by J. Brooks

"Little Ezra" Universe

Note: So…I broke down and wrote a Little Ezra story a while back. I called it Fellow Travelers and spent the bulk of the narrative just knocking the stuffing out of poor little Ezra. I’ve been feeling a bit guilty about it ever since. So I’m giving him a bear, by way of apology for whompings past and whompings yet to come (if I ever get around to finishing that sequel…)

This story was written in response to a Teddy Bear Challenge. It picks up at the point where I would have given Ezra a bear -- if it had occurred to me to give him a bear -- shortly before the end of Fellow Travelers. He’s back in the infirmary for the night, having just been kicked out of the latest in a string of respectable foster families Judge Travis keeps finding for him.

Look at that! I just created an alternate reality for my alternate universe!

Fort Laramie, Nebraska Territory
Early summer 1857
Someone was watching.

Ezra twitched and burrowed deeper under the covers, sensing a stranger’s scrutiny and wishing to avoid the prying eyes. Safe in the hollow between pillow and quilt, he held still and listened to the adult voices talking quietly elsewhere in the room. The goose down muffled the words, but the tone of the conversation seemed friendly enough. Nathan sounded almost...amused.

The adults were laughing softly now. Ezra felt the mattress dip as something lightweight settled on the covers next to his head. He was tempted to poke his head out to see what was so funny, but -- he yawned -- he was quite comfortable where he was and Nathan could always tell him about the visitors later.

He inhaled the familiar sickroom scents of boiled cotton and lye and the faint, bitter fumes from the herbal draught Nathan still insisted on brewing for him every evening. No matter that it had been a full two weeks since Ezra had recovered from the fever that nearly claimed his life. No matter that Ezra explained every time, in great detail, that he did not need a healthful tonic, thank you very much. Every night the healer appeared with a steaming kettle on the doorstep of whatever family happened to have Ezra in their custody.

Ezra smirked into his pillow, happy to drink a river of herbal tea if it meant he could spend an evening in the sensible company of his associates, rather than the respectable folk the judge kept choosing as his guardians. Not that any of the would-be guardians had lasted long in his company.

It was pleasant to be rid of them, even if just for the evening while the judge searched for another household willing to foster him. Ezra scrunched his eyes shut, trying not to think about it.

The voices were whispering their farewells now and Ezra listened with drowsy satisfaction as the sickroom door closed quietly behind them. He yawned again and snuggled into the blankets, knowing that Nathan and Vin were still in the room with him, and letting that comforting thought lull him to sleep.

He barely twitched when someone smoothed the covers away from his head, or when that same someone lifted his arm and settled it back on top of something pleasantly soft and round. Ezra snuggled closer to the comfortable thing, curling around it as he drifted off.

+ + + + + + +

Someone was watching.

Ezra startled awake, squinting against the too-bright morning sunlight as he searched for the intruder. He found it two inches from his nose. A pair of beady black shoe-button eye beamed up from his pillow with boundless, witless good will.

Appalled, Ezra scooted back until his shoulders hit the wall, as far from his fluffy bedmate as possible.

There was a snort of laughter beside him. Ezra looked up to find Buck Wilmington lolling in the rocking chair at the foot of the bed, grinning. The loose prison manacles looped around his wrists and ankles rattled as he leaned forward.

“Surprise,” Buck said, nodding toward the bear.

Ezra wrinkled his nose and edged back toward the thing. Slowly, he reached out and picked it up, tweezing one of its round stuffed ears between two fingers. He stared; taking in the soft brown felt exterior, the button nose, the oversized head that flopped endearingly to one side, and the stitched red curl of its smile.

“Why?” he inquired flatly, squinting at the stuffed brown bear as if it were a dead squirrel someone had left on his pillow.

“Why what?” Buck leaned forward and plucked the bear from Ezra’s fingers. He shook the stuffed toy gently, smiling as its head and limbs flopped about. He danced the bear back across the blankets toward Ezra. “Judge Travis’s wife made him for you. Figured you might like him, seeing as how you left all your toys behind in Alabama.”

Toys? Ezra frowned as the bear tap-danced up his shins and into his arms. He accepted the bundle of fluff as Buck sat back with a satisfied expression. Ezra turned the bear to stare into its beady eyes again. What toys?

