Chapter 1: Reborn
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.”
Chapter 2: Adult Conversation
Chris rubbed at the small scar on his upper arm even though he couldn’t actually feel it through his sleeve. It had been a week since he’d been…well, since what had happened had happened. They still didn’t know why, or how, and they most likely never would. The other men had given him a bare-bones account of the two days he’d been…different, and Chris had told them that he didn’t remember any of the details.
He really hadn’t seen any other way. He wasn’t ready to discuss what had gone on with the other men, didn’t know if he ever would be. Aside from the shock of having briefly been a nine-year-old again, Chris was having trouble equating the men he counted as his closest friends with the adults he’d had to deal with over the course of those two days. Nathan, so full of professional concern and yet so personally distant; Vin and JD, who had mostly avoided him; Josiah, surprisingly callous, who had talked about him like he wasn’t even there. And Buck, who had scared him and in a way still was. Chris didn’t know what he was going to do about that situation; he’d known his oldest friend was used to him being a bastard a good deal of the time, but he hadn’t realized that Buck was dependent on him acting that way. The memory of the tall cowboy angrily trying to force a nine-year-old to assume the persona of a hard-drinking gunslinger was still making Chris shudder – as was the knowledge that none of the others had tried to interfere. Except Ezra, of course.
Buck still wasn’t talking to Ezra, and the other four men appeared to be trying to pretend nothing had happened. Conversely, Inez and Mary weren’t talking to any of the Seven except Ezra and Chris, and twice now Chris had seen Billy run and hide when Buck had come out onto the boardwalk. And Ezra’s professional smile had a brittleness to it that the Seven’s leader hadn’t seen since Maude had ripped her son’s precious saloon out from under him. The gambler was avoiding them all, so subtly that most of the others probably hadn’t noticed it but avoiding them all the same.
Chris knew that Ezra knew he remembered, and he’d been trying for days to get the slippery gambler to talk to him but pinning Ezra down was proving to be an exercise in futility. And to make things worse Chris was having the opposite problem with Buck, who was dogging his heels every spare minute and engaging in new lows when it came to uncouth behavior – especially where it was directed toward Ezra somehow. Chris was ready to kill him. Or to tell him he remembered it all, which might have the effect of killing him without Chris having to get his guns or the nearest loose board involved.
He could see a nice heavy nail-studded board from where he was sitting now, as a matter of fact, and he reflected without much concern that a man knows he’s been pushed too far when he sits around thinking about beating his oldest friend to death. He had to resolve one situation or the other, right now. And since Buck was off involving himself with a woman somewhere that meant it was time to corner Ezra. Or rather, to lie in wait for Ezra; the gambler was due to relieve him at the jail any minute now.
Ezra arrived five minutes late, no doubt in hopes that his boss would either have left or would be too angry to try to talk to him. No such luck. “C’mon into the jail, Ez,” Chris told him tiredly. “It’s too hot to sit out here any longer, if there’s trouble someone will come get us.”
“Indubitably,” was the short and equally tired reply. Ezra dutifully trailed him into the jail and closed the door, then dropped into a chair. He looked tense, no doubt anticipating the conversation to come and expecting nothing good to come of it. But once cornered, Ezra wasn’t one to back down. “You want to speak to me about the…incident, correct?”
“Yeah.” Chris took the other chair and tipped it back on two legs, using the precarious position to make himself less threatening. “Been trying all week, you haven’t exactly made it easy.”
Ezra shrugged. “I suppose I had the naïve expectation that if the subject were avoided all would be forgotten – and that you would prefer it to be so. Apparently I was mistaken. My apologies for inconveniencing you with my assumptions.”
“You don’t have any call to apologize,” Chris told him quietly. “You were the only one who…well, I owe you one. And I kind of feel like I owe you an apology, for Buck.”
“Please, Mr. Larabee. You cannot possibly feel you are responsible for Mr. Wilmington’s behavior.” The gambler sighed. “He is an adult, whether he wants to be or not, and responsibility for his actions rests firmly on his own shoulders.”
