It was late summer in Four Corners, which led to children exploring.
Ezra and Matt had just turned 12, and were busily exploring the river, which was swollen by the recent rains.
"Well, well, look what the cat dragged in," Matt's sister Lizzie sneered out as she and Mabel Braithwaite walked up to the pair.
"Go away, Lizzie," Matt snarled. "This isn't your business!"
"We were here first," Ezra put in.
Mabel sniffed. "Then maybe we should even the odds!" Before anyone could stop her, she'd picked up a rock and hurled it.
Her aim was true. She struck Matt on the side of the head and he lost his balance, toppling without a sound into the water.
Ezra bellowed wordlessly and ran after Matt, the current dragging him away. Ezra grabbed hold of Matt's arm and a low-hanging branch, stopping his tumbling rush downriver.
Then Lizzie screamed as the branch broke, flying out and striking Ezra across the shoulders, sending the boy into the river after his friend. They were thrown another ten or twenty feet, then the branch snagged on the bank, forcing both boys against the bank.
Safe from drowning for now.
But also very trapped.
"Hold on!" Lizzie bellowed. "I'm going for help!"
"Yes, please!" Ezra bellowed back, his voice full of pain.
Lizzie turned and bolted, Mabel right behind her.
"Hey! Lizzie, hold up!"
"I can't, there's no time"
"Lizzie!" She was caught by the arm and spun about to meet Mabel's triumphant face. "We have all the time in the world now! All we have to do is not tell anybody they'll be out of our hair forever!"
Lizzie's eyes went huge and she jerked her arm out of Mabel's grasp. "Stay away from me!" she gasped out.
"You are the monster everyone says you are! I didn't want to believe it, but..." She took another step back. "Stay away from me!"
"Lizzie, they're gone. They won't be bothering us ever again!"
"You little bitch!" Lizzie shoved her hard enough to knock her down. "That's my brother!"
With that, she spun on her heel and bolted for town, screaming at the top of her lungs for help.
Vin slid into the saddle and smiled as Chris and Buck rode up. "JD comin'?"
"He's already gone. He'll meet with us out at Nettie's ranch," Buck reported.
"Ezra?" Chris asked.
Vin nodded. "Gloria's going to watch him while we're gone. I told her we'd be back in five days."
"Bit unusual for him not to see you off," Chris observed.
"Him and Matt were gonna go play by the river I figured they'd be gone most of the day, so we said our goodbyes last night." He smiled. "We'd better get goin'."
"Yeah, don't wanna make Siah and Nathan wait too long," Buck laughed. "Or we might not have much of a prisoner to transport to Eagle Bend!"
The laughing foursome rode out of Four Corners with the bright sunshine at their back. They had a job to do, and all was right with the world.
They never saw the frantic figure of Lizzie Potter bolt into the other end of town, screaming for Vin and her mother.
Lizzie erupted into Potter's General Store, shouting for her mother.
"Land's sakes, girl, hush!" Gloria Potter snarled. "I'm with a customer!"
"But, Mama, Ezra--"
"Is at the river with your brother. I know. Vin told me. Now hush, child we'll get him for supper!" She turned back to her customer. "I'm sorry, ma'am. My daughter. Can I get you anything else?"
"Perhaps some handkerchiefs..." the woman answered.
Lizzie backed out of the store, shaking her head, eyes wide. Then she turned and ran pell-mell toward the livery.
She burst in, shouting four times before she realised that Tiny couldn't hear her over the pounding of the anvil. Clearly a horse had lost a shoe.
She backed out, shoulders slumped. Nobody would listen.
Nobody would help.
They were as good as dead.
"Lizzie!" She turned. It was Junior, the blacksmith's son, a tall boy her age. "Liz, what's the matter?"
"Mabel!" she sobbed. "She threw a rock and hit Matt and Ezra tried to help and they're in the river trapped by a branch and nobody will listen!"
