"Storm’s comin' in quick," Vin Tanner commented, his blue-eyed gaze searching the countryside for possible shelter. They were only a few hours from Four Corners, but rain had plagued them off and on for two days and there was no reason to travel in the inclement weather unless it was absolutely necessary. "Might wanna wait it out."
"Reckon we can make it ta Miss Nettie's afore it hits?" Buck Wilmington questioned as he huddled deeper into his jacket against the chilly bite of the wind.
"Nope. Ain't gonna last long, but best we find someplace ta hole up till it passes."
JD Dunne said nothing, fumbling to pull on his rain gear, as the dark clouds overhead seemed to loom closer.
The three peacekeepers from Four Corners were returning to that dusty little corner of the territory after delivering Mick Edwards to the transport wagon on its way to Yuma Prison.
"We're less than an hour from the old Bennett homestead." The tracker reined Peso southeast. "Been a while back, but the last time I was out that way part of the barn was still standin'. Might give us a little protection."
Bowing to the tracker’s knowledge of the area, the other two men reined after him.
Lightening streaked across the sky preceding a rolling crack of thunder as the three men dismounted, leading their nervous horses into what was left of Bennett’s old barn.
One corner had fallen in, age and neglect causing the structure to cave in on itself, but the remainder of the old building was still intact and would afford the three men some protection from the elements.
Pulling slats of dry wood from the collapsed portion, Vin quickly built a small fire and started a pot of coffee while Buck and JD unsaddled and wiped down the horses.
"Well, boys, it ain't home, but at least it's fairly dry and it’ll keep the wind from cuttin' ya ta the bone." The womanizer shook the rainwater from his hat before squatting beside the fire. "How long ya reckon?" he questioned as he poured himself a cup of the coffee.
"Hour maybe…" Tanner stretched out, tipping his hat over his eyes. "'Nuthern comin' long ahind it, but reckon we'll be in Four Corners afore it lets loose."
Making themselves comfortable, neither Wilmington nor Dunne questioned the tracker's prediction, having learned from experience that the young man could read the sky and weather as clearly as he could read trailing signs in the dirt.
Dunne warily eyed the low hanging clouds, wondering if perhaps this might be the first time his friend was wrong.
They'd spent just over an hour in the comparative dryness of the old barn before the torrential rain had stopped, allowing them to travel in relative comfort, although the brisk breeze still held a cutting chill.
Despite the foul weather, JD was pleased Chris Larabee had decided to let him accompany Vin and Buck rather than going himself. Although he realized these trips were for the most part boring, Buck's tales of his amorous conquests helped pass the time. Of course, there was also the occasional story of what JD secretly thought of as ‘Buck and Larabee's grand adventures’.
While the Texan wasn't much for talking about his past, Vin was always more than willing to pass on his knowledge, teaching the young easterner about the wilderness and the wildlife which occupied this part of the country.
"I tell ya, Vin, she looked just like one a them store bought china dolls with big blue eyes and cherry red lips. Her hair felt just like---"
JD turned his wandering attention back to his companions as Buck fell silent; surprised to find they'd reined to a halt. Following their line of vision, Dunne spotted the overturned stagecoach a half mile ahead.
The conveyance lay on its side, wedged among the rocks, far from the trail it traveled on a regular basis.
Wilmington reached out and grabbed the reins as JD dug his heels into his horse's sides, prepared to rush forward.
"What are we waitin' for?” The younger man literally shouted at his companions. “There might be people there who need help!"
"True enough," Buck conceded, "but riding hell bent for leather over there could be a sure fire way of gettin' ourselves killed, too, and that ain't gonna help nobody."
"Don't see no movement of any kind," Tanner murmured, slipping his old spyglass into a pocket of his hide coat, "but best keep our eyes open."
They approached the coach quickly, yet cautiously, weapons ready until Vin was certain there was no danger to his friends.
Dismounting, Buck climbed onto the carriage, dropping inside as Vin carefully circled the area, searching for any signs the recent rain hadn't washed away.
There was little to find. The bodies of the driver and guard lay among the wreckage. It didn’t take an expert to see they had been shot at close range. There was no strong box and the few pieces of luggage were scattered about the area, their contents ransacked.
JD tried not to look at the dead bodies as he moved by them. A few yards away, still harnessed together, the team of horses stood waiting patiently for someone to release them.
Wilmington hauled himself back up through the door. "Two people inside. Man and woman." The sad shake of his head told the tracker neither had survived.
"Looks like they was attacked. Axle broke while they's on the run." Squatting on his heels, Tanner studied the ground. "Rain washed away a lot, but there's still sign of shod horses..." He hesitated, then pushed to his feet, moving toward the nearby waist high brush.
Buck looked at JD who shrugged. "Vin?"
"Can't be certain, but looks like somebody mighta survived." 'A very small somebody.' He kept the thought to himself.
"Think whoever attacked the stage took 'em?" JD questioned, his dark eyes skimming over the area, hoping to locate what Vin had seen.
"Can't tell for sure... Don't think so." Gathering Peso's reins, Tanner looked up at Buck. "Reckon you two can get the bodies back ta town? I wanna check around a bit afore I head back."
Buck didn’t necessarily want to split up, but it would take more than one person to handle the extra horses and Vin was the peace keepers’ best bet of finding anyone who might have survived. The womanizer finally nodded, "Watch yer back, Pard. If ya ain't back by tomorra afternoon we'll come lookin' fer ya."
Vin flashed him a lopsided grin as he swung up into the saddle. “I’ll bank on that, Bucklyn.” With a touch to his hat brim, he loped Peso into the brush.
"Was expectin' the stage ta be late, otherwise we'd a gone lookin' for it." Larabee refilled his shot glass, passing the whiskey bottle to his old friend. "Telegram come a couple days ago from the depot in Ridge City sayin' the stage had busted a wheel and was gonna be delayed."
"Don't know if it was carryin' anything worth stealin'. Didn't see no strong box." Listening to the rain beating against the roof, Buck hoped the absent tracker had once again found dry shelter. Thinking on it the entire way to town, Wilmington wasn't all that sure if he wanted to wait until the following afternoon before returning to follow the sharpshooter.
Chris gave him a knowing look. "We'll give 'im till noon, then head out."
Tanner kept Peso at a steady walk, his hawk eyed gaze searching for the next indication he was following the right trail. The heavy downpours had washed most tracks in the dirt away, but there were other signs if a person knew what to look for: broken twigs and bent grass, a small piece of cloth snagged on thorny vegetation, smudges from something --he hadn’t puzzled out exactly what-- dragging the ground.
The trail he was following paralleled the main road, out of sight, but if remained upon, would have led the person to Four Corners.
Reaching a narrow ravine where rainwater had collected into a rushing stream, the person had turned deeper into the hills, leaving Vin to believe they was either extremely frightened of being seen by those who'd attacked the stage or perhaps was injured and disoriented.
He’d found several small spots of blood along the way. Certainly not enough to be life threatening, but Vin knew all too well, without proper treatment any injury could lead to death. In this desolate country, infection could be as dangerous as any bullet.
Reining up, Vin dismounted, cautiously leading Peso through the slippery shale as they climbed higher up the ridge, still following the signs the person had left behind.
Tanner had found the spot where the person had passed the previous night, curled in the underbrush and found himself growing more impressed as the stranger he followed had done their best to avoid the forested areas during the storm. Most folks didn’t seem to realize the tall trees were prime targets for lightening strikes, which also made anyone near them a target.
The tracker’s blue eyes grew large as he knelt, studying a new sign visible on the ground. His heart pounded as he jerked to his feet, his gaze sweeping the area.
Only one critter made tracks like that!
Vin knew he was getting close. Unfortunately, so was the four-legged hunter following the same trail. The tracker had noted as the traveler wearied, the trail had become more erratic, the person less careful. If that was the case, they would be at the cat’s mercy.
The rain had begun again, the sky weeping for the dead victims, the Gods cleansing the earth, washing away the stench of death, in preparation of a fresh new day.
Fearful for the person he followed, the tracker knew he’d soon have to find a place to make camp. The storm had brought an early dusk and it would soon be too dark to see the trail, let alone follow the signs.
Peso suddenly shied and Tanner pulled his mare’s leg, cocking the sawed off rifle as, nostrils flaring, the gelding tossed his head, prancing nervously, but trusting his human to protect him from the predator he smelled and feared.
It only took a moment for the sharpshooter to spot the large animal as it stealthily approached its intended prey. With a quick glance at the person backed against the rocky wall, the tracker took careful aim; his single shot taking down the cat as it crouched, prepared to pounce.
Vaulting from the saddle, quickly tying Peso upwind from the dead cat, Tanner hurried forward, skidding to a stop when the barrel of the Colt in the person’s hands swung in his direction.
Vin wasn’t certain which surprised him more: the large gun clutched tightly in the small hands or the enormous emerald green eyes, which held a mixture of terror and defiance.
The child was bundled in a man’s far too large woolen jacket, probably taken from the luggage of the male passenger. The rolled up sleeves still hung to just above his fingertips and a piece of rope had been tied as a belt helping to keep the bottom from dragging too badly, saving the kid from constantly tripping over it.
In the dying light of day, Vin could make out wet brown curls which framed an angelic face marred by several bruises and a split lip. He could see traces of blood from a small cut near the child’s hairline.
Realizing he still held the mare’s leg, the sharpshooter quickly checked to be certain the cougar was dead before replacing the spent cartridge and dropping the weapon into its holster.
Squatting on his heels where he stood, Tanner did not attempt to approach the frightened child. “Hey there, lil’ Pard, ain’t got no need ta be afraid a me. I ain’t gonna hurt ya none.” He nodded at the gun held in the boy’s desperate grasp. “Looks like maybe ya didn’t need my help after all. ‘Ppears ya had things perty well under control.”
As he spoke, his gaze raked over the area. Seeking shelter under a large rocky overhang in the side of the hill, it was obvious the little boy had been in the process of setting up a camp, evidenced by the small pile of gathered dry wood not far from the child’s feet.
The tracker hesitated a moment, then questioned quietly, “Ya mind if I share yer camp? This rain ain’t gonna let up for quite a bit.” He waited as the green eyes quickly assessed him. If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn the child was trying to see inside him, searching for hidden danger or an unspoken agenda.
Still gripping the weapon, the boy let it drop to his side, sliding aside, alert for any threatening movement as the tracker slowly slipped into the reasonably dry shelter of the overhang.
A carpetbag, old, but obviously well cared for, sat half hidden among the rocks. Up close, Vin could see the boy had turned an oversized shirt into a sling type pouch, using it to carry the driest pieces of wood he could find.
“My name’s Vin.” The sharpshooter offered his hand, again patiently waiting, letting the boy make up his mind. Tanner smiled, giving him a wink when switching the gun to his left hand, the child cautiously placed his right in Vin’s.
Giving it a friendly shake, Tanner released his hold. “Let me take care a ol’ Peso and then I’ll give ya a hand setting up camp.”
Taking time to drag the cougar’s body away to avoid attracting other predators, Tanner tethered Peso under the far end of the overhang. Digging an old piece of cloth from his saddlebags, he rubbed the wetness from the animal, using the horse as a shield to watch the child who was attempting to light the campfire.
A frown of consternation came to his handsome face as he saw the kid leaning closer to the wood, shifting his body to protect the lucifer from the wind, but still having no luck at getting the fire started. Giving Peso a final pat, he moved back to the boy.
The child said nothing as, setting his gear to the side, the sharpshooter complimented him on his efforts, then, kneeling down beside him, Vin explained an easier way as he re-stacked the wood into a pyramid, the larger pieces tenting the twigs. Stripping the bark from one of the largest limbs to use for kindling, he nodded his thanks when the child offered him the few remaining matches, allowing the tracker to save his own small stash.
“Wood’s always hard to get started when it’s damp like this,” he explained offhandedly as the kindling finally caught and a small stream of smoke puffed upward. “There’s some pine wood that catches right off, helps save yer matches, but it’s too dark ta look fer it tonight.”
Vin could feel the green eyes watching his every move as he started a pot of coffee, offering the youngster a drink from the canteen. “Ya know, I’m thinkin’ that ol’ cat musta been down right starvin' ta try and attack a man.”
The boy’s shoulders straightened a bit at the remark as he re-corked the water container, carefully placing it within reach of the tracker. Vin saw a shiver rack the small body and a flash of pain in the large eyes, noting the boy’s movements were stiff and awkward as he scooted closer to the crackling flames, steam rising from his wet wool coat.
“Might wanna get outta that wet coat afore ya catch a chill.”
When the child made no move to comply, the sharpshooter shook out his saddle blanket and moved to drape it about the boy’s small shoulders.
“I-I’m f-f-fine,” the child asserted through chattering teeth, forcing himself not to jerk away.
“Don’t know ‘bout you, but I’m a mite hungry my ownself.” The tracker dug through his saddlebags, removing his meager rations. Most of their supplies had been carried on the packhorse, which Wilmington and Dunne had taken with them, but he always carried a few things because only a fool traveled this country without rations.
“Thank you, sir,” the child’s words were barely audible as he accepted the jerky and hardtack the tracker offered him.
“My name’s Vin. Vin Tanner.” The sharpshooter hid his smile of amusement, wondering how the boy could stuff the food in his mouth as if he hadn’t eaten in days yet still manage to appear as if he was sitting at an elegantly set table. “Ya gotta name?”
“Ezra.” This time the boy extended his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Tanner.”
“Likewise, Ezra.” Tanner grinned, his hand engulfing the small boy’s. “Been followin’ yer trail quite a while. Was ya a passenger on that stage what wrecked back there a ways?”
The boy gave a hesitant nod, one hand moving ever so slightly toward his coat pocket, which now held the Colt.
“Ain’t gotta be afraid a me, Ezra. I got no reason to wanna hurt ya,” the tracker stated quietly as he poured a cup of coffee.
Ezra Standish studied the man in the old hide coat. Seeming to appear out of thin air, the lean man had most likely saved him from the mountain lion. While Ezra had fired weapons before and could usually hit what he aimed at, the gun he had confiscated from the dead stage driver was far too large and heavy for his small hands. He had to struggle to hold it with one hand and use the other to pull the trigger. He was well aware the cat would probably have pounced on him before he could have even cocked the pistol.
The boy had learned early in his young life to read people and situations. There was friendliness about the longhaired man and honesty in his azure eyes. Most importantly to Ezra, this man had given him control of the situation, letting him make the decision whether he wished to remain alone or pass the long night in the wilderness with a protector and companion.
Catching a whiff of the coffee, Ezra spoke up quietly, “May I have some, please?”
Without a word, Vin poured a small portion into his extra cup, offering the hot drink to the youngster. Looking away and biting his lip to keep from laughing, he stared out at the rain, pretending not to see the boy’s grimace or his struggle to force himself to swallow the strong brew. The other men rarely allowed the sharpshooter to make the coffee either on the trail or at the jail, knowing how strong he preferred it.
“Where ya from, Ez? ‘Bama? South Carolina?”
“Georgia originally. You, sir?” Ezra answered honestly. There was a trustworthiness, which seemed to envelop this Vin Tanner like a thick cloak. To young Ezra’s surprise, the man didn’t appear to be looking for an angle or some way to use him... at least not yet.
Instead, this stranger was treating him like an equal and that was somewhat of a shock to Ezra. He wasn’t used to such behavior. Of course, this Vin person didn’t know about what Maude called the little southerner’s God given talents. Maybe when Tanner found out, he would be just like everyone else who wanted nothing more than to exploit him for their own gain.
His green-eyed gaze locked on the man’s face, studying it in the flickering firelight. It was a nice face and the man had a mischievous grin… Perhaps, Ezra thought, he would be different from everyone else, but he knew it was a forlorn hope. Maude had said everyone was only out to use everyone else and in his young life, Ezra had found that was the one truth he could always bank on.
Still, it would be nice to relax and not look for any angles for just this one night. For once he would worry about tomorrow… tomorrow.
“Texas,” Vin admitted, puzzled by the child’s return to silence, but pleased to see the small boy begin to relax. “Live in a little town called Four Corners now. For the time bein’ anyway.”
Seeing the boy attempting to hide his yawn behind his hand, the sharpshooter busied himself spreading his bedroll, realizing Ezra must be exhausted.
“Thank you, Mr. Tanner, but I couldn’t possibly deprive you of your makeshift bed.” The child politely refused the tracker’s offer to make use of his bedroll. Curling up on his side, cradling his head on one bent arm, Ezra pulled the horse blanket tighter about himself and was asleep almost as soon as he closed his eyes.
Wakefulness returned quickly as the night sounds changed. Feigning sleep, Tanner’s hand wrapped around his gun, listening for the subtle difference, which had disturbed his sleep.
He’d waited several minutes to be sure the little boy was soundly asleep before gently shifting Ezra to his bedroll. The boy had been so exhausted from his ordeal he hadn’t even stirred when the sharpshooter had carefully eased him out of the still damp coat. Draping it over a large rock near the fire, Vin hoped it would dry by morning.
Gathering up the saddle blanket, Vin had wrapped it about his own shoulders and warmed by the fire, the tracker leaned back against the rock wall and dozed off. Twice the child whimpering in his sleep, perhaps reliving the nightmare of the stage accident, had awakened him. Softly mumbling reassurances, Vin sat beside Ezra until he quieted.
Realizing the sounds which had awakened him were muffled sniffles, Vin opened his eyes to discover Ezra once more wearing the large coat, seated beside the fire, his knees pulled up to his chest, his face buried in his folded arms.
Pushing up on his elbows, Vin frowned. “Ezra? Ya okay?”
Wiping his face on the coat sleeves, the boy raised his head, but didn’t look at the Texan.
Mentally kicking himself for not thinking to ask earlier, Tanner questioned, “Were those yer folks, Ezra? Back there in the stage.”
Ezra shook his head. “No, sir. Mr. Bigalow was a drummer. According to the gentleman, he sold farm implements and I believe Miss Trundle was on her way to visit her sister in Denver.” The boy dropped his gaze, staring at the flames. Both of them had been strangers, but they had been kind to him. The day before the wreck, the old woman had insisted the hungry child share her lunch and while Ezra wasn’t particularly interested in farm tools, he had enjoyed listening to the man talk about the different places he’d been.
“Ya wanna tell me what happened?” The tracker waited. He wasn’t going to force Ezra to talk, but hoped the boy would make the decision to do so.
“I’d fallen asleep,” It was several minutes before the southerner spoke, his tone low. “When I woke up the coach was going really fast and the driver was yelling really loud at the horses. Mrs. Trundle made me get down on the floor because some men were chasing us and shooting.”
Vin realized it was the first time the southern child actually sounded like a little boy and not like a small adult.
“I peeked up and saw one of the men shoot through the window. Mrs. Trundle started bleedin’ and screamin’ and then I hit my head.” He drew in a deep breath, which sounded like a sob to Vin. “When I opened my eyes again, the stage was on its side and I was wedged up under the seat. Mr. Bigalow’s case was in front of me. It had broke open and spilled papers and his catalogues were everywhere. I heard those men open the door and when I looked out from behind the case I could see one of them searchin’ Mr. Bigalow and Miss Trundle.”
“You saw the men?”
“Just the one who stole Miss Trundle’s necklace.” A shiver racked his small body. “When they left, I waited to make sure they were really gone, and then I climbed outta the coach. I was afraid the men would come back, so I took the driver’s gun and a coat and shirt from Mr. Bigalow’s bags. I wasn’t stealin’ ‘em, I swear I wasn’t!” He turned tear filled green eyes to the tracker, begging him to believe.
“I know ya weren’t, Pard,” Vin soothed the child with his voice, reassuring Ezra he understood.
Tears streaked the little boy’s face. “It was rainin’ and I was cold.”
Not expecting the man to believe him and certain he would be punished for taking the items, to Ezra’s astonishment, the Texan instead pulled him onto his lap, wrapping his arms around him and holding him in a comforting embrace.
He was even more astounded that he didn’t want to protest or move away from the comfort he was being offered. He liked this lean man and instinctively knew Tanner would do nothing to hurt him. “I didn’t mean to steal his things,” he mumbled. “I just wanted to get away before those bad men came back.”
“Ya did the right thing, Ez,” Vin assured him, tightening his hold and rocking slightly as the boy broke down in tears again. “Ya did the right thing. Ya kept yer wits and did what ya needed to do. Now, why don’t ya see ‘bout gettin’ some more sleep?”
Ezra started to push away from him, but Vin shook his head. “That’s okay, lil’ Pard, ya can sleep right here iffen ya want. We can keep each other warm and I’ll make sure nothin’ hurts ya.”
Looking up at the man’s face, seeing nothing but concern in the blue eyes gazing down at him, Ezra sighed heavily and closed his eyes. It had been a long time --perhaps never-- since someone had cared enough to hold him while he slept, willing to keep his nightmares at bay. For the first time in a very long, long time, Ezra Standish felt safe.
