Little Britches Universe
Disclaimer: No infringement is intended in regard to The Magnificent Seven or any of the companies who own the rights to its name and characters. This is a non-profit (unless you consider enjoyment profitable) endeavor.
Comments: A big thank you to J.K. Poffenberger and S. Berry for creating the Little Britches universe and for letting me play in it. And a HUGE thank you to Joy K. for allowing me to use the back story she created in 'Carving Their Niche' in my story Second Chances. This story is a direct result of constructive criticism from Moonbeam who picked up on one line written in Second Chances and wanted to read the story. I thank her for taking the time to tell me what she thought and what she wanted.. So you see, feedback can do more than feed a writer's ego, it can result in more (and hopefully better) stories. And, last but not least thank you to my wonderful betas who took time from their busy schedules to try to fix what I screwed up.
Warning: This is an OW story written about that time. If you have a problem with the words or circumstances of that period, please do not read any further.
Vin leaned against Ezra's shoulder, studying the five cards in the gambler's hand. When Vin had first started spending time in the saloon watching the poker games, Chris had done everything he could to get the seven-year-old to play outside. Though Vin had tried to comply with Larabee's wishes, he found himself drawn to the gaming tables whenever JD wasn't with him. It wasn't the card games that enticed him as Chris believed; it was Ezra Standish. Vin simply liked being around the gambler. Since Ezra was usually found in a card game, that was where Vin was forced to go. Chris had finally accepted the boy's fascination and stopped fighting the inevitable outcome.
With a provocative flourish, the player to Ezra's left placed his cards on the table. AA royal flush in spades, gentlemen. I do believe I've gotten lucky again."
As the speaker started to rake in the pot, Vin whispered in Ezra's ear, "Mr. Ezra, he's--."
"Master Tanner," Ezra quickly interrupted. "Would you please join Mr. Larabee?"
This was the first time the gambler had ever sent him away. Vin could tell by the look in the green eyes and the timbre of the southern drawl that Ezra had a good reason for his request. Without another word, Vin crossed the room to the table where Chris Larabee sat alone, nursing a beer.
"Your luck has just run out, Mr. Faust," Ezra quietly stated. "I suggest you leave the table."
The happy smile on his face showing a touch of puzzlement, Faust shook his head. "Excuse me?"
"We don't condone cheating in this town, Mr. Faust. The stagecoach will be along shortly. I suggest you be on it when it departs."
"You're just tryin' ta get rid of me 'cause I'm winnin'."
"No one derives more pleasure from a challenge than I do, sir." Ezra laid his right arm on the table. "However, I doubt anyone else in this game appreciates your skill at palming cards."
"You can't make me leave."
"I assure you, I can."
"You and whose army?"
Vin wasn't surprised when Chris pushed him behind the chair with one hand while pulling his pistol with the other. Peaking around the gunslinger's shoulder, the boy saw the small derringer Ezra kept hidden up his sleeve pop out. Josiah stood at the bar, his gun aimed at the table. Shifting his gaze, Vin smiled as Nathan appeared through the batwing doors, his rifle cocked and ready.
"Is this enough of an army for you, Mr. Faust?" Ezra blandly inquired, his free hand indicating the other three men.
Sweat rolling down his temples, Faust stuttered, "I'm goin'. I'm goin'." Frantically, he tried to collect the money lying on the table in front of him. A knife appeared between his hands, pinning the bills to the wood.
"That's Mr. Jackson's way of explaining your misconduct doesn't entitle you to monetary gain," Ezra commented with a sardonic grin.
"Huh?" The frightened man glanced at each of the four men in turn.
Amusement audible in his deep voice, Josiah explained, "In their own unique ways, Ezra and Nathan are telling you the money will be distributed evenly among the men you tried to cheat."
Vin quickly wiped the smile from his face when he felt Chris' eyes on him. Though only seven, Vin had endured more misfortune than most grown men. Normally, he didn't gloat over someone else's suffering. But he was enjoying the show four of the town's peacekeepers were putting on. His chest swelled with pride at their integrity and desire to resolve the awkward situation without bloodshed.
"The stagecoach is comin' in," Nathan announced. "Why don't I show ya to it, Mr. Faust?"