Junior took her shoulders and looked into her eyes. Then he squeezed her shoulders and ran inside the stables, getting a coil of rope. "Show me!"
Sobbing in relief, Lizzie began to race back, with Junior following.
Suddenly, he put a hand on her arm. "Wait!" He reached down and threw a rock, smashing it into the side of a house. A dark head peeked out, belonging to a boy Ezra and Matt's age. "Rafe, grab Brian! We'll need his wagon at the river!"
Rafe Moseley, son of a traveling preacher who had left him and his sister in Four Corners and travelled on, nodded and drew his head back in.
"Brian?" Lizzie gasped. "Wagon?"
"We'll have to get them back to town someway.... Brian can use his wagon to transport us and Rafe can talk anyone into anything!" Brian Conners was the richest boy in town, and one of the snootiest until someone needed help. Then he was all helpfulness for the right price.
Lizzie didn't spare another word. She broke into a frantic run, hoping that the delay hadn't cost her brother and Ezra their lives.
As it turned out, it hadn't. Ezra was shivering from the cold water, but he was using the branch as leverage to hold himself and Matt's limp form out of the water enough to breathe. "Matt," he gasped. "Matt, c'mon.... you've got to wake up.... you've got to...."
Matt's eyes squinched tighter and he let out a soft moan.
"Yes!" Ezra half-laughed, half-sobbed. "Yes, c'mon, wake up for me!"
"Yes, Matt, yes!"
"......what're you....doin' in... m'room?"
"We aren't in your room, we're in hell!"
"In..." He opened his eyes and winced. "Mabel." He lifted a trembling hand to his head. "....ow." Then he looked around. "...oh, crap."
"You are the master of understatement, my friend."
"I don't? I don't what?"
"We're in water, aren't we? There's somethin' pinnin' you against me, isn't there?"
Ezra froze. ".....Matt?"
His eyes swung toward Ezra. His voice was a shaky whisper, barely audible over the water. "...I can't see, Ezra."
Ezra's forehead pressed against Matt's, his body shaking from the sheer force of trying to keep his scream of fear and frustration inside.
On the rise, looking down at the river, a horse pawed the ground as black eyes surveyed the situation. After a few moments of observation, the rider turned the horse and made a soft clicking sound.
Tossing its head, the horse moved down a path that would take the rider to the edge of the riverbank.
Near the trapped boys.
As they neared the river, Junior pointed. "Mabel?"
Lizzie turned and nodded, seeing the familiar skirts moving toward town with the blonde head bowed. "Yeah. Let her go."
"After what she did? She belongs in the jail. But okay."
Lizzie raised her voice. "EZRA! MATT!" And then she burst into relieved tears when both heads turned her way.
"LIZZIE!" Ezra roared, a hand over Matt's ear. "DID YOU BRING HELP?"
"I DID!" she called back, dashing the tears away. She turned to Junior. "So what do we do?"
"If we can break that limb, we can get Ezra out of the water. Then maybe we can use the river to move the branch enough to get Matt out." Junior was already putting the rope in motion, making a lariat out of it and catching it on the limb that lay across Ezra's shoulders. "Go to him!"
Lizzie didn't hesitate. She ran to Ezra's side and grabbed his jacket. "Ready!"
And Junior pulled. He dug in his heels and pulled, body nearly bowing backward and teeth bared with effort.
There was a creak and a crack and the lariat broke. The limb snapped back into place, knocking Ezra against Matt again. "Sorry!" he gasped.
"Don't worry," Matt groaned. "It don't hurt any worse than before..."
"GET US OUT OF HERE!" Ezra bellowed up at Lizzie.
She opened her mouth for a retort, then froze at the sheer panic in the light green eyes. "We are," she said, sliding her hand down and squeezing his wrist. "We're doin' what we can!"
"Lizzie!" Junior tossed her the frayed end, remade into a second lariat. "Hook that under his armpits we're going to plan B!"
"Did you hear?" she asked Ezra.
