He was going camping!



Struggling to contain the mixture of excitement and fear, Ezra packed the saddlebags, careful to remember exactly how Tanner had shown him so he could take everything he needed. He mentally ran through the contents: extra clothes, a towel, soap, tooth powder, comb and his deck of cards. Quickly checking to be sure the derringer was loaded, he carefully stowed the little weapon in the bottom of the bag.



The truth was he would much rather eat dinner in the restaurant and sleep in the comfortable feather bed of the boarding house room than prepare food over a campfire and sleep on the hard ground.



However, the camping trip meant three days of not having ol' banker McMurtry watching his every move waiting for the seven-year-old to make a mistake which he would use to banish the child from the town forever.



It would be three days of not having to constantly be on guard. Three days of not having to watch his every step, his every action and reaction.



Beyond that freedom was the most important thing: camping meant three more days spent with the man he wished was his father.



Vin had casually announced the trip over dinner, stating they would leave after breakfast the following morning. Ezra had been surprised and more than a little pleased to discover none of the other men would be accompanying them. As much as he would allow himself, he loved all the peacekeepers but his temporary guardian was special.



Vin Tanner was his hero!



The tracker had not only saved the young southerner's life but was teaching him, Maude was wrong in her belief that people only looked out for themselves. The Texan had asked nothing in return, for the kindness he’d shown the little boy. Unlike most of the people the boy had found himself staying with, when Maude didn't need him for a job, the sharpshooter had willingly, even happily included Ezra in his life.



Because of the sharpshooter and his five friends, the youth had suddenly found some stability and affection in his young life. While they treated him with respect, letting him have some independence, all of the peacekeepers made it a point to teach the little gambler what it meant to be a child and strove to prove that he didn't have to depend only on himself any longer.



While Ezra was anticipating the time spent with Vin, the boy couldn’t prevent the niggling doubt the tracker had only bothered to invite him along out of some sense of obligation.



Constantly fearing the day Tanner would tire of his presence and send him off to one of Maude’s many relatives, Ezra did his best not to appear needy. He struggled to maintain the proper decorum at all times, greeting the tracker with just the right amount of enthusiasm, tried to make himself useful without getting in the way, not drive Vin to distraction with inane chatter, and he made certain to give the man plenty of time to spend with his friends or alone. It was well known that Tanner’s need for freedom often sent the Texan into the mountains to replenish his spirit and he didn’t want to take the chance of driving the sharpshooter away.



Worse yet, Ezra feared this trip was merely a prelude to the news he was in constant dread of hearing. He wouldn’t allow himself to forget, even for a wishful moment, that he wouldn’t be allowed to stay in Four Corners. Each day he reminded himself that even if Maude would agree, Vin and the other men would soon realize they had nothing to gain by letting him remain.



Even at his tender age, Ezra knew each of the unique men brought something different to the table, which blended with and enhanced the talents of the others, making them a formidable force.



Ezra also knew only too well that he could add nothing to that force but maybe…



He had three days.



Neatly laying out his clothes for the next morning, Ezra changed into his nightshirt and climbed into bed, knowing the peacekeepers would be there shortly.



As an after thought, he pulled his journal from its hiding place and quickly added it and a pencil to the items in the leather bags, returning to the bed only a moment before a knock on the door announced the arrival of his self adopted father and brothers.



Every night each of the men who watched over the town made certain to stop by the boarding house room to say goodnight and Ezra never fell asleep until the last man had made his appearance.



Seeing the packed saddlebags sitting near the door, Tanner's smile had widened as he departed. Before retiring to his wagon, he would return to check on the child who had claimed a large chunk of his heart, if only to adjust the blankets and place a light kiss on the sleeping boy’s forehead. He didn’t know Ezra was aware of and took great comfort in the nightly ritual.



"You all ready for tomorrow?" Knowing Vin had traded his duty with Josiah, Buck settled into the rocking chair beside the bed, prepared to stay with the little boy until the sandman had claimed him for the night.



"Yes sir." Ezra nodded.



Hearing what sounded like trepidation in the two little words, the womanizer turned down the lamp. The men had discovered, early on, it was easier to get a straight answer out of the little gambler if he felt safe from embarrassment. "Then what's got ya troubled?"



"Noth..." The boy trailed off. "I...I know how much Mr. Tanner values his time alone in the mountains..."



"He wouldn't a asked if he didn't want ya along Pard." Wilmington assured him, wondering what they could say and how long it would take before the little southerner believed he was wanted among them. “’Member what we told ya awhile back?…Vin don’t say nothin’ he don’t mean.”



The little boy gave a quiet sigh. “I remember.”



Shortly after Judge Travis had announced he could continue to remain with Tanner, Vin had taken Ezra into the mountains on a overnight trip. While the little boy hadn’t spent much time in the wilderness and was certain he didn’t know many things other boys his age should, the sharpshooter hadn’t made him feel stupid or useless. After eating the fish, the ex-bounty hunter had helped him catch, the two had spent the evening in conversation. Vin hadn’t pried into his past or pushed him to talk about things he didn’t wish to discuss and yet had honestly answered the few questions Ezra had dared to voice.



“I just don’t wanna disappoint him.” The child finally whispered in the near darkness.



“What?” Shocked by the soft statement, Wilmington moved to sit on the edge of the bed beside the little boy. “Why in hel…heck would ya think Vin’d be disappointed in ya?”



“I don’t…I’m not…I’m not good at things other kids are.” Ezra stumbled over the words, suddenly finding it difficult to express himself. “He’s so smart about the wilderness. He knows how to find food and water and all about the plants and trees but I don’t know any of that stuff. He even had ta show me how ta catch a fish last time we spent the night in the woods.” Humiliation colored his words. “Even my cousin Emily knows how ta fish.”



“Yer right about Vin bein’ a expert but that don’t mean he expects you to be and he sure ain’t gonna be disappointed cause ya ain’t.” Buck reached over and turned up the flame on the lamp, wanting the young gambler, who could read people as well as he could read a poker deck, to see that he was telling the truth. “Let me tell ya something Ez and I want ya ta listen real good. Nobody here thinks you’re dumb. If the truth be known, yer probably smarter than a lotta the grownups in this town. Yer just smarter in different ways. As much time as I’ve spent travelin’ the uncivilized parts a this great country, I’ll bet Vin knows twice as much as I do ‘bout livin in the wilderness. On the other hand there’s lots a things I’m smarter about than he is. Ya see Pard, everybody is wise in their own way. Just cause you don’t know about fishin’ or animals or even some a the games other kids play, don’t mean you’re not as smart as they are. Just the same as it don’t mean other people are dumb because they don’t know how to play poker or the right utensils ta use at a fancy dinner or the meanin’ of some of them big words you’re fond a usin’. It just means ya…and them…ain’t been taught those things yet. Understand?”



Ezra nodded, his anticipation of the upcoming trip returning.



“I’ll tell ya somethin’ else…I’ll bet if ya want him to, Vin would be real happy ta pass on that expertise of his if ya wanna learn it.” Wilmington smiled, playfully ruffling the boy’s hair.



That was it!



He had three days to learn as much as possible. Three days to prove he could somehow be useful to the men he admired. Three days to prove he might one day be worth keeping around.



“One thing,” Buck added with a twinkle in his eyes. “That sharpshooter a ours crawls outta bed awful early so ya best get ya some shuteye.”



“I’ll try.” Ezra scrunched deeper in the bed, certain he wouldn’t sleep a wink. “Night Buck.”



“Want me ta tell ya a story to help ya sleep.” Buck offered, glad to see the tension beginning to ease from the youngster.



“That would be nice but I don’t think Mr. Tanner would consider stories about your conquests with woman, appropriate and I know Mr. Jackson wouldn’t.” The small southerner teased.



“Ya think that’s the only kinda stories I know?” Wilmington clutched his chest in mock indignation. “Why I know as many stories as that there Samuel Clemmons fella ya was readin’ the other day.”



“And I’ll bet they all involve a woman.” Peals of laughter filled the room as Buck’s fingers attacked the boy’s ribs, tickling him until Ezra gasped for breath.



“Scooch over ya little polliwog.” Turning the lamp back down, the jovial gunman stretched out on the bed, cuddling the southerner against his side. “Now what kinda story would ya like ta hear?”



“Tell me about how y’all met.” Ezra whispered.



“Well, let me see…Me and Chris have known each other since we wasn’t much older than JD…” Ezra was asleep before the peacekeepers were riding toward the Seminole village.






“See y’all in three days.” Tanner called out, giving his friends a nod.



Unaware of the questioning stare of the stranger approaching the general store, with a happy wave to the five men on the boardwalk, Ezra moved his horse up beside Tanner’s as the two began their journey.






Sitting next to the fire, his back resting against the saddle, Ezra mentally relived the day he was describing in his journal.



To the little southerner’s delight, the sharpshooter had decided to spend their time together beside a small spring in the mountains a little more than a half a day’s ride from Four Corners.



It was a beautiful spot, the clear water pool hidden by the surrounding trees. Sweetpeas, Forget-Me-Nots, Lillies Of The Valley and other varieties of wild flowers added splashes of color, blending together for a sweet aroma drifting on the gentle summer breeze. Vin had explained, few people knew about the spring’s location. For water, they found it more convenient to use the stream that was fed by the same underground source.



Arriving at the spot, Ezra had followed Tanner’s instructions and helped set up the small efficient camp. Together they’d gathered enough wood for their, two-day stay.



After coffee…Ezra had come to realize the Texan couldn’t go long without his noxiously strong brew…Vin had taught the little southerner how to set a trout line in the stream before they’d hiked back to the spring and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming, reading, talking and laughing.



Ezra had watched every move of the tracker’s hands as retrieving their catch from the stream, Vin had set out several trap lines in hopes of catching some small game for their breakfast. Tanner had patiently explained the best places to set the snares, describing the habits of different animals.



After dinner, they’d laid and stared at the stars, Vin telling him the Indian legends behind each constellation.



Stretched out beside the fire, his eyes closed yet completely aware, the Texan rolled onto his side, eyeing the child as Ezra quietly returned the journal to his saddlebags. Although he would never dream of invading the child’s privacy by asking, he couldn’t help wondering what the little boy he’d come to love had been writing.



“Ya make a mighty fine pot a coffee Ez.” The sharpshooter commented, sitting up to refill his cup.



“Thank you.” Pleasure surged through Ezra at the compliment. He’d made the coffee stronger than normal knowing the tracker liked it that way. “And you cook a mighty fine trout.” The little boy patted his full stomach, his dimples flashing with his grin. “If you ever decide to stop being a peacekeeper you could always make a living cooking in the restaurant.”



“No way in hell! Buck ever caught me in a apron he’d never let me live it down.” Vin chuckled. “Or worse he might reckon I looked perty enough ta try usin’ his animal magnetism on me.”



“Well ya do have awful pretty hair and I heard a couple a the ladies in town talkin’ about your beautiful blue eyes.” Ezra laughed, ducking as the tracker, playfully swatted at him. Unlike the uncles and other relatives or caregivers Ezra had been left with, the little boy knew Vin would never hurt him. “Would ya care to play a few hands of poker?”



Tanner hesitated. In the time he’d been in Four Corners the men had discovered a great deal about the little southerner and watched the subtle changes in the boy. Ezra was exceptional at hiding his feelings until they completely overwhelmed him but being observant the tracker had picked up a few indications of when the child was troubled. When unable to avoid people he became even more talkative, using misdirection to distract a person from asking probing questions.



The last week, Ezra had been a regular Magpie or constantly found excuses to avoid the peacekeepers’ company. Worried about the boy, Vin had hoped this trip would relax the child enough so he would discuss what had been bothering him. However it appeared he was going to have to try a different tactic. He knew Ezra would play cards just for the fun and challenge of the game but perhaps this was a way to get the little southerner to open up a bit. “Ain’t got much cash left till pay day but what say we bet somethin’ different.”



Ezra’s eyes narrowed. “What did you have in mind?”



“A question.”



“Excuse me?” The child frowned in confusion.



“If you win you get to ask me a question and if I win I get to ask you one.” Vin challenged. “If it’s somethin’ either one a us is uncomfortable answerin’ than we just ask for a different question.” There were few things he wouldn’t answer for the child, things he wasn’t proud of and would never talk about to anyone including Chris Larabee but he wanted to give the private little boy a way out while still keeping his pride.



Tanner sipped his coffee watching Ezra over the rim of the cup.



Considering the proposition, the boy chewed his bottom lip, absently shuffling the cards. There were many things he wanted to know about the sharpshooter. Things he needed to know although he feared the answers. What frightened him almost as much as those answers, perhaps even more so, was what Vin might want to know about him. He was certain Tanner would be shocked and ashamed of some of the things the seven-year-old had done under the guise of helping his mother. Of course Vin had said he didn’t have to answer.



