“So,” Ezra asked Nathan with all of his considerable nine-year-old charm, “when do I get out of here?”
Nathan smiled as he took the empty plate that had held the last of Ezra's birthday cake. “Couple of days more, then you and Vin are movin' into the church.”
“The ch—oh, yes,” Ezra nodded, memory flooding back. Vin lived in a covered wagon and while it was just fine for a lone tracker, it was not suitable for a man and a nine-year-old boy.
Vin was drawing up plans to build them a house, but in the meanwhile, Josiah had opened the church to them both.
Nathan turned, his mouth open to say something, but his words died as he smiled. Ezra had dozed off where he sat.
Chuckling, Nathan walked back over and gently eased the child down into a more comfortable position in the bed. A full stomach and warm room had lulled the boy to sleep – compounded by the thin body's efforts to overcome a lifetime's worth of neglect and abuse.
But Ezra would do it. Nathan and the others – especially Vin-- would make sure of it. Nathan allowed himself a sad sigh as he remembered Ezra's reaction to their birthday party for him.
The poor child had been confused by all the attention. He'd never had a cake before – or presents. Ezra had actually tried to give the presents back!
At one point, the party had come to a grinding halt. After Ezra had handed Inez's gift – a small, handmade rosary – back to her, the startled woman had asked why.
Ezra's words had literally stopped the party. “For safekeeping – all my gifts are given to responsible adults for safekeeping!”
“But....Ezra....” she pressed, “why?”
He'd shrugged and said very matter-of-factly, “Because I can't be trusted with pretty or valuable things.”
Inez had given him a tender kiss to the forehead and had pressed the rosary back into Ezra's hand. “I trust you, Little Amigo.” She had moved aside to let Josiah give the boy his treat.
Then tough-as-nails Inez Recilios – who had been known to bodily smash drunks' heads into the bar when they refused to listen to her – had retreated from the clinic in tears of rage and grief.
Nathan shook himself from his reverie when Gloria Potter came in. “What can I do for you, Mrs. Potter?” he asked with a smile as he dried his hands.
“Mister Tanner wishes to see you at the church,” Mrs. Potter smiled at him. “I came to stay with the boy while you were gone.”
Nathan smiled. “Thanks, Gloria – is it something I need my bag for?”
“I don't think so – I think he just needs to talk. The others are gathering as well.”
A nod, and Nathan brushed a kiss across her forehead. Then he headed toward the church with sure, even strides.
Vin looked from face to face before he began. “Nate, when will Ezra be ready t’get up and around?”
“Well, he’ll be weak for awhile to come, but he should be ready to leave the clinic in a week.”
“Good. Gives me enough time.”
“To get the house done?” Josiah asked.
“Preacher, I want you fellas to finish the house.” Vin held up a folded sheet of telegraph paper. “His ma’s lookin’ for him.”
Chris’s eyes narrowed. “The one that neglected and beat him?”
“Yeah,” Vin growled. “She ain’t gonna get him. Not if I can help it.”
JD tilted his head. “What’re you gonna do?”
“She’s still in Eagle Bend. She’s been wirin’ every town round abouts tryin’ to find him. Not one word of love – just an offer of a reward.”
Snarls went up all around and Buck jerked to his feet. “If she gets him back—“
“She won’t,” Chris interrupted.
“Damn straight she won’t!” Buck roared.
“She won’t,” Vin said firmly. “I’m ridin’ out in the mornin’. I’m goin’ to Eagle Bend. This ends now.”
Chris stood. “I’ll come with you.”
Vin shook his head. “This, I have to do on my own.”
“Vin, she’s a child-beater—“
“And he’s my son.”
Those four words made all the air go out of Chris in a ‘Whoosh’. He’d tried so hard to drown the pain of losing his son in that damn fire that he’d forgotten the protective love that a good father feels toward his children.
Even if they weren’t biologically his own.
Chris shifted his weight. “Fine. You’re doin’ it alone.”
“I’m still comin’ with you.”
