DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, TNN, the Hallmark Channel, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.
SUMMARY:  Chris and Ezra escort a man from one town to another.  There's always trouble.
FEEDBACK: Yes please!
comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
DATE: April 9, 2015

Above it All
By NotTasha


 Chris stood outside the livery, giving his saddlebags one last check to ensure he had everything he needed for the journey.  They'd be out for three days to deliver James Whitaker to Rockville.  There had been threats against Whitaker's life recently, and Judge Travis had asked Four Corners to provide an escort.

 It would be a fairly easy journey.  The March weather was mild and the journey to Ridge City would be easily completed in a day.  The trek to Rockville from Ridge City would take longer, but the terrain wouldn't be difficult.  After dropping off Whitaker, it would be an easy trek to Four Corners.  He didn't mind. He'd have good company.

Chris had been looking forward to spending some time with Buck. He'd come to miss the easygoing man's company.  Often, he found himself in various configurations with the others, in threes or fours.  Recently, there hadn't been many one-on-one situation for him, where he could just kick back and be himself with an old friend. 

 Buck was comfortable, like an old jacket.  Easy to have around.   They had memories together.  They had history.  He didn't have to say anything and Wilmington was fine with that.

 Larabee smiled, feeling more relaxed than he had in months.  It was going to be a fine few days, indeed.

 "Hey, Big Dog!" he heard Buck's cheerful greeting.

 "Buck," Chris returned and looked up.  "Vin," he added, seeing the tracker alongside Wilmington.   "You gonna get your stuff, Buck?" he asked puzzled to find Wilmington coming empty-handed.

 "Yeah, about that," Buck responded.  He rubbed the back of his neck as if he didn't want to say what came next.

 "Out with it," Larabee insisted.

 "You see," Buck said.  "Charlotte…"

 "Uh- huh."

 "Well, Charlotte, you know how sweet she is.  Sweet Charlotte," Buck drew out, "she's as lovely as a summer morning, and as temperate as a spring."

 "As chilly as December you mean," Vin stopped him.

 Buck put up a hand.  "Now, that's the thing.  See, she's warmed a bit."

 "What about it, Buck?"  Chris asked.

 "Seein' as a thaw was upon her, she let me know that she'd appreciate a little time with ol' Buck, here," and he smiled wide, pressing a hand to his chest.  "How could I say no?"

 "Easy," Chris replied.  "You say, 'No, I got obligations.'"  He shoved his rifle into its scabbard a little forcefully.

 "It's okay, Chris.  I got it taken care of.  Ezra's coverin' for me," Buck said quickly.

 Chris stopped, his hand still on the rifle, and glared at Buck.

 "He's next on the roster," Buck explained.  "And he didn't offer much fuss when I told him he was goin' instead."

 "Wouldn't be Ezra if he didn't fuss at you a bit," Vin added.

 "Actually, he seemed to be keen on the idea," Buck said.

 Chris sighed, dipping his head a moment, before turning to Vin.  "What about you?" he asked.  "You can swap out with Wilmington."

 Vin smiled. "Charlotte has a sister," he reminded.  "And Loretta is a lovely thing.  Always had an eye for me."  He smiled beatifically.  "She hums when she's happy."  And he hummed a few notes.

 Chris glowered, staring at his packed saddle, trying to calm his mind.  What once was an enjoyable journey was turning into a…

 "Damnation!  I have no idea why anyone would want to be up at this hour," the annoyed southern voice sounded near them.  Standish came strutting toward them, his bags thrown over his shoulder.  He looked exasperated.  "Much too early for my tolerance.  It won't take a full day to reach Ridge City, so there's no reason for such an early start."

 "Ezra, it's already after nine," Chris told him sharply.

 Ezra staggered as if assaulted.  He pulled his watch from his pocket and looked at it in disbelief.  "Good Lord, I hardly knew this hour of the day existed!"  He returned his watch to his pocket.  "Still, it appears to be a pleasant day and I believe we'll have an enjoyable journey in spite of the early start."  He nodded as if his saying it made it so.

 Chris glanced unhappily to Buck and Vin, who just shook their heads at him.

 "We'll have plenty of time for conversation," Ezra said smiling winningly.

 "Get your horse ready.  We gotta go," Chris told him.

 Ezra gave him a salute and a grin.  He sauntered into the livery, as if he had all the time in the world.

 "I may have to kill him," Chris said. 

 "We all feel that way sometimes," Buck conceded. 

 Vin added, "He's a pain in the ass."

 "And my hearing is just fine," Ezra replied from within the building as he set down his bags and started to prep his horse, humming quietly.

 Vin smiled, humming too as he draped an arm over Buck's shoulder and the two turned toward the saloon. 

 "Good luck," Buck called back.  "You'll need it."

 Chris frowned, watching them go.  He could already feel the headache forming.

 Ezra was doing his best to make the ride enjoyable.  He knew Larabee wasn't much for conversation, but he could fill the quiet.

 "It was the most amazing thing," he said cheerfully as he rode alongside Larabee.  "I had the lot of them eating out of the palm of my hand."  And he gestured, pantomiming.  "Not one of them had a whit of sense or the ability to discern that I'd managed to finagle the lion's share of their coffers.  I can't even imagine their expressions when they discovered what had happened."  And he laughed cheerfully.  "I came out of that situation much better off than I'd started."

 "So, you cheated and stole from them."

 Hmm, that sounded a little harsh.  Ezra, flipped his extended hand over.  "They'd cheated me first," he defended.  "I was only taking back what they'd taken from me, with a little interest for my troubles."

 "A man should be above such things," Chris told him.

 Really?  "And you can tell me that you've never sought vengeance for a slight?"

 That probably wasn't wise.  The look Chris served him was as hot as Hades.  "Ezra, has anyone ever told you that you're most tolerable in small doses?"

 "Not in so many words, but it's the inkling I get, often," Ezra replied.  It was true.  He talked too much, but he wanted to take advantage of the situation.  He was often paired with the others on patrols and missions, but for some reason, he rarely ended up with the gunslinger.

 It couldn't be just chance.

 He had been monopolizing the time.   That wasn't kind.  "Certainly, Mr. Larabee," he tried, "You have an interesting tale or two to tell?  Mr. Wilmington can describe some impressive stories." He chuckled.  "The trouble you two managed to find was impressive indeed."

 "Wilmington talks, too much," Larabee responded.  "Almost as bad as you."

 "Well now," Ezra said playfully, "Am I to take that as an insult?"

 "You would if you had any sense whatsoever," Chris replied churlishly. 

 Well, that was that.  Larabee would prefer silence.  That was no surprise. 

 Over the years, he'd become close to all the others, but Larabee, it seemed, forever kept him at arm's length.   Well, he'd make the man happy, and remain quiet for the rest of the ride.  It wouldn't be that long, right?

 He pulled his watch from his pocket to check the time, and frowned.  Hours remained.  Great.  He looked up to see Chris glaring at him for checking the time.  He sheepishly slipped the watch back into his waistcoat pocket.

 He just couldn't do right by the man, no matter how hard he tried.  And he'd actually wanted to take this journey, had actually been pleased when Buck asked for the swap.   But Chris seemed angry from the start.

 Something had definitely put a bee in his bonnet!

 And now he'd signed up for two more days of angry Larabee.  He'd do his best to keep the man happy.  He'd leave him alone and hopefully get out of this little journey unscathed.

 This was fun.

 They continued toward Ridge City.  Chris pressed their horses to make it there quickly.  He didn't notice it immediately, but Ezra had fallen behind a half-pace.   No longer abreast, it was enough that Chris didn't have to see him constantly.

 It was a relief, and Chris appreciated the quiet for the rest of the ride. 

 They reached Ridge City in the early afternoon, with plenty of time to settle in for the night. 

 "We should check on this Whitaker," Chris said as arrived at the livery.  "See what we have in store for us tomorrow."  He dismounted and untied his bags.

 Ezra nodded.  "An excellent idea, Mr. Larabee," he said congenially as he gazed toward one of the town's saloons.  "Let's get this completed, and enjoy the rest of the afternoon." 

 They found rooms at the hotel, and went in search of Whitaker, who owned a house in town.  It was a pretty place, painted white and blue, with flowers blooming in the yard.  Whitaker greeted the pair at the door and showed them in.

 James was an unassuming looking politician, about 40 years old, with dark hair, carefully styled.  He had a narrow face with sharp cheekbones.  "I am pleased to make your acquaintance," he said smoothly as he invited the men into his parlor.  "And am looking forward to our journey.  I wish your presence wasn't necessary, but there have been threats made."

 "Think nothing of it," Ezra responded.  "The Honorable Judge Travis has decided that this is a reasonable use of our time and resources, and who are we to disagree?"

 "Who you got gunnin' for you?" Larabee asked bluntly.  "I'd like to know what I'm up against."

 Whitaker grimaced.  "My rival, Simon Wallace, has made some comments.  I would like to think he's above such behavior, but it's hard to ignore.  And, one must be careful.  He said that he'd end my campaign permanently."

 "Caution is a good plan of action," Ezra responded.  "And what is the office that you seek?" he asked.

 "Governor," Whitaker responded. "Once we attain statehood"

 Both men let out quiet sighs.

 Whitaker laughed.  "Sooner or later this territory will become a state, and I aim to be the one that wrassles it into the civilized world."

 "Wrassles?" Ezra repeated.

 And James smiled.  "Someone has to," he responded. "And I am just the man to take on this responsibility.  I have the drive and ambition.  I see great things for this territory in the coming years."

 There was a noise behind him, and a woman appeared at his shoulder.  She wore a pretty yellow dress and long dark-blonde hair fell down her back in a loose braid.  "Oh, Jim," she said.  "You're not campaigning now." She smiled sweetly.

 "Gentleman," Whitaker responded with a flourish.  "May I introduce my lovely wife, Mrs. Della Whitaker."

 "Ma'am," Chris nodded.

 "It is a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Whitaker," Ezra said extending a hand.  "A true pleasure."

 "Della," she corrected with a smile.  "You must call me Della."

 Ezra smiled congenially.  "But, of course.  And you must call me Ezra.  And this gentleman should probably be referred to as Mr. Larabee?" and he gestured to Chris.

 "Larabee is fine," Chris responded, then added, "Chris."

 She smiled, shaking their hands and blushing sweetly.   "Ezra, Chris, would you like a cup of tea or maybe some lemonade?"

 Ezra started to respond, but Chris cut him off, "No, ma'am, we're just here to get things straight for Mr. Whitaker when we leave tomorrow."

 She nodded.  "Excellent.  What time would you like us to be ready?"

 Ezra and Chris exchanged glances, and returned their gaze to Della.  "Us?" Chris repeated.

 Della nodded earnestly.  "Jim, Ansel and I will be ready whenever you say."

 Chris turned his gaze on Whitaker.  "Three of you?"

 James nodded.  "Yes, didn't Travis tell you?"  He stopped short.  "I can't exactly leave my family here when someone's been making threats.  They'll be accompanying me to the debate."

 Chris looked to Ezra again, who had an amused expression.   "It's always a surprise, Mr. Larabee," Standish said.

 They spent a short time with the Whitakers, going over what they should bring with them for the ride, what to expect, and to find out more about the threat.  Chris was his usual curt self, and Ezra did his best to make things sound easier.  It wasn't as if they were going on a death march.

 When Chris asked for more information about the threats, Whitaker showed them the letter that stated there would be consequences if he stayed in the race.   It wasn't signed, and there was no proof that it came from Wallace, but with the verbal threat heard earlier, it was easy to put two and two together.

 "I suppose that comes with the job," James said unhappily.  "I'm sorry that Judge Travis seemed to think this required your presence."

 "Better safe than sorry," Ezra declared, and then asked, "Can you tell me anything about your rival, this Simon Wallace.  Do you know what he has for store for you in Rockville?"

 "About his threats, this is all I know," Whitaker said, gesturing to the letters.  "But as for his campaign…" He paused and drew in his breath.  "I hear he'll have a balloon in Rockville."

 "Come again?" Ezra asked.

 Della stepped in, "He has a gas balloon, has hired a balloonist.  Rockville has plenty of coal and a supply of coal gas available.  So, Wallace has been printing up flyers, saying that he's flying a balloon at the debate."  She picked up a paper from a side table.

 "How can a balloon decide a debate?" Chris questioned.

 "Theatrically," Ezra put in, as he took the flyer from Della.  "Vote Wallace" was printed across the top of the page, and beneath it, a woodcut of a spectacular balloon with a gondola basket beneath it.  "Oh, it will be a spectacle."

 Whitaker nodded.  "He's planning to rise above the crowd with it after the debate, and give a speech from it while it's tethered."

 "That will cause heads to turn," Ezra said, "or more specifically, turn up!"  He demonstrated by tilting his head toward the ceiling.  "Speaking from above the crowd is well-known tactic in asserting ones will over others.  Speaking from the height of a balloon would only multiply that effect, I would think."

 "Grandstanding," Chris grumbled.

 "A very dependable ways to sway the public," Ezra told him.  "This says the balloonist will take flight with it after the debate – fly out over the desert.  Amazing!"  That would be something to witness!

 Whitaker sighed.  "I don't see how I can compete."

 "By being a better man than Wallace," Della told him.

 James smiled and nodded.

 And shortly after that, they departed.

 "I hear the saloons calling to me," Ezra said wistfully as they made their way out of the little neighborhood and toward the main street.  "They have such enticing voices."

 Chris frowned.  "We're starting early tomorrow, Ezra.  Don't do anything stupid."

 "I do stupid all day long," Ezra responded as he pulled his watch from his pocket to check the time.  "And I clearly recall that you declared 7 o'clock as an advisable time for departure.  The wisdom seems debatable…"  It was awfully early.

 "It'll be a long day," Chris replied.  "And adding more people is just gonnna make it more difficult."

 "Exponentially!" Ezra declared, slipping his pocket watch back into his waistcoat.  One person could be easily protected with two men.  It allowed one man to stay close at all time, leaving the other to ride reconnaissance.  Changing the ratio from 2-1 to 2-3 would make things trickier, but still manageable, as long as nothing went wrong.  

 "And because of that early hour," Ezra continued, "I will do my best to enjoy my evening.  Tomorrow will be arduous, no doubt."  He said the word as if it carried great weight, and stopped walking because they'd reached the first saloon – a tidy looking place called Cock-o-the-Walk.  He gave it a quick appraisal and then turned to Larabee.  "Would you care to join me in a libation to start the night?"

 "I'm going to my room," Larabee told him.

 That was expected.  Ezra touched his hat.  "Then, I will see you in the morning, sir, at the residence of the Whitakers.  7:00 AM sharp!"

 Chris sighed, and gave him a nod before continuing down the street toward the hotel.

 Ezra watched him go, then allowed the siren song of the saloon call him in.

 The sun had just risen and the air was crisp with the desert chill when Larabee made his way to the Whitaker house.  He hadn't expected Ezra at breakfast, knowing the man would sleep until the last minute, but was a little surprised to find Ezra waiting for him at the Whitakers' residence, with the horses ready.  Ezra said nothing when Larabee approached, simply nodding, then turning to walk with him to the front door.