As sleep claimed him once more, Ezra’s last thought was that Maude would be appalled at such a show of emotion and that he’d been taken in by the man’s concern and caring. However, Maude was not here and after the horrific ordeal he’d experienced, he wanted - no, needed - to feel safe.
The morning sun battled for supremacy with the clouds when, warm and comfortable, Ezra opened his green eyes and sleepily stared out at the fat raindrops splattering against the foliage beyond the overhang.
Suddenly realizing the comforting sound he was hearing was the lean Texan’s heartbeat where his head lay against the man’s chest, Ezra carefully slipped from the arms, which enfolded him, struggling slightly in his attempt not to waken the sleeping sharpshooter, appalled at his earlier behavior.
As was his habit, Vin had awakened with the rising sun. Caught in his nightmares, Ezra hadn’t fully awakened after falling asleep in the tracker’s arms. He’d cried out several times, always settling back to sleep at the sharpshooter’s murmured reassurances.
Feigning sleep, keeping his breathing even, Tanner watched through hooded lids as cautiously fishing through the saddlebags for the small bag of coffee, the little boy emptied the dregs from the previous evening.
Ignoring the ache of the new bruises suffered in the accident, Ezra moved as quietly as possible around the tiny campsite. Carefully filling the container with water from the tracker's canteen, he placed the pot on the flames to begin brewing. Making the Texan a decent pot of coffee was the least he could do to repay the man’s kindness.
No, he realized, it wasn’t the least he could do. Pulling a crumpled well-worn bill from inside his right boot, the small southerner slipped the monetary note inside the Texan’s saddlebag. A dollar wasn’t much to pay the man for his food, protection and companionship, but the few funds Maude had begrudgingly doled out to him were nearly depleted, even though Ezra had skipped meals and slept in the livery hayloft to spare expenses.
Unwilling to continue the farce of sleep any longer, stretching expansively, Tanner effected a wide yawn as, buttoning the large coat about him, Ezra quietly tugged the carpetbag from its hiding place in the rocks. Yawning again and scratching at his scruffy cheek, Vin focused on the boy. “Mornin’, Ezra.”
“Good morning, Mr. Tanner.” The child scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to awaken you.”
The Texan nodded toward the bag the child clutched. “Plannin’ on movin’ on, Pard?”
“I think it would be best.” Embarrassed by his emotional behavior the night before, Ezra stared at the design he had made in the dirt. Not wanting to be any more trouble to the kindhearted cowboy, he had hoped to slip away before Tanner had awakened.
“Reckon, ya might hang around long enough ta have some breakfast? Easier travelin’ on a full belly,” the sharpshooter pointed out, digging foodstuff from his saddlebags and setting about preparing a morning meal. From the corner of his eye he watched the child vacillate, tempted by the sight of the food.
“I suppose a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt.” Still clutching the carpetbag, Ezra cautiously crossed back to the fire and sat down opposite the tracker.
“Don’t reckon they would,” Tanner agreed with a lopsided smile.
“Ya make a pretty fine cup a coffee, Ez.” Finishing the last of the small breakfast, during which time Ezra hadn’t said two words, Vin figured he was going to have to instigate conversation. “Kinda young ta be travelin’ alone, ain’t ya?” Tanner realized a moment too late the statement must have sounded condescending as Ezra, squared his shoulders and met his blue eyed gaze with one equally steady.
“Ten years old is a perfectly appropriate age to travel without supervision, sir.”
“Ten?” Vin realized the boy hadn’t actually stated he was ten years old, just that it was an appropriate age for traveling alone. ‘If you’re ten, I’m Ulysses S. Grant’s maiden aunt!’
Ezra saw the skepticism in the man’s blue eyes. “Maude says I’m small for my age.”
“I reckon yer just about the right size for…what…seven?” A slight reddening of the boy’s cheeks told the sharpshooter his guess had come close to the mark. “Who’s Maude?”
Ezra’s eyes suddenly became guarded at the man’s pointed question. “I was to meet her in Four Corners.”
Tanner stared at his coffee cup, unwilling to believe someone would willingly turn a seven-year-old out to travel alone in this desolate country. “Reckon she’ll be a mite worried about ya when the stage doesn’t show.”
The little southerner shrugged his thin shoulders. “Maude is aware I’m quite capable of taking care of myself.” The pride in the statement didn’t quite disguise the hint of sadness. Ezra knew Maude would be angry if his delay interfered with her current con game, but it was highly unlikely she would actually be worried about him.
Vin fell silent. It appeared the little fella was indeed used to taking care of himself. Following the child’s trail as he traveled the wilderness, Tanner hadn’t failed to notice everything the boy did seemed to be carefully thought out. Still, why the hell would anybody let their kid travel this wild countryside without assuring someone would watch over them?
Perhaps the boy was an orphan or a runaway. No. The clothes hidden beneath the big coat, while ripped and dirty from the accident and his subsequent hike, were store bought and good quality, not the homespun or hand-me-downs overcrowded orphanages distributed to their charges.
Tanner knew firsthand what it was like for a child alone, growing up without family. His own father had died while he was still in the cradle and he’d lost his mother when he was younger than the boy across from him. The Texan had set off on his own after his grandfather had passed away a few short years later, taking odd jobs, watching and learning what it took to survive.
A runaway? He didn’t think so. From the get go, Ezra had stated someone waited for him in Four Corners. Then, Tanner realized, that could have just been a ruse to throw him off track.
No matter the circumstances surrounding this sad waif, Vin found himself fascinated by the child who sat sipping hot coffee on the other side of the campfire. If pride alone could rebuild the war torn country, the small southern child wouldn’t even need a hammer. While the boy hid his fear and shyness behind a confident façade, the observant Texan had noticed Ezra’s accent became a touch heavier, his grammar less perfect when the emotions he seemed to keep bottled up momentarily escaped.
“Full growed or not, travelin’ alone in this country ain’t always the smart thing to do.” Tanner figured to try a different tactic. “Aside from the critters and the bandits roamin’ around, the Injuns can be a mite touchy if a white man intrudes on their territory, even accidentally.”
Ezra chewed his lower lip, his expression thoughtful, but remained silent.
“Reckon since we’re both headed in the same direction, ya might wanna travel together?” Vin casually suggested. “Injuns might think twice ‘bout attackin’ two men.”
The boy’s bright eyes flashed with pride at the compliment, but he still said nothing for several minutes as he considered the proposition. Tanner had the distinct feeling the boy was searching for another solution.
“Thank you for the offer, Mr. Tanner, but as ya may have noticed, I don’t have a horse and I don’t wish ta slow ya down.” Ezra pushed to his feet, lifting the carpetbag. He truly wished he could accept the man’s offer. He wasn’t looking forward to the long walk ahead of him. “And unfortunately, I can’t pay ya.”
“Hell, Pard, don’t expect no pay!” Tanner tried to hide his shock. Did the child actually believe there was a price to be paid for help? “Ol’ Peso there is good and strong. He won’t mind yer little bit a extra weight and I would sure appreciate havin’ someone watch my back.”
Ezra searched the man’s blue eyes, finding only honest sincerity. “Then, thank you, Mr. Tanner. I would be happy to accompany you to Four Corners.
“Are you a real live mountain man?” Ezra questioned as the too large gray hat slipped down over his eyes when he tilted his head back to look at the man who was riding behind him.
“Depends on what ya consider a mountain man.”
“Men who first crossed the mountains to satisfy their curiosity about what was beyond the horizon,” the boy replied simply. “Miss Maple said some of them lived with the Indians, trapped beavers and other animals and they helped settle the western lands.”
“Aww shi—shucks, kid, just how old ya think I am?” Tanner’s chuckle faded as Ezra twisted about in the saddle to face him, the little boy’s countenance crestfallen.
“I didn’t mean to offend ya!” Ezra blurted out. “Of course you’re not old enough to---“
“Ain’t no offense taken, Ez, I’s just funnin’ ya.” His arm around the youngster as a safety measure, Vin gave the boy a friendly squeeze. “I’ve spent my fair share a time in the mountains. Still do every chance I get…I’ve hunted buffalo, done some scoutin’ for the army and lived with the Comanche for awhile.”
“You lived with Indians?” the child asked in awe, his green eyes growing large. “I never met an Indian before. Were ya a prisoner?”
Vin shook his head. “No. They took me in and treated me like one of their own. Ya see, Ezra, Indians ain’t no different than any other folks. There’s good and bad among ‘em just like there is with white men. Indians just got their own way a doin’ things. Don’t make it wrong…. just makes it different.”
Ezra studied on that for several moments, chewing his lower lip. “Is that why ya go to the mountains, so ya can visit your friends?”
“No.” Tanner hesitated, before reconsidering his answer. “Yeah… maybe. I like the mountains coz they’re, well peaceful. Doesn’t matter what time a year it is, each season brings its own particular kinda beauty.
Held securely, sitting up on the long legged horse, Ezra listened in fascination as the tracker continued to talk, hearing the man’s love of the outdoors in his voice, vividly picturing everything the tracker described.
“The meadows are real perty when they’re all full of summer wildflowers. Then in the fall, there’s all the different colors as the leaves change. In the winter, snow blankets everything in white and when the sun shines on the ice, looks like everything is covered in them diamonds the rich women wear and it seems ta makes little rainbows everywhere. In the spring, things starts bloomin’ and comin’ back ta life as the world renews itself. All the wild mama animals watchin’ over their babies, protectin’ ‘em while they play and teachin’ ‘em how to hunt. There’s an indescribable peace up in the mountains that lets a body’s soul refresh itself. So, I guess in a way, them mountains, and all the things that live there are my friends.”
‘I think I’d like to see that sometime.’ With that thought, Ezra’s thoughts turned to the man behind him.
For as long as the child could remember Maude had told him everyone always had an angle. No one ever did anything without expecting payment in return and sadly, in his short life, Ezra had never discovered grounds to doubt her.
Of course, he hadn’t experienced all that much of the world, but had more knowledge than most boys his age. When he wasn’t needed for one of his mother’s con jobs, Ezra was generally left with shirttail relatives or some of Maude’s acquaintances. Usually they were people who could ill afford another mouth to feed or had no experience with children and simply didn’t want to be bothered with a small boy. Most of the people saw him as an extra hand to be worked or ignored him completely, remembering his presence only when it was convenient or when he displeased them. Although most of those times were rough, Ezra considered them a helluva lot better than staying with his Uncle Bradley. He always did his best to make do with the people who were trusted to give him care, but Ezra truly hated and feared Maude’s self-righteous older brother.
Uncle Bradley was a hellfire and brimstone preacher who had made his money as a slave trader before the war, further building his fortune during the conflict as a blockade-runner, avariciously selling to both sides. To him, a self-righteous cleric who believed he was not only God’s voice, but His right hand as well, his sister Maude had sinfully spawned the absolute epitome of evil.
When left in Bradley’s care, Ezra slept on a rough pallet on the kitchen floor and was treated as less than human. The boy was worked from sun up to sundown, feeling the sting of his uncle’s razor strap for the slightest indiscretion, while his uncle quoted Bible passages, convinced it was his righteous duty to drive the vile demons from the sinful child’s soul.
Each morning, Bradley gave the butler a long list of chores to be done by the small boy. Recognizing the child’s intelligence and overwhelming desire for knowledge, Hezekiah managed to arrange those chores so Ezra would be in the vicinity when Miss Maple tutored his four cousins, whom he wasn’t allowed to associate with for fear he would contaminate them. To Hezekiah’s credit, he never reported to Bradley when he found the boy reading from the collection in the old man’s extensive library.
Ezra knew asking not to be left behind with anyone was a waste of breath, but he couldn’t stop himself from tearfully pleading with Maude not to leave him at his uncle’s. With all his youthful conviction, he promised he wouldn’t be a burden to her, wouldn’t get in her way and might even be a help to her in whatever con game she was currently running. His beseeching only made Maude angry. He could still hear her haughty tone telling him how very disappointed she was in his emotional display. Had she taught him nothing at all? She would always turn his words around making herself the injured one, driving away in a snit without even a good-bye. Sometimes she promised to return or send for him shortly, but shortly usually dragged into weeks, sometimes months, before she seemed to remember her son or recall which relative he was currently residing with.
Now, far away from his uncle, Ezra realized this man -- a total stranger to him -- had shown the boy more tenderness in the past few hours than his own blood kin had displayed in the child’s seven years of life. The cowboy had quite literally saved his life, shared his food, offered his protection, and was seeing him safely to his destination without any mention of reimbursement.
The tracker puzzled him. Ezra knew his uncle would have shouted to the heavens, calling down the wrath of God on the Indians for their heathen ways, but Tanner didn’t seem to judge people by their appearance. It appeared to Ezra, he saw the natives as they were, instead of relying on the preconceived notions of others, usually instilled by rumors or lies.
Ezra couldn’t imagine his uncle talking about the beauty of the mountains and the changing of the passing seasons. More than likely Uncle Bradley would see only the dangers and pitfalls, which he would decry as certainly placed in his path by Satan himself.
Lulled by the sound of the horse’s hooves and the gentle swaying motion of its easy gait, Ezra’s eyes began to droop. Taught by Maude to be distrustful of anyone’s actions, the little boy couldn’t help but wonder what it was Tanner would ask of him and, more importantly, what angle the tracker would work to reach that objective.
He fell asleep comparing the disparity between his uncle and this strangely gentle man, whose arms safely encircled him.
Tanner’s arm tightened around the child as Ezra finally surrendered to his weariness. A sad smile graced the tracker’s lips as he recalled the morning’s events.
Convincing Buck to become celibate would have been easier than convincing the youngster to allow Vin to check his injuries. Tanner was moved by the trust Ezra placed in him when the child had finally consented. He neither moved nor made a sound as he tolerated the tracker cleaning his cuts and scrapes with the rainwater he’d gathered in the cleaned breakfast pan.
It had been midmorning before the rain had slackened to a light, steady drizzle. Lifting the boy up into the saddle, Vin had wrapped Ezra in his bedroll blanket before swinging up behind him.
Ezra had twisted in the saddle to stare up at the Texan in wide eyed amazement as the sharpshooter had placed his hat on his small head, adding further protection against the cold rain.
“Looks right good on ya, Pard!” Tanner grinned, puzzled by the gratitude shining in the emerald eyes.
Headed for town, the little southerner had slowly relaxed, letting the tracker draw him into conversation. Losing his timidity, Ezra had asked questions about things he saw along the trail and about the sharpshooter himself.
Vin listening carefully, even managed to obtain a little more information regarding the stage robbery, discovering that while Ezra had only seen one of the three men, he’d heard all of them talking and laughing as they’d collected anything of value.
“Not much further now, lil’ Pard,” he whispered when Ezra flinched, whimpering in his sleep, “and then we’ll get ya dry and warm.”
“Vin’s comin’ in!” JD called, hurrying through the batwing doors of the saloon.
“’Bout damn time.” Larabee muttered, pushing to his feet and following the youth back out onto the boardwalk. Realizing, due to the rain, the tracker may have had trouble following the suspected trail, Chris had decided to give Tanner a couple of extra hours to return, but his patience had been rapidly growing thin.
Now, Larabee did a double take as the tracker reined Peso to a stop by the rail.
“What the hell?” The gunslinger stared at the blanketed bundle hidden beneath the tracker’s battered gray hat.
“I’ll explain later,” Tanner kept his voice soft. Tossing the reins to Dunne, he handed the sleeping boy down to the gunslinger, so he could dismount.
Vin’s hat fell away as Chris adjusted his hold and the man found himself staring into two sleepy green eyes.
As the comforting sway of the horse stopped, Ezra pulled himself from the dream world where Uncle Bradley was stalking him, ready to dole out the deserved punishment for misquoting the scriptures the child was supposed to have memorized. Wearily forcing open heavy lids, the boy found himself staring into a pair of severe hazel eyes.
Uncle Bradley’s eyes!
Panic flashing into the confused emerald orbs which blinked owlishly at him was the gunslinger’s only forewarning as the child suddenly began to struggle in his grasp, fighting for all he was worth to gain his freedom.
“Sonuvabitch!” Chris cursed aloud, dropping the wiggling bundle and grabbing the porch post to keep from falling as a small booted foot slammed against the inside of his thigh, missing his groin by mere inches.
Tangled in the blanket, Ezra fought to free himself, struggling away from the hands reaching for him. One hand came close and he clamped his teeth down on it. Another string of curses followed the coppery taste of blood in his mouth.
Finally wiggling free of the entrapping cloth, Ezra kicked out again, feeling his heel connect solidly with bone and muscle as he rolled to his feet.
“Whoa, there, ain’t nobody here gonna hurt ya, Ezra!” Vin caught up with the boy as Ezra made a mad dash into the alley beside the saloon. Vin stooped down and wrapping an arm around the child’s waist, he pulled Ezra back against his chest, one hand soothingly stroking the chestnut curls. Keeping his voice soft, he continued the soothing litany as the child’s struggles weakened. “Promise ya, Ez, I ain’t gonna let nobody hurt ya.”
Still prepared to flee as Vin loosened his hold, Ezra turned and found himself looking into the kneeling tracker’s face.
“Nobody wants ta hurt ya, Ez. My word as a Tanner,” Vin gave the boy a lopsided smile.
Seeing nothing but honesty in those blue eyes, Ezra warily slipped his small hand into the tracker’s and held on tightly as Tanner pushed to his feet and turned him to face the men he had attacked.
Clutching the tracker’s hand, trusting the man to keep his word, although he did expect some form of retribution, Ezra hesitantly allowed Vin to lead him back to where the three men waited, each of them sporting a visible injury incurred during their scuffle with the seven-year-old.
The hazel-eyed man gripped the porch post to remain upright and Ezra could hear his angry grumbling as they approached. “Where’d Tanner get that little hellion? Damn little public menace!”
Knowing his friend was speaking out of shock and probably quite a bit of pain, Tanner ignored Larabee and hoped the child would as well. Later he’d explain the older man’s outburst to the youngster.
Unable to resist teasing his friend, Buck slapped Larabee’s shoulder when the gunslinger straightened, receiving a cutting glare as he remarked, “Hell, Pard, wakin’ up ta see ya glarin’ at him would scare the devil himself.”
Larabee’s glare deepened and, laughing, Wilmington turned his attention to the sharpshooter and child.
“My lil’ pard here’s Ezra.” Tanner squatted on his heels beside the boy. “Ez, that big fella there runnin’ off at the mouth, is Buck Wilmington.”
Spotting Tanner’s horse as the sharpshooter rode past the jail, Buck had followed, reaching the front of the saloon about the time the boy wiggled free of the blanket. Intending to help him to his feet, the gunfighter had been more than a little stunned when the kid had attacked like a rabid dog, his sharp teeth sinking into Buck’s skin.
Wiping the spots of blood from his hand on his pants, the good-natured gunman’s dark blue eyes sparkled as he suddenly grinned at the small boy. Dropping down on one knee to be on the child’s level, he extended his uninjured hand. “Good ta meet ya, Ezra. This time can we can just shake hands?”
The little southerner relaxed slightly at the big man’s jovial smile and teasing attitude. Expecting anger and reprisal, his large eyes filled with confusion, Ezra silently nodded before remembering his manners and tentatively shaking the offered hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Wilmington.”
Vin motioned to the dark haired young man who was stepping back up onto the boardwalk. “The fella in the funny hat who looks like he’s been wallerin’ with the hogs is JD Dunne.”
“Hey there, Ezra.” The young sheriff rubbed his shoulder where Ezra’s boot had firmly connected in the skirmish. Stumbling backwards from the unexpected blow, the easterner had lost his balance and landed on his backside in the muddy street. “Welcome ta Four Corners.”
“Thank you, Mr. Dunne.” Ezra nodded somberly.
“And this ferocious lookin’ fella is Chris Larabee.” Standing, Tanner gave Ezra a small wink as he rested his hand on the little boy’s thin shoulder.
The child saw the look, which passed between the two men, and although he wasn’t sure how he knew, he was quite certain the tracker and the man in black were having a silent conversation. He froze, his blood running cold, when the stern faced man turned his hard gaze on him.
Larabee had to admire the boy who flinched, but stood his ground when the gunslinger stepped closer to him and scooped his hat from the boardwalk.
Remembering the flash of fear in the boy’s large eyes, his gaze softened slightly. The softness only lasted a moment before his expression hardened again, anger surging through him as he took in the boy’s haggard appearance, his pale face highlighted by the highly visible bruises, the dark circles under the emerald eyes and the split lip. No wonder the kid had panicked. It looked as if someone had used him for a punching bag.
Ezra strained not to take a step backward as the fierce black clad man glared down at him. Meeting the man’s whiskey colored eyes steadily, Ezra could see they were a lighter color than his uncle’s with small flecks of blue and green, scattered in the brown.