He turned the thing in his hands, feeling Buck’s stare, wondering what in heaven’s name the big man expected him to do with it. The seam along its backside caught his eye and he smiled. Aha! An inconspicuous hiding place for his winnings -- assuming the adults ever returned his cards to him. Perhaps he could impose on Nathan for some scissors, a needle and thread...

He rotated the stuffed toy again and gnawed his lip. It was terribly conspicuous. Too large to conceal on his person, almost too large to fit inside a saddle bag. No. The bear would be more trouble than it was worth.

He set it aside and turned to Buck with what he hoped was the correct smile for the occasion.

“It’s a very nice bear, don’t you think? I must remember to thank Mrs. Travis.” He hopped off the bed, ready to get dressed and make his escape.

“So what’re you gonna name him, Ez?”

Ezra rolled his eyes up from the shirt he was buttoning and found Buck playing with the bear again, wiggling it until it nodded enthusiastically at his every word.

Apparently there would be no quick escape from this charade. Ezra picked up his socks and boots and moved back to the bed, thinking fast. “What do you suppose would be a good name for a bear?”

Buck cocked his head, studying the boy more intently than Ezra liked. “Now, Ezra. A man just don’t go around namin’ another man’s bear. Some things just ain’t done. You got to get to know your bear. Figure out for yourself if he looks more like a Pookie, or a Clarence or, say, a Buck...”

Ezra cackled. Buck the Bear. Wilmington waggled his eyebrows encouragingly.

There was a knock on the sickroom door and Buck turned to answer it, tossing the bear to Ezra. Ezra ducked, watching in satisfaction as the bear flew past him, hit the wall, and slid out of sight behind the bed.

He was pulling on his socks with an air of perfect innocence when Vin and Nathan trooped into the room, ready to escort him to the judge’s chambers to meet the next family willing to take him on. Ezra snatched up his belongings and darted out the door, calling a hasty farewell to Buck as he went.

+ + + + + + +

“Ezra! Hold up!”

Nathan Jackson turned at the call, catching Ezra by the collar when the boy seemed inclined to keep walking. He glanced down in surprise, wondering why Ezra might be trying to avoid Vin. The boy waited, eyes forward, shoulders braced for what he knew must be coming.

Vin ambled across the barracks square, nodding pleasantly to the passing soldiers, a stuffed brown bear tucked casually under his arm.

“Forget something?” he asked as he reached them. Ezra sighed, still not looking up, and held out a hand for the bear. The three of them resumed the journey to the judge’s office.

The two men exchanged puzzled glances over the boy’s bowed head. Vin cleared his throat. “That’s a right nice bear. What’s ’is name?”

Ezra looked up at last, a calculating light in his eye. “Mr. Wilmington suggested Buck the Bear.”

Vin and Nathan’s reaction to that idea occupied them until they reached the judge’s office.

Judge Travis was waiting with Ezra’s latest foster family -- a dour drill sergeant and his wife. Ezra exploded into action, darting around the room, thanking the judge effusively for Mrs. Travis’s thoughtful gift, flattering the new foster family outrageously. Before the adults had a chance to slip a word in edgewise, he was herding his guardians out the door, waving a cheery farewell to Vin and Nathan, chattering like a magpie the entire time.

Five minutes later, the judge found the bear wedged behind a chair.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra rocked back on his heels and swiped a grubby hand across his forehead. Gardening wasn’t bad work, as chores went, but this had to be the ugliest plot of vegetation he’d ever seen. If the garden was any indication, the drill sergeant and his wife subsisted entirely on cabbages and turnips. It didn’t bode well for Ezra’s stay in their home.

Kneeling again, he yanked up a bright yellow dandelion with some regret. The weeds were the prettiest things in the garden.

A shadow fell over him. He looked up to find Nathan leaning against the white picket fence that surrounded the cottage and yard. Ezra grinned wryly. Caught in the act of menial labor. Nathan would be delighted.

Nathan returned the smile and brandished the stuffed bear.

Stifling a groan, Ezra climbed to his feet, stepping carefully over the cabbage rows as he approached the fence.

“You forgot him in the judge’s office,” Nathan said mildly.