 The house was lit and awake, and they could hear a bustle of people just inside the door.  Larabee's quick rap brought instant quiet and the door flung open.  They were greeted with Della's smile.  She was dressed, ready for a ride.  "Good morning," she said.  "Have you eaten?"

 "Yes, ma'am," Chris responded quickly.  Beside him, Ezra peered around her, as if looking to see if anything good was being offered.

 "Oh, good, good," she returned as she picked up her bag and came through the doorway.  "I suppose we should be going.  Isn't this exciting?"

 "Yes, indeed it is," Ezra replied, smiling at her enthusiasm.  He took her bag and offered his elbow. She giggled and gently wrapped her arm around his.

 James was next, looking austere and nervous.  He nodded a greeting to the two men. "Grady is bringing the horses around," he explained.  He then turned and said quietly, "Come on, Anse, it's time to go."

 The boy was about seven-years-old, with hair the color of his father, but the full and friendly face of his mother.  He looked up at Larabee in trepidation.

 Larabee paused, pursing his lips as he looked down on the boy.  Adam… he looks like Adam.  Good God, if Adam was alive today…

 The boy's gaze stayed on him, his eyes widening at something he saw in Chris' expression. 

 Ezra broke the spell.

 "Well, well, well, Mr. Whitaker, I thought you said a child would be joining us.  This would appear be a young man."  He set down Della's bag and extended a hand.  "Master Whitaker," he said.  "May I introduce myself?  I am Ezra Standish and will be joining you on this journey."

 They solemnly shook hands.  Ezra grinned widely. "I'm looking forward to making your acquaintance, young sir.  Perhaps you can keep me company?"

 Ansel nodded.  Ezra threw a smile toward Larabee and brought his little crew down the stairs, leaving Chris to pick up Della's bag.

 Larabee sighed, and took care of the responsibility.  This was going to be a long day.


 The traveling was easy, except for the chatter from the gambler.  He fell in alongside the boy's pony and kept up a constant dialogue, telling the boy all manner of tales.  The reticent child was soon laughing at the stories and begging for more.

 Chris' headache was back.  Ezra tended to bring it out.

 "Of course, they caught me," Ezra said as the boy wiped tears of laughter from his eyes.  "I may have been wily and small enough to go unnoticed, but eventually the long arm of the law ensnared me.   I had become lazy, thinkin' the folks of Fair Haven would never notice a nine-year-old boy at the poker tables.  That thought, of course, was my undoing because nothing is more noticeable than a boy drinkin' whiskey at a poker table that was otherwise filled with impressively-sized men."

 "You were drinkin' whiskey when you were a boy, Ezra?" Ansel cried, amazed.

 Ezra looked toward him out of the corner of his eye.  "Well," he said, "It was mostly an act.  It amused the others at the table, and I could dispose of most of the drink with sleight of hand and a cleverly placed spittoon.  Alcohol clouds the mind."

 Ansel laughed.  "Papa won't let me drink anything like that," he said.

 "No, I wouldn't," Whitaker said, amusement in his voice.

 "And he's a wise man," Ezra agreed, throwing a glance toward Whitaker.  "Look what becomes of boys who start drinkin' too soon?" and he gestured widely to himself.  "In any case, I was caught and dragged to the local hoosegow." 

"They took you to jail?" Ansel replied his voice high with surprise.

"Indeed they did, because I was a bad boy," Ezra said.  He turned to Larabee with a grin.  "A very bad boy."

"For playin' poker and drinking whiskey?" Whitaker asked.

"Well that and…" Ezra rolled his eyes. "… I was tryin' out some new techniques in misdirection."

"Misdirection?" Ansel repeated the word.

"Cheating," Chris supplied.

Ansel turned to face Larabee, surprised to hear him speak. His wide eyes stayed on him a moment before he snapped forward again.

God, he looks like Adam.  Why did he have to look so much like Adam but want nothing to do with him?

"Yes," Ezra admitted.  "One has to practice and unfortunately, I had chosen my opportunity poorly.  I didn't realize that one of the gentlemen at the table was a deputy."  He turned in his saddle to face Chris again.  "Not all lawmen look the part," he explained.

"Not all of them act the part either," Chris returned.

Ezra smiled.  "In any case, I stayed a week in their good graces.  Many a day was spent playin' an innocent game or two in their company at the jailhouse.   I made a fair amount of money in the deal, and didn't have to pay for anything.  A winning situation for me.   I believe it was the start of my interest in law enforcement.  Later, I would come to know an excellent young police officer, but that was another time in a different town, and another tale altogether."

"You spent a week in jail?"  Della asked, shocked.  "Where were your parents?"

"Well, my mother was otherwise occupied, so I had little choice in the matter."

"Maude was occupied?"  Chris asked.  "Let me guess, she was running her own con somewhere?"

Ezra shrugged.  "She would be beside herself if I were to break up her scheme at that point, so I held my tongue and kept my place and enjoyed a week's respite in the company of the lawmen."

"In jail? By yourself?" Della repeated.

"Oh, I wasn't alone.  There was always one of the men there.  I went home with one of them every night and slept in the most comfortable beds in town.  I was admonished to stay put, but I had no intention of leaving their nice houses.  I had no trouble at all waitin' for mother to come lookin' for me."

"Did she know to look for you in the jail?"  Whitaker asked.

Ezra laughed again.  "When she didn't find me at the saloon, it was the first place she went!  She was livid!  I was harangued for days for my carelessness at getting caught.  Oh, the lies she spun to explain it all.  We had to leave town immediately, but that was mostly because of her activities that week.  We had to go before her actions caught up with us."

"But she's planned to leave you alone for a week in a saloon?"  Della tried to clarify.  "Wasn't anyone looking out for you?"

"But of course," Ezra replied, smiling as ever.  He made a dismissive gesture and said, "Plenty of people looked after my wellbeing."  And he faced forward.  "Now, have I told you about the time I was on a riverboat that ran aground?"

By the time they stopped for their first break, the boy was acting as if Ezra was his most trusted friend, hanging on his every word, and begging for more.

They all stepped down from their horses – the family moving stiffly, unaccustomed to being in a saddle for so long. 

Ezra tended the horses as Chris took a quick circuit of the area to ensure that there was nothing amiss.  All was well.

"You keeping your eyes open, Standish?" Chris asked him when Ezra was done watering the horses.

"As always," Ezra replied with a nod.

Larabee nodded as well, knowing that this was true.  Ezra could be a gadfly, but he was a perceptive man, who was good on the trail.  "Just don't want you to get too preoccupied with the boy."

"I'm just doin' my best to keep him out of your way," Ezra told him.  "I'm always watching."

"You might want to cut down on some of the rougher stuff when you tell him those stories."

"Come again?" Ezra said, genuinely surprised.  "I assure you, I have been presenting only edited accounts."   He gave Chris a sly smile. "There's plenty bein' left out."

"It's not appropriate. You need to stop giving the kid ideas."

"Ideas?" Ezra repeated.

"All the trouble that you got into as a kid," Chris went on. "Not the best things for a boy like that to know.  Might make him start thinking."

"God forbid!"

"Just because you were running scams and mixing with rough company, doesn't mean it's a good thing."

Ezra laughed.  "I would hardly call it a good thing.  I think my stories came with morals, as I explained the trouble that came to me along the way."

"You made getting locked up sound like it was fun."

"I assure you, it wasn't, but I didn't want to alarm the lad.  I cheated, I was caught and punished appropriately.  My mother continued the punishment.  I told the whole story.   Spending a week locked up, waiting for my mother to retrieve me, was not an enjoyable experience for a child, but as I said, I told only the edited versions of my exploits."

Talking to Ezra was like talking to a wall sometimes. 

"You just need to make sure he understands that it's not all fun and games.  The path you followed isn't appropriate for a boy like that."

"It wasn't appropriate for a boy like me either," Ezra replied, frowning.

"So, knock it off."

Ezra's frown deepened and he uttered a sharp, "Yes, sir!"

Chris grimaced and turned toward the others.  He was just trying to save the boy some grief. Ezra could tell a good story, but had no idea on how it affected good kid like Ansel.   As much as Ezra liked to 'play' with children, he really had no idea about the consequences.  The boy was impressionable and didn't need his head filled up with stories of such poor behavior.  Even now, the boy's gaze was constantly on Ezra, filled with adoration.

When they started up again, Ansel immediately asked Ezra for another tale, but the gambler instead turned to Chris and stated, "Certainly you know a story or two to entertain the lad?  Something appropriate maybe?"

Great, Chris though, and glaring daggers at the conman.  "We should keep it quiet for a while," he said.  He looked to Whitaker.  "With that threat, we should be more vigilant."

Whitaker nodded and gave his boy an apologetic look.

Ansel scowled and Chris was surprised by the venomous look aimed in his direction.  The boy kicked his pony to catch up with Ezra again, and the two rode side-by-side in silence.

They paused again for lunch, stopping at a quiet little stream that puddled into a pond.  Chris wanted to show the boy where tadpoles lurked in the shade, but the kid instead followed Ezra around on his duties with the horses.  Ezra was giving Ansel the majority of the work, Chris noticed.

The gambler was totally monopolizing that boy.

God, he looks like Adam.  Same face, same nose, same way he held his head, same laugh.

James found Chris as Larabee poked a stick at the little tadpole cloud, making them scatter.  "Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate this," he said earnestly. 

Larabee nodded as he started walking again, keeping his eye on the area round them.  "Just glad we can help," Chris said.

Whitaker continued softly, "When Wallace started making threats, I thought it was nothing, just part of the whole political experience."

"That sort of thing makes a man want to run for office?" Chris responded.

Whitaker sighed.  "In a way, it did.  I'd thought that I was doing this for myself, fulfilling a dream.  But when he started to come after me, it made me mad.  It made me think that I had to stop him, had to make sure that he never took office.  A man who threatens another does not deserve to be in a position above others, and I was going to be the one to make sure he never made it.  I am going to be the man who protects this territory, and takes care of its people.   How dare he threaten anyone in this land."  Whitaker stopped talking suddenly, aware that his voice was rising.  "It just isn't right."

"I can see that," Chris said.

"His threats have been aimed at me only, thank God," and he gazed out at his family. 

Ansel was walking his parents' big horses up from the edge of the stream, while Ezra followed with Job and Chaucer and the pony named Rascal.  Ansel was wearing Ezra's riverboat gambler hat while Ezra had Ansel's straw hat perched on his head.

Della was laughing at them as she packed up what remained of their lunch.  Ezra's gaze was taking in the surrounding area, always watching.

"I love them so much," Whitaker said.  "I'd give up all the campaigning in a moment if I thought they were endangered.  But how can I let a man like Wallace frighten me away?  How can I let him gain a position of power?  They're my life, my everything.  Do you know what I mean?"

"I do," Chris replied, his eyes fixed on the boy wearing that too-big hat, the boy who was trying to look serious and important as he led the two big horses.

They continued on their way shortly afterward, after hats were switched back to their proper heads.  The journey remained convivial and easy.   Ezra gave no indication that he'd seen anything worth worry, and Chris continued to keep an eye on their surroundings.

Their third stop of the day was not far from their destination.  Ezra and Chris would have pushed through, but it was obvious that the young family was exhausted and needed a rest.  Della was flush-faced when she stepped down from her dappled mare, laughing at her stiffness and then snickering as James almost fell over as he gained his feet again.

"I'll never get used to all this riding," Whitaker said as he stretched.

The boy bounded off his pony, eager to help Ezra with whatever he was doing.  Chris moved in, cutting him off and making the boy startle.

Chris redirected him, showing him where he knew there were petroglyphs on the cliffs.  The boy nodded solemnly as Larabee pointed, and said, "Yes, sir," and, "I see it, sir."  But he looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.

Larabee sighed finally, and said, "Why don't see if you can help your Ma."  The boy looked relieved and started to run toward where Ezra was taking care of the horses, but he thought better, after a glance to Larabee, and went to his mother.

"Ezra," Chris said, approaching the gambler.

"Mr. Larabee," Ezra responded.  "The coast is clear, as far as I can see.  As are the cliffs and the rocks and the trees and everything else in the vicinity."

"What are you telling that boy?" Chris asked.

Ezra turned to look at him, his eyes confused.  "Nothing!  I've told him no more tales, treated him to no clever remarks and have just gone about my business as dictated. I can't help it if he wants to be around me.  There isn't anywhere else for him to go!  Look around.  He's bored."

Chris frowned, knowing there was one place that the boy definitely didn't want to be.  "You been talking to him about me?" Chris persisted.

Exasperated, Ezra shook his head.  "Honestly, I don't know why he acts that way.  Perhaps he doesn't like your abrupt manner?"

Chris looked away, disgusted with himself.  How had he become so different around children?  When he'd had Adam, he'd been the perfect papa.  Adam had adored him.

He'd been softer back then, more open to laughter, more open to games.  Life had hardened him.  Adam's death, Sarah's death had hardened him.  He missed that softness sometimes.

Ezra shrugged.  "Children can be difficult," he said.  "Some just don't behave the way you'd wish, and there's nothing to be done about it.  His parents are good with him, and obviously love him." Ezra nodded toward the little family.  Mother and father were beside their boy, talking to Ansel.

Ezra went on, "He has a precious gift.  Parents who care for him.  I suppose we just have to accept his foibles.  Sometimes children just take on irrational thoughts concerning certain things.  Some children will never be what we'd like them to be.  I'm just sorry that you're the one suffering because of it."

Sorry? Suffering?  Why the hell does he feel sorry for me? Before Chris could voice his thoughts, here was a rustle and a rattle of rocks nearby, and both men spun about, their guns drawn.  Without a word, Ezra crouched and moved through the horses toward the sound as Chris backed toward the Whitakers, gesturing to them for silence and to get down.

James wrapped his arms around his wife and child as them brought them into the shade of the rocks. 

Chris backed toward them, his eyes seeking, trying to get a sense of what was coming, what was happening.

There was another furious scrabbling over rocks and a "Whoop!" as three pronghorns scrambled, scattering and charging through the water as a mad southerner chased after them, whooping and hollering and shouting "Okefenokee! Skookumchuck!"

The animals catapulted through the stream and high tailed it out of the area, with Ezra shouting afer them, "Chargoggagoggmanchoggagogg!"

"Dangerous creatures," Ezra said seriously, skidding to a halt beside the others.  "Master Ansel Whitaker, I declare you will be our official pronghorn detector for the rest of this ride!  We shall never let such foul creatures sneak up on us again!"  He made a quick movement as if he meant to lurch after the animals, but the trio were well on their way.  "Terrible, hideous beasts!" he shouted after them.

The pronghorns kept running.

"The best defense against them is to shout out nonsense words at them and if that doesn't work, give chase."

"Really?" Ansel responded.

"Seriously, Master Whitaker, I hear they love candy, especially hard candies.  A pronghorn will seek out such treasures and lick anyone's hard candies if he leaves them unprotected. They will find them and they will lick them all!  Protect the hard candies!"

Ansel's eyes went wide and his hands instantly went into his pocket.  He laughed and said, "No, they won't do that, Ezra!"

Ezra smiled and told him, "And now I know where the gentleman hides his most precious commodities."

Ansel jutted out his chin and stomped a foot and laughed again.

Whitaker had let out a breath and shook himself as he looked to Larabee.  "We should probably be going," he said.  "We need to get to town."

Larabee nodded his agreement.