He’d watched in confusion as the man’s expression softened before rage filled the hazel eyes again as the man raked his gaze over him much in the manner of Uncle Bradley. Ezra was aware his uncle for reasons he, himself, could never fathom, couldn’t tolerate his presence, nor for that matter, even his existence. He was certain this friend of Mr. Tanner’s was seeing him the same way, although for the life of him, Ezra couldn’t understand why. He could readily see this man found him wanting, lacking something essential. He was certain the man was wondering why Tanner had bothered to drag such a pitiful specimen of humanity back to their town.
Buck attempted to break the tension as Chris continued to stare at the child.
“Don’t let ‘im scare ya, kid. Trust me, yer bite’s worsen his,” Wilmington laughed, refraining from patting the youngster’s shoulder, not wanting to further frighten him.
“My sincere apologies, gentlemen,” the little southerner stated when the gunslinger said nothing. “My behavior was reprehensible and I’m afraid I can offer no excuse.” He hoped the hazel-eyed man didn’t notice the slight tremble as Ezra held out his hand. For some unexplainable reason, it was important to him that he made Tanner proud. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Larabee.”
Stunned by the grown up speech and gesture, it wasn’t until Buck nudged him that Chris gently shook the small proffered hand, “You, too, Ezra.”
“Hey, lil’ Pard,” Vin stooped in front of the little boy again, “will ya come with me ta meet another friend a mine? Ya don’t have ta if ya don’t wanna, but I’d like him ta take a look at ya.”
“Why?” Suspicion filled the child’s emerald eyes.
“I just wanna make sure yer all right.” Just as he had at the campsite, Tanner waited, letting the child make the decision.
Ezra’s emerald gaze darted about the town, hesitating at the stage depot before moving on to the hotel. Was Maude waiting there for him? More than likely she was making up for any lost profits at the gaming tables in one of the saloons. He knew how the game was played. He was on his own until she contacted him.
His attention returned to the man awaiting his answer, questions tumbling through his mind. Why did this man care whether he was injured? Did Vin need him healthy so he could use Ezra’s talents for his own gain? What was it the man truly wanted? The boy had yet to figure out exactly what angle Tanner was working. Vin had done nothing, but show him kindness and concern, yet Maude’s teachings had been instilled in the child from birth. It didn’t matter what Tanner wanted of him or what his motives might be. To be honest, Ezra knew he owed the man and Ezra truly hated owing anyone.
“If it would please you, I would be happy to meet your friend,” Ezra placed a hand on his stomach, wondering at the warm tingling caused by the bright smile his soft response brought to the longhaired man’s face.
Sitting on the side of the bed, Ezra glanced around the room. It was larger than a hotel room, but not as big as his uncle’s parlor. The simple furnishings were poor, but well cared for and everything was neat and clean. Drying herbs hung in the far corner and jars of potions lined the shelf near the cupboard of food stores and cooking utensils.
Perhaps he could repay Tanner this way. Ezra had once helped Dr. Malaciah Mobry mix his magical cure all elixir for his traveling medicine show. Granted, the elixir contained more corn liquor than medicine, but that didn’t seem to bother Mobry’s customers. Perhaps if Tanner wished, Ezra could assist Vin’s friend in his efforts.
Promising to retrieve Ezra’s carpetbag the one called JD had gone in search of their friend. Buck had put water on to heat as, assuring him Nathan wouldn’t mind and it would be easier for the man to check his injuries, they’d given him a shirt from the dresser, waiting outside on the balcony while the boy changed.
Ezra could hear their muffled conversation through the door and knew Tanner was telling them how he’d come to find the southerner.
His attention turned to the entrance as the door was pushed open. Ezra’s eyes widened seeing the large black man who entered, followed by Tanner and his friends.
Vin moved to sit beside the boy who looked smaller than ever in Nathan’s oversized shirt. Ezra had removed his boots and his stocking feet hung over the side, a good six inches from the floor. He’d slipped the too large coat back on, but the filthy, torn clothing he had been wearing, were placed in a neatly folded stack on the floor next to his boots.
Slipping his arm around Ezra’s shoulders, Vin felt the small boy tremble as the large black man crossed the room. “Ezra, this is Nathan Jackson.”
“Nice ta meet ya, Ezra. Any friend a Vin’s is a friend a mine.” The big man had a friendly smile and easy manner, which reminded the child of Hezekiah… when Uncle Bradley wasn’t around of course.
“I didn’t know nigras could be doctors,” the boy whispered none too quietly to the man beside him.
“I ain’t a doctor.” Ezra heard the wistfulness in the man’s voice. “Just learned some things about healin’ and try ta help out since Four Corners ain’t got no real doc yet.”
Taking two bottles from the shelf, Nate tossed one to the youngest of the men who had returned with him. “JD, rub some of this on your shoulder. Chris, when he gets done with it, you use some on yer leg.”
“Think I’ll do that back in my own room,” Chris stated sardonically. “That door a yours has a habit a openin’ without warnin’ and I don’t particularly want half the town catchin’ me unarmed, if ya get my drift.”
Nathan passed a clean cloth and the other bottle to the womanizer. “Buck, wash yer hand real good with soap and dab some of this carbolic on the that bite.”
“Damn, Nate, this smells worse than that crap yer always forcin’ down our throats,” the sheriff groused with a grimace as he uncorked the bottle.
“It’s horse liniment! Good for bruised muscles. If ya make me tend those pitiful bumps and scrapes ya got the nerve ta call wounds, you’ll really be sorry. Course ya wouldn’t need me tendin’ ya at all iffen ya’ wouldn’t be brawlin’ in the streets,” he mockingly reprimanded the men. His friends taken care of, the healer turned his attention to his small patient. He’d hoped seeing him treat the others first would put the boy at ease. “Now, Ezra, is it okay if I look ya over and make sure yer all right, too?”
Looking to Tanner and receiving a reassuring smile from the tracker, Ezra momentarily hesitated before nodding. He couldn’t prevent himself from pulling away as the healer cupped his chin. As the black man was on his level, Ezra saw his expression and wondered about the mixture of hurt, anger, and sadness which flashed through the man’s dark eyes.
Even Jackson’s gentle touch hadn’t prevented the pain as he touched the bruises gracing the child’s face.
Nathan took a step back. The wide collar of the coat was bunched up, blocking his view of the child’s jaw line. “This would probably be a lot easier without yer coat.”
“It’s not mine. It belonged to Mr. Bigalow.” Ezra dropped his gaze to the floor, sure that, unlike Tanner, these other men would be certain he’d stolen the item.
“Reckon ol’ Bigalow don’t mind ya borrowin’ it,” Buck smiled, uncertain who the boy was referring to. “He’s probably glad it’s bein’ put ta good use.”
Not wanting to drag the child down a trail of bad memories, Vin quickly changed the subject. “Might wanna check his left leg, Nate. He’d been limpin’ perty bad afore I caught up with ‘im.”
Shame washed over Ezra. Not wanting to show any sign of weakness, the child had done his best to hide his injured ankle. Obviously, he’d failed miserably. “I would like to apologize for my earlier comment, sir,” the little boy uttered quietly to Nathan. “I truly meant no offense.”
It seemed he was constantly apologizing to these friends of Mr. Tanner.
“None taken.” Gathering the needed medical supplies, Nathan knelt in front of the child. “Gonna have ta touch ya again, Ezra.”
The southerner hadn’t meant to hurt the healer’s feelings, but considering his statement and his reactions to Ezra, the boy came to the conclusion he’d unintentionally done just that. Uncertain what he could say to make amends, Ezra chose to say nothing and remained silent.
Nathan gave him a small reassuring smile. “I promise I’ll try not ta hurt ya.”
Prepared this time, just as he had with Tanner, the boy forced himself to remain motionless; gritting his teeth to keep any sound from escaping as Jackson carefully cleaned his cuts, wrapping a bandage around his forehead to keep the head wound from becoming infected.
Winking at his patient, hoping to divert the boy’s attention from any pain caused as he gently probed the swollen ankle, the healer kept his voice soft, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a live patient who kicked Larabee’s ass before.”
That named person gave an exasperated hiss from his place by the window, but deemed not to speak
“Did a right fine job of it, too,” Tanner grinned mischievously.
“Not ta mention kickin’ mine and Buck’s, too,” JD added, joining their efforts to put the child at ease.
“Hope the judge don’t hear ‘bout this.” Larabee’s fleeting smile turned to a grimace when bruised muscles contracted as he moved to help Buck dab the medicine onto his hand. “Reckon Orrin might reconsider his choice a peace keepers.”
Ezra’s chin came up.
Peacekeepers? They were lawmen?!
‘Damn! Maude isn’t going to be happy with me at all.’ Ezra quickly dropped his gaze to the floorboards. At least it explained why Tanner was being so nice to him. As far as the boy knew, neither Maude nor he had done anything to warrant a dodger… Well, at least, nothing that could be proven.
The little boy was well aware that not having a wanted dodger issued on a person didn’t necessarily guarantee the law wouldn’t happily stick that person behind bars. Lawmen were notorious for warning those of Maude’s profession about keeping their stays short in their town and often times, swindlers and con people were rode out on a rail before they could begin to fleece a community. Telegrams warned other lawmen in the territory about the unscrupulous element headed in their direction.
The longhaired tracker was probably planning on using Ezra as bait to keep the woman in line while she was in their territory.
“Ya hungry, Ez?” Vin’s question pulled the little boy from his thoughts.
Other than the bit of food around the campfire with Tanner, the last meal he’d eaten had been the shared lunch on the stage with Mrs. Trundle, yet Ezra suddenly found his appetite had fled. However, he wasn’t one to cut his nose off to spite his face. He wasn’t sure when he’d get the chance to eat again. “Are you buying?”
“I’m perfectly capable of walking, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra proclaimed, embarrassed by the attention the small parade of men seemed to be receiving from the townspeople as they entered the restaurant.
“I sure followed ya far enough to know,” Vin chuckled, “but Nate says ya need ta stay off your leg for a couple a days and reckon he’d have my hide iffen he saw me lettin’ ya disobey his instructions. He’s right peculiar about things like that.”
Ezra was stunned, his heart beating rapidly as, settling him in a chair, the man whispered in his ear. “’Sides I kinda like pretendin’ I got me a son a my own.”
Having given his friends the long version of the events leading to their arrival in Four Corners, Tanner now quietly sipped his beer, his mind on the little boy sleeping in the bed of the tracker’s seldom used room at the boarding house.
Hoping to put the child at ease as they ate, the men had avoided discussing the stage robbery in front of him, instead talking about local events their companions had missed while on their errand for the judge.
Returning from his patrol, Josiah Sanchez had joined them half way through dinner. While Ezra had once more been the perfect gentleman, shaking the ex-priest’s hand, Vin hadn’t failed to notice the small boy’s eyes had widened and locked on the religious cross Josiah wore around his neck. If it was possible, it seemed Ezra was even more silent and introspective than before the huge man’s arrival.
Without seeming to, as they ate and talked, all the men watched the little southerner, wondering when he’d last eaten a decent meal.
Although Ezra appeared to be engrossed with the food on his plate, Vin was sure he was studiously listening to every word.
“Come on, fellas, admit it, Four Corners was just plain dull without us here,” Wilmington remarked as he casually buttered another biscuit and laid it on the edge of Ezra’s plate.
“I wouldn’t exactly say that, Brother Buck.” Sanchez grinned. “Had some mighty stimulatin’ company arrive on the stage a couple days after y’all left.”
“Wouldn’t a stimulated Buck unless it was a pretty woman… Hell, she wouldn’t even a had ta a been that pretty.” JD laughed, replacing Ezra’s drained milk glass with his own full one.
Josiah sighed soulfully, “As a matter a fact, she was quite beautiful, intelligent, charming and, Lord, could she play a mean game of poker.”
Tanner noticed the subtle difference in the little southerner’s interest in the conversation at the mention of the poker game.
“That one had half the men in town trippin’ over each other to be at her beck and call.” Nathan rolled his eyes in exasperation before giving the preacher a teasing grin. “Course they all had to get in line ahind ol’ Josiah here.”
The talk turned to other local topics and Ezra found himself fighting to keep his eyes open as weariness overwhelmed him. The pain of his injuries had dulled, for the first time in days his belly was full, and he didn’t have to worry about finding shelter from wild animals or inclement weather.
The little southerner slipped from his chair and stiffly lifted the old carpetbag. “Thank you for the meal, Mr. Tanner. Mr. Jackson I will happily pay for your excellent services at my earliest convenience. It’s been a pleasure gentlemen but if you’ll excuse me--“
Vin sat back in the chair, eyeing the child over the rim of his coffee cup. “Where ya goin’, lil’ Pard?”
Meeting Tanner’s worried gaze, Ezra clamped his mouth shut, unwilling to admit, unless Maude contacted him first, he would most likely slip into the livery hayloft for the night. The little boy knew in a town this size there were always plenty of places to find shelter as long as a person was careful not to be discovered by citizens angered by trespassers.
“Ya know I got a room at the boardin’ house I don’t use all that often. Yer welcome ta pass the night there,” Vin invited before the boy could answer.
“There’s an empty cot in the clinic,” Nathan volunteered.
“Reckon we can put him up at the jail,” JD pointed out. “Ain’t nobody there at the moment.”
“He’s more than welcome ta stay with me at the church.”
As the preacher made his offer, Ezra panicked at the thought of being cared for by another hellfire preacher, bent on driving the demons from his soul.
“Thank you, Mr. Tanner, but I wouldn’t dream of takin’ your bed away from you,” Ezra regretfully declined. “I appreciate all of your kind offers, but I can’t pay--“
“Room comes with my job, but I usually stay in my wagon. Kinda a shame ta let a perfectly good feather bed go unused,” Vin countered the boy’s argument.
“Besides usin’ Vin’s room saves the town the expense of payin’ for housin’,” Larabee spoke up, seeing the boy about to protest.
Certain the gunslinger was referring to the town paying restitution to the family who took him in until they could have him placed him in an orphanage, Ezra straightened, his eyes flashing defiantly. “Thank you, Mr. Larabee, but as I informed Mr. Tanner, I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself. I’m not an orphan nor am I a charity case!”
Attempting to hide their amusement as the seven-year-old faced off with the hardened gunslinger, each of the men found something else in the room on which to focus their attention.
“Didn’t say ya was an orphan or a charity case,” Chris quietly stated, wondering just how it was such a small body could hold such an over abundance of pride, “but ya are a witness.”
Ezra blinked, frowning in puzzlement at the man’s remark. “Excuse me?”
“Ya saw the men who robbed the stage, didn’t ya?” Chris pressed on quietly.
“Yes sir, one of them,” Ezra conceded that fact with a small nod.
“Then when we catch up with them fools, the judge is gonna want ya ta testify ta what ya seen. The town usually pays ta put up witnesses durin’ the trial so stayin’ in Vin’s room just saves the town some money.” The man in black lit a cheroot, glancing at the child as he shook out the match. “Come ta think of it, I seem ta recollect Jamison sayin’ the hotel was full up and since Vin’s room is free and empty….”
The little boy studied Larabee intently, but could find no sign of deception. Ezra had never heard of a town paying to house witnesses, especially when the criminals hadn’t even been caught yet; then again, he and Maude usually avoided any and all dealings with the law.
Following Vin’s silent lead, the other men waited as the boy considered Larabee’s explanation.
The end result, a short time later, Tanner had tucked Ezra into his large featherbed. The southerner had merely nodded sleepily when Vin assured him that Larabee was right next door and Buck and JD had rooms across the hall if Ezra needed anything. Only after the boy had finally fallen asleep did the sharpshooter rejoin his friends at the saloon.
“Poor kid musta been terrified out there in the wilds all by his lonesome.” Buck shook his head in dismay, pulling Tanner’s thoughts back to the men at the table. “Two days…” His voice held a touch of awe. They all knew how easy it was to be turned around. Grown men had died simply because they’d lost their way in the wilderness.
“Shoulda seen ‘im,” Vin grinned, wondering about the overwhelming sense of pride he felt in the young boy. “Holdin’ that gun… Hell, it was so heavy he could hardly hold it with both hands. Facin’ down that wildcat that was damn near as big as he is.”
“No wonder he stood up ta Chris. Guess he ain’t nearly as scary a mountain cat,” Nathan laughed. “Less, a course, ya piss ‘im off.”
“He said he was supposed ta meet somebody here?” Larabee questioned, running a finger around the rim of his shot glass. “Yer sure that’s what he said?”
“Somebody named Maude.” Tanner nodded. “Didn’t give a last name… Hers or his’n either.”
“The woman we were talkin’ about earlier in the restaurant called herself Maude Standish,” Jackson revealed, wondering if the child had put two and two together.
Tanner rocked his chair legs back down to the floor and shoved back from the table. “Guess we oughta let her know he’s here.” Vin paused, not missing the looks that passed between, Larabee, Nathan and Josiah. “What?”
Josiah averted his gaze, staring into his drink. “She left a couple days later. Said something about havin’ important business in St. Louis that couldn’t wait.” Try as he might, he couldn’t understand how, if she was indeed expecting the little boy, the woman could have simply left the small child to fend for himself. What business was so damn important she couldn’t wait for the child to arrive?
“She left ‘im?” Tanner’s furiously spoken words, filled with anger and bewilderment simply made vocal what each of the other men was feeling.
How the hell was he going to tell the little southerner he had been left behind by someone he trusted to care for him?
“So what do we do with Ezra now?” JD posed the question on everyone’s mind.
Wiping at the hated moisture which filled his burning eyes and releasing a small sigh, Ezra watched from the stage window as the little town of Four Corners grew smaller and smaller behind him. His throat tightened and more tears welled up in his green eyes.
Vin Tanner had been sitting, staring out the window when Ezra finally awoke that morning, leaving the boy to wonder if the man had been there all night.
“Mornin’, lil’ Pard!” Tanner’s smile seemed somehow forced. “Ready for some breakfast?”
“I’m afraid it’s a bit early for me.” Climbing from the bed, Ezra quickly washed his face and began dressing.
“Ain’t that early. Sun’s been up for a long while now,” Vin pointed out quietly.
“Maude’s left town, hasn’t she?” His back to Vin, the boy didn’t see the tracker stiffen or the sadness which filled the man’s azure eyes.
“It’s really all right, Mr. Tanner. It’s not the first time she’s done this.” Ezra shrugged. “I told you, she knows I’m capable of taking care of myself and I’m certain she’s made arrangements for me to stay with relatives if her business is going to keep her away for more than a few days.”
The tracker thoughtfully chewed his bottom lip, not certain how to respond to the child’s statements which were spoken in such an adult matter of fact manner. Damn! How many times had this Maude left the little southerner behind to fend for himself?
“She yer ma?” Vin found himself giving voice to the question, even though he wasn’t certain he wanted to know the answer. He didn’t want to believe —let alone know— this child’s mother could be so callous towards him.
‘That depends on the con she’s running.’ Ezra kept the thought to himself. Ignoring the question, he finished dressing, wincing as he pulled the boot on over his still slightly swollen ankle. Neatly returning his belongings to his carpetbag, Ezra turned back to the bed.
His task of making the bed was interrupted when, snagging the boy around the waist, Tanner swung him onto his hip and moved for the door, not giving the child a chance to protest. “Breakfast is supposed to be ate early and since the fellas are waitin’ fer us, I reckon their bellies are probably growlin’ loud enough to wake the dead.”
Therefore, over breakfast Ezra had described the man who’d taken Mrs. Trundle’s necklace, repeating the conversation he’d heard. It was apparent, just as Vin had followed his trail and found him, the six men were going to attempt tracking the men who’d robbed the stage.
Ezra had politely answered Nathan’s questions concerning his health, assuring the man that muscles, which were still sore, didn’t hurt at all and his still lingering headache had disappeared altogether.
Assuring him they would return that afternoon, reminding him that Nathan wanted him to remain off his ankle for at least another day, Tanner had carried Ezra back to the boarding house. Vin had told him to call for Mrs. O’Riley if he needed anything while they were gone, but it was Chris who managed to surprise the small boy. He had arrived at the room carrying an armload of books he’d borrowed from someone named Billy to help Ezra pass the time while they were gone.
Watching from the window as the men mounted up, the child was amazed when they all had waved at him before reining out of town. Tanner even gave him a wink as he rode past the boarding house.
Waiting an appropriate amount of time, Ezra had slipped from the room and made his way to the stage depot, retrieving the sealed envelope from the agent.
Climbing up on a barrel in the alley, he tore the missive open. Maude’s plans had changed- -she’d written-- when she’d met a rich mark passing through Four Corners on his way back east. It was an opportunity too sweet for her to pass up and she explained he was to take the enclosed note to the woman who owned the general store. Travel arrangements had already been made for him to return to his Uncle Bradley’s and she’d send for him soon. There was no closing sentiment or signature.
Neatly folding the paper to be tucked away with the other letters from his mother, Ezra had taken the enclosed note to the general store as instructed, giving the sealed paper to Mrs. Potter. While the woman had become very irate at the note’s message, she hadn’t taken it out on the child as he expected. Instead, she’d given him a peppermint stick, telling him, if on time, the stage was scheduled to depart at one and to come see her before it left.
