Author Note: Special thanks to NotTasha's beta skills and she also thought up the title.
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
"Gentlemen." The sound of heavy boots punctuated the gruff voice of Judge Travis as he came up the boardwalk. Chris pushed back his black hat and Vin removed his feet from the railing in respect to the esteemed magistrate. The rumble of the deep baritone brought Buck out of the jailhouse and he leaned against the doorframe.
"Judge," Chris greeted.
"I need your assistance." The judge's gaze swept over the three gunslingers. He had been wise to hire them. His decision to make these men the law was proving very fortuitous for all the citizens of Four Corners, including the seven men.
"A family moved onto the old Granger Ranch up at Sutter's Ridge."
"No, Mr. Wilmington, they bought the place legal. I just don't think they were aware of the state of disrepair it was in."
"Well hell, Judge, that ranch has been abandoned near on five years," Vin said, recalling the condition of the large ranch that lay a few miles east. The owner had passed away and no family had been found to inherit the property. Travis made sure no one tried to take it without the due process of law.
"That's where I need your help." Smiling, the judge fiddled with the gold watch fob that that hung on his vest.
Chris didn't like the tone he heard.
"Winter is settin' in, and I want you all to go and help them rebuild, at least enough so they have a warm roof over their heads."
"C'mon, Judge, you got to be kiddin'!" Buck complained.
Judge Travis glared at the ladies' man. "Mr. Wilmington, you've known me long enough to know I don't kid. I don't want a bunch of dead Easterners scattered on the plains come spring."
"Ah, hell, greenhorns," Buck groaned.
"You want us to leave the town unprotected?" Vin asked.
"I'll be here for awhile and things have been pretty quiet. If we need help, I'll send someone to get you," Travis replied.
Chris drew in a deep breath and exhaled. "We'll take care of it, Judge." He knew they weren't going to get out of it.
"See that you do." Judge Travis tipped his hat and continued down the boardwalk, confident the ethical gunslinger would take care of things. Chris Larabee had a way of inspiring his men with just a look. The judge smiled. He would hate to be on the receiving end of that look.
Buck watched the judge go into the newspaper office then turned to Chris. "Since when did we become caretakers and carpenters?"
Chris stood and stretched. "Since we agreed to work in this town." He stepped off the boardwalk and headed toward the saloon to gather up the rest of his men. Vin smiled at Buck. The perturbed cowboy glared back swatting Vin upside the head, knocking off his slouch hat.
"Hey, what was that for?" Vin asked, retrieving his hat.
"Just 'cause JD's not around," Buck grumbled. "Damn, I had plans to spend the weekend with Miss Daisy."
"It won't be so bad. We'll put up a few walls, patch up a hole or two. We should be done in a few days."
Buck was not placated and brusquely disappeared back inside the jail.
Without motivation to hurry, the seven lawmen rode at a leisurely pace. They had no problem with helping folks but they all agreed this was probably a waste of time. Many people came west to start a new life and ended up going back east when they failed.
"So we are now tasked as guardian angels to people who probably have no business being out here," Ezra complained from the rear of the group.
Chris rolled his eyes and Vin smiled.
"It ain't goin' to hurt you none to help," Nathan rebuked.
"That's a matter of opinion," Ezra countered. He looked up at the clear blue sky, feeling the bite from the wind that came down from the mountains. Winter was fast approaching. It was probably only a matter of days before the first snow covered the area, and like rain, Ezra hated snow.
Josiah laughed at his two friends. "Now Ezra, this is a labor of love. It's God's desire that we help our fellow man."
"Please, God rarely seems to address me on any matters of significance," he mocked.
Ezra started to calculate the money he would lose in his time away from the gaming tables and groaned at his lost income.
The gunslingers soon entered the boundaries of the ranch, or what was left of it. Much of the fencing had fallen and herds from nearby farms had over grazed the pastures. The fencing would have to be repaired before the settlers could buy their own stock. The large single-level ranch house appeared to be the only building still habitable. The barn was pitted with large holes and its doors and part of the roof were missing. Two buildings that had been bunkhouses for the ranch hands were in dire need of repair.
When they came within fifty yards of the house four men stepped out, rifles held to their sides. Three of the men wore six shooters strapped to their hips. Chris held his pace and continued forward, pulling up by the railing. He laid an arm across his saddle horn and eyed the four dark-haired men. They shared the same large build and square jaws: they were definitely related.
The oldest of the four stepped forward. Unlike the others, his face was weathered from years of working outside and he seemed to hold a confident and more relaxed demeanor. This man was not unfamiliar with the ways of the West. He eyed the darkly dressed gunslinger suspiciously. "The judge send you?"
"Yep. I'm Chris Larabee and this is Buck Wilmington and Vin Tanner." Chris twisted in his saddle to indicate the rest of the group. "This here is JD Dunne, Nathan Jackson, Josiah Sanchez and Ezra Standish."
"I'm Eugene Feldman and these here are my sons: Peter, William and Damen." Eugene eyed the curious collection of gunslingers. He had to wonder why a man as dangerous looking as Larabee would offer to help them. He glanced over at the mustached cowboy and the buckskin-clad tracker; they both seemed friendly enough. The youngest man, Dunne, looked barely old enough to shave. And the black man was a surprise. He hadn't seen many men of color, especially riding with six white men. He noticed that Sanchez wore a crude cross around his neck and took that as a good sign.
