Seated at their usual table with his other friends, his midnight blue eyes full of worry, Buck Wilmington watched as the sharpshooter of their group entered and crossed to the long bar at the back of the saloon.

The lean Texan tossed back two shots of rot-gut in quick succession before ordering a beer. He stood staring into the amber liquid as if it held the secrets of the universe.

Buck knew Vin Tanner was reliving memories, seeing them play out in his mind as clearly as if he were watching a theater production.

"How long ya think he'll be gone this time?" Josiah Sanchez quietly questioned.

The solitary trips into the mountains had become increasingly more frequent the past three months and they had all come to recognize the signs their young brother would soon head into the wilds once again.

"Depends on how long he needs." Wilmington shrugged.

"For what?" JD Dunne looked at his mentor, his confusion clear in his expression.

"To mourn." Buck stated, knowing just as Larabee had dove into a whiskey bottle, when the pain began to overwhelm him Vin Tanner headed for the hills he loved seeking solitude to mourn the son he missed so desperately.

Larabee gave Buck a small nod over the rim of his beer mug. The others might think it was Larabee himself but the gunslinger knew if anyone understood loss it was Buck Wilmington. The jovial gunman had been there when Chris discovered the bodies of his wife and son. Buck had helped the gunslinger bury the woman and child and had stood steadfast beside the Hoosier who wanted nothing more than to join them. He'd remained a loyal friend, ignoring Larabee's threats, taking his abuse and watching over the drunken man.

Buck had lost his surrogate family, his home, his best friend and unlike Chris, he'd had no one to help him through his sorrow.

There was no doubt in the Hoosier’s mind, just as he had with Larabee, Buck would stand beside Vin, doing whatever was necessary to help him through the ordeal he now faced but this time the big hearted ex-Texas Ranger would have the assistance of four brothers.

"Ezra ain't dead Buck. He just went back to live with his mom." The young sheriff pointed out. "We knew it was gonna happen sometime."

The Bostonian didn't think he'd ever forget the day, three months earlier when Maude Standish had returned to town to retrieve the son she'd left behind. He would never forget Ezra's expression as Maude entered the boarding house or the look on Vin's face as the stage left town carrying Ezra from his life.

"Let me ask ya something." Wilmington turned his attention to the youngest of their group. "Ya told me once you and yer ma both knew she wasn't gonna get better but did knowin' it was gonna happen make it hurt any less when she passed?"

Dunne's gaze dropped to the tabletop and he blinked at the tears filling his brown eyes as he thought of his mother's sweet smile and soft laughter.

"There's all kinds of loss and all kinds of mournin' JD and ain't nothin' wrong with it. A person needs ta mourn before they can move on with life. Just like you'll always miss your mama, just like Chris...and me...will always miss Adam and Sarah...Vin'll always miss Ez. But as time passes it'll get easier to remember the good times." He laid a gentle hand on the sheriff's shoulder. "Vin just needs that time."

JD nodded. Ezra had been a part of all their lives claiming a special place in each man's heart and they all missed him, but it was different with the tracker. Vin had been his guardian, his best friend...his father.

His attention on Dunne, Buck didn't see the small smile of approval that lifted the corners of Larabee's lips. 'Leave it ta Buck ta get right ta the heart of the matter. Man never could keep from jumpin' in ta help.'

Chris had to wonder, not for the first time, if he'd ever thanked Buck for everything the man had done for him. Had he ever thanked him simply for his friendship?

All eyes turned to the batwing doors as Mary Travis stepped through, anxiously looking around the large room. "Mr. Tanner!" Spotting the object of her search, the blonde woman hurried forward. "Mr. Tanner this came for you. It's from Denver."

It was a long moment before Vin hesitantly reached for the envelope she held. "Don't know anybody there."

"I thought it might be from Ezra." Giving his hand a gentle pat, Mary nodded at the others before retreating.

No one at the table moved, each watching their friend as Tanner studied the envelope addressed to him in care of The Clarion.

Everyone seemed to be holding their breath as chewing his bottom lip, a habit he'd picked up from the little southerner, Vin slowly pealed back the flap and pulled out the folded stationary.

Shaking his head in warning, Josiah clamped a large hand on Dunne's shoulder keeping the younger man from voicing the question they all wanted answered. Wilmington and Larabee finally rose and casually flanked Tanner as the tracker intently studied the letter.

"Vin?" Chris prodded.

"It ain't from Ezra." The disappointment was plain in the quiet words. Well aware Vin's reading skills were still in the rudimentary stage, Ezra would have neatly printed the words on the page. Instead Vin found himself trying to decipher the few lines of fancy cursive.

"Well hell boy, if ya ain't gonna tell us who it's from, guess we'll have to see for ourselves who's writin' ya love letters." Not wanting to embarrass the younger man by making him ask for help, Buck snatched the letter, giving him a quick wink as he pretended to hold the paper out of Vin's reach.

"Mr. Tanner,

I'm contacting you on behalf of Maude Standish. Please come as soon as possible. Saint Christopher Hospital, Denver Colorado.

Sincerely, Emily Watson."

The five men exchanged quick looks as Tanner rushed from the building.

*******

Vin stared out the train window, unable to see the passing scenery in the dark night. He never thought anything that seemed to move across the plains so quickly could be so slow.

He glanced at his traveling companions. Buck was across the aisle, stretched out on the two-person bench, well as much as someone six four could stretch out, snoring softly. Chris occupied the seat beside Tanner, his arms folded across his chest, his hat tilted to cover his face blocking the lantern lights as he dozed.

There had been no time for argument when his friends had caught up with him as he neared the livery, announcing Chris and Buck were going to accompany him. With JD volunteering to tack out the horses while they packed a few belongings, Nathan and Josiah headed off to gather supplies.

He'd been taken back to discover the men had added their own meager earnings to money donated by Mrs. Potter, Mary and Yosemite, so the three could take the train.

Knowing he would consider it charity, Josiah hadn't given the tracker a chance to refuse the currency, explaining they were all concerned for Ezra and wanted to help. The train would get them to Denver a lot faster than horseback. The preacher had simply smiled and nodded when Vin promised to pay the money back.

Vin pulled the letter from his pocket for the hundredth time since boarding the train.

A hospital! Was Ezra sick? Had he been hurt?

His mind wandered back in time to the day Maude Standish had shattered his heart. Like a force of nature, she’d whirled into town with the bearing and attitude she owned the territory and expected everyone to know it. She had charmed every man in town…except the six peacekeepers.

The day she and Ezra were to leave, Vin had decided it was time to take the bull by the horns.

Tanner hadn't given the woman the chance to refuse him entrance to her room, shoving past her as soon as Maude answered the knock on her door.

"Reckoned we better get a few things straight." Vin had announced, knowing he wouldn't be overheard since Ezra was at breakfast with the others. "Yer Ezra's Ma and I reckon ya love him, maybe not like most Mas love their kids but that ain't no never mind."

Ignoring her packing, Maude had taken a seat near the window, calmly watching the tracker pace the room, nervously twisting his hat in his hands. She'd already been informed of the circumstances behind Ezra's arrival in the small town and had been proud of how he'd conned the grown men into providing him free room and board. She’d definitely taught him well.

The day of her arrival she'd been escorted to the jail where she'd spent what seemed like hours facing the disdain of the six men who protected the backwater town, being lectured on her lack of parenting skills and what could have happened to her darlin' boy.

Larabee had informed her in no uncertain terms that they knew how she made her living and wouldn't hesitate to put her behind bars if she tried any of her con games in their corner of the territory.

"I reckon ya do what ya gotta ta provide for you and Ezra and I reckon ya know that him bein' around ain't always the best thing for him so ya send him ta stay elsewhere." Fire blazed in the blue eyes glaring at Maude. "But iffen ya ever take ‘im ta stay with that uncle a his again, I'll hunt ya down and make sure you and that no good bastard pay a hundred times over for every bit a sufferin' he inflicts on my boy."

While her poker face had remained firmly in place, Maude had been furious when told about the suspected treatment Ezra had received from Bradley. The truth was she'd noticed the changes in her son each time she returned for him but had usually been too preoccupied to pay much attention.

"Your boy Mr. Tanner?" Maude inquired with raised eyebrows. "As you just pointed out, Ezra is my son not yours and-."

"He may not carry my blood but he's mine just the same...in here." He tapped his chest over his heart. "Didn't come up here ta argue with ya Mrs. Standish. I came ta tell ya that iffen ya ever need a place for him ta stay, I'd be more than happy ta take care a ‘im. All ya gotta do is ask."

They silently faced off for several moments before Maude surrendered with a small smile seeing the advantage of having a member of the law willing to help her, even if he was an uncouth uneducated ruffian. "I'll remember that Mr. Tanner. Your kindness is greatly appreciated."

"Best remember one other thing Mrs. Standish," One hand on the doorknob Vin turned to face the woman.

"And what might that be Mr. Tanner?"

"Ya best take good care a ‘im. The judge done thinks Ezra's my blood kin. Don't think it would be too hard ta convince 'im it's best me and the others raise 'im up ta manhood." Adjusting his hat Vin had left to spend his last few hours with the little southerner that had claimed his heart.

Vin could still feel Ezra's little arms clutched tightly around his neck, could still feel the tears running down his cheeks as they said their good-byes in the privacy of the boarding house room.

He could still see the little gentleman Maude expected him to be standing beside the stage as Ezra solemnly shook each peacekeeper's hand, thanking them for their help and wishing them the best for the future.

"Best get some rest Cowboy." Larabee muttered. "Starin' out that window ain't gonna make the train move any faster."

*******

Telling them he'd be along shortly Buck had stayed at the train station, seeing to the unloading and care of their horses.

It had taken over an hour to reach the enormous old building situated on the outskirts of Denver. Uncertain what to do Tanner followed Larabee's lead silently making their way down a quiet hall.

"Excuse me ma'am." Respectfully removing his hat, Chris approached a woman in a nun's habit as she exited one of the rooms. "I'm Chris Larabee and this is Vin Tanner. He received a letter from someone named Emily Watson about Maude Standish."

Vin shifted impatiently as Sister Mary Margaret introduced herself and offered to show them where Emily worked. As they made their way through the halls, the nun gave them the history of the hospital, explaining how the owner had willed the estate to the church with the provision the mansion be converted into a hospital. It was obvious neither man cared but she was well aware that sometimes having something mundane to think about helped ease the fear of the unknown.

"Emily, this is Misters Larabee and Tanner."

The woman looked up, clearly startled to see two men who looked like they should be facing down desperados in the middle of the street or perhaps running from a posse rather than standing before her desk.

"You sent me this letter." Vin explained thrusting the paper at the young woman.

"Oh yes!" After a quick glance at the letter, the woman smiled brightly motioning them to follow her. "Sister would you please ask Dr. Crane to come to room twenty-five."

Just as the nun had, the nurse chattered about inane matters as they passed worried loved ones, patients and employees.

Vin wanted to grab the woman and shake her until the answers he wanted popped out like candy from a busted pineta.(I don't know how to spell it but you know what I mean. Those Mexican things you bust with a stick.) He didn't give a damn about what a gorgeous spring day it was or how much the city seemed to grow each day. He wanted her to tell him Ezra was fine...or going to be fine...or wasn't sick...or...anything. Tell him anything about Ezra.

"Although the injuries were extensive Dr. Crane seems to be very optimistic about a full recovery."

Injuries? Ezra had been injured? Was Maude here? Had she stayed with him or left him hurt and frightened to be cared for by strangers?

Vin suddenly found himself standing in front of a door at the back of the building with the number twenty-five neatly painted on it. His heart racing he found himself both wanting to rush into the room and afraid to enter. Afraid of what he would find on the other side of the door.

Feeling Larabee's hand on his arm, offering support and encouragement, he forced his feet to obey his mind's commands.

The room was surprisingly large and bright. The furnishings were expensive and several vases of fresh flowers were positioned around the room. One window looked out over the back lawn and French doors opened onto a patio overlooking a small garden.

Tanner's breath caught in his throat. Maude Standish lay in the bed, her blonde hair, lank and lackluster spread out on the pillow beneath her head. Dark circles beneath her eyes made her pale complexion appear almost translucent. Splints encased her right arm from elbow to fingertips and what appeared to be heavy burlap bags pressed against her waist, hips and legs.

Relief that it wasn't Ezra's small body lying unmoving in the bed was quickly followed by a wave of guilt. His eyes darted about the room searching for the object of his worry, realizing how frightened the little boy must be, seeing his mother in such a state.

All eyes turned to the man who quietly entered the room. He was younger than Vin expected, perhaps the tracker's age. Tall and thin he had a friendly smile and congenial manner, quietly introducing himself as he shook each man's hand. "I'm Dr. Crane, Mrs. Standish's physician. Are you relatives?"

"This is her son's uncle, Vin Tanner. I'm Chris Larabee. Federal judge Orrin Travis can vouch for us." Chris stated before Tanner could reply. "Could you tell us what happened?"

"Mrs. Standish has been our patient for the past several weeks." He went on to quietly explain how she'd broken her back, arm and both legs, suffering a concussion, cuts, bruises and pulled muscles when the carriage she was traveling in turned over.

"She suffered complications from a severe infection which has finally cleared up and she has feeling in her legs so we don't think there's going to be any permanent damage if we can keep her from moving about until the bones completely heal. That's what the bags are for." He gave them an encouraging smile. "It's going to take a great deal of time but I expect Mrs. Standish to make a full recovery."

"What about Ezra? Was he with her? Was he hurt?" The tracker questioned when it appeared the doctor had finished. "Where's Ezra? Is he alright?"

"I'm afraid I don't know-

"Mrs. Standish's son." Emily, who had busied herself straightening the bedcovers and looking after Maude hustled forward. "Yes he was with her but other than a few minor cuts and bruises he was fine. Such a sweet little boy. We kept him here in the children’s ward just for-"

"Can I see him?" Vin interrupted

"I'm sorry Mr. Tanner, he isn't here any longer. I’m not sure where he is. Once we were certain he was alright-"

"Well where the hell is he!"

"Let the woman talk Vin." Larabee ordered, placing a calming hand on the man's shoulder.

"You sent me a letter." Chris tightened his hold as Tanner attempted to step closer, pointing his finger at the young woman. "You made it sound like she needed my help! You tell me that Ezra was hurt in the same accident that brought Maude here but now you tell me you don't know where he is!"

Facing the Texan's anger, her eyes darted nervously to the guns worn by the two men before she wrapped her professionalism around her like a shield. "Mr. Tanner I'm sorry if I shouldn't have contacted you but Mrs. Standish...you have to understand...she was so ill those first few weeks. Each time she woke, she kept talking about getting in touch with you and promising her I would, seemed to be the only thing that calmed her down." Her gaze dropped to the floor. “I’m sorry I didn’t write sooner…well actually I did but there was a fire at one of the hotels and the hospital was extremely busy and the letter got set aside…”

"You did the right thing Miss Watson." The gunslinger assured her.

"Please tell me where Ezra is...Please!" Vin hated that he was begging but right then he would have kissed the feet of the devil himself if it would get him the information he needed.

"M-M-Mabel's." The weak voice from across the room startled everyone.

The medical personnel hurried forward followed more slowly by the two men from Four Corners. Emily gently supported Maude's head as the woman sipped from the cup held to her lips.

The two men politely directed their attention elsewhere as the doctor checked his patient, pretending not to hear the stifled groans and catches in her breathing as Maude fought the pain caused by their gentle ministrations.

"The medicine is necessary Mrs. Standish." Dr. Crane argued when Maude pushed aside the hand holding the glass.

"I understand that doctor and I assure you I will happily drink every drop after I have talked with Misters Tanner and Larabee."

Once Maude was settled again, the doctor and nurse slipped from the room letting their patient and her visitors have privacy.

"T-thank you for coming gentleman."

"How ya doin' Mrs. Standish." Chris questioned, giving the Texan another moment. He knew Tanner's worry for the boy he loved was at war with the compassion he felt for the injured woman.

"Magnificently...considering the circumstances." Maude forced a smile that almost worked.

'Damn, no wonder Ezra's such a good little actor. He's certainly had a great teacher.'

"Mr. T-Tanner," Pain flashed across her face disappearing so quickly they weren't sure it had been there at all. "I appreciate your making such an arduous journey."

"Weren't that arduous." Vin shrugged.

A small smile touched Maude's lips at Vin's obvious embarrassment of her gratitude. The truth was she had been surprised to find the tracker there when she awakened. No matter what he had said in the Four Corners hotel room, she hadn't truly believed he would come when asked. People said a lot of things in the heat of the moment but in her experience they rarely followed through.

"Doc says yer gonna be fine." Tanner tried to offer some reassurance.

"He has assured me of the same." She took a deep breath, fighting the desire to shift into a more comfortable position. "Unfortunately he has also informed me that I'm looking at a long recovery period which brings me to the reason for contacting you."

The men waited patiently as her eyes slid closed and her lips pressed into a tight line.

Chris smiled as Vin immediately stepped closer, soothingly stroking her arm when her hands fisted in the blankets until her knuckles turned white.

He quickly removed his hand as her breathing evened out and she blinked owlishly once again pushing aside the pain. "You should drink the medicine Maude."

"I'm afraid Mr. Tanner I would like to take you up on the offer you made when I visited your quaint little town...T-that is if it's still on the table." She hurried on before he could answer. Vin could see she was growing weaker and having a hard time fighting the pain but he was equally certain she was afraid he would refuse. "First let me assure you that while Ezra was with me in the carriage, he only sustained minor injuries...The doctors even let me see him for a few moments. If I could impose on your kindness I would be most appreciative if I could place him in your care until I-I...am able to-"

"Course I'll take care a 'im." Vin was quick to reassure her, careful to keep his voice even as he controlled the urge to let out a joyous whoop. His boy was coming home! Telling himself it would only be for a few months and than his heart would be broken again couldn't seem to diminish that joy. "We all will."

"It's alright to be happy Mr. Tanner." Maude stated, her eyes closed once again. "I know you c-care about my darlin' boy. I also realize that you aren't pleased by the circumstances under which I have to ask such a favor. Mr. Bateman took Ezra to stay with m-my cousin Mabel."

"Mr. Bateman?"

"My intended...”

Larabee and Tanner exchanged looks of alarm. Surely Maude hadn’t left Ezra in the care of her intended mark.

“I...accepted h-his proposal two days b-before that dreadful driver lost c-control of those massive beasts." Her voice was barely above a whisper and if possible her complexion was even more pale than when they'd arrived. "I didn't want t-to b-burden him with the responsi...responsibility of a s-stepson before we were even married."

Chris shook his head sensing Vin was about to protest Ezra being a burden.

"Mabel and her husband...own the hardware store in Gatestown." As if sensing his apprehension Maude offered him a small smile. “There’s n-no need to worry Mr. Tanner, Mabel a-adores Ezra.”

"We'll bring 'im by ta see ya-"

"NO!" Ending on a soft moan the single word held a determination, which surprised both men. "I don't want him t-to see m-me in this condition...Once was enough."

"Do ya need anythin' Maude...Ain't got much money but-"

"Thank you Mr. Tanner. That's very generous but Mr. Bateman is extremely well off and taking care of any financial responsibilities. Just take care a my darlin' boy." She smiled. "If you gentleman will excuse me...I don't mean ta b-be rude but...I...think I would like to sleep now."

"I'll be right along Pard. Why don't you go find that nurse and let her know her patient is ready for some rest." Chris urged.

"Get better Mrs. Standish." Vin shyly pat her hand before slipping from the room.

Moving to the head of the bed, the gunslinger gently lifted Maude's head holding the glass until she'd finished drinking the medicine "You're doin' the right thing Mrs. Standish. Vin's a good man."

"His being a good man had nothing to do with this Mr. Larabee. As..a business woman, I'm simply taking advantage of a good opportunity. Someone to look after my child without depleting one cent from my bank account." There was little conviction behind the words and lacking the energy to open her eyes, she missed the gunslinger’s smile.

‘Of course you are.’

“Take care of my angel. He’s a very special boy…Of…course…I’d never….tell him…that…” Maude whispered as the medication took hold and she drifted into oblivion.

*******

Leaving Buck to watch over Tanner, hoping the tracker would relax enough to sleep, Chris had sought out Maude’s ‘intended’ wanting to confirm the man had followed her wishes.

Richard Bateman was a respected businessman who appeared to own a good portion of Denver and was well thought of by everyone Chris spoke with. Emily Watson had informed them Bateman had been constantly at Maude’s side until assured she was going to recover and continued to visit everyday. His home was elegant without being ostentatious and large enough to house several families yet he had welcomed the black clad gunslinger as if he were a childhood friend.

Seated in the study, sipping expensive whiskey listening to Bateman talk about everything that had happened since his first meeting Maude Standish, it was clearly apparent the older man was head over heels in love with Ezra’s mother.

He had explained during her few lucid moments after the accident she had always talked of Ezra. He’d been more than happy to keep Ezra with him but she had wanted the boy to stay with her cousin. He had finally agreed to see Ezra safely to Gatestown and if per chance she didn’t survive her injuries he would then deliver her son to his uncle Vin in Four Corners.

Larabee had choked back his laughter but been unable to suppress his smile when Richard commented she might not have been as lucid as he thought. “She said ‘For God’s sake don’t send him by mail’.”

Bateman had assured Chris he had personally accompanied the child to Gatestown, wanting to be certain Ezra was welcome and they were willing to care for him. Mabel’s husband had been away on business, but the distant cousins had appeared happy to see each other.

“Mr. Larabee, I want you to know Ezra is always welcome here even if Maude…” He had tossed back the last of his whiskey unable to voice the unthinkable. “He’s a exceptional kid and I love that con woman he has for a mother. Anything you need, all you have to do is ask.”

*******

Buck chuckled as sensing his rider’s excitement Peso pranced playfully. The happiness shining in the tracker’s bright blue eyes had dimmed only momentarily the previous day when Larabee had insisted they use the rooms Wilmington had rented, pointing out they all needed rest and a meal.

According to Bateman, Gatestown was a quickly growing town less than a day’s ride from Denver.

As expected, Tanner had risen when the first rays of dawn were lighting the earth and both men suspected he hadn’t slept at all.

Anxious to be with Ezra, the need to rest the horses was the only thing that had persuaded the Texan to consent to a noon stop.

“Ya know Pard, I don’t know who’s gonna be happier ta see Ez, Vin here,” Buck winked at Chris. “Or Peso.”

“Reckon it’ll depend on whether Ez has any peppermints in his pocket.” Larabee grinned, remembering how they’d caught the little southerner sharing the sweet treats with Tanner’s horse.

“Guess that answers the question than…since Vin can buy his own peppermints.”

Both men were pleased to hear Vin’s laughter, one of the few genuine laughs to come from the man since Ezra had left Four Corners.

*******

As they walked their horses down the main street of a town twice the size of Four Corners, each man found himself searching the faces of children walking with their parents or playing with friends, hoping to spot enormous green eyes and a familiar mischievous smile.

The ex-bounty hunter resisted the urge to pull his hat lower shading his face when the sheriff turned his attention from the cowhand he was talking with, to the three newcomers. The easiest way for a wanted man to draw attention to himself was by acting guilty.

“There ‘tis” Buck nodded to a weather beaten building with Avery’s Hardware painted in large letters across the front.

Not wanting to wait longer than necessary to see the little southerner, they bypassed the livery hitching their horses to the rail in front of the storefront.

“I thought I told you not to give them any more credit. Those deadbeats owe me eno-“ The statement ended mid word as the bell over the door jingled lightly announcing the three men’s entrance into the hardware store.

Vin’s eyes darted to each nook and cranny of the large room, desperately seeking sight of the little southerner in the shadows created by the late afternoon sun, a sinking feeling something was wrong quickly overtaking him.

With a nervous glance at the burly man behind the counter, the woman straightening inventory on the shelves ducked her head and tried to blend into the background.

“Reckon it’s time ya started supper Mabel. I’ll help these fellas and close up.”

His tone leaving no room for argument the petite woman dodged tables and barrels hurrying toward the curtain leading to the attached living quarters.

Wilmington’s quick reflexes kept the young woman from crashing into the counter when her foot caught in the hem of her mourning black dress. Skittish as a young colt Mabel tried to pull away quickly averting her face but not before all three men caught a glimpse of the dark bruise marring her finely chiseled cheekbone.

Buck fought his rising anger. “Ya okay ma’am?”

“F-fine thank you. Just clumsy.” Freeing herself from his gentle hold, with a nervous glance at her husband, she hurried from the room.

