Gathering the Flock

by KT

AU - Lost Lambs

Chapter 17
Ezra curled in on himself and cried out silently in agony as another wave of cramps hit, there should have been tears but his body could no longer spare the moisture for crying, and there was no sound because his mouth was so dry. He had become so desperate for water that he had groped and stumbled his way around the room to find the source of the dripping sound he had heard. The water was meagre; it formed a rather dank mouldy patch on the floor, turning the all-pervasive coal dust into black sludge. He tried to lie under the drip so as to catch the water in his mouth as it fell, but in the pitch darkness it was hard to judge where it was, especially since his brain was sluggish and slow from lack of food and water. In the end he cupped his filthy hands under the slow fall of water and lapped each precious drop from them. This was the end of the cellar the rats used as a run between the outside and the kitchens. They weren't interested in Ezra; he was too big, too alive and too dangerous, when the kitchens and orchard offered such easy pickings. Nevertheless they ran close by him, the stench of their droppings was almost overpowering a times.

Ezra no longer cared about getting out, or food, or light, or being clean and dry; he just wanted a drink, that was all he cared about now - a drink. With no noise to speak of and no light he had no notion of the passing of time, and believed he had been in the cellar a day or so, one and a half at most, when in fact it was more than three. His efforts to distract his mind had been successful at first but as the thirst and the pain had got worse he could no longer concentrate on anything.

"Make it stop! Make it stop!" he begged silently as the cramp came again.

+ + + + + + +

Buck Wilmington paced restlessly up and down by his truck waiting for the other car to arrive. He had driven though the night like a man possessed to reach Stockwell by two in the afternoon. Finally, just when he was about to give up and go in alone, the pair of large black cars drew up one behind the other in the drive entrance to Stockwell. From one emerged the Judge, from the other two men dressed in dark suits, one older than Buck and one about his age.

"Hello your honour," Buck greeted formally. He didn't know who the other men were and he didn't want to compromise the Judge by giving away how personally involved with the case he was.

"Deputy Sheriff Wilmington, may I introduce US Marshals Ford and Hawks." Clearly Buck had been right to address the Judge formally. Ford was indicated to be the older of the two men. "Gentlemen," the Judge continued, "the deputy can identify the man who we suspect tried to kill him and also a boy within the building we believe is in danger and in need of protection." He turned to Buck. "Deputy Wilmington, your role is that of witness and observer, do I make myself clear!"

There had been some heated late-night phone calls to Travis to set up this visit. There evidence was slim, but Buck was convinced that Ezra was in danger and Chris had long ago learnt to trust his instincts, if Buck said something was wrong you believed him and acted accordingly. Who went to fetch Ezra was settled when Vin, awakened by all the activity, began to panic at the thought of Chris going not only so far away but to Stockwell of all places. Buck insisted he would go, JD would no doubt be upset but he would be all right with Chris to take care of him.

"Yes your honour, I understand," Buck agreed meekly. "And if that boy has been harmed I'll rip the bastard who done it limb form limb!" he swore silently.

To start with the visit went well, they were shown to Rance's office. Buck was disappointed to find he was not the man he had seen yesterday. They asked to see Ethan Salter. If Rance was worried that Wilmington had turned up looking for Ethan he didn't show it. This was when things stared to change. Rance told them he was sorry to report that Ethan had run away. Buck wasn't sure, Ezra certainly was capable of running away, he had a good motive after all, but it just didn't ring true with Buck. Rance co-operated and had the boys assembled. Buck looked them over and all the staff, not finding either of people he was looking for. They searched the whole building, but since there were only three of them it took some time. The face that they were after one of the staff was not mentioned. Monroe had no reason to hide from Buck, he had met him face to face only the day before and there had not been the slightest spark of recognition. That said Monroe wasn't actually there, he was due to come back at any time, in the truck loaded with illegal booze. And this did worry Rance. He had not counted on the Marshals searching so thoroughly and taking so long.

