Little Ezra AU (Crossover "Big Valley"
Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to the Magnificent Seven nor Big Valley
++++This answers both June and July’s Challenge.
June: (though I
had to cheat a little) offered by Q'Mar
A lost child brings up memories and emotions for several members of the Seven as they search for the little one, both as individuals and as a group. You are welcome to include any other Cannon characters that you wish, even encouraged to do so! A moderate or long story if you please. Try to include candy, a cape, too much sun, a bedtime story, sweet potatoes, and a fancy clock. (I got everything but the cape!)
Write a crossover with another western series. Maybe Rowdy and Gil bring the cattle drive to town. What would happen if Hays and Curry - Alias Smith and Jones - came to town? Lancer, High Chaparral, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, How the West Was Won, Wagon Train, Wild Wild West, The Virginian, Casey Jones, Paradise, Young Riders - what ever and those are just of the top of my head and I'm a Brit! It doesn't have to be Old West, there's The Yellow Rose or MacCloud, for example or you could bring the cross over show characters into an existing M7 AU or make a whole new AU.
+++Thanks to Antoinette for speed betaing this for me. I greatly appreciate it.
+++ Thanks to NT for rebetaing it after I made some changes.
Buck sat and watched from the porch as Chris slammed the ax down with enough force to send the split log flying in two directions. The last few days had been a nightmare for the blond, for all of them, with no improvement to in sight. Four days ago, Maude had blown into town. Before anyone could blink, she had gotten right back on the stagecoach she had arrived on, dragging Ezra with her. The child had been playing near the livery stables, feeding the horses, and had been so shocked when he had been yanked from behind and dragged to the stagecoach, he hadn’t been able to scream for help. JD had been the only witness to the abduction and, by the time he had alerted the others and they had mounted up, the stagecoach had made a small gain.
Once they stopped the stagecoach, Buck recalled seeing that small face, white from fright, with huge green-eyes peeking out from behind the curtain. The boy that had locked onto Chris’ heart, beseeched Buck, any of them, to retrieve him from his new prison. And Chris had tried. Maude and Chris had all but gotten into a knock-down-drag-out-fist fight. The six peacekeepers had managed to force the driver to turn the coach around and go back to Four Corners to settle the matter before the judge. Maude had not allowed Ezra out of the coach on the way back. Buck figured Maude thought, if given the chance, Chris would have ridden away with the boy and never be seen again, and she was right; he would have. In the end, Maude had won, because she was the child’s mother. Judge Travis had tried to find a loophole, any reason to keep Maude from retaining custody, but laws were laws. The law said the parent had the right to do what they wanted with their child. Maude had claimed she never knew about the mistreatment Ezra had allegedly suffered with any relatives he had been living with, and the judge could not prove her wrong.
The blond had not even been able to hold the boy before his departure. Maude had simply grabbed the child’s hand after the ruling and pulled him towards the door, stopping briefly to say, “Tell Mr. Larabee, ‘Thank you’, for his hospitality.”
Ezra had looked up from staring at the floor and in a strangled whisper said, “Thank you.” Tears pooled in those sad green eyes. It had taken everything Buck and the others had not to cry, too.
If Josiah and himself hadn’t been there to keep a grip on Chris, Buck was pretty sure the blond would have been sent to Yuma for killing a woman. As it was, Chris knelt down to Ezra’s level and softly said, “You’re welcome, Ezra. You’ll always be wanted here.”
At that statement, Maude had huffed and pulled Ezra out the door. She dragged him onto the stagecoach, hissing, “He’s wanted with me, Mr. Larabee.”
“What for?” Chris had hissed back. “Got a con going? Or you just needing someone to vent on?” Chris’ voice was low, but lethal sounding.
“I don’t hit my son, Mr. Larabee. No matter what you think or have been told,” Maude had said, shoving Ezra up into the stagecoach.
“You better pray I never find out otherwise, lady,” Chris warned, his mood growing darker by the minute.
Maude had slammed the door shut and ordered the driver to move out. Chris had stood on that dirt road for a long time, staring at the path the coach had taken. Afterwards, the town had grown unusually quiet, almost as if they knew Chris Larabee was looking for a reason to destroy something and they didn’t want it to be their town. Chris had taken it hard, but had not fallen into the bottle. He was a stronger man now and the help of his five friends fortified him further. He had resumed his job as protector, but without any enthusiasm.
Mary had not helped in the slightest. She had made it quite clear that she approved of the child being with his mother. Chris had made a remark about her own parenting abilities and the ‘real’ reason Billy was living with his grandparents. It was after that nasty scene that the others thought it would be good for Chris to retreat to his cabin for a while.
JD had since been sending out telegraphs to all the large cities on the west side of the continent, trying to locate Maude. So far, he had learned nothing. Vin had taken off for a couple of days and ridden to the next few stagecoach stops, inquiring about a woman and her son. The tracker quickly learned, after several misleads, that the woman was very good at covering her tracks. Vin had come back empty-handed and disheartened.
Buck winced as another log bit the dust. Rising from his perch, Buck quietly approached his friend. He hadn’t quite decided which Chris he liked better: a drunken Chris, who was at least manageable; or a sober Chris, who was a lot more deadly. Buck spoke in soft tones, “Reckon you got enough firewood for a couple of meals. So why don’t we call it a day and go inside and have supper?” He slowly reached for the ax and took it away. Laying it aside, he guided a subdued Chris inside.
Ezra sat on the hard bench next to the window, watching the scenery fly by. They had been on the train for three days now and he was tiring of the extended period. Maude was lecturing him once again on the scam they were about to play. He was going to be Thomas Teller Barkley, illegitimate son of Tom Barkley. Apparently, Maude had done extensive research on the deceased man from Stockton while she had been living in San Francisco. Mr. Barkley had been a wealthy rancher and , upon his death, had, left a vast estate to his wife and three children. Maude had also discovered that a young man named Heath had come forth a couple years back, claiming and proving to be Tom Barkley’s son. That had given Maude the idea for the con. She had it figured out; they would show up with a sad story and hook the widow, Mrs. Victoria Barkley, for a good thousand dollars to keep the fact that her husband’d had another child out of wedlock hush-hush. Ezra basically only had to stand there and keep his mouth shut. He would only answer questions if asked specifically. Ezra half-listened to his mother while the rest of his attention was hundreds of miles away on a small ranch with a blond gunslinger.
When his mother had first shown up, Ezra had fought hard not to cry. It had been such a shock when someone had grabbed him. When he looked up and saw his mother, he felt like he was looking at the she-devil herself. His voice had failed to call out for help. She had reprimanded him for being filthy during their short jaunt before the others caught up. He had silently cried for joy when the stagecoach driver had yelled there were riders coming fast from behind. Then he had peeked out through the opposite window as his mother was yelling with Mr. Larabee. He had spotted Buck and implored him with his eyes to rescue him. His heart didn’t belong to his mother anymore; it belonged to the six men who protected Four Corners. He felt a ray of hope when the coach turned around and headed back to town.
The hope was short lived, though, when the judge ruled that there was nothing in his power to prevent Maude from taking him. Looking up and saying goodbye to Chris had been the last straw in his tumultuous young life. He no longer cared where he went or what happened to him. Going to Stockton and pulling the scam meant nothing to him. Life meant nothing.
Maude stared at her son suspiciously. Narrowing her eyes at the child, she spoke in a criticizing tone, “I left you there too long, didn’t I?”
Ezra gulped, but refrained from speaking. Maude nodded once to herself in assurance. “You let your guard down. You feel…what? Love? For Mr. Larabee? ” she said with a harsh laugh. Her words were used bitingly. Shaking her head shamefully, she said, condemning her son, “What have I told you a thousand times, Ezra?” Her tone was exasperated.
“Not to care about other people because people don’t care about me,” Ezra repeated the often-taught phrase in a monotone voice.
“That’s right. By now, Mr. Larabee has forgotten all about you and is rejoicing in the pleasure of being free from you. I will be the only person in this world that will ever have your welfare in mind,” Maude said, hating to see the hurt in her son’s eyes at the words, but knowing they were said in his best interest. There really would be no one to care about him and Ezra had to learn that early so he wouldn’t be hurt later on.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ezra exhaled. Leaning his forehead against the pane, he wondered if Mr. Larabee would really forget him so readily. When they were together, the tall blond seemed to enjoy having him around. They had spent many an evening together, sometimes in pleasant, quiet solitude, and sometimes reading to one another. Ezra realized one thing: he would never end another evening being held in a hand-made rocker, the way Mr. Larabee and he had always ended theirs.
After four days of traveling, they finally arrived in Stockton, California. The town was fair sized. It was bigger than Four Corners, but much smaller than San Francisco. Maude marched them to a nearby hotel. The run-down ex-brothel hotel was not like the customary high-priced hotels Ezra was used to staying in when he was with Maude, but for this scam it was necessary. Ezra struggled to put the single suitcase he had wagged from the train station up on the bed. When they had stopped at a previous town, Maude had shopped the thrift store to buy him some clothing. Some of them were too big and some were too small. Maude had claimed them perfect for the disguise of a single mother trying to provide for her son. She had also purchased two dresses for herself that had seen better days. Once washed and ironed, they would look good enough for what she needed.
Ezra unpacked the suitcase while Maude primped and readied herself to go out. She had already learned that the oldest son, Jarrod, was a lawyer. It made things a bit of a challenge, but if there was anything Maude liked, it was a challenge. The idea was to find out his office hours and approach the ranch and the owner, Mrs. Barkley, while her son was in town. Maude was banking on the fact that the other two sons would be out on the ranch, overseeing it. Maude was like a general with a battle plan and she was ready to march into war. Ezra was only along to complete the look.
Holding onto Ezra’s hand like a dutiful mother, they went down the street to a local restaurant. Maude made sure they made an impression without drawing excessive attention to them. Ezra held his tongue and did his mother’s bidding. She wanted a quiet, shy son; she would get it. He simply wanted this to be over and move on. Moving on to the next con, the next town, the next set of relatives; it didn’t matter, because as long as he was moving, he didn’t have to sit and think about all he had lost.
The small child didn’t think he would ever feel as happy as when he was with Chris. At the thought of the blond, Ezra felt the sadness welling up inside of him and pushed it back. Picking up his fork, he smiled falsely at his mother and began eating. She simply would never understand what it was like to miss someone out of love, he thought to himself as he forced himself to swallow each bite.
Maude stared at the little boy as he ate. Since she had picked him up over a week ago, he had said very little to her. She admitted that he was not rude or disrespectful towards her; he simply wasn’t the same little boy she had shipped off to Sarah and her husband. She wished she had spent a little more time investigating her old acquaintance beforehand. Then she would have learned that Sarah had died and she would have sent Ezra elsewhere. Instead, Ezra wound up with Chris Larabee and had apparently bonded with the man, more so it seemed than with any other relative she could recall him ever living with before.
There was an emptiness in his eyes and it momentarily bothered her that she might be the reason. Maude quickly dismissed the emotion and rationalized with herself that her son would get over his problem once the scam started. Old ways died hard, she knew that first hand.
After supper, Maude took Ezra’s hand again, portraying a loving mother and suggested they scope out the town. The blonde woman made a show of pointing out clothes in windows that would look perfect on her son. Once she thought they had been significantly seen, she returned to the hotel with son in tow and ordered him to make a pallet on the floor and go to bed.
She changed her respectable clothes for less appropriate ones and snuck out the back stairs and walked down the alleyways until she found herself in the part of town that was even less appealing to the good folks of Stockton than where she was staying. Walking into a busy saloon, she soon attracted the attention of many men as she had planned. Sitting down at a table surrounded by admirers of every type, Maude pulled a deck of cards from her small beaded satchel and smiled a disarming smile as she began shuffling.
It was in the wee hours of the morning before she slipped back into the small hotel. Sniffing the stale air with distain, she reminded herself that by that the following night she and Ezra would be in San Francisco and staying in the Ritz. Climbing the stairs, she was cautious not to make a sound. Easing the door open, she walked into the room, locked the door and began changing into her nightgown.
“You win, Mother?” a small voice whispered in the dark.
Only slightly startled by the sudden sound in the room, she smiled. “Of course, darling. Doesn’t Mother always win?” she asked with a lilt to her voice.
“Yes, Mother,” Ezra said heavily. “You always win.”
Maude couldn’t put her finger on why, but that statement rattled her conscience for a moment. Climbing into bed, she peered down onto the floor and whispered, “Get some sleep. I don’t want to see any bags or dark circles under your eyes come morning,” she reprimanded.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ezra complied, turning away from his mother. He stared into the darkness and slowly closed his eyes.
The next morning, Maude pulled out a blue dress faded by the years of wear and washing. The once crisp white lace was now limp. Maude begrudgingly called up for an iron and pressed the dress as best as she could. For Ezra, she had a brown woolen suit and a white shirt. The knickers were too long and the coat was a size too big, making the small child look even smaller. Ezra carefully pulled on the heavy socks and worn shoes. Ezra dreaded putting on the hot jacket, knowing in the July sun he would roast. It was all a part of Maude’s plan. Make it look like she had been trying to care for her son, but failing and therefore needed help raising the dead man’s son.
Maude turned from her ironing and sadly shook her head at her son’s slowness. “Be quick, Ezra,” she admonished.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ezra replied and finished dressing. Once he was done, Maude sent him downstairs with an unnecessary warning not to get dirty. After dressing, Maude primped before the dirty oval-shaped mirror before being satisfied she had acquired the desired look. Walking slowly down the steps, she gathered Ezra and headed for the livery. She hired a one-horse buggy for the morning, assuring the livery man Ezra was fully capable of handling the rig and therefore did not require the man’s generous offer of going along with them. Maude climbed onto the leather seat and waited for Ezra to climb up next to her. Handing the reins to him, she nodded her readiness and the boy slapped the reins gently. The play had been set in motion.
Riding out to the ranch, Maude went over the details once again. “Now, what part do you have?” she inquired.
“I play Thomas Teller. My father was Tom Barkley. He came to San Francisco once a year, a couple of times more, to visit us. I loved the man very much. When he stopped sending any correspondences, you assumed he had tired of us. When you learned of his death, you were bereaved. You did your best to raise me without the assistance my father sent you, but found you are having difficulties. I say nothing unless spoken to and then I keep my eyes down and say only what is necessary. After the deal is made, we return the buggy and catch the first train leaving town,” Ezra recited.
“Good. Remember, keep it simple. The shorter the lie, the easier it is to remember,” she coaxed.
Ezra was hard pressed not to sigh. He had heard that piece of advice all his life. It seemed that was all he had learned from his mother: how to lie and how to cheat. It hadn’t been until living with Chris that he had learned there were more important and morally right lessons in life. Ezra swallowed the lump in his throat and concentrated on the dirt road. He almost gasped in surprise when he first glimpsed the magnificent house in front of him. The first thought he had was that he and all six of the protectors could live in it and still have room. Ezra took in the two-story ranch house with its white veranda and matching railing. Across the yard was a large barn. It was far bigger than the one Chris had, and Ezra briefly wondered if they raised horses, also. Ezra pulled the buggy to a stop in front of the house and hopped down. Tying the horse to the railing, he went around and helped his mother down. Sweat rolled like a river down his back and he hoped the woman of the house was at least able to offer them a glass of water before Maude dropped the bombshell on her.
Victoria Barkley had made a reputation for herself after the death of her husband. The death of her beloved Tom had forced her into defending her ranch from any person trying to move in on her and take away the home they had built together. She could shoot and drink as well as any man, and it quickly became known that Mrs. Barkley was not to messed with. She had another side to her also, one that showed compassion and fairness. When Heath had shown up on her doorstep, claiming to be the son of her late husband, Victoria had fiercely challenged him, but when it became evident that Heath had been telling the truth, she opened her door and her heart to young man. There had been many bumps in the road along the way, but now her four children stood united together and worked to keep the ranch going.
Victoria was in the study when Silas, her butler, knocked on the open door.
“Yes, Silas?” she asked, looking up from the mounds of paperwork it took to keep the ranch in operation.
“Company’s come, ma’am. A woman and young boy,” he said informatively.
“Thank you, Silas. Please inform the cook of the company and have some refreshments made up,” Mrs. Barkley requested as she rose from her seat.
“Yes, ma’am,” the black man answered before departing.
Victoria Barkley strode to the front door as a young boy was helping a woman in her early thirties down from a rented buggy. Out where she lived, everyone knew everyone else’s horses and she knew this one belonged to the livery in Stockton. Her first thought was how hot the young boy must have been in his winter woolen suit. She noticed the suit swallowed the boy and could probably be worn for a winter or two. The woman’s dress had once been a fine Sunday dress, but years of wear had barely made it a working dress. Still, Mrs. Barkley noticed, the dress was washed and ironed, an attempt at looking one’s best. She waited as the woman climbed the steps with the boy in tow.
Maude stopped before the other woman and smiled pleasantly. Victoria was not fooled; her instincts alerted her that this woman was not as she appeared. Stepping forward, the owner of the ranch stuck out her hand. “Victoria Barkley. Can I help you?” she said in a business tone.
“Maude Teller,” Maude said, and then put on a saddened appearance. “And I hope you can. I have heard you are a reasonable woman with a good heart,” she finished with a slight smile.
Victoria went on guard. She knew for sure that the woman wanted something. Adhering to proper manners, Mrs. Barkley said in polite tones, “Come in out of the sun and let’s talk.” Looking down at the boy, she had noticed he had yet to look anywhere but the tip of his shoes. Briefly, she wondered if there was something wrong with the child.
“Thank you. That is very kind,” Maude said, retaining her innocent smile. “Come along, Thomas, and remember to wipe your feet,” she said sweetly. It was almost too sweet for Victoria’s comfort.
“Yes, Momma,” Ezra answered softly. Moving forward, he wiped his shoes soundly on the mat before following his mother into the foyer of the large house. Following her footsteps, he walked into the living room, not daring to look up for fear of reprisal from his mother once they were away from this place.
Victoria stepped into the house after the small boy and watched with uneasiness as she noted he never looked up, but walked on the heels of his mother. Victoria stopped at the entryway of the dining room where the black butler was standing and said, “Tell Margaret, she may bring in the refreshments.”
“Very well, ma’am,” Silas answered. He, too, had watched the visitors enter and didn’t feel good about it.
After the kitchen help brought in the silver tray of glasses and a pitcher of lemonade, Victoria decided it was time to get down to business. “What, Mrs. Teller, can I help you with?” she asked straightforwardly, passing out the filled glasses. She noted that the boy looked to his mother before taking a sip.
“It is Miss Teller,” Maude said with abashment. Shifting uncomfortable, as one does when one is about to divulge information they would rather not, Maude began her tale of woe. “Eleven years ago I was living in San Francisco working in my father’s restaurant as a bookkeeper.” Maude stopped and cleared her throat for effectiveness. “I met a man and fell in love with him. I…I…” Maude shifted and started again. “I had a child by him. My son, Thomas, is named after his father,” Maude stammered and then stopped.
Victoria had a feeling of dread for what was coming next. It had not been the first time this ploy had been used. Other women had come claiming the same thing after Tom had died and Heath came forward. “I see,” she said coldly. “Am I to assume you are claiming my husband, Tom Barkley, was this boy’s father?” she asked, her eyes turning hard and cold. She couldn’t help but glance at the boy looking for any semblance of her husband. She looked at the eyes, the mouth, and other features. She couldn’t determine if she really saw any resemblance to her husband, or just imagined them. If the child was Tom’s there was no doubt that Thomas would be accepted as a Barkely.
Maude refrained from gulping. She had heard rumors that Victoria Barkley was not a simple woman and now she believed it. An image flashed through her mind of this woman and Chris Larabee together in one room. The very idea made Maude shiver.
“Yes, he is,” Maude acknowledged quietly with her head bowed. “I did not wish to break up his marriage, so we kept it quiet,” she said.
“That was quite thoughtful of you,” Victoria said in an even tone, but her eyes and manners said otherwise.
“Tom,” Maude paused and began again, “Mr. Barkley was a generous man,” Maude continued. “He tried to help as much as possible. After I began…showing, my father disowned me and I was forced to find other ways to support me and our son,” Maude replayed the rehearsed words.
“I see,” Victoria said, not smiling at all.
Once again, images of this woman and Larabee together flashed through Maude’s mind. Gathering herself back up, she was about to continue when a young woman entered the room.
“Hello, Mother,” Audra Barkley said with a smile. “Oh, I am sorry. I didn’t realize we had company,” she said politely. Maude thought the girl looked like an easy mark and wished Victoria was more like this young lady.
“Hello, Audra,” her mother greeted. “This is Maude Teller and her son, Thomas,” Victoria introduced the threesome.
Victoria was ready to lay it on the line, but glancing at the small boy, she didn’t want him to be a witness. His mother may not have a problem talking about the child’s illegitimacy in front of him, but she did. “Audra, dear, would you please take Thomas here to the kitchen and see what kind of cookies you can find for him?” Victoria asked in a polite tone.
Audra was not fooled. She knew her mother well and there was something happening that her mother didn’t want the boy to be involved in. “Sure, Mother,” Audra complied. Holding out her hand, she said, “Come on. I bet we can find you something,” she beckoned.
Ezra stared wild-eyed at his mother. After a moment to collect herself at the sudden turn of events, she nodded her approval. Standing, Ezra was stopped from moving by the tightened grip his mother had on his wrist. When Ezra looked down at his mother, she said, “Mind your manners.” It was the same sweet tone she had used earlier. It always made Ezra sick to his stomach to hear it. He understood the warning, Things were not going as planned and that always irritated his mother. She was not a pleasant person when irritated.
Once the duo was out of the room, Victoria turned on Maude. “What do you want?”
Maude smiled passively and said, “I really have tried to go on without To...Mr. Barkley’s help.”
“I bet. How do I even know your son is Tom’s?” Victoria challenged.
“Well…” Maude dragged the word out. “I have only my word as a woman who deeply loved the father of my child,” Maude said, looking ashamed, but with a glint of love in her eyes.
“How do I know that the father is Tom,” Victoria challenged again.
“Mrs. Barkley, I would not humiliate you, my son, or myself by bringing this to your attention if it was not necessary,” Maude said in an effort to redirect the conversation.
“How much?” Victoria said coldly.
Maude shifted for a moment, giving the appearance of being uncomfortable. Appearing to finally come to a sum, she said in a soft, demure voice, “I believe I shall be able to raise Thomas on five thousand,” Maude said demurely.
Victoria was shocked that this woman would use her child for blackmail. She stood up and glared at the woman. “No!” she said forcibly. “Now take your son and leave, and don’t stop until you’re out of Stockton.”
Maude was ruffled. She stood up and gasped, “No? You’re turning your back on your husband’s son?” Maude stammered.
“No. I am refusing to be guilted into thinking that child is Tom’s. Now get out!” Victoria ordered.
“Fine,” Maude shot back as she stood and walked to the door.
Victoria was stunned for only a second. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” she asked with a nod towards the kitchen.
Maude continued to walk out the door and down the steps. “You seem to think it’s so easy to raise a bast…” Stopping, Maude took a deep breath. “…a fatherless child. I have dealt with the looks, the stares, and the whispering behind my back. I can’t take it anymore. He should have better. He is your husband’s child and I did the best I could for him, but he needs more. Something only you can give him,” Maude gushed out, tears streaming down her face, as she climbed up into the buggy and took the reins. “Goodbye, Mrs. Barkley. Take care of my boy,” Maude said, pleadingly. This part of the plan had been the second option. In her mind, she figured after a couple of days and having to explain the new arrival at her house, Mrs. Barkley would welcome the chance to give her the money and be rid of the embarrassment.
Victoria Barkley stood on the top steps and watched in astonishment as Maude drove away. Suddenly aware she was not alone, she glanced over and saw her daughter standing next to her with wide eyes. Looking down, she noticed the small boy looking after his mother. Feeling the need to calm any outbursts the child might have building, she quickly assured the boy. “Your mother will be right back. She just needs time to think.”
“No, she won’t,” Ezra said matter-of-factly. Maude had dumped him less than two weeks since retrieving him from Four Corners. He and the pretty young woman had heard the escalating words. He had run to the dining room window in time to see his mother climb into the buggy. He had heard what Maude had started to call him. The sad thing was, he knew it was true.
“Mother?” Audra said in a soft tone, her question encased in the one simple word.
Victoria Barkley kept her gaze on the little boy. “Tell Silas to prepare for a guest for supper, Audra,” she replied, keeping all the disgust she felt for the departed woman out of her voice. By the disposition of the child, she had a feeling it was not the first time he had been left behind.
Victoria held out her hand to the small child. “Come inside. I think we need to talk,” Victoria said firmly, but with care.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ezra said, taking the offered hand. He knew that to do otherwise would be offensive to the woman. Keeping a heavy sigh from escaping, he turned and walked inside. Maude expected him to keep up the charade. He would play Thomas Teller Barkley for a couple of days, until Maude returned and they got the money and left. He tried to find an upside to this mess and could only come up with the fact that at least the woman, Mrs. Barkley, showed no interest in punishing him for his mother’s behavior. Not yet at least.
