by Purple Lacey

It was a very quiet, subdued little boy that stepped off the train in Dry Springs. After reading his father's journal, Ezra was questioning the wisdom of trying to find his family. Somehow he couldn't believe that his mother's family would welcome the son of the man that had stolen their family fortune and plunged them into abject poverty. It was only the idea of Vin that kept him from climbing back on the train and pretending he had never heard of Dry Springs.

Edward Standish had been a consummate confidence man. Ezra had often seen his father in action so knew just how gifted the man had been at deceit. It was a trait that Ezra had been taught to admire, but now he felt a little sick to know the depths that his father had sunk in order to acquire wealth. Edward had been traveling through the territory when he had heard of the White family, of their huge fortune, and the lovely unmarried daughter that stood to inherit everything on her father's death. He had also heard the rumors that Justin White was dying. It was a combination he found difficult to resist.

Edward had arranged an introduction to the lovely Clara White and proceeded to sweep her off her feet. The experienced older man had no trouble playing the romantic suitor to the innocent Miss White and found it incredible easy to seduce her. As he had gallantly told the frightened girl when she informed him she was expecting after only their first liaison, it must have been fate. Poor Clara thought he meant they were intened to be together, but he thought it was fated that he walk away with all that lovely money. The two had quietly eloped.

Edward played the loving husband, son-in-law, and eventually father for almost two years. He never meant for his charade to last that long but Clara's father had stubbornly clung to life with a tenacity that Edward despised. The only consolation was that, much to his surprise, the con-man had found extreme happiness and enjoyment in his twin sons. Vin had his mother's fair looks and Ezra was the spitting image of Edward himself. Both babies, however, touched a chord of paternal pride that he had never guessed he was capable of feeling.

When Justin White made a full recovery, his ersatz son-in-law realized his plans were in ruins. Unfortunately for the White family, Edward Standish was never without a back up plan. Edward had used his time well, and had utilized his influence as Justin's White son-in-law to his advantage. While White had been ill he had trusted Edward with more and more of the day to day operation of his various businesses and the large cattle ranch that made up the base of the White fortune.

Edward had been more than happy to take on the responsibility, and had in fact enjoyed the challenge that running the empire provided, and the respect that he garnered by his position. Truth be told, if Justin White had actually passed away, Edward might have remained married to Clara and continued quite happily running things. He had decided that being married to Clara was not too high a price to pay for gaining the business empire that he could build out of the White holdings. Everything would have turned out so differently if his father-in-law had just been so obliging as to die on schedule.

When Justin White started regaining his health, Edward was smart enough to see the writing on the wall and set in motion plans to strip the White fortune of all its liquid assets. Edward had taken his wife and twin sons on a surprise trip, telling his father in law that he thought his wife deserved a treat for being so understanding during the time he had spent running the business for her father. Justin had happily waved them off. Clara had boarded the train with Edward and the children, having no idea that Edward had stolen every last bit of money that her father possessed, leaving him with a load of outstanding debts and no way to pay them except liquidation of his land and possessions.

Edward continued to play the loving husband when they reached San Francisco while he made his plans to abandon his wife and, disappear with his sons under an assumed name. Edward fully intended to take Vin with him as well, but the child had come down ill right before Edward's planned departure so, much to Edward's pained regret, had to be left behind. Edward had taken Ezra and boarded a train for Philadelphia while Clara was nursing Vin back to health. Edward had never seen or had any news about Vin after he left. He had never risked making any kind of contact, knowing he would be arrested and convicted for theft if he were ever so insane as to attempt it.

Now Ezra stood on the railway platform and took in the dusty town, which was bustling with activity, trying to decide what his next step would be. His growling stomach made the decision for him. Ezra made his way to the one restaurant he could see from the railway station, hugging his carpet bag protectively to his chest. He had secreted about half his cash in the bag and the rest in various spots on his person, so could not afford to be separated from it. Ezra opened the restaurant door and stepped inside, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimness for one moment before attempting to find an empty table.

"You want somethin'?" a middle-age woman with a stained apron, asked as she approached the table he had chosen.

"Yes ma'am," Ezra replied politely, "May I see your menu?"

The woman snorted, "What? You think we're one of them fancy-smancy places like they have back east? Ain't got no menus. Cook's fixing fried chicken, potatoes, gravy, and green beans today. You don't want that you can go some where else."

