Little Lost Angel by Jaderose
Summary: Magnificent 7:  One little one's loss is the most unlikely of the seven's gain.
Categories: Non Buffy/Angel Stories Characters: None
Genres: AU
Warnings: Original Character Death
Challenges: None
Series: None
Chapters: 2 Completed: No Word count: 7862 Read: 15171 Published: 2008.08.02 Updated: 2008.08.04

1. Chapter 1 by Jaderose

2. Chapter 2 by Jaderose

Chapter 1 by Jaderose
Author's Notes:
Disclaimer:  Mine!  Mine!  All mine!  But I'm willing to share. *cackle* Hey!  What's with the extra long sleeves on the coat?  Ooooo, pretty drugs. *Attendent*: She apologizes for being off her meds.  Magnificent 7 belongs to other people.  The O'Neills belong to her. No money is being made. Thank you for your time.  Nothing more to see here.

It had been a relaxing visit to Ridge City, but Ezra was looking forward to his comfortable bed waiting for him at Four Corners.  He had been sent by the Judge to deliver some papers and let tempers cool back down.  It had been quiet in Four Corners for the last several days and it was beginning to wear on everyone’s patience.  Not that quiet was a bad thing, after all that’s what he and his six friends had been striving for these last three years, but as all seven of the unofficial lawmen were men of action by nature long stretches of peace made the subconsciously anticipate a hell storm to drop on their collective heads any day.  All of this made for very explosive tempers with very short fuses.

 

Chaucer snorted in irritation, snapping Ezra out of his thoughts in time to notice the farm they were approaching.  Ezra began to smile as he remembered the happy little family he had met a few days ago.  He and Chaucer had needed a rest and some refreshment when they and stumbled upon an adorable little pixie of a child.  Actually nearly trampled would have been a more accurate description as the little girl had been so intent on catching a fleeing chicken that she didn’t even notice the horse and rider under her little red head had bumped into Chaucer’s foreleg.

 

Ezra had been out of the saddle and kneeling beside the child before she could do more than realized that she had fallen and started staring up at the equally curious horse, who leaned his large head down and gently nuzzled the child as if to ask if she had hurt herself.

 

“Are you alright, darlin’?”  Ezra asked gently as he visually checked for any obvious bumps or bruises.  He couldn’t help returning the bright grin he was given as the child blinked wide eyes greener than even his own and reached up to pet Chaucer’s nose.

 

“Horsie!” She squealed as she patted the friendly nose, giggling when the horse nuzzled a little too hard and nearly knocked her over.

 

Ezra’s grin widen delightfully as he realized the child wasn’t hurt and reached up to make sure the besotted horse didn’t get to zealous in his friendliness by grabbing hold of his bridle.  “That’s right.  His name is Chaucer.  Can you say Chaucer?” he asked not really expecting the toddler to be able to.

 

“Chaucie,” she parroted with another happy pat.  “Chaucie.  Chaucie.  Chaucie.”  Ezra thought about correcting the child but finally decided that if his horse didn’t mind the mangling then neither would he.

 

After a few more minutes of watching the mutual adoration between girl and horse it dawned on Ezra that this little one had to have family around there and they were probably worried sick.  With that thought in mind he reached over and gently tapped the small child on the shoulder.  “Darlin’?  Where are your parents?”

 

The little girl tilted her head cutely and studied the colorfully dressed man before looking back over her shoulder and babbling something in a lyrical language he had never heard before.

 

Just as the gambler decided to take the girl back the way she had come the little mite let out a tremendous squeal and was up and running past Chaucer before Ezra could even guess at what she was going to do.  By the time he rounded the horse he could make out clucking noise interspersed among the happy squealing and giggling.  He stood there watching for a bit with a silly grin on his face before he came back to himself and managed to swoop down and pick the pixie up as she raced past.

 

“How about you sit on Chaucer and I’ll round up the meandering poultry,” he suggested with a smile wide enough to flash his gold tooth and a short bounce.

 

The child tilted her head again and stuck the tip of her index finger into her mouth as she puzzled out what the fancy man had said before finally inquiring, “Me horsie?”

 

“Yes, dear, you sit on the horsie and I’ll catch the chicken,” Ezra patiently explained in simpler terms.

 

“You cluck-cluck?”  She questioned as she made grabbing motions with her hands, just to make sure he knew what he was supposed to do.

 

“Yes, me catch the cluck-cluck,” he reassured as he carefully sat the child up on the horse and made sure she had a good gripe on the saddle horn.  After he was sure she was secure he turned around and started scouting for the misplace poultry.  As he finally spied it half hidden under a bush his only thought was thank God none of the others could see him reduced chicken wrangler.

