Fortunate Sons

By Beth

Brothers AU (Ezra, Seven)

Rating: Strong PG-13/Rwarnings for sensitive readers, and a ton of language and the F bomb gets dropped A LOT…sorry folks, having grown up around farmers all my life I have yet to hear one say, “Oh darn!”

Notes: Takes place right after Under the Skin of Men, you’ll want to have read that one otherwise you’ll be lost and will have missed a ton of crap.

Special Thanks to my betas Anna for her insight and Vira for making this story readable! You’re both AWESOME!

Would love to hear your comments or suggestions for the next story…that one is still in the “Where do I go now” stages, so if you want or need something answered, let me know and I’ll try my best…

Chapter 1

“Told ya he’d be back,” Buck said, slapping JD on his shoulder as they exited the horse barn. He smiled, placed his hands on his hips and watched Ezra pull his car to a stop.

Buck looked toward the house. Josiah was cooking dinner, making something he had found a recipe for in one of their father’s cook books. Nathan was still in town with a few of his patients. Chris was on his way home, having taken Vin to the football game. The Four Corner Raiders’ were on their way to a successful season…something the high school needed to boost morale.

Ezra parked his car in his usual spot and it took him a moment to collect himself. Feeling the weariness of no sleep, stress, and a body that had taken a beating was bringing him to his breaking point. Dark circles hung beneath eyes that were dull and nearly lifeless. He jumped when his car door was pulled open. Buck grabbed him, hauled him from the driver’s seat, and gave him great big bear hug. He could hear JD laughing.

“I knew you couldn’t leave your brothers in the backwater country,” Buck said, letting him go and pushing him against the car.

Ezra cocked his left eyebrow and nodded, leaning back. “I had no idea my presence was so warranted.”

“Hell, Ezra, you missed all the excitement,” JD said, opening the trunk, looking for luggage. “Where’s your shit?”

Ezra shrugged, reaching inside the car for his briefcase and then slammed the door. “The airline misplaced it, they’ll call me when it arrives.” He smiled and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and index finger.

Buck placed his hand at the base of Ezra’s neck and squeezed. “Glad you’re back, Ezra… damn glad.” He pushed him toward the house.


Josiah sprinkled a dash of cayenne into the pan and stood aside as it sizzled with the meat. He closed his eyes and took a long smell, sensing it needed more flavoring. He turned and smiled as JD, Buck, and Ezra entered. The eldest of the seven wore an old tee shirt and jeans, his feet were bare, but his hair was wet, having come right home and showered.

“Good to see you back, brother,” Josiah said, resting his wooden spoon on the stove. He took a step forward and placed his hand beneath Ezra’s chin and moved his head so the light would catch the bruising around his jaw. “Hit your head on the end table again?”

Ezra sighed, “Something like that.”

“You look tired,” Josiah said, returning to the stove.

Ezra nodded and took a seat at the table. Running on empty, he felt every shake and twitch of muscles protesting. He watched as Josiah placed a hot cup of tea in front of him. “Thank you.”

“Vin sprained his knee real good—pulled, twisted—shit, did somethin’ to his knee,” JD said, reentering the room after washing his hands in the bathroom. “Nate says he shouldn’t have to have surgery if he stays off it.” He grabbed some dishes out of the cupboard. “He ain’t stayin’ off it though, me and Buck caught him weldin’ some chairs the other day—Vin had his leg propped up on a stood… I tell ya, if Nathan had seen that Vin would’ave found himself in doctor-hell.”

“What happened?” Ezra asked, wrapping his hands around his cup.

“We were movin’ that bull of Nettie’s to the butchers an’ he caught Vin, tossed him over the fence,” Buck said, looking out the window as Chris pulled his Blazer into his parking space. “He was lucky that bastard didn’t do more damage.” He turned and grinned. “We got a lot of meat out of him though.”

Ezra nodded as Vin and Chris entered the kitchen. Vin hobbled on crutches, he knee carefully protected by the menacing blue brace. He slipped into one of the kitchen chairs and lifted his leg onto another.

“You missed all the excitement,” Vin said, resting his crutches against the wall.

“So I see.”

Vin smiled and plucked a sugar cube from the dispenser and popped it into his mouth. “Hurt like a son-of-a-bitch for about three days, but it’s comin’ around.”

“How’s Seattle?” Chris asked, slipping his heel into the bootjack.

“Uncharacteristically sunny,” Ezra said, pulling the cup to his mouth. He tested the temperature before taking a sip.

Chris placed his boots on the step next to the back door and reentered the kitchen. “Nate’s havin’ dinner with Raine—don’t expect him back until tomorrow sometime.” He took a seat at the table and looked at Ezra. “Vin says you’re good at poker.”

Ezra swallowed and replaced his cup on the table. “I’m well versed,” he said, rubbing his eyes. On any other day, at any other time… he would brag. Of course he was good; he was damn good at poker. He loved the cards like he loved his last girlfriend, but the cards didn’t cheat, and they don’t make snide little remarks about peculiar habits: clothing was meant to be hung, clipped toenails were not centerpieces for the coffee table, and phone conversations were meant to be private.  

Chris looked from Buck to JD, their need for answers and want for hope was expressed through their actions. “Think you could pull out a win in Vegas—if the farm fronted the cash?”

Ezra shook his head and leaned back. “It takes $10 grand to walk in through the front doors, most players have to have the cash upfront, unless they’re sponsored—and frankly, Chris, unless we’re sponsored we’ll never make enough—even with a win—and this farm can’t afford to risk losing any money at the moment—”

“—You don’t think you can win?” JD said, crossing his arms over his chest.

“It’s not a matter of winning or losing, JD—”

“—The bank loan was sold to a larger corporation, Ezra… they have the legal means to call it in at any time… if we don’t come up with the money now… we may lose the ranch and everything on it.” Chris dropped his eyes to his hands and rubbed his palms together. “Vin says you’re good, and JD’s convinced you could win.”

Ezra turned and looked at their faces. Even Josiah had peeked around the kitchen cupboard to look at him. “What happens if I lose?” His heart clenched as he said it, and he found himself grinding his teeth, feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. They had all been right, there was something about this place that he found himself tied to…inwardly he cursed his father. The man he blamed—if he had just taken responsibility—if he had acted like a father concerned with more than a piece of land—if he…

“Then we lose the farm—but it won’t be for the lack of tryin’.” Chris looked up and met Ezra’s eyes. “I’ve asked you to do some hairy shit around here this summer, an’ I’m sorry for not…” he paused and took a deep breath, “…I’m sorry for not givin’ you the room you needed—you’ve managed against all odds to keep this farm in our grasp this long—workin’ with the bank…” It was there, in his eyes and his voice, the desperation to keep what was his, to keep the ground his father had worked, the ground where his family had died. “Win or lose, Ezra, this is the only option we’ve got right now.”

“He’s right, Ezra,” Buck said, “we ain’t qualifyin’ for government grants like we used to…an’ even if we sell off part of the land…” he took a deep breath, “…we’ll still be short.”

“Do you know where—”

“—There’s a big tournament startin’ tomorrow at one, and it goes until someone wins. I called the casino an’ they said you have to have the money at the door an’ only the players can enter the room while the game is takin’ place. The gal I was talkin’ to said most tournaments last 36 hours, but a few have gone longer.” Buck rubbed his fingers over his mouth and waited.

