End of the Line
had been angry before, but this rage that was bottled inside him was
bursting to erupt. He’d
never felt such unadulterated menace before, especially towards a child.
He didn’t even want to contemplate why that was so. He shoved the Southerner up the church steps and was thankful
that Josiah was with him or Ezra would have already had his ears burning
from Larabee’s wrath. Not
to mention the boy’s backside. “What’s
going on, Ezra? You enjoy
playing me… and Buck for that matter, for fools?”
is not yer mother is she?” he growled.
“IS SHE?” Larabee asked again when Ezra refused to reply. “Is
either of yer parent’s living? Do
they even know what yer up to? Or
where you are?”
pressed his lips together, refusing to say a word.
you have done this? To that
nice lady? Did you see how upset she was?
DID YOU, EZRA! What
you did was inconsiderate and hurtful.
Did you give any thought to the other people who would be
involved in this…prank? Was
this just a game for you, Ezra? Do
you get some form of perverted joy out of playing on other people’s
Standish barely whispered, terrified that he was going to be beaten and
that by disagreeing with the irate gunslinger it would only make the
punishment last longer and be more painful.
his hand down on the back of the pew, it landed inches from where Ezra
stood and the impact with the wood had the boy jumping back in terror.
So set in his tirade, Chris didn’t see Ezra flinch.
not lie. Why would you lie
to Chris and Buck? You told
me they were yer friends,” Josiah scolded.
back the tears and swallowed the bile in his throat.
He knew as soon as he saw Maude that she was in the midst of a
scheme. Had he been on his
own, Ezra would not have confronted her, especially in front of her
mark. Ezra would have made alternate arrangements to confer with
his mother, but as it stands the scene did not play out how he’d
anticipated. Having both
Chris and Josiah Sanchez along muddied the waters.
He could not come out and deny Maude’s claims without
repercussions on her con. And
by having said nothing, he had shamed himself in Larabee’s eyes.
Now there was nothing to do but face whatever punishment these
lawmen saw fit. If he was
lucky, they might put him on the next stage.
“Buck said he was my friend,” Ezra mumbled, head bowed.
Chris snorted, “well, he don’t know that you cheated on him yet.”
you going to do?”
tanning yer backside might be a start—”
and staggered backwards, falling over in his haste.
no!” Josiah protested, slightly horrified by the suggestion.
take care of him, ‘cause I never want to see him again!”
Chris thundered down the aisle stopping in the doorway to talk to
were a might hard on ‘im,” Tanner rebuked.
your concern, Vin.”
shrugged. He’d dealt with
Larabee in this type of mood before.
Had to wonder at Chris’ reaction though.
Reckon the kid has gotten under Larabee’s skin.
Hope the kid’s tough enough to shrug off Chris’ anger. “Back-trailed as far as we could, didn’t see no one
chasing yer trail. Did our
best to cover yer tracks.”
Vin. Anyone needs me, I’ll be at the clinic.”
up the stairs to the clinic and thumped along the narrow veranda.
There would be no secret inside the clinic as to who was come
visiting. The irate
gunslinger took a calming breath before entering.
He smiled to see Wilmington sitting up in bed.
“Good ta see ya awake, Buck.”
his fingers over his moustache and grimaced slightly as he shifted on
the bed. “Good to be
“How is he,
him here the night, and depending how he’s feeling tomorrow, I might
let him go back to his room.”
to convince him that I’m right to leave now,” Buck grumbled
I’d have ya back here with yer skull busted open after ya fell
over,” Nathan dismissed. Wilmington
had lost a lot of blood and it would take some time to recoup his
“Just do as
Nathan says,” JD insisted.
I’ve got to put up with,” Wilmington groused.
were the one who got shot,” JD pointed out.
like I painted a red circle on my leg and said, aim here!”
mind if I have a word with Buck in private?” Chris asked Nathan and
reckon I can get a beer. JD,
ya want to join me?”
Nathan, but I reckon I’ll wait outside.
If that’s okay with you, Chris?”
He’d hardly had any time with Buck yet, since he’d been out
on the trail all morning with Vin.
JD needed more time with his mentor before he was convinced the
older man was on the improve.
fine, JD. I wont’ be
long,” Chris agreed.
and Dunne left the clinic Chris sat in the chair that JD had vacated.
what’s on yer mind, pard? Did
Ezra find his ma?”
Chris groaned. “He conned us, Buck.”
Ezra? What’s going
on?” Wilmington winced as
he sat forward, frown lines marring his brow.
I don’t know where ya got the name Maude Standish from…or even if
the woman exists…” Chris held up his hand to prevent Buck from
interrupting. “But the
kid out and out lied to us. His
name probably isn’t even Ezra Standish!”
had increased, and his leg was throbbing.
Ezra had lied to them? Why would he do that? “Ya sure,
know what the kid told you, but none of it’s true.
That woman ain’t his mother and her name is Blanche Beauregard.”
his chin; going over the conversation he’d had with Ezra in Ridge
City. He shook his head.
“The kid described her to me, and gave me a name.
The manager at the hotel where she was stayin’ confirmed the
description, Buck? Tall,
blond and pretty? Hell,
Mary Travis fits that description, along with thousands of others.”
talked with Ezra? What does
saying anything. For a kid
who likes the sound of his own voice, I couldn’t get crap out of
him.” Chris related the
conversation that occurred between himself and Blanche Beauregard.
don’t find any of this strange? Come
on, Chris. There’s more
to this than what yer tellin’ me.”
there is, I don’t see it.”
on this. Why didn’t this
woman just say she wasn’t Maude Standish and leave it at that?
Why did she stand around defending her claim that she didn’t
know Ezra? Ya said her
fiancé said she didn’t have to defend the accusations…so why did
his bottom lip and considered what Buck was telling him.
“Nah. It makes no
it? The hotel manager in Ridge City said Maude left in the
company of a male companion. The
stage company said they came to Four Corners.”
