They weren’t really sure how it had happened at all, only that Chris had gotten separated from them during the altercation with the outlaws and when they finally located him he was…well, he was a lot smaller, a little blond boy of around nine lying unconscious in a nest of oversized black clothes. Aside from a single star-shaped burn on his shoulder there hadn’t been a mark on him, but he hadn’t stirred at all during the long ride back to town in Nathan’s arms. And he’d awakened the next morning with no apparent memory of his adult life at all. To all intents and purposes Chris Larabee, one of the most feared gunslingers in the Territory, was now nothing but an innocent little boy.
Unfortunately, not everyone was able to accept that.
The first conflict arose when Josiah brought over some boys’ clothes to the clinic; Chris was happily reaching for them when Buck all but snatched the blue shirt and brown pants out of his hands. “What is this, Josiah? Chris don’t wear anything but black and you know it!”
“That’s true,” Vin agreed with a frown, and JD nodded as well. “But black clothes that size ain’t gonna be too easy to come by, these’ll probably have to do for now.”
“They were the only ones near the right size,” Josiah rumbled apologetically. “Sorry, son.”
Chris just bit his lip and dropped his head, a gesture the men interpreted as resignation, but he accepted the clothing back gingerly. “Blue’s my favorite,” he murmured softly.
The ladies’ man chuckled and slapped him on the shoulder. “You don’t have to fake it, Chris, we all know you.” But his eyes narrowed when Chris flinched slightly away from the rough gesture. “Nate, you sure he’s okay? Chris don’t never draw back like that for anyone…”
Nathan snorted. “He’s been through a lot, Buck. What exactly I don’t know, but it’s a big change and you can’t expect him to be back to actin’ like his normal self right off.”
“I suppose.” But the dark blue eyes kept their frown.
Josiah rode out at once for the Seminole village, in hopes that Grey Owl might have some answers for them. Chris was restless in the clinic, wanting to go outside, so Nathan reluctantly let him go with a warning to be careful and to come right back if he started to feel sick or strange in any way. Buck had expected his friend to make a beeline for the saloon, but when some time had passed and there was still no sign of him the ladies’ man had gone to find him. “Somethin’ must be wrong,” he told Inez before he left. “I know Chris, and it ain’t like him not to stop in here for a drink for an entire morning.” He hadn’t seen Ezra’s head shoot up from where he’d been absently flipping through his cards, or the look that passed between the gambler and Inez as he left the saloon.
It had occurred to Buck that Chris might have gone over to the jail with JD to look through the wanted posters, and while he was walking in that direction it suddenly occurred to him that his friend might be leery of getting about too much without his guns. So he stopped off at the clinic and snagged Larabee’s gunbelt on his way.
But Chris wasn’t at the jail, and JD said that the last time he’d seen him that morning he’d been in the company of Billy Travis. Chris sometimes took the time to interact with Billy, but as far as Buck was concerned his friend had enough on his mind right now without dealing with Mary’s son as well, so he set out looking again. Childish laughter led him down an alley beside the livery, but he was unprepared for the sight that met his eyes when he followed it.
The two boys were playing – really playing, not just Chris keeping a watchful eye on Billy like he usually did. What really incensed him, however, was that Chris was completely oblivious to his approach because his whole attention was fixed on whatever it was he and the newspaperwoman’s son were doing down in the dirt. “Chris, what the hell are you thinkin’?” he yelled. Both boys jumped, obviously frightened, and Buck turned on Billy with a frown. “Billy, you need to go home now.”
Chris face twisted unhappily when the other little boy took off. “I can’t play anymore? But we were having fun…”
“Fun?! What the devil does that have to do with anything?” the ladies’ man demanded. “What’s gotten into you, Chris? You didn’t show up at the saloon, haven’t been by the jail, and you don’t have your guns. Here, take ‘em.”
The blue eyes widened and the boy backed away. “But I can’t…”
Buck’s frown deepened. “What do you mean, you can’t? Did you forget how to shoot, too?” He took Chris’s frightened silence for a yes and shook his head. “Damn, well we’ll have to take care of that soon as Vin gets back from patrol – can’t have you runnin’ around unprotected if someone shows up to take on that killer reputation you’ve got, I’m sure it’ll come back to you once you’ve fired a few rounds.” Then his frown came back. “But if that Mrs. Travis needs someone to watch her kid again I expect you to tell her no, you understand? I know Nate says you’ve been through a lot and it’s gonna take you a while, but I think we’d best start gettin’ you back to bein’ yourself and that ain’t gonna happen if you’re out here foolin’ around with Billy; need to get back into the routine here, pard, start actin’ like yourself again, understand?”
