Fortunate Sons

By Beth

Brothers AU (Ezra, Seven)

Chapter 16

He hadn’t slept, and he sat in the chair adjacent to Ezra’s bed with his fingers laced together resting in his lap. He’d watched him through the night: The tossing and turning, sudden gasps of pain, and biting back of memories that surfaced. Chris could only sit by and watch—wait for his brother to awake from his drug induced sleep that was plagued with unspeakable acts.

There was no one to yell at, to blame, to take responsibility for Lincoln Larabee’s failures as a father—except his sons. Perhaps Vin and Ezra were suffering the sins of the father, perhaps they would be the ones to humanize the man—to break the pedestal he’d been placed upon. Chris knew some of the truths, but not all, and he wished now he didn’t know any.  

Ezra pushed the blanket off his shoulder and then he rubbed his eyes. He swallowed, feeling more clearly the pain from yesterday’s ordeal. His shoulders felt as though they were made of rubber bands and those bands had been pulled the point of breaking. 

“How’re you feelin’?”

Ezra turned and found Chris sitting across form him. He tried to push himself against the headboard of his bed, but gave up with the restraint of his arm.

Chris stood, placed a hand behind Ezra’s neck and helped him sit up, placing several pillows behind him. He retook his seat, and leaning forward with his hands folded, he looked critically at him. “I need to know what happened?”

Ezra shook his head and made a move to get out of bed. Nobody needed to know—the details were his and his alone.

Chris stopped him by placing his hand on Ezra’s chest. “I don’t need to know about the abuse, but I need to know about the money—the $3.5 million?” He sat back and replaced his elbows on his knees.

Ezra rubbed his face and felt the tightness of skin along his cheek; his heart raced and thumped against his chest. He let his hand fall to his lap and he raised his knees. “What do you want me to say? I stole that money.”


Ezra cleared his throat. “Because… Because I made some bad decisions when I was a kid.”

“Who can link you to the money?”

“Other than the men who were here?”

Chris nodded.

“William Perkins—he’s one of my many step-fathers. He’s the one who asked me to do it?”

“Anyone else?”

“Mike Kimball was there, but because he’s a bank president, he won’t come forward about the thefts—not unless he wants questions falling on his shoulders.”

“How’d Perkins coerce you into doin’ it?”

Ezra rubbed his neck and shifted uncomfortably. “When I was 19 I got caught running a con with my mother. She’d married a man, Whitman was his name, who owned a lucrative business, and rather than trying to get it through the divorce, she asked me to run a few numbers. I did, and I got caught. Mother took the money and fled the country, leaving me to pick up the tab. It turned out that Perkins and Whitman knew each other and they decided to work together in order to make my life hell. I didn’t want to go to jail and they knew it—so I ran a few cons for them in return for my freedom.”

“And you ran?”

Ezra clenched his jaw and nodded: “You don’t understand these people, Chris.”

“Do you think Perkins will call on you again?”

“It’s always a possibility.”

“What about this Colby character?”

“He was Perkins’ right-hand man—but it appears he’s gone independent.”

“Do you think they’ll go to the authorities?”

Ezra shook his head: “They’re above the law…if they want something done they’ll do it themselves—and,” he looked at Chris, “they’ll go through anyone to do it.”

Chris stood and walked across the room.

“Give me a couple hours—I’ll be gone—”

Chris turned, frowning. “No! Damn it, Ezra.” He ran his hand over his face. “Is Perkins the man who abused you?”

Ezra tossed the blanket off his legs and placed both feet on the floor. “If I’d wanted to be humiliated, Chris, I would’ve deep-throated him in the barn.” He clenched his jaw and reached for a pair of jeans.

“I’m lookin’ for leverage, Ezra, that’s all. I don’t care what he did to you when you were a kid—it makes me sick thinkin’ about it—but frankly, the only difference it’s goin’ to make now is whether or not we can use it against him should the need arise.”

Ezra shook his head: “I’m not going to tell anyone what happened, Chris, and I’m sure as hell not going to testify to in court!” He stood. “They’ll rake me over the fucking coals—and besides, it’s my word against his. There’s a reason you don’t hear about boys being abused.”

“Nobody’s goin’ to think it’s your fault,” Chris said. He frowned and watched Ezra fight with his jeans as he slipped them on using one hand.

