Halloween was fast approaching and the excitement at Four Corners was mounting. Ezra wasn't caught up in this excitement, he didn't understand what was going to happen. His mother didn't believe in Halloween. Since it was primarily for children, she could see no opportunities for profit in it.
Then - four days before the holiday weekend, he received a letter, a letter from Maude.
My dearest Ezra,
A wonderful opportunity has presented itself and you can now join me.
I am unable to pick you up in person, but will meet you on the 29th at Miller's Crossing in New Jersey at 6 o'clock in the evening. Enclosed is sufficient money for you to join me. From Eagle Bend you will need to take a morning bus to Rochester. From there take the 10 past 9 o'clock train to New York and then the first available train to Trenton that stops at Millers Crossing. I will wait for you by the road that crosses the tracks.
Your Loving Mother
Ezra read and reread the letter; he was both terrified and excited. He wanted to see his mother, but the prospect of such a long and complicated journey on his own was sending a knot of fear to his stomach. He had travelled alone before, but in the past, he had always been put on the train by an adult and handed over to a conductor or friendly passenger to ensure he got off at the other end, where his mother had always been to collect him. He knew there was a bus into the next town every school morning and that Rochester was on that road but he had no idea what buses ran on Saturdays, so that was his first priority. At the lunch recess, he slipped unnoticed from the schoolyard and ran into the town. On the side of the general store, under the porch, was a notice listing all the bus times. It didn't take long to discover that the first bus on Saturdays left the town at six in the morning, arriving at the station in Rochester just after seven thirty.
After almost two months, the question of what the boys were going to call their new guardians had resolved itself, to a degree. Evie had become Aunt Evie, that was Buck, he'd always called the women his mother worked with 'aunt' and one day it just slipped out. As usual JD copied Buck and it just caught on. Somehow 'Uncle Orin' didn't have the same ring. Then, the fact that he had once been a judge came up in conversation over diner one night, and - as a joke - Josiah called him 'Judge Orin' when he was settling a dispute between Nathan and Vin. The next day JD was calling him - 'Judge Orin'. Little by little, 'judge' was becoming a term of endearment.
They were all disappointed to learn that their new school would not be marking Halloween in any way, because it was contrary to the school's religious ethos.
"Don't worry boys, we'll go trick or treating in town and then have our own party back here," Evie assured them.
Ezra lay in bed fully dressed, too scared to sleep, in case he over slept. He waited until Dr Ben made his last check. He saw the door open a fraction and the shadow in the rectangle of light it let in. The shadow stayed in the doorway for about half a minute, then the door closed softly and Ezra waited. He waited and waited, in the silence he could hear the doctor moving about in his room, which was next door. Then the movement stopped and he waited, and waited and waited. Eventually he was convinced everyone was asleep. He'd already packed his personal possessions into his school satchel and hidden it under the bed. As silently as he could, he slipped out of bed and tiptoed out of the room and down the stairs, taking care to keep to the wall where the stair treads were less likely to creek. Luck was with Ezra, it was a moonlit night and he was able to negotiate his way to the laundry without having to put on any lights. Once there, he found the shelf where his clothes were stored and sorted out which were his, the clothes that he had brought with him, as opposed to those he'd been given since he arrived. He's seen the old bag he'd arrived with under the bench and quickly stuffed his belonging into it.
While the strong moonlight made his journey into town easier and far less scary, it also meant it was bitterly cold outside. Ezra's resolve began to falter as he set out. He had been safe at Four Corners, fed, warm, well looked after and he'd been to school. For a whole five, blissful months, he'd been a normal boy. Did he really want to give that up? Then again, did he want to disobey his mother? Did he really want to ignore her?
Slowly, Ezra turned away and began to walk down the cold, dark, country road, alone.
Ezra opened his eyes, to find a large black man standing over him.
"Good day," Ezra responded.
"Train don't go no further, you need to get off here," the guard explained.
Ezra sat up and looked out of the window. "Is this New York?" he asked.
"That it is. Now I didn't see no one with you, so is someone meeting you here?"
Ezra debated what to do. He could lie and say 'yes', or he could tell the truth, and ask for some help. Slowly he looked out of the window again. He'd never seen a railway station so big and he was so scared. He pushed his hand into his pocket and pulled out the letter.
"I have to meet my mother, at Miller's Crossing."
The guard read the letter. "Miller's Crossing is just a place the road crosses the tracks, the train don't stop there, except real early in the morning, to pick up the milk," he explained.
"But it's already afternoon." Ezra began to feel tears forming.
"I guess she didn't know the milk train was the only one to stop. Come on, let's see what we can do? Maybe the driver will make a special stop, just for you." He held out his hand.
Ezra took hold of his bag in one hand and reached for the man's hand with his other. "Thank you."
On Saturday, the boys had their regular riding lesson. Chris and Josiah went first, their skills were improving rapidly. Then it was Buck and Nathan's turn. Originally all the boys, except Josiah, were to learn on Pandora, but it proved to be impractical. Buck and Nathan were almost as tall as each other, but it was Buck who had proved to be the more natural horseman, so he was permitted to ride Orin's big bay. Once their lesson was over, Evie would take JD for his lesson on Mickey, the little bay pony Orin had borrowed from a neighbour, whose daughter had outgrown him. At the same time, Orin watched Vin ride Paso in the big paddock. Vin didn't need lessons now; it had taken him less than an hour to adapt to the European saddle and style of riding and it was very obvious that he and Peso had formed a bond. Every time Orin saw Vin on the horse, it was like watching Steven again. They didn't look alike in any way, and yet, sometimes it was so like him, the way he rode, the way he communicated with Peso, it was almost painful to watch, but then he would see the joy on the boy's face and that made it all worth while.
That afternoon they all helped to scoop out the pumpkins, ready to carve them the next day.
Sunday came, and they had to take care of the horses before they went to church. After lunch they had another riding lesson, before carving the jack-o-lanterns and helping Evie make caramel apples and cookies. JD was getting more and more excited - so excited, in fact, that for once he didn't fall asleep before his bedtime story was over. This wouldn't normally be a problem, but it was Sunday. On Sunday, the Travis' always let Chris stay up to join them and Josiah to listen to the evening play on the radio. They considered it to be educational, but it finished a little too late and was a little too adult - in their opinion - for the other boys. They had to get ready for bed and then stay upstairs and play or read quietly until nine o'clock. Buck and Nathan disagreed, and they had discovered that they could sneak down the main stairs and from half way down they could - since the big double doors to the great room were never shut - hear the radio. Vin wasn't as interested in the plays as the others, but he didn't want to be left out and so tagged along. The problem was, they couldn't go until JD was asleep. If he was awake, he'd want to come too and then they'd be discovered for sure, since he couldn't keep still and quiet that long. To be truthful, they often found the plays, which were mostly based on classic novels, hard to follow and boring, but occasionally there was a really good on, like the production of Around the World in Eighty Days.
Tonight, by the time JD was asleep and they could creep down the stairs, the show had already started.
The guard, whose name was Bert, was as good as his word. He knew he should have taken the boy to the police, or at least handed him over to his superior, but he didn't have the heart. So the boy's mother hadn't made adequate arrangements for him, so she should have come to meet him in New York, so she didn't research the trains properly - so what? She was trying to get them back together wasn't she? As a boy of ten, when his widowed mother had died, young Bert had travelled, on his own, from Georgia all the way to Harlem to find his aunt. He knew boys were more resilient and self-reliant than most adults gave them credit for.
The driver of the Trenton train agreed to slow down and stop, briefly, when they got to Miller's Crossing. Monty, the conductor, a good friend of Bert's, promised to make sure Ezra got off the train at the right moment.
"But he can't stop," Bert warned. "Once you're off, the train's gonna be movin' again. Are you real sure your mama's gonna be there?"
"Yes sir, if she says she's going to be there, she's always there," Ezra assured him.
"Well okay, come on, let's get you on the train."
The three boys settled on the stairs to listen.>>Ladies and gentlemen, this is Carl Phillips again, out of the Wilmuth farm, Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Professor Pierson and myself made the eleven miles from Princeton in ten minutes.
Well, I... hardly know where to begin, to paint for you a word picture of the strange scene before my eyes, like something out of a modern "Arabian Nights."
Well, I just got here. I haven't had a chance to look around yet. I guess that's it. Yes, I guess that's the thing, directly in front of me, half buried in a vast pit. Must have struck with terrific force. The ground is covered with splinters of a tree it must have struck on its way down.
What I can see of the object itself doesn't look very much like a meteor, at least not the meteors I've seen. It looks more like a huge cylinder. It has a diameter of... what would you say, Professor Pierson?<<
"What's happening?" Vin whispered.
"Don't know, just keep quiet and listen," Nathan instructed.
The boys listened to the reporter talk to the owner of the farm where the thing, what ever it was, fell.
"We could go there," Buck suddenly realised.
"What?" Nathan asked.
"Grovers Mill, it's just down the road, near the tracks," Buck pointed out. "We could see a real Martian!"