“Hell if I
know what’s goin’ on!”
“Bet the boy
must be feeling low. Have
ya given Ezra his things back?”
things on my mind,” he answered thoughtfully.
Was Maude Standish really Blanche Beauregard?
Was the woman pulling a con?
And where did Ezra fit within the scheme of things?
“Ya best do
it soon. A boy needs some
security. He is only a kid,
Chris. Try an’ remember
grunted. “I’ll send JD
in on my way out. You get
some rest now, ya hear?”
Chris Larabee dropped Ezra’s belongings off at the church late that evening, picking the time specifically to avoid the boy. Of course, he was assuming that Ezra would be sleeping, given the hectic pace of the past few days. Hell, he was flat out exhausted! Ezra had to be feeling worse. And Chris needed the time to consider what Buck had said before he saw the child again. The money was stuffed into a paper bag and wrapped inside the boy’s colourful jacket. He wondered why Standish had been wearing the ugly brown jacket, which was far too big, instead of the green coat. Larabee shrugged, the boy was full of contradictions.
wandered past the Gem Hotel and glanced up at the windows facing the
street. He didn’t know
which room Blanche Beauregard had taken, and he didn’t see any faces
in the windows looking out. She
hadn’t ventured out of her suite after the confrontation in the street
the day before and he wanted to see the couple this morning to gage
their reactions. He headed
to the restaurant, hoping to catch up with them there.
Chris had spent a restless night replaying that scene over and
over again. Even in his
dreams he couldn’t help wondering why Ezra had stayed silent.
If the boy had been pulling a scam why hadn’t he followed it
through to the end? As Buck
had said, some things just didn’t add up.
He couldn’t send the boy away until the matter was resolved,
but how would he get the truth from the young gambler?
inside the restaurant, but the couple he was searching for were not
inside. Chris’ steps faltered as he passed Potter’s Store. On the
spur of the moment he walked inside.
He glanced at Gloria Potter and tipped his hat.
can help you with, Mr. Larabee?”
a small carpetbag. Somethin’
not too big. It’s for a
cute little boy, who’s staying with Josiah?”
Ma’am. For Ezra.”
“Such a sad
child,” she muttered. “He
was in here this morning with Mr. Sanchez.
Josiah told him he could have his choice of sweets, but he
refused, ever so politely. And
while Josiah was collecting his supplies, the boy tried to sell me his
hat and a gold pocket watch.”
what? “Did he say why he was
“He said he
needed to pay off a debt…”
couldn’t do that,” Mrs Potter replied.
“I told him I’d need a note from one of his parents before I
could take them.”
doesn’t have any parents, Gloria.”
Obviously none worthy of mention.
“And if he comes back to try again, you’d be doing me a
favour if you don’t take them.”
dear. Any wonder he was so sad.”
About the bags?”
several cases over here,” she motioned the peacekeeper to the corner
of the store. “There are more out the back if you don’t mind it not
inspected the range of luggage; most were too big and cumbersome to
expect a child to manage. And
others were outside the price range that he had set.
“Can I see the others?”
She lead him
through the curtained off area behind the counter.
“I haven’t gotten around to cleaning them up yet…” But
she noticed that Chris was already shaking his head.
“If you have
something in mind you could check through the catalogue and order one
“I had to
throw away Ezra’s carpetbag to get some thievin’ outlaws off our
trail…it ain’t like I don’t want to get him something new…” Hell,
Ezra could afford to buy his own with all that money he is carrying.
“But I reckon the old one meant somethin’ special…”
exactly what you mean, Mr. Larabee.
And I think I may have just what you’re looking for.
Please excuse me for a moment.”
She came back inside the store five minutes later holding a worn
leather valise. “It
belonged to Mr. Potter and …well he no longer needs it.”
It was a little larger than Ezra’s old bag, but the boy was
still growing. “I’ll
lightly on the door and shifted nervously while he waited.
He prayed Buck would see him and wouldn’t send him away. He hoped Buck wouldn’t be angry with him, like Chris.
But he wished the older man would answer the door quickly before
Josiah noticed his was missing and came looking for him.
“Mr. Wilmington?” Ezra called out softly, not wanting to wake
the injured man if he was sleeping.
He’d been watching from the church when Nathan Chris and JD had
helped Buck from the clinic. He remembered the flush of embarrassment when Wilmington had
stopped the procession and waved outrageously at the Southerner.
Buck still seemed friendly, although he’d fallen for that
deception before. “Mr.
Wilmington? It’s Ezra.”
sleepy voice called out from behind the closed door.
“Door’s open. Come
on in, kid.”
Buck had been asleep! Should
he go in or not? But
Buck solved his dilemma almost immediately.
yer butt in here!”
entered the room. Closing
the door softly, he stayed as far from the injured man as possible.
“Ar...are you recovered, Mr. Wilmington?”
“Buck, Ezra. Not Mr. Wilmington? Remember.
Yeah, I’m feeling as strong as an ox.”
nodded his head. “D...does
and shook his head. “Only
when I scratch at it. Ya
gonna come into the room so I can get a look at ya?”
He patted the bed and moved over to make space.
Ezra took a
seat at the end of the bed. “I
am uninjured, Mr.…Buck.”
“I know, but
ya got that nice green jacket on and I’m figurin’ it looks real
smart. Better’n that other hide skin ya were wearin’.”
never commented on how he looked, unless his appearance was not up to
her standards. The
boy looked down at his front and absently brushed at his sleeves.
He’d hated that old brown coat and was pleased that Buck liked
his green one. “Thank
reason why ya weren’t wearin’ it b’fore?”
He had his suspicions, but it was always a good idea to confirm.
up his head and met the steady gaze of the lawman.
A well-dressed child travelling alone was an open invitation for
unwanted attention. He’d
learned that lesson years ago. So
covering up inside the scruffy coat kept them at a distance and kept him
safe. “I…I wanted to…
keep it clean…”
Ya want ta tell me about ya ma?”