Chris swallowed and nodded, trying not to cry – which seemed to upset Buck even more. “Damn, we really do need to work on things, this ain’t gonna do at all,” he said disgustedly. “Meanest gunslinger in this part of the country actin’ like a little kid. I’m gonna go wait for Vin, you come meet me at the livery when he gets back and then we’ll go practice.”
He turned and stalked back out of the alley, leaving the wide-eyed boy behind; as soon as he was gone Chris darted up the alley himself and into the livery, where he plopped down on top of a bale of hay and wrapped his arms around himself, shaking, while the tears he’d been holding back for fear of increasing the big man’s anger trickled in hot trails down his cheeks.
That was where Ezra found him a few moments later; the gambler had been hoping to find Chris before Buck did, but he could see that he was too late and a surge of anger welled up in his chest. Why couldn’t the man see that this was just a child, not the hardened gunslinger who’d been there the day before? As much as he didn't usually get along with Chris as an adult, Ezra had a soft spot for children that would not be denied. He settled down close to the little boy, not touching him, and then folded his hands and waited.
He didn't have to wait long. "Why...why is it wrong to play?"
"It isn't wrong to play," the gambler said firmly but quietly. "These gentlemen...you remind them of someone, of another adult who is no longer here. That isn't really any excuse for the way they’ve behaved, but they miss their friend very much and you remind them of him a great deal."
The boy sniffed. "Don't see why, don't seem like he could've been a very nice man."
"He was a very unhappy man," Ezra corrected.
Chris thought that over and shook his head. "But...did they want him to stay that way?"
Sometimes I wonder, Ezra thought to himself. Aloud he said, "Of course not, but they were used to him being that way and I suppose they didn't think much about it. That, and he could be a very dangerous man as well."
"I don't want to be like that, I want to have fun. Mama said your young years were for havin' fun."
"Mama was absolutely correct,” the gambler agreed firmly. “You are a child, and children are supposed to play at every opportunity." Ezra stood up and brushed hay off his pants. "Perhaps we need to find a new venue for amusement. Would you like to come with me?"
Chris felt hope for the first time in hours; this man didn't appear to expect anything from him, he actually seemed to want to help. He stood up. "Yes sir, I would."
They were walking up the boardwalk when Buck reappeared; the ladies' man frowned when he saw the boy with the gambler. "What do you think you're doin' with him, Standish?"
"Young Chris and I were just going in search of something fun to occupy our afternoon, Mr. Wilmington."
"He's comin' with me," Buck growled, glaring at both of them. "We're gonna stop at the saloon and then we’re goin' shootin', he's got to learn..."
Ezra put himself between the larger man and the frightened boy. "No, he does not need to learn what you're tryin' to teach him," he said evenly, but with a warning light in his eyes. "He is a boy, Mr. Wilmington, not a miniature version of the man you remember."
"He's all of nine, if that" Ezra insisted harshly. "He's not a bitter drunk or a hardened gunslinger, and the fact that you seem to want to recreate that life for him is somethin’ I find seriously disturbing. Now the two of us are goin’ to go our merry way, perhaps you should spend some time considering your motives in this situation - I believe Mr. Jackson might be helpful to you in that regard, selfish motives happen to be a topic he loves to expound upon. So if you'll excuse us...come along, Chris, there's no need to be afraid."
Buck looked down at the blond haired boy peeking around the gambler and was horrified to see those blue-green eyes wide and round with fear - fear of him, no less. But Chris was never afraid...
And it suddenly hit him that this wasn't the man he'd known, wasn't a man at all. Buck stepped aside and let Ezra herd the boy past, feeling a pang of shame when Chris scrambled to keep the gambler between them, holding tight to the smaller man's red sleeve.
Oh Lord, what had he been thinking? Maybe he should talk to Nathan…
The healer was in the clinic rolling bandages, but if Buck had expected sympathy he didn’t get any. “Yep, that’s what I was thinkin’ myself, probably should have said somethin’ sooner,” he replied when the ladies’ man finished telling him what Ezra had said. “Chris don’t remember all of that bad stuff that made him a gunslinger in the first place, it’s like a whole new start for him, a fresh start.”
The ladies’ man was having a hard time with this new attitude of Nathan’s. "But don't you think that Ezra might be up to somethin'..."
"Nope, not a bit," Nathan interrupted, his dark eyes narrowing. "Man loves children, he'd never do anything but right by a kid – don’t know why he’s that way, but he is. My advice to you, Buck, is to set back a spell and just watch the two of 'em together, you might just learn somethin'."
Buck's mouth dropped open, he was literally speechless. And more than that, there was a growing empty, lost feeling in his gut. That wasn’t his Chris, his Chris wasn’t there anymore…Nathan was still talking, but the ladies’ man was beyond listening to him. He stood up, interrupting the healer in mid-rant. “I’d best get back to work, I’ll see ya later, Nate.”
