Ezra looked up from the game of solitaire laid out on the black-lacquered papier-maché tea tray Sarah had lent him for the purpose, blinking as he realized the bedroom was beginning to grow dim. It must, he reflected, be after seven; the almanac hed been given last week set todays sunset at five minutes past. "You should light a lamp," said Chris Larabee from the doorway. "Ruin your eyes doin that."
"The advice is not unwarranted," Ezra admitted. "Unfortunately no one has thought to provide me with any matches."
"I can take care of that," the man said. He set the tray he was carrying on the top of the bureau and came around the bed to the nightstand, where he soon had the small glass-bowled lamp going. "Dont remember ever seein that kind of game before," he added, peering past the boys arm at the layout, which featured two vertical rows of four cards each, separated by space enough for two more. Apparently the center spaces were supposed to be occupied by foundations building up in suit from the aces.
"It is called Presidents Cabinet," Ezra told him. "Two decks. Difficult, but its chief recommendation under my current circumstances is that it requires only a small space to play."
"Ten of diamonds," Chris pointed out, and Ezra looked, then moved it. "How many kinds of solitaire do you know?"
"A hundred and four," said Ezra blandly. "And twenty-nine kinds of poker, although I prefer to stick with orthodox draw and stud."
Larabee whistled softly. "Didnt know there were that many kinds of poker." He nodded toward the dresser. "Want some supper?"
Ezra blinked. "I had not realized it had grown so late. Thank you. Would you be kind enough to shift my game to some secure location until I can finish my meal?"
Chris lifted the tray off his lap and set it on the floor beside the bed, where gusts of breeze were unlikely to disturb the cards. He replaced it with his own tray, which was loaded with one of Sarahs typical hearty suppers: sliced ham, cold chicken, potato hash, fresh brown-crusted bread, honey, grape jelly, quince and red-currant jams, a tall glass of milk, gingerbread with butter frosting, and a baked apple. "Hows the leg?" he asked.
"As might be expected," said Ezra. "But I am growin accustomed to the discomfort."
"Nate took the stitches out the last time he was here, didnt he?"
The boy shuddered briefly. "Yes. It is not an experience I would care to repeat."
"Know what you mean," Chris agreed. "Had it done myself a few times. Guess the only way to avoid it is to manage not to get shot. You need anything for the ache?"
"I would rather the ache than the reaction I seem to have to the laudanum," Ezra replied frankly. "It is not so bad, now that the wound is closed. Mr. Tanner was kind enough to provide a scratchin stick such as he says the Apaches use; once I was able to insert it under the dressings, it proved ideally suited to copin with the itch, and even that is fadin now."
"Think you might be able to tolerate a trip to town tomorrow?"
Ezra looked up sharply from the slice of bread he was spreading with honey and jam. "Whatever for? Even if I went, I will not be ambulatory for more than six weeks yet." He nodded toward the commercial calendar someone had hung up on the wall opposite the bed, the August page still pristine except for the crossed-off first day. Chris knew that the seventeeth of September had been circled in red ink to show the day Ezra was supposed to be able to start using a crutch.
"Rest of us are goin," said Chris. "Judge Travis got in today. Were gonna take Buck and finalize the adoption. Figured it was only fair to have the whole family there."
"I...see," said Ezra slowly. "Yes, it would hardly be right to force Mrs. Larabee or Mr. Tanner to remain behind with me when they could be in attendance for the induction of your new son."
Chris picked up the Hitchcock chair and brought it alongside the bed, setting it down reversed and straddling it, his arms resting on the back. "It wasnt just them I was thinkin about."
Ezra kept his face turned down to his plate, forking meat and hash neatly into his mouth as he tried to decide how best to respond. His natural instinct for self-protection urged him to do everything he could to avoid antagonizing the man, but he was finding it very difficult to understand the situation he was in, Mr. Tanners assurances to the contrary. And for someone who had spent his life being shuffled from one home to another, uncertainty was a bugbear of Gargantuan proportions. He had learned to expect it, to live with it, but he still hated it. Every day he wanted to know who was going to be sitting with him, what games they planned to play, how long he would be left to his own devices, what he could have to read, what was going on out in the yard, whether anyone was going out on the range and when they might be expected to return, what would be served for each meal. He tried to maintain a façade of bored disinterest and uninvolvement, knowing that whatever these people said to him, they really didnt understand--that he would stay because he had to, live where he was told to, and adjust as best he could until Mother came back, or sent for him. Yet at the same time, the longer he remained here, the more he saw of the CL-Cross family, the more he longed to be a part of it, or something equally as good. After ten days in their home he was even beginning to think that he might have been wrong, that they didnt want anything from him, werent working any angle--that, as with Buck, it might be a case of what he saw being what he got. Hed been so often betrayed and disappointed that he didnt want to believe it, yet he couldnt deny what his highly trained perceptions suggested to him.