“Would you like to cut?” The little gambler offered, his curiosity winning out over his fear. Besides he was a better poker player than Tanner.



Tanner grinned. “I trust ya.”






“How did ya learn so much about the wilderness?” Revealing the winning hand, Ezra decided it was a safe question with which to begin.



“Some of it my grandpap taught me. Some I learned from the Indians and the rest I just picked up here and there.” Vin responded, thinking about the different people who’d been his teachers. “Seems like some things I just…knew.”



‘Vin’s God given talent.’ The boy mused.



Playing another hand, Tanner saw the southerner tense when his pair of threes beat Ezra’s king high. The tracker debated a moment than questioned, “Who taught ya ta play poker?”



“Maude. She says I have a God given gift.” The little gambler relaxed slightly. “I don’t remember but she probably started teachin’ me as soon as I could tell the difference between the cards.”



Several hands later, Ezra had found out that Vin’s mother had made the best peach pie in the world and instilled his love of poetry by reciting it each night when she put him to bed. He also learned the sharpshooter was named after his paternal grandfather, and he had listened in fascination as Tanner described how he’d ended up living among the Indians.



Vin, in turn, had discovered Ezra had spent most of his young life traveling about the country. His favorite place to stay had been with his great aunt Gertrude in Natchez, he thought most of JD’s jokes really were funny and he loved fried chicken; although Maude wouldn’t allow him to have it because only heathens ate with their fingers.



The ex-bounty hunter grinned as he laid down his next hand, his three sevens triumphing over Ezra’s two pair.



“What question would you like to ask for your winning hand?” The boy gathered the cards.



“When’s your birthday?” Tanner’s smile quickly faded as the color drained from Ezra’s complexion. It was something the sharpshooter had been thinking about since they’d attended a birthday dinner for Billy Travis a few weeks earlier. Why had the seemingly innocent question caused such a reaction?



Staring at the cards he shuffled, the little southerner shrugged. “I don’t know.” The words were barely audible. He blinked back the tears, which gathered in his eyes, certain he’d just proven his stupidity to the man he most admired. Who didn’t know the date of their birth?



Ezra had momentarily considered making up a date but somehow couldn’t bring himself to lie to the Texan. Unless there was some financial benefit to be made, Maude had never been one for celebrating such trivial things as birthdays or other holidays.



“I think it’s in June.” Shamefaced the youngster continued to concentrate on the cards he was dealing. He recalled an incident three years earlier while in Natchez, Gertrude had placed a cake on the dinner table and with a kiss and hug had wished him a happy fourth birthday. He had to assume if she was correct then he was now seven, however, without birthdays to mark the passage of time, Maude could say he was any age which suited her needs.



“Well, ain’t we a fine pair?” Vin chuckled hoping to put the child at ease once more. “You ain’t sure what day ya was born and I ain’t sure how old I am.”



“Pardon?” The little gambler’s hands hesitated as puzzled green eyes met blue. “You don’t know how old ya are either?”



“Nope.” Tanner pretended he hadn’t heard the word ‘either’. “Until she died, every July seventh, my ma would make me a birthday cake even iffen that’s the only thing we had fer dinner that night.” He smiled at the memory. She had always told him, for her, July seventh was the luckiest day in the world cause that was the day he entered her life. From the moment he opened his eyes in the morning until he fell asleep that night, Vin’s mother had always made that day special for him. “Since I don’t know what year I was born I guess I can be whatever age I wanna be.”



“How old would you like to be now?”



The tracker considered the question, before a slow smile spread across his handsome face. “Right now I just want to be whatever age is perfect for takin’ care of a special little southerner who’s a helluva poker player and is sometimes too smart for his own good.”



Seeing sincerity in the sparkling blue eyes, warmth spread through the small boy. “I think you’ll always be the perfect age for that job.” Ezra stated softly, ducking his head but not really seeing the five cards he’d dealt himself.






Curling on his side, Ezra shivered, resisting the urge to pull the blanket over his head as the distant call of a lonely wolf seemed to grow closer.



He trusted Vin to protect him from the creatures that roamed the territory but found it difficult to wipe away the vision of the mountain lion, which had stalked him the first time he met the man sleeping on the other side of the fire.



Nervously chewing on his bottom lip the little boy clutched the blanket in one fist and closed his eyes, hoping against hope, he’d be so deeply asleep he wouldn’t feel anything when the night creature made a meal of him.



Not wanting to shame himself in front of the Texan, by admitting his fright, Ezra said nothing, pretending to sleep when Tanner rolled from his blankets and added wood to the small fire.



Knowing the independent child would be embarrassed by his need for closeness and a comforting touch, the sharpshooter let Ezra keep up the pretence as he gathered his bedroll and spread it next to the small southerner’s.



Settling back into his own blankets Vin casually draped an arm across the boy, smiling when the shivering ceased and he felt Ezra slowly begin to relax. The smile widened as finally feeling safe, Ezra’s breathing evened out and he sleepily snuggled closer to the Texan.



Unconsciously tightening his hold, Tanner reveled in the feeling of peace, which consumed him. It still amazed the Texan how much his life had changed and how much Ezra had come to mean to him in so short a time. Vin looked forward to the southerner’s joyful yet restrained greeting when he returned from patrol, hearing his happy chatter at the dinner table and was overwhelmed with happiness each time the little gambler momentarily forgot his mother’s teachings and acted like a normal child. Even simple things like sitting in the rocker beside the bed until Ezra fell asleep gave Vin a sense of contentment he’d never known before. The sun seemed to shine brighter each time the child smiled and his heart broke each time Ezra was unable to hide his sadness.



Vin hadn’t planned to stay in Four Corners any longer than it took to earn enough money for supplies but fate had intervened when a black clad gunslinger, named Chris Larabee, had stepped into the street to help Tanner save the town’s healer from those who wanted to hang him.



Until that time, Tanner had spent most of his life alone and constantly on the move. In Four Corners he’d found friends who stood beside him, laughed with him, wanted to help clear his name, watched his back and were willing to put their lives on the line for him.



In that tiny little corner of the territory he had discovered five brothers. Five brothers not by blood but by desire. The six men chose to stay together, to stand together, to support each other’s decisions and take on each other’s troubles. They chose to be a family and that family had become complete with the arrival of the little southerner who had claimed a special place in each man’s heart.



The Indians believed everyone’s life was intertwined. A person’s actions could touch someone they may never meet and Josiah had once said they were seven people with one destiny. Was it their destiny to protect Ezra and help him grow into an honorable man?



Would their actions somehow effect other people in Ezra’s life?



Was it their destiny to teach him it was all right to care about others and let them care about him? Maybe it was their destiny to simply help Ezra be a child. Perhaps it was their destiny that the love of a contrary, irresistible, irrepressible, sensitive, little boy replace the demons which haunted each of them.



Vin drifted off to sleep with the little southerner cuddled close to his side and his thoughts on the destiny of seven distinct individuals.






“I think Buck’s right. You are part frog.” Tanner chuckled wringing the water from his hair before stretching out beside the little gambler, as they let the afternoon sun dry their skin. “Ya sure swim like ya was born in the water.”



“It’s a useful skill, if you plan to spend any time on the riverboats.” The little gambler grinned.



“Ever been on one a them fancy boats?”






Listening to the boy describe his trip down the Mississippi, Tanner knew if he lived to be two hundred years old he would never forget this day.



After breakfast, at Ezra’s surprising request, the two had spent the morning hiking through the forest, Tanner naming and explaining the uses of different plants. Proving to be an eager student and quick learner, the boy had asked dozens of questions, filing the answers away in his mind, filling the small satchel he carried with plants he thought Nathan would be able to use for healing.



The tracker had pointed out different animal habitats and taught the youngster how to tell the age of different tracks they discovered. Pride filled the emerald eyes and the little southerner’s smile brightened at the praise he received each time he correctly answered one of the tracker’s questions.



Seated on top of a hill, they’d watched an eagle soar overhead and laughed at the antics of two bear cubs playing in the meadow below before returning to the spring.



“It must be wonderful.” The child had muttered, shading his eyes for a last look at the eagle gliding gracefully against the blue backdrop of the sky as they rose to return to the spring.



Vin smiled, understanding without asking what the boy meant. More than once he wondered what it must feel like to float high above the earth. He could imagine the feeling of freedom as the wind lifted you high into the air, the peace inside as you glided on the silent breeze.



“Reckon it is.”



They’d spent the last two hours swimming, diving and playing in the cool water to escape the heat.



Hearing Ezra’s words grow softer until they faded away completely, Tanner grinned realizing the warmth of the sun had lulled the weary boy to sleep.



A nap sounded like a damn fine idea.






“Why don’t Mr. McMurtry like me?” It wasn’t what he had intended to ask but perhaps h e would be able to discern something from the answer.



Certain the camping trip was simply a prelude to his being sent away, Ezra had been determined to enjoy the time with Tanner but they would be heading back to Four Corners the next day and he needed to know when he would be leaving. He had to make plans. He had promised himself he wouldn’t return to his uncle’s and he intended to keep that vow.



He was a big boy now. He vowed not to embarrass himself or Maude when he was told it was time for him to move on. He wouldn’t make it hard on Tanner by begging to stay. He wouldn’t make the sharpshooter lie or search for excuses by asking for a reason why he couldn’t remain. He would accept the declaration he wasn’t wanted any longer just as he had every other time from every other caretaker.



He needed to discover his time line and lay out his plans.



Watching the boy pick at his dinner, Vin had waited for Ezra to give voice to what troubled him but the question had truly surprised him.



“Reckon there’s few people that old man does like.” Not wanting to trivialize the question, Vin took the time to top off his coffee before answering. “He-“



“Is it because I was born ta be a con man and a gambler?”



“Let’s get somethin’ straight right now Lil Pard.” The sharpshooter moved to squat in front of the southerner. “Ya was born ta be whatever ya wanna grow up ta be. Josiah’d probably know more ‘bout such things than me but I don’t believe God decides what a person is gonna be afore he lets them get born.” He lay a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder. “As ya get older yer gonna have ta make a lot of decisions. Some of them are gonna be perty damn hard and yer gonna have ta live with the consequence of those decisions. One of them decisions is how you wanna live yer life.”






“No buts, Lil Pard. I know yer ma’s tryin’ ta do what’s best fer ya,” ‘In a pig’s eye’ Tanner kept the thought to himself. The best thing for the boy was a home with someone who would show him how much he was loved. “She deserves respect fer that and I know she’s teachin’ ya what she knows so you’ll be able ta take care a yerself but lots a fellas decide against doin’ what they was raised ta do. Yer a smart kid Ezra. When ya grow up ya can be any damn thing ya wanna be as long as ya like what ya do.”



“I like ta play poker.” His eyes on the plate in his lap, Ezra’s cheeks flushed red at the admission.



Vin knew he had to be careful how he responded to the statement. Gambling wasn’t considered the most respectable of livelihoods and could be damn near as dangerous as peacekeeping. The ex-bounty hunter didn’t encourage the past time but he wouldn’t take away the one thing, which kept Ezra close to Maude.



Not only did the boy truly enjoy most games of chance but the sharpshooter suspected in the child’s mind gambling connected him to his mother. She had recognized and taught him to profit from his natural talent. To the seven-year-old’s way of thinking, his skill was a way to make her proud of him.



“Can’t see nothin’ wrong with that, long as ya don’t cheat.” Tanner shrugged. “Lots a good men like ta gamble. Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickock, Doc Holliday…”



“But Mr. McMurtry causes you gentlemen trouble because of me not them.” Ezra pointed out, dropping his eyes again. This was getting him nowhere. He was going to have to just ask Vin where he was being sent and when he had to leave?



“McMurtry was tryin’ ta give us a hard time afore he ever met you Pard.” Tanner grinned. “Ta him we’re just as bad as the fellas Judge Travis hired us ta protect the town from.” Sitting cross-legged beside the boy, the tracker proceeded to tell him stories of the banker’s attempts to rid Four Corners of its hired ‘bad element.’ “He thinks he can speak for the town and that people should do what he wants cause he’s got money. He thinks that makes him better than most folks. Reckon it upsets him when he don’t get his way and believe me since Larabee come ta town he don’t get his way most a the time.”



“I try ta be good Vin I really do…I…I try ta stay outta his way but…I don’t mean to be a bad influence. Really I don’t!” Deciding he might as well lay his cards on the table and defend himself while he had the chance, Ezra set the plate on the ground, losing the last of his appetite.



“What are ya talkin’ about, Pard?”



“I heard him tellin’ Mrs. Appleby that I was a bad influence on the other children.” The southerner admitted shame faced.



