(Directly follows the events in "The Past Comes Calling")
[Home. At Last.]
Ezra Standish tiredly stepped from the saddle and led his horse into the livery. Around him the rest of the seven dismounted. Vin led Peso in behind him.
Mary Travis, Casey Wells and Inez had seen them ride in.
Casey came running up to walk beside JD and he grinned at her. "Told ya we'd be all right."
She smiled and blushed, reaching to take his reins, "Let me help ya with him."
Mary had waylaid Chris. "You let Yosemite take your horse." She ordered. "You don't need to be lifting that saddle yet."
Inez gave Buck a smile, "So, Senor. You did come back safe and sound."
"How could I not, Darling?" he grinned. "That good luck kiss was a powerful thing."
Ezra was leaning against Chaucer, not even trying to take the saddle off when Vin looked over from where he was unsaddling Peso.
"Ez? You all right?"
Ezra straightened wearily. "Of course, Mister Tanner. I am fine."
"Don't look fine." Vin persisted.
Nathan, hearing the exchange, left his horse and walked over to Ezra, "Ya look done in," he confirmed.
"I'm simply tired. The last few days have been... trying. I'll be fine. Nothing to worry about." He forced himself to step back and begin unbuckling Chaucer's cinch. He tugged weakly at the strap. His face paled and he felt his knees start to buckle.
Nathan caught him. "Damn!" He swore softly, sweeping Ezra up into his arms. "Better get him to the clinic where I can check him out. He say anything about being hurt?" The last was directed to Vin who had rushed over when he saw his lover collapse.
"No. Ain't got no wounds... and believe me I'd know iffn he had." Worried blue eyes rose to meet Nathan's. "What could it be?"
"Don't know. Let's get him to the clinic." Nathan moved out, Vin following anxiously behind.
As they exited the livery, the others noticed the healer carrying the gambler and immediately surrounded them in a babble of worried voices.
"Don't know. Going ta the clinic!" Nathan snapped. "Ain't room up there fer alla ya'll. So go on and tend the horses! Chris, ya can come on up."
Moments later the big black man lay the slim figure on the cot in the clinic and began loosening his collar. He pressed his fingers to the pulse in Ezra's neck, "Weak," he said, "and thready. Need to get some of these clothes off him so's I can check him over."
"I can do that." Vin offered, moving to sit beside his lover and get him out of some of the layers of clothes that the gambler habitually wore.
Nathan left him to it and moved to get a pan of cool water and a rag to wipe down the gambler's face.
After a few passes of the cloth over Ezra's face, green eyes blinked open. "Aw, Hell." He started to rise then fell back on the bed. "Tell me Ah didn't faint." He demanded of his lover.
"Sorry, Pard but that's just what ya did." Vin took one wandering hand in his, noting the faint tremors in it.
"Shit!" Ezra cursed. "I was hoping to be safely secluded in my room before it hit."
"You know what this is?" Nathan demanded.
Ezra let out an annoyed sigh. "Yes... no call of alarm."
"You pass out cold and you don't think we ought ta be worried?" Chris demanded coming to stand behind Vin and scowling down at Ezra. "Well, you got another think coming. We're worried."
"And I want an explanation!" Nathan snapped. "Ain't normal for a man to just pass out if there ain't nothing wrong."
Ezra's eyes went from one to the other, finally landing on Vin's face and holding his gaze.
"I really need for ya to explain it, Ez." Vin said quietly, the worry plain in his eyes and the way he hung on to Ezra's hand.
Ezra sighed again. "It's really nothing. Some food and rest and I will be fine... but I do not want you to worry, Love... and you will, won't you? If I do not explain."
"Yeah." Vin said softly.
"We all will." Chris added.
"Very well... it's a delayed reaction to the stress of the last few days... to the necessity of controlling my emotional responses to those stresses." He drew Vin's hand to his lips, pressing a kiss to the back of it before letting it come to rest on his chest over his heart.
He went on speaking directly to Vin. "When you were taken, I was terrified... and furious... I could not allow either emotion to show. Had the bounty hunters seen how much your being taken affected me, they would have been expecting some sort of action... retaliation... on my part. So I had to tamp down on those emotions keep them safely hidden behind my poker face."
He paused before going on and looked around at the others before returning his gaze to Vin. "Usually the reaction is rather mild... a few minutes of the shakes and a need for food and an hour or so of rest when the crisis is past. This time, however, the crisis did not end in a matter of minutes or hours. It lasted for more than two days and I could not give into my emotions but had to remain calm, in control and thinking clearly."