“So I did,” Ezra sighed, then brightened, displaying ten grimy fingers. “Would you mind holding on to it for me? I’d hate to soil Mrs. Travis’s handiwork.”

Nathan cocked an eyebrow at him. “Or maybe I’ll just drop him off in the house for you. I’m sure Mrs.--”

“Van Hoosen,” Ezra mumbled.

“Mrs. Van Hoosen won’t mind putting him up in your room,” the healer squinted up at the hot sun and down at the sweating child. “’Bout time you got out of this heat anyway. Don’t want you tiring yourself out. Don’t these folk know you been sick?”

Ezra grimaced. The list of indoor chores was twice as long as the outdoor duties the drill sergeant’s wife had rattled off to him. Honestly, it was a wonder Fort Laramie’s families got any work done at all when there were no foundlings available for fostering.

Just then, the kitchen door banged open, revealing an outraged Mrs. Van Hoosen.

“Shoo! Get away!” she squawked, flapping a dishtowel at Nathan. “Your kind’s not welcome here! What would the neighbors say if they saw you?”

Nathan held up the stuffed toy in a placating gesture, trying to explain. Suddenly, a small body hurtled the fence and caught him around the midsection.

“Pa!” Ezra crowed at the top of his lungs. “You came to take me home!”

+ + + + + + +

“Well, that was a new one,” Nathan grumbled, trudging back across the barracks square with Ezra’s belongings in tow, the housewife’s shrieks still ringing in his ears. Ezra trotted smugly beside him, brushing dirt off his hands.

“What’s this make? Seven, eight places you been kicked out of since we got here?”

“She was uncivil.” Ezra scowled down at the bear Nathan had insisted he carry. “And her house reeked of boiled cabbage.”

Nathan dropped down on his haunches and tugged the boy around to face him. “Ezra,” he said seriously. “That ain’t no excuse to lie to the woman. And it’s just gonna make it that much tougher for the judge to find a nice place for you to stay.”

It was the same conversation they had every time Ezra was ejected from a foster home. Nathan knew perfectly well that Ezra didn’t want a nice place to stay. And after meeting most of the would-be guardians, Nathan couldn’t really blame the boy.

But wishing things were different wouldn’t change the way things were. Nathan squeezed the narrow shoulders gently and tried to peer into the downcast green eyes.

“Now, you’re just about the whitest boy I’ve ever seen in my life, so I doubt anybody’s gonna listen if she goes telling tales. Lucky for you. You’d be in a world of hurt if folks actually believed you and me was kin.”

Who would want you then? The unvoiced question hung between them. Nathan glanced away quickly, not wanting the boy to see the answer written so clearly in his own eyes.

Ezra shrugged, unaware that he was squeezing the bear for all he was worth. “I wouldn’t mind,” he mumbled into the bear’s forehead.

Nathan felt something lurch in his chest as he pulled boy, bags and bear into a hard hug. Me neither, he didn’t say. I wouldn’t mind that, either.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra studied the atrocious hand he’d been dealt and tried to ignore the snickers of the four men locked in the cells around him. Ace, king, jack, ten and...six? He discarded the inside straight with a groan. This was absolutely the last time he let JD deal.

In the cell facing him, Chris gave up on the handful of nothing JD had dealt him and folded, sliding the cards through the bars to Ezra.

He cocked his head, watching the boy who sat cross-legged and unperturbed in the center aisle of the cell block. “I want you to stop playing these tricks, Ezra,” he said. “I mean it. You aren’t even trying to get along with these families the judge finds for you.”

Ezra shot the prisoner an incredulous look. Hadn’t Larabee been listening when he explained about the cabbage?

“I don’t blame him,” JD piped up from his cell across the aisle from Chris. He made a face at his cards and folded. “I wouldn’t want to stay in a house where Nathan wasn’t welcome, either.”

He slid the cards, and the rest of the deck, through the bars for Ezra to deal the next hand. The child scooped up the incomplete deck and began shuffling nervously, avoiding eye contact with anyone.

JD cast around for a change of subject. “At least the day wasn’t all bad,” he pointed out, brightening. “That’s a real nice bear Miz Travis made for you. Hey, Buck -- lemme see. It’s my turn.”

