No Place Like Home
“Argh!” Buck growled in frustration. He closed the back door a little more forcefully than necessary. He pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and sat with a thump.
Chris raised an eyebrow, turning from the stove to look at his friend. “Problem?” he asked softly, knowing likely the boys were aggravating Buck.
“They’re making me crazy!” Buck said. “They’re all growling and biting at each other, and not a one of them will do something without being told two or three times. They’ve bickered all afternoon, picked at each other – I swear they’re intentionally looking for ways to make each other mad. They stomped all over my last nerve.”
“And?” Chris prompted, the corner of his lip quirking up in a slight smile.
“Don’t you dare smile!” Buck snapped. “I yelled at Ezra and I made JD cry.”
Buck lowered his head and rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. “You know Vin,” he finally said. “He just looks at me with those big blue eyes and I haven’t got a clue what he’s thinking.”
Chris turned and stirred the spaghetti before joining Buck at the table. Pulling out a chair, he sat down. “Sounds like you need a vacation.”
Buck looked at him. “I think we all need one.”
Chris nodded. “You’re right. We’ve been dealing with extra stress at work, and the boys aren’t handling the idea of going back to school too well.” Chris shook his head. That was an understatement. All three of the boys would much rather continue their tutoring arrangement with Nettie than return to the classroom. “We’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to get the boys feeling comfortable here. Maybe it’s time we take a couple days off and just have some fun.”
“You’ll never find something all three of them like to do,” Buck grumbled.
“Probably not,” Chris concurred, “but we agreed after Ezra’s entry in the County Fair that the three of them are individuals and just because one does something, that doesn’t mean the others have to, or get to.”
Buck nodded. “So what are you thinking?”
“It’s short notice to do anything off the ranch, but how about a camp out at the high lake?”
Buck smiled sadly. They hadn’t camped at the high lake since Adam died. It was a little boy heaven, fishing, swimming, rocks to climb, caves to explore. The boys would love it. At least Vin and JD would. Ezra would probably have a conniption about getting dirty. “I think we should ask Josiah and Nathan to come along,” Buck suggested.
Chris chuckled. “Four on three is better odds.” He stood up to check the spaghetti. “Why don’t you take the night off? Go play pool in town.”
Buck shook his head. “It ain’t fair to you.”
“It’s called parenting, Buck,” Chris said. “I’ll handle it, and you’ll be better with the boys tomorrow after some time away from them.”
“You sure?” Buck asked.
“Go while the getting’s good,” he said glancing out the kitchen window. “JD’s headed for the house.”
Buck grinned and made a dash to his room to freshen up a bit. You never knew when a cute lady might be around. Maybe a night off was just what he needed.
Ezra stood quietly at the window, lost in thought as he watched Buck and Chris getting the horses read for their trip. He chewed absently on his lower lip, revealing his anxiety.
The eight year old jumped at the sound of Josiah's voice. Josiah rested a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Are you ready to go?” Josiah asked.
“Yes, sir,” Ezra answered, his eyes drawn back to Chris saddling Chester, the rescued horse that he was allowed to ride with supervision.
“I thought we were past that 'sir' stuff,” Josiah said gently, trying to get Ezra to talk.
“Sorry,” Ezra said quietly.
“Are you excited about going?” Josiah asked.
“Have you ever been camping before?”
Ezra shook his head.
“Is there anything you want to know?” Josiah asked.
Ezra turned away from the window and looked at Josiah. “Where will we stay?” he asked.
Josiah grimaced internally. Obviously Chris and Buck had not been thorough enough in their explanations – or perhaps they just assumed the boys would know what camping entailed.
“We'll be sleeping in a tent,” he answered.
“On the ground?” Ezra asked with just the slightest hint of how appalling that idea was to him.
“The tent has a floor and you'll be inside a sleeping bag,” Josiah explained. “You won't be sleeping in the dirt.”
“Will we all be in one tent?” Ezra asked.
Josiah could see the old anxiety coming out. When they had first found the boys, they had been extremely fearful of being separated, and even more fearful of the adults being too close to them. In the time the boys had been at the ranch that fear had slowly disappeared, although when offered the choice of splitting up into separate rooms, they had still chosen to stay together. None of the adults in their lives had pushed the boys to reveal the source of the fear, but Josiah suspected that Vin and JD didn't really have an issue, they were simply responding to Ezra's fear of male authority figures. Something had happened – whether it happened to Ezra directly, or he witnessed an event – he wasn't sure, but until Ezra told them about it, all they could do was prove he had nothing to fear with them.
“No,” Josiah assured. “We're bringing three tents. We thought you boys could share one, and Chris and Buck and Nathan and I will share the other two.”
“Oh,” said Ezra, his relief palpable.
“You know,” said Josiah, trying to find a way to ease Ezra's discomfort, “I bet that JD and Vin haven't done much camping either.”
“JD says his mother took them camping in the back yard,” Ezra countered.
“I tell you what,” Josiah offered, “if there's something you're not sure about, you ask me and I'll show you, just between you and me, okay?”
Ezra smiled briefly and gave a nod.
“Let's go get your pack and your jacket.”
JD chattered away at Buck for most of the ride up the mountain. Buck laughed and talked almost as animatedly back to the little boy as they rode together.
Vin seemed content now to just ride in silence with Chris and take in the scenery. He’d been unhappy with the decision that he had to ride double. Chris had taken great care to praise Vin’s riding abilities and to explain that they needed to test Peso on this ride to see how well he’d do on the trail. Assured that he could ride Peso in the meadow when they arrived at their camping spot, Vin stole a jealous glance at Ezra before nodding his agreement. Ezra was riding alone on Chester, but it wasn't like he was * really ** riding alone. Chester was tied to Josiah's horse.
Ezra had the privilege of riding Chester, having proven he was a capable rider, and Chester having proven in his time at the ranch that he was a reliable mount. He wasn't too happy that Chester was tied to Josiah’s horse, but at least he got to ride by himself. He focused on making sure he was doing everything right so he didn't make a mistake and ruin the chance to ride alone on the way back.
Nathan led Peso and Milagro, who were functioning as pack horses for this trip. If everything went well, Vin and JD would get to ride them on the high meadow. Both horses were flighty at first, but as the ride progressed, they settled into the rhythm of the trail.
They arrived at the camp spot shortly afternoon. Nathan started to make lunch while Chris, Buck and Josiah tried to set up tents with three eager, but inexperienced helpers.
