The Easterner

By: Ruby

 

Rating:  PG-13 Language, Violence, Dark theme

Disclaimer:  The Magnificent Seven is owned by Trilogy, Mirish, MGM, and some others I'm not sure of. I'm not making any money.

Universe: Alternate Universe

Author's Notes:  I wrote this story as an answer to the July challenge for The Magnificent 7 Challenge Community: 'Enola Offers a Challenge: would like to see stories where a physical change of some kind happens to one or more of the Seven, how he and the others react to it. Any change you want, as long as it's physical -- some kind of disability, sense removal, becoming another gender or another age -- anything! All I ask is, please, no death stories. If it's temporary or permanent, that's up to you. Any universe. Have fun!!'

But, after writing my answer, I found out that I had misunderstood the challenge and my answer wasn't right. So...I didn't post it there. I didn't want to just scrap it, though...so here it is.

A huge thanks to Heather for reading this story over for me. She's the best! And I want to thank NotTasha for taking the time to beta it for me...she's very good at finding my goofy mistakes, and believe me, I've ALWAYS got goofy mistakes. LOL!

Feedback is always greatly appreciated. Please let me know what you think. Thank you, Ruby :)

I'm going to post this story in parts.

Easterner - Alternate Universe Page

Part one   Part Two   Part Three

 

The Easterner

By: Ruby

Part one 

Chris Larabee leaned against a post in front of the Jailhouse as he watched over the town he was sworn to protect. Vin Tanner sat comfortably in a wooden chair tipped back on two legs, the sharpshooter's back resting against the Jailhouse wall.

Chris glanced up the road when he heard the jangle of harnesses. Under the wide brim of his hat, Vin Tanner's eyes shifted in the direction of the noise. The two lawmen watched as the coach rounded the bend and started up the road towards them. One look at the fancy rig told them that there was 'money' coming with it. Three horses were ponied behind the coach.  The two men took note of the riders that followed behind; neither the men nor the horses they rode looked like they belonged in the West. 

"Whoo wee!" Buck Wilmington stepped out of the jail, hands tucked into his gunbelt as he watched the coach go by. "Look at that. Haven't seen a rig like that in a while."

The only response from Larabee was a pursing of his lips and a tightening of the lines around his mouth. Tanner watched, attentive, without looking like he had even noticed the new arrival.

"Well, better go check it out." Buck grinned at Chris and then winked at Vin. "Might be some 'ladies' in there." He took off in the direction of the hotel.

Chris glanced down at Vin, caught a glint of smiling blue eyes and shook his head. "Better go with 'im," Chris said with mock disgust. "Might be some husbands on that coach'll take a dislike to havin' the big dog sniffin' around."

Vin stood, stretching as he nodded once, his lips turned up at the corners. The two men followed Wilmington, a few paces behind the big ladies' man.

The coach came to a stop directly in front of the hotel. The four coal-black horses that were hooked to it shook their manes, clinking metal and creaking leather as the dust flew.

The three men stepped up on the boardwalk in front of the hotel, Buck standing close to the coach, trying to get a look inside. Chris and Vin both stood with their backs to the wall, looking disinterested.

A hidden rider in the back of the pack behind the coach darted out from the rest, his pretty bay horse the only animal that didn't look out of place. Guiding the horse to a stop, he grabbed onto the saddle horn. Shifting his left leg up and over the horse, he kicked free of the stirrup with his right foot and then slid down the saddle, dropping into the dirt with a soft thud. Quickly, he tied the horse to a hitching rail and then with a limping jog ran over to the coach door.

Struggling, he pulled an ornately carved, heavy wooden step down from its hiding place, and then positioned it in front of the coach door, stepping up on it to open the door wide.

The three peacekeeper's attention stayed on the boy. Small framed with black hair showing underneath a tattered bowler hat, the boy's actions spoke of repetition, and the lawmen understood his 'place' in the party before them. His frayed and worn tweed three-piece suit had definitely seen better days and they could see the holes in his boots from where they stood.

The boy backed off the step to stand beside it, holding the door open wide for the coach's occupants. Wilmington narrowed his eyes when he noticed that not once had the boy looked up, his gaze resting on the ground in front of his worn boots at all times.

He was young. Buck surmised that he was ten, maybe eleven. He was short and very slim. More than slim, he was skinny in a way that his too-big Eastern-style suit hung off of him much like it would a rack at the store. What Buck could see of the boy's face was gaunt, pale.

"Boy!" a voice called out from the coach. "You didn't get the step close enough!"

The young boy hurriedly let go of the door and squatted down to push the heavy step closer. A booted foot came out, catching the kid under the chin and knocking him backwards. He landed hard on his back, sprawled out on the ground, limbs spread in all directions.

Harsh laughter drifted out from the inside of the coach. As they dismounted, the riders laughed, a rough, cruel sound.  

Buck stepped forward. Chris and Vin disengaged themselves from the wall and walked up to stand beside the tall ladies' man. Vin stood, hand on his mare's leg, as he looked from the boy on the ground to the man stepping out of the coach.

The boy grunted as he turned himself over, pushing himself up to hands and knees and then slowly pushing himself off the ground, all the time, the small brim of his hat covering his eyes.

"You fell for it again, Dunne!" the tall man exiting the coach sniggered as he stepped down the small set of wooden stairs, two more men following him.

The kid, Dunne, levered himself to his feet. Reaching out, he grabbed onto the closest thing he could when he started to waver. It happened to be Buck Wilmington's arm. The ladies' man had been reaching for the kid at the same time that the boy had stood.

