RATING: PG-13 for language (omigosh!)
CATEGORY: Challenge - OW
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, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp., TNN, The Hallmark Channel  or any others involved with that production is intended.
NOTE: March 2004 Challenge, offered by CelestaSunStar: The Keepsake Challenge. One of the Seven has a new keepsake.  What is the keepsake, and the story behind it.  At least one of the remaining Seven needs to know/hear the story.  Random Bonus Words (any/all) : Green, Gold, Rabbit, George, Bagpipes, Scotland, Clover, Heritage...yes, they're all in here
SUMMARY:  Chris and Ezra spend a little 'quality time' together
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Kristin came up with the name of Ezra's Horse.  Eleanor T gave me Chris and JD's.
FEEDBACK: Yes please! comments are greatly appreciated.
DATE: March 27, 2004

Winner of the 2004 Mistresses Of Malarkey "The Golden Crutch" Award for Best Hurt/Comfort Gen Fic
By By NotTasha...tin-tabulous!

The path Chris Larabee followed was overgrown – hard to find.  It wasn't as if many people had reason to come this way -- the place he sought was too hidden to chance upon, and the owner of the acreage was known to have a temper -- not appreciating unexpected guests.  Job clomped along and Larabee kept his gaze traveling.   Almost there, Larabee thought.  Couldn’t be soon enough.  He glanced behind himself to ensure that he was still followed.  “Won’t be much longer,” he stated, not expecting a reply, and then continued onward.  Where the hell is it? he thought.   Should've been there by now. Finally, as he crested a low hill, a simple cabin was revealed.

He stopped the slow progression of his horse and took a moment to appraise the state of his cabin.  It was as he'd left it -- looking a little forlorn with its emptiness.  A house, a shed, a corral… a privy.   A butter churn and a cheap tin lantern sat on the porch where he'd left them.  They waited, untouched by anything beyond time and the wind.

He allowed himself a small smile, proud of the work he'd done.  Someday, there would be a big barn, and horses in that corral -- colts with their dams, spirited stallions nearby.  Someday, there'd be a cow -- and her milk would be turned to butter.  Someday, he'd have a dog or two to chase the rabbits -- some cats to keep the mice from the feed -- chickens for eggs and Sunday supper -- a pig fattening against the winter.   He'd move out here -- permanently.  Someday, this would be his home.  Someday…

The smile faded as he considered this.  Well, maybe.  Truthfully, this cabin never felt like home to him.   It wasn’t anything he planned to stay in.  It was just a temporary thing to him – like a box made of tin – it could do its job but it wasn’t meant to endure.

When he had built a home for Sarah, he'd made it to last.  She’d been his light -- his salvation  -- his strength.  She made that place a home.  They'd planned to have a mess of children, planned to watch them grow -- planned a lot of things.  Adam, and those that followed, would become young men and women.  Grandchildren would dance beneath the trees.  That house would have been the seat of his patriarchy. It would have been 'home' to generations.  He and Sarah would have lived there until the ends of their days.


It should have lasted forever.  God, how it had burned.

Even as he gazed at this new house, he knew he had no similar aspirations here.  No, he couldn't see himself as an old man on that porch with the butter churn… and the pig and the cow and the cats.  No, this place was his 'tin' home.  It held the impermanence of anything made of that metal, bound to be battered and bent and made useless in time -- something that would be tossed away when it stopped being useful.

Glancing over his shoulder for the umpteenth time, Chris assured himself that his traveling companion was still with him.  Following by a few lengths, Ezra's horse kept a steady pace as his owner hunched in the saddle.

When the horse finally came to a stop, just out of reach of the gunslinger, Chris sighed, getting a good look at the gambler.  Standish huddled in his jacket, his head tucked into his collar.  His brow was knitted -- his face, pale and sweaty.  Standish didn't bother to look up when Chaucer stopped. 


"Ezra," Chris called sharply.  Ezra's head snapped up as he blinked blearily.  "Ezra," Chris repeated, softer.  "We're here."

The gambler looked about in a daze.  He kept a firm grasp on the saddle horn as he squinted at the structure before them.  He puzzled for a moment and finally croaked, "This doesn't look like the saloon."

"It ain't," Chris responded as he jogged Job down the little hill.  He waited as Chaucer followed at a slower gait. 


When he was astride Chris, Ezra examined the place again before saying, "I don't think I know this place." His drawl was drawn out and sluggish.


Chris considered this, wanting to tell him differently, but had to answer, "I s'pect you ain't been here before."  He dismounted and moved around his horse. "It's my cabin."


Ezra swayed in the saddle as he tried to find Chris.  He blinked at the empty air above Job until Larabee snapped his fingers to draw Standish's attention.  Trying to hide his embarrassment, the gambler uttered, "How quaint."