He smiled at Vin, somewhat abashed, "Add to that the fact that I have never felt anything so strongly. I've never before known such fear or such rage, white hot and ice cold at the same time. I should have realized that the reaction to the suppression of those powerful emotions would be equally powerful when it came. Then there is the fact that I have barely slept since this began and only forced myself to eat in order to keep going and you get this..." He waved a hand to indicate his present location, "I disgrace myself and faint like a woman." The last was spoken in a disgusted tone.
Vin looked up at Nathan, "Nate?"
The healer sighed, "Sounds like a reasonable explanation. Getting real upset can give a body a heart attack... and that's iffn you don't try to hide what yer feeling. Seen folks before that held up plumb good in a crisis then went all ta pieces when it was over." He looked at Ezra, "You know what you need ta get better?"
"Yes, Mister Jackson. I need to eat a light meal of bland foods that will not upset my stomach then sleep until I awaken on my own." He looked at Vin and added softly, "Preferably in my own bed... safe and secure in your arms."
Vin blushed slightly. "I think that can be arranged." He looked up at Nate. "He would rest better in his own bed... and I'll look after him."
With a sigh, the healer nodded. "But you make sure that sleeping's all he does... ya understand?"
"Yeah." Vin nodded, "I understand."
"Good." Nathan gave him a firm look, then turned to Ezra. "I'll get Inez ta heat up some of that beef broth she keeps on hand. That'n some bread ought ta set light enough on yer stomach."
"And a cup of very sweet tea," Ezra said then at Nathan's look added, "For some reason, sugar seems to settle the shakes better than anything else."
Nathan frowned. "Ya sure?"
"Sometimes, Mister Jackson, just a cup of very sweet tea alone will stop the shakes... if the upset has not been too great."
"All right." The healer turned to look towards the door where he could hear the others congregating on the landing outside. "I better go tell'em you're gonna be fine or they'll all be in here. You just rest...."
Chris looked over at the two men on the bed and said, "I'll go sit outside on the bench. Give you two a little privacy."
When they were gone, Vin bent over and kissed Ezra gently then sat back giving him a speculative look.
"What?" Ezra asked.
"How come... ya didn't react till now. We camped up there last night. It was over then."
"No. It wasn't. We still didn't know what had become of the bounty hunters... or if Chris and the others were safe. I didn't feel that it was over then. I did not feel safe enough to let go of my control. It was not until we were in the livery unsaddling the horses that I finally felt safe... I could let go of the fear and the anger that had kept me going. ...And that is when the reaction hit me."
"Reckon I can understand that. Didn't really felt safe myself till we got back ta town." He reached over to caress Ezra's cheek. "Love you."
"And I love you, Vin Tanner. Now and forever."
"Now and forever," Vin affirmed, then he grinned, "Wanna cuddle till Nate gets back?"
"Do we dare?"
"Think Nate's gonna send'em all home... an' Chris is sittin' guard on the bench on the landin'. Don't think he'll let anybody but Nate back in."
"Indeed. I believe he did promise us some privacy." Ezra smiled at Vin and scooted over so that his lover could lie down beside him on the narrow cot.
When Vin was settled, Ezra snuggled against him, resting his head on Vin's shoulder. "That's much better," he sighed.
A moment later he was asleep.
It was just over half an hour later that Nathan returned but Ezra awakened at the sound of the door opening. He sat up wearily and Vin moved to sit beside him on the edge of the bed.
"Didn't mean to wake ya," Nathan said, "Reckon you need the rest."
"I won't sleep soundly until after I've had something to eat." Ezra told him, looking past him to see Chris. "Do you want the cot, Mister Larabee?"
"Yeah." Nathan answered for him. "He needs ta stay up here another day at least. Damn fool went an' busted a couple of stitches."
Ezra nodded as he rose and moved towards the door, Vin at his side.
"Miss Inez has got ya some broth and biscuits waiting. I done told the others that you're ta go straight on ta bed after you eat... and not to be pestering ya with questions." The healer grinned. "Figured ya wouldn't wanna be bothered."
"Indeed. I've explained it more than enough times already. Thank you. That was quite thoughtful of you." Ezra gave him a poor imitation of his usual smile.
That wan smile alone told Chris just how wrung out Ezra was. "You just rest up. We'll take care of things till you're better."