He'd never looked up, so Buck figured he didn't even know he was there. The surprised look on the boy's face when he found himself hanging onto another man's arm verified his assumption. Buck locked gazes with the young boy. Hazel eyes, bright with unshed tears, in a lined, worn and tired face widened in fear as he quickly jerked his hand off of Buck's arm. The kid hissed, bringing that same arm across his chest.

Buck pursed his lips, shaking his head, as he glanced over to meet Chris's eyes. The boy's black eye and bruised cheek hadn't missed any of the lawmen's attention. Chris and Buck both turned back to watch the kid scurry towards the coach, coming to a stop in front of the man who had just kicked him. The boy stared at the ground.

The three lawmen watched as the kid's Adam's apple bobbed and then they heard his hoarse, young voice. "Yes, sir." The boy swallowed hard as he kicked his toe in the dirt.

The man pushed him aside as he stepped forward to meet the rest of his party who stood off to the side, reins in hand, looking expectantly at the boy.

The kid jumped to attention, walking carefully around the three men from the coach and over to the riders. With great care, he took the reins of the four horses.

"Take care of them, and then come back for the rest," the tall man that had kicked the boy called, waving his hand in dismissal. He moved forward, his men flanking him as he stepped up onto the boardwalk. He went to push past the three men standing in front of him, but a hand on his chest stopped him.

Buck held the man back as he raised his eyebrows. "What have we got here, boys?" He smiled without humor as he glanced over at his two friends. "Some city slickers out here in the real West?" He knew that he'd hit the nail on the head as soon as he saw the man in the middle's chest puff up, his chin rising.

"The name's Dangrey. You may have heard of me." The man smirked as he rocked back on his heels so he could look Buck in the eyes. He looked to be the youngest out of the group of men, his face unlined, pampered.

Buck's face hardened as his smile grew. Furrowing his brow, he scratched his head with his free hand. "I ain't heard'a ya." Looking over at Chris and then past Chris to Vin, he asked, "Either of you guys heard'a a city slicker by the name a Dangrey?" He didn't wait for a response instead he turned back. "Nope, they ain't heard'a ya." His smile slipped a little, his eyes suddenly cold, mean. "You always treat boys like that, Dan Gray?" 

The man sneered as he corrected him. "It's Dangrey. Michael Dangrey." He looked in the direction of the livery where the boy was standing in front of a bear of a man, the four horses in a semi-circle behind him. "And I treat the 'help' how ever I damn well please."

The two men from the coach and the riders all seemed to get a kick out of this. They chortled and laughed nudging each other in the ribs. Buck wasn't sure if it was because of the way Dangrey had talked about the 'help' or the way the man mimicked Buck's easy drawl and language.

"Now," the young man looked disgustedly at Vin, then his eyes raked up and down Chris's black wardrobe before they finally landed back on Buck's face. "If you 'cowboys' can get out of our way, we'd like to get us a room."

Chris and Vin had both been silent in their anger at the treatment of the boy, and both were now silent in the face of this rich Easterner.

The man must have taken their non-response as a go-ahead, he started up the steps, stepping in between Chris and Buck.

An iron arm in a black duster snaked out and rammed into the man's chest, stopping him  in his tracks. 

Buck stepped back, smiling widely as his eyes danced. "Oh wee, you made 'im mad."

Dangrey's eyes widened as he looked down at the arm holding him in place. He looked back up and visibly paled when he found Chris's green eyes glaring.

Chris tore his gaze away from Dangrey and brought it to rest on each man in the Easterner's entourage, slowly causing a ripple of fear and trepidation. Finally, he looked back at Dangrey.

"My friend asked you a question," Chris hissed, his other hand coming up and resting on his Peacemaker. "You always treat the kid like that?" Larabee moved down the steps when Dangrey backed away from him.

Paling, Dangrey stuttered. "L...like what? All I did was put 'im in his place. The help's got to be put in their place, that's what my daddy says." He scoffed then, as if the thought of his father gave him courage. "He's 'just' a stableboy at my daddy's mansion. He ain't nothin."

Vin moved with lightning speed. He was suddenly in front of Buck, holding the tall man's arm down. Surprisingly, Buck had his pistol in his hand, though none of the men had seen him draw it.

Vin knew that the word 'nothing' had set him off, the same way it had made Vin's blood boil, and, he figured, Chris's too.

Chris smiled then, toothy and feral. "Now, Buck," he said congenially, "don't go killin' him yet. He ain't seen the 'West' yet." His lip curled as he leaned in towards Dangrey. "You ain't seen the West yet," he threatened.

The threat must have been understood, Dangrey paled even more and Chris could feel the man's body shaking where he held him in place with his arm. Chris was suddenly all smiles again, and from the look on Dangrey's face, he knew that the man had quickly figured out that a 'smiling' man-in-black was much more mortally serious than a stoic man-in-black.

Chris stepped to the side then, his arm falling away from the Easterner. Dangrey stumbled forward when Larabee's strength left. Chris caught him, friendly like as he sidled up to him, slapping him on the back. He looked from Vin to Buck who were both staring down the rest of Dangrey's friends, who Chris now partially had his back to. "Boy's, 'Mister'..." he slurred the word like it was an expletive, "Dangrey knows that if he lays a hand on that boy while he's in 'our' town, he won't like the consequences." He stepped away from the Easterner to look him in the eye, still smiling happily. "Don't ya, Dangrey?" He asked as he took a step behind him, stepping backwards up onto the boardwalk without looking, Buck and Vin silently shouldered in beside him to present a force.

Chris pulled his duster back to fully reveal his Peacemaker, laying his hand on the butt and grinning madly. "You see, Dangrey," his eyes roved over all the men but came back to the young pack leader as he said the next words. "We're the law in this town, and we don't take kindly to son's of bitches beatin' up on little boys."