Eugene's eyes narrowed at the flamboyantly dressed gambler. He was all too familiar with his kind. The Feldmans had avoided the many conmen who beckoned as they traveled west. Eugene had been a rancher for some twenty odd years. He lost everything during the drought of '51 and moved to New York to raise his family. He worked hard in the mines and saved enough to return to the life he had loved. He would not risk his dreams to foolish gaming. He had convinced his sons to join him, promising a bright future for their children. So far, that future was looking quite bleak.
Three women stepped out of the house followed by five children. "Ah, geez," Vin sighed, as he estimated their ages ranging from four to ten.
A smile lit Ezra's impassive facade at the sight of the little ones. Maybe this trip wouldn't be so bad after all. He always felt comfortable around children. They were not as quick to judge a man on appearance alone and the gambler basked in their honesty.
Chris and Buck smoothly dismounted and tied their horses to the hitching rail. Buck eyed the youngest of the women, hoping she was a single daughter. She had sherry-brown hair that hung loosely about her shoulders and liquid brown eyes. She was probably not much older than JD. His hopes deflated when she took Peter's arm.
A stout woman with ash gray hair secured in a bun took Eugene's arm. "This is my wife, Dorothea. And the other two are Rachel and Amelia, William and Peter's wives."
Chris glanced at the two women who had taken up positions beside their men. They were city-bred and he wondered how long those soft looks would last. Rachel's heavy make-up looked out of place with the plain skirt and blouse she wore. Eugene's wife, like her husband, appeared to be made of sturdier stuff.
"The judge told me he might be sending help," Eugene added. "I told him we didn't need any."
Chris's blue eyes narrowed. He scanned the ingenuous faces of the children who had been uprooted and brought out here to meet the unknown. "Looks to me like you could use all the help you can get. Winter comes mighty quick 'round here."
Eugene surveyed his family and then the ruined ranch. Some of his resolve broke as he considered what needed to be accomplished. The main residence was too small for the entire family to stay in all winter. They were rebuilding the two bunkhouses for his sons and their families until more appropriate homes could be built in the spring. Eugene audibly exhaled and felt his wife squeeze his arm. He looked down into her pleading eyes and smiled. "Yes, I suppose we could use your help," he said grudgingly. "Camp over there by the barn if you like."
Chris nodded. The others dismounted and moved toward the barn to set up camp. Rachel pulled back her inquisitive children as the gunslingers passed by. She glared at the gambler who returned her rebuff with a smile.
"C'mon children, back inside," Rachel said. Amelia and Dorothea helped usher the five youngsters into the house.
The Feldman men remained on the porch eyeing the seven lawmen. "Well, let's hope they work as hard as they look," Eugene commented and headed toward the side of the house to collect some wood.
"What do ya think, Peter?" William asked his older brother. William came west simply because his relatives had decided to do so. Now the thrill of adventure was making him glad he did. Rachel hadn't been too keen on the idea, and he had been surprised when she finally conceded. It was rare that he won an argument with his wife. Maybe this trip would be good for all of them.
"'Bout what?" Peter absently replied.
His brothers heard the usual impassive tone of his voice. They had hoped a change of scenery would break his depression. Since his wife's death, Peter no longer cared much about anything. He had recently re-married, wanting his children to have a mother. His new wife, Amelia, had insisted they make the move and he had offered no resistance.
"Those men, Peter. Do you think they'll be able to help us get this place in shape before winter?" William explained.
Peter just shrugged.
"Hell, don't rightly matter," Damen reminded. "We're stuck here. We spent everything we had to follow Pa out West. Anyway, I'm glad they're here. Maybe we'll get to shoot Indians or desperadoes." Damen pulled his gun and pretended to shoot imaginary outlaws. His older brothers rolled their eyes at his antics, reminding themselves that he was considerably younger then they were. Damen eyed the seven lawmen with envy. "You think he'd let me join them?"
"Who?" William asked.
"Yeah, right." William stared at the seven hard-edged men. Even the boy looked deadly and self-assured. "They'd chew you up and spit you out." William and Peter laughed.
"WILLIAM!" Will cringed at the shrill sound of Rachel's voice as it broke up their fun.
"Damn woman," he softly moaned.
Damen snickered as his brother went into the house. Peter stared off toward the distant mountains. It was beautiful here. Maybe it would dull the pain of missing his late wife. He knew it wasn't fair to Amelia; he barely spent any time with her. She seemed happy to be getting out of New York. He knew she felt tied down with her stepchildren. Peter's eyes misted. He had been neglecting his children. He felt hopeful about this new life and promised himself that things would get better, for all of them.
Buck dropped an armful of wood and began to prepare a fire. "So Buck, how much you want to bet?" JD asked.
"Ezra's started a pool. Guess how long these tenderfeet are going to last out here?"
Buck grinned and shook his head. Ezra would gamble on anything. He looked around the area, noting the dilapidated buildings and all the work ahead of them. "Hell, what kind of thing is that to bet on?"
"Well, Ez says they'll be gone in a month, Vin predicts six weeks. I think they'll make it seven weeks."
"What do the others say?" Buck asked.
"Haven't asked Chris or Josiah yet."
"Don't go askin' Nate. You know how he feels about Ezra's games," Buck reminded the young gunslinger.
JD thought a moment and then agreed. "So, how long do ya think?"
"It don't seem right to be bettin' against them staying," Buck replied, rubbing his chin.
JD shrugged and turned to walk off. "Suit yourself the pot's up to twenty dollars."
Buck grabbed his arm. "I give 'em eight weeks." JD grinned and loped off.
"Get up, Ez!" Buck yelled prodding the lump under the blanket with his boot. "And don't even think of drawin' that pea shooter."
Ezra groaned and poked his head out from the comfort of the warm bedding. The sun was barely visible and failed to warm the early morning chill. The stubborn conman nested deeper.
