Ezra spent the night in the clinic under the guise of letting the healer get adequate sleep so he might be able to perform his job adequately. No one was fooled or surprised by the offer. There were very few things that tore Ezra away from his card game willingly, children would be the exception.
Josiah quietly opened the clinic door. Ezras slight shift made him aware that Ezra knew of his presence. "Just checking, Ez."
The gambler reshifted in his rocker and the preacher walked quietly over to the other cot. He bent lower and, with the faint glow of the lamp, he could see tears quietly flowing down the cheeks.
"Maam?" Josiah whispered softly, "are you in pain? Do I need to get Nathan?" Josiah asked, his voice laced with concern.
"No. Im fine," Oleta answered, as another sob escaped. Looking up into the gray eyes she asked, "You Josiah? The one fixing up the church?"
The large man nodded, figuring Nathan had spoken of them to her.
"Mr. Jackson said you were a preacher," she said, as a fact rather than a question.
Josiah blushed a little before saying, "In another lifetime."
"Oh," Oleta said. Josiah couldnt tell if it was disappointment or despair he heard in her voice.
"Im still a pretty good listener, though," he offered. He hoped she would take up his offer.
Oleta did just that as she talked of her traveling to New York. Josiah heard the change in her voices tempo and timbre as she talked about her husband and their short life together. It changed again as she described his death.
Throughout the storytelling Josiah had offered sympathy where it was needed and silence when dictated. He listened as she heartbrokenly described, through many tears, the voyage with the orphans right up to the attack. Josiah handed her rag after rag to wipe away the tears and was relieved only in the sense that the chaperone could wash away her pain, unlike Melissa, who Josiah feared would never be able to do the same.
The next day bought many activities. There were still three men for the judge to hold court over. Though they all knew the men were guilty, Judge Travis still insisted on giving the men a fair trial.
A slight miscalculation on Chris part put Buck and Josiah standing guard over the trial. Standing a few feet behind the prisoners, they listened quietly with the rest of the spectators.
Since most of the townspeople had attended the trial for the other men the previous day, they were more aware of the mens side of the story and were less shocked when the men began describing the details. The two regulators ire grew with each detail. Both had heard the story from a childs point of view and Josiah had heard the chaperones story, but hearing the instigators side bought all the anger both regulators had kept tempered down flaring to life.
When the speaker told about the part he played and where they just rode away, the calm ladies man lost the last shred of restraint he had. Knocking the chair that separated him from the miscreant, Buck let out a roar followed by a few choice words best never spoken in front of ladies. Then he proceeded to nail the guys jaw with a right cross that sent the criminal to his knees in agony.
A loud gasp resonated through the building as the townspeople inhaled as one, then began cheering. Judge Travis had figured and expected this kind of outbreak from the blond leader and possibly from the gambler. The fact that it was Buck wreaking havoc in his courtroom was unexpected. The older man stood and pounded his gavel, demanding that the regulator stop and that order in this trial be restored. The muscular regulator blocked out everything around him as he hauled the lowlife off the floor only to send him crashing back down.
Josiah moved in to intercept the second criminal from jumping on Bucks back. The preacher yanked the young man back and sent him into the wall with a resounding thud. By this time the audience was on their feet cheering as the two regulators vented some of their steam. The judge, realizing his orders were not being heard, pulled his Peacekeeper from his waist and fired into the air.
During the brawl, the third and scrawniest outlaw had recognized his opportunity to escape. Easing his way out, he ran straight into the barrel of a gun held by a black-sleeved hand at the same time as the judge fired his weapon.
The black-clad leader stood still, his hair falling into his cold, piercing, green eyes. His mere stance screamed a warning to all who looked at him that this man, holding a cocked pistol, was at the end of his patience. The men standing behind him wore the same expression. A puddle quickly formed at the attempted escapees feet and Chris gave the man a look he would never forget.
Chris gave the scene a quick glance before saying softly, "Take him, Vin."
The leader didnt need to hear a response to know the men behind him would follow his order and still watch his back. Stepping through the once raucous crowd, he made his way to the front. Without yelling, he made himself heard as he put a hand on Josiahs shoulder. "Enough. Go with Vin and take them back to jail."
Josiah nodded and grabbed his prisoner and shoved him in the direction of the door. Chris turned to the gallery and said, "Thats enough. Go home." Sensing some hesitation from a few lingerers he added more gruffly, "Now!"
