“Out here, due process is a bullet,” she snarled into his ear. “These men would sooner shoot you than talk to you!”
The child nodded, fear in his wide emerald eyes.
She smiled to see it. “Now you just wait for me. I’ll see you in a few days. Take care of yourself.”
She left the room, hearing his whispered, “I love you, Mama.”
She huffed. Love was for fools.
But…what if she was wrong? What if her son needed her?
Maude pulled herself back to reality and chastised herself for worrying. After all, Ezra was a big boy now.
He was all of five years old.
When she returned to find Ezra safe, fed and happily reading to infants, she knew she’d done the right thing.
Life passed like this for three years. Over that time, Maude’s marks and husbands – and Maude herself – would strike the boy if he stepped out of line.
Maude considered herself a good mother when she saw how obedient Ezra had become.
When Ezra was nearly nine, she put him alone on a stage to Eagle Bend, Arizona Territory. She’d counted on him obeying her orders.
She’d counted on another successful series of cons.
She had not counted on the boy dozing off and missing his stop.
Ezra woke with a start. He was aware of the stage stopping. Smiling, Ezra dropped out of the stage and waited for Mister Cole to come take his bags off the stage. His mother had wired him, he knew Ezra was coming.
But….there was nobody there!
Frowning, Ezra retrieved his own bag. “Hey,” he called to the driver. “This is Eagle Bend, right?”
“No!” the driver laughed. “That was last night! Welcome to Four Corners, kid!” And the man drove off, laughing.
Ezra stood there, stunned. He just stared after the coach – until a hand landed on his shoulder. Instantly, Ezra began to struggle. “Hey! Get your hands off of me!”
“Easy, son – calm down!”
The voice shocked the boy, who froze and turned slightly in the man’s strong grip. He took in the buckskins and long hair, the stubble and the slouch hat – and above all, the unmistakable stock of a mares-leg rifle slung in a holster.
His mother’s words rang in his ears again: *These men would sooner shoot you than talk to you!*
But this man was talking to him!
“I’m Vin Tanner, son – what’s your name?”
Startled, he blurted out his real name. “Ezra Standish, sir.”
Then the shock caught up with him, and the child fainted.
Vin gasped as he lifted the slight frame into his arms. “Geesh, kid,” he whispered as he carried him toward the clinic. “What the hell happened to you?”
As he started up the stairs, he called “JD! Take the kid’s bags and store them in the jail for me!”
JD nodded and ran to get the bags.
“Nathan!” Vin bellowed as he entered the clinic. “Nathan!”
The large dark-skinned man came out of the adjoining rooms. “Vin, what the hell are you hollerin’ ab—“ He broke off as he saw the body in Vin’s arms. “What happened?”
“Don’t know.” Nathan pointed and Vin lay the child on one of the examination beds. “He just got off the stage – nobody there waitin’ for him. Went t’see what I could do and he reacted like I’d hit him. Says his name’s Ezra Standish.”
“Ezra – nice Biblical name. Josiah’d be proud,” Nathan quipped as he ran his hands down the boy’s legs. They moved to his arms, and Nathan frowned.
“What is it?”
“Left shoulder moves too loose. Like it’s been outta joint awhile back.” He opened the child’s mouth and frowned. “What kind’a parent’d give a kid a gold tooth?”
“Think he’s a midget?”
“Nah, it’s a kid – he’s still got ten baby teeth. Gold one’s in place of a grownup tooth. I’d say he’s eight, maybe ten years old.”
Vin shook his head. “Don’t tell me that.”
“Cause that’d mean someone abandoned a kid – alone – to get off a coach in a strange town! I can’t imagine anyone bein’ that cruel, that cold!”
Nathan paused, realising this had triggered some terrible memories of Vin’s own past. “Maybe he’s an orphan.”
“I hope so – otherwise I can’t … I just can’t wrap my mind around anyone bein’ so cruel!”
“Go rest, Vin,” Nathan grinned. “You’re repeatin’ yourself.”
“I won’t leave him. He’s been left enough.”