“Damn woman’s always trippin’ or bumpin’ inta somethin’. She’s about as graceful as a two legged dog.” The man chuckled at his own joke evidently unaware or uncaring that the others didn’t find it funny. Reeking of whiskey, he closed the ledger and straightened his shirt sleeves before turning his attention to his potential customers. “Now, how can I help you gents.”

“Where’s Ezra?”

“Excuse me?”

“Pardon our friend,” Wilmington stepped forward giving the man behind the counter a friendly smile that didn’t reach his eyes. He’d taken an instant dislike to the man but figured he was the most likely to handle the situation without anyone getting shot. “It’s been a long trip and he tends ta forget his manners when he’s tired. We’re lookin’ for the owner.”

“Sign says this is Avery’s place.” Chris commented, seemingly scrutinizing the wares on the shelf.

“My father-in-law. He passed on a couple years ago.”

“Where’s Ezra?” Vin repeated.

“Maude’s son?” The shopkeeper looked startled.

“Ya know another kid named Ezra? Ain’t exactly a common name.” Tanner growled, his senses on alert. Something wasn’t right. Every instinct was screaming the man was hiding more than the fact that he was a bully who mistreated his wife.

The bell jingled again and Prescott actually appeared relieved to see the man with the sheriff’s badge pinned to his vest. His smile widened as he regained some of his bluster.

“Afternoon Steve.” Pulling back the curtain he called to his wife ordering her to bring the lawman a cup of coffee.

Buck casually leaned against the counter watching the sheriff stroll among the tables of goods. In his early fifties, his skin leathery from years spent in the sun, twenty pounds heavier than he’d been in his twenties, the man’s neatly cut hair was more gray than brown.

“Everything okay Nick?”

“These gentlemen were-“

“Gentlemen!” The sheriff scoffed. “If you think this sorry son of a horse’s ass is a gentleman, than you don’t know Chris Larabee or his mule headed sidekick Buck Wilmington.”

“I’ve shot men for less than callin’ me a sidekick.”

Nick took a step backward out of the path of stray bullets as the womanizer slowly brushed his coat aside, revealing the six gun on his hip. Watching the scene play out, Vin didn’t miss the twinkle of merriment in the dark blue eyes. “Course it would just be a waste a lead to shoot a cantankerous old coot with a tin star permanently stuck to his chest.”

The two men faced off for a long tense moment before the lawman glanced in Larabee’s direction. “You backin’ his play?”

“If ya mean do I think you’re a cantankerous old coot with a tin star permanently stuck to your chest…I always have.” A slow grin spread across the gunslinger’s face. “Good ta see ya Steve! Been a long time.”

“Too damn long!” The sheriff chuckled, vigorously shaking the Hoosier’s hand a moment before Wilmington grabbed the shorter man in a bear hug lifting him off his feet.

“Damn it Buck put me down! Ain’t dignified for a lawman ta be swung around like a little girl at a Saturday night dance.” His grin belied the gruff tone. Though he pretended not to see her bruises as he thanked Mabel for the coffee, his smile had momentarily faded. “What the hell are you boys doin’ in my town?”

“Steve this is Vin Tanner. We-”

Before Buck could say more there was an audible gasp from the woman and wide eyed, she whirled to face them. “You’re Vin?…Ezra’s Vin?”

A smile lit the Texan’s handsome face hearing her call him ‘Ezra’s Vin.’ “Yes ma’am. Maude asked me ta take care a ‘im till she’s better.”

“I’m so glad ya came. I-“

“Mabel darlin’ ya better get back ta the kitchen before our dinner burns.” Prescott was suddenly the loving husband yet no one missed seeing her tense as he stepped around the counter.

She hesitantly backed away from her husband. “But I wanna-“

“It’s best ya get back ta your cookin.” His smile didn’t reach his eyes or his voice. “Ya know how upset you’re gonna be if ya ruin that roast.”

Her gaze dropping to the floor, her chin quivering, Mabel cautiously slipped past her husband.

“’Scuse me ma’am.” Vin stopped her before she could enter the back part of the building. “Don’t wanna be a bother but it’s been an awful long trip and I was hopin’ we could see Ez.”

“I don’t understand,” Her hand to her throat, the color draining from her face, she looked panic stricken. “He’s with you. Mr. Bateman took him to Four Corners. Nick said-”

“I’ll handle this Mabel.” Her husband gripped her arm, guiding her toward the back. “As ill as you’ve been ya don’t wanna have a relapse by getting upset.”

“Maude and Bateman told us Ezra was here.” Larabee stated calmly.

She turned back, her expression one of bewilderment and hopefulness as she gazed from Chris to Vin.

“When?”

“Pardon?”

“When did you talk to Maude?” She seemed almost desperate for an answer.

“That’s enough Mabel. You’re getting yourself upset.”

“Yesterday.” Vin answered before her husband could pull her from the room.

The woman jerked her arm free, the confusion disappearing to be replaced by anger. The men watched in amazement as the timid creature suddenly became someone they could believe was related to the strong, independent Maude Standish as she whirled on her husband. “What did you do?”

“We’ll talk about this later.” Nick hissed, his eyes darting to the men watching the by-play. “You go rest and-“

“You lied to me! You said Maude didn’t survive. You said Mr. Bateman took Ezra to Four Corners! You said-“

“Shut up ya stupid cow!”

The woman’s head snapped to the side and she staggered off balance as the back of his hand connected violently with her cheek.

All four men moved forward stopping only when Mabel faced Prescott, her green eyes flashing fire and defiance as she wiped the trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth. “Where is he? Where’s Ezra?” She rushed forward, kicking and scratching, her small fists pounding against his chest as she screamed the questions. “What did you do? You sonuvabitch! What did you do! Tell me what you did to that sweet child! Tell me!

Nick’s own fury took over and he shoved her away. Surprised when she didn’t flinch from his raised fist, he hesitated long enough for Buck to step between the two in a gesture of protection. “Why don’t ya take on someone big enough to fight back?” Wilmington suggested.

What did you do Nick! Tell me what you did to Ezra!

“I sold ‘im.” He snarled with a smirk of satisfaction.

*******

Stunned silence followed the storekeeper’s declaration. No one seemed able to wrap their mind around the man’s three little words.

“Tell me Nick…tell me you didn’t really se-“ Mabel’s voice broke and she swallowed hard, fighting the bile rising in her throat. “Please tell me it’s all a lie!”

“Stop your damn whinin’ before I find someone willin’ ta pay for you too!” He sneered, seeming to forget the rest of his audience. Gone was Prescott’s act of the loving husband used for the benefit of others. “Bet I could get more’n fifty lousy bucks.”

“Why Nick?” She truly wanted to understand how anyone could do something so abhorrent. "Why would you do such a thing? That precious little boy-"

”Precious little boy my ass. Persnickety little brat was no better than his mother. Always runnin’ his mouth, actin’ like he’s better than everyone else. Eatin’ us outta house and home and stealin’ me blind.” Prescott straightened his jacket brushing dust from the sleeves.

Mabel stared at the man before her as if he’d sprouted another head. Shaking her head in horrified denial, the woman unconsciously backed away from the monster she was bound to by marriage vows.

Steve stood motionless, one of the few times in his life uncertain what to do. He had known the shopkeeper since Prescott had arrived in town three years earlier. He couldn’t say he’d ever liked the man. He drank too much, bragged too often and the sheriff was certain Nick’s fists had caused his wife more than an occasional doctor’s visit.

Buck’s gaze automatically sought Chris’ needing the gunslinger to confirm the words had actually been said, only to find the Hoosier seemed as unable to believe what he’d heard as Wilmington himself.

Drowning in a tidal wave of rage, Tanner launched himself at the man. Havoc reigned as the two combatants tumbled over tables and slammed into shelves scattering tools in all directions.

Horses whinnied in fright, pulling at the reins holding them to the hitching post as the two men crashed through the front window, landing on the boardwalk and rolling into the street. Grunts of pain, the crunch of bones and flying splatters of blood pulled the others from their stupor.

Realizing Vin was trapped by his uncontrollable fury Larabee and Wilmington rushed forward, intent on keeping the enraged tracker from beating the storeowner to death even though they wanted nothing more than to help him do just that.

Tanner didn’t give up the fight easily, cursing and threatening the shopkeeper, his booted feet connecting with the prone man’s ribs, legs and arms as Chris and Buck attempted to pull him away. The two finally managed to wrestle the ex-bounty hunter to the ground.

“Arrest that sonuvabitch!” Prescott screeched through split lips, wiping at the blood flowing from this nose. “He’s crazy! I think my nose is broke!”

“Ya've done worse to yer wife." The sheriff muttered, shoving the man back down as he attempted to rise.

“Look what he did ta my store!” The man protested. “Yer gonna pay for everything ya crazy bastard.”

The two peacekeepers tightened their hold on the Texan as he continued struggling to reach Prescott.

“Ya can’t kill ‘im Pard. Can’t help Ez if yer sittin’ in jail." Buck's soft words spoken close to his ear, slowly penetrated Vin’s thick cloak of rage, helping the younger man begin to regain control.

The gathering crowd watched in fascination as carrying a broken table leg Mabel approached her husband; hate burning in her green eyes. Everyone jumped, startled by the howl of pain when swinging the table leg like a club she brought the thick piece of wood down on his booted ankle.

“Who Nick? You tell me who has Ezra or so help me God, the hell of being married to you will seem like a church picnic.” She struck again, this time connecting with his thigh. “Who! Tell me you cowardly bastard! Who has Ezra?”

“You just gonna stand there and let her do this?” Prescott whimpered appealing to the sheriff as he tried to scoot away.

“Yep.” The sheriff nodded, drawing snickers from the watching townspeople. “Reckon you’re better off with her than with them.” Steve indicated the three men near the boardwalk. “Or with me. You sold a little boy! You’re damn lucky I’m wearin’ a badge cause right now I just wanna string ya up by your balls.”

“Ain’t against the law ta sell your kids!” He glared at his spouse intimidatingly. “Or your wife.”

“Ezra ain’t your kid!” Tanner railed, again attempting to free himself from the two men holding him. “He’s mine! You sonuvabitch! He’s mine!”

The storeowner screeched again as the club struck his ankle once more.

“Who Nick?” Mabel demanded.

“I don’t know.”

Receiving a nod from the gunslinger Buck readjusted his hold on the lean tracker watching as, pushing to his feet, Chris crossed to stoop in front of the storeowner. “As far as I’m concerned you’re worse than a snake…least they’re true to their nature and ya know what to expect.” Drawing his gun, he pressed the barrel to Prescott’s forehead. “As much as I would enjoy watchin’ your missus get the revenge she’s due, we really ain’t got time so I’m gonna ask ya this once and if ya don’t give me an answer I’m gonna blow yer fuckin’ brains out. Who’s the bastard that paid ya for Ezra.”

Reading the calm deadliness in the gunman’s hazel eyes, the man began to visibly tremble, certain the Hoosier would follow through on his threat. “I don’t know! I swear! Just said ta call ‘im Simmons. I-I think he...he was a pro-prospector or somethin’. S-seemed kinda lonely.” He babbled squeezing his eyes shut when Larabee cocked back the hammer. “He come in and bought a few supplies. S-seemed ta take a real shine ta the bra-ta Ezra.”

“So you just offered to sell ‘im?”

“Nah. It-it wasn’t like that. I saw ‘im later at the saloon. We got ta talkin’. He kept sayin’ how he missed havin’ kids around and how pretty Ezra was and…and...” He trailed off as if realizing he’d said too much.

Suddenly aware the Texan no longer fought against his hold, Buck turned his attention to the tracker, his heart shattering even more at the sight of the tears silently flowing down Vin’s tan cheeks. His stomach roiled as his own imagination ran wild. “We’ll find ‘im Vin. We’ll find ‘im.” Wilmington softly promised, draping an arm around the younger man’s shoulders. “We won’t stop lookin’ till we do.”

Seeing the control Larabee was exerting not to pull the trigger, the sheriff slowly reached out and wrapped his fingers around the barrel pushing the gun to the side. “Put it away Chris. He ain’t worth the price.”

“But Ezra is.”

Humiliation burning in his veins, Prescott wiped the blood and sweat from his face when Chris finally eased the hammer back into its original position before sliding the gun into its holster.

“Mabel, would ya take Chris and his friends over to my place and wait for me there?” Steve requested, gently prying the piece of wood from the woman’s hand. “Tell Nancy I’ll be along shortly.” Turning to Larabee he added, “Go on Chris. Your friend needs ya.” He nudged the gunslinger towards where Wilmington was helping the tracker to his feet. “I’ll take care a this asshole.”

Giving the woman a small smile as taking Larabee’s arm Mabel gently urged the gunslinger to comply, guiding him in the direction of his friends, the sheriff gripped Prescott’s arm yanking the man to his feet. “Nick Prescott you’re under arrest for kidnapping. Shame I can’t charge ya for impersonating a human being.”

Mutterings and comments of approval raced through the crowd, fueling the shopkeeper’s anger and humiliation. His hate filled gaze remained on Mabel as she spoke with the buck skin clad tracker, taking one of his hands in hers. This was all that whore’s fault! She had never been a proper wife, always trying to question his authority, only pretending to learn her lesson after being punished. She’d brought that uppity little bastard into his house without so much as acquiring his permission, constantly putting the boy’s needs before his, making his favorite meals, encouraging the child to play and leaving the marriage bed to sit with him until he fell asleep. Now she had cursed him, threatened him and struck him in front of townspeople making him a laughing stock. Instead of giving him the respect he was due they were jeering him, commenting on their desire to see him in prison or worse. Because of her, he had lost everything!

Blinded by his overwhelming anger and need to make her pay for her betrayal, Prescott let his leg go out from under him, stumbling into the crowd and jerking away from the sheriff who was suddenly thrown off balance. Shoving him aside Nick pulled the gun from the holster of the nearest cowboy and took aim at his wife’s back.

His attention drawn to the commotion a few yards away, Wilmington turned, drew and fired, as Prescott’s finger closed around the trigger. The shopkeeper’s bullet went wild, burying itself in the dirt and Mabel’s husband was dead before he hit the ground.

*******

“How could he have done something so evil?” Mabel’s question was the first words spoken in several moments by the occupants of the small parlor in the sheriff’s home.

“How the hell could you let him do it?” Tanner questioned angrily. “Ezra trusted ya to watch out for him.”

Her complexion draining of color, her eyes filling with tears, the newly widowed woman rushed from the room.

“Mrs. Prescott!” Buck called after the woman, turning back to Tanner when the back door slammed. “That was uncalled for Vin.”

“I know. I-“ The tracker scrubbed a calloused hand over his face. He’d been sorry the instant the words had been given voice, but his emotions were still out of control.

“Sit down Mr. Tanner.” Nancy sternly ordered, in a tone reminiscent of an angry Nettie Wells, as the Texan pushed to his feet intending to follow Maude’s cousin.

Buck bit his lip in an effort to stifle his grin as the chagrined tracker respectfully sank back down onto the small sofa.

Setting the coffeepot and cups on the sideboard, the sheriff’s wife perched on the edge of the sofa next to the Texan. Nervously smoothing a wrinkle from the lap of her dress she turned slightly to face Tanner. “Considering the circumstances and although he didn’t seem to take to Nick at all, Ezra seemed happy to be here with Mabel and it’s the happiest I’ve seen her since her father died. I know you don’t really blame her for what Nick did but I think there’s some things you need to know.” She glanced at the other two men. “Things you all need to know.”

The woman waited patiently until Larabee, whose gaze had been on the small yard beyond the window but whose focus she was certain was internal, finally turned and leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest, his eyes on Vin, his thoughts on Ezra.

“Nick Prescott first came to Gatestown just over three years ago. He was a drummer for one of Charles’ suppliers. He began courting Mabel, taking her to dinner and for carriage rides each time he was in town. He was polite, funny, charming, said all the right things and was a bit too…” She hesitated, searching for the right word. “Slick.”

“He was a con man.” Larabee stated.

She nodded. “That’s what Steve thought.”

‘No wonder Ezra didn’t take to him.’ Vin momentarily closed his eyes, picturing the small southerner. Raised from birth in the art of the con, the little gambler would have been able to instantly spot Nick’s true nature.

“Then all of a sudden Nick quit his job and went to work for Mabel’s father. They were married a few months later.”

“When did he start beating her?” Wilmington asked. Even without the physical evidence, Buck had seen too many abused women in his lifetime not to have recognized the signs.

“I think the first time was about a month after Charles passed away. She never said anything. She would have a bruise or be moving cautiously like she was sore but she always had an excuse. She fell down the stairs. Tripped over something. Bumped into something…”

The womanizer sighed in understanding. How many times had he heard those explanations from working girls, wives, mothers and even daughters. His own mother, not wanting him to worry, had used those excuses more than once when one of her customers had gotten out of hand.

“I was there the day Ezra…” Again she hesitated. “The day Ezra left. Doc Johnson had confined Mabel to bed because of several broken ribs. She told us she fell from the ladder while she was putting things on one of the upper shelves.” Her expression told them all she hadn’t believed her friend’s story. “Nick told her he was taking Ezra to visit his mother. When he came back he said Maude had died from her injuries. He told Mabel that she had named you as Ezra’s guardian and a Mr. Bateman was taking him to be with you. She didn’t even get to say goodbye to him but she was happy he was going to be with someone who loves him as much as she does.” She gently placed her hands over Vin’s clenched fists. “I know this doesn’t help you or change what’s happened but I wanted you to know that Mabel’s suffering too.”

Vin silently nodded unable to stop the tears that escaped. Talk quietly turned to plans for searching for the small southerner.

*******

Mabel wasn’t surprised that some kind citizen had boarded up the store’s broken window. Her parents and been liked and respected, helping found the town a year before she was born. Believing if they were to survive and help the country grow everyone had to work together doing what they could to help each other they had passed on those strong beliefs to their only child.

Most families in the area survived by farming or raising cattle which made cash money scare until harvest or round up, so credit for what they needed was imperative. Helping their neighbors had ended when Nick took over after Charles Avery’s death. If a customer couldn’t pay on their bill every month Nick had no use for them so Mabel had taken to using the money her father left her, money Nick knew nothing about, to pay on customers bills when needed.

Removing the roast from the oven, she set the dinner for two on the cabinet, her appetite having deserted her. Unbuttoning her clothes as she moved to the bedroom she quickly replaced her black dress with a light lavender cotton one sprinkled with small blue flowers. She had worn the mourning black for the cousin she loved and believed was gone from her life forever but refused to mourn the abusive, vile human being who had been her husband.

Retrieving an empty crate from the storeroom, she returned to the bedroom and began filling the box with her dead husband’s clothes and other belongings, wanting to remove all traces of the evil he’d brought into what had been a loving home most of her life.

As she had time and again Mabel wondered how she had been so completely fooled by the man she’d married. Had she simply ignored the signs or had he actually been able to hide his true nature. While he was courting her Nick had been the epitome of gentleness and consideration. It wasn’t until a few months after her father had passed away their marriage their marriage began to change. Nick had become demanding and abusive. Oh he was always sorry for having to hurt her in order to teach her and for days afterwards he would revert to the man she’d fallen in love with. Yet even after two years in hell, Mabel had never imagined he could do anything as horrendous as selling an innocent child as if he were nothing more than one of the hammers on the store shelf.

Where was Ezra? Was he alive? Was he safe? What was happening to him? Mabel’s watery gaze fell on the black dress she’d tossed it in the chair. Would she soon be wearing that dress again out of respect for the little boy who was so special to her?

Her stomach churned and her tears flowed freely as horrific mental images flashed through her mind. She wanted to believe Ezra was safe and happy with a family who loved him. She wanted to believe the man who had paid money for her second cousin was a good man with a wife who wanted a family but couldn’t have children. Nick’s words had negated that desperate hope.

Her tears blinding her, Mabel dragged the now full box through the kitchen to a corner of the back porch. As much as she wanted to she couldn’t bring herself to burn the items when someone else might have need of them. Later she’d have someone haul the box to the church. Reverend Laker would see to their distribution.

A small squeal of surprise escaped her lips when she turned to find Vin Tanner standing on the steps.

“Mrs. Prescott.” Respectfully removing his hat the young man stood nervously fidgeting with its brim unsure of his reception. “I-“

Quickly brushing at the tears wetting her cheeks, Mabel squared her shoulders preparing herself for his wrath. “Please come in Mr. Tanner.”

Motioning him to a seat at the table, when he followed her into the kitchen, she hurriedly started a fresh pot of coffee.

Vin watched the woman as she nervously bustled about the kitchen not failing to notice she made certain to stay out of his reach.

The Texan pretended not to see her flinch when remembering his manners, he stepped around the table to hold her chair as pouring the coffee, she took the seat across from him.

“Mrs. Prescott, I come to apologize. I shouldn’t have said what I did.” Regret flooded through him again when her eyes widened in surprise at the simple act of an apology.

Her eyes dropped to the dark liquid in her cup. Her hands shook, rattling the china and sloshing coffee over the rim. “Thank you Mr. Tanner but you were right. Ezra did trust me and I failed him.”

“From what I saw of your husband, don’t reckon you could have stopped ‘im.” His azure eyes softened. “Even if you had known.”

“I’d have stopped ‘im! No matter what it took, I’d have stopped ‘im!” The angry declaration was so full of determination, Vin had no doubt she would have killed or died to protect the boy they both loved.

A knock at the door prevented either of them from saying anything more.

“Mrs. Prescott.” The man, Tanner correctly assumed to be the undertaker entered when Mabel answered the door. “I know this is a difficult time but I wanted to see if you might want any special funeral arrangement.”

“As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Daniels, you can throw his body in the dump with the rest of the garbage.”

His shocked expression at her harsh tone wasn’t quite sincere leading the ex-bounty hunter to believe the town residents had known of the treatment the woman had received at the hands of her husband.

Informing him she wouldn’t be attending the funeral as she escorted him to the door she dismissed the man after handing him enough money for the cost of the coffin and gravediggers.

“Ezra talked about you all the time.” Mabel said softly, when she returned to the table, a sad smile crossing her lips. “He made you sound ten feet tall and bullet proof.

Vin smirked, a pink blush tingeing his scruffy cheeks. “Well I ain’t ten feet tall but there’s times when I sure wish I was bullet proof.”

“Wouldn’t matter to him if you were a humpback dwarf. From the moment he arrived, the only thing that made him smile was talking about you and your friends.”

When Ezra was awakened by nightmares or couldn’t sleep for worrying about his mother, Mabel would sit with the boy, encouraging him to tell her about his time with Tanner and the other peacekeepers. While she suspected there were cherished memories he would never share she had quickly discovered getting caught up in his stories about the peacekeepers helped Ezra relax.

Over an hour had passed while the two shared stories of the little southerner who had claimed both their hearts when Chris knocked on the door.

“Fella just came by ta see Steve. Says he remembers that Simmons fella sayin’ somethin’ about Twin Creeks. He figured he might be headed that direction.” Chris placed a hand on Tanner’s chest stopping him as he moved for the door. “Buck’s over rentin’ us a couple rooms. We’ll head out at sunup.”

Vin opened his mouth to argue but closed it again recognizing the sense in Larabee’s reasoning.

“Wait!” Mabel hurried from the room. Vin was more than a little surprised when she returned a few moments later carrying Ezra’s carpetbag. Leaving the carpetbag behind had made Nick’s story more believable. Ezra wouldn’t have needed to take more than a change of clothes for the trip to visit Maude. “If you find him, Ezra will want his things.”

“We’ll find him ma’am.” Vin declared repeating Buck’s earlier words. “We won’t stop lookin’ till we do.”

*******

Peeking over the mountains the sun was just beginning to chase away the darkness leaving the town in shadows when the peacekeepers led their horses from the livery.

“’Scuse me.” The liveryman passed Wilmington the reins of a pack mule loaded down with supplies. “Was supposed ta be sure ya got this.”

“We’ll see ya get the mule back.” Buck assured him.

“No need.” The man shook Buck’s extended hand. “Mrs. Prescott tried ta pay for it but I got no need for a mule.”

“She buy the supplies?” Chris questioned.

“Some.” He nodded. “Others pitched in the rest. Hope ya find that little boy. He was a good kid. Used to visit with the horses but weren’t never any trouble.”

“He is a good kid.” Vin corrected not wanting Ezra spoken of in the past tense. “Thank folks for the supplies.” Digging his heels into Peso’s side, he left the others to follow.

*******

A shawl wrapped tightly around her slumped shoulders against the Fall’s early morning chill, Mabel Prescott stood on the boardwalk watching as the three peacekeepers rode past the store.

She’d passed the long night baking rolls and bread and preparing other food, the peacekeepers would be able to use on the trail.