Ezra nodded and Vin's look told both Chris and Nathan that he would see to it that Ezra did rest.
As they left they could hear Nathan telling Chris, "Ya ain't gonna be doing anything for a few days. The others can see ta things."
"I can sit out in front of the jail and keep and eye on things." Chris' protest followed them down the stairs.
Ezra's soft chuckle brought Vin's attention back to him, "What?"
"Poor man. How does he put up with us all?" Ezra asked in an amused voice.
As they walked slowly towards the saloon they were greeted by many of the townspeople, wishing them well but they finally made it to the saloon.
Buck, JD and Josiah were sitting at their regular table. They quickly made room for the new arrivals, Josiah pulling out the chair next to him for Ezra and Buck making room on Ezra's other side for Vin to pull a chair in.
Inez appeared almost immediately with a tray holding a steaming bowl of beef broth, a plate of biscuits and a cup of hot tea. She sat the food in front of Ezra. When Buck reached for a biscuit, she slapped his hand away. "Let Senor Standish eat first!" she admonished.
Buck sat back with a slight pout on his handsome face, making Ezra smile.
The gambler took two biscuits and crumbled them into the broth then picked up another and spread some butter on it. He favored Buck with an amused look. "Go ahead, Mister Wilmington. Help yourself. This is all I will want."
Josiah watched Ezra eat for a moment then, as the gambler paused to take a sip of the hot tea, asked, "Do you want me to check over the children's progress for you until you are feeling better?"
Ezra sat back holding his tea, sipping it slowly. "I would appreciate it. Miss Amelia has a copy of each child's lesson plan for this month. You can check with her to see what they are supposed to be doing. If you would not mind, you might also send my apologies to Mrs. Hamilton. I doubt that I shall feel up to giving her the piano lessons for several days. Tell her that I said just to practice her scales and the two songs we have been working on."
Josiah nodded. "I'll do that, son."
Ezra sighed and shook his head. Josiah would never change but then he was getting used to the appellation, even missed it a bit when Josiah didn't use it.
He looked at JD, "Did Miss Casey inquire about the reading list I was supposed to give her? I quite forgot about it in the events of the last few days."
JD shook his head. "Naw. I reckon she knows you have other things on your mind. She'll wait till ya feel better."
Ezra nodded, his eyelids drifting closed. He blinked and sat up straight. He had only finished about half his bowl of broth but the teacup was almost empty.
Vin reached over and took it from him. "Come on, Ez. Time for you to head to bed 'fore you fall over in your bowl." He helped the gambler up and guided him to the stairs as the others said their good nights.
It was nearly noon of the second day after their return to town that Ezra appeared in the saloon, looking like his old self.
The other six men were sitting around their regular table waiting for Inez to serve lunch when he stepped off the bottom step and moved to join them.
Buck was the first to see him. "Hey! Rip Van Winkle's up!" the jovial cowboy exclaimed.
Vin and Josiah quickly moved to make room for him between them.
Nathan grinned at him. "You look a lot better. You feel okay now?"
"I feel quite good, Mister Jackson. Hungry but good." The dimpled smile he flashed the healer was back to its usual brilliance.
He settled in his chair, taking Vin's hand just long enough to give it a reassuring squeeze before looking over at Chris. "And you, Mister Larabee, are you on the road to recovery?"
"I'm fine. Be better if I could get Nate off my back," Larabee smiled in Nathan's direction to ease the sting of the words. "... and Mary. Woman's been hounding me to death about doing too much. All I'm doing is sitting on the jail porch watching the town."
"But you do it from sun up ta sun down," Nathan groused. "Ya need your rest."
"I rest just fine in that chair," Chris shook his head stubbornly.
Just then, Inez arrived with their meal. Once she had the contents of her tray set in front of the correct person, she turned to Ezra. "It is so good to see you up and about, Senor. What may I get you to eat?"
He gave her his order as the others began to eat. It didn't take long and she soon returned with his meal. The talk became general and animated while they shared their repast.
When everyone was finished and they were sitting around with their coffee, Chris turned to Ezra. "So, are you ready to go back into the patrol schedule?"
At the look on Ezra's face, everyone fell silent, all eyes turning to him. The gambler didn't speak for a long moment.
"Well..." Chris prompted.
Ezra looked at Vin. "I know we never got around to actually discussing it..." he let it trail off.
