THIEF

By ssinco

 

Chapter 1:

Chris Larabee sat in the dark saloon, downing his sixth…or was it his seventh, shot of whiskey. The gunslinger always tended to get moody and short-tempered this time of year, but the past 12 months had proven particularly difficult. It was only within the last year that Larabee had discovered who had murdered his wife and son: an ex-lover by the name of Ella Gaines. Chris had always assumed that finding the truth of what and why the murders happened would help him put the tragedy behind him, but that wasn't the case.

Now, he KNEW he was responsible for the deaths. Cletus Fowler had been hired to kill his family because Ella wanted Chris for herself. That knowledge, coupled with the fact that he had been unable to find Gaines and avenge the killings, weighed heavily on Larabee in this week leading up the 4th anniversary of his family's death.

Upon staggering out of the saloon, Chris decided it would be best if he rode out of town for a few days. He had been drinking too much for weeks and had gotten into arguments with all of his fellow peacekeepers at one time or another. He hadn't even been to his cabin for three months. That was just another aspect of his life that had gotten pushed to the side in his quest for justice.

Chris' best friend and fellow peacekeeper, Vin Tanner, walked up to the hitching posts where Larabee was mounting his horse. "Goin' for a ride, Cowboy?" he asked. Vin worried about the turmoil he saw in his friend's green eyes.

"Just headin' out to my shack for a couple of days," Chris answered. "Send someone out to get me if there's any trouble." Chris and four other men had been hired to protect the town a little over two years ago.

"Will do, Chris, but I was thinkin' about sneakin' out of town for a few days myself. You want some company?" Vin didn't like his friend heading off alone in his current state of mind...and body. He knew Larabee had been drinking.

"Nah, just need a day or two to think," Chris grabbed Vin's forearm in a gesture that both men understood to mean, "thanks and watch your back."

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Larabee arrived at his cabin just before dark. He unsaddled and tied up his horse, Pony, and then sat on the stoop of the front porch and stared at the sunset. He took off his hat and ran his fingers through his dark blond hair. Sometimes Chris hated the man that he had become. His fellow peacekeepers and a number of townsfolk, like Mary and Billy Travis, went out of their way to try and help him through these tough times, but he always pushed them away. His guilt and grief were things that he felt like he had to deal with on his own.

Chris pulled his long, lean frame up off the steps and entered the small, one-room cabin. He was surprised to find his bed un-made and only one can of beans left in the cupboard. He generally kept the place clean and well-stocked, but maybe he had left in a hurry last time or maybe one of his fellow peacekeepers had crashed here en route to or from an assignment.

Larabee had brought a fresh loaf of bread and some honey with him from town, so he could make do with that and a can of beans. In all honesty, he was planning on drinking his meals for the next couple of days anyway. With that thought, Chris pulled out a bottle of whiskey, opened it, and took a long swig.

Within a couple of hours, the gunslinger was good and drunk. He began to turn over furniture, throw plates, and smash glasses... and in his drunken rage he didn't notice the shadowy figure looking in his back window.

The stranger watched the events unfolding in the small cabin. He had known Chris Larabee years ago, when his family was still alive, and he had never seen Chris drunk. He watched in shock as the blond man ripped his belongings apart and eventually collapsed to the bed.

After about an hour, the figure was sure that Larabee was passed out, dead asleep, and he quietly entered the cabin. He helped himself to a few slices of the bread and honey. He removed the gunslinger's boots, cleaned up the broken dishes, and lifted the long legs up onto the bed. The stranger then disappeared into the night.

Chris awoke the next morning with a killer hangover and a sense that something was amiss. He couldn't remember taking off his boots and going to bed, and he didn't recall opening and eating the bread that was sitting on his table. "Wow, I really musta been drunk," he thought, but then said out loud, "what the hell?" when he saw the cleaned up dishes in the trash. There was no way he would have done that in his state of mind last night.

"That damn tracker must have followed me," Chris figured that Vin must have come out, cleaned up, and then left. That was the only thing that made any sense.

Chris' stomach couldn't handle the idea of making coffee, so he decided to head back to town to confront his meddling friend.

He began to regret his decision not long after leaving his shack. "Why did Four Corners have to lie directly east of my cabin?" Larabee squinted as the morning sun shone directly in his eyes. This only managed to exacerbate the throbbing pain in his head.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris walked through the batwing doors of the saloon just as Vin and Ezra Standish were about to have lunch.

"Why'd ya follow me?" Chris asked Tanner.

"Good mornin' to you too," Vin said followed by, "I didn't follow ya nowhere."

"You didn't come out to my cabin last night?" Chris questioned. "When I woke up this mornin', someone else had been there."

"Well, it wasn't me," replied Vin, as he took a big bite of his sandwich. "Chris, are you SURE somebody was there?"

"No offense, Mr. Larabee," Ezra interjected, "but you were pretty well on your way to an inebriated state when you left here yesterday."

"I'm sure," Chris glared at the two skeptical men. "Some of my food was missin', and the person cleaned up the place."

"You had an intruder that cleaned your cabin?" Ezra smiled. "How very considerate of them."

"I know it sounds crazy, but somebody was there. That's why I thought it was one of you guys."

"Mebbe just a burglar who didn't end up finding anything they wanted," Vin shrugged his shoulders. "There has been an increase in petty thefts outside of town over the last couple of months. The Morrison's and the Beckett's both said they had stuff come up missing…..but it was kinda unusual items – food, blankets, and kid's clothes."

"I don't know of any burglar who would sweep the floor," Chris shook his head.

"Could be a mother, who needed food and clothing for her children?" Ezra suggested. "Maybe she was trying to pay you back for the food by cleaning your little domicile?"

"There was a lady with a boy move into town a few weeks ago," Vin recalled, "saw her asking around about work. Mary said her name was Dunne."

"I hate to cut our conversation short, but I am due to relieve Josiah over at the jail," Ezra stood, taking the rest of his sandwich with him. "Good day, gentlemen."

"Vin," Chris whispered once he and Tanner were alone, "I think whoever was in my house took off my boots and put me to bed."

Vin laughed and said, "hell, that don't sound too bad…especially if it's some cute, young lady."

"Somehow my mind keeps imagining someone that looks more like Yosemite tuckin' me in."

"Aw Larabee, you're such the pessimist."

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After drinking a couple of cups of coffee, Chris could almost walk out onto the sunny boardwalk without feeling like his head was going to split in two. He was rubbing his temples when he nearly ran into Mary Travis, coming around the corner.

"Oh, you scared me," she said, "actually I was just coming to look for you. Another family – the Turners - reported a break-in this morning, and their homestead is close to the others who were burglarized. Again, it was mostly food that was stolen and also their boy's coat. Folks are starting to get a little nervous, and I was asked to call a town meeting with you and your men to discuss the plan forward."

"Yeah, ok…can you schedule it in a couple of days, Mary? Got a few things I wanna check out first," Chris now suspected that his cabin had been the victim of this same thief.

"I can do that, but I should probably warn you that some folks suspect that new woman, Mrs. Dunne, and her boy who moved into the old Garrett house outside of town."

"Vin mentioned that. I'll make sure I talk to her before the meetin' as well."

Tanner was walking from his wagon, and Larabee yelled, "Vin, find Nathan and Josiah and meet me over at the jail."

"OK, I just saw them both heading to the saloon, so we'll be over in 5 or 10 minutes."

Chris found Ezra sitting at the jail desk, shuffling his deck of cards. Vin, Josiah, and Nathan walked in a few minutes later.

"What's up?" Josiah asked.

"Have ya heard about the robberies outside of town?" Chris asked, and the four men shook their heads, "yes."

"Mary said there was another one last night, and," Chris paused, "when I went out to my cabin yesterday it looked like somebody had been in there as well."

"Was anything missin'?" Nathan asked.

"Some food maybe, and the bed was unmade…..I think our thief might be livin' there, at least from time to time."

"I want Vin and Josiah to go talk to this new woman in town, Mrs. Dunne. She and her boy are renting a place just west of town. I'm gonna set up a watch on my cabin and see if anybody comes and goes tonight. Mary said folks are startin' to get antsy about the burglaries, so Nathan and Ezra – keep a close eye and make sure folks behave themselves here in town."

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As Ezra walked out of the jail, he noticed two of the town's men harassing a woman outside the hotel. He heard one of the men say, "Ya better lock your doors, lady. This town don't look kindly upon thieves."

"Is there a problem?" Ezra walked up to the men and asked.

"If you and the rest of Larabee's gang were actually doin' your job, you would already know this woman's been stealing stuff from folks' homes."

"And you gentlemen have proof of that?" Ezra questioned.

"Well, no, not yet, but it has to be her. The thief has been stealing food and stuff for little boys, and she has a youngen just about the right age. Plus, the robberies started happenin' just after she arrived."

"That, my friends, is called circumstantial evidence and does not carry enough weight to warrant an arrest. I kindly suggest that you desist harassing this woman, or she will have real evidence to have YOU arrested."

"We'll leave, but we're warning you Standish. If you and your men don't do something about it soon, we will."

"Let me know, Mrs…"

"Dunne, Emma Dunne. Thank you for stepping in Mr. Standish."

"It was my pleasure, and as I was saying Mrs. Dunne, you just let me know if those gentlemen or anyone else causes you any trouble," Ezra tipped his hat and headed towards the saloon.

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Emma Dunne was an attractive woman is her late 20's with dark hair and eyes. She had moved west just a few weeks ago from Boston. Her husband had passed away two years ago, and she lost her job as a chamber maid for a wealthy Boston family last month. The family had decided to move back to England, and she thought it was time for a change as well. She and her 7-yr-old son, John or JD as everyone called him, arrived in Four Corners with $20 and one suitcase full of clothing. Emma had been making the rounds in town, asking anyone she could think of for work: Mary Travis, Mrs. Potter, and she had just now inquired about a position cleaning rooms in the local hotel.

Most of the town's folks had been kind to her; in fact Mrs. Travis was currently watching her son while she talked to the hotel manager. It was her bad luck that a string of robberies began just as she and JD arrived in the small town. She had heard about the five men who watched over the town and hoped they could find the perpetrator soon.

"Good day, Mrs. Dunne," Vin approached with Josiah following behind him. "If it wouldn't be too much of a bother, we'd like to talk to ya for a few minutes. We could go over to the restaurant and buy you an iced tea or lemonade."

Emma replied, "I need to pick up my son from Mrs. Travis, but I suppose that would be fine if it will only be a short conversation." She knew what the men wanted to talk about, but she trusted that they were looking to figure out the truth – not pin something on her that she didn't do. The younger of the two men, Vin, she had met the day before. He was a handsome man with striking blue eyes. The elder man also had very kind-looking blue eyes, and she had heard that he was the town's preacher.

Over a glass of lemonade, she explained her situation very honestly to the two men. She told them that she was, indeed, very short on money and supplies right now, but that she had NOT stolen anything from anyone….EVER.

The two peacekeepers believed the woman and assured her they would do their best to find the real thief.

They parted ways, and she entered Mary's newspaper office.

"Mom!" JD ran to her. JD Dunne was a 7-year-old bundle of energy. The hazel-eyed, black-haired boy was small for his age, but what he lacked in size he made up for in attitude and sheer determination.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris saw the woman and her son head out of town on their buggy, and he followed about five minutes behind them. He soon veered off the main path for a lesser-known trail through the woods. It would take him within a half-mile of his cabin, and he would walk from there. Larabee wanted to make sure the intruder would have no suspicions of anyone being around.

Chris tied his horse to a tree at the end of the wooded trail. There was a small stream and plenty of grass within reach, so Pony would be content to wait here. From there, Larabee walked down the hill towards his little shack. He crouched behind some bushes on the hillside and waited for night to fall.

After it was fully dark, Chris moved down quietly to the woods just behind the cabin. He didn't have to wait long. Within the hour, a dark figure appeared, looked around, and walked right in the front door of Chris' shack. Larabee waited to make sure no accomplices appeared; it was too dark and he was still too far away to judge much about the shadow he had seen move across the front porch. The person did not appear to be very large though. "It really could be a woman," Chris thought to himself.

In another five minutes, a lantern was lit in the shack, and Larabee decided now was the time. He pulled out his Colt, walked softly across the yard, and up onto the porch. The gunslinger knocked open the door with one, hard kick and was absolutely shocked at what he saw.

 

Chapter 2:

Chris ran into his one room shack ready to face off with a hardened criminal, and what he found instead was a young boy!

"Please don't shoot, Mr. Larabee," the boy said, while sitting down the piece of bread he had been eating.

Chris realized that he was still pointing the gun, and he blinked to make sure he was seeing things correctly before he put his Colt back in the holster.

"What are you doing here?" Chris asked.

"Eating," the boy answered honestly.

"I can see that, but why are you in my house?" Chris continued, "where's your ma?" This boy couldn't be more than 10 years old.

"I'm sorry for stealin' your food, but I was hungry," the boy said, and then he finished quietly with, "my ma died about 6 months ago."

"How long have you been…livin' here?" Larabee couldn't believe the boy had been here for 6 months.

"Month or two; was sent to live in an orphanage right after Ma passed, but I ran away. That place was awful, mister…..real awful."

"How'd you know my name?" Chris was curious, "and what's your name?"

"My name's Buck Wilmington. I was a friend of Adam's when you lived near Eagle Bend," the dark-haired, blue-eyed little boy explained. "I heard you were livin' around here, and you and your wife were always nice to me and Ma."

Chris remembered now. It had been 4 years, so of course the boy had grown….but he could clearly see the resemblance. Buck's mother was a working girl in the local saloon, so she had trouble making friends and finding playmates for Buck. Sarah met her at a town picnic, and they had become friends. They also had their baby boys only a few months apart. Chris had not known that Mrs. Wilmington had passed away, but he hadn't really talked to anyone in the area since his family had been killed.

Things were running through Chris' head at a million miles a minute. What would he do with the boy? Did he tell the town that he found the thief? They're so riled up about it that they would probably expect him to hang this 9-year-old boy. Buck's dark blue eyes continued to stare at him, expecting some sort of response, so Chris just said, "yeah….I remember you now. I'll warm up some beans, and you can go ahead with your dinner. We'll sleep here tonight and figure out what to do in the mornin'."

For such a young boy, the kid sure wasn't shy. He talked all through dinner, telling Chris how sorry he was for taking things from the homesteaders. He said he kept moving from house to house, so he didn't take too much from any one family. Chris said they would return the coats and clothing he had taken, and Larabee would buy Buck some new clothes in town.

Chris suggested that they should let the orphanage folks know that Buck was safe, and the up-to-now calm boy starting screaming and crying.

"No, please, ya can't tell 'em where I am. They'll make me go back, and I just can't go back. Please, I'll do anything. I was doin' fine on my own…..ya don't have to look after me."

"OK, OK," Chris walked over and put his hand on the trembling boy's shoulders. "Like I said before, we'll figure all of this out tomorrow. Why don't we get some sleep?"

Chris was going to give the bed to the boy and sleep on his bedroll on the floor, but Buck was insistent that there was plenty of room for both of them. So, Chris lay down on the mattress. It was less than 10 minutes before Buck was sound asleep. Chris could feel the warm body cuddled up next to him, and he listened to the boy's steady breathing. "So this is what it would be like if Adam were still alive," Chris thought as he stared at the ceiling, and the emotions descended hard and fast on the widowed man. He got up and walked outside into the cool air. Chris made his way up the hill, brought Pony down to the house, and brushed and stroked his horse - the only thing left from his old life.

What would Adam think? Would he be jealous that his friend was here with his father when he couldn't be? Would he be happy for the two of them? "Yeah," Chris looked up at the stars. "Adam would be happy." That was just the kind of kid he was. After about an hour, Larabee heard the door open.

"Mr. Larabee?" Buck called.

"Yeah Buck, I'm comin'," Chris strode back up to the porch.

"Everything ok?" the boy asked, as the tall man walked past him and sat on the bed to remove his boots. "I woke up and you were gone."

"Everything's fine," Chris smiled and lay back down. He and Buck both slept soundly for the next 6 hours.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Josiah was surprised to hear someone in the church just before dawn the next morning.

The big man appeared, shirtless and with gun in hand, to find Chris Larabee standing there with a dark-haired boy.

"Who's your friend, brother Chris?" Josiah yawned.

"This is Buck Wilmington. Buck, this is my friend, Josiah," Chris introduced. "You're gonna stay here for a little while, until I check out some things…as long as that's ok with you, Josiah?"

"Fine with me," Josiah smiled and put out his hand to the boy. "It's very nice to meet you Buck."

The boy shook Josiah's large hand, but then called out as Chris turned to leave, "Don't go."

"I'm just gonna get us some breakfast. I'll be back in 10 or 15 minutes." Josiah walked to the church door, and Chris said quietly, "let's keep the boy out of sight for a while."

Josiah dipped his head in understanding, "come on son, I got some books and games back here that a boy your age should like."

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris placed an order with Inez for three breakfast plates. He then went and sat down at a table with Vin. The saloon was deserted that time of the morning; there was one other old man in the far opposite corner drinking coffee.

"Cowboy, I think I got a problem," Chris said as he sat down and put his head in his hands.

"What kind of problem would that be?" Vin asked.

Chris took a deep breath and locked his green eyes with Vin's blue ones. "I caught the thief last night."

"What? That's great news," Vin said. "Who was it? Is he in the jail?"

"No, he's at the church," Chris responded.

"Why would the burglar be at the church?"

"Vin, it was a 9-yr-old boy," Larabee continued, "it was just a hungry, little orphan boy...trying to survive."

"What're you gonna tell the town folks?" Vin knew people were looking for someone to blame and punish.

"I have no idea," Chris said, "maybe nothing. If the robberies stop then maybe folks will move on and forget about it?"

