by Jean Williams
Sadly Jean is no longer with us, but we're sure her daughter, Jenn, would love to hear from you if you enjoy this story
Disclaimer: Ah, if only they were mine, but, alas, they're not. Unfortunately, the privilege of ownership of "The Magnificent Seven" characters belongs to the Mirisch Corp., Trilogy, and MGM, and no infringement on the copyrights held by them is intended. I merely wish to dust the boys off and bring them out to play occasionally for the entertainment of those of us who still miss them dearly.
Warnings: Some strong language, a small amount of violence and a large dose of smarm. An open mind and a good imagination are needed in order to fully enjoy this story.
Author's Note: If you'd like an idea of how Lit'l Ezra sounds, I suggest you watch the Adam Sandler movie, "Big Daddy." Just imagine the little boy in the movie with a Southern accent,and you'll know exactly how Ezra sounded in the dream that inspired me to write this story.
Completed: February 20, 2000
Chris strode angrily into the crowded saloon and looked around for the person responsible for getting his day off to such a bad start. He spotted five of his men seated at a table near the bar enjoying their breakfast, but the one he was after was nowhere in sight.
"Where is he?" Chris growled as he stalked over to their table and threw himself into the only empty chair.
The others immediately stopped eating and stared at him, puzzled by his obvious anger.
"Are we to assume your apparent displeasure is directed at Brother Standish since the rest of us are here in front of you?" Josiah inquired, smiling slightly at the exasperated look he received from the black-clad gunslinger.
Chris glared at him a moment before replying. "You know... you're starting to sound just like our dear *Brother Standish* as you put it. And hell yeah he's the one I'm wantin'! He was supposed to be out on patrol an hour ago and his horse is still in the stable! I take it he hasn't even been down yet?"
"Haven't seen hide nor hair of 'im... he's probably still sound asleep. He was still playin' cards with some of those ranch hands that were in here last night when I left. God only knows what time he finally crawled off to bed." Buck picked up the biscuit that was left on his plate and began tearing off pieces and tossing them across the table at JD.
"Buck! Will you quit doin' that?! You never let me finish a whole meal... and I'm a growin' boy... I need all I can get!" JD scooped up a forkful of eggs, flung it at Buck, and moved quickly away from the table before the ladies man could get back at him.
Chris scowled at their antics, pointed a finger at both of them, and then motioned toward the stairs leading to the rooms up over the saloon. "Fine... since you two've got so much energy, why don't you go and drag Ezra's sorry ass out of bed. Tell him I want him down here in ten minutes, or he'll be riding patrol every day for the next damn month!"
Buck and JD froze in place and stared incredulously at their leader. "You're kiddin', right? You know how dangerous it is to wake him up... last time he almost got Josiah with that damn pop gun of his!"
"Well, then I guess you better do it real careful like, huh?" Chris just grinned slightly and pointed again in the direction of Ezra's room.
JD opened his mouth to argue further, but Buck just grabbed his arm and began dragging him toward the stairs. "Forget it, boy... I know that look and there just ain't no arguin' with it."
The youngster glanced at Chris once more, realized Buck was right, and allowed himself to be pulled along behind him. "Okay, Buck... but you're goin' in first. I'm too young to die."
The older man gave him a shove up the stairs and shook his head. "No way, Kid... you make a smaller target... you're goin' in and distractin' 'im while I see if I can't get my hands on that gun before he can shoot you."
The others laughed as they watched their two friends wrestle and argue their way up to the gambler's room.
"Maybe I oughta go grab my medical bag... I've gotta feelin' one a them is gonna need my services before they get Ezra outta that bed." Nathan laughed as he finished his coffee and headed back over to the clinic. He had several patients he needed to look in on anyway and wanted to get out of range before the Southerner came down those stairs and met with Chris's anger. It was never a pretty sight when those two butted heads, and he'd just as soon not have to witness it this early in the morning.
Stepping out onto the boardwalk, Nathan marveled at how warm it still was even though it was almost Christmas. He glanced back at the saloon and shook his head as he thought about how tense the next several days would be between Ezra and Chris. Neither of them liked the holiday and the nearer it drew, the touchier they seemed to get.
Chris didn't hate the season, he just preferred to forget it ever since Sarah and Adam had died. It no longer held any joy for him, and he simply left the celebrating to the others. And Ezra... well, from what they'd been able to discern from the little he'd let slip, his childhood had not been an especially happy one and Christmas apparently held no fond memories for him. You'd think their mutual dislike for the holiday would draw them together, but instead they seemed to get a perverse pleasure out of antagonizing one another.
Nathan sighed and moved off the boardwalk and down into the dusty street. <Better check my stock of supplies... one or both of them's bound t' end up in the clinic 'fore Christmas gets here.>
Ezra frowned as he stared at himself in the mirror. The dark circles under his eyes were an unpleasant reminder of the nightmare that had awoken him several times during the night. In fact, he was still suffering from the effects of it... his heart was still beating a bit faster than normal, and his hands were shaking so badly he had nicked himself twice while shaving. Something that absolutely never happened.
It was a recurring dream that seemed to strike whenever he was stressed or over-tired, and try as he might, he could never remember any more than tiny fragments of it. He knew it had something to do with the horrible occurrences while he'd been in the custody of his uncle Matthew... someone he had spent his entire adult life trying to forget... but other than that, there were only vague images and sounds left when he awoke. Nothing solid enough to let him know the exact nature of the dream.
Ezra was just glad that the boisterous revelry from Buck and JD in the saloon below had awakened him when it did. He had an uneasy feeling that if allowed to continue, the nightmare would have gotten worse... much worse. Especially considering the abuse he'd endured at the hands of his uncle. He knew the feelings of anxiety and fear that always accompanied the dream would stay with him for days before finally dissipating, and there was nothing he could do but try to ignore them. Sighing resignedly, he forced his thoughts away from it and went back to his shaving.
Buck and JD listened at Ezra's door, and were relieved to hear him moving around. "Hey, Ezra... ya decent?"
"Go away, Mr. Wilmington." Ignoring Ezra's irritated reply, they swung the door open and walked in.
"You're up." Buck commented as he watched the gambler finish wiping the lather off his face.
Ezra stared at him for a moment before buttoning his shirt and pulling on his waistcoat. "Very observant of you, Mr. Wilmington. And of course I'm up... how could one possibly sleep through that ungodly racket you and our young friend here were making?"
"Well, you just better be glad we woke you cause Chris wants you downstairs in ten minutes or you're ridin' patrol for the next month. Did you forget you were supposed to go out this mornin'?" JD grinned and nudged Buck when he saw it dawn on Ezra just how much trouble he was in.
"Good lord..." he mumbled as he quickly strapped on his guns and grabbed his coat and hat off the back of the chair. He'd completely forgotten it was his turn for patrol.
Brushing past Buck and JD, he hurried out of the room and headed for the stairs, struggling to shove his arms into his coat sleeves as he went.
"Hey, wait up, Ezra!" JD yelled as he and Buck hurried after the gambler. "I want to see you try 'n talk your way outta this one!"
Chris heard JD's yell and looked up just as the trio came rushing around the corner and headed down the stairs. He started to shoot a glare at the Southerner, when suddenly, with a sickening sense of slow motion, he saw Buck start off a terrifying chain of events... and realized he was powerless to stop it.
Buck grabbed at JD's arm and tried to pull him away from the gambler, trying to warn him against getting in the way of the blowup he knew was coming between Ezra and Chris.
"Let go, Buck!" the boy exclaimed as he jerked his arm out of the older man's reach.
Buck saw what was about to happen and desperately tried to recapture JD's arm, but the younger man's momentum had already pushed him back out of the gunslinger's grasping hands and straight into Ezra. The gambler was just moving his foot down to the next step while still struggling with his jacket, when JD slammed into him, knocking him off balance. JD tried to turn and grab for Ezra as he felt the other man fall away from him, and nearly had him... but his hands were just a second too late.
"Ezra!!" Buck and Chris shouted out the gambler's name at the same time, drawing every eye in the saloon to the heart-stopping sight of Ezra tumbling backward over the railing. His arms were still tangled in the twisted coat sleeves and he could do nothing to break his fall. They all watched in frozen horror as he slammed into a table which tilted brokenly, throwing him to the floor in a boneless heap.
Chris, Vin and Josiah hurried to his side. Kneeling by his head, Chris pressed two shaky fingers against the gambler's neck... holding his breath as he searched desperately for a pulse. "Come on, Ezra... damn it, don't you do this to us." Finally, after what seemed like forever, he found it... it was weak, but at least it was there. Vin and Josiah saw him nod and breathed a sigh of relief as they moved to place gentle hands along their friend's body, holding him still in case he woke suddenly and began stirring around. They knew Nathan needed to check him over before he could be allowed to move... they just prayed his back wasn't injured in the fall.
Chris glanced up and saw JD and Buck still standing on the stairs, the shock of what had just happened showing clearly on their faces. "JD! Go find Nathan!" He saw the boy hesitate and sharpened the tone of his voice. "Now, JD!! Move it!!"
Seeing him finally move down the stairs and race out the door, Chris turned his eyes to his oldest friend and nodded once at the crowd that had gathered around them. "Clear everyone outta here, Buck." He saw the fear shining brightly in his eyes and hurried to reassure him. "He's alive, Buck... did you hear me? I said he's alive." When the gunman finally shook himself and began moving down the stairs, Chris turned his attention back to the crumpled body lying motionless beneath his hands.
Three sets of eyes anxiously searched Ezra for signs of how badly he was injured. He had landed on his left side, one arm pinned beneath his body, his legs sprawled out awkwardly behind him. Chris eased his hands gently around the younger man's head and grimaced as his fingers came away red with blood. He wadded up a corner of the tablecloth that Ezra was lying on and pressed it tightly against the wound, trying to stop the flow of blood, his eyes never leaving the gambler's pale face.
After finally getting the last person shoved out of the saloon, Buck hurried over to the others and stared worriedly down at Ezra. "How's he doin', Chris?"
Chris heard the guilt in the other man's voice and glanced up at him. Buck's eyes were riveted on Ezra, and Chris could see him struggling to control his emotions. "It was an accident, Buck... that's all." He tried to reassure the gunman, but could see his words fell on deaf ears. He felt a tremor run through Ezra and tightened his hold on him, glancing quickly down at his face in the hopes that he was coming to. He knew the longer the Southerner was unconscious, the greater the odds were that he'd sustained a serious head injury. "Ezra? Can you hear me? Come on now, open your eyes for me." Nothing. Not even a flicker of his eyelids. "Damn it... where the hell is Nathan?!"
Just at that moment, Nathan and JD came slamming through the door into the saloon. The healer's heart raced as he saw Ezra lying motionless amidst the rubble of the table. "Let me in there, Buck." Buck reluctantly moved away from the gambler and stood watching anxiously as Nathan took his pulse, and then ran his experienced hands slowly down Ezra's back. "He been out the whole time?"
Chris kept his eyes fastened on Nathan's face as he examined the injured man, watching for any sign of trouble. "Yeah... he trembled once or twice, but that's about it."
Nathan frowned and felt carefully around Ezra's neck. "This how he landed?"
Chris nodded. "We haven't moved him... his back?"
"Hard t' tell. I don't feel nothin' broke, but we'll have t' wait til he comes to 'fore we'll know for sure. Helps that he landed partly on his side... might have some bruised or broken ribs, but at least it protected his spine some." Nathan had Chris move his hands so he could check the gash in the back of Ezra's head, grimacing when he saw how deep it was. "Looks like his head hit the edge of the table when he landed... it's pretty nasty. Could be a fracture, but I can't tell for sure." He motioned for Chris to resume the pressure on the cut while he looked at Ezra's eyes... his frown deepened and he shook his head.
"Nathan? How bad?" Chris hated that look... he'd seen it way too many times lately with regards to the Southerner. Ezra seemed to have an uncanny knack for getting injured, and it was always bad enough to put *that look* on the healer's face. Leave it to Ezra not to do anything half-way... even getting hurt.
"Well, he's definitely got a concussion... looks like a bad one." Nathan slid his hands down to Ezra's arms, carefully easing his right arm out of his coat, removing the sleeve rig he wore and checking for breaks. It seemed fine, but when he slipped his hand under Ezra to examine the left one, he could immediately feel the break in his forearm just above the wrist. The healer looked at Vin and Josiah and told them to lift up on him slowly, just enough for him to slide Ezra's arm out rom under him. "Chris, keep his head as steady as ya can. Buck... get down here an' help me untangle his arm from this sleeve as we bring it out. Okay, y'all ready? Easy now... and try an' keep his back straight."
JD watched as they did exactly as Nathan said, smoothly maneuvering Ezra up and off the arm. He felt so damned helpless just standing there. Suddenly it dawned on him what he could be doing, and he quietly turned and slipped out of the saloon
Chris eased up the pressure he was applying to the cut on the back of Ezra's head and leaned over to check it. "Bleeding's stopped, Nathan."
Nathan pulled a pad of cloth and some bandages out of his medical kit and passed them to Chris. "Wrap it up for now, an' I'll clean it out an' stitch it when we get 'im t' the clinic."
"You don't think we oughta just take him up to his room? It's closer," Buck asked as he held Ezra's arm still for the healer.
"He's hurt too bad... I'll be able t' take better care of 'im over there." Nathan had Chris help him remove Ezra's other two guns and their holsters, and then ran his hands gently down the gambler's sides. He was pleasantly surprised to find his ribs only bruised, not broken or cracked, and figured his arm must have taken the brunt of the impact and protected them somewhat. Carefully he eased Ezra's arm over and placed it against his chest, and while Buck held it firmly in place, strapped it down tight until he could get it splinted. Nathan kept watching Ezra's face for some reaction to the pain he knew he should be feeling, and became more and more worried when there was none.
The healer hurriedly finished checking him over, running his hands lightly down his hips and legs and thankfully finding nothing broken. He wanted to get him to the clinic and do a more thorough examination... he just prayed there wasn't anything he'd missed.
"Okay... we gotta keep 'im as level as possible carryin' 'im over there. An' we're goin' real slow... I don't want 'im bounced around none." Nathan looked around and frowned. "Where the heck did JD get off to? I was gonna have 'im bring my medical bag."
"Probably couldn't stand to watch anymore. Don't worry... one of us'll come back over and get it... let's just get him to the clinic," Chris said as he stared down at Ezra. Why the hell had he sent Buck and JD up to get him? If he'd just gone himself, or better yet, let him come down when he was ready, this never would have happened.
Nathan showed everyone where to hold him, and they soon had Ezra cradled between them and began slowly moving out of the saloon and across the street.
As soon as their feet touched the landing outside the clinic, the door swung open and JD stood there ready to help. Moving carefully inside, they found out why he'd disappeared so suddenly. The bed was turned down and waiting for Ezra, a pot of boiling water stood ready on the stove, and everything JD could think of that Nathan might need had been placed on the table next to the bed.
Nathan glanced around the room as they carried Ezra over to the bed, settling him carefully on his right side, and then nodded approvingly at the young man. "Good job, JD... looks like ya thought of everything."
JD's worried expression eased a bit at the compliment. "I had to find something to do to help... after all, it's my fault he's lying here like this."
"It's nobody's fault, JD... it was just an accident, so quit blaming yourself." Chris meant what he said, but he knew the boy and Buck would still feel guilty about what had happened.
Chris and Josiah helped Nathan remove Ezra's clothes while the others stood back against the wall watching. Every man in the room winced when the Southerner's body was revealed and they saw the deep purple bruises that already covered his entire left side and half of his back.
Nathan went over every inch of the smaller man and was glad to find that his initial examination had been right... except for the extensive bruising, the only other injuries he had were the broken arm and the head wound. Not that they weren't bad enough... Ezra was definitely going to be sore when he woke up, and he was going to have one hell of a headache. The healer had also been relieved to see the gambler move his legs slightly as he'd probed the bruises on his ribs... it meant he most likely didn't have a spinal injury, and he was finally reacting to the pain. Hopefully he'd be waking up soon.
Pulling a chair up to the side of the bed, Nathan sat down and prepared to stitch up the gash in the back of Ezra's head. "Y'all want t' get a hold on him case he tries t' move around? This ain't gonna feel too good, and I don't want 'im jerkin' away from me if he comes to."
But absolutely nothing Nathan did to the gambler got another response. Not the jostling involved with wrapping his bruised ribs... not even having his broken arm set and splinted. Other than that slight shifting of his legs during the healer's examination, Ezra had remained silent and unmoving.
Nathan looked up at the others when he finished with Ezra, and they could all see the worry in his gentle brown eyes. "I done all I can for 'im, now we wait."
"He's gonna be okay though... right, Nathan?" JD tore his gaze from Ezra's pale face to look imploringly at the healer... willing him to reassure him that everything would be fine.
"Nathan?" Buck added his guilt-ridden voice to JD's when he didn't answer right away. His eyes searched Nathan's face for some sign of hope.
Nathan just shrugged and turned back to Ezra. He had no answers for them. The blow to the head had been severe, and there was no way of telling how much damage had been done until the gambler woke up. For now, all any of them could do was wait and pray.
Chris walked up beside the bed and placed his hand on Nathan's shoulder. "We know you're doin' everything you can, Nathan. We'll set up the usual shifts to watch over him... you -"
"Y'can forget the shifts, Chris... I ain't leavin' 'im." Buck pulled a chair up beside the bed, and ignoring everyone else in the room, turned his full attention to Ezra. The others watched as he tucked the blanket around the smaller man, careful not to jar his injured arm which was cradled on a pillow in front of him. He then leaned on the edge of the bed, one hand wrapped around the gambler's while his other smoothed the hair back off his pale brow. "Don't you give up on us, Ezra... ya gotta fight this. Tell ya what, pard... you open those green eyes of yours for me, and I'll take that month of patrol Chris was gonna make ya ride. How's that sound? JD and me'll even quit pesterin' ya about joinin' us for the Christmas celebration."
Chris opened his mouth to argue with Buck, but Josiah stopped him. "Leave him, Chris. He needs to do this, and who knows... it might be the one thing to drag Ezra back. If nothing else, he'll probably at least wake up long enough to tell Buck to shut up."
Buck and JD had become especially close to Ezra over the last few months. And to the surprise of the others , the two men had slowly begun to pull the gambler out from behind the walls he kept carefully erected around himself. They all knew that both of them were probably feeling a tremendous amount of guilt over what had happened, even though it had just been a tragic accident and no one's fault.
Chris stared at Buck and then at the preacher, and smiled. "You could be right... nothing Ezra hates more than havin' to listen to Buck ramble on." Chris squeezed Nathan's shoulder reassuringly before letting go. "You need anything before we leave, Nathan?"
Nathan thought a minute before answering. "Someone could fetch one of Ezra's nightshirts from his room... he'll want somethin' t' put on once he wakes up."
"JD... you want to take care of that? And grab some dinner for Nathan and Buck on your way through the saloon." Chris saw the boy's reluctance to leave, but he knew it would be best to keep him busy... take his mind off the guilt he was feeling. Having Buck there to deal with was enough of a trial for poor Nathan without adding JD to it, too.
"And... Chris?" Nathan stared regretfully at the gunslinger. "Maybe you'd better wire Maude."
Chris paled slightly at Nathan's inference and let his eyes rest on the gambler before turning to go. He didn't want to leave him anymore than the rest of them did, but there was nothing they could do for him now, and they still had a town to watch over. "We'll be back tonight to relieve you, Nathan... take care of him... and I'll send that telegram."
Nathan watched as the others filed slowly out, and then looked over at Buck who was still talking softly to Ezra, saying anything that popped into his head that might get a reaction out of him. The healer placed his fingers on the gambler's neck and was relieved to find his pulse a little stronger. Now if he'd just wake up.
It was the next night before Ezra finally began to show signs of coming to. Everyone was there and had been for most of the evening. It was late and they were all tired, but no one wanted to leave... they just sat there, taking turns holding his hand and talking to him... hoping he would know they were there with him, and at least be comforted by it.
Buck closed his eyes for a minute... a lack of sleep was starting to take its toll on him. When he opened them again and looked at Ezra, he was amazed to see him looking back at him. "Ezra? You with us, pard?"
The others were out on the landing, talking and getting a breath of fresh air, and didn't hear Buck's whispered question. Nathan glanced through the open door and saw Buck urgently motion for him to come inside.
"What is it?" Nathan hurried around the end of the bed, hoping to see some change in his patient.
"He was looking at me, Nathan... didn't say anything, just stared at me for a minute an' then closed his eyes again." Buck kept his gaze riveted on Ezra's face... waiting... hell, praying... for him to finally wake up.
Nathan patted the gambler's face gently, trying to rouse him. "Ezra... come on now, open your eyes. Ezra?"
The rest of the men heard Nathan trying to wake him and hurried back in to hover around the bed. They were all watching as Ezra's lids fluttered and slowly opened. He stared at the men around him as they all started talking to him, welcoming him back. They were all so excited and relieved that he'd finally woken up, that no one noticed what was happening to him. No one except Buck.
Buck felt Ezra's hand tense in his and tightened his grip on it, and then took a closer look at him. That's when he saw it... the fear. "Ezra... what's wrong?" He leaned in closer and saw the faint trembling that rippled through the younger man, and the tears that were beginning to fill his eyes as he stared from one man standing over him to another. "Ezra... look at me, pard. It's Buck... do ya recognize me?"
The others finally saw the gambler just staring up at them and stopped talking. Their eyes widened in shock as Ezra's face scrunched up, tears streamed down his cheeks, and soft sobs shook his slender form.
They started forward, but Buck waved sharply at them to stay back. Ezra had a death-grip on his hand and Buck tugged on it, drawing the gambler's attention back to him. "Ezra... tell me what's wrong... please?"
Ezra stared at him, his voice hitching as he tried to talk. "Who... who arwe you? Wherwe's my mama? I want my mama!"
Buck stared in amazement as Ezra painfully sat up and curled himself around his broken arm... his good hand tearing away from Buck's to fist fretfully at his eyes, all the while crying out in a child's lisping voice for his mama.
"Shit... Nathan, what the hell's going on?" Chris whispered as they all watched Ezra sobbing pitifully on the bed.
Nathan shook his head, his face creased with worry as he moved carefully around the bed behind Ezra. "I don't know for sure, but stay back... he's terrified. Let Buck handle things for now."
Buck's heart broke at the sight of the gambler looking so lost and scared. "Shh now... it's all right, pard. No one here's gonna hurt ya... we just want to help ya." He reached his hand out slowly and placed it on Ezra's arm, tugging gently until he got his hand down away from his face. He winced at the pain and fear he saw in the liquid green eyes that stared back at him. "Ezra? Can ya talk to me? Tell me what's wrong?"
Ezra stared back at the ladies man, his lower lip quivering and his breath coming in soft gasps as he tried to talk, his southern accent stronger than they'd ever heard it. "H-how do you know my n-name?"
Buck inched his hand down Ezra's arm until he had it wrapped around the younger man's fingers again. He squeezed gently and held Ezra's gaze as he answered him. "I'm a friend of your mama's... we all are."
"You know my mama?" Ezra's face still reflected the pain he was feeling, but the fear had faded a little. "What's yourw name?"
"My name's Buck... and your mama asked us to take care of ya." Buck felt the slender fingers in his hand squeeze back, and he slowly eased himself forward until he was resting on the edge of the bed. "How old are ya, Ezra?"
The others stared as the years seemed to melt away. Ezra's face actually began to look like that of a small boy's... the hard look of cynicism was gone and in its place shone a childlike innocence. "I'm five... why did my mama w'eave me herwe? Did I do somefin' wrong again?"
Buck heard the small voice quiver softly on the last question and knew Ezra doing wrong in his mama's eyes had probably been a common occurrence in the young child's life. He saw Ezra's face turn a shade paler and a light sheen of sweat appear on his skin with the effort he was making to stay upright in the bed. Buck moved slightly closer to the gambler as he answered. "Naw... you didn't do nothin' wrong... your mama just needed to go away for awhile and asked us to watch out for ya. We've sent for her, and she should be here soon."
Nathan inched along the edge of the bed trying to get within arm's reach of Ezra, fearful that he was going to pass out and tumble to the floor. He motioned for Buck to try and get his arms around the weakening Southerner.
Buck stared into Ezra's face, saw the glazed look in his eyes, and knew he wouldn't last much longer. He slid further across the bed until he was close enough to gently wrap one arm around the bare shoulders of the smaller man. "You okay there, little guy? Why don't ya lean over here against ol' Buck and let me hold ya for awhile."
Ezra hesitated for a second, staring into Buck's eyes as if trying to decide if he could trust him, and finally, with a small sob of pain, eased his head down against the larger man's shoulder.
"That's it, baby... you're gonna be okay now." Buck reached up and gently ran his hand up and down the gambler's arm in an effort to soothe him.
Ezra whispered wearily, "I'm not a baby."
Buck chuckled softly and leaned down to look at him. "Sorry, pard... I know you're not a baby. Ya feelin' okay?"
Another whisper, this time laced with pain, answered him. "I'm fine. Jus' s'weepy."
"Just sleepy? You're sure nothin' hurts?" Buck knew he had to be in considerable pain, he could hear it in his voice and see it etched on his face.
"I tol' you... I'm fine." Buck looked down, saw the tears slowly trickling down Ezra's cheeks, and looked at Nathan helplessly. Nathan pointed at himself and then at Ezra... it took Buck a moment, but he finally figured out what the healer wanted. He nodded and turned the gambler slightly so he could see the other man standing by the bed.
"Ezra? This is Nathan... he's another friend of your mama's, an' he's a doctor. He wants to check you over and make sure you're alright... okay?" Buck felt the slight form he held in his arms tremble and push back against his chest. "It's alright... he's not gonna hurt ya."
Ezra squinted at Nathan as he settled beside him on the bed. The pain in his head was making it hard for him to focus his eyes. "Nafan?"
"Yup... Nathan's my name... and yours is Ezra, right?" Nathan could tell the Southerner was having trouble seeing, and knew he was nearly exhausted with all that had happened.
Ezra finally got a good look at the healer, and his eyes widened slightly as he became aware of the man's dark skin. "Arwe you a s'wave?" Then his surprise turned to worry and he looked around the clinic. "I'm not at Unca Maffew's, am I? Arwe you one of *his* s'waves?"
Nathan heard the hint of tears in his voice again, and hurried to reassure him. "I'm not a slave an' you're not at your Uncle Matthew's. You're here in Four Corners with us."
"I'm not at Unca Maffew's?" They could all hear the relief in Ezra's voice, and each of them wondered darkly exactly what went on at this Uncle Matthew's when Ezra was a child.
"No, you're in my clinic... you were brought here so's I could fix ya up." Nathan watched as Ezra looked down at his splinted arm.
"What happened to me... did Unca Maffew... did he..." They could all see the fear wash over Ezra's face again as he struggled to speak, and they knew the subject of his uncle would definitely be brought up when Maude arrived.
"Naw... it weren't your uncle. You fell and hurt yourself, that's all." Nathan watched him relax slightly... and then saw him gulp convulsively several times and knew he was having trouble. "Ezra... are ya okay?"
Ezra looked up at Buck and then at Nathan as he took a deep shuddering breath. He shook his head slowly. "I don't feewl good."
"Are ya gonna be sick?" Nathan asked, motioning quickly for one of the others to hand him the bucket he kept in the clinic for just such emergencies.
Ezra scowled at him and shook his head. "I jus' tol' you, Nafan... I aw'w'eady *am* sick!"
Nathan tried not to smile as he hurried to explain. "No... no... I meant do ya feel like you're gonna throw up?"
Buck felt the younger man's stomach contract under his hand and nodded quickly at Nathan, but Ezra continued to fight it. He swallowed several times as his face turned a nasty shade of green and shook his head again. "Can't... not a'wowed."
Nathan glanced back at Chris and the others, and saw the same confusion on their faces that he felt.
Buck glanced down and spoke to the smaller man cradled against his chest. "You're not allowed? Who told ya that?"
Ezra moaned softly as he fought against his rebellious stomach. "Mama..." he gulped again. "Mama hates when I'm s-sick... she... she'll take me to Unca Maffew's if... if I f'rwow up."
Buck smoothed the hair back off Ezra's sweaty forehead and leaned down to whisper in his ear. "She's not takin' ya nowhere... you're stayin' right here with us. Now if ya gotta throw up, you go ahead and do it... it'll make ya feel better."
Chris and Vin exchanged a determined look as they listened to the exchange between Buck and Ezra. Maude was definitely going to hear what they thought of her version of motherhood. No wonder Ezra was the emotional mess that he was... trusting no one, not being able to admit when he was sick or hurt... it was all becoming clear as they listened to Lit'l Ezra.
Nathan held the bucket ready beside the bed... he could tell by the gambler's face that he wouldn't be able to hold back much longer. It was only natural that he was sick to his stomach... the head injury alone was enough to cause it. Then pile on top of that all the stress he was now under, and it was sure to happen.
Ezra looked into Nathan's eyes, and as the tears started falling again, mumbled, "Nafan... I'm..." and the healer jerked the bucket up under the gambler's face just in time. Buck wrapped his arms around him, holding his broken arm still as his body jerked with each spasm.
Vin and JD immediately made a dash for the landing, their own stomachs rolling in sympathy with their friend's. Chris soaked a cloth in cool water and held it ready for Buck to wipe Ezra's face with when he was done, while Josiah moved to the stove and filled a mug with some of the willow bark tea that he knew Nathan would want to give him to ease the pain and settle his stomach.
Ezra was crying and nearly hysterical by the time his stomach stopped heaving, and Nathan had to struggle to get the tea into him. "I'm sowwy, Nafan... I trwied not to do d'at... pwease don't send me away... don't make me go to Unca Maffew's!"
Buck clung to him and wiped his face and mouth with the cool cloth Chris handed him, and whispered softly in his ear. "Shush now... no one's gonna make ya go nowhere... it's alright... you couldn't help it... shh..."
"Come on, Ezra... drink this for me, please? It's gonna make ya feel better." Nathan tried to hold the cup to the gambler's lips, but he kept twisting his head away.
"No, Nafan... it tastes yucky... pwease don't make... owww... ohhh... Nafan, my head huwts..." Ezra struggled weakly, and Nathan finally was forced to grip his chin tightly in his hand and hold him still while he forced the tea into his mouth. The smaller man coughed and sputtered as the foul tasting liquid was poured down his throat, and the only thing that kept him from kicking out at Nathan in childish anger were the blankets that had tangled around his legs.
When Nathan finally decided he'd gotten enough of the tea into Ezra and released his hold on his chin, the gambler turned around and buried his face in Buck's shirt, sobbing and moaning softly that he hurt.
Chris reached around behind Buck, propped a pillow against the headboard and held it still while the ladies man leaned back, pulling Ezra with him so that he was cradled against his chest.
Nathan carefully checked the splints on Ezra's arm and slipped a pillow under it to help cushion it. Then after pulling the blanket up over the gambler's shoulders and tucking it in, he eased himself onto the chair, leaned back and closed his eyes... exhausted from the struggle Ezra had given them. Buck rubbed his hand soothingly across Ezra's back and continued to reassure him he was okay until he finally felt the smaller man relax against him and heard his hitching sobs slow and then stop. By the time Ezra was asleep, Buck had joined him... his arms wrapped tightly around the gambler and his head drooped forward, cheek resting on the top of Ezra's head.
Chris and Josiah prodded a protesting Nathan out of the chair, and moved him over to the cot on the other side of the room. He was out like a light before they could even pull the covers over him. Two days of constant vigil over Ezra had taken their toll on both the healer and Buck.
Vin and JD had wandered back into the room as soon as they heard things quiet down, and now they stood staring at the usually stoic and unreachable gambler snuggled cozily against Buck Wilmington's chest. They all were worried and wanted to find out more about Ezra's condition from Nathan, but knew it would have to wait until morning.
"So who's supposed to be on watch tonight anyway... I can't remember." Chris looked tiredly at the others as he tried to get his mind focused on something other than the worrisome situation with the gambler.
"I'm on duty t'night, an' it was s'posed to be Buck's turn t' ride patrol in the mornin'," Vin reminded him.
"I'll take Buck's turn on patrol tomorrow, he needs to be here with Ezra," Josiah volunteered as he stared at the pair sleeping soundly in the bed.
"Well, then you and JD go get some sleep, and I'll stay here and watch over things till either Nathan or Buck wake up." The others reluctantly agreed, and after one last worried glance at Ezra, left the clinic.
Chris moved quietly over to the bed and reaching down, smoothed some stray curls back off Ezra's forehead, feeling the slight fever warming his skin as he did so. He smiled slightly and shook his head at the sight of the gambler and the ladies man curled up together in the bed. <This is going to make for some interesting teasing once Ezra's back to his normal self.> Then the grin slipped off the gunslinger's face when his thoughts continued... <*if* Ezra returns to his normal self.>
He sighed worriedly and settled himself in the chair by the bed, propping his feet up on the mattress in an effort to get comfortable. He dozed off and on during the night, but even in sleep his mind was focused on the gambler and what they were going to do if the worst happened and he stayed the way he was now. When morning finally came, he was no nearer an answer to that question than he'd been the night before. He just knew one thing... Ezra wasn't going anywhere. Somehow they'd deal with his problem together... as a family... and Maude would definitely not be in the picture.
Chris was sitting slouched in the chair, contemplating waking Nathan up so he could go get some sleep, when he heard Ezra begin to whimper softly. He moved over to sit on the edge of the bed, bending down slightly to look into the gambler's face, and saw tears slowly rolling down his cheeks. The gunslinger reached out and gently touched the hand that was wrapped tightly in Buck's shirt. "Ezra? You okay?"
Ezra opened his eyes slightly and stared at Chris for a few moments before finally whispering, "Who arwe you?"
"My name's Chris... is your head hurtin'? Do you want me to get Nathan for you?" Chris could tell he was in pain by the pinched look around his eyes, but Ezra shook his head no and pulled his hand away to swipe the tears off his cheeks. "Are you sure? Nathan's gonna want to know if you're not feelin' good."
"I'm aw'w'ight... I... ohh..." Ezra's eyes squeezed shut, and his fingers gripped at Buck's shirt again as pain shot through his head.
Buck jerked awake with a gasp as he felt Ezra's fingers dig into his stomach, his arms automatically tightening around the other man.
Chris laid a restraining hand on Buck's shoulder, holding him still until he got his bearings. He released him as soon as he saw the memory of what had happened wash over him.
Buck glanced down at Ezra, and seeing the fresh tears on his cheeks, shot a questioning look at Chris.
"He says he's alright, but I think he's fibbin' a bit." Chris smiled when Ezra's eyes shot open and a blush of guilt washed across his face.
Buck put his fingers under Ezra's chin and tipped his face up so he could look into his eyes. "Okay, pard... how come you're not tellin' us when you're feelin' bad? We can't help you if ya don't let us know when somethin's wrong."
"D'at would be compwainin', an' Mama tol' me I'm not s'pose to do d'at." Fresh tears welled up in Ezra's eyes, and they could hear the pain in his voice. They were still amazed at how much he looked and sounded like a little boy... the transformation was so complete there was nothing left of their Ezra except his body. Even his gestures were childlike now. They even saw his thumb drift toward his mouth the few times he'd actually let go of Buck... but of course Maude would never have allowed that, so he always ended up jerking it away before it got too close.
"It's not complaining if we ask you to tell us, is it?" Chris asked, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he watched Ezra's face scrunch up in concentration.
"I s'pose not... but you won't tewll Mama wiwll you? She stiwll might not w'ike it." Ezra spoke softly as if afraid his mama would hear him.
Chris glanced up when he heard the door click open, and watched as Josiah, Vin and JD quietly entered the room... then returned his gaze to the anxious face looking at him. "We promise we won't tell her."
"Pwomises don't mean nuffin'... grwown-ups neverw keep d'eirw pwomises." Ezra spoke the words matter-of-factly, as if it were just a proven sad fact of his young life.
Buck and Chris exchanged a questioning glance and came to a silent agreement... maybe they should find out whatever they could about the boy's life... it might help them understand the man better. Seeing Nathan join the group gathered around the bed, they glanced up at him.
Chris spoke quietly to the healer, keeping his eyes on Ezra. "Nathan... think it'll be alright if we ask him a few questions?"
Nathan thought a minute, looking down at the smaller man still leaning against Buck. "S'pose it ain't gonna hurt nothin'... so long as he don't get upset. Jus' let me check 'im over first." He turned his attention to his patient. "How ya' feelin', Ezra... does your head still hurt?"
Ezra looked up at the healer, started to shake his head no and then looked at Chris and Buck. Seeing them smile reassuringly, he turned his eyes shyly back to Nathan and slowly nodded his head. "Yes, Nafan... it huwts a w'ittle."
Nathan reached out and felt the gambler's forehead, relieved to find the skin only slightly warm. He gently checked the cut on the back of Ezra's head, and was glad to see that it was clear of infection... but he had a feeling he was playing down exactly how much pain he was in. Nathan knew he had to have one heck of a headache after the blow he'd suffered. He shifted Ezra's broken arm around gently until it was nestled more securely on the pillow, touching the fingers briefly to make sure they were warm. "How 'bout your arm... how's it feel?"
Ezra stared down at his splinted arm and thought a minute. "It huwts a w'ittle, too... kinda w'ike a toofache... but not a w'eal bad one."
Nathan nodded and lifted the blanket slightly to look at the deep purple contusions that ran down the length of the gambler's body. "Are these bruises botherin' ya much?"
Ezra placed his hand on the edge of the blanket and pulled up slightly as he bent to see what Nathan was talking about. He startled all of them when he suddenly sat back up, jerked the blanket out of the healer's hand, and clutched it against his chest. His face was a bright red as he leaned over and whispered hoarsely, "Nafan! I'm naked underw d'erwe!"
They all tried not to laugh, they honestly did... but the look of total embarrassment on Ezra's face was just too priceless. And their efforts to stop were useless when his look of embarrassment changed to one of indignation. Even their usually imperturbable leader had tears in his eyes.
Ezra stared angrily at them, his green eyes flashing, until finally the pain in his head and his tender little boy's feelings got the best of him. His face began to crumple as his eyes filled with tears. "Y'all arwen't bein' verwy nice."
The laughter ground to an immediate halt when they realized they'd hurt his feelings. Buck wrapped his arms around the gambler and whispered soothingly in his ear. "We're sorry, little guy... we didn't mean to hurt ya... and you're right, that wasn't very nice. Forgive us?"
They were all kicking themselves for forgetting that technically they were dealing with a five year old, not the grown man they saw lying in the bed. They all mumbled an echo to Buck's apology, and watched as Ezra slowly nodded before leaning weakly back against the ladies man, still clutching the blanket to his chest.
Nathan grabbed the forgotten nightshirt that JD had brought from the gambler's room and carried it over to the bed. "Here Ezra, let's slip this on ya." Buck helped him slide it over the younger man's head and work his arms through the sleeves, carefully easing the material over the awkward splints, and then placing the arm back on the pillow that rested in Ezra's lap.
Buck leaned him back against his chest again. "How's that... better?"
Ezra nodded, staring solemnly at the men that surrounded the bed. Tugging on Buck's shirt and peering up at him, he pointed at JD, Josiah and Vin, and whispered, "Who arwe d'ey, Buck?"
Buck bent down to whisper back, "Well... the one with the funny hat there is JD, and the fella with the purty hair is Vin, and the big one is Josiah."
JD started to protest the comment about his hat until he saw Ezra's face light up and heard him laugh... suddenly he didn't mind the teasing so much. It was worth it to make that familiar grin of the gambler's appear.
Nathan watched as Ezra rested his head against Buck's chest and closed his eyes for a moment, his brow furrowing as he battled against the pain he was still feeling. The healer went and filled a mug with some of the herbal tea, and brought it back to the bed.
Ezra saw him coming with the disgusting concoction and pressed himself back against Buck. "No, Nafan! I'm aw'w'ight... it doesn't huwt d'at bad now... pwease, Nafan... don't..." Tears filled his eyes as he shook his head back and forth, his hand coming up to try and block Nathan's attempts to get the mug to his lips.
"Come on now, Ezra... I can tell your head's hurtin'... drink some of this for me an' it'll make it feel better." Even with Buck's help, Nathan was having trouble getting any of the tea into the gambler without spilling it all over him.
"Ezra! Behave and do as Nathan says!" Chris's voice cut through the argument between the two combatants on the bed.
Ezra froze. His mouth dropped open and his wide, panic-stricken eyes flew to Chris's face... widening even more when he saw the stern look the gunslinger was shooting his way. Finally he managed to tear his eyes away from Chris, and looked sheepishly up at Nathan.
"I'm sowwy, Nafan... I'll drwink it if you want me to." Ezra's face wrinkled up in disgust, but he quietly sat and drank every last bit of the tea. Nathan actually felt bad for him by the time he was done, because he practically choked trying to get it all down. But every time he hesitated, his eyes drifted over to Chris and he immediately started drinking again.
Nathan wiped the gambler's face off when he finished and smiled at him. "There now... that wasn't so bad, was it?"
Ezra just stared up at the healer for a minute as if he couldn't believe what he'd just heard, and then had everyone snickering again when he said, "Nafan... have you everw tasted d'is stuff?"
Nathan chuckled and then nodded. "I know it's pretty bad, but it'll make ya feel better, and then you'll be glad ya drank it."
Ezra looked doubtful, but didn't argue with him. Instead, he turned his attention to Chris. His face paled slightly, and his lower lip quivered as he hesitated and then finally apologized. "I'm sowwy I was bad, Chwis... arwe you... arwe you gonna make me go to Unca Maffew's?"
Chris saw the tears welling up in the gambler's emerald eyes, and immediately regretted speaking so harshly to him. This was definitely not how he had imagined Ezra to be as a child. If this Uncle Matthew was the one responsible for turning what had probably been a bright and precocious little boy into the timid and subdued personality they were all witnessing now... then heaven help him if he ever showed his face here.
"No, I'm not making you go to Uncle Matthew's. I promise." Chris saw the doubt and mistrust in the Southerner's eyes, and asked softly. "Ezra... did Mama leave you at Uncle Matthew's a lot?"
Ezra nodded as the tears slowly began to trickle down his cheeks. "But not jus' at Unca Maffew's... w'ots of pwaces."
"What sort of places... with other relatives?" Chris kept his voice low and reached out to gently hold the gambler's hand.
Again Ezra nodded, his eyes never leaving Chris's as he talked. "She w'eft me even if d'ey didn't want me. Most of d' time d'ey jus' pwetended I wasn't d'erwe." They watched as a shiver shook his slight frame. "Except forw Unca Maffew."