Thanking her, Ezra returned to the boarding house and borrowing pen and paper from Mrs. O’Riley, he’d spent the rest of the morning struggling to compose a note which would truly express his gratitude to the kind tracker.
Stacking the borrowed books on the dresser and making sure the room was as neat as possible, Ezra gathered his carpetbag and, as promised, arrived at the general store a few minutes before departure.
Taking his hand, Mrs. Potter had led him down the boardwalk to where the passengers were already beginning to board the stage. Giving him a smile, she asked him to wait to the side as she flagged down the driver.
Standing a few feet away, Mrs. Potter and the stage driver had exchanged several heated words before she’d turned back and motioned to Ezra, helping the boy into the coach, passing him a box lunch she’d prepared. She’d stood in the dusty road and waved good-bye to him for as long as he watched.
Ezra sniffled and rubbed at his eyes with his sleeve. The people of Four Corners had surprised him… Mrs. Potter, Vin Tanner and his five friends.
“Darn dust,” he muttered to himself, wiping at his eyes once more. He struggled to deny the sadness, which threatened to engulf him as he realized he would never see the lean tracker again.
That emotional loss shook Ezra. From his earliest days, Maude had taught the boy what was important in life: money. Status came with wealth. Wealth meant living a life of luxury and comfort. Wealth accumulated more wealth. Wealth brought respect from those without money. To Ezra, even at his young age, money was everything. Money was the difference between eating or going hungry, sleeping in a warm bed or a hayloft.
Money meant independence.
Independence to live where he wanted. An independence, which would allow him to go where he wanted and stay as long as he wanted.
Whether running a con with his mother, staying with relatives or on his own, the boy had learned early on to keep up his defenses. It was easier saying good-bye if a person wasn’t emotionally attached to anyone or anyplace. Thinking on it, Ezra couldn’t honestly remember any place or anyone, other than Maude, he had really grown attached to… until now.
Vin Tanner was unlike anyone Ezra had ever known. Even though the fates had only thrown them together for a short while, Ezra found he was loathe to leave the gentle blue eyed man who had taken his welfare to heart and cared for him.
He shook his head in bewilderment. It was just plain silly! The southerner and the Texan had nothing in common.
He had quickly ascertained Tanner had little or no money and didn’t seem interested in making more than he needed to survive. The tracker preferred to stay in a battered old covered wagon on the street than in the nice room provided by the town. Given the opportunity, Ezra knew Vin would choose to sleep under a blanket of stars in the mountains he adored rather than stay in a suite in one of St. Louis’ fanciest hotels. And the tracker would rather ride his trusted steed than travel in the comfort of a luxurious railroad car.
Ezra knew Maude would turn up her nose and say the quiet man had no ambition to improve his station in life. So why was it Ezra found himself desperately wishing he could stay with the long-haired man in buckskins?
A shiver of dread raced through him at the thought of returning to his pious uncle, but if he didn’t do as ordered, not only would Maude be furious with him, she wouldn’t know how to find him when she did return.
Of course, he could always find work in one of the little towns along the stage route and send a telegram to one of their prearranged addresses, advising her of his location.
Ignoring the other passengers in the crowded stage, Ezra made himself as small as possible and closing his eyes, lulled by the coach’s swaying, dreamed of a long haired Texan with a friendly lopsided smile who liked pretending he had a son of his own.
Discovering his room empty, the bed neatly made, Vin snatched the paper from the pillow and hurried outside, his anxious gaze raking the street as he hurriedly crossed to the saloon.
Chris glanced up and straightened at the sharpshooter’s pale expression, ignoring the drink Inez set on the bar. “Vin?”
“He ain’t there! Found this on the bed.” He passed the paper to Larabee, silently asking the gunslinger to read it to him.
Just as I predicted, Maude has arranged for my stay with relatives. I wished to thank you and your friends for your kindness to me and for your assistance. As promised, I assure you I will find a way to send payment for the services rendered to me.
I wish you luck in capturing the men who robbed the stage and caused the untimely demise of those good people.
It’s been my great honor and pleasure making your acquaintance and I will always consider you a friend.
May our paths cross again someday.
Sincerely, Ezra P. Standish
P.S. I enjoyed pretending, too.”
“Damn, it’s not bad enough he talks like an adult, but he even writes like one, too,” Nathan muttered.
“What’d he mean about pretendin’, Vin?” JD questioned.
Ignoring the men and carefully folding the neatly written missive, Vin tucked it in his pocket and turned to leave the saloon, his lean shoulders slumping.
“Leave ‘im be, Hoss,” Wilmington’s soft words stopped Larabee from following. “He needs ta be alone now. He’ll find ya when he’s ready ta talk.”
Lost in thought, Vin stopped as small clods of dried mud flew in all directions around him. Focusing on his surroundings, he realized, muttering under her breath, Mrs. Potter was using her broom, attacking the boardwalk in front of her store to release her apparent anger.
“Ma’am,” Tanner politely tipped his hat, stepping into the street to avoid dirtying the area the storekeeper was attempting to clean.
“The gall of some people!” The woman whirled on the tracker, placing a balled hand on her hip and literally shaking the broom handle at him. “How could someone be so callous? I thought age was supposed to bring wisdom, but I swear, the older I get the less I understand people.”
Vin attempted a small smile. “Know whatcha mean, ma’am.”
“The nerve of that…that…woman!” She mimicked a high-toned feminine voice. “I understand the incoming mail is distributed through your establishment. A package will be arriving on one of the incoming stages and I would so appreciate it if you could arrange to forward it on.” Mrs. Potter sniped sarcastically. “A package! That’s what she called him! A package for Pete Sakes! Can you imagine? Someone oughta turn that…” her face blushed bright red as she searched for the words to replace what she really wanted to say, finally blurting, “that insensitive witch over their knee!”
“Ma’am?” His thoughts on the note in his pocket, Tanner frowned at the woman’s tirade, uncertain what she was ranting about.
“A package, indeed! And such a polite little boy! How could any--“
“Little boy?” Vin’s head came up, his interest piqued. “What little boy is that, Mrs. Potter?”
“Why, the one you brought to town. Haven’t you been listening!” Mrs. Potter exclaimed, her irritation evident. “That woman oughta be horsewhipped. Treatin’ a child like--“
The sharpshooter cut her short. “You know where Ezra is?”
“Of course I do! He’s on the outbound stage… with the rest of the mail!”
Ezra jerked awake with a gasp. Hearing shouts and the pounding hooves of fast approaching horses, he gripped the seat in fear as memories of his last stagecoach ride flooded over him. Wishing he could become invisible, the boy sank back against the seat as the coach slowed, finally rolling to a stop. The other passengers muttered fearfully, hazarding guesses as to what was happening, the women rapidly trying to hide any jewelry they wore, while the men fumbled for their weapons.
“Ezra P. Standish, get yer ass out here!”
The little boy cringed, his eyes widening at the angry shout. Had the bandits who’d attacked the other stage tracked him down? Did they intend to make certain he couldn’t testify against them? Struggling to swallow the huge lump of fear in his throat, it never registered on the child how the bandits had learned his name.
Wishing he hadn’t packed the big gun in the carpetbag, which was now wedged tightly under the seat, Ezra jumped in horror, pulling back, as a dark shadowed rider moved closer and the door was abruptly jerked open.
Certain he was about to die, the little southerner closed his eyes, remaining motionless, praying the men wouldn’t notice him. He cracked open one eye to see twinkling blue eyes, as a buckskin clad arm reached for him.
“Better do as he says, lil’ Pard,” Tanner’s lopsided grin widened as the child sagged in relief. “Ol’ Chris there don’t like ta be kept waitin’.”
“You’re so full of shit, Stoney!”
The four lawmen seated at the peace keeper’s usual table looked up as, chuckling, one of the cowhands standing at the bar in the crowded saloon slapped his friend’s shoulder.
“Ain’t nobody I know can tell better whoppers than you!”
“Ain’t no whopper,” the man called Stoney denied, nodding to the barkeep for a refill. “I’m tellin’ y’all Mrs. Potter was layin’ inta old Waco like he was one of her young’ns who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Waco kept tellin’ her the stage was full of payin’ customers and asides that mail was carried on top or with luggage in back. I’m tellin’ ya I thought she was gonna whop him upside his head right then and there. She said she didn’t give a damn if he was bein’ treated like a piece a mail, he was a little boy and he was ridin’ inside. He wouldn’t take up much room and iffen the other passengers had anything to say about it, they could damn well deal with her.”
‘Well that sure explains the fella’s hell bent ride outta town.’ The others clearly read the womanizer’s thought. Surely the cowhand was exaggerating for the amusement of his friends, but somehow, Buck didn’t think so. If little Ezra was treated this way very often, it was no any wonder the kid never seemed to smile.
“So, yer tryin’ ta tell us that somebody mailed their kid to… where ever the hell?”
Stoney shrugged. “Sure sounded like it ta me.” The man at the bar turned back to his drinking, never realizing the effect his overheard words had had on the lawmen.
JD stared into his beer dumbfounded. No wonder Ezra seemed more like a grown up than a little kid, defiantly declaring he could take care of himself. At that age, the young sheriff had spent his time playing marbles, climbing trees, or playing cowboys and Indians with his friends. His young life hadn’t been one of luxury, but he’d had friends and his mother had treated him like he was the most precious thing in her life. She’d held his hand when they walked to the market, made sure he was bundled up warmly against the cold and she always tucked him in at night with a kiss and a bedtime story. Although she was no longer living, in those early years he’d shared with her, she’d shown him in a thousand little ways, how very much he was loved.
Beside him, Nathan’s eyes saddened. Growing up as a slave, he had watched his friends and family punished by cruel overseers and sold off by greedy masters, but while they were together, they were indeed a family. In his thirty odd years, the ex-slave had seen love of all kinds, both good and bad. He had witnessed first hand the love of money and the love of power. He had seen the starry bright love of newlyweds just starting their lives together, the age old love of a spouse holding their loved one’s hand as their time in this life passed and the bittersweet unrequited love of two people who could never be together. He’d witnessed and had experienced the powerful love of family. Nathan had never doubted his mother’s love and devotion. He had grown to manhood, certain all mothers loved their children and would do whatever was necessary to protect them, even giving up their own lives in the process. He now had to wonder if little Ezra had ever known any type of love at all.
The same thought was running through Josiah’s mind as the preacher fought the anger building inside him. Anger at the laughing cowhands who openly joked about the plight of a small child, anger at the insensitive woman who abandoned that child to fend for himself, but mainly he felt anger at himself. How the hell could a woman --a mother-- do something so callous? Did she care nothing for the child who had expected her to be waiting anxiously for his arrival? Josiah silently castigated himself for not bothering to look beyond the beautiful package to see the woman’s true nature. The preacher remembered his own mother’s love and gentleness, which had been a counter balance to his father’s strict and demanding nature. Life’s bitter experiences and his father’s harsh influence had made him cynical enough to expect man’s cruelty, but it had been his mother who had taught him to seek the inherent good in human nature.
“Was the destination writ on the kid’s forehead?” Stoney’s friend queried. The question drew laughter from most of the saloon occupants who, by now, were listening intently to the conversation. “Who was this kid anyway?”
“That young’n the tracker dragged inta town,” Stoney responded with a shrug.
“Can’t say I blame his folks then,” someone sitting at a nearby table called out. “From what I hear, that kid’s a filthy little heathen what was raised out in the wilds. Tanner’s probably the only one who could handle him.”
The remark brought further laughter. JD started to push back from the table to defend the green-eyed youngster.
“Don’t listen to ‘em, kid. They’re just talkin’ out their asses, coz their mouths know better,” Wilmington warned their youngest, wishing he, himself, could make the laughing crowd eat their nasty words, certain they’d choke on the aftertaste.
The lawmen sat in bitter silence as the talk continued around them. The stories of Ezra’s days in the wilderness became more and more exaggerated as the patrons repeated and added their own bits to what they’d heard.
“If the person had any sense, the boy was being shipped to an asylum as he’ll never fit in with civilized society,” McMurtry stated smugly from where he sat with other businessmen of the town. While the banker’s comment shocked his listeners, none spoke up to disagree. Seeing the disapproving expressions blooming on the faces of the peacekeepers, he was quick to justify his statement, “As one gentleman so astutely pointed out, Tanner is most likely the only one who can control the child. While he does an adequate job as a peacekeeper and from what I hear is a fair to middlin’ tracker, do any of you honestly believe he’s the best person to teach manners and civilized living to an impressionable child? My God,” he laughed, “the man is barely civilized himself!”
Since the first moment he’d arrived in Four Corners, the banker’s superior attitude had made him a target of disdain by most of the townspeople, but everyone liked Vin Tanner. The townswomen found the bashful tracker to be helpful and extremely courteous while their husbands considered him a hard worker, willing to pitch in whenever anyone needed help. The local cowhands admired the sharpshooter’s skill with a rifle and everyone knew of the longhaired man’s ability to read sign. Although he didn’t socialize with most of the townspeople, they all knew Vin Tanner lived by his own code and stood firm for what he believed to be right.
It was no secret to anyone the banker had been dead set against Judge Travis hiring the six men to protect the small town, seeing them as being no better than the criminal element and other lowlifes who roamed the territory, terrorizing and taking what they wanted at will.
“Vin ain’t a heathen!” JD declared vehemently. “And neither’s Ezra! He just a little boy who… got lost,” the sheriff finished lamely, remembering at the last minute, the peace keepers had decided for Ezra’s safety, nothing would be said about his surviving and witnessing the stage robbery. Dunne’s voice strengthened and he gave the banker a glare that would have done Larabee proud. “And I reckon Vin could teach you all a thing or two about manners. I ain’t ever heard him laughin’ about somebody else’s misfortune.”
McMurtry had the decency to be flustered before turning his attention to the men seated with him. Wilmington grinned, lifting his glass in a toast to the youngster before downing the last of the liquor.
Pushing to his feet, Josiah shouldered his way between Stoney and his companions, ordering another round for his friends before turning his cold gray eyes on the men lining the bar. “I strongly suggest you gentlemen change the subject. Perhaps the Bible passage ‘do unto others,’ would make a much more interesting topic.” He cocked a shaggy brow, adding, “I’d be more than happy to provide a demonstration on how someone shouldn’t be treated if that would be helpful.”
Nathan chuckled as the men suddenly found their drinks very interesting, none of them wanting to face the preacher’s further wrath.
Chris Larabee’s troubled gaze moved over the small sleeping form in the large bed to the view outside the window of the morning sun, which was shining brightly as it cleared the tall mountains in the distance.
Needing to apologize to the little southerner, Chris had volunteered to remain in the tracker’s room while the sharpshooter took his usual morning patrol. After the previous evening, Vin had been apprehensive about leaving the child to face Larabee, but his trust in his friend had won out over his worry. He knew Chris would never purposefully hurt Ezra and he knew the gunslinger needed a chance to make things right.
The sun had long since set when Chris and Vin, returned to town with Ezra. Offering to take their horses to the livery, Buck informed the men, certain they’d be hungry, Inez had offered to make them dinner if they didn’t mind eating in the saloon kitchen. Hungry and well aware the restaurant was closed at the late hour, the men climbed from their saddles, tossing their reins to the womanizer.
Knowing Wilmington would explain later, neither man questioned the suggestion they eat in the kitchen rather than at their usual table.
Ezra urged them to take the opportunity to quench their thirst while he washed up, insisting he didn’t require accompaniment, just the use of Tanner’s room for a few moments.
Letting the independent little boy keep his pride, Vin had handed him the key and watched as the child crossed to the boarding house before entering the saloon.
Seated in the large kitchen, the others had related the tales being spread about town concerning their southern witness.
“He wasn’t really mailed off to those relatives he mentioned, was he?” JD questioned, hoping either man would deny the horrible story.
“’Fraid so,” Tanner admitted, sadness in the blue depths of his eyes. “Just don’t understand how his ma could do somethin’ like that ta ‘im.”
“Evidently she don’t give a rat’s ass about the boy!” Larabee snarled.
Furious at the woman’s callous disregard for the boy Chris could only assume was her son, the gunslinger ignored the warning from the Spanish woman who stood near the stove. “I reckoned that kid was gonna be trouble from the start, but no one deserves ta be treated like they’re worth nothin’ more than the cost of mailin’ a damn letter. If she wanted ta get shed of him, she had other choices. There’s orphanages she coulda taken him to or she coulda left him where ever the hell he was comin’ from! Hell, I’m sure she coulda found a family somewhere who’d agree ta raise ‘im!”
“Maybe--” The young sheriff interrupted, searching for a way to defend the woman.
“Senor Larabee--” Inez and Buck spoke at the same time.
Wilmington knew his old friend was talking out of an insurmountable anger that anyone would treat a child so thoughtlessly. Chris had been a parent who still deeply loved his own son even after that child was lost to him. The death of Adam and his mother Sarah had set the gunslinger on a path of self-destruction, which had nearly destroyed Larabee.
“Ain’t no maybes about it, JD!” Larabee continued to rant. “Not all people are meant to be parents. Hell, guess that boy’s lucky she ain’t one a them bitches that eats their young. The cold hearted witch obviously don’t wanna be saddled with a brat anymore’ cause if she gave even the slightest damn about that kid, she’d do whatever it took to keep him safe!”
After all, Sarah had died trying to save her child…
“Larabee shut the hell up!” Wilmington’s sharp snarl finally caught the gunslinger’s attention. Following his gaze, everyone paled at discovering the young southerner standing in the kitchen doorway.
“Contrary to what you believe, Mr. Larabee, Maude does give a damn about me! She does! She does!” the little boy yelled defiantly before turning and fleeing the room.
“Aww, hell!” Larabee groaned.
“Of all times ta go off on a tirade, Hoss, ya had ta pick now,” Buck muttered, shaking his head in disgust as everyone pushed to their feet to follow Vin who had rushed out after the child.
Two hours of frantically searching had ended when Tanner returned to his wagon for kerosene to refill the lantern he’d borrowed from the livery and found the missing child curled up asleep behind the supply barrels.
Telling the others they’d meet them back at the saloon, Chris had followed the sharpshooter as he carried the sleeping child to his room in the boarding house.
Leaning back against the closed door, Chris was swamped in deja vu as he watched the tracker. Memories of doing the same for Adam had washed over him as Vin carefully undressed the sleeping child and tucked him into bed, tenderly resting a callused hand on the boy’s chestnut curls and whispering softly to soothe the little southerner’s troubled mumbling.
A small smile played on the gunslinger’s lips… Vin Tanner would make some kid a great father, if the sharpshooter ever got the opportunity.
Chris had gotten the opportunity and clung to the cherished memories of the few precious years he’d had with his son. Even now, when he slept, his dreams were filled with images of Adam’s first steps, his first words, and Sarah’s amused laughter as Chris tried to answer his son’s million and one questions.
In his dreams he could still see the love in Sarah’s eyes as she watched the two men in her life. Adam had been his little shadow, following him about when he learned to walk and later as the child grew, the two roughhoused in the yard. His favorite memories were of the times when he lifted the child up into the saddle with him and the two of them would ride about the ranch, Chris sharing his dreams for the land with his son. Adam had always seemed happiest when he was sharing time with his father.
In his dreams, Larabee could still hold Sarah in his arms. They could still watch the sunset fill the sky with colors and talk of their plans for the future. In his dreams, he could still hug his son and watch the boy grow tall and strong, sharing his son’s adventures as the boy explored the world around him. He could attend his son’s wedding and the births of his grandchildren… Children Chris would love as deeply as he loved their father.
Larabee had lost his family and in losing them, he’d felt as if he’d lost his future. There would be no more children for him and Sarah, no grandchildren to dote on in their own old age, no happy laughter, and running footsteps and no one to ride the land and hear his dreams for the future.
Even after ending his quest for death, the gunslinger had studiously avoided any contact at all with children. The sound of their laughter, seeing them at play, still tore him apart with thoughts of what might have been.
Only months earlier, helping young Billy Travis face the man who’d murdered his father had helped Chris open himself once more to the joy a child could bring into a person’s life. The joy he still missed and still longed so desperately to have once again.
His thoughts returning to Ezra, Larabee couldn’t shake the image of the dried tear tracks, evidence the little boy had cried himself to sleep. It broke the gunslinger’s heart to know he had been the one to unintentionally cause those tears.
Ezra remained motionless, watching the man by the window. He’d been surprised to wake up in the soft bed of the tracker’s boarding house room and had been even more surprised to find Larabee in the room with him. Vin was nowhere to be seen.
Was Larabee here to punish him for having the audacity to contradict him in front of his friends?
The gunslinger didn’t like him. Ezra was certain of that. He knew Larabee thought he was going to be trouble from the moment Vin had brought him into town. Perhaps, he was waiting for him to wake up so he could tell Ezra they had decided to send him to his uncle’s after all.