"It's possible, but what are ya plannin' to do with the boy?" Vin had been orphaned himself at an early age, so he knew the kind of life that could mean for a kid.

"Your breakfast is ready, Senor Chris," Inez yelled out.

"Come on Vin," Chris motioned to the tracker, paid for the meals, and headed back to the church. He explained to Vin what Buck had said about the orphanage and asked the tracker to try and engage the boy in further conversation about it, if he could. He knew Vin had spent time in an orphanage as a boy himself.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

"Josiah," Chris called as he entered the church. "It's me and Vin, and we brought some breakfast."

Buck's eyes lit up when he saw the meal of ham and eggs. He had been living on biscuits and beans for so long, he couldn't even remember when he'd eaten something so good. When Buck finished his plate, Chris handed over his.

"Here, you look like you could use this more than me," he smiled. Buck was tall for his age, and it had always been tough for him to eat enough to make his frame look anything but skinny. Chris thought the boy was sure making a good effort though, as Buck managed to finish all but a few bites of the second plate.

"This is another friend of mine, Vin," Chris introduced. "You can trust him and Josiah just like you do me; you can ask or tell them anything. Got it?"

"I got it," Buck answered, as he looked at the buckskin-clad man. He could see himself being comfortable around the long-haired man; the preacher he wasn't so sure about. Josiah was a very large fellow and had a loud, booming voice. Buck was going to make sure he didn't do anything to make Josiah angry at him.

"Nice to meet ya, Buck," Vin smiled at the handsome boy.

"You too, Mr…..uh, Vin."

"It's ok Buck, you can call us all by our first names," Chris instructed, "and we don't need the mister either."

"OK, nice to meet you Vin," the boy smiled.

"Chris said you spent some time in an orphanage?" Vin tried to gauge how much the boy was willing to talk. "I'm real sorry to hear about your ma. I know that's mighty hard on a young feller like yourself. My ma died when I was a youngen too."

"Really?" Buck questioned. "Did you have to go to an orphanage?"

"I did, for a while," Vin replied.

"I didn't like it there," Buck began. "Mr. Oates was not a nice man. I never saw a single kid go to a real family. He just rented or sold us out for work."

Chris heard this and said, "He did what? They were selling orphans out for slave labor?"

The boy shook his head, "yeah, I was working during the day for a rancher west of Eagle Bend when I decided to run away."

"How many kids were there?" Vin asked.

"I dunno; there were some that they sold for good, some that would come and go, and there were always new kids coming in…..I think they were bringin' 'em in from other areas too."

"Was this orphanage in Eagle Bend?" Chris questioned.

"No, it was a couple hour's ride away. It was called the 'Western home for boys.'"

"I'll be back," Chris started towards the door of the church, "gonna go talk to Mary for a bit."

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

As Chris walked towards the newspaper office, he heard folks arguing in Mrs. Potter's store and saw Ezra walking that way as well.

"Sir, I'm just in here shoppin' like anyone else," Emma Dunne was saying and held up a hand full of money. "JD, go pick something out for yourself. We're celebrating my new job." She had just heard this morning that she had gotten the maid job at the hotel.

"I am growing tired of having to ask you gentlemen what the problem is," Ezra entered the store and said.

When Larabee walked in behind Standish, the men simply said, "no problem. We were just leavin."

"Ezra," Chris greeted his fellow peacekeeper, and then tipped his hat to the lady, "Ma’am, everything ok?"

"It is now," she replied, "thanks to you and Mr. Standish."

"It is my pleasure, Mrs. Dunne," Ezra smiled, "and I would like to introduce you to my associate Mr. Chris Larabee."

"It is very nice to meet you, Mr. Larabee," she said and promptly paid for a few items, including a new hat that JD had picked out. She wanted to get a better look around town today and get all of her errands done since she was to start work at the hotel tomorrow morning.

Once they got outside, JD proudly placed his new bowler hat on his head and asked, "how do I look, Ma?"

Emma laughed, "you look very handsome, JD."

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Emma had grown up in a Catholic family back in Boston. Now that she knew they would likely be staying for a while, she wanted to stop by the church and find out when services were scheduled.

"Hello, Mr. Sanchez," she called out as she opened the church doors. When she stepped inside, she saw the preacher, Mr. Tanner, and a young boy sitting on the front pews talking.

"I'm sorry. Is this a bad time?" she asked.

"Nah, ma’am, come on in," Vin answered. "You must be JD," he said looking at the black-haired little boy. "I'd like to introduce you to my friend Buck."

Buck stood and walked over to the younger boy, "what's with the hat?"

"What?" JD asked, "Everybody wears a hat out west. Besides, Ma said I looked handsome."

"Boy, there had to be a better hat to choose than that thing," Buck teased. He then quickly grabbed the hat and took off. JD chased the bigger boy around and around the church, both giggling and yelling as they ran.

"Well, I'd say they hit it off pretty well," Josiah smiled. "You might as well sit for a spell."

"Actually, gentlemen, would you mind if JD stayed here while I finish my errands," Emma smiled back and asked. "I hate to pull him away from his new friend so quickly."

"Sure thing, ma’am," Vin shook his head. "We'll be here when you're done."

The boys continued to run around and play. Vin was surprised at how quickly the boys had become friends. Buck didn't back off on the teasing, especially about the hat, but JD didn't seem to mind. It was like he enjoyed arguing with the older boy.

Chris returned about an hour later and was surprised to see Mrs. Dunne's boy at the church as well. Vin saw the questioning stare and said, "they kinda walked in on us, but I figured there weren't no harm in introducin' the two kids. Mrs. Dunne doesn't suspect anything; for all she knows, Buck always lived here."

"Alright," Chris replied and explained that, "I told Mary about the situation. She's gonna check into the home for boys, and I'm gonna hold a meeting later and explain that we have reason to believe that the thief has been caught. Hopefully that'll be good enough. I talked to Ezra on my way to the newspaper office too, so he knows about Buck."

Buck had been having so much fun playing with JD that he just now noticed that Chris was back. "Chris! I want you to meet my new friend, JD!"

"Good to meet you, JD," Chris smiled, and the two boys took off again around the church and jumping up and over the pews. It wasn't long though before JD landed wrong and howled in pain.

"JD," Buck ran over to the smaller boy, "you ok?"

"I hurt my ankle," the younger boy cried.

Chris, Vin, and Josiah had walked over by then.

"I guess it's time we introduce you boys to another friend of ours," Chris lifted JD and with Buck hot on his heels yelled back, "tell Mrs. Dunne that we're at Nathan's when she returns."

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Chris carried the whimpering boy across town. "You're gonna be ok, JD," Buck tried to encourage his friend, but then looked at Chris and said, "he IS gonna be ok, right?"

"Yeah, our friend'll fix him right up," the blond said as he climbed the stairs to Nathan's clinic. "Boys, I'd like for you to meet the town healer, Nathan Jackson."

"Can you fix JD's leg Doctor Jackson?" Buck looked worriedly at the dark-skinned man.

"Ya don't need to call me doctor - Nathan's fine, and let's have a look," Jackson said as he removed JD's shoe and pulled up his pants leg. "How'd this happen?"

"We were chasin' each other around the church, and JD jumped over a pew and landed wrong," the older boy answered.

"Does it just hurt here?" Nathan pointed to a slightly swollen area on JD's ankle.

JD shook his head and said, "yeah."

"Well, I don't feel anything broken, so I think ya probably just sprained it." Nathan headed over to his cabinet and grabbed something to wrap up the ankle.

"Take it easy and stay off it for a couple of days, and I think it'll be just fine," Nathan instructed.

"Nate, can you take the boys back to the church when you're done?" Chris asked. "I'm gonna get Vin and Ezra and go talk to the town folks...tell 'em the robber shouldn't be a problem anymore," he said as he motioned with his head to Buck.

Nathan understood perfectly and said, "yeah, I'll take care of these two."

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

"Alright," Chris yelled over the loud and restless crowd, "everybody quiet down."

Just as the people started to settle down, Henry Morrison, screamed, "why ain't you boys caught this thief yet? The judge ain't payin' ya to sit in the saloon and drink and gamble all day!"

Chris turned to Ezra, rolled his eyes, and shook his head in disbelief at how quickly the town's folk forgot about all the things the peacekeepers had done for Four Corners. If all they did was sit around and gamble and get drunk, then those sure were dangerous hobbies. All five of the peacekeepers had been shot or stabbed or beaten on more than one occasion since accepting Judge Travis' offer.

Larabee collected himself and prepared to blatantly lie. "We have reason to believe that the thief was apprehended in a neighboring town. I don't have all the details, but my plan is to give it a few days and see what happens. If no more robberies occur, then I think we can consider the problem resolved. If there are additional break-ins, then we will continue the search for the perpetrator."

The town folks looked questionably amongst themselves. Most did not believe that the correct person had actually been caught, but the robberies had been happening every day or every other day, so it wouldn't take long to find out. "What makes you think they got the guy?" Mr. Morrison spoke out again loudly.

"Because they sent some of the stolen items back," Chris responded and held up a sack full of boys' clothing. "It may not be everything, but come and look through it and claim what's yours."

All of a sudden, the crowd settled and began to dissipate. That was convincing evidence to most folks, so it was time to find something else to get worked up about.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Vin headed over to the jail to ready for his patrol, and Ezra and Chris made their way back to the church.

Mrs. Dunne was there, talking to Josiah and Nathan, and Chris asked, "JD, how's your foot doin'?"

"It's doin' better," the little boy answered, "Nathan says I should be able to run around again in a couple of days."

"Well, I should probably be going," Emma said and went to lift JD and carry him to their buggy.

"Please, allow me," Ezra flashed a charming smile and easily scooped up the boy and carried him down the steps of the church.

"Thank you so much, Mr. Standish," Emma smiled back. The gambler had been very kind to her, and she had to admit that she was beginning to develop a fondness for the handsome, green-eyed man. "Would you care to escort us home and have dinner with us?"

"Why, I would be honored Mrs. Dunne," Ezra flashed his gold tooth.

"Then please call me Emma," she laughed nervously.

"Very well, Emma, please call me Ezra."

The three remaining men at the church looked at each other and laughed. The woman and her boy had just ridden off, towards their home, with Ezra Standish in tow.

 

Chapter 3:

Life over the next six weeks settled into a routine for Buck. He started going to school in Four Corners. During the week, he would stay in town with Chris or Josiah, and he and JD would meet in the morning and walk to school. On the weekends, he would go fishing with Chris or Vin, play cards with Ezra, or even help Josiah at the church or Nathan with his work at the clinic.

Of course, he also spent a fair amount of time just hanging out with JD. The boys would take walks, play in town or at JD's house, go swimming, and Chris was teaching them how to ride and take care of a horse. Larabee was impressed at how well they could stay in the saddle, especially the younger of the two boys.

After a couple of weeks, a new girl named Blossom started at school. She was 8 years old, and Buck thought she was as cute as a button. He and JD spent most of recess chasing her around, threatening the curly-haired girl with a kiss from Buck if they caught her. JD felt kind of bad for the girl, but he was having a lot of fun...and dern, she was fast.

JD had never had a friend quite like Buck. It didn't bother Wilmington at all that his best friend was younger than him, and it seemed to JD that Buck knew about everything...girls, guns, cards, and how to have a good time just about anywhere. Buck had a smile that was contagious and an amazing ability to make people laugh. It also didn't hurt to have a friend who was as big as Wilmington. Buck stood a head taller than any kid his age or younger, and JD was sure that his association with the tall boy had saved him from a fair amount of teasing.

Buck had always been ahead of schedule as far as his interest in "the fairer sex." He had such a tremendous respect for women. He had grown up in a brothel, surrounded by ladies from all walks of life, so he knew and fully appreciated how special women were. He had seen them endure tremendous hardships but still retain their loving, kind and gentle spirit.

The young Wilmington also felt a strong desire to make people like him. Maybe that resulted from the treatment he and his mother received from town folks. He made sure to tell the girls at school how pretty their hair looked or how nice their dress was. The boys he joked with and taught them tricks he had learned at his previous school.

Buck also got in trouble from time to time. He would get yelled at to leave Blossom alone, he put a frog on the teacher's chair one day, and he was caught teaching the other kids to play poker at recess. Buck had won three apples and a cookie before the teacher put a stop to the card-playing.

After about a month in the new town and new school, Buck began to grow more aware of how different his home life was compared to the other kids...whose mothers were still alive. School got tougher too, and since he had missed most of his previous year, Buck had a lot of catching up to do with other students his age.

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Although discreet about it, Ezra and Emma Dunne had also been spending a fair amount of time with one another, and Standish had grown quite attached to her little boy. One of his favorite weekend activities was sitting with Emma by the creek while Buck and JD swam and played.

Chris and Vin were teasing him about it in the saloon, when Buck walked in from school.

"How was school?" Chris asked.

"Fine," Buck replied somewhat sadly.

The three men didn't think anything of it, until they noticed that Buck was just sitting there quietly….staring at his glass of milk. The kid was a lot of things, but quiet wasn't one of them.

"Buck, you ok?" Chris leaned over to look into the 9-yr-olds face.

Buck just shrugged his shoulders, got up, and went outside.

Chris raised his eyebrows at Vin and Ezra and said, "I'll be back in a bit," and followed the kid outside.

Larabee had to run to catch up with the boy, who was heading quickly out of town. "What's wrong, buddy?" Chris turned Buck around to face him.

"I don't know," Buck sat on a stump and put his head in his hands.

Chris sat beside of him and put him arm around him. "Buck, you've been through a lot of changes lately. I think you're probably just a bit overwhelmed."

"I miss my ma, I can't keep up in school, some of the older kids have taken to makin' fun of me, and Blossom won't agree to go to the school dance."

Chris tried not to smile about that last comment, "yeah, I know school can be rough…..but you're a tough kid Wilmington. Older kids are always gonna pick on younger ones….same thing happened to me when I was your age…and Blossom's probably just not old enough to go to a dance with ANY boy."

"Really, you got made fun of?" Buck asked. He couldn't imagine anybody making fun of Chris Larabee and living to tell about it.

"Yeah, really," Chris smiled. "Me and the boys will try to do a better job of helping you with your school work. Ezra and Josiah are good with their letters and numbers, and Mary has helped tutor kids in town as well." Chris turned Buck's head so the boy was looking at him. "As far as your ma, Buck, of course you're going to miss her. I don't know that there's much I can say except to let you know that you're not alone, and we'll be here anytime you want to talk. It's gonna take time," the gunslinger paused and then said, "I've struggled for years with the death of my family, and I'm a grown man."

"I miss Adam and Mrs. Larabee too," Buck sniffed and wiped away a couple of stray tears. "They were both so nice to me and my ma…when nobody else was. Adam loved horses, and he used to talk about growing up to break 'em and raise 'em…just like his pa." Chris' eyes teared up a bit. God, he missed his son, and he felt terrible for what this boy was going through. Chris turned away for a few seconds and took a deep breath to gather himself.

Buck knew Chris was doing his best, but there was no one like his ma to cuddle up with and talk when he was sad or upset.

"I tell you what," Chris stood and offered a hand to pull Buck to his feet. "Tomorrow's Friday. You and me will head out to the cabin after school, and we'll go fishin' this weekend." Buck smiled, but it waned a bit when Larabee said, "…and work on your homework."

"OK," Buck said and headed back towards the saloon to grab some dinner with the other peacekeepers.

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As promised, Friday after school, Buck and Chris rode out to his shack. Pony was loaded down with food and fishing supplies. They had a nice dinner, worked on the fence a bit, and both of them slept soundly that night. They woke early Saturday morning. According to Vin, the best fishing spot was about a 2 hour ride from Chris' shack, and that's where the two planned to go. After about an hour and a half on the trail, Larabee started to sense that they weren't alone.

He looked around but didn't see anything or anybody. Buck noticed Chris tense and began to scan the area too. "Somethin' wrong, Chris?"

"Nothing to worry about…just thought I heard another horse. I guess maybe we aren't the only folks who know about Vin's fishin' hole," Chris smiled, but he still felt a bit uneasy.

It was less than five minutes later when a group of four riders descended on the man and boy…with guns drawn.

"Ya best get off your horse, mister," a large, dark-haired man ordered while keeping his gun trained on Buck and Chris.

Chris lifted Buck off of Pony and dismounted. Larabee suspected that these men were horse thieves. As much as he loved his horse, he wasn't going to risk getting Buck hurt if that's all they wanted.

Two of the other men dismounted. One grabbed Buck. "Hey, leave the boy alone!" Chris yelled. "Let him go. You can have anything I got."

"We don't want your belongin's, Larabee," the large foreman answered with a grin. "It's the boy we want."

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Early Saturday morning, Vin was sitting on the boardwalk when the telegraph operated approached and asked,"Mr. Tanner, have you seen Mr. Larabee?"

"Chris isn't here. Somethin' I can do fer ya?" Vin asked.

"Got a telegram from the judge," the operator explained. "He needs someone to ride to Vista City. The stage broke down. Sounds like they got it fixed, but they can make up time if they don't need to come to Four Corners. Judge wants someone to go pick up the mail for this area, so the stage can go directly to Greeley with its passengers."

"Sounds easy 'nough," Vin said. "I'll take care of it." Vin knew that Josiah's sister was in Vista City, so he figured the big preacher might want to make the journey with him and visit her this evening. They could make it there by supper time, and then would stay overnight and head back to Four Corners tomorrow morning.

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"Safe travels, Misters Tanner and Sanchez," Ezra waved. He was eager to head over to the saloon for some shade and coffee. Although it was late October, the last few days had been surprisingly hot. "How about it, Mr. Jackson," Ezra smiled. "Are you up for a game of chance…perchance?"

Nathan laughed and shook his head, "Ezra, I gotta head out on patrol. Do me a favor and stay sober enough to keep an eye on the town while I'm gone, ok?"