Dangrey swallowed hard, his late-found courage now gone, replaced with a pale face and shaking hands. 

Chris raised his eyebrows, "You got that?" he asked all the men, while his eyes stayed on Dangrey.

"Yeah, Mr..."

"Larabee." Chris smiled. "Chris Larabee."

Dangrey winced as he took a step back, recognition blanching his face, his mouth opening wide. "Lara..." he stumbled over the name as his friends backed away from him, darting fearful looks at each other and then back to the man-in-black.

"Lar-a-bee," Chris sounded the name out, talking to the rich Easterner as if he were a three-year-old.

Dangrey nodded his head viscously as he agreed with Chris. "Mr. Larabee," he nodded harder. "No, Sir, the kid'll be right fine with us. Not to worry, we'll take good care of him."

Chris's smile drifted away. "I know you will."

Chris, Buck and Vin all stepped back and away, letting a relieved Michael Dangrey and party step quickly past him, almost running into the hotel.

Once they were inside and out of eyesight and earshot, Buck let out a loud chortle as he clapped Chris on the back. "Didn't know you still had it in you, ya old war dog."

Chris half-smiled as he shook his head and rolled his eyes at the ladies' man. 

All three lawmen glanced over as the kid came jogging down the road, his arm still across his chest, his head down. They walked down the steps to meet him.

The boy untied his own horse from the hitching rail then walked around to the back of the coach, tying the little bay along side the other horses. With an affectionate pat, he gently pulled the horse's head down to his level and then leaned in whispering something it its ear. Running his hand along the horse's neck, he petted it a few more times, then he turned and started jogging towards the front of the coach. He came to a sliding stop when he realized he was about to run into someone. He looked up, way up, to find the same tall mustached cowboy smiling down at him. He took a quick step back, his young eyes darting from Wilmington to Tanner and then to Larabee. He swallowed hard as he frowned. "Sorry." The word was whispered as he sidestepped out of Buck's way to get around him.

"Kid, you okay?" Buck asked, his eyes crinkling in concern as he leaned down, trying to get a look.

Vin turned towards the coach and grabbed the lead rope. The horses stepped off after him, the ponied horses following along complacently.

"Hey," the boy's voice cracked as he called out. Clearing his throat, he stepped forward, his voice lower. "Hey, those are the Master's horses."

Vin smiled gently at him. "I know, kid. I'm just gonna help you get them to the livery. You look plumb tuckered out."

Dunne sniffed as he looked from Tanner to Wilmington. Shaking his head, he reached up and adjusted his bowler hat. "I'm not tired." He told them, his eyes going to Larabee and then quickly darting away. He walked towards Vin, intercepting him. "Please, Mister," his eyes shifted to the hotel and then back, a look close to terror overtaking them. "Please, Mister, I take care of the horses. It's my job." He reached out, trying to take the reins from Tanner's hand. Looking again at the hotel, he swallowed hard as he again tried to get the reins out of the sharpshooter's hand.

Vin's eyes softened towards the boy as his heart hardened towards the men who were in the hotel getting rooms. His raspy voice was tender as he spoke, "Kid, I'm just tryin' to help ya out a little. I don't mean ya no harm. I'll look after yer horses real good. I'm part of the law here, so you don't have nothin' to worry about."

That didn't reassure the kid, he tightened his grip on the reins as he said, "That don't matter none to them. I've got to do my job. Takin' care of the horses is my job, if I don't do it," his eyes filled with tears, "they won't take care of my m-" His mouth snapped shut and he looked from one man to another, his eyes pleading. He shook his head when he found three compassionate men looking at him. "Please, I know you think yer helping me, but I don't need help." His voice cracked. "Really." He finally got the reins out of Vin's hands. He stepped backwards from the men, his hand instinctively going up to pat the tall black horse reassuringly on the neck. "That back there," he cocked his head towards the hotel, "that wasn't anything," he assured. "He didn't hurt me." His actions belied his words as he gasped in pain when the horse stepped forward, nudging his side to get more petting. His arm immediately went back to cover his ribs. "Really," he begged, his voice raw. "Just don't try and help me. People have tried before and it doesn't work. I'm their property," he explained.

Buck's eyes narrowed. The big man was glad that Nathan had taken Josiah and Ezra out to the Seminole Village and wasn't here to hear the word 'property.'

"I mean," the kid backpedaled when he saw the hard look come over the tall mustached cowboy's face. "I mean, I work for them. I like working for them." He smiled widely and it made his bruised face look even younger; the shadow under his chin, darker than it should have been. He started walking away. "So, you can just um...just leave me alone." He smiled nicely again. "We'll be leaving soon and, ah, I um...I don't need any help. I'm fine." He was jogging away from them then, the horses following close behind.

 

Part Two

Two days had passed and Dangrey and his group had been seen around town quite a bit. The boy, though, had only been seen once or twice. Yosemite had told the lawmen that the kid slept up in the hayloft when he wasn't taking care of all the horses, which, in itself, was almost a full time job. The stable owner also told them that one of the Easterners would bring the kid a bite to eat a couple times a day.

Dangrey gave Larabee a wide berth, but wasn't hesitant to throw his weight around the town. He and his friends had made a couple trips to Eagle Bend. That left Dunne with some time in town alone, as Dangrey was overheard telling the boy that he didn't want him 'disgracing' them with his presence if he didn't have to. The word had gotten back to Larabee, but Chris was going to give it a little time and see what else developed before he called the rich Easterner on his words. He didn't tell Buck, though, because he knew that Wilmington would most likely call Dangrey out.

Chris took a long draw from his cheroot as he sat quietly in front of the near-empty saloon. The look on that kid's face when they'd tried to help him made Chris think that something going on. And when the kid had stopped himself from saying that there was someone back home that they were taking care of, it seemed to prove Larabee's fears. He wondered what they were holding over the kid's head.

