by Sevenstars

Ezra woke almost exactly twenty-four hours after Addison had, bewildered at first to find himself lying not on hard ground but in an inexpensive yet comfortable iron bed, rather plain in design, with an intricate Wheel of Fortune quilt over him, and gay yellow and crimson chintz curtains flapping in the breeze that entered through the dormer window. A fluffy sheepskin lay on the plank floor alongside the bed. There was a washstand of wild-cherry wood, its china basin and pitcher floridly decorated with a rose motif, and a small chest of drawers of warm-brown pine, on the top of which lay his sturdy nickel watch; surprisingly they went rather well together. The walls of the room were sheathed in vertical boards, painted a warm, restful blue-gray, and on them hung two horses after Sir Frederick Leighton and several hand-painted china plaques--In the Greenwood, Mouse and Wheat, Lady and Gentleman of the XVI Century. It was the horses that helped him fix his situation, as he remembered Vin Tanner mentioning the horse ranch he and his partner owned. That reminded him of their wild northward ride, Tanner carrying Buck in front of him on the saddle, Ezra perched on the recovered bay mare and hoping she wouldn’t give out, though his negligible weight had apparently been enough to spare her; their reception at the house, Nathan Jackson’s visit, and the vague recollection of Sarah Larabee tucking him into this bed and promising him that his brother would be well looked after.

A Hitchcock chair, graceful but sturdy, with a cane seat and a back stencilled with designs of fruit and flowers, was set before the window, and on it hung several articles of boy’s clothing, none of them familiar. Ezra hastily thrust his hand under his pillow and sighed in relief as he found his winnings still where he had hidden them after undressing last night. He slipped out from under the covers, patting the quilt as he did--Perhaps the design is a good omen. The clothing consisted of a set of red balbriggan summer underwear with a French ribbed neck, a pair of cotton socks, a blue calico shirt, black cloth vest, strong cord trousers with a single strap to pass over the shoulder in place of suspenders, and a little pair of hand-stitched half-boots, obviously made to measure. There was a bar of Sapolio soap on the washstand, a clean muslin towel, and a string-rag to wash with. The water in the pitcher was cold, but the morning air was comfortably warm and he was so pleased at having the chance to clean up properly that he didn’t mind. He finger-combed his hair and slicked it down as best he could, then lifted up his pillow and recounted his money, or rather Buck’s money, remembering to allow for the fifteen dollars he had given Mr. Jackson last night. Everything was there. Lying beneath it was the small leather-laced account book he’d been carrying inside his shirt ever since burgling the orphanage safe; he’d gotten so used to having it there that he’d nearly forgotten it, but now that he saw it in full daylight, his curiosity about it returned. Wanting to find an opportunity to examine it, he tucked it back into his shirt where it had been before, then hid the money in the top of his boot. The clothes, which he supposed were Adam’s, had presumably been bought with "room to grow into them," and fit his slight body almost perfectly; though not of the quality or stylishness his mother would have chosen, they were better by several orders of magnitude than what the Home had issued him.

He slipped out of the room and peered cautiously in at the open door of the one next door. Buck was lying in the bed, apparently asleep, with Climber stretched out on his back on the quilt near his feet, and Mr. Larabee was sitting in a straight hickory chair alongside it, a book in his lap. Ezra was sure he hadn’t made a sound, but the man’s head lifted and his green-hazel eyes drilled briefly into Ezra’s own before he smiled and they filled with warmth. " ’Morning, Everett," he said quietly. "Sleep well?"

"Very well, thank you, sir. How is Buck?"

The man’s shoulders lifted in a brief sigh. " ’Bout the same, but at least the fever don’t seem to be rising any," he said. "Sarah’s a hydropath--you know what that is?"

"Yes, sir. A doctor who bathes his patients and packs them with wet cloths, or any person who subscribes to the same discipline."

"That’s right. She about drowned Vin the last time he had a fever, or so Vin claimed, but Nate said she might’ve saved him before it cooked his brain. She’s doin’ the same by Buck here. Just changed the packing a little while ago. If you’re hungry, she should be down in the kitchen."

