Alternate Universe - "Little Ezra"
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Typhus. The word echoed in Nathan's head like a child's skip-rope chant.
A hand on his shoulder dragged his attention away from the ugly word and the uglier memories it dredged up. Vin was nudging him in the direction of the headquarters building, cocking an eyebrow at Larabee in silent invitation. Josiah followed, after checking to be sure Buck and JD could find something besides a burning building to occupy the boy.
"We were gone when it happened," Josiah began, as the four men settled in fort commander's office. "Off safeguarding payroll shipments to half the Army forts in the western territories. We got back this morning and found--"
"And found half the fort dead, the rest run off scared," Larabee completed the thought for him.
"Nathan?" There was a world of worry in Vin's voice.
"Dunno, Vin," Nathan sighed. "Don't rightly know how or why folks come down with typhus fever. Won't know for another week at least if Ezra's been exposed -- or the rest of us neither."
"You know medicine?" Josiah interrupted, pleasantly surprised.
"Know a bit. Not enough."
Larabee tilted his head back, studying Nathan and Vin speculatively. "Think you know enough to keep us alive on the trail for the next two weeks?"
Nathan tensed. "We gotta stay quarantined. Can't risk spreading the sickness."
"Can't risk staying here," Larabee countered. "There's no food to speak of and if the boy didn't catch sick when he went crawling through our morgue, he's gonna damn well go down with the fever if he stays locked in this plague house for another week."
"Not to mention what might happen if the locals find out the fort's sitting here all but undefended," Josiah added. "Peacekeepers aren't popular with either side in this conflict."
Vin stirred, glancing out the window. He could see Ezra hunkered down in the courtyard, fleecing the soldiers at a game of cards. "Where you aiming to go instead?"
"West," Larabee said.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan grabbed Vin by the shoulder and hauled him to the other side of the room for a quick conference.
"You can't seriously be thinking about traveling with these men!" he whispered sharply, a wide, false smile plastered on his face for the benefit of the two officers watching them.
"We were going that way anyway," Vin said with a shrug.
"They're officers of the law," Nathan gritted through clenched teeth. "We're supposed to be on the RUN from the law, remember?" He glanced back at Larabee and Sanchez, and lowered his voice until even Vin could barely hear it. "What do you think they'll do when they figure out they're riding with a runaway, a wanted man and a boy who don't belong to either one of 'em?"
Vin glance over his shoulder at the soldiers. "Don't think they'd do anything."
"Don't think their plans for the next two weeks got anything to do with keepin' the peace."
+ + + + + + +
"You can't seriously be thinking about traveling with these men?" Josiah murmured, watching the strangers argue.
Larabee cocked an eyebrow at him and nodded once.
Josiah an eyebrow right back at him. "A runaway slave, a runaway boy and a ... I don't know what Tanner is, but I'm know it ain't legal. Don't we have enough problems of our own?"
A slow smile spread across Larabee's face as he ignored the question and rooted in his pocket for a cheroot. On the other side of the room, the argument seemed to be wrapping up. Tanner strolled back to join them, trailed reluctantly by Nathan.
"So boys," Vin said. "How attached are you to this idea of upholding the law?"
+ + + + + + +
Ezra P. Standish shook his head pityingly and slapped down his last pair. Buck and JD groaned as he raked in yet another pot.
"Another hand, gentlemen?" Ezra grinned cheekily, demonstrating a few of his more elaborate shuffles for their benefit.
"I can't believe he's beating us," JD grumbled for the third time in as many games.
"I can't believe we just lost five bucks at Go Fish!" Buck shot back. He watched Ezra stack his winnings into orderly piles, pleased by the boy's smile and by the color that was returning to his
cheeks. Tough little guy, the sergeant thought, reaching out to tousle the kid's hair.
Ezra ducked away. One moment of childish weakness and every adult this side of the Missouri thought they could take liberties with his hair.
"A different game of chance perhaps, Sergeant Wilmington? Private Dunne?" Ezra asked, all business now. It was time to disabuse these men of the notion that he needed anything from them but their pocket change. "Poker? Blackjack? Gin Rummy?"
Buck glanced nervously around the empty courtyard. Chris and Josiah must still be off with the odd pair who traveled with this pint-sized cardsharp.
"Sorry, Ez. But I'm thinkin' your friends'll have our hides if we didn't stick to Go Fish and Old Maid."
"I do not answer to my associates for my actions and neither should you," Ezra said, scowling and drawing himself up with an air of dignity that should have looked absolutely ridiculous on a seven-year-old. Buck had to admit the kid almost pulled it off. "Ours is purely a business arrangement of mutual consent and convenience."
"Is that so?" Nathan Jackson's voice drawled ominously behind them.
