces... they'd find a way to make Ezra understand. "I must tell you that I sincerely hope Mr. Standish can retain enough of what's happened here to appreciate just how lucky he is to have stumbled into this new family of his. I'll see you in the morning, gentlemen."
They thanked Mary for the wonderful breakfast and for all her help keeping Ezra's secret, and then returned to the clinic to continue their Christmas celebration... their hearts a little lighter with the knowledge that they now had the Judge behind them in their fight to keep their Little One safe.
The rest of the morning was spent taking turns entertaining Ezra, with everyone arguing over who was next. They were all trying to get in as much time with him as possible because, just like Buck, they realized that they were indeed losing their Little One. And they wanted to try and put as many happy memories in his heart and mind... and theirs... as they possibly could before it happened.
Josiah played chess with him and was surprised to find that he was being beat almost every game. They weren't sure if Ezra, at the age of five, really was that good at the game, or if some of his adult proficiency was filtering through. Either way... he was a formidable opponent, and Josiah actually enjoyed watching him win. They tried to teach Nathan, but he decided that he'd stick to checkers, and told them he was just happy that Ezra was getting so much enjoyment out of his gift.
Buck and JD joined the gambler on the floor, and spent an hour playing with his train set... building bridges and roads out of anything they could find handy in the clinic. Nathan cringed when he saw them run the train over his medical books and spare splints, but he had to admit the splints made a pretty good set of train tracks... and besides, anything that made Ezra smile and laugh was okay with him.
By about noon, Nathan decided it was time to start getting him to wind down for a nap, and Vin happily sat on the bed with Ezra while they gave the others a little impromptu concert with their mouth organs. The other five men sat sprawled around the room, exhausted themselves from playing with the energetic Southerner, and enjoyed the soothing melodic sounds that floated around them. They were all amazed at how quickly Ezra picked up on whatever notes Vin showed him, and then were surprised to hear the young man create his own original sounds.
Vin had told him it was his turn to come up with something, and when Ezra had looked questioningly at him, Vin had reached out and tapped Ezra's chest. The gambler had then smiled and nodded before putting the harmonica to his lips, and producing some of the most beautifully sweet sounds any of the men had ever heard. The tracker had smiled proudly and quickly joined in, blending perfectly with him. When they finished, the men treated them to a hearty round of applause that brought a blush of pleasure to both of their faces.
"Okay, Ezra... I think it's 'bout time for ya t' lay down an' take a little nap. That way you'll be all rested up an' ready to enjoy that huge dinner that Mrs. Travis an' Inez are makin' for ya." Nathan was surprised when, instead of arguing, Ezra had readily agreed to the suggestion and let Vin get him settled in the bed. The only things he'd requested were that Buck lay down with him, and that Chris read him a story, but he was sound asleep before the older man had gotten past the first page.
Buck and Chris exchanged worried glances over the sleeping form snuggled between them, and each placed a hand on his face. "Nathan, he's warm... ya think he's comin' down with somethin'?"
Nathan walked over to the bed and felt Ezra's forehead, frowning as he realized he was definitely warmer than the last time he'd checked. "Could be, but then again it might jus' be from all the excitement he's had today. He mention t' any of ya that he wasn't feelin' good?"
They all shook their heads no. Buck stared down at Ezra as he gently smoothed his hair back and reminded Nathan, "He prob'ly wouldn't tell us anyhow. He'd consider that complainin', an' we all know what Maude thought about our Little One doin' any of that."
"Well, will jus' have t' keep a close eye on 'im then an' hope it don't get no worse. Why don't y'all go on over t' the church an' see how the town celebration is goin'... he'll prob'ly sleep til dinnertime anyhow." Nathan smiled as he saw JD's face light up at the prospect of getting to spend some time with Casey after all.
The others hated to leave Ezra, even for just a few hours, but knew JD wouldn't go unless they did, so they agreed to Nathan's suggestion. The Kid had been doing so good with the gambler, that they thought he deserved to have some fun, too.
Buck slid down in the bed, stretching out beside Ezra, and looked up at the healer. "Why don't you go on over to the church with the rest of 'em, Nathan? I'll be here to keep an eye on 'im. He kept me up most of the night, so I could do with a nap anyway."
Nathan hesitated. "Ya sure, Buck? I don't mind stayin'. 'Sides, you haven't hardly been outta this clinic since the accident happened."
Buck shook his head and smiled. "I'd just be worryin' about 'im the whole time I was there anyhow. You go an' have a good time. Just bring me back a little of those fine desserts I know the ladies've made, an' I'll be happy."
Nathan agreed and left after getting Buck's assurance that he'd come and get him if he thought Ezra was getting worse.
As soon as the door closed, Buck looked worriedly over at the younger man curled up beside him on the bed and wrapped his fingers around Ezra's slender hand, frowning at how warm it felt. He knew he wouldn't really be getting any rest... not so long as there was even a possibility the gambler might be getting sick. His eyes never closed as he spent the rest of the afternoon watching over his Little One.
Chris and Vin tried to relax and join in the festivities at the church, but everytime someone asked after Ezra, they were reminded that their time with him was limited and immediately resented being pulled away from him. After an hour of trying to pretend they were enjoying themselves, they finally gave up and went back to the clinic.
Buck wasn't at all surprised when the door opened and Chris and Vin walked in. He knew how hard it would be to stay away from Lit'l Ezra knowing that he might be sick, and worse... that he'd probably be leaving them soon.
They nodded at Buck when they came in and settled carefully on the bed beside Ezra. "How's he doin'?" Chris stared down at the smaller man as he gently placed the back of his hand along the lightly whiskered cheek. They'd decided to give him a break in honor of the day, but one of them would have to shave him in the morning, or it would start itching again.
"He's been a little restless. Feels warmer to me, what do ya think?" Buck still had a tight hold on Ezra's hand since the contact seemed to help him sleep better. He'd found stroking the younger man's hand when he started to stir calmed him, and it was while doing this that he had finally noticed the very faint pale scars on the back of Ezra's wrist. There had been no doubt in his mind that here was the reason Ezra was so against being in any kind of restraints. Buck had decided he needed to bring this up with Nathan. He knew the healer would have to have noticed the scars, and he had a feeling the former slave knew exactly what had caused them.
Chris nodded his agreement and continued to stare at Ezra. This was so much like all the times he'd sat with Adam as a baby when he was sick, frustrated because his son was too young to be able to tell him what was wrong. The only difference was that Ezra was capable of telling them when it hurt... he just wouldn't. The teachings of his mother ran deep, and he was convinced it was a punishable offense just to *be* sick, much less to actually complain about it.
Vin ran his hand lightly back and forth over Ezra's leg, comforting himself as much as the gambler. An image of his mother lying in her bed bathed in sweat, dying of a fever, popped into his mind as he felt the warmth of Ezra's body even through the blankets covering his legs. The tracker quickly pushed it away by reminding himself that Nathan had said the Southerner was likely coming down with a cold after that mess the other night. He knew Nathan would never have left Ezra's side if he'd thought the fever was anything serious.
Vin had been five when he'd had to sit helplessly by his mother's bedside and watch her die... the same age Ezra thought he was now. The sharpshooter looked at the gambler, watching a slight frown appear on his face as his dreams took a dark turn again, and compared the first five years of their lives. Vin's had been a life of near poverty, but filled with love from his mother. That love had been enough to see him through the rough times he'd encountered growing up on his own. His hold on Ezra's leg tightened as he thought about what they'd learned about the Southerner's childhood.
Ezra's had apparently been filled with nothing but pain, fear and loneliness... leaving him with nothing to sustain him when things got tough later. Oh, he'd had that brief period of happiness when he'd been left with his uncle David, but Vin knew that Ezra had to resent the fact that the man had given him up so easily. And even with his mother still alive, Vin knew the Southerner's life had been no less lonely and empty than his own had been. Maybe even more so... at least Vin had the memories of his mother's love to comfort him, Ezra didn't even have that. And yet Ezra had still turned out a caring and decent man... he'd deny it vigorously if he were told that... but that didn't make it any less true. Vin idly wondered if he, or any of the rest of them, would have turned out differently given the lousy start in life that Ezra had suffered through. Would they have had the same strength of character that the gambler obviously possessed?
Vin's mental ramblings were suddenly interrupted as Ezra began whimpering and tossing about in the bed. He leaned across Ezra's legs, pinning him to the bed as Chris and Buck fought to bring him out of the nightmare that was invading his sleep.
Chris pressed down on Ezra's shoulders, leaning close to join Buck in trying to wake the gambler. "Ezra! Come on, little guy... you're safe."
"Wake up, pard. We're right here with ya... no one's gonna hurt ya now." Buck patted gently at Ezra's face, his heart breaking at the frightened mutterings and the tears that were flowing down his flushed cheeks.
Ezra's struggling increased as the nightmare escalated and they had all they could do to keep him in the bed. Nothing they did was working. His body thrashed as he tried to pull out of their grip, and his cries grew louder and more terrified. "W'et me go!! Don't!! No, Unca Maffew... stop!! Pwease... pwease don't... do... d'at... No!!" The men felt him stiffen and almost lost their grip on him when they were startled by his eyes suddenly flying open.
Ezra was obviously not seeing them, but reliving instead some horrible event in his past. He stared wildly about the room and then focused on a spot in the corner, his eyes widening in fright. His gaze was so intense that the others couldn't help but follow it, fully expecting to see the horrific scene he must have been witnessing.
Just as they turned there eyes back to Ezra, desperate to wake him and bring him back to where he was safe, he tore himself out of their hands, sat straight up in the bed, and screamed hoarsely, "'Manda!! Noooo!!!!"
Once he'd recovered from the shock of the scream, Buck clasped Ezra's face tightly in his hands and forced the gambler to look at him. "Ezra! Listen to me, Little One... you're safe now! It's all a dream... it's over now!" Buck saw the terrified green eyes finally begin to focus on him and felt Ezra begin to tremble violently as he slowly came back to them.
"B-Buck?" Ezra's hand came up to grip Buck's arm, his fingers digging painfully through his sleeve as he tried to shake off the terror of his dream. "Howld me, Buck... pwease... I'm scarwed." His voice had faded to just a shaky whisper as he begged to be pulled into the safety of the gunman's arms.
Chris rubbed Ezra's back gently as Buck wrapped his arms around the smaller man, bending his head to whisper soothingly in his ear. "I'm here, Little One... Chris and Vin are here, too. We're not gonna let anyone hurt you, baby."
Chris felt the trembling slowly ease beneath his hand and started gently questioning Ezra. He knew it would help the gambler if he could just talk about what was scaring him, but he wasn't prepared for just how deep Ezra's fear ran.
"What was Uncle Matthew doing to you, Ezra?" Chris kept his voice low and soft and continued to move his hand over the frightened Southerner's back.
Ezra clung tighter to Buck and the trembling began again as he shook his head slowly against the older man's shoulder. "No... can't talk 'bout it... not s'posed to."
Buck pressed his hand against Ezra's head, smoothing back the tousled locks as he attempted to keep him calm. "It'll help if ya tell us, Ezra... it might even make the nightmares go away."
"No, Buck... you don't un'erwstand... it's not safe forw me to talk 'bout it." Ezra pulled himself out of Buck's arms and curled up in a tight ball on the bed, burrowing his face in the pillow as his body shuddered against the memories they were forcing on him.
Chris glanced at the other two men and then turned back to Ezra, deciding to try a different question. "Ezra?" He waited until the younger man looked up at him before continuing. "What happened to 'Manda?"
The effect on Ezra was devastating. He immediately burst into tears and struck out at Chris. "Don't ask me d'at!!" Sitting up in the bed again, he frantically turned his terrified gaze from Chris to Buck, his head swiveling back and forth as his fingers plucked fretfully at the blankets. "I can't tewll you d'at... Unca Maffew tol' me not to tewll anyone 'bout 'Manda!!"
"Uncle Matthew can't hurt you anymore, little guy... we won't let him. It's safe to tell us what happened." Buck tried to put his arm around Ezra's shoulders, but he jerked himself back against the headboard, wincing as his head hit the solid wood with a painful thump.
"No!! You'rwe not w'istenin' to me!" Ezra started to sob, his voice low and husky as he pleaded with them to understand. "He warwned me what would happen if I tol' anybody. I can't tewll you... I can't... pwease don't make me tewll you 'bout 'Manda... pwease..." He pulled his legs up and wrapped his arm tightly around them, resting his head wearily against his knees. "He'll kiwll you if I tewll... he'll come an' kiwll awll of you..." Ezra raised his head and they all flinched at the haunted look on his tear-stained face as he whispered, "then he'll kiwll me."
Buck and Chris reached for him and started to promise him that nothing would happen, but Vin stood and pushed them away from Ezra, his usually placid blue eyes flashing and his voice quivering with anger. "Damn it... that's enough. Can't ya see what you're doin' to 'im? Leave 'im alone." He sat down beside Ezra on the bed and wrapped his hand gently around the gambler's arm.
Bending to look into his tormented green eyes, Vin promised, "It's okay, Ezra... ya don't have t' tell. Jus' let it all go, pard." He let his hand slide up and around the gambler's shoulders, tugging gently until Ezra sobbed softly and collapsed against him.
"F'ank you, Vin." His voice was weak and shaky and his hand trembled as he wrapped it in the soft material of Vin's shirt. "I'm sowwy."
Chris and Buck looked up as Nathan walked in and backed away from the bed so he could move in to check Ezra over. The healer placed his hand on Ezra's back and immediately scowled up at the other two men when he felt the shudders rippling through the gambler. "What the hell's goin' on? What did y'all do t' 'im?"
They started to explain, but Ezra's soft words stopped them. "Don't bwame d'em, Nafan... d'ey werwe jus' twyin' to hewlp me."
"He had another nightmare, Nathan." Vin gave the healer a silent plea to let it drop and breathed a sigh of relief when he nodded and settled for shooting a 'we'll talk about this later' warning at Chris and Buck.
Nathan leaned over so he could look into Ezra's face and saw the flush of fever still on his cheeks. "You jus' sit here with Vin, little guy, an' I'll go brew ya up some tea that'll make ya feel better, okay?" As soon as the Southerner nodded, Nathan rose off the bed and headed over to the small stove, glaring once more at Buck and Chris as he brushed past them.
Buck exchanged a guilty look with Chris before moving to sit beside Vin and Ezra. They'd let their anger and hatred for his uncle Matthew get in the way of what they knew was best for Ezra. Buck gently stroked the back of the younger man's head as he apologized. "We're sorry, Little One. We didn't mean to upset ya like that... you don't have to talk about it if ya don't want to."
Ezra kept his face pressed against Vin's chest, shaking his head slightly at Buck's apology. "I'm sowwy, Buck... I jus' can't..." Soft sobs again shook him as he gasped out, "I c-can't... t-talk about... it."
Nathan approached the bed and roughly pushed Buck out of his way, pointing at the door before kneeling beside the bed. "Here, Ezra... drink some of this for me." Nathan shot another angry glare at the two men who were quietly leaving the clinic when he got a look at the incredible sadness in the gambler's eyes. The healer and Vin exchanged a worried look when Ezra failed to offer a protest to Nathan holding the cup for him, or even at having to drink the tea. He just quietly sipped the warm liquid down until the cup was empty and then let Vin ease his head back down against his shoulder.
Nathan draped the blankets over Ezra before patting him gently and telling him he had to step outside for a minute, but he'd be right back. The smaller man nodded, but never said a word... just sat there letting Vin rock him slowly back and forth.
Buck and Chris both jumped when Nathan stormed out onto the landing. They'd never seen him quite so angry and knew they deserved every bit of it. They'd both completely blown it with Ezra, and they just prayed they hadn't done any permanent damage to their Little One.
Josiah and JD were just coming up onto the boardwalk beneath the clinic when they heard the shouting begin. They hurried up the stairs and approached the three men standing just outside the clinic door.
"Brother Nathan, might I suggest we move this somewhere else? We don't want the whole town hearing this, and we definitely don't want you upsetting Ezra." Josiah's words were quiet, but left no room for argument.
Nathan nodded and muttered angrily as he headed for the stairs. "Don't gotta worry 'bout upsettin' Ezra... these two fools done took care of that already."
JD and Josiah exchanged astonished looks as they watched Chris and Buck follow meekly behind the healer. Nathan had called Chris Larabee a fool... whatever had happened must have been bad. The two men hesitated, glancing at the clinic door and then down at the three figures who were headed across the street to the jail. Realizing Ezra must be in Vin's capable hands, they decided to follow the others and find out exactly what had happened to push Nathan into speaking to Chris like that... and how the hell he had managed to live through it.
Vin continued to gently rock Ezra until he finally felt the trembling stop. "Ya wanna lay down, pard?"
But Ezra clung tighter and shook his head, so Vin shifted on the bed until he was leaning back against the headboard and went back to rocking the gambler. He was relieved when Ezra finally began talking. His voice was still a little shaky, but anything was better than the utter silence he'd lapsed into since speaking to Nathan.
"Buck and Chwis arwe mad at me, arwen't d'ey?" Ezra's voice sounded so sad, Vin would gladly have strangled the two men himself. He hoped Nathan gave them hell. Vin knew they only wanted to help, but they were letting their thirst for revenge against that bastard cloud their judgement as to what was best for Ezra.
Vin untied his bandana and used it to gently wipe the tears from the gambler's face as he answered him. "Naw... they're not mad at ya, little guy... they're mad at themselves for upsettin' ya. They're just so angry at your uncle for hurtin' ya, that they're not thinkin' real straight right now."
Ezra tilted his face up to look into Vin's compassionate blue eyes and tried to apologize again. "I'm sowwy, Vin... I wanna tewll y'all what happened... but I jus' can't."
Vin smoothed Ezra's hair back and gave him a reassuring smile. "That's okay, pard... don't you worry 'bout none of that. You don't have t' talk about nothin' ya don't want t' an' nobody's gonna get mad at ya for it. Okay?"
Ezra pressed tighter against Vin and nodded. "Vin? Would you pway some music forw me?"
Keeping one arm wrapped tightly around the Southerner, Vin pulled his mouth organ out of his pocket. "Anything for you, little guy." He smiled as he felt Ezra snuggle his head up under his chin, and began blowing some soft soothing tunes which quickly calmed the gambler's frazzled nerves. Vin felt Ezra relax against him and stopped for a minute to ask him if he wanted to join in. When he felt him nod, Vin reached over to the table and retrieved Ezra's harmonica for him. Soon the clinic was filled with the sweet music that came straight from their hearts.
Nathan had just started shouting when Josiah and JD hurried into the jail, closing the door securely behind them.
"What the hell is wrong with you two?! I told ya not t' be pushin' 'im an' what do ya do the minute my back is turned?!... ya get 'im so upset he's sobbin' in Vin's arms an' shakin' like the devil was after 'im!"
Chris knew they were guilty of what Nathan was saying, but he was getting real tired of being yelled at. He started to protest... tried giving the healer one of his scathing glares... and was quickly shot down.
Nathan merely pointed one dark finger right in his face and started yelling again. "Don't even try it! I ain't the least bit concerned with your feelin's or how sorry y'all are! All I care about is Ezra layin' up there cryin' his eyes out jus' 'cause he thinks he disappointed two of his heroes!"
Josiah and JD had all they could do not to laugh at the stricken looks on Buck's and Chris's faces. Nathan really knew how to lay on the guilt when he had to.
"Now this is the last time I'm tellin' ya... and this goes for you two standin' back there snickerin', too..." Josiah and JD straightened up real quick when Nathan's wrath was turned on them. "Leave 'im the hell alone 'bout these damn nightmares... if he has another one, hold 'im and talk t' 'im until he's calmed down. If he wants t' talk about it, listen an' keep your mouth shut... don't be badgerin' 'im with no damn questions! Whatever this sonofabitchin' uncle of his did, it's got 'im scared t' death... an' their ain't nothin' we can do 'bout it now 'cept try'n make 'im feel safe again."
Nathan finally wound down and took a deep breath, trying to get his feelings under control. The sight of Ezra crying and shaking again had been just too damn much for him. That poor boy had had enough heartache in his life without his friends adding to it... no matter how well-intentioned their actions were. "Have y'all got that? I don't wanna have t' go through this with ya again."
Buck, who had been amazingly silent through the healer's tirade, finally heaved a sigh, totally disgusted with himself. He couldn't believe he'd allowed himself to get carried away like that and hurt his Little One. "I'm sorry, Nathan... you know I'd rather cut my damn arm off than to hurt Ezra like that. I just hate seein' 'im in so much pain... an' I keep thinkin' if we knew what was causin' it, maybe we could help 'im." Buck stopped and stared searchingly at Nathan. "You know what's causin' part of it, don't ya? You know about the whippin'... about those scars on the back of his wrists."
Chris, Josiah and JD stared at Buck and then Nathan... scars? They'd never even noticed the ones on his wrists... just those on his back.
Nathan sighed and leaned back against the desk. Damn, he really didn't want to have to tell them now... they were having enough trouble dealing with Ezra's nightmares as it was. But he could see by the looks on their faces that he didn't have any choice, so he finally took a deep breath and started explaining his theory on what had probably happened with the whipping Ezra had mentioned.
By the time he had finished and seen their looks of horror and disgust, he'd changed his mind and decided that maybe it was a good thing he'd told them. Now maybe knowing what the boy had been through, they wouldn't be so eager to make him remember it.
They all had tears in their eyes when Nathan finally finished his grizzly explanation for Ezra's fears and scars. Tears of sorrow for what their brother had been put through, and also tears of anger because there was nothing they could do about it.
JD felt sick to his stomach at the thought of *anyone* doing something like that to a child, much less a relative who should have been loving and protecting him. He looked up and saw the absolute hatred shining in the older men's eyes, and shuddered to think of what would happen if any of them ever got their hands on this Uncle Matthew of Ezra's.
As if in silent agreement, the five men looked at each other and filed slowly out of the jail. They suddenly felt an irresistible urge to be with Ezra... to make him smile again and to try and drive away the image they all carried now of him as a small boy, strapped to a post and being whipped. But they all knew it would be a long time before that image was completely gone... if ever.
Mary and Inez were just coming out of the Clarion's office, their arms piled with boxes of food, when they saw the men leaving the jail. Mary called out to them and waited as they hurried over to help.
"Just in time, gentlemen. Everything's nice and hot, and we even managed to convince Mrs. Arlington to donate one of her delicious pumpkin pies for your dessert." Mary's smile faltered as she saw the looks on their faces. "Is everything alright? Something hasn't happened with Ezra has it?"
Nathan shook his head. "He's fine, ma'am. Jus' might be comin' down with a little cold, nothin' serious."
Mary nodded hesitantly and glanced at Inez. They knew there was more that Nathan wasn't saying, but they wouldn't pry. Ezra was in good hands, and they were sure his brothers could take care of whatever the problem was. "Well, I hope you enjoy the meal, and tell Ezra we hope he's having a nice Christmas." The two women handed the men the boxes and turned to head back down to the church.
"Mary, Inez... thanks for all your help." Chris spoke softly, his eyes still haunted by what he'd learned about Ezra.
The women nodded and continued on down the street, their hearts filled with worry for their southern friend. Something had obviously happened with Ezra. Mary and Inez shared a look and knew their prayers would be a little longer tonight... they had a feeling Ezra needed all the help he could get right now.
Chris handed Buck the box he was carrying and walked back over to the jail. They watched him curiously, wondering what he was doing, and then smiled as he hooked his arm around the rocker that always sat in front of the jail and began walking toward the clinic with it. When he saw them all standing there grinning at him, Chris shot a glare their way and continued walking. "I promised him a story and he needs to be rocked... and the first one of you that laughs'll be doin' that month of patrol I promised Ezra."
The others managed to muffle their snorts of amusement and followed Chris and the rocker up the stairs to the clinic. They all smiled when they entered the room and were immediately surrounded by the sweet sounds of the two harmonica players nestled together on the bed.
Ezra's face lit up when he saw what Chris was carrying. "Chwis! You found a w'ockin' chairw!"
Everyone was relieved to see that Vin had apparently managed to get Ezra over his nightmare, and that the tea seemed to have worked to make him feel better. Now they all just wanted to do whatever it took to keep that smile on his face.
"I told you I'd find us one. Now how 'bout we sit down and enjoy this delicious Christmas dinner that Mary and Inez sent over for ya, and then we'll see about reading you that bedtime story." Chris went over to the bed and was thrilled when Ezra threw himself into his arms, gave him a big hug, and whispered sweetly in his ear, "I wuv you, Chwis."
Chris wrapped his arms around the younger man and returned the hug. "I love you, too, Ezra. You got that story picked out?"
Ezra giggled and whispered back, "Yeah, Chwis... it's the w'ongest one I could find."
Chris smiled as Ezra's giggle immediately came to a halt when he whispered back, "Well, you better stay awake for the whole thing or I'm dumping your little butt on the floor."
"You would not, Chwis! Nafan would yell at you if you did d'at... w'ight, Nafan?" Ezra turned to the healer for confirmation and smiled when Nathan nodded his head.
Nathan had no idea what he was agreeing to, but he figured if it gave him a chance to holler at Chris again without getting his head taken off, it was alright by him. He grinned hugely at the gunslinger as he took Ezra's hand and helped him off the bed before leading him over to the table. "Let's see jus' what the ladies sent over for us t' eat, Ezra. All these good smells floatin' 'round the clinic are makin' my mouth water."
Everyone crowded around the table and unpacked the boxes, smiling and laughing as Ezra exclaimed excitedly over every new dish that was set on the table. Once all the food was spread out, and everyone was seated, Josiah asked that everyone bow their head so he could say grace.
"Lord... thank you for this wonderful bounty that was so kindly prepared for us and for allowing us to all be here together to enjoy it. And most of all, Lord... thank you for sending Lit'l Ezra to spend this glorious day with us. He is definitely the best gift you could have presented us with. Amen."
Everyone looked up at Ezra and had to blink away tears as they stared at his smiling face, and thanked God one more time for letting him remain with them long enough to give him his special Christmas.
Everyone agreed that Mary and Inez had outdone themselves with the dinner. Every kind of dish that made a Christmas feast special had been provided and cooked to perfection. As soon as Josiah was finished with the prayer, they all eagerly began filling their plates... with special care taken to see that Ezra's was heaped with all his favorites. The young gambler was the center of attention with the talk focusing on how much he loved Christmas now, the wonderful presents he'd received... any topic they could think of that would keep a smile on his face. All mention of his nightmare was carefully avoided.
Chris was the first to notice that although Ezra had happily chattered and giggled throughout the entire meal, he'd barely eaten anything. The gunslinger caught Nathan's attention and nodded down at the Southerner's plate and watched as the healer frowned when he saw that most of the food had been left untouched. Nathan caught Ezra looking down the table at JD and mouthed 'fever?' at Chris.
Ezra looked up at Chris as he felt his hand rub gently against his cheek and smiled. The older man smiled back, but as soon as the gambler turned away again, a worried frown appeared and he nodded at Nathan.
Buck had seen the by-play between Chris and Nathan and glanced at Ezra who was now leaning against his arm. He took in the slight flush of his cheeks and the listless way he was picking at his food and knew something was wrong.
"Ya haven't eaten very much, little guy... ya feelin' okay?" Buck slipped his arm around Ezra's shoulders and could feel how much warmer the smaller man felt than he had earlier.
Ezra looked up at Buck and forced a half-hearted smile to his face. "I'm okay, Buck... jus' not verwy hungrwy."
Buck could see that his usually bright and shiny green eyes were now dull and glazed looking, and he knew Ezra wasn't telling him the truth. He looked up, intending to tell Nathan he better check the gambler out, only to find the healer one step ahead of him.
Nathan leaned over Ezra and looked into his eyes while he placed his hand gently over the smaller man's forehead. He knew they had trouble when Ezra offered no resistance to him checking for a fever, but instead leaned into the touch. He took in the glassy stare, rosy cheeks, and uncharacteristic silence, and immediately had Chris move so he could sit down next to the gambler.
"Alright, Ezra... now I want the truth. Ya don't feel good, do ya?" Nathan watched Ezra hesitate and knew he was about to lie. "Ezra... the truth."
Ezra stared at Nathan for a moment and then slowly shook his head.
Nathan gently smoothed his hair back. "Can ya tell me what's wrong?"
Ezra glanced up at the others, and comforted by their soft smiles and nods, finally looked back at Nathan and answered him. "My head huwts, Nafan." He raised a hand and rubbed at the center of his forehead. "W'ight herwe in d' middlwe."
Buck heard the tears threatening and saw his lower lip begin to quiver, and gently began rubbing his back to calm him.
"Does it hurt anywhere else?" Nathan asked as he ran his fingers over Ezra's neck, gently probing the area under his jaw.
Ezra nodded and began to cry softly as he slumped back against Buck. "It huwts everwywherwe, Nafan... w'ike one big toofache."
Nathan heard the raspy quality of the gambler's voice and immediately had him open his mouth so he could get a look at his throat. He winced when he saw how inflamed it was and wondered how Ezra had managed to choke down what little food he had actually eaten.
Buck wrapped his arms around Ezra and looked worriedly up at the healer. "What is it, Nathan? A cold?"
Nathan nodded. He'd hoped the Southerner would be spared this complication from his little excursion out in the rain, but they apparently weren't going to be that lucky. He patted Ezra's arm and rose off the bench. "Ya jus' sit tight there with Buck, little guy, an' I'll go fix ya some tea with a little honey in it."
"Honey, Nafan? Wiwll d'at make it taste betterw?" Ezra reached up and dried his eyes on his sleeve as he looked hopefully up at the healer.
Nathan smiled down at Ezra, touching his face gently. "Yeah, an' it'll make your throat feel a little better, too."
The others all clustered around Ezra... patting him gently, talking quietly to him... just generally fussing over him in a combined effort to reassure him, as well as themselves, that he was going to be okay.
By the time Nathan had the tea ready, Ezra was more than ready to drink it. His head and throat were worse, and he was just generally beginning to feel miserable.
Buck helped him to sit up and supported him while Nathan held the cup to his lips, encouraging him to take small sips and let the liquid just ease down his throat. Even following the healer's advice, they could see how painful it was for Ezra to get the tea down. He whimpered and shed a few tears, but swallowed it all without any complaints... a definite sign of just how bad he was actually feeling.
When he was done, Nathan set the now empty cup on the table and moved to help him up. "Let's get ya t' bed now so ya can get some rest."
But Ezra pulled away from the healer and looked up at Chris. "No, Nafan... Chwis is s'posed to w'ead me a storwy. He even got d' w'ockin' chairw forw us to use. W'ight, Chwis?"
Chris looked from Ezra's pleading face to Nathan's grim, no-nonsense expression and remembered the earlier chewing out he'd had to endure. "Um... how 'bout we postpone it til tomorrow night... maybe you'll be feelin' better then." He took one look at Ezra... the quivering lower lip, the green eyes glistening with tears... and decided to shift the blame to the healer. "Besides, Nathan wants you to go to sleep now and he knows what's best."
Ezra pushed back against Buck as Nathan again reached for his arm, and began to cry in earnest. "No, Nafan... Chwis pwomised me! He s-said he'd w'ead to m-me an'... an' w'ock me... you p-pwomised, Chwis!"
Nathan shot the gunslinger a dirty look and finally backed down. "Okay, Ezra... I guess it won't hurt nothin' as long as ya stay quiet an' jus' listen... no talkin' though. Ya understand?"
Ezra nodded and whispered quietly. "Uh-huh... I'll be good, Nafan. I pwomise." He stood on shaky legs and reached up to wrap his arm around Nathan's neck. "F'ank you, Nafan... I wuv you."
Everyone quickly turned away to hide their smiles when they saw Nathan's stern facade completely crumble as he wrapped his arms around Ezra and gave him a warm hug. "I love you, too, Ezra... you jus' remember your promise an' don't be askin' Chris no questions while he's readin'... an' jus' one story an' then straight t' bed, okay?"
Nathan felt Ezra nod and also felt him shiver slightly. "Buck, get one of them blankets off the bed an' we'll wrap 'im up 'fore he gets settled on Chris's lap."
Chris moved the rocker over near the stove to help keep Ezra as warm as possible, and then sat down. He'd purposefully grabbed one of the rockers with no arms so that it would be easier to arrange Ezra comfortably on his lap.
Nathan held onto Ezra as they walked over to the rocker. He could feel the gambler weave on his feet and knew he probably wouldn't last through a whole story before he was sound asleep. He and Buck placed the blanket over the smaller man's shoulders and pulled it tight around him before helping him to ease down onto Chris's lap.
Chris was surprised at how light the gambler actually was... he had a slender build, but he wasn't really what you would call skinny. He imagined though that Ezra would feel much heavier after he'd been rocking him for awhile... but it was worth it if it made him feel even a little bit better.
It took some maneuvering, but Buck and Nathan finally got Ezra settled. They sat him crossways with his legs hanging over the side of Chris's lap and his head cradled against the older man's shoulder. Then they tucked the blanket in, and held him in place while Chris wrapped his arms around him and got the book situated in a comfortable position.
Chris opened the book and looked down at the smaller man. "Okay, Ezra... which story did you pick out?"
Ezra pulled his arm out of the blanket and carefully turned the pages of the book until he came to the picture he remembered. He pointed at the picture of a little blonde girl standing in front of three bears. "D'is one, Chwis... d'is is d' one I want you to w'ead to me."
"Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Okay, little guy... put your head back down, and we'll get started." Chris smiled as he felt Ezra quickly put his head against his shoulder and felt the gambler's warm, smooth forehead press against his neck.
"Once upon a time..."
"W'ock, Chwis. You'rwe s'posed to be w'ockin' me."
Chris shot a warning glare at the other men scattered around the room as he heard the first muffled snorts of laughter, and slowly began moving the rocking chair back and forth. "Okay now, Ezra?"
"Mm-hmm... d'at's betterw, Chwis. You can go back to d' storwy now."
"Once upon a time..."
"You aw'weady w'ead d'at parwt, Chwis."
"Once... um... there were three little bears, a Mama bear, a Papa bear, and a Baby bear. These bears lived in a house in the woods, which is very unusual for bears."
"Bearws don't w'ive in houses... do d'ey, Chwis? Don't d'ey w'ive in caves?"
