Small Steps

By Angela B.

AU: Little Ezra - Old West

Disclaimer: The characters are not mine
Notes: AU is not mine.
This is a sequel to my Spilt Milk
This has not been beta read by anyone else. All mistakes are mine

The blond couldn't remember fatherhood being this difficult or terrifying. He glanced at the brown haired child sleeping beside him and wished he, himself, could go to sleep. His brain, however, refused to shut down. Instead it began once again the viscous cycle of rerunning the day's events. He had had the life scared out him by the child earlier that afternoon when Ezra had stood on the church ledge, looking so despondent. After the blond had talked the child off the ledge he managed to transcend the stairs and head for his room at the boarding house, Ezra tucked securely in his strong arms.

He remembered at that moment all he wanted to do was be alone with the depressed and frightened child, to be able to calm and assure him that he was safe, to simply hold and comfort his son. His son. Where the blazes did that thought come from he silently wondered. How, or when, did he start to consider himself Ezra's father? He chastised himself for thinking such a thought, he had done the father thing and when his son died he had solemnly sworn he would never feel that kind of pain again. In order not to feel the pain he would simply never become a father again. That had changed, though when Maude, a mother who didn't even care if the child had arrived safely into his care, had unceremoniously thrust the little southern boy upon him for an undetermined amount of time.

The blonde's mind leapt back to the point in the walk back to his room where that protectiveness had been over come by a feeling of sheer anger. As it so often happened in small towns news traveled fast. The townspeople had come out to gawk at the little boy, with no hope, standing on the ledge. After Chris had come down they had gathered around him, or at least tried to. Vultures, that's how Chris had seen them. His friends, he quickly amended the thought, his brothers had surrounded the two trying to keep the prying eyes of the town folk apart from the pair.

Most of the people had expressed a clear concerned for the welfare of the boy. Some had suggested various punishments for what they saw as a trouble child. Chris had for the most part ignored all the forthcoming comments. Until Miss Weatherly, the town gossiper demanded that the child be placed in an asylum. Mr. Bowles, resident loafer, had seconded the statement. It was at that moment that the blonde's fearsome attitude came to the surface. With an abrupt halt the gunfighter turned on the pair with a look that would have melted the thickest of glaciers. The only thing that saved the duo was his longtime friend's plea to let them handle the situation.

"It's more important that you get Ezra out of here and away from that kinda talk" Buck had insisted.

After staring at the couple a moment Chris nodded and continued on towards his room, accompanied only by Nathan. The others had stayed behind to clear away the crowd. After a few less than pleasant suggestions the folks dispersed and headed back to their original places. Buck, however, wasn't willing to let the duo get away so easily.


To say the black haired cowboy was angry was like saying the Grand Canyon was just a little river. The man was boiling. He had just had twenty years taken off his life by a little boy who had wormed his way into six regulator's hearts. A little boy who had managed to turn his friend's heart from stone back into a beating loving heart. The man, who was like a brother, had almost lost his life when his family had been murdered. After the six men came together to protect this little backwater town the black clad man had started to come out his shell. The process had been sped up by the sudden appearance of the little southerner. In the course of just a few weeks the blond had become a fair representation of the man he had been when his wife and child had been alive. That had nearly ended just a few short minutes ago, thankfully this time Chris had been there to save a life and then these two worthless people had suggested the cruelest solution.

Buck approached the older woman and the weasely man with the same death glare his blond friend was famous for. The two instinctively backed up, deciding it would be in their best interest to be somewhere else but where they presently were. Vin and Josiah saw the confrontation that was about to occur and moved in from opposite sides. Josiah reached the couple steps ahead of Buck and put himself between the duo and the menacing man.

"Brother Buck, lets think about the decision you are about to take" Josiah quietly spoke, trying to avoid any unnecessary deaths.

Vin stepped up beside the seething man and laid his hand on the trembling shoulder. "Buck you don't want to do this. Ezra won't understand if you hurt them."