"Y'know, Ezra. I think now might be a convenient time for you to go wash up," Nathan said, crossing his arms slowly and pinning Buck and JD with a glare.
"Yessir." Ezra snatched up his cards and winnings.
Nathan cleared his throat. With a sigh, the boy returned a small stack of bills and coins to the soldiers, then scampered off.
"Uh," JD glanced after the escaping child. "I'd ... better go show him the way." The private scrambled after Ezra. Behind him, he could hear the healer launching into a tirade on the topic of high-stakes games of Go Fish.
+ + + + + + +
By dusk, the barracks had burned to ashes. Larabee watched the cooling embers from the high walls of the fort, trying not to think of the bodies that had also been reduced to ash. Thompson, McManus, Shelby, Olsen, so many others ... consumed by the flames. Like Sarah. Like Adam.
He turned his back on the funeral pyre and returned to the job of lighting the watchfires. The last thing they needed was to invite a raid. Strange to think a simple illness could destroy a place that
had stood strong through the worst Bloody Kansas had to offer.
A soft thump behind him announced the arrival of Vin Tanner from the watchtower above. Larabee turned to study the tracker mildly.
"Most folks use the ladder to get down."
Tanner blinked. "Reckon my way's quicker."
Larabee rolled his eyes began his final patrol of the walls, unsurprised when Tanner moved to join him.
"You given any more thought to coming along with us?"
Tanner shrugged easily. "I got no objections. Gonna have ta talk it over with Nate `n' Ezra some."
"Ezra?" Larabee asked, glancing down to the darkening courtyard, where he could make out the boy's slight form edging toward the charred spot where the barracks had stood. He tensed, until Buck swooped in and caught the child around the waist and slinging him over his shoulder, spinning around and around in circles until the boy's complaints dissolved in peals of laughter. He felt something within him loosen, lighten at the sound.
He turned back to Vin. "Ezra gets a vote?"
"Easier to ask him first than to chase him after."
+ + + + + + +
"Fort Laramie?" Ezra repeated dubiously, looking up from his plate at the adults who were watching him with expressions ranging from curiosity to exasperation. The seven had gathered for the evening meal at one end of a long table in the echoingly empty dining hall. "Why would we want to go there?"
"Remember the blankets you saw in the barracks, Ezra?" Nathan leaned across the table to meet Ezra's gaze squarely. "We think it was the blankets that made everybody sick."
Ezra's gaze dropped uneasily to his plate. "Oh," he said softly. Out of sight beneath the table, his hands rubbed slowly against his trousers, trying to erase the remembered touch of rough blanket wool.
"See, Ez," Buck took up the explanation. "Them blankets came from the supply depot at the fort So we just thought we'd go and have us a little ... talk with the feller who sent `em. Make sure he don't send out any more bad blankets."
"To anyone," Vin added, his expression dark.
The adults held their breath, hoping Ezra would accept this pared-down version of events. No need to burden him with the sordid details. The half-empty crates of blankets they'd found in the
supply room. Crates labeled for delivery to one of the Oklahoma Indian reservations. Larabee figured the quartermaster had commandeered the blankets from a supply convoy, forgetting how often epidemics seemed to sweep the reservations after one of these special deliveries from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
"If we go, no one else will get sick?" Ezra asked. For no reason he could explain, he looked to Larabee reassurance.
Larabee gave it. "We'll take care of the problem."
Ezra nodded slowly. "Well, I think that's what we should do then." He turned his attention back to his meal, ignoring the rest of the adult conversation. Silently, he began to calculate the distance between Fort Laramie and San Francisco.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee paused in the door of the darkened armory, squinting over his shoulder to see if his shadow was still following. Yep. He turned and crooked a finger at the boy who was peering at him from the corner of the next building over.
The child hesitated, then trailed after him into the weapons room. He halted some distance from the captain, watching him with the same curious intensity he'd exhibited since supper.
"Something I can do for you?" Larabee asked as he pulled out his guns and set them one by one on the countertop, ready for cleaning.
Ezra opened his mouth to reply, only to be interrupted by a cheerful hail. "There you are, Ez! Your friend Nathan's been looking all over for you!" Buck swooped into the room and gave Ezra's hair a vigorous rub in passing. The boy shot the sergeant a look that promised terrible retribution as soon as he grew another two feet taller.
Unfazed, Buck threw an arm around Ezra's shoulder and broke the news. "Nathan says it's past your bed and bathtime."
A sweet, nostalgic pain twisted Larabee's heart at the familiar expression of disgust that crossed the little boy's face at the mention of those two words. "I do not HAVE a bedtime," Ezra said in
scathing tones. "And I do not need a BATH!"
