Disclaimer: Not mine and never will be.
Note: Will make more sense if you read Where Home Is At first.
Note: Thanks to Twy for beta reading this for me.
Ezra lay there in his bunk staring up at the underside of the top bunk. He had been trying to go sleep for the last three hours to no avail. His mind repeatedly going over the actions of the last four weeks. It had all started when he had met up with his mother. Maude had written and had used all the right words to get him to leave the safety and security of his new family. The fourteen-year-old once again mentally lashed out at himself for being so gullible and stupid. He should have known from the start that it was just a ploy, but he foolishly believed the words like a naďve five-year-old.
It hadn’t taken long after arriving at Maude’s newest victim’s home to figure out how stupid he had been. Maude had pretty much ignored him the whole time and the gentlemen had given up trying to befriend him after only a couple of days. It hadn’t been until Maude had taken off and left him with the older man that Ezra saw his true colors. The sharp-witted boy had managed to escape and after living on the streets a few days had found his way to a shelter. Ezra had hoped that by some miraculous event that his brothers would appear out of nowhere and reclaim him as one of their own. But, Ezra had never lived in a make-believe world where dreams come true and therefore, had convinced himself it would never happen. When he had woken to find Josiah and Chris squatting down by his cot he had almost had a heart attack.
The days following his arrival back home had been awkward to say the least. Buck, when not hugging him at every opportunity, kept looking at him with the strangest expression and JD wouldn’t let him out of his sight. Vin had been his normal quiet self, but Ezra always knew instinctively that Vin would be there if he wanted to talk. Chris had pretty much let him know walking out of the shelter how he felt about his little brother, but still seemed to be touchier than in the past. Nathan was forever watching from the background, ever time he undressed. It was like he was looking for the scars he knew Ezra was carrying around on the inside and the senior was trying to figure out how to bandage and heal them. That left Josiah, the oldest of the seven and a guidance counselor, too.
Sometimes, and Ezra would never openly admit this, it was nice to have a brother who not only would listen to a problem, but could also actually fix it. Except this time Josiah couldn’t fix the problem, mostly because Ezra didn’t have a clue what was wrong and had no way of expressing the problem. He had what he wanted; a home with his six brothers. That wasn’t to say Josiah hadn’t tried to help. The oldest had used his own brand of psychology on his little brother, had tried to pull out of his brother the issues that were buried so deep. After he indicted himself that he had failed, Josiah’s next move had been to get Ezra an appointment with a youth psychiatrist in the larger town, forty miles away. That meeting had been a complete disaster. Ezra had come storming out of the office less than ten minutes into his visit, followed by the psychiatrist, who sternly suggested that Josiah find an alternate solution.
So, now five weeks later everyone was pretending that everything was back to normal and knowing full well it wasn’t. With a heavy sigh, Ezra turned over once more and closed his tired eyes and pushed himself to go to sleep.
Nettie Wells had lived on her property going on fifty years. Her husband and her and come to this little valley as newlyweds and spent the better part of their lives turning it into an income producing ranch. There had been no children, except for the three miscarriages and one stillborn that had been buried out in the back under a, then young sapling, that now stood to be a great oak tree. Nettie had learned early that life was tough and only by being just as tough did one survive and flourish.
It was that inner strength she had developed that had helped her get over her husband’s death, shortly after their thirtieth anniversary. Not long afterwards, a young couple moved onto the property next to hers. A few years later the couple adopted a son. Over the next fifteen years Janis and Bobby had adopted six more sons. Each one had become an adopted nephew to Nettie. Then five years ago, her deceased sister’s child had come to the ranch woman with her four-year-old daughter and announced she could no longer raise the child. Nettie had figured it was more like the wild young girl didn’t want to raise the baby more than anything, so the old ranch woman had taken in the little girl. Casey and her had settled in to the new routine, learning from one another and learning to love.
Each one of Janice’s boys had made their way to Nettie’s over the years for different reason, whether it was for comfort, someone fresh to listen to their problems, or her pies. Josiah, the oldest, felt like a lost soul and just needed the advice and guidance of someone who wasn’t a parent. Buck, had bought many a problem about this girl or that to her front steps, none ever more serious than needing a shoulder to cry on or advice how to sway a parent to let him date the girl. Chris, with his anger and rage and almost single-handily rebuilt her barn. He might have been just a young pup, but the work he did was that of a full-grown man. By the time the barn had been repaired to better than before, Chris had let go of most of his anger and hostility. Nathaniel, he had been the one to always be concerned about how she was fairing, if she was getting arthritis and if so what could he do to help. Vin, the quiet child, with the big blue eyes, He had once let it slip that she reminded him of his mom. They had formed a special bond that neither understood and didn’t care to examine. He had also been the one to give Chris something to care about and live for, once again. JD, the little boy that was the same age as her Casey, He liked coming just to play with her tomboyish niece and to eat her cookies.
That left Ezra, the only one that came less than Nathan. The first time Janis had bought him to the house she had heard him mumble something about visiting the wizen old crone. She took no offence; from all that Janis had told her about the boy it was wonder he wasn’t out setting fires and causing massive destruction. Janis had once told her that she and Bobby had silently nicknamed the boy ‘Turtle”. Janis had explained that Ezra appeared to have a very hard shell, but if he felt threatened or frightened he retreated inside himself. Also, like a turtle, Ezra had a very soft and vulnerable spot and if ever attacked it wouldn’t be unthinkable for him to be completely shattered. Janis had worried about each one of boys, knowing each one had vulnerable spot and feared one day something would happen that could destroy each of her children. Then the accident had occurred and Nettie was saddened no only by the loss, but by the knowledge Janis and Bobby would never know how strong they had made their boys. No longer fragile little boys, the three oldest had all returned home, strong willing men. Each vowing to keep the ranch working and the family together and they had. Josiah had sought, and been awarded guardianship of the four youngest, Chris had quit the academy and had become a pretty good homemaker and Buck had taken over full operation of the ranch. Nothing seemed to be getting in their way until Ezra had been ‘kidnapped’.