“No, Sir.” Ezra slipped off the bed and stood nervously at the end.
on, kid. I ain’t gonna
bite ya,” he chuckled, and rolled his eyes.
The boy was walking on eggshells.
Larabee must have really done a number on him.
“How’s it goin’ between you and Chris?”
He knew the story, but Buck wanted to hear Ezra’s point of
“Reckon Chris is pretty upset, but he don’t hate ya.”
didn’t hear what he said. Mr.
Larabee doesn’t want to see me. I
made him enraged.”
A rapid knock
sounded on the door and Chris Larabee stepped into the room.
He glanced at Buck and over to Ezra.
Thank God! “J’siah’s
looking for you.” Should
have figured on checking here first!
Damn! Spent half the
mornin’ trying ta find the little shit and he’s here chewing the fat
“Ya best be
running along, then Ezra. And
thanks for coming to visit. I
you tell Inez that Buck’s awake so she can send up his lunch.”
pursed his lips around the cheroot and puffed the smoke out through
clenched teeth. “What
time is it, Jimmy?” he asked the bartender from his position by the
swinging doors of the saloon. It
was late; the night fires were already starting to lose their head.
fifteen, Mr. Larabee.”
flicking the cheroot from his mouth and stamping it out.
His eyes narrowed and he stalked from the saloon and followed the
cloaked figure that disappeared from the main street.
What the hell?
where were you last night? It
was inconsiderate making me wait,” the cloaked figure chastised.
“Never mind, you’re here now.”
Blanche at the moment, please do try to remember.”
are you doing chasing around the countryside?
And with lawmen, of all people?
You should have known better.”
sorry, moth…Maude. I was
unaware they were lawmen when I encountered them.”
excuse! I taught you better
than that! That’s what we
do for a living. You are
going to have to spend more time practising your skills if you intend to
be of some use to me.”
we’ll just have to make the most of this situation.
Tomorrow morning I want you to get on the stage and go back to
“Do I have
to?” Ezra whined. He
thought after he’d departed that small town hovel that he’d never
need to return. Not that
the town was such a bad place, but… “Mr. Baxter doesn’t like
me. And he hurts me
is a good Christian man! I won’t hear a hard word said against him.
Besides he owes me a favour.
And you will do as your mother says!
Go back to Greeley. I
want you to wait there for me. I
should be there in about a month, six weeks at the most.”
Percival Standish! How dare
you question my instructions! You
have obviously been spending far too much time in the company of those
heathens! You are
forgetting your manners and being pulled down to their level.
And the disgraceful monstrosity you were wearing when you
are everything, Ezra! I was
utterly ashamed to see you wearing that varmint-infested piece of
clothing,” she scolded.
Ezra hung his
head. His mother saw him
arrive and didn’t come for him. “I’m
“Do you have
something for your mother?”
out the paper bag. “There
is Six hundred and twenty-six dollars.” He lowered his eyes and looked
at the ground.
all? Are you withholding some of the money, Ezra?”
Ma’am. I…I lost some…”
through the bag, not paying any attention to her child.
“How much did you lose?”
dollars. But I
promise I’ll be real good…and…and I can get more…”
Maude sniffed. “Here. This
should be more than enough for the fare back to Greeley.”
Ezra took the
ten dollars Maude returned to him with bitter disappointment.
He wanted to stay with Maude… and if not with Maude, then he
wanted to stay in Four Corners with Chris and Buck.
But Chris was still mad at him…and at the very least, he needed
to reimburse Larabee. ”I
owe Mr. Larabee for my hat and bedroll…”
“Oh, piffle! If the fool man bought you something, then that is his
hardship. Now I want to
hear when I wake up in the morning that you have left for parts unknown.
I will see you probably in… two months time.
Now, you mind your manners and behave for Zed Baxter.
Off you go.”
around the corner, tears falling from his eyes.
The tears blurred his vision and he crashed headlong into the
chest of the one person he didn’t expect to see, Chris Larabee.
Chris lifted the boy’s face, and used his sleeve to wipe the wet face.
“You go and see Buck. I’ve
got somethin’ I need to take care of right now, but I’ll come and
see you before ya go to sleep. Will
ya wait up for me?”
trying hard not to cry in front of Larabee.
“Good boy. Ya go straight up to Buck’s room.” Larabee ruffled the Southerner’s hair affectionately and
smiled. Hell of a kid!
in the opposite direction of Ezra and raced for the Hotel where Maude
was staying. He’d lost
time talking to Ezra, but the woman who claimed to be Ezra’s mother
would not have had time to retire for the night.
Larabee bolted up the staircase to the guest rooms and slammed
his fist urgently against the suite Maude occupied.
“Open up, lady! I
know ya ain’t asleep!” Chris
thumped on the door more loudly and only stopped when he heard sounds
from inside. He heard
several doors open and close behind him, but ignored the curious faces.
Larabee,” Maude suppressed a yawn, drawing her nightgown around
herself. “It’s a little
late for a social visit,” she cooed.
late,” Maude’s fiancé added sternly, coming out into the hallway
and joining Larabee and Maude at her door.
“What’s the meaning of this…harassment?”
Chris spun on
Bennett. “Your fiancé
has just come back from her midnight stroll…where she’s been visitin’
with her son. Isn’t that
right, Mrs Standish?”
She glared at
the gunslinger, and attempted to slam the door shut, but Chris
anticipated this move and leaned against it preventing it from closing.
“The man is obviously drunk, Robert.
He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Now, remove your person this moment!”
“Oh, is he
still going on about that little brat,” Bennett asked, bored with the
Larabee, Maude spoke directly to her fiancé.
“He’s obsessed. He’s
been hoodwinked by a seven-year-old child.”
smirked at Bennett. “Don’t
ya find it amazin’ that she knows how old Ezra is?”
sputtered indignantly. “It
was an educated guess.”
right. Ya still claiming ya didn’t meet-up with Ezra tonight?”