"Thank you, sir. Mr. Larabee?"


"I don’t remember if I expressed my gratitude properly last night," Ezra told him. "It’s very kind of you to take us into your home like this."

"That’s what neighbors do, you should know that after livin’ on a homestead," said Larabee. "If Adam was ever left in the same kind of spot you and Buck were, I’d hope that someone around here would do the same for him."

"Of course," Ezra murmured. "If you don’t mind, I think I’ll find Mrs. Larabee now."

"Go, there’s nothin’ much you can do here," the man said, and Ezra headed for the stairs.

Sarah was indeed in the kitchen, her auburn hair combed back and swept up behind her head, and wearing a blue muslin dress that looked cool and fresh. She introduced Ezra to her daughter Kate, who was sitting in a high-chair beating the handle of a spoon against its tray, and sat him down at the kitchen table for a meal of mush and milk, fried eggs, homemade sausage, rewarmed biscuits with gravy, and fresh peaches. He watched as she sliced up four lemons and put them into a cast-iron stove kettle in which half a gallon of water was coming to a slow boil, with, she explained, a pound of loaf sugar and half a pound of flaxseed already in it. "After it boils, I’ll strain it, add a pint of whiskey, and that’s the cough syrup Nathan mentioned last night. It’s an old family remedy among us Connellys."

Connelly? Then Mr. Tanner isn’t her brother after all, Ezra decided. "Where is Mr. Tanner this mornin’, please?" he asked.

"He and Adam rode out to take a turn through the brood herd pastures, to make sure everything was all right with the mares and their colts," Sarah said. "Birthing season is past, so we don’t need to worry about scours, but if one of the horses bites another, or kicks it and breaks the skin, the wound may get fly worms in it, or colic can strike any time, and the coyotes are a pestilence all year round--they’ll chase a lone horse, and pull it down if they catch it, or take a colt that strays out from the herd, which colts do sometimes, not knowing any better. So somebody has to check them out every two or three days. Did you want to ask Vin something?"

"It is not a matter of extreme urgency," Ezra assured her. "I can wait until he returns." Surely if Tanner knew the mare was stolen, his partner would know it also, and would have said something if he had reason to think the horse and the boys were associated. But the Texan’s willingness to conceal that association still bewildered the boy. He had estimated Vin as being an honest, straightforward man. Why would he have covered the connection? What angle was he working? Ezra needed to know as soon as he could, yet he knew that seeming too eager would put the advantage with the other side.

She eyed him thoughtfully. "You’re very well-spoken, for a homesteader’s boy."

"Yes, ma’am, I know. Mother taught in a girls’ academy before she was married, and her father was an attorney. We only came West because Father lost his business in the Panic five years ago. He said we had to make a new start."

"I’ve noticed that happens often," Sarah agreed. "My own father came out here after the war with Mexico--he had land scrip for his service with General Kearny’s expedition, and he liked the looks of the country--but I was eight years old when the Panic of ’57 happened, and I remember we got a whole slew of new neighbors and hopefuls passing through to California afterward."

