Alternate Universe - "Little Ezra"
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"We best get a move on, Chris."
Larabee jumped. He hadn't even heard Buck approach, lost in his study of the small shadow all but lost in the deeper shadows beneath the cottonwood. The boy's glance flickered toward him again, and again he was at a loss.
If Ezra had flown into a rage, he would have understood. If he had broken down and cried, that would have made sense. If he had looked at him with suspicion, betrayal, reproach for promises made and promises broken, that, Larabee could have handled.
But what he read in those overbright eyes was some indefinable emotion that had no place in the mind of a seven-year-old. Old, old eyes stared out of the young face, and if there was anger behind those eyes, or reproach, it was all directed inward, as if Ezra had sized up the events of the day and concluded that he alone was to blame.
A hand dropped heavily on his shoulder and Larabee started again. That's right. Buck was still waiting for an answer.
"Nathan fit to ride?" he asked.
"Josiah's got him patched up and dosed up," Buck said, his own gaze drifting toward the cottonwood tree. "He'll have to double up with one of us, but I'm thinkin' the trail's gonna be a whole lot healthier for him than waiting around here to give those yahoos in town a chance to sneak up on us by night."
Chris nodded. "Let's ride."
It rankled, running from this fight. But from what JD had said, Buford Jackson had the law on his side in town. If they went down there after him, they'd wind up behind bars, Nathan would wind up at the end of a noose and Ezra would wind up back in his uncle's clutches. Their best hope was to try to beat Buford to Fort Laramie and get their story before a judge first.
He turned back to Ezra. The boy would have to double up with one of them. He didn't want him bouncing on the back of that big horse of his if they had to move quickly.
"Hey." Vin's soft call caught his attention, and reminded him that the tracker hadn't budged from his lookout position since he'd arrived back at camp. Tanner rose smoothly from his hunting crouch. "Mind taking over for me? Need to have a word with Ezra."
Without waiting for a reply, Vin strolled over to Ezra's tree and slid down to sit next to the boy, resting his back against the tree trunk.
If they said anything to each other, Larabee couldn't hear it. But the next time he glanced over, Ezra had slipped down to sit cautiously beside Vin. Together, they watched the others break camp. A glassy-eyed Nathan was eased up in front of Buck on his big gray. JD led Vin's horse over to a high stump, smiling encouragingly to Ezra as the boy used the extra elevation to reach the stirrups and swing himself into the saddle without help. Immediately, he pushed himself off the back of the saddle to perch on top of the bedroll and packs. Vin murmured something and Ezra grudgingly scooted forward, allowing the tracker to swing up behind him and settle him safely between his arms.
Larabee shot parting glare downhill that could have incinerated half the town.
+ + + + + + +
They rode hard, veering away from the established trail, trying to put as much distance as possible between the town and themselves before nightfall, stopping only long enough to rest the horses and to shift Nathan to a fresh mount. Still heavily dosed with laudanum, the healer seemed only vaguely aware of what was happening.
At the first stop, Ezra watched solemnly as Nathan was transferred from Buck's saddle to Chris's. A sudden flash of panic crossed the healer's drawn features as he twisted in the saddle, searching for something. Larabee patted his uninjured shoulder, whispering something that seemed to settle the dazed man.
Vin crouched beside Ezra, ready to boost him back into the saddle. "Riding double's hard on a horse after a while," he explained, following the boy's gaze. "Don't want to tire `em out."
Ezra stiffened, turning to look up at Vin's horse with remorseful eyes. Tanner gave himself a mental smack.
"Not you, Ez," he chided. "You're no trouble at all. Seen canteens that weigh more'n you."
When the guilt didn't lessen in those great, sad eyes, Vin sighed and led the way to the spot where Josiah had already mounted up.
"Ez here's worried about tiring Peso out, riding double all the way," he said, squinting up at Josiah. This might not be such a bad idea after all, he decided. He'd done what he could to comfort the boy, but if Ezra needed to talk, Sanchez might be the one to draw him out. The preacher and the little grifter got on like a house afire.
Josiah's expression lightened into something close to happiness as he leaned down to offer Ezra a hand. After a long, considering moment, Ezra accepted the hand up, settling himself stiffly in front of Josiah as they set off again.
+ + + + + + +
And so it went for the rest of the day, with each man working his cure on the boy. Vin got Ezra moving. Josiah, after almost fifteen miles of monologue, got him talking again. Just a word here and there at first, then a few quiet questions and soft answers. Eventually, Josiah bent his head to listen as Ezra told him things that drove all the light from the preacher's eyes.
It was JD who coaxed the first smile out of Ezra -- with a joke so atrocious that Buck actually reined to a halt and confiscated the child. A joke that bad could rot a man's brains, send `em dribbling out his ears, Buck informed him seriously. He tilted Ezra's head this way and that, peering critically into each ear, and was rewarded with a small but genuine giggle.
"Looks like I got you away just in time, pard," Buck said, with an exaggerated sigh of relief over Ezra's brainless ears.