Each of the men respectfully nodded in her direction or touched the brim of their hat as they passed.

Vin’s azure eyes met hers and seemed to speak volumes, assuring her his search for Ezra wouldn’t end until he’d found the small southerner.

“Godspeed.” She whispered watching until the men disappeared from her view.

*******

Huddled under the wagon, Ezra pulled the thin blanket tighter around himself and curled into a ball in an attempt to retain what little warmth the ragged cloth provided.

Soon the sun would chase away the darkness and it would be time to begin work. He’d stoke up the campfire, start a fresh pot of coffee, gather more wood, fill the water kegs and the list of chores went on endlessly.

The little boy knew he should be sleeping. The days were long and full of nothing but hopelessness and hard work. He should be taking advantage of every opportunity to sleep but sleeping meant letting his guard down. Sleeping meant giving the men who now owned him the opportunity to…NO! He wouldn’t think about that. He wouldn’t think about the things they wanted and promised to do. Unspeakable things that sent shudders through his small body and filled his dreams with horror.

Would they be moving on today? The skins were dry and they needed supplies. Of course a trip for supplies also meant a supply of whiskey and the men were even more abhorrent drunk than they were sober.

Perhaps if the next town was big enough he would try again.

He knew what Simmons would do if he failed. He’d not only been told but shown the last time he’d tried to escape. However it didn’t matter. There was no one who cared. Now no one who would miss him. His mother was dead. Mabel didn’t want him and Vin…Ezra turned his thoughts back to escape.

Did he dare try again? Ezra had no idea of their location. Even with what he’d learned from the tracker who’d cared for him during his stay in Four Corners he wasn’t foolish enough to try running while stuck in the middle of the wilderness. His carpetbag had been left behind. He didn’t have his money, his derringer or even the slingshot Tanner had made for him.

He would have to wait for the right opportunity. He could survive on his own if the town was big enough for him to stay hidden until Simmons quit looking for him but if he was found...

Once again, Ezra tried to understand why he found himself in these abhorrent circumstances. He wasn’t sure what he’d done to make Mabel no longer want him around. She had been one of the few constants in his young life. When Maude needed her to watch over her son, Mabel had always seemed happy to see him and had never made him feel he was in the way. What had he done wrong? He’d tried to be good. He hadn’t gambled or run any scams. He’d tried to be helpful and not draw any attention to himself but he’d failed. He’d made a mistake and she hadn’t wanted him anymore. He angrily wiped at the escaping tears which tracked his cheeks.

Unbidden, as they often did, his thoughts turned to Vin Tanner and the other peacekeepers. He didn’t want to think about them. He didn’t want to think about the soft, warm bed in the boarding house room, the bedtime stories and gentle hugs. He didn’t want to think about how his stomach was always full. He didn’t want to think about how Tanner and the others had treated him as one of their own. He didn’t want to remember how safe he felt with the ex-bounty hunter.

The little boy fingered the Agate marble in his trouser pocket. Afraid of losing it Ezra had never used it in another game of marbles but simply carried it for luck since the day he’d used it in the slingshot against the ambusher, intent on killing Vin and the others. Did Vin miss him or had he simply wiped Ezra from his mind when the stage pulled out of town the same way others in his life had done when he left?

In the beginning he had tried convincing the man to take him to Four Corners with the promise Tanner would pay for his safe delivery. He had warned them all Vin would be looking for him. He had warned them what might happen to them when the tracker and his friends found him.

The man had simply laughed and proceeded to prove to the small southerner he had no control in anything that happened to him from that moment on. Ezra had continued to hold out hope. He had even tried once again praying to the God Josiah trusted but had little faith he would be of help. After all Ezra wasn’t of consequence. It wasn’t like when he’d asked God to help the peacekeepers.

‘Yer ma’s dead so she can’t pay ‘im for watchin’ ya and since ya wasn’t pleasurin’ ‘im yet it’s most likely he’s done found someone else.’

Ezra didn’t want to believe Simmons. He didn’t want to believe Vin had watched over him for the money he could extort from Maude. Of course that was better than believing Tanner, like Simmons himself, had only been waiting until Ezra was a bit older to have the boy service him the way working girls did their customers.

Simmons had made Ezra’s future perfectly clear. He was a bit young for Simmons’ taste but in a year or less the boy would be old enough to be trained in the art of satisfying a man. The skinner took great pleasure in constantly describing all the finer points he planned on teaching Ezra and when Simmons finally tired of him he would be sold to one of the bawdy houses.

“Make me a nice bit a profit, ya already bein’ trained and all. Course maybe yer friend’ll wanna buy ya but than again it’d be a lot cheaper fer ‘im ta just pay ‘em ta let ya pleasure ‘im.”

He didn’t want to believe Vin was anything like these men. Vin had loved him. The tracker had told him so more than once and he hadn’t asked anything of Ezra. Was Simmons right? Were the hugs just a prelude of things to come?

Why hadn’t Vin come looking for him? Why hadn’t the Texan answered him? Tanner had promised he would always be there if Ezra needed him. He had said Ezra just had to ask but Vin had ignored him. Why didn’t the tracker want him anymore? Had he done something wrong or was Simmons right and Vin had simply found someone to replace the southerner?

Realizing talking drew the men’s attention he had stopped, withdrawing into himself in order to deal with the nightmare he was living but he continued to watch the horizon hoping to see the Texan approaching. Hoping to have his prayer answered.

Eventually Ezra had stopped looking; had stopped hoping.

He told himself Simmons was wrong. He told himself not all men were like those he now lived with; yet in his young life Ezra had seen more of the evil in mankind than he had the goodness.

Crawling from beneath the wagon, Ezra silently crossed to the fire to begin his chores, careful not to awaken the men in the nearby bedrolls.

*******

Crumpling the telegrams in frustration, Larabee tossed the wadded papers into the fire, and violently slammed the stove door closed.

Nothing!

Crossing the jail, he stood staring out the window, watching the falling rain turn the dirt street to mud.

He had known it would be damn near impossible to find Ezra. It was a big country and other than a name and possible occupation, they knew nothing about the man who had purchased the child yet, despite the odds against them, no one was willing to give up.

Advising Vin and Buck he would meet them in Twin Creeks, Chris had ridden to Denver and contacted Richard Bateman. While the man had thought, in her current condition, it would be best, to keep the news from Maude he had immediately began sending wires to anyone he knew outside Denver. He had insisted the lawman accept several hundred dollars stating it could be used for supplies or to loosen the tongues of those who might have information.

For four long weeks, the three men had searched every mining camp, town, farm, ranch and campsite they came across, questioning residents and travelers they passed on the road.

Everyone had done what they could to help find the little southerner. Mary Travis had printed an article in The Clarion and sent the story to every newspaper in the territory. Buck had wired old friends and colleques from the Texas Rangers. He’d even wired several of the working girls he knew. Saloons and bordellos were hotbeds of information. Chris had sent telegrams to every sheriff’s office and everyone he knew who might be able to help.

Even Orrin Travis had gotten involved, spreading the word not only throughout his judicial territory but contacting his peers all over the country. The gunslinger wasn’t surprised to discover Bateman had hired several Pinkerton agents to help search for the small southerner yet it seemed to have all been in vain. There was still no word. It was as if Ezra and Simmons had fallen off the face of the earth.

Larabee’s gaze traveled to the beat up Conastoga sitting near the livery. It had broken his heart when Vin had silently turned Peso in the direction of home after Chris had finally announced they needed to return to Four Corners. Both Chris and Buck had assured the tracker they weren’t giving up on finding Ezra. They would continue to search but they still had their duty to Four Corners.

“We’ll keep lookin’ Vin. Ya got my word I’ll never stop lookin’.” Buck had calmly stated. “And ya know Josiah, Nathan and JD all wanna help. We’ll just use Four Corners as a base.”

Chris knew Buck hadn’t been able to bring himself to promise they would find Ezra so he settled for promising they would always keep searching.

Once back in Four Corners, Vin had lovingly unpacked Ezra’s old carpetbag, placing the few belongings back in the bureau drawers of the boarding house room yet Chris had read the defeat in the younger man’s sad eyes.

Since their return each of the peacekeepers had traveled with Vin following a lead or just searching new areas. And each time he returned empty handed, the tracker’s guilt at his failure deepened. These days the young tracker rarely slept and seemed to eat only enough to keep him alive. Even Miz Nettie hadn’t been able to help ease the overwhelming agony gnawing away Tanner’s soul. Watching his friend slowly self-destruct gave Chris insight into how Buck had felt those first years after Sarah and Adam’s death. ‘Gonna hafta let that big hearted jackass know just what a good friend he really is.’

’Might as well get this over with.’ Slipping into his black duster, Chris pulled the collar up against the chill wind and made his way to the saloon.

*******

“How long ya think it is afore he leaves for good?” Wilmington pulled his rifle from the scabbard before handing the reins of the big gray horse to the livery boy, his eyes on the lean tracker as tossing his saddlebags over his shoulder Tanner stepped onto the boardwalk, his intense gaze automatically searching every nook and cranny of the busy street.

“My guess is unless a miracle happens this’ll be his last job for the judge.” Josiah sighed, stepping up behind Buck and Chris.

Judge Travis had summoned the four peacekeepers to Ridge City for the trial of Lawrence Hallis. The sheriff’s deputy had been wounded in the pursuit of the man accused of raping and murdering a teenage girl and with the town in an uproar Travis thought the lawman could use some help.

Chris hadn’t looked forward to announcing the trip to Ridge City. Vin was planning to travel to a new mining camp a few miles outside Gopher’s Gulch, a small town almost a week’s ride west of Ridge City. He knew Tanner’s honor and sense of obligation would win out over his own needs and desires so had promised the tracker he would accompany him as soon as the job in Ridge City was concluded.

Vin had made the long trip in virtual silence, speaking only when necessary. None of his friends had been able to draw him into conversation or take his thoughts from the little southerner.

“…Well if it is,” Buck took a deep breath unsure how his friends would react to his announcement. “Then it’s mine too.”

Larabee dropped his gaze to the ground as he followed the tracker, pressing his lips together to prevent a smile. He had expected no less from his big hearted friend. The man was loyal to a fault.

“Gave ‘im my word Chris.” The womanizer quickly tried to explain, misunderstanding his oldest friend’s silence. “Besides, I love that little kid and I-“

“I know Buck.” Larabee nodded. “Just thinkin’ how happy McMurtry and some a them other self righteous citizens are gonna be ta finally be rid of at least half the town’s bad element.”

“Half?”

“I happen ta love that kid too.” It surprised the gunslinger how easily it was to voice the simple statement. After Sarah and Adam’s deaths he hadn’t believed he’d ever allow anyone else to claim even a small piece of his heart.

“Make that more than half.” Sanchez added. “Our youngest brother needs us and these old eyes are still pretty damn sharp.”

Any further discussion was silenced as the three men joined Tanner at the door of the jail.

*******

Sitting on the cot of the only occupied cell, Lawrence Hallis returned the peacekeepers’ scornful gaze with an arrogance that belied the situation. The man was locked behind bars, facing a long walk to the gallows, if an angry mob didn’t overrun the jail and lynch him first, and he was looking at the men sent to help keep alive for his trial as if they weren’t worth sharing the air he still breathed.

“Turns out the bastard’s wanted in Nevada, Oklahoma, Missouri and half dozen other places for everything from rustlin’ and robbery ta arson and murder.” Sheriff Oates pulled several wanted dodgers from a desk drawer. “Said ta have ‘bout a dozen or so fellas that run with ‘im.”

“Him? He leads a gang a outlaws?” Buck snorted raking his gaze once again over the man who stood barely five foot six and weighed maybe a hundred pounds if he was fully clothed with his pockets full of rocks. “Hell he looks like he oughta be bookkeepin’ in a bank, not robbin’ it.”

“Travis here yet?” Larabee questioned turning away from the cell.

“Due in on tomorra’s noon stage. Plans ta hold the trial first thing the followin’ mornin’.” The sheriff wearily scrubbed at bloodshot eyes. The older man looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. “He arranged for ya some rooms over at the Royal hotel. Talked ta Jacob and he’s givin’ ya what he calls the Presidential Suite. Two bedrooms and a sittin’ parlor.”

“Oughta set up a watch schedule.” Larabee automatically took control.

“Oughta start plannin’ yer funerals.” The man in the cell taunted. “The town’ll be diggin’ yer graves afore the judge can bang his gavel.”

Ignoring the prisoner, Chris tossed his saddlebags to Josiah, sending the ex-priest and tracker to settle into the room and the sheriff home to get some much needed sleep. “Why don’t ya go grab some shuteye? Ya look about out on your feet.”

“’Ppreciate it. Ain’t slept more’n a few minutes at a time since we caught that loud mouth sonuvabitch.” The sheriff slipped into his jacket. “Me and the Missus got a house the next street over. Most everyone knows where it is if ya need me.”

With a nod to the gunslinger, Josiah clapped a large hand on Tanner’s shoulder, steering the sharpshooter out the door. “See ya in a few hours.”

*******

Determined to prevent a confrontation with a drunken mob, leaving Josiah to watch over the prisoner Larabee, Tanner and Wilmington visited each of the town’s four saloons.

“Judge Travis will see to it that justice is done but if some a you wanna be foolish enough ta try and do his job, come on out in the street and we’ll get it over with right now.” Chris announced, pushing his duster aside to reveal the six-gun on his hip. No one had yet reached the level of inebriation to provide them with the bravado needed to face the infamous Chris Larabee and his friends.

They had followed that announcement with the declaration that until the trial was over the saloons would only be serving three drinks per customer. Any owner caught serving more than the allowed amount of alcohol would have their saloon shut down until further notice. There was some grumbling but no one bucked the lawmen.

The next morning Chris, Vin and Josiah had ridden out to meet the stage, concerned for Travis’ safety if Hallis’ men were still in the area.

As it turned out all their precautions were for naught because trouble didn’t come from a drunken mob. As soon as Travis called the trial to order, several men attempted to free their boss. Forced to leave their guns on a table outside the door the sheriff had immediately identified the strangers as they entered. Forewarned, the lawmen had strategically positioned themselves around the makeshift courtroom where they could watch the trial and the spectators.

Chaos reigned with people diving to the floor or running for the doors as secreted weapons appeared and gunfire filled the air. When the echo of the last shot faded and the smoke began to dissipate eight men lay dead, two of them innocent bystanders killed by the outlaws. Thankful to discover it was the only injury suffered by his friends, Wilmington quickly wrapped Josiah’s arm where a bullet had cut a groove through the flesh above his wrist.

Finding Hallis laying motionless near the back exit, the double barrels of Travis’ shotgun pressed against his skull, the peacekeepers turned their attention to helping the wounded until the doctor could tend them.

“You’ll be okay ma’am.” Tanner pressed his bandana and a borrowed hankerchief to the through and through shoulder wound of a young woman who’d been seated near the front. “I know it hurts like the dickens but the doc’ll fix ya up. I sure hope your husband can cook cause you’re gonna have to take it easy for awhile.”

“Hallis?”

Tanner hid his surprise that she would ask after the health of the man on trial. “Reckon Travis’ll finish the trial, soon as we get everyone cared for.”

The woman attempted a weak smile as Vin gently wiped at her tears. “T-thank y-you.”

“Ain’t no thanks necessary ma’am.”

“She was m-my sister.” The woman flinched, pressing her lips together as the tracker increased the pressure to stop the blood flow. “W-wanna know he’s gonna…gonna h-hang.”

“Reckon he will.” The tracker stepped aside as the doctor knelt beside his patient.

The dead were taken to the undertaker’s, the wounded to the doctor’s, the chairs righted and the trial resumed. The guilty verdict took less than half an hour.

*******

“How’s he doing?”

Chris didn’t have to question who the judge was asking about as the two men shared a drink.

“Not good.” Larabee leaned back in his chair fingering the shot glass, his worry for his best friend written on his haggard face.

The judge studied his drink for a long moment. “Can ya give me a couple weeks ta find some replacements?”

The question should have startled the gunslinger as no one had yet to mentioned leaving their peacekeeper position, however the judge was an observant man. He’d been the one to officially make Vin, Ezra’s guardian during Maude’s absence. He realized how much the little southerner meant to the ex-bounty hunter…how much he meant to all of them.

He knew the lawmen had become a family and Ezra was a member of that family. The judge took it for granted Tanner would be leaving to concentrate on finding the child and the others would be going with him.

“Sure we can work something out. Josiah and Buck’ll be headed back tomorrow after the hangin’. Told Vin I’d go with him up ta Gopher’s Gulch.” The gunslinger tossed back the whiskey.

“Any word at all?”

“Nothin’.” Disgust filled Larabee’s voice as he refilled his glass.

“What?” Travis urged, certain there was something the Hoosier wasn’t saying.

“Keep thinkin’.” Chris sighed. “Ezra’s a smart kid. He’d find a way to contact us if he could.”

‘If he was alive.’ Travis correctly interpreted the unspoken thought.

*******

Businesses had opened as soon as the trial ended but almost as if fearing the return of Hallis’ gang, people hurried along the boardwalks wanting to finish their errands and get off the street before gunfire started again.

The sounds of hammering echoed through the streets as workers finished constructing the gallows that would deliver Hallis’ punishment.

Buck chattered mindlessly unsuccessfully trying to draw the tracker into a conversation as the two peacekeepers patrolled the streets. Suppressing a sigh the womanizer launched into another story refusing to give up.

When first meeting the young Texan, most people assumed he was just shy. However, the men who now rode at his side had quickly discovered Vin’s quiet nature was simply his way of observing his surroundings, listening to his instincts and judging the nature of those with whom he was dealing. The courageous ex-bounty hunter had a wicked sense of humor, a maturity and wisdom beyond his years and a love and respect of life. Ezra had once compared the tracker to Robin Hood because of Tanner’s willingness to stand up against those with power for those without it.

Buck couldn’t stand to see the usually optimistic tracker’s indomitable spirit slowly being destroyed by what Vin considered his failure to help the child he loved. Wilmington had been down this road with Larabee and had almost lost his oldest friend. He had managed to help keep the gunslinger alive but it had been Vin and the others who had helped fan the last spark of life in the Hoosier to a still growing blaze.

Wilmington knew the secret to keeping Tanner alive was to keep alive the younger man’s hope of finding Ezra just as Larabee’s need for revenge had kept him going. Buck knew he somehow had to make the Texan realize he had to remain strong in order to help the little southerner.

Well, there was no time like the present. “How ‘bout we head on over ta the restaurant and I’ll buy us some dinner?” He offered.

“Thanks. Ain’t hungry.”

“Hear they got some damn good fried chicken and peach cobbler.”

“Said I ain’t hungry.” Tanner reiterated with a sharp shake of his head.

Catching the tracker’s upper arm, Buck pulled the sharpshooter to a halt. “Ya gotta eat Vin. You’re gonna make yerself sick if ya don’t and then what happens to Ezra?”

“Listen ta me Vin.” Buck continued when Tanner ignored him, his blue eyed gaze instead raking the street, skimming over the old buckboard sitting in front of the general store a few yards away. Scratching at his scraggly beard, a tall thin man, leaned against the side of the wagon watching the passersby, leering at the women and making lewd comments, ignoring the clerk who hurried in and out of the store stacking boxes and burlap bags at the back. “Ya think Ezra would wanna see ya like this?”

“Shut up Wilmington!” Vin growled jerking away from the womanizer.

“The hell I will!” Ducking Tanner’s halfhearted punch, Buck slammed the shorter man against the wall, pinning his shoulders. “Whether ya listen or not is up to you but by God you’re gonna hear what I got to say. Gave ya my word I’d never stop lookin’ for Ez and if that means ridin’ with ya, or by myself, ta hell and back then that’s what I’ll do but you ain’t gonna make it that far or do him any good less ya start taken care a yerself.” The womanizer loosened his hold but didn’t release the smaller man. “That kid loves ya Vin and seein’ ya tearin’ yerself apart like this would destroy ‘im. You know Ezra and you know he’d blame ‘imself! Is that what you want?”

Wilmington released his hold stepping back, as Vin sagged against the wall closing pain filled eyes. “I don’t know what ta do Buck. I don’t know how ta find ‘im. Damnit I shoulda been there! I shoulda stopped it!” There was such sorrow and a hollowness in the Texas drawl, Buck was momentarily transported back in time, fighting to push away the image of Chris calling for Sarah and Adam as he searched the smoldering remains of his home certain he would find nothing but their burnt bodies. “Hell, I keep prayin’ ta every God and Spirit I ever heard of. I tried bargainin’ with ‘em and…beggin’ ‘em ta show me the way but…Reckon I ain’t worth listenin’ to.”

“Ya couldn’t a got there any faster.” He laid a gentle hand on the tracker’s shoulder. “And other than little kids, I don’t know many people more deservin’ of havin’ their prayers answered than you.”

“I don’t know what ta do Buck..I’m afraid I won’t find ‘im and I’m afraid a what I might find iffen I do.”

When ya do. Look at me Vin.” Wilmington waited patiently until the younger man finally met his gaze. “What ya do is ya keep lookin’. If we have ta search every damn inch of this country then that’s what we’ll do. What ya do is face yer fear and count on your friends for support. And what you do is keep the faith until you know somethin’ definite. What you do is whatever Ezra needs ya to do when ya do find ‘im. What ya do is take care of yerself so ya can take care of our little brother when we find ‘im. And we’re gonna start with some dinner and a decent night’s sleep.”

Swallowing hard, Tanner took a deep breath and slowly exhaled before giving the womanizer a quick nod. “Bet their cobbler ain’t as good as Miz Nettie’s.”

“That’s a sucker bet if I ever heard one.” Wilmington chuckled.

Their attention was drawn to a loud voiced heavy set man who ordered, “Finish loadin’ up.”

He ignored the citizen he knocked aside as he stepped from the store. With expressions of disgust at the odor and filthy clothes, residents scurried past or crossed the street to avoid the wagon owners.

“Skinners.” Easily recognizing the smell carried on the cold breeze, Vin nodded toward the wagon.

“Hey Boss, hear there’s gonna be a hangin’ tomorra. We stickin’ round for the festivities?” The skinny man spit a stream of tobacco into the street, ignoring the spittle that dripped into his beard.

“Ain’t interested in seein’ some fool swing. Got a job ta do. Ranches south a here havin’ wolf trouble.” The sound of splintering wood as a box hit the ground sent the man marching to the back of the wagon where a trembling child stood staring in horror at the broken crate. Can goods rolled in all directions and a large bag lay on the ground, its side ripped open spilling coffee into the dirt. “What the hell ya doin’ ya clumsy little bastard. Can’t do a simple thing like put supplies in a wagon.” The back of his hand viciously connected with the child’s cheek sending the youngster sprawling into the dirt. “Every damn dime that cost me is comin’ outta yer hide.”

Stunned, the child struggled to his knees, scrambling to evade the massive hands that grabbed for him.

“Touch that child again and you’re dead where ya stand.” At the cold Texas drawl the skinners whirled to find themselves staring down the barrels of the peacekeepers’ weapons.

His eyes narrowing into a glare that didn’t come close to those the men had often received from Larabee, the big man’s pocked face twisted in a sneer. “Mind yer business! He belongs ta me and I’ll do as I damn well please.”

“Not if ya wanna keep breathin’.” Wilmington stated, his own voice devoid of emotion.

Facing off, the men failed to notice when the child scrambled to his feet and ran for his life.

*******

Exiting the jail, his mind on reaching the saloon, hoping a few belly warmers would numb the dull throb in his arm, a startled Josiah stumbled into the street as a small body collided with his long legs. A quick glimpse of dirty clothes and long wavy hair was all he managed as what was obviously a frightened child darted into the nearby alley.

Turning back toward the saloon, he became aware of citizens, dashing into buildings further up the street.

“Chris ya better get out here.” He called out, drawing his gun as he moved to back his friends.

*******

“Don’t know who ya are but ya’d be wise ta just move on.”

“Don’t know who you are and frankly we don’t give a damn.” Buck retorted, his gun never wavering. “What’s important to you is that for the moment though we’re part a the law in this town and we don’t take kindly ta-“

“Someone wanna tell me what the hell’s goin’ on.”

Aware of Josiah and the sheriff approaching the men from behind, Wilmington’s gaze never wavered as Larabee stepped up to the other side to the wagon.

“Seems we got a couple a big brave fellas here who like to beat up little kids.”