"Ezra Payton Stan-"
"One day Mama Bear was making porridge for breakfast..."
"Bearws don't eat powwidge, do d'ey? I f'ought d'ey ate bewwies an' fish an'..." Ezra glanced up at Chris's face and quickly put his head back down on the man's shoulder.
Chris closed his eyes and silently counted slowly to ten as he tried to ignore the strangled sounds of his men choking back their laughter. <He's sick... just remember that... he's sick.> He heaved a long-suffering sigh of frustration and continued, actually making it to the next page before another interruption occurred.
"She tasted the Papa bear's porridge, but it was too hot. She tasted the Mama bear's porridge, but it was too cold. She tasted the Baby bear's porridge, and it was just right. So, she..."
"If d' mama bear poured all d' bowls of powwidge at d' same time... how come d'ey all didn't get cold at d' same time?" Ezra risked a quick peek up at Chris's face. He would have sworn he heard the older man growl.
"She used different sized bowls."
"But d' baby bear's bowl would've been d' w'ittlest, wouldn't it? Why wouldn't it get cowld firwst? Wouldn't d'..." This time Ezra was sure he heard Chris growl.
Chris stopped rocking and stared down at Ezra until he finally raised his head up and looked at him. "What did Nathan tell you before you even sat down here?"
Chris felt his anger dissolve as he stared at Ezra. His cheeks were rosy from the fever... his green eyes had fat droplets of tears poised in the corners, ready to fall at any moment... a few unruly curls of hair lay on his forehead... and there went that damn lower lip again. He glanced quickly at the others and saw them all grinning, waiting to see how long it was before he caved. They didn't have to wait long.
Ezra placed his face against Chris's cheek and whispered brokenly, "I'm sowwy, Chwis... I'll go to bed now if you want me to. I know I was bad."
Chris felt Ezra's hot tears trickle down both their cheeks and he caved. "That's okay, Ezra... there's nothin' wrong with asking questions. How else are you gonna learn?" The hardened gunslinger raised his hand to stroke the soft head pressed tightly against his, and turned to place a gentle kiss on the Southerner's feverish cheek. "I love you, Ezra."
Ezra heard Chris's whispered words and smiled through his tears, quickly whispering back, "I wuv you, too, Chwis... f'ank you forw not bein' mad at me."
Chris just nodded and brushed Ezra's tears away before pressing his head back down against his shoulder. He glanced down and smiled when he saw Ezra contentedly sucking his thumb as he waited quietly for the rest of the story. Chris wrapped his arms a little tighter around the gambler and slowly began rocking again as he continued reading.
There was no more laughter in the room, just a comfortable silence as they all sat and watched their brother have one more piece of his childhood returned to him.
Ezra never made it to the end of the story, but Chris kept rocking and reading until he finished it... unwilling to let go of the feelings that were running through him. Because even though the person in his lap was a grown man, one who on occasion aggravated him beyond belief when he was his normal self...he was still bringing back the joy Chris'd felt when he'd shared this same experience with his son. Ezra had been right... it *had* been good for both of them.
Josiah and Buck finally moved forward and stood next to the two men in the rocker. "Ya ready for us to put 'im to bed, Chris? Your legs've gotta be 'bout dead by now."
Chris looked down at the sleeping gambler and reluctantly loosened his hold on him. Buck helped Josiah lift Ezra up off of the gunslinger's lap and carefully lay him in the bed.
Chris watched as they got him tucked in, and smiled as Buck, even without Ezra begging him to, climbed in beside the younger man and gently wrapped his arms around him. Then he stood, wincing as blood rushed to his sleeping limbs and slowly moved to the door, pausing to announce he was going for a walk to get some fresh air and work some feeling back into his legs before heading home. The others silently watched him leave, knowing that he needed to be alone with his memories.
Nathan moved over to sit on the edge of the bed, gently laying his hand against Ezra's face and neck.
"He's warmer, isn't he, Nathan?" Buck could see the concern on the healer's dark features and his worry over his Little One increased even more.
"A little bit, yeah." Nathan saw Buck's frown deepen and smiled. "Buck... I told ya... it's jus' a cold, he'll be fine. He won't feel too good for a while, but it ain't nothin' serious." He shook his head as Buck still looked worried and tucked the covers tighter around Ezra. "Lord... an' y'all accuse me of fussin' too much... you got me beat all t' hell. You're gonna strangle 'im if ya keep tuckin' at them blankets."
Buck merely shrugged and stroked Ezra's hair gently. "Can't help it, Nathan. The little guy brings out the big brother in me."
Nathan shook his head again as he loosened the covers pinning poor Ezra to the bed. "Big brother hell... you're actin' more like a mama hen fussin' over her chick."
JD snorted at the healer's words. "Buck acting like a mother hen? Never." He smiled at the quiet laughter his sarcastic remark had elicited from the others, and grinned at the indignant look Buck immediately shot him.
Nathan stood and stretched, and tried unsuccessfully to smother a huge yawn. "I think Chris's bedtime story worked for me, too... can't seem t' keep my eyes open. I'm stayin' here tonight, jus' t' be on the safe side. You wake me if he seems like he's gettin' any worse. An' if he wakes up enough durin' the night, see if ya can get some more of that tea in 'im... jus' stir a spoonful of honey in it 'fore ya give it t' 'im."
Buck nodded and sat up long enough to pull his boots off before climbing under the covers. He smiled as Ezra immediately snuggled up against him, pushing his head up under the older man's chin as he worked to get as close as he could.
The other three men left in the clinic walked over and smiled down at the two in the bed. Vin and Josiah gently turned Ezra so that he was still pressed tightly against Buck, but wasn't putting any pressure on his broken arm. As soon as he felt the ladies man's arm wrap around him, he quieted down and drifted back to sleep.
Buck grinned up at the others. "Thanks... thought he was gonna shove me clear off the bed 'fore he got himself settled."
Josiah smiled and slapped JD on the back. "Well, Brother Dunne... how 'bout we go take a walk over to the church and see if there happen to be any of those desserts left. I don't know about you, but I could do with a bite to eat before I call it a night."
JD snatched up his coat and hat at the mention of food, and headed for the door. "Sounds good to me, Josiah... night, guys. See ya in the mornin'."
The others shook their heads and laughed at how fast the Kid could move when food was mentioned.
Josiah slid into his coat and threw his hat on as he followed after JD. "I better hurry, we all know how that boy loves to eat." But he hesitated at the door, looking back at Ezra. "Maybe I should stay... if he-"
Nathan walked over and placing his hand on the big man's back, gently pushed him out onto the landing. "He'll be fine. I keep tellin' y'all it's jus' a cold. Now get on over t' the church 'fore JD polishes off all those leftovers." He started to close the door and then stopped, glancing over at Vin. "You stayin' or leavin'?"
"Reckon I'll camp out here another night. Air's turned kinda cold for sleepin' in the wagon." Vin ignored the knowing looks of the other two men and spread his bedroll out on the floor near Buck and Ezra.
Nathan closed the door and fastened it before heading over to his cot... muttering just loud enough for the other two men to hear. "Too cold... this from the fool who wouldn't think twice 'bout goin' out on patrol in a blizzard."
Vin grinned sheepishly at Buck as he lowered himself down onto his make-shift bed. "Wake me if ya need me." Within minutes he was snoring softly.
Buck reached over and turned the lamp down to just a soft glow, and soon followed the tracker into sleep.
Ezra's nightmare returned shortly after midnight, but they were lucky enough to get him woke up before it got too bad. Buck sat up, and Vin helped him pull the still half-asleep gambler into his arms.
"B-Buck? He was herwe, Buck... he was h-herwe... I s-saw 'im..." Ezra clung to the older man's shirt as he sobbed brokenly against his chest.
"Shush now, Little One... it was just a dream... no one else is here." Buck managed to get Ezra to open his eyes and look at them. The gambler kept his hold on Buck as he peered warily around the room, convinced he was going to find his uncle lurking in the shadows.
"But it seemed so w'eal, Buck..." Ezra shivered and pressed his face against the larger man's chest again. "It seemed so w'eal."
Nathan brought over a mug of tea, and they managed to coax Ezra to drink most of it before he started complaining that it hurt his throat too much. He grudgingly allowed them to look down his throat, and then shed a few pitiful tears when they all exclaimed how sore it looked and how brave he was to drink the tea.
The three men sat with him, petting and fussing over him until his eyes finally began to droop, and then settled him back down in Buck's arms, hoping he'd be able to sleep the night through without anymore dreams.
But it just wasn't to be. Several more times, Buck and Vin were pulled from their sleep as Ezra began to moan and mumble fretfully. They were only able to catch a few words here and there, but Uncle Matthew was clearly the one who haunted the gambler as he tried to sleep. It was nearly dawn before the dreams finally stopped, giving them only a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Chris entered the clinic and could tell immediately that the night hadn't gone well. Buck, Vin, and Nathan all looked exhausted, and they were obviously having a rough time of it dealing with a rather whiney and irritable Ezra.
Chris laughed as Nathan walked over to him, shaking his head and trying to wipe away the spots of tea that dotted his clothes. "I take it he's not in the best of moods this morning?"
Nathan shook his head and glanced back at the bed. Buck and Vin were trying to coax Ezra into eating some breakfast, but so far, all they'd been able to get down him was part of a biscuit and the few sips of tea that hadn't ended up on Nathan. "Naw... he didn't get much sleep last night, an' his cold's a little worse this morning."
"More nightmares?" Chris frowned when the healer nodded and understood now why everyone looked so tired. "Is he going to be able to talk to the Judge this morning?"
Nathan stared over at Ezra who was now wrapped back up in Buck's arms, his thumb stuck in his mouth and tears glistening in his eyes. "Physically he's okay... jus' a little feverish an' achy, but emotionally I ain't so sure. Ya might have a hard time gettin' 'im t' cooperate."
"Well, hopefully once we tell him why he has to talk to the Judge, he'll be good about it. And you and Buck being with him should help some." Chris smiled over at Ezra when the gambler finally noticed he was there and called out his name.
Nathan gave Chris a reassuring pat on the shoulder and moved toward the door. "If he knows it's gonna keep him an' Buck together, then I'm sure ya won't have any trouble with 'im agreein'. I'm gonna go grab some breakfast 'fore the Judge gets here. See if ya can get some more of that tea in 'im... but watch out... his aim's pretty damn good when he decides he's had enough."
Chris laughed softly and turned toward the bed. He wasn't looking forward to telling Ezra what was in store for him today, but it had to be done. He just hoped the poor little guy would be able to handle the talk with the Judge... and his mother... all in the same day.
Vin ran his hand lightly over Ezra's hair before moving off the bed to let Chris take his place. "Ya gonna tell 'im now?"
Chris nodded and sat down beside Ezra, raising his eyebrows in surprise when the younger man quickly moved into his arms.
"Make d'em stop, Chwis... d'ey keep twyin' to make me eat." Ezra's voice was hoarse and scratchy and held the hint of tears. "It huwts too much when I swawwow."
Chris wrapped his arms around Ezra and rocked him slowly. He bent his head to whisper in the smaller man's ear while keeping his eyes on Buck and Vin. "Are they pickin' on my little guy?"
Vin let a small grin tug at his lips as he watched Ezra completely melt into Chris's arms when he heard him take his side.
"Yeah... d'ey'rwe bein' mean to me, Chwis... and I don't feewl good." Ezra whimpered softly as he buried his face in Chris's neck.
"Don't worry... I won't let them bother you now." Chris heard a very tired and grateful 'f'ank you' drift up from the form huddled in his arms, followed by a sweetly whispered, 'Wuv you, Chwis.' Shooting a quick wink at Buck, Chris began rubbing his hand over Ezra's back, soothing him as they rocked slowly back and forth. "I love you, too, Ezra... will you do something for me, Little One?"
Ezra was so happy to have found an ally and so relaxed by Chris's gentle touch, that he was ready to agree with anything the man said. "Mmm... hmm. Anyfing forw you, Chwis."
"Will you drink just a little bit of Nathan's tea for me if Vin sweetens it with a nice big spoonful of honey? I hate seeing you feelin' so bad, and I want to do something to help make you feel better." Chris kept his voice low and soft and continued rubbing Ezra's back as he talked. They'd found that the back rubs went a long way towards calming the gambler whenever he was upset, and Chris was relieved to feel it working again.
Ezra sighed and nuzzled contentedly against the older man's neck. "Wiwll you w'ock me again if I drwink it, Chwis? Pwease?"
Chris grinned smugly at the look of disbelief that washed over Buck's and Vin's faces. They kept forgetting that he'd been through all this before with Adam. He and Sarah had hated doing it this way because it had fed straight into their small son's little ploy of playing one of them against the other, but when it came to giving much needed medicine, they used any tactic that would work. "Okay, Little One... you drink the tea and then we'll rock."
Chris and Buck sat Ezra up on the edge of the bed and kept their arms around him while Vin fetched the mug of tea. Chris held it to his lips and told him to sip it slowly so it wouldn't hurt so much. He managed to get over half of the sweetened herbal brew down Ezra before he began fussing and pleading that he couldn't drink anymore.
Chris set the mug on the bedside table, and then helped the Southerner up and led him over to the chair. He bent his head to Ezra's ear and whispered a quiet suggestion. "You know, I think maybe you ought to ask Buck to rock you. He's liable to get a mite jealous if we keep having all the fun." Chris smiled as he saw Ezra shoot a worried look at Buck, and gladly relinquished his place at the rocker when he heard the gambler make his request and receive an eager acceptance from the ladies man.
Vin helped Chris get Ezra settled on Buck's lap and then headed for the door. "Guess I'll go grab somethin' t' eat an' head out. I took Nathan's turn on patrol so's he could be here with the Little One this mornin'." He glanced at the gambler snuggled tightly against Buck and then at Chris. "Good luck."
Chris nodded his thanks as Vin left, and then turned to pull a chair over next to the two men in the rocker. He and Buck exchanged a nervous look... they hated to do this to Ezra, especially when he didn't feel good, but they had no choice.
"Ezra? Buck and I need to talk to you about something... and you need to be a real brave boy for us, okay?" Chris reached out and took the younger man's hand and squeezed it gently as he saw the look of apprehension that flooded his eyes.
Chris kept his hold on Ezra's hand, hoping the younger man would be able to draw some strength from his touch when he told him what was about to happen. "Ezra... you know we want you to stay here with us... more than anything. And we're ready to do everything we have to to keep you here. But... you're gonna have to help us, little guy."
Ezra looked at Chris and promised quickly, "Anyfing, Chwis... I'll do anyfing to get to stay wif you guys."
"I hope so, Ezra." Chris took a deep breath, glanced at Buck, and finally told the gambler what he had to do. "We need you to talk to Judge Travis and tell him everything you told us about your mama, and how she was always sending you away..."
"I can do d'at, Chwis. I tol' you... anyfing you-" Ezra instantly agreed, but was cut off as Buck continued with what Chris had been trying to tell the gambler.
"Wait, Little One... there's more." Buck hesitated, knowing how badly Ezra was going to hate what he was about to say. He stared into the smaller man's expectant eyes and put his arm around his shoulders. "Ya have to tell the Judge what Uncle Matthew did to ya."
Buck and Chris both felt a tremor of fear ripple through Ezra as he began shaking his head. "No... oh... no, pwease, Buck... I can't do d'at... not d'at..." He turned to Chris, tears streaming down his face, his breathing ragged and harsh as he fought the panic that was flooding through him. "Pwease, Chwis... don't make me do d'at. Anyfing, Chwis... I'll do anyfing you want me to... but... I... I can't tewll. I can't, Chwis... I jus'... can't."
Chris winced as Ezra's fingers dug into his hand, but he held on tight as he tried to explain why he had to do what they wanted. "Ezra, listen to me now... it won't be that bad. You've met Judge Travis... and Nathan and Buck will be right here with you to stop it if it gets to be too much for you."
"Ya know we won't let nothin' happen to ya, Little One." Buck tried to pull Ezra into his arms, but he resisted... holding his body stiffly away from the two men as he shuddered uncontrollably and continued to shake his head.
"But d' Judge wiwll want me to talk 'bout my nightmarwe! I can't do d'at, Buck... I... I can't..." Ezra's eyes were haunted as he stared at the two men.
Buck finally managed to get his arms around the gambler and ease him back against his chest. He started rocking gently as Chris kept trying to get through to him.
"You don't have to talk about your nightmare, little guy... the Judge doesn't even know about it. Just tell him about your mama, Uncle David, and what you already told us about Uncle Matthew. You can do that, can't you?" Chris reached out and smoothed Ezra's hair back, his heart aching with the fear and dread he saw reflected in the young Southerner's eyes. "We want to keep you here with us, and this is the only way to do it. The Judge has to hear what they did to you before he can help us."
Ezra looked hopefully at Chris. "Can't *you* tewll him what I said? Pwease, Chwis."
Chris debated on letting Ezra know that he'd already told it all to the Judge, but decided it probably would be better if he didn't. "He needs to hear it directly from you, Ezra." He could see that Ezra still wasn't convinced, so as much as he hated to, Chris decided they'd have to try scaring him into cooperating.
He glanced at Buck and hoped he'd go along with what he was about to do and not try to tear his head off instead. Chris took one look at Ezra's tear-stained face and almost changed his mind... until he remembered what was at stake. Ezra's safety and happiness would hopefully be the end result of making him miserable now, so Chris braced himself for what he knew was coming and started.
"Your mama's coming today, Ezra..." he hesitated at the panicked look that immediately washed over the gambler's face. <Oh, God... I can't do this to him. Maybe we should just take him now and head to Mexico.> Chris looked at Buck, his eyes clearly showing how much this was killing him, and was relieved to see the other man give him a sympathetic look and nod to go ahead with it. "Ezra... if you don't tell the Judge what he needs to know, he'll have to let your mama take you home with her."
The result of Chris's statement was instantaneous and absolutely heart-breaking to witness. Ezra shot straight up in Buck's lap and his face turned almost as white as the nightshirt he wore. His whole body began to tremble, and his eyes... oh God, those incredible green eyes... the hurt that shone out of them was almost painful to look at. It took several tries before Ezra could even bring himself to speak, but when he did his voice held so much anguish, it brought an immediate rush of tears to Chris's eyes. He reached for the stricken gambler, desperately wanting to hold him and tell him they wouldn't let it happen, but Buck quickly grabbed his arm and stopped him. They had to go through with it... nothing else had worked.
"But... but y'all pwomised me you wouldn't w'et d'at happen. You said you'd do anyfing to keep me wif you... Buck? You pwomised... you said..." Ezra began to sob as the terror of knowing he was being taken away from Buck finally penetrated the shock of Chris's words. "No, Buck! Pwease! You can't w'et herw take me! You pwomised me!"
Chris grabbed Ezra's shoulders and forced him to look at him. "It's not Buck's fault, Ezra... the Judge said that if he tries to interfere, he'll have no choice but to put him in jail. He can't take care of you if he's in jail, can he?"
Ezra's eyes grew huge and his voice dropped to a hoarse whisper as he turned his pain-filled gaze on Buck. "You could go to jaiwl? Because of me?"
Buck placed his hand against Ezra's cheek, stroking it gently as he stared deeply into the younger man's eyes and nodded. "Yeah, I might have to. But if that's what I have to do to keep you with me... then I'd gladly go to jail."
"You'd go to jaiwl forw me?" Ezra shook his head slowly, tears streaming down his pale cheeks as he tried to take in what Buck was saying. "You wuv me d'at much?"
Buck slipped his hand around to lightly clasp the back of Ezra's neck and eased him forward until he could whisper in his ear. "I love you that much... I'd do anything, Little One... *anything*... to keep you safe here with me."
Ezra's breath caught at the love he felt washing over him at that moment and turned his face to press a soft kiss against Buck's whiskered cheek before whispering, "I'll do it, Buck... I'll tewll d' Judge what he wants to know. I won't w'et him put you in jaiwl... I pwomise."
Buck swallowed around the huge lump in his throat and pulled Ezra tight against him, rocking slowly back and forth as he nodded at Chris. "Get the Judge... he's ready."
Chris stood and left without uttering another word.
It had been over an hour since the Judge and Nathan had entered the clinic and the tension among the four men waiting on the landing had become unbearable. Chris paced back and forth, his face reflecting the pain he still felt at having to force Ezra into doing this. His sobs and cries of 'you pwomised' echoed through the tall, slender gunslinger's mind as he waited impatiently for Ezra's ordeal to be over.
Josiah sat on the bench next to the door, his elbows resting on his knees, his large hands clasped tightly together and his head bowed, as he silently prayed for a favorable decision from the Judge.
Vin sat on the railing, back against the clinic wall, softly blowing on his mouth organ as he stared off at the distant mountains. But the soft-spoken tracker wasn't paying any attention to what he was seeing, his heart and mind were with his *little brother* and the nightmare he knew he was being forced to relive.
JD sat beside Josiah, his legs jiggling incessantly with his usual nervous energy. He'd give anything to be able to take Ezra's place in there... to spare him the pain and terror he knew the gambler was going through. Finally, not being able to sit still anymore, he jumped up and joined Chris in his pacing. "Damn... what's taking them so long? The poor little guy's gotta be exhausted by now!"
No sooner were the words out of his mouth, than the clinic door finally opened and Nathan and the Judge emerged, closing the door softly behind them.
The Judge's face was drawn and his movements slow as he sank down on the bench beside Josiah. He leaned wearily back against the wall and carefully removed the handkerchief from his pocket, wiping the moisture from his eyes.
The others stared at first him and then Nathan, taking in the deep sorrow that shone in their eyes. They all had heard the sounds of gentle weeping coming from the clinic before Nathan had closed the door, and knew it had been just as bad for Ezra as they all had feared it would be.
Chris walked over and placed his hand on Orrin's shoulder. "Judge?"
The Judge finally looked up at the concerned faces that surrounded him and shook his head. "That young man isn't going anywhere." He stared at Chris, his eyes still red from the tears he'd been unable to hold back upon hearing Ezra's heart-breaking story of abuse and neglect. "I know you'd told me all this ahead of time, Chris... but to hear it in Ezra's own words... the despair and utter desolation in that young voice when he talked about being left behind... the abject fear that his mama wouldn't return for him... my God... the whipping. And I don't think that was all of it... I'm sure there's something even worse that he was holding back." Orrin shuddered, and his voice shook slightly as he continued. "Maude and her attorney can argue all they want, they're not taking that boy away from here."
"She's going to claim she knew nothing about what was happening to him." Josiah's deep voice was filled with sadness as he spoke what they all knew was true. "Maude won't give him up without a fight... she's not someone who likes to lose."
Judge Travis stood and stuffed his handkerchief back in his pocket. "If they want a fight, we'll give them one. I'm not sure yet how we'll handle it, but for now it doesn't matter. That young man is sick, and until Nathan says he's completely well, there will be no arguments heard in my court by either side."
Vin stared at the clinic door. "Do we have t' let her in t' see 'im, Judge?"
Orrin nodded reluctantly. "Ezra has agreed to talk to her one time as long as he's not left alone with her. But I've already told Mr. Wilmington and Mr. Jackson... if she upsets him in anyway, I want her ejected... forcefully, if need be... and she will not be allowed anywhere near him again." He turned and headed toward the stairs. "And now, gentlemen, I feel an urgent need to spend time with my grandson. I need to be reminded of how a childhood should be... safe, happy, and loved." He turned and looked back at them before he left. "I'll check back with you in a few days to see how Ezra's feeling. In the meantime, I strongly suggest you start pushing him harder in an effort to regain his memory. We need to get our Mr. Standish back, and the sooner the better."
As soon as the Judge disappeared down the stairs, the others turned and filed slowly into the clinic ready to give Ezra the one thing they knew he needed most right now... the love and support of his family.
Buck rocked Ezra, his large gentle hand running slowly up and down the exhausted gambler's back. He could feel the tremors that still rippled through his body and the hitching breaths he took as his sobs gradually subsided. Ezra's forehead, beaded with sweat from the fever that was growing stronger now, rested against the older man's cheek. Buck whispered softly, soothing him with his words as well as his touch. "It's all over now, Little One. You're gonna be okay."
"I'm s-sowwy, Buck... I trwied so h-harwd not to c-crwy." Ezra's fingers still clutched at Buck's shirt as if it were the only thing holding him together.
Buck gave him a reassuring squeeze. "Shush now. Ya did just fine." He felt Ezra shake his head and quickly placed his hand under the gambler's chin... tipping his face up so he could look into his sad green eyes. "I am so proud of you, Ezra. You were such a brave boy to talk to the Judge like that. And I promise, Little One... ya won't ever have to talk about it again if ya don't want to. Okay?"
Ezra's eyes were still filled with worry as he stared back at Buck. "An' now you won't have to go to jaiwl... w'ight, Buck?"
Buck chuckled softly and hurried to erase the last vestiges of fear from the younger man's face. "No, baby... I won't be goin' to jail now. You took care of that." He kissed Ezra's cheek and gently pressed his head back down against his shoulder. "Thank you, Ezra."
"I pwomised you I wouldn't w'et him put you in jaiwl." Ezra's grip finally loosened on Buck's shirt as he reached up to wrap his arm around the older man's neck. "An' I'll neverw bweak my pwomises to you, Buck. Neverw."
By the time the others got through talking to Judge Travis and came in to check on Ezra, he was sound asleep. Vin helped Josiah scoop him up off Buck's lap and turned the blankets back so he could lay him in the bed. The quiet tracker tucked him in as Josiah gently smoothed his hair back, saddened by the exhaustion and strain that still showed on his face even in sleep. His large hand covered Ezra's forehead and he frowned, looking quickly up at the healer. "Nathan?"
But Nathan was already at the small stove, measuring some herbs into the kettle. "I know, I'm brewin' up some more tea. That damn cold's really startin' t' take hold now." While he started the tea, JD fetched the pot of coffee and went around the table filling everyone's mugs. It had been a long morning, and they were all in need of some quiet time before heading off to take care of their duties as peacekeepers.
Buck stretched and flexed his legs, trying to get some feeling back into them before sitting down at the table. He was just pulling out a chair when they all heard what sounded like the stage pulling up outside. They exchanged puzzled looks since they all knew it wasn't due in til late afternoon. Every one of them clustered around the windows that faced out onto the street and stared down at the large, ornate coach now parked in front of the hotel... and every one of them immediately frowned as they saw the passengers step down onto the boardwalk.
A very tall, very muscular gentlemen dressed in a dark pinstripe suit stepped off first and turned to help Maude out of the coach. The six men staring out the windows watched as Ezra's mother looked up at the clinic, a determined scowl appearing on her face as she stepped down into the street and immediately headed in their direction.
Josiah shook his head and muttered angrily. "Well, here we go, Brothers. Time to tell the lioness she can't have her cub."
It was quickly decided that Buck should stay with Ezra... against the angry gunman's wishes. After a heated argument, Chris promised him he'd get his chance at the charming Mrs. Standish later, but right now, Ezra needed him more. Buck reluctantly agreed and settled himself on the bed beside the slumbering gambler... he didn't really think he was ready to talk to her anyway. One wrong word about his Little One and he'd probably end up in jail after all.
Chris lead the others out onto the landing just as Maude came storming up the stairs. The six men spread themselves out in front of the door, creating a protective barrier between her and her son.
She hurried straight to Nathan, her face a mask of concern... which not one of the men believed was real. "Mr. Jackson... please tell me, how is my son?! He's not..."
Nathan held his anger in check as he reassured her that Ezra was still with them. "No, ma'am... he's doin'... um... 'bout as well as can be expected at the moment." He glanced at Chris who hesitated, and then nodded at him to go ahead and tell her. Nathan took Maude's elbow and tried to lead her over to the bench. "Maybe ya better sit down here an' let me explain his condition t' ya."
But she shook his hand off and moved toward the door, stopping suddenly when she realized Chris and the others weren't about to let her through. "I don't want your explanations, I want to see my son... now!"
Chris stood with his arms folded across his chest and shook his head at her. "Sorry, Maude... he's not allowed to have any visitors right now."
She stared at him and then the others, noticing for the first time the anger smoldering in their eyes... and... she stared hard at each of their faces... was that a look of disgust she was seeing? Just what was going on here?
"Well, that's all right... I'm not a visitor... I'm his mother. Now I'd appreciate it if you'd let me in to see my son." She moved forward, but none of them would budge an inch. "Mr. Larabee... just what do you think you are doing? I demand that you let me in there! Ezra?! Darlin', I-"
Maude was cut off as Chris grabbed her arm and began pushing her roughly toward the stairs. His voice was low and angry as he tried to silence her. "That's enough, damn it! We told you no one's allowed in there, and that includes you. Now keep your damn voice down before you upset him!"
"Upset him?! I'm his mother... how could I possibly upset him?!" She tried to jerk her arm away, but was unable to break his hold on her. "Mr. Larabee, I insist you take your hands off me right this instant!"
"How could you upset him?! You're kidding, right? You just being in town upsets Ezra... he-" Chris's forward motion and his tirade were stopped as the man who had come in on the stage with Maude stepped up onto the landing directly in his path.
"Excuse me... Mr. Larabee, is it?" The new arrival put his arm out to block Chris's attempt to push Maude past him, and spoke softly to the angry gunslinger.
Chris stared at the man, his eyes narrowing as he answered. "Yeah... and who the hell are you?" He felt the others silently moving in beside him and knew they were ready to toss the newcomer and Ezra's mother over the railing with just one word from him.
The larger man smiled, but it never quite reached his eyes... eyes the color of a winter's morning... gray and cold, with a trace of something dark glinting in their depths. "I happen to be Mrs. Standish's attorney... M.J. Delacourte." His smile faded slowly as his eyes held Chris's. "And I would appreciate it if you would release your hold on my client, sir... now."
Chris smiled at the added 'now' and at the threat it implied. "Well, *Mister* Delacourte... *I* would appreciate it if you informed your client that she's not welcome here."
Delacourte glanced at the other men and then brought his gaze back to the man in black who still had his hand wrapped around Maude's arm. "And just who gave you the authority to keep Mrs. Standish from seein' her son?"
"I did." The quiet voice startled everyone on the landing. No one had heard the Judge coming up the stairs... they had all been completely focused on the confrontation between the two men who stood with Maude pinned between them.
Maude looked up and immediately turned her attention to the elderly gentleman who walked past her to stand beside Chris. "Judge Travis... oh, thank God you're here! These... men... are keepin' me from seein' my son." She was finally able to free herself from Chris's grip and placed a slender, gloved hand on the Judge's arm. "Please help me... I need to see Ezra and make sure he's alright. I've been worryin' myself sick about him all the way from St. Louis... terrified that he'd die before I could reach his side."
The Judge watched as she delicately dabbed at the few tears she'd managed to squeeze out and then looked down at the hand that rested on his arm... his expression barely concealing the loathing he felt at the woman's touch. He calmly removed her hand from his arm and looked up at the men gathered around Chris. "Mr. Jackson... is Ezra ready to speak to his mother?"
Without a moment's hesitation, Nathan shook his head. "No, sir... his fever's up an' we jus' got 'im t' sleep. He ain't in no condition for this kinda stress."
Orrin nodded his agreement and glanced at Maude. "Has Mrs. Standish been told the exact nature of his *condition*?"
"No, Judge... I tried, but she didn't want t' listen t' me. She was too busy tryin' to bull her way in to see 'im." Nathan glared at Maude and her lawyer before turning his gaze back to the Judge. "I'll be glad t' explain it now if we could take it somewhere's else... I'm afraid all this commotion is gonna wake Ezra."
"Bulling my way-" Maude's indignation at being treated in such a harsh, unfeeling manner had her sputtering at Nathan's words. "I am merely concerned for my son and naturally want to be with him in his time of need!"
Chris nearly choked on the angry words that tried to burst out of him, but he stopped as he felt Vin's calming touch on his arm and his whispered words of warning in his ear. "Not now, cowboy... let the Judge handle it."
"Alright, Mr. Jackson... we'll move this little discussion over to the jail where *you*, Mrs. Standish, will hear what he has to say before I'll listen to another word from you or your attorney." Judge Travis looked up at the stranger who stood directly behind Maude. "I am assuming, sir, that that is who you are?"
The man nodded and held his hand out as he finally introduced himself. "M.J. Delacourte, Judge... Travis, is it?"
Orrin deliberately ignored the outstretched hand and nodded. "Correct, sir. Now, shall we retire to the jail so that we can finish this? I would like to get back and continue my visit with my daughter-in-law and grandson before this day is completely ruined."
"I'll be there in a minute, Judge... I jus' wanna check on Ezra 'fore I leave." Nathan turned to go back in the clinic, but stopped when he heard Delacourte begin protesting.
"Now see here... Mrs. Standish has been on a stage coach for six days, worryin' about her son's condition... I think she should at least be allowed to take a look at him. Just to calm her fears and let her know he is still alive."
Taking her lead from Delacourte, Maude touched the Judge's arm and shot him a look of motherly concern. "Please, Judge... I just want to see for myself that he's alright."
Orrin looked at the other men, registered their scowls of disapproval, but decided to accede to her request. With one stipulation. "All right, Mrs. Standish... Nathan will open the door and you may take a quick look at your son. However, you are not to say a word or move into the room... Ezra is in a fragile state right now and I don't want him disturbed in anyway."
Maude glanced at Delacourte who nodded at her to comply with the Judge's order. "All right, Judge... I don't like it, but I'll go along with it if it's the only way I can see him."
Maude followed Nathan over to the clinic door and waited impatiently for him to open it. Nathan hesitated, glancing back at Chris before finally releasing the latch and pushing it slowly open. He stepped back to allow Maude access to the doorway, but stayed close, ready to pull her back if she tried anything.
Maude blinked several times to allow her eyes to adjust to the gloomy interior of the clinic as her gaze sought and finally found the bed in the far corner of the room. It took her a few minutes to digest what she was seeing, but once she did, she stiffened in shock and immediately expressed her disgust by shouting angrily at the man who was lying in the bed with her son, cradling him in his arms.
"What in God's name is goin' on here?! Take your filthy hands off my son this instant!" Maude started toward the bed, but was brought to an abrupt halt when Nathan quickly wrapped one long arm around her waist and slapped his other hand over her mouth, muffling her angry cries. He saw Ezra spring up in the bed, clutching wildly at Buck at the sight of his mother and heard his anguished cries of terror before turning and bodily carrying a frantically struggling Maude back out on the landing.
