Part of the Child's Play series
The stagecoach appeared on the edge of town, the horse going full gallop before the driver pulled up sharply and brought the stage to a shaky stop in front of the stage coach office. Several people clambered down. Two were met with hugs from some people from town; their bags were collected and they wandered off. One man waited impatiently for his luggage and then headed towards the saloon, a jaunty swing in his step.
The last to leave was a young boy of about eleven, twelve years old. He was cleanly turned out, although rather pale and slightly skinny. He had a very handsome, youthful face under a mop of dark hair that had been forced into a neat style, though one could see rebellion in the locks. Yet it was his striking green eyes that surveyed the town with a slow measuring look, which caught and held a person's attention. He raised a hand and wiped at some dust that had accumulated on his coat. He then set his hat more firmly on his head. It was an expensive hat that he had won during one of his last poker games and he had grown quite attached to it.
"Here lad," the stagecoach driver called out, holding aloft a large carpetbag. The youth smiled politely, thanked the man with a gentle Southern accent, and carefully took the bag. It was nearly as large as he was, but he clutched it determinedly to his chest and wandered away from the coach stop. He moved just in time, as the people who had been waiting to board the coach crowded about it to get their seats.
As he walked he looked about the town, taking everything in; he noted with a hint of disappointment that it was small, dirty and looked sadly pathetic in an unpainted, unkempt way. The windows of the shop fronts were dirty and nearly all the buildings were made of wood. For someone who had spent a long summer in San Francisco with relations, it looked drab and dreary, but Ezra Standish knew that this was now his new home until his mother once again decided to come fetch him.
With that thought in mind he put down his carpetbag and reached into his pocket to pull out the crumpled letter that his mother had given him as she saw him off on the train in San Francisco. He brushed the letter and peered at the name on the envelope. Sarah Larabee. He had no idea who the woman was nor how old she was. He only knew that his mother had befriended the young woman and her parents several years before, and the last thing his mother had heard, she had married a rancher and had a young son. That was enough of an association for Maude Standish to pack up her son and send him to pay a visit to this woman and her family.
He headed towards the mercantile. His mother had caught the name Chris Larabee while reading a paper that spoke of the six men that protected the small town of Four Corners. After a little bit of digging, Maude had discovered that this was indeed the husband of Sarah Larabee, that they were now staying in Four Corners, and that they had a ranch just outside of town. With this scant information she had packed him up, and purchased him a ticket.
Ezra sighed. It was, after all, his own fault that he was here. If he had just kept his mouth shut, and not objected so strongly to the rough treatment of the gentleman his mother had taken up with, he might still be with her. He pushed aside the well of tears that suddenly threatened and took a shaky, deep breath. He was a Standish, and he had a God-given talent, and as long as he could breath he would solve his own problems.
The store was cool and dark and he paused to enjoy the respite from the dry heat.
"Can I help you?" the middle aged woman behind the counter asked, moving forward so that she could clearly see the young lad. She gave him a pleasant smile.
"Ma'am." Ezra smiled broadly and continued with more confidence then he actually felt. "I would be grateful if you could tell me where I could find Mr Larabee. Mr Chris Larabee and his wife, Sarah?"
"And what would you be wanting with Mr Larabee?" the woman asked, a frown marring her motherly features as the smile fell from her lips. Her eyes hardened and her tone grew sharp.
Ezra kept the smile firmly fixed and offered politely, "I have a letter for him." So saying, he held up the letter in question. He made sure to keep it far enough away from the woman so that she could not reach it.
The woman sniffed and offered begrudgingly, "you'll more than likely find Mr Larabee in the saloon at this time of day, but," she added as a warning, her eyes softening as she looked at the young child before her, "he doesn't take too kindly to being disturbed."
The boy resisted the urge to sigh. If the man was in the saloon at this time of day and didn't want to be disturbed, then he should fit right in, as most of his mother's male friends fit that description. The only time he had known a man who wasn't saloon oriented was when his mother farmed him off onto his uncle, his only male family member. He shivered, as he still bore the marks from his uncle's cane on his back.
Ezra nodded once and tipped his hat, which earned him a smile from the lady. Turning, he left the store, making his way slowly towards the saloon.
As with the mercantile, it was cool when he entered the saloon and he paused on the threshold to take in the activity in the bar. He had spent most of his young life in saloons and bars, and this one was not much different. It was smaller than the ones that he was used to in San Francisco, but about the average size for a small town.
He cautiously moved towards the bar, side-stepping a sleeping cowboy who was sprawled out in a chair by a table. He smiled at the beautiful Mexican woman wiping some glasses that were in front of her. "Ma'am," he began, as he placed his bag down and removed his hat.
"I do hope you're not going to ask for a glass of whiskey?" the woman smiled, her eyes twinkling. She was eyeing him up and down as she spoke.
Ezra smiled back in return. "No Ma'am. I fear that my youth will tell against me in this instance."
The woman leaned over the bar and whispered in a hushed tone, "come back in six, seven years Junior and I'll buy you your first drink."
"I will definitely make a point of remembering that Seņorita." He smiled back, not bothering to mention the fact that he had purchased and drank many drinks in his short life, then went on. "I would be grateful if you could tell me where I could find a Mr Larabee. Mr Chris Larabee." He had been practising those words since he had gotten on the train in San Francisco.
The smile fell from the Mexican woman's face and she glanced over his shoulder. He turned and spied a table in the shadows and the two men who were sitting there. One was dressed all in black and the other looked to be a tracker or hunter of some sort. "Thank you," he stated before she could speak again. Replacing his hat and lifting his bag, he moved determinedly over towards the table, ignoring the woman's words to come back.
He stopped a little distance away, patiently waiting to be acknowledged. Again he put down his bag and removed his hat before he reached into his pocket for the letter. He swallowed in sudden fear when he felt the intense look of the two men fall on him. "Mr Larabee?" he asked and saw the darkly dressed man raise an eyebrow. He continued directing his comments towards this man. "I have a letter for your wife... Sarah...." He never got any further as the man in question leapt up, pushing the table over as he did so. His face was twisting with rage.
Ezra, totally shocked, was thrown back by the action and landed hard on his rump. Instead of scurrying to safety as he might normally have done, he was frightened into remaining still as the man towered over him. Larabee was shaking with pure rage and anger, his fists opening and clenching, and Ezra expected them to strike out at any moment. "Who the hell sent you... you little bastard.... huh... who sent you in here?"
The tracker had also leapt up when the table went over and was now reaching for Larabee, pulling him back and away from the boy. "Get... get out... out boy," the man cried, as he struggled to hold onto the man who had death in his eyes. "Chris... Chris... calm down he's just a boy... let him alone...."
Ezra, always a survivalist, broke free of his terror and clambered to his feet; grabbing up his bag, he fled towards the door, determined to put as much distance as he could between himself and Chris Larabee. He barged past two men who had just entered the saloon, but he ignored them and continued to rush away, his bag clutched tightly in his small hands.
"What the hell?" came a cry from behind Ezra and he spun about and saw a lanky, moustached man and a youth that he had bypassed. The tall man rushed over and grabbed Larabee's arm shouting, "Chris... what the hell... calm down... what the hell happened?"
With the arrival of this man, some sanity returned to Larabee's eyes as he pointed towards Ezra who was frozen in the doorway and snarled, "that bastard.... came.... he came looking for... Sarah." It was as if that was all the explanation that was needed to justify Larabee's attack on him.
Ezra, having been the victim of many violent attacks in the past, knew that to remain any longer was dangerous. So he rushed from the room, making his way across the street, heedless of the people who got in his way. He heard someone call after him, but he was now running in a blind panic.
It took several long minutes to get Larabee calmed down, and Buck had to forcibly push him back in his chair. Keeping a firm hand on the gunslinger's shoulder, Wilmington demanded, "what the hell were you doing.... attacking that little boy?"
"Someone sent him... he was asking after Sarah." Larabee stated this firmly, his body still shaking with anger, as he glared past Buck towards the saloon doors.
Vin paused in righting the table and picked up the letter that the boy must have dropped. "Look. He dropped this."
"What's it say?" JD asked, moving over to help straighten the chairs and pick up the glasses. Inez moved over with a broom and began to clean up the broken glass that JD wisely left for her. Her stiff movements with the broom informed the others that she was not happy with what had occurred, and she glared at Larabee for good effect.
Vin looked at the unopened letter, then at Buck. He held it out towards him, but Larabee was quicker and snatched it out of the bounty hunter's hands. He glanced at the name on the front, his lips tightening with renewed anger, then ripped it open. A tense silence filled the room as he read, his eyes narrowing to slits as he took in the words. Finally he swore under his breath and, crushing the letter in his hand, he tossed it onto the table. Firing a look of pure anger at the other three men, he said nothing as he spun about and stormed from the room.
Again silence filled the room, until finally Buck reached out and picked up the crumpled letter. He straightened it out and began to read, his lips moving silently as he did so. Vin waited for several seconds before he reached across and slapped Buck sharply across the arm. "Well?" he demanded, indicating the paper that Buck held.