Nettie never believed everything she heard. Casey had come home telling how Ezra had been snatched and they were calling in state troopers from all over. Her phone soon started ringing with the so-called information from other widows, and gossipers. Soon the whole county was informed of the abduction. News spread and rumors ignited, the way they tend to do in small towns. If something doesn’t seem to be interesting enough, just add a little more spice and start a new story. Nettie refused to believe anything, and she taught her niece to do the same, until she went over the boy’s home and met with Josiah face-to-face. The poor boy, only twenty-five, and already having a life no older adult could manage, was hanging on and doing the best he could. He had told her everything he knew and speculated on things he didn’t. A little over a month later they found the boy in Albuquerque. Josiah had quietly put out the word Ezra had gotten away and made his way to a shelter. No further information was given and a few hard looks given by Buck and Chris and the town quit asking for more.
Nettie rose early like she had been doing for the last fifty-some odd years, set the old metal coffee pot on to start heating and stepped out onto the porch to watch the sunrise. Standing there watching the sky lightened and the sky’s canvas become arrayed the soft colors of pastel hues. She turned to sit in her rocker and it was then the she had the greatest shock of her life and what would lead to be the greatest lesson she would ever learn.
The curled up ball hid the face, only the mop of brown hair and the whiteness of his flannel longjohns could be seen. Nettie hastened her steps over to the slumbering child, feeling a torrent of emotions and questions as she squatted down beside the still body and reached out to touch him. The sudden feel of human hands on him startled the still-sleeping child and had him scrambling away from whomever had just touched him. Nettie jerked back in surprise at the sudden movement as the boy, now cowering in the corner, his wild eyes searching for the immediate danger, his chest heaving in a panic rhythm. Looking into those darting green eyes, she stilled herself and quietly whispered, “It’s alright son. It’s ok Ezra.”
At that moment a creaking sound came from behind her and Nettie watched those big, scared eyes dart over to the screen door. A soft confused voice came the doorway, “Aunt Nettie?” Casey asked, the two simple words holding so many questions.
“Casey, go back inside and fetch me a blanket, just lay it outside the door. When you’ve done that go stoke up the fire and turn up the heater,” Nettie commanded softly. Feeling the girl’s hesitation, Nettie spoke a little firmer, "Now, girl!”
Staying in her squatted position she turned her attention back to the very confused and frightened child before her, keeping up a soft one-sided conversation. When she heard the door open again, it was much softer this time. Without taking her eyes Ezra, she reached back for the blanket and slowly stood up. Walking casually over to the huddled boy, she saw him withdraw further back into the corner. Using her best no-nonsense voice she spoke to Ezra as she unfurled the blanket. “Now, boy, you’re just fine. I ain’t ever hurt you, and you know it? Now I’m not intending to let you catch your death out here, so you just hold still and let me wrap this around you. Then we’ll get ya inside.”
Ezra jerked his head a few times, like he was avoiding being struck, as the blanket was wrapped about him. Nettie could feel the flinches she observed as she tucked the blanket around the thin chest. Without another word she wrapped her arms around the quaking shoulders and lifted the boy to his feet. Walking side-by-side she guided him inside and over to the fireplace. Casey must have figured the boy was really cold, because she had bought out half the blankets Nettie had made over the years. A soft smile crossed Nettie’s lips at the girl’s concern and thoughtfulness. It was no wonder her and JD got along so well. She settled Ezra onto the blankets that had already been spread out, and then cradling the still-silent little boy began gently rocking back and forth. It wasn’t long before the boy was back to a deep sleep. His head buried in her arms, against her bosom.
She laid the boy down and covered him with another blanket. Janice had told her once how cold natured her last three boys were. Once she was sure the boy was warm she went into the kitchen and picked up the phone. She may have been an old ranch woman, but she did like the conveniences of modern times, as she placed a cup of cocoa for Casey into the microwave while waiting for someone to answer on the other end.
Chris hurried to the end of the barn to answer the phone. Hoping the ringing hadn’t woken the boys still asleep. Picking up the receiver, he said in his very distinct voice, “Hello.”
“Chris, this is Nettie. You missing a brother?” Nettie asked, as she removed the cup of cocoa and placed it on the table in front of her niece.
“Brother?” Chris asked confused. Then a light came on. “Vin, already over there this morning?” The blond knowing that sometimes the twelve-year-old went over to help the woman and her niece.
“Not Vin. Ezra.” Nettie said calmly and waited for the shock on the other end of the line to hit.
“Ezra!?” Chris repeated back in surprise.
“Think he must have slept-walked over,” Nettie replied before being interrupted by Casey.
“No, he didn’t Aunt Nettie. Chaucer’s tied up in the back yard. I saw him when I went to get the blankets out of your closet,” Casey informed the woman.
“Sorry Chris, Casey says Chaucer is here,” Nettie said.
The tall blond had just been walking into the barn when it rang, turned to face the stall where Ezra’s horse should have been, and found it empty. Bending his head over and running his hand through his hair, he looked up to find Buck staring inquisitively at him. Pointing to the empty stall he turned his attention back to the woman on the other end. “We’ll be right over to get him, Nettie. Sorry about this,” Chris said apologetically.
“No need to apologize, son. He’s okay,” Nettie said before hanging up the phone.
Casey had listened to the one-sided conversation and waited until her aunt had hung up the phone and gotten her cup of coffee before asking, “Why’d he come here, Aunt Nettie? Why’d he run off for and how come he was so scared of ya? How come he didn’t get dressed first? ”
“Goodness, child. You ask more questions than I can answer. I don’t know why Ezra came here. But I tell ya this, ya ain’t to go to school telling tales,” the old woman said forcibly. “You understand me?” The tone in her voice left no misgivings what would happen to her if she didn’t obey. Casey nodded her head and drank her cocoa.
Less than a half-hour late Buck’s beat up old truck came into view pulling the horse trailer. Buck and Josiah stepped out and Nettie went out to the porch to greet them. When the two men reached her they exchanged brief greetings before the ranch woman said, "He's still asleep. Don’t think he was ever truly awake. Not sure if he knows he’s here are not.” She then turned and ushered the duo inside her home. Casey came out of her room, dressed in her farm clothes and quickly said hello before heading for the barn.