"I am not Buck," he said quietly. "You know yourself that you will not--cannot--have complete legal custody of me, that one day, when my injuries have healed, I will have to leave. In any case, I do not wish to be a burden. You did not ask to have my invalid self inflicted upon you. It is bad enough that I must be here at all--which is no reflection on the quality of the care I have received, but merely an acknowledgment that I know my presence is an imposition. I am quite accustomed to bein left to my own devices. As long as Mr. Tanner takes the time to assist me in satisfyin natures demands before you depart, there is no real reason for you to trouble yourselves over me."
Chris breathed in with a rippling sound like that of a disturbed horse. "I dont like you usin words like that, Ezra," he said, equally as evenly. " Imposition and trouble arent things we think of in connection with you. Whats it gonna take to convince you of that?"
Ezra swallowed a mouthful of food past the thick lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat. "Nothin it is in your power to provide, sir."
Larabee sighed. "Im not a man who finds it easy to admit Ive been wrong," he said slowly. "But I guess I probably didnt make you feel very welcome, after I found out you were connected somehow with Whittingtons stolen mare. I see now that you were just doin what you had to, to survive and protect Buck. Or at least you thought that was what you were doin, which is sometimes the same thing; Ive done enough gun work to know that. So Id like to apologize for givin you a bad impression. If youre grown up enough to make the choices you did, I owe you the same courtesy Id expect for myself. That bein the case, lets talk like two men. I think you made a big mistake kitin off on your own to Broken Bow. I think you shouldve told Vin and me the truth and let us help you. I dont know how the hell you thought you were gonna find Bucks mothers things. And I dont want you to ever run out on us again. But Vin seems to think you aint been taught much about trust, so maybe I shouldnt really be too surprised. And its done now, and what you did was intended to help someone else, so even if you werent laid up, it wouldnt be right for me to punish you for it."
Ezra eyed him cautiously. Was this what it sounded like? "I had no intention of askin for anyones commendation," he said.
"I know. You meant to recover the stuff if you could, send it back to us, and then take off for I dont know where. You figured youd never see us again. That makes it all the more noteworthy, cause you were doin it just to satisfy your own notion of right and wrong."
There it was again, that whole vexing question of morality. "Dont delude yourself, Mr. Larabee. I know what I am, and I do not pretend to be anythin else. You do not want anythin of my sort dwellin in your home, corruptin your children. I realize that for the present I am without other recourse, but I assure you I do not propose to encumber you with my presence a minute beyond the necessary."
The rancher looked at him so steadily that Ezra found it difficult to meet his gaze. "Kind of young to be sellin yourself so low, aint you?"
Ezra shrugged. "My kinfolk--the vast majority of them--have taught me well what my place is. Why should I believe I am, or will be, any more welcome here than I have been in their homes? They at least were obligated by blood and honor to accept me, however grudgingly. You are not."
Again Larabee sighed. "Im beginning to see what Vin meant when he said he thought you and him were alike," he mused. "There was a connection between the two of us from the first day we met--I dont know if hes told you that; but even with that foundation to build on, it took me over a year to convince him that he didnt have to think of himself as a savage or an outcast. But theres something youre forgettin, Ezra. I raise horses. Workin with horses takes patience. Theyre not like cattle, half brainless and easy to work as long as theyre in a bunch." He snorted. "Never had much use for the damn critters, except on a platter. Thats why Vins the only man I let call me cowboy. But the point is, you runnin yourself down and expectin the worst isnt too different from a young colt when he shies and fights and kicks--and the two of you do it for exactly the same reason, because youre in a strange situation and dont know whats gonna happen. Youre scared, and its my job to show you theres nothin to be scared of. If youd fallen in with a cattleman, he might not have seen the connection, but I do. Ask any horse wrangler and hell tell you--every animal in his remuda has a name and a personality, and he knows em all. People are the same way. So dealin with people--all the different kinds of em--may come just a little easier to a horse breeder, which could be one reason Judge Travis tapped me to wear the badge in these parts. Youre not gonna shake me loose, any more than the colt can shake the saddle off."