"That will be fine, ma'am" Ezra assured her with his best dimpled smile, "May I have a cup of coffee with that too, please?"

A rude shrug was his only answer as the surly waitress turned away and stalked to the kitchen. Ezra looked around the room and noticed an unusually small number of people seated in the dining room for that time of day. Apparently the locals didn't find the service any more appealing than he did.

Ezra noticed the man sitting at the next table was staring at him, and seeing an opportunity to gather some information, deciding to strike up a conversation.

"Good day, sir," Ezra nodded politely to the staring man.

"Uh, howdy," The grizzled cow poke answered back.

"Is something amiss?" Ezra asked him, cocking his head to one side in question, "I seem to have garnered your attention in some fashion. Perhaps you wouldn't mind enlightening me as to your continued scrutiny?"

The cow poke looked at the watching boy in puzzlement, "Huh?"

"Why are you staring at me that way?" Ezra explained.

"Oh! Well you remind me a lot of somebody," the man replied.

"Who would that be?" Ezra asked, trying to appear only mildly interested.

"Just somebody that used to live here a few years ago," he was told.

"What happened to him?"

"He lit out for parts unknown after he stole a bunch of money from Justin White and his family."

Ezra pretended childish shock as he said, "He was a thief?"

The cow poke nodded knowingly, and eagerly began to tell the story to his attentive audience.

"Yep, stole all old man White's money. Left him with a pile of debts he couldn't pay. Had to wind up selling most of his ranch. Was only able to keep about one hundred acres of his near twenty thousand acre spread. The man used to be the richest man in six counties, now he don't hardly have a pot ta piss in," the cowboy finished with relish.

"How completely dastardly," Ezra told the man with wide eyes.

"Yep. Left his wife and one of his sons. Took off with the other son. No one's seen hide nor hair of either one o 'em in six years."

"And I resemble this miscreant?"

"Amazin' likeness, I'd say. What'd you say your name was?"

"Elmer Sullivan," Ezra told him smoothly.

"Well I doubt you're any relation then. This man's name was Tanner, Edward Tanner."

"You said he left his wife and son behind," Ezra focused on keeping his nervous tension from showing in his voice, "What happened to them? Are they still living here?"

"Nah, well the ma ain't anyway. She died a couple years back, caught the fever. That young 'un of hers still lives with the old man out on what's left of the ranch."

Ezra had to work extra hard and bite the inside of his cheek to rein in the feelings that filled him at the news of his mother's death. He had never known her but the loss of the opportunity to meet and get to know her stuck him hard. He had already begun to build up an image of her in his mind and this sudden shattering of it left him grief stricken, but he knew he couldn't afford to let this man have any idea of how deeply the casually spoken remark had affected him. He still needed information about his twin.

"Mr. White must be very comforted that he still has a member of his family with him," Ezra said as he tried to finesse more information from the gregarious man.

The cowboy snorted and told the boy, "Not hardly. That old man don't care nothing for that boy. Beats him something awful. It ain't right, but it ain't no one's business how a man handles his own kin. It's a real shame too 'cause Vin Tanner's a good kid. He sure don't deserve what he gets from that old buzzard." The man finished by shaking his head in sympathy for the child.

Ezra felt sick to his stomach when he heard of his brother's ill treatment. More than ever he was determined to find Vin. Ezra decided then and there that he needed to help Vin make his escape, too. When the waitress returned with his meal and set it in front of him, he didn't bother to give his thanks to the rapidly retreating back, but turned his attention back to the cowboy.

Over the course of the next half hour, Ezra subtly drew information from the man, and slowly consumed the meal that he no longer wanted. It was only the knowledge that he would need the sustenance to carry out his rapidly developing plans that allowed him to choke down the meal. Ezra decided this man would be just the unwitting stooge he needed to put his plan to free Vin into motion. Ezra bought the cowboy a piece of peach pie as he wooed his new friend. By the time the man had finished consuming the pie Ezra had conned him into buying a horse for him.

Ezra had spun the man a story of the horse that his father had promised for his birthday, but been unable to purchase before his untimely death at the hands of bandits. Ezra told him how his mother had given him the money that his father had meant to buy his horse with and told him they would buy him the horse as soon as they could find someone to help them choose a good one since his mother had no knowledge of horses. The tearful sadness in the young boy's eyes as he spoke of the promised gift and his father's death had softened the range-hardened cowboy into offering to help the boy choose a horse. Ezra knew his father would have been proud of him for the con.