"Yer lucky it's me wakin' you and not Chris," Buck said.
"Accept my heartfelt gratitude." Ezra rolled over and started to pull the covers back over his head.
"Oh no you don't." Buck grabbed the blanket and pulled it away. "We got a lot of work to do, pard." He dropped the blanket on the ground and turned toward the small campfire where the others were gathering.
Near the fire Chris squatted on the balls of his feet and tried to coax warmth back into his body. The others slowly converged around the fire, sipping the coffee that Nathan had made.
"Damn, it's cold," JD complained as he pulled his jacket tight.
"Don't worry, you'll be warmin' up soon enough," Vin chided. Josiah started passing out plates of beans and everyone settled down to eat. The sun finally rose enough to call forth a new day banishing the darkness of night. When they finished, JD collected the plates and dumped them into a pot of water to be cleaned later.
"Alright," Chris stated getting everyone's attention. "Vin, JD, you start mending the fences near the house and barn." Both men nodded. "Josiah, me and you will start renovating the bunkhouses. Nathan, you and Buck can start patching up the holes in the barn." Chris took a sip of his coffee and looked around. "Where the hell is Ezra?"
Josiah spotted the conman already surrounded by the children. "Brother Chris, I believe Ezra has already been recruited and is otherwise engaged."
"What? A damn babysitter?" Nathan growled. That man sure knew how to get out of work.
Chris shook his head. He would deal with the indolent gambler later.
"Damn, some people have all the luck!" Buck muttered under his breath. Nathan slapped him on the shoulder in agreement and headed to the barn.
Josiah smiled as he watched Ezra and the children. He would never understand the little ones' fixation with the Southerner. Maybe it was the colorful clothes or the boyish grin that appeared so readily. When it came to children Ezra was the pied piper: they naturally trusted him. What did children see that adults could not?
Ezra squatted, eye level with the children that surrounded him. He removed a deck of cards and shuffled them with one hand. The children stared, fascinated by the fluid movements. "So, little lady, what is your name?" Ezra's gaze swept over a young girl, probably no more than eight but already on her way to becoming a very beautiful woman. "I'm Melissa," she responded with confidence. "And this is my baby brother Caleb."
"I'm not a baby!" The boy protested as he tried to stand a little taller.
"You most certainly are not, sir."
Ezra smiled and looked over at the oldest girl in the group. She responded to the attention immediately. "I'm Elizabeth."
"Elizabeth," Ezra repeated, his Southern drawl giving the name a musical lilt. "A name fit for a queen." The young girl blushed and smiled at the handsome card shark. She pointed over to her five-year-old brother. "That's Garrett."
Ezra noticed a small girl hiding behind the young man. "And who is this lovely young lady?"
Garrett puffed out his chest and stood protectively in front of his sister. "This is Annie; she's shy."
"Yeah, since our ma died she doesn't say much," Elizabeth explained.
"I see." Ezra's brow furrowed as he looked at the timid little girl. He didn't attempt to draw her out, only smiled as she peeked from behind her brother.
"My Pa says you're a conman and that you take money from people," Caleb stated.
Ezra chortled at the boy's directness. This was one of the reasons he loved children. "Your Pa is correct but I don't con anymore. However, I am a gambler." As if to prove this fact, he proceeded to do a card trick. "I only take money from those foolish enough to challenge me," Ezra said with a glint in his eye.
"You wouldn't take our money would ya?" Melissa asked.
Saddened that a child would even think such a thing Ezra met Melissa's gaze and spoke with a serious tone, "Are you foolish, my dear?"
"No," she returned without having to stop and think.
"Are any of you foolish?" He asked as he gazed at each of the children in turn.
"No!" The giggling chorus replied.
"Very well then. Your money will be safe from the likes of me."
"C'mon, Mr. Ezra," said Garrett. "Show us another trick!" The children had complete faith in him.
Chris and Josiah stood and scrutinized one of the bunkhouses. "So, where do we start?" Chris asked, wondering if it just wouldn't be better to tear the whole thing down and start from scratch.
Josiah scratched at his beard and wondered the same thing.
The two men walked into the building through the open doorway, dozens of mice scattered in their wake as they crossed the room. "God, I hate mice!" Chris muttered as a shudder raced up his spine. Josiah smiled and looked up at the ceiling.
"Well, the support beams still look sturdy enough," he assessed. "I suggest we start by cleaning this place out and putting up some dividing walls. Chris removed his duster and began forcing open shutters as Josiah started to throw out several bunks.
The heat of the day belied the coming of winter. Coats and jackets were soon removed, and shirts became soaked with sweat. Everyone was pitching in wherever they could, trying to beat Mother Nature's cold dark days.
Nathan wiped the sweat from his brow with his free hand as he held a board in position over a hole in the barn wall. Buck positioned a nail in the wall. Holding the hammer over his head he swung at his target, when the laughter of children distracted him. "Damn, damn," He dropped the hammer and sucked on his thumb. Buck glared angrily, catching sight of Ezra and the children playing follow the leader. The Southerner's red jacket shone like a conductor leading a parade.
"Hope Ez ain't straining himself," Buck spoke around his thumb still sticking in his mouth.
Peter approached carrying several boards. He leaned them against the barn and gazed at the playful group in the field. A twinge of jealousy twisted in his heart when he saw the ease the conman shared with the children. Since his wife had passed, he had been unable to speak more than a few words to them. Amelia showed absolutely no desire to bond with her stepchildren. He noticed Annie following her sister closely, apparently enthralled with the gambler. She reminded him so much of her mother: same auburn hair and large dark eyes. He turned his head as grief swam over him. Who did that conman think he was?