Chris hurried forward to help Nathan as he shouted orders at the other men. "Vin... JD... get in there and help Buck with Ezra! Josiah... escort Mr. Delacourte over to the jail!"
Judge Travis shot an angry glare at Maude as Chris and Nathan manhandled her past him and down the stairs. He could hear Ezra's sobs even through the closed door... and after a regretful glance back at the clinic, followed the others across the street to the jail.
Buck was relieved to see Vin and JD enter the clinic. "Vin, give me a hand here! JD... could ya get a mug of that tea on the stove?" He was desperately trying to get Ezra calmed down, but absolutely nothing was working. The gambler had his arm wrapped tightly around Buck's neck as his feet dug frantically at the mattress, trying to push himself as close to the older man as he could get. Hard, choking sobs tore through Ezra as he pleaded with him, "Hewlp me, Buck!! Pwease don't w'et her take me! Buck... hewlp me!!"
Ezra was so terrified, that when Vin laid a gentle hand on his back to calm him, he immediately thought it was his mother trying to pull him away from Buck. His startled scream echoed through the small clinic and nearly caused JD to drop the tea he was carrying over to the bed.
Buck had to brace himself against the headboard as Ezra stiffened in his arms to keep them both from toppling off the bed. "Easy, Little One! It's just Vin! Your mama's gone... she's gone! Nathan made her leave!"
"No! No! No! P-pwease, Buck... d-don't w'et her t-take me! D-don't... don't... w'et..." Ezra's painfully hoarse voice faltered as he dissolved into a helpless torrent of hot scalding tears that quickly soaked Buck's shirt.
Vin climbed on the bed beside the two men, and helped Buck force Ezra to turn around so that he could see there was no one else in the room but the four of them. "Look, little guy... your mama ain't here. See? It's just us here with ya... no one's takin' ya away." Vin kept his voice low and even as he fought to get Ezra calmed down. "JD... set that tea down an' get me a wet cloth."
Buck had to fight back tears himself as he began rubbing Ezra's back and felt the shudders that shook the slender body. He couldn't imagine anyone being this terrified of his own mother... but then again, most mothers wouldn't leave their only child with someone as abusive as Ezra's Uncle Matthew. The ladies man tugged gently, and slowly got the gambler to lean back against him, then wrapped his arms tightly around him to help him feel more secure. He breathed a sigh of relief as he felt Ezra slowly begin to relax... his violent sobbing finally stopping with the realization that he was safe in Buck's arms.
JD handed Vin the rag and then sat down beside Ezra on the bed, laying his hand on the older man's leg and rubbing gently to help soothe him.
Vin gently wiped away the tears from Ezra's face, pushing his sweat soaked hair back off his forehead, and frowning as he felt the cool cloth instantly warmed by the fever that was beginning to burn hotter in his friend. "JD... maybe ya better go get Nathan."
JD caught the concern in Vin's voice and hurried out of the clinic, worry washing over him for Ezra. If the usually unflappable tracker thought Nathan was needed, it was enough to convince the youngest peacekeeper that something was definitely wrong.
Vin got up and soaked the cloth in cold water again before folding it and placing it across Ezra's forehead. "Buck... hold this on 'im while I try an' get 'im t' drink this tea."
Buck placed his hand over the cool compress and pressed it against Ezra's feverish brow as he bent his head to whisper quietly in his ear. "You okay now, Little One?" He smiled softly when he felt the younger man's head nod against his shoulder. "Think ya could drink some of this tea for us? Please?"
Ezra's eyes blinked slowly as the exhaustion of this latest ordeal took its toll on him. When he finally focused on Vin holding the tea in front of him, he nodded again and allowed the tracker to hold the mug for him while he gingerly sipped it down. The first few swallows made him wince as they flowed over his scratchy throat, but after that he was grateful for it's soothing warmth and willingly emptied the cup.
Buck gave Vin the cloth to wipe Ezra's mouth with and as soon as he'd wet it again, began running it gently across the younger man's face and neck. They watched Ezra's face relax and his eyes slowly close as he finally stopped fighting the sleep that was attempting to drag him under.
Vin tucked the blankets up around his shoulders when he saw him shiver and took the rag from Buck, laying it on the nightstand.
Buck continued to gently smooth back Ezra's hair as he held him tight against his chest. His voice when he finally spoke to Vin was soft but filled with anger. "What the hell happened, Vin... I thought she wasn't gonna be allowed in here til he was better?"
"Her damn lawyer convinced the Judge t' just let Maude take a look see at Ezra so's she'd know he was okay." Vin's voice held every bit as much anger as Buck's did. "She wasn't s'posed t' say anything, just get her look an' get out."
"Well, I hope the Judge's happy... 'cause we're gonna have a helluva time gettin' 'im to agree to talk to her now." Buck stared sadly down at the man cradled against him. "An' far as I'm concerned... she don't deserve to talk to 'im at all."
"Don't worry... no way in hell Nathan'll let her back in here 'fore he's better now." Vin took Ezra's hand in his and frowned at how hot it was. "An' the way his cold's worsenin', that could be awhile."
"All I know is, if she's allowed back in here an' gets 'im upset like that again... I'm gonna end up in jail anyway... for murder." Buck smiled grimly at Vin, and the tracker was left with the distinct impression that the older man wasn't entirely joking. He'd have to warn Chris that they'd better keep a tight rein on Buck when Maude was finally allowed to see Ezra... or all hell was liable to break loose.
Chris and Nathan released Maude as soon as they had her down in the street, and followed her as she crossed to the jail and slammed through the door. The others filed in behind her with Delacourte moving quickly to her side, whispering orders in her ear.
"You'd better calm down or you're goin' to lose this battle before it's even begun." He placed a hand on her arm and squeezed it firmly as he issued his warning. He hadn't traveled all this way with the infernal woman to have her blow the case within the first hour of their arrival.
Judge Orrin Travis was angry... angry at Maude for upsetting Ezra, and at himself for trusting her to do as he said in the first place. He threw his hat down on the desk and dropped heavily into the chair that sat behind it. "My good woman... did I not specifically say you were not to speak to him or try to enter that room?!"
Maude ignored her attorney's warning and angrily started arguing with the Judge. "Well, that was before I witnessed that disgusting scene! Did you expect me to just stand there and do nothing?!"
The Judge and his men stared at each other and then back at Maude, their faces clearly showing their confusion. "What disgusting scene would that be?"
"Why, Mr. Wilmington in that bed with my son lyin' practically on top of him, of course! Can you explain why that shouldn't upset me?" Maude tapped her foot impatiently, waiting for someone to say something.
It was the Judge who spoke up first. "Mrs. Standish... if you want any chance at all of seeing your son... you will stop the nasty insinuations about my men, sit down, shut up, and listen to Mr. Jackson."
Maude opened her mouth to protest, but her attorney pulled her backward, whispered furiously in her ear, and then pushed her down onto a chair. When she spoke again, her voice was subdued and her tone a shade less condescending. "Please go ahead, Nathan... and I do apologize for my earlier outburst. I'm just so worried about Ezra."
Nathan didn't believe for a minute that the apology was sincere, but he proceeded to tell her about Ezra's accident, the amnesia, and about his subsequent attachment to Buck. By the time he finished, Maude and Delacourte wore twin expressions of disbelief.
"You actually want me to believe Ezra thinks he's five years old?" She shook her head and laughed softly. "Please, Mr. Jackson... be honest with me. Ezra put you up to this so he wouldn't have to talk to me, didn't he?"
The Judge sighed, trying his best to keep his anger in check. "I assure you, Mrs. Standish... Mr. Jackson is not joking or following your son's orders. I've spent time with Ezra and he is most definitely convinced he is only five years old. In fact, we had an interesting discussion just this morning about you and his unfortunate childhood."
Chris saw Delacourte's eyes narrow at the Judge's mention of his talk with Ezra and wondered if Maude had shared with him some of the details of her miserable job of mothering him.
Maude shifted nervously in her chair and glanced up at the man standing beside her and then back at Judge Travis. "Well, if he truly thinks he is a child, I'm sure you realize how unreliable his tales would be. Five year olds... especially my son... have very over-active imaginations."
Josiah stared at Maude as if he'd never seen her before. How could he have ever been attracted to her? How had he missed the calculated coldness of her attitude toward others... especially her own son? The preacher saw her look of surprise when he addressed her for the first time... his voice as cold as the air outside. "No five year old could possibly invent some of the *tales* that Ezra has told us about... not even one with your son's obvious intelligence."
Vin nodded his agreement as he stared at Maude. "An' I don't think those so-called made up stories would be givin' 'im nightmares... nightmares so bad he wakes up sobbin' his heart out."
"Oh, please... all children have nightmares. And as I said before, my son has a very fertile imagination... I'm sure it would carry over into his sleep. That's hardly a sign that he was mistreated as a child." Convinced she'd successfully dismissed their concerns, she turned back to the Judge. "Now... I want to know when I can see my son. I'm not going to believe any of this until I talk to him and witness this supposed transformation for myself. However... if it is true... I *will* be takin' him back to St. Louis with me to get him the help he needs."
Chris walked closer to Maude... his eyes never leaving her face, amazed at the control she was showing. It was obvious where Ezra came by his remarkable ability to keep his feelings and emotions hidden. "I'm curious, Maude... you never wanted Ezra with you as a child, so why are you so hell bent on having him with you now? You may not want to believe it, but except for his size... he's no different from any other five year old. Why do you think you're going to be able to deal with him any better this time?" Chris's voice was deceptively calm, but his eyes boring relentlessly into hers clearly revealed the rage that he was holding a tight rein on.
Maude held onto her emotions and never even flinched as she calmly replied, "I assure you, Mr. Larabee... I did the best I could for my son. I was a single mother strugglin' to raise a small child. At least while he was with me, he was never shot, stabbed, or nearly killed by the childish horseplay of his co-workers."
Chris bent over and rested his hands on the arms of the chair she sat in... his face only inches from hers. "No, he was only dropped on the doorstep of anyone you could find who would take him off your hands. Including a sadistic uncle who thought it was his duty to whip him to within an inch of his life in order to teach him respect."
This finally got a reaction out of Maude, but it wasn't one that Chris had expected. The look of confusion that appeared on her face actually seemed real. "Whipping... what are you-" but she was interrupted when JD came charging through the door.
"Nathan... Vin sent me for you. Ezra's not doin' too good." JD's obvious anxiety sent all three men rushing from the room and back to the clinic. He started to follow them, but was stopped by the Judge's concerned voice.
"What's happened, son?"
JD continued toward the door as he answered the older man. "His fever's a lot worse an' he was real upset by... um... by what happened earlier." He shot Maude an angry glare and hurried out of the jail.
Maude and Delacourte moved toward the door, but Orrin quickly rose and grabbed them both before they could leave.
"Judge Travis... surely you'll allow me to go see to my son. If he's as ill as young JD made out, then he needs his mother by his side." Maude tried to push her way past him, but he refused to move.
"I think you have done enough damage for one day... what that young man needs is his friends by his side... not you. I'm putting him under my temporary custody as of right now... if you try to see him before I tell you you can, you will be placed under arrest. Is that clear?" The Judge ignored her protests and after grabbing his hat off the desk, started out the door. "I would suggest you get yourselves settled in at the hotel... you may have a long wait before Ezra will be up to seeing you. I will, however, have Mr. Jackson keep you informed of his condition... and as soon as your son is fully recovered from his present illness, we will settle this matter of where he will be living. Until then, you would be wise to heed my words... stay away from him."
Orrin shook his head as he closed the door and walked away from the jail, her shouts of protest following after him. He almost felt sorry for that attorney of hers. Mrs. Standish was hard enough to deal with when things were going her way... she would be impossible after this blow to her plans.
Vin moved off the bed as soon as Nathan entered the clinic, relieved that he was finally there to check on Ezra. The gambler had woken back up shortly after falling asleep and had complained that his head and throat were both hurting.
Nathan sat down beside Ezra and gently placed the back of his hand against the smaller man's face and neck. His fever was up, but it still wasn't dangerously high... the healer tried not to smile. Ezra *was* sick... there was no arguing that... but it was just a nasty cold, not the life-threatening illness the others were trying to make it out to be. He didn't know who was going to give him the most trouble... Ezra with a five year old's affinity for whining when not feeling well, or his big brothers who were going to panic at every cough or sneeze.
Ezra's eyes opened and he smiled weakly up at Nathan. "Hi, Nafan... I drwank awll my tea jus' w'ike you wanted me, too."
"I see that, little guy... you done jus' fine. Ain't feelin' too good though, are ya?" Nathan handed Vin the rag off the nightstand and asked him to wet it down for him.
"Nuh-uh... my head huwts, Nafan... a'wot. An' my nose is awll stuffy... it's harwd to brweave." Ezra battled bravely against the tears, but he just couldn't help the few that leaked out and trickled slowly down his cheeks.
"Do ya think ya could sit up for me jus' for a minute so's I can check ya over?" Nathan waited til the gambler nodded and then had Buck help him raise Ezra up. He took the damp cloth Vin handed him and wiped the smaller man's face off, and then gently held it against the back of his neck to help cool him down. "Let me see your throat, little guy."
Ezra obligingly opened his mouth for Nathan and gave him a pitiful little whimper and a nod when the healer fussed over how sore it looked.
He began loosening the bandages that held Ezra's broken arm against his chest and saw the younger man's excited expression. "I gotta listen t' your chest for a minute, Ezra... then they gotta go right back on."
Ezra started to protest, but Buck got him stopped long enough for Nathan to listen and reassure himself that the Southerner's lungs were clear. But the minute he began strapping his arm back down, Ezra's face fell and he began crying and pleading with Nathan to leave the confining wrappings off.
Buck had all he could do to hold Ezra still while Nathan finished. When the crying and begging didn't work, he began trying to jerk away from Nathan, shouting angrily at him in frustration.
"Stop it, Nafan! I tol' you I didn't want d'at on me! W'eave me a'wone!"
Nathan tried to explain again that he was only doing it for his own good, but Ezra just pulled harder against them until Josiah had to step in and help Buck hold him.
"D'at's what grwown-ups aw'ways say when d'ey'rwe huwtin' me! You'rwe jus' w'ike Unca Maffew!!" Ezra froze the minute the angry, hurtful words were out of his mouth.
Chris saw Nathan flinch at Ezra's accusation. "Ezra! That's enough."
Nathan glanced back at Chris and shook his head before tying off the ends of the bandages and tucking them in. "Leave 'em alone, Chris. He jus' don't feel good." He looked up and found Ezra staring at him, tears streaming down his face... his eyes reflecting the horror he felt at hurting him.
"Nafan... I'm so s-sowwy... I didn't mean to... I..." Ezra couldn't believe he'd said such an awful thing to one of his brothers.
Nathan's heart melted as he saw the pain and regret on Ezra's face. He quickly wrapped his arms around the smaller man and pulled him close, bending his head down to whisper in his ear. "Hush now... I know ya didn't mean it, Ezra... that's jus' the sickness talkin'."
"I n-neverw meant to huwt you, Nafan... it's jus' d'at I h-hate-" Ezra stopped when he felt Nathan reach up and gently stroke his hair.
"I know ya hate it, little guy... an' I hate havin' t' do ya this way. I jus' want t' make sure your arm's jus' as good as new when it heals up." Nathan felt him nod against his shoulder.
"I know, Nafan... jus' w'ike d' w'ast time you made me wearw a s'wing when I got shot in d'-" Ezra stopped suddenly when he realized what he'd said.
Everyone in the room held their breath as they waited to see how he would react to this sudden flash of memory. Nathan felt him begin to tremble and quickly tightened his hold on him. "Ezra? It's okay, little guy... it's gonna be alright."
Ezra pulled away from Nathan and sat up, his terrified green eyes staring into the healer's gentle brown ones. He reached up and placed a shaky hand on Nathan's chest as if to steady himself. "Nafan? Why did I say d'at? I've neverw been shot... have I?"
Nathan looked around at the others and saw their apprehension, but decided it was as good a time as any to start nudging Ezra's memory.
"I don't know, Ezra... what are ya rememberin'?" Nathan kept a firm grip on the gambler's shoulders as he watched him struggle to capture the strange thoughts that were drifting in and out of his mind.
Buck reached up and rubbed Ezra's back when he saw his breathing becoming rapid and shallow... he could tell the memories were starting to scare him.
Ezra's eyes took on an unfocused, glazed look and he slowly shook his head. "Don't know... I keep hearwin' yourw voice sayin' howld stiwll... d'at you aw'most got it." His gaze seemed to snap back briefly before fading out again. "Got what, Nafan? I don't un'erwstand... it's... I don't..." Ezra's eyes suddenly burned into Nathan's and the blood drained from his face as he remembered something. His fingers began working at the buttons of his nightshirt as he frantically tried to get it unfastened.
"What're ya doin', Ezra? What's wrong?" Nathan tried to still his hand, but the gambler jerked it away and started pulling at the buttons again.
"Hewlp me, Nafan... pwease? I n-need to see!" Ezra pleaded with the healer until Nathan finally began unbuttoning the gown.
"What do ya need t' see? What're ya rememberin', Little One?" Nathan finally got the garment undone and they all watched in confusion as Ezra jerked the material aside, baring his left shoulder for all of them to see.
Nathan felt Ezra start to shudder as he stared down at his shoulder. Tears began streaming down his face as he slowly touched a finger to the small round scar that marred his otherwise smooth skin. His voice shook as he whispered, "It was a buwwet... d'at's what you werwe twyin' to get... I *was* shot. But how could... I'm onwy five, Nafan... how did I..."
Ezra stared back up at the healer, his eyes so lost and confused it made Nathan's heart ache to look at them. "Dat's when you... you put a s'wing on me... an'... you said... oh, Nafan... I'm so s-scarwed. You said y-you were d-doin' it for my own g-good... but I'm onwy five... five yearw owlds d-don't get shot..."
Nathan could see he'd had enough and motioned for Buck to help him. "Come on, Ezra... let's get you laid down now. You done real good, but that's enough for now."
Buck tried to ease Ezra back against the pillows, but the gambler resisted him, refusing to relinquish his hold on Nathan. "No! Nafan... pwease... hewlp me... I don't un'erwstand! I'm scarwed, Nafan!"
Nathan pulled Ezra back into his arms and held on tight, looking over his head at the others and seeing the same heartache reflected on their faces that he was feeling. He'd known it was going to be painful for Ezra when he began remembering... but he'd had no idea how much it was going to hurt the rest of them.
"It's okay, Ezra... try t' stop thinkin' 'bout it for awhile. It's jus' kinda like a dream... that's all. We'll help ya figure it all out when you're better, okay? Right now you're sick an' ya need t' rest." Nathan felt Ezra's shaking subside slightly, but he still had his fingers wrapped tightly in the healer's shirt. "Ya gotta let go, little guy, so we can lay ya down."
"I can't, Nafan... I'm too scarwed." Ezra's voice shook with exhaustion and fear, and he kept his face pressed tightly against Nathan's chest. "Nafan... wiwll you w'ock me? Pwease, Nafan... I need to... I need..."
Nathan smiled... surprised, but pleased by the request. "Ya want *me* t' rock ya?"
"Pwease, Nafan? I jus' need you w'ight now... I'll sit w'eal stiwll an' not talk orw anyfing... I pwomise, Nafan." Ezra raised his head up and stared into Nathan's eyes... an incredible need for someone to make him feel safe again shining clearly in his tear-filled eyes.
Nathan stared at Ezra for a moment, his own tears threatening as he looked into those usually confident green eyes that were now filled with so much vulnerability. "I'd love t' rock ya, Little One... come on, let's go see how we fit t'gether in that chair."
Ezra never released his grip on Nathan's shirt as they moved slowly over to the rocker, not even while they got him settled on the larger man's lap, or when they tucked the blanket around him. It was as if he were afraid he'd drift away if he let go.
"Ya okay, Little One?" Nathan held Ezra tightly and rested his cheek against the younger man's forehead as he began to rock. He couldn't help but smile as he thought about Ezra's reaction if this particular memory was one of the one's the gambler retained after he came back to them.
Ezra merely nodded and closed his eyes, allowing the soothing rocking motion and the quiet beating of Nathan's heart beneath his cheek to take away the frightening memories. It was only a matter of minutes before he was asleep, snoring softly, his fingers still clenched in the healer's shirt.
Chris and the others smiled at the pair in the rocker as they grabbed some coffee and settled themselves around the table. No one wanted to leave Lit'l Ezra's side quite yet. Their time with him was obviously growing shorter... so even if it was just spent watching him sleep... they were going to hold onto every minute of it they could.
"You want us to lay him in the bed, Nathan?" Chris knew what the healer's answer would be... he hadn't wanted to let go of Ezra either when he'd had his turn in the rocker with him..
Nathan looked down at the smaller man nestled against him and shook his head. "Naw... jus' hand me a cup of that coffee. I want t' make sure I remember this... Ezra sittin' still an' not talkin'... it might never happen again."
The others chuckled softly and passed him the coffee, knowing full well that no matter what he said, Nathan would give anything to have Ezra himself again... even though it meant he'd be back to talking their ears off and driving them crazy with his constant card shuffling.
They never would admit it, but they missed their argumentative, smooth-talking gambler... just like they were going to miss their sweet, innocent Lit'l Ezra when he finally faded back into adult Ezra's past. They were just all glad they'd had a chance to have both versions of the man in their lives... it was an experience they knew they'd never regret having.
Delacourte had finally gotten Maude calmed down, and had transported her and their luggage to the hotel. After securing neighboring rooms, they'd gone down to the dining room to get a bite to eat.
"You had better get a grip on yourself or you're goin' to ruin everything." Delacourte stared across the table at Maude, his brows drawn down into a scowl. The woman was absolutely infuriating... always had been. Getting her to listen to reason was nearly impossible.
Maude stabbed at her food with her fork, imagining every jab was going straight into Chris Larabee's and Judge Travis's hearts. "Well, how dare they think they can keep me from my son! And I do not understand this change in their attitude toward me. I was never treated this rudely on any of my previous visits."
Delacourte gazed absently at her, thinking back to the Judge's words... he wondered what exactly this little *talk* he'd had with Ezra had entailed. Obviously it had been bad enough to set them all against Maude. "So Ezra had never told them about your relationship before?"
Maude stared at him indignantly. "What do you mean? There's nothin' wrong with our relationship."
He just stared at her for a moment and shook his head. "Maude... are you forgettin' who you're talkin' to here?"
She blushed slightly and took a sip of her wine. "Alright... so things between us are a bit... strained... at times. But it's nothing to warrant the kind of behavior these men are exhibiting now. We've always gotten along fine in front of them... and Ezra's always been taught to keep his emotions and feelin's to himself. So I know he would hardly have shared any problems we may have had... especially with men he merely works with. There's just no reason for the way they're actin'. It must be these crazy tales Ezra seems to be spoutin'. A whippin' for heaven's sake... he never mentioned any whippin' to me. And Lord knows, it wasn't me who administered it. I hardly ever even touched the boy... and I most certainly did not whip him." She looked across the table at Delacourte, started to say something more, and decided to just dismiss it as another figment of Ezra's childish imagination.
"I've gotten the impression these men have become more to Ezra than just people he works with. And I seem to recall you tellin' me about a little incident with a saloon here in town... the one you stole from your *darlin' boy*? That's not exactly somethin' his friends would forget." Delacourte enjoyed her look of discomfort at his little reminder of her greed getting in the way of her son's happiness... again.
Maude frowned at her companion as she pushed her plate away. All this turmoil had upset her delicate stomach and his snide little comments were definitely not helping. "I'll have you know some of his *friends*, as you refer to them, were just as much a party to the end of his career as a business owner as I was."
Delacourte laughed softly. "Ah, yes... but did they realize that it was his life-long dream? You're his mother... you knew exactly the blow you were dealin' him when you bought it out from under him. Were you perhaps attemptin' to put Ezra in his place for defyin' you by stayin' in this quaint little burg against your wishes?"
Maude jerked her napkin out of her lap and threw it on the table as she stood, her chair scraping loudly across the floor, attracting the unwanted attention of the other hotel patrons. "Now you listen, MJ... I brought you along to help me get my son away from these uncivilized thugs he works with... not to sit here and throw my lack of parental abilities in my face. I'm goin' to my room to freshen up while you finish your meal... and then I expect you to accompany me to talk with the Judge again. And you had better figure out a way to get him to agree to let me speak to my son or you can forget about being paid."
Delacourte merely laughed as he returned to his meal. "Oh, please, Maude... when have you ever paid for my services? But don't worry, I may have a way for you to recompense me for this one... and I will earn my payment before we leave this dusty little town. Never fear."
Maude stared at him for a moment, a little disconcerted at his hint at some sort of payment, but finally just shrugged and turned away. As long as he could get Ezra for her, that's all she cared about. Those foolish friends of her son's had no idea what they were getting into by going up against her... she *would* win. There was not a doubt in her mind that Ezra *was* going home with her.
Things were not going well in the clinic. Ezra had only been able to sleep for a half hour before he'd been awakened by an attack of sneezing which had left him cranky and miserable. Everyone was being remarkably patient with the childish behavior of the gambler, but it was definitely beginning to grate on all of their nerves.
They'd tried to convince him he needed to eat, and he'd finally agreed to try a biscuit if it had plenty of jam on it... and if he could have the *good* tea with it. JD had quickly volunteered to go get the food... anything to get away from the pitiful and slightly irritating Southerner for a few minutes.
While he was gone, the rest of them continued to fuss over him, trying to find something... anything, that would make him happy.
Buck smoothed back Ezra's hair, wiping away the sweat that beaded the smaller man's brow. "Take it easy, Little One... JD'll be right back. You'll feel better once you eat somethin'."
Ezra irritably pulled his head away from Buck's soothing touch. "W'eave my hairw a'wone, Buck... you'rwe makin' my head huwt morwe." He reached up and pushed his hair back down where it had been and then began digging at his chin, only stopping when Josiah reached over and pulled his hand away.
"Easy there, little guy... you're gonna hurt yourself. Are your whiskers bothering you again?" Josiah held onto Ezra's hand knowing if he let go, the younger man would go right back to scratching.
Ezra tugged on his hand a few times and finally gave up. "Yeah, 'siah... how come you haven't shaved me again? I f'ought you was gonna take carwe of d'at forw me? It itches." His voice kept switching between an annoying whine and a sweet, childish lisp without warning... and none of them could predict what would set the whine off. And... unfortunately... the whiney times greatly out numbered the sweet ones.
Josiah decided this was one problem they could take care of right now. He had no illusions that it would be easy, and he knew Ezra would start complaining and giving him a hard time before he was through, but it was definitely worth it if it would take away even one of the things he kept fussing about.
The preacher nodded at Buck who immediately moved to help him. "Well then, Little One... let's sit you up on the edge of the bed and get that shave over with. Then your face'll stop itching and you'll feel a little better." He didn't even have to ask Nathan for his shaving equipment this time, the healer rushed to get it as soon as they sat Ezra up.
Ezra regretted asking about the shave the minute his eyes caught sight of the razor in Nathan's hand. "Neverw mind, 'siah... it doesn't w'eawy itch d'at bad." He tried to climb back under the covers, but Buck and Vin grabbed him and pushed him back up into a sitting position, holding him still while Josiah lathered up the soap.
Ezra stared pitifully at the two men holding him, even managing to squeeze out a couple of tears, but they just patted him and told him not to worry, it would be over with in a few minutes. "Nooo, you don't un'erwstand... I don't want a shave now. W'et me go, pwease, guys?" His voice became even more whiney as they gently refused, and his pleading only stopped when Josiah approached him with the brush foaming with soapy lather. He remembered too well the taste of that soap to even chance opening his mouth once the preacher got started.
Josiah worked quickly, but carefully... they didn't want to give him anything more to complain about, not even a little nick from the razor. It was only a matter of minutes before he was gently washing Ezra's face back off and receiving his customary payment... a sweet, loving hug from a now appreciative young gambler.
"F'ank you, 'siah... I'm sowwy I was bein' a baby 'bout it." Ezra squeezed the gentle bear of a man tightly, and smiled brightly when Josiah hugged him back and then planted a kiss on his forehead.
"That's okay, Little One... we all know you're just not feelin' good. Now let's get you settled back against those pillows and covered back up before you get cold." Ezra allowed Josiah to tuck him back in the bed and actually lay quietly for a little while... until JD entered the clinic carrying his biscuit and tea.
Chris and Vin were sitting at the table, enjoying the sudden quiet with a much needed cup of coffee when the Kid walked in. Glancing at Ezra, they immediately saw his face draw down in a scowl and knew their sweet Little One was gone again and Nathan's whiney, irritable patient was back.
Buck and JD went to help Ezra sit up again so Nathan could feed him, and were met with a complete lack of cooperation. Everytime they tried to let go of him, he laid back down until they were finally forced to hold him between them while the healer attempted to get some food down him.
"Come on, Ezra... it's jus' the way you wanted... lots of jam on it." But each time Nathan put the biscuit up to the gambler's lips, he whipped his head to the side and tried to pull away from the men holding him. They really would have preferred to just give into him and let it go, but he hadn't eaten anything all day and really needed to get something in his stomach.
"I don't want it now, Nafan! I'm not hungrwy anymorwe!" Ezra whimpered pitifully and sent a pleading look at Josiah who stood behind the totally frustrated healer. "Make 'em w'eave me a'wone, 'siah... pwease?"
Josiah looked at Ezra and had to struggle not to laugh. There was a red smear of jam across both cheeks and even a dab on the tip of one ear. "Now, Ezra... you heard what Nathan said. You need to eat if you want to feel better. Now why don't you be a good boy and do as he says."
Ezra looked at first Nathan and then Josiah, and finally nodded. "I'll eat it if you feed me, 'siah. Okay?"
Nathan immediately shoved the biscuit and the mug of now lukewarm tea into the big preacher's hands and walked away. He moved to the table and tiredly lowered himself into a chair beside Chris and Vin.
Vin smiled and poured him a cup of coffee. "Looks like ya could use this, pard."
Nathan nodded as he gratefully took the mug from the tracker and sipped slowly at the hot liquid.
Chris shook his head as he watched Josiah try to get the biscuit in the Southerner's mouth. "Now he's startin' to act like the Ezra we all know and love... complaining, stubborn, and completely unwilling to agree to anything that's good for him."
Nathan grinned at both Chris and Vin and then stared over at Ezra as he fought Josiah for all he was worth. "I know... ain't it great?"
Chris matched his grin and nodded. "Music to my ears."
Vin stared incredulously at Nathan and Chris.
"That's it... Ezra's finally driven y'all crazy. I knew it was gonna happen eventually." Vin couldn't for the life of him figure their attitude out. "Why in the hell are you glad he's actin' like... well... hisself?"
Chris shook his head at him. "Think about it... how did he act when he first woke up? Scared to death to tell us where it hurt or even to talk to us at all... and terrified of making a mistake. Remember? He was convinced we'd send him away just like his mother had."
Vin just shrugged. "Yeah, an' he was a lot easier t' handle back then. So why are ya so happy he's bein' a pain in the butt now?"
"He's not bein' a pain in the butt... he's bein' a normal five year old little boy who happens to be sick. One who's sure that he can be hisself an' not have someone punish him for it, not even if he whines, cries or... damn... spills his tea all over hisself." Nathan started to get up when he saw the tea go flying and heard Ezra shriek, but Josiah waved him back down and assured him they could handle it.
Vin finally understood what Nathan and Chris were trying to say. "Ezra knows he can act like this an' we'll still love 'im... he trusts us not t' hurt 'im."
"Z'actly. He knows we might get riled at 'im an' even yell at 'im once in awhile, but he's not scared that we'll send 'im away anymore." Nathan chuckled as he looked again at the struggle taking place on the bed. Josiah was trying to get Ezra to hold still while he washed his face off and changed his soiled nightshirt... not an easy task since the bandages holding his arm to his chest had to come off first in order to remove the garment. Which of course meant another round of crying and complaining when they were replaced.
Chris laughed when he followed Nathan's gaze over to the bed and got a look at the preacher's face. "I'm not so sure Josiah would agree with you right about now."
Vin stared at the petulant gambler arguing with Josiah and then at Nathan and Chris. "Ya know... it might not be a bad idea t' go ahead an' let ol' Maude pay her visit now. How long do ya think her perfect mother act would last if she had t' spend some time with 'im while he's actin' this way?"
Chris stared at him for a moment and then at Ezra... his mind turning over what Vin had said. "You know... you may be right. Try and keep him awake and irritable... I'm gonna go find his mother and give her the good news. Maybe I'll even stop and see if the Judge might want to come along... if she shows herself like we think she will, it could be all he needs to give Ezra to us."
Nathan looked regretfully at Ezra... he hated putting him through any more stress, but if it would help him stay out of his mother's clutches, then he guessed they didn't have much choice. "Okay... but only the Judge an' his mama... that damn lawyer of hers can jus' stay away. Ezra's gonna be scared enough with his mama here... he don't need some stranger askin' 'im a lot of questions. Vin an' I'll break the news to 'im while you're gone, but ya better come in an' see how things went before ya bring her in here. If it upsets him too much, we ain't doin' it."
Chris nodded and after pulling on his coat and hat, left to find their intended victim. Dear old Maude was going to wish she'd never even come to town, much less asked to talk to her son. He knew Ezra couldn't possibly have acted this way when he was a real five year old. Maude told him he was bad... well, now she'd see what *bad* really was.
Chris headed over to the Clarion first, wanting to make sure the Judge was agreeable to the plan. He sure hoped this worked... he was damn sick and tired of making Ezra miserable for his own good. Chris wanted nothing more than to be able to tell him that he was positively staying with them forever... then maybe they could concentrate harder on getting his memory back.
Maude came back downstairs at the hotel to find Delacourte sitting in the lobby waiting for her. He stood as she approached, and after offering his arm, led her out onto the boardwalk.
Maude looked up at the man walking beside her and smiled slightly. "So have you figured out how we're goin' to convince the Judge to give me my son?"
Delacourte stared down at her for a moment and then finally asked something that had been bothering him. "Have you stopped to think what you're goin' to do if what they say is true... and Ezra doesn't regain his memory? As this Larabee person pointed out, you couldn't handle Ezra when he really was a child... how the hell are you expectin' to be able to deal with him as a grown man who *thinks* he's a child?"