The others looked from Ezra to Vin then back again, wondering what they were talking about.
Vin nodded. "I know what yer thinkin'. Go ahead on an' tell him. He needs ta know that you're thinkin' bout it."
Ezra took a deep breath and steeled himself before turning to Chris and saying, "I have been considering resigning from my peacekeeping duties here."
For a second there was a stunned silence then the table exploded in a babble of protest.
"Ya can't quit on us!"
"We need you!"
Chris just stared at him.
"Chris..." Buck turned pleading eyes on his old friend. "Ya can't let him quit."
Silence fell as all eyes went to Larabee.
He looked at Ezra a long moment. "This has been coming for a while I reckon?"
"I don't want to lose you, Ezra. You're an important part of the team. I know I may not have always made that clear but I value what you bring to the seven... and we won't be seven if you're not one of us."
Ezra sighed. "It's not as if I am planning to leave Four Corners, Mister Larabee. I will, of course, be available should you truly need me for something... it is just that I have other obligations and now that we are adding the ranch to those obligations I simply feel spread too thin."
"What other obligations?" Chris asked with a frown. He wasn't aware of anything that would be taking up the gambler's time.
"Well... primarily... uh... I am teaching some of the children in town. That takes about two hours a day... then there is Mrs. Hamilton's piano lessons... an hour twice a week... and both Miss Amelia and Miss Casey have asked me about piano lessons but I had to tell them that I did not have the time. I also spend an hour or two a week tutoring Miss Casey. She had some formal education before her parents died and she came to live with Mrs. Wells but she felt that she needed to improve on it."
He held up a hand ticking off the items as he listed them. "Then there is Mrs. Potter's books. I do them every Saturday afternoon... as well as helping her and the children with the inventory every other Saturday. I am teaching Miss Amelia to do the store's books as Mrs. Potter has no head for bookkeeping. It will, however, be some time before she is able to do them alone and let me merely audit them monthly as I do the saloon's books for Inez. I also audit the books for several of the other businesses in town on a monthly basis."
He looked at Vin and went on. "Now I have to find time to get moved out to the ranch. Get the house furnished and arranged, do an inventory of the ranch, find a foreman and possibly an extra hand or two. The house needs painting, there are fences to be repaired. We have six pregnant mares..." He trailed off, giving Chris a helpless look.
Chris stared at him in amazement. [And we thought the man was lazy!] Then he said, "I don't want you to quit, Ezra. Can't we see if we can work it out so that you don't have to?"
"I don't want to quit either, Mister Larabee... I just don't see how I can remain..."
"What if I took you off the patrol schedule permanently?"
"That would hardly be fair to the others."
"The town's quieted down a lot in the two years we've been here," Vin put in. "I could take an extra patrol if it would free you up to do what ya need ta." He glanced around the table. "Ya'll know I don't mind a bit doing the out of town patrols. I could do the morning and afternoon patrols. Checkin' on the ranches. That'd just leave the in town patrols to be divided up between the rest of ya."
"I'm the sheriff." JD said. "It's my job to be watching the town all day. I can make the daytime rounds."
"I can take the midnight to dawn in town patrol, myself." Chris said.
"And I can do the supper to midnight one." Josiah said. "That leaves you and Nathan free. Ya'll can take up the slack when needed."
"I just wouldn't feel right not doing my fair share..."
"Ezra," Chris leaned forwards and fixed the gambler with a steady look. "We'd have to reschedule if you quit entirely."
"But you wouldn't be *paying* me then either." Ezra protested.
Chris sat back with a sigh. "Ezra, we make arrangements to accommodate everyone else's needs. We work around Josiah's working on the church, Nathan's need to be available when someone needs medical attention, my need to work on my shack... Vin's need to just get out of town for a while. I didn't realize it until recently, but we've never made an effort to accommodate your needs. Your teaching, whether it's the children or Mrs. Hamilton's piano lessons, is a service to the community. As for the ranch... you have as much right to own property and take care of it as I do."
He paused then asked, "You are the only one that I didn't know before hand that I specifically asked to ride with me to that village. Have you ever wondered why I asked you to join us?"
Ezra gave one of those self-depreciating smiles, "Often."
"I watched you with those cowboys. You kept your head. You held them at bay with one bullet and an attitude. It could've turned into a free for all... but *you* didn't let it. *You* kept it under control. That's why I asked you to ride with us. Then I discovered that you are one hell of a strategist and tactician. You've always got a plan... or two... or three... and you're not afraid to tell me when I'm wrong... when something I intend to do won't work. Which brings me to a question that I want to ask you... why do you take my crap?"