"Yeah, that's just the word I was gonna use," Larabee commented as he grasped Job's reins and then moved to capture Chaucer's.  The chestnut snorted at him but didn't step away.  "Get down, Ezra," the gunslinger ordered, seeing that Standish had made no attempt to move. 


Realizing that this might be a good idea, Ezra nodded numbly, and swung out of the saddle.  Chris kept the horse still, letting Ezra do this on his own, but he kept one hand free in case he was needed.  The gambler landed clumsily, stumbled, but managed to keep his feet.  Not releasing his grip on the saddle horn, he pressed his hot head against Chaucer's side and stood for a moment, trying to find his equilibrium.


Chris waited, watching the southerner breathe harshly.  There was no reason to ask, "are you okay?" because any fool could tell that Standish was god-awful sick.  There had been a fever flying through Red Rock, taking down townspeople for the last couple weeks.  Nothing serious, the local 'doc' had assured, as long as the sick were properly looked after.  Leave it to Standish to catch any bug that lit upon him.  He was too damn social, mixing with everyone in that place.  Had no sense whatsoever, Chris figured.  It wasn't a bullet that'd eventually end Standish, Larabee decided, it would be some stupid cold.


"Ezra," Chris started, once Standish had recovered somewhat from the move.  "Go in.  I'll take care of the horses."


Ezra turned his head against his horse, his fevered green eyes glinted at the gunslinger.  "That would be… most appreciated," he muttered, and took a moment to lick his dry lips.  "Most appreciated," he repeated softly.  He straightened, gave Chaucer a friendly pat, then shuffled a few steps from the horses.  He came to a stop as he narrowed his gaze at the cabin.


"Mistah Lar-a-bee," he drawled slowly, turning ungracefully toward the other man.


"Yeah," Chris responded.


Again, Ezra licked his lips.  "The key…" he uttered.


"Key?" Chris cocked his head as he watched Ezra sway.


"For your…" Ezra gestured sloppily.  "…Domicile."


Chris chuckled.  "Ain't no key, Ezra."


Ezra frowned as he tried to concentrate.  "But, in these environs… certainly… it would be necessary to…lock up… what is… precious."


"Ain't nothing here anyone’d want.  And, if I locked the door, someone would smash out a window," Chris told him patiently.  "This way, I save myself a pane."


Ezra gave Larabee a speculative look.  He started to say something, opening his mouth, but closed it as he contemplated.


"Just get in there, Ezra," Larabee urged.  Chris would have preferred to grab hold of the southerner and frog march him through that door -- carry the idiot if he had to -- but he waited, letting Ezra take his time.


Ezra made a gesture that may have been a wave, or an attempt to keep his balance as he turned.  Then, with determined nod, he shambled toward the doorway of the cabin.  Chris waited, wondering if he’d be able to sprint across the distance if Ezra collapsed.  But, the gambler made it to the porch without injury.  He stepped up slowly, and paused at the door, taking too long to figure out how the simple hasp worked, then pressed open the door.


The door remained ajar as Ezra made his way within the room, disappearing from sight.  Made it.  With a shake of his head, Chris led the horses to the corral.  He didn't waste much time on the animals, not taking the care that he might have in other circumstances.  There were other things that needed tending.


Ezra had taken ill shortly after leaving Red Rock.  He'd assured Chris that it was only a minor inconvenience and they continued on their way.   After all, there was wisdom in putting that infected town behind them.   It was only once they were in the middle of nowhere that the chills and the alternating sweats got a grip on Standish.


Every little cold that makes it through town knocks Standish to the ground, Larabee thought as he washed his hands at the trough, then filled a bucket with fresh water from the pump. Can sit at the gamblin' tables for days at a stretch, but the sniffles turn him to mush. Damn inconvenient.  Chris grimaced as he straightened.


As Larabee made his way to the cabin, keeping the heavy bucket at his side, he realized that Ezra hadn't complained much during that ride.  As much as the gambler moaned about every petty thing, he kept tight-lipped about his pains.   Gotta hand it to him for that, Larabee thought as he reached the porch.  I know I would 'ave been bitchin'.


Walking through the open door, Larabee glanced to his simple bed in the corner of his one room cabin, expecting to see Ezra laid out on it, but the bed was empty.  With a sigh, he found Standish sitting at the table.  His head rested against the wall as he slouched to one side in the chair.  What the hell was he doing there?  What was the matter with that fool?


"Ezra," Chris called as he set the bucket on the table.  Eyes pressed closed, Ezra offered him no response.  "Ezra," Larabee repeated and Ezra jerked and blinked.


Confused, Ezra glanced around the room.  "What?" he voiced softly.