He looked up when he heard Josiah Sanchez's soft rumbling laughter. The three peacekeepers rode abreast, Josiah and Nathan Jackson smiling. Ezra Standish wore a disgruntled scowl on his young face as he shook his head, talking softly to the two men. The three lawmen tipped their hats at Larabee as they rode past on their way to the livery.

Chris stood, stretching before he started in the same direction. When he stepped inside the livery, he heard laughter coming from his three friends. He noticed that Tanner stood off to the side, chuckling softly at something Ezra was saying.

The hairs on the back of Chris's neck stood up and he turned to find the young Eastern boy, Dunne, at the other end of the livery, sitting on a pile of hay, his back up against the wall, watching them. Chris smiled and brought his finger up to his hat brim, but his smile faded when he noticed that the kid seemed to be looking at him, but didn't respond at all to the gesture.

Chris glanced over at Tanner to find that the sharpshooter was also looking in the kid's direction. They shared a look before they both started that way. When they got closer, they could see that the kid sat bonelessly against the wall, his arms lying limply beside him on the soft hay, palms up. His eyes were glassy; the bruises on his face and his chin, the only color on his pallid skin.

Chris eased up to him, not wanting to startle him. Tanner mirrored his actions.

"Kid?" Chris squatted down in front of him. 

The boy didn't move, didn't even blink. 

Chris reached towards him, his hand instinctively going to the boy's forehead. "He's burning up," he hissed, looking up to find Buck towering over him, staring at the kid in horror.

"Nathan!" Vin's raspy voice called out. The other lawmen had already been walking towards them, having realized that something was wrong.

The kid jerked to awareness. His eyes blinked rapidly as he looked from Chris to Vin and then up to Buck. He looked back to Chris and then his eyes widened in terror as he glanced to Chris's right, his face blanching white. He scooted back, but there was no place to go.

Nathan had squatted down beside Chris. The kid was blatantly staring at him, his mouth frozen open in horror, his body shaking.

"Easy, son," Nathan soothed as he reached out a hand. 

The boy's mouth snapped shut as his body tensed up. Then, he shot off the hay, literally knocking Larabee on his ass.

Buck turned and with a few jogging steps caught up with the small boy, reaching out and grabbing onto him. "Whoa, now, son. Where you goin'?" he asked as he picked the terrified child up.

The kid screamed as he kicked the tall man's shins. "Please don't let him take me. Please, I'm sorry I fell asleep. Don't let the Black Man take me." Buck looked helplessly at the other lawmen that had joined them. "Don't let the boogeyman kill me," the boy screamed, his voice raw.

The peacekeepers shared uncomfortable looks before glancing over at the gentle healer. 

"Easy, son," Nathan's eyes were moist as he tried to comfort the boy without getting too close. 

The child suddenly went slack and Buck had to reach out with his other hand to take all of his weight. "Damn," he hissed when he pulled the boy up to his chest. "He don't weigh more'n a new born colt."

Nathan checked the child over, shaking his head sadly. "Let's get 'im up to my clinic. Boy's hurt, has a fever. He needs takin' care of."

Buck nodded and followed Nathan out of the livery. Vin ran ahead to get some water boiling. Josiah, Ezra and Chris followed behind worriedly.

*****

When they laid the small boy on the bed, he instantly came awake. Nathan quickly backed away so his face wasn't the first thing he saw.

Buck sat down on the bed, watching sadly as the boy pulled away from him. 

He looked like he was about to dart again, so Chris sat down on the mattress on the opposite side of the bed.

Suddenly, the boy started shaking. Tears spilling from his eyes as he lay there on top of the quilt. Nate threw a blanket over to the men, hitting Buck on the back of the head with it. The ladies' man picked the soft blanket up off the floor and then spread it over the boy's pale body, tucking it up under his chin. "Better?" he asked the boy, his voice soft, his eyes tender.

Dunne gulped, darting his gaze from Buck to Chris and then around the room to each man's face, finally he brought his gaze back to Buck. "Is he gone?" his voice trembled.

"Is who gone, son?" Buck reached up and smoothed the boy's hair off his clammy forehead.

"The...the boogeyman," the boy looked quickly around the room. 

Nathan backed further into the corner, sure that the shadow from the large cabinet would hide him.

Chris took the boy's hand in his own, his throat catching as memories of Adam assaulted him. Pushing those thoughts aside for another time, he said, "That man isn't a boogeyman. He's our friend, and he's a healer. He wants to help you."

The boy panicked. "No!" he yelled. "No! You can't let him come near me. He'll kill me and he'll eat the meat from my bones."

Buck winced. "That's a pretty hard accusation to make about a feller ya just met," his kept his voice light.

"Ain't an acc...accus..." the small boy's eyes narrowed. "It ain't one of them. It's true. All them black-skinned people, they're demons. Mr. Dangrey told me so. He said that they're all evil and if they find little boy's who aren't doing their work, they kill 'em and eat the meat off their bones." He shuddered.

Chris shook his head as he glanced sadly around the room, his gaze resting on his dark-skinned friend. Sighing, he looked down at the boy. "Son, that just ain't true. It's just something that that Dangrey told you to make sure you was always working." And so he could spread his hate for black people, Chris thought but didn't voice his opinion. "It's just not true. Nathan, that man you saw a while ago, he's the nicest most gentlest person I've ever met."

Dunne narrowed his eyes at him. "That's what my ma says, that they ain't boogeymen."

Buck smiled at him, reaching out and patting him on the shoulder to get his attention. "Why don't you listen to her, then. Yer ma sounds real smart."

