A/N: This story kinda got away from me despite my best efforts to control it. Julian makes contact with one of the seven…finally. I guess that’s a good thing…right? Oh, I’m a little harsh on Maude in this one, so if you’re a big fan of her, please don’t break out the torches and pitchforks.
~ ~ WITNESS ~ ~
For the first time that I could recall since first coming to this backwater of a town, I had nothing that required my attention. I chanced a glance to my left where I spotted Chris whittling away on a piece of wood before turning to my right to check on more of my charges. I spied Vin slouching in his seat under the boardwalk awning, looking like he hadn’t a care in the world. Of course I knew this nonchalant façade he was currently projecting was just a show, for Mr. Tanner was the most vigilant out of the bunch what with having a bounty on his head and all. Still, just seeing him relaxed and enjoying a cup of coffee brought a small smile to my face. Next to him was Ezra, enjoying a cup of coffee as he read one of the books from his small collection, and leaning against the support post in front of both men was Josiah, sipping away at his own cup. When I had last spotted Nathan, the man had been puttering around in his small clinic, and to my knowledge Buck and JD were ambling about the town.
“Yes, all’s quiet on the home front,” I sighed contentedly. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t enjoying this nice little respite from bullets and mayhem, but I wasn’t daft enough to believe that this little lull in danger wouldn’t come with a price tag. As if in answer to my rueful thoughts, I spotted the inbound carriage barreling down the street and couldn’t hold back a groan when I saw a familiar figure perched on its roof. “This can’t be good,” I mumbled. I watched as the stage came to a complete stop and Gabriel gracefully floated down from his seat atop the conveyance before bellowing, “What bloody plague have you seen fit to unleash upon us now, little brother? You had better not have brought that old windbag back here; I was quite insistent that he never darken this hamlet again!” The wry grin on Gabriel’s face did nothing to lessen the clenching in my chest, and I knew that I would hate whatever it was that he had to say.
“Actually, I’m not here about him,” Gabriel stated patiently, once he had reached me. There was no way I was going to move from my comfortable position against a support post; if he had information that dire to impart, then he would have to come to me. I arched a brow in question, and he inclined his head to the scene taking place at the stage door. “It’s about him,” he stated, jutting his chin towards the small boy that Mary was running her hands over. I knew my face must have been a sight to behold what with the wide eyes and the slack jaw. I stammered for a few seconds, but Gabriel held up a hand before I could form any kind of coherent response. “I know what you’re going to say, Julian, but just hear me out. I’m not asking you to be his guardian, just to keep an eye on him. The boy’s damaged and this place holds a lot of bad memories for him,” Gabriel tried to explain before I roughly cut him off.
“That’s all well and good, Gabriel, but why stick me with the little towhead? It’s bad enough that I have seven overgrown children of my own to watch.”
“He’s Mary’s son; it’s only logical to assume that your guys will probably take an interest in him,” Gabriel cut in with a raised voice.
