Chris made his way over to the jail, his small shadow clinging to his hand. At the same moment as he stepped up onto the boardwalk, a voice hailed him. The blond stopped and looked down the street and saw the judge coming towards him. Leaning down to Henrys level he said, "Why dont you go find the Potter children to play with for a little while?"
Seeing the hesitancy in the small boy, Chris smiled and gave the hand in his a reassuring squeeze. "Ill come find you later, ok?" he said softly.
Henry nodded and smiled back before letting go of the hand and running off towards the general store. The one-time-father smiled as watched the boy run. He wasnt kidding himself; he liked having the boy around. Even if it was only going to be for a couple of days. But he wouldnt fool himself into thinking about the boy staying with him. Chris knew he couldnt give the small child a home at this time, and Henry deserved a family that could love and take care of him properly.
The judge reached the leader and appraised him. The sideways grin and twinkle in the hard green eyes clearly told the tale; Chris was definitely father material and one day, Lord willing would be again.
"How are you?" Judge Travis asked, in his gravely voice.
He knew this ride had been hard on all his men for one reason or another. Since it involved children, this case seemed especially personally for each of them. The judge had wondered just how well these men would have stayed within the law when they arrested the outlaws and got the children safely. Knowing Chris had lost his own child to murder had made him all the more worried about the mans mental as well as emotional state of being.
"Be better when this mess is out of our hands," Chris replied honestly. He didnt want to be around Fleming any more than he had to. The indecision over what they were going to do with all the children was another worry. He wasnt sure how many of the temporary families could keep the child placed with them. The two concerns were separate issues, but intertwined. Without one, the other wouldnt have existed.
"Well, as far as trial, I was going to split it into two trials. The men involved with just the kidnapping today and the ones who were involved in the shooting, tomorrow," Travis said determinedly.
"Might be best to hold off on Flemings trial until tomorrow afternoon or later," Chris advised.
Catching the questioning look in the judges eye the blond explained, "Vins taking the boy out to Netties. Reckon theyll all come back later. Dont think its right for the girl to have to meet her father at his trial."
The judge nodded his head in agreement. "Alright, well hold off on his trial until day after tomorrow. The children will be gone by then," he said.
"What?" Chris said, raising his voice a touch. "What are you talking about, Judge? The children are leaving?" The blond didnt like surprises and lately he had gotten his share of them.
Noting the change in body language, the judge mentally took a step backwards and softened his voice. "Yes, well, I was getting to that," the older man said. "Mary wired the main childrens home back in New York and explained the circumstances to them. She told them as soon as you returned with the two children they would be transported on to Hamilton.
Chris stood silent, waiting for the judge to finish, somehow, not feeling as happy about the children leaving as he thought he would. The judge continued, "This morning she sent riders out to the farm families and requested all the children be bought back to town tomorrow. She talked to Josiah and he agreed we could bunk them down for the night in the church. Ive hired two men to drive them on to Hamilton."
Taking a deep breath the older lawman looked Chris in the eye, gray eyes meeting green; both old, but for different reasons. "Think its best if a couple of the boys went along. Just for the childrens benefit."
Chris nodded once showing he agreed with the judges decision. "Alright," he half whispered.
"We can have the others trial today and tomorrow. Then transport them once we have Flemings trial. Ill wire the army and have them send an escort to meet you in Ridge City," The judge finished explaining how things were going to be.
The tall blond didnt respond except for a short nod of his head before turning back to the saloon for a drink. Just the thought of having to ride all the way to Ridge City with those men created a desire for a liquid refresher.
Vivian, having been left back in town with Josiah, allowed the two to ride double on Peso. The trackers ears were burning. He didnt think anyone could talk as much as JD, though Ezra at times held a close second. He had been wrong. Young Matthew told the tracker stories of being in the big city and the thousands of people living there. Vin shuddered at the thought of being trapped in a place such as that.
Matthew voice softened when he began telling of being taken away from his mother and being put into an orphanage with lots of other children. There were many holding facilities for orphans; luckily Matthew and his sister had been placed together. The youngster informed Vin that there were many in the place that was not so lucky. Siblings had been separated before being put on the trains that would take them to new homes.
