Fellow Travelers

by J. Brooks

Alternate Universe - "Little Ezra"

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Ezra blinked as the world came into slow focus around him. Stark, whitewashed walls surrounded him. The only touch of color in the tiny room came from a vase of yellow flowers on the bedside table and the heap of cheery patchwork quilts that covered him.

His attention drifted to a rocking chair, pulled close to the foot of the bed. For some reason, he was surprised to see it empty.

Waking up in an unfamiliar room in a strange place was nothing new to Maude Standish's boy. Ezra lifted his head a few wobbly inches off the pillow, but fell back, breathless from the effort. He settled for letting his eyes roam around the room, waiting for his foggy brain to recall how he had gotten here and why.

The door latch rattled and a pleasant-faced older woman bustled into the room. Ezra blinked at her, too tired to do anything more.

"Why, hello!" she said with a smile. "You're awake! How do you feel, dear?"

He stared at her, puzzled. Was this another maiden aunt? A housekeeper at some great estate? What name was he supposed to be using today? Who was he pretending to be?

"Ezra dear?" Well, that answered one question. The woman moved closer, reaching toward him. He flinched, and she settled for fussing with his blankets. "Does your head still hurt?"

He shook his head slowly. He was fine. Couldn't she see that? The maiden aunt-lady turned to the bedside table and poured him a glass of water, gently lifting his shoulders so he could drink.

"Thank you, ma'am," he croaked, astonished by the rusty, underused quality of his voice. She beamed, plumping the pillows behind him.

"Why, you're welcome, young man," she said. "I'm just so happy to see you awake and looking better. You've been terribly ill, you know."

Ezra frowned. That was news to him. He turned away, trying to stifle a yawn.

"You rest now dear," she said, patting his cheek. "I'll tell the judge you're feeling better. He'll be delighted."

She swept out of the room, leaving a wide-eyed and suddenly wide-awake Ezra P. Standish behind her. The latch rattled again, accompanied by the distinct sound of a key turning in the lock.

Conversations with judges rarely ended well, in Ezra's experience. Judges were best avoided entirely. He made an effort to leap out of bed, but only mustered a sluggish roll that tipped him off the soft mattress and onto the hard floor in a tangle of blankets.

"Ouch," he mumbled into the floorboards, trying to work up enough energy to roll off his face.

He gathered himself and flopped onto his back. From this angle, he could clearly see the bars on the room's small window. Jail? What had he done this time? Time enough to figure that out later, he supposed, once he was safely away. He tried again to coax movement out of muscles wasted by disease and disuse.

It was going to take him forever to escape at this rate, rolling all the way like a ... what? He was sure there was a word for it, but it was lost in the fog, along with the rest of his memories.

His eyes fell on a book that someone had tucked beneath the rocking chair. Curious, he reached for the volume, noting from the bookmark that the reader had almost reached the end of the story. He dragged it close enough to read the title.

The Canterbury Tales.

Suddenly, it all came crashing back, and Ezra curled around the book with a small, lost cry.

+ + + + + + +

Judge Travis stumped down the narrow aisle between the jail cells, nodding to the prisoners who rose to their feet expectantly. He stopped before the cage that held the one man who kept his seat.

"He's awake," he said, smiling at the pandemonium that broke out at the news. He held up a key ring. "Who wants to see him first?"

+ + + + + + +

Five minutes later, a jangle of chains announced the arrival of the entire group at the prison infirmary.

They opened the door to a view of an older woman, down on her hands and knees, pleading with the underside of a wrought-iron hospital bed.

The judge and the prisoners rattled into the room as the woman threw an exasperated look at them over her shoulder. She sat up, dusting her hands on her skirts.

"He seems to think he's under arrest," she said, blowing her gray hair out of her eyes and moving away to give them access to the bed. "Maybe you can talk some sense into him." She left the room, planting a kiss on the judge's cheek in passing.

For a moment, the men simply stared at the bed. Then, slowly, they crouched down to peer underneath. A pair of green eyes watched them balefully from the shadows.

