Father and Son

by Hombre

Notes: Having looked at one side of the coin of fatherhood in Curiosity Nearly Killed the Cat, this story looks at the other side. In Curiosity (set in the ATF universe), Ezra finally believes, after a lot of mental anguish, that he has found his father but in the end suffers emotionally and physically, along with Vin, when he finally learns the truth. Now please bear in mind when reading Father and Son that it is written by someone who doesn't like children and knows nothing about raising them. I know there has been a story on a similar theme from someone else recently on the site, as there may well have been others too, but hope mine is not too alike.

Chris stirred in his chair uneasily and yawned loudly and widely. He was in his shack and had fallen asleep after eating a sparse dinner. He had felt the need for some time on his own and he planned on staying at the shack for the next week. He stood and stretched as he looked out the window and saw that it was beginning to get dark. He leant down to pick up his mug from the floor when he heard a strange noise outside on the porch and he frowned.

"Sounded like a baby. Get a grip, Larabee. What the hell would a baby be doing out here in the middle of nowhere?" he asked out loud as he straightened up. He heard the sound again and this time it went on for longer. He opened the door curiously with gun drawn just in case and there on the porch was a baby in a basket. He holstered his weapon and squatted down and pulled the cover away from the infant's face so he could see it properly. The child screwed his face up and bellowed for all he was worth as soon as he was touched. Chris took a quick look into the distance but could see no one nearby so he turned his attention back to the screaming child and smiled.

"Hey there little fella. I'm not that much of a frightening sight to start ya crying, am I? What ya doin' here?" He laughed and said to himself, "God Larabee, do you expect to get an answer?" He picked the child up when he continued yelling and Chris rocked him in his arms as he carried the baby inside along with the basket. He put the basket down on the floor just inside the door and turned his full attention to the whimpering infant.

"Hush, baby. What's got you started then? You hungry maybe?" He paced up and down slowly as he continued talking in an attempt to calm the child down. When the child had settled, the black-clad man laid him on the bed while he prepared something suitable for him to consume. He kept a wary eye on the child to make sure he stayed where he'd been put. He seemed very agile for such a seemingly young baby but Chris couldn't really tell the child's age. He certainly wasn't newborn that was for sure.

Chris picked the child up again when he was ready and held him in his lap as he fed him. Chris smiled as he thought of Adam and the more he looked at the child the more he saw the slight resemblance with his son. He ain't Adam, you fool. Even so, he hugged the baby closer and rocked him to sleep when he had filled his stomach.

Chris looked up and scowled as he heard horses hooves approaching the shack. He'd expressly told the others to leave him alone for at least a week. "Who the hell's that? Beg pardon for my language, baby."

He stood carefully with the child still in his arms and looked out the window and saw Ezra. The blond frowned as he opened the door and stepped out onto the porch.

The gambler stared at the sight confronting him. "Mr. Larabee? Is there something you need to tell me? Since when did you acquire a baby?" Ezra asked as he dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching rail.

"Since a coupla hours ago."

"You're a fast worker, aren't you?" Ezra approached and studied the child in Chris's arms and he smiled to see the feared gunfighter with the baby. For once the man seemed genuinely content and happy, which was quite a rare sight. "Handsome little chap, isn't he? How did you come by him?"

"Keep yer voice down, will ya? I only just got him to sleep." Chris turned slowly and headed back inside the shack as Ezra followed him in. The blond pointed to the basket as he passed by it and said, "Found him out on the porch in that."

Ezra pursed his lips as he stooped and began poking about in the basket. He snorted in triumph and his hand reappeared clutching a piece of paper. "There's a note. Perhaps that will give us a clue as to his origins."

The gambler sat down on a chair and opened the sheet flat on his knees and smoothed out the creases with the palm of his hand. He tilted the page toward the lamp that Chris had lit and tried to decipher the almost illegible scrawl. After quite some time spent squinting he read out the following words. I'm trying to find the father of my child. I heard he was in Four Corners working as a peacekeeper. The dark-haired man looked up with a raised eyebrow and said with a smile, "Could be Bucklin with all the women he's bedded."

Chris smiled and said, "Could be but we'll know for sure if you read the rest, Ez. Come on, hurry up. We're dying of suspense, ain't we baby? You wanna know who yer Pa is, don't ya kid?"

Ezra smiled and started reading again, Please can you tell him that his son's name is Joseph. Sorry to burden you with this task. His father's name is.. Ezra turned the page over in anticipation and the smile faded from his face as he said, Ezra Standish. I hope you can find him, for Joseph's sake. Signed Belle Turner.

"Ezra?" Chris said as he stood beside the stunned man. The gambler had turned white and Chris put a hand on his shoulder and asked, "Who is she?"

The con man remained silent as he clutched the paper tightly in his hand and tried to regain his breath. He wiped a hand over his face and sighed as he stood up to look out the window, unable to keep still. "She was my fiancee and I was going to marry her last year. Her father though had never approved of me and he sent her away when he found out about our wedding plans. I never knew where she went and I certainly didn't know she was with child. I tried to trace her but her damned father had covered her tracks well. That's partly how I ended up in Four Corners. I was trying to leave a painful episode in my life behind." He paused and then said as he frowned anxiously, "How did she leave Joseph here? Where is she now?"

He pulled open the door quickly but it was too dark now to see beyond the porch. "Belle? Belle?" he shouted forlornly into the still night but the only answering call he received was from an owl. The gambler turned back to Chris and asked angrily, "Why didn't you look when you found him?"

"There was no one in sight and he was crying. I'm sorry Ez perhaps I shoulda done but it was getting dark even then and he needed feeding. Come back inside and we'll see if we can find some tracks in the morning. There's no point trying now."

Ezra looked back over his shoulder into the darkness before going into the shack reluctantly. He took up position at the window and stared fixedly into the distance in the vain hope of seeing Belle.

"Why are you here anyway?" Chris asked in an attempt to stop the man brooding.