"No need. No need." Faust backed away from the table. His hands forlornly fluttered at the pile of money he was leaving behind.
The rifle raised so the barrel rested on his shoulder, Nathan held one of the batwing doors open. "It's no trouble."
As the two men started down the boardwalk, Vin hurried to tag along. A hand landed heavily on his shoulder, preventing his flight.
"Vin, don't git in Nathan's way," Chris warned.
Nodding his understanding, Vin promised, "I won't."
"I gotta go on patrol," Chris reminded him. "You be good while I'm gone."
The weight disappeared, giving Vin his freedom. Eager to see how Nathan handled the criminal, he hurried out of the saloon and down the street. The stagecoach was pulling up in front of the general store. Waving the dust from his face, Vin cautiously walked closer, his view of Nathan obscured by the cloud churned up by the heavy wagon's wheels.
The door of the coach swung open with a bang. Tommy Potter stepped out into his mother's loving arms. A touch of envy swept over Vin, until he remembered Tommy's father was dead. All the older boy had left was his mother, his sister and an aunt in Denver, while Vin, had a cousin, two fathers and three uncles. Still, seeing Tommy hugged tightly to his mother's chest, Vin could almost feel his own mother's soft caress. He missed it as much now as the day it had disappeared.
A black man followed Tommy off the stage. He stood looking around as the coach driver dropped two carpet bags to the ground. Picking up the larger of the two, the man moved aside, allowing Faust to board. The swindler's hasty ascent brought the stranger face to face with Nathan Jackson.
"Nate? By all that's holy, is that you?" The man excitedly embraced the healer before receiving a reply.
Vin's initial delight at the unexpected meeting vanished when he saw Nathan's reaction. While the stranger was obviously happy to see the healer, Vin was fairly certain Nathan felt quite differently.
"It's me, Nate." The man pounded his chest, clearly puzzled by the reception he was receiving. "Benjamin Long."
"Nice ta see ya, Ben."
Despite the words, Vin could tell Nathan had spoken them to be polite. It wasn't how he really felt.
"Will that saloon serve us?" Long asked. When Nathan nodded in the affirmative, he suggested, "Then why don't ya buy me a drink fer old times?"
Nathan hesitated before reluctantly agreeing. The unexpected behavior intrigued Vin. Scurrying ahead of the pair, he scooted under the doors and reentered the saloon. Josiah and Ezra had taken seats at the table Chris had occupied earlier. Hoping to warn them of Nathan's unexpected visitor, Vin quickly crossed to Sanchez's side. "Mr. Josiah--."
The batwing doors swung open, the sound echoing loudly in the almost empty establishment. Vin bit his tongue when he saw Nathan and Long enter. Vin didn't feel comfortable speaking to either man. In the last few years, he had learned to trust his instincts. One hand on the preacher's shoulder, he slipped behind Josiah's chair.
"Josiah, Ezra, I'd like ya ta meet..." Nathan hesitated, before finishing the introduction, "Ben Long."
The two peacekeepers rose to shake Long's hand. Pleasantries were exchanged as the four men settled comfortably around the table.
To break the awkward silence that followed, Ezra asked, "Mr. Long, may I enquire how you became acquainted with our Mr. Jackson?"
The stranger bristled, though Vin couldn't tell if it was from Ezr"'s words or his accent.
"We was friends on a plantation in Alabama. Nate had a cushy job inside the house, while I worked in the fields."
"It is my understanding, Mr. Long that a slave was not given a choice on where he toiled," Ezra calmly observed.
To anyone else, the gambler appeared indifferent to the conversation. When he reached for the cards in his pocket and started to shuffle them, Vin knew Ezra was more agitated than he appeared.
Josiah's voice was low as he added, "When a man isn't free, there's no such thing as an easy position."
"I'm jus' sayin' he got some silly notions bein' in the big house," Long defended.
Though the preacher's tone remained even, Vin could feel the tension in the shoulder beneath his hand. He wasn't sure he understood everything that was being said. But even if he didn't comprehend the meaning of the words, he could tell they were having a profound effect on these men he considered his family, especially Nathan.
"Nate had a silly idea he could become a doctor. There ain't no nigger doctors, and there ain't never gonna be."