‘Was that the reason Ezra seemed to avoid the other children in town?’



“Mr. McMurtry told her that Mrs. Travis and Mrs. Potter would soon come to regret letting me associate with their children. He said Maude leaving me behind just proves his point because if I wasn’t so bad she would want me with her all the time like other mamas.”



As soon as they got back to town he was going to kick the banker’s fat ass! “And do you believe him? Do you think your Ma leaves ya with relatives because you’re bad?”



“Maybe.” He shrugged, nervously twisting his fingers together. “Maybe if I was s-smarter or better at play acting…”



“Yer the smartest kid I know and that means yer too smart to believe yer Ma thinks yer bad. Ya told me yerself she has ta travel a lot so she can take care a the two a ya.” Vin pulled the child into his lap hugging him against his chest, not understanding the underlying fear he heard in the little boy’s voice and certain there was more he wasn’t saying. There had to be more if McMurtry and busybody Appleby were involved. “What’s this really all about Lil Pard?”



“I don’t want you ta die Vin!” The gesture of comfort was his undoing. The little adult disappeared letting the child inside take over. The dam burst and the words came forth in a rush as tears rolled down Ezra’s cheeks. “I don’t want any of ya ta be killed cause a me!”



“What in the hell are ya talkin’ about?”



“Mr. McMurtry said cause a me all y’all’s minds weren’t on what ya was hired for and it was gonna get somebody killed. He said if nothin’ else ya’d be to busy tryin’ ta clear up some mess I’d caused ta be there ta stop real trouble. He said it would be best for everybody if I was sent away.” To Ezra’s dismay he couldn’t control the sobs. “He said if the residents insisted than Judge Travis wouldn’t have any choice but to do what they wanted.”



“No matter how McMurtry thinks it should be, ya can bet most peacekeepers don’t live in the jail house. They have families too.” Placing his fingertips under the boy’s chin, Tanner tilted his head up to look into the tear filled emerald eyes. “Do ya think JD should stop bein’ sheriff iffen he ever marries Casey?”



Ezra shook his head, staring at the fingers he nervously twisted in his lap.



“Well, it stands ta reason that they’d most likely want ta have children someday and JD would want to spend time with his youngun’s. He’d want to be with him iffen one of ‘em fell down and hurt hisself or had a tummy ache or-“



“But they’d be his family! Not like-“



“I love you Ezra!” Vin stopped the statement before Ezra could finish. “We all do. Yer a part a our family Lil Pard and no matter what anybody says, until yer ma comes ta get ya, nobody’s sendin’ ya anywhere. We want ta take care of ya Ez! Nobody forced us-”



“But I tricked Judge Travis into letting me stay. I made him think we were related…”



“We are family Ezra! We’re family, plain and simple! I couldn’t ask for a better son and the boys wouldn’t want anybody else for a little brother.” Vin assured him. “It doesn’t matter that we ain’t blood kin. We are family. It doesn’t matter how ya come to stay with us. It just matters that ya did. All any of us had to do was tell the judge the whole story. You’re here cause we want ya here! We’ll always want ya here.”



“I’ll do better Vin, I promise.” Ezra wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, hating the fact Vin was seeing what a weakling he truly was. “I’ll be good!”



“You are a good kid Ezra. Don’t ya ever forget that!” Tanner stated adamantly. “Me and the boys done talked a lot Lil Pard…ya know just in case somethin’ was ta happen afore yer Ma gets back…” Seeing the child’s horrified expression, Vin forced a smile. “Wish I could guarantee ya I was gonna live forever but I can’t…nobody can, but I can guarantee ya one thing…I promise you that as long as we’re alive me and the boys will always be here for ya.”



Hope flickered in the emerald eyes only to quickly disappear. ‘Hope is for suckers Ezra and promises are just words to gain the mark’s confidence.’



Ezra had been taught never to take anything at face value therefore his upbringing dictated he ask the question. “I appreciate the sentiment Mr. Tanner but the scales seem to be tipped in my favor. What advantage is there for you in this situation?”



“Beg pardon?” What the hell had this kid been through to make him so damn cynical?



“I will have you and the others to watch over me but…” The tears welled again. “I can’t do anything for you. I can’t ride patrols, or-“



“Ya can smile can’t ya?”



“Excuse me?” It was Ezra’s turn to look confused.



“I said ya can smile can’t ya.”



“Yes sir.”



“That’s what ya can do for us.” Tanner declared earnestly. “We like to see ya smile and hear ya laugh. Havin’ ya with us and knowin’ yer happy…That’s our advantage ta the situation. You bein’ part a our family is the best advantage of all.”



The Texan steadily met the southerner’s curious gaze, patiently waiting while Ezra considered what he’d been told.



Turning the statement over and over in his mind, looking for the angle, the little con man searched the tracker’s face. Where was the con? Why would anyone want to have him around for no reason? What Vin considered an advantage didn’t make any sense in Ezra’s world but he could find no deceit in the blue eyes.



‘Vin don’t say nothin’ he don’t mean.’ Buck’s words echoed in his mind.



Seeing acceptance in the emerald eyes, relief flowed through Vin. “Ya have my word as a Tanner, Ezra, ain’t nobody sendin’ ya away! Ya better keep something else in mind too…If ya ever again take ta heart anything McMurtry says I’ll turn ya over my knee and tan yer backside, ya hear me?”



“Yes sir.” The little southerner nodded, returning the tracker’s smile before leaning into the sharpshooter and closing his eyes. Vin had said they weren’t going to send him away. He really wanted to believe the Texan but he knew things could change in the blink of an eye. He would try to believe because Vin had given his word and Vin always kept his promises.



Vin had said he loved him. He had said they all loved him. Had anyone ever said that before? Ezra searched his mind…Yes! He’d heard those words a long time ago.



“You’re my special little boy Ezra and I love you very much. I’ll always love you.”



Ezra let the memory wash over him. A few years earlier, his mother had hugged him and told him she loved him. There had been no apparent reason for the gesture. She hadn’t followed the statement with a request for him to do something. She hadn’t been leaving him with relatives and it hadn’t been a show for her latest mark. They had been alone. Aunt Gertie had always hugged him and made him feel welcome in her home but until now it was the only other time anyone had ever told him he was loved.



He wanted to tell Vin how much he loved him. He wanted to tell Vin he loved them all but Maude said people would use his feelings against him. She had told him to be good at his profession he had to learn to control his emotions. He mustn’t ever let people know how he felt.



“I love ya Ez.” Tanner whispered, gently stroking the brown curls. “Always will.”



‘I love you too Vin.’ Maybe someday he’d be able to say the words aloud. Maybe someday he’d be able to tell Vin and the others how much they meant to him. For now he would hold onto the warm feeling that enveloped him and he’d lock this memory away with the one of his mother’s loving words, to be remembered when he was once more alone and on his own.






The tantalizing aromas of fresh coffee and roasting meat gradually pulled the southerner from the depths of slumber.



“Mornin’ Lil Pard.” Tanner grinned. “Was startin’ ta think ya was gonna sleep the day away.”



“Good morning.” Ezra smiled, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Knowing you Mr. Tanner, I would bet the day is barely a few hours old.”



Vin glanced upward. Puffy white clouds floated on the cool morning breeze, a contrast against the azure sky. “Reckon the sun’s been up ‘bout three hours now.”



“Only three hours?” The boy’s eyes widened and with a teasing grin he pulled the blanket over his head. “Wake me again in a couple a hours.”



“A couple of hours my backside!”



“What are ya doin’? Put me down!” Peals of laughter rang out as Tanner leaped across the fire and scooped up the little boy, blanket and all. Tossing him over his shoulder he strode toward the spring.



“Keepin’ our breakfast from burnin’.” Vin chuckled. “Reckon a dunk in the spring will wake ya up and take care a yer mornin’ ablutions at the same time.”



“No!” He gasped for breath through his giggles. Wiggling wildly as the tracker lifted him away from his shoulder, Ezra reached out, one hand catching a handful of Tanner’s blue shirt while the other clutched desperately onto one of his suspenders.



Struggling to control his own laughter and retain his grip on the squirming mass of southerner, Vin lost his footing and with a shout of surprise the tracker and gambler tumbled into the water.



“Oowhee!” Gaining his feet in the shoulder deep water Vin surfaced and shook his head flinging droplets of water in all directions. “Water’s colder than it looks ain’t it Ez?…Ezra?” Receiving no answer, his heart pounding in his chest, panic set in when his frantic gaze found no sign of the little southerner. “Ezra! Ezra!”



With a gasp, Tanner found himself going under again as little arms wrapped around his legs, yanking his feet out from under him.



“Why you little…” Vin sputtered, playfully diving for the giggling child as Ezra scrambled onto shore.



“I’m sure the forest inhabitants would appreciate it if you wouldn’t raise such a ruckus so early in the morning Mr. Tanner.” Ezra quipped, his dimples flashing and his emerald eyes sparkling with mischief. “I would be happy to fetch the soap if you’d like to save some money on your laundry this month.” With a squeal of laughter the southerner turned and dashed in the direction of camp with Vin hot on his heels.






Vin unobtrusively watched the small southerner, a smile touching his lips at the grin Ezra wore since Tanner had detoured far enough off the trail to show him the small herd of wild mustangs grazing in a nearby meadow.



“They’re beautiful.” The words had barely been audible as the delighted child watched the frolicking foals in delight, his gaze never leaving the sight below him as the young horses pranced about proudly as if claiming leadership of the herd.



After several long minutes, the boy finally asked, “Think they’ll always be free?”



Vin turned his full attention to the boy as the child’s smile slowly faded with the soft question. “Reckon some of ‘em will end up on ranches around the territory. Mustangs are damn fine horses iffen they’re broke proper ta the saddle. They’re smart animals with a lot a heart and they work good with cattle.” He began to explain.



“And the rancher doesn’t have ta spend any money for them.” The cynicism was clear in Ezra’s tone and Vin knew he was thinking it was just more proof that people were willing to take advantage of any situation for their own benefit.



“Reckon that’s true,” Vin agreed but still hoping to make Ezra see there were two sides to every situation. “On the other hand, the horses are well cared for and they don’t have ta worry ‘bout fightin’ off wild animals or findin’ food or-“



“But they don’t have their freedom or each other anymore.” Ezra glanced over his shoulder for a last glimpse of the herd as they turned their own mounts back in the direction of the trail. “Doesn’t quite seem like a fair trade ta me.”






Ezra had been surprised when Vin had turned away from the trail and guided the horses to a small grove of trees as they approached the canyon entrance.



The sun had reached its peak and begun it’s descent toward the horizon more than an hour earlier. Knowing they wouldn’t reach Four Corners before dark the tracker had decided they’d eat their lunch of biscuits and apples in the coolness provided by the thick canopy of leaves.



The uneaten biscuit in his hand forgotten, Ezra closed his eyes and concentrated on locking the memory of the camping trip away in a special corner of his mind. There were few things in his young life he could think about with fondness but he always wanted to be able to remember this time with Vin.



When he was gone from this place, working a scam with his mother or dropped at another relative’s, he wanted to read his journal and vividly remember all the sights, the sounds and even the smells. He wanted to recall the small herd of mustangs with it’s frolicking foals, the eagle Vin had pointed out to him as it flew free against the deep blue sky and the playful bear cubs he had spotted first and brought to the tracker’s attention. He wanted to hear again the sounds of the crackling fire, the numerous singing birds and the loudly chirping crickets.



He wanted to remember the mouth-watering smell of meals cooking over the campfire, the perfume of the colorful wildflowers that surrounded the spring and the morning smell of dew fresh on the lush grass. He wanted to remember the feel of the cool water and the warm sun against his skin and he especially wanted to remember how safe he felt wrapped in Vin’s hugs.






At the tense tone of Tanner’s quiet voice the boy’s emerald eyes flew open and he automatically flinched at the tense tone of Tanner’s quiet voice.






A smile touched his lips as Tanner glanced at the silent southerner leaning back against the tree trunk. The child’s eyes were closed, his expression thoughtful yet somehow oddly peaceful. After the previous evening’s conversation Vin had worried about Ezra’s reaction to the return to Four Corners.



‘Understand a mite better why he keeps ta hisself so much.’



While he appeared able to charm the birds out of the trees, in the few months since the little southerner had entered their lives, Ezra had stuck close to the six men never spending any time longer than necessary with anyone outside their small group.



Oh, the little gambler would stay with Mary and Billy Travis or Miss Nettie and Casey if the peacekeepers were needed elsewhere in the territory, and the adults never failed to comment on how quiet and polite the child acted while in their company. In addition, he visited with Inez, Mrs. Potter or Yosemite running errands and helping out whenever possible yet he avoided most of the townsfolk and never really allowed anyone past his defenses.