Chris snorted. “He’s been a real…”
“I won’t dispute it,” Ezra interrupted. “But I believe that to be his method of coping with the fact that he almost lost you, his friend.”
Another snort. “His crutch, you mean.”
The gambler sighed. “That too. But far better to be that than alone, is it not?”
“I’m still thinking on that one – he’s driving me nuts.” Chris fixed him with a piercing look. “Ain’t no excuse for the way he’s been acting around you, though.”
“I am an adult too, Mr. Larabee,” Ezra told the ceiling, avoiding the look. “While I am not accustomed to being the recipient of jealousy, I am capable of recognizing and ignoring such petty emotions aimed at my person. And I am sure Mr. Wilmington will return to being his usual jovial self once he has had a little time to re-accustom himself to your strong, stable presence in his life.”
“If you say so. I’d still like to smack him upside the head, though.”
To his surprise, Ezra laughed. “I’m afraid I harbored similar sentiments last week, but…other considerations prevented me from following through.”
Okay, there was his opening. “About that,” Chris said as casually as he could. “Been meaning to thank you, I really appreciated the way you handled things while I…um, wasn’t able to.”
“It was nothing anyone else would not have done,” Ezra replied. A frown creased his face. “What was occurring was…unacceptable in the extreme. I thought more of our compatriots than that.”
“I did too.” Chris slowly sat forward in his chair. “I meant what I said in the clinic, you know, about how lucky your son was.”
The gambler flinched. “I would truly prefer not to discuss…my Robin,” he managed. His eyes finally met the gunslinger’s. “Please, Mr. Larabee.”
“I understand.” And Chris did; he recognized the pain in those green eyes from his own mirror. “I just wanted you to know.”
“I thank you for that, then.” Ezra looked away again. “From the sound of it, your mother was quite a woman.”
“Still is,” was the reply. Chris grinned at the other man’s surprised look. “Yep, she’s still alive. It’s just that with my reputation I think it’s better to keep some things quiet.”
“Ah, I see. And your father, is he alive as well?”
Chris shook his head. “Can’t say I miss him. He was with the Army and he wasn’t around much. And when he was around it was awkward, because he didn’t really know us. He tried, but you can’t get to know someone on a three-day pass. And then when he retired…” The gunslinger’s jaw set. “Well, it wasn’t long after that I left home to make my own way. You can’t have two men being head of the house.”
“No, I would expect not,” Ezra said quietly. “And conversely there cannot be no head of the family either. Perhaps that is the source of some of the…difficulties we encountered amongst the members of our little band a week ago; the father figure disappeared, leaving no one behind who could take his place.”
“Not sure I like the sound of that,” the gunslinger snorted. “Didn’t sign on here to do pa duty, unless it’s for Billy now and again.”
“But you do it admirably, on both counts.” Ezra stretched and pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket. “If you will forgive my intrusion, you should probably have a talk with young master Travis about his…encounter with Mr. Wilmington.” He cocked one eyebrow. “I believe he is out playing behind his mother’s office right now, as a matter of fact.”
Chris cocked his eyebrow right back. “Tryin’ to get rid of me, Ez?”
“Yes,” was the surprising reply. The gunslinger’s mouth dropped open, and Ezra smiled slightly. “Yes, I am – temporarily, anyway. If you were to return later, however, I would be happy to share a libation with you…and perhaps join in a game of chess, as we were forced to settle for checkers last time due to your inexperience?”
“I’d like that,” Chris told him, and meant it. He wanted to talk to Ezra some more, but if the man needed a few hours of space he wasn’t going to argue. He stood up and put on his hat. “You won’t have to go easy on me this time, though.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Ezra drawled, eyes twinkling. “After all, you are a grown man.”
The gunslinger’s grin widened significantly. “Thank goodness for that.”
Chapter 3: Pa Duty
Chris rode back into town just in time to see it happen.