Nathan left the room, one thought rolling through his mind. *Mercy, Vin – this is more’n old memories rarin’ up for you – he got under your skin, didn’t he?*
Ezra groaned, a hand going to his head. “…where….”
“Easy, son,” a male voice drawled and a calloused hand brushed his forehead. “You’re safe. You’re all right.”
Ezra looked up at the man sitting beside him, noting the blue eyes, sandy hair and gentle smile. “When?” he asked in a resigned voice.
The sandy brows pulled together in a confused frown. “When what?”
“When are you going to shoot me?”
The man startled, visibly shocked. “Shoot you? Why on earth would I shoot you?”
“Mother says that’s what men like you do out here.”
“Men like me?”
Ezra nodded. “Men with rustic appearances and guns.”
The man smiled. “Ezra, we only shoot when we have to. And good men don’t shoot kids.”
Ezra blinked at him. “How do you know my name?”
“Ezra Standish?” Grinning at the boy’s dropped jaw, the man went on, “You told me right before you passed out. Bet you don’t remember mine.”
A slight smile touched Ezra’s face. “Well, sir, you’d win that bet.”
“My name’s Vin. Vin Tanner.”
Ezra held out his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Vin Tanner.”
Vin shook the boy’s hand solemnly. “So – tell me what happened.”
Ezra closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh. “I was supposed to meet my mother in Eagle Bend next week. I overslept and missed my stop.”
Nathan walked into the room, and Ezra recoiled from the big man.
Seeing his reaction, Nathan sighed. “I get that all the time, son. People see my skin and not much else.”
“Your skin?” Ezra frowned. “You’re so big…”
White teeth flashed as Nathan relaxed and smiled. “Can’t do anythin’ bout that either,” he chuckled. “I’m Nathan Jackson – the town’s healer. Mind if I check you out?”
Ezra turned frightened eyes to Vin, who smiled and nodded. “He’s a good friend and a good healer. I trust him with my life.”
Ezra whispered, “I’m scared.”
“I’ll stay with you, okay?”
A nod, and Ezra leaned back. “All right. I’m ready.”
Nathan was gentle and patient. He took pains to explain to Ezra exactly what he was going to do before he did it. When he was done he said, “Vin – I need to talk to you.”
Instantly, Ezra paled. “Am I ill?”
With a kindly smile, Nathan patted his shoulder. “Other’n bein’ hungry an’ tired, you’re just fine! Rest and eat and you’ll be on your feet in no time! No, what I gotta talk to Vin about is town Regulator business.”
Ezra searched his face. Finding no deception there, he nodded and lay back onto the pillows.
“How bout I get Inez to bring you some food?” Nathan asked.
“Is she a good cook?”
“Best in town,” Vin assured him. “You like Mexican food?”
Ezra blinked. “I’ve never had it. I like Creole food…”
Nathan nodded. “I think you’ll like it. Rest and I’ll have her bring you some lunch.” When Ezra nodded, Nathan jerked his head toward the door.
Once outside, Vin whispered, “Is he really all right?”
“He is now,” Nathan said grimly. “He’s been beat, Vin. Several times. He’s got scars on him that can’t have got there any other way.”
Vin’s fists clenched. “But who—“
“At his age? By the size of those scars? I’d say his folks.”
Vin growled and jerked his head toward the room. “Go sit with him. I’ll get the food.”
“Nate, I need t’calm down. Go sit with him. Tell him I went t’get him somethin’, and I’ll be back.” With that, Vin spun on his heel and stalked away.
Nathan sighed. “Sheesh, Vin,” he groaned. “He did get under your skin.”
Once Ezra had eaten and was asleep for the night – with JD watching over him – Vin went to the saloon and sank into a chair.
Inez walked over with a bottle of whiskey.
Vin smiled at her. “I can’t afford to get drunk tonight – though I want to real bad.”
She smiled and patted his shoulder. “How about a beer?”
“Sounds just fine.” He blushed as she bent down and kissed his temple. “Inez…”
“He is a darling, isn’t he?”