The corners of Tanner’s lips quirked upward at the memory of Ezra leaning against his chest watching the Fourth of July fireworks fill the night sky with color. As he enjoyed the colorful displays, for that short time, as he oohed and aahed , Ezra had seemed like a child, not the small adult he usually presented to everyone.



Tanner’s smile grew as he recalled Ezra participating in the family games with each of the men, cheering them on as they competed in different activities and even against his better judgment entering the muddy arena in order to try and catch a piglet.



Just like this camping trip, Four Corner’s celebration of the country’s birthday had been filled with worry, trepidation, joy, fun and revelations. During the celebration, Vin felt, for the first time, the men had truly removed a few of the bricks from the walls the seven-year-old used to protect himself. Those days had been the first time Ezra had allowed himself to be a child, even for a few hours.



Vin again found himself wondering what kind of woman Maude was to deny her son his childhood. What mother would allow her child to forsake the simple joys of being a little boy.



Wanting to discover why the child continued to fear being forced to leave Four Corners and determined to make him believe he was truly wanted by the peacekeepers, Vin made a mental note to talk to his friends.



Ever alert for trouble, the tracker’s attention settled on what appeared to be a barely discernable wisp of dust on the horizon. Using his spyglass, he watched as the wisp slowly thickened caused by the hoofs of horses racing over the ridge.



Focusing on the lead rider, straining to see through the rising dust, Vin could make out a man who wore an old tan Stetson. It was decorated with a hatband woven from his victims hair, different patches of cloth, the rattle from a snake, a confederate coin and a twenty-dollar gold piece, which flashed brightly in the sunlight.



‘Damn!’ The sharpshooter’s heartbeat quickened. He didn’t recognize the other men but there was only one person he knew who wore such a distinctive hat.






The emerald eyes that flew open to gaze up at the tracker were full of apprehension and Vin saw him physically stifle a flinch as Tanner reached for his hand.



Ezra suppressed his urge to question the tracker as clutching his small hand, and taking the reins of the rented mare, Vin led them up into the boulders at the back of the grove.



Dropping the reins Vin stooped in front of the child, his hands resting on Ezra’s shoulders.



“Listen ta me Ezra. I need ya ta wait right here and be quiet as a church mouse.”



The child looked back over his shoulder. “What’s goin’ on Vin?”



“I ain’t certain Lil Pard. Could be nothin.” He didn’t want to frighten the little southerner for no reason but he didn’t believe in lying to children either. “Reckon there could be some trouble headin’ this way. Ya just wait right here and I’ll be back for ya quick as I can. Iffen I can’t get back I want ya ta wait one hour and than ya light out fer town and don’t look back, ya hear me? Ya just stay on the trail and git yerself back ta town.” Seeing the boy about to protest Vin squeezed his shoulders lightly. “I need ya ta do this for me Ez.”



Blinking back tears, the child finally nodded. “Ya can count on me Vin.”



Receiving Ezra’s reluctant nod and seeing the fear in his eyes Vin pulled the child into a tight hug. “I know I can Lil Pard. Everythin’s gonna be alright.” He stroked the boy’s chestnut curls not wanting to let go as the southerner clung to him. “I love you Ezra.”



The thin little arms tightened as Ezra buried his face against Vin’s neck.



Finally disentangling himself Tanner set the little boy on the ground among the boulders where he would be hidden from prying eyes peering through the dark shadows of the pine boughs.



“One hour Ez. Iffen I ain’t back ya head for town.” Taking up the mare’s reins he gave the child a reassuring smile. “Chris and the fellas’ll take care of everythin.” With another smile and a slight nod, he led the mare farther up into the rocks, where she would be less likely to answer the neighs and whinnies of the other horses. Ground hitching the horse Tanner hurried back to the grove momentarily pausing at Ezra’s hiding place to leave him the canteen and to reassure him once again that everything would work out.



Working quickly, his gaze constantly darting to the approaching horses, Vin wiped away any sign of Ezra’s presence at the campsite. With a last check, looking around and a quick look to be certain the child couldn’t be seen, Vin appeared to be casually preparing to mount up and ride on when the four men pulled their mounts to a halt, their guns drawn.



Peeking around the boulder the small southerner’s heart began to race at the sight of the strangers, their weapons aimed at Tanner’s.



Ezra’s fingers dug into the boulder as a rough looking man dismounted and stepped forward, jerking Vin’s mare’s leg from its holster. The man wasn’t as tall as Buck or as broad shouldered as Josiah, but he looked to be made of solid muscle. His thick black hair, the ends ragged as if trimmed with a dull knife touched his shirt collar and gray streaked the heavy black beard that hid most of his face.



The trees muffled the sound of the voices carried to the little boy’s hiding place. “Vin Tanner, Larabee’s right hand man. Tinker signal Slim.” The man spit tobacco juice into the dirt and one of the others rode into the canyon entrance and fired two shots into the air. “Reckoned we might a missed ya, till Zeke there found where ya left the road.”



“Didn’t reckon ta see ya around these parts again Brewster.” Vin leaned forward resting his forearms on his saddle horn. “Reckoned ya learned yer lesson, last time we kicked yer sorry ass.”



Six months earlier the man had led eight others in an assault against the Four Corners bank. Except for Brewster and Zeke who managed to escape empty handed, the few men who hadn’t died in the robbery attempt were spending the next few years in the territorial prison.



“This time Larabee’s ain’t gonna interfere.” Brewster grinned, showing stained and rotten teeth. “That is if he wants ta keep you breathin’.” He looked around impatiently. “Where’s the rider that was with ya?”



Peso pranced nervously under him and Vin did nothing to settle the horse until the men adjusted their own positions to keep him closed in resulting in three of the four men having their backs to the stand of trees which hid Ezra. “Who?”



“Saw ya leave town with some little brat trailin’ aside ya and there was two horses left the road a ways back.” The one Ezra imagined must be Zeke questioned.



“Took him over ta Eagle Bend ta pick up some medicine fer his ma. Iffen ya was any good at readin’ sign ya’d a followed the tracks till ya found his folk’s homestead.” Vin shook his head as if disgusted by the other man’s lack of tracking abilities.



“Found you didn’t I?” The man sneered as a tall skinny man on a blood bay horse rode up and drew rein.



“Easy enough done. I weren’t hidin’.” Vin pointed out contemptuously.



“Enough damn jawin’! Tie ‘is hands and let’s get the hell outta here.” Brewster ordered. As if sensing someone watching, the man spun on his heel and scanned the countryside.



A shiver raced through Ezra and he quickly dropped to the ground as the outlaw’s cold gaze settled on the small grove of trees.



Hearing a surprised howl of pain and anger, the child risked peering over the boulder again just in time to see Vin kick out at the approaching man carrying a small length of rope. Tanner’s booted foot caught the tall fellow a glancing blow along his jaw, snapping his head around and sending him tumbling to the ground. The Texan’s action drew Brewster’s attention back to him and away from Ezra’s hide out just as he intended.



Zeke and the fourth man, who had yet to say anything roughly pulled Tanner from the saddle but the sharpshooter wasn’t going to make it easy for them. As the tracker bucked and fought, all three men tumbled to the ground in a wild tangle of arms and legs. Vin was immediately on his feet, a powerful right fist sending Zeke back into the dirt before the other two men tackled the lean Texan dragging him down to the ground, their own fists and booted feet delivering punishing blows.



Watching from his place behind the boulder, hate surged through him and the child found himself wishing he had more than the tiny derringer hidden away in his saddlebags. Looking around for anything to use as a weapon Ezra jumped as a rifle shot echoed across the landscape. Tears of relief filled his eyes when seeing Vin yanked to his feet, still glaring defiantly at the outlaw, he realized Brewster had fired into the air.



“I don’t like wastin’ bullets Tanner and I won’t waste another one.” Brewster growled levering another bullet into the chamber. “Don’t need a corpse right now but that don’t mean I can’t put a few holes in ya.”



Vin remained motionless as wiping at blood on his mouth with the back of his hand, Zeke retrieved the dropped cord of rope and jerked the tracker’s arms behind his back roughly tying Tanner’s wrists together. Vin bit back a grimace as the rough hemp cut into tender flesh.



As the men hoisted Tanner back into the saddle, Ezra was surprised to see the Texan momentarily glance toward the trees. A smile curled the longhaired man’s lips and the child could have sworn Vin sent a wink and small nod his way. The glance, smile and nod had been so quick the others hadn’t noticed and even Ezra wasn’t certain he had really seen it happen.



Letting his tears escape, Ezra watched as the outlaws remounted and ponying Peso, led the Texan out of his life. He watched but Vin never looked back, never after that brief fleeting moment. The small southerner bit his lip fighting his desire to run after the men, pleading with them to release his self adopted father. He, himself, would do anything if they would just let Vin go.



Were they bounty hunters? How much was the reward for returning Vin to Tascosa?



Ezra didn’t have much but he would happily hand over every dime he’d saved and everything he owned if they would ride away and leave Tanner behind. The little boy would willingly sell himself into slavery doing whatever McMurtry wanted, including leaving Four Corners and never seeing Vin again if it meant enough money to acquire the Texan’s freedom from the bearded outlaw in the strange hat.



Sinking to the ground, the trembling, terrified, little boy wrapped his arms around his upraised knees, letting the tears escape.






As Josiah took a seat at the table outside the salon, where Wilmington sat in companionable silence with his oldest friend, Buck poured the preacher a glass of bear from the half-empty pitcher.



“How’s the Pikes?” Buck asked, certain the ex-priest had stopped to visit with the family while on patrol.



Josiah grinned. “Growin’.”



“Again? How many’s this one gonna make?”



“Eight, unless of course it’s another set of twins. They do tend to take the verse ‘Go forth and multiply’ a mite seriously.” Sanchez grinned before turning his attention to the dark clad gunslinger. “Good book Brother?”



“He wouldn’t know.” Wilmington chuckled. “He’s been staring at the same damn page for the last ten minutes.”



Larabee’s nonchalant attitude may have fooled the casual observer but his friends knew the gunfighter was anxiously awaiting Vin and Ezra’s return. As the sun had reached its peak and began a descent toward the distant horizon the uneasy feeling that had settled in the pit of Larabee’s stomach had increased with each passing hour.



“Kinda hard ta concentrate with you yammerin’ away like some mockin’ bird full a loco weed.” The Hoosier grumbled, sharply turning the page. The truth was Buck had been unusually quiet and Chris couldn’t have told the preacher one word that was written on the page he’d been staring at.



The sarcastic comment only served to further amuse his fellow peacekeepers, drawing a snicker from both men.



Chris slammed the book closed with a resounding thud and rose to his feet. “Reckon I’ll take patrol since I can’t seem ta get any peace and quiet around here.”



“Hey, Chris?…Chris!” His friend called.



With a resigned sigh, Larabee halted his progress to the livery and slowly turned to face Wilmington.



“Josiah just finished the afternoon patrol.” The womanizer reminded him with a sly grin. “Of course if ya exercise yer horse on the south trail yer more than likely ta meet up with Vin and Lil Pard.”



Larabee glared at his friend. “Kiss my ass Buck.”



“I’d tell ya ta bare it but I know ya too well.” Buck laughed. “The mood yer in, yer liable ta do it and the shock might cause a few of our fairer sex to faint dead away.”



Larabee couldn’t prevent a smile as he started for the livery once more. “Chris!…Hey, Chris!”



Rolling his eyes in exasperation, Larabee stopped and turned again to face his friend, his smile fading as the urgency in Buck’s voice registered. Both men were on their feet looking, not at him, but at the end of town where the road curved just past the jail. The sound of pounding hooves reached his ears mixed with the fearful calling of his name.



Chris’ heartbeat lurched as the little mare Vin had rented for Ezra’s use raced past the jail, Ezra bent low over the animal’s neck. Dropping the book, Chris pushed past the people on the boardwalk reaching the front of the saloon as Ezra jerked back on the reins, practically hurtling himself from the saddle into the gunslinger’s arms.



“You gotta help him Chris! Y-you gotta go get ‘im! Ya gotta stop ‘em! Please, Chris, ya gotta go now! Ya gotta-“



Chris strained to see past the growing crowd. ’What had happened? Where the hell was Vin?



“Easy Ezra, it’s gonna be okay.” Larabee rubbed soothing circles on the boy’s back hoping to ease the strangle hold of the thin arms encircling his neck. Barely aware of Yosemite hurrying forward to care for the lathered horse or Buck leading the way, Chris carried the near hysterical child into the saloon and settled at a table in a back corner.



Warning her few customers to tend to their own business, Inez hurried forward, setting a shot glass of brandy and a cool damp cloth on the table as Larabee gently pried the shaking little boy away from his chest.