The cowboy, whose name turned out to be Jim, helped Ezra pick out a proper mount and dickered with the livery owner over the price after Ezra had given him the money to make the deal. Ezra and Jim parted company with Jim feeling good about helping the poor orphan, and Ezra the proud owner of a very sound chestnut horse, a small saddle, and tack. Ezra's next stop was the general store where he stocked up on supplies and a several blankets. With his saddlebags stuffed with his new purchases and his carpet bag tied ecurely to the saddle, Ezra left the town and rode toward what was left of the White Ranch.

Ezra tried not to let his imagination run away from him as he rode his new horse down the dusty road to his grandfather's ranch. He already knew from what Jim had told him that his grandfather would not be happy to see him, but would his brother? Had his grandfather poisoned Vin against his brother as well as his father? Would Vin resent him for not being there when he needed him or for being the one their father chose take? Ezra couldn't help but wonder as he continued onward.

Vin was stalking a rabbit for his dinner when he heard the steady plod of hoof beats on the road that lead to his home. Curiosity had him stepping out from the cover of the forest to observe the rider that was slowly approaching. Vin could tell the rider was too small to be a man, but couldn't image what a child would be doing out this way. All the parents in the area warned their children about coming out here, knowing how indiscriminately violent Justin White could get when he drank. Vin thought maybe the child was lost, and hurried to the road to intercept the rider before he went any farther and wound up hurt.

Vin stood in the middle of the road and waited as the horse and rider came closer. Ezra reined his horse to a stop when he was close enough to get a good look at the boy waiting for him in the road and both boys stared at each other in stunned silence as recognition washed through them.

Era could see his name silently formed on Vin's mouth, and the spell was broken. Ezra threw himself from the horse and ran to meet Vin who was running toward him.

"Vin!" Ezra yelled at the same time that Vin yelled, "Ezra!"

The two boys threw their arms around each other and held on tight, both afraid that they were dreaming. Each one scared to let go lest they wake alone again.

"You're here," Vin whispered, "I can't believe you're really here!"

"I know! I almost didn't believe I'd find you," Ezra whispered back.

"I'm so glad you came," Vin told him, then pushed his brother back quickly as reality set in, "You can't come here! Grandpa will kill you if he catches you! He hates Pa and he hates you too cause Pa took you. We gotta get you away from here!"

"It's alright, Vin," Ezra tried to calm his brother. "I came to help you effect your emancipation too. We can both leave and never have to worry about him ever again."

"Leave?" Vin asked. "But where would we go?"

"The destination is immaterial. The main objective is to remove you from this locality," Ezra told him firmly. "I was informed in town of his unconscionable treatment of you. You need no longer be obliged to suffer such heinous treatment. You and I can take care of each other now."

The idea of never having to see his grandfather or face his mean, drunken temper again had Vin agreeing.

"Come on," Ezra urged, "Climb on my horse and we can leave right now. No one will ever know!"

"Wait!" Vin cried, "I have to get something first."

"Are you sure, Vin?" Ezra asked worriedly. "It would be safer if we made our escape now. We might be discovered if we were to continue on to your home."

"That's okay," Vin assured him, "it's not at the house. It's in my secret place. Grandpa doesn't know about it."

"Alright, we'll do as you say, but we'd better hurry. We need to put as much distance as possible between us and this place before night falls so I don't think we can afford to remain in the vicinity for longer than we absolutely have to."

Both boys mounted the horse and Vin wrapped his arms around his twin's waist and hugged tightly in joy as he gave Ezra directions to his secret place. Vin jumped down from the horse and grinned up at his brother when they reached his cave. Ezra climbed down, tied the reins to a nearby bush, and followed Vin into the cave. He stood looking around at the hideout that his brother had built for himself as Vin hurried to gather his things together, placing everything in the middle of one of his blankets then tying the corners together to form a bundle. Vin returned to the silently watching Ezra who had not moved from the entrance.

"I'm ready," Vin told him with a grin that Ezra returned.

"Then by all means, let us depart."