"You're crazy!" Nathan told him.
"Shush," Vin whispered angrily. "Listen.">>Do you hear it? It's a curious humming sound that seems to come from inside the object. I'll move the microphone nearer. Now...<<
As they listened the professor told the reporter the thing was not from earth and not a meteor.
"Come on, this is our only chance," Buck enthused.
"No, we'll get caught, Aunt Evie 'll be up at nine, she'll see we're gone," Nathan pointed out.
Buck looked at the big clock in the hall. "We've got almost forty minutes yet, we can be at the crossing in ten. We just take a look and then hightail it back here, one quick look," Buck pleaded.
"Okay." Both boys looked at Vin. "I'll come."
"Well alright, come on Chief."
Excitement filled young Ezra and his heart was racing as he crossed off each stop they came to. Monty, had seated him near the engine and had told him how many stops there would be before he had to quickly jump off. Counting them down, one by one, he anxiously awaited his reunion with his mother. As his stop neared, he realised how dark it had already become. When Monty arrived to usher him off, a bit of trepidation had snuck into his stomach.
"You know we can't stop for long. You sure you're gonna be okay?" he asked.
"I am sure, Mother will be here."
"Well okay, here we go." The train began to slow. Even before it had fully stopped, Monty was off and lifting Ezra and his bag down.
Ezra stood by the tracks and watched the train leave. Once it was gone, he looked around. He was standing on the dirt road that crossed the tracks. On either side of the tracks was a sturdy wooden platform, almost as high as he was. Other than that, there was nothing there, nothing and no one.
"Mother!" Ezra called loudly. "It's me, Ezra!"
There was no answer to his calls. He called a few more times and walked up and down the road a few hundred yards either side of the tracks, but there was no sign of her. He reasoned she'd been held up, so he climbed up onto one of the platforms, which he assumed were for the milk collection, and sat down to wait for her.
Nathan listened in horror as the 'Martians' emerged from their cylinder and set fire to the field the thing had landed in, then everything all around it.>> Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grovers Mill. Evidently there's some difficulty with our field transmission. However, we will return to that point at the earliest opportunity.
In the meantime, we have a late bulletin from San Diego, California.
Professor Indellkoffer, speaking at a dinner of the California Astronomical Society, expressed the opinion that the explosions on Mars are undoubtedly nothing more than severe volcanic disturbances on the surface of the planet.
We continue now with our piano interlude.<<
Music began and Chris shot out of his seat to find something to drink. Out in the hall Nathan wasn't fast enough getting out of sight.
"What are you doing here?" Chris hissed.
"Is it true?" Nathan asked, ignoring Chris' question.
"Is what true?"
"On the radio, the Martians, killin' everyone there!"
Chris frowned and then looked over his shoulder toward the great room. "Nathan, it's just a story, there's no Martians, don't worry about it, just go to bed." Nathan didn't move. "Nathan?"
"Buck and Vin went to see the thing, the cylinder, I though they was killed," he admitted.
"No one got killed." He turned to go, then stopped. "Wait, they went to see it!?"
"Damn them! Okay, get back upstairs, cover for us if you have to."
"Work it out." Chris turned back to the great room and took a deep breath.
"Umm," he began, shifting from foot to foot. "I, that is, do you mind if I go to bed now?" he asked, hoping to sound uncomfortable with the play's content.
The music had stopped and the 'announcer' came on again.>> Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been handed a message that came in from Grovers Mill by telephone. Just one moment please.
At least forty people, including six state troopers lie dead in a field east of the village of Grovers Mill, their bodies burned and distorted beyond all possible recognition.
The next voice you hear will be that of Brigadier General Montgomery Smith, commander of the state militia at Trenton, New Jersey.<<
Orin looked up. "Are you feeling okay?"
"Yes sir, it's just, I'm not enjoying the play much and I'm kind of tired."
"I'll be up at nine, you tell those boys they better be in bed," Evie reminded.
Josiah looked at Chris and tried to work out what was going on, he knew Chris wasn't leaving because of the play. Chris gave him a little shake of the head, so small the adults would never notice. Josiah saw and he knew it meant stay put.
Chris sprinted - not up stairs - but to the back door. He grabbed his big winter coat off the peg and pulled on his work boots. Then he took time to take a breath and calm himself. To get to the road, he had to go around the house, and that meant passing either the great room windows or passing under Mrs Potter's window. He walked as softly as he could under Gloria's second story window and around the corner of the house, before sprinting for the barn. He wasn't going to take one of the horses, it would take too long to tack up, but he did need a lantern. Armed with one, he began to run down the drive and onto the road. The road that ran past the Travis property was just a county road, barely wide enough for two cars to pass. At the end of the road was a T-junction, if you went left you were headed into town, if you went right you quickly came to the railway tracks.
Calling Grovers Mill a village, was taking a lot of artistic licence, it was really no more than a name on the side of the road where there had once been a sawmill and a collection of cabins - now long gone. The only building left now was a solitary farm. Situated about three hundred yards before the rail crossing, it was set back from the road, at the end of a quarter of a mile of rough track.
As soon as Chris turned on to the main road, he knew something was wrong! There were cars and pick ups speeding along, heedless of anything but their destination. Suddenly, a man with a shotgun appeared in front of him.
"What the hell are you doing here boy?" he challenged. "Don't you know we're under attack?!"
Chris stood stock still, as the end of the gun waved about in front of him.
"I've come to find my brothers," Chris told him.
"You're too late, them ones at the farm are all dead now, God rest them! Go home boy."
"Mister, it's not true you know, there's no Martians, it's just a story," Chris told the man as calmly as he could.
"Don't you sass me boy, now get out of here, before they burn you too!"
Discretion being the better part of valour, especially when the man in front of you had a gun, Chris backed up into the shadows, turning down his lantern as he did. Once the man turned away, he darted around him on the other side of the road. He couldn't even get to the entrance to the farm, there were so many people there, all milling about, some were crying, some shouting. There was a man preaching to no one in particular about the end of the world and judgement day. There didn't seem to be any policemen anywhere. Chris would never admit it, but he was frightened, these people were scaring him. He might only be a boy, but he knew enough to know that when people are scared they do things they would never normally do.
It was then that he saw them, coming towards him, like him they were also keeping to the shadows. Buck was limping and leaning heavily on Vin.
"What the hell were you two thinking?" Chris demanded.
"Sorry Chris," both boys answered. "We wanted to see the Martians ."
"You do not break the rules unless I say so - or had you forgotten that?"
"Sorry Chris," they reiterated.
"And there ain't no damn Martians, it just a story," Chris added.
"But we heard, the news, on the radio?" Buck began.
"It was all just part of the play, and now - 'cause of you - I'll never know how it ends!"
"Sorry," they both stated again.
"What happened to you?" he asked Buck.
Buck didn't answer.
"A car almost hit us," Vin explained. "We had to jump out of the way, an' fell down the ditch by the road, Buck hurt his ankle."
Chris looked down, noting that Buck was putting no weight on his left ankle. "Can you make it back to the house?" he asked.
"Come on then, lean on me."
They were about to go, when Chris heard something that made his head whip around, searching for the source.
"Go ahead, I'll catch up with you."
Ezra sat for a long time, waiting patiently. He didn't know how long, but to him it seemed to last forever. Darkness had fallen quickly and, although there was a full moon, it was covered by the clouds most of the time. When it was, he was in total darkness. There was nothing and no one about on the quiet back road. Occasionally, a train would speed past. As it raced toward him in the darkness, he could see the red sparks coming from the smokestack. Then, when it reached him, it would fly past with a rush of wind and he could see the fiery glow from the firebox, the engineer and fireman silhouetted against it, like stokers from hell, leaving the smell of smoke and oil in the air. At firs, they scared him, but after the second one, he pretended to himself they were dragons - friendly dragons - on their way to save a damsel in distress. As time dragged on and he sat huddled on the milk platform, he began to look, not down the road for his mother, but along the tracks for another train. At least, when the trains went past, he knew he wasn't alone.
It was getting colder and he was considering opening his bag and pulling out his best tweed jacket. Maude always made him wear it, she said it made him look like a real gentleman, but he hated it. It was itchy and he was beginning to grow out of it, making it tight across the shoulders. None the less, he was getting really cold, and it was the only other warm clothing he had. Just as he had made his decision and began to try and open his bag in the dark; he heard a car approach.
His heart gave a leap of joy, his mother had arrived!
The car raced past him, not even slowing as it crossed the tracks. Ezra coughed as he was enveloped in a cloud of dust as the car sped past then slammed on its brakes a little way up the road. Ezra stood and began to wave franticly, he was about to shout, when the clouds parted and could see the driver. A large man got out of the car, carrying what looked like a really big gun. No one else got out. As he watched, the man looked around franticly. Something, some sixth sense, made Ezra drop down and flatten himself against the wooden platform. The man continued to look around and then took off at a run into the tress growing at the side of the road.