I halted my biting comeback in favor of a quiet, “Ah, I see.” Apparently little brother had picked up on the hint of my upcoming tirade and attempted to placate me with an open palmed gesture before I could get all riled up. Well there was nothing doing. “So by your logic the little shrimp would be my problem by default, hm? Just have my charges look after the brat and should trouble find him while he’s here, it’ll find one of them first thereby causing me to swoop in and minimize the damage,” I ranted as I paced around Gabriel and gestured with my hands for added emphasis, my voicing getting louder by the second. I saw that Gabriel had a rebuttal on the tip of his tongue, but a shrill scream emanating from down the street caused the words to shrivel back into his throat and die as he swiveled his head around to locate the source of the noise. I noticed that Mary’s little boy was now standing in the middle of the thoroughfare right in the path of the oncoming stagecoach as his mother rushed back up the boardwalk screaming his name. “Bloody hell,” I bit out angrily before rushing to the boy’s aid. I’d almost reached my destination when a blur of black streaked across my line of sight. Figures that Larabee would be the one to play hero, I mused to myself as I swooped down on the pair. “There are times when I hate being right,” I snarled, shoving both Chris and the little boy out of the path of the approaching horse hooves. By the time that I’d righted myself, Gabriel had gone, leaving me to mutter curses under my breath. “Bloody children are a plague in and of themselves.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Not exactly a bucket of sunshine and giggles are you,” I drawled as I watched Nathan and Mary look over her son Billy. I could tell that the boy was still shaken up after his near-death experience with the stagecoach, but I was as curious to know his reason for being in the street as his mother was. I followed her question up with a growled, “Bloody stupid thing to do that was. I would’ve thought children had better sense.” I vaguely heard Mary ask her son what was wrong and snorted in derision. “Your bloody son hasn’t a working cell in that wee little brain of his, that’s what’s wrong,” I huffed, turning to leave the room. I couldn’t fathom how guardians of children coped without going absolutely batty. I’d only been in the presence of this child for a few scant moments, and I was already frothing at the mouth. Perhaps it was the fact that this was a boy I was dealing with; Olivia hadn’t been this much bother…had she? I ruthlessly pushed my wandering thoughts aside as I moved to exit the small room, a child’s peculiarities not really being my problem. I’d only taken a few steps towards the door when I heard the boy’s quiet admission; the words freezing me in place and sending a cold tingle up my spine. “Tell me I heard that wrong,” I whispered in a strangled voice, keeping my back to the scene behind me until I could recover my composure. I slowly craned my head around in time to see Billy dissolve into silent tears and bury his face in the bedding he was reclining on, and I bit the inside of my cheek in an effort to reign in my temper. “Lucifer… you have sunk to a new low, big brother,” I whispered before striding out of the room.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Still in a state of disbelief and rage, I hadn’t been prepared for the scene that greeted me upon exiting Mary’s newspaper building. I closed my eyes and shook my head a bit in an effort to shake the vision from my mind before opening them again. Nope, I apparently hadn’t been hallucinating, and Ezra was in fact being used as a pack mule as I watched him trail alongside an older woman dressed in black and sporting a fancy umbrella. Not exactly the sort of behavior I would have expected from my charge, even if he was a ‘gentleman’. “Well, this should prove to be a breath of fresh air,” I chuckled as I hurried to catch up with the interesting pair. Lord how I needed something to distract me from the dark trail that my thoughts had begun to take a few moments ago.
“Mother,” I spluttered, pacing alongside Ezra’s right side all the while casting curious looks at the woman to his left. I could see a minor resemblance in the duo’s features, but it was the woman’s voice that was the biggest giveaway of all, the same honeyed drawl that Ezra sported. “She’s not one of those parents who takes pleasure in embarrassing her children is she?” I whispered next to his ear. I’m well aware of the commandment to honor your mother and all, but this behavior just seemed a little…demeaning to me. When a load of bricks tumbled from one of the suitcases that Ezra was carrying, I quickly clasped a hand over my mouth to cover up my gaping jaw. “Guess that answers that question,” I chuckled uncomfortably as I watched Ezra bend down to pick up the offending objects. Yes, this new development was shaping up to be a very interesting breath of fresh air indeed. I scratched at my neck nervously as I glanced around for a way to divert my attention, hoping to give Ezra some space for him to deal with his mother. My salvation came a few moments later in the form of JD whom I spotted down the street. “Best of luck to you mate,” I mumbled, making sure to avoid eye contact with my clearly embarrassed charge.