Vin could sympathize with the boy. Even though it had been almost twenty years since he, himself, had been placed in an orphanage, the tracker could remember vividly the fright he had felt. The inability to move freely without stepping on or bumping into another body, sleeping three and four to a bed; when a bed was available. The stale air he was forced to breath daily. The fear of being forced to live with people he didnt know and enduring whatever they held for him because he had no other choices. When he had finally been able to escape out onto his own, he had made a beeline for the wide open space. To this day he still hated people invading his personal area. Only after joining up with these six men did the ability to stay around folks become manageable. He could readily identify with the little boy riding behind him.
Vin, also, knew the stigma orphan children carried with them throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Orphans were different. They were not as good as everyone else. Many orphans refused to discuss their past with their families after marrying and having children. It simply became a topic no one talked about. Some orphans were lucky and found good homes; others were merely a cheap source of labor. The tracker was able to rationalize the need for the Orphan Trains and could even acknowledge that, for many of these children, it literally saved their lives. It didnt make it any easier to be one, to be a lost wanderer of the world. He chided himself for letting his thoughts grow so dark and reminded himself that he now had a home where people cared about him and accepted him as an equal.
The two riders finally arrived at Netties and were welcomed by two girls running towards them. They had been on the porch with the rancher and Casey. When the visitors came into view. Casey was quick to point out who they were and the two orphan girls headed out to see the little boy. Swann stopped and allowed Emily and Matthew their brother-sister reunion before moving in and hugging the little boy herself.
Casey and Nettie came out to meet the two visitors and were quickly introduced to the small child. Tipping his hat to the woman, Vin greeted the older woman, "Miz Nettie." Then looking over to the young girl, who days ago had been in a trance, hugging her brother said, "Looks like she pulled out alright." Smiling down at the woman his eyes twinkled with happiness just to be here with her. He knew that without Nettie the girl could have easily still been buried inside herself, much like that Melissa that was staying with Mrs. Potter.
The ranch woman smiled and replied, "Reckon you boys bringing her brother back had a lot to do with it."
Sitting down on the porch, Nettie handed Vin a glass of cool lemonade as she spoke, "Guess theyll be needing to go back to town. Meet that loathsome, no-account father of hers." Besides the bitterness, Vin heard the catch in the womans voice as she talked about the children leaving. Until he had met six other men he had never realized how easily it was to become attached to someone in such a short amount of time.
"Yep. Dont rightly know how that meetings going to go over. Man seemed earnest in wanting to be a father. Just waited too, long and went about it wrong," Vin said.
"They have each other again; theyll be alright," Nettie said, nodding to the children.
"Aint a guarantee theyre going to stay together," Vin countered.
They watched the four children, including Casey, run around the large yard playing tag. Casey, as oldest, was it. After enjoying the silence of just being in each others company, the older woman broached the subject of concern carefully. "How you boys doing?"
Vin knew she was asking about Chris and Ezra specifically. She didnt need to ask about him; she had been sitting here studying him the whole time they had been drinking their lemonade. She already could assess he was all right. He also knew Nettie didnt worry too much about Josiah and Buck; they were like the rudders of a rocky ship, always keeping them on a steady course and away from trouble when they could.
"Chris is going to be alright when we get rid of them boys. And since Ezra found out that little tyke is going to make it, he will be a little easier to be around," he said. Vin smiled at the memory of his friends hasty exit from the saloon this morning, he wondered if Nathan knew exactly what he was getting into when he asked the gambler to come visit the clinic. Vin felt a gentle nudge at his elbow and realized he had drifted off in his thinking.
"Didnt shoot anyone," he said, "Well, at least not without a reason." The tracker let a faint grin grace his face as he shook his head; "Kids have a strange hold over that man. Cant tell him what to do half the time, but let a child in the picture and its a different story."
The two sat on the porch for a long while just enjoying each others company and watching the children laugh and play. Finally, Vin stood and moved off the porch. While he went to hitch up Netties wagon team to take the children back to town, Nettie went into the house and gathered a few outgrown items she had sorted of Caseys for the two girls who were leaving. After closing up the house Vin helped Nettie and all the girls into the wagon, then placed Matthew back on Peso and mounted up. This afternoon would be another storm to weather.
Upon seeing the wagons arrival into town, Buck stepped away from the doorway where he had been standing and walked over to the jail cell currently holding Fleming and the three other men who were to be tried the next day. JD, Chris and Josiah had come an hour earlier for the others to take them to their trial. "Cmon," Buck said irritably, "Your daughter is here.