The older woman led the boy back into the living room and motioned him to sit down on the settee across from her. “Now, why don’t we start with your real name,” Victoria said softly, but sternly, tempered with a smile.
Ezra wanted to shout, ‘Ezra Larabee,’ but knew the name was wrong. Chris had not adopted him. He was still just a boy without a true identity, just whatever name Maude gave him for the time being. “Thomas Teller, but Mother says my father was Tom Barkley,” Ezra said, spitting forth all that Maude had drilled into him.
Victoria sat back and listened as Ezra told of a man that used to come visit his mother and him in San Francisco. He described the man that fit the description of her beloved husband. Ezra mentioned the man often took him for rides on rented horses and picnics in the park, though Victoria had a hard time imagining Maude Teller at a picnic. Ezra finished by saying the visits stopped coming a few years back. When his mother made inquiries, she had learned Mr. Barkley had passed away. Ezra never once looked up at the woman as he talked. The flower in the area rug had taken on a life of its own and mesmerized the brown-haired child.
Audra had stood in the doorway and listened. It had been hard enough when Heath had coming barging through their door, demanding a piece of his property and heritage. Audra wasn’t sure the family, especially her mother, was prepared for another intruder. Heath had become part of their family and time had eventual erased that line and he had been a fully accepted and loved member of the family. Audra loosened some of the pent up tension in her shoulders. If they did it once, certainly they could do it again if necessary. The young woman stepped into the silent room and walked over to Ezra. “Since you will be staying for lunch, how about you come to the kitchen with me and help make a Sweet Potato Pie for dessert?”
Ezra finally looked up from his fascination with the rug and looked at the pretty blonde girl and then cast a quick glance over to the rigid and powerful rancher. Victoria noticed the gaze and smiled a real smile. The child had the biggest green eyes she had ever seen on a boy. With a better attitude towards the child, she smiled and nodded. “I think that would be a very good idea,” she said
“Come on, Thomas,” Audra said, holding out her hand, which Ezra slowly accepted. Once standing, the young woman turned to him and said, “I’ll even let you lick the bowl when we’re done,” as she led the child away. Ezra almost spilt the fact that Mrs. Potter let him do the same thing once when she had helped him make Chris a cake for his birthday. Ezra buried the sadness and followed the young lady. On the way out, she stopped by the front door and turned to the little boy. “Since you’ll be staying for a little bit, why don’t we take your jacket off? I bet you’re hot in it in this weather,” she said with a smile. She had offered to take it earlier while they were in the kitchen, but he had refused.
Ezra had to admit he was very hot. Nodding in agreement this time, he unbuttoned his wool jacket and slipped it off. Audra took the coat and hung it up on the coat rack. “Now, let’s go make that pie,” she suggested, still smiling.
Afterwards, Ezra kept finding himself looking out the window, searching for signs of Maude’s return. Lunch was cold beef sandwiches and potato salad. He kept his eyes down and only spoke when spoken to by Mrs. Barkley or the pretty Audra. The two women soon gave up on questioning the child when it became apparent that he would only vaguely answer their questions
After lunch, Audra had taken him around outside, showing him the stables, horses and such. He did admit he liked riding. After returning to the house, Ezra sat on the porch, growing more anxious as the day passed. Maude should have returned by now. He knew Maude knew about the three sons and he didn’t think for a minute they would allow his continued presence. Ezra had a feeling he would be in a sanctuary for abandoned children by nightfall. The thought terrified him. Those places were horrendous and torturous to endure. He kept to himself, believing the adage: out of sight, out of mind. He had no illusions that Mrs. Barkley would forget about him, but hoped to be spelled of punishment for Maude’s misdeeds for as long as possible. The afternoon seemed to go on forever.
Victoria spent the afternoon thinking of the child. How could a mother use her child in a scam. At the same time she could help the niggling feeling that perhaps she might have jumped to the wrong conclusion. In either scenario, Thomas was just a little boy stuck in a hard situation. In the late afternoon, Victoria sighed as she heard horses approach. It would be her sons. Looking out, she saw that all three of them were arriving together. She had waited all day for the pretentious woman to return and collect her offspring, and had hoped the boy would be gone before her sons came home. Gathering her dress skirt up in her hands, she stepped out onto the porch. This would not go well. Of course, she knew her sons would never harm or rebuke the child, but she wasn’t so sure they wouldn’t ride out after the woman and drag her back to get her son. Truth be told, having a child in the house again felt good, Barkley or not. She closed down that feeling, chastising herself for knowing better. The woman would return tonight, beg for forgiveness, and take her son and leave.
“Hello, Mother,” the three sons greeted the blonde woman.
“Boys,” Victoria greeted with a sharp tone.
The three men stopped unsaddling their horses and turned to the ranch woman. Her tone warned them something was not right. “Mother?” Jarrod, the oldest, stepped closer to the woman and questioned, “Something the matter?”
Victoria had never been a woman to shirk away from what needed doing, but tonight she was not looking forward to it. She knew each of her sons would take the news differently, but it would be Heath she was most concerned about. The youngest Barkley son had been raised in poverty and had had to fight to be the good man he was today. He had fought to be a Barkley as well. Victoria knew the news of another child that was in the same position would cut Heath deeply. Each of her boys was rugged and tough, but they also had hearts, and Victoria was afraid, Heath’s would be wounded again.
Looking over to Nick, her middle son, she smiled. Nick would get angry just like he had when Heath had arrived, but in the end, they had settled their differences and bonded as tightly as brothers could. She wasn’t sure what he would do with the child. Jarrod would want to take legal action against the woman of that she was sure. Looking at her sons, she sighed and related the afternoon’s events.
“She did what?” Nick exploded. The middle Barkley son was know for his quick temper.
Victoria had expected such a reaction and didn’t react to it. “I told you, Nick, she has temporarily placed her child in our care,” she said calmly, clasping her hands together.
“Well, how do we know he isn’t in on this?” Nick charged. The thought of anyone hurting his mother by disparaging his father riled the tall, black-haired man.
“Nick, he’s a child. Even if it is a scam and he is going along with it only because it is what his mother told him to do,” she explained softly. “Now come in…and be polite to our guest,” she directed the three men.
Jarrod and Heath had been silent throughout the exchange, but Victoria knew that wouldn’t last long. She wasn’t surprised at all when Jarrod announced, “Think I’ll ride back into town and see what the sheriff and I can find out.”
Nick nodded in agreement. “I’ll go with ya,” he said, retightening his saddle.
After mounting up, they noticed Heath was still standing where he had dismounted. “Heath, you coming?” Nick asked, his tone still colored with anger.
“Nah. I think I’ll stay here,” he said quietly. Both brothers nodded and reined their horses back down the road.
Victoria stood and watched the open emotions on her son’s face, so different from the child inside. In the few hours she had been with him, Victoria had learned that Ezra showed no emotion at all. She had caught him glancing out the window, but never once did the child show any anxiety or anticipation, just a blank stare.
Heath walked slowly beside his mother into the house, his mind racing with questions and scenarios about the boy’s lineage. It wasn’t hard for him to believe the possibility of the child’s father being Tom Barkley. The man may have been a well thought of leader of the community, but he was still a man. Walking into the house, Heath went to the kitchen and washed up. Towel drying his hands, he prepared himself to meet the boy. Straightening his shoulders, he walked into the parlor. Stopping in the entryway, he leaned against the doorway and watched the small figure sitting in a chair staring out the window. Heath looked over and got a small nod from his mother who had taken a seat across the room. Straightening up, he walked over to Ezra and squatted down next to him. Ezra glanced sideways at the man beside him and prepared himself for the next round of interrogation.
Heath stared out the window, drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. Keeping his eyes on the scene before him, he asked, “You ever been around horses?”
Pushing away the overwhelming flood of emotions brought on by the innocent question, Ezra blinked fast to stop the tears that threatened to well up in his eyes.
The flash of emotion didn’t go unnoticed by Heath. Keeping his eyes forward, Heath asked, “I’m partial to duns myself. How about you?”
“Blacks,” Ezra answered quietly, turning his head away in a gesture of dismissing any further conversation.
Heath said nothing more, but kept his place for a while, studying the boy. There was something about this child that reminded him of himself, beyond the fact that they’d both claimed to be Barkleys. Eventually, Heath rose and went to tend to the stock.
Two hours later, two riders came up the road. Dismounting, they led the horses into the barn and a few minutes later came to the house. Without having to ask, Ezra knew who they were and which one was which. The first man might have quit his questions, but Ezra seriously doubted these men would quit so easily.
Nick and Jarrod came into the house, hanging up their coats before entering the parlor. With a small shake of his head, Jarrod signaled to his mother that the woman had not been found. Heath stood up and walked towards his brothers. “Remember, he’s just a kid,” Heath whispered harshly.
“We’ll see,” Nick said with heat.
Jarrod smiled at Heath and slapped him on the arm in assurance as he walked over to ‘Thomas’. Dragging a chair over, he sat down in front of the boy, far enough away not to invade the boy’s space, but close enough to block any escape. Sitting there, he took in the way the child sat ramrod straight with hands clasped in his lap and staring at him with blank eyes. To the lawyer, the kid looked like he was on trial and was awaiting sentencing.
Taking on a big brother role, he softened his posture. Holding out his hand, he introduced himself, “My name is Jarrod.” Ezra took the hand and Jarrod couldn’t help but noticed how much his own engulfed the smaller one.
Turning to his brother, he said, “And the one over there is Nick. Don’t let his mood bother you, he just hasn’t eaten in two hours,” Jarrod said with a small laugh.
Ezra remained impassive. In truth, he wanted this whole ordeal to be over. He wanted Maude to come back for him, get what money she could, though from Ezra’s observation of them during the day, he doubted that would be very unlikely of happening, and be on their way. If he was being completely honest, he wanted a way to escape back to Chris. For just an instant, he thought of telling these people the whole truth, something Maude would have died over, and hoped the Barkleys would help him get back to Chris. Reality instantly slapped him in the face. If these people helped him get anywhere,it would be jail. Ezra felt a little more of himself die inside and wished he could stop feeling all together, the way his mother did.
“So,” Jarrod said slowly, his discomfort at the child’s non-reaction showing. “You’re Thomas?” he asked, the question clear in his tone.
Ezra nodded. It was time for his performance again. Really looking at the man for the first time, Ezra thought about Josiah. He didn’t know what it was about the man, but Jarrod reminded him of the preacher. “Yes, sir,” Ezra answered. “Thomas Teller Barkley.”
Jarrod swallowed hard and continued, “You knew your father? Our father?” he corrected himself.
Ezra nodded. “Yes, sir. He came to see me every year, sometimes more, until I was five,” he lied. “Then he stopped coming. Mother found out he had died,” Ezra choked. The emotion was real, but for a different reason. He knew Chris would be very ashamed of him right now.
“What do you remember about your father?” Jarrod asked kindly.
Ezra knew it was a leading question to see if he really knew anything about the deceased man. He took a steadying breath and began relaying the rehearsed information that Maude had drilled into him. He told fabricated stories of picnics in San Francisco parks, riding horses along paths, trips to the ocean and playing in the water with the man. With each story, he pretended the man he had done all that with was Chris. It made it easier to sadly smile and let a couple of the many tears he had flow unchecked. The effective appearance of a small child missing his father was disarming to all in the room. Ezra swiped angrily at the tears. Big boys didn’t cry and it was useless anyways. ‘A waste of time and emotion,’ Maude would say.
Jarrod quit his questioning while he regained his own emotions. Looking to where the rest of the family had gathered, the oldest son grinned a mirthless smile. The lawyer was relieved when Silas appeared at that moment and shifting uncomfortably announced supper was ready.
Victoria Barkley stood, ending any further conversation and said. “We’ll continue this later.” She, too, was uncomfortable, for the information the child had related again had sounded just like her Tom, a generous and loving father. Once again, she was wondering why Tom felt the need to find companionship elsewhere and why he left his children alone in the world with their mothers working to scrape by. Dismissing the anger and disappointment, she felt at her husband, she would not let it ruin their dinner.
Everyone but Ezra moved towards the dining room. He figured he would not be allowed to eat, or rather shouldn’t be allowed to eat. He was, after all, an unwanted guest at best, a scamp at worst. The boy turned back to the window and stared out, losing himself in his own world where the real one didn’t exist. He jumped at the feel of a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he saw Heath staring down at him with kindness and warmth twinkling in his eyes. “C’mon! Can’t let Nick get to the food first or we’ll never get any,” he said with an easy smile.
Heath waited for the child to rise and walked beside him into the dining room. An extra place had been set at the table and Ezra sat down uneasily. He took note of where the others sat. Heath sat next to him, across the table were Audra and the rough looking Nick. Mrs. Barkley and Jarrod sat on either end. Ezra waited to be served last. Mrs. Barkley had begun to worry about the child. It was, of course, natural for the child to be anxious about his mother’s return, but there was a deeper sadness than just being left behind. The child had neither gone running after his mother’s buggy crying for her to come back, like most children would have, nor had he shed a tear all day, except for the sparse ones when speaking of his father. In fact, she clearly remembered his words on the porch when she had said his mother would be back. He had simply replied that she wouldn’t. Victoria wondered if the child had known in advance that he would be left. Had the mother already informed the boy that if she received no money she would leave him like an unwanted stray? Is so, why hadn’t the woman brought the boy any clothes, or at least the child’s favorite toy? The strong-willed ranch-woman watched the child as food was passed to him, never daring to take any for himself, but simply passing it on. Straightening her shoulders, her resolve kicked in. He may have been dumped, unwanted, on her step, but the child was still a guest in her house, possibly a member of her family, and until things were sorted out he would be treated as such.
“What would you like to eat, Thomas?” Victoria said nicely, but sternly. Her tone clear that he was going to be eating something.
‘Whatever you give me, ma’am,” Ezra said in a soft tone. He had no intention of creating any more wrath towards himself.
“If it is on the table, it is yours to eat. Audra pass the potatoes,” Victoria ordered. Little by little Ezra watched his plate fill up with food. The words had been similar to what Chris had told him the first time he had eaten out at the ranch with him. The memory made his eyes burn. The smell of the food was nauseating to him, but he ate anyway.
Nick sat at the far end on the opposite side of the table, watching the newest claimant of his father’s wealth, then his eyes darted to Heath. The two were so alike, and yet so different. Where Heath had come barging into their lives with spitfire, demanding to be recognized as a Barkley, the boy seemed to have little interest in whether he accepted as family or not. To Nick, the kid seemed half empty and uncaring about what happened to him. The older man wondered what kind of life the child had led to have that feeling. He knew Heath had had a hard life growing up, but he had survived and had a strong will. The boy, however, was missing that inner strength. He tried to reconcile it with boy being being left behind by his mother, but he had been around people of all kinds and could read most of them and it just didn’t fit. This kid was about as down and out as some of the bums he saw in town. Nick tore into his steak, angry with his father for messing up yet another child’s life and himself for the way he had reacted earlier.
Jarrod had watched in concern as the boy had passed the food along without taking any for himself. He wondered if ‘Thomas’ had been taught to eat last, or if he was just not hungry, or, and this thought really disturbed the lawyer, if ‘Thomas’ was afraid to take any food for himself. Jarrod wondered where that kind of fear came from. He came to a decision; in the morning, he would go to town and investigate further into this woman and child. His brother and he had only spent two hours searching for the woman. He had informed Sheriff Lymen of whom he was looking. Tomorrow, he would check in with him and, if she hadn’t been found, then he would spend more time looking for her and he would telegraph San Francisco. His lawyer instincts were telling him that there was more to this woman and her child than what ‘Thomas’ had told them.
Ezra ate in silence, careful not to spill a drop. He hadn’t felt this anxious since the time he’d arrived to live with the Larabees and learned there was only Chris Larabee left. He and Chris had gotten off on a rocky startbut things had been patched up and the two of them were as close as father and son, or at least Ezra supposed that. HE had never had a father before. Supper was eaten in uneasy silence. Ezra was unwilling to initiate a conversation and only spoke when spoken to directly.
After supper, most of the family retired to the parlor. Jarrod had some paperwork to finish up and left for the study. Ezra returned to the chair by the window. He knew the others believed he was pining for his mother, but the truth was he was just escaping into his own world again. The parlor and the people around faded into oblivion as he found the zone. The zone that was black and engulfing and nothing existed. Ezra was startled by the touch of a hand on his arm. Jerking away from the sudden touch, he looked up with a flash of fear in his eyes and relaxed immediately at the recognition of Audra.
“Looks like you are ready to fall asleep right here in this chair. Why don’t we go upstairs? Mother had Silas prepare the guest room. She’s up there finding you an old outing gown now,” Audra said cheerfully, pretending not to have noticed the reaction from the boy.
She and the others had watched the boy all evening, sitting in his chair staring out the window, oblivious to anyone. Victoria had begun to really worry about the mental state of the child until Heath suggested the boy just probably needed a good night sleep after the long day. The mother had agreed and had gone up to the attic to find some of her children’s old clothes.
Audra led the boy out of the room amidst the two ‘goodnights’ from Heath and Nick. Ezra had replied, trying to be inconspicuous and gracious at the same time. It was a tough feat. He wished he had the power to become invisible, then he wouldn’t have to suffer such humiliation. He figured they were going to discuss what a poor upbringing he’d had and what should be done with him if Maude didn’t return. Passing the old grandfather clock by the hallway, he noticed the hour was quite late.
Once at the top of the steps, Audra led the little boy to the spare room. It wasn’t fancy, but it had a homey feeling to it. Mrs. Barkley looked up from straightening the bed sheets and saw Ezra and Audra standing there. “I found one of Nick’s old gowns for you. It may be a little big, but it will do for the night,” the older woman said, holding out the nightgown. She was at a loss of what to really do for the boy to make him feel more comfortable.
“Thank you, ma’am. I appreciate everything you have done for me today,” Ezra said softly. “I am sorry my mother put you in such a bind. I am sure she will be back tomorrow. She’s just been real tired lately,” Ezra apologized sincerely.
Laying a tender hand on the bony shoulder, Victoria said, “Don’t worry about it, Thomas. I am sure you are right. Come morning, your mother will be back here to get you.”
Ezra nodded once. Victoria moved to leave the child to ready himself for bed, but stopped. Placing her hand under Ezra’s chin and lifting the small head to look into the green eyes, she whispered, “You need anything at all, I am right across the hall.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ezra whispered back, knowing full well the lady meant the invitation, but he wouldn’t be bothering her for anything.
Audra stepped back out of the room and Victoria walked out the door and closed the door. Putting her arm around her daughter’s waist, the two walked down the hall to the stairway. Without looking at her mother, she said, “He is a very polite little boy.”
“Yes, he is,” Victoria agreed. She wondered just what kind of life he had led when Tom hadn’t been around.
Ezra carefully removed his heavy clothes. They had a distinctive sweaty smell to them from being worn in the heat. Opening his window a small portion, he laid his clothes on the sill to air out. Looking out the window, up to the stars, he wondered if they were the same stars that Chris could see from his shack. Sighing, he turned and walked over to his bed. Crawling in, he smoothed up the rest of the covers. Lying in bed, he stared out the window into darkness and finally fell asleep.
Victoria and Audra walked back into the parlor to find all three sons sitting in it. Nick waited until his mother was seated before opening the discussion. “Well,” he began stoutly, like he did most conversations he didn’t like. “What are we going to do?” His arms swung open wide in the mannerism he made when confronted with a problem.
Mrs. Barkley took control of the situation immediately. “When Miss Teller arrives tomorrow for Thomas, we will sort this out,” she said sternly.
“And just how much is it going to cost us to ‘sort this out’ according to Miss Teller?” Nick said sarcastically.
The matriarch sighed deeply. “Apparently five thousand.”
“Five thousand!” Nick shouted.
“Shhh!” Victoria snapped. “He,” looking upwards, “doesn’t need to hear this.”
Waving his hand once in the air, Jarrod calmly spoke up. “I have to agree with Nick, Mother. Five thousand is quite a lot of money.”
Victoria looked down at her hands. Gaining strength, she looked back up at her children and said, “Not if he is your father’s son.”
Audra spoke lowly. “Do you think he is, Mother?”
“I don’t know,” Victoria said worriedly. “I really don’t know.”
Taking a deep breath, she continued, “She offered no proof other than her words and Thomas’ stories, but then again what proof would he have?” she asked, knowing it would be unlikely for Tom’s name to appear on the birth certificate.
“I’ll go into town tomorrow first thing and talk to Sheriff Lymen. Perhaps, he has found something out,” Jarrod offered.
Heath, who had been standing to the side, listening to the conversation, stepped forward. Working the glass of bourbon he had in his hands, he put forth the question that had been plaguing him ever since he had met the boy. “If he is a Barkley, are we just going to give this woman the money and that be it?” His eyes pleading with his mother for the answer to be no.
Nick turned towards his younger brother in agitation. “What do you want to do, Heath? Take them in? Let them live here? What?” Nick didn’t deal well with surprises and certainly not ones that threatened his family.
Heath wasn’t sure what should be done, but it seemed so wrong to know there was another Barkley out there and not have any connection with him. “I don’t know, but we just can’t let him leave and never know him or know what happens to him,” Heath argued. Getting more vocal, he stepped closer to the group. “How will we even know she’ll use the money for him? Have you watched the way he acts? I don’t really think he cares if his mother comes back,” he said persuasively.
“So, you want us to tell his mother to leave him with us and to go on her merry way?” Nick asked incredulously.
“Yes,” Heath instantly shot back. Everyone fell silent with the statement. Even Heath was surprised with his answer.
“No mother is just going to give up her son so easily, Heath,” Victoria said gently, reaching out and grasping her son’s hand. Seeing the pain in her son’s eyes, she spoke softly, “Your mother fought hard to keep you and to raise you, and she did a good job. There is no reason to believe Miss Teller would do any different.”
“Except that she did leave him,” Heath answered bitterly. He wondered why they couldn’t see it. This was not the same as his case. The little boy upstairs was not him, but Thomas needed them as much as Heath had.
“Thomas said she has been real tired lately. I am sure that leaving him was a rash decision and she thought at the time that it seemed like a good idea,” Victoria explained. She hated what this was doing to her family.
“So, what will we do when she comes back in the morning, Mother?” Audra asked gently.
“We’ll deal with that problem when it happens. Now it is late and I’m going to turn in,” Victoria said, effectively stopping all further discussion. Kissing each of her children goodnight, she bid them adieu and climbed the stairs. Stopping at the guest door, she eased it open and held the hall lamp up to illuminate the room a little. Her heart dipped a little. Ezra was curled up on the far edge of the bed with the covers pulled snugly around him while the rest of the bed had been remade. Victoria walked in lightly and pulled the covers back a little to give the child more room to move. It had not escaped her attention that everything about the boy and his actions screamed wounded child. The way he tried to take up as little space as possible, disappearing inside himself; when spoken to he had said as little as possible, and he was polite at every turn. Leaning across the half bed, Victoria kissed the brown head. “Sleep tight,” she whispered. Straightening back up, she noticed the clothes laid at the windowsill and made a note to herself that no matter what happened the next day, the child would have summer clothes to wear. It was entirely too hot for the wool suit.
The next morning, Ezra sat on the edge of his bed unsure of what to do. In previous cases where he had been dumped unceremoniously, some relatives had been quite peeved when he had taken it upon himself to show up at the table for meals. They had ordered him to wait in his room until asked to join them. Others had been just the opposite. They had encouraged him to be a part of their family. Ezra had not been able to get a good read on the matriarch. She was stern, and he had the feeling she ruled the place with an iron fist, but she had also been kind and generous. Ezra sat on the bed dreaming of a far away shack with a couple of horses in the corral, one of them being his, Chaucer. The thought of his horse brought a lump to his throat. Chris had purchased Chaucer just for him for no other reason than because Chris wanted to. Ezra wondered if Chris had returned Chaucer to the stables to be resold or if he had given the horse away. There really was no reason to keep the horse now that Ezra was gone. Ezra wondered what Chris had done with all his personal belongings as well. He rationalized that the blond would have done the practical thing: packed everything up and had given it to Josiah to dispense as seen fit. The young boy felt tears forming and sucked in a deep breath to keep them from spilling. Crying had no worth, Maude had told him, except to use in a scam. Staring into space, he heard footsteps approach and gathered himself together.
After tending to the stock, Heath and Nick had come in for breakfast. Looking around for the new guest, Heath asked. “Where is Thomas?”
Victoria looked up from her chair, where she was doing some mending on an old pair of knickers Nick had worn when he was little. “He is still sleeping. I think yesterday was rough for him,” she said with sadness.
Heath only made a sound in the back of his throat and excused himself to go wash up. Climbing the stairs, he quietly walked down the hall and stopped at the guest room. The door was already open a crack. The young cowboy presumed his mother had left it that way when she had checked on the child earlier. Glancing through the crack, he observed the boy, dressed, sitting on the edge of his bed. His posture straight, hands in his lap and tears in his eyes. Thomas had the same faraway look that he had worn the night before when looking out the window. Knocking once on the door before pushing it open, Heath was surprised to find the forlorn look was gone and, just as quickly, dismayed to see it replaced by fear and then apprehension. Relaxing his own posture, Heath walked into the room and winked at the kid. “Hey, kid, whatcha doing just sitting here? Why aren’t you downstairs? You’re going to miss breakfast,” he said.