Frowning, the kid looked over at him. " 'Cause sometimes she says things just to make me feel better. I just figured this was one of those times."

The men in the room chuckled lightly at the comment.

"Well, son," Buck reached out and grabbed his hand, squeezing it. "This is one of those times to listen to yer mama. Why'n you give Nate a chance. Let him come on over here and look at you. If he even looks at you funny, the rest of us'll jump him." Buck forced the humor into his voice. What he really wanted to do was go find him some Easterners and bash their heads in for filling a child's mind with horrible lies to get him to work harder. He could see that the kid was failing, growing paler, and looking weaker. Pain lines etched their way across his young face.

Swallowing hard, the kid glanced around the room to find smiling, reassuring faces looking back at him. Looking up at Wilmington, his voice was so very young when he asked, "You promise he won't try to eat me?"

Buck cut off his chuckle, knowing that the question was serious. "You ain't got nothin' to worry about. I promise."

After a long, silent moment, the kid finally relented. Nodding his weak head once. 

Nathan stepped forward, hunkering down, so as not to look so tall and intimidating. "Hey, there, son," he said as he took Buck's place next to the boy.

Dunne unconsciously moved away from him, backing into Chris with a whimper.

"Easy, easy now, son," Nathan smiled at him, his voice honey soft. "I'm not gonna hurt you."

The kid stared openly at him now. Fear slowly being replaced by awe. "You're..." his voice was soft as he tentatively reached out a hand to poke Nathan's arm and then quickly brought it back. "You're just like us," he said.

The men could only assume the boy meant white people. 

Buck smiled from his perch behind Nathan. "Yep, son, we're all the same. Just different colors is all." He knew that most people did not believe that, but he couldn't change that, all he could do was make sure this boy knew the truth. "Got the same parts as all of us." He grinned.

The boy looked up at him then back at Nathan. "You don't have bloody fangs and claws for fingers?"

Nathan smiled widely, showing off his perfect white teeth. Reaching out, he laid both hands palm down on the bed next to the boy. "Nope," he answered. "I'm just me. Just like you."

The boy was definitely warming up to him as his fear left. "That was mean, what they said."

Smiling sadly, Nathan nodded his agreement. "Are they usually mean to you, son?" he asked.

Shaking his head hard, the boy looked down, bringing his gaze to rest on Nathan's hands. "No. They treat me good," he lied blatantly.

The men shared looks. 

"Mr. Dunne," Ezra stepped forward, smiling deeply. "Did your mother grace you with a Christian name, or are we to call you by your surname for the rest of our time together?"

"Huh?" the boy furrowed his brow at the gambler.

"What's your first name, son?" Josiah asked as he too stepped forward, sensing that the men's presence around the bed wouldn't scare the boy as it had.

Tanner walked over to stand behind Chris. "My name's Vin. This here ornery critter," he punched Chris on the arm lightly, "is Chris. The big man at the end of the bed is Josiah. The fancy talking one is Ezra. The big guy with a mustache is Buck and you've met Nathan."

The kid's eyes followed the introduction, meeting each man's eyes before moving off to the next. Looking down, he picked at a thread on the blanket. "John Daniel," he whispered before looking up and then back down.

"Don't you like yer name, son?" Josiah smiled at him.

"Sure," he glanced up at him, his head cocked to the side. "Sure I like it, just ain't supposed to use it, is all."

"Why not?" Buck asked, missing the hard look that Nathan sent him over his shoulder.

"Just ain't is all." The boy frowned sadly. "I'm just supposed to be Dunne. Only my mama calls me JD."

"JD?" Buck smiled. "I like that. But we'll just call you John for now, bein's as only yer mama calls ya JD."

"Where is your mother, John?" Josiah asked.

The boy looked up at him and then back down. 

"You can tell us, son," Chris nodded.

He looked up at Chris and then around the room. Finally, he brought his eyes back to the blanket covering him. "She's at home. We work for the Dangrey's. I'm a stableboy and my mama's a chambermaid. She got sick," he looked up at the men then back down, "really sick and..." he swallowed hard. "Mr. Dangrey, not the old man, but the son, told me that I'd have to come with him and his friends out here if I wanted his daddy to keep taking care of my ma. I didn't want to," he cried. "I mean, I always wanted to see the West, to meet Bat Masterson. I read about 'im in a dime store novel. And I wanted to join the Texas Rangers. But not yet, I didn't want to leave my mama yet." He wiped the tears from his face. "But I had to."

The men shifted uncomfortably, not looking at each other for fear their tears would be seen.

"Mama said it would be okay, that she would wait for me to get back, but she was really sick." The boy looked up at them, wiping at the tears on his face. Shifting on the bed, he suddenly hissed, his face paling.

"John, are you all right?" Nathan instinctively reached out and grabbed the boy's arm.

"It's all right," the boy answered. "It just hurts some."

"What hurts?" Chris asked.

"My back," the boy answered tiredly. "I'm sleepy," he said as his eyes drifted shut.

"Nate?" Buck asked worriedly from behind the healer.

Nathan reached out and felt the boy's throat. "He's unconscious. While he's out, let's check his back out, see what's wrong."

Working together, the men quickly got the boy stripped down and turned over on his side. 

Buck gasped, his face blanching as he sat down hard in a chair.

Nathan's hands shook as he ran a finger along one particularly nasty cut. "They whipped him," he whispered and then was deathly quiet. He suddenly shook himself out of his memories, swallowing hard he said, "Been a few days, I think, since they done it. It's infected. 'S why he's so sick. We've got to get this cleaned up." Looking around at his friends, he saw them all staring at the young boy.