"Very well then," Ezra said as he headed back toward the horses. "Remember what I said, Master Whitaker, and protect what is precious.  The worst part about divulging where the sweets lay, is that Chaucer saw your revelation as well, and he's definitely not to be trusted around peppermints.  I fear it won't be long and they will be gone."

Chaucer looked toward Ezra at the sound of his name, and whickered as of responding.

"No, he won't get them!" Ansel declared as he shook a finger at Chaucer.  "Horses and ponies shouldn't eat candy. It's not good for them."  He shook his finger at Rascal for good measure.

Ezra shrugged.  "I fear Chaucer rarely does what's good for him."

Della, her relief obvious, said, "Your horse doesn't do what's good for him?  From the sound of your stories, it sounds like he takes after you."

Ezra nodded and said, "It's one of his few failings." 

As Ezra patted his horse, Whitaker approached Larabee.  "Ezra's lucky," he said.


"So he keeps telling me," Chris mumbled.

James chuckled.  "Ansel is a very sensitive boy and doesn't take to strangers very well.  I haven't seen him warm to anyone this quickly before."  He gave Chris a commiserating look.  "I'm sorry that he's been having trouble with you."

"Hmm," Chris responded.

"I guess it makes sense.  In one of the last places we lived, there was this man who looked a little like you, tall and blond.  The kids in the neighborhood called him Olaf the Ogre.  He'd terrify any child that cross his property, and then he'd come storming up to the parents' house to report any infraction.  Poor Anse came to be terrified of the man."

"Understandable," Chris responded, but he felt himself deflate with the realization that it would take some work to get the boy to even look at him.   He wasn't expecting the puppy-dog adoration he seemed to have for Ezra, nor the love of Adam.  He just didn't want the boy to jump every time he turned.

And soon everyone was mounted, and once again heading toward Rockville.

"There's one, Ezra!" Ansel cried.  "A whole bunch of them! Pooga-pooga-mooga!" he shouted and was disappointed that the pronghorns didn't bolt.

Okay, maybe this wasn't such a great idea, Ezra thought.  "They're too far off to hear," he told him.  "Nor can they smell the assorted peppermints and lemon drops."

"Teeka weeka!" Ansel's voice crew higher and shriller.  "Tee-kaaaaaaw!"

Ezra gave the others an apologetic look.  Sadly, he realized, there were sometimes consequences to his stories.

Whitaker finally said, "That's enough Ansel. We should let the poor things be."

He'd created a monster, and when he glanced to Larabee, Ezra saw the cold look.  Great.

Apparently, Larabee didn't like screeching children.  At least the man-in-black had been wise enough not to admonish the child.  Lord, the boy was already too leery of the man.   It must have been tough on him, Ezra realized.

Hoping to quiet the lad, Ezra said grandly, "Have no fear, we are nearly there.  And, the pronghorns in this area are totally habituated to humans and will not be affected by the shouting of nonsense words."

"What'll scare 'em, Ezra?" Ansel asked.

"These fiends are even worse than their wilder brothers," Ezra told him.  "The only thing that terrifies these beasts is an honest day's labor."

"What did you say?" Ansel said, crinkling his nose while his mother laughed.

"Oh, if any of these dread creatures sees a man with a shovel, a paint brush or… dare I say… a posthole digger… it will turn tail and leave the territory, fleeing for its very life."  He pressed a hand to his chest.  "Many a man has been done in by the same sight."  Ezra turned to Chris, smiling.  "Many a man."

Chris just gave him a familiar look.  But at least the tale stopped the boy from any further shouts.

Ezra was glad to see the final hill before Rockville, and as they reached the crest, he threw out an arm, crying out, "Behold!  Rockville is in view!"

The group came to an instant stop, slack jawed at what greeted them.

Rockville was a rather large town, surrounding a coal mine.  The town was filled with buildings, business, homes and a large park.  Roads spread out to all four compass points.  And in the center of the town, loomed the promised balloon.

The gas balloon, yellow and red and festooned with a banner reading "VOTE WALLACE", was nestled in among the buildings, huge and ominous and remarkable.

"There it is," Whitaker said, his voice hushed and shocked.  "It's bigger than I thought it would be."

"It is rather festive," Ezra commented.  He turned to Whitaker, seeing man's defeated look.  Della reached across to her husband to touch his arm, her face compassionate and encouraging. 

Ansel was grinning widely.  "Ezra, you ever seen a balloon like that before?" he asked excitedly.

"Nothing quite so grand," Ezra admitted.   At the sight of it, Ezra figured he might vote Wallace as well.  It was that impressive.

"Grandstanding," Chris commented.

And Ansel kicked his little pony in his excitement.  Rascal took off toward the town and the others followed close behind.


The town was bustling with activity as they moved into it.  Larabee led the family, while Ezra tailed.  The lawmen continued to keep their eyes open as they moved into the town, to the Sutton Hotel.

Everyone was abuzz with talk of the debate – or more specifically, the balloon that Wallace had brought with him.   It had been inflated a few hours ago, and was the topic of every conversation in the street.   Wallace was scheduled to speak from the device after tomorrow's debate, floating above the crowd.  The balloonist, a Russian named Pyotr Chekov, would pilot the balloon out of town when everything was done. 

James was exasperated. "The balloon will be visible during the debate.  Everyone will be looking right at it," he said mournfully.  "Everyone will be waiting for Wallace's ascent.  They'll forget what I've said."

"People do love a show," Ezra commented as they left the livery and made their way to the hotel.

"They'll remember you," Della assured, taking her husband's arm as they walked.

"I don't see how," Whitaker sighed.  "Wallace will leave them with a remarkable image.  What could I possibly do to match that?" and he gestured toward the balloon that dominated the town.

"You're a better man than him," Della told him.  "They'll remember you."

"Mama, can I see it?" Ansel cried.  "Please, can I go?"

"I don't think so," Della said quietly, looking to her husband.  "It wouldn't be right."

Ansel turned his pleading eyes on his father.  "I just want to look, to see the whole thing." 

Whitaker sighed.  "We can probably see it from the corner," he said.  "We can look from there."

Ansel jumped with glee and started towing his mother behind him toward the corner. "Come on, Ezra!" he cried over his shoulder.  "Let's go see!"

Ezra turned to Larabee and said, "Come on, Mr. Larabee!  Let's go see!"  And hurried after the mother and son.

Whitaker and Larabee watched them go, and after a moment, followed.

The street corner was crowded by others who'd had the same thought, but were apparently too frightened to get any closer.  Nobody had seen such a balloon before and didn't know what to think of it.  From that vantage point, they could indeed see everything.

The balloon was bright and beautiful, with a thick wicker basket to hold passengers and tethered with four ropes.  It stood on a wooden platform that raised it above the crowd.  It was graceful and amazing and it was hard to look away.

The balloonist stood in the gondola.  He wore huge goggles pushed up on his head.  It made him look as if he had a second pair of eyes, and gave him a somewhat insect-like look.   His leather duster and gloves further cemented that image, giving him a slick shell.  He was speaking loudly to the crowd, but little reached them besides the thick Russian accent, and the loving manner he used to speak of his balloon.

At the hotel, the Whitakers checked into their suite, and Chris and Ezra looked for messages before procuring their own rooms.  Travis had sent word that their relief team hadn't arrived in town yet, and asked that they hang near the Whitakers until after the debate when the team would arrive to escort them to the next destination.

"Well," Ezra said quietly.  "There goes our night of leisure."

"I'll take first shift," Larabee declared.  "You can pick up at midnight."

"Delightful," Ezra responded.  He glanced out the window of the hotel and said, "Then I suppose I should get started with my leisure as soon as possible."  He touched the brim of his hat, saying, "Until midnight," and left his bags at the desk to be brought up to his room later.

So, Chris spent the evening in a chair outside of the Whitaker's suite.  Della was concerned that he was uncomfortable and had James carry a comfortable chair from the room so that Chris wouldn't have to spend the night in the hard wooden one provided by the hotel.

"I'm so sorry that we have to put you through this," Della told him.  "After that long ride, I'm sure you want to sleep as much as the rest of us."

"No problem at all," he'd told her.  "We do this sort of thing all the time.  Thank you for the chair."

Still, she looked upset with the situation as she thanked him again before she slipped back into the room.   James made one last check to see if he needed anything, and then he shut the door so that his family could rest for their big day.

Chris sighed and sunk into the big comfortable chair, grateful for it, and hopeful that he didn't fall asleep because of it. 

He'd do everything to protect that family, to keep that boy safe.  There was a time when he hadn't been vigilant enough, and his own family suffered because of it.  He'd never let that happen to the Whitakers.

The hotel was quiet.  From time to time someone would come up the stairs to that floor and Chris would come to attention, but the arrivals were just other guests or staff going about their duties.

Time passed slowly, and Chris wished he'd brought a book or something to occupy his time.  He found himself checking his watch every ten minutes or so.  He tried pacing the hallway until the manager came up and asked him to stop.  "Our guest on the lower floor can hear you," he said apologetically.  "It's frightening them."

With a disgusted huff, Larabee settled into the chair again, and listened to the sounds of the hotel.  Eventually, activity stopped and everything became silent as the hours dragged on.

Finally, exactly at midnight, he heard the sound of footfalls on the stairway, and Ezra appeared on the floor.

He smiled congenially when he saw Larabee.  "Ah," he said, delighted, "I see they've provided an adequate chair for my comfort.  Excellent thinking."

"It was Della," Chris explained as he stood.

"Of course it was," Ezra said, keeping his voice low due to the hour.  "Any troubles?"

"Nothing.  Anything going on out there?"

"The tables were kind."

"Any talk?"

"Plenty.  I'm always a good conversationalist.  It's appreciated by some."

"Any talk of the debate, of Wallace?"

"Everyone is interested in the debate, or more specifically, Chekov's balloon."

"Hear any word of the threats?  Of the Whitakers?"

"Of Mr. Whitaker, I heard little.  People seem to think he's an agreeable candidate.  They want to like him.  Those that know something of him, seem to think he's a more than adequate man for the job, a true contender.  Those that know nothing of him seem to think that Wallace is the man for the job and that his stand is the best.  After all, he brought a balloon with him.  It's limp though."

"The balloon?" Chris questioned.

"His position is weak, yes, but the balloon is currently rather pathetic-looking," Ezra told him.  "I suppose with nightfall, it wasn't so necessary to keep up appearances.  Chekov's been tending it though, and it will undoubtedly be in fine form come morning.  I hear there's an adequate supply of coal gas in town to keep it inflated."

"Any talk of Wallace wanting to go after Whitaker?"

"Nothing," Ezra said. "Nobody seems to know anything about that.  There's no talk of trouble."

Chris nodded, and for a moment, they stood in the quiet hotel hallway.

Finally, Chris broke the silence, and said, "I'm going to bed.  You okay for the night?"

Ezra nodded.  "I've asked the front desk to send up some coffee shortly, and have been to my room to freshen up to invigorate me for the night, and to retrieve Thackery."  He pulled a book from his pocket.

Chris nodded.  "See you in the morning then."

Ezra sunk into the chair, stretching his legs in front of him so that he crossed the entire hallway.  "Good night to you, sir," he said and opened his book to the marked page.

Chris returned in the morning, finding a sleepy-looking Ezra, an empty pot of coffee and a nearly finished book.

Ezra stood with a yawn, and a stretched.  He let Chris know that nothing happened all night, and bid him a, "Good morning," before he left to find his room for some sleep.

Chris took a seat in the chair as the hotel awakened, and the door to the Whitaker's suite finally opened.  Ansel peeked out and looked surprised to see him.

"Morning, Ansel," Chris said quietly and the boy's head disappeared into the room.  The door opened wide immediately afterward and Della was smiling at him.

"Oh," she cried.  "Don't tell me that you've been here all night?"

Chris shook his head.  "Only just got back.  Ezra's gone to bed."

"Good, good," she laughed lightly.   "We're going for breakfast.  Do you care to join us?"

Chris nodded.  He was hungry enough.

It was an enjoyable repast.  It was good to sit quietly at the table and listen to a family talking.   James and Della seemed to understand him well enough to not push him for conversation, and they talked amongst themselves mostly.  James was nervous about the day, but Della did what she could to keep his anxiety from getting the better of him.  They went over what to expect during the debate, and Della reminded her husband to smile.

It was a nice reminder of what life used to be like for him when he had a family of his own.

Ansel ate heartily, but kept his gaze on Larabee as if he expected the gunslinger to leap across the table and throttle him at any moment.  Chris smiled at the boy, as he would have with Adam.  God, he missed that boy. 

Finished with breakfast, Della suggested that they go for a walk before the debate, to burn off some built-up stress, and maybe talk to some of the townspeople.

Larabee shadowed them out, and watched as James came to a complete halt at the sight of the gaily-colored balloon.  But Della took his arm and steered him in the other direction.

They spent the morning talking to whomever would listen to them.  Few knew who Whitaker was, but once he started talking, a small crowd gathered, and he opened up with his thoughts and his plans for the future.

Chris wished Ezra was with them when the crowds grew thicker, worried about the number of people in their proximity.  With a grimace Larabee realized that he should have given Ezra the first shift.  With Ezra watching first, Chris could have slept until midnight, and both of them would be available now.

Of course, Ezra had talked to the townspeople during the night, trying to draw some information about Wallace.  It hadn't come to anything, but it might have been helpful.

The morning dragged on, and soon it was time for the debate in the park.  Chris went with the family to the bandstand, and found Ezra waiting for them.

"Master Whitaker!" Ezra cried.  "You look in fine form this mornin'.  Did you sleep well?  I hope that the elves that live at the hotel didn't awaken you during the night."

"Elves?" Ansel said in wonder.

"One must be careful around them.  They flourish in hotels due to the high traffic of shoes.  They like to steal them, and they know when to strike – at night, when you're asleep and your footwear is terribly unguarded," Ezra told him seriously.  "Which is why you must always stuff your socks into your shoes at night when you stay at a hotel.  There's no real reason to worry about elves at home, because hotels are what they favor.  Elves love shoes, love hotels, but they hate socks.  It's a strange thing, but helpful to us.  It keeps them from knocking you over and harvesting the footwear right of your stocking feet.  This is why you must always wear socks, and keep your feet clean.  Mostly because shoes that smell are appalling, but also because elves seem to favor that sort of thing."

"Ezra," Larabee groaned.  "Don't keep messing with the kid."  He looked to Ansel to set him straight.  "There are no elves, kid.  You don't have to worry about them."

Ansel didn't seem to appreciate the lesson and looked toward the hotel as if he wanted to get back and search for elves.

Chris sighed.  Della took her son's hand and started to tell him about the "Cobbler and the Elves," and the group moved closer to the bandstand. 

Mother and son found seats near the front of the crowd, under the shade of a tree.  Ezra and Chris stationed themselves on either side of the stage, looking out toward the crowd. 

Wallace was the obvious favorite when the debate started.  He was boisterous and authoritative, punctuating his remarks by pounding on the podium and pointing his finger into the crowd.  But Whitaker, with his well-formed, relatable responses seemed to be winning over the people.  For every barked retort from Wallace, Whitaker returned with a reasonable response. Wallace's highfaluting nonsense was countered by common sense, and soon the crowd was turning their allegiances to Whitaker.