Chris chuckled softly as he listened to JD ask Buck repeatedly, “Does this go here?” To Buck's credit, he would answer, “Let's try that one over here,” rather than telling the excited boy he was doing it wrong. He smiled as he watched Vin tenaciously trying to thread the tent pole through the sleeve. He was a good helper, but he insisted on doing everything by himself, which made the whole process take more time.
“Ta-Da!” crowed Josiah as he and Ezra finished pitching their tent. “You were a great helper, Ezra,” he said. Ezra beamed at the praise.
Chris shook his head wondering how they had managed to complete the task so quickly, but he had to smile at Ezra's pleasure over Josiah's simple words. He turned his focus back to Vin and within a few minutes they had completed their tent as well.
When JD and Buck finished setting up the third tent, Nathan passed out the sandwiches and sodas. The boys went and sat on rocks near the edge of the lake, while the adults sat in the shade of the trees.
“So how'd you finish so fast?” Chris asked Josiah.
Josiah grinned. “Ezra's a quick study.”
Chris raised an eyebrow in question.
Josiah looked over at the boys to make sure they were still by the water before he spoke. “Ezra doesn't know anything about camping. I'd guess that Vin and JD don't have much experience either. I assured Ezra back at the house that he could ask me anything and I'd help him – just between the two of us – so he wouldn’t be embarrassed. I simply showed him *how ** to set up the tent and he copied me.”
Chris frowned. He should have thought about the boys’ inexperience with camping possibly being a stressful thing for them. The whole intent of the camp out was for all of them to have a break from the every day stresses, but no matter where they went, they still brought their emotional baggage along.
Josiah leaned back against the tree, having seen Chris’s expression. “Just remember that they probably don’t know how to camp, and everything is a teaching experience,” he said.
“It wouldn’t hurt if we all would ask each other for help this weekend on things we aren’t particularly good at,” Nathan suggested. “It could show the boys that it’s okay that they don’t know what to do and that it's all right to ask for help.”
Josiah nodded. “Good idea.” He looked at Chris and saw the frown still etched on his forehead. “The best thing you can do, though, is just have fun. Enjoy yourself, play with the boys. If something comes up, we'll deal with it.”
Chris nodded. “Right now it looks like the boys could use some help skipping rocks.”
Buck chuckled when JD threw his rock and it dropped to the bottom with a “kerplunk” instead of skipping across the surface. “Been a long time since I beat you at skipping stones,” he said to Chris.
“You never beat me,” Chris countered, pushing himself to his feet. He flicked his wrist a couple of times in a throwing motion. “Nobody beats my quick draw.”
Everyone laughed and followed him to the edge of the lake.
“What'cha doin' Little Bit?” Buck asked JD.
“Sliding rocks. But mine don't slide,” JD answered with a pout.
“Skipping,” Vin said, correcting JD. “Not sliding.”
“Skipping is when you do this,” JD countered as he demonstrated how to skip.
“Well, you skip great, JD,” Buck said, “But I think Vin meant skipping stones. I used to be really good at this.”
“Really?” asked JD. “Good as Ezra?” he questioned as Ezra got his rock to successfully skip the surface of the water 3 times before sinking.
“The secret is finding the perfect rock.” He started sifting through the small stones on the shoreline. “You want one flat and smooth.”
“Like this?” ask JD holding up a big rock.
“That one is smooth, but we need one a bit smaller,” Buck encouraged. He showed JD a small, smooth stone. “Like this.”
JD studied the rocks, while Nathan moved up to them and picked through the stones as well.
“I found one!” JD chirped and showed it to Buck.
“That's a good one,” Buck agreed. “Let's try it out.”
Buck moved closer to the water and demonstrated how to skip the stone. It skipped once and plopped into the water. At the same time Nathan sailed his rock and it skipped four times before sinking.
“Do you want me to help you, JD?” Buck asked.
“No!” said JD. “I want him!” He trotted over to Nathan and stood next to him. “Can you show me?”
Nathan looked at Buck with a grin. “Sure, JD. Let me help you.”
Buck rolled his eyes and tried not to laugh. He walked over to Josiah and Vin. Josiah was demonstrating how to flick his wrist parallel to the ground for the best angle to skip stones. Vin mimicked him and then skipped his stone three hops. Seeing they needed no help, Buck wandered over to Chris and Ezra.
Chris was skipping stones while Ezra sat on a boulder and watched, unconsciously wiping the dirt from his fingers on his jeans.
“Mind if I share your rock?” Buck asked.
Ezra shrugged and moved over slightly. “I thought you'd be helping JD,” he said.
Buck nodded in JD's direction. “He wanted help from someone who could skip better than me.”
Ezra looked uncertainly at Buck, not knowing whether he was joking or not. When Buck winked at him, he grinned.
“So how come you're not skipping with Chris?” Buck asked.
Ezra shrugged again, and then looked at his fingernails, frowning at the dirt that had accumulated from just a few minutes of play. “I could tell,” he said softly.
“You could tell what?” Buck prompted.
“That he wanted to be alone,” Ezra answered, picking at a nail. “I think he was thinking about him.”
Ezra nodded. “It's okay. I didn't want to get dirty anyway.”
Buck wrapped an arm over Ezra's shoulders and squeezed him, ignoring the stiff response. “I've got something for you.”
Ezra unconsciously shrugged Buck's arm off his shoulders, but looked at him expectantly. Buck reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a small bottle of waterless hand sanitizer. “Since there isn't any hot water out here, I thought you might like this.”
He grinned when Ezra's face lit up at the simple gift. “Thank you, Mr. Wilmington.”
“It's Buck, remember?”
Ezra nodded. “Thank you,” he said again, but couldn't seem to add the word 'Buck.' “May I?” he asked, thumbing the pop up lid of the hand sanitizer.
“Sure,” said Buck. He watched as Ezra quickly, but thoroughly cleaned his hands before slipping the bottle in his pocket, sighing with contentment. Buck shook his head slightly. He hoped his little gift would give Ezra a chance to actually enjoy the weekend outdoors.
Soon the men found themselves the only ones skipping stones as the boys explored the bank of the lake. They had heard a bull frog and were trying to find it. The men continued their friendly contest but kept an eye on the boys.
