Postscript: The First Week

by Sevenstars

Saturday, July 27, 1878
Ezra Standish hated being ill.

To be strictly accurate, he wasn’t ill now--merely injured, or perhaps wounded would be a better word, since blood had been drawn. He’d had a slight fever for the first two or three days after Sheriff Addison’s bullet broke his left leg below the knee, but that was past now. Now he had only to contend with the heavy splints and ties that encumbered the knitting limb. Because he wasn’t tall enough to prop his ankle on the footrail, and it kept sliding off the pillows Mrs. Larabee had put under it owing to the weight of the splints, Nathan Jackson had rigged up a system of cords and pulleys and weights that kept it elevated; he claimed the purpose of this "traction," as he called it, was to prevent the leg from swelling up, but it also served to tie the boy to the bed. And Ezra hated it. The bed itself was comfortable enough, and with the bedroom door and the dormer window open there was a good draught of fresh air pulling through, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that he was a convalescent in a strange household, a household utterly without even the vaguest of blood connections to him--at least in the few instances when he had been incapacitated before now, he’d been in the care of people who had some obligation of honor to see that he was properly cared for. Sickness was bad enough: Ezra disliked it even worse than normal children did, not so much because of the inactivity as because he hated being vulnerable, hated having to depend on others, hated the weakness and the inconvenience and the humiliation. Hated worst of all that he might be missing something. To have to deal with all that, plus an entirely new "family" (which had no real reason to care what became of him, other than that Mother had left them a hundred dollars for his expenses) to get used to, was more than he felt should be expected of him.

If he could have gotten out of bed without help, he’d have left, just as quickly as possible. But even if he weren’t webbed up in Mr. Jackson’s traction, he was very well aware that there was no way the broken leg (to say nothing of the ribs) would bear the rocking and jolting of a stagecoach--and a stagecoach he must take for a ways, either north to Pueblo or south to El Paso and then northeast across Texas, before he could catch a train East. And so here he must stay, until the bone had mended and he could at least hobble about on a crutch, as Dr. Burnell in Broken Bow had said he would have to for a couple of weeks even after the splints were off for good.

Fortunately he had grown accustomed early on to the necessity of finding quiet, solitary amusements--a natural outgrowth of being something of an unwelcome pariah even in his relatives’ homes. And at least this was a literate household, and he had plenty to read. There were books--some of them already familiar to him, some not--in the living-room reading corner downstairs, more up the hall in the room Adam shared with Mr. Tanner. Adam had subscriptions to St. Nicholas and Youth’s Companion, Mr. Larabee took Harper’s Monthly and the weekly edition of the New York Tribune, and there was even Mrs. Larabee’s Godey’s if Ezra got completely desperate. She had also provided some string to practise cat’s-cradle with--Mother had encouraged him to grow expert at that game, which was a sovereign means of keeping one’s fingers nimble. One or another of the adults spent some time with him every day, and since he wasn’t contagious even Adam could come in; with them he could play checkers, tiddlywinks, jackstraws, Letters, Authors, Parcheesi, lotto, dominoes, and assorted "tame" card games--cribbage, euchre, rummy, fish, casino, pitch, Old Maid, whist. (He hadn’t dared to suggest poker; he’d learned that adults generally disapproved of its play in a family setting, though they were always interested enough if he appeared in a saloon and offered to engage them in a game. This struck him as hypocrisy, but Ezra already knew that the human species was prone to hypocrisy.) The recovery of his trunk had returned his flute and violin to his possession, as well as his extra decks of cards, which enabled him to practise his shuffles and deals and play solitaire. His healing body demanded a good deal of sleep, including a nap for an hour or two every afternoon. He could cope, he supposed. And the food, he had to admit, was superior. What troubled him was his own vulnerability. He didn’t know these people well, and bedfast as he was, how could he avoid them if they proved to be of the strapping variety of humanity? He was willing to grant that so far they hadn’t shown any hint of it, but Ezra’s life over his twelve short years had made him cynical and warily suspicious. Everyone he’d ever encountered seemed to have some agenda or ulterior motive of their own, Mother included. How could he be sure the CL-Cross family weren’t just softening him up, waiting for the chance to catch him, unawares, in something they disapproved of, something that would give them an excuse? It had happened to him before, not often, perhaps, but enough that he didn’t want to risk a repetition of the experience. He wasn’t even certain of what the household rules were at the Larabee ranch. He had always made it his business to learn them as early as he could, but that required a certain degree of mobility, if only so he could seek out the people who knew them best, the servants and the other children; even if he didn’t question them directly, observation could tell him much.

So here he was, five days since they’d brought him back from Broken Bow and reinstalled him in the bedroom at the top of the stairs, three since Mother had left, feeling as if his whole life was in a state of suspension along with his leg. Mrs. Larabee had brought his breakfast up on a tray--at least he could eat a normal diet rather than the kind of invalid food they’d been feeding Buck while he was ill--and when she returned for the dishes she had given him, at his earlier request, the family’s single-volume combined edition of Isaac D’Israeli’s Curiosities of Literature, though not without expressing misgivings. "Are you sure you want to read this, Ezra?" she had asked. "It doesn’t seem to be the kind of book a twelve-year-old would really be interested in. Wouldn’t you rather have something by Scott or Dickens?"