“I’ve played the tournaments before, Buck, I’m no stranger to protocol.” Ezra rubbed his brow and ran the scenario though his mind. He thought about Perkins and his promise, but promises were made to be broken—and how would it look, if by chance the man kept his word. The farm completely paid off, how could he explain that?

“So you’ve won before?” JD said, shoving his hands into his back pockets.

“That car didn’t pay for itself.” Ezra gripped his cup tighter. It was a lot of pressure, but it was also an opportunity to prove himself. He was worth something—wasn’t he? Sitting with brothers he hardly knew, they had all stepped up to the plate and expressed their concerns, they had done their duty as sons and worked the land, they had proven their loyalty to their father, and they had done it in front of each other. He, however, had hid behind the scenes. Ezra swallowed the lump in his throat. Everything he had ever done for the farm was out of everyone’s sight. He had deferred bank payments, and nobody had asked him how. He had transferred equipment to ward off high taxes.

He stole 3.5 million dollars….

“I’ll do it.”

Josiah chuckled and removed the food from the stove. “Perhaps the powers that be are listening.”

“Don’t know about that, but it’s gotta be better than sittin’ around here waitin’ for those greedy bastards to come an’ take what don’t belong to ‘em.” Vin carefully removed his foot from the chair.

Ezra swallowed.

“We’ll leave after dinner,” Chris said, moving as JD placed the plates on the table. “Figure we should get there before the crowd, an’ I sure as hell don’t want to find out the seats are limited.”

“Who’s all goin’?” Vin asked, grabbing a roll from the bread basket.

“Buck and JD are goin’ to stay here and bring up the steers, should start to get them ready for the fall sales.” Chris looked at Josiah. “You’re free, aren’t you?”

Josiah nodded: “Yep, but it looks as though brother Ezra could sleep awhile.”

“What about you, Vin?”

Vin shook his head: “Sorry, Chris, but I ain’t real good with crowds, figure I’ll just stick around here an’ annoy the shit outta Buck an’ JD.”  

JD slipped into his regular spot at the table and quickly checked his blood-sugar. “Nate says he’s got to work all through tomorrow and Saturday.” He sucked the blood off the end of his finger and then grabbed a roll and slathered it with butter.

“So it’s just the three of us,” Josiah said, taking his seat. He looked at Ezra and sighed. “You gonna make it?”

Ezra smiled and raised his eyebrows. “Of course.”

Chapter 2

Ezra lay in the backseat, his knees bent with his feet propped on the door handle. He had covered himself with Josiah’s jacket and used his own as a pillow. It hadn’t taken him long to fall asleep. His normal self confidence was gone as well as his defiance, and for the first time in a long time exhaustion had beaten him down.

They drove the main route, sticking to the highway. Josiah drove first, and he finished off a bag of popcorn as they made their way south. “Think he can do it?” he asked, glancing from Chris and then back to the road.

“Now’s a shitty time to be askin’.”

Josiah shrugged and rubbed his hand on his thigh. “It’s a lot of pressure we’re putting on his shoulders… and he looks as though he hasn’t had any sleep the entire time he’s been gone.”

Chris turned, and watched Ezra pull Josiah’s jacket around his neck. “Win or lose, Josiah, we’re in this together.” He turned back around and grabbed his coffee cup. “He does looks like shit.”

Josiah flipped the turn signal and moved in front of a truck moving too slow. “Why law enforcement?”

“Huh?” Chris replaced his coffee into the holder and looked at Josiah.

“I always thought with you being older than Buck, that you’d be the one to run the ranch…why’d you turn to law enforcement?”

Chris sighed and kicked a booted foot onto the dash. “It wasn’t ranchin’—not that I hated it, but…it wasn’t ranchin’. Dad made it clear when I was young that I’d take it over—an’ bein’ young and stupid, I fought him on everythin’ from school to sports. I think we were both too bull headed to think outside the box, so I went to school and decided to become a cop. It wasn’t until after that I decided I hated it an’ moved back to the ranch. Always liked the horses, enjoyed workin’ with ‘em, but the money’s not there anymore. So, when the sheriff decided it was time to retire a few of the locals asked me to run, an’ I did.”

“What’d Dad think?”

Chris chucked and ran his hand over his face. “Think for the first time he saw me as an equal,” he paused, “not real sure, but I don’t think Buck ever got that. Dad was old school…to the point of bein’ an ass most of the time—think that’s why Nathan left for medical school—I know he loved the ranch, but…but, Dad sometimes acted like the ranch was the most important thing in his life…and sometimes, I think it was.”

“So life on the Larabee ranch wasn’t always peachy.”

Chris shook his head and watched mice run across the road as they continued south. “Dad had a short fuse—guess I get that from him—an’ he wanted things done his way. Hell, when prices started goin’ downhill, Buck an’ I had to push ‘im to try somethin’ new an’ most of the time we did it behind ‘is back. He always demanded to know who was doin’ what an’ what was gettin’ done…. Don’t think Buck ever made a decision on his own, Dad was always there, undercuttin’ him. At times… at times I miss the old son-of-a-bitch, but then there are times when I’m glad he’s gone.” He picked at a fingernail and tore it off at the skin and then rolled the window down an inch and flung it outside.

“He had a lot of problems.”

“An’ most of those problems he caused himself. The ranch would be paid for, Josiah, if he hadn’t ‘ave been so damn foolish with his money. Every time I turned around as a kid, I had a ‘potential’ new mother. He couldn’t just let things be—he always had to be doin’ some shit that got him into trouble.” He furrowed his brow and shook his head. “He even tried horseracin’, if you can believe that.”

Josiah shook his head and remembered faintly Buck’s mention of it.

“Spent thousands of dollars on trainin’ three young colts—runnin’ quarters is what we called ‘em. Lost the first 14 races because one of Dad’s ‘friends’ was spongin’ ‘em—an’ he was payin’ off the track vet—the son-of-a-bitch made more money losin’ then he would if he’d won. You want to get dirty that’s the place to do it—never in my life did I see so much shit go down with the horses an’ the staff—and Dad was blind to it… blind to it all.” Chris grabbed his coffee cup.

“So you’re trying to make things right? Keeping the ranch going, pushing everyone?”

Chris took a deep breath and toyed with the cup lid. “Maybe.” He looked out the window and thought about Ella. He hadn’t seen her since she broke the news to him, and he was worried. She was unpredictable, and at times she wore him down with her neediness and overzealousness. God he missed Sarah. He missed everything about her…she was so simple, and so complete.

“Perhaps, brother, you can find it within yourself to forgive him for being an ass.”

“I don’t know, Josiah, I honestly don’t know.”


“When are you going to tell them?” Raine asked, sitting cross-legged on the edge of her bed. Her nightgown gathered at her hips, and she looked at the diamond on her finger, watching it reflect the light next to the nightstand. She smiled and pushed a few stray hairs away from her face.

Nathan rubbed his brow and rested his elbows on his knees, letting the top sheet grow taunt between them. “Figure I’ll tell them by the time the issues with the ranch are over with.”

She grinned and crawled to the head of the bed and placed her cheek on his chest as he lay back. “I never thought you’d ask.”

“I’m a slow learner,” he chuckled and ran his fingers through her hair. “You do realize you’ll be Buck’s sister-in-law?”

Raine chuckled and sat up. She grew serious and asked, “What’ll happen if you lose the ranch?”

Nathan shrugged: “I’ve got enough in savings—if we don’t use it for the ranch—to put a small payment on a house here in town. Not that I want to, but if we do lose it, I can start over here with just the practice.” He paused and looked at her. “I don’t want to leave, Raine.”