Ezra laughed, suddenly and with genuine amusement. "Because I *can*, Mister Larabee."
Chris frowned. "I don't understand that answer..."
Ezra sighed and sat back favoring him with an amused smile, "Very well, let me restate it. I can handle your temper *better* than can any of the others. Young Mister Dunne would take everything you say to heart and be crushed by it. Mister Wilmington has put up with you for years," he flashed Buck a grin, "and deserves a break. Mister Sanchez would take it for a while then break you into little pieces. Mister Jackson would remind himself that he owes you his life and bow his head and take it... but it would rankle and sooner or later he would just leave. Mister Tanner simply won't take it. He gives as good as he gets. I make my living reading people, Mister Larabee. I can see when your demons are taking control of you and I deliberately deflect your temper away from the others and onto myself because I can handle it."
He sat back in his chair and smirked at Chris. "You're very predicable. I know how far I can push you without suffering any lasting damage. Although I have to admit that I am quite glad that your temper seems to have calmed somewhat of late."
"You're a better friend than I realized ...and like I said you are damned valuable to this team. We need you. So let's try this. Instead of just quitting, take a month's leave of absence at half pay. You let us know where you will be so that if we need you we can find you. We'll continue to meet up here every evening like usual to discuss the day's events. You make sure to be here for the meeting. If we need you to, you'll take a patrol or watch at the jail. Any day that you work, you get full pay for that day. What do you say?"
"It sounds very fair... if it is agreeable with the others..." he looked around the table.
Buck was the first to answer, "Hell, yes!"
JD grinned, "Sure, Ez."
Josiah lay a hand on his shoulder, "Just glad that you won't be leaving us, son."
Nathan looked down at the table a minute then looked up and grinned, "Yeah."
"Then it's agreed. You're on leave as of now." Chris said firmly.
Two Weeks Later
Ezra woke when he felt Vin shift away from him on the bed. He blinked awake to watch Vin slide from their bed.
[Our bed. What a lovely concept.] He smiled, covertly watching the tracker trying to get dressed in the dim light without waking him.
Vin tripped over something and started to swear loudly before abruptly cutting it off as he remembered that he was trying not to wake Ezra.
Vin spun to face the bed at the chuckle. "You're awake!" he accused.
Ezra laughed out loud at the tone and sat up, reaching to turn up the lamp that they routinely left burning as low at night. "Sorry, Love. I woke up when you moved away."
Vin came and sat down on the side of the bed. "I's trying ta *not* wake ya." He reached up to caress his lover's face. "Ya came to bed late."
"Midnight. Early for me... but lately bed holds a great deal more attraction than it once did... and the gaming tables much less."
"Ya ain't planning to quit gambling are ya? Ya done made enough changes fer me."
"It's not for you, it's for us. And no, I doubt that I shall ever quit gambling entirely. I just have more important things to do now. Things that I love more than gambling."
He took Vin's hand and drew it to his lips to kiss before settling for simply holding it in both of his. "Do you know what a miracle this is for me? All my dreams are coming true. I have friends who support me. I have someone who loves me and a home to share with him. I'm allowed to teach. I walk down the street and people look up and smile to see me coming. It's a miracle, an absolute miracle and you are the heart of it."
Vin smiled at him, "Reckon I do know." He moved more onto the bed, leaning back against the headboard, encouraging Ezra to snuggle into his arms.
"Seems like a miracle ta me, too. Never thought I'd have a home." He dropped a kiss on the top of his lover's head, "Let alone somebody to share it with. Never figured ta have friends like the guys... or ta live somewheres that people seemed glad to know me. Been run outta so many places... seen disgust and hate in so many faces, then ta find Chris and the guys... ta know their friendship.... And on top of that ta find you. Ta see the love in your eyes..."
He hugged Ezra tightly. "It was like when the sun breaks through the clouds on an overcast day and you can see the streams of sunlight streaking down to the ground and one of them shines right on you and you alone... lighting ya and warming ya. That's what ya done to me. Don't know what I done to deserve ya..."
"As I do not know what I did to deserve you." Ezra studied his lover's face for a moment, "Perhaps it is less a matter of what we deserve than what we need. We both needed to love and be loved, to have a home and we were both willing to give in order to receive.... Falling in love is easy... making it last is not. As time passes we will change... our relationship will change. That is the way of things but change does not have to be a bad thing. We may grow apart or we may grow together..."