Ezra looked up again, studying the mans angular face, remembering a maxim he had heard somewhere, that a mans eyes show what he was born with, and his mouth shows what hes done with it. He had been trained from childhood in how to detect lies, and he felt instinctively that Larabee was telling the truth--at least insofar as he saw it; but he was so blinkered by his own raising that he found it difficult to believe truth even when it was presented to him, so convinced that everyone around him had some sort of agenda--generally one that involved the possibility of exploitation of him--that he could hardly accept the existence of someone who didnt. Was this what "good" people--really good--were like? How could he be sure? He remembered again his wistful thoughts of having a place, a family, Mr. Tanner as a friend, brothers who would treat him as such and not as merely a temporary and unwelcome appurtenance. He was so used to disappointment where trusting others was concerned that even the bare possibility that his hopes might be fulfilled was enough to send him reeling.
"You have asked for frankness," he said. "Very well, let us be frank. I owe you, and Mr. Tanner, and the others my life. I am well aware of that--and not so lost to my obligations as a gentleman that I do not acknowledge it to myself. Had Mr. Dunne not dropped off the roof onto Sheriff Addisons shoulders, he would almost certainly have succeeded in takin me with him when he fled, and eventually he would have killed me. He was quite plain in tellin me that was all I could expect. It troubles me that I have no foreseeable means of repayin the debt in kind, handicapped as I am. My only option is to acquiesce to any demands you may make of me...and I do not enjoy makin blind bets."
"We dont ask you for anything, Ezra," Larabee replied gently. "We dont see it as a debt, and we didnt take you on for the sake of some future use we thought you might be to us." Ezra remembered what Vin had had to say on the same subject. "Now, Ill admit I never lived down South, except during the War, and that doesnt go very far toward givin a man an understanding of the people hes dealin with. Ive spent most of my life west of the Missouri, and out here we figure that if youre any good, you dont keep reminding a man that youve saved his bacon. Maybe its different where you come from. Josiah says different people follow different drummers. All right. Ive got a notion youve had to go through a lot of changes in your time. Think of us as just another example of the same thing. We march to a different drummer than youre used to. Accept that and get used to our rhythm. I think you may find you like it. As for your family--well, I wont tell you exactly what I think of them for teachin you to have such low expectations of yourself and other people, except to say that its their loss. I happen to think theres more to you than youre willing to admit. And remember, I wasnt always a horse rancher. I used to be in a line where I had to learn to read people accurately. Its not a skill you lose."
Ezra found an unaccustomed hopefulness welling up in his chest, along with a sense of belonging--or at least the potential to belong--beyond any experience or description. "And what of the future?" he asked.
"We cant make you stay if you dont want to, once youre on your feet," said Chris. "We know that. You ran away from the orphanage, youd probably find it just as easy to run away from here. Youre twelve, in this country thats almost grown, old enough to make some decisions for yourself. We just feel that..." he hesitated, "that maybe you deserve a chance to see that all families arent like the ones youve lived with up to now. To have a fresh start. Every man deserves at least one chance at a fresh start, if he wants it. I told Buck that too. I showed Vin it was true, years ago. Nathan, Josiah, even JD have all figured it out for themselves. As for myself...well, I guess it was meetin Sarah that gave me mine. Why should it be any different for you? Why shouldnt you have at least as much of an opportunity as the rest of us?"
Ezra swallowed. "I would like to believe it is possible," he admitted, and only he knew what it cost him to say the words, to reveal how truly vulnerable he felt.
"Then give us the chance to prove it is," Chris suggested. "And the first step you can make in that direction is to come into town with us tomorrow."
The boy looked at his splinted leg. "I presume you intend to use the buckboard," he observed. "I suppose you have already considered the logistics of the thing. But if it is all the same to you, I would prefer not to meet with the Judge en negligée."