"Comfortable?" Chris asked, noting Ezra’s slump.


"Where?" Ezra muttered.  "Where am I?"  His confused expression was a disconcerting look for the usually composed gamester.


"At my cabin," Chris explained as he pulled a tin cup from one of his cupboards.


"How…how'd we get here?"


"By horse."




"Easier than walkin'."  Chris plunged the dented cup into the bucket and handed it to Standish.  "Drink this."


Ezra gazed at the cup while Chris waited.   It took a few seconds, but Ezra shook himself from a stupor and drank the contents slowly, wincing as he swallowed.   When he finished, he handed the empty cup back to Larabee and returned his head to its position against the wall.  He let out a low sigh and asked, "What're we doin' here?"


"Figured we had to stop before you fell off your horse."  Chris smiled, enjoying the pointless conversation.  It reminded him of Adam and the myriad questions the boy could fire at him.  Sarah had told him not to encourage the boy… that everyone would get sick of the constant questions, but Chris had never failed to be delighted by Adam's inquisitive nature.  He'd answer any question the boy had.


God, how he missed his son.


Ezra closed his eyes again, slumping further against the wall.  "Good idea… stoppin'.  Rest for the weary."


"No, you don’t!"  Larabee barked out, "You ain't sleepin' here.."


Blood-shot eyes shot open at the sharp retort, and a panicked look faced Larabee.  "What?  Where can I go?"   With a confused motion, Ezra managed to get his hands onto the table and press against it to gain his feet.  "I know," he said as he stumbled and twisted toward the door, gripping the chair for support.  "I’m goin'.  I'll be gone."


What the hell was the matter with him? Chris thought as he blocked Ezra's path.  Didn't he understand simple English?  There's a goddamn bed right there.  Why wasn't he in it?  "You ain't goin' any where," Chris told him.  "Just want to get you out of my chair.  Come on."  He grabbed Ezra's arm and tugged the man toward the bed.  Ezra's gaze languidly attached to Chris' hands, as if he was fascinated with Larabee's grip.  Quickly, Larabee ushered him across the floor and shoved him into a sitting position on the bed.  "There," he said as Ezra collapsed.  He regarded the fully dressed gambler for a moment before he told him, “Get out of your jacket.  Might as well set down your guns.  Ain't no one here to shoot but me.”

"Might need them then," Ezra declared with a grin.


Chris gave him a glare.  "Just get yourself settled," he urged.


Nodding stupidly, Ezra worked at removing his jacket.  As Chris started making coffee, Ezra fought his way out of the coat, finally tossing it on the ground turned inside-out.  Ezra managed to unlatch his gun belt, and unbuckle his shoulder holster, getting loose from them took more effort.  The derringer rig, finally, confounded him.  As hard as he concentrated, he could not get the rig un-done.  Larabee observed Ezra's pathetic attempts until he gave in and stepped toward the bed.


Gently grasping Ezra's arm, he turned it to get a better view of the mechanism.  "Damn, Ezra," Chris murmured as he fussed with the straps.  "You don't do anything easy."


"I am a man of leisure," Ezra whispered.  "And take everything easy."


"Hot as hell," Larabee commented as he knelt down beside the bed, near enough to feel the heat of Ezra's fever.  He found the secret of the mechanism after a little study and soon had it removed from Ezra's arm.  He tossed it to the table and it landed with a 'clink'.


"Thank you," Ezra murmured, rubbing his arm once it was freed.  "My hands feel swollen like sausages.  Useless." He grimaced, swallowed thickly.  "Not good for anythin'."


Chris set Ezra's gun belts beside the derringer rig, then picked up the jacket, fixing the sleeves before he draped it over the back of a chair.  Ezra hadn't moved, sitting on the edge of the bed looking dazed.  Once he had Ezra's possessions settled, Chris handed Ezra more water in the chipped cup.


Ezra drank it carefully.  "Thank you," he managed once he was done, then looked about the room in confusion.  His red-rimmed eyes met Chris' and he asked again, "Where are we?"


With a sigh, Chris pressed on Ezra's chest, maneuvering him around and easily shoving him until he was flat on the bed.  "My cabin," Chris patiently explained.  He expected Ezra to fight his way upright, but the southerner was played out.  He lay in the bed, looking a little like a dead trout.  Larabee grasped hold of the heel of Ezra's boot and started working it off.


"What're we doin' here?" Ezra asked softly, staring up at the ceiling.


"I don't know about you," Chris started as he pulled off one boot and tossed it toward the door, "But I'm gonna make myself some supper.  You hungry?"


Ezra made a face and shook his sweaty head.  "No… no thank you."




Ezra looked contemplative, but shook his head after laying a hand across his stomach.