“It’s over here. I hear it!” exclaimed JD, running toward the fallen tree. The log had been there long enough that reeds and brush had grown up around it, making it a good hiding place for frogs, but also concealing the marsh-like muddy waters around it.
Vin and Ezra were right behind JD when he slid over the log and stepped into the muck, both wanting a glimpse of the bull frog. Ezra hesitated at stepping into the mud, sitting on the log and watching Vin and JD.
“Over here,” said Vin, stepping toward a small over hang of brush intertwined with the exposed tree roots.
“I can’t. I’m stuck,” said JD, trying to take a step, but unable to move. He could feel the wet mud seeping into his boots. “I’m sinking!” he said anxiously. “It’s quicksand! Oh no!”
Without thinking, Ezra slid off the log, stepping into the muck to try to help JD. Vin stepped back toward JD to help as well.
“BUCK!” JD's terrified shriek had the men dropping their rocks and running toward the boys.
Vin and Ezra were both yanking on JD's arms trying to pull him away from the old log, but he wasn't budging.
“What's wrong?” Buck called as he closed in on the boys.
“I'm sinking!” JD yelled. “Help me!”
Buck stepped in and with superior strength and better leverage, pulled JD out of the swampy mud.
“You guys all right?” Chris asked, stepping past Buck and JD. He offered a hand to each of the boys and helped them from the mud and over the log.
He caught Ezra looking at his muddy leg with dismay. “Best thing to do is let it dry,” he said quietly. “Then we'll brush it off. If we try anything while it's wet, it will just smear it around.”
“We could rinse off in the lake,” Vin suggested.
“I don't think so,” Chris countered. “It's a little too cool for that.”
“Then can we ride now?” Vin asked hopefully. Little boy patience could only last so long and the immediate ‘crisis’ was over.
“The horses already worked hard today,” Chris hedged. It was getting late and he would prefer to put off riding until the next day.
“But Peso was really good on the trail,” said Vin. “And you said if he did good, I could ride in the meadow.”
Chris looked into the big blue eyes. Vin didn't ask for much. In fact, he rarely expressed his wants at all. “Alright,” he said, “but just for a little while, and nothing more than a walk.”
“Okay!” Vin agreed readily. He tried to casually follow Chris over to the horses, but it was hard to contain his excitement and he hopped a few times. Ezra followed them both, the lure of horses more important than his muddy legs.
Within a few minutes with the assistance of Nathan and Josiah, the boys' horses were saddled. Chris's horse was saddled as well as a precaution. He would ride with the boys in case one of the horses decided to bolt. After convincing JD that there was no quicksand around the lake, Buck helped him on to Milagro, while Nathan assisted Vin and Josiah assisted Ezra.
Soon the boys were all smiles as they rode across the meadow. It didn't matter if they were only allowed to walk the horses. They were riding. For the next twenty minutes they simply walked around the outer edge of the meadow going in circles. Chris chuckled as JD made up a grand narrative of the adventure they were on. They were cowboys in the old west, chasing down some banditos on the trail. Ezra commented that they must be very slow bandits, but Vin just smiled and enjoyed the ride.
Peso was behaving perfectly, as was Milagro. Both horses seemed to be on their best behavior when the boys were nearby. Chester was dutifully doing his job knowing at the end of the ride there would be a treat from his rider.
Chris was just about to tell the boys to wrap up the ride, when for no apparent reason, Chester bolted across the meadow, crow hopping and bucking as he went. Ezra held on for several seconds, but he just wasn't big enough to have a good grip on the horse. On a particularly stiff hop, he was propelled over Chester's head, landing hard on his left side. Fortunately Chester turned at that moment and avoided stepping on him.
Peso sidestepped, startled by Chester's unexpected actions. Milagro shifted nervously. Chris's instinct was to go after Ezra, but he had two other boys on nervous horses so he moved up and took the reins from both of the boys, controlling their mounts.
Buck, Nathan and Josiah had seen Chester take off and were immediately sprinting from the camp across the meadow. Josiah slowed and approached Chris and the two boys, taking the responsibility for Vin and JD, allowing Chris to ride to Ezra. Chris quickly dismounted and ran to Ezra, praying for the best. Buck arrived seconds after him, and Nathan was just a few steps behind, calling, “Don't move him! Don't move him!”
Chris knelt next to Ezra, looking into the wide green eyes. “Are you alright?” he asked. Ezra took a shuddering deep breath and nodded.
“Let me look at him,” Nathan said, pushing in close to Ezra.
“I'm okay,” Ezra said, but other than nodding, he didn't feel like getting up just yet.
“I'll get the horse,” Buck offered. At Chris's nod, he took Chris's horse and went after Chester.
“Ezra!” Chris looked back hearing JD's frightened yell. Josiah moved closer to the boy, obviously assuring him though it was too far away to hear the soothing words. He turned his attention back to Nathan and Ezra. Nathan was efficiently checking Ezra for injuries, while Ezra remained still, probably in a bit of shock at what had happened.
“Well?” Chris asked anxiously.
Nathan shook his head. “Nothing seems broken. Do you hurt anywhere Ezra?”
Ezra shook his head and tried to sit up. Nathan and Chris assisted him and steadied him as he regained his feet.
“Okay?” Chris asked.
“Yes,” Ezra said softly. “I don't know what happened. Chester was fine.”
“I don't know either,” said Chris. “Maybe he got stung by a bee.”
“He's a good horse,” Ezra said, pleading Chester's case.
“Yes, he is,” Chris agreed. He knew Ezra didn't want to lose the privilege of riding the horse. “Sometimes even good horses have a bad day. Buck went to get him. I'm sure he'll be fine.” He held out his hand to Ezra. “Let's get you back to camp and clean you up.”
Ezra was still shaken enough that he willingly took Chris's hand and walked across the meadow, Nathan following close behind.
Josiah led Vin and JD's horses back to camp. Neither boy was happy about the shortened ride, but both were worried about Ezra. They stood close by, helping Josiah with whatever they could as he unsaddled the animals. When Chris, Ezra and Nathan got close enough, both boys ran to check on their brother.
“Are you okay?” Vin asked.
“I think so,” Ezra answered.
“Wow, Ezra,” exclaimed JD, “You were just like a real cowboy on a buckin’ bronco.”
“Chester’s a good horse,” Ezra said sharply.
“Chester is a good horse,” Chris confirmed. “He didn’t buck you off on purpose.”