"Gotta disagree with you on that last count, Ez," said Vin as he joined the party in the armory. Without another word, he scooped the boy up and turned to go, effectively putting an end to the debate.
"But I have a pressing matter to discuss with Captain Larabee," Ezra wheedled, catching the doorjamb in an iron grip. Vin sighed and backed into the room. Ezra leaned over Vin's shoulder and looked Chris in the eye.
"You have a gun," he said.
Larabee blinked at the sudden change in topic. "Yup."
"And a rifle."
"Can't argue with that."
"And Sergeant Wilmington has two handguns and a rifle. And Mr. Tanner has two rifles. And you gave Mr. Jackson two handguns and a rifle. And Private Dunne has--"
Larabee raised his hand, cutting the boy off before he could begin tallying JD's arsenal. "You coming to the point of this anytime soon, Ezra?"
Ezra sighed, as if he could not believe the leader could be this dense.
"I don't have a gun," he pointed out with exaggerated patience.
Vin made a small choking sound and Buck turned away, taken by an apparent coughing fit. Larabee crossed his arms slowly, giving Ezra a level stare.
"And why do you think that might be?"
"An oversight on your part I'm sure," Ezra said brightly, wriggling so far over Vin's shoulder he overbalanced. Larabee darted forward and caught the boy, holding him out before him like a fish he wasn't sure he should keep or throw back.
"I am an excellent shot," Ezra assured him, dangling unconcerned. "And it wouldn't have to be a very large gun."
Larabee lowered the boy slowly to the ground. "That's good to know, Ezra. I'll take that under advisement." He watched, slightly wild-eyed, as the child wished him and Buck a polite good evening and trotted off into the darkness with Tanner at his side.
"Oh, shut up, Buck," he grumbled, turning to find his old friend doubled over, shaking with soundless laughter. "I'm not so sure that boy's right in the head. You see the way he's been staring at me all evening?"
Buck straightened, wiping tears of glee from his eyes. "Errr, that might be my fault, Ol' Dog. I told him you was born 'round these parts. That boy's got some peculiar ideas about Kansas."
In the distance, they could hear Vin Tanner break out in whoops of maniacal laughter.
+ + + + + + +
"Brother Ezra, I'm sure Chris isn't planning to run wild and massacre us all," Josiah was explaining over the sound of splashing water and loud protests from the boy. Nathan rolled his eyes and continued scrubbed vile-smelling chemicals into Ezra's hair, determined to kill any vermin he may have picked up in the barracks.
"But--" Ezra tilted his head toward the sound of the preacher's voice, keeping his eyes screwed tightly shut as Nathan had ordered.
"Would it make you feel any better to know that his family moved out of Kansas right after he was born?" Josiah asked. "He grew up in Indiana. They haven't had a good massacre in Indiana in years."
Ezra cocked his head as he considered the idea. Slowly, he nodded. He could buy that argument. Besides, Vin had promised to keep watch on the captain whenever Ezra was otherwise occupied.
Josiah's chuckle filled his snug living quarters in the back of the fort's chapel. Candlelight lit the room warmly, illuminating the sleeping rolls Nathan and Ezra had already spread on the floor.
"There," Nathan said, pouring a last cup of warm water over Ezra's head and rubbing his hair vigorously with a rough towel. "You can open your eyes now. Here," he handed a square of soap to the boy. "Wash up good and be careful getting out of that tub."
He stepped away from the tin washtub and turned to the medical texts and supplies he'd liberated from the Army doctor's quarters. The doctor wouldn't be needing them any longer. Josiah stretched out on his bunk and was asleep and snoring within minutes.
Nathan catalogued his new supplies, shaking his head in wonder at medicines he'd barely known existed. As he'd feared, the doctor had completely depleted his stock of fever remedies like quinine. But Nathan had gathered general supplies, bandages, salves and a marvelous array of medical instruments. He leafed through the textbooks, flipping automatically to the chapters on fevers.
He was so absorbed in the reading that he that he lost track of time, and of Ezra. Until the boy sat down next to him, smelling faintly of soap and delousing powder, wearing a clean cotton shirt of Josiah's so big on him it dragged the floor. Ezra tucked his feet under the hem of his rough nightshirt and leaned against Nathan to see the page.
"Typhus. Also known as Camp Fever, Jail Fever, Spotted Fever and Malignant Fever," he read aloud. "That's what made the soldiers ill?"
Nathan nodded, shutting the book with a snap. "That's not something you need to be worrying about, Ezra," he said, too quickly.
"I know," Ezra replied, too quickly.
They sat side by side, trying not to worry each other.
"Nathan?" Ezra's voice was very small. "Do spotted fever spots look like this?" Reluctantly, he stretched out his arm to exhibit a spray of raised, itchy spots.
