End of the Line
DISCLAIMERS: No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended. This is purely fiction and based on the television series The Magnificent Seven.
RATING: PG-13, some language
AU: Little Ezra
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Ezra, Chris & Buck
SUMMARY: Chris and Buck meet up with a seven-year-old Ezra Standish
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Special thanks to both my wonderful Betas, Mitzi and Beth!
NOTES: I've always loved Wyvern's 'Child Play'. This is my version of how Ezra joined up with the guys. He's only seven in my fic.
COMMENTS: Yes, please! - I'm not above begging....
DATE: 11 Aug 03
Story moved to Blackraptor in October 2009
‘Bout time ya got here. That’s
‘im over there.” Oliver
Ferguson nodded with his chin to the small boy sitting on the railway
Marshall of Ridge City, glanced over his shoulder and sighed; this he
could do without. The boy’s shoulders were rounded over and while
elbows rested on his knees, his hands supported his chin.
A carpetbag lay between his feet and an oversized coat hung over
his slight frame. The
child’s eyes met his for a moment, but quickly darted away.
Their conversation hadn’t gone unnoticed. “What do ya want me ta do with him?”
don’t care!” Ferguson retorted.
“Just move ‘im along. He’s
been sittin’ there since yesterd’y mornin’.
Came in on the Nine O Five, and ain’t budged an inch.
‘Says he’s waiting’, but ain’t nob’dy come for ‘im.”
he’s a runaway? Or a stray?”
Winston, I don’t give a hill o’ beans!
He’s in the way and making the place untidy!”
The Stationmaster checked with the platform clock.
“This mornin’s train is gonna be arrivin’ soon!”
“Yeah, yeah, I
get the message. D’he say
who he was waitin’ for?”
growled, showing his nicotine-stained teeth.
“What’d ya think I am? I
ain’t the matronly sort. I
ain’t yappin’ with no brats – that’s your job.”
rolled his eyes, leaving the stationmaster to finish sweeping off the
platform. “Hey kid, time
to move on.” He snatched
out abruptly and hauled the boy to his feet.
Seven-year-old Ezra Standish struggled to stay seated and
insisted defiantly, “I have been directed to wait here!
I can not depart now!”
nobody comin’ ta get ya, son. Look,
where are yer folks? I’ll
put ya on a train myself and send ya back home.”
“I must remain
here!” Ezra restated, fighting to keep his carpetbag close while
battling the burly lawman, though the long sleeves of his coat were
preventing any great success.
no place fer kids. Whoever
yer supposed ta be meetin’ can pick ya up from my office.”
look for me there,” Ezra wailed softly, thrashing more vigorously in
the Marshall’s grip to escape.
I can’t understand ya.” He
dragged the boy from the railway siding, grimacing as the child screamed
and kicked out, drawing unwanted attention.
Doohan lengthened his stride literally towing Ezra along behind
him. Need to hurry,
can’t have the town thinking ill of me.
“Arrrggg, Shit! Why
you little devil!” Marshall
Doohan jerked his hand up and rubbed at the bite marks.
“You little, shit! Bite
me will ya?”
Ezra had no
chance to run, as the blunt end of the Marshall’s fist thumped across
his left cheek. His head
snapped back and tears welled in his eyes; he would have fallen to the
ground, but the lawman held him in a meaty grip.
“Sorry,” he stammered realising that his release had not been
garnered with such tactics, but had instead infuriated the Marshall
more. Perhaps showing a
few tears might be more useful.
kid.” Doohan roughly swung the young Southerner around to face him.
“Ya don’t start behaving you’ll find yerself waking up inside my
jail cell. And it’s not a
pretty place for a young boy to find himself.
Mean drunks don’t have much regard for kids.”
He shook Ezra’s slim shoulders and snarled.
“Do we understand each other?”
When Standish nodded stiffly, he continued.
“Now there’s a nice lady who can take care of ya, but yer
gonna have ta mind yer manners and work for yer grub.
Elsie knows how to tame the wild ones.
Be good and ya won’t be on the receiving end of her cane
switch. She’s already got
a bunch of hellions and misfits, reckon one more ain’t gonna
“Hey, wait up!
What cha doing with my boy?”
Buck Wilmington raced across the road and intercepted the pair.
He’d heard part of the conversation between them. Who
hadn’t? And seen the way the Marshall was treating the youngster.
He couldn’t help the anger that built within him when he saw
the Marshall backhand his charge. How
dare he threaten a child with physical violence? And what the hell was
wrong with the rest of this town? Why
hadn’t anyone else stepped forward to stop this behaviour?
Were they all blind?
“This yer kid,
mister?” Doohan glanced
at Ezra, but the child was staring thoughtfully at the newcomer. The kid didn’t seem to recognise him, but what did he care
if someone was willing to take the brat off his hands? Doohan rubbed at the bite marks on his hand.
Hell yeah – he can have the kid.
mine.” Buck ruffled the
Southerner’s hair and pulled the boy against his chest, within his
protection. He couldn’t
help but wonder why the child wasn’t protesting his claim.
ya come into town with him,” the Marshall argued.
“I had to wait
at the rail terminal,” Ezra muttered.
He didn’t look up to either man, but held his carpetbag tight
against his chest.
He was helping Buck to stretch the
truth. “Reckon I told him
to wait there for me.”
“He’s been waitin’ there since yesterday…”
damned day? Waiting for
whom? Who was the kid waiting to see?
“Reckon I got the days mixed up is all.”
Hearing the train whistle Buck hurriedly added, “Figured he was
comin’ in this mornin’. Sorry,
son,” Buck apologised to the young Southerner.
the South…” You ain’t!
plastered a grin across his face and licked his lips. “So’s his ma.”
“Take him if
you’ve got a mind to. I
ain’t got no more time to waste on him.”
The lawman took a step away and then spun on his heels.
“A word of advice, Mister.
Ya go sending yer kid on the train again, make sure yer here ta
meet him on the right day. Or
better yet, send someone responsible with him.”
agreed, smiling congenially he tipped his hat.