The boys had almost made it to the horse when the gravelly voice of their grandfather stopped them cold. They swung around to face the big man as he pushed aside the branches of a bush and staggered drunkenly into the small clearing that was in front of Vin's cave. Justin White had been out looking for his grandson when he spotted the two boys on the horse and followed them.

"Who the hell are… wait a minute," Justin squinted at Ezra then drew himself up in outrage, "It's you! You're the spittin' image of that thievin' father of yours. You're the one he left with when he took my money! Where the hell is he! You tell me! I'll beat it out of you if I have to."

The man made his way threateningly toward Ezra, but Vin stepped in front of his brother protectively.

"You leave him alone!" Vin yelled, "He ain't done nothing to you!"

"You'll never know what he did to me, boy," Justin yelled at his grandson as he slapped him down to the ground and turned back to Ezra. "Where's my money!"

"Is that all you care about, money?" Ezra asked facing the man defiantly. "Now you sound like my father. I don't think there's really much difference between you at all."

"I am nothing like that low down, thieving, son of a…"

"You forget my father was privy to your books and papers for almost two years before he departed. He was well aware of the way you amassed your fortune. You cheated just as may people as my father did. At least he never killed anyone," Ezra taunted.

The man went still for one minute as the words of the little boy facing off with him managed to penetrate his drunken fog.

"I don't know what you're talking about," the man stated.

"I think you do," Ezra replied. "Gunter Svenson. Does the name ring any bells? Mr. Svenson was the owner of a piece of property that you wanted for its water rights, remember. When he wouldn't sell…you had him killed."

"How could you know about that," Justin whispered.

"I read my father's journals," Ezra told him, "He found out about it before he left. He just never saw the need to use the information."

"But you do, is that it?" the man growled.

"Exactly. Vin and I are going to ride out of here and you are going to let us. You will leave us alone from now on… unless you'd like to swing for murder," Ezra finished smugly.

"Got it all figured out, don't you boy," his grandfather told him smoothly, "Just like your father, aren't you? Always thinking. Well it occurs to me that it'd be a whole lot safer for me if I just killed you now, then I'd never have to worry about the noose around my neck. After all, who would miss a couple more snot-nosed kids anyway?"

Ezra suddenly stopped smiling as he realized just what he had done. What he had thought was a surefire way to control his grandfather had turned out to be a death sentence for himself and Vin. Justin White started toward his grandson with an evil smirk on his face as he reached out his hands towards the small neck, intending to strangle the boy.

Ezra told his legs to move, to run away from the danger but they refused to carry him. He could only stand in fear as the giant man closed the distance between them. Suddenly his grandfather fell to the ground, yelling in surprise. Ezra looked up dazedly to see Vin with a large branch in his hand step forward and bring it down onto the back of their grandfather's head before the man could get up from the ground where he'd fallen when Vin had struck him in the back of the knees with the branch. Vin lifted the branch and hit him once more just to be sure the man was really unconscious and not just stunned, then dropped the branch and ran to Ezra.

Vin wrapped his arms around Ezra and pulled him into his body hard, holding on tightly as both boys started to shake.

"H...h…he, he was going to kill us," Ezra stuttered.

"We gotta get outta here, Ez," Vin told him urgently as he pulled back.

Vin gave him a shake when he didn't respond right away and Ezra looked at him again.

"Get on the horse, Ez. We gotta leave NOW!"

Nodding his understanding, Ezra mounted the horse and reached down to lift the bundle that Vin was holding out to him, and then Vin crawled up behind him.

"Which way?" Ezra asked.

"South," Vin stated. "He'll expect us to go south toward Mexico so we'll start out that way to make him think that's where we're going then I'll cover our tracks and we'll head west toward the mountains."

Ezra nodded and kicked the horse into a run. The reunited brothers held on tight as they made their escape.


Night had fallen and Vin was on foot leading the horse through the darkness as he tried to find a good spot to stop for the night. Vin knew that both they and the horse needed to rest. Vin could tell that Ezra was almost at the end of his rope. His brother had been raised in the cities of the east and was not used to the rigors of the western territories yet. The flight had exhausted him and it was taking all his remaining resources just to stay upright on the horse. Vin breathed a sigh of relief when he finally found a suitable spot. The splashing of water from the nearby stream was a welcome sound to the thirsty boy. They had finished the water in the one canteen that Ezra had brought hours earlier.

"Ez, this place is good enough. We'll stop for the night," Vin said.