"Hey there, Ezra," JD said at last. The glare shifted to the chains around JD's wrists, increasing in intensity.

Larabee turned a glare of his own on Travis. "Where the hell are Vin and Nathan?"

"I ordered them both down to the commissary for some food and fresh air. They should be back any minute."

Larabee shook his head. He'd let Nathan deal with the judge. It figured the contrary child would decide to wake the moment none of them were by his side. He turned his attention back to the huddled shadow under the bed, imagining what Ezra must have thought when he woke up alone, under lock and key.

"Ezra?" he called. "You want to come out now?"

A shadowy headshake.

"Okay. Could I come under there and see you?"

A pause. Then a small nod.

The others backed off as Chris, wincing at the strain on his healing leg, worked his head and shoulders under the bed for a consultation with Ezra. After a few moments of muffled dialogue, he rolled back out and turned to the judge.

"Ezra'd like you to step outside, Judge," he said calmly.


"Said it would be `improper' for him to talk to you until he's consulted an attorney. Something about an x-party."

"Ex parte?" The judge repeated, his face flushing an alarming shade of red. He drew a deep breath and gathered his dignity about him. "I'll wait in the hallway," he said. "And afterward, gentlemen, we are going to have a long talk about that boy."

The prisoners watched him go, flabbergasted. Buck dropped to his hands and knees and poked his head under the bed, delighted to see Ezra awake and annoying the hell out of authority figures again. Josiah and JD followed suit.

"All clear, Ez," Buck said.

The little boy blinked at him, utterly spent. Smiling understandingly, Buck took the hand Ezra stretched toward him and tugged the tired child out into the light.

"Better?" he asked, swinging the patient back on top of the bed where he belonged. Josiah shook out one of the quilts with a snap and tucked Ezra in again.

"Better," Ezra agreed, yawning.

Larabee crouched down, eye to eye with the boy. "You're not in jail, Ezra. You're not even in trouble," he said, brushing at drying tear tracks.

"But you are," Ezra whispered, reaching out with one finger to touch the heavy prison manacles.

Before anyone could reply, the door banged open and Vin and Nathan tumbled inside, grinning like idiots. And somewhere in the middle of joyful noise that followed, between Nathan's rapid-fire questions and Vin's quiet greeting and Buck's attempts to mess with his hair, Ezra Standish fell sound asleep, smiling.

+ + + + + + +

There was a sound of impatient throat clearing from the other side of the infirmary door. Josiah waved the others ahead, retrieving the volume of Chaucer from the floor and settling into the rocker beside the sleeping boy.

"Go right ahead. Brother Ezra and I have a book to finish" he said, flipping to the last page he'd marked. If you read enough of it, Middle English actually started to make a certain amount of sense.

"Now, where were we? That's right. The cook and the manciple were fighting. The cook fell off his horse and the manciple was just about to begin the tale of the," He turned the page. "Crow."

The preacher squinted at the new chapter for a long moment. He glanced at his peacefully sleeping audience.

He paged ahead. Unbelievable. An entire chapter, devoted to the bird of darkness. He shot another guilty look around and kept flipping until he paged past the last word about crows and started in on the Parson's Tale. Josiah sat back with a relieved sigh and began reading aloud.

"By that the maunciple hadde his tale al ended,
The sonne fro the south lyne was descended"

+ + + + + + +

"What do you expect me to do about that boy?" the judge asked, rounding on the men as they filed into the hallway to face him.

"We don't expect YOU to do anything, sir," Nathan said, bristling. "He's my responsibility."

"Our responsibility," Larabee corrected. Nathan glanced at him and nodded slowly. These men took his side against his old master, took care of him and Ezra when it would have been easier not to. These were men to be trusted.

The judge cocked a skeptical eyebrow at the motley group. "In case it's escaped your attention, four of you are my prisoners. As for Mr. Jackson," he shot a hard look at both Nathan and Vin. "I have a wanted poster with your face on it in my possession. And I'm guessing if I made a thorough search of every file on the base, I'd find one for Mr. Tanner as well."