Larabee shook his head in disgust.
“Ya didn’t instruct him to go hop the stage to some shit town
and wait for you to return in six weeks?
Or two months?”
demented,” Maude reassured her fiancé.
take his money, more ‘an six hundred dollars, and leave him with only
in response. “And where
would a boy get that amount of money?
Don’t be ridiculous. Robert, don’t listen to him.”
“He won it
playing poker. Playing a
game you taught him. He
plays very well, too,” Chris added with a sense of pride.
“And I’ll bet we’ll find it inside your room, probably
still in the same paper bag I put it when I returned it to Ezra.”
He pushed past the blond-haired woman into her room.
you doing?” she screamed a note of hysteria entering her voice.
got to stop him.”
Blanche inside her suite muttering that everything will be resolved.
The words died on his tongue as Chris joined them in the sitting
room holding the paper bag. He
sneered at the pair and turned out the contents onto the floor. Greenbacks fluttered around his feet.
can’t possibly believe this neanderthal,” she pleaded.
“He’s framing me. Don’t
you see? He brought it in
“Why would I
do that,” Chris growled. “’Cause
if I was tryin’ to prove you were Ezra’s mother you’d be duty
bound to take him with ya when ya leave town in the morning.
And we both know that Ezra sure as hell doesn’t need a woman
like you to be his mother. Hell,
he’d be far better off if he never had to see or hear from you
exactly are you implying, Mr. Larabee?”
want ya out of my town, and out of Ezra’s life!”
“You have no
“Like hell I
don’t!” he roared. “You
claimed, in front of the whole town, that ya weren’t his mother and
that you’d never seen him before.
Ya told him tonight that you were ashamed of him when ya saw him
arrive in town. Ya claim to
be Blanche Beauregard and not Maude Standish.
I’d say you’ve given up all yer rights to the boy.”
he’s being melodramatic. You
don’t believe him? Do you?”
at the money on the floor and from Larabee’s cold expression to
Maude’s calm indifference. “He’s
really your child? Has
everything else you’ve told me been a lie as well?”
I’m gonna leave you two to sort out yer squabbles,” Chris
interrupted. “But let me
make this very clear; Lady, you WILL be gone in the morning! Without Ezra.” Larabee
stormed out the room, with Maude hot on his heels.
Larabee, I’ll leave tomorrow, but only because it is convenient to me.
And if you think for one minute this matter has been settled,”
she hissed in warning, “then you are mistaken.
I will be back for my son when I’m good and ready!”
are a piece of work, lady! Let
me remind you, if ya hurt that boy, you’ll answer to me. Should ya try
and take Ezra, yer gonna know the true meaning of the Wrath of God!
Sleep well now,” he added sarcastically.
Ezra wiped his
face on his sleeve, uncaring of actions and how they reflected on him. He slowly climbed the staircase that led to Buck
Wilmington’s room. The
flow of tears had stopped, but his cheeks were red and his eyes were
puffy. He sniffed again and roughly rubbed his nose.
His steps slowed and he braved a smile.
Buck would let him stay the night, and Chris would be here to see
him soon. Ezra tapped
lightly, whispering in a choked voice.
Ezra leaned up
to the door and pressed his ear flat on the surface.
“Mr. Buck?” The
Southerner frowned, listening to the noises that came from within the
room. “Buck,” Ezra
called more urgently. Oh
No! He needed to get help.
Buck was injured and needed Mr. Jackson.
The Southerner knocked more frantically and fiddled with the
doorknob. He tripped over
his feet as the door swung inwards revealing a bare-chested Wilmington
wrapped only in a sheet.
What in tarnation are ya doing out here at this time of night?
Son?” Buck winced
as he crouched down, seeing the fear in the boy’s eyes and the
tear-stained face, he reached out to gather in the child.
“Hey, there, everythin’s all right.”
“I heard you
crying out in distress. Does
your wound still vex you? I
could fetch Mr. Jackson?”
his lips and looked back into the darkened room.
“I ain’t in any pain, Ezra.
Is that why yer so upset?”
are ya here, son? It’s
way past yer bedtime?”
Son of a
bitch! Larabee ya ol’
I’m kinda busy right now, Ezra. Be
best if ya went over to the church with Josiah.”
honey? The bed’s gettin’ cold,” a female voice called from
dropped open. He was not
naive. “I’m so…sorry, Mr. Wilmington.
I apologise for intruding,” he stammered, and not waiting for
the ladies’ man to reply he ran off toward the stairs.
“Buck? Open this damn door?” Chris shouted.
Wilmington flung it wide, set to give Larabee a mouthful, but the gunslinger pushed inside the room. “Chris…what…?”
“Where’s…’cuse me, ma’am.” Chris turned on Buck’s lady friend and faced him with a mixture of concern and confusion. “Where’s Ezra? Didn’t he come here?”
“He was here. That was downright inconsiderate sending the boy here when I had company though, Chris,” Wilmington rebuked.
“Ezra’s not here?” he asked again, frowning now as he searched the room with his eyes.
“Just said, he wasn’t…”
“Didn’t ya see he was upset?”
“Well, yeah…but I figured it was ‘cause he thought I was hurting…it was somethin’ else, weren’t it?” he asked, concerned with how Larabee was acting.
“Ezra went and saw his ma tonight. That woman…” Chris growled. “He was cryin’ and I told him to come here…where’d he go, Buck?”
“Sent him over to Josiah.”
“Josiah’s at the jail, tonight…” Ezra wouldn’t go to the church. And he’s hardly gotten to know Vin, JD or Nathan. Where would he go? “I’ve gotta go find him…”
“Look, I’ll come too…” Buck searched for his pants under the tangle of blankets and covering.
“Buck, go back to bed. Ya shouldn’t be walkin’ around on that leg. I’ll get the others to help…and yes, I’ll send JD up to let ya know when he’s been found.” Chris nodded in the direction of woman in Buck’s bed. “Night, ma’am.”