The gunslinger had run across Billy Travis and a few of the other boys from town out by the creek when he was heading back from patrol, and he had stopped for a little while to offer his advice on catching fish and frogs before heading on his way. The day was bright and hot, and he'd been thinking longingly of the shadowy interior of the saloon or even the stable as he rode. The weather had been dry and his horse kicked up clouds of dust with every step, so the bathhouse was sounding good to him as well. Maybe the bathhouse and then the saloon, after the stable...
The sight of a crowd gathering outside the saloon made him scowl. Great, just great. And none of the other lawmen must be around or else they'd be out there where he could see them, breaking up the forming crowd and making sure the fight didn't get out of hand. Oh wait, there was Buck, and wasn't that Ezra...
And that was when Chris realized what the crowd must have gathered to watch; it wasn’t every day they got to see a fight between two of the town’s lawmen. He spurred his horse forward, cursing himself for not having dealt with Buck's...problem already. The ladies' man's behavior had been degenerating ever since Chris had somehow been changed into a nine-year-old two weeks back, and it had only gotten worse once the gunslinger had been restored to his proper age. Especially since Chris hadn't quite been what the other men thought of as ‘himself’ since then. The experience, not just of being a boy again but of seeing his friends through a boy's eyes, had changed him. Gray Owl had asked that boy what sort of man he'd rather be than the hard-drinking, embittered gunslinger most of the rest of the Seven had seemed to want him to return to, and his answer had stuck with him. That unhappy gunslinger wasn't the man his mother had raised him to be, or the one she was proud of. In fact, that was a good part of the reason Chris had been so upset about the fabricated story Mary Travis had printed in her paper when he'd first arrived in Four Corners; he’d been afraid the false story would somehow get back to his mother.
And if Chris being a kid again had shaken up his friends…having his mother show up in Four Corners to give him what for would probably finish them off entirely. Not to mention providing the town with something to talk about for several weeks on end.
Chris was hoping that whatever Buck had started with Ezra didn’t cause more than a few days of talk. The fight hadn’t degenerated into out-and-out blows yet, probably because Ezra was holding back. Chris spurred the horse again; he knew Buck wouldn’t be holding back, at least not for long. The bigger man was toying with the gambler right now, just taking his frustrations out, but that could change any second.
That second passed before Chris was close enough to stop it. Buck suddenly shoved the gambler off the boardwalk...right into the path of an approaching wagon. How Ezra managed to avoid being run over Chris would never know, but after a moment of breathless, anticipatory silence the gambler staggered to his feet on the other side of the agitated horses pulling the wagon and just stared, his face white and green eyes wide with shock. Chris filed away for later consideration the fact that none of the townspeople present tried to help, or even offered him a hand up; another thing he was going to have to deal with, but later. For now what he needed to do was collar Buck before anything else could happen, or before the man could shoot off his mouth and make a bad situation worse. Chris stalked over to his oldest friend, grabbed him by the front of his shirt and shoved him against a post. "You're drunk," he declared, knowing it wasn't true but needing the gathered crowd to think it was. "Ezra, you okay?"
The gambler seemed to be having some difficulty answering him at first, but then he pulled himself together and nodded. "Of...of course, Mr. Larabee. Ah am uninjured, ah was merely startled."
"Uh huh." Scared shitless was probably more like it, but Chris wasn't going to say so. "Do me a favor, go put Blackie up for me? I don’t want him standin’ around hot while I sober Buck up."
Another nod and Ezra was gone, taking the horse with him. Chris spread a scowl around the crowd that effectively broke most of it up, and then he used his hold on Buck to drag the ladies’ man off the boardwalk and down the street toward the jail. Another twisting of his fist in the flannel shirt choked off Buck’s attempt to jerk free of him. “Just give me an excuse to knock you on your ass,” he growled. “Right now I’d enjoy it waaay too much.”