Ezra’s resolve strengthened. It didn’t matter if they did send him away. He would stick to his original plan. If he could find work or perhaps a prosperous town before he reached his uncle’s, he’d send Maude a message relaying his current location and wait there for her arrival.
Maude was always telling him gentlemen didn’t perform menial labor, but she never seemed to remember that when offering him as a hired hand in exchange for someone else being responsible for him.
After removing Ezra from the stage, the long trip back to Four Corners had been made in relative silence, neither Larabee nor Tanner questioning him on the method of his travel.
In Vin’s room, he’d brushed the dust from his clothes, washed his face and hands and combed his hair before heading back to the saloon, leaving Bigalow’s old coat at the boarding house.
Ezra had chosen to ignore the silent stares directed his way as he entered the saloon, weaving his way through the crowd toward the door he was certain led to the kitchen. Still, he’d been puzzled over why the patrons found his presence so fascinating. He’d been in saloons before and most times the adults simply ignored him.
He’d entered the kitchen in time to hear the gunslinger’s stinging remarks. The disparaging comments had hit too close to the secret thoughts Ezra kept locked away and, stunned to his little soul, he couldn’t immediately push aside the numbing pain they caused.
The words he’d sought to defend his mother had, for once, eluded him so instead, he’d done the only thing that came to mind. He’d proclaimed the black clad man a liar and run for his life.
Fearing the gunslinger’s reprisal and needing time to gain control of his emotions, Ezra had evaded the searchers, finally slipping into the last place he would expect them to look… Tanner’s home on wheels. Burrowing behind the barrels, he’d curled up on himself.
He’d needed time before seeing anyone. He’d needed time to deal with the insecurities Larabee’s words had released.
Ezra wasn’t stupid. He knew the relationship between him and Maude wasn’t typical. He’d seen the way other mothers treated their children, holding them, hugging them, playing with them, comforting them. There were times when he’d dearly envied the hugs and kisses, or even, the scolding and spankings. The little southerner knew he lived by different rules than those children. They didn’t have to worry about appearances. They didn’t have to always look for the angles people worked. They didn’t have to remember the hazards of letting people get close. They were free simply to be… children, that one simple luxury he had never been allowed.
Those children he envied had friends to play with, loving families to protect them and a freedom he had never known. They had the freedom to cry when they were hurt or sad and the freedom to openly hug those they loved without being reprimanded for surrendering to sentimental emotional displays.
Those children he so frequently envied had the freedom to be themselves. Those children weren’t forced to pretend they were someone else. They weren’t constantly moving from place to place, town to town. Nor were they purposely left behind to fend for themselves until their guardian’s return.
Ezra didn’t mind the moving so much because he liked seeing different parts of the country and meeting new people. Most of all, he didn’t mind it because it meant he was with Maude. Ezra always told himself Maude loved him just as much as other mothers loved their children.
Sometimes —sometimes-- he even believed it.
His thoughts returned to the man standing at the window and he was stunned to see the sadness playing across the man’s features.
Feeling as though he were being watched, Chris took a deep breath and turned to face the bed. “Mornin’, Ezra.”
Remaining silent, the little southerner merely nodded, his green eyes displaying a mixture of puzzlement and anxiety.
“Vin didn’t want ya wakin’ up alone since he had mornin’ patrol, so I told him I’d stay with ya,” Chris explained, surprised by the overpowering discomfort he felt as the grave child wordlessly continued to watch him. “Vin tells me ya ain’t fond a eatin’ early in the mornin’, but I gave him my word ya’d eat some breakfast.”
Ezra almost pointed out Larabee had no right speaking for him, but for some reason, while he was aware he would only be here for a few more hours, it was important he please the tracker. Besides, he rationalized; he wasn’t sure when he’d get his next meal.
As Chris moved to take a seat in the rocking chair beside the bed, the little southerner shied away.
Hoping to cover his reaction to the man’s approach, Ezra slipped from the bed and moved to the washstand. Quickly erasing the telltale traces of his emotional release, the little boy removed the last of his clean clothes from the carpetbag.
‘Just talk to him, for crying out loud!’ Larabee silently castigated himself. ‘He’s just a little boy who’s been through a rough time and you didn’t help matters none when ya hurt his feelin’s.’
Steeling himself as though it were the most offensive thing he had ever done, Chris spoke abruptly. “Ezra, I wanted ta talk to ya about last night.” The stiffening of the small boy’s posture and the sudden stubborn set of the child’s jaw stunned him.
Ezra wasn’t about to give in. If Larabee was expecting an apology, he was shit out of luck. Ezra knew he wasn’t wrong and if Uncle Bradley’s methods of punishment couldn’t make him apologize, then this Chris Larabee didn’t have a prayer either. He’d apologize to that man when the devil made snow angels in hell.
Hoping to distract the gunman, he changed the subject. “Did you catch the men who killed Miss Trundle and Mr. Bigalow?” Ezra kept his eyes on the buttons as he fastened his shirt.
“Nah, but Vin reckons they’re still in the area,” Chris automatically answered the quietly spoken question.
Ezra still didn’t look up at the man. “Why?”
“Cause accordin’ ta the depot agent, the stage wasn’t carryin’ a strong box.”
“Which means the only money they acquired for their efforts was whatever the passengers were carrying,” Ezra nodded, sitting down on the edge of the bed as he struggled to tug on his boots.
Larabee, who was no fool, noticed the child hadn’t looked at him since scurrying from the bed. “Ezra--“
“The dangers of committing robbery so greatly outweigh the rewards achieved, it’s a wonder anyone bothers,” the boy prattled on. “There are much easier and safer ways to obtain one’s monetary desires.”
“Damn, don’t ya ever talk like a normal kid?” The question was voiced before Chris had the chance to think. The gunslinger inwardly cringed, seeing the little boy momentarily hesitate as he carefully re-packed the carpetbag with his dirty, but neatly folded, clothing.
‘Good thing ya only got two fuckin’ feet, Larabee ‘cause I don’t think ya could fit anymore in yer damn big mouth,’ Chris thought as he raked a hand through his blond hair.
Damnit! What was it about this kid that seemed to turn him into a true blue jackass? He honestly didn’t think it was him, because he didn’t have trouble talking to Billy Travis or any of the other children in town. However, this kid… Hell, talking to Ezra was more like talking to a very short, very intelligent, and extremely irritating adult. The little southerner didn’t even appear to think like a child.
“Maude says a gentleman always uses proper English and the more extensive the vocabulary, the easier it is to converse intelligently,” Ezra stated with a shrug, mentally adding, ‘And the easier it is to keep someone off balance.’
“About Maude--” Chris tried again only to have the little boy again quickly change the subject as he began making up the bed.
“Is it possible you’ll have apprehended the men you’re after before the next southbound stage arrives in town?” Ezra questioned as he fluffed the pillows and placed them against the headboard.
“Ain’t likely and even if we do, there still has ta be a trial.”
“Then I will be certain to leave you the address where I will be staying so you may notify me if my presence is required.”
Chris ignored the remark, his tone becoming solemn, “We need to talk, Ezra.”
“If I’m not mistaken, sir, that’s what we’ve been doing,” Ezra retorted smugly.
With a speed that didn’t give the child time to react, Larabee crossed the room and caught the small southerner’s arms, lifting him up and sitting him down on the edge of the bed. “Let me rephrase that… Ezra, I am gonna talk and you’re gonna listen! Ya got that?”
The child’s green eyes sparkled furiously as Ezra jerked away from Larabee’s grasp. Straightening his clothing, Ezra used the few moments to reinforce his defensive walls and called upon a skill he’d learned the first time Maude had disappointed him… He shut down his emotions, totally closing himself off, knowing if he was prepared, he couldn’t be hurt. Lifting his chin, he glared at the older man, his tone bitter, “Of course, Mr. Larabee. Whatever you wish.”
Chris nodded. “Good because---“
Ezra interrupted him, “I was simply trying to resolve any doubts you might harbor about my willingness to help you bring those miscreants to justice.” He couldn’t resist pushing the gunslinger one more time, unwilling to give him the upper hand.
“Ezra…” the man growled, his patience quickly reaching and surpassing its limit.
“Yes, Mr. Larabee?” The child blinked at him innocently… a little too innocently.
Raking his hand through his hair again, Chris sighed and admitted, “We need to talk about what happened last night.”
The little boy shook his head. “There’s nothing to discuss, Mr. Larabee. You quite loudly and clearly stated your opinions regarding Maude and myself.”
Stunned by the emptiness of the child’s emerald eyes, Chris took a deep breath and slowly sank down on the bed beside the southerner. “Won’t deny it. I was flat out pissed off, but I didn’t have any right to say those things about yer ma.” He waited a moment, wanting to see if the child would admit he was right about the relationship between Ezra and the mysterious Maude. When the boy remained silent, Larabee continued, “Ezra, I wasn’t pissed off ‘cause ya left town. I was pissed about the way ya left.”
The little boy half shrugged, “I assume Mr. Tanner found the note I left regarding my travel plans and I truly had no intentions of skipping out on my debt to either him or Dr. Jackson.”
“Ain’t about that neither, Ezra. Nobody, least of all Vin and Nate, ‘pects ya ta pay for help.” Chris shook his head, fleetingly wondering how the hell he could make this little boy understand. “Don’t ya see, son? She mailed ya –mailed ya like some parcel! -- ta yer relatives for cryin’ out loud! What the hell kind of mother does that ta her child?”
Ezra’s chin quivered, his emotional walls suddenly weakening, “It’s not illegal and---“
“Just ‘cause it ain’t illegal doesn’t make it right.”
Needing something to keep his hands busy, Ezra wished he had his deck of cards, which were carefully packed away in his carpetbag. The worn pieces of cardboard had been his friends from the first moment he’d learned to shuffle them. The fifty-two pieces of paperboard didn’t judge him, nor reprimand him, nor laugh at his mistakes nor make him feel as if he wasn’t worthy of drawing breath. They were always there for him, hidden away, in the carpetbag’s secret compartment, hidden from Uncle Bradley or those who disapproved. The deck was his constant companion, always offering entertainment and a way to replenish his funds. Many times, alone in a strange place, surrounded by unknowns, they were always there for him and Ezra had found the constant repetition of shuffling the cards acted as a mantra, easing his mind and allowing him to think clearly.
But with no cards now, he ended up nervously twisting his fingers together as he struggled to maintain his emotional barriers in place. He shrugged. “Actually, it’s quite practical, Mr. Larabee. Mailing a package costs much less than a paid passage on the stage and most of the time, the driver lets me ride inside.”
‘Most of the time!’ Chris fought the anger rising inside him as he realized this apparently was not the first time the little southerner had been ‘mailed’ to a destination by his mother. Worse still, was the realization the child had come to accept that kind of treatment as normal.
Chris fought to speak clearly as he pointed out, “She knew ya was on yer way and yet she left without even makin’ sure ya got here safe!”
“As I’ve already state -- several times, in fact -- Maude knows I am quite capable of taking care of myself. She has always insisted I be self reliant because there are times when her business dealings require her to travel at a moment’s notice.”
“The point is, Ezra, ya shouldn’t have to take care of yourself! You’re just a little boy.” Chris saw the momentary spark of surprise in the child’s emerald eyes. He had to bite back a grin as Ezra’s small shoulders squared defiantly and it was evident the little boy took his comment as an insult and was ready to prove, once more, he didn’t need cared for.
As angry as he was at the boy’s unfeeling mother, Larabee really didn’t want to make things harder for Ezra and the only way to do that was to let him think he understood the woman who treated the boy as if he were another piece of luggage. “I understand your ma needs ta do what she can to make money. It ain’t easy for a woman alone ta support a child, but take my word for it, even if she makes all the money in the world, it wouldn’t be able to replace losin’ her son.”
Larabee tried not to squirm as the little southerner studied him intently for several long moments, the questioning emerald eyes seeming to see into his very soul. Chris was certain he saw a flash of understanding and sadness in the green eyes before Ezra dropped his gaze back to his fingers, still knotted together in his lap.
“I appreciate your concern, Mr. Larabee, and I accept your apology, but I assure you, there is no need for you to worry,” Ezra stated with a sigh. “Maude is quite adept at making money and while there are times when she must leave me behind out of necessity, she only does what she believes is best.” While that statement was true, he didn’t feel it was necessary to add Maude always did what was best for Maude. He brought his gaze back up to meet Larabee’s as he fiercely declared, “But she does love me! She does!”
“I know she does, Ezra,” The gunslinger wasn’t certain, but he thought he heard the slightest hint of trepidation and doubt in the little boy’s voice. It shook the hardened gunslinger to his core. No child should ever have to doubt their mother’s love. “Ezra, I just wanna say I’m really sorry I said those things.” ‘At least, I’m sorry ya heard ‘em,’ he admitted silently to himself.
Larabee pushed to his feet. “What say we go get that breakfast afore Tanner gets back and kicks my butt for lettin’ ya go hungry?” Remembering the earlier conversation in the clinic, he quickly added, “And yeah, I’m buyin’.”
Without appearing obvious, Ezra watched the man across the table, stifling a smile when he received the inevitable sign his opponent was bluffing. It was a subtle tell he had picked up on early in the game although the other players at the table seemed to have missed it.
Wanting to pay his debts and needing traveling money for when the peacekeepers sent him on his way, Ezra had slipped out of the boarding house room and made his way to Digger Dan’s saloon as soon as the peacekeepers thought he was asleep.
Having watched the regulators, he knew they only patronized Dan’s if for some reason Inez’s was closed, so there was little danger of him being discovered.
Assuming the little boy belonged to one of the working girls, no one had paid him much mind as Ezra had stood for nearly an hour watching the game before offering advice, certain what the result would be. As expected, one of the cowhands had laughingly asked if the kid thought he could do better and Ezra had pulled his last ten dollars from his pocket, taking up the challenge.
“Ya musta been born under a lucky star, kid,” Wyatt good-naturedly tossed his cards into the center of the table, admitting defeat, as Ezra displayed his three jacks.
“I guess that depends on your point of view.” The little southerner pulled the money toward him, folding most of the bills, and sliding them into his jacket pocket. Later, when no one was paying attention, he’d transfer the currency to his boot. He gathered the deck and began shuffling. “Five card draw, gentleman, jacks or better ta open.”
Glancing over the batwing doors as he made his nightly rounds, Josiah’s attention was captured by the crowd gathered around one of Digger Dan’s corner tables.
Deciding he’d better make certain there was no trouble brewing, the ex-priest pushed through the doors, worked his way through the spectators and froze at the sight before him.
“Uh oh.” The small hands dealing the cards slowed as green eyes met stunned gray ones.
Advising the men it was long past the child’s bedtime, the preacher ignored the boy’s protests that he wasn’t tired and suggested someone else might want to take Ezra’s seat since the boy wouldn’t be needing it further.
“See ya tomorra night, Ezra?” Wyatt questioned as Ezra quickly gathered the coins and few bills that remained in front of him.
“I’m afraid he’s gonna be busy for awhile,” Josiah answered before the boy could say anything.
Once they reached the boardwalk, Sanchez caught the back of the youngster’s waistband, lifting Ezra off his feet as, certain the preacher intended to punish him, the boy tried to scurry away. Wordlessly hauling Ezra back to the boarding house, Josiah debated with himself about calling Vin and the other men.
“That was quite undignified, Reverend Sanchez, and entirely unnecessary,” Ezra stated, adjusting his shirt and jacket when the big man finally set him on his feet inside Tanner’s room.
Seeing the flash of fear in the child’s defiant green eyes, the preacher relaxed his stance as he closed the door. Putting as much distance between himself and Sanchez as the small room would allow, Ezra seemed to steel himself, preparing for the punishment he was sure the huge preacher intended to mete out to him.
His brow furrowed with puzzlement as Josiah watched the child. What exactly was Ezra expecting to happen?
The big man hadn’t failed to notice that, while Ezra was reserved with all of the men, the little boy became especially quiet in his presence, appearing to carefully consider everything he said before saying anything at all. At first, the ex-priest thought it had something to do with his daunting size, but now, he realized it was something more.
He smiled, shaking his head. “Sorry ‘bout that, Ezra, but a boy your age should be asleep at this time a night, not hanging out in a saloon.”
“I wasn’t hanging out, Reverend Sanchez. I---“
“Josiah,” the big man interrupted, “my name is Josiah, not Reverend Sanchez.”
Ezra frowned. “But you are the caretaker of the local church, delivering the Sunday sermon and endeavoring to save lost souls,” there was a touch of derision in the boy’s voice as he spoke of Josiah’s attempt to help those searching for faith. “So, it’s only apropos to call you by your proper designation. However, I will refrain from using it if that’s what you wish.”
Josiah was certain it was the best he was going to get.
“So what were you doing at Digger Dan’s?” In the few days Ezra had been in town, they’d all come to realize the best way to get information from the southerner was the direct approach. Trying to sneak up on what they wanted to know only left a person confused and realizing they hadn’t really learned anything at all.
Ezra straightened his shoulders. “I needed to acquire funds and the saloon is the best place to ply my profession, Mr. Sanchez.”
“Excuse me?” Sanchez hid both his shock and his amusement. “Your profession? You’re a little boy, Ezra! Right now, that’s your profession. When you grow up---“
“When I grow up, I’ll be a gambler and a co…” Ezra hesitated, catching himself before adding the words con man, “just as I am now. It’s what I was born for, what I’ve been trained to do and that’s what I’ll be. Nothing Uncle Bradley, you or anyone else can do will change that… It’s my destiny.”
Josiah’s broad shoulders slumped as sadness washed over the big man at the child’s statement. What boy Ezra’s age seriously considered how they would make a living when they grew up? What child Ezra’s age even knew what the word destiny meant?
As a general rule most boys in this part of the country followed in their father’s footsteps, becoming farmers, ranchers or taking over the family business if they lived in town. Those boys Ezra’s age worried about getting their chores done so they could play with their friends, griped about their school lessons, and looked forward to the town celebrations or lounging around their favorite fishing hole. They didn’t worry about making money to get by day by day. To most children Ezra’s age, the future consisted of the following day or the coming of the holidays.
What had so utterly destroyed this boy’s childhood?
Josiah was certain it wasn’t just the times his mother had left him behind. According to Ezra himself, Maude always arranged for him to stay with relatives. The ex-priest had to wonder what or better yet, who had made Ezra believe he had to follow one fixed path through his entire life?
Stooping down on one knee, Josiah kept his voice soft, “You’re a very intelligent little boy, Ezra. You can be anything ya wanna be. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if ya didn’t become president someday.”
Changing into his nightshirt, the little southerner hesitated, staring at Josiah in wide-eyed wonder. A moment later, the bright spark disappeared to be replaced with resignation. Ezra forced a short laugh as he finished preparing to return to bed. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a preacher who didn’t believe that each person’s life hadn’t been preordained. My life, Preacher, has been laid out since the first moment my mother found out she was expecting me.”
Josiah blew out a breath. “You think God plans for you to be a gambler.”
“You, of all people, should know that the world consists of two forces---”
“Good and evil,” Sanchez nodded.
“And God isn’t the only one who decides a person’s destiny.” Taking a deep breath, Ezra’s gaze met the preacher’s gray eyes. “Perhaps, Mr. Sanchez, we could finish this discussion at another time.” Straightening, he murmured. “If you’ll just proceed with my punishment I---“
“I never intended to punish ya, son.” This time the ex-priest didn’t try to disguise his surprise. “I would like ya to promise me ya won’t be sneakin’ out ta play poker in the saloons. I know Wyatt. He’s a good fella, but some a them others might not take to kindly if ya can’t pay your losses.”
“You have my word as a gentleman I won’t go back to Dan’s,” The boy agreed, not bothering to mention he had parlayed his ten dollars into almost thirty. Taking advantage of his good fortune Ezra slipped between the covers and turned down the lamp. “Mr. Sanchez?”
“Yeah, Ezra?” The big man turned from the door, ready to stay with boy if that’s what he wanted.
“I mean no disrespect to you, sir, but I think it’s prudent to point out, I’m not your son.”
“Mr. Larabee, do you realize what that little barbarian is doing and do you actually intend to let him get away with it?”
Seated in front of the jail, the gunslinger stifled a groan when Josiah quietly announced the banker’s approach. With a scowl, Larabee finally glanced up from the book in his lap to pin the speaker with a hard glare. “Depends on who yer referrin’ to and what it is they’re tryin’ ta get away with.”
The portly banker puffed up in indignation and hissed, “You know damn good and well I’m referring to that disgusting little savage Tanner brought to town.”
Chris shifted his gaze to the boardwalk in front of the saloon where, surrounded by several cowhands as well as Buck and JD, ‘that disgusting little savage’ stood on an overturned crate, maneuvering the three cards, which lay face down on the table.
At least Three Card Monte was better than poker.
Josiah had said nothing of his late night discovery of Ezra’s gambling until, over a dinner he’d insisted on paying for, the little southerner had offered Nathan a dollar, declaring the healer deserved payment for his services. The ex-slave had refused, saying it was too much money, and demanding to know where the child had gotten the money, hoping the boy hadn’t resorted to stealing.
