Blue Horse


Great big thanks to my two wonderful betas Shari and Karen. You've done a great job, girls.
Rascals AU where Ezra, Vin and JD are kids in the old west (open)

Winner of 2004 Gold Ezzie

Part 1

Ezra looked at the small package in his hand. It was wrapped in brown paper and string and bore the name ‘Chris’ in bold letters on the front, written carefully in his own handwriting. On the bed was another small, brown-wrapped package bearing the name ‘Buck’. They were the first presents he had ever made himself, and he was eager to see what kind of reaction they would garner. Ezra’s own mother had always told him never to give anything away, unless he was sure to get something of monetary value in return. She had given him the clear impression that anything he made for her would just be a waste of time.

Obviously, this hadn’t been his idea, but something suggested by the other two children in the household, Vin Tanner and JD Dunne. According to their logic a gift made by Ezra himself and given with no strings attached would make Chris like Ezra. Ezra hadn’t been so sure in the beginning, but the younger children’s enthusiasm had made him reconsider, made him think that they might be right. At least, he thought, it couldn’t hurt.

He had arrived with his mother in the two-horse town of Four Corners almost four months ago, to run a con on whomever his mother picked out. In this case it had been the wealthy, if somewhat paranoid bank owner, Mr. Watson. However, for once the peacekeepers protecting the town had been smarter than his mother and she had been arrested, literally with her hands stuck in the cookie jar. She was still counting the money she had swindled from Watson, when the man in question realized the bonds he had bought from her were fake ones. Her bags were only half packed when Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington, two of the town’s regulators, had broken down the door to her hotel room and arrested her. Once the Honorable Judge Travis had arrived, numerous other cons and swindles had been added to the list of her crimes. Not without quite a few strong words not often heard from a woman supposedly of good breeding, his mother was sentenced to ten years in Yuma. But the case hadn’t ended there. The town peacekeepers were still left with a nine-year-old, brown-haired, green-eyed, precocious troublemaker on two legs.

At that time Vin had been living with Larabee and Wilmington at their small ranch for almost a year and a half. Vin had come to town in the company of an old, rugged hunter and tracker. He had been living with him since his mother died when he was five, a full year before. No one knew if the man was his father or not and no one had cared. Chris had hired the tracker to track down a mountain lion that had been roaming the hills outside town. Between their duty as peacekeepers and their work at the ranch, neither Chris nor Buck had the time to go chasing stray cats, and Josiah and Nathan had no experience in that area. And, as had been a sad fact since their arrival to the town some years before, none of the residents cared enough to lift a finger for something that could end up getting them killed. After all, that was why they had hired protectors.

But five days later, six-year-old Vin had returned astride a packhorse, teary-eyed, but stoic, to tell Chris how his mentor had been killed by a rockslide just as he had killed the cat. Vin himself had been farther away on the packhorse, watching and learning as he always did. But no amount of teaching could have prepared him for the shock, as he watched his friend get buried under a ton of rocks. Rocks brought down by the loud crack of the huntsman’s rifle, made loose by many days of hard rain.

Chris had taken the shocked youngster in, while waiting for the judge to find some other place for him. He figured it was the least he could do. But somewhere in the weeks of waiting, something had happened between them, and Chris had decided to adopt the quiet, but tough boy.

JD had arrived with his mother from Boston a month later. She had settled down in town, working in the hotel as a maid and spending most of her time and money caring for her four-year-old son. Buck, being Buck, had flirted with the sweet but lonely woman since her arrival. He had fallen hard for the small, doe-eyed boy with the unquenchable thirst for life. When his mother had succumbed to illness three months later, the boy and the man couldn’t bear parting and another regulator found himself the adopter of a small boy.

None of them had been especially keen on the idea of taking in a third when Judge Travis had brought forth the idea. The old man reasoned that the boy had a chance of finding the right path, now that he was away from his mother. Being placed in an orphanage would only encourage him to remember his mother’s teachings and due to his advanced age and history, it would be hard to find someone else willing to take him in. Larabee had argued that he wasn’t very willing to take him in either, that Ezra would be a bad influence on JD and Vin. The Judge had dismissed his arguments, stating that Buck and Chris’s firm hands were exactly what the boy needed to break him of his bad habits. With a bit of carrot and a bit of stick, the promise of money and the threat of having their other boys removed, they reluctantly agreed to take him in.