Nathan pulled the boy into his lap on the pretext of studying the marks more closely. "No, Ezra. Those look to be mosquito bites and a couple of bites from I-don't-know-what kinda critter."
"Oh," Ezra blushed.
Nathan tightened his arms around the boy, resting his chin on his squeaky-clean head. "But I'm real glad you asked me about those spots. And I want you to come to me anytime you're worried, of if you start to feel sick," he squeezed again for emphasis. "So I can help you get better."
"The soldiers didn't get better," Ezra whispered.
"The soldiers didn't have me looking out for them."
+ + + + + + +
"Ezra?" Chris Larabee called softly, crouching to study the child who slumped dull-eyed and unresponsive beside a pile of baggage in the courtyard early the next morning. He laid the back of his hand against the boy's forehead. It was cool. Ezra blinked slowly at him, incurious.
Larabee picked the boy up, feeling a new spike of worry when Ezra flopped bonelessly against his chest, eyes drifting shut. He bolted across the yard to the stables where Vin and Nathan were selecting their mounts.
"There's something wrong with Ezra," the captain said, demonstrating the point by lifting one of the boy's hands and letting it drop. The child didn't stir.
"Well??" he demanded, an edge of panic in his voice.
Vin and Nathan glanced at the limp bundle in his arms, then turned their attention back to the horses.
"Dawn," said Vin, as if that explained everything.
Nathan nodded. "You won't get much sense out of Ezra until at least mid-morning. That boy ain't on speaking terms with sunrise."
"Oh." Larabee looked down at the blissfully slumbering child in his arms. He backed out of the stable and returned to the spot where he'd found him.
Buck met him there, watching with knowing eyes as Chris continued to hold Ezra, not quite ready to put him down. Seven years old. A little younger than his boy would have been, if only. He shook his head, wondering what fate had in store for seven-year-old Ezra Standish, who wanted a gun.
With a sigh, he deposited the boy on top of the softest-looking bundle in the baggage pile and walked away. Behind him, Ezra mumbled something, stretching out a hand, searching. After a moment, the hand pulled back and the boy curled in on himself, asleep again.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan swung into the saddle with an audible groan of relief. Off his feet at last. "Thank the good Lord," he sighed, ignoring Vin's chuckle.
His fellow travelers were making final preparations, filling canteens, tightening cinches, securing the loads on the pack horses, and debating the quickest route through to Laramie.
Ezra came stumbling around a corner, rubbing his eyes. He bumped into the back of someone's long legs. A hand came down and rubbed his head until his hair stuck up in even wilder spikes. Buck.
"Ready to ride, pard?" Buck asked. "We got your horse all picked out for you." The boy looked up at him blankly, waiting for the punchline. His horse? He'd expected to spend the trip bouncing behind someone else's saddle, or worse, perched on top of one of the baggage ponies. Slowly, a wide, delighted smile lit his face.
Buck smiled gently and stepped back, nodding to Ezra to lead the way to the stables, not wanting to do anything to disturb the moment. It had been a long time since a little boy looked at him like he was wonderful.
Ezra forced himself to approach the stables with the dignity befitting an equestrian. Only the tiniest bounce in his step betrayed his delight as JD led a glossy chestnut out to meet him, the
stirrups shortened as high as they could possibly go on its saddle.
"This here is Chester," JD introduced the horse to his new rider.
Ezra paused in the act of stroking the horse's soft muzzle. Chester? What kind of name was that for a noble steed?
JD laughed at the expression on the boy's face. "Yeah, I don't think Chester likes his name much either. You'll have to think up something better for him, now that he's yours." He boosted the boy up into the saddle, pleased to see Ezra take the reins with an air of familiarity.
The boy walked the horse in careful circles, looking around to make sure Nathan and Vin were watching him. Vin nodded encouragement. Nathan had his head buried in his hands, muttering dire predictions.
"Lookin' good, Ez!" Buck crowed as Ezra nudged the horse in his direction.
"Thank you very much, Mr. Wilmington," the boy smiled shyly, patting the horse's neck. "I will take very good care of him until we reach our destination."
Buck paused, realizing the boy didn't know a gift when he saw one. "Well now, Ez. I hope you'll take care of him after that, too. He's all yours."
"Until we reach Fort Laramie," the boy clarified.
"Until forever. He's a present, Ezra, from us to you," Buck said, watching as the boy wrestled with the unfamiliar concept.
"But I haven't given you anything."
"That ain't how presents work."
Ezra stared at Buck as if he had sprouted antlers. "I don't have anything I could give you," he explained carefully, thinking the sergeant must have misunderstood. "And I am unlikely to have sufficient funds to do so unless Mr. Jackson returns my playing cards."