“Asshole,” he muttered when the Marshall turned to walk away.
“Let’s find someplace quiet to talk.”
for a moment then trailed after the tall cowboy. Maybe he could help Ezra find Maude. Or someone to associate with, while Ezra filled in time
waiting for his mother to finish her business.
He chastised himself; he’d been foolish to remain at the
railway station for as long as he had.
Once he’d realised Maude was not coming for him yet, Ezra
should have vacated the area. But
after the exhaustive ride in the railcar he’d been flustered and
confused. He wanted someone
else to make the decisions for a change.
He was weary of always planning for every set of circumstances.
But it was a mistake he already regretted.
set to leave.” Chris
Larabee threw the saddlebags on the back of the saddle and adjusted the
weight evenly. He’d
managed to saddle both their mounts while Wilmington had been off
playing hero. So typical
ain’t. I promised Ezra I’d help find his ma and I ain’t leaving
‘til I’ve done that!”
more strays, Buck? JD not
enough of a greenhorn to keep ya occupied that you gotta go lookin’
the same and you know it! Ezra’s
only a kid…”
last time I looked.”
“Go ta hell,
Chris! JD’s almost
full-grown; ya need eyeglasses or what? Go back ta Four Corners, I’ll
be there when I’m ready.”
taking a proper look at Standish for the first time. The oversized coat only emphasised how small the boy was, and
he looked utterly ridiculous wearing it.
The kid showed spirit though; he didn’t flinch or back away
from his scrutinising gaze. “You’ve
got an hour, then I’m leaving, with or without you, Buck.”
heart, Larabee,” Buck mocked. “Come
on, kid, let’s—Where’d he go?”
Wilmington frowned twisting around to find the missing child. “Chris? Ya see
where he went?”
grinned, believing this problem had just resolved itself.
“Reckon we can go now.”
Chris tightened the girth on his saddle and stepped into the
“Ya gave me an
hour!” Buck argued fiercely. “Ya
goin’ back on yer word?”
and climbed down from his black horse.
“An hour, Buck. Then
Don’t s’pose yer gonna help me?”
didn’t come here to take in whelps!
I told the judge we’d be back in two days, three at the latest. We won’t make it if we spend half the morning chasin’
after lost strays.”
seven, Chris.” Same
age as Adam would be now, if he was still alive.
“His ma was supposed to meet him at the rail depot.
I figured she must be in town and got the days mixed up, or
somethin’, and just don’t know he’s arrived.
What’s it gonna hurt to make sure they hook up with each
other?” Buck could see
that Chris was finally listening to him.
One final shove to push him over the edge. “The
poor kid spent all of yesterday waitin’ for her and even slept there
last night. Then that
bastard Marshall took a swing at him this mornin’ and threatened to
lock him up.”
seen the bruise and swollen cheek and had put it down to childhood
clumsiness. “He was hit?”
snarled in disgust.
“Go find his
mother…I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
Wilmington slapped his friend on the shoulder and took off to
check the hotels and boarding houses.
tapped his fingers irritably on the counter.
Was Ezra Standish telling the truth?
Or had the child duped him?
He had seemed so sincere. But
Maude Standish was not registered at any of the hotels or boarding
houses in Ridge City that he’d checked.
And he was running out of time.
Larabee wasn’t gonna wait around forever, and he didn’t want
to leave the kid in the lurch. Of
course, when or if, he found Mrs Standish he’d then have to explain to
her that he’d lost Ezra.
Here we go
again! Did this woman even
thanks for yer time,” he grumbled, talking over the manager’s spiel.
Sir,” the manager replied smoothly, accepting the folded dollar and
tucking it inside his vest. “Per’aps
you can meet up with Mrs Standish at her next stop?”
What did ya say?”
that Mrs Standish and her companion checked out early this morning.”
But… “She checked out?” he queried incredulously.
“What about her kid?”
“There was no
child accompanying them.”
‘cause he was waiting for her at the rail depot.
“Where’d she go?”
take me into her confidence with that information, Sir, but were I to
hazard a guess, the stage company should know?”
Buck called, as he raced outside.
“What cha got
in that bag, kid?”
that would be of interest to you, Sir,” Ezra bravely stated, backing
down the side alley, but keeping his eyes fixed on the miscreant who had
approached him. Shouldn’t have come down here! Stupid! Should
have given Buck a chance to come through.
But his friend Larabee scared him.
And look where that got him!
I’m int’rested in lots of diff’rent things,” he sneered.
you Sir, that my apparel will neither fit you nor suit you.”
right?” He stepped closer to Standish, pushing the boy further into
the shadows. “Seem ta be
right attached ta that bag - like yer hiding sumthin’ valuable.
Ya got sumthin’ I might like in there?”
“No, Sir.” Ezra shook his head determinedly. Courage, Ezra Courage!
Keep the miscreant in front, don’t let him get behind.
he laughed. “Be a good
kid and j’st fork it over and I’ll see fer m’self.
Then ya can be on yer way…”
“It is my
property and I intend departing with it.”
“Yer got a
real smart mouth on ya, kid. Ain’t
ya? Ain’t gonna help ya
here, but!” He lunged at
Ezra unexpectedly, attempting to scare the child into dropping the
carpetbag and running.
widened, and he quickly took several steps backwards.
He would have turned and run, but his progress was abruptly
stopped. He gasped aloud, a
scream bubbled in his throat as fingers dug deeply into his shoulders,
pinning him in place. Ezra
clasped the bag tightly and his fingers turned white.
Ezra berated himself; he should have anticipated the second
Amigo! Small muchacho wants to join me.”
A surly sneer
of laughter echoed above him, giving Ezra the impetuous to move.
He spun out of the overly large coat and from the Mexican’s
hold. He left the
troublemaker hanging onto the ends of his coat and felt a brief moment
of reprieve, before he stumbled straight into the large hands of the
first miscreant. “Unhand me, please!” Ezra kicked and struggled.
he ain’t so grubby under that big coat.”