 

Several minutes, a lot of hamming it up, a few falls and gales of happy, little girl laughter later, a now thoroughly disheveled Ezra emerged triumphantly from the bushes, one highly pissed off hen dangling upside down from a grimy fist.  “There!  One cluck-cluck as requested.”  He crowed with a wide grin as child the clapped and cheered.  As he made his way back over to Chaucer Ezra realized he had another dilemma, how was he going to get back up on the horse with a vindictive chicken in one hand and a small child already up there.  He stood there for a moment, tilting his head one way and then the other as he shifted ideas back and forth before he finally gave up and decided that there would be no help for it, he was going to have to walk the horse in.

 

“Well, my dear, which way is home?” he inquired as he moved to take Chaucer’s bridle, making sure to hold the still very angry chicken far away from himself and his innocent horse.  A happy babble in the same language as earlier answered him but he did manage to turn around in time to see the delightful child point in the direction he had been heading originally.

 

Ten minutes later saw the man, horse and girl topping a small hill to look down upon a nice little homestead.  Yes indeed it was a very nice little homestead, save for the fact that there were two very frantic adults scurrying around looking for something.

 

“Mamma!”  His little charge yelled at the top of her lungs as she flung her hands up and out, nearly toppling herself out of Chaucer’s saddle.

 

“Whoa there, little lady, you’re almost home. Let us not incur your parents’ wrath by falling off the horse now,” Ezra abolished gently as he leapt back and snagged a hold of her dress before she could side to far off the other side.  The girl’s only answer was a giggle and rapid fire babble liberally dosed with the phrase Mamma.  The poor gambler finally managed to convince the excited child to hold on to the saddle horn once again and then slowly started leading the now weary horse down the slope.

 

Once he was fairly certain he was within hearing distance he called out gaily, “Hello, the homestead!  Are you perhaps missing a small pixie and her cantankerous poultry?”  At the sound of Southern laced voice the two parents stopped dead and their head swiveled to see who had called out.

 

The father was strongly built and stocky with bright red hair and half grown beard, the mother was a vision of cascading red hair, a shade or two darker than her husband’s, and the figure of some winsome fairy.  The mother gathered up her skirts and ran up to them, babbling in the language of her daughter as she pulled the child down and between kissing and crying began to thank God she was alright and scold the child for scaring her poor mother like that.  Her husband was a bit slower but no less relieved to see his only child hale and whole.  Ezra just moved Chaucer back a ways from the family reunion and waited, a contented smile on his face and a still angry chicken trying to peck a hole in his leg.

Eventually the father moved away from the happy hugging and approached the man who had returned his daughter to him.  Still overcome with emotion he didn’t think before he said with heartfelt gladness, “Go raibh míle maith agat.” 

Ezra’s smile turned regretful.  “I’m afraid I don’t understand, good sir.”  He replied rather apologetically.

The father tilted his head, thus proving where the daughter had acquired the trait before understanding lit up his face and he too smile apologetically.  “It means one thousand thanks to you.  Thank you very much for returning our Caitlin to us.”  He translated as he took hold of Ezra’s free hand and shook it energetically. 

“Quite alright, my good man.  She’s a delightful child,” Ezra reassured with a blush as he tried to extract his poor hand from the enthusiastic gripe.  Just as he managed to free the hand the father was pushed out of the way and Ezra was treated to a full body hug that was trying to squeeze the breath out of him and sound smacking of full lips on his very red cheek.  The mother, daughter still sitting happily on her hip, drew back and gave her own verbal thanks with another breath stealing hug punctuating the end of the babble. 

Ezra glanced in horror at the husband only to see the man nearly doubled over in laughter, as his wife looped her free arm around the gambler’s waist and started herding him towards the house, tossing a couple of orders along the way.  The husband gently took up the dropped reins of the visitor’s horse and coaxed the animal along as he caught up to the trio and carefully extracted the chicken from the now stammering Southerner. 

Before the bemused gambler realized it he had been sat down at a table, little Caitlin confidently climbing into his lap to keep him there and play with his rings, as her mother bustled around fixing dinner.  As evening slid quietly into night Ezra came to learn that the family name was O’Neill and Liam and Erin were immigrants from Ireland.  Little Caitlin was the first to be born in America but they prayed every day for more little ones.  They had lived on the farm for five years and were quite happy.  The rest of the evening was spent with Caitlin trying earnestly to teach her new pet how to speak correctly, in other words in Gaelic, much to the amusement of the adults, especially since Ezra was delighted to play along.  Finally the time came for everyone to bed down for the night and Erin insisted on the gambler sleeping on their parlor couch instead of the barn as was the norm whenever the Seven were allowed to stay at a homestead. 

The next day saw a well rested and slightly sadden Ezra getting a late start as little Caitlin didn’t want to let her new friend go.  Only the promise that he would return in a few days calmed the wailing child down into mere sniffles and a tearfully wave goodbye. 