Vin just stared at him. Then he sighed. “Fine. We leave in the mornin’.” With that, he spun on his heel and left the church, heading to the clinic to be with his new son.
When they rode out the next morning, not a word was said between them. Not even through their seemingly shared mind.
It was unnerving to Chris how totally Vin was shutting him out. For the life of him, Chris couldn’t figure out why!
When they stopped for the night, Chris had had enough of the quiet. “Vin?”
“Talk to me.”
Vin sat down across the fire from him. “Bout what?”
“About why there’s this gulf between us.” He sighed. “It has to do with the boy, doesn’t it?”
A muscle in Vin’s jaw twitched. “Y’mean y’don’t remember?”
“Well, if I did, I wouldn’t be askin’, now would I?”
Vin sighed and ran a hand along his face. Then he began to recount what Chris, in his drunkenness, had done and said that first terrible night Ezra had arrived.
And beside the fire, a rift began to heal.
The pair rode on into Eagle Bend, and up to the boarding house. “Maude Standish,” Vin barked. “Where is she?”
The man behind the counter nodded. “This time of the day, she’s either in the saloon or the dining hall.”
Nodding, Vin spun on his heel and marched toward the saloon. He marched up to the bar. “Maude Standish,” he growled softly.
Chris hung back, watching Vin. He’d seen his friend angry before – but never like this. This was a father bear protecting his cub.
And Chris had never been more proud.
The bartender pointed, and Vin nodded. He walked over to a poker game in progress. He noticed there was only one female player – a striking blonde in fancy clothes.
She began to fan herself and laugh nervously. “Oh, my,” she chuckled. “I do believe I have won again!” She lay down her cards and – sure enough – she had.
Vin’s eyes narrowed. This woman spoke like Ezra. He slid a small badge from his pocket and pinned it on – gambling that she’d speak to a deputy. He made a mental note to thank Buck for the loan of the trinket. Only then did he walk over and touch her shoulder. “Maude Standish.”
She turned and her eyes widened, going to the badge. “Yes… may I help you, sir?”
He jerked his head. “We need to talk. Outside.” When she hesitated, he added. “It’s real important. It’s about Ezra.”
Her eyes widened, but Vin saw they did not light with maternal love. “My boy?” she purred dramatically, her hand going tot her throat. “Where is he? How is he?”
“Not here,” Vin said firmly. “Outside.” He spun on his heel and left the saloon, not even bothering to see if she was following.
After a moment, she did follow. She saw him leaning against a pole on the boardwalk, speaking casually to a blond man dressed all in black. She saw the guns and her eyes narrowed. She’d heard of a black-clad gunfighter – as deadly as they came….
No….Christopher Larabee would have bigger fish to fry than to be in Eagle Bend. Rumour had it he was a lawman in a backwater town further east.
Having settled that in her own mind, she walked over to them. “We can not b heard here at this hour of the day. So please --- what news have you about my baby boy, Deputy – ah?”
“Tanner,” came the cold answer. “Name’s Vin Tanner. And this is m’partner, Chris Larabee.” He couldn’t quite suppress the tight grin as her eyes widened and her face paled whiter than her hair. “We’re Regulators.”
She took a deep breath. “But – what does that have to do with Ezra?”
“Everything.” Vin leaned forward and his voice lowered to a deadly soft purr. “The boy is under our protection now.”
“Yes, yes…” She waved a hand dismissively. “But I am his mother—“
“You gave up that right the first time y’beat him,” Vin growled.
Maude’s eyes widened.
“Oh, yeah,” Vin graced her with a feral smile. “We know about that. We know about all of it.”
Her voice dropped down to a whisper. “But….he’s mine.”
“Not any more,” Chris growled.
Vin nodded. “Consider yourself warned, Maudie. You set hide nor hair in our town – you come near my boy – you try to take my boy –“ He leaned forward. “An’ you will pay the price.”
Her eyes narrowed at the ‘my boy’. From the ‘tell’ he gave away, it seemed likely he was even unaware he’d said it. But then his other words registered. “What…price?”