"That gambler sure has a way with children," Peter spat. He wasn't sure he liked someone of Ezra's dubious character deceiving his family. Children were easily influenced and they had suffered enough heartache already.
Nathan picked up one of the boards. "More like he knows how to get out of workin'."
"Not sure I like him 'round the children," Peter stated.
Buck raised an eyebrow and turned to face Peter. "Don't worry 'bout Ez, he's harmless." As the three men continued their work on the barn Buck added, "At least when it comes to kids, he's harmless."
Rachel and Amelia crossed the sunny yard heading to the house. Rachel knew her sister-in-law didn't hear her words. Amelia was clearly absorbed with the sight of the tall, mustached cowboy who was working on the barn. Buck had removed his jacket and sweat made his shirt hug the contours of his muscular body.
Amelia chewed her lip. Sighing, she watched the strain of Buck's muscles undulate as he worked. Her husband was a strong man, too, and a good man, but he just wasn't as exciting as she wanted. Until now she hadn't regretted her decision to marry Peter. She had desperately needed a way to get away from her own family and he had needed a mother for his children. But the arrival of the seven gunslingers proved a definite distraction.
"Whawhat?" Amelia answered, her fantasies shattered.
"You haven't heard a word I've said," Rachel admonished.
"Sorry, Rach, it's just that" Amelia's eyes shifted over to the bunkhouse where Chris was hammering down loose boards on the steps. She found the man's dangerous demeanor thrilling.
"You are a brazen hussy," Rachel stated with contempt.
Amelia grinned at the older woman as if the comment were a compliment. "Now, Rachel, don't tell me you haven't noticed how handsome our seven saviors are?"
Rachel huffed. Of course she had noticed they were extraordinarily handsome, but such strong willed men made her nervous. Her husband, William, was a good man, but like her father, he was weak, someone she could manipulate, and that's the way she liked it. She had allowed him to talk her into coming out west so he would think he held some measure of control over her.
"These men are hired guns. Lord only knows what they've done in the past." She looked toward the fence to see the gambler playing an impromptu game of tag. She saw her own children, Caleb and Melissa laughing loudly and cavorting around like young lambs. The gambler fell on his backside, allowing the children to catch him.
"What kind of man is that?" Rachel complained to Amelia as they continued across the compound. "It's disgraceful the way he uses our children to get out of working like the other men. I'm going to have William speak to Mr. Larabee. That man can't be a good influence on our young ones."
Amelia stole a glance at the handsome card shark and felt a flutter of butterflies rise up in her stomach. She sighed. The animated activity of the children was relentless. It tired her just to watch them. "Well, I don't know. Better him than me."
Ezra felt the hostility of the Feldman women. The disdain of the adults was all too familiar. He turned his back to them and swept his gaze over the more playful group.
Elizabeth stood apart from the others, staring at her father as he helped Buck and Nathan fix the barn.
"Darlin' is something troubling you?"
The young girl drew in a deep breath then exhaled. "He doesn't love us anymore."
Ezra's eyes went wide and he looked over at Peter Feldman. "What makes you say that?"
"Ever since our mother died he can't hardly even look at us," she explained.
Ezra knew what it was like to be ignored and unwanted, but he didn't think this was the case. He knelt on the ground and pulled the girl close.
"Elizabeth, it's hard to lose a loved one," Ezra started. Elizabeth closed her eyes and bit her lip to hold back the tears. "You lost your mother; but remember your father lost his wife and companion. Someone he hoped he would spend the rest of his life with." Elizabeth opened her eyes and looked into the gambler's face. The child had been hurting so much inside that she never considered how her father might be feeling.
"Give him time, Elizabeth. Your father will remember how much he loves you and Garrett and Annie."
"You think so?"
Ezra smiled and pushed Elizabeth's hair out of her face. "Yes, I know so."
Larabee stepped out of the bunkhouse and tilted his face to the noonday sun. Wiping his hands on a rag, he scanned the diligently working men. At the other side of the house he saw Ezra still entertaining the children. Chris was at a loss to explain how a conman who had never had children could be so at ease with them. After Adam died, he couldn't bear to have other children near, reminding him of the son he had lost. Chris caught the delight in one of the girl's faces and smiled. It was good to see children happy.
Josiah stepped out of the bunkhouse as Dorothea approached with a bucket of water. The elderly woman had a strong, no nonsense presence: one that could not be ignored.
"Mr. Larabee, Mr. Sanchez, would you care for some water?"
"Why, that would be most appreciated, ma'am," Josiah said as he bent down to retrieve the ladle.
Dorothea gazed at the bunkhouse. "You men are certainly hard workers. I can't believe how much you've done already."
Chris and Josiah both smiled at the compliment. The screams of young girls grabbed their attention and they all turned to see Ezra staggering blindly about trying to catch one of the children who darted around him. He stopped and lifted the corner of the blindfold only to be reprimanded by the children for cheating.
"Seems your man is pretty good with children," Dorothea noted. It had been a difficult trip for the youngsters. She was grateful they had this brief opportunity to enjoy themselves. There was so much hard work for them ahead.
Chris bowed his head. "He's not much into manual labor."
Dorothea raised both eyebrows. "Mr. Larabee, I raised three boys and trying to keep them out of trouble and entertained 'bout wore me out. I don't know what you all would call it, but amusing five children hardly constitutes leisure."
Josiah smiled at the insightful woman, his respect for her rising.
The gunslingers flopped down around the campfire; stretching sorely abused muscles.
"God, I haven't been this sore since" Buck began.
