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 his family. 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 man often, frowning when he felt Ezra's iron-hot forehead. Sometimes, he'd be shivering. Every time he entered the room, he ended up picking up blankets from the floor and tucking them around Ezra. 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 deeper chill took over- 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.
"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 tin 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," Ezra stated, furrowing his brow in concentration. "Boy came from Scotland,," he declared, as if trying to prove he had some wits left. "Played those godawful … bagpipes. Always complainin' 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."
Ezra 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," he 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. He bler 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 him 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. He would forget this conversation in ten seconds.
He didn't have to tell Ezra anything. Give him a minute and he'd forget the question was even asked.
"I made it for Adam," Chris finally explained. He waited, not looking up. He expected Ezra to say something, but he was quiet. Chris forged on. "When Adam was very 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. "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, 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."
"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 he 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 Ezra 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 bedside.
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 he 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 ran a hand through his hair and then rubbed at his eyes again. He smacked his lips, looking undecided. He might stay forever in that position, but, 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. Finding his boots beside the bed. Sloppily, he jammed one foot into one – lucky he'd chosen the correct one for that particular foot.
"Need help?" Chris asked.
With a disgusted shake of the head, Ezra warded him off. Capturing the second boot was harder than the first. It took him three tries to finally grasp it, and longer than necessary to get his foot firmly planted within it. Adequately shod, he 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. "It's not my best one but I'd rather not lose it."
Ezra swore thickly 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. "Stop," he'd whisper. "What did I do?" and "Useless, I'm so useless," And once, a plaintive, "Father…no."
Crap like that pissed the hell out of Larabee. What the hell happened to you, Ezra, he'd thought as 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 him without much difficulty. Just a few assurances, just a bit of kindness seemed to do the trick.
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. Your castle. 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 other man. Larabee 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.