Sending Ezra off to the kitchen for another glass of milk, the big man had quickly informed the others he had found Ezra gambling at Digger Dan’s and of their discussion. At least now Sanchez understood one reason why the boy had been so determined to earn money.
“’Ppears he’s cleanin’ up playin’ three card Monte.” He turned to the preacher. “That what it looks like to you, Josiah?”
The big man nodded. “’Ppears so, Brother Chris.”
McMurtry’s face reddened. “What is that little bastard doing back in town? I thought he’d been sent to an asylum where he might be taught to behave in a civilized manner.”
“First off, Ezra is far from bein’ a savage or a barbarian and if I hear ya call him a bastard again, I’ll teach ya the good manners yer ma shoulda taught ya a long time ago. Better yet, I’ll let Vin teach ‘em to ya,” Larabee stated calmly, his tone deadly. “For a fact, that boy makes you look uncivilized. Secondly, I don’t know where ya got the idea Ezra was bein’ sent ta an asylum, but ya can put an end ta that rumor right quick. He ain’t bein’ sent nowhere yet.” He glared at the banker and scratched at his scruffy cheek. “Furthermore, I don’t see where it’s any a yer damn business what he’s doin’ here.”
“And I suppose you’re just going to let him cheat people out of their hard earned money?” McMurtry demanded.
“Can ya prove he’s cheatin’?” Sanchez questioned. “No one else seems ta think so.”
Larabee suddenly grinned devilishly, “So, exactly how much ya lose to him, McMurtry?”
The banker gave the gunslinger a scathing look. “I’m certain Mrs. Travis and the other ladies in town will have something to say about the example that… boy is setting for the other children.” Turning on his heel, the banker marched toward The Clarion.
Josiah shook his head in disgust. “That man’s hell bound and determined to brew up a pot a trouble.”
Chris nodded his agreement. “Aww, hell, Josiah, his kinda trouble we can handle.”
His hazel eyes troubled, watching as returning from patrol, a lopsided grin lit Tanner’s handsome face when Ezra saw the tracker and waved, and the tracker responded with a happy greeting. ‘Just don’t know if we can handle the trouble that’s gonna be caused by Ezra’s leavin’.
Leaving JD sitting at the table with Vin, Wilmington pushed to his feet and crossed to the bar, unobtrusively signaling Chris to follow as his old friend entered the saloon.
A frown creased Larabee’s forehead as he leaned against the bar. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Hopin’ ya could tell us.” The womanizer kept his back to the peacekeeper’s table, his blue eyes growing darker with worry. “Vin come in ‘bout an hour ago. Ain’t said two words which ain’t that unusual, but he threw back three shots a whiskey soon as he sat down and has been starin’ into his beer mug ever since.”
The blond man toyed with the beer glass Inez sat in front of him. “Seen Ezra around?”
The little southerner had become Vin’s shadow and only deemed to stay with the other lawmen when the tracker was on patrol or pulling duty at the jail.
“Nope.” Buck tossed a coin on the bar to pay for both their drinks.
“Reckon we’ll have to find a tactful way to ask ‘im what’s wrong.” Carrying his beer, Chris moved to the table, taking the seat next to the sharpshooter. “So, Tanner, ya want us to guess or are ya gonna tell us what’s eatin’ at yer craw?”
Taking a swallow of beer as the gunslinger posed the question; Buck choked and spewed beer onto the table. ‘That’s what I call real fuckin’ tactful, Larabee!’
Swiping at the beer, Wilmington offered an explanation as Tanner sent him a scathing icy blue glare. “We’re just worried about ya, Pard.”
“This got anythin’ ta do with our southern visitor?” Larabee pressed.
It was several long minutes and more than half a glass of beer before the Texan answered, his words so soft the other men almost didn’t hear him. “He wants ta stay here with us…with me.” He didn’t look up, his voice choked with emotion. He shook his shaggy head in disbelief. “Ya should a heard ‘im. Sounded like he was offerin’ me some kinda business proposition. Tellin’ me how he wouldn’t be no trouble and how it wouldn’t cost me nothin’ coz he’d pay his own way. Even said he’d give me the money the town pays for the room in the boardin’ house. Said how he didn’t wanna cause none a us any trouble so’s he’d go outta his way ta stay outta McMurtry’s sight. He tried ta give me his word that trouble makin’ ass hole wouldn’t even know he was in town.”
They all knew McMurtry had been making a fuss about the young southerner, telling everyone since Ezra’d obviously been abandoned by his parents, it was up to the town to see he was safely escorted to the closest orphanage where he could be taken care of properly.
Rumor had reached their ears the banker had even sent a wire to Judge Travis.
Larabee knew the telegram had nothing to do with the banker being concerned about young Ezra’s welfare. The man’s apparent caring didn’t fool the residents of Four Corners. Anyone with half a brain knew McMurtry only wanted to flaunt the power he thought he had over the town under the pretense of doing what he thought was best for everyone.
JD swirled the liquid in his glass. “What’d ya say?”
“What the hell could I say?” Vin snapped in response to the young sheriff’s innocent question. “Told ‘im, I didn’t give a damn ‘bout ol’ fat ass McMurtry. The man’s always tryin’ ta give us crap so it weren’t no big deal. But I pointed out ta him his ma was expectin’ ‘im at those relatives he was ‘sposed ta be stayin’ with.” The tracker was still surprised by how much the thought of the little boy moving on to be with relatives hurt. He was even more stunned by how much he wished he could keep the little southerner with him. “Hell,” he tossed back the last of his beer in one gulp, “I can’t be carin’ for no young’n.”
“Reckon, ya already do,” Chris muttered quietly.
Buck’s grin at the double meaning of the comment brought a smile to Larabee’s lips.
“Damn, Vin, it wouldn’t be no different than it’s been the last few days,” JD shrugged, volunteering everyone’s services. “We’d all help out.”
“He ain’t no damn dog, JD! Ya can’t tie ‘im to a fence and ask someone to be sure he gets food and water while we’re out trailin’ some fools with more guts than brains.”
“Leastways you care about him,” Dunne argued, refusing to see why the child couldn’t remain in Four Corners. As far as he was concerned, Vin would make a much better guardian for the boy than most folks. “Like Chris said, his ma don’t seem ta give a damn and stayin’ with you’d be a helluva lot better than endin’ up in some orphanage.”
“Carin’ ‘bout ‘im’s got nothin’ ta do with it,” Tanner pointed out. “And he ain’t gonna end up in an orphanage. He’s got folks who’ll take ‘im in. Told ‘im we’d make sure he got to his uncle’s safe and sound once’t we’d caught those fellas from the stage or when we was sure we wasn’t gonna catch ‘em.” Tanner didn’t think he’d ever wipe the look of fear, hurt and disappointment in Ezra’s eyes from his memory. “Even iffen it was okay for ‘im ta stay here, in case y’all forgot, I got me a price on my head. What the hell happens ta ‘im iffen the time comes some bounty hunter catches up with me?”
Before anyone could respond, the sharpshooter pushed to his feet and stalked from the saloon, knocking Josiah off balance as he stormed through the batwing doors.
“I know I can’t speak for the rest a ya, but I ain’t lettin’ no damn bounty hunter take Vin nowhere,” JD insisted. “And I think he’d make a great father for Ezra.”
“That he would, kid,” Wilmington agreed. “But Vin’s right. Reckon Ezra’s got them relatives who’ll take better care a ‘im than all six a us ever could.”
“Do we know that for sure?” Sanchez questioned as he settled into a chair. Seeing their puzzled expressions, he continued. “Did anybody actually see that letter sayin’ he was goin’ ta relatives? Hell, for all we know he really was bein’ shipped off ta an orphanage or asylum.”
“Mrs. Potter would know,” JD’s innocent declaration drew all their attention. “She handles the mail and she’s the one who put him on the stage so it stands to reason she’d know where he was headed.”
Receiving a nod from his hero, the young sheriff immediately headed for the general store.
Upon his return a short time later and hearing what he had learned, Larabee pushed back from the table.
Wilmington grabbed the gunslinger’s arm, remembering how ’tactful’ Larabee had been earlier. “Let me talk ta ‘im, Chris.”
Hesitantly, Chris finally nodded and eased back into the chair, watching as Buck went in search of Tanner. The gunman realized Buck might indeed be the best person to help the sharpshooter. The womanizer had a heart as big as Texas and while there were times when the big man played the fool, Larabee knew his oldest friend had an extraordinary insight into human nature, which would surprise most people.
Curled up in a dark corner of the hayloft, using his packed carpet bag for a pillow, Ezra picked at the loose straw, unable to wipe the earlier conversation with Vin from his mind long enough to form any other plan of action.
He’d checked and the next stage wasn’t due until the following morning. By then Ezra was certain he would have pulled himself together and would be able to think more clearly about his future.
Vin didn’t want him!
The day after Vin and Chris had taken him from the stage, Ezra had sent a wire informing Maude he’d been delayed indefinitely in Four Corners and would telegraph her later with further plans.
During the week, he’d spent with Vin and the other peace keepers, Ezra had carefully considered his options and had come up with a hopeful plan. He’d figured the best way to approach the tracker and had made his --what he hoped -- foolproof-proposal over lunch. He truly hadn’t expected it to backfire so spectacularly.
Vin didn’t want him!
Why hadn’t he listened to Maude? He had left himself wide open to be hurt by stupidly allowing himself to become attached to the gentle tracker, his friends and this place. He had ignored one of Maude’s most steadfast rules and had discovered the hard way she had been right all along. At least now he knew the truth.
Vin didn’t want him!
Maybe his Uncle Bradley was right as well. Maybe Ezra was evil. Maybe that was why no one wanted him around. Maybe good people like Vin could see the evil which grew inside him and were afraid his vileness would infect them.
He had truly believed the tracker liked him. How could he have totally misread the Texan? He had thought Tanner was different from the other folks who discarded him. He had foolishly believed the man might not mind having him around, as long as Ezra pulled his own weight and he didn’t have to care for the boy.
Oh, the sharpshooter had given him a dozen good reasons why it wasn’t possible for the little boy to remain with him, but those reasons hadn’t lessened the hurt he was feeling at being cast aside yet again.
Ezra scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. He should have known the Texan hadn’t truly meant it when he said he liked pretending to have a son. Of all people, Ezra should have known what pretending was worth. After all, he’d spent his entire young life pretending. Pretending to be someone else. Pretending to be grateful for the handouts begrudgingly given by those he stayed with. Pretending his mother didn’t prefer money over her son. Pretending there was somewhere around the next bend to call home and someone waiting there who loved him.
Never again! He vowed vehemently.
Never again would he let his defenses down. Never again would he trust anyone but himself. Never again would he permit anyone to get close enough to again cause this heartbreaking pain of rejection.
Never again… Ever!
Straddling a log, Buck took a seat, silently watching as the sharpshooter stood, forlornly tossing stones into the small stream near the edge of town.
While Vin rarely talked about himself, in the time they’d been in Four Corners, Buck had learned quite a bit about the Texan and knew the effect little Ezra and his departure was having on the quiet young man. Despite the hard life Tanner had led, despite the fact the sharpshooter wouldn’t hesitate to kill to protect himself and others, Wilmington knew Vin had a gentle soul and a kind heart. He was also certain without this softhearted man, Buck wouldn’t have Chris Larabee back in his life, but would instead be visiting the gunslinger’s grave.
Wilmington had spent the years since Sarah and Adam’s deaths staying in the shadows, watching over Larabee, doing what he could to protect the man he loved like a brother. In those intervening years, he had helplessly watched Chris, directly and indirectly pursuing death, knowing his friend didn’t care if he found his demise at the wrong end of a gun or at the bottom of a whiskey bottle.
The womanizer wasn’t sure what had happened before Chris arrived in Four Corners, but he was certain if Larabee hadn’t joined Tanner that day, to save Nathan from a hangman’s noose, his friend would still be searching for a way to join his wife and son. It seemed to Buck as if that single act had sparked the last dying ember of life in Larabee. Vin had fanned that single spark into a growing flame which the other peace keepers helped keep burning brightly.
Buck Wilmington was certain it had been Tanner’s actions, which had brought about the ever growing change in Chris and the womanizer knew he could never repay the tracker… but he would sure spend the rest of his life trying.
However, he wasn’t here because of what Tanner had done for Larabee. He was here for his friend… for Vin.
“Might as well go back ta the saloon, Buck.” Vin kept his back to the womanizer. “Ain’t nothin’ ya can say to make any of this better.”
“Reckon that’s about the truth of it. Just thought ya might like ta know that relative Ezra was bein’ sent to was someone name Bradley Beacon in Leesport, Mississippi,” Wilmington stated quietly. “Seems it was the same place he was comin’ from.”
The sharpshooter merely nodded, watching the ever-widening ripples in the water caused by the thrown rock.
“He ever tell ya about these relatives a his?” Buck prodded.
“Nah. I tried askin’ the other day, but he just talked all around it until I done forgot what I asked ‘im.” An embarrassed grin graced the tracker’s lips, but did nothing to wipe the sadness from his azure eyes.
“Little fella seems real good at confusin’ folk,” Buck agreed. “Ya know, Nathan don’t think lil Ez got all them bruises a his when the stage wrecked.”
Tanner whirled to face the bigger man. “What the hell are ya talkin’ about, Buck? Ya sayin’ that sonuvabitch uncle a his’n were beatin’ on ‘im?”
“Guess only Ezra can say for sure.” Buck shrugged. “But Nate says some a them bruises was almost healed and says he seen some scars on that boy’s legs and back that looks like they may a been caused by a razor strap or maybe one a them fancy ridin’ crops… Somethin’ like that.”
“Guess I’m gonna hafta have me a special talk with this here Beacon fella when I drop Ez off,” the tracker finally stated, his fist clenching and unclenching as he struggled to control his growing rage. It was bad enough lil Ez’s mama shipped him around like some mail parcel, but this uncle beatin’ on the boy was the last straw. ’ What the hell kinda life was that little boy livin’?’
“Ya still plan on takin’ ‘im back there?” The womanizer didn’t try to hide his surprise. “Thought maybe ya wanted ‘im ta stay here in Four Corners.”
The tracker’s response was raspy voiced and harsh, “Been over this, Buck, a dozen times in a dozen different ways. Just drop it!”
“Consider it dropped, but I gotta ask… Hell, Vin, ya ain’t ever been a quitter so I’s just wonderin’ how come yer givin’ up on this without even puttin’ up a scuffle?”
Tanner’s eyes flashed blue fire. “Course I’d like nothin’ better than iffen Ezra could stay! What do y’all expect me ta do?” Vin growled gruffly. “Oh hell, Buck, I’m wanted for murder anyway, right, so’s why don’t I just add kidnappin’ to it? They can only can hang me oncet, right?” The Texan’s handsome face reddened when Buck nodded and merely chuckled at the tracker’s sarcastic comment.
“That’s one way a lookin’ at it. Reckon the judge might figure on what’s best for Ezra, ‘specially if it turns out that relative of his has been beatin’ up on the kid. Reckon if the judge says it’s okay for him ta stay here, all legal like, then it wouldn’t be kidnappin’.”
The sharpshooter snorted in disgust. “Ya honestly think Travis is gonna believe that kid is better off bein’ looked after by a wanted man who’s stupid enough ta chase after trouble makin’ ass holes for a dollar a day and board than by some rich uncle--?”
“What makes ya think he’s rich?” Buck interjected.
“Got more money than me. Hell, Ezra’s fancy leather boots cost more’n all my clothes put together.”
“Ya know, Tanner, for a smart man, ya can be really stupid sometimes. First off, if only rich people had kids, the world would be a mighty lonesome place. Second off, Ezra’s ma knows he’s still here. I checked with Sam. He says Ezra sent her a wire. Since she ain’t wired back, I don’t reckon she’s too upset about it. Third, we don’t know fer sure the judge’ll even have anything to say ‘bout it at all and if he does, I think he just might consider lettin’ that little boy stay with someone who really cares about ‘im,” Wilmington argued.
The ex-bounty hunter snorted, angrily skipping a stone across the stream.
“Why don’t ya just admit what the real problem here is?” Wilmington challenged. “Cause a yer situation, yer scared ta death a havin’ anybody depend on ya. And lettin’ yerself care about anybody or anything terrifies ya more than the hangman.” Buck dared the sharpshooter to call him a liar. “I got news for ya, Pard. It’s too late ta worry ‘bout either a those things, cause we all depend on ya and I know ya care ‘bout the five of us just as much as we care ‘bout you… And ya care about that kid. A blind man could see that kid’s done wrapped his self around yer heart and the judge definitely ain’t blind.” The big man pushed to his feet, moving to block the tracker’s avenue of escape as Tanner spun around to leave. “Look me in the eye, Vin, and tell me ya don’t love that kid! Tell me the thought of ‘im leavin’ ain’t tearin’ yer insides apart! If ya can do that, I’ll deliver Ezra to his uncle's my own self and not say another word about it.”
The tracker turned away, blinking back the wetness, which filled his eyes. “He ain’t mine ta love,” he responded in a hoarse whisper.
“Hell’s fire! Adam weren’t mine, but that didn’t stop me from lovin’ that boy damn near as much as Chris did!”
Vin slowly turned to face the womanizer, drawn by the sadness in Wilmington’s voice. A sadness that he realized, perhaps, surpassed his own.
“I grew up in a whorehouse, for God’s sake!” Wilmington admitted quietly. “My ma was a workin’ girl, doin’ what it took for both of us ta get by. Reckon most people figure a bordello ain’t no place ta raise a young’n, but I don’t reckon I turned out all that bad. Tell ya this, I sure had plenty a love and discipline. Hell, ya’d a thought every one of them women was my mama. They taught me respect for myself and for others. I sure learned a lot ‘bout life from them kind ladies and I know for a fact, Vin, lovin’ a kid’s got nothin’ a’tall ta do with whether or not they carry yer blood.”
Vin’s lean shoulders sagged. He knew Wilmington was right. The Comanche had proven that when they’d taken him in and treated him as family but… “What do I know ‘bout takin’ care of a little kid, Buck? He deserves a ma and pa who’ll do right by ‘im, not some no count drifter who lives in a Conestoga and is constantly lookin’ over his shoulder.”
“Ezra deserves someone who loves ‘im,” Buck countered, giving the sharpshooter’s shoulder a gentle pat. “Takin’ care of a kid is just doin’ what’s best for ‘im no matter how hard it is for you. Even more important than that is him knowin’ there’s someone in this world who cares what happens ta ‘im. We all know yer a good man, Vin Tanner, and that includes the judge, so, damnit, if ya want that boy ta stay, then fight for ‘im!”
He gave the smaller man’s shoulder another pat before turning to leave him in peace. “Just think about what I said, Vin, and do what ya think is best. Trust yer instincts, Pard. They ain’t failed ya yet.” He hesitated a second before calling over his shoulder, “And if I ever hear ya call yerself no count again, I’ll kick yer skinny ass from one end a town to the other.”
As Buck continued back toward town, the tracker turned back to the stream, still wrestling himself, not wanting to make a selfish decision.
Startled, Ezra awoke in the stable to the sound of muffled voices as men settled their horses in the stalls below him. Not wishing to be discovered, he remained silent, thankful it wasn’t the peace keepers. He wasn’t yet ready to deal with the six men. He didn’t need their pity and certainly didn’t want their sympathy. He would face them when he had his plans finalized and his confidence intact.
Unbidden, Tanner’s words that they would ‘see’ him safely to his uncle’s came into his thoughts. Ezra knew, in order to keep from ending up at his Uncle Bradley’s, he would have to convince Vin he didn’t need an escort and he wouldn’t be able to do that. At least not right now. His hurt was too new, too raw.
In all his young life, the little southerner had never conceived of asking anyone, except Maude, if he could remain with them. But then again, until now, he’d never before met anyone he wanted to stay with for any length of time.
Of course, Ezra couldn’t recall anyone who had ever wanted him around other than to make use of his God given talents, but the tracker, to his credit, was the only person who’d ever bothered to concoct a reason why the boy couldn’t stay. Most people had just happily sent him on his way.
In truth, Ezra understood Tanner’s reasons and appreciated the fact the tracker had at least taken the time to think up a plausible excuse for not wanting him around.
If given the choice -which he wasn’t-- Ezra would have happily accompanied the tracker in his travels, but the southerner knew if Tanner was actually being chased, the presence of a child would only hinder Vin’s escape from bounty hunters, looking to collect the price on his head. He didn’t believe Vin had murdered anyone, but if it hadn’t been anything more than an excuse, the man couldn’t very well clear his name if he felt obligated to watch over a small boy.
He had to give the tracker credit. At least it was an imaginative excuse. One the sharpshooter had evidently given some thought to in an attempt not to hurt the boy’s feelings. However, that didn’t help. It did still hurt.
Sudden familiar laugher drifted up from the men moving about the barn below him. A chill raced through the little southerner as the sound registered in his mind.