"Well, MJ... if the worst does happen, and my son is forced to live the rest of his life with the mind of a five year old... then there are several fine institutions in St. Louis where I'm sure he will be taken care of quite nicely. And he would be close enough for me to visit on occasion to make sure they are doin' right by him." Maude narrowed her eyes when she saw the scornful look he gave her.
The attorney shook his head in amazement. "You'd actually have your only son institutionalized just so you didn't have to care for him? Lord, Maude... you are one cold-hearted bitch, aren't you?"
Maude jerked on his arm and pulled him to a stop. "Don't you even try givin' me any of your holier-than-thou attitude, MJ... you wrote the book when it comes to the art of bein' cold-hearted."
"Oh, I admit quite freely that I'm just as bad as you are... but to actually consider sticking a child, even if it is in mind only, in one of those madhouses, Maude? Hell, even I wouldn't do that. Not to my own child anyway." Delacourte tucked her hand back over his arm and started her moving down the boardwalk. He'd seen the way people were staring and didn't want their business gossiped about all over town. "Why are you so intent on gettin' custody of Ezra if you're not plannin' on takin' care of him? Why not save yourself the trouble and just leave him here with people who are willin' to put up with his problems."
Maude stared straight ahead as they walked, but her cold, hard words carried clearly up to her much taller companion. "Because he's mine, damn it... and no one takes what belongs to me!"
Chris had found the Judge with Mary in the Clarion office and had quickly explained what they wanted to do with Maude. Orrin and Mary thought it was an excellent plan and after telling his wife he was leaving for a bit, the Judge followed Chris out into the street.
They both jumped slightly when they heard a woman's voice suddenly call out the Judge's name. Looking around, they spotted Ezra's mother and her lawyer hurrying down the boardwalk towards them.
Orrin grimaced and glanced at Chris. "Couldn't have timed that better if we'd tried. I hope poor Ezra's up to this."
"Judge Travis... could I speak to you for a few minutes? I really want to discuss my son with you again and see if I can't convince you to change your mind about allowing me to visit him. I think-" Maude never got to finish as the Judge held up a hand to interrupt her.
"I was just coming to see you, Mrs. Standish. Mr. Larabee has come to me and informed me that they're willing to allow you to see your son now." The Judge saw her winding up for a long-winded gush of appreciation and stopped her before she even spoke the first word. "Don't thank me... thank Chris. I'd just as soon have waited til Nathan pronounced Ezra well, but Mr. Larabee thinks it would be best for you to pay your visit now."
Maude looked suspiciously at Chris, but after a sharp nudge from Delacourte, offered him an insincere but semi-polite thank you.
"Why, you're more than welcome, Maude." Chris's sarcastic tone was not lost on the angry woman or her attorney. "However, Mr. Delacourte here is not welcome to join us. Nathan doesn't feel Ezra is up to entertaining any strangers at the moment. You understand of course."
Maude and Delacourte both began to sputter at this turn of events, but the Judge quickly put a stop to it.
"It's this or nothing, Madam. Decide now as I only have a short time to devote to this visit... and when I leave, so do you." Orrin stared coldly at her as he waited for her answer.
Delacourte sighed and ran his hand angrily through his hair. "Fine, Judge Travis... whatever you say, but may I please have a word with my client first?"
The Judge nodded curtly and waited til they were out of earshot before speaking softly to Chris. "I wonder why he's so anxious to accompany her on this visit. Does he know Ezra personally?"
Chris shrugged, but kept his eyes on the pair as they argued back and forth. "I have no idea, Judge... Ezra's never mentioned anyone named Delacourte that I can remember. I know I don't trust him though."
The man in question looked up and locked eyes with Chris as if he knew he was being discussed. He stared at the gunslinger for a moment and then turned his attention back to Maude. "Listen to me, damn it... I know this is some kind of trick on their part. Why did they suddenly change their minds when they were so adamant about keeping you away before? I think you should wait til he's better and then push for them to allow me to go with you."
"Don't be ridiculous, MJ... they aren't smart enough to come up with any kind of ruse this quickly. Josiah probably felt sorry for me and talked them into letting me in to see him. He has always had an infatuation for me, and he's probably come to his senses and realized that Ezra is ill and doesn't know what he's talkin' about with these little tales of his. Now stop your worryin' and let me go see my son before the Judge runs out of patience." Maude started to walk away, but Delacourte reached out and grabbed her arm.
His words were angry and threatening. "Fine, Maude... do what you want. However, don't come cryin' to me when this whole thing blows up in your face... which I'm sure it will."
"Just go back to the hotel and wait for me. I'll be along just as soon as I get to talk to my son, and we'll make our travel plans to take Ezra home. I'm sure once he sees me, Ezra will be beggin' me to take him home." Maude patted his arm and walked back over to where the Judge and Chris impatiently waited.
Delacourte watched as they crossed the street to the clinic and then with a disgusted shake of his head, turned and began walking back to the hotel, muttering angrily to himself. "Oh, you're right, Maude, we will be takin' Ezra back with us... one way or another. I have no intention of goin' home empty-handed."
Chris preceded the Judge and Maude up the stairs and stopped with his hand on the door latch. "Vin and Nathan were gonna tell Ezra what's happening... you'll have to wait out here while I see how it went. As long as he's pretty much okay with it, you can come in."
Orrin nodded and silenced Maude with a single dark look of warning as she started to protest.
Chris entered the clinic and saw Ezra jerk his head up and stare at him with wide, frightened green eyes. God, he hated putting that look on his face again. He moved over to sit beside Ezra on the bed, taking his slender hand in his larger one... stroking it gently. "You okay with this, Little One?"
Ezra looked up at the others before returning his gaze to Chris. His voice shook and he closed his fingers tightly around the older man's, gripping so hard it made Chris wince, but he nodded slowly. "I f'ink so, Chwis. But I'm w'eawy scarwed."
Buck smoothed back his hair and smiled down at him. "The Judge is gonna be here too, Ezra... an' he won't let her take ya outta here either."
Ezra glanced at Buck and then back at Chris, his eyes hopeful. "Do you f'ink d' Judge would come in herwe firwst so I can talk to him?"
Chris squeezed Ezra's finger's gently. "I'm sure he will. You want me to go ask him for you?"
Ezra nodded eagerly. "Uh-huh... tewll him I said pwease... okay, Chwis?"
"You bet I will, Little One. Don't you worry, he'll come in." Chris stood and headed for the door, smiling as he heard Ezra's sweet lisping drawl follow after him.
"Don't forwget to say pwease, Chwis!" The others smiled down at Ezra... the pride they felt at how brave he was being shone brightly in their eyes.
Ezra watched nervously as Chris opened the door, spoke a few words, and then stepped back to allow the Judge to enter. Everyone saw the Southerner breathe a sigh of relief when he saw Chris close the door behind Judge Travis.
Orrin approached the bed and sat down on the edge, smiling at the younger man who managed a small smile in return. "What can I do for you, Ezra?"
Ezra plucked anxiously at the blankets, his eyes focusing on his fingers as he tried to get the courage to talk to the intimidating figure sitting beside him. Finally he managed to ask his question, his hesitant words coming out in the smallest of whispers. "I'm s-scarwed, Judge Twavis... wiwll you... wiwll you p-pwomise you won't w'et Mama t-take me away? Pwease?" He risked a quick look up at the Judge and was encouraged by the warm smile that remained on his face.
"You have my word, Ezra. You're mama will not be allowed to remove you from the clinic." Orrin placed his hand over Ezra's and pressed gently, stilling its nervous movements. He could feel the heat from the gambler's fever warming his skin and wished fervently that they didn't have to subject him to Maude's visit when he was obviously so sick.
Ezra stared at the large comforting hand covering his and then looked up into the Judge's eyes. He gazed into them for a moment, trying to decide if he dared trust the man. "C-crwoss yourw hearwt?"
The Judge stared solemnly back at Ezra and slowly drew a cross over his heart.
Ezra nodded now that the promise had been made official, and spoke to Chris who was still standing over by the door. "I'm w'eady now, Chwis."
Chris stared back at him before opening the door. "You sure, Little One?"
Ezra hesitated only for a second before nodding once more, and Chris finally swung the door wide and allowed the irate woman anxiously waiting on the landing into the clinic. The gunslinger grabbed her arm and held it a moment as she went to move past him. Leaning in close so that Maude would be the only one to hear his words, he whispered one last warning. "Hurt him, and you'll regret it the rest of your life."
Maude nodded once and jerking her arm out of his grip, walked over to the bed where her son sat surrounded by his friends. She stared at his face and knew immediately, before Ezra even opened his mouth to speak, that Nathan hadn't lied to her... Maude could see it in his eyes... an innocence that she hadn't seen there since he was a very small child. She looked at the Judge and arched her brows, her unspoken request quite clear to all of them.
Orrin looked down at Ezra, and after squeezing his hand gently one last time, regretfully rose off the bed and moved to stand over by Chris, motioning for the other men to follow. He knew for this plan to work, Maude had to have at least a little privacy for her talk with her son.
Buck narrowed his eyes and glared hatefully at Maude. He bent down next to Ezra, wrapping a long arm around his slender shoulders and hugged him tightly for a minute. "You remember, Little One... she's got no say over ya anymore... nothin' she says or does means a thing because you're our little boy now. Okay?" His voice stroked soothingly across Ezra's ear, his words so faint the gambler had to strain to hear them, but once he did, he felt himself grow a little calmer... a little less scared. Buck was here. Buck would protect him and keep him safe.
Ezra nodded and turned his face to whisper quietly back, "I w'ememberw, Buck... I wuv you."
Buck whispered 'wuv you, too' and finally released Ezra and backed away from the bed... his eyes never leaving his Little One as he moved to stand beside the others.
Ezra stared up at his mother as she moved toward him. She removed her cloak and hat and after depositing them on a chair, settled herself beside him on the bed.
"Hello, darlin'... did you miss your mama?" Maude reached for his hand and let a slight frown cross her features when it lay limply in hers, no return squeeze, nothing. And no answer to her question. "I asked if you missed me, sweetheart."
Ezra shrugged and glanced down at her hand covering his. "I guess so."
Maude released his hand and reached to tip his face up so she could look into his eyes. "I heard you had a little accident. Nathan said you fell and hit your head... does it still hurt?"
Ezra shook his head and just stared at her for a moment. "I brwoke my arwm, too. See?" He pulled away from her hand and looked down at his chest. "Nafan had to put it in a s'wing an' strwap it down so I wouldn't huwt it again."
She reached out and gently touched the arm wrapped tightly against him and then reached to stroke his hair off his forehead, her fingers lingering against his warm skin as she felt the fever that still had a hold on him. "I hear you've gone and caught yourself a cold, too... you always were a sickly child."
The others watched Ezra's face and saw him wince at the disapproving tone of voice she used when she spoke of his illness. "I'm sowwy, Mama... I didn't mean to get sick. Nafan's takin' carwe of me an' says I won't have d' cowld verwy w'ong."
Maude just stared at Ezra... it was amazing... absolutely amazing how much he sounded like he had when he was really five years old. Nathan had been right... even his facial expressions gave one the impression they were talking to a child.
She turned slightly on the bed and glanced back at the healer. "He feels quite warm, Mr. Jackson... what are you usin' to treat him?"
Nathan moved forward and felt Ezra's forehead, smiling reassuringly at the smaller man when he looked up at him. "He is a mite warmer. I've been givin' 'im willow bark tea, ma'am. It helps the fever and eases some of the aches and pains that go along with the cold." He stared appraisingly at Maude and nodded as he walked over to the stove. "In fact, it's about time we tried to get another mug of it down 'im. I'll fix it up an' you can give it to 'im. He's not real fond of the taste, but I'm sure he'll take it jus' fine from his own mama."
Ezra and Maude both stared at Nathan like he'd lost his mind.
Maude glanced at her son, saw his mouth already clamping shut and frowned. Obviously they'd spoiled him in just the short time he'd been in this condition... her child would never have dared to refuse his medicine when he was sick. He had been well aware of what the consequences for such disobedience were.
Nathan walked over and handed her the tea, noting with satisfaction the stubborn look that was glinting in Ezra's green eyes. Now they'd see just how confident he was of his place in their little family. If they'd finally gotten through to him like they'd tried... Maude was in for quite an experience.
The healer walked up beside the Judge and Chris and whispered softly, "I left out the honey... an' he's already got *that* look in his eyes."
Chris smiled and nodded. "This oughta put a chink in that mask of self-control she's got on. Even Maude's no match for Ezra when he decides he doesn't want to cooperate."
Maude heard them whispering behind her, but couldn't quite make out what they were saying. She assumed they were probably discussing her ability to take care of her ailing son and was determined to show them how well she could get him to behave.
"Here you go, darlin'... some nice warm tea to make you feel better. Now just sip it because it's a little hot." Maude confidently placed the mug to Ezra's lips and tipped it slowly. She definitely wasn't prepared for Ezra's reaction to the liquid as it reached his sore throat.
"Ow... Ow!!! It's too hot, Mama... it's burwnin' me!" His hands shot up to clutch at his throat, knocking the cup out of his mother's grip and spilling tea over her, him and the bed covers.
Nathan reached out quickly and grabbed Buck's arm as he made a move toward the bed. He shook his head at the panicking gunman and reassured him it wasn't really that hot, it was just Ezra being his usual whiney, sick, and miserable self. The healer walked over and handed the distressed woman a towel, and then took the cup and went to pour another dose of tea. On his way back over to the bed, he grabbed another clean nightshirt and set it beside Maude. "You'll have t' remove those bandages first... but don't worry, I'll put 'em back on for ya. He's not too happy when it has t' be done, an' I'm not sure ya could handle it."
Maude stared back at the group of men clustered by the door... not missing the looks of amusement they quickly tried to hide. She saw the little game they were playing, MJ had been right... she was being set up. But she'd be damned if she'd let them win. "There's no need for you to trouble yourself, Mr. Jackson... I'm sure we'll be able to handle things just fine."
Turning back to Ezra, she quickly used the towel to mop up the mess he'd made and then set it aside. She picked up the second mug of tea and blew on it. "Here, darlin'... this one's cooler... it won't hurt you." She lifted the cup to his lips and was met by a petulant shake of the young man's head. "Ezra... sweetheart... open your mouth for Mama. You need to drink this if you're goin' to get better."
Ezra merely stared back at her, his lips sealed tightly shut, and again shook his head no.
Maude drew her eyes down at him and put a touch of steel in the tone of her voice... a sign he'd come to know as a child that she meant business and expected to be obeyed. "Ezra... Mr. Jackson went to the trouble of preparing this for you, now I expect you to be a big boy and drink it all down... now."
Ezra glanced at his brothers and saw Nathan nodding at him. "She's right, Ezra... the tea'll make ya better. Drink it down... for me?"
"Okay, Nafan." Ezra smiled at him and then looked back at his mother. He caught her glaring at the others and knew she wasn't at all happy with him now. Her face when she turned back to him let him know exactly what she thought about his brothers and the fact that he was willing to take orders from them but not her. His confidence in his safety slipped a little and his smile slowly faded... he decided he'd better try being a little nicer to her before she really got angry. He didn't want her turning it on the others. Ezra knew he was used to it and could handle it... sort of... but he wasn't too sure about them.
This time when she held the tea up, he grimaced at it's taste as usual, wondering why Nathan hadn't put any honey in it, and drank it slowly down until he'd finally drained the mug of the healing brew.
He smiled winningly up at his mother as he saw her remove the now empty cup. "D'erwe, Mama... I finished all of it."
"Well, it's about time. You'd think the stuff was poison or somethin' with all the fuss you made. It's a wonder Nathan is still agreeable to takin' care of you if this is how you've been actin'." Maude never even looked at his face, never cared that her words had produced a sheen of tears in his eyes and a look of hurt that went so deep there was no doubt that it had its roots in his real childhood. Maude may not have noticed... but his brothers and the Judge had.
"Yes, Mama... I'm sowwy." Ezra blinked rapidly to keep the tears from falling... he knew from experience that that would just earn him another reprimand.
"As you should be." Maude knew the others might think she was hard, but she had to remind her son who was in charge. He had to know when he went home with her... and he would be going with her, she was confident of that fact... that he wasn't going to be receiving the royal treatment he was having lavished upon him here. She refused to cater to his childish whims and unreasonable behavior. "Now apologize to Mr. Jackson."
Ezra turned his eyes to Nathan and saw him nod encouragingly at him. "I'm sowwy, Nafan... I won't do it again."
"Don't you worry about it, little guy... I'm proud of ya for drinkin' all of it. You're a real good boy for doin' that." Nathan smiled coldly at Maude as she glared at him, wishing with everything he had that he was capable of hitting a woman. Because he wouldn't hesitate for an instant to repay this miserable excuse for a mother for the way she treated her son.
Maude glanced from Nathan to the Judge and found him coldly staring back at her. She realized she was on the verge of throwing away any chance she had of winning this little test of theirs, and decided she'd better change her tactics with Ezra.
Turning back around, she softened her expression and reached out to gently pat her son's cheek. "I'm sorry, darlin'... Nathan's right... you were really brave drinkin' down that nasty ol' tea." She saw Ezra's expression brighten a little and realized he was so desperate for her approval, all she needed to do was throw him a few crumbs of praise and he'd be eager to accompany her back to St. Louis. And then she'd quickly remind him how things worked... he obeyed or he was sent away... it was quite simple.
"Now... let's get Mama's sweet boy cleaned up." She carefully unwound the strips of cloth and eased his arm out of the sling, before slipping the restraint over his head. After placing it on the pile of bandages beside her, she turned back to Ezra and reached for his arm. "There, that wasn't so bad. Next we'll take off this dirty old night-"
Maude was totally unprepared for Ezra's reaction when she attempted to remove his nightshirt. He jerked violently away from her and began protesting... loudly.
"No, Mama!! You can't do d'at!" Ezra wrapped his arms tightly around himself and rolled up in a ball. "I want Buck! He can change my nightshirwt forw me... pwease, Mama?!"
The men stared over at the battle of wills that was taking place on the bed, and were surprised to see that Maude was holding her own against her son's incredible stubborn streak. They were also thrilled to see Ezra so openly defying her. Each man there took it as proof positive that he had completely put his trust in their love for him... otherwise he never would have had the courage to go against her wishes.
"We do not need Mr. Wilmington's assistance in this." Maude scowled, her patience slowly ebbing away as Ezra continued to avoid her grasping hands. "For heaven's sake, Ezra... I'm your mother. I've seen you nekkid before... now let me get this off of you and finish gettin' you cleaned up."
"No you haven't, Mama... you've neverw seen me naked. An' I don't want you to see me now... Buck! Pwease hewlp me!" Ezra squirmed further under the covers while staring despairingly at the men on the other side of the room.
Finally, Maude had had enough. She leaned over Ezra, blocking the others' view of what she was doing, and grabbed hold of his chin, forcing him to look at her. He immediately stopped struggling when he saw the anger glinting in her eyes, grimacing in pain as her fingers dug cruelly into his skin.
Maude's voice was deceptively soft, carefully pitched for Ezra's ears only, but her words sent a shaft of terror spearing through the gambler. "You listen to me, you spoiled little brat... you stop this nonsense and quit makin' me look like a fool. Otherwise, you'll be goin' straight to your uncle Matthew's instead of home with me. And don't let them fool you with all this talk of keepin' you here... no court in this land is goin' to take a child away from his lovin' mother and hand him over to a bunch of gun-totin', beer guzzlin' hooligans. Now sit your rotten little self up here and behave."
Ezra stared at her... he wanted to believe that she was lying... wanted with all his heart to be brave enough to continue to fight her... but she'd used the ultimate threat. Uncle Matthew. All the certainty he'd had about his place in his new family flew right out the window with those words. Ezra's little five year old psyche was too scarred by his horrid experiences at the hands of his uncle to allow him to ignore them. Never taking his eyes off his mother, the gambler slowly sat up in the bed. His arms fell limply to his sides and he offered no further resistance as she started unbuttoning his nightshirt.
Chris and the others watched in bewilderment as Ezra underwent a complete transformation. Gone was their brave, obstinate new little brother... and in his place they were saddened to see the cowering, fearful, lost soul he'd been when he first appeared.
"What the hell did she say to 'im?" Vin glanced at the others, seeing the same question on all their faces. They knew Maude had threatened Ezra with something awful to produce this big of a change in his demeanor.
Chris stared at the sad, defeated look on Ezra's face and started toward the bed. "I don't know, but I think he needs a little help dealing with it."
Maude and Ezra both jumped when the angry gunslinger clamped his hand over hers and wrenched it away from Ezra's shirtfront.
Chris's steely gaze drilled into her as he placed his hand gently on the back of Ezra's head, stroking the soft hair in an effort to calm the younger man. "He said he didn't want you to do it. I think you look like you need a nice, hot cup of coffee... why don't you let Vin pour you a cup and sit yourself down at the table and drink it." He glanced down at Ezra and smiled sadly at the incredible look of gratitude that filled his face. "And turn your back... Ezra needs some privacy. We'll let you know when we're finished."
He waited until Maude had reluctantly moved away from the bed and allowed Vin to seat her at the table facing away from the bed, before he sat down beside Ezra and pulled the willing gambler into his arms.
Chris bent his head and whispered softly, "You okay, Ezra? Did she hurt you?"
Ezra shook his head, but remained silent as he clung tightly to Chris, tears of relief trickling slowly down his cheeks. The older man held him for a few minutes and then gently sat him back up. He stared into Ezra's eyes and could see that he just wasn't capable of explaining what had happened right at that moment. The fear she'd put in him was still burning too brightly.
"I don't know what she said to you, Ezra... but I know that whatever it was, it was a lie. You just keep reminding yourself that she can't do anything to you, and she can't take you away. No matter what she tells you... she can't. The Judge won't allow it, and more importantly... *we* won't allow it. You understand?"
Ezra nodded and reached up to scrub the tears from his face. "F'ank you, Chwis... I'm sowwy 'bout bein' a spoiwled brwat."
Chris frowned and shook his head slowly. "You're not a..." he stopped and glanced back at Maude. If looks could kill, she would have perished where she sat. He turned back to Ezra, pasting a smile on his face as he slowly finished unbuttoning the smaller man's nightshirt and gently lifted it over his head, careful to keep the blanket wrapped loosely around his waist.
"Don't you listen to her, Ezra. You've been a good little boy since you've been here, and we're proud of you for going through this so bravely. You just hang on a little bit longer and it'll all be over. Then you won't ever have to talk to her again if you don't want to." He slipped the clean gown over Ezra's head and buttoned it up tight before replacing the sling and strapping it back down. Ezra was just so happy to have Chris taking care of him and to hear his words of reassurance, that he didn't even complain when the restraint was put back on.
Chris hugged Ezra tight one last time and then cupping his face in his hands, leaned in to whisper fiercely, "You remember, Little One... you're ours now so you don't have to listen to anything she tells you. You got it?"
Ezra nodded and managed to give Chris a small, lop-sided grin. "I got it, Chwis."
Chris pressed a quick kiss on the Southerner's forehead before moving off the bed and reluctantly telling Maude she could return now. He felt himself shaking with anger as he quietly filled the others in on Ezra's condition and had to actively restrain Buck from going over to the bed. "He's alright, Buck... and she's right on the edge. Let's give it a little longer... we need her to crack. Right, Judge?"
Orrin stared regretfully over at the two on the bed and nodded. "It would help, yes. I can keep him in my protective care for awhile in hopes that his memory returns... but eventually, Delacourte would be able to force me to prove without a shadow of a doubt that she's unfit or relinquish my control over Ezra."
Buck ground his teeth together and shook off Chris's hand, but he remained where he was... his eyes never leaving Ezra.
Maude sat and stared coldly at Ezra. She could see that whatever Larabee had been whispering to him, it had given some of the confidence she'd worked to destroy back to him. Well, she could fix that... she knew just the threat to push him into returning with her.
"Alright, Ezra... I've grown tired of this little game your *friends* are playin'. We're goin' to end it now. I want you to tell them that you've changed your mind, and you wish to go with me. You are to convince them that you've realized how much you've missed me and that you want them to let you go home now." She watched as Ezra slowly shook his head, his eyes nervously darting over to stare at the men. "Oh yes, Ezra... you will do as I say... or your uncle Matthew will come and forcibly remove you from this clinic."
Maude enjoyed seeing Ezra jerk his gaze back to her... the fear quickly returning to his delicate features. She'd known just the mention of Matthew coming here would straighten his attitude up. Maude had worried a little at first when Ezra seemed afraid to stay with his uncle, but Matthew had assured her it was only because he was made to mind while he was there. And now she was glad he'd instilled that little bit of fear in Ezra, since it was obviously going to help her get him back. "Would you want to take the risk of one of your friends bein' hurt when they tried to stop him? It would be all your fault for not going with me in the first place if they were, you know."
Ezra's heart started pounding furiously at the thought of Uncle Matthew even touching one of his brothers. "No, Mama... pwease, don't..."
Maude nodded, knowing she'd won. "Then you better start acting like you love your dear mother and make them think you want to go with me. Now... come here and give me a nice big hug and put a smile on that sour face of yours."
Ezra allowed her to pull him into a hug and tried unsuccessfully to conjure up a smile. She held him for a moment and then sat him up, her hands retaining their tight hold on his arms as she nodded at him to make his announcement. He had just opened his mouth to speak the words she wanted when his eyes drifted across her shoulder and came to rest on the men who said they were now his brothers, who said they would take care of him forever, and he hesitated.
Buck saw the look on Ezra's face and knew he was in trouble again. He locked his eyes onto the younger man's and held his tear-filled gaze, trying to push as much confidence and strength into him as he could.
Ezra tried to remain firm in his resolve to save them from Uncle Matthew, but his own fear and his incredible need for this man who had captured his heart, held him back. He sensed what Buck was trying to do for him, but didn't know if he had the strength to fight anymore... until he saw Buck slowly mouth 'I love you, Little One.'
Maude felt the change immediately and tightened her hold on him. "Don't even think about it, Ezra... it's over." But she forgot it was a grown man she was attempting to restrain, not really a child, and she lost her grip on him when he quickly wrenched himself out of her arms.
Ezra sat back and pushed her hands away when she attempted to pull him back into the hug. "No, Mama... w'eave me a'wone! I don't wanna go wif you!"
"Now listen to me, Ezra Standish... that's enough." Maude's voice was low and harsh as she tried to force her son into bowing to her demands.
But Ezra had had enough... the stress of dealing with his mother, his illness, and his unrelenting fear of his uncle Matthew all crashed down on him. His face turned red with the anger that surged through him and his anguished cries echoed through the clinic as he finally broke. "I said w'eave me a'wone, Mama!!! I hate you... do you hearw me, Mama?! I hate you an' I'm stayin' herwe wif-"
That was all it took. The crack in Maude's self-control they'd been waiting for finally appeared as she lashed out and slapped Ezra across the face... the sickening sound of her hand striking his cheek hung in the air as everyone froze in shock.
Ezra's wide green eyes immediately filled with tears as his hand slowly moved up to cup his stinging face while he stared at her in total disbelief at what she'd done.
Maude's face mirrored his disbelieving look. As bad a mother as she was... the one thing she'd never ever done was struck him. She immediately reached for him and tried to rationalize her actions using her normal tactic of turning the blame on her son... stammering out that he shouldn't have pushed her... he shouldn't have said such hateful things to her. But before she could touch him, she heard a roar of anger and pain erupt behind her that chilled her to the bone. She leaped off the bed and turned, intent on trying to get to the door... but before she could take two steps, Buck was in front of her, blocking her exit... his hands clenching and unclenching as he fought against the rage that threatened to consume him.
Chris and Vin were jolted out of their trance by the inhuman cry that sprang from their friend's throat and belatedly grabbed for Buck as he launched himself at the woman still standing by the bed.
Chris saw him battling against the urge to kill her and walked slowly up behind him, placing a warning hand gently on his back. "Don't do it, Buck... don't sink to her level. If you touch her, you'll lose any chance you had of getting Ezra." Chris couldn't tell if he was getting through or not, but at least he knew the man was listening. "She'll win, Buck. For God's sake, don't let her win. Think of Ezra maybe spending the rest of his life with her... and his uncle Matthew."
Chris felt a slight shudder go through Buck's big frame at the mention of Ezra's uncle, and pushed on. "Don't do this to our Little One, Buck. He'll never survive if he witnesses you killing his mother. And no matter what she's done, she is still his mother. Don't do this to him, Buck." Chris heard him moan in frustration and knew he almost had him. "He needs you, Buck. Look at him... look at his eyes. If you don't stop now, he'll be lost to us forever."
Buck tore his eyes away from Maude and looked over at the man huddled in the center of the bed. The others surrounded him, but the gambler acted as if he didn't even know they were there. His eyes were glued on the scene being played out in front of him, but the older man could tell he was no longer actually seeing it... he had completely shut down to protect himself from what he feared was about to happen.
Buck stared at the younger man's incredibly pale face, his features slack and emotionless, his slender hand still pressed tightly to his slowly swelling cheek. And then Buck finally looked into Ezra's eyes... those beautiful green eyes usually so alive and vibrant that were now completely blank and lifeless... and he knew Chris was right. He wouldn't just be killing Maude... he would be killing Ezra... their Little One... their little brother who depended on them to protect and love him.
And then Chris pushed the final button, the one he knew would force Buck completely away from the mistake he was about to make. "It's not just Ezra you'll be hurting, Buck... think about JD. He looks up to you... you're his big brother, too... his hero. What'll happen to him if he sees you go through with this?"
Buck's eyes shifted to JD... sitting frozen beside Ezra... his dark eyes staring back at him, pleading for Buck to not destroy his faith in him. He trusted Buck to do what was right... to do everything he could to keep his new *little* brother safe. And now Buck knew without a shadow of a doubt that Chris was right. Sure, he'd have the satisfaction of paying Maude back for everything she'd done to Ezra... but he'd be losing the two most important people in his life in the process.
With that realization, Buck shook himself and finally managed to gain some control over his rage... his mind focusing on one thing only now. Ezra. He couldn't lose everything that mattered because of his hatred for the woman who stood trembling in front of him, waiting for him to break. Their Little One had become the most important thing in their lives and had taught them an invaluable lesson. He'd made them realize how much they all cared about each other, and he had even proven to them that it didn't really hurt if they allowed it to show occasionally. Buck knew he couldn't let that sweet soul who had done so much for them just slip away because of him.
With a gut-wrenching cry of disgust, he grabbed Maude and her things and with Chris's help, dragged her toward the door and out onto the landing. Chris quickly jerked Maude out of Buck's hands and pushed her toward the railing... out of the younger man's reach just in case he lost the tenuous hold he had on his anger.
The Judge followed quickly after them. Their plan had worked... too well, unfortunately... and he was determined to make sure that nothing happened now that would make Ezra's suffering all for nothing.
Chris and the Judge both kept a restraining arm on Buck. They could feel the tremors that rippled through him as he fought to hang onto his self-control.
Buck stared at Maude and saw a flash of fear cross her face before she replaced it with a cold mask of indifference. He shook his head and uttered a harsh laugh. "Don't worry, Maude... I'm not gonna touch ya. You heard Chris... that would be stoopin' to your level, an' I refuse to do that." He saw her relief that she wasn't going to come to any bodily harm and continued. "Oh, don't get me wrong... there's nothin' more in this world I'd rather do right now than to choke the very life out of you. But I won't, because... unlike you... I can control my anger. And also unlike you... I love Ezra too much to hurt 'im that way."
Maude, for once in her life, was speechless. MJ had been right... it *had* been a trap... and she'd let them and her son push her right into it. The realization that she may just have completely destroyed any chance she had of winning the battle for Ezra left her scrambling for a way to explain her actions, but she knew nothing she said right now would help her case, so instead she uncharacteristically kept her mouth shut.
"And now I think I've wasted enough time on your sorry ass so I'm goin' back inside to try an' repair the damage you just did to your son." Chris and the Judge moved aside so he could pass and waited til he'd closed the door behind him before turning back to Maude.
"What's it feel like to lose for a change, Maude?" Chris couldn't resist getting one little dig in at the cold, unfeeling woman.
She opened her mouth to reply but was stopped by the Judge. "Don't, Mrs. Standish... I've had enough for one day. Just leave. Because if you utter just one wrong word, I might just turn my back and allow Mr. Wilmington to do whatever he wishes to you."
Maude took one look at the Judge's face and realized he wasn't bluffing. She was a gambler and knew when it was time to fold... and now was definitely the time. She'd go back to the hotel, get some rest, and talk to MJ. Let them think they'd won for the moment... she knew better. She was far from finished. Nodding briefly at the two men... and mustering as much dignity as she could under the circumstances, Maude turned and walked away.
Upon entering the clinic, Buck ignored everyone's questioning stares and moved quickly over to sit beside Ezra on the bed. He immediately wrapped his arms around the younger man and tried to pull him into a hug, but hesitated when he felt him resist his efforts. Leaning forward to look into Ezra's face, he saw that the gambler was staring past him at the door... his eyes wide and unfocused, totally blind to everything that was going on around him.
Nathan laid a hand on his shoulder and spoke quietly. "Easy, Buck... he's in shock. Take it slow."
Buck released Ezra and moved around to sit on the bed in front of him. He tried to get the younger man to look at him, but couldn't get him to tear his gaze away from that damn door. He never even reacted when Chris and the Judge reentered the clinic. "Ezra? It's okay now. She's not comin' back... I promise." He reached up and gently placed his hand over Ezra's, just holding it there while he continued to talk softly to the frightened man.
JD sat beside them and began slowly moving his hand over Ezra's back. He could feel the tremors that shook the slender body and realized he'd never hated anyone as much as he did Maude Standish at that moment. The boy looked at Buck and felt an even deeper respect for his friend... he now knew how much strength it had taken for Buck not to have given into his rage. Turning his attention back to the terrified man beside him, JD leaned over to whisper in Ezra's ear... adding his gentle voice to Buck's in an effort to reassure the Southerner that he was safe now. "It's okay, Ezra... it's over. She can't hurt you anymore. Come on, Little One... come back to us now."