This statement Vin did understand. First, Long had used a word Chris had told Vin was rude and insulting. Then, he compounded his crime by saying Nathan was stupid to have a dream. Vin could remember when his only dream had been to find a family that would want him and his five-year old cousin. It hadn't been necessary that they love either of them. At the time, all that was important was they didn't separate the cousins, didn't hit them too much and they got fed fairly regularly. Vin hadn't dared to hope for more. But he had discovered dreams could come true, even ones hidden deep in one's heart. He had two men who were like fathers to him and three more who considered themselves his uncles. Though, still feeling unsure of his position in their lives, he rarely used the titles - except in his thoughts.
"You'll be happy to know, Mr. Long," Ezr"'s hands shuffled the cards with a blinding speed. "Mr. Jackson's ambition was not so preposterous after all."
"He can't be no doctor," Long insisted.
"He may not claim the title," Ezra agreed, the cards in his hand seeming to have a life of their own. "But he is a better healer than most men who do."
Vin could see Nathan was embarrassed and uncomfortable. He just wasn't sure if it was because of Long's obvious hostility or Ezr"'s unexpected defense. Having experienced such an inner pain himself, Vin slid out from behind Josiah's chair, intent on comforting the distressed man. Putting his hand over Nathan's, Vin's thoughts slipped out. "Uncle Nathan, are you all right?"
"Uncle!" Long growled and pounded his fist on the table. "How dare you call him that, boy?!"
Realizing his attempt to console Nathan had backfired, but uncertain why, Vin scurried back to Josiah. His fear abated only slightly when the strong preacher's arms closed around him. "I'm sorry if I said somethin' wrong," Vin apologized, "Unc -- Mr. Nathan."
"It's all right, Vin," Nathan soothed, resting a hand on the little boy's arm. "Ben don't understand."
Long rose, his chair screeching loudly as he pushed it back. "I understand jus' fine. A white boy done called ya Uncle... Tom."
As the other man stormed away, Nathan wearily rose. "I'll go try ta make 'im understand."
"I don't think that will be possible, Mr. Jackson," Ezra warned. "But good luck."
As Nathan walked away, Vin addressed his own fear. Sniffling to hold back the tears, he didn't protest when Josiah lifted him onto a generous lap and held him close. "Why can't Mr. Nathan be my uncle no more?"
"Nathan is still your uncle, Vin," Josiah reassured.
"That man says it ain't right. Why ain't it right? Why'd he call Mr. Nathan 'Tom'?"
Josiah gently stroked Vin's quivering arm. "Before the war, a woman wrote a book called Uncle Tom's Cabin. The main character was named Uncle Tom. He was a slave who always tried to see the good in people no matter how they treated him, finding solace in his Christianity."
"How could Mr. Long be angry about that?"
A sigh of sadness whispered past Josiah's lips. "Some people don't see Uncle Tom as a strong man who tried to make the best of his life. They thought he was weak. So, Uncle Tom has become a term of abuse for a black man siding with his oppressor."
Usually Vin had little trouble deciphering Josiah's explanations when the preacher was speaking directly to him. This was not one of those times. "Huh?"
"What Mr. Sanchez is trying to say," Ezra clarified, "is that Mr. Long believed you were calling Mr. Jackson 'uncle' as a term of ownership rather than endearment."
Now Vin was really confused. How could one person own another? "Did I hurt, Mr. Nathan callin' 'im, 'uncle'?"
"No, Vin." Josiah hugged the boy close. "You make Nathan happy. He loves being your uncle, just as I do."
"And I," Ezra quickly added.
Shaking his head, Vin pointed out, "Mr. Long don't think I should do it."
"Nathan's friend doesn't understand our unique family," Josiah reassured. "Nathan will explain it to him."
"I don't think he's really Mr. Nathan's friend," Vin said, remembering the looks of embarrassment and anger on the healer's face.
Ezra slid his cards back in their box and put them in his coat pocket. "I heartily concur with your assessment, Master Tanner."
The batwing doors flapped, announcing Nathan's return. While he was happy to see the healer, Vin was disappointed Long was accompanying him. He wished Chris wasn't out on patrol so they could go home. Or that he had gone fishing with Buck and JD. He was tempted to seek out Tommy Potter and learn about his trip to Denver, but he was afraid his abrupt departure would cause Nathan more trouble. Squirming out of Josiah's lap, he took refuge behind Ezr"'s chair.