Ezra looked up at Heath. For some reason, that Ezra couldn’t put his finger on, the man reminded him of Vin. Mentally shaking the thought away, he said timidly, “I was unsure what I was supposed to do.”
Heath studied the little boy in front of him. He wished the others could see the kid was just as much a victim in all of this as they were. There was no proof the kid knew he was going to be placed with them. In fact, Heath figured, if a kid knew he was about to be dumped, wouldn’t he have brought along something endearing to him? The sandy-brown haired man continued into the room. “Around here, when the meal bell rings, it’s best to be first at the table or you’ll be left with crumbs,” he joked with a true smile, giving Ezra a light slap on the back and gently pushing him up on his feet. Heath had felt, as well as seen, the flinch his touch had created and kept his hand gently on Ezra’s shoulders as the two walked out of the room and down the hall.
Ezra walked into the dining room and sat down at the spot he had the previous night. Victoria watched the child and tried to be comforting. “I am sure your mother has already regretted her reaction and is going to show up today, full of apologies for her little boy,” she said with a smile.
Ezra stared at his empty plate. “Maybe,” he answered after a while. In the silent room the quiet voice sounded quite loud.
Victoria reached over and patted the small hand. “Let’s eat,” she directed with a cheery smile. Inwardly, she was hoping against hope the child was not foretelling the future.
Eating her breakfast, Victoria kept a watchful gaze on the young boy. She had tried the previous day to pick out similarities, mannerisms, and sayings, anything that would associate the boy with her husband. As a mother, she knew how hard it was to keep one’s family going when left alone, but she couldn’t see herself leaving any of her children with perfect strangers and walking away.
After the meal was eaten, the Heath and Nick headed out to the barn. They had chosen to stay close to the house for the day in case Miss Teller did return for her son. They had promised Jarrod that they would look after their mother, as well as the welfare of the child. Ezra followed Audra and Mrs. Barkley into the parlor, where the older woman handed the child a pair of knickers and a cotton shirt. “Here, I thought you might be more cooler in these,” Victoria began. Seeing an argument coming, she abruptly added, “Only until your mother arrives, at least.” Trying to appease the child.
Ezra capitulated and went to his room to change into the cooler clothes. A silent prayer of thanks went out to the woman for her thoughtfulness. Returning downstairs, he stood in the doorway, waiting to be noticed. Victoria looked up from her continued mending and smiled. “Well,” she said, with a smile, “you look much more comfortable.”. She found it easier to smile at the child with each passing moment. He really was a beautiful child, even if he didn’t turn out to be a Barkley.
“Thank you, ma’am, for your kindness. I deeply appreciate it,” Ezra voiced.
“You are most welcome,” Victoria said. Looking at the boy, she knew it would go better for him if he were kept busy. “Why don’t you go down to the corral and find Heath and Nick. I’m sure their company would be more enjoyable than sitting here with womenfolk,” she instructed.
Ezra didn’t really want to, but knew better than to turn down the directive. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied and walked outside.
Once he reached the corrals, he stepped up on the lowest rail and peered over the top to watch Nick and Heath work with a newly broke horse. The reddish-colored gelding still had a temperament and Heath was attempting to throw the saddle over the horse’s back, while Nick kept the lead rope taut. Running his gloved hand repetitively down the horse’s muzzle, the tall, black-haired man talked soothingly to the equine in a hushed tone. Ezra was mesmerized by the action.
Heath looked up and found they had an audience and smiled. Finally succeeding in getting the saddle on and cinched, he took over the lead rope while Nick mounted. Once the rider gave the okay, Heather unsnapped the rope and quickly stepped out of the way. The horse bucked a few times before giving a couple of sidesteps. Heath walked over to the railing where Ezra stood and together they watched Nick ride the horse until it was settled and ready to be let out of the corral. Heath leaned over to the boy and said, “Nick’s one of the best horse breakers there are.” Ezra wanted to say he knew someone better, but didn’t. Instead, he watched the rider, dressed in black, ride out of the corral and down the lane.
Chris stood over the stove, stirring the cowboy stew he was warming for supper. He had yet to get used to the silence of living alone again. When Ezra had come along, he hadn’t wanted the boy. After taking him in, though, Chris never wanted to imagine life without him. Ezra was atypical of any child he had ever known. At first, Ezra was fussy about getting dirty, going fishing, or anything else that involved more than sitting in the shade reading. Slowly the child had changed. Chris had figured out that Ezra was more afraid of people finding out he was inept at outdoor activities, so he pretended not to care about them.
Once Chris had figured that out, the problems were easier to solve. If a crowd was expected to be around, then Chris had taken the boy aside and explained in detail what was involved in the task. If it was just the two of them, Ezra had quietly begun accepting the fact that he didn’t have to perform everything perfectly
Chris dipped himself a bowl of stew and sat down. As he had done for the past few weeks, he looked up at the door, expecting the brown haired boy to come running into the house with a large smile and a long-winded version of the events of his day.
Chris silently ate his supper, rinsed out his bowl and put it up ready to use the next time. Walking over to his chair, he sat down and picked up the book he was currently trying to read. He was having little success. It wasn’t the same reading it to himself as it was when he read to Ezra. The young child would sit at his knee with his head resting against his leg, or sit at the table and draw as Chris read. To Ezra, it was like having a bedtime story read to him.
Chris sighed and closed the book. It was useless. Getting up, he turned down the wick in the oil lamp and readied for bed. Slipping into the boy’s room, he sat down in the hand-hewn rocker and rocked. He used to come in at night after Ezra was ready for bed and he would sit down in the rocker and Ezra would climb up into his arms and they would rock. Sometimes they used the darkness and the closeness to talk about the real personal things that couldn’t be said in the daylight. Most of the time though, they would sit in silence and just enjoy one another’s presence.
Chris looked about the small room. He had not touched one thing, nor would he. Chris had every belief that unlike his son Adam, Ezra would return to him one day, and when he did, Chris wanted the room to be just like it had been left. He was glad that not one of his friends had suggested he do anything different. He would have hated to kill them.
The ache in his heart would never diminish as long as his boy was out there somewhere. This was not the same type of ache that he had felt when Adam had died. When his son had been killed, it had been unbearable, but there had also been a sense of finality to it. He knew Adam would never come back, unlike losing Ezra, who was still very much alive.
Chris had been infuriated with the judge when the old man had handed out his ruling. After Maude had made her quick escape, Chris had gone after the territorial judge like a man possessed. It had taken everything Buck and Josiah had to keep him from ripping the man’s tonsils out through his throat.
Chris didn’t recall the specifics of that altercation; he had been so blindly enraged everything was a blur. He read about it the following Friday though when Mary had printed a story about it in the paper—a slanted version in Chris’ mind. The blond man clenched the arms of the rocker as he remembered his combustible conversation with Mary after reading the article. She’d had the gall to side with the mother. Chris had come unglued. What did Mary know of Maude other than the woman had blown into town to reclaim her son?
Mary had stubbornly stood by her decision that a mother should always be considered sole caregiver of her child. Chris didn’t recall exactly what he said, but Buck had filled him in later. Apparently, it went along the lines of what would Mary know about being a mother when she couldn’t deal with raising her own son.
Chris had almost gone back and apologized. Almost. Stopping in mid-stride, he had looked across the street and found Mary gossiping with some womenfolk that were known for always thinking they were in the right. One of the so-called ladies had once suggested putting Ezra in an asylum. Chris decided right then Mary didn’t need an apology.
Chris woke in the middle of the night to find he had fallen asleep in the chair. Rising stiffly, he walked to his room and lay down on his bed. Staring out the window, he could see a few stars. Like a child, he wished on the brightest one, that wherever Ezra was at that moment, that at least he would be safe.
The next morning, Chris dressed and rode into town. He had stayed out of town for a couple of days, but found the solitude worse than being in town, so he returned to doing his peacekeeping chores. At night usually, he rode back to the shack. Everyday he hoped that Ezra would somehow be on the porch, waiting for him when he returned.
Riding up to the livery, he handed the reins over to Tiny and nodded his greeting. Tiny had taken a real shine to Ezra, as had a few other townsfolk. Tiny had been the one to sell him Ezra’s horse, Chaucer. The mean-spirited beast had come close to being put down before Ezra came along and fell in love with the ornery thing.
Chaucer was a different horse around the boy. It was like the horse could sense how much Ezra needed him and purposefully obeyed the child. With everyone else, they were just lucky if Chaucer didn’t nip, or kick them. Whenever Ezra rode Chaucer to town, Tiny would ask him the same question, “Ready to trade that beast in yet?” Ezra would shake his head hard and answer, “No, sir. Chaucer is just fine like he is.” It became a game between the two. The first time Chris rode into town solo after Ezra’s departure, Tiny hadn’t even been able to look him in the eye. Chris figured it had to do with the mist in the man’s eyes. The blond man felt as bad for the lonesome liveryman as he did for himself.
Chris crossed the street and stepped up onto the boardwalk. Making his way down to the saloon, he passed Mrs. Potter cleaning the windows. The older woman stopped her wiping and smiled sadly at him. Mrs. Potter had been another one that Ezra had touched during his stay. The storeowner took Ezra under her wing when Chris and the others had to ride out on business. She treated him like a nephew. Chris smiled sadly back and kept walking.
Finally reaching his destination, he sat down on the wooden chair outside of the saloon and waited. It wasn’t long before Inez showed up with a drink for him and promptly went back inside. Inez had yet to smile at anyone, except when deemed necessary for business. Inez had taken Ezra’s leaving hard. The Spanish woman had fallen to Ezra’s green eyes and polite manners. Chris had heard that after he had ripped into Mary and had been subsequently dragged out of town by Buck, that Inez had gone over to the newspaperwoman and had succinctly told Mary, in her elegant Spanish, what she thought of the newspaper woman and her ideas. The way Chris heard it, even though Mary didn’t know a word of Spanish, she understood exactly what Inez had said and Mary had yet to walk on the saloon side of the street. Chris let a small smile slip out. Inez had a way of putting you in your place if she had a mind to.
The black dressed man scanned the town, noting everyone and their business. It had been quiet and, for everyone’s sake, Chris hoped it remained that way. He was in no mood for foolishness. Buck was coming from the church, walking towards him on the opposite side of the street. Chris guessed the ladies’ man had been over to see Josiah.
Chris had not been blind to the fact of what Ezra’s absence had done to his friends. All of them had been affected by the removal of the boy. Buck, in the year that Ezra had lived with him, had returned to his favorite role as Uncle. With Adam, Chris and Sarah had had a hard time keeping the man from spoiling their son rotten. It had been no different with Ezra. Buck had fallen into his old habits right off, and Ezra had him wrapped around his little finger so tight, the blond had jokingly asked many a time if the man could still breathe. When Ezra had been yanked away, Buck had lost his normal exuberance, much like he had when Adam had been killed. This time Chris wondered if Buck would rebound as well. Losing one child had been devastating on both of them; Chris wondered how they would survive losing another one.
Buck finally made his way to where Chris was sitting and took the seat next to him. “Hey,” Buck said in a flat tone.
“Hey,” Chris replied. “Everything quiet?”
“Yep,” Buck answered without heart.
Buck glanced sideways at his friend and quickly looked away. Chris was back to wearing all black. Even before Ezra came along, the gunfighter had begun wearing the occasional white or light blue shirt. After Ezra came, the colored shirts appeared more regularly until the black shirt was out of character for the man.
The two men sat in silence and watched the townsfolk carry on with their lives, seemingly unaware of the changes that had taken place in their peacekeepers lives. They had their own worries, own dilemmas to ponder. To them, the coming or going of someone else’s child was not life altering.
Chris looked over his shoulder and saw Vin moseying his way towards them, looking in the shops, speaking briefly to certain people, and keeping an eye on his surroundings. Habits died hard for all of them. Vin stepped into Mrs. Potter’s store
Buck wasn’t the only one to spoil Ezra. The others did their share. For Vin, the tracker had always purchased two candy sticks, one for himself and one for Ezra. Chris figured if Vin stored every stick he had purchased since Ezra’s leaving, the man should have a drawer full. On second thought, the black-dressed man supposed that the youngest peacekeeper was more than likely the recipient of the candy.
Vin walked up to where the two men were sitting and leaned against the post. The sharp blue eyes caught the weariness in Buck’s eyes. He had noticed the big man seemed to have the weight of the world upon his shoulders lately and knew Buck was worried about Chris. Vin smirked to himself. That’s what these six men did best, worry about one another. Vin had a gut feeling that they would be alright though. A deep down feeling told him that Ezra would be back and then their family would be complete once again.
Nathan looked out his clinic window and saw the men gathering at the saloon. He was relieved to see that Chris was only sipping on his drink. It had been a great concern to him that Chris might start hitting the bottle hard, but so far, to Nathan’s knowledge, he hadn’t. Nathan hoped it stayed that way. Laying down his mortar and pestle, the healer glided his fingers over the small table he used to prepare his treatments. Many a time, Ezra had joined him in the clinic and helped him where he could by folding wrappings, grinding pistils for ointments, etc. He hadn’t felt this deep of a loss since his daddy had died. Nathan took a deep breath, wiped his hands and walked out his door to join his comrades.
Josiah stopped his hammering and wiped the back of his hand across his sweaty brow. Angry, with no one to vent it on, he had accomplished a lot of work on the church in the past few weeks. Josiah couldn’t keep the short court session out of his mind. He had stood in the back and watched Maude argue that she should not be from trying to reunite with her son. The preacher kept wondering how such a beautiful lady could have such a dark and ugly heart. Never once during the proceedings did she acknowledge that Ezra might have become attached to Chris, or did she apologize for going so long without corresponding.
When it was over, she had been in such a hurry, she hadn’t even allowed the boy to gather his belongings from Chris’. It was a miracle she had let him say goodbye, such as it was. Josiah looked down from his perch and saw his friends collecting outside the saloon. Putting down his hammer, Josiah climbed down the rickety wooden ladder and strode over. Only by being together did the loneliness slip away a little.
JD was the last to join the small group. Until Ezra had come along, he had been the youngest of the misfit family. The pranks, unsolicited advice, and the nickname ‘kid’, had really began to grow old, but when Ezra turned up, everything changed. JD had looked at the child with his big, green eyes filled with loneliness and despair, and the young sheriff quickly decided he had been granted a blessing by having five older men take him into their lives and teach him things that would keep him alive in the West. JD had also done a lot of growing up and maturing. He wanted Ezra to believe he was as dependable, safe and able to protect him like the others. When it was just the two of them, JD reverted to being a kid because he believed Ezra needed that lesson on how to act like a child and enjoy life, but when they were around the others he portrayed the adult side of himself. Now without Ezra, there was no one that looked up to him, no one to play around with, no one to protect from life’s harsh realities.
JD stared at the old wanted posters. Ezra used to come in and the two of them would make wild and entertaining stories about the outlaws. Laying the posters aside, he stood up and stretched. Walking over to the window, he saw the others had already formed a small circle on the other side of the street. JD watched as Josiah leaned heavily against the post. JD knew how much Ezra had meant to Josiah. If Chris hadn’t taken Ezra in, Josiah would have in a heartbeat. As it was, Josiah played substitute father when Chris had to leave town on business. Ezra had made the oldest in their group feel young and revitalized. Now Josiah seemed to appear as an old man without a mission in life. JD gathered up his bowler hat and stepped out into the sun. Maybe, he could talk Josiah into going fishing with him later; the preacher needed to be needed.
The five stood as JD joined them on the boardwalk and they all stepped inside the dark saloon. They walked without talking to their regular tables, seated themselves and waited for Inez to serve them the daily special. Their collective sadness formed a shield around them, for no one wanted to bother the six men still mourning the loss of one ten-year-old little southern boy who brought life to six men.
It had been a week since Ezra had been unceremoniously left with Victoria Barkley and her family. Jarrod had talked to the sheriff daily. The first day, they heard rumors of a woman and a boy fitting the description staying in the seedier part of town. Jarrod had gone hunting. What he found out was that a woman with a small boy had arrived at the run-down hotel; they had left for a while and, when the woman returned, she was alone. Some of the visitors told Jarrod that the woman had said she had left the boy with relatives. The woman had gone upstairs and promptly came back down with her suitcase and left. Jarrod had checked out the train station next and found that the woman, dressed quite differently than her arrival at the ranch, had departed on the afternoon train to San Francisco. Jarrod had dreaded going home that night to tell his mother what he had learned. Victoria had held out hope that the mother would still return for her son.
Jarrod arrived home late that evening and found his mother alone in the parlor. Walking in and placing a kiss on her temple, he greeted her, “Hello, Mother.”
“You’re home late. I had Silas put a plate back for you if you’re hungry,” Victoria said.
“Thanks, but I ate in town,” Jarrod explained. Sitting down in a chair next to his mother, he said, “Mother, we must talk.”
Victoria looked at her son speculatively. Drawing in a deep breath, she asked, “What about?”
Jarrod looked down at his hands, and then looked up at his mother. “I believe the woman that left Thomas here has left town. A woman fitting her description was seen getting on the train going to San Francisco.”
“I see,” Victoria said slowly.
“Mother, if she has abandoned the boy, I think…I think we should turn him over to the sheriff and let him be placed in a children’s home,” Jarrod said reasonably. He had not wanted to broach this topic with his mother. It was the reason he had stayed in town for so long.
“I won’t do it, Jarrod,” Victoria said plainly.
“Mother, he’s not your responsibility,” Jarrod argued. He knew his mother would not approve of the idea, but it wasn’t fair for some woman to dump her child on his mother’s doorstep and expect his mother to start raising a child all over again.
Victoria looked at her son with softened eyes. “He is if he’s ours.” Victoria had to stop and swallow. “Your father was a good man, but he had his weaknesses. I will not punish the child for those weaknesses, Jarrod. I simply won’t,” she said with authority.
Jarrod looked at his mother with stern eyes. “We don’t know if he’s…if he’s a Barkley,” he said. He hated to mention it, but his mother had to see both sides.
“We don’t know he’s not,” Victoria said, her voice becoming sterner. “Now that’s the end of it, Jarrod. You hear me? I won’t hear talk of it anymore until we know for sure. Besides, the mother may return once she begins to miss her child,” she said. She had made up her mind. The boy was staying.
Jarrod rose to his feet and kissed his mother’s temple. “Yes, ma’am,” he said with a smile. It appeared they had a new brother in the family.
So after a week and still no sign of the mother, Victoria began planning on action. The first thing she did was to have Jarrod draw up legal papers in order to take guardianship of the minor. Whether the boy was a Barkley or not was of little consequence. She had seen orphanages and the things that took place in such facilities, and was loathe to sending the boy to one of them. The next thing she decided was that the child needed clothing of his own. The following Monday, she’d had Nick hitch up the buggy. Victoria and Audra wrote in the buggy with Nick and Heath escorting them. Ezra rode with Heath. Nick and Heath excused themselves and went to tend business at the stockyards. Victoria and Audra led Ezra from shop to shop, collecting needed materials and accessories. In the first such store, a pleasant old man came out from behind the counter and shook hands with the well-known resident.
“Victoria,” he exclaimed, taking her hand in his and shaking it heartedly. “It is so good to see you.” Looking down, he noticed the young boy standing slightly behind the woman. “And who is this?” he asked in a friendly voice.
Victoria stiffened. Rumors were going to fly anyway, she figured, so she might as well start setting them straight. “This is Thomas. He is…” Victoria took a steadying breath and prepared to tell the truth.
Ezra felt shame for the woman and his guilty conscience couldn’t allow the good woman to be humiliated. Stepping forward, he stuck out his hand and quietly introduced himself. “I’m Aunt Victoria’s great-nephew. I am staying with Aunt Victoria while my parents are on a trip,” he said with a smile.
“Ahhh, Well, it is a pleasure to meet you, Thomas,” the man said with a smile. “Come, as a treat, we will get you a piece of candy,” he said cheerfully. Ezra liked the rotund man. Taking the proffered stick candy, Ezra was reminded of the many times when Vin would treat him to a piece of the delicious sweet.
Victoria was a little stunned, but quickly gathered herself. She hadn’t expected the child to step forward and save her the embarrassment. Looking at her daughter, Audra gave her a weak smile. She, too, had been dreading the explanations. After Ezra received his candy, which he promptly had placed in a sack and put in his back pocket, selections on shoes were made, and then the threesome departed the store and headed for the next one. Victoria stopped on the sidewalk and halted Ezra. “Thomas? Why did you do that back there?” she asked in confusion.
Ezra, figuring he was in trouble for talking without being spoken to first, a major violation with his mother, stammered through a justification. “I…I…I didn’t want to embarrass you. It is not your fault that I’m a...fatherless child,” Ezra finished quietly, his face glowing red in embarrassment. “You’ve done so much for me already. It is all right by me if I am not acknowledged as a Barkley.” His voice had grown softer with each word.
Victoria stared down at the child looking at his shoes. She had done nothing for him, she thought, except provide a bed and feed him. Was the child so used to being given so little that a bed and food were something worth giving up a heritage? Lifting the small face, she stated. “I appreciated your sacrifice, Thomas, and fatherless or not, you are still a child to be proud of,” she said sternly. She was torn between allowing the lie to stay or putting it right and telling the whole sordid mess. Folks did talk. How long could the charade go on before questions were raised? She decided, for the time being, she would let the lie stand. Opening her purse, she dug in it and pulled out a nickel. “Here. There is a shop right there on the corner,” she said, pointing out the small shop, “Why don’t you go find you a toy. Okay? We’ll be right here in this shop when you get back,” she instructed.
Ezra looked at the nickel in surprise. A nickel was a lot for a young boy. Looking up at the lady, he searched for a reason for her kindness. Simply seeing an anticipatory look in her eyes, he nodded once. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you,” Ezra said.
“Off you go now,” Victoria said, tilting her head to one side.
After Ezra left, Audra leaned over and whispered, “Odd little boy, isn’t he?”
Victoria raised her eyebrows and nodded. Yes, the little boy was turning out to be quite unusual.
Walking towards the shop, Ezra spotted a telegraph office across the street. Looking at the nickel in his hand, he clenched his fingers tight around it, stepped off the sidewalk and walked across the street. Hesitantly pushing the door open, he jumped at the tinny tingling of the bell hung over the door. It sounded loud to his ears. The operator looked up from his seated position and glanced over the counter at the small boy.
“I don’t give tours, boy,” he said sharply.
“Uhhh,” Ezra stammered. “I don’t want a tour, mister. I was wondering about sending a telegraph,” he said in a businesslike tone.
“They ain’t free, kid,” he said gruffly.
“I have money,” Ezra said softly.
“Humph,” the man sounded. “Where to?” he asked suspiciously.
Ezra swallowed. “Four Corners. Colorado Territory,” he supplied.
“Hmmm,” was all the sound the operator made.
When the operator didn’t say anything more, Ezra swallowed hard and asked, “How much is one?”
“Well, cost depends on how many words it is,” the operator said.
Ezra penned the short missive in his head, counted the words and told the operator. The man took up a pencil and did some figuring. “That’ll be seventy cents,” the man quoted.
Ezra gulped. He looked at the nickel in his hand and nodded slowly. Turning, he walked out the door and began figuring ways he could make money. He wondered if he worked on the ranch really hard if Mrs. Barkley would pay him a nickel a week. Ezra sighed. Even at that, it would take fourteen weeks to come up with the money. Ezra began walking slowly back towards the shop Mrs. Barkley had pointed out. It would take over three months to earn enough money. In that length of time, a lot could happen. Maude could come back and take him somewhere else. The Barkleys could tire of him and send him away. He should just give up on the idea of ever seeing Mr. Larabee ever again. Why would the man want him now anyway? Mother was right; Chris was better off without him.
Ezra walked through the shop, giving the pretense that he was looking for something to buy. Nothing attracted his attention. Stepping back outside, he headed for the dress shop to meet up with Mrs. Barkley and her daughter. Victoria turned at the sound of the door opening. Smiling, she said, “Well, that didn’t take long. What did you find?”
Ezra walked up to the woman and said seriously, “I didn’t see anything I wished to have.” Regrettably, he opened his hand up and produced the coin. “Here is your nickel back,” he said.
Victoria studied the boy before her. She had never known a child who couldn’t find something he wanted. “You keep it. Perhaps next week you will find something,” she said, never noticing she was speaking in future terms.
Ezra smiled a real smile. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said as he put the coin in his pocket. Picking up the purchased items, Ezra followed the two women out of the store. Biting his lower lip, he garnered his courage and said, “I was thinking, Mrs. Barkley.”
Victoria stopped in mid-stride and turned attentively towards the boy. “Yes, Thomas?”
Gulping, Ezra continued, “It wouldn’t be right to take money for nothing. So, I thought, maybe I could work for it. I can do a lot of things. I’m pretty strong,” he said seriously.