Buck turned and gave the tall sharpshooter a quizzical glance. "Whatcha mean?"

"Buck, he sees you as a good guy. He won't understand if you hurt these two. You're supposed to protect people, not hurt them. Vin tried explaining.

At that moment JD walked up and took hold of his best friend's arm, "Come on Buck, and let's go get a beer and let Josiah and Vin handle this." JD wasn't dumb. He saw the hateful emotion in his brother and knew if Buck unleashed that fury someone would get seriously injured. Buck looked at the other two men, who nodded in agreement. They would definitely set the pair straight. The mustached man hesitantly let himself be led away.

No sooner had the JD and Buck walked away before Miss. Weatherly unwisely voiced her thoughts. "That man is a menace and should be not be allowed the distinction of being a peacekeeper."

Vin and Josiah whirled around and stared none to kindly at the woman. "Ma'am, you best be getting on home. Vin turned to leave then stopped, "And ma'am I'd think real careful next time you feel the need to express your thoughts. We," nodding towards Josiah, "might not be around to help extract yourself from potential harm." Tipping his hat he quietly finished, "Ma'am" and departed for the saloon.

Josiah wasn't feeling quite as generous and proceeded to grab Mr. Bowles before the man could get away. "It might be a prophesy but I you moving on to sponge off some other town" giving the man his own old-testament glare.

Mr. Bowles was not so stupid that he didn't understand he was being told to leave. "Well, I have been thinking that Rapid City might provide a better chance of employment." Josiah nodded in agreement and let go of the man's jacket and headed towards the saloon to meet up with his brothers. They would do all they could to help the father and son thru this rough spot.


Buck laid in his bed thinking of the man and boy sleeping down the hall. He could not stop thinking of how close they had come to losing not only the boy but the man, too. He would not let that happen again. Slipping his arm out from under the petite brunette nestled next to him he slipped out of bed and found his clothes. Padding down the hall he came to his friend's door. He quietly turned the knob and slid inside the room.

The blond didn't need to turn over to know who was coming through the door. "We're fine Buck."

The mustached man continued into the room and walked to the other side of the bed and squatted down. Brushing the fine brown hair out of the closed eyes he gazed at the little form and breathed out a deep sigh.

"Just had to see for myself. Besides I figured you would sleep better if someone was watching over the boy." standing up. Walking across the room he sat down quietly but heavily, as if he carried a heavy weight.

Chris watched his friend sit down and wondered at the man for the millionth time in his life. Everyone else saw a jovial, fun-loving ladies man but he knew the real man. Serious, stalwart, loyal and he deeply grieved for a little boy who wasn't his son but loved like he was. What Chris hadn't ever figured out was why the man had stuck with him when he had been told plenty of times he wasn't needed or wanted. Buck had just taken the anger and the abuse and stayed. The blond had realized what a true friend Buck was awhile back and was thankful for his friendship.

The leader slid out of bed and put on his pants then took up the chair across from his friend staring at the worried face bathed by the moon's light. "I just can't fathom what happened. What could make such a small soul believe death was better than life and all over a small dollop of spilt milk?" Chris asked, rubbing a hand down his face. The day had taken more out of him than a day of chasing some local bandit.

"I don't know either," the soft whisper told Chris his friend was just as concerned about the boy' earlier actions. "No telling what has happened to him, things he don't feel he can talk about. Reckon that beating he took from that Uncle might not have been the first one?"

Chris heard Buck's question. It in fact was the same thing he, himself, had been wondering lately. The nightmares sure seem to indicate that something awful occurred. The man took a deep breath then laid out the plans he had been thinking on for the last couple of days. Those plans seemed to be affirmed by the day's events. "I've been thinking about taking Ezra on a little camping trip. Ya know just the two of us, away from here. Figured he might open up if he felt secure that no one else might be around."

Buck nodded in agreement " I think that's a good idea" then let out a soft laugh. "Ezra camping?"