But in the end the search found nothing. They were about to go when a boy grabbed Buck’s arm, he wasn't to know it but the boy was Sid. For all he had done to Vin he was still just a boy of fifteen; he might use smaller boys, even let his goons rough them up some, but Ethan had been straight with him, shown him a few good card cheats, he didn't deserve to be locked up and forgotten.

"Mister!" he hissed at Buck.

Buck stopped but did not look around. "Yeah?" he whispered back.

"Look in the cellar."

Buck turned to say they had, but the boy was already walking away. His intuition working full out Buck went back to Ford.

"We need to recheck the cellar," he said quietly.

"We looked there; you looked there, Wilmington; face it, the boy ran," Ford retorted.

"No, no he didn't, Ezra wouldn't do that." Until then he hadn't actually believed it, but he did now, he just knew that Ezra would do as they had agreed, and he believed the boy who had spoken to him. "I'm going even if you're not!" With that he set off again for the cellar.

+ + + + + + +

Buck tried to remember the layout of the building as he explored down below. Eventually Ford followed him along with a guard called Simmons. They had covered almost all of the basement, just as before. Finally they reached the section Buck reckoned was under the kitchen. He stood looking at the far wall, then as Ford watched, the big deputy paced from the door to the end wall and back. He repeated the action in the room on the other side under the dining room. Then he went back to the first room.

"It's too short," he stated. He turned to the guard. "Well?" The man just shrugged.

Buck went back to the wall; he began to pull at the packing cases, and broken furniture. It took no more then a few minutes to reveal a heavy steel door, a locked door.

"You!" Buck pointed at the man. "Open it!"

"I…I can't sir, I don't have a key." Before he could say more Buck had him by the lapels and hoisted him up against the wall. "Who does?" The man shook his head.

Ford put a hand on Buck's shoulder, but he shook it off. "If that boy dies you'll be an accessory to murder, now where is the key?" he demanded.

"Monroe or Rance, I swear only they have the key," he gasped out.

Buck turned on Ford. "Stay here!" Technically Ford was in charge, but the dark venom in Buck's voice was compelling, and he nodded curtly as Buck left.

+ + + + + + +

Buck tore along the length of the basement up the narrow stairs and literally charged into Rance's office where Hawks was standing watch.

"KEY!" he bellowed as he bore down on Rance. "Where's the fucking key?"

Rance backed up. "Sir I have no idea what you're talking about? What key?"

"The key to that room in the cellar, the room where you have a defenceless boy locked up! Now where is it?" By now Buck's hands were around the man's neck.

"Marshall," Rance implored.

Hawks moved forward, but backed off again once he got a look at Buck's eyes. There was a wild look in them he didn't want any part of.

"Deputy!" Travis' voice cut through the silent exchange between Buck and Hawks.

Buck released some of the pressure but did not release Rance as he told Travis all he knew. Travis' eyes drifted from Buck to Rance. "Orin!" Buck implored, all pretence that their relationship was purely professional gone.

"Buck, release him now. Marshall, search Mr. Rance."

+ + + + + + +

As Buck slotted the key in the lock his hands trembled. "Please let him be in here," he pleaded mostly to himself.

Once the door was opened, Ford handed him a flashlight, and made to follow him.

"No I'll go." With that Buck moved into the dark space.

The flashlight illuminated a large room with a low roof, there were some boxes in the centre and some more broken furniture. The floor was covered in black coal dust, in one corner was a rotting pile of wood. Slowly he circled the room sweeping the flashlight beam in front of him. As he reached the far corner behind the pile of furniture, he stopped dead as his light found a form lying before him. Ezra was curled up on his side, both hands wrapped around his stomach.

"Oh no!" Buck ran forward dropping to his knees. Gently he rolled Ezra over to confirm it was him. "Oh Lord no…come here son…I got you." Buck put down the light and gathered Ezra up onto his lap as he knelt there.

Marshal Ford came in with his own light, which now illuminated the pair. He stood in horrified silence as Buck laid a hand on Ezra's chest, relieved to feel its rise and fall, Ford watched on as Buck tried to rouse Ezra.