Buck’s struggles didn’t stop, but they did degenerate from determined to halfhearted; backing down was his usual reaction when Chris was angry with him. “Chris…”
“Shut up.” And Buck did, again as usual. Chris pulled him inside the jail and kicked the door shut behind them, then tossed him in the direction of the nearest open cell. “Get in there.”
The ladies’ man did, and at a gesture from his friend pulled the cell door closed. “What’s goin’ on, Chris? I’m not drunk…”
“I know that. I just didn’t want to find out what that crowd would have done if they’d known that.” Chris locked the cell, tossed the keys through the bars so they landed on the cot. The implication that he was protecting Buck was obvious. “Were you actually trying to kill Ezra or did you just not give a damn if you did or not?”
Buck rolled his eyes. “Aw, I was just messin’ with him…”
“You’ve been doin’ that a lot lately,” the gunslinger interrupted. “Ever since two weeks ago when he tore into you because of the way you were treating me, isn’t that right?”
Instant denial. “I don’t know what that lying little bastard told you about what went on…”
“He didn’t have to tell me anything, I remember it.” Chris almost smiled – and not a nice one – at the reaction those words produced. “Yeah, Buck, I remember.”
“But you said…”
“I lied.” Chris shrugged, sitting on a corner of the desk and folding his arms across his chest. “Seemed the best way to handle things at the time, now I’m not so sure. I’m starting to wonder if maybe I should have just not cared about making you boys uncomfortable, if attempted murder is the result of you bein’ left alone about it.”
Buck slowly sat down on the cot, not appearing to notice that he was sitting on the keys. “You remember…what, exactly?”
“I remember that you were one scary bastard – and if you don’t believe me, just ask Mary Travis about how bad you scared Billy. He’s still runnin’ across the street when he sees you.” Chris didn’t react when his oldest friend winced. “I remember that most of the other boys talked about me like I wasn’t even there, and that not a one of them stepped in to put a stop to your shit, Buck. Except for Ezra, of course, and you’ve sure made him pay for that one these past two weeks.” His blue-green eyes narrowed. “I’d asked him about it, and he said he was a grown man and he could take care of himself so I left it alone…but not anymore, not after today. I’m going to ask you again, Buck: Were you trying to kill him, or did you just not care?”
Buck scowled. “I already told you I was just messin’ with him, Chris. And Ezra can take care of himself.”
“I know that,” was the gunslinger’s response. “But that ain’t the same thing as him having to watch his back around the men he works with, and you know it – shit like that will set him packin’ his bags, it would any man.” Turquoise eyes narrowed. “Or maybe was that the idea?” Chris nodded when Buck flinched. “So are you gonna tell me what’s stuck in your craw, or are you gonna make me guess?”
Silence from Buck. Chris let him keep it, knowing it meant he was sorting out his thoughts – and knowing that even Buck might not know exactly what his problem had been, might just have been acting on his feelings without thinking them through. It was something the man had trouble with, living in the moment just a little too much, and it wouldn’t be the first time it had gotten him into trouble. Hell, it wouldn’t even have been the first time it had gotten him into trouble with Chris, for that matter…but it had never been this sort of trouble, it had never almost gotten somebody killed. Things had gotten out of hand.
Chris blamed himself for that. And now he was going to have to figure out how to fix the situation before it got any worse.
Nathan came in while the silence was still pregnant but not quite ready to give birth to anything. The healer looked from the gunslinger perched on the corner of the desk to the cowboy sitting despondently in the cell, and then his eyes went back to the gunslinger. “So what they’re sayin’ is true?”
Chris didn’t move. “Depends on what’s bein’ said, I guess – and on who’s sayin’ it.”
The healer took a harder look at the man in the cell, shook his head. “He don’t look drunk.”
“He’s not.” The gunslinger unfolded his arms, stood up. “But I wanted everyone to think he was, don’t want anyone to know any different, either. What’s goin’ on, Nate?”