When Ezra had arrived, it had been to a very tight-knit family, reluctant to include the newcomer, as Ezra had experienced so many times before. Buck, though, had quickly accepted him and by default so had JD, except for when Vin was nearby. The older boy was still the younger boy’s best friend and he was careful not to do anything to upset that friendship. Having lost his mother at so young an age, while being thrust into a world unknown to the small city-bred boy, was hard enough for JD. Losing his new friend and brother would be even harder. With Vin’s obvious animosity toward Ezra, JD quenched his naive good nature, only allowing himself to play with the new boy when Vin wasn’t around. Although Ezra, being as old and worldly wise as he was, was quite exciting for the young boy, who still saw a hero in everyone. Buck had assured Ezra that it was just a matter of time before Chris came around to seeing what a good friend Ezra was, and until then Buck would always be there for him.

Not that Ezra believed him. He was too familiar with this scenario, and too scarred to believe it would be any different from the other families/relatives he had been placed with. Chris was the real leader of this family. He was the one everyone obeyed without question, not Buck. Chris had made it perfectly clear what he thought of con-artists. At the time he had been speaking about Ezra’s mother, but Ezra had often heard the phrase ‘like mother, like son’ directed at him from his superiors. Chris clearly didn’t like him and would never accept him as part of his family, but Ezra could accept that. It would only be for a short time anyway. One day his mother would be there to pick him up. It was always the same. It was just a matter of time. No matter what other people said, his mother would come for him and he would be included in her plans for their next con. They would soon enough be off for the next town and other unsuspecting victims.

At first Vin’s hostile attitude hadn’t bothered him. It was clear the Texan was taking his cues from Chris, his new mentor. The two were so much alike that the shy boy trusted the older man in everything. If he thought Ezra was no good, Vin believed him. Almost two months went by with no one for Ezra to play with or talk to, except JD on occasion. He had tried to teach JD poker, until Chris confiscated his cards. There was Buck, when he wasn’t in town or out working on the ranch, a task Ezra had no taste for. As it was, the Southerner finally succumbed to the loneliness and the strangeness of this place. He was no cowboy. At least his mother had always left him with people in a fair sized town, knowing he needed the hustle and bustle to keep his mind sharp. Something he couldn’t find on a ranch. He had broken down crying in the hayloft, where Vin had found him around suppertime. Ezra had tried to hide why he was crying, embarrassed at the unbecoming display of weakness, but the perceptive Vin had seen straight through him. After that the other boy had gradually changed his attitude. Vin had started to include him in his activities, had showed him how to catch rabbits, fish, track deer and they had found common ground in playing pranks on Buck and JD. Ezra had refused to pull any on Chris, believing him to be a powder keg waiting to explode. Though Vin hadn’t been too upset at that.

Gradually Ezra had started to come out of his shell, and as the weeks went by he became used to the life he was living. He found he relished his two younger friends and his ties with Buck and Josiah, the town’s preacher and another regulator. Josiah loved to tell him about his travels around the world, much to Ezra’s delight. Chris still only tolerated him, believing him to be generally a bad influence on the family. Chris became antsy whenever Ezra spent too much time with Vin and JD, seeing him as the instigator of every prank they pulled on Buck, even though Vin was more often the culprit.

Vin had noticed this tendency in Chris, and that was when he had come up with the idea that Ezra should make Chris a gift, so he would like him better. Both Vin and JD had given Chris gifts at his birthday and he had been real pleased with them, telling them both that he loved them. They were sure it would be the same for Ezra. Ezra had been all set to go to Mrs. Potter’s mercantile to buy something with the money he had kept hidden from Chris and Buck, when JD had told him he should make the gift himself. The youngster’s mother had always told him she would much rather have a drawing made by him, than the most expensive painting by a world famous artist. Ezra hadn’t quite understood that. He knew for a fact that his mother would much rather receive an expensive painting, than a worthless drawing made by him. The only time he had made her one, he had spent hours trying to make the painting of him and Maude perfect. She had looked at it for one moment, then thrown it in the wastebasket, telling him he shouldn’t waste his time on trying to be creative. She told him to go practice his math instead or play with his cards, so he could stay sharp. He had been five at the time, and had sworn never to do that again, lest she should hurt him once more.