"I greatly enjoy both authors, ma’am," he’d replied, "but at this moment I believe I prefer somethin’ that will require my utmost concentration, so that I will be distracted from the lamentable and inconvenient state in which I find myself. In any case, I had an uncle who spoke very highly of Mr. D’Israeli’s work, and I am curious to learn about it at first hand." This was very true. His Uncle Malcolm Ferris had taught natural science at the Brantley Military Academy in Newton Grove, North Carolina, and taught it very well, but the man’s great passion had been literary esoterica.

Sarah looked dubious but seemed to be of the opinion that Ezra was old enough to know his own mind. "All right, but if you change your mind, or need anything, remember to ring the bell." There was a loud-voiced copper call bell on the bedstand, along with a Mexican clay water olla and a Rockingham mug in case he got thirsty.

D’Israeli had indeed proven interesting. In his preface he had declared that his purpose was "to stimulate the literary curiosity of those, who, with a taste for its tranquil pursuits, are impeded in their acquirement," and while the book had been written more than eighty years ago, it was still a treasure trove of interesting and recondite facts on various literary and historical topics, though presented in no logical sequence. Ezra browsed at random through it, flipping back to the table of contents at intervals to make his next choice. The author wrote of everything from Cicero’s puns to Queen Elizabeth’s lovers, from metempsychosis to waxwork figures. He wrote of the sources of the extraordinary legends of the saints, the true story of the printer Faust, the Venetian origin of newspapers, and the possibility that the prototypes of the steam engine and telegraph had appeared during the reign of Charles II. Ezra had always loved to amass a broad range of unrelated information--Mother had taught him that knowledge was power, and that you never knew when some seemingly trivial item would prove useful.

Now, however, he was being made uncomfortably aware of one of the more embarrassing inconveniences connected with his bedbound state. He looked longingly at the bell, but hesitated to ring it. This wasn’t a situation in which a lady could be expected to be of assistance. On the other hand, he couldn’t get out of Mr. Jackson’s encumbering tackle without help, and he certainly didn’t want to lie here until the inevitable happened. He squirmed miserably and then looked up hopefully as a shadow blocked the doorway and Vin Tanner, Mr. Larabee’s partner, appeared on the threshold, silent in his moccasins. "How ya doin’, Ez?"

The boy actually sighed in relief. "Mr. Tanner, you have arrived in the very nick of time. I find myself in dire need of the chamber pot."

Tanner glanced at the bell and grinned briefly. "Sure thing. Lemme shut the door so we got some privacy, then I’ll give you a hand."

Fifteen minutes later a much relieved (in both senses of the word) Ezra was resettled in the bed, his traction adjusted slightly and his pillows fluffed and restacked behind his back. Tanner gathered up the small bundle he had put on the Hitchcock chair to free his hands, and settled himself cross-legged on the floor, his back against the built-in shelving under the window. "Figured you’d be needin’ some help about now," he tossed out casually. "Figured you might could be wantin’ some company, too. You mind?"

"No, of course not. What do you have there?" asked Ezra curiously.

Vin showed him. A pair of moccasins, like the ones he was wearing, but with rawhide soles worn noticeably thin in two or three spots, and one definite hole near the left big toe. A sheet of rawhide--deerskin, perhaps? A sharp knife, a small awl, a brown-paper pattern, and a lot of peculiar fibers, not as thin and lightwight as thread, but thicker and almost as translucent as milk-glass. "Moccasins is a heap more comfortable to wear than boots is," he said, " ’least I think so, but even rawhide soles wears out a lot faster’n cobblers’ work. Got to put on new. ’S why I always keep two pair. Uppers’ll last nigh onto forever, but them soles has to be replaced now and again."

Ezra peered at the worn footgear with interest, never having seen real moccasins close up before. They were made of some soft-tanned hide, with hip-high tops which, when Vin wore them, were turned down and fastened with a strap just under the knee. The hard, double-thick soles, clearly intended to protect the wearer’s feet against stones and thorns, extended beyond the toes, which were turned up at right angles, like a Turkish slipper, to terminate in an inch-and-a-quarter-wide disc. The soles folded up a bit over the edges of the uppers, and were pierced all around, at regular intervals, by small, neat holes, through which a glossy translucent thread, which looked very much like the mysterious fibers, was woven in and out in a kind of chain-stitch. "There’s holes just like these here all ’round the bottom edges of the uppers," Vin explained, as he began using the tip of the knife to cut the threads. "Turn the moccasin inside out, tie a knot in one end of your thread, push it through the first hole from th’inside, then through the matchin’ hole in the sole edge, goin’ in from th’outside. Bring it up crossways to the next hole in th’upper, through and through like before, and repeat. Ain’t hard. ’Course ’t’ain’t rightly thread, not like the kind Sarah uses--it’s sinew. Tougher’n cotton thread, lasts longer."

"Isn’t sewin’ women’s work?" Ezra wondered.

Vin grinned briefly. "Naw. Any Comanche warrior’s got to know how to put new soles on his moccasins, or mend his clothes iffen they get tore--s’posin’ he’s off winter-huntin’ or somethin’, miles from camp, what’s he s’posed to do, freeze? And there’s many a brave does the decorations on his own things, even the beadwork, though most just instruct their wives in how they want it to look. ’Course these here is ’Pache moccasins, not Comanch’. Took to wearin’ ’em after we settled here ’cause they was easier to get. These I got on, and th’other pair, Niome made ’em for me. She’s Kojay’s wife--Adam said he done told you ’bout Kojay." He pulled out the thread, peeled off the worn sole, and put both aside, then turned to repeating his action with the other moccasin.