Nathan went to work cleaning the cuts and putting soothing ointment on the welts. He found viscous bruises across the boy's ribcage, but luckily none of the ribs were broken. He also found older scars on his back and down his legs - this hadn't been the first time the boy had been whipped. Checking the rest of his body, he found scars from previous abuses. This child had been treated badly for a long time.

With Buck's help they got the boy sitting up and awake enough to drink some healing tea. Buck gently laid the boy back down, covering him up with the blanket again.

"If we can get the infection down, I think he's gonna be okay," Nathan spoke as he wiped his hands with a wet towel.

"Yeah, but for how long?" Buck hissed loudly, reaching out and running a comforting hand over the boy's cheek when his outburst startled him. The boy drifted back to sleep, curling up on his side and pressing his face into Buck's hand.

The men watched as the large gunslinger patted the boy on the head as he spoke soothing words to him. This was a side of Wilmington that the others hadn't seen before, well, except for Chris.

"For how long?" Wilmington asked again, his voice was soft, but held a sharp edge to it. "Them sons of bitches are gonna come back and then he'll be gone. Lord knows what'll happen to him."

Chris watched his friend closely, seeing the 'big brother' in him coming out. He started to say something, but instead, slowly got up from his perch on the side of the bed and walked towards the door. Grabbing Standish by the shoulder, he turned him and then pushed him ahead of him out the door.

"I'll be taking my leave now, gentlemen," Ezra called sardonically as he was herded out of the room.

The remaining lawmen watched the two men exit, glanced at each other and then at Buck. 

"Don't ask me," the ladies' smiled, "I've yet to figure 'im out."

Vin walked over to Sanchez. "Think we'll be leavin' too. We'll take patrol. If'n the kid wakes up," he set sad eyes on the bed, "tell 'im we'll be back soon."

"Will do, Vin," Nathan smiled at the normally taciturn tracker. After the two lawmen left, he grinned over at Buck. "Kid's gettin' to us all."

Buck smiled as he looked down at the sleeping child. "Yep," he agreed.

*****

"Might I ask the reasoning behind my bodily removal from Mr. Jackson's medical clinic?" Ezra quickened his step to keep up with Larabee's long strides.

Chris glanced over his shoulder at him. "Sure ya can, Ezra."

Ezra glared at him.

Chris came to an abrupt stop outside the telegraph office. 

Ezra ran right into him, bounced off and then looked around to see if anyone had noticed. "Might warn a man," he huffed under his breath as he dusted off his clean jacket, trying to hide his reddened face under the brim of his hat.

"I'm stoppin' in front of the telegraph office, Ezra," Chris said sardonically.

Standish rolled his eyes.

"Listen," Chris pursed his lips as he looked down the main street in the direction of Eagle Bend. "I want to telegraph the Dangrey's. Check on the kid's ma."

Ezra nodded in agreement. "Should be easy enough. Why do you need my assistance?"

Chris smiled evilly. " 'Cause, Ezra, they're gonna wonder what's goin' on, and you can write the telegram and all yer fancy words'll confuse them so they won't even care why we're askin'."

Smiling widely, Ezra held his hands out wide. "Ahhh, you want me to 'dazzle them with bullshit.' "

Chris barked out a laugh at the conman's less than stellar words. He nodded. "Yep, that about sums it up."

Standish grinned. "Well then, Mr. Larabee, I'm your man."

Chris clapped him on the back. "I knew you would be." He raised his eyebrow. "First we need to find out where exactly Dangrey's from."

Ezra snapped his fingers. "Well then, this is most fortuitous. I took the liberty of reading his entry into the Hotel's registry, and it seems Mr. Michael Dangrey and party hail from the wonderful city of Boston."

Chris smiled. "Knew I could count on ya, Ez."

Standish swallowed hard, the compliment meaning more than he thought Chris knew. After having ran out on them during the six's first trial together, he thought he would never be able to regain the man's trust. But four weeks had passed and it looked like finally he'd accomplished that feat. "Thank you, Mr. Larabee," Ezra ducked his head, then glanced up at the gunslinger from under the brim of his hat.

Chris grinned. "The threat still stands, though. If you run out on me, I'll kill ya."

Ezra's face fell.

Clapping him good-naturedly on the back, Chris pushed him into the telegraph office. "Let's get this done and get back to the boy. Someone's still got to go on patrol."

 

Part Three

Larabee and Standish left the telegraph office after leaving distinct instructions to bring the reply to them as soon as it came. They walked over to the saloon where they each got a shot of whiskey.

"Think we'll get the reply today?" Chris asked as he leaned his elbows on the bar.

"I would not be surprised," Ezra answered from where he stood beside him, his back to the bar.

Chris nodded. "Let's get some food to take back to the clinic. We can wait for it there."

"A splendid idea." Ezra smiled as he turned and left two coins on the bar.

"Buyin' me a drink, Ezra?" Chris grinned over at him as the two started out the door.

Ezra smiled enigmatically. "I thought it would be prudent as I know for a fact that I relieved you of all your monetary gains last night at the poker table."

Chris laughed. "We'll fix that tonight."

The two men walked through the batwing doors to find Vin and Josiah riding slowly down Main Street towards them.

"All's quiet, brother Chris," Josiah rumbled from his high perch on his chestnut.

"Nothin' stirrin' but the tumbleweeds," Vin added. "Figured it'd be best if we headed on back up there with the kid."

Chris grinned at his friend's innocent look. Glancing over at Ezra and then back, he said, "Yeah we figured the same thing. Thought we'd get some lunch for all of us."

"Sounds good," Vin agreed as he reined his horse in the direction of the livery. Looking back over his shoulder, he said, "We'll meet ya'll back at Nathan's."

Chris nodded as he and Ezra started towards the hotel. 

"I do believe Mr. Tanner is fond of the child," Ezra spoke from Chris's right.