Whitaker smiled while Wallace shouted.

By the end, Wallace was red with indignation.  When the debate came to a close, and Whitaker was declared the winner, a great cheer went up from the crowd.

Wallace, indignant, reminded the crowd that he'd be in the balloon that soon, and encouraged everyone to come to hear his final words on the debate, and then he left the bandstand.

Whitaker stayed to shake hands and to speak with the individuals who came up to him.  Ezra and Chris stayed close, watching the activities of everyone around him as the crowds swirled.  They moved in when James was mobbed, and muscled him back toward the bandstand to avoid the crush.

It was only once they had him free that they heard Della's shriek, "Ansel!  Anse!  Anse!"

The three of them broke through the crowd, back to where Della and Ansel had been watching from the shade of a tree.  "Ansel!" Della shouted. "Anse!"

"What's wrong?" James insisted, shaking loose from a man trying to question him.  "What happened?"

"He's gone!" Della sobbed.  "I looked away and he was gone!"

"He must be nearby!"  Chris assured her.

"Has anyone seen my son?" James cried above the murmur of the crowd.  "Has anyone seen him?" He looked to Chris and then Ezra. "Did they take him?"

The crowd spread out, giving way to allow a child to find their parents.  The people looked about, doing their best to help.  "What does he look like?" someone called.

In his mind, as he frantically searched, Chris said, 'He looks like Adam.'

They searched the park, calling for Ansel.  The local authorities were alerted and officers stationed at the four main roads out of town.  No one had been seen leaving that morning – the crowds were in town for the debates, and after that, everyone who left would be stopped and questioned.

There was no sign of the boy.

Ezra brought Della back to the hotel and started a search there, in case the boy returned to look for elves.  Chris stayed with James at the park, searching trees, the little buildings and any possible hiding space, but the candidate insisted that his boy was a good boy, that he wouldn't just wander off.  It wasn't like him. 

Not unless some fool put silly ideas into his head, Chris thought.  But no, that wasn't likely.  Whitaker had won the debate.   Wallace had made threats against him.  This was bad. 

Where was Wallace?

Chris had retrieved his horse from the livery to search the town when Ezra returned, carrying a note.  He looked unnerved. "It was shoved under the door," he explained.

The note stated that the boy was being held, that he wouldn't be hurt, and he'd be released as long as Whitaker kept quiet, conceded defeat and stepped out of the race.  It wasn't signed.

James brought a hand to his face, a sobbing gasp escaping him.  "No!"  he cried.  "No!"

Chris looked to Ezra, who was looking toward the bandstand, where Wallace had appeared again.

Larabee's gaze fixed on the man as well, and he started toward him, his long stride eating up the earth.

"Wallace!" Larabee shouted as he reached the candidate with Ezra and James beside him.  "Where's the boy?"

Wallace was talking to the voters, smiling congenially.  He stepped back in surprise, seeing the ire of the men.  "Gentlemen," he said in a calm voice.  "How can I help you?  He was a broad man, with dark hair and a thin mustache.  "Whitaker," he greeted his rival. 

"Simon," James cried. "Simon, what have you done?"

"We'll see you hang if you don't give up the boy," Chris ground out.

"What boy?"  Wallace looked taken aback.  "Are you accusing me of something?" he asked.

"You know what I'm talking about." Chris stepped closer.

"My son," Whitaker cried.  "My Anse.  Simon, what have you done?"

"I suggest you rethink what you're saying," Wallace said. "Or else you will be facing arrest for slander."

"I suggest that if you know anything," Ezra said, his voice a low growl, "you tell us now, or else you will facing something far more permanent than a slanderous remark."

"Please!" Whitaker frantically called.  "All I want is my boy, my Anse!"

"I don't know what you're talking about."  Wallace lifted and dropped his arms. "For as you can see, I don't have him."  Near him, a bodyguard made his presence known.

"Please," Whitaker said again.  "You can't do this."

"Whitaker," Wallace responded.  "Begging doesn't become someone who wants to hold office. It makes you look weak."

The local police force arrived, asking what was going on.

"He has my boy!" Whitaker insisted to the officers.

"How could I possibly have him?" Wallace challenged.  "Look around!  Do you see him anywhere?"

The authorities spread out.  Larabee turned to Ezra, whose expression was hard with resolve.  The gambler wasn't watching Wallace.  Instead, he was looking off toward the raised platform, where the balloon was tethered.

A pair of policemen were at platform.  One of them was on his hands and knees, looking under the dais.  The other was talking to the balloonist, who leaned inside the gondola.  The policeman peered inside then looked up at the balloon, seemingly fascinated with the whole thing.

"It has a false bottom," Ezra said.

"What's that?" Chris responded.

"Look," Ezra said in a low voice.  "The balloonist is leaning forward, over the lip of the gondola.  If he were standin' tall, the edge would only come up to his waist.  That doesn't seem deep enough, does it?  One would have to be so careful about accidently falling out."  He touched his lips as he thought.  "But it's definitely deep enough to be safe.  Look, the rim of it comes almost to the police officer's chest.  If Chekov would stand straight, he'd tower over the officer."

Larabee had already been around the platform, had questioned the balloonist.  He hadn't looked for a false bottom in that damn balloon.  "Could just be a storage space at the bottom," Larabee tried. 

"It wasn't like that last night," Ezra told him, and was off at a quick clip.

"Mr. Larabee," Wallace stopped Chris from following.  "What do you aim to do?  Detain me for something I haven't done?  I am a trusted member of society!  Your actions today are unacceptable.  I'll ruin you."

Larabee sneered.  "Too late for that."

"I'll ruin Whitaker.  He won't be fit to run for any office, not even dog catcher by the time I'm done with him."

The police officers had moved on by the time Ezra reached the balloon.  Standish climbed the stairs in a flash to reach the top of the platform to reach the gondola.

"You should know," Wallace said, his voice a low purr, "I get what I want."

Larabee lashed out a hand, grasped Wallace's shirt, and jerked him closer.  "If you don't give up the boy, I'll tear you apart."

Chris could hear the distinctive click of a gun being cocked, as Wallace's man pressed the weapon into his side.  He didn't even look at him, his gaze boring into Wallace.

"My friend here may have something to say about that."  Wallace said, "You'd best rethink your current course of action."

At a sudden commotion, everybody turned toward the balloon.  Chekov was shouting bloody murder, trying to shove an interloper out of the gondola – Ezra.  They were tussling, and soon Ezra had the man shoved against one corner of the basket.

With a sudden movement, Ezra shoved Chekov out over the lip of the basket and onto the platform.  Instantly, Standish disappeared, ducking down inside.

Wallace shouted, "No!"  and the man with the gun took off toward the balloon.  With a growl, Larabee shoved Wallace off his feet, and went after the other man.

Chekov agilely leapt back into the gondola as a board flew out of it.  As Chris chased down the man with the gun, he watched as the balloonist pulled a knife and hacked at the first tether.

What the hell?

The first rope detached, and the balloon lifted slightly.  Chekov was at the next corner, cutting it loose.  The balloon pulled and twisted, straining to be free.  The gondola tipped as it lifted.

Son of a bitch!

By the time he reached the third rope, Ezra was up, and in his arms was Ansel.

Chris was nearly there.

Ezra shouted, "Chris! Chris!"

The balloon twisted wildly on its remaining two tethers.  The bodyguard ducked as he reached the platform, falling onto his face to avoid the skittering gondola.  It swung out over his head and into the park.  And suddenly Anse was swinging in the air, clasping Ezra's hands.

People were screaming or oohing with excitement as the thing twisted on its remaining ropes, pulling like a demon to be free.

Another rope hacked off, and the gondola leapt further into the sky, its final tether singing with the strain.  The balloonist was trying to climb over Ezra to get to the final corner where Ezra was wedged.

Larabee felt his heart lurch.  He knew what Ezra was trying to do.

Ansel was crying, was screaming as Ezra dangled him over the edge of the gondola. "Chris!"  Ezra kept shouting.

There was no time for questions, no time for anything but action. Larabee maneuvered himself below the careening vessel as Ezra let the boy hang.

He would have to be in the perfect place.  He'd have to be ready.

"Chris!  Here he comes!"

And suddenly, the boy was falling.  The last tether snapped, going off like the report of a rifle.  The rope whipped the air, sending onlookers flying in all directions. 

But Chris' attention was on only one thing as he reached for Ansel.  The rope snapped past his ear as the boy fell right into his arms with a WUMP.

It was enough force to drive Chris to his knees.

Anse gasped, sucking in great gouts of air as if he was drowning, his arms instantly went around Chris' neck, holding on for dear life as the balloon went up and up.

Then, something was falling.  Chris held the sobbing boy tighter as a man came out of the sky.  He twisted away, to protect the boy from the sight, and the body slammed into the ground beside them.

Good God!

Chekov's balloon shot up even higher.


Ezra Standish was a man well trained in the art of misdirection.  He'd noticed the false bottom the moment he'd seen the balloonist standing in the gondola that afternoon.  It might have been a space to stow gear while underway.

But, as he watched the policeman peer into the gondola, he'd wanted to shout at him to search the bottom.  The exits to town were watched.  People were searched as they left, but there was one conveyance that would avoid the searches, one that could get away clean.

He approached the monstrosity, gauging its keeper.  Pyotr was nervous.  He was hiding something.  Then, Ezra saw the balloonist's gaze dart downward and he knew everything he needed.

Ezra didn't ask questions.  He was over the lip of the basket in spite of the balloonist's shouts.  Pyotr tried to fight him off, but soon Ezra had the man shoved into a corner.

Chekov began babbling, saying he had no idea where the boy was, he was just a balloonist, hired by Wallace to bring his airship to show off.  He knew nothing.  He had no idea what was going on.  But he was too damn nervous, too damn jumpy.  This man knew too much.

With one shove, Ezra was able to tip the balloonist out of the gondola, further proof that the gondola was unsafely shallow.  He was quickly able to find three loose boards made up the flooring.  He pulled up the first one and found terrified eyes staring back at him.  Ansel bound and gagged, was tied off to one of the main supports in the flooring.

Without a word, Ezra tossed the board over the edge, and stooped to free the boy.  Pyotr was in the gondola again, but Ezra started working at the knots, ignoring the Russian.

Then, he felt the basket jerk and lift slightly off the platform.  He fell backward, alarmed at the sensation and glanced up at Chekov, finding him sawing at the second rope.

"What are you doing?" Ezra yelled.

"I must get away! I want nothing to do with this!"  And Chekov kept cutting on the second rope.  "You!  Get out!  You get out now!"

"Not without the boy!"

"Get him out!" Chekov said as he continued to cut at the second rope.  "You get out! You leave me!  Now!"

Ezra had the boy half-free, and the kid was now clawing at him trying to climb him as Standish undid the ropes that held the boy's feet.  As quickly as he could, he hauled the boy from the cramped space below the boards.

He stood, clutching Ansel against him. 

Chris!  Chris was nearly there.    Oh, thank God!

But the balloon wasn't resting on the platform any longer.  He turned toward Chekov and demanded, "Let us down!"

Chekov didn't reply.  If the boy wasn't screaming and half-strangling him, Ezra might have tried to stop the balloonist from cutting the ropes, but the man was in a frenzy.  There was no way to stop him in that tiny space without putting the boy in harm's way. 

Ezra did the only think he could think of.  "Chris!" he shouted, pulling the boy closer.  They weren't up very high.  It would be an easy jump – no higher than a window on an upper floor, and he'd performed that sort of leap many times without harm.

First the boy, and then he would go.

"Chris!  Chris!" Ezra pulled the boy over the lip of the gondola, and suddenly remembered weight distribution.

The gondola, tied only by one side, tipped alarmingly.  He slammed down on the edge of the basket.   Ansel lost his tight grip on his shoulders.  Chekov was also thrown to the same side.  The balloon twisted about at the change.

For alarming seconds, the boy was swinging like a pendulum as Ezra held only his hands.   Ansel was screaming.  Ezra realized how terrifically bad this idea was as Chekov wedged himself against Ezra to work on the third rope. 

"It's okay," Ezra tried to assure Ansel, but the boy was beyond hearing.  "It's okay."   He could still manage the jump once he'd gotten Ansel to safety.

The boys legs were flailing, wanting to get a purchase on the basket, but it was tipped too far out.  Ezra was thankful that he was standing in the deepest part of the basket.  The balloon was flailing about like a kite. 

The third rope was severed and they went up even higher.


Good God, if he should fail in delivering this poor boy to safety…

Suddenly, Chris was in place as the balloon strained on its one remaining tether.  He could still do this.  He wouldn't let Chekov near the last rope, in any case.


"Chris!  Here he comes!" Ezra said as he let go, adding quietly to Ansel, "It'll be okay."

For a second, he watched, seeing those eyes filled with horror as they stared back on him, as Ansel fell away.  Chris was there!  Chris would catch him! 

But he couldn't see it happen.  The loss of the weight pulled the gondola in the other direction, and Ezra was flung backward. The final rope snapped, sounding like a small explosion, and the balloon shot upward.  He was thrown into the bottom of the basket.

"You will get out now!" Chekov shouted, standing above him on the raised false floor.  "I will not have you in my balloon."

"Make me," Ezra muttered.  They were too high for any chance of jumping off now.

Ezra stomach flip-flopped.  His ears felt painful pressure.  He tried to find his equilibrium as he twisted to grasp the side of the basket to get to his knees to finally deal with Chekov.

A screaming pain hit him from behind, driving into him and he fell forward.  Agony.  Something tore into him and he forced himself to turn, finding Chekov standing over him with the knife, bloody now.  Pain seared his back.

Pyotr's goggles were pulled over his eyes, making him look inhuman, and blood was splattered over his leathers.  He raised the knife again and drew back to plunge it in a second time.  "Now, I will get you out!" he shouted.

With an easy movement, Ezra ejected the derringer from his sleeve, firing the weapon the moment it hit his hand.

Chekov staggered backward, shocked, blood spreading across his chest.  His lower back hit the edge of the basket – just behind him.  It was too low for safety.  For a second, Chekov wheeled his arms and the knife went flying.  The backward movement and a tip of the gondola were enough to finish him.

He fell out.

Ezra sank to the floor as the balloon shot even higher with the greater loss of weight.

Chris, still crouching to the ground, held the boy to his chest. The boy clung to him as if he would never let go.  Larabee's gaze darted, looking for Wallace, looking for the bodyguard.  Neither seemed to be nearby.   He looked up, to the small red and yellow bulb high in the sky – the balloon going further and further away.

The local police were charging in, and Whitaker was suddenly there.

James almost landed on top of him, he was so desperate to have his child.  It took a moment for Ansel to shake himself out of his terror to realize that his father was there, and he released his death grip on Larabee to latch hold of his father.

Greedy, James snatched the boy up and crushed him to his chest.  "Oh, Anse, Anse," he murmured, he cradled the boys head against him.  "I'm so sorry.  I'm so sorry."  He wept as he clung to his child.  "Thank you," he told Larabee.  "Oh my God, thank you for rescuing him."

Chris watched them for a moment, before silently standing, to do the thing he dreaded.

He looked to the place where the body had landed. Not Ezra, he pleaded with himself.  Please, not Ezra.

