Part of the Child's Play series
(Little Ezra - Old West)
Disclaimer: I don't own them, but I sure would look after them if I did!!
Summary: It's not always easy to settle into a new home, especially with Chris Larabee as your Guardian, but Ezra is nothing if now capable.
Author's notes: This is my second story in the Child's Play series, and has been a long time coming... whew, but I glad it's done:0). I would like to thank Ursula for her wonderful Beta reading..
Back to: Child's Play
Ezra Standish sat dejectedly back and watched as the large black insect slowly made it's way across the table in front of him. It had been two weeks since he had arrived in the small town of Four Corners looking for Sarah Larabee and her family. He had not found Sarah Larabee as he had expected but instead her widowed husband, the darkly clad moody gunslinger Chris Larabee.
Their first meeting had not gone well and the next day Ezra had discovered, much to his horror, that his mother, Maude Standish, had left for France with her latest paramour the same day as she had put him on the train bound for Four Corners. Young Ezra, on overhearing that Larabee planned to return him to his abusive uncle - or an orphanage - had tried to return to San Francisco where he felt sure he could earn his own living by gambling and running small time scams until his mother returned. To this end, he had stolen Buck Wilmington's horse to ride to Pine Ridge, intending to continue his journey to San Francisco via the train service which ran from that town. Unfortunately, during the night he had lost the trail and then broken a bone in his lower leg after being thrown by the horse. Luckily for him, Chris, Vin and the others had gone after him once they discovered him missing. He fully realised that if they had not, then he could very well have died out in the desert.
Ezra was still not sure why Chris Larabee had changed his mind but the gunslinger had decided to keep the lad in Four Corners with him. Initially, the young boy had been grateful for the gunslinger's change of heart but now, sitting in the make shift classroom in the old church listening to Josiah drone on about how important doing your letters were, he was not so sure.
It was hot and very stuffy inside the small airless room at the back of the church and his leg throbbed painfully. It was still heavily splinted and stretched awkwardly out in front of him on a stool that Josiah had found for him. He had only been released from Nathan's clinic a few days before and had returned to a much larger room that Chris Larabee had rented at the local boarding house.
Whereas the previous room that he had shared with Larabee had been small with only the one bed - his bed having been a makeshift affair on the floor - Larabee had returned him to a larger twin bedded room, which they were to share. Of course Ezra had objected strongly to this arrangement but Chris had firmly pointed out that until the boy could pay for his own room, Larabee would only be paying for the one room. Ezra had accepted his words with ill grace but had held his tongue as he had come to realise that Four Corners was the only place his mother knew to look for him when she returned from her travels. Which he hoped would be soon.
"You have done well today, children." Josiah's deep voice cut into Ezra's idle musing and he reluctantly turned his attention back to the classroom. The group was small, consisting of only eight other children, who were now eagerly packing away their slate-boards and chalks. "Now Jamie...." The preacher continued, addressing Mrs Potter's only son. The boy sat to attention and looked eagerly towards his teacher. Ezra knew that he enjoyed the lessons that Josiah gave - the preacher always made them interesting and seemed to know so much about the world far beyond their small town. Ezra pulled a face but said nothing. As far as he was concerned, Jamie Potter should have permanent knee ache as he crawled so much. Josiah continued "You remember to read that chapter to your mother tonight and I will test you on it in the morning." The lad nodded eagerly. Josiah smiled broadly at him, then continued giving out homework to the other children.
"Ezra." The boy started as the voice called his name and looked up in surprise towards Josiah who was addressing him. "You can re-write that section from the book you read to us earlier..." Ezra considered what he had to do and slowly nodded, before he turned his attention back to bug watching. He noticed with disappointment that the large insect had disappeared while his attention had been fixed on the larger man. He sighed as he had had a private bet with himself, as to which direction it would disappear in. While he pondered this fact, the rest of the children had finished gathering up their equipment and shouted their goodbyes and fled out into the afternoon sunshine. Josiah watched until they had made it to the door before he turned his attention back to the small pile of books on the desk in front of him.
Ezra waited until the room was empty before he slowly clambered to his uninjured foot, roughly pulling the handmade crutches out from behind his chair. Josiah was suddenly there helping him with a hand under his elbow. Ezra warmly smiled his thanks as the preacher asked, "Will you be alright getting to where your going?"
"Yes," young Standish replied. "Mr Larabee said I was to do my homework before dinner, so I'm going back to Mr Larabee's room to do it."
Josiah nodded and after making sure Ezra made it down the steps outside the church he return to continue his marking. He had to have it ready before school the next day. Josiah smiled as he considered that even the teacher had homework.
Ezra carefully manoeuvred his way down the steps and out into the sun. He knew that Josiah had watched him but he ignored it, as he really needed to concentrate on using the uneven crutches that Buck had made. He smiled as he recalled how proud the big man had been when he brought them into Nathan's clinic the week before. Ezra paused and took a deep breath, it was very tiring walking with the crutches and it jarred his leg painfully but at least he was able to move independently and didn't need to be carried everywhere. He would have hated that.
It was nice to be outside even though he could feel the first chills of the coming winter. Ezra glanced up and saw that Jamie Potter was impatiently waiting for him at the bottom of the steps and when Ezra drew even with him Jamie roughly thrust out his thick winter coat and snarled, "Here... take it..." then turned and chased after his sister.
Ezra looked down at the coat then at the boy racing away and smiled. He had played poker earlier on, during break time with Jamie, when Josiah had left them alone for a short while and had won the warm winter coat. He was feeling quite pleased with himself, as he only had his old summer jacket and his best red dress jacket and neither was really designed for the winter that spread across the western plains.
Slowly, painfully, he made his way back up to the room he shared with Chris Larabee. He had just enough time before dinner to do the homework that Josiah had set for him.
Chris Larabee was sitting in front of the jail enjoying the last of the summer sun. He knew that within the month the cold wind of winter would be making itself strongly felt within the small town of Four Corners. Vin Tanner sat in comfortable silence by his side; the tracker had only recently returned from the afternoon patrol on the borders of the town and both men were looking forward to dinner and a pleasant evening spent in the saloon.
"Looks like trouble," Vin commented, just loud enough for Chris to pick it up. Glancing in the direction the tracker was looking he saw Mrs Potter's portly form storming towards them. Her expression certainly meant trouble for someone.
The gunslinger gently pulled his hat down over his eyes in an attempt to miss the woman's glance as she thundered by. Several long seconds passed before he realised that Mrs Potter had in fact come to a stop before him.
"Mr Larabee." Her tone was firm but sharp, her lips a thin red line of anger that split across her face.
Reluctantly Larabee pushed back his dark hat and squinted up at the widowed storeowner. "Ma'am." He said conversationally.
"Could you please explain to me why young Master Standish." There was a slight hint of disdain a she spat the name, "has stolen my son's new winter coat?"
Chris sat up straighter and glared at the woman, who wilted under the angry look. "Stolen?" he questioned his voice, nearly too quite to hear but rock hard.
The woman swallowed hard before she continued determined to have her say, "Jamie came home from school today and said that... that hooligan had taken it from him."
Vin leant forward, his own features turning to stone at the woman's harsh words and said slowly, his words informing Mrs Potter just how silly her accusation was, "This is the little itty bitty hooligan with the broken leg... and he took your much bigger and heavier son's coat?"
The woman glared at the tracker and hissed, "everyone knows where that boy comes from... it's obvious that he's too rough to mix with decent folk's children."
Larabee was suddenly in the woman's personal space, his voice quiet with the iciness of a killer slipping from between thinned lips. "I'll ask him about your boy's coat... but you keep you nasty mouth to yourself, otherwise you'll have me to deal with." With that he pushed past her and stormed over towards the boarding house where he had knew Ezra would be.
