this story was an answer to a challenge a few years ago (okay a bit more than a few) over at the m7challenge site. The story had to be titled Charades and include the quote at the end of the fic)
Ezra watched the sleeping form huddled a few feet from him for any sign of movement and wondered once again how it was that he always seemed to find himself in the worst possible of situations.
"You ought to wake him up now." The rough voice cut through his thoughts and drew his gaze towards his current associate. "It's almost dawn," the taller man continued, "need to put some distance between us and those peacekeepers."
Ezra nodded. "I informed you last night that the gentlemen in question are said to be on an excursion out of town."
His partner thought for a moment and then began kicking dirt onto the remains of their small fire. "Yeah but folks could have been lying to you, seeing as you're a stranger and all." He pointed out. " 'Sides, once his Ma gets sight of my note she'll be stirring up a storm, lawmen or not. Wake him up."
Ezra sighed inwardly and turned to do as he was bidden. It would be bad enough when Worth figured out that he'd been lying about the others being out of town, now he only hoped he could slow the man down enough to allow Mr. Larabee and his associates to catch up with them.
"Time to wake up." He shook Billy Travis roughly and steeled himself for any reaction.
"Keep him quiet." Worth ordered from behind him.
"Time to wake up, Kid." Ezra tried again.
Billy woke with a start, flinching away from Ezra's grasp, his blue eyes growing large with fear and confusion. Ezra bit his lip to keep from reassuring the child and simply pulled him into a sitting position. "You stay put or Mr. Worth over there will tie you up and stick a gag on you. You understand?"
"Y-yes sir, Mr.."
"Bucket," Ezra interrupted. "You call me Mr. Bucket."
Billy's eyebrows furrowed and Ezra prayed it was from understanding and not fear.
"Do you have anything to feed him?" Ezra turned to Worth again.
Sloan Worth shook his head. "No time. Give him some hard tack and get him on your horse. We need to ride."
"Mr. Worth, it will do no harm to allow the boy a few moments to see to his morning necessities and eat at least a biscuit. The last thing we need is a sick child to care for."
"Damn it, Charlie. I hate it when you call me Mr. Worth."
"And I detest the moniker 'Charlie'."
"Fine, Charles. We don't have time for these delays." Worth growled.
"Nonsense." Ezra turned away before the argument could continue. Quickly he helped Billy to his feet and led him behind a nearby tree, stepping aside to allow the boy some privacy. When Billy emerged Ezra led him back to the blanket and settling him beside it on a smooth rock, he reached for his saddlebag. The biscuits were not very fresh but they were still edible. He passed two to Billy and handed the child his canteen. "Don't drink it all," he admonished. He could feel Worth's eyes boring into him and stood to face the man.
"I told you, we don't have time for this, Bucket." Worth snarled as he grabbed Ezra by the arm and pulled him a few steps away from their captive. "My boss'll give me $5000 if I deliver the boy immediately. I can't be taking my sweet time and you can't either if you want your cut."
Ezra extricated himself from the bruising grip with no sign of discomfort. "Rest assured, Sloan, We'll deliver young master Travis to your beneficiary in more than a timely manner, but it won't do us any good to mistreat the boy along the way."
Worth glanced at Billy and then began cracking his knuckles nervously. "I ain't any good with kids, Charles." He admitted.
"I'll handle the boy then; you worry about everything else."
"I sure am glad I happened to meet up with you last night." Worth added.
"Likewise." Ezra kept his voice sincere. He'd been riding in from a late night patrol when he'd run across Worth just outside of town, Billy Travis struggling weakly in his arms. Worth had been startled but recovered quickly when he'd recognized Ezra from the days he'd run around back East as Charles Bucket.
"Make you a deal, Bucket." Worth had said. "Know you're always game for making a profit. I got $5000 coming my way if I deliver this kid to my boss unharmed, and he's turning into a handful already. I'll cut you in if you come along and help."
Ezra had pretended to contemplate the offer for a moment when Worth added, "this town behind me got's seven lawmen. If you're coming we need to ride."
"I've heard they were delivering a prisoner and out of town," he'd immediately replied.
"Either way, we need to ride."
"After you then." Ezra had nodded.