The last of the holdouts quickly began making their way out of the building. During this time Buck and his foe were having it out, or more precisely the lawman was dishing it out and the other was simply taking it. Chris turned in time to see his friend knock the criminal to the ground, again. The judge, who was still standing, quietly intoned, "Think its about time to stop Mr. Wilmington before I have to preside over another trial."
Chris barely acknowledged the comment as he walked over to the fight, calling softly as a warning. When Buck didnt stop, Chris called out a second time as he put his hand on his friends shoulder and pulled the muscular man off his prey. Buck wasnt happy with someone interfering with the lesson and took a swing at the intruder. Chris was prepared for this reaction and effectively blocked the punch. The two friends stood toe-to-toe while Buck got his rage back under control. Neither said a word.
The judge stepped over to the man lying on the ground and hauled him up. "Lets go," he ordered. Turning to Chris, he said, "Ill take him back to the jail. Ill pronounce decision and sentencing over there." Without further talk, the judge led the other man away.
The two friends faced each other; Buck inhaled ragged breaths while Chris waited. Finally Buck voiced his thoughts, "He had it comin, Chris."
The disgust and anger glowed in his normally bright, peaceful eyes. "Should have heard him telling his story, "Bucks voice rose with emotion. "Made it sound like it was nothing," The mustached man said angrily, waving his hands in the air.
Chris watched and waited. He had known this man for a long time. Long enough to know Buck was slow to anger, but when his fuse was lit it was a short wait until explosion. He also knew he didnt want to be on the receiving end of his punches. The blond had been there before and had no desire to go there again if it could be helped. So, he stood still and listened as his friend raved about all the injustice that had occurred in the past six days. It was what friends did for one another, and contrary to popular belief, their friendship was not as one sided as most people thought.
After Buck finally calmed down, Chris walked quietly up to the big man and laid his arm around the trembling shoulders. He knew how much the attack on the children had hurt the big man just like it had hurt him when Chris wife and son had died. The blond remembered he had not been able to do anything more than stand by immobilized and watch Buck tend to and bury the two bodies. The blond also knew just how much Buck had punished himself for their deaths.
Chris stood there giving strength merely by his presence as Buck began to calm down and knew he could soon talk to the other man without reigniting the fuse. The blond looked his oldest friend in the eyes and saw what others were never allowed to see, emotional pain.
Chris knew this time Buck needed him to stabilize his world; much like Buck had done for him in the past four years. Chris was having a hard time finding the words to end his friends pain. Finally, he decided to just say the truth, "It wasnt your fault. You couldnt have stopped what happened." Buck accepted the words and knew Chris was talking about more than just the attack on the children. Nodding slowly in acceptance Buck let his head drop to his chest. Suddenly he was very tired.
Chris draped his arm around the broad shoulders once more and said, "Cmon, Ill buy ya drink."
Shortly after Ezra had fed little Sammy his breakfast, there was a knock on the door. Nathan opened it and found the couple and Layton on the other side. The little girl approached the bed silently, giving Ezra a very large smile. The gambler, for his part, stood up and moved aside. The grownups in the room exchanged a few pleasantries with one another before Nathan started cleaning up and Oleta turned over and attempted to fall back asleep. The wife moved up to Ezra and gave the shocked gambler a brief hug. "Thank you so much, Mr. Standish," she said quietly.
"Excuse me?" Ezra asked confused.
Glancing quickly over to the bed where the two children now lay, the older sister talking comfortingly to her brother. Mrs. Tullege looked back to the well-dressed gambler and explained, "It worried her that the men would get away." Patting the green-sleeved arm she said, "We assured her that you gentlemen would not let that happen." Blushing the woman said quietly, "I appreciate you bringing them back for trial."
The gambler could feel the color rising in cheeks. Wishing to distract attention, he looked over at the cot and said softly, "Well be taking the other children on tomorrow. I guess after Master Samuel fully regains his health they, too, will be sent forward." Silently he wondered at his sanity at getting so emotionally attached to the boy.
Mrs. Tullege smiled sheepishly. "Actually Brian and I have talked to Mrs. Kingston about adopting Sammy and Layton." Her smile grew as she said, "She didnt see a problem."
Ezra couldnt keep the joy and surprise from showing either on his face or out of his voice, "Really?!" Quickly recovering form his burst of emotions he pulled his mask down and asked indifferently, "I think that would constitute as one of the best things to happen in recent history. Congratulations."
As hard as he tried he couldnt keep the beam of smile from breaking through. Things were truly looking up. He tipped his hat, gave one more glance at the two children on the cot and exited the clinic. A spring in his step could be clearly detected.