"Of course, sir," Ezra laughed and headed through the bat-wing doors.

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Buck continued to struggle and yell against the man holding him.

"What do ya want with the boy?" Chris was starting to get nervous now. These men clearly knew who he was and had a purpose in mind.

"He belongs to our boss, Mr. Oates," the man answered. "Oates put a lot of money into feedin' and housin' him; Wilmington didn't even stay long enough to earn half of that money back. Plus, we can't have word gettin' out to the other boys that escapees go unpunished."

"He's a little boy; he ain't a slave to be bought and sold like a damn wagon," the third man came over and grabbed a hold of Chris' arms.

Buck was screaming. He realized where these men were trying to take him, and he wanted no part of it.

"Settle down, boy," the man holding him said. Buck was beyond scared at this point and kicked out, hitting the man in the kneecap with his boot. "Damn brat," the man dropped the kid and punched him hard in the face. Buck crumpled to the ground.

"No!" Chris screamed and got away from the man holding him. He ran to Buck and cradled the small body in his arms. He could already see a bruise forming on the child's cheek. "I'll pay you...or your boss for him," Chris pleaded, as the thug who had been holding him grabbed him again.

"You're a slippery feller, ain't ya?" the taller man said as he lifted a fighting Larabee up and away from the boy.

"Ya don't have to do this; he's just a little boy," Chris continued to try and appeal to any reasonable side these men might have. Buck was still lying motionless on the ground.

Larabee got an arm free and elbowed the guard who had a hold of him. Chris then made a grab for his Colt, as the leader yelled, "don't do it!" Chris turned to see the man's weapon pointing right at Buck's head. He never got his gun out of the holster.

The guard grabbed the blond man's arm to restrain him yet again. "Let go of me!" Chris yelled and went back to the downed boy. The guard, frustrated at continually losing a hold of Larabee, followed and hit Chris in the side of the head with his pistol. Chris' body went limp, and he fell face-down in the dirt next to Buck.

"Takes care of that problem," the tall man said as he lifted the boy and sat him on a horse with one of the other men.

When Buck woke up and cleared his vision, he began screaming once again. "What'd you do to Chris!? Please let me go! Please! I can't go back there….I can't!" They couldn't have this kid screaming bloody murder all the way back to the orphanage, so the man seated behind Buck whacked him on the head with his gun. Hopefully any folks they encounter would just think the boy was tired and fell asleep in the saddle.

"Easy there, Bart. Mr. Oates isn't gonna be happy if we hurt him too much to work."

"I just tapped him….he'll have a headache, but he'll be alright."

"Whatta we do with Larabee?" one man asked their leader. "I've heard enough about him to know that he's gonna come after us when he wakes up."

"I guess we need to make sure he ain't gonna wake up then," the man smiled, slapped Larabee's horse on the rump and sent it running. "Shoot him."

The foreman and two of the men started riding away, and the fourth man proceeded to put a bullet into Chris' back.

 

Chapter 4:

Buck awoke just as they approached the orphanage gates, and his head hurt something fierce. The boy groaned, and the man riding behind him said, "just sit still and be a good boy, you hear?"

"I'm gonna be sick," Buck said, as the man very quickly hoisted him up and held him over the side of the horse.

"Thanks for the warning, kid."

Buck could not believe that he was back at the boy's home. He felt awful, his head continued to throb…..and he was afraid that Chris was dead. Vin, Josiah, Nathan and Ezra weren't expecting them back until Monday morning, so no one would probably even come looking for him for two or three days…..and even then, he didn't know if they would know where to look.

Mr. Oates, the headmaster of the boy's home, was standing at the gate. "Welcome back, Wilmington. We've missed you, but unfortunately we're going to have a make a bit of an example of you so the other boys don't get any ideas. Put him in solitary," the man ordered as he kicked the little boy hard in his midsection. All of the air rushed out of Buck, and one of the men had to carry/drag him past all of the other boys in the yard.

He was thrown roughly into a tiny dark cell and the door locked. Buck lay on the floor and cried.

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It was almost dark when Chris started to stir. His head pounded, and there was a familiar, burning pain in his torso. He knew he had been shot. Panic set in, and he tried desperately to stand as the memory of what happened came rushing back to him. "Buck," he cried hoarsely and fell to the ground once again.

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Yosemite was just getting ready to go home when Pony made his way back into town. He didn't see any injuries to the horse or any signs that his rider had been hurt, but he had a bad feeling nonetheless. He found Ezra Standish in the saloon and informed him that Larabee's horse had just shown up…alone.

Ezra thanked Yosemite and immediately rose to find Nathan Jackson. Ezra couldn't think of any good explanation why Chris would have let his horse wander back to Four Corners without him, so the conman feared the worst. He and Larabee had their share of disagreements, but he considered the man a good friend…..and he had already grown very attached to the boisterous, blue-eyed boy.

"We need to locate them...now," the gambler insisted.

"I'm worried too, Ezra," Nathan said, "but we don't stand a chance of findin' 'em in the dark. Let's get supplies ready and head out at first light. I'll put together a medical kit," Nathan continued, "need to make sure I have child-sized supplies in case Buck is hurt."

"Your point is a valid one, Mr. Jackson," Ezra sighed. "I'll let Mrs. Travis and Emma know what's going on, so someone can inform Misters Tanner and Sanchez when they arrive back in town."

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"Damnit Larabee, get your ass up," Chris said out loud and finally made it to his feet. He removed what was left of his shirt and tied it around his waist to slow the flow of blood. His head was swimming, and he grabbed onto a tree for a moment to try and get his bearings. He then set off very slowly towards Four Corners.

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After leaving the newspaper office, Ezra rode out to Mrs. Dunne's house. It was close to midnight, and he knew he would likely wake her.

He knocked lightly on the door, so as not to arouse JD. He heard someone stirring and smiled when he saw Emma's sleepy face peer through the curtains. She immediately opened the door and said, "Ezra, is everything ok?"

She looked beautiful, Ezra thought, in her nightgown with her hair falling on her shoulders. It took him a moment to say, "may I come in?"

"Certainly," she stepped to the side and motioned for him to enter. "Should I make some coffee?"

"Coffee would be wonderful; I fear it is going to be a long night."

She quickly put some water on, ran to her room to grab a robe, and returned to sit next to the auburn-haired man at the table. She placed her hand on his and asked, "what's going on Ezra?"

"Buck and Mr. Larabee have disappeared. Chris' steed rode in tonight devoid of its riders."

"They were going to go fishing, right? Has anyone checked Mr. Larabee's cabin? Maybe the horse just got loose and came back to town?" She questioned as she rose to prepare the coffee.

"Mr. Jackson and myself are heading out at first light, and while I hope you are correct...that seems an unlikely scenario, knowing Mr. Larabee and his horse as well as I do."

She shook her head, sat back down with two cups of coffee, and asked, "so you believe something bad has happened to them?" She didn't even want to think about that scenario. She had grown quite attached to the orphaned boy herself, and she knew JD would be devastated if something happened to his best friend. It had only been a couple of years since the little boy had lost his father.

"While I do not possess the keen perception skills of our Mr. Tanner, my gut feeling is yes - something is amiss."

"I, of course, understand that you must go look for them," she paused, "but promise me, Ezra, that you will be careful. Should I send Mr. Tanner and Mr. Sanchez after you when they arrive back in town?"

"Thank you, but Mrs. Travis said she would inform them of the circumstances," Ezra looked into her deep brown eyes, "do not concern yourself about me. Mr. Jackson and I will be fine, and we will send word if we require additional assistance."

"Would you like to stay...tonight?" Emma asked shyly.

"My dear Emma," the southerner stood, holding her hand, and walking towards the door. "How I would love to stay...but I must make preparations for tomorrow."

"Take care Ezra and good luck!" She yelled as he and Chaucer rode off into the night. Her heart was beating rapidly, at the thought of what almost occurred and from fear for what the man faced tomorrow. "Might as well finish my coffee," she said to herself, "I'm not going to be sleeping anytime soon."

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It was pitch black. Chris was stumbling after every few steps, but the stubborn man just kept rising and putting one foot in front of the other. The blood had soaked through his shirt and mixed with the sweat of his efforts. His head throbbed, and he was so thirsty that the sensation was maddening….but he just kept picturing Buck out cold and in the hands of those awful men. He kept walking.

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Ezra and Nathan were at the livery about an hour before dawn. They were both worried about Chris, but it was fear for the boy that was really eating at their insides.

They lacked the tracking skills of Vin, but Ezra and Nathan did their best to follow Pony's trail from last night in reverse. They took Pony along, hoping they would find someone to ride him home.

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Chris was barely upright. He continued to try and walk, but by now, it was more like crawling. Not only was his weakness getting the best of him, but even his eyes were playing tricks on him. He could swear that two of his men were heading his way, but they shouldn't be expecting him back in town for another day.

"Chris!" Nathan yelled and jumped down to help support the obviously exhausted and injured leader. Chris' torso was covered in blood, and there was a wound on the side of his head. "Here, sit down and drink some water," the healer helped lower the blond gunslinger to the ground and placed his canteen to Chris' lips.

Larabee drank greedily. He was so thirsty.

"Easy, Chris," Nathan approached. "Don't wanna make you sick."

"Buck, they took Buck," Chris mumbled deliriously. He didn't ever remember being this tired, but he knew he had to tell them what happened.

"Mr. Larabee, who took Buck?" Ezra squatted next to the injured man and asked.

"From the orphanage," Chris answered, struggling to keep himself conscious. Nathan was doing his best to check out the gunslinger's wounds.

Ezra and Nathan looked back and forth at one another. Had they heard correctly? Someone from the orphanage had come and kidnapped Buck?

"Chris, I'm gonna lay you on your side and check out the bullet wound," Nathan described as he probed at the hole in his friend and patient. "You're a lucky son-of-a-gun; it went clean through," Nathan smiled but then said seriously, "ya lost a lot of blood though."

"Wrap it up," Chris slurred, "gotta get after 'em. They hurt Buck."

"Chris, you ain't gonna be able to ride," Nathan said gently. "Even if I get you patched up, you'd probably set it bleedin' again on your horse. Did they shoot Buck too?" Larabee's grown body was able to survive this amount of blood loss, but Nathan knew that would not be the case for a boy Buck's size.

"Not before I was knocked out...beat him badly. Clean the wound, stitch it, whatever it takes Nate," Larabee instructed in a slurred voice, as he continued to fight the overwhelming desire to shut his eyes. "I'm goin' with ya."

"Ezra will go look for Buck," Nathan attempted to convince the stubborn man. "I'll patch you up, and you and I'll take a nice and slow ride back to Four Corners. Vin and Josiah should be back in a few hours, and they could go after Buck and Ezra."

"NO!" Chris yelled. "I let 'em take him; I'm gonna get him back." His determination was making his voice sound stronger now. "Besides, I'm the one who Mary showed where the orphanage is. I'm sure I can find it…" His voice trailed off again.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra locked his pale green eyes with Chris'. "I'll find him, I promise. You are grievously injured and in no shape to accompany me."

"I'm fine," Chris pleaded, "just give Nathan ten minutes to patch me up, and I'll be ready to go."

Nathan looked at Ezra and shook his head. He then set about bandaging the bullet holes. He decided not to stitch them since the bleeding had slowed a fair amount. If there was already some infection in there, stitching would just make it worse.

Once Larabee was clean and wrapped, Nathan gave him one of his extra shirts, and they helped the man stand.

Chris was weak as a newborn colt, but once on his horse – he knew he could make it. The pain was bearable…his biggest problem was lack of energy from blood loss and no sleep. Chris could still picture the map of the orphanage area that Mary had showed him, so he took off on Pony leading the way.

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It was so dark in his cell, Buck didn't know if it was day or night. His head still hurt, and he was starting to feel hungry. He wasn't sure what scared him more: how long they were going to keep him in here or what they were planning to do when they let him out? He closed his eyes and dreamed of his mother.

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As the regulators closed in on the area where the orphanage was located, Standish thought they should stop and get a plan together. Ezra knew they couldn't just go charging in there without risking injury to Buck or the other children. "Mr. Larabee," the gambler said, but the blond did not respond. "Mr. Larabee," he repeated and rode closer. Finally, "Chris!" as Ezra reached a hand out and grabbed the gunslinger's arm. He felt the injured man jump. Larabee had either been lost in thought or asleep, Standish wasn't sure which.

"Are you alright?" Ezra asked, looking at his exhausted friend. Not that he and Nathan had any sleep last night either. They had spent the night gathering supplies and getting ready to search for Chris and Buck.

"Yeah, we should be gettin' close," Chris said hoarsely.

"Why don't we stop for a few minutes and discuss our plan," Ezra motioned to a shady spot next to a stream. "I'm sure the horses would appreciate a break as well."

Chris shook his head in agreement.

The men dismounted and gathered under a shady tree. While Nathan checked Chris' bandage, Ezra noticed the gunman staring at him, "may I help you with something, Mr. Larabee?"

"Yeah, I think maybe you could," Chris smiled. "You still look fairly clean and presentable. What do you think about pretending to be a rich rancher, wanting to "buy" a few boys?"

Ezra should have guessed that was what Larabee's plan was going to be.

"While you work your magic, Nate and I will wait out here and be ready to act. If we can get Buck out of there, then we'll head to the nearest town and send a wire to the judge. Maybe he can give us the authorization to shut the place down or at least arrest the headmaster?"

"Somebody's gonna have to find a place to send all of the kids," Nathan said. "If we shut it down, there will be a lot of homeless boys."

"Yeah," Chris sighed and rubbed his hand over his face. "We'll let the judge know the situation and see what he suggests…but first things first. I want Buck back, safe and sound."

The men parted ways at the road that led to the orphanage. "Good luck, Ezra," Larabee said. "If we don't hear from you within two hours, we'll come lookin'."

"I will do my best to get our young charge back," Ezra turned and rode away.

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Standish was greeted at the gate by a large guard. "Good afternoon, sir. My name is Ezekiel Simpson. I just relocated here from the south and am looking to staff my fine ranch. I heard that your establishment has a good reputation for providing quality, young labor."

"Come on in," the guard opened the gate. "I'll let Mr. Oates know that you are here."

A few minutes later, an older gentleman appeared and introduced himself as Martin Oates. "I've heard you are interested in some of our young men, Mr. Simpson."

"That is correct," Ezra said, "if possible I would like a couple of young men of the age of about 9 or 10 years old."

"Well, we're a little short on boys right now. I think we may only have one in that age range. Would you be willin' to take an older boy?" Headmaster Oates asked.

"In my experience, the older boys often get into more trouble, and younger boys have a hard time fulfilling their duties," Ezra continued to play along. "How about if I take the one boy now, and you contact me when you get more children that age?"

"Well, our one 9-year-old got into a bit of trouble, but let me have one of the guards fetch him and you can see if he will work out for you. We may be able to offer a bit of a discount since he is banged up a little." Oates left the room, and Ezra felt sick to his stomach at what he was hearing. He imagined a number of these boys were rented out or sold for even worse purposes than being worked hard on someone's farm.

Mr. Oates returned and opened a curtain on a window that showed the room next door. Ezra could see a bruised and exhausted Buck slumped in a chair with his hands tied. "How could anybody treat a little boy like that?" he wondered but did his best to keep his composure.

"He does look a little worse for wear, but he appears quite strong for a 9-year-old," Ezra said and swallowed hard. "I think he will do just fine."

"Alright, let's get the paperwork settled, and the guards will meet us outside with the boy and his belongings."

Chris and Nathan sat on a hill overlooking the orphanage property. They saw Ezra and an older man walk outside. It wasn't long after that a guard escorted Buck over to them.

Ezra tried to signal to Buck to stay quiet, but the boy was too excited, "Ezra!"

"What? How does this boy know you?" Oates asked. "He must be one of Larabee's men. Take the boy and this fellow back inside."

Ezra pulled his gun and shot the guard.

"Shit!" yelled Chris, when he saw Ezra pull his weapon. "Let's go!" The men raced down the hill.

Buck was able to get free, but Oates plowed into Ezra, knocking his gun across the lawn. Ezra yelled for Buck to "run for the gate!"

Chris took out the gate guard, found the keys and opened the gate. They entered and Buck was only about a hundred yards away. Chris' smile quickly turned to a scream though as a guard shot the little boy and Buck fell. "BUCK!"

 

Chapter 5:

"Let me have a look at him Chris," Nathan ran up to him, cradling the bloody boy. "You go help Ezra."

Ezra continued to struggle with Oates, and then another guard appeared and held the gambler as Oates pummeled his mid-section. Once Oates had tired himself out, he said, "shoot him and bury him out back...shoot 'em all if you get a chance."

A bullet hit the guard right between the eyes, just as he was going for his weapon. Oates simply put up his hands in surrender.

Larabee grabbed Standish and helped support him as they ran back to their horses, "you ok, Ez?"

"Impeccable timing, as always, Mr. Larabee," Ezra grunted out between breaths, "and yes, I am fine."

Chris yelled to Oates before they left, "we'll be back for you."

"How's Buck?" Chris asked once he got back to Nathan.

"Bullet caught him in the arm. Normally wouldn't be too serious, but he lost a fair amount of blood….and fer such a little fellow who was already hurt and exhausted. Well, he hasn't woke up yet. Let's stop near that stream and get him cleaned up," Nathan said as he started to take the boy with him on his horse.

"Pass him up to me," Chris said.

"Chris, you look like you're about done in as it is..." Nathan started.

"I ain't gonna drop him, Nate."

"Alright," Nathan said and passed the unconscious boy up to Chris. "You gonna be ok to make it that far, Ezra?"

Ezra grunted as he mounted Chaucer but said, "affirmative, Mr. Jackson…lead the way."

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They rode for about 20 minutes and arrived back at the shady area along the creek. It had seemed like the longest 20 minutes of Chris' life, as he stared at the frighteningly pale boy lying in his arms.

