Brothers AU (Ezra, Seven)
Buck tossed the roll of bailing twine to the ground, causing dirt and dust to bloom. It was his, the dust, debris, rocks, ants, and damn maggots. Nobody could take that from him. He took a deep breath and looked around the property, the barn, shop, house, and the equipment. For the first time in a long time he wouldnt have to worry about making the payments. They could actually purchase a new tractor if they needed to without worrying about the ranch loan. They were free to make decisions that were best for the ranch and for themselves. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his shirt and looked toward the shop as Vin tossed a piece of iron into the scrap pile. JD was feeding the fall steers. It wouldnt be long before they had to load them up and ship them to the sales.
He loved ranching, farming, and getting his hands dirty.
Goober dusted the ground with his feather-like tail waiting for an order.
Buck watched Nathan drive down the lane, dust following him like a cloud on the rampage. He chuckled and shook his head, pulling his gloves off. He shoved them into his back pocket and started walking toward the house.
Raine, Buck said, surprised to see her slip out of the front seat.
Hey, thought Id come celebrate with you guys. She opened the back door and pulled out a casserole dish. Its sugar-free apple tart.
Its good, she said with a smile. Besides, I thought JD would appreciate the gesture.
Nathan slammed the drivers side door and adjusted the grip on the mail. Saw Geoff at the grocery store, he said hed be by in the next day or two.
What in the hell are you doin with all the mail its Sunday?
Left it at the office yesterday when Wayne dropped it bysaid something about having to be at his sons soccer game so he didnt want to drive clear out here. He handed the mail to Buck and followed Raine to the house. You heard from Chris?
Should be back tomorrow sometime, hes lettin Ezra sleep. Buck flipped through the packages and the few letters. He pulled one out and shoved it in front of Nathan. We can pay that.
Nathan chuckled: Yeah, we can. He followed him into the house and watched Raine slip her dessert into the oven. You told Nettie yet?
Yeah, Buck said, using the bootjack. Then she called back and said her 54 bottle of wine was shitty too.
Nathan could hear JD and Buck laugh about something they had heard on TV. Raine sat between them on the sofa. She was more of a sister to them than the future sister-in-law. She tossed a pillow at Buck and chuckled then turned toward Nathan and smiled. He waved from the kitchen, still seated at the table.
Somethin on your mind, Nate? Vin said. He gathered the playing cards and shuffled, hating the game of solitaire.
Nathan sighed: If I ask you to do something for me, could you keep it a secret? He scrapped his thumbnail with his index finger.
Vin paused and looked at him: Is everythin okay?
Yeah, he nodded and looked back at Raine. Between you and me whats your gut feeling on Ella?
Vin shrugged: I hope Chris pulls his head out of his ass before he finds himself in a world of hurt. He laid out another game of solitaire. I dont much care for her, but Im not the one datin her.
Nathan cleared his throat: Do you think you could
Check her out? Could take me a few days to hunt down my contacts. Vin paused and looked at him. Whats got you spooked?
Heard some things, just want to make sure shes not after something else.
Like the ranch?
I dont know, Vin, I just want to make sure shes not out to make life miserable for Chris. He rubbed his thighs with the palms of his hands and sighed. Could you keep this between you and meif Chris finds out about this?
Yeah, Ill see what I can do. Vin placed the red queen on a black king and caught a glimpse of Nathan looking at Rain. You should take her dancin, girls like that shit.
Yeah, maybe I will.
Dont do what I did an pick a gay barscared the shit out of my girlfriendand me!
Nathan chuckled: See anything new.
Fuck you, Vin laughed and tossed his cards on the table.
Nathan stood: Thanks, Vin.
Sure, but watch out for those gay bars I know how you doctor types are always wantin to learn new shit.
Ezra tossed the blanket off his face and dropped his hand to his chest. Light peeked through the window curtains. He could faintly hear the TV in the other room and whispered voices. The room smelled of food and cleaning solutions. He ran a hand over his face and sighed. His muscles tightened and then he stretched, causing them to breathe and invigorate.
He sat up and tossed his legs over the side of the bed. His slacks were wrinkled and his shirt had lost a few buttons during the night. He wiggled his toes, he would have to search for his socks later. Ezra grabbed the clothes that had been laid out for him and headed for the shower, ignoring the time, the rumbling of his stomach, and the dryness of his throat.
Chris looked at his watch. 18 hours and six minutes.
He was tired, Josiah said, tossing his magazine aside.
I wish I had a bladder that would let me sleep for 18 hours.
Josiah nodded: Amen, brother.
The bruises on his chest were fading, but his ribs still hurt when he moved wrong. He towel dried his hair and then grabbed his shirt from the hanger on the back of the door. Steam fogged the mirror, but he could see enough skin to know the damage that had been done. He buttoned his jeans and opened the door, allowing the cold air to enter and the fog to dissipate.
Hed managed to do itplay the game of his life and win. It hadnt hit him yet: the thrill of knowing the ranch couldnt be taken away. Nor did he understand the effects it would have on everyone, not just himself. It felt good, to finally prove himself worthy. Granted, he didnt know a swather from a bailer, but he knew numbers.
Ezra slipped into his boots and shoved his laundry into his duffle bag. Hed worry about wrinkles later. He wanted to get home, sleep in his bed, eat dinner with his brothers, and bullshit with friends. He looked toward Chris and Josiah as he entered the main room.
You ready to head home? Chris asked, standing.
Ezra nodded: Yeah.
It was home and more.
Chris slammed the blazer door shut and smiled, looking at the house he had grown up in, he smiled because it was his his and his familys. He tried to move as Buck flew out the front door and wrapped his long arms around him.
Put me down!
Buck smiled, tossed Chris against the hood and slapped his hands together. Its four in the fuckin mornin and I have to start bailin hay in less than an hour and damn if I aint happy about it! He grabbed Josiahs arm and squeezed before grabbing Ezra around his neck and forcing him down, rubbing his knuckles on his head.
Ezra pushed him off and held his hands up in defense. I will break your nose if you do that again.
Whoowee! Buck clapped. Shit, we opened that old bottle of 54 wine and damn if it werent badyou bring anythin with more umph than that?
Hell, Chris, Ive been waitin two days for you boys to get home. Im loaded up on caffeine like a hooker with her first johnlets celebrate!
Its Monday mornin and I have to be at work in about 3 hours.
Ezra chuckled and reached into the Blazer for his duffle bag. Wherere Vin, JD, and Nathan?
Pansyasses are in bed.
Josiah laughed and pushed Buck forward. How about we celebrate tonight, brother, and Ill personally get us something more refined than a bad bottle of wine.
Slowly, Buck nodded. Okay then, but I want steaks and potatoes, an shit for dinner. And he sighed, Im askin Inez to come out and join us.
Chris sighed and shook his head: Then youd better get to work.
Ezra tossed his duffle bag onto his bed and sat on the edge. He shook his head when he found a half eaten donut on his nightstand. Vin. Vin had been here. He was the only one brave enough to leave evidence. He lay back, feeling how comfortable it was to be home, and he sighed. He sat up and grabbed the small amount of mail that had been tossed near his pillows. He looked at the package first, a large manila envelope missing a return address. Do Not Bend had been stamped in red all over the package and he could feel his heart start to race.
He tore open the end and glanced at his door. He paused a moment, making sure nobody was walking down the hallway. Taking a deep breath, he tipped the envelope, allowing the papers to slip to his lap. He caught his breath in his throat. Written in red was, Explain this! It wasnt signed, but Ezra knew who it was from. Land deeds with Paid stamped in red lay beneath the note.
The ranch was theirs, not because of game he had just played, but because of the 3.5 million dollars he had stolen. How would he explain it? How could he? The money hed just won was useless, and it would taunt him. Constant reminders would be the questions his brothers would ask about the bill that never came, the lack of notices from the bank, the absence of phone calls from bill collectors.
He gripped the papers, wrinkling the corners, and then he shoved them between his mattress and the box springs. Ezra lay back, feeling his world crumble. He could let it go for a little while, but eventually he wouldnt be able to hide.
Chris entered his office and smiled at Marcie who smiled back.
I heard, she said, leaning back in her chair. Think if I gave that brother of yours a few bucks he could pay off my place?
No, and dont even think about askin him.
Marcie nodded: Havent seen your girlfriend . You break it off ord she dump ya?
Chris smiled: Ill ignore that.
Yes, well, on with business. She sighed and leaned forward. Youve got to talk to two-mile-an-hour-Charlie about him speedin through town, seriously, Chris, Mitch from the saloon was ready to beat him over the head with a two-by-four because he drives so damn slow. If youre being passed by farmers in their tractors, its a good sign you need to give up the ghost and hand over the license.