Nathan shook his head at Buck’s retreating back and made a face; he’d never realized how much he appreciated the fact that Ezra was too polite to interrupt him.
Ezra and Chris, in the meantime, had a full day. They had played several games of checkers and one of chess, eaten a late lunch with Nathan, gone for a ride to the creek and back, played with some new kittens over at the blacksmith’s shop and were reading from one of Ezra’s books outside the jail when Josiah came riding back into town late that afternoon with Grey Owl in tow. The old Seminole looked down at the fair-haired boy sitting beside the gambler and smiled warmly. “Are you sure you want him to be turned back?” he asked Josiah quietly. “Mr. Larabee has had a hard life, a second chance for happiness is not something to be lightly thrown away. The boy looks content, something I have yet to see from the man.”
Josiah shot him a startled look. “Well, of course we want our brother back! I agree that he looks happy now, but Ezra will eventually get tired of playing with him and then that will be that. It’s not like he’s the boy’s father or ever could be one to him.”
Ezra winced slightly, but when he saw the way Chris’s eyes widened at the flat statement he sublimated his own feelings of hurt for the boy’s sake. “Chris,” he said in a low voice. “Chris, remember what I told you earlier. They just miss their friend.”
The blue eyes that turned toward him were tearful. “But…but I’m not him! I don’t want to be him!”
Josiah started to say something but Grey Owl stopped him with a look. The old Seminole dismounted stiffly and stretched, then moved closer to the frightened boy and looked him over. “Someone has frightened you, who was it?”
Chris looked to Ezra for reassurance and then back up at the old man. “B-buck.”
“Do you know why he would do such a thing?”
The boy swallowed and nodded. “Ezra says they all miss their friend, and I…I remind them of him. But I’m not him! He was unhappy and mean and he shoots people!”
“Unfortunately true,” Grey Owl agreed slowly, and went down on one knee in front of the boy so he could look him in the eye. “But he was that way because he wanted to be; you do not. What sort of man do you want to be?” Chris’ quick glance over at Ezra made Josiah gasp and the old man chuckle, and he patted the boy’s shoulder. “A good choice. Now, would you and Mr. Standish like to come up to the clinic with me so I can see what it was that did this? I promise I will not hurt you.”
The boy nodded his agreement, but he kept a tight hold on the gambler’s hand all the way to the clinic and the entire time Grey Owl was looking at the mark on his shoulder. The small star was still bright red and looked painful, but each of the seven points was clearly defined. “What could have made such a mark?” Ezra asked the old man quietly. “Chris does not remember the incident at all, but I could have sworn that the only outlaws anywhere near him during the fight were mounted…”
“An outlaw did not do this,” Grey Owl replied gravely, shaking his head. “This mark was caused by a curse, the caster could have been far away when it was done and the timing of your battle only a coincidence.”
Josiah perked up at the mention of a curse. “Then it’s something evil…”
“No.” The correction was sharp and startled everyone. “The boy is innocent, there is no taint of darkness in him. The one who did this sought to banish the darkness that was there before, and it may even be that they meant him no real harm – but still harm was done, although good has come of it also.” He stood up. “The boy is hungry, we should get him something to eat.”
Chris looked up at the old man with wide eyes. “How…how did you know I was hungry?”
Grey Owl smiled. “You are a boy, and boys are always hungry. We will eat, and then we will talk about what has happened and what needs to be done about it, all right?”
Still maintaining his hold on the gambler, Chris nodded slowly. “Yes sir.”
Vin and JD joined them at the restaurant for their early supper, but Buck was conspicuous by his absence. JD offered to go get him and was surprised when Nathan told him not to. “Best to leave Buck where he is for right now, you just sit down.”
“Ol’ Bucklin ain’t exactly fit company for the kid tonight, JD,” Vin elaborated. He didn’t look happy about it. “I think he’s tryin’ to get drunk for both of ‘em.”
“His identity is threatened, and he is afraid,” Grey Owl said. He shook his head at the looks that observation garnered him. “It is there to see for one who looks.”
“He’s right,” Josiah agreed heavily, shaking his head. “I’d noticed it a time or two myself; Buck acts the way he does because he’s lettin’ Chris be the adult for him. Dammit, I should have thought…I can just imagine the way this has thrown him.”
“This isn’t about him,” Ezra said evenly, gesturing the waitress to bring Chris another glass of milk; the boy was happily eating and apparently unconcerned about the conversation going on over his head – but of course, he was also safely ensconced between the gambler and Grey Owl. “His earlier behavior was inexcusable, no matter what the reason. But what I would like to know is what we are to do next.”
Grey Owl sighed. “I brought herbs with me that can reverse what has happened, but they will only work if the boy wishes them to. The choice will still be his.”
