by Purple Lacey

"We need to talk."

Buck brought the chair he had leaned against the wall of the jail upright and looked at Chris who was staring off at the horizon. He recognized the tone the other man had used to utter that one sentence. Whatever his friend wanted to speak about was serious.

“About?” Buck questioned.

“About the boys,” was the answer that had him stiffening.

“What about the boys?” he gritted out, knowing his friend as well as he did he already had a very good idea where this was leading.

“I got up to check on the boys last night and I know Vin went looking for you. I was at the door when he told you about being scared Josiah was going to die.”

Buck's fists, resting one on each of his knees, involuntarily clenched as he controlled his anger at what he knew was coming next.

“We can't keep them, Buck. It's not safe, and it wouldn't be fair to them. This just proves it. They've already lost enough. They don't need to be worrying about losing us too. This is a risky job. Anyone of us could buy it on any given day, and the boy's might get caught in the crossfire. They'd be safer with a real family. People that won't go and die on them and leave them alone. They deserve that. They've been through enough already,” Chris's hazel eyes turned from his study of the distant mountains.

Buck could see the pain and suffering in those eyes clearly. Buck knew Chris didn't really want to give the boys up anymore than he did, but there was also that little touch of fear in his eyes: the fear of getting close and getting hurt again. Although he knew Chris was genuinely concerned for the twins' welfare, it was this fear that Buck was afraid was truly motivating his friend to contemplate sending Ezra and Vin away.

Buck stared at his oldest friend grimly while he spoke, "You keep talking about them being safer with someone else. That they need to be with somebody that won't go and die on 'em, but have you taken a good look around you lately? We live in the Western Territory. It's rough, and dangerous, and unpredictable. There's no certainly to life out here, and you know it. Nobody has a guarantee they'll be alive tomorrow; that children will have living parents or parents will have living children. People get sick. Stages and banks get robbed. Bullets go astray... and houses burn down.”

At his words, Chris shot a furious glare and clinched his own fists. Buck uncaringly watched this reaction. For once Buck's rage met or exceeded his leader's.

“If you've forgotten your own lesson in that,” Buck continued, “then I suggest you go talk to Gloria Potter and her children, or Mary Travis and Billy, or maybe Hiram Nechaus and his children to help remind you. This whole town could be gone next week or last for another hundred years! There's no way to know for sure. We all just have to keep livin' from one day to the next, and deal with whatever comes along when it happens. The boys are no different.

NO ONE could care about those boys more than we do. NO ONE could love them more. To my way of thinking that counts for a lot more than being safe. You could be safe in a prison, but that don't mean you want to live in one. Sending them boys away just to keep 'em safe, tearing them away from the only love and security they´ve known is on the same level with throwing 'em into prison as far as I'm concerned.

Now you might be too scared to handle the risk that comes with raisin' 'em, but I'm not, and neither are Josiah, JD, and Nathan. So you listen to me, and you listen good. I...WILL...NOT...LET...YOU...RUIN...THIS...FOR...US. Those boys will stay right where they are, right where they belong: with us. You and I will be going to FIST CITY if you try to send them away. Now, pard, I am done talking on this."

Chris looked into Buck's carved-stone face and tried to reason with him, "Buck, no matter how we feel about the boys we have to be reasonable…,"

Buck cut him off with a slashing motion of his hand, "I said I'm done talkin' and I am.”

Without another word Buck spun on his heel and walked away, his back straight and steps stiff with anger. Chris stared after him with fists clinched in frustration.

“He's right you know.”

Chris swung around quickly to find Josiah leaning against the side of the jail, his arms crossed on his chest.

“How long have you been there?” Chris snapped out.

“Long enough to know that you think the boys would be better off someplace else than here with us.”

“Did you hear Vin was having nightmares about you dying?”

Josiah nodded and said, “Yep. You know I lost my mother when I was only nine, did I ever tell you that? It was just my father, and sister and me after that. After she died, I used to have nightmares for years that my father would die and leave Hannah and me alone. Even though he mistreated us something awful, I still didn't want him to be taken away. He was the only security I had left.

It's a natural fear for any child that's had the concept of death so graphically illustrated. I'd say Vin's reaction was normal for a child with his experiences. I'd also say that he'd be doing the same thing with whomever he got attached to…even if it wasn't a bunch of lawmen in a dusty town. It's something that, with love and understanding and a sense of security, he'll eventually outgrow. I don't see how it's best for the twins to leave the people they've come to love and depend on and be sent to a bunch of strangers. I really don't see them wanting to leave what they've found here.”