The gunslinger glanced over at him. 

"From the ire that possessed Mr. Tanner when Mr. Jackson discovered the cause of the boy's illness, I would say that there will be some Easterners, if not losing their lives, then at least wishing that they were."

Chris thought about it for a second. Vin had been pissed. The revelation that the boy had been whipped seemed to anger the young man to no end. Chris knew that Vin hated to see anyone treated badly. But the tracker, along with the tall ladies' man, seemed to have a soft spot in his heart for kids. Glancing over at Ezra's contemplative look, Chris shook his head. Who was he kidding? Looks like all of them did. Yeah, there would be some hurtin' Easterners when they got through with them.

*****

A few hours later, four men stood on the veranda outside the clinic. The boy had yet to wake up.

Buck sat in the hard wooden chair next to the boy's bed, watching him closely as he smoothed his dark hair away from his face. Dunne lay on his side, facing the ladies' man, his eyelashes creating dark crescents on his pale face as he slept. Buck hadn't left his perch since the boy had first fallen unconscious. The gunslinger had eaten a bit of his lunch but most of it he left to cool and then spoil on his plate.

Nathan busied himself cleaning up his work area, sneaking peaks at his patient every so often. 

Chris Larabee stood out on the porch leaning against the railing with a tense Vin Tanner standing next to him. The sharpshooter's features had hardened, his face red and his mouth a tight line. He hadn't spoken since the men had eaten their lunch. Instead, he stared off in the direction of Eagle Bend.

Chris chewed on his cheroot, his fingers clenching and unclenching as he thought about the child inside the clinic.

Ezra and Josiah sat on the rough wooden bench, deep into a conversation, their voices raising every so often.

Finally, Nathan stepped out to get some fresh air. The door stayed open and the men could hear the soft reassurances Wilmington spoke over and over to the unconscious boy.

Nate walked over to the railing and leaned his elbows on it as he looked down at the street. "He's really sick," he spoke quietly, almost to himself.

Chris glanced over at him, noticing the red-rimmed, tired eyes. "You're doing all you can, Nate. Can't ask for more than that."

Nathan looked up at his leader, nodding once before looking back down at the street. "It's just..." he shook his head, his mouth a white line.

Vin nodded. "Yep."

Chris turned to lean back onto the railing, with his elbows propped up. He looked over to his left to find a smoldering Tanner.

Vin glanced up at him then, his eyes dark, murderous. "I'm gonna kill 'em."

Larabee nodded. He wouldn't get an argument from him.

"The child's wounds are most grievous," declared Standish as he stood and walked over to Larabee and Tanner. "I do believe that the retribution we impart upon the perpetrators should be equivalent."

"What'cha sayin', Ezra?" Vin hissed as he turned to glare at the Southern dandy.

"We should kill 'em." Ezra stated, his featured hardening as his lip rose in a snarl, his eyes shining with a fierce light.

Vin clapped him on the back. 

"Mr. Larabee?" a young voice called out. Running footsteps could be heard on the wooden staircase that led up to the clinic.

Chris walked over to meet the young boy from the telegraph office. 

"It just came," the boy panted, out of breath. He held the piece of paper out in front of him as he stared up at the tall imposing gunslinger.

Smiling, Chris pulled a coin out of his pocket. As he pulled the telegraph out of the boy's hand, he replaced it with a shiny coin. "Thanks, Danny."

The boy's face lit up as he looked down at the coin. "Thanks, Mr. Larabee!" He clapped his hand over his palm to keep the present safe. It was a lot of money for the boy, and he probably couldn't wait to get to the general store to spend it. Turning, he trotted down the steps.

Chris smiled sadly when he heard the little boy's reverent voice drift up to him. "He knew my name," the little boy sing-songed as he skipped down the stairs.

Looking down at the telegraph, Chris scanned it, his eyes traveling over the sparse words.

Dunne, Caroline died six weeks ago. Stop.

One child. Dunne, John D. Stop

No other Dunne at the Dangrey residence. Stop.

Chris's eyes squeezed shut. The boy's mother was dead, and he didn't even know it. Those bastards were telling him she was still alive to make sure he did their work for them. He felt a presence and looked up to find Ezra watching him with concern. Chris handed the paper over to him and then looked away, not wanting to see the look that would cross the gambler's face.

Chris heard a gasp and looked over to find five lawmen reading the telegram, grim faced and narrow eyed.

Vin looked away, walking back over to the railing while he pulled his hat lower on his forehead to hide his eyes. "Damn, son of a bitchin'..." his voice cracked and he slammed his hand on the wooden railing.

Josiah stood with a hand draped across Nathan's shaking shoulders.

Ezra, his face impassive, stared at the telegraph. Finally, the conman shook his head, lowering his hat over his face as he looked down.

"The boy's wakin' up," Buck said from the open doorway. He gasped. "What's going on?" he asked as he stepped forward, his face lined with worry.

Chris shook his head, knowing what he had to do next would break the big man's heart. He held the telegram out for the tall gunslinger to take.

Buck read the words on the paper, then read them again. He looked up at Chris then back down at the paper, reading he words one more time. "Jesus," he moaned. "Jesus. Those bastards!" He looked up at Chris. "They're gonna pay, Chris."

"Mama?" the young, frightened voice called out from inside the clinic.

Nathan ran inside to find the boy fighting with his blankets. "Easy son," he pulled the blanket off to straighten it back out over the half-aware child. Placing his hand on the boy's forehead, his mouth turned up in a sad smile. "Fever's broke."

Buck sat down in the chair he'd been occupying for most of the day. "Hey, kid. How ya feelin'?" 

The boy looked over at him. "Where'd she go?"

