by Sevenstars

They came into Broken Bow a little short of noon. Chris, who wasn’t known to Addison as JD and Josiah were and functioned more easily around numbers of people than Vin did, rode in alone and passed an hour or two in the saloon. He returned with news that town gossip had Addison still off somewhere on unknown business, and that he had found out where the man lived: a neat two-room cabin just south of the business district. He had ridden by it and had a look. There was a lean-to at one end, which appeared to be fitted up as a stable, and a porch shed at the other, half walled and crammed with cut firewood. No horse was in residence, which supported the idea that Addison hadn’t gotten home yet.

"Most likely he keeps the money there somewhere," the ex-gunfighter speculated. "It’s private, nobody’s likely to see him hidin’ it--or gettin’ it out, come to that. And nobody’d think anything of his bein’ on his own property, like they might if he was nosin’ around some occupied building, or the church basement, or somethin’."

"Still," Vin offered, "we been wrong afore. Better iffen we don’t just keep a watch on the cabin. Cover the roads instead. He’s likest to come in from the west, so I’ll watch there. But he might circle, just to keep on throwin’ off pursuit."

All towns that weren’t built along a gulch (as mining camps tended to be) had at least four roads leading into them, and Broken Bow was no exception. There were just enough of them to cover the routes in. They split up, each man finding a spot where he could hide his horse and have a good line of sight without being easily detected himself. All agreed that if Addison did indeed plan to cut and run, he’d time himself so he’d get in under cover of darkness, probably late, after the town had pretty much bedded down; there’d be less chance of his being spotted by one of his own townsfolk that way, which if it occurred would lead to questions when he was found not to be in his accustomed haunts the next morning--setting aside that he wouldn’t want anyone to see that he had Ezra with him, not if he meant the boy to be a hostage. It worked out just as they had figured it would. By ten o’clock the center of town was quieting down, it being midweek, and the houses in Addison’s neighborhood were going dark as folks turned in for the night. An hour or so later, lying comfortably under a shrubby one-seed juniper, Vin heard the soft clop of hooves approaching along the west trail. He listened and guessed two animals. Presently they swung into view. A medium-colored horse in the lead, white-blazed and -stockinged, its mane and tail a ghostly silver-gray in the light of the moon, which was waning but still at gibbous stage with almost ninety per cent of its disc visible, the rider a broad-shouldered shape in a long-skirted black coat and light hat. Following behind, with no bridle, its halter rope stretching to the lead horse’s saddlehorn, a slightly darker animal with a race and snip on the face and a white sock on the off hind foot, the rider a slight hunched shape in the saddle. Vin let them get past his position, then scurried swiftly in pursuit, keeping parallel to the trail, his moccasins silent in the dry grass. They turned off before they reached the fringe of business buildings, down a lane and past a succession of cabins and adobes, then drew up at Addison’s place. Vin watched from behind a neighbor’s lilac shrub as Addison--it almost had to be Addison--dismounted and led both horses into the lean-to. Two or three minutes later he came out again, chivvying the smaller rider before him and carrying a shovel over one shoulder and a lantern in the other hand. Vin observed that the smaller rider’s hands appeared to be bound behind his back, and he moved as if he had bad ribs. They crossed the frontage of the cabin and went into the porch shed. The faint flicker of a match showed through the chinks between the logs, followed by the stronger, steadier light of a lamp wick, not turned up very high. The presence of the shovel suggested that Addison’s stash was buried somewhere in the shed and he planned to dig it up. He’d be a little while at that. Vin moved out quickly to gather up the others.