+ + + + + + +
The day passed quickly. The thirteen children that were to be transported slowly filtered into the church. With the help of JD and Vin, Josiah had moved the pews to the side of the church, allowing the children to spread out. The news of the adoption spread quickly through the town and more than one regulator hoped for the same for the rest of the children.
By evening all the children had been returned, goodbyes had been said and the orphans each found a spot to stake out. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, they slowly drifted back together. The other regulators had decided that Josiah could use all the adult supervision he could get, so with the exception of Nathan and JD, who had patrol, all of them congregated at the church. Inez, with the help of Mary, served the large group supper.
With the children fed and their blankets spread out, the minors shifted restlessly. Ezra leaned against the wall next to Josiah and quietly began shuffling his cards. The sound quickly garnered the childrens attention and found himself surrounded by anxious eyes. Matthew found his way onto Josiahs lap and nestled down into the big arms. Buck and Vin watched with equal interest from a short distance away. No matter how many times they watched their friend perform his card tricks, they still found themselves interested. After a few tricks, the gambler spoke quietly as he began weaving a story of dragons, knights and jousting, with a fair maiden or two thrown in for the girls. One by one, soft even breaths eased calm nerves and heads lowered down onto folded arms, as eventually eyes slid closed.
Somewhere along the story, Vivian had found her way onto her heros lap and the security of those arms holding her let her slip into a peaceful sleep, the first one in a very long time. Even after all the children had fallen asleep Ezra continued and the adults in the room had no intention of stopping the story they were listening raptly to.
During the story, the blond leader had come back from making a short patrol through the town while JD was out riding the edge of their territory and slipped into a back pew. It wasnt long before his small shadow appeared at his side. He took Henry up onto his lap and the boy let out a small sigh of contentment as strong arms surrounded him. Chris unconsciously began combing his fingers through the soft silky hair, transforming himself back to a time when he used to hold Adam and stroke his hair. He roughly swallowed the lump in his throat. He was bought out of his reverie by the softly whispered statement, "I have a sister, also, but we got taken to separate places after our momma died.
Chris didnt know what to say. Before he could come with a reply the six-year-old continued, "Daddy started drinking after momma died and then them men and a lady came and took me and Katy away. I never saw her again."
Chris felt more than heard the soft crying and tightened his hug as the boy snuggled further into his arms. There were no words of comfort to tell a six-year-old. He could only offer his strength, like he had offered it to Buck earlier. After a few minutes the small tear-drenched face looked in the man and asked, "Whats wrong with us?" Turning his gaze to the encompass the other children he asked, "Why doesnt anyone want us?"
Slamming out the thought of taking the boy himself, Chris knew he wasnt in the right place in his life to care for the boy, though he was working on it. He also rationalized the child needed two parents. The large man tightened his grip once again as he struggled to control his voice. Finally, Chris was able to talk. "There is nothing wrong with any of you. Sometimes life just seems overwhelmingly unfair and we just want to quit, but we got to keep going because eventually it will get better." Hesitating for a moment he added, "Thats what my friend tells."
Chris took a deep breath to steady his nerves and said, "Somebody wants you I promise. You just have to wait until destiny has you run into them."
"Will they be nice?" Henry asked tentatively, believing the man holding him wouldnt lie.
Chris knew what the little boy wanted to hear. Looking at the four men seated on the floor and thinking about the two that werent present, he smiled. "They may not be anything what you thought theyd be like. Theyll probably be just the opposite of what you thought youd want, but when you find a family that will accept all of what you are and will stand behind you know matter what the odds are, none of that will matter."
The blond took a deep breath and repositioned himself, looking for a more comfortable spot on the hard bench. "Now why dont we sit back and listen to Ezra tell his story. Hes quite the master at spinning a tale." His only answer was a nod.
Ezra sat in the dark. Nothing, but the quiet breathing filled the silent church. The two off-timed snores indicated that Buck and Vin had joined the children in sleep. The brown-haired man finally whispered tentatively, "Josiah?"
"Yeah?" Josiah answered back, tiredly.
The anger and venom he had kept squelched down rose back up in his voice, "Children are people too, you know?" Ezra said it as if exclaiming a new concept to a foreigner.
Josiah sighed inwardly. He was tired, the week had taken a lot out of him, but he knew Ezra needed to talk to him and he would be willing to listen. He had failed Ezra before in that department and it had almost cost him his friends life, he wouldnt fail him again.
"Yes, Ezra. I do know they are people," the ex-preacher said, with more liveliness than he felt.
"Theyre not objects to be cast aside when unwanted, only to be picked up when its convenient for the parent," Ezra spoke quietly, but Josiah could hear the emotions filling the voice.