Larabee rolled his eyes and stepped between Buck and the boy. They were burning daylight.
"Look, Ezra," he sighed. "We'll consider it payment in full if you just stop asking for a gun." He grabbed the reins and started to lead the horse toward its place in the line -- and realized the saddle was empty.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra Standish stood in the middle of the corral, arms crossed, radiating indignation.
"I can walk," he said, fixing Larabee with a glare that rivaled his own.
"What? No-- Ezra, I didn't mean--"
The boy turned and marched toward the front gate. Larabee watched him go, open mouthed. He turned to face five accusing glares. He hurried after the boy.
"Ezra! Wait!" He grabbed him by the collar and tugged him to a halt. Ezra continued to stare forward, his face an expressionless mask.
"I would rather have a gun than a horse," the boy said quietly, still not looking at Larabee, swallowing hard at the thought of giving up the horse.
"Ezra, I didn't-- Look, the horse is yours, period. You can ask for as many guns as you want and I won't try to take him away from you."
Ezra studied Larabee out of the corner of his eye. "May I have a gun?"
"Nope," Larabee said, scooping the boy up and dropping him back in Chester's saddle. Ezra's fingers curled tightly around the pommel.
Larabee stomped back to his horse and mounted up, ignoring the looks he was still getting from the others. Jesus. You'd think he'd kicked a puppy the way these men were carrying on.
"Let's ride," he grunted, leading the way through the gates of the fort, heading west.
+ + + + + + +
"I still believe I should have a gun."
The fort had disappeared behind them and there was nothing of interest on the horizon. As the novelty of crossing the prairie on horseback and in the company of uniformed soldiers began to wear off, Ezra returned to the topic at hand.
"Ezra, you are too young to have a gun," Larabee snapped, shifting in the saddle to shoot a quelling glare at the youngster.
"I used to have a gun," Ezra said, unquelled, looking to Nathan to back him up.
Nathan shrugged, willing to let Larabee be the bad guy on this issue. "He had a gun," he confirmed. He cocked an eyebrow at the boy. "You do remember what happened to that gun, don't you?"
Ezra ducked his head. "It fell in the river," he mumbled.
Nathan decided it was time Larabee learned a few things. "First week Ezra arrived at the plantation, his uncle dragged him down to the fields to watch the slaves at work. It was hotter than anything and the field hands, they hadn't had a drink all mornin'. One man broke and made a run for the river--" he paused to check on Ezra, who was toying with the horse's reins, not looking up.
"Master Jackson, he pulled out one of his pistols, handed it to Ezra and told him to shoot that slave in the back."
Larabee stared at Nathan, then down at Ezra.
"From what I heard, Ezra didn't blink an eye, just stepped up, took that pistol and sent it flying into the river," Nathan continued. "Told his uncle it slipped." Later, he might tell Larabee the rest of the story. How Buford Jackson grabbed the little boy and threw him against a tree so hard his arm popped out of its socket and he was knocked out cold for a day. Then he shot the slave himself.
Chris cleared his throat. "That was a brave thing you did, Ezra. So how come you want another gun now?"
Ezra seemed to shrink in the saddle, keeping his eyes on the pliant leather of the reins as he twined them around and around his fingers. "My uncle," he said finally. "When he comes after us, I'll need a gun."
Nathan stiffened in shock. He hadn't expected that answer.
"He always catches his slaves. Always," Ezra continued, twisting the leather tighter. "We're still in Kansas. He could take Nathan and you couldn't stop him."
"Ezra." Larabee waited until the boy dragged his eyes up to meet his. "If your uncle tried to take either one of you? We'd stop him."
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner panned his spyglass slowly across the plain, pausing as he came to the spot where the vast expanse of sun-bleached grass gave way to the wide, worn track of the Oregon Trail. He squinted east and west and saw no one, just grass bruised down to bare earth by thousands of feet and hooves, and the deep grooves carved by countless wagon wheels.
Vin closed the telescope with a satisfied snap, rolling onto his back on the soft grass, content to enjoy the moment's peace. A breeze, warm with the promise of summer and the scent of wildflowers and fresh-tilled fields, ruffled his hair. He smiled. Maybe Nathan was right. Maybe the air was sweeter in Nebraska.
"All clear?" a quiet voice asked.
He cracked open one eye to respond to Chris Larabee, amused to see that the tightly wound army captain had flopped back on his elbows and kicked off his boots to wiggle his toes in the breeze. So much for the sweet air of freedom.
"Not a soul for miles." He closed his eyes again.
"Time to get moving then," said Larabee, not moving an inch.
"I reckon." Vin tipped his hat over his eyes.