The light still showed in the shed when they assembled behind the lilac shrub, and a muffled sound of iron digging into earth could be heard. Probably Addison had had to shift some wood first. Chris felt three pairs of eyes on him and knew he was being deferred to, expected to think of a strategy that would enable them to take Addison down without endangering Ezra. "It’s no good goin’ in after him," he decided. "The quarters are too tight, we’d get in each other’s way--and there’d be too much chance of Ezra catchin’ a bullet. We wait till he gets into the open. Josiah, you move on over across the street where you’ll have a clear sight of the front of the cabin; if he gets past the rest of us, it’ll be your job to stop him. JD, cover the lean-to, make sure he don’t get to his horses. Vin, get around by the side of the shed, where you’ll be in back of him when he comes out. I’ll wait in the shade of the porch roof, just short of the end of the cabin."

They scattered to their assigned positions. Scarcely had Chris stepped up onto the low-roofed porch when he heard the sound of digging cease, followed by a grunt, a metallic thump, a faint creak as of hinges rotating, and then a brief growl of speech. The light went out, and a slight shape, moving with painful care, emerged from the opening of the shed. Chris tensed, holding himself still by an effort of will--he knew there were fathers who didn’t seem to mind inflicting pain on their young, but he wasn’t one of them, and he could never quite throttle down a surge of anger when he saw a child abused. That, after all, was what had brought him and Vin together all those years ago.

Addison’s large, broad-shouldered shape followed his hostage closely; he’d left the shovel and lantern behind and was holding what appeared to be a feed sack slung over his left shoulder. Chris waited until he was clear enough of the shed to give Vin a good shot at him, then stepped down to the level, the jinglers and chains on his Californio spurs chiming a sweet warning music. "That’s far enough, Addison," he said.

He thought he heard a gasp from Ezra as the boy ceased his slow, almost shuffling progress. Addison, to give him his due, didn’t seem flustered at this unexpected confrontation, though he paused, and Larabee could feel the rogue lawman’s eyes on him, squinting through the moonlight from beneath the brim of his hat. "Who’s that?" he demanded in a low, harsh voice. "Who the hell are you?"

"Larabee. Four Corners Sheriff," Chris answered evenly. "You’ve got something that don’t belong to you. Maybe a lot of somethings, from what I hear."

Addison snorted. "You’re off your range, Larabee. This is my county. You’ve got no authority here."

"Maybe not," Chris granted, "but I do have authority over abductions committed less than thirty-five miles south of my town, not to mention extortion in it. And you did just that. The boy comes with me, back to his ma. And until Judge Travis has heard what he and Mason Danner have to say, I think you and that feed sack better do likewise."

He could see the flash of teeth beneath Addison’s mustache as the man grinned sardonically. "Make me. I’ve been stayin’ in practise in this game, Larabee. You retired more than ten years ago, and everybody knows it."

Chris didn’t answer; he had already seen Vin moving out from the side wall of the shed, his moccasins soundless on the packed earth and dry grass around the cabin, his mare’s leg drawn from its custom sheath and levelled on Addison’s back. "He don’t need to be in practise ’long’s he’s got friends," the Texan drawled gently, nudging the taller man with the sawed-off’s muzzle and bringing the lever back with a sharp clatter. "Now git them hands up."

Addison drew himself up a bit. "Backshooting, Larabee?" he rebuked gently. "Not your style from what I hear."

"Not talkin’ about my style," said Chris. "Vin here don’t always operate by the same rules I do. Ezra...move away from him, son."

Addison moved then, fast as a striking snake. He swept the sack off his shoulder and around in a whistling arc, spinning as he did to add force to it, his right hand stabbing out to seize Ezra’s shirt collar and yank the boy up in front of him. The sack came around, struck the barrel of the mare’s leg and tore it out of Vin’s hand before his finger could even tighten on the trigger, and like a flexible club caught the Texan in the chest, knocking him off his feet. Addison shifted his weight like a dancer, kicking the sawed-off out of reach, and completed his circle in less than a heartbeat, dropping the sack at his feet to free his left hand, changing his grip on Ezra and drawing his sixgun, then backing up to get against the wall of the shed. He hooked his left arm under Ezra’s and crossways over the boy’s chest, lifting him up off his feet so that Ezra’s slight body covered his own upper torso like a shield. "Back off, Larabee," he ordered. "I’ll kill him."