The large man looked at his friend briefly and wondered just whom Ezra was talking about, himself or the Fleming children. Shifting his gaze to the back of the church, he could barely make out the form of Chris holding the little boy. As he searched for an answer he saw Mary slip back in through the back door and sit down next to the gunslinger. A small smile crossed his lips.
"Ezra, I believe most parents do try to do their best to raise their children. Sometimes, though, it means letting someone else care for them," Josiah said cautiously. He wanted to answer truthfully without setting off any explosions hidden beneath the fancy clothes.
"Children arent cattle to be shipped off at their parents discretion," Ezra hissed. "And these people theyre being taken to, how can you be so sure the children will be safe?" Before Josiah could answer Ezra breathed out very quietly and flatly, "Children shouldnt be hurt."
Josiah nodded in the dark; he knew now exactly you his friend was talking about. He resisted the urge to give his friend a comforting pat on the shoulder, knowing it wouldnt be received well in his state of mind. Instead he looked down at the boy asleep in his arms and sent up a silent prayer for all the children, old and young, that their wounds eventually healed and they would accept the love offered to them.
"No, Ezra," Josiah sighed. "Children arent cattle and they should never be hurt no matter the reason. But thats what we as adults are for, to watch out for them and keep them safe." // And do for them what no one did for you// he added silently.
Not getting a response, he turned to Ezra and saw his friend was thinking on his words. He left the silence alone and tried to get some sleep, tomorrow would be a long day.
+ + + + + + +
Mary had slipped back into the church: the need to be with these children one last time pulled at her maternal strings. As she sat down next to the gunslinger, she couldnt help but notice how natural he looked holding the boy.
After a long pause the black-clad leader spoke, "How can this be right?"
Though, there was a multitude of answers to such a loaded question, Mary figured he didnt want to hear anything but her straightforward thought on the situation. She softly began speaking, "There will be hundreds of different stories of how this will affect all the children involved in this process, but I have to believe that for most of these children it will be a better alternative than what would have happened to them if they had continued living like they had been."
Between her own investigative work as a newspaper woman and talking to her father-in-law, who had been in some of the towns where the Orphan Train had stopped, the blonde woman thought it would be wise not to tell Chris at that moment that not all the children were adopted. Some were indentured, which was not the same thing. Mary, along with others, could only hope this movement would open peoples eyes to other children issues. Such as: childrens welfare, child labor laws and the protection of children.
For the time being though she sat quietly next to Chris and listened to the silence and hoped for a better world for all the children.
The morning was a flurry of activities. While Inez and Mary fed the children, Josiah and Vin hooked up a wagon. The tracker had suggested, in his own way, to Chris that itd be a good idea if he went with Josiah to take Melissa to Vista City. Chris saw an underlying need in his friends eyes to go with the older man and agreed. JD would be staying with the blond in town while the judge presided over Flemings trial. Since both patients were recovering quite well from their injuries the leader decided to give Nathan a break from the clinic and was sending him with Buck and Ezra as guards for the children. Mary and Mrs. Tullege had offered to stay with the two infirmed for the duration.
Chris had to explain to the men, like the judge had explained to him, when the men became alarmed at the news of being sent as bodyguards. Chris had honestly thought Ezra was going to go for his jugular before he could explain that the children were not in any actual danger, they were just going for reassurance. The leader had almost shuddered at Ezras cold look before he had understood it was all for show.
Nathan was spending the last few minutes giving minute details to Mary and Mrs. Tullege, much to their suppressed laughter. Buck and Ezra counted heads and loaded the two wagons before mounting up. They noted they were missing two and quickly guessed, sadly, at their whereabouts. It had not gone unnoticed to Buck that Ezra had not complained last night about sleeping on the hard wood floors, nor having to rise so early to travel. Buck was not such a dumb person that he didnt realize it was because both situations were for the benefit of the children.
JD and Chris were inside the jailhouse when they heard the outside door open. Turning, expecting to see one of their friends, both were shocked to see eight-year-old Emily Fleming standing in the doorway. Chris looked past the girl and caught a glimpse of his little shadow, Henry.
Hurrying to position himself between the young girl and the rest of the room, JD moved to escort the child outside. "Hey now," he cajoled, "A jailhouse is no place for a young lady," the sheriff said, as he tried to usher Emily out the door.
Resolved not to be moved, Emily looked over at the blond. "I want to see him," she said softly, but firmly.