Ezra's heart was pounding as he lay where he was. After a while, he was about to sit up when a pick up approached from the other direction. It too stopped and more men got out. From then on more and more vehicles arrived, people also came running down the road, one man arrived on a mule. Ezra couldn't put a name to it, but he sensed the mounting hysteria and understood it was dangerous. Lying flat, he tried to make himself as small as possible and hoped he'd remain un-noticed. His heart pounded and, try as he might, he couldn't seem to breathe normally. He was convinced anyone who came past him would hear it.
Go away, please go away! he silently pleaded.
"Where the hell is the army?" someone shouted.
"Must be up at the farm," came a response. "Can you see anything?"
"Wait, I got an idea!"
Suddenly someone was running straight toward him. Ezra held his breath. Heavy footsteps pounded up the steps.
"What the hell!"
What Chris had heard was a familiar voice, or what he thought might be a familiar voice, because in truth it was only a single word. While he'd been talking to Buck and Vin, the crowed had been moving, away from the farm entrance and down the road a little.
Keeping to the shadows, Chris inched closer, trying to listen to what was being said. He still couldn't understand what these people were doing here. He could just about understand Buck and Vin thinking it was real, if he hadn't heard the beginning, he might have as well, but these were grownups! As he approached the knot of people, he listened to what was being said.
"Are you sure Art?"
"Well Hell yes! That's what them Martians do, they disguise themselves to look like us! I read it in a book. Look at him, listen to him! What else is he doing here?"
"But he's just a kid."
"Well them Martians is small, have to pretend to be kids, don't they? But you got it wrong didn't you?"
As Chris listened, with growing alarm, he realised Art was addressing whoever he'd got hold of.
"Please sir, let me go."
Chris' heart gave a leap of pure fear - Ezra!
"See what I mean?" Art challenged angrily. "What the hell is a southern boy doing here, alone, at this time of night? Well? Tell me - what?!"
"Um, maybe we could ask him?" someone asked.
Chris held his breath.
"I am waiting for my mother," came the response in a small voice.
"See!" Art announced dramatically. "What real mother would leave her kid all the way out here on his own?"
Chris had to agree.
"She told me to wait here. See."
Chris couldn't see what Ezra was asking them to look at, but from the sound of things it wasn't helping. It was time to act. As he walked out of the shadows, he didn't think he'd ever been so scared, but he knew he had to do it.
"Ezra!" he called confidently.
All the adults turned to look at him.
"Ezra, you come home now!" he called, trying to sound angry and annoyed and not terrified - which is was.
Ezra came into view. Surrounded by adults, he looked even smaller than Chris remembered.
"Chris?" Ezra could hardly believe his eyes.
"I'm sorry Sir," Chris addressed Art. "He keeps running, off, looking for his Ma."
Art, gun still in hand, took a step toward him. "I know you. Told you to go home - didn't I?"
"Um, yes Sir, but my Pa asked me to come fetch him home." Chris held out his hand. "Come on now, little brother," he encouraged, hoping Ezra would understand and play along.
Little did he know, Ezra was a master at this game.
"Sorry Chris," he whispered and took a step toward him.
Suddenly, Art was there again, keeping them apart. "If he's your brother, how come he talks like a damn reb?" he accused.
"He's my half brother, his mother raised him, then she left him with Pa and me and took off. He keeps hoping she'll come back for him."
"He's got a letter from her," someone pointed out.
"Yeah, she sends them sometimes, but she never comes," Chris lied smoothly, warming to his story. "Come on now Ezra, we gotta move. Pa's gonna be madder than a wet hen if I don't get you back real soon."
Ezra hung his head dejectedly and added a dramatic sniff.
"Let 'um go Arty, they ain't no Martians!" a voice from the back called. Several others affirmed this.
Chris and Ezra waited, both holding their breath, waiting to see if the man with the gun would let them go.
"Yeah, I guess. Get out of here kid, ain't no night for kids to be out alone."
Nathan was frantic with worry, it was almost nine and none of the others were back. Soon, really soon, Aunt Evie would be up to check on them. Chris wanted him to cover for them - but how? He looked in on JD, sleeping like a log, as usual. Well, he could easily pretend Buck was in there, since she never put on the light once JD was down. He snuck in, placed the pillows under the covers and hoped, that in the dark, they'd look like Buck. Back in his own room, he used more pillows, and Vin's bath robe to make what he hoped was a Vin size lump under the covers Then he pulled a large teddy bear from the shelf in the play room, its fur was about the same colour as Vin's hair. He hoped it would help to give the impression that it was the slight boy in the bed. It helped that Vin tended to sleep curled in a tight ball, all he needed to show was a small patch of 'hair'. That left Chris. Chris slept with the drapes and window open; with a full moon, he'd never make a convincing 'Chris' in the bed. Then he had a brainstorm. He put on the light in the bathroom and closed the door.
Even as he was closing the door, he heard footsteps on the stairs. Dashing back to his own room on tiptoe, he dived into bed and tried to calm is breathing. As he lay there, he could hear her cross to Buck and JD's room, she never lingered there long. Her light, distinctive footsteps crossed the big playroom and the door to his room opened a little.
"Any one awake?" she whispered.
"Me," Nathan whispered back.
"Everyone seems to have taken themselves to bed," she commented.
"We're all a bit tired and Chris said it was gonna be a long day t'morrow, what with it bein' Halloween an' all."
Evie nodded, they hadn't even begun to tackle the issue of all the boys looking to Chris for leadership and that he felt he needed to take responsibility for all of them and their behaviour.
"Goodnight Nathan, I'll see you in the morning."
The door closed and, after a few seconds, Nathan slipped out of bed, crept to the door, and opened it a fraction. As he watched, Evie crossed to Chris' room and looked in. Nathan had left the light on deliberately and hoped she wouldn't call out to Chris or knock on the bathroom door. She didn't, after turning her head briefly toward the bathroom, she went down stairs.
"Thank you!" Nathan whispered to himself and he went back, not to bed, but to the window, to keep watch for his missing friends.
Chris had a death grip on Ezra's wrist as they both ran down the road.
"What are you doing here?" Ezra asked breathlessly, once they were a safe distance from the mob.
"We live around here now," Chris explained, quickening his pace.
"What's a Martian?" Ezra asked.
"I'll explain later, but we gotta get home, before we're missed."
Ezra didn't understand what was going on, but he was use to trusting Chris, so he stopped asking questions and just did as he was told.
They were less than half way to the house when they caught up with Buck and Vin. Buck was limping so heavily they were hardly moving, Vin looked ready to buckle under Buck's weight. Letting go of Ezra, Chris sprinted to catch up to them.
"I got him," he told Vin, slipping in behind him and taking Buck's arm over his own much broader shoulders. "Take the light."
Vin obediently took the light as he let Chris take his friend's weight. As he turned to let Chris move in beside Buck, he spotted Ezra on the edge of the lantern's pool of light.
"Is that you, Ez?" he asked in amazement, lifting the light higher.
"It's him," Chris confirmed. "No questions now, let's just get home."
Vin obediently fell in step between Chris and Ezra.
Chris looked over at his oldest friend. Buck was younger than him, by two years, but he had never thought of him as younger. Buck had always been as brave and tough as he was, he didn't cry when he got hurt, he didn't make a fuss when he was injured or tired or in trouble, he just took it - like Chris did. Right now there were tears running down his cheeks, he wasn't making any noise, he didn't ask to stop or rest, but Chris knew he was in real trouble.
The clouds had parted, so he was able to see a little ways up the road. Taking as much of Buck's weight as he could, he all but carried his friend a few more feet down the road to a slight bend where there was something of a bank.
"Here, sit down," he commanded.
" Nah, I'm...okay," Buck protested.
"No ya ain't, sit." With that Chris began to lower him to the ground.
Buck didn't protest further, he was rapidly reaching the end of his endurance. The move to the ground sent a stab of pain from his ankle and up his leg that made him gasp and hiss in pain.
"Sorry," he apologised.
"Don't, not your fault - well okay it is your fault you're out here - but you're not the one that made ya fall down into that ditch." Chris bent over Buck's out stretched leg. "Vin, give me that lantern."
Holding the light close, Chris made a cursory inspection of the injured limb. It as hard to tell what was wrong. Buck had a big gash just above his boot, and it had bled a lot, though the blood was mostly dry now. He wasn't sure, but he didn't think that alone could cause the amount of pain Buck was in. He didn't know much, but he knew enough to know that if there were broken bones involved, having Buck continue to walk on it would make it worse.
He stood up. "Okay, Vin, you take Ezra back to the house and hide him in the back room. Then you get into your pajamas and clean up before you go down to Aunt Evie and the Judge. Tell them I went to fetch Buck back when he went to see the space ship and you're worried 'cause we're not back."
"No Chris!" Buck protested, "You'll get into trouble. Go with them and send the Judge back, I can wait on my own." By now, Buck knew he could no longer walk.
"I ain't leaving you here. Vin, get going."