“Ezra? Could you come down from there?” Larabee asked softly. He glanced up, hearing Tanner by the livery entrance and signalled that he’d found the little Southerner and could handle it from here.
Ezra scrubbed his wet face and taking his time crawled to the side of the hayloft. “Mr. Buck was busy…”
Damn, Buck! “I know.” It weren’t Ezra’s fault and it wasn’t Buck’s…it was a simple misunderstanding.
“Mr. Sanchez is at the jail…” Ezra sniffed. He sat on the edge of the loft with one leg dangling over the side.
“Yep…JD’s there, too.” Or they will be again when Vin passes on the message that Ezra had been found. Tanner had been out on patrol and only arrived back in town in time to help search. Perfect timing on the tracker’s part. “Ya didn’t go up to Nathan’s?”
Ezra wiped his nose on his sleeve and pressed his lips firmly together. “I have not been formally introduced to Mr. Jackson…” And besides the healer had a patient in his clinic, Ezra had heard the screams of pain as Nathan treated the injured man. There was no way he was going to interrupt that!
“First thing in the morning, we’ll fix that. There are a lot of good folks in town.”
Ezra nodded. What did it matter? “I will be leaving on the stage…”
“Nope!” Chris growled. Taking a deep breath he calmed himself. No need to frighten the boy more. “I had a real long talk with yer ma tonight, and she agreed with me that it’d be good for you to stay in Four Corners.”
“Maude said that?” he asked incredulously. There must be some angle he was overlooking.
“She said she needed to leave in the morning herself, had some urgent business to attend to. I offered to watch over you while she was gone.”
“Maude’s leaving?” Ezra stared at the gunslinger uncertainly, trying to understand the change in plans. This was not what his mother had told him. And he found it strange that she would alter her plans, and inform Larabee of the alternate arrangements. She never took anyone into her confidence; even Ezra was rarely given that trust. “Mr. Larabee, did you send her away?”
Larabee was stunned by the intuitiveness of the seven-year-old. But how would Ezra react if he answered with the truth? “Do you want to go with her?”
“Of course, I want to be with her—”
Chris sighed, hoping the boy wanted to stay. Maude Standish was a menace to her child. He needed stability, and love…a place to call home.
“—But she grows weary of my company after a short time…” he shrugged, picking at the hay under his foot. “A woman earning a living, in a man’s world, cannot have an encumbrance,” he quoted softly.
“What?” Larabee exclaimed, horrified at Ezra’s misconceptions. How did a woman…a mother no less, treat her offspring with such aloofness?
Ezra drew his leg from the side and attempted to scuttle back into the depths of the hayloft.
“No, no. I ain’t angry at you.”
Ezra tentatively crept to the edge and asked hopefully. “Did Maude say when she was returning?”
“Ar…don’t reckon she did.”
Standish sighed. “She will explain all the details in her next correspondence,” he admitted with certainty.
“I can hear a bed calling out yer name…you tired?”
Standish cocked his head to the side, pensively listening for the call that Larabee had claimed to hear. “I do not usually retire early, Mr. Larabee. But as the hour is late, I shall accede your wishes.”
Chris Larabee stood at the window overlooking the main street. It had been a long night. One he cared not to repeat. He glanced at the young Southerner still asleep in the bed, buried deeply within the covers, and hoped Ezra would sleep another couple of hours yet. The last thing he wanted was for Ezra to witness his mother’s departure. Chris returned his gaze outside, his gaze meeting for a moment with Vin Tanner. He trusted the lanky tracker to watch over proceedings, and ensure that his orders were adhered to.
The stage had arrived ten minutes ago and the passengers inside had disembarked. Judge Travis had been one of the stage’s travellers. But Chris’ only concern was making certain that a certain southern lady shyster left town when the stage departed. But as yet Maude Standish, AKA Blanche Beauregard, had not shown herself. Where is she? Surely she wouldn’t disregard his threat? And there was no way in hell Chris was leaving Ezra alone until he was satisfied that Maude was gone. “Come on, lady,” he grumbled impatiently.
Chris watched as Robert Bennett arrived at the stage, his arms loaded high with his many travelling cases. The fiancé of Ezra’s ma looked about, as though he was lost, and finally settled on Vin, talking with the tracker for a few minutes while the stage driver hefted his luggage atop the coach. Then Bennett took his place inside the stage. Chris glanced at the sleeping boy, wishing he could wake Ezra up, so Chris could escort Maude directly to her seat on the stage, but he didn’t need the boy to see that. So he imagined it over again in his mind.
The gunslinger hated being out of the loop. He trusted the others, but it wasn’t the same as taking care of matters himself. Tanner looked up, and there was a message in his eyes, but Larabee would need to wait. Something was happening down on the street below. He was more convinced of this when Vin left and walked quickly to the Gem Hotel. Meanwhile the stage was thrown forward with a jolt, the horses leading it out of town. Now he knew something was wrong. The others wouldn’t have allowed the stage to leave, unless… “Damn! She better not’ve done somethin’ stupid!” Like kill herself? Chris hadn’t thought she was that distraught last night? Surely she wouldn’t have taken her life? How would he explain it to the kid? He rushed to the door when a knock came from the other side.
“What the hell’s goin’ on, Vin?”
“Ya ain’t gonna believe this…”
Larabee groaned. “J’st spill it, Vin. I’ve been waitin’ long enough.”
Tanner grinned and glanced at the lumpy bed. “The kid still sleepin’?
“Yeah, he’s still sleepin’. Now tell me,” Chris demanded impatiently.
“Seems like ya put a stick of dynamite under Ezra’s mama, last night. Reckon she packed up and left early this morning. Didn’t wait for the stage—”
“She’s already gone?”
“Yep.” Tanner continued to grin. “Left directions with the hotel manager about where ta send her things.”
“What about her fiancé, Bennett?”