The smile turned gentle. “He sure is.” When Inez walked away, his smile turned into a grimace of rage. “A darlin’ who’s been hurt too damned much.”
A few moments later, Chris walked in and sat down by his friend. “Vin.”
“Heard about the kid.”
“Yeah.” He took a swig of the beer. “Got a lot of ponderin’ to do.”
“What’s there to ponder? You’re a tracker. You track his folks, send him back or bring them here, happy family reunion, say g’bye, and move on!”
Vin glared daggers at Chris. “Like hell.”
That took Chris by surprise. “…what?”
“Those people beat him,” Vin said in a deadly calm voice that showed the depth of his rage. “I am not givin’ that child back to those….bastards!”
“Well, who’s gonna take care of him?” Chris asked pointedly. His hat was shading his eyes, or Vin would have seen the glazedness that would have shown him the rough tones and deep sarcasm weren’t from his friend, but from the demon Chris battled periodically. “Know of any families that’ll take in a ten-year-old kid?”
“He’s eight,” Vin corrected. “His birthday’s a month from Sunday – he’ll be nine.”
Chris nodded. “All right, a nine-year-old kid!” The only problem was, when unable to see his eyes and tell beyond a shadow of a doubt, Chris’s speech never became slurred on the now-rare times – like right now -- when he was just drunk enough to be nasty. “Still leaves us with a question.”
“Nope. Have an answer.”
“Yeah?” Chris’s head tilted. “Who’s gonna take him in?”
Vin knocked back the last of his beer before he answered. “Me.”
“You?” Chris spluttered.
Vin nodded. “I’m gonna take him in. Be his pa.”
“Damn, he got under your skin, didn’t he?” Chris shook his head. “Vin, bein’ a pa – it’s hard enough with a ma helpin’ you! And you’re gonna try it alone?”
Vin's eyes narrowed. “Didn't think I was gonna go it alone.” He pushed his chair back from the table and stood. “Thought my friends were gonna help me.” He glared down at Chris before he plopped the slouch hat onto his long curls. “Reckon I thought wrong.”
Before Chris could say another word, Vin had spun on his heel and stalked out of the saloon.
Chris sat there, trying to wrap his fogged brain around what had just happened.
The next morning, Chris woke feeling only half-human. He felt all the worse for it because he had a vague memory of fighting with Vin.
It had something to do with that boy.
Chris let out a groan and rolled over, his head pounding. He dressed and pulled himself together enough to appear human.
Then he went in search of Vin.
He found him in Nathan's clinic. Chris moved to the doorway, where Vin stood watching the child sleep the sleep of the troubled.
“What’s wrong?” Chris asked softly. “The boy’s safe and well—“
“The boy’s name is Ezra,” Vin snarled. “And I’m not happy… I’m not happy at all!”
“Why, cause I called him a boy?”
Vin sighed. “Chris, he talks like an adult. He dresses like a dandy. And he moves like a kid that’s used t’bein’ yelled at and hit. Someone has taken that kid and beat every shred of bein’ a kid outta him!”
Chris’s face darkened. “Who in the hell would—“
Neither noticed Ezra’s green eyes had opened till he softly spoke two words:
Chris's hands balled into fists. He watched as Vin entered the room and sat beside Ezra as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
At that moment, Chris realised that Vin's large heart had expanded again-- to include a scrawny nine-year-old into his life.
Damn, Chris thought in admiration. Forget him gettin' under your skin – you love that kid like you really were his pa!
“Your mother?” Vin asked gently, rubbing Ezra's arm. “I'm afraid I just don't understand, son.”
“I’m to meet her in Eagle Bend,” Ezra sniffled. “We’re to run the Hooperman Con…” His eyes were closing. “’M her…. Cash cow…. Ace in the hole….”
Vin stroked his forehead. “What about her son?”
The auburn head shook slowly. “Family ties….burden. We’re… professionals.” He yawned. “Goes wrong… I get what … I d’serve…. Nothin’ more.” He let out a heavy sigh and fell sound asleep.
Vin raised tortured eyes to Chris.