Reassured by this apparent acceptance of his story, Ezra finished his meal with good appetite and carried his dirty dishes to the sink, then decided to look around and get an idea of the layout and possible hiding places and escape routes. The ranchhouse, which he had seen only as a vague darker shape in the night heretofore, proved to be long and low, its front gallery covered by a sloping, projecting roof supported on six square posts, four dormers breaking the slope of the house roof above. It was built of flat stones to a height of five feet, with squared eight-by-eight timbers cribbed on top; looking at it from outside, you could see the sawn-off butt-ends of the interior partitions just protruding past the wall line, keeping each room draft- and soundproof. The doors and windows were framed in heavy sawn planks, the fireplace fashioned of rubble stone set into lime mortar, and the whole roofed with white-cedar shakes over close-set rafters. Besides a large barn standing in the midst of a maze of stack yards and holding, breaking, and weaning corrals, the outbuildings included a pigpen, smokehouse, washhouse, privy, woodshed, and a poultry house, which harbored not only the usual chickens but turkeys and guinea fowl as well. There was a large flower-and-vegetable garden surrounded by a wooden fence covered with sweet-pea vines, berry bushes, and some well-established fruit trees--apple, peach, cherry, pear, plum, quince and apricot--and outside the back door a long, U-shaped clay "Dutch" oven set under a slanting plank roof and on top of a rack of thick beams for warm-weather baking. It wasn’t a pretentious or stylish house--for one thing it had nothing that resembled a parlor, only the front "living room" and the smaller dining room--but it was light, airy, and clean, and Ezra was surprised to find how well it was furnished and equipped. The front porch held three or four big splint rocking chairs and a full-length porch swing with a cornshuck mattress on it; there was even a little child’s rocker for Kate. The kitchen had everything a proper kitchen should, except perhaps an icebox--plants on the sills, gay print curtains, a canary singing madly in a sunny window, an easy chair with a workbasket close at hand for sewing, mending, and darning, a linoleum floor, a crockery sink with a drain to the outside to save bailing and shelves underneath masked by a fabric skirt, the big wooden table where Sarah could work and people could eat casually, a "Hoosier" cabinet with glass-doored shelves above and four bins below, an interior trap to the cool cellar, a big burnished cast-iron range with nickel trim, isinglass windows, and panels cast with designs of curly vines and rosebuds, and an adjoining pantry built up to the ceiling in tiers of shelves and closets, with a two-drawer chest for table linen under the window at one end. The dining room was dominated by a round cherrywood table rather than the usual oblong kind, which made Ezra think of King Arthur and his knights, with the Turkey-red day-cloth customary in country homes spread over it, a milk-glass vase of fresh flowers in the center, a three-light Argand chandelier with a Grecian-design oil font hung above, ladderback chairs set around it, a simple wood sideboard with silver-plated handles, and a flourishing fern in the window on a rococo iron stand.