“Accordin’ ta him, they had a huge brawl after ya left, and they’re no longer gettin’ hitched.”
Chris chuckled. “Bet that pissed her off.”
“Can’t say as I blame ‘im.”
“So how’d she leave town?”
“Yosemite says there’s a horse gone from the liv’ry. Figured I’d check with you b’fore we go after her.”
“Forget about the horse…Tell Yosemite, I’ll pay for it.” Anything to be rid of the conniving woman. Reckon stealing the horse was her way of making an impact.
“Yer call. What are ya gonna tell the boy?”
“I’ll think of somethin’.”
The young Southerner stretched languidly, squinting up at the figure hovering over the bed. “Mr. Larabee…” Ezra abruptly sat up.
“Was beginnin’ to wonder if you were gonna sleep the whole day through.”
“Where am I?” Ezra glanced about the unfamiliar room with growing anxiety.
“In my room.”
Ezra settled back and eyed the gunslinger suspiciously. “Has mother gone?”
Ezra started to climb out of bed, discovering that he was wearing not one of his nightshirts but one that belonged to Chris. The sleeves dangled past his hands; the restless time spent in the bed had unravelled the gunslinger’s efforts of the night before of shortening them. He sat back on top of the bed covers, wondering where his own clothing had been placed. “I should be on my way, also.” He looked to Larabee, praying he would understand and return his clothes.
“Might be breezy traipsin’ about in only a shirt.”
Ezra rolled his eyes.
“But, if ya got yer heart set on leavin’…” Chris picked up the leather satchel off the floor and set in on the bed along with Ezra’s clothes. “Then ya might need these.”
Ezra reached for the clothes, but made no effort to take the leather case.
“The bag’s yours too.” Chris worried over his choice of cases. Perhaps he should have replaced Ezra’s carpetbag with something new and flashier, but it was too late for that now. “It doesn’t have any hidden compartments like yer old one did, but it does have some pockets inside.”
Ezra swallowed, looking from the bag to Chris and back again. “I can not repay…” He still owed Chris for the new hat and bedroll, and he had only ten dollars to his name.
“Hell, I ain’t wantin’ yer money, Ezra. And this old thing,” he slapped the bag for effect, “it was just takin’ up space…figured you could use it. If ya don’t want it though…reckon it’ll only be tossed away.” He could give it back to Gloria, if Ezra didn’t want it.
“No…” Ezra jumped forward and quickly rescued the worn case. “I can have this?” he asked uncertainly. “You don’t want it back?”
“Nope…it’s yours. But I hope you’ll change yer mind about stayin’.”
“So, Ezra? Ya decided to stay, yet?” Buck Wilmington sat down in the seat beside the gambler. He stretched his long legs out and winced slightly as the stitches pulled in his healing wound.
“I have given the proposal a great deal of thought.”
“I’m bettin’ ya want ta stay.”
Standish sighed. “And where exactly would I be residing?”
“I c’n put ya up in my room. Won’t be no problem.”
“Hmmm. Until your courtesans come calling,” Ezra grinned knowingly.
Wilmington had the grace to blush. The kid knows far too much! Hell of a lot more than JD did when he first arrived in town. And there’s ten years age difference between the two. “This ain’t somethin’ I should be discussin’ with you.”
“Then don’t,” Larabee warned, joining the pair on the sidewalk. “There’s plenty of space in my room if ya want to hang yer socks there.”
“I will take both offers under due consideration. If you gentlemen will excuse me, I have some matters to contemplate.”
Ezra only made it across the other side of the street and was greeted by Vin Tanner coming out of the mercantile store. Standish shyly returned the tracker’s smile.
“I know we don’t know each other real well yet, but I reckon I might be able ta show ya a thing or two.”
Ezra stared sceptically. He wondered if they would have anything in common at all. The man was a ruffian, uncultured and clearly uneducated.
“Ya, like horses?”
“Reckon ya do,” Vin chuckled, amused by Ezra’s enthusiasm. “I’m guessin, ya know how ta ride?”
“I have been riding since I could walk, Mr. Tanner,” he drawled thickly.
“Then I could take ya out sometime and show ya around.”
Ezra waited for the conditions the tracker would place on such an outing and when Vin just shuffled his boots in the dirt, the Southerner realised that there were none. “That would be acceptable.”
Tanner tipped his slouch hat and smiled. “I’ll talk ta Chris, and we’ll work out a time.”
“That’s ‘im, Mex. The brat’s here!” Phineas Ricks slipped from his horse, using the animal as a shield.
“Si. It was a good idea to follow that trail. And more dinero for us that we don’t have to share with your amigos.”
“They were fools. Gonna be a piece a cake takin’ down the kid. Got a hankerin’ ta break a few bones; might even slice ‘im up a bit. It was a mistake throwin’ us off course with that ploy. Gonna make Larabee pay too, f’r makin’ us waste so much time clamberin’ after that empty bag. Dooley was a good pard.”
“Dooley was a greedy vaquero,” the Mexican corrected.
Ricks shrugged. “Too bad he had ta fall, ‘ey?”
“Si. He could ‘ave checked the bag first, ‘fore he fell. Would have saved us the time figurin’ how to get it out of there.”
“Keep an eye open for them do-gooders. I don’t want no surprises.”
“Si,” he agreed, lowering the shabby sombrero rim to cover his face. “When we gonna grab the muchacho?”
“Soon. Get us some fresh horses. These pair are done in. That southern brat is gonna fork over that money and if there ain’t enough, then we might hit the bank ta sweeten the deal.”
“What about them lawdogs, Phin? Larabee’s one of ‘em.”
“Larabee likes playin’ with dynamite, I reck’n we can keep ‘im on the hop.”
“Knew ya’d come, kid.”
Ezra glanced about nervously. Where was Chris? Billy Travis had given him a note stating that he was to meet with Chris behind the stables. “What do you require?”