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I watched JD twirl his pistols for what seemed to be the hundredth time before finally voicing the thought that seemed to be on the mind of the young woman whom he was trying so fervently to impress. “She doesn’t appear to be interested, Mr. Dunne. I’d give up if I were you, lest you humiliate yourself further by attempting something foolish,” I drawled. Apparently the lad couldn’t take the hints that the young lady was dropping, but he definitely received the message when Buck sidled up a moment later and the young lady promptly plastered herself to his body. “Don’t feel bad, mate,” I stated consolingly, clapping the young man on the shoulder. “She doesn’t strike me as being particularly bright, and no one wants a woman with a dull bulb eh.” I did my best to placate the young man, but it was nothing doing. He was riled and determined to give Buck a piece of his mind. I listened to Buck’s explanation about the reason why he attracted women so easily, but the sheer ridiculousness of it had me puzzled. “Animal what? Are you putting me on?” I asked with a slight giggle. There was no way…and yet he was so adamant about what he was saying. I was about to declare how ludicrous this conversation was when I heard JD telling him to take a bath right before the young man stalked off. “Well,” I exhaled loudly, once I’d managed to close my slackened jaw. “He may be onto something there.” I didn’t get any further because the young lady’s father suddenly appeared and chewed Buck out quite spectacularly. The whole exchange would’ve been amusing had it not been for the sinister vibes the older man had been emitting. I narrowed my gaze at the man’s retreating back as I followed Buck to the livery. I would have to remember to keep an eye on that fellow.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I glanced around me and shook my head as three of my charges continued to laugh at Ezra’s mother’s outlandish stories. “Like greedy little sponges absorbing water,” I clucked. I knew the main reason that JD was enjoying himself so much was due to the fact that he no longer had a mother, and Maude was a damn convincing one. I smirked at the behavior of my other two charges. Josiah was clearly smitten with the woman, and Vin was simply enjoying a laugh at Ezra’s expense. “It’s always easier to laugh at a friend’s flaws than it is to laugh at your own,” I tisked. Despite the fact that I could tell she was lying, I found myself chuckling at some of her stories, the sheer absurdness of them tickling me; however, the more things continued the more I wanted to know what Ezra’s childhood had really been like. “Because it sure as hell wasn’t how you just described,” I muttered. I noticed Ezra slinking towards the table as I shifted to lean against the wall next to JD’s chair, and I could tell right off that he had an idea about what his mother was up to. Judging by the look on his face, I’d say that the poor sod was used to his mother spinning such tall tales about his childhood, and that fact alone was enough to kill any further amusement I would’ve found in Maude’s stories. I shook my head in dismay as my charge escorted his mother from the table, wondering just what drove a woman to treat her son in such a way. “And here I thought that spiders were the only creatures that ate their young.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Have you been drinking or have you simply lost what little sense you possessed in the first place?” I questioned aloud, watching Buck flit around the livery as he and Nathan searched for the missing Billy Travis. “Here we are… in a desperate search for a missing child… and what’s on your mind? Women! It’s unbelievable.” I listened to him carry on about that drivel that he’d spouted to JD yesterday while Nathan stared at him blankly. Once Buck reached a lull in his questioning, the healer finally decided that he’d heard enough and turned away. “Yes, I agree with your sentiments, Mr. Jackson.” I rolled my eyes as Buck continued to mutter to himself before finally giving the man a dismissive wave of the hand. Poor bastard is completely hopeless with this whole ‘animal magnetism’ nonsense. I shook my head amusingly as I wished that I had more time to revel in the hilarity of this situation but duty called. “I’ll just go check and see how the others are faring,” I called out to my oblivious charge as I gestured to the livery doors. Hopefully my other charges were faring better than these two.