Buck looked up frowning, before he began. "This is from a..." he looked back at the letter, "a Maude Standish... say's here... she knew Sarah's family... quite a while ago... anyway, the gist of it is that she's sent her son to stay with Sarah for a time, while she sorts out some problems that she got...." He turned his attention back to the letter and continued, obviously reading as he spoke, "she hopes that it's not too much of an inconvenience and says that Ezra... her son, is quite capable of working and will be able to earn his keep by doing jobs about the ranch." His face tightened as he continued, "he won't eat much, and can easily be accommodated in the barn... if there's not enough room in the house...." He threw the letter to the table in disgust and demanded, "who sends their son to stay with a total stranger, a woman she hasn't seen in over thirteen years.... and then says that he can stay in the barn... the barn for Lord's sake.... like a... an animal?"
"Where do you think Chris went?" JD ventured, shocked by what Buck had said. His mother had never let him leave her side when he was young, and the kid had not looked old enough to be by himself.
"Hell if I know... but I'm gonna go find that Kid... damn he looked white with terror." With that he strolled from the room, determination in every step he took.
Ezra didn't stop running until he reached the livery stable. Moving inside, he went up the ladder to the tall loft, climbing with difficulty as he pulled his bag up with him. He was shaking so much that he nearly fell a couple of times, but finally, after much effort, he was up in the loft and burying himself in the fresh smelling hay. He finally allowed his body to react. The shaking started in his hands and rippled out to cover the rest of his body. It was as if he was chilled. So cold, and he just didn't know what to do to get warm.
For perhaps the first time in his young life he was afraid. Scared beyond understanding, and he didn't like it. His mother had assured him that Sarah Larabee would take him in. Since they had been friends for so long, the woman was like a sister to her and she would offer him a warm welcome. Like a fool or a rate novice, he had fallen for her con, and it hurt.
He had left San Francisco with only a few dollars and had spent nearly all of it buying food on his journey. He had foolishly believed that his emergency fund was safe, but after inspecting the inner lining of his carpetbag whilst on the train, he had discovered it was gone. He didn't know if it was his mother or her latest companion who had stolen it, he only knew that it was gone. If he survived he would have to find a more reliable hiding place, this time preferably about his own person. He had only two dollars left to his name, and he had not eaten for the last day and a half, wanting to save the money instead. He had believed that he would be dining with the Larabee's this evening.
The tears came slowly, one drop at a time, as crying was unfamiliar and he fought against them. He never allowed his emotions to take such control. His mother would be so ashamed of him, if she knew. But here, in this dusty hayloft in the strange town of Four Corners, he was nothing more then a little boy, alone in the world. He realised that he had no one and no way of getting out of this god-forsaken town. On top of that, he had a man who was obviously a gunslinger, who spent his days drinking in a saloon, angry with him. He clutched his large bag, which contained his only possessions in the world, closer to him, and drew his knees up. He wept until finally, after several shallow hiccups, he drifted off into an exhausted sleep.
Chris Larabee found himself standing by the lonesome old tree that grew in the small graveyard at the edge of town. He had stormed from the saloon and started towards the stable, ready to try and outride his troubles, but something had stopped him, and he had slowly walked by and found himself headed towards the graveyard instead.
He had stopped under the tree and now found himself looking out into the distance. He stood there remembering his wife and his son and their last few days together, especially the day he had kissed his son for the last time before he rode of with Buck for Mexico. That memory hurt. It hurt so damn much. He wanted to strike out, to hurt another human being the way that he hurt, so at least someone else would understand that ripping agony that tore into his heart, but he fought to push that pain away, because suffering it was more then a man's soul should bear. He remembered Sarah's smile, and how she had bent down to scoop Adam up when he'd run towards her.
Questions filtered into Larabee's mind: 'who the hell was that boy and why had he turned up now?' Larabee had been drifting from town to town for much of the last three years, seeking solace at the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Why had the boy appeared now, when for the first time in those years, he actually felt a hint of belonging? He had been fighting against that feeling , but slowly, day by day, he was starting to relax and enjoy the company of the five men who had ridden with him into the Seminole village
He recalled the letter that he had left laying on the table in the saloon, and could vaguely remember his wife talking about a Maude Standish. She had been a long-time friend of the family, and had sent an expensive wedding present as an apology for being unable to attend herself. Sarah had placed the beloved French figurine on their small mantle, in a place of pride and there it had remained until the day the fire had destroyed it and Larabee's life. Sarah had loved that small porcelain dancer.
Larabee could not understand why Maude Standish had sent her son to stay with Sarah and her husband. Yet Chris knew in his heart that if she had been alive, his generous wife would have accepted the boy with open arms and he would have taken him in without a word, if only to keep the smile on his wife's face. She had loved children, and Adam was only the first of many that they had talked and dreamed about.
Larabee closed his eyes and pushed that painful memory aside. They were gone now and nothing he did was going to bring them back. Now he had to deal with the present, and that present mainly dealt with a young boy who had been given into Larabee's care. Chris knew that there was no way he would be able to care for the small child, and he needed to contact Maude Standish and inform her of his wife's death and to get details of where she was staying so that he could return the lad home to her. He frowned as he suddenly realised that he was treating the boy as some kind of parcel that had been mis-addressed.
"How you doing, Cowboy?" a voice suddenly spoke up from behind him. Spinning about, hand resting on his guns, he saw Vin Tanner standing a short distance away. He realised with a start that the man had been there for a while, patiently waiting.
"I've been better," Chris answered honestly. Then he went on, "and I'm angry as hell with this Standish woman."
"That's understandable," the bounty hunter offered, moving closer, his presence automatically acting like a calming balm on the gunslinger. Larabee was always amazed at how Tanner's mere presence could calm his temper and make him see things in a more sensible light.
"What kind of woman allows a boy of that age to make sure a dangerous journey?" Larabee questioned, his tone full of righteous anger and shocked realisation of just what the mother had done.
"There are some critters who push their young out of the nest pretty early," the tracker said, a frown also marring his handsome face. "Reckon it teaches them how to survive."
"A child that age should be with his mother, not traipsing about the countryside on his own. Hell Vin, anything could have happened to that young boy while he was travelling here," came back the firm voice.
Vin sighed deeply as demons from his past made themselves known. Following Chris's glance out over the desert he said with great sorrow, "and then there are those critters who should never be allowed to have young."
Larabee raised his hand and rubbed his eyes, attempting to fight back the headache that was growing. Then giving himself a mental shake, he faced his responsibilities and said firmly, "guess I'd better go find the kid... hell he more then likely thinks I'm going to shoot him... poor little bastard. " It was a very lame attempt at humour that fell flat, as Tanner raised an eyebrow and informed the gunslinger with that one look, that that was exactly what he would think if he'd had a confrontation like that with Larabee.
"Buck was going to look for him," he offered, seeing the concerned look that filtered across Chris face. "JD went with him," he added for good measure with a slight smile.
"Great... I terrify him and Buck educates him in the ways of women, and JD will no doubt talk him to becoming his deputy... hell if you look at the sheriff, he's about the right age to be JD's deputy... bet the damn kid wishes he'd never gotten off that stage."
"Ezra..." Vin slipped in quietly as he followed Chris back towards the town.
"What?" Chris asked, coming to a stand still and looking back at the bounty hunter.
"The damn kid's name... its Ezra Standish..." Vin offered before he continued. "You can't exactly keep calling him the 'damn kid'."
"Right. Ezra," Larabee agreed, remembering the name from the letter. "Well I guess we'd better go round up this Ezra Standish and send a telegram to his mother. The sooner he's on his way back to her the better."
Several hours later, Larabee was considering pulling his hair out by its roots. No signs had been found of the kid; it was as if he'd just up and disappeared, which was near impossible in a town the size of Four Corners. The only stage had called and left earlier and no horses were reported as being missing. Vin had made a complete circuit of the town, seeing if he could pick up the lad's tracks. He had not been able to find any actually in the town, but that was due to the amount of people who lived and moved about. If the boy had left the town on foot then he should have been able to pick up his track, yet there was nothing, and this was really starting to worry the men who acted as the law in Four Corners.
Glancing up Chris saw Vin approaching, and he removed his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. "Hell if I know where he's gone," the tracker said with total disgust at his inability to find any tracks of the boy. "There's not a sign out of town... in any direction... He's got to still be here."
Larabee closed his eyes, the headache was now in full swing. Most of the town's people were now out looking for the boy. Word had quickly spread about his altercation with the boy in the saloon, and Mary had been waiting for him when he returned from the graveyard. She had been furious and had demanded harshly if it was true that he had attacked a small boy in the saloon. It had taken several long minutes to explain exactly what had happened, and she had not been at all impressed. She had left, after insisting that she would help organise a search of the town, totally ignoring Larabee's words that it would not be necessary. Chris and Vin had then met up with Buck and JD who both glared at Larabee, thereby showing the gunslinger the depth of their anger at his reaction to the small boy, before both had stated that they had not yet found the boy, nor found any sign of him. Buck muttered that if the boy were hurt or injured in any way, then it would entirely be Chris's fault, and he would be called to answer for it. Larabee wisely chose to ignore the threat.