He nodded wildly, and she helped him hook the rope under his arms. "Matt..." he breathed.
Matt reached, his groping fingers finding the main trunk and his arms wrapping around it. "I'm not goin' anywhere."
Ezra squeezed his arm, then gripped the rope.
Junior moved to stand behind Lizzie. Together, they grabbed the rope and hauled with all their might.
Ezra screamed as the branches flayed his back and legs but he moved. Matt winced as he was jostled by the movements.
But less than three minutes later, Ezra was on his hands and knees on the bank. Shivering, bleeding, soaking wet, lips nearly blue from cold but free. He stood. "The main branch..."
Junior nodded. "We've gotta get it hooked around his armpits like we did you--"
"My legs weren't trapped under the wood. His are!"
Junior's face went grim. "Then we'll have to find something to hook the lariat on cause three kids aren't enough to move that huge branch!"
"Four and a horse are," a new voice said.
All three on the bank whirled, and Matt's head tilted in confusion. An Indian boy about Junior's age was dismounting. He held out his hand for the lariat. "Maahe is strong. He can pull the branch free."
Junior studied him for a moment, then handed over the lariat end. As the young Indian prepared the horse, Junior tied the other end around the branch. Lizzie and Ezra took hold of Matt's hands and forearms and they waited.
A single command from the newcomer, and Maahe tossed his head. He stepped back, back, back and the branch moved. Matt let out a loud groan, but held on.
With a loud CRACK!, the branch broke free of the bank and floated downstream. At the same moment, Lizzie and Ezra tugged, and Matt was hauled up onto the riverbank. Lizzie released him and dropped beside him, gathering him into her arms and shaking.
"I can't see, Lizzie," he whispered as he clung to her.
"Mabel," she snarled. "I'll see her in jail for this."
Junior held out a hand to the Indian boy. "Junior Sharps."
He shook his hand with a firm grip. "Chanu."
"That's Lizzie Potter and her brother Matt, and Matt's best friend Ezra Tanner."
Chanu's head rose. Junior turned to see a wagon riding up. He smiled to see Brian driving it with Rafe sitting right beside him, his little sister Claire curled on his lap half-
But perhaps the best sight of all was to see Susan Plimpton, the town's other physician, riding on Brian's other side.
The ride home was uncomfortable, but Ezra was determined he would not cry. He would not disrespect their efforts by giving into the pain and bawling like a--
A hand slid into his and Ezra painfully turned his head around, to find Chanu smiling into his eyes. "There is no shame in tears," the boy whispered. "Especially those from being wounded honourably."
"You saved your friend's life. You held on until help arrived. That is honour. There is no shame in tears."
And Ezra squeezed his hand and lowered his face to the crook of his arm. The tears came.
Through them all, Chanu held onto his hand. Near the end, he noticed Matt's hand reaching blindly for Ezra. He took the groping hand and wrapped it around Ezra's wrist.
And the other injured boy offered what comfort he could.
The prognosis on both boys was guarded. Ezra could not lay on his back and Matt's vision was beginning to return, but he was having headaches that made him sick to his stomach. Both boys were beginning to get bored, but their friends made it bearable.
They fell into a routine that had Nathan been around he would have recognised immediately. Susan opened her home to Chanu who would not leave the healing boys and he stayed in the room with Rafe. When Susan would finish tucking Claire in at night and would go to check on them, both boys would usually be in the clinic, standing guard on Ezra and Matt. During the day, Lizzie and Junior and Brian would all come by and wouldn't leave till hunger or fatigue prompted it.
A tall Indian came to town two days after the drama at the river. Chanu came out of the clinic and they talked for some length. Then the Indian looked at Susan. "I am Kojay. I would see this Ezra and Matt."
Without hesitation sensing she could trust him Susan let him in. Finding everything was as he had been told, Kojay nodded and rested his hand on top of Chanu's head. "Return home when you see fit, my son."