The table erupted in a babble of opinions, but Ezra’s voice cut through it. “Gentlemen please! Arguing about a choice not yours to make is a fruitless waste of time. And whatever way Chris chooses we will simply have to live with, one way or the other – as Grey Owl says, the choice is his.”
There was nothing much anyone could – or at least, would – say to that, and so the subject was dropped for the remainder of the meal. By silent agreement only Ezra accompanied Chris, Grey Owl and Nathan back up to the clinic so the old man could prepare his herbs, and in less than no time Chris was tucked back into bed wearing one of Nathan’s nightshirts and holding a mug of cool, greenish liquid which he finally drank only after being repeatedly reassured that it wouldn’t hurt and that he did not have to go back to being ‘that bad man’ again if he didn’t want to.
Grey Owl and Nathan both said their goodnights once the last drop of the potion had been consumed – the healer leaving reluctantly, but understanding that his patient had to sleep for the ‘cure’ to work – and Ezra settled into the chair beside the bed with the obvious intention of staying there for the duration. “Would you like me to read to you, Chris?” he asked after a few moments of silence in the dimly lit room. “I have the book we were enjoying earlier…” The boy’s whispered ‘no’ brought a concerned frown to the gambler’s face, and he leaned forward to see those blue eyes better. “What can I do to help you, Chris? Tell me what you need from me and you shall have it.”
Chris bit his lip and sat up in the bed fighting the overlarge nightshirt and wrapping his arms around himself. “Ezra…I’m scared. Is it okay to be scared?”
Ezra looked at him, and then slowly stood up; Chris was afraid for a moment that the gambler was going to leave him, put off by his being afraid and not acting like a man, but he relaxed and even almost smiled when Ezra unbuckled his gunbelt and laid it aside, then removed his red jacket and draped it over the chair back followed by his shoulder holster. He sat down at the head of the bed and pulled Chris into his lap, holding him close. “It’s going to be all right.”
Chris snuggled into his arms with a sigh, infinitely reassured by the sound of Ezra’s heartbeat beneath the embroidered silk waistcoat. “You promise?”
“No.” Ezra stroked the soft blond hair with a gentle hand. “I do not make promises I cannot keep. But I do promise that no harm shall befall you if I can in any way prevent it. Now try to get some sleep, I’m not goin’ anywhere.”
“I know.” Chris obediently closed his eyes, but sleep wouldn’t come. He wiggled a little and felt the gambler shift with him, trying to make him more comfortable. A question rose in the boy’s mind. “Ezra? Did you ever have a little boy like me?”
Ezra’s arms tightened around him and he sighed. “Yes,” he said softly. “Yes, I did, once.”
“What happened to him?”
The gambler took a deep breath. “He…he climbed a tree.” Chris opened his eyes and twisted to look up at him, confused, and Ezra managed a small, sad smile. “He climbed the wrong tree, a branch broke and so did his arm when he fell.”
Chris was frowning now. “But folks don’t die from having a broken arm.”
“No, no they don’t – but the doctor gave him too much medicine when he tried to fix it and Robin…well, he never woke up. He was just five years old.” He managed a smile for the boy, even though his vision was blurred with tears. “I’ve never told anyone else about him, I loved him so very much that it hurt to talk about him after he was gone.”
“I won’t tell.” Chris put his arm as far around the gambler’s lean waist as it would go and squeezed. “I sure wish he wasn’t gone, bet he does too – I bet you were the best pa in the whole world.”
Ezra chuckled weakly and returned the hug. “That is a very generous thought, Chris. But now you really should try to go to sleep.”
The little boy shifted around again until he was comfortable and could once again hear the gambler’s heartbeat. The steady, reassuring rhythm began to lull him to sleep, but he kept a tight hold on his comforter in spite of that. “I wish…I wish you were my pa,” he murmured drowsily.
The gambler said nothing but began stroking his hair again, brushing away the tear that had fallen into the soft strands as he did. And in the next room, Nathan stared at the ceiling with the overheard conversation running through his head, wondering if it was wrong for him to wish that the cure would not work. One thing he knew for certain, though; he would never again try to force laudanum on the gambler, never again.
Chris woke just after dawn the next morning and the first thing he saw was Ezra, back in the chair but still in his shirtsleeves, fast asleep with his head resting on the small table by the bed. At first he couldn’t fathom what the gambler might be doing there – normally he would have expected Vin or Buck – but then it all came flooding back. Someone sneaking up behind him and a burning sensation in his arm, the fear and pain of that first transformation and the fear and confusion afterwards, the way the others had reacted to him…
…And the way the gambler had come to his rescue, protected him from Buck, comforted his fears and made him feel safe. Chris sat up slowly, memories overwhelming him, never taking his eyes off the small man slumped beside his bed. “You stayed,” he whispered. He brushed an uncharacteristic drop of moisture from his eye. “Guess the old man was right, I did make a good choice.”