He sniffed at Ezra’s neck and traced a finger around Ezra’s
ear. “Smells good,
“Ey, get the
bag off him, Phin.”
Ezra held on
for as long as he could, but he was never going to be able to compete
with a grown man, and the carpetbag was pulled from his hands.
When the bag was gone, he found himself thrown to the ground and
the air rushed out of his lungs.
here…” The whiskey-breathed, Phineas Ricks, whistled with delight,
holding up handfuls of crumpled and straightened greenbacks.
“Any wonder the little runt di’n’t want ta give it over.”
dinero?” Mex lifted his shabby hat and rubbed his hands together in
anticipation. They could not have done better.
more’n a coupla hundred.”
There is six hundred and forty-three dollars.
Count it if you can.
Ezra gathered his feet up and attempted to disappear, but he must
have groaned or made some noise as both reprobates chose that moment to
glance down at him. He was hauled unceremoniously to his feet and slammed back
onto the clapboard siding. His
nose wrinkled as the foul body odour from the pair entered his nostrils.
Probably wouldn’t be a good time to suggest they take a
ya git all this then?” Ricks waved a bundle of dollar bills under
Ezra’s nose. He could see a goldmine within their grasp.
Maybe the kid was a pickpocket.
He could be their meal ticket!
mine…” he stammered.
steal it off? And can ya
it in a game of chance! It’s
mine,” Ezra answered defiantly and was slapped with the brawny
knuckles of his captors for his assertions.
“Yer just a
kid. Ain’t no way this is
reckon it belongs to you!” Chris
Larabee stated, glaring down the muzzle of his Colt.
“Drop the kid’s bag…”
Instead, the bag was thrown at Larabee and the gunslinger had to
duck the projectile while Ezra’s assailants escaped.
Chris gave chase down the alleyway, but when he reached the end
and came out onto the street there was no sign of the pair.
quickly back to Ezra, who was closing the clasp on his carpetbag and the
money returned inside. The
overly large coat was back in place, covering the smart outfit that was
worn below. Why was he
covering up? Hiding beneath that ugly brown coat.
Those duds certainly weren’t something yer average kid from out
here would be wearing, they were good quality clothes.
for your timely intervention…”
“I said, are
“No, Sir.” Only a few more bruises.
Nothing he wasn’t accustomed to.
But his face was starting to feel like squished putty.
lookin’ for you. Why’d
you run off like that?”
the large lump in his throat and coughed to clear it.
“You gentlemen had previous plans, I did not wish to be a
you a promise. He’s out
there tryin’ to find yer ma.” Then
remembering the contents of Ezra’s carpetbag he glanced at the item.
“Where’d all that money come from?”
Was it stolen? Had
he used it to pay for the threads he was wearing?
“As I stated
to those other… gentlemen, it is mine.”
“Uh huh.” Larabee grunted, not believing the boy. “Left a legacy of some sort?” he asked sarcastically.
“I won the
money, Mr. Larabee, in a poker game.”
right. Maybe you’d like to tell the Marshall where it came
Standish straightened his shoulders and put all his strength
behind a well-placed kick to Larabee’s shin and took off in the
opposite direction. There
was no way he was fronting up before Marshall Doohan again, that man had
a vendetta against him. Ezra
could hear the gunslinger’s curses and in a matter of seconds, the
long strides were almost atop his heels.
He faked a stumble and dove to the side, before spinning around
crashing through the gunslinger’s legs and racing back the other way.
“Aw hell! Slippery little eel,” Chris grumbled as Standish caught him
on the back foot. He
hobbled around, knowing he wouldn’t catch Ezra this way.
“I ain’t gonna take you to the Marshall,” he shouted.
stopped, panting and taking in large gulps of air.
“Your word as a gentleman,” Ezra insisted.
You have my word.”
the man in black suspiciously. Could
he trust this man to keep his word?
He wasn’t as friendly as Buck, nor did he smile. Actually he
was quite frightening, glaring and snarling all the time.
He had saved Ezra from losing his belongings, and his money.
But had he done that only to take it from him at a later time?
“Come on. Buck should have some news by now.” Chris stalked down the alleyway to the main street; leaving
the decision up to Ezra as to whether he would follow.
Ya find the kid’s mother?”
believe this…Hey, ya found Ezra.” He winked at the boy and held out
his right hand, hoping the young southerner would take it.
watched Standish cautiously slip in behind him, but refused to be drawn
in by Wilmington’s gregarious smile and offered hand.
“He won’t hurt you, Ezra.
Buck’s one of the good guys.”
but refused to take Buck’s hand.
“Did you find Maude?”
slipped and he crouched so he’d be on an even level with the
Southerner. Why did Ezra
call his mother by her Christian name?
“I found the Hotel she was staying at…”
“But she is
no longer a resident of said establishment,” Ezra finished.
Should have known. “Thank
you for all your time and effort, Mr. Wilmington.
If I could pay you recompense for your…”
do it to be paid, kid,” Buck quickly refused.
on this for a moment and simply nodded.
“Thank you again, then.”
“Wait on. I did find out where she was headin’. And it just so happens that Chris and I are going to Four
Larabee drew the name out, warning the ladies’ man to stop.
“I shall be
able to find alternate transportation, kind Sirs.”
Ezra looked around for the stage company.
He wasn’t naive. He
knew Larabee didn’t want anything more to do with him.
He would book passage on the stage; there was plenty of money to
cover the fare, but he would somehow have to replace the used funds
before reaching Four Corners. That
shouldn’t be too difficult.
the small Southerner stride off confidently.
This child certainly had spirit. “Chris.
What are ya saying? That
the kid shouldn’t come with us?”
Buck in close, grabbing the front of his vest and hissed, “That kid is
carrying a hoard of money. Did
he tell you that? It has to
be stolen! And he ain’t
nothing, but trouble!”
That’s what’s in that bag? “All the
more reason Ezra should be coming with us.
We can keep an eye on him. And
he’s got no one else…he’s on his own.”