Now as he approached to make good his promise Ezra noticed that it was decidedly to quiet, add in Chaucer’s increasing agitation and the regulator in him began to become alarmed. 

“Mr. O’Neill?  Mrs. O’Neill?  Anyone home?”  He called out cautiously as he eased Chaucer into the farm’s yard.  He let out a gasp as he rounded the house and, in the growing gloom, found why the place seemed so quiet, there amidst the milling farm animals were the bodies of his new friends.  “No. Oh dear God no!”  He whispered as he quickly slid off Chaucer back and raced to the couple.  Before he could even get within touching distance he could smell it was too late but he needed to be sure so he took out a handkerchief to put over his nose and carefully turned each body over.  He saw that each of them had be shot fatally in the chest, though from the way Mrs. O’Neill blouse was torn he would surmise that whoever had done this intended to rape her first but never got the chance. 

“Sweet lady, at least you were spared that horror,” he murmured as he reached over and gently closed her eyes then turned and did the same for Liam.  “May the spirits of your homeland sing you both to your rewards.”  He prayed as he bowed his head in a moment of silence.  He was just about to get up and find a shovel to bury them when it dawned on him who *wasn’t * there.  “Oh God!!  Caitlin!”  He jumped to his feet and began to spin in a quick circle calling out frantically, “Caitlin?!  Caitlin, darlin’?!  Can you hear me?!”  He quickly searched the yard and the barn without finding a trace of the child before he entered the house with a murmured apology to the dead couple.  “Caitlin?  Sweetheart, if you can hear me, answer?  Please God, let her answer.” 

As he moved closer to the kitchen side of the front room he paused as he thought he heard muffled crying.  He rapidly scanned the area and finally found a trap door by the stove that undoubtedly led to the root cellar.  Even as he prayed it was the missing child he drew his Remington and slowly eased the trap door up.  “Alright whoever you are, come out of there right now,” he ordered, pointing his gun down into the blackness.  A quiet sniffle was the only sound he heard as a tiny hand reached up to shield light deprived eyes from the dimness of the fading sunset. 

“Oh my God!  Darlin’!  You’re alright!”  He nearly shouted as the terror of a few moments ago gave way to joy at finding the child unharmed.  The gambler quickly holstered his gun and carefully helped the toddler the rest of the way up the steep stairs, closing the trap door before sweeping the now crying child into his arms and hugging her for all they were both worth.  “I was so afraid, sweetheart.  So afraid.  Are you hurt?”  Ezra babbled as he knelt down and set the child her feet so he could check for injuries.  Not that it was easy, the terrified girl just wanted to be held but finally figured out that if she let him check her over then she could go back to her hug a lot quicker.  So she stood there, rubbing a teary eye as the fancy man assured himself that she hadn’t suffered any thing more than a few missed meals and terror filled hours.

After he ascertained that the child was healthy, Ezra gathered the little girl up and just sat down where he was and started rocking her, crooning a half forgotten lullaby as he petted her hair.  He would never know how much time actually passed as he sat there.  All he would remember was that every time he shifted position Caitlin would whimper like a frightened kitten until finally she dropped into the sleep of the deeply emotionally exhausted.  Once he was sure she was not likely to wake back up, Ezra carefully stood up and opened the only other door in the house, correctly guessing that this was the bedroom.  He thought about laying the girl in her own little cot but decided that she would sleep better surrounded by the smell of her parents so he tenderly tucked her in and dropped a soft kiss on her forehead before gliding back out of the room, making sure to leave the door cracked in case she woke up. 

As Ezra sank wearily into one of the kitchen chairs his mind had already turned to the grisly task of how he was going to bury the bodies without Caitlin seeing them.  An inquiring nicker from outside reminded the addled gambler that he had left his trusted friend still in his kit and without food.  Ezra hurried out and with many abject apologies set about the familiar task of settling Chaucer in for the night, noticing that the O’Neill’s horse was the only animal missing from the farm.  As he carried the lantern back out of the barn his eyes once again rested on the bodies and he decided that it wouldn’t be that hard to dig in the dark.  With that thought in mind he ducked back into the barn, found the shovel and began scouting for a proper resting place for the couple.  Several hours, and a few checks on a still sleeping Caitlin later, two fresh mounds were receiving their final pats with the well used shovel. 

“I am sorry that your lives had to end in such a way.  You were very kind to me and I considered you dear friends, even after so short a time as we had together.  I swear on my honor as a gentleman that I will look after Caitlin as if she were my own.  Rest in peace,” Ezra intoned as he made the sign of the cross over the two graves, finishing with a heartfelt reciting of the Shepherd’s Prayer. 