He cut Nathan off as the healer started to object. "As I told you when we met, Mr. Jackson, I don't give a good goddamn who you were or what you were in Alabama. You're a free man here, as far as I'm concerned, so long as he didn't break any more laws within the three-hundred-mile circuit of my jurisdiction. That goes for Mr. Tanner too. But," he shook his head. "None of you could walk into a courtroom and expect to be handed legal custody of a seven-year-old boy."

"We already had custody of him," Vin said softly. "Promised him we'd take him to San Francisco to find his Ma."

Travis crossed his arms. "You expect me to believe you'd just hand the boy over to a woman who thought the late Buford Jackson made a suitable guardian? Assuming you ever find her?"

He looked around at five pair of eyes, wearing expressions that ranged from pleading to threatening. They wanted the boy, that much was clear. And they'd proven themselves fierce, able caretakers in trying circumstances.

These were six useful men. And Lord knows, he had use for them, now that the command at Leavenworth had washed their hands of the matter. But he had no intention of jeopardizing the welfare of a child barely older than his own grandson.

"You have three weeks to go on your thirty-day sentence," he said, eyeing the soldiers. "For the duration of that time, I intend to place Ezra in the custody of one of the families here at the fort."

Five pair of eyes went flat with rage.

Travis held up his hand. "Temporarily. Until I can consider the matter. A normal home for the boy, gentlemen. A home with a mother and a father and a room of his own and, who knows, maybe a dog. Think about that. Then think about what you have to offer him."

He extended a hand, inviting the downcast prisoners to walk ahead of him, back to the cellblock.

+ + + + + + +

Travis stopped in front of an occupied cell, far from their own holding cells.

"One last thing, gentlemen," he said, fiddling with the lock and swinging open the heavy door to reveal a sullen, middle-aged man with an overhanging potbelly and small, cruel eyes. "I'd like to introduce someone. This is Corporal Augustus Chambers. He works in the quartermaster's office as clerk. A supply clerk."

The soldiers took a step closer, suddenly alert.

"It took quite a records search, but we finally traced those blankets you mentioned. About six weeks ago, we had an outbreak of typhus at the washwomen's camp outside the fort -- didn't we, Corporal Chambers? Around the same time same time you were pulling together the supplies for that Shawnee reservation down Oklahoma way?"

Travis held up a hand as the soldiers inched closer to the cell door. The prisoner gulped, sweat beading on his forehead. "Now, usually Chambers here contented himself with sending rancid beef and wormy flour to the reservations. This time, it seems, he threw in a little something extra."

The judge pulled out his pocket watch. "My, my, look at the time," he said. "Will you boys be all right if I leave you for a moment? The guards will be by to escort you to your cells in, oh, ten minutes."

Chambers' eyes went round as he stared through the open cell door at the friends of the men he'd killed. "Your honor!" he squeaked.

"His trial starts in three weeks," Travis muttered to Larabee in passing. "Try not to break anything that would take any longer than that to heal."

Larabee nodded, never taking his eyes off the clerk.

Travis walked away, whistling.

+ + + + + + +

"But why are they in jail?" Ezra demanded, rocking impatiently against the pillows Nathan had propped behind his back so he could eat breakfast.

"Judge said they were `absent without leave' or some such," Nathan said, fussing with the tray on the bedside table, one arm still in a sling. With the other, he balanced a bowl of beef broth o his knee.

Ezra wrinkled his nose at the bland fare -- and at the idea of having it spoon fed to him -- but opened his mouth grudgingly. He was starving. And he really didn't feel up to wrestling Nathan for control of the spoon.

"Coulda been worse, Ez," said Buck, who leaning against the barred window to enjoy the morning sunshine, casually studying his skinned knuckles. It had felt damn good to thump that weasel of a supply clerk, even if the man had passed out from fear before they managed to do more than loosen a few of his teeth.

"We're only in for thirty days," he continued. "If he'd wanted to, Judge coulda called a military tribunal and charged us with desertion or dereliction of duty. We coulda gone away for a long longer than a month." There was a lot to like about that old judge. The man was more concerned about seeing justice done than with upholding the letter of the law -- which worked out nicely for the seven of them.