Chris let out a soft laugh himself. "Yeah." Thinking of how the little gentleman hated getting dirty. The child would do anything to get out any work, calling it menial and debasing to one's character. The blond man had solved that thinking by simply insisting on the rule 'no work no riding'.

Chris had learned early on that the boy had only one liking that he was aware of and that was riding. The older man had taken the boy to the stables and let him pick out a horse for himself. Chris had shook his head when the boy had picked the most obnoxious and unruly horse in the corral. The horse was known for biting people when they got to close. Amazingly enough the horse had not only let the boy near him but also seemed to become as attached to the boy as the boy to the horse within those few moments.

Chris, with a small grin lighting his face, slipped into a light sleep thinking of how the jittery horse had stood stock still while the boy climb onto that horse like the two had been together forever.

The next morning Ezra woke to find "Uncle Buck" sitting in a chair with his head leaned back and his mouth hanging open, snoring hard. When he slipped out of bed and opened the closest for his clothes it startled him at how easily the man came alive. "Mornin' Ez." The jovial man had a smile bright enough to light an entire house the youngster thought. Ezra stared at the man for a moment thinking. He had had plenty of so-called uncles in the past but this was the first time he felt like the 'relative' actually cared about him. He had come to this town to live with strangers only to find family.

Ezra slowly returned the smile, his dimples deepening. "Morning Mr. Wilmington. How are you this morning?" He looked around the room and Buck knew what he was looking for or more accurately who.

"Chris went to saddle the horses, he'll be back shortly." Rising from the chair the tall man looked into the sad uneasy green eyes with his trademark grin, "You hungry? Inez got breakfast for ya if ya are."

Ezra shook his head negatively, which didn't surprise the man. They had learned the little boy rarely ate the morning meal. "Ok then, you ready to go find Chris?"

The only response he received was a small nod. Buck reached down and took the small hand in his and gave it a reassuring squeeze before opening the door and led the boy out into the hall. Upon reaching the outside doors Ezra stopped and seemed to hesitate. The gentle man understood what the boy was thinking. "It's ok, son. Don't you worry; everything is just fine. C'mon." Gently he pulled the little southerner out into the sunshine and headed for the stables. The other regulators who had also become adoptive uncles to Ezra quickly surrounded them.

They, too, had been informed earlier of Chris' plans to take the boy away for a couple of days. All agreed the idea was a good one. Josiah felt it necessary though to remind the notorious gunfighter that it was a frightened and confused little boy he was taking and not a hardened criminal. In another words Josiah had told Chris he'd get farther if he didn't try to intimidate or bully the child into talking. Chris had brusquely informed Josiah he knew the difference. Inside he knew Josiah had only done out of concern. The blond knew if he hadn't taken the boy in Josiah would have, heck he still would in a heartbeat.

Chris walked out of the stables leading the two horses at the same time the group arrived. The five men each told the boy goodbye, Josiah and Buck each giving him a hug. The boy still inwardly trembled at any human contact but it didn't stop the two men. JD and Vin ruffled the boy's hair. Vin told him not to let Chris get to lazy and fat while they were gone, giving his best friend a sly smile and a wink. Nathan fussed over the health of the boy, questioning him about his health and leg; which had been out of a brace a short time from being broke. Ezra replied he was fine and Chris picked him up and put him on his horse. "C'mon Ezra we better get out of here while the sun is still up." Giving the men a smile and short nod of thanks.


The two rode in silence for a long ways. It bothered Chris that the boy never questioned the direction they took, heading away from the ranch. Ezra seemed to accept whatever Chris told him and did it without question. It just wasn't like the little southern boy. The boy usually talked nonstop whether it was to him or his horse. He always questioned Chris' decisions; whether he didn't trust the decision or out of curiosity. Chris was never sure. After several miles Ezra finally piped up in a soft questioning voice, "Do you know them?"