And you want me to take it away?
Marcie sighed: Somebodys got to.
Chris nodded and walked toward his office. He turned suddenly. Were havin a party out at the ranch tonight, why dont you and your significant other join us?
Marcie crossed her arms over her chest and sighed: Ill bring some rolls but Im leavin my fat bastard at home.
Hes your husband.
Dont tell him that.
Chris shook his head and entered his office. Youre mean, Marcie!
Im the oldest out of a litter of twelve, Chris, Im practical.
Josiah stood over the grill, carefully watching the steaks and hamburgers. He wore a white plastic apron with Kiss the Cook written in red on the front. The ruler of his domain, he refused help and threatened those that tried to offer advice.
Casey, Raine, and Nettie prepared the salads on the long plastic tables that Buck and JD had set up. Paper plates, cups, and several pitchers filled with punch, juices, and sodas rested at the end of the table closest to the porch. Vin sat beneath a tree, shucking corn. He had unhooked the brace from around his knee, but kept it immobile while he worked. He chuckled, watching Nathan argue with Josiah about basting the steaks.
It wasnt long before farmers and ranchers were eating their own beef and produce. They gathered in groups, speaking about milk prices, the absurdity of ditch riders, and whose property was next on the butchers block.
You gonna eat? JD asked, carefully balancing his plate of food on his hand. He looked at Ezra and leaned against the fence.
Its because of you that everyones here. Shit, Ezra, you should enjoy it.
Ezra felt his stomach flip. It wasnt just me, JD.
Hell, Ezra, you were the one that won the poker game, and from what Josiah said you were half asleep when you won. He took a bite of his role and chuckled when Casey dropped the top of her hamburger bun. Come on, you deserve it. He grabbed Ezras arm and pulled him from the fence.
Ezra landed on his feet and swallowed the lump in his throat.
He had given flowers to Sarah, nobody else. And it didnt seem right presenting them to Ella as a peace offering. Flowers had been special because Sarah loved them, because she knew their value and they matched her beauty. For some reason giving them to Ella seemed wrong. Chocolates were predictable, and stuffed animals were childish. Jewelry was too much, while a card wasnt enough.
His problem was simple.
He didnt love Ella.
Chris stood in the gift shop while Becky waited at the cash register. The owner of the only flower/gift shop in town, she had learned to love her business, but farmers farmers and ranchers were predictable and uneventful. She had run out of ideas and suggestions, and now waited for him to make up his mind so she could call it a day. She tapped her acrylic nails on the counter and sighed.
The bell above the door rang and Chris turned.
Flowers work, Ella said, standing at the entrance.
Chris nodded. Want to get some coffee?
She nodded and pushed the door open. The bell rang again and Becky sighed, following Chris. She flipped the open sign to closed and then locked the door.
I tried callin you a few times.
My answering machine is down, Ella said, walking in stride beside him. I threw it out.
You scared me, he pulled her to a stop, Im not ready to start another family, Ella, Im not sure Ill ever be.
Youd better make a decision about this baby, Chris
Whats your decision? What do you want?
The only thing Ive ever wanted is you, she said, taking a step back. This isnt some scheme to grab your attention. I want to have this baby. I want us to make more out of our lives than than this. She raised her hands toward the town.
Ella, Im not leavin here.
She shook her head and started walking toward the small café across town. You could change your mind.
No, Im not going to change my mind. He didnt follow her.
Ella stopped and turned: Then what do you want? Do you want this child? Do you want any? Or is your ranch the only thing you care about? I wont wait around for ever, and if I carry this baby to term, Im going to want more than the women your father was lucky enough to fuck.
Chris clenched his jaw and flexed the muscled on his arms.
One of your baby brothers just won your ranch back, Chris, its up to you to benefit from it. She turned, the gentle breeze catching her skirt causing the fabric to flow around her legs. I wont wait forever.
Chris watched her change direction. She got into her car and drove away. To her it was the breaking point, he was either in or out, but for Chris it hadnt ever started. She had been fun, for a while. He couldnt see himself married to her for 40 years he could Sarah. Perhaps this was how his father felt. Maybe Lincoln had found himself so hardened after the deaths of Colleen and Clara that he didnt care. Child or no child, he wouldnt put himself through the misery of marrying a woman he didnt love.
Had Maude been Lincolns, Ella?
Chris thought about Ezra and made the decision that no child of his would be left without a father, and he would fight to the death for custody. He turned toward his Blazer knowing he was in for the fight of his life.
The hay was up, and Buck had pulled the last load off the field before the rain fell. Nobody asked questions about the money, or the lack of bank notices. Things just seemed to run smoothly. Chris was busy in town as high school students raced to get to classes on time, while employees lucky enough to receive bonuses spent them foolishly at the saloon. After four weeks of wearing the knee brace, Nathan finally relented and instructed Vin to take it easy, wanting his tendons to heal correctly. Josiah had found himself busy counseling married couples as well as high school football players. For the first time in three years the team was on the way to the state championship and the coach insisted they get what they need in order to make the cut. Buck showed JD how to handle the cattle sales, which truckers to use, and how to get the best prices. The kid had an eye for it, and he seemed to enjoy knowing the cattle he helped raise were there for a purpose.
The final cut was 109 steers. A few older cows were to be sold, those that wouldnt make it through the harsh winter. Heifers that didnt produce were sold as well. A few dirt farmers purchased cattle for meat, while Buck picked a few out for their own stockgoing hungry was not an option.
Ezra kept the books, and he found himself in the stables when time allowed. He had managed to write off more for the ranch than anyone could have predicted, instructing everyone to save their receipts on their trips to town so he could use them as write-offshow he did it, nobody asked, not for the fear of knowing, but Ezra could get long-winded and at times difficult to understand.
Vin entered the clinic and nodded toward Raine who immediately showed him to the back. His knee was wrapped with an ace bandage and it bulged beneath his faded jeans. He pulled his baseball cap off his head and squeezed the bill between his fingers.
Hows the knee? Raine asked, keeping in step with him as he walked toward Nathans office.
Sore, he smiled, but it still bends, cant complain too much.
Raine chuckled and knocked on the door before cracking it open. Nathan leaned back and shoved his files away from the edge of his desk. He smiled at her, and she returned the gesture.
Damn you two are pathetic, Vin said, slipping into one of the chairs. Why dont you just cut through the shit and get hitched?
Raine chuckled and shook her head: Im waitin for a white dude.
Nathan laughed and watched her leave.
Really, Nathan, you should ask her. Shes hot an I like her, an Im a good judge of characterplus, he chuckled, youll have really hot kids.
Nathan nodded and tossed his pencil onto his desk. He looked at Vin and sighed: You find anything?
Vin leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. Her last husband was Mark ORian, he died of kidney failure unexpectedly.
Vin nodded, Guess Ella was goin by the name of Payne when the two got marriedwhich lasted three years. She had him cremated.
Vin shrugged: Guess his family got curious as to his death, but by the time they started askin questions it was too late. The coroner who did the autopsy reported his findings were incomplete Ella pulled some strings to take care of the body.
Who in the hell would she know that could do that?
Vin leaned back and slipped his hat over his knee. She doesnt have any arrest records, hell, shes never had a parkin ticket, but shes got a questionable past. Her last boyfriend was burned pretty bad. He claims he tripped an knocked over a pan while she was deep fryin, but rumors are she threw it at him. He paused and looked around the room. Im goin to talk to Sheriff Naff
Hes not going to tell you anything. Nathan rubbed his chin and then folded his arms across his chest. The man barely said anything to anyonewhich is why he retired.
I dont know, Nathan the more I look into her the more I dont like her.
Nathan nodded and then looked out the window to the right of his desk.
I know Chris talks to you more an the rest of us he aint thinkin on marryin her is he?
I dont know.
The bright yellow house had green trim along the doors and windows. The roof had just been replaced and the porch looked like it was next on the list for accomplishment. Paint chips and shavings were scattered along the wood and the flower beds. A swing hung from chains to the right of the door, and a small circular table rested beside it, an empty bottle of beer collected dust atop.
Vin knocked on the door and waited. He had changed into a clean blue shirt, but his jeans were covered in stains. He stepped back when the door was opened. Is Mr. Naff available?
The woman nodded and brushed her gray hair away from her face. She wore bright red lipstick and a dress that was two sizes too large. The print was old, but comfortable, and she stepped aside and invited him in.
Hes not been well, youll have to excuse the mess. She walked toward the living room and patted the mans shoulder. You got company, Matt. She turned and looked at Vin with her hands on her hips. Dont keep him long, the chemo is wearin him out.
Vin nodded and took a seat. Mr. Naff?
I aint deaf, son, just dyin. He cleared his throat and shoved the handle to the recliner forward, kicking the footrest beneath it. You a Larabee?