The con man looked at him distractedly before turning back to the window. "I came to tell you that Judge Travis will unexpectedly be in town the day after tomorrow. He apparently wants to see you so I came to collect you."

"Why does he want to see me?" Chris asked as he frowned.

"I really couldn't say," Ezra snapped. "I'm sorry, Chris. I just can't help wondering about Belle," the gambler admitted as he wiped a weary hand over his face and sighed. "I can't think why I didn't recognize her writing."

"Well, it was pretty poor, Ez. Musta wrote it in an awful hurry," Chris said.

"Maybe. It's just all so very puzzling," Ezra sighed as he sat down in the chair with a groan.

"Well, we've got a little fella here to take care of. Let's concentrate on him for now, shall we?" the blond suggested as he tried to keep Ezra from dwelling on his lost love.

The two men had a very disturbed night and took it in turns to take care of the baby, although Chris ended up doing most of the work himself. Ezra was too agitated to calm the child down when he cried and tended to get the infant even more upset because he could sense his father's unease. The gambler was all fingers and thumbs when he held the child and became very frustrated at his lack of skills. He liked children and children liked him but he'd never really dealt with a baby before and he felt as if he'd break Joseph if he touched him. Chris smiled at the man as he remembered when he'd had to get used to handling Adam. He could imagine how Ezra felt.

Morning finally came and Ezra was out at first light looking for any trace of Belle. He found some tracks and started following them slowly in the hope he was tracking the correct ones and not some that Chris had left the previous day. He was no expert though and although he had by chance picked the right tracks it took him some time to find something he'd hoped not to. He saw a flash of color in the distance and he hurried onward with Chris following behind with Joseph asleep in his arms. The gambler saw a body lying in some undergrowth and he knelt down and turned it over.

"Belle," he said quietly as he bowed his head and reached out a hand to stroke her face gently.

"I'm sorry Ez, you were right. I shoulda done more to look last night."

"Wouldn't have helped, Chris. I think she was past saving even before she got to you." The gambler picked up the woman's body carefully and took her back to the shack. "I want to take her back to town. I don't want her to be buried out here."

"Ezra? There's someone else who needs you even more now," Chris said as he indicated the child. He could see that Ezra was totally lost, not knowing what to do for the best.

Ezra stared at him with a stricken look on his face. He looked at Belle and then Joseph before looking back at the blond again. "What am I gonna do, Chris? I don't lead the sort of life that accommodates a child. I don't know how to look after one properly."

"Well, perhaps you need to re-evaluate everything. You can't live a selfish life anymore. You're good with kids, Ez. You'll manage fine but it'll just take a bit of practice before you feel relaxed with everything."

"He needs two parents," Ezra objected.

"No, he needs his father. Come on, Ez. I'll help until you get the hang of things and I dare say there will be no shortage of willing helpers in town. All the women won't be able to help themselves when they see him. Don't give up this chance, Ez. You may not get another."

Ezra was silent for a while but said obstinately. "I don't know how to be a parent. You know I love children but that doesn't mean I'd be a good father."

"I never thought I'd have the skills to be a father either, Ez. You just gotta pick things up as you go along and learn by your mistakes. I said I'll help ya too."

The gambler just stared back at him. "Can we go back to town now?" Ezra asked suddenly as he turned away from Chris with tears in his eyes. "I don't think I want to stay here any longer. It's a bit unsettling knowing Belle was out there all night when we were so close."

"Sure. 'Course we can, Ez," the blond agreed when he saw how upset the gambler looked.

The two men got ready and Ezra carried Belle on his horse while Chris carried Joseph. They walked back slowly toward town hoping nothing would spook the horses to cause more grief to the men and their burdens. Josiah and Nathan saw them come in and hurried across the street to meet them.

"You run into trouble, Chris?" Nathan asked as he looked up at the blond and helped to steady his horse. The healer looked quickly at Ezra before turning back to Chris curiously.

"You could say that, Nate," the blond nodded.

Josiah moved to Ezra swiftly and reached up to take Belle from his friend's horse but backed off when Ezra shouted at him. "Leave her be, Mr. Sanchez! I'll deal with her!"

The preacher frowned but said quietly as he backed off, "Sure, Ezra. Whatever you want, son." He watched anxiously as Ezra somehow managed to dismount with Belle still held tightly in his arms. Josiah tied the horse to the hitching rail as Ezra walked silently away from him.

Nathan took Joseph from Chris's arms and the blond dismounted. "What happened, Chris?" the healer asked, as he watched Ezra carry the woman along to the undertakers.

"Found the child on my porch last night. Turns out he's Ezra's son and that woman was gonna be his wife." Chris held out his hands and took the child back from Nathan.

The healer looked astonished. "What? How did she die?"

Chris looked down at Joseph and stroked the baby's cheek softly with his thumb. "Don't know. Ezra found a note with the baby saying that Ezra was his father and we found Belle not too far from the shack this morning. She musta been real sick. God knows how she got to my shack though 'cause we didn't find no trace of a horse or nothing."

"Why didn't Ez marry her?" Josiah asked from where he was loosening the cinch on Ezra's saddle.

"Her father sent her away when he heard of their wedding plans. Ez couldn't find her although he tried hard. That was obviously quite some time ago," Chris said as he indicated Joseph. "Somehow Belle managed to trace him instead."

"I'd better go and see Ezra. He's gotta be hurting," Josiah said with a worried frown as he turned to hurry after the gambler.

"He don't seem to want anything to do with little Joseph at the moment that's for sure, Nate," Chris said sadly as he looked down at the child again with an unhappy smile.

"Well, he's had two shocks. Finding out he was a father and then losing his fiancee all in one day," the healer replied reasonably as he checked the child in his medical capacity while Chris held Joseph steady. "Seems well looked after anyway. Lovely little kid, ain't he?" Nathan said.