"I vote fer together."
Ezra turned in his arms to gaze into his eyes. "As do I.... Let us agree then that we shall face the changes that come together..."
"...And together we can face anything."
For a long moment they remained, gazing into each other's eyes.
Then Ezra broke the gaze, grinning suddenly, "You are going into town to have breakfast with the others before you go on patrol?"
Ezra threw back the covers. "I believe I shall go with you."
"Plannin' ta give Chris a heart attack?"
Ezra laughed lightly as he rose and began to tend to his morning ablutions. "I have business to attend to. I need to do some shopping. I thought I would approach Rafe Mosely about the position of foreman... and speak to Mister Brewster about possibly hiring young Matthew to assist him. I need to speak to Josiah about building us a table for the dining room... and check the fix-it shop for chairs. Thanksgiving is just over two weeks away. I hope to be able to host the repast here."
He turned to face Vin. "You don't mind do you? If you would prefer to not be bothered with a house full of guests I will understand."
Vin smiled at him and moved to take him in his arms. "But ya'd be right disappointed. 'Sides it don't bother me none ta have friends around. Kinda looking forwards to it in fact. You go ahead and make whatever plans ya want. I'll be all right with it. Things gets too crowded I can always head out an' sit on the porch or go fer a ride."
He bent to kiss Ezra's forehead. "Reckon this is one a'them them things that we have'ta compromise on. Me likin' ta be alone and ya needin' folks around ya."
Ezra leaned back to look up into his face. "I shall endeavor to insure that they do not overstay their welcome. The invitations will be for noon and most will no doubt wish to return home before suppertime."
"Sounds good. What're we havin'?"
"I thought that I would send you out hunting, a couple of days before the event. We shall have whatever you bring home. I would hope for at least a couple of wild turkeys."
"I'll see what I can do. Who's cooking them?"
"I am. It has been a while since I have had the pleasure of preparing a feast, but I am quite a good cook."
Vin grinned at him. "You're just fulla surprises this morning, ain't ya?"
"Indeed." Ezra pulled away to finish dressing, flashing Vin a coy look over his shoulder. "...And I shall endeavor to surprise you again this evening."
Vin felt his cock start to harden at the promise in Ezra's voice. "I better go get the horses saddled... or we won't make it ta breakfast."
He turned and headed out the door to the sound of Ezra's delighted chuckles.
[Damn but Ez sure laughs a lot these days.] With a grin he realized that he had been smiling and laughing a lot more these days as well.
While he saddled their horses he mused on that. Having the ranch had given them a degree of freedom that they had never had before. He chuckled at the memory of their first night in the ranch house. He'd chased Ezra all through the house finally cornering him in their bedroom.
[Our bedroom... not my bedroom or his bedroom but our bedroom. What a difference one word can make.]
He'd known of course that Ezra had intended to be cornered there. The shining eyes, the wide grin and the soft laughter had all been dead giveaways. He had backed away from Vin until his knees hit the edge of their bed and Vin had launched himself at him, tumbling them down on it for a round of passionate love making.
He was still smiling to himself when he led the horses out of the barn and towards the front of the house.
Ezra stepped out the door and pulled it closed behind him, carefully locking it. They would be gone most of the day and there would be no one home. Granted, there was little in the house worth stealing as of yet, but locking his doors had long been a habit with him and he doubted that it would change anytime soon.
He turned to see Vin leading Chaucer and Peso towards him.
[*My* lover, leading *our* horses to me where I stand on the front porch of *our* home.]
The thought again filled him with a sense of wonder. Vin Tanner and his love were a miracle, a gift from God... one he hoped he never ceased to be grateful for. This was one Thanksgiving that he was truly looking forward to. For the first time in his life, he felt that he understood the phrase 'my cup runneth over'.
He shared a smile with Vin as he mounted, then they were flying out of the yard at a dead gallop, racing by mutual unspoken agreement, their laughter floating behind them.
They pulled up in front of the livery, leaping from their saddles still laughing.
Matt and Andy Brewster came to greet them and take the horses' reins.
Ezra grinned at Matt. "Is your father about, Master Matthew?"
Matt nodded and pointed towards the corral. "He's looking over some new horses."