Before the living room fireplace a comfortable overstuffed chair, upholstered in worn green plush, and a lady’s platform rocker with seat and back fashionably covered in bright-colored Brussels carpeting, faced each other across a cedar table beeswaxed to a high polish, centered by an elaborate brass lamp, with a shade of green and ruby stained glass fringed in copper beads, on an embroidered mat, and the latest numbers of Youth’s Companion, Godey’s, and Harper’s; there were netted tidies on the chair backs, a paisley shawl thrown across the ancient mohair sofa, and dark blue and scarlet plush pillows scattered along its length. A grizzly-bear hearthrug and a homemade embroidered rug covered the plank floor. There was even a Broadwood upright piano of carved rosewood, with brass inlay and mounts, six and a half feet tall, its top section covered by a pleated pink silk panel, and ranged along its lid a bunch of paper roses in a Dedham Pottery reproduction of a Greek vase, some varnished seashells and pink and white coral branches, and a pair of glazed Parian pitchers; beside it a Chinese lacquer cabinet held sheet music, both vocal and instrumental. Nearby, under the side window, was a backless tufted couch, a perfect place to stretch out and rest in an idle moment. One corner of the room was devoted to bookshelves of smooth, unpainted pine, well packed with twenty-five-to-sixty-cent clothbound editions, chiefly of good poetry, fiction, and history, at least six hundred volumes altogether. Here Ezra discovered, among other things, a complete Shakespeare, Aesop, the Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, The Vicar of Wakefield, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, Gil Blas, The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables, Moby Dick, The Swiss Family Robinson, all the Waverley Novels, Cooper, Dumas, The Cloister and the Hearth, and other historical fiction--Harrison Ainsworth and G. P. R. James, Bulwer’s Rienzi, Last Days of Pompeii, and The Last of the Barons; Lorna Doone, Charles O’Malley, John Halifax, Gentleman, Lockhart’s Valerius, Kingsley’s Hypatia, Hereward the Wake, and Westward Ho!, Ware’s Julian and Zenobia, the Schonberg-Cotta and Erckman-Chatrain series, and some of Mrs. Muhlbach’s; Thackeray, Hugo, Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontës, and even Fielding, Smollett, LeSage, Eugene Sue, Sand and Zola, Madame Bovary, George Lippard, the early works of Joseph Holt Ingraham, The Wide, Wide World, Reveries of a Bachelor, E. P. Roe, some of Mary Jane Holmes, Augusta Jane Evans, and Mrs. Henry Wood, and the sensational Miss Braddon and Mrs. Southworth; bound files of Scribner’s and Blackwood’s, D’Israeli’s Curiosities and Amenities, Irving’s Sketch-Book and Knickerbocker, histories by Prescott, Motley, Parkman, Green, Grote, Froude and Carlyle; Herodotus and Thucydides, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Caesar’s Commentaries, von Clausewitz On War, Two Years Before the Mast, The Oregon Trail, books of travel and exploration like Henry M. Stanley, Paul duChaillu, Bayard Taylor, Kennan’s Tent Life in Siberia, Layard’s Nineveh and Its Remains in two illustrated volumes, and Dr. Kane on the Arctic, Boswell’s Johnson and Southey’s Nelson, Lockhart on Burns and Scott, Forster on Goldsmith, Landor, and Dickens, Abbott’s Life of Napoleon, Plutarch’s Lives, essays by Emerson and Macaulay, Bulfinch’s mythology, Oliver Wendell Holmes’s "Breakfast-Table" series, The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines in two volumes, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a few volumes of esoterica like Millingen’s Curiosities of Medical Experience, Longfellow’s Poets and Poetry of Europe and Griswold’s Poets and Poetry of America, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Saxe’s Humorous Poetry of the English Language, collections by individual American and English poets, Lalla Rookh, The Rubaiyat; Ben Jonson, Leigh Hunt, Carlyle’s Wilhelm Meister and German Romance, some of Tieck’s fairy tales, Jean-Paul’s Quintus Fixlein, The Tatler, The Spectator, The Compleat Angler, and Walden; a big old unwieldy two-volume Froissart in a faded purplish binding, with a gilt knight on horseback on the cover and pictures of ladies in litters and processions of knights and soldiers; Mrs. Jameson’s Poetry of Sacred and Legendary Art, Legends of the Madonna, and Legends of the Monastic Orders, full of lives and legends of the saints which had made all Christian art and symbolism so full of story and meaning, though they were early editions in the original pale blue cloth with palms and crowns on the covers; Agnes and Elizabeth Strickland’s picturesque and anecdotal Lives of Queens of England, in the first twelve-volume edition from 1840-8, and its sequel, Lives of the Queens of Scotland, eight volumes from 1850-9; and a selection of epic and narrative poetry--the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Elias Lonrott’s Kalevala, the Southey translation of The Chronicle of the Cid, The Mabinogion, The Morte d’Arthur, Aucassin and Nicolette, the Northern sagas, and their modern imitators, including William Morris’s Life and Death of Jason, The Earthly Paradise, and Sigurd the Volsung. Opposite an oak rolltop desk was tucked into another corner, a green-shaded double lamp on top of it, the tambour top partly open to reveal a walnut cigar box; this was clearly where Mr. Larabee did his ranch books and kept his breeding records. Gauzy dotted Swiss curtains draped the windows in soft folds, allowing plenty of light and air to enter; lithographed Currier & Ives prints, a blue-framed view of the Grand Canal in Venice hung over the fireplace, a print of Rosa Bonheur’s Horse Fair, a Berlin-work copy of The Scottish Chieftain, home-embroidered reproductions of Landseer’s animal pictures, and a picture of Lincoln decorated the walls, along with sets of antelope horns, the mounted heads of an elk and a large mule deer, and two crossed sabers with a photograph of a Civil War unit above them. On the mantelshelf were a biscuit-porcelain group of The Finding of Moses, a bust of General Grant, some chunks of silver ore and pieces of petrified wood, several handsome paperweights, and a cast-iron mantel clock, its case ornate with cusped arches, crocketed finials, urns, columns, and classical figures. Some things were shabby, some might have been acquired secondhand, but all were clearly loved and used. There was a feeling of comfort and warmth as well as utility; this was no showplace, but a family’s home, practical, well-organized, nearly self-sufficient. Ezra found himself thinking that Buck would probably like it, and that Cousin Tom’s family would have been comfortable visiting it, though it had nowhere near the dimensions or architectural grandeur of Ainslie’s Delight, with its fourteen-room, two-and-a-half-storey "first house" of boarded-over logs and its eight-room square brick "new house" with the kitchen in a one-storey extension out back.