Buck ambled by on the boardwalk at that moment and saw the two men talking in the street. He then noticed the child in his oldest friend's arms. "Hey Chris. Who's the little fella?" he asked as he stepped down into the street and approached his friends.

"Ezra's son, Joseph," the blond replied quietly.

"Yer kidding. How?"

Chris had to smile. "You asking about the birds and the bees, Bucklin? What you been doin' with all those women you've slept with these past years? Thought you'd know all about how babies are made."

"Hell, I know all about that, Chris. You know what I meant, pard."

Chris smiled sadly and told his friend everything he'd learnt so far about Ezra's past relationship. Buck stood and listened quietly and shook his head when the story was finished. He put out a hand and tickled under the child's chin and Joseph gurgled happily.

"What a shame. Cute kid like that without his Ma," Buck said as he sighed. "What's Ez gonna do?"

"I really don't know. He don't seem to think he can cope but I'm sure he'll manage. I'll leave him out of duties until he decides what he wants. Whether he stays on in town is somethin' I ain't asked yet because he's not up to thinking too deeply at the moment in any respect. He's just being negative about it all and not seeing the good things from this situation."

The ladies' man grimaced. "That's understandable. It's a hell of a challenge bringing up a kid on yer own. There's quite a few of the guys, including him, who only had one parent to raise 'em. Perhaps when he remembers that he'll see sense."

"I wouldn't count on it, Buck," Chris said worriedly as he continued rocking Joseph. He really hoped Ezra would accept the child because Chris didn't want to contemplate what would happen to him if he didn't.

Josiah, meanwhile, had caught up with Ezra at the undertakers. "I'm sorry about yer fiancee, Ezra. Musta been an awful shock for ya, son." He patted the gambler's back and said, "Joseph's real bonny, ain't he? You should be proud."

The gambler turned to the big man with a sad face. "I feel empty at the moment, Mr. Sanchez. I don't know which way to turn and I'm certainly not ready to be a father."

"I know Ez. It's all a bit sudden and it's hard to lose a loved one anyway without finding yourself in charge of an instant family too."

Ezra looked at the preacher as if he was sizing him up. He looked reluctant to ask his question but in the end he asked, "Can you conduct Belle's funeral? Would you do that for me?"

"Course I will." Josiah frowned and said, "You didn't think I'd refuse, did ya? I'd be glad to do it for you..well you know what I mean..not glad but.." Josiah came to a halt, suddenly lost for words.

"I know what you mean but I really wasn't sure if you'd agree to do it. When I asked for help once before you turned me away. I know we...I wasn't...Oh God." Ezra stopped and rubbed his eyes as he bowed his head. "I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't have doubted your answer, Mr. Sanchez. I thank you kindly for agreeing. It's tomorrow, is that alright?"

"Sure. Come on, there's a little person that needs yer attention right now. You can't do nothing more for Belle except give her a good send-off tomorrow," Josiah said as he put an arm round the con man's shoulder and ushered him outside. He could feel the man shaking and he tightened his grip slightly.

"I can't," Ezra whispered suddenly, as he remained rooted to a spot on the boardwalk. He saw Buck, Nathan and Chris in the street and he balked at the thought of having to speak to them.

"Can't what, son?" the preacher asked quietly as he studied the pale man closely.

"Face the others."

Josiah sat Ezra down on the edge of the boardwalk and asked, "Why?"

"I don't know. I can't describe it," Ezra replied quietly as he scuffed the dirt in the street with the toe of his boot distractedly.

"Look Ezra, I know things won't be easy for ya but we all wanna help. You can't just shut yerself away. Your son needs you and you can't pretend he don't exist. You brought him into the world, didn't ya? You can't deny that."

Ezra was silent and then wiped his eyes on his sleeve. He looked back over his shoulder at the undertakers and then up the street to Joseph. Josiah patted his back and the gambler turned to him. "I know Josiah but I just feel totally lost. I haven't seen Belle for..well, a long time and I thought I'd got over her. Seeing her brought back all the feelings I had for her though."

Josiah nodded understandingly and said, "Well, Joseph has part of her spirit in him. He's a precious gift Ezra and Belle came all this way to make sure you had him. She obviously wanted you to bring him up rather than her parents."

Ezra smiled as he realized the truth in the big man's words. "You're quite right. I need to pour my love into him. I'll try not to let her down."

"Course you won't," Josiah said as he patted his friend's shoulder once more.

The two men rose and walked slowly back to meet up with their friends who were still standing in the street waiting for them. Ezra stopped a few paces away and shuffled from foot to foot nervously.

"Hey, Ez. Are you okay?" Chris asked. He received a slight nod in return but the con man wouldn't meet his eyes. "You take him," Chris said. The gunfighter could see the gambler's red eyes and he smiled encouragingly when Ezra finally lifted his head slowly. Ezra looked straight at him and Chris held Joseph out questioningly.

Ezra eventually reached out awkwardly and Chris carefully transferred the bundle to his friend's arms. Both men were unaware they were being watched by Mary and Mrs. Potter.

"What is it about seeing a tough man and a baby that makes you go weak at the knees?" Mary asked with a smile.

"Lord knows but it's a lovely sight, ain't it?" Gloria replied before the two women split up.

Buck smiled broadly at his friend and said, "He sure is cute, Ezra."

The gambler looked at his friend and smiled back proudly. He shifted the baby slightly in his arms but felt awkward and self-conscious.

"Come on, Pa. Let's get this kid fed. Probably needs cleaning up too 'cause he smells a bit ripe to me," the ladies' man said with a grin as he watched Ezra closely.

"Mr. Wilmington, don't talk about my son like that," Ezra reprimanded as the tall gunman put his arm around his friend's shoulder and herded him and his son toward the saloon. Nathan smiled as he walked alongside them and listened to Buck joking and laughing. He could see that it was having a positive effect on the gambler and the man looked a bit more relaxed than he had a few minutes ago.

Chris put a hand on Josiah's arm and stopped him following the other men. "Is he really okay, Josiah?"