The next morning found a still exhausted Ezra waking up to the feeling of being watched.  His hand tightened on the Colt he had under the throw pillow, he carefully cracked open an eye and found himself staring into the grinning face of his new……..good Lord!  He supposed she was his new daughter.  What *was* he thinking last night when he made that oath. 

“Good morning, mah dear.  How are you this fine morning?”  He asked tiredly as he slowly sat up, rubbing sleep grit from his eyes as he went.  He blinked as he felt a little body climb into his lap and wrap tiny arms around his neck in a breath stealing hug. 

Caitlin babbled happily as she hugged her angel, grateful to find that he wasn’t a dream like she thought when she woke up all alone in the bedroom.  Ezra for his part just carefully wrapped his arms around the child and let her hang on as long as she needed; knowing this day was going to bring a lot of shocks to the little girl.  He just hoped she could handle it.  Finally she let go and sat back to just look at him expectantly. 

“What?”  Ezra asked with a slight grin and a raised eyebrow.  “Do I have something on my face?”  He crossed his eyes and began to make silly faces as if he were trying to see his own causing the pixie to giggle and clap.  After as bit he gave her another quick hug and then sat her back on her feet, getting to his own and holding out a hand.  “Do you need to visit the outhouse?” 

Caitlin studied him for a minute then her face lit up as she puzzled out what he asked and giggled as she shook her head.  Then she drew her hand back and, folding her hands under her arms, flapped her ‘wings’ and made clucking noises. 

Ezra watched in puzzlement for a moment.  “Oh!  You want to go gather eggs for breakfast,” he announced as the light finally dawned.  Mornings were not a good time for him to try to figure out how to get around language barriers.  He grinned as she jumped up and down clapping and babbling, apparently praising him for figuring out what she wanted.  He was about to give her permission when he suddenly remembered her parents.

He sighed in sadness as he sat back down and drew the now worried child into his lap.  “Darling, I know you are young and that English is not your native language but I have some very sad news that I need to tell you.  Two days ago some very bad men came to your home.  Do you remember that?”  He asked hoping that she at least understood a little bit of what he was saying.  He gave a short grin and hug when she nodded after a few minutes of translating.  “Good girl.  Do you remember your Mamma putting you in the hole?”  He again waited until she nodded, though this time it was followed by a fearful look at the root cellar.  “Don’t worry.  You’ll never have to go back in there.  See, your Mamma and Poppa tried to make the bad men go away but the bad men hurt them instead.  What I’m trying, very badly, to say is that, darling; your parents were killed trying to protect you and this farm.  Do you understand?” 

Ezra watched the little girl watch him as he waited for some sign that she understood.  Finally she tilted her head and gave him a puzzled look.  Poor Ezra sighed as he realized he had gotten to in depth with his explanation. 

“Do you know what Heaven is, sweetheart?”  He waited until she nodded.  “Your Mamma and Poppa are in Heaven now.  They didn’t want to leave you but……,” he trailed off as his ability with words completely failed him.  A few moments later found him with his arms wrapped tightly around a wailing child as the meaning of what he was saying made itself known.  Once again time just slipped away as Ezra rocked the distraught child until finally the little one had no more tears and both their bodies insisted on being heard, and in Ezra’s case felt. 

The man eased back a bit so he could looking to red rimmed eyes and, producing a handkerchief out of thin air, suggested, “How about you go look for some eggs while I make myself presentable?”  He carefully wiped the tearstained face and held the cloth up to a tiny button nose in the age old signal to blow.  After that was done he sat her back on her feet, found the egg gathering basket and led her outside.  Ezra gave Caitlin a little push towards the chicken coop as he headed towards the outhouse, nodding encouragingly when she glanced back over her shoulder. 

As Ezra stepped out of the privy his eyes automatically scanned the yard in an attempt to locate Caitlin.  His heart seized when he couldn’t readily see her but just as he was about to call out he spotted her trotting back down the hill with a contrite Chaucer following along like a scolded puppy.  He couldn’t help the wide grin that appeared as he watched his girl stopped beside the abandoned basket of eggs and point sternly at the barn, obviously ordering the horse back into his stall.  The horse gave her one last pitiful look before hanging his head even lower and slowly made his way back into the barn, the absolute picture of hopelessly pathetic. 

After breakfast was done Ezra and Caitlin spent a good part of the day trying to decide what would go with them to Four Corners and what would remain behind.  Once Ezra managed to explain what they were doing he made a game of it to help alleviate some of the child sadness at leaving the only home she had ever known.  Once that was done Ezra hunted up some planks to make a pair of crude crosses out of for the head of the graves; quietly setting them into place while he allowed his ward to say good bye in her own way. 