Buck knew he’d won when Larabee shook his head and sighed.
after him.” Chris pointed
his finger and jabbed Buck meaningfully with it.
“He causes any trouble, then it’s your problem.
I don’t want to know about it.”
even know he’s there.” Buck
jogged down the street after the abandoned child, pleased that he’d
gotten Chris to see his way.
mouth on that kid, there’s no way I’m not gonna know,” Larabee
grumbled. He needed to send
a message before they left Ridge City, and supplies needed to be
increased now they had an extra traveller.
some of that money to buy another horse…”
my currency to expend…”
Chris barked. “I knew it
Ezra bit his
tongue, angry with himself that he’d let that piece of information
slip out. “I can not squander this money, Mr. Larabee, as it is
destined for another avenue.”
“Ya can ride
with me,” Buck offered, attempting to dispel the animosity that was
growing between Chris and Ezra.
very generous, Mr. Wilmington, but perhaps in reflection, it would be
more beneficial if I simply acquired passage on the stage to Four
ever speak like a normal kid?” Larabee asked.
Southerner was stunned by the question.
This was how he always conversed.
It was how Maude had taught him and what she expected of her son.
Anything less would not be tolerated.
He opened and closed his mouth several times, about to
respond then thinking it best not to.
He hugged his carpetbag more firmly; he was strangely reassured
by its presence. Though the greenbacks inside had little to do with his
peace of mind. What had he done to offend Larabee?
Ezra made a pledge that if they allowed him to travel with them
that he would not utter another word.
Having decided that, he was stumped as to how he would convey
this to the others.
him alone,” Buck admonished. What
had gotten into Chris? He was deliberately picking arguments with the
boy. Like he was assessing
each of the boy’s responses, or comparing him with… No!
Larabee wasn’t that stupid.
Ezra was nothing like Adam.
And it was unfair of Chris to compare Ezra with his dead son.
“Ain’t no reason to take the stage Ezra, when ya got the
chance to ride upfront with me.”
nodded, uncertain of the tension between Buck and Chris.
back shortly,” Chris grunted tersely.
“Then we’re leaving this hellhole.”
yer stomach?” Wilmington laughed patting Ezra on top of his new hat.
He’d been trying to make conversation with the kid since
they’d left two hours ago, but for some reason the verbose Southerner
had not spoken a word. Buck
hadn’t pushed too hard; he figured the boy was probably tired and was
happy to rest.
at his middle and rubbed it hoping not to make anymore embarrassing
rumbles. But his actions did nothing to prevent the grumblings.
Ezra shook his
head quickly. He didn’t
want Chris to call a stop because of him.
He hadn’t eaten since he was on the train, but there had been
times in the past when he was forced to wait days for his next repast.
He could do it again. And
Ezra refused to be considered a burden.
He especially didn’t want to anger Chris more.
Larabee had returned from his walk bearing a new hat and a
bedroll for Ezra, leaving him in Chris’ debt.
Ezra would have to pay for the items at some point.
Perhaps he could sell them for a profit in Four Corners to repay
the gunslinger? Unfortunately
he had no idea how much Chris had already spent on them.
thirsty?” Buck persisted.
his lips and considered the straight set of Larabee’s shoulders.
Since they’d left town Chris had ridden in the lead, staying
several paces in front of Buck’s grey.
Without intending to, the young gambler had caused a rift to
develop between these two friends.
But once he arrived in Four Corners everything would return to
normal; he would be reunited with Maude and Buck and Chris could be rid
of him. He hoped.
He barely nodded his head in response to Buck’s repeated query.
Surely it wouldn’t be too much of an imposition to drink from
there, ya can reach it. Ya
don’t need ta ask. Just
take some when yer thirsty.”
Mr. Wilmington.” Good
manners demanded he reply, but he didn’t need to say more.
stop here for lunch,” Chris announced unexpectedly, and quickly
dismounted. He came around Buck’s mount and reached up for Ezra
and set the boy firmly on the ground.
“Don’t wander off, but take some time to stretch yer legs,”
he ordered then left Ezra staring at his back.
worry about ol’ Chris. We
had to cool the saddle anyways.”
always like that?” Standish asked, then cupped his hand over his
mouth, embarrassed by breaking his rule not to speak and being rude in
the same breath.
slapping his hat on his leg. “Chris
takes a little time to get used to, but he’s a good man underneath.”
blasting for silver in a mine,” Ezra muttered.
knowing the Southerner hadn’t intended for him to hear.
“More like gold.”
his feet at his ankles and stretched his arms over his head.
“Good grub. That
certainly filled the hollow.”
compliments,” Ezra quietly acknowledged Larabee’s meal.
“So, Ezra. Now that yer talking again…I’ve been tossin’ a few
ideas around, and need yer opinion.”
glanced at Larabee and back to Buck.
“How may I be of assistance, Mr. Wilmington?”
that’s one thing right there. M’
name’s, Buck. Nobody calls me, Mr. Wilmington.
Least of all my friends.”
Friends? Did Buck consider him a friend?
“Good manners dictate that I address all - adults in such a
don’t explain why ya call yer mother, Maude.”
her name.” The one she
is currently using at the moment.
why don’t ya call her somethin’ else?”
mother, or mama, or perhaps mommy?
Because she has never been any of those things to me.
She is simply my parent. The
woman who bore me into this world.
“It is at her request that I
address her as such.”
wasn’t she waiting for ya when the train came in? And why’d she
leave without you?” Larabee jumped in, wanting his own answers.
busy pulling a con. It
didn’t surprise him to find she’d moved on without him.
She was, after all, working a con.
His presence must not be needed for this swindle.
It was a little unsettling not having received a message of sorts
directing his recourse or where they were to reunite. But he was
confident that would be resolved when he arrived in Four Corners.
Ezra was relieved when he wasn’t
required to answer Larabee’s questions.
Though, he would have preferred another source of distraction.
down!” Buck hissed throwing himself over the boy and shielding him
from the hail of bullets. “Chris?”
I knew he was gonna be trouble,” Larabee muttered, skidding
around on his stomach to face the barrage.