For nearly a week, their strange little band had pushed north and west through Kansas and into Nebraska. Another week would see them in Fort Laramie.
Vin found himself wishing he could slow the pace, drag out the journey and his association with this oddly engaging group. He would miss them, he decided, frowning under the hat. When the soldiers wrapped up their business at the supply depot and the boy and Nathan were safely delivered to San Francisco, he would miss them -- and the sense of purpose they'd brought into his rootless existence.
He sighed and sat up, unsurprised to see Larabee rising at the same moment. Wordlessly, they gathered their coats and boots and the remains of their lunch and started downhill toward the spot where the others were picnicking by a stream.
"What the--?" Larabee squinted incredulously toward the campsite. JD was staggering across the field, flailing his arms, with Ezra wrapped around his head like a barnacle.
+ + + + + + +
The sounds of piano music and rowdy laughter echoed out of the saloons and gambling halls of the dusty little trading post, drifting up to the spot where Ezra sat in exile.
With a disconsolate sigh, the boy turned his back on the intriguing sights and sounds of the town and returned to shuffling the cards Nathan had finally returned to him. He could almost hear the jingle of the coins he should have been fleecing from bored trail hands and wide-eyed western emigres with more cash than common sense.
He rifled the cards from right hand to left, left to right, brooding. His mother would not be pleased when he arrived in San Francisco with nothing in his pockets but twelve dollars and thirty-two cents and ... he set the cards down and rooted through his pockets for a complete inventory:
Two decks of playing cards. One harmonica, on loan from Vin. Three very interesting rocks and an arrowhead, collected by Buck, JD and himself on the trail. One bullet, presented to him by Mr. Larabee with a promise that his gun would follow just as soon as Hell froze over. One book.
Ezra stuffed everything else back in his pockets -- his mother's reaction to the current state of his wardrobe didn't bear thinking about -- and carried the book back to the fire.
He threw himself down between Josiah and Chris and opened The Canterbury Tales, one of several volumes Josiah had insisted on lugging along on the trail. He sighed loudly, glancing left and right to see if anyone had noticed that he was bored, bored, bored and would much rather be in town than quarantined in the woods with the only other two people who had been foolish enough to enter the soldiers' barracks.
The men continued their conversation, ignoring him. Disgusted, he turned until he was using Josiah's outstretched leg as a headrest and Larabee's knee as a footstool. He propped the novel open on his chest.
"Enjoying your book?" Josiah asked mildly. Larabee studied the dusty shoes intruding on his personal space. He tweaked one of the toes.
Ezra twitched his feet away and rotated nimbly on his backside until his head was resting on Larabee's leg and his toes were pointing at Josiah.
"It's a very interesting book," Ezra said, his tone dubious.
Larabee tweaked his nose. Ezra rotated back to his original position.
"You just ask me if you're having any trouble understanding any of the words," Josiah said.
A look of enormous relief washed over the boy's face. He sat up, flipped to the first page of the book and read aloud:"Here Begynneth the Book of the Tales of Canterbury:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour."
He looked up eagerly. "Mr. Sanchez? What do 'begynneth,' 'whan,' 'shoures,' 'soote,' 'droghte,' 'perced,' 'roote' 'veyne,' 'swich licour,' 'vertu' and 'engendred' mean?"
"Err..." Josiah craned his head to study the page and confirm that that was indeed the first paragraph of the Canterbury Tales. "Well, son, what do you think it means?"
Ezra bit his lip and took his best guess at deciphering Geoffrey Chaucer's peculiar syntax. "April showers bring spring flowers?"
Chris and Josiah peered at the page. "I'll be damned," Josiah grunted. He'd have to remember to ask Ezra how the Canterbury Tales turned out. He'd never been able to make head nor tail of that book himself.
A sudden volley of gunfire from town brought them scrambling to their feet to watch as four familiar figures came galloping toward them like the devil himself was on their heels.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan stepped out of the weathered lean-to that passed for an apothecary's shop in this sorry, overpriced, understocked excuse for a trading post. The shop boasted a few bottles of laudanum and other specious miracle cures, but none of the wonder drugs from his books.
It had been a full week now. If someone was going to get sick, it would be happening soon -- and all he had in his fancy new doctoring bags were first aid supplies and the simple roots and herbs of a few slave remedies. Nothing that could fight a fever as ferocious as the one that killed those soldiers.
He sighed and rubbed at his neck. Probably a lot of worry about nothing. The boy seemed fine. Better than fine. Miles removed from the scarred, wary urchin who had kept to the shadows and corners on the plantation, watching the world with weary, calculating eyes.
The same eyes that now turned trustingly to six patently untrustworthy men -- a runaway slave, a fugitive bounty hunter, a couple of misfit soldiers and their brooding leader.