By the time she had said everything she was going to say it was far to late to leave so Ezra spent the remaining light loading up the remarkably intact wagon with the everything and spent some time explaining everything to Chaucer and humbly begging his pardon for the indignity he was going to be forced to suffer until they reached home.

End Notes:
The Shepherd's Prayer that I mention in here is the one that starts out: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want........  I've always thought of it as the Shepherd's Prayer and figured it would be easier to recognize than Psalm 23.
Chapter 2 by Jaderose

Three days later saw a rather bedraggled Ezra and sleepy little girl rumbled slowly into the town of Four Corners, drawing eyes as they creaked along.  Finally Ezra carefully pulled Chaucer up in front of the livery and climbed down from the wagon, reaching up to the shy little pixie that had stolen his heart after his feet were back on terra firma.  "It's alright, darlin'," he whispered into a tiny shell pink ear as he hugged her and settled her on his hip, waiting for his friends, whom he knew had followed, to arrange themselves in a half circle around them.  Chaucer patiently guarding his rider's back and blocking curious eyes as always.  Catilin just hid her face in her angel's shoulder, gently sucking on the tip of one finger.

"Gentlemen, before we commence with the interrogation, I would like Mr. Jackson to examine this young lady.  She's had a frightening experience and we've been on the trail for the last three days," Ezra said to forestall the rapid fire barrage he could see building in his friends faces.

"Sure.  I can do that," Nathan reassured as he swallowed his own demands, knowing his tone would sound less that complimentary.  "Come on, sweetheart.  Let's take you over to the clinic."  He coaxed gently as he tried to pry the now clinging little girl away from the only safety she had known since her parents had gone to Heaven.

Poor Ezra was trying to help but every time he managed to get a little space between them she would give a frightened whimper and his heart and hands would clinch tight, much to the amusement of the rest of the Seven.  Finally Nathan managed to wiggle a hand in and together he and Ezra convinced the tiny redhead to lean back a bit.

The first thing Catilin saw was a large hand so dirty it was black.  She knew hands weren't supposed to get that dirty, Mamma always said so right before she'd take a handkerchief and try to clean Catilin up.  With this memory in mind the pixie started hunting around for a piece of cloth, finally settling on a corner of her little apron.  Then with the surety of one who had endured such things countless times herself, she firmly grabbed the dirty hand, wet the cloth with her tongue and began scrubbing furiously at the 'dirt'.

Meanwhile the rest of the group was watching everything with half held breath, not wanting to startle the little angel back into hiding, but when she became animated amazement turned to puzzlement and then into barely contained amusement as they realized what she was doing.

It took poor Nathan the longest to figure it out and without moving his hand he asked, "Honey?  What are ya doin'?"  The little waif didn't even bother to look up as she held up the trapped hand, re-wet her apron and went back to work.

"Oh dear," Ezra breathed around an escaping grin.  "I don't think Miss O'Neill has ever seen an Indian let alone a Negro.  I do believe she thinks you're just incredibly dirty and is repeating the ritual that her Mother undoubtedly went through with her," he explained, his body starting to tremble with repressed laughter as he watched the most adorable scowl appear on the child face as she became frustrated at the stubborn skin.

Nathan's eyes widen in astonishment and then began to twinkle as the hilarity of the situation became apparent.  "Sweetie, can you look up at me a minute?"  He asked gently as he tucked a finger under her chin and made her meet his eyes.  He grinned as cat green eyes widen at the sight of him.  "See. I'm black all over.  I was born this way, so it's not dirt.  Thank you for trying to help me though.  That was real sweet of you," he explained as he patiently let the curious child hold a snowy hand to his cheek and study the contrasting skin tones carefully.  After a few minutes of watching this Buck suggested that they all start moseying over to the clinic where both examinations could be done in private. 

“I’ll take care of Chaucer and the wagon, Mr. Standish,” Yosemite offered as he watched the seven town protectors shift ranks to protect one of their own and his precious bundle. 

“Thank you, Yosemite.  Make sure he gets extra oats and a carrot or two as treat.  He’s highly upset with me at the moment.  And don’t let *anything* happen to that wagon, it’s all Caitlin has in this world,” Ezra called over his shoulder as Vin and Chris took point and glared the curious town folks out the Seven’s way. 

“Gentlemen!  What’s going on?  Who is this child?  Where are her parents?”  Mary Travis, the town’s one and only reporter, called out as she made her way to the front of the crowd, her son, Billy, trailing along behind her. 

“Mrs. Travis, Mary, please?  We’ve had a very long few days and are both quite tired,” Ezra quietly pleaded as Caitlin buried her head into his shoulder again as all the attention overwhelmed her.  Without thought the gambler shifted a hand to reach up and start stroking her copper penny hair soothingly. 

“But……,” Mary started only to be cut off. 