Vin frowned and sat erect.
I was the sheriff of Four Corners for a near 43 years, and I new your pa when he was just a pupyou got his look about ya. He folded his wrinkled hands in his lap and rolled his thumbs over and over. Whatre you lookin for?
Ella Gaines. You know much bout her?
Matt cleared his throat: Was wonderin when someone would come ask me about her. He grabbed his cup of coffee and took a sip before replacing it on the end table. Whatd you want to know?
She an Chris
He may think he aint nothin like is father but he is. He shook his head. Ella Gaines is a driven woman an when she sets her sights on somethin youd better look outshes a lot like her mother in that respect.
I was lookin a few of her old friends up. They wont say much about her, even old boyfriends
Matt shook his head, silencing him. It aint just Ella you gotta watch out for, its the entire family. Ellas mother is livin in Montana or Idaho, hell, maybe Wyoming, some shit state, anyway, she lost four husbands, all but one died mysteriously. She claims its her luck, but, I wouldnt bet on it. Thats the thing about small towns, those ghosts are nasty and when they surface, hide. It was rumored that Betty Gaines had one child with her first husband, who died while hikin with Betty. Seems they were tryin to pass a narrow ledge an he fell. Her son Myron died a year later of alcohol poisoninhe was six. Her next husbandEllas fatherwas killed durin a bar fight at the Tango Saloon. He approached the man that was sleepin with her. Bettys third husband died of cancer. And her forth after the birth of her third child, died of kidney failure.
You thinkin on Mark ORien?
Vin nodded and furrowed his brow.
How many coroners test for antifreeze poisnin or ethylene glycol?
Vin shrugged: I have no idea.
Thats the problemshit like that needs to be standard in suspicious deaths damn cheap ass government puttin spendin limits on every damn thing
The third child?
Disappeared when he was six months of agenobody knows what happened.
You think this Betty Gaines killed her husbands?
I dont think anythin, I know it, and I wouldnt put it past her daughter to do the same damn thing. He looked at Vin. I couldnt prove it, but I think Gaines had somethin to do with the fire at Chris place.
What do you mean? Vin leaned forward. Why didnt you ever say anythin?
Matt shook his head: Id rather die of cancer than end up on the bad side of the Gaines family. And he paused folding his fingers together, I dont have proof, never did.
What made you think that she started it?
Never said she started it, Matt said. Betty and Ella Gaines are two of a kind, an Bettys connected in ways the President of the United States would be jealous of. He cleared his throat and took a deep breath before wheezing. Watch your step son, because if you dont youre liable to get hurt. Keep lookin into Ella Gaines, but be careful, an make sure youve got proof enough to put her away for good.
Vin sighed and rubbed his face with his hand: I still dont understand why you think she had anythin to do with it.
Fire Chief Daniels said the fire may have been caused by faulty wirin, but he couldnt conclude it. Right after that fire, Ella Gaines separated from her boyfriend, a man by the name of Cletus Fowler who was under suspicion for the fire in Eagle Bend that killed 12 race horsesthe owner was rewarded a quarter million for insurance when the fire report came back inconclusive but faulty wiring was listed as the probable cause.
Vin frowned and shook his head.
The man that wired that barn and Chris house was Baxter Wilson, hed been doing the same job in the same area for 30 years and was a good friend of the Larabees, and damn near everyone else in the county. It nearly destroyed that man when it was his jobs gettin blamed for these firesfires that killed. Baxter always secured his jobsshit, the man never charged folks anymore than they could afford but he went out of his way to make sure the job was done right. He sighed and shook his head, There aint no way it was faulty wirin.
Could it have been the wire he used? Sometimes from larger corporations
Already checked into it, no other building or house was burned under similar circumstancesexcept for a house in Utah where Fowler was staying after his sister was married. This, all of it, falls on Gaines and Fowler in some way. The problem is linkin the two.
Wheres Fowler now?
Tragically he was killed in a car accident about four months ago. Cops say it was suicide, I think he was murdered.
Vin rubbed the side of his nose and below his eye. Why are you sayin somethin now?
Because you askednobody else has. Matt shrugged and glanced at his wife while she stood in the kitchen entry. Careful who you talk to, and make sure you prove what you find. No lose ends, with Gaines, youd better know the game youre playin cuz if you dont, he leaned forward, shell fuck you.
You should get some rest, Matt. Its been over an hour. The woman stood in the entry to the family room.
Vin nodded, shook Matts hand, and said, Can I call on you again?
Matt chuckled: If I aint dead.
The power was out. October had brought with it high winds and rain had knocked down power lines, leaving those lacking generators without electricity. Six candles burned on the coffee table in the living room, their flames flickering off the walls, glass, and the piano. Chris sat in his fathers chair while Nathan and Josiah had taken the long sofa. JD lay on his back on the floor, his feet resting on the bricks of the fireplace. Vin sat on the loveseat with Buck while Ezra rocked back and forth in the old rocker.
So wheres the strangest place youve ever had sex? Buck asked, looking to each of his brothers.
Answer your own damn question, JD said, turning to look at him.
Okay, I will, he said, rubbing his palms together. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. I was with my second girlfriend Heathercute little blonde with the best curve of a hip Id ever seen. He snickered and shook his head, thinking back. We were lookin at those mobile homes cuz we were thinkin on gettin hitched, and we were alone
You are so full of shit, Vin said, chuckling. I have heard that same shit-ass story since I was a kid.
Well, yeah, Buck cocked his head, where do you think they got it from?
JD chucked and turned back around to face the ceiling. He folded his fingers together and cleared his throat. Okay, he turned and sat Indian style in front of the fireplace. Whats your special talent?
What do you mean? Josiah asked, frowning.
I mean, that thing you can do that nobody else canI can flip my eyelids. Using his thumb and index finger he quickly flipped both lids, exposing the pink undertones of raw skin.
Vin chuckled: Thats gross.
Come on, JD said, whos next? He flipped his lids back, causing his brothers to snicker.
I can blow flames out my ass, Buck said, causing Chris and Nathan to chuckle.
Damn, Buck, dont do it now youre liable to blow the ceiling off the house, Chris chuckled, wiping his eyes. Ive seen him do it.
Wait, Buck said, getting to his feet, I feel one comin on. He grabbed a candle from the table and stood away from anything ignitable.
Nathan pressed his lips together and tried not to laugh, despite the risk.
Buck lifted his leg.
Shouldnt you pull your pants down? Josiah asked. Wont your jeans
Buck shook his head: No, the flame aint as big, but it still works.
Vin leaned back in his seat and covered his mouth as he watched Buck lower the candle toward his ass. He clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut, concentrating on his deed. He looked like a child facing off a fork full of spinach.
Damn, Buck, JD said, fart dont shit.
Ezra snorted when the short but very visible flame exited Bucks ass. That was disturbing.
You should see me after Ive eaten some of Netties chili, shit, I could send NASA to the moon. He replaced the candle on the table and turned toward Nathan. And you?
Nathan frowned and thought a moment: I can shove 14 marshmallows into my mouthand not the mini ones.
JD jumped up and rushed for the kitchen. They could hear him rustling in the dark for the half eaten bag. He returned just as quickly and tossed it to Nathan before retaking his seat on the floor.
Nathan nodded and leaned forward: Here are the rules: No laughing until I swallow the last oneI dont want to choke, and you cannot tell anyone where I work that I can do this.
Howd you figure you could to begin with? Vin said, leaning forward to watch.
College. Nathan took a deep breath and a small sip of his water and immediately started to shove the white puffs into his mouth. He could hear his brothers whisper the numbers one two three four
Ezra frowned, watching Nathans cheeks expand like a saxophone player at the height of his career. He leaned forward to watch, matching his brothers positions.
Nathan squeezed his eyes shut and shoved the last two in, and then he smiled. Two marshmallows popped out and landed on the carpet while his brothers roared with laughter. He chewed, swallowed, and chewed some more, trying to keep from spitting.
Vin rubbed his nose and tried to stifle his laughter, but he couldnt. Looking like a kid in first grade with too much energy. He moved on the sofa, lifting his legs and rocking as his stomach continued to clench and muscles twinged.
What about you, Vin? Nathan said, after drinking the rest of his water.
Vin shook his head: Ill admit, Ive never sat around wonderin what I could do to look like a fool.
No, that aint gonna workcome on, Vin, JD said, resting his elbows on his knees.
Vin rubbed his chin and thought a moment. I can dislocate my thumb.
Buck pressed his lips together and frowned. Eww.