Damn!’ Chris’ gaze darted to the sharpshooter immediately recognizing the tense stance, impassive expression and the fury blazing in the man’s azure eyes. It was evident the Texan was fighting for control with every ounce of willpower he possessed. Neither Chris nor any of the men he rode with had any tolerance for someone who mistreated children but added to that the guilt and worry Tanner was feeling about Ezra and these were the perfect fools for the ex-bounty hunter to vent his frustration on. Chris saw Josiah tense at the womanizer’s words and was equally certain, despite his calm tone, Buck wanted nothing more than to rid the world of two more child abusers.

“I never touched that kid!” Scraggly beard denied with a squeak.

“He’s mine and I’ll punish ‘im as I see fit.” Pock face sneered. “Ain’t never heard of a law against it.”

“What kid?”

At Larabee’s question, the showdown temporarily ended as all four men glanced around.

“Finish loadin’ up and be ready ta go when I get back!” The big man ordered his companion turning away.

“And just where the hell do ya think yer goin’?” Wilmington trained his gun on the skinner once again.

“I’m gonna find my boy and get the hell outta this town. Got a job waitin’ and yer costin’ me money.”

“Actually, I think it’s a better idea if ya wait over at the jail until we find your son and get this straightened out.” Sheriff Oates stepped forward. He wasn’t quite sure what was going on between the peacekeepers and the skinners but the men from Four Corners had backed him and he would readily return the favor.

*******

The heavy gray clouds which had hung low in the sky finally released their burden, the cold wind blowing a stinging drizzle through the streets as a prelude to the coming storm.

“Where the hell did he go?” Wilmington moved several barrels as he and Chris walked down yet another alley in their methodical search of the town. “Course it might help if we knew his name or at least had gotten a better look at ‘im.”

“Doubt he’d answer if we called out.” Larabee sighed. “Probably figure we just want ta take ‘im back ta that lowlife father a his.”

“Just how we gonna keep from doin’ that?”

Chris had been contemplating the very thing.

“Chris?” His whispered name drew the gunslinger’s attention to his oldest friend who nodded at the dark shadows at the end of the passageway. Before either man could react, a small body darted around the corner and disappeared.

“WAIT!” Buck called dashing after the boy.

“Josiah!” Motioning the big man on the other side of the street to try and cut off the child’s escape route, Larabee followed Wilmington.

“Sonuvabitch!” His hands resting on his knees, Buck fought to catch his breath as the flight through the series of alleys ended at the edge of town. “Where the hell did he go?”

“Well he didn’t come out onta the street.” Panting, Josiah wiped at the sweat and rain dripping in his eyes.

“So we work our way back ta where we started.” Larabee pointed out. “If he didn’t leave the alleys he has ta be here somewhere.”

The four men split up each taking an alleyway.

*******

Chris glanced in a broken down shed, bypassed the bolted back door of one of the businesses and moved further down the alley. The sun was beginning to set and soon it would be too dark to continue searchng.

What the hell had the child suffered to be so terrified of returning to his father? What would they do if they found him? Perhaps the judge could help. Short of killing them, a man could pretty much do as he pleased to his family without the law interfering but if there was a way to help the boy, Travis would find it.

“No luck either?” Buck joined the gunslinger, rattling the handle of a locked door. “Vin’s re-checkin’ the livery and Josiah’s workin’ his way up here from that end. Reckons if we’re gonna keep lookin’ we should warm up a bit and get some lanterns. Maybe get some of the locals ta help.”

Larabee nodded as he moved to the door of what he suspected was the wood room for the saloon. Most saloons in the territory had a room, usually next to the kitchen, which held their supply of wood for heat and cooking. The outside entrance allowed the room to be filled and replenished without hauling it through the main part of the building while an inside door allowed easy access.

Chris hesitated as he started to close the door. Turning back he studied the area trying to understand what it was that bothered him. The room was more than half full, the wood neatly stacked…except for the far corner. It was obvious that was where the supplier would start his next load. Reaching chest high to a grown man the small logs in that corner spilled like a waterfall toward the door. Kneeling he carefully touched several pieces, confirming the mud streaks were still wet. Striking a lucifer, Larabee carefully stepped over the loose logs.

Huddled in a tiny space between the stacked wood and the wall, in wet filthy oversized clothes which seemed little more than rags, the object of their search sat shivering, his head resting on his upraised knees. As if realizing he’d been discovered, the child’s shivering grew more intense, even as his entire body seemed to sag in defeat.

Shaking out the match as the flame reached his fingers, Chris immediately lit another, nodding at the womanizer who stood in the doorway. Signaling Sanchez with a sharp whistle, Wilmington grabbed and quickly lit the lantern hanging next to the kitchen door

“Hey little guy, we been lookin’ for you.” Remembering that they were dealing with a child; a young, frightened child; who had already suffered at the hands of adults, the gunslinger kept his voice soft and unthreatening. He wanted to take the kid in his arms and hold on as long as needed to offer comfort and security just as he had Adam when his son was upset but this wasn’t his son. This child had been deeply hurt by someone who should have loved and cherished him.

“It’s alright. No one’s going to hurt you.” He was quick to reassure as the boy tried to press himself into the wall. “We didn’t mean ta scare ya. Just needed ta talk to ya…My name’s Chris. What’s yours?” The little boy tensed but still didn’t look up, his long wet hair hiding his face. “Bet your hungry aren’t ya. I know I am. What say we go get warmed up and grab some dinner? Ya got my word, no one’s gonna hurt ya. Not us and not your father.”

At that the little boy hesitantly raised his head. Larabee’s breath left his body in a rush and he was certain his heart momentarily stopped beating as he found himself staring into bewildered, terrified emerald eyes. Emerald eyes that filled with sorrow before the boy once again dropped his head to his knees and his shivering intensified.

“Get Vin.” His whispered words were barely audible, although the Hoosier had backed to the doorway.

Buck frowned “Huh?”

“Damnit, go get Vin!” The gunslinger growled lowly.

“Chris?” Buck gripped the shaken man’s arm as Sanchez ran to do Larabee’s bidding. “What the hell’s goin’ on?”

Afraid to say the words aloud, terrified voicing the thought would cause the child to vanish and he would find it was nothing more than an hallucination, Chris shook his head, fighting to control his emotions. “It’s Ezra.”

*******

He was so tired! He no longer felt the cold or the hunger that seemed to constantly gnaw at his belly. He only felt the bone deep exhaustion. He wanted to find someplace safe and sleep. It didn’t matter if he never woke up again. This life wasn’t worth living.

When he heard the door open, Ezra’s heart began to race, skipping several beats and he held his breath afraid whoever had entered the room would hear his ragged breathing. His head resting on his knees, he squeezed his eyes shut, wishing he were invisible.

The muted noise from the saloon had covered any sound he made moving and re-stacking the firewood to create his hiding place but had he done a good enough job to fool his pursuers?

He hadn’t planned to run. Well he had but not here; not now. The town was too small, too easy to search. The residents would know each other and easily recognize strangers but-.

Sensing the man even before the match’s tiny flame illuminated his hide out, Ezra slowly exhaled. He had failed again. ‘Mother would be so ashamed.

“Hey little guy, we been lookin’ for you.”

Not Simmons or Biggs.

‘Think Ezra. There’s got to be a way out. If they take you back you’re as good as dead.’

“It’s alright. No one’s going to hurt you.”

‘Of course not. Isn’t that the standard phrase everyone uses to try and earn trust? You would think someone could come up with something more original.

The voice seemed familiar but he had more important things to consider. He had to find a way to escape. He couldn’t go back! He was afraid Simmons would kill him but he was terrified he wouldn’t.

“We didn’t mean ta scare ya. Just needed ta talk to ya…My name’s Chris. What’s yours?”

Ezra tensed. ‘Chris?’

Was it possible? Could it really be true?

He’d once heard his Uncle Bradley discussing the trials and tribulations of a neighbor, which had eventually led to the man’s commitment in an insane asylum. His uncle had said the man was a sinner and everything that had happened to him had been his punishment for angering God.

Had Josiah’s God decided to take pity on him, or was this just the beginning of the next part of his punishment?

He tried to focus on what the man was saying but it was too hard. He was so tired. He had to think. He had to escape.

“Ya got my word, no one’s gonna hurt ya. Not us and not your father.”

His father?

Ezra forced himself to raise his head. He had to see. He had to know.

So this was it. The start of insanity. The man staring down at him looked like Chris Larabee but it couldn’t be. Perhaps he only resembled the infamous gunslinger because Ezra had wanted-had prayed with every fiber of his being-for them to come for him. Perhaps this man didn’t resemble the gunfighter at all. Perhaps he was nothing more than an hallucination. It really didn’t matter. The simple fact was it wasn’t Chris Larabee. Chris would know his name. Chris Larabee would have known Simmons wasn’t Ezra’s father.

Sorrow washed over him and too weary to hold his head up any longer Ezra let it drop back to his knees as shudders raced through his body. Perhaps Lady Luck would smile on him one last time and Simmons would make his death quick.

*******

Sitting on the bed, his back braced against the headboard, Vin remained silent, clutching the sleeping southerner to his chest as the doctor finished his examination.

Ezra had never looked up, never made a sound, never even moved as Wilmington and Larabee tossed aside the wood, tearing down the wall he’d built with the hope it would hide and protect him.

“It’s alright. There’s nothin’ ta be scared of. We got ya. Ain’t nobody gonna hurt ya.” Keeping his voice soothing, Chris had slowly lifted the tense little body into his arms.

“Chris?”

“Everything’s gonna be fine now.” The gunslinger hadn’t been sure whether he was trying to reassure himself or the boy as he turned to Tanner.

Vin had stared at the gunslinger, tears spilling down his cheeks and hope filling his azure eyes as his best friend had placed his adopted son in his arms.

Buck placed a blanket over Tanner, carefully tucking it around the small boy before lovingly laying a hand on the dirty hair of the child he considered a little brother. “Doc?”

“Ya might wanna try givin’ him a bath.” The doctor stated derisively. Becoming the subject of four angry glares, the old man’s shoulders slumped and he raked a weary hand over his eyes. “My apologies gentlemen. It’s been a long day.” He tightened the straps on his medical bag. “I don’t know who’s been taking care of this child but in my opinion they oughta hang right next ta Hallis tomorrow.” The men had all seen a small portion of the evidence of the abuse Ezra had suffered. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can do to help. The best thing for him is some decent food and care.”

“And a lot of love.” Josiah sighed.

“I don’t think that’s something he’ll lack from now on.” The doctor smiled moving for the door. “He has the beginnings of a cold so you want to keep a close eye on him. Don’t want it developing into pneumonia.”

“Thanks Doc.”

The doctor waved off the bills Larabee offered. “My pleasure. Without you fellas, the undertaker and I mostly likely would have been a lot busier today than we were. You know where to find me if you need me.”

********

Josiah stood staring out at the dark street, watching the last few patrons stagger off to where they would be spending the night as the saloons closed.

He glanced at Vin, a small smile touching his lips as even dozing, the tracker rocked slightly comforting the child whose nightmares haunted his exhausted sleep.

The ex-priest knew he didn’t need to stand watch. Simmons was gone and wouldn’t be returning. Bearing the evidence of the peacekeepers’ retribution it would be quite awhile before the skinner moved comfortably again.

Shortly after the doctor’s visit, with a fury he hadn’t felt in a long time, burning inside Josiah had stepped into the jail behind Larabee, bewildered and more than a little worried about Chris’ demeanor.

He had been calm. Too calm. It hadn’t been the calm acceptance of death displayed during a showdown in the street. It hadn’t been the calm of a leader doing what was needed to insure the wellbeing of his followers. It wasn’t even the peaceful calmness of sitting on the porch of his shack or enjoying the company of his friends. This had been radically different.

This had been a deceiving, deadly calm Josiah had seen- had experienced before. Not in man; but in nature itself. This was the calm before the storm. This had been a calm that, if Josiah wasn’t prepared, could have Larabee facing a hangman’s noose.

“Don’t see my boy!” The big skinner growled as the peacekeepers entered. “Knew I’d hafta find the little bastard myself.” He stared in disdain at the hand Larabee placed against his chest as he stepped toward the door.

“We found ‘im.”

“Then tell me where he is so we can get movin’! There’s work ta be done and we ain’t got no more time ta waste sittin’ here jaw jackin’ with a bunch a cowboys playin’ lawman.”

“He just call us cowboys?” His tone amused, Chris glanced over his shoulder at the ex-priest who stood next to the door, warily watching the by-play.

“People do seem ta make that mistake quite often.”

No one moved as the two men faced off. Stiffening his arm, Chris shoved the man back against the bars of the unoccupied cell. “ We aren’t playin’ lawmen and you’ve got time.”

“Let’s get outta here Boss. That brat ain’t worth it.” Simmons’ partner whispered. “Ya can get anothern.”

Disgustedly pushing the thin man away Simmons met Larabee’s glare with one of his own. “I don’t know who the hell ya think you are but get my boy here or I’m gonna see ya behind them there bars.”

Sheriff Oates cast a furtive look to Josiah, receiving a barely perceptible shake of Sanchez’s head in answer as hitching a hip on the corner of the desk, Larabee pulled a cheroot from his pocket. Striking a lucifer on the heel of his boot he lit the small cigar taking several long drags before he turned his attention back to the big man who grew angrier with each tick of the clock.

“I think I’m Chris Larabee.” With raised eyebrows he turned to Josiah who nodded, pressing his lips together to prevent a smile. It was obvious, to the ex-priest, the gunslinger was a cat playing with its prey. “Whew. Thought I’d been answerin’ to the wrong name all this time.”

Josiah attempted to not laugh watching scraggly beard inch toward the corner, trying to distance himself from his partner.

“What’s the boy’s name?” Chris questioned abruptly.

“What?”

“It’s a simple enough question. What is the boy’s name?” The Hoosier casually puffed on the cheroot. “I can tell ya right now, Sheriff Oates isn’t gonna just let us hand over a child ta someone he doesn’t belong with.” The sheriff quickly nodded his agreement. “So the sooner we satisfy his curiosity the sooner you can be on your way.”

“Why? He tell you he ain’t mine?” Simmons’ eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Little bastard’s a born liar, just like his mama!”

“Where is his mother?” Josiah questioned.

“If it’s any a your damn business, my wife died a consumption five years ago. Served the bitch right. Wasn’t nothin’ but trouble.” The man snorted. “Always carryin’ on ‘bout the work and wantin ta settle down somewhere. Weren’t never satisfied with nothin’.”

“Must be a hard life for a woman and child.” The preacher commented.

“Don’t need your sympathy.” Simmons sneered. “Just need my boy so we can be on our way.”

“Still haven’t told us his name.” The gunslinger pointed out.

“His name is John and I wanna know where he is right now!” Letting his anger and impatience get the best of him, Simmons stepped toward the Hoosier. “Look, I don’t give a damn if you think you’re Jesus Christ. I don’t answer to anyone that’s not paying for my services but I’ve told ya want ya wanted to know and we’ve wasted enough time in this piss ant town. That boy belongs ta me and-“

With the swiftness of the cat Sanchez had just mentally compared him to, Larabee forcefully slammed the big man back against the bars, the cigar clenched tightly in his teeth, his forearm against the man’s throat, his gun barrel pressed into Simmons’ stomach.

“I would never claim to be such a compassionate being. The truth is most people consider me the devil himself.” He pressed the gun harder into the soft belly of Ezra’s abuser. “Now in case you haven’t figured it out you simple-minded sonuvabitch I ask the questions and you answer them and I don’t like bein’ lied to. Don’t do it again!”

“Chris-“ The preacher’s tone held a subtle warning.

His pale complexion was the only indication of his fear as Simmons continued to watch Larabee when the gunslinger finally stepped away keeping his gun aimed at the skinner.

“Josiah why don’t you and Sheriff Oates make a patrol of the town.” Larabee suggested. “Give me a chance ta talk ta-“

“Am I interrupting?”

Josiah breathed a sigh of relief as the question announced Judge Travis’ presence.

“If this is a jail break, I can come back later.” Travis turned back toward the door.

“Chris.” Sanchez placed a large hand on the man’s shoulder waiting several tense minutes before with a sigh of resignation Larabee holstered his gun.

“I received a message my services might be needed so I guess my next question would naturally be what’s going on?” Orrin directed his question to the sheriff in an apparent attempt to give the man back some control of his office and Josiah made a mental note to thank Wilmington certain Buck had sent the judge to the jail.

“Ain’t real sure Judge. Seems these fellas was smackin’ around that fella’s son and...”

“Told ya before I never touched that kid.” Scraggly beard interrupted with a frightened squeak dropping his gaze to the floor at the angry glare from his partner.

“Iffen you’re really a judge, I want these men arrested. They’re holdin’ my boy and won’t tell me where he is!” Simmons demanded. “That’s kidnappin’ ain’t it?”

“Is this true Mr. Sanchez?” Orrin had no doubt the men would be more than a little reluctant to hand a child over to a man they feared would harm him. “Are you refusing to return this man’s son to him?”

Sanchez shook his head. “No sir. That’s not true at all.”

“You’re a liar! Ya didn’t really expect ‘im ta tell ya the truth did ya?” The skinner sneered. “They got my boy and…“

Larabee grabbed the man’s shoulders and utilizing all his pent up rage, hurtled the man across the room. Quickly following, he wrapped his hands in the front of Simmons’ shirt as the big man struggled to gain his feet and threw the skinner to his knees in front of Judge Travis.

“Orrin, meet Simmons.”

The older man’s eyes widened. “Simmons? As in…“

“As in the bastard who bought Ezra.” The gunslinger sneered. “As in the sonuvabitch who used ‘im for a punching bag. As in the low down, no good scum who…” His fury taking his words, the Hoosier viciously drove the toe of his boot into Simmons thigh.

Unfortunately, even knowing all that, Travis hadn’t been able to find a reason to jail Simmons. The skinner had sworn he didn’t know Avery hadn’t been Ezra’s guardian. The storekeeper had told him the boy’s parents were dead and his wife was sick and couldn’t take care of him anymore. The money he’d given the man was simply to help him out with doctor bills and such.

“Besides,” Simmons had pointed out, “it ain’t against the law ta buy a kid iffen their folks is willin’ ta sell ‘im.”

Informing Simmons he would use every bit of his considerable influence to see the man in prison if he so much as thought of looking at another child, Travis had advised the big man he could be sure every lawman in the country would be watching his every move.

Seething with suppressed anger the judge had suggested Larabee and Sanchez escort the skinners out of town…far out of town, where there would be no witnesses to any punishment the peacekeepers doled out was left unsaid.

Josiah absently rubbed the bruised and scraped knuckles of his left hand, wondering if he would ever understand human nature. How could some one treat a child so abominably? Didn’t they understand how precious children were? No child should ever have to live in fear of the very people who should cherish and love them unconditionally.

Sanchez silently sent a fervent prayer heavenward asking the Lord to show them how to help the small southerner who had already suffered so much in his short lifetime.

The preacher didn’t turn from the window when the door quietly opened and Larabee slipped into the room. After Buck had checked on Vin and Ezra for the third time in as many hours the womanizer had finally settled in his bedroll on the floor. Like the preacher himself, Chris and Buck needed to be near the child they all loved.

*******

Hovering between sleep and wakefulness Ezra sighed, only slightly aware of the steady rhythm he was hearing. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to return to the dreamland where he was clean and warm, his belly was full and he slept in a soft bed that smelled of freshly washed sheets. He wanted to remain in the dreamland where six heroes treated him like family.

He didn’t want to wake and face the world of trapped, hunted and dead animals. He didn’t want to face the taunts and beatings. He didn’t want to face the knowledge he was no longer wanted by the people who meant the most to him.

As a shaft of sunlight fell across his face, Ezra’s eyes popped open. He’d fallen asleep! The sun was high over the mountains and nothing had been completed. Panic set in as he attempted to sit up realizing the sound he’d been listening to was the heartbeat of the person whose strong arms held him in place. Had Simmons decided it was time to begin his training?

Kicking wildly and pulling at the arms, which encircled him, Ezra wiggled and squirmed struggling violently to free himself. He wanted to scream at the man to release him but that would only worsen matters. The skinners didn’t like being given orders by a child and they liked even less what they considered sass.

Finding himself free of the restraining arms, the little southerner scrambled away, frantically searching for a means of escape. Overwhelmed by his fear, he didn’t hear the comforting words or his name being called. He only saw hands reaching for him and men blocking his paths of escape. Finding himself cornered, he slid to the floor making himself as small as possible and using his arms to protect his head from the anticipated blows.

“Ezra?…It’s alright Ezra. You’re safe.” The men remained motionless as Vin stooped before the little boy, certain to stay far enough from Ezra to keep him from feeling crowded. “No one’s going to hurt you Ezra.”

‘Liar! Everyone always hurts me.’

“Listen to me, Lil’ Pard,”

‘Vin?’ It sounded like the tracker but it couldn’t be.

“Simmons is gone. Chris and Josiah made him go away.” Alarmed by the child’s reaction upon waking, Tanner fought to keep his voice soft and calm.

‘Chris?’ Chris had found him hiding in the saloon’s wood room. No that was just an hallucination. Another phase of his punishment.

“Buck’s gettin’ us some breakfast. Know ya gotta be hungry cause ya slept through supper.” The already too thin little boy had seemed to weigh nothing at all when Vin had carried him back to the peacekeepers’ hotel rooms.

The joy which had washed over him when he realized the filthy bedraggled ragamuffin Chris had placed in his arms was the child he loved had only partially dimmed with the reality that the filthy bedraggled ragamuffin was the child he loved.

Now kneeling before the terrified boy who huddled in the corner, trying to protect himself, rage surged through Vin and he wanted revenge on the men who had treated his son with less regard than unwanted garbage. He wanted to pound his fists bloody on the man who had left the marks and scars showing on Ezra’s small body. He wanted to use every means of torture learned during his time with the Indians to punish the man who had robbed his son of the amazing spirit with which he’d already faced so many obstacles in his young life.

Maybe someday. Right now, his main concern was Ezra. “Ya know us Lil’ Pard. Ya know ya can trust us. Ya know we would never hurt ya.”

Ezra struggled with his desire to believe in the men who had cared for him all those months and his fear of trusting anyone except himself. He tried to ignore the feelings of betrayal, telling himself there had to be a logical explanation. He wanted to believe the men were real and not just a symptom of his insanity. He desperately tried to shut out the sound of Simmons’ voice in his head, whispering to him what Tanner and the others really wanted.

“It’s kinda chilly in here ain’t it?” Vin commented, giving the usually proud little boy an excuse for his trembling. “How ‘bout we climb back inta bed until Buck gets back with breakfast.” Tanner pulled the extra quilt from the end of the bed when the small southerner’s trembling increased. “Or maybe ya’d rather wrap up in this and sit in the rocker there?”

When Ezra finally dropped his arms and slowly raised his head, Larabee and Sanchez backed away even more giving the child plenty of room to maneuver.

Their expressions saddened as his emerald gaze darting from one man to the next, the little southerner warily rose and hesitantly moved to stand before Vin. Wrapping the blanket around the child Tanner gently set the boy in the chair before taking a seat on the edge of the bed.

Watching the child silently staring at the floor, the adults searched for anything to say that would put the boy at ease.

The door cracked opened and Wilmington poked his head inside. Finding everyone awake, Buck forced a smile and let his naturally boisterous attitude take over as he entered.

“Hey little man sure do hope you’re hungry!” The womanizer grinned. “Brought enough food ta even fill up Tanner.” Refusing to acknowledge his awareness of the small southerner’s attempt to appear invisible, the gunman squatted in front of the chair careful not to touch Ezra. “Ya wanna eat first or open the present Vin asked me ta pick up for ya?”

Tanner tried not to show his surprise at the womanizer’s question.

When Ezra didn’t raise his eyes, Wilmington set the brown paper package aside. “Breakfast first it is! Well the table oughta be ready so why don’t ya let Vin carry ya into the other room? That way ya can keep warm without worryin’ ‘bout trippin’ on your blanket.”

Everyone patiently waited for the child to make the next move, exhaling sighs of relief when the small southerner pushed the quilt aside and slipping from the chair silently crossed to the open door which connected the rooms.

The table in the sitting room had been set and the sideboard held platters of bacon, sausage, eggs, ham, flapjacks, potatoes, biscuits and fruit.

“Will there be anything else gentleman?” The waiting attendant avoided looking at the dirty child in ragged clothes who entered, followed by the four peacekeepers.

“Ya want anything special Ez?” At the small shake of the boy’s head, Wilmington sent the man on his way receiving assurance the rest of his request would be prepared immediately.

Discussing the day’s plans, trying to keep up the pretence of normality, none of the men were obvious in their observation of the small southerner. Casually replacing the biscuits and bacon he covertly slipped into his pockets, they watched as Ezra hesitantly picked at the food on his plate before hunger won out and the child who had always displayed impeccable manners, shoveled food into his mouth as if he expected the plate to disappear.