"Weren't any of them glad to have you stay with them, Ezra?" Josiah found it hard to imagine that not one of the relatives who had kept him had realized what a sweet child he was and treated him accordingly.
"Jus' Unca David." Ezra's expression brightened slightly. "He was aw'ways nice to me. But Mama neverw w'eft me d'erwe verwy w'ong... she said he spoiwled me too much." Ezra looked up at the men and quickly explained. "He didn't w'eawy spoiwl me... he jus' wasn't mean to me. I stiwll had to help wif chorwes an' stuff w'ike d'at, but it wasn't 'cause he made me... it was 'cause he tol' me we all had to worwk togeverw. He said d'at was what w'eal famiwies did."
It was obvious to the other men that this Uncle David was probably the sole reason Ezra hadn't ended up a bitter and angry young man. It had to have been where he had developed all the good and decent traits that had surfaced in him since he'd become a part of their group. Lord knows, he hadn't learned anything that redeeming from Maude or this Uncle Matthew they were hearing about.
"I'll bet you wish you could have stayed there all the time, don't ya? Sounds like a pretty nice place to live." JD could see how much Ezra's Uncle David meant to him, and wondered why Maude hadn't just left him there since she obviously didn't want him with her.
"Uh-huh. I wuvved stayin' wif Unca David. He neverw got mad at me, orw hit me, orw nuffin'. An' he aw'ways espwained when I didn't un'erwstand why he made me do somefin'... he said he jus' wanted me to grwow up to be a good perwson, an' he was jus' twyin' to teach me how to do d'at." Ezra's face fell as he continued. "He wanted to keep me forw aw'ways 'cause he saw d' brwuises d'at I got at Unca Maffew's... Unca David was w'eawy mad d'at Mama kept takin' me d'erwe instead of w'ettin' me stay wif him. He tol' me he was gonna get Mama to sign paperws so d'at I'd neverw have to w'eave him again."
Chris saw the tears start welling up in those sad green eyes and hated to ask his next question, but they needed to know what had happened to Ezra to make him so mistrustful and suspicious of everything they tried to do for him. "He didn't get to keep you, did he?"
Ezra shook his head sadly. "Nuh-uh. Mama showed up one day wif Unca Maffew an' said d'ey werwe takin' me wif d'em. I starwted crwyin' and Unca David tol' me not to worwy 'cause he wouldn't w'et d'em take me. But Unca Maffew made him go in d' wibrwarwy wif him and when d'ey came out, Unca David was crwyin'. He hugged me and tol' me he was sowwy, but I'd have to go wif d'em... he couldn't keep me d'erwe anymorwe. I didn't w'ike seein' Unca David crwy, so I pwetended I didn't carwe d'at I had to go... but it didn't worwk, 'cause he was stiwll crwyin' when we w'eft. I neverw got to see him again."
The other men glanced at each other, wondering what this Matthew had used to blackmail Ezra's uncle David with.
Ezra began to tremble as he thought about what came next. "I had to go stay at Unca Maffew's forw a w'ong time afterw d'at. He was w'eawy mad at what Unca David had trwied to do... an' he bwamed me an' punished me w'eawy bad when he got me back home."
"Ezra... what did Uncle Matthew do to you?" Chris felt the other man's fingers tighten around his, and watched as he began to rock slowly back and forth.
"Not s'posed to tewll." Ezra's voice had dropped to a hoarse whisper, and he began to tremble as he struggled against the memories of the dark times he'd spent at his uncle's plantation.
Buck began gently rubbing his hand in small circles over the younger man's back and leaned forward to whisper soothingly in his ear. "It's alright, Ezra... we won't let your uncle hurt ya anymore."
Nathan kept a close eye on his patient, ready to stop the questioning if he thought it was becoming too much for him. He wanted him kept as quiet as possible, but he also wanted to know exactly what he had been put through as a child. He'd seen the faint scars that were scattered over Ezra's body... the worst of them being the all too familiar ones that crisscrossed his back... and he had a feeling he was finally about to find out where they'd come from.
"Who told you not to tell, Ezra? Uncle Matthew... or your mama?" Chris didn't want to believe that Maude knew what was going on and left him there anyway... even she couldn't be that uncaring... but he had to ask.
"Unca Maffew... he said if I tol' anybody, he would huwt my mama." Ezra's eyes darted toward the door as if he expected his uncle to come crashing through it at any minute.
Vin placed his hand on the gambler's shoulder, and squeezed gently. "It's okay, pard... he ain't here, you're safe with us."
"Ezra?" Chris waited for Ezra to turn his gaze back to him before asking his question once more. "What did Uncle Matthew do to you?"
Pain, real and remembered, darkened the wide green eyes that stared out at Chris. The terrifying memories of what had happened to him at the hands of his uncle flooded his mind and intensified the headache that had been plaguing him since his fall. The tears fell harder, and he began to whimper as he finally answered Chris. "He gave me a whippin' wif his belt... he said he was teachin' me w'espect forw my... my..."
They could see him trying to puzzle out the word his uncle had used, and Nathan finally took a guess at it. "Elders?" He watched as Ezra trembled and ran his fingers lightly over the pale scars on the back of his wrist. The healer reached out and pulled the gambler's hand away, moving his splinted arm back onto the pillow, and then gently placed his own dark hand over the scars, smiling sadly at the Southerner as he looked up at him. God, he hoped his suspicions were wrong... but he had an awful feeling he knew what had caused those marks and exactly what kind of whipping Ezra's uncle had given him.
Ezra nodded and leaned weakly back against Buck, his whimpers turning into soft sobs. "Uh-huh... d'at's d' w-worwd he used. He said I needed to be taught a w'esson on how to w'isten to orwderws. S-said Unca David had spoiwled me and h-he was gonna b-beat it outta me."
Josiah placed a large hand on Ezra's head, gently smoothing his hair back. "Did he do anything else to you, son?"
Ezra turned haunted eyes up to the big man and began to tremble violently. "I... I don't w'ememberw." He turned to bury his face against Buck's chest, and began to cry harder. "It huwts to w'ememberw, Buck... pwease don't make me."
Buck held him tight and began rocking him gently. "Shh... you don't have to remember anything... you just stop thinkin' about it an' try to sleep now. It's alright, little guy... Buck's got ya an' no one's gonna hurt you anymore."
Josiah stared sadly down at Ezra sobbing in Buck's arms while his mind went back over all he'd just learned about Maude. He'd known she wasn't the perfect mother, but he'd never imagined she was this cold and uncaring. Josiah wanted to deny what the gambler had said, but he knew in his heart that this five-year old version of Ezra was telling the truth. Any feelings Josiah'd had for Maude Standish died as it became apparent exactly how miserable she'd made his young friend's childhood.
Nathan looked at Chris and Josiah and shook his head. "He's had enough. That tea he drank should be makin' 'im tired now, so let's leave 'im alone so's Buck can try an' get 'im t' sleep."
They all followed Nathan outside and hovered around the door, wanting to be near in case Ezra needed them.
Buck continued to rock the gambler until he finally felt his body relax. "Ezra?" When there was no response to his whisper, he looked up and caught Vin's eye, motioning him to come in. "He asleep?"
Vin leaned over, looked at Ezra's face and nodded. "Yeah, he's out. Ya want me t' help ya lay 'im down?"
"Yeah. Pull that pillow over a little bit, and we'll just slide 'im off onto that." Between the two of them, they managed to get Ezra off of Buck and stretched out on his stomach on the bed. After tucking a pillow carefully under his broken arm and pulling the blanket up snugly around his shoulders, they stood for a moment looking down at him, waiting to see if he was going to stay asleep.
He squirmed around in the bed a little, and Buck quickly bent over and rubbed his back, whispering soothingly in his ear until he settled down again.
Vin frowned as he saw Ezra's thumb make another move toward his mouth and stop just short, coming to rest on the bed beside his face. Even that small piece of childhood comfort had apparently been denied the gambler. Vin couldn't resist it... he reached down, slowly slid Ezra's arm over, and slipped the thumb into his mouth. He chuckled softly when he saw the Southerner's lips curve up in a small smile and begin sucking gently.
Glancing up, he caught Buck grinning at him. "Nice touch, pard."
He shrugged and grinned back. "Just seemed like the thing t' do. Seems t' be makin' 'im happy and I guess that's all that matters."
Buck nodded... and after one last look at the contentedly sleeping gambler, followed Vin out of the clinic.
As soon as Buck and Vin had joined them, Chris turned his attention to the healer. "Any idea what's going on with him, Nathan?"
Nathan shrugged his shoulders and sighed. "I don't know what t' tell ya, Chris. I've read about stuff like this happenin' after a severe blow t' the head, but I ain't never actually seen no one go through it. I got no idea what's gonna happen with 'im... he might be back t' normal when he wakes up, but then again it might last for days or even weeks."
Vin stared through the door at Ezra, taking in the boyish features which, relaxed in sleep, only enhanced the illusion that the gambler was a small child now. "Nathan... how is it that Ezra don't notice how big he is? That he's the same size as us... not little like he should be if he was really five?"
The others stared at the peacefully sleeping form of their friend and were amazed that they hadn't thought about that before. Nathan thought a minute, and then tried to explain the best he could.
"Well, I don't rightly know for sure, but I figger his mind jus' blocks that part out so's he ain't gotta deal with it. It's gonna protect 'im by lettin' in only as much information as he can handle an' no more. At least, that's what I think's happenin'... I jus' don't know 'nough 'bout this kinda stuff t' really be sure 'bout it. An' I think we gotta be real careful not t' say anything that's gonna make 'im realize he's different than what he thinks he is. That might jus' destroy his mind completely."
"Would it do any good to take him to the doctor over in Eagle Bend?" Josiah asked, knowing the healer was doing the best he could, but grasping at anything that might help Ezra.
"I doubt it... nobody really knows much 'bout these types of head injuries. Maybe at a hospital in some big city back east or in San Francisco, but there's no guarantee that they'd be able t' help 'im either... an' right now, the trip would probably be too much for 'im." Nathan stared morosely at each of his friends, and they saw in his eyes the helplessness he felt at not having better answers for them.
JD struggled to blink back a sudden rush of tears as his guilt at his part in this whole mess threatened to overwhelm him. "He is going to come out of it though, isn't he, Nathan? I mean, eventually?"
Nathan could hear the desperation in JD's voice, and glancing at Buck, saw the same emotion reflected in his sad blue eyes. He wanted nothing more than to be able to guarantee them that everything would be fine... that Ezra would wake up soon and be back to his old self... but he couldn't. It would just be an empty promise because he had absolutely no way of knowing when or even if the Southerner would recover his memory.
"There's jus' no way of knowin', JD. Ain't nothin' we can do but wait." Nathan couldn't remember ever feeling so useless. Aside from keeping Ezra comfortable, there was absolutely nothing else he could do for him.
"You mean he could stay this way forever an' there's not a damn thing we can do about it?!" Buck was angry... not with Nathan for his lack of knowledge or answers, but with himself for causing the damn accident. If he hadn't started horsing around with JD in the first place, none of this would have happened.
Nathan knew Buck's anger wasn't really directed at him, but he still couldn't help feeling a stab of guilt at not being able to do more for Ezra.
"Easy, Buck... this is no one's fault... and getting angry isn't going to help Ezra. The best thing we can do for him right now is to make him as comfortable and happy as possible. You heard him in there... he had a rotten, lonely childhood. Maybe this is our chance to fix that." Josiah glanced through the door at the peacefully sleeping gambler. "Maybe we can give him back some of what he missed out on as a child."
"Josiah's right." Chris placed a soothing hand on Buck's shoulder and squeezed gently. "And who knows, the memory of what we do for him now might just carry over *when* he comes out of this."
Everyone heard Chris stress the word when, and knew he wasn't ready to give up on Ezra coming back to them. They all felt a little hope flicker in their hearts at the confidence he seemed to be feeling for the gambler's full recovery. Heck, even Ezra Standish... as stubborn and bullheaded as he was... didn't stand a chance against Chris Larabee when he was determined to make something happen.
Nathan saw renewed hope in the faces around him, and felt a little of the weight of responsibility lifted from his shoulders. He knew they were all going to be working together to take the best possible care of their friend, and if there was any possible way to bring Ezra back, they would find it.
After much discussion, it was decided that at least for now, they would keep Ezra confined to the clinic. Nathan knew how careless and cruel people could be with their comments, and he didn't want any stress placed on Ezra by any of the curious townsfolk. Not to mention what could happen if any dissatisfied losers from his previous poker games found out what condition he was in. The gambler had made a few enemies since he'd come to Four Corners, and they wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of his current vulnerable state to exact their revenge on him. Besides, if Ezra failed to remember his time spent as a five year old, which is pretty much what Nathan thought was going to happen, then they didn't want anyone mentioning it to him afterward.
The six of them would treat Ezra as the five year old he believed himself to be with absolutely no mention of his real age, or what had happened to him. Nathan was afraid if they tried to push him into remembering, he might suffer even more emotional damage and slip further away from them. If he did start to remember something, they'd encourage it as long as it didn't seem to be upsetting him. And there were to be no more questions about his uncle or what he'd done to Ezra. If he brought it up himself, they would listen to what he had to say, and then gently change the subject. They just wanted him happy at all times. Chris also insisted that he never be left alone, not even for a minute. He remembered all too well what sorts of things five year olds could get into, and he knew Ezra, in his present state, would be no different. If anything... with his quick mind, he'd probably be worse.
"So are we clear on everything then?" Chris asked as he stood and got ready to head off for some much needed sleep. They'd decided that since Ezra had become so attached to Buck already, he would be relieved of his duties as peacekeeper for now so that he could spend as much time with him as possible... at least until Ezra had had a chance to get comfortable with the others. Nathan was going to stay with the gambler while the ladies man left to have a quick bite of breakfast and gather up what he'd need for an extended stay at the clinic. Vin was headed to bed to get a few hours sleep before coming back to spend some time with Ezra, Josiah was off to take Buck's turn at patrol, and JD was going to take guard duty at the jail.
Everyone nodded at Chris and turned to leave, but were suddenly stopped in their tracks by Josiah's quiet voice. "What about Maude?"
Chris turned to stare at the preacher, and shook his head in amazement. Shit... how could they have possibly forgotten about Ezra's mother? The gunslinger's expression hardened as he thought about what they'd learned of Ezra's childhood. "Well, first of all, we haven't heard a thing from her, so maybe if we're lucky, she's off on some con and my message will never catch up with her. But if it does, and she shows up, she's not to be allowed near him. Whoever's on watch when she comes in on that stage, come and get me and Nathan." He saw the skeptical looks on their faces as he looked at each one, and then turned back to the healer. "Nathan, you'll give her the medical facts about what happened to Ezra, and I'll give her my opinions on her lousy attempt at motherhood. Then we'll inform her that she's been relieved of her *motherly* duties, and that we're taking over."
"But, Chris... she's his mother... shouldn't she at least be allowed to see him once?" JD was obviously nervous at the thought of trying to keep Maude separated from her son.
"If we decide she can talk to him, it will only be in the presence of the six of us. He has a hard enough time dealing with her when he's thinking like an adult... he wouldn't stand a chance against her now. I don't care if you have to throw her in the jail to prevent it... she's not seeing him until Nathan and I've talked to her. You all got that?" Chris waited until every one of them had nodded, and then pushed past them and headed for his room. He may have sounded confident to them, but his head was already beginning to throb at the prospect of having to deal with Maude Standish. Damn... why the hell did he ever send that telegram in the first place?
Nathan had gone to fetch them some lunch, leaving Buck alone in the clinic with Ezra. He was sitting in the chair by the bed watching the gambler, when he finally saw his eyes quiver and then slowly open. He blinked several times, took a few more pulls on his thumb, and let his eyes drift shut again. Buck was just reaching out to touch his arm and speak to him, when suddenly Ezra's eyes popped open. The gunman watched as the realization that he was sucking his thumb struck the younger man. He snatched the offending digit out of his mouth and shoved it quickly under the pillow, shooting a panic-stricken look at Buck. "I'm sowwy... I didn't mean to do d'at."
Buck smiled reassuringly and pulled Ezra's hand back out from beneath the pillow. "That's alright, pard... nothin' wrong with it."
"Mama says men don't suck d'eir f'umbs... orw crwy... orw..." Ezra stopped when he saw Buck shake his head at him.
"First of all, you're not a man... you're a little boy. And second, your mama's not in charge of what you can or can't do anymore... we are. And- " Buck was interrupted as Nathan and Vin walked in, each carrying a tray of food.
"And... we just want ya t' be happy." Vin smiled at Ezra as he set the food down on the table, and then moved to squat next to the bed.
Ezra smiled shyly back... and then frowned as what Buck had said finally sunk in. "Mama's not in charwge of me now?"
Buck shook his head and watched Ezra carefully to see how he was going to react to the idea. "Nope... you're part of our family now, so ya have to go by our rules, not your mama's."
Ezra struggled to sit up, crying out softly as he forgot and leaned on his left arm. Buck and Vin hurried to help him up, holding him until his arm stopped hurting, and then easing him back against the pillows. They watched sadly as he quickly dried his tears while shooting them nervous glances... as if he expected them to start yelling at him at any moment. "I'm sowwy... I..."
"Okay, Pard," Vin interrupted Ezra, gently taking his hand and holding it. "First rule ya gotta learn is that it's okay for ya t' cry when ya need t'. You're just a little boy an' little boys are allowed t' cry. Okay?"
Ezra stared suspiciously at them, but they saw a glimmer of hope in his shiny green eyes. "You won't get mad an' send me away if I crwy?"
Buck sighed and took the smaller man's chin in his hand. "Ezra... you gotta understand... when we promise ya somethin', we mean it. And we promise that there is absolutely nothin' you can do to make us send ya away."
Nathan stood over by the table listening to the exchange going on between the three huddled together on the bed. He wanted to try and get Ezra to eat something, but he was willing to wait if they could get him convinced he was safe here with them.
Ezra stared hopefully back at Buck as he thought about what he'd said. "Nuffin'?"
Buck smiled and shook the gambler's chin gently. "Absolutely nothin'. Now, how about some lunch? You gotta be gettin' kinda hungry by now."
Just then Ezra's stomach growled, causing him to look down in surprise.
Vin laughed and gave the Southerner a playful poke in the belly. "Guess that answers that question."
Ezra squirmed away from Vin's finger and let out a burst of giggles that echoed gleefully around the clinic. The three men stared at him in wide-eyed amazement. They were seldom lucky enough to get so much as a chuckle out of the gambler, much less anything as heart-warming as this. And they were still worried sick about his condition, but at the same time it was nice to get a glimpse at what Ezra might have been like if he hadn't been cursed with a mother like Maude.
"Aha... somebody's ticklish!" Buck raised his eyebrows at Vin, and when the tracker nodded, they attacked the gambler... gently tickling him until he was doubled over with laughter and gasping for Nathan to help him.
"Alright you two, mind his bruises now... ya hurt 'im an' you're gonna have t' answer t' me!" Nathan tried glaring at the two men, but they immediately jumped off the bed and shot him a look of such pure innocence that he couldn't help but laugh.
Ezra took advantage of Nathan's distraction to carefully scoot himself back against the headboard, and sat there catching his breath while reassuring the healer that he was alright. "It's okay Nafan, d'ey didn't huwt me. I w'iked it!"
"Oh, ya did, did ya?" Vin nodded at Buck and they started creeping toward Ezra again, their fingers stretched out in front of them wiggling threateningly.
"Nafan!! Help!!" Ezra squealed and frantically pulled his feet out of their reach, sending Vin and Buck to their knees in a fit of hysterical laughter.
Nathan stared at the three men and found himself just as amazed at Vin's transformation as he was at Ezra's. Vin was usually quiet and reserved, keeping his feelings and past to himself almost as much as the gambler did. Now here he was entertaining Lit'l Ezra with all the unabashed fervor that Buck was showing. But as much as Nathan enjoyed seeing Ezra and Vin having fun for a change, he knew it was time to call a halt to the play. The Southerner's body was still recovering from the shock of the fall, and he was going to need plenty of rest and quiet for a while yet.
"Why don't you two go eat 'fore that food gets cold, an' let me get some of this broth into my patient." Nathan carried the bowl of broth over and sat on the bed beside Ezra. "Ya ready t' try an' eat somethin' for me?"
Ezra leaned over and peered into the bowl, wrinkling his nose as he saw the brown liquid that Nathan was stirring. "What is it, Nafan?"
Nathan hid a grin as he looked up and saw the face the smaller man was making. "It's jus' some beef broth... it'll help ya get your strength back." He scooped up a small spoonful and moved it towards Ezra's mouth... which was now firmly shut. "Ezra... come on now... ya gotta eat if'n you're gonna get better."
"I can feed mysewlf, Nafan... I'm not a baby, you know." Ezra grumbled as he moved his head back out of the healer's reach.
Nathan scowled at the gambler, waiting for him to give in and eat the broth. But Ezra merely screwed his face up tight and shook his head as he held his hand out for the spoon.
Nathan stared at him for a moment, then finally relented and handed it over. He heard Vin and Buck laughing as they watched the confrontation, and shot them a venomous look for encouraging the Southerner.
Buck nudged Vin and whispered loudly, "Looks like Ezra's always been bull-headed. Chris'll be glad to know he's not just doin' it to aggravate 'im."
Nathan shot the gunman a warning glance, but Ezra was too intent on getting the spoon to his mouth without spilling anything to notice what was being said. He took a small taste of the broth, seemed to decide it was okay, and continued on to slowly empty the bowl the healer held for him.
The three men smiled at the look of total concentration on Ezra's face, and silently cheered him on as he struggled with the spoon. Watching the usually poised and graceful Southerner awkwardly trying to feed himself, they realized sadly just how little of the adult Ezra was left. And even though they were thoroughly enjoying their visit with Lit'l Ezra, they'd give anything they had to have him back the way he was before the accident.
Ezra had almost reached the bottom of the bowl when it happened... his hand tilted too soon and soup spilled down the front of his white nightshirt. The color drained from the gambler's face as he looked down at the spreading stain, and they could all see the fear that shone brightly as he quickly jerked his eyes back up to Nathan's.
Nathan reached out to take the spoon from Ezra, but stopped suddenly as the smaller man ducked away from his outstretched hand as if anticipating a blow. The spoon fell from Ezra's fingers as he pulled himself to the far side of the bed and lay down. They all watched in dismay as he curled himself up in a ball, his body shaking uncontrollably as heart-wrenching sobs tore through him.
Nathan stayed back as Buck hurried over to try and console the heartbroken Southerner. He reached out and touched Ezra lightly on the shoulder, and uttered a silent curse against Maude, Uncle Matthew and anyone else from the gambler's past who had hurt him when he felt the smaller man flinch. "Hey, pard... it's okay... it's only a little soup. Nothin' some soap an' water won't fix."
Vin watched Buck trying to console Ezra for a moment, and then slipped quietly out the door. His face was dark with anger as he crossed the street, entered the saloon, and ran lightly up the stairs to the second floor... his thoughts so focused on the sound of Ezra's weeping echoing through his head, that he never even noticed Josiah as he passed him.
Josiah saw the look on his face and instantly knew something had happened with Ezra. He followed quickly up the stairs behind Vin and stopped in the doorway of the gambler's room, watching in amazement as the tracker stood in front of the dresser, jerking the drawers open and slamming them shut again as he angrily mumbled to himself.
"Vin? You all right? Something happen to Ezra?" Josiah worriedly questioned the younger man as he moved up behind him and placed a calming hand on his shoulder.
Vin stopped his frantic searching, gripped the edge of the dresser, and took a few deep breaths to try and get his anger under control. Finally, when he thought he could handle a conversation with the preacher without shouting, he turned and looked up at him.
Josiah was startled by the fury still evident on Vin's usually placid face. His fear for the gambler's well-being tripled the moment he stared into the younger man's eyes. "Ezra? He's not..."
"No... he's the same." Vin sighed and ran his hands wearily over his face. "I'd just like to get my damn hands on this Uncle Matthew of his and dear old Maude for what they did t' him as a kid. He's over there right now, sobbing because he accidentally spilled soup on hisself. He actually ducked when Nathan reached out t' help him... ya could see he thought he was about t' get smacked. And now he's convinced we're gonna send him t' his uncle's because he was bad. I came over t' get him a clean nightshirt t' see if it would calm him down some... besides, I just had t' get outta there 'fore I lost it completely and scared 'im more than he already is."
Josiah moved to the dresser and began searching for Ezra's nightshirts as he struggled to clamp down on his own anger at the thought of what the gambler had been put through in his young life. Not just at the hands of his abusive uncle and his uncaring mother either. They... his so-called friends... had not treated him much better. They had all given him a hard time about the walls he kept around his emotions... about his inability or unwillingness to fit in. And instead of trying to find out why he kept them shut out, they had just allowed him to stay on the fringes of their group... claiming they wanted him to join the family, but not making any effort to help him. So in their own way, they had contributed to his feelings of loneliness and insecurity. But maybe this was their chance to rectify their mistakes... they at least owed it to Ezra to try.
Pulling a couple of soft, cotton nightshirts out of the drawer, Josiah turned to find Vin watching him closely with a small crooked grin on his face. It was only then that he realized that he'd been muttering the whole time he'd been digging through the dresser... sharing his thoughts on the gambler without even knowing it. He smiled sheepishly at the tracker and shrugged his shoulders.
"That's okay, Josiah. I think we've all been havin' those same thoughts. We got a lot of makin' up t' do when it comes t' Ezra and this sure seems like a good time t' get started." Vin headed for the door, waiting for Josiah to pass through into the hall before pulling it closed behind him. "And who knows... maybe Chris is right an' Ezra'll remember on some level what we're doin' for 'im now. It might make a difference in how he feels about hisself when he's back t' normal if we can give 'im some of what he missed out on before." Vin smiled up at Josiah as they started down the hall. "An' I don't think it's gonna be all that hard for us t' do that either. Lit'l Ezra sure is a cute little cuss, ain't he?"
The thought of Ezra's reaction to being called a 'cute little cuss' made them both grin and their laughter echoed through the saloon as they made their way down the stairs and out into the street.
Buck eased himself down on the bed beside Ezra and rubbed his back soothingly as he bent over and whispered in his ear. "Ezra? Come on now... it was just an accident. Nobody's mad at ya... honest."
Nathan knelt on the floor in front of the smaller man and gently pulled his hand away from his face. He frowned when he saw how flushed Ezra's face was, and reached out with a gentle hand to smooth the tears from his cheeks, checking for the fever that he suspected had returned. "Hush now, little guy... it weren't your fault, it was mine. I shoulda tucked a towel under your chin in case your hand slipped... I knew ya were still kinda weak."
Ezra stared at Nathan, his sobs slowly subsiding as he realized that the healer wasn't yelling at him... and, in fact, was taking the blame for the accident. His voice shook as he quietly argued against Nathan's logic. "But I sh-shoulda w'istened to you an' w'et you feed me d' b-bwoff w'ike you wanted to."
Nathan shook his head at Ezra as he continued to run his fingers along his cheek, smiling softly as he felt the gambler unconsciously nuzzle his face against his hand. The small child in Ezra was starved for any kind of affection, and seemed to be searching it out in even the simplest of touches. "You were jus' tryin' t' learn t' do for yourself... ain't nothin' wrong with that. It's jus' a part of growin' up."
Ezra hesitantly put his hand on Nathan's arm... his fingers nervously rubbing back and forth on the healer's sleeve. "You'rwe not mad at me, Nafan?"
Nathan heard the slight tremor in Ezra's voice as he fought against the fear of being sent away, and realized that it was a deep-seated fear that the Southerner still dealt with every day of his life. No wonder he kept them at a distance... why go to the trouble of building friendships when he was positive they would be ripped apart the moment he made a mistake. When your own mother refused to love you unconditionally, how could you possibly trust that anyone else would. And if this was any example of how Ezra was as a child, Nathan wondered how in hell Maude could ever have held that love back from him.
"Naw... I ain't mad at ya. Ya did darn good only spillin' that little bit on yourself... heck, Buck makes bigger messes than that when he's eatin'." Nathan was relieved to see a small smile brighten Ezra's face. He also noticed Ezra's eyelids drooping, and knew it was time for him to get some rest. Glancing up, he saw Vin and Josiah quietly enter the clinic carrying a few of the Southerner's nightclothes. "Now, how 'bout we sit ya up here an' put a nice clean nightshirt on ya before ya settle down for a little nap."
Buck helped Ezra sit up and smiled at the startled look that washed over Nathan's face as Ezra suddenly leaned forward, laid his head on the healer's shoulder, and hugged him with his good arm. "F'ank you, Nafan... I'll be morwe carweful next time... I pwomise."
Nathan only hesitated for a second before awkwardly wrapping his arms around the Southerner and hugging him. "That's alright, Ezra... you jus' try t' remember we all make mistakes an' we're not gonna get mad at ya for yours. Okay?" Nathan felt Ezra's head barely nod against his shoulder and realized he was probably falling asleep. He could feel the heat of his fever through the nightshirt, and knew he'd let him overdo it romping around with Buck and Vin. "Ezra? Sit back here on the bed an' will get that dirty nightshirt off 'a ya."
He eased Ezra away from him and saw that he'd been right. The Southerner was barely able to keep his eyes open, and never even protested when they eased him out of his soiled nightshirt and into a clean one. After they laid him down, Nathan re-bandaged his head and checked his arm... tightening the bindings on the splints when he found the swelling had finally gone down some. Ezra was sound asleep by the time he finished.
Josiah tucked the blankets up under the younger man's chin, and ran his hand gently across his tousled brown hair before moving over to join the others at the table, gratefully accepting the coffee that Nathan handed him. "He's awful warm."
"Yeah, his fever's back. I'm gonna have t' try an' keep 'im a little quieter for a while til he has a chance t' heal up... or til he comes back to us." Nathan stared into his coffee as he tried to think of something... anything... that he could be doing for Ezra. He hated feeling this helpless when one of them needed him so badly.
Buck and Vin shot each other a guilty look. "Sorry, Nathan... we shouldn't've gotten 'im so worked up. He's just so damn... well, he's..." Buck blushed slightly as he struggled to express what he was feeling about the gambler. "Damn it... he's cute, okay? I can't help it... he's just so damn... damn... lovable, it's impossible to resist 'im."
Vin and Josiah looked at each other and burst out laughing. Josiah saw Buck's blush deepen as he mistakenly assumed they were making fun of him, and hurried to reassure the mustached gunman. "Easy now, Buck... we're not laughing at ya. Vin and I were just discussing ourselves what a cute little guy Ezra is, and how he's gonna react when he finds out what went on while he was on his little trip into the past."
Nathan frowned and shook his head. "He might not remember much 'bout any of this when his memory comes back. Maybe bits and pieces, but probably no more 'n that." The healer glanced over at the bed, his frustration at not being able to help Ezra showing plainly in his sad brown eyes.
Josiah knew what Nathan was feeling, and placed a comforting hand on his arm. "Don't be blamin' yourself, brother... we all know you're doin' the best you can for him."
"'The best I can...'" Nathan laughed bitterly. "My best's jus' not good enough this time... an' my lack of knowledge could leave 'im trapped in this second childhood of his for the rest of his life."
"Don't be givin' up on ol' Ezra just yet, Nathan. We seen 'im battle back from worse 'n this before." Vin skillfully turned the healer's thoughts away from his feelings of inadequacy as he got them all talking about the knack Ezra seemed to have for getting himself in and out of scrapes. He knew Nathan was aware of what he was doing, but at least he went along with it. They all needed a break from the constant worry over what was going to happen to the gambler, and he'd just provided them with one.
Ezra's fever had come back down some by that evening, and Nathan was able to get some more broth into him, and even coaxed him into eating most of a biscuit and drinking a small amount of milk. Apparently Ezra's aversion to milk wasn't just an adult thing... he had such a hard time getting what little bit of it he did drink down, that Nathan finally took pity on him and told him he could quit before he'd even managed to drink half of it.
Nathan even convinced him to try feeding himself again. But even with a towel tucked under his chin to catch any drips, Ezra's nervousness at making another mistake had his hand shaking so badly, that Buck finally reached out and gently slipped the spoon from his fingers and finished the job himself. They'd wait till he felt more comfortable with them, and then see if they could get him to try again. For right now, it was more important that he ate so he could get his strength built back up.
When Ezra finally finished eating, Buck took the towel from under his chin, wet it, and proceeded to wash the gambler's face, even scrubbing in and behind his ears. He smiled as the gambler acted like a typical five year old, squirming and sputtering through the whole ordeal.
"You'rwe as bad as Mama, Buck!" Ezra grumbled at the older man as he finally released his face and allowed him to lean back against the pillows. The others had come in while Buck was wrestling with him, and couldn't help but laugh at Ezra's disgust with the gunman's treatment of him.
"What'd you want me to do? Leave ya sittin' there with food smeared all over your face?" Buck grinned as Ezra immediately began protesting. He loved the expression that appeared on the gambler's boyish face whenever he managed to get a rise out of him.
"I didn't have food all overw my face... and I surwe didn't have any in my earws!" Ezra argued as he dug his finger in his ear, trying to remove the water Buck had left in there.
Buck laughed and playfully scrubbed his hand across the top of Ezra's head. "Okay... okay... maybe it was only one little biscuit crumb on your chin, but I swear I saw potatoes growin' outta those ears of yours!"
Ezra stared at him for a moment, his mouth dropped open in surprise as his finger slowly felt around the edge of his ear. The whole room erupted in peals of laughter as the realization that Buck was joking with him slowly dawned on the Southerner and he smacked the older man on the shoulder, almost knocking him off the bed. Ezra's mind might have reverted to that of a child, but his strength was definitely still the same as before.
The laughter continued as Buck regained his balance and sat back up on the edge of the bed, gingerly rubbing his shoulder. "Dang, Ezra... you're a strong little sh-... um... little fella, ain't ya?"
Thankfully, Ezra didn't notice what Buck had almost said, and was concerned instead with the fact that he'd hurt his new friend. He reached out and hesitantly touched the larger man's arm, the worry evident on his face as he looked up into Buck's smiling blue eyes. "Did I huwt you, Buck? I'm sowwy if I did... I didn't mean to!"
"Naw... you didn't hurt ol' Buck, but I'm sure gonna have to remember to duck next time I start funnin' with ya. Ya pack a powerful wallop there! Let me feel that muscle." Buck gently squeezed Ezra's arm as he obligingly bent it, a huge grin spreading across the gambler's handsome face as the ladies man raised his eyebrows in feigned surprise. "Whooee, son... you been workin' out or somethin'? Or is it all that broth Nathan's been feedin' ya?"
Ezra giggled and just shook his head at Buck and the others as they all tried to feel his arm. "You guys arwe jus' kiddin' wif me, arwen't you. I'm onwy five... I don't have big muscwles."
JD laughed and reaching out, ran his hand across Ezra's chin. "You got whiskers at age five... why not big muscles, too?"
Buck reached up and whacked JD in the back of the head as they watched Ezra's grin quickly fade. His hand drifted up to his chin, and his eyes filled with confusion when he felt the soft stubble that grew there. "Buck?... Nafan? Why do I... how come I..." Ezra looked worriedly up at first Buck and then Nathan, his five year old mind working frantically to try and understand how this could happen.
The others quickly moved to soothe the distraught Southerner, carefully distracting him with a vague explanation of it having to do with his being injured. They finally got him calmed down when Josiah told him that it was just a sign that he was growing up, and that now he'd get to have his first shave. When he protested he didn't know how to shave, Josiah assured him that he could do it for him, and had to promise the younger man that he would take care of it first thing in the morning before Ezra would allow them to change the subject.
JD stood rubbing his head as he scowled at Buck and the others fussing over Ezra. He jumped when Vin whispered in his ear. "Think before ya open your mouth, Kid. Ya gotta remember... he thinks he's only five... don't be scarin' 'im like that."
JD backed away from the bed, a flicker of resentment for the gambler taking hold in him. How could they think he'd actually do anything purposefully to hurt Ezra? Did they actually think that little of him? And how come no one noticed that his feelings had been hurt by their actions... didn't they care about him anymore?.
No one even noticed when JD quietly slipped out the door, closing it softly behind him.
The rest of them stayed huddled around Ezra for the remainder of the evening, talking and joking with him to take his mind off what JD had said. They were doing a good job of it too, until Josiah happened to mention the fact that it was only a couple of days til Christmas and he had yet to decorate the church.
Ezra looked puzzled and a little sad as he stared up at Josiah. "It's Chwistmas time?"
"Sure is, little guy." Josiah glanced uneasily around at the others, not sure how to proceed. "Don't you like Christmas?"
Ezra just shook his head and looked sadder. They watched as he slid closer to Buck, leaning his head tiredly against the older man's shoulder.
Vin smiled and patted Ezra's leg as he sat down on the other side of the bed. "Aw, come on now, pard... all little kids like Christmas. All those presents from Santa an' the tree decorated up all purty... what's not t' like?"
Ezra stared solemnly at Vin and shook his head again. "Mama aw'w'eady tol' me d'erwe's no Santa Cwause... d'at mamas and papas give d' pwesents."
"But didn't ya like the presents your mama gave ya?" Nathan asked the question, but was afraid he already knew what the answer was going to be.
Buck felt Ezra press even tighter against him and slipped his arm around him. "She said she couldn't be wastin' herw money on pwesents forw me. 'Sides... I was bad again an' was at Unca Maffew's forw Chwistmas an' had to stay upstairws in my w'oom in d' attic." His face brightened slightly and he smiled up at them as he continued. "But I snucked out and peeked frew d' w'ailin's while d'ey sat awound d' twee and opened d'eirw pwesents." The Southerner's expression grew wistful as he stared back down at the bed. "It w'ooked w'eawy nice."
The others exchanged looks of grim determination over Ezra's head as they each began thinking of ways to give the gambler his first real Christmas. Ezra might not remember it when he was back to normal, but they would.
They had hoped to begin taking turns spending the nights with him to give Buck a break, but Ezra became so distressed when Vin remained on the bed and the ladies man attempted to leave, that Buck quickly relented and returned to take the tracker's place.
"It's okay, Ezra... I ain't goin' nowhere." Buck eased himself back down beside the smaller man, and couldn't help but smile as Ezra immediately curled up against him, his head pressed tightly against Buck's chest, and his broken arm resting carefully on his stomach.
"F'ank you, Buck... I don't feel so scarwed when you'rwe wif me." Ezra sighed and finally let his eyes drift shut when he felt Buck's arms close around him.
Buck looked helplessly up at the others and shook his head. He knew in his mind that this was the same Ezra Standish who was a master at hiding his emotions... the same one who would rather die than admit he needed anything from anyone... but his heart was telling him something else entirely.
Buck's heart was telling him that this was the real Ezra Standish he was holding in his arms... not the one presented to the world as confident, self-serving and independent. This was the one that had been neglected and abused by everyone who should have loved him... who was so starved for any signs of affection and kindness, that he had latched onto the first person who'd finally shown him some. And apparently he had no intentions of letting go. But what amazed Buck the most about the whole situation... what kept him there in that bed beside the gambler... was that he had come to realize that he didn't want him to let go. Lit'l Ezra had wrapped himself right around the gunman's heart, and had captured it completely.
"Guess y'all might as well go on home an' get some sleep. Looks like I'll be stayin' here for awhile." Buck eased the blanket up over Ezra's shoulders and tucked it around him before settling himself back against the pillows.
"You sure, Buck? We could probably ease him up enough for you to slip out and one of us to slip in." Chris moved toward the bed, but Buck shook his head at him.
"Nah... he's liable to be a mite upset if he wakes up an' finds me gone. 'Sides... I'm kinda tired myself an' was gonna turn in anyhow. I can sleep just as well here as in my own bed." Buck blushed slightly as Chris gave him a knowing look, a slight grin playing across his lips.
"He's got to you, hasn't he?" Chris stared at his long-time friend as Buck struggled unsuccessfully to find words to deny what he was feeling.
Buck glanced down at Ezra's face, so innocent and childlike in sleep, and couldn't stop his arms from tightening protectively around the gambler. He knew he should feel uncomfortable and embarrassed at lying in a bed with another man, one who was at that moment snuggled tightly against him, but it just didn't seem wrong somehow. Ezra was his friend and he was in trouble... and anything he could do to help, Buck knew he was prepared to do. He looked back up at Chris and shrugged. "He needs me. He's so vulnerable right now and been through so damn much in his life, I just can't stand the thoughts of lettin' anything else hurt 'im. If all it takes is me layin' here with 'im to keep 'im feelin' happy an' safe, then I guess it's the least I can do for 'im. I think he'd do the same for me... or any one of you."
Chris gazed thoughtfully at the gambler, and then finally nodded in agreement. He'd thought at first that Buck was just acting out of guilt, but he could see that the ladies man was really becoming attached to Lit'l Ezra. Besides, maybe they'd be good for each other. Buck had an overwhelming need to be a big brother, as poor JD was constantly reminded of, and Ezra was definitely in need of someone to take care of him right now. As his thoughts turned to the youngest member of their group, he frowned and looked around the room, finally noticing that he was missing. "Where's JD?"
They all shook their heads and said they hadn't even noticed he'd left. Chris's frown deepened as he remembered the look on JD's face when he was reprimanded for bringing up the subject of Ezra needing a shave. He looked at the others still fussing over Ezra and realized the gambler wasn't the only one they'd have to be careful of. Poor JD was used to being the youngest and now he was being displaced by one of his older brothers. He'd have to have a talk with the boy in the morning and apologize for them over-reacting. The last thing Chris wanted was for them to lose JD while they were trying to find Ezra.
Chris took one last look at the pair curled up together in the bed before he and the others headed home for some much needed sleep. They had a lot of work to do over the next few days if they were going to make Ezra's Christmas a memorable one.
Nathan stopped at the door and looked back at Buck. "Anything ya need 'fore I leave?" He'd decided to make use of Ezra's bed since the Southerner didn't need him around the clock anymore. The extra cot he had was just too small to fit his larger frame comfortably.
"Ya wanna put a cup of water over here where I can reach it? He woke up last night needin' a drink, an' it took me forever to get 'im back to sleep again. I think it'll be easier if'n I don't have to jostle 'im around too much to get it." Buck waited til Nathan had left before blowing out the light and pulling some of the blankets over himself.
The moonlight coming through the window shone on Ezra's pale face, softening his features even more. Buck watched as he frowned slightly, a soft whimper escaping his lips as the beginnings of a nightmare disturbed his peaceful slumber. Stroking Ezra's cheek lightly, he bent his head closer to the gambler's and whispered, "Rest easy, Little One... Buck's here to protect you." The frown instantly disappeared as the smaller man snuggled tighter against Buck's body, and both men sighed contentedly and slowly drifted off to sleep.