A pair of feral smiles shone this time. Chris’s hand drifted down to his gun and Vin’s to his knife.
Maude gasped, then slid to the ground in an actual faint.
The pair of them stepped over her insensate form and walked to the livery. Their message had been delivered.
Their job was done.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Two weeks later, the stage rolled into Four Corners and a dapper man stepped out. He went to the boarding house and checked in.
He walked into the saloon an hour later. “I’m looking for Vin Tanner.”
“Who’s askin’?” a black-clad man asked in return.
“Jeremiah T. Jenkins,” came the answer. “I have pressing business with Mister Tanner.”
A drawl from behind hit his ears. “Y’found him.” Jenkins turned to see a buckskin-jacketed man looking through the batwing doors into the saloon. He continued, “An’ I prefer t’do my ‘pressing business’ in private. Not in the saloon.”
Jenkins nodded in acknowledgment as he stepped out of the saloon and onto the street. “Mister Tanner, where would you prefer to discuss my business?”
Vin jerked his head toward Nathan’s clinic. “Balcony. Nice an’ private. Clinic’s empty – won’t be bothered none.”
Nodding once more, Jenkins swept a hand out. “Lead the way, sir.”
Vin shook his head. “We’ll walk t’gether.”
And they did. In silence, they walked to the balcony outside Nathan’s clinic. When they were seated, Vin cut to the chase. “So what’s your pressin’ business with me?”
Jenkins blinked. “You aren’t one for small talk, are you?”
“Watchin’ your back for years will do that.”
Slowly, Jenkins nodded. “Yes… well, that is what I wish to speak with you about. It’s come to my attention that you have a child living with you—“
“Ezra, yes,” Vin’s eyes narrowed. “Is this about him?”
“In a way. I’m a lawyer, Mister Tanner. I’ve been retained to protect the best interests of the child.”
“Retained by who?”
“I’m not permitted to say, sir. That would violate the ethics of my profession. Now, as to the child—“
“His name’s Ezra,” Vin growled.
“Ah, yes.” Jenkins cleared his throat. “Since you seem abhorrent to small talk, I shall endeavour to make this as concise as possible.”
Vin shook his head and made a mental note to ask Ezra if any of his relatives were lawyers.
“Mister Tanner, is it really in the boy’s best interests to be under the care of a convicted murderer?”
Vin’s eyes narrowed. “Now I know who ‘retained’ ya. And why.”
“Mister Tanner, that has no bearing on my quest—“ He was silenced by Vin’s upraised hand.
“It’s got every bearin’ on your question.” He leaned forward and said coldly, “I’ll answer your question, then I’ll give y’some information your client probably kept to herself.” Jenkins opened his mouth, and Vin cut him off. “And you’ll find it’s got a direct bearin’ on this whole mess.”
Amazed, Jenkins blinked his eyes and closed his mouth. A moment’s consideration later, he nodded.
“Good. First of all, I wasn’t convicted. I was railroaded. Framed, a bounty put on m’head, everythin’. I got my official pardon and decree of innocence from a judge in Texas.” He leaned back. “And I’d be a fool t’expect you to take my word on it. I got proof.”
Jenkins nodded slowly. “May I—“
“See it?” Vin grinned. “Wouldn’t be a good lawyer if you didn’t ask that.” He stood and swept a hand toward the stairs in clear invitation.
Jenkins nodded and stood, preceding Vin down the stairs. At the bottom, he turned and waited for Vin to descend.
Vin reached the bottom and smiled. “See that wagon over there?” Jenkins nodded, and Vin said, “That’s mine. They’re in there.”
Jenkins waited by the stairs as Vin climbed into the wagon. He moved out of the wagon and returned to Jenkins’ side. He handed the lawyer a small bundle of papers.
Touching the knot that held the leather cord around the papers, Jenkins asked, “May I?”
Vin nodded once, his respect for the man as a person rising a bit. Jenkins had been nothing but polite and respectful to Vin. Even when he had challenged his fitness as a parent, he had been as gentle about it as he could.