The question threw the blond. "Know who?"

"The people you are sending me to live with." Ezra replied with little emotion.

Chris whipped his head around to face the small boy riding beside him. "Where did you get the idea you're going to live anywhere else?" He pondered whether the boy might have remembered some of the nastier suggestions from the day before.

We're not going to the ranch." Was the flat response.

"No" Chris staring over at the small boy riding the big gelding. "Thought we'd get off to ourselves for a couple of days. Go camping."

"Camping?" sounding a little alarmed. Then just as quickly sounding a little enthused, "Just the two of us."

Chris nodded and gave a quick smile. "Just the two of us. A secluded place, no one around for miles." Trying to give the child security.

Instead the boy looked puzzled. "Why?"

"Why?" Shaking his head and wondered how he was going to explain this expedition.

"Why are we going camping" sounding very suspicious.

"Because…" Chris paused and took a deep breath and tried to work out in his head how best to explain the reasons without giving the child any more doubts. "Because since your arrival we really haven't had time to get to really know each other. I figured it's time to change that. After all it looks like we're going to be together for a long time" giving Ezra a true full smile.

"So, where are we going?' turning in his saddle to look at the man beside him more carefully.

"A little hidden away lake that not many people know about" the older man explained.

Ezra simply nodded, turned back in his saddle and began to contemplate the information.


The two had rode for an hour and half when the father figure suggested they stop and rest the horses. Ezra clamored down from his horse and began stroking his muzzle. Chris pondered the relationship between child and horse. If the black clad man had to pick anything that the boy truly cared about it would be that contrary horse. The strange thing was that the horse seemed to be just as devoted to the child. Before the southerner had come along the stable owner had contemplated shooting the horse. The two oddly belong together. Going over to the shade of the trees Chris sat down and watched the pair. After a while Ezra joined him on the ground, sweeping the ground with his foot first, like he was trying to sweep away the dirt. Chris ducked his head and smiled. They sat in silence for awhile, Chris was going to let Ezra take the lead. Moments passed before the boy opened his mouth. "Mr. Larabee…are…are you really a gunfighter?"

Ezra had heard the rumors and knew the man was fast with a gun but he had hard time seeing the man as a gunfighter. That term bought unimaginable images to mind. In the novels gunfighters were either cold-blooded murders or men who stood in the streets at high noon for a gunfight. He had not seen the man beside him do either one. Yes, he knew Chris went after the criminal element and had shot a few men but that was different, this man was a law enforcer that was his job.

"That's what they call me" the sadness inflected in his voice.

"But you've never called anyone out" Ezra stated, for some unknown reason he felt the need to defend the man.

Chris heard the defensive tone. "No. Not in a long time." Seeing the brown head whirl towards him. "I wasn't always the man you see now."

Pausing Chris wanted to explain farther. "Actions can determine the path you take. Sometimes you take the wrong path. But it's never to late to change paths." Looking into the bright green eyes and seeing confusion he continued, "Ezra, sometimes bad things happen and you feel so bad you do things or think things that aren't good. But life is full of second chances. It's up to you to take those chances and change your life." Chris got up and dusted off his seat. Ezra followed suit seeming to ponder the man's words. The blond helped the child onto the horse then mounted his own. He hoped he gave the child the hope he needed so badly.

For the next hour and half, as they rode along, Chris showed Ezra how to differentiate the different animal tracks and plants. The boy was a quick study and soon was able to point out tracks and tell what made them. Chris was pleased Ezra showed interest in learning about nature, it would be helpful when he was older and out on his own.

Upon reaching the designated spot Ezra reined in his horse and looked about him. It was one of the most beautiful spots he had ever seen. The trees were thick and the limbs entwined one another. The large lake was clear and reminded him of a reflecting glass. The limbs hung over the water forming a tunnel of green leaves and blossoms along the edge. The glade formed a green velvety carpet. The sun streaming through the trees made the water dance and shimmer. Ezra sat absolutely still taking it all, so enraptured with his surroundings that he failed to notice that the black clad man had dismounted and had began making camp.