Buck walked over to the sleeping form and sat down on the floor, Nettie tugged on the oldest sleeve and nodded toward he kitchen. After the kitchen door closed, the no-nonsense woman turned and looked the young man in the eyes and said, “Josiah, I ain’t one to mettle in others affairs. But what have you done for that youngin’ since he came back?”
The counselor took no offense at the woman’s inquiry. Nettie had been around since the first day he came to live with Janice and Bobby. There were always plenty of snacks to munch on when he came seeking advice or help. She was like a second momma to most of them.
“We figured at first to just let him get readjusted to things. Ezra kinda takes things on his own time,” the big man started explaining as he sat down at the familiar table. Running his hand over the tablecloth he continued. “Seemed fine,” Josiah stopped and chuckled a moment. “Of course with Ezra it’s hard to tell if he’s floating or drowning, either way he wouldn’t say.”
Realizing he was wandering, Josiah got back to the topic. “I tried to get him to open up. We all did, to no avail. I found a good counselor in the city,” another laugh, “But that meeting lasted about ten minutes before Ezra came storming out and the doctor suggested I find someone else.” Josiah took a deep breath. “I know he’s breaking Nettie,” Josiah said, looking up into the older woman’s eyes. “We can feel it. All of us. It’s like watching a stain glass window cracking into a million different cracks. Ready to splinter apart and all you can do is not breath to hard, because your afraid it will blow apart.” Josiah finished softly, looking down at his hand smoothing out the invisible wrinkles. His mind drifted back to what had happened a couple of weeks ago.>
The school counselor couldn’t lie to himself any more. They needed to get their little brother professional help. He had discussed it with Buck and Chris and they both agreed. Josiah had called to make an appointment and then had gone upstairs to tell his brother. Josiah had found Ezra staring at his books, but accomplishing nothing. That was the way things had been lately. His little brother couldn’t concentrate on anything for very long, his grades were plummeting and Ezra just seemed to be gliding along. The big man took a deep breath and started talking. “Hey Ez, whatcha up to?”>
“Algebra,” Ezra replied, rolling his eyes. It was evident on his face that the boy thought the topic was a waste of time.>
“Listen Ezra, I know you’ve tried to deal with this situation on your own, but you don’t have to.” Taking a gulp of air he admitted to what he had done and braced himself. ‘ I’ve called a professional psychologists and he’s agreed to talk to you. Maybe, help you deal with any problems you don’t feel comfortable talking to us about.”>
“Josiah, a psychiatrist! I’m not crazy! I’m just fine, honest,” Ezra had been practically yelling by the end. Or at least for Ezra, who was normally well-mannered, it was considered yelling.>
Josiah had leaned forward to put his hands on Ezra’s shoulders only to have the boy jerk away from him. “Ezra,” Josiah started calmly, “I don’t think you’re crazy. I just think it would help if you talked to someone, instead of keeping everything bottled up.”>
“No! I won’t go,” Ezra had stated firmly.>
But in the end he had gone, albeit unwilling and the whole interview had lasted in less time than it had taken to fill out the paperwork. After that Ezra had redoubled his efforts to make everyone believe all was right with his world and no one was buying it.
Nettie reached over and stilled Josiah’s nervously moving hand. “Your momma and daddy were strong people,” she said quietly. Josiah could only nod his head. Wondering what that had to do with this. Frankly, he’d give anything if they were here. They would know what to do. His thoughts were disrupted by Nettie’s voice. “Did you know Janice was scared to death every time they bought one you boy’s home?” she asked softly.
Josiah jerked his head up at that revelation. Nettie just continued. “Yep, Janice was always aware each of you boy’s had a soft broken heart. Always afraid that something would happen to completely shatter that heart.” Nettie’s mind floated back to the many times her and Janice had sat in this very kitchen talking about each of the different boys they had taken in. Each boy was a contradiction to the other, but underneath they all understood heartache and pain. Janice figured maybe it was that shared emotion that bonded them so well. Made each of them protective of the others. Taking a breath Nettie spoke on. “Your dad, though, he was positive that no matter what happened to any of you, you'd be just fine. He used to tell Janice, Honey as long as those boys stick together there isn’t anything that can completely destroy them.”
The old ranch woman looked up into the gray eyes of the young man before her. Her eyes underlying the wisdom her years on this earth had garnered her. “You boys stick together and everyone will come out just fine, Josiah,” she said sternly.
Josiah nodded and rose from the table. It was time to take their little brother home. The oldest walked into the living room and observed that Buck had managed to slip some clothing onto the sleeping child. Josiah mentally shook his head; Ezra could sleep like the dead, much like Buck did, when the boy felt safe enough to surrender to the deep sleep. Buck, seeing Josiah reenter the room, began to gently shake the bony shoulders. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on the boy, his brother mentally noted, and not much muscle, but Buck figured that would come later. He also, knew Ezra had lost weight he didn’t really have to spare in the last couple of months. Ezra began to stir and Buck patiently his brother wake on his own, rushing Ezra awake was never a healthy choice, if one could help it.
The green eyes opened slowly. After several blinks, confusion clearly reigned on his face. Turning his head from side-to-side gazing about the room, he tried to figure out if he was dreaming or really awake. His large mustached brother quickly answered the problem. “Hey Pard, you ready to go home?” Buck asked with his trademark smile.
“How?…When?….Why?…” Ezra stammered, trying to find a suitable way to ask his questions.
“Apparently, you’ve taken up sleep walking, pal. Or to be more precise…sleep riding,” Josiah answered. “Miz Nettie found ya early this morning on her porch and bought ya inside,” he said matter-of-factly.
Standing up and glancing down at his appearance quickly, Ezra looked up at the old ranch woman and said, “Dear Mrs. Wells, I do apologize for such improper behavior. “Forgive my rude intrusion, I shall do my utmost to stop further such improprieties,” the young teenager said, as he walked towards Nettie.