"Don't say it, Buck," JD interrupted, groaning at the ache in his legs. He didn't want to hear yet another tale of his friend's physical prowess with some lovely courtesan.
"What? I was only going to say since having to fix up the saloon after the last brawl," he innocently replied. JD rolled his eyes and laid his head back on a log.
As Nathan threw more wood on the fire Ezra appeared out of the darkness and sat down next to Vin.
"Wouldn't hurt you to give us a hand," Nathan remarked.
"Sir, I applaud your every effort," Ezra replied as he slowly slapped his hands together.
Vin ducked his head to hide the smile on his face. He looked at the splinters embedded in his palms. They were deep but he knew that Nathan could get them out.
Ezra slid off the log and tried to get comfortable on the ground. His backside was sore from a rather brutal tumble taken in blind-man's bluff. He was also hungry having passed on lunch. The Feldman's prepared ample meals, but Ezra knew that he was barely tolerated by the family. He figured it would be best to keep his distance from the adult members. Especially, since he didn't want to be told to keep away from the children.
The next day the gunslingers continued their labor at the ranch. By late afternoon, the ramshackle buildings were starting to look like something livable.
Chris Larabee crossed the dry yard that led to the fenced corral. Vin and JD were suppose to be repairing the fence but the sound of their hammering had ceased. Halfway across the yard Eugene Feldman intercepted him. The older man had been working hard preparing the main house for winter.
"Mr. Larabee," Eugene called out. Chris stopped and waited for the rancher. "Just wanna thank you and your men for all the hard work." Eugene ran a hand through his thick gray hair. "Guess I got too used to doing things on my own. Didn't seem right askin' for help."
"Best get use to askin' for help and acceptin' it or you ain't gonna make it out here," Chris sternly replied.
"You're right, I know that now. With all your help I'm beginning to think we might just make it 'fore winter sets in. Thank you." Eugene held out his hand and Chris grasped it firmly.
The two parted and Chris continued to the section of fence where Vin and JD were supposed to be. He saw no sign of Vin but JD was there. His back was to Chris, both hands poised above his guns, his feet squared for a duel. Chris was baffled, his eyes darting in front of the kid seeking the adversary. JD moved in slow motion, drawing his guns and then giving them a quick twirl.
"It's not how fast you shoot," he said pointing his guns at the empty horizon. "It's how deadly you aim."
The young Damen Feldman nodded furiously. "Let me try now, JD!"
"JD, what the hell are you doing and where is Vin?"
JD quickly holstered his guns. "Sorry, Chris."
"It's my fault Mr. Larabee. I asked 'im to show me," Damen explained. "Never knew any gunslingers before."
"Vin sighted a herd of deer," JD said, standing tall. "And decided to go and get one."
"Why don't you come back and help me and Josiah at the bunkhouse?"
"Damen, why don't you go see if your father can use any help up at the main house?" Chris indicated the building with a tilt of his head. He hadn't seen much of the younger Feldman and wondered what he'd been up to. Damen's cocky attitude disturbed him.
"Yes, sir." Damen nodded, turning to JD. "Mind showing me some more tricks later?"
Chris glared at JD.
"Ah, yeah, maybe later, Damen. You better get to work now."
Damen ran off toward the house.
"Sorry Chris, he just wanted me to show him some simple moves."
"I think you've showed him enough, JD. Let's go."
Near the bunkhouse Chris caught sight of Ezra hiding behind a tree.
"You go ahead JD, I'll catch up."
JD kept walking, pretending that he had not seen the gambler. The young sheriff knew he had narrowly escaped Chris's wrath and he didn't think Ezra would be so lucky. Larabee was not in the mood for fun and games.
Chris took a step toward Ezra. What the hell did the man think he was doing? They had hours of work ahead before this family could survive. His hands pulled into tight fists. He could no longer tolerate Ezra's laziness.
As if on cue, four children sprang from behind the bunkhouse and tackled the card shark driving him to the ground. Chris watched in surprise as the children tried to restrain the struggling man, each one releasing their own primal shriek of joy. Ezra managed to get to his feet with two of his captors still hanging on his arms. But a third child tackled him, bringing him to his knees.
Chris had to smile. He paused before returning to work and listened to the delighted laughter for a moment. Maybe Mrs. Feldman was right.
Chris and Josiah finished their work at the bunkhouse for the day. Chris turned to scrutinize what they had accomplished. It still needed a coat of paint but the new windows and doors were a definite improvement.
"Ay, cowboy." A smooth Texas drawl came up from behind him.
"Any luck?" Chris asked.
"Yep, got a nice buck. Should feed 'em for awhile."
Chris looked over Vin's shoulder. William and his wife, Rachel, approached.
"What can we do for you?" Josiah asked.
William stood, shifting nervously and wringing his hands until his wife nudged him in the ribs. A half smile lit Vin's face. It was clear who wore the pants in that family.
"Ah, yeah, we ah, the others and us would like you to ask Mr. Standish to stay away from the children," William stammered. These men made him nervous.
Chris stiffened. "And why would I do that?"
William looked to his wife. She rolled her eyes and stepped forward. "Who knows what notions he's putting into their young impressionable minds? He's a gambler!"
"Yes ma'am, he is," Josiah commented. "But he wouldn't do anything to harm those children."
"The children really should be helping. They're not even doing their chores," William added.
Maybe Ezra was a bad influence, Chris thought. He even got the children out of work. Chris looked over at Vin who was trying to hold back a grin.
Larabee cleared his throat. "Mr. Feldman, Mrs. Feldman, at the moment you have six able-bodied men working for you. They'll be plenty of time for the children to catch up on their chores later. Besides, they'd only get in the way with all the heavy work that's going on. I think they deserve a break, don't you?"