Chris watched the boy out of the corner of eyes. Noticing that since his arrival this was the first time the boy had looked completely relaxed. 'Yes, this was the right place.'

"You gonna sit there all day or you gonna get down and help?" Chris asked teasingly while he kept making camp.

Ezra, holding onto the pommel, swung his leg over the back of the horse and slid down to the ground. Trying his best to uncinch the saddle he didn't notice the man walk up behind him until two strong hands covered his and helped. Stepping back the green eyes watched intently as Chris easily lifted the saddle off and laid it on the ground. Handing the reins to the boy with a smile Chris told him confidently "I believe you can handle it from here". Ezra nodded. Taking the reins he led his beloved steed over to the line where Chris had tied his horse. Taking a brush from his saddlebags he began currying the horse. The tall leader shook his head and smiled.

Soon the camp was set up and the horses had been tended. "Whatcha say we get us some fish fer lunch?" wiggling his eyebrows with amusement.

"Fish?" A flash of fear crossed his eyes.

"You do like fish?" questioned the blond.

"Oh yes sir." Ezra spoke quickly trying to erase whatever mistake he had just made.

"Well then lets get to it" taking the fishing rods and striding off towards the lake.

The shorter legs worked double time to keep up with the long strides the man he was following. Reaching the lake Chris handed Ezra the fishing pole and turned to cast his fishing line into the water. Watching out of the corner of his eyes he nearly erupted into laughter as he watched the little boy try to cast his line and wound up snagging one of the twigs of the nearby tree instead. The sudden stoppage of his line nearly caused the youngster to lose his balance. Chris laid his pole down and walked over to the boy. "Let's see if we can't manage to unhook that poor twig" saying it with humor in his eyes.

Ezra looked downward feeling very stupid. He should have been able to cast a simple line. Every boy can do such a simple thing; his obvious failure only reinforced the idea that he was unworthy of this magnificent man. Chris took notice of the instant change in demeanor. Taking the small chin in his big hands he knelt down before the child. "Look at me Ezra." Lifting up the quivering chin he looked into the sad eyes. "Ezra?" Chris couldn't fathom why the child would be so upset by the incident. "Ezra, its just a fishing line." Straightening up he began to undo the snagged hooked from the captured twig. Once it was free he checked the line and saw it was still in good shape. "Now let's try that again." Turning the child back towards the glimmering water he placed his hand over the smaller one. Flicking the two arms back the two cast the line, which sailed smoothly into the water.

"We did it!" excitement filling the southern voice.

"Yeah we did, didn't we." The father figure ruffled the brown hair and returned the smile coming his way.

The rest of the afternoon was spent comfortably for the two fishermen. Chris had helped Ezra reel in his first fish, and then showed him how to unhook and put it on another line. Soon they had enough for their lunch. Bending over and picking up their catch Chris headed back to camp with Ezra right beside him.

When the fish was done frying Chris offered Ezra first choice. The blond didn't say anything when the child took the largest one. He really didn't believe the boy could eat the whole thing but was surprised as he sat there eating his own meal as Ezra finished eating his. He didn't know why it surprised him he thought to himself, the kid hadn't ate any breakfast and was probably starved.

Chris lay out on his blanket after lunch and catnapped, listening for the sound that would tell him exactly where the boy was at all times. Ezra didn't wonder far as he roamed through the trees seemingly in his own world. That was one of the biggest puzzles to the man. Where other children naturally congregated and played, Ezra seemed to prefer to be on his own.

"Hey boy" Chris called smoothly, "Whatcha ya doin' there?" watching Ezra eyeing something in the trees with a far away look.

"I was speculating on the journeys of the feathered kind" as he continued to stare up at the trees. "You ever think one of them gets lost or left behind?"

Chris rolled over into a sitting position, deciphering what the child was really thinking.