He watched sadly as Ezra nodded his thanks and returned to his rigid, straight-backed riding stance, refusing to seek comfort or support from the adult sitting inches behind him.
"I'm real glad you could ride with me for a space, Ezra," Buck said, undeterred. "A bit of company always cheers me up when I'm feeling low. And I don't mind telling you, I've been feeling mighty sad about what happened to Nathan today."
Ezra turned, glancing cautiously back to read his expression. "You're sad?"
"Mm hm. Now, I know Nathan's gonna be just fine, but I don't like to see him hurting. Scared me something awful when he got shot."
Ezra had twisted almost entirely around in the saddle, staring. Never in his life had he heard an adult admit to being sad and afraid. One of his hands crept up to curl around Buck's consolingly. Buck smiled his thanks.
"I'm sorry my uncle made you sad, Buck," Ezra whispered, leaning his head back against the big sergeant's chest. He cast around for some way to comfort him. "Mr. Tanner shot him, you know."
"That he did."
"But only in the hand," Ezra cautioned. "Uncle can shoot or hold a sword in either hand. I asked Mr. Tanner to aim for the other hand, next time."
"Think he's gonna aim a bit higher than that, Ez."
"That's what Mr. Tanner said too."
Buck curled one arm around the boy. "But that's not something we need to be worrying about. You know where Vin is right now?"
Ezra shook his tired head, lulled by the motion of the horse, exhausted and aching after the strain of the day. "He's on lookout behind us, making sure there ain't nothin' bigger than a jackrabbit on our trail. Just like Ol' Chris is riding up ahead, making sure nobody gets close enough to make me sad again."
Ezra allowed his eyes to drift shut. "Good," he whispered. He would hate to see Buck sad.
The slight weight against Buck's chest increased as the boy slipped into an exhausted doze.
Only then did Buck move to check the suspicious new lump in the boy's coat pocket. It proved to be an ivory-grip Colt .38. He cleared his throat softly, cocking an unamused eye at JD as he displayed his find. The kid's hand flew to his empty holster. He snatched his weapon back, swearing quietly, not wanting to wake the desperate little pickpocket.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra woke in the dark, in Chris Larabee's arms.
"Hey," the captain greeted him softly, easing him down from the horse to stand unsteadily on grass beaded with the chill evening dew. Bewildered, Ezra glanced around at the unfamiliar terrain and the dark outline of what had to be a barn. The others moved silently around them, making ready to make camp for the night. Buck and Josiah helped Nathan toward the shelter while JD tended the horses. Vin vanished into the darkness with his rifle, on patrol.
Larabee tugged gently at a hand Ezra hadn't even realized he was holding.
"You want to use the privy before we go in?" Ezra nodded gratefully. Larabee was the only member of the group who seemed to have any idea of a small boy's true bladder capacity.
He kept his hand in Chris's as they walked toward the outhouse. Tomorrow, maybe, he would strike out on his own. Tonight, maybe, he would try to figure out what happened to the gun he'd liberated from Private Dunne. But for now, it felt good to let someone else lead the way through this strange, dark place.
+ + + + + + +
Everything hurt. Ezra huddled in his blankets, biting back a whimper as another violent tremor wracked his thin frame. He tossed fitfully, trying to escape the bone-deep ache.
He cracked opened watery eyes, squinting as the light from the watchfire set his head throbbing. Four motionless figures sprawled around the fire, asleep. In the deeper shadows beyond, he imagined he could see a fifth man standing watch by the barn door. Someone else would be on guard outside, he knew.
Trying not to disturb anyone, Ezra crept out of his blankets and made his way unsteadily to Nathan. A promise was a promise, after all. He eased himself down next to the sleeping man, curling up against his good side.
"Nathan?" he whispered, resting his chin on the healer's uninjured shoulder and staring hopefully at his slack features. When there was no response, he sighed and burrowed under the blankets as another chill shook him, taking some comfort in Nathan's unconscious company.
"I don't feel very well, Nathan," he whispered again. "Remember? You said I should come to you if I was worried."
He shivered again. "I'm not worried, Nathan. But I thought you'd like to know."
+ + + + + + +
Pale sunlight filtered into the barn, rousing the early risers. Larabee rolled onto his side with a groan, blinking crustily at the spot where he'd tucked Ezra in the night before. He stared at the empty nest of blankets for a full thirty seconds before he worked out what was missing. What in blazes was the boy doing up at this hour?
Crawling out of his own covers, Larabee stretched and began a methodical search of the likely hiding spots. Ezra wasn't visiting his horse or curled up behind one of the hay bales, and he hadn't gotten past Josiah's watch on the door.
"Ezra!" Chris called, not caring if he woke the others. He was eyeing the ladder to the hayloft when a quiet call from Vin brought him back to the fire.
Tanner, busy shoveling spoonfuls of coffee grounds into a pot, nodded toward the unruly tuft of brown hair peeking out from the corner of Nathan's blankets. With a relieved grin, Larabee bent to shake the boy's shoulder, ready to begin the arduous process of getting Ezra alert enough to eat breakfast.