Damned if Nathan would let him down. He'd turn this town inside out until he found someone with a stock of fever remedies. He squared his shoulders and set off down the street, glancing around for Buck or JD. Those blue uniforms of theirs might open a few doors.
And then a chillingly familiar call froze him in place.
"Nathan!" The southern drawl oozed like molasses, sulfur-sweet. "How good, how very good, to see you again. I've been looking everywhere for you."
Shock slowed Nathan's reflexes as he turned to find the flat, cold eyes of Buford Jackson studying him clinically over the double barrels of his favorite dueling pistol.
The barrel flashed as a shot rang out, stilling every other sound on the street.
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JD leaned back in the rickety visitor's chair in the town's tiny jail, beaming as the sheriff, who looked barely older than himself, peppered him with questions about the glamorous Army life.
Private Dunne did his best, glossing over the fact that he'd been in short pants the last time the country marched off to war and that his entire military career had been spent at a duty post depressingly east of Indian country. A few slightly embellished tales of Bloody Kansas seemed to satisfy the young sheriff.
"Whatcha doin' up thisaway? Chasin' agitators?" The sheriff, a gangly young fellow with hair and eyes so pale they were nearly colorless, watched him eagerly.
"We're on, um, maneuvers," JD informed him. He thought it would be best to omit the fact that he and the others had become, for all intents and purposes, Army deserters when they struck out for Fort Laramie instead of the regional command at Leavenworth. A chance to lay violent hands on that supply clerk would be worth the risk of twenty years in the stockade.
Eager to showcase his own career, the sheriff jumped up and tugged a stack of wanted posters off a shelf. The two teens burrowed into the pile, pulling out the ugliest, orneriest desperadoes for ridicule and eager speculation about their current whereabouts.
"Now lookie here, sir." The sheriff labored under the delusion that JD outranked him. JD was in no hurry to set him straight. "This is a good `un. Runaway darkie." He held out a wanted poster, cleaner and crisper than most of the rest, as if it had been printed recently.
"They reckon he might be sneakin' around hereabouts." The sheriff continued when JD eyed the poster disinterestedly. "Posse's chased him all the way from Dixie. Said they lost track of him in Missouri but they think he's bound fer San Francisco. And anybody headin' thataway's gotta come through here."
JD sighed and took the poster, just to be polite. Chasing runaway slaves wasn't his idea of justice. Murderers and bank robbers, now, those were some wanted posters worth reading.
He eyed the flier, half-listening as the sheriff explained that the fugitive slave's owner was in town, on his way up to Fort Laramie to turn out the army garrison to help him with the search.
Slowly, JD sat forward, his hands clenching, feeling the edges of the wanted poster crumple and fray under his fingers. Eyes widening, he read the offer of an absurd sum of money for the capture of an escaped slave -- believed to be responsible for the kidnapping and likely murder of a little white boy back in Alabama.
A twisted parody of Nathan Jackson's face snarled up at him from the poster.
He threw himself out of the chair and out the jail door, leaving the tattered poster to flutter to the ground at the puzzled sheriff's feet.
He barreled into the street and nearly collided with a frantic Buck and Vin.
Buck held another wanted poster, crumpling it in his fist as he craned his head to peer around the crowded streets. Travelers jostled shoulder-to-shoulder, stocking up on supplies, reeling merrily from saloon to saloon. There was no sign of Nathan anywhere -- except, now that JD knew to look for them, on the wanted posters that seemed to be tacked on the sides of half the buildings in town.
Without needing to be told, JD moved to retrieve the horses while Buck and Vin split up and began to search the street and stores for Nathan. Another wanted poster flapped from one of the supports on the hitching post. He ripped it off and stuffed it angrily in his pocket.
The sheriff's words echoed over and over in his head. The slave owner was here. The slave owner was here. The man who had put that haunted look in the eyes of the gentle healer and the little boy was here. He tugged the last knot out of the last rein and turned the horses toward the street.
A single shot rang out.
Suddenly the crowd at the other end of the street seemed to melt away, offering JD a clear view of Nathan Jackson staring hopelessly down at the spreading red stain on his chest. An overgroomed man with dead eyes watched as Nathan staggered back, and cocked his pistol to fire again.
And then it was the stranger's turn to stagger back, howling, as a close-range shotgun blast sent the pistol spinning out of his hand, taking a few fingers along for the ride. Vin altered his aim smoothly to follow as Buford Jackson clawed and hitched his way across the dusty street toward the cover of the buildings. Until a dozen rough-looking men pulled their weapons, forcing Vin to switch aim again.
JD found himself running forward, still towing the horses as he groped for his sidearm. He felt Buck brush past him, moving to cover the tracker, as the entire street erupted in gunfire.