JD had hesitated at the bottom of the stairs after leaving the clinic. He knew he should go over to the jail and check on the drunk they'd had to throw in the cell earlier, but he just didn't feel like doing what was expected of him at that moment. They thought he was such a kid and totally incompetent, well then he guessed maybe he'd just go ahead and act that way. The young sheriff turned his steps toward the saloon, and after one last glance back at Nathan's window, pushed his way through the bat wing doors.
Inez watched JD stride toward the bar and knew immediately something was wrong. She couldn't remember ever seeing the young man wearing such a forlorn expression before, and hoped Ezra's condition hadn't worsened.
"I'd like a whiskey please, Inez." JD saw the shock of his request register on her face, and knew she had been all set to pour him his usual mug of milk.
"A whiskey, JD? Did something happen to Ezra?" Inez was taken aback by the reaction she received to her question.
JD's mouth dropped open and he emitted a short, harsh laugh as he shook his head disgustedly. "Geez, is that all anyone can talk about... Ezra and his *condition*? You know, other people have problems too, and - " He stopped when he saw the surprised look on Inez's face and immediately regretted snapping at her. There was no reason to take his hurt feelings out on her, and he wearily apologized before turning to leave. "Sorry, Inez... I'm just tired. Ezra's doin' 'bout the same... forget the drink, okay? I think I'll just go turn in and get some sleep. 'Night."
Inez watched JD dejectedly make his way back out of the saloon and decided she'd better mention his behavior to one of the others when she saw them. Something was definitely not right with the boy, and she would make sure someone found out what was bothering him.
Buck brushed a hand drowsily across his face, batting away the fingers that were playing with his mustache. "Millie... not now, darlin'... I need more sleep." Suddenly he became more alert and smiled slightly as he heard a familiar masculine giggle.
"Buck... arwe you awake yet?" Ezra whispered as he reached up to pry open one of the gunman's eyes.
Buck stared blearily at the wide green eyes that hovered in front of him, and laughed softly as he replied, "Well I am now, pard. What do ya need... a drink of water?" He could tell by the soft light coming through the window that it was barely dawn, and he definitely wasn't ready to get up yet. His hand fumbled across the table, searching for the glass Nathan had left there, hoping that a drink was all it would take to get the gambler to settle back down.
"Nuh-uh... I'm not f'irwsty, Buck... I'm jus' w'onewy. Can't you wake up an' talk to me?" Ezra patted the gunman's cheek and added sweetly, "Pwease, Buck? Talk to me?"
Buck sighed and nodded drowsily. "Okay, little guy... what do ya wanna talk about?"
"Who's Miwwie, Buck?" Ezra asked, leaning heavily across the older man's chest, staring up into his face. "Is she yourw girwlfrwiend?"
Buck moaned and eased Ezra back a little, taking some of the pressure off his ribs. The gambler didn't look that damn heavy, but he sure felt it now. "Well... she's a girl... and she's a friend, but she's not exactly my girlfriend."
Ezra frowned and leaned back over Buck. "What is she d'en... z'actly?"
"Well... she's... she's..." the ladies man sighed once more and rubbed his eyes. "She's just a friend, okay?"
"Okay." Ezra was quiet for a moment. "Buck?"
"Hmmm?" Buck was finding it hard to stay awake, even with Ezra's elbows digging sharply into his ribs.
Ezra ran his fingers across Buck's chin. "Does it huwt to get shaved?"
"Not if you're careful... ain't you gettin' tired, little guy?" Buck peeked at the younger man and frowned when he saw those bright green eyes still staring wide-eyed at him. "Guess not," he mumbled as his eyes drifted shut again.
"Buck?" Ezra waited a minute, and when there was no answer, tried again... this time poking none-to-gently at the larger man's chest. "Buck?"
"What, Ezra?" Buck was trying to be patient, but he was tired and just wanted to sleep. Somehow he managed to keep his voice even and not snap at the gambler.
"Wiwll 'siah be carweful when he shaves me?" Ezra rubbed his fingers across his own chin and then across the ladies man's again, comparing them.
"Who?" Buck's brow wrinkled in confusion, his sleep-fogged mind finding it hard to decipher some of Ezra's childish talk.
" 'siah! He said he'd shave me in d' morwnin'. W'ememberw, Buck?" Ezra was beginning to get frustrated and it was making his accent thicker and harder to understand.
"Oh... Josiah, Ezra," Buck corrected, sleepily.
"Buck... d'at's what I said! 'siah... you'rwe not w'istenin' to me, Buck." Ezra was starting to get tired again, and a definite whine was starting to creep into his voice now.
"You're right, little guy... I'm sorry. Don't worry, Josiah'll be careful not to hurt ya. Now... can we go back to sleep?" Buck pried his eyes open once more and gazed pleadingly at Ezra.
"I don't want to s'weep anymorwe. Isn't it time to get up now, Buck? It's gettin' w'ight outside. Can't we get up now?" Ezra's weight thankfully left Buck's chest, and he was able to breathe a little easier while he tried to get himself woke up.
"What time is it anyway?" Buck grunted as Ezra leaned across him for a minute, and then yawned and stretched before opening his eyes fully and looking at the gambler. Ezra was sitting beside him, a confused look on his face, holding his pocket watch which Nathan had left lying on the night table along with some of his other personal belongings. The ladies man mentally kicked himself for forgetting that a five-year old wouldn't be able to tell time. "Here, Ezra... let me see it." Buck pulled himself up in the bed and leaned back against the headboard as he reached for the timepiece.
Ezra continued to stare at the watch as Buck eased it out of his hand, and then raised his questioning gaze to meet the older man's worried blue eyes. "Buck? D'is is my watch, isn't it? How come I can't tewll what time it is if I have a watch? I should know... shouldn't I?"
Buck swore to himself as he saw Ezra's eyes stray back down to the watch. It was obviously jarring a memory in him and making him nervous. "Naw... you're too little to know how to tell time. I just wasn't awake all the way yet an' didn't think about it when I asked ya." Buck looked at the watch and saw it had quit running, and figured it must have been damaged when Ezra fell. "Look... it don't work anyhow, so it don't even matter that ya can't tell what time it is."
Ezra couldn't seem to pull his eyes away from the watch, and he slowly reached out one trembling finger to trace over the numbers.
"Ezra? You okay, little guy?" Buck asked as he placed a gentle hand on his friend's shoulder, and then quickly wrapped his arms around the smaller man as he pushed himself back against his chest.
"I used to know how to..." Ezra's body began to tremble as he whispered softly, his eyes still glued to the watch. "I f'ink I should know how - Buck... I'm scarwed..."
Buck closed the watch and slipped it back onto the table. Then rocking the gambler gently in his arms, he whispered soothingly, "Shh now, Little One... it's all right... everything's gonna be okay. There's nothin' to be scared of... I'm right here an' I'll keep ya safe."
"Why don't I know anymore, Buck? I should know." Ezra's tortured whisper tore at Buck's heart as he clung tightly to the younger man, desperately trying to find a way to calm him. He knew Ezra wasn't ready for this memory... that it was only confusing him. Damn, he wished Nathan was here to help... he didn't have any idea how to deal with this, and he was scared he would just say something to make it worse.
"Ezra? You trust me, don't ya?" Buck felt the gambler nod once and continued. "Then ya gotta believe me when I tell ya everything's gonna be okay. You're just not old enough to tell time... it's not somethin' you're *s'posed* to know yet. Okay? Ya hear me? You're just not s'posed to know yet."
"Arwe you surwe, Buck? I feewl funny... w'ike I need to w'ememberw -" Ezra's words trailed off and his hand slid up to grip the gunman's arm tightly.
Buck closed his hand firmly over Ezra's and whispered reassuringly in his ear. "I'm positive, Little One... five year olds don't know how to tell time, that's all. Now... how 'bout ya curl back up here with me, an' we'll try an' get a little more shut-eye. I'm still pretty tired, aren't you?"
Ezra turned his face up to Buck's, and the older man had all he could do to hold back the tears as he saw how scared and confused the gambler looked at that instant. Ezra stared into Buck's eyes for a moment, and finally nodded. "I f'ink I'm tirwed too, Buck... maybe d'at's why I feewl funny, huh?"
"Yeah, pard... that's probably all it is. Why don't ya slide back down here an' let's try an' go back to sleep." Buck eased himself back down against the pillows and pulled Ezra over until his head was cradled securely against his shoulder. He reached up and slowly stroked his hand over the tousled hair until he finally heard the gambler's breathing slow and even out as sleep claimed him once more.
But sleep eluded Buck as he lay there holding Ezra tightly in his arms. Every time he closed his eyes, all he could see was the fear and confusion that the gambler had suffered through with that one tiny memory. What the hell was it going to be like for him when it *all* started coming back? How would his mind handle it... and what if it couldn't? What would happen to him then? A tear slid down Buck's cheek as he thought of the real possibility that Ezra may be lost forever, and he spent the rest of the night praying they'd be able to help their friend find his way safely back to them.
Nathan and Josiah entered the clinic together talking softly, making plans for Christmas, and were immediately silenced when they saw Buck's anxious look and his finger pressed against his lips. They hurried over to ease Ezra off him when he motioned for their help and at his insistence, followed him back out through the door to the landing. Buck stood where he could keep an eye on the sleeping gambler, and finally tore his eyes away from him long enough to hand Nathan Ezra's pocket watch.
"Put this thing up where he can't see it," Buck ordered as he practically shoved the watch into Nathan's hands.
"What the hell happened, Buck? Is he alright?" Nathan asked as he looked back in at Ezra, searching for any signs of what had Buck so upset.
Buck scrubbed his hands tiredly over his face and sighed deeply. "He woke me up earlier because he was lonely an' wanted to talk. I was only half awake an' wasn't thinkin'... I asked 'im what time it was. When I opened my eyes an' looked at 'im, he had that in his hand an' was just sittin' there starin' at it."
Nathan and Josiah both looked down at the innocent looking timepiece the healer held, and then back at Buck, waiting for him to finish.
"He kept askin' me why he didn't know what time it was an' insistin' that he 'should know'. I tried to explain to 'im that I just wasn't thinkin' when I asked 'im that. Then I told 'im that he wasn't old enough to know how to tell time yet, but he just kept starin' at the damn thing an' repeatin' that he should know, an' that he was scared." Buck glanced worriedly back in the clinic at Ezra as he heard him moving about in the bed, but he merely rolled onto his stomach and settled back down again.
"It triggered a memory for 'im... an' I think it's probably a good sign that he'll come back... but it sounds like he ain't ready for it t' happen jus' yet." Nathan sighed despondently as he realized just how difficult it was going to be to get Ezra through this experience intact. There was just so damn much he didn't know or understand about what the gambler was going through, and he was terrified he was going to make a mistake and cause him irreversible harm in his bumbling attempts at healing him. "Josiah, could ya gather up anything ya can find that's Ezra's an' put it away where he won't see it? We're goin' t' have t' be even more careful with what he's exposed to. We'll give 'im a few more days, an' then try gettin' 'im to remember, but we're gonna have t' take it real slow, if we can. I don't think we should be floodin' his mind with too many memories at once. Oh, an' Josiah? Ya better hang a rag or somethin' over my shavin' mirror. If jus' seein' his watch upset 'im this much, I'd hate t' think what seein' his adult face in that mirror would do t' 'im."
Buck moved aside so Josiah could enter the clinic, and then turned back to Nathan. "I think I was 'bout as scared as Ezra was... not knowin' what to say to 'im... 'fraid I was gonna just make it all worse instead of better."
"Well, ya must've said somethin' right... ya got 'im back t' sleep an' he looks pretty peaceful." Nathan moved back into the room and walked quietly over to look down at the gambler.
Buck shook his head and reached out to pull the blanket back up over Ezra's shoulders, brushing a few wisps of hair off his forehead before settling himself down in the chair by the bed. "I didn't know what the hell to do, Nathan. I just finally asked 'im if he trusted me, an' when he said yes, I told 'im he just wasn't s'posed to know yet. He said he felt funny an' I got 'im convinced he was probably just still tired." Buck looked up at Nathan, his usually cheerful countenance lined with worry. "He's scared, Nathan... an' I hate it, 'cause I know it's only gonna get worse."
"I wish t' hell I could tell ya it wouldn't, but... yeah... you're right... it's probably gonna get worse with every little thing he remembers. An' bout all we can do is be here for 'im t' try an' help 'im deal with it." Nathan sat on the edge of the bed and ran his hand lightly over Ezra's back as he saw the gambler begin to stir.
"What if it all comes back at once, Nathan? Is he gonna be able to handle it?" Buck moved to make sure he was in Ezra's line of sight when he awoke.
Nathan watched as Ezra's eyelids twitched and slowly opened. "There's no way of knowin', Buck... we'll jus' have to wait an' hope it doesn't happen that way. An' if it does, an' he can't handle it, then we'll have to be here t' pick up the pieces an' take care of 'im."
Buck nodded and reached out to lay his hand over Ezra's as it slid across the bed toward him. "Mornin', pard. 'Bout time ya was wakin' up."
Ezra yawned, and then smiled at Buck. "Guess I *was* s'weepy, huh, Buck?"
"Told ya so. Ya ready to get your lazy butt up an' eat some breakfast now? Ya gotta be hungry... ya slept the whole mornin' away." Buck and Nathan helped him up when he nodded and settled him back against the headboard, piling pillows behind him to protect the still tender bruises on his back.
Josiah walked over to the bed and nodded at Buck and Nathan to let them know he'd gotten everything that could be a reminder to Ezra out of sight. He squatted down beside the smaller man, and patted him gently on the arm. "Hey there, little fella... how ya doin' this mornin'?"
"I'm fine, 'siah... you gonna shave me now?" Ezra's eyes twinkled at the prospect of getting to do something as grown-up as shaving.
"Well, how 'bout I go get us all some breakfast, and then we'll see what we can do about gettin' those whiskers off that handsome face of yours." Josiah ruffled Ezra's hair as he stood back up and looked at the others. "What's everybody want to eat?"
Buck rubbed his rumbling stomach and smiled up at Josiah. "I don't know 'bout anyone else this mornin', but I'm starved. I'll have some ham, eggs, potatoes, bacon, an' a couple of biscuits. That might do me til dinner. Oh yeah, an' ya better grab some mugs of coffee since *someone* forgot to buy some." Buck grinned at Nathan as the healer began to grumble.
"Well, *somebody* would still have coffee if a certain person didn't guzzle it all day." Nathan looked pointedly at Buck, and then grinned as he looked down at Ezra and noticed his reaction to the gunman's breakfast order.
Ezra's jaw dropped and he stared incredulously at Buck. "You'rwe gonna eat all d'at?!" His wide green eyes dropped to stare at the gunman's flat stomach, and he shook his head slowly. "How can you eat d'at much, Buck? Don't all d'at food make you sick?"
"Hey, I'm a growin' boy... I need to eat to keep up my strength." Buck laughed at the look of disbelief that washed over the gambler's face.
"Buck! You'rwe teasin' me again! You'rwe all grwowed up... you don't need to eat as much now." Ezra giggled and poked at the older man's belly. "You'rwe gonna get fat eatin' d'at much food!"
Nathan and Josiah laughed and agreed with Ezra, assuring him that they'd been trying to tell Buck that for a long time now.
Buck stared at the other three men in mock indignation. "So you're all gangin' up on me, huh?" He leaned in close to Ezra who was giggling even harder at the look on his friend's face, and poked him several times in the stomach. "An' what do ya call this? Feels to me like I'm not the only one who's gettin' fat... must be that biscuit an' jelly you ate last night."
Ezra immediately stopped laughing, stared down at Buck's finger for a moment, and then quickly burrowed under the blankets to peek at his stomach. Suddenly a muffled "Buck! You'rwe foolin' me again!" drifted out at them, and Josiah and Nathan collapsed together on the bed, laughing helplessly while Buck doubled over on the chair, his head and arms resting on the bed beside the gambler as he laughed until tears streamed down his cheeks.
They'd finally started to get themselves under control when Ezra's head popped back up, and the sight of the usually fastidious gambler sitting there with his hair sticking up wildly in every direction and an accusatory look of disgust on his rosy cheeked face, set them all off again.
"What arwe y'all w'aughin' at?!" Ezra exclaimed as he watched the others rolling around holding their sides, their laughter ringing through the clinic.
Buck managed to point at Ezra's head and gasp out, "Sorry... little pard... can't help it... you're hair... it's... it's..."
Ezra's eyes rolled up as he tried unsuccessfully to peer up at his hair, causing the others to dissolve once more into hysterics. He finally reached up and felt his head, his face breaking out in a huge grin when he realized why they were laughing. Leaning forward, he rubbed his hand over first Buck's and then Josiah's heads until their hair was just as wild looking as his own. He turned to Nathan and the gleeful look on his face turned to one of consternation as he stared at the healer's head. "No fairw, Nafan... you'rwe hairw's too shorwt!"
Nathan wiped the tears of laughter from his cheeks and reached out to quickly wrap one arm around Ezra, his fingers digging gently into the gambler's stomach while running his other hand back and forth across his head, creating an even bigger mess of his hair than before. "Yeah, but yours ain't!"
"Nafan! Stop!!" Ezra's giggles escalated until they were merely gasps for breath, punctuated by hiccups of laughter. "Pwease, Nafan... stop!"
Buck and Josiah stared at the usually impassive healer, their mouths hanging open in astonishment at seeing this new side to him. It was beginning to look like Lit'l Ezra was working his magic on even the most stoic of the group. An image of Chris laughing and playing with the usually fractious gambler flashed through Buck's mind, and he couldn't help but smile at the idea that Ezra might even be able to worm his way into their fearless leader's heart if given half a chance.
Nathan finally stopped tickling Ezra and pulled him back against his chest in a huge bear hug, holding the Southerner still until they both finally caught their breath and stopped laughing. "Ya okay, Ezra?"
"Yeah, Nafan... I'm fine... but I surwe am hungwy now. I f'ink I could eat aw'most as much as Buck!" Ezra tilted his head back to look into Nathan's smiling face, and gave him one of his infamous Ezra Standish grins, gold tooth flashing in the sunlight pouring through the window. The childish innocence that was now included in that grin instantly captured the healer's heart right along with Buck's.
Buck smiled widely at the sight of the former slave falling captive to the Southerner's charms, and couldn't help rubbing it in a little. "Hard to resist, ain't he?"
Nathan just shook his head in disbelief. It was so hard to remember that this was a grown man sitting beside him in the bed and not the sweet little boy that his words and actions made him seem. "That's for sure... never thought I'd see the day."
Ezra looked quizzically at him. "See what day, Nafan?"
Nathan just laughed and gave him one more hug before sitting him up in the bed and straightening out his nightshirt and blankets. "The day when your hair would look worse than ol' Buck's there. Come here an' let's see if we can't straighten it up some while Josiah finally goes an' gets us that breakfast he been promisin' us."
Josiah laughed as he ran his fingers through his wiry hair, smoothing it back down somewhat. "Well, what do you want to eat, Ezra... the same as Buck?"
Ezra giggled and smiled up at the ex-preacher. "I was just kiddin', 'siah... I couldn't w'eawy eat d'at much. Could I jus' have some biscuits and jam and some coffee, pwease? Is d'at aw'w'ight, Nafan?"
"Coffee? Don't you think milk would be better for a growing boy?" Josiah asked, glancing at Nathan to get his opinion.
Nathan shook his head. "He has a problem with jus' plain milk. How 'bout we compromise, Ezra... Josiah can put milk in your coffee, that way ya can't really taste it."
"Com... comp... comprwomise? What's comprwomise mean, Nafan?" Ezra tried to look up at Nathan, but he had a firm grip on his chin as he tried to brush out the tangles in his hair without hurting the cut on the back of his head.
"Well, it means you give a little and Nathan gives a little and then you're both happy." Josiah explained.
"Oh, I get it... Nafan w'ets me have my coffee, an' I w'et you put d' milk in it d'at he wants me to drwink. W'ight, 'siah?" Ezra winced as Nathan hit a particularly tangled clump of hair, before smiling up at Josiah.
"You got it, little guy. So, you want biscuits and jam and some coffee with milk in it. Is that it?" Josiah knew Nathan's usual order and didn't even have to ask... eggs, biscuits and coffee. Everyday, never fail.
"And sugarw, 'siah... w'ots of sugarw. D'at's how Mama fixes it forw me. 'Kay?" Ezra had to lean around Nathan as he checked the splint on his arm to make sure Josiah got the part about the sugar, and the preacher couldn't help but smile at those big green eyes peering up at him.
Josiah reached out a big paw and touched Ezra's cheek before nodding at him and turning to leave. When he got to the door, he turned back and motioned for Buck to follow him out so he could explain the plans they'd made for the gambler's Christmas surprise.
Buck saw Ezra's eyes widen as he got up and moved away from the bed. "It's alright, pard... I'm just gonna make sure Josiah got my order right. Nathan's stayin' right here with ya, an' I'll be back in just a minute, okay?"
Ezra nodded and reluctantly turned his attention back to Nathan, who was asking him if he hurt anywhere. He showed the healer which bruises were still sore and answered his questions, but his eyes strayed constantly to the door, watching for Buck's return.
Maude Standish had finally arrived back in St. Louis after an unsuccessful attempt at a con in New Orleans. She'd barely made it out of there in time. One more day and she'd have been spending Christmas in one of their disgustingly squalid prisons.
Opening the door to her rooms, she stood aside to allow the young man following her to enter and deposit her luggage on the floor, tipping him grudgingly before he left. She closed the door behind him and removed her cloak and hat, tossing them carelessly in a chair. "Never again! Cousin Alex can beg and plead all he wants, but he'll never get me to participate in another one of his hare-brained schemes!"
Her tirade was interrupted by an urgent rapping on the door. "Mrs. Standish? Telegram, ma'am. It's quite urgent I'm afraid!"
Maude hurried to open the door, stumbling over her bags as she made her way across the room. Jerking the door open, she snatched the piece of paper out of the hotel manager's hands, her eyes scanning the contents, her mind barely registering the rest of the man's words.
"I'm sorry it's so late getting to you, Mrs. Standish, but we didn't know where to forward it. I hope your son's going to be okay. Would you like me to reserve you passage on the next stage headed west?" He was stumbling over his words in his haste to assure her that everything had been done to try and notify her. Mrs. Standish was quite a lovely woman, and he'd been trying for months to get her permission to court her. But as usual, he was sent away with just a curt response. "Yes, please. See to the tickets immediately." And the door was shut in his face once more. Sighing, he turned and left... maybe next time.
Maude dropped back onto the bed, scanning the telegram again for any bit of information she might have missed. "... sorry to have to inform you... head injury... condition serious... Chris Larabee." Standing suddenly, she began pacing the room, mumbling quietly the whole time.
"What in heaven's name has that foolish boy gotten himself into now?"
"This is the last straw... he's coming home with me whether he chooses to or not."
"If those ruffians he associates with had anything to do with this, I'll have them all in jail."
"What a way to spend my holiday... traveling in a dusty, cramped stagecoach." Maude thought for a moment... her lawyer owned a nice, comfortable coach... and since she knew Larabee and his men would not give Ezra up without a fight... it was only sensible to take legal representation along with her. "Much better than making that long ride with a bunch of ragtag strangers, but still not the way I'd planned on spending Christmas."
Maude was still grumbling and stalking around the room when the manager returned with the information that she had a seat on the stage leaving at 7 a.m., and that someone would be here promptly at 6:30 to transport her bags for her. She thanked him politely and closed the door. Removing her dress, she collapsed on the bed to try and get some rest before morning.
Maude was dressed and ready well before it was time to leave, and had resumed her pacing as she kept one eye on the clock. She grabbed her reticule and opened the door quickly when the knock came. She was surprised to see that it was the hotel manager himself who had come to carry her bags for her, and realized it was another attempt on his part to win her affections. Maybe at any other time she would have been suitably impressed, but this morning she was in a hurry to get going and she merely waved her hand at the luggage he was to bring, and brushed by him on her way out the door. Following in her wake, the manager had to satisfy himself with admiring the twitch of her bustle as she made her way down the boardwalk.
Entering the telegraph office, she sent two telegrams before returning to the street to wait for the stage. The first was to Chris Larabee informing him that she was coming to collect her son... and the second was to her attorney, MJ Delacourte in Kansas City, requesting he ready his private coach and accompany her to Four Corners on a very important matter.
Ezra rushed through his breakfast, anxious to get his first shave.
"Slow down there, little guy... you're gonna choke on those biscuits if you're not careful." Josiah grinned as Ezra could only nod at him... his mouth was stuffed so full of biscuit and jam, that speaking was out of the question.
They were gathered around the table while they ate. Nathan had decided it was time to get Ezra up and moving around, at least a little. It had taken both he and Buck to get the gambler to the table though, since his left leg and hip were still extremely sore and stiff, and they'd had to give him a pillow to sit on before he could get comfortable. He'd also had a slight problem with his balance due to the concussion and lying in bed for so long, but they'd finally gotten him settled and were enjoying watching him eat. Buck had even managed to get a piece of bacon and a couple of bites of egg down him... the more he ate, the quicker he'd get his strength back.
They'd tried to bring up the subject of Christmas with him again, but Ezra acted like he had no interest in it whatsoever. At least that's what he seemed to want them to believe. They just hoped they could change his opinion of the holiday with the little surprise celebration they had planned.
Ezra gulped down the last of his coffee with a breathless gasp, and then began squirming in his seat as he waited impatiently for the others to finish. Buck couldn't hold back a grin when he looked at Ezra... the younger man had a piece of biscuit glued to his cheek with jam, and a creamy ring around his mouth from his coffee.
Buck went and got a wet cloth and handed it to Ezra before sitting back down at the table. "You gotta wash the food off your face before Josiah can shave it, little guy... I swear, you're wearin' more than what went in your mouth."
Josiah and Nathan couldn't help but laugh at the indignant look Ezra shot Buck before scrubbing laboriously at his face. His skin was pink when he finally lowered the cloth and presented himself for the gunman's inspection. "'Kay now, Buck?"
Buck wrapped his hand around Ezra's chin and turned his face toward Josiah. "What do ya think, Josiah... is he ready to lose that hair on his face?"
Josiah leaned across the table and ran his hand over the gambler's cheeks. "Looks good to me. Where's your razor and soap, Nathan? I think this young man's ready for his first shave."
Ezra's face broke out into a huge grin and his squirming increased as he watched Nathan gather up his razor, shaving mug, and a towel and hand them to Josiah.
Josiah tied the towel around Ezra's neck, and after adding a little water to the mug, began working the soap into a lather with the brush. "Okay, son... let's see how smooth we can get those cheeks of yours."
Chris glanced around the saloon as he and Vin walked through the doors, and noticed JD sitting alone at their usual table. He frowned when the boy never even looked up to see who had entered... merely sat with his head propped in his hand, pushing his food around his plate with his fork. Nudging Vin, he nodded in the Kid's direction and raised his brows questioningly.
Vin stared at JD for a moment and then shrugged. "Prob'ly still upset over what happened last night. Think maybe one of us ought t' talk to 'im an' make sure he knows we didn't mean nothin' by it... that we're all just worried 'bout Ezra?"
"Yeah, I'd planned on doin' that today anyway... might as well get it over with as soon as I get some coffee in me." Chris continued on to the bar and gratefully accepted the cup of coffee Inez had ready for him before heading over to join JD.
Inez watched as Chris sat down at the table with JD and then turned to Vin, pushing a plate of biscuits toward him. "JD was in here last night acting strangely. I thought maybe something had happened to Ezra, but he assured me he was the same. He seemed very sad though..."
Vin picked up a biscuit and took a bite as he stared over at Chris and JD. Washing it down with a swallow of coffee, he glanced at Inez and shrugged. "I ain't real sure, but I think maybe JD's a mite jealous of Ezra right now, and he's probably findin' that a bit hard to deal with."
"Jealous? Of Ezra? That doesn't sound like JD." Inez chewed slowly on her own biscuit while she waited for Vin to explain. She'd been told what had happened with the gambler, and Inez was amazed that JD could possibly be jealous of him in his present condition.
Vin chuckled. "You'd have t' be around Ezra the way he is now t' understand this but... well... he's sort of attached himself to Buck and they're kinda inseparable at the moment. And I think JD's feelin' a little neglected after havin' all Buck's attention for so long."
Inez turned her attention back to the two men seated at the table. "Is that what Chris is talking to him about?"
"Well, partly... JD blurted out somethin' last night that upset Ezra, and we came down kinda hard on 'im. He's just makin' sure the Kid knows we didn't think he did it on purpose or anything... it was just a matter of not thinkin' before talkin'." Vin poured himself another mug of coffee before continuing. "But Nathan says we gotta be real careful what we say t' Ezra right now... he don't want nothin' pushin' him into rememberin' before he's ready."
"Well, I certainly hope Chris can get through to JD... I hate seeing him so sad. Especially this time of year. He has been so excited about the plans for the Christmas celebration at the church, and I wouldn't want to see anything ruin it for him." Inez shook her head as she moved off to wait on some other customers.
Vin silently agreed, but was afraid it wasn't going to be that easy to change the way JD was feeling.
Nathan and Buck hid their smiles as best they could, not wanting to get Ezra giggling... poor Josiah was having enough trouble as it was. The gambler had talked almost the whole time Josiah was lathering his face, asking question after question, until with one wrong turn of his head he had ended up with a mouthful of soap. It had taken two glasses of water before he finally quit gagging, but at least after that he'd kept his lips clamped together to prevent anymore accidents.
Nathan and Buck both had had to step out on the landing when Ezra'd gotten the first taste of that soap. The horrified expression on Ezra's face had simply been more than they could handle, and laughter had bubbled out of them the moment they left the room. Josiah had apologized profusely while he'd helped the gambler wash his mouth out and dried his tears... and then had been graced with one of Ezra's hugs as his apology for talking when he shouldn't have been.
Josiah had called the two of them back in after they'd gotten control of themselves so that they could help keep Ezra still while he shaved him. Which it turned out, hadn't been necessary... because once he'd gotten a glimpse of that straight razor coming toward his throat, he'd frozen in the chair. Ezra had refused to even blink as he stared first at that gleaming blade in the preacher's hands, and then at his face.
Buck had a firm grip on Ezra's shoulders, and felt him tremble as Josiah made the first stroke with the razor. "It's okay, little guy... he's not gonna hurt ya. Just hold real still."
Ezra's eyes stayed glued on Josiah's face throughout the whole ordeal. The gentle preacher spoke softly to him as he worked, continually reassuring him that he was doing just fine... that he was such a good boy... that he would feel much better once they got that itchy old hair off his face.
Nathan held Ezra's head, gently turning it for Josiah when he asked. He felt the trembling also and knew the gambler was scared to death, and had to give him a lot of credit for holding as still as he was. He bent over and added his whispered words of encouragement to those of the preacher, smiling as he saw the wide green eyes steal a quick glance at him before returning to Josiah's face.
Ezra breathed a deep sigh of relief when Josiah finally proclaimed the job done and wiped the remaining lather from his now clean-shaven cheeks. They all watched as he reached a somewhat shaky hand up and ran it slowly over his chin, a huge smile spreading across his handsome face as his fingers touched soft skin instead of scratchy stubble. He turned his charming smile on Josiah and raised his arms for another hug.
Josiah immediately knelt down and allowed Ezra to wrap his arms around his neck while enfolding the childlike gambler in his huge embrace. The older man pressed his cheek against Ezra's and closed his eyes, his heart aching as he thought of how different the grown man could have been if he'd received these hugs and gentle touches as a child. *Lord... I hope you can see your way clear to keep these loving feelings tucked safely in this young man's heart when you return him to us. He's had to live his life without 'em so far and needs to be able to hang onto 'em now.* Josiah sent out his silent prayer, and hoped with every bit of faith he still possessed that it would be answered.
Chris pulled out a chair across the table from JD and sat down, sipping slowly on his coffee while he waited for the boy to acknowledge his presence.
JD kept his head down and continued to play with his food, hoping that Chris would get up and leave if he ignored him. After a few minutes, he realized it wasn't going to happen, so he finally looked up at the gunslinger and stared at him, waiting for the reprimand he knew he was about to receive. When it wasn't forthcoming, JD finally heaved an exasperated sigh and spoke. "Well, aren't you gonna yell at me, too? No, wait... on second thought... just let me do it for ya. 'That was stupid, JD'... 'Grow up, JD'... 'Think before you speak, JD'... there, how was that? Did I cover everything or would you still like to add somethin' to it?"
Chris just stared at him, a slight smile on his face. "Are you through? Got that outta your system?" He waited and was rewarded with a sheepish nod from JD. "Good. Now ya want to tell me what's really wrong?"
JD shrugged and looked up at Chris, hesitating as he tried to decide just how to explain what he was feeling, when he wasn't even sure himself. Part of his problem was that he thought they were babying Ezra too much... after all, how would the Southerner ever be able to regain his memory if they kept being so over-protective of him. He'd never remember anything if they kept him hidden away from his former life and things that might jog his memory. But he seemed to be the only one who felt this way. So was it out of a genuine concern for Ezra's well-being, or was it caused by the over-whelming sense of loss he was beginning to feel when he thought of Buck?
Because the thing that was bothering him most of all was that he thought Buck was spending entirely too much time with Ezra... which didn't make any sense. He'd hated it when Buck had continually hovered over him... teasing him, protecting him, and barely letting him breathe. He should be glad his friend had finally found someone else to direct some of his attentions to. But now that he was finally without all of it, he missed it... and wanted it back. He honestly felt he was losing Buck to Ezra... and it hurt. But on the other hand, he liked Ezra and considered him a good friend, too. Why didn't he have the same urge to protect and care for the gambler as the others did? He worried about him, and felt guilty for having been a part of his accident, but all these other feelings just kept pushing the worry aside. And how did he explain all this to Chris, and not come off sounding petty and selfish?
JD finally took a deep breath and decided to just tell Chris exactly what he felt, and see if the gunslinger could help clear up his confusion over the whole situation. "Well, to be honest with you, Chris... I--" He was interrupted when Jimmy from the telegraph office burst through the doors and called out Chris's name as he hurried over to their table.
"Mr. Larabee! I've been lookin' everywhere for ya. Ya finally got an answer from Mr. Standish's maw, and I knew you'd be wantin' to see it right away." Jimmy handed Chris the telegram and waved away the tip the gunslinger tried to give him as he practically ran back out of the saloon. He knew what was on that piece of paper, and he sure didn't want any pay for delivering that kind of news.
Vin walked over as Chris read the wire. He and JD both jumped when the gunslinger jerked himself up out of his chair and slammed the paper down on the table. "Son of a bitch!"
JD grabbed the message and read it while Chris angrily explained to Vin what was in it. "That bitch is coming after Ezra... and bringing a lawyer with her. She says she's taking *her baby boy* back to St. Louis with her and if we try to stop her, she'll have us prosecuted for unlawful detainment or kidnapping or anything else she can charge us with." Chris's expression was fierce enough to make even Vin take a step back. "I swear, I'm gonna strangle that damn woman! She's done enough damage in Ezra's life, I'll be damned if I'll let her get her claws into him again." He stormed out of the saloon with Vin right on his heels, and headed to the clinic to deliver the bad news to the others.
JD watched them go and then read the telegram again. A thought flashed briefly through his mind, and he immediately blushed and looked around guiltily as if someone might have heard it. <God, JD... what the heck is wrong with you? You heard what Ezra said about Maude... how could you be glad even for a moment that she was taking Ezra away?> But even as he chastised himself for being happy the gambler might be leaving, the thought that this would solve everything flitted through his mind again. Shaking his head in disgust at his own selfishness, JD slowly left the saloon and followed Chris and Vin to Nathan's.
Vin grabbed Chris's arm before he had a chance to enter the clinic. "Better calm down a bit before you go in there, cowboy... you'll scare Ezra all t' hell with that look on your face."
Chris glared at Vin, and then realized he was right. He bent his head, closing his eyes for a moment, took a few deep breaths, and then looked back up at the tracker. "Okay now?"
Smiling crookedly, Vin nodded and opened the door for Chris, allowing him to enter. They walked in and their hearts twisted slightly at the sight that greeted their eyes. Ezra was clasped tightly in Josiah's arms, his face tucked comfortably in the preacher's neck. Josiah rocked him slowly back and forth while Nathan and Buck looked on, small smiles gracing their faces. Ezra with his new family... happy and protected... how could Maude want to tear him away from this? She didn't want him when she had him before, and Chris knew it would be no different this time. She'd take him home and discard him again... especially if, God forbid, he stayed lost in the past.
Ezra's eyes opened and immediately lit up when he spotted the two of them standing just inside the door. He pushed out of Josiah's arms and sat up, his hand rubbing across his smooth cheeks. "W'ook, Chwis an' Vin... 'siah shaved me! My face is nice and smoove again! Feewl!"
Chris and Vin moved forward and dutifully ran their callused hands over Ezra's smiling face. "Bet that feels better, doesn't it?"
"It does, Chwis... my face was starwtin' to itch wif all d'ose whiskerws on it. I like it d'is way w'ots betterw." Ezra stared at Chris intently, his observant green eyes noticing the slight uneasiness on the gunslinger's face. His voice grew serious as he questioned the older man about the look. "What's wrong, Chwis? Did I do somefin' to make you mad?"
Chris sighed and looked at the others before answering. He thought he'd been able to hide it, but apparently even as a five year old, Ezra was adept at reading people's expressions. "No, pard... you didn't do anything wrong at all. But us grownups do need to have a little discussion about something, so do you think you could climb back into bed for a little bit while we go out on the landing? You must be tired after gettin' that shave, right?"
Josiah, Nathan, and Buck thought at first Chris was talking about the plans for Christmas, but realized something else had happened after a quick look at Vin's somber face. Buck and Nathan immediately put their arms around Ezra and eased him up out of the chair. "Chris is right, little guy... it's time you got some rest. You been outta that bed for quite awhile, and we don't want you wearin' yourself out and gettin' sick again this close to Christmas."
"But I'm not tirwed, Buck. Do I have to go to s'weep?" Ezra reluctantly let them help him back into the bed, but resisted when they tried to get him to lie down.
Nathan piled the pillows behind Ezra's back and managed to get him to lean back against them. "Naw... you ain't gotta sleep if you're not ready, but I want ya t' at least sit here and stay quiet, okay?"
"You'rwe not w'eavin' me herwe a'wone, arwe you, Buck?" Ezra's worried expression had the gunman immediately on the bed beside him, his arm quickly snaking around the smaller man's shoulders.
"Now you know I ain't about to do that. I'll be right outside the door talkin' to Chris. I promise I won't be long, alright?" Buck gave Ezra a quick hug when he nodded, and whispered softly in his ear before leaving. "Be a good boy. I'll be right back."
Buck glanced back at Ezra just before going through the door and saw that he was curled up on the bed, staring disconsolately back at him. Buck gave him a little wave, but the gambler just turned his face into the pillow and ignored him. With a sigh, the ladies man followed the others out onto the landing, positioning himself in front of one of the windows so he could keep an eye on Ezra.
"He okay?" Vin asked as he saw Buck staring through the window.
"He knows somethin's wrong... an' now I want to know," Buck demanded as he turned to Chris. "What exactly *is* wrong?"
Chris glanced at Vin and then back at the others, noticing for the first time that JD had joined them and was still holding the yellow piece of paper in his hand. He walked over and took it from him, then handed it to Buck. "This just came over the wire."
Josiah and Nathan leaned over Buck's shoulder to read the telegram. "What the hell does she mean 'she's comin' to collect him'?! What the hell does she think he is... a damn package she can just come an' pick up an' take home when it suits her?!" Buck's reaction was explosive and unbelieving. "She's bringin' a damn lawyer with her?!" The others tried to quiet him down before he frightened Ezra, but he was too angry to listen to reason.
Chris grabbed Buck's arm and dragged him away from the front of the clinic. "Damn it, Buck... calm down before Ezra hears you!"
Buck jerked his arm out of Chris's grip and leaned in close to the gunslinger. "Over my dead body she's takin' 'im... it ain't gonna happen. I'll take 'im an' head out for Mexico first. You hear me? She's not gonna get a chance to hurt Ezra anymore than she already has." He ground the words out through gritted teeth, his finger jabbing relentlessly at Chris's chest as he spoke.
Vin and Josiah moved to pull Buck away from Chris before the gunslinger exploded, but Chris stopped them. Then he raised his hand and wrapped it tightly around Buck's, staring into his eyes until he finally stopped. "We're on your side, remember? Do you honestly think we're gonna let that bitch get her claws into him again?"
Buck shook his head and slumped down on the bench, leaning back against the wall and looking up at Chris with sad blue eyes. "Damn it, Chris... Ezra's been through so much- he's finally happy, why can't she just leave 'im the hell alone? You know what's gonna happen if she takes 'im... she'll either stick 'im in an asylum... or worse... ship 'im back to his uncle Matthew's. He'll never get his memory back then."
Chris watched as Nathan took a quick look in the window, checking on Ezra. "He okay?"
Nathan nodded and walked back over to them. "He looks like he might be sleepin'. And Buck's right... he'll probably stay jus' as he is now or get even worse if they get a hold of 'im."
"Well, I'm siding with Brother Buck on this one... I'm ready to accompany you to Mexico or anywhere else you want to go, if it'll keep our Little One safe, Buck." Josiah placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder, squeezing it gently in a show of support. "He deserves every chance we can give him to recover from this, and if that just isn't meant to be, then we'll make sure he has us to watch over him for the rest of his life."
"I guess I gotta go, too. Somebody's gonna have t' keep y'all patched up, an' make sure Lit'l Ezra's eatin' right an' gettin' enough sleep." Nathan grinned as Vin quickly nodded his agreement.
"Well, then I reckon I better go along to make sure ya find Mexico... can't have ya wanderin' around lost in the desert with our little pard." Vin looked over at JD as he spoke, waiting for him to chime in with his own reasons for going with Buck and Ezra. But the boy remained silent, his face drawn down in a scowl as he stared at Buck. Vin shook his head sadly as he realized just how much the boy was being hurt by Buck's new relationship with Ezra. He'd have to talk to the ladies man and fill him in on what was happening. He knew Buck didn't mean to slight JD, and Ezra did need him at the moment, but he was going to have to do something about the boy before their relationship was permanently damaged.