"Upset naturally. We had a talk but it's gonna be tough for him," the preacher admitted.

"Well, we'll all keep an eye on him and help out where we can. Thanks Josiah."

Ezra, Nathan and Buck entered the saloon quietly while Chris disappeared to see what supplies he could scrounge from the town's womenfolk to tide them over until they could buy their own. Ezra sat down carefully and transferred his son to his lap awkwardly.

Inez wandered over and inspected the newcomer and smiled delightedly at him. "Oh, Senor Standish. He's definitely got your eyes and your nose," she said with a smile.

"Poor kid," Buck said as Ezra punched him and smiled.

When the inspection of Joseph was over Nathan disappeared with Inez to organize some food for the child. The healer returned after a few minutes and said, "There ya go, Ez. Give him some of that. He should be able to handle it by the look of him. There's some milk too."

Ezra starting spooning the pulped food into his son's mouth with a shaking hand. He managed to get most of it in the appropriate opening but quite a few times the child moved his head at the last minute. Ezra then found he'd put the food in Joseph's ear or wiped it down his cheek by mistake. The gambler laughed at his ham-fisted method of feeding and wiped his son's face gently.

"How ya getting on, Ez?" Chris asked as he returned with his arms full of donations.

"I can't seem to aim properly. He keeps moving and I miss his mouth completely. He's had food all over him," the gambler confessed.

"Yeah, they tend to move at the most inopportune moment. Better change his other end too when you've finished and then let him sleep. He must be tuckered out after the ride this morning," Chris said.

The two men retired to Ezra's room and Chris helped the gambler bathe and settle the child for the night.

+ + + + + + +

The day of the funeral dawned and most of the town turned out to give their support to the gambler. Ezra took Joseph with him and found some comfort in the child's presence. After Belle had been buried most of the men retired to the saloon for the afternoon while Chris went to see Judge Travis as arranged. Ezra's friends kept a wary eye on the man and helped him get through the day in one piece. The con man was glad, however, when the day drew to a close. He now had to try and put the renewed pain of Belle's reappearance behind him and start again.

+ + + + + + +

Over the next week Ezra became a familiar sight around town as he carried his son everywhere. He was often seen wandering the streets at night as he tried to get Joseph to sleep. The child was generally good-tempered though and didn't cause much fuss. Chris let Ezra off his peacekeeping duties as he'd promised while the gambler adjusted to his new life.

One afternoon Chris entered the saloon after finishing a tour of town and found Ezra playing poker with some rough-looking cowhands. Joseph was draped over the man's shoulder fast asleep and Ezra played one-handed as he kept a firm hold on his son with the other. Chris sat nearby and waited until the game was over before joining his friend at his table.

The con man looked up and smiled when he saw who had joined him. "Hello, Mr. Larabee. That was a very lucrative game, I must say."

"Do you think that this is the best environment for a child, Ez?" the blond asked seriously.

"Would you rather I joined the ladies' sewing circle? A child costs money and I've just won enough to keep us going for a few weeks. What would you rather I did?" Ezra inquired with a frown.

"Get a proper job. I don't think peacekeeping is a good profession for you to have any more, or poker for that matter. You can't drag Joseph round saloons all his life."

"That's what happened to me when I spent time with Maude. I turned out alright, didn't I?"

"That's not the point, Ez. Someone could shoot you over a poker game, they wouldn't have killed a woman, would they?"

Ezra stared at the blond and nodded as he thought of the consequences should that happen. He still hadn't really decided what he wanted to do with his life and that meant he kept returning to the poker table to earn money. I really am going to have to make my mind up soon before Mr. Larabee's prophecy comes true. As long as Joseph is with me though I should be alright but I certainly don't want to put him in danger.

Chris left the man alone after he had given his advice and Ezra went up to his room and spent a long time trying to decide what to do for the best. At the end of the day he was no nearer a solution than he had been to start with. He'd never stuck to one job in his life before and none of the professions he'd tried in the past appealed to him, except poker of course. What am I going to do?

+ + + + + + +

One day the following week Ezra woke late after a very restless night with Joseph. He wandered downstairs to see about some breakfast and sat quietly at a table while Inez prepared his meal. Ezra sat with Joseph in his lap and he just stared at the child in wonder. He took hold of the baby's hand and felt the strong grip on his finger in return. He smiled as he studied the little fingers with their perfectly formed nails.

"Hey, Ez. How did Joseph sleep?" Vin asked as he sat down and looked at the contented baby with a grin. He reached out a hand and tickled Joseph's stomach and received a vague approximation of a smile in return.

Ezra snorted and laughed. "He got more rest than I did. I think he was playing games with me. I'd get him settled and get into my own bed and then he'd start crying. I'd get out and sort him out and then he'd leave it until I was nearly asleep and then start again."

"Ah, you've got life sussed, ain't ya kid? Got you on a string Ezra and no mistake," Vin laughed.

The gambler smiled. "I never realized how demanding a child was. My admiration for mothers knows no bounds, Mr. Tanner. I thought I could cope with sleepless nights after all the times I've stayed up for poker but this is entirely different. I've never been so tired."

"Do ya need any help now?" the tracker asked as he watched Ezra yawn widely.

The con man shook his head and smiled. "Mr. Larabee has offered to take the morning shift so I can catch up on some sleep. He's been of immense help to me through all of this. Once I've had breakfast I'll take Joseph along to his room. For some reason Chris won't be seen out with him in public."

"Well, you know Chris. Gets all embarrassed when he's seen to be human," Vin laughed.

The gambler nodded. "To look at him you wouldn't ever think he'd been a father. I only realize now how hard it was for him to lose Adam," Ezra said and then yawned again loudly. "The sooner Uncle Chris gets you the better young man because I need my sleep," he said to Joseph with a smile.

"I'll take him along to Chris if ya like," Vin offered. "You go and get some rest before you fall face first in yer eggs."