Chris didn’t move. "That would be a mistake," he said. "As far as I know you ain’t done anything yet that would get you a noose, but shootin’ a kid will for sure. Besides, you kill him and you got no protection left. We’ll cut you down where you stand."

"Noose isn’t the worst way a man can die," retorted Addison. "You think the cons in Yuma would let me live more than a month once they knew I’d been a lawman? Letting alone there are more than a few of ’em that know me by sight. No, Larabee, I’ve really got nothing to lose."

JD, hiding on the back side of the lean-to, could hear every word that was said. He couldn’t see exactly how the men were positioned, but could guess from the sounds that Addison had somehow disarmed Vin and contrived to protect his own back, which probably meant he was pressed up against the wall of the shed. Biting his lip, he looked around quickly and found the rain barrel at the back corner of the cabin. Carefully he stepped up on it, avoiding the lid and putting his weight on the rim instead, and reached up to get hold of the projecting edge of the roof. With a smothered grunt of effort he hauled himself up, got a knee over the eaves and drew his whole body into a crouch on the shakes. He knew that men wearing broad-brimmed hats were little inclined to look up, and since he didn’t weigh very much he could move almost as quietly as Vin in his moccasins. He scrambled carefully over the low ridgepole and eased down far enough to see where the men were standing. Josiah, wisely, was staying back out of sight across the street, holding himself in reserve. Vin was picking himself up slowly, as if a little dazed, and groping around for his mare’s leg. Addison, as JD had expected, had his back against the shed wall and was holding Ezra (or at least that was who JD presumed it was) off his feet in front of him; the boy was kicking feebly and whimpering faintly as if in pain. Chris stood directly opposite him, poised to draw; unlike JD, he didn’t have to worry about sweeping his jacket hem back out of his way, since he was wearing a short Mexican charro-style one, of green corduroy buttoned in silver, over his black-and-white-checked shirt. Cautiously, JD edged his way along the roof on hands and knees. If he could get directly above Addison’s position, he might be able to drop down on him. All he really needed was to contrive somehow to get the boy out from in front of him, then Chris would be free to act.

Chris’s focus had narrowed down to the man facing him and the boy he held as hostage. "If that’s how you feel," he said, "you might just as well let the boy go. You’ll have to fight your way out of here regardless."

"Maybe not," replied Addison. "Now tell that friend of yours to come around here where I can see him, and then reach down with your left hand, unbuckle your belt and let it drop."

I can’t risk Ezra’s life, Larabee thought. I won’t. There’s always a chance up to the very last second. Addison’s all keyed up now, ready to shoot, but if I can just drag it out his muscles will get a little heavy and his reaction time will be just a hair slower, maybe enough to make all the difference. "Vin," he said quietly, "come around here like he says."

Up above the confrontation, JD edged off the main roof and onto that of the shed. He drew his right-hand Colt, thankful that it was a double-action: he wouldn’t have to risk Addison hearing the sound of the hammer cocking, he could just make his drop, roll, and pull the trigger, and the hammer would rise, trip, and fall, faster than Chris’s single-action Peacemaker, though it required a longer pull and was likelier to throw the shooter’s aim off--not that that was much of a factor at such close range.

As Vin came up alongside his partner, Addison made his fatal error. Not having seen any sign of any enemies but these two, he concluded there were none, and took a step away from the wall of the shed, then slowly crouched down onto his heels to stretch his left arm across Ezra’s body and snatch up the dropped feed sack, keeping his eyes and gun on Chris and Vin. Coming to his feet again, he gestured with the barrel of his sixgun. "Your belt, Larabee. Now."

Chris reached for his belt buckle, freed the tongue and pulled the tail of the belt out. And JD moved.