Ignoring the child’s flinch when the Texan leaned close, Tanner softly whispered, “It’s okay Ez. Ain’t nobody gonna take it away.” Vin regretted his offered reassurance when the boy immediately went back to picking at his food.

Always prepared for trouble, each man’s hand automatically dropped to their gun but no one was prepared for the little gambler’s startled reaction to a simple knock at the door.

The chair toppled over as Ezra jumped to his feet. Dodging the men and furniture, he dashed for the door leading to the bedroom shared by Wilmington and Sanchez. By the time Tanner reached the child he had the window open searching for a way out of the small room that didn’t involve being seen by everyone in the hotel.

“Ezra! It’s okay Ezra! It’s alright!” Grasping the small southerner’s shoulders, gently but firmly, he turned the little boy to face him, stooping to meet Ezra on his level. “It’s alright Ezra. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I promise we ain’t gonna let no one hurt ya.”

When the child’s breathing evened out the tracker forced a bright smile winking at the boy and gently steered him back toward the breakfast table. “Don’t know about you but I’m still a mite hungry and them cinnamon apples sure looked tasty.”

*******

Relishing the feel of finally being clean once again Ezra sat back in the rocker and snuggled down in the quilt wishing he dared close his eyes and just relax.

A tub had been brought into the bedroom and filled while the men had finished breakfast. The package Buck had arrived with contained a set of new clothes right down to long underwear and socks. A bit large for Ezra, they weren’t of the style or quality which had been left at Mabel’s but the denim overalls and wool shirt were warmer than the thin hand me downs he’d worn for the last few months.

Inside the first package had been a second. “That one’s from me and the boys. Got ya some a that good smellin’ soap ya like and a few other things ya might need.” Wilmington had stated. Along with the soap there had been a brush, comb, toothbrush and tooth powder.

Explaining they had business to take care of but he would be in the next room Vin had asked Ezra to wait in the bedroom for his own safety until someone came for him. The little boy knew their business had something to do with the hanging Biggs had mentioned. Why else would the men be here. After he’d bathed and dressed Ezra had peeked into the parlor to discover the sharpshooter with rifle in hand stationed at the window.

Clutching his agate marble, Ezra rolled it between his fingers, hoping it would help him think; the way shuffling his cards had.

For as long as he could remember Maude had taught him to read people and situations. That skill had been his saving grace more than once but it had failed him when he needed it the most. He had believed Mabel cared about him. He had believed the peacekeepers wanted him as part of their family. He had believed Vin would keep his word.

Tanner had said “Ya know us Lil’ Pard. Ya know ya can trust us. Ya know we would never hurt ya.”

Foolishly, he had believed that once.

Ezra blinked rapidly as his eyelids began to droop. He didn’t need to sleep; he needed to keep his guard up. According to Larabee, they were leaving for Four Corners this afternoon. He needed to think. He needed to plan.

While Maude had taught him to think on his feet, she had always been a meticulous planner. A good con depended on planning for every contingency. ‘Proper preparation prevents poor performance’ was one of her favorite mottos. While this wasn’t exactly a con, there were decisions to make and plans to form.

His tumultuous thoughts becoming disconnected, Ezra lost the battle to keep his emerald eyes open and snuggling further into the quilt was soon asleep.

*******

With a nod of approval and wave of thanks, Travis watched the peacekeepers head for home.

Sitting stiffly in front of Tanner, his small hands tightly gripping the saddle horn, Ezra kept his gaze on Peso’s mane. They would only have a few hours of travel time before making night camp but that was a few hours closer to Four Corners. They wanted to get Ezra home as soon as possible where he could begin recovering surrounded by his family.

Orrin Travis’ many years as a territorial judge had stood him in good stead as he suppressed his shock when Tanner had guided Ezra back to the breakfast table.

Gone was the cocky little con man with the mischievous smile, who had charmed six experienced gunmen and an old judge. In his place stood a small, terrified boy whose enormous emerald eyes constantly sought means of escape to any perceived or imagined danger.

“Hello Ezra. It’s good to see you again.”

The little boy had said nothing, obediently accepting the honey slathered biscuit Tanner offered.

Just as the lawmen had, Travis had watched the small southerner, who had remained silent during the judge’s brief visit. Anger surged through him remembering the large bruise that marred the child’s dirty face and he hoped Larabee and Sanchez had made Simmons and Scraggly beard’s sorry asses pay in Spades for every minute of every day the child had spent in their company.

“Safe journey my friends. Take care of your little one.”

*******

Tanner tightened his hold as the rocking motion of the horse beneath them finally lulled the small southerner to sleep. In another hour they would be stopping for the night and he would have to relinquish his hold at least long enough to dismount but even that would be too long after months of separation.

No one had to tell Tanner the little boy wasn’t his to hold onto forever but that didn’t surpress his desire to do just that. However Ezra was here now and Tanner would take whatever time he could get.

The overwhelming love and his joy at having the youngster back, even for a short time, had almost brought Vin to his knees when he’d discovered the child cuddled in the quilt asleep in the rocker.

Vin had stood staring at the child, had in fact still been standing just inside the door watching over Ezra when the other men had finally returned to gather their belongings.

“He’s really here.” He’d whispered when Larabee had laid a supportive hand on his shoulder.

“You’re really here.” Vin whispered again dropping a soft kiss on top of the long chestnut curls. “Everything’s gonna be okay Ez. We’ll find a way to make it okay.”

Drawn from his thoughts, Tanner glanced up as Josiah cantered to his side, holding out his poncho. The sun was sinking toward the horizon and the air had taken on a distinct chill. “Be easier than tryin’ ta get a blanket around ‘im.” The preacher offered.

Careful of the bruises they’d seen on the thin chest and shoulders during the doctor’s cursory exam, Josiah leaned Ezra forward supporting him while Vin slipped the heavy material over his head before settling the child’s back against the tracker’s chest again. Both men smiled when the little gambler unconsciously snuggled closer to his self- adopted father.

“He’s really here.” Vin’s blue eyes were filled with a mixture of happiness and sorrow.

*******

Ezra slipped quietly from the campsite, further into the surrounding trees gathering wood for the cook fire. There were no water barrels but he had filled the four men’s canteens, stoked the fire and started brewing the coffee.

He would do whatever possible to stay with these men until he was financially able to move on.

Four Corners had been one of the few places Ezra had stayed when, where he’d wanted to return. It may have only been for the money Maude could pay them but the men there had treated him decently. It may have been a con but they had made him feel wanted.

In Four Corners, he knew he could do a few errands for Yosemite or Mrs. Potter to earn enough money for a deck of cards. With those he could start to recoup the money left behind and eventually save enough to move on.

He would do whatever was necessary for these men to want him around but he was also determined to follow his mother’s teachings to the letter. He would trust and depend only on himself. He would keep his walls strong and wouldn’t allow himself to be hurt again.

*******

Laying in his bedroll, Tanner watched the small southerner as Ezra quietly stacked the gathered wood next to the fire.

Since they weren’t in pursuit of outlaws or being followed by anyone, the peacekeepers’ had set up a watch schedule. Being light sleepers, they were certain they would hear any nearby movement and knew the horses would warn them of any danger. Vin was sure everyone had awakened when the little gambler who could find no sane reason for rising from bed before at least nine in the morning had crept from his bedroll with the light of the false dawn.

The previous evening, Ezra had awakened moments after they had stopped for the night. Removing and carefully folding the ex-priest’s poncho, Ezra had quickly began helping set up camp. He’d gathered wood, laid out the bedrolls, placing his blankets a safe distance from the others and helped Vin set out trout lines and snares. If the peacekeepers told him there was no need for him to do something Ezra had ducked his head and quickly moved on to a different task.

As soon as the men had eaten, he’d carried the cookware and dishes to the stream. Josiah had followed, unsuccessfully trying to draw the silent child into conversation as they washed the dishes.

Only when Vin had finally ordered the little con man to get some sleep had he stopped moving. Immediately climbing into the blankets, the boy had feigned sleep slowly relaxing only when the lawmen each settled in their own bedrolls.

Although he couldn’t be certain, Vin was fairly sure the boy hadn’t slept more than a few minutes at a time during the night.

Tanner rose silently following as Ezra led Peso to the stream to water the horse. Standing in the shadows he watched as the child stroked the horse’s sleek neck, a sad smile touching the boy’s lips when the animal nudged him, sniffing his pockets looking for the peppermints Ezra had provided during his previous stay in Four Corners.

“Mornin’ brother Ezra.” Josiah grinned leading the other horses to the stream as Ezra retied Peso to the remuda picket line. “Appears it’s gonna be a glorious day.”

Seated next to the fire Larabee offered Vin a cup of coffee as the tracker slipped back into camp. “Kid obviously made this pot just for you.” The gunslinger chuckled. “Strong enough to jump into the cup on its own.”

“Just how I like it.” The Texan smiled, turning his attention once more to the little southerner as Ezra began rolling up his blankets. “Mornin’ Lil Pard. Mighty good coffee.”

When Ezra continued concentrating on the bedding, Larabee rose and lightly kicked the bottom of Wilmington’s foot. “Time ta stop dreamin’ of the ladies and start makin’ breakfast.”

Pretending to have just awoken, Buck gave an exaggerated stretch groaning loudly and grumbling about having to get up at such an early hour. “Have ta agree with Ezra. Ain’t no reason for risin’ with the sun.”

“Ezra’s done up and probably hungry as hell. Since it’s your turn I reckon ya should get started cookin’.”

Buck leaned up on his elbows. “Aw little man, I thought at least you’d be on my side. I was dreamin’ about this pretty little senorita I met down Sonora way. She could…”

“Come on Ez, let’s go check the trout lines and snares. See if we can give ol’ Buck here somethin’ ta burn asides beans and bacon.” Tanner interrupted with a chuckle. “Don’t think even Josiah’s old enough ta hear this story.”

“…Make a tamale that would melt in your mouth and keep ya dreamin’ about her.” Buck called after them, his laughter fading as he watched the little southerner obediently follow the tracker.

*******

“Sure have missed ya Lil Pard.” Vin repeated for what felt like the hundredth time. He’d spent the better part of the day chatting aimlessly, hoping to relax the little southerner who once again sat stiffly in front of him. He’d talked about the peacekeepers, Four Corners, Miss Nettie and Casey and even the work done on Chris’ shack. While Ezra seemed to be listening, nothing had gotten a response. “Gotta warn ya though, JD’s got a brand new bunch a jokes he tells anyone he can corner.”

He wanted to talk to Ezra about the important things. He wanted to tell him how long they’d been looking for him. He wanted to talk to him about his mother and Nick Prescott and Simmons and everything the little boy had gone through since leaving Four Corners.

However he had to wait for the right time. He had to wait until Ezra was ready to talk to him. The little southerner had always been especially private regarding his past, his thoughts and his feelings, guarding them as religiously as a miser guarded his money.

“We’ll be home tomorra afternoon. Know everybody’s gonna be real happy ta see ya.” Vin softly placed the back of his hand against the boy’s flushed cheek when Ezra stifled a cough. “Ya feelin’ okay, Ez?”

Ezra nodded although it was the farthest thing from the truth. His throat was scratchy, his eyes burned and his chest was beginning to hurt. However he refused be a burden. He would carry his own weight and prove he was worth keeping around.

Vin had said they missed him and while it was nice to hear Ezra wasn’t ready to believe the words. Vin said Chris and Josiah made Simmons go away and they hadn’t seemed to hesitate taking him home with them. Vin said everyone would be happy to see him. Maybe they had missed him but if that was true why hadn’t they answered his letter. Maybe they were happy to see him but would that change if he couldn’t take care of himself. Maybe they were prepared to keep him with them but what would happen when they found out Maude couldn’t pay them this time.

Ezra watched the passing scenery, studying the landscape, needing something on which to concentrate to stay awake. He couldn’t fall asleep again. The others hadn’t fallen asleep while riding. They had stayed alert and prepared for trouble. He couldn’t do any less.

Vin smiled when Ezra’s head began to droop and he eased the child back against his chest as slumber finally claimed the small southerner. “Sure have missed ya Lil Pard.”

*******

“Hey fellas good ta have ya back!” Leaving Casey Wells standing next to her aunt’s wagon, JD hopped from the boardwalk in front of Mrs. Potter’s store.

“Any trouble?” Larabee queried.

“Nothin’ we couldn’t handle. Ya have any trouble? Didn’t expect you and Vin back for a while. Judge got another job for us or somethin’?”

“Nathan at the clinic?

“Think he’s visitin’ with the widow Kaufman.” Suddenly realizing it was a sleeping child in Tanner’s arms, bundled in Josiah’s poncho, which seemed to draw everyone’s attention as the men passed, the young sheriff turned bewildered eyes up to his mentor. “What’s goin’ on Buck?”

“Find Nate and bring ‘im ta the clinic.”

Hurrying to follow the womanizer’s orders, Dunne glanced back at the clinic as the men dismounted and saw Chris gently handing the child back to Tanner before they climbed the stairs.

*******

Advised by the widow that he’d just missed the healer who mentioned needing to stop at the general store, the Bostonian found Jackson exiting the telegraph office on his way to Mrs. Potter’s.

“Hey Nate, the fellas are back.” JD announced. “Said ta tell ya ta come up to the clinic.”

“One of ‘em hurt?”

“Don’t think so.” Dunne hurried to keep up with the taller man’s longer strides. “Vin had a little kid with ‘im though. Just saw her long brown hair so I don’t know who she was or what was wrong with her.”

“Let’s hope he don’t get as attached ta her as he did Ezra.” The ex-slave mumbled. ‘Let’s hope none of us get as attached as we did ta Ez.’

*******

When Nate and JD reached the clinic Buck was adding another piece of wood to the fire blazing in the stove, while Josiah gathered the bowls and other items the healer often used.

“Ain’t back in town two minutes and already I got ya in my clinic.” The healer quipped, happy to see none of the men seemed to be bleeding or sporting broken bones.

“Well ya might wanna take a look at Josiah’s arm a little later.” Larabee grinned causing the preacher to groan and dart a glare at the gunslinger. “Got another patient for ya first.”

The ex-slave froze, his eyes widening as his dark gaze fell on the little patient sitting on the edge of the bed next to Tanner. “Oh my God!”

“Ezra! Ya found ‘im!” Buck caught the JD’s arm, pulling him away as the enthusiastic young sheriff rushed forward intending to welcome the small southerner with a hug. Confused, Dunne looked at the older man, receiving a small shake of his head.

Having seen the boy flinch when JD started toward him, Nathan approached more cautiously. “Hey little guy, we sure are glad ta have ya back home.” He stooped in front of Ezra, hiding the anger flowing through him as he examined the remnants of the large bruise and black eye. “Ya look like ya don’t feel very well though.”

A muffled cough was followed by wheezing as Ezra tried to catch his breath.

“Doc in Ridge City said he was tryin’ ta catch a cold.” Vin smiled reassuringly when the little southerner looked at him in surprise.

They’d taken him to the doctor?

“Well we all know how persistent Ez can be so I’m guessin’ he probably caught it.” The healer chuckled winking at the little southerner. “Ya know what? I got me a few more instruments since ya been gone.” He crossed to the cabinet and returned unfolding a cloth to reveal a long tube with a funnel attached to the end. “This one lets me listen inside ya.” Placing the funnel against the tracker’s chest he handed the other end to Ezra. “Hold this to yer ear.” When the little boy hesitantly obeyed, Nathan grinned. “Hear that thumpin’? That’s Vin’s heart. Probably beatin’ a little fast coz he’s so happy you’re home.”

Accepting the instrument back from the child, Nate gently placed it against Ezra’s thin chest, trying not to frown as he changed its position. Finally setting it aside, he lay a gentle hand to the boy’s forehead and checked Ezra’s throat.

Sending Buck to the restaurant and JD to Mrs. Potter’s the healer set about brewing a pot of medicinal tea adding several lemon drops to the pot when JD returned. “Make it taste a little better.”

Grimacing with each swallow, Ezra obediently drank the tea, eventually losing the battle with his fatigue and the medicine half-way though the bowl of soup broth Buck had retrieved at Nathan’s request.

Wilmington pulled one of Ezra’s nightshirts from inside his jacket as Vin carried the little southerner to the bed. Undressing the child, the men’s anger grew in proportion with each scar, mark and bruise revealed on the small boy’s body.

Mumbling to himself, thankful for the small amount of laudanum he'd added to the tea, Nathan gently washed and applied salve to the various injuries, paying particular attention to the raw sores on Ezra’s wrists and ankles.

“I hope you hung the sonuvabitch who did this up by his thumbs and left ‘im for the vultures.” The ex-slave growled lowly as he tied off the bandages and tucked the blankets around his patient.

“Let’s go grab some dinner and a drink and we’ll tell ya all about it.” Sanchez suggested as the tracker settled into the chair by the bed.

*******

“Vin?”

The weary tracker sat up blinking rapidly, his azure gaze darting to the sleeping child in the bed before turning his attention to the gunslinger who had quietly entered the clinic.

“Damn! Musta dozed off.”

“Can’t understand why.” Chris chuckled. “All that sleep you’ve gotten the past few days.” The Hoosier sobered, pulling an envelope from the pocket of his black duster. “Mary wanted ya ta have this as soon as possible. Came the day we left for Ridge City.”

Vin’s hand trembled as he held the letter, a small smile gracing his handsome face when he read the neatly printed envelope with E. P. Standish written in the corner.

Vin C/O The Clarion Newspaper Four Corners, Colorado

“It’s from Ezra.”

“Yep.” Larabee nodded. “Seems it was in a bag a mail that was recovered from a stage robbery.”

Taking the lantern and leaving the door slightly ajar, the two men stepped out onto the balcony.

With another glance at the little boy, the tracker slipped the paper from the envelope, hoping the lessons he’d ignored since Ezra’s departure wouldn’t prevent him from reading his son’s words.

“Dear Vin,

I hope this letter finds everyone well. I’m sorry for not writing sooner but Mother has a new beau. Mr. Bateman is a respected businessman in Denver and as you can imagine he is very wealthy. He seems to be very nice but while courting my mother he insisted that I…“

“Accompany.” Chris prompted when Vin stumbled over the unfamiliar word.

“…Accompany them to many fun…c…tions.” Tanner continued reading aloud, slowly sounding out the words as Mary and Ezra had taught him. “It didn’t seem to bother him that Maude has a son who is prac…ti…cally grown.” Both men chuckled at the statement, wondering if there would ever come a time when Ezra would think of himself as a little boy. “I thought his including me was an attempt to impress mother which is un…neces…sary since his money is what would impress her but he really seemed to like my company. Perhaps he wants a family and decided he would just have to settle for me if he wants Maude. He took us to the opera, symphony, horse races and other social events. I think you and the others would like Mr. Bateman. We’ve had some interesting discussions. He has a variety of interests and enjoys many of the same things you like to do.

I am well, however at the writing of this letter, I cannot say the same for mother who was recently injured when a carriage she was in overturned.”

The tone of the letter changed and Ezra sounded much more like a child afraid of losing his parent.

“I only got to see her for a few minutes but her doctor says if she’s going to get well she will probably have to stay in his hospital for a long time. Everyone keeps telling me they think she’s going to be okay but they don’t look like they believe it. I wish you and Mr. Larabee were here to make them tell the truth and I wish Mr. Jackson was here to take care of her. I know his remedies would make her feel better.”

The tracker traced his finger over a spot where the ink was smeared, certain it was caused by a frightened little boy’s tears.

“Mr. Bateman wanted me to stay with him but mother thought it best if I came to stay with Cousin Mabel and her husband for a little while so I’m cur..rent…ly staying in Gatestown. Neither of them has said so but I think Cousin Mabel’s husband is unhappy about my being here. If it wouldn’t be an impo-impo…sit…”

“Imposition.”

“…Imposition I was hoping you and the others wouldn’t mind me staying in Four Corners again until mother is ready for me to return. I can be reached at Avery’s Hardware, Gatestown Colorado and will buy a ticket on the first stage if you agree. Of course I will be more than willing to pay for my room and board and understand if it isn’t con…ven…ient…convenient. I know Mr. McMurtry, for one, would be very displeased at my return and don’t want to cause you any trouble.

Please give everyone my best wishes.

Sincerely, Ezra P. Standish”

“Your reading is improving every day.” Larabee complimented when Vin finished and sat staring at the paper in his hand.

“He sent me a letter.” The tracker seemed awe struck. “He sent me a letter even though…”

“He knew you’d be able to read it Vin.” The gunslinger instinctively knew why his best friend was surprised Ezra had thought to write him. “I got news for ya…That letter wasn’t just asking for a temporary place to stay. It was telling you he missed you as much as you missed him.” Chris lit a cheroot and rising glanced in the clinic. Ezra still slept, his little body curled in a ball reminding Larabee of a turtle trying to draw into its shell for protection. “Best get back inside. Nights are gettin’ cold and ya don’t wanna leave this door open too long. Try and get some rest.”

Pausing on the stairs, the Hoosier smiled as Vin refolded the paper and lovingly placed it in his shirt pocket.

*******

“Hard night brother?” Sanchez questioned with a chuckle when Nathan jerked his head up to keep from landing face first in his breakfast plate.

Gulping his coffee, the healer reached for the pot to refill his cup. “Ezra had a bad night and-“

“He okay?” Larabee, Wilmington and Sanchez queried simultaneously. Worried about the cold that gripped the little southerner, the healer had kept Ezra confined to the bed in the clinic since his return to Four Corners.

“Nightmares.” Nathan yawned, suppressing a shiver at the remembered screams. “Then had ta go out ta the Myers place. Their grandpa…”

“Nate! Chris! Ya better come quick!” JD burst through the batwing doors.

The men didn’t hesitate, toppling chairs over in their haste to follow the young sheriff.

*******

The clinic door stood ajar, the breakfast tray Dunne had been delivering sat on the table but it was the sight across the room which sent shivers through the hardened lawmen. Vin sat beside the bed, gently stroking Ezra’s sweat-dampened curls away from the small southerner’s colorless face, tears silently trailing down his cheeks. What had happened to cause the tracker’s reaction? Had their youngest taken a turn for the worse?

Everyone held their breath as the healer stepped forward, examining the little gambler.

“His fever’s broke and he’s breathin’ a lot easier.” The healer stated. “Reckon a few more days a rest and he’ll be back ta his ol’ self.”

“Vin?” Receiving no reaction from the tracker, Chris stooped next to the younger man. “What’s goin’ on Vin?”

“They used ‘im for wolf bait.” The soft statement was almost inaudible as Tanner continued to stroke the child’s hair. “The bastards tied ‘im…” The words caught in his throat and he closed his eyes, seeing again the boy’s struggles and hearing his pitiful pleas to release him, promising not to run away again, as caught in the drug induced sleep he couldn’t escape the nightmare.

“What’s he mean wolf bait?” JD questioned.

Clenching his fists until his knuckles turned white, Wilmington fought the bile rising in his throat. “’Member what Coleman did last year when he was losin’ stock ta coyotes?”

“Yeah, he tied that newborn calf in the clearin’ and…” The sheriff’s voice trailed off and his complexion paled as he remembered the ranch hands laying in wait, hoping to kill the pack before they reached the bait. “No! Did he tell ya…?”

Listening to the pieces of evidence Tanner had put together, they all reached the same conclusion as the tracker.

“Explains the marks on his wrists and ankles.” Nathan suddenly felt more weary than he could ever remember.

“But he’s a little kid!” Dunne protested. “How could they do that ta him? He’s just a little kid!”

Knowing Larabee would help Vin deal with his emotions and there was someone else who would need his aid, Buck draped an arm around JD steering the younger man from the clinic, Josiah and Nathan following, each offering Tanner a word or touch of comfort.

*******

Ezra smoothed the wrinkles from the quilt and with a last glance around to make sure the boarding house room was straight, slipped out the door and down the stairs.

*******

“Mornin’, Mrs. O’Reilly.” Vin poked his head through the doorway, his worried gaze darting about the kitchen.

“Good mornin’ to you, Mr. Tanner. He’s already come and gone.” The woman smiled, setting aside the flapjack batter she was mixing and pouring him a small amount of coffee. “Filled the wood box and gathered the eggs before I even made it downstairs.”

It seemed this had become the morning routine since Nathan had released Ezra from the clinic a week earlier. By the time one of the peacekeepers arrived at the child’s room, Ezra had already risen and was performing his self-imposed chores.