Ezra ran beside Vin as best he could, but he was so tired and his bag seemed to get heavier with every step. They had the lantern, but swinging wildly as they ran, its circle of yellow light didn't illuminate much. If he hadn't been so tired, if he hadn't been toting the bag, Ezra could have tripped over the small pothole and recovered his balance. As it was, he fell - hard.
Vin stopped and dropped beside him as Ezra rolled over and sat up. He pulled his knees up and wrapping his arms around them, rocking back and forth.
"You okay?" Vin asked.
Ezra did his best to hold back the tears. "Yes, thank you."
"C'm on, we gotta get going." He grabbed Ezra's bag. "You take the lantern." With that he stood up again, waiting for Ezra to join him.
It wasn't that Vin was uncaring, but he was consumed by the urgency of their situation. Ezra wiped his eye with the back of his hand and pushed himself to his feet. Vin was already a few yards up the road.
"Hurry will ya!" he encouraged.
"I'm coming." Ezra forced himself not to think about the stinging pain in his knee and tried to speed up enough to catch Vin.
"Guess I was pretty dumb, huh?" Buck confessed sadly. "Thinkin' it was real."
"No, it was really good, if I hadn't heard the beginning, I might 'a thought it was real too."
Buck looked over at his best friend. "Really?"
"I'm still sorry, this is all my fault. I'll tell the Judge, he won't send you back, only me."
"I'm not leaving you behind," Chris stated firmly.
"Look after JD for me."
"JD needs you, you're his big brother."
"He has to stay here."
"No one is being sent away, I'll sort it out."
Chris wasn't sure how he was going to do this, and in truth, he had been very angry with Buck for risking their future so recklessly, but his anger had subsided. His friend was hurt and what was done was done. Besides, he was beginning to trust their new guardian, just a little. Maybe they wouldn't get sent back. Maybe he'd just take a switch to them - that would be okay. Chris had been 'punished' by the best and it never did work, he could take a licking. Buck, he wasn't so sure about. His mother, if you believed everything Buck said, was practically a saint, so she might not have ever taken a switch to him. The only other place Buck had lived before they came here, was Four Corners. Doctor Phillips did have a switch, he even used it on occasion, but he had never used it on Buck - he'd made sure of that. Buck could take pain, he wasn't a baby, but being switched was different. For some reason he didn't understand, it just was different, it made you feel angry or ashamed, or both. Chris shook his head. It didn't matter, because if anyone was getting beat on, it was him, he'd make sure of that, he knew how to take it.
Buck hissed, his fists dug into the soft bank.
"Is it hurting more?" Chris asked.
"It sort of comes and goes," Buck admitted. "Do you think it will be much longer?"
"It's gonna take a while yet I reckon. You gonna be okay?"
Buck's fists dug into the ground again. "Yeah, I guess."
Ezra didn't get much of an impression of the house as they approached. Vin led him to a barn. Inside a number of horses looked down at him as he stood by the door.
"I gotta put the lamp back," Vin hissed. "Don't move." Ezra had no intention of moving.
While Vin was away, Ezra was left in darkness. He could hear the horses breathing and shuffling about. The closest one put his head over the stable door and sniffed loudly in Ezra's direction. Ezra reached out a hand in the darkness and encountered a soft, whiskered nose. Remembering the good times they'd all had visiting with the mares, he flattened out his hand. The horse used his soft lips to search for a treat.
"I'm sorry, I don't have anything," he whispered, but the horse didn't seem to mind and continued to snuffle at his hand and arm.
Vin's voice came through the darkness. "That's Bud, he's the Judge's horse."
"He's a big softy," Vin agreed.
Vin led them out of the barn and over to the house, which loomed up out of the darkness, looking impossibly big to Ezra.
There were lights on in the living room, so Vin knew the adults were still up. Looking up, all the attic windows were dark. He took this as a sign their absence hadn't been detected. He couldn't risk going in through the front door, that would take them right past the living room. The back door was his best bet. Keeping close to the building he led Ezra to the rear of the house, but luck was against them, someone had locked the door already. That left only one way in.
"Ezra, stay here, just sit on the step and don't move - okay?" he instructed.
"Where are you going?" Ezra asked, a little fearful of being left alone in the dark again.
"I'm gonna get in and open the door, don't move."
Either side of the front door stood an ornamental fir tree. Most people would think their branches too slim and willowy to support anyone trying to climb up onto the porch roof, but Vin wasn't just anyone. He climbed up on to the rail beside the big pillars that flanked the entrance; then, with both hands around the pillar he pushed his foot into the bushy tree and found the trunk. Using the trunk as extra support he inched his way up the pillar until he could reach the edge of the porch roof, then all he had to do was pull himself up and over the rail that ran around the flat roof.
Slipping off his boots he ignored the first window, that was the Travis' room, that was out of bounds and he wasn't going to risk going into a strange room. The next window lead to the landing, but it was too high for him. After that, there were the two guestrooms, even if the windows, which like his and Nathan's room, were long glass doors, had been open, he wouldn't have gone in. The guestrooms were over the living room; anyone in there would hear him moving above them.
Finally, having tip toed his way all around the house on the wrap around porch roof, he arrived at Josiah's room. The drapes were closed but the light was on, so, heart in mouth, he tapped lightly on the glass. There was no response, so he tried again. Finally the drape moved and Josiah's puzzled face appeared. Even as he was opening the door, he was asking what was going on.
"I gotta get Ezra in first," Vin told him earnestly.
"Hush up," Vin warned, cringing at the volume of Josiah's exclamation.
Checking the coast was clear, Vin slipped out of Josiah's room and down the back stairs to unlock the back door. Ezra must have heard him, because he was standing, facing the door when it opened.
"Well, I'll be, it really is Ezra," Josiah commented, more quietly than before.
They all crept up stairs to the attic. "Right," Josiah had had enough, by now Nathan had joined them. "Someone tell me what is going on!"
Nathan and Vin both began to talk. Despite this, he eventually got the whole convoluted story.
"So now we gotta hide Ezra, then I gotta go down and tell the Judge to go pick up Buck and Chris," Vin finished.
"Is Buck hurt bad?" Nathan asked.
Vin shrugged. "D'no, he couldn't walk no more."
The back room as they called it, was the fourth attic bed room, it was next to Vin and Nathan's room and was were the Travis' had placed all the things that had been in the attic which they didn't want to throw away and hadn't used for the boys. It was just the normal things people had in the attic, old papers, books, pictures, some odd bits of furniture, a wardrobe of clothes Evie didn't wear anymore but couldn't bring herself to throw away, including her wedding dress. The room was locked, but a locked door was no barrier to independent and inquisitive boys with a mind to explore. Since it shared a balcony with the room next door, it had been simplicity itself to open the glass doors, which were only latched, just by slipping a slim butter knife between the doors and lifting the latch. A simple loop of thread allowed them to lock the windows behind them when they left. In truth, it wasn't as exciting as they had hoped, mostly is was rather dark, musty and boring.
They managed to unroll an old mattress on the floor for Ezra and pulled out some blankets from the cedar wood chest. There was even a small reading lamp, which they plugged in, so he wouldn't be in the dark.
"You can't sleep in our room, 'cause Aunt Evie sometimes comes and checks on us. We'll keep the windows unlocked so you can come and see us any time," Nathan assured, "just make sure the grownups don't see or hear you."
Ezra nodded. He didn't want to sleep in this strange place, all alone, hidden from view by packing crates and old furniture, but it was better than spending the night on his own with those crazy people.
With everyone in bed and 'asleep', Vin mustered his courage and headed downstairs with his new wool robe over his thick flannel pajamas. He stood in the open door of the living room. Evie was reading while listening to classical music on the radio, Orin had nodded off in his chair. For a while he remained there, in silence, unnoticed, then something made Evie look up.
"Vin honey. Is that you?" she asked. "Come on into the light." She beckoned him forward. "Are you sick?"
"No, that is no ma'am, I'm jist worried is all."
"'Bout Buck and Chris. Buck went to see the Martians and Chris went to fetch him back, but that was a long time ago."
Suddenly Orin was awake. "He went where?"
Vin told them his story, the story Chris had told him to tell.
"What in the name of...!" Orin exploded.
"Orin!" his wife cut in, seeing Vin flinch at his outrage. "Let's just go and get them, we can sort out the rest later."
Vin watched his guardian take a breath and, in response, he released the breath he hadn't even realised he was holding.
"Don't worry, Orin will find them," Evie told him confidently, "You did the right thing - telling us."
Vin didn't feel as if he'd done the right thing, he hated lying to the Travis', he hated them thinking he'd done the right thing when he'd been just as disobedient as Buck. The trouble was, he was doing what Chris had told him to do, like always. Chris was much smarter than him, he knew that, Chris always knew best.
A brief break in the clouds had allowed Chris to take a look at Buck. He hadn't liked what he'd seen; pain was clear in his face, silent tears fell, his hands were braced against the ground, his whole frame ridged.
"Don't think it'll be much longer," Chris told him, trying to sound confident.