"Your choice," Chris responded as he worked off the other boot.


Ezra let out a long sigh and rubbed his eyes as Chris freed his foot.    "What happened to me?"  Standish asked, running his fingers through his hair.


"You got yourself sick.  Go to sleep.  You'll feel better in the morning."


"Care to place a bet on that?"  A small smile lit Ezra's pale face.


Chris managed a smile of his own.  "No," he replied.


"Bastard," Ezra muttered, his voice growing softer.  "Should 'ave figured that a man of your moral standing…"


"Go to sleep," Larabee repeated -- and like magic, the southerner drifted off.  Chris sighed, glad for the gambler's penchant of falling asleep quickly.  At least Standish hadn't gone the other way and refused to sleep.  It was always one way or the other with Ezra -- feast or famine.


Chris refilled the battered tin cup and set it on the small table beside the bed.  Ezra could reach it if he wanted more.  Larabee remained a moment, long enough to place one hand on Ezra's brow and grimace at how hot he'd become.  Damn.  That quack in Red Rock better be right about this fever being 'nothing to worry about', Chris thought grimly.


Unable to do anything more, Chris stood and moved around the small cabin, putting it back in order after its long vacancy.  It had been weeks since his last visit.  Time passed so quickly.  Remember how it flew by while Adam was growing?  He'd thought the boy would be an infant forever, but he blinked and Adam was walking, and then he was running and riding and laughing and talking… and then Chris blinked again and…

Abruptly, Chris stopped his pointless messing about and checked on Standish, finding him in a restless asleep, slick with sweat, and still too damn hot.  Ezra moved his lips without voicing any words, a look of distress on his colorless face.


With a sigh, Chris pulled a bowl from his cupboards, filled it from the bucket, and placed it on the simple bedside table.  He dunked a cloth into the liquid and did his best to cool down the over-heated southerner with the wet rag.


Ezra murmured softly, and tried ineffectually to bat him away.  Chris easily outmaneuvered the sloppy defensive moves as he continued to apply cool water to Ezra's face.  The simple task seemed to calm the southerner.  Ezra stopped trying to force Chris away, and dropped into a more restful sleep.


Imagine that… something so easy quiets him down.  Couldn't be that simple if he were awake, Chris thought with a smile.  Just took some care, that's all.


Chris remained in the cabin for some time, keeping an eye on his charge, but Ezra was sleeping easily enough.  Since Standish didn't seem to be going anywhere, Chris stood stiffly, propped the door open wide, and went outside to ensure that his property was in order.  After a walk around, he checked on the horses, put the saddles in the shed, retrieved their saddlebags, and then returned to make lunch.


He sat at the table, eating the simple meal, watching Standish, who tossed occasional, muttering senselessly.  Sometimes Ezra would raise one hand, palm out, as if to ward off something, but the arm would tiredly fall again and Ezra would quiet.


After checking on Ezra again, wiping down his face and neck, and making sure he wasn't getting any worse, Larabee strode out into the yard to take care of chores  -- there were always something that needed to be done.  The afternoon was long and quiet.  He cut wood, fixed a fence rail, and repaired the roof of the privy, always keeping near the cabin -- listening for any activity within.   As he worked, he recalled how much he’d enjoyed such tasks when he did those little things for Sarah.  For Sarah, he had plowed a small patch of earth near that house for a kitchen garden, then tilled up more soil so that she could have flowers.


A flower garden is preposterous thing.  What good did it do?  His labors were better spent elsewhere, but Sarah had asked – only once – and he complied.  He had plowed up that patch, dutifully picked out the sod, built a low fence and fertilized the hell out of it.  Sarah fought epic battles against the weeds and the rabbits.  The first year, the flowers had been pale and sickly.  Chris would have given up.  Sarah didn’t.  The next year they bloomed like crazy.


She'd loved to see pretty things grow.


Nothing grows here, Chris thought as he looked about his land.  Soil's poor.  It'll need work.  Lots of it.  Maybe someday.  Need a ton of manure.  His gaze flicked about the property, thinking about a kitchen garden.  Ain't going to plant any flowers.  Won’t be no fields of clover.  Some fresh vegetables would be good though.  Could plant them there by the door.  Or 'round back.  Should have a back door.  Cabin's too small for that.  Need a proper kitchen, I guess, before I can have a back door.  Need a bedroom too if it comes to that.  Need a whole lot of crap.   Ah, hell, what I got is good enough.  This ain't meant to last.   He went on with his chores.