"Ezra? Come on son, it's Deputy Wilmington from Four Corners…" No response. Buck gently patted Ezra's grimy face. "Come on son, talk to me, let's hear some of them fancy words."

Ezra's eyes fluttered and opened, he gazed up at Buck, and eventually there was a spark of recognition. His lips began to move but there was no discernible sound. Bending low Buck put his ear close to Ezra's still moving lips.

"Evidence," Ezra whispered out. "Safe…evidence…books…garage…murder you…garage truck…look in truck…Vin!" Suddenly he moved, trying to sit up in Buck's arms.

Buck stayed him. "Rest easy son, I got ya, yer safe now, ol' Buck won't let them get you, yer safe boy," he reassured.

But a look of desperation came over Ezra, a stronger resolve. "No…Vin, Monroe… he…wants Vin back!" he gasped loud enough for even Ford to hear.

"Hush, hush we know, he tried, that's how I knew to come get you, Vin is safe with Chris, don't fret now son, just rest, it all over now, yer safe I got ya."

This soft litany of reassurance accompanied by Buck's gently rhythmic rocking, melted away Ezra's last hold on consciousness and he slipped into a mercifully pain-free swoon. Once he had gone limp Buck stood without letting him go, and carrying him in his arms with Ezra's head resting on his shoulders and his legs dangling over Buck's arm, he was carried out of the cellar and into the main building. From the looks some of the staff gave Buck as he passed, they might have guessed what was going on, but had never confronted the reality of it. As he passed below the main stairs Buck looked up at the dozens of hauntingly thin young faces looking down through the grill at him and his burden, each young face betraying the fact that they knew that 'there but for the grace of God…'. Using his boot he kicked the office door open to confront both Travis and Rance with the reality of what had so nearly happened. There was a moment when time stood still. Buck, his eyes brimming with tears, stood staring at Rance, hatred writ large in every fibre of his being. Rance looked on, unable or unwilling to break eye contact with Buck but never once looking directly at Ezra. It was Travis who regained some composure first.

"In there." He pointed at the half open door to the private living area. "There’s a bed and a bathroom."

Buck hesitated; he didn’t want to let Rance out of his sight, not even for a second.

"He’s not going any place, take care of Ezra." Rance’s eyes suddenly darted to Travis at the use of Ezra’s real name, but he said nothing.

"Look in the safe, an’ there’s a garage some place needs checking. The man we want may well be called Monroe and in the truck heading here."

Suddenly Rance seemed to come to his senses and made a run for the door, with Ezra still in his arms there was nothing Buck could do to stop him as he barrelled past the Judge only to run into Marshall Ford who had been following in Buck’s wake.

"I don’t think you’re going anyplace sir," the tough lawman growled, as he cuffed Rance none too gently. Then he looked up at a grateful Wilmington. "How’s the boy?"

"He’ll be better for knowing that bastard is locked up, thanks," Buck replied as he carried Ezra into the living area.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra became aware of voices. That in itself was new, he had only had his own voice for company for such a long time. He was lying some place soft and dry and warm. Something cool and wet was moving across his face. Though he didn’t open his eyes whoever was washing him stopped and he felt his head being raised up.

"Come on now, time for a little more water," a soft deep voice said, as the cup was pressed to his lips he swallowed eagerly. "Gently, just a little at a time," the voice warned. Ezra became aware that what he was drinking was sweet and just a little salty. He decided to risk opening his eyes. The face beside him beamed, dark blue eyes twinkled at him.

"Well now, ain’t that good t’ see. Welcome back, you’re alright, yer safe now," Buck reassured.

"You came," Ezra breathed out.

All his life he had been dumped and left behind, unwanted extra baggage in his mother's life until he was convenient or profitable. He expected it, assumed he would be dumped again. To begin with he had believed in the integrity of the men he had struck his desperate bargain with, but after hours in the dark and the cold his fragile faith had been eaten away. An yet there he was, Deputy Wilmington, large as life; he had a vague memory of the big lawman coming into the dark place to bring him to the light but it was hard to concentrate.