Buck looked at the father with burning hate in his eyes. So far he had been able to keep the rage he had felt for the last five days in check, but it was growing increasingly harder. Once again this man was about to destroy another persons life. Angrily he hissed, "Youve done a lot to mess her life up. This is your last chance to do right by her."
"Dont hurt her any further or Ezra and Chris wont be the only ones who have to worry about guarding your sorry hide. You understand me?" Buck asked. "Because if you do, I promise you it will be a long ride to Ridge City," he warned. Fleming had no doubt that this man was a lot more dangerous than he appeared and figured he just might be that proverbial wolf in sheeps clothing.
Fleming swallowed hard and nodded. He knew he had to make it right with his children and make them understand they were going to have a good life. Buck let the man out of his cell. The other three men had backed up to the far wall, instincts screamed at them that this was not a man to try a jailbreak with. The two men had reached the door when Vin opened it. Taking the prisoner from Bucks release, the two regulators solemnly nodded to one another before Vin led Fleming over to the church where the children waited.
Vin, Nettie and the two oldest, Swann and Casey, stood back against the far wall and watched the reunion of father and children, all together for the first time in many years. The tracker had a sideways grin and figured if Ezra had been here, he would have a bet going. As it was Vin figured the reunion was going like any of Flemings fantasies. Ezra would probably be laying odds on the eight-year-old as the girl tried to pommel the man in front of her with her small fists. Matthew was standing on the side yelling at her to stop while Fleming himself just stood there and took the beating. As Vin and Nettie stepped forward to stop the assault, Fleming finally grabbed the small fists in his hands, "Emmy," he called her name softly. "You have a right to be mad, but please let me explain," Fleming begged.
"No!" she shouted, as she yanked her hands free from his. "Youre not my father. My father left a long time ago and died," Emily cried, as she ran to Nettie. Wrapping her arms around the woman she buried her face into Netties bosom and burst into tears.
Gathering the sobbing child closer to her, Nettie led the girl outside toward the general store. Casey and Swann followed close behind, each one clutching a hand of five-year-old Matthew.
Vin stepped up to the criminal to discourage him following. "We reap what we sow," he said quietly, as he led the man back to the jailhouse.
Looking up from where he sat, Buck silently greeted the two as they came in. The mustached man could tell from the demeanor of both men that the meeting had not gone well. After locking the man back behind the cell door, he turned back to Vin. "Hows the girl?" The ladies man asked, genuinely concerned.
Vins eyes said it all, but he still replied, "Not good. Nettie took them over to Mrs. Potters." Buck shook his head sadly then turned back and gave Fleming a look that had the man backing up even though iron bars separated the two men.
Josiah walked over to Mrs. Potters after they broke from breakfast. He had a little while before he was to meet Chris and JD at the jail to take the prisoners over to the granary for their trial.
Stepping into the store, he took a deep breath. He loved the mixture of smells. The preacher was still standing in the same spot when the storeowner came out from the back. Seeing the large man standing in there, she had to smile at the peaceful look on his face. She, too, enjoyed this place. Quietly, so not to startle him, she greeted him. She liked each of the seven, as different as they were, that looked after this town. They had seen to it that her husbands killer was bought to trial at the risk of their own lives.
"Mr. Sanchez. Its good to have you and the others back," she said, with a smile.
"Maam," he said, stepping further into the store. "Its good to be back."
"What can I do for you?" The shopkeeper inquired.
"I understand you took in the young lady from the wagon accident?" Josiah stated. " I was wondering if I might impose upon you and see her?" The ex-preacher asked softly.
"It would be no imposition," she said, nodding for Josiah to follow her. "You must know though, there hasnt been any change since you left," she informed him. Mrs. Potter spoke as she led the way into her living quarters in the back of the store.
Turning to the large man, she said sadly, "I had hoped being around a family would have bought her back to her senses." Stopping inside her living room she motioned with her hand towards the young woman sitting quietly in a rocker.
Josiah walked up to the still figure and squatted down. Taking the slender hand in his, he looked into the empty eyes and was transported to an earlier time. A time when he realized his beloved sister, Hannah, no longer existed in the real world either. That time in life was very painful for him to remember. The knowledge that he had failed to be strong enough to keep his sister from slipping away into her own world ate at him daily.
He talked softly to the young woman without getting any kind of response. Finally, the ex-preacher laid her hand back into her lap, gathered his hat and walked back out into the store. Going up to Mrs. Potter, he inquired, " Has anyone informed her family?"