JD stared at Buck, angry and hurt that he'd announced his decision to take Ezra and leave without discussing it with him first. Besides, he was really beginning to think they were blowing everything out of proportion anyway. Yeah, Maude might not have been the greatest of mothers, but JD was sure she'd done her best. She *was* his mother, after all... she couldn't have done anything intentionally to hurt him. A mother just wouldn't do that. Ezra's mind was messed up anyway, he was probably just exaggerating how bad it really was. When Ezra finally saw Maude, he'd probably be happy to go with her... and then things could get back to normal for the rest of them. At least, that's what JD hoped would happen. He'd miss the gambler of course, but it was for the best that he be with his mother until he was well again.
Chris stared down at the street, thinking, his eyes finally coming to rest on the Clarion office. Mary was standing outside talking with Gloria Potter, and seeing him looking her way, gave a little wave before returning to her conversation.
Vin had turned his attention back to Chris and was watching him closely. He followed the direction of his gaze and wondered what he was planning. "You got an idea, cowboy?"
Chris glanced at them, his eyes lingering on the agonized expression on Buck's face. "I might. Hold off on Mexico for now, Buck. The Judge's coming here to spend Christmas with Mary and Billy, and maybe if we explain what's happened, tell him what Ezra's told us about his past, he might be able to help us get some sort of legal custody over Ezra until he gets his memory back. We all know how he feels about Maude... I'm sure the Judge'll do all he can to keep her from getting her hands on him."
"She is his mother though... it might be tough for the Judge to legally keep her from taking him." Josiah hated to even bring it up, but they had to think of every possibility so they'd be prepared.
Chris thought about that for a minute before answering. "Yeah, but it's not as if he's actually a child... he's a grown man. That's gotta count for something. And the Judge knows what Ezra would want just as well as we do."
"Yeah, but we can't prove that's what he'd want... we got nothin' in writin' 'bout his wishes an' Ezra's not able t' tell us right now. And if Maude's got herself a good lawyer, he'll prob'ly think of all this stuff hisself." Nathan frowned and looked worriedly toward the clinic. "We may have t' start pushin' 'im t' remember sooner than I'd wanted us to. The only sure way we got a keepin' 'im outta Maude's hands is if his memory comes back all the way."
"But won't pushin' 'im too hard maybe hurt 'im? What would be worse... keepin' 'im in Mexico til he remembers on his own, or takin' the chance of ruinin' his mind by forcin' 'im t' come back t' us too soon?" Vin just wanted them to do whatever was best for Ezra... even if it meant hiding away from the law for the rest of their lives.
Nathan nodded sadly. "It could do that to 'im. I just can't tell ya for sure."
Chris sighed. "You're right about the lawyer, Nathan... I wish you weren't, but we all know Maude, and there's no way she'd hire someone who's not just as smart and conniving as she is. But I'm with Vin on choosin' between pushing him too hard and runnin' to Mexico with him... it has to be running. No way in hell are we gonna do anything that might hurt Ezra more. So I guess for now, we'll wait and see what the Judge says, and stick to Nathan's original plan of takin' it slow with his memory. And if for some reason the Judge can't help us, and Maude gets custody... then I'll go along with takin' him to Mexico. Hell, someone has to go along to make sure he gets some discipline. You all would spoil him rotten."
Buck thought about it for a minute and finally nodded. "Okay... I'll go along with it for now, but if it even *begins* to look like she's gonna get 'im... we're outta here."
"Agreed." Chris took the telegram back and moved toward the stairs, but stopped when he heard Buck chuckle softly behind him. He turned and looked quizzically at the ladies man. "What's so funny?"
"You." Buck smiled and shook his head at him as he rose and headed back into the clinic. "I don't know who the hell you think you're kiddin'. He's got you wrapped right around his little finger just like he does the rest of us. That's the real reason you're goin' with us... you'd miss 'im too much if ya didn't."
Chris opened his mouth to protest, but realized there wasn't anything to say. Buck was right... and everyone there knew it. He'd fallen under Lit'l Ezra's spell right along with the rest of them. "Well, don't let on to Ezra or I'll never be able to make him mind." He turned to go and then stopped again. "Buck... you better tell him his ma's comin'... just make sure you get through to him that we won't let her take him... he's stayin' right here with us. And I want that celebration we've got planned to go ahead just as scheduled. He *is* gonna have the Christmas he deserves."
Buck looked back at Chris and nodded before opening the door and entering the clinic.
"What celebration are you talkin' about... the one at the church?" JD was confused. He thought they'd agreed not to let Ezra out of the clinic for his own protection. Why would they be taking him to the church for the Christmas festivities and exposing him to all those people?
Chris looked at him and remembered he hadn't been in on the plans. "That's right... you left before Ezra told us about never having a real Christmas last night. We're planning on surprising him here in the clinic with everything a five year old boy should have at Christmas time. A tree, presents, a fancy dinner... and his family here to celebrate with him. The doin's at the church will just have to go on without us this year."
Chris turned and walked quickly down the stairs, anxious to discuss his idea with Mary, hoping she would agree to try to convince the Judge to help. He was determined to find some way to keep Ezra there with them. After he'd left, JD turned to Josiah, Nathan and Vin and gave them a questioning look.
"We're not goin' to the celebration at the church?" JD tried not to let his disappointment show, but it was too hard. He'd really been looking forward to spending the day with Casey.
The three men exchanged a look and explained to him what Ezra had said, and how important they all felt it was to try and give him one good Christmas. Granted, being only five, there were many Christmas's between then and now that he just didn't remember at the moment... but they were fairly certain with the adult Ezra's current attitude toward the holiday being what it was, that he'd probably had very few, if any, that were worth remembering.
JD silently berated himself for blaming poor Ezra for ruining his plans. He wanted this holiday to be good for the gambler, too. He'd hated seeing Ezra so depressed at Christmas time, and now that he understood why he felt that way, JD wanted to do whatever he could to help change it. But still... it just seemed like everyone only cared about Ezra's feelings now... what was best for him. No one cared that JD would have to give up his first real Christmas with Casey, not to mention all the time he was used to spending with Buck.
Fighting back his resentment, JD finally agreed to help with the celebration. "Don't worry, I'll be here. We can't have Ezra missing out on another Christmas, after all."
Vin, Nathan and Josiah glanced uneasily at each other as JD slowly walked across the landing and entered the clinic. There was no mistaking the bitterness behind the boy's words. JD was hurting, and they weren't sure how to help him.
Buck quietly walked over and stood staring down at Ezra, his heart breaking a little at the thought of the pain and confusion he knew the gambler was going to be put through when his mother showed up.
Sitting carefully on the edge of the bed, Buck pulled the blanket up over Ezra's shoulder. He'd wait til the gambler woke up to give him the news of Maude's impending visit since he was definitely in no hurry to destroy the happiness that Ezra had been finally enjoying.
Buck heard the door open and looked up, holding a finger to his lips to warn JD as he came in, to be quiet. Glancing down to make sure Ezra was still asleep, he got up and led JD over to the other side of the room.
"How's he doin'?" JD twisted his hat nervously in his hands, waiting for Buck to light into him again for what he'd said the night before.
"Better." Buck noticed that JD refused to look at him, and regretted dealing so harshly with him for his careless comment to Ezra. "Listen... JD... I'm sorry for--"
But JD stopped him before he could apologize. "No, it was my fault, Buck... I shoulda thought before I said that about his whiskers. I know we've gotta be careful with 'im." He finally looked at Buck and smiled. "So how'd he do with his *first* shave?"
Buck chuckled and shook his head, remembering Ezra's reaction to the sight of that straight razor coming at his throat. "Well, I don't think it was quite as much fun as he thought it was gonna be, but he got through it okay. Josiah didn't draw any blood at least."
JD laughed and then nodded toward Ezra, who was stirring around in the bed. "Looks like he's wakin' back up... you gonna tell him 'bout Maude now?"
Buck sighed and moved over to sit beside Ezra again. "'Fraid so, Kid. I wish t' hell she'd just stay away an' ignore 'im like she always has before." Buck was looking down at the gambler and failed to see the frown that appeared on JD's face as the gunman's attention shifted back to Ezra.
"Yeah, but maybe he'll want to go with her. He did cry for her when he first--" JD's words froze on his lips as Buck's head shot up. He couldn't ever remember seeing the older man that angry with him, and he knew he was treading on thin ice with what he was suggesting.
"You don't honestly think we'd let Ezra go with her even if he wanted to, do ya?" Buck's voice was pitched low to keep from scaring the gambler, but that did nothing to lessen the intensity of it. "Hell, she'll be lucky if we even let her see 'im at all. Personally, I'd just as soon keep her right away from 'im altogether."
Ezra moaned softly as he turned onto his bruised side, and Buck had to move quickly to catch his broken arm and restrain it before he banged it on the night table. "Easy there, pard... let's get woke up before you go rollin' around in the bed." Buck smiled down at the gambler as his eyes opened and stared blearily up at him. Ezra blinked several times, smiled back, and then noticed JD.
"Hi, JD! Did you come herwe to see me?" Ezra's face lit up at the sight of the young peacekeeper standing beside his bed.
JD felt a huge wave of guilt wash over him at the thoughts he'd been having about Ezra. "Sure did. How ya doin', little guy?"
"I'm gettin' betterw. Nafan even w'et me outta d' bed d'is morwnin' so 'siah could shave me." Ezra caught JD by surprise when he reached out and grabbed his hand and brought it up to his face. "Feewl, JD... see how smoove 'siah got it?"
JD felt Ezra's soft cheek and then pulled his hand away. He was still uncomfortable with this new demonstrative version of the gambler. The young boy watched as Ezra sat up and leaned against Buck, frowning as the gunman slipped his arms around the smaller man. He felt a strange feeling spear through him... a feeling of loss... but what was strange about it was that it wasn't Buck he had the sensation about this time, it was Ezra. <Now what the heck was that about?> JD sighed. <Damn, one more thing to add to all this confusion I'm feelin'.>
"Yeah, it's nice and smooth, Ezra." JD lightly dismissed the gambler, and turned his attention back to Buck. "I got the bait and the poles loaded on the horses... when are we headin' for the creek?"
Buck just stared at JD in amazement. He knew it was Saturday, their usual day to get in some fishin', but that was before Ezra got hurt. He couldn't believe that the Kid still thought they'd be going. "JD... we can't--" The older man stopped as Ezra pulled away from him and looked pleadingly up into his face.
"You'rwe goin' fishin', Buck?! Can I go, too? Pwease, Buck... I neverw been fishin' beforwe!" Ezra's face was lit up with excitement as his head swiveled back and forth between Buck and JD. "Pwease, JD... pwease can I go wif you?"
Buck glared at JD before looking regretfully at Ezra and shaking his head. "Sorry, pard... we can't go fishin' today, but as soon as--"
"But why, Buck? I'll be good... I pwomise! I'll do everwyfing you tewll me to... and I'll be w'eal quiet... honest, Buck! Pwease?" Ezra's eyes glittered with the tears that were threatening to fall and his lower lip quivered pitifully as he begged Buck to reconsider.
Buck cupped Ezra's chin gently in one hand while wiping away the tears that were now slowly trickling down his cheeks with the other, and tried to explain. "I promise, Little One... just as soon as your arm heals up, JD an' I'll take ya fishin'."
JD scowled and threw his hands up in exasperation. "Geez, Buck... can't someone else stay with him this afternoon? Just because he can't go yet doesn't mean we have to stay home. We always go fishin' on Saturdays when the weather's good." JD saw Buck's face turning red with suppressed anger, but he was too fed up with everything in their lives revolving around Ezra's problems to care. His voice rose as he continued. "Does the whole world have to come to a stop just because Ezra's sick?! Why do you think you're the only one that can take care of him... is it because you feel guilty about helping to cause his accident?! Well, I had just as much to do with it as you did, and you don't see me sitting here babying him!"
JD knew he should quit... could hear just how awful his words must sound to poor Ezra... but he just couldn't help himself. All the hurt and confusion had finally become too much for him with this latest disappointment.
"Damn it, that's enough, JD." Buck kept his voice down, trying not to scare Ezra more than he already was, but it did nothing to hide the anger and hurt that the boy's words had caused. He felt Ezra push away from him and looked down, shocked at how pale and drawn the gambler's face had become. "Ezra? It's okay, pard... JD don't mean what he's sayin'. He's just upset right now."
JD had seen the pain he was causing reflected on Ezra's face, and had just been about to apologize and tell him he hadn't meant to hurt him... but when Buck again turned to the gambler, ignoring JD's feelings completely, the words just seemed to die in his throat. Turning away from the two on the bed, he made his way slowly to the door, the pain of Buck's uncaring attitude toward him bringing a flood of tears to his eyes.
Ezra leaned around Buck to stare sadly at JD's retreating back. His own eyes were awash with tears, and he struggled against Buck, trying to get off the bed and go to the young man. "JD! I'm sowwy, JD... pwease don't w'eave! I don't w'eawy want to go fishin' wif ya! You and Buck can go!"
JD paused with his hand on the door... his feelings of resentment and guilt leaving him torn as to what he should do.
Buck finally let go of Ezra, and the Southerner climbed off the bed and hobbled over to where JD still stood by the door. Reaching out a shaking hand, Ezra touched the smaller man's shoulder and squeezed it gently. "I'm sowwy, JD... pwease don't be mad at me." Ezra's voice was just a whisper, but it cut through JD's heart like a knife.
JD couldn't bring himself to turn and look at the gambler, but he did reach up and give his hand a return squeeze. "It's okay, Ezra... I'm not mad at ya. And I'm sorry, too... I never should have said those things."
"Can you stay an' talk to me, JD? Pwease?" Ezra pulled his hand back and scrubbed the tears off his face as he pleaded with the boy to stay.
"I can't right now, Ezra... but I'll try an' come back later. Okay?" JD turned the knob and quickly slipped out of the room before the tears he'd been holding back finally fell.
The others watched as he hurried past them, his head down, his long hair hiding the hurt shining in his eyes.
Vin waited til he was out of earshot, and then looked at the other two men. "Why don't you two go see if you can get 'im to go over to the church with ya... tell 'im ya need help decoratin' or somethin'. I'll try an' get Buck to come over there an' talk to 'im."
Josiah and Nathan nodded and hurried off after JD, hoping they could at least get him to listen. They were willing to try anything to mend this rift between he and Buck... it was hard enough dealing with Ezra's problems without having this constant tension between the two closest members of their group.
Vin stood and watched until they caught up to the boy, talked a few minutes, and then with Josiah's long arm wrapped around JD's shoulders, moved off toward the church. Then after taking a deep breath and bracing himself for battle, Vin opened the door and stepped into the clinic. Getting JD to cooperate was the easy part... tearing Buck away from Ezra's side would take a whole heap of fast-talking. Not something Vin was especially good at, but definitely something he was willing to try if it might get the two best friends back together again.
"Mary! Can I talk to you for a minute?" Chris caught her just before she re-entered the Clarion.
Mary smiled up at him, but her smile faded quickly as she saw the yellow piece of paper in his hand and the serious look on his face. "Of course. Come on inside so we can talk privately."
Chris followed her inside, through the office and back into her private quarters. She led him into the kitchen and reached for a couple of mugs as she motioned for him to take a seat at the table.
Chris waited for her to pour the coffee and sit down before he began to explain what he wanted.
"The Judge is coming here for Christmas, isn't he?" Chris sipped at the hot, steaming brew and stared pensively at Mary. Was she going to be able to see their side of this mess? She *was* a mother, after all... she might tend to side with Maude, especially since he didn't really want to get into the specifics of the treatment Ezra had received as a child. He knew if Ezra were himself he would resent everyone knowing about his past, so the fewer people that had to hear the details the better.
"Yes, he and Evie should be arriving on the stage in the morning. Why?" Mary frowned when Chris hesitated. She was beginning to get worried when he finally started to explain what was on his mind.
"This came in over the wire a little while ago." Chris handed her the telegram and watched while she read it, her frown turning to a look of confusion as she finished.
"Well, I can understand Maude wanting to take him home with her... she is his mother after all... but why is she bringing her lawyer along?" Mary saw Chris's face darken as she spoke and knew she was missing something important.
"Because she knows we aren't about to let her have him." Chris knew Mary was even more confused and tried to stop her before she could issue a protest on Maude's behalf. "You'll just have to trust me on this one, Mary... it wouldn't be in Ezra's best interest to let her take him away from here."
"But, Chris... she's his mother... who better to take care of him while he's in his present condition. And maybe she can get him the help he needs... help that Nathan's just not qualified to give him." Mary couldn't understand their reluctance to have everything done for Ezra that was medically possible. She knew they had to want what was best for him.
"You don't understand, and I can't explain it fully, not without revealing things about Ezra's past he wouldn't want you to know. It's bad enough the Judge will probably have to hear it all." Chris sighed in frustration. "All I can tell you is that Maude isn't the shining example of motherhood she likes to make everyone think she is. Talking to Ezra now has given us some idea of what his childhood was like... let's just say it's no wonder he has all the emotional problems he's saddled with now and leave it at that."
"But he's an adult now... not a small child that she can order around. Surely she would have to treat him decently and get him the help he needs." Mary just couldn't believe Maude was as bad as Chris was making out.
"He's an adult in size, but that's all. Mentally, he's still that little kid that believes his mother is always right. And after what Ezra's revealed, there's absolutely no reason to believe she'd take any better care of him now than she did before." Chris stared intently at Mary and tried one last time to reach her. "Maude couldn't handle a *child* when he was sick, she shuffled him from one abusive relative to another to avoid the responsibility for him... how will she be able to put up with a grown man in Ezra's condition? Ezra needs stability right now... and protection... both of which he's finding in the presence of Buck in his life. They've become so close in the last few days... I don't even want to think about what it would do to Ezra's shaky mental state if he were ripped away from him now."
Mary had some difficulty accepting this new image of Maude, but she knew Chris had no reason to lie. And Ezra, as a five year old, would hardly make up something bad about his own mother... if anything, he'd be more apt to minimize the bad things about her out of a child's unquestioning love. "Okay, Chris... I don't know how much influence I'll have with the Judge in this, but I'll do all I can to help." She offered more coffee and refilled their cups when Chris nodded. "So how is Ezra doing anyway? Have there been any signs of his memory returning?"
Chris shook his head as he leaned back in the chair, relieved that she'd finally agreed to help. "Not much... Buck said he had a small flash of memory involving his watch last night, but it only lasted a few minutes and just left him more confused than ever. Nathan doesn't think he's ready for it to happen yet, so we're trying to keep him away from anything that might push him into remembering for now."
"Is he really like a five year old?" Mary smiled at the image of the suave and articulate Southerner speaking and acting like a small child.
Chris laughed softly, and proceeded to tell Mary about some of the funnier moments they'd experienced with this younger version of the gambler.
Mary watched with interest as his face softened with every incident he described. She came to realize this may have been a tragic accident for Ezra, but from what she was seeing and hearing now, she had a feeling it was also becoming an incredible bonding experience for all of the seven men.
Buck shook his head in bewilderment as he watched JD leave. He just couldn't understand the boy's attitude toward Ezra now... he'd always been the first one to stick up for the gambler whenever he'd thought he was being unfairly treated by the others. Now it seemed he wanted nothing to do with him... acted as if he actually resented Ezra for being injured. Guilt over the accident maybe? Buck wasn't sure and just couldn't take the time to try and figure it out right now. Ezra's well-being was all that mattered to the older man at that moment, and he pushed JD's problems to the back of his mind as he walked quietly up behind the gambler.
Ezra stood with his head bowed and pressed against the door, one hand running slowly over the rough wood as he whispered softly to himself. "I'm sowwy, JD..."
"Ezra?" Buck turned Ezra around and gently placed two fingers under his chin, lifting the smaller man's face up to his. His breath caught as he got a look at the incredible sadness that glimmered in the emerald eyes staring up at him. "Aw, Ezra."
Buck pulled the trembling form of the Southerner into his arms and hugged him tightly, rocking slowly back and forth until he finally felt the slight shaking ease. Bending his head, he pressed his face against Ezra's and asked quietly, "Okay now?"
Ezra nodded, turning his face so that his forehead rested against Buck's whiskered cheek, his arms slipping around the older man and clinging tightly to his larger frame. "I'm sowwy, Buck... I didn't mean to--"
"Hush now, Little One... you didn't do anything to be sorry for." Buck rubbed his hand soothingly over the younger man's back.
"But JD... he sounded so mad." Ezra's voice quivered as he heard JD's angry words echo through his head again.
Buck heard the slight hitch in Ezra's voice and felt a slender hand clutch at the back of his shirt. "He's not mad at you, baby... he's just got a lot of things on his mind right now, and he's not thinkin' too clearly."
"You surwe?" Ezra's voice was hopeful as he sought reassurance from his friend. He'd noticed the word *baby*, but for some reason, it didn't seem so bad to hear Buck call him that now.
"I'm positive... now how 'bout we get you back in that bed before Nathan comes in here an' throws a hissy fit on us." Buck smiled when Ezra giggled, and led him back over to the bed, easing him carefully down onto the mattress. Once he had him settled comfortably against the pillows, Buck sat down beside him and took his hand. "There's something we need to talk about, little guy."
Ezra stared at him, waiting quietly for him to continue, his expression one of innocence and complete trust. Buck hesitated...
His heart ached at that thought, but he had to face it as a real possibility. "Ezra... Chris got word from--"
"Hi, Vin!" Ezra's expression brightened as the tracker came through the door, distracting him completely from Buck's news.
Vin approached the bed and shot an apologetic look at Buck. He'd heard the older man's words as he'd come through the door, and realized he'd interrupted him before he could tell Ezra about Maude.
"Hey there, little pard... how ya doin'?" Vin smiled down at Ezra and noticed he'd been crying. He assumed it had to do with JD's hasty departure, since he knew he hadn't heard about his mother coming yet.
"I'm okay... did you see JD out d'erwe? Is he aw'w'ight?" Ezra stared up at Vin expectantly, anxious for him to assure him that JD was fine and wanting to know for sure that JD really wasn't mad at him.
Vin sat down on the edge of the bed and rested his hand on the gambler's blanketed leg, rubbing gently to calm him. "Yeah, I saw JD... he went over t' the church with Josiah an' Nathan t' help with the Christmas decoratin'. He's okay, little guy." Vin turned his blue-eyed gaze on Buck. "I just thought I'd come an' see if I could spend some time with ya... maybe Buck could go over an' help the others at the church for a little while."
Buck knew what he wanted, but he wasn't sure his talking to JD right now would do any good. He wasn't at all sure that JD would even speak to him the way he was feeling now... but he guessed it wouldn't hurt to try. Maybe with Josiah and Nathan there to help, they could get to the bottom of what was really bothering the boy.
Ezra looked from Vin to Buck, and suddenly piped up in his soft southern drawl, "Yeah... and maybe you could talk to JD whiwle you'rwe d'erwe, Buck. I f'ink he needs to spend some time wif you, too."
Buck and Vin both stared at Ezra in amazement... even with his five-year old mind he was still able to read people with an incredible accuracy.
Ezra squeezed Buck's fingers and then pulled away, reaching over to take Vin's hand instead. "It's okay, Buck... Vin'll take carwe of me... won'tcha, Vin?"
"You bet, little guy." Vin smiled, wrapping his fingers around the gambler's. He looked over at Buck and nodded toward the door. "Go ahead, Buck... we'll be alright."
Buck hesitated for a moment, staring into Ezra's eyes, looking for any sign that he really didn't want him to go. Finally deciding that it was alright, Buck touched Ezra's cheek and stood up. "You be good for Vin, Little One, an' I'll try not to be gone too long, okay?"
"Okay, Buck..." Ezra hesitated, and then his face grew serious and he added softly, "Tewll JD I'm sowwy again... okay? Make surwe he's not mad at me."
Buck bent over and gave the younger man a quick hug before leaving. "I will, Ezra... an' don't worry... it's not you he's mad at." He turned and hurried out the door, surprised at how much it hurt to leave the Southerner even for a short time. His thoughts drifted back to Maude's impending arrival as he crossed the landing, and he knew for sure that no way in hell would he let her take Ezra away from him. Buck felt his heart break a little at even the thought of him leaving their family now.
JD sat on one of the wooden pews watching Josiah and Nathan decorate the huge tree that stood at the front of the church. They'd tried several times to get him to help, but he just shook his head and stayed where he was.
"I don't know why you're botherin' with all this... we're not even gonna be here." JD sulked childishly as he waited for an opportunity to slip out without one of them seeing him. He knew what they were doing, and wanted to make his getaway before Buck showed up... the last thing he wanted right now was to have to talk to the ladies man. He jumped as he heard the door behind him bang open and then hung his head... too late.
"Lookin' good there, fellas! Course, it'd look even better if you'd waited for my expert help... come on, JD... let's show 'em how it's done." Buck tugged on the young sheriff's sleeve as he walked by and stopped suddenly when he felt him pull his arm away. He stood and stared at JD, who refused to even look up, and then slid into the pew beside him.
"Okay... before Christmas is ruined completely, let's get what's botherin' ya out in the open. Talk, JD... I know you're mad at me... now tell me why." Buck heard a low groan issue from one of the two men standing near the tree, and looked up at Nathan and Josiah to see what was wrong. He found them both scowling at him and shaking their heads. "What?"
"Smooth, Buck... real smooth," Josiah muttered as he flapped his hand in disgust and turned back to decorating the tree.
Nathan merely gestured at JD, and mouthed 'talk to him' before turning away also. He couldn't believe how stubborn the two of them could be... they acted more and more like brothers all the time.
Buck sighed and turned back to JD, laying his hand gently on the smaller man's shoulder and giving him a little shake. "Come on, JD... talk to me. Whatever I've done, I'm sorry... honest."
JD felt his heart soften at the gentle and sincerely remorseful tone of Buck's voice. He looked up at Buck and saw the worry and concern that darkened his usually smiling face. <Damn... it sure was hard to stay mad at the big oaf when he looked at ya like that.> He smiled at the older man, regretting that he'd been the one to put that sad look on his face. "I'm not mad, Buck... I've just missed spendin' time with ya, that's all."
Buck smiled then and clapped JD roughly on the back. "Ya sure had me worried, boy. I thought ya were through with ol' Buck."
Nathan and Josiah exchanged relieved smiles... which turned out to be premature.
"Yup... that Ezra knows what he's talkin' 'bout even if he is only five at the moment." Buck laughed and shook his head, not noticing the looks on the other three men's faces.
JD's smile faded quickly away as he stared at Buck. "What do you mean? What's Ezra gotta do with this?"
Buck still didn't realize anything was wrong. He continued to think all their problems had been solved until he told JD what Ezra had said. "Well, Vin told me I should come over here an' help you fellas decorate the church, an' ol' Ezra spoke up an' said 'you should talk to JD while you'rwe d'erwe, Buck. I f'ink he needs to spend some time wif you, too.' I swear, Josiah... you should a seen how serious he--" Buck finally glanced up and saw the twin looks of dismay that now covered Nathan and Josiah's faces. He followed their gaze and turned to stare at JD, frowning when he saw the stricken look in the young boy's dark eyes. <Now what the hell did I do?>
"*Ezra* told you to come over here?" JD spoke softly, pausing as he struggled to believe what he had heard. "You mean to tell me that Ezra had to tell you to come and talk to me... to spend time with me?"
"Aw, come on, JD... don't let's start this all over again. I just didn't realize that you were jealous of--" but that was as far as Buck got.
"Jealous?! You think I'm jealous of you... and... and Ezra of all people? That's just plain stupid... I'm not jealous of anyone! I'm just damn sick and tired of you all fussing over 'im and putting all his feelin's before anyone else's. None of you cared how he felt before... that was me... just me. But now, just because he's got this little *problem* and spoutin' all this garbage about Maude... which probably isn't even true by the way... you make it your own personal crusade to right all the wrong that's been done to 'im. Well, go ahead... spend all your time with 'im... just don't be expectin' me t' be here waitin' for ya when he gets his memory back and pushes you away again!" JD bolted from the pew, shoving his way roughly past Buck in his effort to get out.
Buck jumped up and grabbed at JD's coat as he struggled to leave the church. "JD... what the hell is the matter with you, boy?! I'm sorry if I've been ignorin' ya... but he needs me right now. Can't ya see that?"
JD jerked away from Buck and backed toward the doors. "Yeah, I can see it, Buck... how could I miss it? You'd rather spend all your time with him than me... it's perfectly clear. Don't worry though... I won't be botherin' ya anymore." With that, he turned and hurried out of the church before any of the three men could recover from his tirade and stop him.
The church was bathed in silence for a few moments before Josiah finally heaved a huge sigh and turned to Buck. "Well, you certainly handled that well, Buck. Maybe you better go back and see if Lit'l Ezra can teach you some of that tact and diplomacy he's so famous for. God knows you could use it."
Buck started to stammer out a response, but finally quit when he realized Josiah was right. He'd blown it... and blown it good. He'd had no idea JD was actually jealous of his new relationship with Ezra... he thought the boy would surely understand how much the gambler needed the security of having one person to cling to right now. But he'd been wrong... JD didn't understand... and now he'd probably never get the chance to explain it to him. Lord knows, he'd probably never talk to him again after today.
"I'm sorry..." Buck stared at the other two men, shaking his head sadly. "I didn't realize..." His words ground to a halt as it occurred to him that he should have realized it... he should have seen how much he was hurting JD. Turning away from Josiah and Nathan's accusing stares, Buck made his way up the aisle and out of the church... pausing on the steps to look around. He knew JD would be long gone, but he'd held just a whisper of hope that he'd still be there waiting for him... waiting to make up like they always did. His heart was heavy with guilt as he slowly retraced his steps to the clinic... back to the clinic to face Ezra. He'd just hurt JD, and now he had to do the same to Ezra with the news that Maude was coming to try and take him home. God... could this day get any worse?
Josiah and Nathan stared at the door Buck had disappeared through and then at each other.
Nathan chuckled and shook his head. "And we thought all we had to worry about ruinin' Christmas was Ezra and Chris and their lousy attitudes... who would've expected this one?"
"Not me... that's for sure. I don't know which of those two has the harder head. Buck is totally oblivious to why JD would be jealous, and JD can't see that he's jealous of both Buck *and* Ezra. Maybe if we locked the two of them in a room together, they could get this whole mess worked out. It at least would keep the rest of us out of the line of fire." Josiah sat heavily on one of the wooden benches and stared at the tree. He'd suddenly lost his enthusiasm for decorating and for the holiday itself.
Nathan looked down at him, frowning as he tried to puzzle out something Josiah'd said. "What do ya mean JD's jealous of Ezra? 'Cause he's takin' up all of Buck's time?"
Josiah shook his head. "Nope. Remember what he said when he was... um... *discussing*... his feelings with Buck? That no one cared how Ezra felt before the accident, just him? I think he's jealous because Ezra turned to Buck when he woke up instead of him. The two people he felt closest to have, at least for the moment, pretty much shut him out of their lives. It's no wonder he's hurt and confused."
"Damn... I never thought of it that way, but I 'spect you're right. Now how the heck do we get them t' see it?" Nathan flopped wearily down beside the preacher and thought about how complicated his life had gotten since he'd joined up with these other men. He wouldn't trade what he had now for the world, but it sure wasn't easy balancing seven totally different personalities. Interesting... but definitely not easy.
Ezra waited til he heard Buck's footsteps fading away before gently pulling his hand out of Vin's grasp and staring shyly up at him. He knew he didn't need to be afraid of the long-haired man sitting beside him... knew he was one of his new friends and would never do anything to hurt him... but it was the first time he'd been alone with anyone except Buck. And that scared him a little. Ezra suddenly found himself wishing with all his heart that Buck would come back... and soon.
Vin could see he was nervous, but wasn't sure what to say or do to put him more at ease. For that matter, he was a bit uneasy about the situation himself... he didn't have Buck and Ezra's way with children, and really didn't know what to say to the suddenly timid gambler.
"So... are you startin' to get excited 'bout Christmas yet?" Vin watched as Ezra silently shook his head and scooted a little further down in the bed. <Good goin', Tanner... ya already knew how he felt about Christmas... why don't ya ask 'im another smart question.>
"Um... so how'd you like gettin' your first shave? Was it scary?" Vin shook his head, disgusted with himself as he saw Ezra nod slightly and clutch at the blanket, pulling it up under his chin as his thumb slipped comfortingly into his mouth. <Another good one, Tanner... keep remindin' 'im of scary an' unhappy things... why not just scream 'boo' at 'im an' get it over with. Obviously you're tryin' to make the poor little guy cry.>
Vin turned away from Ezra as he huddled in the middle of the bed, sensing that even just his looking at the Southerner was upsetting to him at the moment. Sighing in exasperation, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his mouth organ. He didn't really know how to play any tunes on the small instrument, just musical sounds... but Vin found the lilting notes soothing when he was tense or upset... maybe they'd work on Ezra, too.
Holding the harmonica to his lips, Vin began breathing in and out, producing a series of soft melodic sounds. He almost missed it, but it happened as he was in the process of taking a breath... a quiet little 'oh' of wonder drifted up to his ears from the slender form curled up amongst the blankets. Peeking out of the corner of one bright blue eye, Vin saw Ezra staring up at him... his head cocked slightly to catch the delicate notes that issued forth from the shiny piece of metal the tracker held to his mouth.
Trying to hold back a smile of amusement, Vin turned his body slightly so that he was angled away from Ezra. He sensed movement on the bed beside him and knew the smaller man was moving closer, trying to see how the sounds were being made. Vin ignored Ezra as he continued to play the strange music, until finally, he felt the gambler's head pressed up against his arm and heard his name spoken in a quiet southern drawl.
"Vin?" Ezra repeated the tracker's name and shifted around in the bed, leaning on the younger man's buckskin clad leg as he looked up into his face. "What is d'at, Vin?"
Turning back around to face Ezra, Vin blew a few more notes before pulling the musical instrument away from his lips and showing it to the wide-eyed gambler. "This? It's a mouth organ, little pard. Ain't ya ever seen one before?"
Ezra shook his head as he reached out and ran his fingers across the smooth metal object that Vin held out to him. "Nuh-uh... I neverw seen nuffin' w'ike d'at. How do you make d'ose sounds? Is it harwd?"
"Naw... it's easy... want t' try it?" Ezra nodded eagerly and Vin held the instrument against his mouth, instructing him to blow into it. The Southerner blew out a puff of air and jumped when a rather loud noise burst forth... his sparkling green eyes growing big as saucers.
"Did I do d'at?" Ezra's voice was soft, and reflected his amazement that he'd actually made it work.
"Yup. Let me show ya how t' make different sounds with it." Vin moved around behind Ezra and put his arms around him, his hand closing around the gambler's as he showed him how to move the mouth organ back and forth across his lips.
Ezra blew softly as instructed and after a few notes, stopped and turned to smile at Vin, the joy of his new found talent dancing in his eyes. "I did it, Vin! I made music jus' w'ike you!"
Vin gave the smaller man a crooked grin and laughed softly. "Well, you're the first one t' ever call the noise I make with this thing music, but ya did real good gettin' the sounds right, pard."
Ezra stared at him solemnly. "But it *is* music, Vin. I watched yourw face... d'ose arwe sounds frwom yourw hearwt... and dat's d' best kind of music."
The quiet tracker stared down at the younger man in amazement... no one had ever understood what those sounds meant to him before. And here was Ezra, with his fragile little five year old mind, taking one look at his face while he played and knowing instantly what he was feeling.
"Can you show me morwe, Vin?" Ezra asked the sharpshooter, totally oblivious to the importance of his last statement. As far as the young gambler was concerned, it was just something he thought everyone must realize when they heard Vin play.
"Sure thing, little guy... here... hold your fingers like this." Vin moved Ezra's slender fingers to cover different holes on the small instrument, and smiled as he felt him quiver with excitement as a new set of notes floated through the air.
Ezra finally forgot his earlier trepidation at being alone with Vin, and leaned comfortably back against him as they played. Vin started slightly when he felt the other man's body pressed against his, but one look down at Ezra's innocent, boyish face and he relaxed... taking an unexpected joy in the man's childlike excitement.
"You got the hang of that real quick there, pard." Vin smiled down at him and felt his heart clench as Ezra twisted around in his arms to pull him into a hug.
"F'ank you, Vin... you guys arwe all so nice to me... I don't everw want to w'eave herwe," Ezra whispered, his voice hitching slightly as he fought the urge to cry.
Vin stiffened at first, not sure how to react to such an overt show of emotion from the usually aloof gambler... but Ezra's words touched his heart. Vin's awkward pats on the back stopped, and he returned his friend's hug with a tenderness he hadn't even known he was capable of. The younger man found himself wondering how in the world they would be able to go back to the way things were, if Ezra returned to his old self with all the same barriers still intact. After seeing this side of him, it would be impossible to treat him with the distance he'd always preferred.
"Don't worry, little pard... you can stay here with us as long as ya like." Vin could tell that poor Buck was in for a tough time when he finally told Ezra that Maude was coming. The gambler would probably immediately assume that they were going to let her take him away and be scared to death. God, he hated Maude for putting the little guy through all that... and all just to exercise her power over him, not with any thought for what was best for him. Vin gave Ezra a little squeeze and sat him back up. "How 'bout we practice some more with this thing, an' then ya can show Buck what ya learned when he gets back?"
Ezra nodded eagerly and turned back around, leaning against Vin once more as they went back to his impromptu music lessons. Soon the clinic was filled with the soft, soothing sounds of the mouth organ intermingled with the two distinct southern drawls of the two men nestled on the bed together.
Buck heard the music coming from the clinic as he climbed the stairs and paused outside the window, staring at the pair inside who were responsible for it. He stood there for a few minutes, quietly watching. Ezra would play several smooth, perfect notes, and then Vin would show him something new... the two brown heads pressed together as the tracker showed the gambler how to position his fingers to make the new sounds. The ladies man smiled softly and decided to let them spend some more time together. Moving carefully away from the window, he settled himself on the bench and leaned back against the wall... hat tipped forward over his eyes, long legs stretched out comfortably in front of him. He sat and let the sweet notes of the mouth organ surround him with a welcome sense of tranquility.
The next thing Buck was aware of was his head hitting the wall as he jerked awake. Rubbing his eyes tiredly, he noticed it was nearly dark... damn... poor Ezra had to be getting hungry, he'd missed dinner and here it was nearly time for supper. He stood and hurried into the clinic... and stopped in surprise when he found Vin sitting on the edge of the bed, lightly rubbing Ezra's back as he slept curled up against the tracker's legs.
Vin motioned for Buck to stay where he was and eased himself off the bed, straightening the blankets and waiting for a couple of seconds to make sure Ezra stayed asleep. Moving quietly away from the bed, he led Buck back outside and stood stretching the kinks out of his back as he chuckled softly. "Have a good nap there, Bucklin?"
Buck grinned sheepishly and glanced at the bench he'd been dozing on. "That music you two were playin' worked like a lullaby... put me right to sleep. How'd ya know I was out here anyway?"
"Nathan came back and brought Ezra some dinner around one o'clock... said ya were out here snorin' away, and that we might as well let ya catch some sleep since the little guy had ya up so early this mornin'." Vin smiled at his friend as Buck pulled out his pocket watch and stared down at it, straining to make out the time in the dim light, and frowning when he saw how late it was.
"Damn... guess I must a been tired after all." Buck looked back in at Ezra. "He been asleep long?"
Vin shook his head. "'Bout a half hour or so... no more 'n that. Guess I plumb wore 'im out with his music lessons."
Buck smiled and clapped Vin on the shoulder. "You did good with 'im, ya know. I watched the two of ya in there for a few minutes an' I could see how comfortable he was with ya."
Vin laughed and ducked his head shyly. "Well, it didn't start out all that smooth... I ain't never been around kids much an' didn't know what the heck t' say t' 'im. I thought he was gonna start cryin' on me til I got 'im playin' around with the mouth organ... he's purty good at it, too."
Hearing the pride in Vin's voice for Ezra's musical ability, Buck realized the gambler had captured another heart. Now why couldn't it happen with JD? He knew if the youngster would just spend some time with Ezra, it would. He'd just have to see if he could arrange it... an hour or so alone with the Southerner, and he'd have JD won over for sure.
As if reading his mind, Vin brought up the subject of their youngest member. "So Nathan tells me it didn't go so good over at the church."
Buck shook his head and looked in at Ezra. "Couldn't a gone much worse. I just don't understand the boy... I know he's young, but shouldn't he be able to see how important takin' care of Ezra is right now?"
Vin let his conversation with Nathan replay itself in his mind, remembering what he'd told him Josiah had said about JD's feelings of jealousy. "Yeah, maybe he *should* be able t' understand, but should don't always work when you're dealin' with strong emotions like JD's feelin' right now."
"The jealousy? Hell, he won't even admit to it an' besides, we could still be spendin' time together if he'd just come up here to the clinic. Ezra'd love to have him here, too... he really likes the Kid." Buck saw Vin shake his head. "What?! Why the hell has everyone I know been shakin' their damn heads at everything I say today?"
Vin sighed and tried to explain it to the obviously confused older man. Buck didn't have a jealous bone in his body and just couldn't understand how anyone else could. "Jealousy's a powerful emotion... an' it ain't always one that's easy t' own up to. Nathan told me that Josiah thinks JD's not just jealous of you... he's jealous of Ezra, too. I gotta admit, I didn't see that side of it til he pointed it out, but think about it, Buck... it makes sense. The Kid has gotten pretty close t' Ezra, always defendin' 'im if we came down too hard on 'im, hangin' around 'im whenever he isn't with you... heck, he's almost as much of a big brother t' JD as you are." Vin finally saw a flicker of understanding cross Buck's face.
"And when Ezra came to an' latched onto me instead of him..." Buck saw where Vin was headed, but he still had his doubts about how much sense it made. "Yeah, but Ezra don't remember nothin' about his life with us... so why would he have any special feelin's for JD? Probably the only reason he's gotten attached to me is 'cause I was the first person he saw when he woke up."
Vin had had the same doubts when Nathan had explained it to him. "Yeah, but JD ain't thinkin' with his head, he's thinkin' with his heart. All he can see is that Ezra didn't turn t' him when he needed help, he turned t' you... an' with ya spendin' all your time with Ezra instead of him like ya used t'... JD's probably thinkin' he's lost both a ya. Then when ya pile on the guilt he's got for bein' jealous an' mad at Ezra when he knows deep down in his heart that he shouldn't... well, it's got him so damned confused that now he don't rightly know what he *is* feelin'."