But JD had been adamant, and Vin had agreed, that Chris would like a handmade gift much more than if Ezra were to buy him something. They had decided they would all make one gift for Chris and one for Buck, so that it wouldn’t look too suspicious when Ezra presented his gift. JD and Vin had agreed on drawings, which were all they really knew how to make, but Ezra wanted to make something really special. He still hadn’t forgotten the hurt from the last drawing he’d made. Since he had never undertaken a task like this before, he had no idea how to go about it. So he had gone to Josiah for advice. The preacher had been pleasantly surprised and had suggested that Ezra could make new hatbands for the two men. Ezra thought it would be a good idea for Buck’s gift, but he felt Chris would just disregard his efforts as too common, too childlike. After all, he needed to impress the gunslinger, show him he was good for something other than being a conman. For some reason that just didn’t seem to impress the older man. Josiah suggested Ezra go home and think of what Chris really liked, that it might give him an idea of what to make.

Ezra had spent the next week surreptitiously watching Larabee, and had finally found the perfect gift. Larabee’s dead son, Adam, whom Ezra had been told never to mention, once made his father a small black, wooden horse. Ezra knew that, since Adam’s name was written in red paint on the belly of the horse. It was signed just like all the famous artists did with their paintings or sculptures, Ezra had seen them in the galleries in New Orleans. Sometimes when Larabee looked sad or distracted he would bring the horse out from the box in his bedroom and just look at it for hours. It would bring a smile to his face as he ran his fingers over the smooth wood. Ezra wanted to make a piece of art just like that. He knew instinctively that Chris would appreciate it. When he had told Josiah about it, the old man had at first looked sad at the story, then amused as Ezra had told about why he believed Adam had made it. Josiah never explained why he thought that was funny. Instead he had told Ezra he thought it was a fine idea, and that Chris would love it too. The preacher had provided him with leather strips in different colors for Buck’s hatband, paint, glue and a small carving knife for Chris’ horse. Ezra explained to the older man that he couldn’t spend money on the things himself, since it would go against the idea of a gift not bought. Josiah had just grinned, ruffled Ezra’s hair and promised that he would get him the equipment for free.

Back at the ranch Ezra had “borrowed” Adam’s horse to use as a template whenever Chris was in town. He then got to work on his gifts. Weaving the different leather strips together to make a finely woven hatband in different shades of brown was fairly easy, but he quickly realized he was no woodcarver. Having come this far he wasn’t willing to give up though, and Vin and JD had been his constant supporters. They had finished their drawings in days, but Ezra was determined that his gift would be perfection itself, just like Adam’s. It had taken several weeks and a dozen pieces of wood provided by Josiah, who had promised it was just the right kind for carving. Although Ezra had his doubts, several misshapen tries, bloody and blistered fingers, he had a lot of tenacity and finally he had a horse he was satisfied with.

Adam’s horse had been black like Larabee’s own horse Pony, but Ezra wanted something more lively and colorful and had chosen a blue paint instead. When that was done, he carefully painted his name on the horse’s hooves, one letter on each hoof.

Now it sat in his hands, carefully wrapped, waiting for Buck to come home. A bunch of men from the nearby ranches had shown up to warn them about a rabid dog in the neighborhood and Buck had volunteered to help them track it down. He had left just after breakfast, while Chris stayed and watched over the youngsters. The three children had decided to wait for Buck to return. It was almost evening before the boys had a chance to present their gifts. It had been snowing all day, and the newly fallen snow had kept them busy most of the day, building snowmen in the yard since they weren’t allowed to go far because of the dog. When they had come back inside, Chris had seemed to be in a bad mood, and Vin and JD had both been worried. Dinner had been a subdued affair, and they had all gone to their rooms afterward, no one really in the mood to play.

Ezra’s patience was beginning to wear down now. He had worked so hard on this, for so long. He wanted to present his gift now. He wanted Chris to tell him that he had done good, that he was proud of him. Just like Josiah and Vin and JD had promised him Chris would be. He wanted Chris’ face to light up when he looked at Ezra’s gift, just like it did when he looked at Adam’s horse. For some reason the gunslinger’s approval meant a lot to Ezra. Chris was a well respected, if not feared, person in town, and Ezra wanted to be considered his friend. He longed for that kind of respectability, something he had never received with his mother.