Ezra opened his mouth to say something rude about Judge Travis, and ended up with a mouthful of soup. He swallowed, outraged. He opened his mouth to say something about table manners, and ended up with an even larger mouthful. He met Nathan's challenging state and decided it might be best to keep his mouth shut for the moment.

"Now, the judge ain't a bad sort," Nathan said, blowing on a spoonful of soup to cool it. "Sent that posse packing back to Alabama. Let the boys take turns visiting you every single day while you were so sick. And his own wife came by to help out with the nursing."

"She locked me in," Ezra said dubiously.

"Everybody locked you in, boy. The doctors had you in quarantine `til today."

Ezra sniffed. It still struck him as rude. Nathan hesitated, his eyes dropping to the bowl in his hands as if beef broth was suddenly the most fascinating substance in the universe.

"Thing is, Ezra." He lifted a spoonful of soup and let it dribble back into the bowl. "Now that you're out of quarantine, Judge thinks a prison infirmary ain't the best place for you. And he's right about that. So..." He set the bowl down and looked up with a bright, false smile.

Ezra's eyes narrowed suspiciously. He glanced over at Buck, who was resting his head against the window bars as if he wished he could squeeze between them and escape.

"So," Nathan repeated, clearing his throat. "Judge found a real nice place you can stay for a while, just `til you heal up. With a real nice family--"

"No," Ezra said flatly. Nathan sighed and reached for his hand. Ezra tugged it away. No, he would NOT be dumped in another house full of strangers; unwanted, barely tolerated, and reminded daily what a burden he was and how grateful he should be for this act of charity. He turned wide, betrayed eyes on Nathan and Buck, fighting a terrible impulse to beg, kick, scream, cry, promise to be a good boy. Anything to convince them not to send him away.

The door to the sickroom flew open to reveal a smiling young matron, dainty as a porcelain doll, with golden ringlets and hoop skirts that filled half the room.

"There he is! What a darling little boy!" She dimpled, turning to the dashing young officer at her side. "Look, Stanley, isn't he perfect? Won't our girls just adore him?"

She swooped down on Ezra, enveloping him in a cloud of rosewater perfume and peppering his appalled face with kisses. She released Ezra and skipped back to her officer.

"May I have him, dearest?" she pleaded, fluttering her eyelashes up at Stanley.

"You know I can refuse you nothing, my pet," Stanley struck a gallant pose. Buck and Nathan moved to stand in front of the bed, shoulder to shoulder, shielding Ezra from the saccharine lovebirds.

"Gentlemen," Judge Travis said, a note of warning in his voice as he stepped into the room.

"Judge, please, just let him stay with us," Nathan said quickly. "I know you think this is the best thing for him, but it ain't."

"Yeah," Buck said, turning to scoop a startled Ezra out of the bed and up onto his hip. "The best thing for him is us." Ezra threw his arms around Buck's neck in a grateful stranglehold.

"Judge Travis!" The chosen foster mother stamped her foot and pouted daintily. "You promised!"

"I'm sorry gentlemen," the judge said, including Ezra in the apology. "But my decision is made. I will revisit the issue of custody for young Ezra in three weeks' time."

Stanley stepped forward and took hold of Ezra, who kept his own hold on Buck's neck. Buck tightened his grip for a moment, then reluctantly released him. With a sharp tug, Stanley broke the boy's weakening grip and pulled him away.

"Nathan?" Ezra pleaded, reaching out. It was as close as Nathan had ever heard him come to asking for anything. He started forward instinctively, stopped by the judge's iron grip on his wrist.

"Don't you worry, Ezra!" Nathan called, as the couple swept the boy out of sight, cooing in triumph. "Everything's gonna be fine, you hear me? We'll come by and see you every day!"

The young woman's golden curls popped back around the corner. "Oh no you won't," she said sweetly.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra stewed as he bounced along on Stanley's broad shoulder. He had suffered his share of indignities in recent weeks, but this truly took the cake. Shanghaied by Little Bo Peep and her beau. He squirmed, trying to get a better look at the fort's layout, plotting possible escape routes. A flash of light from the infirmary roof caught his eye. Vin lowered his spyglass and winked. Ezra almost crowed with delight.