“Ezra I want to take a better look at you,” said Nathan, “to make sure you’re really alright. You landed pretty hard on that hip and shoulder. Let me see.”
“Out here?” Ezra asked apprehensively, quickly covering it with, “I’m fine!”
Nathan just stared at him for a moment. They were out in the middle of nowhere, with only 4 men, 2 little boys and some horses that could see him. It wasn’t like he was asking him to shuck his clothes in the middle of town. But then again, this was Ezra.
“How about inside the tent?” he asked. “I just want to make sure you don’t have any cuts.”
“Come on, Ezra,” said Vin, brushing past him. He lifted up the flap of the tent and stepped inside, indicating that he would stay inside with Ezra while Nathan checked him over.
Ezra stepped inside and began to shrug out of his shirt as Nathan followed and discreetly lowered the flap.
“Is Ezra okay?” JD asked, looking up at Chris. “Where’s Buck?”
Chris bent down and picked him up. “He’ll be just fine,” he assured, “And I think I see Buck coming back over there.” He nodded toward the meadow.
“Buck! Hey Buck!” JD yelled and waved wildly so Buck could see him from across the meadow. Buck raised one hand in response.
“Ow,” Ezra gasped softly.
“Sorry,” Nathan offered in apology as he continued his exam inside the tent. “You're going to have some bruises, but other than this scrape on your elbow, I can't find anything else wrong.” He finished wiping the scrape with antiseptic and put a Band-Aid over it. “You might be a little stiff and achy in the morning, but you'll be fine.”
“Thank you,” Ezra said politely as he pulled his shirtsleeve over the bandaged elbow.
JD poked his head into the tent. “Ezra, Buck's coming with Chester.”
Ezra hurried outside. Seeing Chester he ran toward the meadow. Chris was just about to call out to stop him from spooking the horse, when Ezra suddenly stopped and then started walking slowly toward the horse.
Buck dismounted and held both horses' reins.
“Is he alright?” Ezra asked quietly.
Buck nodded. “Yeah, he's fine. Come here.”
Ezra approached and without warning, Buck lifted him up and set him on Chester. He handed Ezra the reins and said, “Take him back to camp.”
Ezra nodded not having time to think about whether he was nervous about getting back on. He carefully urged Chester forward. It made him feel really warm inside that Buck still trusted him with the horse. He spoke softly to Chester telling him he was a good horse.
Buck walked alongside smiling at Ezra's monologue. He knew the best thing for Ezra was to get him right back on the horse. Chester bucking him off was just one of those things that happened. It wasn't a pattern for the horse, nor was it an error on Ezra's part.
“Whoa,” Ezra said to the horse.
“Need a hand down?” Buck asked. While Ezra was capable, Chester was not a pony and Ezra wasn't very tall, making for a longer than comfortable drop to the ground.
Instead of answering, Ezra carefully slid off the side, clinging to the saddle until he could drop safely to the ground.
“Have a nice ride?” Chris asked Buck as he and the other two boys approached.
“Well, Chester went a bit further than I anticipated,” Buck said. “But he was waiting right there in the middle of the trail.”
“Well, boys,” Chris said, “I think the horses all need a good brushing and a treat.”
The rest of the evening passed uneventfully. Josiah told stories at the campfire until Chris declared it was time for the boys to go to bed.
The boys were tired and obediently headed toward the tent. Moving away from the light of the fire, Ezra stopped outside the tent, looking up. JD ran into him.
“Hey, Ezra, move.”
Ezra looked down and sidestepped so JD and Vin could enter the tent. He took one last look at the sky before heading inside.
After a few minutes of bumping into each other as they got ready for bed inside the small tent, the boys settled into their sleeping bags.
For the next fifteen minutes whispers and giggles floated to the campfire from the middle tent. Chris sat there smiling.
“What?” Buck asked, noticing the grin.
“I was just remembering all the times you and I did the same thing as the boys.”
Buck chuckled. “Yep. We were a bit older, but there's something about sleeping in the outdoors that brings out the whispers and giggles.”
Chris shook his head. “Boys!” he called out in warning.
The tent went silent for a moment and then three boys struggled to stifle their giggles. Chris held his hand over his mouth, trying not to laugh. It would spoil his “authority.”
“You old softie,” Buck said. “I think I'm going to turn in.”
“Me, too,” said Nathan. “Got to get to sleep before Josiah.”
“Hey!” Josiah protested. “I do not snore that loud.”
“Uh-huh, right,” said Nathan sprinting for the tent.
Josiah dowsed the remaining embers from the fire and told Chris goodnight. Chris stayed near the fire pit, leaning against a tree, looking at the stars, and remembering good times.
A whimper from the boys’ tent stirred Chris from his thoughts. Tapping the back light on his watch, he realized he'd been 'wool gathering' for better than an hour. He waited a few more minutes, but when there was no further noise from the boys' tent, he went to bed.
He'd barely fallen asleep when a noise awakened him.
“JD?” Buck whispered.
“No,” Chris whispered back, immediately recognizing the sound. “Ezra.”
Buck started to get up.
“Wait,” Chris whispered.
They heard the whimper again, and then heard Vin's hushed voice. “Its okay, Ezra. It's just a dream.”
Though the boys were very quiet, the silence of the night made their conversation easy to hear.
“Are you alright?” Vin asked.
“Yes,” Ezra whispered. “I'm sorry I woke you.”
“It's okay. I had to go anyway,” Vin answered.
“Me, too,” Ezra admitted.
Chris lay back in his sleeping bag. The boys had a flashlight and the area they had designated as the 'privy' was a safe distance from camp. He listened intently for the next few minutes for the boys' return. Buck had dozed off, knowing that Chris was watching over the boys. When they hadn't returned in ten minutes, Chris got up and went looking for them.
They hadn't strayed far. They were sitting on a boulder looking up at the star filled sky. “Mind if I join you?” he asked softly, hoping he didn't startle them too badly.
Ezra looked at him. “Aren't they amazing?” he asked turning his attention back to the stars and forgetting to be worried whether Chris was upset with them or not.
“I was showing Ezra the Big Dipper,” Vin said. “See? Right there.”
Chris sat down next to Vin on the rock. “Ursa Major,” he said, “The Great Bear. An American Indian tradition has the bowl as a bear. Some groups say the handle is three cubs following their mother, while some say it's three hunters tracking the bear. If you look at the bowl, see those two stars that are opposite from the handle?”