“They're children. We're the adults around here. It's our job to protect those boys,” Chris stated through gritted teeth.

“I agree completely. I'm just wondering though, if you send them away…who are you actually protecting?” Josiah lifted a hand and tugged on the brim of his hat before walking away


Ezra noticed the changes in Chris' behavior straight away. Where before his guardian had found excuses to keep him close, now suddenly he found excuses to push him away. For the first time since Buck and Chris had brought them to Four Corners, the blond man was absent from the boy's bedtime ritual. He found reasons to be away at meals, and now made sure to check on the boy's wellbeing from a distance. Supper had become the only meal he shared with the children and then he hardly spoke or looked at the two. Always sensitive to the behavior of others, Ezra had felt the man's withdrawal and immediately jumped to the conclusion that he, Ezra, must have done something wrong to have caused it.

Predictably enough, Ezra reacted to the man's now seeming indifference negatively. The usually talkative child went nearly silent. Even Vin's attempts to draw him out were met with only one syllable answers, and the serious little boy refused to play. The laughter and mischievous manner that the boy had been showing with increasing frequency disappeared and the little gentleman with the blank face returned. He sat for hours on end just sitting by the window in his bedroom staring into space and trying to figure out what he had done that was so bad that Chris didn't like him anymore. He lay in bed next to Vin at night but couldn't sleep. His normally good appetite disappeared and he did more rearranging of the food on his plate than he did eating. No amount of coaxing from the others could get him to eat more than the barest little bit. Dinner was the only meal that the boy even made a pretense of consuming and that only after a flat, “Eat your dinner, Ezra,” from Chris.

It had only been three days but Nathan was starting to get concerned. He just didn't know what to do to fix it. The frustration was eating at him and it came out in anger at the leader of the regulators.

“The man's a fool,” Nathan ground out and threw the rag he had been using to clean his pistol on the desk.

He and Josiah, Buck, and JD had all gathered in the jail after lunch while Chris rode out on another unnecessary patrol. Because they were cleaning their guns, the boys had been sent out to play in the alley beside the jail, Buck sitting close to the window to keep an eye on them.

“He's a fool, and Ezra's the one sufferin' for it. That boy ain't eaten enough to keep a gnat together in the last few days. He's already small. He can't afford to miss too many more meals.”

“We all hear ya, Nathan, but like you we don't know how to fix it,” Josiah sighed.

“The only one that can fix it is Chris,” Buck snapped out, “and he's just too damn stubborn to do it. He's tearin' that boy apart and he refuses to see it. He still thinks he'd be better off if Ezra went to live with a normal family.”

“Can't you talk to him, Buck?” JD asked, “Make him see reason?”

Buck sighed and threw his head back to look at the ceiling in frustration and then looked back at the young, sheriff, “The man's more stubborn than ten Missouri mules.”

“So what are we gonna do now?” JD asked casting worried glances at each of the other regulators in turn.

“The best we can, son,” Josiah told him, “the best we can.”

As the men had conversed, Buck's attention had wandered from the boys so he didn't notice when Ezra had slipped under the window and stood listening. He was just in time to hear Buck say, “He still thinks he'd better off if Ezra went to live with a normal family.” Shocked, thinking Buck was saying Chris believed he would be better off if Ezra wasn't with him, Ezra pushed away from the wall and hurried to the end of the alley where he pushed himself between two barrels and huddled down with his arms wrapped around his legs tightly and his face buried in his knees. He never heard the last part of Buck's comments.

The pain he felt ripped at his heart. It was true then. Chris really didn't want him around anymore. Hot tears started flowing from his eyes to be absorbed by the cloth of his trousers. What had he done? He had tried to be good. He had done what he was told. He hadn't conned anyone out of their money, or tried to fleece them at poker. He hadn't told one lie since Chris had found him in the loft that night. He had tried so hard. He just didn't understand what had gone wrong. The longer he thought on it the harder he cried.

“Ezra?” he could hear Vin's voice but didn't acknowledge it.

“Ezra, whatcha doing back there?” Vin squeezed through the barrels and settled beside his twin. “Ezra?”