Ezra raised his weary head and nodded. He slid off the horse and crumpled to the ground as his legs refused to hold him after so many hours on the horse. Vin hurried to help him up.

"It's okay, Ez. I gotcha. You just sit down over here and I'll make camp. We'll have some food in no time."

"Thank you, Vin," Ezra replied in a tired voice.

"No problem. You just rest for a spell."

Vin quickly unloaded the saddlebags and his bundle and Ezra's carpetbag from the horse and then removed the saddle. It was lucky the saddle was not a full size one or he'd never been able to manage it by himself. Vin grabbed the reins and led the horse to the stream and let him have a small drink, careful not to allow the horse to drink too much and founder. Vin bent over and dipped his hand in the cool stream, sipping the water from his cupped palm and repeating the action several times until his own thirst was quenched. He dipped the canteen into the stream and filled it, then led the horse back to camp.

Vin handed the filled canteen to Ezra who took it eagerly and started to gulp it down.

"Hey, slow down," Vin reached out and wrestled the canteen from Ezra, "you'll make yourself sick if you drink it too fast. Sip it slowly."

Nodding his understanding, Ezra took the canteen back from Vin and sipped as he had been instructed.

"Let me find some wood and I'll have a fire going in no time," Vin told him.

Ezra watched his brother efficiently setting up camp and marveled at his expertise.

"You're very good at this," Ezra told him.

"What's that?" Vin threw him a questioning look over his shoulder.

"All this," Ezra said, sweeping his hand out around the campsite, "wilderness living."

Vin shrugged and told him, "I used to have a friend named Chanu. He was an Indian who lived on the reservation with his family. His father, Kojay, taught us both a lot about hunting and tracking and living out here. I liked visiting with Chanu and his family. They were always real nice to me," Vin finished sadly.

"You don't visit them anymore?"

Vin shook his head and turned back to the fire, hiding his expression from his brother.

"No. Grandpa found out, and he didn't like it. He told me he didn't want me associating with savages. He told me if I ever went out to the reservation again he'd hunt Chanu down and drag him behind his horse until he died then throw his body in the river for the fishes to eat."

"Do you think he would have?" Ezra asked curiously.

Vin was silent as he poked a stick into the growing flames of the campfire then said, "Yeah. He would have."

"From your description of your friend and his family and my one and only meeting with our illustrious grandfather, I would venture to say that our grandfather is the one truly worthy of the appellation of savage."

"You'll get no argument from me," Vin said as he threw another branch on the fire then turned to face Ezra again.

"Let me see what we have in the way of supplies and I'll fix us something to eat," Vin told his brother.

"I hope what I purchased is acceptable," Ezra said suddenly feeling inadequate around this boy who was so knowledgeable about surviving in the wilderness. "I wasn't sure what to get or how much to bring. I hope it's sufficient."

Vin pulled cloth bags of beans, and rice from the saddle bags, and one of coffee. Vin glanced up at his brother with a grin, "Good thing you remembered the coffee 'cause it's really hard for me to get goin' in the mornings sometimes without it"

"Me too!" Ezra told him in surprise, delighted that they had something in common, and received an equally delighted grin from his twin.

"We'll have to use this bacon up pretty quick before it goes bad," Vin told him. "I'll fry some of it up tonight and we can finish it in the morning. Let's see what else you got in here. Canned peaches! Yum! I love peaches. Hard tack, that's good," Vin continued to pull out supplies making appreciative noises and Ezra started to relax.

"With what we can trap on the trail, this should hold us for a good time. The only problem we really got is water. We only have the one canteen. We're gonna have to be real careful," Vin told him seriously.

"I would suggest buying one at the nearest town but I feel it would behoove us to avoid such places as much as possible. The sight of two boys traveling alone is sure to bring unwelcome attention down on our heads. If we are to avoid our grandfather and my stepmother, I feel we must practice caution at every turn," Ezra said.

"Your stepmother?" Vin asked.

"I'm afraid you are not the only one fleeing from a desperate situation, brother. I ran away from my stepmother and her nefarious plans for me," Ezra told him seriously.

"What happened, Ez?"

"I do believe she was in the process of selling me to a most disreputable gentleman for purposes on which I have no wish to speculate."

"She was going to SELL you?" Vin whispered in stunned amazement. "The woman was actually going to take money to give you away?"