The body had hit the hard-packed earth near the platform.  It had come down so quickly, that Chris had had little time to tell anything except that it was human.  He couldn't even remember if it wore red or leather, just a man-shaped thing coming from the sky.

It can't be Ezra. 

There was a small group formed around the body – four young men who spoke in hushed voices as they stared at the dead man.  They glanced to Larabee as he moved in, and they stepped back.   More police officers were finding their way through the crowd, shoving people aside as they moved in.

Chris felt like a bowstring, pulled taut, as he stepped close enough to see.

A human body shouldn't look like that, all smashed to bits and bloodied.  Chris forced himself to look at it.

What was recognizable was brown leather, and the goggles.  Larabee's gaze fixed on them for a moment – the goggles still strapped to that broken head – the lenses still intact.

A knife was driven into the ground beside him.

Not Ezra.  He felt the string release its tension.

And then he lifted his gaze and let out a low groan as the balloon, so high up in the sky, continued to drift away.  "Vote Wallace" was displayed for all to see.

Son of a bitch!

Chris spun around. He glanced to Whitaker who was crushing his child against him, and grabbed the nearest officer.  "Get them to safety!  Find Wallace and his men and lock up those sons of bitches!"

He didn't wait to see the officer's reaction as he took off at a full run to where his horse was tied near the park.  That string was thrumming in his head again.

He was cold.  A shiver jerked through his body as Ezra pressed his aching back against the side of the gondola.  He could feel the blood seeping down.  His left shoulder was on fire where the knife had sliced him.  He breathed slowly, carefully, afraid of coughing up blood.  No sign of that.  At least, the bastard didn't get his lungs.

His hearing was muffled, and his head pounded.  He yawned, twice, and with a pop the pressure cleared and his hearing returned.

The wind fluttered the banner – the one that read "Vote Wallace".  Above him, only balloon and bright blue sky.

He panted, feeling the wind rock the basket, listening to creak of the ropes and the beat of the banner.  His eyes fastened on the little derringer on the bloodied basket-weave bottom of the gondola.  He reached for it, and slipped it into his pocket.

It had never occurred to him that he might fly someday.   It would be incredible.  A gift!  How dare he miss it!

He kicked out the remaining boards that made up the false floor, allowing him to have the full depth of the gondola.  He wasn't going to pitch out like Chekov.

Slowly, he pressed his good shoulder into the side of the gondola and forced himself upright.  He staggered, his head swimming as he stood and he held onto the edge of the gondola in an iron grip.  His vision blurred and he blinked to clear it.

He yawned again to clear his ears.

He was bleeding badly, but he had no way of reaching the wound, no way of treating it.  He could try to pull off his jacket and attempt something with his shirt, but it would do little good.  He was running on borrowed time.  He knew it.  He'd best make good use of the time he had left.

He looked over the edge.

It was amazing.

He just breathed for a moment, taking it in.  He breathed and looked, and looked and looked.

"Dear God in heaven," he whispered at the sights.  He could see forever!  Back there was Rockville, looking so small, like a toy.  He could see the park and the platform where this journey started, and could make out the tiny people still milling there.

It was like standing on a high ledge, overlooking a valley – and yet it was complete different.  He was truly above it.  The whole world was beneath his feet.

He could see little gardens hidden behind houses.  He could see where people had patched their roofs. There was a ball lost in a gutter.

Folks in town were looking up at him in awe and he smiled at their expressions.  He'd wave, but he was afraid that he'd lose is balance.  This was not a place to lose one's balance.

But he was floating away from that place, past the place where officers were stopping people as they left the town, past the little houses that lay beyond.  He was floating out into the desert.  Wind fingered through his hair, rattling the ropes of the balloon, pushing him onward.

He could see all four roads that led away from Rockville, one to each compass point.  He was drifting over one of them. 

Smoke streamed up from chimneys, and he could see the scar that formed the entrance to their mine.

And he kept floating onward, adrift in the wind.  He crossed over a corral with horses, and a homestead with laundry on the line.  Cattle.  A spry dog ran and barked at him.  Chickens in a yard – little more than dots from this height.

Beautiful!  It was so amazing.  He kept soaring onward.

God, his back hurt.

Pronghorns.  A whole herd of them, too far away to hear anything.

There was a watering hole hidden amongst the trees.  Almost out of view, a train was moving.  A

river carved a canyon.  There were lakes and ponds and streams.  He could make out cowpaths snaking down the hillsides, and roads and lonely trails. 

It was all so lovely. 

Oranges and reds and purples and greens everywhere.  People thought the desert was dull and colorless, but from here, everything was revealed.  A whole rainbow of hues.  So much green!  Who would have expected it?

He wanted to drink it all in, to remember it forever.  He felt giddy with excitement.  He wanted to see it all.

He shivered as the wind blew past him.  He breathed deeply.

He was soaring like an eagle.  How often had he looked up at them with envy?  Now, he was looking down on a hawk, seeing the way its back worked as it moved its wings.

The breeze moved against him, gentler than before, flapping the banner.  The gondola creaked on its ropes, sounding like a ship.

He would stay here forever, he decided.  If he had to die today, this wasn't the worst way to go, looking out on the world, floating above it.  

He knew his fate, he could feel it at his back.  The balloon, he figured, would eventually come down on its own, but he wouldn't live to see it. He doubted that he had much time left.

So, he'd stand here for as long as he could, gazing out at this beautiful world.  He was only sad that he wouldn't be able to tell the others about it, that he'd never see them again.

The thought made him colder.

The balloon drifted over a ridge in the earth as the wind gave out, and he stalled out over a lake.  The water was so still and clear, he could make out the shapes of fish swimming near the surface.  A trout leapt.

It took him a moment, but he finally recognized a rock formation next to the lake -- "Half Pate".   It was a landmark on the trail between Rockville and Four Corners and looked so different from this angle, not like a head at all.

He'd been drifting toward home, and he sighed, wishing the wind would pick up again.

He just wanted to see home.

If he could only figure out a means of steering the thing.  Chekov must have known something about that.  Too bad the man was gone.

Ezra gazed back toward Rockville, remembering how the man had fallen out.  He'd sprung back in so quickly the first time.  No possibility of that now. 

Too bad for Chekov.

God, he hoped that Ansel was okay. What if he'd dropped him at the wrong moment?  What if Chris wasn't ready?  He might have murdered that poor boy.

He was so cold.  So very cold.  He trembled.  His left hand was numb.  When he moved the arm, his whole back was set on fire. 

Rockville was still in sight, tiny now, but visible.  He was just hanging in the sky now. 

It was peaceful.

As he gazed back toward the town, Ezra could make out a horse and rider on the road.  They sure were moving fast.  The black horse was eating up the distance, his rider in black urging him on.  Ezra's gaze followed them with interest, one of the few things really moving on that quiet day, besides the distant train and the dog, but both were already out of sight.  The pronghorns meandered too far away to listen.

Ezra clung to the rim of the basket, watching the horse.  The road veered off, and the rider went straight, leaving the road and tearing into the desert on a beeline after him.

Ezra swayed as the blood ran down his back.  The pain was becoming unbearable and his vision was clouding, but he focused on the rider, and he knew it was Chris. 

Chris was coming for him.

The balloon would come down on its own eventually, but he wouldn't live to see that happen.  As he watched Chris, he knew that the man would never stop following.  What a pity, he thought.  It would be a horrible waste of time for him to give chase for so long – for nothing.  He'd find only a blood-stained basket and a pathetic corpse when the gas finally gave out.

And so Ezra had to figure out a way to get down.  He needed help.  He couldn't wait for the balloon to come down on its own.

Chris would help him.

He took a moment to track the course of the rider, seeing it clear of obstacles.  Chris wouldn't be going over any cliffs if he kept to this path, but the lake would confound him once he came over that rise.

Further back, Ezra could make out other riders following.  He sighed, hoping there was no threat to his friend.

He looked up for something that would control the balloon, and his gaze fastened on a cord that ran down the side, dangling above his head.

That was something.

He'd have to climb to reach it, and as he moved his shoulder tentatively, he didn't think he was up for it.  But what choice did he have? 

He couldn't let Chris uselessly chase a balloon for days.  His position above the lake probably wasn't the best place to try this, but the wind was gone.

He had to try.  He had to do this now.  He didn't know how much time he had left.

Chris drove his horse onward.  The big black horse wasn't slowing.  Larabee wasn't going to let that balloon out of his sight.

He'd left the road and prayed that he wasn't about to charge off a cliff in his preposterous pursuit.

The balloon hovered just out of reach.  Not moving further away any longer.  The wind must have given out, but it remained at the same damned altitude, impossibly high in the sky.

He'd kept his gaze on Ezra, his red jacket evident against the brilliance of the blue sky.  For the longest time, Standish was looking out at the desert, looking in every direction but toward him.  Then, finally, he turned toward Rockville, and Chris was certain Ezra had finally seen him.

Chris wanted to lift a hand, to wave, but he kept his hands in the reins, urging Job onward.  He looked to the balloon rider, trying to meet Ezra's distant eyes, trying to reassure him that he'd do his damnedest to help, even though he didn't have the first idea what to do.

The balloon would eventually come down, and Larabee pledged that he would be there when it happened -- no matter what.

He had nearly reached where the balloon had stalled in the sky.

For a long moment, Ezra just stared back at him, then he looked up at the balloon itself.  His gaze returned to Larabee.  He pointed into the ropes and netting that held the balloon together.

Chris slowed as he came to a crest, wary of what was on the other side, and found a long steep slope leading down to a lake, but nothing Job couldn't handle.  The lake though, he'd have to figure out the best way to go around it.  It would probably be best to follow the ridge once he figured out which direction the wind blew next.

The lake so still it reflected a perfect inverted picture of the balloon above it.  A stunning sight.

Standish cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted.

It was amazing.  In spite of the distance, some of the words came through crystal clear.  The gentle wind swallowed up the rest of it.  "I'm going to ….cord… release some…"

Chris shouted back, "I didn't get all of that!  What are you going to do?"

Ezra leaned, turning one ear toward him, making the gondola tip slightly and Chris' heart raced.  Ezra seemed surprised by the movement and had trouble standing up again.  He shook his head in frustration.  "…not a word…" Chris heard.

"What are you going to do?" Chris shouted at the top of his voice as Job danced about beneath him, eager to get moving again.

Again, Ezra paused, a hand cupped at his ear, but no lean this time. He gave him another frustrated shake of his head. He pointed up at the balloon.

"… a cord…" Chris heard.  "…a small amount…"

Larabee grimaced.  Was Ezra planning to bleed off some of the gas?  "Don't do it!" he shouted.  The gas would seep out of the thing on its own.  Hadn't Ezra already said that the balloon deflated slightly during the night?

"Don't!" Chris yelled again, shaking his head expansively and slashing his arms back and forth.  "Don't!" he shouted again.  "Why you in such a goddamn hurry?  I'll follow you.  I'll find you when you come down!"  Eventually.  It might not be until nightfall, or tomorrow.  Who knew? 

And if the wind kicked up again, it would carry the balloon for untold miles.  There were mountains to the west.  What would happen if it came against those heights?  What would happen if the wind moved it too swiftly, if Job couldn't keep up, if he had to chase it for days?

Chris would do it.  He'd follow the damned thing for as long as it took, if Ezra wasn't so damn impatient.  What was his hurry?

Ezra made a small shrug.  It was obvious.  Ezra was going to do whatever Ezra damn well pleased.  Standish cupped his hands over his mouth again and shouted, "… behind you… riders … careful…"  He pointed.

Chris turned in his saddle.  Yes, there were four riders coming up behind him, still in the distance.  He stared at them for a long moment, unable to recognize them.  He turned back to Ezra and nodded. He'd seen them, he'd be on watch for them.

Ezra looked up again.  He wrapped one hand into the netting that covered the balloon, and started climbing.

"You stupid son of a bitch," Larabee muttered as he watched.  He's over a goddamn lake!  What's he thinking? 

Chris considered urging Job forward, but this rise was the highest point in the area – he'd be less likely to hear anything Ezra said if he moved downward.  Here was no telling where the balloon would move once the gas was vented.

He waited, and hoped.

Ezra climbed, with greater difficulty than Chris would have expected, clumsy as hell.  He was usually so agile. Chris frowned, wishing that the difficulty was enough to make him stop.

It wasn't.  Ezra just kept doggedly trying.

The ballooned turned, pirouetting due to the change in weight as Ezra climbed.  For being in such a hurry, he certainly was slow to climb the netting.

Chris gripped his reins as if he could use them to strangle the fool.

Ezra snagged the cord.  For a moment, he looked toward Chris.  He seemed to be weighing his options.  Then he gave the cord a little tug.  Chris held his breath as nothing happened. 

Ezra tugged again, and Chris watched as a little flap, just barely visible from his perspective, opened at the top of the red and yellow balloon.

Ezra waited, holding the cord as the flap remained open, and the plump bulp of a balloon lost some of its shape.  It started sinking.  Standish released the rope, and Chris waited for the flap to close.

It didn't.

Instead, the little valve burst apart, flailing as the gas came out in a burst.

Chris looked in horror as the balloon misshaped, and Ezra fell back into the gondola.

"Oh God," Chris cried out.  "NOooooooooooooooo!"

The balloon plummeted.


Chris' gaze stayed on the falling balloon, watching as the silk bulb changed forms, flattening out, turning itself nearly inside out, and into a convex form.    He continued to strangle Job's reins, not quite able to move.

Then, its descent slowed.  The flattened balloon became a sort of parachute, like the handkerchief ones he used to fashion as a child, to throw his sisters' dolls from the barn loft. 

The gondola came down, slowed by the drag of the deflated silk envelope, slowly… slowly falling.  Until the basket smacked into the surface of the lake. 

For a moment, Larabee couldn't move as the basket floated -- intact.  He dared to smile as he waited for Ezra to pop out of the basket, looking annoyed. 

But he didn't pop out, and the wind caught the deflated bag like a sail, dragging the basket for a second or two, until -- looking like a man tripping on a stone -- the basket caught on the surface of the lake, and the gondola flipped over onto its side.

And still no Ezra.

"Goddamn son of a bitch!" Chris growled and spurred Job down the hillside.

That… was a bad idea.

Ezra's attempt to let out a 'little gas' failed miserably.  It had been hard as hell to climb and his left arm was hardly working, his shoulder was screaming with pain.  He had no strength.  When he'd pulled the cord, and then released it, he'd expected the valve to close, but the hissing venting continued, and he'd been unable to hold onto the netting any longer.

He dropped to the bottom of the gondola, his world consumed with pain, and watched as the balloon deformed above him. He curled on his side and prepared himself for what was coming next.

It had been nice while it lasted.

But the gondola fell much slower than expected, an almost peaceful descent.  It seemed to drift downward.  Then, there was a solid THUMP and shocking fountains of water coming up from below as the wicker basket slammed onto the lake.

Doused and half-drowned in the deluge, Ezra started to laugh.  He'd landed!  He was alive! 

The wind caught the deflated balloon and pulled it around.  For a few seconds, he was sailing.  Then, with an impertinent movement, the gondola slammed down on its side into the lake.

Ezra coughed as he was thrown forward, as cold water came in at him.  The weave of the wicker had absorbed force of impact, but it was shattered now, tearing apart.  It may as well have been a sieve for keeping out the water.  His weight was enough to submerge the shattered side of the gondola.  He sputtered and grasped hold of what had once been the rim of the basket.  The thickly woven rim remained above the surface of the water. 