The men from the stage! They were here! They had come to Four Corners! Trembling, Ezra curled into a tight ball, making himself smaller in the loft’s dark shadows.
‘Go away! Go away! Please go away!’ His silent plea was finally answered a few moments later when the voices faded away as the men drifted from the livery, talking about filling their bellies with food and drink.
Afraid they’d return, the little boy waited for several long moments before cautiously crawling to the edge of the loft, peeking over the side to be certain he was alone once more. Giving a sigh of relief, he collapsed back into the hay. However, another chilling thought shook him. Did those men know about him? Could he get out of town before they discovered there had been a witness to their crime?
However, another thought surfaced just as quickly and with more intensity.
He had to warn Vin and the other peace keepers the men they sought were right here in their town. He had to let them know before the outlaws hurt someone else.
Ignoring the six-gun packed in his carpetbag; Ezra quickly pushed aside the neatly packed clothing and retrieved his small derringer from the secret compartment in the bottom of the bag.
Tucking the small weapon into his jacket pocket, Ezra hurriedly buried the carpetbag beneath the hay in the corner and, glancing over the side once more, scrambled down the ladder and ran for the door, rushing out onto the boardwalk.
“Whoa there, little Pard!” Catching the little boy’s arms to keep him from falling, Wilmington chuckled, righting the child, as Ezra slammed into his legs, stumbling backwards. “The barn ain’t on fire, is it?”
Realizing whom he had crashed into, Ezra grabbed the big man’s sleeve. “Mr. Wilmington! I was comin’ ta find y’all! Those--”
“Been lookin’ for you, too, Ez. I wanted to talk---“
Ezra’s eyes darted about the main street as he interrupted the womanizer. “They’re here! They were goin’ to---! “
Seeing the fright in the child’s emerald eyes and the pale complexion, Buck stooped down in front of the frantic child, hoping to calm the boy. “Okay. It’s okay. Just take a deep breath and tell me what’s goin’ on. Who’s here?”
“The men who murdered Miss. Trundle and the other people on the stage! They were in the livery a couple a minutes ago! They were goin’ to the saloon, I think. I don’t know which one, but they were talkin’ about getting a drink and somethin’ ta eat so---“
“That’s good, Ezra,” Buck soothed, pulling the excited child into a hug, feeling the frenzied pounding of the little boy’s heart against his ribs. “That’s real good. Are ya sure it was them?” He felt the little boy nod. “Did they see you?”
“No,” Ezra stated. Embarrassed, he finally forced himself to pull away from the security of the big man’s arms, “I was up in the loft.”
“That’s good.” Wilmington rose, taking the little southerner’s hand. “Now, what say we go find Chris and the others so we can catch those fools?”
“What’s up, Buck?” JD questioned as the womanizer lifted Ezra up to sit on the edge of the desk while the other regulators crowded into the jail’s small office.
“It seems our little Pard here saw some unexpected visitors whilst he was playin’ up in the livery hayloft.” He gave the boy a small wink, telling Ezra that was their story and they’d stick to it. He was certain the little boy had been hiding there, licking his wounds.
Buck hadn’t failed to notice the sadness in the emerald eyes or the fact the child was avoiding looking at Tanner, who was watching the southerner with equally sad blue eyes.
“What visitors?” Larabee demanded. ‘If McMurtry’s starting any shit with the kid, the fat bastard’ll wish he’d never heard of Four Corner!’
“The fellas who robbed the stage decided this might be a good place to hole up.”
“You all right, Ezra?” Vin automatically pushed through the others, moving to stand beside the little boy. “They didn’t hurt ya, did they?”
“I’m fine, Mr. Tanner.” Ezra stared at the floor, his swinging feet nervously banging against the wooden desk. “As far as I know, they have no reason to hurt me… yet.”
“We ain’t gonna let ‘em hurt ya, Ezra,” Nathan was quick to assure the little boy.
“Tell us what happened, Ezra,” Larabee ordered, silencing the other men as they joined Nathan in reassuring the child. “Yer sure it’s the same fellas who attacked the stage?”
“Yes, sir.” The boy nodded, quickly relaying his tale, adding a few minor embellishments to make Buck’s story he’d been playing in the hayloft more believable.
“Ya got a plan, Pard?” Buck asked when the child was finished with his tale.
The gunslinger nodded, growling, “Plan on seein’ them bastards swing.”
“Ya ready, Ezra?” Stopping a few feet from the saloon’s batwing doors, Chris knelt before the small boy who tightly clutched Tanner’s hand. The tracker may not want him around anymore, but the little gambler still fully trusted the sharpshooter would do everything in his power to protect him. If not, then he’d protect himself. He’d look out for number one.
He had learned his lesson well and vowed he would never again disregard Maude’s rules. It hurt too much to care about other folks and this time ignoring her rule of ‘always look out for number one’ could get him killed.
Just as they had at every other location, the Texan and southerner had waited while the other peacekeepers had aimlessly wandered inside and taken up positions around the busy establishments.
Tanner stooped down before the child. “Remember, if ya spot ‘em ya let us know real quiet like---“
“And then I’m to return to the boarding house and wait until you come back,” Ezra repeated the instructions he’d been given in the jail and again before they’d entered the other buildings.
“We ain’t gonna do nothin’ till yer safe and sound,” Larabee announced firmly. The gunslinger had repeatedly told the regulators no one was to make a move until Ezra was safely out of harm’s way.
Still gripping the sharpshooter’s hand, Ezra followed Chris into the saloon.
“Hola, Senor Standish,” Inez smiled as Vin lifted the small boy up and settled him on the bar.
“Hola, Miss Inez.” The child tipped an imaginary hat. “You look very lovely this afternoon. Three beers please.”
“Two beers and a lemonade,” Vin immediately corrected, shaking his head in exasperation.
Chris stifled a grin, “Ya sure he ain’t a twenty year old midget?”
“Startin’ ta wonder iffen he ain’t older than me and you both,” Tanner chuckled, watching as the child casually gazed about the crowded room, studying each patron, taking in every detail.
Tanner’s own gaze raked the room, registering Buck in a far corner, his arm around one of the working girls, while JD and Nathan were seated at a table near the door, for all appearances in some deep discussion as Josiah leaned against the other end of the bar, nursing a full glass of whiskey.
Sipping his lemonade, Ezra watched a nearby poker game, rolling his eyes when one of the cowhands, holding a pair of treys, raised the bet. His fingers itched to feel the smooth cards and, forcing himself to remember why he was there, the little gambler shifted his gaze.
“Hey, Ezra, ya up for a game?” Wyatt called, spotting the youngster.
“Perhaps later, Mr. Wyatt,” Ezra sighed, his gaze momentarily returning to the game at the closest table. “Perhaps we could even persuade Mr. Tanner and Mr. Larabee to participate.”
“Thought ya promised Josiah ya wouldn’t play poker no more?” Vin murmured to the little boy as Wyatt moved on.
“Actually, what I promised Mr. Sanchez was I would no longer play poker at Digger Dan’s,” the child refuted, calmly meeting Tanner’s blue-eyed gaze.
Before the tracker could respond, Ezra stiffened; his hand tightening around the glass, his emerald gaze staring at something over Vin’s left shoulder.
Sipping his beer, Tanner casually shifted his stance, giving him a better view of the room, knowing without looking Larabee had done the same. “Where?”
“The table nearest to the stove,” Ezra whispered.
“Two fellas? One of ‘em an ugly cuss with a face that looks like he’s been trampled by a herd a buffalo?”
“An apt description although I don’t know what someone who’s been trampled by buffalo looks like,” the little boy muttered inanely, certain everyone in the room could hear his heart pounding. He knew talking was his ‘tell’. Whenever he was frightened, he rarely uttered a word, but when nervous, he chattered like a magpie. “That’s the man who robbed Miss Trundle and Mr. Bigalow.” At Vin’s questioning look, he nodded, “I’m certain.”
“Get ‘im outta here, Vin,” Larabee ordered, giving an almost imperceptible nod to the other men.
“Come on, Ez. Mrs. O’Riley’ll be right peeved iffen ya don’t get back in time for dinner,” the sharpshooter declared for the benefit of anyone who might be listening.
Thanking Inez for the refreshment, Ezra set the glass aside, allowing Tanner to help him down from the bar. “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I wouldn’t want to put Mrs. O’Riley to any inconvenience by making her reheat dinner.” He stepped away as Vin reached to take his hand. “Thank you, Mr. Tanner, but I don’t need an escort. I’m sure your friends would like it if you remained with them.”
Neither the tracker nor gunslinger missed the innuendo in the comment. Tanner chewed at his lip wanting nothing more at the moment than to hug the little southerner and wipe the hurt and sadness from the child’s emerald eyes.
Ezra, his eyes constantly darting to the men seated near the stove, wove his way toward the exit. Reaching the batwing doors, he glanced back in time to see Buck move into a closer position as Chris and Vin cautiously started toward the table.
As he hurried for the boarding house, Ezra realized it was over. Larabee and the others would arrest the men and right after the trial, Ezra would be placed on the next stage headed for Mississippi. At least he would get to spend a few more days with the tracker and his friends.
Remembering his abandoned carpetbag containing all his belongings, the child turned from the entrance to the boarding house and hurried toward the livery.
“This table’s taken.” The man Ezra had identified as robbing the dead passengers, growled when the two peacekeepers didn’t continue past them.
“Reckon it won’t be for long,” Tanner commented.
“My friend said this table’s taken… Now move the hell on,” the other man stated without looking up from his drink, “unless yer lookin’ fer trouble and iffen ya are, we can sure give ya plenty.”
“We ain’t lookin’ for trouble,” Larabee remarked, his right hand casually resting near the butt of his six gun, “we’re just lookin’ ta put yer butt ugly asses in jail.”
The noise in the saloon suddenly dropped to whisper level and the other patrons quickly moved out of the line of fire as all eyes were riveted on the face off between the peacekeepers and the men seated at the table.
The first man shrugged. “I don’t see no badge and I sure don’t ‘member ever crossin’ paths with either a ya afore. Reckon ya got us mixed up with some other fellas.”
“Ain’t no mix up. Ya crossed paths with a friend a ours.” The sharpshooter’s blue eyes were as cold as winter ice. “He’s gonna testify that y’all murdered them folk on the stage last week.”
“Weren’t no witnesses ta that robbery.” Realizing his mistake, the man quickly added. “Least ways that’s what we heard. Ain’t that right, Beeks?”
“That’s the way I heard it,” his companion agreed. “Reckon yer friend’s a liar… Or you are.” He half snarled, glaring at the young tracker.
“Judge Travis and a jury’ll decide who’s lyin’.” The gun was in Larabee’s hand before either of the men could touch their weapons. “What say we do this without y’all getting hurt? Just lay yer guns on the table real easy like and we’ll all take a nice peaceful walk over ta the jail.”
“Where’s yer other friend?” Tanner didn’t take his eyes off the men as they pushed to their feet. Ezra had said there were three men.
“Right here!” Chaos erupted as a bullet buried itself in the wooden support post near Larabee’s head. Gunfire, loud voices, and swearing filled the saloon.
Carpetbag in hand, Ezra ducked into Peso’s stall when the first shot rang out. He wanted to know what was happening, desperately wanted to be certain Vin and the other peace officers were safe, but he was smart enough to know a bullet was just as likely to kill an innocent bystander as its intended target.
Ezra’s pride wouldn’t let him ask again, but any chance he might have had in changing the sharpshooter’s mind regarding letting him stay had just disappeared. He had lied to the tracker. He’d told Tanner he would be good. He’d promised he wouldn’t be any trouble, yet straight off, he’d disobeyed orders to wait in Vin’s room at the boarding house. He had promised Vin and Mr. Larabee and now, even if Tanner had changed his mind, odds were Larabee wouldn’t let him stay because he knew the child couldn’t be trusted.
Thoughts of staying fled the child’s mind at the sound of running footsteps approaching the barn. The boy crouched further into the corner, pulling the derringer from his jacket pocket. The door was jerked open and a man, panting heavily, ran down the center aisle passing the boy’s hiding place without even glancing his way.
Peeking through the wooden slats of the stall, Ezra heart began beating rapidly, his breath catching in his throat as Vin, gripping his mare’s leg, entered the livery. Afraid for the man who’d treated him so kindly, the boy wanted to scream at the Texan to just let the man leave, but his voice caught in his throat when, alert for any movement, Tanner slowly worked his way down the aisle, checking each stall and any place a man could be hiding.
The sharpshooter unexpectedly froze, his blue eyes widening as he spotted the small southerner. He nodded in understanding and motioned for the boy to stay put when Ezra silently pointed toward the back of the livery.
Ezra couldn’t prevent his horrified outcry as a sudden exchange of gunfire sent Tanner, with a painful grunt, sprawling face down in the muck and hay. Avoiding the agitated horse’s hooves, the little boy scrambled to where his motionless friend lay.
Ignoring the kid, the outlaw approached and, kicking Tanner’s gun aside, the man aimed his own weapon at the tracker’s back. He might not be able to save his companions or even himself, but he was determined to send this peacekeeper to his grave. Laughing coldly, he started to squeeze the trigger. “Give the devil my regards, ass hole.”
Shots rang out and stumbling backwards, the man’s evil grin turned to an expression of shock as Ezra emptied both barrels of the derringer into him.
Ezra didn’t see the bandit struggle to raise the gun before collapsing against one of the stalls. On his knees, begging the tracker to wake up, pleading with him not to die, the child was unaware of anything, but his one true friend sprawled in the dirt. He wasn’t aware of the other peace keepers’ presence until Nathan gently lifted him, setting the boy aside as he and Larabee knelt beside the Texan.
Trembling, the color draining from his horrorstruck face, the words being spoken nothing more than incoherent garbled sounds in his ears, Ezra watched wild-eyed as Chris gently eased Tanner onto his back, the healer ripping open the tracker’s blood soaked shirt.
All Ezra could see was the blood which covered Vin’s chest and shaking his head in frantic denial, the little southerner turned and fled.
Hearing the gunfire, Larabee, Wilmington and Jackson rushed to the livery in time to see Ezra empty the small gun’s bullets into the outlaw. Covering the man as he crumpled to the dirt floor, they hurried forward, Buck moving to check the bandit as Nathan and Chris knelt beside Tanner.
Moments earlier, in the saloon, the two men at the table had reacted at their companion’s first shot, immediately drawing their weapons when the third man fired at Larabee.
Leaving the others to handle Beeks and his companion, Vin had given chase when, using one of the barmaids as a shield, the third gunman had fled out the back.
Quickly gaining control of the situation, Josiah and JD had escorted the captured men to the jail, allowing the others to assist Vin. It appeared however, they were too late to protect their friend.
“Reckon it looks worse than it is, but let’s get ‘im up ta the clinic and make sure.” Pressing the sharpshooter’s bandanna against the bleeding wound, the ex-slave glanced over his shoulder to where Wilmington was doing the same for the criminal. “Buck?”
“He’ll live. Take care of Vin.”
Ezra sat in the middle of Vin’s large bed, his arms wrapped around his drawn up legs, his head resting on his knees.
The sun had been down for hours, but he hadn’t bothered to light the lamp, instead preferring the darkness.
He knew they’d be coming for him soon.
He wondered if they would let him telegraph Maude. Would she come to the trial? Would she stay for the hanging? What was it like to be locked away? What was it like to sit in a small cell, waiting to meet the grim reaper? What was it like to walk past everyone gathered in the streets watching in morbid fascination as you climbed the gallows steps? Watching as the hangman placed the noose around your neck and pulled the lever of the trap door?
They’d be coming for him soon.
A shudder racked his small body. He’d killed a man. They hanged people for murder. It wouldn’t matter to anyone why he’d killed that man, only that he had. No one would care that he’d been frightened and angrier than he could ever remember. The only thing that mattered was he had taken another person’s life.
Ezra swallowed hard, around the lump in his throat. Would Maude come to be with him? Would she stay until it was over? Maybe if he asked— if it were all right with Chris and the others— she would bury him beside the only friend he’d ever had.
He scrubbed at his burning eyes. Damn! He’d finally proven Uncle Bradley right. If they hadn’t known before, everyone would now be certain Ezra Standish was indeed truly evil. A dry bitter laugh, sounding more like a sob, escaped his pale lips. He’d bet every dime he had Uncle Bradley would even volunteer to be the hangman.
He glanced nervously at the door. They’d be coming for him soon.
Seated beside the bed in the clinic, Chris finally allowed himself to relax, trusting Nathan’s statement Vin was going to be fine.
Pure terror had gripped the gunslinger’s heart at the sight of the sharpshooter lying motionless in a puddle of his own blood. As unlikely as it seemed, from the very beginning he had felt a connection with Tanner, different, but just as strong as the bond Larabee shared with Wilmington.
Earlier, knowing Chris would remain with the sharpshooter who was now sleeping peacefully; Nathan had filled his medical bag with supplies and gone to the jail to help Josiah and JD tend the prisoners’ wounds.
The gunslinger couldn’t shake the nagging feeling, there was something which needed to be done… something left undone. Something important he should take care of, but the door opened and the nagging thought was forgotten as Buck entered.
“Brought ya some grub, Pard.” Buck set the tray on the table, passing one of the cups of coffee to his oldest friend.
Nodding his thanks, Larabee ignored the sandwiches on the tray, instead savoring the coffee and a cheroot as the big man moved to check on Vin.
Buck had helped Chris hold the sharpshooter down, forcing himself to ignore the cries of pain as the healer dug the bullet from Tanner’s chest. His friends’ pain always tore at the softhearted womanizer, but he’d never been one to turn away from someone in need of help.
Wilmington softly rested a hand on the lean Texan’s forehead, needing to reassure himself the tracker had won this latest altercation with death.
“Ya heard Nate. He’s gonna be fine,” Larabee reassured his friend, hiding his smile behind the coffee cup. The peacekeepers had all experienced Buck’s mother hen tendencies. The big man unobtrusively worried about and watched over his friends as if he had indeed given birth to each of them. Chris knew all too well, Buck was as loyal as they came and once given, his friendship was life long. He momentarily wondered if, after the Seminole village, he’d left to help the tracker clear his name, how long it would have taken for the womanizer to come ambling into Tascosa.
“Our prisoners still breathin’?” he questioned quietly.
“Yeah, Nathan don’t ‘spect the one from the livery’ll ever use his arm again, but I reckon he won’t need it more’n a couple days after the trial.”
“Nate still at the jail?”
“I sent ‘im over ta my room ta get some sleep.” The womanizer crossed to take a seat at the table. Rubbing the back of his neck, Buck tried to rid himself of the feeling he was forgetting something important. “JD and Josiah’s gonna split the night shift. Figured I’d relieve the preacher in the mornin’.”
“And which lady will you be bunkin’ with?” Chris questioned. “Just in case we need ta find ya,” he clarified with a small chuckle, certain the jovial gunman wouldn’t go any further than the other side of door.
“This bench ain’t all that comfortable, but I’ve slept in worst places.” Wilmington shrugged, adding with a grin, “Of course, it would be a lot more comfortable if I had a prettier companion than you.” His eyes drifted back to the man in the bed. “Damn fool kid’s been hangin’ ‘round JD too long. Acts like he’s bullet proof or somethin’.”
Larabee let the ex-Ranger grumble, certain it was just a release for the man’s pent up fear at the thought of losing a member of his new family.
“I swear I—“ Buck jumped from the bench, moving to join Chris at the tracker’s bedside when Vin suddenly groaned, struggling to return to consciousness.
Crushing the thin cigar beneath his heel, Chris reached for the cup of medicinal tea Nathan had left on the bedside table as the Texan blinked, trying to focus his blue eyes.
Buck braced the tracker’s head and shoulders as Larabee held the cup to Tanner’s lips. The ex-bounty hunter tried to turn away, but receiving a cross look from Larabee, thought better of it and swallowed, gagging on the bitter tea.
“How ya feelin’, Pard?” The gunslinger questioned as Buck eased Vin back onto the pillows. “Nate says yer gonna have ta spend a few days here, but yer gonna be fine.”
Buck leaned closer straining to hear as the ex-bounty hunter’s lips moved. “E-E-Ezra?”
The womanizer glanced around the room, forcing a smile before turning back to the sharpshooter. “Get some sleep; we’ll look after the little fella.”
“Ezzz…” Vin repeated stubbornly, struggling to fight off the weakness caused by his wound as well as the effects of the tea.
“He’s sleepin’, Vin, just like you should be,” Larabee lied smoothly. As the tracker settled back into a pain free sleep, Chris nodded for Wilmington to stay with Tanner and hurriedly slipped from the clinic.
“Ezra?” Larabee called softly, slowing pushing open the door of Vin’s room. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he spotted the youngster’s small form in the middle of the large bed. Crossing to the table, Chris lit the kerosene lamp, turning down the flame, not wanting to awaken the sleeping child.