Buck just nodded, unable or unwilling to speak. A number of cars had passed, headed for the crossing, including a police car. After a while, traffic passed them heading in the opposite direction. Once the police car went back past, there had been nothing. None of the cars saw them, sitting on the inside of the bend, back from the roadside, in the shadows. Chris assumed the police had finally managed to convince the idiots at the farm entrance to go home. He shook his head in wonder, just how could adults think it was real? The last car had passed them some time ago, the moon had disappeared behind the clouds again and they were once more in darkness. He heard Buck sniff, which made him feel bad, he so wanted to do something to help, anything. The wind picked up, ruffling his short hair and causing him to shiver. Buck stifled a sob. Finally there was something Chris could do and he mentally kicked himself for not thinking of it sooner. Pulling off his own jacket he draped it over his friend's shoulders.
"'M okay," Buck muttered.
"I'm okay. Don't worry, can't be long now, Vin won't let us down."
Buck nodded his own faith in Vin. As if to prove him right, just minutes later a car approached. In expectation, Chris got to his feet, trying to see if he could make out that car was approaching. The lights dazzled him, but he just knew it was the Suburban.
Both Nathan and Vin might have been pretending to sleep, but when they heard the car approaching, they ran to the window.
"Get Ezra," Nathan told Vin.
Seconds later, there were three faces pressed to the window, trying to see what was happening. Sadly, the wide porch roof, the same one Vin had used to get into the house, was blocking their view. Vin tried to get a better view by kneeling on the window ledge, Nathan quickly followed his example, but when Ezra tried, he hissed in pain.
"What's the matter?" Nathan asked.
"Nothing," Ezra insisted, but he made no attempt to get up beside them.
The dark stain on the knee of his pajamas told a different story.
"Show me," Nathan insisted, getting down and peering at the knee.
"It's not important," Ezra insisted.
Nathan just reached out and began to pull up the trouser leg.
Ezra took a step back, but he was too slow, Nathan had seen the injury.
"That looks bad, let me see it," he insisted.
"Show him, Ezra, it's only Nathan," Vin encouraged.
Nathan had wanted to be a doctor for as long as he could remember. Doctor Phillips had encouraged him, giving him books to look at and read, letting him watch when he tended minor injuries, he even let the boy help sometimes, holding and passing instruments and cleaning equipment. Ezra gave in and stood still while Nathan poked at his knee. There was a big graze, nothing too serious, but in the middle of the graze was a deep cut, running right across the knee.
Nathan looked up. "It needs seeing to."
"Can't you fix it, Nate?" Vin asked.
"Nope, reckon it needs stitching'." Ezra flinched and took a step back, but Nathan wasn't going to be dissuaded. "We better go and ask Josiah what to do."
Like Vin, Josiah was conflicted. He knew why Chris was doing what he was doing, but he wasn't sure it was the right thing to do, he wasn't sure it was necessary. He'd always been happy for Chris to take the lead, even though he was two years younger than him. When Josiah arrived at Four Corners, he was confused, bewildered and angry. It was Chris who told him what to do, where to go and how to survive, just as he did all the others. Chris had been orphaned at six, younger than all of them, except JD, but he hadn't come to Four Corners until he was eight. He didn't talk about it much, but he'd been in more than one institution before he came into the care of the good doctor, and they had all figured out that they had not been good places. It was no wonder he fought so hard not to loose such a good home as Four Corners and now this new home, which - as unbelievable as it was - even better.
Josiah stood at the top of the stairs, just far enough back to be unseen by someone looking up. He'd heard the car pull up and watched as Orin, and only Orin, had hurried into the house. He couldn't hear what was being said but he could see his new guardians talking and read their body language, Orin was worried, and Evie, once she heard what he had to say, was distressed. She turned to go out to the car, but Orin stopped her. Josiah was wondering why, when the others suddenly appeared beside him, with Ezra in tow.
"What's going on?" he hissed. "Get Ezra out of sight."
"He's hurt," Nathan explained. "Needs to see a doctor."
Josiah frowned at Ezra, standing there in his pajamas, fresh blood staining the knee. He looked up at Nathan. "You're sure he needs to see a doctor?"
"Okay." He held out his hand. "Come on Ezra, let's get this over with." Ezra didn't move, he pressed back against Vin, shaking his head. "If Nate says you need a doctor, then you do, best get it over with. Mr and Mrs Travis are good people, you can trust them."
Without waiting for an answer, he took Ezra's hand and led him to the top of the stairs, while motioning the other two back out of sight.
"Wait!" he called as Orin headed back toward the door.
Both adults looked up. "Are you taking Buck to the doctor?"
"To the hospital, yes," Orin clarified. "Who is this?"
"You remember, dear, he was at the orphanage," Evie reminded. "Ethan? No that's not right."
"Ezra," Josiah supplied. "He's hurt his knee."
By now, they were at the bottom of the stairs.
"Oh my goodness, yes." Evie dropped down in front of Ezra and smiled up at him. "Can I look?" she asked softly.
Ezra couldn't help it; he smiled back and nodded. She gently lifted the fabric and looked at the injury.
"Well?" Orin asked.
"I'm not sure how bad it is," his wife admitted.
"I asked Nathan, he says he needs to see a doctor," Josiah told them. "Doctor Ben was teaching him about being a doctor, he used to let him help when he tended folk."
Evie nodded. "I think Nathan is right." She looked over her shoulder at her husband. "You better take him too."
"Fine, but what I want to know is, what is he doing here?"
Evie stood up. "So do I, but not now," she told her husband firmly. "Now, you need to take him and Buck to the hospital."
The Suburban was a new concept in car designing, relatively speaking and only when they were trying to get Buck into it, did Orin really wish they'd thought about it a bit harder and put in four doors. There was no way Buck could climb into the back. Chris sat in the back while Buck shared the long front seat with Orin. With his left leg propped up on the seat and his back to the door, he could brace himself with is right leg on the floor. As they drove Orin consciously kept his hip against Buck's boot, keeping his leg from moving much. In the back, Chris leaned forward and held on to Buck's hand. It was only a short trip, a lot shorter than the drive to the hospital would be, but it was clearly very painful for Buck.
Chris stayed in the car with his friend while Orin went into the house to explain what was happening.
"Almost there," he reminded.
"I know." Buck looked over at Chris. "I'm sorry I made such a mess of everything."
"I told you, it'll be okay, I'll sort it out."
They sat there in silence for a while, then Orin reappeared at the door, with Ezra.
"What the Hell!" Chris exclaimed as Travis approached the car.
The doors to the luggage area were opened and Orin picked Ezra up and lifted him over the seat back, to lie on the third row seats. Once the doors were closed, and while Orin was walking back to the driver's door, Chris turned to Ezra.
"What's going on?" he asked urgently.
Ezra looked terrified. "I didn't want to come, but Nathan insisted," he explained, although it didn't make any sense to Chris.
"What's Nathan got to do with it?"
Ezra lifted his topcoat so that Chris could see the blood-stained cloth of his pajamas. Before he could explain further, Orin was inside the car and they were leaving.
"Sir, what is Ezra doing here?" Chris asked.
"He needs to get his knee seen to. When we have done that, and have Buck's leg taken care of, we'll sort all this out - understood?" the former Judge told Chris firmly. "But for now, that is not our priority, clear?"
"Yes Sir," Chris conceded.
The closest hospital that was open all night was in Trenton. Even at night, with almost no traffic, it was going to take almost forty minutes to get to there. Most of this time, there was silence in the large car. Finally, they were pulling in to the hospital car park.
"Chris stay here, I'll find some wheelchairs." With that, Orin left the car.
"I am sorry, Chris," Ezra stated. He knew now this was wrong, he could see how mad Chris was with him, he should never have let the others take him to Mr Travis, he'd ruined Chris' plan. Chris told him to hide; he should have stayed hidden.
"Tell me what happened?" Chris requested.
Ezra told him. When he was done, Chris leaned over the seat to take a look at his knee.
"Yeah, it don't look good," he admitted. "Don't worry, I'll sort it out."
He kept saying that, but he had no idea how he was going to accomplish it. Orin returned with two wheelchairs, one pushed by an orderly, who helped Buck out of the car. Once they were in the hospital, Orin told Chris to stick with Ezra, while he went with Buck. The two boys had been sitting in the waiting area for some time, when a nurse appeared.
"Ezra Standish?" she asked.
"Yes Ma'am," Chris responded for Ezra.
"Excellent, come with me." She indicated the doors in the corner, the same doors Buck had been taken through.
Chris wasn't sure what he was meant to do. Should he wait for Travis, was he allowed to go with Ezra?
"Come along," the nurse commanded briskly, taking hold of the wheelchair and pushing it toward the doors.
Ezra looked pleadingly at Chris. Deciding he wasn't going to let his friend down, Chris stood and followed.
"You need to wait here son," the nurse told him.
"He's my brother, I'm not leaving him alone."
She turned to him. "We do not permit children in the treatment area."