The Judge watched them as they unsuccessfully tried to pull Ezra out of his daze. Suddenly he had an idea and asked Buck to move over and let him try something. He sat directly in front of the young Southerner and gripping his chin firmly, forced him to look at him. "Ezra? Can you hear me, son? Just nod your head if you can, I've got something very important to tell you."
After a few tense moments, Ezra's eyes shifted to stare into the Judge's, and he slowly nodded his head.
"That's a good boy... now you listen to me. I'm leaving right now to go sign the papers that give Buck final custody of you." Judge Travis watched as Ezra's eyes seemed to finally focus on him. He couldn't miss the glimmer of hope that appeared in their emerald depths as what he'd said penetrated the fog the gambler was drifting in. "You never have to leave him, Ezra. No one... not your mother, or even your uncle Matthew, can take you away now... absolutely no one. Do you understand?"
Ezra's eyes moved to stare at Buck for a few seconds before once more fastening on the Judge's smiling face. He tried several times to speak and finally managed a hoarsely whispered, "Neverw?"
Orrin released the smaller man's chin and gently stroked the angry red hand print that branded his pale cheek. "Never, Ezra... you're a part of this family now for as long as you want to be."
The collapse when it came was heart-breaking to watch, and there wasn't a dry eye in the clinic when Ezra slumped into the Judge's arms and began to sob helplessly... his relief at it all being over so intense it nearly tore him apart.
Orrin held him tightly for a few minutes and then whispered gently in his ear. "Ezra? I want to go get those papers filed so we can make it all official... and I think there's someone here who needs to hold you."
Ezra raised his tear-stained face up and stared into the Judge's kindly brown eyes. "F'ank you, Judge Twavis." He leaned in for one more quick hug. "I wuv you."
Orrin blinked rapidly, trying to stave off the tears that suddenly flooded his eyes, but couldn't quite manage it. "I love you too, Ezra. And I'm very, very proud of you." He gently pushed the gambler away and stared into his eyes. "I want you to do something for me, Ezra... I want you to try to always remember how lucky you are to have this many people who love you so strongly. Now... you better hurry and give Buck a turn at you... I don't think he can wait any longer."
Ezra turned to face Buck and saw the tears streaming down the older man's face... saw the arms reaching out for him... and knew he was finally safe. With a strangled cry, he threw himself at Buck and sank into his warm, protective embrace.
"I wuv you, Buck... I w-wuv you so m-much..."
Buck clutched the smaller man against him and rocked him slowly back and forth. "I know you do, Little One... and I love you with all my heart."
Judge Orrin Travis felt every bit his age as he moved slowly toward the door. Stopping briefly beside Chris, he took one last look back at the six men gathered on the bed together. He turned and gave the younger man a weary smile.
"Go join them, Chris. Ezra needs all of you now. I'm going to go file those custody papers and then go home and try to forget, at least for the rest of this day, the ugly scene we just witnessed. I just hope with the help of all of you, Ezra will eventually be able to do the same."
"Thanks for everything, Judge. I hope this is the end of it." Chris opened the door for the Judge and waited as he slowly moved out onto the landing.
"I hope so too, Chris." Orrin shook his head as he walked away. "But knowing the redoubtable Mrs. Standish, I highly doubt it."
Chris hated to agree, but he knew the older man was probably right. But at least for tonight, they would concentrate on trying to heal Ezra... nothing else mattered at that moment... only their Little One.
Maude swept into the hotel and completely ignored the startled looks she drew as she stormed up the stairs. She hesitated outside MJ's door, but decided she'd had enough confrontations for one day. And she definitely wasn't up to hearing the 'I told you so' lecture she knew she'd be receiving from him as soon as he found out what had happened.
She hurriedly unlocked her door and was just slipping inside when Delacourte's door opened and he stepped out into the hall. Maude sighed and realized she should have known he would have been listening for her return. He just stood and stared at her for a moment and shaking his head, pushed past her into her room.
Maude wearily followed him and closed the door, leaning back against it as she glared at him. "I don't even want to hear it, MJ... you were right, I was wrong... I've admitted it and I want nothin' to do with any of your useless recriminations." Crossing to the window, she stared down the street at the clinic. "The only thing I want from you now, are suggestions on what we can do to change or over-ride the Judge's decision. I will not let this so-called new *family* of Ezra's, or an insignificant backwater judge, beat me... that boy is goin' home with me. And when he does, he'll definitely need to be taught a lesson in respectin' his mama."
"Oh, don't worry... I'm sure once we get him back to St. Louis and away from these ruffians, he'll return to the unquestioningly obedient child you remember. After you explain what happened this afternoon and fill me in on why Judge Travis has decided against you, I'll tell you if we have a leg to stand on in any appeal we might make. Now what say I go down and fetch us some coffee from the dinin' room, and then you can give me all the sordid details?"
Maude started to tell him she just wanted to rest, but decided she might as well get it over with. She told him to go after the coffee and to grab a light repast for them while he was down there. Maude knew she was going to need some nourishment if she was going to make it through the dressing down she was about to receive once she finished her recital of the day's events. MJ was never one to miss an opportunity to point out her mistakes... and she knew he was going to have plenty of ammunition against her this time.
Ezra had allowed each of them to give him a warm hug as they officially welcomed him into the family, but after that he attached himself to Buck and refused to let go even for a moment.
Chris and Josiah sat at the table watching Nathan tend to Ezra who was still obviously shaken by what had happened. Buck had been able to get them moved around on the bed so he could prop himself against the headboard, with Ezra leaning back against his chest. He had one arm wrapped tightly around the younger man and was gently smoothing his hair back while keeping up a steady stream of soothing reassurances.
Ezra had his hand clamped tightly around Buck's arm, still too afraid to even think about letting go. He submitted to Nathan's ministrations without any argument or complaint... almost without any talking at all. The gambler's responses were limited to nods and shakes of the head, with an occasional whispered word or two.
"Damn it, Josiah... he's right back to the way he was when he first showed up. I'm beginning to wish I'd let Buck tear into that bitch after all." Chris hated it. They'd worked so hard to get Ezra to open up to them, and Maude had come in and completely destroyed everything they'd accomplished with one vicious slap and a few hateful words.
Josiah stared over at Ezra... he could still see an occasional shudder run through him even though he was wrapped tightly in Buck's arms. "Give him time, Chris... he just needs a chance to understand that he's safe now. He'll come around."
Chris watched as two fat tears trickled slowly down Ezra's face when Nathan placed a cold cloth against the swelling on his cheek. He hoped Josiah was right... he hated seeing their Little One this way again. Then he remembered Ezra's recent flash of memory and his panic at finding the scar on his shoulder. "Yeah, maybe, Josiah... but how much time does he have left here? What if Lit'l Ezra leaves us before we get him convinced again that he's safe and cared for?" The blonde gunslinger turned his worried eyes on the preacher. "What's he gonna remember... the hate that his mother just threw at him... or the love that we've tried so hard to fill him with?"
Josiah shook his head slowly. "I don't know, Brother Chris... hate's a powerful emotion. But I think the love of a family is strong enough to win out over anything... and Ezra certainly has that now."
Nathan hated seeing Ezra so compliant and timid... he wanted his feisty, contentious patient back. He was even hiding how he was really feeling again. "Ezra? Ya know ya can tell us the truth an' nothin'll happen t' ya. Remember?"
Ezra hesitated, his fingers tightening around Buck's arm. "Yes, Nafan... I w'ememberw. But Mama said... she..." His words trailed off... just the thought of his mama made him want to cry again.
Buck leaned over so he could look into the smaller man's face. "Tell us what Mama said to ya, Ezra... what she threatened ya with that's got ya so scared again. Please?" Buck felt him tremble and thought for a minute that he was going to refuse to answer... but finally he nodded, and began to speak softly, his voice hoarse and raspy, and obviously painful. Nathan stopped him long enough to give him a few sips of water to try and ease his sore throat, and then told him to go on.
"She tol' me d' courwt wouldn't take me away frwom herw an'-" Ezra stopped when Buck quickly reminded him that she'd been wrong, because the Judge had just given him to them and was making it official. "What's 'ficial mean?"
Buck smiled at him and hugged him a little tighter. "It means the law says you're our little brother for real now an' no one can take ya away from us."
Ezra nodded but Buck could see that there was more bothering him. "What else did she tell ya, Little One? I can see there's somethin' else that's scarin' ya."
Ezra's voice shook as he spoke and his eyes darted nervously between Buck and Nathan. "Mama said... she t-tol' me d'at if I didn't say d'at I wanted to go wif her, she was gonna have Unca Maffew come herwe an' get me. She tol' me y'all might get huwt when you trwied to stop him... an' d'at it would be my fauwlt." He began to cry softly as he stared into Buck's eyes and tried to force the next words out. "I trwied to be b-brwave an' tewll you I wanted to go wif herw... but d'at was when y-you w'ooked at me an' s-said 'I wuv you'... an' d'en I jus' c-couldn't say it. I w-wanted to be brwave an' prwotect awll of you, but I was jus' too scarwed... an' I wuv y-you too much to w'eave you, Buck."
His last words came out as a muffled sob as he twisted around and buried his face in Buck's neck. "I'm sowwy forw not bein' brwave enough, Buck... pwease d-don't w'et Unca Maffew huwt you... pwease..."
Buck had tears in his eyes when he looked up at Chris and Josiah. They'd moved closer when they'd heard him begin questioning Ezra, and now sat down on the side of the bed and tried to help comfort the Southerner. Their hatred for Maude was burning brightly again with the knowledge that she had placed this kind of guilt on a *child*... her own child at that.
They'd finally gotten him calmed down when Josiah had told him that Uncle Matthew wouldn't dare come after him now... but if he did show up, they'd all stick together and protect each other... because that's how families worked.
Ezra turned around to look at Josiah, his face hopeful. "W'eawy?"
Josiah reached out and stroked his face gently. "That's right, Little One. We wouldn't have wanted you to try and stand up to your mama and Uncle Matthew alone... but you were very brave for wanting to do that. Besides... having you go away would have hurt much worse than anything your uncle could do to us."
Ezra's face brightened considerably as he realized they still loved him and didn't think badly of him for being afraid of his uncle Matthew. He looked at the men who surrounded him on the bed and smiled. "Ya know what? I'm gwad I fewll off d'ose stairws an' got huwt."
They all looked at him in surprise... he was remembering the accident. At least Maude's irresponsible actions hadn't impeded his recovery. They'd been worried he would suffer a setback in the memory flashes he'd been experiencing because of the shock of what his mother had done to him, but obviously that hadn't happened.
Chris grinned back at him. "You are, huh? Why is that?"
"'Cause... if I hadn't got huwt, I neverw would've come herwe, an' I wouldn't have six new bwuvvers!"
Vin and JD returned with the dinner they'd been sent after just as Ezra made this last announcement. JD knew just how the gambler felt. He still marveled at how his life had changed since coming to Four Corners, and gaining these six men as his brothers had definitely been the best part. "So how do ya like having six older brothers, Ezra?"
Ezra's expression grew serious as he answered the young peacekeeper. "It's grweat, JD! Y'all have been so good to me!" His eyes slowly moved over each of the men who had come to mean so much to him. "Chwis is w'ike d' papa I neverw had an' w'eads grweat storwies to me, an' Vin's taught me how to find music in my hearwt. 'Siah pways chess wif me an' keeps d'ose itchy whiskerws off my face an' gives d' bestest hugs, an' Nafan takes w'eal good carwe of me when I'm sick... even if he does worwy too much 'bout me." Ezra's eyes returned to JD's and he smiled. "An' you'rwe gonna teach me how to fish an' have fun... but d' best f'ing you do forw me is d'at you sharwe Buck wif me. F'ank you, JD."
JD handed Josiah the box of food he was carrying and leaned down to give Ezra a hug and whisper in his ear. "That's okay, little guy... you and I need to share Buck... otherwise he'd drive us crazy with his mothering."
"Hey, I heard that!" Buck felt some of the worry lift off his heart when he heard Ezra giggle at him. "And what about me? Ain't ya got nothin' special to say 'bout good ol' Buck?"
Ezra's smile softened as he turned to the man who they all knew meant the most to him. "Surwe I have, Buck. I was jus' savin' d' best forw w'ast." He reached his hand up to rub lightly over Buck's whiskered cheek. "You showed me what it feewls w'ike to be wuvved... an' I'll neverw forwget you forw d'at."
Buck just stared at him for a minute and then pulled him into a big, warm hug. "I'll never forget you either, Little One." He sat the smaller man back up and grinned at him as he swiped away the tears that were threatening to fall. "But ya gotta quit tryin' to make me cry, Ezra... or else you're gonna ruin my reputation as a tough-as-nails lawman."
Ezra laughed and hugged Buck's neck. "You'rwe not tough, Buck! You'rwe awll soft an' cuddlwy w'ike a big ol' stuffed bearw when we snuggle up in bed togeverw!"
Buck blushed when everyone burst out laughing at Ezra's description of him. "A stuffed bear?!"
Ezra giggled and glanced at JD before continuing. "Yeah... you even sound w'ike one when you snorwe... GRRR!"
Even Buck had to join in the laughter when Ezra tried to imitate one of the ladies man's loud rumbling snores. He grabbed the Southerner and pressed his face against the smaller man's neck... growling and tickling him with his mustache... until Ezra dissolved into a helpless fit of the giggles as he tried to squirm out of Buck's arms.
Nathan finally called a halt to the roughhousing and suggested they all eat before their food got cold.
They spent the rest of the evening quietly enjoying Ezra's official entry into their little family... playing games, telling him stories, and then just before he dropped off to sleep, comforting him as his cold symptoms worsened.
Nathan told them it was a natural thing... that for some unexplainable reason illnesses like that always worsened at night... and that Ezra would probably feel much better in the morning. But it had taken his announcement that he was going to spend the night in Ezra's room again to finally convince them that he really wasn't worried about the gambler. They knew nothing could pry Nathan out of the clinic if he thought anything was seriously wrong with him.
Trusting in the healer's word that their Little One was okay, they all finally left him in Buck's excellent care and headed home to their beds to get some sleep. It had been one long, rough day, and they were all relieved it was finally over.
Sleep was still a long time coming for Buck though. All he could do was lay and watch Ezra while thinking about how close they'd come to losing him... and how it would have destroyed each one of them if they had. As Buck stared at him, he couldn't help but think about the fact that they really *were* losing him... at least a part of him... and probably soon. Ezra had had several more small instances of remembering during the evening, and had accepted them after only a slight pause in whatever he was doing or saying at the time. The memories seemed to be getting easier for him to handle, which they were thankful for, but it also seemed to indicate that Lit'l Ezra would be slipping back into the past soon and their Ezra would be returning. A fact that both saddened and thrilled them all. After an hour of lying there, he tucked himself tighter around the gambler, wrapped his hand around the smaller one resting on his chest, and finally dropped off to sleep.
As much as Maude hated to, she gave Delacourte a blow by blow description of her meeting with Ezra. To his credit, he actually sat quietly eating his meal and made no comments til she was finished. And then he let her have it.
"You couldn't listen to me for once in your life, could you?!" Delacourte angrily raked his hands through his wavy brown hair as he stormed around Maude's room. "You thought you were so much smarter than those... what is it you called them? Oh yeah, uncivilized thugs. Well, who's got custody of your son now? It sure as hell isn't you!"
"Will you calm down, for heaven's sake?" Maude knew he'd be a bit upset with her, but she certainly hadn't expected this. "Surely we can appeal Judge Travis's decision... a higher court maybe..."
MJ looked at her like she'd completely lost her mind. "Maude... you slapped him... in front of all of them, for Christ's sake. And you know damn good and well that Ezra's probably told them the exact nature of your threats by now, too. No judge in his right mind would even attempt to upset Travis's decision after hearing what happened in that clinic today."
Maude's face paled. "So that's it? You're tellin' me I've lost?"
Delacourte turned his back to stare out the window, hiding the sly smile that tugged at his cold, hard features. "Well, you've lost him legally..." He threw out the bait, knowing her urge to win would force her to take it.
Maude heard him hesitate and knew he had an alternate plan to get Ezra away from his friends. She stared at his back, contemplating what exactly those plans might entail. Knowing MJ as well as she did, she wasn't at all sure she even wanted to hear what he had in mind, much less get involved in one of his schemes. She also knew this one would definitely cost her... she remembered the *payment* he'd mentioned earlier. Maude had a feeling she was about to find out what he'd meant when he said that... and knew she probably wouldn't like it. But over-riding all these doubts was her absolute hatred of losing at anything. So ignoring the little voice inside her head that was warning her to drop the whole thing and go home... she bit.
"What do you have in mind, MJ?"
Delacourte allowed himself a moment to enjoy his victory before turning to face her. Smiling, he walked over to the small table that still held the remains of their meal and poured them each a cup of tea. "Sit down here with me, Maude dear, and I'll explain how I'm goin' to get your darlin' baby boy back... and exactly how you're goin' to repay me for my services."
Even after Buck finally managed to drop off to sleep, his mind continued to be haunted by the ghastly details of Maude's visit. He moaned softly as his head tossed back and forth on the pillow, visions of his Little One's ordeal filling his dreams until finally, the loud crack of Maude's palm against Ezra's tender flesh echoing through his mind drove him from his troubled sleep.
Buck awoke and immediately missed the warmth of Ezra's body curled up next to him. His heart began to pound as he sprang up in the bed, his eyes searching frantically around the clinic for his Little One as he reached over and turned up the lamp. Buck's eyes swept past him at first, and then returned quickly to the silent figure huddled in the corner.
Ezra was slumped against the wall beside Nathan's dresser. He sat with his legs pulled up to his chest and his forehead resting on his knees. His arm was drawn up over his head as if he was desperately trying to shut out whatever had frightened him enough to leave him cowering on the floor instead of sleeping peacefully beside Buck.
Buck approached slowly and hunkered down in front of him. "Ezra? What are ya doin' sittin' here?" When he got no response, he reached out and placed one of his large hands over top of the gambler's, his fingers stroking lightly across the soft skin. "Did ya have another nightmare, Little One?"
Ezra finally responded by wearily shaking his head, but refused to speak or look up at the older man. Buck could feel the tremors that ran through him and wondered if he'd had the same dreams he himself had been tortured by and was slipping into shock again.
"You're scarin' me, Little One... could ya please look at me? Tell me what's wrong?" Buck just wanted to wrap his arms around the frightened Southerner, but knew that pushing him might do more harm than good... so instead, he sat down in front of Ezra and continued to stroke his hand as he talked softly to him. "It's okay, baby... we can just sit here til you're ready to talk about it. Take your time."
Buck could feel him shivering and left him long enough to grab a blanket off the bed. Once he had it wrapped snugly around the gambler, Buck resumed his former position in front of Ezra and tried again to get him to respond to him.
"Ezra? Are ya ready to talk to me yet? It'll make ya feel better if ya tell me what's botherin' ya." Buck thought he was going to continue to ignore him, but Ezra finally brought his arm down and raised his head, staring forlornly at the ladies man a moment before finally speaking.
"Buck? If I ask you somefin', wiwll you pwomise to tewll me d' trwoof?" Ezra's voice shook, and Buck could tell he was on the verge of losing the control he was struggling so hard to maintain.
The ladies man nodded slowly, his eyes never leaving Ezra's as he answered him. "I told you, Little One... I'll never lie to ya... I promise."
Ezra took a deep, ragged breath and whispered brokenly, "Am... am I goin' away?"
Buck stared at him for a moment, puzzled because he'd been sure they'd finally gotten him convinced that no one could take him away from them now. "Of course not, Ezra... remember? The Judge told you that your mama could never-"
"No, Buck! D'at's not what I mean." Ezra shook his head in frustration as he tried to explain, his voice choked with emotion. "Not d'at kind of goin' away." Ezra released Buck's hand and tapped his fingers lightly against his own head. "In herwe, Buck... I'm goin' away in herwe... arwen't I?"
Buck could swear he felt his heart break as he stared into Ezra's eyes. Where they had been bright and shiny with his newfound happiness before, they were now filled with a combination of fear, confusion, and a devastating sense of loss that was almost painful to look at.
"Buck? Pwease tewll me... pwease?" Tears glistened in his emerald eyes and slowly began a meandering trail down his rosy cheeks as he begged his best friend to explain it to him. "B-Buck? Pwease? Hewlp me... I d-don't un'erwstand what's h-happenin' to me." Ezra slipped his hand into Buck's and gripped it tightly, his voice dropping to a hoarse, pain-filled whisper. "I'm scarwed, Buck... I'm so scarwed."
The pain that lanced through Buck when he heard Ezra's anguished plea absolutely stole his breath away. All he could manage for a few minutes was trying to breathe again, and making a frantic search for the right words to take away the terror that was obviously threatening to overwhelm the Southerner.
Buck blinked several times, trying to clear his vision of the sudden rush of tears that were threatening to fall. He so desperately wanted to be strong for his Little One, but he was terrified that he was going to fail him by not being able to find a balance between telling him the truth, and giving him more information than his five year old mind was able to process.
Squeezing Ezra's fingers with one hand and reaching up to brush away his tears with the other, Buck slowly nodded. "Yeah, Ezra... you are." He saw the gambler's breathing quicken and all the color drain from his face, and hurried to reassure him before he became too panicked to listen. "Easy, baby... it's gonna be alright. There's nothin' to be afraid of."
Ezra tried to focus on Buck's words, but all he could think about was leaving him... how could anything possibly be alright again if he lost Buck now? "Why is d'is happenin', Buck? Why am I w'ememberwin' awll d'ese f'ings?" Ezra began to sob softly as he released his hold on the older man's hand and pressed it tightly against his head. "Everwyfing's awll mixed up in herwe... an' it's scarwin' me."
Buck wanted nothing more than to be able to go after Josiah or Nathan for help, but he knew leaving Ezra alone would be the worst thing he could do right now. He'd just have to try and handle it himself and pray he didn't hurt him. Buck reached out and gently pulled the gambler's hand away from his head, rubbing it slowly between his own larger hands when he felt how cold it was. "Ezra? Why don't ya let me tuck ya back in bed and we'll talk about this. You're freezin', Little One."
But Ezra merely shook his head and pressed his back tighter against the wall.
Buck eased himself down onto the floor and tugged on Ezra's hand. "Okay, we don't have to do that, but will ya at least slide around here an' let me hold ya? Please?" He was relieved when the smaller man finally nodded and shifted his body around until he was leaning against the wall beside him. Buck slipped his arm around the slender shoulders and pulled him closer while retaining his hold on the trembling hand that lay limply in his.
Placing his hand on Ezra's head, Buck decided to try drawing the memories out of the younger man's tortured mind. "Let's see if we can't make some sense outta what's in here that's got ya so confused, okay? Then I'll try an' explain what it all means... an' maybe then ya won't feel quite so scared."
Ezra felt Buck's fingers running gently through his hair, massaging lightly at his scalp and felt a little of the fear leave him. Leaning his head back against the larger man's shoulder and heaving a shaky sigh, he nodded.
Buck felt him relax slightly and keeping his voice soft and steady, began asking Ezra questions. "Why don't we start with the accident, Little One? What's the first thing ya remember about it?"
"You mean when I fewll?" Ezra looked at Buck, saw him nod, and then frowned as he tried to untangle the memories that were beginning to fill his mind. "I... I w'ememberw walkin' down a hawllway..." he hesitated and Buck slipped in another question to try and help him along.
"Were you alone?"
Ezra thought about it and then shook his head. "Nuh-uh... someone was..." Suddenly his face brightened a little. "You an' JD werwe wif me... w'ight?"
Buck nodded, but kept silent... he wanted the young gambler to remember as much of it on his own as he could manage.
"But why werwe you guys wif me?" Ezra's face drew down into a puzzled scowl as he tried to make sense of all the crazy images in his head. "I 'member JD tellin' me I was in twouble... um... Chwis was mad at me... wasn't he?"
Buck felt Ezra tremble with the effort he was making to work his way through it all. "Yeah, kinda... do ya remember why?"
Ezra nodded slowly. "I f'ink so... but it doesn't make any sense, Buck." He shuddered as the memory that popped into his head brought the fear back with it. He stared into the older man's eyes as he spoke, his voice barely a whisper. "Chwis was mad 'cause I... 'cause I was s'posed to be on patrwol. Buck? I'm onwy five... why would... Chwis wouldn't make me..." His fingers tightened painfully around Buck's as a scene suddenly began to play itself out in his mind.
Buck frowned as a change seemed to come over Ezra. His eyes lost their focus and a wide range of emotions swept across his face as whatever he was seeing slowly unfolded. Buck moved his hand down to grip the Southerner's shoulder firmly as he felt the first tremors of panic ripple through him.
Ezra had lost all sense of where he was as he got caught up in what he was witnessing in his mind. He saw a man striding down a hall in front of Buck and JD, pulling on a fancy red coat as he walked. Ezra's trembling increased as he realized the man looked familiar, but he had his head down as he struggled to get his coat on, and Ezra couldn't quite see his face. When the three of them reached the top of the stairs, he saw Buck and JD scuffle, then watched in horror as the man with the red coat was knocked over the railing, landing with a sickening thud on the table below.
Buck finally realized what Ezra was seeing when the gambler pulled his hand away and raised it slowly to touch the still healing wound on the back of his head. He was reliving the fall... and from the stricken look on his face... it was scaring him to death. "Ezra... it's okay, pard. I'm right here with ya." Buck tried to reassure him, but could tell that the young Southerner wasn't listening. He thought about trying to bring him out of his trance, but decided to wait and just try to make sure he knew he wasn't alone.
Ezra's heart began to thunder in his chest as his view of the injured man shifted... and suddenly, with a terrifying moment of clarity, the man's face was revealed. "Nooo... nooo... d'at's not... it can't be... me..."
Buck felt Ezra begin to shake uncontrollably and saw his eyes widen in shock as he wrapped his arm around his middle and tried to fold in on himself. He began to moan and shake his head as his mind refused to believe what it was seeing.
"Buck! Buck, hewlp m-me... pwease... dat's not me... it's n-not me..." Ezra's voice sank to a tortured whisper. "I'm five... I'm jus'... five..."
Placing a hand on each side of Ezra's face, Buck forced the smaller man to look at him. "Ezra! Come on now... you gotta calm down an' listen to me."
Ezra's hand came up to clutch at Buck's shirt as the gunman's words finally got past the rising panic he was fighting. "I'm onwy five... arwen't I, Buck? D'at can't be m-me d'at fewll... d'at was a grwown-up... but... I s-saw him, Buck... I saw his f-face... I don't un'erwstand any of d'is."
"Shh... easy now, baby... just calm down and I'll try an' explain so's ya can understand it." Buck kept his hold on Ezra's face, his thumbs gently stroking the gambler's cheeks in an effort to calm him. Staring into those green eyes swimming with tears, Buck wanted nothing more than to pull Ezra into a tight hug and just cry with him. This was absolutely the hardest thing the ladies man had ever had to do in his life... and it was hurting him every bit as much as it was Ezra.
Buck took a deep breath and started, trying to remember everything Nathan had said about Ezra's condition and what might happen. "I'm sorry, baby... but that *is* you." Ezra immediately tried to shake his head in protest, but Buck held on and continued to explain. "Yeah, Ezra... it is. When ya hit your head you went to sleep for a long while... an' when ya finally woke up again, you were five..." Buck placed his fingers on the younger man's temple, "in here."
But Ezra still wasn't quite ready to accept it. It was just too much for his five year old mind to comprehend. "No, Buck... I *am* five... d'at's why I have twouble feedin' mysewlf an' why I w'ike bein' w'ocked... an'... an' why I w'ike to suck my f'umb. Grwown-ups don't do d'ose kinds of f'ings... jus' w'ittle kids."
Buck shook his head sadly... God he hated doing this to his Little One. "Ya do all that because ya *think* you're five... not because ya are." He finally saw a glimmer of doubt appear in Ezra's eyes and pushed on. "What about your whiskers, Ezra? Five year old's don't need to be shaved. And the watch? *Your* watch, little guy... the one ya couldn't use at first, but now ya can? Remember how all of a sudden ya could tell time again? That was just some of your memory comin' back... your grown-up memory. The scar, Ezra... the scar on your-"
Ezra reached out and shakily placed his fingers over the older man's lips... stopping his words. "No morwe, Buck... p-pwease? You'rwe wrong... you gotta be... I d-don't feewl w'ike a grwown-up... I jus' feewl w'ike a w'ittle boy." Tears streamed down his face as he fought against the awful feeling that Buck was right. His whispered denial was now filled with doubt. "I'm jus' a w'ittle boy."
Buck tore his eyes away from the devastatingly sad face of the gambler... letting them wander around the cabin... looking everywhere but at Ezra. Suddenly he froze as his gaze landed on the towel-covered mirror. Oh God... did he dare try that? What if it was more than Ezra could handle? Then his eyes returned to the tortured face of his Little One and he knew he had to do it. If not, every new memory Ezra had would just continue to terrify and haunt him.
"Come on, Ezra... I've got somethin' I want ya to look at. It'll help ya understand." Buck stood and tugged on the gambler's hand. At first he resisted, but finally he unfolded his legs and allowed the ladies man to pull him to his feet.
Buck led him over and positioned him in front of the mirror and after taking a shaky breath, reached around Ezra and slowly pulled away the cloth that concealed it. He immediately thought he'd made a mistake. Ezra's face lost every bit of its color except for the slight flush of fever that still stained his cheeks. His mouth dropped open and his breathing became harsh and labored as the shock of what he was seeing raced through his body.
Buck quickly reached up and grabbed the smaller man's shoulders as he saw him weave slightly and leaned forward to whisper in his ear. "I've got ya, Ezra... just hang on now. You're gonna be alright... just breathe slowly." He felt the gambler struggle to do as he said, but his emotions were so out of control it was impossible for him to draw a deep enough breath to calm himself down. Buck stared at Ezra's reflection in the mirror, and his heart almost stopped as he saw the grief that suddenly flooded the gambler's huge emerald eyes with the indisputable proof that stared back at him.
Ezra's mind whirled as he tried to find a way to deny what he was seeing. It was his face... he knew it was, because there was Buck standing behind him, Buck's large comforting hands clamped onto his shoulders, Buck's dark blue eyes filled with worry as they stared into his... into his green eyes... into his face... his grown-up face. Ezra reached out and touched his reflection with trembling fingers. He moved them across the smooth cold surface, tracing his image... the outline of his jaw, the yellowing bruise still visible from the incident in the street... his clean-shaven cheek marred by the reddened, slightly swollen mark left by his mother's hand.
Buck's heart twisted painfully as he watched Ezra's fingers slowly move along the trail of tears shimmering in the lamplight... first the ones on his own face and then the ones that were now slowly trickling down Buck's stubble-covered cheeks.
Ezra began to sob softly as his fingers left his reflection and followed the same path across his face... the same face... watching their movement in the mirror as he felt their very real touch on his skin. The gambler traced the same trail of tears down his cheeks, this time feeling the wetness of them on his finger tips. He looked into the mirror again and his eyes caught and held Buck's... seeing every bit of pain and sorrow he was feeling reflected back at him.
Turning around, Ezra slowly reached up and touched the identical tears that stained his best friend's face. Looking up into the taller man's eyes, the gambler finally realized that it was true... he was going away... he was leaving his new family, his new brothers... he was leaving Buck. "Buck! Pwease... no!!"
The anguished cry that escaped Ezra's lips before he collapsed against him, nearly tore Buck's heart out. He scrambled to get his arms under the smaller man and managed to keep him from hitting the floor. Thankfully the rocker was sitting right beside them and Buck was able to get himself and Ezra settled on it instead of on the cold floor again.
Buck tucked the blanket around Ezra as best he could, not sure if the shudders he felt tearing through him were from the cold or from shock. "Ezra? It's gonna be okay, baby... please believe me." He jumped slightly when the Southerner's head jerked up off his shoulder and he stared at him with pain-filled eyes.
"How can it be okay, Buck?! I'm w'eavin' you... you, an' JD... an' Chwis... an'... an'..." Ezra felt his whole world caving in on him as he struggled to finish. "Awll of you... I'm w'osin' awll of y-you."
Buck cupped his hand gently around Ezra's cheek as he shook his head at the smaller man. "No, Little One... ya still don't understand. You're not really leavin' us. You've been with us for a long time now... as your adult self." Buck tapped Ezra's forehead lightly. "Remember? I told ya you're only little in here. And it's only because of the bump on the head ya took. Now that you're gettin' better, you're little five year old self is leavin' an' the grown-up Ezra is comin' back to us. You'll always be with us, baby... it'll just be a little different."
Ezra sat up in Buck's lap and stared at him thoughtfully, sniffling and wiping away his tears... his fear starting to ebb slightly as he considered the possibilities of what Buck was saying to him. "I *was* here beforwe, wasn't I? D'at's why you an' JD werwe wif me in d'at hawllway beforwe I fewll, isn't it? An' d'at's why Chwis was sendin' me out on..." Ezra stopped as he realized his real place in this group of men. His voice lowered to an astonished whisper as his eyes widened. "I'm one of you guys, arwen't I? I worwk forw d' Judge, too... w'ight?"
The relief that flowed through Buck as Ezra seemed to finally accept what was happening to him was so welcome he could have cried. Shifting slightly in the chair, he dug out his handkerchief and gently wiped the gambler's face and holding it over his nose, instructed him to blow. "Yeah, pard... you're one of us and the Judge is your boss, too. Ya feelin' a little bit better about all this now?"
Ezra nodded slowly, but the sadness still hadn't left his eyes. "A w'ittle, but..."
Buck smoothed his hair back, checking for fever while he did so and frowned slightly when he noticed how warm Ezra still was. He needed to get him back in the bed and try to get him to rest. "But what, Little One? What's still botherin' ya?"
Ezra's eyes filled with tears again, and he had to swallow a few times before he was able to answer. "Buck? Am I gonna w'ememberw awll d'is when I go back to bein' a grwown-up? Wiwll I... wiwll I w'ememberw d'at I wuv you an' d'at you wuv me?"
Staring into Ezra's eyes, seeing the loss the other man was already feeling, Buck wanted nothing more than to be able to lie to him... just this once... just to keep the fear away. But he knew he couldn't do it... he'd promised Ezra that he'd tell him the truth, and there was nothing more important than keeping promises to their Little One. Buck finally shrugged and regretfully answered Ezra. "We don't know what you're gonna remember, pard. Nathan's never seen this kind of thing before, an' he's just not sure what's gonna happen when your memory comes all the way back."