Ezra was concentrating on the rough sheet of paper that he was writing on. The book lay open before him as he carefully copied the lines that Josiah had requested as neatly as possible, the tip of his tongue showing at the corner of his mouth as he worked. He was sitting awkwardly at the small table that Larabee had brought into the room for him to use as a desk for his homework a few days before, his splintered leg resting pillowed on the chair opposite that Nathan had set up at the desk to allow him to sit with a reasonable amount of comfort.
Suddenly the door burst open and Chris Larabee stood on the threshold, his face dark as thunder and his expression capable of cutting glass, his long black coat billowing out behind him. He ignored the shocked expression on Ezra's face and cast a judicial glance about the room. Seeing the new coat on the bed, and knowing that it was the coat in question, he snatched it up and, stalking towards Ezra, he held it practically under the small boy's nose.
"Where the hell did you get this coat?" he demanded.
Ezra sunk back on his chair, his eyes wide with fear as he stammered, his normal ability to be economical with the truth totally deserted him in the face of Chris's anger, "I er... I...I... I won it."
Larabee eyes narrowed dangerously, "You won it... or stole it?" Chris heard Vin stop in the doorway but totally ignored him as he concentrated on the shaking boy.
"Stole it..." Ezra repeated frantically shaking his head, panic now showed clearly in his eyes as he stammered on, "No.... no.... I er... I won it.... from... from... Jamie Potter... at.... at school today."
"Won it.... How?" Larabee demanded, leaning over the small child, causing Standish to shrink back even further in his small chair.
"Playing poker." Ezra gasped, unable to take his terrified eyes from the man who loomed before him.
"POKER." Chris snarled, "you played poker with Jamie Potter and WON this coat from him." He shook the garment in question, as he repeated the events as Ezra said them.
Ezra shot a look behind the angry man before him and saw Vin slowly shake his head in disappointment. Taking a breath he hurried to explain. "Yeah... he saw me playing with my cards and asked if he could have a game... I said yes and well one thing lead to another...."
"And he bet his coat and you won it." Chris finished not liking what he was hearing one bit. Larabee pulled Ezra's chair out from the desk, taking care to ensure that his injured leg was removed from the chair to the ground safely before saying firmly, "Here." He shoved the crutches into the startled boy's hands and then waited while he gained his footing. The boy was shaking but managed to stand with the shaped woods under his arms as support as Larabee finished, "You're taking this coat back to Mrs Potter."
Ezra froze at those words and threw Chris an incredulous look before he rebelled, "but it's mine.... I won it?"
"It wasn't his to lose Ezra." Larabee snapped his temper simmering just below the surface, "Mrs Potter paid good money for this coat and she didn't do that so he could lose it in a game of poker to a little con artist like you."
"But... but..." Ezra stammered, his face expressing his despair at his guardian's words.
"No buts. Now you get moving." Chris moved aside and indicated that Ezra was to go before him and waited while the lad clambered past him.
The fear on Ezra's small face disappeared as if washed away by the wave of a hand and before them stood a quiet solemn boy who gave nothing away. Nothing, that is, except the steely torn look of betrayal. Whatever ground Larabee had gained over the last few weeks had been ripped away by his recent words.
Larabee paused, surprised when he saw Tanner standing in the doorway, the expression on the tracker's face telling the gunslinger that he had not handled the situation well. Chris brushed aside Vin's unspoken opinion, too angry with Ezra to take heed of the other man's warnings.
It was slow going as both Chris and Vin moved behind the awkward boy's movements but they soon reached Mrs Potter's store and Larabee held the door open to allow Standish to enter. Ezra paused on the threshold, as if seeking a reprieve but seeing the grim look of determination of Larabee's face, he set his own small features and entered ahead of the other two men.
Chris waited patiently while the owner finished serving a customer. Mrs Potter kept looking over towards them nervously but she said nothing. Finally when they were alone, Larabee moved forward and laid the coat firmly on the counter and said, "Ezra said he won the coat from your son this afternoon by playing poker."
Mrs Potter's eyes flashed with anger as she shot back, glaring at the small lad before her counter; "My son does not know how to play poker."
Vin was unable to prevent the smile that creased his lips when he heard Ezra hiss with indignation, just loud enough for them to hear, "That's for sure."
"Nevertheless." Larabee continued pushing pass the words that Ezra had spoken, "that was how Ezra won the coat... he didn't steal it Mrs Potter, so if you'll get Jamie down here we can clear this up right now."
Mrs Potter looked at the man before her and stammered, "There is no need for that, Mr Larabee." She made to remove the coat from the counter top but Chris placed his hand firmly on it saying determinedly.
"Your son accused Ezra of stealing his coat. That didn't happen. And I think he needs to explain to us why he said that."
"I didn't steal it." Ezra interrupted hotly, his own anger coming to the fore as he clearly remembered Chris's threat about him stealing after he stole Buck's horse and was suddenly afraid again. "He lost it fairly." He stopped when he felt the gentle hands of Vin Tanner rest on his shoulder. He glanced up and saw a concerned look in the tracker's face as he said quietly.
"We know Ezra... just let Chris have his say." The child looked back at his guardian and the woman behind the counter, it was a stalemate but both could see that Larabee was winning. Finally Mrs Potter turned and called out harshly towards the back of the shop.
"Jamie... come here please.... NOW."
They heard the scuffle of feet, then the boy in question appeared. He shot a quick glance towards Ezra, then came to stand beside his mother, his face paling when he saw his coat on the counter and Chris Larabee hand firmly resting on it.
"How did Ezra get this coat?" the gunslinger asked the boy behind the counter, many a hardened gunfighter had wilted under that tone.
Jamie swallowed hard, shot a look towards his stern face mother who snapped, "The truth now Jamie, or you'll live to regret it my lad..."
The boy glanced at Larabee again before he tipped his head down and offered in almost a whisper. "We played poker for it Ma."
"Jamie!" his mother exclaimed in shock. Then anger flooded her face as she snapped, "you just wait, young man... I will talk to you later about this. Now get back to your room."
"No." Larabee interrupted firmly, his eye's glittering, "not until he's apologise to Ezra."
"Apologise!" Mrs Potter gasped, "what on earth for?" She was genuinely confused, so Larabee took pleasure in clearing the matter up for her.
"Your son accused Ezra of stealing the coat and you made some derogatory remarks about him yourself. I think you both owe him an apology." There was no leeway in Larabee's tone and Mrs Potter had to finally admit that she had been in the wrong. Taking a breath to steady herself she looked towards Ezra and said sincerely.
"I'm sorry Ezra. Jamie, I believe you owe young Ezra an apology as well."
"But Ma." The boy tried to object but one look from his mother stilled the words in his throat and glancing over towards Ezra he said very begrudgingly, "I'm sorry for what I said Ezra."
Chris released the coat and smiled at both Mrs Potter and her son. It was not a friendly smile as he continued firmly. "Don't ever lie about Ezra again."
The gunslinger turned to leave the store when Ezra piped up. "If I am having to give back the coat that I won, then surely Mr Potter should return HIS winnings to me."
Larabee paused and slowly turned his hard look towards Ezra, anger again just simmering beneath the surface. "What did you lose?"
Young Standish suddenly paused, the look in Larabee's eyes was quite frightening and he swallowed hard but he had started this conversation and he was determined that Jamie was not going to keep what he had won. "My pen. I lost my pen to him."