She nodded: “What about your brothers?”

Nathan sighed: “When the money comes through from Dad—what he left us—Buck will start over, probably buy a small ranch further from town. JD might go in with him—think he was born to it. I hope Josiah sticks around, I know it’s slow for him right now, but his practice is growing too. Chris will stick it out here, probably just keep on as the sheriff, if he gets his head together and marries Ella—”

“—Ella Gaines?”

Nathan nodded.

“Whatever you do, Nathan, don’t encourage him to marry that woman. She’s nuts, you know it’s going around the rumor mill that she killed her first husband.”

Nathan chuckled, “What?”

“Don’t laugh, her x-boyfriend, Tommy Wilbanks—you know him, he lives over in Eagle Bend—he got 3rd degree burns on his hands from where she threw hot oil at him for coming home late for dinner. Dr. Kress’s secretary, Anna, is his sister—she hates that woman. And if you think about it, why does she live in Four Corners and she never comes to the clinic?” Before Nathan could answer Raine continued, “Because Anna works there—she did crazy shit all through high school… Don’t you remember?”

Nathan frowned: “I knew she was eccentric—”

Raine shook her head: “She’s a sociopath.”

“You think everyone’s a sociopath.”

“Well, in her case it’s true.”

Nathan nodded and sighed, looking at his nails. “Have you heard anything about her being pregnant?”

Raine laughed and shook her head: “Not unless she grew a new uterus.”

Nathan pushed himself up using his elbows: “What?”

“My father told me. She was one of his patients.” Raine stopped and looked at him, concern lined her features. “Why?”

Nathan pressed his lips together and shook his head: “No reason.”

“She told Chris she was pregnant didn’t she?”

“I just—”

“She’s not crazy, Nathan. If she wants that ranch she’ll get it, she’s a mean bitch and she’ll go through you, your brothers, and everyone that crosses her path. You’ve got to tell him… so help me, Nathan, you’ve got to tell him.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“If you have to, use Sarah’s memory to force them apart. Ella Gaines will use everything she’s got to keep her and Chris together. Someone could get hurt, Nathan, and I mean really hurt.”

Nathan nodded and smiled at her.

Raine chuckled: “That’s why I love you—you accept people at face value, even when they don’t deserve it.”

Chapter 3

At seven in the morning the hotel was busy. Bellboys helped people with their luggage while security guards monitored the slot machines leading to the casino. Smoke filtered out and upward as gamblers exchanged cigarette butts for coins. Chris got the key to their room and headed for the elevator, while Josiah grabbed two coffees and several rolls from the complimentary breakfast table. He shoved a roll in Ezra’s hand and pushed him toward the elevator. He looked like a zombie, dragging his feet as he walked, dark circles hung beneath his eyes emphasizing the pallor of his skin—the only things he was missing was having his arms extended and the chronic need to moan.  

It wasn’t what Chris would consider a grand place, but rather a place of foolishness and needless expenditures. Young women wore clothing better suited for Barbie Dolls while men gushed in vile manners. Even the elderly seemed taken aback by their surroundings; the only people who seemed accustomed to the surroundings were the employees, security guards, and gamblers.

Ezra rubbed his forehead and tossed his duffle bag onto the bed near the window. It didn’t take him long to grab his clean clothes and disappear into the bathroom for a hot shower.

Chris immediately started the coffee maker while Josiah looked out the window toward the vast wave of cartoonish buildings and even funnier people. It was a busy place, and one that Chris didn’t care for, and he couldn’t imagine those that could. He looked at the typical art that hung on the room wall, a splendid scene of flowers and trees, a stark contrast to what surrounded them. The walls were painted a muted yellow and the beds were covered with mauve duvets.

It was hell: a pricey hell, but still hell.

Josiah took a seat and sighed, grabbing the newspaper that had been left by the maid on the desk. He listened as the shower started and instinctively knew Ezra would be a while. “Would you like to go get some breakfast?”

“Yeah, let’s wait until Ezra’s done—I want to make sure he eats somthin’ more than coffee.”    

“You can’t eat coffee, Chris.”

Chris rolled his eyes.

Josiah chuckled and looked back out the window. “Think he can do it?”

“You keep askin’ me that.”

Josiah shrugged: “Guess I’m looking for some reassurance.”

“Aren’t we all?”


Ezra poked at the scrambled eggs with his fork. Under normal circumstances he would be ecstatic: $10,000 to play a poker tournament, but this money was tied—and that’s what made it so difficult. If he lost, he lost more than the money. He’d lose everything.  

This was it.

There were no second chances, take-backs, or what ifs. He was it. He was all they had. It was the last chance to save the ranch.

Having wanted to prove himself to more than just his brothers he found the pressure nearly unbearable. He was betting the ranch and the livelihood of his family. If he lost, they would have to start over from scratch—if they wanted to start over. And if they didn’t….

What then?

What would that mean for JD or Buck? Josiah or Nathan? What about Vin, he’d given up his profession as a private investigator, finding instead his comforts of home, family, and the ranch. Then there was Chris…

“You need to eat more than your toast, Ezra,” Josiah said, pouring himself more coffee from the thermos.

Ezra sighed and asked, “Have you ever blown $10,000?”

Josiah shook his head.

“I have no desire to taste these eggs twice.” He grabbed another slice of toast and dipped the corner into his coffee.

“Buck said these tournaments can go as long as 36 hours?” Josiah said, stirring some cream into his coffee.

Ezra chuckled and shook his head: “36 hours is a short run. Many tournaments can and do exceed that time period.”

Chris wiped his plate with a piece of toast and then took a bite. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and tossed it onto the plate and leaned back. “Is there anythin’ we can do to make it easier on you?”

Ezra shrugged and took a sip of his coffee. “Keep this coming.”   

Chapter 4

Casey dismounted and led her little bay mare toward the horse barn. She could see sparks flying in the shop and hear the  pounding of metal. She smiled when she heard JD humming while he brushed his horse.

“Hey!” she said, standing back. She pulled the reins through her hands and waited, tapping the dirt off the toes of her boots.

JD looked up and smiled. “Hey, Casey.”  He tossed the brush into a bucket and stepped forward. “You need somethin’?”

Casey shook her head: “Where’s everybody?”

“Buck’s out countin’ steers, Vin’s workin’ in the shop, and Nathan’s at the clinic.”

She nodded: “Geoff’s out of the hospital. He and Anna stopped by. He said to tell you when he’s up to it he’ll come by. Don’t think him losin’ a leg slowed him down none.”

“How was he…” he shrugged and waved his hand toward his head, “…you know?”

“The leg? Shit, JD, the leg’s gone—”

“No, I mean how was he…emotional like?”

Casey shrugged and looked toward the pasture. “Seemed okay to me, I mean, he wasn’t doin’ any jumpin’ jacks or anythin’, but he joked around with Nettie some.” She pushed her horse’s head away when the animal rubbed against her. “Listen, Nettie sent me over to ask if Vin wanted to come over and have dinner with us—but seein’ as you’re here… you wanna to come?”

JD smiled: “That’s real nice, but,” he sighed, and motioned for her to walk to the corral with him, “Chris, Josiah, and Ezra went to Vegas—”

“—Vegas? Shit, they went to try and get the money to pay off the ranch?”

“How’d you know?”

“Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out, JD. We’re all in the same boat. I remember when Lincoln tried to get the city involved a few years back, some corporation wanted to build up out here—the town stopped ‘em, but a lot of us ended up payin’ the price.” She shrugged and watched the weanlings play. “Can’t blame ‘em for tryin’ though.”

JD nodded: “What was he like,” he turned and looked at her, “…my father?”

Casey turned and took a seat on the straw bail that rested next to the fence. “He used to hand out King Sized Snickers for Halloween—not that you get a lot of trick-or-treaters out in the country, but it was always cool the way he’d decorate the yard and stuff.” She shrugged and watched her horse nibble at the grass. “Your dad was cool, JD—I mean, other than, you know, sleepin’ around.” She smiled. “That’s good though… it’s good that he did, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”


 Vin grabbed the hammer and threw it across the shop. It collided with wall of shovels, knocking several to the floor and leaving a dent in the wall. The hammer bounced and skidded across the floor, coming to a rest beneath the drill press. Carefully maneuvering past the table saw he took a seat on an old bench and placed his heel on a bucket and winced when his knee protested.

Running short on supplies, equipment that needed maintenance, and a knee that was driving him nuts, Vin took a deep breath and waited for the phone to ring. The shop phone was dead, and the barn phone would wake the dead on most days, but today it hadn’t made a sound.

He looked toward the door and watched a dust devil blow by, carrying with it leaves and remnants of bailing twine. He never had a lot growing up, and what was given to him was tainted by bad memories and foster parents who had no right raising children. There had been a few good ones, but he would always manage to get himself into trouble and sent away. It was amazing how ‘parents’ lacked patience when children weren’t their own.

Vin knew what it was like to put catsup between two slices of bread and call it a sandwich, and some of those times, he was lucky to have more than one slice. He knew what it was like to be poor, to hope his jeans lasted until his next payday. His hair wasn’t long because he liked the fashion, it was long because he couldn’t afford to get it cut. Aftershave, shaving cream, soap, and socks were luxuries, and if he were really lucky every once in a while he could treat himself with a new CD.

He had seen friends give up their bodies for a meal or a warm coat: Men looking for boys, girls, and sometimes both. Some of his friends never came back. Those that did were never the same. He knew what it was like; he knew the pressure, the need, and the hunger that would sit and fester like pneumonia. He new some of it, but thankfully not all. 

Everything cost money. Most of the equipment on the farm was worth over $50,000—used—and it cost a lot to keep it working. Buck had told him 10 years before the ranch had spent $5,000 on gas for the entire year. During the three weeks of harvest for their ranch alone, the price had jumped to $8,000.

Ezra had to pull it out, he had to win. If he didn’t…

If he didn’t, Vin wasn’t sure he wanted to go back to hunting down cheating husbands and wives. He didn’t want to hunt down missing children that were missing because life on the street was easier than life at home, and least of all looking for that family pet with the diamond studded collar.

He didn’t want to be rich. He didn’t want $2,000 watches or suits. All he wanted to do was not worry about his bills, to know that if his truck broke down he could fix it.   

Vin sighed and rubbed his face. He didn’t want to leave the ranch. At one time he would have hated it, being stuck on a farm with animals that shit and brothers that bitched. But now… But now he found himself enjoying their company, enjoying the evening meals and talking bullshit with bullshiters. Buck could pull a story straight out of his ass and have the entire table laughing to the point of pain. Even arguments were entertaining. Nathan was always complaining about JD leaving his insulin syringes on the counters, Chris not capping his bottles of aspirin, and Ezra demanding that toilet paper dispensers actually had a purpose. Buck could stand in front of an open refrigerator for hours claiming there was nothing to eat. Then there was Josiah who enjoyed his spicy food, which affected Buck in ways that caused Ezra and Nathan to flee the room.

If they lost the ranch, Vin gripped the edge of the bench, they would lose more than the ground or what it stood for. He knew how people faded and how relationships were lost over time. He knew it would only be a matter of time before his brothers would be nothing more than memories. It was the way of things: Sometimes blood was stronger than time…but not always.

“Vin,” JD said, entering the shop, “You okay?”

“Takin’ a break is all,” Vin said, slowly getting to his feet.

JD looked at the shovels that had fallen from the wall and nodded. “Nettie’s comin’ over for dinner, guess she’s goin’ to make us some comfort food—that’s what Casey said anyway.” He picked up the shovels and replaced them on the wall. “She wanted us to come over there for dinner, but I said we were waitin’ for a phone call—”

“—You didn’t tell her did ya?”

JD shook his head: “No, but she already knew.” He shrugged and wiped his hands on his pants.

Vin grabbed his crutches and hobbled toward the door. “Come on then, let’s get to the house before Nettie finds some of Buck’s dirty shorts hangin’ from the doorknobs.”

Chapter 5

The lobby was full, and gamblers of all ages, races, and creeds flocked to one another like rock stars at Ozzfest. They compared notes, wins, and losses. Many offered advice. It was an uncanny lot: Many were dressed to the hilt and others wore jeans and tee-shirts better suited for evenings on the beach. Ezra blended and mingled, speaking with old acquaintances, making new ones, and learning the tells of his rivals.

Chris recognized him. Aaron Topper looked the same, except a couple pounds lighter. Impeccably dressed he crossed the room with confidence, moving so calmly his drink never moved.

“Chris Larabee?” Aaron said, stepping forward with his hand outstretched.

Chris shook his hand. “It’s good to see you again.” He glanced over Aaron’s shoulder and found Ezra speaking with Josiah.

“I take it gambling must be hereditary?” He took a sip of whiskey from his tumbler and turned, spotting Ezra.

Chris shook his head: “Here to support Ezra, that’s all.”

“As a businessman I know the difference between support and desperation.” He frowned and swiveled his glass, causing the ice to clang against the sides. “Might I presume that ranching is not a profitable industry at the moment?”

Chris took a deep breath: “I’m not goin’ to stand here and play games with you.”

“I’ve made it my business to know a little about a lot, and I know beef prices are down while interest rates continue to climb. I also know that when Ezra plays poker he plays to win…he doesn’t play for fun.” He turned and watched Ezra speak with a few other gamblers. “It’s my assumption that he’s here to win some money for a cause worthy enough to pull you off your ranch and into this…” he motioned with his hand to the extravagance, “…I’m not a rancher and I take no liege in knowing anything about it, except the money isn’t there nor is it expected to ever regain the footing it had a few years ago, and if your father—like so many ranchers did, refinanced his property while rates were high—it has probably placed a financial burden on you and your brothers.”

“We’ll survive.” Chris clenched his jaw when Ezra and Josiah walked toward him.

“Aaron,” Ezra said politely, but focused on the players scattered around the room.  

“You look like shit, Ezra,” Aaron said, placing his tumbler on a service tray as a waiter stepped by. “I was just discussing the financial burdens ranching can erect on a family.”

Ezra nodded: “I hadn’t realized ranching was your forte.”

“It’s not,” Aaron smiled, “but money is.”

Josiah stepped beside Chris with a large soda in hand. He took the initiative and introduced himself and immediately struck up a conversation. Ezra grabbed a handful of peanuts from a jar and continued to study the group of gamblers.

“There’s a private game upstairs, if you’re interested,” Aaron said.

Ezra turned and looked at him. “High stakes?”

Aaron nodded: “How much do you need?” He looked from Chris to Josiah and then to Ezra, having become suddenly serious, crossing his arms over his chest he waited for a reply.