Darkness was now starting to creep across the land and the temperature was rapidly falling. While it was scorching hot during the day, it got deathly cold at night. Josiah and Nathan, on returning from a ranch outside of town a few hours earlier, had also spent time looking for the boy, and now all six men stood outside the jail discussing what to do next.
Josiah was all for asking people to check their backyards and outhouses. Nathan was suggesting that they find out if anyone had left town with wagons since the boy went missing, and ride out to the farms and ranches and enquire if a boy had begged a lift. JD was expressing his concern in case the lad had hurt himself in some manner and was unable to call for help. This discussion was going around and around and getting louder and louder when suddenly Vin shouted, "STOP... look." He pointed towards the distant end of the street, where a small figure could just be made out in the growing darkness, staggering along under the weight of the bag he was carrying.
All six men shot off the boardwalk and started to run towards the boy, calling out for him to stop. Ezra looked up at hearing his name called. He took one look at the six men barrelling down on him, one of whom he knew to be the angry Chris Larabee and he dropped his bag, spun about, and started to run in the opposite direction as fast as his tired legs could carry him.
He had awoken in the livery stable a short while before; he felt thirsty and sick with hunger and had realised that he could not go without food any longer, so he decided to spend some of his money on getting himself a hot meal and something to drink. Then he planned on finding somewhere to rest for the night before seeing how things looked in the morning. He had been making his way to the eating house which proclaimed large home-cooked meals when he had seen the men rushing towards him.
Larabee was the fastest of the group, the hours of pent-up anxiety giving him speed and he swung down on the lad, losing his footing. Chris spun him about so that he landed on the ground with the boy on top of him. Chris quickly discovered that holding the lad was like holding a wild cat, as he kicked, scratched and bit in between yelling like he was being openly murdered in the middle of the street. The others arrived just in time to see him wiggle out from Larabee's grasp.
Buck was the quickest and caught him up, only to release him with an oath as sharp young teeth ripped into his hand. Vin quickly moved in and grabbed the boy firmly about his waist, holding him up off the ground while Josiah caught at the swinging legs before they could come into contact with a part of Vin that he would be sorry to lose. The boy struggled, his body twisting and spinning, desperately trying to get away, his arms flaying as he tried to break free.
Nathan reached in and grabbed Ezra's hands, holding them together; now the boy was truly caught and unable to move. Ezra fought for several more seconds before he went limp in their grasp. He was exhausted and petrified, and unable to escape. He was wise enough to know that he needed to play possum to gain his chance of escaping.
"Will you hold up for a damn minute?" Larabee snapped as he stood up and brushed himself off, grimacing as he noted the blood weeping from his bit hands. "We're not going to hurt you," he continued, picking up his dropped hat and shoving it on his head. He moved towards the three men who held the boy.
Ezra watched him with large green eyes, his face pale and his bottom lip trembling, but he was determined not to let these men see that he was afraid.
Larabee, seeing this, had to admire the boy's courage and his face softened as he continued, "look son, I made a mistake earlier on... I thought you were..." He paused. What could he say that would explain exactly what he had thought? "You need to understand your turning up was just a bit of a shock, a surprise. That's all." He finished lamely.
The eyebrows above the boy's eyes rose swiftly, as did the incredulous look that flashed across his face as he offered weakly, "you don't respond well to surprises... must make your birthday a trial for all who know you." It was said with such seriousness that it caused all the men to laugh, as the tension that had been building all afternoon suddenly broke.
"Look," Larabee continued, not sure what he could say to the boy to make him believe him. Then he realised that the lad had probably not eaten since morning and he offered encouragingly, "why don't we go and get something to eat and I can explain exactly what's going on here."
Ezra considered the words carefully, still held tightly in the grip of the other three men, before he asked suspiciously, "you paying?" The other five men looked at Chris expectantly and he informed them tightly, "for you and me... yeah kid... I'll pay."
This seemed to satisfy the boy as he ordered the other men solemnly, "you may release me now. I will dine with Mr Larabee." It was said with such authority that the men found themselves releasing the boy gently to the ground. Ezra gained his footing instantly; he then brushed the dirt off his worn clothes before he bent to pick up his hat, which they could all see was too large for his head. After brushing it clear of dust, he then he moved to retrieve his bag, totally ignoring the fact that the six men moved as a shield about him, making it impossible for him to flee. Finally, once he was happy with himself, he offered patiently, "I am ready Mr Larabee."
Larabee had to smile at the boy, whose movements were very cost effective and he asked, "and you won't try to run away again?"
Standish actually considered the question seriously before he answered honestly, "not until after dinner." Larabee had to accept the answer, as the boy just stood there waiting for him to continue. Finally, Chris pointed towards the restaurant before he led the way, closely followed by a small boy and five nervous sentinels who watched his every move.
Larabee watched closely as Standish ate his food. The boy was trying to eat with dignity but his hunger was overtaking him as he forced some warm bread into his mouth after the chicken. He then grabbed at the milk that was by his plate and tried to drink with a full mouth. It dripped down his chin before he could stop it.
"Now hold on kid... it's not going to run away you know." Buck smiled as he reached out and attempted to wipe the dribble that slipped down the boy's chin. Ezra snapped his head back, out of reach and glared at the man. "When did you last eat?" Wilmington asked, his humour dying at the knowledge that this lad was really hungry.
Standish struggled to swallow the food before he answered matter-of-factly, "yesterday. Mrs Milton on the coach gave me some of her breakfast." He paused, knowing that he had said something wrong when he felt the weight of the silence that descended on the table. Knowing that there was nothing he could do about it and still hungry, he shrugged and continued to push food into his mouth.
Little more was said until the meal was finished. Sitting back, Larabee watched the lad eat his way through a large slab of apple pie before he began, "your ma sent you to stay with my wife... Sarah..." Ezra looked up expectantly. This he already knew but something about the way Larabee spoke told him that all was not well. Finally the gunslinger confirmed the bad news. "My wife... and son.... They both died just under three years ago..."
"Oh. I'm sorry for your loss." Ezra said this very solemnly, before throwing a glance at the nearly full glass of milk in front of JD. "Are you going to drink that?" he asked, his eyes staying firmly on the glass.
JD looked slightly uneasy, before he pushed the glass across saying, "Nah ... You can have it." The boy took it up and drank half the glass before he turned his attention back to Larabee.
Larabee held on to his temper. It was not the boy's fault that Chris's family had died and that their death meant to little to Ezra. The boy had never known them, and had no reason to understand the pain Larabee felt. With this knowledge Chris continued, his determination to return the boy to his mother all the greater. "I'll contact your ma and let her know what's happened. She can come get you." He stopped when Ezra actually laughed, his teeth showing clearly under a milk moustache. Then the face turned serious as the boy explained.
"She won't come get me.... It would be best if you get me a ticket back to San Francisco. I can make my own way back."
"On your own?" Nathan demanded, outraged by the thought that Mrs Standish would allow her young son to travel all the way to Four Corners on his own in the first place. Now to learn that she would also allow him to travel back was just beyond belief.
Ezra paused as he considered how to answer the other man. He was not used to being addressed by men such as Nathan, and he wasn't sure how he was supposed to act. His mother's latest companion had no time or patience for the former slaves of his birth land, and would frequently berate them in front of the younger lad. Finally Ezra shrugged and stated, "I came out here on my own..."
"No." Larabee interrupted the boy and ended the discussion by stating firmly, "I'll send a telegram to your mother and she can decide what she wants done... if she wants you sent back we'll have to make arrangements, but you're not travelling on your own over that kind of distance again."
Ezra looked at him in pure shock before he spluttered, "I am eleven years old you know... and quite capable of looking after myself." The others were surprised, as Ezra did look younger then his years, but he was still too young to be travelling about the countryside on his own.
"At eleven you shouldn't need to," Josiah stated with an air of righteous dissatisfaction.
"You are a preacher?" Ezra asked with certainty, his sharp green eyes weighing up the large man sitting next to him.
"I speak the words of the Lord, but do not wear his cloth," Sanchez admitted, shifting uncomfortably as the boy seemed to look intently into his very soul and find it wanting.
Ezra just nodded with satisfaction as if a question had been answered. Then he turned his attention back to his milk. He was slowly starting to get the measure of the men he sat with. Ezra suddenly felt tiredness sweep over him, and he unsuccessfully fought to hold back a yawn.
"Where is your mother staying?" Chris asked, seeing that the boy was nearly drooping with exhaustion, though he was fighting it bravely as he finished up his meal.
"The Crystal Palace. San Francisco." The address was casually spoken, and Ezra looked surprised again at the reaction it wrought.
"A saloon... your mother is staying in a Saloon!" Buck exclaimed. Ezra talked and dressed like such a proper little gentlemen, and with his mother being a friend of Sarah's parents, he had expected her to be in some high-class hotel. Ezra just looked at him, not saying a word, but his eyes spoke volumes. Wilmington's mouth snapped shut, even as JD kicked him under the table.