He flung himself off the roof and onto Addison’s shoulders, like a mountain lion dropping off a ledge onto the back of a deer. Addison went down with a shout of surprise, and JD clouted him with the barrel of his gun and snatched at Ezra’s shoulder as he rolled away, dragging the kid free from the man’s relaxing arm. But the blow was cushioned by Addison’s hat and the man kicked himself half up again, still dangerous--even as Chris’s high-hung holster slid past his hand and his fingers caught the ivory butt, wrapped around it, and whipped the gun out of the leather. Two shots sounded almost as one, followed by a sharp yell of pain and the sodden thud of a body falling.

Coughing in the dust he’d stirred up, JD rolled off Ezra’s body and came up on one knee, his other leg thrown out as a brace, gun barrel sweeping around to bear on Addison. Josiah pounded across the street, his Schofield S&W drawn. Chris straightened slowly, his thumb reflexively drawing his Peacemaker’s hammer back to cock in case a second shot was needed, then cautiously advanced toward Addison’s motionless form. With a brief sidewise glance to assure himself that JD was indeed covering him, he edged his boot toe under the man’s shoulder and flipped him over on his back with a quick upward lift. Addison rolled limply, his hat coming off, his gun still clutched in spasmed fingers. There was a small dark stain directly over his second shirt button; his eyes were open but unseeing. "He’s dead."

In the neighboring houses lights were coming on behind windows: no one who lived in a cowtown ever mistook the sound of a shot, not even in their sleep. Vin angled over toward JD and Ezra. "That ’s good goin’, kid," he said as the deputy slowly pushed himself to his feet, then knelt beside the boy, who was moaning in a soft broken way. "Hey, Ezra? Pard? You hurt?"

Ezra gasped. "Don’t--don’t touch me--oh--"

Tanner’s quick eyes caught the spreading darkness of blood on the boy’s left trouser leg and he reached to check it out, then jerked his hand back as Ezra cried out in pain. "Chris, we need a doc here, fast. Looks like the boy’s leg’s broke. Addison’s shot must’a gone wild as he ’s fallin’ and hit him."

"JD," was all Chris said.

Dunne straightened his bowler and holstered his unfired Lightning just as a half-dressed man with an old Starr .44 in his hand pushed his way through the gathering crowd of tentatively curious neighbors. "What’s gone on here?" the newcomer demanded.

"Deputy JD Dunne, Four Corners," JD introduced himself. "That’s Sheriff Larabee and his other deputies. We came down here lookin’ for a kidnapped boy, and we found him--your sheriff had him. The boy’s hurt. We need a doctor."

To his credit, the deputy--which was almost certainly what he was--had sense enough to keep his priorities straight. He buttonholed one of the neighbors and ordered, "Get Doc Burnell." The man took off, and the deputy looked from one of the strangers to another, to the still form of his superior, to the whimpering boy lying at Dunne’s feet. "Let’s take this out of the middle of the street," he suggested, "and somebody can tell me what the hell happened and why Sheriff Addison would have a kidnapped boy with him."


It took a day or two to get everything straightened out. Josiah sent a telegram to Nathan, including what Ezra was able to tell them about the ledger book, and the healer rode out to CL-Cross, found it, and fetched it down to Broken Bow for the Rincon County judge and commissioners to examine, with Danner riding along to testify to how Addison had taken Ezra off his coach. Although Whittington, the orphanage director, had unexpectedly left town on Saturday, some of the staff members at the Home, once they were assured that they no longer had to fear reprisals from either their immediate boss or Addison, were persuaded to substantiate much of what was in the pages related to the facility itself, and the owners of the businesses named in the front half of the book were vindictively eager to tell of the extortions the sheriff had committed. It was Dr. Burnell who provided the final item of information. He told of how he had been called to the Home two weeks earlier to attend to Ezra, who had suffered a dislocated shoulder; of how Whittington had claimed the boy had fallen down the cellar stairs, and Ezra had agreed with him, but the bruises Burnell saw were inconsistent with such an incident--and it wasn’t the first time he’d treated children at the facility for bruises, dislocations, sprains, or the infected marks of canings. He’d had his suspicions of Whittington for years, but since the Home was a county facility he’d never really been sure of whether the incidents were a sign of Whittington’s vices only, or of a more widespread species of corruption.