Larabee checked in on the sleeping southerner often, frowning when he felt Ezra's iron-hot forehead.  Every time he entered the room, he ended up picking up blankets from the floor and tucking them around the gambler.  Sometimes Standish would offer a quiet 'thank you'… other times he'd thrash and make confused sounds as Chris tried to contain him.  Larabee retrieved the horse blankets from the barn when a chill took the gambler -- leaving Ezra balled up and shivering in the bed. 


As the sun set, Chris stood on his porch, watching the sky transform, feeling strangely good.  There was something refreshing about spending the better part of the day here -- at his cabin -- just leisurely taking care of little things.  Usually, when he made time to come out here, there'd be a list of important chores that needed to be done and little time.  It was nice to just move slowly. It felt almost as if he lived here.  Almost.


He glanced down at the tin lantern on the porch and picked it up.  The tin was rusty and pitted.  Its punched sides were dented.  The lid had been nearly smashed off.  No wonder nobody ever stole it.  It wasn't worth anything.  The light it gave off wasn't much…just enough to show him the way.


He lit it and left it on the porch – a beacon – as he tended the horses as the sky darkened.


He paused in the doorway as he reentered the cabin, holding the tin lantern aloft as he noted, in the poor light, that Ezra was awake and staring at him blearily. "Evenin'," he said as Ezra blinked at him.


All bundled up in the blankets, Ezra continued to shiver.  "Where are we?" he asked, sounding lost as he glanced about the space.


"My cabin," Chris told Ezra again.


"What am I doin' here?"


"Should be sleepin'."


"Can't," Ezra muttered, scrunching up his face.


"Head hurt?"


"Excruciatingly," Ezra breathed out.  "Lord," he sighed, "I wish the room would stop spinnin'."


"It will," Chris told him as he set the poor lantern on the table, and lit the hurricane lamp that rested on the cupboard.  The room was soon illuminated with its brightness.  With a sigh, Chris blew out the lantern and lowered himself into his chair.  "Hungry?"


With a shake of his head, Ezra uttered, "God, no."


Chris nodded, feeling as if he could start on his supper, but realized he would wait until Ezra drifted off again -- no sense making the man feel worse than he already was.  "You been awake long?"


With a sigh, Ezra responded, "Couldn't say.  Everything is rather… disjointed."  He looked disgusted with himself.  "I'm losing touch with time.  Can't say I remember much of anythin'.  Not worth much of anythin’ like this."  He glanced toward Larabee and asked, "Did you tell me why I was here?"


"Yes," Chris said with a grin.  "Yes, I did."


"Oh," Ezra responded dully, looking crestfallen.  "I've forgotten."


"We stopped here on the way back from Red Rock," Chris explained.


"Red Rock?"  Ezra frowned.  "Yes, that town'd make anyone ill."  He sighed deeply and relaxed further into his covers. 


Chris, thinking Ezra had fallen asleep, moved about the room, getting ready to prepare supper, quietly shaking the dust from some of the cookware.  He was surprised when Ezra spoke again.


"Why?" Standish asked quietly.  He lay on his back, gazing toward the door.


"Why were we in Red Rock?"  Chris tried.  "Had to see if their prisoner was the man we were lookin' for -- George McDuff."


"George McDuff," Ezra stated, furrowing his brow in concentration.  "Boy came from Scotland,"  Ezra declared, as if trying to prove he had some wits left.  “Played those godawful … bagpipes.  Always complain’ that nobody… appreciated his… heritage.  Can’t say I… blame his neighbors… for runnin’ him from the land.  He was...atrocious.”  He continued dreamily, perhaps not even knowing that he was speaking out loud,  “I know I couldn’t stand that caterwauling.  Wouldn’t put up with that.  Imagine it… day and night.  If he had some talent...it would be different.”  He pulled his head deeper into his blankets.  “No sane man would have stood for it.  They were within their rights to send him off.”

"If he'd proven himself of some use to them... perhaps they would've withstood... the cacophony,"  Ezra prattled on,  “But he gave them nothing."  He paused to cough before going on, his voice getting rougher, "I suppose it was… just sour grapes… on Mr. McDuff’s part.  If he’d just put down those … damn pipes… he wouldn’t have … resorted to killin’ Mr. Renner’s  prize bull.  A damn shame…  Still, no one likes to be run off.”

Realizing that he was blathering, Ezra glanced to Larabee and asked, “Did we get him?”

“Wasn’t our man,” Larabee informed him.


“Pity,” Ezra responded, not sounding thoroughly committed.    He coughed again, and then they were both silent for several minutes – Chris getting prepared to make supper and Ezra staring at the wall.  The gambler winced again, pressing the palm of one hand against his forehead.  “Why…” he started again, but trailed off as another shudder coursed through him.