"Well if you've finished eating," Larabee said, standing and replacing his hat, "let's get you to bed, and I'll telegram your mother tomorrow as soon as the telegraph office is open."
Ezra fought back a yawn. "Where will I be staying?" he asked, now really too tired to care, just as long as it was a bed and was warm.
"My room," Chris offered. Seeing the flash of disagreement on Ezra's face he continued mildly, "unless you want to pay for your own room?"
The child's mouth snapped shut, burned by the reminder of his poverty. Gathering his dignity about him like a cloak, he said "I do hope you have clean sheets." He stood stiffly and bent to pick up his bag, but Buck was there before him, and Ezra had a moment of indecision as he considered tugging the bag back. Sense settled and he allowed the tall man to carry his bag.
"I tell you what kid..." Chris snapped back, "I'll get the clean sheet if you'll make the bed." Larabee's tone held laughter and it burst forth when he heard the boy's ungentlemanly reply. If nothing else it was going to be interesting having the lad around until his mother replied to Larabee's telegram.
It was a strange sight that the townspeople of Four Corners witnessed that night, as six men trailed diligently after a small, skinny boy who walked stiffly before them his head held high, and a too large hat resting precariously on his brow.
Larabee stared with disgust at the telegram in his hand. As promised, he had sent a telegram out to Maude Standish as soon as the telegraph office had opened and now eight hours later he held the reply in his shocked hands. "Paris..." he stammered throwing a look towards Vin who looked equally surprised. "She left for Paris... can you believe that... who the hell up and leaves her son with a near total stranger and then leaves the country without checking that he even got there safely?" He screwed the paper up and spinning about, he marched towards the jail where Ezra had seated himself just after lunch, his long gangly legs swinging back and fourth as he listened enthralled as Buck told tall tales about his army days.
The jail door slammed open and Larabee descended on the boy. He waved the telegram under the shocked youngster's nose and demanded bitterly, "Did you know? Did you know?"
Ezra shied back and would have slipped from the chair to make his escape but for the waving piece of paper. It was a telegram and his mother's name in it caught his attention. With a deft hand he snatched it from Larabee and began to read:
"Maude Standish gone <Stop> Boat to Paris France <Stop> Five days ago <End>"
That was it. Any doubts about the lad knowing were washed out of Larabee when he saw how pale the boy got, and how he swayed on his feet. Fearing the boy was about to faint he reached forward and steadied him, but the kid pulled himself out of the support. Swallowing hard, he offered in a tone frighteningly cold for one so young, "I will admit she never mentioned her trip to me." He blinked hard to keep the tears at bay. According to the telegram she had left the same day that she put him on the train; she must have known about the trip and had departed without caring if he made it safely to Four Corners or not. He now knew with certainly who had taken his money. It hurt, Lord how it hurt, and he was disgusted with himself; he had not felt this weepy since Mother had disposed of his pet dog, Ginger. The animal had become too bothersome for the woman and now it appeared so had he.
"I have an uncle..." he spluttered, but then his throat dried as he remembered the strapping his uncle had dealt out in an attempt to clean Ezra's sprit of his mother's wicked ways. He pushed that thought aside and forced himself to continue, "I have an uncle..." It came out barely above a whisper.
Buck asked, "that the man who beat you?" The womaniser had seen the welt marks on the skinny back early that morning when he'd taken the lad to be checked over by Nathan in his clinic. Ezra had been sullen and unwilling, but the womaniser had been determined. The healer had initially checked the lad over and declared that while he was underweight and exhausted from his long trip, he was in fairly good health. Nathan had then asked the boy to remove his shirt for a more thorough exam and both Nathan and Buck had been unable to prevent the gasp of shock that had slipped past their lips when they saw the deep welts on his small shivering back. The lad had looked back over his shoulder to see what had startled the men. Seeing them glaring at him he had shrunk down and clumsily pulled his shirt back on. Nathan had stopped him, and had carefully run his finger over one of the marks. The freed slaved had not seen such markings on a child in a long time and he shuddered at the memories that arose.
Now in the jail, Ezra lost even more colour at Buck's harsh questions as he stammered, "he had to correct me... it's his way of teaching me."
"Strapping a boy doesn't teach him anything," Nathan spat, his own memory clear, "besides understanding what pain is."
"Whatever," Buck snarled, unable to keep his anger from his tone. "You ain't going back to him. I don't care what you say, Chris." He glared at the gunslinger as he spoke.
Ezra looked with grateful eyes towards the taller man. He was growing to like him. He was also starting to like JD, who had given up his milk again that morning over breakfast.
"Then what the hell are we going to do with him?" Larabee demanded, drawing the groups' attention back to the small boy standing between them. The question went unanswered and after several long silent minutes Chris cursed, snatched the telegram back and stormed from the room. Vin closely followed him. Buck watched for a second before he turned to Ezra and said firmly, "Now don't you worry none... old Buck will sort this out." Then he added, "JD, you watch the boy."
The young sheriff nodded sadly, his dark eyes overflowing with compassion as they both watched Buck storm out after Chris and Vin. Nathan stood uneasy for a few minutes before he dismissed himself and left Ezra with JD.
Ezra stood it for about ten minutes before he asked casually, "Can I go and visit with Josiah?" Ezra had just seen Josiah and Nathan go into the local store, and knew from their breakfast together that they were gathering charity in the form of some old stock to send out to the local Indians. It was a monthly trek that Josiah always did. "Only he's just gone into that shop over there." The boy pointed towards Mrs Potters store. "He asked me a question and I just remembered the answer."
JD considered the request before throwing a glance at the drunken cowboy in the cell. He could not leave the jail while they had a prisoner, so he nodded. "Go straight there and don't be long. Old Buck will have my hide if you're not here when he gets back."
Ezra gave JD his best smile as he left the jail; he then made his way over to the saloon entrance. He knew that the three men were going to talk about him, and he had learned from harsh experience that it always paid to know what others intended for you. He stopped just outside the door and strained his hearing. He could see them, Chris, Buck and Vin sitting by the table where they had been the night before. He could also hear them clearly and knew that Larabee was berating his mother.
"What kind of a woman dumps her kid with someone she hasn't seen in years, and then leaves the country before even checking that he got there safely?"
"Now Chris...I'm sure Mrs Standish...." Buck tried to placate the other man, but the darkly dressed man was having none of it.
"Mrs Standish... hell if I'd been that polite towards the woman...." Larabee snarled, his face tight with anger. He was furious with the situation and his let his anger have full rein as he carried on. "Well if she... or you think I'm looking after that kid you can think again...."
"He doesn't have anyone else," Vin interrupted, not liking where this conversation was going. He knew how sore Larabee was about his wife and son's deaths, but that had nothing to do with that little lad waiting in the sheriff's office, and he felt it was unfair of the gunslinger to take his temper out on the child.
"He's got an uncle..." Larabee reasoned, wanting to wash his hands of the boy and the torn memories he evoked. "He can go stay with him, after all he is family..."
"Family.... FAMILY?" spluttered Buck in outrage. "You wouldn't be calling that man family if you saw that kid's back."
"Some kids need to be taught lessons," Chris reasoned, but even he was uneasy with that argument. Seeing that the uncle was not going to be an option in both of the other men's eyes he went on, angry that he was being put into such a tight position. Hell he was a gunfighter not a... a... foster father. He hated the way this boy was making him feel, as he was unable to deny the protective steak he had felt the night before when he had looked at the sleeping boy. He had berated himself harshly when he had gotten out of his own warm bed to replace the worn blanket that had slipped, leaving the boy shivering in the cold night air. "I'll ask Mary to suggest a good orphanage... or maybe Josiah knows of one." He settled back in his chair and poured another glass of whisky. He stated with finality, "but he sure as hell isn't saying with me."
Ezra didn't wait to hear more. He knew what was coming. Why had he actually been fooling himself into thinking that things would be any different? Over his short life his mother had dumped him with too many people, none of whom had really wanted him. So why had he thought this dumping would be any different? Maybe it was the way his mother had spoken of Sarah Larabee, or the way Chris Larabee had checked that he'd had enough to eat before returning to the small room he rented. How he had taken care when making up the bed on the floor for Ezra to ensure that he would be comfortable. How Chris had given Ezra an old shirt which was far too big to wear to keep him warm, and had tucked him into bed the night before. Or maybe it was the way Buck had taken him to be checked over by Nathan, or the breakfast he had been a part of that morning where the men had sat and talked while carefully ensuring that he had enough food on his plate, with Buck passing across bread and the honey almost without thought. It had just had the feel of security, but now that had been shattered and Ezra knew that he was once more on his own. These men did not want him any more then his own mother did, and Ezra was determined that he was not going back to live with his uncle or to an orphanage.
Ezra knew that he had to get back to San Francisco; he felt certain that he could make a living there. He had spent enough time with his mother and her collection of male friends to know that all he needed was a saloon owner who was prepared to turn a blind eye at having a child at the poker table for a cut of the profits. His mother had been using him as a gimmick at the poker table for a while now, and he knew exactly how the con worked, and he felt certain that he could pull it off on his own.