"I will. Nya ish, Father."
"You are most welcome." And he left town as peacefully as he'd arrived.
"Father checkin' up on his son," Junior smiled.
"Nice to know there's some good fathers around," Rafe replied. He didn't return the smile, and Junior squeezed his shoulder.
The next morning, Brian came over and sat by Lizzie. "They're going to be all right. Doctor Plimpton will take very good care of them."
"Then why do you look so upset?"
She looked at him. "Junior said you never do nothin' without a price. What's this going to cost us?"
Brian smiled warmly at her. "You've allowed me to remain. That's price enough. However..."
The smile grew and turned cold. "If I could be allowed to be in on the retribution you're no doubt planning against the devilspawn who did this to your brother..."
And Lizzie met his eyes, her own smile cold and calculating. Junior and Rafe and Chanu came over, and they all moved to sit by Matt and Ezra.
The plans began to flow between the seven children.
Down below, six tired men rode into town. They were met by the anxious Gloria Potter. One of them a man in buckskins snapped his head up as she spoke.
With a "HYAH!" a visibly frightened Vin Tanner thundered his horse toward the clinic and his injured son. A visibly shaken Nathan Jackson thundered behind him, with Chris bellowing for Buck and JD to care for the horses as he thundered off as well.
"I should'a been here," Vin said for the tenth time.
Ezra squeezed his wrist. "Pa," he said firmly for the tenth time. "We'll be fine. We're in good hands."
"We kept telling Lizzie not to gadabout with Mabel Braithwaite," Vin snarled.
"She's learned her lesson," Matt smiled, his healing eyes tracking toward the shadow he knew to be Vin.
"And Mabel's going to learn hers," Ezra smiled in Matt's direction, and Matt's smile grew.
Vin's eyes narrowed. "What do you boys have planned?" Then he looked around, noticing for the first time they were alone in the clinic. "Where are your friends?"
"It's all being taken care of," Ezra patted Vin's hand. "Don't worry about a thing."
"Ezra," Vin warned.
"Really," Matt said. "It's all being taken care of."
Matt closed his eyes.
Ezra cradled his head on his arms.
Vin sighed. "Lovely." He ran his hand down Ezra's auburn curls and headed out of the room.
"Well?" Chris asked.
Vin shook his head. "That posse of friends of theirs has gone to do something."
"Couldn't get it outta them. But it's somethin' to do with Mabel Braithwaite."
"Shit," Chris breathed. "Reckon we should go stop them."
"Actually," Vin corrected. "I think we should go talk to George Braithwaite."
Chris frowned. "And?"
"And give him his choice." Vin's jaw set. "Either he sends Mabel away or they both find somewhere else to live."
As the wagon rolled toward the Braithwaite homestead, Lizzie turned to the driver. "I'm a little startled you're doing this."
Brian smiled over at her. "Because I'm rich? And rich gentlemen don't debase themselves with manual labour?"
"Something like that," Lizzie smiled. All that was needed was the honeyed drawl, and he'd sound like a slightly older Ezra.
Chuckling, Brian shrugged. "I may be rich, but unfortunately for Little Miss Bitchwaite, I'm no gentleman."
Riding beside the wagon, Chanu couldn't clamp his lips together fast enough and the giggle erupted.
"And the image of the noble, silent savage is shot to hell forever," Rafe teased.
"Hush," Chanu chuckled back.
"See her?" Junior asked, and Brian nodded, stopping the wagon. Lizzie swung down and headed to where Mabel was standing, flipping stones into the creek.
She turned and her face lit, then clouded. "What are you doing here?"
"I just wanted to let you know, Matt's going to be fine."
"Oh." She turned back, firing another stone into the creek.
"And one more thing, Mabel."
"What's that?" Mabel sneered at Lizzie.
"You are never going to hurt my brother again. Or Ezra."
"And why not?"