Chris handed Buck down to Nathan, who carried him over and laid him on a bedroll.

Larabee knew exactly where he wanted to go – he needed to be with Buck - but his legs just wouldn't cooperate. Ezra looked back and saw Chris holding, white-knuckled, on to his saddle and came back to lend a shoulder to their injured leader. "Are you able to continue?" Standish asked, after they had walked four or five steps. The shorter man could feel more and more of Larabee's weight being put on him.

"Yeah, just need to sit a spell once we get there."

Nathan had removed the boy's shirt and was cleaning Buck's wound when Chris and Ezra arrived. Larabee plopped down and asked, "how's it look, Nathan?"

"It looks ok," Nathan replied as he got a bandage out of his pack. "Went through and doesn't look like it hit any major blood vessels….the bone's still intact too. Again, I think he's just worn out."

Buck began to wake as Nathan bandaged his arm, "Ow," the boy said weakly.

Chris was extremely relieved to hear that voice, "how're you doin' buddy?"

"Hurts," he mumbled, and then Buck realized whose voice that was and opened his eyes wide. "Chris! I thought you were dead!"

Chris grabbed the boy on his good shoulder, and laughed, "nope, still here."

"But they shot ya….I saw it."

"They shot you too, and you're still alive," Chris felt like an enormous weight had just been lifted off of his shoulders. Buck was going to be ok.

"Oh yeah….I guess I am," Buck winced and groaned as Nathan finished tying the bandage.

"Here you are," Ezra threw one of Buck's extra shirts to Nathan. The conman had the forethought to bring some extra clothing for the boy when they left Four Corners.

Buck tried to sit up on his own, but he felt weak and dizzy. "May I assist you?" Ezra asked and propped the boy on his chest while he got him into a clean shirt. "Now, just lie back down for a little while. You're safe."

Chris moved over and put Buck's head on his lap while the boy rested.

Nathan then checked on Ezra. The con man insisted he was fine, but the healer knew he couldn't take any of these men's words about their own health. Thankfully, no ribs appeared to be broken, but Standish was going to be bruised and sore for a few days.

"We're all exhausted," Nathan admitted. "Why don't we just make camp here tonight, and we'll stop in Eagle Bend on the way back and wire the judge about the orphanage."

"Sounds like a wonderful plan, sir," Ezra answered, and Chris shook his head that he agreed as well.

Standish brought over Larabee's bedroll and laid it beside of Buck. "You should rest as well." Ezra gently lifted the boy's head to let Chris get out of the way. Ezra then put his coat - yes, his precious red one, all wadded up - under the boy's head. Chris chuckled; it was at that moment that he realized how much Buck meant to all of them.

Although Larabee wasn't about to admit it, lying down did feel awfully good. His eyes drifted shut within a couple of minutes.

The sky was dark when Chris was awakened to a moaning sound. He rolled over and saw Buck tossing and turning in a fitful sleep. He sat up and put his hand on the boy's forehead. "Nathan, he's burning up!" Larabee yelled.

Nathan groggily rose and brought his medical kit. He handed Chris a cloth and told him to get it wet in the creek and bathe the boy with it. Chris stiffly rose and did as he was instructed. He had seen it many times, with Adam, Billy Travis, and other children who were patients of Nathan's, but witnessing a kid thrash in the throws of a high fever was always scary.

Nathan checked the bullet wound, and it did not appear to be infected. "I don't think the fever is related to being shot," Nathan told Larabee. "The mistreatment must've left him vulnerable, and he picked up something else."

Chris and Nathan kept a vigil next to the boy all night, taking turns getting fresh water, bathing him, and offering him plenty to drink.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

The next morning Ezra, who had slept further downstream, wandered over and asked, "what on earth happened?"

"Came down with a fever last night," Chris answered.

"Why didn't you wake me?" Standish questioned.

"Nothing you coulda done, Ezra," Chris smiled tiredly. "Probably good to have one of us fairly well-rested."

"Alright, I will prepare to ride to Eagle Bend or the nearest town with a telegraph and wire the judge. Does Buck seem to be doin' better?"

Nathan said, "fever's lower than it was last night, but he ain't out of the woods yet."

Chris had returned to his position from the night before, with the boy's head in his lap. The gunslinger, hatless with his blond bangs falling in his eyes, continued to talk softly over Buck and stroke the boy's darker hair. Nathan tried to lay a hand on Chris' face to check for any sign of infection, but Larabee batted his hand away. Chris' gunshot wound had gone for almost a day without cleaning before Nathan and Ezra found him. Nathan would be surprised if he had not developed a bit of a fever himself.

"Now, what good are you gonna do Buck if you get sick yerself?" Nathan questioned the stubborn man. "Take a break for a few minutes and let me check out your wound."

Ezra walked over, "I will sit with Buck, while you two stretch your legs and get some breakfast."

Chris dipped his head in thanks to Standish and rose slowly and stiffly. He used the break to see to the call of nature and splashed his face in the cool water of the stream. He sat down and listened to the water for a minute, and Nathan approached and touched his face again. "Chris, I need to clean and check your wound. You do have a fever…it ain't too bad, but let's try to keep it from gettin' worse ok?"

Larabee pulled up his shirt and let Nathan do his thing. Chris really did feel like shit. Between the painful gunshot wound, the slight fever, the lingering headache, and the lack of sleep, the leader didn't know how he was going to get Buck and his men home and deal with the men at the orphanage. Right now, he didn't feel like he had the energy to even saddle his horse.

The lean gunfighter hissed as Nathan squeezed and scrubbed at the wounds. "Sorry Chris," Nate said, and after he replaced the bandage, they heard Buck waking.

"Good morning, Buck," Ezra smiled. "Are you feeling better today?" Chris and Nathan were standing, staring at the boy, eagerly awaiting his response as well.

"Yeah," Buck yawned, "I think I'm feelin' better. I was real confused about what was goin' on last night."

"That's normal," Nathan chimed in, "ya had a high fever."

"You gave us all a pretty good scare," Chris said. "You wanna try to sit up and get something to eat or drink?"

"Sure," Buck replied as Chris put his hand on the boy's forehead.

"Still a little warm but much better."

Nathan did the same action and said, "yeah, not bad….about the same as yours." The healer glared at Larabee teasingly.

"You gotta fever too?" Buck looked wide-eyed at Chris.

Chris rolled his eyes at Nathan, "I'm fine Buck."

Standish carried over some biscuits, water, and coffee. He had even brought Vin's secret stash of blackberry jam, given to the tracker by Nettie Wells, to share with the boy.

"Hey, where's mine?" Chris tried to look sad.

Buck giggled and continued shoveling in his own, sweeter-tasting biscuits.

Not long after breakfast, Ezra took off to find a telegraph office. The sooner they could get the judge lookin' into the boys' slave trade at the orphanage, the sooner they could get the other kids out of there.

The day grew quite warm, and Buck and Chris ambled down to the stream to cool off their feet and skip a few rocks.

"Thanks for coming after me," Buck said as he threw another rock across the creek.

"What?" Chris said, "of course we were gonna come after ya Buck. Like it or not, you're part of our crazy family now."

"So you want me to stay with you forever?" Buck looked in Chris' pale green eyes.

"Yes, I want you to stay with me," Chris looked back and saw Buck's blue eyes start to tear up. "You're a real special kid, Wilmington."

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

After riding for nearly an hour, Ezra came upon a small town. Along the main street, there was a general store, a saloon, and a telegraph office. He hitched his horse in front of the saloon and proceeded to walk down the boardwalk. The sun was shining bright, and Ezra squinted as he stepped off the boardwalk between two buildings. Just as his eyes caught movement to his left, he was attacked and pulled into the shadows of the alleyway.

"You're a real easy one to spot, Mr. Simpson…or whatever your name is," one of the guards from the orphanage sneered. "Ya might wanna think about wearing somethin' less conspicuous than that red jacket next time." The man was accompanied by two other gentlemen from the boys' home, and a smaller fellow stepped up and removed Ezra's sidearm.

Standish saw the third man approaching with ropes, likely to tie him up, so he head-butted the large miscreant holding him. The man howled and let go, giving Ezra just enough time to release his derringer and shoot the man in the stomach. The second man then proceeded to shoot Ezra in the side. "Mr. Larabee is going to love this," Standish thought to himself, "shot with my very own weapon."

The gambler slid down the alley wall, hissed in pain and immediately put his hands over the wound to slow the flow of blood. He was man-handled and his feet tied onto his horse, which had since been brought by one of the men, with no regard at all to the bleeding gunshot wound. Ezra's little derringer had clearly hit something vital within the largest man's stomach, as he died before the others could help him. Standish hoped the same thing would not happen to himself.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Ezra rode with his left hand on the reigns, and his right hand held firmly to the wound in his side. The pain was immense, and the blood loss was becoming more than his body could bear. It took everything in his power to keep from passing out.

They finally arrived back at the orphanage, and Mr. Oates met them at the gate, "Nice work, boys...where's Tom?"

"Dead, boss - killed by the fancy feller's pop gun."

"Take him to medical and get him half cleaned up, then put him in one of the holding rooms," Mr. Oates commanded. "I'm guessin' his friends will come back for him, and we want to be ready when they do."

Ezra was lifted onto a stark white table and his hands and feet strapped down. An old man in a white coat appeared a short time later.

"Yer a little older than my usual patients," the doctor laughed.

"Yes, I imagine that I am," Standish hissed as the man pulled his shirt away from the wound and began to roughly clean it. "I sincerely hope your bedside manner is better with the children."

"I'm not paid for my bedside manner," the doctor answered dryly, "just my ability to get folks back on their feet quickly. You interested in that or not?"

"Indeed I am," Ezra hissed again as the man doused the wound with whiskey, "you sir were not kidding, were you?"

Ezra then changed the subject, "so, how long have you been an employee of Mr. Oates?"

"About 5 years," the doctor talked as he examined the bullet wound more closely, "got run out of my practice in town; a prominent rancher's daughter died under my watch…..and I had to make a livin' somehow."

"I see," Ezra commented, trying not to anger the man who was trying to help him, "but you do realize what goes on here?"

"I try not to think on it too much or get involved," the old man turned to grab some bandages. "Bullet went through. Might get a bit of a fever, but I think I got it cleaned out pretty well – took a chunk out of your love handle is all."

"Very funny," Ezra smiled and winced as he touched the bandaged area, "but I do thank you sir. I don't suppose you would want to un-fasten me from the table and allow me to escape?"

"Now you're the one being funny," the doc answered as he opened the door and yelled, "all done in medical."

Two guards arrived and carried Ezra down a long hallway. They placed him in a room furnished only with a cot and a chamber pot. It looked more like a jail cell than anything else. He wondered if all the boys here were in similar rooms.

About an hour later, the doctor appeared in the doorway. He passed Standish a sack food and some water through the bars and whispered, "where are your friends?"

It took Ezra a minute to realize what the man was asking and/or offering, then he quietly said, "about 10 miles east, up along the creek."

The doctor clocked out at the main desk and, although he lived north of the boys' home, he headed east along the creek. He knew he was going to lose his job: either because his boss would figure out what happened or because the orphanage was going to be shut down, but he had enough. What kind of man would sit by and watch young boys subjected to that sort of treatment? Well, he was tired of being that kind of man, so it was time to make a stand – and to hell with whatever happens to him as a result of it.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

"Chris, we've got company," Nathan said as he saw a man stop and dismount not far from their camp.

"You take Buck over by the creek," Larabee instructed. "I'll see what this fellow wants." Chris undid his holster and met the old man halfway between there and his horse.

Before Chris could say anything, the doctor said, "the fancy-dressed friend of yours is back at the boys' home."

"Ezra?" Chris asked, "what happened to him...and who are you?"

"Name's John Miner, I'm the doctor there. The guards captured your friend up in Bixby, shot him, and I took care of him in my clinic."

"How badly is he injured?" Larabee continued his questions.

"He was shot in the side," the doc explained. "Bullet went through, and I cleaned him up as best I could. Figure he'll be sore as hell, but he'll make it."

"Shit!" Chris looked up at the darkening sky. Nathan was the only one of them that hadn't been shot. Larabee planned to go get Ezra tonight; he didn't know what the headmaster would do to him. Did he leave Nathan and Buck here or take them with him?

"Listen, Doctor Miner," Chris looked at the old man, "I really appreciate all your help already, but would it be possible for me to ask you for a big favor?"

Miner did not really want to get involved any further than he already had, but he reluctantly said, "you can ask…can't promise what I'll say."

"Come and sit down over here," Larabee motioned the doctor over to where Nathan and Buck were sitting. "This is Buck and my fellow peacekeeper and town healer, Nathan Jackson. Nate, this is Doctor Miner, and he said Ezra was captured and is back at the boys' home. He's hurt, and I wanna go after him tonight…figure we just finish the job if we can. Doc, do you know how many guards the orphanage has?"

"At night, it should be four: one at the gate, one at the main desk, one patrolling quarters, and one patrolling the grounds."

"Does Oates stay on campus or leave for the night?"

"He has quarters in a building to the left of the main entrance, so he should be there as well."

"Chris?" Nathan interrupted. "What are you thinkin'? You can't go after 'im by yourself?"

"It definitely crossed my mind," Chris looked at the doctor, "but my preference would be that you and I go, and the doc stays here with Buck…whattya say doc?"

"Alright, but...," the doc started to say.

"No offense, Doctor Miner, but we don't really know this man, Chris," Nathan interrupted.

"Don't worry Nate," Buck finally spoke up. "Doc was always good to me, even snuck me food when they sent me to my room with no supper. I'll be ok."

"Alright," Nathan said, "but ya know it's still a long shot: just me and you against 4 or 5 of them…in a building we don't know...in the dark."

"Where are they holdin' Ezra?" Chris asked one last question.

"It's down a long hallway, to the right when you go in the main door," the doc tried to think. "I believe he was in the 3rd or 4th to the last room, and as I started to say earlier, yes, I will stay with Buck while you two go rescue your friend."

"Thank you...again," Chris shook Miner's hand and took off to ready the horses and supplies.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris and Nathan were crouched down in the tall grass close to the main gate. It was dark, so they would have the element of surprise…at least until the first bullets flew.

"We'll take out this guard and get the keys," Chris instructed. "Then you head to the left, towards Oates' quarters, and I'll go look for Ezra. I don't much care if ya take Oates alive or dead; you decide." With that, Chris took off and plowed into the guard.

"Damnit," Nathan whispered and took off after the gunslinger.

Nathan watched Larabee grapple with the man for a minute, and then walked up and hit the guard in the temple with his revolver. They then gagged and bound the man to a fence post nearby.

Chris grunted in pain as he rose to his feet, steadied himself a bit, and opened the gate as quietly as possible and just enough for him and Nathan to get through. He shut the gate behind him but did not lock it.

Nathan went around the building to the left, and Chris walked straight in the front door.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Nathan saw the small cabin and carefully peaked in the side window. Oates was awake in bed, reading a book. The healer went around to the backdoor and tried the handle. "Hallelujah," he thought. It wasn't locked. That was not one of Nathan's strengths; Ezra was the lock-picking expert of their team. Nate crept inside, staying close to the wall. As he approached the open bedroom door, he pulled his trusty knife and flung it into the shoulder of the man on the bed. "What the…," he heard Oates yell, but by the time the headmaster realized what was happening Nathan was on top of him tying his arms. Like the gate guard, Nate gagged Oates to keep noise and suspicions to a minimum.

Chris, too, was reluctant to fire his colt unless absolutely necessary. Better to take out one at a time rather than to have all of the guards come rushing at him at once. As he stepped up to the front desk, the guard said, "who the hell are you?"

"I have somebody here who'd like to meet you," Chris said as he leaned in closer to the guard.

"Oh yeah," the man looked around and asked, "who's that?"

"My fist," Larabee said, as he whacked the man as hard as he possibly could. The guard fell, unconscious, out of his chair. Chris gagged and tied him up under the desk.

The blond peacekeeper headed down the long hallway, looking from side to side, for Ezra's cell. He had to duck in a closet and wait for the guard to pass, but then went on his way. His heart sank when he reached the third cell from the end. Standish lay on the cot, pale as the sheet he lay on with his shirt undone and bloody, unmoving.

 

Chapter 6:

"Ezra," Chris whispered with no response from the southerner. Larabee began trying keys on the ring. Finally, on the ninth try, he got the right one, and the cell door creaked open.

He ran to the prone man's side and said louder and more frantically, "Ezra. Come on Standish, I know you're hurt and tired, but you gotta wake up for me."

In all honesty, Chris was tempted to just lie down there with him. He was going on 60 hours with no more than a few hours of interrupted sleep himself.

Finally, Ezra groaned and Chris continued shaking and talking quietly. "Please Ezra, I really need your help here."

'Chris. That sounded like Chris. What would he be doing in my bedroom?' Ezra's groggy mind started slowly putting memories and pieces together, and he opened his eyes to see Larabee standing worriedly over him in his cell.

"Oh," was all Ezra could muster the energy to say.

"Real good to see you awake, Ezra," Chris smiled. "You think you can walk?"

Standish was tempted to reply, "no." His side was on fire, and he knew movement was only going to make the pain worse. But instead he said, "I will try," and swung his legs over the side of the cot.

Larabee smiled and helped pull the injured man to his feet, "thatta boy, Ezra." Chris threw the gambler's arm over his shoulder, and they began to make their way down the hall. "What a pair we are," Chris thought. The two men had mirror-image bullet holes in their sides: Larabee's going from back to front and Ezra's from front to back. Both of the exhausted men's wounds pulled and ached, as they slowly progressed.

It wasn't long until the men heard voices coming from the entrance. The hall guard, it seemed, had found and untied the front guard, and Chris and Ezra heard one of them yell, "Frank, get in here." Larabee was guessing that Frank was the outside guard.