“Who ya reckon they are?” Buck grunted.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Larabee returned. “Is Ezra safe?”
“A bit shook up. How many ya reckon?”
“Seven. Maybe eight.”
Buck grinned. “Our type of odds.”
“Reckon ya can lay down some cover fire and I’ll make for that patch of mesquite below ‘em?”
“When yer ready,” Buck grinned. “Ezra, ya stay down and don’t move.”
“I could be of assistance…”
“Ezra,” Buck replied distractedly, “Reckon if ya stay quiet and keep yer head down, that will be plenty helpful.”
Standish sighed. He could have helped. “Shouldn’t Mr. Larabee remain behind something substantial?” the boy asked, his voice trembled with concern.
“He knows what he’s doin’. Chris is too ornery ta get hurt.” Larabee whistled softly giving Buck the signal to lay down the cover fire. Wilmington aimed into the high landscape and quickly levered off all the rounds from his rifle. He quickly swapped his rifle for his handgun and spent the six cartridges into the redneck’s camp. He sagged back into the rocky fascia sighing when Chris reached his target. “Chris made it,” he said for Ezra’s benefit, and reloaded both his weapons.
The Southerner lifted up, wanting to see the gunslinger for himself. “What does Mr. Larabee propose to do?”
Buck pushed the boy flat, hard on the ground. “He’s gettin’ below them. They won’t be able to shoot at him unless they lean out over that ledge their hiddin’ behind. When they do, Chris’ll have the better shot.” Makes mine easier, too.
Larabee hugged the rock face, looking up into the afternoon sun. Bullets buzzed above his head; the majority aimed across the flat to where Buck and Ezra were trapped. So long as Buck kept his nose down, Chris had the opportunity to cut them down one at a time as they showed themselves. They knew he was below; and they couldn’t risk Chris finding a path up to where they were holding out. He grinned wickedly when his first target came into view, silhouetted by the sun. Larabee didn’t hesitate, and took the shot. One shot, one down! The outlaw’s body hung limply over the rock he’d been using as cover.
The gunplay stalled as they dragged the dead body back within their stronghold. Chris smirked as he heard the call go up stating that the outlaw was dead. “Ya leave now and ya may have a chance of staying alive!” Chris squeezed off several shots, chipping away at rocks where the gunmen hid. A little reinforcement to deter them.
“We don’t want nob’dy kill’t. J’st fork ov’r the money an’ we’ll be on our way!” the answer came clearly.
The voice sounded familiar; the bastard from the alley in Ridge City who’d tried to rob Ezra! Fuck! Chris cringed, thinking about what could have happened if Ezra had gone on the stage to Four Corners. Ain’t worth considering. “It ain’t yours,” Larabee countered. More shots were spent and returned.
“’Eh, hombre, we don’t want to kill you!”
“That’s too bad!” Chris shouted. “I sure as hell have no qualms about killin’ you!” Larabee spent two more cartridges up the slope and was rewarded with a startled cry.
“Way ta go, Larabee!” Buck whooped.
“Maybe we don’ wan’ to fight the famous, Chris Larabee,” a voice broke through.
“Up to you…Ya got ten seconds if ya leaving,” Chris responded. He knew that whoever was complaining hadn’t been talking to Larabee but to whoever was running the show, but it never hurt to put them on edge. He had a feeling most of the riders were not totally committed to the task. Dividing the money between half a dozen men mightn’t appeal if each man was only getting about fifty dollars. Trouble was, Chris didn’t know how much money Ezra was toting around in that bag. “Time’s up!”
“Wait, wait! Don’t shoot. We’re leavin’.”
“’Eh, amigo? No harm, ‘eh? We go now?”
Chris shared a look with Buck and Wilmington shrugged. “Then leave.” Larabee listened to them disperse among the rocks; he didn’t put it past them to retreat now, only to attack later. But he was prepared for them now and would be ready next time. And they were down a man, possibly two. They only needed to keep a healthy distance ahead and they’d be in Four Corners in a day. Chris would push on until late tonight, and set out early before light tomorrow. He waited patiently for the long riders to depart, and carefully scaled the wall to check about for any bandits who may have remained. Satisfied they had all backed off, Larabee called down from atop. “Load up, Buck! We’re riding out!”
“We’ll set up here for the night. Buck, you’ll take first watch; I’ll take over at two.”
“And when do you require my services?” Ezra interrupted.
“You got a gun?” Chris asked.
“No…but if you loaned me one…”
“Can ya shoot?”
Standish bit his bottom lip to stop it quivering. “I do not profess any great proficiency, but I can shoot straight.”
Chris shared a look of disbelief with Buck. “Here.” Chris handed his colt to the seven-year-old. “Let’s see ya hit that tree?”
“Err, Chris? Ya reckon we oughta be making so much noise?”
“We know they’re out there, they know we’re somewhere in front. Ain’t gonna make a whole hell of a difference.”
“If ya say so,” Buck shrugged.
Ezra knew Larabee was testing him, but what would it prove? The sycamore tree Chris had pointed out had a broad trunk and was only several paces away. Where was the challenge? “Perhaps a target of less magnitude and more distance would prove to be a better trial?”
“Kid’s got balls,” Wilmington smirked. “I might have somethin’ ya can use.” Buck dug around in his saddlebag looking for the Ranger’s badge that was no longer used. He held it up for Standish when he found it.
“You’re the law?” Ezra stammered nervously. One of mother’s rules torn asunder! Good Lord, was he was travelling with lawmen?
“Used ta wear it a long time ago. Don’t wear a badge no more.” He’d seen the fear that had spread over the boy’s face when he pulled out the tin star. Best not mention that he was working as a peacekeeper in Four Corners any time soon. “Reckon ya can hit this?”
Ezra rolled his eyes. It would not do to show his pleasure of shooting at the badge; it might offend his gregarious protector. “If you will…” He gestured.
“Ya sure ya don’t want something bigger to aim at Ezra?” Chris mocked.