Ezra had two broken ribs, a number of deep bruises, and blood on his nose and lip, the results of the brief but vengeful beating Addison had inflicted on him Monday night; but his worst injury had been inflicted by the sheriff’s bullet, which had smashed the bone of his leg three inches below the knee. It was a compound fracture, and Chris, out of his experience in the War, feared at first that Burnell would want to amputate, as most surgeons had automatically done back then owing to the almost hundred per cent certainty that gangrene would set in. But Burnell turned out to be a modern-thinking sort of doctor who subscribed to Joseph Lister’s method of cleansing wounds with carbolic acid and covering them with bandages soaked in it. It was a tussle getting the splintered ends of bone back together--Josiah helped, while Vin pinned the boy’s shoulders and Chris held his hand--but in the end it was done and the leg was splinted and bound. "It’ll have to be watched closely," Burnell warned Nathan, "but I’ve saved more than one limb by this method, and he’s young and healthy; odds are good he’ll come out of it sound and whole. He’ll need to keep it splinted for seven or eight weeks, then spend a couple more on a crutch before he can start putting weight on it. The ribs will take a couple of months to heal as well. But you say he’s got a mother waiting back where you came from, and I expect he’d better be returned to her. Give him another day or so and you can put him in a buckboard and take him back that way. Just watch out for holes in the road, he doesn’t need any more bumps."

In Addison’s woodshed was found a fresh hole in the earthen floor and a small empty strongbox of express-company pattern with its lid thrown back. The feed sack turned out to contain over twenty thousand dollars in cash, along with a bankbook and a safety-box key for a bank in Deming, and a sizeable assortment of jewelry, both men’s and women’s, including a seven-by-five-inch celluloid case, with a satin lining and removeable tray, that was filled with female ornaments--a set of elaborate hair-combs of gold filigree and jet, a spray of pearl flowers and an elaborate silver butterfly, set with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, to be displayed in the coiffure; full sets of jet, pink coral, pearl, blue lava, topaz and gold, silver filigree; earrings, necklaces, pendants, bracelets, rings, brooches and pins, fancy ornamental hair and hat pins, stickpins singly and in pairs; a beautiful gold chain set with amethysts all along its length and a watch at the end in a pink and blue enamelled case, another watch of heavy gold on a long chain that could be looped around the neck once (so the timepiece could be tucked into a dress belt) or twice (so it could go in a lace pocket on the bosom). In one oval locket of yellow gold, hung on a thin gold chain, was a photograph of a small boy, recognizably Buck, in a pepper-and-salt short-pants suit, standing on a tapestry-seated "Elizabethan-style" side chair with spiral-twist turnings, his hand resting on the shoulder of a smiling, black-haired, vivacious-looking young woman (not even as old as Sarah, Chris thought) whose arm was intertwined with his. She wore what seemed to be an expensive-looking dinner or party dress, low-cut, with a bustle of artificial roses, and the butterfly brooch in her hair, and it was clear that she was the "late mother" Ezra’s note had mentioned. In the attic of the Home was found a trunk such as Maude Standish had described her son as having, even unto his initials in brass nailheads on the lid, with his clothing and other possessions still packed in it; apparently the disposition of such items had been left to Whittington.

As for the orphanage director himself, his fate wasn’t learned until almost three weeks later. He’d made it as far as Tucson before succumbing to the same measles contagion that was already racing through the Home, and as sometimes happened when adults took the disease, he didn’t break out: he kept it internally, and the initial fever kept mounting, alternating with delirium and coma, until after ten days of suffering his heart gave out under the strain and he died.