"Mr. Long," the gambler's voice was apologetic, "I do hope Mr. Jackson was proficient in assuaging your concerns."
"He done told me the kid is an orphan if'n' that's what ya wanna know," Long growled, pulling out a chair on the opposite side of the table. "I still don't think it's right."
Nathan hesitated before taking the seat next to the former slave. "You'll find a lot things are different out here, Ben."
"Ya always was soft in the head, Nathan. We can't change the color of our skin."
Vin felt the tension in Ezr"'s body. In the orphanage, he had learned to read people's faces. It sometimes saved him from a beating. He saw anger on Ezr"'s and Josiah's features, while Nathan appeared to be resigned. Contempt haloed Long, making Vin bristle when he realized it was directed primarily at the healer.
"Your second statement is certainly accurate, Mr. Long." Ezr"'s hand dipped into his pocket to pull out the pack of cards. "One doesn't try to change the things one can't. A perceptive man will try to change the things he can."
A sneer of disbelief on his face, Long demanded, "Such as?"
"Mr. Jackson is the only healer in these parts." Ezra explained, shuffling the deck. "The people of this town don't see the color of his skin. They see the skill of his hands and mind and the compassion of his heart."
"Ya said it fer yerself. He's the only healer around. If'n there was a white doctor, them people wouldn't give Nate the time of day."
Afraid he would disgrace himself again, Vin bit his bottom lip. He knew anything he said to try to defend Nathan would be twisted by the bitter man. When Nathan slumped unhappily in his chair, Vin longed to go to him, heal his emotional wounds as Nathan healed Vin's physical ones. But he knew his actions would be misinterpreted, causing more problems rather than less.
"Mr. Long," Ezra asked, lying his cards on the table and cutting them, "do you perhaps indulge in games of chance?"
Pulling his chair closer, Long accepted a glass of beer from Inez without remuneration or a word of appreciation. "I've been known ta play." Nudging Nathan with a sharp elbow, Long gloated, "Remember how I use ta beat the pants off ya, Nate?"
"I remember," Nathan softly acknowledged.
"Mr. Jackson, Mr. Sanchez," Ezra pulled a new deck from his coat, "would you care to join us?"
Josiah moved his drink to the side. "I believe I will."
"Mr. Jackson?" Ezra prompted.
Taking a long swallow from his beer, Long smirked, "I promise I won't beat ya too bad, Nate."
Vin could tell Nathan wanted to be anywhere except at that table. Good manners won out over desire.
"Deal me in," Nathan agreed.
Looking around the gambler's shoulder, Vin saw two of the men who had been playing with Faust before the man's duplicity had been revealed.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Russo, Mr. Webster?" Ezra graciously inquired.
"Thanks ta that Faust fella, we got some money," Russo held out a fist full of dollars, "and we'd like ta join ya."
"I have no objections," Ezra agreed, dealing the cards as the two men pulled up a couple of empty chairs.
In a tone that was less than inviting, Long demanded of the two cowboys, "Why do ya wanna play in this game?"
A'Cause we knows Mr. Standish will keep things honest," Webster explained, studying his hand.
Soothed by the normality of the poker game, Vin leaned against Ezr"'s shoulder as he had done many times before. Long won the first few small pots, much to Vin's disappointment, only to lose several larger ones in quick succession, one to Nathan and the other to Russo. Angered by his losses, Long was mollified when he won the next two hands. His modest earnings eventually ended up in front of Josiah and Webster.
It took a few more games before Vin realized Ezra was cheating. He was horrified. As he watched closely, he saw the gambler was dealing from the bottom of the deck only to Long. With everyone else, he was playing fair. Vin didn't fully understand why Ezra was cheating but he didn't want his uncle to go away. Just a few hours before, they had run a cheater out of town. He didn't want the same to happen to Ezra.
Leaning close, Vin whispered in the gambler's ear, "Mr. Ezra -- ?"
"Later, Master Tanner," Ezra interrupted.
Green eyes fixed onto blue. "I said later."
The slapping of the batwing doors penetrated Vin's shock. Looking up, he saw Chris Larabee had returned.