Nathan shrugged. “Heard some talk, some folks sayin’ Buck here was drunk and fightin’ with Ezra and you dragged him in here to sober up. Heard you put Ezra in his place by sendin’ him to go take care of your horse. I saw him in the stable, so I guess that part’s true…”
“No, it ain’t.” Chris scowled and jerked a thumb at the cell with its thoughtful occupant. “This jackass here decided maybe he could solve whatever problem it is he’s been having by getting rid of Ezra for good.”
That stung Buck back into speech – and back to his feet. “Now you wait just a damned minute…”
“I was waitin’, until Nate came in. Now I’m done.” Chris turned a flinty look on him. “You figure yourself out yet, or do I need to keep guessin’?”
Buck wrapped his hands around the bars. “I wasn’t tryin’ to kill the little weasel and you know it.”
“I wish I did know it, but it sure as hell looked like that’s what you were up to,” Chris shot back. “I’d get Ezra in here and ask him, but he’s probably still too shook up to talk straight. Almost gettin’ killed by a man you ride with will do that to a person.”
“I wasn’t trying to kill him – wasn’t nothin’ like that in my mind!” Buck pushed back from the bars, his frustration showing. “I was just messin’ with him, I tell you.”
Nathan’s brown eyes had widened when Buck had gotten up off the cot and in doing so revealed the jail keys. He broke back into the conversation. “What do you mean Ezra couldn’t talk straight, Chris? He get hurt?”
“No – not that I saw, anyway.” The healer almost took a step back when those hard eyes fixed on him. “Buck pushed him off the boardwalk in front of a loaded wagon, it damn near ran him over. In fact, I still don’t know how it didn’t. I sent him to the livery with Blackie to give him a chance to get himself together, get him away from that damned crowd.” He grimaced. “Not a single one of them even tried to help him up off the ground. They were just there for the show.”
“Can’t say that surprises me.” The healer knew all about that, in fact, as he’d once been the show himself. The good people of Four Corners were not so good when it came to keeping the peace on their own, hence the need for seven gunslingers in a town that was barely large enough to require a single sheriff. “I’ll go check on Ez…”
Chris started to tell him no…and then he thought better of it. It wouldn’t hurt Ezra to know that another one of the men he rode with cared about what happened to him. “Tell him I’ll talk to him later,” he ordered the healer. “Like tonight in the saloon, over a game.”
Nathan’s eyes widened just slightly. Chris rarely played poker with Ezra, or with anyone else; he normally just sat in the saloon and watched people come and go, or talked with whichever of the Seven happened to be in there with him. The healer ventured a question – not the one he wanted to ask, but the one he thought was most likely to get answered. “You think he’ll be up to playin’ cards if he’s that shook up?”
“I certainly hope not, since I want to play chess,” was the surprising reply. “Get goin’ and check on him, Nate. I don’t want those rumors to hit the stables before you do.”
The healer saw the wisdom in that and left in a hurry – the good people of Four Corners were also not so good when it came to leaving well enough alone, and he could think of a few of them who might decide to entertain themselves by chewing over their version of events in the stables while Ezra was still there. Chris waited until Nathan was gone before returning his attention to Buck, but he let the silence stretch until the man started to fidget and then to get mad again. “Dammit, Chris! How long are we gonna sit and play this game of yours?”
“It’s your game, Buck,” Chris told him with a shrug. “I’d been watching, trying to figure out what I should do, but when you tried to kill Ezra you sort of made it my move.” He grabbed his oldest friend’s dark blue eyes with his own lighter ones and held them. His voice was low, but hard. “You tried to kill a man for protectin’ a kid, Buck. For protectin’ a kid from you, from whatever it was that got twisted around inside that head of yours because I was gone and you didn’t have anyone to do pa duty for you. You heard me, pa duty,” he emphasized when Buck started to object. “How many jealous husbands, Buck? How many of them didn’t come after your wife-stealing ass with a shotgun because they were afraid I’d be standin’ behind you? And how many of them were afraid of that because you told their women all about me before you had your fun?” His voice dripped disgust. “You made sure they knew you were runnin’ home to your big bad gunslinger Daddy, didn’t you?”