“Well, follow those two stars in a straight line up and you can see-”
“The North Star,” Vin interrupted.
“Polaris,” Ezra added.
“That's right,” Chris said. “And that is the end of the handle for the Little Dipper, Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.”
“How do you know about the stars?” Vin asked.
“Well,” Chris said, “When I was about your age, my grandpa used to take me on camp outs. We spent hours and hours looking at the stars. Grandpa told me all kinds of stories about them.”
“They seem so much bigger and brighter,” said Ezra.
“That's because we're away from the city lights,” Chris said. “How do you know about the stars?” he asked casually.
When Ezra didn’t answer, Vin spoke up. “Mama and me used to sleep outside lots. Sometimes you couldn’t see the stars too good, but sometimes we stayed with her daddy’s daddy we could see ‘em real good and he told us stories about the stars.”
Chris wanted to ask about Vin’s great grandfather, but Ezra’s soft response stopped him.
“I read it in a book.” The wistful comment revealed that Ezra was a lot more aware of and hurt by the lack of a mentoring relationship in his life than he’d ever let on. He always gave the impression that the absence of a father and the lack of involvement of his mother didn’t affect him in the least. A sky full of bright stars and a quiet conversation in the middle of the night had revealed the truth.
Chris struggled to find a way to respond to Ezra’s comment, but Vin, the little caretaker stepped in.
“Can you show me the book?” he asked excitedly. “Then I could learn the real names of the stars, just like you, and maybe we can look at the stars again sometimes with Chris and learn how to find them, and then we can show JD.”
“We’d need to go to the library,” Ezra said.
“I think we could do that,” Chris said. “And I’d love to spend more nights looking at the stars with you both.”
“And JD?” Vin asked.
“JD, too,” Chris said, “When he can stay awake long enough.”
Both boys laughed.
“I looked through a telescope once,” said Ezra. “It was at a building where they look at stars.”
“An observatory?” asked Chris.
“Yes,” said Ezra. Chris tucked away the information for later. He’d have to look in to taking the boys to the Observatory some day. It was only a three hour drive. And maybe he’d have to see about getting a telescope for Ezra.
“Look!” Ezra said, pointing to the sky.
“Wow!” said Vin as they saw the shooting star. “Make a wish!”
In moments it was gone, but three people made their wishes. They sat quietly for another ten minutes or so before Chris said that they should go back to bed. As he ushered them back toward the tent, Vin held one hand while Ezra walked close to Chris's other side, with the flashlight.
“Mr. Larabee,” Ezra whispered as they stopped at the tent, “Thank you for telling us about the stars.”
“You're welcome, Ezra,” he whispered in return. “Into bed now. Sleep tight.”
He waited for the boys to settle into the tent, before climbing back into his sleeping bag.
“Nice walk?” Buck whispered.
Chris just smiled and closed his eyes.
Morning came too quickly for Chris. Buck had let him sleep in a bit while he and Josiah got breakfast started. When he heard JD’s cheerful voice join them at the fire pit, Chris decided he’d better get moving.
By the time he’d finished getting dressed and taking his trip to the ‘privy’, Vin came out of the boys’ tent looking bleary eyed. His hair was tangled making him look like he’d had a fight with his pillow.
“G’morning,” Chris said.
Vin rubbed his eye. “Morning,” he mumbled back.
“You alright?” Chris asked.
Vin nodded and yawned. “Jist tired.”
“Thanks for taking care of Ezra last night,” Chris said.
Vin frowned and looked at Chris trying to figure out what he was talking about.
“The nightmare,” Chris said, “and when we were looking at the stars.”
“Oh,” Vin said with a shrug. He didn’t think it was anything special. It was just something he did. “Ezra don’t want to get up.”
“Is he alright?”
Vin shrugged again. “He says so.”
“But?” Chris asked.
“He’s awake, but he’s not moving much. It’s like he’s all achy or something,” Vin said.
Chris nodded. “He probably is. Falling off a horse and then sleeping on the cold ground can make you feel pretty stiff.”
“Weren’t his fault,” Vin defended.
“Nope,” Chris agreed. “He’s not in trouble and neither is Chester. They didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Okay,” Vin answered.
Chris smiled wondering what Vin would choose to be when he grew up. He was definitely a protector.
“You go ahead and wash up,” he said. “I’ll check on Ezra and help him get moving.”
Vin nodded and walked over to the wash basin Nathan had set up.
Chris walked over to the tent and lifted the flap. “How’re you doing, Ezra?”
“I remember trying to get up the day after I fell off my horse. I didn’t feel like moving at all. Everything was stiff and sore.”
Ezra lifted his head and looked at him.
“My dad made me get up and start moving around.” He looked at Ezra and grinned. “I wasn’t too happy about getting up, but it turned out he was right. Once I was moving around the stiffness went away.”
“Really?” Ezra asked.
Chris nodded. “Really.”
Ezra took a depth breath and sat up, trusting Chris to be right. He groaned softly as he turned onto his hands and knees and crawled out of the sleeping bag. He sat back on his heels.
“Come on,” Chris encouraged. “It’s hard to move at first, but it will get better.”
Ezra sighed and struggled to his feet. Chris held the tent open for him as he stepped outside. The adults shared knowing smiles as Ezra shuffled a few feet.
“Ezra! Good morning!” JD greeted enthusiastically. “Buck says we’re going to ‘splore a cave today. And climb up some rocks.”
Ezra smiled and nodded politely.
“Did you go to the privy yet? I got poked right on my butt!” JD exclaimed pointing to the left side of his derrière.
Ezra blinked at JD, partially appalled at his statement, and partially because he wasn’t quite ‘with it’, yet.
“Let Ezra alone,” Buck said with a soft chuckle. “I moved the branch so it won’t poke anybody else.”
“Well, it hurt,” JD said.
“I’m sure it did,” Buck agreed. “But not bad enough that you’ll have trouble riding?”
“NO!” JD exclaimed, not willing to miss out on riding. “I’m fine now!”
Buck hooted and scooped him up, spinning him around, reveling in the little boy’s laughter.
Ezra shook his head and moved slowly toward the privy area. He’d be sure to watch out for stray sticks.