They were still watching out for him.

That thought was the only thing that comforted him later that evening, as he sat in the floral hell that was his new family's dining room. Floral curtains, floral rugs, hand-painted floral wallpaper, dozens of flower vases and, of course, the fragile blossoms who flanked him on either side at the dinner table -- the daughters, Pansy and Petunia.

"He talks funny," Petunia said, wrinkling her button nose and tossing her blonde curls dismissively.

"He looks funny," Pansy added, bouncing up and down in her chair and sticking her little pink tongue out at her unwelcome new brother.

"We don't like him," the girls chorused, bouncing in tandem.

"Now, now my sweet girls. Be polite to Stanley Junior," their mother sing-songed, planting a kiss on her renamed houseguest as she moved around the table with a pitcher of milk. "Stanley Junior loves his new mama and papa and sisters, doesn't he?"

Ezra bared his teeth in a smile. "Yes ma'am. I'm so grateful to you for your kindness. Why, Judge Travis was sure he'd never find a soul Christian enough to take in someone with my dread affliction." He busied himself buttering a dinner roll.

"Affliction?" Stanley barked, dropping his fork with a clatter.

Ezra looked up, eyes wide and guileless. "The dreaded, deadly, incurable, intermittent spotted fever," he explained earnestly, as the family began edging their chairs away from him. "Look," he said, pulling the collar of his shirt back to reveal the healing scabs of fever spots on his chest and shoulders. "That's the first sign. But there's nothing for you to worry about unless I start--" He doubled over, coughing.

The family shrieked and stampeded out of the room. Ezra heard the distant bang of the front door slamming open and faint cries of dismay echoing back from the darkened street outside.

+ + + + + + +

"Help! Help!" Ezra's would-be foster mother fluttered this way and that, clutching her protesting daughters to her bosom, waiting for someone to come and remove the diseased little interloper from her formal dining room.

There was a muffled thump behind her and she whirled to find a strange, wild-haired young man in buckskins straightening from a crouch.

"Where-- Where did you come from?" she gasped.

"Roof," he said. "Problem?

"That, that boy! That dreadful little boy! I want him out of my house this instant!"

"Yes'm." Vin tipped his hat politely and moseyed into the disturbingly floral interior of the house. He found Ezra sitting at the dining room table, calmly tucking into a bowl of stew.

"Ey, Ez."

"Stanley Junior," Ezra corrected, mashing a potato viciously with his spoon.

"Ey, Stanley Junior. What's goin' on?"

"I suffered a tragic relapse." Ezra said, demonstrating with a cough.

"Mm. Sounds serious. Think maybe we should have Nate check you out?"

Ezra folded his napkin neatly beside his plate and rose from the table. "Perhaps that would be best," he agreed.

They walked out of the house hand in hand to find that the family had fled. They made their way back toward the infirmary, taking their time. Vin filled Ezra in on the fascinating sights he'd seen around Fort Laramie in the past week. Ezra shared his thoughts about the mental capacity of anyone who would name a child `Petunia.'

"Ezra!" Nathan came barreling toward them, trailed by the wheezing judge. He grabbed Ezra, feeling his forehead, taking his pulse, before rocking back on his heels, eyeing Ezra suspiciously. "They said you were sick."

Ezra gave him an unconvincing cough.

"You conned them?" Nathan yelped, trying to keep his voice low as the judge arrived, panting.

Ezra coughed again, even less convincingly. "Relapse," he wheezed, flopping dramatically forward onto Nathan's shoulder. "Nothing to be done but lock me up in quarantine again." He rolled his eyes pathetically toward the judge, wondering if he would be pushing his luck if he tried to foam at the mouth.

Travis bent over, wheezing, as he stared at the little schemer. He shook his head. "Bring him back tonight. I'll make new arrangements in the morning."