He realised that the first part of his plan needed him getting to Ridge City, which was the nearest town that had a railway station. It was about a two day's journey by stagecoach, and he felt certain that he could borrow a horse and leave it in the livery there and then telegram one of the enforcers to go and pick it up.
He moved swiftly towards the boarding house, intent on picking up his small carpetbag of belongings and getting out of town as soon as possible. The stagecoach had taken nearly two days to get to Four Corners and they had left very early in the morning. So he anticipated having to camp out that night as it was getting late. Only two/three hours of daylight remained, but he was determined not to spend another night in the town where he was so obviously not wanted.
Clutching his bag, a blanket and some money that he had found in Chris's room, he made his way over to the livery stable, making sure that he stuck to the back alleyways. He felt bad about taking the money, but he knew that he needed railway fare back to San Francisco. He had left a short, neatly written letter explaining why he had decided to leave and informing Mr Larabee, quite sensibly, that it was Ezra's decision. He also stated that he would wire the gunslinger the cash he had borrowed, and reimburse the gunslinger for the cost of the canteen and blanket that he had found, once he was settled back in San Francisco.
Ezra smiled sadly when he remembered that Buck had taken great pride that morning in showing him his horse, telling him how brave and friendly he was, even lifting the kid up so that he could sit on his back. That was the main reason why Ezra had decided to borrow Buck's own horse. He had very little to thank his uncle for, but the man had been fanatical about riding and hunting, and had insisted that his nephew also learn to ride. So Ezra felt more than capable of handling the large animal as he now had the feel of the gentle beast.
While he had considered the difficulty he would have in saddling the horse he was able to overcome that by informing the elderly stable keeper, Henry, that Buck had asked him to get the horse for him and take it to the hitching post outside the saloon. Henry had no reason to doubt him, as he had seen Buck with the lad that very morning, showing him the horse. Once the horse was saddled, the young man had thanked the old man kindly and carefully led the large horse outside. Henry had waved him away and returned to his job of cleaning up after the horses.
Ezra clambered up on top of the animal with difficulty, but managed to secure his carpetbag to the saddle, and with a sure kick he sent it into a steady gallop. Soon the town of Four Corners had been left behind and Standish was enjoying the success of his escape and his sense of freedom.
Several hours passed before JD realised with a start of shock that Ezra had not returned from his visit to Josiah. Within minutes he had checked with the preacher and discovered that the young boy had not even visited the church. JD and Josiah then made a quick search of the town, and were growing concerned with each passing moment. The boy seemed to have just disappeared.
Finally Josiah had to admit defeat. After being informed by JD that Buck's horse was missing, they had decided that they had better let Chris and the others know that the boy was missing. Larabee listened with a frozen expression on his face before he stormed out of the saloon and rushed to his room. Sure enough he found the carpetbag gone, along with some money that had he hidden in his room, and a spare canteen and blanket. He took one look at the note and screwed it up, before tossing it on the bed and striding from the room, his body shaking with anger.
As he left the boarding house he saw Buck racing towards him and knew JD had been correct when he said that the womaniser's horse had also been stolen.
"Henry saddled up my horse for him about three hours ago." The womaniser stopped and stammered, "can you believe that... that little shit stole my horse?"
Larabee said nothing but turned instead towards Tanner who, knowing instinctively what Chris was asking, said with concern, "three hours... it'll be dark before we catch up with him, and I doubt he knows the danger of trying to ride this terrain in the dark."
"So we'll ride tonight," Larabee suggested and Tanner nodded in agreement. "You, me and who else?" the gunslinger asked.
"Best take Nathan... might hurt himself out there," Vin said, a frown marring his handsome face.
"Why?" Buck suddenly asked, unable to understand why Ezra would run. They had seemed to be getting along quite well that morning. "Why would he suddenly leave?"
Larabee remembered Ezra's letter and said, "he must have snuck up and listened to us talking while we were in the saloon, as he said he wasn't going to an orphanage or his uncle."
"So where the hell is he going?" Buck demanded, real concern clearly heard in his tone.
"San Francisco." Chris answered, guilt starting to swirl about his stomach. The child was not old enough to be out on the trail during the day, let alone after dark. Looking at the other men who had now gathered, Larabee said, "Vin, Nathan, with me. The rest of you double check that he hasn't pulled a con and just let the horse lose and is still hiding out here."
"I'm coming," Buck said, determined to be a member of the group.
Larabee looked at him for several long seconds before he nodded. "I guess you've got more right to be there than any of us." He was making reference to the fact that it was the womaniser's horse that had been stolen.
"I want to come as well." JD's tone was quiet but determined. Chris threw a look towards Josiah who offered, "take the lad, I'll be alright for one night and you should catch up with Ezra soon. After all you have Vin tracking him, and he's going to take the stagecoach route."
Larabee felt a smile cross his lips at the preacher's words. The stagecoach had to take a longer route into the town because of it's size, so they could cut at least two hours off their time by taking the more direct route. As the five men rode out of Four Corners each kept their own council as to what they planned to say and do to the lad once he was safely back within their keep.
As suspected, the five protectors of Four Corners had only gone a short distance out of town when night fell. They had made up the hours that Ezra would lose via his stagecoach trail, but they had still not come upon him. They followed the lone horse trail that the tracker recognised at Buck's horse, but once it veered from the trail all the men knew that the boy had become lost with the coming of darkness and had wandered into the dangerous surrounding area. Finally Vin had to stop them, saying firmly that there was too high a chance of losing Ezra's trail if they attempted to carry on through the night. The ground was now rocky and uneven with sharp dips. Chris could understand the sense of Vin's advice and unwillingly ordered the others to make camp for the night.
It was a quiet and subdued group of men who sat about the fire, drinking coffee. Larabee could see that the other four were deeply concerned for the child's safety, and Chris could not blame them. He knew that if the child died, it would be his fault as he recalled the harsh words that he had spoken in the saloon.
Larabee was a harsh but fair man, and he fully understood why he had been against having the young lad stay. Ezra was not much older than what Adam himself would have been if he had lived, and that thought tore at the darkly dressed gunslinger. As he had lain in bed the night before he had watched Ezra sleep, and it had dragged up memories of when he had sat up watching Adam sleep.
He knew that he could not go back to that time, and having to care for young Ezra Standish in the turmoil of a town like Four Corners would prove too much for him. That was why he had awoken determined to return the boy to his mother. His profession as a gunslinger did not allow for the raising and caring of a child, and Ezra Standish was not even of his own blood. He knew that if he even considered taking on the responsibility of the lad then he would be opening himself to the torments of hell.
The discussion in the saloon had ranged from Buck caring for the lad, to Vin suggesting that he could take the boy in. All suggestions had been discouraged by the gunslinger, who didn't want to leave himself open to the pain he knew caring for the lad would entail. He did not want his team distracted by a child while they were attempting to protect the already volatile town.
He was very aware that Ezra had been sent to him, and there was no way that Judge Travis would allow the boy to remain with any of the others, because of the type of work that they did. Yet the letter that Maude Standish had sent to Larabee gave him full control over the lad, and would stand in a court of law if the gunslinger were to push it.
Buck had argued and even pleaded for Chris to change his mind, but the other man had been adamant and it was drawing awfully close to fist when Josiah and JD had burst in to announce that the boy was gone. When the knowledge that Ezra had run burned into Chris, at first had he been angry but then slowly during the ride Larabee had come to realise that it was him that the boy was running from. Not Buck, Vin or Josiah but him. He had been the one who had attempted to attack the lad when Ezra had first arrived, and it had been he who had insisted that Ezra was to be sent back to his mother, and Chris Larabee who had spoken so harshly about tossing the boy back to his abusive uncle or a disinterested orphanage. He could only imagine the fear that had driven the lad to run, and Chris was unable to push away the guilt that he felt with that knowledge.
Ezra guided the horse carefully over the rough terrain. He could not remember the stagecoach travelling over land this uneven. Darkness had fallen swiftly and he had decided to push on for a little while longer. He knew that they must be missing him from town now, and the more he thought about it, the more he knew that Larabee would not take kindly to having his money taken, nor Buck his horse. He was cold, tired, and hungry and had a growing sense of fear that he was lost.
Buck's horse stumbled and Ezra had to pull up sharply. The moon had slipped behind another cloud throwing the area into pitch darkness, but if he was honest even when the moon was in full view, there was not really enough light to show him his path. He felt the animal shaking under his legs and knew that the horse was not happy with being ridden by an unknown rider and travelling in the dark.
Slowly he clucked Patches forward, applying pressure to his sides and the next few minutes passed in a slow forward movement. Suddenly the horse stumbled, this time going down on his knees, crying out as he did so. The forward motion was too strong for Ezra to stay in the saddle and he found himself flying over Patches' head.
Ezra cried out in agony as he landed hard on the cold ground. He thought he heard a snapping sound and wondered with sudden fear if Patches had broken his leg. The world was swimming alarmingly about him. He pushed his fear aside and attempted to scramble up, wanting to help the horse who was limping about issuing cries of horsy pain, but Ezra fell back with a cry as agony tore up his body from his leg, and he saw the stars blink out.