The exploration of the cave turned out to be an enlightening adventure, for the adults and the boys. The cavern extended about 30 feet into the mountainside, and was a natural protection from the weather. Buck entered first while the boys were still safely away from the entrance. He needed to make sure that no wildlife was currently residing in the cave. They had waited until late morning in hopes that any residents would be out foraging for food.
“All clear,” Buck said as he emerged from the cave. “Come on, Boys. Check it out.”
Armed with flashlights, the seven entered the cave. The men had to hunch over, but the boys could stand up easily inside the cave. Within a few feet from the entrance they made their first discovery.
“Look, Buck,” said JD shining his flashlight on the wall, “Cartoons.”
Buck grinned. It was an apt description of the crude etchings in the rock walls. “They’re called Petroglyphs. Native American’s told stories through the pictures.”
“You mean Indians made these?” JD asked.
“Maybe,” said Buck. “We don’t know how long they’ve been here. It could have been just some teenagers messing around years ago. What story do you think they are telling?”
JD looked at the pictures. Ezra and Vin crowded closer and shined the beams of their flashlights on the wall as well.
“Ewww,” said JD. “It gots a girl. I don’t want to know.”
Everyone laughed at the frank statement, the men because they knew that would change one day, and the boys because they agreed with JD.
“Let’s go a little further,” said Buck, taking JD’s hand.
Vin grabbed Ezra’s hand, gripping a little tighter than necessary. Ezra frowned, but led Vin.
Buck showed them a couple of different burrows where animals had nested, taking them further back into the cave. About 20 feet in, there were two pair of stalactites and stalagmites.
“Are they icicles?” JD asked seriously.
“In a way,” said Buck, “but they’re not made out of ice. They’re made from rocks and minerals.”
“What are they called?” asked Ezra, slightly distracted by Vin grasping tightly to his arm and breathing hard.
“Stalactites and Stalagmites,” Buck said, “But I can never remember which is which.”
“The way I remember,” said Josiah as he stepped closer to the front of the group, “is that Stalactites cling tight to the ceiling.”
“And Stalagmites might reach the ceiling,” Nathan said. “My teacher taught me the same thing.”
“Mine, too,” said Chris.
“Ow,” said Ezra. “Vin, that hurts. Let go!” He pushed Vin's hand away.
All attention focused on Vin, JD shining his light in Vin’s face. There was no mistaking the look of terror, the sweating, the heavy breathing. Vin was having a panic attack.
Ezra, realizing he had just pushed Vin away when he needed help, reached for his arm. Unfortunately, it was at the same time Chris moved and their feet got tangled and they tripped over each other. Chris tried to keep Ezra from falling, but couldn’t. He quickly apologized to the boy as he helped him up and handed him off to Nathan.
“Vin,” Chris said, trying to get the boy’s attention. “Vin, you’re alright.”
Vin didn’t seem to hear him. He stood frozen in place, trembling and breathing hard.
Chris acted on instinct, not taking the time to worry about whether holding Vin would make him feel more confined. He just picked the boy up and headed for the entrance, which was easier said than done since he had to stoop over.
Josiah followed quickly, shining his flashlight in front of Chris so he could see where he was going.
JD instinctively clung to Buck. “What happened?” he asked.
Buck hugged him. “I'm not sure, Little Bit, but I think Vin didn't like being in here.”
“But it's great. There's all kinds of fun stuff,” JD said.
“Some people don't like being in small, dark places,” said Nathan. “Are you alright, Ezra?”
Ezra nodded uncertainly. Everything had happened so quickly. He felt bad that he hadn’t noticed that Vin was getting so upset. He’d scraped his hands when he fell, but that didn’t matter. Vin needed him.
“I’m going to make sure Vin’s okay,” he said.
“Why don’t we all go,” Buck said. Holding JD on one hip, he handed Ezra a flashlight. “Lead the way.”
Chris had stopped just outside the cave. With his arms still wrapped around Vin, he sat down on a log. “You're okay, it's safe,” he repeated over and over to the boy.
Vin struggled against him trying to get free, his panic keeping him from thinking logically.
“Shh,” Chris soothed. “Look around you. You’re outside. You’re safe.”
Josiah stood nearby to help if needed, but Chris’s constant soothing words seemed to be helping. Vin’s breathing was starting to slow down and he wasn’t shaking as hard. Josiah patted Chris on the shoulder in support and then stepped away to give Vin all the space he needed. He heard the others coming out of the cave and guided them away from Chris and Vin.
“Is Vin okay?” JD asked, still holding on to Buck’s hand.
“He’ll be fine, JD,” Josiah answered. “He just needs to be alone for a little while.”
“Kay,” JD said, though he didn’t really understand what happened. He slipped his free hand into Ezra’s.
The simple gesture of JD needing comfort pulled Ezra’s attention away from Vin. He squeezed JD’s hand and said, “He’ll be fine.”
“Why don’t we go on up the trail a bit?” Buck suggested. “There’s a nice viewpoint and we can have lunch there.”
“Good idea,” Nathan said. “I’ll stay with Chris, and we’ll catch up to you in a few minutes.”
“How about a piggy back ride?” Buck asked JD. The little boy nodded and let go of Ezra’s hand. Buck lifted him up and swung him around so JD could cling to his back like a baby monkey. They set off, heading up the trail.
Josiah looked at Ezra. “It’s not very dignified… but it looks kind of fun,” he said with a big grin. “You could get up on that boulder over there and climb on,” he offered.
Ezra looked wistfully at Buck and JD, and then back to Josiah. It was obvious he wanted to do it, but couldn’t allow himself the freedom. “I’ll walk,” he said, turning to follow Buck and JD.
Josiah held in his sigh of disappointment, but had to smile when Ezra reached a hand out to hold his. It was a rare concession from the eight-year-old. He gave a little squeeze of his hand and walked with Ezra up the trail.
It took another ten minutes before Vin was breathing normally. It didn’t help that he had broken down into tears of embarrassment that he had been so scared. Chris kept up his calm litany of soothing and caring words and eventually the tears subsided into an occasional hiccup.
Chris rubbed Vin’s back. “Did I ever tell you I’m scared of spiders?”
Vin shook his head.
“Well, I am,” Chris said. “I can’t stand to go to bed if I know there’s one in the room. When I was little I used to scream like a girl when I saw one. Now, I don’t scream, but sometimes I jump when I see one move. I just get them out of the house and then I can sleep.”
“I didn’t know I was scared of caves,” said Vin. “I’m sorry.”