Ezra dangled as pathetically as he could over Nathan's shoulder as they started back toward the stockade. "Give it up, Ezra," the healer hissed. "He ain't buyin' it." Ezra made a gargling noise, his eyes rolling back in his head as he let his tongue loll out the corner of his mouth.

"That's disgusting, Ezra," Nathan snorted, but moved obligingly to give Travis the best view of the pathetic spectacle.

Tanner ghosted over to the judge's side. "Just before he took a turn for the worse, Ezra told me he don't blame you at all for ruinin' his health." He gave Travis's shoulder a consoling pat. "Said the last thing he'd ever want is for you to stay up nights, tossin' and turnin' with guilt, for the rest of your life." He stepped away to hold the infirmary door open for the sputtering judge.

+ + + + + + +

The soft clink of metal scraping against metal roused Chris Larabee from a sound sleep. He opened an eye for a cautious survey of the dimly lit cellblock. The scrape and clink came again, and his eyes fell on a small, blanket-wrapped shape, poking industriously at the lock on his cell.

"Whatcha doin' there, Ezra?" he whispered, raising himself on one elbow.

The boy jumped back guiltily, then returned to his work. "Effecting your emancipation," he grunted, scowling at one of his makeshift lock picks bent. He crouched down on the flagstone floor, trying to straighten the bit of metal again.

"Peculiar timing for a jailbreak," Larabee said, hunkering down on the cold floor next to the boy and leaning against the bars that separated them. "Judge is gonna let us go in just a few weeks, you know." He reached through the bars and helped Ezra straighten the strip of metal.

Ezra turned his attention back to the balky cell door.

Larabee kept talking, as the boy poked at the complex lock with his inadequate tools. "Judge came by earlier. Told us about what happened with that family he picked out for you."

"They didn't want me."

"Sounded more like you didn't want them," Larabee said. "Would it have been such a bad place to stay for a few weeks? A real home, a real family, other kids you could play with, maybe a dog..."

The lock pick bent again and Ezra sighed, siding down the bars next to Chris, admitting defeat. "He's sending me someplace new tomorrow," he said, sidestepping the question.

Larabee accepted the evasion. "So how'd you get past Nathan in the infirmary tonight?"

"The judge sent Mr. Jackson and Mr. Tanner to stay in the guest quarters," Ezra said quietly.

Larabee tensed. "And he left you in the infirmary alone?"

Ezra shook his head. "He stayed with me. He said he wanted to tell me a bedtime story about the boy who cried wolf. But he fell asleep in the rocker before he got to the end."

"The wolf eats the boy," Larabee said absently, glaring into the darkness.

"Oh," Ezra said, puzzled. "That's not much of a story."

"Nope," the captain agreed. "So you decided to come by for a visit while the judge was resting his eyes?"

The boy nodded, pulling his blankets closer against the chill of the stone floor.

"Do you think, if I did something wrong, the judge might put me in jail too?" he asked hesitantly. He glanced around, to Josiah snoring in the cell to Larabee's left, and Buck and JD sleeping in the cells opposite. He pointed to the empty cell on the right. "I could stay there. Then the judge wouldn't have to trouble himself with finding a new situation for me."

Larabee snaked an arm through the bars and pulled Ezra closer, until their heads almost touched through the bars. "No, I don't think he'd lock you in jail, Ezra," he said, squeezing the bowed shoulders. "And I wouldn't want him to -- much as I want you around, I don't want to see you in a place like this."

Ezra leaned into the bars. "I suppose I should return the judge's wallet, then," he sighed.

"You do that, Ezra," Chris chuckled, tightening his hold. "Ready to head back to bed now?" When he got a headshake and a yawn for a response, he reached out and snagged the blankets off his bunk, working them through the bars to tuck around Ezra. Then he leaned back and prepared himself for morning and the arrival of a very irritated Judge Travis.

+ + + + + + +

"Now what did he do?" The judge groaned, fighting an urge to hide under his desk.

A dour woman with hair scraped back in a bun so tight it looked painful, glared down at the boy she was holding by the ear.