“Mr. Larabee please ya gotta go now!” Ezra begged, sliding from the man’s lap and tugging at his arm, trying desperately to convey the urgency of their mission. “Please c’mon…”



Gripping the child’s upper arms, Chris lifted the boy back onto his lap. “Ezra, I need you to calm down and tell me what happened. Where’s Vin?”



“That’s what I am tellin’ ya Chris. They took ‘im! Ya gotta help ‘im! Ya gotta go now!” Ezra’s accent had thickened and he sounded like the terrified child he truly was rather than the little adult he always presented to the world as he once again attempted to escape the man’s hold.



Josiah approached the table accompanied by Nathan, who immediately stooped next to Larabee’s chair to examine the southerner.



Gripping Ezra’s chin the healer lifted the shot glass forcing the boy to drink half of the alcohol. “He don’t seem ta be hurt none just real upset.” He announced as Ezra pushed the glass away.



“Mr. Larabee-“



“Tell me what happened, Ezra.” Chris kept his voice calm as he used the damp cloth to soothingly wipe away the child’s tears.



Taking a deep breath as the brandy sent warmth surging through his muscles, Ezra wiped a hand across his eyes and quickly told the gathered men about Vin’s abduction. He explained how Tanner had hidden him among the rocks and made him promise to wait an hour before heading for town. “He said ya’d take care a it. He said you’d make everythin’ alright again. He promised-“



“We will Ez.” Wilmington assured the child, as the healer made Ezra take another sip from the shot glass. “Ya got any idea who it could be Ol’ Dog?”



“Vin called the man Br-Brewster.” Ezra stated before Chris could answer. “He said he was surprised to see him back in the territory after y’all kicked his ass before.”



“Where’d this happen Lil Pard?” Buck questioned, laying a gentle hand on the little southerner’s shoulder.



“We’d stopped ta eat and rest the horses just afore that canyon…” The boy searched his memory for what Tanner had called the area but fear for his guardian seemed to have clouded his mind. “Ya know the place where the Indians got the stones they used for weapons.”



“Arrowhead Pass.” Josiah stated. “There’s a small grove of trees on the west end.”



Nodding and grasping the Hoosier’s hand, Ezra slipped to the floor and attempted to pull the gunslinger toward the exit. “C’mon Mr. Larabee, we gotta go now! We gotta help ‘im! We gotta get ‘im back!”



“We’re going to Ezra. Buck find JD and get some supplies together. Josiah get the horses ready. Nate-” The healer simply nodded, and hurriedly left to gather what hopefully would be unneeded medicines and bandages.



Clutching the little boy’s hand as they stepped onto the boardwalk, Larabee wasn’t surprised to see Yosemite leading their saddled horses from the livery or Mrs. Potter hurrying across the street, shoving a burlap bag of staples into Josiah’s hand. Seeing the frightened child return to town without his guardian the two citizens had correctly assumed the other peacekeepers would be needing to leave as soon as possible and hoped to save them time.



Aware of JD running toward them, Chris nodded his thanks to both residents before kneeling on one knee bringing himself eye level with the southerner. “You go on over ta the boardin’ house now, Ezra. Mrs. O’Riley’ll have dinner ready soon.”



The child adamantly shook his head. “But I gotta go with-“



Casting a quick glance at the waiting peacekeepers, Larabee interrupted the boy’s protest with a quick hug before turning to swing up into the saddle “I promise we’ll bring ‘im home.”



“Sh-shoulda helped ‘im.” Ezra stammered fighting his tears.



Reining his horse around and leading the men out of town, the gunslinger didn’t hear the plaintive comment or see Ezra angrily swipe at the tears he could no longer prevent.



As the peacekeepers rode out of town, Ezra stood on the boardwalk, trying desperately to hold onto the tiny drop of hope that Chris would keep his promise. One all too pervading thought kept surfacing: He should be with them.



The men were riding to rescue a member of their family. Vin had said Ezra was a member of their family, too, but they were riding away without him. He should be with them but they were leaving him behind…proof of his inadequacy.



He should be with them!



He should have done something to keep Brewster from taking Vin. Maybe he could have distracted the men somehow, given Vin a chance to escape. Instead he’d hidden like a coward and now Vin was gone and so were the others.



His shoulders slumping, Ezra finally turned and slowly started toward the boarding house, kicking at rocks and clumps of dirt in frustration.



He should be with them.






‘I can do this…I have to do this.’ Ezra continued to silently repeat the mantra as his horse walked through the dark canyon, the sharp strike of its iron shoes against rock sounding like thunder to the small boy.



The moonlight, which had lit the open plains, allowing the youngster to see the trail and any hazards that might be lurking in the road, seemed to have disappeared the moment he entered the canyon.



His hands tightening on the reins, trying to force himself to remain relaxed in the saddle, the little southerner kept his gaze straight ahead, concentrating on keeping his imagination under control. He didn’t want to think about what night creatures might be hiding among the rocks waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting prey. He pushed the vivid image of the cougar, which had once stalked him, from his mind. Did bears hunt at night? Vin had said a wolf would avoid humans unless it was sick but what about coyotes and-



‘I can do this…I can do this…”



He didn’t even want to think about the possibility of getting lost while he searched for the peacekeepers.



He didn’t want to think about how he was going to find the lawmen in this vast territory. By the time Ezra had reached town and told his story, the men had only had a few hours of daylight left to travel. He didn’t think they would travel after dark for fear of missing vital signs that could lead them to their missing brother. Riding hard, how far could they have gotten? He could only hope they had stayed on the trail after they left the canyon.



He didn’t want to think about how angry his actions would make Larabee. Chris has told him to wait at the boarding house and he knew Chris expected to be obeyed. The other peacekeepers followed his orders. Even the townsfolk listened and did what he told them…most of them anyway. Yet Ezra had disobeyed him.



The child had rapidly learned the variety of payments for disobedience from his many relatives. Unlike some of the uncles he’d stayed with, Ezra didn’t want to believe Chris would raise a hand to him but this time he just might or worse, he would probably be mad enough to agree with McMurtry and send Ezra away.



Chris wasn’t going to be angry…he was going to be furious but Ezra was sure it would be worth it. Whatever punishment the gunslinger decided to dole out would be worth it because Larabee needed to know and Ezra would be there to help.



Ezra was tired, the exhaustion washing over him in waves as his head started to droop and he had to force his eyes open for what seemed like the hundredth time.



‘I got Mississippi mud in my blood.’ His Aunt Gertie had once told him it would give him the strength to do anything needed. It had served him well in his few years on earth and he always reminded himself of her words whenever circumstances tried to beat him down.



The small southerner’s sigh of relief as the livery animal exited the canyon was short lived. His heart jumped into his throat as a large hand stifled his frightened cry and his horse side-stepped with a soft whinny when a strong arm encircled his waist pulling him from the saddle.



The outlaws! Why didn’t he remember the man who had been waiting in the canyon that afternoon? Desolation mixed with the terror flowing through him. He had failed!



His arms and legs flailing wildly Ezra fought like a wildcat, his small body twisting and bucking as his hands struggled to force the strong arms to release him. He fought for his life and for Tanner’s. Accompanied by a grunt of pain as Ezra’s kicking feet connected with muscle and flesh, the man’s arm tightened pulling the boy back against a broad chest.



“Easy little brother. There’s nothing to fear.” The child’s struggle slowed as the deep voiced words whispered close to his ear finally registered in his panic-stricken mind. Lowered to his feet, Ezra turned and threw his arms around the neck of the kneeling man accepting the comforting hug the man offered.



“Didn’t mean ta scare ya Ez, but ya looked ‘bout ready ta fall outta the saddle.” The ex-priest continued to hold the trembling boy, running his large hand in soothing circles over the small back. As the tremors began to lessen, the little boy continued to cling to the preacher and Josiah was finally able to understand the weary words mumble against his chest.



“Where’s Chris? I gotta see Chris!” The whisper softness of the words did nothing to hide the urgency of the boy’s tone.



’He’s not gonna be happy to see you’ Sanchez kept the thought to himself as he rose in one smooth gesture, settling the child, who continued to cling to him, on his hip and gathering the horse’s reins walked toward the grove of trees where the day’s drama had begun.



“Josiah comin’ in.” The priest softly called out, dropping the reins to ground hitch the horse as he approached the barely visible fire.



“What the hell!”



Weapons in hand, the other three men rolled to their feet at Larabee’s outraged exclamation.



Feeling the child’s small body tense and the trembling begin anew, Josiah kept his voice soft continuing to rub the boy’s back. “It’s alright Ezra. Brother Chris is just a mite tired and a little surprised ta see ya here.”



“Reckon we all are.” Buck added helping the preacher ease himself and Ezra to the ground. Accepting the coffee Nathan offered Wilmington stooped next to Josiah. “Here little man, drink some a this. It’ll help warm yer insides “



”Ezra what the hell are you doin’ here?”



Quickly pushing to his feet, Wilmington placed a hand on his oldest friend’s chest and pushed him backward away from the boy who was huddled in the preacher’s lap.



“JD, take the watch.” Buck snapped, not taking his gaze from Chris.



Witnessing the inner struggle as Larabee fought to control his anger, Buck kept himself between the man and child, wanting to give both time to gather their composure. The womanizer understood Chris’ anger was fueled by his fear for the little southerner’s safety, because the same anger was flowing through his own veins but they both needed to remember they were dealing with a child.



Ezra wasn’t of their blood. None of them had been there when he was born, took his first step or said his first word. None of them had laid eyes on the boy until a few months earlier but all of the men had quickly come to love the spirited little southerner. He had become part of the their unorthodox family.



Buck had helped Chris bury his wife and son and neither man could bear the thought of losing another child...another child they loved.



Seeing the gunfighter finally win his battle with his temper, Buck nodded and sat down next to the preacher as Larabee stooped before Josiah and Ezra.



“Ya know I would bet every dime in my pocket that I told you to wait at the boarding house.” Chris stated when Ezra finally met his eyes. “Is that a bet I would win?”



“No sir.” The boy dropped his gaze preparing himself for the inevitable punishment that would accompany his pointing out the adult’s error but hoping he would first be allowed to explain. “You didn’t say I had to wait there. You only said to go to the boardin’ house, which I did but the man said-“



“Now is not the time for flippancy, Ezra,” Josiah warned, his own tone one of disapproval.



“I wasn’t being flippant Mr. Sanchez.” Setting the cup aside, the boy began to tug his pant leg upward. “I’m merely trying to explain that while I didn’t remain at the boarding house, I wasn’t trying to be disobedient, but the-“



Ezra flinched as a sharp move of Chris’ hand silenced him.



“It doesn’t matter why ya didn’t do what you were told! Don’t ya realize what could happen to ya wandering around out here by yerself? Remember how ya first hooked up with Vin? Ya think that was the only Puma in these parts?” Ezra shrank back against Josiah as the gunlinger’s fear and anger took control. “Damnit Ezra I told ya stay at the boardin’ house for a reason! What would a happened if-“



“Enough Chris!”



“No Buck it’s not enough! He needs to understand how dangerous and stupid following us was!”



“I said that’s enough!” Wilmington declared, his expression telling his oldest friend he wasn’t going to let him further frighten the boy before turning his attention back to Ezra. “Hey little man, ya wanna tell us what yer doin’ here?”



With renewed purpose, Ezra once again tugged at his pant leg. Swallowing hard, he shoved the folded piece of paper he pulled from his boot, toward Larabee. “The man said ta give you this!” He chewed his bottom lip. “You need to read it, Mr. Larabee…It’s…it’s real important!”



“What man Ezra?” Nathan spoke up for the first time, when taking the paper, Chris finally moved closer to the fire to read the message.



His green eyes wide, Ezra’s gaze never left the black clad gunslinger. “I went ta the boarding house and just like ya said Mrs. O’Riley was makin’ dinner but it wasn’t goin’ to be ready for a bit so…I…I went for a walk.”



The small southerner had stood at the edge of town, wishing he had ignored the gunslinger, saddled a horse and ridden with them to rescue Tanner. He stood staring at the horizon, wishing he’d found some way to keep the desperados from taking Vin. He had stood, wishing he hadn’t agreed to go on the camping trip. If one of the tracker’s friends had accompanied him instead of Ezra, Vin would be safe now.



Ezra had stood momentarily wishing he hadn’t ignored Maude’s teachings. He now understood why she kept telling him not to let anyone close. If the very thought of losing the Texan caused this much pain, he didn’t know how he would survive the reality.



Wrapped in fear and lost in thought, the little gambler had been passing the jail on his return to the boarding house when a man had reined his horse to a halt and called out to him.



“Hey kid, ya know Chris Larabee?”