Buck saw Ezra's lip start to quiver and felt him trembling again. "I'm sorry I can't promise ya that you'll remember all these good things that've happened to ya, Little One... I wish I could... but I told ya I'd always be honest with ya an' that's what I'm tryin' to do."
Ezra nodded slowly and leaned forward to lay his head disconsolately on Buck's shoulder. He felt the older man's arms slip around him, hugging him tightly as he began slowly rocking. Ezra tried but just couldn't stop the tears that fell, trickling down his cheeks and soaking into the soft, worn material of Buck's shirt. "Wiwll you pwomise me somefin', Buck?"
Buck looked down and tried to speak around the huge lump that formed in his throat when he saw that Ezra was crying again. He just wanted all the unhappiness to end for the gambler... even if it meant his Little One had to go away. "You know I'd do anything in the world for you, Ezra. What is it?"
Ezra lifted his face and stared into Buck's deep blue eyes, his own heart hurting at the sadness he knew he was causing his big brother. "Pwomise me you won't w'et me forwget d'at... d'at I..." he began to gently sob as he tried to finish his request, "d'at I wuv you... p-pwease, Buck? Don't w'et me f-forwget."
Buck's arms tightened around the younger man as he struggled not to cry. "Don't you worry, Little One... I'll do whatever it takes to make sure ya remember." He pressed his face against Ezra's and whispered his promise, his tears blending with the gambler's as he lost his battle against them. "No matter what I have to do, Ezra... you *will* remember how much we love each other... ya hear me? I promise I won't let ya forget that."
Ezra began to cry harder as he felt Buck's tears on his face, his ragged sobs leaving him breathless and barely able to speak. "I d-don't want t-to w'eave y-you, B-Buck! It huwts too m-much! It h-huwts me, B-Buck... it huwts..."
Buck rocked them slowly as he tried to get control of himself in order to be able to comfort the Southerner and ease his pain. "I don't want ya to leave either, Ezra... an' I know it hurts... it hurts me, too, but just keep remindin' yourself that we'll still be together... ya hear me, Little One? We'll still be brothers an' you'll still be a part of this family."
Ezra nodded, and after a few minutes, managed to slow his sobbing and finally stop it altogether with the help of Buck's continued words of comfort, and the soothing touch of the older man's hand rubbing gentle circles over his back.
Once Buck finally got Ezra calmed down, he was able to convince him to go back to bed. Buck could see how exhausted the gambler was as he curled himself protectively around him, and yet he still fought against the sleep that was tugging at him.
"Close your eyes, baby... ya need to rest now." Buck gently stroked his fingers across the Southerner's brow, hoping it would help him relax enough to fall asleep.
Ezra shook his head as he nestled tighter against Buck. "I'm afrwaid to go to s'weep."
Buck heard the tears in Ezra's voice again and was sure that he would say it was his fear of another nightmare that kept him awake now. "Why, baby?"
Ezra began to tremble as he sobbed out, "I'm afrwaid I might w'eave whiwle I'm s'weepin' an' I won't g-get to say goodbye to y-you."
Oh God... this was definitely not what he'd expected to hear. Buck felt his eyes flood with tears again as he tried to figure out what to say to help his little brother. "Ya wanna tell me now... just in case?"
Ezra thought a minute and then nodded. He struggled to get turned around so he could look into Buck's face... his tears falling harder as he stared at the man who had become his best friend, his protector... his big brother. Ezra reached his hand out and gently patted at Buck's cheek, brushing away the tears that streamed from the older man's eyes. He stared into those eyes now as he tried to memorize everything about this man he loved so much. "You know I'm gonna miss you, w'ight, Buck?"
Buck swallowed and managed to whisper, "I know, Ezra... I'll miss you, too."
"An' you know how much I wuv you, don't you?"
Buck thought it was going to kill him to continue with this, but knew Ezra needed to do it. He nodded and answered, "Just as much as I love you, baby."
Ezra stared for a minute longer and then leaned forward, planted a small kiss on Buck's tear-stained cheek and whispered softly in his ear, "Goodbye, Buck."
Buck gasped as an incredible pain of loss clutched at his heart. Stroking the back of Ezra's head gently, he pressed a kiss against the younger man's temple and whispered sadly back, "Goodbye, Little One... I'll never forget you."
Ezra hurriedly snuggled back down beside Buck, trying his hardest to be brave and not break down again. Even his little five year old heart could tell Buck couldn't take much more... and neither could he. But just before he drifted off, he remembered one last favor he needed to ask of the older man.
Buck was almost afraid to answer him. "What, Little One?"
"When I do go back..." Ezra stopped, swallowing convulsively as the tears threatened to overwhelm him. "Wiwll you tewll d' ovverws goodbye forw me? I don't f'ink I can do d'is again... it huwts too much."
Buck choked back a sob as he buried his face in Ezra's hair. "Don't you worry, Little One... I'll do it for ya. An' I'll make sure they know ya didn't wanna leave them, okay?"
All Ezra could do was nod as it finally became too much for him, and he was wracked by heart-wrenching sobs. He clung to Buck as he cried, desperate to hang onto the love and safety he represented for as long as he possibly could.
Buck clutched Ezra tightly to him, rubbing his back, wondering if this was the end of their time together... and desperately praying it wasn't.
Chris walked out of the boardinghouse shortly after dawn and headed slowly down the street toward the saloon. He loved this time of day... the town had yet to awaken and everything was quiet and peaceful. No horses or wagons clattering through the streets, no shouts or shots coming from the saloon... no one up and about except him and the few shopkeepers who were slowly readying their stores for the opening of business.
Chris paused before turning into the saloon... something had caught his eye across the street. He scanned the buildings for anything that seemed out of place and frowned when he spotted Buck sitting on the bench outside of the clinic. The lanky gunman had a blanket draped across his shoulders to ward off the morning chill and was slumped forward, elbows propped on his knees, his face buried in his large hands. Chris couldn't be sure in the dim morning light, but he thought it looked like the big man's shoulders were shaking... as if he were crying.
Hurrying his steps, Chris entered the saloon and grabbed two cups of coffee before heading over to the clinic and his obviously distressed friend. He knew of only one thing at the moment that could bring Buck to the state he appeared to be in... something had happened with Ezra.
Chris stopped on the boardwalk beneath the clinic, listening worriedly to the muffled sounds that came from up on the landing. He'd been right... Buck was crying. Stepping heavily on the first few steps and clearing his throat as a warning to the other man, Chris made his way slowly up the stairs. When he reached the top, a glance at Buck confirmed that he'd been heard and the younger man had had time to get himself somewhat under control. He was still scrubbing at his eyes, but the weeping had stopped by the time Chris sat beside him on the bench.
Without speaking, the black clad gunslinger handed one of the cups he carried to Buck. While they sat quietly sipping the strong brew, Chris watched the ladies man out of the corner of his eye. He saw him shudder once or twice and take another swipe at his eyes with the back of one shaking hand, but no words were exchanged until they were both nearly finished with their coffee.
Just when Chris thought he was going to have to break the silence himself, Buck finally raised his head and gave him a small, crooked smile. "Just in case you haven't figured it out... we had a bit of a rough night."
Chris nodded toward the clinic door. "He alright?"
Buck shrugged and ran a hand across his face, scratching absentmindedly at his chin. "I'm not sure... I hope so." He turned his face toward Chris and the smile faltered as his blue eyes again welled with a hot rush of tears. "He knows..." Buck tried to explain, but his voice cracked and he just couldn't get the hated words out.
Chris stared at him for a moment, understanding darkening his hazel eyes. "That he's goin' away?"
Buck nodded and took a few deep breaths, struggling for some kind of control over his emotions so he could tell Chris what happened. "Might already be gone... won't know til he wakes up." He raised his eyes to look imploringly at the older man. "Could ya check on 'im? I just... can't... I can't make myself go in there... not yet."
Chris nodded and gave the broad shoulders a reassuring slap as he opened the door and entered the clinic. He stopped just inside the door and stared over at the man huddled beneath the blankets. Ezra lay on his right side, his face snuggled in the soft pillow, his thumb tucked securely in his mouth. <He's sucking his thumb... is that a good sign, or is he just gonna be embarrassed as hell when he wakes up?>
The man in black walked quietly over to the bed and squatted down beside it. He stared at the Southerner for a few moments, trying to decide if he looked any different or not. Sure, they all were praying for Ezra to recover... fully... every one of them missed their smooth-talking, gambling friend... but losing their Little One was such a high price to pay for that blessing.
Chris carefully laid his hand against the younger man's cheek, disappointed to feel the fever still warming his skin. He gently brushed back the few damp strands of hair lying across the smooth forehead before pulling his hand back. Chris was startled when Ezra's bright green eyes suddenly popped open. After staring dazedly back at the older man for a few seconds, Ezra smiled around his thumb and mumbled sleepily, "Hi, Chwis."
Chris grinned back and sat down on the bed beside him. "Mornin', Ezra." He watched in amusement as the gambler's long lashes fluttered several times, struggling valiantly to stay open. "It's early yet, little guy... why don't you go back to sleep for awhile longer?" Chris began running his hand up and down the smaller man's back and chuckled softly when he saw him lose the battle as his eyes finally closed.
"Wherwe's Buck?" Ezra asked without removing his thumb or opening his eyes.
"He's right outside, just gettin' a little fresh air. He'll be back in here in a minute... go to sleep now."
It only took a couple more passes over Ezra's back before he was once again sleeping soundly. Chris tucked the blanket up around his neck, eased himself up off the bed, and moved quietly back out the door to the landing.
Buck's eyes anxiously searched Chris's face as he came out of the clinic... his relief at seeing his friend's smile and hearing his whispered 'still here' was enough to bring tears of joy... and then guilt... to his eyes. He shook his head and dropped his gaze back to the floor, uttering a small bitter laugh. "Damn... hell of a friend I am, huh? Poor Ezra would hate what's happenin' to 'im now, an' here I sit grinnin' like a fool because he still ain't got his memory back yet."
Chris stared at the man sitting beside him... one of the kindest, most caring people he'd ever known... and one of the best friends a man could have. If it weren't for Buck, he knew he never would have been in a position to accept this little family they'd formed... he'd still be alone... locked in his grief over Adam and Sarah. "Don't be sellin' yourself short, Buck. Lit'l Ezra knew what he was doin' when he latched onto you... he couldn't have picked a better person to help him through this whole mess." Chris thought a minute and then chuckled. "And I'm not so sure old Ezra would hate this as much as you think."
Buck shot him a skeptical look and snorted derisively. "Yeah, right... he'd prob'ly have shot us by now if he knew what all we'd been doin' to 'im while he's been out of it."
"Oh, we definitely won't want any guns nearby if he ever finds out what really happened to him, but on the inside... where it counts... I've gotta feelin' he'd be touched that we'd go to so much trouble to try an' give him his childhood back." Chris smiled softly. "And you've done more to make that happen than all the rest of us put together. There's no way he's not gonna remember at least some of that... feel it in his heart, maybe. He probably won't know what to make of it, but maybe with a little friendly encouragement, he might be able to figure it out."
Chris saw an incredible sadness wash over his friend's face with that last statement. "Buck? You wanna tell me what happened last night? It must've been pretty bad judgin' by the look on your face."
Buck dropped his head wearily into his hands and felt himself begin to shake again. "God, Chris... I don't think I've ever been that scared in my life... or ever had my heart hurt that much." It wasn't easy, but he finally got Chris filled in on what he and Ezra had gone through during that long, emotionally draining night.
Heaving a ragged sigh, Buck turned to his friend and confessed, "I don't know how much more of this I can take, Chris... it's killin' me to see him sufferin' so much heartache over this thing an' yet I can't bring myself to pray for 'im to leave. And the thing that's got me the most worried is... what if..." Buck swallowed the sob that tried to escape and choked out his doubts. "what if I'm not doin' everything I could to help 'im get back there? What if the things I'm doin' an' sayin' are keepin' 'im a kid? Maybe I'm keepin' 'im this way without even realizin' it."
Chris wanted to kick himself for not noticing sooner how hard this had all been on Buck. Good old, easy-going Buck who never complained, never asked for help... just kept doing what he knew needed to be done... just kept giving of himself until this time, there almost wasn't anything left to give.
Chris leaned forward and laid his arm across Buck's broad shoulders and tried to find the right words to put his worries to rest. "First of all... I'm real sorry. We've pretty much backed off and let you shoulder most of the responsibility for Ezra just because you're so good with him, and because he got so attached to you so quickly. We should have pushed harder to get him to let one of us stay with him once in awhile so you could have time to step back from the whole situation."
Buck smiled gratefully at his old friend, thankful to have his effort noticed and appreciated. But Chris was wrong on one important point. "Thanks, pard... but I don't think it would've done any good for ya to try an' give me a break... I got just as attached just as fast. And as hard as this whole thing's been... there's no way I'd ever wish that it hadn't happened. I'm just sorry it took Ezra losin' his memory for us to see how bad he's been hurtin' all along. No one should have to go through life as alone as he's been... especially when he's got friends who are just waitin' for him to realize they're there for 'im." Buck's voice took on a tone of fierce determination with his next words. "I wasn't just tryin' to calm Ezra down when I made that promise to 'im... I intend to make sure that stubborn southern cuss remembers how much we all care for 'im. I ain't figured out how yet, but he is gonna feel the difference by the time I'm done with 'im."
Chris shook his head. Poor Ezra didn't stand a chance against Buck when he got a notion in his head like that. The gambler thought *he* was stubborn... he was about to find out what stubborn truly was. "I'm sure you'll find a way... and this time we'll be right there beside you to help. But I've gotta feelin' after all the love you've showered on him while he's been our Little One, he's gonna be able to hang onto at least some of that after he comes back to us. And you can just stop worrying about that... you've done everything you could to make sure that happens. Nothing you've done has kept him from regaining his memory... it's all been aimed at makin' his recovery as easy on him as it possibly can be. And I know damn good and well that none of us could have done anywhere near as good a job as you have with him."
"Well, I sure as hell hope you're right... I don't know what I'd-"
"Buck? Arwe you out d'erwe?"
The two men grinned at each other when they heard Ezra's childlike southern drawl.
"Yeah, pard... stay in the bed... I'll be right there." Buck scrubbed the last traces of tears off his face and stood up. "Ya know... it sure is gonna be hard gettin' used to Ezra's regular voice an' all those big words he throws around again. I'm gonna miss the nice, sweet, simple way he's got of talkin' now."
"Buck! Hurwy up! I need you!" Ezra's so-called sweet, southern drawl now had a definite whine to it and Buck couldn't help but laugh.
"Okay... now that I'm *not* gonna miss!"
Chris chuckled as he stood and slapped the ladies man on the back. "Sure you will. Just as soon as Ezra starts his usual griping and moaning about something that doesn't suit him, you'll be wishing he'd go back to that little whine he's using now." Chris gave him a little shove toward the clinic door while he turned and headed toward the stairs. "You go and see what our little brother wants, and I'll go back over to the saloon and grab some more coffee and some breakfast for us. Maybe we can surprise Nathan by getting Ezra to eat something."
Buck grinned at Chris's quickly retreating back. "Thanks a lot, Larabee. Ya sure you don't wanna check on the Little One while I get the breakfast?"
Chris practically ran down the stairs as he called back to the ladies man. "Now I couldn't do that, Buck... remember? You said you didn't want a break from him. Wouldn't wanna make you do anything you didn't want to. Have fun, big brother!"
Buck shook his head as he heard Chris's laughter echo up the stairs. "Thanks, ol' buddy! Just watch your back... it's my turn for revenge now!"
"Buck!! Wherwe arwe you? I need you!!"
"Keep your nightshirt on, Ezra... I'm comin'!" Buck shot a glare at Chris as he saw him disappearing into the saloon. "Oh yeah... I'm gonna get ya big time for this one, pard." Then Buck remembered the bath and chuckled. "Well, I guess now we're even."
Maude lay on her bed, exhausted after a night of tossing and turning... MJ's plan running constantly through her mind had kept her from enjoying more than an hour's sleep at a time. She watched the first streaks of sun move slowly across the wall as she went over and over the details as he had patiently explained them to her.
She had fought against them at first... against both his plan for her regaining control of Ezra and the one he intended to implement upon their arrival in New Orleans, which is where he had decided they would head as soon as they had her son in their possession. That plan was how she was to come up with the money to pay his retainer, and it was also the one that bothered her the most, but he had refused to help her get her son back if she hadn't agreed to it.
Maude couldn't really understand her reluctance to go along with him. It was quite simple really and basically foolproof. Take Ezra to the gaming palaces, make him hang around the poker tables bragging about how well he plays and flaunt the wad of cash she was willing to bet to back his claims. Maude knew from experience that the card sharps would be lining up for their chance to teach the boastful young man a lesson... and fill their pockets at the same time. She knew it would work because she'd run the exact same scam often when Ezra was a child... whenever they were in need of some quick cash. None of them were willing to believe that someone so young could actually beat them at cards. In fact, it would probably be even more successful given her son's present condition. The low-lives that inhabited those places would jump at the chance to take advantage of someone like Ezra. And that was what bothered her. It just seemed wrong to parade him around like that... to allow those disgusting men to poke fun at him. Not to mention how embarrassing it was for her to have everyone know that she had a simpleton for a son.
But MJ was adamant. Either she agreed to his plans for Ezra in New Orleans, splitting anything he won fifty-fifty... or she was on her own in her fight to get her son back. He'd be leaving the next morning and she'd never hear from him again. So she'd agreed to everything. She had to. She refused to suffer the humiliation of leaving town without her son.
Buck returned to the clinic, ready to scold Ezra for being so impatient and not listening when he'd told him he'd be right there, but he forgot all about it once he got a look at the gambler sitting in the middle of the bed. His face was flushed with fever, his sweat dampened hair clung to his head, and he looked just generally miserable. "I don't feewl verwy good, Buck."
The ladies man sat beside him on the bed, wrapping one long arm around his shoulders while he placed his hand over the younger man's forehead. He watched as Ezra closed his eyes and leaned into the touch, obviously enjoying the soothing coolness of Buck's fingers as they brushed across his skin. The fever wasn't high, just enough to make poor Ezra feel miserable.
"Nathan left some tea on the stove for ya in case ya needed it... will ya drink it for me if I make sure an' put plenty of honey in it?" Buck smoothed Ezra's hair back and gave his shoulders an encouraging squeeze. "It'll make your scratchy throat feel better, then you'll be able to eat the breakfast Chris went to fetch for us."
Ezra frowned and Buck thought he was about to raise a fuss, but he finally sighed and nodded. "Okay, Buck... whateverw you want."
Buck went to fetch the tea, watching Ezra carefully as he stirred in a big spoonful of honey. The young gambler sat slumped where Buck had left him, a painfully brokenhearted expression on his face as he rubbed his hand slowly over his cheek. The ladies man could see it was still a bit swollen and red... Maude hadn't held back at all when she'd slapped him.
Ezra looked up as Buck approached him with the tea, fresh tears and an unspoken request for comforting was clearly visible in his sad eyes. Buck put the mug on the bedside table and sat down beside him, gently pulling Ezra's hand away and lightly stroking his fingers over the tender flesh. "Still hurts, doesn't it?"
Ezra blinked rapidly, trying hard to keep the tears from falling again as he nodded and touched Buck's hand as it moved over his cheek. "But not herwe..." he moved his hand down and placed it over his chest... over his heart... "herwe, Buck. It huwts herwe."
Buck felt a tightening in his own chest as he slowly pulled Ezra into his arms, not saying anything... just giving the comfort that the younger man needed at the moment. The tightness turned into a painful ache around his heart as he heard the softly drawled words Ezra spoke next.
"Why does my mama hate me so much, Buck?"
Buck shook his head and wished more than ever to be able to shake some sense into that miserable woman who had put so much grief into her own son's heart. "She doesn't hate ya, Ezra... I just don't think she knows how to love ya. Maybe her mama never taught her how to do that."
Chris had come in during Buck's explanation and nodded approvingly at him as he quietly set the tray holding their breakfast on the table. He knew how incredibly hard it was for Buck to defend Maude, but this was one truth Ezra needed to be protected from. Maude Standish cared only for herself and obviously her son suspected that, but having it confirmed would almost certainly crush his already bruised heart.
Ezra shifted his head on Buck's shoulder so that he could look up into the older man's blue eyes... searching them carefully for the truth of what he was telling him. "But I f'ought mamas jus' *knew* how to wuv d'eir kids... d'ey shouldn't have to be taught how to do d'at... should d'ey?"
Buck shook his head and hugged Ezra tighter. "I don't know, pard... I guess it just don't come so easy to some mamas. Ya just gotta remember that it ain't 'cause of nothin' you did or didn't do... it's just somethin' that happens sometimes... okay?"
"Okay." Ezra hesitated and then asked one last question. "Buck? Is Mama betterw when I'm awll grwowed up?"
Buck shot a quick look at Chris and, as much as he hated to, lied to Ezra. There was no way he could destroy the hope he heard in the young gambler's voice. "Yeah, Little One... everything's okay between you and your mama once you're a grown up."
Ezra just nodded. They weren't sure if he believed them or not, but it at least seemed to satisfy him for now. "Can I have d'at tea now, Buck... my f'roat huwts an awful w'ot."
Buck and Chris sat with him while he drank the tea down without a single complaint and hoped the reason he was being so quiet was just because he didn't feel good, and not because he was scared again.
He was just as quiet during breakfast, managing to eat only one flapjack and half a biscuit before he asked if he could please lay down again. They tucked him in and sat with him til he fell into a restless sleep, then went back over to the table and finished off the pot of coffee.
The others wandered into the clinic one at a time, and Chris and Buck waited til they were all assembled around the table before filling them in on what had transpired during the night. Each one of them had to discreetly wipe away a tear or two when Buck got to Ezra's request that he tell them goodbye for him when he left.
JD stared over at the gambler as he mumbled softly in his sleep. "So he knows he's going? God... he must be so scared and confused."
Buck heaved a ragged sigh. "He is, Kid... an' I don't think he wants to think about it anymore, much less talk about it. So let's just try to keep him happy for as long as he's still here an' not mention what's goin' to happen to 'im."
Everyone agreed with the lanky gunman, and silence descended over the group as they sat lost in their respective thoughts of Lit'l Ezra's impending departure while waiting patiently for the Southerner to awaken.
Once he finally did rouse from his slumber, the tea had done its job and he seemed to feel a bit better. They spent the rest of the afternoon doing whatever Ezra wanted. Josiah played chess with him, amazing himself and the younger man when they split the games evenly... two wins for each of them. Whereas the adult Ezra would have spouted a litany of excuses for his two losses, their Little One hugged the preacher and told him how great he thought it was that they both got to win. Buck and JD both crawled around the floor with him, making appropriate train noises and happily annoying the others by running the small wooden toy into and over their feet and legs. Ezra finally managed to beat Nathan at checkers and was tickled to death when the gentle healer leaned over the checker board and hugged him soundly while telling him how proud he was of him.
The dinner menu had been left up to Ezra and he'd immediately requested a big pot of Josiah's chili. His remembering that the senior member of their group was famous, or infamous as Chris put it, for his fiery hot chili, was just one of many small bursts of memory that Ezra had that day, none of which were commented on by either the gambler or his brothers. While the others were busy setting the table and dishing up the meal, Vin and Ezra played their harmonicas, filling the clinic with their own brand of music.
They sat together in the middle of the bed. Vin had his legs folded up Indian style, while Ezra knelt in front of him so that he could watch the other man's fingers as he tried to teach him some new melodies. Ezra suffered from the handicap of only having one hand to use to form the different sounds, but still did a remarkably fine job of following what the tracker did. Suddenly Vin stopped playing... his eyes stared over the gambler's shoulder as he slowly moved the small instrument away from his mouth and began unfolding his legs. "Ezra... I want ya t' hold real still for me, okay?"
"What's d' matterw, Vin?" Ezra turned his head to see what the sharpshooter was staring at and promptly froze as he saw something move on the blanket only inches from his bare toes.
The others had been talking amongst themselves while they worked, and hadn't noticed what was occurring on the bed. They all jumped when Ezra let loose with an ear-splitting squeal and looked up in time to witness the horrified young man trying to climb over top of Vin. The tracker had been caught with one leg still folded in front of him and was now pinned to the bed by the gambler, who was delivering several painful, albeit unintentional, hits and kicks to the man beneath him with his wildly flailing arm and legs.
"Ezra!! Stop! It's not gonna hurt ya... calm down!!" Vin shouted at the older man, trying desperately to break through his panic before he hurt himself, or before he seriously injured *him* with a more accurately placed hit. "It's only a spider! It ain't gonna hurt ya! Ya just gotta hold still an' let me get rid of it!" The tracker jerked and swore as Ezra's elbow connected with his nose, sending a sudden gush of blood pouring over his mouth and chin. One look at the blood on Vin's face, and the Southerner's panic increased tenfold... causing him to increase his efforts to get the tracker between himself and the huge, hairy, brown creature that was still crawling across the covers toward them. With one final, mighty push with both feet and a brain numbing shriek, Ezra managed to topple both he and Vin off the bed.
Chris and the others had collapsed in helpless fits of laughter at the first sight of the spectacle taking place on the other side of the room. But as soon as they saw the two men disappear over the side of the bed and heard the thud of their landing, accompanied by a string of curses on Vin's part and a screech of pain on Ezra's, they finally got control of themselves and rushed to help.
They found the two men in a heap, arms and legs tangled together, with Ezra on top sobbing weakly as he still clung to Vin with his good arm.
Vin looked up as they came into view... he had managed to free one arm and was trying to stop the flow of blood still streaming steadily from his nose. "Spider... bed."
The others immediately jumped away from the bed as their eyes searched the covers for their unwelcome visitor. JD spotted it first and quickly grabbed the broom, stunning the nasty looking thing with a loud thwack and then sweeping it quickly out onto the landing and off into the street below.
Josiah bent over to lift Ezra off of Vin, but the minute his hand touched the gambler's shoulder, Ezra began screeching again and shoved himself up off of the tracker... catching the preacher under the chin with his head as he leaped onto the bed. Nathan and Chris managed to catch Josiah when he fell back and steadied him as he stood weaving, both hands clamped over his mouth. They could see the pained expression on his face and saw blood oozing out between his fingers, and knew he'd either bitten his tongue or his lip.
Nathan, Chris, Buck, and JD looked at the chaos around them... Vin, lying on the floor, bloodied and gasping for breath... Josiah, clutching his mouth, a string of muffled curses slipping out from behind his fingers... and Ezra... standing in the middle of the bed shouting 'kiwll it! kiwll it! kiwll it!'. They couldn't help it... all four men burst out laughing.
Vin kicked Chris's foot to get his attention and wheezed, "Glad... you fellas think... this is so... damn... funny. Now... could ya quit... laughin'... long enough... t' help me... up?"
Chris reached down and hauled the tracker to his feet, and then with a supportive hand on his arm, led him over to one of the chairs. JD was right behind him with Josiah in tow, who now had his handkerchief pressed against his still bleeding lip.
Nathan and Buck approached the bed, still chuckling at all the commotion one spider had caused. "Ezra? Come on, Little One... calm down. JD took care of it... it's gone now."
Ezra still stood in the bed, his hand clutching at his nightshirt as his eyes continued to search the blankets. His voice was shaking almost as much as his body was when he spoke to the two men, never taking his gaze off the bed. "Arwe you surwe?"
JD looked over at Ezra and tried his best not to laugh at the sight of the usually calm, cool and collected gambler standing there in his rumpled nightshirt, bare feet shifting nervously on the bed, and his green eyes wide open and frantically searching the covers for the hairy, brown monster that had nearly gotten him. "I promise ya, Ezra. I whacked it with the broom and tossed it out in the street. It's not gonna hurt ya now."
Ezra must have decided JD sounded sincere because he finally stopped shuffling around the bed and looked up at the other men. His face immediately took on an expression of indignation as he realized that they were all laughing at him. "D'at wasn't funny! D'at f'ing was big... an'... an' hairwy... an' it could've bit me! Orw Vin! You shouldn't be w'aughin' at me!"
Vin probed gingerly at his swollen nose and shot Ezra a rueful grin. "I think I'd just as soon take my chances with the spider next time, pard."
Ezra looked over at Vin and Josiah who were being tended to by Chris and JD, and his face fell as he realized what he'd done. "I'm sowwy I huwt you guys... I didn't mean to. I... I was jus' scarwed."
Josiah tried to smile reassuringly and ended up wincing instead as pain shot through his torn lip. "It wasn't your fault, Little One... that was a scary looking spider. And you were doin' the right thing by getting away from it as fast as you could."
"It didn't bite ya, did it, pard?" Vin looked concernedly at Nathan even though Ezra shook his head no. "Might be best for ya t' check out his feet anyway... that damn thing was only 'bout an inch from his toes when he launched hisself at me. An' take a look at his head... I think he cracked it on that table when we went flyin' off the bed." He swatted at Chris who was trying to clean some of the blood off his face. "Will you quit hoverin' over me, Larabee... it's just a little bloody nose."
Chris grinned down at the tracker. "Oh yeah? Well, maybe you oughta take a look in the mirror. You're startin' to look like a damn raccoon with those twin shiners you're gettin'."
Vin's hand shot up to his nose and he gingerly pressed his fingers against the bridge. "Shit..."
Chris soaked the rag in cold water again and handed it to Vin. "Here... hold this on it, might take the swelling down some." Then he moved over to where Ezra now sat on the bed with Buck while Nathan carefully examined his feet. "Anything, Nathan?"
Nathan gratefully shook his head. "No sign of any bites, jus' the cuts he had before, an' they're healin' up fine." He stood up to check Ezra's head and smiled. "Jus' a little bump here on the side of his head. Didn't even break the skin."
"Well, good... now that all the fuss is over with, an' everyone's gonna be okay, let's eat... I'm starvin'!" JD started dishing up the rest of the chili and passing out bowls while the others got settled around the table.
They enjoyed a nice, quiet meal talking and joking about the disaster earlier. Buck and JD even managed to get Ezra to laugh a little, but for the most part, the gambler stayed unusually quiet. Nathan wasn't sure if it was the cold that was bothering him or if he was just still depressed over finding out that he was going to be leaving them. He knew one thing though... the younger man was definitely tired and needed to get some sleep.
Nathan looked over at Ezra who was leaning against Buck's arm, yawning, and smiled. "I think it's 'bout time someone went t' bed."
Buck looked down at Ezra and then yawned himself. "I think it's 'bout time both of us went to bed... what do ya think, little guy?"
But Ezra wasn't ready to give up any time he had left with his new brothers and shook his head. "Nuh-uh... I don't wanna go to bed aw'weady. I wanna sit herwe an' talk wif you guys some morwe."
Chris could see Ezra's eyes were drooping as he desperately tried to smother another yawn, and knew Nathan was right. After what Buck had told him about the previous night, he figured the Southerner was probably still afraid to go to sleep in case he *disappeared* before he woke up. "Ezra? How 'bout if I rock you and tell you another story first? Then will you go to bed and get some rest for Nathan?"
Ezra hesitated, wanting to refuse... Chris was right... the idea of going to sleep terrified him now, but the lure of being rocked and read to again was just too much for the young man. He nodded and hurriedly left the table to fetch his book before letting Buck help him get settled on Chris's lap in the rocker. And just as Chris suspected would happen, Ezra was sound asleep before he finished the first story.
The gambler was so exhausted that he never even woke up when Nathan and Josiah carefully lifted him and carried him over to the bed. Buck, who was even more exhausted than Ezra, slipped in beside him and was asleep in a matter of minutes.
Chris smiled sadly down at the two men in the bed... he had no idea how Buck was going to handle it when his Little One left. He only knew that the ladies man was going to need just as much help coping with it as Ezra would when he returned to them.
"Well, boys... looks like were not needed here now... how 'bout we head over to the saloon and play a little poker. I've got a feeling it might be one of our last chances to play and actually win some money."
The others laughingly agreed and followed Chris out of the clinic.
Nathan was the last to leave. He extinguished all but the lamp beside the bed and turned that one down low so Buck would be able to see if Ezra awoke during the night. Then after one last check on the gambler's fever... it was up again, he'd have to check in on him again later... the healer finally followed after the others. Nathan pulled the door closed, quietly latching it before turning and walking slowly down to the street... never noticing the large, hulking figure who huddled in the shadows beneath the stairs.
Buck had only been asleep for about an hour when he suddenly jerked awake. He looked quickly down at Ezra, certain that it was the younger man who had roused him, but he was still asleep, sucking his thumb and snoring softly.
"Aw... now isn't that sweet."
Buck jumped at the sound of a strange voice in the clinic, fumbling for his gun before realizing it was across the room on Nathan's dresser. He looked up at the tall, menacing form slowly approaching the bed... with a gun aimed directly at Ezra's head.
"Delacourte... what the hell do you think you're doin'?" Buck kept his voice low, trying not to wake Ezra. He knew the Little One would be terrified and was afraid he might do something to set the intruder off.
"I see you know who I am. Funny, I don't remember havin' the pleasure of makin' your acquaintance yet. But from what Maude's told me... I'm assumin' you're Mr. Wilmington." The attorney moved closer and scowled down at the two in the bed.
"I saw you when you an' that bitch came to town. Now... get that gun away from Ezra and answer my damn question... what the hell are ya doin'?" Buck was furious with himself for letting the son of a bitch get the drop on him.
Delacourte reached down and pulled Ezra's thumb out of his mouth... the gun now poised directly in front of the slowly awakening gambler's face. "Nasty habit... I thought he'd been broken of it." Shifting his eyes back up to Buck's, he feigned an air of surprise. "Why... I'm just doin' my job. Maude wants her son back... and I mean to see that she gets him."
"Over my dead body." Buck wrapped his arms tighter around Ezra and whispered quietly in his ear as he began to stir. "Shush now, Little One... everything's alright."
Ezra stared blearily up at Buck, smiling softly as the older man's face slowly came into focus. "Hi, Buck... is it mornin' aw'weady?"