Chris sighed and stepped to the stove and threw more fuel inside to get some warmth into the cabin.  Ezra hadn’t continued, so Chris tried to finish the sentence.  "Why you got sick?  'Cause you always get sick, Ezra.  I swear…"


"No… I wanted… I wanted to know…" Ezra’s voice sounded weak and frustrated as he fought to say what was on his sluggish mind.


Larabee, realizing Ezra's difficulty, kept silent.  He took a seat beside the table, and waited.


"The star…" Ezra finally got out.


"Star?"  Chris echoed.  "What star?"


Ezra lifted a hand and gestured vaguely toward the door.  "Star…" he repeated.  His hand shook as he held it aloft.


Larabee glanced in the indicated direction and groaned when he figured out what Ezra was talking about.  He'd forgotten about the tin star, tacked above the doorway.  "It's nothing," he muttered harshly.


Ezra turned his gaze on Larabee, looking pale and sick as hell.  He let the hand drop -- his arm landed with a thud on the bed.  "Oh," he returned quietly.


Leaning forward and letting his arms rest on his knees, his hands dangle, Chris sighed.  It was just a crummy piece of tin that had been snipped into the shape of a five-pointed star.  It wasn't symmetrical or anything.  It looked like a piece of crap. "It's just a star," Chris grumbled. "An old tin star."


"Oh," Ezra said again.  "I thought… well… "  He let out another sigh and rolled onto his back.  "Sorry…  Didn't mean to… tread… where I wasn't… welcome.  Not thinkin' straight.  Not thinkin’ much … at all."  He flopped onto his side again, curling tighter into the pile of blankets.  “Just goes to show… in my state…” he trailed off to nothing.


Sick as he was, Ezra didn't seem to have memory of anything going on around him.  To brush him off at this point, Chris knew, would hold no consequences -- Ezra would not recall any of this conversation come morning.  Hell, Larabee thought, he could bawl the southerner out, curse him up and down, and there'd be no recourse tomorrow.  Talking to Ezra at this point was like storing water in a sieve.  The gambler would forget this conversation in ten seconds.


He didn’t have to tell Ezra anything.


"I made it for Adam," Chris finally explained.  He waited, not looking up.  He expected Ezra to say something, but the gambler was quiet.  Chris forged on.  "When Adam was small, he loved the stars."  Larabee looked at his hands, dangling between his knees. "One night, he cried, wantin' me to catch a star for him.  He'd give me no peace 'til I got one for him.  Thought I could do anything."


Smiling, Chris continued, "Sarah scolded me.  Told me I was spoilin' the boy -- ruining him."  He chuckled softly.  "Said my punishment was to listen to the boy cry for the stars.  So I went out to my workbench and cut that star out of a piece of old tin."


His gaze still on his hands, Chris continued, "Took it in to the boy and you should have seen his eyes light up."  Finally, Larabee lifted his head and looked to Ezra, who was still wrapped up in the blankets, gazing back.  "It amazed me how I could do that.  He went from this poor broken-hearted thing to a boy just burstin' with joy.  Over a dumb piece of tin."


Ezra said nothing, balled up, watching him with an unfocused expression -- so Larabee continued, "He kept that thing tacked up in his room.  I’d figured he’d forgotten about it in time…just a dumb bit of tin.  Once, when he was older, I’d been puttin' him to bed, and he said to me, 'Ya know what I love, Pa?'  I thought he'd say he loved me, or he loved his ma, or he loved his pony… or lemon drops… but he said, 'I love that star'."  Chris grinned self-consciously, warmly, happily.   "He loved it because he could look at it every night and remember how much he was loved.  He was old enough to know better, but he could still pretend that I'd brought down a star for him."


Feeling suddenly uncomfortable with what he'd said, Chris rubbed at his eyes, and Ezra sighed and settled onto his back.  "Funny how kids are," Chris finally added.  "They end up lovin' the damnedest things."


"They love their papas," Ezra muttered.


"Yeah," Chris responded.  "Yeah, guess they do."  He sighed as Ezra turned onto his side again, then flopped onto his back once more.  With a disgusted grunt, Ezra threw off the blankets that he'd been clutching moments before.


Chris stood and picked up his chair, settling it beside the bed.  Taking a rag from the awaiting bowl of water, Chris loosely wrung it out, and then used it to wipe down Ezra's face.  "You get sick too damn easy," he told the gambler.


"Ah know," Ezra murmured.  He glanced up at Larabee, trying not to look helpless and weak.  "I feel like shit."


"Figured as much," Larabee told him, wringing out the warm cloth.  He continued to wet the rag and daub Ezra's face until the gambler finally drifted off again.  "''Bout time," he whispered, wishing he could do more for his friend.   The doc in Red Rock had been rather blasé about the damn illness, saying it would pass in a day or so -- with Standish that might drag on for a week.