Ezra didn't stir.
"Up and at `em, Ezra," Larabee ordered, trying to figure out how to disentangle the boy from the blankets and the injured man. He twitched the covers away from the unresponsive child and froze.
Ezra lay curled on his side, utterly still, his young face flushed with something more than sleep. Stunned, Larabee brushed the boy's sweat-soaked hair back from his forehead, hoping for some reaction. He'd thought Ezra was safe. He honestly thought they'd left the nightmare illness behind them at the fort.
"No, no, no, no, no." He snatched Ezra up, pacing frantically in time to each denial. He pressed his cheek against the small, flushed brow, terrified by the heat he felt there. "No, Ezra. Wake up. I need you to wake up. Can you wake up for me?"
The others watched, wide-eyed, kept at bay by the fury in Larabee's eyes. He turned his back on them and carried Ezra toward the door, with the vague idea that the morning air might cool the furnace-hot child. He walked aimlessly, circling in front of the barn, crooning soft apologies and promises.
Finally, Ezra stirred in his arms. Fever-bright eyes fluttered open and searched until they fixed on him.
"Hey," Chris breathed, a relieved smile lighting his face. Ezra smiled uncertainly back at him, not quite sure what was happening.
"You're gonna be just fine, Ezra," he said. "We're gonna take good care of you. You hear me?"
But Ezra was asleep again. Larabee watched him for a moment, counting breaths. He looked west, to the hundred miles of prairie that stretched between them and the safety of Fort Laramie. A hundred miles of unfamiliar territory to be crossed with a killer on their trail and a wounded man and a sick little boy in their care.
He turned back toward the barn. It was time to try to rouse Nathan.
+ + + + + + +
"Hand him down to me, that's it," Nathan ordered, shifting stiffly against a boulder and holding his good arm out for the blanket-wrapped bundle JD was carrying toward him.
"Here we are," JD informed Ezra, bouncing his hip to rouse the boy who had been sleeping fitfully in the saddle with him all afternoon. "You ready to take your medicine?" He grinned as Ezra found the energy to lift his head JD's shoulder and make a face.
"If it that stuff tastes like it smells, can't say I blame you," JD said, touching his forehead gently to Ezra's in a gesture of solidarity before settling him next to the healer.
Nathan shot a mock scowl at the Dunne. "Don't you listen to him, Ezra. This stuff don't smell near as bad as the stuff I cooked up yesterday." Ezra made a skeptical noise and settled into the crook of Nathan's arm.
Nathan pushed Ezra's hair back from his forehead, checking on the bandanna they had been forced to wrap around his eyes two days ago, when sunlight began giving him headaches so severe the tough little boy broke down and sobbed. The fever remained a constant, high burn, sapping his strength, knotting his muscles into painful spasms and settling into his bones until he moved -- when they could get him to move -- like a rheumatic old man.
And none of the cures Nathan could concoct seemed to be helping. He'd pored over the medical texts until he was cross-eyed, finally pitching them aside in disgust and turning to his stock of roots and herbs. If they couldn't cure Ezra, at least the old remedies could ease some of his pain.
As Nathan drew off a cupful of his latest healing tea, Larabee materialized next to him, propping Ezra up to drink.
"How's he doing?" the captain asked, rubbing Ezra's back as the boy began coughing miserably.
"'M fine," Ezra wheezed.
"You will be," Larabee agreed, helping him through another coughing fit, pleased to hear any response from Ezra, even if it was a whopping lie.
There were only a few hours a day now when the boy roused enough from his feverish stupor to realize what was going on around him. The nights were the worst, when the fever spiked and he thrashed about in delirium, trying to escape his uncle, and dead soldiers, and the stuff of even older nightmares. Night after night, Larabee had paced with the trembling child in his arms, murmuring reassurances as the disoriented boy pleaded with him and others he couldn't see not to leave him, not to hurt him, not to hurt Nathan.
Larabee rinsed the last of the foul-smelling tea out of the cup and offered Ezra a drink of fresh water, trying to replace the fluids the boy kept sweating away. He eyed Nathan critically over Ezra's head.
The healer looked dreadful, hunched in pain, still fighting a low-grade fever of his own. Since the morning Larabee roused him to the sight of Ezra tossing and turning in the first grip of the fever, Nathan had stubbornly refused to take another drop of laudanum. He wanted to keep his head clear to care for Ezra, even if it meant enduring days of rough riding with nothing to dull the pain.
The rest of the men weren't looking much better after so many long days and sleepless nights.
A low rumble of thunder drew everyone's attention skyward. Wonderful, Larabee though sourly, studying the black wall of storm clouds building to the west. Just perfect. He cocked an eyebrow at Nathan.
The healer shook his head warningly. "We best get under cover," he said, glancing down at Ezra, who had tilted his blindfolded head toward the sky as if hoping to see the storm roll in. "Camp fever turns to pneumonia real easy." He eyed the rain clouds, leaving the rest unsaid.