“Bitch,” Chris ground out. “There’s no way in hell that kid’s goin’ back to that.”
“Soon as we get a name,” Vin gritted, but his gentle hand never stopped rubbing Ezra’s arm. “I’ll make sure she pays.”
“Vin—“ Chris began.
Vin shook his head. “Don’t worry, Chris. He comes first. She can wait.” He drew the coverlet over Ezra’s thin chest and bent to plant a fatherly kiss on the child’s forehead.
Chris didn’t fail to see the angelic smile on the sleeping boy’s face as Vin pulled back. They watched as the boy rolled over and burrowed under the sheet.
Vin moved to Chris’s side. “He’s still too tired,” he sighed. “Know where Nathan is?”
“At Mary’s,” Chris jerked his head toward the paper. “Billy’s sick.”
Vin nodded and tilted his head toward where Ezra lay sleeping. “D’ya mind?”
Chris shook his head. “Don’t be long.”
“Won’t be. Thanks.” He moved past Chris and out of the clinic.
Chris let out a sigh that seemed to come from his toes and moved to sit by the boy. His heart gave a mighty lurch as his mind superimposed his dead son over Ezra.
And Chris got it. Completely. Vin loved this boy with everything he had.
That meant Chris would move heaven and earth if he had to, to make sure Vin got to keep this child.
Following another examination, in which Ezra trusted him enough to share some things, Nathan determined that both the thinness and sleepiness seemed to be from the same source.
To make a very long story short, Ezra was underfed and underheld.
The others immediately took it upon themselves to rectify the situation. Ezra was still cool to most of them, but he’d always open up to Vin.
So when he suddenly began to close off even to Vin, the man knew something was wrong. He waited, knowing that when Ezra was ready, he’d ask.
One week later, they were eating together in the clinic when the soft words were asked.
“Why are you being so nice to me?”
Vin put down his fork and looked the child right in the eyes. “Why do you think I’m being so nice, Ezra?”
Ezra shrugged too-thin shoulders. “I am assuming there is some pecuniary remonstration involved.”
“Run that by me again – in English this time.”
Ezra glared at him. “Okay, how much is my mother paying you to care for me?”
The sincerity in his voice stunned Ezra. “N-nothing?”
“Nope.” Vin gathered the boy close. “Nobody’s payin’ me a thing. I’m doin’ it cause I want to.” He smiled. “Because I love you, son.”
Ezra’s fingers fisted in Vin’s shirt. “What’s love?”
Vin frowned and held the child closer. “Feel that?”
“Close your eyes and feel.”
He felt the boy’s eyelashes close against his shirt.
A moment later, Ezra gasped and began to tremble as the feelings – warmsafeprotectedlovedwanted – overwhelmed him. Great choking sobs burst from him as his hands clutched Vin like a lifeline.
Vin gathered him completely into his lap and rocked him back and forth. He stroked the child’s tousled curls and hummed softly to him.
“Mother used… to love me,” Ezra choked out. “She used to!”
“I believe ya, son,” Vin whispered.
Ezra slowly looked up at him. “I love her…. But I failed her….”
Vin gently wiped the tears away. “You don’t have to go back to that, Ezra. You don’t have to be hurt again.”
Green eyes blinked and he sniffled before he whispered, “But then… I’ll be alone!”
“No, you won’t,” Vin smiled at him. “You can live with me.”
“Me. Yes.” Vin stroked his cheek. “I love you like you was really mine. I ain’t gonna let nobody hurt you like that again.”
“Especially not your mother.” He nodded. “Think about it, at least.”
Ezra did think about it. He thought about it for two days. He even borrowed some paper and a pencil and worked out several angles and “what if”s. These, he discussed at length with Nathan and Vin.
When Vin brought him breakfast on the third day, Ezra smiled. “Yes.”
“Yes, it’s breakfast?” Vin smiled as he set the tray down.
Ezra caught his hand and the smile grew. “Yes,” he said slowly and sincerely. “Yes, I would be honoured to be raised by a fine man as yourself.”
Vin nodded and lifted the boy into a tight hug. “Welcome home, son.”
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