"Are you sure you wouldn't mind?" Ezra asked as he looked at Vin seriously. He'd never had so many offers of help before.

"Course I'm sure."

"Alright then. Take good care of him or you'll have me to answer to," Ezra said with a grin. He handed the child over and Vin got a good grip on the infant.

"We'll be fine. You're like an old mother hen, Ezra. Don't get yer feathers in a flap. We'll be fine, won't we kid?" Vin laughed as he headed out the door with a wave.

Ezra smiled and took advantage of his free time by heading back to bed after a hearty meal. He slept soundly and by midday felt slightly more human again.

He wandered along to Chris's room and knocked on the door quietly before opening it. He saw Chris dozing in a rocking chair by the window with Joseph asleep in a crib by his side. Ezra tiptoed across the floor and looked down at his son lovingly. Chris heard the soft footsteps and opened his eyes despite Ezra's care not to disturb him.

"Asleep on the job, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Yeah sorry, Ez. Forgot how tiring it was looking after a young kid. Think I'm getting too old for babies."

"Well, he looks content so you must still have the knack. Don't write yourself off to the graveyard just yet," Ezra grinned.

The blond smiled widely and said, "He's a good kid, Ez. Ain't been no trouble at all."

"Glad to hear it. I don't think I want to disturb him for the moment now he's settled. Can I stay here until he wakes?"

"Sure ya can. I'll stay too and when he wakes I'll change his diaper."

"You don't enjoy that, do you? I have to say that was the hardest thing for me to deal with," Ezra said with a disgusted look on his face.

"Well, that don't surprise me none. You always were fussy. Anyway, Maude had to clean you up when you were small and messed yerself. Good job she didn't turn her nose up at changing ya or you'd have been one smelly baby. Joseph's only doin' what comes naturally and he can't exactly put on a diaper himself, can he?"

Ezra smiled and sat on the bed for a while. "Thank you, Chris," he said after a minute of silence had passed.

"What for?"

"Keeping me on the straight and narrow. I wouldn't have managed without you," Ezra confessed.

"Course you would. I ain't the only person to ever have a child. Human race woulda come to an end if I was. Anyone in town woulda been pleased to help ya, you know that."

The gambler nodded and said, "I know but you offered first and I appreciated that."

"Yer welcome. I've enjoyed it," Chris admitted as he looked down at Joseph just as he stirred. He reached down and picked the child up and changed his diaper efficiently. "Just let me know if you need anything else, Ez."

"I will," Ezra said as he bent down and picked his son up gently. "Say thank you, Joseph."

Chris smiled and patted the baby's back before Ezra went back to his own room to cope on his own again. He just couldn't comprehend how his life had changed so much in such a short time.

+ + + + + + +

The next day the gambler left Joseph with Mrs. Potter while he helped Vin patrol town. The peacekeepers were shorthanded that day and Ezra had agreed to help out as a favor. Chris had hated to ask him but he was waiting for four of his men to return to town from Eagle Bend and didn't have much choice. Once the others were back that afternoon Ezra could go back to his fathering duties.

As arranged, Buck relieved him just after lunch and he walked along the boardwalk toward the store. He heard his name being called and saw Mrs. Potter running toward him waving her arm in the air.

"Mrs. Potter? Is Joseph alright?" he asked when he saw the look on her face.

"Oh, Mr. Standish. I don't know how to tell you. He's gone."

"What? Gone where?" Ezra asked in confusion. It's not as if he can go anywhere on his own.

"I left him in his crib for a second while I went into the kitchen, but when I came back he'd gone. There was this note left where he'd been." The woman handed a slip of paper over and Ezra opened it with a heavy heart.

Ezra stood still and read the note slowly and with a pounding heart. Joseph is back where he belongs and you will be unable to find him. You couldn't find Belle and I will make doubly sure you never find your son. You were an unfit man to be my daughter's husband and you will surely prove an unfit father to her son too.

Ezra's chest felt hollow and he staggered backwards as if he'd been hit. He came up against the wall and sat down suddenly when his legs gave way as he looked up at Mrs. Potter in disbelief. "Oh, God." He stopped talking as he raised a hand to his mouth and took a halting breath. "Why give him to me just to snatch him away again? I was just getting used to being a father."

"Wait there and I'll get Mr. Larabee," Mrs. Potter said worriedly before turning to run to the jail. She emerged with Chris and the blond ran toward Ezra before the woman had even had a chance to tell him exactly what was wrong.

"Ez? What's happened? Are you alright?" he asked the man sitting on the ground.

The gambler didn't answer and Chris then saw the note he held in his hands. The blond bent down and took it gently from him and read it before flicking a quick look at the gambler anxiously.

"Jeez, Ez," Chris said as he felt tears prick his own eyes. The blond turned to the lady standing beside him. "How long ago did this happen?"

"Not long. Fifteen minutes at most."

"Right. Can you find the others for me while Ez and I go to the livery?"

"Sure. I'll send them there as I find them." Mrs. Potter turned and hurried toward the saloon.

Chris reached down and pulled Ezra to his feet and pushed him in the direction of the livery. "Come on. He ain't got too big a head start if he's left town already. Don't give up hope yet. If anyone new is in town Yosemite will know about it."

The two men entered the livery and found Yosemite sweeping out one of the stalls.

"Anyone left here with a baby, Yosemite?" Chris barked when the man looked up.

"No, ain't had no custom at all in the last hour."

"Have you had anyone new in today?" the blond asked.

"No. It's been real quiet," Yosemite replied as he wiped his sweaty brow on his forearm.

"Shit." Chris turned round and nearly bumped into Vin who had come running to meet them. "Get to Potter's store. See if ya can find any tracks that tell us where they've gone," the blond ordered, knowing it was probably an impossible task. The store was one of the busiest areas of town so they'd have to be exceedingly lucky to get a lead from there.

"Sure. Do we know if they had a wagon or anything?" Vin asked as he headed to the door.