The chances that neither of the other two search parties had found the missing boy yet were probably high, but I kept a spark of hope alive just in case. As I caught up to Josiah, JD and Ezra’s group, I began to ponder on the circumstances surrounding the missing boy’s disappearance. Whatever demons were haunting young Billy must have had a powerful hold over him. “Powerful enough to drive the child to run away from home,” I sighed sadly, shaking my head in dismay. I’d never seen Lucifer go after a child this way before, which got me to thinking that perhaps this ‘devil’ was more human than spirit. That thought, for some reason, seemed worse to me than if my brother did turn out to be behind all this. “Using the Devil’s name to frighten a child,” I growled to myself. Humanity had just sunk to a new low. I may have my reservations about children, but that didn’t mean I resented them. Children were a wonderful gift sent by God, and they were meant to be treasured and loved. And also bawled out for their foolishness when the situation called for it, I mused with a grin. I grimaced when my mind returned to the idea of a man preying on a child’s susceptibility to suggestion, and I felt my anger begin to rekindle. To take advantage of a child’s vulnerability…the very thought sickened me.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Listening to Mary’s tale just confirmed my suspicions that this ‘devil’ that Billy spoke of was not my misbegotten older brother but instead some twisted man who sought to frighten a child to death by claiming to be said evil entity. “Whoever this lost soul is I pray that Father has mercy on him, because I don’t think I’m capable of such an undertaking.” I swallowed thickly as I watched Billy declare that the ‘devil’ was going to kill his mother if he told them what he knew about his father’s death. The poor thing was scared to death, and I suddenly found myself overcome with the inexplicable urge to offer the lad some comfort. I crouched down next to the huddled form and brushed a hand over his head much like his mother was doing. “I’m afraid that offering words of comfort isn’t exactly one of my strong suits,” I murmured, “but I can assure you that no harm will befall you or your mother, little one.” I noticed Chris’ clenched jaw and knew that he and the others would do their best not to make a liar out of me. For now, this quiet vow was the best I could offer the boy as far as a way of assurance went, and I dearly hoped that none of my charges would pay a hefty price in an effort to keep my unheard promise.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Once I was out of the stifling confines of Mary’s back room, I took a deep and cleansing breath before striding across the street to the saloon in hopes that the lively atmosphere would lift my spirits a bit. Upon entering, I spotted Maude going up the back stairs, but it appeared that she was alone. A quick inventory of the room showed that Ezra was nowhere to be found, so it was with no small amount of trepidation that I followed the woman up. “Why exactly are you here?” I asked her, once we were both settled in Ezra’s room. She had perched herself on the edge of his bed and was now looking about the room with a pinched face. “I know you’re not here for a simple visit because…you don’t appear to be the sort of mother who just drops in to say ‘hello’,” I drawled as I moved to sit down next to her. I watched as she proceeded to pick up a book from the nightstand and peruse its pages and decided that I might as well make myself comfortable whilst the two of us waited for my charge to arrive. A while later, we both turned to the opening door and watched as Ezra wearily strode inside. I forced myself to relax my posture and remain silent as the proceedings began to play out, but I couldn’t banish the clenching feeling in my abdomen that told me this confrontation would not be pleasant.
Once the door had slammed shut upon Maude’s exit, I turned to look at Ezra and swallowed harshly. “I am so sorry,” I whispered. I wished I could’ve said more, but I found myself at a complete loss for words. Damn it all to hell but I’d been right about that woman. I hadn’t expected the truth behind Maude’s lies to be so disheartening, but I guess I shouldn’t have been all that surprised. “Not all women are cut out to be mothers,” I murmured quietly, keeping my gaze fixed onto my lap. I was unaware of my charge’s startled reaction to my observation until I heard a gasping noise, which caused my head to snap up.
“Who...who’s there? Show yourself!” Ezra had backed himself into the far corner of his room and was now looking about the place wildly. Oh…bugger, he actually heard me? My brain began a breakneck search for what could’ve possibly caused this event to occur before stumbling to a halt as I recalled something Gabriel had said to me.
“I suppose this little heart-to-heart with mommy dearest would classify as an internal struggle.” I scratched the back of my head as I tried to determine what the best approach for this situation would be. I chanced a glance over to the corner to see if Ezra had heard me and snorted to myself when I noticed that he was creeping towards the dresser that held his guns. “You won’t need those.”
“Ah beg to diffah.” Well, at least he’s not screaming like a madman, I thought ruefully.
“Look, this…this isn’t exactly easy to…oh bugger it all!” I threw my hands up in frustration as I lurched off the bed and began to pace. Mumbled curses slipped out from my lips as I tried to get a handle on my emotions and failed miserably.
“Ah think ah must be losin’ my mind.” I turned around to find that Ezra had brought his hands up to cover his face and was now leaning heavily against the wall behind him. I suppose I could just let him think that this little episode was nothing more than a delusion brought on by exhaustion. But this was the breakthrough that I’d been hoping for; I couldn’t just pass this opportunity up!