Once he was sure Ezra was asleep, Chris stood and stretched.  It was getting late, but there was still supper to be made.  As he poked around in his cupboards, he looked up -- seeing the star again.  He'd found it in the burnt out house – it had survived the conflagration.  He'd picked it out of the ashes, still warm.  He'd cleaned it, polished it and cared for it… because his son had loved it.  For years, it had remained at the bottom of his bag, hidden in a piece of cloth, hidden from his eyes.


He had meant to keep it that way forever -- close but never seen.


For the longest time, the mere memory of that child had given him pain.  For years, he'd lived with that grief of how he'd failed the boy when he was most needed.  He could bang a tin star out of a piece of scrap metal… but he’d let the child burn. 


But when he built this place… this new home… he'd unwrapped the artifact and tacked it up without really thinking.   It seemed right at the time.  It still seemed right.  At night, he could look up at… as his son had once seen it. 


As he worked, Chris thought about Adam, thought about the boy who'd believed his father was capable of anything… a boy who thought his father could pull the stars down from the sky.


God how he missed that boy.  That pain used to eat at him, it used to eat him alive.


But he was getting better, Chris figured, little by little.  This place… this town… these people, Chris thought as he gazed at the sleeping gambler, made things better.


With a small smile, Larabee sat down beside the bed, and wrung out the cloth once again.  It would take some time for him to get over this, no doubt. Tomorrow, though, things should look better.   One of the guys would probably be riding out early next morning -- perhaps all five of them -- looking for them.


It felt good to know that -- good to know that someone would be worried -- would be looking for him.  As Ezra muttered and shuffled in the bed, Chris realized that it also felt good to worry about someone else.  For the longest time, he'd paid no heed to anyone.




Chris awoke as he heard the cot creak.  In the morning light, he gazed across the floor, from where he'd laid out his bedroll to where Ezra sluggishly sat up in bed, drawing the covers around himself.


With a yawn, Larabee sat up as well, meeting Ezra's gaze.  "Mornin," Larabee greeted.


"Mgghh," Ezra grunted, running a hand over his face and then reaching for the cup of water that waited by the beside.


Chris suppressed a groan as he pulled himself from his bedroll.  God, he was too old for sleeping on the floor.   Ezra sipped at the cup tentatively, then drank down the contents.  Chris watched him, gauging how the gambler must be feeling.  Standish seemed to have an easier time swallowing.  He wasn't swaying, but his hair stood up at strange angles.  It drew a chuckle from the hardened gunslinger.  Ezra raised an eyebrow at him in irritation.


"Any better?"  Chris asked, quelling the laugh.


"Grmmmph," Ezra let out, dropping the cup to the floor. It clattered as he rubbed his eyes.


"Yeah, that sounds about right," Chris said with a nod. Better, Larabee decided.


Standish messed unsuccessfully with his hair and rubbed at his eyes again.  He smacked his lips, looking undecided as to whether or not he might stay forever in that position, but then, with a quick motion, he swiveled his feet from under the covers and placed them firmly on the floor. Once he managed that maneuver, he tried to push himself up from the bed.


"Where you goin?" Larabee asked, doubting that Standish would get very far.


"Privy," Ezra managed to say.


"Need help?"  Chris asked.


With a disgusted shake of the head, Ezra warded him off.   Ezra tried twice to stand, finally making it to his feet on the third attempt.  Slowly, drunkenly, pulling the blanket around his shoulders, he wobbled to the door.


"Don't let the blanket get ruined," Larabee called after him, hoping to keep a light tone in his voice.


Ezra swore in response.


Larabee let him go -- figuring Ezra wouldn't fall in.  He gathered up his bedroll and shoved it into the corner, then yawned and stretched, not quite ready to wake up yet.  The night had been a long one.  He'd been able to sleep for an hour or two at a time, but was often awakened by the fevered Standish.  It wasn't as if Ezra cried out.  No, that's what a normal man would do in a fevered fit.  Ezra was mostly quiet in his illness -- but the distress was obvious in his soft mutterings, his pointless movements.  


He'd worked to calm down the fevered man, to wipe down his face and cool him off, to speak soothing words to him.  Miraculously, he’d been able to quiet the gambler without much difficulty.  Just a few assurances, just a bit of kindness seemed to do the trick.  Strange …

Glad that's behind us, Larabee thought.  With another yawn, Larabee grabbed the nearly-empty water bucket and headed out.  He found Ezra by the trough, washing his face and hair. Ezra mustered nothing more than a cursory grunt when Larabee approached.  Chris nodded in response.  Standing, Ezra drew the blanket around himself again and trudged back to the house.  