"Yes. A friend of yours, he said, a headman in the tribe."

"That’s right. His son Chanu and me, sometimes we go huntin’ together. Kojay’s a leader the same way Geronimo is--he’s a medicine man and a chief both at once, only he seen what Josiah calls the handwritin’ on the wall and figured best to make peace and keep it so’s his folks’d survive. Signed a treaty six years back and ain’t broke it yet, though times his young men don’t make it easy." He paused a moment, then added, "Times it’s better not to fight, no matter how rough it looks to you to back down. Know that myself. Learnt it when I met Chris. Turned out better’n I hoped. Didn’t get just him, got a whole family too, Sarah and the kids, and then JD and Nathan and Josiah just recent. ’Course I knowed Nathan afore, but workin’ with him to keep the peace is different." Ezra could feel his sidewise glance, not pressing him, not challenging, only watching to see whether he would correctly interpret what had just been said.

The boy sighed. "I do not see how I have very much choice in the matter." He pounded his clenched fist briefly against his splints in frustration, then immediately flushed in anger at himself. "I apologize," he said, "for that ungentlemanly display. I know better than to give way to impatience. Mother has often said its opposite is perhaps the most vital element in success. But what use am I, shackled to this bed, encumbered with these ponderous dressings?"

"Who says you gotta be of use?" asked Vin. "Ain’t nobody ’spects you to be."

"I expect me to be. Why would you want me here if I am not? At least whenever Mother has left me in someone’s care before now, they were related to us, and while they may not have had any say in it, they were willing to accept me for the sake of the blood obligation. But you are not related to me, any of you. If I cannot earn my keep, why would you wish to be bothered with me? No one has ever sought out my company unless I could do them some good. Not even Mother," he added bitterly.

Vin heard the anger and confusion under the surface cynicism, but he heard too something that was very familiar to him, from his own experience: uncertainty and fear, neither one acknowledged, perhaps even to the boy himself. It was a coupling of emotion that he remembered keenly. "Gotta be ’ceptions to all the rules," he mused. "I can see how a man would get to feelin’ one way, if all he’d ever met up with was one kind of folks, but it don’t mean everybody operates by them same. Might be there’d be folks that’d leave you stay ’round just ’cause they thought it was right."

"No one does anythin’ because it is right," said Ezra flatly.

"No?" Vin lifted an eyebrow. "Then how come you to take Buck on like you done? Iffen you’re sayin’ you been fetched up to believe only blood kin cares enough to take on a young’un, what call you got to bust him outen that orphange with you?"

"It was a matter of self-preservation. I feared he would betray me to the Director if I did not acquiesce."

"But you let him stick with you after," Vin observed. "Didn’t leave him in China Springs, didn’t even try to get shuck of him after he got sick."

"Of course," said Ezra rather indignantly. "That was an obligation of honor. Regardless of my motivation for doin’ so, I had freely chosen to permit him to accompany me. As the elder of us two, I was bound to see that he was cared for."

"Hmm," said Vin. "So what you’re sayin’ is, you done it on account of it was somethin’ you been taught to believe was the right thing to do."

Ezra stared at him. "I said no such thing."

"Sure ya did," Vin retorted blithely. "Just said it roundabout. You take Injuns, now. You go to live with a Injun tribe, you pretty quick find out that right and wrong--what ’Siah calls morality--ain’t got nothin’ to do with religion; it comes out of custom. Religion’s about doin’ rituals certain ways, and followin’ the rules of your medicine to keep it powerful. When it comes to how they act ’twixt theirselves, folks don’t do things on account of they believe it’s what the spirits want ’em to; they do ’em on account of it’s what that tribe’s always done, as far back as anybody can count. But it’s still what they been taught is right, and if a Injun gets tempted to do somethin’ that don’t fit that teachin’, he’s got a conscience same as anybody else, that tells him he shouldn’t. White folks, they follow the Commandments or the law--or sometimes they don’t. It’s still doin’ what they been taught to think is right. You follow what honor tells you. Still the same thing. Just different words, is all."

Ezra might have protested, but the evocation of "different words" set him thinking about what the thesaurus--his favorite word-book after the dictionary--had to say about "morality." Ethical values, ethics, right or wrong; goodness, rightness, virtue, rectitude, honor... He wanted to admit that Tanner had been right, regardless of the elemental way he expressed himself. But that would be admitting that he had himself been wrong. To admit you were wrong was to open yourself to the possibility that others in future--not merely the person you were dealing with at the moment--might be right. That would lead to remorse, and remorse would make it impossible to con people. Mr. Tanner didn’t seem to have been insulted by his assertion, didn’t seem to expect an apology, as a man might expect you to beg pardon if you had struck or slandered him. Perhaps if neither of them said the words, they could just go along as if the whole exchange hadn’t happened.