"Ready ta head home, Vin?"
"Yeah." Vin stepped away from Ezra. He tried to hide his disillusionment. He knew he hadn't succeeded when he saw the hurt in the gambler's emerald eyes.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
For the next few days, Vin barely spoke or ate. He could see his behavior had Chris and Buck concerned; even JD could tell something was wrong. But, as much as he wanted to, Vin couldn't confide in anyone. If he did, Ezra could be banished from the small town - if he hadn't been already.
While Vin was fairly certain Josiah and Nathan would've ridden out to the ranch if such an eventuality had occurred, he couldn't be sure. Sometimes, adults kept things from children to prevent them from being hurt, not realizing being lied to, or an omission of silence, could sting more. Ezra could already be gone.
His superior hearing picking up the sound of hushed voices in the main room of the cabin; Vin carefully eased away from the sleeping JD and slipped out of bed. Chris and Buck only talked in whispers when they didn't want the boys to overhear them. Noiselessly crossing to the dark shadow by the partially open door, Vin leaned against the rough wood watching through the narrow crack.
"I tell ya, Buck," Chris insisted, worry audible in his voice, "somethin's wrong."
"I know," the ladies' man agreed. "What're we gonna do?"
Vin's heart raced, thumping so loud he was surprised the two men couldn't hear it. Were they discussing Ezr"'s fate?
Chris flopped down onto the rocking chair in front of the fire. "If I knew, I woulda done it already."
"Maybe he's sick?"
Though he couldn't be sure, Vin couldn't see Buck being worried about Ezr"'s health. Which meant, they weren't discussing the gambler. He barely suppressed a sigh of relief.
"There ain't no fever," Chris reassured.
Scratching the scraggly beard circling his jaw, Buck suggested, "Maybe ya should take 'im ta see Nathan anyway?"
"I been thinkin' the same thing."
"That boy's already too skinny. He can't afford ta lose no more weight."
"Kin you and JD take care of things around here tomorrow?"
"I reckon we can."
"Then I'll take Vin ta see Nathan right after breakfast."
Quietly returning to his bed, Vin frowned. The downside to the trip to town was that even if Nathan couldn't find anything wrong, he would probably make Vin drink one of his horrible tasting concoctions. The upside was Vin might be able to slip away to talk to Ezra. He needed to know why Ezra had cheated.
7 7 7 7 7 7 7
As he had expected, Vin had to endure one of Nathan's remedies for an ailment he wasn't afflicted with. It was almost worth it when he overheard Nathan telling Chris that despite his boasting, Ben Long had left the poker table - and Four Corners - almost penniless. Nathan hadn't sounded upset. In fact, Vin would almost say he reveled in what had befallen his old 'friend'.
The bitter taste of Nathan's medicine made thinking difficult as Vin searched for a way to escape the clutches of the two concerned men.
Footsteps pounded up the stairs and across the porch. By the time the door opened, Chris had shoved Vin behind him and had his pistol aimed at the entrance. Nathan's rifle sat comfortably in his big hands.
"Mr. Jackson, ya gotta come," fifteen year-old Tim Blake breathlessly bid, bursting into the room. Ignoring the weapons trained on him, he gasped, "The baby's comin' and Ma don't look so good."
"Let me git my bag." Nathan retrieved the homemade pouch and filled it with the instruments and medicines he thought he might need.
"Ma started havin' contractions 'bout dinner last night. She ain't never took this long 'fore."
Nathan put a soothing hand on the boy's shoulder. "Babies come when they want, Tim. Everyone's different. Chris, I was scheduled ta go on patrol. Could ya see if Josiah or Ezra could cover fer me?"
"I'll take the patrol," Chris offered. "You go ahead. Vin can wait fer me here."
The healer led the frightened teenager outside. Vin followed their progress with his ears while waiting impatiently for Chris to leave.
"Vin," Chris instructed, " you stay here 'til I git back."
Vin kept quiet, hoping Chris wouldn't notice he hadn't agreed. He didn't like lying if he could avoid it.
Reluctantly, Vin nodded, "Yes, Mr. Chris."
"I won't be long."