Finding himself staring up at the man who had, that very morning, been waiting in the canyon, fear gripped him in a vise like hold and Ezra could simply nod, suddenly unable to find his voice. His gaze nervously scanned the street, hoping to find Yosemite or one of the other citizens he knew but being close to dinnertime, the street was fairly empty.



“Find ‘im and give him this.” The man had tossed what appeared to be a folded sheet of yellow paper at the southerner. “Tell him it’s important he does exactly what it says. Tell ‘im his friend’s life depends on it.”



“Sonuvabitch!” Larabee’s low growl drew everyone’s attention to the black clad gunslinger.



“What’s it say, Chris?”



Larabee’s expression clearly said the men would discuss it later as he turned and stooped before Ezra once again. “I appreciate ya bringin’ this ta me, Ezra, but you should have gotten someone else to do it.”



“But he paid me a dollar.” The little southerner mumbled the protest around a yawn, fighting his weariness.



Ezra couldn’t believe it when he heard the words “It’ll cost ya a dollar or deliver it yourself,” come out of his mouth. Evidently Maude’s lessons were more ingrained than anyone suspected.



To his surprise the man burst into laughter and pulling a coin from his pocket, tossed it to the boy who caught it in mid air. The laughter faded and the man’s tone had become deadly. “Ya know what’s good for ya boy, you’ll earn that dollar.”



Again, Ezra had simply nodded. Not wanting the man to know Larabee was no longer in town, he’d snatched the paper from the boardwalk and hurried to the saloon, watching from the window until the man reined his horse out of town. Once he was certain it was safe he’d convinced one of the livery boys to saddle a horse on the pretense he was going to stay with Nettie.



Wilmington’s stifled chuckle escaped in the form of a snort as lifting the child from Josiah’s lap, he carried him to the other side of the fire and settled him in the bedroll, he, himself, had vacated moments earlier.



“Get ya some sleep polliwog.” Buck softly urged, momentarily laying a gentle hand on the soft curls before crossing back to where the others huddled around Chris.



Ezra didn’t need to hear Chris read the note to the others. He knew what it said but fought his need for sleep hoping to hear the men’s plan.



“Damnit, it means goin’ in a man short, but someone’s gonna have ta take Ezra back ta town.”



He had messed up. Not only wouldn’t be he there but because of him, the odds of success had drastically dropped. A single tear escaped, rolling down his dirty cheek as Larabee’s muffle words penetrated his sleep-deprived mind and he surrendered to his exhaustion.






Tied to a sturdy sapling, Vin carefully worked at the ropes binding his wrists. As he listened to the conversation of his captors, huddled around the small campfire, the tracker’s thoughts were on Ezra.



Had the little southerner made it safely back to town? The Texan wasn’t worried about Ezra getting lost. The child was extremely intelligent and wouldn’t have had any trouble following the trail, but there were other hazards in this wild territory, not the least of which was the men who now held Vin, himself, captive.



Tanner knew if Ezra had made it back to Four Corners, it was more than likely, Chris and the others were on their way to his rescue. Were they walking into a trap? Was revenge Brewster’s true plan?



A new fear surged through the Texan. What would happen to Ezra if Chris and the others fell to Brewster’s plan? While Tanner was worried about his friends, he realized even JD was a grown man and in their current line of work, each of them, faced death each day, but Ezra was just a little boy.



Without them, Ezra would be left alone and unprotected in a world that was often heartless and more often dangerous. Without them, there would be no one to teach the child all the things little boys should learn to grow to manhood. It never even occurred to the tracker that Ezra had a mother who could care for him.



A few minutes earlier, The ex-bounty hunter had heard Slim, upon his return, tell Brewster he hadn’t seen Larabee but he’d made certain Brewster’s note was delivered to him.



“Iffen ya didn’t see ‘im, how ya know he got the message?” Tinker had questioned, stuffing a chaw of tobacco between his gums and lower lip.



“Cause the kid I paid ta deliver it ‘bout pissed his pants when I told ‘im what I’d do iffen he didn’t.” Slim had laughed. “Watched him head inta that saloon where Brew said the lawmen hang out.”



“Still think Slim shoulda stayed in town and watched the sneaky sonvabitch.” Zeke stated with a small shake of his head. “Don’t reckon Larabee’s gonna give in as easy as ya all think.”



“The bastard’ll show up at the mesa just like he was told,” Brewster had stated confidently. “His loyalty won’t let him do anything else.”



“But he won’t show up alone.” Zeke stated. “Ya know ya them fellas stick tagether like a flock a geese.”



Brewster nodded in agreement. “Which is why Slim didn’t stay in town. Reckon we’ll need everybody here ta take care a any a those others who tag along ta back ‘im up. Y’all be in yer places at first light.”



“Ya really think he’ll bring the money?” Tinker spat a stream of juice into the fire.



“Don’t matter. Once them lawdogs are dead, the town’ll be ours and we can do as we please.” An evil gleam had lit the man’s dark eyes and his voice took on a deadliness that left no doubt as to his seriousness. “Any of you fucks this up and I’ll gut ya like a pig.”



Vin was certain the statement had sent a surge of fear racing down each man’s spine and he once more wondered if Ezra had made it home. He knew Brewster wouldn’t think twice about killing a child.



Fearing for Ezra and his friends, Vin ignored the pain of torn skin and the blood trickling down his hands as he struggled to free himself.






“Doesn’t seem like anyone followed him.” JD stepped from the shadows but just as the others had taught him avoided looking at the fire so as not to impair his night vision.



“What’s it say Chris?” The preacher nodded to the paper still clutched tightly in Larabee’s fist.



“I’m supposed ta bring the money from the bank ta Massacre Mesa an hour after sunup.”



“Just you?” Dunne’s startled gaze snapped to the gunslinger.






“Well ya know damn good and well that ain’t happenin’.” Wilmington stated emphatically.



Massacre Mesa wasn’t really a mesa but simply a high meadow surrounded by canyons. The tale was it had gotten its name when a group of travelers had been ambushed and murdered by Indians. No one had survived to say what had really happened or it if had actually happened at all.



“Damn good place for an ambush.” The preacher scrubbed a hand through his short gray hair. “The area’s small and narrow enough that no matter where ya meet, yer an easy target.”



“Which is exactly why the bastard picked it.” Larabee growled.



“On the other hand, there’s some damn good places ta use for cover.” Buck commented, seeming to be thinking aloud.



“And you can damn well bet his men will be usin’ some of that good cover.”



“So what are we gonna do?” The young sheriff questioned. “Even if we could give ‘em what they wanted we ain’t got time to get back to town and then out ta the mesa. It’s a good two hour ride from here in daylight. Gonna take a lot longer in the dark.”



“Give me any extra clothes ya might have with ya.” Chris ordered quickly pulling the extra boxes of ammo from Wilmington’s leather saddlebags. “We aren’t gonna do anything. You’re gonna take Ezra back ta town come daylight.”






“That ain’t such a good idea Chris.” Wilmington interrupted JD’s protest. “We don’t know how many men we’re goin’ up against. We’re gonna need every man.”



“Ezra said there was four of ‘em.” Nathan pointed out, passing his extra shirt and socks to Larabee.



“He said he only saw four men.” Josiah corrected the healer. “We all know that don’t mean squat. There could be ten more of ‘em waitin’ at the mesa. I’m afraid I have to agree with Buck. It’s best ta have all our guns.”



“And just what in the hell are we supposed to do with the kid? Leave ‘im here?” Chris groused, casting a quick glance at the sleeping child before returning his attention to stuffing the rolled clothing into the leather containers giving the bags a bulging appearance. Suddenly aware of the silence he glanced up at the men. “Oh no…don’t even think about it!”



“I don’t see any other option Brother.”



“Well ya better find one.” Larabee stared at each of the men stupefied they would even consider such a ludicrous idea as taking the child with them.



Realizing Buck had the best chance of convincing his old friend, Josiah suggested Nathan take the opportunity to check Ezra for any injuries the southerner might have incurred on his ride while he and JD made a sweep of the deep shadows surrounding their campsite.



“Forget it Buck! Larabee attempted to put a halt to his friend’s argument before it even started.



“Ya know me better than that Pard.” The womanizer grinned. “So ya might as well listen ta what I got ta say.”



“Ya can talk till your hair turns white but you’ll never come up with a good enough reason for not sendin’ ‘im back ta town with JD.”






Sanchez wasn’t certain how Buck had accomplished it, but shortly after they returned to the fire, Chris had announced they would be moving out after an hour’s shuteye.



Now with the full moon lighting the trail and the sleeping child cradled against Wilmington’s chest, the only sound was the creak of saddle leather and the soft clop of horses’ hooves as the men traveled toward their destination.



Wilmington glanced down at the small southerner in his arms wrapped in Josiah’s multicolored serape, his hold automatically tightening protectively.



Was Chris right? The gunslinger’s argument had not only been for Ezra’s own safety, but also for the irreparable damage it would cause the child if Vin didn’t make it through this. Would witnessing the Texan’s death damage the boy’s soul beyond repair? What would happen if he saw the young man who’d shown him the love and care for which he hungered, cut down by a bullet because of another man’s greed?



Buck knew Larabee was right. Unless they passed a homestead where they might leave Ezra until they returned they were taking the child into an extremely dangerous situation.



He knew no child should witness the death of someone they loved but somehow Buck new he was also right. Ezra needed to be with them. The little boy had ignored his fears and ridden through the dark night to be with them. Ezra needed to be there. He needed to be with the men he’d started to think of as family. Most importantly he needed to be there for Tanner and they would deal the consequences no matter the final outcome.



Bringing up the rear, Josiah kept glancing over his shoulder, searching for but not finding the cause of the unsettling fear they weren’t the only travelers making their way through the dark night.



False dawn was pushing away the darkness when Larabee finally brought a halt to the procession.



Ezra sat up, fisting sleepily at his eyes. Blinking owlishly, he looked around in confusion, automatically wrapping his arms around Chris’ neck when Buck handed him off to the gunslinger and dismounted, pulling his rifle from its sheath and taking a box of shells from JD’s saddlebags.



Waiting in silence the others watched as the two men moved through the shadows, finally settling on a spot, not unlike the place Vin had left Ezra, where the boulders protected a small indentation in the hillside.



Larabee set Ezra on his feet, gripping the boy to steady him as the exhausted child swayed wearily, lifting the serape to keep from tripping on the woven material.



“Listen ta me Ezra and you listen good.” Chris whispered. “Ya crawl in there and stay put until one a us comes for ya. Hear me? Buck’s gonna be nearby but ya don’t leave here until we say it’s safe or so help me I’ll tan yer backside so ya have ta eat standin’ up for a week.” The fact the words spoken in his ear were barely audible did nothing to take away the firmness in the gunslinger’s voice. Ezra’s frightened gaze darted to the meadow he couldn’t see but somehow knew wasn’t far from where he stood. “Ya understand me Ezra. Ya stay put and don’t make a sound, no matter what happens.”



Hardening his heart against the fear flooding the green eyes as comprehension filled the boy Larabee forced himself to explain what Ezra was to do if no one could come for him. Chris’ expression softened as the little southerner nodded solemnly. “Everything’ll be okay Ez. Someone’ll be back for ya soon.”



The gunslinger was startled when Ezra impulsively threw his arms around his neck giving him a quick hug before turning to Wilmington, reaching out for a hug from the womanizer. Trained to control his emotions, the child rarely accepted hugs let alone offered them.



“No matter what happens ya stay hid here little man.” Buck held the child tightly “We’ll come and get ya when it’s safe.”



Blinking back his tears of fright, Ezra pulled away and dropping to his knees crawled into the crevice.






As the sun peeked over the horizon, Larabee’s observant gaze raked over the area, taking in the position of each peacekeeper, although they were completely hidden from view.



Turning his attention to the boulders shielding Buck, the gunslinger let his gaze travel further up the hillside, stopping near the peak, searching for any sign of the small southerner hidden there.



Hours earlier, while he understood the logic of Wilmington’s argument that they couldn’t take the time or spare the guns to escort Ezra back to Four Corners Chris had several reasons for not wanting to bring the boy along.



First and foremost he feared for the child’s safety. Bullets didn’t care if someone was simply an innocent bystander. Secondly he feared the heartache Ezra would suffer by the death of the man who’d come to mean so much to him if they couldn’t save Tanner. He feared the mental anguish witnessing that death would cause the boy.



He had argued the possibility of no one surviving and Ezra being left alone to make his way back to Four Corners. Chris hadn’t feared his own death since the passing of his wife and son. He only feared the loss of even one member of his new family. He feared the pain it would bring and the effect of that loss on everyone. He had argued that having someone take Ezra back to Four Corners would guarantee the child had a guardian until his mother returned.



The hope of finding a nearby homestead where Ezra could wait had proved futile.