“What’s the opening wager?”

Aaron smiled: “Twenty-five  

Chris shook his head, “Twenty-five thousand?”

Aaron nodded: “I was here to sponsor Pete.”

“He’s playing again?”

Aaron nodded, looking at Ezra. “His father passed away a couple of years ago—testicular cancer, if I remember correctly. As his uncle, I thought it was the least I could do, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s damn good.”

“Pete must be your nephew?” Josiah said, shifting his weight to left leg.

“One of many—my brother had six children—all boys.” He sighed. “I was blessed with only one daughter.”

Ezra looked at him confused.

“Lydia is now three and quite advantageous for her age.” Aaron reached for another glass as a waiter stepped by.

“I hadn’t realized,” Ezra said.

“You haven’t been around. How is your mother by the way?”

Josiah knew that tone of voice… the voice of a man who went through a nasty divorce. He slapped Ezra on the shoulder. “You want a drink?”

“Mother is rather spontaneous, so I couldn’t tell you. And no, Josiah, I don’t want a drink.” He nodded, turned, and then walked toward the group of gamblers.

“He’s pissed—”

“—Ezra is extraordinarily independent, he’ll be your best friend or your worst enemy, of course, he’ll leave that decision up to you.” He looked inside his glass and watched the ice travel from side to side. “You look like a smart man, Chris Larabee, and from what I know of you and your family it might behoove you to consider my offer. I enjoy watching good poker games, a poor player myself, I avoid the tournaments, but, I’ll sponsor Ezra—”

“—I think brother Ezra has his sights set on the game that’s about to start,” Josiah said.

Aaron nodded: “You probably know that young man about as well as anyone—which, I might add is a sad fact, but if you think he’ll make it three days without sleep in the condition he’s in—”

“—Listen,” Chris said, tightening his fist and pointing toward the floor, “I’m not goin’ to stand here an’ get lectured by the son-of-a-bitch who helped lock him up in the first place. If Ezra says he can play, he’ll play—”

“—Ezra will break his back before he’ll confess it hurts,” Aaron said, squaring his shoulders, “Look at him. Now really look at him. I haven’t seen him this tired since before that unfortunate event so many years ago. And if there’s one thing I know it’s how gamblers feed off the environment and most of them look as though they could start the Iron Man, finish it, and then start it over.” He clenched his jaw. “He has no business being here and you have no business tying him to it.”

“For a step-father, you’re highly defensive,” Josiah said. He knew Ezra was tired, he knew that last night before the drive to Vegas. And Ezra did look like shit. Dark circles hung beneath his eyes, his movements were reactionary not deliberant, and his verbal communication was far less than what it had been a week ago.

“Perhaps like brothers should be.”

Chris clenched his jaw and fought the desire to strike.

“Why is this game you’re wanting to sponsor so different?” Josiah asked.

Aaron met Josiah’s eyes: “It’s a small group, the game will last a day at most, and the pot is larger.”

“How much larger?” Chris said.

“Ten players with $25K for the opening ante…you do the math.” Aaron took a sip from his glass. “I came with the intention of sponsoring my nephew who couldn’t make it this weekend. If I don’t sponsor Ezra, I’ll sponsor one of those other players for nothing more than to watch the game and bet on my player with my friends upstairs. I’m not going to stand here and argue my points, take the offer, don’t take it. Either way I get to watch a damn good game, drink some beer, eat shitty food, and have a grand time. The choice is yours if you want to join me or not.”

“If Ezra wins?” Josiah asked, waiting for Chris to quit fuming.

“I get 10 percent of the winnings and my sponsorship back.”

“If he loses?” Chris asked, clenching his jaw.

“I’m out $25K. Trust me, Mr. Larabee, I’ve lost before, I come here every year at the same time with the same group of friends, each of us betting our gambler is better than anyone else’s—it’s  no skin off my back if he loses.”

Josiah swallowed and looked at Chris before turning back to Aaron. “What time does this game start?”

“Tomorrow morning at ten.”

“He could use the sleep, Chris,” Josiah said.

Chris nodded. Ezra did looked like hell, but what choice did they have? He looked at Josiah and sighed, “Go tell him we’re takin’ Aaron up on his offer. Tell him it was my idea; the deal was just too good.”

Josiah nodded, turned, and walked away.

Chris crossed his arms across his chest and looked at Aaron. “Now I’m goin’ to take on the big brother role. I really appreciate how up-front you were with Vin and me when we came to see you a couple months back, but if I get a whiff of you fuckin’ with him in anyway, I’ll toss the farm and have my lawyer take the shirt right off your back.”

Aaron smiled: “Good, because that’s what a big brother should do.”

Chris nodded, and watched as Josiah explained things to Ezra. “I’m sorry about yours… your brother.”

Aaron took a sip from his glass and then said, “We weren’t close, which is something I’ll always regret… Good friends come and go, but family…you’re bound by blood, at least you should be.” He turned, glanced in Ezra’s direction and then turned back to Chris. He motioned to shake Chris’ hand and smiled when the gesture was returned. “The game starts at ten in suite 308, there’ll be a group of us, so come prepared. The only rule is no phones, computers, or gadgets—be prepared to bullshit and have a good time.”

“How good is he?”

“Don’t bet against him.” Aaron smiled. He tipped his head and walked for the door. He met with a man, shook his hand, and then laughed.

“Let’s go get some lunch,” Josiah said with one hand firmly clasped behind Ezra’s neck.

“You don’t owe him anything,” Ezra said, moving from Josiah’s grasp.

“Weren’t you the one who said that sometimes you have to bet it all?”

“If we don’t eat soon, brothers, I’m liable to get cannibalistic.”

“I’ll buy,” Chris said, turning toward the door.

“Nachos it is.” Josiah slapped his hands together and followed.

Ezra sighed, already feeling the heartburn that would follow.

Chapter 6

Nettie slipped out of her truck and waved for JD to help. Casey grabbed several bags and handed them to JD.

“Damn, Nettie, you could feed an army with all this food,” JD said.

“I raised three boys, JD, and I never had enough food in the house.” She handed Casey a gallon of fresh milk. “Brought a roast from that bull, figured Vin wouldn’t mind sinkin’ his teeth into him.” She smiled and motioned with a tilt of her head toward the door. She looked to her right and chuckled, watching Vin swing between his crutches as he left the shop.

“Nettie,” Vin said, pausing as she cradled her casserole dish in the crook of her arm.

“How’s the hitch in your get-a-long?”

Vin shrugged: “Sore, but healin’.”

“Stayin’ off it like I know you should?” She started walking to the house, keeping in stride with Vin.

“I’m avoidin’ trouble, if that’s what you’re gettin’ at?”

Nettie chuckled: “Nathan’s a good doctor, but he’s a pushy bastard.”

Vin chuckled and used the end of his crutch to open the screen door.

“Chris needs to get that fixed,” Nettie said, stepping past the threshold.

“Comes in useful every once in a while,” Vin said, poking at the bottom right of the door that was bent forward after Buck had kicked it.

JD helped Casey with the food while Nettie prepared the spices.

“Now, I like my food spicy, Nettie,” Vin said.

“So do I,” she said, “but I like the linin’ of my stomach right where it’s at too.” She opened the roast and removed it from the butcher paper.  “When do you expect Chris to call?”

Buck stomped the dirt off his boots as he entered the house, the screen door slamming behind him. “Don’t smell nothin’ cookin’ yet, Nettie, you tryin’ to starve us?”

