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.