"Thank you." Ezra touched his hat to the young man. Turning to Vin he said, "I'll join you in a bit. I wish to have a word with Mister Brewster."
Vin nodded and gave him a quick pat on the shoulder as he headed for the saloon and breakfast with the others.
Ezra made his way around to the corral and greeted Yosemite Brewster. After the usual pleasantries he said, "I was wondering if you might be willing to allow Matthew to come to work for Mister Tanner and myself at the ranch?"
Yosemite regarded him for just a moment then said, "He's still a mite young..."
"He shall be sixteen on his birthday... and he would not be alone out there. I am on my way to speak to Mister Mosely about the possibility of his becoming our foreman. Also, Matthew will have to continue to live at home as we do not as yet have a bunkhouse." He regarded the big blacksmith for a moment, then with a sigh asked, "Exactly what is your concern?"
"I reckon... I just... Hell, I can't rightly say... I guess it's just that he's my first born... kinda hard to let'm go... hard to realize that he's damn near grown." He turned away for a moment, thinking, then turned back with a nod. "Vin's a good man. Weren't too sure of you ta start with... but ya ain't ever broke your word far as I know... and you are a right wonder with the kids... never thought my Henry would ever sit still long enough to learn to read an' write but ya got him to."
He nodded again, "Matt could do a lot worse'n ya'll fer a first job. Ya ask Matt. I'll leave it up to him."
"Thank you, sir." Ezra held out his hand and Yosemite took it. "I believe you will find it to be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I was thinking fifteen dollars a month to start. Does that sound fair to you?"
"Yep. I been giving him seven plus tips. Course I had to feed him, too. Boy'll eat ya outta house and home."
"I believe that is a prerequisite for all teenage boys." Ezra smiled and the two men parted amiably.
Ezra decided that it would be best to have the foreman hired before asking Matthew Brewster about working for them. With that in mind, he made his way to the boardinghouse where Rafe Mosely stayed.
Ezra tapped lightly on the door to the room that Rafe occupied. Since his sister's murder and his father's subsequent trial and hanging, the young preacher's son had not held a steady job. He worked erratically, making just enough money to keep his room at the boarding house and buy an occasional drink. He also helped out by watching the jail when the seven needed an extra hand.
Rafe opened the door almost immediately. "Mister Standish?" He looked past Ezra to see if any of the others were with him. Usually when they needed someone to watch the jail it was Buck or Josiah who came to get him. "Ya'll need a hand at the jail?"
"Not at this time. I have come to offer you a job, if you are interested." Ezra said.
Rafe said nothing but sat down on the edge of his bed and motioned Ezra to the only chair in the room.
Ezra sat down and went on. "As you no doubt have heard, Mister Tanner and I have purchased the McGlamory ranch."
Rafe grinned. "Reckon everybody in town's heard about that. Mister McGlamory is real happy with the way things worked out."
"As are Mister Tanner and myself. However, we find ourselves in something of a quandary. Both of us have other obligations, most notably our duties as peacekeepers here."
He tilted his head regarding Rafe with shrewd eyes. "In actuality, if it works out, the position could become permanent. I find that the ranch is consuming a large portion of our time and energy. Should you accept the position you will be in charge of at least one other person. I have already spoken to Mister Brewster at the livery about hiring his son Matthew to assist you."
Rafe stood his eyes bright, "You'd trust me to be in charge? I ain't got any experience at running a ranch..."
Ezra chuckled. "You have as much experience in running a ranch as I do, young man. Vin has more experience at working on a ranch but he also lacks experience in running one. We are leaning quite heavily on advice from Mister McGlamory and should you accept the position, I shall expect you to consult him as needed when we are unavailable."
Rafe hesitated, "Uh, how much will it pay?"
"Well, considering your inexperience... we thought perhaps twenty a month and found. You would stay at the ranch. We've only gotten two bedrooms fixed up in the main house, however there is a bunk in a small room beside the tack room in the barn. You could stay there and use the kitchen in the house if you like. We'll make sure you have supplies to last until we return. If the arrangement works out we will increase your pay to thirty a month and found. When we hire more hands, if we decide to make you the foreman your pay would go up to forty a month and found. That will, of course, be some time yet, but I want you to be thinking about it."