Victoria bit back the laugh the young child’s seriousness caused. “I believe, Thomas, that we could work something out.” Stopping to think a minute, Victoria finally said, “You help out around the place and in return you’ll be given a nickel a week. How is that?”
Ezra’s eyes went wide. It had gone better than he had hoped. “Yes, ma’am. I can do that,” he said eagerly.
Victoria tuned back around and started down the boardwalk to meet up with her sons for lunch. Ezra followed happily. He would be working for his board and keep, and still receive an allowance.
A nice lunch at the local restaurant was enjoyed. By now the story about the visiting nephew had spread throughout much of the influential part of town.
Ezra had begun going out after supper and sitting on the porch. To the family, the boy was still missing his mother; to Ezra it was a time of peace. He would sit and stare up at the stars and recount the stories that Josiah had told him about the constellations and how the Greeks named them after their warriors or great people. Ezra was sitting on the porch that night, as he did every night, when he heard the screen door open behind him. He knew it was Heath. The older man usually joined him. The two of them would sit in silence, or sometimes Heath would discuss life with his mother before she passed away. As Heath sat down and stretched his long legs down along the steps, Ezra asked, “Mr. Barkley?” Heath had yet to convince the boy to call him by his first name. “Do you think people far away can see the same stars that we’re seeing?”
Heath listened to question posed and the sadness in the voice. Looking up at the twinkling lights, he gazed a moment before answering, “Well, I guess that would depend on how far away they were.”
Ezra shrugged like it didn’t matter, but to him it made a lot of difference. “I don’t know. Say, the people in Utah, or even Colorado,” he said casually.
“Hmmm,” Heath murmured. “I expect so. When I was roaming around, going from job to job, I once landed in Utah. I could see the Big Dipper there, just the same as here. So, yeah, I suppose the people in Utah and Colorado could be seeing the same stars we are,” he rationalized.
Ezra couldn’t keep the smile from escaping. Heath was right about the Big Dipper. Chris had pointed it out many times. Looking up at the stars, he wondered if Chris ever looked at the stars anymore.
Chris rode along in the dark, studying the stars above. It was a crystal lit night as he rode the perimeter of his patrol. In the weeks that Ezra had been gone, Chris’ routine had gone back to the way it was before Ezra had come bursting in on him. Some things had changed, like taking night patrol. He found it easier to be out riding at night than being in an empty house with so many reminders of what he had lost. Night was also the time when it was easier for him to fall into a melancholy stupor and reach for a bottle.
Riding out, listening to the sounds of the nights, kept him away from the bottle and its problems. Ezra had liked the night. The boy would help him clean up from supper and then afterwards the two of them would sit out on the steps. Ezra’d ask a million questions. What each sound was? How many stars did he think were up in the heavens? Why did foxes and wolves mostly come down and attack livestock when it was dark? Did he ever think there was an animal that was afraid of the dark? Chris would try his best to answer each question as seriously as they had been asked.
The regulator made his hour-long ride and rode back to town to spend the rest of shift sitting outside, listening to the calls of the wild. Grabbing a cup of coffee from the jail, he walked outside and settled down in the chair. Cocking the chair back on two legs, he rested against the wall and thought about the boy he missed so much and how Ezra had changed his life.
Ezra had been the epitome of a city boy when he had first stepped off the stagecoach. He had been a little prim and proper gentleman. Ezra had been appalled when he had first been taken to Chris’ shack, but had tried to hide his dismay, failing miserably. Over the months though the boy had traded in his suit clothes for farm clothes and had become quite adept at helping around the ranch. Ezra went from a old man who refused to get dirty to a little boy who had been caught having a mud fight with two other regulators, who acted as much children.
Chris smiled at the memory of the time when he had walked around the side of the livery, having heard much laughter and squealing, to find Buck and Ezra hiding behind a horse trough and throwing mud balls at JD, who had taken up hiding behind a pile of hay. Buck, sneaking out from behind his fort, was instructing Ezra in the fine art of tactile maneuvers when he, himself, got slammed by a speeding projectile. Ezra had laughed so hard he had crumpled to the ground. Buck had hammed it up and played wounded. Ezra had crawled to his friend’s aid and had valiantly pulled his fallen comrade back behind the barrier with a little help from Buck. By the time the fight was over, Ezra was covered in mud and had a smile plastered on his face so big, one could see all his white teeth. Chris had shook his head and instructed Buck it was his duty to get the child cleaned up. Buck had happily taken on the responsibility and,from what Chris had heard from the bath keeper, the mud war had turned into a water war and the whole bathhouse had needed mopping.
Chris’ mind turned to his best friend. Buck had made stops by the shack on his rounds in the morning just to have breakfast with Chris and Ezra. Many times Buck had taken Ezra riding with him, or fishing, or a hundred other little things that uncles do with their nephews.
Most thought that Buck had done his grieving and had moved on after they had buried Adam, but Chris knew differently. Adam’s death had changed Buck as much as it had him. The only difference was that, where Chris let everyone know he had been affected, the world outside couldn’t see the pain Buck carried. Ezra’s leaving affected Buck deeply. He figured Buck, as well as Nathan and Josiah, secretly gave JD some of his pay to keep sending out telegraphs in search of Maude and Ezra. Chris was not supposed to have known; he reckoned it was because his friends didn’t want to get his hopes up of finding Ezra, but the telegraph operator had let it slip one day that the young sheriff was still sending out notices.
Vin would make excuses to ride out of town on the weekends, saying he was visiting the neighboring Indian villages, or the Chinese camp, or other such lies. Chris knew what Vin was really doing. The tracker was doing what he did best: track. Vin would ride out on a Friday and come back late Sunday night, alone, and then spend the rest of the week depressed. Chris also knew Vin studied the railroad lines and their stops. Using this information, he would travel to other stations and search for any clues. Chris knew he should have told his men to stop, but he couldn’t. He wanted them to find Ezra. He wanted to be able to ride out of town one day, go get his son and bring him home.
Chris sipped at the cold coffee and thought of the word ‘home’. After Sarah and Adam had been killed, home really didn’t exist for him, just the shack. Nothing more than a dry place to stay when he wasn’t out riding somewhere or staying in town. Ezra had changed that, too. Once the kid arrived, home became what it once was, a place where family was together. Buck and the others were family, too, but they had their own lives to lead, their own thing to do. Nathan still had his doctoring, Josiah still had the church, JD still was sheriff and Buck…well Buck was still Buck.
They didn’t need him; at least not in the same manner ten-year-old Ezra had needed him. Chris had liked being needed again. Instead of reaching for his gun or the bottle, he had found that the kid filled up that empty space that had needed quenching. The black-clad man sighed and looked up at the stars. He wondered if they were the same ones Ezra saw.
It had been almost a month since he had taken up residency in the Barkley household. Ezra hadn’t felt any desire to draw close to any of them. He had opened himself up the last time he had found a home and got smacked in the face with the harshness of reality. No matter where he was or how happy he was, Maude would always come back eventually and end it all. He had been true to his deal, and worked or Mrs. Barkley. He rose with the sun and did the list of chores she always had ready. More often than not, when he was finished with the measly list, he would find more to do. He wanted to keep busy; it was better than sitting around doing nothing. During those times, when he found himself with nothing to do, his mind always took a path that was better left alone, making him resolve to try even harder to forget his past. He often worked in the barn, cleaning out stalls, or exercising some of the calmer horses, or taking water out to the field hands.
The hard work didn’t go unnoticed by the members of the house and, no matter how hard they tried to find a connection with the child, they found themselves held back by an invisible shield the child created around himself. He was never rude or unfriendly, yet he didn't extend any form of friendship either.
Victoria kept her word and gave Ezra a nickel a week. It didn’t escape her knowledge that the child never seemed to spend the money. It was odd to her that a child of that age would save. She recalled the many times she or Tom had given one of their children a penny or a nickel. They would have it spent within five minutes after arriving in town.
She often stood at the window and watched Ezra do his chores with the tenacity of any grown man and then sought out more work on his own. Victoria knew what drove a person to keep moving. After Tom had died, she, herself, had kept busy, afraid if she stopped moving she would break down in her loss for her husband. She let Ezra keep moving. Work was good for keeping demons at bay. The mother had also watched as her older sons had tried to incorporate Ezra into their lives. Heath and Nick had taken him out on the range, hunting, and in the day-to-day chores. The child would do anything they asked, but never seemed to really enjoy the company. Victoria saw Ezra as a shell of a little boy without the heart of a little boy. She wondered how much time it would take before they saw any change.
Ezra laid in bed staring out his window and up into the stars as he’d done every night since he’d come here. His conscience had bothered him since the beginning of this lie, but had grown because, while he had not formed any attachments to the family, he had found them to be good people. He could mentally see Chris looking down at him with disappointment in his eyes. The image stung deeply. Mrs. Barkley deserved to know that her husband had not been the scoundrel his mother had led her to believe.
Pushing back the covers, Ezra slid out of bed. Quietly he tiptoed down the steps. Walking along the hall, he came to the parlor and peered around the doorframe. The older woman was the only one still up, stitching up a hole in a pair of his pants he had gotten falling down. Ezra felt even more guilt. Slipping into the parlor, he was halfway across the room before Victoria looked up and noticed him.
Laying the pants down in her lap, Victoria became concerned at the boy’s sudden appearance. “Thomas? Are you sick?” she asked, noticing the child’s pallor.
“No, ma’am,” Ezra answered softly. Now that he was down here he had no idea how to proceed.
“Do you need something?” Victoria questioned. Something was wrong, but getting Ezra to tell her was going to be difficult she knew.
“No, ma’am,” Ezra replied, fidgeting with his fingers. “I need to tell you something,” he said, looking down at the floor.
“Okay,” Victoria said, leaning forward. “Why don’t you move over here and you can tell me.” She nodded towards the ottoman at her feet.
Ezra remained where he was and twisted his fingers in anxiety. Finally, he looked up at the expectant woman and seriously began loathing himself. “First, my name is Ezra and second, it is all a lie,” he rushed out, flinching as if he expected her to lash out.
“What is all a lie…Ezra?” Victoria asked carefully, straightening in her chair. She felt a sharp pain in her heart.
“Everything,” Ezra whispered, fear still coursing through him. “It is nothing but a scam.” Ezra felt tears welling up in his eyes, but forced them away. He had brought this on himself. He told himself he had no right to cry when it was the Barkleys who had been hurt and deceived.
“Why don’t you sit down here and explain yourself. Start at the beginning,” the woman coaxed once again, settling back in her chair.
Ezra studied the woman for signs of hostility and found none. Giving in to the demand, he sat down on a footstool and began telling of Maude’s scam. He told of her research and the story she had concocted. He confessed everything from the time she tutored him on their story on the train, leaving the woman to believe they had from San Francisco, to the time they arrived at the Barkleys’ front door.
After he was finished, Victoria looked at him with studying eyes. “And was it part of the plan for your mother to leave you here?” she asked in a monotone, keeping her emotions out of her voice. She had always had an inkling it was a lie, but to have it confirmed was a relief, and yet it brought on more problems.
Ezra looked down at his reddened fingers. “No, ma’am,” he said. Then quickly added, “At least she didn’t tell me if it was.”
“I see,” Victoria said with a deep breath. Digesting the news, she considered the boy before her. He was a complex child to figure out. He looked so guilty and so innocent at the same time. “Well, it’s late. I think it is best if you get on back to bed and we will continue with this in the morning,” she said sternly. She needed time to think.
Ezra was caught off guard. Staring at the woman with a stunned expression, he jumped to action when the older lady reprimanded him slightly, “Go on now.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ezra said quickly. Hurrying to the door, he stopped and turned to the woman. With complete sincerity, he whispered, “I’m sorry, ma’am.” before he hurried out the doorway and back to his room.
Ezra got little sleep during that night as he ran through every scenario, from being beaten, to being thrown in jail. Sleep finally claimed him in wee hours of the morning.
Victoria sat alone, contemplating the conversation that had just been related. It was as she has hoped; the woman pretending to be her husband’s mistress had lied. Not only was Tom not the father, he hadn’t even met the woman or the child, Ezra. Her Tom had not been unfaithful to her a second time. It released the weight that had been sitting heavily in her heart. She wanted to rejoice, but there was still the matter of the child to reconcile. She pondered if the burden of having to live a lie created by his mother was the reason Ezra had held them at arm’s length and why he seemed so distressed all the time. Victoria wondered what it must have been like for the child to live day-to-day lying because it was what his mother expected of him. The older woman began considering how many other difficult situations the mother had placed her child in. Why else would the boy have been so accustomed to his mother leaving him? Victoria stayed up a long time thinking on Ezra and his previous life.
“So, it has been all a lie?” Nick fumed. His mother had informed the four of them of her late night chat with the youngster when they appeared for breakfast.
“Yes, Nick. It is all a lie,” Victoria said with a weariness to her voice. She had thought most of the night about what to do with the child.
“Do you wish to take action against the boy?” Jarrod asked, knowing his mother wouldn’t, but giving her the option as matriarch of the family.
“No, Jarrod, we are doing nothing punitive against the child,” Victoria said with authority.
“I am with Mother,” Audra spoke up. “He’s just a child. What was he supposed to do?”
Nick couldn’t help the retort that popped out. “I don’t know. Maybe tell the truth when it became apparent that his mother wasn’t coming back,” he said snidely. Secretly he, too, was glad that his mother wasn’t seeking to take the boy in to the sheriff. He was really beginning to like the kid. Ezra was a smart little boy without showing off about it.
“So, what are you going to do?” Heath asked, hope coloring his tone.
“He will continue to live here and we’ll see what the future brings,” Victoria said. She had already planned to wait another couple months before talking to Jarrod about adopting the child. Ezra had grown to be a part of her family, whether the child had intended to or not.
“Well, if that’s what you want,” Nick relinquished, unable to fool anyone in the room with his brusqueness. They all knew he wanted the boy to stay as much as the rest of them.
“It is,” Victoria said with a smile, glad to know that was over and done with.
The next morning, Ezra straightened his room and put on the old woolen suit he had arrived in. If nothing else, he knew he would be leaving the house. To where was the only question. Slowly descending the stairs, he looked up at the sound of someone clearing their throat. Nick was standing at the bottom looking up expectantly at him. In the month that had passed, Ezra had learned that Nick was a little like Chris, in that he appeared gruffer than he actually was. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Ezra stood before Nick and waited. Nick reached out and fingered the color of the woolen suit. “What’s this about?” he asked in his normally gruff voice.
“It’s the clothes I arrived in,” Ezra answered, a little confused.
“I can see that. Why are you dressed in such hot clothes? Can’t help round up cattle in them, you’ll pass out from heat exhaustion,” Nick said.
“Has your mother not informed you of our conversation last night?” Ezra asked, thinking maybe Nick didn’t know.
“Yep, she told us. Still don’t know why you’re dressed up, though,” Nick said, crossing his arms.
“Aren’t I being sent away?” Ezra asked. He was becoming even more confused and that always scared him. He liked things to be clear and specified.
“It’s not what we had in mind,” Nick said neutrally.
“Oh. I understand,” Ezra said sadly, his shoulders slumping. They wanted punishment first. Ezra couldn’t really blame them. It was the least he deserved.
Nick stared in wonder as Ezra removed his jacket and then his belt. Handing Nick his belt, Ezra asked, “You want my shirt off, too?”
Nick stood dumbfounded. The kid expected him to beat him. Reining in his anger as best as he could, he placed his hands on each side of Ezra’s face and stared into the green eyes filled with despair. Nick felt a blow to his heart. The kid looked so old and used up. Swallowing down his anger, he managed an even tone. “You aren’t getting hurt like that while you’re in this house, ever! Understand?”
Ezra could only nod because he figured that was what was expected. Nick nodded sharply. “Good. Now get on back upstairs and change your clothes. You promised to help me round up cattle and I expect you to hold to that promise. Now git,” Nick said with a smile, turning Ezra around and swatting him on the backside.
Something was wrong. Nick was being entirely too nice about the situation. Ezra started to turn back to the man and protest. “But…” he began.
“No buts. Now light a shuck and go get your clothes changed. We’re burning daylight,’ Nick ordered as he gave Ezra a small shove.
Ezra, still holding his belt, picked up his jacket and hustled up the stairs as Jarrod rounded the corner downstairs. Coming to stand by his younger brother, Jarrod clamped a hand on Nick’s shoulder and stated, “Kid doesn’t have much faith in people, does he?”
“Nope. Worse than Heath when he first arrived here,” Nick said as he listened to the footsteps above him hurry along.
“At least Heath fought to be here. There’s no fight left in that kid,” Jarrod commented sadly.
“Given time, I reckon we can give him some,” Nick said determinedly.
Ezra hurried to change his clothes. He puzzled over the episode that had just taken place. The family was not banning him from the house, nor was he going to be physically punished. Ezra corrected that last part, just because Nick had refused to physically impart retribution; it didn’t mean one of the others wouldn’t. He wondered what Heath would have to say to him. He had grown partial to the man. There was an odd connection between them that Ezra had refused to explore. Both were loners and grew up tough. Heath had not had an ideal home life, though from all accounts, his mother did love him and did her best to provide a decent home for him. Ezra thought about the pretty Audra. She wasn’t outgoing like Mrs. Wells or Mrs. Travis. She seemed happy just to work around the ranch with her brothers. What would she think of him now? Jarrod had him most worried. The man was of the law. Ezra sighed as he buttoned up his work shirt. How could he look any of them in the eye after lying to them for so long? He had made so many mistakes; he couldn’t fathom where to start straightening it out and making it right. He didn’t even want to consider what Maude’s reaction would be when she finally came back. There would be serious consequences.
Ezra walked back downstairs. He didn’t see anyone and thought it best if he didn’t keep Mr. Barkley waiting any further. Stepping up to the front door, he froze at the voice calling to him from behind. Turning around slowly, he found himself face to face with Mrs. Barkley
Victoria had been wondering if the child had any other relations. If Ezra would inform them of any other relations, then of course she would willingly send him to them. The strong-willed woman also had wondered at the child’s ability to stay in ‘character’ for such a long time without breaking. He never seemed to forget he was Thomas, and not Ezra. His story had never wavered and Victoria had to wonder how this Maude Standish had got her son to commit to such an act. When she had told her children this morning, she had to admit they took it better than she thought they would. Now facing the child, she once again had to wonder at his ability to lie so well and if he would use that talent to keep lying about other things.
Sticking out her hand, she instructed, “Come with me. We need to talk.”
Ezra stood glued to his spot, fear welling up inside of him. He was a little afraid of the woman’s dominant personality. It was as strong as his mother’s. Looking back at the door, he stuttered, “Mr. Barkley…” he got no further.
Having been a mother for so long and seeing Ezra glance towards the door, she answered the boy. “It is all right. I informed Nick that I wish to talk to you and he has already ridden out to the south pasture. When we finish, you may join him. Now come along,” she said, still holding out her hand.
Ezra stepped forward and reluctantly took the outstretched hand. His heart was beating so hard, he was sure it would pump right out of his chest. His hands felt sweaty and he wasn’t sure, but he thought maybe at ten-years of age, he was going to fall over and die from a heart attack. He fought the urge to drag his feet as he followed the woman into the study.
Walking into the masculine decorated room, Victoria motioned for him to be seated in one of the high-back chairs. Carefully, Ezra seated himself on the edge of the chair. Victoria sat down in the other chair and, for a long time, simply studied the boy. Calmly, she began talking.
“I want to thank you for being honest with me last night,” she said seriously.
Ezra blushed and mumbled, “Should have come clean earlier, ma’am.” He felt very ashamed of himself and being thanked for being honest was like salt being rubbed into the wound.
“Nonetheless,” Victoria began, “I am sure it was hard to do.”
Ezra didn’t know what else to do but shrug. It was a bad habit he had picked up from some of the peacekeepers. “I am sorry I lied to you for so long. I thought my mother would have returned long before now,” he apologized.
Victoria heaved a small sigh. This could go on all day, she realized. It was time to move forward. “Well, now that you have, there are some things we need to set straight,” she informed him in the same serious tone.
“Yes, ma’am,” The ‘setting straight’ was what made him the most nervous. Nick had already said he wasn’t being sent away, but as he had learned early on, a mother always had the last word.
“First of all, young man, no one, and I mean no one, gets beatings around here,” the darkness of her eyes, concerned Ezra. She seemed so…adamant about that statement.
“You may find yourself getting a paddling now and again if you make the wrong choice, but you will never be hurt. I don’t know who taught you that despicable lesson, but hear me now, it will never happen again while you are under my roof. Do you understand me?” Victoria asked pointedly.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ezra said lowly, swallowing the lump in his throat. He would never tell her that more than one had taught him he was a whipping boy. Chris and the guys had been the first ones in a very long time who had not treated him likewise.
“Good,” the stern woman said. “Now that that part is out of the way, I want to talk to you about family. Have you any besides your mother?” Victoria asked with a softened tone.
Ezra looked down at his dusty boots. Now was the time to tell her about Chris. Tell her about the man that had been like a father to him and meant more than anything in the world. But too much time had passed. Chris would have moved on and wouldn’t want him back. Why should he? Ezra asked himself. Why go through the trouble of getting a child back that wouldn’t be there very long before Maude showed up again. Ezra licked his lips. Maude had said the man would be glad to be rid of him, even though Chris had stood in that makeshift courtroom and told him straight-out he would always be wanted. Ezra’s heart was conflicted. He wanted to tell, but the fear of being rejected was so painful to think about, he didn’t think he could stand it if it really happened. There was no way he was going to tell Mrs. Barkley about the previous relatives. At least here, they didn’t treat him like a servant, or worse. Ezra’s vision blurred. He was once again adrift in the world with nowhere to turn.
“Ezra?” the woman coaxed, having watched the green eyes glaze over and fill with deep sadness.
Looking up at the patient woman, Ezra shook his head. “No, ma’am. There is no one,” he lied.
Victoria nodded. Having seen the emotions flicker across his face, she knew he was lying. She was just unsure if the boy lied about the existence of relatives, or if he simply had none he’d prefer to live with.
“Are you sure?” she questioned, giving the child a second opportunity to expand on his statement.
“Yes, ma’am. I am sure there is no one that would take me in,” Ezra replied softly, keeping his head down.
“I see. Very well,” Victoria stated, noting the change in answer. “Then, let me ask you this, do you know where your mother is?” she asked, the straightforwardness creeping back into her voice.
Ezra thought about it. Blowing out a long breath and looking the woman right in the eye, he said, “San Francisco, if I was guessing. But I don’t know where she would be staying.”
Again, Victoria nodded. She had a feeling, this time, the child was being completely honest with her. “Very well. You are excused. One of the barn hands will help saddle a horse for you and may ride out to the south pasture and join the boys,” she instructed.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ezra replied. Standing up, he began walking towards the door. Stopping and turning to face the woman, he said seriously, “You don’t have to pay me anymore, I’ll work for free.”
Victoria wanted to smile at the very childlike offer, but refrained. “That’s a very kind offer, Ezra. We will see,” she said equally serious. “Now get going. Nick and Heath are waiting for you.
Ezra turned and left. A half-hour later he arrived at the south pasture and, after a quick search, found Nick on the far side of the cattle herd. Circling around, so as not to spook the cattle, Ezra rode up on Nick’s left. He returned the wave aimed at him from Heath further up the line. “I’m sorry I was detained. Mrs. Barkley wished to speak to me,” he apologized, wanting to make sure Nick really did know that his mother had kept him back.
“I know,” Nick simply said, and the two rode along for a piece. The kid was a puzzle to him. Nick finally looked over at the young boy beside him. “Why’d you think I would beat you?” he asked straightforwardly.
Ezra knew Nick was thinking hard on something, he could see it in the man’s face, but the question caught him off guard. “I deserved punishing for…for…lying to you and your family,” Ezra stammered.
“Well, perhaps you did deserve punishment for lying. That’s a serious offense, you know?” Nick questioned.
“Yes, sir. I know,” Ezra said, keeping is eyes to the front. He didn’t want to see the disappointment he knew he would see on Nick’s face.
“But, being beaten for it is not appropriate. Beatings are never appropriate for little boys,” Nick added, his face serious.
Ezra was silent after this last statement. It sounded so much like the guys back in Four Corners.
Nick rode a bit further, trying to find a way to say what he was thinking. It wasn’t right that someone had taught that boy to offer up his own belt for a beating; not a spanking as most children would have assumed, but a beating. The words, ‘shirt on or off,’ played over and over, stinging each time. He knew he was a tough man. He knew he gave off the impression he was a ‘hit first ask questions later’ type of guy, but he never thought children saw him that way. It burned deeply.
Keeping his eyes on the drive ahead, he asked, “Ezra?” the name still sounding funny to him after calling the boy Thomas for so long, “What kind of man do you think I am?”
Ezra startled. Trying to keep up with the ever-changing topics and questions, he had to think about the answer before saying it aloud. Swallowing hard, he replied, “I think,” he wanted to say, ‘I think you’re like Chris,’ but instead he used the description of the loved man. “I think you are sometimes a hard man because sometimes that’s what life calls for, but I also think you are fair. I have seen you with your family, and you care deeply for them. You are kind to your mother and sister and very loyal to your brothers. I watched you with Heath when I first came here. It was like…” Ezra paused; he wasn’t sure how to say it.