Nettie just shook her head at the loquacious youngin’. Between this one’s love for long sentences and JD propensity for talking a mile a minute without stopping for breath, it was no wonder poor Janice sought solitude at her place every-so-often. Taking the fine boned face in her hands she looked into those deep green eyes. At first they appeared to be blank, revealing nothing, but on further study she could detect emotions flittering through them. None staying long enough to determine what emotion it was, but Nettie suspected embarrassment laid in there somewhere. “That’s alright, son. Long as you’re safe I don’t mind,” Nettie answered, her eyes radiating a softness that burned in Ezra’s heart. He had never thought he deserved any kind of special affection.
The trip back to the house was a quiet one. Ezra watched the pastures passed by in quiet observation, he knew without a doubt JD would be full of inquisitive questions. Vin would ask his questions silently, through his eyes. His younger brother would let him know he was there if needed, only through small body language. The real problem was how to answer his own questions. It was not exactly a secret he stayed away from the Well’s place if possible. Not that he hated the older woman or anything, she just didn’t have anything to offer that he needed, at least that’s what he told himself.
Arriving back home, Ezra could only be grateful for the small fact that it was a day off from school, teacher intervention day. Teachers had to work, including Josiah, but the kids had the day off. The three brothers emptied out of the truck and headed towards the house. Breakfast could be smelled when they opened the kitchen door. Though no one said anything the very attuned teenager could hear the silent conversation being had by his older brothers through eyebrow lifts and subtle shakes of the heads. He wanted to scream. Insist they quit talking about him while he was present in the room, but that would only bring more attention to himself. With shoulders straight and his indifferent mask securely in place he found his spot at the table and sat down.
To his amazement JD didn’t ask any questions. Raising speculation in Ezra that the youngster must have been warned not to bring up the matter and threatened with dire consequences if he did. It had to be pretty big to keep JD’s mouth shut. That boy didn’t understand the concept of inappropriate meddling. He was like a little sponge, having to know everything, about everything and soaking up every tiny bit of information he came in contact with. Sometimes JD had a knack for really getting on his brother’s nerves, especially the two introverts who shared as little as possible about themselves. Breakfast was eaten and the daily routine was set in motion, everyone going about their business, not mentioning the incident. Ezra almost laughed at his youngest brother several times throughout the day. JD was wound tighter than wristwatch and the fourteen-year-old knew his little brother was dying to ask all kinds of questions about Ezra’s earlier episode. One look from Chris or a nudge from Buck kept the boy in his place and no third degree was given.
The brown-haired boy stood in his horse’s stall, brushing him out. The repetitive motion allowed his mind to slip away to other thoughts. HE remembered how he had felt when he first read Maude’s note. How the array of emotions filled him with excitement and fear. Then after returning home, new emotions filled him; shame, guilt, unworthiness.
Now he had slept walk, or to be more precise, slept-rode over to Miz Nettie’s. That puzzled the young boy more than anything. He could think of a lot more places that he would find more peaceful and secretive to run off to than the old woman’s front porch. He sure hoped Casey kept her mouth closed about this particular incident. H had heard the woman tell his older brothers Casey would not be bringing the subject up at school and he was sure hoping for the best, but he wasn’t planning on it. Girls in general had a knack for talking, this much he knew. But then again, Casey wasn’t like most of the other girls and Miz Nettie seemed pretty certain the young girl wouldn’t talk.
As the hand repeatedly moved over the same spot Chaucer looked around and gave his owner a solid nudge. Time to get the boy’s mind back on task and move to a new spot, like behind the shoulder blade and up a little.
The next few days went without incident, until the following Tuesday when once again Nettie found the young boy on her porch curled up in a ball. Having learned her lesson the last time, she went back into the house and bought out the phone and her heaviest quilts and tucked them securely around the sleeping child. Sitting down beside the bundle of covers, soothingly, she began rubbing small circles on his back. Picking up the phone with her other hand she pushed the preset number and waited for someone to answer on the other end.
“Good morning,” Buck answered cheerfully.
Nettie smiled into the phone. She had met Buck the day after arriving at Janice and Bobby’s. Rarely had she seen that boy when he didn’t have a smile on his face and happy look on his face. The only time that boy ever lost his cool was when someone picked on one of his brothers or someone whom considered off limits. Normally this field contained any child being taunted by a bully or a person who couldn’t defend themselves. Then Buck could become downright predatorily.
She looked down at the soft, brown crest of hair; the face tucked down under the blankets, and silently sighed. “Good morning to you, too, Buck. He’s here again,”
She heard a soft “shoot” at the other end. “Alright Nettie, we’ll be right there,” Buck said softly, the worry he felt clearly coming through the line. “Thanks Nettie,” he added sincerely.
“Its alright son. We’ll be here,” the older woman said.
Being a school day Casey walked into the kitchen expecting to find her aunt in the kitchen. Not finding her there, the young girl surmised her guardian was out on the porch or out in the barn. Stepping onto the top step of the porch to search for her aunt she was slightly startled by the soft voice coming from behind her. “Casey,” Nettie said in a low voice.
Garnering her niece’s attention, Casey stated, “He’s back,” more in an observation tone than a questioning one.
Nettie merely nodded her head and said, “You’ll have to get your breakfast this morning and walk down to the bus stop.”
Casey replied cordially, but couldn’t help from rolling her eyes as she entered the house. She always walked down to the bus stop, why her aunt made it sound like it was irregular occurrence she had no clue. She couldn’t help, but wonder at the boy that was asleep on their porch. She had pestered JD about it all last week until JD had told her she was acting like one of those busybody little girls that they disliked so much. That had hurt her feeling so bad she had refused to talk to him for the rest of the day and the next. Finally, both had apologized. She was dying to know why Ezra was on their porch again, but this time she wouldn’t be asking JD any questions about it.
Chris and Buck met Casey walking down the driveway going to the bus stop, after briefly rolling to a stop and exchanging quick greetings the two men headed on towards the house. Josiah had taken the other three and gone on to school. Chris had promised to take Ezra in when they got him ready. Getting out of the truck, both Chris and Buck shook their heads. Nettie laughed inwardly, those two shared a bond thicker than blood, she thought. They climbed up the steps and approached the sleeping brother and woman and squatted down, compacting their long legs. Neither one said anything for a moment as they watched the curled up boy continue to slumber blissfully unaware of the anxiety he was causing in the adults.