“Blame Vin,” she said, rinsing the roast in the sink, “he took too damn long gettin’ from my truck to the house. If it makes you feel any better, I’ll stab the hell of it this piece of meat before tossin’ it into the crock pot.”

Vin chuckled: “Stab away, Nettie.” He took a seat at the table and rested his leg over an empty chair.

Buck leaned against the dishwasher.

“You didn’t answer my question. When’s Chris supposed to call?”

Buck sighed and looked at his watch. “The game was supposed to have started at one, but we haven’t heard a peep all day.”

“Maybe the game started late,” Casey said, adding a little more mayonnaise to her potato salad.

“Could be,” Buck said, looking out the window as Nathan pulled his car into Chris’ parking place. He smiled when Raine got out of the passenger seat. “Looks like we got one extra for dinner.”

Casey looked up: “Oh, maybe she’ll make her fry bread!”


Despite the early hour, Ezra lay in bed, facing the wall covered with blankets. The room was small with two double beds, Chris lay uncomfortably on the rollaway, flipping through a magazine. Josiah lay on the bed next to Ezra’s, wearing his blue flannel pajamas. He flipped through the newspaper while listening to visitors move up and down the halls.

Ezra had taken the bed closest to the wall while Josiah and Chris used the light from the bathroom to read by. They knew he wasn’t asleep; he kicked, rolled, and toyed with the edges of his bedding. It was difficult enough with the risk of losing the ranch in his hands, but it was complicated because of the situation. He ran his hand over the soft fabric of the blanket, but he kept his eyes on the wall. If he concentrated hard enough he could draw pictures using irregular patterns within the textures. He could hear people walking up and down the halls, and he could hear automobiles roaring to life outside. There had been a time when this atmosphere had been his home, a place where he had thrived, but time and life had changed that.

Chris looked from Ezra to Josiah, understanding more now than he had a few hours ago, even a few days. They could lose the farm. They could lose everything. And here they were, taking a chance on a game that could produce winners and crush losers. Chris knew he was asking a lot—more than a lot. He was asking his brother to win the game of his life. Sure, win or lose, they were in this together, but if Ezra lost…things would change.

Kicking his legs over the edge of the bed, Chris sat up and ran his hands over his face and through his hair. Josiah pulled the blankets over his legs and tossed the newspaper off to the side. He glanced in Ezra’s direction, watched him toss his blanket over his head and burrow further into his bed. He was miserable; they all were.

“I’m goin’ to call Buck, let ‘im know what’s goin’ on,” Chris said, getting to his feet. He slipped into his jeans and grabbed a shirt from his suitcase. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“There’s a phone in here, brother,” Josiah said, glancing from the two cell phones on the counter to the hotel phone that rested between his and Ezra’s beds.

Chris shook his head and grabbed his cell. He looked at Ezra’s back and took a deep breath. “I’ll be back.”

Josiah folded his fingers together and slipped them behind his head as he lay back. The air conditioner kicked on and the drapes fluttered momentarily and then slowed to repetitive movements. “Ezra?”

Ezra ignored him, thinking instead about the game ahead and the pressure he had to overlook.

Chapter 7

Chris entered the hotel room and nodded toward Josiah who stood in front of the mirror brushing his teeth. Sunlight cascaded downward onto the table and across the beds. Dust particles danced and the smell of aftershave lingered. He placed a latte on the counter next to the sink and entered the bed area. He realized for the first time that Ezra wasn’t a lightweight, something he had missed when Geoff had lost his leg. Despite the dark circles beneath his eyes and his peaked features, he was in top physical shape. However, fading bruises defied a life full of secrets. Chris clenched his jaw, knowing not to ask. He knew Ezra took care of himself, but at times that wasn’t enough. Ezra would never be upfront about the bruises, he’d cover it up with lies and stories that didn’t pertain to his real life, protecting himself in ways that created problems. Tired and bruised, as soon as Ezra took a seat at the tables, everyone else would know it too.

“Feelin’ all right?” Chris asked, handing Ezra a latte. “The girl at the stand said it was good.” He shrugged and took a seat on the edge of Josiah’s bed.

Ezra tried a sip and nodded: “Not bad.” He finished buttoning his shirt and then ran his fingers through is wet hair. He grabbed his towel and rubbed his head. “You look panicked.” He sat on the edge of the bed and tossed his towel over a chair.

“I’m worried,” Chris said, moving as Josiah grabbed his watch from the nightstand. “You goin’ to be okay?”

Ezra smiled, stood, and grabbed his sunglasses. “Fine. Llet’s go win some money.” He checked his appearance in the mirror before opening the door and leaving.

Chris shook his head: “I don’t know, Josiah.”

“You asked him, granted it was with everyone’s blessing, but you asked him, don’t just leave him to the wolves now—”


“—You are, Chris, any doubt proves it.” Josiah grabbed the keycard and slipped it into his back pocket. “Let’s go.”

Chris nodded, grabbed the latte he’d gotten for Ezra, and followed Josiah out the door.


Aaron opened the Presidential Suite door and smiled. The room was alive with conversations, food, and TV sports. “Glad you could make it,” he said, looking at his watch. He grabbed Ezra by his upper arm and pulled him into the room, leaving Chris and Josiah to follow.

Two tables were set up, surrounded by comfortable chairs. Two poker dealers from the casino, dressed in formal attire, carefully positioned the cards, and prepared for the game.

“Dave,” Aaron said, grabbing his friend’s attention, “this is Ezra Standish, my stepson.”

“So this is the poker player,” Dave said, smiling as he shook Ezra’s hand. “Aaron’s been sayin’ for years he wanted to get you into one of our games.” He chuckled and grabbed Aaron’s shoulders. “Me and this guy have been bettin’ against each other for 15 years,” his smile increased, “he lost 52 grand last year.”

Ezra smiled, turned, and took the coffee Chris handed to him. “My brothers, Chris and Josiah.”

Josiah stepped forward after grabbing a sandwich from the food table. “Now you’re going to have to explain the rules of this get-together to me.”

Dave nodded, slapped Josiah on the back, and guided him toward the tables where the players had started to gather. Aaron chuckled. The room was full of friends betting on baseball, softball, horses, and gamblers. There were two bookies in the room, making notes in their books while listening to their earphones as batters connected with balls, horses crossed finish lines, and gamblers boasted about their abilities.

Ezra took a seat at the table, adjusted the chips just so, and then introduced himself to his fellow players. They ranged in ages from early twenties to late sixties. A few had won championships, while others were just learning. Ezra removed his glasses, exposing the dark circles beneath his eyes that would redflag his ability…but if he played it right, it would be to his benefit.

The dealers moved into position and quickly called the start of the game. Sponsors and spectators stood off to the sides while the betting began.

“Ante up!”


Buck paced from the kitchen to the living room, spun, and then paced again. Vin and JD watched from the kitchen table. Goober lay near the door, watching his master walk from room to room.

“They’ll call,” JD said, as Buck entered the kitchen for the third time.

“The game was supposed to start at ten,” Buck said, opening the refrigerator door. He glanced from the top shelf to the bottom before slamming the door shut.

“It’s 10:30, Buck,” Vin said, grabbing a magazine. He flipped through it and tossed it back. “Chris said yesterday that if he called too early it’s bad news—so enjoy it.”

“I’m goin’ to go chop some wood,” JD said.