Standish hefted the loaded gun and checked the cylinders. It was heavier than he was accustomed to, but he should be able to manage. The badge was set up in the bark of the same sycamore tree. “From what distance?”
“There’s fine,” Larabee motioned, already begrudgingly impressed with Ezra’s knowledge of the weapon.
“As you wish.” He pulled the trigger and was knocked over backwards by the recoil. Sitting up, he grinned in a dazed expression. He knew without a doubt the bullet had hit the target.
“Well, hell!” Buck exclaimed jogging over and picking the badge off the ground, poking his finger where the bullet notched though one point of the star and the circle surrounding it.
“If yer gonna land on yer butt, might be safer if Buck and I share the watch.” Ezra didn’t see the wide grin that split Chris’ mouth as he went about tending the horses.
“Ya can watch my back anytime, pard,” Wilmington grinned, slightly disappointed in Chris that he couldn’t give Ezra some praise. That had been a mighty fine shot. And it hadn’t escaped Buck’s attention that Ezra was trying real hard to impress Chris.
“Can I interest you gentlemen in a game of chance?”
Buck’s eyes shot upwards; impressed by the Southerner’s skill in shuffling. This kid was full of surprises. “Where’d ya learn ta do that?”
“Do you require lessons, Mr. Wilmington?”
Larabee snorted, chuckling at Buck’s expense. “So what are we playing, Ezra? Go-Fish?”
“If that is the extent of your card playing prowess, then I shall endeavour to accommodate you,” Standish grinned impishly.
“Got ya over a barrel now, Chris!” Speaking to Ezra, Buck asked, “What games do ya normally play?”
Ezra grinned wider. Now he had their attention.
“Reckon so,” Buck whispered, gently tucking the blanket around the child’s shoulders.
Larabee set his mug down on the ground. “Why don’t you get some sleep.”
“Thought I had first watch?”
Chris shrugged. “I ain’t gonna be able ta sleep, so I figured one of us might.”
There was a long silence before Buck said any more, and during that time he debated whether he should bring it up, or let it lie. “Ezra stirrin’ up a lot of memories?”
“Nothin’ I can’t handle.”
“He ain’t Adam.”
Chris jumped to his feet, scowling at his friend. “Don’t you think I know that?”
“It ain’t wrong ta miss ‘em—”
“I don’t need you tellin’ me when I can and can’t.” Hell, he needed a stiff drink!
Buck picked at the sole of his boot, not willing to meet with the hard glare of Larabee. “Never said, ya needed ta forget ‘em—”
“What the hell would you know?” Chris ranted, uncaring if he woke the boy.
“More’n ya’d believe,” Buck returned in a whisper. They were my family too.
Several minutes passed in stony silence. Chris sighed, returning to his seat. “Three years is a long time…It’s gettin’ hard to remember them clearly…” he shared.
“They’re always gonna be a part of you, Chris. But sharing a little piece of your heart with Ezra ain’t gonna take away your love for Sarah and Adam. ’Sides when we get to Four Corners ya won’t ever need ta see him again.”
“Yeah, but I look at him, Billy too, and I can’t help wondering how Adam would have grown up.”
“He was a good, kid,” Buck consoled. “And he had the best parents about…More’n some’ve got.”
“Get off the guilt trip. It ain’t my fault Ezra’s mother left him stranded.”
“No. But it ain’t his either.”
“Leave it be, Buck.”
“Sure. I’ll be here when yer ready.”
Chris ran his fingers through his hair, disturbed by the whole conversation. He picked up his rifle and tossed out the coffee dregs. “I’m gonna scout around a while. Don’t wait up for me to get back.”
“Ezra, son it’s time.”
The young gambler yawned and rolled over onto his side. “Fifty dollars is yours, if you allow me to continue sleeping.”
Wilmington chuckled and pulled back the blankets. “This ain’t up for discussion. Chris says we’re pullin’ out in fifteen minutes and if ya want some grub then ya oughta wake up now.”
Standish groaned, blinking open tired eyes. Riding in the saddle for a solid day and playing poker into the night shouldn’t be followed with an early rise. His limbs were stiff and sore and his backside was still numb. This was no way to abuse one’s body. “It’s still night,” he whined.
“Just after four.”
“Get up, Ezra,” Chris growled striding determinedly past the pair.
Standish glared at the gunslinger’s back. He felt an urge to poke out his tongue, but resisted the temptation. “Get up, Ezra,” he mimicked, kicking about testily. “Do this, do that,” he muttered. And Larabee’s favourite… “Put a sock in it, Ezra.” Why couldn’t he have chosen more affable travelling companions?
“Ezra…” Larabee gave a warning growl.
“I’d appreciate a chance to—” but he never finished.
“Son,” Buck interrupted. “Chris is a smidgen testy this mornin’…I wouldn’t go pushin’ yer luck.”
“When isn’t he?” Standish mumbled, deciding to forego his ablutions. He’d make do with a canteen and wet rag to scrub his face.
The day progressed slowly. Ezra found himself settled in front of Larabee initially and shuffled between the pair regularly, as he was informed, to spare the horses. Lunch was day old bread with cheese and was eaten while they rode. Ezra found himself becoming increasingly uncomfortable and desperately needed to relieve himself. But that would be the very last thing he’d consider asking for, with the ominous threat that dogged their trail. The cloud of dust seemed to grow closer with each mile they advanced. The long riders had no respect for their horses and forced a similar action from Buck and Chris. But the gap continued to close.
“Here they come again! Let’s move out!”
“Right behind ya, pard!” Buck answered. “Hold tight, Ezra. And don’t let go!” he shouted over the roar of gunfire.
Hooves pounded on the ground and the horses were pushed hard. The group of outlaws kept up the chase.
Buck urged his grey to follow Larabee’s black, and dug his heels in tight around the gelding’s girth. “Chris! Argg!”
“Buck? Are you hit?” Larabee chanced a look behind and felt the whiz of lead pass his cheek. “Hell! Ezra? Is Buck hurt?”
“His leg is bleeding,” Ezra finally yelled.