"Good!" Worth broke into a relieved grin. "You take the kid." Billy had been shoved with some force into his arms, the child still struggling. Once he'd seen Ezra's face though he settled and drifted back to sleep.
Ezra felt a pang of guilt as he turned back to Billy now. He'd known that Billy had felt safe with him last night but now, as he was treating him like a stranger, Ezra could see the youngster's uncertainty and fear. With Worth always so close Ezra had yet to find away to reassure the boy.
Billy watched the exchange between the two men with great confusion. He didn't like the mean stranger who'd dragged him out of his room at all and he would have tried to run away by now if it hadn't been for Mr. Standish, but Ezra wasn't acting much like himself either. At first he thought Ezra would help him but now Billy wondered if Ezra was really helping his kidnapper after all. He tensed when he realized Ezra was watching him again. He looked down quickly when the peacekeeper knelt in front of him.
"We're packing up camp," Ezra explained simply. "You need to stay still."
Billy nodded but did not look up to meet Ezra's eyes.
"Here, these will have to provide adequate amusement." A battered deck of playing cards entered his line of vision and Billy gasped quietly when he recognized them. Quickly he took the deck from Ezra.
"Thank you," he whispered, his eyes flitting up to meet Ezra's, but Mr. Standish's expression was as stern as before.
"Just stay quiet," Ezra reminded and picked up the discarded blanket to fold it.
Billy fingered the cards lightly, casting occasional glances at Worth and Standish as they worked. He smiled faintly, comforted by the cards in his hand. These were Ezra's cards. The well- worn deck was always tucked away and replaced by a different one whenever Ezra shared card tricks with him. He'd never seen anyone but Ezra himself ever even touch these cards. This deck was important to Mr. Standish. A feeling of calm descended on the young boy as he gripped the cards tightly to his chest.
Ezra packed up his saddlebag hoping that Billy had understood the gesture behind the cards. He moved with the appearance of quickness but slowed his progress by folding the blanket three times before moving on to work on saddling up his horse.
"Hurry it up, Bucket," Worth growled as he saddled his own horse. "If I didn't know you better I'd think you were trying to slow me down."
Just then Ezra heard the sounds of approaching riders. Worth's eyes widened as he saw the first horse come into view, its dark clad rider bent low over the saddle. Counting seven riders, he turned on Ezra. "You son of a bitch!" He drew his gun and moved towards Billy but Ezra stepped in front of the boy.
"Ezra, its Chris!" Billy shouted, jumping to his feet in his excitement. Ezra made the split second decision and shoved Billy roughly behind the nearest tree as he simultaneously drew his own weapon.
Ezra felt the burn of the bullet in his side as he was thrown back by the impact. His head bounced forcefully against the tree's trunk and he slid to the ground oblivious to the continuing gunfire and shouting.
"Billy!" Mary's scream brought Billy out of his hiding place as Chris dismounted and checked to insure that Sloan Worth was dead. Billy ran to his mother and let himself be engulfed in her near bone-crushing embrace. "Oh baby, I was so worried. Are you all right?" She pushed him back to check him over and then pulled him in for another hug.
Nathan caught Billy's nod and moved with Josiah towards Ezra. "Ezra?" Together they knelt and started to search for injuries.
"What happened, Billy?" Buck asked while JD moved to care for the horses.
"I don't know." Billy tried to explain, slightly intimidated by the sudden scrutiny from Buck, Vin and Chris. "I was sleeping and then that man was covering my mouth and putting me on his horse. We ran into Mr. Standish on our way out of town 'cept Mr. Worth called him Mr. Bucket. Then I fell asleep."
Chris looked over to where Nathan was working on Standish.
"Did Ezra say anything to you about what was happening?" Vin asked.
Billy shook his head. "No, sir, just to call him Mr. Bucket. He sounded kind of mean." Seeing Chris' frown he went on. "But I think he was just play acting," he explained, tightening his grip on the deck of cards.
Mary smiled weakly and both Chris and Vin's postures relaxed somewhat. "Billy, I think Ezra had to act like he was someone else so he could try to help you."
A moan from Ezra drew everyone's attention.