The water was so damn cold and he couldn't get out of it.

His head was spinning, and his shoulder throbbed.  He felt so goddamn weak!


He had taken an idiotic chance.  Now, he was going to freeze to death because of it.

He'd have to swim for it.  The edge of the lake wasn't so very far away – an easy distance.  He closed his eyes and felt only the cold and his detestable weakness.  He had to act now, before the cold cut into him any deeper, before the wound at his back bled him dry.  He had to start swimming.

Chris was nearby, wasn't he?  

Ezra didn't think he could wait. 

It was hard to pull himself out of the basket, over the rim that floated high in the water. Tortured from the climb into the netting, his left arm was refusing to work at all.

He wasn't the type to give up once he put a notion into his head.

With determination, he managed it, dragging himself out of what remained of the basket, and into the lake itself. 

He'd have to start swimming soon, or he'd never make it. 

Should have taken my boots off before leaving the basket.  Guns, too. 

He wrapped his good arm over the rim of the gondola and let his aching shoulder sink into the chill of the lake.  It stopped burning as the cold seeped in. 

He clung to the rim, knowing that he would be unable to swim to shore. It wasn't far, but he wouldn't make it, not with his boots still on, not with an arm that didn't work.  Not with a knife to the back.

Not with his head spinning.  He tried yawning again. It helped—a little.

So, he held on and looked toward the shore.  His vision was clouding.  Great spots floated before his eyes.

He could barely make out black horse and rider storming toward the lakeside. 

He waited.  It was getting hard to hold on. Everything blurred.

He hoped Chris didn't take long.

For the longest time, nothing moved.  The deflated envelope of the balloon finally touched the surface of the lake and stuck there.  It no longer pulled the gondola around the lake.

As he charged down the long bank toward the lake, Chris stared at that tipped and crushed gondola. It was turned just far enough that he couldn't see into it.  He demanded to see that ridiculous red coat again, wanting to see the gambler waving at him nonchalantly.

But nothing moved at all.  Even the gondola barely bobbed.  The damn thing was half-sunken into the lake.  Why wasn't Ezra getting out of it?

How badly was he hurt?  The landing didn't look too severe.  He had to be okay.

Suddenly, Chris saw movement – Ezra pulling himself out of that ruined basket.  Thank God!

Job's hoofs skittered across the scree, and Larabee urged him onward, not letting him slow, barely allowing the horse to find its balance on the helter-skelter descent. 

Larabee frowned when Ezra didn't try to swim to shore.  He just clung onto that basket, his head barely out of the water.

"Dammit," Larabee growled as he pressed Job harder for the last distance.

"Ezra!"  At the lake's edge, Chris leapt down from the horse.  "Ezra!"

Ezra looked toward him.  He had one arm over the top of the basket, and he raised that hand slightly in a wave.  Chris wasn't sure if Ezra tried to say anything.

Larabee shucked of his boots, dropped his gunbelt and tossed off his hat, and charged into the lake.

He sucked in his breath as he felt the chill of it.  Early spring had done nothing to warm the water.  Why'd Ezra have to find the only cold lake in the territory?  

Larabee swam, taking long strokes.  He slowed when he ran into the half-sunken silk of a balloon, and he had to work his way over the top of it.  It took time.

"Ezra!" Larabee shouted again, finding Standish was still looking toward him, his gaze never really leaving the gunslinger.  "Ezra, can you hear me?"

"Loud and clear, Mr. Larabee," Ezra returned in a low voice.  "You'd best save your breath for swimmin'."

"You stupid son of a bitch!" Chris berated as he swam closer.  "What the HELL do you think you were doin'?"

Ezra sighed and closed his eyes.  "Just tryin'… tryin' to get down."

"Idiot!" Chris spat as he reached the basket. 

"Yes," Ezra agreed quietly.  "Quite true."

"You were over a goddamn lake!  You could've waited until the balloon moved again!"

"No… not really."

When Chris finally put his hand on the gondola, and pulled himself closer, Larabee got a good look at Standish.  He was very pale, and his eyes had a distant cast to them.    He didn't look good.

"You okay?" Chris asked.  "You hurt?"

Ezra managed a small laugh.  "Fell out of the sky," he responded, his voice a low whisper, then he added,  "Ansel?"

"The boy's fine," Chris said. "He's with his pa." 

"Good," Ezra stated as his eyes closed.

"No you don't!" Larabee shouted, snatching the collar of Ezra's jacket as the gambler's arm relaxed and he lost his grip on the basket.  "No!  Ezra, wake up.  We have to get you to shore.  Come on!"  And he gave the man a shake.

Ezra's eyelids fluttered, but nothing more.

"Come on, Ezra," Chris said in a softer voice.  But Standish gave no further response.

"What did you do to yourself?" he asked quietly.

Carefully, Chris turned Ezra onto his back, and wrapped one arm around him, snagging his hand under Ezra's arm to keep his chin above the surface, and then started swimming one-handedly back to shore.

Ezra didn't make a sound as Larabee swam.  The water was freezing.  He had to get him to a fire to get him warmed up fast.  It was going to take time.  He swore to himself, realizing that Job's saddlebags were back in the hotel room.  He had none of his usual traveling supplies.

On the shore, the horse waited, pacing about.  And at the top of the hillside – four riders appeared.

Son of a bitch.

Chris swam faster, trying not to swap Ezra.  He carefully treaded over the drowned silks of the balloon.  For a moment, Ezra's foot snagged the "Vote Wallace" banner, but Chris was able to free it with a little effort.

Fool didn't think to take his boots off.

The horses were charging down.  Larabee's eyes fixed on his gunbelt, waiting on the dry land.  He had no idea who the riders were, but he'd be damned if he let them cause Ezra any more harm.

The horsemen were nearly to the bottom of the hill when Chris's feet struck ground and he pulled Ezra behind him, dragging him to shore in a race to get to his guns before the men drew their weapons. 

He'd just reached the shallows, and was wondering if he'd have to drop Ezra in a final dive to get to the guns when one of the men spoke.

"He okay?" a voice called.  "Mister?  Is he okay?"  The voice was young, and Chris finally got a good look at the men, and found them to be overgrown boys.

He stopped his attempt to reach to the gun, and sunk down to get a better grip on Ezra.  He recognized them now. They were the four who had been standing over the shattered body of Chekov back in Rockville.

 "Can you fellas start a fire?" Chris called.

The four dismounted, and three of them immediately scattered for firewood.  The fourth came toward him.  "I'll get his legs," he told Larabee.

With a grateful nod, Chris shifted his hold on Ezra, and let the young man help carry Ezra up the shore and to a sheltered spot near the hill.

As they settled him, one of the boys brought an armload of wood.   Ezra remained quiet -- quiet and cold as ice.   His lips were blue.  He wasn't shivering, even though Chris had trouble stilling the chattering of his own teeth.

"Ben, can you get our blankets?" the one who'd helped Chris asked. 

Ben nodded and took off toward their horses.

"I'm Frankie," the young man said as he pulled a fire starting kit from his pocket.  "That's Ben, and Al and Del."  He indicated the others.

"This is Ezra.  I'm Chris," Larabee said.  He would have put out a hand to shake, but Frankie was busily trying to get a spark. He had a flame going in a moment. 

"He flew the balloon!" Frankie said in wonder.  "That was amazing!"

"Yeah, amazing," Chris responded, wishing he could control his shivering.

"We followed all the way from town.  Damn, you were fast."

"Had to catch up with him," Larabee said.

"Good thing you did," Frankie said, nodding to Ezra.

"Maybe," Chris responded, recalling that Ezra hadn't pulled the damn cord until he's seen him coming.

Ben was back with the blankets, and the other two brought more wood.

"We gotta get him out of those wet clothes," Ben stated.

"You'd better do the same," Frankie said to Chris.  "That's Icicle Lake.  It's freezing until summer.  You got any clothes for him?"

Chris sat back, not used to someone taking charge like this.  "No," Chris said as Ben laid out one of the blankets. 

"I got some," Al said, running back to his horse.  He was a dark-skinned lad, even darker than Nate, and was about the same size as Ezra.

When they lifted him onto the blanket, Ezra's eyes opened slightly, he blinked blankly.

"Hang on, Ezra," Chris told him.  "We need to figure out what's wrong with you, and we'll take care of it."  He didn't know if Ezra understood him or not, but the eyes closed again.

 "Keep the fire going, Del," Frankie directed.  "We gotta get these fellas warmed up.  Okay, let's get this jacket off."

When he pulled the jacket back from Ezra's left shoulder, Chris let out a low hiss.   Soaked in the water, and hidden by the red jacket, it hadn't been noticeable until now.   A deep cut ran down the back of Ezra's shoulder, oozing blood down his back.

Did it happen in the crash?  The cut was so sharp and clean, it would have to be a knife.  Larabee remembered the knife that Chekov had used to cut loose the balloon. 

Damn.  Ah, damn….

"Al!  Forget the clothes," Frankie shouted.  "Get some bandages.  Ben, get your kit! He's cut real bad!"

Chris didn't realize how much the chill of the lake had affected him until he changed into the clothing that Frankie gave him, until he sat next to the fire with a blanket over his shoulders and let the heat seep in, until a cup of coffee was in his hands. 

Finally, clear-headed, he was grateful as hell for those boys.  Al and Del had headed back to town for help, leaving Ben and Frankie with them.    They tended the fire and helped him with Ezra.

So far, the gambler hadn't really regained consciousness.  He opened his eyes and fought vaguely when they cleaned and bandaged the knife wound, but settled down almost immediately.

The boys came prepared, with a well-stocked kit for taking care of injuries on the trail.  They were skilled young men, and Chris smiled slightly, watching Frankie, seeing how easily he took on the mantle of responsibility.  He'd be a good leader – he was a good leader.  Frankie, fair-haired and with sharp hazel eyes, tended the fire, kept watch, and continually checked to see if Ben or Chris needed anything.

Ben had been the one to take care of Ezra's cut.  He'd cleaned and bandaged the wound with a certain confidence, and had been keeping a close watch on Standish.  "He needs stitching, but we'd best let Doc do that."  When he placed a hand on Ezra's head, his dark eyes took on a serious and studious look.  "No fever," he said, "Not yet.  Icicle Lake is cold and clean.  Probably cleaned it good.  Too much of that cold got into him though." 

And Frankie would put more wood for the fire.

When Chris asked, Ben told him he'd learned healing from his grandmother, a native from the area.

There was no telling how much blood Ezra had lost.  The water had washed it all away.  If Chekov had been the one that stabbed him, then significant time had passed.  The bleeding had slowed with the bandaging, but hadn't stopped.

No wonder Ezra brought the balloon down when he did.  He'd needed help.  Chris patted Ezra softly for realizing this, for risking taking the balloon down when he did.

Chris kept his hand on Ezra, offering him quiet assurances.  From time to time Ezra's eyes would open slightly and he'd take a deep breath or two before falling back again.  Ben didn't like it.  Chris didn't like it either.  Ezra seemed to be sighing all the time.

"I don't think his lungs got cut," Ben said hopefully.  "Bet his shoulder blade got the worst of it."  He had a solemn expression that seemed to be normal for him.

Frankie squatted down beside them, his eyes still up on the ridge above them.  "How do you two know each other?" he asked.

"We work together," Chris said simply.  There was so much more than that.  "We're lawmen."

Ben looked a little relieved.  "That'd explain all the guns," he said.

"Same with me and the others," Frankie said.  "We work together.  Met at the Simpson Ranch.  Been together for a while. We come from all different places but just sort of fell in with each other.  The four of us came into town to sell a few things, trying to get some money together."

Ben said, "We want to strike out and try something new on our own.  Bein' ranch hands doesn't seem to fit us.  We got bigger plans, but we need to get some sort of a stake together before we can try anything.  We're stuck for a while at Simpson's.  It's no good for Al there.  They don't treat him right."

Frankie looked disgusted.  "I'm not going to put up with that much longer," he declared.  "We'll head out as soon as we got enough."

And Frankie stood suddenly as two horsemen appeared at the ridge.  Chris's hand went for his gun, but he quickly recognized Al and Del.

"We called the doc," Del exclaimed when he reached them.  "He's coming with a wagon.  He's gonna have to take the long way."  He was the youngest of the group, and showed it with his enthusiasm.  "How's Ezra doing?"

Ben told him, "Holding his own.  I think he'll be okay.  Doc will know better than me."

Al swung himself down from his horse.  "Praise the Lord we were able to find Doc Henson before he left for the night.  He does like to drink."

"Keep those prayers comin', Al," Ben said.  "Ezra's gonna need them."

"Doc will be here quick as he can get the wagon around," Del assured.  "Anything we can do while we wait."

"Just get comfortable, Del," Frankie told him.  "Henson doesn't do anything fast."

It took longer than Chris liked for the wagon to finally come around the bend, but the boys kept the fire going, and soon Chris could throw the blanket off his shoulders.  None of the heat seemed to be working its way into Ezra though.  Blood was still seeping through the bandages.

When Henson finally arrived with his assistant, the boys helped load Ezra into the wagon, and gave up some of their blankets because Henson didn't bring enough.  They loaded hot rocks from the fire in as well, to keep Ezra warm during the ride.

As the doctor's assistant turned the wagon, Chris peeled a few bills off the bankroll that he'd found in Ezra's boot and tried to hand it to Frankie.

The boy shook his head.  "Not necessary," he said and went back to picking up the last of their scattered belongings. 

"To pay for your supplies," Chris said and pulled at his shirt.  "And the clothes."

The other boys had all stopped to watch, as Frankie said, "It's okay.  We'll be fine."

Chris kept the money held toward Frankie.  "I don't want you to go without because of us."

Frankie stared at the bills.  "It's too much.  We didn't give you anything that's worth anything.  That's a lot of money."

"You and your friends want to start out fresh somewhere?  This should help.  I want you to have it," Chris insisted.  Ezra might mind, but he'd get the gambler to understand.

Frankie finally took the bills, looking reluctant, but an excitement went through the boys behind him.  "Thank you," he said quietly.  "We'll make use of it."

"You'll be welcome in Four Corners if you ever come by," Chris told him.  He looked up to meet the eyes of the others.  "All four of you."

Del told him, "There's three more back at the Ranch.  Sean said he'd rather read his book.  Jake went off hunting, and Rob did another kind of hunting."

Al laughed at Del's comment.  "Yeah, he's hunting alright.  Rob's always out courtin'.  It's a steady state for him."

Frankie smirked. "Chris, you don't know what you're asking for by inviting us to your town," he said.  "Things sometime get out of hand when we're all together"

"There tends to be trouble," Ben added.

To that, Chris had to smile.  "I know how that is," he said, and shook Frankie's hand.  "Thank you for the help."  And then he shook hands with Del and Al.  "Thank you," he told Ben when he clasped his hand.

And then he climbed into his saddle as the boys departed. 

He rode alongside the wagon, watching.  Henson seemed annoyed by the hot rocks that the boys had nestled in the blankets. It took some convincing to get him to keep them in the wagon.

Chris was good at convincing people.