“It was like what?” Nick prompted.
“It was like…like you were afraid I was going to hurt him or something. I can’t explain it, but I had the impression you were looking after him because you were afraid of me,” Ezra tried to explain.
Nick rode for a minute before admitting, “I was.”
Ezra accepted that, though he was confused on how he would ever hurt a man bigger than himself. He was brought back to the present when Nick began speaking again. “Heath had a hard life before coming here. Having you arrive,” the cowboy started, trying to find the right words, he waved his hand in the air. Ezra had learned the man did this when he was at a loss of what to say or do. “Well, having you arrive and claiming to be our father’s son was like making Heath relive his own childhood.” Nick clamped his mouth shut for a minute as emotions flooded him. He would be the first to admit that when Heath arrived, they were at odds for a long time, but then Heath proved himself to be a worthy man and was not out to hurt his mother intentionally. Heath had defended their mother and their land on more than one occasion. Heath became his baby brother and Nick did what older brothers do, he protected Heath whether he wanted or not. “I won’t stand by and let anyone hurt my family,” he said more tersely than he meant to.
Ezra ducked his head. Chris didn’t allow anyone to hurt his family either. He had hurt this family. Then he realized something else, he had hurt this family and Nick didn’t punish him for it; the man didn’t even yell at him for it. It confused the young boy. Knowing it was asking for trouble and yet unable to stop himself, he asked, “Then how come you didn’t punish me?”
Nick didn’t even have to think of an answer, it came automatically. “Because you’re family.”
“Huh?” Ezra responded without thinking.
Nick laughed a little. It was the first time the kid didn’t sound like an adult when speaking. “You’re family and…well,” he started, “family sometimes does foolish things that hurt other family members. It happens. We just don’t let outsiders do it,” he explained, ending with a sincere smile.
Ezra thought on it for a while. It made sense in a strange way. It was like the guys back in Four Corners. Sometimes they said things to each other or did things that would cause a row amongst them. Always, the parties involved eventually settled it and things went back to normal, but if an outsider came along and tried to pick a fight with one of them, the stranger wound up facing down six men instead of just the one. It had taken Ezra a long time, and more than one conversation with Chris, to figure out the difference. He guessed it was the same with this family. Ezra suddenly wondered if it was that way with most families. Did families that love one another, fight with each other and protect them at the same time? Ezra figured it was something to think on. The two riders moved the cattle along without talking anymore.
When they stopped for lunch, Nick moved on to talk to the other cowhands while Ezra was instructed to seek out Heath and get his lunch from the man. Wiping the ground with his boot to clear a smooth place, Ezra sat down in the dirt. Heath hid his smile. Ezra was, undoubtedly, one strange little boy. Sitting down next to the kid, Heath handed him a thick steak sandwich and an apple. Sharing a canteen, the two wolfed down their food in silence. After eating, they mounted up and Ezra reined his horse around to find Nick, before Heath stopped him. “Why don’t you ride with me for awhile?” Heath saw the darting eyes to Nick and the slight panicked look of a kid who didn’t know what to do. Heath leaned over and patted Ezra on the knee. “It’ll be okay. Nick won’t mind. Besides, there’s more than one trail boss on this ride,” he said, gently reminding Ezra that, he too, was owner of this outfit.
Still seeing the hesitation in those green eyes, Heath added, “Besides, it’ll give ya a chance to stop eating dust for awhile.”
That thought alone appealed to Ezra and he quickly agreed to ride with Heath. He still held back considerably, but of them all, Ezra felt like he could trust Heath the most. Chris had given him that, the ability to trust people again: to understand that not everyone was an instant enemy and that there were adults in the world that were good and kind. There had been times during the past few weeks when he wanted to confess everything to Heath. He’d held off though, because he didn’t want to put the man in a bad position. Now, everything was out in the open and Heath was still talking to him, even asking him to ride with him. It was a great weight off his shoulders.
“So,” Heath began, startling Ezra out of his reverie, “Where did you live before you came here?”
Ezra was stuck for an answer. He had led the family to believe that he and his mother had come from San Francisco. How many more admissions of lies would they accept before they grew weary of it and cut him loose? Ezra fudged, “Mother and I traveled a lot. We can’t stay in one place too long,” he said, hoping Heath would catch his meaning.
Heath nodded. He had liked the kid from the first. So much of the boy reminded him of himself: self-reliant, independent, didn’t want anyone getting too close. He understood what the kid was saying and wondered if the mother ever had qualms about using her son in her scams. Apparently the answer was no.
“Do you,” Heath stalled, unsure how to ask the question. “Does your mother always put you into positions where lying is necessary?” he asked cautiously.
Ezra licked his lips. This conversation was getting too close to revealing everything. Looking over at Heath, Ezra was prepared to lie. Heath looked back at him with the same look Chris would have used. A look that stated he wanted to hear nothing but the truth. Ezra wished Chris had never taught him to have scruples. Ezra sighed. “No, sometimes she would leave me with…other people,” he ended with a whisper
“Ah,” was the only reply Heath gave. After a moment, he asked, “Any that you’d want to go back to?”
‘Yes! Yes!’ his brain screamed. “No,” he said, all energy seemingly having left him.
Heath glanced over the boy and could tell by the far away look on Ezra’s face that something was not right. Either the boy was remembering a time when there had been someone there for him, or reflecting that there never had been anyone he would return to. From the reaction Ezra had to Nick this morning and the belt incident, Heath was betting on the latter.
Ezra was thankful that the rest of the afternoon was spent in relative silence. The only sounds were hooves pounding the dirt, the lowing of cattle, and the occasional call back and forth from the movers. At last the house came into view. To Ezra, who was bone tired, it was a glorious sight. Riding up to the barn, he dismounted and turned his horse over to the barn manager. Going over to the water trough, he did something he’d once proclaimed he would never be caught doing, he dunked his head into the cool water and shook out his dust filled hair. Scooping water into his hands, he scrubbed his face.
Shaking his head to disperse the water from his hair as he walked, he reached the bottom stairs and tiredly climbed the steps. Going around the veranda to the kitchen door, he wiped his feet before entering. Reaching for the doorknob he was startled by it suddenly opening, and Silas appearing. Ezra often compared the man to Nathan. Both were black, but beyond that they were very different. Silas, though not a slave by any means, carried on the slave mentality. He was very polite, worked from sunup to sundown and rarely cracked a smile without someone initiating it first. Nathan, though rigid at times, was easygoing, smiled easily. He came and went as he pleased, and he seemed freer.
Ezra made sure he was always respectful to the servant and smiled when he was greeted. Nathan had taught him that just because a person was different colored didn’t mean they didn’t deserve the same kind of value.
“Evening, Mr. Silas,” Ezra said wearily, but with a smile.
“Evening, Master Ezra,” Silas returned with a smile. The Barkleys had been good folks to him as long as they had employed him, but he always knew his place. The new little boy though treated him with colorblindness. On several occasions, the boy had helped him carry things out to the shed, polish furniture, or help with whatever he doing at the moment. Looking at the dusty child, Silas could tell the day had worn out the boy. “Why don’t you head upstairs, Master Ezra, and I’ll have Oleta bring up water for a bath,” he suggested.
“Okay,” Ezra replied, too tired to say anything more.
A few minutes later, the matron of the house walked into the kitchen. “Silas, have you seen Ezra?” Victoria inquired.
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered. “I sent him upstairs to take a bath. He was mighty dirty from the trial ride.”
Victoria nodded in silent agreement. “Thank you, Silas,” she said with a smile. Starting to go, she stopped and turned. “Oh, Silas, please have baths ready for Heath and Nick, also.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said obligingly.
Ezra trudged up the steps, his head hanging down, too tired to hold it up. As he reached the top step, a pair of boots came into view. Wearily looking up, he felt shame rise instantly as he stared into Audra’s blue eyes. Not knowing what to do, Ezra could only wait for the pretty blonde to make the first move.
Audra watched the young boy before her. She would admit it had stung at first when she learned Ezra had admitted lying to them for the past month, but looking into the green eyes, filled with uncertainty, the disappointment fled, replaced with empathy. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be manipulated by her mother the way Ezra obviously had.
“Ezra,” Audra spoke carefully, lifting her hand towards his face.
Ezra instinctively threw up his hand to protect his face from the oncoming slap and flinched away.
Audra was shocked. She knew of the incident that morning with Nick, but the thought that Ezra feared her, too, was not something she was prepared for. Easing her hand forward slowly, she gently cupped her hand to his cheek. “Ezra,” she coaxed gently.
Ezra lifted his sorrowful face to her. Audra dropped to her knees and drew the dusty child into an embrace. “It is going to be all right. I promise,” she whispered. Hugging the stone-still child, she had the impression of hugging a rock, but Audra gave one last squeeze before letting go. Audra loosened her grip and felt a loss when the child pulled back. Staring at the now blank face, Audra forced a smile and stood. “Miss Wilkes is seeing to your bath,” she said, nodding towards the room used for baths.
Ezra nodded in understanding and slipped past the blonde woman. He didn’t understand these people at all.
An hour later, Victoria, Audra and Jarrod were sitting in the parlor, waiting for the others to appear for supper. Upstairs, Heath was finishing getting dressed when Nick opened the door. “You about done?” he questioned.
“Yep,” Heath said as he buckled his belt. Nick stepped aside to let Heath out. As the two men walked down the hall, Heath looked into Ezra’s room and saw a foot dangling off the side of the bed. Stopping Nick, Heath walked into the room and smiled. Ezra, fully dressed, lay sprawled across the bed fast asleep, his hair still damp from the washing. Heath walked over to the bed and gave the child a gentle shake. “Hey, Ezra, suppertime.”
There was no response at all. Heath tried again a little harder and still received no response. Nick laughed quietly from Heath’s side. “Looks like we wore him out today.”
Heath nodded and the two men each took off one of the child’s shoes. Heath grabbed a quilt from the end of the bed and threw it over the boy, and then they backed out of the room and closed the door.
Arriving downstairs, Victoria looked up, expecting to see three boys entering the room. “You boys seen Ezra?” she asked in concern as she stood up.
“Boy is out like a light. Didn’t even so much as twitch when Heath tried to wake him,” Nick explained with a chuckle, as he escorted his mother to the dining room.
“I hope he didn’t get too much sun,” Victoria stated quietly.
“Heath and I watched out for him. He’s just tired, Mother,” Nick said reassuringly, as he pulled the chair out for her to sit.
Vin dismounted from his horse and handed the reins to Tiny. It had been three months since Ezra had been forced to leave. Vin no longer rode out searching for information on the boy. He had exhausted his search, hitting every town, stagecoach stop and, it seemed to Vin, person within a hundred mile radius. There had been no sign of the mother and child. At first, the tracker had held tight to his belief that Ezra would be found and brought back where he belonged, but as the weeks and then months began slipping past, that belief slowly began dipping. Now, he knew, the only way they were ever going to get Ezra back was if Ezra, himself, managed to find his way on his own.
Growing up, Vin had never been especially close to anyone in particular. Sure, he had made friends along the way with other trackers, buffalo hunters, and Indians, but he had never felt the connection to people the way he had felt when he stopped over in this dusty little town to make a few days wages and wound up with a home and five brothers. Then a little boy had come into their midst, as lost and lonely as the rest of them. He needed a place to just catch his breath, blossom and learn to live again, the way the rest of them had. Ezra had come to mean as much to him, as Ezra possible did to Chris.
As he walked along the boardwalk to the saloon, passing Mrs. Potter’s store, he sighed. He had quit buying candy sticks and storing them for Ezra’s return. He had even given the ones he had away, not wanting to attract bugs. Besides, had told himself, Ezra would want fresh candy. The man who had been alone for so much of his life didn’t want to admit he was giving up on the idea that part of the family he had finally found would never come back.
Finally reaching his destination, Vin slid into the saloon quietly and walked over to the round table filled with his friends. Looking around the table, he had to admit he was no longer alone, but he wasn’t complete anymore, either.
Josiah watched the lone tracker slip into the saloon with his natural ease, and smiled. The smiles he wore now no longer reached his eyes. After Maude had left with Ezra, the preacher had watched the young tracker ride out every weekend with his excuse of needing air and space and had prayed fervently that the man would return with the boy. Trip after trip, Josiah had been sure that that trip would be the one, and trip after trip the tracker returned empty-handed and depressed.
The preacher was at a loss as to how to console the young man when he, himself, felt the same kind of despair. It just wasn’t the same anymore without the brown-headed little boy running around. For such a long time the preacher had condemned himself to leading a life of penance for not protecting his sister when he should have. Then Ezra came into their lives, needing that same kind of protection and love, and Josiah had thrown his whole self into seeing that Ezra got it. Now, Ezra was gone because, once again, he had failed in his protection of a sacred soul.
Where Chris had refrained from falling into the bottle, Josiah had taken it up wholeheartedly. There had been many times in the beginning, after it became obvious the boy wouldn’t be returning, that he drank himself into an alcoholic sleep. More than once, he had awoken to find destruction, ravaged pews thrown across the room. The original alter had been turned into kindling and the second alter hadn’t faired much better. Josiah had learned to take his drinking away from the town and had found a cave up in the mountains nearby. Buck and Nathan had done their best to keep him from harming himself and others.
Then that awful moment in life came, the one that changes one perspective forever. That was one moment that Josiah wished he could drink away but couldn’t. It had also been the catalyst that got him to stop drinking period. It had happened a couple of weeks back. He had gotten ripped good and had staggered back to town from his hiding place. He had found Chris sitting outside the saloon like the man did on many a night and had assaulted the gunslinger, blaming him for letting Maude take Ezra away. The big man didn’t remember the entire incident, but the next morning, the sight of bruising around Chris’ throat would stick with him forever. Since that time, Josiah hadn’t laid a finger on a drink. The temptation to keep drinking was still too strong and the memory of what had happened kept him from doing that again. Instead, he took up what he did best, watching over his brothers. They were still family, but a member short.
Buck watched Josiah intently. He knew the man was fighting the urge to share in the drinking and had to commend the man for staying as dry as he had. That night the preacher had attacked Chris had scared Buck. He was slipping out of one bed and heading to his own when he heard Josiah yelling from up the street. Buck had gone running up to the one-sided fight just as Chris was loosing consciousness. Josiah had Chris pinned by the throat with one hand and had Chris’ gun hand pinned to the wall with the other. If Nathan and Vin hadn’t been woken by the commotion and came to check it out, Buck seriously doubted he’d been able to pull Josiah off Chris by himself.
Josiah had been a meek little thing ever since, even though Chris had been big enough to forgive the man. Buck understood that Chris knew where Josiah was coming from; drinking and pain made a man do some very unwise things.
Buck looked around the table. They were all there and holding on tightly to what was left of their family unit. It hadn’t surprised Buck any that just one little boy could bring together six men who were just good friends and bond them into a family. Children had that kind of an amazing quality. Ezra had been no different. The child had needed a family desperately and the six peacekeepers had set out to make him one. In the process, they had learned to be a family for each other as well. It pleased Buck to know that they were still holding onto that bond even without Ezra.
Maybe, Buck tried to convince himself, it was because they believed that Ezra would still come back, and when he did, he would come back to the same old family. Buck would be the first to admit he needed that boy. Ezra brought life back into an empty spot created by a horrible night and burned down shack.
Buck had gone on with his life it was true, but the hole created by the missing loved ones had left Buck a little less than what he was before the fire. Then Ezra had showed up with his highbrow air and perfect manners and Buck’s heart began mending. That boy had needed to be shown how to be a child and Buck had been more than willing to show him. The child’s laughter and smiles always made Buck think he could soar without help. It had taken awhile, no one would debate that, but the child had slowly learned to relax and take life easy. No easy feat when the boy thought spilling milk was a major crime. Life had been good until Maude had whisked into town and tore things apart. Buck made one vow, if he ever got his hands on the mother, he could easily forget she was a woman.
JD worried about the boy, pure and simple. It had been three months, three very long months since Ezra had been dragged away and a lot could happen in that time. Ezra could have been shipped off to another uncle’s; where a repeat of what had occurred before could take place. JD couldn’t bear to think of Ezra getting whipped. It wasn’t right for a grownup to treat a child like a piece of property instead of a human being with thoughts and feelings.
The young sheriff often thought about the injustices children suffered at the hand of adults who treated them no better than livestock. JD often thought laws should be created to protect the young and vulnerable. The more he thought about it, the madder it made the young man, knowing that people in Washington, D.C. created all kinds of laws, but none for the benefit of the children. Someone should change that, he thought. Then children like Ezra would have a chance at a better life. Ezra, and other children, should not be so shocked to learn they should be cherished rather than used, loved rather than hated, hugged more than harmed. JD thought if he were older he would go to Washington, himself, and make people listen to him, for Ezra’s sake and for all the other children in the land.
School had started two weeks before and Ezra had been enrolled. By now, the townsfolk had become adjusted to the fact that the Barkleys’ nephew was living with them indefinitely, and questions and rumors had ceased. The Barkleys were too powerful to make them enemies. Ezra’s name change had been a bit difficult to explain; Victoria Barkley simply said that ‘Thomas’, being named after his ‘uncle’ Tom, really preferred his Christian name of Ezra and, seeing as he would be staying for a while longer, the family went along with the preferred name. The townspeople accepted the information with little trouble.
Ezra took his pail from Mrs. Barkley and smiled. He received the traditional kiss on the forehead and the same instructions as he did every morning, to learn and have fun with the other kids, with indifference. Life had become a routine and one that was comfortable to him. Ezra walked down the steps and took hold of Jarrod’s outstretched hand and let himself be swung up behind the big man.
To Ezra’s surprise Jarrod had not done anything to him for the lie, either. Ezra had expected a great reprisal from the lawyer, but instead, all he got was a lecture on lies and deceit and how he had the choice to make the decision that would shape his life.
The trek to and from school with Jarrod had become a time when the two would do their talking. Jarrod would often talk about his cases, and sometimes, if Ezra asked, he would tell about his life before his father passed away. Jarrod had long formed the impression that Ezra had never known his father and had no attachments to anybody in particular. It bothered the lawyer, as well as the rest of the family, that the child didn’t seem homesick for his mother at all. Ezra never talked about her, or seemed to wait for her arrival like he had in the beginning. Jarrod was more troubled by Ezra’s lack of dependency on people than anything. The kid was too good at taking care of himself for Jarrod’s liking.
Jarrod stopped in front of the old Chinese laundry store that had been renovated into a school when the town began outgrowing the original little school. Easing Ezra down to the ground, he smiled at the boy. “Have a good day,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Ezra said as seriously as always and turned away, not noticing the traditional frown that appeared on the lawyer’s face at Ezra’s comment. Jarrod hated the fact that Ezra continually took the pleasant comment as a direct commandment.
Ezra walked into the large building and walked to his desk. The older kids went upstairs. It had been deemed that since little children needed the outdoor facilities more it would be prudent to place them on the bottom floor. Mrs. Booth was the lower grades teacher. Ezra deemed she was all right as far as teachers went. She taught well enough and she had a lot of patience with the little ones. Ezra liked that she left her older students to work on their own. Ezra didn’t like it known that he knew most of the things being taught, it made him an easy target for bullies. Being smart wasn’t always beneficial, especially when kids like Tommy Guller, who had the fists the size of anvils and who, according to most folks, was ‘dumber than a fence post’, took exception to being made look bad in front of the teacher.
Ezra took out his primer and read. It was a rather simple and dull story, but he read it anyways. The next subject would be math and that was always a much more fascinating lesson. Ezra liked numbers for the simple reason they stayed the same. There were no exceptions to learn. Two plus two would always equal four.
Lunchtime arrived and the younger children raced outside to gobble down their food and then play for a while. Ezra sought out the shade of the tree as he did every day and slowly ate the food packed in his pail. He would admit Mrs. Wilkes made great lunches and he always had too much food. He usually would amble over to Jeremy Stiles and his little sister. He’d ask them to take it off his hands, begging off that if he returned to the house with food, his aunt would question him a hundred ways from Sunday as to why he didn’t eat it all. The Stiles, Ezra had noticed, were children from one of the poorest families and sometimes had very little to eat. So far, Ezra thought his act had gone unnoticed by the teacher. It hadn’t. Mrs. Booth had noticed the second day that Ezra shared his lunch. After the week was up, she had seen Mrs. Barkley in town and had informed the ranch woman of what a generous little boy she had. Victoria had smiled and thanked the woman for the compliment, and after that had instructed Mrs. Wilkes to add a little extra to the pail.
Ezra was working on his penmanship when a low rumble rippled through the building. Like all the other children, Ezra raised his head and looked out the front windows. Dark storm clouds had rolled in and the appearance of a bad storm loomed outside. The teacher from upstairs quickly came down and conferred with Mrs. Wilkes. The two teachers decided it would be best to dismiss the children that lived in the country. Since Ezra rode with Jarrod, he stayed. The winds increased throughout the afternoon and a chill blew through the chinks in the brick wall. By mid afternoon, the rain had begun to fall. School was dismissed for the rest of the children, and Ezra was surprised when he stepped outside to see Jarrod riding up the street towards him.
“Come on,” Jarrod urged as he pulled to a stop next to the lad. “I think if we hurry, we can get home before the worst hits.”
Ezra scrambled up behind Jarrod and snuggled in close for the warmth. Jarrod smiled as, for the first time, small hands tightened around his waist and the feel of Ezra’s head buried into his back. Jarrod pushed his horse forward. They made it out of town and halfway down the dirt path to the house before the skies opened up and the deluge poured out. The dry ground turned to soggy mud in a matter of moments. Jarrod tucked his head down into his coat as far as possible and raced his horse the rest of the way. The lawyer pulled up to the bottom step and steady hands grabbed Ezra, who had closed his eyes against the pelting rain. “Come on, boy, let’s get you inside,” Heath commanded, as he hoisted Ezra off the horse and carried him up the steps.
Jarrod rode the horse to the barn and left him with the barn manager, then ran for the house. Silas was waiting inside the kitchen with a stack of fresh towels for the oldest Barkley son. Jarrod grabbed the top one and began rubbing his head, noticing Ezra had been stripped of his clothes, right down to his skivvies, there in the kitchen and placed in front of the fire. His mother and Audra were towel drying the boy furiously, doing their best to keep the boy from catching pneumonia. Jarrod was lost in the past when it had been him his that mother had towel dried him after being caught out in the rain.
Heath and Nick stepped up to Jarrod. “Best get out them clothes,” Nick advised.
Jarrod snapped back to reality and nodded vigorously. Stripping off his coat, shirt, shoes and socks, Jarrod stepped into the pantry and finished peeling off the rest of his wet clothes. Heath passed him some dry, warm replacements and Jarrod took a moment to soak in the nice feeling of warm clothes against cold skin. Stepping back out in the kitchen, he noticed Ezra and his mother were gone. Taking the cup of steaming coffee handed to him, Jarrod followed by Heath into the parlor. His mother had her rocker pulled up close to the fireplace and had Ezra firmly placed on her lap, snuggled in a throw wrap. Ezra had his eyes closed and for the first time since his arrival, Jarrod notice the boy looked downright content. Jarrod pulled up a chair next to the fireplace and relished in the heat. He didn’t realize he had dozed off until a gentle hand was shaking him and calling him for supper. Laying the wrap aside, the lawyer stood and followed the rest of the family into the dining room. He noticed Ezra sitting at his place looking tired and figured the child, too, had fallen asleep. The smell of stew and cornbread made his stomach rumble and Jarrod was thankful once again that they were fortunate enough to have a solid roof over their heads and plentiful food on the table.
Ezra sat looking at the food before him and wondered how he could get out of eating it. His throat was beginning to hurt and he was awful tired. He just wanted to go to bed, or better yet, wrap back up in the throw wrap he had in the parlor and be held. He hadn’t been held like that since he left Chris’. Of course, that was his doing, he realized. He hadn’t let anyone hold him. Ezra sat staring at his bowl of soup through a fog. It wasn’t until he heard someone say, “Oops,” and grabbed him, did it dawn on him that he had dozed off in his chair and had begun tilting to one side.
Heath easily lifted the child up into his arms, noting Ezra’s eyes had slid shut again, and followed his mother out and up the stairs. The fireplaces in all the bedrooms had already been lit, making the small bedroom toasty warm. Victoria pulled back the covers and together, with Heath’s help, changed Ezra into his nightshirt. Tucking the covers up close around the sick-looking boy, Victoria couldn’t resist running her fingers through the silky brown hair, noting the beginnings of a fever. Knowing that rest was the best thing for the child, she left the boy to go find medicine that would be useful. Looking back at the boy from the doorway, it made her realize that had been a long while since a little one had been sick in the house.