"I'm not a child, I'm his brother." Chris fixed her with a glare, the like of which he'd never unleashed on anyone and it worked!
She broke eye contact. "Very well, don't get in the way."
Ezra had to lie on an examination couch, as the nurse approached him with a pair of scissors. She didn't explain what was happening, she didn't ask if he minded, she just took hold of the hem of his trousers.
"What are you doing?" Chris asked, seeing the panicked look on Ezra's face.
"I told you not to get in the way. I have to clean the wound before the doctor sees it, and to do that I have to cut his pants."
"No," Ezra gasped.
"Ezra, they're only pajamas."
"I have no others," Ezra protested.
"They're already stained with blood. Don't worry, Aunt Evie will find you some more." Chris looked at the nurse. "Go ahead."
He wasn't sure why he said that about Evie finding more, but somehow he knew it to be true. The fabric was split up past Ezra's knee, revealing the large wound.
"Well, that will need to be cleaned," the nurse announced.
"Nathan cleaned it," Ezra told her,
"And who is Nathan?" she asked.
"Our brother," Chris told her. He had decided that 'brother' was a safer explanation than whatever they were to each other and he wasn't sure what that was, because 'friend' didn't seem to be an adequate description.
She huffed. "I don't think that will be sufficient. Wait here."
Ezra looked down at his ruined nightclothes; his mother was going to be furious.
The nurse returned with a basin of water, some cotton wool and a bottle of iodine. Ezra visibly flinched.
"Now, now, don't be a baby, it's got to be done," the nurse scolded briskly.
Giving her one more glare, Chris took Ezra's hand. It was a painful and prolonged cleaning, but, even Chris had to admit, it needed doing.
"See, that wasn't so bad, was it?" she asked, when she was finally done.
Unable to respond and, trying to hold back the tears, Ezra shook his head obediently.
"Is that it?" Chris asked.
"For now. The doctor will be here as soon as possible to stitch it and give you your shot."
"Shot!" Ezra all but squealed in alarm.
"Of course dear, we don't want to get tetanus, do we?" She didn't wait for a response to her question. "Now brace up, we mustn't be squeamish for the doctor, he's a busy man." With that she as gone.
It was another twenty minutes before the doctor came. Ezra was petrified and held on to Chris so tightly, he almost cut off the circulation to his hand, but he kept still and quiet while the doctor put in no less than six stitches and gave him a tetanus shot. Finally, as Chris massaged his hand back to life, a different nurse appeared and applied a dressing and a bandage to Ezra's knee.
"There you are, all done, you can go home. You'll need to tell your father to take your brother to your family physician to have that checked in two days. If every thing is going well, you'll need to have the stitches out in ten days from now," she explained.
Ezra looked at Chris, not sure what he'd say, would he admit Mr Travis wasn't his father.
Chris simply responded, "Yes, Ma'am."
Chris and Ezra went back into the waiting area and waited for Travis and Buck to reappear. It took another two hours, dawn had broken outside.
"Does it hurt?" Chris asked.
"Not really. My arm is a little sore."
Chris glanced at Ezra's left arm where the doctor had given him the injection, but didn't say anything more.
Finally, the doors opened and Orin pushed Buck through in a wheelchair. Buck looked tired, but his colour was better than when Chris has seen him last. His left ankle was strapped up in bright white bandages with wooden splints either side
"He broke his ankle. He'll be fine as long as he behaves and stays off of it, right Buck?" Orin explained and Buck nodded sheepishly. "Now we are all going to go home and have some breakfast and have that talk about what happened, all of us - understood?"
"Yes Sir," the three boys answered in unison.
Buck sat morosely in the car as they headed home. The whole sorry mess was his fault. He'd been in so much pain and so afraid before, there was no room to concentrate on anything else. The Judge had been great; he stayed with him and held his hand as the doctor cut off his boot. As painful as his ankle had been, the sudden release of pressure had been almost unbearable. Buck tried hard not to cry - he never wanted his mother to worry about him, so from an early age he taught himself never to let her or anyone else see his pain - but this was more pain than he could handle. Orin had been right there, holding on to him, a strong arm wrapped around him, keeping him still and offering support.
"It's okay, breathe, breathe through the pain," he had coached.
Buck had instinctively tightened his grip on his guardian's hand, turning his head away from the source of the pain and burying it in Orin's wool coat.
"It should settle down in a few moments," the doctor explained. "You did right to keep his boot on, it's been splinting the ankle, but it's also been restricting the swelling, that's why it's been so painful."
"So what happens next?" Orin asked, never letting go of Buck.
"I'm going to arrange for him to have some x-rays taken, then we'll see."
The doctor had been right, after a while the intense pain subsided. Even the incessant throbbing lessened to a persistent ache, so long as he didn't move it. Orin wasn't allowed in the x-ray room with him, but he was right there when they wheeled him out. It made him feel good, knowing someone was there, that someone - an adult someone - cared. As good as it was to know Chris and the others cared, he wasn't so naive he didn't know there was only so much another child could do. Back in the treatment room, they had to wait for the x-rays to be developed. Eventually the doctor returned.
"Well, the bad news is, he's broken a bone in his ankle," he told Orin, ignoring Buck altogether.
"And the good news?" Orin asked.
"It's a simple break, the bones are all aligned, so all we have to do it splint it."
"Splint? Isn't that a little old fashioned?" Orin questioned.
"Well, we also have to deal with the deep laceration on his ankle."
Buck had forgotten about that.
"It's full of debris, there is no way to clean it out and be sure we've got it all removed. If we stitch it closed, I can almost guarantee that it will fester, especially if it's under a cast. The nurse will clean it out and then all we can do is leave it to heal. It's going to mean a big scar I'm afraid, but so long as it's kept dry and clean, it should heal with no complications."
It was hard to say what hurt more, the cleaning or the splinting, but he endured them both. Worse still, the doctor explained that since splints are no where near as good as plaster, he'd have to say off his foot until either the bones healed or the wound healed. He was going to be virtually bed ridden for at least six weeks.
The car passed over a pothole, sending a jolt of pain up his leg. The hospital had given the Judge some medication to help him sleep. He wished he could take it now, if he was asleep his leg wouldn't hurt and he wouldn't have to think about what was going to happen when they got home. It didn't matter what Chris said, it was all his fault and he, and only he, was going to take the blame. Vin had come along because he made it sound like an adventure, Chris had come to rescue them because that was his job and Nathan had covered for them, because Chris told him to do it. He was the only one who really did anything wrong. If any one was getting switched, it was him and he was the only one being sent back. He hoped it was back, maybe Dr Ben wouldn't take him back? Maybe there was no room now? He knew from Chris how bad other places were. Well, it was his own fault, he shouldn't complain.
Sadly, he turned his head away from the others in the car and watched the world outside. Dawn was breaking.
Ezra didn't know what was going on, and he didn't like that. Chris said it would be okay, but what did that mean? Would he be going back to Four Corners? Where was his mother? Was she at the rail crossing waiting for him? Was he in trouble for running away? So many questions and no answers. He looked down at his ruined pajamas. Chris said Mrs Travis would find him a new pair, but that wasn't the point. Mother would be furious, she was always furious if he got his clothes dirty, let alone ripped. The worry was gnawing away at him, his stomach felt tight and full of butterflies and his mouth felt dry. More than anything he wanted to get to the house. Mr Travis had said it would all get sorted out at the house. At least then he'd know what was going to happen.
JD woke up early, as he always did, needing the bathroom. He slid off the bed and trotted across the room, heading for the bathroom. On his way back, he noticed that the door to Nathan and Vin's room was open. Curious, he walked over and peeked in. It wasn't much, a door open that was normally closed, but it made JD uneasy. Peeking inside, his curiosity turned to surprise, both beds were empty. A little flutter of uncertainty in his stomach made JD turn back and head for his own room and Buck. So long as Buck was around, JD felt safe. He stood beside the bed, looking at the mound under the blanket.
"Buck?" he whispered, although for JD 'whisper' was a relative term. There was no response. "Buck?" he tried again.
Finally he reached out to give his 'brother' a gently shake come poke. Buck didn't feel like Buck, he was all squishy, not hard and heavy, like he normally felt. JD risked peeking under the covers, all he saw was pillows. Buck was gone! Consumed with fear, JD ran to Chris' room, only to discover the same. They had all run away and left him! His last chance was Josiah, so, still dressed in nothing but his pajamas, he thundered down stairs, heading for Sanchez's room. As he rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs, he was confronted by Josiah.
"Hey, easy there, I got you." Josiah wrapped his arms around the small boy.
"Ev'y one's gone!" JD told him plaintively.
"No, look." Josiah turned toward the stairs. "There's Vin and Nathan."
JD looked. There, sitting on the top step, were indeed Vin and Nathan, wrapped up in their robes and slippers.
"Come on, let's get you properly dressed and I'll tell you all about it."