I did when I was practicin shootin a few years back, the piece I was usin kicked more an I thought it would, ended up gettin my thumb caught an I dislocated it. He shrugged. I put it back into place an continued, been able to pull it outta joint ever since. He sat forward, grabbed his thumb and applied a little pressure to his palm. The pop was hollow and quick. He held his thumb up for everyone to see and chuckled at their reactions. Just as quickly as he dislocated his thumb he slipped it back into place. He did a couple of circular motions and leaned back in his seat. Whos next?
Thats it? Chris said. Come on, Vin, Buck blew fire out his ass.
What do you got? Vin said with a chuckle. He crossed his ankle over his knee and waited.
Yeah, Chris, whats your talent? Josiah asked, grabbing his bottle of water. He took a sip and waited.
The lights flickered and quickly went out again, leaving Chris to rub his face and contemplate his next move. He grinned, but tried to hide his humor by pressing his lips together which only amplified his hesitancy.
Out with it, Chris, Buck said, snickering. Women love it when you talk dirty to em.
Chris chuckled and cleared his throat. Im only goin to do this once.
Buck leaned forward and slapped his hands together with anticipation. Nathan followed suit, having heard it before.
Be very very quiet, Im hunting wabbits, ha ha ha.
Ezra snorted along with Vin, covering their mouths in surprise at Chris impersonation of Elmer Fudd. JD howled and fell back, fighting his stomach muscles as they burned from laughter.
Josiah laughed, and quickly wiped his chin free of the water hed just drank. He wiped his jeans and placed his bottle on the coffee table.
Sarah used to laugh so hard when she heard him do that, Buck said, wiping his eyes, feeling the burning of his cheeks.
Chris laughed and then rubbed his thighs with his hands. She used to call me when I was at school and shed ask me to say it he paused, losing his smile. He ran his hand over his face and took a deep breath. Alright, Ezra your turn.
Ezra scratched above his right ear and shook his head. I will not debase myself
Suck it up, Ezra, and do it, JD said, adjusting his position on the floor.
Shifting uncomfortably in his seat, Ezra thought a moment. His talents lay with cards, spinning numbers, and thievery. He removed a quarter from his pocket and rolled it over the knuckles of his left hand. He waited, continued the process, and opened his hand, he closed it quickly and opened it, causing the quarter to disappear. But he rolled the quarter over the knuckles of right hand, never missing a beat.
JD frowned: Howd you do that?
Vin chuckled and shook his head. You had two quarters?
Ezra smiled, but didnt say anything.
Do it again, Buck said, leaning forward.
Ezra carefully repeated the action at a slower pace, and still his brothers shook their heads.
Again, Nathan said, looking for the loophole. Slower this time.
Chris chuckled and shook his head: You cant ask a magician to give up his tells. Youre next, Josiah.
I can repeat any verse from the Book of Mathew, Josiah shrugged, bodily functions are not my forte.
You memorized the entire book of Mathew? Chris asked, raising his eyebrows.
Josiah nodded: I had started the book of Mark, but, he sighed, I found myself preoccupied with other things.
JD smiled: How about chapter 5 verse 43.
Everybody knows that one, JD, even me, Vin said, Thou shalt love they neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
Theres more to it than that, JD said.
Yeah, but its the jest of it.
Chapter 18, verses 21 to 22, Ezra said, locking eyes with Josiah.
Josiah frowned and scrutinized the challenge, he could see pain in those green eyes as flames danced across Ezras irises. Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?...Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
Ezra looked away and rolled the coin across his knuckles. The lights flickered and the air conditioner kicked back on. It was only for a moment before the lights flickered off. Everyone sighed.
So, JD said, whats the craziest thing youve ever done?
Ezra rolled his eyes and stood: Gentlemen, Im going to bed.
Hell, Ezra, its only ten til ten, Vin said, looking at his watch.
Ezra moved past them and walked toward his room.
Goodnight, Jimbob, Buck said.
Ezra could hear the snickers and laughter as he entered his room. In the dark, he made his way to his bed where he lay back. The moons rays slipped through the windows, cascading light onto the floor and across the bed. Halloween was just a few weeks away and the questions had not started yet: What bank purchased the property? Why havent we been notified? What are they waiting for?
The money Ezra had won was sitting in a bank account, collecting interest. Not a bad thing, until they found out why. He hadnt just stolen that moneyhed stolen it incredibly well. Nobody would ever be able to link it to him, unless Perkins okayed it, unless Perkins wanted it that way. Thats what it came down to, one little mistake when he was too young to realize what he was doing would forever hang over his head, give others the leverage they needed to make him do what they wanted. It was the perfect setup for them, not him.
Ezra lay on his side, watching the rain and branches from the tree outside hit his window. If Chris found out what he had done, that would be the end of it, and Ezra knew it. He would be out on his ass again, struggling to survive. He would lose the million dollars his father had set aside for himif he was indeed his fatherand he would lose the only family he had ever gotten to know that hadnt turned on him
At least this time when they turned, they would have a reason.
Buck latched the trailer gate closed and stepped back. The steers bellowed and shifted uncomfortably within the confines of the long semi. The driver, an older man with graying hair grabbed the papers and looked them over, verifying the brand inspectors notes as well as vaccination records.
The yards goin to send you the check? Wayne asked, pulling at the waistband of his jeans. He pushed the bill of his baseball hat up and scratched his forehead with thick fingers.
Buck shook his head: JD and I are headed down, well follow you with our own rig, got a few older cows that need to go as well. He dusted the front of his jeans off and watched JD check the hitch and tires of their own truck and trailer.
You goin to write me a check when we get there? Wayne wiped the sweat off his brow.
Youll get paid, Buck said, how long have you been drivin for us?
Dont mean shit, Buck, sorry, but I got a family to feed too.
Buck slapped his shoulder. Ill have a check ready for you as soon as you drop em off.
The sales in Wyomin went pretty good, guess the high lot for steers was almost 13 grand, good lookin steers tooan yours are just as good if not better.
Pastures were green this year, Buck said with a smile, the heavy rain paid off.
JD tossed his duffle bag and his bag of munchies into the truck before joining Buck and Wayne at the back of the semi-trailer.
Hopefully the sale wont last three days like it did last year, Wayne said, slipping the papers into a small leather satchel. He nodded toward Buck and JD. See you on the road, theyll probably send me to the same gate they did last year so Ill meet you inside after we unload.
Buck nodded. Sounds good. He looked at JD. Ready?
Yeah, JD said, moving toward the truck.
They could hear the cattle moving within the trailer, the sides echoing as hooves stomped, tails slapped, and heads butted. Buck shook his head while slipping into the drivers seat. Only a city slick would find the fall sales a source of entertainment. Cow shit, grease, fast food, and body odor would sink deep into his nasal passages and it would be spring before he knew the fine smell of a woman againnot that he wouldnt use the excuse to have some fun.
Toss me a soda, JD, Buck said, its a long trip to Reno with a truck load of unhappy cows.
JD handed him a Coke and put his feet up onto the dash. How many cows will there be?
It was Saturday morning, and Chris stretched, taking comfort wrapped in the blankets on his bed. He could smell fresh coffee and he sighed slowly throwing his legs over the edge of his mattress. Buck and JD would be heading home tomorrow. It was a relief, knowing cattle prices were up and they could afford the seed for planting come April. This would be the first year in many when they wouldnt take out a loanthis time they could do it on their own without the help or the added pressure of failing. He slipped into his jeans and threw on an old work shirt. He walked barefoot toward the stairs, catching a glimpse of Goober on Bucks bed, fast asleep.
Vin sat at the table, flipping through the funny pages while he waited for his muffin to thaw in the microwave. He wore a pair of old jeans and a tee shirt that had seen the underside of a tractor one too many times. His big toe peeked out of his left sock and his hair was tangled.
Coffees ready, Vin said, scrapping the legs of his chair against the floor as he stood.
Wheres everybody? Chris reached for a cup.
Nathan went with Raine to town to do some shoppinsomethin about towels, Im not sure though, I faded out when he said shoppin. Josiah went to give a prep talk to the football team, guess theyre playin a really good team tonight. He said he might just go with em, if he does he said he wont be home until late so were on our own for dinner. He poured himself more coffee.
Chris nodded: Yeah, theyre playin in Riverside tonightshit, thats a three hour drive.
Vin shrugged, tested the coffees temperature and then added two more sugar cubes. Id like to see em play, but, think Ill enjoy the quietness of home.
What about Ezra?
Chris took a seat and poured some creamer into his coffee and then stirred. Thought I might take the mule up around the back 40 and see how the terrain is. Feel like goin?
Vin shrugged and then smiled: I ah, his grin increased, I got my Cougar back from the shop, figured I might take it up and see how shes workin.