Not only was Ezra helping around the boarding house but they had discovered the little boy sweeping out the jail and the church, polishing the pews, scrubbing the clinic floor and caring for their horses among other things. It seemed the only way to keep the child from working himself to death was to order him to stop or keep him at their side, finding ways to distract him.

Keeping him with them wasn’t hard since Ezra avoided everyone except the peacekeepers while still managing to keep his distance even from them.

“Ya make sure he gets back here for breakfast. Poor child ain’t got enough meat on his bones ta interest a buzzard.”

“Yes ma’am.” Tanner grinned downing the brew. Mrs. O’Reilly was the grandmother every child should have and had always taken a special interest in the little gambler treating the boy as if he were one of her own.

Stepping outside, the Texan let his gaze wander over the street as the citizens began a new day. Standing in front of the jail talking with JD, Larabee glanced his way and shook his head.

Nathan or Josiah would have already let Vin know if the little southerner was with them so Tanner started for the livery.

Ezra had been raised to depend only on himself and had been determined to pay his own way the first time he’d stayed in Four Corners. However, this was different. Having watched him since the moment Chris had placed the boy in his arms in Ridge City, Vin was certain he was reacting to his time spent with Simmons.

The ex-buffalo hunter had seen the same reactions from Indian captives. A prisoner’s survival often meant proving they were worth keeping alive by being obedient and hard working. Punishments were harsh and sometimes fatal but even the so-called savages wouldn’t have treated a child the way the skinner had. Children were treasured by the Indians and more often than not were adopted into the tribe.

“Mornin’ Vin.” Exiting the church, Josiah stretched taking a deep breath of the crisp fall air.

“Josiah.” Vin smiled, happy to see the preacher returning to his old self. Sanchez hadn’t left his church for two days after Tanner’s announcement about the skinner’s treatment of Ezra and it was another two days before the big man appeared to have released his anger.

Tanner understood Josiah’s need for privacy while dealing with his emotions. Each of the men had handled the situation in their own way.

Buck had worked JD to exhaustion chopping wood for Mrs. Potter and Mary Travis, hoping the younger man would sleep without dreaming. The next day he’d sent Dunne off to spend time with Casey to remind him of the good in the world. Helping his young friend had helped the womanizer. That and working out his own rage on the woodpile.

Nathan had expended his anger in caring for Ezra. Vin, himself, had wanted nothing more than to hunt the skinner down and make him pay for Ezra’s suffering but as Chris had reminded him, Vin’s energy had to remain focused on the boy himself.

“I take it our little brother is making his rounds.”

“Seems like.” Tanner nodded. “Headed over ta the livery.”

“Sure miss the little guy.” Sanchez scrubbed a hand through his short hair. “Be a magnificent day when we finally get ‘im back.”

The tracker nodded in understanding. He too missed the talkative little southerner. The little boy who had returned with them from Ridge City wasn’t the same child who had faced down a mountain lion, shot a man defending Vin or helped stop an ambush.

They had learned during his previous stay, the enigmatic little southerner rarely thought like a child. Raised in the art of the con, he questioned everything and looked at situations from every angle often seeing things others missed. Even at his young age Ezra had a natural charm, intelligence and sense of humor that drew people to him.

Maude Standish had taught her son to take care of himself, to trust only himself and never show weakness. Chris was right; to Ezra, the fact that he’d been frightened by the experience would be a source of embarrassment. He would consider his fear a weakness.

The best thing they could do was keep reassuring the little gambler he was safe and wanted.

‘Lord, please help him bring our little brother back ta us.’ The ex-priest prayed as Tanner continued toward the livery.

*******

Standing on a small stool, Ezra used the curry brush in short strokes removing the dust from the coat of Wilmington’s large gray horse.

“Yes my friend, I know you enjoy it.” The little southerner whispered when the animal nudged him with a soft whicker. “I hope you realize how lucky you are to have Mr. Wilmington for an owner. He’s a loyal friend who makes sure you’re properly looked after and rewarded for your service.”

Ezra pushed aside the memory of the beating he’d received when Simmons caught him brushing the wagon team instead of scraping the hides stretched on frames to dry. The skinner didn’t worry about the animals’ well being or comfort so long as they could work and if they couldn’t he would put them down and leave them for the vultures.

The child wished he could wipe away the memories of Simmons and the others as easily as students wiped their slates. Unfortunately that wasn’t possible. Kept at bay with work and willpower during the daylight hours, the memories invaded his sleep so he only slept when his exhausted body would no longer allow him to stay awake.

Upon his release from the clinic the little con man had followed Tanner back to the boarding house, unsure why he needed to settle into his room when he was wearing the only set of clothes he owned.

He had forced himself to remain still when Mrs. O’Reilly had rushed forward, scooping him up into a hug and kissing his cheeks. While he hadn’t returned the embrace a warm feeling had spread inside as she gushed over him, demonstrating her happiness at his return to Four Corners. It was the same way Mabel always used to greet him.

His poker face firmly in place, Ezra had hidden his surprise at finding not only the clothes Vin had purchased on his previous stay, but the belongings left behind at Mabel’s, in the dresser drawers. He didn’t question how the things had come to be in Four Corners. It didn’t matter. As soon as he’d had time alone, Ezra had checked the false bottom of the carpetbag. At least he no longer had to think about recouping his money. He could begin adding to his savings so he wouldn’t be broke when he was sent away.

Asking nothing of the little southerner, the peacekeepers’ had fallen back into their natural routine including Ezra in their activities. They constantly reiterated how much he’d been missed and how happy they were he was back among them and while he knew they were curious they never questioned him about his time with Simmons. They were trying to make things appear normal but didn’t understand that nothing would ever be normal again.

His mother was gone. He had made a mistake and lost the affection of the one relative who had never turned him away. He had disregarded his mother’s teachings and started to depend on others only to discover those he depended on weren’t dependable.

For months, Ezra had had no control over what happened to him and he was determined that would never happen again.

The walls he had rebuilt would remain intact and unbreachable. He wouldn’t make another mistake. No one would ever again get close enough to hurt him with their words, betray his trust, gain his confidence or disappoint him. No one would ever again con him into believing something he knew to be a lie. Never again would he hope for something he knew would never be.

He would follow Maude’s teachings, practice his skills and someday make her proud by becoming the con man he was born to be. For now he would work hard, do whatever necessary to survive, remain as invisible as possible and give the peacekeeper’s no reason to send him away.

*******

Tanner’s heart swelled as he stood for a moment watching the little southerner care for Buck’s horse. If he’d been surprised the first time he realized he loved the child, Vin was overwhelmed by how that love had grown even during the time they had been apart.

As he approached, Tanner couldn’t help but notice each of their horses had been fed and given fresh water and two of the six animals had already been brushed until their coats shone. Considering the work he’d already done at the boarding house Tanner knew the child had to have been awake well before the tracker had reached his room.

“Hey Lil Pard. Been lookin’ for ya.”

The big gray horse sidestepped, avoiding stepping on the boy when startled the small southerner tumbled from the stool. Scrambling to his feet he stood tensely staring at the tracker’s boots as if preparing himself for punishment.

“Sorry Ez. I didn’t mean ta scare ya.” Vin stooped before the child, tilting his head to meet Ezra’s enormous green eyes. “Did ya hurt yerself?”

Ezra shook his head swiping at the hay clinging to his pants and shirt. Ignoring his fancier clothing, Ezra had continued to wear the clothes the peacekeepers’ had provided, the pants of his overalls cuffed to prevent his tripping.

Vin slowly reached out removing several strands of hay from the curls that now reached just past the boy’s collar remembering a few days earlier when he’d returned to the boarding house room to find Ezra had trimmed his shoulder length hair with Mrs. O’Reilly’s sewing scissors. He wondered what Ezra would think if he knew the tracker had kept several of the locks.

“Ya sure did a good job! Nate and JD’s horses look good enough ta be prancin’ at the front of some fancy parade. Mrs. O’Reilly is expectin’ us for breakfast soon so how ‘bout I help ya finish up.” Pulling a brush from his tack box, Tanner began brushing Josiah’s mount while Ezra moved on to Larabee’s black. “Inez has been wonderin’ when yer gonna come by and visit. Says ta tell ya, if ya wanna set up yer card game once in awhile ya can have yer regular table. Hey, did I remember ta tell ya I got your letter Ez?”

Unable to hide his shock, Ezra was glad Tanner had his back to him.

It was all a con!

Vin had gotten his letter. Hearing them tell him how much he’d been missed he had almost convinced himself the letter written shortly after arriving at Gatestown hadn’t reached the tracker. He had almost convinced himself the Texan who claimed to love him hadn’t known about the accident. He had almost convinced himself that was why the tracker hadn’t come for him; hadn’t tried to contact him. Night after night he had told himself if Vin knew about Maude he would ride non-stop to bring Ezra back to Four Corners. He had told himself if Vin knew about Simmons, he would search the countryside until he found him but Vin had known and nothing had happened.

“Thanks ta yours and Mary’s lessons I was able ta read it.” Tanner continued. “Truth be told Chris had to help me with some of the words though. Was sure sorry ‘bout yer Ma’s accident but reckon that doctor knows what he’s doin’ and she’ll be back on her feet before ya know it.”

Blinking hard to prevent his tears, Ezra continued to groom Chris’ horse. They had known. They had all known.

*******

Having put Ezra to bed, Vin slouched in a chair at the peacekeepers’ usual table in the saloon, his finger tracing the rim of the whiskey glass in front of him.

With a small smile Inez watched from behind the bar as one by one the other lawmen gravitated to the table. She knew, worried about the youngest member of their family, they were all searching for a way to help Ezra.

Her dark eyed gaze traveled to the empty table in the far corner. It had taken several weeks after his departure with his mother before Inez hadn’t looked at the table expecting to see the little gambler running his Three Card Monte game. Now, Ezra had been back for almost a month and except for the peacekeepers and perhaps Mrs. O’Reilly, no one had really seen the little southerner for more than a few minutes a day. Finishing any chores he’d given himself for the day, the child had taken to spending the rest of his time in his room, sitting by the creek or finding other ways to avoid people.

She wasn’t sure what had happened in the time he’d been away but the little boy who had returned to Four Corners wasn’t the same child who had broken everyone’s heart with his departure.

Tonight she would again light a candle to the Virgin Mary to aid the lawmen in helping their youngest return to them.

*******

“Hey, Vin!”

Seated outside the jail concentrating on the small leather pouch he was sewing, the Texan jumped as the thick needle jabbed his thumb. Sucking on the injured digit he watched as displaying his usual enthusiasm the young Bostonian hurried down the boardwalk toward him.

"What's up JD?"

"Just got back from Nettie's. Supposed ta remind ya we're all expected at her place this Saturday for Ezra's welcome home dinner." Dunne plopped down on the bench beside Tanner. "Where is Ez?"

“He’s helpin’ Nate gather some herbs and things.” Vin returned his attention to the leather. In actuality, at breakfast Nate had said ‘Hey Ez how ‘bout helpin’ me out?’ and as usual the child had silently followed along like a soldier obeying his commanding officer.

Vin wasn’t so sure dinner at Nettie’s was a good idea but nothing else had worked to bring the little gambler out of his shell. No one had been able to break through the walls the boy had erected. Ezra had even begun to avoid spending time with the peacekeepers.

The Texan had tried talking to the boy. Although he’d wanted to wait until Ezra brought it up, Vin had tried telling him how they had come for him as soon as they heard what had happened but Ezra was already with Simmons. He had told the child how they had searched for him, had in fact been on their way to check a new camp when Ezra had been discovered in Ridge City. The child had listened, but Vin’s heart had broken into another piece when he had clearly read the skepticism in the boy’s emerald eyes. He had never lied to Ezra before and didn’t understand why the little southerner thought he would start now.

“Vin?”

“Damnit!” Tanner cursed when startled from his thoughts by the man beside him, he pricked his thumb for the second time, realizing he hadn’t heard more than a word or two of what JD had been saying. Something about fishing? Everyone knew the kid would fish every chance he got from spring thaw until the first snow. “What?”

“I asked what ya was makin’?” Before he could answer, JD pointed down the street. “There’s Nate and Ezra. Maybe I’ll see if Ez wants ta go fishin’ with me and Buck tomorrow.”

“Sometimes that boy’s got the attention span of a firefly.”

Watching the sheriff hurry off toward the clinic, Vin chuckled at Wilmington’s comment as the womanizer stepped from the jail. His smile faded when he saw the small southerner scurry toward the boarding house. “Hope he has better luck than I’ve had.”

“Reckon it’s just gonna take some time.” Buck took Dunne’s place on the bench.

“That’s what I keep tellin’ myself.” Tanner sighed. “He just seems ta be movin’ farther away. ‘Fraid if we don’t get ‘im back soon, we never will.”

“You’ll get ‘im back Vin!” Wilmington declared vehemently. “And when you do we’ll all get ‘im back. Talk ta ‘im Vin and keep talkin’. I know ya been tryin’ not ta push ‘im but maybe it’s time ya should.”

“I don’t know Buck. He looks at me like he don’t believe a word comin’ outta my mouth. Don’t think he’d believe me if I said the sun rises in the east.”

“There’s very few things that are certain in this world, Vin. One of them is that Ez ain’t like any other kid yer ever likely ta meet. Sometimes I think he’s a thirty five year old man in a eight year old body.” Wilmington leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. “I’ll tell ya one more thing I’m certain of and that’s Ezra loves you and he trusts you. That’s sayin’ somethin’ since trust doesn’t seem ta have been big on Maude’s list of lessons. I can't tell ya what happened while he was with that bastard. We can only pray it wasn't as bad as any guess we might make but I can tell you that when he finally does talk about it…he’ll talk to you.”

“Don’t matter who he talks to,” Vin shrugged. “Just as long as he talks.”

“You’re a good man Vin Tanner. Ezra couldn’t a picked a better father.” A mischievous twinkle entered the jovial gunman’s dark blue eyes. “Unless a course he picked me.”

The tracker couldn’t help but laugh at the teasing tone, knowing the compliment was sincere.

“Think I’ll go get me a beer.”

“Hey Buck?” Tanner called as Wilmington pushed to his feet and started down the boardwalk. “Meant ta thank ya for the clothes ya bought Ez. I’ll see ya get paid back.”

Without looking back, the womanizer gave a nonchalant wave as he continued toward the saloon.

“Yer a good man, too, Buck Wilmington. One of the best.”

*******

“Well it’s about time a certain little gentleman found the time ta pay this wizened old crone a visit.” Nettie Wells chuckled, seeing the little southerner blush at the remembered remark made the first time they’d met.

Dismounting, Vin lifted Ezra from the saddle.

Stopping in front of the rancher the boy offered the small bouquet of wild flowers he’d picked from near the creek. Good manners dictated a guest never arrive empty handed.

“Why, thank you Ezra.” The woman seemed genuinely pleased by the gift. “They’re beautiful and it’s been a long time since a handsome young man brought me flowers. They’ll make a nice decoration for the table.”

“Guys’ll be out later. Wanted to come by a little early and fix that corral rail and barn stall.” Vin stated.

“Don’t be worryin’ ‘bout those. Buck and Josiah repaired ‘em awhile back.”

Guilt washed over the tracker at what he perceived as ignoring the needs of a friend.

“No need for lookin’ like ya just had ta shoot your horse. Knowin’ you I’m sure you’ll find plenty a things you’ll reckon need fixed. Casey’ll be back soon. She’s bringin’ Tassle and her colt down from the north pasture.” Nettie felt the child stiffen as she placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Since it's still a bit chilly for someone who just got over a cold, while you’re makin’ yerself useful in the barn, my favorite little gentleman can give an old lady a hand."

"Ya got visitors asides us?" Tanner questioned dryly.

"The only thing flattery'll get ya is an extra piece a pie." The rancher smiled, a blush touching her cheeks as she playfully swatted at the handsome tracker who laughed and led Peso toward the barn.

*******

Ezra watched the old woman as she bustled about the kitchen of the small homestead. The delicious aroma of cake, cookies and fresh bread mixed with the smells of roast beef, ham and other foods she was preparing. While he would never admit it, Ezra had always liked visiting Nettie Wells. Her house was warm and homey and while she appeared gruff and tough as leather, he had never known Nettie to be anything but kind and honest.

“I know it ain’t polite ta have the guest of honor helpin’ fix the food for his own party but I sure appreciate your help Ezra.” Nettie pretended not to see the child’s expression of surprise as he looked up from the pie filling he was stirring. It was obvious the southerner didn’t know there was a reason for their dinner invitation. “Shoulda known that stubborn Texan would come early wantin’ ta work for his supper. Figures he’s been neglectin’ this old woman as if he hadn’t had someone alot more important on his mind.”

Nettie Wells was an astute woman who didn’t believe in beating around the bush when dealing with anyone but this was a special situation requiring tactful honesty. She had spent enough time with Ezra to know he could read people as easily as a dime store novel and was always looking for the con.

“Reckoned a little get tagether was the perfect way ta say how glad I am ta have ya home and to say thanks.” Nettie added a bit of sugar to the bowl in front of Ezra, once more pretending not to see his confused expression. “Thanks ta the Good Lord for bringin’ ya back ta us and thanks ta you for helpin’ Vin find his smile. Was beginnin’ ta think we’d never see it again after you left with yer Ma.”

Emptying the bowl into the pie pan, she helped the little boy place the thin sheet of dough over the filling, smiling when he automatically began pinching the two crusts together. “Ya’ve done this before. I’ll bet ya was a big help ta yer cousin. I should a told ya before how sorry I was ta hear ‘bout yer Ma’s accident. Vin says the doc thinks she’s gonna be fine though.”

Placing the pie in the oven, Nettie didn’t see Ezra quickly wipe at the tears, which filled his emerald eyes at the mention of his mother. Maude wasn’t going to be fine. Dead people weren’t fine; they were just dead.

Taking a seat across the table from the little boy, helping him snap green beans, Nettie told the child about the happenings around the ranch, and the trip she and Casey had made to Colorado Springs. “That bull was the finest lookin’ animal I ever saw. Woulda sired some damn fine beef. It was more than fair but I coulda bought two ranches for the price Latham was askin’. Woulda taken every dime I made from last year’s round up and than some.”

Filling a glass of milk and setting a small plate of cookies beside him, the woman talked about a book she’d just finished reading, Casey and JD’s budding romance, the arrival of several new families in the area and how the peacekeepers had reacted to the little boy’s leaving.

“Gotta tell ya Ezra, when Vin got that letter he lit out for Denver so fast you’d a thought Peso’s tail was on fire and the only water ta be had was there.”

Ezra kept his eyes on the bowl of green beans, but Nettie was sure he was listening.

“Heard Billy Travis has been visitin’ his grandparents but is supposed ta be back soon. I know he’ll be glad ta see ya. From what Mary was sayin’ he ‘bout drove her crazy wantin’ ta know when ya’d be back.” She laughed. “I was thinkin’ about paintin’ that old rocker on the porch. What do ya think of red?”

The little southerner frowned at the sudden change of topic. How did they get from Billy to painting her rocking chair? Red? He considered the piece of furniture in question before shaking his head.

“I don’t think so either. I thought about painting it black but then I realized Chris could never sit in' it." Nettie was rewarded with a small smile as the child's vivid imagination took over and he pictured the black clad gunslinger disappearing from view when he sat in the chair.

Adding enough water to cover the beans, Ezra carefully set the pan on the stove. Nettie avoided staring at the one cookie she’d seen him nibbling on sitting beside the nearly empty plate. Vin had told her how the little boy had taken to hoarding food just as he had at the beginning of his previous visit, while barely eating during meals.

“Billy lost his pa shortly after they first came ta Four Corners. Couldn’t hardly get that boy ta say a word after that. It took a long time before he was able to handle everything that happened and was ready ta talk about it. Now there’s times ya can’t hardly shut ‘im up.” She watched in surprise as standing on a chair to reach the shelf, the small southerner added a variety of spices to the beans. “How ‘bout blue for that old chair?”

After a long moment the child again shook his head negatively.

“Reckon we need ta think on it some more.” Nettie again changed the subject to a neutral topic as they prepared the welcome home feast.

*******

Ezra watched the spotted colt prance about the corral, remembering the playful colts in the small herd of wild horses he and Vin had seen on their camping trip.

He wished he could return to the easy relationship he’d once shared with the lean Texan and the other men. He constantly blocked out Simmons’ words wanting to believe the relationship hadn’t been a con. He wanted to believe Vin truly cared for him but some circumstances seemed to indicate otherwise.

Ezra wanted to trust them. He wanted to talk to the tracker. Miz Nettie had said Vin went to Denver as soon as he’d gotten the letter. He’d never known her to lie but that statement didn’t make any sense. The letter had clearly stated that Ezra was in Gatestown. He thought the instructions in the letter had been precise. He hadn’t wanted to inconvenience the tracker by making him travel to Gatestown. If Vin had wired him when he received the letter, Ezra would have been on the next stage to Four Corners and might never have been handed over to Simmons.

Ezra stroked the colt’s satiny nose as the young animal munched the offered carrot.

His mother had always said anger was a waste of time and energy but he was angry. He was angry with Mabel for sending him away. He was angry with Simmons, Biggs and the other skinners for their treatment. He was angry with Maude for dying and leaving him alone. He was angry with Vin for not keeping his word. Most of all he was angry with himself.

Maude hadn’t wanted to die. It hadn’t been her fault. She hadn’t committed suicide and deliberately left her son to fend for himself. Vin had promised he and the other lawmen would always be there if needed but there was no legal or blood obligation. Ezra understood they had more important things to tend to rather than taking care of a little boy who was almost grown and didn’t matter to anyone. Simmons and the others evil nature had fed off the evil in Ezra.

But the mistakes had been all his and the blame lay squarely at his feet. He had let the peacekeepers past his defenses and they had discovered he wasn’t worth their time or the trouble that came with taking care of him. If he hadn’t disregarded his mother’s lessons he never would have come to depend on the tracker and his friends. If he hadn’t started to depend on others, he wouldn’t have grown soft. If he had been a better person Mabel wouldn’t have gotten angry and had Nick take him away. His Uncle Bradley was right; if he wasn’t evil, God wouldn’t have had a reason to punish him.

There was no one to blame except himself.

Pushing the anger deep inside, Ezra pulled a cookie from his pocket. Breaking off a piece, he offered it to the colt’s mother giving the rest to the young horse.

*******

“Maybe we should just order ‘im ta talk. He does everything else he’s ordered to do.” Dunne softly suggested as seated on the porch, the peacekeepers watched Ezra feed a carrot to the long legged colt in the corral. “Or maybe read that journal he writes in.”

“You’ll do no such thing!” Nettie vehemently protested. “You’ll do nothing but give ‘im the support he needs and wait.”

“But how we gonna help ‘im unless we know what happened and we can’t find out what happened if he don’t talk!” JD argued, earning a slap to the head from Wilmington. “He ain’t made a sound since he got back.”

“’Cept the little bit a time he lets hisself sleep.” Tanner sighed in frustration thinking of how the child fought his fatigue, hearing again Ezra’s soft moans and whimpers as he relived the nightmare when he finally did sleep.

"He'll talk when he's ready. Y'all just be ready to deal with what ya hear." The woman advised, chuckling when Ezra pulled a cookie from the bib pocket of his overalls and fed it to the Appaloosa colt, breaking off a piece for its mother. “Let’s get that boy over here and see if we can get some food in his belly instead a his pockets.”

*******

Ezra stood in front of the old woman, caught in a dilemma. Proper etiquette demanded he thank her for the meal but he was afraid giving voice to the words would start a sequence of events he couldn’t control.

It was only two little words but saying anything at all could unleash the anger he’d locked away and he would once again prove he was too much trouble to keep around. Releasing the anger would cost everything he had left and he wasn’t prepared to leave yet.

“I’m so glad we could spend the day together Ezra.” Nettie stooped before him, placing a cloth wrapped package in his hands containing ham and roast beef sandwiches, cake, cookies and pie. “Don’t ya let Vin talk ya outta that pie now.” With a wink at the tracker she lowered her voice to a mock whisper. “I put in an extra piece if ya wanna give it to him.”

Ezra was surprised to see the delight in Nettie’s eyes when, making a quick decision, he stepped forward and placed a light kiss on the rancher’s soft cheek.

Nettie tenderly wrapped the tense little boy in a gentle hug. “He loves ya Ez and nothin’ will ever change that. No matter what ya tell ‘im. Vin loves ya.” She whispered. “We all do.”

Nettie stepped away as Josiah lifted Ezra onto Peso, settling the child on the horse in front of Vin. ”Ya come and see me again real soon Ez. Maybe next time we can decide on the right color.”