Ezra woke feeling horrible. His head hurt, his stomach was tossing and turning and he was hot. Laying there in the dark with a low burning oil lamp his only light, Ezra tried to remember coming to bed. He could remember sitting down for supper and how the smell of the food made him nauseous. Just the memory of that brought his stomach to a lurch. Rolling out of bed onto all fours, he found, to his relief, the chamber pot sitting next to the bed. Lowering his head over the opening, his stomach lurched. He wanted to cry. Worse, he wanted someone to come help, but he couldn’t make himself call out for that help. His stomach rolled again and the sickness came in waves. The cool cloth suddenly being applied to the back of his neck felt glorious, as well as the soothing words being said in his ear. Ezra thought he was dreaming.
Victoria had checked on the child periodically throughout the evening and had sat by his side for a while before turning to bed. She had left both bedroom doors open, so she could hear if Ezra had called out during the night. That was not the noise that woke her. Scurrying into the other room, she found Ezra hunched over, in a near ball being sick. Soaking a rag in the cool water on the nightstand, she wrapped one hand around Ezra’s waist and placed the rag against his neck with the other. The boy slumped against her in weakness when the sickness passed. She ran the wet cloth over the sweaty face and called out into the night for her sons. Heath and Nick nearly shoved each other into the wall trying to get down the hallway after waking to their mother’s call for help. Jarrod shoved both aside and strode quickly into the room. Ezra was lying in his mother’s lap looking pale and very sick.
“Need one of you boys to ride for Doctor Merar, now!” Victoria ordered.
Jarrod nodded. Turning to his brothers entering the room, he began giving orders. “Nick, saddle up and go for Doc Merar. Heath, go find Martin and tell him we need more firewood up here.”
Heath nodded and turned to leave, nodding in response as Jarrod called after him that more water was also needed. Jarrod moved forward to lift Ezra up out of his mother’s arms and placed him back in bed. Victoria left Jarrod tending to Ezra long enough to change her clothes. She would not be going back to bed tonight. Returning, she found Jarrod sitting on the bed running the wet cloth over Ezra’s fevered face. Looking up at his mother, he said, “He’s awful hot, Mother.” His face reflecting the worry he felt.
Victoria nodded. If the boy caught pneumonia, there was a chance the boy could die. Before she could move another foot, Ezra was arching off the bed, gagging. Jarrod quickly turned him on his side and grabbed the chamber pot. It worried Jarrod that the boy could be so sick to his stomach when it was empty.
Heath came back up to the room. “More wood is on its way up and Audra is seeing that water is being drawn up for a cooling bath for him,” he informed as he walked towards the bed. The sickly sight of the small ten-year-old sent fear up Heath’s spine. He had seen people who were this sick before and it always made him nervous. The youngest brother noticed Jarrod sitting the chamber pot back to the floor and walked over to the bed. “I’ll go rinse it out,” he volunteered, needing to get out of the room.
Grabbing the brass container, Heath hurried outside to rinse it out and return it before it was needed again. Stepping outside, he sent up a thankful prayer that it had stopped raining so hard; now it was just a drizzle. Moving rapidly, Heath moved back through the house, catching up with his sister on the stairs. The duo walked together down the hall. Entering the bedroom of the youngster, it was plain to see the boy was running a high fever. Victoria had taken over holding the child and swiping him down while Jarrod and Silas moved the tub into the room. Two helpers had already begun toting water upstairs and filling it up.
Victoria shifted her arms as Jarrod lifted the whimpering child up and then carefully lowered Ezra into the tepid water. Heath bent over to replace the pot and noticed a small bag sticking out from under the bed. Not remembering the child ever buying anything, curiosity got the better of Heath. Pulling out the small satchel, he opened it up and poured the contents out into his hand. Nickels. Heath fingered through them and counted twelve. Ezra had saved every nickel he had earned. After Ezra informed Mrs. Barkley that she wouldn’t have to pay him anymore, she had anyway. Replacing the money, Heath put the bag back where he got it. Turning, Heath watched his mother wash down the fevered child, remembering when his own mother had done the same for him when he had gotten sick. Heath turned back to the bed and began stripping the sheets, needing to be useful and doing something. Audra joined him and soon they had clean bedding ready for use.
Ezra had been placed back in bed and the tub emptied by the time Nick returned an hour later with the doctor. After an examination, the physician proclaimed that the wise ranch woman was already doing everything that could be done. Doc Merar gave some powdered medicine to help with the stomachache and another powder for the headache. He gave a few suggestions, like continuing the baths and keeping the window open a crack so the child wouldn’t keep breathing the same tainted air. Afterward, he made his way to the kitchen and had a small proffered breakfast before heading back to town.
Ezra was hot and miserable. He dreamt of fire-breathing demons chasing him through a maze and he couldn’t get away. An inner notion told him that safety lay at the end of the maze if he could just find his way there. “Chris,” he cried pitifully.
Victoria looked up at Jarrod. This was the first time they had heard the boy speak of anyone. “Chris,” Ezra called again weakly. He had to find the blond before the demons caught him with their fire. It was already getting so hot and he was having trouble breathing. “Chris,” he whimpered.
Jarrod moved up to the head of the bed and whispered, “Who is Chris?”
“Chris,” came back the simple, but weakened reply. Ezra couldn’t understand why Chris didn’t come searching for him. Didn’t the blond promise to always be there whenever he was needed. He was needed now. Ezra needed him to make it better, to protect him from the scorching demons. “Chris?” Ezra whined, tossing back and forth in a vain attempt to get away.
Jarrod stepped back and watched his mother soak the boy down again and get him calmed. The tall Barkley squatted down next to the bed. “Where is Chris?” he asked, trying a different approach. As a lawyer, he had learned there was more than one way to get answers.
“Home,” Ezra answered.
Jarrod raised an eyebrow at this and looked at his mother. Victoria silently urged her son on. “Where is home, Ezra?” he asked quietly.
“Four Corners,” Ezra answered, panting for breath. The fire was making it increasingly harder to breathe.
Jarrod and his mother shared a puzzled look. Victoria wiped the sweat running down Ezra’s face and then wrung out the cloth in cool water and held it up over the gasping boy’s mouth and nose, hoping that by breathing in the cooled air, it would help with the breathing.
“Where is Four Corners, Ezra?” Jarrod coaxed once the cloth was removed to be rewetted.
“Colorado Territory,” Ezra answered, licking his scorched lips. He didn’t know why Chris didn’t come. He needed water so badly.
The mother wiped her cold cloth along the parched lips feeling helpless to help the suffering child. She had felt no different when her own children had been sick. Jarrod waited a little while before he asked the last piece of info he needed. “What is Chris’ last name?"
“Larabee,” Ezra breathed out. The demons getting him was his last thought as he slipped into unconsciousness.
Jarrod looked quickly at his mother for reassurance, ready to yell for one of the boys to ride hell-bent for the doctor again. The mother shook her head, knowing the doctor could do nothing more than she already was. “Why don’t you go get some sleep? It’s only a couple hours until morning,” she suggested.
Jarrod hated leaving his mother alone to tend to the child. The other three had been shooed back to bed hours before, having done all they could. Jarrod rejected the idea and sat back in the chair he’d brought in from his mother’s room earlier. The eldest son watched his mother tenderly care for the sick child. He wondered who this Chris Larabee was. It had been obvious from the boy’s pleas that the man meant something to the boy. Jarrod wondered if went both ways. He decided he would telegraph the sheriff of Four Corners the next morning and inquire about this Chris Larabee.
The next morning brought a brighter look on things. Jarrod blinked at the bright sun shining in his face. Looking over at the bed, a smile blossomed on his face at the sight. His mother was sitting up in the bed, with her head resting against the wall, asleep. In her arms, Ezra laid against her bosom sleeping. Jarrod leaned forward and put a tentative hand against Ezra’s forehead. Ezra’s fever was down and he was sleeping more peacefully. The ravishes of the fever-induced nightmares had left dark circles under pale eyelids. The child had called out many times during the night for the man named Chris. It had made the oldest son more resolved to find this man. Rising quietly, Jarrod left to get ready to go to work. Passing his sister in the hallway, he could read the question in Audra’s eyes before she asked the question. “He’s better. Mother is sleeping.”
Audra nodded, a smile forming on her lips at the good news. The daughter treaded lightly into the room to check on the pair herself. Seeing that the child was indeed resting better, Audra slipped out of the room and made her way down to the kitchen where her brothers had gathered. Jarrod was explaining that he would see what he could learn about Chris Larabee and what ties he had to the boy. Audra noticed all her brothers looked like they’d had a rough night. Walking past the boys, she spoke quietly to the cook, making sure she made good lunches for her brothers.
Jarrod rode into town and stopped off at the telegraph office. Walking into the one room building, he greeted the man behind the desk, “Morning, John.”
“Morning, Mr. Barkley,” the older man returned the greeting. “What can I do for you today?” he asked cheerfully.
“Like to send a telegraph to the sheriff of Four Corners, Colorado Territory,” the Barkley answered, removing his hat.
Jarrod noticed the man’s sudden puzzled look. “Something wrong, John?” he asked in concern, reaching the counter.
“No,” the operator said quickly. “Four Corners, you said?” he asked for clarification.
“Yes,” Jarrod answered, getting a funny feeling. “Is that a problem?” he asked, thinking maybe Four Corners didn’t have a telegraph office.
“No, sir. Not at all. It’s just strange is all. That little cousin of yours came in, oh about three months ago inquiring about sending a telegraph to that same place, is all,” the man answered.
“Did he send one?” Jarrod asked, his interest piqued now.
“No. No, I told him how much it would cost and he left. Haven’t seen him in here since,” the old man prattled on.
“Hmmm,” was all Jarrod said for a moment, wondering about the incident.
“Still want to send that telegraph, Mr. Barkley?” the operator questioned.
“Yes. Yes, I do,” Jarrod responded.
Twelve-year-old Brian was running down the street of Four Corners as if his pants was on fire. This had to have been the most important telegraph he’d ever held in his life. Gripping the thin piece of paper for dear life, Brian sidestepped people and careened into the saloon, heading straight for his target, and it wasn’t who the telegraph was addressed to either.
Barging into the darken room, he began yelling, “Mr. Larabee! Mr. Larabee! A telegraph for you!”
The way the boy had run in shouting, Chris had shot straight up in his chair and threw out his hand for the telegraph, expecting horrible or threatening news. Grabbing the telegraph, Chris read through it three times before jumping up and screaming, “We got him!” For the first time in three months, a smile burst out on his face.
Buck had been just as anxious when the boy came running in and nearly jumped out of his skin at Chris’ reaction. Grabbing the telegraph, Buck read it out loud.
To the sheriff of
Four Corners. Stop. Seeking info on a
Chris Larabee. Stop. Have boy named Ezra. Stop.
Any knowledge would be appreciated. Stop.
Jarrod Barkley, esq.
Chris was already out the door and heading straight to the telegraph office. Having expected the tall blond to come, the operator didn’t have to ask any questions, he simply stood ready for the reply message. Chris made it brief and to the point.
Coming for my boy.
Maude away from him. Stop.
News quickly spread throughout the small town that the boy had been located and there was no doubt that the six peacekeepers would be pulling out within a short time to collect the child and bring him back. Mary made a point of staying out of sight. She had made her view very clear and it had backfired severely. Where once they had at least been friends, Chris didn’t even say hello to her anymore. She had the feeling if her printing shop was ever vandalized, neither the black-clad gunslinger nor any of the other five would do anything to find out who it was.
Chris went straight to his boarding room and packed his clothes. He didn’t have to wonder what the others were doing, instinct told him they were packing. Heading out the front door of the building, Chris suddenly realized he had not looked at the telegraph close enough and hadn’t any clue where it had originated. Dropping his bag, he frantically began patting his pockets urgently, trying to remember what he had done with the piece of paper. Buck came out of his place and started to laugh at Chris’ antics. “What are you doing, Chris?” he asked with a large smile on his face.
“The telegraph. I can’t remember what I did with the telegraph and I don’t know where it came from,” Chris spoke rapidly, near frantic.
Buck sobered quickly. “Chris, relax, I have the telegraph right here,” he said, producing the small scrap of paper.
Chris wanted to rip the paper out of Buck’s hands, but caution made him retrieve it like fine china. Chris scanned the top part until he located the originating destination. Stockton, California. How in the world had Ezra landed in Stockton, California and with a lawyer at that? Perhaps, Maude had been arrested. It didn’t matter. Ezra was there and apparently had made mention of him and that was all Chris needed to know. By the time Chris arrived at the livery, all the horses had been saddled and were ready to go. Chris heard the footsteps behind him and knew the others had joined him. They led their horses out of the barn and mounted up.
Josiah rode up beside an excited Chris and smiled widely. “Ready to go fetch that boy back?” he asked. Chris didn’t say a word, just smiled right back and spurred his horse forward. Six horses raced out of town headed for Ridge City and the train station.
After boarding their horses at the livery, it hadn’t taken any time at all to purchase their tickets. Having the tickets and time to kill before the train arrived, the men sat outside on the bench and speculated how Ezra came to be in Stockton and what he had been up to. The happy chatter lifted souls that had been in despair for weeks. Once the train arrived, Chris and his men boarded and found seats towards the back. The other patrons gave the men wide berth. Even though they seemed jolly and good-natured they still carried an air about them that said they could be dangerous if needed.
Ezra opened his eyes tiredly. It had been three days since he’d been struck down with the virus and his body was used up. He felt like he had been drug for miles behind a horse; everything hurt and he felt terrible. Looking over, he spotted someone sitting next to his bed reading a book. For a wild second, he thought it Chris sitting there. Joy filled him until his eyes adjusted and he realized it Heath instead. Deflated, Ezra was about to close his eyes again when the soft voice stopped him.
“Hey there, not so fast,” Heath said with a brightened look. “Been waiting a while for you to open those eyes. I’m not going to let you go back to sleep so quickly.”
“Tired,” Ezra whined, swiping his eyes.
Moving over to the bed, Heath lowered himself carefully onto the edge of the makeshift bed. “I bet, pard, but you really need to get some water down you,” he said gently, as he placed one hand behind Ezra’s head and lifted the glass of water to the dried lips. “Think you drained every bit of fluid out of yourself over the past couple of days,” Heath talked as he held the glass while Ezra drank thirstily.
In truth, Heath didn’t think the kid had a bit of fluid in him. The first day, the fever rose back up and the vomiting came back with force. It seemed they were changing sheets on a regular basis. They had finally moved the child downstairs so they could bathe him easier without having to haul the water upstairs. Yesterday had been slightly better, but it still seemed Ezra sweated more fluids out than they were able to get down him. It wasn’t until late last night that the fever completely broke. Heath and Audra had finally persuaded their mother to go sleep in her own bed, promising to keep a vigil eye on the child and call on her if necessary.
Ezra drank greedily until the glass was forcibly removed. With pleading eyes, he looked up at the man, ready to beg for more water. Heath beat him to it. “You’ll get more, promise. Let’s just take it slow though. Your stomach has had a rough go the last couple of days and we don’t want to upset it anymore,” he explained.
Ezra could only nod and let himself be laid back on the makeshift bed and closed his eyes. The next time he woke, he found Mrs. Barkley sitting by the couch doing needlepoint. Ezra watched her for a long moment, comparing this woman to her mother. He tried to imagine Maude sitting by his bed while he was sick and just couldn’t see it. She might hire someone else to do it, but playing mother was not Maude’s forte. The action of him licking his lips caught the woman’s attention. Putting down her craft, Victoria smiled pleasantly at the little boy. “Good evening,” she greeted, as she moved near the davenport.
“Evening,” Ezra replied confused. It had just been morning last time he woke.
“Hungry?” the mother questioned sweetly.
Ezra thought about it a little and realized his stomach was empty and keeping food down actually sounded plausible “Yes, ma’am. A little,” Ezra answered, his voice barely above a whisper.
“How about a little broth, then?” Victoria asked, as she called over her shoulder for Silas and informed the butler that a tray should be prepared for Ezra. The butler’s relief and happiness at hearing the news was immediately on his face.
“Yes, ma’am,” Silas said, his voice more cheerful than it had in the last couple of days.
After the tray arrived, Victoria helped Ezra scoot up into a reclined position and spoon-fed the child slowly. Seeing the boy’s eyes drift shut, she placed the spoon in the bowl and set it aside. Running her fingers through the soft hair, she hummed and continued to do so long after the child was soundly asleep.
It had been four days since he had sent the telegram and, standing in the telegraph office, Jarrod reread the reply he’d receive. He noticed it had been sent two days prior, telling him that his had also probably taken two days to get there. The words ‘his boy’ rang out in his head. Was Chris Larabee, Ezra’s father? If so, why didn’t Ezra tell them about the man, or call him pa instead of Chris, and why did this man reply to his telegraph instead of the sheriff. Could this Larabee be the sheriff? Jarrod had even more questions than ever. Walking out the door, the lawyer made his way to the sheriff’s office. Walking through the wooden door, Jarrod waved and greeted one of the deputies before walking into the back room to find the sheriff.
The sheriff turned at the sound behind him and smiled. “Hey, Jarrod. How are ya?” he asked as he quit his job and walked towards his friend.
“Morning, Lymen. I’m good. Got a problem I need your help with, though,” Jarrod responded.
“Okay,” the big man said. “What can I do for you?” he asked, wiping his hands on a towel to rid them of dust.
“Ezra got down sick other night, really bad,” Jarrod started.
“Heard about that. How’s he doing?” the sheriff asked in true concern.
“Doing better. Mother has been able to get him to eat a little broth with vegetables,” Jarrod related. “The problem is, other night when he was so bad off, he mentioned a name and a town. I wired the sheriff there about him, but only got a short reply from the man himself. I was wondering if you could find out a little more for me?” Jarrod asked.
“Could try. What’s the town and the man’s name?” the sheriff asked, jotting down the notes.
“He’s a what!?” Nick fairly shouted.
“He’s an ex-gunslinger that is now a paid peacekeeper,” Jarrod repeated calmly. He, himself, had had the same reaction when the sheriff came to see him that morning.
It had been close to a week since Jarrod had started looking for this man named Chris Larabee. Now the oldest of the Barkley brothers found himself in the uncomfortable position of telling his family what had been learned. He had waited until after supper. Ezra, feeling better, had still retired to his bed right after supper. His coloring was better, but the fatigue from being so sick still clung on.
“And how, exactly, is he related to Ezra?” Heath demanded. He would be hanged if he was going to let some gun-toting, hot-head, fast draw, and that’s exactly how he saw gunslingers, come in and take away the boy he had grown to care about.
“According to Sheriff Lymen, he contacted the territorial judge. The judge sent a reply. Said a Maude Standish thought she was sending the child, unsupervised, to this peacekeeper and his wife. Maude didn’t know that the man’s own wife and son had been killed in a fire. This Chris fellow took the boy in and formed a bond with the child. Sheriff said, the judge’s telegraph said Mr. Larabee was the closest thing to a father the boy had and it wouldn’t be a good idea to stand between him and the boy,” Jarrod retold his brothers what the sheriff had related to him.
“So, we’re just supposed to hand Ezra over to this Chris Larabee without blinking an eye? I don’t think so, Brother,” Nick said hotly, waving his hand in disgust. Nick took family serious and, whether Ezra believed it or not, the child was family.
“Nick,” Jarrod started, trying to placate and reason with his brother. Softening his voice, he said, “Why don’t we just wait until the man gets here and talk to him.”
“He’s not taking Ezra away if it’s dangerous for him,” Nick said finality, before walking away.
The room fell silent. Victoria Barkley had remained silent during the boys’ heated debate. Watching her son storm out of the room, she had to admit to having the same feelings. She would not let the child be put in any danger. It was apparent the child’s mother might not care what kind of place she placed her son, but Victoria was not Maude Standish, if that was even her real name.
“Jarrod?” Victoria began. “Is there a way we can legally keep the boy?” she asked quietly. She had been thinking of asking Jarrod about legally adopting the boy for some time, now might be the best.
The lawyer shifted. “Well, we had those papers drawn up when Ezra first came, but they are only guardianship papers and legally, if this Chris Larabee shows up with papers that prove he has legal possession of the boy, then we would have to give Ezra to him, but if he doesn’t, then…” Shrugging, Jarrod finished, “I don’t know. We would have to go to court and let a judge decide.”
The lawyer was hoping to avoid that. He knew they didn’t have papers signed by Maude, giving them custody of Ezra, and the way the sheriff had talked, he figured this woman had dumped the child on Mr. Larabee without signing any papers for him either. In essence, no one had valid custody of the boy. The only thing that matter was doing what was best for the abandoned little boy sleeping upstairs.
Vin sat in the aisle seat with his back to the wall, watching his five friends. A small grin graced his face as he watched Chris. The man hadn’t quit smiling since that telegraph arrived five days ago. Currently, the black-clad man was joining in with Buck, and harassing JD to no end. Laughter emanated from the blond, a sound that hadn’t been heard since Ezra had been dragged out of town. Vin switched his sights to the man sitting next to Chris. Buck was laughing and teasing the young sheriff unmercifully about some young lady that had walked by earlier and smiled at the boy. Vin relished seeing his friends return to their old selves.
Vin looked across the aisle to where Nathan and Josiah sat. Nathan was driving everyone insane with his incessant worrying about whether or not Ezra was being looked after properly until Josiah told him he was causing Chris unnecessary worry. The boy had broken his leg not long after arriving in Four Corners Nathan’d had a time getting the leg to heal properly, especially when the youngster re-injured it after he had accidentally got caught in the middle of a gunfight. Vin looked at the man across from Nathan. Josiah couldn’t have been happier if St. Peter, himself, had come down and made him official greeter at the pearly gates. Vin felt eyes on him and looked back to find Chris watching him with dancing green eyes. Yep, they were going to be a whole family soon and no one was going to stop them.
Chris had caught Vin watching him and had, in turn, watched the tracker. No one had the nerve to tell the tracker he was wearing his thoughts, and his feelings on his sleeve for all to see. Vin had been just as tormented as the rest of them when they lost Ezra. He had just tried to keep it to himself. Chris smiled wider at Vin and got a similar response before Vin turned away. Chris supposed it was to try and hide the giddy feeling they all felt at finally getting the lost member of the family back. Chris subconsciously patted his shirt pocket that held the telegraph. He had read it a hundred times by now. If he were the sort of person that took things to heart like his Sarah had, he might think about having it framed, and if he kept telling himself that he might just one day believe it. It would definitely be a memento that would be saved and treasured.
As he watched the scenery pass by, Chris wondered what kind of man this Jarrod was. The telegraph said he had Ezra. Did that mean he literally had him, as in he had him in his house, or was Ezra in jail and this esquire was simply Ezra’s lawyer? What had Maude done that could land Ezra in jail? Chris slammed his eyes shut at all the possibilities that entered his mind. Chris felt a hand on his arm and turned to find a set of worried blue eyes staring at him.
“Everything, alright?” Buck asked worriedly. Two minutes ago Chris had been cutting up with him and wearing that goofy smile he’d worn for the last several days, then suddenly Vin had stiffened and Buck had turned to find Chris grimacing and his eyes shut tight.
Chris smiled easily at his friend’s concern. “Just letting my imagination get the better of me,” he offered.
“Well, don’t!” Buck ordered seriously. “Ezra’s going to be just dandy and whatever trouble Maude has gotten him into, we’ll get him out,” he said defiantly.
Chris let out a small laugh. It was a small relief to know he wasn’t the only one to think this was Maude’s making. Looking with gratitude at his friend, he was thankful for having a friend who made things so simple. If something wasn’t fair, they’d make it fair and if there was trouble, they would simply fix it; that was Buck’s thinking. Chris slapped Buck’s hand that still rested on his arm and smiled. “You bet!” he said.
After a week of traveling and two layovers, the travelers finally arrived in Stockton. As it pulled into the station and began slowing down, the six men were instantly standing. They had long ago gotten their belongings together. When the train finally lurched to a stop, the six men left through the back exit and gathered on the platform. Chris looked at the bustling town and then at his friends. Big cities had never made a lick of sense to him. “Okay, we have to find this Jarrod Barkley,” Chris directed, becoming the take-charge man he was used to being.
“Well, I reckon the sheriff would know where his office might be,” Josiah suggested.
“Alright. So how do we find the sheriff’s office?” Chris asked, watching the crowded streets and getting temporarily distracted by all the noise and people.
“We could take a hackney,” JD suggested helpfully.
“A what?” Buck asked with curiosity, focusing his full attention on the group for the first time. Big towns had a lot more tempting amenities than Four Corners had to offer.
“It’s a horse drawn carriage that will take you from place to place,” JD explained. “For a price,” he quickly added, not wanting the guys to think it was free.
“Well then, find us one of these…things,” Chris demanded. He was in a hurry. He could almost feel Ezra in his arms again.
“So, where is this Chris Larabee and how will we know him?” Nick huffed impatiently.
Nick, Heath and Jarrod were standing on the platform, off to the side, searching for the mysterious man. They had received a telegraph from the gunslinger a couple of days back informing Jarrod of when he would be arriving. The originating town indicated that the man was halfway there when he sent it. The three brothers had decided that they would meet the man and get a scope of him before allowing him anywhere near the house.