Running a hand over tired features Chris spoke, “Why Nettie? Why does he keep slipping off to your place?”
Nettie knew he wasn’t asking her for answers, just voicing aloud the same question they all had. In one week the boy had came up her place more times than in the past three months. The only time Ezra went to Nettie’s was to either fetch JD home or sometimes he would go with Vin and watch as the twelve-year-old did odd jobs around the place. Then he spoke the bare minimum to the woman.
“I don’t know, Chris. Reckon he’s the only one that knows,” Nettie answered, still stoking Ezra’s back.
“I don’t know if he knows,” Buck put in.
Ever since Ezra’s disappearance with Maude, Buck had held himself personally responsible. Even after getting Ezra back, Buck continued to believe it was to be his sole responsibility to watch over his little brother. If he had been watching closer in the first place, none of this would have happened.
Eyebrows lifted and shoulders shrugged. Chris moved in to rouse up his brother. Once the green eyes were opened and focused a bright shade of red flooded his cheeks. His head slumping forward, he rose, mumbled an apology and headed for the truck. Never once raising his eyes to look anyone in the eye. Chris and Buck said their thanks and followed their brother out to the truck; Buck would come back later and get Chaucer.
Once again, the ride back to the house was quiet. Upon arrival Ezra went upstairs to, shower and dress for school. Coming back down he noticed Chris was waiting on him. Shoulders still slumped; he walked past his brother and pushed the screen door open. Chris fell in step behind his brother and got into the black truck.
The ride was almost killing Chris. Normally he relished the silence, but not this kind of stony silence. He wanted to start a conversation with his brother, now sitting as silent as Vin did. Chris had no idea where to begin or how to start the conversation. He wished inwardly for some hidden wisdom his father might have imparted to him before his death, but could find none.
Taking a deep breath he plunged into a topic that seemed relevant without embarrassing his brother. “I remember the first time I met Miz Nettie. She liked to have scared me to death,’ Chris said.
This bought Ezra’s head up. He couldn’t imagine anyone scaring Chris. Chris was as tough as they came; he was the one that always wound up scaring people. He usually didn’t do it out some instinct to be a bully, but just because of his scowl and imposing body language.
“Really?” Ezra asked, his interest piqued.
Chris relaxed a bit and regripped the steering wheel, loosening the death grip he hadn’t realized he’d had on it. “Yeah, she did,” Chris replied with a slight smile. “Mom took me over to meet her. This was long before Casey, of course,” turning to look quickly at his brother. Ezra just nodded. “Anyway, here was this, what I thought at the time, old hard, take-no-prisoners kind of woman,” Chris laughed a little. “Man, I thought, what a tough old bird she must be,” Chris said, as recalled the first time he had met the woman. “Instead, she turned out to be more of a grandmother type person. Don’t get me wrong,” he said as he turned towards his brother, “she still takes no guff off anyone, but she isn’t as tough as she appeared,” the blond spoke with humor in his eyes.
The occupants of the truck fell silent for a moment before Chris, figuratively decided to skate out onto thin ice. “Ezra, you got any idea why you keep winding up at Miz Nettie’s,” the blond asked without accusation.
Ezra sat silent for a long while and Chris was beginning to feel like the boy was choosing to ignore his question. The blond heard a long drawn out breath before Ezra spoke. “I don’t know Chris. Honest.” Taking another breath he said, “I’ve thought about it ever since I woke up there last week and I can’t fathom as to why I seem to traverse the road to her establishment of residence,” Ezra explained.
Chris thought over the words and nodded slowly. He noticed Ezra’s vocabulary had begun to expand and knew Ezra was crawling up inside himself. They had learned the subtle clues a long time ago. The more extensive Ezra’s vocabulary became the more insecure and unsure of himself he was feeling. On the other hand it was better than the short one-word answers he gave when he was deeply bothered by something or very angry.
Pulling up to the junior high Chris climbed out of the truck and walked his brother into the office to get an excused absence from the first class he had missed. Separating from his brother in the hallway the blond headed towards his oldest brother’s office. Slightly tapping on the open door before walking in, he waited until Josiah was finished with the paperwork he was currently working on before sitting down.
“Hey!” Josiah said with a smile blossoming on his face. “Get Ezra signed in,” he asked.
“Yeah. Don’t think he was too happy about the extra attention to his tardiness, but he’s gone to class,” Chris replied.
Josiah looked down at his hands before raising his head back up and looking at his brother. “You talk to him?” he asked quietly.
“Tried. He said he didn’t have any idea why he keeps winding back up there,” Chris said equally soft. “Maybe this is just some peculiar phase he’s going through,” he said hopefully.
“Don’t recall ever learning about that in psychology,” Josiah said with a laugh.
“Well, leave it to Ezra to bend the rules,” Chris said with a smirk. Both men sat in silence thinking to themselves.
After a moment Josiah broke the silence. “I think this has to do with the incident,” he said lowly.
Chris nodded thoughtfully. “I reckon,” he said. Heaving a long sigh he said, “If we could just find a way for him to express himself.”
Josiah smiled at the statement. Most people called his little brother loquacious and to an extent he was, until the subject turned around towards him. Then he could clam up tighter than Scrooge with his money. Now if it were Vin or JD, all they’d have to do would be to get one of their older brothers they had bonded so tight with to take them aside and the problem would be revealed, handled and solved quickly. But Ezra didn’t feel close enough to any of them that much. If he was to open up to any of them it would have been Buck, and everyone knew Buck had tried his best to get Ezra to confide in him.
Buck was big and strong. His build exuded his strength, but under all those muscles was a big, soft heart. He took anyone’s problems and made them personal. Chris was all to aware of how much Buck cared about people and what he’d go through to see the other person through their obstacles. He, himself, been on the receiving end of Buck’s brute strength and fortitude. When he first arrived at Janice’s and Bobby’s all he had wanted to do was quit and die, but Buck had managed to push, pull and basically man handle him into living again. For all of his physical strength it was his heart that was the strongest.