Buck, who’d been showing his cards to the bear, as if hoping for some advice, swatted at the arm that snaked through the bars. “You just hold your horses, boy. Buck the Bear and me are just getting acquainted.”

Buck held up a hand to fend off the jeers that greeted the name. “Yessiree, this is one fine figure of a bear. Puts me in mind of Ole Blue.” Relenting, he passed the stuffed toy through the bars to JD.

JD snatched the bear greedily. “Old Blue?” he prompted, tossing the bear gently in the air.

Buck settled back to tell the tale. “My Ma made him for me when I was just a little fella. Took him everywhere with me. Wouldn’t sleep at night ’less Ole Blue was tucked in beside me. Little Buck,” he nodded toward the bear, “is the spittin’ image of him -- ‘cept he ain’t blue. And he ain’t a rabbit.”

Buck caught the incredulous looks the others were giving him. “What?”

JD shook himself and turned back to the bear. “I had these great lead soldiers when I was a kid. Used to carry them around in my pockets. I’d spend hours setting them up, sending them off on adventures. Whenever my Ma wanted to give me a treat, she’d come home with a new soldier for my army.” He shot a nervous smile at the others and passed the bear through the bars to Ezra.

Ezra promptly wedged the toy through the bars of Josiah’s cell. Sanchez caught it before it hit the flagstone floor.

“My father carved a Noah’s Ark set when my sister and I were small,” he said, staring deep into the bear’s button eyes. His lips quirked. “At least, that’s what it was meant to be. Woodworking was not one of my father’s gifts. And pine isn’t a terribly durable wood. Ten years or so of rough play all but battered those poor wooden creatures to pieces,” Josiah smiled softly, remembering.

He reached up to touch the polished wooden cross around his neck. By the time the two of them had grown past the age of make-believe, the population of the ark had been reduced to a pair of shapeless wooden lumps that used to be Noah’s elephants. Rather than toss the beloved toys into the kindling pile, he’d let Hannah talk him into whittling the wood into a pair of crucifixes. One for him. One for her. A small piece childhood security to carry them into adulthood.

Clearing his throat, he passed the bear through the bars to Larabee, blinking away the sudden moisture in his eyes. “How about you, brother? What was your favorite toy?”

Larabee shot a narrow glare around the group. Nice try. It would be a cold day in Hell before they find out about the blanket.

“I need a drink,” he muttered under his breath. With a guilty start, he realized the boy was watching him intently.

“Boys,” Nathan’s greeting distracted the group, sparing Larabee. The healer strolled down the aisle, nodding his thanks to the guard who had unlocked the cellblock door for him.

“PA!” Buck, JD, Josiah and Chris chorused.

“Very funny.” Nathan blushed, scowling half-heartedly at the laughing prisoners and the boy who sat shuffling his cards, his expression suspiciously bland. “Don’t you go encouraging him.”

Ezra’s poker face cracked into a smart-aleck grin.

“Okay, Ezra, let’s go. Judge’s got your new family all lined up.”

Ezra’s smile fell.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra made it to his new foster home just in time for afternoon tea.

“Doesn’t Ezra look nice, ladies?” his hostess’s piping little voice soared toward the bright blue sky past the rose arbor where the outdoor tea party had been hastily organized in his honor. “Would you like some more tea, Ezra?”

Ezra rolled his eyes, adjusted his floppy floral sun bonnet before it could slide off his head, and gamely held out the tiny ceramic teacup.

His hostess beamed beneath her own oversized party hat and hefted a teapot full of a concoction that was supposed to be lemonade but had been rendered semi-solid by the surreptitious addition of a cupful of sugar.

“Thank you kindly, Miss Marian,” he said politely.

The five-year-old daughter of the house beamed at him as she splashed sugary lemonade everywhere. Ezra caught what drops he could and took a sip. “Delicious,” he croaked, tossing the vile brew over his shoulder as soon as the little girl turned away to serve the rest of the party -- two dolls with chipped porcelain heads and one stuffed brown bear, also sporting a flowery hat. The bear’s head tilted under the weight of the silk flowers, giving it an exasperated look. Ezra sympathized.