“Leave it alone, Mary.  Let them recover and then if he decides to he’ll tell you what’s going on,” Chris growled as he gently pushed the insistent blonde aside and the group continued up to Nathan’s clinic. 

Once everyone piled into the clinic, Nathan waved for Ezra to sit on the bed with Caitlin in his lap and Nate pulled over a chair.  “Okay, little one, I’m going to check you over to make sure you don’t have booboos,” he explained quietly as he carefully reached for the child.  Caitlin just burrowed deeper into Ezra and mumbled something that none of them could understand. 

“English isn’t her first language and I’m still trying to find out precisely how much she understands,” Ezra explained with an apologetic look and half shrug.  He turned to the child, “Darlin’?  Can my friend look you over for…….?” He paused as he tried to remember the word he had learned when she had fallen two days ago.  “Gortú?”  Caitlin sniffled a bit as she raised her head and stared into her new Papa’s eyes.  Once she found whatever she was looking for she turned her startling green eyes to the big black man and shyly nodded, loosing her near strangle hold on Ezra. 

Nathan grinned and patted her on the head, “That’s a brave girl.”  He carefully looked her over, explaining what he was doing before he did it so as not to frighten her, pausing when he reached her left knee and found a small scrape.  “What happened here, sweetheart?”  He asked as he looked to Ezra. 

“We were stopped for our noon day meal and for some playing time and she tripped over a rock.  That’s the only injury I found and I cleaned it as well as I could…,” he trailed off with a guilty look in his eyes at not being able to keep his angel from being hurt in the first place.  Caitlin looked back and forth between the two men before she reached over and patted Ezra on the cheek, explaining something in her lyrical language.  She then turned to Nathan and patted her knee just above the injury and made a kissing face before giving a bright smile.  Nathan raised an eyebrow and gazed patiently at the Southern, humor lurking deep in his dark eyes. 

Ezra sighed, “She said the same thing to me when it happened.  I think it translates into something akin to: these things happen so don’t feel bad.”  He looked around at the rest of the group, amusement showing on their faces as well.  “And yes I did kiss it to make it better.  She insisted that it was what a daid did.”  He gave a long suffering sigh and then grinned wide enough to flash his gold tooth as the group finally broke and started gently laughing at their supposedly self-serving friend. 

“What’s a daid?”  JD asked as he curiosity finally got the better of him. 

“I’m not sure,” Ezra answered with a puzzled look of his own.  “I suppose we’ll find out when she learns more English.” 

“What language is she speaking, Son?” Josiah chimed in as if everyone had  been waiting for one of the others to break and now that the first question had been asked it was safe to satisfy all their curiosity. 

“Gaelic.  This darling little fairy is Caitlin Maeve O’Neill, first generation Irish to be born here in America,” Ezra announced proudly as he gave the girl a squeeze, getting a bright smile and a kiss on the cheek in return.  “Caitlin, do you remember me telling you about my friends?”  He asked with a grin.  He waited as she puzzled out what he had asked, earning a few mental coos as her forehead wrinkled adorably.  Finally her face brightened as her agile little mind finished translating, causing her to nod. 

“Good girl.  You are without a doubt the smartest little girl I know.  Now, this is Nathan,” he introduced formally with a nod towards the black man.  Caitlin grinned and held out her hand, rattling off something that ended in a heavily accented Caitlin. 

“I’m very pleased to meet you too, Caitlin,” Nathan returned as he gently shook her hand, figuring that she was introducing herself. The pixie turned back to Ezra after her hand was released with an expectant look.  Ezra nodded and pointed towards the man in black, “That’s Chris….,” he slowly continued the introductions.  Caitlin hopped off his lap and shyly approached the imposing blonde, who instantly smiled and dropped to his heels so they would be at eye level. 

“How do you do, Miss Caitlin?”  He gently asked as he held out a hand.  Caitlin glanced back over her shoulder and then squared her shoulders when Ezra gave her an encouraging nod.  She stepped up and took the hand, shaking it firmly and repeating what she had said earlier, earning herself another conquest as she topped it off with a cheerful grin. 

The little girl moved on to the next man, who also hunkered down to her level, “Hey, beautiful.  My name’s Buck,” the gregarious ladies man introduced himself just as gently as the others, his face breaking into a bright smile when the adorable pixie introduced herself in kind. 

Caitlin moved onto a great bear of a man whose sheer size made her bend backwards until she nearly toppled over, her eyes wide and her little mouth forming a perfect O.  Josiah let out a rumbling laugh and sat down cross-legged on the floor.  “There, little one, is that better?”  He asked quietly as he waited to see what she would do.  Caitlin blinked at him and then spun around to Ezra and started rapidly babbling at him with wild hand gestures ending with her tiny fingers hooked into claws and a cute growl. 