Still, there remained the question, not merely of why he had let Buck come with him in the first place, but of why he’d risked himself by trying to go back to Broken Bow and recover the younger boy’s mother’s money and jewelry. Because Addison had had no right to it? Why was it wrong for him to confiscate valuables--especially when their previous owner’s logical direct heir scarcely knew of their existence, and had no comprehension of his rights under the law--and not wrong for Mother to do the things she did? Of course, Mother didn’t victimize orphans--or widows, or the poor. There was little to be gained by working a con against someone who couldn’t afford it. Nor did she take things by force. To Mother, might didn’t make right, which seemed to have been Addison's guiding principle; rather,

the question had to do with sharpness of wit and the fact of the mark thinking he was going to get something for nothing, or nearly so. The best marks, she had always taught her son, were those who were basically crooked themselves--or at least suffering from terminal cases of greed. "We are professionals," she had said. "In a very basic sense, we are teachers. It is our mission in life to demonstrate to others the folly of hypocrisy, ignorance, and greed. If we profit by the process, what of it? Are not teachers paid for their efforts--and often out of tax receipts, at that?"

Ezra shook his head to rid himself of these confusing misgivings. There had to be something erroneous in his logic, but he didn’t feel up to trying to decide what it was: his leg ached and he was getting thirsty as the sun began to come around to the window. He reached for the olla and said something unprintable in French as he realized that in the process of getting resettled in the bed he had managed to end up just out of arm’s length of it. Before he could hitch himself closer, Vin flowed easily to his feet, picked it up and tilted it over the mug. "Better not," he said. "Water’s heavy, and this jug ain’t no lightweight. Nate don’t want you strainin’ them ribs. Might be I can rig you up a sling for the jug, like the Mexicans put ’em in, only fixed so’s you can tilt’er."

"That would be...very kind of you," Ezra admitted, accepting the vessel as it was put in his hands and sipping slowly.

Vin's unnerving blue eyes gazed down at him thoughtfully. "Havin’ trouble gettin’ your mind around it, ain’t you?"

Ezra’s tongue darted out to touch his upper lip. "If I were, I would never admit it. To display one’s vulnerabilities is to open oneself to hurt. Mother has always said that if people know where your weaknesses lie, they will exploit them--and my experience thus far has suggested that she is right. I am at a disadvantage as it is, on account of my youth. I prefer not to give anyone further ammunition to be used against me."

Vin sighed and settled back into his place below the window, laid the sheet of rawhide on the floor--doubled so he could make two exact copies--and the paper pattern on top of it, and began carefully cutting out two pieces of the proper shape and size for his resoling project. "You recollect that talk we had in the hayloft, the day after you got here?"

"I recall what was in essence a monologue on your part, yes," Ezra agreed.

" ’Member I told you about the Comanches fetchin’ me up and th’Army takin’ me away from ’em when I ’s around th’age you are now?" the Texan proceeded. "How I kep’ on tryin’ to get back to ’em after? I recollect how rough that time was for me. I’d forgot a lot about how whites live, and I made a mess of mistakes and got licked for ’em--I reckon it ’s on account of lots of Texians think Injuns ain’t much better’n devils, and they figured to try to beat the Injun-ness outta me. All it taught me was to fear and hate ’em more’n any proper Comanche boy would. Iffen I hadn’t of met up with Chris when I done..." he paused and shook his head-- "well, s’posin’ I’d ever made it back to the People like I wanted to, I can see how there’d’a likely been two ways I could’a gone. Either I’d’a growed up a little more and had me a warrior vision and turnt into a reg’lar wild Injun, raidin’ the settlements out’ve hate for what they’d done to me and likely gettin’ myself shot afore now, or I’d’a come to be somethin’ like Quanah and Geronimo mixed up together, a white renegade leadin’ bronco Comanches that wouldn’t surrender. Wouldn’t’a been much s’prised iffen it’d been the second--Eagle-That-Sees-Afar, my Comanche pa, he always said as how my eyes was big medicine, sky-eyes, he called ’em. Likely would’a been more’n one would’a thought I had strong war power just on account of ’em. That and bein’ able t’understand white talk." He continued sliding his knife around the perimeter of the pattern as he spoke, not looking at Ezra, and once he’d cut out the first sole, flipping the pattern over to begin the second. "It’s a mighty strange thing how a man can make one decision, or meet one person, and it changes all his life. That’s what Chris done for me. I’d come to where I knowed, sure’s the sun comes up in th’east or thunder follers after lightnin’, that there weren’t nobody left I could count on ’ceptin’ me. I ’s scared near to pukin’ of every white I crossed paths with, and too proud to show it. Weren’t nothin’ made to sense to me ’cept that I had to get back to my people’s lodges. And then I met Chris, and suddenly wasn’t none of it true no more." He looked up then, eyes lambent. "And I ain’t th’onliest one it ever happened to. You ask Chris about what he felt after he met Sarah. Iffen it worked that way for us, how come it couldn’t for you?"

"I’m not...certain I follow you," said Ezra slowly.

"Knowin’ Buck, meetin’ him down yonder, makin’ up your mind to take him with you when you run," Vin explained, "that was one change. Keepin’ him with you after was another. Meetin’ me and lettin’ me fetch you here was the third. Now your ma’s went off and left you with us. Bein’s you ain’t in no shape to see after yourself, Judge made you a ward of the court. We ain’t got no orphanages up this way, though I hear tell there’s one in Eagle Bend. Means after you get outten them splints, Judge’ll have to find you a place to stay permanent."