The chestnut haired child raised his head slowly and looked with misery at his brother. Vin reached out quickly and pulled Ezra to him in a hug.

“What's the matter, Ez? You hurt?”

Ezra shook his head and Vin relaxed his grip slightly.

“Then what's wrong?”

Ezra sniffed and bent his head to stare at his knees again, “Chris doesn't want me anymore.”

“How do you know?”

“I heard Buck talking to the other gentlemen right now. He said so.”

“Are you sure?”

“I know what I heard, Vin. Buck said Chris believes he would be better off if I lived with someone else.”

“No!” Vin muttered angrily. “He can't do that! He can't send you away. I won't let him.”

“And just how would you stop him?” Ezra asked with sad look.

“We'll…” Vin swallowed heavily before continuing, “run away!”

Ezra shook his head sorrowfully, “You don't have to go. Buck still wants you. You could stay here and live with Buck. You could be happy.”

“NO,” Vin wrapped his hand around Ezra's upper arm and held on, “we're brothers, family. We go together or we stay together!”

“Are you sure, Vin? You don't have to do this.”

“I'm sure!”

The first smile that had shown on Ezra's face for two days peeped out and he mirrored Vin's grip on his arm.

“Then we had best make our plans,” Ezra said.


Chris Larabee was not in a good mood. He was unsaddling his horse after another circuit around the town and the surrounding countryside. The countless hours he had put in riding had left him stiff and saddle sore, and hadn't accomplished anything as far as quieting the chaos that filled his mind and heart. The last few days had been a kind of lonely hell for him. His mind told him he should distance himself from the boys to help prepare for their leaving, but his heart was breaking at the loss of closeness. He had taking to avoiding his friends also just to spare himself from the arguments and tension that had invaded the tightly knit group as a result of his decision about the boys. His arms would physically ache to reach for the boys and hold them whenever he saw them so he deliberately tried to avoid looking at them too closely.

The thought of sending the boys away was tearing him up, but he had honestly believed they'd be better off with a regular family…until Buck and Josiah had accused him of wanting them gone to protect himself from more emotional pain. Now he could only wonder if that were true. His thoughts kept going round and round in endless circles without ever reaching a definitive conclusion.

Chris gave his big horse one final brush with the curry comb then stepped out of the horse's stall and put it away on the shelf. He was reaching over to pick up his saddle bags where he's slung them over the stall door when Nathan marched into the livery and straight up to him. Without saying one word, Nathan drew back his large fist and punched the surprised man in the face, knocking him to the ground and putting a heavy boot on his chest to keep him there.

“You have got to be the most blind stubborn fool, that I have ever come across,” the usually peaceable Nathan growled at the fallen man. He had been simmering like a pot of water at a slow boil since the talk with the other regulators that morning when he had seen the leader riding back into town. Something inside him had finally blown loose and he had taken off after the man to give him good piece of his mind. “Are you so wrapped up in yourself that you can't see what you pushing Ezra away is doin' to that boy? Are you so selfish that you don't care that he's not eatin' or sleepin' at night?”

Concern and anger warred in Chris as he lay on the straw covered floor of the livery and looked up at the ferociously angry man over him.

“You'd best back…” Chris started to warn him only to have his breath shut off as Nathan leaned a little harder on his diaphragm. Being a healer did have its advantages when it came to knowing where a body was vulnerable.

“No, YOU'D best listen to ME! That boy is wearing himself out wondering what he did to make you hate him. He's too little to understand that he's not the one that caused the problem. He looks up to you and thinks you can do no wrong so it has to be something he did that caused you to start pulling away from him. You're breaking that boy's heart into tiny little pieces and you are so caught up in yourself that you haven't even bothered to look at him. If you had, you would see he don't smile any more. He don't play. He hardly says more than yes sir or no sir. He's starting to lose weight he can't afford to lose. He's making himself sick and IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT!

I've seen some rotten bastards in my time, but I believe you've got to be the biggest I've ever come across if you can look at that child, really LOOK at him, and not care what you're doing to him. If that's true, them maybe you're right. Maybe he would be better off without you!”

Nathan gave one last press of his boot to Chris' chest just for sheer spite before he jerked back and stalked out of the livery. Chris raised a hand to his bruised chest and rubbed as he stared at the doorway where the incensed healer had exited. He slowly sat up and reached beside him to retrieve his fallen hat. He dusted the straw off it while mentally reviewing the words his friend had just thrown at him. He set his hat back on his head and finally stood up.