"You have grasped the situation firmly, for that is indeed what she planned for me. If I had not chanced to overhear her negotiations with the gentleman in question I fear I would even now be in the firm clutches of the scoundrel."

"What kind of person could do that, especially to a kid?"

"The Maude Standish kind of person," Ezra told him with a grim sort of smile. "The kind of person that is entirely self serving, and without conscience."

"Then I'd say you're well rid of her," Vin stated firmly.

"On that we can agree."

Silence fell between the brothers as each contemplated their situation. Vin pulled his frying pan out of his bundle and his pocket knife from his front pocket and proceeded to cut slices off the block of bacon and place them in the pan. He pulled a pan that Ezra had purchased from the pile of supplies and started peeling a few potatoes and slicing them into the pan. He set the pan of bacon to cook and waited a few minutes them poured off the bacon grease into the pan of potatoes then put the bacon back by the fire to finish cooking. Vin stirred the bacon grease and potatoes with his knife then set that pan in the coals to cook too.

Ezra breathed in the aroma of the cooking food appreciatively and heard his stomach give a loud rumble. Vin apparently heard it too, because he turned his head and grinned at Ezra.

"Won't be long now. This is sure gonna taste good after a long day in the saddle. Ya did good, Ezra."

Ezra's cheeks pinkened in response to Vin's words and he felt unaccountably gratified to have done something to win Vin's approval.

"Vin," Ezra started to ask then stopped uncertainly.

"Yeah?" Vin answered with an eyebrow raised in question.

"What was our mother like?" Ezra whispered the question he had so desperately wanted to ask so many times on their long ride but hadn't had the courage.

Vin stared at his brother for a moment, and felt the tears start to fill his eyes just as they always did when he thought of his mother. Ezra saw the look on his brother's face and jumped from his resting place to hurry to Vin. The boy threw his arms around his brother and held on tight as fierce shudders began to shake the other boy.

"I'm sorry, Vin," Ezra yelled, "I didn't mean to make you sad! I'm sorry!"

Vin's arms wrapped around Ezra and tightened, grasping handfuls of his shirt in both hands. Vin had felt so alone for so long, ever since his mother's death. He had suddenly realized that he wasn't alone anymore. Here was someone who cared about him, someone who he could care about again. Someone he could love and would love him. The realization of that had broken through the shell he had tried to build around his emotions for his own protection since his mother's death. Held securely in his twin brother's arms, Vin let himself go as he hadn't been able to in the last two years. All the pain, and fear, and grief he had held at bay for so long came pouring out in one tidal wave of emotion.

Ezra held his brother close, and whispered desperate words of comfort. If asked later he wouldn't have been able to recall anything that he said, would never know if whatever he mumbled to his twin even made sense . He only knew his brother was hurting, and was reaching out to him for security and comfort. For the first time in his life, Ezra truly felt needed. He felt he was more than just a useful tool in someone's life.

Vin didn't see him as someone to use and then abandon. Right now he was the rock Vin clung to in the raging maelstrom of emotions that had been locked in his small body for so long. Vin trusted him to be there when he was needed. The closeness he felt to Vin at that moment was a strange and novel feeling in Ezra's young life. Being as emotionally needy as Vin and afraid of losing the wondrous feeling he'd just discovered, Ezra began to cling to Vin as tightly as Vin was holding on to him. Neither boy realized the depth of the bond that was binding their souls together as they rocked one another.

It was the smell of singeing bacon that returned Vin's attention to the present. Reluctantly pulling back from Ezra's arms, Vin swiped at his eyes and nose with his shirt sleeve then turned away in embarrassment to tend to their dinner. Both boys remained silent until Ezra hesitantly laid his hand on Vin's shoulder.

"It's all right, Vin. We're family, and it's alright to let go with family…isn't it?" Ezra softly asked him.

Vin turned to look at Ezra and saw the sincerity in the green eyes looking so hopefully back at him. Vin felt something inside relax and he nodded at his brother and reached up to lay his hand over Ezra's where it rested on his shoulder.

"Yeah, family…brothers. We can share everything," Vin told him.

Ezra beamed at him in relief, glad that Vin had accepted him so fully. Vin returned the smile then started to dish up the meal he had rescued.

"It's a little dark but it's still okay to eat," Vin assured him, "I think I'm hungry enough to have eaten it even if it had been burned as hard as rocks."