“Great! Fucking marvellous,” Larabee mumbled under his breath.
“It ain’t serious, Chris! Keep going!” Buck assured him, but grimaced.
Larabee wheeled his black gelding hard. Buck and Ezra were on top of him within seconds. “Take point. I’ll be right behind ya.” He shot into the coming group and two riders fell from their horses, but it didn’t slow the others down as they rode their horses over the fallen bodies. Chris spent another bullet from his rifle before sheathing it. He hoped Buck had kept going. Damn that bag of money! Why did he let Ezra bring it along?
When Chris reached the outcropping Buck had come off his horse and Ezra was anxiously pressing a cloth on the wounded man’s thigh. Buck, pard ya gotta be all right. “Did the bullet pass through?”
“Nah, I can still feel it. Ain’t bleeding too much.” Don’t worry ol’ stud.
“Can you ride?”
Buck winced. “Say the word. I’ll be ready. They still comin’?”
“Slowed ‘em down some.”
“What did you do?” Ezra jumped at what sounded like a loud rumbling clap of thunder. He looked at the gunslinger in wide-eyed horror as a dust cloud rose from the trail and lifted to the sky. Did Larabee use dynamite? Were the outlaws dead? Were they safe now?
“Just a little diversion,” Chris grinned humourlessly. “It’ll only hold ‘em off for a while. Until they dig through. Ezra, bring me yer bag!”
“We don’t have time for arguing! Buck’s hurt! Are ya gonna risk his life for the sake of that bag?” Chris shouted. “Now, bring it here, Ezra!”
The outlaws on their trail were after his funds. He should have allowed Phin and his partner to have the accursed money when they detained him in the alley. Ezra was to blame. He could read between the lines. None of this would have happened if Chris hadn’t agreed to bring him along. Buck wouldn’t be hurt if it wasn’t for him. Chris blamed him, and it wouldn’t be long before Buck did too.
“She’ll be right,” Buck assured, patting the youngster on the knee. “Chris knows what he’s doin’.”
Chris flicked the latch and opened the case. It still amazed him how much money Ezra was carrying around. He threw Ezra’s clothing at the boy while he set the greenbacks in a bundle. “Put those things in Buck’s saddlebags…that’s if ya want to keep them.”
Ezra rolled the shirts into a ball, but he couldn’t find the will to move his feet. “You’re going to give them my currency?”
Larabee ignored the boy, finally turned the bag upside down to empty it completely. “Are there any hidden sections?”
Ezra watched his money being shoved inside Chris’ saddlebags. And when the bags were full he stashed the remainder of notes inside his pockets. So Larabee was finally taking his money for himself.
“Ezra! Is the bag empty?” It looked empty to Chris, but he’d seen cases before that had hidden pockets and false lids, he wouldn’t put it past the young gambler to have such a bag.
The Southerner shuffled close and stretched out to gather in the carpetbag; snatching the satchel before Chris could change his mind. He should be grateful that Chris gave him the opportunity to salvage his treasures…but somehow he couldn’t manage the emotion. There were only three items hidden under the false floor, a photo of Maude, thank the lord she didn’t know he had that, a pipe that had belonged to his father and a pair of cufflinks.
Chris watched Ezra reach inside the cavity, but he couldn’t determine what articles were taken as the boy slipped them under the overlarge jacket.
“All the contents are removed,” he answered woodenly, and handed the carpetbag to Larabee.
Chris quickly picked up several rocks and began filling the case. He stopped, closed the lid and tested the weight, only to continue placing more rocks inside. When he finished he withdrew a few dollars and closed the clasp over the notes. “Buck, you ready?”
The wounded cowboy grunted, but stood tall; a bandana wrapped tightly around his thigh. “Time ta mount up, kid.”
“What’s Chris going to do with my…” Ezra staggered to a halt, his mouth hanging agape as he saw Chris hurl his bag over the side of the ravine, a few greenbacks fluttered on the wind turrets and followed the path of the bag.
Larabee screamed out at the top of his lungs, “Ya can have the stinking money, now leave us the hell alone!” He turned to see Ezra’s aghast expression and realised too late that the bag held more sentimental value than the money that it had carried. Hell! He should have figured it out sooner, the way Ezra hugged the bag so tight. He’d not let it out of his sight once. How had he missed that? Chris had thought it had only been about the money. Damn! It had to mean something special to the kid. “Ezra…I’m sorry…”
“It is a clever ruse, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra admitted dully, though he felt strangely bereft and afloat. The outlaws would have seen the bag as it fell, and would go after it allowing them to escape.
I’ll get ya another one when we get to Four Corners. Chris promised!
“Nathan!” Chris hollered, leading the grey at a fast clip straight to the clinic. “Buck’s been shot,” he explained as soon as the healer appeared on the veranda above them.
“How long?” Nathan Jackson questioned, as he clambered down the stairs. Josiah had arrived from the church and Vin and JD were heading to the clinic as soon as they saw Chris and Buck haul into town.
“Late yesterday, but we’ve been beatin’ leather all night to get here this mornin’. Horses are beat.”
“Trouble?” Vin hooked his thumbs through his belt and looked back down the road.
“A couple of long riders been givin’ us stick.” Chris grinned and lifted Ezra down off his horse. “Might have given them the slip.”
“I’ll ride back a ways and check yer trail,” Vin offered. “JD, ya can come with me.”
“’Preciate it.” Chris smirked at JD’s blustering. Dunne probably wanted to sit by Buck’s bedside until the ladies’ man was well, but Larabee reserved that right for himself, until his friend was out of the woods. Vin would explain it to the young gunslinger. “Vin? Ya get my message?”
Tanner nodded. “Stage arrived late yesterday.”
“And the passengers?”
“No trouble – they’re holed up in the hotel, didn’t plan on going straight through.”
“Good. Make certain she stays!” At least until Ezra is back under her care. Want to be there when Ezra confronts her too.
“Got someone watching her…” Vin glanced at Ezra, who was following their conversation with interest, and he wondered who the boy was.