*******

Tanner strolled into the saloon, his smile widening as he settled into the chair beside Larabee and poured himself a glass of beer from the pitcher on the table.

Chris glanced at Buck and Josiah discovering, like himself, they found themselves unable to prevent their own smiles even though none of them was exactly sure why they were smiling.

It was the first time since Ezra’s return, Vin seemed more at ease. In the presence of the little gambler, the ex-bounty hunter always forced a smile, pretending he wasn’t worried about the silent southerner, pretending everything would soon return to normal. However, after unreturned hugs were given, a chapter of a book read and Ezra had been tucked into to bed for the night, the Texan’s true anxieties were revealed over beers with his friends.

Tonight, those anxieties seemed to have lessened and the burden lightened.

“He corrected me.” The tracker grinned, using the back of his hand to wipe the beer foam from his upper lip.

*******

Angry with himself, Ezra lay staring at the tiny flickering circle of light on the ceiling, cast by the small flame of the lantern on the bedside table. Whether he truly believed Ezra was asleep or not, Vin had recently taken to leaving the lamp burning lowly when he finally left for his wagon. At first the little gambler had extinguished the flame shortly afterwards but while he’d never admit it, lately the nightmares had grown in both frequency and intensity and it was better not to awaken in blackness.

‘You’re a fool Ezra! An ignorant weakling!’ The child mentally scolded himself. ‘You can’t even keep a promise to yourself! Is it any wonder your mother was always ashamed of you?’

Ezra’s emerald gaze traveled to the deck of cards on the bedside table. Rolling onto his side, the little boy reached for them, quickly pulling his hand back before his fingers could touch the familiar package.

For as long as he could remember the pasteboards had been his constant companion. Always there for him without judgement. Helping him earn a living. Shuffling the cards helped him soothe his nerves, helped him think and they always reminded him of his mother.

She had taught him to play poker. She had recognized and helped him develop his natural talent for the game he loved. Maude had taught her son independence, concentration and willpower. She had taught him that life wasn’t about fairy tales and happy endings but it was an adventure and to enjoy himself as much as possible. She had taught him that just like poker life could be challenging and she expected him to turn the cards to his advantage. She expected him to always be a winner.

Deep inside Ezra held onto the belief Maude had loved him. The cards had always been a reminder that she would be back for him each time he was left behind. Now however they were a reminder she would never return again. He was alone in the world…Unless he believed the peacekeepers.

His thoughts returned to the Texan.

Ezra hadn’t intended to say anything to Vin but the tracker who was trying so hard to improve his reading skills had been having such a hard time with a word, the southerner hadn’t been able to help himself and automatically corrected the man’s mispronunciation.

The truth was he did want to talk to Tanner. He wanted to tell the tracker about the nightmares. He wanted to tell him about his time with Simmons. He wanted to tell him how much he missed his mother.

And, he wanted answers. Ezra wanted to know what mistake he’d made that forced Mabel to send him away. He wanted to know why Vin hadn’t answered his letter. He wanted to know the true reason Tanner had taken him in and watched over him. He wanted to know what the tracker had planned so that he, himself, could prepare for the immediate future.

More than anything, he wanted Vin to make everything better but he knew that was impossible.

‘It was just one word Ezra.’

Unfortunately, one word usually led to another and another and before a person knew what was happening, things they never intended to say were flying from them as fast as bullets in a gun battle.

For several days after visiting Nettie Wells, the southerner had considered approaching the peacekeeper but feared the Texan’s reaction as much as he feared the answers he would receive to the questions that haunted him as deeply as his nightmares.

What if Miz Nettie was wrong? What if Vin didn’t really care? He might be curious but Tanner had never asked about Simmons. Since Ezra’s return to Four Corners, the tracker hadn’t really asked him about anything of importance. According to the ex-bounty hunter, it had been Chris and Josiah who made Simmons leave. If Vin cared about Ezra as he professed, why hadn’t he confronted the skinner?

Ezra didn’t have to ask the questions. He already knew the answers.

*******

“He spoke?” Buck’s own grin widened. “Words actually came out of his mouth?”

“One word.” Tanner corrected with a nod. Hoping to make the youngster feel safe enough to begin relaxing, the peacekeepers had tried to return to a semblance of the routine that been established during Ezra’s previous stay.

Ezra considered himself too grown up for bedtime stories but knowing the little gambler fought his need for sleep, Vin had begun reading a chapter a night with the excuse it was a good time for him to practice his own reading skills.

“Inconvenient.” Vin stated. “Hard word ta sound out.”

“Um…” Chris leaned forward, a sly grin on his handsome face. “I’ve heard you read that word before. As a matter of fact, if I’m not mistaken, Ezra used it in his letter.”

“Damn, boy, ya been takin’ sneaky lessons from our little con artist?” Wilmington laughed, thrilled to see the tracker more relaxed than he’d been in months.

“Very ingenious, Vin.” Josiah chuckled. “One word eventually leads to another.”

“Hope so.” Vin nodded, fighting the worry which tried to push aside the happiness. He wanted to revel in the moment. He wanted to enjoy the fact he’d chipped a minute piece from the wall of silence surrounding the small southerner.

He didn’t want to think about how much more wall there was to tear down. He didn’t want to think about all the secrets the child was holding onto. He didn’t want to think about why Ezra ignored his fancy clothes in favor of the plain outfits, they had purchased or why he hadn’t touched his cards, leaving them to gather dust exactly where Tanner had placed them. He didn’t want to think about why Ezra no longer trusted him or thought Vin would lie to him.

For now, at least for the next few minutes, he simply wanted to remember the sound of the little southerner’s voice after so many months without it.

*******

Stopping just past the threshold of the jail door, Larabee stood for a long moment watching his best friend. His mare’s leg laying across his lap aimed at the door, his hat dipped slightly forward hiding his eyes, the chair tilted on its back legs, his feet propped on the desk, Tanner sat in the otherwise empty building.

The gunslinger smiled when the weapon momentarily shifted following his first few steps toward the coffeepot before moving back to the door. Filling two cups, Chris set one on the desk, settling in the chair across from the tracker.

“JD made the coffee.” Tanner sighed dropping his feet to the floor and reaching for the cup as Larabee prepared himself for his first sip of the ex-bounty hunter’s notoriously strong brew.

“Gettin’ worse?”

Certain what the Hoosier was referring to, Vin nodded, smothering a yawn. Josiah had been correct; that one word uttered two weeks earlier had led to others but only in the horrendous nightmares that plagued the small southerner. The tracker had begun to pass most of the night in the boarding house room, gently rubbing the child’s back and whispering soothing assurances when Ezra awoke screaming.

“Somethin’ don’t happen soon, he’s gonna fall apart.”

“Maybe that’s for the best.” Larabee commented, ignoring his friend’s horrified expression. “He’s holdin’ everything inside and it’s eatin’ ‘im up. Maybe the only way he’s gonna talk about it is if he finally does fall apart. Maybe lettin’ ‘im fall apart is the only way ta help ‘im.”

Vin stared into the dark brew, considering the gunslinger’s words. He knew Chris was right but as hard as it was watching the small southerner withdraw further into himself and not knowing how to help, the thought of idly standing by while his son completely shattered was beyond comprehension. He'd rather face the hangman's noose than do nothing while the boy he loved was destroyed by circumstances he hadn't been able to control.

“It’s not somethin’ any of us wanna do Vin but…“

“But we’ve tried everythin’ else.” Tanner wiped at the tears filling his eyes with a shaky hand. “I even thought about orderin’ ‘im ta tell us about Simmons, like JD suggested.”

“Me too.” Larabee admitted. “But the thought of havin’ my ass kicked by Miz Nettie is just too damn humilatin’.”

The tracker snorted, choking on the coffee before the two friends shared a grin at the dead panned comment.

*******

Tanner jerked awake and Chris jumped to his feet when Sanchez pounded on the door as he rushed past the jail. Weapons drawn, the peacekeepers cautiously stepped onto the boardwalk.

“Shit!” The gunslinger cursed seeing Banker McMurtry at the center of the approaching crowd which Josiah and Buck stopped in front of the dressmaker’s shop.

“Get your damn hands off ‘im now!” Buck roared, grabbing for the banker.

The sound of shattering glass drew everyone’s attention to the bag laying at Josiah’s feet and Tanner seemed to be the only one who noticed the small overall clad figure dart between the legs of the peacekeeper and banker’s audience and dash down the nearest alley. “Awww hell!”

Leaving the other men to settle whatever pot McMurtry had stirred up, the tracker hurried after his son.

********

“What the hell’s goin’ on here?” The crowd parted for the angry gunslinger. “Buck, let go of ‘im and someone tell me what brought this on!”

Silence descended under the infamous Larabee glare after several people starting talking at once.

“Buck, damnit, I said let ‘im go a ‘im!” When Wilmington finally released his grip on the banker shoving the portly man against the shop wall, Chris turned his gaze to the preacher. The Hoosier considered sending the bystanders on their way but knew the rumors that would generate regarding the incident would be far worse than the truth. “Josiah?”

“Ain’t sure Chris. Just…“

“Was comin’ back from patrol and saw this fool draggin’ Ez down the street, shakin’ ‘im like a rag doll.” Buck interrupted, placing a hand to the banker’s chest and pushing him against the wall once more.

“The thievin’ little bas…” McMurtry stopped himself, not wanting to offend the sensibilities of the women present. Taking a deep breath, he straightened his jacket and vest, tossing the womanizer an angry glance before facing Larabee. “I saw him sneakin’ outta Mrs. Thatcher’s carryin’ a bag of her things. I knew bringin’ that little brat back here was gonna cause nothing but trouble!”

“And might I ask just what makes you think Ezra stole anything?” His arms folded across his massive chest Josiah took a threatening step toward the banker.

“I don’t normally appreciate having to repeat myself but since you seem to be having trouble with your hearing, I’ll make an exception.” The banker stated haughtily, needing to prove to the bystanders that he was more important than the hoodlums Travis had hired to protect the town. “Caught the little thief red handed!” He pointed to the bag laying forgotten on the walkway, a syrupy mess slowly spreading across the boards. “I caught him sneaking out of her house and didn’t receive an answer when I knocked on the door so she obviously wasn’t home. I was bringing him to the jail when this buffoon,” he jerked a thumb at Buck, “attacked me.”

“Buck go see if Mrs. Thatcher’s home.” Chris ordered before Wilmington could react to the banker’s remarks about Ezra. “Now, Buck!

“I told ya before lettin’ that…boy…stay here was just askin’ for trouble and now you can see for yourself he’s nothing but a no good little-“

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll think long and hard before you finish that sentence.” Larabee growled, fighting the desire to shut the banker’s mouth with his fist. “Ezra’s no thief!”

“The evidence seems to prove otherwise.” The banker smugly responded.

“Since you seem to have all the answers, perhaps you can explain why you think Ezra would steal a quilt and a jar of preserves.” Josiah questioned using two fingers to hold up the patchwork bedcover now coated in a sticky mess.

“Probably for the same reason he leaves the restaurant with rolls and other food in his pockets.” McMurtry sneered, pleased by the peacekeepers’ surprised expressions, drawing murmurs from the growing crowd. “It’s no secret Mr. Larabee. Several people saw him, the few times you deemed it necessary for him to eat with civilized people.”

“And did those same civilized people also see that he has better manners than most of them?” Chris queried sarcastically.

“Here now, what happened ta my quilt?”

People stepped aside clearing a path as Wilmington approached, carrying a petite older woman, clutching a cane, her left foot heavily bandaged.

“I asked what happened ta my quilt.” The woman repeated, straightening her skirt as the womanizer gently set her on a chair someone hastily produced from one of the stores.

“I’m not sure if you know the boy that’s been staying with Vin Tanner…“ McMurtry began. With a bad hip, the woman was often housebound, becoming dependent on friends and neighbors.

Despite her age and petite stature, Agnes Thatcher was as tough as they come. As a young bride of fifteen, she and her husband had settled in the territory before most white men even knew there was a territory, laying claim to land as far as the eye could see. They had worked together, fought together and made a fortune selling parcels of their property to other settlers. When her husband had died six years earlier, the woman had sold the remaining portion of the ranch and moved into town.

Like her good friend Nettie Wells, the woman spoke her mind, stood her ground and didn’t back down from anyone or anything.

Having already apprised her of the situation, Buck pressed his lips together to prevent a grin and shook his head, silently advising Larabee and Sanchez to let the feisty woman handle the banker.

“Of course I know Ezra.” She declared. “But that still doesn’t explain what happened to my quilt.”

“It appears he stole-“

“Hogwash! That sweet little boy’s no thief. If he was, I’m sure he could find something more valuable to steal than a quilt and a jar of raspberry preserves.” She protested. “He’s smart as a whip, ya know.”

“He was caught sneaking out of your house…“

“By who?" The woman scoffed. "Some busybody who should be mindin’ their own business? He was probably being ‘specially quiet cause I was takin’ a nap when he left. A nap this good lookin’ young fella,” she reached out and squeezed Buck’s hand giving him a coy smile, “interrupted so I could straighten out this mess.”

“Mrs. Thatcher…“

“Listen ta me you meddlin’ old goat!” The woman thumped the end of her cane on the boardwalk. “For your information I asked Ezra to deliver those things to Mrs. Potter for her birthday. I got news for you McMurtry. Ya don’t run this town! You’re just a bully who doesn’t have the guts ta pick on someone his own size so ya try and cause trouble for a darlin’ little boy who’s never so much as said boo to ya.

“That precious child has been by my place almost everyday since I broke my foot, ta see if I need anything or just ta bring me flowers from down by the crik. The woman cast a derisive glance over the crowd before again turning her attention to the portly banker. “Afraid he’s never gonna see his mama again, that little boy come here needin’ ta be loved and looked after. He hasn’t done anything to hurt anyone or caused one bit of trouble but instead of showin’ ‘im kindness and friendship some of the cowards in this town kowtow to you and treat ‘im as if he were the devil’s messenger. Those fine upstandin’ citizens oughta damn well be ashamed a themselves!” Several eyes were averted, red creeping up necks and cheeks. Snickers rippled through the crowd as she shook her cane at the snooty banker. “Fortunately that boy’s smart enough ta have picked himself a fine family. Mr. Larabee,” She smiled at the gunslinger. “Ya tell Vin Tanner, he can be proud a Ezra. Y’all are doin’ a right fine job a raisin’ that boy.”

“Thank ya ma’am. I’ll be sure and tell ‘im.” Chris turned his icy stare back to McMurtry. “And we are proud a Ez.

McMurtry forced himself to pull his eyes from the gunslinger’s when Mrs. Thatcher poked his side with her cane. “I’ll expect ya ta stop by and pay Mrs. Potter whatever she feels is a fair price for the quilt ya ruined.”

“Reckon you’ll wanna apologize ta Ezra as soon as possible.” Larabee suggested. He stepped close to the banker staring him down. “After that you stay the hell away from Ezra. You cause ‘im anymore trouble and so help me God, I’ll make your life so miserable you’ll wish ya’d never heard of Four Corners.”

“Mr. Wilmington, will you please be so kind as to help me home.” Mrs. Thatcher requested, smiling sweetly up at the tall gunslinger.

“It would be my great honor, ma’am.” Buck bowed gallantly before gently lifting her into his arms again.

“If I was fifteen years younger I’d set my cap for ya and give the young fillies in this town a run for their money.” She smiled wrapping an arm around his neck. Placing a soft kiss on his cheek, she batted her eyelashes, flirting outrageously with the womanizer. “Son, that animal magnetism a yours wouldn't have a chance against my charms."

“Why Aggie darlin’ I do believe you’re right.” Buck grinned then lowered his voice. “And your behavior is somewhat of a shock to the other ladies.”

“One of the benefits of being a crotchety ol’ biddy. People expect ya ta be eccentric. Reckon they could learn a thing or two though.” She whispered with a giggle, drawing a chuckle from Wilmington. “Can’t figure out why one of the foolish young women in this town ain’t latched on ta a handsome gent like you.”

“Can’t say some of ‘em haven’t tried but I’m waitin’ for a crotchety ol’ biddy who will sew me pretty quilts and make me raspberry preserves.”

*******

“Whoa there, Lil Pard!” Tanner caught up with the fleeing southerner behind the telegraph office.

“I didn’t do anything! I swear I didn’t do anything wrong!” Ezra cried out struggling to free himself from the Texan’s grip.

“I know Ez. I know.” Conflicted between happiness Ezra was finally speaking and sadness for the reason he had found his voice, Vin scooped the boy into his arms. Holding him tightly as the child fought to free himself while continuing to voice his innocence Vin made his way through the alleys slipping into the church unnoticed by the group surrounding McMurtry.

Carrying Ezra to Josiah’s room, Vin set the boy on the bed and stooped in front of him gripping the child’s flailing arms. “Ezra, listen to me!”

“I wasn’t stealin’! I wasn’t! I’m sorry I dropped the bag and ruined everything! I didn’t mean ta!” Ezra protested, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Please don’t give me ta the wolves! ”

Stunned, Tanner rocked back on his heels. “We wouldn’t do that, Ezra.”

Panic stricken, the small southerner babbled on in disjointed sentences mixing incidents with Simmons and his latest confrontation with McMurtry, pleading with the tracker for forgiveness, oblivious to Tanner’s attempts at reassurance.

Biting his lip, hating himself for what he was about to do but knowing it was necessary Vin closed his eyes, took a deep breath and slapped the nearly hysterical little gambler.

Ezra’s breath caught in his throat and raising a shaky hand to his stinging cheek, he stared wide-eyed at the Texan.

“I’m sorry Ezra. I’m so sorry. I would never hurt ya on purpose but-“

“Liar!” Ezra angrily pushed the tracker away as Tanner tried to pull him into his arms. “Ya said ya cared about me! Ya said I could count on ya! Ya said you would always be there but ya weren’t! Ya…“

“I got there as soon as possible Ezra. I swear! As soon as I got that letter, me and Chris and Buck took the train ta Den…“

“I told ya I’d take the stage! All ya had ta do was send me a wire sayin’ I could come back but ya didn’t!”

“I didn’t get your letter…“

“Did so! Ya told me ya got it!” Ezra spat. “Ya didn’t answer me then I messed up so Mabel sent me away!”

“Ya got it all wrong Ezra! Mabel didn’t send ya away! She…“

“Yes she did. I made a mistake and she got angry and had Nick take me away.” Ezra insisted stubbornly. “I tried to be good. I tried really really hard. I don’t know what I did wrong but it made ‘em mad and they sold me to Simmons.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Ezra. Nothing at all.” Vin forced himself not to reach for the boy who had pressed himself against the headboard. “Mabel loves you. That’s why Maude sent you to stay with her until I could get there. She told me how much Mabel loved you. She thought you’d be happy there.”

“She don’t love me! Nobody does! People just say that so you’ll do what they want!” Just as Ezra had feared, try as he might, he couldn’t halt the angry words, which poured out of him unchecked.

*******

Standing on the church steps, Nathan gave out a shrill whistle, drawing the attention of the men making their way to the boarding house.

“Reckon yer lookin’ for Vin and Ez. They’re inside,” the healer stated. At the sound of upraised voices, the ex-slave had taken a position of backup on his balcony. Realizing they weren’t dealing with outlaws, he’d waited to see if they needed his assistance when he’d seen Vin enter the church carrying Ezra, a moment before Larabee and Sanchez sent the citizens about their business. “Somebody wanna tell me what that dust up was all about.”

“Later.” Followed by the other men wanting to check on the youngest member of their family, Larabee bound up the stairs, only to be stopped at the door.

“Ez seemed awful upset. Reckon we should let Vin handle it.”

With a nod of understanding, the peacekeepers silently entered, slipping in the pews to sit and wait.

*******

Tanner slowly eased himself into a seat on the edge of the bed, facing the small southerner. He listened, fighting to control his emotions as Ezra released all the rage he’d been keeping locked inside. The words cut through Vin as sharply as his hunting knife, hearing the boy he loved describe the torture he’d suffered at the hands of the skinners.

“He was gonna let the wolves eat me! I waited and waited for you ta come find me but you didn’t! I kept watching for you but you didn’t come! You weren’t there like you promised!” The eight-year-old wailed, his small fist striking the ex-bounty hunter’s shoulder, wanting to hurt the tracker just as he’d been hurt. “You promised! You promised!

Tanner pulled the boy onto his lap, hugging him to his chest and rocking, his own tears running down his cheeks as Ezra sobbed.

“I’m so so sorry Ez.” He murmured. “Ya have to believe me I tried. I wouldn’t have let anything bad happen ta ya if I coulda helped it.”

He continued to rock the child, as Ezra’s struggles slowed and his sobs dissipated to sniffles.

“Y-ya didn’t w-want me.” Ezra mumbled, the adrenaline draining away and weariness washing over him. “H-he w-was right. N-no-nobody w-wants…”

“Oh God, Ezra that’s not true!” Vin set the little southerner away from him taking hold of his hands and steadily meeting his emerald gaze. “Everything seems all mixed up Ezra but if ya let me, I think I can start straightenin’ it out right now. Okay? Will ya at least give me a chance to explain a few things?”

Tanner didn’t realize he’d been holding his breath until Ezra finally nodded his agreement.

“First off, Ezra, I’ve never lied to you and I never will. I told ya I got your letter because I wanted ya ta know I was happy ya’d thought ta write me but I didn’t get it until the day we come back from Ridge City. Mary said it was on a stage that was robbed or somethin’ so it took a while for it ta get here.”

“But ya said ya went ta Denver when ya got the letter.” Ezra protested pulling one of his hands free to wipe his eyes. “The others said so too. Even Miz Nettie said so.”

“We were talkin’ ‘bout the letter from the hospital sayin’ your Ma wanted to see me.”

It was almost an hour before the tracker finished telling the small southerner everything that had happened between the time he had received the first letter and the time they discovered Ezra in Ridge City.

Ezra had remained silent, studying the tracker with the intensity of one of Larabee’s glares. “What happens ta me now?”

Vin frowned. “Ain’t sure what ya mean.”

“Will I be sent to an orphanage?” Fear filled the boy’s emerald eyes as a second option occurred to him. “Or Uncle Bradley’s.”

“Yer gonna stay right here with us!” Tanner stated adamantly. “Why the hell would ya think we’d send ya to an orphanage?”

“Children whose parents have passed on are usually sent to an orphanage or to relatives who are willing to take them in. Since my mother…“

“Ya think…“ Sorrow washed over the Texan as comprehension dawned. Why hadn’t he realized the little boy had been mourning the mother he thought had died. “Yer Ma ain’t dead Ezra.”

“Mr. Prescott told Simmons that Mother had died and…“

“He was lying, Ezra! Just like he lied to Mabel when he told her you were with me. The doc was tellin’ ya the truth when he said she would have ta stay in the hospital for a long time to recover, but she’s gonna be fine.”

“Really?” A spark of hope flickered in the child’s emerald eyes before quickly disappearing. “You really talked to Mother?”

“Sure did.” Tanner nodded, smiling. “So did Chris. When we found ya, Chris sent Mr. Bateman a wire ta let him know and Mr. Bateman said Maude was gettin’ better everyday.” He lifted the child back onto his lap. “There’s been a lotta mix-ups and that’s my fault. I should a talked ta ya about everything right off. I should a made ya talk to me. I know there’s things about Simmons ya still ain’t sayin’. Will ya talk ta me now? Will ya tell me what happened with Simmons?”

Ezra’s enormous eyes filled with shame and he dropped his gaze to his lap where his fingers nervously twisted together.

“Ya don’t have ta tell me if ya don’t want to but I don’t think I could love ya any more than I already do and nothin’ ya say is gonna make me love ya any less.”

“Nick said Maude died and Mabel had found someone else for me ta live with.” Ezra sighed dejectedly, just when the tracker had decided the little con man was going to keep the rest of his secrets locked inside. “I tried ta tell ‘im I could stay here but he sold me ta Simmons. He said ya didn’t want me since Maude couldn’t pay ya like last time and even if ya did want me ta come here ya didn’t have enough money ta pay for me.”

“Didn’t ask Maude for any money.” Tanner corrected the assumption he’d only watched over the child because he expected payment, confused when he saw a flash of fear in the enormous eyes. “Told her before ya left if she ever needed someplace for ya ta stay all she had to do was let me know and we’d come get ya. That’s why she asked the nurse to send the letter.”

Ezra nodded acceptance of the explanation and after several moments began talking again. Vin’s hold on the child tightened with each horrific act the child described, his desire for vengeance growing stronger with each word, each tear that rolled down his son’s cheeks.

The Texan found himself shaking with a hatred and rage that surpassed anything he’d ever felt before when Ezra told him about Simmons’ plans for making a profit after he’d ‘fully trained’ and grown weary of the southerner.