"Yes," the older woman replied. "One of the children was able to tell us where she hailed from and Mr. Dunne wired the sheriff."
Josiah nodded, "And the reply?" Knowing the answer wasnt going to be good.
"Family is too poor to take her back in. I figure its why she left in the first place. They asked Mr. Dunne to see to her needs," the woman said sadly. It was a fact of life, too many mouths to feed and not enough income. "He was waiting until yall come back."
Josiah nodded in acceptance of the unspoken words. "Ill tend to it," Josiah said, with a heavy heart. Once again he felt the burden of a lost soul placed in his hands. The ex-preacher stepped put of the store, paused for a moment, then headed for the jail. Another day of sorrow and pain for so many strangers, brought to together by one vile act.
After hearing that little Sammy was alive and needed personal attention, Ezra had every intention of going straight over to the clinic, until he caught a reflection of himself in a window. Goodness, Ezra. You appear in this condition and it will surely frighten the young lad, he chastised himself. Four days on the trail had left him looking less than his normal appearance. Doing an about face, he headed back to his room to gather belongings for a bath
Making short work of the job, the suave man soon found himself at the door of the clinic. Fear suddenly clutched him in a death grip and he became rooted to where he was standing. This whole time he had been gone there was only one thing his mind had focused on, only one goal he had been bent on accomplishing. All the adrenaline he had been running on for the last five days abruptly washed away leaving Ezra suddenly feeling sick, lightheaded and scared.
He had almost become a man like the ones he chased over a child he didnt know. When had he begun to care about others? How did it come about that he would feel so outraged about a crime that he would sacrifice what little soul he did have to carry out revenge? Revenge. He had never been a revengeful man. Well, not unless someone tried to cheat him. He knew full well if this had happened a couple of years back he would have been outraged as any other person, but he wouldnt have done anything specific about it. Surely, not go after the men responsible for the crime. He would have simply let the law handle it and gone on his way. The law. There had been no law in this town until the judge had made him, and the other six men he rode with, the law. Ezra studied on that link and all its implications.
Would he always feel as bad as he did when they bought in Claire Mosleys body in or finding Irene Dunlap? They were nothing though to the feeling that tightened its grip when he picked up that bloody little boy. Was it always going to hurt so much for each victim?
Had these men changed him so much had had begun to let his conscious grow? Oh Lawd. Mother would faint dead away for sure if she truly realized the effect these men and this town was having on him. The thought sent a brief thrill through him. Then wondered if that was why Maude had railed against him staying in this town. Did she see what was happening to him? Did she see him losing his ability to be uncaring toward other people?
He didnt know how long he had sat there on the bench before Nathan walked out and called his name. Looking up, Ezra saw the worried look on the healers face. Jumping to his feet the gambler asked anxiously, "Everything alright, Mr. Jackson?"
Nathan said, "You tell me, Ezra. Youve been sitting out here for a good fifteen minutes. Ive called your name three times." Nathan cocked his head to one side and studied his friend closer. "You feeling alright, Ezra? You dont look well," the healer asked, concern evident on his face on in his voice.
Recovering quickly when his health was questioned, Ezras mask slid down into place before Nathan finished talking. "I am quite well, Mr. Jackson. There is nothing for you to concern yourself over," the gambler said smoothly.
"Ezra, you aint fooling me. Now, you can talk to me or wait until one of the others are free to talk to. But you aint going in there and see that little boy with the burden youre carrying around. Even as ill as he, Sammy will know something wrong and hell think has something to do with him, and he doesnt need to worry," Nathan said softly, but firmly.
Ezra slowly nodded his head. Children were very perceptive and Nathan was right, Sammy would sense his melancholy. Running his fingers through his hair, Ezra sat back down wearily. He sat there a long time and Nathan was about to give up on the idea that the gambler would talk to him when Ezra began speaking very softly. "Mother always avoided any emotional attachment. She often said it was a distraction from pulling off any game," the gambler said.
Nathan remained quiet, waiting for Ezra to continue. " After all youve been through, Nathan, you still seem to be greatly endowed with them. How do you it?" Ezra asked.
The healer was taken back at the honesty Ezra spoke. He had watched the gambler closely since joining together. At first he had been looking out for the towns welfare, expecting the man to pull some kind of con and take the townspeople money. Later, when it became obvious even to him Ezra wasnt in it for the money, Nathan begun watching out of interest.