"I have relatives," Ezra asserted. "In Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Virginia, the Carolinas...there is scarcely a former Confederate state to which my familial connections do not extend."

"Don’t doubt it," said Vin. "But why do all that travellin’ iffen you don’t got to? You’re here and you’ll be stayin’ here a spell. Time you get on your feet it’ll be roundup season, fall. You’ll be used to us and our ways by then. Why not make up your mind now that you’ll stay on? Sarah wants you to. So’s Chris. We was talkin’ about it last night after you’d gone to sleep."

Ezra said nothing for a minute or two. The idea that the Larabees might have agreed to assume his care just because they considered it the right thing to do he thought he could accept; Vin’s example, by forcing him to admit to himself that honor and morality were closely related if not simply two words for the same thing, allowed him to see that even people who didn’t make a point of being "decent Christians" might feel the urging of honor, something much more familiar in Southern thought than religion and its obligations were. But that they would actually want him to become a part of their household was more difficult to acknowledge--or to understand. Even if they didn’t think he could be of some value, monetary or otherwise, why would people he’d met only two weeks ago seek to have him as part of their family, when his blood kin were generally relieved to see the back of him? It made no sense. They had to be working some kind of angle; nothing else would explain it.

"We’re figurin’ t’ask Judge Travis to let us adopt Buck," Vin went on. " ’'Course it’ll be Chris and Sarah that’ll do it legal-like, but he’ll still be part of Adam’s fam’ly, and Katie’s and mine. Means he’ll be stayin’ here. Chris figures he’ll put that money Addison had into what they call a trust account, set it up so it’ll come to Buck when he’s growed; it’ll be enough to start him out in business or buy land or just about anythin’ he wants."

Ezra wondered just how true that would turn out to be. At least Buck had his mother’s money; he had value. It was hard to believe that the Larabees wouldn’t be tempted to use it if something catastrophic happened. But if they were willing to petition for his legal adoption, that would put them under certain obligations, and Judge Travis would make it his business to see to it that those obligations were fulfilled. He decided not to mention the money; after all, Mr. Larabee was Vin’s partner, and Vin might feel that such doubts were an insult. "It would be good for Buck to have a home," he admitted. "From what he has revealed to me, he enjoyed a very happy, if an unconventional, one in Kansas City."

Tanner nodded. "Be like a second start for him. He’ll even have a pa, which I got a notion he didn’t afore." Again the bright eyes sharpened on the boy. "Ain’t no reason you couldn’t have the same."

"I’m not an orphan," Ezra pointed out. "I have a mother, even though she is not currently on the scene."

"We know that. Chris already talked it all out with the Judge. But you said your ownself you got no notion when she’ll be comin’ back for you. Somebody’s gotta have custody of you till she does. Like I said afore, might’s well be us."

Ezra thought again of Mrs. Larabee’s many kindnesses to him, of how she and her husband had cared for him exactly as they did their own son, of the warm, homey, comfortable atmosphere that pervaded the Larabees’ house, the generosity with which even Adam had welcomed him. He remembered the attractive thought of living on a horse ranch, becoming insofar as possible a part of this contented, self-sufficient, quietly successful family, playing with Adam and Buck, learning the horse business, trekking to town once a week like an honest country boy, having a pony and pets as Adam did, a place he knew he was welcome in and wouldn’t have to leave. His nomadic life and its many uncertainties had guaranteed that he would long secretly for order and routine, for a real home and family such as he saw his cousins had. And here the Larabees were ready to offer him exactly that, or so they would have him believe, even if they could only do so on a conditional, temporary basis. "I see no reason you should feel obligated to seek my consent in this," he said. "As you have pointed out, I am a minor--and for the present a cripple. You can do as you will with me and I would have little recourse against you."

Tanner sighed. "There, now," he said, "you’re just makin’ me surer than ever that you and me is a lot alike. This ain’t about askin’ your leave, exac’ly. It’s about tryin’ to make you see why it makes sense you should stay. Why we figure you could be happy here, like I been."

"Happy?" Ezra repeated in a hollow voice. "I have seldom been happy in my life; indeed only once that I can point to with certainty, durin’ my recent sojourn in Virginia. And even then, the sensation was so unfamiliar that I cannot be absolutely sure I am correct in applyin’ that definition to it. So I can hardly miss it."

"Well, maybe we can help you find out what it’s like," Vin suggested. "Ain’t it worth the try?"

Ezra was silent for a long moment. "I suppose so..." he breathed out at last.

But still the doubts lingered, and he thought Vin, with his disconcerting perceptiveness, knew it. The Texan didn’t press him further, though. "Well, then," he said. "Promised Chris I’d be the one to tell you what the plan was, and I done it. Now, I reckon you got a whole passel of questions about this place; I know I done when I went to live with the Comanch’, and again when I went back to the whites, though I weren’t about to let them know it." He nodded to the sole-pieces now cut from the rawhide and lain out on the floor. "This here job’ll take me pretty much the day; might’s well do it here as anyplace."