"’Cause I came, we’d not leave you here. Now come on drink some more." Buck lifted Ezra again so he could drink. Although he swallowed he screwed up his nose at the taste. "I know it tastes funny - the doc we spoke to said it was best to put sugar an’ salt in it, sorry."

Ezra drank on and off for an hour before he fell asleep again. Travis had persuaded Rance to open his safe. He pointed out that he could get a search warrant so he was just putting off the inevitable. The Judge had called in extra Marshals, a doctor was on his way with a pair of nurses. The social services were also on their way with extra staff. Ford had searched for and found the garage, along with the evidence of illicit alcohol. Investigations found not only the fresh food that was going to be wasted on camouflaging bootleg booze, but also the delicacies in the pantry, and on the Judge’s orders a proper two-course hot meal was made for the boys. When Ezra woke again he found a strange man had joined Buck, and was looking at him with a mixture of pity and anger.

"Ezra this is Doctor Johnson, he's gonna check you out, alright?" Buck explained quietly as Ezra blinked at him blearily.

"Well doctor?" Buck asked as the two of them exited the bedroom half an hour later.

"He should be fine, keep up the fluids, with the sugar and salt in it for another day at least, some soup or broth would help, not to mention a good bath. He is very lucky there was some water down there, let us pray it is not also his misfortune."

Buck frowned at him. "Meaning?"

"You say there are rats in the cellar?" Buck nodded. "Nasty things rats, carry nasty things not all of them understood, few have a reliable cure."

"But you said he'd be fine," Buck accused.

"He said, Buck, that Ezra should be fine, not that he will be," Travis interjected in order to defuse Buck’s mounting anger. It was anger with those responsible for Ezra and Vin's suffering but the poor doctor was about to bear the brunt of it.

"There are no symptoms as yet, but these things can lie dormant, just keep a good eye on him," Johnson explained.

"How long before he's in the clear?" Buck asked.

"A week? Ten days to be sure, like I say nasty things rats, least he wasn't bit."

+ + + + + + +

Buck and Ezra set out for Four Corners the next day after Ezra had given a long and detailed statement. He had been able to identify the third man, the one who collected the envelope and whisky as the federal agent who had searched the cells at Four Corners while he was their. This proved that Chris and Buck were innocent of any collusion with the bootleggers. Buck and Ezra arrived just in time for supper. Ezra slept on and off for the whole trip and looked ready for bed as soon as he had carefully eaten the stew he was offered, made to Eve Travis' excellent recipe. Ezra had been very quiet all evening, and after asking him how he was, both Vin and JD had also been subdued. Vin knew what the cellar was like and he understood how Ezra felt, JD took his lead from Vin.

The next morning Ezra woke to find he was alone, he looked around the small airy attic, noting that the door was standing wide open. It was Vin who had instructed Chris firmly that Ezra must have the door left open. Sunlight streamed in though the windows, which also stood wide open, a warm breeze blew in, the sounds and smells of early summer carried with it. He had a headache still, but his belly had not cramped up on him since yesterday. He crept down stairs having dressed in fresh clothes from his own small case which he found freshly laundered and folded neatly on the small dresser.

Downstairs JD and Vin were playing outside, chasing around throwing handfuls of hay at each other, while Buck watched from the porch. "Hello sleepyhead," Buck said gently.

"Good morning sir, I believe I have slept very late, do forgive me." From the look of things it was close to noon.

"No need to apologise, you need your rest, doctor’s orders remember. You ready to eat in a little while?"

Ezra said he was. Then he sat down next to Buck on the step. "Deputy Wilmington?" he began.

"Ezra, m' name is Buck, please try to use it, okay?"

"Yes sir…depu…Buck. Buck, what will happen to me?"

Wilmington looked down at him. "To be honest lad I don't know. The judge has dropped all charges so you're not going to jail or anything like that. You have no family except your mother?"

"I think I have a grandfather, but I don't know where and I don't know what his name is."

"What do you want to happen Ezra, what would make you happy?"