A couple of dogs lounged on the kitchen porch, and an orphan muley fawn, raised on a bottle, wandered freely about the yard. When Ezra clambered up into the hayloft, he found it already tenanted by two or three cats, hunting the hay for mice. He found a place near the loft door, opened it just enough to provide light, and made a comfortable nest for himself before settling down to examine the account book from Whittington’s safe. Much to his surprise a good deal of its contents seemed to have nothing to do with the business of the orphanage; the entries bore what appeared to be the names of various resorts around Rincon County--saloons and gambling halls, "the Wolf’s Den," "the Haystack," "the Corn Exchange," "the What Cheer House." Others seemed to refer to itinerant entertainers: circuses, lecturers, theatrical companies, even medicine shows and pugilistic contests. The dates on them went back the full five years that Whittington had directed the Home. None of the amounts shown was large--the businesses never paid above twenty-five dollars a week, most rather less, and the itinerants seemed to have been assessed more or less on the basis of their individual receipts--but Ezra, who had been drilled in mental arithmetic his entire life, could see that they would quickly mount up into four or five figures a year. Surely, he thought, these cannot be monies paid to Mr. Whittington himself. He hardly ever leaves the Home, and when he does he goes no farther than Broken Bow. Who then? And why has he been keepin’ records of them?

Nearer the back of the book he began to find the names of individual persons, each with a date and an age noted alongside it. These were clearly children who had been remanded to the custody of the Home, since none had been older than ten or twelve. The entries beneath each name varied in length and character, but usually seemed to include some amount of cash, a description of valuables with the amounts of their worth, or both. Not until he got to the end of that section did he find himself and Buck listed. Under his own name were shown his stage ticket, travel money, derringer, watch and cufflinks and studs, and the like, including "trunk with initials in brass nailheads" and "boy’s clothing, various items, excellent quality." Under Buck’s was a long list of items that would belong to a woman--perhaps his mother?--with particular attention to jewelry. And, to Ezra’s utter astonishment, an entry for "cash" that showed the twice-underlined amount $4,827.62.

Good Lord, he thought, can Buck’s mother possibly have been carryin’ as much as that? And Whittington--I must assume--removed it from her effects as he confiscated my belongin’s? But that means that, as her heir, Buck is--perhaps not wealthy, but surely due money enough to support him in considerable style until he is old enough to make his own way in the world, even if it is not invested so as to bring interest or some other return. He remembered the younger boy telling him that his mother had spoken of going to Tombstone to "make a place of their own." This suggested that she had intended to establish some sort of business, which would, of course, have meant that she would have had money at hand for the purpose. Good Lord, he thought again, I knew that Mr. Whittington was exploitin’ the labors of the inmates at the Home for profit, but I never suspected he was also makin’ use of valuables that should have gone to them. If Buck was tellin’ me the truth regardin’ his Miz Abigail--and I can conceive of no reason he would have to lie--then probably his mother intended that her money and jewelry should have been sent to her to cover his expenses. Yet clearly they were not, since he was not sent to her, as he knew he was supposed to be.

But neither of us would have gone to the Home in the first place had Sheriff Addison not found reason to put us there. Could that mean that he also has a part in this--this racket?

If he does...then perhaps these other entries, the ones unrelated to individual children, are also connected to him in some way. Perhaps they share in the income earned illicitly from the orphanage, and Mr. Whittington has contrived to keep a record of the sheriff’s activities as a means of self-protection, so that should Addison, at some point in future, decide it is time to terminate whatever relationship they currently enjoy, he will be unable to bring Whittington down without bein’ brought down himself.

Which suggests, in turn, that while the people of Rincon County may guess at what their sheriff is doin’, they have no notion or proof of the scope of his dealings. He must keep his ill-gotten gains in some place other than a local bank. Perhaps he sends them out of the Territory--to Denver or San Francisco--to invest, or perhaps he has a hidin’ place for them in or near his own premises.