Was it true? Was Ezra in trouble and he had just refused to look and see it? Chris knew it took a lot to rile the exslave- turned-healer. That the man had actually reached the point that he would throw the first punch made it even more serious in Chris' eyes.

“Oh, God! What have I done?” Chris whispered to himself in agony. Concern for Ezra had him heading out of the stable at a fast clip and heading toward the jail.

“Where's Ezra?” Chris' voice whipped out into the quiet air of the jail and caused JD to jerk upright in surprise and almost fall off his chair.

“Over at the boardinghouse,” a startled JD answered without thinking.

Chris spun around and left without another word. His black duster flapped wildly behind him as he hurried into the boardinghouse and up the stairs. He checked the parlor but found it empty so continued to the boy's room. His hand lifted to push open the partially closed door when the words being spoken by the room's occupants stopped him cold in his tracks.

“How long do you think we'll have before they try to send you away, Ez? It'd be easier to get supplies together without anyone being suspicious if we do it over several days.”

“I don't have any idea, Vin. We'd best plan on getting as many as we can now, and getting the rest at the first town we come too.”

“I was talking to JD and he said the closest town to here is Eagle Bend. It's only half a day's ride. We could get what else we need there then disappear.”

“Very well. That covers the area of supplies. The next problem to be solved is how to sneak our equine friend from the livery stable.”

Chris leaned his head against the door frame in despair. They were making plans to run away! They were running, not because of Buck, JD, Nathan or Josiah, but because of him. The knowledge cut deeper than the sharpest knife.

Chris straightened, pushed open the door and moved inside. Vin was the first to see him and Chris watched in sorrow as the little body stiffened at the sight of him and eyes that had looked at him with affection and trust just a few days ago now looked at him with anger and distrust. Ezra turned to face him after he looked over his shoulder to see what Vin was looking at and Chris saw the walls slam into place. For the first time since he had found the little boy, Chris had no idea what he was thinking or feeling. Ezra had completely shut him out…and it hurt.

“Vin, would you mind going to help JD in the jail for awhile? I need to talk to Ezra for a little bit,” Chris asked softly.

Both boys stiffened in fear, afraid that their time had run out and Chris had come to take Ezra away.

Vin stepped in front of his twin and faced down the man towering over him. His whole body was vibrating with the need to stop his brother from being taken away.

“You leave him alone!” Vin yelled at him. “He's staying with me! I won't let you take him away.”

Chris advanced into the room with the slow, weary steps of a man twice his age and collapsed on the bed. His head dropped into his hands as he was overcome for a moment with grief for the damaged he had caused with his total disregard for the boys' feelings and wants. He had finally taken a good look at Ezra's physical condition and discovered Nathan was right: Ezra was pining away. The thought scared him right down to his toes. Both boys watched in confusion as the blond man rubbed his hands wearily over his face a few times before raising it and looking at them.

“I didn't come here to take Ezra away, Vin. I give you my word. I just need to talk to him.”

Vin watched him grimly then he and Ezra exchanged one of their “looks” and Vin nodded slowly.

“Alright…but he better be here when I get back!” Vin said sharply and threatened, “Or I'll get Buck to shoot you!”

“Understood,” Chris agreed, knowing he deserved it, and watched as Vin gave his twin one last look then slipped out the door.

“Will you come sit here on the bed with me for a minute, please, Ezra?”

“I am most comfortable where I am, thank you,” Ezra, poker face still firmly in place, answered.

“Please, Ezra?” Chris tried again.

He watched as the boy paused, indecision clearly showing in his body language, before Ezra slowly climbed onto the bed. Chris felt the ache in his heart increase as the little boy chose to put almost the length of the bed between them instead of cuddling close to his side as he once would have done.

“I think I need to explain some things to you,” Chris said.

“There is no need, Chris…Mr. Larabee,”

“Yes there is a need, Ezra. A big one if you've taken to calling me Mr. Larabee. I need to explain some things to you, and I don't know where to start.”

“Shall I help you then?” Ezra fought hard to keep the trembling that he hid by sitting on his hands from showing in his voice as he continued, “You have decided that it would be better for you if I was gone.”

“NO! No that's not what I was going to say, son.”

“I'm not your son,” Ezra said flatly.