Leaving Nathan to coax another cup of tea down Ezra, Larabee made his way to the edge of camp, where Vin kept watch.
He knew the tracker must have gotten some sleep since the attack at the trading post, but damned if he could remember seeing him rest. The former bounty hunter blamed himself for letting the posse get the drop on them, and Larabee suspected the sleepless vigil had something to do with whatever promise Vin had made to Ezra that day that convinced the boy to trust them again.
"We passed a good-sized town a few miles back," Tanner said, before he could ask. "We can get Ezra under a real roof before the storm hits."
+ + + + + + +
An hour later, Vin was listening to the rain patter against the windowpanes of a doctor's office, while he kept his rifle trained on the doctor.
"You can't be here!" the doctor's voice was shrill. "I know who you men are! And I want no part of it!"
Vin winced. Despite their best efforts, Buford Jackson had gotten here ahead of them with his wanted posters and his lies.
"We got a sick little boy here," Larabee studied the doctor like a rattler about to strike. "You want any part in that?"
The doctor sniffed. "Absolutely not. Do you have any idea what people would do if they knew I'd allowed a patient with typhus into my clinic?"
"Nope. But I have a pretty good idea what we'll do to you if you don't tend to him." The doctor swallowed hard and edged away from Larabee to join Nathan and Josiah as they ransacked his supply cabinet.
"Find anything useful, brother?" Josiah asked, eyeing the small mountain of medicines and supplies Nathan had accumulated.
"Headache powders ... Calomel ..." Nathan squinted at the bottle and added it to the pile with a shrug. "Got any quinine?" he called over to the spluttering physician.
"It won't do you any good. Nothing to be done for spotted fever. The patient survives or he doesn't," the doctor sniffed.
Vin gave the man a none-too-gentle shove toward the room where they'd settled Ezra. "The patient survives," he said firmly.
+ + + + + + +
"Must you put him in MY bed?" The doctor whined again, keeping his back pressed against the bedroom wall, staring as the strangers wrapped their urchin in his best eiderdown coverlet.
"Ez here likes feather beds, don'tcha Ez?" Buck grinned down at the patient, who was giving him a very peculiar look. Wilmington wondered what the delirious little boy thought he was seeing now. The other evening, he'd been hard pressed to convince Ezra that JD wasn't a giant talking mackerel.
"Kitty," Ezra pronounced, reaching out an unsteady hand to pat Wilmington's mustache. Buck sighed. It was better than being a mackerel, he supposed.
Chris and Josiah were pulling on their coats. "We'll scout around town for any sign of the posse," Larabee said, stopping Vin as he moved to join them. "We're the only ones they haven't seen."
+ + + + + + +
"And so I says to Buford, `Buford! I will help you track that no-count darkie, no matter where he tries to run,'" The drunk man peered owlishly at Josiah over the rim of his beer mug.
The preacher nodded encouragingly, flagging down the barmaid for another round. Outside, the storm raged. Curtains of rain lashed the street, illuminated by bright flashes of lightning and thunder loud as canon fire.
"'Course, I wasn't expectin' that slave to run quite this far," the man hiccuped. "But s'got to to be done, right? Can't let him get away with stealin' little white boys and choppin' 'em up. That ain't right."
Another member of the posse leaned against Josiah's arm, confidingly. "I heard he done stole that little Standish boy for some voodoo ritual. Drank his blood."
"Heard he half-killed Buford when he cut and run."
There was an outburst of commentary from the other Alabamans around the table. "Naw, I heard he just stabbed Buford in the ass."
"He was ridin' kinda funny the first week we was on the trail."
Josiah cleared his throat. "So when did you get into town, my friends?"
"Yesterday," the first bounty hunter informed him, sighing happily as the barmaid returned with two pitchers of beer. "Buford rode two horses into the ground, getting here. Gonna push on to Fort Laramie tomorrow, turn out the garrison."
Josiah was about to reply when the first cries of alarm went up on the street outside.
+ + + + + + +
A sudden crash of thunder shook the walls of the sickroom, startling a weak cry out of Ezra. He flinched back, trying to twist away from the arms that restrained him, away from the noise and the painfully bright flashes of lightning that lit the room like daylight. Dark shapes loomed over him, and strangely distorted faces and voices swam out of the noise and pain and heat that seemed to fill the whole world.
Something damp and deliciously cool brushed his cheek and he stilled, turning his face toward the relief. The wet cloth moved across his forehead, drawing off some of the fire, and he rolled curious eyes toward the shadow that wavered above him, burbling absolute nonsense.
"...hoop snakes. Yessiree, you'd know an Arkansas hoop snake if you saw one. Hoop snakes're real long -- and their color varies, depending on what kinda of whiskey you've been drinkin--"
"WHAT? Boy's addled enough without listening to your tall tales, Buck."
Thunder crashed again but the cloth kept moving, cooling his neck and shoulders. "Now, Nathan, if the boy's gonna be riding through hoop snake territory, he needs to know such things. Listen up, Ezra. You can tell a hoop snake for sure by the way he moves. See, when a hoop snake wants to travel, he just grabs his tail in his mouth and rolls right along, end over end, until he finds something to bite..."