"Where'd who go, John?" Nathan asked as he wrung out a cool cloth to wipe the sweat from the child's face.

"My mama was here, she was talking to me," he cried piteously as he looked around the room again. "Where'd she go?"

Buck swallowed hard as he reached out and grasped the boy's hand. Glancing up, he caught the fire in the other men's eyes. He shook his head. "That can wait," he told them. "Boy needs us now."

Chris nodded, looking around at the other men to find them nodding also.

Buck smiled sadly at his friends before turning his attention to the young boy.

"Son," he cleared his throat, "John..." he looked down. 

Chris stepped forward. "I'll do it, Buck."

Wilmington glared up at him. "I'll do it." His voice cracked and he cleared his throat again. "I'll do it." He looked back to find scared hazel eyes searing him.

"Wh...what's wrong?" the boy asked as he looked around the room, his gaze landing on each man in the room.

Nathan poured a cup of tea and brought it over. "Here, John, drink this."

Buck helped the boy sit forward as Nathan put the cup to the boy's lips. 

"Yuck," the boy said as he pushed the cup away after taking a couple long pulls. He settled back into the bed.

"John," Buck started. "JD," he got the boy's attention with his soft, caring voice. He leaned down to put a hand on the pillow above the boy's head, his other hand grasping the boy's hand, "we sent a telegram back East to check on your mama."

JD's eyes lit up. "You did? How is she? Did you tell her I said 'hi'? I've been gone for two whole months. I've sure missed her," the boy rambled on.

"Shhh," Buck stopped him. When JD looked up at him, Buck had to reach up and wipe a tear from his eye. "JD, your mama," he had to clear his throat again, hating what he had to say next, "she died, son. She's dead."

The boy shook his head as he sat up. "No." He looked around to find sympathetic faces then looked back at Buck. "No! It's not true."

Chris stepped forward. "We sent the telegram this morning. It's true, son."

JD shook his head hard, sobbing. 

Buck leaned forward, pulling the boy into his embrace and rubbing his back. 

"JD, do you have any more family back East? Or any good family friends?"

The boy shook his head as he cried.

"What about possessions? Are there things back there that you want?"

The men all glared at Josiah. The preacher gave them a piercing look.

The boy became limp in Buck's arms, his sobs residing, turning into soft cries. He shook his head on Buck's chest as he turned his head slightly to look over at Josiah. His eyes were half-lidded, tired. "No," he said softly, "just my mama." He sniffed, laying his head back on Buck's chest, his cries dying out to be replaced by soft hiccups and then the even breathing of sleep.

"Tea's workin'," Nathan gently voiced. "Buck, you can lay him down now."

"Think I'll just hold on to him for a little while," Buck soothingly patted the boy's head.

"Why'd you ask that, Josiah?" Vin faced the preacher, not looking real happy.

"Well, brother Tanner, I thought we should know if there were any items back East that the boy'd like us get mailed here for him," Josiah's deep voice rumbled.

Vin's brow furrowed, then he smiled, clapping the big preacher on the back. "I like the way you think, Josiah."

"What are you guys talking about?" Buck asked quietly.

"Why, they're talking about the boy's future, Mr. Wilmington. There is no way he will be leaving this town in the company of Mr. Dangrey. So, of course, he will have to stay in the residence of Four Corners," Ezra replied.

"How can we keep 'im here?" Nathan asked.

Chris had remained silent, working the situation over in his mind. Finally, he said with finality, "Whatever needs to be done, we'll do it. The boy's not going back to Boston with Dangrey, and he ain't going into an orphanage." He looked around the room, catching each man's eyes. "We'll do what needs to be done."

"Might not be easy," Buck spoke from his place on the bed holding the sleeping child.

"Hell, Buck," Chris smiled, "nothing ever is."

Vin ran a hand over his face. "Think I'll ride on out and have a few 'words' with Dangrey and his friends."

"I'll ride with you," Chris started towards the door.

"Better not, Larabee," Vin cut him off. "I'm already wanted for murder." He smiled enigmatically. "Another murder on my wanted poster won't make no difference now."

The men all looked at Vin, seeing a cold calculated look to him. The ex-bounty hunter tipped his hat towards his friends and then turned and walked out the door.

Chris smiled at his friends. Nodding his head towards Ezra and Josiah, he said, "We'd better go with 'im." He smiled evilly as he raised an eyebrow. "He might need some help."

Buck sighed. "You boy's have fun. I'm gonna stay with the kid." 

Chris smiled. "I didn't expect anything different." Looking at Nathan and then Buck, he said, "You boys take care of him. We'll be back later tonight and we'll talk to him about staying here."

Nathan started to say something, Chris cut him off. "Any problems that come, I'll take care of them."

Nathan nodded once. "I know, Chris. Just thinking about what could go wrong."

"Hell, Nathan, what hasn't gone wrong for this kid?" Buck asked as he looked down at the sleeping child in his arms. "It's about time something went right. It'll work out."

Chris tipped his hat. "Boys."

Buck tipped his hat back at him. "Ride good. Bring us back some heads."

Chris smiled and then he was gone.

Buck looked up at Nathan and then down to the sleeping boy in his arms. "Looks like we got us another 'peacekeeper,' he smiled. "Maybe we can make him the 'Sheriff.' Get him a dollar a day plus room and board."

Nate laughed. "We'll have to talk to Judge Travis about it."

Buck nodded, looking down again. "Well, Nathan, looks like we number Seven now."

"Seven's a good number," Nathan said as he sat down on the other side of the bed, relieved when he reached out and found the boy without a fever.

Buck smiled, looking up at him and then down at the boy, he replied, "It's the best number."

the end (July 2002)

 

Read Foundations by Phyllis

 

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