Compressed bow, like to use it to keep my aim true rifle just aint as challengin as it used to be so I started with the long bow a couple years back but when I tried the compressedshit, thats a party right there. Damn thing goes 320 feet per second, an the draw weights range from 50 to 70 pounds. Im tellin ya, Chris, its heaven shootin that sucker.
Chris chuckled and nodded: Theres a place we can go. Its safe, secluded, and nobody ill get hurt. Its the spot where Dad taught us to shoot.
You got a bow? Vin smiled.
No, but I do have a couple rifles that might even make you take a second look.
I dont know, Chris, Im pretty set in my ways.
Youre a rifle snob.
Vin chuckled, Yeah. He took another drink of his coffee. Maybe we should ask Ezra, see if he wants to go.
Chris looked at his watch. He still had to feed the animals. Well give him til ten.
Ezra threw his blankets back and sighed. He hated mornings, he hated everything about mornings, the damn time, sunlight, the smell, even breakfast. Magpies squawked like chickens out his bedroom window and he hated them as well. He sat up, tossed his legs over the side of his bed and then ran his fingers through his hair, over his face, pausing at his eyes to rub slightly harder, and then he stood.
He sighed when he saw the clock blinking at him like damn Christmas lights, flashing its pathetic red coloring and reading 8 a.m. He slipped into a comfortable pair of jeans and a light blue shirt he could button. He grabbed his boots, a pair of steel toed packers that laced past his ankles, protecting his feet from iron clad hooves and loose nails.
Slowly, he stood and exited his room, heading for the kitchen.
A small arsenal rested on the table within the confines of a leather satchel. Vin adjusted the tightness of his bow while Chris gathered bullets from the utility drawer.
Going hunting? Ezra asked, grabbing a cup from the cupboard and then he poured himself some coffee.
Vin asked, Wanna go?
Theres a small bit of property where Dad taught us kids how to shoot. Were goin to head out there an practice a few rounds. Up to it? Chris slipped the bullets into a carrier and moved back to the table where he closed the case.
Id rather live out my days with two eyes, not one.
Its completely safe, I take my deputies out there all the time to practice. Youll be shootin targets into a wall of dirtnot cows. No people, no hunters, nobody but us.
Ill admit, hand to hand combat is preferable to he pointed toward the weapons, to that.
Hand to hand, really? Vin turned, his bow tightly grasped. Think you can show me a few moves one of these days?
Ezra smiled: Perhaps after the leg heals.
Hell, Ezra, havent needed the brace for near a week now, an Nathan says Ill be good as new in no time. He stood and carefully placed his bow into its carrier. You sure you dont want to come?
Chris grabbed his weapons case and slipped it over his shoulder. Its just you today, Vin an me ill be back after lunch sometime, sooner if we get hungry enough. He smiled and turned toward the door. Ready?
Vin nodded and watched Ezra stir his coffee. He paused, waiting until Chris was outside before asking, You all right?
Ezra looked up and nodded: Fine, why do you ask?
For a man who saved this farm, you act like someone whod just lost it.
Ezra shook his head: Its nothing, go out and shoot somethingpreferably not Chris.
If you need anythin, he turned toward the door, follow the shots.
Ezra sighed: Shit.
Ezra opened the gate, unsnapped the halter and his horse entered the stall, only to trot into the run and proceed to roll. He hung the lead from the hook near the latch and then rested his elbows on the gate. He chuckled watching his mare twist on the muddied ground.
Wasnt sure youd still be here. The voice was deep and all too familiar.
Ezra felt his heart slam against his chest. He turned slowly, seeing the familiar brown eyes of Perkins right hand man, Colby, surrounded by three large individuals. Two of the men had their knuckles wrapped: Professionals who knew how to protect themselves, who knew how to inflict pain.
Colby smiled, stepped forward, and rubbed his hand along the neck of Bucks gray. Nice placeI can see why you wanted to keep it. He made a motion with his right hand for the three men standing behind him to spread out.
What do you want?
Im here to offer you a job, Ezra. You showed some extreme talent in Seattle, and I think youll be a rather welcomed addition to my staff. He smiled, stretching leathery cheeks that rolled in vertical lines to his chin. He pulled the sleeves of his shirt down toward his wrist and then slipped his hands into his pant pockets. Men like Perkins are fairly common, and Ive taken it upon myself to start my own line of work extortion can be a very lucrative business.
That money was for you? Ezra said, swallowing the lump in his throat. Howd you do itCon Perkins into it?
Colby nodded: Men will do just about anything to protect whats theirs. And when familys involved the ransom goes up. Its businessthats all. He rubbed his nose. What about it? The position pays well and, he smiled, therere a few fringe benefits.
Im retired, Ezra said, stepping back, keeping his eyes on the men. He flinched in anticipation the fight to come.
Men like you dont retire. He took a step closer, quickly followed by his men. Id like to introduce you to my friends, Harry, Leo, and Hammer. Hammer knows his shit, and I hired him for one purpose. He looked around the barn. You see, he was arrested for beating a man to death with a sledge hammer. Problem was the DA couldnt find his ass with both hands and Hammer here got off So, I hired him.
Hammer stepped forward, pushing the sleeves of his shirt up, exposing his forearms that could easily match Josiahs biceps. Spider tattoos and scars lined his flesh, expanding and shrinking with every flex of muscle. He grinned, wrinkling his leather-like cheeks, and then he grabbed a pitchfork. Ezra took a step back and watched as Hammer broke the wooden handle as though it were nothing more than a splinter of wood; he chuckled and tossed the remains to the floor, dusting his wrapped hands.
Ezra kept an eye on their movements, and he clenched his hands into fists. He knew how to fight; he had two black belts to prove it. But on a good day he was five feet ten inches tall, and on an even better day he was 180 pounds soaking wet, but these men werent just bigthey were fighters, he could tell by looking in their postures, movements, and their eyes.
$3.5 million in three days, shit, thats pretty damn impressive for a man like youno direct lines to the banks, just the knowledge and know-how to break them. He slapped JDs horse, causing her to slam the side of her face against the stall gate. She snorted and backed away. See, Ezra, I need some money, he shrugged, and I need you to get it for me. My business requires a lot out of me. My boys, he motioned to those around him, can only do so much and kidnapping just doesnt have its benefits anymoreunless of course you can afford to mingle with those who have money and thats what I need cash up front. I drained Perkins, sent the man crying back to his home in Denver, but that $3.5 million just wasnt enough and I need the funds to live in the manner Ive become accustomed and my boys, God love them, have special needs. He smiled. If you dont help me, he shrugged, Ill have no choice but to stand here and watch them destroy the only dignity youve got left. I know about you and Perkins, hes a very talkative fellow when hes inebriated, and as his former right-hand man I heard a lot. He smiled and winked at him.
Ezra eyed the square-tipped shovel next to his horses stall. I wont do it.
Harry, Colby said, motioning with his hand for him to step up.
Ezra struck him in the solar plexus with the heel of his left hand. He grabbed the shovel and swung, catching the man called Hammer on the side of face, sending him to the dirt floor. Harry quickly recovered and connected with Ezras left knee. He and Leo tackled him while Hammer covered his face with his hands, trying to stem the flow of blood from the long gash that ran from his ear to his mouth. Ezra kicked, striking one of them in the groin and he was rewarded with a fist to his gut. He pushed back, slamming the man behind him into the fence causing him to lose his footing. Ezra swung, connecting with Harrys jaw. The punch was enough to send him to the ground scattering dust and hay. Leo grabbed Ezras left wrist and forced his arm behind his back. Ezra turned and using the weight of his body connected with Leos collarbone. He could hear Colby chuckling. Someone tackled him from behind and he was thrown over a bale of hay, the right side of his face scratching against the stems and sticks. He tried pushing himself up, but he was grabbed by his right wrist and he groaned when he felt both arms forced behind his back, shoved upward between his shoulder blades.
Harry spit, sending blood and saliva to the floor. Blood dripped freely from his nose and mouth and his right eye was swelling shut. Leo didnt look much better. He grabbed a fistful of Ezras hair, forced his head back, and pushed him onto his knees.
I thought this would be easier, Colby said, placing his hands on his waist, pushing his jacket over his hips, exposing a weapon shoved between his skin and pants. When I left Perkins I was under the impression you were more of a man but I guess, under the circumstances the incestuous relationship you had with the man fucked you up pretty good. He smiled. You letting any of your brothers fuck you too?
Fuck you, Ezra said, gasping when his head was yanked back.
Colby stepped forward, clenched his jaw, and looked Ezra in the eye. Get him standing.
Ezra felt shoulder tendons stretch and he heard a subtle pop of joints under too much strain. He heaved when Colby applied a quick jab to his ribs, another, and then another.
$3.5 million, Ezra is this worth it?