Ezra looked out at the two boys playing. He knew what he wanted. He wanted to be like them, happy, secure, wanted, loved. But there was no point asking for what he could never have.

"I don't want to have to keep moving, I want to stay in one place," he finally said.

"Well, we shall see what we can do, come on, let’s get those two washed up and have some lunch."

Ezra improved rapidly, his strength came back but both Chris and Buck noted, not his spirit, the five dollar words were few and far between, he didn't complain or whine, he didn't even play cards. Mostly he just sat, sometimes on the porch but mostly in the hayloft or on the roof of the porch.

+ + + + + + +

Travis came to visit on the fourth night; he had bad news, which he kept until the boys were in bed.

"I'm sorry but we can't find this man Monroe, man must be part eel, slipped right though our fingers. We did find a still, seems they were importing decent whisky from Canada, then mixing it with some home-made stuff distilled from apples, somewhere along the line the process went bad, poisoned people."

Chris thought on the implications. "On what charges is he sought?"

"Buck's attempted murder, Ezra's unlawful imprisonment and attempted murder, bootlegging, they'll do for starters."

"And if you catch him what do you need to convict him?" Chris wanted to know.

"Testimony," Travis admitted. "Yours," he looked at Buck. "And Ezra's."

"And he's out there someplace, knowing only Buck and Ezra can convict him," Chris pointed out.

"I'm afraid so," the Judge admitted.

"You didn't catch him?" The sudden small voice from behind them made all the adults turn around. Ezra stood in the doorway in his nightclothes staring at them ashen faced.

Travis stepped froward. "No son, I'm sorry, we didn't, we tried but he gave us the slip, chances are by now he's over the border into Canada and we'll never see him again."

"You're not going to look for him?" Ezra was now trembling visibly.

"Hell yes!" Buck interjected. "They're gonna keep looking alright, but the Judge is right he'll be long gone from here. Now," his voice softened, "let's get you back to bed, you're looking a mite worn there son."

With Ezra safely out of earshot Chris turned back to Travis. "What are we going to do with him? I mean, he's got no family, he hasn't exactly got an unblemished record, no respectable family will take him on especially at his age."

"Are you sure he doesn't have a family?" the Judge asked.

"No he told us, his mom was the only…" Then Chris caught the amused expression on Travis' face.

"Oh no, we have two already, we don't have time for three, besides two ain't exactly cheap to feed and clothe you know?" Chris wasn't sure he wanted to win the argument but he felt compelled to put up some resistance, he was just grateful Buck was upstairs, he would put up no resistance at all.

"You will get state money if you foster Ezra, Vin too when it is made official, you have the room and he's old enough to watch the other two for you when needed."

Chris eyed his friend. "You've thought about all this haven't you? Damn! I bet you were a good lawyer."

"The best," Travis affirmed with no modesty.

Buck returned.

"How is he?" Chris asked.

"Scared, he's looking awful pale again, might get Nate out to him tomorrow. You know," he turned to Travis as he spoke, "if the loggers hadn't had a doctor here this summer we would have been in real problems, this town needs its own doctor."

"Nothing I'd like more but you know as well as me it don't pay enough for a full time doctor, folk around here just don't have the money." Travis wanted a doctor for the town as much as anyone, but there just seemed no way around the problem.

"What about the third deputy?" Chris asked. Before either of the others could answer he went on to explain. "The county voted money for a part-time deputy right?"

"Right," Wilmington and Travis affirmed.

"But we can't find one and when we need Josiah he won't take any money, right?"


"So the money just sits there, accumulating interest?"

"True," Travis admitted.

"So why don't we spend it on a Doctor, pay him a retainer to stay, provide him with an office and the equipment. I mean, the old doctor’s office is still there, just needs fixing up, there must be about six years of money accumulated by now, that should fit the place up good with all the latest stuff, and when we need him we can also deputise him. Nate would come, I know he would."

"You've been thinking about this haven't you!" Travis returned. "Okay I'll look into it, but…well, Jackson? Is that a good idea, you know how some folk are."