"I was sitting down to tea with the ladies for our weekly prayer breakfast and sewing circle," she huffed. "When this ... this imp of Satan came in and offered to read from the Good Book while we sewed."

She gave the boy's ear another twist. "Go on," she said. "Read for the judge what you read to us."

Ezra stepped forward and opened the Bible with an air of spiritual authority. "How beautiful are your feet in sandals, O prince's daughter! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the handiwork of an artist. Your navel is a round bowl that should never lack for mixed wine. Your body is--"

"Er, thank you Ezra, that will be quite enough," the judge said with a cough. He nodded to the woman, who looked like she might like to twist Ezra's ear one last time. "Thank you, Mrs. Ritter. I'm sorry things didn't work out."

He waited for the woman to leave the room before he turned to the boy. "Did you understand ANYTHING you just read?" Ezra shook his head, mystified. He'd discovered the peculiar effect that verse had on adults last winter, when he picked it out of the bible at random and nearly gave one of his great-aunts a conniption. "Thank goodness," Travis sighed.

"So, Ezra, this makes, what? Eight homes in two weeks?" Travis sighed, rubbing his eyes. After the phantom spotted fever relapse, Ezra managed to get himself thrown out of three households in quick succession by hustling neighborhood children at three-card monte and poker. After Travis confiscated both of his decks of cards, Ezra alienated a fifth household by teaching their eight-year-old daughter to pick locks and a sixth by singing songs he'd picked up in taverns. At the seventh, Ezra clambered up an enormous oak tree the morning he arrived and refused to climb down until Vin Tanner was called to retrieve him the following afternoon.

Word was beginning to get around, and Travis was fast running out of homes willing to take this perplexing child. He'd sent inquiries to San Francisco, asking the officers at the Presidio outpost to be on the lookout for one Maude Standish. But he held out small hope that the boy's mother would return to claim him. Which left him with the thorny problem of deciding what, and who, was best for Ezra.

He sighed and pushed back from the desk. "I don't know about you, Mr. Standish, but I am ready for my supper. What say we invite Mr. Tanner and Mr. Jackson to my house? Evie's making chicken and dumplings. We could send a few plates back to the jail afterward."

Ezra's smile lit the room.

+ + + + + + +

Six days and four families later, Ezra found himself running for his life, dodging under wagons and between ranks of soldiers drilling in formation. He risked a quick glance over his shoulder. Mr. Hamilton was gaining on him, his cries for vengeance so shrill, he sounded like a stuck pig. Which, in fact, he was.

Giggling insanely, Ezra ducked through the soldiers' mess hall, gaining precious lead time as Hamilton slipped on a grease spot and landed on his injured posterior. Run, run, run, he chanted to himself, the bruise swelling under his left eye a reminder of worse to come if his latest foster father caught up to him.

Ezra put on a final burst of speed as the familiar shape of the prison barracks loomed before him. He felt the big man's hand glance off his shoulder as he wrenched open the door and darted inside -- and was nearly flattened as the man chasing him collided with the guard just inside the door. The three of them went down in a heap.

The boy recovered first, snatching a key ring off the guard's belt with a quick apology, before taking off for the cellblock. The outraged squeals behind him signaled Mr. Hamilton's return to the hunt.

Panting, Ezra limped down the row of cells until he reached the empty one to Larabee's right. He fumbled with the key chain, searching frantically for the right fit. He ignored the shouted questions from the prisoners, concentrating on angry screams drawing closer and closer and-- aha! He threw the lock and darted inside, slamming the cell door in Mr. Hamilton's enraged face.

Ezra threw himself down on the narrow cell bunk with a pleased smile, reaching up casually to wipe away the blood trickling from his nose.

"You little rat! Filthy sneak! Wait'll I get my hands on your worthless hide! You think that beating was bad? You won't be able to walk for a we--awk!" his rant choked off as a hand shot out of the neighboring cell and yanked the swine back against the bars.

"You hit our boy?" Larabee's voice was dangerously quiet, lethally calm, as he tightened his chokehold. Hamilton gasped and wheezed as his airway was slowly, slowly constricted.