“Oh to hell with it.” I noticed that my exasperated curse had caused my charge to once again turn his attention towards me, and I chose to take advantage of the moment. “Look, I know you probably think that this is one big hallucination,” I explained calmly as I advanced a few steps towards his position. “And…well…I wouldn’t blame you if you decide to chalk all this up to exhaustion, honestly,” I chuckled weakly. By now, Ezra was looking at the spot where he assumed I was standing with mild interest, hands still covering the majority of his face. I let out a weary sigh before I decided to plow on ahead. “Look, mate, I don’t know an easy way to say this; I’m a bit out of my range on this one.” I scratched the back of my neck awkwardly as I glanced over to my one-man audience.
“You’re sayin’ that you’re…not just some voice in mah head?” Ezra’s voice sounded like a mixture of amusement and incredulity.
“Well, I suppose you could think of me that way seeing as I highly doubt this event will occur again,” I snorted. I observed Ezra clear his throat and prepare to ask another question, but I quickly cut him off, having a pretty good idea what he had been about to say. “I’m your bloody guardian angel, mate,” I blurted, laughing slightly at the perplexed look that crossed his face at my words.
“Ah beg your pardon?” Ezra’s deadpanned question had me sighing happily as I strode forward and leaned next to him against the wall, thinking that perhaps I could salvage this encounter.
“My name’s Julian and I’ve been assigned as your guardian angel,” I stated cheerfully and chuckled a bit when my sudden closeness caused my charge to flinch. I studied Ezra’s face as he digested all that I’d told him, lips forming silent words as he prepared to speak again.
“You expect me to believe that…you’re some angel sent here from…heaven to…do what exactly,” he managed to stammer out as he turned his head towards me, face a mask of incredulity.
“Well, actually…see I wasn’t exactly… assigned just to protect you. I was actually sent to look after all seven of you,” I explained haltingly. I watched as Ezra processed this new tidbit before he dipped his head to fix his gaze on the hands that he had clasped in front of him.
“Ah suppose that would explain our…good fortune when it comes to escapin’ a battle relatively unscathed,” he chuckled lowly.
“Huh, you suppose right, mate,” I harrumphed, slouching back against the wall. “You lot are just lucky that I’ve taken a liking to you.” At Ezra’s impish smirk, I threw up my hands and exhaled, “Oh you’ll be thinking that you imagined this whole thing come tomorrow,” as I quickly strode out of the room, waving my hands at him in dismissal. Cocky little bugger, I mused wryly once I was on my way. It wasn’t until I’d put some distance between myself and Ezra that I allowed my mind to reflect on the situation as a whole. “I thought that went rather well, actually,” I stated confidently, wondering what Gabriel would think if I told him about this.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“I’m not so sure about this plan,” I muttered nervously as I watched Vin load Billy and Mary into the stage. “Something could go wrong. Oh bollox, this is you lot I’m talking about so of course something will go wrong!” My protests landed on deaf ears the same as always, so I followed the stage to the rendezvous point where my charges would stow away on board for the planned run-in with the criminals behind the attempt on young Billy’s life. Once my charges had gotten themselves into position, I climbed into the driver’s seat to sit next to Ezra. Just as I had predicted, he gave no sign of awareness regarding my presence since our conversation the night before, so I treated the situation like it was business as usual. “You’re a bloody sitting duck up here, mate,” I ground out, crossing my arms over my chest with a huff of irritation. “I do hope you lot are right about this.” A few minutes later found me covering Ezra in an effort to prevent any of the bandits’ stray bullets from hitting him, cursing my charges for having come up with this ridiculous plan. “The next time one of you gets a brilliant idea, I hope you bloody choke on it!” I shouted over the noise. I should cuff the lot of them upside the head once this ruse was over.