Larabee's eyes narrowed dangerously as he asked, "was it the pen that I gave you?" Chris had purchased the smart looking pen for Ezra the day before he started at Josiah's school. It was the first present that Larabee had given the boy and he felt hurt that Ezra had gambled and lost it but he controlled his emotions and turning back to Jamie Potter he said, his tone brooking no argument, "go and get it." The storeowner's son shot off and was back within seconds holding out the pen.
Carefully Larabee took the pen, looked it over carefully before he slipped it into his pocket then turning he walked silently out of the store. Ezra followed awkwardly behind him, Vin holding open the door for him and helping him down off the broad-walk.
Larabee held on to his temper until he reached the room in the boarding house. He held open the door as Ezra entered and then, giving Vin a quick shake of his head, he closed the door firmly on the tracker. He waited until Ezra was seated on his bed before he demanded.
"Where are they?"
"Where's what?" the boy asked, his expression pure confusion as he had no idea of what Larabee was talking about.
"Your cards. Where are your cards?" Larabee demanded.
A tongue slipped out and licked at suddenly dry lips. "Why do you want to know?" Ezra asked, sudden fear biting at his stomach.
"Just give me the damn cards, Ezra." Larabee snapped, his eyes flashing with enough anger to ensure that the cards appeared swiftly in his hands. He looked at the well-worn pack and then back at Ezra, who looked as if his best friend had just been taken from him. Chris steeled his heart. He was not going to let Ezra think that gambling was an acceptable pastime for a child. He slipped the cards into his pocket and said firmly, "You will get these back when I think that you're old enough to handle them."
Ezra opened his mouth to shoot back a suitable reply but it slowly died on his lips as defeat set in and he said sullenly, "It was only a damn winter coat." It was a half mumble, half complaint but it was loud enough for Chris to hear.
Larabee stared at the child, an incredulous look crossing his stern features, "what the hell do you want a winter coat for?" he asked.
Ezra looked solemn back at his benefactor, then with a small sigh of defeat and a shrug of his shoulders he admitted quietly, "because I don't have one." Ezra was ashamed that he had to make the confession. Ashamed and bitterly hurt that his mother had not cared enough about him to ensure that he had the proper clothing before she sent him to live with this man.
It was at that moment that Larabee realised what was going on and, swinging around abruptly, he made his way to the wardrobe. Yanking open the doors, he looked inside and saw Ezra old tanned summer jacket, his fancy red jacket, one pair of trousers, two shirts and one fancy shirt. Larabee knew that in the drawers Ezra would have a small assortment of underwear and socks, and an old carpetbag. On the dressing table stood a silver-framed photo of the blonde haired woman whom Chris knew to be Ezra's mother. Those, along with what Ezra was presently wearing, were the young man's entire possessions.
Ezra Standish had not gambled or played poker for the coat for pleasure but out of need, because he needed a warm coat for winter. It was then that Larabee realised that while Ezra accepted that he, Chris Larabee, would pay for his food and board, the child did not expect him to pay for anything else. "If you needed new clothes why didn't you tell me?" Chris asked, angrier with himself for not realising that Ezra had needs above just the food and shelter.
Ezra looked genuinely confused for a few seconds before he answered, "You said room and board... if I went to school you would pay for my room and board. I am going to school, as agreed." He indicated the homework that Josiah had given him laid out on the desk.
Larabee let out a sigh of frustration. How could this child not understand that when he signed the guardianship papers Chris Larabee had agreed to look after Ezra in all aspects - and that included clothes. "Ezra," he stated firmly crouching down so that he was face to face with the young boy. "You are not to gamble... at all.. do you understand? You are not to play poker when you go to school. When you go to Josiah's it's to learn, not to gamble. If I catch you gambling again, you're going to face the consequences... and they will be harsh.... Do you understand Ezra?"
The tone of Larabee's voice informed the child before him in no uncertain terms that if he was ever caught gambling again then his punishment would indeed be severe. Ezra shifted uncomfortably on the bed, refusing to meet his guardian's eyes. Gambling had been a large part of his existence for such a long time. Whenever his mother had disappeared for days at a time, it had been the boy's gambling ability that had kept him in food and safe until her return. Now this man, this strange angry man, was asking him to give up his only source of independence and protection.
"Do you understand Ezra?" Larabee repeated his tone louder, his face determined, slowly, unwillingly the boy nodded. "If you need more clothes, then I will get them for you. You only have to ask. Tomorrow we will go and get you what you need for winter. Make out a list of what you think you will need and we'll go from there." Larabee paused for a few seconds why he considered a suitable punishment for the boy who sat before him. Finally he said, "I want you to complete the homework that Josiah gave you and then I want you to write out two hundred lines of 'I will not gamble while I am at school'."
Ezra's mouthed opened at this harsh punishment but then slowly closed. The more time he spent in this man's company the more he felt he disliked him, as he never really understood what was going to set the man temper off. At times it seemed as if he could do nothing right. It was only his fear of what would happen to him if he attempted to run away again that kept his from doing so. He had known, even as he took the coat from the other boy, that he was going to get into trouble for it. This is what confused him the most. In the past when he had won such items, his mother had been proud of him and praised his ability to use his god given talents but now... He had never before been so dependent on a stranger's whims. While his mother might have been many things, she had always been proud enough to train him to believe that you never took charity from anyone. No, you used your god given talent to get what you wanted and that was exactly what he had done. Now he was in trouble for it and to the young Ezra Standish it just seemed so unfair. Realising that he was not going to win this particular argument and suddenly feeling too tired to even try he slowly he nodded his head, accepting his fate for the moment.
Larabee, satisfied with the reaction he'd got, opened the door, only to step back in surprise at finding Vin Tanner standing outside. The look that the tracker gave him told him that he had heard the whole conversation. No words needed to pass between them, although Chris could tell that Vin was not happy.
Chris threw a look over his shoulder and offered, "come on Ezra, I think it's time we got some dinner... you can do your homework after we've eaten."
Ezra looked at his homework, then back to his guardian and offered in a quiet voice, "I'm not very hungry, Mr Larabee. I'll just stay here and get those lines finished."
Larabee was suddenly back in Ezra's personal space and said firmly, "You'll come with us and eat your dinner. I'm not going to put up with childish tantrums..." he never got to finish, as Tanner interrupted.
"Chris, I think Ezra gets the message... don't you, son?"
Ezra swallowed hard, blinking back tears that suddenly wanted to fall and, looking towards the tracker, he slowly nodded. Standing, he carefully made his way towards Vin, his crutches sounding very loud in the silence that had fallen over the room. Pausing on the threshold Ezra glanced back at Chris and asked, "Can I have my pen back?"
Larabee's face hardened before he slowly shook his head and said, "No, I gave you that pen. It was a gift from me; you gambled and lost it. I didn't give it to you so that you could use it for that."
Ezra's shoulders slumped even more and he turned dispiritedly away and headed down the stairs, Vin in front of him and Chris behind to ensure that he made it safely down.
As they made their way to the restaurant they met up with Buck and JD. If they noticed the strained tension between the two adults and the child, they didn't comment on it, except for the few concerned looks they tossed towards Larabee and Standish. A shake from Vin informed them that it would not be wise to question at the moment.
The meal passed relatively smoothly and while Ezra ate little and spoke even less, it appeared to be enough to satisfy Larabee who allowed Ezra to return to his room to complete his homework and the lines that Chris had set him. Ezra finished just as Larabee returned to help him change into his night-shirt and get into bed. Chris then picked up the lines that Ezra had written and, sitting down, checked that they had been done correctly while Nathan checked Ezra's leg.
Once the healer was satisfied that the wound was healing cleanly, he gently reapplied a brace he had made to keep the break straight and a new bandage. As usual by the time he had finished, Ezra was biting his trembling lip to keep from crying out and Nathan helped him to sit up and drink the sleeping draft that Nathan still insisted Ezra had to help him sleep at night. Once it was consumed and both men were satisfied that Ezra was asleep, Chris turned the light down low and they departed.