"In the closet," Chris opened the door, and he and Standish entered the same closet Larabee had hidden in while looking for Ezra. Both knew they would be found, but they would be armed and ready when that happened. Doc Miner had managed to sneak Standish's weapons out with him, and Chris now handed Ezra's revolver to the wobbly man.

They stood deathly still and heard the three men approach and then pass. The guards would likely go look in Standish's cell first. Ezra knew they were now on their way back, and it would soon be "kill or be killed." His arm was shaking at the effort to keep his weapon pointed at the door. The pain, blood loss, exhaustion and nerves were taking their toll on the man. It was completely black in the closet, and Ezra could hear Chris' irregular breathing. Chris prided himself on being calm and able to ignore pain and other distractions when under pressure, but he too was fighting to keep a steady aim.

"You two go check the closet," the regulators heard one of the guards say, "I'll make sure they didn't get out the back door." Two on two…that was about the best scenario that they could have hoped for.

Chris and Ezra held their breaths as the doorknob began to turn, and as soon as it was open far enough to see the intended targets, they simultaneously pulled the triggers. The two guards fell to the floor…..both with point-blank gunshot wounds to the chest.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

The two victors returned to the hallway, and Standish knew he was about to pass out. In an effort to prevent himself from losing consciousness completely, Ezra scooted down the wall, sat on the floor, and rested his head on his knees. Chris heard "Frank" returning and went to wait and surprise him at a bend in the hallway. Larabee had misjudged the proximity of the guard, and he felt a booted foot kick his hand just as his gun peeked around the corner. Chris' colt was knocked loose, so that left little choice but to fight. Larabee plowed head first into the man, and both went crashing to the floor. Chris banged the man's hand enough times that he, too, lost possession of his firearm.

Even if Larabee hadn't left half of his blood supply on the trail between his cabin and Four Corners, he still would have struggled in a fight with this fellow. He was similar in height to Chris, but the guard was much broader and heavier. The combatant used his strength and weight advantage to roll Larabee off of him. He then hauled himself and Chris up off the floor.

The lean, blond man was thrown hard into the wall, and the back of his head hit with a resounding thump. He sank to the floor, as the guard continued to kick him mercilessly in his wounded side. Chris could feel the blood running down into the waistband of his pants….the bullet wound had been re-opened.

Just as Ezra became aware enough to try to stand and assist Larabee, he heard Nathan yell, "back away…right now!"

Jackson had Headmaster Oates in one hand, and his gun in the other. The barrel was stead-fastly pointed at the guard's head who was battering the downed gunslinger.

"Sit and behave," Nathan said as he shoved Oates on the floor next to Ezra. He then walked over and escorted the last, living guard into an open cell and locked the door. He grabbed Oates off the floor, untied his hands, and started to shove the headmaster into a cell of his own. Oates somehow grabbed a hold of Nathan's shirt, surprising the dark-skinned man. Before he knew it, Oates had his gun and cocked it. Larabee remained seated on the floor just in front of the cell. In a flash, he had his weapon out and pointed at Oates. "Ya best put that back where you found it," Chris said tiredly.

It all happened too fast for Nathan, Chris, or Ezra to act. Oates put Nathan's gun to his own chin and pulled the trigger.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

Chris slumped back up against the wall, and Nate was left alone to do the heavy lifting. Both dead guards and Oates' body were locked in a cell and the window closed off. They didn't want any of the orphan boys witnessing this mess.

Larabee was having a hard time convincing his body to do anything but sit right where it was. His mind knew there was a lot to do: deal with the children still here, lock up the gate guard and lock up the place. It was only a few hours until the next shift of guards showed up, and he didn't want them to be able to enter. Someone still had to make it to a town to wire the judge and make a plan for the remaining orphans, and someone had to go back to the stream to inform Buck and Dr. Miner what was going on….probably bring them here as well. Miner would be their best witness. Before his brain could think it all through and formulate a plan, Nathan dropped down next to him. "You OK, Chris?"

"Yeah, just tired," the pain-filled voice lied. "Go check out Ezra….hasn't really moved since he sat down."

Larabee grunted and rose to follow Nathan over to where Ezra slumped against another part of the hallway wall.

"Let's get him down to the medical clinic," Nathan instructed. "I saw a sign pointing straight ahead from the main desk."

"You hear that Ezra," Chris smiled as the conman looked up at him with a tired, green stare, "we're gonna find you a bed."

With Larabee and Nathan supporting most of his weight, the gambler stumbled down the hall to the medical facility. The pain flared in his side as they laid him down, and Ezra closed his eyes until the burning sensation became more manageable.

"Hang in there, Ezra," Nathan touched the injured man's shoulder. "You opened up the wound in yer side, so I'm just gonna take a quick look."

Chris' legs began to buckle when he let go of the table, and Nathan reached out to grab him. "Chris?"

He grabbed the side of the medical bed again and steadied himself. "I'm alright," Chris explained, "just got a little dizzy."

"I should probably check your bandages too," Nathan sighed. How was he going to take care of these two stubborn men...AND an entire orphanage full of kids?

"It'll keep," the shaky blond replied. "I'll bring in the gate guard and lock him up. Then I'll head out and bring Buck and Doc Miner back here," Larabee paused and rubbed a hand across his face, "and finally I'll head to Eagle Bend and wire the judge and Vin and Josiah...then I'll be back."

"Chris," Nathan interrupted while he examined Standish's wound, "I don't think you're up for all that ridin' right now."

"I don't see as we got much of a choice," Chris shot back. "I need you to stay, make sure Ezra's OK, release the boys being kept here, and give them a quick medical check…..make sure they're fit to travel to a real orphanage somewhere. Doctor Miner can help too, once we get him back here."

Nathan sat on the old doc's chair and sighed. Chris was right, but Nate was still worried that the man would collapse somewhere between here and Eagle Bend. Chris looked like death-warmed-over. He was sleep-deprived, he hadn't had a chance to replenish the blood he lost two days earlier, and for all Nathan knew the man could still have a fever.

"I'm gonna put a couple of stitches in your side, Ezra," Nathan explained. "Since it's just a couple, I don't want to put ya out. Chris, can ya help me hold him?"

"My pleasure," Chris tried to give his best evil glare to Ezra, and he approached the head of the bed and held the gambler's arms tight. Ezra couldn't help himself: he screamed and bucked when Nathan stuck the large needle into his tender flesh.

"You're doing great, Ezra," Nathan tried to encourage the wounded man, "just a couple more minutes." Chris sympathized all too well with the gambler. The wobbly gunslinger focused his gaze solely on Ezra's face; he couldn't bear to watch Nathan pull the needle in and out of his friend right now.

Nathan quickly re-bandaged the wound and said, "both of you stay put for a few minutes, drink some water. I'll bring the guard in, and after that - if you can walk to the gates without keelin' over, Chris, I suppose you're free to go. I really wish Vin or Josiah was here, but I know they ain't….so I agree we ain't got much choice."

Ezra saw Chris rub his hands across his stubbled chin, and it reminded him, "if it wouldn't be too much of an imposition, Mr. Jackson, could you find my horse and collect my belongings while you are out. I am in dire need of a shave."

Chris eyes grew wide at what the gambler had just said, "really, Ezra…..with all that's goin' on, you're worried about shavin'!"

"Appearances are everything, Mr. Larabee," Standish smiled, "besides, the children are more apt to be wary if they believe their home has been over-taken by a bunch of mountain men."

Chris couldn't even remember how many days it had been since he shaved. Hell, it seemed like it had been two weeks since he and Buck left Four Corners.

Nathan handed the two injured men a glass of water and headed back towards the front entrance of the boy's home.

M7M7M7M7M7M7M7

"How're you feelin' Ezra…..REALLY," Chris asked, once Nathan was out of earshot. "You think you'll be able to help Nathan keep an eye on the kids here?"

"I detest pain, Mr. Larabee, but I believe I will be up to the task," Ezra paused and stared at the pale man before him, "IF I am allowed a few hours of sleep before we embark on this next adventure."

Chris smiled, "I think that sounds like a reasonable counter offer. Thanks Ezra." He knew the conman had to be unbelievably stiff and sore…..he sure as hell was, and he didn't have stitches in his side to pull and add to the aggravation.

"And thank you, Chris," the younger man sat up, "for emancipating me once again." Standish continued to watch their exhausted leader and followed up with, "if I may be so bold, Mr. Larabee, I would highly suggest you take a couple of hours to rest as well….before heading out."

"Shit, Ezra," Chris laughed, "if I went to sleep now, I wouldn't wake up for three days. Besides, I wanna get Buck and Miner here before morning." Standish understood that to mean before the next shift of guards started arriving, and that did make sense. He was always amazed at how well Larabee, Nathan Jackson, and Vin Tanner could function on little to no sleep. He and Josiah did not share that ability. The gambler knew he would be unable to ride more than a couple of miles tonight without seriously risking injury to himself or his horse.

Both men startled when Nathan slammed through the doors of the medical clinic. "Sorry," Nathan smiled as he saw both men with hands on their holsters. He had rammed the door open because his hands were full of supplies. He found the stables and Ezra's horse, so he had the requested tack bag. He had also rummaged through the kitchen area and found some food.

"Alright then," Chris stood and steadied himself for a few seconds, "I'm gonna head back and get Buck. Hope the doc will agree to come as well…should be back before dawn. I'll lock the gate as I go out and toss the keys back on your side. I'll fire a single shot when I need someone to let Buck and Miner back in."

"Take the keys with ya…at least for the gate," Nathan suggested. "We shouldn't need 'em."

"Don't wanna risk somebody takin' them from me," Chris didn't want to have to say it out loud, but he knew in his current condition it wouldn't take much for someone to defeat him in a gunfight or hand-to-hand battle.

Nathan shook his head and bit his lip. "Please be careful, Chris," Nathan approached their leader and grabbed his shoulder. "We'll keep an ear out."

After locking the gate and tossing the keys back down the drive, Larabee mounted his horse. He was trusting Pony, as much as himself, to remember the path down to the stream. It was a clear night, but there was only about a quarter moon…..not much light to travel by.

Chris believed that he was getting close. They had passed a bend in the stream and a large tree that he remembered from the last trip. He dismounted, tied the black horse to the tree, and started walking towards where he left Buck and the doctor. The tall gunslinger was so tired and dizzy that his feet were catching on stumps and branches, and he had to catch himself from falling on more than one occasion. The last time he tripped, he allowed himself to sit on a downed log and rest for a minute. It was then that he felt a gun barrel press against the back of his head.

Chapter 7:

"Doc?" Chris asked tentatively, "is that you?"

"Sorry son," Miner replied when he realized who the darkly-dressed stranger was, "my old mind gets a bit jumpy in these sorts of situations. Did you get your fancy friend back?"

"Ezra and Nathan are still at the orphanage," Chris answered tiredly, "but things are under control. Came to take you and Buck as well…..before the mornin' shift starts showin' up."

"Buck's sleepin', but I don't suppose he'll mind bein' woken up once he realizes you're back for him."

"Was he afraid we wouldn't come back?" Chris questioned.

"Think he was afraid somethin' would happen to ya, and you wouldn't be able to come back," the doc put the gun away and walked back towards the stream with Larabee in tow.

Chris sat on the ground next to Buck's bedroll, touched the boy's arm, and whispered, "Buck, it's time to wake up."

"Huh?" the boy sleepily replied, "Chris, is that you?"

"Open your eyes and find out," Larabee grinned. There was always something calming about being back with Buck, even with all that the leader knew he had to deal with tonight.

"Did you find Ezra?" Buck sat up.

"Yeah, we did," Chris touched the boy's face to see if the fever from last night was completely gone. It was. "He's hurt, but Nathan's takin' good care of 'im…..wanna get you and Doc Miner with them as well."

"With them?" Buck caught the statement, even in his tired state. "You're not goin' too?"

"I'm goin' back, but I need to wire the judge, Vin, and Josiah first."

"Can I come with you?" Buck questioned. He had just gotten Chris back; he didn't want to be separated again.

"Not this time, buddy," Chris replied, "but I promise not to be gone long."

The camp was packed up as well as it could be in the dark, and the two men and boy rode back towards the orphanage. Buck was clearly feeling better, Chris noted, as he was fully back to his talkative self.

Once they arrived at the gates, Chris fired a single shot in the air, and Nathan came out and escorted the doc and Buck inside.

Chris turned and rode off towards Eagle Bend.

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Buck, Miner, and Nathan entered the medical clinic, and Nathan said, "there's a cot over there if you wanna go back to sleep, Buck. It's still a couple of hours 'til morning." The boy walked over and looked at the sleeping gambler. It was tough to see a man like Ezra, who was always so jovial and full of life, lying there looking so pale and exhausted.

"Ezra's gonna be ok," Nathan said when he saw the frightened look on the boy's face. "Why don't ya go lie down."

Nate got the boy tucked in and covered up, and the old doc approached his dark-skinned counterpart. "I'll keep an eye on things here; why don't you take your own advice."

"Chris was hopin' you and me could check out the orphans tomorrow….give 'em a medical check to make sure they were ok to travel to a new location," Nathan yawned.

"It's my facility," Miner said. "I can quickly gather up the needed supplies and have them ready to go by the time you or the children wake up." Miner grabbed Nathan's shoulder and steered the tired man to another cot across the room. Nathan smiled and shook his head in thanks to the old doc.

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"Shit," Chris said out loud as he realized he had caught himself falling asleep in the saddle for the second time. He took some of the water from his canteen and splashed it onto his face and hoped that Eagle Bend wasn't much further.

The sun was just coming up over the eastern horizon when Larabee rode into the familiar, small town. Sheriff Stains was sitting on the boardwalk and recognized the blond-haired man as he tied his horse to the hitching post.

"What brings big, bad Chris Larabee to our little town at this hour of the mornin'?" the large sheriff stood and towered over the smaller peacekeeper. The two men had learned to accept the fact that they were indeed both on the same side of the law, but neither had forgotten their differences over the handling of Nathan Jackson's father and his trial.

"Need ya to wake the telegraph operator," Chris instructed.

"And why is that, Larabee?" Stains continued to just stand there and drink his coffee.

"Just do it," Chris looked up at Stains and said. Larabee could feel his strength waning. He was so damn tired. The last thing he felt like dealing with right now was this cantankerous man.

"Ya don't look so good," the big sheriff smirked. "Did ya ride all night to git here?"

"Somethin' like that," Chris could feel his vision starting to dim, "please...go find the telegraph operator. I'm gonna sit right over here and wait." He was not about to let himself pass out in front of this asshole.

Stains could see the man beginning to sweat and turn white. He didn't say anything – just grabbed the smaller man's arm and led him to the bench. Chris immediately put his elbows on his knees, and his head on his hands…trying to get the world to come back into focus.

"I'll drag Larry out of bed," Stains finally agreed, "should I wake the doc as well?"

Larabee laughed and looked up at the sheriff, "nah, I'm fine…..I appreciate your help."

The sheriff returned about 10 minutes later with a small, balding man, who was carrying a pad and a pencil. "Mr. Stains says you have an urgent telegram?"

Chris was feeling a bit stronger after sitting and drinking some water from his canteen. Larabee dictated two messages: one to Judge Travis and one to Vin and Josiah. From the judge, Chris wanted permission to close down the boy's home and suggestions for a good orphanage to move the kids to. In his telegram to his fellow peacekeepers in Four Corners, he told them to grab a couple of extra folks and bring 3 or 4 wagons, preferably covered. He needed them to come back through Eagle Bend to pick up the return wire from the judge, and then meet the rest of them at the home for boys. Larabee assumed it would take Vin and Josiah a day to assemble the wagons and supplies, so they would likely be back through Eagle Bend sometime tomorrow.

Once the telegraph operator headed to the office to send the wires, Larabee explained the situation to Stains and asked for him and his deputies to keep an eye out for any trouble near Four Corners, since all five peacekeepers were going to be out of town for the next couple of weeks. Stains said he would do that. One of his deputies lived between the two towns, and he would ask him to ride to Four Corners on his way into work each morning and check on things. Chris also let him know that a deputy would be needed to arrest the guard still in custody at the orphanage, and someone would need to deal with the bodies of Oates and the other guards.

Stains didn't particularly like Larabee. He thought the blond was a bit too cocky for his own good, but he had to admit that he admired the man's grit and determination. The sheriff wasn't sure even Larabee had enough grit to make it the two and a half hour's ride back to the boy's home this morning. The man had to be ill or injured, although he kept insisting he was fine. His pallor remained gray, and the dark circles under his eyes strongly suggested his physical state was due to more than just the usual Larabee hangover. But he was a grown man, so Stains simply sat back down on his seat on the boardwalk and watched the dark figure disappear into the dust cloud, as he rode out of town.

Chris didn't understand why, but he continued to feel worse and worse as he rode south on the trail. His head pounded, he constantly felt like he was on the verge of passing out, and he just now dismounted to throw up what little food and water was in his stomach. The sick, exhausted gunslinger sat on the ground staring up at Pony…..not having any idea how he was going to get himself back onto his horse.

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Nathan awoke the next day to find all of his companions asleep: Ezra on the exam bed, Buck on a cot, and Doc Miner is his chair. He walked over to feel Ezra's face and was annoyed to discover that Standish had a fever. It often seemed that gunshot wounds got infected no matter how well he cleaned them. He would let the man sleep for another hour or two, and hopefully the fever would get better instead of worse. Doc Miner stirred and looked ashamed when he realized Nathan had caught him napping in the chair.

"Good morning, Nathan," the doc said. "How are your patients faring this morning?"

"Buck seems to be sleeping well," Nathan answered, "but Ezra's come down with a fever."

"I'm surprised to hear that," the doc stood and felt the gambler's head himself. "His wound looked good after you stitched it last night." Nathan was right though; the man did feel too warm.