"No, don't know nothing, Vin. We're gonna go and check the train in case they're on that," Chris said as the rest of the men arrived breathlessly. "JD? Go with Vin and ask Mrs. Potter if she heard anything that might give us a clue as to how they left. Buck? Check the stagecoach. Josiah and Nathan? Just go round town and see if anyone saw a stranger with Joseph. Someone musta seen him. Meet back here when you've finished."

"What does Belle's father look like, Ez?" Josiah asked as an afterthought.

"Tall, thin, about sixty years old," the gambler replied automatically.

The men split up and headed off to carry out their orders. Ezra really couldn't think straight, his mind in turmoil at the turn of events. Chris got hold of his elbow and pulled him along gently behind him. The blond knew Ezra was devastated and he could feel the man trembling. It seemed from his demeanor as though the con man had already given up hope of finding his son.

They reached the station and Chris climbed up on the train that was sitting there. He walked all through the train but Joseph was not to be found. He jumped down from the other end and ran to meet up with Ezra again.

"Not there, Ez," Chris said and rubbed the man's back as he continued looking about him in the hope of seeing his quarry.

"Gone. I've lost him too," Ezra mumbled as he wiped a shaking hand over his face.

"The others may have had more luck. Come on. Don't give up," Chris cajoled.

Ezra turned and stumbled slowly after Chris but he knew in his heart that his son had gone and that he would never see him again. He knew Belle's father was a devious man and could have got out of town without being seen if he wanted to and he obviously had.

The two men stood outside the livery and Chris looked up as he heard running feet approaching them. He saw Vin hurrying to meet them but he knew the man brought bad news even before he'd opened his mouth. The tracker stood beside Chris and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Ez. There are just too many tracks out the back of the store and it's impossible to tell which could be the ones I need. I followed a few but lost them later on. It's like looking for a needle in a haystack."

Ezra stared at the apologetic man and his face clouded in fury. "You're supposed to be a tracker, aren't you? What use are you if you can't do the job properly? You've failed me and I'll never forgive you for this, Mr. Tanner! You're an incompetent, illiterate fool," Ezra shouted angrily.

"Ezra?" Vin said quietly in a distressed tone. Each biting word had struck into his very soul like a knife to the heart and the tracker could almost feel the color drain from his face as he shivered.

Chris stood watching silently and thought that Vin seemed to shrink before his very eyes after Ezra's harsh words.

"Ez?" Vin stuttered once more as he reached out a hand.

"Leave me alone. Just...get away from me! I'll do it myself." Ezra ran into the livery and began saddling his horse. After his initial shock he was now galvanized into action.

Vin bowed his head and Chris patted his back in a vain attempt at comforting him. "Don't take what he said to heart, Vin. He's hurting and don't know what he's saying."

"He's right though about me failing him. The one time I really wanted to read sign and I couldn't," Vin replied softly. "You'd better see to Ez. I'll see ya later, Chris."

Chris watched his friend walk away before he turned to enter the livery. Under normal circumstances the blond would probably have bawled Ezra out for speaking to Vin in such a way but not today. He knew the gambler would bitterly regret his words later on and would sort matters out with Vin at some point of his own accord. The man was hurting and lashing out at anyone who happened to be nearby. Chris knew the feeling well.

Chris walked into the barn just in time to see Ezra swing up onto his horse so the blond reached out a hand and grabbed the reins to stop him leaving. He looked up into the gambler's face and said, "Where the hell do ya think yer goin'?"

"I'm going to find my son seeing as Mr. Tanner seems incapable."

"Which way ya gonna go? You could head in the wrong direction completely, Ez," Chris pointed out reasonably but he could see Ezra was not listening properly.

"I've gotta do somethin'. I can't just sit here and do nothing!" Ezra yelled as he wrenched the reins out of the blond's grasp and kicked the horse out onto the street.

"Ezra!" Chris shouted as he ran out after him. He shook his head and threw his hands up in exasperation before bowing his head. He knew the gambler was setting himself up for a massive disappointment.

"Chris? Where's Ez going, pard?" Buck asked as he approached with the rest of the men after failing in their tasks too.

The blond flicked a quick look at his friend and sighed. "Thinks he's gonna find Joseph. Vin couldn't pick out any one set of tracks out back of the store and Ezra was furious so he's gone off on his own. Vin's real upset and Ezra's gonna be devastated if he fails to find his son. He don't even know where to start looking, Bucklin," Chris said as he shielded his eyes against the sun and watched the gambler until he was out of sight.

"Do you want me to go after him?"

"No, it's gonna be dark soon and there's no point in any of us setting out until morning to try and find Joseph. We could pass them by in the dark and never know. As Vin said before it's gonna be like looking for a needle in a haystack anyway. Bet anything you like that Belle's father will avoid going into towns near here. He'll get as far from here as he can before going anywhere near civilization." Chris sighed and then said, "Ezra needs to realize things for himself and hopefully he'll come back when he's thought things through. He ain't gonna see sense any time soon and I can sure understand that." Chris shrugged his shoulders. "There's someone else who's feeling pretty low and in need of a friend right now. I'd better go and see how Vin is. Ez was a bit rough with him earlier and said some things that Vin took real hard." Chris turned and trudged toward the saloon after patting Buck's back wearily.

He found the tracker sitting disconsolately at a table with a glass of beer in front of him. For once Vin was hatless as he sprawled sideways in the chair with legs outstretched untidily before him. "Hey cowboy," Chris said as he took off his own hat

and sat down opposite the man.

"Where's Ez?" Vin asked distractedly as he drew circles with his finger in some beer that had splashed on the table.

"Gone out of town in an attempt to find Joseph."

Vin shook his head and winced. "Shit. How was he?"

"Angry, upset, sad. You name it he was suffering it," Chris sighed. "Are you okay?"

"Angry, upset, sad." Vin smiled wryly as he flicked a quick look at his friend.

"He'll be sorry later for what he said. He didn't mean it, Vin."