“It’s September,” Buck said, looking through the cupboards.


“It’s hotter than a popcorn fart!”

“It’s better than watchin’ you,” JD said, getting to his feet. He grabbed his diet cola and stepped over Goober as he opened the door.

Vin adjusted his leg. “Ezra’ll pull through.”

Buck paused and then nodded: “You, ah, want to help me spray JD with the hose.”



Chips were tossed, cards exposed and folded as the game continued. Those unaccustomed to the pressure had given up their tells within the first hour; an hour later they stood and watched those with more experience. Money changed hands as well as advice.

Chris chewed on his thumbnail, watching with bated breath every hand that was dealt. Ezra looked more relaxed than Chris had ever seen him. He joked with the other players, and watched with critical detail their moves and reactions.

“He’s good,” Aaron said, stepping beside Chris and handing him a drink.

“You bet on him?”

Aaron nodded, shoved his right hand into his pocket, and toyed with the loose change. “Sure as hell wouldn’t bet against him.”

Chris twisted his wrist, sending the fluid in his glass around the lip. “How close were you to him?”

Aaron cleared his throat and sighed, “We weren’t—I tried, but, after the fiasco with Dr. Harper there was more resentment than any interest in me as a father. By that point, I think Ezra was done with parents, even his mother.” He shifted his weight to his other foot and continued to watch the game. “Maude’s a survivor, and there have been a few times when she beat him down to get what she wanted.” He paused. “I guess Ezra learned a little of that from her, and he suffered for it.”

“He’s tougher ‘an he looks,” Chris said, watching him take another pot.

“He’s had to be. I don’t know everything about that kid, but I know that he’s had to get tough in order to survive the shit he has. Maude was married five times before she married me, and I know damn good and well that Ezra’s stepfathers were not… honorable men. If it wasn’t a stepfather beating on him, then it was an uncle, cousin, friend of the fucking family—you name it. Ezra’s been tossed around like a bad penny for a long time. I blame myself for some of it.”

Chris furrowed his brow and looked at him.

“If I had taken him to a different hospital, waited, shit—asked him a few questions—maybe Maude and I would still be married.”

“How were you supposed to know about Harper?” Chris looked at him. “Can’t blame yourself for the choices others make.”

Aaron nodded, “Yes you can…look at the choices your father made.”

Chris took a sip of his drink and nodded. He looked at Josiah who was still speaking with Dave, and he watched as a few more people left the room.

“How much trouble is the ranch in?”

Chris took a deep breath. “You lookin’ to buy us out?”

Aaron shook his head: “No.”

“My father made more than a few bad decisions… if Ezra loses this game—we’ll lose the ranch.”

“You won’t lose the ranch,” Aaron said, slapping Chris on the back in a friendly gesture.

Chris grabbed his arm, stopping him. “You can buy back what you lost.”

“No, but I can buy dreams.” He moved past Chris and headed toward the kitchen.

Josiah stepped beside Chris and crossed his arms over his chest. “You called the family yet?”

“No,” Chris snapped, frowning.

“Want me to?”

Chris sighed and nodded: “Yeah.”


There were four players left, and after eight hours of play, they all looked exhausted. Ezra knew the game like most knew their lovers. He knew when to push, when to hold back, and when to fold. The three other players were just as good, if not better, but that’s what kept him focused, knowing he had to use all his skills in order to pull out a win. If he didn’t win, he walked away with nothing.


Ezra looked at his cards, placed his bet, and waited, watching the others as they fiddled with their chips, flipped the edges of their cards, pulled at their lips, or tapped their fingers. He knew who had the cards and who didn’t. The player to his right tapped his fingers, calling, while someone else folded.

Ezra played it.

It was all or nothing.

He had nothing to lose.


Chris swallowed the bile that continued to collect in his throat. He hated waiting, and that’s what he was doing. The room had dwindled to less than fourteen people. Bets that had taken place that morning were either paid or still pending. The air conditioner had been turned up as the tension in the room increased. Sponsors were the ones sweating it out, and Chris realized for the first time that this was as much their game as it was the gamblers’.

Josiah moved in and out of the hotel room, pacing, and calling the family at home, giving them every detail as it happened.

Ezra was exhausted, and he looked it. But he used it in his favor. He could feel his muscles protesting as he compensated exhaustion for caffeine.

The dealer tossed the cards, players peeked, bet, and waited. It was ritualistic, and at times painfully slow. Chips were placed in the center of the table, someone called, someone else folded. Ezra rubbed his face, took a drink of coffee, and leaned back. The pressure continued to build: The closer he got to the win, the more difficult it was to bare.

“He’s gettin’ tired,” Josiah said, rubbing his jaw.

Chris nodded.

They watched another player push her remaining chips into the center of the table. The room went quiet as cards were exposed. The gambler stood, shook hands, and moved off to the side.

It was age versus experience, and in the greater scheme of things, Ezra was the long shot. Duncan Swainz was 54 and he played the game like he owned it. His hair was gray and cut short around his ears. He was heavyset, but classic in style. He’d watched Ezra from the beginning, knowing his competition, and knowing what it would take to beat him.

The cards were drawn.

Ezra peeked, made his bet, and waited. Swainz had a reputation, and Ezra knew it. He knew men just like him. It wasn’t about the game with Swainz, it was about the win, and doing whatever he had to in order to do it.

Swainz bet.

They knew it was between them, and they didn’t waste each other’s or anyone else’s time. Bets were large and methodical, and the game had stopped being about the cards, it was about the two men holding them. Ezra had seen Swainz play before, and he knew his routine.

Ezra looked at his cards: a pair of aces. The spade stared him in the face, taunting him with redemption. He bet again and waited. 

Chris watched Ezra’s pile of chips diminish, and he watched the pot grow. This was the last hand, and after 12 hours, it needed to be. He watched the players play each other, and he knew the winner would be the last to flinch. Josiah continued to pace. Aaron and Dave continued a conversation that had started well over two hours ago about mergers and marketing accounts. Chris watched Ezra push two cards across the table and the dealer dealt two back.

Swainz exchanged one.

It was Swainz who placed the last of his money in the pot, joined quickly by Ezra. It had come to this, the man with the best cards.

Swainz chuckled, and flipped over his cards. Two pair stared everyone in the face, a pair of queens and jacks. He made a motion to take the pot but the dealer stopped him.

“Mr. Standish, your cards.”

Ezra leaned back and flipped over his cards one by one: ace of diamonds...

Chris felt his heart pound on the walls of his chest. Sweat dribbled down his back.

… ace of spades…

Josiah couldn’t breath. He wanted to storm across the room, toss the cards over, and face the reality that the ranch was gone. A pair of aces couldn’t beat two pair….

… seven of clubs…

Chris caught his breath.

… seven of hearts…

Josiah stopped…

Ezra smiled and flipped over the last card…seven of spades.

A collection of gasps echoed and congratulations were in order as hands and backs were slapped. Chris sank into his chair and took a deep breath. Josiah escaped the room to phone the family. Aaron collected his cash. Ezra pushed his cards away and folded his arms across the table and rested his head in the ready made crook.


“HE DID IT!” Buck yelled, running from the kitchen to the living room where Vin, JD, and Nathan sat watching a movie. “That sneaky little son-of-a-bitch did it!” He tossed the phone to Nathan and grabbed JD by the arms, pulling him up, and then he shoved him back down into the chair.

Vin laughed, but held up the end of his crutch as Buck drew near. “Don’t!”