Ezra was surprised that he could hear groaning and wondered who was suffering. For a moment he thought he was back in the saloon in San Francisco that his mother called home, and one of the drunken cowboys was again outside his window throwing up after the fun of the night.
He attempted to turn over, as lying on his back hurt him for some reason. The bed was just too uncomfortable. It was this action that caused the pain to flare again, and memory to come rushing back. With a whimper he opened his eyes and blinked through the tears as he bit his bottom lip tasting blood. His leg hurt worse then anything he'd ever felt. Even his uncle's worst strapping had not been this bad.
A movement at his side caused him to slowly turn his head, and he could just make out Patches. The horse was standing a short distance away, his head down, reins hanging over his head. As Ezra looked, he saw the animal attempt to step forward, but it was only using three legs; the right front leg was being held off the ground, and it was limping badly.
Ezra felt tears well in his eyes. He had hurt the horse, and from the way the poor animal was moving he had hurt it badly. He shut his eyes as he remembered his uncle, a keen racehorse breeder, destroying many of his horses because the animals had been hurt during a race and had come up lame. If a horse could not be ridden or raced then it was killed. It was the simple law of ownership where these animals were concerned, and Ezra had no reason to believe it would be any different out here in the west. A small sob escaped him. Patches pricked his ears and limped painfully towards the fallen boy. It gently nuzzled the small shaking body. This act only caused Ezra to become even more upset, and soon he was weeping as much as his young heart and injury allowed. He knew that the horse would have to be destroyed, and it was his fault.
The night slowly continued and the cold started to seep into the fallen boy, but as the slow hours passed Ezra started to feel warm again. At first this puzzled him, but finally he just accepted it. He tried to sit up and look at his leg, but the pain was just too much, and with a gasping sigh he passed out again. The next time he awoke, he was hot and sleepy, the pain now a distance memory and he had resigned himself to his fate. He knew that he was in serious trouble, and was very aware that death awaited him, but in his young mind he considered this to be what he deserved for bringing Buck's horse to such a senseless end.
As the dawn approached, Ezra found himself feeling very hot and sleepy. He heard a noise and tilted his head; he was surprised to see his mother standing a short distance away shaking her head. She said nothing, but he knew that she was once again disappointed in him. He tried to call to her, to let her know that he was injured, but she continued to shake her head, and finally she turned to walk away, not heeding her son's weakening cry. A short time after she left he slipped into unconsciousness, his face still wet with his tears. Not for himself, but for Buck Wilmington's treasured horse, Patches.
The men from Four Corners set out at first light, and Vin had no problems picking up the trail. The lad had made no attempt his hide his path, and within an hour the tracker held up his hand and pointed into the distance. All five could see Patches standing tall, but there was no sign of the boy.
Larabee kicked his horse into a gallop and heard the others do the same behind him. As they reached the horse, the gunslinger threw himself from his animal and raced towards the small still body he had seen lying on the ground. He skidded to a halt and threw himself down beside the boy who was mumbling under his breath about his mother leaving and killing the horse. Chris could feel the fever rising from the small form.
"Nathan!" Chris cried out in fear when he saw the blood that soaked the lower part of the boy's trousers.
The healer was off his horse a hairsbreadth behind the gunslinger and with a shaking hand he rested it on the boy's forehead. "He's got a high fever, Chris," he stated, but his words were unnecessary as all the men could see the chills that raked the small body, and the sheen of sweat that covered the too pale face as words tumbled from him in his delirium.
Buck and JD saw that Nathan, Chris and Vin were attending the lad, so they moved over to check the horse that was standing a slight way off, still favouring his front leg.
Nathan slowly made his way down the shivering body, checking for other broken bones and injuries as he moved towards the wounded leg. Finally satisfied that the leg was the most serious injury, he carefully cut the trousers to reveal a nasty break. The bone of the lower leg was clearly snapped and was protruding grisly from the broken skin. It was this section that was bleeding, albeit sluggishly now. Larabee looked away feeling suddenly sick at seeing such an injury on one so young.
"I've got to stop the bleeding and set this leg," Nathan said motioning towards the injury, "before we can move him." As he spoke he started to pull items from his ever-present medical bag.
"What do you want us to do?" Chris asked, reaching out and gently wiping a stray lock of hair back from the child's sweaty forehead.
"Hold him still, and if he starts to wake up or struggle, let me know. I've some laudanum in my bag. This isn't the kind of injury you want to remember, but at his age it's dangerous to give him laudanum, so I don't want to unless it's really necessary." The gunslinger and the tracker both nodded, and they moved into position to hold the lad tightly down while Nathan tended his injuries.
As Larabee watched Jackson ready the things he would need, he tossed a glance over his shoulder. "How's Patches?" He had seen that the animal limping badly when he had ridden up.
"Hurt his front leg." Buck answered, but his main concern rested with the small bundle that Larabee and Vin were holding. "But JD reckons he can help him." Both men now moved over to check on the boy. "How is he, Nathan?" Buck asked, his face lined with worry for the boy.
The healer threw a look up towards the mumbling boy's sweaty face. He answered honestly, "not good." Buck, knowing that there was nothing he could do for the lad now that he was in Nathan's capable hands, moved back to tend to Patches, who was pitifully trying to follow after his master.
"Looks like Patches slipped down a rabbit hole," Vin said, glancing about at the tracks. It was as the tracker had feared; the boy's inexperience had caused him to ride at night, and the animal had tripped. "Ezra must have caught his leg on a rock as he went down." He pointed to the flat slap of rock about eight inches long. Larabee winced when he realised the force that Ezra must have landed with for his leg to just snap over the rock.
"Hold him," Nathan suddenly warned as he went to work on the leg. He carefully cleaned the jagged wound, and then slipped the bone back, while pulling the leg down. Ezra reared up in agony, a sharp cry torn from his throat that rent the air about them, and it was only Chris's and Vin's hands holding him that kept his body on the ground and enabled Nathan to complete his work, which he did efficiently.
With deft hand, the healer wrapped and supported the broken bone with splints. When he had finished, he settled back and wiped his own sweat from his eyes. He knew that this was just the start of the boy's long road to recovery. He steadfastly refused to think that Ezra might not recover.
Ezra was now conscious and whimpering as he looked towards each man, fear shining brightly in his eyes. Chris leant forward and carefully, gently, swiped at the tears that were flowing as the child hiccuped in distress. "Patches... he's.... he's..." Ezra stumbled to a stop before he stammered with renewed tears, "I'm.... sorry.... sorry..." It was obvious that he was growing more distressed with each passing moment. Nathan gently moved Chris aside, as he reached into his bag and withdrew his small bottle of laudanum.
Larabee stood and moved away, unable to witness the suffering of the boy and knowing that Nathan would have to concentrate when he gave the lad the sleeping medicine. Chris walked back to where Buck was kneeling by his horse. JD was carefully feeling up and down the injured leg while the horse whimpered.
Larabee kept an eye on what Nathan was doing, and saw him measure out a very small amount of the drug and slip it pass Ezra's trembling lips. The boy rebelled weakly against the taste, but soon the drug started to take affect and he slipped reluctantly into sleep.
Chris saw a sudden movement out of the corner of his eyes, and without thought he drew his gun and shot dead the snake that was slithering up on Buck. The snake twisted violently several times before it died a shuddering death.
The sound of the gun echoing about the land was the last sound that Ezra heard before the drug pulled him towards the darkness and he felt the sharp bite of guilt as he realised that Buck must have shot his horse to put it out of it's agony.
It was a slow solemn party that rode into Four Corners later that day. Ezra was lying unconscious across the saddle in front of Chris, who was holding the sleeping lad securely within his firm grasp. Every time the horse jarred, the youth would issue a small groan of pain and would move his head weakly as if to push the agony away.
Slipping from his saddle, Buck moved quickly to take the precious burden from Chris, and carefully carried him up the stairs towards Nathan's small room that he used as the clinic.
Once the boy was settled in the bed, Nathan shooed the others out and began checking the leg again, making sure that he had set the bone straight and that the wound was free of infection. He was satisfied with what he saw, but was worried by the burning fever he could feel when he touched the lad's forehead. He stood back and felt a protectiveness swell in his heart when he saw how small the little bundle of boy was when hidden in his large bed.
There was a sharp knock at the door and Chris stuck his head in, his eyes fixed firmly on the huddle in the bed. "How is he?" he asked, as he opened the door wider at Nathan's bidding to enter, the other four men following him in to the small room.
"Luckily the leg wound looks clear of infection at the moment, and the bone has fit together fairly well. I'm worried about his fever. It could be from shock or his overnight exposure to the elements, but it's not going to help him, if we can't get it down. Also he's going to be in a lot of pain initially until the leg settles and starts to heal properly, so I think it would be best to keep him calm and settled for the next couple of days at least."