I couldn’t prevent myself from wincing when the man that Mary tackled hit the ground hard. I’d never seen a woman launch herself from a carriage and onto an unsuspecting man before, but it was quite an impressive sight. “I know that hurt,” I hissed, continuing to watch in morbid fascination as Mary pummeled the man senseless. “Now that is how a mother should act,” I smirked. The plan had been to scare one of the bandits into confessing who had hired them to kill Mary and her son, but I hadn’t expected the proceedings to be so amusing. “How’s it hanging there, mate!” I laughed as Buck and Vin took turns interrogating the bandit whom they had strung from a tree. When they suddenly released the man so that he almost connected with the ground, I hissed in a breath. “I think you made him wet himself,” I called out as I circled around to inspect the poor man’s clothes. Judging by his high pitched screams, I’d say that they also managed to scare quite a few years from his life too. I gazed off into the horizon in the direction that I knew Chris had taken Billy to keep the boy safe. “I should probably pop in to see how they’re getting on,” I mumbled, but the chance to confront the entity behind all of this madness was too alluring. “Perhaps I’ll return with you lot and see how things play out first.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“You know…I’m wondering just how much of what you just said is actually true,” I muttered around the forefinger that I had over my lips, listening to Maude while she spoke about the woes of being a parent. Her one-man audience was one of the men that the bandit had named in the plan to kill Mary and Billy, and I found that I was unable to stir up an ounce of pity for him as he became entangled in Maude’s web. “There are times when a spider does come in handy,” I smirked. Ezra’s boisterous entrance was right on schedule, and I bit down on my fingertip in an effort to quell my anxiety over what I knew would be a battle of the silver tongues.
The planned barbs were spoken with just the right amount of acid to make them believable, but no matter how hard Ezra tried to control his emotions I could see the hurt in his eyes with every scornful word his mother spoke. “Tis the curse of being such an accomplished actress; no one knows when you’re telling the truth,” I clucked. Although Maude probably didn’t mean most of what she said, there was no taking back her earlier statements that were said in a fit of anger. “Children remember everything you say,” I whispered next to her left ear as she watched Ezra’s exit, “and they take everything to heart.” The rest of her conversation with the man went off without a hitch, and I found myself grinning at her colorful descriptions of torture.
“Well played,” I whispered and patted her on the shoulder before preceding her to the back door. I may have had my reservations about the woman as a mother, but I couldn’t help but admire her skill as a con-artist.
The poor man looked every bit the spooked animal that he was when he realized the whole scene in the saloon had been a setup. “I don’t think she cares why you did what you did,” I stated lowly as the man stuttered an explanation to Mary, whilst the woman slowly advanced towards him like a predator stalking her prey. Thankfully, Vin cut him off before he could trip over his tongue even worse than he already had, but the man’s hasty confession made my chest clench. I cursed loudly before racing to check on Chris and his small charge, praying that I wouldn’t arrive too late to be of assistance.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“I could really use a vacation,” I mumbled, scrubbing a hand over my face in exhaustion. The gunfight last night had been too close a call for my taste, and as it was I had been unable to prevent Chris from getting winged in the arm. “I’m just lucky that that little mishap was the worst of it.” I turned my head to the side as I heard Ezra and his mother coming up the boardwalk behind me, and I was able to catch a portion of the conversation before they reached me. “Hm, this should be interesting.” They paused by Buck’s sprawled figure, and I couldn’t help but snicker at Maude’s insinuation that he smelled. “I bet JD had a hand in that.” As I joined them on their journey to the stage, I laughed when JD handed her a few bills a little ways down. “You’re becoming more devious every day,” I stage whispered to him over my shoulder.
The disjointed conversation continued for a bit until we came across Josiah who gave off the impression of a lovesick schoolboy. “Trust me, mate, there are plenty more fish er flowers in this fair desert,” I stammered with a grin before I patted him on the shoulder and continued to follow mother and son down the boardwalk. By now I could tell that the words that Ezra had been attempting to speak had crawled back into his throat and died. After he finally managed to stammer out a coherent statement, I was shaking my head in disbelief. “The bonds of family can cause a person to do strange things,” I sighed. As I watched Maude walk away, I caught the resigned look in Ezra’s eyes and felt myself get angry again. “I understand that she’s your mother and all, but that’s no excuse for this…” my voice trailed off as I realized that nothing I could say would break apart my charge’s devotion to his mother. “I’d just hate to see her be the death of you,” I intoned quietly. Lord how I wished that my charges could hear me all the time. I glanced up and saw Billy and Chris heading down the street, and I smiled wistfully at the pair. “I guess it’s too much to ask for all children to have wonderful, loving mothers.”
© Barb 2011