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.