"We want him gone," Rachel snarled. "Someone like that has no business around decent folk."
The three gunslingers lost all pretense of good humor. Chris realized that Ezra had automatically been construed as a self-serving thief. Chris understood too well. He knew that they had labeled him 'dangerous' just as thoughtlessly. Although they both deserved their reputations, to some extent, there was much more to them than mere appearances portrayed. No one bothered to look any deeper, except maybe the children. A feeling of shame washed over Chris as he realized that he, too, had misjudged Ezra.
"No, Ma'am. I won't tell 'im. You'll have to do it yourself." Chris barely kept the anger out of his voice. Abruptly, he turned and strode away.
"A word of warning," Vin added, leaning close. "He's pretty quick with a gun." Josiah and Vin tipped their hats and followed Chris to the bunkhouse.
Rachel looked at her husband. She knew he wouldn't do anything more. She huffed and went back toward the main house leaving William to wonder where he was going to spend the night.
Ezra dropped the bucket of oats he was bringing to the horses. He ran in the direction of Elizabeth's screams, scanning the field for the children. He had only just left them to check on the animals. They had planned to pull the big stones from the garden area and carry them to the creek for a stepping stone bridge. Why wasn't Elizabeth in the field?
He heard more shouting near the path to the creek and saw Elizabeth racing toward him, her braids flying. When she caught sight of him she skidded to a stop and turned around. She knew he would come. Over her shoulder she shouted, "Garrett is falling! He can't hold on!"
Ezra followed Elizabeth to the edge of the wood. The rest of the children circled the base of a large oak that stood inside the perimeter of the ranch. Garret swung high above them, clutching desperately to a branch. His eyes were shut tight and he was shaking from the exertion of holding on.
Ezra began to remove his jacket. It didn't look like the boy was up that far. "Garrett," he called. "Don't worry, son, I'm coming to get you."
"Snake!" Garrett howled, "I saw a snake!"
"It wasn't nothin' but a garter snake, Garrett!" Melissa called to him. "Caleb caught it to show you!" Caleb proudly swung the snake into view, its green skin glistening in the sunlight. "C'mon! Open your eyes!"
Standish moved quickly, handing his dark blue jacket to Melissa. She accepted the coat like it was made of gold. Ezra was a good climber. He had often been chased by bullies as a child. Their pursuit was an excellent incentive to learn how to gain access to the most inaccessible places. Ezra grabbed hold of a branch and hoisted himself up. The tree was old and the limb creaked under his weight. He climbed up another ten or fifteen feet of the tree without any trouble.
"Alright, Garrett, hang on. I'm almost there." Slowly Ezra pulled himself along the branch until he reached the frightened boy. "Okay, son, I'm here. All you have to do is inch your way back."
"I can't. I'm scared." The child's voice had reached a frantic pitch.
Ezra moved farther out along the branch toward the boy. "I promise I won't let you fall." When he was close enough he leaned out and clutched one tiny wrist, holding tight.
"Don't worry about the snake, Garrett." The Southerner's soothing voice and sure presence began to take effect. "We'll just have Caleb introduce that reptile to Mr. Larabee. One look from Mr. Larabee and that snake will slither all the way to San Francisco."
Slowly Garrett released his death grip on the branch, allowing Ezra to pull him into his chest. "There, now! Just hang on and we'll be down in a moment." Ezra held the child close. With the sudden shift of weight the branch cracked and split away from the tree dropping the pair to the limb below.
Ezra instantly wrapped his right arm firmly around the boy, pressing him to his chest. He twisted his body and used his left arm to divert branches as they slapped into them. Ezra's back broke through several thick limbs as they descended. Time seemed to slow and Ezra watched the horrified faces of the children below as they approached. "Don't be afraid," he thought as his body slammed the ground and Garrett's banged on top of him.
Elizabeth reached them first and pulled Garrett into her arms. He was startled and exhilarated, happy to be on solid ground. As one they turned to Ezra. He lay motionless, flat on his back. His eyes were closed and his lips were parted as though he were about to speak.
"He's dead!" Garrett screamed.
"Mr. Standish!" Elizabeth collapsed next to the unconscious man and gripped his shoulder. Her face was a mask of terror. "Mr. Ezra, please! Get up now!"
"He IS dead, Garrett!" Caleb whispered. He indicated the gambler with a swing of the snake. "You killed him!"
Garrett knelt next to Ezra and hung his head. "I didn't mean to. I'm so sorry." He was devastated and remained rooted beside the man. Tears spilled over his face.
"Wait!" Melissa leaned closer. "I saw him move! He's not dead anymore!" Everyone sucked in a breath and held it hopefully as they watched the man. The gambler's head rolled to the side and he groaned.
Ezra felt like he was in a vortex. A low buzzing sound filled his head and his vision blurred. Suddenly air rushed back into his lungs and sound assailed his senses. He realized the children were clinging to him and calling his name.
"Can you hear me, Mr. Standish?" Elizabeth asked, "Please wake up now." She was just inches from his face. He felt the rush of her warm breath.
Ezra slowly opened his eyes. He bent his knees to raise himself to a sitting position but a sharp pain lanced through his side. He rested back against the ground and took careful note of each child. He saw the tears on Garrett's face and reached out to him.
"Areyoualright, Master Garrett?" he gasped.
"Yes," Garrett said with a single nod, wiping his nose on his sleeve. "Thank you." Little Annie moved to her brother's side and patted him comfortingly on the shoulder.