Again Vin listened as Chris crossed the porch to descend the stairs. When he thought it was safe, he hurried to the window and watched as the gunslinger rode out of town. Once the dust cloud kicked up by Pony's feet was barely visible, Vin walked out of the infirmary. Still early in the morning, the streets were practically empty as he crossed to the saloon.
Ducking under the establishment's batwing doors, he stopped to allow his sun-blinded eyes to adjust to the gloomy interior. As he had expected at this early hour the only occupant was Inez. The petite woman was polishing the glasses lined neatly on shelves behind the bar. Ezr"'s Lady Luck was with Vin again. With her back to him, he easily scooted by her and up the stairs.
At Ezr"'s room, Vin hesitated. Now that he was where he had wanted to be, he wasn't sure what he would say to the gambler. Before his courage deserted him completely, he knocked quietly on the door. He knew Ezra was a light sleeper, often joking about how both his professions required quick wits, a fast gun and erratic sleeping habits.
When Ezra answered the door, still dressed in his pants and shirt, Vin wondered if he had been to bed at all.
"Master Tanner, what a pleasant surprise. Please come in."
When Ezra stepped aside in invitation, Vin quickly complied with the suggestion. He wasn't surprised the gambler had kept his voice low, the words spoken loud enough to reach only one person's ears. Ezra always seemed to know what was going on around him.
Closing the door, Ezra crossed to sit on his bed. "Master Tanner, may I assume your presence at this ungodly hour has something to do with the encounter between myself and Mr. Jackson's old friend?"
"He weren't Mr. Nathan's friend," Vin angrily contradicted.
"I'm relieved you recognize that. It will make this discussion much easier."
Standing in front of Ezra, Vin looked him in the eye. The gambler had never lied to him before. He wanted to be certain this wouldn't be the first time. "You cheated."
"Either I'm losing my touch or you are extremely observant, Master Tanner."
"Why?" Vin demanded, ignoring the compliment.
His gaze fixed on the young boy's face, Ezra answered the question with a question. "Whom did I cheat?"
Unable to bring himself to say the man's name, Vin replied, "That fella pretendin' ta be Mr. Nathan's friend."
"Mr. Long?" Ezra clarified.
"Did I cheat anyone else?"
Vin closed his eyes, remembering what he had seen. "No, ya only dealt funny ta him."
"Master Tanner, have you ever heard the phrase eating humble pie?"
Shaking his head, Vin trustingly moved so he was leaning against Ezr"'s legs. One hand rested on a bony knee.
Gently laying his hand over the smaller one, Ezra explained, "There are people who think they're better than anybody else. The only way to make them realize their mistake is to humiliate them. They will then admit the error of their ways and apologize."
"Did that man eat the pie?" Vin asked, understanding the association.
"No, I'm afraid he never did." A sigh whispered past Ezr"'s lips. "He left Four Corners still believing he is better than Mr. Jackson."
"He ain't," Vin stoutly defended.
"The only ones who don't realize that are Mr. Long and Mr. Jackson."
Fear replacing his indignation, Vin quietly inquired, "Ya ain't gonna git run out of town, are ya, Mr. Ezra?"
"Why would you think I would?"
"Ya done it to that Mr. Faust when he cheated."
Ezra gently rubbed Vin's arms. "I will not be relocating. What I did was wrong, but I didn't do it for personal gain."
"Mr. Chris won't run ya outta town?" Vin desperately sought confirmation.
"No." Ezra smiled indulgently. "He might consider doing so, but he'd understand why I did what I did. Still, it might be better to keep this little incident to ourselves."
"I won't say a word," Vin promised. "I better git back ta the infirmary 'fore Mr. Chris misses me."
Alarm flashed across Ezr"'s face. The hands gripping the young boy unconsciously tightened. "Infirmary? Are you ill or injured?"
"I'm fine. I jus' ain't been eatin' or sleepin' real good."
"May I ask why?"
"I was scared fer ya, Mr. Ezra."
"I know cheatin's wrong. I were afraid ya would have ta go away."
Tears glistened in the gambler's eyes. "I'm not going away for a long time."
"I'm glad." Vin pulled free of the gentle grip and threw his arms around Ezr"'s neck. "I love ya, Mr. Ezra."