Ezra squeezed his eyes shut as he fought to breathe. When he didnt answer, his felt his knees buckle as Colby sent his fist into his jaw. Blood flowed freely from the left corner of his mouth and he tried to spit, succeeding only in sending saliva down his chin and onto his shirt.
Colby moved back and removed his weapon from the waistband of his pants. Put him on his knees.
They pulled his arms tighter and yanked his head further back, exposing straining muscles and tendons. Ezra clenched his jaw and fought the urge to scream when his left shoulder popped, becoming suddenly loose. It sent pain through his chest, neck, and head. He felt dizzy and suddenly lightheaded. Black spots danced before him and he swallowed the bile that rose from his belly.
Fuck, I think his shoulder blew, Leo said, keeping his grip tight. He stood back, wiped his mouth on his shoulder, and pressed his lips into a thin line.
Colby ignored him. He turned and faced Ezra, looking at his weapon. He stroked the barrel, admiring its shape and purpose, before raising it. You ever been shot, Standish?
Ezra swallowed and fought for air. He could feel his throat closing and tightening as panic plagued him.
Neither have I. I hear it hurts like a fucker though.
Every muscle clenched, every nerve burned, and Ezra watched Colby shift from foot to foot, carefully balancing the weight of the gun.
Its easy, Standish, just say yes. Shit, youve already fucked yourself into a hole, might as well enjoy it.
Ezra felt sweat running down the sides of his face, neck, and back. He tried to control his breathing, but he couldnt. I said no.
Colby sighed when he didnt get the answer he was looking for. He raised the weapon and fired.
Vin stopped and looked from one end of the field to the other. Did you hear that? He lowered his bow and tilted his head toward the ranch.
Its huntin season
That wasnt a rifle. Vin frowned and turned in the direction of the shot.
Grab your shit. Chris felt his heart race and he tossed his equipment into the back of the mule before starting it up.
The bullet connected with JDs little chestnut mare. She slammed her face against the stall wall and stumbled backward losing the use of her hindquarters. She fell to her left, kicked her legs, and heaved. Her head twisted to the right, trapped within the corner.
Ezra squeezed his eyes shut and felt a hand on his face. When he opened them, Colby stood above him, gently stroking his cheek. He tried to jerk back, but he felt their grips increase on his wrists and tighten within his hair. His heart raced and his lungs burned, bloody saliva continued past his lips and down his chin.
You are pretty, Standish. Colby squatted, running his hand down Ezras neck, feeling the muscles, tendons, and the feverish speed of his pulse. With his gun still in hand he yanked Ezras light blue shirt open, sending buttons into stalls, loose hay, and across the dusty floor. Colby smiled and looked him in the eye before returning his gaze to his chest.
You are a fine figure of a man. He lightly ran his fingers down Ezras ribs, across six-pack abs, enjoying the feel and sight of flinching muscles coated with sweat. He took his time, enjoying the power, the dominance, the fear he could inflict. He looked down smiling when he caught a glimpse of the skin above Ezras heart moving in and out at an incredible speed. He placed his palm over his heart.
You scared? he smiled, looking up. You should be. He gripped him by his neck and gently squeezed. The things I could show you, he said, pressing his cheek onto Ezras, blowing into his ear. Or maybe Ill just chain you up and take you with mekeep you in the basement for those lonely nights. He watched Ezras chin quiver and he smiled. There are over six million slaves in the world, Standish, and 99.9% of them are womenthe rest are men I bet I could get a pretty penny for you.
Chris cut the engine to the mule and jumped off. He saw his gelding pacing in and out of his stall, nervously swatting his tail and tossing his head. Chris could hear voices echoing from the barn. The high ceilings and aluminum walls created a perfect drum, reflecting the noises from those within the confines. He leaned against the outside wall while Vin prepared his bow.
Chris took a deep breath. His hands shook, and the realization that he may have to shoot someone hit him hard. He looked at Vin and nodded.
You want us to tie him up, boss, toss him in the truck? Hammer asked, still holding his face.
Still squatting, Colby shook his head and continued to run his hands between Ezras shirt and his chest, back, and abdomen. I like the idea of seeing what the market is for a young white man. You still a virgin, Ezra, or did your step daddy pop that cherry when he got bored with you sucking dick? He reached up and wiped the tears that escaped Ezras right eye. Colby sucked the salty liquid from his thumb.
Ezra struggled but succumbed quickly when the pain to his shoulder became unbearable.
Colby grabbed his chin and squeezed, forcing him to look into his eyes. He smiled, curling the right side of his lip. You bite me, youre brothers are going to find you in position the Marquis de Sadewould be envious of. He ran his thumb over Ezras lips, pressing until the thickness of his thumb met teeth. Open up.
Ezra clenched his jaw and pressed his lips together, fighting the evasion, the dominance, and the humiliation. He squeezed his eyes shut and received two quick slaps across his left cheek.
Guess Ill have to loosen you up, Colby said, unbuckling his belt. He slowly pulled it from the loops of his pants and then folded the narrow leather. He swung once, connecting with Ezras jaw and cheek, blood splattered the gate and Ezra gasped. Bloody saliva dripped freely from split lips. Colby smiled and swung again, enjoying the sound of leather hitting sensitive skin. When he had enough he tossed his belt aside, happy with the results. Now, do it like you did for your step-daddy. He unzipped his pants and started fumbling with fabric.
I am well within my rights to shoot you dead. Chris pumped the rifle and held it to his shoulder. And theres not a jury in the entire state of Nevada that would convict me.
Ezra groaned when the men restraining him tightened their hold.
Colby turned, zipping his pants. He raised his arms. And what do you intend to do? He chuckled. You cant arrest me, unless you want to see your baby brother spend three to six in prison, and Im guessing hell make someone a good bitch after they break him inand they will break him in.
Chris clenched his jaw.
Yeah, Colby said, thieves have a way of spending time behind bars, particularly thieves who walk away with $3.5 million. What, he never told you? Or you never asked how this farm was paid for? He smiled. It sure as hell wasnt some shit ass poker game.
Let im go, Chris adjusted the position of his rifle toward Colbys groin, I dont like to repeat myself.
Colby swallowed and turned toward his men: Do it.
Leo and Harry let go and Ezra fell forward, landing with his right arm in front of him. He half dragged, half crawled to wall and cowered against a bail of hay, leaving his left arm to hang uselessly at his side.
Drop your wallets, Chris said, motioning for Vin to join him.
Vin stepped beside him with his bow ready.
I dont think
Show em how its done, Vin.
Vin let loose the string and the arrow struck Harry in the hand. He screamed, clutching his wrist.
Drop you wallets and get off this land
Chris smiled: This is a workin ranch, I can hide your body in ways youve never imagined.
Colby clenched his jaw: This aint over.
Yes it is, Chris said, motioning toward the black car. Now get, before I lose my patience.
Colby tossed his wallet and his men did the same, and then they slowly left the confines of the barn. The black Cadillac roared to life and slowly pulled from the driveway.
Vin, Chris said, lowering his rifle, go call Nathan an tell him we need him right awaydont tell im why.
Vin nodded, turned, and jogged for the house.
Chris took a deep breath and entered the barn. He clenched his jaw, pressing his lips into a thin line he squatted in front of his brother. Ezra pulled his shirt closed and sat with his back to the wall, knees raised, with his hand covering his eyes. It wasnt his position that caught Chris off guard, it was the shaking. Ezra? He put the rifle on the ground and pushed it out of the way. He clasped Ezras forearm and was rewarded with a quick punch to the mouth.
Chris fell backward, but caught himself before he met dirt.
Ezra stood on shaky legs, using the wall to keep himself upright.
Ezra? he wiped the blood from his lip with his hand and wiped it on his pant leg.
Dont God just leave me alone. He tried wiping the blood and saliva from his mouth and chin, and then frantically wiped his hand on his pant leg.
Chris shook his head when Vin entered the barn. He stopped at the entrance and waited.
Ezra took a deep breath and avoided eye contact. He gripped the doorknob to the tack room. I never fucking did anything I didnt want to!
I know that aint true, Chris said, stepping forward, survivin aint nothin to be ashamed of, Ezra.
It sounded funny coming from Chris, for no other reason than the lack of logic. What was survival, and what did it entail? Who had the right to sentence anyone to it, a punishment without an end? The memories never faded, they just hung back waiting to raise their ugly headwaiting for someone to throw it back at him. Ezra caught his breath in his throat and he choked on a miserable sob. He gripped the front of his shirt, trying to keep it closed, having let go of the doorknob he slowly started to sink toward the floor.
Chris stepped forward and grabbed him.
Ezra struggled within the embrace.