A few minutes lingered as the two men continued to discuss the problem, before Chris rose and stretched his long legs. “Best be getting back. Buck’ll think I abandoned him,” the tall blond said.
Rising to walk his brother to the door Josiah put his arm around his more slender brother, and gave his brother a squeeze. “See ya later,” he said.
While doing chores that evening Vin waited until he and his older brother were alone. It would be easier to talk to Ezra without JD around. The twelve-year-old loved his little brother but, the youngest hadn’t learned when to quit talking and just listen. More than once one of the older boys had threatened to duct tape his mouth shut. Usually though when it got to that point JD figured he had overstepped his boundaries and shut up on his own. Watching Ezra fill the water tank in the pig’s pen Vin walked over to him quietly. Standing still for a moment Vin finally asked in a non-judgemental voice. “Why do you think you do it?”Ezra didn’t need to ask Vin what he was talking about, he knew; he just didn’t have an answer. Shrugging his shoulders he spoke, “I am at loss as to my sudden subconscious desire to roam the fields at the unreasonable hours of the pre-dawn.”
Vin couldn’t help but smile. His brother was nothing if not fascinating with all his fancy terminology. “So, you just sleepwalk and you don’t even know you’re doing it?” he asked, amazed at the fact that anyone could do something like that without really knowing they’re doing it.
“That seems to be a correct assessment of the situation,” Ezra said, as he turned off the water and turned to leave the pen.
“Ez,” Vin called out. Ezra turned back towards his younger brother. “You think you’re still trying to run away to whatever you were running away to when you left with Maude?”
Ezra took a moment to sort out Vin’s words; it appeared he was spending too much time with JD. Finally, figuring out what his brother was trying to say, Ezra could only look off to the side and say, “I don’t know.”
Chris watched his slightly older brother pound nails into the fence post. He estimated that as hard as Buck was driving those nails into the posts, they would be there for he rest of their lives. The blond wasn’t inept at reading his brother’s emotions and knew that whatever was bothering Buck it had to do with Ezra’s leaving and subsequent visits over to Nettie’s.
“The posts have had enough, Buck, talk to me,” Chris said.
“Nothing to talk about,” Buck shot back; as he pounded another nail so far into the post it was no longer visible.
“Uh huh,” the blond said unconvinced. Leaning over and grabbing his brother’s wrists firmly he looked into his brother’s blue eyes that were filled with hurt. “Talk, Buck,” Chris gently commanded.
Ducking his head and throwing the hammer down, Buck walked off a couple of paces and said in a whisper, “It’s my fault. All this is my fault.”
Chris nodded to his brother’s back. This was what he figured was going on. “You gonna explain to me, how?” Chris asked, staying put.
“I was supposed to be the one to talk to him that night. I was supposed to get him to open up and instead I let him rattle on about mythology, then slip off to bed. I didn’t try hard enough to find out what was bothering the kid and then he left,” Buck spoke in a low tone.
“Ezra is a smart kid. Sometimes too smart,” Chris said sadly, walking around to face his brother. “He knew deep down what your intentions were. He knew that you knew something was wrong, and that you wanted to get it out of him. He just didn’t know how to say it or didn’t want to. So, he used his skills to avoid talking to ya. He’s very adept at that kind of thing,” Chris said.
They both thought about their brother. Ezra had been lied to and abandoned emotionally and physically so many times that trust was a dirty word to him. It was inconceivable that there were people in the world that he could trust, who did want to care for him and love him. Before Maude had stepped back into their lives, they had been making small advances towards that realization.
Placing his hand on Buck’s shoulder he waited until he had his brother’s full attention. “You are not to blame for anything, do you understand me?” Chris said with determination. “We’re all dang lucky to have you for our brother and that’s never going to change. Alright?” Chris stated, giving his brother’s shoulder a hard squeeze and a smile.
Buck could only nod. There were times when the only person who could take away the weight of the world off his shoulders was Chris, and he had done it again just now.
Ezra, again, found himself staring up at the bottom of his brother’s bunk; sleep was once more being evasive. The dueling voices that had started up when he first left had never quite silenced. Even after returning home, they were there whispering; dueling, in the back of his mind. One trying to convince him all was okay and the other warning him to watch out for the next tripline.
Returning home, that small voice had tried to tell himself that it would all be different somehow. He would feel better about his place among these brothers. That voice made him want to believer he would feel included and safe. But the other nagging voice kept asking ‘for how long.’ How long until his brothers began resenting their actions, resenting having bought him back home. There was a question, a thought, a presence, in the dark recesses of his mind that he could never quite shed light on and bring it to the forefront. Something told him that this persisting feeling was the key to all his wanderings. If only he could figure out what the question was, all would most definitely get better.
It was in the early hours of the morning. The sky had just begun to lighten, shadows becoming outlined objects. The brown- haired boy slipped quietly out from beneath the covers. Walking down the stairs, the opened eyes never registered his three older brothers sitting at the kitchen table as he silently turned the knob on the door and walked outside.
Buck, Chris and Josiah rose from the table and followed, slightly amazed at the capabilities of one sleep walking. The brothers noticed this time their brother was completely dressed and figured he must have gone to bed like that. Walking into the barn they watched in wonder as their brother saddled his horse. Josiah had tried to explain to Chris and Buck that people who walked in their sleep were capable of doing just about anything; from fixing an entire meal to driving to another location, but seeing in action was completely mystifying.
The three men moved off to the sides to saddle their own horses, to the complete oblivion of the fourteen-year-old. Ezra led Chaucer out of the barn and mounted up. The three brothers followed suit, Chris felt a bit like he was tailing a suspect. Ezra took to the well-worn path the boys had used many times over the past years. Riding up to the fence line that separated the two properties, Ezra toed up the latch on the gate that their father had put up a long time ago. Ezra pushed the gate opened and walked Chaucer through, then pushed the gate closed and toed the latch back down into place. Somewhere in the back of his mind he heard Buck’s voice saying, “ There’s nothing a real cowboy can’t do off the back of his horse.”
Ezra reined Chaucer around and continued onto his destination. Chris reached the same gate and repeated the process that his younger brother had just performed. Walking his horse off to the side to allow the other two through the gate he waited until Josiah was through and relatched the gate before heading on towards the old ranch house. The sounds of the land could be heard in the silence, bringing forth its own kind of comfort.