Monday, July 29

It was almost the last day of July, and haying could begin in mid-August if the grass was deep and ripe. So Chris had decided this was a good time to go over his mowing machine and make sure none of the parts were worn out; if they were he would at least have time enough to buy and install the new ones. This also meant tightening bolts and burs, putting new prongs in the rakes, oiling any spots that seemed to need it, mending the hay-racks and harness, clearing the loft of old straw (which would be used to bed the vegetable garden and pack the root crops in the cool cellar) and airing it out for the new crop. The team was due to have new shoes, and Chris, as a farm boy, knew how to do this, saving blacksmith’s costs. Any smith, even an at-home one, could use a helper to stoke the forge, pump the bellows, turn the grindstone, and hand him his rasps, files, nails, and other small objects. It was an office eagerly sought by young sons, who saw it as prestigious "man’s work." And it was an ideal opportunity for man-to-man talks.

"Adam," Chris began, judiciously levelling the sorrel’s off fore hoof with the rasp, "you know that Vin was brought up by the Comanches, don’t you?"

The boy looked at him as if he couldn’t believe anyone would forget so vital an item of information about his best friend. " ’Course I do."

"But he isn’t a Comanche," Chris proceeded.

"Naw," said Adam. "Vin’s a Texian!" He pronounced it with an ‘i,’ as any proper native of the state did.

"That’s right. But the Comanche warror who raised him treated him just like his own, thought of him that way too. There’s a word for what he did: adoption."

" ’Doption? Oh. Like what the Doones done to Lorna?"

"Like that. Brought her up as one of theirs, though they did it partly because they wanted to get control of her inheritance. That tells you white folks do it too. There are laws that say if a boy or girl doesn’t have any family, somebody can ask a judge to make ’em part of their family."

"Okay," said Adam, "but what’s it got to do with us?"

"Well," Chris explained, "Buck used to have a mother, but she died down in Broken Bow. We don’t know who or where his father is, but we think maybe he don’t have one. That means he’s got no family, so Judge Travis has made him what’s called a ‘ward of the court.’ It means the Territory has to bring him up, or find a place for him to live. Your ma and me were thinkin’ we’d like to ask the Judge to make this that place, and adopt Buck into our family, like the Comanches adopted Vin into theirs, or the Doones adopted Lorna."

Adam considered this for a moment. "Would that mean he’d be ours? Like Katie is?"

"Exactly like she is. The Judge would sign a paper that said so, and that made his last name Larabee, just like yours. We’d be responsible for seein’ that he was fed, and had clothes to wear and a warm dry bed, and learned to read and write if he don’t know already, and all the other things families do for their kids. He’d be Katie’s big brother, and your little brother--’course he’s taller than you are actually, but he’s still a couple of years younger, so that would count. You were sayin’, just before he and Ezra got here, that you wished you could have a little brother. Well, if we do this, you will have, one near enough your size to play with, but young enough and new enough to this country that you can teach him things, just like you wanted." He held up his hand to forestall an outburst as he saw the delight wash across the boy’s face. "Now, there are things you’ll have to remember. Buck won’t know our rules, or where things are, or anything much about livin’ in the open, except whatever Ezra was able to teach him. We’ll all have to be a little patient with him. And you’ll have to share your ma and me with him, ’cause he’ll be our son just like you are, and we’ll have to give him time and love, same as we do you. Have to share some of your clothes too, till we can get him to town and buy him some new of his own at Mrs. Potter’s, and your books and toys, and the dogs and cats, and maybe Ranger for a while." Ranger was the name of Adam’s pony, a buckskin Medicine Hat pinto. "But this is your home first--it has been for all your life--and your ma and me thought it was just plain courtesy to ask you whether you thought you could deal with such a big change in things, and if you couldn’t, what we could do to make it easier for you. It’s not the same as your ma havin’ another baby. You’d have some time to get used to that, and it’d be so much younger than you are that it wouldn’t make a lot of difference in your life." He waited to see what the boy would make of this.

Surprisingly, Adam’s first question was: "But where will Vin sleep?"

Chris lifted an eyebrow. "Where did you think he’d sleep?"

"Well, I don’t know. But the Langston boys--Andrew and Lloyd--they’re brothers and they sleep in the same bedroom. Same bed, even. I don’t think my bed’s big enough for two."

"No," Chris agreed thoughtfully, "I don’t guess it is. But we do have a couple of other bedrooms, with beds in ’em. We were sort of figuring Buck could stay where he is, and then after Ezra’s healed up and can stand bein’ jostled--" Might as well tell him the whole thing and get it over with, he thought-- "they’d move in together."

"Why?" asked Adam.

" ’Cause we were thinkin’ Ezra might be stayin’ here too, at least till his ma comes back. Now she might only stay away long enough for him to get healed up. But just in case she takes longer at it, he still needs a place to be, and this might as well be it; he’ll be used to us by then, and us to him, makes sense he should stay. Judge Travis said he could grant your ma and me what’s called ‘temporary’ custody of him."