"I noticed that he seems a mite uncomfortable around Ezra, too. I don't think he knows how to handle 'im bein' so open and affectionate now... but I think I've got a plan to change that. An' maybe if I can get 'im involved with taking care of Ezra, he'll get over being nervous around 'im and understand why we all feel the need to protect 'im." Buck glanced down at the street and saw JD entering the sheriff's office. His head hung down, and there was none of the usual bounce in his step... he walked as if he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Buck hated seeing him that way, and hoped his plan would make everything right between them again.
JD looked up in surprise as Vin entered the jail... he wasn't due to relieve him for another two hours. "Early aren't ya?"
"Nah... I'm on my way over t' grab some supper. Buck wanted me to stop an' ask ya t' run over t' the clinic for a few minutes... he needs ya t' stay with Ezra while he runs an' gets some clean clothes from his room." Vin watched as JD's mouth turned down, and knew he was going to have trouble convincing him.
"Why couldn't you have stayed with 'im?" JD sank lower in his chair. He'd had enough of arguing with Buck for one day, and he didn't want to go through it again.
"I need t' grab some supper before I have t' relieve ya here, otherwise I'd a been glad t' stay with 'im." Vin didn't know who he felt sorrier for... JD for feeling so miserable... or poor Ezra who just wanted to be friends with the boy. "It's not so bad, JD... ya just need t' be around 'im a little more t' get used t' 'im."
"I didn't say it was bad bein' around 'im," JD grumbled defensively. "But I'm supposed to be on guard as long as we've got a prisoner in here."
Vin just stared at him. JD knew as well as he did that old Mr. Sanderson didn't actually need guarding.
JD sighed in exasperation. He knew they wouldn't leave it alone until he went... if Vin didn't convince him, one of the others would inexplicably drop by with another excuse for him to go to the clinic. "Okay... fine... I'll go, but Buck better not take too long. Mr. Sanderson's just about sobered up, and he'll be wantin' to get outta here and go home soon."
Vin nodded and turned to leave. Pausing with one hand on the door latch, he looked back at the younger man. "Give Ezra a chance, JD... you're really missin' out on somethin' special by not spendin' time with 'im."
JD watched Vin go out and quietly close the door behind him. He knew Vin was right. He'd seen how much enjoyment everyone else seemed to be getting out of Ezra as a little boy... but it just really made him uncomfortable being around him. JD hadn't figured out why yet... but it did.
Pushing himself reluctantly up out of his chair... JD checked on his prisoner one more time, took the keys and left the jail. <Might as well get this over with... but Buck better damn well hurry... I ain't stayin' up there long.>
Buck had decided not to even mention what had happened at the church... he didn't want to give JD an excuse to go storming back out. So when he finally got there, the ladies man merely told him Ezra was still sleeping, and he'd be back as soon as he grabbed his clothes and picked up some supper for the two of them. Then he hurried out of the clinic before Ezra woke up and JD changed his mind.
JD was surprised but relieved when Buck left so quickly... he'd been sure the older man was going to give him another lecture as soon as he got there. The young sheriff moved slowly over to stare down at Ezra... his dark eyes widening and then drawing down in a frown when he saw that the gambler was lying there curled up in the bed, sucking his thumb. <For cryin' out loud... how could they let 'im do that? Ezra would hate it if he knew anyone had seen 'im like this.> Reaching down, he slowly eased it out of his mouth... holding his breath as Ezra whimpered softly, his lips moving as they searched for the comforting presence of his thumb. Just when JD thought for sure the Southerner was going to wake up, he sighed and pressed his face deeper into the pillow and settled back into sleep.
Seeing Ezra like this, so vulnerable and young looking, JD's guilt began to make itself felt again. This was just Ezra after all, his friend... and it *was* partly his fault that he was hurt in the first place. The young man reached out a tentative hand and ran his fingers gently over the sleeping gambler's arm. He tried again to understand why he kept having these feelings of resentment... but before he could even begin to puzzle it out, the image of Buck and Ezra constantly huddled together on the bed popped into his head. It was as if it were just the two of them against the world... with no room for him in their lives anymore.
JD jerked his hand back, and mumbling angrily to himself, stalked over to the window to watch for Buck's return. "I'll be glad when Maude gets here an' takes 'im home with her, then things can go back to the way they were." He never noticed that Ezra had awoken and was listening, his face a mask of hurt and fear.
Buck came whistling down the stairs of the saloon with a bundle of clothes under his arm. Vin and Chris looked up as he came over to their table... a scowl darkening the blonde man's features.
"Don't you think you'd best be gettin' yourself back up to the clinic? JD's been alone with Ezra for over an hour now... aren't you even a little worried about how things might be going?" Chris hadn't been too thrilled with Buck's plan to bring the Kid and Ezra together... he wasn't sure JD was ready to accept the gambler's new place in Buck's life just yet.
"Nah... you've been around Ezra, Chris... how could the Kid possibly not be won over by 'im? All JD needed was to be forced to spend some time with 'im... they're probably up there havin' a good ol' time gettin' to know one another again." Buck smiled, positive he'd solved everything with his two friends.
"Yeah, well... just the same, I'd feel better if you got your butt back over there and made sure. Besides, aren't you supposed to get some supper for Ezra? Nathan'll have your head if he finds out you were late feedin' him." Chris had to smile when he saw the grin on Buck's face falter as he thought about Nathan's protective attitude when it came to the childlike Southerner.
Vin chuckled as Buck left the table without another word, hurrying over to the bar to ask Inez to box him up some food to take to the clinic. It was common knowledge that Nathan was worse than a mother bear protecting her cub when it came to one of them being sick or injured... and none of them wanted to cross him when he got like that. Not even Buck.
JD was still standing at the window watching for him when Buck left the saloon. "Finally." He glanced back at Ezra and seeing that he was still apparently asleep, decided to go ahead and leave... not wanting to get in another argument with Buck right then.
Slipping out the door, JD closed it quietly behind him and ran lightly down the stairs and across the street to the jail. He never glanced toward the saloon or he would have seen Buck disappearing into the alley that led back to the livery. And if he'd have taken one last look back at the clinic, he would have seen Ezra standing at the window, tears streaming down his face as he felt his new safe world crumbling to pieces around him.
Buck was hurrying past the alley, when he was suddenly grabbed by the arm and jerked back into the shadows. Before he could react, he found himself pinned against the wall of the general store by Millie, whose hands were frantically tearing at his clothes as her mouth captured his in a breath-stealing kiss.
The ladies man dropped his two bundles and desperately tried to get a hold of her hands, which seemed to be everywhere at once. He managed to pull his head back and break the kiss, gasping for air as he tried to reason with the woman.
"Millie... darlin', stop..." But Buck's pleas fell on deaf ears. Millie lunged forward and locked him into another searing kiss as she managed to drag his coat off and start on his shirt.
"Buck... I've missed you so much..." Millie continued her assault on Buck, whose protests were weakening rapidly. The heated touch of her hands and lips had his mind reeling until he lost all thoughts of the clinic, Ezra or anything other than the woman pressed against him. Buck made one last feeble attempt to break her hold on him, but her fingers finally reached the bare skin of his chest and with a fierce growl of desire, he pulled her tightly against him and returned her kiss with an intensity that surprised them both.
Ezra stared out into the street, his face pressed against the cool glass of the window as he watched JD enter the jail. <D'ey pwomised me d'ey wouldn't send me away... *Buck* pwomised me.> Then his tears slowed as he convinced himself that the older man would have told him if his mama was coming... maybe JD was wrong.
Suddenly he spotted Buck going into an alley down the street, and decided he would go ask him if what JD said was true. Ezra knew Buck would tell him the truth... he'd never lie to him.
Ezra opened the door and stared out into the dark for a few minutes, scared to go out and at the same time scared not to... what if his mama came while he was in the clinic alone... he needed to get to Buck. Buck would protect him.
Clinging tightly to the railing, Ezra eased his still sore body down the steps and onto the boardwalk. The temperature had dropped and the light rain that had been falling most of the day had become considerably heavier since the sun had set. The planking was cold beneath Ezra's bare feet, but he hardly noticed since his entire attention was focused on finding Buck. Looking around, he spotted the alley he'd seen the ladies man disappear into. Carefully staying in the shadows of the buildings, he slowly made his way toward it... jumping at every sound that seemed to spring out of the night at him.
Ezra saw some men stagger out of the saloon, yelling and gesticulating wildly as they angled across the street in the general direction of the clinic. The terrified gambler pressed himself against the front of the bank, waiting quietly, heart pounding, until they had passed him... then hurried across the street and approached the spot where he'd last seen Buck.
Ezra stopped at the entrance to the alley, jumping as he suddenly heard a loud moaning coming from the darkness in front of him. He started to turn and run, but realized that Buck could be hurt and in need of his help. Creeping forward slowly, he whispered the older man's name. "Buck? Is d'at you? Arwe you aw'w'ight, Buck?"
Further down the alley, Buck thought he heard his name being called and tried to pull away from Millie... but she jerked him back against her, murmuring his name as her fingers fumbled with the buttons of his drawers. Buck struggled half-heartedly to get away from her... he knew he needed to get back to the clinic... but his head swam with the emotions that the overzealous woman's onslaught had set off. "Millie... I'd love to, darlin'... but... we're gettin' wet... I need t' get back t' the... stop... st-... oohh... damn..."
Suddenly Buck was jerked back to reality by a loud gasp and a jolt as someone ran into him, pushing and striking out at Millie as they tried to get in between the half-naked gunman and his supposed attacker.
"W'eave 'im a'wone! Get away frwom 'im!" Buck stared in amazement at Ezra as he flailed his fists wildly, fiercely determined to protect his friend.
Buck took a painful hit to the nose from one of Ezra's badly aimed punches at Millie, and in a desperate attempt to stop the attack, grasped the smaller man around the waist and swung him back out of reach of the bewildered woman.
"Ezra! Stop it right now!!" Buck shouted in Ezra's face as he held his arms pinned to his sides and shook him roughly. "What are ya doin' out here?! Why the hell'd ya leave the clinic?!"
Ezra froze and stared at Buck with wide, green eyes that quickly filled with tears. With a strangled sob, he tore himself from the gunman's painful grip and ran with an awkward, limping gait back down the alley.
Immediately realizing what he'd done, Buck attempted to run after the fleeing gambler. "Ezra! Wait! I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-" but forgetting about the pants that were pooled around his ankles, he only succeeded in falling flat on his face with the first step he took. He scrambled back up, dragging his pants up over his hips... but Ezra was already rounding the corner into the street, his nightshirt flapping around his bare legs as he ran. "Oh God... Ezra... I'm so sorry..." Buck whispered sadly as he scrambled around in the dark searching for the rest of his clothes. When he was finally dressed, he ignored the angry recriminations coming from Millie, and raced down the alley after the younger man.
Ezra felt the small stones and pieces of broken glass that littered the alley gouging the bottoms of his feet, but he ignored the pain. All he wanted was to be back in the clinic, safe in his bed... and have this all just be a horrible nightmare.
Ezra heard Buck call his name, but refused to stop until he'd made it safely across the deserted street. Once he made it onto the boardwalk, he looked back over his shoulder to see if the ladies man was following him. Finding the street still empty, the gambler turned and took two steps toward the stairs that led up to the clinic before he was stopped by a pair of large hands coming down on his shoulders.
"Well, what have we here... Wee Willie Winkie?" The three huge, drunken men surrounding Ezra roared with laughter at their little joke. The one who had spoken had long, matted red hair, a big, filthy red beard, and towered over the slightly built Southerner. "Well, come on, little man... ain't ya gonna answer me?!"
Ezra trembled from the cold and fear as he tried to back away from the terrifying man, but was stopped by another large, dirty pair of hands that wrapped themselves in the material of his nightshirt and lifted him practically off his feet. Shoving his face in close to the terrified gambler's, the man growled and demanded an answer to his partner's question. His fetid breath nearly made Ezra gag as he struggled to remember what the other man had asked.
The third giant of a man moved in behind Ezra, grabbing his shoulder and shaking him as he repeated the first man's question. "He asked ya if ya were Wee Willie Winkie!! Ya better answer 'im if ya knows what's good fer ya!"
Ezra looked frantically over their shoulders to see if Buck had emerged from the alley yet, but the street was empty except for himself and the three wretched men who had him in their grip. He dragged his eyes back to them and forced himself to answer... his voice quivering with fear and his cheeks wet with a mixture of rain and tears. "My name's not Wiwwie... it's Ezwa."
The men just stared incredulously at the tear-stained face of the man-child standing before them. Finally after a moment of stunned silence, they burst into raucous laughter and began mimicking Ezra. "'My name's Ezwa'... what the hell's the matter with ya boy? Are ya stupid?"
"Must be, Jake... he's out here wanderin' around in his cute little nightgown in the rain... cain't be too damn bright, now can he?" The men all laughed harshly ignoring the fact that they were standing out in the rain, too... they were just too drunk to realize it. Ezra was so scared, he couldn't even think... he just knew he wanted to get away from these bad men and back to the safety of the clinic. "Pwease w'et me g-go. I h-have to go to b-bed now."
The creature who was holding Ezra up in the air set him down and smoothed out his nightshirt... apologizing profusely as he did so. "Oh, I'm so sorry, little man... I didn't realize it was past your bedtime. Here, let me help ya along." Ezra warily attempted to move away from the man, but was suddenly shoved hard from behind, catapulting him into the largest of the three... the one with the disgusting red beard.
"What the hell d' ya think you're doin' runnin' into me like that?! Ain't ya got no manners at all??" Ezra cried out in pain as the man grabbed his broken arm and jerked him back towards his partners. He began sobbing as they continued pushing him back and forth, grabbing at his nightshirt in an effort to rip it off... threatening to leave him naked in the street if he didn't quit trying to get away.
JD came out of the jail to see what all the commotion was and stood stunned for a moment at the sight of Ezra being tormented by the three drunken men towering over him. "Aw shit... Ezra." His friend's cry of pain galvanized JD into action, and he tore across the street and threw himself at Ezra's attackers. The boy managed to knock one of the men off his feet, but was quickly grabbed by the other two who shoved him into the frightened Southerner, driving them both off the boardwalk and into the muddy street.
Buck came flying out of the alley, jerking on his coat, and Chris and Vin came barreling out of the saloon at the same time. Seeing their two young friends thrown down in the street and the drunken men closing in on them, they rushed to their rescue.
JD struggled to push himself up off of Ezra, who lay moaning and sobbing beneath him. The gambler had landed hard on his left side, reawakening the pain of his bruises, and starting a new throbbing ache in his still-healing arm. Before their friends could get to them, both young men had been jerked to their feet and sent reeling again by matching blows to the face.
Chris and Vin reached the men before Buck and had them subdued in a matter of moments. They sobered up quickly after finding themselves staring down the barrels of Vin's mares leg and Chris's Colt.
Buck immediately went to where Ezra lay crying, curled up in a ball of pain, and knelt down in the mud beside him. "Oh, God... Ezra... did they hurt ya, Little One?" He tried to pull the gambler into his arms, but he cried out when Buck moved him, grabbing his arm and cradling it tightly against his body. The older man looked up when he heard Nathan and Josiah's concerned voices, and spotted JD being tended to a few feet away.
"God damn it, JD!! What the hell happened?! You were supposed to stay with 'im!!" Buck was shouting angrily at the young man, not paying any attention to JD's attempts to apologize or explain... or the stricken look on his face at his former best friend's total lack of concern over his own possible injuries.
Chris saw some of the townsfolk headed their way and immediately whispered urgently to Nathan and Buck. "Get Ezra back up to the clinic now." They'd wanted to keep the gambler's problem a secret. Other than Mary and Inez, no one else in the small town had been told exactly what was wrong with him... just that he'd been injured in the fall and was slowly recovering. Turning back to Vin, he gestured toward the three now docile and repentant prisoners. "You and Josiah get these three fools outta town, and make sure they know enough not to come back... we don't need them spreading the news about Ezra."
Vin and Josiah shoved their prisoners roughly toward the livery, following closely behind them. They'd definitely make sure the bastards knew what people around here thought of anyone who would take advantage of someone in Ezra's condition. The three men would wish they'd never even heard of Four Corners, much less stopped there.
Buck and Nathan managed to ease Ezra carefully to his feet, scooping him up between them as his legs threatened to fold under him. The gambler sobbed pitifully as they carried him quickly up the stairs, his face pressed tightly against Buck's shoulder, his tears quickly adding to the dampness of the gunman's shirt.
Chris watched them go and then knelt beside JD who still sat in the mud, his eyes never leaving Buck... the hurt and guilt warring for dominance in his heart, with the hurt finally winning out.
"You alright, son?" Chris saw JD's eyes follow Buck up the stairs and knew the pain the boy was feeling had nothing to do with the darkening bruise on his jaw. Buck's angry words and uncaring attitude had hurt the boy more than any punch possibly could, and Chris wasn't surprised when JD pulled away from him, mumbled he was fine, and stalked back over to the jail.
Chris started to follow, but decided to give him some time to cool off before he tried talking to him. Something was going to have to give soon though, or JD and Buck would never be able to get back to the closeness they'd shared practically since their first meeting.
After assuring the few concerned people who were still standing around that everything was alright... it had been just a few drunks who were now on their way out of town... Chris headed up the stairs to see how Ezra was doing. He hoped the gambler was not too bruised or shaken up... the Judge was coming tomorrow and this definitely wouldn't help their attempts to gain custody of him. He hated the idea of leaving Four Corners now, but he knew that's what they'd all do if the Judge ruled against them. Chris glanced back over his shoulder at the jail... at least he *hoped* all of them would be going.
Nathan and Buck ignored Ezra's cries of protest and stripped his rain soaked nightshirt off of him, wiping away as much of the mud as they could. He was going to need a bath, but it would have to wait until in the morning when he'd had a chance to calm down and get some rest. After slipping a dry nightshirt over his shivering form, they settled him in the bed so Nathan could check him over. He had to wash out the small cuts on the bottom of the younger man's feet and disinfect them, but his only other injuries were bruises... a few new ones on his arm and the nasty one that was slowly darkening on his jaw.
Buck sat on the bed beside Ezra and smoothed his still damp hair off his forehead. The gambler lay on his right side, staring at the wall... his breath hitching every few minutes as he fought the urge to cry again. Other than a few quiet sobs, he'd been silent since they'd carried him into the clinic. "You gonna talk to me, Little One?" Buck waited a few minutes, but got no response from the younger man.
Nathan watched as Buck placed his hand on Ezra's back and began moving it slowly in small circles, massaging the tense muscles until he finally felt the slender form relax. "Ezra... please talk to me. I'm sorry I yelled at ya in the alley... ya just startled me, that's all... I didn't expect to see ya there." He felt the smaller man's breathing become more rapid and the muscles tense back up. "Why'd ya leave the clinic, pard?"
Chris walked in just in time to hear Buck's question and stopped, standing quietly by the door as he waited for Ezra's answer. He was curious as to what would have made the Southerner leave the safety of the clinic.
Ezra turned his face just enough to enable him to look up into Buck's eyes. His lower lip quivered, and the tears trickled down his cheeks as he stared at the ladies man. "I was scarwed." His voice was so low and soft, they had to strain to hear him.
"Scared of what, Ezra?" Chris asked, moving to squat beside the bed and wrapping his hand around the cold fingers that clutched at the blankets.
"Goin' away." Ezra's eyes shifted from Buck's face to Chris's. The gunslinger began gently rubbing the gambler's hand between his own, trying to bring some warmth back into it. He glanced at Buck to see if he knew what Ezra was talking about, but the other man merely shrugged and shook his head.
"No one's goin' anywhere, Ezra." Chris saw a flicker of doubt in the shiny green eyes that stared intently back at him. "Who'd you think was goin' away?"
Ezra looked up at each of the three men who seemed to honestly not know what he was talking about. <Maybe JD had been wrong? Or had he been drweamin'?> Ezra thought back and distinctly remembered opening his eyes and watching JD walk towards the window as he said it. Ezra's hopes fell again as he realized it hadn't been a dream.
Buck, Chris and Nathan watched as the expression in Ezra's eyes changed from doubt, to hope, and finally back to the fear again. "Come on, pard... tell us. Who's goin' away?"
"I am. JD said. He said Mama was comin' t' take me home wif herw... an' he was g'wad... an' d'at d'en everwyfing can be d' way it was beforwe." Ezra's voice trembled as he whispered the words, his heart breaking at the thought of leaving all his new friends... of leaving Buck. His eyes filled with tears as he stared up at the ladies man, and he began to sob. "I don't wanna w'eave you, Buck... you pwomised I wouldn't have to. Did I do somefin' w'eawy bad? If I did, I'm sowwy... I'm w'eawy sowwy, Buck!"
Buck tried to speak around the huge lump that had formed in his throat. He bent over and gathered Ezra up in his arms, rocking him back and forth as he murmured reassurances in his ear, his face pressed tightly against the younger man's. The feel of Ezra's hot, scalding tears on his cheek making the lump in his throat grow impossibly bigger until he could barely choke out the words. "You're not leavin' me, Little One... I told ya that. No one's takin' ya away from me, not even your mama... no one."
Ezra raised his head up and stared into Buck's eyes. "Buck? Did you know my mama was comin' to get me?"
Buck stared sadly back at Ezra, wishing desperately that he'd told him about Maude sooner. He finally nodded. "Yeah, Little One... I did. But we're not lettin' her take ya away from here... I promise."
Ezra's voice had an accusing note to it now. It was hard for him to understand all this. He'd thought he could trust Buck, but he hadn't told him about his mama, and he hadn't been there when he needed him... so how could he believe him when he said they weren't sending him away. "Why didn't you tewll me? Arwe you surwe you'rwe not tirwed of takin' carwe of me? Is d'at why JD was herwe when I woke up 'stead of you?"
Buck tried to pull Ezra back into his arms, but he pushed him away and reached down to hold Chris's hand instead. Buck didn't think anything could ever hurt him more than the look of mistrust that settled over the gambler's face.
"I was gonna tell ya, Ezra... but I kept gettin' interrupted an' then ya fell asleep. An' of course I'm not gettin' tired of takin' care of ya... I love bein' here with you. I just had to get some clean clothes an' some supper for us... an' I thought it might be good for JD to spend some time with ya." He could see the doubt still lingering in those bright green eyes, and realized just how lame his words probably sounded to his young mind. Ezra was right, he should have told him right away about his mama... and now he realized he should have waited til the younger man was awake and told him he was leaving him with JD. It had never even occurred to him that JD would just blurt out the news about Maude like that... or worse yet, that he'd leave the vulnerable gambler alone.
Buck shot a determined look at Chris and Nathan and eased himself up off the bed. It was time he had a talk with JD... they had to get this straightened out now. It was one thing when it was just between him and the boy, but now it had affected Ezra... and it could have gotten him seriously hurt.
"I'm goin' over to the jail... I'll be back in a few minutes. You'll stay with 'im?" Buck nodded at Ezra, and watched sadly as the gambler held tighter to Chris's hand, but made no protest at his leaving.
Chris and Nathan sat down on the bed beside Ezra and nodded. "Take it easy on 'im, Buck... at least give the Kid a chance to explain." Chris saw his friend nod, but also saw the anger and hurt flashing in his deep blue eyes. "Remember... he's hurtin' over this whole mess, too."
Buck opened his mouth to say something, and then thought better of it and merely nodded again before leaving.
Ezra had sat silently between the gunslinger and the healer, and his only reaction to Buck saying he was leaving had been a tightening of his hold on Chris's fingers. But the minute the door closed, he began to tremble... and looking at him, Chris and Nathan saw the battle he was waging to hold himself together.
Chris let go of his hand and opened his arms to the smaller man. "Ezra..." Chris spoke his name softly, and the compassion and understanding in his voice was all it took to push the gambler over the edge. Ezra threw himself into the waiting arms and clung to Chris as he sobbed uncontrollably... convinced that he'd just lost his best friend, and that his new happy life was over.
Buck stood outside the jail looking in at JD. The boy sat slumped in the chair behind the desk, and looked as if he would burst into tears at any moment. Buck felt most of his anger drain away as he saw how miserable the Kid looked, and realized Chris was right... he was hurting just as much as Ezra was.
Buck opened the door and stepped inside... a small smile appearing on his face as he heard the loud snoring coming from one of the cells. "Mr. Sanderson?" When JD nodded, the gunman grabbed the keys and unlocked the cell door... shaking his head at the sleeping form sprawled across one of the cots. The farmer was a regular on the weekends... drinking himself into oblivion to escape, at least for a short while, the nagging, domineering woman he'd married.
"Come on, Jacob... time to head on home." Buck shook the man several times before a pair of blood-shot eyes finally peered up at him.
"Damn... is it that time already, Buck?" Sanderson was reluctant to leave... he knew the battle that would ensue when he arrived back at the farm. With a grunt of pain as his head began to throb, he pushed himself up onto his feet, weaving and grabbing at Buck's arm as he waited for the room to stop spinning.
Buck laughed softly at the other man's obvious discomfort, and led him toward the door as soon as he seemed steady on his feet. "You gonna be able to make it okay?" He kept his hand on Sanderson's elbow as he walked him out onto the boardwalk.
"Yeah, thanks, Buck... I'll be fine... at least til I get home anyway." Sanderson grinned ruefully at the thought of the tongue lashing he was in for, and headed slowly toward the livery.
Buck laughed and watched until the farmer turned into the alley leading to the stables, then reentered the jail and closed the door. He stared at JD, who was nervously fiddling with a pencil lying on the desk. When the boy finally turned his dark eyes up to him, he asked softly, "You okay?"
JD just nodded and lowered his eyes back to the desk. "Ezra alright?"
Buck sighed at the despondent tone of the young boy's voice, and moved over to perch on the edge of the desk beside him. "He's scared to death... disappointed in me... but physically he's okay. A few new cuts an' bruises, but nothing serious." When JD just nodded and refused to look up, Buck reached out and touched his arm. "What happened, JD... why'd ya tell 'im?"
JD looked up at Buck... confusion apparent on his face. He was expecting Buck to ask about his leaving Ezra alone... not this. "Tell 'im what?"
Buck frowned at JD's reaction. "That Maude is comin' for 'im... that's why he got upset an' left the clinic... he was lookin' for me to find out if it was true. An' for that matter, why'd ya leave 'im alone like that? I asked ya to stay with 'im til I got back."
JD stared at Buck for a moment, thinking back to what occurred while he was staying with Ezra, and then realization dawned on him and pain filled his eyes at the damage his careless words had caused. "I thought he was asleep... I was just mumblin' to myself 'cause I was mad... I didn't realize he was listenin' to me." He was willing to take the blame for that one, but his voice turned indignant when he answered the question about leaving before he was supposed to. "As for leavin' 'im alone... I thought you were on your way back. I saw ya leave the saloon and head this way, so I left and went back to the jail. I just wasn't ready to talk to ya yet." JD shot Buck an accusing look. "Where the heck did ya go, anyway? You should of made it back there before he had a chance to even get outta the room."
Buck's face flushed with color as he remembered what had happened in the alley... JD was right, he had no business piling all the blame for this on him. All he could think about was the incredibly hurt look on Ezra's face when he'd shouted at him in the alley, and the disappointment in his eyes when he found out Buck had known his mama was coming. And now here was JD looking at him with all that same hurt and disappointment on his young face.
"You're right, JD... an' I'm sorry. This is more my fault than yours. I should've told Ezra about Maude an' not taken the chance of him finding out accidentally. An' I would have been back here before he'd had a chance to even get to the street, but... " He stared at the boy and knew if he told him why he was late getting back to the clinic, that look of disappointment would deepen... but he just couldn't lie to him. "Millie grabbed me an' dragged me into the alley as I went by. I tried to get away from her, but I guess I didn't try hard enough."
JD stared at Buck as if he'd grown a second head... and then he surprised Buck, and even himself, when he started to laugh. "Buck... I've seen Millie, remember? She's smaller than I am... you couldn't get away from her?"
Buck smiled sheepishly. "Yeah, well... she's a lot stronger than she looks... an' she'd missed me. She was pretty determined to keep me in there." He looked with admiration at JD... the Kid had a huge capacity for forgiveness. Buck knew how much JD looked up to him, and it continually amazed him... because he had no idea why he did. He just knew he didn't want to lose their friendship... and he also knew he was going to have to work hard to keep it.
"JD... I'm sorry I've been neglectin' ya." JD shook his head and started to tell him it was okay, to just forget it, but Buck stopped him. "No, son... it's not okay. It's never okay to take advantage of a friendship as deep as ours. I did a whole lot of assuming, an' never gave a thought to how ya really felt. I got real attached to Lit'l Ezra an' I just assumed you would, too... of course, Ezra didn't give me a whole lot of choice in the matter." Buck chuckled as he thought about how the gambler had latched onto him with both hands and his heart. Nope, no choice in the matter at all. "But I never even paid attention to the fact that you weren't findin' it as easy to deal with 'im. I should've seen it an' tried to help ya with it."
"Yeah, well... maybe I should of told ya how I was feelin' about it all.. but I just kept waitin' for ya to notice. When you didn't say anything about it, I just assumed ya' knew but didn't care... that ya wanted it to be just you and Ezra." JD sighed and shook his head. "Then I kept havin' these strange feelin's about Ezra... like I was losin' him, too. I couldn't figure out why I was feelin' that way until just before you got here. I finally realized I was mad 'cause he-"
"'Cause he turned to me instead of you?" Buck smiled when he saw the surprise on JD's face. "Wasn't me figured it out, it was Josiah. Said you'd been gettin' almost as close to Ezra as ya were to me, an' ya probably felt like we we're both pushin' ya away now. I didn't think it made any sense 'cause Ezra didn't remember ya from before, but Vin said ya were thinkin' with your heart instead of your head."
JD nodded. "I sat here tryin' to tell myself what I was feelin' didn't make sense... but that didn't stop me feelin' it. Guess Vin's right... my heart just wanted me to be close to Ezra again... *our* Ezra... and I resented *Lit'l* Ezra for takin' him and you away from me. Crazy, huh?" He grinned ruefully up at Buck waiting for the ladies man to agree with him, but to his surprise he shook his head.
"Not crazy... just human. Ya can't help what ya feel in your heart, JD." Buck stuck his hand out and smiled nervously at the boy. "Friends again?"
JD grinned up at him and gripped Buck's hand hard. "Friends."
Buck heaved a huge sigh of relief and stood up. "Well then, how 'bout we go over to the clinic an' see if we can get Ezra to forgive us. An' then tomorrow we'll all get to work on givin' him the biggest, best Christmas a little boy... um... a man... could have."
"Sounds darn good to me, Buck. So... did you and Millie have a nice... um... talk... while ya were in that alley?" JD's grin grew even wider as Buck knocked his hat forward over his eyes as they left the jail. He hadn't realized just how much he'd missed his big brother til now. Reaching up, the younger man grabbed Buck's floppy hat right off his head before racing across the street, his laughter trailing behind him as the ladies man yelled and gave chase.
Vin and Josiah saw the two of them romping in the street as they came riding back into town and exchanged identical looks of relief. At least that part of their family was back to normal... now if they could only get Ezra back, everything would be right with their world again.
Chris was holding tightly to a squirming and reluctant Ezra while Nathan tried to coax him into drinking the mug of tea he held to his lips, when Buck and JD entered the clinic. Ezra immediately began crying for the ladies man, his arms reaching out for him and nearly knocking the mug from Nathan's hands.
"Buck! Make d'em stop... pwease... I don't wanna drwink no tea... it's too yucky!" With an incredible ability to forgive that only a child has, Ezra immediately dismissed how mad and hurt he'd been with Buck the minute the man stepped into the room.
Nathan and Chris both moved off the bed, gladly giving over the care of the tired and fractious Southerner to Buck and JD.
"Here... he's all yours... maybe you can get 'im calmed down, 'cause nothin' we've done has worked," Nathan announced as he wiped the spilled tea off his hands and arms and Chris mopped it off his pants.
Buck immediately moved to the bed and into Ezra's arms, wincing as the smaller man's splints dug into his back. He scowled up at the other two men, and demanded to know what the hell they had done to his Little One.
Nathan just stared at him, his mouth hanging open in shock. "What *we* did?! You're kiddin' right?"
JD pushed past them to join Buck and Ezra on the bed, rubbing the gambler's back and frowning as he felt him trembling beneath his hand. He reached out and pulled the blanket up off the bed, wrapping it tightly around Ezra before adding his indignant comments to Buck's. "Yeah... he's freezin'... how come ya got him sittin' here in the cold instead of tucked in the bed where he belongs?"
Chris saw the vein in Nathan's temple begin to throb as he gaped at the three men on the bed, his mouth opening and closing as he struggled to express his outrage at the ungrateful treatment he and Chris were receiving. "Why, you... you..."
Pulling gently on the healer's arm, Chris moved him toward the door. "Come on, Nathan... I think we deserve a drink after that... I'm buyin'." He had no idea how it had happened and at that point, he didn't really care. All he did know was that Buck and JD seemed to finally be back together... and Lit'l Ezra was back in Buck's arms where he belonged. And that was good enough for him.
"But they... we..." Nathan was still sputtering as Chris pulled him out the door and shut it quietly behind them. The healer turned on the man in black once they were outside, demanding to know how he could let them get away with that.
Chris merely turned him so he could see in the window. "Hush up and look."
Nathan scowled at him for a moment before doing as he asked. Staring in through the window, he finally realized what had happened. By some miracle, the dissension that had torn the three brothers apart had finally been resolved. A smile spread across his handsome dark face as he watched the three of them huddled together on the bed. Ezra was perched on the edge of the bed between Buck and JD, and was chattering away as his two *big* brothers petted and fussed over him. "Now how the hell did that happen?"
Chris slapped Nathan on the back and laughed softly. "It's Christmas, Nathan... a time for miracles. Come on, let's go get that drink. I don't know about you, but I need one."
Nathan took one last look at the three men in his clinic and shaking his head, followed Chris down the stairs and out into the street.
They met Josiah and Vin coming out of the alley leading from the livery, and stopped to see how they'd made out. The sharpshooter was carrying the bundle of clothes Buck had dropped in the alley, and started towards the clinic with them.
Chris laid a hand on his arm and stopped him. "That can wait for a bit. We've got a family reunion of sorts goin' on up there... let's go have a drink and let them have some time alone."
Vin and Josiah looked at each other in confusion, but allowed Chris and Nathan to steer them towards the saloon. "We'll explain everything once we get a few drinks in us. It's been a long day, and I think we all could use a break."
As soon as Buck and JD had gotten Ezra convinced that they weren't mad at him, and that they had no intentions of leaving him alone again, they managed to get him to drink what was left of the tea. While they waited for the tea to take effect, Buck had had JD run over to the saloon and grab some soup and a couple of biscuits for the gambler... he never had gotten any supper, since it had been left with Buck's bundle of clothes in the alley.
Ezra ate slowly and carefully, his eyes rarely straying from the bowl of soup Buck held for him. He was determined to get through this meal without spilling anything on himself for a change. Buck had wanted to feed him, knowing how tired he was getting, but the younger man obstinately refused... the only help he accepted was JD's. After every few spoonfuls of soup, the boy raised a biscuit to the gambler's mouth so he could take a bite... and even that Ezra managed to consume without dropping a crumb. When he finally finished, he inspected the towel Buck had tucked under his chin and grinned at the two men, proud beyond belief that there wasn't a spot of food anywhere on it.
"Will ya look at that, JD? He ate that whole bowl an' didn't spill a drop... not even Nathan could do that good!" Buck took the towel and wiped Ezra's mouth for him, enjoying the smile that seemed to stretch from one ear to another.
"Heck, Buck... even Chris couldn't a done as good as our little brother here did." JD ruffled Ezra's hair affectionately and watched the emerald green eyes widen at his words.
"I'm yourw w'ittle bwuvver now?" Ezra's head swiveled to look at Buck. "Am I, Buck?"
Buck grinned at JD and slipped an arm around Ezra, hugging him tight. "You bet ya are, little pard... you're now the proud owner of six big brothers... what d'ya think of that?"
They didn't think it was possible, but Ezra's smile got even wider as he took in the fact that he actually belonged to a real family now. Buck watched with amusement as the smile turned into a yawn, and realized the tea was finally taking hold and it was time to get him settled in the bed.
"Okay, pard... looks like it's your bedtime. How 'bout ya lean over against JD there an' let me get these blankets turned down for ya." Buck felt him press back against him slightly as he turned to stare at the boy. He'd noticed that the whole time they'd sat there talking, Ezra had taken great care not to touch or get too close to JD. It was almost as if he sensed that it made the young peacekeeper uncomfortable.
JD looked at Buck, who nodded encouragingly at him... and then reached out to tug gently at Ezra's sleeve. "It's okay, little guy... I don't mind."
Ezra looked up at Buck, and then slowly inched over to JD and leaned carefully back against him. JD hesitated for a second and then, deciding it didn't feel so strange after all, wrapped his arms around the Southerner and gave him a little hug. "You okay?"
Ezra nodded and turned to look back at JD. "Arwe you?"
JD smiled and pressed his forehead lightly against Ezra's. "Yeah... I think we're both gonna be okay."
Buck felt a huge weight lift from his shoulders as he watched the two young men finally come together. He knew JD and his big heart wouldn't be able to resist Lit'l Ezra once he finally gave him a chance.
"Okay, pard... let's get ya tucked in here." Buck reached to help Ezra lay back on the bed, but stopped when he saw his face fall.
"Arwen't you gonna w'ay down wif me, Buck?" Ezra's voice quivered, and he gave the ladies man a look that was impossible to refuse.
Buck looked helplessly at JD, who just smiled and got up off the bed. "Yeah, why don't you curl up with our little brother here and get some shut-eye, Buck... I'm about ready to head home anyway. Gotta lot to do tomorrow to get ready for Christmas." He smiled down at Ezra, who just shrugged and looked away.
Buck knew Ezra still wasn't ready to accept the idea of what a real Christmas could be like... was, in fact, sure this would be just like the last one. But he'd never had six brothers before who were determined to show him what Christmas was really all about.
Buck grinned at JD, who grinned right back and nodded. Neither of them could wait to see Ezra's face on Christmas morning... he'd finally get to know what it was like to be a normal little boy... with a family who loved him.
Buck pulled off his boots and climbed in the bed, and with JD's help, got Ezra settled in against him. JD pulled the blankets up over them and then after a moment's hesitation, ran his hand lightly over the gambler's head, smoothing his hair back. "I'll be back to see ya tomorrow, okay? Maybe we can play cards or somethin'."
Ezra smiled up at JD and slowly raised his arms, gazing hopefully into the younger man's brown eyes.
"You want a hug?" JD didn't even hesitate this time, he leaned over and let Ezra wrap his arms tightly around his neck, smiling as the older man whispered in his ear.
"F'ank you, JD." His voice was so soft, JD almost didn't catch it.
"For what, Ezra?" JD pressed his face against Ezra's cheek and whispered back.
"For bein' my frwiend." Ezra gave the young man a brief hug and then released him, snuggling against Buck as JD straightened back up.
"I'll always be your friend, Ezra... promise. Now you get some sleep." JD patted the Southerner's shoulder and headed for the door, turning back suddenly just as he reached it to give Ezra a friendly piece of advice. "Here's a tip, little brother... when Buck starts to snore?... just give him a good poke in the ribs and he'll stop. Wouldn't want him keepin' you awake all night with that God awful racket he makes."
JD opened the door and allowed a huge smile to spread across his face as Buck's laughing words of protest and Ezra's soft giggles, followed him out into the night.
Vin looked up as JD came into the saloon and shoved the chair next to him out as the boy approached their table. The others all mumbled words of greeting and smiled as JD gratefully sank down into the chair after grabbing his usual mug of milk from Inez.
"Y'all get Ezra to drink any of that tea?" Nathan asked, sipping on the whiskey Chris had just poured for all of them. He was glad to see a smile on the Kid's face... it was a big improvement over the scowl that had seemed to permanently taken up residence there.
"Yeah, he settled right down once he found out we weren't mad at him. Drank the tea, ate a whole bowl of soup... without spilling a single drop, I might add... and even managed to get down two biscuits." JD was almost as proud as Ezra had been over his accomplishments. "Now he's snuggled down in the bed with Buck." JD grinned as he thought about how Ezra had kept the ladies man there with just that one pitiful look. He really had him wrapped right around his little finger. "You know, Buck's love life is really gonna suffer as long as Lit'l Ezra's here to visit. The ladies in town are gonna wonder what the heck happened to 'im."
"Do 'im good to give it a rest for awhile... gives the rest of us a chance once the women find out Buck's not available." The others laughed at the huge grin that spread over Josiah's face as he discussed their womanizing friend's tendency to monopolize the female population of Four Corners.
Chris was studying the change in their youngest member's demeanor... relieved to see that the emotional confusion that had seemed to grip him since Ezra's accident finally seemed to be resolved. He decided it might be best to not mention it, and turned the conversation to the planned festivities for Lit'l Ezra's Christmas. "So does everyone know what they've gotta do tomorrow?"
JD looked at the others, not sure what Chris was talking about. And then it dawned on him it was the Christmas celebration they were planning for Ezra, and he blushed slightly and hung his head. He should have been in on it, but he'd been too busy feelin' sorry for himself to take an interest.
Josiah saw the boy's embarrassment and put a gentle hand on his shoulder, squeezing lightly. "It's okay, JD... you're here now, ready to help, and that's all that matters. And together we're going to put on a hell of a celebration for our little brother!"
JD shot Josiah a look of thanks and joined in the finalization of the plans, agreeing gratefully when Vin suggested he accompany him on the trip up into the mountains to find the perfect tree. Chris was going out to hunt down the biggest turkey he could find and would be bringing it back to Mary and Inez. They had generously offered to prepare a traditional Christmas dinner and deliver it to the clinic before going to the church for the town's celebration. Nathan and Josiah would be at the church making decorations for the clinic and the tree, and Buck would be keeping Ezra entertained as usual.
Once they had everything set, Josiah leaned forward and offered his glass up for a toast. "To our Lit'l Ezra and his first Christmas."
Buck had finally gotten Ezra to quit giggling, and had him tucked in snugly beside him when the questions started.
"Buck? JD's not mad at me anymorwe, is he. He's my frwiend now." Ezra smiled as he thought about the hug that he'd gotten, and about JD calling him his little brother.
"He wasn't never mad at ya, pard... he just ain't never been around little kids much an' didn't know what to say to ya." Buck thought about JD and how close he'd come to losing his friendship. It would take time, but he was determined to make it up to the boy.
"Buck? What werwe you and Miwwie doin' when I found you?" Ezra heard Buck make a strange choking noise and rolled over onto his stomach so he could see his face. "You okay, Buck?"