Chris breathed out a deep sigh and rubbed his face with his hands again.

“No, you're not my son, and I'm not your father, but that doesn't mean I don't care about you, Ezra,” Chris told him.

A disbelieving eyebrow managed to arch before Ezra brought it back under control.

“It's true, Ezra. I know I may not have been acting like it the last couple of days, but I swear to you it is true. I…guess…I can't offer you any excuses, Ezra. I thought I was doing what was better for both of us. Now I just don't know,” Chris said wearily.

“I can perhaps see where it might be more advantageous for you to be unencumbered, but why would you think that sending me away would be better for me?” Ezra asked.

“You're not an encumbrance, Ezra, never that. Not to me. It's exactly the opposite,” Chris said.

He swung around and pulled one leg under him so he could face the boy completely. He wanted Ezra to be able to see how much he meant his next words.

“You are so completely precious to me, Ezra. I think it would kill me if something happened to you.”

Ezra's green eyes rounded in surprise as he looked deep into Chris' and read the absolute truth shining back at him. He meant it! Chris actually meant every word he was saying. Ezra couldn't believe it.

“Then… why?” Ezra whispered.

“I don't want anything bad to happen to you. I thought you would be better off, safer, with someone else. I thought you'd be happier with a family that you wouldn't have to worry about. My job is a dangerous one, Ezra. I don't want to take the chance on leaving you alone and vulnerable again. I want you to be taken care of always.

I never told you this before but I had a son once. His name was Adam. He and his mother were killed in a fire while I was away. It hurt so much when they were killed that I wanted to die too. It took me the longest time just to feel like living again. And then you came along and brought the joy back into my life that had been missing for so long.

Adam was my son and I loved him, Ezra. He died because I wasn't able to protect him or his mother. You're not my son, but I love you just like you were. I want to protect you like I wasn't able to protect Adam. I guess I was also trying to protect myself too. I didn't want to face the pain that might come if something happened and I lost you.”

Chris opened his arms to the child and watched the battle that waged in the boy. He could have wept for joy when Ezra slowly, cautiously slid across the bed and into his arms. Chris closed them around him and had to restrain himself from crushing the child in his relief.

“I swear I wasn't deliberately trying to hurt you the last couple of days, Ezra. I was just so wrapped up in trying to decide what was the right thing to do…I guess I wasn't paying good enough attention to how you were feeling. I'm so sorry, son.”

Ezra rose to his knees and wrapped his arms around Chris' neck and held on tight. The man knew without asking the precious gift of forgiveness had been granted by the child.

“If you truly love me, then don't send me away, Chris! I don't want to go. I don't need a family because I already have one. You, Vin, Buck, JD, Nathan, and Josiah are my family. That's all the family I want or need. If you want me safe then keep me safe. You and the rest of my family are the only ones I would trust to do it. Besides, I once saw a man in a restaurant choke to death on an orange seed. He was a tailor. He didn't have a dangerous job or lead an exciting life where he took risks, but he still wound up dead. So being in a safe place, earning a safe living, and leading a safe life won't guarantee I'll BE safe.”

Chris sighed and drew the little boy closer. He rested his cheek on top of Ezra's head and breathed in the scent of soap and little boy.

"I still need to make sure you're protected, Ezra."

"Then you'll have to make sure of it yourself, because if you send me away I won't stay there," the mutinous little voice stated unequivocally.

"Stubborn mule," the man's tone of voice held more affection than censure as he spoke.

"I find that statement to be something on the order of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black, or," Ezra tried to stifle a small giggle, "as Vin might say, it takes one to know one."

For the first time in days, Chris Larabee started to laugh.

"Well then Mr. Kettle, would you care to accompany Mr. Pot to the restaurant for a meal? I'm suddenly really hungry and it looks like you could use one,” Chris told the boy, pulling at the too lose shirt.

Reminded of just how little food it had received lately, Ezra's stomach picked that moment to surprise them both with a growl and the child hurriedly tried to cover it with his hands.

"I believe could partake, Mr. Pot" he grinned up at the man smiling down at him.

"Food it is then," Chris said, giving him one last hug.

Both feeling better than they had in days, the man and boy left the boarding house and headed to the restaurant to satisfy their suddenly voracious appetites. A new sense of peace fell between the two as they walked with Ezra's small, trusting hand held securely in Chris' large one.


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