“Yeah,” Ezra sighed when he caught the button of pants on the leg of his boxers. “People like me asked for it because I had big fucking green eyes and I wanted a dad—I was eleven and wanted a dad and Perkins used it against me.” He buttoned his jeans and reached for a shirt. “And my mother…” he chuckled, unhooking the shoulder harness, “…my mother said, it was okay because he had money and that’s what dads with money did.”

Chris clenched his jaw, swallowed, and stepped beside him. “Let me help—”

Ezra stopped: “I can do it myself.” He winced when he slipped his left arm into the sleeve of the shirt and slowly continued.

“How much does your mother know?”

“Enough,” Ezra said, retaking his seat on the edge of the bed.

“But not everythin’?”

Ezra shook his head and grabbed the shoulder brace. “I don’t want anyone to know—”

“Okay,” Chris said, watching him protect his injured arm. “You’re a part of this family—”

“—Am I?” He turned and looked at him. “I read the first will…”

Chris took a deep breath and shook his head. “Our father,” he raised his eyebrows, “was an ass. There’s as much Larabee blood runnin’ through your veins as there is mine. And whether or not you believe me, trust the science of it.” He stepped back and leaned against the wall. “I want to know what we can do as a family to protect you from this kind of shit happin’ again.”

Ezra fiddled with the buckle of the shoulder brace and he swallowed. He kept his eyes cast downward.

“Maybe this is the kind of thing you’ve come to expect—bein’ forced into situations you don’ t much care for—but not anymore, Ezra… I will not stand by an’ watch any member of this family be made into secondhand citizens. If you’re in trouble, I want to know about it—I need to be able to do somethin’ about it.” Chris looked around the room, noting the simplicity of it. “You’ve been on the run long enough; it’s time to set down roots.”

“I’m not entirely sure this is the life for me.”

“I’m not askin’ you to grab a pair of muck boots an’ shovel shit, I’m askin’ you to stick around—enjoy the family you’ve got an’ maybe make somethin’ out of it.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “If I knew why Dad did what he did… I’d tell you. But I don’t.” He locked eyes with Ezra. “He missed one hell of an opportunity though.”

Chapter 17

JD slammed the pickup door shut swearing on his life he would never take another road trip with Buck. French fry containers, napkins, empty bottles of soda, and candy wrappers filled the cab like three sumo wrestlers fighting to have their asses pressed against the windshield.

Buck had worn the same pair of socks the entire time, and he loved eating at Taco Bell.

The ranch was quiet. Vin’s truck was gone as well as Nathan’s car.

Chris stepped out of the house as Buck unhitched the trailer. He nodded toward JD: “I’ve got some bad news.”

JD stopped and looked at him, adjusting his duffle bag that hung from his shoulder. “Everythin’ all right?”

Chris crossed his arms over his chest and waited for Buck to join them.

Buck slapped his hat against his thigh, sending dust into the air. He stopped and looked at Chris and shrugged: “Last I heard this was a workin’ ranch. What’s goin’ on?”

Chris looked at JD: “Your little mare got tangled in some fence—we had to put her down.”

JD’s face sank and he nodded in understanding.

“What else?” Buck frowned and replaced his hat.

“Ezra took a spill—got tangled up tryin’ to help her. He’s fine, but he’s pretty banged up.”

“Shit, Chris, you should’ave called us—that’s what cell phones are for.” Buck shook his head and glanced around the ranch. “Ezra sleepin’?”

Chris nodded and looked at Buck: “He’s pretty upset about it.”

Buck grabbed JD’s shoulder and shoved him toward the house. “Come on, kid, let’s go find some food.” He looked at Chris as he entered the house. “Maybe later we can find you a horse to ride an’ then later you can pick out another…”

Chris listened as Buck walked JD through the devastation. He pulled his keys from his pocket and walked toward his blazer.


Vin pushed the coffee cup aside and smiled as the waitress refilled it. The man he sat across from had long grey hair he tied into a ponytail. His beard was black except for a few stray white hairs that accentuated the curve of his lips. His eyes were dark green and lined with crows feet. He looked good for being weeks away from turning 65 and still knew his business.

“So why’re you lookin’ at Gaines?” he asked, stirring more sugar into his coffee.

Vin shrugged: “Hell, Guy, the woman’s a little—”


Vin nodded.