“No need to apologize,” Chris said. “Most people don’t know something will scare them until it does.”
“I’m scared of monkeys,” Nathan offered.
“Monkeys?” Vin asked in surprise.
“Yep. My daddy said when I was really little we went to the zoo, and when we were looking at the monkeys, one of them took my ice cream cone. Just snatched it right out of my hand.” He looked at Vin. “Daddy says ever since then I’ve been afraid of monkeys. I still won’t go see them at the zoo.”
Vin grinned. It was hard to picture Nathan being afraid of a monkey, or Chris being afraid of an itty bitty spider. “I guess we’d better not ask you to come when we go to the zoo,” he said.
Nathan chuckled. “I’ll pass. And it won’t bother me one bit not to be included in that trip.”
“And I’ll avoid the insect exhibit,” Chris added. “How are you feeling now?” He could tell Vin’s heart rate had slowed considerably, and his breathing was near normal.
“I’m okay,” Vin answered.
“Do you want to mosey on up the trail and have some chow at the overlook?” Chris said with the best cowboy drawl he could muster.
Vin grinned and nodded. Nathan helped them up and the threesome started the hike to the overlook.
“Vin is alright, isn't he?” Ezra asked as he and Josiah walked.
Josiah nodded. “He'll be just fine when he calms down.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Ezra asked as he stepped over a fallen log.
“Sure,” said Josiah.
“Why did being in the cave scare Vin?”
“I don't really know,” said Josiah, ducking a low branch. “Do you ever remember him being afraid of being closed in?”
Ezra shook his head.
“Perhaps it reminded him of being trapped in the attic during the flood,” Josiah suggested.
“But he’s not scared to sleep under the bed,” Ezra said.
They walked along in silence for a few minutes, both deep in thought. Josiah considered the many times that Vin had slept under the bed. It was a security thing for him. When he got scared, he’d crawl under the bed with his dog, Dobie, since the dog couldn’t get up on the top bunk with him.
“It smelled like the flood,” Ezra said quietly.
“The cave?” Josiah asked. The damp smell in the cave very well could have been what triggered Vin's panic attack, but it obviously had an impact on Ezra as well. He’d talk with Vin one on one later to figure out what had happened in the cave, but right now he could help Ezra with sort through his feelings while the eight-year-old was feeling somewhat vulnerable.
Ezra nodded. “It smelled like the flood, you know, wet and a little... I don't know,” he said, not able to put into words what it smelled like.
“Perhaps it...” Josiah didn't get the chance to finish his thought when an excited JD called out to them.
“Ezra, hey, Ezra! Come and see! You can see forever!”
Ezra walked over to where Buck and JD were standing on an outcrop above a deep canyon.
Josiah watched him, wondering if the smell had brought up memories for Ezra, and knowing he'd just lost the opportunity to find out.
“Buck says we can't come out here by ourselves,” said JD. “We has to have a grown up with us.”
Ezra peered over the edge and unconsciously took a step back. “That's a good rule,” he said. The view was amazing, but he'd look at it a little further away.
“Beautiful,” said Josiah.
“That it is,” said Buck. He had hold of JD's hand so the little guy wouldn't get too close to the ledge. “How about if we get the sandwiches out so we'll be ready when the others catch up?”
“Okay,” said JD. They turned and walked back to where Buck had left his backpack.
Ezra followed, picking at the scrapes on the heel of his right hand. He wasn't paying attention to where he was going and bumped into Buck, who had seen what Ezra was doing and stopped to check on him.
“Let me see,” Buck said.
Ezra offered both hands, palms up.
“Did you get these when Chris knocked you down?” Buck asked.
“He didn't mean to,” Ezra defended.
Buck smiled. “Of course not. Let's try rinsing some of the dirt off.”
Ezra nodded and held his hands still while Buck opened his canteen and poured some water over his hands.
Buck capped the canteen and examined Ezra's hands. “Do you have any of that hand sanitizer left?”
Ezra pulled his hands away abruptly. “That will sting!”
Buck put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Yes, it will, but only for a few minutes. And it will clean the scrapes so they don’t get infected.”
Ezra sighed and reached in his pocket, pulling out the plastic bottle of hand sanitizer and handing it to Buck.
“Hold 'em out,” Buck soothed. “I'll squirt a little of this on them and then you rub them together – just a couple times – not hard - and then hold them out again.” He knew the alcohol in the sanitizer would burn, but it would also kill the germs. “Ready?”
Ezra nodded, closed his eyes and held out his hands. As soon as the stinging liquid hit the heels of his hands he rubbed them together and held them out again like Buck said. “Ow! Ow! Ow!” he said as they burned from the alcohol. Then a cool breeze hit them. He opened his eyes to see Buck kneeling in front of him blowing gently on his hands, cooling the burn slightly. His eyes teared up as he remembered JD's mother doing the same thing for him when he hurt himself.
“You okay?” Buck asked, seeing the tears and assuming they were from the stinging hands.
Ezra impulsively wrapped his arms around Buck’s neck, hugged him, and then quickly ran away so no one would see him cry.
“Ezra?” Buck called.
The boy stopped and sat down on a log, keeping his back to the others, silently communicating that he needed to be alone for a few minutes.
“What happened?” Josiah asked. He had missed the interplay between Buck and Ezra while he helped JD get the lunch out of their packs.
Buck shrugged. “I’m not sure,” he said. “He got me with one of those ‘hit and run’ hugs of his.”
Josiah smiled. Ezra had held his hand, and now he had hugged Buck. It seemed that this trip was more beneficial to Ezra than any of them had expected.
“Where’s lunch?” called Nathan as he, Vin and Chris walked up to the overlook. “I’m starvin’!”
Though Chris had been focused on helping Vin, his eyes immediately were drawn to Ezra, sitting off by himself.
“What happened?” he asked.
Buck shook his head. “I was helping him clean the scrapes on his hands. He got all teary-eyed, hugged me and ran off.” Buck looked toward Ezra. “I figured he could use a few minutes alone.”
Chris nodded and walked off toward Ezra.
“Are the scrapes bad?” asked Nathan.
“Nah,” said Buck. “We cleaned them with his hand sanitizer.”
Nathan winced in sympathy. “Do they need bandages?”
“The one on his right hand is a little deeper,” said Buck. “A band-aid wouldn’t hurt.”