Buck nodded as Ezra patted his face worriedly. The ladies man frantically searched for an answer that would satisfy the younger man and forestall anymore questions. "Um... we were just talkin', pard... that's all. I'm sorry I didn't get back to the clinic quicker, but-"
But Ezra wasn't going to be sidetracked that easily. "I know you arwe, Buck... you tol' me d'at aw'w'eady. You didn't w'ook w'ike you werwe talkin'... and I didn't hearw you talkin'... you sounded w'ike you werwe huwt."
Buck tried to convince him they *were* just talking, but Ezra just barreled on, barely taking time to breathe. "Did she huwt you, Buck? I was w'eawy mad 'cause I f'ought she was huwtin' you. I wouldn't w'et anybody huwt you, Buck... was she-"
Finally losing his patience, Buck reached up and placed a quieting hand over Ezra's mouth, effectively stopping the constant flow of words. "Lord, boy... hush a minute, will ya? Take a breath an' give me a chance to answer ya!"
Ezra's emerald eyes widened as he stared back at Buck, surprised by his friend's move. He finally nodded and the older man removed his hand slowly, ready to put it back if the stream of words started again. But Ezra merely looked contritely at Buck and whispered, "I'm sowwy, Buck. I'll be quiet now."
"That's okay, little guy." Buck smiled at the gambler to let him know he wasn't mad. "I'll make a deal with ya... I'll tell ya what Millie an' I were really doin' in that alley if ya promise me you'll lay down here an' go to sleep. Okay?"
"Okay, Buck... I pwomise... I'll go to s'weep." Ezra waited expectantly, watching Buck's face redden slightly as he cleared his throat and finally spoke.
"Um... well, little guy... we were... um... kissin'." Buck watched as Ezra's eyes widened and his face scrunched up, just as it did when he'd had a big drink of one of Nathan's awful concoctions.
"Eeewww... you kissed a girwl?" Ezra's hand wiped at his own mouth as if it was he instead of Buck who had performed the evil deed. "Does it huwt to kiss a girwl?"
Buck couldn't help but smile at Ezra's typical five year old's reaction to kissing. "No, it doesn't hurt... it actually feels pretty nice."
"But I hearwd you, Buck... you werwe makin' d'at moanin' sound d'at people make when d'ey'rwe huwt." Ezra watched Buck's face draw down in a frown and realized he'd forgotten about his promise. He apologized as he nestled back down in the bed, tucking himself under the larger man's arm and laying his head on the broad chest. "I'm sowwy, Buck... I'm goin' to s'weep now."
Buck chuckled at the contrite tone of Ezra's voice, and hugged him before tucking the blankets back up around him. "That's a good boy. Now let's get to sleep before Nathan comes to check on us an' sees we're still awake... we sure don't wanna do anything to get 'im mad at us, do we?"
Receiving no answer from the younger man, Buck assumed he was finally drifting off, and reached to turn the lamp down. But just as his fingers closed on the knob, he felt Ezra's slender body shudder.
"Ezra? Ya okay?" Buck pulled his hand slowly back from the lamp. He'd gotten no answer from the gambler, just another shudder and an almost inaudible whimper. "Ezra? Answer me, little guy."
"Buck? Why werwe d'ose men so mean to me? I didn't do nuffin' to d'em." Ezra's voice was barely a whisper, and shook with the remembered fear of being in the hands of his drunken attackers earlier.
Buck's heart fell. He'd thought that Ezra was handling the earlier confrontation okay, but apparently he wasn't. He could only imagine how terrifying the whole incident must have been to Ezra in his present condition. "They were just drunk, pard... they didn't know what they were doin'."
"I... I was so sc-scarwed. It was j-jus' w'ike bein' at Unca M-Maffew's again." Ezra's breaths were short and choppy as he fought against his tears again. He knew this was why his mama was coming... because they had gotten tired of his crying and being bad and told her to come and get him. Ezra paused for a moment, and then softly whispered, "Y'all tol' Mama to come and take me back d'erwe, didn't you?"
Buck pushed himself back up against the headboard and lowered his hand to the Southerner's arm, gently tugging on it. "Sit up here, Little One." He'd known it was coming... he just hadn't realized that that's what was really wrong with Ezra now. He knew the minute Ezra found out that his mama was coming to try and take him home, he would immediately assume they had sent for her. Mistrust had been ground into him for too long for him not to make that assumption.
Ezra let Buck help him get turned around until he was sitting cross-legged in the bed, facing him... but he refused to look at him. He kept his head turned down, afraid to let Buck see the tears that were filling his eyes again.
Buck stared at the smaller man. They'd known it would be hard to win Lit'l Ezra's trust... no one had ever kept their promise to him before, so why would he think it could possibly happen now. But Buck had had no idea it would be *this* hard. Every tear shed, every spilled crumb of food, every little thing he'd been told was wrong his whole life... all this left Ezra certain he would be sent away. No matter how much they promised him he was going to be safe and happy from now on... he knew it could all be stripped away in an instant. After all, it always had been before.
"Look at me, Ezra... please?" Buck's heart contracted when he saw the incredible pain etched into the gambler's face. If it was this bad for him at the age of five... what must the adult Ezra be feeling every time he was convinced he was about to be told to leave. It had to be a hundred times worse for him now. Buck reached out and gently ran his fingers over the angry bruise that marred the younger man's handsome features.
The tender touch was all it took... the tears that had been gathering in the thick, dark lashes slowly spilled over and slid down Ezra's cheeks. "I'm sowwy I wasn't good enough, Buck... I trwied... I w'eawy did." The soft southern drawl was filled with defeat... and an infinite sadness that tore at Buck's heart.
Buck cupped Ezra's face in his hands, wiping the tears away with his thumbs. He stared into the gambler's eyes and wished he knew the words that would make it all better for him... that would prove to him things were different now... that *they* were different. "I swear to ya that we didn't ask her to come an' get ya, Ezra... I swear it. What's it gonna take to convince you? Please, Little One... tell me what we have to do to show ya that we ain't like all the others who broke their promises to ya."
Ezra stared at Buck for a moment before whispering two simple words. "Wuv me."
Buck saw a slight movement out of the corner of his eye, and tore his incredulous gaze away from Ezra for a second. Chris stood just inside the door. He'd never even heard the black-clad gunslinger enter the clinic... had no idea how long he'd been standing there... but from the look on his face, Buck knew he'd been there long enough to hear Ezra's whispered plea.
Turning his attention back to the smaller man sitting on the bed in front of him, Buck moved his shaking hands down to gently stroke the gambler's arms. "That's it, Ezra? That's all it would take... just to love you?"
Ezra nodded slowly. "If you wuv somebody, you neverw would bweak yourw pwomises to d'em, would you? Not even if d'ey couldn't aw'ways be good?"
"Not even then." Buck agreed.
"No one's everw wuvved me w'ike d'at." The despair in Ezra's voice finally broke Chris's silence.
"Not even your mama, Ezra?" Chris moved slowly across the room and sat beside the two men on the bed.
Ezra looked up as Chris spoke and shook his head, waiting til the older man had settled on the bed with them before answering him. "She tol' me I was bad... d'at no one would everw wuv someone w'ike me. D'en she took me to Unca Maffew's... it was Chwistmas an' he didn't want me d'erwe, but she tol' him she didn't want me eiverw, an' she jus' w'eft me d'erwe anyway."
"Why did she do that, Ezra? Did you do something to make her mad?" Chris reached out and took his hand, gently rubbing his thumb across the back of it... just wanting to add his touch to Buck's to try and ease Ezra's pain.
Ezra nodded. "She was twyin' to w'un a con on a pweacherw. She wanted me to w'ie and tewll him d'at we didn't have any food, orw a pwace to w'ive so d'at he would give us money." Ezra turned anguished eyes up to Buck and started to cry again. "Pwease don't tewll Josiah, Buck... he'll hate me if he knows."
"No he wouldn't, Little One... Josiah could never hate you. He loves ya... just like the rest of us do." Buck watched as his words registered in Ezra's mind. A look of wonder and hope swept across the Southerner's face.
"You... you wuv me?" Ezra's voice shook uncontrollably as he whispered the words... wanting to believe, but at the same time afraid to.
Buck wrapped his arms around the young gambler and pulled him into a tight hug. Bending his head and pressing his cheek against the silky, chestnut hair, he whispered in Ezra's ear. "You're our Little One... our little brother. We love ya, Ezra... and nothin' ya do is gonna change that."
Chris gently rubbed Ezra's back as he leaned down to look into the watery green eyes, and watched as his words erased the last shred of doubt that flickered in their depths. "We're your family now Ezra, and this is your home... and you'll never have to leave unless you want to."
"I don't everw want to w'eave herwe, Chwis... not everw." Ezra clung to Buck as if he'd never let go, which seemed to suit Buck just fine.
Chris ran his hand lightly over Ezra's head and gave Buck's shoulder a tight squeeze before turning and heading for the door. "I'll see you two in the morning... try and get some sleep."
Buck nodded and smiled as he saw Chris take one last look back at the gambler before slipping back out into the night. Ezra had them all now... all six of them had fallen under his spell and would do anything to keep him with them. Maude could bring a dozen lawyers, and it wouldn't change a thing as far as they were concerned... nobody was taking their little brother away from them. Not now, not ever.
"You okay now, Ezra?" Buck felt the younger man nod, but his grip around Buck's neck didn't ease any... and the ladies man had no intentions of letting go of him until he was ready.
"Buck?" Ezra's childlike lisp was soft and sweet against Buck's ear.
"What, pard?" Buck could feel Ezra's body relaxing against him, and knew he was falling asleep.
"Will you take carwe of me til I grwow up?" The Southerner's words were slurred as he drifted further into sleep.
Buck felt tears well up in his eyes as he thought about how long it might be before that happened... it could be tomorrow... it could be never. Not that it mattered... he knew he'd be there for Ezra for however long he needed him. "You bet I will, Ezra. We all will."
And with Ezra's last words before falling asleep, Buck's tears began to fall. It was just a soft whisper... just three tiny little words mumbled sleepily against his neck... but it made the older man's heart swell until he thought it would burst from his chest.
"Wuv you, Buck." Ezra sighed and went limp in Buck's arms as his exhaustion finally won out.
After reaching over and turning down the lamp, Buck eased himself back on the bed and pulled the gambler carefully down with him. He dragged the blankets back over them, and closed his eyes before finally finding the strength to whisper in Ezra's ear. "I love you too, Little One. More than I ever thought possible."
Chris had caught all the guys together at breakfast, and filled them in on what had happened with Ezra the night before. It hurt to know that he'd thought they would even consider sending him away, but they were relieved that he'd finally been convinced that he was part of their family now, and he'd never have to leave it. As soon as they'd finished eating, they all separated to carry out their assigned tasks for the party.
Nathan told Josiah he'd meet him over at the church as soon as he dropped off some breakfast for Buck and Ezra, and checked to make sure the Southerner wasn't suffering any ill effects from his little excursion out in the rain.
Nathan couldn't help but smile when he entered the clinic and found the two men still asleep. Buck lay on his back with Ezra sprawled across his chest... their arms wrapped tightly around each other. Nathan set the food down on the table and walked quietly over to the bed. He carefully pulled up the blanket covering the gambler's legs and checked the little cuts that dotted the bottoms of his feet, there was a little redness and swelling. They'd be sore for a little while, but thankfully, it looked like no infection was setting in. Replacing the covers, he moved up to the head of the bed and placed his hand lightly on Ezra's forehead, and was relieved to find there was no sign of a fever yet. Maybe he'd get lucky and not get sick... it would be a miracle after all he'd been through in the last few days, but Nathan could hope.
He hated to wake them since they looked so peaceful, but he wanted Ezra to eat and didn't want his food to get cold. Nathan shook Buck's shoulder gently with no results, and finally had to bend over and speak loudly in his ear to get a reaction. He had to hold his arms to keep him from throwing poor Ezra off onto the floor... and Buck had the nerve to say the gambler was hard to wake up. Nathan laughed and shook his head at the sleepy look of bewilderment that adorned Buck's face as he struggled to figure out what was going on.
"Nathan? What..." Buck mumbled, barely coherent as he scrubbed one hand across his eyes and managed to hang onto Ezra with the other. Finally he gazed blearily up at the healer and smiled. "Mornin'. What time is it?"
"A little after eight. I brought you two over some breakfast... ya need help gettin' 'im up or can ya manage okay on your own?" Nathan reached down and smoothed a few stray locks of hair off of Ezra's forehead, marveling again at how young he looked when he was sleeping.
"I can handle 'im okay. He's not too bad at this age... usually wakes up with a nice sunny disposition." Buck grinned at Nathan and then sniffed the air appreciatively. "Mmm... is that flapjacks I smell?"
"Sure is... and unless ya want t' eat 'em cold, ya best get Ezra's butt woke up now." Nathan grabbed a few things he needed for the decorations he and Josiah would be working on, and headed out of the clinic. "Try an' get 'im t' eat as much as ya can... I wanna get his system built back up while we still got some control over 'im. I'll be back in a little while, an' we'll give 'im a bath an' get the rest of that mud washed off of 'im."
Buck stretched carefully and looked down at Ezra, smiling at how peaceful he looked. He hoped things went smoothly with the Judge later so that nothing would wipe that expression off the gambler's face.
"Ezra? Come on, little pard... breakfast is here... ya gotta wake up now." Buck ran his hand up and down the smaller man's back, waking him slowly until he finally opened his eyes a crack and peered up at Buck.
Ezra stared at the older man for a few moments, and then a huge smile spread across his face as he remembered what he and Chris had told him the night before. "Morwnin', Buck!" He reached up and wrapped his arms around the other man's neck, and gave him a warm hug before sitting up in the bed. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he looked over at the table and then back at Buck. "What's forw bweakfast? I'm starwved!"
Buck sat on the edge of the bed and stretched long and hard before pulling on his boots and slipping his suspenders up over his shoulders. He turned to help Ezra off the bed, and frowned as the gambler winced when his sore feet touched the floor. "Ya want me to carry ya, little guy?"
Ezra shook his head and started hobbling carefully over to the table, while Buck kept one hand on him in case he needed help. "I'm aw'w'ight, Buck. It onwy stings a w'ittle bit."
Once Buck got him settled on his pillow, he uncovered the breakfast Nathan had left them. He set a plate in front of Ezra and chuckled as he heard the Southerner's stomach rumble when he saw the pile of flapjacks swimming in butter and honey.
"Arwe d'ese awll forw me?!" Ezra's eyes were huge as he looked up at Buck... and as soon as the older man nodded, he grabbed his fork and dug in. "Mmmm... d'ese arwe dewicious, Buck! Twy 'em!"
Buck watched Ezra tear into his food, and laughed as his face and fingers were soon a sticky mess. "Darn good thing you're gettin' a bath later... you're gonna need it just to get all that honey off of ya or you'd be stickin' to the sheets."
Ezra's fork piled with flapjack, froze half-way to his mouth. "Baff?"
Buck looked up from his plate at the soft whisper, and almost burst out laughing at the stricken look on Ezra's face. He hid his grin behind a forkful of food and calmly asked, "What's the matter, pard... ya ain't gettin' full already, are ya?"
"I have to take a baff?" Ezra set his fork down, the piece of flapjack left untouched, and stared at Buck.
"Well, sure ya do, little guy. Ya got mud all over ya, an' now you're coated with honey." Buck continued to eat, but he wasn't smiling now. He saw Ezra's eyes begin to fill with tears as he told him he'd have to get his hair washed, and let Josiah shave him again.
"I don't wanna, Buck... I hate baffs... I hate havin' my hairw washed!" Ezra ran his hand slowly across his chin. "An' I don't need a shave... I don't have d'at many whiskerws yet."
Buck knew he'd have to get Ezra's mind off of the bath if he was going to be able to get him to finish his breakfast... and Nathan would shoot him if he didn't get that done. "Let's not worry about it right now, okay Little One? Let's just enjoy our breakfast. Did ya try your coffee yet? It's pretty good this mornin'."
Ezra looked down at his plate that still held three flapjacks, and then back up at Buck. "If I eat all my bweakfast, do I stiwll have to take a baff?"
"Come on now, little guy... look at yourself. Ya *need* a bath." Buck watched as Ezra inspected himself, seeing the smears of mud that still clung to him in places... but in the end still shook his head, continuing to fight against the need for a bath. Buck decided to try appealing to the gambler's protective feelings for him. "Listen, Ezra... if ya don't eat all your breakfast, Nathan's gonna be pretty mad at me. Ya don't want that, do ya?"
Ezra's green eyes narrowed suspiciously... even his five year old mind could tell he was being manipulated, but his love for Buck won out in the end. "Okay... I'll finish eatin', but I stiwll don't wanna take a baff!"
Buck ignored the last part of that statement and dug back into his breakfast, watching happily as Ezra begrudgingly ate every last piece of food on his plate. He even managed to drain his coffee cup before finally quitting and leaning back in the chair... his handsome features marred by the scowl that now covered his face. He would have gone back to the bed and buried his head stubbornly under the covers, but he knew Buck wanted him to wait til he could help him over there.
Buck took his time, lingering over his coffee... smiling at the gambler as if nothing was wrong. Finally he noticed Ezra squirming, trying to get comfortable without leaning back against the hard chair, and took pity on him. "Come on, pard... let's get ya back in the bed, that chair's gotta be hurtin' those bruises of yours by now."
Ezra thought about refusing, but he had to admit that his back was really starting to hurt. So he finally allowed the ladies man to help him up and support him as he shuffled back over to the bed. He refused to lay down though, and sat in the middle of the bed, his arms awkwardly folded across his chest, watching Buck brew another pot of coffee... while doing his best to sweet talk the older man into letting him skip the bath.
"Give it up, Ezra... you're takin' a bath... period. It's not that bad... that nice hot water's gonna feel good on your bruises." Buck smiled over at the gambler, but saw he hadn't helped matters any with that last statement.
Ezra's eyebrows had shot up, and his mouth dropped open as he began to sputter. "*Hot* waterw?! It'll burwn, Buck... I don't wanna take a baff in no hot waterw! Pwease, Buck... it'll huwt!"
Buck flopped down on the bed in exasperation. The whine that had gradually crept into the Southerner's voice was starting to put him on edge, and he wished someone else would show up and help him with this. Besides... there were tears gathering in the corners of Ezra's eyes, and he just couldn't stand to see him cry anymore. Especially not if he was the one causing it.
"Now listen to me, Little One... it's not gonna be hot enough to hurt ya, an' you're gonna feel so much better afterward, that you'll wonder why ya ever put up a fuss in the first place." Buck smiled at him and rubbed a soothing hand up and down Ezra's arm.
But Ezra was having none of it. "I know why I'm puttin' up a fuss. I... hate... baffs."
Buck couldn't help it... he laughed. In fact, he laughed so hard he couldn't stay upright in the bed. He rolled around beside the irate gambler... holding his sides, tears streaming down his face... now that was *their* Ezra talking. What a relief it was to at least get a glimpse of the old Ezra... maybe it was a sign that he'd be coming back to them soon. Or maybe that was just how he would actually have been as a child if he hadn't been constantly beaten down. Either way... it was good to see him showing some spirit instead of fearfully yielding to their every request. Even if it was a fight he was going to lose in the end.
Nathan and Josiah could hear Buck laughing as they came up the stairs and smiled, imagining a quite different scene than the one that greeted them when they walked through the door. Buck sat in the middle of the bed, holding his sides as tears of laughter streamed down his face... while the gambler sat beside him, his arms stubbornly crossed in front of him, and a thunderous expression darkening his usually cheerful countenance.
Buck looked up at the two men who stared back at him questioningly. "Hey there, fellas!" His laughter slowed until he looked at Ezra and back at the two men, and pointing a thumb at the sour figure sitting stiffly beside him, announced, "He hates baffs." Then he was roaring with laughter again as he saw Ezra shoot him a withering stare. After a few minutes, he finally managed to get a hold of himself and sat staring at Nathan and Josiah, finally noticing their confused expressions. Wiping the tears from his eyes, he slowed to a chuckle and told them, "Well, I guess you had to be here."
Josiah went over and sat down beside Ezra on the bed, surprise registering on his face as the smaller man promptly threw himself into his arms, nearly knocking them both off the bed. "Whoa there, son... easy now." He rubbed Ezra's back and rocked him slightly as he sobbed against his shoulder. "Tell Josiah all about it... what's wrong?"
Ezra's voice hitched pitifully as he looked back at Buck and then stared up into Josiah's face. "He's twyin' to make me take a baff... I don't wanna, 'siah... I hate baffs."
"Shh now... calm down." Josiah looked down into Ezra's teary eyes, and then looked helplessly at Nathan and Buck... he didn't want to be the one to force him. He hated seeing that sad little look on his face, and just couldn't do anything to make it worse.
Nathan stared at the three men on the bed... watching as Buck and Josiah petted and soothed the distraught gambler... giving in completely to his tears. "I don't believe you two... he has t' have a bath... ya can see how dirty he is." The two men looked sheepishly back at the healer, but could only shake their heads and continue comforting Ezra.
Nathan threw his hands up in the air in exasperation. "Fine... *I'll* do it then. I'm goin' over t' the bathhouse an' havin' them bring a tub up here." Staring hard at Ezra, he continued. "An' then you *will* take a bath." Before the Southerner could protest or turn his tears on him, Nathan hurried out of the clinic, sputtering all the way to the bathhouse. <Lord... between the two of 'em, they'll have 'im spoiled rotten in no time.>
Vin and JD felt the air getting colder the farther up in the mountains they went, and were glad when they finally found a likely looking stand of pines around an hour after they'd left town. Pulling their coats tighter around them and grabbing the axe, the two men began wandering through the trees looking for just the right one. It had to be as near to perfect as they could find for their Lit'l Ezra... nothing else would do.
"Vin? Have you gotten Ezra a Christmas present yet?" JD carefully inspected a likely looking tree, and then shook his head when he found a huge gap in the branches.
"Yeah... I seen a mouth organ like mine at Mrs. Potter's last week an' went back yesterday an' bought it. He seemed t' enjoy playin' around with mine while I was spendin' some time with 'im, so I thought it might be somethin' he'd like." Vin glanced at JD as he looked over a couple of promising trees. "You decide what t' get 'im?"
JD shook his head and shot Vin a worried look. "I don't have any idea what he'd like. I want it to be somethin' nice, but I just can't think of anything." He walked up to a nicely shaped, medium sized tree and pointed it out to the tracker. "How 'bout this one?"
Vin circled the tree and nodded his head. "It's perfect." It only took a couple of swings of the axe before they were headed back to the horses, dragging the tree behind them. "Ya need t' find a gift that means somethin' special t' the two of ya... somethin' that'll make 'im think of ya when he looks at it."
JD thought about Vin's words as they fastened the tree to the travois they'd brought with them and mounted their horses. As they turned to head back down the mountain, it finally came to him. The perfect gift. He smiled over at Vin and nodded. "I've got just the thing. Let's hurry and get back to town so I can get to Mrs. Potter's... she might be closin' early today, it bein' Christmas Eve and all."
As they urged their horses forward, JD couldn't hold back a grin of satisfaction. He couldn't wait til Ezra saw his gift... it would make up for all the sadness JD had inadvertently caused him since his accident. And it would give JD the joy of knowing he'd made his *little brother* happy.
Chris rode back into town a mere two hours after setting out... his hunting trip a complete success. He'd just dropped the huge tom turkey he'd shot off at Mary's and found out that she'd received a wire from the Judge that said they'd be coming in on the afternoon stage instead. He'd thanked her again for offering to help Inez prepare the dinner, and then gone to stable his horse. After that he headed over to the clinic to check on Ezra, surprised to find how much he'd actually missed the gambler while he was gone. Buck was right... he'd gotten to him. It was impossible not to be taken in by his innocence and sweetness... and his incredible need to be protected. He smiled as he found himself hurrying across the street, and realized he was anxious to be back with his family again.
Chris heard the commotion coming from the clinic the minute he started up the stairs. He recognized Nathan's deep voice... frustration and a touch of anger tingeing its usually dulcet tones. Then Buck's and Josiah's voices chimed in... he couldn't hear the words, but they were definitely argumentative, and were obviously what was causing the stress in the healer's. And underneath it all came the sound of weeping... whatever was going on had Ezra upset, and there was going to be hell to pay when Chris found out who had caused it.
Nathan had made Josiah go and help him carry the tin tub he'd borrowed from the bathhouse over to the clinic. The minute Ezra had seen it, all hell had broken loose. He'd wrapped himself around Buck and begun sobbing hysterically, repeating over and over that 'he didn't wanna take a baff.' Josiah had hurried back over to the bed and tried to comfort him and had been rewarded with the gambler attaching himself to his neck, begging the preacher to help him. The exasperated healer had had to carry the buckets of hot water himself, unable to pry either Buck or Josiah loose from Ezra's panicked grip to help. Then he'd had the unenviable task of trying to remove the bandages he'd wrapped around Ezra's bruised ribcage after the fall. They'd had to pull the blankets tightly around his waist while he constantly jerked at his nightshirt, trying to keep it pulled down, but Nathan had finally gotten him to hold still long enough to get them off. Once he got that accomplished, he knew the hard part was next. Getting Ezra in the tub.
Nathan stood next to the bed, hands on his hips, trying to get Josiah and Buck to help him with the still sobbing gambler. He'd tried everything he could think of to coax the Southerner into voluntarily taking his bath... even going so far as to run over to Mrs. Potter's to buy some bath powders. He'd thought maybe Ezra would be fascinated by the mounds of bubbles, but it just wasn't to be. Now the gentle healer was at his wit's end... nothing was working and the gambler was going to make himself sick if he didn't get him calmed down soon.
Suddenly the door burst open, and Chris strode into the room. "What in the hell is going on in here?!"
All sound ceased as four pairs of eyes turned to the intimidating figure in black who stood just inside the door, his eyes sweeping the room in an effort to discover the reason behind the pandemonium he'd heard echoing down the stairs.
Nathan gave Chris a look of immense relief. "Damn, I'm glad you're back. Maybe you can talk some sense into these two fools-"
"Fools?! Who the hell ya callin' fools? You're the one who got the little guy cryin'... tryin' to force 'im into that tub-" Buck angrily shot back at Nathan, wrapping his arms tighter around Ezra as the smaller man started sobbing again.
"He's right, Brother Nathan... if you hadn't insisted on rushing him into the-" Josiah tried to add his support to Buck as he rubbed Ezra's back, but was interrupted by the irate healer.
"Rushin' 'im?! I had t' tote all those buckets myself an' now the damn water's nearly cold because you two have sat there babyin' 'im instead of tryin' t' help me get-"
"QUIET!!" Chris tore his hat and coat off and threw them in a chair, and then began issuing orders in a calm voice that was laced with steel... throwing each of them a look that dared them to argue with him. "Buck... go get a bucket of hot water to warm this bath up. Josiah... dig out a fresh nightshirt for Ezra to put on after he's clean... and as soon as the two of you get that done, I want you out of here. Nathan..." Chris looked at the exhausted healer and knew he'd done the best he could. The anger left his voice and he smiled. "Nathan... you get your butt over to the saloon and get a bite to eat and a drink. You look like you could use it."
As the rest of the men moved to do as ordered, Chris started rolling up his sleeves and turned to Ezra. The Southerner had buried himself under the blankets the moment Chris had begun issuing orders, knowing instinctively that his protectors would not be able to help him now. The only part the gunslinger could see of him was a pair of bright, tear-filled green eyes. The fear he saw in them almost made him relent, but he remembered the mud streaking his arms and legs and matted in his hair, and he hardened his resolve.
"Come on outta there, Ezra... now." Chris kept his voice even, but made sure the younger man knew he meant business.
Ezra hesitated and then slowly sat up in the bed, clutching the blankets around him. His breaths were coming in short, little shuddering gasps as he forced himself to stop crying. He knew tears would be useless against the angry man who stood over him now.
Buck came in carrying the bucket of hot water and poured it in the tub, running his hand back and forth through the water a few times to blend it in with the rest. He shot Ezra a look of sympathy and moved slowly toward the door. The ladies man paused with his hand on the latch and looked back at the man standing stiffly by the bed. "Chris, I-"
Chris shook his head and pointed at the door. "Out."
Buck looked at Ezra again and then walked out, pulling the door closed behind him.
Chris turned back to Ezra and hesitated as he looked down at him. The younger man's thick, dark lashes were moist, and his eyes shimmered with the tears that threatened to fall at any moment. He softened his tone and held out his hand to the gambler. "Come on, Ezra... let's get this over with."
Ezra looked from Chris's face, to his hand, to the tub, and back to his face again. He searched the hazel eyes looking down at him for any sign that the older man might change his mind, but there was nothing... just a stern warning that he expected to be obeyed. Ezra reluctantly slipped his hand into Chris's, and allowed the gunslinger to help him up off the bed.
Chris saw Ezra flinch as his feet touched the floor, and he remembered the cuts and bruises he'd acquired out in the street. He eased his arm around the smaller man and helped him over to the tub, where he released him to take hold of his nightshirt.
"Chwis... no!" Ezra stepped back out of reach and clutched his nightshirt against him. "I don't want... I'm... I..."
Chris stopped, understanding Ezra's embarrassment at having him see him without his clothes. "How 'bout if I turn my back and you take it off, then I'll just hold your arm while you get in the tub. I won't look, I promise."
Ezra stared at him for a moment, and then finally nodded his agreement to the idea. He waited til Chris turned around and then reached for the hem of his nightshirt. Suddenly he glanced up at the window and saw Buck peering in at him. "No! I can't!"
Chris risked a look back at him to see if he was having trouble getting it over his head and saw him just standing there. He sighed exasperatedly and reached for the nightshirt again. "Now look, little guy... you're takin' this bath, so you-" He stopped when Ezra shook his head and pointed. Following his gaze, he saw why he wouldn't go any further. Cursing lightly under his breath, Chris went and grabbed two blankets off the bed and glaring intensely at Buck, who was still looking in and gesturing at Ezra, hung them over the windows.
"There, Ezra... now no one can see you. Now let's try this again." Chris turned around again and held his arm out behind him, waiting for Ezra to grasp hold of it for balance while entering the tub.
Nothing happened. He waited impatiently and was just about to tell Ezra to hurry it up, when he heard a little whimper. He turned around again and found Ezra struggling with his sleeve... he'd tried to pull his broken arm out, and gotten the splints hung up in the material.
Chris closed his eyes briefly, pinching the bridge of his nose. <If I didn't know better, I'd swear the real Ezra came back and is doin' this just to aggravate me.> After taking a deep breath, he opened his eyes again, and reached for the gambler's sleeve. "Here, Ezra... let me help you with that before you hurt your arm." It took a few minutes of pushing and pulling, but they finally got the splints untangled and eased the arm out of the sleeve.
"If we don't hurry up and get you in that tub, Buck's gonna have to get us more hot water. Let's make this easier... I'll close my eyes and help you with your nightshirt... then we can-" But he got no further as Ezra pulled away again and stubbornly refused to allow Chris to help.
"No... you might peek!" Ezra whined irritably as he stood staring at Chris... waiting for him to turn his back again.
"Ezra... you're really pushin' it now... I'm gonna turn my back one more time... and if you're not out of that damn nightshirt and in that tub by the time I count to ten, I'm stripping you down and putting you in there myself!" Chris felt a headache starting just behind his eyes, and had to keep reminding himself that Ezra was only five now in order to keep from losing his temper.
Chris heard the rustle of cloth, and finally felt Ezra's hand grip his arm as he moved to step into the tub. Chris started to remind him not to get his splints wet, when he suddenly felt a jerk on his arm and heard Ezra cry out.
"Owww!! It's too hot, Chwis!" Ezra's fingers tightened on Chris's sleeve as he moved to step back out of the tub.
"Don't you even think about getting out of that damn tub! Just stand there and let me check the water." Chris started to turn around to see how badly Ezra was exaggerating, when suddenly Ezra shoved at his shoulder and yelled.
"No!! Don't turwn a'wound, Chwis! You pwomised me you wouldn't w'ook!" Ezra's whine was getting worse, and Chris knew the Southerner was probably getting tired, but that didn't help the irritation he was starting to feel with this whole situation.
"I'm not gonna look, Ezra... now hush up and let me feel that damn water!" Chris's teeth were clenched together so hard, his jaw was starting to cramp. He reached back, groping for the edge of the tub, and winced as Ezra's fingers dug into his arm.
"Don't w'ook... pwease, Chwis?!" Ezra tried to move back out of the way, but his feet slid in the slippery tub and he went the other way instead... right into Chris's hand.
Chris felt his fingers brush against the gambler's leg, and nearly jumped out of his skin when Ezra screeched and dug his nails into his arm. Chris turned to grab for the smaller man before he fell, while at the same time Buck, alarmed by Ezra's yell, jerked the door open and ran into the room to see what had happened. All of which elicited a comical squeak of surprise from Ezra as he realized that both of the men were about to see him standing there naked. He dropped straight down into the water, pulling Chris off balance and half way into the tub, while sending a spray of suds and water splashing across the gunslinger, the floor, and even Buck.
Before Buck or Chris could react to the soaking they'd just received, they were startled again by another shriek from Ezra which brought Nathan and finally Josiah racing into the room.
"It's hot!!! Ow... ow... ow... it burwns!!" He squirmed around in the tub, still with a death grip on Chris's arm, and made as if to rise before remembering he couldn't without exposing himself to everyone standing in the room.
Buck hurried forward to help him, but ended up slipping in the soapy water and landing flat on his back with a resounding thud, which was followed quickly by a pain-filled curse. Chris, who was still half-submerged in the tub due to Ezra's continued hold on his arm, tried to help Buck, but only succeeded in making Ezra burst into sobs when he thought the older man was going to pull him up out of the water.
After staring at the scene before them in stunned silence, Nathan and Josiah moved to help the three men, only to end up soaked themselves as Ezra panicked and began flailing at the water in an effort to keep them away.
Nathan and Josiah stepped back and tried to calm the hysterically sobbing Southerner, but nothing they said seemed to help. Ezra was tired and miserable, and he just wanted out of that tub and back in his nice, safe bed.
When Ezra finally released his grip on Chris in order to try and keep Nathan and Josiah away, the gunslinger quickly pulled back, rubbing his arm where the gambler's fingers had dug into his skin. He reached down and helped Buck up onto his knees, and between the two of them, they managed to get a grip on Ezra and stop him from thrashing about before he hurt himself.
Ezra turned in the tub and wrapped his arms around Buck, clinging for all he was worth as he tried to catch his breath. "I wanna get out, Buck! Pwease?! Can I get out now?!"
Buck shivered as water ran down his back from Ezra's arms, and felt the wet splints and bandages pressing against his neck. He glanced quickly up at Nathan and knew the healer wouldn't be a bit happy about this one.
"No, you can't get out now... you haven't even gotten washed off yet, and we still have to wash your hair." Chris attempted to ease Ezra out of Buck's arms so he could get this damn bath over with, but he started crying even harder and refused to let go. He didn't remember it being this hard giving Adam a bath. An image of his son smiling and happy in the tub popped into his head, and suddenly he had an idea.
He let go of Ezra and stood up. "Keep him in that tub, I'll be right back." Before anyone could ask him any questions, he strode purposefully out of the clinic.
Buck looked up at Nathan and Josiah and shrugged... he had no idea what plan Chris had, but he sure as hell hoped it worked. He couldn't stand much more of seeing Ezra unhappy like this.
Vin and JD were just turning into the alley that ran behind the clinic, when they saw Chris bound down the stairs and hurry across the street to the Clarion.
"Wonder where the heck he's goin' in such a hurry? And did he look wet to you?" JD still stared at the door Chris had disappeared through.
"Looked like it t' me. Guess we'll find out soon as we get the tree an' the horses taken care of." Vin thought about the look on Chris's face and the condition of his clothes. "Maybe we oughta grab a bite t' eat first... might be safer if'n we wait a little 'fore goin' up there." Vin turned back around in his saddle, and he and JD continued on into the alley.
Mary looked up when Chris came through the door and just stared. He saw her mouth open to speak and the man in black merely raised his hand and shook his head. "Don't even ask."
"You're wet." The simplicity of her statement diffused the anger Chris was feeling, and he looked down at himself and chuckled.
"I guess you could say that. We're attempting to give Ezra a bath... as you can see, it's not going well. I came to see if I could borrow that little boat I whittled for Billy. Maybe it'll distract him enough for us to finish."
Mary smiled and nodded approvingly. "That might just work... hang on, I'll get it for you." She came back and handed him the boat, smiling at the thought of Ezra Standish playing with it. "Billy doesn't play in the tub much anymore... he thinks he's too big for such things now... so why don't you keep it for as long as Ezra needs it."
Chris took the boat from her and flashed her a smile. "Cross your fingers for us... I don't think poor Ezra can handle much more of the indignity of being given a bath." He thanked her and left, making a quick side trip over to the bathhouse for another bucket of hot water. Chris knew that tub had to be getting cold by now... not that Ezra would welcome the addition of more hot water, but hopefully they could sneak it past him once he saw the boat.
Ezra had finally let Nathan and Josiah get close to him, and they and Buck were all talking to him, rubbing his back... doing anything they could think of to keep him quiet and in the tub.
They all looked up when Chris walked in... Ezra's eyes instantly latching onto the steaming bucket of water. <So much for sneakin' it past him.>
"No!! I don't want anymorwe hot waterw, Chwis!! I jus' wanna get out!" Ezra's eyes started to fill with tears again, and Chris moved quickly to his side and knelt down.
"But if you get out of the tub now Ezra, you won't be able to play with this." Chris pulled the boat out from behind his back and set it gently in the water, giving it a little push with his finger until it was floating slowly towards the gambler.
They all watched Ezra's face for his reaction, and each one of them broke into a huge smile as they saw his eyes widen and his mouth drop open in amazement. He reached a finger out to touch it, but hesitated and looked up at Chris.
"Go ahead, Ezra... it's yours." Chris spoke softly, and grinned as the Southerner gave the little boat a push, and then giggled as it forged through the bubbles that still dotted the water. Chris ordered the others to leave again, hoping that with the boat and no other distractions, he and Ezra might be able to hurry up and get this bath over with.
Buck paced back and forth on the landing while Nathan and Josiah leaned against the railing and watched him. "You're gonna wear a damn hole in the floor an' end up down on the boardwalk if'n ya don't quit. He'll be alright... ya know Chris ain't gonna hurt 'im." Nathan grinned as Buck stopped and held his ear to the door for the tenth time since they'd been chased from the room.
"*Ezra* will be alright... I'm not so sure about our fearless leader though." The word's had barely left Josiah's mouth when they suddenly heard a loud anguished wail from inside the clinic.
"Ezra!" Buck was tearing the door open, and racing into the clinic before the cry had even faded away... with Nathan and Josiah right on his heels, ready to pull him off of Chris if need be.
All three men stopped dead in their tracks and just stared at the struggle that was taking place in the middle of the room. Ezra was scrunched down in the tub, only his head showing above the water, while Chris was poised over him. Both of them had their hands wrapped around the toy boat, and an intense tug of war was in progress. Ezra even had the fingers of his left hand wrapped around the boat... a sight which had Nathan wincing at the pain the gambler must be feeling. It also put Chris at a serious disadvantage, since he didn't dare try too hard to wrest the toy away from the young man for fear of doing more damage to his broken arm. Chris, who had been damp before, was now soaked from head to toe, with white puffy splotches of suds dotting his black clothes... and the look on his face was a comical mixture of anger, disbelief, and total exasperation.
The noise level in the small room was deafening. Chris's part in the escalating argument alternated between shouted demands for Ezra to mind him, and low-pitched cajoling requests for him to please get out of the tub. And Ezra... well, Ezra's was a combination of ear-splitting shrieks, stubbornly uttered no's that rose in volume as they increased in number, and a variety of reasons as to why he shouldn't have to leave the tub... all perfectly sensible if you're using a five year old's logic.
The more the three men hovering by the door listened, the harder it was for them to hold back their laughter.
"Ezra Standish... I'm telling you for the last time to get... out... of... that... tub!"
"You tol' me to get in herwe beforwe... so I'm stayin'!"
"I know I told you to get in there before, but-"
"I trwied to tewll you d'en d'at I didn't wanna get in, but you made me."
"I know, but-"
"D'en why do I have to get *out* now? You'rwe gettin' me all mixed up, Chwis!"
"Ezra, please get out of the tub?"
"Ezra, give me the boat and get out of the tub."
"Noooo... don't wanna!"
"All right, that's it! I've had just about enough of this... you're getting out of that tub right this instant, young man!"
"NO!!! I WANNA PWAY WIF MY BOAT!!!"
Chris finally released the boat with one hand and reached for Ezra's arm, intent on dragging the gambler up and out of the water. The others saw his mistake... knew he'd completely forgotten he wasn't actually dealing with a five year old... and knew he wasn't expecting what happened next. They tried to get to Ezra in time to grab him and prevent what they saw coming, but they were too late.
Ezra saw his advantage and took it. With one mighty tug, he used every bit of his adult strength to pull the boat out of Chris's unsuspecting grip. Chris tried to grab at him, but he was taken by surprise and couldn't react in time.
With the release of the boat, Ezra flew back in the tub and ended up submerged completely in the now cold bath water. Water surged up and over the edge of the tub, soaking Chris and the other three men again as the gunslinger scrambled to get a grip on one of Ezra's flailing arms.
Buck, Nathan and Josiah started to move in to help, but just at that moment Ezra's head popped up, and an unearthly howl began echoing around the clinic. They froze in place again and watched as the smaller man's suds-covered arms came up and wrapped themselves around Chris's neck, almost pulling him headfirst into the tub.
"Owww!!! I got soap in my eyes!! It burwns, Chwis!!! OW!... OW!!! Why did you do d'at, Chwis?! I jus' wanted to p'way wif my boat!! Wherwe's Buck?! I want Buck!!! Buck wouldn't have w'et me get soap in my eyes!!! Owww!! Make it stop, Chwis!!" Ezra continued to screech in the panicked gunslinger's ear as his arms tightened around his neck. The hysterical gambler struggled to stand, but his feet couldn't gain a purchase on the slippery bottom of the tub and kept sliding out from under him.
Chris looked up at the three men still frozen in the middle of the room, and shouted at them. "Will you help me here, for God's sake?!"
But as Chris watched incredulously, his three *friends* took one look at the frantically struggling gambler, suffered through one last piercing shriek, and turning as one, high-tailed it out of the clinic... deserted him... abandoned him in his time of need. Chris's face hardened as he watched the door slam closed behind them. <They're dead men.>
Buck, Josiah and Nathan were all out on the landing when Vin and JD finally made their way back to the clinic. They walked up the stairs and stopped, staring at their friends, taking in their wet clothes and exhausted expressions.