Ricks laughed, choking on his mirth. “And here I thought ya were a bright spark. I want them greenbacks…and I want it all this time,” he threatened, grabbing the Southerner and tossing him to the ground. He was perversely satisfied when the boy cried out, and cradled his arm protectively. “Get up!”
Ricks chuckled again. “Both Larabee and Wilmington are gonna have their hands full, right about—” A loud explosion drowned his final word out. “Now, on ta business…where is it?”
There was no point pretending ignorance, it would only afford him more pain and discomfort. Especially as he could see no form of help available. “I don’t have possession of it any longer,” Ezra pleaded, tears running down his cheeks.
“’Ey, those lawdogs ‘av prob’ly got it,” Mex panted, arriving in time to hear Ezra.
“Is that right? D’ya give it ta them?” Ricks questioned Ezra.
Ezra began shaking his head, but a shove from the Mexican brought a stabbing pain down through his arm. It had to be broken. “Yes…” he groaned in desperation. “It’s in Mr. Larabee’s room.”
“Reckon ya startin’ to see things my way,” Phineas Ricks sneered. “Let’s go, kid. You can show us the way.” He pushed Ezra in front, while he shared a worried frown with the Mexican. “Any problems?”
“No. I lit a couple of sticks behind the bank, like ya said. And there’s a bueno surprise for the Americanos when they step out on the back steps…Boom!”
“Noooo!” Ezra screamed, attempting to make a dash out into the open, but the large brawny hands gripped him around the waist. His arm was jostled and he whimpered, fighting the overwhelming desire to give in to the sensations. Buck and Chris, and the others were walking into a trap…and there was nothing he could do to prevent it.
“The kid was j’st on his way to show us where the money’s hid.” Not caring that Ezra was in pain, he nudged the child in the back. “Where’re the horses?”
“A dun and a grey, saddled out front of the saloon.”
“This the room?”
“Yes,” Standish answered dully.
Not bothering with the noise, Ricks kicked in the door, shoving Ezra inside roughly. He glanced around the tidy accommodations. “Where is it?”
Standish cowered in the corner, hugging his injured arm and trying hard not to aggravate either man more. The plan was about to fall down quickly when they discovered that there was no money in Larabee’s room. “The…the leather case…”
The Mexican stood by the open door; a muffled blast echoed from outside, Mex and Phineas shared a satisfied look, while Ezra grew more teary-eyed. “Boooom!” Mex looked directly at Ezra and whispered sarcastically.
“There ain’t nothin’ in here beside clothes,” Ricks emptied the contents on the floor and spread them with his boot. Throwing the now empty bag at Ezra he screamed, “Where’s the cash?”
Ezra drew his legs up, attempting to curl into a ball to protect himself. He heard the click of a gun hammer fall into place and buried his head deeper. This couldn’t be happening. The bark of the pistol inside the room was deafening, and the pain in his arm grew as the boy shuddered violently.
“The next one you ain’t gonna be so lucky ta remember,” Chris Larabee growled.
Ezra slowly lifted his head, his green eyes shining with relief. Ricks was holding a bloody arm and Mex was no longer moving. “I’m s...sorry…”
Chris lowered his eyes to meet Ezra’s; he smiled briefly, but was worried by the way the child was holding his arm. “Ezra, are you hurt?” While his attention was diverted on the young gambler, the Mexican lunged at the gunslinger. Chris saw the movement out the corner of his eye and brought up his colt and fired.
The Mexican looked down at his chest stunned, a red stain quickly blossoming on his chickened shirt. “Phin…?” he asked, as he collapsed to the floor.
Never one to pass up an opportunity, Phineas Ricks picked up the Southerner, ignoring the protesting cry and the feeble attempts to resist. He lifted the boy up, and held him in a chokehold. “Stand down, Larabee!” His fingers tightened around Ezra’s neck. “I dunno how ya escaped that explosion, but I reckon it had ta’ve taken out a few of yer friends,” he taunted. “Now, toss down yer iron. I ain’t waitin’, I’ll j’st squeeze his breath outta him…”
Chris lowered the weapon to the floor, and nudged it out of reach with his boot. “Let the boy go…”
Ricks snorted and rolled his eyes. “I aim on keepin’ him right close…get ov’r by the window.”
Chris followed the directions, not wanting to give the troublemaker a reason to hurt the boy more. Ezra was already having difficulty breathing, and his left arm hung at an awkward angle. If Chris could stall Ricks’ progress, he might succumb to the blood loss from his own injury, but how would Ezra be faring by then? “Take me in place of the boy.”
“I ain’t a fool, Larabee.”
“You keep hurtin’ him like that and Ezra won’t be in any shape for a hostage either.”
“Ya ain’t gonna rush me if there’s even the slightest chance the kid’s alive.”
“Ezra, listen to me…”
Standish’s glazed eyes widened. He could see Larabee was addressing him; the words were garbled and strange to his ears. His arm burned in agony and his throat was tight. A wave of dizziness cloaked him and he felt the rise of his stomach contents. What was Larabee saying? Concentrate, Ezra! He resorted to lip-reading. Alley…Ridge City…something about boots?
“Shut the hell up!”
“If yer takin’ the boy with you, I just wanted to say goodbye.”
“Di’n’t sound like that ta me—” Ricks abruptly dropped Ezra to the floor and cupped his private parts, howling in pain.
Chris scraped Standish off the floor and hugged the crying child tightly. “One hell of a kick, kid.” Tanner and Sanchez rushed through the door, eventually taking Ricks to the jail. Hampered by his healing wound, Buck was unable to keep pace with the others. He satisfied himself with shoving Ricks roughly from behind as he walked past and helping Chris get the Southerner to the clinic.
Ezra blinked open his eyes. His arm was braced in a splint and resting by his side. His throat felt raw, as though it had been scratched with sandpaper. He felt strange and slightly groggy and surprisingly, his arm didn’t hurt nearly so bad. He glanced around the room, realising he must be inside Nathan Jackson’s clinic.