"Nah" he said as stood and made his way over to the marveling child. "See birds stick together like family and they don't let that happen. If one does fall behind another bird drops out and joins him until they can make the flight together."

Ezra dipped his head and whispered, "Not all families".

Chris ran his hand repetitive over the soft brown hair, "The good ones do".

Chris saw the head pop up and those bright green eyes fixated on him, "Like you and Uncle Buck and Uncle Vin and them?"

"Yeah like us" Chris nodded. "And you." Chris continued, "Your part of our family now, too."

The green eyes clouded a bit, "But I can't do anything for ya'll. I'm…I'm" looking for the right word. He wanted to say he was nothing but the blond had told him specifically that word was never to be used again. "I'm just a kid."

"You don't have to do anything to be in a family, just be yourself." The blond man knew exactly what the kid was thinking this time and it still made him angry. Whoever had implanted the thought into this little boy's head that he was nothing better never show up in Four Corners or they'd be leaving in a pine box.

Ezra simply nodded and continued to watch the birds. Chris walked back over to the log he had been relaxing against and laid back down, keeping a closer eye on the boy. He set his mind on how to solve the problem of undoing years of mental harm done to the child. He could do it. He knew he could. That was what he did best after all, solve people's problems.

The afternoon was relatively quiet. Few words were spoken between the two. Ezra explored his surroundings and Chris caught up on the sleep he had been deprived of the previous night. For supper Chris opened a can of beans. After the two had ate and cleaned up what little mess had been made man and child sat around the campfire.

The blond tried asking simple questions about the youth's past, like where he was born; what city had he liked living in best, etc. Chris soon learned that the child could evade a question like an old soul. Ezra gave up no more than what was absolutely necessary.

Darkness fell and the two bunked down for the night, taking opposite sides of the fire. Chris woke with a strange tingling; the hairs on the back of his neck were standing on end. He was being watched. Slowly, so not give away his awareness, he opened his eyes and scanned the area in front of him. His eyes settled on the green eyes staring back at him. Ezra was sitting up on his blanket watching him.

Sitting up quickly he asked Ezra if he was alright.

"Yes sir. I was just taking first watch so nothing could happen." Ezra easily lied. Well, it really wasn't a full lie. He had been watching out for anything that could appear harmful to the man but he'd really been watching the man, who took care of him, and thinking. He couldn't figure out the man. He seemed so gruff and hard nosed and yet this was the same man who rocked him when he had a nightmare. The gunfighter, who was known to scare people with a simple look, had climbed up on the church roof and cradled him and comforted him while the tears had flowed uncontrollable.

He was trying his best to figure out the man's angle. What did he want from him? Mother had said nobody did anything for anyone without an alterative motive. She said no one could be trusted. Yet, Ezra found himself doing just that with the tall black clad man. Why did this man keep him around? He didn't expect a full day's work of manual labor, only simple chores. He didn't want him for a punching bag; the man had never laid a hand on him except in kindness. He longed for the comfort Chris had given the day before. It felt so good to be held and cuddled. He would have thought the man would ship him off after yesterday. Afterall, that's what some of the town folks had suggested but he hadn't. Instead the imposing figure had bought him out to this secluded place so they could just be together. The man hadn't yelled or hit or anything when he had tangled up his fishing line. Chris had simply untangled it and help him cast the line.

When they first arrived Ezra had half expected Chris to get him settled then pretend to go look for something for supper and ride off, leaving him behind. That's how it always happened in his nightmares. That was what he was waiting for, that's why he was awake. He was waiting for Chris to get up and try to slip away. Ezra was so confused by this man; he didn't play by the rules he had learned so long ago. No, Chris was so different from anyone else he had ever known, he truly seemed to care about him. For that reason alone Ezra wanted to stay with this man.