Guy tossed a file onto the table and then took a sip of his coffee. “It’s good to see you back in the game—thought for sure you’d end up milkin’ cows or somethin’ when I spoke to you last.”

“Don’t care for cows—I like engines though.” Vin smiled and looked through the files. “And I’m not workin’ again—just lookin’ a few things up for a friend.”

“One of those brothers of yours?”

Vin nodded.

“Well,” Guy sighed, looking out the window into the parking lot. “Gaines’ mother died a couple weeks ago—seems the old bitch couldn’t outrun cancer.”

“Ella either, by the looks of things?”

Guy nodded and took a sip of his coffee. “At least it’s good knowin’ the daughter won’t be spreadin’ her seed around.”

Vin looked up: “You find anythin’ out about Cletus Fowler?”

“Graduated from USC with a degree in chemistry, and from the looks of things he was pretty good about utilizin’ his knowledge. Went to work for a biker gang in Texas and made meth for a while, then when he got bored with that he hooked up with the mob—ran with them for about 10 years before he ‘settled down’. Near as I can tell, the man wasn’t just a danger to himself, but the whole damn world.”

“What about arson?”

Guy leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. “Who better to start a fire than a damn chemist? Now, I looked into those three fires you asked me about, and usin’ some of my alternate routes of investigative work, I found a credit card statement for $150 from a gas station in Four Corners signed by Fowler the same day of the Larabee fire. Now, unless you’re filling trucks for harvest, that much money for gas seems a bit much to me. Then he filled up with gas 15 minutes after the fire started. Now, I can’t prove it, but that’s just enough time for him to leave the Larabee ranch and get to town. I don’t know why nobody bothered checkin’ this out before—but my gut instincts are tellin’ me the Gaines family has some leverage out there in your neck of the woods.”

“But the fire was said to be started by faulty electrical wirin’.”

“Shit, Vin, open your eyes. A fire as hot as that one would have destroyed just about every ounce of evidence—and you’re sittin’ in the middle of nowhere with folks that don’t know shit about shit, except farmin’.”

“Can’t get folks to open up—”

“—And you won’t. From the information I discovered—and let me remind you, Vin, you owe me big-time for this—but it looks like Betty Gaines slept with the grandson of the man who settled Four Corners. He was married at the time and when the rumor mill started Marcus Riley paid Betty off and when he did that she blackmailed him until the day he died, then she blackmailed his children—”

“—She blackmailed him for an affair?”

Guy shook his head: “Riley liked children—and apparently Gaines found pictures.” He pushed his coffee aside and shook his head. “My guess is Ella Gaines has those images and she’s still usin’ ‘em for her benefit. Somebody out there knows what she’s capable of and if you get one of them to talk you’ll have convictions comin’ out your ass.”

“How’d you find all this?”

Guy smiled: “When you showed up at my office as a wet-behind-the-ears-kid lookin’ for a job, I knew then you had it in you to be a great PI,” he shrugged. “But you were pissed at the world and I knew too much power in one as angry as you were could be a devastating combination.

“I’m glad to see you doin’ so well, but be careful. This is one of those cases I’d walk away from and I’ve got 30 years workin’ the ropes, knowin’ people, but I ain’t never seen anythin’ like this in one family. Ella Gaines ‘ill cut your throat if you start fuckin’ with her. Be careful who you talk to, keep you nose clean, and watch you back. Lots of shit happens on farms all the time, Vin, and nobody blinks an eye.” He pushed himself to the edge of the booth seat and grabbed the edge of the table.


He turned and looked at him.

“Thanks. Thanks for doin’ this.”

Guy smiled: “You look good, kid, and I think the family life suits you.” He stood and tossed a couple dollars onto the table. “You get into any trouble, give me a call.”

Vin nodded and looked through the file. His gut twisted as he read through medical reports, financial statements, and newspaper articles pertaining to Gaines. The more he read, the sicker he got. Ella wasn’t crazy, she was far from it. Methodical in her movements, every step she took was for a purpose.

So why did she have her claws in Chris?

Chapter 18

Ezra opened his closet and looked at his clothing and then at his luggage. There wasn’t much. He stepped backward and sat on the edge of his bed. He wanted to run, pack his bags, slip into the driver’s seat of his car, and go. He didn’t know where and he didn’t care, as long as he could escape.