"Don't you listen to him, boy. Ain't no hoop snakes." The cloth reached his chest and paused.
"What is that, Nathan?"
"Been expecting this. You stay here. I'll go down and see if the doctor's got any salve for these spots."
"It's okay, Buck. Just the way the sickness works. The rash always breaks out around this time. You keep talking to him. You're doin' real good."
A cool hand brushed through Ezra's sweaty hair. "I'll be right back, Ezra. Don't listen to a word Buck says while I'm gone."
There was a soft splash and the sound of dripping water, and then the relief was back, the cool cloth sponging down one of his arms. "Now Ez--" the voice caught, then came back stronger. "Now, Ez, did you ever hear tell of the fur-bearing trout of the Rio Grande?"
+ + + + + + +
Nathan leaned against the wall in the darkened hallway, breathing deeply, trying to will his hands to stop shaking. It was getting worse. Ezra was getting worse. And if the fever ran like the epidemics he'd seen in the slave quarters, the boy was going to get even sicker, until he recovered on his own or...
He shook his head sharply to dislodge the thought and started down the stairs, determined to re-check the supply cabinet for new fever cures while he whipped up something to soothe the faint, rosy lesions that had begun to appear on the boy's torso.
He swayed, bumping against the walls as another wave of dizziness took him. Lord, he was tired. Before he could help Ezra, he would have to take at least a few moments to tend to the gunshot wound that had been opened and re-opened as he bounced along the trail these past days.
"Y'okay, Nathan?" Vin asked quietly from the shadows near the front door. The healer jumped.
"Just lookin' for that doctor. Where'd you stow him?"
Vin jerked his chin toward the examining room in the back of the house. "JD's keeping an eye on him."
Nathan nodded absently, his mind already running through possible treatment options. He pushed at the door to the doctor's office, frowning when the door opened just a few inches and stuck.
"JD?" he called, throwing his good shoulder into the door and shoving hard. The only response was the creak of door hinges as they swung open a few more inches.
"VIN!" Nathan hollered over his shoulder pushing harder at the door. "VI--! Oh, there you are." Together, they shoved the door open a precious few more inches until there was enough space for the lean tracker to shimmy through.
"JD's down," Vin called back to him, coughing suddenly. "Whole room smells kinda..."
There was a thump, then silence. Nathan thumped his own forehead against the door, exasperated. He took a deep breath, held it, backed up, and ran full-tilt at the door. The hinges popped and he found himself lying on top of the door, on top of JD, nose-to-nose with an unconscious Vin.
Still holding his breath, he staggered across the room to an open window, leaning out for a gasp of air. He turned back, eyes stinging from the fumes that filled the room, and heaved the door off JD. He grabbed the kid by the collar of his blue uniform jacket and hauled him into the clear air in the doctor's foyer.
Ignoring the shriek of protest from his shoulder, he returned to collect Vin, noting the smashed glass on the floor near the spot where JD fell. He toed the label of the broken bottle until he could see it. Ether. He manhandled Vin out of the room and dropped him next to JD. What had he read about ether?
His eyes fell on the burning oil lamp on the hallway table. Damn! He bolted back into the examining room, grabbed the two lamps off the doctor's desk and tossed them out the open window. There were enough ether fumes in the room to blow the entire house sky-high. As an added precaution, he dragged a heavy rag rug across the room and dropped it over the ether puddle.
Only then could he check on the downed men. Vin simply looked asleep, but JD was chalk-white, his breathing so shallow Nathan was sure for a moment it had stopped altogether.
"BUCK!" he screamed. "We got trouble!"
Wilmington appeared at the top of the stairs, clutching a blanket-wrapped Ezra in one arm, a rifle in the other. His eyes widened as he took in the two motionless forms on the hallway floor. "What the hell happened? Where the hell's the doctor?" He bounded down the stairs and set Ezra gently against the far wall before coming to help.
"Looks like the doctor got the drop on JD. Broke a bottle of ether at his feet," Nathan gasped, closing his eyes as he felt the floor rock and sway beneath him. "He's probably raising the alarm in town right now."
They looked from the unconscious men at their feet to the unaware little boy twisting restlessly in his covers, watching brightly-colored hoop snakes wheel through the air around him.
Buford was coming. And there was no way they could get everyone away in time.
+ + + + + + +
The disheveled doctor burst through the saloon doors, shrieking about runaway slaves and rogue soldiers.
Josiah took advantage of the pandemonium that followed to grab the two closest posse members and crack their heads together like acorns. The men slid bonelessly to the floor as the preacher repeated the process on two more Alabama boys. The others had moved out of reach, eagerly pumping the hysterical doctor for information. Any minute, the crowd would work out the fact that the fugitives were holed up in the doctor's office.
Josiah slipped out of the saloon, checked the street in both directions, and started running.