Adam pondered on this. The whole business of who Ezra and Buck were and where they had come from had been a very confusing one to him. First Ezra (whom they had then known as Everett) had told them one story, the night he first arrived, and then (Ma said) he had told Pa and Vin another one, and then that stagecoach driver, Mr. Danner, had come and had said his real name was Ezra Standish and he’d been taken off Mr. Danner’s coach down in Broken Bow by Sheriff Addison, but by then he’d run away because someone had stolen some money that belonged to Buck and Ezra wanted to get it back. So Pa and Vin had gone off after him and run into JD and Josiah on the road, and in the end there had been a gunfight and Sheriff Addison had been killed and they’d brought Ezra back in the buckboard with his leg all splinted up. Adam had broken an arm last year, when Ranger threw him; he remembered it had hurt, and the splint had been a real bother, but at least he’d been able to move around. And Ma said his broken bone had been the kind Nathan called a greenstick, but Ezra’s leg had been so badly broken that the end of bone had come right out through the skin. Adam thought it must hurt a whole lot more than his had. And he bet Ezra wasn’t very happy about having to be in bed the next couple of months, either. But Ezra hadn’t said so, and he never gave any sign that he was hurting. Pa had said that they now knew Ezra and Buck had spent some time in a very bad place, an orphanage where they’d been worked like field hands and not gotten enough to eat and been caned all the time, and once Ezra’s arm had been pulled right out of the socket (which Adam bet also hurt a lot). Then Ezra’s ma had come out from town, a real pretty lady with nice clothes and a sweet Southern voice, but when the next stage to Santa Fe went, she’d been on it, leaving Ezra in their extra bedroom. Adam was absolutely sure his ma and pa would never have left him or Katie behind like that, and he couldn’t understand why Ezra’s ma would leave him. But he knew it wasn’t polite to ask personal questions, so he hadn’t.

"Well, I guess that would work all right," he said after a while, " ’cause they already know each other. But don’t ‘temporary’ mean just for a little while?"

"Mostly, yeah, that’s what it means," his father agreed.

"But Ezra’s ma went off and left him, like somebody leavin’ a baby on a doorstep in a book. So why do we think she’s gonna come back? The people in books don’t."

"We think that because Ezra says she always does, or else she sends for him to come and meet her. That’s what he was on the way to do when he was taken off Mr. Danner’s coach."

"Oh," said Adam. And then, fiercely: "But it ain’t right she’d leave him. Mas and pas shouldn’t leave their kids ever, unless they die." He knew, of course, about parents dying. Some of the kids he knew had no ma, and some (like the Potters and Billy Travis) had no pa, and both his parents’ mas had died long before Ma and Pa had ever met, and Vin’s ma had died when he wasn’t much older than Katie was.

"Well, son, I’d have to agree with you there," Chris told him. "But what’s right ain’t always what people do, is it? You know it’s not, because if it was the Judge wouldn’t have needed to ask me to be sheriff."

"Guess so," the boy agreed. "But ain’t there no laws that say it’s wrong? So you can arrest her for doin’ it?"

Chris smothered his smile. Adam was his pa’s son sure enough, unable to stomach injustice no matter what its shape; it didn’t seem to matter to him that he was standing up for someone three years older than he was and, from what Chris had observed of him, very much practised in looking after himself. "Only if I knew where she was," he said, "and even then only if she was in Judge Travis’s circuit. But she’s not and I don’t. And anyway I’m not sure there are any laws like that, though probably there should be; if there were, the law would try harder to find those people who leave babies on doorsteps. Maybe if--when--she comes back the Judge will have something to say about it. Right now, we have to make the best we can of the situation."

"So what are we gonna do?" asked Adam gravely.

"For now, we’re just gonna let Ezra heal. Afterward, if his ma don’t come, he’ll stay here. Now, this ain’t gonna be like Buck, because first of all we don’t know how long we’ll get to have him, and second, remember, he’s twelve. Short for his age, but still, his bein’ here is gonna mean you won’t be the oldest any more. Do you think you can live with that, son?"

Adam blinked in surprise--a mannerism he’d picked up from Vin--and Chris realized this was the first time it had actually occurred to the boy that Ezra was older than himself. Well, the three of them were pretty much of a size, Chris reflected, and wondered why he suddenly thought of the Three Musketeers--with perhaps a long-haired D’Artagnan in buckskin hovering somewhere close by. "But he’s never lived on a horse ranch before, has he?" Adam asked thoughtfully. "And he don’t talk like he comes from these parts. So he would be like Buck, a little bit, havin’ to learn all kinds of things that I already know. I’d still feel like the oldest even if I wasn’t really."

Chris’s brows lifted. "I hadn’t thought of that," he admitted, "but I guess you’re right, son. So you’re saying you won’t mind gettin’ two brothers for the price of one?"

Adam grinned. "It’ll give Katie a couple other fellers to tag along after besides me," he pointed out. "She’s gettin’ to be a little bit of a pest now that she’s walkin’ so good. Be nice to have somebody who can get her out of my hair for a while."

This time his father couldn’t restrain a snort of amusement. "But if the three of you end up spendin’ a lot of time together, that’ll just give her a bigger target to aim at."

The boy’s face fell. "Didn’t think of that." Then he brightened. "Still, she’ll have to figure out which of us to go to, and she can only pick one at a time, so that’ll give two of us a little relief. I guess it’ll be okay, if Ezra’s willing."

"What do you mean, if he’s willing?" Chris asked.

Adam shrugged. "Dunno exac’ly. He just seems kinda...not standoffish, just like he ain’t sure about us. Like he’s scared, a little."