Im not lettin you go, Chris said, increasing his hold. He held tight, like he would a newborn foal finding its legs. And like a newborn foal, Ezra shook, and his sobs continued. Still covering his eyes with his hand he let himself fall forward, resting his forehead on Chris shoulder. Im not lettin you go. His embrace tightened with one arm around Ezras back and the other carefully pressing his head to his shoulder.
It had been a secret until now, shared only with the perpetrator and his friends like some kind of an accomplishment for everyone to achieve. Ezra pulled his knees to his chest and let himself go. Rather than fearing the embrace he welcomed it. There were no ties or attachments or commitments afterwards. He had tried to be strong, warning off the fears, proving to himself that he could protect himself.
But he had failed.
After all these years he was still vulnerable, tied to a past he couldnt outrun. He had tried to protect himself, excelling in Jujutsu and Tae Kwon Do, but black belts didnt mean shit in the real worldnot when it was four against one.
Vin stepped forward and squatted next to Chris. Nates on his way, but itll take him over an hour to get here. He rubbed his chin and lowered his hands to knees.
Chris held tight, protectingtoo latewhat his father should have protected when he had the opportunity. Lincoln should have done the right thing; he should have demanded a right to his children; he should have fought for them, harder than he did, to protect them, give them the skills to survivenot just live. He thought about Adam if someone had touched his son He took a deep breath and felt Ezra push himself away and he watched him wipe his face. Chris clenched his jaw, feeling the rage build, the animalistic hunger to kill.
Chris didnt need to know the details. Nobody did. The crime wasnt in the details; it had been the act of aggression, forcing someone to do something they didnt want to do. He looked at Vin and clenched his jaw. Slowly, Chris got to his feet and with one arm holding Ezra at his waist he said, Lean on me, were goin to get you to your feet.
Im okay, Ezra said.
No, Chris said, increasing his grip, I dont want you to fall. Lean on us, well get you to the house.
Ezra gasped and moaned falling forward onto Chris as ribs and his shoulder protested. He could feel every punch, kick, slap, and prod. His knees buckled momentarily when he finally stood, but just as he promised, Chris stood beside him, keeping him upright.
Chris wrapped the bag of frozen peas in the washrag and then walked back to the living room. He squatted next to Ezra and carefully applied it to his cheek. Ezra winced, but kept his eyes focused on the armrest of the chair.
Are you all right? Chris said, resting his elbows on his knees.
Ezra nodded and clenched his jaw. He kept a tight grip on the front of his shirt. He jumped when Chris grabbed his bicep.
Nathan will take a look at your shoulderIm pretty sure its dislocated.
Im not going to the hospital.
Nobodys goin to make you. Chris sighed and glanced toward Vin who stood at the living room entrance. Ill make you some coffee and see if weve got anythin that might help with the pain.
Ezra nodded and remained seated, avoiding eye contact.
Chris stood and walked toward the kitchen. Vin followed.
Give im some time to get his bearings back, Vin said, watching Chris refill the coffee maker.
You heard what I did, Chris said.
Yeah, an its goin to take im some time.
Chris sighed: Ill tell the others he had an accident, came off his horse or somethinno sense on everyone knowin.
Vin nodded: That shot we heard he sighed, JDs horse is dead, saw her in the stall after I entered the barn. He looked out the window as Nettie parked her truck in the driveway. She carried a gallon of milk and walked toward the house.
Chris followed his gaze. Shit, Vin, I dont
Netties cool. He walked to the door and opened it for her and she slipped past him.
Thought you boys could use some milk. She set the jug on the counter and wiped the sweat from her brow. Skim the top, I know Josiah likes the cream that surfaces. She looked at Chris and then at Vin. Whats goin on?
Vin cleared his throat: JDs horse, the little quarter horse got caught up in the corral fencinChris an me were out shootin an didnt hear anythin but Ezra took a spill tryin to help her.
He all right?
Nathans on his way, Chris said, pushing the coffee maker away from the counters edge.
That boy has the worst luck, she shook her head, Where is he?
Livin room, Vin said, catching Chris disapproval.
Nettie, hes not
She shook her head and clasped Chris arm: You worry too damn much. She walked past him and entered the living room and spotted Ezra in the big chair. Shed seen falls and spills from both riders and horsesand this hadnt been an accident. He wasnt covered in dirt; his clothes didnt have road burn marks embedded within the material. This wasnt what she expected. She grabbed a chair and pulled it next to him and gently removed the temporary icepack.
Ezra let the pack go and tried to sit up straighter.
Dont move, she said. She frowned, gently lifting his chin and noticing half-a-dozen red lines less than half an inch thick on his jaw and below his cheekbone. She stood and walked to the bathroom where she rinsed a clean cloth. She sent Chris a death glare and walked back into the living room where she retook her seat. Using her finger she lifted Ezras chin and carefully wiped the blood away from his mouth and below his nose. She pushed his hands away when he tried to help. She could see bruising on his chest peeking through the unclosed portions of his shirt and she moved to open his shirt and get a better look, but he pushed her hand away. Ill make up some soup at home; figure itll be easier on your stomach. She squeezed his arm, stood, and walked through the kitchen and out the door.
Nettie? Chris said, following her out to her truck.
Damn it, Chris Larabee, I know what kind of marks a belt leaves on skinso dont stand there and lie to me about your brother gettin tossed off a horse. She opened the truck door and slipped into the driverseat.
Nettie, as far as anyones concerned, it was an accident. He grabbed the window well and waited.
She gripped the steering wheel and sighed: Are you boys all rightnot just Ezrabut everybody?
Chris nodded: Well be fine its just theres a lot goin on, Nettie A lot of shit Dad should have taken care of but didnt.
Your father was a fuckup, Chris. She met his eyes. The people in this town will talk, an theyll be sayin things meant to hurt you and your brothersespecially Ezra. Hell, she sighed, to everyone out there your daddy was a saint, they start hearin how he failed as a father theyll blame Vin, JD, Josiah, and Ezra mostly Ezra because hes so differentbecause hes not the farm handthe good ol boy. She started the engine and looked out the window. Get this cleaned up an fast, before somethin happens that you cant fix.
Chris nodded and backed away.
And, Chris, Nettie said, applying the clutch, combines are marvelous machineswhoever did that to your brother may need to know that my ol cows can stand a little extra protein in their dietwont hurt em a bit.
She nodded and backed out of the driveway. Chris watched her go; he turned and walked to the house, shaking his head.
Hey, Nathan said, kneeling beside the chair. He pressed his palm to Ezras forehead and smiled when he responded with a sigh. I need to take a look at your ribs, Ezra, I got a sneaking suspicion youre pretty banged upI may need to tape them, and it might help with the discomfort.
Ezra raised his eyebrows.
Hurt like a son-of-a-bitch? Chris asked, standing with his arms crossed in front of the TV.
My ribs are fine
I wouldnt mind taking you back to town, maybe take an x-ray of that shoulder to make sure you dont have a fracture.
Its not broken, Ezra said, shifting uncomfortably.
Nathan shook his head and reached into the bright orange bag filled with medical supplies. He grabbed a pair of scissors and started to cut away and remove Ezras shirt. The dislocation was obvious and Vin winced. Nathan squeezed Ezras hand, testing for strength and ability. He found neither. He then reached into his bag again, this time removing a syringe and an ampoule of clear fluid.
A muscle relaxant and a pain reliever. Youll need it when I reduce this shoulder. He wiped an alcohol swab on his arm. Youll feel a prick and then a slight burn.
Im not 12. Ezra clenched his jaw when Nathan poked his skin and injected the fluid.
If you were twelve, I would have given you a sucker.
Vin chuckled and looked away.
Bucks got a shoulder splint from when he separated it playing ball in the storage room downstairs, Nathan said, giving the pain reliever time to work. Would you mind going and getting it, Vin? Ezras going to need it for a few weeks. He squeezed Ezras hand again and then looked at Chris when Vin walked through the kitchen. Ill need your help. He took a deep breath and guided Chris into position.
The reduction was quick, and extraordinarily painful, even with the medications, Ezra had to lay back and concentrate on breathing. He could feel Nathan prodding his ribs and then he felt the tape being applied and then the brace to stabilize his shoulder. He wasnt ready when they moved him to his bedroom, and he gasped through clenched teeth the entire walk. A cold compress was placed on his forehead, and then someone applied a salve to his cheek. Ezra was out before they turned the light off.
Nathan poured himself a cup of coffee and stood at the kitchen sink looking out the window toward the barns. You need to explain to me what happened. He turned and looked at Chris who was putting his boots on.
Chris nodded: Vin an me are goin to move JDs horse. Ill tell you what I know when were done.
It aint good, Nathan. He walked to the door, sighed, and then pushed it open. It slammed against the side of the house before bouncing on its hinges after he left.