“Thanks. I’ll fill ya’ll in later. Josiah, I’ll help Nathan with Buck. Ya mind takin’ care of Ezra?”
“Not at all, brother. Ezra? Son, I’ll bet you’re hungry?”
“Not really,” Ezra drawled, feeling abandoned as both Chris and Buck disappeared up the stairs with the black-skinned healer. Chris had taken both Buck’s and his own saddlebags with him. Ezra couldn’t even change into a fresh set of clothes, and Chris still had his money. What would mother say? He craned his neck and looked up at the room above. The sign said, ‘Bones Set and Wounds Cleaned’. Was this dark coloured man a doctor? “Where is Mr. Wilmington going?”
“Nathan will take care of Buck. Let’s get you cleaned up, then we can play some games.”
“Five card stud, deuces wild? Or perhaps…?”
“Don’t play poker with him, Josiah,” Larabee warned from the narrow veranda.
“Ezra. You get some sleep?” Larabee questioned the bleary-eyed child. He looked to Josiah and the preacher shook his head. Stubborn kid. “Told you to get some rest.”
Three hours he’d waited with the old preacher in the church. And in that time he’d learned that both Chris and Buck were peacekeepers, protecting Four Corners. Along with Josiah, the healer, Vin and JD. He was in the midst of lawmen. Mother was going to be appalled when she discovered. That’s if she wasn’t already aware of his arrival. Ezra ignored Chris and thumbed the Queen of spades from the deck he’d been working and rested it on top. “Maude is in town.”
Larabee crouched in front of the boy. “I know.”
“He won’t let me go and see her!” Ezra glanced pointedly at Josiah and replaced the Queen with the Jack of clubs.
“Josiah was only followin’ my orders. Thought you’d want to take the time to get cleaned up before…”
“You absconded with my means of completing that task.”
Larabee bit his tongue. He’d forgotten that Ezra’s things were spread out between his and Buck’s saddlebags. And he owed the boy a new travel bag, too. “Reckon Josiah would have been able to fix ya up with somethin’.”
Ezra sighed, not wanting to argue with the gunslinger. He flipped the King of Hearts from the middle of the deck and sat it atop the Jack. “How is Mr. Wilmington?”
“Just a scratch, nothing for you to worry over.”
“I wasn’t concerned,” Standish refuted.
Chris snorted and bowed his head in his hands and shook it slightly. “I’ll be sure ta let him know.”
Ezra met Larabee’s eyes to determine the truth and nodded his head with satisfaction. “May I visit?”
“Reckon Buck would like that. Now, what’s say we go visit your ma?”
“You’re accompanying me?”
Chris stood and smiled. “Got a hankering to met Mrs Standish.”
“Ummm…” This was not a good idea.
“Let’s go boys,” Josiah boomed; his heavy footfalls echoed loudly on the wooden floorboards. “Since I saw the vision of beauty descend from the stage, I’ve wanted to…”
“Josiah…” Chris warned, cutting off the preacher’s flow. “Not in front of the kid.”
“It’s how most gentlemen react to Maude,” the young Southerner commented, not at all phased by Josiah’s sentiment.
The blond-headed woman approached by Larabee was leaving the restaurant on the arm of a gentleman. “Excuse me, young man? Are you addressing me?”
“Ma’am?” Chris wondered why Ezra hadn’t stepped forward and hugged the woman or at least said something. “You are Maude Standish?”
She squeezed her companion’s arm and fluttered her eyelashes up at him. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced, Sir?” she directed at Chris when she met his eyes.
“Name’s Chris Larabee, ma’am. This here is Josiah Sanchez and we’re the law ‘round these parts. And well, ya already know Ezra.”
The woman glanced at the brown-haired boy and showed no sign of recognition. She did wrinkle her nose in disgust, taking note of the boy’s rumpled appearance and the dark bruises on his face. “Mr. Larabee, I’m sorry, but there’s obviously been some sort of misunderstanding. I’m not this…Maude Standish,” she laughed up into the bored face of her companion. “My name is Blanche Beauregard, and this delightful man is my fiancé, Robert Bennett, of Bennett’s Silver Emporium. As for the child… Why should I know him? I’ve never seen him before in my life.”
Larabee frowned, trying to gage the expression on the boy’s face, but Ezra was looking at the ground. “He claims yer his mother.”
Blanche fanned her face and leaned against her fiancé for support. “Heavens above! The child is delusional. Surely a delinquent!”
“Ma’am, you’re denying it? You were registered in a hotel in Ridge City as Maude Standish, and this kid says he’s Ezra Standish. Along with a friend of mine, we have just arrived from there this morning, and we know that you arrived in town yesterday on the stage.”
“Well!” Blanche sniffed, pulling herself together. “I don’t recall denying whence we came, but as for your other accusations, Mr. Larabee, I take offence! They are totally ludicrous! Perhaps there was a woman named Maude…Standing—”
“Standish,” Chris interrupted.
“—Standish, but that woman isn’t me! See the child doesn’t even know me. How can he claim any relationship? And he doesn’t even resemble me. I think you will find he is an orphan and has picked a name out of a hat and pulled you and your friend into his scam.” She drew breath and dotted her eyes with a white handkerchief and sniffed. “I was never blessed with a child; even while I was married to my poor departed William. Robert, I’m feeling rather fatigued, I’d like to retire to my room.”
“I concur,” Robert gruffly stated, draping his arms around the distraught woman’s shoulders. “Blanche has heard your outrageous accusations and sent them floundering. She didn’t have to. As for you boy,” he turned malevolent eyes on Ezra, “don’t you come near my Blanche ever again. I could have you locked up for being so deceitful. Come along, sweetness.”
“What the hell!” Larabee swore, when the couple were out of range. What kind of fool had the kid played him for? Just when he was beginning to like the smart-mouthed boy gambler. “We need to talk…Ezra!” Larabee grabbed the slim arm and squeezed it hard, yanking the Southerner around and preventing the boy from darting away. “Don’t you dare run off!”