Usually, he wouldn’t have come near Chris when he was in a mood like today, but he had faith in his horse. He was certain it would garner the same reaction as Adam’s black one did, and that Chris would thank him for it and all the work he had done. Chris wasn’t his mother. He wouldn’t discard his precious gift like she had done. It had quickly been made clear to the boy that Chris, unlike Maude, could not be bought. He had no love for expensive and material things. This time it would be different.

With that thought in mind Ezra picked up his gift and went to get Vin and JD from their room. The two youngest boys shared a room, while Ezra had his own in what used to be a small store room, but now contained a bed, a dresser and a small closet. He found his friends playing marbles on the floor. Both looked up as he entered.

“Is Buck back?” JD asked eagerly. He wanted to present his gifts as much as Ezra did. It had been torture on him to wait until Ezra had finished his horse, and even worse to keep the whole thing a secret. Only Ezra’s promise, that JD could have the horses he made that didn’t turn out, had kept the younger boy’s silence and prolonged his patience. He had practically been bouncing all day from the excitement and it was only the wonder of the newly fallen snow and Buck’s absence that kept JD from springing the secret too soon. He wasn’t as interested in giving his gift to Chris as he was to present his other one to Buck, his second father.

“No, not yet. But I will not wait any longer. I am going to give Chris his gift now, with or without Buck. He can get his when he comes back.”

“Don’t know if that’s wise, Ez,” Vin drawled from where he lay on his stomach on the floor, rolling a couple of marbles in his hand. “Chris didn’t seem to be in a very good mood before.”

“Exactly! And that is precisely why I need to give him my present now, my friend,” Ezra said excitedly.

“Not sure I follow you, Ezra,” Vin said confused. He still thought it would be a bad idea to disturb Chris right now. He loved the gunslinger, but sometimes he just knew he shouldn’t bother Chris, even though the older man had said he could always come to him. Today seemed like one of those times.

“Don’t you see, Vin? What is it that Chris usually does when he’s in a bad mood?” Before Vin could answer, Ezra continued. ”He takes out Adam’s horse. But tonight I will present him with my horse and he will no longer be melancholy.”

Vin wasn’t sure he believed Ezra’s reasoning, just as he wasn’t quite sure what melancholy meant. But the older boy sounded sure in his beliefs and Vin wasn’t one to argue when he didn’t have an answer for something. So he just nodded.

“Okay, but I’m gonna wait with mine until Buck gets back. Want him in on it as well.”

“Me too,” JD agreed, even though he looked like he had been ready to get his present for Chris just before Vin spoke up. Now he looked a bit disappointed, but he was after all more interested in Buck.

“That will be fine,” Ezra agreed. “Perhaps you would like to be there, when I present my gift, though.” Ezra hoped they would say yes. He wanted someone there when he got the praise he deserved. He would have liked Buck there as well, but the other man already liked him, and right now it was more important for him for Vin to be there. Their friendship was still a bit tenuous because of Chris’ hostility, but hopefully that would change tonight.

“Sure, Ez. Lead on,” Vin said and got up from the floor. The small procession made their way to the kitchen where they found Larabee slumped in a chair at the kitchen table, staring deeply into a bottle of red-eye.

On some level Ezra knew he should probably have turned around and left the man alone after he realized he was drunk. But the excitement had gotten to him and he ignored his inner warning signals prompted by the man’s red rimmed eyes and whiskey-laden breath.

“Mr. Larabee? Sir?” Ezra waited until Chris had turned his drunken gaze on him, then showed him the present.

“I made something for you. It’s a gift,” Ezra said, trying to sound nonchalant, and waited for Chris to take it.

Chris looked at it for a moment, trying to get his eyes to focus on the brown blob in front of him and then reached out for it with shaking hands. It took a couple of tries to get the tightly tied string off, finally resorting to pulling his knife out and cutting through the bond. Ezra looked slightly perturbed at that, but Larabee ignored it. He unwrapped the present until he was finally holding the small blue horse in his hands.