+ + + + + + +
Buford Jackson stared moodily into the brandy snifter cradled between his left hand and the ruin of his right. He rotated the glass slightly until the rich amber liquor obscured his view of the immaculate bandage and the two fingers that protruded from it. The two missing fingers and thumb had been added to the reckoning soon to be paid by the slave and the boy.
He leaned back in the padded armchair and tucked the maimed hand into the front of his vest, squinting down to admire the effect. One must wear the scars of battle with a certain panache.
All in all, he stood a good chance of returning home in honor and glory, once he retrieved his property and stilled the flapping tongues in Colbert County. No longer would his neighbors laugh up their sleeves at the idea of Master Jackson laid out flat by a runaway and a tiny boy. No longer would they speculate about abolitionist leanings in his family tree.
Buford would kill the talk. He would kill the strange light he saw shining in the eyes of the field hands as he galloped past them in pursuit of the slippery pair. He would drag Nathan Jackson back in chains and see he paid -- and paid publicly -- for the tragic murder of sweet young Ezra Standish.
The boy, he'd drown in a pond like a kitten.
And when he returned to the estate, he'd throw the whelp a funeral so splendid it would be the talk of Society for months to come. He raised his glass in a left-handed salute. To Ezra. Without Ezra, he might not be here now, poised to retrieve his property.
In Kentucky, the fugitives' trail had veered from north to west, then simply vanished. Until word came of a picayune card sharp who'd been seen fleecing street crowds in some dusty little burg in Missouri. From there, it was a simple bit of guesswork to set them on the Oregon Trail, bound for San Francisco. That was the direction Maude had been heading, after all, when she wrote to the boy during his first weeks at the plantation. Buford hadn't bothered to pass along the letter she mailed a month later, informing her son of a change in plans. She was in New Orleans now, he believed, grooming husband-to-be number three or four.
Idly, he wondered if the slave and the boy were still traveling together. There'd been no sign of the little back-stabber back at the trading post. Perhaps the slave did away with him after all. Pity. He'd looked forward to killing his nephew himself.
He pushed the matter from his mind and returned to contemplation of his hand. Perhaps a customized glove, one with replicas of the lost digits carved from finest ivory.
The hotel door crashed open, allowing wind, rain and one of the slack-jawed dolts from his posse to enter the snug, comfortable lobby of his hotel.
"We found `em, sir! The slave and the boy, both!"
Buford heaved himself out of his chair, checking the brace of pistols at his waist and the slim dagger tucked up his ruffled sleeve.
"Though you said the boy was dead, sir?"
Buford elbowed past him and onto the street.
+ + + + + + +
The growing commotion on the street pulled Larabee's attention away from the deputy he'd pinned to the wall with a glare and a forearm under the chin.
"Thanks for the information," he grunted, flipping a few coins to the bartender who'd been an unwilling witness to the interrogation. "Next round's on me."
He released the deputy, who slid slowly down the wall to the floor, hugging his knees. The bartender seemed to be trying to retract his head into his own shirt collar like a turtle. Larabee turned and headed out the door of the saloon, eyeing the townsfolk milling about in the rain like fools.
He started toward the hotel where the deputy said Buford was staying. Until he caught a few of the words being repeated over and over by the crowd. Slave. Boy. Doctor's place.
Forgetting Buford, Larabee bolted back toward the doctor's house, expecting any minute to hear the mob take off behind him in howling pursuit.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah slipped in the thick mud in the doctor's front yard and nearly went sprawling at the feet of the two figures who were lurching awkwardly across the lawn in the driving rain.
"Buck?" he yelled into the wind, wiping his eyes as another flash of lightening illuminated Wilmington and the limp figure he was half-carrying, half-dragging through the downpour. JD. "JD? We need to get out of here! The doctor--"
Buck nodded distractedly, moving again. "We know! Get inside! Help Nate! I'll be right behind you!" He turned away, tilting the kid's face up to catch the shockingly cold rainwater, slapping his pale cheeks in an effort to bring him around.
Josiah stared after him for a moment, then waded toward the house.
Inside, he found Vin unconscious on the floor and Nathan training a rifle on the door, ready to blow him to kingdom come.
"Hey, Josiah," the healer said calmly, lowering the weapon. "Think you could help Ezra get dressed and ready to go? Don't look like we're gonna get to wait out the storm after all."
Without a word, Josiah scooped Ezra off the floor and hurried him upstairs. He tugged off the nightshirt and bundled the boy back into his traveling clothes and layers of blankets. Ezra coughed, pushing at the hot covers until he freed his arms to wrap around the preacher's neck. With a happy sigh, he rested his hot cheek against the cold, rain-soaked uniform jacket.
Another flash of lightening drew Josiah to the window to watch as the street outside began to fill with the beginnings of a lynch mob.
Below, he heard the front door slam open again and Chris's voice calling everyone together.
+ + + + + + +
Four...five... Larabee sighed as Josiah made his way down the stairs with Ezra. Seven.