What a ripe target for one of Mother’s cons! Or even a healthy dose of blackmail. I must certainly retain this book until I am reunited with her.

He became aware that the character of the light by which he was reading had changed significantly from what it had been when he began, and pulled out his watch, to find to his surprise that it was nearly four o’clock. Have I been studyin’ this fascinatin’ document for that long? I never even heard Mrs. Larabee ring the dinner bell. And I forgot all about Buck--I should go to the house and inquire about him.

Then he realized that he was hearing a sound that didn’t quite belong--not the rustle of mice in the hay, nor the murmur of the doves and swallows that nested in the barn, nor the munching of animals in the stalls beneath, nor the hooves of horses in play in the nearest corral. A thread of vague music, no tune he could recognize, just soft random minor-key notes breathing out of--a harmonica?

And there, at the top of the ladder that led up from the stalls, was Vin Tanner, sitting in cross-legged Indian fashion, gazing into the middle distance as his long fingers coaxed wild, contemplative melody from the instrument.


Chris stood from his chair as Sarah came in with Kate astride one hip and a dishpan full of more wet compresses on the other, laid his book on the bedstand and reached to take the pan from her. "Time to change ’em already?"

"I think so, and then I’ll take over, if you want a break. Just give me time to run downstairs for my sewing basket and something for Katie to play with. Unless you’ve got some chores to do that you can keep her by you for?"

"Better not, I was figuring I’d look over the harness--too many sharp tools and little parts." He watched her turning back the covers, checking Buck’s temperature; the boy roused briefly, but didn’t seem disturbed at her presence. That willow tea of Nate’s is really knockin’ him out, he thought. It don’t usually have that kind of effect. Wonder if this is something Nate should know about?

"Has he been awake at all? I mean enough to know you were here?" Sarah asked.

"Yeah, once, about an hour ago." The man remembered the sensation of eyes upon him, remembered lowering his book to find a bewildered indigo gaze fixed on him, the look of confusion and uncertainty, of half fear, that had appeared on the boy’s face. To seem as nonthreatening as he could, he had slipped out of his chair and onto the floor at the bedside, kneeling on the rag rug to gently take the child’s hand and feel of his brow. "Easy, Buck. You’re all right, nobody’s gonna hurt you. My name is Chris, and you’re in my ranchhouse."

The boy blinked, swallowed, licked his dry lips. "Ev?" he asked in an indistinct, sleep-blurred voice--at least Chris thought that was what he asked, though there was a hard sibilance to the sound that made him wonder if he’d misheard.

"Your brother’s out exploring, I think. He was in to see you before he went to get his breakfast. He’s fine."

Buck seemed about to speak, but instead he started to cough, a harsh hacking that went on and on, breathlessly, until Chris lifted his head and shoulders and held him upright, feeling how the paroxysm shook the small sturdy body. "Easy, son," he murmured soothingly, patting the trembling back. "Ride with it, don’t fight it. That’s it. Now take shallow breaths, don’t gulp the air or you’ll set yourself off again." He waited until he was sure the boy wasn’t going to have any more trouble, then helped him lie back down.

Buck lay with his head turned sideways on the pillow, looking at him in a puzzled way--almost as if the experience of finding a man at his bedside was so new and novel that he couldn’t fully believe it was real. He reached out tentatively with one hand and touched Chris’s face with his fingertips, frowning faintly. "Are you my pa?" he asked.

"No, Buck. I’m sorry. The Apaches killed your pa, don’t you remember?"

Buck blinked. "Ma never told me that..."

Larabee resisted the impulse to frown himself. What could this mean? Was the child simply delirious with fever? Or was there some other, more sinister reason why Buck’s recollections of his father didn’t match up with the story Everett had told last night?

Oh, hell, he thought, come off it, man--you don’t honestly think he was making it up, do you? Why would he? Boys this young wouldn’t be running away from home--a twelve-year-old might, but not one who’s only seven.

And yet he asked ‘if’ I was his pa. Like he wouldn’t recognize the man if he saw him.