Chris chuckled. "I think we can get around that. Might have to slit the leg of one of the trousers out of your trunk, but well get you dressed."
Friday, August 2
Next morning, after chores and breakfast, Chris went upstairs to help Ezra get ready for the trip into town, while Vin laid a cornshuck mattress in the bed of the buckboard, rigged a canvas fly from the back of the seat to shade the boys head and face, filled the vehicles small water-butt and got the team hitched up and Peso and Chriss Blackhawk saddled. Sarah had laid out clothes for Buck and Adam the evening before, deliberately choosing their second-best so Buck wouldnt feel out of place amidst a family all duded up for Sunday. Each boy had a pair of tan corduroy pants, riders half-boots, a good shirt with a decent collar--white with pale green stripes for Adam, pale blue for Buck--a salt-and-pepper vest and a string tie--one red, one black. Adam had his dust-colored Stetson, the brim left flat in imitation of his fathers Californio hat, with its good silver-ornamented band, and Buck had the new one hed chosen for himself in town last week, a broad-brimmed mouse-gray one with four dents in the crown bringing it to a sharp peak, a long jaw strap doubling through a bit of bone Vin had carved for the purpose.
Ezra at first wanted to wear his best suit, an all-wool navy tricot with knee pants and a double-breasted jacket, but when he was reminded that the pants would have to be slit to get them over his splints, he agreed to accept a pair of Adams that were slightly too small for either one of them, light, finely-striped ones, full-length in the common Western style, with one of his own Eton jackets and a good shirt of striped chambray, a ruffle finishing off the cuffs, spreading collar, and front closure. He fussed with his hair and the knot in his bright plaid silk tie until Chris began to roll his eyes, and finished off the outfit with a dark plaid yachting cap. Then the two men carried him downstairs in the stretcher Vin had made, and got him settled comfortably on the shuck tick, with a couple of pillows covered in calico stuffed behind his back so he could sit up. The horses had been curried and brushed to within an inch of their lives, their hooves painted with neats-foot oil to make them gleam; Sarah had selected a French organdie summerweight frock with a lavender and white design on a black ground and a lush broad-brimmed leghorn hat trimmed with cream lace, ribbons, and yellow roses, and even Vin had recognized the ceremony of the occasion by donning his best pearl-gray doeskin suit and a fire-red linen shield-style shirt. Chris wore his customary Californio hat and spurs, with an embroidered cotton Mexican shirt and a bobtail jacket of smooth caramel-colored wool, plaid pants and his best boots and bone-handled Peacemaker. Adam proudly took over the reins, leaving his mother free to hold Katie in her lap, and Buck sat beside him, bright-eyed and eager, while Vin and Chris rode as flankers on either side of the vehicle.
It was only a little after nine when they pulled into Four Corners and drew up in front of the Clarion office, where Judge Travis always stayed when he was in town; the Judge had agreed that since this was a civil matter, it would be better for Buck to do it privately, in chambers. Buck for his part had never met Travis before, but even the stern craggy features and the cool gray eyes behind the spectacles didnt dampen his innate honesty, his eagerness to please and be liked, and his deep desire to make everyone happy. He shook hands politely and sat down on Mary Traviss green plush medallion-back sofa between Adam and Sarah, while Travis arranged his papers on the marble-topped center table. "This custody hearing is now in session," he began. "In the matter of the Third Federal Circuit Court of the Territory of New Mexico, regarding the minor child known as Buck Wilmington--" He stopped and peered over his spectacles at Buck. "Is Buck your proper name?"
"No, sir, Your Honor," said Buck. "Its Bucklin. But Ma always called me Buck."
"Bucklin, then," said Travis, and wrote it down. "Do you have a middle name?"
The boys brows drew together in puzzlement and he looked up at the man to his left. "Mister Chris?"
"What the Judge means is, do you have any other name besides Bucklin and Wilmington? Anything that comes between em?"
Buck chewed on the question for a minute. "I dont think so. Am I sposed to?"
Chris smiled at him reassuringly. "Maybe your ma just couldnt think of one she liked. Your Honor, Sarah and I have been talkin about it, and--if its all right with Buck--wed like to mark his becomin part of our family by givin him the middle name of Joshua, after my father." He looked to the boy again. "How does that sound to you, Buck? It would make you Bucklin Joshua. "
"Id like to be named after your pa, Mister Chris--longs I can still be Buck too," the boy said.