"How can you do that?" JD asked, moving forward to look at the sweat covered face before him. Ezra was licking at dry lips and mumbling under his breath. Each man caught what sounded like 'Patches' coming from his fevered dreams.
"I'm going to mix up some of that broth that you all love so much." He smiled at the mixed groans this earned him, as they all knew what broth he was talking about. But they each had to admit that it was a mighty powerful painkiller, even if they didn't remember much of the days they took it.
"How long will it take for his leg to heal?" Larabee asked, a frown marring his handsome face when Ezra groaned as he tried to move in the bed. Nathan rested his hand on the boy's forehead again and the youth settled down into sleep once more.
"Depends on how long the fever stays... but that leg's going to take at least six maybe eight weeks to heal." He looked sternly at Larabee and continued, "it's not going to be easy... a break like that... he might not be able to walk properly for quite a while, and he will need a lot of help getting back on his feet." Those words sobered the others up, and they turned eyes full of sorrow on the unconscious lad.
"Then I guess we'd better see that he gets all the help he needs." This was from Buck, who shot a glare at Chris, daring him to contest his words.
The gunslinger looked from his oldest friend to the fever-wracked boy on the bed, and slowly nodded his head in agreement. His hand slipped up to his breast pocket and rested gently on the letter that Ezra had given him in the saloon when he had first arrived. For some reason he found that letter reassuring.
Several long, tiring days passed. Ezra lay gripped in the clutches of the fever and the sleep from the broth that Nathan patiently spooned into his mouth, then encouraged the boy to swallow by stroking his heated throat. When Nathan left to rest and freshen up, Chris, Buck or one of the others had been there to sit beside the boy, but it was mainly the gunslinger who sat there, caring for Ezra. Tending his fever with a cooling cloth and when his muttering broke into nightmares it was usually Larabee who was there to grip his hand and soothe him back into a healing sleep. It was noted by them all that Ezra seemed to respond better to Chris's presence and tending then anyone else, so they were content to give him the space he needed to treat the lad.
Larabee was on watch the afternoon that Judge Travis arrived in town. Mary Travis rushed up to the room, and after bursting in she informed the gunslinger: "Orrin's just arrived in town and he's cornered Buck and JD in the jail. He is asking about Ezra." Seeing the surprised look that crossed the gunslinger's face the woman explained, "I think Mr Johnson mentioned the boy to him when he arrived. Orrin knows that his mother left the country. I'm sorry Chris. I didn't get to him first."
Larabee digested this information before he stood, wiped his own tiredness from his eyes and asked, "will you stay with Ezra?"
The pretty woman looked at the worn face of her friend and knew that the last few days of worry over the boy had not been easy on the gunslinger. She nodded and offered, "anything I can do Chris." She reached out and rested her hand lightly his arm. "You've just got to ask."
Larabee's eyes softened and he smiled as he replied, "I know Mary... thank you." Then he was gone.
As he made his way down the steps into the street, he saw JD rushing towards him, and he reached out to steady the boy as he stumbled to a stop before him. JD was out of breath, his eyes wide with fear as he panted. "Judge said that Ezra has to become a ward of court, 'cause his mother done left him and..." he screwed his eyes shut as he remembered the exact words that Travis had used, "departed the country without forethought to his proper maintenance, thereby abandoning him, which in turn makes him a ward of the court."
"Where is he? Still in the jail?" Chris asked, his eyes flashing with anger as the judge's words.
"Nah... In the saloon, talking with Vin, Josiah and Nathan. Buck followed him over so he's there as well. Buck's not happy with what the Judge said. Vin's looking fit to burst a bullet as well and he never looks upset about anything...." The boy was almost hopping beside the gunslinger as Chris made his way determinedly towards the building where the judge was.
When Larabee entered the saloon, he saw Buck standing, leaning over the elderly Judge, his face twisted with anger as he ranted. "That boy does have someone to care for him... ME..."
Travis held up his hand, demanding by that action that the other man listen to him before he countered. "Mr Wilmington, while you are above reproach as far as protecting this town is concerned, you are hardly what I would consider guardian material."
"Why the hell not?" the womaniser demanded, his face growing even redder. "I'm fit enough to be guardian over this damn town aren't I."
"As I said, no one is contending your ability to do your job, but your lifestyle..." Travis motioned about the room, "and the job you do would give me cause for concern. That boy needs a steady and secure environment."
"A job I do to protect the town at YOUR request," countered Buck, almost shaking with anger.
"Mr Wilmington." Travis said, his eyes warm with understanding at the feelings that the womaniser was displaying. "I don't want to put the lad into an orphanage. But I honestly don't see that I have any other choice. His mother has left the country, he only has one other relative, who sent this telegram," the judge waved a piece of paper in front of Buck as he continued, "to Mary, in reply to her enquiry and has stated quite firmly that he wants nothing to do with the quote, 'sneaky lying little brat' and there isn't anyone else he could stay with here."
"Yes there is." Larabee stated this firmly as he marched up to the table. "His mother did leave instructions for the boy's welfare... here." He reached into his breast pocket and drew out the letter, which he handed to the judge, who gave him a strange look as he took it.
When Travis had finished reading, he slowly folded the letter back up, looked at the names on the front of the envelope and offered carefully, "this here letter is addressed to your dead wife, Chris."
The gunslinger winced at the words but stated firmly, "and to me. It's addressed to me, and it states quite clearly that Ezra's mother was placing her son into my family's care. So this has nothing to do with you or the courts. I will accept full responsibility for him until his mother returns or he's old enough to be a man in his own right."
The judge sat back, his expression registering his open shock. Looking into the determined faces of the six men before him he sighed and offered, "looking after a child, Chris, especially a child this age... it isn't easy."
"I know that Judge. We know that... but it's what Ezra's mother wanted, and I know that Sarah would have wanted it, and that's all that really matters." Larabee's clear look never faltered as he said those words. Travis met him look for look before he threw up his own hands in defeat.
"If that's what you want Chris, but you need to understand that YOU will be the one totally responsible for that boy." Travis saw the gunslinger nod, his face grim, his expression determined. The other men present also nodded, and the judge realised that Larabee was not alone with his decision. He knew that the lad would no doubt end up having six fathers. He smiled slightly, silently admitting to himself that he actually felt slightly sorry for the boy. Standing, Travis offered, "I'll get the proper papers drawn up to that affect. You can come sign them in the morning, Chris."
Larabee suddenly looked down, overcome by what he had just agreed to. What he had just accepted. The responsibility of a child, a young boy, something he'd not had for several years now and he knew that it would take some getting used to. He took a deep breath and looked at his friends; seeing their hopeful expression he slowly nodded. "That'll be fine, Judge."
After the judge had left the six men looked at each other, each face reflecting their relief at the decision to keep the lad, all that is expect for Larabee, who wore a frown. Buck finally spoke up saying, "thanks Chris. I'll keep an eye on him. You won't even know he's about, we'll see to that." The womaniser was looking quite excited at the prospect of having Ezra about.
Larabee spoke up firmly. "Buck, I told the judge that I'll look out for him and I meant it..." Seeing the shocked look that this earned him he shrugged and offered, "but I get a strong feeling that it's going to take all six of us to keep that particular young men in check."
Buck broke into another wide smile and after slapping the gunslinger on the shoulder, he offered, "Hey that's what friends are for Larabee."
Chris looked decidedly uneasy as he agreed, "right." He turned to make his way back to the clinic, when his arm was touched and he looked down into the smiling face of Vin Tanner who nodded and offered, "you did good, Cowboy."
Larabee opened his mouth to fire back a retort, then realised that his men were too happy to take any notice. Buck called out to Inez to set up the drinks as they were celebrating the new addition to the Magnificent Six... who had just become Seven.
Chris was still shaking his head when he entered the small room and stopped to stare at Mary as she quietly tended to the small boy in the bed. He stood for several moments wondering just exactly what had he done.
Ezra knew that he had been sleeping too long. His eyes felt heavy and his body weighted down and tired. He sighed deeply and tried to stretch his cramped muscles, but came up short with a strangled cry when he attempted to move his leg, and a flash of agony erupted. He whimpered and felt a hand grasp his own to help him ride out the pain. It was this action that caused his eyes to fly open. His mother had never shown such concern when he'd hurt himself in the past. In fact she had only told him that he needed to ride out the pain like a man and that he needed to learn to show only his dignity not his pain. She never liked to have him show pain or make any sign of weakness.
The man sitting next to him was dressed all in black, with blond hair and blue eyes. Which at the moment were smiling down at him gently as he said, his tone filled with concern, "Hey Ezra. Welcome back."
'Larabee'. The name flashed into Standish's mind and he registered fear as he attempted to pull his hand away, but had to stop and gasp out in agony as the pain from his leg flared again.
"Here... here... don't try to move..." another deep voice cautioned and he blinked past the pain into the dark eyes of Nathan, the man he remembered was the healer.