"I'm gonna head over to the boys' quarters, so I can tell them what's goin' on," Miner said. "I'll take the children to the cafeteria and try to round up something for breakfast."

"That sounds perfect, doc." Nathan was so thankful to have this man's help.

After a couple of hours, both Buck and Ezra had awakened, and the doc had one of the older boys deliver some eggs and toast to the medical ward.

Standish was shocked to find how terrible he felt when he woke up. He hadn't felt nearly this bad the night before. He ached all over, and he felt sick to his stomach.

"You're probably just hungry, Ezra," Nathan argued when Standish said his stomach was not up to eating. "I really think you should give breakfast a try."

The gambler reluctantly sat up and did as he was told, but damn he felt dreadful. It wasn't five minutes after he finished a small plate of eggs that Ezra immediately regretted listening to Nathan's advice.

"Nathan," there was no time for the "Mr. Jackson" formalities right now, "I fear I'm going to be sick."

The healer quickly ran to Ezra's aid, with a bucket in tow. He made it just in time to watch every drop of Standish's breakfast come back up.

"Ewwwwww!" Buck said and quickly looked away.

"I guess I should have listened to ya, huh?" Nathan sheepishly looked at the obviously ill man.

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Larabee finally, albeit not at all gracefully, got himself back onto his horse. He and Pony moved slowly towards the orphanage. Chris was sick twice more before his stomach was completely convinced that there wasn't anything left to come up.

He thanked the heavens that there weren't any of the daytime guards waiting outside the gate. They must have simply gone home once they learned what had happened. Chris shakily pulled his gun and fired one shot to let Nathan and Ezra know he had returned. He then proceeded to let his eyes drift close and his body fall from the saddle.

When Nathan stepped outside, he was surprised to see Larabee's horse without its rider. Pony certainly hadn't fired the shot. As he stepped over the rise in the road, he saw the black-clad body lying on the ground at the horse's feet.

"Chris!" Nathan yelled. He felt for a pulse and found a strong one and saw no obvious new wounds. Nathan took Pony just inside the gate, and then returned to his unconscious leader. He scooped up Larabee's limp body in his arms and headed back towards the building. Even though Nathan was a strong man, and quite a bit larger than Chris, it was still exceedingly difficult to carry a full-grown man a distance that far. Nathan kicked open the clinic room doors and plopped Chris down on the nearest cot.

Buck came running immediately, "Chris! What's wrong Nathan? Is he gonna be ok?"

"Buck!" Nathan interrupted. He hated to be short with the boy, but he was worn out from carrying Larabee, and he needed some room to figure out what the hell was going on with the man. "I need you to go play or sit with Ezra for a little while. I need some room and time to figure out what's wrong with 'im."

Standish had been sick a few more times that morning but was now slowly starting to feel human again. He sat up and removed the wet cloth from his forehead when he heard Nathan come plowing through the doors with Chris. Larabee was completely out and looked like a 6-foot rag doll in Nathan's arms.

Nathan placed a cool cloth on Chris' head and started shaking and yelling at the man. "Chris, wake up. Come on, open yer eyes for me." Larabee eventually began to stir.

"Nate?" Chris' throat was so dry that his voice was barely audible. "I made it?"

Nathan smiled and gave Larabee a few sips of water, "yeah, you made it...just barely. What the hell happened? Did you make it to Eagle Bend?"

"Yeah, wires were sent," Chris took another drink. "I don't know what happened; just got to feelin' bad as the mornin' went on."

"I noticed ya still have a fever," Nathan interjected. "Did you feel sick to yer stomach?"

"Yeah, somethin' terrible," Chris answered but then said, "it ain't too bad now."

"I think you and Ezra may have had the same thing," Nathan said and Chris gave a questioning stare. "He woke up this mornin' sick as a dog. I don't even know how many times he threw up."

"Four," Ezra quickly spoke up, "that would be four exhaustingly painful times, Mr. Jackson."

Chris looked at Ezra and winced. Yep, he could sympathize with that experience this morning.

"I don't know if it was something ya ate or drank…or this is what Buck had the other night," Nathan talked as began to prepare for checking out the orphan boys. "Maybe he just wasn't as nauseous with it or somethin'…I'm gonna take you two over to Oates' place to rest today, and me and doc Miner will start doing physicals on the boys. Buck can stay here and help us too; you can write down their names and any notes about their health."

"Yes sir, Nathan," Buck saluted. He felt good today, and he was happy to know that himself and his other friends from the orphanage were safe from Oates and the awful things that occurred here.

Doctor Miner stopped by after breakfast. "The other boys are out in the yard. When would you like to start the examinations?" he asked Nathan. Chris and Ezra were both sitting up, on a cot, getting ready to head over to the ex-headmaster's quarters. The doc just now noticed their awful-looking pallor.

"What's the matter with those two?" he questioned.

"Don't rightly know," said Nathan, "both of them came down with some sort of stomach ailment, but they seem to be gettin' over it. You wanna help me escort them over to Oates' cabin?"

"Sure can," the doc smiled and looked at the two recovering peacekeepers, "you boys have had a rough few days."

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Miner grabbed Ezra's arm, and Nathan did the same for Chris. They were unsteady for a couple of steps, and then both men were able to walk to the cabin mostly unassisted. The cabin fortunately had two beds in the one bedroom, so they settled each man into one of the beds and said, "we don't want to see either of you again until you've slept at least 4 or 5 hours."

"Ya ain't gonna get any arguments from me," Chris yawned, but as soon as the men left Ezra got up and grabbed his tack bag.

"What're you doin' Ezra?"

"I cannot stand myself any longer," Ezra remarked, “I am going to shave and clean up a bit…..and then lie down."

"Suit yerself," Chris said and fell asleep within minutes.

Ezra was feeling a lot better than he had this morning. He was still weak, from the blood loss and lack of keeping food down today, but he was hoping all of their bad luck was behind them now.

After he got cleaned up a bit, Standish returned to the sleeping quarters and joined Larabee in a nice, long nap.

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Buck, Nathan, and the old doc went to work performing medical checkups on the orphan boys. When they were done, Buck had written down 24 names and all seemed well enough to travel to a new home. It had been in Oates' best interest to keep the boys relatively well-fed and cared for in order to sell them for work in the fields, so they were surprisingly healthy. There were three boys who were 16 or 17, close to being of age, so Nathan had offered to pay them to help drive the wagons with the younger boys, and then assist them in finding a job to support themselves either in Four Corners or a town along the way.

Once they were done, they turned all of the boys, including Buck, lose to run and play in the halls and in the yard. The boys were appreciative of what Buck had done for them; they thought it was brave that he had run away and found these men to help. Of course that made Buck feel good. Even with all of the kids to play with here, he still missed JD and hoped he would see him again soon. There was just something about that annoying little boy that made Buck feel really protective and attached to him.

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Nathan went over to check on Chris and Ezra later that afternoon and found the men up and doing well, all things considered. He laughed when he overheard Ezra trying to push his shaving kit onto Larabee.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra held the razor out, "I highly recommend that you freshen your appearance before we leave."

"I'm fine Ezra," Chris insisted, "I'll deal with it tomorrow mornin'."

"Have you, perchance, seen yourself?" Ezra continued to badger the man and pointed to a mirror in another room. "I am not kidding when I say that you will frighten the children."

"For Pete's sake," Larabee finally relented," give me the damn razor." He walked to the mirror and immediately started laughing.

"What?" Ezra asked, "what is so funny?"

"Damn," Chris continued to smile, "you weren't kiddin'." Larabee hardly recognized the man in the mirror. He had almost a full beard, his face and clothing were covered in dirt, and his eyes appeared sunken due to the dark circles surrounding them. He still appeared tired, but much more like himself, after cleaning up, shaving, and procuring a change of clothes.

"I'd say this is about as good as it gets," Chris presented himself to the gambler. "Do ya still think I'll scare the kids?"

"Yes," Standish grinned, showing his gold tooth, "but your appearance is certainly much improved. Shall we head over to see how we may be of assistance to doctors Jackson and Miner?"

"Lead the way," Larabee said as he shoved the shorter man out the cabin door, and Ezra struggled to quickly gain his footing on the step below. He had not been expecting the hard push from Chris.

"That's gratitude for you," Ezra stammered under his breath.

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The four men prepared a simple supper for the 25 children in their care. Chris was impressed at how his men always seemed to take unusual assignments, such as this, in stride. Ezra was going from kid to kid introducing himself and asking where they were from, and you could already tell that the children liked him and Nathan. Chris had to admit that he was a bit intimidated by the gaggle of children they were now responsible for, and as Ezra predicted – the kids seemed to be a bit more leery of him than they were of Standish or Jackson.

Nathan and Doc Miner were going to sleep in the medical ward tonight, closer to the children. Buck, Chris, and Ezra had retired to Oates' cabin, and the boy was as talkative as usual. "So, Josiah and Vin should be here tomorrow?" the boy asked excitedly. He missed his friends, young and old, from Four Corners.

"Yeah, I think they should make it here sometime tomorrow," Chris answered. "We should probably all get some sleep, so we'll be ready when they do."

Ezra was lying on the second bed, half-dozing and half-reading one of Oates' books. Buck all of sudden jumped from the bed he was sharing with Chris onto Ezra's, and the gambler's heart just about jumped out of his throat. "But I'm not sleepy!" Buck exclaimed.

When Ezra got his heartbeat back under control, he calmly asked, "could you please refrain from doing that again?"

Chris chuckled and told Buck to, "get back over here and lay down before Ezra shoots ya. He ain't one to take kindly to losin' out on beauty sleep." Larabee wouldn't admit it, but his body was still yearning for more sleep as well. He yawned and forcibly tucked the wiggly boy next to him under the blankets. "Buck, be still…or I'm gonna make ya sleep outside with the horses."

Finally, after enduring another hour of the young boy's tossing, turning, and "one last question," Buck settled down and went to sleep. Larabee happily followed him into dreamland.

 

Chapter 8:

Josiah and Vin met before dawn at the livery. They had been busy gathering wagons and supplies for their trip west of Eagle Bend. They managed to find three covered wagons, and now they were just waiting for their additional help to show up so they could hit the trail.

Their help appeared just as the orange light of dawn peeked over the horizon. Mary Travis was accompanied by her son, Billy, and Emma Dunne by 7-yr-old JD…not exactly the "help" that Vin and Josiah had originally imagined, but most folks in town were busy this time of year and thus unavailable to leave town for a couple of weeks.

"Mornin' ladies," Vin drawled and smiled. "This here wagon'll be yers. I'll lead, and Josiah will bring up the rear." The two young boys had already hopped in and were playing in the back of the women's wagon.

"Ready or not," Josiah said as he followed the wagon train, "here we come."

The three wagons stopped off in Eagle Bend to pick up the return wire from the judge and grab a few extra supplies.

It was about three hours later when they pulled up to the orphanage gates.

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Some of the boys in the yard had seen the wagons approaching and informed Ezra. Standish went out and let the men and "women," he thought surprisingly, in through the gate.

Emma jumped down and hugged the gambler immediately. "It's good to see you Ezra. You look a little peaked; you ok?"

"I am fine," Standish assured her, "in fact I am wonderful now that you are here. What a lovely surprise." Emma didn't quite believe that he was fine, but she didn't push the issue in front of everyone else.

Vin came around and was also a bit taken aback by Standish's stiff gait and pale appearance. "Ezra," he greeted, "everything ok here?"

"Things are well, Mr. Tanner," the gambler answered quickly and then asked, "how was your journey?"

"No problems," Vin smiled and said, "these women are better wagon drivers than me and Josiah put together. Did pick up the wire from the judge. Where's Chris and Nathan? Figure we should all talk."

"I will escort you to them," Ezra answered.

Josiah finished unloading the supplies they would need tonight, and before Standish could walk away, the big ex-preacher embraced him in a big, bear hug.

"Mr. Sanchez, you really must stop greeting people that way," Ezra hissed from the pain in his side, "especially those poor souls who are smaller in stature than yourself."

"Well, that wouldn't leave very many folks I could hug then, would it?" Josiah questioned with a broad smile.

The two kids had hopped off the wagon and began exploring the grounds. JD ran back up to Ezra and asked, "where's Buck?"

"Follow me," instructed Standish, "and I will lead you to your comrade."

"My what?" JD scrunched up his face and looked at Billy Travis and asked, "do you know what a com-rat is?"

"Just follow me," Ezra said again. He was followed by the two kids, two men, and two women into the medical clinic, where Buck, Nathan, and Chris were waiting.

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Vin, Nathan, and Josiah exchanged "hellos" and "good ta see ya"s, and Tanner approached Chris. The Texan stared at the blond-haired man with a questioning blue gaze. He could see immediately that his friend was not at full strength.

Larabee put up his hands, smiled, and said, "what?" He felt like 50 pounds had been lifted from his shoulders as soon as he saw Josiah and Vin walk through the doors.

"What do ya think?" Tanner replied, "I believe ya withheld some things when ya sent your wire yesterday." He paused, but when Chris didn't volunteer anything, he said, "what happened to you and Ezra?"

"Got shot," the gunslinger nonchalantly replied. Vin turned his back on his friend and addressed Nathan now, "they ok to travel tomorrow?"

"Damnit!" Chris started to say until Vin interrupted.

"Hush up Larabee; I'm talkin' to Nathan."

Josiah, Emma, and Mary had also noticed that Ezra and Chris appeared pale and a bit thinner than usual, so they were eagerly awaiting Nathan's answer as well.

JD and Billy had reunited with Buck, and the nine-year-old was already showing them all of the good hiding places in the orphanage.

"I think they'll be alright," Nathan replied. "They've both had a VERY rough few days, but if they take it easy for one more day and night…..they should be mostly recovered." Emma looked worriedly at Ezra; she desperately wanted to make him rest while she took care of him today.

"Ya happy now," Chris walked up closer to Vin. "What did the judge have to say?"

"Ya want the good news or the bad news?" Tanner smiled.

"I could use some good news," Chris answered.

"The judge knows a family who runs an orphanage, and they agreed to take the boys. Said they were real good people, and he's been to the place a couple of times. He said they keep it clean and have a track record of findin' good homes for the kids."

"And the bad news…."

"The orphanage is in Denver, so it'll be a pretty long haul with the wagons."

"Alright, well, let's get ready to go to Denver." Chris agreed with Vin that it would take at least five days to get there, but he was relieved that the judge had found a good place to take the boys.

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Vin and Chris walked back outside to the wagons to check supplies, and Vin admitted that "ya had me a bit worried when I first saw ya today, Chris. Ya shoulda said somethin' in yer wire."

"I'm a big boy, Vin." Chris tried to joke with the Texan.

"You'd a been angrier than an old wet hen if the tables were turned and ya know it."

"Alright, Vin, I'm sorry," Chris walked closer and stood eye-to-eye with his best friend. "I didn't see no reason to worry you guys, Stains was standin' there listenin' to everything I said, and honestly – I felt like shit and just wanted to get the hell outta there."

"Yeah, ok," Vin slapped him on the back and went back to rearranging the wagons. "So, you got shot on Saturday, when Buck was taken?"

"Yeah," Chris answered.

"And Ezra?"

"He was the first one to go and try to send a wire, but some guards from the boy's home found him, shot him, and drug him back here."

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Ezra and Emma had also wandered off by themselves, and Standish was relaying the same story to her. "I had no idea that your job was so dangerous," she held on to the man's hand. "I'm not sure I like it…now that I know, but I understand that you have to do it. This is so wonderful; what you guys are doin' for these boys."

The two set on a bench and watched the kids play in the large yard.

"I can't believe you are still wearing that hat," they heard Buck tease as he ran past with JD. "I know you made enough money cleanin' Mr. Graves' barn with me to buy a new one."

"Buck, how many times do I have to tell ya…..I LIKE MY HAT!" JD screamed.

The subject finally got dropped once the kids found some rocks to climb on the back edge of the property, and Emma and Ezra resumed their conversation.

"What made you decide to come along?" Ezra asked as he looked at the beautiful, dark-haired women sitting next to him.

"Vin and Josiah needed a third person to drive a wagon, and for a while Mary thought she wasn't going to be able to go," Emma paused and laughed, "honestly, I missed you and wanted to see for myself that you were ok."

It had been so long since Ezra had a woman feel this way about him. Until now, he had never stuck around in an area long enough to become well-acquainted with a lady, and most girls' families were not overly-enthralled about a courtship by a man who made his living at the gambling tables anyway.

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Mary and Emma prepared an excellent dinner for all 34 folks at the orphanage, and the adults met afterwards and finalized plans for the next morning. The three older boys from the orphanage would drive the wagons, unless they came upon especially rough terrain. In that case, three of the peacekeepers would take over temporarily. The judge had authorized the same $1 a day pay for any additional help that was needed to move the boys to Denver. The women would alternate riding in the wagons to help the boys with the driving and/or the other kids. Mary and Emma, as they had tonight, would take charge of the food preparations. The five men would take turns scouting ahead for the best route and helping anywhere else they were needed.

The women were given the cabin to sleep tonight with the three boys. Doc Miner had been sent home (with many thanks), so Nathan and Josiah were going to sleep in the clinic and keep an eye on the boys in the orphanage.

Vin, Chris, and Ezra had decided to sleep on their bedrolls under the stars. They could have slept in the cells, like the one Ezra had been held in, but Standish just couldn't stomach going back in there…and the other men had already decided to sleep outside as well.

"Thank you, Mr. Tanner, for agreeing to bring Emma and JD along," Ezra said as he laid down on his bedroll.

"Sure, Ez, she's been a big help. She's a real nice lady," Vin stared up at the stars. It was an especially clear night, which probably meant the temperatures were going to drop quickly.