He offered the boy a drink of water, mindful of Nathan’s warning against dehydration, followed by a spoonful of Sarah’s cough syrup from the bottle on the bedstand, and shortly--perhaps because of the whiskey in it--Buck drifted off again. Chris returned to his place in the chair and watched him sleep, savoring the brief memory of how willing the boy had seemed to be to accept the ministrations of a stranger. He found himself thinking of his talk with Adam by the new corral, the day before Vin went off hunting. A little brother. Buck’s bigger than Adam is, but he’s younger according to Everett--only a year older than Josh would have been. That would count, wouldn’t it? He brushed the black forelock off the boy’s brow. Dark and fair, like Josh was. Those eyes...I don’t remember ever seein’ eyes quite that color before. He’d look mighty fine next to Adam, once he was put in proper clothes that fit and weren’t half fallin’ apart. And he’s got the size to keep up with him, too. It occurred to him that in the moment when Buck’s eyes first met his, he had felt a little shock, almost like the one he’d felt the day he met Vin. He’s got no parents left--Everett mentioned aunts, but no uncles; a boy should have a man around, especially once he gets to this age and beyond. Would his kin be willing to give him up to us? Then he reconsidered what he was thinking and was surprised at it--not so much that he would consider adopting a strange child, but that he seemed to be envisioning that action only in connection with Buck, not with his brother.

He came back to the present at the sound of Sarah’s voice: "--a word I’ve said? Chris!"

"Sorry, love. I was woolgathering, I guess. What was it?"

"I asked if you’d seen this, though I don’t suppose there’s any reason you should have--you weren’t helping me undress him last night, the way Vin was." She had turned Buck onto his stomach and now carefully lifted his nightshirt. Half wondering what she was referring to, half sickly certain that he already knew, Chris peered past her hand and made out the fine dark scars, mostly on the boy’s upper and middle back, though some extended down over his buttocks and the backs of his legs as well. Having seen his share of old scars, he could tell that they were all fairly recent, the oldest perhaps a month, many less. There was still some faded yellowish bruising as well, on his back and on his arms and shoulders, the latter showing the unmistakeable configuration of adult fingers. Again suspicion nibbled around the edges of his mind like a coyote skirmishing around a trap. Many parents believed that sparing the rod spoiled the child, but if Buck’s were numbered among that company, why didn’t he have even older scars? Gingerly the man touched the skin, feeling the ridging of the welts under his calloused palm. "Likely willow switches," he decided. "Thin, flexible, don’t draw blood with one blow or ten but make a mess after a hundred. Some of these will fade, but some he may have always; most likely they were never properly tended to, he’s lucky he didn’t take an infection and die." He gently let the shirt back down and turned the boy over again. "At least they’re not fresh, it don’t seem to hurt him to lie on ’em."

"If his parents gave him those," said Sarah, "should he be sent to live with an aunt who may have the same ideas about discipline?"

He looked at her quizzically a moment, then a faint smile touched his lips. "You too?"

"Oh, I know how foolish it sounds, and presumptuous as well," Sarah replied, "but he’s just such a lovely little boy--look at him--and he seems so sweet-tempered, doesn’t act whiney the way so many children do when they’re sick. And he must have such a loving heart...he adopted Climber even while the loss of his parents was still fresh, and Climber seems to be very much attached to him, more than you’d think a ringtail not adopted as a kit would."

"Well, as for the parents, he may not be absolutely clear on what happened to ’em," Chris ruminated. "Everett mentioned a hidey-hole, so he might not have actually seen anything, and I’m guessin’ he was told to keep back and stay there till his brother had done a little scouting. That’s if Everett was tellin’ it the way it happened." He frowned again, thoughtfully, and described his own earlier experience.

He saw the furrows appear between his wife’s eyebrows and knew that she had detected the inconsistencies as he had, perhaps because any mother has to develop a certain instinct for children’s evasions and prevarications. "What do you think it means?"

"I don’t know," Chris admitted, "and I think there’s only one person who can tell us. But he’ll be back--no matter what their story really is, Everett seems to be honestly concerned about Buck. We just have to be careful not to scare him off before we can talk to him."


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