"Hey, they got a problem let 'um trek all the way down the valley, ain't no one stopping them!" Buck interjected angrily.

"Damn straight!" Chris agreed.

+ + + + + + +

That night Buck and Chris were both woken by the sound of Ezra stumbling into the bathroom and vomiting into the toilet. This continued on and off all night. To save him the walk upstairs between bouts Buck had him lie on his bed, since it was closest to the bathroom. By morning even the dry heaves had passed, now he just lay curled up in the middle of Buck's big bed sweating profusely. Buck sat on the edge of the bed holding a cool towel to his forehead as Chris looked on.

"He's burning up Chris; we need Nathan," Buck implored.

"I've called, Josiah is on his way to get him. What do you think is wrong?"

Buck explained about the doctor's warning about the rats in the cellar. The fever rose alarmingly fast, and nothing Nathan could do would bring it down. In the morning Josiah took Vin and JD out with him, leaving Buck and Nathan with Ezra while Chris went into town for a short time.

"Shouldn't we take him to hospital?" Buck asked.

"It's too far, weak as he is, it would do more harm than good, ain't nothing they can do that we're not doing now." Nathan looked back down at the thirteen-year-old. Ezra tossed and turned and occasionally he muttered things.

As the day progressed, his fever continued to rise until it reached one hundred and six, then it planed out. In the evening, after supper, Josiah brought the boys back. They stood in the doorway to Buck's room, watching Buck try to cool Ezra down.

"Is Ezra gonna get better," Vin asked.

Buck looked up, noting Vin had hold of his little brother’s hand.

"I hope so, we're gonna do our best to help him, all of us." Buck said calmly.

Just then Ezra began to mutter again. "No, Mother, don't go, I'll be good…please don't leave me…please Mother, don't go…don’t go."

Chris came and knelt down between Vin and JD. "Chris?" Vin asked.


"Did Ezra's mom die too, like ours did?"

Chris realised both boys were watching him intently. "No boys she didn't die, she left him behind."

JD frowned at Chris; surely he had it wrong. "No Chris, mammas don't leave their kids, they look after them, they only go when the doctor takes them to God," he stated with the certainty only five year olds possess.

"Yeah JD, they do, sometimes mammas leave their kids, I knowed lots a kids in Stockwell and other places who's mammas jist left m' behind," Vin said quietly to his young friend.

This was too much for JD. His belief in mothers as saints was part of his very being, his mother had gone to God because she was a very special person who God wanted near him, it wasn't right for a mother to leave her child for any other reason. "No Vin! No, mammas don't do that, they don't leave their babies 'less they have t' go t' God!" Tears began to fall, as he pulled away from Vin and ran into the bedroom seeking the only person who understood and could make it better. Buck had ignored the doctor’s warning about lifting things when he carried Ezra from the cellar, so he figured one small brother made no difference now as he picked JD up then hugged him close. JD cried and wept for his mother as he had never done before. Chris took over caring for Ezra as Buck carried JD into his bedroom. The two of them sat on the bed with Buck gently rocking JD for over an hour until JD was cried out and fell asleep. Vin was confused as to how he was meant to feel. He was sorry Ezra's mom was mean to him, he wished his mom were still alive but in truth he couldn't really remember her. He had long ago forgotten the intensity of pain JD was still dealing with. Deciding he wasn't involved in these emotions he set about being useful and helping out. Since Buck had fallen asleep beside JD on the boy's bed, Chris bedded Vin down in his bed before he went back to keep watch over Ezra.

"Chris?" Vin asked as Chris tucked him in. "Do dads just leave their kids behind like Ezra's mom?"

"Oh help!" thought Chris. "Here we go."

"Well yes, some do, it's like I told you before; life is more complicated when you grow up, that's why it takes so long to grow up."

"Do you think my Pa left me and mom behind?" he asked. If anything he just sounded curious, rather than hurt.