Since Ezra's arrival Chris's friends had noticed that the gunslinger was drinking less and less and would frequently retire to his room at a reasonable hour after completing a tour of the town and check-in with who ever had the night watch over the town. When it was his night to sit in the sheriff's office, he always made sure that either Vin, Buck or one of the others took his place in the other bed in his room.
When Chris reached his room he stood for a few moments. The flickering light played across the room and allowed just enough glow for him to see the sleeping child. The boy had the look of a sleeping angel about him, as a stray lock of hair fell over his forehead. As Chris stood there he had to wonder why he had taken on the responsibility of caring for such a young child. He had no wish to raise a child, let alone some stranger's brat. Yet even as Larabee thought his uncharitable thoughts he knew that he was being unfair. Ezra was not at heart a bad lad and was only doing what he had been raised to do. Chris could see that the boy had learned to survive at his mother's knee and it really was not Ezra's fault that his mother was a con-artist of the highest order. The more Chris learned about Maude Standish, the more he detested her and was determined that she would not easily get her son back - if she ever arrived to claim him back, that was. Larabee sighed; whom was he trying to fool? The brat was slowly but surely working his way into the hardened heart of Chris Larabee, a place that had been cold since the death of his own family. A heart that was now starting to warm and beat in tune with the boy's much younger heart.
During the evening Larabee and Vin had discussed the matter with the others. Buck had been shocked to learn that Ezra had hardly any clothes and that none of them were suitable for the coming winter. Wilmington's large heart had been touched and he immediately stated that he would buy Ezra his winter coat but Larabee had waved his words aside saying quite firmly that it was not the clothing that was the problem. New clothes would be purchased the next day. Chris' main concern was the fact that Ezra had chosen to gamble to get the clothing he needed and he was apparently quite good at it. The six peacekeepers were aware that he had grown up in a saloon and reasonably assumed that he had leant the trade of gambling there. The big question was, what were they to do about it? No answer had been forthcoming and as he looked down at the sleeping child now, he wondered how he was ever going to be able to handle the difficult task of raising a young boy without the help of his beloved Sarah.
The next morning Ezra awoke from a deep sleep and felt well rested. While his leg still ached, it was not as bad as it had been and he only winced occasionally as he clambered from his warm bed. The sun streamed though the window and he realised that Chris had already risen and was just finishing dressing. The small lad blinked a couple of times, then raised a hand to wipe the sleep from his eyes. He smiled as he remembered that it was a Saturday and there was no school on Saturday.
Larabee, seeing that Standish was sitting on the edge of his bed, smiled and said warmly, "you'd better get dressed, we have a lot to do today, Ezra." There was just enough edge to the gunslinger's tone to tell Ezra that he was still not in the mood to put up with any mischief so, with only a slight nod, the young boy proceeded with his morning ablutions and, with some help from Chris, he was soon dressed and ready to leave their room.
Ezra made his way down the stairs and out onto the boardwalk. The young lad hated the fact that he was unable to move swiftly because of his injured leg and the crutches he had to use and hated the fact that he was not as agile as he used to be. He followed Nathan's advice to the letter, though, as he was determined to be back on his two feet as soon as possible.
After breakfast, their next port of call was the Potter's store. Vin and Buck followed along and when Ezra paused on seeing where they were headed, the tracker gently rested a comforting hand on the small lad's shoulder, giving Ezra the support he needed to enter the store once again.
Ezra glanced back towards Vin and was unable to prevent the slight smile that crossed his lips. Straightening his shoulders, he accepted the friendly look of encouragement that Buck tossed his way and entered the store with more confidence then he actually felt.
Larabee lead the way into the mercantile store. He walked straight up to the counter and after he spoke a few brief words to Mrs Potter, she smiled brightly and then disappeared into her back storeroom, only to reappear with a selection of warm winter coats which she placed before Larabee. The gunslinger looked at each one in turn, passing the ones he accepted over to Buck, who also gave them detailed inspections before he called Standish over to him. The boy tossed a nervous look towards the tracker but Vin just smiled and encouraged him forward with a firm hand resting on his arm. Soon Standish was trying on different coats until Chris and Buck found the one they were happy for Ezra to wear.
The two men then moved on to select a number of trousers, shirts and undergarments, which Mrs Potter had piled on the counter in front of them. All three totally ignoring Ezra gasp of outrage that they were discussing such private matter as his underwear in front of Mrs Potter, who now seemed to be taking delight with holding them up to make sure that Larabee, Buck and Vin could see them clearly.
Chris and Buck were very critical as they inspected the clothes and on several occasions they both opted for the more expensive of the items as they were of a better quality. Once Larabee had nodded his approval Mrs Potter disappeared again, only to emerge from the back room with some warmer winter shirts, vests and socks. Ezra knew his humiliation was complete when the thicker undergarments were produced.
Finally Chris asked Mrs Potter about suitable winter boots. She frowned in consideration and then a smile filtered across her features and she again disappeared but this time under the counter from where she produced a pair of stout boots. Ezra looked down at his injured leg but gasped as Buck suddenly scooped him up and sat him carefully on the counter, while Larabee set about taking of the shoe from his uninjured foot. The new boot was slipped on and snugly tied and Ezra followed Chris' directions of moving his foot first one way and then the other, wiggling his toes until finally Chris and Buck both stood back and smiled, nodding their approval.
Ezra's old shoe was then carefully replaced by Buck, who cautiously assisted him down from the counter and back onto his own feet, the crutch held at the ready. Vin moved up to stand beside him again. The tracker was pleased with the selection of clothing for Ezra but he could plainly see that the young boy was unsettled by what was going on and once again his firm but gentle hand rested on Ezra's shoulder and the small body leant back into his support. Vin smiled as he looked down at the boy, doubting that Ezra was even aware that he was leaning on the tracker.
Ezra watched with growing eyes when he saw Chris reach into his pocket and pull out sizeable roll of money with which he paid Mrs Potter for the items that both Buck and he had chosen. The woman's attitude was totally different from the angry mother of the day before and was now showing a pleasant manner towards this customer who was spending so much money in her store. She had also had the night to think about both Ezra's and her son's actions and realised belatedly that both boys were at fault, for it was obvious now that Ezra's gambling had been driven by desperate need.
Chris smiled at the wide-eyed glazed expression that had fallen over Ezra's face as the clothes were wrapped up and packaged before leaving the shop. Never in his life had the young boy had clothes purchased for him in such a manner. His mother had only bought clothes for him when they had been an absolute necessity. Usually it was connected to some shady deal that she had hatched and while the clothes were always of good quality, the boy knew that if needed, they would be sold when his mother was low on funds. His belongings were usually the first to go, as his mother had her appearance to maintain and as she would explained as she wrapped them up for sale, few people took notice of what a small boy did or wore.
Both Buck and Vin were unable to prevent the smiles that crossed their faces when they saw the stunned expression on the small lad's face. Chris seeing this look also smiled at his friends. For the first time since Ezra had arrived, Larabee actually felt like he was doing the job of looking after young Standish properly.
They slowly made their way back to the boarding house to deposit the parcels of new clothes. Ezra waited down stairs with Buck while Chris and Vin took the clothes upstairs. Once they returned, it was decided that it was time for lunch. As they made their way across the street, the stagecoach turned the corner and rumbled into town. All three men moved in on Ezra and helped him to hurry out of it's way. As they reached the other side, they bumped into Mary Travis who was hurrying along the street towards the stagecoach. Smiling brightly and breathlessly she informed the small group. "Billy's coming home... for good." seeing the surprised look this earned her from Larabee she explained, "Now that Josiah has started the school, I thought I could bring him home... he could stay longer... I mean...Billy's home." she stumbled to a stop, too excited to contain her happiness at having her son home and not worried that she was rambling in front of these men.