Larabee considered this, knowing how perceptive children could be. Vin had said much the same thing, had hinted that he saw his own younger self in Ezra. Chris remembered the young Vin well--independent, proud, bewildered and afraid. Is that why he lied to us? he found himself wondering. Did he think we’d send him back, or not believe him, or somethin’? "Adam," he said slowly, "you know I told you that Ezra told some lies about himself, right?"


"Don’t that bother you at all?" He knew the boy had to be aware of how highly Westerners valued truth, partly because of the high preponderance of Southerners (to whom a man’s word had to be better than his bond, because it couldn’t be insured) in the population, partly because, in a thinly settled country, people had to know they could count on one another. The four "shooting insults," in ascending order of gravity, were "liar," "cheat," "horse thief," and the ultimate, "son of a bitch." The typical cowboy was honest and truthful except when trying to protect a friend (nobody thought the less of a man for doing that, even if it meant throwing the posse he was with off the trail--it was expected), shrewdly alive to frankness, if tending to reserve and soft-spokenness around strangers until they had established their bona fides, and his word was his bond. Yet at the same time rangeland custom held it very impolite to infer to a man’s face that whatever information he chose to volunteer wasn’t accurate, even if you knew his past was full of black spots. And to ask questions of a stranger who arrived at your house--even who he’d come to see--was generally considered unethical at best; you had to have something to call him, so you were allowed to inquire for his "handle," but everything else he must be allowed to offer on his own, or not, as he preferred. Every Westerner was an intense individualist, and, demanding exclusive management of his personal affairs, felt that all others desired and were entitled to the same. He had, or at least displayed, no curiosity about their private matters, and was perfectly willing that they should do as they liked, provided they neither interfered with him or his nor violated any of the fundamental tenets of the Western code of ethics. It suddenly occurred to Chris that he might have done Ezra a grave discourtesy. The boy was twelve, or at least he claimed to be, and in a place and time where the majority of children ended their schooling with the sixth grade, if not before, that was considered "near grown;" ranch boys went to work at an early age, and kids of twelve and fourteen were no novelty out on the range, with many youngsters of eighteen or nineteen heading roundup crews or bossing trail drives. Should he have given in to his instincts as a lawman and pressed Ezra so hard? It wasn’t as if he’d known, at first, that there was really anything suspicious connected to his appearance at CL-Cross; he hadn’t found out about the stolen horse until two days later. If Ezra had ridden in here on a horse of his own, with a saddle and gear and all, and asked for a job, or even a meal, Chris would have received him as he would any man of voting age. Why did Vin’s having discovered him holed up in a manzanita thicket, trying to care for a sick younger boy, bar him from receiving the same courtesies?

Adam looked at his father with a puzzled expression. "Folks don’t lie for fun, Pa. They lie ’cause they think they can get somethin’ out of it, sometimes, but mostly they do it ’cause they’re scared. You told me about that bad place Ezra and Buck were in. Don’t you reckon they should’a been expected to’ve not trusted too easy, after what was done to ’em there?"

Chris had always tried to be honest with his son, to treat him with respect and to accept and admit the fact when Adam was right. How was a boy to learn honesty and respect for others if he didn’t receive it? "They should," he agreed. "Ezra probably was scared, just like you said--the same way Vin was when I first met him." But Vin didn’t lie to me, he thought. He never tried to hide what he was.

And a sneaking little voice somewhere inside him responded: --He didn’t have to. He knew there was a connection between the two of you from the very first. He sensed--no, he knew--that you’d treat him square. Ezra didn’t have that advantage. Hell, Larabee, if his mother’s made a habit of leaving him behind the way she just did, how would he have learned about trusting grown people? Kids learn that from the folks they grow up with, which mostly means their kin. Ezra’s probably smart enough, has seen enough, to know that what happened to him doesn’t happen to most boys his age. Of course he’s gonna be cautious and try to cover his own ass until he’s had a chance to figure out what he should expect from a stranger. Just like a cowboy would, even if he’s never been one in his life.

Thinking about it in those terms gave him a fresh perspective on the boy. I owe him an apology, I guess.

--If he’s willing to accept it, said Conscience. If you haven’t already poisoned any chance you’ve got with him.

Vin said he was okay with stayin’ here.

--He doesn’t have a lot of choice in it right now, splinted up like he is. Not the way Vin did. Like Adam said, his first instinct is probably to protect himself. He knows he’s pretty much at your mercy, and will be for a while. If he lied, or at least bent the truth, about whatever he thinks, ain’t that natural? ‘ ’Cause they’re scared,’ Adam told you. After what he’s been through, hasn’t he got a right to be?

"Pa?" Adam ventured, and Chris came back to earth with a thud.

"Sorry, son. You just got me thinkin’ about some things that hadn’t occurred to me before, and I owe you thanks for that. All right, then. You’re sayin’ you’ll still feel like the big brother even to Ezra, that’s fine; I think he’s smart enough to know how much he doesn’t know, and like Josiah says, ‘The admission of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.’ And stuck in bed the way he is, you’ll both have some time to get used to the arrangement before he can really take much part in life around here."

"I thought so too," said Adam, "but I didn’t want to say it." He grinned impishly, and Chris caught the unspoken implication; it was so much like one of Vin’s that he could hardly have missed it.

"You watch yourself, young man," he growled playfully. "Remember who’s grown up around here and who isn’t. Now, let’s finish up here and go take a look at the mower."


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