"My God... Maude wasn't lying... he does think he's a child." MJ smiled evilly as Ezra's gaze quickly shifted to him. He watched all the color quickly drain out of the smaller man's face and saw his eyes widen in shock and fear. His voice dropped to a low, menacing purr as he whispered softly, "Hello, Ezra. I see you remember me."
Buck felt Ezra pushing back against him and could feel the gambler's heart pounding as he stared in horror at the man who hovered over them. "Ezra? Hang on, Little One... it's gonna be-" but Ezra's trembling, horrified voice completely wiped out Buck's words of reassurance.
Buck stared at Ezra and then at the man standing over them. He tried to turn the younger man around to face him... apparently he'd been in the middle of another one of his nightmares and was having trouble shaking it. But Ezra refused to budge.
"Come on, pard... you're still dreamin'... wake up now. Your uncle Matthew's not here... that's just your mama's lawyer... Mr. Delacourte." Buck gently rubbed Ezra's arm, trying to bring him out of his dream, even though he was sure the reality of this bastard waving a gun in his face was going to be just as traumatic for the young gambler.
Ezra's eyes stayed glued on the man in front of him as he spoke... his voice shaking and hoarse with the absolute terror that was sweeping through him. "Mama's w'awyerw... MJ... M-maffew James Dewacourwte."
Buck stared at Ezra in confusion. "But we just figured your uncle Matthew's last name was Standish... same as yours..." Understanding finally dawned on the gunman and his face reflected his disgust with how stupid they'd been not to realize... "Maude's brother..."
Delacourte smiled condescendingly at their mental lapse. "Glad to see you finally figured it out. And I'm her baby brother to be exact." He narrowed his eyes as he stared down at his nephew. "I understand Ezra's told you all about the fun he and I used to have when his mother would get sick of him and leave him on my doorstep. I miss our little visits, Ezra. I think it's about time you paid me another one, don't you? A nice... long... visit."
Ezra began to whimper and his hand snaked up to grip Buck's arm, his fingers clutching at the older man's sleeve as he kept trying to remind himself that Buck was here... he'd protect him.
Buck's mind raced as he searched for a way out of the mess they were in, but at the moment there was nothing he could do that wouldn't endanger Ezra... and there was no way he was doing that. Delacourte's gun hand never wavered... not even for a second.
Ezra stared at his uncle as if in a trance, his body trembling uncontrollably, Matthew's words playing over and over again in his mind... 'a nice long visit.' Even lost in his five year old world, the gambler knew he wouldn't be allowed to survive this time.
MJ stepped back from the bed and motioned with the gun. "Alright, Ezra... say goodbye to your *friend*. Your mother's waitin' at the livery for us, and we've got a long way to go."
Buck's expression darkened and his arms involuntarily tightened around Ezra as he practically growled at Delacourte. "You mean to tell me Maude knows what you're doin'... an' she's goin' along with it?!"
Matthew laughed. "Of course she does. You must know enough about Maude to realize she'll do anything to keep from losin'... even if it means she'll be stuck with my mentally deficient nephew here. But it won't be too bad, because we have great plans for Ezra... as long as he stays the way he is." He stared at the young gambler and his smile slowly faded. "However, once his memory comes back... I'm afraid his usefulness will be over."
Buck felt his anger threaten to boil over as he heard Ezra begin sobbing softly. They both knew what his uncle meant by that statement. "Well, you an' dear old Maude can forget all your fancy plans... 'cause you're not takin' Ezra anywhere." Buck had no idea how he was going to stop Delacourte, but he knew he'd die trying. His eyes strayed toward the entrance to the clinic, praying for someone to come and check on them... any distraction that would allow him to get his hands on that damn gun.
MJ saw Buck glance at the door and shook his head. "You can forget about your friends comin' to the rescue. Right about now they're in the middle of tryin' to break up a rather large brawl in the saloon. You'd be surprised how easy it is to find a few trail hands who are willin' to engage in a little rough-housing for a few dollars. Add in a small bonus and you get a promise to keep the local peacekeepers busy for quite some time."
Delacourte quite enjoyed seeing the hope on the gunslinger's face quickly change to frustration and helplessness. "Now... we really have to be off. Come along, Ezra..." He reached for his nephew's arm and was startled when Ezra struck out at him before turning to cling tightly to Buck's neck. Buck briefly considered making a move on the bigger man, but before he could react, Ezra was pressed up against his chest... right in the path of the gun.
"No!! Buck, hewlp me! Don't let him take me... he's gonna huwt me, Buck!!" Ezra sobbed and pleaded as he buried his face in his big brother's shoulder... trying desperately to shut out the fact that his nightmare had come true... Uncle Matthew was back.
Buck held on tight to Ezra and tried to calm him down. "It's alright, Little One... I won't let 'im hurt ya. Shh... you're gonna be okay."
MJ grimaced and reaching forward, wrapped his huge hand in Ezra's nightshirt and jerked the young gambler out of Buck's arms, dragging him half off the bed before the startled peacekeeper realized what was happening. "Good lord... no wonder Maude wants to take him away from here so badly... you seem to have forgotten he's a grown man, not some little-"
Ezra struggled to get back to the safety of Buck's arms, twisting and turning as he tried to pull himself out of his uncle's iron grip. "I am not a grwown up... I'm jus' a w'ittle boy, an' I bewong to Buck now... Judge Twavis said so!! You can't take me away frwom herwe... he pwomised me!!"
Delacourte had had enough. He knew he had to hurry and get them out of the clinic before someone showed up to stop him. Keeping the gun trained on Wilmington, he managed to catch Ezra off balance and threw him off the bed onto the floor.
Buck tensed, his fingers flexing as he imagined them around the southern bastard's neck. The only thing holding him back was the knowledge that if Delacourte shot him, Ezra would be at his mercy and there would be nothing he could do to help him.
Ezra scrambled to his feet and lunged back toward the bed... back toward Buck. But his uncle was ready for him. Never taking his eyes off of Wilmington, he swung his large meaty fist in a wide arc and viciously back-handed Ezra, knocking him across the room to land in a dazed heap against the door.
"Well, Ezra... I see you've forgotten everything I worked so hard to teach you about respectin' your elders... guess we'll have to work extra hard on that once we get you away from here." Delacourte grinned at the enraged expression on Buck's face as he started to rise up off the bed. "Go ahead, Mr. Wilmington... there's nothin' would make me happier than to shoot you. It's no more than you deserve... considerin' the treatment my dear nephew's obviously been receivin' here."
Buck ignored him and concentrated instead on Ezra, who had pushed himself up into a sitting position, his head leaning weakly back against the door. Blood from a nasty cut just below his right eye trickled slowly down his cheek, blending with the tears that flowed unchecked as the gambler stared back at Buck. "You okay, Little One?"
"Answer him Ezra, and you get another dose of discipline. Understand?" Matthew risked a quick glare in the gambler's direction and was satisfied to see him jerk his gaze away from Wilmington and nod once. Turning his cold, dark eyes back to Buck as he slowly backed away from the bed, he couldn't resist one last parting shot. "What hurts more, Mr. Wilmington... losing to Maude... or losing your pretty little playmate here?"
Buck shot a worried glance at Ezra and saw the look of confusion on his face at his uncle's words and tone of voice. "Shut your filthy mouth, Delacourte... there's no need to be doin' this to 'im."
"Oh, please... I saw you two all snuggled up in that bed together when I came in... heard you call him 'Little One'... what do you expect me to think? After all, look at him. My nephew has grown into quite a handsome young man... but of course, you've already noticed that, haven't you?" Matthew saw the other man tense, his body trembling with the effort he was making to stay on the bed... his eyes never leaving Ezra as he silently tried to reassure him that everything would be alright. Delacourte turned his gaze on his nephew as he finished, his voice soft and snidely suggestive. "So how was he, Wilmington? I always wondered... he was beautiful even as a child, but I was man enough to keep my carnal thoughts to myself... at least while he was little..."
Buck saw Delacourte turn a disgustingly hungry gaze on Ezra, who was huddled against the door, his face a frozen mask of horror... it was obvious that he understood perfectly what that look meant. Buck couldn't help it... he snapped. With an anguished howl of rage, he leaped off the bed straight at the bastard who was torturing his Little One all over again.
MJ was caught off-guard... his lustful thoughts of Ezra had distracted him sufficiently for Buck to get to him before he had time to react. The enraged ladies man wrapped his fingers around Delacourte's gun hand and their life and death dance through the clinic began.
They were pretty evenly matched in height, but Delacourte outweighed Buck by at least fifty pounds, giving him a definite advantage. They took turns slamming each other into the furniture and walls, neither man loosening their hold on the gun as they wrestled for possession of it.
Buck at one point, as Delacourte had him pinned, spotted Ezra still huddled against the wall. "Ezra! Get out... go find Chris, Little One... hurry!!"
MJ never even turned his head, merely shouted an order at his nephew and knew with absolute certainty it would be obeyed. "Move one inch, nephew... and I'll kill him!"
The threat worked exactly like Delacourte knew it would. Ezra was paralyzed with fear and could only watch helplessly from his position on the floor, his heart thundering in his chest, until suddenly, his uncle managed to get Buck bent backward over the table and the gun slowly but surely began to turn toward his best friend. The realization that Uncle Matthew intended to kill Buck anyway finally drove Ezra out of his shock, giving him the strength to push himself up and fling himself at the two men.
Ezra was much shorter than Delacourte and was hampered by his broken arm, but he attacked him in every possible way he could, sobbing and moaning in frustration as he saw the gun continue in its slow arc towards Buck's face. Matthew easily shrugged Ezra off and without losing his hold on the gun for even a second, kicked out and sent the much smaller man flying over the bed.
Buck's concentration was broken when he heard Ezra cry out in pain, and he immediately lost his grip on the gun. Delacourte reacted quickly and slammed the weapon against Buck's head, knocking him off the table. Seeing the man still moving, MJ bent and hit him again, and with an evil grin of satisfaction, watched the other man slump to the floor. He nudged Buck roughly with his boot, and when there was no reaction from the wounded man, hurried over to where Ezra lay sobbing behind the bed.
"Stop your damn bawlin' and get up here. We've got to get out of here now, before more of your foolish friends show up and try to play the hero." Delacourte dragged Ezra roughly to his feet and began shoving him toward the door. As soon as the gambler spotted Buck lying motionless on the floor, he began struggling with his uncle, trying desperately to get to his friend.
"Buck!! Arwe you al-" Ezra started crying loudly for Buck, but was abruptly silenced as Matthew clamped his hand over the younger man's mouth and shook him roughly.
"Shut up, damn it! He's not dead... yet. But keep fightin' me and he will be. Now... are you gonna behave and cooperate with me... or do I have to shoot him?" Delacourte waited until Ezra nodded, and then removed his hand from the gambler's mouth and wrapped it around his arm instead.
Ezra twisted around as his uncle began shoving him out onto the landing, and managed to get one last heart-broken look at Buck before he was forced out of the clinic. "I'm sowwy, Buck..."
Buck moaned and rolled slowly over onto his back, raising a shaky hand to his pounding head as he tried to remember what had happened. His hand came away covered with blood and suddenly it all came back to him. Delacourte... Uncle Matthew... kicking Ezra... a gun slammed against his own head...
Buck grabbed onto one of the chairs for support and struggled to his feet. He clutched the edge of the table as he was hit by a wave of dizziness that threatened to send him right back to the floor.
Wiping the blood from his eyes, he staggered to the door and out onto the landing. Blinking several times to try and clear his vision, Buck stared around the dark street and finally spotted Delacourte and Ezra just as they entered the alley Millie had dragged him into earlier.
Buck gripped the railing as he made his way slowly down the stairs... the incredible throbbing pain in his head had the world spinning wildly around him, making it nearly impossible for him to concentrate. He made it down to the street before he remembered his gun lying on the dresser. Buck turned and looked up at the clinic and shook his head... no way he could possibly make it back up there and to the livery before Delacourte and Maude escaped with Ezra. He stood weaving uncertainly... his gaze traveling from the saloon, where he could hear the shouts and crashing glass of the fight he knew the others were probably in the midst of... to the alley, where Ezra and his uncle had disappeared. Did he go for help or-
Suddenly the decision was made for him as he heard a muffled cry of pain echo down the alley. All thoughts of getting help fled with the realization that Ezra was being hurt and needed him now.
Buck immediately headed across the street, weaving and stumbling, his whole being focused on just one thing... getting to his Little One before it was too late.
Delacourte tightened his grip on Ezra's arm until he heard the smaller man moan softly. "You do realize that you're goin' to pay for that little show of defiance you put on in there. I can't have you bein' disrespectful and thinkin' you're goin' to get away with it." He felt Ezra tremble at the memory of his special brand of punishment and nodded his head in satisfaction.
Looking up, Delacourte spotted Maude bathed in the glow of the lantern that hung near the livery doors. She was holding the reins to the horses they'd been forced to rent earlier when they'd realized his coach would be much too slow and easy to follow. She stood there impatiently tapping her foot while keeping a nervous lookout for any of Ezra's friends. "Will you hurry up, MJ?! I've been waitin' here forever!"
Matthew could see she was dressed in her riding clothes and knew she'd have their saddle bags packed with only the absolute necessities to ensure their get away could be made as quickly as possible. After years of experience as a con woman which entailed numerous unscheduled hasty departures from towns all over the South, Maude had the art of making an escape down to a science.
Maude frowned when the two men stepped into the halo of light and she saw for the first time the condition of Ezra's face... and the intense fear that shown out of his green eyes. "Was *that* absolutely necessary?" She demanded as she used her lace handkerchief to dab at the blood still oozing down her son's pale face. Maude winced when she saw Ezra flinch away from her touch and again regretted the fact that she'd allowed herself to lose control and strike him earlier.
MJ slipped his gun back in the shoulder holster and then just stared at her for a moment before answering. "Oh, come now, sister dear... since when did you worry about what I did to your darlin' boy in the name of discipline? As long as he came back to you a perfect little gentleman, you always managed to overlook any evidence of my methods of *whippin'* him into shape." He chuckled at his little joke and jerked Ezra away from Maude's rare display of motherly concern. "Now, let's prepare him for the ride so we can get the hell out of here before any would-be rescuers show up. Did you manage to get into his room and get some clothes for him?"
Ezra shuddered as his uncle's hands began moving roughly over his body, unwrapping the bandages holding his injured arm in place.
"Yes, MJ... I told you I would, didn't I? Can't have him ridin' a horse in just his nightclothes." Maude stepped into the livery and quickly returned with a small pile of clothing.
Matthew felt the smaller man stiffen when he began unbuttoning his nightshirt, but was sure he'd delivered a sufficient amount of threats to keep him compliant. But Ezra took one look at the lascivious expression on his uncle's face and immediately tried to pull away when he attempted to remove the garment.
"No... pwease, Unca Maffew... don't... do d'at." Ezra stared anxiously up at his uncle as he tried to placate him. "I can do it mysewlf... jus' let me go in d' barwn an' I..."
Delacourte smirked nastily at the gambler and twisted his hand in the nightshirt as he again made a move to lift it over Ezra's head. "What's the matter, *Little One*... am I not good enough for you? Bet you let your precious *Buck* help you undress... isn't that right?"
Maude was startled by the disgusting look MJ was giving her son and moved to intervene on Ezra's behalf. Disciplining the boy was one thing, but this... *this* kind of behavior would not be tolerated... not even by her darlin' baby brother.
"Leave him alone, MJ..." Maude took Ezra's hand and tried to lead him into the livery, but Matthew shocked her by painfully gripping her arm and pulling her in close to him.
Delacourte's eyes were hard and cold as they bored into hers. "Don't you *ever* undermine my authority with him again. Do you hear me? You never gave a damn what happened to him before... so don't even try playing the doting mother now. Especially not with me. I know you... I know that all you care about is yourself... and money." He shoved Maude away, causing her to grab onto one of the horses to stay on her feet, and stared disgustedly at her as he continued. "You just concentrate on how rich you'll be once we get to New Orleans and put our plan into action... and let me worry about gettin' our little gold mine here in the right frame of mind to cooperate. And if I decide to have a little fun with him in the process... strictly as a reward for all my hard work, of course... you'll shut up and do exactly what you've always done... ignore what's happening to him and convince yourself everything's fine."
Maude stood trembling, straightening her clothes as she tried to recover some semblance of dignity. She stared at her brother, taking in the barely controlled rage glittering in his eyes... and then at her son. Ezra's eyes were filled with unshed tears and a desperate plea for her to finally care enough to help him.
Maude felt a brief pang of guilt, but her fear of her brother and her greed for the possible money to be made quickly overshadowed it. Ignoring the almost audible sound of Ezra's heart breaking, she turned away and moved off into the shadows of the livery where she wouldn't have to witness what was about to occur.
After all the times it had happened before, Ezra had still hoped that just this once his mother would not turn away from him. He took a step towards her retreating form and whispered softly, "Mama... pwease... I need y-"
Delacourte grabbed onto Ezra's broken arm and jerked him back around, forcing a startled scream of pain from the younger man. "Forget it, nephew... she doesn't care about you... never has and never will. No one does. Now stand here and let me get these damn clothes on you or I'll be forced to give you a little preview of what your life's goin' to be like from now on."
Ezra was terrified of what the look in his uncle's eyes meant and ignoring all the threats he'd made, began struggling frantically to get away from him. "No, Unca Maffew... w'et go of me!! W'eave m-me a'wone!!"
Buck heard Ezra's panicked cries as he staggered into the alley and felt a fresh surge of energy rush through him. His steps grew stronger and his head began to clear as he raced toward the sound of his Little One's voice.
Delacourte never knew what hit him when Buck plowed into him. The enraged gunman tore the abusive bastard off of Ezra and landed a punch to his jaw that sent him flying backwards into the horses.
The force of Buck slamming into his uncle threw Ezra backwards into the alley wall, leaving him stunned and gasping for air as he watched Buck charge after Matthew.
Buck grabbed Delacourte by his lapels and dragged him away from the horses, landing another crushing blow to the man's already bleeding mouth. "That's for Ezra, you son of a bitch... for every vicious, disgusting thing you've ever done to 'im." Buck's voice shook with the absolute fury that held him in its grip. He'd seen the man pulling at Ezra's nightshirt as he'd come charging down the alley and all he could think of was killing the filthy bastard.
Delacourte stumbled away from the gunslinger and struggled to get his wits about him before the younger man got his hands on him again.
Buck moved after the stunned man, wanting to finish him off while he still had the strength to do so. He shot a quick glance at Ezra to see if he was capable of going for help, but knew immediately that he was just too hurt and scared to listen. Turning back to Delacourte, his fury burning even brighter after seeing the expression on his Little One's face, Buck made his first... and maybe last mistake. In his concern for Ezra and his rage against Delacourte... Buck forgot about the gun.
Matthew kept his back to the peacekeeper as he fumbled in his coat for his weapon. Just as he felt the other man closing in on him again, his fingers closed around the handle of the gun and he whipped around and fired.
Buck's forward momentum was stopped instantly as the force of the bullet spun him around and sent him crashing into the wall beside Ezra. He stared first at Delacourte and then down at the bullet wound in his right shoulder. His eyes then turned slowly to Ezra, who was staring in horror at the blood pouring from Buck's wound... and managed to whisper, "I'm sorry, Little One" just before he collapsed in the dirt at the frightened gambler's feet.
Ezra's eyes widened as the shock of what had just happened tore through him. His breath began coming in short gasping pants and his fingers clenched into fists as his gaze shifted from Buck's body to his uncle.
Delacourte had been staring at the gunslinger, watching for any signs of life when suddenly he felt his nephew's eyes on him. He looked up and stared in amazement as he watched a transformation come over Ezra's face. The childlike innocence disappeared and was replaced by a look of total confusion and pain. Matthew watched as the younger man groaned and clutched at his head, his eyes wide and uncomprehending as he stared around the alley.
Ezra's tortured gaze landed on Buck, taking in the stillness of his friend and the blood that was soaking into the ground, and he slowly sank to his knees, his hands moving from his pounding head to tangle themselves in Buck's shirt. "Buck?"
Delacourte realized their plans were over when he heard his nephew speak... and knew what he had to do. He slowly raised his gun and aimed it at Ezra's head, shrugging his shoulders regretfully as he saw the younger man look up and stare at him in bewilderment. "Sorry, nephew... but you're one loose end I've left dangling way too long."
"Who... who are-" Ezra's brow furrowed as he tried to understand what was happening to him, but the throbbing pain in his head was making it impossible for him to think.
"Put the gun down, MJ... now." Maude's voice cut through the relative quiet of the alley, causing both men to jump as the tension between them was broken.
Ezra's head slowly turned in Maude's direction and the confusion in his eyes worsened as he saw her standing there with her derringer trained on the stranger who was threatening to shoot him. "M-Mother?" He began to sob weakly as it all became just too much for his mind to handle. Turning to the only person he knew was safe, Ezra slowly curled himself around Buck and closing his eyes... shut out the world.
JD was just crossing the street to the jail, two of the combatants from the saloon in front of him loudly professing their innocence, when he heard a gunshot come from the direction of the livery. He hesitated... looking first at the two men who seemed poised to run and then back at the saloon. Finally, JD lowered his gun and turned back the way he'd come. "Go on. Get outta here. Just don't let me see your faces in town again." He kept an eye on them until they were on their horses and headed out of town, and then he broke into a run.
Vin was near the door and looked up, startled, when JD burst into the saloon. "I heard gunfire... think it came from the livery."
Vin released the man he was about to deliver a punch to and ran for the door. "Tell Chris and the others and then go check on Ezra and Buck."
Delacourte stared in surprise at his sister. "Maude? You don't honestly think I'm goin' to believe that you could shoot me, do you? Now put that pea shooter away and get on your horse... we need to leave now." He turned his attention back to Ezra, assuming she would follow his orders.
"I said put the gun down, MJ... I've had enough of this *plan* of yours. You promised me no one would be hurt." Maude held the gun steady as she waited for her brother to put his gun away. "You heard, Ezra... his memory is obviously coming back. He's no use to us now."
Matthew glanced quickly at her and shook his head. "You don't understand, Maude. Ezra and I have a little bit of history that you know nothing about... and believe me, you want it to stay that way. If his returning memory includes certain events from that shared past of ours, I could end up in prison for life... or hanging from the end of a rope. Is that what you want?"
"Of course not... God, MJ... what have you done?" Maude's eyes widened in dismay as she saw him again level the gun at Ezra's head... and realized she was about to be forced to choose between her baby brother and her son. "Please, Matthew... don't make me do this."
"Sorry, Maude... I can't take the chance on him remembering." He never even looked at her as he continued, disgust ringing loudly in his words. "And just who the hell do you think you're impressing by this little show of motherly concern... those men who will be here any minute? I assure you... they'll never believe it. They'll just throw you in jail right along with me. Now let me finish so we can get out of here." His finger tightened on the trigger.
Maude had no idea what this incident was that Ezra might remember... and didn't really care. She just knew she couldn't let MJ kill him. Taking careful aim, she fired.
Vin had just reached the entrance to the alley when Maude's shot rang out. Ducking back against the building, the tracker glanced behind him at the saloon and was relieved to see the others running in his direction.
"Watch it... I just heard another shot!" Vin shouted a warning and waited til the others were safely out of the line of fire before taking a careful look around the corner. He watched as Chris did the same on the other side of the alleyway and nodded when he saw the gunslinger motion for him to wait.
Chris sent Nathan and Josiah down the street to try and circle around behind the buildings to the livery before turning back to Vin, and after giving him a nod to follow, slipped quietly around the corner and into the shadows.
Matthew yelped as Maude shot the gun out of his hand and stood gripping his bleeding fingers as he stared at her in utter disbelief. "You shot me!"
Maude glanced at Ezra and noticed that the gunshot hadn't even phased him... he was still huddled against Buck. "I warned you, MJ... it's not my fault you chose not to believe me. Now get on your damn horse and let's get out of here... I'm sure Mr. Larabee and his cohorts are closin' in on us as we speak, and I really don't want to go to jail." Maude had briefly considered staying behind to try and convince them she had merely wanted her son and had no idea anyone would be hurt... but realized they would be in no mood to listen to her after the incident in the clinic. She'd wait til things cooled off and then try contacting Ezra... she knew he'd understand once his memory came back. He'd always forgiven her before and she was sure he would again... after all... she was his mother.
Delacourte shot a frustrated look at Ezra and then one at his sister. Seeing she still held her derringer on him and hearing Vin's warning to the others, he realized he had no choice but to leave Ezra alive.
Grabbing up his weapon, MJ raced to his horse and threw himself into the saddle. "Get your damn ass up there if you're goin' with me."
Maude glared indignantly at him, but after hearing voices echoing down the alley, she quickly mounted and indicated to her brother that she was ready.
Matthew urged his horse into a gallop, firing at Nathan and Josiah as they came around the corner headed toward the livery, forcing them to dive for cover. Maude dug her heels into her mount and quickly followed after her brother... without even a backward glance at her son.
JD slipped into the alley behind Chris and Vin just as they saw the shadowy figures at the end of the alley mount their horses. "Buck and Ezra aren't in the clinic!" His hoarse whisper was filled with the fear he felt for his two missing brothers. With his heart beating rapidly, the youngest peacekeeper drew his Colts and followed closely on his leader's heels.
Upon seeing the horses gallop away from the livery and hearing the ensuing gunfire, the three men forgot about their own safety and rushed forward... their only thoughts now being for their friends and the fear of what they'd find at the end of the alley.
Vin almost stumbled over the prone forms of Buck and Ezra lying hidden in the shadows. "Chris! Over here!"
They could make out the rapidly spreading pool of blood beneath Buck's shoulder and knew the ladies man needed immediate help if they were going to keep him from bleeding to death. Vin ripped off his bandana and began applying pressure to the wound while Chris and JD continued on toward the livery.
Buck moaned and attempted to move away from the pain as Vin pushed down on his shoulder. "Easy there, Bucklin... it's Vin... you're gonna be okay... just hold still." The tracker tried to quiet the older man while checking on Ezra at the same time. He placed a hand on the gambler's back and was relieved to feel him jerk away from the touch as he pressed his body tighter against Buck. He couldn't tell if he was injured, but at least he knew he was alive.
Chris and JD rounded the corner into the next street just as Nathan and Josiah emerged from behind the barrels they'd used as protection against the flying bullets.
"It was Delacourte and Ezra's mother! We couldn't stop them!" Nathan shouted when he spotted the other two men.
Chris swore and told them to just forget it for now, Buck and Ezra needed to be taken care of first. They hurried back down the alley to Vin, who gladly let Nathan and JD take over Buck's care while he turned to help Chris and Josiah with Ezra.
"Ezra? Can you hear me?" Chris spoke softly to the gambler as they tried to ease him away from Buck in order to give Nathan more room to work. They did a quick check on him and were relieved to see that other than the cut and bruise under his eye, he seemed to be physically okay. Emotionally was another matter altogether.
Hearing Chris's familiar voice, Ezra finally opened his eyes and looked up at the others as they bent over him.
Vin winced at the confusion and pain that filled the Southerner's eyes. He knew instantly that their Little One was gone and the adult Ezra was returning. He also could see that it wasn't going to be an easy transition for their friend.
"Ya with us, Pard?" Vin rubbed his hand gently over Ezra's back as they sat him up. The gambler stared at him for a moment before nodding slowly, but they could tell that he was clearly at a loss as to what was happening to him.
Chris felt him shivering and knew they had to get him out of the cold before he got even sicker than he was. "Come on, Ezra... let's get you back to the clinic and into that nice warm bed." He and Vin managed to get the gambler on his feet, but couldn't get him to move away from Buck.
Ezra stared at the ladies man and tried to lower himself back down beside him.
"He's gonna be alright, Ezra... Nathan and Josiah'll bring 'im to the clinic just as soon as they get 'im patched up a bit." Vin kept his voice low and even as he and Chris kept a firm hold on the Southerner.
Their attempts to get Ezra to return to the clinic filtered through Buck's pain fogged brain and he slowly opened his eyes to stare up at them. "Ezra... do as they say... I'm... okay."
Ezra shook his head, his bewildered green gaze never leaving Buck's face, his eyes boring into the other man's as he seemed to search for answers to the multitude of questions that were painfully flooding his mind.
Buck saw Ezra shuddering with the cold and shock and, gritting his teeth, grabbed onto Nathan's arm and pulled himself up into a sitting position. The healer and JD both tried to push him back down, but Buck shook them off. "Damn it, Nathan... help me up." He nodded at Ezra. "Look at 'im... he ain't goin' nowhere without me an' he's gonna freeze to death if he stays out here much longer. You can finish workin' on me once we get 'im back to the clinic."
Nathan shook his head in exasperation, but knew Buck was right. Ezra was still obviously feeling the connection he'd made with the ladies man and wasn't about to leave his side. He and JD eased Buck up off the ground, steadying him when his legs threatened to give out.
Buck slipped his good arm around Ezra's shoulders and smiled when the gambler immediately wrapped his arm around his waist, supporting as much of the larger man's weight as he was able. Staring into Ezra's eyes, Buck nodded and pulled away from Nathan and Josiah. "Don't worry, fellas... we can manage just fine. Ain't that right, little brother?"
Ezra stared back at Buck, a slight frown furrowing his brow as a now distant memory tugged at his mind, then gave a small nod to the older man as they slowly began making their way down the alley toward the clinic.
The others followed closely behind the two men who staggered slightly as they hobbled along, ready to catch them if they should falter. But it never happened. Leaning heavily on each other, the two brothers made it every step of the way on their own.
Once they arrived at the clinic, Chris and Vin gently eased Ezra away from Buck and led him over to the cot while Nathan, JD and Josiah got the ladies man settled in the bed. Nathan worked quickly to stop the bleeding and soon had the wound cleaned and bandaged. "You're lucky, Buck... the bullet went through cleanly... don't look like no muscle damage. A few days of rest an' you'll be fine."
"What about his head, Nathan?" JD stared worriedly at the large gash surrounded by a dark purple bruise on Buck's temple.
Nathan reassured the young man that it was just a mild concussion and that it would take more than a little bump like that to do any damage to Buck's hard head. He'd hoped to get a rise out of the usually talkative gunman, but Buck's thoughts were focused totally on the man seated on the cot between Chris and Vin. His eyes had not left Ezra even once since they'd placed him in the bed and he'd just lain there quietly, enduring Nathan's ministrations without any of his usual complaints.
"Nathan... is he... is he gone?" Buck's voice was barely loud enough for them to make out his words, but the emotion in it practically screamed out the pain he was feeling in his heart.
Josiah rested a comforting hand on Buck's good shoulder and squeezed it gently. "Looks like it. He hasn't spoken yet, but you can see it in his eyes. It's our Ezra... and I don't think he has any idea what's happened to him."
Chris and Vin managed to get Ezra to lie down on the cot after reassuring him several times that Buck was going to be fine.
"Are ya cold, pard?" Vin had seen the gambler shiver, but wasn't sure if he was actually cold or just scared. He waited as Ezra seemed to think about the question and went to grab a couple of extra blankets when he finally nodded at him.
Chris helped Vin cover him up and then moved out of the way as Nathan came over and pulled a chair up beside the cot. He laid a gentle hand on Ezra's forehead and shook his head slightly when he felt the fever burning hotter than ever. Soaking a cloth in the basin of cold water, Nathan began bathing the smaller man's face and neck as he spoke softly to him.
"Ezra? Do ya know who I am?" Nathan saw the confusion in Ezra's eyes as he tried to remember, and waited patiently for the Southerner to answer him.
Finally, a look of relief washed over Ezra's face and he whispered, "Nathan?"
Nathan nodded and patted him on the shoulder. "Do ya know where ya are?"
Ezra gazed slowly around the room, pausing and frowning worriedly when his eyes landed on Buck. "The... the clinic?" When he saw Nathan nod again he looked back at the ladies man. "Buck... what happened... to Buck?"
Nathan reached out and gently turned Ezra's face back to him. "He's gonna be jus' fine. Do ya remember what happened t' 'im?"
A glimmer of fear appeared in the gambler's green eyes, but after an obvious struggle with his memory, he finally shook his head. "Can't... can't remember."
Nathan carefully ran his hands over Ezra while he questioned him, feeling for any new injuries he might have sustained. So far he was relieved to find only the cut on his face and a few new bruises on his arms.
Ezra stared in confusion when he began removing the splints and winced when Nathan put pressure on his arm. "Nathan?... how... how did I..."
The healer looked up, saw him staring at his arm and finished his question for him. "How did ya break your arm?" Seeing him nod, he continued. "Ya don't remember what happened to ya?"
Ezra's eyes filled with tears of frustration as he tried to sort out the images that were flashing through his mind. "I d-don't kn-" Suddenly one memory became clearer and he raised hopeful eyes to the healer's face. "I... fell? Um... in... in the s-saloon?"
Vin squatted down beside Ezra and reached out to hold his hand as it clutched nervously at the blankets. Ezra smiled gratefully at the tracker and wrapped his smooth fingers tightly around Vin's callused ones before turning back to Nathan.
Nathan replaced the splints on the gambler's arm and then focused his gaze on Ezra's face... almost dreading his reaction to his next question. "Do ya remember *when* ya fell, Ezra?"
Ezra frowned at him as he tried to pull the details of the accident out of his tangled memories. He remembered JD and Buck were there... kidding him about being late for patrol. That meant it had to have been early. "This mornin'? Was it... it was this mornin'... right?"
Nathan glanced at the others and then back at the Southerner, shaking his head sadly. "No, Ezra... not *this* mornin'..." he gently resumed wiping the sweat off the younger man's face as he broke the news to him. "It was a week ago, Ezra... this is Wednesday night... ya fell last Thursday mornin'."
They felt him start to shake and quickly tightened their hold on him. "Easy now, pard... you're gonna be okay... just hang on." Vin's heart broke when he saw the complete sense of bewilderment that began to wash over his friend.
Ezra stared up at them in disbelief, his wide green eyes flicking wildly from one to the other as he struggled to understand what they were saying. "No... no, I... couldn't have been- " His trembling increased and his voice shook as he fought against the rising panic he felt in his chest. "No, Nathan... it was this mornin'... I remember it... I... I know it... was..."