Chris smiled at the pretty woman and offered warmly, "well I'm mighty glad to hear that Mary... Billy must be very excited to be coming home as well."
The woman blushed, before she offered in confidence, "Orrin wasn't too impressed, he does agree that things are better but he's not entirely happy with my decision, so we decided to give it a month or two and then look at the situation again." As she finished speaking, people started to descend from the coach and she spied her son. "Billy." She cried out, rushing over to greet her son. "Billy... over here."
The boy in question snapped his head about when he heard his mother's call and with a bright smile he rushed into her arms and they hugged and hugged. Finally Mary swept Billy of his feet and spun him round while he laughed out loud.
Ezra watched this scene with mixed feelings and then glanced at Chris, whom he noted swallowed hard and looked away, as if the image gave him pain. Ezra looked towards the mother and son again and knew with certainty that his mother would never, ever greet him in such a manner. She had never displayed open emotions towards him and had always actively discouraged him from showing any affection towards her, unless it was called for during one of her many altercations with a male admirer.
Mary finally placed her son on the ground and reached up to receive his bag from the coach driver who has been patiently waiting for her to finish greeting her son. Buck swiftly moved forward and took the heavy bag from her saying warmly, "Here, that looks heavy... let me help you." He smiled broadly and motioned for them to join Chris, Ezra and Vin.
Billy looked about excitedly and spying Chris, he let out a yell of pleasure and ran into his arms and was scooped up, as the gunslinger said with a laughing smile, "hey there Billy, how you been?"
"Can we go fishing Mr Larabee... can we?" where the first words out of young Billy's mouth.
Larabee laughed again and it was a joyfully light airy sound. The joy in Larabee's eyes was hard for Ezra to witness and, irrationally, he felt his anger rise and yet was unable to explain why. "Billy." Chris began placing the smaller boy reluctantly back on the ground and turning towards his ward. "This is Ezra... Ezra Standish. He's staying with me for a while..."
"Staying with you?" Billy questioned a confused expression wrinkling his face up, as he looked at the boy who stood before him and deciding that he didn't really like what he saw.
"Yes, he's staying with me because, because his mother." Chris paused as he consider just how much to tell the younger boy and threw a look towards Ezra, who looked decidedly uncomfortable with the turn of the conversation. Chris gently rested his large comforting hand on Ezra's shoulder as he continued, "his mother is an old friend of Sarah's and I agreed to look after him while she visits friends in Europe."
Billy looked from Chris to the firm hand resting gently on Ezra's shoulder, to the boy himself and knew that he did not like this strange boy, not one bit. Billy took in the taller boy, the crutch under one arm and the way he held his leg off the ground. It looked to be wrapped up in splints and bandaged tightly.
Mary sensing a shadow had fallen over the conversation sudden interrupted saying, "Chris, how about you take both Billy and Ezra fishing. You know how much Billy likes fishing and it would be a great way for the boys to get properly introduced..." She was hoping that her son and Ezra could become friends and this seemed the perfect way to ensure that.
"Fishing." Ezra said, his tone clearly indicating what he thought of that as a pastime. His mother had never allowed him to go fishing, as she had deemed it an act of menial labour for food.
"Yeah..." Billy said with an edge of belligerence in his voice, "Me and Chris go fishing all the time. And we don't need anyone else to come with us."
"Billy." Mary said in warning, pulling her son back against her, as she smiled an apology towards Chris.
"Oh that's alright Mary, Billy's just had a long journey and must be tired." Then Chris bent down towards the smaller boy and said in a tolerant tone, "Why don't we go fishing tomorrow and take Ezra with us, so he can see how much fun it can be? We won't get many fishing days before winter sets in." He reached out and tussled the boy's hair and Billy smiled brightly back, his good humour restored at the attention from Larabee.
"That would be great, Chris," Billy said, shooting Ezra a sidelong glance, "but I really love it when just the two of us go fishing. On our own." He added firmly, glaring at the other boy, pushing home his point that he usually went with Larabee on his own.
"What about it Ezra," Chris asked, totally ignoring Billy's rude behaviour, hoping that if he did so the young boy would let the matter pass. "You want to go fishing with Billy and me?" Larabee actually looked excited at the idea of taking the both of them fishing; Ezra was sure that he did not want to go fishing and yet, he didn't like the idea of Chris going with Billy on his own. He felt as if the younger boy was going to take something from him, something important and he was confused as to what it might be. Ezra had never had anyone who wanted to take him out somewhere just to spend time with him and have fun. He suddenly felt hemmed in and he looked at the expectant faces of the adults surrounding him. "No thank you Mr Larabee. My mother always said that fishing was menial labour." Ezra said shortly, Chris looked slightly crestfallen, unable to hide his disappointment.
"Ez, it will be fun... and it's not menial labour if you do it for fun."
Ezra consider the man's words again, before he sighed deeply and offered in a firm tone, indicating clearly that he would not be forced on this issue. "Mr Larabee, I seriously believe that Mr Jackson would have something to say about your desire to drag me out into the middle of the wilds, while I am still under his care for my injury."
Buck opened his mouth to answer but laughed instead at the shocked expression on Chris face before he said, "I think he's got you there, partner." Vin smiled his own agreement. The young lad had turned the situation about fairly neatly and both men knew that Nathan would be less the pleased to hear about the fishing trip, without it being checked with him first.
Larabee struggled to keep the smile off his own face as he met the determined stare of his ward; Ezra was not going to go fishing, his expression plainly told Chris that. Larabee was a gunfighter by trade and he knew when he had been beaten, so he gave in gracefully saying. "Alright then Ezra, this time you win," he noted Ezra slight smile of satisfaction before he turned to Billy and offered with a broad smile, "well it looks like it just you and me."
"Al-right." Billy shouted jumping up and down with joy.
"Well, I'll be by early to pick you up tomorrow Billy" Chris said, before he turned his attention to his ward "Come on Ezra." Chris said not seeing the look that Billy was giving his young charge but his young ward was fully aware of the look but chose to ignore it. After all he was used to it and he had just won a victory over Larabee about the fishing trip. Standish turned his attention to Larabee who was continuing "I just want to check in with JD at the jail, then we'll go to lunch before we go and try those new clothes on." With a friendly nod towards Mary and Billy, Chris carefully ushered Ezra along the boardwalk towards the sheriff's office.
Buck tipped his hat to Mary and her son and followed the other two. Vin was slightly concerned by the hostile glare that Billy was giving Ezra but decided that the smaller boy was just upset to find that he would no longer have the gunslinger's totally attention.
The clothes fit perfectly but were made of a rougher material then he was used to and they scratched. Ezra said nothing about the discomfort. After all, with the coming of winter he would be grateful for them. Even if they scored his skin with tiny scratches, at least he would be warm.
As promised, Larabee had risen early the next morning and left before Ezra had really been awake. As agreed the day before, Vin had arrived shortly after to make sure the boy was helped in his morning preparations and taken to breakfast. Ezra had to admit that while one part of him detested the fact that the six men seemed to hover over him, he also felt an odd comfort spread through his small body at the knowledge that they actually seemed to care about him.
Buck and JD arrived at breakfast with Nathan and Josiah. Because it was a Sunday, the four men would be going to church: Josiah to give the sermon and the other three to accompany the small boy, who had listened with an open mouth the first time Chris had explained that he would be expected to attend church every week. It had been the first and last time the men had heard young Ezra Standish laugh out loud and long. His merriment had stuttered to a stop when he realised that the solemn faces about the table were not enjoying the joke as much as he was. Since then he had attended church with an air of martyrdom which would have made a saint proud.