"Oh, we plan to call you Buck for everyday," Chris assured him. "Ill take that as a yes. Your Honor?"
"I see no reason you shouldnt bestow a middle name of your choice," Travis agreed. "Very well, Bucklin Joshua he is. Now, the courts primary concern is to place him in a home fitted to provide for his material comfort, spiritual growth, and emotional security. As regards the question of blood relatives, we know only of his mother, Rosalie Wilmington, deceased. To the best of the courts knowledge, she left no will, and while we have heard of a friend, believed to be a former employer, known only as Miz Abigail, we have no firsthand testimony or instructions from the late Mrs. Wilmington regarding either her situation, her reputation, or her fitness or willingness to assume his care. As to Sheriff Chris Larabee, he is an appointed officer of this court and a respected and successful ranch owner, with a sterling name in these parts, and he and his wife have already shown themselves to be able parents. They have willingly assumed the care of the minor child Bucklin Joshua during his recent bout with measles, even though they had no moral or legal obligation to do so, and state in papers filed before this court that they and their children have grown genuinely fond of him." He fixed his steel-colored gaze on Buck. "The subject of this hearing is, of course, a minor, and has an incompetent standing at law. But here in the Territories we approach civil matters with somewhat more creativity than is customary in the older regions of the country, since we are still in the process of enacting legal codes to live by. Buck, will you come here, please?"
Buck looked from Chris to Sarah, received their nods and walked over to stand beside the Judges chair. "Yes, sir?"
"Have the Larabees told you that they want to adopt you?"
"Yes, sir. Miz Sarah told me all about it on the back porch."
"And did Miz Sarah also explain what it would mean for you to be adopted?"
"Yes, sir. She said Id be their son just like Adam is, and Katie would be my sister, and Adam would be my brother, and Mister Chris would be my pa, and Mister Vin would be my uncle kinda. She said Id live with them on the ranch till I grow up, and theyd look after me and teach me to work with the horses--Id like to work with the horses," he added.
"Would you now? And do you like Miz Sarah and Mister Chris and their family?"
"Yes, sir, lots."
"Are they good to you?"
"Do you have a bed to sleep in? Do you have food to eat?"
"Is the food good?"
"Yes, sir, better than Bellas even. Bella was our cook in Kansas City." Too late Buck remembered he had promised not to talk about where hed come from, and looked uneasily back at Chris. But Chris didnt seem troubled at his slip. He recalled what Chris had said in the barn: "You must never, never let anyone know that your ma was a prostitute or that you lived in a bordello, unless Sarah or Vin or I tell you its okay. Well only tell you that when were sure the person youre tallkin to isnt a hypocrite." They hadnt told him, but maybe they knew that the Judge wasnt a hypocrite and figured hed know it too. In a way he did; he felt that although the Judge looked hard and fierce, like an eagle, he was a good man.
"Are you ever hungry?"
"Only just right before we get called to the table," said Buck, and Vin snorted a strangled laugh.
"Does anyone ever hurt you at the ranch?"
Bucks eyes widened and he shook his head hard. "They wouldnt do that, Your Honor."
"So they dont? And they never say unkind things to you?"
"Never, never, never!" said Buck.
"Is living there better than living at the orphanage in Rincon County?"
"Yes, sir, ever so much."
"And would you like to be able to go on living there? Would you like it if you knew that no one could ever take you away from them?"
For the first time Buck hesitated. He lowered his eyes and slid an uneasy glance toward the Larabees and Vin, and then to the antique chaise longue where Ezra lay, with his splinted leg stretched out on the long ottoman in front of him. He muttered something Travis couldnt quite catch. "What was that?" the Judge prompted.
"Like it better if Ezra could stay there too," the boy repeated softly. "Miz Sarah said they was gonna ask you to make it so he could."
"Is it important to you for Ezra to be there?" Travis asked.
Buck nodded. " Cos if he hadnt let me go with him when he run away from thorphnage, I wouldnt of ever met any of em there."
Travis considered this. "If I asked you what the best thing was that you could remember about the orphanage, could you give me an answer?"
"Leavin it," said Buck firmly. "And Ezra. Hes my friend, and he aint got a home. Cant he live with us too, please Your Honor?"