Chris saw to the horses, took care of his morning ablutions and then filled the bucket with fresh water.  Upon his return to the cabin, Chris found Ezra at the table, sitting with his head sunk in his hands and his eyes half-closed.


"Hungry?"  Larabee asked as he dipped the coffeepot into the bucket.


"A bit," Ezra admitted hoarsely.  His eyes followed the pot, greedy for the coffee that would come.  “Please, sir,” he said penitently, “Forgive my foul mood.  I am…”

“Shut up, Ezra,” Chris cut him off.  “Don’t want to hear you apologize for bein’ sick.”

Ezra nodded, accepting the comment.  Chris moved about the little kitchen area, fixing a simple breakfast made from their remaining trail rations while the coffee perked.  Ezra rested his head on his hands and stared blearily at nothing.  Larabee glanced at him from time to time, ensuring that he wasn't going to fall over, making certain that he truly was looking better.  Pale still, hair hadn’t been tamed yet, but there was a definite improvement.


Once, as Chris clattered in the cupboards, Ezra blinked, cleared his eyes and looked up toward the tin star above the doorway.  He smiled, but averted his gaze, letting his eyes go unfocused again, before Larabee emerged from the recesses of the nearly-empty cabinet with the sought after pan.


Larabee set it on the stove, and said, "Ain't got any eggs, but I can make some griddle cakes from a mix."


"Splendid," Ezra murmured.  "Coffee?"


"Soon," Larabee assured as he pulled out the bag of biscuit mix from his saddlebag.

"No milk for the coffee?"






As Chris measured out some of the powder into a bowl, Ezra muttered, "This is a nice place."


Chris made an unsatisfied sound.  "Just a cabin.  Not much of anything."


"Still," Ezra said, pausing to yawn.  "You should be proud."  He glanced about languidly.  "This was made to last.  A castle.  A fortress.  Value more than gold."


Chris didn't speak, trying to be engrossed in the preparation of the griddlecakes.


Sinking his head into his hands again, Ezra added, "A sign of your worth."  His voice grew softer as he stated, "It will stand any storm."


"Just a damn cabin," Chris responded as he dropped the mixing spoon against the bowl.


Ezra shrugged pathetically.  "A job well done," he uttered, closing his eyes.


Before Chris could say any more, a noise drew his attention.  He held up a hand to silence the southerner.  The gunslinger listened.  Stiffly, he moved away from his domestic chores and strode to the door.  "Stay here," he ordered, his voice low and husky, as Ezra turned his head to gaze after him.


Grabbing his gun belt, Chris hastily buckled it as he cracked the door with his shoulder.  He narrowed his gaze, trying to catch sight of what had drawn his attention.  Horsemen -- coming over the rise.


He pushed the door wide, recognizing the leader of the small group.  A blazed black came to a standstill on the neighboring hill and Chris could see the familiar shape of Tanner's beaten hat.   Four other horses came alongside, and Chris smiled as he recognized the others of his group -- Josiah's bright poncho, Nathan's noble posture, Buck's distinctive grey horse -- and there was JD in his stupid hat.


Larabee raised his hand in a greeting.  He leaned against the doorway, and turned toward the man at the table.  "It's just the boys," he told the hunched, disinterested shape.


"Ah know," Ezra muttered, sinking further.


Chris chuckled, kicked at a stray dirt clod that marred his porch, then waved the men in.  He heard Buck 'whoop', then the horsemen on the neighboring hill came toward him at a leisurely gait.


He looked within and couldn't tell if Ezra was asleep or not.  Ezra’s head was on the table, cradled in his arms -- quiet.   He looked downright peaceful.


Yeah, Chris thought, this was good.  There was something 'right' about all this -- staying here to watch over Ezra -- the boys coming in search of them.  There was something about all this that made him happy.  Maybe this was a good place, something to be proud of… a job well done.  Maybe he should get those horses, that cow, the pig, the dogs and cats.


They were a strange group, the seven of them.  A bit dented, and faded, a little rough around the edges, but a fine group of men -- the finest.  Chris Larabee couldn’t envision himself away from them.  He belonged here.  They all did.


Maybe I’ll get a goat or two.  I’ve always liked goats. They don’t take crap from no one.


He watched as the others came closer.  Buck was joshing with JD, cuffing him.  The kid kneed his horse, and Toby shot forward, past Vin.  The tracker shook his head at their shenanigans, and managed to block Buck as he tried to follow.  Nathan and Josiah laughed, safely in the back of the pack.


Ezra dozed at the table.


As he moved through the doorway, into his cabin, Chris thought, maybe I should think about locking the door when I'm gone.  There's a thing or two here that'd want to keep.


Quietly, Chris reached up and touched the tin star above his door, before he stepped further inside and waited for the others to arrive.


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