Jenkins opened the knot and handed the leather cord to Vin. He sat on the steps and began to silently read.
Suddenly nervous, Vin shifted from foot to foot. Worries reared up and tormented his mind. What if the lawyer found a problem in the documents? What if his pardon wasn’t really legal and Jenkins got the bounty reinstated and took Ezra away? What if--?
Jenkins’ voice pulled him from his litany of fears. Vin shook his head to clear it and tilted his head. “Well?”
“It’s all here,” Jenkins said with a bit of awe in his voice. “You are not a murderer – you’ve been cleared of every charge and the murder charge especially was fabricated.”
“So you believe me?”
Jenkins nodded. “Now – you said you had information on my client that she might not have told me?”
Vin’s lips drew upward in a cold, feral smile.
Nathan frowned as he came into the jail. “You wanted to see me, Vin?”
Vin nodded, then tilted his head toward the lawyer. “This is Jeremiah Jenkins,” he introduced him. “He's a lawyer and I want you to tell him 'bout Ezra.”
As he sat down, Nathan shook his head in confusion. “I don't understand.”
Jenkins spoke up. “You're not on trial, Mister – ah --”
“Jackson,” Nathan said. “And if'n I ain't on trial, why'm I talkin' to a lawyer?”
“Maude hired him,” Vin said coldly, and Jenkins saw the dark-skinned man's eyes narrow.
He turned back to Jenkins. “There is no way in hell Ezra is goin' back to that woman,” he snarled. “Not after what she done to him!”
Jenkins nodded slowly. “Then make me understand your position,” he said, leaning a bit closer to Nathan. “What exactly did my client do to Ezra?”
“She beat him,” Nathan ground out. “Her an' her man-friends. He's been beat, shamed, neglected....”
“He told you all this?” Jenkins asked.
“Not all of it,” Nathan said. “But he's got scars. Burn scars, whip marks, a scar that looks a lot like a cameo--”
“Whip marks?” Jenkins gasped.
Nathan nodded grimly. “Believe me – I know what whip marks look like.”
Vin put in, “Nathan's a healer. Best we've got.”
Filing away Nathan's appearance, accent and age, Jenkins came to the correct conclusion that Nathan also knew what they looked like because he had once been a slave. But he kept that to himself, and merely nodded. He returned his attention to what Nathan was saying.
“No child should be as thin as he is. No child should flinch from a touch, speak like a dictionary, and not know how to play! He thinks everything is a con – he looks for an angle on everything! He has no trust, no love--”
Nathan took a deep breath and pointed at Vin. “Except for when he's with that man. He's spent more time with Ezra than any of us – and Ezra's been respondin' to it. He's becomin' more like a regular kid the more time goes on.”
Jenkins nodded again and looked at Vin. “I'd like to talk to the boy – if he's up to it. I would like to see the evidence Mister Jackson is speaking of.”
Nathan ducked his head to hide the smile he couldn't suppress. Maude may have hired this man, but it was good to hear “Mister Jackson” -- to be treated with respect.
“I'll ask him,” Vin said evenly. “But there's no way you're seein' him alone.”
“Of course not,” Jenkins said. “But would it be possible to speak to him with someone other than yourself present?” He held up a hand as Vin's mouth opened. “Since this involves you, I want to speak to him without coersion.”
“I'll ask him,” was all Vin could or would promise. And it was more than Jenkins had expected.
Ezra’s eyes widened. “My mother has done what?”
“Hired a lawyer,” Vin answered, touching the boy’s hand. “He wants t’talk t’you without me there.”
“You… won’t leave me alone with him?” The eyes were downright frightened now.
Remembering how Ezra had told him of men stealing him away once they were alone, Vin shook his head. “No way in hell. I’ll find someone t’stay – and maybe even help out.”
Studying his face and finding only truth and paternal love there, Ezra relaxed and nodded. The fear didn’t completely leave his eyes, though.
Vin hugged him, rubbing the thin back.