“I don’t know, but something tells me we’ll know him when we see him,” Jarrod said warily.
“Like that,” Heath said ominously, pointing down the platform.
Nick and Jarrod turn to see what Heath was pointing at. Along the platform, people were parting like the Red Sea. Striding down the center of the boardwalk came a blond man about six feet tall, dressed in black, wearing a determined look upon his face; his long black duster whipped behind him giving him an even deadlier look. The gun he wore slung on his hip spoke volumes. Behind the man followed five more men, each as different as could be, but all possessing that same dangerous quality. The three Barkleys couldn’t miss the uniqueness of the group. Of the five, the three that caught their attention the most was the kid that was no more than twenty, the longhaired man wearing the clothes of a tracker, and the black man walking amongst them. None of the Barkleys was racist, but it was rare to see a black man being treated as an equal amongst a group of white men.
Nick swallowed. Larabee had said nothing about bringing a posse. Jarrod looked at his brothers and commanded, “Let me do the talking!”
Jarrod stepped into the middle of the boardwalk and intercepted the advancing group of men. Chris came to a halt in front of the man and the following five formed a half circle around the duo. “You Jarrod Barkley?” Chris asked precisely, but with a partial grin.
“Yes, I am. Pleased to meet you,” Jarrod greeted the man. There wasn’t any reason yet to be uncivil.
“Where’s Ezra?” Chris asked in concern.
“He is at our house, safe,” Jarrod replied.
“Well, let’s go then,” Buck said enthusiastically, like a kid waiting to open his Christmas present.
“Not so fast. We aren’t letting the kid go nowhere until we know he wants to go and will be safe,” Nick growled, stepping up to the opposing man.
“You think you’re gonna keep us from that boy, you have another thought coming,” Buck challenged, stepping up to the only other black-clad man in the group.
“You think so, do you?” Nick said, accepting the challenge and daring Buck to make the first move.
Jarrod and Chris never took their eyes off each other, as they both called their respective brothers down. Each letting a hint of a smirk show through their eyes. They understood each other better.
Heath laid a calming hand on Nick, as Vin did the same with Buck. Both leaders had to give the other credit and a simple understanding developed between them. Neither wanted trouble and both had hotheads to control. Jarrod spoke first. “Why don’t we go rent you fellas some horses, and we can talk on the way out to the ranch,” the lawyer suggested, an unspoken apology in the words. “We were only expecting you ,” Jarrod stated pointed, looking at the blond, “So we only brought one horse.”
Chris nodded in understanding. “I’m sorry about that. Wasn’t thinking about anything except coming to get my boy,” Chris explained.
“Now how is it that Ezra is your boy,” Jarrod started conversationally as he stepped off the platform, followed by the rest of the group. After they gathered the four horses tied to the railing, the oldest Barkley began leading the troop to the livery. He hoped Mrs. Allen wasn’t going to be too put out with having the unexpectant number of mouths to feed.
By the time the men got to the livery station and were given the extra horses, Chris had succinctly told how he came to have possession of the boy. It made things hard on Jarrod, knowing Chris didn’t have parental custody of the child. He was really beginning to wonder what kind of mother Maude was. The two men rode side-by-side, talking back and forth with the others following close behind. Vin had strategically placed himself by Nick, forcing Buck to ride next to Nathan. Josiah rode next to Heath and the two conversed all the way. JD brought up the rear, but didn’t mind. After nearly a week on the train, he was just happy to be in the saddle again.
As they rode, Chris asked, “How long have you had Ezra?”
“Three months,” Jarrod answered innocently. The answer was received by various muttered curses from behind him.
Buck was still muttering obscenities under his breath, too low to be understood, but loud enough to be heard. Chris turned in his saddle. “Buck,” he warned.
“But, Chris, that means…” Buck began.
“I know what that means,” Chris said sternly, cutting him off.
“Is there something wrong?” Jarrod asked, his lawyer instincts kicking in.
Chris turned back in his saddle and faced the lawyer. Slowly, he told how three months prior, Maude had shown up and taken Ezra. He relayed how they had forced the coach to turn around and go back to town, but in the end the judge had given Maude permission to take her son. It didn’t take long for the three brothers to figure out the timeline. Maude had brought Ezra directly to their place and left him. The mood in the three men darkened. This woman was cold and heartless.
Nathan was worried. Nick had told them of Ezra being so sick recently, though apparently, as children do, he had rebounded. He was relieved to learn that Mrs. Barkley was keeping a tight rein on his activities, not wanting to strain his energy. Chris had fallen silent upon learning of his son’s illness. He cursed Maude for doing this to Ezra, to him.
The healer let his mind wander. He hadn’t been thrilled with the boy in the beginning and less thrilled when it became obvious the boy was staying, but as the days and weeks went by, he had slowly uncurling from his retreat and learned what a good kid Ezra was. Mostly, Nathan realized, it was that southern accent that gave him pause in the beginning, but after he got over that, he and Ezra grew to be fast friends. Ezra was always polite to him and treated him with the same respect as he did any white man. The boy was quick to help out in his clinic doing odd little jobs.
Nathan wouldn’t admit it if he was strung up by his toes, but Ezra had come to mean a lot to him. The fact that the boy had been sick and he hadn’t been there to nurse him made his gut burn with anger. Who was Maude to just take Ezra away like that and then leave him with strangers less than a week later? What if the family hadn’t kept Ezra, but turned him over to one of those awful children’s workshops? What would have happened to Ezra when he had become sick then? The questions plagued Nathan terribly and though none of it had happened, he couldn’t stop playing the what-if game.
Up front, Jarrod was telling Chris about their 35,000-acre ranch and mining operation. Looking about the wide open space and hearing Jarrod’s description of all the Barkley holdings, Chris began have a niggling feeling that these people could offer Ezra much more than he would ever be able to. The fact that there was not one, but two women in the house to mother the child also entered his thinking. When the grand house came into view, all Chris could do was compare it to his small shack. He began having images of Ezra wanting to stay and couldn’t blame the child. Chris’ smile that had been plastered on his face for the past seven days slipped a little.
Pulling up to the barn and dismounting, Chris noticed a prim older woman standing on the porch, obviously Mrs. Barkley. With one look, he assessed her as a woman who didn’t back down from a fight. Chris climbed the steps behind Jarrod and waited to be introduced. The other five men stepped up behind him. Chris had to smile as the irrational thought flitted through his mind that these brothers always had his back, even against a feisty old woman.
Victoria Barkley held out her hand to shake the visitor’s hand. She had been warned minutes ago that a band of riders had been spotted coming up the lane. One of the ranch hands had used his spyglass to identify her sons and reported that they didn’t seem to be in danger. She smiled courteously as Chris introduced the rest of the riders. Each one showed good manners. The one with mustache even winked at her, and Victoria blushed ever so slightly.
“Please, come in,” she invited, leading the way into the house. She noticed that each man dumped their gear on the porch and then fastidiously wiped his boots before walking through the doorway. Upon entering the parlor, she noticed some looked immediately uncomfortable, specifically the tall black man and the longhaired one. “Please, take a seat,” she encouraged.
As each man walked past the butler, they handed him their coats. As Nathan walked in, the two black men gave each other an appraising look. The healer wasn’t sure, but for a moment he thought he saw a bit of jealousy, or maybe it was respect, from the other man. The six men, plus the three Barkley sons, scooted in and found seats. Vin, looking at the crowded seating, chose a spot on the floor. JD followed his lead and sat nearby. Victoria couldn’t help but notice how the men seemed to stay in close to one another without seeming to be bunched together.
Chris moved uneasily on the couch. He wanted to jump past this pleasantry and see Ezra, but he was in someone else’s house, playing by someone else’s rules and he knew better than challenge those rules when he was so close to getting his boy back. That was if Ezra wanted to come back with him.
Once again, Buck chose to forgo those rules. “So, when are ya gonna let us see Ezra?” Buck said, with a gentler tone and a winning smile.
Victoria smiled back. “I am sure you are very anxious to have Ezra back, but first I have to assure myself that he will be safe in your hands, Mr. Larabee,” she explained. “We,” she waved to encompass her sons sitting on either side of her, “have grown quite attached to the boy ourselves and I only want what is best for him.”
Chris retained control of his emotions, mostly the need to throttle the whole bunch, grab Ezra and run. Rubbing his lips together, he was every bit the diplomat this called for. “I understand how Ezra can grow on you, and I appreciate you keeping him on after what you learned, and taking care of him, but Ezra is my son,” Chris said with heart-felt emotions. Casting his look to Jarrod, he continued, “I might not have the papers, but…but my heart doesn’t care.” For the first time Chris openly admitted he cared so deeply for the boy and he realized it felt right.
“I understand. I really do, but as I understand it, you are a gunslinger. How can you guarantee Ezra won’t get in the middle of one of these gunfights and wind up hurt?” Victoria questioned.
JD couldn’t control himself any longer. “We’ve never let Ezra be near any shooting,” he stated indignantly. “Well, there was that one time, but that was an accident and…”
The rest of what he was going to say was interrupted by four shouts of “JD!” and one low growl and a sharp scathing look from Chris. The young sheriff withdrew physically from the look and stared at the floor.
Chris looked at the others for help to fix the mess they were in now. Josiah took a deep breath and began trying to clear up the matter. “Mrs. Barkley, I can only imagine how that might have just sounded to you, but the consequences weren’t so drastic as you might think,” Josiah said, lying through his teeth as he recalled, not only had Ezra been in the middle of the gunfight, but had also used the derringer he had kept hidden to shoot one of the criminals. “I assure you, we take every precaution to keep Ezra safe. His health and well being is always our number one concern,” Josiah concluded.
“Would you care to explain how it came about that Ezra’s mother got Ezra back?” Victoria asked, not having knowledge of the proceedings.
Chris explained the details surrounding how Maude came to get Ezra. As he talked, he watched the woman’s face darken with anger. If he were a betting man, he would have bet that this woman would have shot Maude if she had known the truth.
Victoria Barkley studied the men before her decisively. These were men that had traveled hundreds of miles, and she was guessing spent almost every dime some of them had, to come get Ezra. With a sharp nod of her head, she said, “Heath, go find Audra and have her bring Ezra in.”
Without questioning his mother, Heath pushed himself off the mantle he had been leaning against and walked away. Victoria could feel the air in the room intensify at the message. It wasn’t a dangerous charge, but one of enthusiasm and anticipation.
Heath walked out the back door and walked to the small meadow behind the house. Victoria had decided that Ezra was fine enough to be outdoors as long as he didn’t run about. She also wanted the boy out of the house until she had met Chris and deemed him acceptable to see the boy. “Audra, Mother wants you in the house. We got company,” Heath said quietly.
Looking up at her brother in understanding, Audra stood and held out her hand to the little boy. “Shall we go see who it is?” she asked with a forced smile.
Ezra nodded slowly and took the proffered hand tentatively. He could tell the young woman was nervous and wondered what guest could make her so. He didn’t think it could be a person who would harm her. He had witnessed how protective the three brothers were; they wouldn’t let anyone hurt their sister. Walking towards the house, he began feeding off her nervousness.
Hearing the back door open and shut, the peacekeepers took a deep breath collectively, then stood as one, five slightly behind the blond.
Coming into the parlor, Victoria began to speak and introduce the men to her daughter, but was cut off by a very joyous scream.
Ezra had walked in behind Audra and had peered around her to see this mysterious guest. He couldn’t believe his eyes. It took a couple of seconds for it to really register in his mind before he was flying across the room at full speed screaming the man’s name, “CHRIS!”
Chris broke out into a smile wide enough to swallow a watermelon as he caught the child hurdling towards him. Swooping Ezra up into his arms in one fluid move, he held onto his son for dear life, relishing in the feeling of having those small arms wrapping around his neck and the fingers fisting into his shirt.
Nick couldn’t help the smile that escaped. “Guess that answers a lot of questions,” he said under his breath to his family. Since the time Ezra had stepped into the house, they had never seen the little boy show so much emotion.
“Yep,” Heath and Jarrod said simultaneously. Audra walked up next to her mother and slipped her arm around the woman’s waist as they watched the reunion unfold before them.
The five men had circled around Chris and Ezra. Not being able to stand it any longer, Josiah reached over and grabbed Ezra around the waist and said jollily, “Time’s up. You got to share now.”
Chris released his hold slightly, giving Ezra the choice of staying or going to the man. Ezra relinquished his tight hold and let Josiah pull him into a big bear hug. Ezra hugged back and then leaned back to look Josiah in the face. The big preacher was smiling bigger than Ezra had ever seen him smile. Josiah bounced the child in his arms a little as he said, “Sure have missed you, boy.” Ezra couldn’t respond for the lump in his throat, he just nodded.
Vin was next to grab Ezra. The hug was looser, but just as meaningful. Whispering in Ezra’s ear, he said, “Sure hasn’t been the same going to Mrs. Potter’s without you.” Ezra gave Vin’s neck a squeeze in response. He knew what Vin meant; candy didn’t taste the same without the tracker around to share it with, either.
Nathan had waited long enough to get his hands on the recently ill child. Impatiently hauling Ezra out of Vin’s arms, the healer held Ezra in his arms, not just for the physical contact, but to judge for himself just how well the boy had been taken care. Weighing the boy mentally, he said, “You’ve lost weight. You begun eating yet?” he questioned, his expression one of worry. Knowing the child had been sick and seeing its impact were two different things.
Ezra nodded, “Yes, sir,” he answered. He knew this was Nathan’s way of saying the healer missed him, too.
JD figured the boy needed rescuing before Nathan hounded the poor kid about every morsel eaten and every time he had gone to the privy. Nathan got a little territorial when one of his family members was hurt or sick. Reaching his hands around the narrow waist, the youngest jibed, “Come on, Ezra, I’ll rescue you from the maniac doc.” The referral caused several eyebrows to lift.
Nathan took exception to the remark. “I am not a maniac!” he charged back.
JD laughed and teased, “Sure you are. Ain’t he, Ezra?” His eyes sparkling with mischief.
Nathan looked the youngster in the eye and said stoutly, “Well, we’ll just see who takes care of you the next time you go picking apples for Miss Casey and fall out of the tree.”
“I didn’t fall! I jumped and landed wrong and I didn’t need your help that time either. I just came to you to make Casey feel better,” JD argued indignantly, still holding Ezra. The little boy could only watched the exchange and giggle. He had desperately missed this. He knew no matter what JD said, next time he got hurt he’d go to Nathan, and Nathan would fix him up, all the while grumbling and fussing about foolish young men in love.
Buck had stood there as long as he could. Watching the two brothers argue, he roughly grabbed Ezra and yanked the boy out of JD’s arms, simply stating, “My turn.” JD surrendered the boy easily as he continued his debate with Nathan.
Wrapping Ezra up in his arms, Buck squeezed the little boy tightly. Afraid if he let go he would never get another chance to hold the boy. With one hand to the back of Ezra’s head, he held on. “Missed you, boy,” he repeated as he just held the boy that had come to mean so much to him.
Chris had watched as each of his men got their turn in holding Ezra. It ripped at him a little when Buck took the boy, knowing how much the loss had truly cut into his friend. The blond ignored the continuing bickering between Nathan and JD, which had Josiah and Vin adding their two cents. Chris let Buck hold onto Ezra longer than he would if it was one of the other’s. Buck needed that reconnection to Ezra as much as he had.
Victoria and her family stood to the side watching in complete amazement at how four men could argue all at the same time and still know what the others were saying. They had watched with interest as each man took his turn holding the boy and watched more intently how the boy responded. By the time Ezra was passed to the last man, there was no doubt in any of the Barkleys just where Ezra truly belonged. Chris finally took Ezra back in his arms and, without seeming to even make a sound, the four bickering men looked at him and instantly quieted. They looked towards the host family and humbly apologized for their rude behavior. Victoria Barkley had the feeling the blond man was the head of the group in more than one way and wondered how he managed to control five grown men. Her own three sons gave her trouble enough when they got it into their heads to be stubborn.
Silas stood at the doorway watching the happy reunion, pushing down a lump in his throat. In the past three months, he’d never seen the boy look so happy. These men, as odd as they appeared, were the boy’s family. He only hoped the Barkleys could see it. Finally clearing his throat, he drew Mrs. Barkley’s attention and announced supper. The staff had already been informed there would be extra guests and the appropriate adjustments had been made. Victoria stood, and looking at Chris, announced, “Dinner is ready.”
Five of the peacekeepers began shifting uncomfortably. They did not wish to impose any further on the family, not when they still possibly had a say over what happened to Ezra. Victoria was quick to assure all the men, “You all will be staying, I hope.” She had learned how to deal with men and their egos a long time ago.
Twelve eyes lit up with relief. Chris nodded his acceptance for all his men and moved to follow the hostess, still carrying Ezra. The rest of the Barkleys intermingled with the others and soon seating was being juggled and placements found. Chris took the seat on Jarrod’s right and sat Ezra in the chair next to him. Buck and Nathan soon got into a scuffle as to who was going to sit on the other side of Ezra. Chris bowed his head and shook it slightly; he couldn’t take these men anywhere. Standing, he directed Ezra to get up. Befuddled, Ezra stood and Chris took his seat and then pulled Ezra onto one knee. Looking up at the two other men, he ordered, “Sit!”
Nathan took Chris’ vacated seat and Buck sat on the other side of Chris. Audra sat next to the mustached man and, looking across at the table, noticed the large man and the two younger ones were fighting bubbling laughter. Heath looked down the table from where he sat next to his mother and wondered how these men could protect a town when it seemed all they did was bicker amongst themselves.
Ezra would have been mortified any other time at being forced to sit on Chris’ lap to eat, but he was too happy to be with the blond again to care. He had felt a gaping hole in the pit of his stomach ever since the day Maude had shown up and taken him away. As time went by, he thought it would get better, but it hadn’t. Sitting on Chris’ lap, watching the others, the hole began disappearing.
The prayer was said and the mounds of food were passed around. Filling his plate, the youngest peacekeeper forked up a pile of mashed potatoes. Swallowing the fluffy mouthful, he smiled at the head woman and, trying to be polite said, “This sure is good grub, ma’am. Beats that stuff served on the train hands down.”
No sooner had he gotten the compliment out then he received a solid thwack upside his head. Turning to stare at the culprit, JD tried to glare at Josiah, but it was ruined by Buck’s remark. “Thanks,Josiah. Couldn’t have done it better myself,” the black-haired man said with a smile, nudging Ezra under the table with his elbow, making a stifled giggle escape.
“Hey!” JD replied indignantly.
“Well, you deserved it, JD,” Josiah said calmly.
“I did not. I was giving the lady a compliment,” JD huffed back.
“Ain’t no compliment when you call a lady’s food, ‘grub’,” Vin answered between bites. He was trying to very hard not to dwell on the crowded confines he found himself.
“It is so, ain’t it, Buck?” JD replied looking towards Buck for an ally.
“Well…it might be for some ladies. Now, I knew this lady in New Orleans once…” Buck began with a reminiscent gleam in his eye.
“Buck,” Nathan warned at the same time as Vin and JD rolled their eyes and said pleadingly, “We’re eating.”
The Barkleys could only watch in interest as sides were switched at such quick successions and topics moved from one to another at lightning speed. Jarrod leaned over the table and asked Chris, “Are they always like this?”
“No,” Chris replied calmly, dipping food onto his plate. “They’re behaving really well today.”
Chris had tried to ignore it for as long as possible, after all language was being watched carefully and no food had been thrown. Finally, enough was enough and he didn’t want the Barkleys to think they were too uncouth, they might give them troubles when he took Ezra. Clearing his voice once, he said softly, “Boys. Eat.”
The talk immediately fell off and food was eaten in silence. Victoria Barkley was indeed impressed. There had been times when her sons acted like children and those times she, had a hard time quieting them down. With only two words this man had brought five men under control.
As the bowls of food had been passed, Chris had watched in growing aggravation at how little Ezra put on his plate. Taking the peas from Ezra, he heaped a bigger spoonful on his son’s plate and stated, “You’re not going to get very big eating like that.”
Ezra tried using the same argument he had tried to use on Mrs. Barkley when she had fussed about his eating habits earlier on, “I am not all that hungry.”
“No son of mine eats like a bird when there is good food before him, now eat up,” Chris said unconditionally.
Ezra took one look at the set jaw in the blond’s face and knew better than try to argue. Taking a spoonful of peas and shoving it into his mouth, he said in a muffled tone, “Happy?”
Chris didn’t miss a beat as he ate his own food. “Yep, but I’d be happier if you didn’t take your eating habits from Buck, though.”
“Hey!” Buck said with a smile, knowing he was being teased.
After supper, the group retired back to the parlor. Heath was not what one would call socially polished. He would rather be out tending to horses, walking the fence or anything else outdoors rather then playing the ‘society’ game as he thought of it. Looking about the room, he caught the two youngest shifting relentlessly. He had observed through dinner that the youngest had tried giving the longhaired one as much space in the crowded dining as possible. Heath figured both were a lot like him, anxious to be doing something other than just sitting around and making polite talk. “I got to go check on the horses. Anyone care to join me?” he asked.
JD was on his feet in an instant. He had sat as long as he could, considering he had just spent the better part of the week confined to a seat on the train. Vin moved slower, but he was just as relieved to get outside as JD. Nathan, having felt out of place the entire evening, was also relieved at the chance to escape. None of the house members had made an issue of him sitting, or even eating, with them, but he still felt strange being in their presence. Buck and Josiah both declined the offer for different reasons. Buck still had the feeling if he took his eyes off Ezra for one minute, he’d evaporate into thin air. Josiah simple felt no need to get up off the soft cushioned settee he had settled onto. Chris had led Ezra back into the parlor and promptly settled him onto his lap. Ezra now laid snuggly in his arms relaxing further into the safety that Chris gave.
Heath gave the three men a tour around the place, using the time to get to know them better. The tracker was a bit brief when talking and the dark skinned one only supplied the necessary information required, but the youngest was filling him in on everything he wanted to know. Heath listened to JD prattle on, all the while having the feeling that if the sheriff gave away something that he shouldn’t, the other two would jerk him into line so fast it would make the kid’s head spin.
Inside, a conversation of another type was taking place. The five men and two women were delicately dancing around the real discussion that needed to be had, putting it off for when Ezra wasn’t around. The only thing the group would consent that they had in common was that none of them wanted the little boy sleeping in Chris’ lap to be hurt. Buck kept his eyes on Ezra, watching every breath he took. Feeling the oppressiveness that the empty politeness was creating, the tall peacekeeper stirred from his seat. “Reckon, Ezra needs to be put to bed,” he said causally, walking towards Chris.
“I’ll show you where his room is,” Audra offered. She also felt the need to get out of the room.
If any of the others had attempted to remove Ezra from the blond’s hold they would have lost a limb in a heartbeat, but Chris trusted Buck emphatically. He also knew that, with Ezra out of the room, the discussion could head where it needed to and the adults could get on with it. Standing carefully, Chris tried to give up his hold on the child, but Ezra subconsciously feared the release. “Pa,” he whimpered in his sleep, clutching Chris’ shirt tighter.
Chris froze, retightening his hold on his son. It was the first time Ezra had addressed him in such a fashion. Holding Ezra close, he whispered to the sleeping child, “It’s okay, you go on with Buck, now.”
Ezra loosened his grip and Buck took the boy gently from Chris. Buck followed the young mistress of the house out of the room, as Chris remained standing, watching them go. He wondered if Ezra would ever call him ‘Pa’ when he was consciously aware. Coming back to his senses, he sat down and was about to say something when the four men entered the room, coming in from outside. After being informed Ezra has been taken upstairs, Nathan disappeared to go find him. Chris didn’t have to question why. Nathan had been itching to get a good look at Ezra ever since they’d arrived. Chris, knowing his men well, waited. Not long after Nathan left, Buck appeared with Audra trailing behind. Waiting until the man was seated, Chris began. “Mrs. Barkley, like I said, I am grateful for you looking after Ezra for these past three months, but you won’t stop me from taking my son home,” he said adamantly.
Victoria held her peace for a while. She had watched how the blond gunslinger and the boy had interacted since his arrival. She had seen the clear emotions play over the man’s face when Ezra called him ‘pa’ and knew she couldn’t fight that kind of love, but she worried about the child’s safety. “I know, Mr. Larabee, and Ezra does seem to be awful crazy about you,” the woman said with sincerity, not voicing her true concern.
Buck couldn’t help but snarf at the comment, ignoring Chris’ withering glare. Smiling at the memory, Buck said, “Ezra takes things in his own time. Took him a very long time to accept Chris’ and his authority.” The other peacekeepers had to smile at the comment. Ezra wasn’t one to accept being told what to do easily.
“He has been quite polite since coming here and has accepted our authority quite well,” Nick said with a smirk. He didn’t like the idea of how easily these men came into his house and took up with Ezra.
The five visitors frowned at the news. This was not Ezra they knew at all. The one they knew challenged authority and only accepted it if he was afraid of reprisal or didn’t care about the person issuing the authority. Chris looked at Nick. “With Ezra, compliance is not always a good thing.”