"Where... what...?" the confused lad asked, his voice barely above a whisper. Yet even as he asked, his memory came flooding back, and he turned wide frightened eyes on the other men who were crowded into the small room. His glance flashed over towards Buck Wilmington, and he was too weakened by guilt and illness to stop the tears that spilled from his eyes as he stammered, "Patches... Oh.... Mr Buck... I'm... so sorry...". His tears fell faster and faster as he remembered hearing the shot that had killed the horse. He gulped, his little body starting to hyperventilate, totally ignoring the raging pain this caused him.
"Hey... Hey...now stop this... you mustn't upset yourself, " Nathan said, swiftly moving in and attempting to settle the lad, but Ezra was having none of it. The death of the horse was weighing too heavily on his shoulders and he needed to make Buck understand that he had not meant his horse to die.
"I'm sorr...rry...please... I didn't... mean... to... kill him.... I'm... sorry... you... had... to... shoot.... him." he continued to babble until the confusion cleared from Buck's face.
"Ezra, Patches is alright son. He'll be fine. Old JD here," Buck pulled the younger man into a brotherly shoulder hug as he continued, "he fixed him up right proper. Hell, I should be able to ride him again in a few days..." Buck had to repeat his words a few times until Ezra finally took notice.
Standish finally stopped hiccuping with tears as he stared at the man. His words and expression finally filled Larabee in on what he had been babbling about, as the gunslinger said, "you thought Buck had to shoot Patches 'cause he was lame?"
Ezra swallowed hard and wiped at his drying tears as he explained jerkily, "my uncle... kept horses... when they... came up... lame he had... them killed... said they weren't... worth the... time and... effort to... care for them..." He hiccuped again before he continued, looking suddenly very drained, "I heard him... shoot the horse..."
Chris smiled. He reached out and took the small hand in his; lifting their joined hands he offered warmly, "that weren't Buck shooting his horse you heard... it was me... I saw a damn snake..."
"Man he hates snakes does our Chris." The womaniser smiled now, understanding where the distress was coming from. "Now don't you worry little Ez." He drew back when he saw the venomous look the words earned him from the boy, but he hurried on. "Like I said, old Patches will be right as rain. Now while I'm not happy with why you took him in the first place, no permanent harm was done, now was there."
"I wouldn't say that Buck." Larabee interrupted, his face turning to granite, his eyes flashing. "But you and me, Ezra, are going to have a long talk about that... once Nathan says you're strong enough." Fitting words to actions the gunslinger looked towards the healer who stepped in saying firmly, "Not right now though...I think he's had enough excitement for today. " He motioned towards the child, and all could see that he was fighting to keep his eyes open. "He needs to drink this and get some more rest."
Setting words to actions he carefully supported the boy and allowed him to sip from the cup. At first Ezra was unwilling, but after one stern look from Chris Larabee he swallowed the brew until it was all gone, then he slowly settled back, his attention still firmly fixed on the darkly dressed man before him. Blinking hazily, he tried to fight off the sleep that beckoned him.
Chris, seeing this, smiled warmly and offered gently as he reached out to wipe a stray lock from the boy's forehead, "You rest now Ezra. Don't you worry about anything... we'll all be here when you wake."
The child, still fighting against the beckoning sleep, nodded weakly, not so sure if that was a good thing or not, but before he could work it out, sleep overcame him.
The next few days passed with Ezra gradually spending more time awake then asleep. Now as he awoke he felt a lot better, and had no difficulty opening his eyes and taking in his surroundings. He could see that his leg was bound up and raised above the rest of his body. Nathan had explained about his broken leg, and that it was healing , but that the fever following his injury had left him very *weak and that was why he still felt so drained. At least his senses were now clear.
He felt his hand gripped into another and looking over he saw Larabee sitting in the chair beside him, sleeping, his hand clasping Ezra's which lay above the sheets. A strange emotion rose up to choke the lad and he fought to push it back. He could not allow this act of kindness to distract him. He still had to get away, as he was determined that he was not going to return to either his uncle or an orphanage.
He looked back towards his leg and knew that he would not be capable of escaping for a while, at least until his leg was healed.
"How you feeling?" He jumped at the voice and saw that Larabee was now awake.
Ezra swallowed, and after licking at his dry lips, offered, "I'm feeling... a lot... better Mr Larabee." As he spoke he carefully disengaged his hand, and slipped it out of reach under the covers.
"Good... that's good, Ezra." Larabee settled back before he offered, "Nathan just popped out to get some food. He'll be back in a little while." The healer had finally given Larabee permission to talk to Ezra about his future, and Larabee had spent a long time discussing with the others the best way they could look after the newest member of their group.
"How long..." Ezra began to ask, but his voice gave out. He swallowed and Chris was suddenly there with a cup, and with ease he carefully lifted the boy's upper body up and allowed him to drink.
"Careful." The gunslinger cautioned as the boy gulped at the drink, then added, "Not too fast... take sips."
The young boy threw a cautious glance at the man carefully holding him, and did as he asked. Soon his thirst was quenched and he asked again. "How long have I been ill?"
Chris carefully settled the boy back before he said "about nine days now... total."
"Nine days?" Ezra repeated, unable to believe it.
"Ezra, you've been very sick." Larabee was unable to hide his concern and he pushed on, "Nathan did explain that you broke you lower leg bone, but he feels that if you do as he says, you should be fine in six to eight weeks."
"Six to eight weeks!" Ezra gasped, his face paling. He felt his chin start to quiver as the enormity of his situation came crashing down on him. He was stuck, unable to escape whatever fate this man decided to give him. "I won't go back to my uncle," he cried out in panic. "You can't make me..." He continued, his face flushing up with his fear.
Larabee felt his face harden at the flash of pure terror he saw in the boy's eyes. He wondered just how much harm his uncle had done to the lad. The marks on his body gave a good idea, but were there more? Chris pushed that aside as he now had a very distressed young man to deal with. "Ezra." Seeing that the boy was caught up in his own internal terrors he spoke louder, reaching out and catching the shaking body, forcibly dragging Standish's attention back to him. "EZRA." He snapped the name in a tone that no one denied.
The lad gulped and swallowed hard before his shuddering slowly subsided. Eyes blinking wide as he watched the man who held him. Chris could see that he was now ready to listen. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the letter. "Have you read this? The letter that your mother sent with you... have you read it?" he demanded. Ezra considered lying, but seeing the hard look that was directed at him he slowly nodded. One of the first things he had done was steam open the letter at the first available stop he had come to. "Then you know that your mother placed you in my care." Again he waited until he got a slow nod of agreement. "And she said that you would work for your living... you would earn your keep by doing anything I tell you..."
"She thought you had a ranch," the boy countered, his tone low, his look slipping down from the face of the man before him.
"She didn't know what I had," snapped back Larabee, then pushed aside his own feeling towards Ezra's mother's irresponsibility. "But she said in her letter that you'd work for your board and keep, and work you will Ezra." Seeing that he now had 100% of Ezra's attention, he carried on, slowly and clearly. "You will attend the temporary school that Josiah has set up in the church for the local children, until a new school house can be built and a proper tutor found. You will attend every day that Josiah says, without fail. You will keep out of trouble and do as I, Vin, Nathan, Buck, Josiah or JD say without question." He paused and looking deeply into the young boy's eyes, he stated firmly, "You will never, ever steal again." Larabee was determined on this and his look informed the lad that he was lucky that he was injured otherwise the conversation would have been a lot more painful for the boy. "EVER... not a blanket, not a canteen, horse or money...." He saw the boy slink lower with each accusation and he felt the need to slightly alter the conversation so he continued, "if you agree to this, I will provide your board and keep as your mother suggests in the letter."
Ezra Standish blinked as the implications of what Chris Larabee was saying started to sink in. "You mean..." he stopped, gulping before he finished, "I can stay here? With you?" It was tentatively asked, and he was looking at Larabee with large eyes that were brimming with hope.
"If you do as I say, attend school, then I will look after you, just as your mother asks in the letter." Seeing what Ezra was really asking he continued. "That means, no uncle, and no orphanage.... But Ezra... you prove me wrong on this or ever attempt to run away again and I will pass you over to Judge Travis so fast, you'd be dizzy with the speed of it, and none of the others will be able to stop me." The icy look was back. "Do you understand me?"
Ezra looked very serious as he considered Larabee's words. He knew that he was in no condition to leave, his leg made sure of that. Also if he ran away again, he felt sure that this man would come after him, and make good his threat of turning him over to the local judge, which would eventually mean either his uncle or the orphanage. Finally, he had to admit that this was the only place where his mother knew to look for him, when she returned, and he felt sure that she would return for him. So he needed to be here. Slowly he nodded and saw the gunslinger relax back in his chair.
The conversation had drained the still healing lad, and he settled back on the pillows unable to prevent the pain from washing over him. Chris, seeing this, stood up and fetched the warm broth that Nathan had left for the boy. He carefully helped Ezra eat the food, and watched over him as the painkiller started to take affect. Ezra blinked sleepily up at Chris. His situation suddenly seemed to fall on him, with an enormity that caused him to start shaking. If Larabee had not offered to honour his mother's letter, then he would be on his way to an orphanage as soon as he could walk. Slowly his hand crept out from under the cover, and it was caught and held in a warm, reassuring grip.
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