While Josiah took JD back upstairs, Vin and Nathan resumed their vigil. Unable to sleep, they had snuck back down to wait, only to find Josiah was already sitting on the stairs, waiting. Woken by all the commotion, Gloria Potter had appeared and as the boys watched, she and Evie had spoken in the hall, then she carried some hot chocolate and cookies into the living room, where the two of them had remained.
Josiah explained as best he could. Buck and Vin had gone out to explore, he didn't even try to explain about the Martians and the radio, and Chris had gone to find them. He had also found Ezra, which had made JD very happy, but Buck and Ezra had been hurt.
"It's nothing to worry about, Buck hurt his ankle, and Ezra hurt his knee. Judge Travis took them to the hospital, because it's too late for them to go to the doctor. Chris went with them."
"Is Buck coming back?" JD asked worriedly.
"Of course he is. They're all coming back. We just have to wait."
Josiah pulled him into a hug, "I don't know, we have to be patient."
They sat there for another two hours, during which time JD asked when Buck was coming back at least a dozen times. Finally, they heard the car pull up outside. All four wanted to run down and find out what was happening, but Josiah knew they needed to wait, wait and watch. He held JD on his lap and told him firmly he had to keep quiet.
Mrs. Potter waited in the doorway of the living room while Evie went to the front door to meet her husband and the boys. Chris came in first, shepherding Ezra. Then Orin helped Buck in on his crutches. That was too much for JD, who broke free from Josiah and ran down the stairs. Unfortunately, in his haste and with only slippers on his feet, he missed his footing and fell.
Buck moved instinctively to catch him. He would have put all his weight on his broken ankle, had Orin not moved just as fast to stop him and hold him up as the crutches fell away.
"JD!" Buck was calling, in alarm, even as he was being restrained.
Chris acted equally fast. In the blink of an eye, he turned, took four stairs in two strides and caught the tumbling boy.
"Got ya!" he cried triumphantly. JD looked up at him a little bewildered. "You okay kid?" Chris asked, knowing everyone else was frozen, probably holding their breath.
"I felled," JD stated.
"Yes you did."
"You catched me?"
"Is Buck okay?" JD looked around his savior, oblivious to the collective release of breath.
"He hurt his ankle, but it's going to be fine."
JD wiggled to get free.
"Oh no you don't, not yet." JD looked back at Chris. "Why did you fell, I mean fall?"
JD frowned. "'Cause I was running?"
"Yes, and what is the rule about running on the stairs?"
JD hung his head. "No running on the stairs."
"Right, now go to Buck, slowly."
A quieter JD walked slowly down the stairs and up to Buck, he squatted down and examined the splinted ankle and foot, and then he took in the crutches that Buck had regained. Finally, he tentatively wrapped his arms around Buck's good leg.
"I thought you went without me," he explained.
"I'd never do that, kid. I didn't mean to scare you."
Evie could stand it no longer, she needed to fuss over Buck. Him standing there on one leg, looking like death warmed over, was just not acceptable any longer. In no time at all, she had him on one of the couches in the living room with his ankle propped up on a pile of cushions. Then, she turned to Ezra.
"Hello again, Ezra," she greeted. "You need to come and rest as well, you can take the other couch."
Ezra wasn't sure how to respond, he didn't want to cause any more trouble. Then Chris gave him a gentle nudge toward the vacant couch.
"Come on Ez, sit down and rest your knee."
Gloria looked around and made a decision. "Breakfast," she announced. "Will be ready in about twenty minutes."
Orin looked at her, nodded his acknowledgement, and then looked back at the boys. "After we've eaten, bed for everyone, then this afternoon, we'll have that talk."
Chris looked at the other boys and then moved to stand in front of his guardian, his mouth suddenly dry.
"Judge Travis, Sir?" he began.
"Can we have the talk now, can we get it over with - please?"
Orin looked around at the others and his wife, who nodded.
Before they started Evie explained that she had managed to contact Doctor Ben and assured him Ezra was safe. It had also been decided that he would remain with the Travis' for a while, at least until his stitches came out.
"They were very worried about you dear. Why did you run away?" she asked.
Ezra didn't know what to say. For one thing, he didn't think he had run away, he'd just left. His mother told him he was only to stay at Four Corners until she came back. She had come back, sort of, so he left.
"Show them the letter," Chris told him softly.
Ezra looked up at him questioningly. Chris nodded, so Ezra pulled the letter from his pocket and handed it to Orin. Once he had read it, he passed it to his wife, all the while trying not to show how angry it made him.
"I take it she didn't show up?" he asked Ezra.
"How long did you wait?"
Ezra wasn't sure. "It got dark," he finally stated.
"How could a moth..." Evie began to exclaim as she finished reading the letter, before she realised what she was saying and stopped her self. "You poor thing, you must have been so scared.
"And smart too," Josiah announced. "To get all that way on your own."
Ezra looked at Josiah, letting a small smile escape in response to the compliment.
"Yes of course," Evie agreed. "Not to mention brave."
"Indeed," Orin agreed. "But Ezra, why didn't you tell Dr Ben about the letter? I'm sure he would have helped you to meet your mother more safely. He was so worried about you."
Ezra looked at him, confusion clear on his face. Finally he frowned and explained, "But Mother never tells anyone when she leaves somewhere," he explained.
"Ah," Orin gave his wife a meaningful look. "Of course. Well, not to worry son, you can stay here until we get things sorted out. For now, you can sleep in Buck's bed, since he's going to be sleeping downstairs for a while. Alright?"
Ezra looked at him briefly, then dropped his head. "Yes sir, thank you."
With Ezra sorted out, however temporarily, Orin turned to the other five.
"Right," he began, "I think the four of you had better go and stand next to Buck."
Chris, Nathan, Vin and Josiah obediently lined behind the couch Buck was lying on, heads down, all except for Chris, who kept his head up and his eyes on his guardian.
"Now, starting from the beginning, tell me what happened last night."
So they did, Chris did most of the talking, but the others all added their parts. When they were done, Orin took a few moments to take it in and gather his thoughts. In truth, he had to admire their self reliance, presence of mind and courage, but that didn't mean he could ignore their transgressions.
"We'll start with the smallest offence," he began. "Josiah?"
"If Ezra hadn't been hurt, would you have told us what was going on?"
"No Sir," Josiah admitted.
"Thank you for your honesty."
"I know you were only trying to help, but you kept the truth from us, until you needed help. I presume, if Buck had not been hurt, you would never have told us what was happening?"
Chris kept eye contact as he answered. "No Sir."
"You covered for them, made it look as if they were in bed?"
"So, in effect, you lied to us?"
Nathan took a deep breath. "Yes Sir."
"He did it because I told him to," Chris pointed out.
"I am well aware of that." Orin looked at Chris, the two held eye contact for a good minute before Orin turned to Vin.
Vin didn't speak; he just looked up briefly.
"You left, not just the house but the grounds, without permission, at night, after bedtime."
Finally Orin turned to Buck, he hated doing this, and he hated doing it to Buck especially, since he already looked so miserable.
"This night time adventure was you're idea?"
"Yes Sir," Buck admitted.
"You knew it was against the rules?"
"Right. Well, Buck is going to be house and mostly bed bound for at least six weeks. That is already a far more serious punishment than any punishment I can impose. However, there will be no radio at all for the first week of your confinement; understood?"
A very miserable Buck nodded. "I'm sorry," he admitted. "It was all my idea, none of the others should be punished, if it wasn't for me, none of them would have got in trouble."
"We know that," Evie explained. "But they have minds of their own, Vin didn't have to go with you, Chris could have told us what was happening, Nathan didn't have to cover for you. You made your choice, they made theirs - understood?"
Buck looked at his friends dejectedly, he couldn't save them. "Yes Ma'am."
"Vincent, you knew you were doing wrong, even if it was Buck's idea. No radio for one week, no riding for two weeks."
"But!" Vin began to protest. No radio didn't bother him much, but not being able to ride for two weeks, that was the worst possible punishment he could imagine.
"It can be three," Orin warned.
Seeing he couldn't win, Vin backed down.
"Nathan, I am going to give you the same punishment, your crime was less, but the punishment means less to you, so that is fair." Nathan wasn't an enthusiastic rider, not that he didn't like it, but it wasn't the highlight of his day, not the way it was for Vin.
"Josiah, you did the right thing in the end, but not soon enough, no radio for one week." Josiah nodded his acceptance. "Christopher, you were trying to help, and you and I are going to have a private talk, later. All of you will have to cover Buck's chores until he's up on his feet again."
Orin surveyed the boys before him. He knew they were all sorry, he knew they had learned a lesson. This was their first major, or even minor, transgression, which was why he had been lenient. He hated that Buck would, by accident, be punished for much longer than any of the others, but there was no way around that, and there was no doubting he'd learned a lesson he would hopefully not forget.
"What about me?" JD asked, his question breaking into Orin's thoughts.
"What about you dear?" Eve asked. "You haven't done anything wrong."
"I runned on the stairs," JD offered, wanting to be included.
Orin tried not to laugh, as he looked to his wife for help.