Larabee knew while his arguments were valid, Buck was also right. There was an unspoken need in Ezra to be with them. A need that drove the little southerner to ignore fears of what might be lurking in the dark night. A need that had the child who thought through every word and every action, riding through dangerous territory.



For reasons he couldn’t or wouldn’t state, Ezra needed to be with them. He needed to be with them and would most likely have found a way to slip away from his escort and follow them.



Buck had also pointed out that until he could see for himself the little southerner was alright, nothing would keep the tracker from returning to Ezra’s side. If Vin was injured the best way to keep him still long enough to begin recovering was if the child was there.



However, Buck being right didn’t mean Chris had to like it.



“Ready?” JD softly questioned.



With a nod the shootist climbed into the saddle and gave a last glance at the hillside before turning his horse away. He had a man to meet and a promise to keep. Then he was going to have a long serious talk with a certain small southerner.






Ezra jerked awake as a ray of sunlight sneaked past the boulder, penetrating the darkness of his hide away.



When had he nodded off? When first entering the tiny space, Ezra had sat for what seemed like hours, absently tracing a design in the sandy soil, his fear and worry building as he tried to convince himself Chris would keep his promise. Ezra wasn’t naïve enough to believe everything would work out just because someone said so or because he wanted it so badly he ached inside. He did know Larabee would do his very best to save his best friend. He knew the lawmen would do everything possible to rescue Tanner and see to it Vin returned to Four Corners and the security of their family safe and sound.



As sure as he was of those facts, Ezra also knew there were men who wouldn’t hesitate to kill to satisfy their own greed and bullets were oblivious of whose life they ended.



Silently berating himself for having fallen asleep, the little gambler lay on his belly, looking between the boulders to survey the scene below him.



With the rising sun chasing away the last shadows of night he could see the cool breeze rippling the tall grass of the narrow meadow known as Massacre Mesa.



He could see Buck crouched behind a natural rock barrier several yards away, his back to Ezra, but try as he might he was unable to spot the other peacekeepers hidden among the natural shelters surrounding the meadow.



Ezra’s heart began to thump faster as Larabee appeared, casually walking his black horse into the open area. Seeing Buck stiffen, shifting his rifle into position, Ezra followed the big man’s line of sight to see what had drawn his attention. His breath caught in his throat as the man with the unusual hat, appeared from the opposite direction.



The little boy’s heart dropped to his boots as he realized the man was alone. Had they already killed Vin? Had they realized he had a price on his head and decided to take him back to Tuscosa?



Afraid to watch but unable to look away, Ezra’s frantic gaze kept darting from the scene being played out in the meadow to the surrounding countryside, hoping to see Vin or the peacekeepers who would attempt to rescue the tracker.






The stuffed saddlebags draped in front of him, moving easily with the horse beneath him Larabee entered the meadow from the direction of town. Refusing to play totally by the outlaw’s rules, he avoided the middle of the field, keeping to the side where Buck and Josiah were hidden. If possible, with the others laying cover fire, it would be easier to get Vin to safety.



Leaving nothing to chance, the derringer Chris had confiscated from Ezra’s saddlebags was tucked into the pocket of the gunslinger’s black duster. The long coat also hid the six shooter he’d borrowed from Sanchez, as he was certain Brewster would insist he surrender his Colt.



Easing back on the reins, the Hoosier brought his horse to a halt as the outlaw appeared from the opposite direction. Resting his crossed wrists on the saddle horn Chris waited patiently forcing Brewster to come to him.



“Don’t reckon yer one for followin’ orders too good so where’s them other lawmen?” Brewster sneered, stopping his own horse a few yards from the gunslinger, his drawn gun aimed at Larabee.



Chris was no fool and certain Brewster would expect the others had given him what he expected. “JD!” He called out never taking his eyes off the man in front of him.



At Larabee’s call, Dunne stepped from behind a large boulder on the far side of the meadow, his rifle aimed at the outlaw’s chest.



“Ya don’t expect me ta believe ya come out here with only a citified tinhorn in a dumbass hat ta back yer play do ya?”



“The others are away on a errand for Judge Travis.” Larabee shrugged. “But that so called citified tinhorn’ll put a bullet through your heart if your trigger finger so much as twitches.”



Brewster’s eyes narrowed as he pretended to study the gunslinger a long moment. As soon as Slim had reported Larabee and another rider a mile or so out, the outlaws had immediately found cover among the boulders.



“You bring the money?” He demanded to know.



“Ya bring Tanner?” Chris countered, one hand moving to rest on the bulging saddlebags.



Brewster’s eyes flared with greed and he licked his lips. “Let me see it.”



“Let me see Tanner.”



’Give it up Brewster,’ Wilmington couldn’t suppress a small smile as he watched the standoff between lawman and outlaw. ’Ya won’t win a pissin’ contest with that stubborn Hoosier.’



“Toss yer gun.” Brewster ordered and seeing Larabee’s apparent reluctance couldn’t resist playing to the shootist’s doubt. “Ain’t so sure about the tinhorn’s aim after all are ya?”



“Ain’t a doubt in my mind.” Using two fingers, Chris eased his Colt from its holster and tossed the weapon away, making sure it landed in the grass at the edge of the meadow.



The gun was forgotten as Larabee’s gaze moved past Brewster. His own mount whinnied a greeting, recognizing one of the approaching horses as a member of his herd and Chris’ hazel eyes hardened at the sight of Vin slumped in the saddle.






His heart pounding furiously, tears filling his eyes as he spotted Vin, Ezra scooted a little further forward. Even at a distance Ezra could see Vin’s hands were tied behind him and the tracker was slumped listlessly in the saddle, his head bowed, his battered gray hat hiding his face.



Watching anxiously, Ezra knew whatever Chris had planned was about to come to fruition. The little southerner knew Uncle Bradley’s God wouldn’t listen but perhaps Josiah’s would.



“Mr. God, I know if you’re real I’m not someone you probably wanna listen to but Vin and the others are good people so please-“



The whispered prayer came to an abrupt halt as a gleam of light caught the little gambler’s attention. Crawling to his left the southerner methodically searched the boulders and saplings wondering what had caused the interruption in his plea.



Finally deciding it was nothing more than his imagination, Ezra was about to give up when his attention was drawn back to movement among the rocks a few yards from his own hiding place.



Ezra’s blood ran cold as he was finally able to discern what he was seeing. Rubbing dirt along the barrel of his Winchester repeating rifle to prevent the gleam from warning his victims, a man his gray shirt and tan pants blending him into his surroundings was in the perfect position to kill Vin, Chris and Buck.



He had to help them! He had to warn them!



The little gambler looked around frantically searching for a way to help.



Chris had ordered him to remain silent and hidden, yet if he obeyed that order, the men he so admired would die.



He had to help them!



He would take Chris’ promised beating. He would leave Four Corners without a word of protest if that’s what the gunslinger deemed necessary but he had to help them!



What would happen if he suddenly called out? Would it ruin Chris’ plan? Would it actually cause their deaths?



There had to be a way he could help without putting his heroes in further danger. Perhaps if he could sneak close enough he could use his derringer.



Trembling, Ezra blinked back tears of frustration. The small gun was still in the saddlebags where he’d packed it before the ill-fated camping trip.



There’s always more than one way ta win the game my darlin’ boy. Ya just have to stay calm and find that way.’



Calling on the lessons instilled by his mother, the little gambler took a deep breath to calm himself. Swiping at his eyes with the back of his hand, he pushed aside the heavy material of the serape and rapidly emptied the pockets of his jacket as an idea began to form.



While Maude would most certainly be appalled, Vin would be just as happy to find rather than linen hankies and other objects carried by grown men Ezra’s pockets now contained those items treasured by most little boys.



Feeling a small glimmer of hope, Ezra’s fingers closed around the slingshot Vin had made for him, concentrating on what the tracker had been teaching him with the promise that once he became proficient with the weapon they would begin lessons with a bow and arrows.



The boy had learned the best stones were small, round and smooth which made it easier to control their trajectory. He glanced around the shadows, sifting his fingers through the sandy soil but finding nothing. He couldn’t gather the needed stones unless he exposed himself by disobeying Larabee. However…Ezra quickly dumped the contents of a small leather pouch on the ground beside him.



Crawling back to the opening, Ezra pushed to his feet careful not to step on the ends of the large poncho.






As Peso came to a halt, Vin forced his head up, not at all surprised to see Larabee facing off with Brewster. He saw the rage burning in his friend’s hazel eyes as he examined the sharpshooter seeing every visible bruise, the split lip and swollen eyes.



Well he’d almost made it. The Texan had freed his hands a moment before Tinker, following Brewster’s orders had moved to check his bonds. The ensuing battle had cost Tanner another beating but as the leader had viciously wound the rope around his raw and bleeding wrists once again, Vin had listened with satisfaction to Tinker’s cries of pain as Zeke set and splinted the younger man’s broken arm.



The tracker had only one concern. “Ez?”



“Safe.” Larabee assured him with a nod.



“S-shouldn’t have c-come cowboy.” Vin’s blue eyed gaze kept darting to the rocks trying to tell Chris of the men hidden there.



“What? And miss killin’ these fools?” Chris quipped, a small smile gracing his lips as the man ponying Peso paled.



“Alright, ya seen Tanner, now let me see that money.” Brewster growled.



Lifting the heavy saddlebags, Larabee casually nudge his horse a few steps closer to Peso before tossing the leather bags toward Brewster making certain they landed in the grass several feet short of the outlaw.



As Brewster holstered his weapon preparing to dismount, all hell broke loose when a rifle shot rang out.






’Wait…Be patient.’ Ezra told himself. ’Wait!’



In an attempt to control his trembling, the little southerner concentrated on trying to remember everything Vin had taught him.



He had to ignore what was happening in the meadow. Just as he had while riding through the dark night, he had to ignore the terror eating at his insides. He had to push aside his fear of losing the man he’d come to love as much as he loved his mother.






He had to have faith Larabee would keep Tanner safe and the other lawmen would watch over Chris and Vin. That act in itself took a great deal of self-control. For as long as he could remember Maude had taught him to have faith only in himself. To depend only on himself. Having faith in others, depending on others only brought disappointment. But these men had begun to refute those lessons. They had begun to show him not only did they depend on each other but also that he could depend on them.






It was likely he would only get one attempt to stop the man intent on ambushing his caretakers. He wasn’t confident he could hit him but perhaps he could distract the man long enough to give the men a fighting chance.



’Wait for the perfect moment.’



Ezra tensed as the man settled on his first target, tucking the rifle butt into his shoulder and sighting down the barrel.



Sucking in a deep breath, bracing himself against the boulder, Ezra sighted the length of his arm, closing one eye as he pulled the deer sinew taut.



’Nothin’ fancy. Aim for the biggest target. Just hit him.’



He shifted his hand a fraction of an inch.



’Just hit him…Just hit ‘im…Just hit ‘im.’



As Ezra released the projectile the man’s finger closed around the trigger.



Green eyes filling with a mixure of horror and terror, his heart racing, the little southerner took a step backward as with a howl of pain, his shot going wild the man whirled and fired in the direction of his attacker.



Unable to keep his balance as his foot caught in the trailing ends of the serape, Ezra stumbled, his head striking the boulder sending him spiraling down into blackness.






Peso reared as a bullet kicking up dirt and grass buried itself in the soil near his front hoof. Knowing he wouldn’t be able to keep his seat, Tanner kicked free of the stirrups as the frightened animal leapt sideways, lurching into the horse beside him.



As the rifle shot echoed across the field, Chris dug his heels into his horse’s sides forcing the animal into Brewster’s. Leaping to the ground as he saw Vin tumble from the saddle, the gunslinger pulled Josiah’s Colt sending a bullet into Tinker…A bullet it would be pointless to remove. The man was dead before he hit the ground.



“Damnit Buck keep your ass down!” Using his body to shield Tanner, the Hoosier shouted at the womanizer seeing Wilmington stand and fire into the rocks behind him. Damn man’s taking foolhardy lessons from JD.’



The battle was over before it even got a good start.



As Nathan knelt to examine the sharpshooter, Larabee crossed to where Brewster had fallen victim to JD’s bullet. The outlaw lay staring at the sky blood bubbling from the hole in his chest as he struggled to breath.



“Warned ya about that citified tinhorn.” The gunslinger commented, watching as Brewster’s eyes glazed over and he took his last breath. “Shoulda listened.”



“Damn Nathan take it easy.” The sharpshooter hissed as the healer tied off the bandages around his wrists and turned his attention to probing the Texan’s ribs.



“Nathan?” Chris waited for the healer’s response.



“Don’t reckon anything’s broke but it’s gonna be awhile afore he’s hoppin’ around any rooftops.” The black man grinned at Larabee, giving Vin’s shoulder a light pat.