Travis didnt quite smile, but his harsh mouth softened just a bit. "Were going to see to that just as soon as weve settled whats going to become of you."
Buck thought this over. "Cross your heart?"
Judge Travis had been a father, and he had a grandson he loved past all reason, so he knew something of the significance of this question. "Cross my heart," he agreed, and made the familiar gesture. "Now, can you answer my question? Would you like to be adopted and live with the Larabees and Mr. Tanner?"
"Yes, Your Honor," said Buck unhesitatingly.
"Thank you, Buck, for being so helpful," Travis said solemnly. "You can go back and sit on the sofa now."
His face wreathed in a smile, the boy returned to his soon-to-be family, skipping a little at the joy of becoming theirs officially and forever. "The court having satisfied itself that the applicants for the adoptive custody of Bucklin Wilmington are qualified to assume that duty," Travis intoned, "and that the subject himself is content in their midst and desires his current state to continue, by the powers vested in me I do hereby proclaim Christopher Columbus Larabee, Sheriff of Four Corners and co-owner of CL-Cross Ranch, and his wife Sarah Connelly Larabee the adoptive father and mother of the subject, to support and educate him at their expense until he shall attain his majority. In witness whereof, I do further proclaim that he shall henceforth be legally known as Bucklin Joshua Larabee--"
Buck went white. "No!" he shouted, jumping up. "No, I cant be Buck Larabee, I gotta be Buck Wilmington, I aint gonna forget Ma, no, never, not ever, no, no, no!" Before either of the startled Larabees could catch him, he had bolted over to the chaise and gotten around on the far side of it, putting Ezra between himself and the adults. "Ez, they didnt tell me Id have to forget Ma! Lets run away again and you can take care of me just like you done before."
Chris and Sarah looked at each other, and Chris shifted his weight to take a step, but Vin caught his eye and moved his head in something too miniscule to be called a shake. Member what I done told you, cowboy? Boy learns to trust by bein trusted. Bucks knowed him some longern he has us. Let him try. I reckon hell do whats right--he has afore.
You better be right.
Ezra saw the silent message pass between the two men, though he couldnt interpret it. He eyed Judge Travis measuringly, mindful of his mothers teachings about all levels of law enforcement, and put a hand out to lightly grasp Bucks arm. "No one is sayin you must forget your mother, Buck," he said.
"Yes they are! Theyre sayin I wont be a Wilmington no more! Ma said I had to be proud of myself and always remember Im just as good as anybody else and God loves me just as much."
"And she was correct," said Ezra evenly. "And so you are, regardless of your name. Buck, we cant run away again, not both of us. You know that. Look at my leg, Buck, you know I cant ride." It surprised the CL-Cross family to hear him speaking in such short, basic words; it made him seem much younger than he really was.
"Then Ill take care of you," Buck offered recklessly. "Its my turn anyhow."
Oh, Buck...your loyalty warms and humbles me. "No," Ezra replied softly. "No, I cant go, and--and I wouldnt want to if I could." His eyes met Larabees a moment, and he hoped the man could understand the promise they made. "Buck, do you remember the stories I told you from the plays of Shakespeare?"
"The Lambs?" Buck was still watching the adults warily, his body taut and poised to run if anyone made a move toward him, but at least he was listening.
"Yes. Do you remember the story of Romeo and Juliet? Why was it that they couldnt let anyone know of their love for each other, Buck?"
The younger boy frowned, clearly wondering what this could have to do with his situation. " Cause their families was a-feudin."
"Yes, and what was it that Juliet said on her balcony, when she didnt know Romeo was listenin in the garden? Do you remember that? She said, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Whats in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. " Ezra turned to face his friend. "You didnt mind that Mr. Larabee wanted to give you a middle name after his own father, did you?"
"Then why mind that the Judge wants to make your surname Larabee, like the rest of your family? They will be your family, you know that. Families share either blood or a name; that is what makes them family. If you dont have Larabee blood, you should at least carry the name. I have been called by many names, Buck, but it never altered who I was--who I am. To change your name will make no difference in who you are."
Buck hesitated, looking confused, then shook his head stubbornly. "Ma said I had to be proud of who I am. If the Judge says I aint a Wilmington no more, aint that sayin its a bad thing for me to be?"