Buck had been watching intently as they questioned Ezra and now, at the panicked sound of his friend's voice, fought against JD and Josiah in an effort to get to him. Maybe it wasn't his Little One that was lying there anymore, but that didn't lessen the way Buck felt about him one bit.
They finally realized Buck wasn't about to listen to them and helped him up off the bed and across the room to Ezra.
Sinking weakly down onto the chair Vin pushed under him, Buck reached out and wrapped his hand around the Southerner's. "Ezra? It's gonna be okay, pard... I promise."
Ezra's eyes latched onto Buck's and he seemed to draw some measure of strength from the ladies man. His breathing slowed and his trembling seemed to ease somewhat. "Is it true, Buck? Was it really... has it really been... a week?"
Buck nodded slowly. "Yeah, Ezra... Nathan's tellin' ya the truth. You fell a week ago." He saw a shudder ripple through the smaller man and knew he was struggling to gain some kind of control over the fear and confusion that were threatening to overwhelm him.
Ezra turned his green eyes on Nathan, searching for answers to the questions he was almost afraid to ask. "Was I... was I unconscious... the whole time?"
Nathan hesitated... trying to find an explanation that would satisfy the gambler. "You were awake... ya jus' didn't know who ya were."
Ezra shook his head in denial, but looking at each of his friends, saw the truth of what Nathan was telling him in their faces. "Am-amnesia?"
The healer nodded and turning to the men surrounding the cot, asked one of them to fetch a cup of tea for Ezra. He could see how exhausted the Southerner was becoming and knew he needed to rest. Nathan wanted to try and end the questions for now and gently smoothed the sweat-soaked hair off Ezra's forehead as he spoke softly to him. "Yeah, but it's over now an' you're back here with us. Now how 'bout we let it go for tonight so's ya can get some sleep?"
Ezra looked at Buck and then back at Nathan and nodded weakly... he was more than ready to try and put an end to the painful memories that were crowding his mind. "I'm tired, Nathan."
"I'll bet ya are, Ezra... sit up here an' drink this tea down for me an' let me wrap your arm back up, then we'll let ya get some rest." Nathan waited while Chris and Vin helped Ezra sit up and was just moving in with the mug when Ezra weakly shrugged out of their grip.
"I'm perfectly capable of sitting up on my own... stop treating me like a child." Ezra was so exhausted that he never even noticed the reaction his statement had on the others. Every single one of them froze in place and exchanged a look of sadness and loss as the fact that their Little One was truly gone was brutally driven home by Ezra's softly uttered words.
"Sorry, Ezra... jus' tryin' t' help." Vin and Chris moved off the cot, but stayed near just in case the gambler needed them.
Ezra struggled to stay upright as he regretfully looked at Vin. "I am sorry, Mr. Tanner... I'm just-"
Vin smiled at the Southerner as he laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "That's okay, Ezra... we know how ya hate bein' fussed over."
Ezra stared at Vin, confusion once again filling his eyes as some strange new emotions tugged at his heart. He looked down at the cot, his slender fingers plucking nervously at the covers, and whispered, "Perhaps a little fussin' wouldn't hurt."
Nathan offered Ezra the mug of tea and was pleasantly surprised when the gambler asked for his help with it. Maybe he *had* retained some of that new closeness he'd been shown after all.
The healer held the mug while Ezra slowly sipped the herbal brew and then gently secured his arm to his chest again. Nathan was a little worried when Ezra accepted the restraints being placed on him without comment, but decided it was just another sign of how exhausted he was.
Ezra was barely able to hold his eyes open when they finally got him laid back on the cot and covered up, and it was only a matter of minutes before he was fast asleep. They watched him for a few minutes to make sure he wasn't going to stir again, and then Nathan forced a grumbling Buck back into bed.
Now that Ezra was asleep and unable to hear them, the others gathered around Buck and began quietly questioning him about the incident in the alley.
"Who shot you? Delacourte?" Chris eased down on the bed beside Buck, careful not to jostle the injured gunman.
Buck nodded, a look of fury contorting his usually smiling face as he dropped the bomb he'd been holding back until Ezra wasn't listening. "Delacourte is Ezra's uncle Matthew."
Five mouths fell open at the same time as Buck's angry announcement struck them. "What?! His..." Chris groaned as it finally hit him. "MJ... Matthew..."
Buck nodded. "Yup... you got it. Matthew James Delacourte... Maude's baby brother."
"Damn it! We had that son of a bitch here within our reach and let him get away." Chris was seething at the chance they'd missed to administer a little vengeance for Ezra. "We'll get on their trail at first light. Vin-"
Nathan shook his head and glanced over at the cot where Ezra lay sleeping. "I think ya'd be best to jus' let 'em go."
JD stared at the healer in amazement. "Are you crazy, Nathan? We can't let them get away with this!"
The others seemed to share JD's opinion until Nathan patiently explained his reasoning. "Ya heard Ezra... he don't remember nothin' 'bout what happened in that alley. Ya go draggin' Maude an' her brother back here an' there'll be a trial... we'd never be able to shelter Ezra from all that. He's not strong enough t' go through that much fuss... an' I ain't sure he'd even survive findin' out how bad his mother really is or that that miserable bastard uncle of his is back in his life."
Vin stared at Nathan for a moment, thinking. "Nathan's right... an' Ezra's liable t' not believe what we're tellin' 'im 'bout his mother. You've seen how he is... still tryin' to get that love an' acceptance outta her. She'd prob'ly come up with some damn way of blamin' the whole thing on her brother, an' Ezra would end up hatin' us for talkin' against her."
Chris's anger and frustration increased as he was forced to agree with Vin and Nathan. "So we have to just let them get away with shootin' Buck and trying to kidnap Ezra."
Buck laid a hand on Chris's arm and shook his head. "We got no choice, pard... Ezra's gotta come first here. Nathan an' Vin are right... if we tried to force Ezra to choose between us an' his ma, it would probably tear 'im apart."
Josiah nodded in agreement. "That would definitely destroy any feelings of family he might retain from his time with us as Lit'l Ezra. We can't let that happen, Chris."
Chris raked a hand through his hair in exasperation and stared over at Ezra. They were right... he knew it... he just didn't want to except it. He wanted revenge for all the agony they'd put Ezra through as a child. "Fine. We drop it for now... for Ezra... but you can bet your ass I'll be watching for a chance to get at that son of a bitch again."
"We all will be, Chris... ya can count on it." Buck promised, wincing as he shifted about in the bed, trying to get comfortable.
Nathan saw him and immediately went to fetch a cup of tea. "Okay, that's enough for tonight... my patient here needs t' get some rest."
Buck tried to protest that he was fine, but lost the battle when he couldn't hold back a huge yawn. "Guess you're right, Nathan... but do I gotta drink that damn tea?"
"Hell, Buck... you're whinin' worse than the Little One ever did..." Vin regretted the words the minute they were out of his mouth. Buck had been doing pretty well up til then, but now his expression grew somber and he stared longingly over at Ezra. "Sorry, pard... shoulda thought 'fore I said that."
Buck shook his head. "Not your fault, Vin. It's just somethin' I'm gonna have to get used to." He took the tea from Nathan without any further protest and drank it down before curling up on his side and closing his eyes. Like Ezra, he was asleep soon after finishing the healing brew.
Chris stood beside Ezra's cot, staring down at him and wondering why he had never noticed before how very young he looked when he was sleeping. "They gonna be alright, Nathan?"
Nathan glanced at both of his patients and nodded slowly. "Yeah, I reckon so. Buck jus' needs a couple days rest to build hisself back up, an' Ezra's only got a few more bumps an' bruises. Emotionally, it might take a while longer."
"What about Ezra's memory, Nathan? How much are we gonna tell 'im?" Chris reached down and tucked the blankets a little tighter around Ezra's shoulders as he waited for the healer's answer.
Nathan shrugged. "I ain't rightly sure how t' handle that part of it. I guess we jus' tell 'im only what he asks directly about an' leave the rest to come back t' 'im on its own... or not at all. Ya saw how confused an' upset he got when we tol' 'im how long he'd been out of it. He ain't ready for too much information right yet... he might never be ready for it. We'll jus' have t' let *him* tell *us* how much he wants t' know." He stared at each one of them as he spoke. "If he asks ya a question, keep your answer short... tell 'im jus' enough to satisfy 'im."
Everyone expressed their agreement with Nathan's instructions, and then after receiving his assurances that he'd be fine there alone with the two injured men, headed back over to the saloon to make sure the brawl hadn't resumed after they'd left.
Ezra stirred on the cot and slowly opened his eyes. After blinking several times, he was able to bring Nathan into focus. The healer was slumped beside the bed in a rocking chair, snoring softly. Ezra stared quizzically at the chair... <Nathan never had a rocker in here before.> Feeling a strange tightening in his chest at the sight of the chair, he turned his gaze away and looked over at Buck sleeping in the bed.
Instead of easing the unfamiliar emotion he was experiencing, it only intensified it. Glancing back at Nathan and seeing that he was still sound asleep, Ezra eased himself off of the cot and slowly moved toward the bed. In the dim glow of the lamp on the nightstand, the gambler could see how pale and drawn Buck looked, and he knew the gunshot had taken more out of him then he'd let on earlier.
Ezra tried once more to recall the shooting incident, but it was just a dark shadow in his mind and trying to bring it into focus only increased his confusion. Staring at Buck lying in the bed, Ezra began to feel an incredible, uncontrollable urge to climb in beside him... somehow sensing that he would feel safe if he did so.
<What's wrong with me? Why do I feel such a need to be near Buck all of a sudden?> Ezra's heart pounded as he tried to understand what was happening... as he tried to convince himself to return to the cot where he belonged. But some longing deep inside of him kept him beside the bed... a reluctance to lose the soothing feeling that swept over him as he stared at the ladies man.
Buck moaned softly and reached up to rub a rough hand across his face. His eyes fluttered open and he jumped slightly as he noticed someone was standing beside the bed, staring at him. Buck stared blearily up at the figure and realized it was Ezra.
"You okay, Ezra?" Buck saw the tears glistening in the emerald gaze and knew the gambler was having some kind of flashback. He saw the younger man shiver and shifting over in the bed slightly, pulled back the covers. "Why don't ya lay down here with me for a little bit, ya look awful cold standin' there."
Ezra hesitantly shook his head while taking a small step back from the bed. "No... I... I can't... I just... I just wanted to... to make sure you're alright." He swayed slightly as a wave of dizziness washed over him... he really did feel awful. The fever from the cold was burning hotly and his whole body ached. Ezra still had no idea why, but he wanted nothing more than to climb in beside Buck and be comforted by his closeness.
Buck had a feeling he knew what Ezra needed, but could see that the younger man was totally confused by the emotions and urges that had drawn him over to the bed. "Come on, pard... there's plenty of room here for both of us. I know how hard that cot is, an' ya don't look like ya feel too good... lay down here an' get warm for a little bit... it ain't gonna hurt nothin'."
Ezra glanced back at the cot and Nathan and then back at Buck... he moved a little closer to the bed and finally allowed Buck to reach up, gently take his hand and pull him down beside him.
Ezra lay down on his side, facing Buck... his eyes never leaving the older man's. Buck slowly tucked the blankets up over Ezra's shoulder and then withdrew to his side of the bed. "Close your eyes, pard... ya need to get some sleep. Nothin's gonna hurt ya while you're here with me."
Buck watched as Ezra gradually relaxed... his eyes growing heavy with sleep as he felt an unexplainable peace fill him. The gunman chuckled softly when he saw Ezra's thumb slowly slip into his mouth as his eyes closed for the final time. Once Buck was sure the Southerner was actually asleep, he allowed himself to drift off.
Dawn was just beginning to lighten the clinic when Buck woke back up. He was relieved to find Ezra still sleeping since sometime during the night, the smaller man had maneuvered himself across the bed and was now curled up in Buck's arms.
The ladies man eased himself out from under Ezra and slowly stood up. Reaching down, he pulled the blankets back over him and gently eased his thumb out of his mouth. Buck knew how confused and embarrassed Ezra would be if he woke up snuggled in bed with him, sucking his thumb, and he wanted to spare him that.
After allowing himself one last loving touch to Ezra's forehead... carefully smoothing the sweat-dampened curls back... Buck made his way slowly out of the clinic.
Chris pushed through the bat wing doors of the saloon, sipping gingerly at the mug of hot coffee he carried. As he drank, his gaze wandered across the street to the clinic, and he was startled to once more see Buck seated out on the landing... elbows on knees, head disconsolately cradled in his hands and bare shoulders again shaking uncontrollably.
Experiencing a nasty sense of deja vu, Chris turned back into the saloon, retrieved another mug of coffee, and headed over to see what had happened now. He had a bad feeling he knew what it was this time... he'd been expecting it. Buck was coming to terms with his Little One being gone... and it was obviously tearing him apart.
Chris walked quietly up beside Buck and handed him the steaming mug of coffee. Setting his own cup down on the bench beside the ladies man, he entered the clinic and reappeared carrying a blanket and Buck's sling. "Better put this on or Nathan's gonna have your head when he wakes up." Chris held his coffee for him while he slipped his arm into the hated contraption and then handed the mug back to him before throwing the blanket over his shoulders.
"Wanna talk about it?" Chris asked, glancing worriedly at his best friend.
Buck shook his head as he wiped his eyes on a corner of the blanket. "Don't think I can... hurts too damn much."
Chris could see just how close to the edge Buck was, and he knew he had to do something to try and pull him back. Sure, he needed to grieve for their Little One... but he didn't have to do it alone. Not when he had his friends there ready to help him and grieve with him.
With a deep sigh, Chris set his coffee down on the floor and moved over to wrap a comforting arm around Buck's shoulders. "I know how hard this is on you, Buck... it's been hard on all of us... but would you give up even one minute of the time we had with Lit'l Ezra just to avoid the pain of him leaving?"
Buck's head shot up and the anguish he was feeling shone brightly in his dark blue eyes. "God no... not a second of it!"
Chris gently rubbed the back of Buck's neck as he tried to give him something positive to hold onto. "Think of it as a gift, Buck... a precious gift that's left us all with a stronger feeling of brotherhood and family. One that's finally allowed us to draw Ezra into the fold. You've seen the difference in him... he's actually allowing us to take care of him a little now... even asking for help when he needs it. He might not be ready to talk about any of these feelings he's obviously having, but you can see it on his face... they're there... tucked away in his heart just waiting for him to discover and accept them."
Buck's eyes filled with tears as he listened to Chris. He knew his friend was right... Ezra's tragic accident had definitely turned into a blessing of sorts... for all of them. The change in the gambler wasn't dramatic... not a complete turn around in attitude... but it was definitely a step in the right direction. Thanks to their Little One, they had been able to take a sizeable chunk out of the wall he kept solidly around his heart. Now it was just a matter of dismantling it brick by brick until he was able to open himself up to their offers of friendship and family completely... with no reservations at all.
And in return, Lit'l Ezra, with his own need to love and be loved, had helped forge them into a tight-knit, caring family... giving them all a new sense of belonging that would stay with them forever. How could they possibly regret any of that?
"I understand all that, Chris... and I agree with ya... we were damn lucky to have our Little One with us for as long as we did. But I swear to God, Chris... it-" Buck's voice shook with emotion and tears began streaming down his cheeks. "It feels like one of us died. I knew it... would be hard when... he left, but... Christ... I never imagined it would hurt... this bad."
Chris blinked rapidly, trying to hold back his own flood of tears as he heard the raw pain behind his friend's words. His arms slipped around the younger man, and he pulled him into a tight hug when he saw him reach out a trembling hand... a silent plea for help from his older brother.
"Oh God... Chris... I miss 'im so... damn... much." Buck's voice was choked by the sobs that tore through him... his grief a throbbing pain in his chest as his heart slowly broke in two.
Chris held Buck while he wept, his own tears escaping and sliding unnoticed down his face. Through a watery haze, the gunslinger could see people passing on the street as the town slowly came to life. Some shot the two men clinging together curious glances, but Chris didn't care... they're family had suffered a loss and they needed to grieve. Just as Buck had said... it felt exactly like one of them had died... and in a sense, one had.
Buck was officially confined to the clinic for the next three days while his wound healed, but after his *incarceration* was up, he remained to help take care of Ezra. If the gambler thought it odd that Buck never left, he kept it to himself. The ladies man hoped it was because he still felt the brotherly connection the two of them had made while he was Lit'l Ezra.
Ezra surprisingly asked very few questions about what had happened. Nathan surmised that what few flashbacks he was having were leaving him too frightened and confused to want to know the whole truth, so he was choosing to pretend it hadn't happened instead. He did ask how Buck had gotten shot and seemed to accept their story of a bank robbery gone bad. The gambler had no memory whatsoever of the events that occurred in the alley... not even of his uncle Matthew or his mother. At least none that he was willing to talk about.
The others were in and out constantly, checking on his condition... which was a bit rough for a few days while the cold worked its way through his system... and passing out as much comforting as Ezra would allow
While he slept off his illness, they discussed the various gifts they'd given him and removed the ones they knew would cause him confusion. Adam's book of fairy tales was returned to the shelf in Chris's closet. JD's gift of the fishing pole was decided unfit for the nature-hating gambler and was also removed. Both were replaced with the original presents the two men had intended to give Ezra... a book of poetry from Chris and a fine linen shirt that JD had seen the Southerner admiring in Eagle Bend. The other gifts were deemed acceptable and maybe even beneficial in helping him to remember some of the emotions he was able to feel when they were first presented to him.
The only gift they weren't sure of was Buck's pocket watch. The timepiece itself was fine... it was the inscription they were having trouble with. Ezra's questions about his period of amnesia had been pretty basic and relatively easy to answer up to that point and they didn't want to do anything to change that. So far he had no inkling that he had assumed the personality of a five year old, and they were afraid the sentiment engraved on the watch might jog his memory enough to bring that rather frightening fact back to him. But at Buck's and Josiah's urging, they finally decided to leave the watch there in hopes that it would help the ladies man honor his promise to Ezra... to make sure he remembered how much they had come to mean to each other.
It was on Buck's final required night under Nathan's care when Ezra finally got the courage to broach the subject of the new relationship the two of them seemed to have. Earlier in the day, Nathan had seen Ezra staring down at the words etched on the watch and then looking contemplatively at Buck, and had decided the gambler needed an opportunity to speak to the older man alone. So while Ezra napped that afternoon, Nathan told the others what he suspected and they agreed to clear out for the evening so Buck could try and get the reticent gambler to talk to him.
Buck fixed himself a mug of coffee and Ezra some of Nathan's tea dosed liberally with honey, while discreetly keeping a watchful eye on the younger man. Buck had insisted after the first night that they let him swap places with Ezra. He argued that the Southerner was much sicker and needed the comfort of the bed more than he did. Now he lay propped up on a pile of pillows, stealing nervous glances at Buck.
Buck carried the tea over and carefully handed it to Ezra, keeping a light hold on it til he was certain the gambler was going to be able to manage it. "Ya got it?" When he nodded, Buck settled himself on a chair beside the bed and sat quietly drinking his coffee. He wasn't going to push Ezra... he knew when he was ready to talk he would.
After a few moments of strained silence, Ezra cleared his throat nervously and looked at Buck. "Mr. Wilmington... um... Buck... I've been... curious about something."
Buck raised his eyebrows at the gambler questioningly as he sipped at his coffee and waited for him to continue.
Ezra glanced over at the watch lying on the night table and then at the ladies man, his eyes reflecting the confusion he was feeling over the gift. "I was... wondering about the inscription on the gift you gave me... it... I don't-"
Buck smiled, trying to appear calm while he frantically tried to remember the explanation they'd decided on... one that they hoped would satisfy the gambler and not scare him. "My ma scratched that on there 'fore she gave it to me... she... um..." The older man faltered and began to doubt his decision to let Ezra keep the watch.
Ezra set his tea down and picked up the watch, running his fingers lightly across the inscription before smiling softly up at Buck. "Your mother called you her Little One?"
Buck's nervousness worked in his favor now, giving Ezra the impression that he was embarrassed about the pet name. "Well... only when we were alone."
The Southerner nodded and looked back down at the watch. "Why did... um... why did you give it to *me*?"
Buck's features softened as he stared at Ezra and realized that none of the feelings he'd had for him as his Little One had faded. All the same urges to protect and care for him were still there... along with the closeness they'd felt. And he was pretty sure Ezra could still feel it, too... he just didn't know what it was yet. He shrugged as the younger man looked back up at him. "Yours got broke when ya fell... I just figured ya could use a new one."
Ezra's brow furrowed as he tried to understand. "But it must have an immense amount of sentimental value for you... why didn't you... couldn't you have just gotten one from the General store to give me? I'm not sure I should allow you to..." He hesitated, staring down at the words again, his eyes watering as he felt an unexplainable tug at his heart.
Buck leaned forward and rested a gentle hand on the gambler's arm. "I wanted you to have it, Ezra... it's a gift... can't ya just accept it?"
Ezra nodded, but kept his eyes on the watch, not daring to look up for fear that the tears he was battling against would finally fall. "I'm sorry, Mr. Wilmington... I didn't mean to sound ungrateful. Of course I'll accept it... thank you very much for entrusting it to me. I'm quite... moved... by your generosity."
Buck chuckled and patted the younger man's arm before sitting back in his chair. "Now see, Ezra... that wasn't so hard, was it?"
Ezra was finally able to blink away the tears and looked up at his friend, a wistful smile on his face. "No... no it wasn't. Not nearly as painful as I thought it would be." His expression turned serious again as he stared at Buck. "Could I ask you something, Buck? And would you please be honest with me?"
Buck's heart skipped a beat when he looked into Ezra's brilliant green eyes. Traces of the tears he'd fought against still glittered on his lashes, and the older man could clearly see the confusion that had caused them. "Sure, pard... you can ask me anything... you know that." He watched the Southerner swallow convulsively, his eyes dropping to the bed, his fingers once more plucking nervously at the covers... and wanted nothing more than to be able to draw him into a comforting hug and assure him everything would be alright. But this was the adult Ezra, not his Little One, and he knew he would be instantly rebuffed if he tried it.
"Did something... happen... while I was suffering from the amnesia? I mean... um... between you and I?" Ezra's voice shook as he spoke. He was almost afraid to hear Buck's answer.
Buck couldn't resist his impulse any longer... he reached out and placed his larger callused hand over Ezra's, stilling the nervous movements of his slender fingers. "What makes you ask that, pard... something you're rememberin'?"
Ezra heaved a ragged sigh and shook his head, but he didn't try to pull his hand away from Buck's. The older man was pleasantly surprised that he allowed the comforting touch to continue. "Never mind... I'm just a little tired. This cold's just left me feeling a bit out of sorts."
"Ezra..." Buck tugged on the smaller man's hand when he wouldn't look at him. "Come on, pard... it's just you an' me here. You know ya can talk to ol' Buck... we're friends... remember?" He smiled when Ezra finally looked up at him. "You answer one question for me, and then I'll answer yours... okay?"
Ezra hesitated and then finally nodded, his eyes showing the apprehension he felt as he waited for the older man's question.
"Do ya feel like ya need to be close to me? Maybe safer if I'm here with ya?" Buck saw the relief wash over Ezra's features as he heard the ladies man express his feelings exactly.
Nodding slowly, Ezra tried to speak around the lump that had formed in his throat. "But why do I... why am I..." He shook his head angrily and looked away as he felt the tears he hated so much threatening again. <What the hell is wrong with me? Why can't I get a handle on my damn emotions?>
Buck squeezed Ezra's hand gently. "Take it easy, Ezra... you've been through a helluva lot in the last week an' ya can't expect to get over it in just a couple a days. The accident, not knowin' who the hell ya were, bein' sick with this rotten cold... it's all just kinda takin' it out of ya an' it's gonna take a little time for ya to feel a hundred percent again."
"I realize that, Buck... it's these strange... feelin's... that I don't know how to deal with." Ezra stared at the ladies man as he tried to find the right words to express exactly what it was that he was feeling. "Of course, we were friends before my... accident. I may never have spoken of it... it's just not my way... but I do consider you to be a very... close... friend. But now... it's... changed, different somehow... it's more than just..." Ezra groaned and leaned wearily back against the pillows. "I can't explain it, Buck... I just can't find the right words."
"Whew... that's gotta be a first..." Buck stopped and gave Ezra a lop-sided grin of apology when he saw the gambler glare at him. "I'm sorry... I know it's nothin' to joke about." Buck sighed and looked down at the floor, trying to figure out how to explain so that Ezra would understand what had happened between them and yet not be frightened by it. He decided on just the shortest version of the truth, with no mention of his little visit to his childhood. "It's nothin' complicated, Ezra... I just happened to be the first one ya laid eyes on when ya woke up. An' since ya didn't remember who ya were, an' were kinda lost feelin', ya latched onto me. For some reason, I made ya feel safe."
Ezra stared up at Buck hopefully, his face losing some of the fear and confusion that had been threatening to overwhelm him. "Maybe somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered that we had been friends."
Buck nodded, relieved that Ezra seemed to be accepting his explanation, and that it seemed to be easing his mind some. "That's probably it, pard... an' because I made ya feel safe, I stayed with ya the whole time ya were... um... sick." Buck squeezed Ezra's hand and returned the conversation to the feelings that the gambler had been trying to express earlier. "These feelin's you're havin'... ya said it was changed... that it was more than just-" Buck stared into Ezra's eyes as he pushed him a little. "More than just what, Ezra? More than just friends? Maybe more like... brothers?"
Ezra couldn't quite hold the tears back this time and a few slowly trickled down his cheeks as he nodded. Buck had hit on what he was feeling exactly... brothers. He didn't just think of Buck as a friend anymore... he was a brother... something Ezra had always longed for.
"Is that so bad, pard? I don't know 'bout you, but I've kinda gotten to like the idea of havin' brothers." Buck smiled at the Southerner and continued. "Ya know, we've thought of you as a brother for a while now... we was just waitin' for you to latch onto the idea."
Ezra returned the smile, and pulling his hand slowly out of Buck's warm grasp, wiped away the tears that still clung to his dark lashes. "No, it's not so bad... just may take me some time to get used to the idea of belongin' to a family. It's not exactly a concept I've had much experience with."
Buck's smile slipped slightly as he thought about all they'd learned about Ezra's so-called family. "That's okay, Ezra... ya take all the time ya need. An' you just remember... anytime ya need to talk 'bout what you're feelin'... I'm right here."
"I'll remember, Buck... thank you." Ezra saw a flash of pain in the older man's eyes and wondered what had caused it.
Buck could only nod as he was struck with the realization that he'd just taken the first step toward keeping his promise to his Little One. At the thought of Lit'l Ezra, he felt a sudden warm feeling in his chest and knew he never would be truly gone. All he had to do was think of the time they'd spent together and the little guy would be right there with him... filling a special place in his heart.
Noticing Ezra's slowly drooping eyelids and seeing him unsuccessfully stifle a yawn, Buck stood and eased a few of the pillows from behind the gambler's head. "Looks like it's time ya got some sleep, pard."
Ezra mumbled a weak protest, but it was only a matter of moments before his eyes closed and he slipped into a deep, healing sleep.
Buck pulled the blankets up around Ezra's shoulders and then leaned back in his chair to watch over his newest brother. Buck glanced down at the bed and saw the watch still clutched in the Southerner's hand. He gently removed it from the loosely curled fingers and sat staring down at the inscription... allowing his thoughts to drift back over all the special moments of their Little One's visit. The others returned to find Ezra and Buck both sleeping soundly with identical smiles on their faces, and knew the talk must have gone well.
Smiling at each other, they turned the lamp down so that only a soft glow illuminated the two sleeping brothers and quietly left the clinic.
Chris glanced back at the two men just before closing the door, and felt a huge weight lift off his shoulders at the realization that both his friends were on the road to recovery. It would be slow going and there would probably be setbacks, but they would all be there to get Buck and Ezra through it. After all, that's what family was for.
A week later, Nathan finally pronounced Ezra healthy enough to leave the clinic as long as he took it easy. After carrying his pile of freshly washed nightshirts and Christmas gifts up to his room, he returned to the saloon. Pausing at the end of the hall, he felt a slight twinge of fear as he looked at the place where he'd taken his fall. Ezra gave himself a mental push and continued slowly down the stairs to join his friends.
They indulged in a celebratory steak dinner with the other six men picking up the tab for Ezra's meal, and then spent the rest of the evening playing cards and just enjoying one another's company. Ezra's arm was out of the sling, but the splints were still in place and would be for some time... so as much as he hated to, the gambler was forced to leave the shuffling to the others. Ezra was amazed at the number of people who stopped to tell him they were glad to see him up and about... he'd had no idea anyone would have even missed him.
Several times during the evening, the others saw a puzzled look appear in Ezra's eyes and knew something had probably set off a flashback for him. They followed his lead, and when he didn't speak of the little bits of memory he was experiencing, neither did they.
It was just barely past nine when Nathan, after catching Ezra smothering a yawn, informed the gambler it was time for bed. He tried arguing, but the healer was adamant... his bed or back to the clinic... take his pick. Reluctantly bidding everyone good evening, Ezra slowly climbed back up the stairs.
Ezra entered his room, quietly closed the door and locked it, and wearily sank onto the bed. He'd argued with Nathan out of habit knowing the healer was right, but not wanting to acknowledge his weakness. Now that he was alone, he could admit it... he was exhausted... drained emotionally and physically.
It was with great effort that he pushed himself off the bed and walked slowly over to the dresser to change out of his clothes. After stripping down, he took a nightshirt off the top of the pile and slipped it over his head. Reaching to transfer the stack of gowns into a drawer, he stopped and frowned. <How the hell did I soil so many nightshirts in one week?> He realized he was just too tired to even think about that one. Placing them in the drawer and shutting it, he turned his attention to the small pile of gifts.
Ezra ran his fingers over the smooth, glossy wood of the chess set and smiled. He, Nathan and Josiah had enjoyed many a game while he was confined to the clinic... Nathan invariably beat him at checkers, but the chess matches with Josiah were split fairly evenly.
Thinking of Josiah, he reached up and pulled the preacher's gift out from under his nightshirt and stared down at it. The small figure of a bird was beautifully carved and Ezra knew how much it meant for Josiah to have given it to him. He'd been touched beyond belief when the big man had explained the meaning behind it, and informed him that he wanted a part of himself always with Ezra to watch over him. He'd even allowed Josiah to pull him into one of his special bear hugs and had felt a twinge of memory at the feel of the older man's arms wrapped around him... but before he could latch onto it, it was gone.
He dropped the carving back down the neck of his nightshirt and felt it settle comfortingly against his chest. Next he picked up the harmonica... blew a few notes and smiled at the memory of he and Vin seated on the bed together, playing... wait... when had that happened? Ezra's heart beat a little faster as he tried to figure out where that image was coming from. He could see it in his mind, but realized it couldn't possibly have happened the way he was picturing it... he wouldn't have been kneeling in the bed. Ezra shook his head weakly and quickly placed the harmonica back on the dresser... pushing the memory away as he felt a dull throbbing begin at the base of his skull.
Great, just what he needed on his first night back in his room... a headache. Nathan had warned him they might continue for a few weeks, and apparently he was right. He'd given him some powders to take if one started, but Ezra decided to wait a little bit to see if it would ease up on its own.
Looking back down at the dresser, his eyes came to rest on the watch... Buck's watch... now his. Ezra picked it up and carried it over to the bed with him, placing it carefully on the night table before pulling back the covers and climbing between the sheets. He sighed as his head sank onto the soft feather pillow and after reaching up to turn down the lamp, pulled the covers snugly up around his neck and tried to go to sleep.
But after an hour of tossing and turning, Ezra was still wide awake. He sat up in the middle of the bed, cradled his aching head in his hands and cursed himself for being too stubborn to take the powders when the headache had first started as Nathan had suggested. Now it was a continuous throbbing pain that had settled directly behind his eyes.
Ezra reluctantly left his warm bed and made his way over to the dresser. Knowing that even the soft glow of the lamp would hurt his eyes, the gambler instead fumbled in the semi-darkness as he mixed the powders into a glass of water... the only illumination being the pale rays of moonlight coming through the window.
Drinking the mixture quickly and shuddering at the foul taste, Ezra hurried across the cold floor to return to the comfort of his bed. He snuggled back down under the covers and attempted to find the sleep that seemed to allude him. After another hour he again sat up, heaving a huge sigh of frustration at his inability to fall asleep. His headache had eased, but he still couldn't relax... his mind was too full of vague, shapeless images... hazy scenes that he just couldn't quite bring into focus.
Leaving his bed again, Ezra pulled the quilt off the top of the bed and wrapped it around his shoulders. He retrieved his watch from the table and moved over near the window to check the time. Three a.m. Lovely. If this kept up, Nathan would surely notice the lack of sleep on his face and force him back to the clinic.
Ezra looked back at the bed and decided it wouldn't do any good to try again. So instead, he pulled the rocking chair over near the window and after wrapping the quilt tighter about himself, sat down and began to slowly rock.
As soon as Ezra started the smooth rocking motion, he felt the tension begin to flow out of his body. His heart beat slowed, his mind ceased to race from one fragmented memory to another, and he felt an incredible sense of peace descend over him.
Ezra had no idea why the rocking chair was having this effect on him... it never had before... but at this point, he was just too exhausted to examine the why's and how's... he just wanted to rest. His tired eyes drifted down to stare at the watch in his hand, the burnished gold glinting in the moonlight. Flipping the lid open, he gently ran his thumb over the words inscribed in the cover. "For My Little One"... "You'll Always Be In My Heart."
Ezra felt inexplicably comforted by the loving words as he repeated them softly to himself... their message soothing his heart as the gentle, rocking motion of the chair for some reason, seemed to soothe his soul.
The rocker drifted to a stop as Ezra's head slowly dropped over onto his shoulder. Sleep had finally found him. As the moon made its way across the night sky, the gentle beams of light fell across the gambler's face, bathing the youthful features in a soft golden glow. For a brief moment, it seemed as though the family's Little One had returned... and then the moon shifted once more and he was gone. Only the peacefully slumbering gambler remained, a soft smile tugging gently at his lips as he dreamt of hugs and kisses, and a little boy's softly whispered... 'I wuv you.'
|On to: The Fishing Trip|
Sadly Jean is no longer with us, but we're sure her daughter, Jenn, would love to hear from you if you enjoyed this story.
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