Chris stood for a long moment, sadly staring at the little boy whose head rested on his upraised knees. He mentally kicked himself. How was it none of them had given a thought to the puzzling, beguiling little southerner who could bring a lopsided smile to the sharpshooter’s handsome face with a simple wave?
“Did I kill him?”
The quiet words startled the gunslinger and he blinked in confusion, wondering if Ezra was asking about the man he’d shot or blaming himself for Vin’s injury.
“The man from the stage.” Ezra slowly raised his head to stare at the man with flat emotionless eyes when Larabee didn’t immediately answer. “Did I kill him?”
“No,” Chris shook his head, “he’s not dead.”
“Too bad.” The emerald eyes, which had been devoid of emotion, suddenly glittered brightly with hatred. “I should have aimed for the bastard’s black heart.”
Waiting to be arrested, Ezra had concluded if hanging were the payment for avenging Vin’s death, than it was a debt he would pay without complaint. His Uncle Bradley was fond of quoting the scripture, ‘an eye for an eye,’ but the child was certain the outlaw’s death wasn’t nearly punishment enough. The gentle hearted sharpshooter was worth a thousand of the worthless bastard who had ended his life. In the end, it really didn’t matter. Nothing anyone could ever do would replace the sharpshooter.
Remembering the boy’s reaction the last time he’d been alone in this room with the gunslinger, Larabee sat down on the edge of the bed, making an effort not to frighten the child. “Ya okay, Ezra?” he questioned quietly.
The little southerner gazed at the darkness beyond the window. No, he wasn’t okay. He would never be okay again. His young heart had shattered into countless tiny pieces that should have hardened to stone with the death of his friend. Instead, each of those pieces ached to see the sharpshooter’s lopsided smile one more time.
“How long?” he managed to whisper.
“How long what?” Chris stared at the boy in puzzlement. It wasn’t hard for him to imagine grown men losing their money to the little boy. The southerner had a poker face to rival that of many of the professional gamblers he’d encountered. However, Vin had been correct when he’d commented on just how expressive the child’s emerald eyes could be.
“How long will I have to stay in jail?”
“You think I came to take you to jail?” Larabee jerked back in stunned surprise and couldn’t keep the incredulous tone from his voice. “Why the hell would I do that?”
“I did shoot that man,” Ezra stated rationally. “The regretful fact I didn’t kill the bastard may have saved me from the gallows, but attempted murder does justify a prison sentence.”
The astonishing reality of what the child was saying struck Chris as hard as any physical blow. ‘Damn! He’s been sitting here all this time, believin’ he was gonna hang.’
“Ya shot ‘im ta save Vin!” Chris pointed out; realizing attempting to follow this child’s impossible train of thought was like trying to follow one of Vin’s trails over solid rock.
“Fat lotta good that did! I’m sorry, Mr. Larabee...” Ezra swiped at the hated tears, which escaped when he could no longer control the tidal wave of emotions that washed over him. “H-he helped…m-me.” The southern accent thickened. “V-Vin might n-not a wanted me, b-but he was n-nice ta m-me without wantin’- anythin’ back. He s-s-saved my life, but…I couldn’t d-do the s-same for him…I t-tried…” The tears increased with his admission, flowing freely down his pale cheeks.
With those stuttered words, it suddenly hit Chris head on exactly what had the little boy in such turmoil.
“Vin’s not dead, Ezra!”
Tear bright eyes locked on the man’s face and a spark of hope flickered in the southerner’s green gaze as he sought the truth in Larabee’s statement.
Chris nodded in answer to the child’s unspoken question. “He’s alive, Ezra, and Nathan says he’s gonna be just fine.”
A shuddery sigh of relief escaped the little boy’s lips as he sagged forward, his thin shoulders shaking.
Larabee pulled Ezra onto his lap, surprised when the child tensed, but didn’t resist. Wrapping his arms around the boy as Ezra’s sobs grew stronger, racking his small body, Chris gently rocked back and forth, in an old familiar gesture, which had always worked to calm Adam when he was distressed.
Ezra’s sobs finally slowed, ending with several hiccups and sniffling.
Guilt tore at the gunslinger. What kind of men were they that they had left the distraught little boy alone with only his grief and fear for company? He gently stroked the child’s chestnut curls. “I’m sorry we didn’t come and tell you sooner, Ezra, but---“
“Perfectly understandable, Mr. Larabee.” Ezra hiccupped. “Informing me was the least of your concerns…” He pushed back and stared into the man’s face. “He’s really gonna be okay?”
“I wouldn’t lie ta ya… None of us would. Vin’s gonna be laid up in the clinic for a couple a days, but I give ya my word, he’s gonna be just fine. Matter a fact, he woke up a little bit ago and was askin’ for ya.”
“Me?” A strange tone of disbelieving wonder tinged the one whispered word. Straightening, he stared at Chris, his expression dubious. “He…he asked for me? Why?”
“Cause he cares about ya.” The flicker of hope faded in the boy’s green eyes, to be replaced with doubt.
More than anything Ezra wanted to believe the gunslinger was telling him the truth, but history had repeated itself too many times for him. He’d heard too many lies, had clung to words of promise with all the expectation his small body could muster, only to find they were simply platitudes which meant nothing. The stubborn little southerner wouldn’t allow himself to be hurt again. No one cared about him and he refused to believe anyone ever would. He’d made a vow to himself and he damn well intended to keep it.
Chris tightened his hold as, struggling to regain control, Ezra attempted to pull away.
“I apologize for causing such an embarrassing scene, Mr. Larabee, but there’s really no need to try and soothe my feelings,” Ezra stated with a dignified air. “Just as there was no need for Mr. Tanner to come up with a contrived excuse--“
“Look at me, Ezra.” The gunman lightly gripped Ezra’s chin, tilting the little boy’s head up. He realized the child could already read people as easily as Tanner read the tracks in the dirt and Chris wanted Ezra to know he was being told the truth. “Vin doesn’t make excuses. He never has. Don’t reckon he ever will. He cares about ya, Ezra. He cares more than he thinks he should. I think…I know it would make ‘im happier than he’s ever been if he could just keep ya with ‘im. And I know one of the hardest things he’ll ever do in his life will be leaving ya with them relatives a yours and ridin’ away.”
Ezra pulled away from the man’s hand and stared out the window. “I appreciate it, Mr. Larabee, but ya don’t have to worry about that. I see no reason to cause Mr. Tanner any emotional upheaval. I don’t need an escort.” He wasn’t about to admit it to this man, but he wasn’t going back to Uncle Bradley’s if he could possibly help it. Even if it meant sleeping on the ground and eating roots and berries in the wilderness, he was not going back. “I assure you I’m perfectly capable of---“
“Taking care of yourself. I know,” the blonde-haired man finished, unable to prevent a small grin. “But remember what I said before… You shouldn’t have to. You’re a little boy, Ezra. A very smart little boy, but a little boy just the same. Ya deserve someone who cares about ya and wants ta take care of ya.”
“Thank you, Mr. Larabee.”
From his tone, Chris couldn’t help thinking what Ezra was actually saying was ‘You’re wrong, but thank you anyway’.
“Believe me when I tell ya that Vin wants ya ta stay and if he thought the judge and yer ma would agree, he’d jump at the chance ta keep ya here with ‘im. Banker McMurtry and bounty hunters be damned! He cares about ya, Ezra… We all do,” he admitted quietly.
Larabee watched as Ezra chewed nervously at his trembling lower lip, staring at the fingers he twisted together in his lap, uncertain how to react to the gunslinger’s admission.
Setting the boy on his feet, Chris rose and held out his hand, pleased when Ezra hesitantly placed his small hand in Larabee’s palm. “What say we go over to the clinic and ya can see Vin for yourself? I’d feel a mite better if someone was there ta sit with ‘im while me and Buck talk about coverin’ patrols.” He smiled down at the southerner. “If we hurry we might be able to beat Buck to some a those sandwiches Inez made.”
Filling his coffee cup for the third, Buck turned, smiling as the door opened and Ezra slowly stepped over the threshold, glancing back at Chris who nodded encouragingly. “Hey, Ez.”
“Mr. Wilmington,” Ezra whispered a greeting, his worried emerald gaze focused on the still figure in the bed.
“Vin sure is gonna be happy ya come ta visit ‘im.” Filling a second cup, Wilmington slipped out to join the gunslinger on the balcony.
“We’ll be right out here, Ezra,” Larabee remarked. “Just call out if he needs us.”
His fearful gaze still locked on the tracker, the little southerner didn’t acknowledge Larabee as Ezra hurried to the side of the bed. He didn’t even hear the door softly close behind the two men, leaving him alone with Vin.
Ezra stood for several minutes staring at the man who’d come to mean so much to him in such a short period of time. The tracker’s normally tanned complexion seemed pale and the child could see the edge of the bandage that encircled Tanner’s chest. The little boy wasn’t certain he believed in Uncle Bradley’s God, but he took a moment to silently utter a thankful prayer of thanks the vengeful deity had spared the sharpshooter’s life.
Hesitating for a moment, he climbed onto the bed, careful not to hurt Tanner, as Vin emitted a small moan. The little southerner softly pat the Texan’s scruffy cheek. “Shhhh, everythin’s all right. Dr. Jackson says ya need ta rest.” He tried to keep his voice at a soothing whisper. “Chris says yer gonna be just fine…He promised me ya was.”
“C-c-count on it.”
Startled by the raspy words, Ezra scrambled backwards, dropping to the floor.
“C-Chris don’t make promises he c-can’t keep,” Vin murmured huskily.
Staring at the toe of his boot as he scuffed it against the floorboards, avoiding the injured man’s sleepy blue eyes, the little boy nodded. Suddenly realizing the tracker might be thirsty, Ezra carefully returned to his place at the sharpshooter’s side, holding the cup of herb laced water as Vin drank his fill.
“We need ta t-t-talk, Lil Pard,” Tanner yawned, his words slurred and barely audible. “But r-right now it’s p-p-past yer b-bedtime.”
“…He really thought he was gonna hang?” Sipping his coffee, the womanizer shook his head as he leaned back against the balcony rail.
“Yep.” Chris nodded. “Hell of it is, I think he was more upset about Vin than he was ‘bout dyin’ his own self. Reckon he could accept hangin’, but not accept the fact he couldn’t save Vin.”
Buck shook his head again. “He’s a helluva kid.”
“Yep. He is that.”
Easing open the clinic door, the two men shared wide grins. Ezra lay next to the sharpshooter, his head resting on Vin’s shoulder as Tanner’s left arm held him close. They were both sleeping soundly and it was hard to tell which of them wore a more peaceful and contented expression.
Seated on the clinic balcony, his right arm braced in a sling, Ezra at his side, the sharpshooter stared up at the night sky.
Nathan had said he could leave the clinic in the morning, but he had to stay in the boarding house room, rather than his wagon.
“Ya ain’t gotta be nervous tamorra,” Vin softly stated.
They were both aware Orrin Travis had arrived on the late afternoon stage. Announcing the trial of the stage bandits would begin the following morning, the federal officer had retired to the home of his daughter-in-law. “Ya just tell the judge what happened.”
“Yes, sir.” The child nodded.
“Promise, nobody’s gonna hurt ya.”
It was several long moments before the tracker broke the silence once more. “Wanna talk about it?”
“Whatever yer ponderin’ on.” Ezra quickly dropped his eyes as Tanner glanced his direction.
“It has occurred to me I will be unable to keep my promise to Dr. Jackson.” The child had been pleased when the healer had recruited him to care for the tracker, trusting him to make certain Tanner followed orders. Now, with the judge’s arrival, Ezra’s departure from Four Corners was imminent. He didn’t want to think about leaving and he especially didn’t want to talk about it.
“Any particular reason why?” Vin flinched when he shifted positions as the little boy gazed out over the dark street illuminated only by the small street fires.
“Is your wound bothering you, Mr. Tanner?” Hearing the tracker’s movement and his slight intake of breath, Ezra quickly turned to the tracker using the opportunity to evade Vin’s question. “Perhaps you should retire for the evening.”
“Been laying abed for three days. Reckon that’s long enough,” Vin half heartedly growled, frustrated with being confined.
Ezra disappeared into the clinic, only to return a moment later carrying a bottle of whiskey. “Then perhaps a splash of this will help ease your pain and allow you a more comfortable night’s sleep.” He poured a shot into the sharpshooter’s coffee, before adjusting the blanket around Tanner’s shoulders.
Tanner frowned. He had quickly learned the little southerner was a master of misdirection. When Ezra didn’t wish to discuss something, it was rarely discussed. Respecting his privacy, Vin decided to wait until Ezra was ready to finish the conversation. He nodded towards his coffee mug. "Where’d ya get this, Ez? Never known Nate ta keep whiskey in the clinic.”
“I persuaded Mr. Wyatt to purchase it for me since Miss Inez doesn’t regard it prudent to sell alcohol to someone my age.”
Vin chuckled. “I reckon she’d be right, but I sure do ‘ppreciate it.”
“It’s the least I could do considering--“
“Weren’t yer fault, Ezra,” Tanner interrupted the child with fierce determination. He hadn’t needed Larabee to tell him the child was blaming himself for the tracker being injured. “This is jist a risk that comes with my job here. That’s all I’m gonna say and the last we’re gonna talk of it.” He took a sip of the spiked coffee and waved the mug towards the horizon. “Gonna rain afore the night’s out.”
Ezra glanced heavenward. The cloudless sky was alight with a million stars, but somehow the boy found himself without a doubt in his mind the ex-bounty hunter was correct.
“Lookee there!” Tanner exclaimed suddenly. They watched as a shooting star streaked across the sky. “Did ya make a wish?” Vin asked enthusiastically.
“Whatever for?” Ezra stared at the Texan as if he’d lost his mind.
“Iffen ya see a shootin’ star and ya make a wish, it’ll come true.”
“That’s merely a myth, Mr. Tanner,” the little southerner scoffed. How many times had Maude declared wishes and dreams were for fools?
“Might be, but don’t stop me from makin’ me a wish.” Vin grinned. “’Spose ya don’t believe in Santa Claus neither,” he joked.
Ezra’s frown was visible in the faint light from the street fires. “Who?”
The tracker thought the kid was being sarcastic until he saw the bewilderment on the boy’s face. “Santa…Ya know…fat fella who brings ya presents at Christmas time.”
“Oh, him,” Ezra made a face.
“Ya don’t believe in Santa Claus?” What little child didn’t believe in Santa?
“Mr. Tanner, I have no reason to believe in a jolly fellow who supposedly spends all year making gifts for children who aren’t related to him and in fact he’s never even met. Besides which, sneaking into a stranger’s home in the middle of the night is a quick way to get yourself killed,” Ezra sighed in exasperation, hoping he didn’t offend the Texan. “If the legend were indeed true, he only dispenses gifts to good little children and I most certainly would not qualify.”
Tanner heard the hint of sadness in the little southerner’s voice as he voiced the last statement. “I think you’re a magnificent kid, Ez. Reckon ya’d be at the top a ol’ Santa’s list. Do me a favor, huh?”
“Of course, Mr. Tanner. Anything.”
“Close yer eyes,” Vin watched as, momentarily hesitating, Ezra dipped into the reserve of trust he had in the tracker and taking a deep breath, he slowly closed his emerald eyes. “Now …make a wish.”
Tanner slouched in the chair, the fingers of his left hand drumming nervously against his thigh, his eyes constantly drifting to the door of the Granary. The predicted rain had turned to a drizzle, which had stopped only moments before.
His five friends paced the boardwalk, their own anxiety keeping them from finding the proper words to offer reassurance or comfort to their friend.
As soon as Judge Travis had pronounced sentence on the three men, ending the trial, he’d cleared the makeshift courtroom, requesting Ezra remain behind.
Having approached the judge before the trial, McMurtry had given the peace keepers a smug smile as he exited, certain Travis would see things his way.
“He did good in there,” Nathan commented, hoping to find something to break the tension. “Ya’d a thought he testified in a murder trial everyday.”
Everyone, but Vin, murmured and nodded in agreement.
“They have been in there an awful long time.” JD sagged against the wall. “Ya don’t think the judge’ll send ‘im ta some asylum like Mc—“ Buck’s sharp elbow to his ribs kept the young sheriff from completing his question.
“Judge Travis is a good man. He’ll do what he believes is best.” Josiah laid a reassuring hand on the tracker’s slender shoulder. As the door opened, everyone straightened and the preacher’s grip tightened on Vin when Judge Travis stepped out onto the boardwalk, followed by the silent little southerner.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Ezra.” Orrin shook the boy’s hand. “I’ll be sure and look for that book you recommended for Billy.” He turned to Vin. “Mr. Tanner, I trust when Maude returns you will have a talk with her regarding the hazards facing a child traveling alone as well as curtailing some of your nephew’s more illicit habits.”
Travis choked back a chuckle as the six peace keepers tried unsuccessfully to hide their incredulous expressions, Buck placing a big hand over the young sheriff’s mouth before Dunne could say anything which would belie the judge’s statement.
The sharpshooter merely nodded, afraid of what would come out if he opened his mouth to speak.
“If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I believe Mary has lunch waiting.” With a tip of his hat, the old gentleman left the regulators staring after him in stunned silence, then as one, they all swung around to stare at the young southerner.
Ezra took a step backwards as the six pairs of eyes turned to him. “I-I didn’t realize it was past the dinner hour. If you care ta join me, gentlemen, I’ll be more than happy ta pay---“
Pushing away Wilmington’s hand, JD stared at the tracker. “Vin, where’d the judge get the notion Maude’s yer sister?”
“Evidently from a certain little southerner.” Nathan folded his arms across his chest, staring down at the child in disapproval. “Ya lied to the judge, didn’t ya, Ezra? Ya lied to that kind old man---”
Shaking his head, the child backed up another step. “On the contrary, Dr. Jackson. I…I---“
“Ya didn’t tell ‘im Vin was yer uncle?” the healer insisted.
“Damnit, Nate, let ‘im talk!” Buck declared.
“It’s all right, Ez.” Vin waved the little gambler to his side, still stunned the judge had decided to place Ezra in his care. He wrapped an arm protectively around the little boy’s waist. “What happened in there?”
“We talked about several different things and I told him about a new book by Mark Twain I thought his grandson might enjoy. He told me Mr. McMurtry disapproved of my prof…of the ways in which I occupy my time…” The boy glanced at each of the men before squaring his shoulders. “I simply stated Maude knew I was with Vin. That she was expecting me to stay with my uncle and if he sent me to live somewhere else, she wouldn’t know where to find me. It’s certainly not my fault if he jumped to the conclusion Mr. Tanner was the uncle to which I was referring.”
Larabee bit his lip in an effort to hold back his laughter. He was well aware the judge was no fool. Orrin Travis knew Tanner didn’t have any living relatives.
Uncertainty flooded Ezra as he watched the mixture of expressions exchanged among the regulators. “My apologies, gentlemen. I don’t wish to cause you any inconvenience.” He stepped away from the sharpshooter’s embrace. “My luggage is packed and--“
“And you’ll just unpack it cause ya ain’t goin’ nowhere till yer ma comes back for ya,” Vin announced, a wide grin lighting his handsome face, his blue eyes shining with joy.
“Mr. McMurtry isn’t going to be happy,” Ezra stated blithely. Following his emerald gaze, they watched as further down the boardwalk, Travis and the banker exchanged several words before McMurtry angrily marched in their direction.
Larabee and Wilmington turned, standing shoulder to shoulder, their stance daring the portly man to intrude on the sharpshooter’s happiness.
“I’ll be watching and if that little bas-…that child causes any trouble at all, I’ll make certain he’s sent somewhere where he can’t do any harm,” the banker snarled, before crossing the street toward his establishment.
As he reached the middle of the muddy thoroughfare, the banker stepped back to avoid several cowhands hurrying by on horseback. Slipping in the muck, his arms waving wildly in a vain attempt to keep his balance, the fat banker landed face first in the mud.
At the soft sound of a child’s giggling, all eyes turned to the little southerner, staring in wonderment at the child’s first smile since arriving in Four Corners. Dimples deepened and green eyes sparkled as the giggles built, changing to contagious laughter, which brought about belly laughs from the six peacekeepers.
“Don’t know ‘bout you fellas, but I’m hungry and if I remember right, Ezra, here, volunteered ta buy lunch.” Wilmington lifted the laughing little boy onto his shoulders and led the way to the restaurant.
Watching from the door of The Clarion’s office, Orrin Travis smiled, nodding to himself as the happy men and smiling little boy moved down the boardwalk.
After listening to McMurtry, he’d been expecting a devil child from the bowels of hell, not the polite little con artist whom he’d spent the past hour talking with. Travis had long ago discovered a person could learn as much by what wasn’t said as by what was said.
Travis wasn’t concerned about the legality of placing the child in the ex-bounty hunter’s care. He was certain the six hired guns needed the somber little southerner just as much as Ezra needed them and he couldn’t help, but wonder what the future held for the seven.
Still smiling, he turned away, knowing he’d done the right thing.