The young boy arrived at the back of the ranch house the same as he had done for the past three weeks, dismounted and walked to the side of the house, not bothering to tie Chaucer up. There was never any need to tie the horse, if Chaucer wanted to leave he would simply untie himself, but Chaucer would never go anywhere without his owner. Ezra was walking around the side of the house as his brothers approached, the three riders kept their seats and reined their horses around to the front of the house, watching their brother approach the old wooden steps leading up to the porch.
Sitting on the top step with a folded blanket sitting beside her, Nettie Wells was waiting patiently for her visitor. Before leaving the barn Buck had called her, letting the woman know they were on their way. Nettie smiled as she heard the horses approach. Watching the youngster walk up to the steps she called out a soft greeting. “Good morning, Ezra,” she said softly, as she reached out for the boy now standing by her on the top step.
“Good morning, Miz Nettie,” Ezra replied.
Nettie let out a soft chuckle; even in his sleep the boy had manners. Nettie reached up and wrapped an arm around the slender waist of the boy and drew him down to sit beside her. Taking the blanket, she wrapped it around the shivering body and gathered the child into her arms. The three brothers had dismounted and now stood at the bottom of the steps and hoped the old woman, who had helped each one over the years, could do the same for the one before them now.
Once she had the boy nestled against her, the old woman asked, “Now, why don’t you tell me why you’ve been coming around to visit old Nettie?”
“I’m waiting for Ma’am,” came the soft reply, oblivious to the hard intakes of air from the four adults around him. Of all the things they might have been expecting as an answer, that wasn’t it.
Nettie felt tears spring to her eyes as she recalled the frustration Janice had expounded on at the inability to get her green-eyed son to call her something other than Ma’am. It wasn’t until they had taken in Vin and JD that they found out the reason why.
Vin and Ezra had believed they were alone in the barn mucking out the stalls. Unbeknownst to them JD had been playing in the loft and had quit when his brothers had entered the barn in an attempt to eavesdrop on his brothers. The nine-year-old had not been happy when Ezra and Vin had been allowed to ride off without him tagging along. He figured if he learned some secrets he could use it to get them to let him go riding with them the next time.
Only to each other did the two older boys feel completely safe in talking about sensitive topics that they felt no one else would understand, since they shared similar backgrounds. There was no judgment or questions between the two brothers; just acknowledgment of each other’s pain. They had gotten on the topic of their parents and learned neither knew their fathers. Vin had explained how close he was to his original mother and for that reason could not betray her by calling another woman mom, at least not yet. Ezra had responded by saying he had had a mother and never hoped to have another one. The anger and bitterness had told Vin it wasn’t out of loyalty, but hatred bought on by betrayal.
Vin had pondered that statement for a moment, wondering if that was the case why Ezra didn’t call Janice by her name, like he did, instead of Ma’am. Finally he decided to just ask straight out. “Why do you call Janice ma’am and not by her name, then,” Vin asked softly.
Ezra became very quiet for a few minutes before softly saying, “I think ma’am and mom sound a lot a like, don’t you?”
Vin smiled and nodded. He understood what Ezra was saying; there was a difference between having a mother and having a mom. The longhaired little boy had had several fosters mothers, but besides Janice, he had had only one mom.
No longer able to keep his curiosity in check, JD had popped out of his hiding place and asked, “What’s the difference between having a mother and having a mom?” Being young and not having to endure the foster care system, the nine-year-old didn’t see the distinguishing differences.
Seeing the sudden outrage and murderous looks on his brother’s faces, JD took off for the house followed quickly by his two brothers, revenge written clearly on their faces. Janice and Bobby had heard JD’s screams for help and had gone running with fear to see about their son. Buck came out of the barn at a dead run, upon hearing his baby brother’s call for help. Seeing the angry brother’s giving chase, Buck was barely able to catch Ezra before the brown-haired boy caught the youngest. Bobby was equally lucky to catch the other brother. Each man struggled to hold on to their fighting quarry, who seemed set on killing the little one hiding behind Janice.
Thinking it would help his cause the little black-haired boy spilled everything he had just learned, furthering Vin and Ezra’s anger and causing Ezra deep embarrassment. Unfortunately for JD, all his tattling earned him was a three-day grounding for eavesdropping and another two days for telling the secrets learned from said eavesdropping. On a more personal note his two older brothers had blackballed the youngster for a good long time. It took several weeks to get back into his brother’s good graces. The youngest learned a valuable lesson that day; some secrets should stay a secret.
Nettie looked down at the boy leaning against her and puzzled as to why Ezra would come here looking for the only mom the boy ever had. Steadying her voice she said, “Ma’am isn’t here, Ezra.” The fact that she was carrying on a conversation with a person who was in fact still a sleep gave her an eerie feeling.
“It’s Tuesday. Ma’am will be arriving momentarily, then I can see her again and talk to her.” Ezra replied.
Chris, Buck and Josiah were still reeling from the earlier exclamation and now stared at each other in puzzlement. Josiah felt like his brothers were looking to him for answers and he didn’t have any. He was just as puzzled and confused by these turns of events as any of them.
Nettie absently nodded her head. It hadn’t crossed her mind before, but it was true. Janice had often come to her house on Tuesday’s after getting the boys off to school. The two women would sit and talk. Through the years the two women had formed a mother-daughter type relationship. They both shared in their ups and downs of raising other people’s children. Nettie had an especially hard time because at the age of fifty-five she had become a first time mom. Janice and her would discuss tactics, discipline procedures and the overflowing joy when they made progress in the smallest situations. Nettie couldn’t help, but think how Janice would be popping with joy if she knew this particular boy of hers was looking for her.
Nettie’s curiosity built up and she finally questioned Ezra, as his brothers inched up closer on the steps and sat down silently. “Ezra, why are you looking for Ma’am?”
She could feel the deep sigh the boy took before answering, “I have an inquiry for her, ” he said.
“What do you want to know, Ezra?” Nettie prompted.