He had learned through observation that the man that kept himself walled off from adults opened up like a book around children. The innocent found a way to his heart, and in raw moments, he let it show. Like when Claire Mosleys body had been found and bought back to town. Then when they had found Irene murdered, Ezra had been the first to step up to help take her to the undertakers. Nathan had figured out the man who tried his best to personify indifference in truth felt deeply about the people of this town.
The healer looked at his friend and silently laughed when he realized the con artist was conning himself.
Slapping the man on the back, the healer chose not to answer the question at the moment. That discussion was best saved when they both had more time and were less involved in an emotional situation. Instead Nathan grinned down at his friend and said, Cmon, you got a friend to meet."
Rising, the two men stepped inside and the healer had to give Ezra a little push to get around him. Ezra had stalled upon entering the doorway. The tiny figure he saw lying on the cot was engulfed by the bed he laid in. The white sheets were doing nothing to add coloring to he childs pale features. The gambler felt that just breathing too hard would suck any air away from the small lungs that kept the child alive.
Nathan walked around the other man and turned to find Ezra had yet to move from his spot. Walking back to Ezra, he grabbed hold of the red sleeve and pulled the brown-haired man over to the chair beside the cot. Nathan then gave a small shove and Ezra found himself sitting in the chair. Nathan watched as Ezra started to pick up the small hand only to pull back. The healer leaned over and whispered, "Its ok, Ez. He wont break if you touch him."
Shaking his head at the other mans trepidation, Nathan went over to the other patient. Noticing Mrs. Kingston was awake, he poured a cup of water. Reading the question in her eyes as he leaned over to help her drink, he said, "Ezras one of the men I told you about." Then, lowering his voice even further, he went on, " Took the boy being injured very hard." Oleta nodded her in understanding and then closed her eyes to rest.
Finally gathering enough courage, Ezra began stroking the wispy-thin brown hair while picking up one of the small hands in his other hand. Not long afterwards the gambler began regaling the sleeping child of stories of Louisiana shrimp boating; Georgia, during peach picking time and anything else he could think of. On occasion when the woman patient was awake he would speak softly to her, but most of his attention went to the little boy.
Sammy felt bad and he hurt. Opening his eyes, he looked around at the unfamiliar sight and had the unmitigated urge to start crying for his mommy. A soft voice got his attention, turning his face he found himself staring into large green eyes and felt better; though he still wanted his mother.
Seeing the eyes of the child open, Ezra felt surprised at the exhilaration that filled him. That feeling quickly faded and turned to panic when the tears started flowing and Sammy began voicing his want for his mother. Thinking a distraction was immediately warranted, Ezra reached into his pocket and pulled out the deck of cards that kept with him at all times. Talking softly to the scared child, he began doing some of his more extravagant shuffles. The tears soon stopped and interest became greater.
When Inez came with lunch for the two patients, the gambler noticed the dilemma of trying to have the little boy sit up and feed himself. Looking around the room, he saw Nathan helping the woman settle in a comfortable spot so she could eat her own meal. Hesitating, but for a moment, Ezra slipped onto the bed and carefully picked up the fragile body and placed Sammy on his lap. Cradling the boy in one arm the gambler slowly spoon-fed him the watered-down soup.
When the little boy stopped eating, the gambler looked down at the sleeping boy in his arms and felt a loss of what to do. After scanning the room for any unwanted attention Ezra shifted around on the bed until he was sitting up against the headboard with his legs outstretched. Laying the sleeping boy out on his chest he carefully covered them up and wrapped his arms around the small bundle. Closing his eyes Ezra relished the feel of the small boy against him. After a few minutes both were sound asleep with the gambler dreaming of him and the child running across an open field, laughter floating through the air.
Nathan had watched his friend all morning from the corner of his eye. He had shared a smile with the chaperone when Ezra had laid on the bed and fell asleep. As incongruent as it appeared, the picture looked completely natural.
After waking, Ezra remained where he was and convinced Nathan he would watch over the two patients while the healer stepped out for a while for some fresh air. The gambler had no intention of abandoning his position. Much later in the evening the Tulleges bought Layton by for a short visit with her brother. After a brief visit with the adults and showing the sister, upon request from the patient, a few card tricks, Ezra stepped out onto the landing to give the siblings some time together. Visions of what it would be like to raise the two children popped into his mind, he quashed the thought quickly, but not before the images were left imprinted into his mind.
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