The service went without a hitch and the day passed slowly. Ezra found that he was usually within sight of one or other of the men, until he finally made an excuse to go to his room and finish off some work that Josiah had given him. It was not exactly the truth but he did have a book that he had borrowed from Josiah that he could read and it would get him out of the heat of the sun and off his injured leg which was starting to throb with pain.
Buck and JD, who were watching him at the time, waved him away after making sure that he could make it back to his room on his own. He explained very quietly and firmly that he managed it every day from the schoolroom and felt that he had the ability to get himself there on this one occasion. Also seeing that Buck was eyeing up Miss Julia and JD had spotted Casey riding into town with her aunt, Ezra felt sure that his freedom was within his grasp.
The town of Four Corners on a Sunday afternoon was a quiet place to be, the shops were closed, only the saloon was open and most people were in their homes with their family. Ezra slowly made his way back to the room he shared with Chris, his mind fixed on the book he was looking forward to reading.
"Hey, pity boy." The voice called to Ezra as he passed one of the many alleyways that ran down beside the stores. He paused and tilted his head to look down the alleyway.
"See," laughed Jamie Potter, who Ezra saw with a couple of other lads his age. "I told yer he was a pity boy.... Charity case... why Larabee had to buy his under-drawers for the winter... 'Cause his ma sent him out here without any...." Jamie and the other boys burst out laughing.
Ezra felt his eyes narrow, especially when one of the other lads, Paul Simmons, started to hop about on one leg in a funny imitation of Ezra's walk with the crutch. Ezra knowing that he would not win an argument with the boys just yet slowly shook his head, showing his contempt for them in his face he offered, "as much as I would love to discuss this matter with you, I have other more important affairs to attend to."
"Other more important affairs to attend too." Parroted Henry Newman, his high tone giving the words a shrill sound. Jamie patted Henry on his shoulder and offered in a conspiratorial tone as he leant in and whispered loud enough for all to hear,
"Ezra here learned all about affairs from his mother..." he winked and finished with a snigger, "Seeing as she had so many."
Ezra swallowed hard and pushed back his anger. No matter how his mother treated him, she was still his mother and he found it hard to hear this boy bad mouth her, especially as they had never met her. "As usual Mr Potter you are talking about matters that you have no knowledge of..." Ezra paused for effect before he continued, "much like your ability to play poker." The young boy then turned on his crutches determined to be on his way.
It was this act of turning his back on his foe that cost him, as Jamie Potter shot out of the alleyway and rushing past Ezra, he purposefully knocked into him, causing him to tumble to the ground.
Amidst the pain shooting up from his leg, all Ezra could hear was the yell and joyful cries of three boys as they rushed away laughing. Suddenly their shouts were cut out by a cry of concern as JD unable to believe what he had witnessed suddenly burst into action.
"Nathan.... Vin, Buck...." JD cried as he rushed towards the fallen boy, who was trying to curl himself up and clutch at his injured leg at the same time.
Vin and Buck burst out of the sheriff's office, their guns ready as they scanned the area looking for the danger that JD had alerted them to. Seeing JD down the street leaning over the small body of Ezra and hearing the wail that the boy was producing, they threw caution to the wind and rushed towards the two.
Even as they moved, Nathan came out of his upstairs room and seeing the commotion he rush back into his room and snatched up the small bag that he had taken to carrying his essential medical supplies in. He then quickly made his way to the others who were now all kneeling by Ezra side, trying to comfort the weeping lad.
"What the hell happened?" Buck demanded as he tried to hold the small boy down but Ezra was having none of it as he fought to get out from under their grasping hands. His cry of agony made the men about him grit their teeth as the sound reminded them of a wounded animal pushed beyond it ability to cope with the pain.
JD looked up and they could all see the flash of anger that sped across his face as he said, "It was Jamie Potter and his friends, they rushed out of the alleyway and knocked Ezra flying."
Nathan appeared and he reached out, roughly pushing Buck and Vin aside, as he demanded "Ezra... Ezra... hush lad..." He tried to still the twisting, panicking lad but to no avail as Ezra still blindly fought them, his voice raising in power as the keening wail began again.
"Damn it," Nathan snarled, knowing that Ezra could hurt himself more with his struggles and, seeing no other option, he reached into his bag and pulled out his small bottle of laudanum. He held it to the boy's lips, making sure that Ezra only swallowed a few sips, enough to relax the lad, so he could work on him. Then Nathan sat back and gently rubbed his hands over the boy's back waiting for the drug to take affect. It was not long before the small boy's screeches of pain subsided and he slipped into a drugged stupor, his head slowly turning from side to side as he moaned in remembered pain.
Nathan moved down to the injured leg and slowly run his fingers over the bandage before he looked at into the concerned faces of the other men. "I need to get him up to my room, I don't want to remove the bandage out here... in the street." With that he scooped up the moaning child and with Josiah close behind him, he made his way quickly back to his upstairs room.
Buck stood for several seconds looking at nothing as he fought back his anger at seeing the small boy in pain. Then he turned angry eyes on the other two and saw the rage clearly reflected back from Vin's eyes. JD was just looking concerned and worried.
"JD," Buck asked, "you say you saw Jamie Potter and the others rush out of the alley... did they knock into Ezra on purpose?"
JD looked at his friend and swallowed at the simmering anger he saw in his eyes before he answered honestly, "I'm not sure... I was just coming out of the boarding house and saw Ezra standing in the alleyway... he could have been talking to someone, then he turned and before he could really move, Jamie was on him and then they run off towards the cemetery."
"I think I'm going to have a quite word with those lads... who else was with the Potter boy?" Vin asked, his tone quiet and the others knew that was when he was at his most dangerous.
"Don't you think we ought to wait until Chris gets back?" JD asked, nervously licking his lips.
Buck moved into JD's personal space and said, "you know what, we aren't waiting until he gets back, 'cause you are going to go and get him..."
"Buck..." the youngest member began but then fell silent as Buck held up his hand.
"Chris will skin us alive if we don't go and get him Now all me and Vin are going to do is go and have a word with the boys..." He stopped and looked deeply into JD's eyes as he confessed, "I think they will prefer talking to us than Chris... don't you?"
JD thought about it for several seconds before he slowly nodded. "It was Paul Simmons and Henry Newman."
Vin suddenly spoke up, "JD, don't worry, we won't do anything stupid."
JD sighed deeply before he said, "Vin I know you won't but it's him," he pointed to Buck, "that I'm worried about." Then he shot off before Wilmington could protest.
Buck and Vin walked determinedly towards the cemetery at the end of town; they didn't speak to each other as they strolled down the street. Up ahead they heard the sounds of laughter and loud shouting before they saw the three boys there were looking for. Jamie and his small gang were chasing one and other about the grave markers.
When Buck reached the small fence that surrounded the graveyard he stopped and called out, "Jamie... Paul.. Henry..." the three boys turned towards the two men. Vin saw Jamie swallow hard and toss a nervous look towards the other two lads. Vin's eyes narrowed. The boy looked guilty.
The boys walked slowly towards the two men. Buck didn't waste any time as he said firmly, "Ezra hurt his leg again.... had a fall...." before he could finish, Jamie burst in.
"Real sorry to hear that Mr Wilmington." Again the nervous glance thrown towards his friends, just before he licked his dry lips. Both men noted that he was very pale and shaking slightly.
"Yeah... well, JD said that he saw you three barge into Ezra... when you came racing out the alleyway back in town."