"Man... what the heck happened to you three?" JD saw the water pooling beneath the bench the three men sat on, and realized they were soaked.
"Ezra hates baffs." Josiah announced, with a totally deadpan expression on his face. Buck and Nathan looked at each other, and dissolved into helpless laughter... the tension they'd felt since the struggle with Ezra finally draining away.
Vin and JD couldn't help but join in, even though they had no idea what had transpired while they were gone.
After about an hour, with no sounds of crying or cursing coming from the clinic, they decided to peek in and see how things were going.
Buck eased the door open and stuck his head in, looking first at the tub and finding it empty... then letting his gaze travel slowly across the clinic until it finally landed on the two forms in the bed. He grinned at the four men standing behind him, and motioned for them to be quiet and follow him inside.
They walked silently over to the bed and gazed down in amazement. Chris lay on his back with Ezra cradled against him... the gambler's head tucked under his chin and his arms wrapped tightly around the younger man. Ezra's hair was clean and neatly combed, his cheeks lightly flushed and smooth-shaven, and his hand with the boat still clutched in it was resting on Chris's stomach. Nathan noticed Chris had even replaced the wet bandages that had been wrapped around his splints. Everything that had needed to be done for Ezra had finally been accomplished, and now the two men were lost together in an exhausted slumber.
Buck and Josiah eased the blankets up over the sleeping men, and they all turned and left the clinic. Closing the door quietly behind them, they looked at each other and smiled.
"Well, pards... I think this calls for a drink. Y'all want to join me at the saloon while we let those two get their beauty sleep?" Buck definitely needed a drink after the morning they'd had.
"Yeah, and while we're there... you guys can fill us in on what all went on up here today. I can't wait to hear this one." JD laughed at the pained expressions that appeared on the faces of his three friends.
Buck, Nathan and Josiah looked at each other, taking in their wet clothes and generally disheveled appearances and just grinned.
Buck slapped JD on the back and led him toward the stairs. "Son... you're never gonna believe this one."
Chris was dreaming. The first pleasant dream he'd had in years. He was kneeling beside a battered tin tub, bathing Adam. The boy looked up at him with eyes the identical hazel as his... his sweet little face, topped by a mop of straight brown hair, was adorned with a wide smile. "F'ank you, Daddy... I wuv it!" In his hands was a small boat Chris had whittled for him... he'd made it to make it easier for Adam during bath time. The boy hated baffs... baffs? Where did that come from? And why was Adam speaking with a soft southern accent? Chris looked down at the boy again and realized he had changed... no longer was the boy a smaller version of himself... this little boy had slightly curly chestnut brown hair and brilliant green eyes... he looked so familiar. The dream slowly faded away as Chris moved toward wakefulness... a southern accent? The only one he knew who talked like that was...
Chris opened his eyes and looked down at the form nestled against him. Ezra. A slow smile crept across the older man's face as memories of Ezra's bath came back to him. It seemed funny now, even though he'd been ready to strangle the younger man at the time. But the childlike Southerner had more than made up for the grief he had given Chris during the bath itself once they'd finished and curled up on the bed together. Ezra had tearfully apologized for misbehaving, and had been visibly surprised and relieved to be told that it was okay... that it was perfectly normal for a five year old to hate baths, and that Chris wasn't mad at him.
He'd planned on getting Buck to take his place as soon as he had gotten Ezra settled in the bed, but the gambler immediately thought it was because he'd been bad that Chris was leaving, so he'd lain down with him to reassure him that it wasn't so. Ezra had shyly inched closer until he was curled up against him... looking up into Chris's face first to make sure it was alright. The blonde gunslinger had smiled down at the Southerner, and wrapped his arms lightly around him. He could see Ezra was exhausted, but he just didn't seem to want to give in to the sleep that pulled at him. Finally, Chris had asked him if he'd like him to tell him a story. Ezra had nodded happily and shifted around in the older man's arms so that he could watch Chris's face as he talked.
Chris had thought for a moment, and then had begun telling the gambler the story about Jack and the Beanstalk... it had been one of Adam's favorites, and he'd read it to him so many times, he knew it by heart. Ezra had listened quietly, his eyes growing heavier, and it had only taken a few minutes for him to finally fall asleep.
Looking down at the gambler's face, Chris had seen that it still held a ghost of the smile that had appeared when he'd started reciting the story. He had realized it had probably been the first time anyone had ever done that for him... he couldn't see Maude knowing any fairy tales, much less taking the time to tell them to her son. Suddenly he had known what he was going to give the gambler for Christmas. He'd been trying to come up with something special... something that would put that exact same smile on his face that he'd seen a few minutes ago. Now he had the ideal gift. With that problem finally solved, Chris had relaxed and had soon joined Ezra in sleep.
And now that he was awake again, and recovered from the ordeal of Ezra's bath, he was anxious to get over to his room to wrap the gift he'd decided on. He knew exactly where it was... lying on the shelf in his closet, right next to the box that contained the only possessions of Sarah and Adam's that he'd been able to salvage from the fire. Chris hoped someone showed up soon to take over with Ezra... he wanted to get the gift ready, and he knew the Judge would be arriving at any time. He wanted to talk to him as soon as he possibly could, and try to make him see that Ezra was where he belonged... with his family.
JD had stayed at the saloon long enough to hear the details of Ezra's bath, laughing and wishing he'd been there to see it... and then he'd excused himself with a mumbled explanation about getting to Mrs. Potter's before she closed.
Buck had raised his eyebrows at JD's abrupt departure, and Vin had told them that the Kid had finally thought of what he wanted to give Ezra for Christmas, and he figured that was probably what he was going after.
The rest of them had then gotten into a discussion about what each of them had decided to give Lit'l Ezra... with Nathan, Josiah and Vin all describing their gifts. Each one of them had already bought a present for him, but they'd gotten them before the accident and none of them were appropriate for a five year old. Everyone had decided to save those packages til his memory returned, and then they'd have another little gift-giving party. And after all Ezra's protesting, Vin and Josiah had told them that they'd seen a pile of packages on his dresser when they'd gone after the fresh nightshirts. They all grinned... it had been the same thing last year. Ezra had told everyone not to buy him anything because he wasn't even coming to the party... and then he'd shown up carrying an armload of gifts. He'd been surprised and pleased when he'd found out each one of them had gotten him something, too.
Vin glanced at Buck when he noticed that he wasn't joining in. "So, Bucklin... what'd ya get our Lit'l Ezra... or are ya keepin' it a secret til tomorrow?" Vin smiled at the gunslinger and waited for his answer.
Buck just shrugged. "It's kinda personal... and besides, I'm still not too sure about it. I need to figure out how to-" His words trailed off as he looked up and saw Mary walk past the swinging doors. "I'll see ya back at the clinic."
The others were startled by his abrupt departure and wondered if it had something to do with the gift he was so reluctant to talk about.
Standing on the boardwalk, Buck looked around and finally spotted Mary angling across the street toward the Clarion. He hurried to catch her and managed to get her attention just as she was opening the door. "Mary! Can I talk to ya for a minute?"
Mary turned when she heard Buck call her name, not realizing he was following her. "Hello, Buck." She glanced around to make sure no one was near enough to them to hear before quietly asking, "So how did Ezra's bath go? Did the boat help?" She looked him up and down, taking in his rumpled appearance and still-damp clothes, and smiled up at him. "Apparently not."
"Well, actually... it worked a little too well." Buck chuckled and shook his head. "He made it clear though exactly how much he don't like takin' a bath, that's for sure." He looked around to see if anyone was near, and then leaned in closer to her. "Could I talk to ya for a minute? In private?"
Mary stared at him for a moment, noticing his nervousness and nodded, opening the door and beckoning him to follow her in. She assumed whatever he wanted to ask her had to do with Ezra... she was beginning to expect it. <I wonder which of them will be next?>
Buck hesitated once they were inside, shuffling his feet and twisting his hat around in his hands. Finally, he took a deep breath and began. "I need somethin' engraved an' I was just wonderin' if you could do it for me."
Mary looked at him in surprise, shaking her head slowly. "Me? Engraving? I've never-"
"No, I know it's not somethin' you'd usually do, but I just thought maybe ya could take a pin or somethin' and scratch out what I want to say." He blushed slightly as he tried to explain. "It's for a Christmas present... to make it kinda special. I could've done it myself, but I figured your handwritin' would be a mite easier to read than mine would."
Mary saw how important this was to the gentle peacekeeper and finally nodded. "I can't guarantee how good it'll turn out, but I'll do the best I can with it."
"That's all I could ask, Mary... thanks." Buck pulled out his pocket watch and stared down at it for a moment. His mother had given it to him when he had turned sixteen... it had been one of the last presents she'd ever given him. He'd always kept it tucked away in his dresser for safekeeping until that precocious little Olivia had picked his pocket and taken his old watch... then he'd had to start carrying this one. He held it out to Mary, along with a piece of paper. "This is what I want put on it, if ya can do it."
Mary read the words and looked up at Buck, understanding showing in her green eyes. She placed a gentle hand on his arm and spoke softly. "Ezra?"
Buck nodded and looked down at the floor, his face turning red with embarrassment. "His got broke when he fell, an' I just thought I'd-" His words tapered off and he sighed and ran a hand nervously through his hair. "Aw hell, Mary... you'd have to be around 'im to understand, but he's really gotten to me. I reckon Chris told ya that we found out some of what he went through when he was little. I gotta tell ya... the look in his eyes when he talks about it... well, it's enough to rip your heart out. An' he's kinda latched onto me since he woke up... prob'ly just 'cause I was the first one he saw, but we've become pretty close... an' he's just so damn vulnerable an' innocent." Buck grinned and looked back up at Mary. "Kinda hard to associate those two words with our Ezra, ain't it?"
Mary shook her head slowly. "Not really, Buck... maybe he lowers his guard with me, or maybe it's just easier for a woman to sense it... but I've seen that vulnerability in his eyes. It's almost as if that little boy is looking out at me, asking to be acknowledged and accepted... and asking not to be hurt again. And he *is* innocent when it comes to expressing his feelings and emotions. I doubt he's had much practice in it." She looked down at the watch and piece of paper she held in her hand... reading the message written there again. She let her eyes return to Buck's face, and squeezed his arm gently. "I think he's found that acceptance here, that's why he stays. He knows he's safe from the hurt now." She laughed softly. "And he'd deny everything I've said if he were here."
Buck laughed with her and nodded. "Ya got that right. Ol' Ezra would hate to know that he was that easy for ya to see through. Well, I guess I better get back over to the clinic... we left Chris an' him curled up on the bed together... that bath wore 'em both plumb out. I'll drop by later to see how ya made out with the watch."
"Give me about an hour or so and I should have it finished. You want me to wrap it up for you while I've got it here or do you want to look at it first?" Mary walked with him to the door as she waited for his answer.
"I don't need to see it, I know you'll do a good job of it. An' I'd sure appreciate ya wrappin' it... I'm not too handy at that sorta thing." He thanked her one more time and left, moving quickly across the street to the clinic.
Mary watched him go and smiled. Chris was right... there was no better place for Ezra to be than with the six of them. She'd definitely do all she could to help convince Orrin of that when he got here. As she was closing the door, her gaze happened to land on the clinic, and an image of the hardened gunslinger and the reserved southern gambler curled up together on Nathan's bed appeared in her mind. Her sudden burst of laughter startled two matronly ladies strolling down the boardwalk. Mary merely smiled at them and nodded, before turning back into her offices and closing the door. But as they continued on their way, the two women paused and looked back as they heard another spate of mirthful laughter issue forth from behind the closed door. Shaking their heads, they turned and continued on, discussing the possibility that the lovely Mrs. Travis may have developed a drinking problem.
Buck slipped into the clinic and quietly eased the door closed. Walking over to the bed, he saw that both men were still sleeping... no wonder though, after the struggle over that damn bath they were both probably exhausted. He reached down to pull the covers back up over Ezra's shoulder, and was startled when Chris's hand shot out and grabbed his wrist. Buck looked at his friend's face, and cringed as he saw the anger blazing out of his hazel eyes.
"You three are gonna pay for that one. I haven't figured out how or when... but you're definitely gonna pay." Chris gave Buck's wrist a painful squeeze before releasing it.
Buck rubbed his wrist as he tried to explain away his, Nathan's, and Josiah's actions. "Now, Chris... we knew you wanted to handle things yourself... and you looked like you had everything pretty much in control..." Buck couldn't keep it up, he started to snicker as he watched the gunslinger's angry expression turn slowly to one of amusement. The idea of anyone but Ezra having control over that whole situation was so ludicrous, that even Chris couldn't help but laugh.
Chris felt Ezra stir, and looked down to see the dark lashes fluttering slowly before his green eyes, still dull with sleep, gazed up at him.
Ezra felt a hand touch his cheek and heard a softly whispered, "Hey there, Little One." He turned his head and the minute he saw Buck standing there, he rolled away from Chris, raised his arms, and mumbled sleepily, "Want you, Buck."
Chris couldn't help but smile at the lop-sided grin that appeared on his friend's face as he bent down and let Ezra wrap his arms around his neck. He pushed himself up off the bed and stretched, trying to work the kinks out of his back. "Well, I can see I'm no longer needed here, so I'll go run a few errands and see how things are shaping up for tomorrow. I'll bring ya back something for supper as soon as I get done."
Buck eased down on the bed beside Ezra, and pulled him around so he could lay with his head in his lap. The gambler was on the verge of falling back to sleep... he'd finally released his hold on the boat and his thumb had found it's way into his mouth. Buck put the little toy on the night stand and then ran his hand across Ezra's forehead a few times, smoothing back his hair. He smiled as the Southerner's eyes finally closed all the way and his lips took a few last half-hearted pulls on his thumb. He looked back up at Chris and shrugged his shoulders. "Looks like there's no rush on it... I've got a feelin' after all he went through this mornin', this is gonna be a long nap."
Chris nodded in agreement, and helped Buck pull the blankets up around the younger man. Chris noticed that a few of the cuts on Ezra's feet were a little red looking, and decided to go find Nathan and have him take a look at them. Probably just needed to have a little of his healing salve rubbed into them, but he didn't want to take any chances.
"Anything in particular you want me to grab ya for supper?" Chris moved to the door, pausing with his hand on the latch as he waited for Buck's answer.
"I don't really care as long as it's hot and there's lots of it." Buck grinned at Chris and then glanced down at Ezra. "But why don't you see if ya can find somethin' else for the Little One to eat besides soup... that's about all he's had, and I think he's ready for some real food."
Chris nodded and left.
Buck glanced over at the tub and the mess that had been left by Ezra's bath, and decided he might as well make himself useful while the gambler was sleeping. He eased the smaller man off his lap and onto the pillow, rubbing his back gently until he settled back into sleep.
Standing next to the tub and surveying the damage, Buck shook his head in amazement. "How the hell could one simple bath turn into such a disaster?" As the ladies man began mopping up the mess, he thought about the look on Chris's face just before they had run out on him and the threat he had made a few moments ago. <Guess I better do a damn good job of this... maybe then he'll take it easy when he finally pays us back.>
Remembering the mess they'd left him with... Ezra screeching at the top of his lungs and clinging to him like a leech... Buck decided there probably wasn't *anything* they could do that would stop Chris from looking for revenge. He shuddered when he thought about some of the gunslinger's previous acts of retribution, and knew the three of them were probably in for a world of hurt.
Buck chuckled again. "Still, it was worth almost anything Chris comes up with just to have been here to see that panicked look on his face."
JD had made it to the general store just in time... Mrs. Potter was just getting ready to lock the door.
"Hi, Mrs. Potter... um... I hate to bother you with it bein' Christmas Eve an' all, but I really need to buy something before you close up." JD saw her hesitate and started to plead with her. "Please, ma'am... it'll only take a minute and it's really important."
Gloria Potter correctly surmised the young man needed to purchase a last minute Christmas gift, and pushed the door back open, motioning for him to follow her into the store. "Okay, Mr. Dunne... what'll it be... a nice bottle of perfume? Or perhaps some hair ribbons?"
JD stared at her in confusion. <What was she talkin' about? Why would he want to give Ezra perfume or hair ribbons?> "Um... no, ma'am... I'd like to buy that fishin' pole over there."
She stared at him in surprise. "You're giving Miss Wells a fishing pole for Christmas?"
"Miss Wells? Oh, you mean Casey! No, I already got her gift, this is for Ezra." JD went over and got the pole... the only one left in the store... and took it back to the counter.
Mrs. Potter stared down at the pole and then up at JD. "Mr. Standish fishes?" Somehow she just couldn't picture the dapper gambler sitting on a creek bank with a fishing pole in his hands.
JD smiled and paying for the pole, turned to go. "He's decided he wants to learn now. Thanks, Mrs. Potter... have a Merry Christmas." The young lawman hurried out of the store before she could ask him any more questions.
Buck had finished cleaning up... the only thing left was the tub, and he would need help carrying that back to the bathhouse. He was sitting at the table drinking a cup of coffee, enjoying the peace and quiet while Ezra slept, when Nathan and Vin entered the clinic.
"Ah... just what I've been waitin' for... someone to help me with that tub. Come on, Vin... let's get it outta here before Ezra wakes up... I don't think he's gonna want to even look at the damn thing now." Buck stood and pulled his coat on before grabbing one end of the tub and following Vin out the door with it.
The racket they made getting it through the door woke Ezra, and he was sitting up in the middle of the bed, groggily rubbing his eyes when Nathan came and sat beside him. He blinked several times and stared at the healer for a few minutes, then began rubbing them again. "My eyes huwt, Nafan."
Nathan gently pulled his hands down and looked at his eyes. They were a little bloodshot from the effects of the soapy water, but he knew they'd be fine in a few hours. "You just got a little soap in 'em when ya took your bath, remember? Stop rubbin' them an' they'll be okay soon."
Ezra shot a nervous glance across the room, and heaved a huge sigh of relief when he saw that the tub was gone. Looking around the clinic, the younger man noticed something else that was missing. "Wherwe's Buck?"
Nathan had to hold back a chuckle at the relief the gambler obviously felt for being rid of all reminders of his horrible experience. "He an' Vin took the tub over t' the bathhouse... he'll be right back." He stood and pulled the blankets back off Ezra's legs. "Chris said your feet looked a little sore... how 'bout lettin' me take a look at 'em?"
Ezra nodded and obligingly stretched his legs out toward Nathan. He winced when the healer gently pressed around the edges of the cuts. Chris had been right, some of them were a little redder than the last time he'd checked them. Rising off the bed, he went to his cabinet and pulled out a tin of salve. "I'm gonna rub some of this on these sores, little guy... it'll only sting a little bit, an' it'll help 'em get better quicker. Ya ready?"
Nathan thought at first that Ezra was going to put up a fuss, but he finally nodded, and wrapping his arms around himself, braced for the touch of the salve.
The minute Nathan's fingers touched his foot, Ezra jerked it back. "I'm sorry, Ezra... did I hurt ya?"
Ezra giggled and moved his foot back toward the healer. "Nuh-uh... it tickwles! I'll twy an' hold it stiwll, Nafan."
It took a few tries, but they finally finished just as Buck and Vin returned. Nathan couldn't help but smile at the way Ezra's face absolutely lit up whenever Buck came into the room. When the ladies man sat down beside him, he leaned against him, but sat forward again almost immediately, turning to pull at Buck's coat. "D'erwe's a w'ump in yourw coat, Buck... what is it?"
Buck quickly pushed Ezra's hand away and stood up. He walked over to Nathan's cabinet and slipped the package inside. He'd stopped at Mary's and picked up Ezra's gift on his way back to the clinic and forgotten about it. "It's just some medicine I had to pick up for Nathan at the store. So ya feelin' better now that ya had a good nap?"
Nathan shot Buck a questioning look, but kept quiet when he saw him glance at Ezra and shake his head quickly.
Buck managed to turn Ezra's attention away from the package, and they spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the bed with him and talking about things he'd like to do once Nathan said it was okay for him to leave the clinic. Eventually Josiah and JD wandered in to join them, and to Ezra's delight, Vin brought out his mouth organ and they showed the others what the gambler had learned. As the affectionate Southerner took turns leaning on each of his new brothers while he played, generously passing out warm hugs and frequent 'I wuv you's'... each of the men realized exactly how much they were going to miss Lit'l Ezra when he finally left them. They just hoped their Ezra would remember and accept the new sense of family they'd all been blessed with by this younger, more open, version of himself.
Chris entered the room he kept at the boarding house, and went straight to the closet. Opening the door, he paused a moment before taking the package off the shelf... did he really want to part with it? And how would he explain it to Ezra when he recovered his memory? Chris thought about the adult Ezra's reaction when he saw what his hardened leader had given him for Christmas, and knew it would probably only confuse him. Nathan was pretty sure he wouldn't remember much about what had happened after the accident. He'd have to take it back once the gambler's memory returned, but at least it would give him some pleasure for a little while.
He took the box of mementos off the shelf and carried both items over to the bed. Setting the box beside him as he settled on the edge of the bed, Chris looked down at the package he still held. Carefully removing the plain brown paper covering it, he revealed a book... Grimm's Fairy Tales. Adam had had the book before, but had left it outside and it had gotten ruined during a rainstorm. The boy had been heartbroken by the loss of his favorite possession, and Chris had been surprised to find another copy of it in the general store of a small town he and Buck had passed through on their way to Purgatory. When they'd returned home, Adam and Sarah were gone... but he'd never been able to part with the book. Even though the boy had never even touched it, it still was a reminder of him... one more thing to bind Chris to the memory of his son.
And now he wanted to share it with Ezra... with the little boy who only wanted someone to care about him. Having a bedtime story read to him was just one more of the joys of a normal childhood that he'd missed out on.
Setting the book aside, Chris picked up the box and placed it in his lap. He'd made it special to hold these few treasures... sanding it until it was smooth as silk, and carving Sarah's and Adam's names in the top. Lifting the lid, he looked down at what was left of his life with his family. It was a pitifully small collection of items... the fire had been intense and most everything had been destroyed. His hand stilled for a moment and then lifted a small, golden heart-shaped locket from the box. He'd given it to Sarah on their first anniversary. Opening the locket, he stared down at the tiny charred photographs that had somehow survived the fire... his on one side, hers on the other. He ran his finger lightly over her image, remembering again how happy she'd been the day that picture was taken. They'd just found out for sure that she was pregnant with Adam.
Sighing, he again looked at the book lying beside him on the bed. "What do you think, Sarah... is this a good enough gift for our Lit'l Ezra? I know it was meant for Adam, but I think he would have wanted it to bring some joy to another child... especially one who has known so little of it in his life. You'd have liked Ezra, Sarah. I know you... you'd have taken him right under your wing and pushed, pulled and prodded that stubborn southern gambler out from behind those damn walls of his."
He looked up, his eyes shiny with unshed tears. "So, Sarah... have you got any special pull up there? If you do, could you see if it would be possible to let Ezra remember some of what we're trying to do for him? It's gonna be an uphill battle to repair all the damage that's been done to his heart over the years, but we're gonna do our best... and with your help, I know we'd have a better chance at getting it done."
Chris closed the locket and lovingly placed it back in the box. He carried it back over to the shelf and gently set it back in place... letting his fingers run lightly across the lid tracing along the letters. "Merry Christmas, Sarah... kiss Adam for me." Chris stared at it for a moment longer, and then closed the door to the closet and returned to the bed. He wrapped the book back up and tied it with a bright red ribbon he'd gotten earlier at Mrs. Potter's, and then left it on the dresser to be picked up later after Ezra fell asleep.
Just as he was heading out the door, he heard the stage arriving down in the street. <Well, time to talk to the Judge. Okay, Sarah... now would be a good time for you to start helping if you can. Ezra needs to stay here with us til he's better, and hopefully the Judge can make that happen.>
Vin heard it first. Walking over to the window, he looked out and saw Chris standing with Mary and Billy as they waited for the Judge to step down out of the coach. "Stage's in."
Josiah joined him at the window and watched as Chris began talking to Judge Travis. "All right, brothers... it's time to send up our prayers that the Judge will listen to Chris and agree to help."
"Chwis has to talk to a judge? Is he in twouble?" A worried frown creased Ezra's face, and Buck was quick to calm his fears.
"Don't worry, Little One... Chris ain't in no trouble, he's just talkin' to Judge Travis about a prisoner we had in the jail last week. He's kinda our boss." Buck saw the relief wash over Ezra's face as he went back to fiddling with the mouth organ.
"Is he Biwwy Twavis' papa?" Ezra looked at Buck when no one answered his question.
Nathan looked at the others, and then at the gambler. "No, he's Billy's grandpa... you remember Billy?"
Ezra nodded his head and stared down at the bed. "He's Marwy Twavis' w'ittle boy, w'ight?"
Buck glanced at Nathan and then at Ezra, carefully watching his face for any signs of distress. "That's right... you know who Mary is?"
"Uh-huh... she owns d' newspaperw." Ezra turned his gaze back on Buck. "Buck, I'm hungwy... arwe we gonna eat soon?"
Buck shrugged at the others as Ezra changed the subject, and answered his question about supper. "Well, Chris was gonna bring us back some food, but he's kinda busy right now." He looked up at the others. "How 'bout we all chip in an' get enough food from the hotel for all of us, an' we can all just eat here tonight."
"Sounds good t' me... that way we can spend Christmas Eve with our little brother here. Y'all decide what we're gonna have an' I'll go an' fetch it." Vin agreed with the idea, and moved over to the bed and helped Ezra pick out a few new notes on the tiny instrument while he waited for the others to decide what they were going to have.
JD touched Ezra's arm to get his attention. "So what do you want for supper, Ezra? Is there any kinda food ya like best?"
Ezra thought for a minute, and smiled up at the men. "Do you f'ink d'ey might have fwied chicken? I w'eawy, w'eawy w'ike d'at."
JD pushed himself up off the bed and smiled down at the Southerner. "They might. I'll go with Vin an' tell them there's a special little guy over here who's really hungry for some of their delicious fried chicken, an' I'll bet they'll be glad to make some for ya."
Vin pocketed the money everyone passed him, and he and JD headed out of the clinic. Just before closing the door, JD stuck his head back in the room and looked at Nathan. "What should I get Ezra to drink... do you want him to have some more coffee or somethin' different?"
Nathan looked over at the younger man sitting on the bed. "Get 'im some tea this time, an' put a big dollop of honey in it t' sweeten it."
As JD closed the door, the others saw the grimace on Ezra's face at the mention of tea. Nathan hurried to assure him that it wasn't like the tea he'd had here at the clinic.
Ezra still looked skeptical, but he didn't say anything.
Nathan got up to set out some plates, and happened to glance back down at Ezra who was frowning at him and shaking his head.
"What?" His dark face drew down in a scowl at the look of obvious doubt on the gambler's face.
"I surwe hope d'at tea isn't as bad as yourws." Ezra shuddered at the remembered taste of Nathan's herbal brews. "It'd w'uin d' taste of my chicken!"
And ignoring Nathan's grumbling protests about being unappreciated, and Buck and Josiah's muffled snorts and snickers, Ezra leaned back against the ladies man and went back to playing with the harmonica.
Mary and Chris smiled as Billy leaped at the Judge, wrapping him in a big hug. "Grandpa! I'm so glad you finally got here! Did you bring me presents?!"
"Billy Travis... what did I tell you?" Mary sighed in exasperation as her father-in-law shushed her and assured Billy there was a case on the stage just filled with Christmas presents for him. "You're spoiling him, Orrin."
"Well, that's a Grandpa's job, isn't it? Hello, Chris... you take Mr. Wilmington's and Mr. Dunne's position of welcoming committee away from them?" Judge Orrin Travis was always amused to see the competition between his two out-going peacekeepers as they vied for the attentions of any young woman who happened to be on the stage. It always brightened the end of a long boring stage ride for him.
Chris smiled and nodded. "Thought I'd give the ladies a break from those two since it's Christmas." Then he sobered as he changed the subject. "I need to talk to you, Judge... after you've had a chance to rest up, of course."
The Judge studied Chris and Mary for a second, took in the seriousness of their expressions, and turned and passed Billy to his grandmother. "Evie... why don't you take Billy inside and help him put all those presents under the tree." He ruffled the young boy's hair and waited til he and his grandma had gone inside before turning back to Chris.
"Judge... it can wait til later. I know you must be-" Chris started to protest, but was stopped by the Judge's hand on his arm.
"It was a fairly easy trip this time... besides, I can see how important this is to you... and apparently to my daughter-in-law." He turned and walked into the building, leaving them no option but to follow.
After closing the door leading back to Mary's private rooms, Judge Travis sat down at her desk and motioned for the two of them to sit also. "Well, who's going to start?"
Chris glanced at Mary and seeing her nod encouragingly, began to tell the Judge about Ezra's accident and his present condition.
Orrin raised his eyes in amazement. "Mr. Standish actually believes himself to be a five year old?"
Chris chuckled and nodded. "Believe me, Judge... if you talked to him, you'd have trouble believing he isn't. Except for his size... and strength..." the gunslinger added, thinking about their earlier struggle with the bath, "there isn't much of the Ezra you know left. His actions, his speech... hell, even the expressions on his face are all those of a small child."
"Does Nathan have any idea how long he might be this way?" Orrin still hadn't figured out exactly what Chris wanted from him, it was obvious there was more to his nervousness than just Ezra's condition.
"He doesn't have any idea... it could be a few days, a few months or... maybe the rest of his life." Chris leaned forward in the chair and rubbed his hands wearily over his face. He hated to even think of that possibility, much less voice it.
"Has he remembered anything at all from before?" Orrin saw how hard it was for the younger man to talk about his friend's uncertain future.
"He only had one incident where something jogged his memory, and it got him so upset that Nathan decided we shouldn't push him... that he just wasn't ready for it to happen yet." Chris hadn't been there, but he could tell it had been bad by the look on Buck's face when he had told them about it..
"Has Maude been informed of his condition yet?" Immediately the Judge felt the atmosphere in the room change. Aha... here was the real reason behind the talk.
Chris nodded and stood up, pacing the room as he told the Judge that Maude knew about Ezra's accident but not the actual extent of his injury, and then he recited the contents of the telegram they had received.
"Why is she bringing a lawyer with her? I don't understand." Orrin saw Mary flinch at the anger that immediately appeared on the tall gunslinger's face.
"Because, Judge... she knows damn good and well we're not letting her take Ezra away from here without a fight." Chris's tone made it clear to the Judge that they'd do everything they had to to keep Ezra with them.
"She's his mother, Chris... naturally she's concerned for him and is going to want what's best." He knew the leader of his little group of peacekeepers was protective of his men, but he couldn't understand him wanting to keep Ezra away from his only family when he needed her most.
Mary quickly rose and put a calming hand on Chris's arm. She'd seen his body tense up at the Judge's mistaken impression of Maude Standish... and even though she'd had the same misconceptions, she knew better now. "Let Chris explain, Judge... he has very good reasons for wanting to keep Ezra here."
The Judge stared at both of them, and then leaned back in the chair and motioned for Chris to continue.
Chris glanced at Mary, and she excused herself to check on Billy and Evie. She respected their desire to ensure that the fewer people who knew about Ezra's troubled past, the better.
As soon as she closed the door, Chris took a deep, calming breath and began to fill the Judge in on everything Ezra had told them about his childhood. About his mother and her proclivity for sending him away to his uncle Matthew's for every little mistake he made, about the scars on his back from the whippings he said his uncle gave him, and the generally sad and miserable childhood he'd endured. And about Ezra's admitting that no one had ever loved him before. Chris held nothing back. He made sure the Judge knew exactly how close Ezra had become to all of them, especially to Buck... who had quickly become the most important person in his life. And how sure Nathan was that it would seriously damage the young man if he was torn away from his new family and the security he now felt, and shoved back into that life of fear and uncertainty he'd had before.
When he finally stopped and sat wearily back down in the chair, the Judge just stared at him as he tried to digest all he'd been told. He knew it had to be the truth... a five year old could not possibly make up anything this horrible. Orrin also came to the same conclusion Mary had... a little boy would do all he could to explain away any wrong-doings by his mother... not lie to make them seem worse.
The Judge looked at Chris and saw in his eyes exactly how much their young visitor had come to mean to him, and imagined it was the same for the others. "So exactly what do you want me to do?"
Chris looked him straight in the eye and prayed he'd understand the need for his request. "We want you to give us legal custody of Ezra."
Orrin shook his head and sighed. "That won't be easy, Chris. She is his mother..." he held his hand up to stop Chris's angry protest. "I know she doesn't deserve to ever get her hands on him again, but the fact is... as his mother, she has legal rights to his custody while he's incapacitated. However... if we have proof that she was neglectful and knowingly left him in an abusive environment, I might be able to legally have him taken into protective custody."
Chris started to smile and thank the Judge, but was stopped when the older man continued.
"But... I'm going to have to talk to Ezra myself. What you've told me is just hearsay... I need to hear everything that happened directly from him. Do you think he'll talk to me?" Orrin saw how much Chris hated the idea of putting Ezra through that kind of pain again, but he knew he'd do it if it would help keep him there.
"Is that necessary, Judge?" When he saw the older man nod, Chris knew he had no choice. "Alright... but only if Nathan and Buck can be with him at the time. I want Nathan there to stop it if he thinks it's getting to be too much for Ezra, and Buck... well, you'll understand why Buck needs to be there once you see the two of them together."
"That sounds reasonable. When is Maude due to arrive?" Orrin wanted to talk to Ezra before his mother and her attorney had a chance to start inundating him with demands. He wanted as much ammunition to use against them as he could get.
"According to her telegram, she's not supposed to arrive til the day after tomorrow. Can this wait til then, Judge? I don't want anything to ruin Ezra's first Christmas." Chris saw the other man's confusion and explained. "Maude wasn't interested in celebrating the holidays, much less spending any time or money on her son. Apparently the closest he's come to seeing what a real Christmas is like was when he was four... when he managed to get out of his room in the attic long enough to sneak a peek at his uncle Matthew and his family celebrating. He'd refused to aid his dear mother in a con she was trying to run on a preacher, so he'd been sent there to be punished again. Ezra doesn't think much of Christmas now, and we want to try and change that tomorrow."
"Okay, Chris... we'll wait til Monday, but it'll have to be early. I want to make sure I get to talk to Ezra before Maude gets here, and then I'll do everything I legally can to help him. Who knows, maybe we'll even get lucky and his memory will return by then." The Judge walked the younger man to the door and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze before he left. "Try not to let yourself worry, Chris... you just make sure that young man has a Christmas he'll never forget."
"Don't worry, Judge... our Lit'l Ezra is about to find out exactly what it's like to have Christmas with people who care about-" Chris paused and knew in his heart it was more than that. "With a family that loves him."
Orrin watched the young man hurry across to the clinic and smiled. There was no doubt in his mind now... Ezra Standish deserved to stay here with his *real* family... and he would do everything in his power to make that happen.
Chris opened the door to the clinic and was immediately struck by the true sense of family that met his eyes. They were all crowded around Nathan's small table... talking, laughing, and passing plates and bowls of food back and forth. Ezra sat in the middle of it all with a towel tied around his neck... a chicken leg in one hand and a biscuit in the other. His face was smeared with butter and grease and he was grinning from ear to ear... and what really gladdened Chris's heart was the obvious fact that he was totally unconcerned with the spots of food that dotted his *bib*. Ezra finally realized he was safe to be himself... and that his brothers wouldn't punish him for not being perfect.
"Chwis! We was hopin' you'd huwwy up an' get herwe!" Ezra began pushing against Buck, shoving him farther down the bench they'd brought in from outside to give them all room to sit. "Come on, Chwis... sit herwe by me. We made surwe to save you w'ots of food... it's fwied chicken an' it's dewicious!"
Nathan glanced across the table at the gambler and noticed the biscuit clutched in his left hand. "Ezra... put that biscuit down an' quit usin' that arm... I told ya if ya keep doin' that, I'm gonna have t' put it in a sling."
Ezra scowled at the mention of the sling and quickly set the biscuit down on his plate. He couldn't understand why Nathan kept fussing about it, it didn't hurt all that bad.
The enticing aromas of the food that covered the table finally reached Chris's nose, and his stomach rumbled as he squeezed in between Ezra and JD on the bench. Ezra giggled when he heard it and immediately set his piece of chicken down and passed the older man the plate of chicken. "Sounds w'ike you betterw huwwy up an' eat, Chwis! Good f'ing we w'eft you pwenty of chicken!"
Chris saw the others staring at him anxiously as he began piling food on his plate. He nodded at them reassuringly and mouthed 'later' and then turned his attention back to the younger man who was contentedly leaning against him while he ate. "Now who knew fried chicken was my favorite?"
Ezra stared at him, his bright green eyes widened in pleasant surprise. "I picked it, Chwis. It's yourw favorwite, too?"
"Sure is... especially the leg." Chris laughed as Ezra's eyes grew even wider.
"Mine, too! That's pwetty neat, huh? We bof w'ike d' same f'ings." He snuggled tighter against the man in black and sighed contentedly when Chris wrapped an arm around him, pulling him even closer.
It was awkward eating, he had to put his fork down everytime he wanted a bite of chicken or a drink of his coffee, but Chris didn't mind. It was worth it to see Ezra so comfortable and relaxed with them... and to see that bright smile that just seemed to light up the room.
Chris glanced down as he took a sip of his coffee and noticed Ezra's cup. "What ya drinkin' there, little guy... that's not coffee, is it?"
"Nuh-uh... it's tea wif honey in it... you wanna twy it?" Ezra held his mug up to Chris, but the older man shook his head and told him he'd stick to his coffee.
"That's not Nathan's tea, is it?" Chris almost choked as he felt a shudder ripple through the smaller man's body, and saw the expression of disgust that immediately appeared on his face.
"Heck no! D'is tea tastes good!" Ezra jumped when everyone but Nathan roared with laughter. He smiled hesitantly at the others, not sure why they were laughing... but his smile faded when his eyes landed on the healer.
Nathan glared at the men who were having a huge laugh at his expense. "Sure... y'all laugh it up... but jus' wait til the next time one of ya gets shot or sick... I'll jus' let ya suffer. I wouldn't wanna poison ya with any of my *concoctions* as y'all like t' call 'em."
Ezra immediately pulled away from Chris and struggled to get up. Buck grabbed his arm and steadied him as he climbed off the bench. "Where ya goin', pard?"
The others stopped laughing and exchanged guilty looks as Ezra limped around the table and sat down beside Nathan, wrapping his arms around him in an apologetic hug. "I'm sowwy, Nafan. I didn't mean to huwt yourw feewin's... I know you jus' give me d' tea to make me betterw."
Now it was Nathan's turn to feel guilty. He hadn't meant to include Ezra in what he said... he knew the Southerner was just telling the truth. "No... I'm the one who's sorry, Ezra. I wasn't talkin' 'bout you... you were jus' bein' honest. I meant these other ingrates who seem t' enjoy givin' me a hard time. I know you'd never say or do nothin' t' hurt nobody's feelin's." Nathan hugged Ezra tight and then gently pushed him away. "Now you get yourself back over there an' finish your supper before Buck snatches that chicken right off your plate... I saw 'im over there eyeballin' it."
It was Nathan's turn to laugh when he saw Buck start shaking his head and protesting his innocence as Ezra hurried back around the table. "You betterw not eat my chicken, Buck!"
Ezra squeezed back into his seat and grabbing up his chicken leg, leaned back against Chris again... keeping a watchful eye on Buck as he ate.
The rest of the afternoon was spent quietly. Nathan brought out his checkerboard to Ezra's delight, and they all took turns playing the gambler while they waited for him to get tired enough to sleep.
It was nearly seven before they finally got Ezra wore down enough to let them tuck him into bed, and as usual he gave Buck one look and the ladies man was right there beside him.
The rest of them left to gather up all the stuff they'd prepared to decorate the clinic with and to get their presents for Ezra. Hopefully by the time they returned, he'd be asleep and they could start getting ready for tomorrow.
Buck stretched out beside Ezra and smiled as he immediately curled up around him. The younger man had his head tucked up under Buck's chin, his arm thrown over his stomach, and the rest of his body pressed tightly against him. Now that he was finally experiencing the joy and wonder of a gentle human touch, it was as if he just couldn't get enough of it. And heaven knows, they were all willing to oblige him, especially Buck. Just the sweet look of pure happiness that washed over him everytime one of them hugged him back or just sat with their arm around him, was enough to keep them wanting to give him more.
Ezra yawned and snuggled closer as Buck tucked the covers around his shoulders. "Are you comfortable layin' like that, pard? Wouldn't ya rather use the pillow than my hard ol' chest?"
"Nuh-uh... I w'ike it d'is way 'cause I can hearw yourw hearwt beatin'." Ezra yawned again, and mumbled sleepily, "Makes me feewl safe."
"It does, huh?" Buck was rubbing his hand lightly up and down the younger man's back, and could feel his breathing even out and his muscles relax as he drifted off.
"Mmmm... hmmm... wuv you, Buck..." Ezra's voice was barely a whisper, and he was fast asleep within minutes.
Buck smiled and wrapped his arms around Ezra as he whispered back. "Wuv you too, Little One."
It was about a half hour later when the door opened slowly and Vin peeked his head around the edge. "He asleep?" When Buck nodded, he eased the door open wider and Josiah and Nathan came in and quietly proceeded to block the bed off from the rest of the room. They'd strung a rope across that part of the clinic and hung spare blankets over one end of it when it had become apparent that Ezra would be there for a while. Whenever one of the townsfolk came to Nathan for doctoring, the blankets were quickly spread out over the rope... effectively hiding Ezra from prying eyes. He'd been carefully instructed to keep quiet while others were there, and had been very good about not making a sound.
They helped Buck ease out from under the gambler, and made sure he was settled comfortably and still sound asleep before getting started. Nathan and Josiah carried in the boxes of decorations they'd made, and Chris set a package on the table containing some brightly colored ribbons and small candles Mary had donated.
Vin and JD wrestled the tree through the door... thankfully Ezra slept through the arguing and muffled curses that accompanied that task. Once they finally had it in and standing basically straight, the others congratulated them on their choice of a tree, proclaiming it good enough for their Lit'l Ezra.
After more arguing, Chris pulled rank... and as their leader, claimed the right to put the star they'd borrowed off the church's tree on top. They'd just started draping the garland of popcorn and wild currants that Josiah and Nathan had made, when they were all startled by a muffled thump and then the sound of Ezra crying for Buck. The ladies man hurried around the blankets, and found Ezra sitting up in the bed, sobbing out his name and cradling his broken arm against his chest.