Rafe stood still a long moment. He hadn't really thought much about his future since his father's trial and hanging. He felt adrift, as if everything in his world had come unanchored with the realization that his father had murdered his sister. He had simply been drifting, afraid to ask for more than to be able to get through one day at a time, afraid that all people saw when they looked at him was a man whose father had been hanged for murder. Now, one of the Seven, was offering him a job, a new beginning. A chance to prove that he might be his father's son but he was not the same as his father. For the first time since Claire's death he wanted to look forward instead of back.
He took a deep breath. "I'd be proud to work for you and Mister Tanner, sir. And I hope that I can live up to your expectations."
"Good." Ezra rose and patted his arm with a smile. "Be at the ranch first thing in the morning. Mister Tanner will show you what he wants you to do." He grinned, flashing his dimples at Rafe, "I shan't be up until about noon."
"Yes, sir... and thank you." The younger man said quietly as Ezra took his leave.
Ezra sighed as he walked down the sidewalk. [So much to do.... But first breakfast.]
He made his way to the saloon.
Vin was already getting up to leave on patrol. He grinned at Ezra. "Was starting to think that you weren't going to make it." He laid a hand on Ezra' shoulder, giving it a quick squeeze in passing. "Meet ya at the hotel for lunch. 'kay?"
"Indeed, Mister Tanner," Ezra smiled back at him. "Watch your back," he instructed quietly.
"Always." Vin gave him a nod and touched his hat brim to the others before going out.
"Well, Brother Ezra, what brings you to town so early?" Josiah asked as Ezra sat down in the chair next to him.
"Business. I have hired young Mister Mosely to be our de facto foreman for the time being. I also spoke to Mister Brewster about hiring young Matthew to help him. I have a number of other errands to do which will occupy the morning. Then lunch with Vin at the hotel. You gentlemen are invited to join us. This afternoon I have classes for the children and Mrs. Hamilton's piano lessons to attend to."
"Sounds like a full day. Ranch keeping you busy?"
"Indeed. I shall be delighted to turn some of the more mundane portions of ranch ownership over to Mister Mosely. I was not cut out for manual labor. I do much better in a managerial position."
"You always were good at tellin' other people what ta do," Nathan said, but the tone and the smile on his face indicated that the words were not meant in a hurtful way.
A few chuckles greeted the remark and Ezra smiled, letting Nathan know that he hadn't taken the comment to heart. Talk turned to what was going on in town and Ezra soon realized that he hadn't been missing much by spending most of his time at the ranch.
As the other men began to prepare to leave, Ezra said, "Mister Tanner and I shall be hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at the ranch. We do hope you will all attend."
At the uncertain look on Chris' face, he added, "I shall be extending an invitation to Mrs. Travis and young Master Travis, Mister Larabee, so you may feel free to discuss it with her... and should the three of you prefer to have a private meal I will understand."
He turned to JD, "Mrs. Wells and Miss Casey are to be invited as well, Mister Dunne. You may tell them if you wish. Formal invitations will be sent as soon as I can have Mrs. Travis print them."
"Mister Jackson, I would be most grateful if you and Miss Raine would attend."
"I'll ask her." Nathan said.
"Thank you." Ezra said sincerely before turning to Josiah with a slight sigh. "Mister Sanchez, I seriously doubt that Mother shall put in an appearance, however, you are welcome to bring a guest of your choice. I assure you whomever it is will be made to feel welcome."
"Who are you inviting, Ez?" Chris asked curiously.
"Well. All of you, of course. The Travises... including the Judge should he be in town over that holiday. Mrs. Potter, Miss Amelia and Master Josh ... the Wells, Miss Recillos, Mister Mosely, the Brewsters..."
"Gonna be quite a crowd. Vin all right with this?" Chris asked.
"He is. Oh, speaking of crowds reminds me of one of my errands."
He turned to Josiah. "Mister Sanchez, might I impose on you to build us a table? I will provide the materials and pay you for your time, of course. It will need to be approximately four feet by ten feet. A simple plank top is fine as long as it is solidly built. A couple of matching benches would be good as well. I shall be stopping at the fix-it shop to see what they have in the way of chairs but I doubt that they will have enough and I would hate to have to put 'bring your own chair' on the invitations."
He gave the big preacher a wry grin that made the other man grin in turn.
Josiah slung an arm around his shoulders and guided him towards the door. "Oh, yes, brother! I can just see that. Little gilt edged invitations and down at the bottom... RSVP and please be advised that you should bring your own chair!" He was chuckling as they exited the saloon. His voice drifted back to the others. "If you come on over to the hardware store and pick out the lumber I can get started on the table this afternoon."