"I don't know, maybe, we'll never know. I told you once and I'll say it again. You, Vincent James Tanner, are a very fine young man, and any man would be proud to call you son, nothing you did could have made him leave, if - and it is if - he did leave. After all Vin, you were very small when he left, your mom might not have wanted to tell you the truth, maybe he had an accident, maybe he got sick, we just don't know do we?"

"Chris, are you proud of me?"

Chris thought his heart would explode right there and then he was so proud of Vin. "Oh yes, Vin, I'm proud of you." He knelt beside the bed and leant over to kiss Vin's forehead. "I couldn't be more proud of you if you were my own son."

"Buck told me his name was Adam, and he died, him and his mamma, I'm sorry they left you…I wasn't meant to talk to you about them. I'm sorry."

Chris studied the crystal clear blue eyes before him, so honest, so strong, so caring. "It's alright, we can talk about him."

"Do you miss them a lot?"

"Yes." Tears unbidden spilled over to run down his cheeks. Vin reached out one slender finger to wipe them away.

"It alright to cry, Buck cries sometime when he's watching JD sleep, he don't know I'm awake, you won't tell him will you?"

"No…no I won't tell…Vin, he was my son and I loved him, but I can love more than one son, and I love you as well as him." The tears now fell more freely.

Vin pushed back the covers and knelt up on the bed. He reached out and put his arms around Chris as far as they would go. "I love you too," he whispered in Chris' ear as he held him tight and even rubbed his back, just like Chris did for him when he was upset.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan came back after evening surgery at the camp not long after Vin went to bed. Ezra no longer had the energy to toss or mutter. He just lay there, limp, drenched in perspiration, his breathing rapid and shallow.

"I wish I knew what was wrong, clearly it's some kind of infection, most likely from them rats Buck told us about. His heart is under a lot of strain; if'n the fever don't break soon I don't know if he'll have the strength to go on," he warned darkly.

It was nearly one when the phone rang. Chris ran to answer it. Only a short while later he came back into the bedroom where Nathan was attempting to get Ezra to drink.

"That was Josiah, there's been some kind of accident up at the camp, you have to go," Chris explained.

Nathan put down the cup. "Sorry, but they do pay my wages, try to keep him cool, see if you can get some fluids into him, I'll come back as soon as I can."

When Chris came back into the bedroom after seeing Nathan off he found Buck sitting beside the bed sponging Ezra down. He looked up imploringly at Chris. But Larabee just shook his head. He went on to explain what Nathan had said, and the probable outcome if the fever didn't break. Buck insisted he was awake now and Chris should get some rest while he took care of Ezra for a spell. Chris gratefully accepted. He very gently lifted Vin and placed him in the bed next to JD, then he lay down and fell into a fitful sleep.

+ + + + + + +

What woke Chris some three hours later he would never know, but he did wake and something made him get up and check on the boys. Both Vin and JD were asleep; both had their toy horses clutched in their hands as they slept. Then he proceeded to the next room. To his surprise, even horror, it was empty! A quick search failed to reveal Buck or Ezra. Panicking now, Chris ran out onto the porch, visions of the two of them murdered or kidnapped flooded his mind. He pulled up short as he saw a figure walking slowly away from the house in the moonlight.

Buck was carrying Ezra's limp form in his arms, just as he had in the cellar. "Oh no, oh God no! Don't let him be dead!" Chris mind raced to the worst case scenario to explain his friend's actions. Frozen in fear he peered into the black moon shadows where Buck had disappeared.

"Mamma?" The sudden small voice behind him made Chris jump.

He turned and looked down to find JD standing there rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. Then heedless of Chris’ presence he walked forward and sat on the step. Chris wondered if he was sleepwalking, and carefully sat beside him.

"I heard mamma calling me," JD stated in a small voice. "Listen."

And he did listen, and what he heard was someone singing, it certainly wasn't JD's mom, this was a male voice, a baritone. And it wasn't English he was singing in, as the sound got closer Chris recognised it as Cajun. Buck didn't have a bad singing voice, so long as he kept within his rather limited range it was quiet acceptable. Of course, drunk it was ear-splittingly loud and tuneless, but this was quite pleasant. Chris became aware that JD was also singing. His little voice matching his brother who was now a dark figure coming closer to the house. The breeze had come up and it was quite chilly on the porch. Chris took off his jacket and draped it around JD as he sang. Buck was nearly opposite them now, and then he turned and walked back toward the barn still singing softly to Ezra.