Buck sat down beside Ezra and pulled him into his arms, rocking him back and forth slowly to calm him. "Shush now... I'm right here. What happened... did ya bang your arm again?"
Ezra's sobs had eased, but tears still streamed down his face as he nodded and continued to clutch at his arm. "It huwts, Buck!"
Nathan came around the wall of blankets and sat beside the two men. He saw Ezra holding his arm and looked at Buck. "Again?" This was about the third or fourth time he'd hurt it... either by banging it in his sleep, or by forgetting and leaning on it.
When Buck nodded, Nathan reached for the smaller man's arm. "Let me look at it, Ezra... I'll be careful." Ezra reluctantly allowed the healer to ease it away from his chest, and watched as he removed the splints, whimpering in pain as Nathan gently probed the new bruise that was quickly forming. "Well, we're lucky... ya didn't break it again, but I ain't takin' no more chances with it... it's goin' in a sling an' I'm strappin' it t' your chest."
"No, Nafan! I'll be morwe carweful, I pwomise!" Ezra began to whine... he was tired and in pain, and he seemed to have already developed the aversion he had to being restrained in any way. Nathan had found it nearly impossible to get the adult Ezra to submit to the confining use of a sling, no matter how serious the injury. The healer had assumed it was just a claustrophobic reaction to his having been cooped up in a jail cell on numerous occasions during his career as a con man and gambler... but now he wasn't so sure. Maybe it had something to do with his forced visits to Uncle Matthew's.
"I'm sorry, Ezra... I have t' do this or your arm ain't gonna heal right." Nathan replaced the splints on the gambler's arm, and then gathered up what materials he needed. When the healer sat back down beside Ezra, he started to cry in earnest... pleading with Nathan to leave his arm free and begging Buck to help him.
This immediately brought the rest of the men to Ezra's side, and Nathan grew angry and resentful when they started questioning the need for the sling.
"Y'all are actin' like I'm doin' this t' torture 'im! Ya think I like havin' to be the one t' do this t' 'im, knowin' how he feels 'bout wearin' the damn thing?" Nathan stared at the other men, who at least had the decency to look ashamed for making him out to be the villain in Ezra's eyes. They knew he wouldn't put the little guy through this if it wasn't absolutely necessary.
They all apologized to Nathan and helped him convince Ezra that it would only be for a short time, and that it was important for him to do as Nathan said so his arm would get better.
Ezra finally calmed down and agreed to let Nathan work on him, but only after the healer promised it would only have to be strapped down for a week. He sat on the bed surrounded by his big brothers, sniffling quietly as Nathan placed his arm in the sling, and then wrapped it with several long strips of bandage, fastening it snugly across his chest. The others did all they could to console him... dried his tears, patted his back, hugged him, and assured him that his arm wouldn't hurt as much now.
Once Ezra finally quit fussing about the sling, he noticed the blankets hanging across the room. "Why'd you put d'ose up d'erwe, Nafan?" Then he remembered and started whispering. "Have you got a patient overw d'erwe, Nafan? I'm sowwy I wasn't bein' quiet w'ike I'm s'posed to."
"No, there's no patient, Ezra... we're... um..." They all looked at each other, frantically trying to come up with a plausible reason for the barricade.
"Um... well... we were playin' cards an' didn't want to wake you up." Buck looked up at the others and shrugged. It wasn't a great explanation, but it was better than nothing. And the important thing was that Ezra believed him.
"You'rwe pwayin' carwds?! Can I pway, too?!" Ezra started to scramble off the bed, but stopped when six loud shouts of "NO!" startled him, and he stopped before his feet even hit the floor and just stared at the other men. His lower lip began to quiver, and there was a definite whine in his voice when he responded to them. "Why can't I pway, too? I know how to pway carwds. You don't want me to pway?"
They all looked at Buck... he'd started this little charade, let him explain it.
Buck shot them a glare, and then looked at Ezra. "We're playin' poker, pard... you-"
Ezra grinned and interrupted him. "I know how to pway pokerw... I'm w'eawy good at it!"
Nathan stared intently at the gambler... another memory? "You remember how to play poker, Ezra?"
Ezra frowned at Nathan. "Surwe I w'ememberw. Mama taught me when I was fourw. She's made w'ots of money takin' me to sawoons an' gettin' d' men d'erwe to pway me. D'ey all f'ink 'cause I'm w'ittle d'at d'ey can beat me... but d'ey aw'most neverw do." He never noticed the angry looks that were exchanged as he gave them one more reason to keep him out of Maude's greedy clutches. "So... can I pway?"
Buck looked pointedly at Nathan and nodded at the bed. Nathan stared at him for a moment, and then caught on. He motioned for everyone to move out of the way, and then reluctantly placed his hands on Ezra's shoulders and began easing him back. "Not this time, little guy... it's late an' ya need t' be gettin' some sleep now. Maybe tomorrow, okay?"
Ezra nodded sadly and allowed Nathan to lay him down and cover him back up, but tears immediately began to form in his eyes as he watched them disappear one by one behind the wall of blankets. Buck stopped and looked back at the gambler and had to stifle a groan. Apparently Ezra had learned how to manipulate people at a young age, too. He lay there staring back at the ladies man with those big, glistening green eyes, one lone tear trickling down his cheek, and his thumb tucked in his mouth... and somehow managed to make himself look small and lost in that big bed of Nathan's. Buck shook his head, knowing he couldn't just leave him there like that ,and leaned around the edge of the blanket. "Um... deal me out, guys... I'm gonna stay here an' keep Ezra company til he falls asleep."
The others looked back at him and smirked... they'd known he'd end up staying with Ezra. They went back to decorating the tree, trying to be as quiet as possible in the hopes the gambler would be able to fall back to sleep.
Buck moved back to the bed and curled up around Ezra, wiping the tears from his eyes and smoothing back his hair as he tried to comfort him. He was doing a pretty good job of it until the younger man attempted to get in his usual sleeping position with his head on Buck's chest... and found he couldn't do it with his arm secured the way it was.
Ezra tugged frantically on his arm, fighting the claustrophobic feelings the bindings produced in him. "I hate d'is, Buck... I hate it." His voice was a trembling whisper, and Buck could hear the tears threatening again.
"I know ya do, little guy... an' I'm real sorry Nathan had to do that to ya, but it won't be for long, an' ya know he hates ya havin' to wear it almost as much as you do." Buck saw Ezra nod, and he could also see how hard the smaller man was trying not to cry. "Here... let's see if we can't find a new position for ya to sleep in." Buck got Ezra turned partly on his side, and then pulled the smaller man back against his chest. He wrapped his arms around him and rested his cheek against the tousled brown head that was now cradled against his shoulder. "How's this, pard... better?"
"Uh-huh... f'ank you, Buck." Ezra sighed contentedly, and brought his hand up to wrap his fingers around the older man's hand.
"Anytime, Little One... I just want ya happy." Buck linked his fingers with Ezra's and squeezed gently.
"I'm aw'ways happy when I'm wif you, Buck." Ezra felt the larger man's arms tighten around him and smiled sleepily. Then he stared at the blankets blocking off the rest of the room, and grew curious about the rustling sounds coming from the other side. "D'ey don't sound w'ike d'ey'rwe pwayin' pokerw. Nobody's askin' forw carwds, orw bettin', orw nuffin'. What arwe d'ey doin', Buck?"
The others had finished wrapping the garland around the tree and were tying brightly colored ribbons amongst the branches, clipping on the candle holders, and hanging small shiny red apples tied with strands of green yarn. When they heard the gambler's remarks, they realized they'd underestimated the intelligence of this particular five year old. They looked at each other and then at the barricade, and knew they'd better think of something quick, or Ezra would start asking so many questions he'd never get to sleep.
JD glanced at his friends, and announced in a loud voice... "I fold. You sure dealt a lousy hand that time, Josiah."
The others stared at him, temporarily speechless, until he motioned impatiently for them to join in. Josiah hesitated for a second, and then followed the young man's lead. "Don't blame me, JD... it's just the luck of the cards."
"I don't know, Josiah... I kinda gotta agree with JD... these are the worst cards I've had all night. I fold, too. What'd ya do, keep all the good cards up your sleeve?" Nathan heard Ezra giggle on the other side of the blanket, and knew it was working.
Vin saw them look at him, and after a second, added his voice to the ruse. "Don't listen to 'em, Josiah... ya did a fine job of dealin'." He proceeded to make the appropriate comments of seeing and raising the bet, and then looked at Chris.
Chris saw all eyes turn to him and scowled back at the four men. He felt ridiculous decorating a Christmas tree and carrying on an imaginary card game at the same time, but since it was for their Lit'l Ezra, he guessed he could do his part. "Um... too steep for me, Vin... I'm out."
Suddenly a childish southern drawl drifted over to them from the other side of the blankets. "You should've bwuffed, Chwis!"
The men grinned at each other and had to struggle to control the laughter that threatened to erupt. Chris took a moment to get his voice under control, and then managed to answer the gambler. "Thanks, Ezra... I'll know better next time."
For the next hour, the guys continued to call out a litany of complaints about each other's dealing, grumbled over unreasonable bets, and occasionally gloated over an imaginary perfect hand as they finished decorating the tree. Everytime they thought Ezra might have finally drifted off, they'd hear him giggle, or another one of his comments on their poker playing abilities would come floating over the barricade. Each one had the men clutching their sides and struggling to contain their laughter.
"'siah neverw knows when to fold" was accompanied by a huge sigh of disappointment.
"JD aw'ways twies to bwuff, but he can't 'cause he gets d'at big goofy gwin on his face" was followed by a loud snicker.
"Nafan neverw wins 'cause he won't keep bettin'... he's cheap, isn't he, Buck?" was nearly drowned out by Buck's sudden burst of laughter.
And "you gotta watch Vin... he cheats aw'most as good as I do!" caused Vin to blush furiously, and the rest of them to roar with laughter.
After they had the tree decorated to everyone's satisfaction, they discovered they had plenty enough garland and apples to hang around the rest of the clinic. By the time Ezra finally fell asleep, the only thing left to do was his presents. Each of the men had carefully placed their gift for their new little brother under the tree, with Nathan retrieving Buck's gift from his medicine cabinet and adding it to the pile. After deciding to leave the blankets hanging until morning, they went around to check on Buck and Ezra, and found them both sound asleep.
Ezra was wrapped tightly in the older man's arms, their fingers still intertwined and their heads pressed together. Both men had small smiles on their faces and seemed so content, no one had the heart to disturb them. Josiah moved forward, and with Vin's help, carefully removed Buck's boots before tucking the covers up around them both. Nathan frowned at the two spots of red that colored Ezra's cheeks, and leaned down to rest a gentle hand against his face.
JD noticed the concerned look on the healer's face, and watched worriedly as he tested for a fever. "He okay, Nathan?"
Nathan moved away from the bed before answering, his voice low and uncertain. "Can't really tell... he feels a little warm, but it could jus' be from all the commotion today. We'll have t' wait an' see how he is in the mornin' t' be sure, but it wouldn't surprise me none t' see 'im end up with a cold after last night." He and Ezra both had problems avoiding colds when the weather turned. Since they came from the Deep South, their constitutions just couldn't handle the extreme drops in temperature that frequently occurred in the winters out here.
Chris stared at Buck and Ezra, so obviously happy and content together, and then watched the rest of his men as they fussed over their brother. He wished the Judge was here right now... one look at this heart-warming scene and he would have to be convinced of the rightness of Ezra being allowed to remain here.
Vin turned the lamp down and they all moved back to the other side of the clinic, admiring their handiwork once more before spreading out their bedrolls, and settling in for some much needed sleep. They'd agreed to spend the night in the clinic so they would be there the minute Ezra awoke... none of them wanted to miss his reaction to the surprise they'd worked so hard on.
Buck was jerked awake when Ezra began thrashing against him in the bed, moaning and tearing at the bandages that held his arm in place. He grabbed at the smaller man's hand, trying to restrain him before he hurt himself. Before Buck was even fully awake, Vin was leaning over the bed trying to help. The tracker had been sleeping right next to the blankets and had immediately come awake when Ezra had started crying out in his sleep.
"Ezra... come on, little guy... open your eyes... it's Buck... you're okay now." Buck whispered soothingly in the gambler's ear as Vin held his head still, stroking his hair and face in an attempt to wake him.
Ezra's frantic movements slowed, and then stopped as they managed to bring him out of the nightmare he had been lost in. His eyes fluttered several times and then flew open, and his body tensed against the hold they had on him. "Buck?!"
Vin saw the panic in the green eyes that stared up at him, and he quickly cupped Ezra's face in his hands and turned it gently toward Buck. "He's right here, pard... take it easy."
Ezra's eyes locked immediately onto Buck's, and he began to struggle again, but this time he was just trying to get into the safety of the older man's embrace. Vin helped him get turned over, and once Buck had his arms wrapped around him, the gambler slowly began to calm down. Vin sat beside them, his hand on Ezra's leg, hoping his touch would help keep him grounded in the present.
Ezra had his face buried in Buck's neck, and his slender fingers clutched at the larger man's shirt. Buck could feel him shuddering and gasping for breath as he tried to get his terror under control, and the ladies man automatically began rocking him back and forth as he continued to whisper in his ear. "Shh, Little One... Buck's got ya... nothin' can hurt ya now." Once Ezra had finally quit trembling and was breathing normally again, Buck decided to try and find out what he'd been dreaming about. "Nightmare, pard?" He felt the gambler nod his head slowly. "Wanna tell me about it?" A shake indicating no this time. "Was it the men from last night?" Another no. "Uncle Matthew?"
Vin and Buck both saw and felt the immediate change in Ezra... his body stiffened and he began to shiver, and his breathing quickened until he was again emitting the short, sharp gasps from before.
Vin began stroking the gambler's leg in an effort to calm him. "Easy, pard... it was just a nightmare... he can't hurt you now." But it wasn't helping... they both could feel Ezra's terror mounting again, and decided to just back off for now. Maybe he'd talk about it later... it was still just too real for his young mind to handle.
Buck held him tighter and began running his hand over Ezra's back, calming him slowly with his gentle touch. "It's okay, Ezra... you don't have to remember it now. Just go back to sleep, an' I'll be right here to protect you... I won't let anyone hurt you, Little One."
It took several minutes, but Ezra finally gave in to his exhaustion and slipped into a deep and thankfully dreamless, slumber. Buck looked up at Vin, and the anger and worry were evident in his dark blue gaze.
"Did ya catch any of what he was sayin' before we got him woke up?" Buck had been still half asleep, and his only thoughts had been getting Ezra calmed down... he hadn't paid any attention to what the gambler was muttering.
Vin shrugged. "I only caught some of it... 'Uncle' an' 'don't leave me here', I think. Then he mumbled somethin' that sounded like 'manda', but I ain't real sure 'bout that one."
"Manda? What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Buck stared at Vin as he ran the word through his mind, trying to figure out what Ezra could have meant.
Vin shook his head. "I got no idea what it could be... might not even be what he said. That was 'bout when he started cryin' an' mumblin'... couldn't really understand much after that." Vin stood and tucked the blankets over Ezra's shoulders before turning to go. "You two gonna be okay?"
Buck's arms tightened protectively around the younger man as he looked up at the sharpshooter, a touch of anger still flashing in his eyes. "Yeah, I'll watch over 'im... go try an' get some more sleep."
Buck looked down at the Southerner cradled in his arms, at the tears still drying on his cheeks, and pressing his face against the sweat dampened hair, whispered, "What the hell did he do to you, Ezra... what the hell did that miserable bastard do to scare you this much?"
Nathan was the first one up on Christmas morning. After stoking the stove and putting a pot of coffee on to brew, he slipped around the blankets and approached the bed. Buck's head shot up when he felt the healer's hand brush against his face as he reached to check Ezra for any signs of a fever. He was still a little warm, but no more so than the night before. Nathan noticed the salty trace of tears that still coated Ezra's cheeks, and Buck's haggard appearance, and frowned. "Somethin' happen durin' the night? His arm hurtin' 'im?"
Buck shook his head. "It's not his arm... he had a nightmare. He woke me up mumblin' an' cryin', an' tryin' to tear off them bandages holdin' his arm down." The ladies man looked down at Ezra's sleeping face, and then back up at the healer. "He was terrified, Nathan. It woke Vin up too, an' he said it sounded like Ezra was dreamin' 'bout his uncle. Whatever that sonofabitch did to 'im, I think it's got somethin' to do with him bein' so upset about havin' his arm wrapped up. Maybe he tied 'im down or somethin'."
Nathan nodded, recalling his own thoughts on the subject. "I been thinkin' the same thing... an' I gotta feelin' what he went through at his uncle's is a lot worse than what he's managed to tell us so far."
"I tried to get 'im to talk about it, but he was gettin' upset all over again, so I stopped." Buck felt Ezra stir and thought he might be waking up, but he just nestled his face tighter against the older man's neck, sighed and went back to sleep. "Looks like maybe ya oughta start gettin' the others up... he prob'ly won't sleep much longer."
Nathan nodded and left... his mind going over what Buck had just told him about Ezra's nightmare. Now he was almost sure that his first horrible thoughts about what had happened to the Southerner on his uncle's plantation might be right... and if they were, Ezra had good reason for his hatred of those bindings and for the nightmare he'd had.
It was a form of punishment he'd often seen used on the plantation where he'd lived. Hang the troublemaker up, whip him to within an inch of his life, and then leave him there for several days to teach him and the others a lesson. All the Masters used it at one time or another to keep the slaves in line... and it usually worked. After seeing one of their friends hanging there in the sun... the leather tightening around their swollen wrists... their wounds festering as they were left untreated... no one was willing to do anything that would incur that same kind of treatment.
Those pale scars on the backs of Ezra's wrists matched the ones left on his fellow slaves who had endured that same treatment... some of them had nearly driven the leather straps to the bone in their struggles to escape the pain. Nathan's stomach clenched at the thought of five year old Ezra enduring that kind of punishment, of his small body hanging there in that kind of agony.
Nathan's eyes filled with tears as he thought of how badly he and the others had misjudged their southern friend... he obviously had good reasons for his lack of trust and his unrelenting desire to keep them all at arm's length. When you'd suffered that much at the hands of your own family, friendship and brotherhood would naturally be totally alien concepts to you. It would take time, but once Nathan filled the others in on his suspicions, they could all work together to get Ezra over his fears of allowing anyone close enough to hurt him like that again.
Buck and JD had already gotten a good start on it in the last few months, but now they'd have the rest of them helping to convince Ezra that he could trust them. Hopefully, they could show him what a true family was like... something he obviously wanted and needed in his life. All they had to do was get him back so they could get started... and Nathan was truly beginning to believe that would happen.
No one else had seemed to notice the fact that all Ezra's comments about their poker playing last night were based solely on adult Ezra's knowledge of them. His memory was returning... in bits and pieces... but at least it looked like their Ezra was slowly coming back to them.
They'd managed to get the blankets slid back out of the way without waking Ezra, and now they were all enjoying a quick cup of coffee before getting him up.
Vin carried a steaming mug over to Buck and perched on the foot of the bed, his eyes settling on Ezra's face. It was hard to believe how terrified he'd been the night before when you saw how peaceful he looked right now. "Anymore dreams last night?"
Buck shook his head and sipped gratefully at the strong coffee. "*He* slept like a baby... wish I could say the same." It had taken him forever to get back to sleep. Everytime he'd closed his eyes, his thoughts had turned to all the horrible things Ezra's uncle Matthew might have done to him to leave him so traumatized. As a result, he'd spent the better part of the night clinging to the younger man in his arms and watching over him... ready to wake him if he even acted like he was starting to dream again.
By the time they'd finished their first cup of coffee, Ezra was beginning to stir... stretching and scrubbing his face sleepily against Buck's chest. Vin and JD hurried to light the candles on the tree while Nathan, Josiah, and Chris stood beside the bed, blocking Ezra's view just in case he woke before they could finish. As soon as they had the tree glowing brightly, Vin and JD joined the others as they waited impatiently for Ezra to awaken fully.
They didn't have to wait long. It was only a matter of minutes before Ezra finally stretched one last time, yawned, and slowly opened his eyes. He blinked several times as he stared up at Buck, trying to get his eyes to focus, and then gave the older man a lop-sided grin and whispered, "Morwnin', Buck."
Ezra jumped as six voices shot back at him, "Mornin', Ezra!" He looked over his shoulder at the men surrounding his bed, and his grin widened. "Y'all scarwed me! What arwe you doin' herwe aw'w'eady d'is morwnin'?"
"You'll see. Sit up and turn around here in the bed." Buck helped him sit up and got him turned so he was facing the men lined up alongside the bed, and then moved so he was sitting beside the gambler where he could watch his face.
Ezra's face was full of confusion as he stared at the six men he now knew as his brothers. "I don't see anyth-"
Every eye was trained on Ezra as they slowly stepped aside and gave him his first look at the brightly decorated tree.
His reaction was everything they could have possibly hoped for. Ezra's mouth dropped open, and his eyes grew so round they seemed to fill his face... their emerald depths reflecting perfectly the flickering lights of the candles. His hand groped across the bed searching for Buck's, as his incredulous gaze wandered around the clinic, taking in all the brightly colored decorations, and finally returning to the beautiful tree.
Buck wrapped his fingers around Ezra's, and reached up with his other hand to stroke the back of his head. Leaning forward, he placed a gentle kiss on the awestruck gambler's cheek and whispered softly in his ear. "Merry Christmas, Little One."
The others saw Ezra's face completely light up with joy and his eyes begin to glisten with tears, and everyone of them had to blink away the moisture that suddenly blurred their own vision as they finally spoke. "Merry Christmas, Ezra."
Ezra finally tore his gaze away from the tree and looked at the men who stood staring at him... his friends... no, his big brothers. His voice shook with emotion as he whispered, "You did all d'is... jus' forw me?"
All they could do was nod, none of them trusting their voices enough to try speaking.
Buck continued to stroke Ezra's hair as the gambler turned to look at him. He stared into the eyes of the man he cared for the most... the big brother who had won his trust and love just by being there when he'd needed someone to hold onto in this new frightening world he found himself in... and whispered brokenly. "All forw me, Buck?"
Buck felt as if his heart would break when he heard the total amazement in Ezra's voice that anyone would go to so much trouble for him... and knew that his young friend considered himself totally unworthy of such an act of kindness. How incredibly sad to have that kind of self-doubt and insecurity pounded into you at the tender age of five.
Buck enfolded the smaller man in his arms, and pressing his face tightly against his little brother's, whispered, "All for you, Ezra... all because we love you." And then he held him while he cried.
One by one the others joined the two men on the bed, each one touching his arm or gently rubbing his back as they comforted him until the tears finally stopped.
Buck sat him back up when he was sure he was finished crying and wiped the tears from his cheeks. "Well, pard... ya ready for the rest of your surprise?"
Ezra sniffed and rubbed his hand across his eyes as he stared incredulously at the men surrounding him on the bed. "D'erwe's morwe?"
JD patted him on the back and looked surprised. "Sure there's more... what would Christmas be without presents?"
Ezra's face lit up all over again. He'd been so mesmerized by the beauty that now surrounded him, and the incredible idea that they'd done all this just for his happiness, that he hadn't even noticed the gifts lying under the tree. "You got me a pwesent?"
"Not just one... six... one from each of us." JD pointed at the pile of gifts and laughed as Ezra's eyes widened at the sight of all the packages lying under the tree... his very first Christmas presents. But then his face fell as he realized something.
"But... but I don't have any pwesents forw you guys." Ezra's eyes started to tear up again until the men all assured him that because he was only five, he wasn't supposed to give gifts yet.
Vin gave Ezra a gentle squeeze and told him, "Besides, pard... just havin' you here with us is the best Christmas present we could possibly get."
Everyone got off the bed and helped Ezra get turned around so that he sat in the middle of the bed, propping pillows around him to make him comfortable. Then they brought over the chairs and one of the benches, and placed them so they could watch his face as he opened the presents. And finally, one by one, they carried the gift they'd chosen especially for their little brother over to the bed, and sat with him while he opened it.
JD went first... they all knew he was so anxious to give Ezra his gift, that he'd never be able to wait for the others. He pulled the fishing pole out from behind the tree and saw the others smile and nod at his ingenious job of wrapping. He'd wound it first with plain paper and then tied bright red and green bows all down the length of it.
Carrying it over to the bed, he carefully placed it in front of Ezra. "This one's from me, Ezra."
Ezra stared at the long skinny package that hung over both sides of the bed and then looked up at the young sheriff with a huge grin on his face. "What is it, JD?!"
"Well, now... it would ruin the surprise if I just told you what it was! You gotta open it! That's the fun of gettin' presents."
"But it's so pwetty wif all d'ese w'ibbons on it... I don't wanna rwuin it." Ezra's fingers trailed the length of the gift, touching each of the carefully tied bows before JD finally convinced him it was okay to take them off.
They all watched as the Southerner awkwardly untied each bow, hampered by the fact that he only had one hand to use. He placed them in a neat pile, stroking each soft ribbon before going onto the next, and they had to stifle their laughter at the impatience of the real youngest member of their family. JD was squirming around on the bed, anxiously reaching a hand out to help, and then pulling it back as he realized that Ezra was just being Ezra... meticulous and neat even at the age of five.
The gambler finally had all the bows removed, and JD held the package for him as he carefully began stripping off the paper.
JD kept his eyes trained on Ezra's face... suddenly shy about his choice of a gift. What if Ezra remembered the argument in the clinic and it made him sad instead of happy? But his fears were for nothing, and it was worth every last penny he'd spent when he saw the older man's face light up with joy as the pole was finally revealed.
"JD! You got me a fishin' pole?!" Ezra's eyes positively glowed with happiness as he ran his hand over the brand new cane pole. Suddenly his eyes shot up to stare wonderingly into the young boy's smiling face. "Does d'is mean I can go fishin' wif you an' Buck?!"
"You bet it does... just as soon as it warms back up, and as long as Nathan says you're well enough to go." JD's excitement almost matched Ezra's as he showed the inexperienced Southerner how to hold the pole. "We'll go and spend the whole day fishin'... how's that sound?"
"It sounds grweat!" Ezra tried to set the pole down beside him, but it was too long. Seeing the gambler's dilemma, Vin stepped forward and took the pole and propped it up against the wall beside the bed. Ezra smiled his thanks at the long-haired tracker before turning and wrapping his arm around JD's neck in a warm, brotherly hug, and whispering softly in his ear, "F'ank you, JD... d'at's d' best pwesent you could've given me."
JD had a feeling he didn't mean just the pole, but was also thanking him for the gift of sharing his time with Buck. The young man hugged Ezra back and whispered, "I had to have the best for my *little* brother."
After giving him one more squeeze, JD pulled away and reluctantly left the bed, moving over to stand beside Buck, who put his arm around the youngster and gave his shoulders a squeeze. "Ya did good, Kid. That was perfect."
JD ducked his head shyly, but everyone could see how proud he was of himself for thinking of just the right thing to give Ezra.
The rest of them looked at each other and finally Josiah moved toward the tree. "Well, looks like I'll go next." He took a small package from the pile of gifts and moved over to sit beside Ezra on the bed.
"Okay, Ezra... this isn't quite as much fun as that fine new fishing pole, but I hope you'll like it anyway." Josiah set the present on the bed in front of Ezra, and held it as the smaller man carefully pulled off the ribbon, adding it to the pile beside him. The gambler peeled away the paper to reveal a small square box, and after looking up at the preacher, slowly lifted off the top.
Inside was an Indian necklace. Ezra gasped when he saw it and carefully pulled it up out of the box. "'siah... it's... it's so pwetty." The gambler looked doubtfully up at the larger man. "It w'ooks so speciawl... arwe you surwe you want to give it to me?"
Josiah took the necklace from Ezra's fingers and cradled it in his large hand. "It is special, little guy... that's exactly why I want you to have it." He lifted the necklace up, and turned it so everyone could see it. Three strands of colorful beads held an intricate carving of a large bird done in turquoise and trimmed with silver. Everyone could see what care had been taken with the precise detailing on the image, and they each knew just how valuable Josiah's gift was. Not so much in monetary worth, but in the spiritual value it held for the gentle preacher.
Josiah leaned over and held the piece of jewelry closer to Ezra so he could explain what it meant. "This is the Thunderbird, and according to my friend, Ko-je, it's the sacred bearer of unlimited happiness."
Ezra reached out and touched the carving with one slender finger and said, "Ko-je is Chanu's papa, isn't he? He w'ives in d' Indian viwwage d'at you go visit."
Josiah and the others shot a surprised look at Nathan, and were pleased to see him smiling and nodding approvingly... apparently he wasn't surprised by Ezra's sudden flash of memory.
Josiah turned his attention back to the smaller man sitting beside him. "That's right... he's the one who made this for me. Now, see this blue stone? It's turquoise, and Ko-je used it for the carving of the Thunderbird because it's supposed to help its owner to victory over his enemies, protect him against injury, and make him well liked by all men." He smiled as he saw Ezra's eyes widen at the powerful magic the piece of jewelry was supposed to hold.
Ezra stared into Josiah's kindly blue eyes and shook his head. "'siah... Ko-je made d'is jus' forw you, didn't he? I don't f'ink he'd w'ike it if you gave it away."
Josiah placed a big paw along side Ezra's face. "He gave it to me to do with as I wished... and I wish to give it to you. There's nothing I want more than for this to bring you happiness for the rest of your life... and for it to protect you in case I'm not able to do it myself. Will you wear it for me, Ezra... please?"
When he saw Ezra nod, Josiah raised his hands and gently slipped the necklace over the younger man's head... settling it carefully so that the Thunderbird lay in the middle of his chest.
Ezra looked down at the necklace and wrapped his fingers around it protectively, and then turning his eyes back up to the older man, whispered, "I'll wearw it forweverw, 'siah."
Josiah saw the tears glistening in Ezra's green eyes, and pulled him into a tight embrace. He pressed a kiss against the soft, unruly curls brushing against his cheek, and bent to whisper in the gambler's ear. "I love you, Ezra... you remember that."
Ezra pressed his face into the older man's neck and reveled in the warmth of his love. "I'll w'ememberw, 'siah... I pwomise."
After rocking the smaller man in his arms for a few minutes, Josiah finally sat him back up and touched his cheek, gently brushing away the few tears that had managed to escape. Then while unashamedly wiping away his own tears, he moved away from the bed to make room for the next man.
Vin hesitated for a second, glancing at the others, and finally walked over to retrieve his own small present from under the tree. He turned and looked shyly at Ezra waiting expectantly in the bed, and couldn't help but smile at the look of excitement that was lighting up the handsome face of the gambler. What a change from the usually wary and skeptical looks that they were used to receiving whenever they performed an act of kindness for their jaded southern friend.
Vin climbed on the bed and sat Indian style in front of Ezra, placing the gift in his lap. "It's not much, but I hope ya like it, pard."
"I know I wiwll, Vin... it's frwom you." Ezra smiled at the quietest one of his new brothers and knew that whatever it was, the shy tracker would have taken great care to make sure it was something special.
Reaching out to hold the small package still so that the gambler could work at the carefully tied ribbon with his nimble fingers, Vin watched nervously... hoping Ezra would know how much the gift meant to him.
Ezra slowly peeled back the paper and stopped when the shiny new instrument fell out onto the bed. He stared down at it for a moment, and then reached out to reverently run his fingers over its shiny surface. "Oh... Vin... my own... you got me my verwy own harwmonica."
He looked at Vin then, and the tracker could see without a doubt that Ezra knew exactly what he was giving him... the chance to make his own music... a music that would be special only to the two of them.
Ezra slipped his hand into Vin's, and green eyes met and held a pair of shiny clear blue ones as a current of emotion flowed between them. There was no need for words... each man felt it and acknowledged it with that one look.
"Wiwll you teach me how to find it, Vin?" Ezra asked quietly, neither man aware of the quizzical looks the question had drawn from the other five men in the room.
Vin shook his head and reached out to gently tap Ezra's chest. "I don't need t', Ezra... it's right here... ya just need t' look an' you'll find it okay."
Ezra lovingly picked up the mouth organ and looked back at Vin. "F'ank y-" But he was interrupted as Vin placed two fingers over his lips and shook his head.
"No need for that, pard... it's somethin' I wanted t' do for ya. Okay?" Vin watched Ezra nod in understanding, and moved his hand to rest against the Southerner's cheek. "Now we can make music together... and share our hearts." Vin spoke softly so only Ezra could hear him, and smiled when the gambler nodded and lightly placed his hand on Vin's chest.
Vin let his hand slide away and rose up off the bed, moving to lean against the wall... keeping his distance from the others for now while he got his emotions under control. His eyes held Ezra's for a few moments longer, and then he looked away as Nathan announced it was his turn.
Everyone in the room was amazed by the connection that Ezra and Vin seemed to have made, and they all wondered when it had happened and how they had completely missed it.
Nathan had deliberately gotten up when he did in order to take the pressure off of Vin... knowing instinctively that what had happened between he and Ezra had been a deeply personal experience for the tracker, and that it wasn't in his nature to want to share it.
He pulled the largest package out from under the tree and carried it over to the bed, laying it carefully in front of Ezra and smiling as he watched the excitement of another present light up his face.
"Nafan! It's so big!" Ezra tried to pull the present into his lap and couldn't.
Nathan chuckled at the expression on the gambler's face when he discovered how heavy the package was. "You'll have to leave this one layin' on the bed while ya open it. Ya get everything untied, an' then I'll pick it up so ya can get the paper off."
Ezra nodded and carefully began untying all the ribbons Nathan had used. The others had to struggle not to laugh as they watched the total look of concentration he had on his face while he worked. The gambler was bent almost double as he worked at the bows, his tongue poking out, and a determined frown appearing on his face whenever he came to one Nathan had accidentally tied to tight.
The healer was just about to offer to help, when he finally undid the last bow. Two quick pulls on the paper and he had it ready for Nathan to lift. "Okay, Nafan... I'm w'eady forw you to pick it up!"
Nathan lifted the package off the bed, and laughed as he watched Ezra quiver with excitement as he pulled the paper and ribbons away and tossed them on the floor. Gone was his worry about being neat... he just wanted to see what this big, heavy gift could possibly be.
Nathan set it back down in front of Ezra, and sat nervously waiting for the smaller man's reaction. He knew it wasn't as special as the others' gifts, but he still hoped it was something Ezra would like.
Ezra stared down at the wooden box and ran his fingers across the checkered top, frowning.
Nathan felt his heart sinking as he watched the frown appear on Ezra's face, but just as he was about to apologize for making such a poor choice, the gambler stopped him by loudly exclaiming, "A checkerwboarwd!! Nafan... you got me a checkerwboarwd of my verwy own?!"
Ezra struggled onto his knees and practically threw himself at the startled healer, nearly knocking him off the bed. The smaller man wrapped his arm around Nathan's neck, hugging him tightly, and then pulled back to stare down at the box again before turning, and with his face practically nose to nose with the healer's, chattered anxiously, "Is it mine to keep, Nafan? I've neverw had my verwy own game beforwe! I've neverw had any toys at all... is it w'eawy mine, Nafan?!"
The other men didn't know whether to laugh or cry. They wanted to roar with laughter over the astonished expression on Nathan's face as he tried to keep up with what Ezra was saying... and yet it was bringing tears to their eyes and an incredible ache to their heart that their friend had had to wait twenty-eight years to receive his first and only toy. In the end, they decided on both... laughing at both Nathan's and Ezra's astonished faces, and at the same time, discreetly wiping away the tears that they just couldn't hold back.
Nathan stared at Ezra for a moment before bursting into laughter himself. "Whoa there, little guy... slow down!" He cupped Ezra's face in his large, gentle hands and finally got him calmed down enough to assure him that it was indeed his to keep. "Sure it's yours... here... look on the bottom of the box." Nathan tipped the box up so that Ezra could get a look at the bottom, and pointed to the small letters carved into the wood.
"E-Z-R-A... P... S-T-A-N-D-I-S-H... d'at's my name, Nafan! You carwved my name in it?! D'at w'eawy means it's mine, doesn't it!" Ezra was so excited he didn't even see everyone staring at him... their heads all shaking in amazement.
"Leave it to our Ezra to already know how to read at the age of five," Buck whispered softly to the others, and then with a nudge to Chris's side, he raised his voice so the excited gambler could hear him. "You can read already, Ezra? Oh, and what's the 'P' stand for?"
That was a question they'd tried to get the man to answer ever since they'd found out his middle initial, but all he would tell them was that it stood for 'persuasive.' An excellent word to describe the smooth-talking Southerner, but obviously not his real middle name. Naturally, this only served to fuel Buck's curiosity and the ladies man hounded Ezra unmercifully for the correct name... teasing him with outrageous guesses such as Poindexter, Percival, and everyone's personal favorite... Painintheass.
Ezra never even looked up at him when he answered... he was still too busy inspecting his new game. "I can onwy w'ead my name... Mama taught it to me. An' d' 'P' is forw my middwle name... it's Payton. Ezwa Payton Standish... I was named afterw my gwandpa."
Buck's face held such a look of satisfaction, and such a promise of future torment for poor adult Ezra, that everyone couldn't help but laugh. Buck merely rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation... it would drive Ezra crazy trying to figure out how he learned his real name.
Ignoring the others' amusement, Ezra looked up at Nathan in confusion. "Nafan? Wherwe's d' checkerws? We can't pway wifout d' checkerws!"
"Look here." Nathan leaned over beside Ezra, they're heads almost touching, and showed him the tiny latch on the side of the wooden case. He helped Ezra flip it up and watched as the smaller man opened the lid... his heart swelling with emotion as he saw the look of incredulous wonder appear on the gambler's face.
"Nafan... it's a chess set, too... an'...an' it's so beautifuwl," Ezra whispered softly as he reached out a trembling hand to touch the intricately carved chessmen. Dark and light pieces nestled side by side in the velvet lined box, each one incredibly detailed... even the checkers were carved out of the same satiny wood and were stacked in their own separate compartment. Ezra stared at the healer questioningly.
"Wherwe did you get d'is, Nafan? It w'ooks w'ike it cost a w'ots of money." He knew the gentle healer didn't have much. He'd heard people come to him for help while he'd been confined to the clinic... he'd been instructed not to talk while they were there, but he'd listened curiously... hearing them mumble their apologies as they were forced to pay Nathan with goods instead of money.
Nathan stared at the frown that had appeared on Ezra's face. He knew the gambler was worried about him spending what little he had on his gift, and the healer was touched by his concern. He slipped an arm around his fellow Southerner's shoulders, and squeezed gently. "It's okay, Ezra... ya can quit worryin' 'bout me... it didn't really cost nothin'. I jus' did some tooth pullin' for a peddler who came t' town yesterday, an' he offered it t' me as payment. I wanted somethin' special for your gift, an' couldn't think of nothin' else that would be good enough for ya, so I took it."
"Nafan... I don't deserwve somefin' d'is fancy. You should keep d'is one forw yourwself an' jus' give me yourw old one. D'at one would be good enough forw me." Ezra closed the lid of the case carefully, and tried to slide it across the bed to the healer.
Nathan stared at the young gambler and saw how disappointed he was at giving up the beautiful gift, but also saw how sure he was that he wasn't deserving of it. Nathan put his hand on Ezra's arm and stopped him. "Ezra... look at me." When the smaller man refused to look up, Nathan placed his fingers under his chin and gently raised his head up until he could look into those expressive eyes of his. "Ezra... I wanted this for *you*... somethin' special t' show ya how much I care for ya... it's real important t' me that ya have it." Nathan watched Ezra's eyes shift down, and bent his head to recapture his gaze. "Unless ya don't like it... jus' tell me if that's what's wrong, an' I'll take it back an' try t' find somethin' else for ya."
Ezra brought his eyes quickly back up to Nathan's face and vigorously shook his head. "I wuv it, Nafan! I wanna keep it forw aw'ways... but-"
"No but's, Ezra." Nathan interrupted the gambler before he could protest anymore. It hurt him more than he thought it ever could to hear Ezra put himself down the way he was doing. "I want ya t' have it... that's why I carved your name in it. 'Sides, if ya don't take it, you're gonna hurt my feelin's. Ya don't wanna do that, do ya?"
Ezra looked at the chess set longingly, and then back at Nathan's gently smiling face. He reached out to put his pale hand against the healer's dark cheek and shook his head slowly. "I'd neverw wanna do nuffin' to huwt you, Nafan. You'rwe my bwuvver now an' I wuv you."
Nathan smiled softly and placed his larger hand over Ezra's slender one. "I love you too, little brother... so does this mean you'll keep my gift?"
Ezra smiled back at the larger man and nodded his head. "On one condition."
Nathan chuckled and nodded. "Whatever ya want, Ezra... what's your condition?"
"You gotta pwomise me d'at you'll pway chess wif me, too... not jus' checkerws. I f'ink I might be able to beat you at d'at one." Ezra giggled as he saw Nathan's look of surprise.
"You know how t' play chess already?" Nathan didn't know why he was surprised. Ezra was obviously a heck of a lot smarter than most five year olds. "Well, I promise t' play checkers with ya anytime ya want... but you'll have t' get Josiah t' play chess with ya... I don't know how."
"D'en I'll keep d' game if you'll w'et me teach you how to pway chess... deawl?" Ezra stuck his hand out, ready to shake.
Nathan took Ezra's hand, but instead of shaking it, he used it to pull him in for a hug. "Deal, little guy... and Merry Christmas."
Ezra hugged him back as hard as he could with one arm and whispered, "Mewwy Chwistmas, Nafan... f'ank you so much forw givin' me my firwst toy."
"You're welcome, Ezra... now I think I better move this outta the way so Chris an' Buck can give ya their presents. I'll set it over here on the night table for now, okay?" Nathan took the heavy chess set and placed it carefully on the table, smiling as he saw Ezra watch his every move. He was so thrilled that their Little One had liked his gift so much that he didn't think he'd ever be able to quit grinning.
Chris looked at Buck and nodded when he waved at him to go ahead... he knew Buck wanted to be alone with Ezra to give him his gift. The ladies man had talked to Nathan about giving the Southerner the watch... about whether he thought it would trigger a memory like Ezra's own watch had done. Nathan had told him he didn't know if it would or not, but even if it did, it might be a good thing. Ezra was stronger now and it was time to start jogging his memory, and he figured Buck was the best one to do it. He also had assured Buck that he'd tell the rest what was happening, and make sure they all left them alone when it came time for him to give Ezra his gift.
|On to: Part 2|
Sadly Jean is no longer with us, but we're sure her daughter, Jenn, would love to hear from you if you enjoyed this story.
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