Ezra blinked in puzzlement before he grinned, “Oh!  You think he’s a bear?”  He translated as he made the same gesture.  Caitlin nodded rapidly, her eyes still wide with wonder, causing everyone to roar with laughter even as Josiah blushed.

The big ex-preacher tapped the little girl on the shoulder and waited until she turned back around.  “I promise I’m a friendly bear.  My name’s Josiah.” He introduced himself as he held out a hand and waited again.  Caitlin studied him for a few moments, then grinned as she shook his hand and then patted him on the head, introducing herself though this time it ended with the word good and the bear gesture.  Josiah rocked back with his laughter and nodded, “Yes, I’m a good bear.”  He repeated complete with the sign. 

Caitlin grinned and with another head pat moved onto the next man.  JD grinned as he knelt down, took off his hat and holding out his hand tried to repeat what she had been saying, substituting his name for hers.  Caitlin giggled as she shook his hand and then, placing both her little hands on each side of his face, slowly repeated the phrase.  JD tried it again, almost getting it right. Caitlin patiently repeated it one sound at a time, pausing each time so he would repeat what she had said, and the clapped her hands in praise as he got it right. 

Nathan glanced at Ezra as he quickly covered his snickering, raising an eyebrow in silent question.  “The first night I spent with the family she spent a good few hours doing the same thing to me.  We made a game of trading words all the way here.”  He explained with a grin.  “I tell you that child is a born teacher.”  They both grinned and then turned back to see how the last of the group handled the precocious child. 

Vin knelt down and drawled a soft, “Hello, Lil’ Cat.  My name’s Vin.”  He waited as she studied him like she had Josiah and then nearly fell in surprise as she gave him a sudden grin and threw her slender arms around his neck in a hug.

 

“Kitty!”  She squealed excitedly as she gave him another quick squeeze and then leaned back to pet his hair.  Poor Vin blushed bright red as his friends nearly laughed themselves sick.  He thought about growling at them but didn’t want to frighten the child so he just let them laugh and promised himself he would get his revenge later.

 

As the laughter started to wind down Caitlin wandered back over to Ezra and climbed tiredly back into his lap.  She snuggled in and with a yawn bigger than she was, patted him over his heart and mumbled something before dropping to sleep with the ease only the truly young can manage.

 

Ezra gave her a sweet smile and kissed her on top of her head, “Love you too, sweetheart.”  He murmured as he shifted her a bit so they were both more comfortable.

 

Chris waited a few moments to make sure the child was actually asleep before nodding the rest of the guys out onto the balcony.  “Ezra,” he called softly, “why don’t you tuck her in and we’ll talk out here.”  Ezra paused, torn between watching over her and having to relay the story of how he came to have her.  Chris watched the debate with a bittersweet twist of his lips as he remembered going through just such dilemmas when he first held Adam.  “We’ll leave the door open so you can hear her.”  He offered gently with a nod to show he understood.

 

Ezra sighed and then carefully shifted the child onto the bed with the ease that showed he had done something similar a time or two.  He smoothed down her hair, then carefully got up and followed his unofficial leader out the door, cracking it just in case.

 

Once everyone was holding up their favorite piece of wall or railing Chris turned slightly hardened hazel eyes towards his errant gambler.  “Alright, Ezra.  What’s the story?”  Everyone else leaned forward as the waited.

 

Ezra gave a sad sigh and ran a slightly trembling hand through his already disheveled hair.  “I was sent to Ridge City to deliver some papers for the Judge, as you all know.  Late afternoon of the third day, Chaucer and I were looking for a place to camp for the night when this petrified poultry darted out in front of us.  Chaucer started but before he could do anything else this darling little pixie appears and runs into his leg.”  Ezra shared a grin with everyone at that bit of imagery.  “Naturally I dismounted and checked on the child, who thankfully wasn’t a bit hurt and was thoroughly enchanted with Chaucer.  Whom she promptly renamed Chaucie.”  He paused again as the others chuckled.  “Chaucer’s just as enchanted and I pity anyone who looks at the child wrong when he is around.

 

Anyway, once I managed to ascertain that she wasn’t hurt and that she was catching the chicken, I put her on Chaucer, caught the bird and managed to get a general direction of home from her.  Once there I was met by a very grateful set of parents, Liam and Erin, who insisted that I stay with them for the night.  It was during this time that I learned none of the family spoke fluent English, the parents having only been in America for the last four years or so.  They fed me, allowed me to sleep on their sofa and allowed me to leave only after Caitlin extracted a promise to visit again upon my return.  After completely my business for the Judge I stayed in town a few days to relax and play a game or two.”  Ezra once again silently cursed himself for his greed as it had kept him from being at the farm when the O’Neills were murdered.