At that moment, the door to their room at the church opened and a familiar blonde head peeped around. “Vin? I brought Ezra some lunch…”
“Come in.” Vin smiled as she walked in and set the tray across Ezra’s lap. “Mary – can I talk to you a minute?”
Nodding, Mary stepped out of the room. Vin followed her, and Mary tilted her head, regarding him. “What is it, Vin?”
“There’s a lawyer in town…”
“Mister Jenkins, yes.” Mary nodded. “Nathan told me Maude had hired him.”
Vin nodded, sending up a quick prayer of thanks. Nathan’s righteous indignation was sometimes a pain in the butt, but this time it looked like it had saved him a lot of explanation. “Well, he wants t’talk to Ez without me there, and I was wonderin’ if y’knew—“
Mary raised a hand. “Say no more. I’ll stay with him.”
“You?” Vin’s eyes widened. “Mary – no offense meant here – but you’re all high-falutin’ ‘bout kids stayin’ with their Mas and in this case—“
“No offense taken,” she chuckled. “I am that way. But Ezra’s mother isn’t a mother at all.” Her eyes blazed. “She’s a monster.”
Vin’s smile told it all. “Much obliged.” The smile faded. “Mary… there’s somethin’ else.” Lowering his voice, he told her of Ezra’s kidnaps by men Maude had hired.
Mary nodded, her face grim. “That’s a valid concern. Alone, I’m not a match for a man of Jenkins’ size…” Slowly, she began to grin. “But I know someone who doesn’t look like a threat, but who is more than a match for any man who dares to cross her.”
“Inez,” Vin said, and Mary nodded in agreement. “Mary, Jenkins seems like a decent man who got tricked.”
“I was under that impression as well,” Mary nodded thoughtfully. “Go tell Ezra that I and Inez will not let him face Jenkins alone.” She smiled and headed out of the church through the Sanctuary.
Vin touched his hatbrim in farewell, then walked backed into the room to inform his son of the arrangements.
During the interrogation of Ezra, Vin couldn’t be still. He paced the entire length of the boardwalk twice. He knew Mary and Inez were with the boy, but he wasn’t there.
That was intolerable.
When he had to stop himself for the tenth time from going to the church and finding out what was going on between Jenkins and Ezra, Vin knew he needed help to stay balanced.
At almost the moment he realised that, Chris walked out of the boarding house and headed his way.
“How did you know, huh?” Vin chuckled.
“I just knew. How long have they been in there?”
Vin sighed and checked the position of the sun. “Two hours.”
“Do you think –“ Chris began, but at that moment Jenkins appeared in the doorway of the church and then down the few stairs.
Vin called to him, but he didn’t seem to hear the worried tracker. Worrying his lower lip with his teeth, the lawyer headed for the telegraph office.
“Huh,” Chris sighed. “Wonder what that was about. …Vin?” Turning, he saw Vin already at the top of the church stairs – heading for his boy. Chris smiled. “Reckon we’ll find out.”
Vin arrived to find a surprisingly calm scene. The only hits of tension were Inez’s too-straight back, Mary’s protective hand on Ezra’s shoulder, and the slight trembling of Ezra himself.
Vin caught Ezra’s eye and sat down on the bed. “How did it go?”
With a tiny cry, Ezra launched himself into Vin’s arms. Vin caught the thin body and rocked the child gently back and forth.
“It’s not enough,” Ezra wailed. Decorum and appearances be damned – right now, he was a terrified little boy. Vin had told him over and over if he needed to be held, Vin would. Without condemnation.
Ezra had never tested it before now.
Vin held the boy just a little tighter. “It’ll be enough,” he reassured him. “She ain’t gonna get her hands on you, Ez. I vow it.”
“And y’got five men backin’ you up on that,” Chris said from the doorway.
“Y dos mujeres,” Inez nodded firmly – too furious to remember her English.
Mary shook her head. “Five men and two women, my eye. Vin, you’ve got an entire town backing you up.”