It was night by the time they returned to Rockville.  When he could finally examine Ezra in his office, the doctor cleaned the wound again, making Ezra come wake with a shout, his eyes wide with pain.  Chris did what he could to reassure him that it would be alright.

The doctor stitched the wound and bandaged it, and Ezra fell away from them again.  Henson let Chris know that he wasn't sure about how things would turn out.   Ezra had lost a lot of blood.  His heart might give out because of the loss of it.  His organs might die.   His lips were too blue, his pulse too weak.

There was a good chance that he wouldn't wake up again, especially if fever got the better of him.

Chris sent a note to the telegraph office to send word to Four Corners.  When he asked some questions, he found that Wallace and his bodyguard had been locked up.  The police were able to match the handwriting on the note to Wallace.  The man was a stupid son of a bitch.

The Whitakers were being protected by their next set of guards, so there'd be no reason to worry about the family. 

Chris settled in for the night.


Chris spent the night restlessly, keeping an eye on Ezra and the doctor's assistant -- a quiet man named Lars.  Lars checked up on Ezra regularly, but there was no change during the night.

Ezra showed no sign of waking up.  The bleeding had stopped with the stitching, but he was still terribly pale and the chill wouldn't leave him in spite of the blankets and hot water bottles that Lars regularly swapped out.

Chris fell asleep at one point, not wanting to.  The quiet of the night, coupled with the half-night of sleep from the day before, and the tumult of the day had taken its toll on him.

He awoke in the morning light when the doctor arrived to replace the assistant.  Larabee could hear Lars telling Henson about the night.

There was little to impart.  Ezra hadn't shown any sign of waking.  There was no improvement.

Chris moved to the bed where Ezra lay on his side, his shoulder under a wrap of bandage, and a blanket pulled to his chin.  Carefully, he put a hand on Ezra's head.  He was far too pale, and not warm enough, but the horrible chill from the lake seemed to have gone. There was still no sign of fever.  That was good.  The knife must have been relatively clean.

"Hey, Ezra," Chris said softly, sitting in the chair beside the bed.  "You got to wake up, you hear me?"

Ezra said nothing.

"I need you up and around.  I know you like your sleep, but this isn't gonna work."

The assistant left, and Henson was muttering to himself.  He hadn't stuck his head in the room yet.

"Come on, Ezra," Larabee encouraged.  "I know you can do just about anything if set your mind to it.  Just show me that you're in there.  Can you just open your eyes?  It'd be good to be able to talk to you for a bit."

When Chris pulled back his hand, Ezra's eyelids fluttered. 

"That's it."

Ezra moved his mouth, but that seemed to be the extent of his abilities.  He quieted again.

It was a good sign, Chris told himself, and decided to talk to the doctor.  He paused when he heard the outer door open and people came into the office just beyond the room.

"Doctor, is he alright?" he heard a woman ask softly, the familiar voice of Della Whitaker.

"He hasn't regained consciousness," the doctor responded.  "I don't know when to expect anything different.  There's a good chance he's not going to make it."

"Oh," she said, and he heard Whitaker's sympathetic groan.

Chris paused long enough to quietly tell Ezra, "Don't listen to that crap," before he pressed himself from the bed and entered the doctor's office.  The three Whitakers were there, and they turned when he came in.

Ansel's face came alight.  He charged at Larabee and instantly grasp hold of him, stunning the gunslinger.  "Chris!" he called. "Chris!"

Startled, Chris didn't know what to do.  Suddenly, Della and James were on either side of him as the boy continued to cling to his legs.  Della hugged and kissed him.  James wrung Chris' hand. 

"We can't thank you enough, Chris," Whitaker declared.  "You saved our boy!  You got him back to us!"

"Thank you," Della whispered in his ear.  "You saved him."

"It wasn't me."  Embarrassed, Chris stepped back from them, and then squatted down to Ansel.  The boy wrapped his arms around Chris's neck, not saying anything.

Chris smiled, so happy to see the boy was well, that his family was back together.  For a moment, he just hung onto the child.  This could have ended so differently. 

When he finally released his hold, he looked up to Henson, who was standing near his desk, watching.  "Doctor," he called.  "I think he was trying to wake up a minute ago."

The doctor didn't look convinced, but he nodded and went into the other room.

Della couldn't stop smiling.  "You saved us all," she cried.

"Ezra did most of the saving," Chris told her, but he felt Ansel stiffen beside him.  He looked to the boy and asked, "Do you want to see him?"

Ansel shook his head and backed away from the door to Ezra's room.  "No thank you," he muttered.

Surprised, Chris lifted his gaze to James and Della, who both looked chagrinned. 

"He's afraid," Della explained.  "I'm sorry, but he's afraid."  She touched her boy on the shoulder.   "Wouldn't you like to come with me to see Ezra?"

"No!" Ansel replied sharply.  "No! I won't!"

"He's sleeping, Anse," Della said.  "He's asleep and he wouldn't hurt you.  Remember, you were friends when we were traveling?"

"No!" Ansel insisted, crossing his arms over his chest as he moved until his back was against the wall.

 She sighed.  "I would like to see him. You can join me if you want."  She extended a hand, but when Ansel didn't come to her, she moved into the other room alone. 

James took his boy in his arms and held him as Ansel made little sobs.

Chris watched in disbelief, seeing only fear in the child's eyes that gazed toward the sick room.

Quietly, Whitaker told Chris, "He remembers Ezra pulling him from the balloon and throwing him off."

"He was rescuing him," Chris stated plainly.

James nodded.  "I know.  I know, and I can't thank him enough.  He risked his life for my boy.  I know how much he sacrificed to help Anse."  And he gazed adoringly at his little boy.  "But Anse remembers only that part of it, and I can't sway him.  We've tried, but he's not hearing.  Not now at least."

"You can make sure he understands," Chris said, keeping his voice quiet.

Whitaker's sad expression didn't change.  "Maybe in time.  He's been through too much."

Della came from the room, and James handed Ansel to her, as he went to see Ezra.  

"He hasn't woken up yet?" Della asked Chris, her face stricken. 

"Not really," Chris responded. 

"He looks so ill," she sighed, as she rocked with her child. 

"I think he's getting better," Chris said.

The doctor came out of the room, stating, "There's no change really," and went back to his desk.

Chris glared at him.

"You sure you wouldn't want to see him?" Della asked softly in Ansel's ear.  "It might help you.  I'll hold you, and you can just look from the doorway."

But Ansel bit off a sharp, "No!" as he shook his head against her neck. 

"He had nightmares last night.  Hardly slept," she explained.  "Someday, he might understand what was really happening.  We just can't push him too hard."

James came out of the room, looking morose, but the expression disappeared when he set his gaze on his son. 

"Did you meet up with your new guard?" Chris asked.

James nodded.  "They're waiting downstairs," he said.  "I suppose they'll escort us home."

"Not to the next town?" Larabee asked.

"Not after this," James responded.

"They got Wallace locked up.  They got him and his bodyguard," Larabee told him.  "They're not going to bother you anymore."

"If they can hold them," Whitaker said softly, and he laid a hand on his son's head.

"We'll talk about it later," Della told her husband, and then to Chris she said, "I'm sorry but we have to go home.  Anse will be okay.  He just has to have a day or two and get some distance from this.  Thank you for everything."

And they were gone.

Larabee looked toward the doctor, finding him reading at his desk, so he returned to the other room.

When he entered, Chris was almost certain he saw Ezra's eyes open, staring at a spot on the bed, but they closed by the time he reached him. 

With a sigh, Larabee sat down, and patted the man on gently on his arm.  "He'll figure it out, Ezra.  It's just the way kids think.  He had a really rough day."

Ezra made no sign that he'd heard, but there was sadness to his still expression.

Chris cornered the doctor after the Whitakers left, asking him what could be done.  The doctor continued to offer no opinion on whether Ezra was going to survive.

Finally, under the threat of Larabee, the doctor said that they had to get Ezra to wake up.  Standish had lost an unknown amount of blood, but there was no doubting the quantity was too much.  Henson said curtly, "He needs liquids.  And you can't just start pouring water down his throat because he'll choke and just die a different way. So, nothing will do any good unless he wakes up!"

Henson left immediately after that conversation, off making his home visits.  He was gone for most of the day.

Chris tried to awaken Ezra.  He tried coaxing, asking and then ordering Ezra to wake up, but the stubborn son of a bitch wasn't going for it.  Even after his fiercest commands, Ezra didn't flinch.  For someone who liked conversation so much, Standish sure wasn't trying to respond.

But, remembering that, Chris tried talking as if he expected a response.  That was when Ezra showed signs of waking.  He just need to talk to him, not 'at' him.

Any time Ezra struggled to open his eyes, Chris did his best to keep him awake, keeping a one-way conversation going as he made him drink. 

"Adam was the funniest kid," Chris said.  He held Ezra upright against him so that he could have some water.  "He used to get fascinated with the strangest things. There was this rooster on our farm -- this little rooster that thought he was the king of the farm.  We had another that was bigger, and that little bantam used to go after the bigger one all the time.  He was always teasing the other, but he'd dodge away before things got out of hand.  The bigger one mostly ignored him.  Just would chase him around every so often.  God, those two made a racket.  You ever keep chickens, Ezra?"

No response.  But Ezra was still studiously, stubbornly sipping at the water.

"Yeah, probably not, huh?  I don't figure Maude would want them.  They're messy as hell. Can't quite imagine you dealing with all that chicken shit."

And still nothing, so Chris kept talking because it kept Ezra awake, and slowly drinking what was offered to him.  He was drifting off already though. 

"Adam used to pet that rooster like a cat.  It would take grain out of his hand and it'd follow him around all over the place.  Made me frustrated as hell when it came time for Sunday dinner and we had one rooster too many on that farm."

Chris chuckled.  "That boy made me pledge that I would leave Random alone."  He paused to explain, "Random is what he called that rooster.  Don't ask me why." 

He cleared his throat, and noticed that Ezra was asleep again.  He settled the man in the bed, and kept talking, "Anyway, I was not to harm a feather on Random's red-crested head, even though that thing was a pest.  It'd jump out at you, tryin' to scare you, then run off, making a whole lot of noise.  Never actually hurt a soul, just seemed happy to mess with people.  Liked company.  Would follow me sometimes."

Chris smiled at the memory, remembering Adam's laughing shrieks of shock when the little rooster would come flying out of some hole in the barn – just to skitter away – cackling. 

Stupid bird.

Random survived a whole mess of Sunday dinners, but a coyote finally got him.  It had made its way in with the hens and Random went right at it.

Larabee remembered chasing that cur down to get the bloodied little rooster out if its jaws so that they could bury him properly.  Adam had wept. Hell, they all got a little teary eyed about that ridiculous little rooster.

Funny how he'd forgotten about that. He'd forgotten a lot.

"Adam loved the stars at night," Chris went on when he'd been able to wake Ezra again, and was getting him to drink some broth.  "One night in August, when the sky was raining stars, I got him out of bed and carried him out into the world.  You like lookin' at the stars, Ezra?"

Ezra, who'd been concentrating on drinking the warm broth from the cup, swiveled his gaze to look at Larabee.  That was good, Chris thought.

"The whole sky was alight with them.  They were falling all over.  Most amazing night I've ever seen.  We stayed out there for hours, pointing and shouting out every time we spotted a new one fall.  Sarah said we were acting like fools, but was such a beautiful sight, Ezra.  It was pretty as hell."

Ezra looked like he wanted to say something, but the act of trying to stay awake and taking the broth was taxing him.  Finally, he sighed, and voiced a quiet, "Much obliged," and he drifted off again.

Chris chuckled at the statement, feeling amazingly relieved.

As he settled Ezra on his side again, Chris said quietly.  "Adam would've liked you.  I'd be annoyed at you for filling his head with nonsense and bad ideas, but he would've loved it any time you came around."

Chris smiled at that thought, remembering how Adam had adored Buck.  He wondered what it would have been like to have known Ezra, to have known all the others before everything went to hell.   It might have made things different.  It might have changed everything.

He placed a hand on the side of Ezra's face, thinking that he was finally feeling warm.  Not fever, just a nice healthy warmth.

Ezra was getting better.  Henson was a stupid son of a bitch.

Buck and Vin arrived late in the day. 

Larabee met them in the doctor's outer room.  Henson had disappeared again, probably not wanting to be under Larabee's scrutiny.  Chris suspected he was off to drink his supper.

"Buck," Chris greeted.  "I see Charlotte's done with you."

"Lord, is she ever!" Buck responded.

"It's back to winter with Charlotte," Vin explained.  "Loretta, on the other hand…"

"Loretta, if I recall, follows her sister," Chris said.

Vin made a face.  "If Wilmington could only keep a woman happy, I'd have sweet Loretta."

"It wasn't my fault," Buck went on.  "Charlotte is temperamental." 

"Is she ever!" Vin declared.

Their tone was light as they skirted the important issue, but their eyes turned to the entrance to the other room.

"How is he?"  Vin finally asked.

"Yeah, your wire didn't say much," Buck said.  "Just that some son of a bitch stabbed him and he was hurt as hell."

Larabee looked contemplative. "Doing better.  He's woken up a couple of times, and I've gotten him to take some water and some broth." 

Buck nodded and made his way into the room to find Ezra so quiet in the bed.  "Damn, Ezra," he muttered as he took off his hat and ran a hand through his hair.  "What happened to you?" and he crossed the distance in two long strides.

"Got his shoulder carved pretty good.  He's lost more blood than a man should.  Just about froze himself," Chris said as he followed Wilmington.  Vin held back a moment.

"How'd it happen?" Buck asked.

Chris paused before saying, "That's gonna takes some time to tell."

"Why'd it happen?" Buck rephrased.

"He was savin' a kid," Chris explained.

Buck nodded, satisfied with that explanation.

"You get the guy who done it?" Vin asked, his voice tight as he stood in the doorway behind them, finally getting a good look at their friend.

"Ezra took care of him.  The others are locked up right now," Chris told them. 

"He'll have an excuse to get out of any heavy work for a while," Buck said with a slight smile, as he patted his friend.

"He say anything?" Vin went on.

Chris shrugged.  "Not much."


"That's not our Ezra," Buck sighed.

Vin finally moved further into the room, pushing past the others to sit in the bedside chair.  "Hey, Ez, you in there?" He leaned close, nearly nose to nose with the man.  "Come on, Ezra, we came all the way to see you.  Ain't ya gonna say 'hey'?"

Little muscles worked across Ezra's face.

"Now, Ez, what are we gonna do if you not gonna wake up and talk to us?" Vin asked.  "We can't just turn around and go home.  Ol' Buck will get saddle-sore.  He's gettin' old, you know.  You can't do that to Ol' Buck."

"Now, Vin," Buck started to complain behind him.

Vin kept talking, his voice low and his face as close to Ezra's as he could manage.  "So you'd better wake up, so as he don't get sore.   I don't care for this much either.  It's not right if you're not jawin' away at us.   Not gonna do it?"  Gently, he tapped his brother on the collarbone.  "I'll keep doing this until you open yer eyes up."  Tap, tap, tap.  "Is this irritating you yet?"  Tap, tap, tap.

Ezra responded by slowly opening his eyes and looking at Vin blearily. 

"Well, lookie there!" Buck said cheerfully.  "He's awake.  Hey, Hoss!"