Buck laughed again. “You can say that again,” he said, stifling a yawn. It had been a long day for him, for all of them.
Realizing how tired the traveling men must have been, Victoria stood. “I think we should retire for the night and take this up in the morning, when we are all fresh,” she directed, and then moved into the foyer, followed by the all the others.
The visitors stood, not knowing exactly what to do. Five of them watched the leader for guidance. Victoria continued, “I have had your belongings taken to the bunkhouse.” Directing her gaze towards Chris, she said, “I don’t think Ezra would mind sharing his room tonight.”
Chris looked at the woman and without blinking said, “We don’t mind.” With one nod of the head, Chris let Buck lead them up the stairs.
The gray haired woman was temporarily stunned. “You don’t mean all you are going to sleep in that one room?” she asked, as she watched the men’s retreating backs.
Josiah stopped and turned to the woman at the bottom of the steps. “Slept in tighter places, ma’am.”
The five men entered the room. Chris lifted Ezra up into his arms and stepped to the side. Nathan and Buck made short work of putting the mattress on the floor while Vin and Josiah quickly dismantled the small half-bed frame and leaned it against the wall. Chris laid down on the narrow bed with Ezra curled up next to him. Josiah took the floor on one side of the mattress while Buck took the other. The remaining three men took up vacant spots on the floor. It was a tight fit, but it was better than being separated.
Victoria Barkley climbed the stairs followed closely by her children. Stopping at the top of the stairs, she turned to bid them goodnight. Walking to her room, she stopped outside the opposite doorway; the door had been left open. Noting the bed had been dismantled and moved, the men sprawled seemingly everywhere, she shook her head and entered her room. This was certainly not what she expected at all from a supposedly gunslinger and his posse.
Chris woke early the next morning, long before anyone else. Slipping out of the room, he went downstairs and found that the staff was already up. Someone handed him a cup of coffee, and he made his way out onto the porch. The sky was just light enough to see outlines in the distance. Looking around, he found himself begrudgingly liking the Barkleys. It would have been so much easier to haul Ezra out without so much as a backward glance if he could hate the family. The swinging of the screen door alerted him to a newcomer. Expecting it to be Vin, he was surprised to see the matron of the house appear. Sitting down next to the black clad gunslinger, she noticed that he had changed shirts and was now wearing a light blue one.
“Good morning, Mr. Larabee,” she greeted pleasantly.
“Mrs. Barkley,” Chris returned nicely.
The two sat in silence for a while before Victoria broached the subject of Ezra. “Mr. Larabee, I watched you with Ezra last night and there is no denying the love you have for each other, but as a mother I can’t help but worry for his safety. Especially considering your line of profession,” she stated honestly.
Chris rocked back and forth a few times. He took the woman’s words as an honest concern. He remembered how protective Sarah had gotten at times over Adam. She had a tough time drawing the line between letting the boy be a boy and hovering over him so he wouldn’t get hurt. He had jokingly told her once that she was going to turn Adam into a momma’s boy if she watch it. He had been fed beans for three days for every meal. He learned real quick not to step on a momma’s territory. Studying the woman last night, Chris had no doubt that Victoria Barkley could be just as fearsome.
Choosing his words carefully, Chris said, “I know you are worried about Ezra’s safety and I appreciate that. Very few people in life have put that boy first. It is good to know he has others beside us to look out for his well being.” Chris stopped, but the woman knew he wasn’t done.
“After I lost my wife and boy, life went on and I accepted that, but it wasn’t the same. There were times when I would see a doe nursing her fawn or when the wild flowers would start blooming in the spring and I would want so badly to share those things and there wasn’t anyone around. Then Ezra came along and suddenly I had someone to share life with again. I wouldn’t gamble to lose that ever again,” Chris said, his voice growing gravely towards the end.
Victoria accepted the words. For now, she would let it be.
After breakfast, Nick and Heath showed the men part of their spread. Ezra, kept home from school still, rode in front of Chris, leaning back into the solid chest. At first, Ezra had been torn between whom to ride with. Heath and Nick had been so nice to him, but Chris was standing there so temptingly. Trying to decide whom to choose without making anyone mad was difficult. He was still unsure if he was going home with Chris. Although no words had been spoken in his presence, he had felt an underlying tension during breakfast and knew he was the cause. Heath had been the one to hoist him up in front of Chris with a smile and a wink. The morning passed more pleasantly than either side had thought possible when they first started out.
By lunch, the men were back at the house for lunch. The rest of the afternoon, Chris spent with Ezra alone while the others found other things to hold their interest.
Chris found a spot away from the house under a tree that provided ample shading. They laid down on the grass and the two stared up at the blue sky through the sunlit branches. Watching the white fluffy clouds sail overhead, each pointed out different shapes to the other. Their love and loss of one another went unspoken, deep down afraid of the same thing, being rejected by the other.
Ezra pointed out a cloud in the shape of a rabbit. Watching the cloud shift and change, he bit his lip and quietly asked, “Did you see the Big Dipper while I was gone?”
Chris turned his head and puzzled over the odd question. “Yeah,” he said slowly, wondering what brought that up.
“Me, too,” Ezra said. “I always wondered if you could see the same stars in Colorado as I could here,” he said, trying for a nonchalant tone and failing.
“I watched the stars every night,” Chris said. Recalling the many nights he sat and stared up at the twinkling diamonds in the sky and wished Ezra to be safe.
“Me, too,” Ezra said contently, scooting a hair closer to the big man.
The pair laid in comfortable silence, dozing on and off in the lazy September day.
That night at supper, Chris had made it clear that Ezra would be sitting by himself by pointedly placing Ezra on the end next to Jarrod and he taking the place next to him. Afterwards, five of the peacekeepers made their way to the bunkhouse for a better night’s sleep. Chris remained in the house, sharing the small bed with Ezra. It was uncomfortable, but Chris wouldn’t have parted from the boy for anything.
The next day, Victoria announced plans for a picnic as a way for the two families to spend the day together. It had become less a matter of if Chris would be taking Ezra home with him as it was when. Ezra had gained back more strength in the last thirty-six hours than he had in the past week and there was definitely more serenity to the child than he’d had in his entire stay. Nathan, though, had suggested to Chris that they wait another couple of days.
Josiah had agreed, but for different reasons. His thinking had been to give Ezra time to have a few more good days with the Barkleys and let him have his goodbyes. Chris had almost argued about that until Josiah had pinpointed him with a knowing look that told Chris to think on it a bit. It dawned him a few minutes later when he was watching Heath hoist Ezra up onto his shoulders how much Ezra meant to this family and how it had felt when Maude had ripped Ezra away without them being able to adjust to the situation or even say goodbye.
After a lunch filled with laughter and relaxation, Nick pulled out a round stick and a hard ball. “How about a game of baseball?”
Having played a game or two in Four Corners, mostly during the Annual Homesteaders Day celebration, the six men agreed. The teams were evenly divided with Nick, Chris, Ezra, Nathan and Vin on one team and Buck, Audra, JD, Josiah and Heath on the other. Chris had given Buck one scathing look when it turned out the ladies’ man and Audra would be on the same team. Buck had simply slapped the blond on the back and said, “I know my limits.” Chris had just given him a look that said, ‘You better.’
When Josiah walked up to the plate, he flexed his muscles and, looking at the opposing teammates, smiled evilly. Worried for a moment, Ezra ran up to the big man and tugged on his shirt. Josiah obligingly bent down and Ezra whispered in his ear. “Careful, Josiah. They only have the one ball,” he said with concern.
Josiah gave the boy a grin and said, “Thanks for the tip. I shall be careful then.”
Ezra smiled broadly and said, “Thanks,” before running back to where his team stood under the shade of the tree. Josiah shook his head and smiled to himself at the thoughtfulness and concern of the child. JD pitched the ball and Josiah smacked it hard enough to make the ladies’ man give chase long enough for him to round the bases. Stomping on the tuff of grass deemed home plate, the preacher man raised his hands in triumph and then went over to where Mrs. Barkley was sitting and sat down huffing for air.
The older woman handed him a cup of lemonade. The big man was very thankful. It was hard work showing these young pups he wasn’t as old as they made him out to be.
Watching the game with a smile, she laughed outright when it came Ezra’s turn and he hit it to left field. Running past first base and getting to second, Buck grabbed the boy up in his arms and held on to him. Teasingly, he called to Heath, “I’ll hold him while you tag ‘im.”
Ezra was squirming, but his laughter hindered his effectiveness at escaping. Heath, catching on, slowly walked towards the boy. Laughing himself, said, “Looks like an easy out to me.”
Chris walked to the edge of the playing field and hollered, “Buck, you let go of that boy!” His smile took the sting out the words.
Buck held on to the wiggling kid and hollered back innocently, “We’re just tagging him,”
“Buck!” Chris called out, laughing too hard to be effective at all.
“Alright! Fine! If you insist on playing by the rules,” Buck laughed as he lowered Ezra to the ground and then proceeded to hold his arm. Ezra just looked up at his uncle and smiled, knowing that when it came time, Buck would let him go. Heath turned and walked back to the pitcher’s mound with a smile of his own.
Turning to Josiah, Victoria said, “You gentlemen are quite…” stopping to find the right word that wouldn’t insult the man.
Josiah smiled at her abruptness. “Would that be childish or eclectic?” he asked with a smile letting her know he understood.
“Well, you certainly are an eclectic array of men, I’ll give you that,” she laughed.
Josiah looked back at the playing field. Chris had hit the ball out past the playing field, making Buck let loose of Ezra to run after it. The blond thought of it as payback. Chris easily caught up to Ezra and picked him up under the arms and continued running. Landing on third, he shooed the boy on to home base. Ezra passed the tuff of grass and was swung round by Nick for a job well done.
Chris shot Buck, who had finally come back close enough to throw the ball to JD, a meaningful evil smile. Buck would have shot him a reply if they hadn’t been in the presence of ladies and a child. As it was, he gave Chris a look that said, ‘later.’ JD threw the ball to Heath and glanced over to see the young mistress of the ranch. Audra had to be the prettiest girl he’d ever seen, except for Casey. Audra smiled back at the Bostonian and JD couldn’t help the silly grin that spread over his face until Chris cleared his throat and shook his head with a smile. JD blushed deep red at being caught.
“Yes, ma’am, we are at that. But it works for us,” Josiah said solemnly.
That night, after Chris had tucked Ezra into bed, the remaining adults gathered in the parlor. When Jarrod had come home earlier that evening it had been easy for the grownups to tell something was wrong. The man had rode into their game, still dressed in his suit and looking worried. When he found them having a good time, he had instantly relaxed, but not enough for the adults to stop worrying. Now that Ezra was tucked safely upstairs, they waited for Jarrod to tell them what was wrong. Carefully, the lawyer repeated the events of the day.
Jarrod had been in his office, working, when Sheriff Lymen walked in. Jarrod knew the minute he looked up that something was wrong. Standing, he invited the sheriff to sit.
“I’d rather stand. This won’t take long anyways,” the sheriff had said with a sad tone in his voice.
“Lymen, what’s wrong?” Jarrod had asked, suddenly very worried.
“You know that woman you were asking about when that ‘nephew’ showed up?” the man asked, looking with serious eyes at his friend. He knew he was the only one that Jarrod had confided in about the true nature of the boy’s visit.
“Yes,” Jarrod drew out slowly, alarm bells going off.
“Well, I put out the word to some of the hoteliers all along the boardwalk that, if they saw this woman, I was to be contacted immediately. This afternoon, Mrs. Betsy from the Second Chance came to see me. She said the woman was there. She came in today,” Sheriff Lymen reported, shifting his gaze elsewhere.
“She’s come back for Ezra!?” JD exclaimed, keeping his voice at a reasonable level
“Over my dead body,” Buck stated angrily.
“We could pack and be gone in fifteen minutes,” Vin suggested, surging to his feet.
“I’ll get some horses saddled,” Nick said, rising to his feet.
“Now just wait a minute,” Jarrod ordered. The lawyer stood and held out a placating hand to the group of men. “Let’s think this through.”
“There is nothing to think through, Mister,” Josiah said calmly. “Ezra ain’t going back with that woman,” he stated with finality.
Chris was trying to sort through all the information and its repercussions at lightning speed, trying to come to the best solution for Ezra. The news had not taken him completely surprise; after all, it was only a matter of time before Maude showed up for Ezra and the money. Running his hand through his hair, he studied each of his men, knowing they would do anything he told him without thinking twice in order to keep Ezra with him. It was an oppressive feeling. Turning to Jarrod, he asked, “You got any suggestions?” Maybe there was a legal way of keeping Ezra.
Jarrod breathed a sigh of relief. At least one of them was willing to take a moment and listen to him. “You can’t take him and run,” he stated.
“Why can’t they,” Audra asked, just as infuriated that the woman had the gall to show her face back here as the rest of them.
“Audra,” Victoria said calmly, grasping her daughter’s hand and looking at her pointedly. “They will figure something out,” she said quietly.
Jarrod didn’t look at his sister, but kept his eyes on the dangerous looking blond in front of him. “If you take Ezra, you can’t go back to Four Corners,” he began.
“So, we’ll go somewhere else,” Nathan rebutted anxiously.
Jarrod didn’t take his eyes off Chris, but answered the question. “No matter where you take him, you will always know you’re on the run with him. You can take him and try to hide in a city and have to worry every day about the day you run into the woman. Or, you take him to Montana or somewhere just as deserted and get lost out in the plains, but that’s not a life for the boy.”
“So, what are we supposed to do?” Chris asked again, his irritation growing.
Jarrod ran his fingers through his hair. “She thinks she’s a good con artist. We’ll just have to play the game better,” Jarrod said, as he sat back down grinning wolfishly. He would do everything in his power to keep that woman from taking Ezra away, even if he had to give up the five thousand dollars.
Maude Standish sat down heavily on the lumpy mattress in the Stockton hotel room she had rented. It was not supposed to have gone like this. She should have had her money a long time ago and already be in Savannah, mingling with the highbrow society and entertaining gentlemen while relieving them of their money. She would be there now except for a bumbling idiot in San Francisco who took being scammed out a few hundred dollars a little too personally.
After leaving Ezra with the Barkleys, she had felt the need to regroup and rethink her scam. Victoria Barkley had been a tougher cookie than she had bargained for and, having had too many easy marks of late, Maude was unprepared for such a challenge. Leaving Ezra had only been a backup plan. She had known that if she had stayed in Stockton, she would have easily been found and dragged back to the ranch to gather her son, or off to jail. She had decided that a few days in San Francisco would be good for her. She could have a little fun and be rid of Ezra’s dour mood. She vowed never to leave the boy that long again; it simply ruined him.
Once in San Francisco, she found a hotel to her standards and, once refreshed, went looking for an unsuspecting mark. She found one too, a nice older gentleman that wore his money well. It hadn’t taken long for her to get his attention; it had taken even less time to be found in his favor. Maude had played her role as an admirer to perfection and he had more than willingly supplied her with cash to keep her happy.
For the entire week, during the days, she was the simple-minded, blonde who drooled over the man, and at night, after leaving his side, she found the hottest card games and played to her winning delight. She had raked in enough and had been gone long enough that she had planned to leave the next day to go gather her son, and his ‘inheritance’ and get out of California for a while. That had been the plan, at least, until Mr. Idiot’s right-hand man came in to the same saloon she was in and stumbled over her little game.
It hadn’t taken long for her to find herself in front of the judge, being charged with some ridiculous crime. She was sure she would have turned the judge around to her way of thinking if her mark hadn’t shown up in court, infuriated and demanding justice. Apparently Mr. Idiot and the judge were brothers. Maude had been greatly disappointed in herself. This all was turning into one of her worst mistakes ever. Not since she was a young woman, just learning the trade, had she made so many errors. The judge had sentenced her to three months in jail for her crime and then had personally escorted her to the train when her time was up and watched to make sure she didn’t get back off.
Now she was sitting in a dump of a hotel. Tomorrow she would be forced to put on the ridiculous old dress and, with any luck, go find her fortune in the Barkleys. She didn’t see how anything else could go wrong.
The next morning Maude entered into her character with ease. Renting a buggy from the livery, she wondered at the odd look the man gave her and the almost cold attention he showed her. Maude climbed into the buggy and headed towards the Barkley ranch. The sun was shining and, for a September day, it was quite pleasant. The conwoman smiled to herself as she thought of how soon she would have her son back and be five thousand dollars richer. Maybe, they would lay low for a while. Let Ezra attend school and be a child for a couple of months. Soon the big white house came into view.
Coming to a stop in front of the home, Maude waited for a servant to appear and help her from the buggy. When one failed to show, Maude became infuriated, but buried the feeling and climbed from the buggy unaided. Standing at the base of the steps, she heard the front door open. Turning, with her best smile in place, Maude looked up, expecting only to see Victoria Barkley at the top. Maude’s whole demeanor slipped as she gazed upon the strong ranch woman and, standing right next to her, Chris Larabee. The two stood side by side, two immovable powers combining into one frightening force. Behind them stood the rest of the allies, minus JD and Audra, who had taken Ezra riding.
Straightening her spine, Maude said forcefully. “Mrs. Barkley, I’ve come for my son.”
Victoria did not play into the force or the anger she felt. “I’m sorry, Mrs….Standish, is it?” she said with a fake smile. “Ezra belongs to us, now.”
Calming herself, Maude retained her smoothness. “Mrs. Barkley, I am sorry for not returning sooner to get…Ezra, but I was inescapably retained,” she said, knowing that the con was over. “I am here now, and I will be taking my son and leaving,” she said sorrowfully, seeing the money she had expected slip right through her fingers.
“And I said, he belongs to us. See, you, yourself, told us Ezra was a Barkley and then you left, and Ezra continued to play his part,” she paused and smiled an unpleasant smile. “Because, that is what you expected, wasn’t it?” Victoria asked heatedly. “After you didn’t return, Jarrod drew up the appropriate papers and I have guardianship of the boy, now. After all, he was supposedly the son of my beloved husband,” Victoria said, taking the steps slowly, getting closer to the woman who had abandoned the child without any regret.
“Ah, but since you now know Ezra is not a Barkley, nor his name is Thomas, then the papers are not legal. Now, if you will, please turn my son over. I will be going,” Maude argued, stepping up on the next step to meet the lady.
“Names are interchangeable and mean nothing. You of all people should understand that,” Victoria said pointedly.
Maude was about to argue that point when the tall businessman descended the steps. “Mrs. Standish, I am sure you are well aware that extortion is against the law,” he asked in a smooth friendly voice.
“Extortion!” Maude exclaimed loudly. “I did no such thing!” she replied indignantly. This was turning into a fiasco.
“You came to my mother and told her that the boy was her late husband’s and then asked for five thousand dollars. I am sure I can persuade a jury to see that as extortion, if not blackmail,” Jarrod explained in an even tone.
Maude sputtered. “Give me back Ezra, now!” she demanded.
Jarrod stepped down a step coming eye level with the woman. “This is the way it is going to happen. You are going to get back in that buggy and leave, or I will have you arrested. And while you are sitting in jail, I will wire every city from here to New York City with your description. I am relatively sure that someone, somewhere, will be looking for you,” the lawyer said with a smile.
“And Ezra?” she sputtered. “He is my son. Do expect me to just walk away from him and never return?” she asked, aghast. Whatever she might have done with Ezra in the past, she did love him in her own way.
“As I understand it, you have no problem walking away and leaving Ezra, but if it eases your mind, Ezra will be taken care of and have a stable life. Perhaps when he is older, he may wish to find you and that will be his decision, but until then, he will be raised with a good education and by people who will love him and take care of him,” Victoria put in, coming to stand beside her son.
Glaringly, Maude looked up to the blond, black-clad man still standing on the porch. “This is your doing, isn’t it?” she demanded.
Chris merely shrugged.
“Well, if they have guardianship that means you will not be getting him, either,” Maude said a little smugly.
Again Chris shrugged. “My only concern is that Ezra is taken care of,” Chris said. Looking about him, the blond said, “Ezra could do real well here,” the sincerity of the statement showing though.
Maude harrumphed and, knowing she had lost both the money and her son, raised her chin up and walked back to the rig. Climbing in, she glared at the group of people. Without a word, she turned the buggy around and headed it back to town. Victoria let out a deep breath. Taking her son’s arm, they climbed the steps back up to join the others.
Buck looked at Chris and said, “You know that woman ain’t going to give up that easily, don’t you?”
Chris nodded. He knew Maude would go off and lick her wounds and then come back just as strong. “Yep, but maybe by the time she figures out we have him, we really can have adoption papers made legal,” he said.
Jarrod spoke up, “I’ll help all I can.”
“Thanks,” Chris said. He had grown to respect this family and appreciate their loyalty.
Chris sat on the hard seat being rocked by the motion of the locomotive. Ezra was stretched out on the bench, his head resting in Chris’s lap. The blond couldn’t keep his fingers from running through the short strands of silky brown hair. They were going home at last. The Barkleys had persuaded Chris and the others to stay on until the end of the week, just in case Maude tried anything to get Ezra back. By all accounts, the woman had returned the buggy, gathered her belongings from the hotel and took the next train out. It was headed east. The members of both families had been more than relieved.
Their next problem was what to tell Ezra about his mother. In the end, Jarrod had simply told the lad that he had received a short telegraph from Maude saying she had been held up on business and asking them to keep Ezra safe. It hadn’t been too much of a lie. Chris was pretty sure Ezra knew there was more to it than that, but hadn’t pushed it.
Victoria had taken Chris aside and had threatened to come to Four Corners and do bodily harm to him, herself, if she ever found out Ezra got hurt. Chris couldn’t help but compare the woman to Miz Nettie and figured if the two women ever met, he’d have his hands full. Chris had promised to keep in touch.
Ezra was lying with his eyes closed, but not asleep. He was reliving his goodbyes with the Barkleys.
Ezra had tried to return the bag of nickels to the woman of the house for all she had done for him, but she had refused. Running her weathered hand down his soft cheek, she pushed down the feelings of loneliness she felt with the leaving of the child. It had felt good having a child in the house and now they would be going back to the way it was before. Leaning over, the mother hugged the child tightly. “You take care of yourself, okay,” she whispered.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ezra choked out. He wished for a little that he could have Chris and the guys and the Barkleys at the same time. Knowing it was impossible though, he was glad to be going home with Chris.
Walking up to Audra, he received the hug obligingly. Audra pulled back and with a forced smile said, “Bye, Ezra. I enjoyed having you around.”
“Thank you,” Ezra said succinctly, he was at a loss of words for all the goodbyes. He’d never been allowed to do it with people he liked before.
Heath was next. Shaking the man’s hand, Ezra looked into the bright blue eyes and smiled. “See ya around, kid,” Heath said with a smile.
“See ya,” Ezra responded.
Ezra walked up to Nick and looked up at the tall man. Nick stuck out his hand and after Ezra took it, said, “If you ever need a job, you know you always got a place here.” His voice was gruff from emotion.
“Thanks, Mr. Barkley. I’ll remember that,” Ezra said, unable to take his eyes of the man before him. Nick continued to stare down at him and then with a muttered, “’Oh heck’” he stooped and wrapped his big arms around the skinny kid. No words were said, but Ezra understood what he was saying. Tentatively, Ezra returned the hug.
Nick let the kid go and Ezra stood before Jarrod at last. “Thanks for all your help,” Ezra said. He was pretty sure Jarrod had helped Chris so the man would be able to keep him indefinitely.
“Anytime, Ezra. You ever need help, all you have to do is wire me and I’ll come,” Jarrod promised. Ezra nodded.
Walking to the door, he took his jacket from the black butler. Looking into the black orbs, he said, “Goodbye, Mr. Silas.”
“Goodbye, Master Ezra,” the black man replied, a silent message going between them.
Ezra skipped down the steps and, with Chris’ help clambered in front of him on the saddle. The six men rode back to town and the train station. After a week on the train, Ezra watched out the window excitedly as Ridge City came into view. The men departed the train with exceeding speed. In no time the seven were riding towards town. They stopped at intervals so each could have his turn with Ezra riding with them, knowing that once they reached the turnoff, Chris would be heading for the shack with the boy and they wouldn’t be seeing them for a couple of days.
Chris sat in the old hand-hewn rocker with Ezra bundled in a blanket snuggled in his arms. The father knew that, by all rights, that Ezra would have normally been deemed as too old to be rocked, but this was their ritual and only they knew about it. Chris had fixed a simple chicken and dumpling meal for supper. Together, they cleaned up and then had sat out on the porch for a long time, simply looking at the stars. They had come in and Ezra had gotten ready for bed, while Chris closed up the house. As they used to, Chris quietly walked into the small bedroom and sat down in the rocker and waited for Ezra. Now the two of them rocked in companionable silence. Ezra had told him during supper that the he had considered the Barkleys to be good people, and Chris had been hard pressed to argue.
Chris ran his hands up and down the narrow back. He would never get Adam back, but he had another child. One that had been taken away and left an equal size hole, but this time he had retrieved the child and mended the hole. As far as the father was concerned, he would never loose the child again. Leaning his head back against the rocker, Chris closed his eyes and held onto his son for a little longer.