"The feeling is mutual, Master Tanner." Gently easing out of the embrace, Ezra cleared his throat and rose. Reaching for his coat and gunbelt, he asked, "Would you mind if I kept you company while you await Mr. Larabee's return?"
"Will ya teach me how ta deal from the bottom of the deck?"
The horrified look on Ezr"'s face made Vin giggle. When they descended the stairs to confront a surprised Inez, the smile broadened. Vin quickly covered it with his hand. He didn't want to hurt her feelings.
As they crossed the street to the infirmary, the smile faded when Vin caught sight of Nathan's angry face in the clinic's window. Pulling his hand from the gambler's, Vin suggested, "I reckon I best go the rest of the way on my own."
"Are you certain?" Ezr"'s gaze followed Vin's to the dirty window.
"Yeah. Ain't no reason Mr. Nathan should be mad at both of us." Vin couldn't contain a soft sigh of discouragement.
"Maybe my presence would curb Mr. Jackson's temper?"
Vin looked at the gambler as if he was crazy.
"Yes," Ezra agreed, backing away. "It would probably exacerbate it. If you find yourself in need of my assistance, Master Tanner, you know where to find me."
Watching the man walk away, Vin was tempted to follow. But he knew it would increase Nathan's anger, not decrease it. He might as well get it over with. Waiting would just prolong the torture. If he could appease Nathan before Chris returned, the healer might not tell the rancher Vin had been disobedient.
His head down, he shuffled up the stairs and across the porch. The infirmary door was open when he reached it. With a deep breath to give him courage, Vin stepped over the threshold and crossed to the middle of the room, bracing himself.
Hands on his hips, Nathan glared at the young boy. "Didn't Chris tell ya to wait here fer him?"
"Yes," Vin truthfully admitted.
"Why didn't ya? Ya know how scared I was when I found ya gone?"
Vin was surprised to see a trace of fear lingering in the brown eyes. "I'm sorry. I wasn't expectin' ya back so soon."
"So that makes leavin' all right?"
Anger escaped from the healer like air from a popped balloon. "Did ya go see Ezra?"
"May I ask what was important enough to make ya disobey Chris?"
"I can't tell ya."
Disappointment clearly visible on his face, Nathan warned, "Ya better be prepared ta tell Chris then."
"I can't tell him either." Vin had been relieved when the healer's anger disappeared, only to be unnerved when he saw the frustration. In as many minutes, a third emotion appeared on the expressive face, puzzlement.
"Vin," Nathan sat on the edge of the bed, "does this have anythin' ta do with my friend's visit?"
"He weren't yer friend."
"I've known him since I was yer age."
"Don't matter, ya don't like each other."
Shocked, Nathan stuttered, "How kin ya say that?"
"He were always tryin' ta make ya look bad." Vin slowly crossed until he could put his hand on Nathan's shoulder. "And ya didn't like bein' with 'im."
"No, I didn't," Nathan softly confessed.
"Then why do ya call him yer friend?"
"That's what I thought he was 'til I come here. I guess if Ben were my friend, I wouldn't have been so happy when that poker game practically wiped him out."
Vin bit his lip to keep from blurting out Ezr"'s secret. He was torn. He wanted to keep silent, while at the same time, he felt someone should know what the gambler had done for the sake of a friend. The selfless deed shouldn't go unrecognized. Yet, it would have to, except for a seven-year-old boy. He couldn't take the chance Ezra would be run out of town.
"Sometimes," Nathan thoughtfully noted, "ya need a friend so badly ya wanna believe someone is, even when in yer heart ya know they ain't."
"Ya don't need ta pretend no more, Mr. Nathan. Ya got lots of friends now."
Giving Vin's hand a gentle squeeze, Nathan asked, "Are ya hungry?"
"Yeah." For the first time since Ben Long had gotten off the stagecoach, Vin had an appetite.
"Come on, I'll buy ya breakfast."
"Thank ya, Mr. Nathan."
The black healer knelt in front of the small boy. "When ya kin feel comfortable doin' it again, I'd be proud if ya would call me uncle."
Someday, when Ben Long's derisive tones no longer echoed in his ears, Vin knew he would like to call this man, 'uncle'. That day wasn't today. But he could still call him uncle in his thoughts. That was enough - for now.