A long silence followed the question and the adults were beginning to think that they were not going to get the answers they had been seeking for so long. A deep sorrow slowly enveloped the older brothers. They all missed their parents, each one had searched in their own hearts for a way to keep them close and for a moment there, it seemed like perhaps their younger brother had a possible answer to that unfulfilled need.
Just when Josiah was about to give up and take his brothers home Ezra stirred under the blankets and said quietly, “ I want to know…want to know…” Ezra paused and looked up into the eyes of the older woman as if he really saw her, before looking back down. “I just wanted to ask her…why?”
“Why, what?” Nettie prodded, feeling like they were getting close.
Ezra was silent for a moment; the question that had been looming in the back of his mind came forth to be answered. “Why did ma’am love me? I’m not hers and I didn’t do anything special for her,” the boy said puzzled. Even asleep the puzzlement he felt clearly showed on his face. For the fourteen-year-old this was what had bothered him since the beginning. Why had a stranger been so willing and capable of doing something his own flesh and blood hadn’t?
Buck was first to scoot up to the top step and take his brother into his arms. Wrapping his arms around the blanket swathed boy, he began gently rocking back and forth. Buck saw this as his time to make up for his previous errors, but was still stuck for an answer. How could he explain to his brother that one didn’t have to do anything rewarding to be loved? He silently prayed for his mother to give him the answer. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him and the older one began speaking. “It’s like when you give Chaucer those special treats, you don’t think we know about. You don’t have to give them to him. You do it because you love him, even though he can’t do anything special for you. You do it out of love. That’s how it was with mom, she didn’t expect anything special from you. She just loved you because she did, hat simple.”
Silence reigned for a long time, all wondering if the sleeping boy could still process the information that had been given to him. Buck wanted to be able to wipe away all the hurt his brother’s heart had suffered through the years. He couldn’t fathom how it must feel to wonder why one’s own mother didn’t love them. His mother might have been just a streetwalker, but he never once doubted the fact that she loved him with everything she had.
Ezra stirred, the dawning of the morning light shining directly in his eyes. He was vaguely aware of where he was and somewhere deep inside he felt like he had discovered some mystical truth, but for the life of him couldn’t recall what it might have been. Years of practice kept him from startling when he heard his older brother’s voice talking in his ears.
“Mom and Dad loved you Ezra, unconditionally and that’s something you will always have from them and from us,” the big man said.
It suddenly dawned on the fourteen-year-old where he was and what was taking place. He kept still and thought fast. There were so many things he had always wanted to say to his brothers, to his adopted parents, now seemed like the perfect time. He could be honest and not have it come back on him. After all, you couldn’t hold something against a person who was talking in their sleep.
“They wouldn’t love me now,” Ezra spoke the truth sadly.
“Why not,” Buck asked.
“ I betrayed them. They gave me a home and I left. I went with Maude and left you all behind,” Ezra answered truthfully, he wanted to know the truth about how his brothers really felt about him doing that.
“Why did you go with Maude, Ez?” Buck asked, wanting a few answers of his own.
Ezra froze, he wasn’t sure he wanted to play this game after all. In order to get the answers he wanted he would have to give answers. The little voices began a loud battle once again. One voice encouraging him to go all the way and the other one hissing warnings that it would blow up in his face. The first voice answering back, ‘Trust me, I wasn’t wrong before.’
The brown-haired boy thought about the question and the risk of answering before saying, “I was stupid. I thought Maude had changed and loved me.”
The loquacious boy was silent for moment before asking, “Why can’t Maude love me?” The words said so low the words blended with the air.
No one could say a word as each one struggled for the air that had been pushed out of their lungs, each was struggling to come to grips with any appropriate answer for their brother’s question. They had always known that Janice and Bobby had loved each one of them unconditionally. None ever thought twice about the why, their parents just had and the boys had just accepted. Now though, they were hard pressed to explain it to their brother, who it seemed never once had felt that connection to his own mother.
“What is so wrong with me?” Ezra’s pleading voice broke his brother’s hearts.
“There is nothing wrong with you, Ezra. Maude loves ya,” Buck said. Going on pure gut instinct he knew he had to make his brother see the truth somehow. “She’s just not very good at showing it or saying the words.”
Chris had never liked the blond woman, but now was not the time to let his feelings get in the mix. Speaking up for the first time since their arrival he said, “Ezra, Maude loves you in the only way she can, she’s just not very good at taking care of you.” Stopping for breath he quickly said, “You belong here with people who can and do.” Before he lost his nerve at being so open Chris finished speaking his mind, “Mom and Dad loved you and so do we. Its that simple.”
Remembering the emptiness he had felt during his brother’s absence, Josiah added softly, “Our family isn’t complete without you. The happiest moment for us, was when we found you and bought you back home.”
Buck felt Ezra relax further into his arms and tightened his grip. They stayed that way for a while before Chris reached over and gently shook the thin arm. “Come on, Ezra time to wake up and go home,” he said. His voice sounding quite loud after the gentle whisperings that had taken place prior.
Ezra slowly turned towards his blond brother and stared for a moment with a blank face, seizing up his brother’s reaction. Seeing nothing, but kindness, a slow smile crept across his face, deepening the dimples in his cheek. He turned his gaze towards Josiah and saw the same unadulterated love and sighed. For the first time in months he felt safe and secure. For the first time realizing how much Ma’am and Bobby had loved him and his brothers were carrying on that love for him.
Nettie had been sitting, quietly watching the dramatic scene unfold before her like some soap opera story. She had seen the shift in the green-eyes when Ezra recognized where he was. The old woman knew he was awake, but was willing to let him play out this game. Understanding that he still desperately needed that invisible wall separating himself from his emotions, in order for him to feel safe and secure and that they would not be held or used against him.
Nettie Wells smiled to herself as she realized that Janice and Bobby’s love for these boys had transcended beyond their deaths. She always wondered if something were to happen to her if Casey would still feel her love, now she knew without a doubt. These boys had relied on that unconditional love given by their parents to help their brother finally realize that he, too, was given that same unending love the other one realize he, too, was given that same unending love. Hopefully that would be enough for now.
7 B Ranch Index