“Miss Marian...” he began, but the little girl had lost interest in the tea party and was skipping around the table, blonde pigtails bouncing as the overlong hem of her costume dress tripping her up every third step.

“Miss Marian...” Ezra tried again, but the peculiar child was trying to turn a handstand, heedless of the yards of white petticoats she was putting on display. “Perhaps we could play a different game now?”

Miss Marian beamed at him, upside-down, and somersaulted around to face him. “New game! New game!” she squealed, delighted. She pulled her knees up to her chin and waited for her wonderful new playmate to entertain her.

Ezra slipped the bonnet off his head with a sigh of relief and joined the tot on the grass. The judge had forbidden him to bring his cards into respectable homes, which ruled out any of the games he knew.

“Uh, perhaps we could play with your kitten?” he suggested, craning his head around to search the yard. The gray-striped tabby peered out balefully from beneath the back yard porch, hiding from its exuberant mistress.

“Boring,” Marian sang out. She had brushed the flowered hat off her head and replaced it with a paper bag. Peculiar girl.

Ezra reached up and snagged the bear off its milk crate chair. “You could play with this bear,” he said. Anything to spare him from another cup of little Marian’s “tea.”

The little girl let out a joyous squee and leaned in to give both boy and bear a sticky hug. Ezra was so much more fun than the kitten -- at least he hadn’t tried to hide under the porch yet.

Marian’s mother was watching the pair closely through the kitchen window, waiting for some sign that the young delinquent everyone in town was gossiping about might be trying to expose her sweet girl to unwholesome influences. Satisfied for the moment, she turned back to the bread dough she was kneading.

Ezra disentangled himself from the hug and watched, bemused, as a patch of bright yellow dandelions distracted the little girl. She rolled over to the flowers, waving him over to join her. “Loooook,” she urged him, sprawled belly-first on the grass, chin cradled on her fists as she studied the dandelions as though they were rare gems, not garden-variety weeds.

Ezra shot a quick look around to see if anyone was watching, then mimicked the pose.

Marian tilted her head even closer to the ground, the better to study the dandelions. Ezra sighed. If this was play, he hadn’t been missing out on much over the years.

Remembering something Chris had said during his last visit, Ezra shot a cautious look over his shoulder. The little girl’s mother had turned to the oven, totally absorbed in her baking.

Ezra wasn’t one to let an opportunity pass him by.

“Tell me, Miss Marian...” he said, rolling up on an elbow. The tot bounced up to listen, dandelions forgotten. “...does your father happen to keep a well-stocked liquor cabinet?”

+ + + + + + +

Larabee let his head thump back against the cell wall and rolled his eyes heavenward, as if an instruction manual for the proper care of 7-year-old con artists might be printed on the ceiling someplace.

“This is getting ridiculous.”

Judge Travis leaned wearily against the cell bars and loosened his necktie. “The lady of the house caught him picking the lock on her husband’s liquor cabinet. He was using their 5-year-old daughter as a lookout.”

The prisoners winced in tandem.

Larabee ran a hand through his hair. “I need a drink,” he muttered distractedly. He looked up to find four sets of eyes glaring at him reproachfully.


+ + + + + + +

The bear had its uses, Ezra reflected. At the moment, it was making itself useful as a cushion between his chin and the rough bark of a giant pine tree.

Thirty feet below his perch, the afternoon shadows were lengthening toward dusk.

Shortly, he’d have to make up his mind whether he wanted to spend the night in the tree, or clamber down and begin the long hike back to the stagecoach stop just outside the fort. Back to the stationmaster with the loud voice and the heavy, hobnailed boots he used to kick at the scrawny watchdogs chained in his yard.

Ezra sighed and snuggled closer to the bear. One more week of this. One more week of rotating through an endless series of houses that felt nothing like home. One more week and his associates would be released from their unfortunate incarceration -- and Ezra would find out if any of them really wanted to be encumbered by the company of a troublesome little boy any longer.

Ezra sighed, inhaling the warm, clean scent of the bear’s cotton stuffing.

Twigs snapped and pine needles rustled in the forest below. Ezra craned his neck to look, not terribly surprised to see Vin step into the clearing. The tracker was staring intently at the carpet of dead needles on the forest floor. He moved a step closer to Ezra’s tree, then another step, then, with a snort of laughter, tilted his head up until he spotted the boy peering down at him from the branches.