Judge Travis, summoned from his regular rounds by telegraph, came down to "consult," as he called it, with his Rincon County counterpart--not that he really had any jurisdiction there, but the local authorities were reluctant to antagonize a man whose authority was bestowed by the Federal government. Their conference was conducted in chambers, and whatever was said was known only to them and Chris Larabee, but when they came out, the county jurist was looking rather sick. He made no objection to Chris and his men taking Ezra’s trunk and Buck’s mother’s jewel box--plus the amount of cash specified in Whittington’s ledger as having belonged to her--with them when they drove the injured boy home to CL-Cross in the ranch buckboard, which JD rode up to get. The blood bay mare came too: since her owner had vanished without leaving a forwarding address, she had become county property, and Chris had bought her from the commissioners, figuring she would make a good addition to his breeding stock. Sarah had insisted that Ezra must return to the ranch to convalesce--"A hotel is no place for a bored, sick child," she said, "and besides, Buck is much better now and wants to see him."

Buck was better: his fever had diminished on schedule, he was more alert, more capable of understanding where he was and what was going on around him, though the rash, as Nathan had predicted, hadn’t started to fade until Saturday. Maude Standish came out from Four Corners in a rented buggy and fussed over her son like a properly concerned mother, but politely refused the Larabees’ invitation to stay as their guest. "Wherever will you put me?" she asked. "I can hardly ask your son and Mr. Tanner to give up their quarters, nor can Ezra share a bed with his friend; that leg must not be jostled. No, I shall commute; it is not really so far, after all, and I must say the roads in these parts are better than those in my native South."

Two days later she was gone, slipping out of town on the westbound stage. She left a note with the hotel desk clerk, committing Ezra to the Larabees’ care and enclosing with it a hundred dollars in twenties--almost certainly part of the "ransom" money she had had sent out from St. Louis. Ezra had been a little out of things for the first couple of days back at the ranch, doubtless in part because of the laudanum they forced down his throat, but by this time he was acute enough to somehow guess, perhaps from the way Sarah behaved as she tended to his needs, that something wasn’t quite right. His insistence on being informed of "the true state of affairs" led to a session with Chris; the boy listened without comment, then sighed resignedly and said, "I cannot claim I am surprised. Mother could hardly be expected to place her affairs in suspension for two and a half months or more, until I am capable of travelling. Doubtless she has gone on to San Francisco, as was her original intent. I shall not be a burden to you any longer than necessary, I assure you, Mr. Larabee. That hundred dollars, with what I have remainin’ of my own, should be sufficient to pay my fare back to Louisiana, and if Aunt Arabella is unwilling to have me as a responsibility again, I have many other relatives to whom I can turn."

Repeating this statement to Vin and Sarah around the kitchen table later that night, after Katie and the boys were in bed, Chris shook his head in disbelief. "I don’t understand how she could have done it," he admitted. "We’d never leave our kids alone to get over broken bones and beatings in a strange town. But what I almost have a harder time gettin’ a handle on is how he took it. Almost like it didn’t matter. Like it didn’t surprise him she should think so little of him."

"Got a notion it don’t," murmured Vin. "That boy ain’t never had no plain old love, the kind that takes a body for just who and what they are and gives ’em the strength and confidence to face the world and trust."

The Larabees accepted this suggestion as they always did Vin’s analyses of human character, knowing that he had what amounted to an instinctive perception of feelings and motivations. "What are we going to do about it?" Sarah demanded.