“He said if you didn’t ask Maude to pay you, that’s the real reason ya wanted me around.” Ezra whispered, his eyes downcast in shame.

‘Oh God! No wonder he looked scared ta death when I said I didn’t ask for any money.’

Not wanting the little boy to misunderstand his anger, Vin set the boy on the bed and pushed to his feet needing to regain control of his emotions. He needed to be careful about his response, knowing the small southerner would be looking for the con and could easily misinterpret his words.

Fighting the urge to slam a fist through the nearest wall, the tracker kept reminding himself he was in a church with his self adopted son who had walked through hell and faced the devil himself the last few months.

Even before the incident with Prescott and Simmons, Ezra had seen more of the harsh side of life than most children his age and some adults. Yet, Ezra always seemed to judge people by their actions, rather than by what others deemed right or wrong and Tanner knew if he wasn’t careful his answer could easily change that forever.

Ezra fearfully watched the tracker pace the room, clenching and unclenching his fists. He’d taken a risk telling Tanner about Simmons’ plans but, while he didn’t want to believe it, he truly needed to know if that had indeed been the reason Vin wanted him around.

Tanner stopped pacing, “I want you to listen to me very carefully, Ezra.”

Ezra steeled himself to keep from flinching when, drawing in a deep breath, Vin stooped before him.

“There’s nothing wrong with two adults who decide they want to enjoy each other physically because they’re grown up enough to make that decision. But no one has the right to force unwanted attention on someone else.” He could see the little boy understood his meaning. “And no adult has the right to touch a child in the same way they would another grownup. Reckon the people who do such things must be sick in the head but they deserve ta be punished in the worst way possible. Ya know why?”

The boy slowly shook his head.

“Because they destroy childhood.” Tanner sat down next to the boy, pleased when Ezra didn’t move away.

“They make children afraid. And a kid should never be afraid of gettin’ a hug or bein’ told someone loves ‘em or afraid of trustin’ someone. I’m glad he didn’t touch you that way, Ezra, but if he had, it wouldn’t change how much I love ya or how much Chris and Buck and the others love ya.”

‘Just means I’d hafta hunt ‘im down and show ‘im what the Comanche taught me.’ Tanner kept that thought to himself.

“You’re part of our family and none of us would ever do anything ta hurt ya. We love ya and nothin’ is ever gonna change that. And I’ll tell ya somethin’ else,” He lay a gentle hand on the boy’s soft curls. “Yer a very brave little boy and we couldn’t be more proud of ya.”

“No I’m not.” Ezra dropped his gaze to his hands once again. “I was afraid he was gonna let the wolves get me.”

“I would a probably pissed my pants.” Vin chuckled, growing serious when his honesty didn’t draw so much as a smile.

“I was afraid all the time.” The little boy admitted, sniffling in an attempt to hold back his tears.

“Hell, that’s understandable Ez.” The tracker reassured him. “Anybody who says they wouldn’t be afraid is a liar and a person in that situation who wasn’t afraid is a damn fool. One thing I know fer sure is that your Ma ain’t raisin’ no fool.”

Ezra appeared to consider the statement for a long moment. “I’m not sure she would agree with you.”

“I am. She loves ya Ez. Not sure she knows how ta show ya that but I am sure she loves ya. And she knows how special ya are.” Tanner smiled, remembering Chris telling him about the comment Maude had made when she thought he’d left. “She loves ya just as much as me and the fellas do.”

“You really looked for me?” The child sounded dubious but there was an underlying note of hopefulness in the question.

"You bet we did!” The tracker proclaimed. “Ya gotta believe me Lil Pard, we would never have stopped lookin’ for ya. Not till the day we died!”

“I’m sorry I yelled at ya and hit ya.” Tanner’s spirit soared when Ezra bashfully crawled onto his lap and sleepily lay his head against the tracker’s chest. “I missed you, Vin.”

“I missed you too Lil’ Pard.” Vin sighed, happily wrapping the child of his heart in a hug. “More than you can imagine.”

*******

In the church the five men, having heard most of Vin and Ezra’s conversation, silently dealt with their own emotions.

‘Dear Lord, you smiled on us and brought our little brother home. I thank you and ask that you help him through the rest of his journey. Guide us and give us the wisdom and patience to help him traverse the trials ahead.’ Josiah prayed. ‘And father since I won't be sorry I will not ask forgiveness but rather for understanding of the sin I will commit once more in showing that son of the devil the error of his ways if he ever crosses my path again. Amen.’

Certain his fury was locked away until he could drown it with several shots of whiskey, Larabee rose and crossed to the door of Sanchez’s small room wanting to confirm his suspicions.

“Reckon ya better plan on beddin’ down in Ezra’s room tanight preacher.” Chris’ announced softly, causing the other men to crowd in the doorway. Smiles lit their faces at the sight of the tracker sleeping soundly, his arms securely wrapped around the little southerner whose head rested on his shoulder, his angelic face a picture of serenity. “Don’t know about you fellas but I could use a drink.”

*******

“Hey little man, good ta have ya back. We missed ya.” Buck swung the little boy up into his arms as, followed more slowly by Vin, Ezra rushed down the street to meet him.

In the days since he’d finally opened up about his time with Simmons, the peacekeepers had begun to see the return of the charming little southerner who had wiggled his way into their hearts within days of his arrival.

Chris had refused to let McMurtry approach the little gambler at the jail, stating the banker had maligned Ezra in front of half the town so he could apologize the same way and they’d let him know when the time was right.

They had watched in amusement when, receiving Larabee’s approval, standing at the bottom of the church steps, after one of Josiah’s Sunday sermon, the banker made his apology. Even McMurtry had appeared surprised when the little gentleman had offered his hand in acceptance and had taken partial blame for the incident.

While the little boy still avoided most of whom he considered to be the respectable-although the lawmen would have said snooty-citizens of Four Corners, Ezra had less trouble spending time with Yosemite, Mrs. Potter, Inez and his other friends. He’d slowly stopped hoarding food, begun to wear his fancier clothes and set up his gaming table in the saloon a few times.

They all offered encouragement, drawing him into further discussions about the skinners and his fears when he appeared ready to withdraw behind his wall of silence once more.

The nightmares hadn’t totally disappeared but they were less frequent and one of the men was always there to awaken him and offer comfort when they occurred.

“Did ya have a good time?”

The tracker and little gambler had been out of town the past two days and everyone was looking forward to hearing about the small southerner’s adventures.

“We spent the night at the Indian village and the medicine man did a ceremony ta make me a medicine bag.” Ezra exclaimed excitedly. “See?” The small southerner proudly held up the little leather pouch hanging around his neck. “Vin made it and even put the beads on all by himself.”

“Well he did a damn good job cause that sure is mighty pretty.” The womanizer complimented him.

The child nodded. “Uh huh and it’s powerful too cause it’s got secret stuff in it.”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Buuuck! It’s a secret!”

Wilmington chuckled, giving the boy a loving squeeze, when the small southerner rolled his eyes in exasperation. It was good to hear the little con man sounding like the excited child he was. “Bet you’re hungry as a bear at the beginnin’ a spring.”

“I could manage ta consume a meal.” Ezra grinned, reverting to the southern gentleman. Ezra wrapped his arms around the Texan’s neck as Buck handed him to his self adopted father. “Vin’s probably hungry enough ta eat that bear.”

“Ya didn’t feed ‘im breakfast?” The womanizer feigned shock. “Thought we taught ya all about the care and feedin’ of our tracker. Why it’s a pure wonder he didn’t just dry up and blow away.”

“He had ta fast so he’d be pure for the sweat lodge this mornin.” The small boy explained seriously.

“Well I don’t reckon anybody’s purer than our tracker…cept maybe JD.” Wilmington teased.

“Aren’t we eating at the boarding house?” Ezra questioned as they headed for the restaurant. “Isn’t Mrs. O’Reilly feeling good?”

Buck shrugged, “We just thought we might give her a break is all.”

Understanding Ezra was still uncomfortable in some social situations, but not wanting to ruin his friends’ plans Vin hugged the boy before setting him on his feet and taking his hand. “Reckon that’s a good idea cause she works awful hard. Restaurant shouldn’t be to busy bein’ the middle of the afternoon and all.”

“It’s closed for a private party.” The little boy stated, reading the sign on the door.

“Reckon it won’t be any trouble scroungin’ up somethin’ for us.” The womanizer pointed out.

“Buck, it’s extremely bad manners for a person to intrude on a party they aren’t invited to.” The child scolded.

“How do we know we ain’t invited unless we go in and see who’s havin’ the party?” Buck grinned pushing open the door watching the child try to brush as much dust as possible from his clothing. “’Sides, it can’t be much of a party if we ain’t there.”

Ezra tensed, his hand squeezing Vin’s tightly when they entered the establishment to find more than a few people seated at the tables which had been pushed together.

“It’s about time y’all got back!” Nathan announced crossing to stoop in front of the southerner and receive a hug. “Thought we was gonna hafta sedate JD ta keep him outta the kitchen. Ya’d think the boy hadn’t eaten in a month.”

Vin felt Ezra begin to relax as his emerald gaze skimmed over the occupants at the long table surprised to see Nettie Wells and Casey, Mrs. Potter and her children, Mary Travis, Mrs. Thatcher, Inez and Yosemite as well as Mrs. O’Reilly and her daughter seated with the peacekeepers.

Ezra’s enormous eyes widened and he took a step closer to the tracker, uncertain if he should believe what he was seeing as his gaze stopped at the head of the table.

“M-Mother?”

“Hello my darlin’ boy.”

Seeing the happiness in her large blue eyes, the little boy hurried into her open arms. Smiles lit up the room as Ezra reveled in his mother’s hug.

“Now, my darlin’, let me get a good look at you.” Maude dropped a loving kiss on Ezra’s cheek before setting him at arm’s length. “I’m told you had quite an adventure while I was away.”

“I’m fine.”

“I know you are, my darlin’. You’re a Standish and that’s as good as it gets.” His mother stated proudly, with a wink to the others. “And I would expect no less.”

Suddenly realizing the high-backed chair she sat in had large wheels attached to the sides, fear filled the child’s emerald eyes. “Mother? Vin said the doctor told ‘im…“

“You shouldn’t doubt anything Mr. Tanner tells you darlin’. His honesty is beyond question. It’s simply that my legs and back still get tired very easily but I’m going to be fine. After all,” she smiled, “I’m a Standish too.”

“And I would expect no less.” Ezra grinned, mimicking his mother. Remembering his manners, Ezra extended a hand to the man sitting on Maude’s left. “Hello, Mr. Bateman.”

“It’s good to see you again, Ezra.” The man smiled, shaking the boy’s hand. “I’m afraid the chair is my fault. Your mother was worried it would frighten you but she couldn’t wait any longer to see you so as persuasive as she can be, I won this argument.”

Tanner glanced at Larabee. Why hadn’t the gunslinger warned him Maude was coming to town? Why hadn’t he given the tracker time to prepare for Ezra’s departure? He’d probably been afraid Vin wouldn’t bring Ezra home.

Vin’s heart dropped when, as if reading his mind, Maude slipped an arm around her son again.

“It must have been a hard trip on the stage.” Casey commented.

“We took the train to Eagle Bend and then Richard hired a carriage from there.” The southern woman explained. “Mr. Tanner?”

Tanner turned his attention to the woman who held out her hand to him. “It’s good ta see ya up and around Maude.”

“Can I have a hug?” A quiet voice interjected as Maude introduced Vin to her fiancée.

Tears rolled down her cheeks as with a wide smile, the small southerner moved around the table and threw his arms around Mabel’s neck.

“I’m so sorry for what Nick did.” The woman whispered, hugging the boy to her.

“I’m sorry he hurt you too.” Ezra gently pat her shoulder in a child’s attempt to comfort her. “I wish I could have beat him up.”

“Well he can’t hurt either of us anymore.” She smiled wiping at her tears. “So what say we get your friend fed before the doctor follows through on his threat to sedate him.”

Dinner was a jovial affair with everyone sharing stories and laughter, each of them feeling the need to expound on Ezra’s virtues to his mother. Seated between Maude and Vin, the small southerner’s adoring gaze constantly traveled between the two people he loved most in the world.

“How long ya gonna be in town Mrs. Standish?” Larabee questioned, not wanting to ruin the celebration but hoping to help everyone prepare for the worst.

“I’m afraid we can only stay for a day or two.” The woman sighed. “The doctor told Richard about a friend of his with a clinic near some natural hot springs. He thinks I will fully recover more quickly there.”

“Heard a the place.” Nathan nodded when his friends looked to him for an opinion. “Heard the doc even has some patients exercise in the water cause a the temperature. It’s good for the muscles and keeps ‘em loose. That way the person ain’t so sore and don’t get discouraged as easily.”

“Mabel has been a great deal of help and will be going with us until I’m completely well.” She smiled at her younger cousin. “I’m hoping we’ll find her a respectable man as wonderful as Richard.”

“Maude!” Mabel gasped, her cheeks flushing bright pink.

“Just because Prescott turned out to be nothing but a no good con artist-“ Several of the peacekeepers choked on their coffee at the statement, “doesn’t mean all men are bastards.”

“Children present.” Richard lowly reminded his future wife.

“What about your store?” Vin questioned, knowing how Mabel felt about the family business and hoping to redirect the conversation.

“Mr. Watson is taking care of it for me.” Mabel assured him. “He used to help my father when I was younger. I trust him and he probably knows the business as well as I do. I’ll go back home, once Maude is completely back on her feet.”

“Unless she wants to go to Europe with us.” Maude stated. “We’re taking the grand tour.”

“On our honeymoon.” Richard happily added.

“What about Ez?” JD posed the question they all wanted answered.

“We were hopin’ he’d wanna come with us.” The businessman squeezed his bride to be’s hand.

“Ezra I wanted ta ask ya about this letter I got from Mr. Latham. Seems he’s thought about the wire I sent him and has decided to accept my offer to buy twenty-five expectant head a cattle this spring. Would ya happen to know anything about that?” Nettie questioned, needing to fill the silence that followed the declaration and hoping to give the tracker and child time to adjust to the news that once again they would have to say goodbye.

A guilty blush of pink filled the boy’s cheeks as all eyes turned from the ranch woman to him. Glancing at his mother, the little boy was suddenly all business. “Well, it seemed to me since you couldn’t afford Mr. Latham’s bull, the solution was to purchase cattle sired by said bull. The cattle will help build your herd and odds are at least one of them will give birth to a male.”

“Makes sense.” Josiah nodded. “And if anyone knows about odds, it’s our little gambler.”

Nettie’s mouth twitched in amusement. “So exactly what kind of a deal did I offer him?”

“Seven dollars a head. Five dollars for every healthy calf and he gets the extra males if there are more than two born. Of course you don’t pay for those. You pay half after next fall roundup and the rest the following year. I had to assume after having spent time with you on your previous business trip, he would recognize your honesty and accept deferred payments.” ”

Ezra tried not to squirm and Maude, her blue eyes sparkling, sipped her coffee, watching as the adults stared at her son in amazement.

“That’s…a helluva deal.” Bateman grinned. “Pardon me ladies, but there was really no better way to say it. You have quite a head for business Ezra.”

“Of course he does.” Maude stated arrogantly. “He’s a Standish after all.”

“And you would expect no less.” Everyone chorused, the statement followed by soft laughter.

*******

The perfect gentleman, Ezra stood at the door, thanking the guests as they made their exit.

“Sure glad ta hear yer voice again.” Nettie smiled bending to give the child a hug. “Knew you were the right person ta talk bull with.”

“Miz Nettie?” Ezra grinned when the older woman turned back to the door. “White with Forget-Me-Nots or green with Daisies.” His smile widened when Nettie nodded approval.

“If you gentlemen don’t mind, I would like a few minutes more of your time.”

The little boy’s attention spun back to the table when Maude made her request. Here it was; the announcement Ezra would be leaving with her and Bateman or perhaps he was going to stay with a different relative. He saw Tanner stiffen, his back straight as a board as the tracker slowly sank back into his chair.

“Ezra darlin’, come over here please?”

With conflicting emotions, the child slowly returned to the table. He loved his mother and wanted to be with her but he also loved and wanted to stay with Vin. Why couldn’t Maude just stay in Four Corners? She could make a living playing poker, Ezra would help her just like always, or she could open a saloon or…or marry Vin!

Tanner wasn’t rich but he did have some money saved. He didn’t have the social status or eloquent manners Maude usually preferred but he was polite and was liked and respected by almost everyone in town. Plus he was the best shot in the territory so he and the others could protect Maude if any of her old marks came looking for trouble. It was the perfect solution!

She was engaged to the businessman and it wasn’t that Ezra didn’t like Mr. Bateman. He was probably the nicest of Maude’s paramours but if Maude married Vin…

“Ezra darlin’, there’s something very important we need to talk about.” Maude took Ezra’s hand as the little boy slid back into his seat. “It would make us both very happy if you decided to come with us, although I’m afraid you might be terribly bored while I’m at the clinic. Richard says he’s sure and I trust him, that we’ll be able to find things to interest you but it is your decision.” Maude turned her attention to Vin. “Mr. Tanner, if Ezra chooses not to come with us, would you be willing to care for him until we return.”

“Course I will! We all will!” No one tried to hide their smile at Vin’s eager response. “Told ya before anytime we can help, ya just need ask.”

“I can’t tell you how much we appreciate everything you’ve already done for us…“

“That’s what family does.” Tanner assured her. “Yer Ez’s Ma,…his family, but he’s become part a our family too so reckon that makes you family.” He cast a quick glance at the other men. It was the most he’d said since stepping into the restaurant. “Done learned that family’s just people ya care about and who cares about you.”

“Seems ta me he’s one lucky little kid to have so many people love him.” The businessman winked at his future stepson. “And I include myself in that group.”

Ezra watched his mother closely, waiting for his cue. He knew how the game was played and all the subtle little signs telling him how he was supposed to react. However she hadn’t used any of the code words or given him any of the catch phrases and he was floundering.

The small southerner had to admit he was confused, unsure what he was supposed to do. This wasn’t a role he’d ever seen his mother play before. He’d watched her act the part of the loving mother, loving fiancée, hard-nosed business woman, charming courtier, and everything in between. He knew every expression and could interpret her body language without fail.

Yet he had seen only love and sincerity in the blue eyes that looked back at him. She hadn’t commented on the overalls he wore or criticized his speech and had seemed genuinely interested in his visit to the Indian village.

Could it be she really wanted Ezra with them? Was it possible she was truly in love with Bateman and not just interested in the money she would obtain when she finally divorced him? Perhaps this was some kind of test. Was he was suppose to prove how much he loved her? If that was the case, would she feel betrayed if he chose to remain in Four Corners?

The small southerner suddenly felt as if he were once again being used as wolf bait. How was he supposed to choose between his mother and the family he had adopted here in this dusty corner of the territory.

Sensing the boy’s dilemma and not wanting the child to feel bad about choosing either of the adults he adored, Bateman decided it was time to intervene. “Ezra, you’re not going to hurt anyone’s feelings and no one’s gonna be mad at you if you decide to come with us or stay here for awhile. We all just want you to be happy.”

“Richard’s right but there’s no need to decide right this very moment.” His mother smiled warmly. “Come back to the hotel and you and I will spend some time catching up.”

Bateman raised a hand, stopping everyone as they pushed back their chairs. “Before we retire I have a favor to ask.”

*******

Placing his journal in the nightstand drawer, Ezra lay in the large feather bed waiting for the peacekeepers’ nightly ritual of stopping by to wish him goodnight.

It had been a day he would never forget. He had seen his mother struck speechless when Bateman had requested Josiah marry them immediately.

“Maude, I know you wanted to wait until you were completely recovered but I think now is the perfect time. Right here among your friends…” he gave the tracker and small southerner a knowing wink, “and family.”

The southern woman had been amazed when JD had rounded up Miz Nettie and the others and in less than an hour the women had the church decorated with bouquets of flowers, fall leafs and ribbons. Ezra had stood up as Bateman’s best man after giving his mother away.

Afterward he’d had a long talk with his mother; a mother he’d never known before, a loving mother like other children had, a mother who seemed more interested in what her son wanted than what she wanted.

They had talked about what had happened since the accident, her treatments, the peacekeepers, Nick Prescott and Simmons. He hadn’t told her everything that happened with the skinner but she had hugged her son to her and fought her tears as he talked.

“Mr. Tanner is right, my darlin’, you are the bravest little boy ever.”

Ezra had basked in the praise but just as she had taught him, the little boy had looked for the con. There had been no talk of swindles and he had found no deception in her steady gaze. He wasn’t sure how long it would be before his mother reverted to her old ways but he would never ever forget this mother and the love he’d felt as she held him close.

*******

“Behave yourself for Mr. Tanner and be sure to practice your craft." Maude ordered as the last of the luggage was being loaded onto the private car sounding more like the Maude he knew than the mother whose arrival had surprised the child. "Have to keep your skills sharp so you don't waste your God given talent."

"Yes mother." Ezra obediently agreed.

The small southerner sat in the carriage spending the last few moments with his mother before her and Bateman’s departure. With Maude and Richard’s blessing Ezra had decided to remain in Four Corners for the time being but they had all escorted the small caravan to meet the train in Eagle Bend giving the boy extra time with his mother.

Bateman had deposited a large sum of money into the bank under Ezra and Vin’s name to be used for the small southerner’s care and advised the men that his office in Denver would have orders to assist them with anything needed if he couldn’t be reached. He’d even slipped the child several bills instructing Ezra the money was to be spent on whatever he wished.

“I want to hear plans for three new cons the next time I see you.”

“Yes, mother.”

“While I know these men have the best of intentions you remember to always follow rule number one.” The southern woman stated.

“Yes, mother.” Ezra wasn’t sure his decision hadn’t been influenced by that rule and his fear of being stranded in a strange country, if things didn’t work out between Maude and Bateman.

Vin had told him although sometimes the results weren’t always as expected, Maude’s decisions regarding Ezra were based on love and the only thing anyone could do was make the best decision possible for someone they love.

“And rule number one is?”

“Always look out for myself first and foremost and trust only myself.” The child recited realizing that just as Tanner had been teaching him to read sign, his mother was teaching him the things she knew and one thing she knew how to do above all else was survive.

“Recite your rules every day.”

“Yes, mother.”

“Mr. Tanner?”

Passing the bag he carried to the porter, the tracker ambled over to the carriage. “Yes, ma’am?”

“I’m trustin’ you to take care of my darlin’ boy.”

“Ya got my word, ma’am.” Vin nodded seriously. “Me and the fellas’ll look after ‘im just like you would.”

Maude leaned close whispering. “Ya do damn well better than that!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I thank ya for everything ya’ve done for my darlin’ boy.” The tracker blushed furiously as she dropped a quick kiss on his scruffy cheek. “And don’t y’all be corruptin’ ‘im with that damn honesty a yours.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Tanner grinned.

Maude wrapped her son in a hug as a porter called all aboard. “I may not say it but don’t ya ever doubt how much I love ya my darlin’ boy.” She stated so quietly only her son could hear her.

“I thank ya for letting me marry your mother. I’ll take good care of her and I’m sure proud ta have someone as brave as you for a son Ezra.” Richard declared stooping to give the child a hug as Ezra hopped from the carriage. “Don’t forget, ya just give a yell if you change your mind about joinin’ us, even if it’s only for a few days, otherwise we’ll see you as soon as possible.”

“Be well my darlin’ boy and write me often.”

Ezra watched as Sanchez and Bateman helped Maude onto the train.

Settled comfortably on the plush sofa next to the window, Maude blew her son a kiss as the whistle blew and the train slowly started for its next destination.

With Vin’s hand resting on his shoulder and surrounded by his adopted family Ezra watched the train until only the smoke from the engine could be seen in the distance.

The small southerner clutched the little leather pouch hanging about his neck. According to the tracker, each of the beads on the design represented someone important to Ezra. He fingered the pearl colored bead Tanner had placed on the leather for Maude.

The medicine man hadn’t told him everything that had been put in the bag. There were things that represented him, including the Ace of Spades, and the Agate as well as things that were to protect him and give him strength. He smiled remembering how the medicine man had braided a small lock of his hair with that of the one Vin cut from his own head, explaining that just like the strands of hair, the Texan and southerner’s lives would be forever intertwined.

The Indian spirits had blessed the bag and its contents so it would help protect the little southerner if the others couldn’t, give him strength when he thought he had none left and help him be brave when he was afraid. The medicine bag would help remind him that he was never truly alone because his family loved him.

All of his family loved him.


THE END