“Ezra.” The tracker managed to pack a world of amusement, curiosity and concern into a one-word greeting.

“Mister Tanner,“ Ezra drawled back. Taking that as an invitation, Vin caught hold of a low hanging branch, swung himself up, and started climbing.

It took the tracker considerably longer than it had taken Ezra to make his way to the treetop. Ezra whisked the bear out of sight, settling it behind his back like a cushion as he listened to the creaking tree limbs and scolding birdcalls that marked Vin’s upward progress. While he waited, he practiced different expressions of wide-eyed innocence.

A grunt and a muffled curse announced Vin’s arrival.

“Nice view,” he huffed, heaving himself onto a neighboring branch and running a hand through his tangled hair. It came away covered with dead needles and pine sap. He grimaced at the sticky residue, then at Ezra.

Ezra widened his eyes at him, all innocence.

Vin gave him a look that said he’d seen that particular expression before -- usually on convicts being hauled in for their bounties. He reached over and ruffled Ezra’s hair, managing to rub in a fair amount of sap and pine needles while he was at it. Ezra spluttered and batted him away.

They settled back in companionable silence, shoulder to shoulder, enjoying the view.

Finally, Vin stirred. “Reckon it’s about time we head back,” he said with a rueful smile. “Can’t roost in the treetops like a couple of owls all night.”

Ezra shrugged. The owls would be more agreeable company than the stationmaster, he was sure.

“I’ve been looking for you since suppertime,” Vin continued, eyes narrowing as he studied the boy. “Went up to meet the fella who‘s supposed to be looking after you. He couldn’t recall seeing you all day.”

Ezra glanced away. “He saw me at breakfast this morning.” Technically, the stationmaster had shoved him out the door with a loaf of bread, two withered apples and orders to stay out from underfoot for the rest of the day. Ezra had been happy to oblige.

Vin blew out a sigh and seemed to come to a decision. “C’mon,” he said, sliding off his perch and down to the branch below. He held out a hand to Ezra. “I’m takin’ you back to the fort.”

Dismayed, the boy tightened his grip on the tree. “But I promised,” he protested. “I promised Captain Larabee I’d stay where the judge put me this time.”

After the liquor cabinet debacle, the judge had marched the boy down to the jailhouse, where the imprisoned soldiers had ganged up to wring the promise out of the boy. And all things being equal, Ezra would rather wait out the week in a house where he was ignored than in a house where he was required to weed the cabbage beds.

Apparently Vin saw things differently. He was still holding his hand out, waiting. With a resigned sigh, Ezra reached out and let Vin help him down to the next branch. They started down, Vin first, Ezra following.

They were halfway down when Ezra realized he’d forgotten the bear.

Dismayed, he looked up, trying to catch a glimpse of brown felt through the prickly pine boughs. He was surprised by the pang of regret he felt, and had to fight a sudden urge to scramble back up the tree and grab the bear. When had that happened? When had he gotten attached to the silly thing?

He should know better than to get attached. Things were supposed to be replaceable, interchangeable. Things got left behind all the time.

He heard Vin calling up to him, sounding worried. With a guilty start, Ezra scrambled down to the next branch, trying to catch up to Vin, trying not to think about black button eyes watching him go. Buck the Bear, abandoned in the treetops to be soaked by rainstorms, pecked by birds, devoured by squirrels--

Ezra missed his footing and slipped off the branch with a startled yelp. He half-fell, half-skidded down the tree trunk, skinning his knees and the palms of his hands until a branch caught him under the armpit and broke his fall. Ezra clung to the branch, legs flailing as he scrabbled for a toehold.

A hand caught his ankle and guided his foot to a broad, sturdy branch. Another hand came to rest, warm and steady in the middle of his back, as shifted down to firmer footing.

With a shaky sigh, Ezra eased into the safe hollow between the tree trunk and Vin’s hip, then looked up to meet the tracker’s concerned blue gaze. Ezra huffed, mildly affronted that his near-death plunge didn’t merit more than ‘concern.’ He peered up at the stretch of snapped-off twigs that marked his fall -- and realized that he’d fallen all of two feet. Oh.