Her husband’s bewildered expression gave way to a slow smile as he looked up to meet her challenging eyes and reached across the table to take her hand in his. "I know what you want to do about it, I guess. It’s not gonna be as easy as with Buck, you know. His mother’s dead; Dr. Burnell confirmed that, and the undertaker showed us where she’s buried. She didn’t leave a will, and apparently Addison destroyed the letter Buck told Ezra she’d written about who he was to be sent to, so the Judge saw no barrier to making him a ward of the court. And since Nathan says he’s still convalescent, he’s been allowed to stay on here. We can petition for his adoption and there shouldn’t be anyone to dispute it. Eventually I’d like to try to trace this ‘Miz Abigail’--she’s got a right to know how her friend died, and that the boy has a home. But that can come in its own time: she probably wasn’t expectin’ to hear from Buck’s ma for a couple of months yet, not till after the two of ’em had begun to get settled in Tombstone. The problem is that even though Maude left Ezra behind, she’s still known to be his kin, she knows where he is, and after all he probably knows her better than anybody: he says she always comes back for him, or sends for him to join her. Vin says people have patterns, just like wild things; if that’s the way Maude has always behaved, we can count on the odds bein’ good of her doing the same thing eventually. Travis might be willing to give us temporary custody, but legally the boy would still be in his mother’s care, wherever she is--we can’t adopt him unless she gives up her parental rights to him."

Vin grinned slyly. "You’ve been talking to a certain circuit-court judge, I see," Sarah observed.

Chris shrugged. "Yeah, I have, mostly for Buck’s sake: he seems equally as attached to Ezra as to Climber, or the other way around, and after the way he lost his ma and the grief he got from Whittington in the orphanage, I didn’t like to think of his losin’ anybody else he’d bonded with. Ezra’d be a handful, I can see that. Not that he’s a troublemaker exactly, but he don’t seem to have a lot of experience as an accepted part of a family, and he’s Eastern besides. Older than Buck, too; it’ll be harder for him to adjust. I’m not sure he really knows how to behave around other folks, apart from those pretty manners of his, of course. What he knows about discipline I’m a little afraid to find out. He sure don’t act like any boy his age I ever met before--not even the ‘best boy in town’ back in Indiana when I was a kid on the farm."

"All the more reason," Sarah insisted. "At least we can give him some idea of how proper families behave, and maybe bring him out of his shell. It will help that Buck is here. Ezra doesn’t want to admit it, but I think he really cares for Buck--why else would he take it into his head to go waltzing off to Broken Bow and try to recover his money?"

"He might run, once he’s on his feet," Chris warned.

Sarah winked at Vin. "Then we’ll send our personal Comanche tracker after him."

"Maude may come back," her husband repeated.

"If she does," said Sarah with a rather grim look, "she’ll get an earful from me, I can tell you. And meanwhile we can at least give the boy a secure, stable home for a while. He needs it so much, Chris. It may make all the difference in the man he turns out to be."

"Katie likes’im," added Vin. "Squealed to see him ’most as loud as she does when JD comes ’round. Adam might take it kinda hard not bein’ th’oldest one no more, but Ezra don’t seem to be one to rub folks the wrong way on purpose--got a notion he’s learned to be right good at blendin’ in."

"And you?" Chris challenged. "What do you think about this, cowboy?"

"Hell," said Vin with a shrug, "y’all are my family--I’ll go along with whatever you think’s best. But you was sayin’, back the day he run, that you was feelin’ a connection to Buck. I kinda feel the same way about Ez. Know what it’s like not to feel like you got a place in the world. Got a notion me and him got that in common. Figure maybe we’d get on. Willing to try, anyhow."

Chris looked at the two pairs of forthright vivid blue eyes and sighed. "That’s two to one. Four, if you count Katie and Buck, though maybe they should only count as one between ’em, like ranchers count two yearlings to one beef. All right. If you’re both up to taking him on, I guess I can do the same."

Vin grinned briefly as Sarah stood up and leaned across the table to take her husband’s face between her two hands and give him a resounding kiss. "Don’t need to make it sound like that, cowboy," the Texan drawled. "Said yourself he was bright and had guts. Them two things can make all the diff’rence. You want to tell him, or me?"

Larabee shot him a half-serious glare. "Josiah says pariahs and outcasts should stick together--you do it. In the morning." He stood up and rotated his shoulders and neck. "It’s getting late. Let’s call it a night. I’ve got a notion we’re all gonna be needing the rest."


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Sequel: Postscript: The First Week