Ezra smiled and tried again to sit up. His left side ached and it hurt to take a breath. The pain twisted his expression and a sheen of sweat oiled his pale skin.
"Are you OK?" Melissa asked in amazement.
"You sure fell a long way, Mr. Standish," Caleb looked up into the broken tree.
Ezra smiled. "It's not the fall, but the sudden stop at the end that is undesirable."
Annie moved over to Ezra. With both her hands she held one of his. "C'mon, Mr. Ezra." Her voice was soft but determined. "We'll help you get up. We have to show Mr. Larabee the snake."
"CHILDREN, COME AN' EAT!" Dorothea's call echoed over the field. The children jumped at the sound of her voice but no one moved.
"Go children, your grandmother is calling," Ezra urged, grateful for the interruption.
The children raced off but Elizabeth stopped and looked over her shoulder. Ezra smiled and waved her on.
When the children were out of sight Ezra braced himself for the pain. He rolled on his side, and carefully rose to his feet. His shirt had a long tear in one side. He pulled open the garment and observed the broad scrape and bruise already forming. He limped carefully to the small creek inside the wood. He wet a handkerchief and applied cool water to the abraded skin. Ezra hissed as he proceeded to clean the injured area.
Giggles off to his left raised the gambler's eyebrows and he slowly made his way down the narrow trail. The laughter continued and he parted the underbrush only to witness a sight he wished he hadn't seen.
William's wife Amelia and young Damen Feldman were wrapped around each other in a passionate embrace.
"Oh, Damen," Amelia gasped as Damen devoured her neck. "When are we going to get away from here?"
He came up for air and replied, "Soon as we start making money on this ranch."
Amelia suddenly spotted Ezra and pushed away from her lover. She gathered her clothing around her covering her partially bare chest. "Mr. Standish, how dare you!"
"Sorry, my mistake." Ezra smiled and tipped his hat as he backed away. And I thought I was the one who was supposed to be devious.
"Ah shit!" Damen swore and pulled up his pants. By the time he had them on the gambler was gone. "What if he tells Peter?"
"He won't." Amelia assured.
"Damn, I knew this was a mistake," Damen said.
"What? Do you think I am a mistake?"
"You are the best mistake I ever made," Damen growled. "But we need to find some place more secluded."
"What we need is to get out of here!" Amelia quickly buttoned her blouse and pulled back her hair.
Ezra waited for the cover of darkness before returning to camp. His left side and back were throbbing. His head ached and his vision had not yet cleared completely. He tilted back his flask, draining it; disappointed that the liquor had not done more to ease the pain.
As he approached the small camp he could make out the shifting silhouettes of the others circled around the fire. He listened to the quiet chatter and laughter of his friends. Even after all this time he still felt like an outsider; still had the need to keep things from them. He would not reveal what he had seen at the creek. That affair was not his business. And the fall from the tree was something else he would keep to himself. He didn't want to engage the help of Nathana good night sleep and he would be fine.
Vin frowned when he saw the dark form creep toward the camp. He watched as Ezra gingerly arranged himself on his bedroll and appeared to go to sleep. He wondered why Ezra didn't join them. Vin had heard some of the Feldman's ridicule about Ezra's lack of work ethic. He was sure that Ezra had heard it too. Maybe the gambler was just tired of it.
Josiah also noticed Ezra's clandestine return. He found it strange that the usually nocturnal card shark was turning in so early, but maybe the children had been especially boisterous.
"My twelve o'clock!" Vin whispered suddenly. The casual atmosphere at the camp froze as the group turned to watch directly in front of Vin. Only the sound of the crackling fire filled the quiet but the tracker often heard things first: or maybe he just felt them. They were all poised for action, hands held over guns, when they saw it. A white, billowing apparition raced across the field between the house and the camp.
"It's one of the kids," Vin said. "It's Garrett."
Josiah stood and watched the little figure in a nightshirt approach the camp. He caught the child as he sailed near and set him on his feet. Garrett was completely distraught, tears streaked his face and he shivered in the late autumn chill.
"Hold on there, little fellow!" Josiah soothed. "Where are you going in such a hurry?"
"I'm so sorry," Garrett stuttered. "I killed Mr. Ezra before and I wanted to make sure he wasn't dead again."
Vin and JD snorted with laughter but Buck pushed between them, elbowing them both. "Quiet now, boys! We got us a serious problem here." He turned to the child sympathetically. "Ain't nobody dead here, son. Mr. Ezra already went to bed right over there. And you should be in bed now, too."
"I know. I was sleeping but I had a bad dream about falling. I just had to make sure that Ezra was okay."
Josiah's brow furrowed and he looked over at the sleeping form across the camp. He pulled a blanket from his bedroll and draped it around the boy. "Let's ask Ezra to say goodnight and then I'll take you back to the house."
The child walked between Buck and Josiah and squatted next to the gambler's prone form. Nathan appeared above them holding a lantern. Josiah grasped Ezra's shoulder gently trying to wake him.
"Smells like he drank his supper tonight," Buck noted
"Josiah, I ain't givin' him nothin' for a hangover. He can just suffer," Nathan quipped.
Josiah ignored his friend's remark and gently turned the conman onto his back eliciting a small groan, but still, Ezra didn't wake up. Josiah touched the back of his hand to Ezra's face. He felt feverish.
"Brother Nate, I believe your services might be needed."
Nathan handed the lantern to Buck and knelt near the conman. He took hold of Ezra's face in both hands. His skin was heated and Nathan's hands slid down to check the pulse at his neck. His long fingers felt a knot at the back of the gambler's head. The healer pulled open Ezra's shirt and ran his hand over the right shoulder looking for the dislocated joint that so often plagued the man. Everything was in tact but a dark bruise marked the center of Ezra's sternum.