Vin’s arm came around his shoulders and squeezed gently, reassuring him that someone would be there to catch him if he should fall again. Ezra nodded, and when Vin started down again, he followed without complaint.

He imagined beady button eyes watching him go, watching him vanish from sight without a backward glance. Ezra blinked hard and kept moving. His mother had been right. It was best not to get attached to things. Or to places. And certainly not to people. People, least of all.

In no time at all, they reached the forest floor. Vin grinned, clapping the boy on the shoulder as he started back down the trail. Ezra took a hesitant step after him.

Vin glanced back and saw the look on the boy’s face. “Ez? What’s wrong? You look like you just lost your best--” He paused, suddenly realizing. “--bear? He still up in the tree?” He made a face at the sap-bearing monstrosity.

Ezra’s downcast eyes flickered up to meet Vin‘s, then glanced away. He nodded faintly, just once, and braced for a lecture. Instead, a wide-brimmed scout’s hat dropped over his head, followed by an affectionate head rub.

“Well that won’t do. Reckon I’d best fetch him back him back for you. Wait right here.”

Ezra looked up from under the hat brim, his eyes wide with alarm. It was getting darker by the minute in the forest now. The tree was an inky silhouette against the orange sunset sky.

“It isn’t important!” he called after the buckskin boots as they vanished into the branches. “Mr. Tanner? Please come back. It’s not worth the bother.” He craned his neck, half-expecting to see Vin come plummeting out of the sky. What if he missed his footing in the twilight gloom? What if he was attacked by owls? Or squirrels? Or wild Indians?

Vin‘s voice floated down to him, safe and warm and reassuring. “Don’t worry, Ez. Almost got ‘im.” Ezra plopped down on forest floor, hugging his knees for comfort as he waited. It wasn’t that long ago that he would have found it hard to imagine that anyone would be willing to take a risk, or even risk inconvenience, for the sake of Ezra P. Standish -- to say nothing of Ezra P. Standish’s silly stuffed bear.

Something tumbled out of the tree to land at his feet with a thump. Beady button eyes twinkled up at him over a stitched red mouth that curved in a forgiving smile. With a joyous yelp, the boy grabbed the bear and squeezed it.

When Vin dropped lightly to the ground a minute later, the hug was expanded to include him.

“You didn‘t have to do that,” Ezra said softly, his voice muffled against Vin’s coat.

Vin’s arms tightened around him for a second, then moved him back gently until the tracker could look at him from arm’s length.

“I was happy to do it for you, Ezra,” Vin said carefully. “It was no trouble at all.”

Ezra tilted his head back and stared up at the tracker, looking for any trace of doubt or deception and finding none. Tentatively, he reached up to take Vin’s hand, feeling the larger fingers close comfortingly on his own. They started back down the path together.

In the boy’s other hand, the bear dangled by one paw, bumping against his leg, getting tangled in thistles and brambles along the path -- forcing them to halt from time to time and untangle it from the weeds. It would be simpler, easier by far, to just let it drop. They would make better speed if he just let the bear fall by the wayside and continued on his way, unencumbered.

Ezra hitched the bear up under his arm, a bit safer from the hazards of the trail. He edged closer to Vin as the path grayed and faded around them in the gathering twilight. An owl hooted and he scooted even closer, entangling himself in Vin’s boots and nearly sending both of them sprawling.

Without missing a beat, Vin caught the boy under the arms, swung him up onto his back and continued on his way.

The twilight woods didn’t look quite so ominous from this height, Ezra decided. He rested his chin on his associate’s sap-covered shoulder and listened as Vin began to talk about the sights they were passing by: naming the different plants, pointing out the faint trails the deer followed to hidden waterholes; explaining how the moss that grew on tree trunks could help a person find his way, even when clouds covered the sun and the moon.

Yawning, Ezra wedged the sticky, prickly bear into the crook of Vin’s neck and settled in for the ride.

The trees were starting to thin out now. He could just make out the twinkle of light from the inn at the way station. Ezra smiled, glad that this was his last look at the place.

“We can swing by and pick up your things,” Vin offered, jerking his chin toward the stagecoach stop.

“No thank you,” Ezra said, closing his eyes. “I have what I need.”

The End