"Maybe, maybe not. It was all true though," the tracker said as he shrugged halfheartedly and drank the last of his beer.

"No, it wasn't. His judgements just clouded at the moment so don't sit and brood about it," Chris said quietly.

"Easy for you to say, cowboy," Vin said as he scraped his chair back across the floor and stood up. He put his hat back on and walked slowly outside feeling worthless.

+ + + + + + +

After an inevitably fruitless search Ezra returned to town late that night. His shoulders were slumped and his chin nearly rested on his chest in defeat. Chris was waiting in the livery for him and stood up as soon as the man rode in.

"Ez? No luck?" Chris asked. As Joseph wasn't in sight he already knew the answer but he still had to ask.

"What do you think, Mr. Larabee? You were right and I was stupid to think I could find him after Vin failed to trace any suitable tracks. He's probably halfway to Canada by now. I'm a damned idiot." Ezra dismounted and just stood next to his horse and looked at the reins in his hand with unseeing eyes. He didn't know how he was going to control his emotions now he knew he'd failed.

"I sent out a lot of telegrams asking other towns to look out for Joseph. Mary's printing out some posters too that we can send out on the train and the stagecoach," Chris informed his friend. "We may get lucky." "Thank you Chris but I think I have to try and face up to the fact that Joseph's gone for good. This is a big country to get lost in and Belle's father has done it once before. I failed then and I will fail now. I have lived up to his expectations, haven't I? I wasn't worthy of either of them after all or I would never have lost them in the first place," Ezra said as he wiped his face on his sleeve and sniffed.

"Don't say that, Ez. Come on, I'll see to yer horse while you go and get somethin' to eat. You must be beat." For once Ezra and he had something in common. They had both lost loved ones, in different circumstances granted, but the hurt was still the same.

"Is Mr. Tanner about?" the con man asked quietly as he suddenly remembered his earlier behavior.

"In the saloon drowning his sorrows, I think," Chris replied. He didn't want to reprimand the gambler but Chris thought he should know how bad Vin felt after the altercation.

Ezra looked up quickly in anguish and sighed. "I was unforgivably rude to him. I'm afraid my tongue got the better of me and I was very spiteful. I must see him to set matters straight."

Chris took the reins from his friend's hand gently as he patted his back and then watched the man walk away toward the saloon. The gambler looked hardly able to put one foot in front of the other. Chris shook his head sadly and began seeing to the man's horse as promised.

Ezra pushed through the batwing door and stood just inside as his eyes swept the room. He spotted Vin and took a deep breath before slowly heading in his direction. Vin heard his footsteps and rose to his feet rapidly when he saw who was approaching him. Both men spoke the other's name at the same time and came to a halt. They stood staring at one another for a minute without speaking or moving.

The news about what had happened to Joseph had inevitably filtered into common knowledge and Vin felt the eyes of the entire room turn to stare at them as silence fell. He could see that Ezra looked highly uncomfortable under their scrutiny so the tracker escorted the gambler to a more private table and sat him down before taking a seat opposite.

"I'll go first, Mr. Tanner. I need to apologize for my dreadful behavior earlier. I am truly mortified by what I said to you and I could have cut my tongue out afterwards for being so rude. Can you ever forgive me?" Ezra asked as he looked at his friend shamefaced.

"More importantly, can you forgive me for failing, Ez?" Vin asked as he looked at the pale, careworn gambler. The man seemed to have aged ten years since Vin had last set eyes on him.

"There is nothing to forgive you for, Mr. Tanner. It was an impossible task and I hold you in no way responsible. I hope you can believe me when I say that. I dare say Mrs. Potter must be feeling awful too. I must visit her as well but I feel the need of fortification before I do that chore though. I seem to have run out of energy and the will to live at the moment," he said quietly. He looked up and saw Vin watching him worriedly so he grimaced and said, "Will you join me in a whiskey, Vin? I know it doesn't make up for how I treated you but I hope you will accept it as an olive branch. I wouldn't want our friendship to be sullied by this."

"Sure, I'd like a whiskey, Ez. It's been a rotten day all round, ain't it?" Vin said taking the apology at face value. Ezra's cruel words had stung at the time but Vin knew they'd been said in the heat of the moment so he wasn't going to hold it against the gambler now an apology had been offered. He consigned the unfortunate episode to the back of his mind and tried his best to comfort his friend. He appreciated the gambler seeking him out to apologize so quickly and he knew it was probably the last thing the man wanted to be doing right now. Ezra sighed and sniffed and Vin reached out and patted the man's back after standing up.

The tracker took the money that Ezra handed him and wandered toward the bar. He came back with the drinks and placed one glass in front of Ezra. The gambler stared at it as he desperately tried to keep hold of his emotions. He would wait until he was on his own before allowing himself to disintegrate completely. Vin could see the gambler's hand shaking as he raised the glass to his mouth so the tracker remained silent realizing his friend was on the verge of cracking. He hoped his presence alone would be some sort of comfort to the man. He knew nothing he said would take away the pain the man was feeling right now and he really didn't know what to say anyway.

After a while Ezra left Vin and went in search of Mrs. Potter at the store. He emerged after an excruciatingly painful hour to find Chris waiting once more for him with Nathan. "Have you come to pick up the pieces, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked as soon as he set eyes on the black-clad man.

The blond looked him up and down with critical eyes and said, "You tell me, Ez. Do you need sticking back together?"

"Yes, I'm afraid I do. I really can't describe how I feel. It gets worse the more time passes."

"Did ya see Vin earlier?" the black-clad gunfighter asked quietly as Ezra drew near.

"Yes. I hope I have begun to build bridges with both Mrs. Potter and especially Vin. I value his friendship and wouldn't want to have broken it with such ugly words."

Chris patted his shoulder and said, "He was real hurt by what you said but he's also mighty forgiving, Ez."

"I know and it makes me even more ashamed when he acted in such a gentlemanly manner when I apologized."