Jamie attempted to feign surprise but again he failed miserably as he stammered, "Was that.... Ezra... we... er... accidentally bumped... into?"
Suddenly Vin's temper snapped and he reached out and pulled Jamie up to the small fence as he snarled, "yes, it was Ezra... have you ever suffered the pain of a broken leg?" He waited until the boy shook his head before he pushed on, "Well it hurts... It hurts mighty bad... and that lad has suffered enough... if you ever... accidentally bump into Ezra again, or cause him any more trouble, I will make it my personal task to see that you and your friends suffer as much as Ezra has." He tossed a snarl in the direction of the two other lads, who were staring in wide eyed terror at the events unfolding before them, so he added for good measure, "and I will discussing this matter with your parents..."
"Please mister...." Henry burst out, unable to keep quite, "it was just some fun... we didn't mean to hurt him..."
"Well we'll be having a word with your parents and maybe the next month cleaning out all the stalls in the livery will help remind you that you can't go about hurting people for fun." Buck said, his eyes just as hard as Vin's.
"But..." Jamie started to protest but he fell silent when he saw the hard look the two men were giving him. He swallowed before he nodded slowly. He knew that he had done wrong hurting Ezra and he also knew that his mother would be less then pleased to discover that he had had another run in with Larabee's ward. Especially as Ezra had been seriously hurt by his actions. He knew that cleaning the stables out for the next month was going to be the least of his worries.
Buck and Vin, seeing the other two lads also reluctantly nod in agreement, turned and without a word left the three boys to consider their fate for the next month, as they headed back towards town. They were anxious to see how Ezra was doing.
Buck opened the door into Nathan's room and saw that the healer was still working over the semi-conscious lad. Josiah was standing up by Ezra's head slowly sweeping the boy's hair from his damp forehead as he whimpered in pain. With a sigh he motioned for Vin to move backwards and he quietly shut the door.
Suddenly there was a commotion from below and looking over into the street they both saw Chris riding hard towards Nathan's. Once he reached the stairs, Larabee threw himself off his horse and rushed up the stairs. He paused when he saw Buck and Vin, then threw a frantic look towards the close door.
"Chris..." Buck began but Larabee waved his words aside saying as he walked towards the closed door.
"JD told me... he's riding back in with Billy..." then Chris entered the room.
Josiah and Nathan looked up and seeing Chris, Josiah moved away and allowed the tall darkly dressed gunman to take his place at the end of the bed. "How is he Nathan?" Chris asked, as he carefully reached out a hand and cupped the small boy's cheek.
"Chris..." Ezra mumbled sluggishly, struggling to open his eyes when he recognised his guardian's voice.
"Shh.. Now Ez..." Chris said gently, leaning in close so that the small lad could see and hear him better. "You just rest easy... Nathan is looking at your leg."
"It hurts...." Ezra's whimpered and Larabee wondered how such a small body could contain such pain.
"I know Ez... but Nathan's going to take care of it for you." Even as Chris was reassuring the small lad, he was looking towards Nathan too see if he could gauge just how bad Ezra's re-injury really was. Nathan just shot him a look, which told him nothing, before he turned back to his work. Larabee knowing that the healer was doing his best, continued to comfort the boy, until finally Nathan straightened. Wiping his hands and moving to the small table, he mixed a drink, handing the cup to Chris.
"Here, get Ezra to drink this... it will help him sleep and then we can talk."
Larabee gratefully accepted the cup and after several long minutes he had finally got the boy to sip it's contents and then stayed with him until Ezra had fallen into a drugged sleep.
Nathan meanwhile had opened the door and motioned for the others to quietly enter. Larabee noticed that JD was with the others and seeing Chris raise an eyebrow, JD hurried to answer the unasked question. "I dropped Billy of with Mrs Travis... she asked me to let her know how Ezra is." The gunslinger nodded then turned his attention back to Nathan. Ezra's guardian wanted answers and he wanted them now.
"How is he Nathan?" Vin asked before the healer could start.
"He's going to be fine. He hurt his leg pretty bad when he fell... pulled most stitches out and the wound is open again but luckily the break seems to have held but this will set him back a while and he'll be confined to bed for at least the next few days."
"How the hell did this happen?" Chris demanded, his eyes flashing his anger now that he knew that Ezra was going to be alright.
Buck looked towards JD who in turn swallowed hard and tossed a glance towards Vin. Before JD could answer, Vin said, "Jamie Potter and his friends, they were playing and came out of an alleyway and run right into Ezra... knocked him down."
Even before Vin had finished talking, Chris was up and walking towards the door, his face a picture of fury. Buck stepped in his way and saw that Vin came to support him as he offered, "Chris, we've already spoken to them. They fully - and I mean fully - understand the error of their ways and Vin and I will be speaking to their parents... we just wanted to see how the kid was doing." Larabee met Wilmington's eyes straight on and Chris must have been satisfied with what he saw, because he relaxed slightly and nodded.
"Chris." Nathan interrupted, "I think it will be best if you stay here with Ezra... just in case he wakes up." Remembering the terrible wails the boy had issued when he had hurt himself he continued, "he's going to need you."
Slowly Larabee returned to the chair that was set beside the bed and sitting down he carefully adjusted the blankets over the deeply sleeping lad and agreed, "I'll be right here if you need me."
Nathan seeing that Chris had indeed settled in for the night smiled warmly. "Well I think the rest of us ought to get out of here and let Ezra have some peace and quiet." He opened the door and held it open while the other men filed out, then before he left he said, "Chris, I'll be back in a little while with some supper for you."
Larabee looked up from his Ezra watching and smiling offered, "thank you Nathan." And the healer knew that it was not just for the offer of food that he was being thanked.
"It's my pleasure, my friend."
Ezra awoke with a start. The dream had been so vivid and the pain so real. He tried to sit up only to slump back in agony as he leg protested this movement. He heard a distant voice and as his pain subsided he realised that Chris was leaning over him, concern written clearly on his face as he said, "Ezra... you're alright, you fell and hurt your leg but it's going to be alright."
Larabee glanced up at Nathan who was busy mixing a potion for Ezra to drink. The sun was streaming in through the window; Ezra had slept the night away.
"Chris." Ezra hesitantly asked, this was not the brash young man who gambled for his clothes but a little boy who had awoken in pain and he desperately wanted something that he had rarely had. He wanted to be comforted and Chris was willing to oblige as he carefully positioned himself so that the lad was wrapped securely in his arms. Ezra sunk into the embrace and relaxed, feeling safe and protected. He knew that Chris would allow nothing to hurt him further and he trusted his guardian in this. For the first time in his young life, he felt cherished and he snuggled into the warm embrace.
"Here, Ezra, I want you drink this," Nathan said as he brought the cup over to the two on the bed. The healer was slightly concerned that Ezra had gained a fever over night but it seemed to have lowered during the early morning and Nathan was hoping that it would pass by nightfall.
"Don't like." Ezra mumbled, turning his head into Chris's shoulder, unwilling to even try one of Nathan's concoctions, knowing from past history that it was not going to taste nice.
"Ezra." Chris said, carefully moving so that he could raise the boy's chin and look him in the eyes, "you need to drink this, it will help you get better."
"But it doesn't taste nice." Ezra insisted, a quiver entering his tone. He was hot and felt sick and his leg hurt and he really didn't want to drink the medicine.
"I know... but you want to get well don't you?" Chris kept his tone gentle as he spoke to the small lad; he really wanted this to be Ezra's decision to take the medicine. He slowly rubbed his hand up and down the slightly shaking back.
"It will make me sleep... I don't like the way it makes me sleep, gives me bad dreams...." was Ezra's final childish argument but Chris just gripped the lad tighter and said with confidence.