Chris groaned as he plopped down on his bedroll. "You gonna make it, cowboy?" Vin laughed.

"I'll make it down, but one of you youngens might have to help pull my old bones up off the ground tomorrow mornin'."

"I vote for Mr. Tanner because I fear I may require similar assistance," Ezra chuckled. Ezra was laughing now, but in a couple of hours he was shivering and very much regretting his decision to sleep in the great outdoors. He hauled himself and his bedroll off the ground and managed to commandeer the last cot in the medical clinic. Josiah woke when Standish entered and said, "Ezra, is that you?"

"Cold," was all Standish said before he curled up and fell fast asleep on the much warmer cot.

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Vin and Chris were surprised when they awoke to find Ezra gone. It was not at all like the conman to wake before them. The shivering men hurried inside to find some coffee and warm up. "It figures," Vin said when he saw Standish warm and still sleeping soundly on the cot inside the medical ward.

Buck and JD were up and had been outside in the cool air playing. "Hey Buck," Vin got an idea when the two boys entered the room.

"What ya need Vin?" Buck asked and walked over to the tracker.

Vin grabbed Buck's hands. Perfect, they were freezing. "Go stick yer hands on Ezra's back."

"No way…..he'll kill me."

"Nah, he won't. Come on Buck…I think I might have some candy in my bag," Vin tried to bribe the young boy.

Buck sighed and finally said, "alright." He walked over, gently pulled up Ezra's shirt and slammed both icy palms flat on the man's back.

"OOOOOH!" Ezra jumped up, his stitches pulled, and he immediately grabbed the offending, wide-eyed boy.

"That, my boy, was NOT nice. Who put you up to this?" Buck just shrugged his shoulders.

"WHO told you to do that?" Ezra could see Tanner and Larabee grinning on the other side of the room. Standish took a deep breath, stood up and approached the two, taller men. He highly suspected that the long-haired man was the guilty party, but he proceeded to threaten both with, "I promise you, gentlemen, I will pay you back for that rude awakening."

It always puzzled Standish how those two, Vin and Chris, could be such good friends. It was hard to imagine there being two more opposite personalities on the planet. Vin was talkative, friendly, and loved to play jokes. Larabee was quiet, no nonsense, and downright intimidating to be around. To Ezra, it seemed that the only trait the two had in common was a joy in making his life miserable.

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The men and women fed the children a quick breakfast, and although it took longer than expected, they finally got everyone rounded up and in the wagons. The wagon train then hit the road. They had utilized two of the horses at the orphanage, so there were the five men on horseback, and the three wagons….all headed northwest towards Denver.

The traveling went well. The three older boys proved to be very adept at driving the wagons. The younger kids, Billy, JD, Buck, and a few of the orphans, took turns riding on the horses with the regulators, and even Emma spent a fair amount of time riding with Ezra…..or riding Chaucer herself while Ezra walked beside of them.

The weather held until the day before they arrived in Denver, and that day it poured the rain from morning to night. Every man, woman, and child were soaked, and Nathan fretted about how everyone was going to catch a chill. Chris figured they all needed a bath anyway, so mother nature was just doing them a favor. He and his men had removed their hats and let the rain wash away the trail dust from their hair and clothing.

Vin, too, was enjoying the rain, and it was amusing to see all of his colleagues, and especially Emma and Mary, looking like drowned rats. No one besides Nathan and Ezra were complaining. Standish had just purchased a new, deep blue, coat, and it was fading all over his white shirt…turning it a pale purple color. Vin had no idea why the gambler didn't just remove the coat, but Ezra left it on and his shirt continued to grow more and more purple.

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That night, the skies cleared, and the soggy wagon train participants slowly dried out. Josiah was the first one up the following morning and got to observe what looked like a bunch of wild, bush people exiting the wagons or their bedrolls. He had never seen a group in such dire need of a comb. Thankfully his own graying hair was cropped so short that it was unaffected by the changes in weather. Nathan's black hair was also very short. Vin rose from his bedroll with almost his entire face covered by his huge, brown, curly mop, but either he was unaware of his appearance or didn't care. He simply got up and went about his normal business. Standish's typically neat, auburn hair was sticking up on one side, where he had fallen asleep with it wet. Ezra was clearly aware though and had dumped a canteen on his head, re-combed his hair and placed his now dry hat on top of it. Chris' too-long, blond mane was sticking up and falling in his face as well, but like Vin he didn't seem to be too worried about it. He grabbed some coffee, and ran his fingers through his hair as he said to Josiah (who was staring at the top of Larabee's head), "that good huh?" His attitude changed abruptly when he saw Mary approaching. Chris quickly grabbed his hat and plopped it on his head. He would just let the black hat flatten and push down the unruly hair as it saw fit.

"Good morning Chris, Josiah," Mary said as she approached. "Most of the children are awake and eating some biscuits and jam. We should be ready to take off within the hour."

"Sounds great," Chris smiled at the beautiful blond-haired woman, "thanks Mary…..for all your help with this. We couldn't have done it without you and Emma."

She blushed and said as she walked away, "you're very welcome, Chris."

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The wagon train slowly crept its way across the plains and into Denver that evening. The family that ran the orphanage very kindly provided a hot supper for the travelers, and they assigned rooms to the 21 children they were accepting as their own. Everyone felt good about what they had done. It really was a nice place, and the family promised to keep them updated on how the kids were doing and when they placed them in a permanent home.

At just a little after 8:00 PM, thirteen of the waggoneers departed Denver and stopped a couple hours later to bed down in the eastern plains of the Colorado territory. Nathan's predictions about staying in the rain all day the day before had unfortunately proven true. One of the older boys who was driving the wagon and Emma Dunne had come down with a cough and sniffles. Ezra took over one of the wagons to take care of Emma, and Nathan did the same for the sick boy in another wagon. Emma did not seem terribly ill, and Standish enjoyed having an excuse to spend the extra time with her. The next couple of days passed quietly and without incident. On the third afternoon after departing Denver, Ezra tried to enlist Emma's help in inflicting revenge on his two colleagues for the ice-cold-hand-awakening the last morning at the boy's home.

"Don't you think that's a bit childish?" Emma asked her scheming boyfriend.

"Be that as it may," Ezra grinned mischievously, "I must keep the promise to extract my revenge."

"Do you have anything in mind?" she was half afraid to ask.

"I have a few scenarios that I am considering," he continued to smile. "I think I will do it tonight. Misters Tanner and Larabee tend to retire earlier than myself, and I have noticed that they sleep hardest at that hour."

"Ezra?" Emma started to question whether any of this was a good plan, but she broke into a nasty coughing fit.

Standish held her and gently rubbed her back until the fit subsided, and then he laid her back down.

"Your cough does not seem to be improving, Emma," Ezra looked into her brown eyes, "maybe I should have Nathan come and take another look at you."

"I'm fine Ezra," she quickly replied, "these things just take time to go away. Now are you going to tell me what you have planned for poor Vin and Chris?"

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Once supper was finished and the dishes cleaned up, everyone started picking out a spot to settle down for the night. Nathan, Ezra, Emma, Mary, and the six children slept in the wagons, while Josiah, Vin, and Chris were planning to sleep outside.

Fortunately for Ezra, Josiah slept on one side of the wagons, while Vin and Chris bedded down on the other. He remained inside, playing cards with Emma and then shuffling and exercising his fingers once she nodded off to sleep. Standish was a patient man, and he sat there for at least two hours after darkness had fallen. He then quietly crept outside, approached his two dead-asleep friends, and started yelling.

"Indians! There are savages just over that ridge! I walked up to see to the call of nature, and I saw three of them heading this way!"

Vin and Chris immediately jumped up, fumbled for their weapons, and ran – in their sock feet – up the bank in the dark. They were constantly stepping on prickly-pear cactus, as they frantically searched the blackness for any sights or sounds of attacking natives. Chris tripped and fell head first into a rock. Vin twisted his ankle when his foot landed in a prairie dog hole, but both men hauled themselves up and kept running to the top of the ridge. Finally, off in the dark somewhere, they could hear someone laughing. "Standish!" they both realized at the same time.

"Damn that man!" Chris said, and he and Vin hobbled back to the wagons. "Can you hear me Standish?" Larabee yelled. "You had better be nowhere to be found when I get back there…or you will be a DEAD man; DEAD! You hear me?"

Vin started laughing too, despite the pain in his feet and ankle, and even Chris couldn't suppress the grin that crept across his face. Ezra remained standing right where he was. He was willing to take his punishment like a man. Josiah and Nathan had joined him as well, with a lantern, to try and figure out what all the commotion was about.

Nathan's eyes grew huge when Vin and Chris limped into the light without their boots. Vin was visibly favoring his left leg, and Chris had blood running down the side of his face from a cut to his forehead.

Chris walked up to Ezra, put his finger on Standish's chest, and calmly said, "You are one mean son of a bitch, you know that?" Larabee was still breathing hard; the adrenaline rush had yet to fully wear off.

Vin leaned on the side of the wagon and finally spoke, "I suppose we did have it comin'."

"You!" Chris said, "you had it comin.' I didn't do a damn thing!"

"Well, I guess that answers the question as to who was responsible," thought Ezra.

"I'm goin' back to bed," Josiah wearily said.

Nathan, too, desperately wanted to go back to sleep but felt obligated to ask, "you two ok?"

Chris looked at Vin, who he had seen limping pretty badly, and Vin answered, "yeah, just leave us the lantern and throw us out a pain of tweezers."

Nathan turned to go, and then Ezra started to do the same.

"Oh no you don't," Chris grabbed Standish's arm.

Nathan threw his tweezers from his medical kit onto the ground, Larabee picked them up and smiled as he handed them to Ezra.

He and Vin plopped on the ground, with their now bare feet out in front of them and the lantern shining on the hundreds of cactus spines that were going to have to be pulled out…..one by one.

 

Chapter 9:

Ezra sat there for what seemed like an hour pulling the microscopic, hair-like spines out of Larabee's and Tanner's feet. There had been no more words or threats spoken. All parties had agreed that they were even now.

Just as Ezra finished the tedious task, he heard Emma wake up, coughing and gasping for breath.

"Go!" Chris said, and he jumped up to get Nathan.

Ezra was holding the distressed woman, as Nathan entered the wagon. Chris and Vin stood outside and watched helplessly. Nathan administered medications and had Mary make some tea. After a very long hour, the color finally started returning to Emma's face and lips, and the exhausted woman relaxed in Ezra's arms.

"What is wrong with her?" Ezra asked Nathan.

"I think the cold must have turned into pneumonia," the dark-skinned healer said quietly.

"But the boy has recovered fine," Standish was referring to the 17-yr-old from the orphanage that had also caught the same illness.

"I know it don't make sense, Ezra, but sometimes illnesses affect different folks in different ways." Nathan continued to listen to Emma's lungs.

"Will she recover?"

"She's young, healthy," Nathan replied, "no reason to think that she shouldn't. We'll keep a close eye on her tonight, but hopefully she'll start to feel better tomorrow."

Ezra slept, but not very soundly, right next to Emma. She breathed calmly and steadily the rest of the night.

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"Good morning," Ezra said as Emma's brown eyes fluttered open the next day.

"Hi," she hoarsely answered.

"How are you feeling?" Standish's concerned green eyes stared back at her.

"Not bad….what happened last night?"

"You had trouble breathing," Ezra explained. "Mr. Jackson believes that you have pneumonia."

The small woman sat up and shrugged her shoulders, "I feel ok now."

JD then bounded into the wagon as well, cuddled up close to his mother, and began assaulting her with questions. Ezra stepped outside to give them some privacy and get some air. He was relieved to see that Emma looked much better, but he was having a hard time getting the sights and sounds of last night out of his head.

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He sat down outside next to Vin and Chris, and Larabee handed him a cup of coffee. "How's Emma doin'?"

"She seems to be doing much better," Ezra answered, as he realized that Chris still hadn't washed the blood off of his face from the night before. He motioned to the side of Larabee's head, and Chris said, "yeah yeah, I'll get to it. You've been awful concerned about my appearance lately."

Standish smiled, and Chris said, "I'm real glad to hear that Emma's doin' ok."

Ezra then turned his gaze to Vin and asked, "how is your ankle this morning, Mr. Tanner?"

"It smarts a little," the Texan grinned, "but I kin walk on it."

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Even though she insisted she was fine, Ezra spent most of the day at Emma's side. The couple ate breakfast together, and Emma rode on the front of the wagon as Ezra drove. They talked about where each of them would live if they had their choice of anywhere in the world, they told each other about their families and how they had grown up, and they listened to the boys romp around in the back. The waggoneers camped under a full moon that night, and Emma and Ezra both slept well. Nathan thought that Emma's lungs sounded better than the previous night.

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The following day passed much the same. After lunch Mary noticed that their water supply was running low. Vin and Chris volunteered to ride to a stream about an hour away to fill up the water barrel. The large barrel had been strapped to a small trailer that could be pulled by a horse or a wagon. Larabee knew it was going to take a long time for two men to fill the barrel, bucket by bucket, so Chris wanted a third man to ride along and help speed up the process. Despite Standish's valiant arguments to the contrary, he became the chosen one. The three men rode south, and the wagons continued on their trek to the east.

Later that afternoon, Emma began to feel tired. She handed over the reins to Mary, and settled in the back to take a nap. She was sure she would be feeling better by the time Ezra returned this evening. She had enjoyed traveling and spending so much time with him. Despite what many of the town's folks thought and said about Standish, he really was a wonderful man. She drifted off to sleep, picturing Ezra sitting beside her, laughing, at the creek - his pale, green eyes shining in the sunlight.

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Chris, Vin, and Ezra had to take a couple of detours to make the route to the stream passable for the wagon. They had let Vin handle the trailer, as they figured Peso would be the most cooperative horse for the task.

It was already late in the day when they made it to the watering hole, and they began filling and dumping buckets into the large barrel. The wagon couldn't make it all the way to the water's edge, so they had to fill a bucket, carry it about 20 paces, dump it, and repeat. They had moved over 500 pounds of water by the time they were done, and the three peacekeepers were sweaty and spent.

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Emma was awoken by Mary Travis saying it was suppertime. She still felt tired, but she got up, helped serve the meal, and ate a few bites.

"Shouldn't Ezra, Vin, and Chris be back by now?" Emma questioned over supper. "They said they would only be gone a few hours."

"Don't worry," smiled Josiah, "I'm sure they'll be back soon."

She smiled back at the big preacher and shook her head in agreement, but she still had a nagging feeling in her stomach. Of course they were fine, and the wagon was just slowing them down. She got up and began to clear the table.

Nathan noticed that Emma hadn't eaten much, and that even small efforts seemed to exhaust the petite woman. He casually pulled her aside after the meal and asked if he could examine her in the wagon. Her lungs were still congested, and Nathan was concerned that the medicines were taking such a long time to help. Emma smiled and assured him she was just tired, so the healer instructed her to go lie down and he and Josiah would help Mary clean up.

In about an hour, JD came and cuddled up beside her, and the mother and son drifted off to sleep.

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Vin was annoyed that he had misjudged the condition of the trail. "She's stuck," the two men heard Vin yell out.

"What does he mean, stuck?" Ezra asked.

Chris dismounted and approached the wagon. It was painfully clear what Vin had meant; the wheels had fallen into a deep rut in the trail, and Peso was unable to pull the heavy load up the steep bank.

Larabee pushed with all his body weight, while Vin coaxed his horse forward, but the trailer was hopelessly wedged.

"Ya gonna help or what?" Chris looked up at Ezra, who was still sitting on Chaucer.

"You look to be doing a splendid job, Mr. Larabee," Standish quickly replied. He had absolutely no interest in risking being run over by an 800 pound wagon while wallowing in a muddy ditch.

"Ezra, get yer butt down here," Larabee glared.

Finally, with two men pushing and lifting, albeit one very reluctantly, on the wagon, Peso was able to get going again.

"Guess what boys?" Vin hollered back after about 20 minutes.

Chris and Ezra released a collective sigh. The two men dismounted and, once again, felt their back muscles protest as they shoved at the wooden tailgate. Vin nudged Peso until the horse finally got enough traction to haul the heavy wagon out of the hole.

"Why don't you guys go on ahead?" Tanner suggested once they were on the move again. He knew it was his horse, with the wagon in tow, that was making the journey so slow. "Reckon it's gonna take another hour before we catch up to the wagons, at this pace."

"Ain't leavin' ya out here by yourself, Vin," Chris quickly responded, "what if the wagon gets stuck again?"

"Trail's better from here on out," Vin replied.

Larabee shook his head, remembering that what Vin said was correct, "You can ride ahead if you want, Ezra. Might be a good idea to let everyone know we're fine and on our way."

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It was late, and JD was awakened by his mother thrashing and struggling for breath. The little boy immediately ran to get Nathan, and he and Josiah rushed to Emma's aid. The healer tried everything in his power, but the poor woman continued to fight for oxygen. Nathan could tell that she was weakening. Finally, her breaths slowed to only a gasp every minute or so, and Nathan knew she now needed Josiah more than she needed him. He begrudgingly stepped back, and let the preacher do his best to comfort her. JD stayed glued to his mother's side, and she tried to smile and be brave for her beautiful boy. She was so proud of him. It was nearly impossible to talk, but she put her hand over her heart and said, "care for JD…..tell Ezra….bye." Those were her last words. The beautiful, young mother had slipped away, just like that.

JD's huge hazel eyes looked up at Josiah, who was saying the Lord's Prayer, as if to say, "tell me it isn't true," but even at 7 years old he knew. The boy and Josiah stayed in the wagon with Emma, while the others stepped out to give JD more privacy. Buck didn't know what to do; he just stood outside and cried. His tears flowed….for the pain that JD was feeling right now and for his own mother's death just 8 short months ago. JD and Josiah emerged from the wagon, just as Ezra was riding up.