Vin smiled at that, and tilted Ezra’s chin up. “Y’hear that, son? We got an entire town b’hind us on this one. She ain’t gonna get you again.”
Tears were streaming from Ezra’s eyes. He shook his head miserably. “she won’t stop,” he groaned. “Jenkins headed to send her a wire – he said so – she’ll come and take me away!”
As the boy’s words dissolved into sobs again, Vin pulled him into his lap and resumed the comforting rocking. He glanced over his head at Chris.
Chris nodded. “I’ll find out,” he said aloud as he turned and left the room. Mary followed him, eager for this story. Vin could hear him quite clearly telling her to “Go home!”
After a moment, Inez departed as well. Ezra did not need an audience to witness his breakdown.
Besides, she was unnecessary now. The boy had his father there – of the heart, though not of blood.
Inez smiled predatorially. Just let that … that….witch think she could take Ezra from Four Corners.
She’d have all of Four Corners after her if she dared try.
Chris waited at the telegraph office until the lawyer emerged. “Jenkins.”
Jenkins turned and blinked at the gunslinger. “Mister Larabee.”
Chris didn't mince any words. “Who'd you send the wire to?”
“My client. Now if you'll excuse me...”
His attempt to push past Chris was aborted by a steely grip on his arm. “What was in the wire?”
“I'm afraid that is private, Mister Larabee. I--” Jenkins' eyes widened as he found himself facing the business end of a Peacekeeper.
“I'm only gonna ask you one more time, Jenkins.” Chris's voice was a low, dangerous growl. “What. Was. In. That. Wire?”
Jenkins' chin rose and he calmly met Chris's eyes. “Sir, I have told you. That is private information.” When the grip tightened, he held up his free hand. “But I can assure you that it is not a 'come get your boy' missive. Quite the opposite.”
Chris studied his face and eyes. “The opposite, huh?”
“Mister Larabee,” Jenkins sighed. “If Maude Standish persists in this course of action after receiving my wire, she is either extraordinarily selfish or extraordinarily stupid.”
“Or both,” Chris sighed. He lowered the gun, uncocked it, and holstered it. Only then did he release Jenkins. “Details are private, huh?”
“The details are private, yes,” Jenkins said, though he smiled in relief.
Chris nodded, accepting that. “Vin said you seemed a decent sort who got himself tricked. And I see that's true.” He gave a wicked smile. “You're a pretty decent fellow – for a lawyer.”
“Why, thank you!” Jenkins smiled, then he frowned slightly. “....I think.”
They moved toward the boarding house, falling in step. “So...where did you send the wire?” Chris asked conversationally. “Maude still in Eagle Bend?”
“She is,” Jenkins confirmed. “She was awaiting my word. I told her I would remain here until she replied to my wire.” He sighed. “Mister Larabee – it was Ezra who convinced me Mister Tanner was speaking the absolute truth.”
“About Maude.” Jenkins stopped walking and turned to face Chris. “Mister Larabee, I know when a child's being coached to say thing someone wants him to say. What I saw in that church was a child who has been so thoroughly coached to say only flattering things that he was desperate for someone to hear his side of things. And when I showed him I would – the coached behaviours vanished and the truth came out.” Jenkins clenched his fists. “I didn't want to believe what I'd heard.”
Chris met his eyes. “Do you?”
“Yes,” Jenkins sighed. “With the women there for moral support – he even showed me his back.” Jenkins shuddered.
“Damn mess,” Chris sighed. “No kid's back should look like that.”
“I've seen slaves with less marked backs,” Jenkins ground out.
An image of Nathan's scarred back sprang unbidden to Chris's mind and he nodded grimly. “So what are you going to do now?”
“The only thing I can do.” He spread his hands. “Wait, as I said. The next move is up to Maude.”
It was a tense few days. The high point of the wait was when Ezra left the clinic for good after a final check-up – that he’d insisted on attending alone.
His back straight with all dignified pride his nine-year-old self could muster, Ezra walked down the stairs, blinking in the bright sunshine. He was still more than half expecting to be met by an intermediary with instructions.