Ignoring his own condition and satisfied his friends were unscathed, Vin focused on Larabee. “Ezra make it back to town alright?”



The gunslinger nodded. “Yep. Boy done just what ya told ‘im.”



“Chris?” Tanner prodded, sensing there was more to the answer than the shootist was saying.



“Hey Nathan!”



At Wilmington’s call, Vin struggled to his feet and letting Larabee support him the two friends followed Jackson into the rocks, leaving Sanchez and Dunne to watch the surviving outlaws.



Buck motioned to the man under his gun. “Thought ya might wanna patch this fool up so he can stand trial.”



“Ya ever break cover like that again and I’ll shoot ya myself.” Chris threatened, better understanding but still not pleased with Buck’s earlier action. The thought of losing his oldest friend, of losing any of these men who had become his family, twisted his stomach into knots. “Reckon there was more than four of ‘em after all.”



“We got damn lucky,” Tanner stated. “That’s Bullseye Bill Conners. Wanted for killing two bank clerks. Heard he was down in the Dakotas.”



Buck grinned. “Guess we’re lucky Brewster didn’t have you for a sharpshooter. This one couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn.”



Nathan, one hand pressing the man’s bandana to his shoulder wound, pushed the man’s hands away from his face surprised to see a large bruise forming around a small perfectly round spot beneath his eye. “Wonder what caused that mark. Looks like his cheekbone might be broke.”



His observant gaze raking the ground, Tanner flinched as he reached for the glass marble lying among the grass and pebbles. Examining the Agate closely the man whirled on the others. “This is Ezra’s shooter. He won it from Tommy Haynes.”



“Aww hell.” The color drained from Wilmington’s tanned complexion as he replayed the scene in his mind. After the initial shot, the man who had been Brewster’s secret weapon hadn’t been aiming at the peacekeepers when Buck shot him. He’d been facing Ezra’s hiding place.



Buck crossed the short distance with a few long legged strides. A slingshot lay just inside the opening that was barely big enough for the small child to fit through. Placing the weapon in his pocket the womanizer dropped to his knees. “Ezra?…Ezra it’s alright. You can come out now.”



When he didn’t receive an answer, the jovial gunman reached inside, his heart pounding wildly when his hand closed around the boy’s booted foot. Not wanting to hurt the child, Wilmington forced himself to remain calm as he gently eased Ezra through the opening.



Nathan! Scooping the little body into his arms, Buck gently rocked back and forth, pleading with the child. “Wake up Ezra. Come on little man, open them pretty green eyes for me. Ya gotta wake up for me, Ez. Ya gotta wake up for Vin.”



His foot pressed against the outlaw’s wound, uncaring of the man’s moans, his gun pointed at the Connor’s face, Larabee watched as afraid of what he would discover, Tanner slowly forced himself to walk to where Nathan examined the unconscious child cradled in Wilmington’s arms.



“He’s got a pretty nasty bump on his head but other than a headache and slight concussion, I reckon he’ll be fine.” The healer reassured them after thoroughly examining the small boy.



Tanner sagged to his knees, relief washing over him like water from a broken dam at Jackson’s words, taking Ezra’s small hand in his as whimpering in pain, the little southerner began to stir.






“He’s alright little man,” Buck was quick to assure the child as Nathan held the canteen to the boy’s lips urging him to drink. Sensing it was what they both needed, Wilmington gently placed the child in Vin’s arms, wiping tears of relief from his own eyes as thin arms immediately encircled Tanner’s neck.



Looking past the sharpshooter, Buck received a nod of approval from the black clad gunslinger.






“Anymore headache?” Nathan questioned, checking Ezra’s eyes as he ran gentle fingers over the boy’s scalp.



“No sir.”



The little boy tried to ignore the gunslinger who stood near the door, his arms folded over his chest. In the three days since returning to town it seemed as if the Hoosier was always in the vicinity watching over Vin and Ezra. While his silent presence offered an odd form of comfort with the knowledge that no one would be able to take Vin away again, Ezra couldn’t prevent the nervousness that twisted his stomach each time he met the shootist’s eyes.



Jackson once more checked the bruises on Ezra’s shoulders caused by his fall, satisfied there was no swelling or other injuries.



“Upset stomach?”



“No sir.”



Ezra looked appalled and both adults chuckled as the small southerner’s stomach growled loudly.



“Go ahead and put your shirt back on Ezra and we’ll go put some food in that empty belly a yours.” The ex-slave grinned. Ruffling the boy’s curls affectionately, Nathan moved to the door, knowing Larabee wanted to speak the child alone. “I’ll tell the others you’ll be along shortly.”



Left alone with the black clad gunslinger, Ezra fumbled nervously with his clothing, his trembling fingers seemingly unable to fit the small buttons through the correct holes on the shirt.



The small southerner gasped as Larabee suddenly stepped forward, swinging him up into his arms. Standing Ezra on the old table he began re-buttoning the shirt. “We need to talk Ezra.”



The small hope he’d held that Chris might have forgotten the promised punishment for his disobedience faded and Ezra realized it was time to buck up and face the inevitable. His only hope now was that the Hoosier would follow through with the beating rather than making the southerner return to his Uncle Bradley’s.



“I understand Mr. Larabee.” The little boy straightened his shoulders, keeping his fearful gaze fixed on the wall behind the gunslinger’s shoulder. “I’m sure Mr. Jackson wouldn’t mind if you borrowed his razor strap.”



There was a long moment of silence while Chris tried to decipher the meaning behind the child’s comment. Larabee suddenly understood the fearful glances cast his direction and the reason Ezra tried to appear invisible the last few days.



“I said we need to talk Ezra. Ya don’t need a strap for talkin’.” Not wanting the boy to misunderstand the anger directed at those who had brought such pain to the little gambler, Chris fought to keep his voice even.



A heaviness crushed the small southerner’s heart as he concluded Chris had chosen to send him away.



“I don’t think I need ta tell ya that I was a mite pissed when you showed up at the grove the other night.”



“No sir.”



“I didn’t ask ya why ya came out there instead of havin’ someone else bring us that note. At the time I didn’t give a damn.” Larabee admitted, his glare stopping any explanation before the southerner could give it voice. “I was pissed because it was a damn dangerous thing ta do and all I could think about was what mighta happened to ya…How Vin would have felt if something happened to you…How I woulda felt.”



He finished buttoning the shirt and tugged it down as he quietly continued. You’re a brave little boy Ezra. Sometimes too brave for your own good and I shoulda told ya why I wanted ya ta stay behind” Chris met the boy’s tear filled green eyes. “I was afraid Ezra.”



“You Mr. Chris?” The child stared at him in bewilderment and dismay before shaking his head in denial. “You’re not afraid of anything. All y’all are the bravest men I know.”



“Everyone is afraid of something Ezra.” The peacekeeper held the boy’s jacket as the child slipped his arms inside. “I lost my family once and I don’t ever want that ta happen again.” He hesitated swallowing the lump in his throat. “You’re a part a this family, Lil Pard…a part of my family and I was afraid of losin’ ya. I shoulda told ya that. I’m real sorry I didn’t.”



“I thought-“ Horrified at the slip of the tongue, Ezra dropped his gaze to his boots. Hadn’t Maude always told him voicing inner thoughts, hopes and fears made a person vulnerable and gave others the information needed to hurt or with which to take advantage.



“What?” Placing the tips of his fingers under the trembling chin, Larabee gently lifted the boy’s head, forcing the little southerner to look at him. “You thought what Ezra?”



The words spilled forth before Ezra could stop himself. “I thought ya left me behind cause…Ya said I was part a y’all’s family but…I couldn’t stop those men from takin’ Vin away…I…I couldn’t help ‘im!…I ain’t good enough and I thought that’s why ya made me stay in town.”



“Don’t you ever say that again Ezra! You hear me? I never wanna hear that again.” Chris wiped at the tears trickling down the little boy’s cheeks before pulling him into a hug. “You’re just a little boy Ezra. Nobody expected ya to stop Brewster, least of all Vin. It’s not your job to try and protect any of us. Right now it’s our job to protect and take care of you. We sure as hell ain’t perfect and don’t expect you to be. We just expect ya ta be yourself. That’s more than good enough for us. Understand?” Feeling the tiny nod from the head buried in the crook of his shoulder, Chris smiled. “You’re a part of our family, Lil Pard. We’re proud of ya…More importantly…we love ya!”



He continued to hold the child for several long minutes before setting him down and holding out his hand. “Reckon we should get over ta the boardin’ house before them boys eat all the grub.”



“Mr. Buck and JD do seem to have a ravenous appetite” Ezra grinned shyly slipping his hand into Larabee’s.






“Well it’s about damn time you boys got here.” Sanchez chuckled when Chris and Ezra entered the dining room. “Thought poor ol’ Buck and JD were just plain gonna wilt away from hunger.”



“How ya doin’ Lil Pard?” Vin questioned giving Ezra a quick hug before the seven-year-old slip into the chair between Larabee and the sharpshooter.



“Mr. Jackson says I’m just fine.”



“Well that ain’t quite true.” Nathan stated drawing everyone’s attention. “His stomach was makin’ these really loud noises. Strangest thing I ever did hear. Gonna have ta read up on it.”



“What kinda noises?” The young sheriff asked seriously, playing along.



“Sounded sorta like…” The ex-slave seemed to contemplate his answer for a long moment searching for just the right words. “Sorta like an echo in a deep empty well.”



“Guess maybe we oughta fill that well up than huh?” Wilmington chuckled leaning across the table to poke the child’s stomach as Mrs. O’Reilly and her daughter carried platters and bowls of food to the table. “Now this is what I call a hero’s meal.”



Mashed potatoes, whipped to creamy perfection, perfectly seasoned green beans, buttery corn on the cob, fluffy light biscuits and crispy golden brown …fried chicken! Ezra ducked his head hoping to hide his disappointment. A meal made special for his hero and he wondered how he was going to refuse without hurting Vin’s feelings.



“Sir?” The child looked up as Vin lay a brown paper wrapped package before him.



“It’s called a present Ezra.” Tanner grinned.



Knowing the appropriate action would be to graciously accept the gift, Ezra stared at the package in confusion. Maude didn’t believe in spending money on frivolous items such as birthday or Christmas gifts.



“Why?” Appalled, he’d been thoughtless enough to voice the question, his lack of manners disgracing himself and offending the Texan, the boy’s cheeks flushed red. “I-I mean…” He momentarily faltered before pulling himself together using his poker face in an attempt to regain his dignity. “Gifts are for special occasions and…”



“Presents are given for lots of reasons Ezra.” Vin patiently explained, saddened the child seemed unable to believe someone would want to give him a gift. “Don’t have to be a special occasion even though I reckon this is.”



“Sure is.” Buck agreed. “Ain’t everyday we get ta say thanks to a real live hero.”



Ezra’s eyes widened as he suddenly realized the meal was made, not for Vin as he thought but for Ezra himself. “Me? I’m not a hero.”



“The hell ya aren’t! Ya saved our asses out there Ezra.” Chris stated. The child’s face flushed bright red but his chest swelled with pride as the other men all voiced their own sentiments of agreement.



“Open it Ez.” Dunne encouraged. “Food’s getting’ cold!”



Grins were exchanged around the table at Ezra’s stunned expression when untying the strings he pushed the paper aside to reveal a bow and quiver of arrows, carved to fit his small hands. “They’re beautiful.”



“Reckoned it was time to start yer lessons.”



“But not till after we eat.” JD announced, ducking Buck’s swat at his head. “What? I’m starved.”



“Thank you Mr. Tanner.” The child whispered awe struck.



“Thank you Ezra.” The tracker accepted the hesitant hug from the little gambler. “Now let’s eat. We got an empty well to fill up.”



The southerner’s giggle faded as Vin placed a leg and breast on Ezra’s plate taking two pieces for himself before passing the platter of chicken down the table.



While plates were filled and laughter and conversation filled the air, the six men covertly watched as the little southerner carefully shook out his napkin and searched for the silverware that should have been sitting next to his plate.



How was he supposed to eat without utensils?



“Only a heathen eats potatoes and beans with his fingers.” Tanner commented lowly. With a drumstick gripped in one hand he passed the child a spoon, not wanting to take a chance that Ezra would revert to being the perfect little gentleman and try eating the fowl with a knife and fork.



With a quick glance at Vin, receiving a grin and nod, the little gentleman tucked his napkin into his shirt collar and with a wide smile of his own took a large bite of chicken.



“Delectable.” The men burst into laugher as he closed his eyes, licking his lips, his expression one of pure delight. “Absolutely delectable!”



All eyes turned to Larabee as the gunslinger lifted his coffee cup. “To Ezra. Our own little hero.”