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Standish immediately realized that something was wrong. All of the people in the camp were standing outside one wagon, and as he got closer he saw Buck hugging JD and Mary Travis crying. It was in that same moment that Ezra's heart sank; he realized the only person missing was Emma. "Oh God!" he screamed, jumped down from his horse, and ran to find her.

Nathan tried to grab him and explain, but Ezra pushed the healer away and climbed up in the wagon.

Nathan didn't know what to say or do. He stood at the back of the wagon, without entering, in case Ezra needed him. The distraught man picked up Emma's hand and kissed it. He knew then that he had only just missed saying goodbye; her hand was still warm. All he could think was "How? Why? She was so young…..such a good person, and she had seemed fine earlier today." Nothing made sense. He had no idea how long he sat there with her, but Chris and Vin had arrived by the time he exited the wagon.

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Josiah had the unenviable task of informing Tanner and Larabee what had happened. Vin looked at the preacher like he had two heads and just said, "what!?" Chris' knees grew weak, and he sat on the ground where he stood, cross-legged and in shock. Larabee felt his eyes well up and three small tears escaped: one for JD, who had just lost his mother, one for Emma, who had left so much behind, and one for Ezra. Ezra…..

"Did Ezra make it back?" Chris looked up at the big preacher, "did he make it in time?"

Josiah shook his head, "no."

Chris took a deep breath, and stood just as Ezra stepped out the back of the wagon. Larabee would forever regret asking the gambler to ride along with them that night.

Nathan said, "Ezra, I'm so sorry," and tried to grab the man, but Ezra just kept walking. He mounted his horse and rode off into the night.

"Ezra!" a number of voices called after him, and Nathan started to mount his horse. Chris walked over and touched Nathan's arm.

"Let him go," Chris quietly said, "I'll go after him in a little while."

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Buck took JD away from the wagon, so it was just the two of them. He told JD about his ma and the night she died, he assured him that the men from Four Corners would take care of both of them, they discussed Heaven and what they both thought it must be like, but most of the time Buck just held JD and cried right along with the younger boy.

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Ezra rode his horse full-bore for about 30 minutes. Once he finally stopped, he realized that he had absolutely no idea where he was…..nor did he care.

Since it was so dark, Larabee had only waited about five minutes before riding after Standish. He hung back and didn't approach once Ezra stopped. He wanted to give the man as much time and privacy as he needed, but he also wanted someone to be close enough to keep an eye on him. You never knew how someone was going to respond in a situation like this. He certainly remembered having suicidal thoughts after his wife and son were killed.

If all Standish wanted to do was scream or curse or sit alone, then Chris would never make his presence known. If Ezra looked like he was going to harm himself or ride off, Larabee would intervene.

Chris could hear Ezra talking, although he was far enough away that he couldn't make out the words. He saw Standish pull out a bottle of whiskey and take a long draw. "I think you and I have a lot more in common than we give ourselves credit for Ezra," Chris said quietly. Getting good and drunk was Larabee's first inclination after burying his family as well.

After midnight, the skies opened up in a drenching rain. Somehow that seemed like the right time to let go, and the tears finally flowed from Ezra's eyes. He had already drunk more than half of the whiskey, so he was feeling quite unsteady. He sat on a rock and cried. "There was simply no sense in that at all," he said to the heavens. "Why couldn't it have been me instead?" Standish had cheated death more times than he could count, and yet someone up there had made sure that he always survived. Why save a conman and let a wonderful, young mother die? Ezra didn't think he would ever make sense of it. He would remember her sweet smile and beautiful eyes forever, but he would never understand why she had to be taken away. And she was taken so swiftly. It had taken less than a week for her to go from perfectly healthy to gone.

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That last thought was exactly what was running through Nathan Jackson's head, as he sat in the wagon with Josiah and Vin, listening to the rain pound on the canvas roof. Sure, he had seen plenty of folks die from pneumonia, but he had never seen someone deteriorate that quickly. Had he missed something? If he had started treating her earlier, could she have been saved? Now, he would never know, and he was going to have to live with the questions and doubts for the rest of his years. Nathan lay down and thought about his own losses - his mother years ago, his friends when he was a slave and in the war, and his father just a year earlier from consumption. He drifted off to sleep, wondering if Ezra would be angry with him when he returned.

Vin lay across the wagon from the healer. His body craved sleep, but his mind refused to rest. The Texan hoped Ezra would be ok, and his mind drifted back to his own mother's death. She was about the same age as Emma when she passed. Vin couldn't remember her in great detail anymore, but he had never forgotten her kind, blue eyes. No matter how long he lived, he would never understand why the best folks always seemed to die young.

Josiah was awake as well. He had prayed and pleaded for God to save Emma, while he sat in the wagon with her during that last hour. Alas, it was not to be, or at least that was what he was trying to convince himself as he stared at the ceiling of the wagon.

Mary Travis liked the sound of the rain. It generally helped her to sleep, but not tonight. The children had finally fallen asleep, and her heart was breaking for JD. Like her own son, Billy, the little boy had just lost his father a couple of years ago. Now his mother was gone as well. She knew he would be well taken care of, and she too would help in any way she could, but a mother's love was something that was very difficult to replace.

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Chris sat, watching Standish stumble around in the rain. At one point, Ezra tried to kick angrily at a rock, only to miss, slip, and fall on his behind in the mud. Standish simply sat there and laid his head on his knees. After maybe 15 minutes had passed, the gambler staggered to his saddle bag and pulled out a second bottle of whiskey. Chris knew it was time to make a move. Ezra could handle a fair amount of liquor for a man his size, but two bottles of the "good stuff" that Standish drank could kill him.

Larabee quietly walked up and grabbed the bottle from Ezra's grip. Standish immediately flew into a rage and punched their meddling leader in the face. Chris fell back on his butt, and the bottle rolled off into the bushes. Ezra got down and started looking through the dark thicket for his whiskey, and Larabee crawled over beside the gambler. "Ezra, we'll find it in the mornin.' Let's go sit and talk for a minute."

"NOOOO!" an in-human growl emerged from Standish's throat, and he plowed into Chris. The two men rolled and grappled in the mud for what seemed like an eternity. Heads and body parts were twisted and battered against trees and rocks. Chris knew it wasn't really him the man was fighting, so he tried his best not to hurt Standish…..but damn, Ezra fought dirty. At one point Standish was on Larabee's back with a handful of wet, blond hair, shoving his face right down into the thick mud of the forest floor. Chris had to do something or risk suffocation, so he elbowed his distraught friend in the stomach. Standish immediately rolled off, staggered a few steps away and became horribly sick in the bushes to his left.

Chris pushed himself off the ground, wiped mud off his face with a wet handkerchief, and proceeded to help support Standish until his stomach stopped heaving. Larabee then hoisted the shorter man to his feet, and the sopping gambler sat on a rock and put his bare head in his hands. Both men had lost their hats somewhere in the mud, during the earlier melee.

Chris was afraid to say anything; he didn't want to risk sending the man into another rage. He didn't blame Ezra at all for being angry, but he thought that his friend (and himself) probably had enough bumps, bruises, and scrapes for one night. He sat down on an adjacent rock and lightly rested his hand on Ezra's shoulder.

He couldn't discern tears from the incessant rain, but Larabee could see Ezra sobbing quietly. The two men remained in that same position for almost an hour, and daylight slowly started creeping into the forest. Finally, Ezra turned his face to look at Chris. The rain had washed most of the mud off of their faces, which now made the scrapes and bruises more apparent. Ezra could see that Larabee's left eye was going to be black in a few hours, and he could feel his own lip bleeding and starting to swell.

Chris finally broke the silence. "I'm so sorry about Emma."

"I still cannot believe it," the gambler said so quietly that Larabee had to strain to hear him over the rain.

"I know," Larabee squeezed Ezra's shoulder.

"I'm not sure I can pull through this," Standish said louder. "How did you ever get over it?" referring to the death of Larabee's own wife and son.

"Ya don't," Chris ran a hand through his wet hair, "I ain't gonna lie Ezra; you won't ever be the same again. It makes ya afraid of gettin' close to anyone."

After a couple minutes of silence, Chris continued, "but there are always gonna be folks – me, Vin, Nathan, Josiah," Chris paused and swallowed back a lump in his own throat, "JD, Buck – who care about you and will try their damnedest to break through that barrier...no matter how much you try to push them away...or how drunk and angry you get."

Ezra laughed. For two people who disagreed on more occasions than not, he and Larabee sure had a lot in common when it came to mourning.

"Nothing can bring Emma back, but yer friends make life bearable again," Chris looked right into Ezra's green eyes, "at least you and the boys have done that for me."

Larabee stood and put a hand out to Ezra. "Now, come on. Let's get your muddy, drunk ass back to the wagons."

Standish shakily mounted his horse, while Chris recovered their mud-encrusted hats and Ezra's second bottle of whiskey with a trembling hand of his own. Damn, it had been a long night. Larabee was spent, physically and emotionally, and he knew Ezra had to be as well. The darkly-dressed man uncorked the bottle and took a long drink. He then returned the bottle to Ezra's saddlebag, and the two of them headed back to find their friends. Chris stayed within arm’s reach, in case the inebriated man started to slide from his mount.

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The wagons were ready to hit the trail, and Vin said, "how're ya doin' Ezra?" as he helped the man dismount.

"I've been better, Mr. Tanner," Standish replied honestly, "how is JD?"

"He had a rough night, but he and Buck finally fell asleep. He knows we'll take care of 'im...and be his family now, and I hope ya know the same."

Chris shook his head in agreement with Vin's sentiment and escorted Ezra to a wagon. "Why don't ya try to get some sleep? Should make it back to Four Corners by tonight."

Ezra could feel his emotions threatening to overtake him once again, so he simply crawled into the wagon and closed his eyes. He saw Emma, walking towards him in a white dress, holding a beautiful bouquet of flowers. Just as she got close enough to touch, Standish's exhausted mind and body finally allowed him to fall asleep and continue the wonderful dream.

 

Chapter 10:

Ezra opened his eyes and immediately regretted it. It seemed there wasn't any part of his body that didn't hurt, but his pounding head was at the forefront of his attention. Why had he drunk so much? What kind of behemoth had he fought to make him so sore?

Then the memory hit him like a ton of bricks: Emma, his beautiful Emma, was gone. When he squinted and peered out the back of the wagon, he saw the familiar sign for Bucklin's Hardware - he was back in Four Corners.

He startled when JD's face suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

"Hi Ezra," the boy cautiously said.

"JD," Ezra wasn't really sure he was up to it yet but he said, "please come in."

Standish sat up and JD climbed in. Ezra was surprised when the boy plopped down in his lap.

"How are you feelin'?" JD asked the bruised, scratched, and hungover man, and Ezra instantly felt ashamed.

"I am fine, JD," Ezra turned the boy around to face him, "how are you faring?"

"I'm ok," the 7-year-old answered, and Ezra thought he somehow seemed smaller, more fragile, than he remembered.

"Ezra?" the boy clearly had something on his mind.

"Yes?"

"Can I give you a hug?"

Without hesitation, Ezra grabbed the boy in a tight embrace and watched as his own tears dropped onto the top of the boy's head. He knew JD was crying as well.

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After a few minutes, and once Standish had mostly regained his composure, he let go and asked, "would you consider staying with me, JD?" The boy immediately broke into a huge grin, even through the tears.

Lord, how he looked like his mother. Ezra knew this was going to be one of the hardest things he had ever done, but there was no doubt that he loved this little boy.

"There is nothin' I want more," JD answered, and then grew serious again and said, "well, except having my ma back…..."

"Oh, how I wish I could give that to you," Ezra picked up the boy and climbed out onto the sunny streets of town.

Buck was waiting outside with Chris, and Ezra said, "go on and play with Buck. I have a few matters to attend to."

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"How ya doin' Ezra?" Chris winced in sympathy as he greeted the obviously hung-over man. In addition to the pounding headache, Ezra had a swollen lip and a large scrape across his forehead from the night before.

"A little better," Standish looked back at his battered friend and said, "thank you for saving me from myself last night." Chris' left eye wasn't terribly swollen, but it was surrounded by a dark, purple bruise. Their leader still bore the cut on his forehead from the "Indian" joke, and he had a large scrape across his right cheek.

"Anytime," Larabee responded sincerely, and Ezra knew that the blond meant it.

Standish took a deep breath and said, "I suppose I should make arrangements…for Emma's funeral."

"I already talked to the undertaker," Chris replied. "I'd be more than happy to make arrangements for you…..if ya don't feel up to it."

"Thank you, but no," Ezra closed his eyes for a moment to try to get his headache under control, "it is something I need to do."

Chris shook his head, "just let me know if there's anything I can do." Chris ducked a couple of inches to lock his own green eyes with Standish's, "really, anything."

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Chris realized later that Ezra was right to do the arrangements himself. Emma's service was perfect, right down to the special-ordered flowers from Boston. Larabee could only guess that Emma must have told Ezra those were her favorites.

One evening, just a couple of days after Emma's funeral, Nathan found Standish alone in the saloon. "Ezra," the healer approached, "may I sit down?"

"Certainly, Mr. Jackson," Standish pulled out a chair for Nathan.

"I gotta ask, Ezra," Nathan had been trying to work up the nerve to have this conversation for a week now. "Do ya think I coulda done more? Ya know, to save Emma? I keep thinkin' about the days before, and..."

"Nathan," Ezra interrupted. "I wholeheartedly believe that you did all you could for Emma. Please don't berate yourself any further."

The healer dipped his head in thanks. He appreciated and believed what Ezra had said...but he didn't really feel any better. Maybe he had come here looking for a fight with Standish - thinking he would have to defend himself. Then maybe he too would have believed his argument? It took Nathan a long time, and a lot of successfully-treated patients, to gain his confidence back.

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The peacekeepers and town folks kept a close eye on Ezra for the first month. If Standish was having a rough day, was drinking heavily, or clearly needed some time alone, Chris, Vin, Josiah, or Mary kept JD for a day or two.

The gambler slowly learned to better cope with his loss, and he and JD began to spend more and more time together. It somehow wasn't the same sitting by the creek with Chris or Josiah, watching Buck and JD splash in the water, but he appreciated what his friends had done and were trying to do for him.

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Emma owned a satchel that she always carried with her. Mary Travis had given it to Standish immediately upon their return to Four Corners, but he hadn't opened the bag until now - almost two months after Emma's death. When he did, he was shocked to find an envelope that said "Ezra." The gambler sat on the bed inside of his rented room, by himself, and just stared at the white enclosure. Finally, he took a deep breath, unfolded the flap and pulled out the beautifully-handwritten note.

"My dearest Ezra,

Where do I begin? I suppose if you are reading this, then the doctors were correct. I had so much hope that I could prove them wrong, that the clean, dry air of the west could cure me, but it seems that was not the case. No one in Boston could ever fully explain my condition: an improperly-formed lung, a mass, or an incurable infection, but they all agreed it was unlikely that I would live to see my son's 8th birthday.

I don't know what you must be thinking, reading this. I am so very sorry that I deceived you, but please believe me that the deception was only regarding my health. My feelings for you were 100% honest and true.

You are such a wonderful man, Ezra, and from the first day that I met you, I knew I wanted to spend whatever time I had left with you…. you and my boy. You were so caring, thoughtful, and beautiful – inside and out. Even after such a short courtship, I already knew that I loved you, and I believe you felt the same.

Maybe it was cruel or selfish of me to allow us to fall in love, knowing that I wouldn't be around. I hope that you don't see it that way. Please know that you made my life so much richer just by knowing you for the short time that I did.

I know it is a lot to ask, but I hope you will consider looking after JD for me. I watched the two of you together, and I saw a strong bond develop. I know that you would make a fine father.

I lived a good life, and I truly believe that we will meet again someday. I know that my death will be hard for you and JD, but I want – I need – for you both to move on with your lives and be happy.

I will forever be your guardian angel.

Love,

Emma"

Ezra didn't know what to feel. Sadness? Shock? Anger? In spite of his mixed-up emotions, deep down he knew that she was right. Had he known about her condition, their relationship would have been focused on finding a doctor to make her well and not on sitting idly by the creek and getting to know her and her little boy.

How could she keep such a terrible secret? Did he tell his fellow peacekeepers or take the knowledge to his own grave? Would knowing about Emma's condition make Nathan feel better about her death? Why, in her last days, hadn't she said something? Did the end come faster than she expected? He wondered how long ago she had written the letter.

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He put the envelope in his pocket and walked to the saloon. Larabee was sitting by himself, and Standish walked up and dropped the letter on the table.

"What this?" the older man asked.

"Just read it," Ezra abruptly answered.

Chris pulled out the letter, read it, and placed it back in the envelope. "Wow," was all he could say.

Ezra sat down and both men ordered a drink. "Why on earth would she pick me?"

Larabee raised blond eyebrows as if to say, "what?"

"Why would any dying woman in her right mind chose to spend her last days with someone like me…and appoint him the father of her son?"

"Think you're sellin' yourself a bit short there, Ezra?" Chris downed his shot of whiskey, and Standish did the same.

"Come on Chris," Ezra so rarely used his first name that it made Larabee pay close attention when he did, "if you were dying, would you choose me to take care of Buck. I would probably be last on your list behind Misters Tanner, Jackson, and Sanchez. What…what did she see in me?"

"I think you allowed her to see somethin'," Chris smiled, "a side of yourself that you don't let the rest of us see." Larabee paused and Standish continued to stare at him. "Ezra, you're a good man. We all know that, despite your valiant efforts to hide it. And as far as judgin' who would and wouldn't make the best father, I don't think I'm at all qualified. If one of the town's folks was lookin' for a good father for their kid, I think I would be even further down the list than you."

Standish poured himself and Chris another drink and said, "a toast…..to the two most unlikely fathers in Four Corners!"

THE END 

 


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