But when his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw Vin standing at the bottom of the stairs with a gigantic grin of pride. Without a word, buckskin-clad arms opened in clear invitation.
For a moment, dignity and decorum warred with desire. Appearances warred with want. But only for a moment.
Then dignity, decorum and appearances all did what Ezra himself did. Ezra took a flying leap from the fourth step up, trusting Vin would catch him.
With a “Whoof!” as the too-thin body impacted, Vin did catch him. He wrapped his arms around Ezra and spun him joyfully even as his back let him know it did not appreciate the extra weight! But the joyful giggles coming from Ezra effectively told the complaining back to shut up.
Two more spins, and Vin set the laughing child down. “Guess what?” he asked with a smile.
Ezra groaned. “I abhor guessing games… please, just tell me?”
Vin made a mental note to buy a dictionary as he ruffled Ezra’s hair. “The house is done.”
“Seriously?” Ezra gasped. “We don’t have to live in the church anymore?”
“No, son. We don’t have to live in the church anymore. Matter of fact, we can—“ Vin broke off, seeing the other five Regulators and Jenkins walking toward them. He drew himself up straight and put a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “What is it?” Vin demanded. “Did something happen?”
“Yeah, something happened,” Chris said, nodding toward Jenkins. “Tell him.”
Jenkins nodded. “The telegram from Maude arrived today.”
Ezra seemed to shrink inside himself. He waited to hear the rest, though he had a pretty good idea of what Jenkins was about to say.
“She is leaving Eagle Bend this afternoon,” Jenkins went on, and began to smile. “For Fort Laramie. I contacted Judge Travis and—“
“Wait,” Ezra interrupted, his eyes huge. “If – If Mother goes to Fort Laramie…”
“She will go to jail,” Jenkins nodded. “That’s right.”
“And she…agreed?” Ezra gasped incredulously.
Again, Jenkins nodded. “In her own way, Maude loves you, Ezra. She wants your best – and a new life for herself. Judge Travis agreed to help her build that new life – provided Maude did two things: sign away all her rights to you, and serve one month at Fort Laramie for her past crimes. She has done the former, and will be leaving this afternoon for the latter.”
Ezra just stood there frozen, his eyes huge. “Ezra?” Buck asked, with no reaction.
JD called his name and when his eyes finally swiveled to him, he asked the boy, “Why don’t you tell us what’s on your mind?”
Ezra shook his head. “I’m still trying to put it together in my own mind.”
“Put what together?” Vin asked.
Again, Ezra shook his head. “I think you said – but if you did say it then that means – and then that would mean—“ He shook his head again, his eyes wide. “It’s just too fantastic to believe!”
“Well, Ezra, why don’t you tell us what you think you heard,” Vin asked.
Ezra looked from one man to the other, licked his lips, and the words spilled out in a torrent.
“I think you said that my mother had dropped her legal claim to me but that would mean that I can stay here and be Vin’s son but if that’s true then that means that you actually want me and nobody’s ever wanted me before because I’m the one that always gets left behind and used and forgotten and I’ve never been wanted before this, but now –“
“Ezra,” JD said, laying a hand on his shoulder.
Ezra broke off and frowned up at the sheriff.
JD smiled fondly at the boy. “Breathe.”
Obediently, Ezra took a deep breath. He looked at Vin, a world of emotion in his eyes.
Vin nodded and, grunting slightly, lifted the child again. “Jenkins, would y’mind wirin’ the judge again?”
Jenkins frowned slightly. “Of course not – but why?”
Vin smiled into Ezra’s eyes, but his words were for Jenkins. “I wanna get things goin’ – I want to adopt Ezra. Make him m’son – for real.”
“Really?” Ezra whispered.
“Really,” Vin replied, running a finger down the boy’s cheek. “Really and truly.”
Ezra threw his arms around Vin’s neck and buried his face in the soft buckskin. Vin held him close as the boy wept tears of pure joy.
And if the other Regulators and one hardened lawyer were also wiping away tears, nobody would ever mention it.
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