Chris studied the little boy sitting by the dying fire watching him. Ezra seemed to be waiting for him to do something. Needing him to do something but Chris had no idea what that was. It suddenly dawned on him the boy had the same look on his face that Adam had gotten when he wanted to climb into bed with Sarah and him.

"Get your blankets and move over here". Chris knew he sounded harsher than he intended. Ezra slowly picked up his wraps wondering if he had done something wrong again. When he approached Chris he could see the man smiling, Ezra breathed out sigh of relief. Chris patted the ground next to him and helped the little boy spread out his blanket next to Chris' but not right up to him. Chris accepted this without comment.

Ezra lay down on his blanket and covered up with the other one. He felt a large hand being laid in the middle of his back. A comforting feeling came over him, a feeling he had never known until coming to live with this man. He wiggled further into his blankets, feeling content he went to sleep immediately.

The blond stared at the small body next to him and felt a stirring he hadn't felt in three long years. The same feeling he had when his own little boy would fall asleep under his hand the way Ezra had. That feeling that told him that the child felt absolutely secure with him.

The warmth woke Chris; there was a pressure against his chest. Opening his eyes he found the small body snuggled up against him. His strong arm still encircled the child. The brown hair buried in his chest, the two arms curled up and pinned between the two bodies. Chris didn't move, relishing the moment. Carefully he tightened the embrace ever so lightly. The two lay there in absolute bliss. One was sleeping more soundly than he had in months and the was other enjoying every precious second trying to come to terms that once again he found himself to be a father. He realized the notion didn't disturb him as he once thought it would.

The call of nature and the need for coffee had the man slipping away from the sleeping boy. He took his blanket and layered it on top of the other blanket covering Ezra. Chris stirred up the campfire and started a pot of coffee. It wasn't long before the aroma of the strong brew penetrated Ezra's senses. He slowly sat up and looked around him. Chris nearly laughed at the normally perfectly combed hair standing up in all directions. The saying "had his head in a gunny sack" came to mind. "Morning".

Chris watched as Ezra made his way over to the log Chris was sitting on. Sitting down but not to close, he took the cup of coffee Chris had fixed for him. Chris had poured half a cup then poured a little cold water in, so it wouldn't burn the youngster's mouth. "Thank you, sir." Ezra whispered, taking a sip of the cooled coffee.

"Chris. It's Chris." The blond directed.

Ezra turned his downed head until he was looking at the man beside him. "Yes sir." Seeing Chris arched eyebrow he corrected himself. "I mean yes Chris."

Chris watched as Ezra drew figures in the dirt with the stick he'd picked up earlier. He was quite content to just sit here with Chris. He knew he normally was very verbal, he had been told and scolded enough about the subject but since arriving here he had found the silence comfortable. Maybe it was the setting or maybe it was just being with the normally silent man. He didn't know and he refused to question it. He felt something he hadn't felt in so very long, peace.

"Scoot down here" patting the spot right next to him.

Ezra stood up and moved down the few inches to sit right next to the man he admired so much. The message long ago engrained into that no one liked a dirt little boy still dictated his actions.

Chris watched the little boy draw in the dirt seemingly with the weight of the world on his shoulders. "Ezra, there something wrong?"

Ezra shook his head. He couldn't divulge what he thought, what if the man didn't feel the same way.

Chris stroke the brown hair, "Ezra you can tell me anything. You know that son. I can't help if I don't know what the problem is."

Ezra's head snapped around and the green eyes caught the blues ones staring back with concern and passion.

'He wants to help me. He can't help me. I want him to know' the thoughts flew thru Ezra's mind.

"Just say what's on your mind Ezra and we'll go from there." Chris prompted.

The lonely boy took a deep breath "I want to stay with you" the voice was so low Chris didn't hear him

"I'm sorry I didn't hear it. Say it again. Please." prompted Chris with a bit of pleading in his voice.

"I want to stay with you" he said a fraction louder

"Of course your going to stay with me" as he continued to stroke the head. "Did you think otherwise?" thinking of the cruel remarks from the previous day.