Chris could hear the hitch in Ezra's voice as he spoke and he put an arm round the man's shoulder.

Ezra looked up at him with tears in his eyes and said, "Vin's more of a gentleman than I will even be, Mr. Larabee."

Chris smiled lopsidedly, "Well, he don't dress like one. Come on, Ez. Let's go inside. Might as well be warm and sad rather than cold and sad."

"I'd rather not be sad at all," Ezra said quietly as Chris squeezed his shoulder comfortingly.

Chris knew exactly what Ezra was going through. He was feeling anger, guilt, fear and helplessness. After Ezra's earlier outburst the blond knew there were going to be many more incidents like that along the way. He just hoped the gambler didn't go down the same road Chris'd taken three years before and the black-clad man vowed to do everything in his power to prevent that from happening.

The distraught man's two friends walked back to the saloon and accompanied him upstairs. Ezra just put one foot in front of the other and went where he was taken. He sat down on the bed in defeat in his room and his eyes settled on the crib nearby. "Do you mind if I have a moment alone?" Ezra asked quietly as he felt the tide of emotion reaching breaking point.

"No, course not. We'll be outside if you need anything," Nathan said gently as he took hold of Chris's arm and steered him out of the room.

Ezra rose and picked up the blanket that he had bought for his son and sat down with it in his hands. He stroked the fabric repeatedly and then held it to his face. He could still detect the unmistakable scent of his son on the material. He lowered the blanket and couldn't help the tears that fell and he watched them splash like raindrops on his hands in his lap. Finally his vision blurred totally so that he could see nothing at all. His body was wracked by sobs and he bent over and rested his head in the blanket on his knees in an attempt to stifle the sounds. The two men outside heard their friend break down and his sobbing pulled at Chris's heart. His mind flew back to when he'd lost Adam and he couldn't help the tears that rolled down his own cheeks either. Nathan patted his shoulder comfortingly and then lit a cigar. He inhaled deeply and blew out a large cloud of smoke as he bowed his head in contemplation.

Buck bounded up the stairs and hurried along to join the two silent men and asked, "How is he, guys?"

Chris looked up and Buck saw the tears on his friend's face. He then heard the mournful sounds coming from inside the room.

"Shit." Buck moved to the door but Chris put out a hand and stopped him.

"No, Bucklin. He wants to be alone. Leave him be."

"Leave him be, my ass, Chris. Listen to him, he's hurting something awful, pard. He needs comforting." The ladies' man opened the door quietly and entered.

Chris knew Buck was right and the blond realized that it should be him and not Buck comforting the gambler right now. Somehow though he just couldn't face up to the task and he knew Buck would probably do a better job than he ever could anyway.

Buck stood just inside the door and saw Ezra sitting curled up and shaking with grief on the bed so he approached him slowly. He sat down beside him and rubbed the con man's back as he said, "I'm so sorry, Ez. Least you got to meet him if only for the short time you had. That's better than never having known him at all, ain't it?"

"I'm not so sure, Bucklin. It would have been a whole lot easier if I'd never been aware of his existence. Why take him from me? I loved him and his mother and now I don't have either. Why?" the gambler asked quietly between sobs.

"I don't know, Ez. I know it ain't fair but you treated him good and kind and he was happy in the time he was here."

"I think this is worse than if he'd died. Knowing that he's out there somewhere and that he'll never know me just breaks my heart. I know this sounds ridiculous but at least with Belle I know where she is and that no one can hurt her anymore. She's here with me where she belongs and that's comforting in a way. I shouldn't wish my son dead but if Joseph had died the same would've been true and I could've tried to move on. He was meant to be with me but as it is I'm always gonna be wonderin' what he's doing or whether he's happy. If Belle's father controls his life like he did hers I can't help but fear for him."

"Well, you thought you'd lost Belle before but she found you again. Maybe the same will happen with Joseph when he's older," Buck said quietly.

"Yes, Belle found me but she never knew that, did she? Oh, God Bucklin, how do I get over this? That man stole the two most important things in my life."

Buck reached into his pocket and pulled out a photograph of Joseph he'd had taken while the traveling photographer had been in town the previous week. The ladies' man had been looking after the child at the time and had got the photograph done as a surprise for Ezra, never realizing it may well be the only true memento of the child. He wasn't sure whether now was the right time to give it to the gambler or not but there would probably never be a right time. He tapped his friend's arm and said, "Ez? I want you to have this."

Ezra looked at the picture that Buck held out to him and he finally reached out and took it. He flicked a glance up at the mustached man before looking back at the photo and gently touching the image of his son's face.

"Oh God. Joseph," the man said falteringly. He stared at the picture finally realizing he'd never see the child again and then clutched it to his chest and cried as if he'd never stop.

"I'm sorry, Ez. Maybe I shouldn't have given it to you, pard," Buck whispered quietly as he hugged his devastated friend.

The ladies' man had already had to help one friend get over the loss of his family but he wasn't finding it any easier second time round. Buck stayed with his friend all night to provide what support he could but he knew Ezra would never recover fully from his dual loss. Although he knew that the hurt his friend was now feeling would fade, it would never truly be gone. Time helped but never cured.

+ + + + + + +

Over the following days the seven men rode out endlessly to the surrounding towns and homesteads in the hope of getting a lead on where Ezra's son had been taken. The gambler was inevitably always the last one home and he would seek out each of his friends as soon as he got back in the belief that one of them would have struck it lucky. Every day though he was disappointed and his friends were becoming increasingly concerned as the man became more withdrawn and taciturn. They all did their best to help him but knew in their hearts that he would never return to being the happy, carefree man that they had all come to know so well.

+ + + + + + +

As the sun went down a week later Josiah stood on the church steps and looked toward the graveyard. His eyes immediately sought out the newest grave and sure enough he saw the outline of the gambler sitting by the grave of his one true love as he had been doing since the day he'd lost his son.

The End

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