"What the hell is that?" Nathan felt the bone and Ezra jerked at the touch, pushing Nathan away. Buck and Josiah caught the gambler's arms and restrained him.
"Easy, pard," Buck said, "Looks like somethin' smashed into ya."
"That's where my head hit," Garrett offered.
Nathan opened the rest of the shirt as Ezra struggled to get his bearings. The long cut on his side looked black in the low light.
"What happened here, Garrett?" Nathan asked the boy. "Tell me all about it."
"Well, there was a snake," Garrett began. "It was huge: a rattler or maybe a cobra." The other men moved forward not wanting to miss the tale. "It chased me into a tree---about a hundred feet---I couldn't get down. So Ezra came up and got me. But the tree broke."
Garrett was trembling and Buck drew him close. "And then what happened, son?"
"We fell. My head hit there," he said pointing at the bruise in the center of Ezra's chest. "And Mr. Ezra was laying on his back, dead."
Josiah met Nathan's quick glance and they grasped Ezra's arms and turned him over. Nathan's knife sliced easily through the ripped shirt revealing the colorful injury. The tree limbs had left horizontal rows of cuts and bruises from his shoulders to his lower back.
Nathan jumped to the other side of the gambler and knelt down moving the others away. He swore as he prodded the injury. Ezra moaned again and tired to pull away but was stopped by Josiah's hand on his shoulder.
"Easy, Ez," Nathan soothed. "Stay put."
Buck scooped up their little visitor and carried him back to the house, talking to him quietly as they went. "Now don't you worry, pard. Ezra ain't dead.. That man is like a cat. I don't know if anyone ever told you but a cat's got nine lives. So, let's see, that means ol' Ez has at least eight left"
"He gonna be OK?" Chris growled, squatting down next to Josiah. "Why didn't he say anything?"
"Because he's a mule-headedson of" Nathan started.
Nathan felt guilty for having thought the worst of the enigmatic gambler. Would he ever be able to get past Ezra's southern heritage or ambiguous life? "Sorry, Josiah, but sometimes he just makes me so mad."
"It's a talent he aspires to," Josiah replied. "You've been riding him pretty hard about not doing any work. I suppose he just didn't want to hear it anymore, from any of us." Josiah stared at each of his friends, sending a pang of guilt through all of them.
"Ah, Ez knows we don't mean it," JD defended.
"Does he?" Josiah asked.
JD stared down at the injured conman and had to wonder.
"Why ain't he wakin' up?" Vin was worried.
"I've seen him playing with the little ones all day. Their parents told me those kids are so tired they barely get through supper without falling asleep," Josiah said.
"Between the alcohol, exhaustion and the bump on his head he'll probably sleep all night," Nathan replied. "Looks like he cleaned it up pretty good, but I think he busted a rib. I'll bandage him up, but he's goin' to be plenty sore for awhile."
Chris tilted his head to scan the Southerner's strained features. When would they understand him? Moreover, when would he start trusting them? "Let 'em sleep in tomorrow."
Everyone nodded in agreement.
When Ezra woke it was almost mid-day. He lay on his chest, comfortable enough in the blankets but his shirt was gone. His mouth felt like it was stuffed with cotton and his head throbbed. He wasn't sure if it was from his indulgence of alcohol or the fall. He lay still, trying to clear his head. Why hadn't the others wakened him?
"Good morning." Josiah's baritone voice broke through his confusion.
Ezra tried to rise and immediately regretted the action as pain clutched his side and took his breath away.
Josiah moved closer. "Easy there, you've got a busted rib. Nate strapped you up good, but you need to take it easy." Josiah supported Ezra's shoulders when he tried to get up again and helped him roll onto his back. The preacher picked up a cup of water and boiled herbs. "Here, drink this, it'll help."
Ezra winced in pain and confusion as he drank the noxious concoction. What the hell happened last night?
"Why didn't you tell us you were hurt?" Josiah kindly rebuked.
Ezra ran a hand over the bandages around his chest. "Didn't think it was that bad."
"Humph bad enough." Josiah produced a clean shirt and helped Ezra put it on. Even seated on the ground he felt unstable. Then the preacher found another blanket and rolled it up, making a pillow. "When you gonna realize you can trust us?" He didn't expect an answer. He could see that Ezra was already feeling the numbing effects of Nathan's tea. Ezra made a move to stand but Josiah easily intervened and laid him back. "Just rest now, son."
Josiah finished the last of the coffee while he waited for Ezra to fall asleep. The distant sounds of the other men working filled the air. When he heard the shouts of children approaching Ezra's eyes opened.
"Don't even think about it," Josiah warned him. "Not today." He stood and watched his friend's eyes close. "Tomorrow."
The children moved with purpose toward the camp, a flurry of energy. Josiah intercepted the group, redirecting them like a dam changing the course of a river. Cut short from their goal they were frustratedand worried.
"But Mr. Sanchez!" Caleb protested, racing to stay astride the preacher. He glanced back at the camp hoping see Ezra. "We've finished all our morning chores and Grandma said we could go find Mr. Standish!"
"That's because your Grandma doesn't know Ezra got hurt. Did you tell her that the object of your vigorous affection needs to recover from yesterday's adventures?" Caleb's brow creased in concentration. "No, sir."
"Is he alright?" Elizabeth asked. Josiah stopped walking and the children halted with him, serious and silent. "Yes, honey. He just needs to rest. If y'all get ahead on tomorrow's chores now, it'll give you more time to play with Ezra when he's well."