And the eyes closed again.

With a frown, Vin tried lightly tapping Ezra's forehead in the same way.

Eyes opened again, trying to focus on the offending digit. "Why?" Ezra croaked.

Vin grinned widely.  "You're back!  Hey, Ez!  The party's arrived.  Figured you'd want to be awake for it."

Ezra gaze moved slowly from Buck to Vin, and seemed glad to see them.  His then looked to Larabee.  "Why'd you let them do this to me?" he accused Larabee.

"You weren't staying awake," Larabee told him.

Buck raised his hands. "And I haven't even started yet!" he declared.

Ezra fixed him with a tired glare.  "You will…"

Vin moved his hand to rub Ezra's head, mussing his hair fondly.

There was no denying it.  It was good to hear Ezra talking more.  And Larabee was damn glad to have some help.  He couldn't remember the last time he'd had to say so much.

With the extra help, Larabee was able to move Ezra out of the doctor's room, and back into the hotel.  There had been no sign of fever.  Larabee had found the doctor to be mostly worthless. He would rather have Nathan.  Hell, he'd rather have Ben's help, all things considered. 

They carried him through the street in a blanket, Ezra cursing quietly, complaining about the embarrassment of it.

"Nobody can see you, Ez," Vin told him, peering down into the blanket sling. 

"Better than walking the street in a tablecloth," Buck reminded.

"Or a towel," Ezra completed.

"If you could walk on your own, it wouldn't be necessary," Chris reminded.

"Tomorrow maybe," Ezra said sleepily.  "This isn't so bad, actually."  He smiled up at them. "Might employ you to do the same when we get home." 

"Like hell," Buck told him, pulling on the blanket, so that it started rocking.

Ezra yawned.  "Quite comfortable.  Almost like flyin'."  And he was asleep again before they made it to the hotel.

They stayed in Rockville while Ezra built up his strength.  He slept most of the time and wore a sling to keep from aggravating the wound at his shoulder.  He was able to eat heartily once he could remain awake.  Buck and Vin kept him occupied with their persistent annoyances.   Chris let them have their fun, as he kept watch and stayed out of their way. 

Ezra was getting stronger and better armed to deflect their barbs.

Buck apologized to Chris at one point, for standing him up at the start, but Chris let him know that it wasn't so bad with Ezra.  When Buck apologized to Ezra for getting him into the whole mess, Ezra let him know that Wilmington owed him.  A future swap was inevitable, and Buck figured that the next time a decent game was going in in town, Buck would draw Ezra's duty.

Finally, on the third day after Ezra's return to Rockville, he declared he was well enough to travel home.  It was wishful thinking, of course.  The group struck out early, and only made it partway after a slow day of travel.  They set up camp.  

They were just getting settled when a group of riders came in from the south, seven horsemen from the direction of the Simpson Ranch. 

Frankie and his crew were a cheerful and boisterous bunch, headed to San Francisco.  They were excited to have come across the others, and all were glad to see Ezra feeling better.  Ben questioned him about all manner of things.  Later Ezra would say that Ben was worse than Nathan.

The gambler seemed confused when the boys thanked Chris for some money.  Ezra pulled the wad of cash from his boot, counted it twice, and then served Larabee with a white-hot glare.

The two groups shared an early supper together.  Sean played a concertina and Rob brought out a guitar.  It made the meal into a small party.  

Before they left, Del answered a question that had been plaguing both Ezra and Chris – how did Ansel get into the gondola unnoticed?  The boys had been relaxing in the park after the debate, waiting for the promised rise of the balloon.  They'd heard the commotion near the bandstand, and all turned to see what was going on, except Del.  He was happy to stare at the balloon.

He had watched as a big man hurriedly brought a large sack to the gondola and quickly handed it up to the balloonist.  The two then emptied the contents into the bottom of the basket and they'd worked to secure it.  Then, the first man left with the bag. 

"I wasn't sure what it was all about," Del explained.  "They seemed really intense about it, looking around to see if anyone was watching.  They didn't notice me.  I thought it was going to be some sort of surprise, like they were going to drop presents to the crowd."

Would Del be able to give any details about the man?  Yes, and his description fit the bodyguard.  Frankie promised that they would stop in Rockville on their way through so that Del could give his statement.  Del's memory would help keep Wallace and his man in custody.

Ansel must have been terrified, Chris realized, to have remained so still during his abduction.  And when he looked at Ezra, Larabee could tell from the gambler's expression that he was having the same glum realization.

Poor kid.  No wonder he was still so terrified.

The boys departed after ensuring that the men from Four Corners would be okay.  They had miles to cover and were eager to continue westward before night fell.

The little camp was considerably quieter after they went on their way.   

"Were we ever that young?" Buck asked.  None of them could truly admit to it, and each was secretly envious of the boys and their early friendship.

"I don't see how you could rob me to pay off those boys," Ezra had said once they were gone.

"They were good kids, Ezra," Chris replied.  "They gave up their stuff for us."

"The amount seems excessive for some old blankets, a new outfit for you, and other odds and ends."

"They saved your life, Ezra."

"It was a considerable sum, considering." 

Chris shook his head, thinking that he should have given them a whole lot more, considering.  Some things are worth the price.  "They had to get out of there," Chris told him.  "One of their friends wasn't being treated right."

With that, Ezra didn't press Chris any further for repayment.

It took another day of slow travel to reach the familiar sights of Four Corners.

Josiah, JD and Nathan came charging out to meet them, and all Seven were together again. 

Yawning, and nearly falling out of the saddle, Ezra submitted to Nathan's ministrations before he was released to his own room for the night.  He slept a full 24 hours before finally emerging.

The Whitakers had reminded Chris of what it was like to have a family.  He'd missed that feeling so much.  Now that he was back on Four Corners, he reminded himself that he did have a family.  It was good to have everyone together again.

Finally, more than a week after the disastrous flight of the gas balloon, Ezra appeared in the saloon, still sporting a sling, looking a little pale, but much more like himself.

He spent much of that first day regaling the others on the sights he had seen from Chekov's balloon, speaking of colors and textures and the amazing perspective of the world seen from above.  It brought wistful responses from them.

"It was amazing," Ezra said and he was frustrated because even at his most eloquent, he couldn't adequately describe it all. 

They were jealous, which delighted Standish.

Things went on as they normally did in Four Corners.  Life went on.

"Chris," JD called.  "Chris!"

Larabee slowed on his track toward the jail, letting JD catch up with him. 

"Hey, Chris!" JD cried.  "You got letters."  He smiled as he flapped them at the gunman.

Chris stopped and turned to see.

"They came in on the stage," the kid explained.  "One for Ezra, too.  You seen him?"

"Naw," Chris replied.  "Ain't seen him all day."

He heard a soft laugh from Vin, leaning against one of the roof supports outside the jail.  When Chris looked to him, Vin set his gaze on the roof of the hotel.

With a sigh, Chris spotted the green of the gambler's jacket, high above their heads.  "I thought he'd stopped doing that," Chris groaned.

Vin shook his head.  "Picked it up again since we got back from Rockville."

JD looked up in wonder.  "How'd he get up there?  He usually swings himself up at the saddle shop."  JD rubbed his own shoulder.  "I didn't think he was up to that yet."

Vin looked away and sucked his teeth.

"Out with it, Tanner," Chris demanded.

"I found a ladder out behind the Grain Exchange.  He's sneaky as hell, and will figure a way to get what he wants.  Probably won't be needing the ladder much longer.  If you want to catch him, you'd may as well make use of it."

Chris grimaced.  "I'll wait 'til he comes down."

"Your loss," Vin responded.  He looked up again at Ezra and said, "You can get a pretty good view from up there."  He lifted his weight from the post and said, "Come on, JD," and held the door open as he entered the jail.

JD waited a moment, then followed Vin into the jail.  Tanner waved at Chris as he let the door shut.

With a shake of his head, Chris looked up again at were Ezra was relaxing on the roof of the tall building.

"Stupid son of a bitch," Chris grumbled and went to find the ladder Vin had mentioned.

The ladder was on its side when he found it, evidence that Ezra had given up use of it already.  Chris leaned it against the building to climb onto the roof of the Grain Exchange.  From there, he had to cross two buildings to reach the hotel. 

Why was Ezra going up here again?

After Chris made his way across the second building, he heard a voice float over the peak.  "You should try to walk with a softer tread, Mr. Larabee. You'll frighten business owners and hotel patrons with all that stomping.  The secret to this is to move as silently as possible.  I do not wish to be evicted."

Larabee grumbled, but tried to walk softer as he crossed the peak to reach the spot where Ezra was sunning himself atop the hotel.

"Standish," Larabee greeted.

Ezra smiled up at him.  "Chris," he replied.

Chris careful edged down to Ezra.  "You got a letter."

"My, my, my!" Ezra exclaimed. "The U.S. Postal Service is a marvel. They truly deliver anywhere. Are you among their noble ranks now?"

"You're an annoying son of a bitch, you know?"

"Oh, of that, I am well aware."  When Chris pulled the three letters out of his pocket, Ezra said, "And I see you've received correspondence as well.  Have a seat, and let us enjoy our good fortune."

Chris looked dubiously at the slope of the roof, and then slowly lowered himself beside Ezra.

He handed Ezra's letter to him.  Ezra glanced at it, and then lowered his hand to his lap and he stared off over the town.

Chris looked at his letters.  The return address on the first was from San Francisco.   He tore it open and unfolded the paper.  "It's from the boys," Chris said.

"Hmmm?" Ezra responded.

"Frankie and the others.  Those kids who saved your ass."

"Ah yes," Ezra responded.

"They made to San Francisco," he said. 

"They are good men," Ezra declared.  "I remember nothing of our first meeting, but they were descent sorts when we met up with them on the way out of Rockville.  They seemed to get along well with each other.  They are very lucky to have found each other.  And luckier still that they had enough ready cash to go on such an adventure."

Chris chuckled, and read aloud part of the letter that described a tussle they'd gotten into with some of the locals.  It ended up with Rob and Del spending the night with the local police.  "Frankie says they've worn out their welcome.  They're striking out for Seattle next."

"Lord help Seattle!" Ezra exclaimed.

He read the rest of the letter so that Ezra could hear, telling all about the adventures of the boys. 

Oh, to be young again, to be young and with the company of good friends!

He glanced at Ezra when he finished the letter, finding him still looking into the distance.

Chris didn't understand why Ezra insisted on coming up here to sit on the roof.  For a man who demanded comfort, the shingles were rather unkind on a man's backside.

He moved on to his second letter.   He could tell that it matched the return address on Ezra's envelope – from Ridge City.

Chris tore it open and slid out the letter.  "It's from the Whitakers," he said.

"Wonderful," Ezra replied, lifting his envelope to look at it.  "What do they have to say?"

"Della says that Jim isn't going to run for Governor."

"Pity," Ezra said.  "He would have been amazing.  However, I completely understand.  Some things are more important than others."

"But he is going to run for mayor of Ridge City," Chris went on.  "Says she'll still work on him, see what other offices me might be able to obtain."  He read the letter in silence when Della started praising him for his help in saving Ansel, and she mentioned that the boy was doing better.  He turned to the second page and smiled when he found a carefully lettered message from Ansel, declaring all his adoration for the gunslinger.  There was a drawing of a man in black filling the bottom corner.

Chris' smile grew fonder.

He glanced to Ezra, seeing that he hadn't opened his yet.  "You gonna read that?" he asked.

With a sigh, Ezra turned the letter over in his hands.  "It would be best if I saved it for later. I don't have my letter opener," he said, but he worked a finger into the flap and opened it anyway.   He silently read the contents of the first page with an impassive expression.  "More of the same," he said.  "I suspect that Della believes that we don't talk very often."  And he quirked an eyebrow at Larabee.

"Ansel is doing well," Ezra went on.  "He no longer has nightmares and she says that he isn't afraid of the mere mention of my name.  That's good."  He nodded.  He then turned the page to find the second sheet, written in that same childish script as Chris'.

Ezra seemed to relax a little as he read, uncoiling as he smiled.  "Ansel says that they saw plenty of pronghorns on their journey home, and he made sure to shout at them at every opportunity."   The smile grew.  "And he's been certain to always leave his socks in his shoes, even when they are not staying in hotels.  Elves are devious, I suppose and one must always be on watch."  He turned the letter and showed Chris a little drawings of pronghorns running across the bottom of the page – of elves hiding in the upper corners.

Ezra laughed as he looked at the pictures again.  "Look at this pronghorn," he said.  "It looks positively possessed!"  And he smiled widely, looking happier than he had in weeks.

Chris smiled too as he shifted uncomfortably on the roof.

Ezra glanced to him at the movement.  "I'm surprised that you came here," he said.  "You're usually not the one stuck with the task of coming to fetch me.  I thought you were above this sort of thing."

"I'm not stupid like the others," Chris responded.  "And you haven't come up here for ages."

Ezra shrugged, one shoulder not going up as far as the other.  "I'd forgotten," he said.

"What? You forgot how to get up here?"

"I'd forgotten how enjoyable it was," Ezra said as he stood.  "You can see for miles.  So much of the world is revealed.  Look, you can see all the way to the crossroads.  To the east, you can see halfway to Half-Pate.  There's a plume from the train comin' through.  And over there, you can see how purple the foothills are."

Ezra smiled and pointed to a place behind one of the residences.  "Chickens!" he proclaimed.

Chris shook his head as he struggled to his feet to join Ezra.  Yeah, he had to admit, you could see a long way from up here.  It wasn't all bad.

"And you can see someone comin' into town.  Lord, I think it's Josiah!"  Ezra ducked.  "I'd better get down before he sees me. He won't take any excuses if he knows where I've been.  He'll have me with him, fixin' someone's doorknob or some-such."  And he scuttled across the roof like a crab, back across the adjoining roof toward the Grain Exchange.

Chris chuckled and followed, hunching to hide his presence without really realizing he was doing so.

Ezra continued across the roofs, walking lightly.  He flashed irritated looks to Chris when Larabee trod too heavily.  When they reached the Grain Exchange, Ezra seemed delighted to find the ladder in place.  "That'll make things easier.  Lord, I think I strained something when I tried to get up without it.  Don't tell Nathan."

"You gonna do it again?" Chris asked.

"Do what? Climb up here?  Certainly," Ezra said.

"The balloon," Chris said.  "You gonna go up again someday, with an experienced professional to steer damn the thing?"

Ezra paused, looking over his shoulder at Larabee.  "Can they be steered?

Chris shrugged.  "No idea.  They can come down pretty fast through. I know that much."

"Well," Ezra drawled "Given the right circumstances…" And he grinned.  "Without a doubt, yes, sir!"

"You're crazy, Ezra," Chris told him.

"Yes, sir, indeed I am," Ezra responded, as he started down the ladder, humming softly.  "Might even learn to pilot one myself."


"Yes.  But the talent would come in handy, wouldn't it?"

"God, I hope not."  Still, Chris added, "I might want to go up in one.  I mean, after listening to you go on about it for so long.  Sounded like it might be nice."

"Mr. Larabee!" Ezra exclaimed as he reached the ground.  "There's hope for you yet.  I'm certain we can work this out and, above it all, we're certain to have a rousing adventure."

Larabee, as he followed, wondered what the hell he was getting into.


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