Nathan nodded and took out his small first aid kit, and followed Chris.
Chris sat down on the log next to Ezra. “Nice view,” he said quietly.
Ezra nodded and tried to wipe a tear without being seen. “Is Vin okay?”
“He’s fine. How ‘bout you?” Chris asked.
“Let me see your hands.” As Ezra held them out, Chris said, “I’m really sorry I knocked you down.”
“It’s okay,” Ezra said. “Vin needed you.”
Chris wanted to counter that Ezra needed him, too, but he didn’t want to push too hard and cause Ezra to build his defenses higher.
“Looks like this one could use a band-aid,” he said.
“Got one right here,” said Nathan. He stopped and held out his hand expectantly.
Ezra held out his hands and let Nathan take them in his. “Well, it's not too bad, but this one is definitely band-aid worthy.” He put a little antibiotic ointment on the scrape on his right hand and applied a band-aid. “You've got quite a collection going.”
Ezra glanced at his elbow at the band-aid that Nathan had placed there yesterday.
“Might as well check that one while we're at it,” Nathan said as he quickly plucked the old band-aid off and made quick work of cleaning the wound and reapplying a new band-aid. “There you go. All finished.”
Ezra flexed his hand and tested his elbow. “Are we still going to climb on the rocks after lunch?”
Chris nodded. “I think it will help Vin feel better if we do. Are you up to it?”
Ezra nodded and stood up. “I'm ready for lunch.”
Nathan and Chris grinned and followed Ezra back to the others.
After lunch they went 'climbing,' but in reality it was bouldering. It really couldn't be defined as rock climbing, because the rocks weren't all that high or challenging, but for three boys, they were conquering a mountain. The rock formation was a natural terrace, with a series of four ten foot climbs, which each ended on a plateau. The rocks had easy hand holds and toe holds, but the men treated it seriously, and used it as a chance to teach the boys respect for climbing, complete with all the gear – some borrowed and some they owned.
Geared up with harnesses, gloves and ropes, Chris and Buck patiently instructed the boys on the six foot rock just south of the terrace. Each of the boys took a turn learning to look for hand holds and foot holds, and pull themselves up the rock. JD was still small enough that he didn't have a lot of arm strength, but they would have him on belay and help him up if he got stuck. The surprise was that Ezra was just as excited as Vin about climbing. Both boys eagerly followed the instruction and caught on quickly. Ezra's tree climbing ability translated naturally to the rocks, and Vin seemed to be at home on the rocks.
They spent a couple hours climbing the terrace, each cheering for the others when it was their turn. By late afternoon three happy but weary boys sat on the upper plateau looking over the valley. They ate their snack bars and drank water as they watched a hawk soar. The four adults sat behind them smiling and talking quietly. It had been a good decision to take the boys camping.
Too soon it was time to head back to camp, but the return off the terrace was just as much fun as they learned about rappelling. JD was tired enough that he rappelled with Buck, but he still yelled with glee as they floated down. Ezra and Vin were just as studious as they had been with the climbing instruction, and after a few mistakes, caught on. The four waited at the bottom for Josiah, Nathan to rappel down, and then watched with wonder as Chris free climbed down the final face.
They helped pack up the gear in Chris and Josiah's backpacks and then started the hike downhill to the camp site. The trip was uneventful until the last 500 yards. Going up hill hadn't been a problem, but going downhill was a bit tricky where there was loose rock. Chris was in the lead, followed by Vin and Ezra. Buck was next, carrying JD, with Nathan, then Josiah bringing up the rear.
“Boys, be really careful...”
The words were no sooner out of his mouth when Ezra's foot turned on a loose rock, and he tumbled down hill. Vin sidestepped and slipped, landing hard on his rump.
Chris heard the yelps and the shifting rocks and turned in time to keep Ezra from rolling past him. “Whoa!” he called out as he caught Ezra by the arm. “Are you all right?”
Ezra was wide-eyed, breathing hard. Nathan skidded past Josiah who was now helping Vin up and stopped next to Chris and Ezra.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“I think so,” Ezra said softly.
“Let's get back to camp and make sure,” said Chris.
Ezra stood up and gasped when he put weight on his foot.
“Carry or ride?” Chris asked.
Ezra grimaced. “Ride,” he said softly.
Nathan helped him onto Chris's back and he rode to camp.
A quick exam back at the camp showed some more scrapes and bruises and a twisted ankle. Nothing serious, but enough to keep him from playing with Vin and JD in the meadow. Buck, Nathan and Josiah had joined the two little boys in the meadow, giving Chris some time to talk with Ezra.
“Are you hurting?” he asked, seeing the tears in Ezra's eyes.
Ezra shook his head. “I'm just...” He didn't finish his thought, but tears slipped down his cheeks.
Without warning, Chris pulled him up onto his lap and wrapped his arms around him. “I'm sorry you've had such a rough time,” he said softly.
“I had fun,” Ezra said with an ungentlemanly sniff. “I'm just tired.”
“We could head back. We have enough time to get back to the ranch before dark,” Chris suggested.
Ezra turned his head to look at Vin and JD. They had planned to spend another night. It wouldn't be fair to Vin and JD, but he was really tired and achy.
“We can camp again another day,” Chris said. “They look a little worn out to me. I'm kind of tired myself. What do you think?”
Ezra tipped his head back to look up at Chris's face. “I just want to go home,” he said softly.
Chris hugged him a little tighter at the admission. He had never called the ranch home. The simple word made Chris's heart soar.
About forty-five minutes later they were headed back to the ranch. Vin was tiredly, but happily riding on Peso, the lead rope tied to Nathan's horse. JD leaned against Buck and slept. Josiah followed behind, leading Chester and Milagro, while Ezra rode with Chris. There had been no argument, no discussion about who was riding where. Ezra needed the comfort of his protector.
When they reached the corral, Chris gently woke the dozing boy. “Ezra, were home.”
Ezra sighed and snuggled back against Chris.
Chris smiled as Buck carried JD into the house, with Vin trailing behind. Vin stopped and turned to look at him. He nodded to the boy, and then passed Ezra down to Josiah so he could dismount. Taking Ezra in his arms, he nodded in appreciation when Josiah volunteered to take care of the horses.
Dobie and Sam, the Labradors barked happily that their family was back.
“Home,” Ezra mumbled sleepily.
“Yes, we're home,” Chris whispered. And there was no place like it.