"Well, yes you did, didn't you." She desperately tried to keep a straight face while trying to think of a suitable punishment, one that would make JD feel included. "Mrs Potter is going to make cookies today, for Halloween, but you will not be permitted to clean out the mixing bowl," she finally decided.
JD looked suitably sad, he loved to scrape out the mixing bowl. Of course, the cookies would be made while he was at school and he wouldn't have had the chance to scrape out the bowl anyway, but he didn't know that.
It was none to easy to get JD to go to school on his own, but it was necessary. He was the only member of the household who'd had a full night's sleep. Everyone else needed to get some rest, never an easy thing to do with a wide awake JD in the house. Evie had been firm and eventually he'd said goodbye to Buck and the others and climbed into the car, she knew there would be tears tonight when he found out their 'trick or treat' expedition was cancelled, but that couldn't be helped.
Gloria made up the day bed in the library for Buck and gave him his medication. Ezra had fallen asleep on the couch in the living room, so they left him there. Josiah, Nathan and Vin headed up to their rooms. Chris was the last to head for the stairs.
"Christopher, come and help me check on the horses," Orin instructed quietly.
The other three stopped and looked back, a trip to the barn could only mean one thing.
The horses lifted their heads as the barn door opened, recognising the scent of the humans who entered. Orin walked up to his horse. As always, Bud lowered his head waiting to be stoked and petted. Chris followed, mentally and physically preparing himself for the punishment that was to come.
"Your punishment will be the same as Josiah's, also no riding for one week," the former judge announced quietly.
"Yes Sir," Chris responded, waiting for the 'and' that must surly follow that statement.
"I was in two minds about it, on the one hand you deceived us, but you also acted very bravely. You got Ezra out of a very dangerous situation and you were mature enough to realise that you needed help and brave enough to call for it knowing you would be in trouble."
"Buck was hurting, he needed help," Chris stated, clearly implying he'd never let someone suffer to save his own skin.
"I know and I applaud your actions. Doctor Phillips told me how you protect the others, how you make sure they don't break the rules, keep them out of trouble. They look to you for leadership, they obey you. Nathan is not a deceitful child by nature, what he did, he did because you told him to do it." Before Chris could say anything, Orin continued. "And in the situation you were in, that made sense. I know that before Four Corners, you were in some bad places, places where you had no one to rely on but yourself. However, that's behind you now. You're here now and Evie and I will take care of you and the others, we're the adults, it's our job now." Orin took a step closer to him. "I know it's hard to believe, but let me say it once again. This is your home now, all of you and no one is getting sent back."
"Words are easy to say," Chris stated darkly, remembering all the promises adults had made to him and then broken, adults like his father, who promised to always be there for him.
"I know and I don't expect you to believe me without proof. Evie and I hope that our actions will prove to you that we have made a life time commitment here."
"The trouble is, it's hard to be their parents, when whatever we say, they check with you first." Orin looked into Chris' eyes and smiled. "Do you see the problem?"
"I guess," Chris admitted reluctantly.
"Just give us the chance to prove to you, to all of you, that this is your home, from now on. You, Christopher Adam Larabee, are a remarkable young man and as much I would like a son to follow me into the law, I don't think you will be an attorney."
"No, you are, I think, destined to be a leader of men and not from behind a desk. The responsibly of leadership will come to you soon enough, but right now you're only thirteen, enjoy the freedom while you can. What do you say, will you give us a chance to prove ourselves?"
Chris looked up at the man who had given, not just one, but six boys a home because he wanted to, no one made him do it, he wasn't getting paid. On the contrary, he was poorer for it.
"Yes Sir, I reckon I can do that."
Orin smiled. "I know that took a lot of courage, I'm proud of you."
Chris shifted uncomfortably in response to the praise. Not sure how to respond, he decided to change the subject. "What about Ezra?" he asked.
"Ah yes, Ezra. I'm going to make some inquiries about his mother, see if I can find out why she didn't meet him as she arranged. For all we know she's had an accident or something like that."
"Maybe," Chris admitted, sounding unconvinced. "What happens if you can't find her?"
"To be honest, at this stage, I don't know, but, if it is at all possible for Ezra to stay with us, I'll do my best to ensure that he does, if that's what he wants - fair enough?"
"Fair enough," Chris agreed.
"Good, well now that's all settled, let's get inside, I need some sleep."
Chris didn't move as Orin turned to go. Was that it? No switch, no beating, why did they come all the way out to the barn?
"You mean, you're not gonna..." he began
Orin turned back. "Not gonna what?" he asked, looking puzzled.
Chris stared at him for moment, and then let his body relax. "Nothing, it's not important."
"Good, well come on then, my bed is calling me."
He lifted up one arm, inviting Chris to come and walk beside him a protective arm over his shoulders. It was only as they walked back to the house that Chris realised Orin had called him 'son'.
Inquiries into Maude Standish's whereabouts took some time, but eventually, after almost two weeks, Orin received a letter from York, in Pennsylvania. Ezra's stitches had come out only the day before, but Evie has assured him that until they had news of his mother, Dr Phillips had agreed he could stay with the Travis'.
"Ezra," Orin called from the veranda.
It was Saturday and all the boys, except Buck, were raking leaves on the front lawn, though in truth as many leaves were thrown as raked.
"Yes Judge!" Ezra called, looking up, his cheeks pink with cold and laughter.
"Come with me, we need to have a talk."
Ezra dutifully followed his temporary guardian to the barn, while Evie called the others in. With boots and coats off, they gathered in the living room, where Buck was amusing himself with a jigsaw puzzle.
"Why's Ezra going to the barn?" Chris asked, "Is he in trouble?"
"No dear," Evie assured. "Orin is going to give him some bad news about his mother, and I'm going to share that same news with you now." They all looked at her with expectation and a little trepidation. "We have discovered that the reason she didn't arrive to meet him, was that she was in jail. It seems Ezra's mother has been caught trying to cheat some folk out of a lot of money, and it also looks like this wasn't the first time she's done it."
"Is she going to jail?" Buck asked.
Evie look at them all very sadly. "Yes, I am afraid it does look that way. The trial is in a few days time."
Ezra sat beside Orin on a hay bail and listened as his mother's probable fate was explained to him.
"Was it rail stock?" he asked.
"What was that?" Orin asked, wrong footed by this rather enigmatic response to his news.
"Was Mother selling fraudulent rail stock certificates?"
"Err, yes, yes I do believe that was the case."
Ezra sighed and nodded. "It's been done too many times before."
In truth, Orin was now at a loss as to what to say, this was not the reaction he had been expecting.
"Ah," he finally said. "I expect you're right. I am proposing to go to York and speak to your mother. I will ask her to sign custody of you over to me - if you would like to come and live here that is?"
"Oh yes please Sir, I would like very much to remain here."
"Good. Now, do you want to accompany me so you can see her?"
Ezra thought about it for a while, he was torn. Yes, he loved his mother and he wanted to see her, but he also feared her. She had away of making him change his mind about things - she might persuade him that he didn't want to live here and he did, he really, really did. Finally, he shook his head.
"Are you sure?" Orin checked.
Orin smiled back. "Very well."
"What if mother says no?" Fear edged Ezra's voice as he asked the question.
Orin didn't think that was very likely. He would point out to Maude that if she didn't sign over custody, he would petition the court for it and there was - given all the circumstances - very little chance he would be refused, making her look even more guilty in the eyes of the court.
"Well, if that happens, I will ask a judge to do it, even if she doesn't want to."
"Can a Judge do that?"
Ezra nodded. "That's good. So I can really stay here, forever?"
Orin had made it a point of principal not to make promises to these boys that he couldn't guarantee to keep. "I promise I will do everything I can to make it happen, don't you worry."
If Ezra understood, there was a chance, albeit a very small chance, that it might not happen, his beaming smile didn't show it.
Evie, Chris and Josiah were on the veranda as Orin and Ezra walked back to the house. As he had done with Chris, Orin had his arm around Ezra's small shoulders.
"Why does he take people out to the barn to talk to them?" Chris asked.
"To be honest dear, I don't know, but he has always done it that way. I think maybe the horses give him courage or peace or something like that."
"It's a shame he can't take them into court with him," Josiah commented.
Evie laughed, "Yes it is," she agreed. "And from those smiles, it looks like Ezra's going to be staying here."
Josiah looked at Chris and Ezra, both of whom were smiling broadly, then back into the house, where Nathan, Vin and Buck were playing snap with JD, always a chaotic and raucous event, they too were all smiling and laughing. Each of them had all been on a long journey, a journey to find each other, to find a family and a home, to find the happiness every child deserves; but that journey was finally over, they had made it home, safe and sound. Now, they faced an even longer journey, the one to adulthood and the rest of their lives, but they would be making that journey together, as brothers.
Text between >> << is from the transcript of the "The War of the Worlds" by H. G. Wells, as performed by Orson Welles & the Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was first broadcast on CBS radio, Sunday, October 30, 1938 at 8:00pm.
The First tetanus vaccination was in 1927