Buck had turned white. “You really think that of me?”
“I didn’t, until two weeks ago – and until half an hour ago I still wasn’t completely sold on the idea,” Chris replied. “Just drove you nuts, didn’t it? To see someone you thought of as nothin’ but a no-good conman looking out for the person who was supposed to be taking care of you? Ezra didn’t back down for your shit. He just jumped right in there and told you your daddy was gone and he wasn’t gonna let you look for him in nine-year-old me – and he made you see it, didn’t he? He made you see yourself, he made you see me, and you had to make sure he didn’t get the upper hand like that again.”
“I…” Buck couldn’t seem to find his voice. He sank back down on the cot, staring at Chris. “I didn’t…I’m not a killer, Chris.”
“No, but you almost crossed that line, didn’t you?” The gunslinger didn’t soften at the obvious retreat. “I’m not bailin’ you out again, Buck; this was the last time I save your sorry ass. Either grow up, or get out of town and don’t come back. Your choice.”
He’d only thought Buck was white before. “You want me to…”
“I want you to either start actin’ like a man or go act like a kid somewhere as far away from me as you can get,” Chris interrupted harshly, standing up. “I suggest you stay in there until morning, so you’ll have plenty of time to make up your mind which way you want to go.”
Buck got a strange look on his face, a dawning realization of something unpleasant. “Until morning…you just don’t want everyone to know I’m not drunk.”
“Damn straight I don’t – because I don’t know what they’d do if they did.” The gunslinger was unapologetic. “You didn’t hear what Nathan said? You tried to kill Ezra right in front of those people, and within five minutes the gossip had me pissed at him for it. What do you think those fine, upstanding citizens might do if they found out you weren’t drunk, Buck? I’ll tell you, I don’t want to find out – because it ain’t about him being a gambler, or a conman, or anything else; it’s about him not bein’ one of them. And none of the rest of us are either, and that thought right there should keep you awake nights, shouldn’t it?” He stalked up to the bars, his voice dropping to a hiss. “They would have watched you kill him, Buck, I saw it. And after him, who’d be next? This town has already almost let Nathan swing once, and him the only healer for twenty miles – they didn’t even back Mary when she tried to stop it. What if next time it’s Vin, or Josiah…or JD?” He didn’t stop when the other man flinched. “We have to watch each other’s backs if we’re gonna stay here, and that means the seven of us have got to be able to trust each other – because we for damned sure can’t trust anybody else. So if you decide to be the kind of man we can all trust, JD will let you out in the morning. If not, then when the sun comes up this cell will be empty and you’ll be on your way. To wherever.”
“What if I don’t go along with this shit at all?” Buck demanded, although a bit shakily. “What if I let myself out and just mosey on over to the saloon for a drink, what then? What are you gonna do about it, ‘Daddy’?”
Chris smiled. He’d seen that one coming, and he’d been prepared for it. “Did you forget that I knew your mama, Buck? Who she was…what she was?”
Buck shot to his feet. “My mama was a good woman, you son of a bitch!”
“Never said she wasn’t.” Chris was still smiling. “But she also wasn’t some poor little soiled dove like you’d like folks to believe either, now was she? I seem to recall she was the madam of the whorehouse you grew up in and damn proud of it, wasn’t she, Buck? And don’t I know that because that’s where I first met you, while I was paying a social call on one of your mama Miss Annabelle’s ‘girls’?”
The other man sank back down, shaking. “You wouldn’t tell nobody that.”
Chris shrugged and backed off, heading for the door. “Of course I would – but only if you decide to go for choice number three when I only gave you two. You’ve got the night to think it over, I’m gonna go have a talk with the rest of the boys before I meet Ezra and Nate at the saloon. Goodbye, Buck.”
Buck sat on the cot, staring after him, long after the door had closed and the sound of Chris Larabee’s firm, measured footsteps had faded into silence.