 

He sighed wearily and blinked a bit of moisture from his eyes as he stared at the wooden planks under his feet.  He scrubbed a hand roughly over his face before he continued the story, speaking so quietly the others had to strain a bit to hear him.  “When I finally returned to the little farm I…….,” he drew a deep breath.  “I found the O’Neills laying in their front yard……murdered.”  He nearly spit the last word out as the emotions he had kept hidden from that precious little girl began to boil over.  The next thing Ezra knew he was being surrounded by his friends each gently laying a hand on an arm or on his back, Josiah claiming his slender shoulders as he draped an arm over them and gave him a squeeze.

 

Chris allowed the comforting to go on in silence for several minutes before he decided Ezra needed to get the rest of the story out and gently prodded, “What else?”

 

Ezra drew another deep breath and straightened his shoulders.  “My suspicions are that bandits raided the farm the day before I arrived and when one tried to have his way with Erin, Liam tried to save her and was shot.  Erin was a fierce woman and was probably either killed for resisting to much or, more likely, she attacked her husband’s murderer and was also killed.  The heartless miscreants took the horse, turned the other animals loose and apparently rode off.  I found Caitlin in the root cellar, apparently Erin had the forethought to hide the child while her husband tried to deal with the outlaws.  Once I buried Liam and Erin I gathered up what Caitlin wanted to keep and brought her back here.  I swore over those graves that on my honor as a gentleman I would love Caitlin as if she were my own daughter.”  Ezra raised challenging eyes.  “And I fully intend to keep that oath.”

 

The others glanced uneasily at each other as they realized the gambler meant what he said and fully intended to raise the child himself.  Four of the six gave the impression of stepping back and left it up to Nathan and Chris to silently battle out who was going to have to bring Ezra back to reality.  Finally Nathan was chosen as Chris pulled the old I-am-the-leader-here card before he could.

 

The black man sighed and as gently as he could asked, “Ezra?  You know you can’t keep her right?”  He winced when green eyes filled with hurt and betrayal turned to him but stubbornly plowed ahead.  “Think about it.  You’re one of us and our job is not the safest one out there, when you’re not working as a peacekeeper you’re gambling at all hours, which also isn’t the safest thing to be doing, and you live in a saloon.  Now you know that’s no place for a child to grow up.”

 

“Who’s going to watch her when you have to go out on patrol?”  Chris added, hating himself for it but needing to make sure Ezra knew precisely how much his life would change if he kept the child that had obliviously already stolen the gambler’s heart.

 

“Others in law enforcement have been able to raise children quite happily and I know that my habits are going to have to change somewhat.  As for the rest I was hoping that my friends would help me.  How silly of me,” Ezra growled as he shook off Josiah’s arm and backed up a step, betrayal almost pouring off of him even as he assumed his best poker face.

 

“Now hold on there, Pard.  If you really mean to do this then of course we’ll help,” Buck jumped in, earning a covert glare from his oldest friend and not caring.  “We just wanted to make sure that you’ve really thought everything through.  A child’s a big responsibly, you’ll always have to put them first in every major decision you make.  You can’t just decide one morning that you’re bored with us and the town and just pick up and go.”

 

“I know that!  I’ve spent the last three days and most of those sleepless nights thinking about this,” Ezra nearly snarled defensively.  “I still have the room and board portion of my stipend and can use it to move into the boarding house, if necessary renting the room next to mine for Caitlin.  I have my saloon money to make sure she’s clothed and fed and I intend to love her with everything in me until the day I die.”

 

The boys blinked and looked amongst themselves again when Ezra announced he was willing to use the money he had been happily hoarding towards a saloon of his own on the child.  It was then that they realized just how much the little girl had come to mean to the gambler and as one the six men sighed and resigned themselves to helping the bachelor anyway they could.

 

“Okay.  If we’re going to do this then we need to get as many town folk on our side as possible, ‘cause when the Judge hears about this we’re going to need all the help we can get,” Chris announced as he tiredly rubbed his forehead and silently asked himself when his life had gotten so complicated.

 

The others nodded and then Buck brightened, “Hey!  We’re going to be Uncles!”  He nearly crowed with a huge grin, just remembering to keep his voice down.  Then he sobered up and cast a pleading look to Ezra.  “That is if you still want us to be?”

 

Ezra studied the now hopeful faces and inquired cautiously, “Ya’ll are going to help?”  Not quite believing the rapid change in his friends.  At their eager nods he paused for a minute more and then grinned widely, “Well, then of course you’re her Uncles.  A child can never have to many Uncles looking out for them.”

The Seven spent the next few hours figuring out what they were going to tell the townspeople, Vin managed to get the location of the farm from Ezra and promised to ride out at first light to try and track the bandits, how they were going to move Ezra from the saloon to the boarding house and generally just getting used to the idea that they were now the Magnificent Seven and a half.

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