Buck slapped his hands together and ran back to the kitchen: “Where’s the good shit?!”

Nathan leaned forward in his seat, folded his fingers together and collected his breath. Now he could feel it, now he could feel the pressure that the others had been talking about. Having always known in the back of his mind that they wouldn’t lose the ranch—it just never seemed real—but now, now it was real. Nathan rubbed his forehead, thinking about Raine and their future together, the land that his father had left him, the land he wanted to leave his own children. “It’s behind the cereal, Buck,” he said, getting to his feet. He looked at JD. “How’s your bloodsugar?”

JD smiled, his face was red, but his eyes defied his feelings. “Fine.”

“Want to have a glass of wine?”

JD stood, shrugged and then smiled: “Yeah.”

“Come on, Vin,” Nathan said, reaching for Vin’s hand, “better get up and get some wine before Buck inhales it all.”

“If it shuts him up, I’m all for him drinkin’ it.” He struggled with his crutches for a brief moment before following JD into the kitchen. “How about some crackers or somethin’ to go with it?”

Buck grabbed a few of his mother’s wine glasses from the china hutch and he carefully placed them on the counter before popping the cork from the 1954 bottle. He let it breath for a moment and then poured a small amount into Nathan’s glass. He couldn’t stop shaking, and he had to pause as he handed JD his glass.

The ranch was theirs, and nobody could take it away. No more monthly payments, or begging from the bank. The land was theirs, and they could do whatever they damn well wanted to with it.

Buck picked up his glass. “To Ezra.”

Nathan followed: “To Dad.”

“To blood,” Vin said, slapping JD on the shoulder.

They tapped their glasses and sipped.

Vin choked, “That is shitty wine.”

JD curled his nose and nodded: “Yeah, and I don’t drink.”

Buck gulped and shrugged. “I’ve had worse.”

Nathan leaned against the counter and laughed.


Josiah squatted next to Ezra’s chair and rubbed his back in circular motions. “Ezra?”

“We won.”

“Yeah, brother, you won.”

The felt on the table felt good against his cheek and he cracked his eyelid. “What do you want?” He didn’t look comfortable, but he acted as though his body had conformed to the oak, and like a kitten who could sleep anywhere, he didn’t want to move.

Josiah chuckled, turned, and looked at Chris before returning his attention to Ezra. “I think, brother, you need a good night’s sleep.”

“I’ve rented the suite until Monday morning,” Aaron said, laying his jacket across his arm. “Put him in my room, let him sleep, he’s deserved it.” He pulled a card from his wallet and handed it to Chris. “That’s my direct line, if you get into a situation and need some help—call me.” He opened the door and motioned for the bellhop to take his luggage.

“No hitches?” Chris asked, looking at the card. He flipped it against his thumb, before looking at Aaron.

“No hitches, just a friend who knows people—and in today’s world, you could use a few of those.” He slapped Chris on the shoulder in a friendly gesture and walked out the door. He turned and looked toward them. “Your father may have made a few mistakes in what he did or didn’t do, but it’s up to you to turn those mistakes around and make them into something grand. I’m no stranger to failures, but as a sixty-year-old man with a beautiful wife and daughter, I can tell you, second chances are worth fighting for.” He looked toward Ezra and nodded. “Sometimes…sometimes it’s difficult to see what’s right in front of you.” He grabbed the knob and closed the door as he left.

Ezra leaned back in his chair, feeling as though he couldn’t stay afloat any longer against the raging current. It was done, and instead of being ecstatic, thrilled that the ranch was finally theirs and nobody could take it away, he felt completely drained. Unsure if he was thrilled about the ranch, disappointed, or just confused about the entire situation. He stared at the pile of chips on the table, chips that would be exchanged for cash in the morning. He’d seen more, but damn if it wasn’t a lot. His stomach twisted and his muscles shook, protesting their endurance. At the moment he wouldn’t mind sleeping on a futon. He sighed, feeling like a car that had just run out of gas. He rubbed his face and dropped his hand to his lap.  

Josiah grabbed Ezra’s arm and helped him to his feet, adjusting his grip when he faltered. Ezra grabbed the edge of the table and he felt Josiah’s grip increase. He frowned, watching the room tilt. The edges of his vision blurred and he stumbled.  

“Chris,” Josiah said, catching Ezra when he folded. “Ezra?” he said, pushing him into a chair. He patted his cheek, checking for a response and looked at Chris who had grabbed a wet washrag from the bathroom. “He’s out cold.”

Chris squatted next to the chair and placed the cold rag on Ezra’s neck. He could see the fatigue, more blatantly now than before. Ezra’s features were drawn, his complexion pale—he was beyond exhaustion. “Let’s get him to bed.” He looked at Josiah and sighed.

With Ezra hanging between them, they moved him to the bedroom. Chris threw back the covers of the bed and together they got him onto the mattress. As soon as he hit the sheets instinct took over and he fell backward, letting the bed conform around tired limbs. He curled onto his right side, never feeling his shoes being pulled from his feet or blankets being pulled over his shoulders.

“Think he’s been burning his candle at both ends?” Josiah asked.

“I’ll call Buck, let him know we’ll head back in a day or two—whenever Ezra’s on his feet.”

“Think they’ll handle things?” Josiah pressed the palm of his hand to Ezra’s forehead.

Chris chuckled: “Let’s hope.” He walked to the bedroom door and waited for Josiah to exit before turning off the light. He left the door open as they walked into the main room. Beer bottles, half eaten plates of food, and glasses were scattered around the suite. Chris grabbed one of the trashcans and went to work.

“The hotel actually has people they hire to do that.”

Chris tossed a few bottles into the garbage. “What did you think of Topper?”

Josiah collected a few plates and dumped the remains into a garbage bag. “I think he’s genuine. Speaking to his friend Dave today, I couldn’t help but feel that Aaron Topper has Ezra’s best interest at heart.”

“He’s not blood, Josiah.”

“No, but it doesn’t take blood to be friends.” He piled the plates into a short stack. “I had two step-fathers. The first was a man by the name of Marcus Humphrey, he was a preacher for a small congregation and he told my sister and I we wouldn’t get into heaven because we were both bastards—now, that doesn’t mean a lot to me today because I know otherwise, but when he told me I was seven and the only thing I wanted to do was serve God, so when he told me that, I was crushed. He made it very clear that Hanna and I were nothing, we didn’t deserve the life we led and I hated him for it—hate him to this very day. I hated him so much that I let it blind me to my mother’s second husband who was a good man, genuinely a good man, but I couldn’t see it because all I could see was the pulpit he spoke from and the hypocrisy Humphrey lived by.”

“Did he beat you?” Chris stopped and looked at him.

Josiah took a deep breath and nodded: “Yes, he beat us both.”

Chris ran his hand over his head and looked out the window toward the lights of the city. “Topper said Ezra was beat.”

Josiah nodded: “One out of every two children are beaten, Chris, and I wouldn’t be surprised if more than just Ezra and myself know the wicked end of a switch—or in my case, a fist.”

Chris took a seat in the overstuffed chair and rested his elbows on his knees. Ella was carrying his child, a child he was responsible for. Aaron Topper was right, sometimes you had to open your eyes to see what was right in front of you. He grabbed his cell phone and stood. “I’ll go down to the other room and get our shit. You need anything.”

Josiah shook his head: “Call her.” He smiled, placing his hand on Chris’ shoulder and pushed him toward the door.