"It has nothin to do with that," Ezra told him. "Buck..." his hand tightened a bit-- "Buck, dont throw away this chance, it may be the only one you ever get. Second chances are not lightly given. Dont you still like the Larabees and Mister Vin? Dont you still think their ranch is a pleasant place to live?"
"Ye-e-es," said Buck slowly. "But Ma said I would always be her boy."
"You will be her boy no less for bein a Larabee as well," Ezra persisted. "A name is like a coat, one can change it at will, put it on or take it off. The body, the person, beneath that coat remains the same." He looked to Vin, his chin lifted a bit, sending the Texan a silent plea: Help me out here, Mr. Tanner.
"Hes right, Buck," said Vin softly. "When I went to live with the Comanche, they give me a Injun name, called me He-Tans-Skins. Didnt make me no lessn Id ever been, didnt change my blood or who I was."
For the first time Buck looked doubtful. He turned pleading eyes to Chris and Sarah. "I want to be your son," he said, his voice unsteady and so low they could barely hear him. "But I want to be Mas too." The unspoken words echoed in the room: Dont make me choose between you...please dont make me.
Chris cleared his throat. "Judge?"
"I know it might not be the regular way of doin things, but I think I see a way we can all have what we want."
Travis clasped his hands on the table. "Continue."
"How about we make his legal name Bucklin Joshua Larabee-Wilmington? The names his ma gave him will be at the two ends, and the ones we give him in the middle. No advantage to either. Then when he grows up he can choose which one hed rather go by."
A spark of hope showed in Bucks eyes. Did Mister Chris truly understand how important this was to him? Travis looked to Sarah; he didnt need to say anything before she nodded and reached up to take her husbands hand.
"Well, as you say," Travis observed, "it is irregular, but then, as Mr. Tanner and Mr. Standish have attempted to point out, a name is only the least part of who a person is. Very well, it will be so entered in the records of this court."
Buck looked down at Ezra, who smiled briefly and nodded, then released his arm and whispered, "Go." And the boy walked quietly across the room and sat down on the sofa where hed been before.
Ezra let out a smothered sigh of relief and let his body go limp against the loose pillow of the chaise, his eyes drifting shut. I envy you, Buck...to know there have been two places where you felt you could belong, two separate families that you were a part of. I have never even been gifted with one. Suddenly a shadow fell across him and he looked up quickly to see that Vin had come over from the sofa. The Texans crooked smile was, as always, strangely reassuring, and the hand that touched his shoulder a moment seemed to radiate praise and pride. "You done good, ner-tá-me," Tanner said.
"Comanche for brother, " Vin explained.
Travis was finishing the adoption decree, his steel pen scratching quickly across the paper. Chris came over to sign it, followed by Sarah after shed put Katie in Adams lap. Mary Travis signed as witness, and then the Judge added his own signature and seal. "And now," said Travis, removing a second paper off the stack at his side, "as to the matter of the temporary custody and care of Ezra Patrick Standish..."
The older boy raised his heavy eyelids and looked over to Buck, who was standing beside the buckboard watching as Vin, leaning over the back of the seat, and Chris, reaching across the tailgate, settled the stretcher on top of the tick in the wagon bed. He had stayed in Mrs. Traviss apartment behind the print shop while the Larabees went over to Potters to choose Bucks new Sunday clothes, then to the cobblers to pick up his boots. It had been much easier on him than waiting in the buckboard would have been, but the journey to town and the unexpected confrontation in the Judges informal courtroom had taken more out of him than he had realized, and he was on the verge of falling asleep. "Yes, Buck."
"You was wrong about one thing," said Buck.
"Indeed? What would that be?"
"Families. They dont gotta be the same blood or have the same name."
"Do they not? And who told you that?"
"Ma and Miz Abigail. They said family is about carin. They said folks can find a family, or make one, most anywhere."
Ezra smothered a yawn, which might have seemed impolite. Perhaps that explains many things, he thought. "Well, then, you have a sovereign opportunity to do so, dont you?"
"So do you," Buck pointed out.
"Buck," said Chris quietly, "come on, son, Ezras worn out. Let him rest. Here, Ill give you a boost onto the seat." He raised the tailboard and latched it shut as Vin scrambled down and helped Sarah aboard.
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