Chris stared with unfocused eyes at the wooden horse in his hands. Adam’s horse. The one he had carved himself to give to his son on his fifth birthday. It had become Adam’s most precious belonging. He had treasured the horse, a miniature of his father’s own, and he had carried it with him everywhere he went. It was the same horse that had been missing from the box Chris had kept it in ever since Adam and Sarah’s deaths. He knew that it was missing, for he had looked for it today, needing the touch of the smooth wood and the faint smell of old paint and wax. He needed to bring up the good memories of his son, to dispel the sad ones that had taken him over today as the first snow of the year had started to fall, a time Adam had treasured. But the horse wasn’t black anymore. It was blue. And it didn’t say Adam on its belly anymore, either. As far as he could see, it didn’t say anything at all. It wasn’t Adam’s horse anymore. Ezra had ruined it. He didn’t know what Ezra had intended by this. He had long ago given up trying to figure the con boy out, tolerating him, but not liking him as he did Vin and JD. But this time the boy had gone too far.

He switched his gaze from the horse to the child. Ezra was looking expectantly up at him, a pleased smile plastered on his face. “Do you like it?” he asked, his cheery southern drawl only fueling the flames of Chris’ temper.

“Like it? You’re asking me if I like it?” Chris whispered darkly, the stench of his breath forcing Ezra back a step. “Hell yes, I liked it. I loved it before you got your grubby little hands on it, you little bastard,” Chris spat, his voice rising at the end. He looked down at the small blue horse for a moment, his face contorted in rage. Then he threw it forcefully against the wall, where it shattered, the frail neck and one of the legs breaking off and skittering across the floor.

“Get out, get out of here, you little shit, before I do something I’ll regret,” Chris yelled at the suddenly pale child. He lurched up from his chair and staggered towards Ezra. The shocked child finally found the will to move and dodged the drunken man easily. Terrified he ran for his room, ignoring the equally shocked Vin and JD, who where standing in the doorway watching. He heard a crash behind him as Chris fell to the floor, then a string of loud cursing and threats against his person. Ezra slammed the door behind him, and then frantically crawled under the bed just to come out with his carpetbag in his arms. He knew how to pack his clothes quickly, had done it often enough. Within minutes, he had all of his possessions neatly bundled in his bag. Blind from the tears that kept streaming from his eyes and almost deaf from the noise of his frantically beating heart and the blood rushing in his ears, he sat down on the bed for a moment to try and compose himself.

Terrified, he jumped when he heard the door creek open, only to relax slightly when he saw Vin and JD slip inside. Vin was white as a sheet and JD was crying silently. He seemed to realize making noise would only aggravate the situation. He also had a wet patch on his trousers, testifying to just how scared he had been.

“Whe…where are you going, Ezra,” JD hiccupped as he noticed Ezra’s packed bag. He was clinging to Vin’s arm, looking just as terrified as Ezra felt.

“I will be departing for town, JD. The stage coach will be able to transport me to Eagle Bend tomorrow,” Ezra answered, trying to hide the hitch in his voice. He tried to dry his eyes with his sleeve. His mother would have admonished him for that kind of behavior, saying that it didn’t befit a gentleman to show weakness and certainly not to make a mess of his clothes. Right now Ezra couldn’t care less.

“Then where will you go?” Vin asked, subdued like the rest of them. Larabee’s behavior had shocked the hell out of him and he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want Ezra to leave, but he wasn’t sure how Larabee would react to him staying either. He certainly didn’t want to see Ezra get into more trouble for something that had ultimately been his and JD’s idea. Ezra had said it would be a bad idea from the start, but Vin hadn’t listened. Now his friend was paying the price, and Vin didn’t even know how it had all turned out so badly.

“ I…I don’t know, Vin,” Ezra answered his question, pausing midway in pulling on his black, finely made leather boots. Vin had admired the expensive boots, until Chris had pointed out that they cost the same as three ordinary pairs of boots and that they were useless when it got cold, because they had no lining. Unfortunately Ezra didn’t own any other pair of boots. Chris had been angry that they had to waste money on new clothes for Ezra, since all he owned seemed to be too fancy for ranch work and play. Ezra hadn’t packed any of those clothes now, only his own. He didn’t want to go to prison like his mother, for taking something that wasn’t his.

“I think I have some family in Charleston,” Ezra continued, as he pulled the boot all the way up and found his red jacket. It had lining and would be fairly warm. “Perhaps they will agree to take me in again, although they seemed to be quite happy to see me leave the last time,” he said, swallowing the lump in his throat that was threatening to cut off his voice. He hadn’t really thought that far. He just knew he had to get away from here before Chris got his legs back under him and came after him. Once he was back in Four Corners he could figure out what to do next. He still had some money and he knew there was enough for a stage ticket, at least to the next town. Maude had taught him to always have enough funds for a quick escape, as one never knew when it became necessary.