"Easy Ezra, you're okay." Nathan assured as he quickly cleaned and wrapped the bullet wound. Josiah put a hand on Standish's chest, ready to hold him in place if necessary. "The bullet just grazed ya," Nathan explained for everyone's benefit. "But you thumped your head good on that tree."
Ezra stirred, trying to move away from Nathan's hands but was held firm. His green eyes flashed open. "Billy?" he rasped, struggling to rise.
"He's fine, Ezra." Nathan assured him.
Immediately the Southerner relaxed. "Worth?" he questioned.
"He's dead." Chris filled in.
Ezra met Larabee's gaze. "He was hired to take Billy. I wasn't able to find out who was behind it all or why."
"Billy said you met up outside of town, that he knew you as someone else." Vin said.
Ezra nodded, then winced at the pain and dizziness the movement caused. "Long time ago," he explained, his accent growing thicker. "He knew me as Charles Bucket, so I kept up the charade in hopes of slowing him down until either you caught up with us or I could run away with Master Travis." His voice had dropped to a whisper by the time he finished his explanation.
"Hush now," Nathan ordered. "You can explain after you're back in town." He glanced around daring anyone to challenge his authority, "leave him alone now so I can patch him up for the ride."
The clinic was almost quiet, save for the gentle rustling of pages now and then as Nathan read. Ezra lay with his eyes closed, content to let the healer believe he was asleep. He didn't enjoy being forced to recuperate in the small clinic but Nathan had been adamant about him staying for at least a day so that he could monitor the head wound closely.
Ezra had pieced together a more coherent explanation of what had happened for the others earlier in the day and was surprised at how tired he felt now. He was unspeakably relieved to find out that the others had assumed he was doing whatever he could to help rescue Billy instead of the other way around. He hadn't admitted it to anyone but he had feared that their tendency to lack faith on his behalf would lead them to believe he might actually harm a child for monetary gain.
He only wished that he had been able to garner more information from Worth about who was behind Billy's kidnapping. All he knew was that it was someone wealthy enough to afford a $5000 fee and though that narrowed the list of suspects it did not single any one person out of the list. The note that Worth had left Mary was simply a threat that if she wanted to see her son again she would discontinue her campaign in favor of statehood. Chris was positive there was more to the situation than that but Mary had stirred up more than a few enemies with The Clarion and had even inherited some from her husband when she'd taken over the paper. Undeterred however, she had decided to send Billy to stay with his grandparents again until any specific danger to him seemed to be past. Billy would be leaving as soon as Judge Travis arrived to accompany him on the journey.
Mary had thanked Ezra profusely for his help and assured him that Billy was doing just fine but Ezra still feared the young boy hadn't fully understood his charade.
Ezra heard the clinic door open but kept his eyes closed, feigning sleep.
"I just need to give him something." Ezra was surprised to hear Billy explaining his presence to Nathan.
"Try not to wake him." Nathan said.
"Hello, Mr. Standish." Billy's soft whisper sounded very close to him. "I just wanted to say thank you for helping me. I know you didn't really mean to be all gruff to me. You're never that way and Ma said it was just because you were tricking that bad man, but I knew that already. These are your cards here, and I know they're special to you. I just wanted to say thank you for letting me hang on to them out there cause that's when I knew you were there to take care of me."
Ezra willed himself not to move and startle the boy as a small warm hand tucked the deck of cards under his relaxed palm and gently curled his fingers around it.
A few moments later the door opened and closed again and Ezra let out a long slow breath as his hand tightened around the deck of cards. He opened his eyes and traced the cards gingerly. He'd had these very cards since he was Billy's age. They'd been a gift from his mother and somehow over the years they'd become a constant in his life, a comfort when he was feeling low and a companion when he was feeling lonely. He hadn't thought about the fact that he was giving them away so much was his need to reassure Billy in the middle of the crisis. Now though, it meant more than he could express that Billy had not only recognized the importance of the cards and taken comfort in them but had also made the point to return them.
"Like a candle in the darkness…" he murmured softly, trying to contain his emotions at the simple, meaningful gesture.
"What was that?" Nathan asked curiously.
Ezra cleared his throat and added a little louder. "So shines a good deed in a weary world."
bonus points to anyone who recognizes where I grabbed the alias and baddies name for this fic *g*