“Hi ya, squirt!” JD shouted, causing Ezra to wince from the exuberance of the teenager.
“Hey, Ezra. Good ta see ya finally comin’ around. Had ol’ Nate pretty worried.”
“Yer arm’s busted, but I fixed it while you were sleeping. It’s gonna hurt bad, but I can give you something that will help ease the pain.” Nathan sat next to the boy and offered him a drink. “Chris reminded me we’d never been formally introduced… I’m Nathan, and you’re welcome to come visit me anytime ya like. Ya don’t have to be sick or hurt, neither,” he smiled. “How’s yer throat?”
“Better,” Ezra croaked. He counted off all five of Larabee’s friends…they were all present and accounted for. “The explosion?”
“No one was hurt,” Larabee assured. “Figured after the first explosion it was a diversion…and when Gloria mentioned seein’ that Mexican fella skulkin’ about…and we couldn’t find you…”
Ezra sighed, collapsing into the pillows. “They were after the money.”
“Good thing ya brought ‘em to my room.”
“But I didn’t have anything to give them.” Maude had taken all his funds. She would need the ready cash now that her plans to marry had fallen through, and Ezra didn’t begrudge her.
“Ya stalled ‘em good,” Buck congratulated.
“That kick was somethin’ else,” Tanner whistled, grinning widely.
“Ricks is still whinging in his cell” Josiah agreed. Although that might have more to do with the pounding he'd received on route to the jail.
“What happens now?” Ezra asked tiredly.
“Gonna talk to the judge…”
“Well, stud. How do you reckon it’s goin’ in there?”
Larabee slouched against the wall and scowled. Judge Travis had already told Chris that his chances of gaining custody of Ezra were very slim. Travis had gone so far as to say that even with the young gambler stating that he was eager to remain in Larabee’s care, he doubted Chris would be given guardianship. In answer to Buck, he shrugged, resigned to the outcome.
“Don’t give in, yet. Ezra has a way of talkin’ that can confuse the likes of a saint, he’s bound to be able to twist the judge’s arm.”
“That’s if he even wants to stay. Travis reckons he’d be better off in a stable family…like the Ramsey’s.”
“The Ramsey’s? Hell, Chris they’ve already got a pass’l of kids…”
“I know, Buck…but the judge said they were interested in takin’ ‘im.”
The door to Chris’ room opened and Judge Travis stepped through the opening. He grinned at Larabee and shook his head in amusement. “That’s some boy ya got in there,” he complimented.
Buck pushed ahead of Chris to block Travis’ way, eager to hear the verdict. He wanted Ezra to remain in Four Corners. “Chris is dying ta know yer decision.”
Orin Travis glanced at both lawmen. “Chris, if you’d informed me of all the pertinent details when I interviewed you, I could have given you my answer then, and not had to bother the child with these questions when he is clearly not up to such matters at the present.”
Wilmington arched his eyebrows and wiggled them in confusion.
Travis thought his answer was obvious, but by the blank stares he was getting from both Wilmington and Larabee he realised that it wasn’t. “Yes, Chris. I have granted you permanent custody of Ezra Standish.”
Buck whooped loudly, clapping a stunned gunslinger on the shoulder and entered the room to congratulate the boy.
Chris nodded and belatedly shook the judge’s hand, thanking him. He entered the room more confused than ever. What had Ezra said to convince the judge that he was a suitable candidate for a guardian? He sat on the side of Ezra’s bed, pulling the boy into a hug, being careful not to jostle his broken arm, and kissed him on the top of his head. “How did you convince the judge, Ezra? What did you tell him?”
Standish squirmed in Larabee’s hold; a wide grin split his lips showing off his dimples as he looked at Buck. “That I am content here?” He put the answer into a question.
“And,” Chris prodded, knowing there had to be more.
“I am partial to Four Corners…”
“I enjoy your company, and Mr. Buck…And Mr. Vin expressed a desire to take me riding…”
“Keep going, Ezra.” Larabee could feel the child tensing more with each revelation.
Ezra swallowed nervously and plucked at the blanket with his good arm. “I may have…inadvertently mentioned…that Mr. Larabee is my natural father,” he rushed out in long breath.
Wilmington broke out into a loud rumbling laugh. “Reckon I’ll see ya at the saloon, pard. When yer finished talking with that son of yours.” Buck’s laughter continued and could be heard for a while longer before he departed the building.
“You told the judge, I was your father?” Chris wasn’t certain whether he was flattered or should be insulted. This was obviously what Travis had been alluding to.
“He was going to send me to stay with the Ramseys’.”
“But you TOLD the judge I was your father!”
“He said I’d have to share a room with four other boys. That I’d have to milk the cow and clean up the after the pigs.” He shuddered at that thought. Heaven forbid! He would get dirty! And the smell!
“You lied to Judge Travis, Ezra.” Larabee shuddered just thinking how intimate he would’ve had to be with Maude Standish for the child’s claim to be true.
“He gave you custody of me,” Ezra insisted. “That makes you my father now, doesn’t it?”
Larabee couldn’t resist the precocious child and returned the dimpled grin. “That don’t make it right.” Chris realised that Travis couldn’t have been fooled into believing Ezra was his true son, but if it made the decision any easier, he was content not to challenge Ezra’s claim.
“So you’re going to inform the judge…”
“Nope. But there are gonna be rules you need ta follow. And when the pigs arrive, they’ll be your job.”
“Pigs?!” Ezra gasped, horrified. Did Larabee say, Pigs? Surely this was a jest? “Sir, did you mention pigs?”
“Yep…reckon on six, ta begin with…” Ezra groaned, and Chris burst out laughing. He might have to inquire further into a piggery, seeing Ezra was so opposed to the idea. Just until the boy was convinced he was serious. Then he’d find a way to back out.
Two could play this game.
I really hope you enjoyed reading this story - I had a ball writing it!
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