“I don’t want you to leave,” JD cried and let go of Vin, only to wrap his arms around Ezra’s waist and bury his head in the older boy’s vest. If Ezra had cared about anything but getting out of there, he would have cringed at the sight of the runny nose buried in his fine garments. As it was he felt a slight comfort in the other boy’s misery and put his own arms around JD and hugged him back.

“I don’t want to leave either, JD,” Ezra whispered, knowing it to be true.

“Do you want me to go with you?” Vin offered sincerely. Ezra was both surprised and pleased at the offer, but he knew it wouldn’t be fair to accept it.

“Thank you, my friend, but you belong here. You need to stay and look after JD. Take care, Mister Tanner, and you too, Mister Dunne.” Vin stepped forward to be included in the hug, then both of the younger boys let go of their friend and stepped back. Ezra put on his mittens, scarf and hat and opened the window. An icy breeze hit the three boys, but Ezra wasn’t deterred from his mission. He carefully lowered the carpetbag out the window, and crawled after it. After another hug and whispered good byes Vin closed the window. The two smaller boys kept waving until Ezra disappeared in the gloom. They crawled onto Ezra’s bed, both feeling miserable. JD had finally noticed his wet trousers and another burst of tears covered his face. Vin quickly helped him out of them and together they crawled into the corner of Ezra’s bed. Sharing his blanket against the cold in the room and the cold in their hearts, they waited silently for Buck to come home and help them right their world again.

It was almost an hour later, before the man in question made it back. He was tired, cold, saddle sore and generally in a bad mood. They hadn’t managed to track down the rabid dog. Instead they had found two sheep it had killed and now it was too late to search for it, even though the full moon was lighting up the snow. That meant he had to go out to look for it tomorrow as well. Now all Buck wanted was to get a hot meal, to make sure his boys were all tucked in and sleeping peacefully, and then to get a good night’s sleep for himself.

He turned on a lantern and mechanically rubbed down his equally tired horse. Then he trudged his way through the ten inch thick snow to the front door. He wasn’t prepared for the sight of his best friend snoring at the kitchen table with a half full bottle of whisky in front of him. Nor was he prepared to find the pieces of a carved blue horse, kind of like the one Chris had once made for Adam, strewn around the floor.

Buck decided to ignore it, knowing he would have to have a serious discussion with Chris in the morning about not drinking when the kids were around. He wasn’t ready for a drunken confrontation with the man right now when it could wake up the children. He just hoped Chris hadn’t started before they had gone to bed.

He made his way on tiptoes to Ezra’s room, knowing both the Southerner and Vin were light sleepers. His composure fell when he opened the door and the beam of light from the lantern hit the sleeping forms of JD and Vin huddled together under Ezra’s blanket. Ezra was nowhere in the room, and Buck noticed his closet was open and nearly as empty as his dresser. Buck could feel his insides knot up. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. He hurried over to the youngster’s side and noticed the tear streaks on both their faces. He put a hand on JD’s shoulder and one on Vin’s knee and gently shook them awake. JD came to with a shriek and started wailing. Buck quickly gathered him in his arms, trying to assure the frightened child everything would be okay. As soon as JD had realized it was Buck, his wailing became louder. He buried his head in Buck’s shirtfront, shaking in all of his misery. As soon as Buck had gotten JD settled against him, he turned his attention toward Vin. The older child had at first shrunk back from Buck’s contact, trying to pull JD with him. As soon as he had recognized Wilmington though, he let go of JD and crawled to Buck’s side as well, needing the reassurance of the older man’s hand on his back.

Buck let the children have a few moments to get themselves together; feeling dread seep into him like the cold snow had done all day. He gently released Vin and put a hand under his chin, forcing the quiet child to look him in the eye.

“What happened, Vin? Where’s Ezra? Did Chris do something?”

Vin dried his eyes with his fist, then sucked in a large breath. He brokenly told Buck how they all had made gifts for him and Chris, and that Ezra couldn’t wait until Buck came back before he gave his to Chris. Vin told how he had warned Ezra about Chris being in a bad mood, but that Ezra had wanted to go ahead anyway. He had to compose himself again, when he told about Chris’ reaction to Ezra’s horse. He couldn’t hold the tears back any longer when he told how Ezra had left, probably for good.