He eyed Nathan and mentally excluded him from the tally of able-bodied men as the healer swayed and nearly toppled across Vin's legs. Vin was moving sluggishly and JD still slept like the dead. Ezra huddled in his blankets, shivering, as Josiah set him down next to Nathan and moved toward the window, guns drawn.
Three able bodies, then. Three against the mob outside.
"Whadaya think, Ol' Dog? Do we make a run for it?" Buck asked him, using the barrel of his gun to ease the lace curtains away from the window.
Larabee thought back over his conversation with the twitchy little deputy. The local sheriff had called in the cavalry as soon as Buford hit town. The troops from Fort Laramie would be here by morning.
"If we can hold out `til morning, we'll be getting reinforcements out of Laramie," he said. He eyed the storm. They wouldn't get far in that, especially if they had to haul four invalids.
A bullet shattered one of the windows and punched into the wall beside Larabee's head. He threw himself to the floor, swiping the lamp off its stand as he fell. He worked his way across the floor as Buck and Josiah knocked the remaining glass out of the windows and fired warning shots over the heads of the crowd. The mob fell back a few steps.
In the silence that followed, a voice rang out -- a sinuous drawl, poisonously polite.
"Nathan?" Buford Jackson called out from the darkness. "It's been too long, Nathan. Why don't you come outside now and return my nephew to me and let all these fine folk return to their homes?"
Nathan drew a deep breath and prayed his voice would come out sounding strong and confident. "You leave Ezra out of this! It's me you want, ain't it?" He curled his good arm around the child, who had huddled into a motionless ball at the sound of Buford's voice.
"Leave my own flesh and blood?" Buford taunted. "You don't know me at all, Boy. Besides, who would look after my poor, dear nephew after your soldier friends are hanged for the murder of my men?"
More shots peppered the house. Larabee crouched beside Buck, trying to draw a bead on Buford, but the man was lost in the crowd and the rain.
"Ezra?" Buford called. The boy flinched at the sound of a fever dream come to life. "Come to Uncle Buford, my boy. Or would you rather Uncle Buford came in after you?"
Nathan lunged toward the door, shouting a denial, and collided with Vin, who had shaken off enough of the anesthetic to be dangerous again. The two men went down in a heap as Larabee and Josiah moved to disentangle them.
Several long moments passed before anyone realized that Ezra was gone.
+ + + + + + +
The cold rain lashed Ezra's face, soaking through to the skin and shocking him out of the feverish panic that had carried him out of the house and away from the safety of his friends. And still he ran, through the dark, feeling the waterlogged stalks of prairie grass lash at his hands and tangle around his feet.
He doubled over, coughing violently, still staggering forward. Get out of the house. Get out of the house or Uncle Buford would come in. He shivered, slowing, feeling the full weight of exhaustion, illness and a sopping wet wool coat. He stumbled to his knees, wincing as a bright flash of lightening seemed to stab directly into his aching head.
Another long strand of grass had snared his leg and he stared down in dazed fascination at the loop of greenery around his ankle. Hoop snake, a voice in his head observed sagely. Hoop snakes are a force of nature to be reckoned with. Buck said that. Where was Buck? He wrenched his leg free of the entangling grass and tripped backward, falling flat on his back. He sat up slowly, rubbing his head, hot tears mixing with cold raindrops.
Sniffling, he staggered to his feet and stared miserably out into the storm. He wanted Nathan. He wanted Josiah and Buck and JD and Vin. He wanted Chris. He wanted to go home.
He was still standing there, looking around uncertainly, when a hand shot out of the darkness and knotted around his coat. It yanked him up, high off the ground, to dangle face-to-face with the stuff of nightmares.
"Dear nephew," Buford purred. "Feel like a swim?"
+ + + + + + +
"Stay here," Larabee barked as every conscious man in the room started toward the back door. "Hold that crowd off until the Army gets here. I'll get Ezra."
Stupid. Larabee berated himself as he slipped outside and peered through the rain. A lucky flash of lightening illuminated a small, distant shape stumbling across the fields. If someone had asked him, he would have bet any amount of money that Ezra was too sick to crawl, never mind run such a distance. You'd think by now they would have learned not to underestimate the boy.
He ran through the rain, hoping for another flash of lightening to pinpoint Ezra. The flash came, but from the ground, not the sky. A thunderclap swallowed the sound of gunfire as something knocked Larabee's left leg out from under him. One of his guns went flying into the wet grass.
Swearing, he rolled, clutching at the bleeding wound, firing through the dark at the last two members of Buford's posse. He heard one man scream and drop, but the other must have found himself better cover, keeping Larabee pinned in the grass as the next flash of lightening revealed Ezra, not far away, struggling weakly in his uncle's clutches.
The other gunman unwisely chose that moment to break cover. Larabee dropped him, then took off after Ezra, one hand clutching his leg, the other an empty gun.
+ + + + + + +
Buford tightened his grip on the squirming boy, cursing the injury that kept him from doling out punishment with his right hand. The boy was just asking for a slap. Or a dagger between the ribs.