Vin drove the tractor to the back of the horse-run while Chris grabbed a length of chain from the shop.
Flies had gathered around her eyes, nose, and mouth. Blood splattered the wall and had spilled where she had fallen. Chris stood at the entry to the run, tossed the chain to the ground, and placed his hands on his hips.
Vin stepped up behind him. JDs goin to be upset.
Chris nodded. Nows as good a time as any to get used to it. He looked up and met his eyes. Part of ranchinshes not the first horse weve had to pull out of here, an she sure as hell wont be the last.
Under these circumstances? Vin watched as Chris hooked the chains around the mares back pasterns.
Chris grabbed his thighs as he stood and rubbed his nose with the sleeve of his shirt. At this point in timeunder any circumstances. He pointed toward the tractor. Pull out slow, Ill push her as best I can past the doorway. I dont want her gettin hooked on anythin.
Damn it, Vin, get your ass in the tractor and lets get this done!
Im not goin to do somethin just because you demand it, Chris, so fuck you. Im here, Im ready to help, but dont fuckin make this into somethin it aint.
What is it? Chris swatted at a fly.
Beats the shit out of me, Im not the one whos hot an cold like a damn hotplate. And whether you believe it or not, Ezras not in the position hes in because he wants to besome of ussome of us didnt have the options or chances everyone else didsome of us had to make do with what we had!
Were you abused? Chris locked eyes with Vin.
What the fuck does that have to do with anythin?
Help me understand why I shouldnt be pissed right now. I mean hell, Vin, Josiah got his ass beat by his step-father, and Ezra what about you? Explain to me why I shouldnt want to kill somethin because Im sure as hell havin a difficult time understandin a lot of shit! Chris rubbed his brow and waited for the answers.
Whatd you want to know? You want me to tell you that life was great growin up in foster homes? Shit, I had nine foster families and none of em could stand me. When I was 13 I stole a car an crashed it, spent 16 months in juvie for it, an you know what they told me when I got there? They told me to watch my back because one of the guards liked to corner kids in the bathrooms. An yeah, I was one of em found out the hard way. What to know what he did? Vin stepped forward and looked Chris in the eye. Before Chris could say anything he continued: He pushed me over a sink, tore my pants down, an fucked methats what he did. This is the real life, Chris, not some shit-ass farm where the kids went to the fuckin state championship, got drunk, got laid, and then got slapped on the back for it. What Ezra an me know is that everyone else wants to hide from. Were it! Were the ones that get pulled out of dumpsterswere the ones that nobody misses.
I never wanted brothers, Chris! Never did! An I spent the better part of 10 years hatin everyonemy mother, the man who sired me, an the sons-of-bitches who fucked every aspect of my life. Ezra an me, what happened to usit dont define us he shrugged, it aint what happenedits bein forced to do somethin you dont wanta do, an if you cant understand that well, fuck you! He turned and headed toward the tractor.
Its not that I dont understand
Vin stopped, spun around, and stepped toward him. Thats where youre wrong! You dont understand, you cant; youve never had choices taken away. The closest youve come is havin your wife an sonan even that aint the same cuz nobody blames younobody turns what happened to you against you. They dont whisper behind your back that you got what you deserved, or you should have fought harder if you werent askin for it You dont know it, Chris, an luckily you never willbut Im gonna tell you right nowWhatever Ezra did to save his own ass, he did because he had to, an Ill be damned if Im gonna sit around while you an the real Larabee sons decide what happens to him
We all have a say
There is no say! We get him out of itwhatever the costbecause thats what brothers do. I wont watch him get fucked, an I wont stand by an watch you all decide his fate. Thats his choicenot yours.
If you have to think about, youve thought too long. Vin turned and walked to the tractor. He slipped into the seat and shifted it into gear.
Chris moved back, and watched as the little mare was drug from the stable, upturning dirt, manure, and feed. Grabbing her mane, he pulled her head back, keeping it from slamming the side of the barn. He looked at the bloody stains and thought about washing the wood, erasing a part of what had happened, but he swallowed and decided to let time handle it.
The room was quiet. It was dark, and well past midnight. The windows were open, allowing a cool breeze to brush the blinds and tickle skin. Chris sat at the kitchen table, slowly turning his half-empty cup of coffee.
What do you want to do?
Dont ask me that because Ill only tell you somethin you dont want to hear. Chris leaned back and dropped his hands to his lap.
If he stole that money? Nathan sat across from him, positioned in a perfect reflection.
Whyd you become a doctor?
I love medicine What does this have to do with Ezra stealing money?
It has everythin to do with it. Whyd you become a doctor? I know you loved the ranch as much as any one of us, whyd you leave?
Nathan sighed: The ranch was Dads and in many ways, it still isI dont know if itll ever be ours.
Chris nodded and clenched his jaw: We have to do whatever we can to protect him.
At what cost?
Chris caught his breath in his throat: Any cost. He looked at Nathan. Ill sell this farm bit by bit before Ill toss a brother out the window, Nathan just because Dad could do itdoesnt mean I will.
Dad didnt toss anyone out a window
Yeah he did. Ezra was outside of Reno for two yearsan you cant tell me Dad didnt know And what about Vin and JD? You think that he just dropped the ball? I heard the excuses, Nathan, I know what they are, but none of em stand up to what he didnt do out of sheer pride
You were young and I dont think you remember, but I do. I remember the way Dad talked about Maude. I remember the things he said and I remember how much he hated her, he took a deep breath and got to his feet. And I look at myself and see him there, lookin at me in the mirror tellin me how much Im just like him.
If Ezra goes, so does the farm, his voice was expressionless. All the hard work, the blood
What about Sarah and Adam?
If Sarah knew I had turned a brother away because he was in trouble? He looked at Nathan with his brows raised. She would have left meand she would have been right to. Family was everything to her, and she was righthell, Vins right, Netties right even Ellas right.
I need to know youre behind me, Nathan. I need to know youll support my decision at any cost.
What do you plan to do?
Im goin to talk to Ezra, find out how much trouble hes in, and go from there.
Nathan nodded and looked out the window as the sun slowly started to crest the horizon. About Ella
Chris shook his head: One problem at a time.
The room had gone through many changes over the years. Posters of rock bands, monster trucks, and half-naked women had decorated the walls. Even paint colors had changed: white to blue, green to white, and now a creamy tan. Trophies collected dust on a shelf beneath the window. A photograph taken two weeks before Sarah and Adams death hung in an oak frame above his bed, his wifes arms wrapped lovingly around her son. They smiled at the camera. Chris remembered standing off to the side while the photographer tried his best to keep the family within their designated time slot, but Chris made it impossible, having spilled nacho cheese down the front of his sweater, Sarah had insisted he take it off and be photographed in his shirt. It had been hot, and, he hadnt worn a shirt. Her eyes expressed her humor and Adam fed off it like a shark in a den of seals.
He hadnt made his bed in over two years. Though hed changed sheets on occasion, his blankets were still the same and were strewn across the mattress. Three different pairs of cowboy boots had been tossed haphazardly into the closet. Dust had collected on the shoulders of his shirts, still hanging where they had been placed when he moved back in.
Chris sat on the edge of the bed, elbows resting on his knees, and his hands dangling toward the floor. He needed a new carpet. Sarah had taken care of the little things, vacuuming scuff marks, dusting pollen from the coffee table, placing the read newspaper in the recycling pile that continued its collection until he made a trip to town.
He stood and opened the closet, pushing his clothes to the very end he grabbed a box and returned to the bed
He could hear the floors creak as someone moved from room to room upstairs. The odor of mildew hung in the air, not enough to make him sick but enough to let him know winter was well on its way.
Chris flipped the lid off the box.
They didnt have a traditional wedding. Instead, theyd gone to Reno. Sarah found a simple dress at a discount store, and they went to the quickest preacher on the block. Shed never looked more beautiful. Carefully, he ran callused fingers over the beads of the bodice, testing its frailty. He remembered taping the spaghetti straps to her shoulders so she wouldnt have to continue pulling them up, and he remember how the gown flowed between her legs when she walked, how it curved at her hips, and how it accentuated her breasts.
He picked the gown up and pressed his face to the fabric.
Her smell still lingered
or his memory hadnt faded.
It was all he had left of her. The pictures had burned in the fire, along with all their memories. Chris remembered coming home and showing his father the wedding license he remembered Lincolns smile, and Chris remembered spending their first weeks together as a married couple in this room.
Time changed things. It changed the shape of the land, the texture of skin, and the faces of people. Lincoln had changed at least the memories of him had. Chris replaced the dress within the confines of the box and returned it to the closet.
He had a family to care for: brothers that needed to know blood was thicker than water, sons that needed to know their father, and friends that needed each other.