Buck’s temper had gone from cold steel to molten lava as Vin had told each heartbreaking detail of the day. He quietly hugged the two children to his chest again, trying to modulate his voice, before he said anything to them. He didn’t want to frighten them any more than they already were.

“Vin,” he said, once he found he had his emotions back under tight rein, “I want you to look after JD until I come back again. I don’t want you to worry about Chris or Ezra anymore, okay? Everything will be alright. Take JD back to your room and stay there. Chris and I have to leave for a while and I want you to take care of JD until we come back. Can you do that?”


“Good. Don’t worry, boys, I’ll bring Ezra back.” He gave them one final hug, then released them and made his way out of the room. He would bring Ezra back, that was a given. The question was, would the boy be dead or alive? It was freezing outside, Ezra was on foot and to make matters worse, there was still a rabid dog on the loose.

The sight of Chris still snoring drunkenly at the kitchen table brought the rage out in him. He had often, too often, seen Chris this way and ignored it. But now they had the responsibility of three small boys and Buck would no longer tolerate it.

“Get up, you rotten bastard,” he yelled and kicked Larabee’s chair so hard that the drunken man fell from it and landed belly down on the floor. Chris tried to grab for the gun that wasn’t there, before he realized it was his oldest friend yelling at him.

“What…what the hell is going on, Buck?” he muttered angrily, staggering to his feet. He wasn’t in the mood for this shit.

“I should be the one to ask you that, Larabee. I thought I told you never to drink when you were alone with the boys.”

“Ain’t your business, Wilmington.”

“The hell it is. Especially when you hurt them.”

“Ain’t hurt nobody,” Chris said, his temper rising as he tried to get the floor to stop spinning.

“No? Then tell me something, Larabee. Tell me why I found Vin and JD terrified in Ezra’s bed? Tell me why Ezra is on the run in the middle of the night in the freezing cold with a rabid dog on the loose, and the notion in his head that he has to make it to Four Corners tonight or he’ll end up hurt?” Buck raged. He had no consideration for Chris’ feelings and told the truth bluntly, knowing nothing else would penetrate the alcohol fogged brain. Chris looked at him like he was insane, then all color left his face.

“Aw shit, I never meant that. I was angry…”

“Save you apologies, Larabee. I ain’t in the mood to hear them. If you’re lucky, real lucky, Ezra will. Now get your drunken ass out there and saddle some horses, while I get some blankets and another lantern.”

The fear and the icy wind that ripped into him as he opened the door made Chris sober up faster than any of Nathan’s terrible concoctions ever had before. The evening’s events were coming back in flashes and the most pronounced were the picture of an ashen faced boy and the sound of loud yelling, threats, and things being smashed. He just hoped to hell Ezra hadn’t gotten himself killed. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if that happened. He couldn’t bear to be the cause of another small boy’s death, another boy he ultimately had the responsibility for. He had been so mad at Ezra, still was, for ruining his treasured horse, but he never wanted this. Never wanted Ezra to run terrified from the house, in the dark and the freezing cold, thinking it would be safer than staying within Chris’ reach. His drunken temper had gotten the best of him and he had lashed out, saying things that a grown person would have just ignored or else hit him for, but instead he had terrified a child.

Buck made it back to the stable just as Chris finished saddling the horses. They quickly secured the extra blankets behind the saddles, mounted up and led the beasts on the road toward Four Corners. Buck had come back from the other side and wouldn’t have seen the child earlier and neither of them dared to think that Ezra wouldn’t be following the road.

Chris took the left side and Buck the right, searching for any sign of the missing child, or even Ezra himself. They were both grateful for the moonlight, but they knew it had only just stopped snowing and any footprints Ezra had left would have been erased. Afraid to miss the child should he be buried in the snow, they kept their horses to a slow canter, all the while calling out for him in the silvery darkness.

Ezra was cold, wet, miserable in every sense of the word, and completely exhausted. His tears had frozen on his cheeks and for the last ten minutes he had been forced to cradle his carpetbag in his arms. His fingers had been too numb to hold on to it, even though he still wore his mittens. His boots were soaked from the snow, and his feet hurt. The snow was making it difficult to move very fast and he was quickly becoming drained of his last remaining strength. The adrenalin that had kept him running to begin with had left him a long time ago.