Buford cast about for a suitable body of water. It would be a fitting end for the boy who'd bitten his uncle when he tried to dispose of that last litter of kittens in the mill pond. The kittens escaped, and young Ezra had been escorted to the fencing hall for his first lesson in gentlemanly dispute resolution.
He cocked his head toward the sound of gunfire, smiling as the lightening showed a tall man in a blue uniform spinning to the ground.
"Now look what you've done, Ezra," he laughed. "You've forced my men to kill one of your soldier friends. We're going to kill them all, you know. All your soldiers. And that buffalo hunter who took my hand. And Nathan? We're going to hang Nathan from the tallest tree in the county. And we're going to leave him hanging there until the flesh falls off his bones, so everyone can see -- what a bad boy Ezra Standish is."
His words broke off with a yelp as small, sharp teeth sank into his good hand. He shook the little terrier off and stalked over to a puddle deep enough to qualify as a small pond.
With an ugly smile, he hauled the child close enough to make out his pale features in the dark. "I'll kill them all. And it will be. All. Your. Fault." He shook the limp body violently with each word. "No wonder your mother didn't want you. A bad, insolent, thieving boy like you? Who would?"
Buford spun, clutching the boy before him like a shield.
Larabee leveled his empty gun at the man's head, trying to keep his weight off his injured leg without making it obvious. "I want the boy. Hand him over before I start shooting off some more fingers."
Before Buford could reply, Ezra sagged in his arms, taken with a coughing fit so violent he almost shook free from his uncle's grip.
"What's ailing you, boy?" Buford hissed suspiciously.
A wide, evil smile split Larabee's face.
"Typhus," he said.
Buford threw the child at Larabee and bolted, scrubbing his hand against his coat as he ran. The captain caught Ezra against his chest, cradling him in one hand while the other went fishing through the boy's pockets, looking for Ezra's good luck charm. His shaking fingers pushed past the harmonica and rocks and closed over the bullet.
"Thank you Ezra," he whispered, kissing the chilled forehead. He loaded the ammunition and took aim on Buford Jackson's fleeing back. He hesitated.
"Hey Buford!" he hollered. Buford spun around, pistol drawn. With a grunt of satisfaction, Larabee put Ezra's bullet right between Buford's eyes. He turned and was limping away with the boy before the body hit the ground.
+ + + + + + +
Morning found the doctor's house under a halfhearted siege. Once Buford and his posse were out of the picture, the town sheriff had been more than happy to simply keep watch on the house until the Army arrived to take this problem off his hands.
He'd even sent the doctor in to them -- over the doctor's loud objections -- when he heard they had a sick child and injured men inside.
Vin waved down at the watchers from the bedroom window. The watchers waved back. He turned his attention back to the room, squinting against the remnants of an ether headache.
Once he'd gotten over his fright, the doctor had proved useful after all. He'd patched up Larabee, tended Nathan when he finally collapsed on them late in the evening. And, looking slightly abashed, he brewed up some stimulants for them to pour down JD.
He'd also tended Ezra, his resigned expression telling them what he was afraid to say aloud. Now Larabee sat in the rocking chair in the corner of the room, his leg propped up on a stool and the boy wrapped in his arms. Back and forth he rocked, whispering to Ezra.
The dull thud of horse hooves brought Vin back to the window to watch as a double column of cavalry approached the house, led by an old man in civilian garb and trailed by the barred wagon that would carry them all to Fort Laramie for trial.
+ + + + + + +
"That's quite a story." Judge Orin Travis folded his hands on the doctor's dining room table and studied the three bedraggled soldiers with an unreadable expression.
Larabee's eyes narrowed. Josiah and Buck exchanged glances behind his back, trying to decide if the meeting was going well for them.
"Let's review, shall we? You came across the runaways two weeks ago, when they blundered into your fort and interrupted you as you were in the process of incinerating government property..." The judge paused, waiting see if anyone was going to object.
Larabee nodded for him to continue.
"And instead of reporting the situation immediately to the regional command at Fort Leavenworth, the you opted to take matters into your own hands and head west in search of the individual you blame for the outbreak -- a supply clerk?"
"And you just decided to take two civilians and a child along for the ride?"
Something flickered behind the captain's eyes as he met the judge's piercing gaze.
Buck stirred restlessly, waiting for Chris to say something in their defense. When the old man put it like that, it made them sound like a pack of lunatics.
Travis sat back with a sigh, pinching the bridge of his nose. He didn't even want to think about the legal tangle that lay before him. Killings, assaults, riots, arson, trespassing, kidnapping, dereliction of duty, aiding and abetting a fugitive, and flight with an unrelated minor across one, two, four states and two territories. Seldom had so few broken so many laws in so many different jurisdictions.
He shook his head sharply, pushing back from the table. This was neither the time nor the place to settle this case. "Gentlemen," he said, signaling the guards stationed around the room. "You wanted to see Fort Laramie. You're about to get your wish."
The guards stepped forward, manacles and leg irons rattling in their hands.
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