JD was at a loss of what to do and found himself turning towards the leader. Chris could clearly see the determination and need in the girls eyes. Giving on firm nod, he directed Emily outside as headed towards the far jail cell.
Opening the iron door and allowing a silent and stunned Fleming out, Chris growled low in his throat. Fleming took the non-verbal warning to heart. Walking out the door, he directed JD without turning around, "Come watch them. I got other business to attend to."
The young sheriff moved to stand in the doorway where he could watch both the locked up prisoners and the father-daughter conversation just a few feet away. His heart breaking at the sight, a child should never be in the position of saying goodbye to a father she had barely met. Much less, know that the goodbye would be the last they ever saw of each other ever again.
Chris walked over to the little boy and picked him up. Walking over to the chairs parked outside the jail, he sat down with the boy placed in his lap. The two stared at each other for a long moment, neither one wanting to say goodbye. For Chris it was the chance he never got with his own son. The chance to tell him how much he was loved, how much he would be missed, and how much his absence would tear him apart. Inside though, he knew he could never say the last part to this little fellow. The blond took a deep breath and prayed for strength to get through this.
"Youre a good boy, Henry. Dont let anyone ever tell you differently. Ok?" The blond looked into those blue eyes and felt like he was being pulled under and couldnt get his breath.
"Yes, sir," Henry replied low. Looking into those green eyes, Henry threw his arms around the tough gunslinger and whispered, "Same to you." Before pulling away he whispered, "I love you, Mr. Larabee. I hope my new pa is just like you."
Chris fought back the tears as he grabbed the thin boy back into a fierce, but brief hug. "Same to you, Henry."
Standing up, with the boy in his arms the blond walked over to one of the wagons and placed the boy gently down into it. Ruffling the hair one more time, he quickly turned and walked off.
+ + + + + + +
Howard Fleming watched his daughter as she stared hard at him. He would let her say her piece, hit him if necessary; he figured, after what she had been through in her short life, he owed her that much.
Finally she looked into her fathers eyes and spoke from her heart. "My pa died a long time ago trying to take care of his family. Youre not Matthew and mines pa and you never will be. You did a bad thing and if you were my pa I would be very sad."
Howard stood still waiting for more, and when no more came he simply nodded his head in agreement. There was little he could say to change her heart and do nothing to change the events of the past couple of days. He had taken a wrong path a long time ago and no amount of double backing was going to lead him home, because there wasnt a home for him any more. Fleming watched as his daughter walked back to the wagon and was lifted into by the healer. He turned sadly back to the sheriff and walked back to his cell.
Two wagons headed out west and one headed east, both taking their cargo to new homes. Whether it would turn out all right in the end would be anybodys guess.
Howard Flemings trial was short and to the point. Two days later the nine lowlifes were escorted by six of the seven regulators, Nathan chose to stay behind with his patients. The army met them in Ridge City and took them on to the Yuma Prison, surprisingly enough without any shooting, killing, or even partial maiming to any of the prisoners. For their great restraint, the judge rewarded them with an extra ten dollars and the end of the month. They later heard that Howard Fleming had hung himself. No one was saddened.
Mary kept track of the children. All were eventually placed with families. The older brother and sister set, Daniel and Martha Patterson, were broken up into different families, but the families did live close enough that the children were able to see one another on occasion.
Emily and Matthew got lucky and were adopted by a doctor and his wife. Matthew eventually forgot about his small adventure over time. Emily never did. Both, grew up and led progressive lives.
Swann, the fourteen-year-old, grew up and became a doctor. She settled down in small town and lived out in the country. Her husband and she adopted eight children over the years; some were the last ones to ride the infamous wagon train.
Henry was adopted by a rancher and his wife in Idaho. He learned how to fish and track at an early age. He never completely forgot about the blond-haired man who made the world safe for him until he could find the family destined to love him.
Sammy and Layton were adopted by the Tulleges and became, not so secretly, the niece and nephew of Four Corners most notorious gambler. When she couldnt find her children, Mrs. Tullege never had to look further than Ezra was to find them. She never had any qualms about the children being around such an influential man, because in her heart she knew how much they meant to him.
Josiah still made his bi-yearly trip to Vista City. Only when he went, it wasnt just his sister he saw after. Melissa, the young seventeen-year-old looking for a new life never recovered from her trauma. Josiah adopted her in his heart and took care of her the same as Hannah.
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Note: The time of the Orphan Trains is a part of our history that should never be forgotten. The last of the passengers of those trains are now in their declining years. Siblings have been lost, or worse never found. I believe we should always remember the small parts of our heritage for they most often had the greatest impact upon our present.