"JD, what is Buck singing?" Chris asked softly.

"Mamma's sick song," JD said matter of factly.

"Sick song?"

"When I was sick Mamma sung the special song." With that he continued to sing along.

"Do you know what it means?" Chris asked.


Buck had found quite quickly that JD knew no more than one or two words of their mother's native tongue. She had been a girl in her teens when, finding herself pregnant with Buck, she had been driven from her home in Louisiana. After twenty-five years away she no longer spoke to her child in her native tongue as she had Buck.

Ezra's mind locked on to the familiar sounds. They were comforting; they held happy memories however fleeting. When Maude had found herself seven months pregnant and a widow she went home to her father. She travelled with the carnival until Ezra was born, then just two months after the birth she was gone. In the next four years she saw him for a total of twenty-two days. Unable to care for a new-born infant Maude’s father gave him to Madam Mo to look after. Madam Mo was a fortune teller, "Madam Mo sees all, knows all, tells all," she was half Cajun, quarter Seminole and quarter Negro. Like Buck and JD's mom her first language was Cajun French, and she sang the same traditional song to soothe a sick child. Mo-Mo as he called her was the first and only real mother Ezra ever had. Being taken from her aged four, when Maude reclaimed him, was one of the most traumatic experiences of his young life. So distressed was Mo at being parted from what was effectively her child Maude’s father told her never to return unless she was bringing Ezra home. It was the last time daughter and father spoke. Ezra had no idea where his grandfather was or even what name he was using.

Ezra still loved Mo-Mo, he latched onto the familiar sound, the words he only half understood, he tried to reach her, reach the singer, he clung to the song like a lifeline.

Buck didn't know if it would work but he had somehow to cool the boy down. The breeze was cooling so he took him outside and began to walk up and down with him. Somehow he found himself singing the song he remembered from his childhood. He had been out there for an hour before Chris and JD came out. Chris somehow knew not to break the spell as he watched Buck pace around outside the house. To begin with JD sang along then he went quiet and Chris realised he had fallen asleep. Gently he lifted him on to his shoulder and carried JD back to bed. As he returned to he porch he decided to approach Buck. As he got closer he noted an ominously dark and damp-looking patch staining the back of Buck's shirt. He waited for his friend to turn and approach him face on. As soon as he saw Chris Buck stopped singing. He just stood there in the moonlight, a look of desperation on his face.

"Let me take him for a spell?" Chris offered.

"I'm alright."

"You're bleeding."


Chris stepped forward and gently lifted Ezra on to his arms. Once free Buck reached out and laid a hand on the pale forehead. Then he did something that truly surprised Chris; he smiled.

"Come on, let’s get him inside!" He began to pull Chris toward the house.

"What's going on?" Chris demanded as he was propelled with Ezra to the front porch.

"It's broken! The fever's broken!" Buck all but shouted.

+ + + + + + +

It was mid-morning the next day before Ezra began to stir. When he did open his eyes he found he was in a big bed, in a bright room he didn't recognise. There sitting beside him was Buck. Outside he could hear two boys arguing about something, he listened for a bit; marbles, they were arguing about marbles. He went back to studying Wilmington, who now had a new fresh white sling supporting the arm on the side of his injured shoulder. Buck looked on with quiet compassion as Ezra oriented himself.

Finally Ezra spoke. "Am I home?" he asked.

"Oui," replied Buck.

The End

Comments and feedback greatly appreciated:

Authors note: Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it. You will no doubt have noticed some lose ends; Monroe and Maude to name but two. This AU is open, so if anyone feels like tying of a lose end or just having fun with the boys please feel free. Finally a second huge thanks to Helen, for her unbelievably patient proof reading, you just don't know how hard she has to work!