"Gentlemen," Judge Travis appeared in the cellblock, trailed by the battered door guard and a frantic Nathan and Vin. The judge looked around, taking in the scene before him -- the bruised, bleeding child swinging his legs happily from the bunk in his new cell, while his supposed guardian slowly purpled toward unconsciousness in Larabee's unforgiving grasp. He nodded to the captain approvingly.

"Ezra! Unlock this cell right now! Lemme take a look at you!" Nathan scolded rattling the bars.

"I'm fine," Ezra assured him airily. "I like it in here." He patted the paper-thin, lumpy straw mattress fondly. He was looking forward to a nice, peaceful incarceration.

"C'mon, Ez," Buck said, craning his head around the bars of his cell to see Ezra. "You don't want to sit around a moldy old jail. Not when the rest of us're gettin' out tomorrow."

With some regret, Larabee released his hold and let the foster father slither to the ground. The guards dragged the weakly groaning man to a distant cell and dumped him inside. One of the guards held up the spare set of keys inquiringly. Travis waved him off.

Chris moved to the bars he shared with Ezra's cell. "What happened?"

Ezra shrugged dismissively. "A minor altercation. Mr. Hamilton was showing me how to bale hay." He made a face. Menial labor. "When Mrs. Hamilton came to call us in to luncheon, he became angry and..." He shrugged again. "When he wouldn't stop hitting her, I poked him with the pitchfork. That got his attention."

The men turned accusing glares on the judge. Except Nathan, who was still trying to reach Ezra through the bars. One of these days, he was going to it the boy down for a long talk about the concept of hitting below the belt. Then again, below the belt was just about the only part of the anatomy Ezra could reach. He shook his head as he realized the judge was talking.

"That settles it," Travis said. "I hereby grant the four of you early parole," he waved the guards in to unlock the cells. "And I grant all six of you conditional custody of the minor Ezra Standish--" He was forced to stop as the noise level in the cellblock drowned him out and at least two of the new guardians him and swung him around in a circle.

"Providing! Providing the six of you find steady employment and the guardianship is carried out in a setting where I can monitor the boy's continued welfare." He shot a warning look at the emancipated Buck Wilmington, who looked ready to hug him again.

"The army doesn't count as steady employment?" Larabee asked wryly, knowing the answer. He still hadn't moved from his cell, keeping watch over Ezra, who sat, stunned and unsure, toying with the heavy key ring in his hands.

The judge shook his head. "I'm sorry, but your discharge papers arrived from Leavenworth last week."

"Oh," JD said, contemplating the ruin of his glorious military career. Brightening, he bounced over to Ezra's cell. "Well then, what about the Texas Rangers? We could go down and enlist! Whadaya think, Ez?"

Vin grimaced at the mention of Texas. "How `bout buffalo huntin'? Could make a good living guiding the hunters." The two fell to wrangling, joined by Josiah, who suggested missionary work.

Ezra watched them, wide eyed. Could they be serious? Were they honestly willing to turn their lives upside down just to stay together? He felt a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he turned to meet Larabee's answering smile.

Larabee held out his hand.

Ezra slipped off the bunk and handed over the keys. Larabee walked out of his own cell to unlock Ezra's. Then he stepped back, waiting with the others to see what the boy would do next.

Ezra hesitated, looking to the judge. "We can stay together?" he asked, needing to hear the words.

"You can stay together," Travis agreed. "And I know just the place for the seven of you. Tell me, gentlemen, how do you feel about peacekeeping work?"

Any response the others might have made was lost as Ezra launched himself out of the cell with a joyous whoop and wrapped the first man he reached in his finest Kiowa headlock yet.


Comments to: JenBr11@aol.com

End Note: This story was a response to a challenge on the Ezra's Littleverse site. To wit: Write a story in which Little Ezra helps Nathan escape slavery and meet up with the rest of the Seven. I know what you're thinking. Must...resist...temptation to send Nathan and Ezra down the Mississippi in a raft. A thousand thanks to the fine writers and readers on that site for their encouragement and advice through the story birthing process.