"Mother says children are a reflection of the people they reside with and to Mother appearances are everything." Ezra's words were tumbling out like water that had been held back by a dam and now could flow freely. "You don't want a clumsy stupid child. You should have someone smart and brave like you. Not someone like me" He finished sadly with his head hung down. There the truth was out there. This great man could now agree and be let off the hook. He could be sent away now that the facts were laid out for everyone to see.

Chris hung his head. 'How could a mother instill that kind of doubt into a child. Easy Maude was no mother' The anger boiled inside but he quickly tampered it down for Ezra's sake.

"Oh Ezra, listen to me." Sorrow filling his voice. "Look at me." Lifting the chin up to face him. "First of all you're wrong about what I want." Taking a breath he continued to look into those powerful green eyes. "I love you. Do you understand that? I love you."

Ezra hung his head "No you don't. You can't"

"Yes Ezra I do. I do love you." Chris said becoming more insistent. He knew it would be battle to override all the hurt that had been done to this child.

"You can't love me" Ezra spoke resolutely.

Trying to keep the anger out of his voice. "Why can't I love you/"?

"Because…" pausing and taking a shuddering breath, "because not even my own mother loves me." Feeling the tears fill his eyes he turned his head away in shame.

Chris felt a stab of pain shoot through his heart and truly believed if Maude was any where near this vicinity he would have maimed her, woman or not.

"Ezra, I want you" softening his voice further "and I love you and nothing will ever change that. Nothing" putting all the conviction he felt into his voice.

Ezra turned back and looked into those blue eyes that held promises he had never been given before but doubt still clung to him. "My mother doesn't want me, never has. Except when she needs me to help her run a con." The words were said so softly and held such a heartbroken tone it ripped into Chris.

Chris watched the slow trickle of a tear run down the sweet face. He reached around and grabbed the brown haired little boy who had come to mean so much to him. Hoisting him into the air he settled the boy onto his lap. His arms the wrapped the thin frame into a bear hug nestling the small head into his neck, holding Ezra with all his strength. "Listen to me son when I say this. I am not your mother" pausing for a moment he continued, "I am your father and I love you."

Ezra wrapped his arms around Chris' neck. The blond figure held his son for a long time as the tears of a lifetime of pain flowed from both sets of eyes. Afterwards, as the two sat entwined in each other Chris whispered in the ear next to his mouth. "Ezra no matter what happens I'm always going to be here for you." Pulling the child away from his grip so he could look into the green eyes he went on, "You must promise me something though."

He stopped and waited until he received an affirmation from Ezra. "You must never, ever believe that you could do anything so bad that death is the answer. I will always be on your side and I will always help you. OK?" He waited until Ezra nodded before pulling him back into his arms.

After a very long time Ezra asked "Chris? Can we go home?" his voice muffled by Chris shirt.

"Yes son, we can go home. Later, though, ok? I want to just sit here for awhile"

"Ok" Ezra quickly agreed. He, too, liked this feeling. He could stay this way a lifetime.



Ezra was staring out the window. The two had been home for a couple of days and the five other men were coming out for the day. It would be a day of visiting and playing with his oftentimes juvenile uncles. In the two days Chris and Ezra had many long talks. Ezra hadn't been able to reveal all the secrets from his past and Chris didn't push, they had a lifetime together to get there. Ezra had told Chris about his nightmares and Chris had once again promise never to leave the boy. Chris knew inside he would be reiterating that promise quite often. The boy may appear to be cocky and self-assured little adult but inside he was a scared insecure little boy.

As the men rode up into the yard the brown haired child raced out yelling hellos. Josiah was the first off his horse and caught the boy. Swinging Ezra up into his arms he immediately saw the difference, there was no longer a sad and haunted look in the green eyes. The one met up with the five and handshakes were made. The yard was filled with talking, friendly noise and one little southerner's laughter.


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Next: Just an Ordinary Day