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"What happened?" Larabee roared as his men thundered past him into camp. He kept his eyes on the town below, watching for signs of pursuit. Six more horsemen came boiling out of the narrow main street, firing wildly uphill. He sent the first two tumbling lifelessly out of the saddle and watched with satisfaction as the rest fell back to the cover of the buildings.
On either side, he heard the bark of rifles as Vin and Buck set up a lethal crossfire that kept the rest of the posse pinned down.
"Ride! We got to ride now!" Nathan's plea drew Larabee's attention back to the camp. The healer slumped in the saddle, blood sheeting his left shoulder and chest, grimly fending off Josiah's efforts to pull him to the ground.
Leaving the riflemen on guard, Chris ran to the injured man. "It's okay, Nathan," he tried to reassure him, reaching up to pry the reins out of the healer's shaking hands. "Nobody's following. We got `em."
Nathan shook his head stubbornly. "We got to go, get away. Now!" He jerked his arm irritably away as Josiah made another attempt to ease him off the horse. "Will you get off me? I'm fine, it's just--" He sagged suddenly, blinking in confusion as he slid sideways into their waiting arms.
"What the hell happened?" Larabee demanded again as he and Josiah settled Nathan beside the fire.
It was JD who stepped forward, holding out the torn and crumpled wanted poster.
"They were waiting for us in town," he whispered, shaken. Frowning, Larabee smoothed the poster on his knee, feeling the blood drain from his face as he read. Buford Jackson had come for his slave, just as Ezra had warned them he would.
Ezra. Larabee whirled, and nearly collided with the boy, who had crept up behind him to read over his shoulder.
"Ezra." He reached for the child, who jerked away, still staring at the wanted poster Larabee was twisting to illegible pulp. Ezra shifted his gaze to take in the scene by the fire, where JD was trying to hold down a weakly struggling Nathan while Josiah tended his shoulder.
"Ezra?" Larabee tried again, taking a step forward, trying to close the distance between them. In the boy's unnatural silence, he could hear the taunting echo of his own promise. We'd stop him. If your uncle tried to take either one of you, we'd stop him...
When Ezra didn't respond, Chris reached out and gently caught him by the shoulders, turning him away from the sight of so much blood and pain.
And Ezra looked up at him at last.
And it was as if a door had slammed shut behind those wide green eyes.
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Ezra's back ached from standing so long in one spot, shoulders stiff against the rough bark of a shady cottonwood tree on the very edge of the campsite.
He was out of practice, he supposed. There was a certain art to hiding in plain sight. You had to stand, of course. To sit was to invite accusations of laziness. To crouch down and cower was to invite a box on the ears or a kick in the ribs. You had to stand very, very still, and stand in just the right spot -- far enough away from the adults to avoid their eyes, close enough so that they didn't have to go searching for you.
Ideally, Ezra would have completed the performance by gazing alertly into the middle distance. Not at the floor, mind you. That would look like sulking. And no staring off into the horizon. That might seem like daydreaming.
He used to spend hours this way, at the plantation and in other places no more welcoming to little boys. If he held the pose long enough, adults tended to forget all about him, leaving him free to daydream and plan and scheme.
But something had changed, and it wasn't just the ache that seemed to be traveling up his back to his shoulders and into his head. Every time he tried to stare off at nothing, his eyes drifted across the camp to the bustle of activity around Nathan. And every time he looked, he found one, or two, or four sets of worried eyes looking back at him.
Sometime in the past few weeks, he had lost the knack for avoiding unwanted adult attention. Perhaps because for the first time in his life, he'd met adults whose attention he craved.
And because he'd lost the knack, these men simply refused to ignore him. Every few minutes, it seemed one of them was coming over, talking softly, reaching toward him. Go away, go away, don't look at me, he whispered to himself. Aloud, he assured them politely that he was fine. No, there was nothing he needed, thank you. No thank you, he preferred to remain where he was.
With an inaudible sigh he wrenched his attention back to staring at nothing. He had plans to make. He had allowed himself to depend on others, and it had led to disaster. Nathan was here because of him. Nathan was hurt because he, Ezra P. Standish, had clung to his hand like a needy, selfish child instead of using his God-given talents to take care of himself as he always had. Turning inward, Ezra weighed his options
He should leave, he knew. Take his yet-to-be-renamed horse and head for the hills until his sometime traveling companions were safely on their way, unburdened by his needs and demands. Then it would be a simple matter of evading his uncle and circling back to the trading post to ply his trade until he had enough money for a ticket on the overland stage. He risked a quick glance toward the fire and found Captain Larabee staring at him as if he were standing center ring at the circus.
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