"Because they're family," Lizzie said, and Rafe struck. He tackled Mabel from behind, throwing her face-down into the creek and hauling her back to her feet by her formerly perfect blonde ringlets.
"What..." she gasped for air, shaking in his grasp. She looked around at the other assembled children, seeing naked rage on each face. ".....what the hell...."
"We're family now, too," Brian said as he stepped forward. "You bound us together when you hurt them."
Her eyes flicked to the shirtless Indian, who merely smiled in return.
"And you do realise what happens when you wrong a member of a family, do you not?" Brian went on. At Mabel's look, he smiled coldly and leaned into her face. "You wrong the entire clan."
"That is true for a tribe as well," Chanu informed the shaking girl.
Lizzie moved to stand in front of Mabel, taking Brian's place. "Rafe, have you got her secure?"
"Nope," Rafe said, feeling her squirm.
"Then let me," Junior said, gripping Mabel's right arm as Rafe released it and focused on her left.
"Good," Lizzie said, grinning as Brian bent and threw a length of rope to Chanu. Together, they bound her feet to a stake Rafe's foot pressed into the soft ground.
"She is secure, Lizzie," Chanu reported as they stood.
"Good," Lizzie repeated. She stepped back, studying Mabel intently.
"What..." Mabel squirmed. "What are you..."
And Lizzie's fist drove into Mabel's stomach with such force that whatever Mabel was going to say ended in a pained wheeze.
"You're a monster who picked the wrong family to terrorise," Lizzie snarled as she smashed her fist into Mabel's eye. "Cut her loose." Brian did and Lizzie grabbed Mabel's bodice as Rafe and Junior released her.
Lizzie drew the shocked girl close and spit into her face before she breathed, "And every bit of this you have brought onto your own self, you blackhearted bitch."
With that, she shoved Mabel away, knocking her into the creek once more.
"Let's go," Junior said softly.
"Agreed," Lizzie said, glaring daggers at Mabel. "There's nothing here."
Mabel watched, shaking, as the five children piled into a wagon and drove off without a backward glance.
When Mabel drug herself home, she was soaking wet and sore from the mistreatment. She saw her father and ran to his side, sobbing, "Daddy, look what those wicked---" She froze, her tears dying a-borning and her eyes and mouth making circles in shock.
Her father wasn't alone. Ezra's father and the black death Chris Larabee-- stood there facing her. All three of them had expressions that promised more pain. Her father spoke, "What happened to you?"
She tried to turn on the tears again, but they withered under Larabee and Tanner's combined furious gazes. "Lizzie Potter and--"
"Inside, Mabel," her father interrupted.
"Inside. I will deal with you shortly."
She sniffled and spun imperiously on her heel.
"And can the wounded attitude. You're hardly the injured party here."
Her shoulders stiffened, and she marched to the house to await whatever her father had in mind for her.
It promised to be painful.
Three weeks later, Mabel was sunken down low in her seat as their train pulled into San Francisco. "Why do we have to be here?" she snarled.
Her father glared at her. "Because it's too damn plain that I can't make you the lady I know you can be. So your aunt is going to do it for me."
"But I want to stay with you!"
"And who will you hurt next time, Mabel? You could have killed that boy!"
"He had it coming!"
"See, this is what I mean." He pulled her out of the seat and shoved her toward the platform. "Come on."
She followed, sulking.
The tall raven-haired beauty smiled and hugged him. "George. It's been awhile."
"Too long. Thank you for this. I didn't know who else to turn to."
"But of course. I told you when Margaret died, I'd do anything to help with Mabel. I'm glad I can help now." She smiled at Mabel. "We're going to have such fun together. And you're going to learn so much."
"I hope so." He hugged Mabel goodbye and then got back onto the train. As it pulled away, he leaned out the window and called, "She's all I have, Ella! Take good care of her for me!"
"Oh, I will!" Ella Gaines smiled and waved at him as she held tightly to Mabel's hand. Smiling into her eyes, she purred, "I will."
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