Ezra laughed and both boys dug into the meal with gusto. When they had eaten their fill, Vin showed Ezra how to clean the tin plates and the pans with sand before dipping them in the stream. Vin had to laugh at the way Ezra wrinkled his nose in disgust at the sight of the pan full of sand and bacon grease and flatly refused to touch it.

Vin and Ezra had spread out their blankets close together, far enough from the fire to be safe but close enough to benefit from its warmth, when Vin finally felt ready to answer Ezra's earlier question.

"She was pretty," Vin stated, staring up at the night sky.

Ezra didn't need to ask to whom Vin was referring. He kept silent and let his brother pick his words without interruption.

"She liked to laugh and sing. She told me life was better if you faced it with a smile instead of a frown. It was easier to get through the bad times if you could find something to laugh about. She would always sing as she worked. She used to sing to me before I went to bed at night too. I'd crawl in my bed and she'd come in and sit on the bed beside me and stroke my hair and sing to me until I fell asleep. She always stood up for me when Grandpa came home drunk and wanted to beat on me. She took good care of me and I miss her so much. I… always wished it was Grandpa that got the fever instead of her. He would have deserved to die, but she didn't."

"I wish I could remember her," Ezra said sadly.

"She remembered you," Vin told him. "She used to tell me about when we were babies. She missed you, Ezra. She told me once that she missed you every day after you were gone."

Ezra felt the tears gather in his eyes as he listened to Vin, and whispered, "I saw a picture of her. I found it in Father's papers the day I ran away. She was lovely."

"Did father…" Vin began but broke off.

"Yes, he missed you too," Ezra assured him. "He never spoke to me of you, but in his journal he often wrote about you; wondered how you were and what kind of person you were growing into. His only regret about the whole situation was leaving you behind. He had originally planned to take both of us, you know, but you got sick and he had to leave you behind or risk getting arrested."

"Oh," Vin whispered, feeling strangely relieved that his father had cared about him enough to want to take him too. Vin had often wondered what it was about him that his father had disliked so much that he would take his brother but leave him behind.

"I have his journal with me," Ezra sat up and reached into the jacket he had folded and laid beside his head, and pulled out the book, "You can read it if you want to."

Vin looked at Ezra in embarrassment and mumbled, "I can't read. Grandpa never would let me go to school."

Ezra was surprised at Vin's shamed-faced statement. Ezra had never attended an actual school himself, but his father had spent many hours teaching him. The time spent traveling between cities, or the time between cons was usually filled by his father's lessons. Edward Standish considered a well rounded education an essential for any conman, so Ezra had been taught to read, and do arithmetic at an age much earlier than other children of the time.

The fact that he had to spend so much time alone while his father, and eventually his stepmother, were conducting business helped spur him to learning to read so he could fill the empty, boring hours. He had devoured every book he could get his hands on and consequently the diversity of his knowledge was wide-ranging and very unusual for a seven year old. His father had also drilled him in doing arithmetic problems in his head until he could calculate a profit, or a percentage, or the odds almost without thinking.

Ezra had never really thought about how it must have been for other children his age, and had just assumed Vin was his equal in education. Now it seemed that Vin had been denied something that Ezra took for granted, and Ezra realized his brother was ashamed of his inability to read even though he was not to blame for the lack.

"That's alright, I'll read it to you now if you want and I'll teach you to read."

Vin raised his head from his blanket and looked in hopeful eagerness at his twin, "Really? You could really teach me to read?"

"I don't see why not," Ezra assured him with a tired smile. "I'm sure we will have plenty of opportunities to begin the basics on our ride to freedom. With my teaching skills and your quick mind we'll have you reading in no time."

"Gee, thanks, Ez," Vin stared at him with heartfelt gratitude, "I always wanted to learn to read. Mama used to read to me from her books when she had the time, and I always liked the stories. I really want to be able to read them for myself."

"It's agreed then. We'll begin your lessons in the morning," Ezra finished on a wide yawn.

"Okay. Night, Ezra."

Settling deeper into his blankets, Ezra replied, "Good night, Vin. Pleasant dreams."

As the two boys gave into their exhaustion and slept, the full moon shined its silver light over them allowing anyone who might have been observing to see the hands that unconsciously snaked out of two bedrolls and grasped each other in the night.


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