"I will be here Ez and if I see you having a bad dream, I will chase them away. You see, sleep really is the best thing for you at the moment," he urged the lad, as he continued to rub circles on the boy's back.
Silence ruled for several seconds before Ezra slowly asked, "you'll stay here with me?"
"I won't leave you alone Ezra." Larabee promised.
"And you'll won't let the bad dreams get me?" Chris had to wonder at how young Ezra sounded when he said those words but he answered firmly.
"I promise. At the first sign of a bad dream, I will wake you."
Ezra squinted up at the man who held him. He had been promised many things in his young life and rarely if ever had they been kept but looking into his guardian's eyes he saw that Larabee was not lying and felt a warm flicker ignite in his chest. Slowly the injured lad nodded and Nathan offered Chris the cup. Carefully the gunslinger held it while Ezra sipped it's contents until he had finished the entire drink. Then Chris gently manoeuvred him more fully onto his lap and held him, rocking him slightly, until he slipped into sleep once more.
"Shouldn't he have eaten something while he was awake?" Chris asked, accepting the blanket that Nathan offered and tucked it about his precious burden as he settled back on the pillow, prepared to hold his young charge and ward off any nightmares that might dare to disturb his sleep.
Nathan shook his head saying, "Later... he's in too much pain to eat at the moment and his fever's still a bit high... so he wouldn't be hungry and I don't want to upset him by trying to force him to eat... he can eat when he wakes up." Nathan took the empty cup and washed it up, as he did so he commented, "you're pretty good with him Chris."
Larabee looked down at the small child and offered, his tone subdued, "he's not really any trouble."
"Nevertheless, you've taken to looking after him really well.. I mean..." Nathan stumbled to a stop, realising just what he had been about to say.
Chris smiled and offered, "you mean, me being such a bad element and all?"
The healer smiled weakly and offered, "Yeah, I guess that's what I meant."
Larabee was always honest with himself and looking back down at his ward he offered, "When Sarah and Adam died, I really wanted to just join them... You know... there wasn't a thing I wanted on this earth... but Buck... well he just wouldn't let me go... and now..." again he smiled down at the sleeping Ezra. "Now I'm glad he didn't. This town and the... the people in it... they have come to mean a lot to me... Ezra... well, he's just made me realise that the good person Sarah saw inside of me didn't die with her... and I know she'd be please about that."
Nathan stood silent for several seconds after Chris had finished, knowing that he was hearing a very rare confession, finally he shook himself and said with a smile. "You're a good man Chris... and that boy needs a good person in his life... lord knows his mother hasn't been there for him from the sound of it." With that the healer turn back to his medicines and silence filled the small room.
As predicted by Nathan, Ezra slept for several more hours and when he awoke he was more aware and hungry. He was still quiet and more then prepared to allow Chris to help him to eat. In fact, he quite liked the way the old man hovered over him, making sure he was comfortable while he sipped at the soup that Nathan had brought. When the healer gave the injured boy some more of his medicine, Ezra looked towards Chris and after receiving a slight smile and an encouraging nod from the gunslinger he drank the liquid without complaint.
Soon he was quietly resting again, with Chris sitting beside him, enjoying his own meal that Nathan had fetched. When Jackson had suggested that Larabee return to his own room to rest for the night, the gunslinger had politely refused and spent another night resting beside his ward.
The next morning found Ezra feeling a lot better and eager to be out of Nathan's clutches as he was forced to drink more of the horrible concoction that made him sleepy. Yet the healer was having none of it as he spoke firmly to the small boy.
"You are staying right where you are for today... maybe if your feeling better you can go back to your room tomorrow."
"But I feel fine." Ezra insisted, turning a large eye beaching look towards his guardian, who held up his hands in defeat and stated firmly.
"Sorry, Ezra, in this room Nathan word is law."
The smaller boy hummed and muttered darkly, "Tried, sentenced and condemned without even a trial."
Both men hid a smile at his words but their faces fell solemn when there was a quick knock at the door and then it opened to reveal Mrs Potter and her son.
Seeing the anger flash in Larabee's eyes, Mrs Potter quickly said, "I've brought Jamie here to apologies to young Ezra..." She paused before she continued, pushing her son forward. "What he did was wrong and he's been punished for it and I also understand that he will be helping keep the stable clean for a while."
"Mrs Potter, I don't think that now is the...." Nathan began, moving forward as if to escort the couple from the room but a small voice from the bed stopped him.
"No Mr Jackson," Young Ezra said, sitting up in the bed and allowing Chris to assist him. "If Mrs Potter has brought Jamie here to apologise, the least we can do is allow this matter to be settled here and now."
Larabee threw his young ward a look of suspicion but it was meet with open-eyed innocent and he finally nodded agreeing, "that's mighty adult of you Ezra."
As if this was his prompt, Jamie Potter looked once more towards his mother, before he moved forward and holding out a hand he said, "I'm mighty sorry that I hurt you yesterday."
Ezra considered his words and the outstretched hand before he asked, "and what you said about my mother... are you sorry for that as well?"
The tension in the room rose as Jamie's eyes flashed but the others were looking at the boy on the bed and missed it. After another quick glance towards his mother, Jamie licked his lips and added, "and I'm also sorry for the things I said about your mother."
Ezra again considered his apology, letting the moment stretch for as long as he felt he could before he weakly held up his hand and accepted the handshake. While to the others it looked like a shake of reconciliation, both the lads involved knew that it was only a temporary cessation of hostility.
Mrs Potter cleared her throat and Jamie released Ezra's hand and stood back. "I hope that you are feeling better soon Ezra." Mrs Potter said as she came to stand behind her son and rested her hand on his shoulder and if there is anything that I can do to help Mr Jackson, please don't hesitate to let me know." She gave both the older men a warm smile before she nodded once more to the boy in the bed, before she turned her son and shifted him from the room.
"Well, that was a turn up for the books." Nathan said as he came to stand by the bed, "and I thought it was very good of you to accept his apology and friendship Ezra," the healer said, a proud smile filtering across his face.
"Mr Jackson," Ezra said, slipping back down the bed and wincing as his leg protested his actions but he pushed the pain asked and finished, "my mother taught me many things but the most important is to keep your friends close but your enemies closer."
Ezra totally missed the look that passed between the two men, as he leant back and closed his eyes, he suddenly felt tired, his energy drained. Nathan seeing this said, "OK Ezra, you just rest now."
Both men stood and look down at the young man as he slipped deeper and deeper into sleep. "That boy has had the strangest upbringing." Nathan commented as he watched Ezra sleep.
"That's for sure," Chris added with a smile, "but you can't fault him for his logic."
"What..." Nathan said, "keep you enemies closer, hell Chris a boy that old shouldn't have to worry about having enemies... What kind of a mother teaches her child that?"
Larabee continued to look at his young ward and after several minutes he stated, "one who know she wouldn't be around to care for him." It was spoken with an underlying edge of sadness to it. Chris now seriously wondered if Ezra's mother was ever going to come back for him. Larabee knew that it would hurt the young lad lying on the bed if she didn't but he also know that he would be there to help Ezra pick up the shattered pieces of his heart, if she didn't.
Without thought he reached out and brushed a stray lock of dark hair from the boy's forehead. He knew that he would have to keep an eye on Jamie Potter and his friends but he also know, after shoot a glance towards Nathan and remembering the others anger at Ezra's injury that he would not be only one. As he moved back to take his seat, Chris wondered when the six had become seven and with a smile he realised it was at the moment, that one Ezra Standish had walked into the Saloon in Four Corner, carrying his worldly possession in a carpet bag that was nearly as big as he was.
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