He no longer feared Larabee. Instead he feared the darkness around him, the unfamiliar sounds of the prairie, and the cold numbing his body. Like JD he was a city boy and though Vin had tried to teach him about the outdoors, he wasn’t ready to handle this. The moon gave him light to see by, but it also made him jump at every shadow, until he was too numb and exhausted to jump anymore. His mind had gone blank a while back, fear and exhaustion had taken over. He no longer had any idea where he was, since he couldn’t see the road for all the snow and he didn’t recognize any of the landmarks around him.

For the fourth time that night he tripped over a rock hidden under the snow. He fell hard on top of his bag, the fall forcing the air from his lungs. Already numb, he didn’t feel the snow seep through his clothes. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he had to get up, he had to get going again. He tried to stand up, but only made it to his knees, arms still clutching the bag. His body was just too tired and too cold to obey him. He didn’t even have the strength to cry.

A growl made him look up, only to stare into the eyes of the mad dog Buck had been chasing all day. It was foaming at the mouth and its fangs were gleaming in the moonlight. Ezra could do nothing but stare at the creature. He didn’t utter a sound, didn’t move a muscle, but inside every part of him was screaming in terror. The cold and the terror kept his body immobilized. All he could do was wait for death as the beast lunged for him.

He didn’t hear the shots that echoed through the night and his eyes had closed as the dog’s body slid to a halt just in front of him. He didn’t hear the familiar voice that called his name or feel the warmth of the blankets placed around his shoulders. He vaguely registered it when he was lifted onto a horse and placed in front of a warm body, whose arms reached around him and held him tightly. He felt it when more blankets were wrapped around his feet and head, until he was completely covered, and when the horse was kicked into a gallop, the arms tightening around him. But it wasn’t until he was unwrapped again in the warmth of the kitchen, that he finally opened his eyes to look at Buck and let his soothing words comfort Ezra’s terrified mind.

Chris and Buck had seen it at the same time. Ezra, lost and alone, on his knees in the snow, his carpetbag cradled tightly to his chest, staring into the eyes of a killer. They had reacted at the same time as well. Chris, a split-second faster than Buck, even in his half drunken state, had hit the leaping dog first. Larabee knew he would never forget the sight of the small boy sitting in the snow in the light of the moonlight, eyes closed, waiting to be killed. It was something he never wanted to see again.

After he had fired his shot, he had stayed on his horse, not sure what to do. Afraid that if he went to Ezra, the scared child would perceive him as another threat. Instead he had let Buck handle the situation. Buck had jumped from his horse, pulled the blankets from his saddle and gone to Ezra. The child never reacted to what was happening around him. He just kept sitting with his eyes closed.

“It’s okay, Ezra. You’re gonna be fine,” Buck soothed, as he wrapped his blankets around the cold body. What he could see of Ezra’s skin had a bluish tinge to it, and it was clear the boy was in shock. He knew he had a hell of a lot of work in front of him and he cursed Larabee once again. He carefully picked up Ezra, carpetbag and all, and carried him to the horses. Chris climbed down and took the boy as Buck got back in the saddle. Larabee was shocked to see how blue Ezra looked.

“Gonna have to wrap him real tight, before we bring him back, Buck,” he said. Together they placed the last two blankets around Ezra’s feet and head, so that he was covered completely. He couldn’t afford to lose any more body heat.

“Take care of the dog, and the horses when you get back,” Buck ordered as he turned his horse and kicked it. Chris would rather have gone with him, wanting to be with the hurt boy, but he knew what he wanted wasn’t important. It was the furthest thing from Buck’s mind right now, and he accepted that.

Although Pony wasn’t too happy about it, he hastily secured the dead beast on the back of his horse and turned back. He left the carcass in the woodshed, knowing he would have to burn it in the morning to prevent other animals from catching the dreaded disease. He thanked the gods that Ezra hadn’t been bitten. They had gotten to him just in time, but it had been so close. His whole body shuddered as he thought of what could have happened if they had been just a minute later. He took his time with the horses, especially Buck’s, which had been forced to gallop back. He was aware that sweat and the freezing cold didn’t mix well. Ezra was proof of that. 

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Part 2


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