His secret wasn’t a secret anymore, and within the scheme of things it would only be a matter of time before it was whispered between old and young alike. He thought he had outrun it, but his past always caught up to him. He looked at his hands, the scrapes, bruises, and cuts that marred his fingers where he had fought.

He remembered fighting when he was younger, but then he was too small—too damn young.

He turned and looked up when he heard the knock at the door. It opened slowly and Josiah peeked inside.

“I’ll be out in a minute, Josiah.”

Josiah entered the room and closed the door behind him. He shrugged and noticed the open closet. “You thinking about going somewhere?”

Ezra shook his head and moved uncomfortably. He watched Josiah take a seat and felt a sudden burning in the pit of his stomach. “Listen, Josiah—”

“—Are you all right?” He took a seat in the chair and looked around the room. It was simple… too simple. Ezra had a few clothes, the shoes he worked in and a pair of dress boots, a couple CDs had been placed on his dresser, but that was it. After the past few months, there should have been more.

Ezra nodded, “Fine.” He looked uncomfortable confined within the shoulder brace. His face was red, but the swelling had eased.

“I’ve been thinking about something you said a few days ago—”

Ezra took a deep breath and clenched his jaw.

“—the night the power went out.”

“I say a lot of things—”

“—The Book of Mathew is about redemption—”

“—I know what it’s about.” Ezra stood and closed his closet door.

Josiah cleared his throat: “I don’t want to pry, Ezra, but if I don’t, I’ll never learn anything about you except what you want us to know,” he ignored the chuckle. “Mathew 18:21-22 is not something the average person is going to know unless they’re searching for something. Until seventy times seven, Ezra, is metaphorical for eternity.”

Ezra furrowed his brow and shook his head: “What is it you want to know?”

He sighed and leaned against the back of the chair. “I guess I want to know why you feel you need to be forgiven?”

“I called out a verse,” he shook his head and turned toward the door, “do with it what you want.” He grabbed the doorknob and exited, leaving Josiah inside his room.

He was the oldest. He knew more, he had experienced more, he had failed and learned from those mistakes, but he was not the one they went to. Josiah rubbed his brow and then rested his forearms on the armrests of the chair. It was what he knew and lived that made him the man he was, and he did not regret his life. He regretted the pain he caused, but he learned from it and because of it he had become a better person. He looked at the bed. It was made, the blankets pulled tight, pillows arranged just so. The furniture was dusted: clean to the point of sterile. He took a deep breath and leaned forward. He looked toward the door and then to the drawer of Ezra’s nightstand.

Josiah bit his bottom lip, reached for the drawer, and opened it. A small holstered Derringer lay on the right and a small stack of letters incased in plastic rested to the left. Stamped in red was “Return to Sender”.  He read Maude’s name and swallowed. It hadn’t been easy growing up without a father. There were looks of disapproval, accusations that weren’t true, and names that didn’t fit, but he had a mother. For 26 years of his life she had stood beside him, guided him, let him take flight and welcomed him home when he crashed. There wasn’t a question to Ezra’s elusiveness or the reasons behind it, the explanations were there, printed in red.

He closed the drawer and stood. He knew what it was like to have a family, and he knew what it was to lose them. Josiah turned and looked within the room one last time. Ezra needed pictures on the walls, he needed knickknacks that would gather dust and clutter, and he needed pieces of home to remind him what a home was for.


 Buck stood in the stall and looked at the blood on the wall. There wasn’t any clue to a horse having struggled in the fence, nothing was broken or loose. The stall was clean except for a few piles of manure and scattered remains of hay. He shook his head and entered the barn. Disgusted, he grabbed the broken pitchfork and fingered the break. Clenching his jaw he looked up and kicked a bale of hay against a stall.

He looked toward Chris when he entered the barn and sighed, gripping the broken pitchfork tighter. “I can’t figure out if you think I’m just stupid or I don’t have the right to know what’s goin’ on around here without you discussin’ everythin’ with Nathan first.”

Chris clenched his jaw and took a seat on the tack-box outside a stall door. He stared at the floor and leaned forward, folding his fingers together, he rested his elbows on his knees. “I’m sorry,” he turned his head and looked at him.

Buck nodded, tossed the remains into the bale of hay, the fork puncturing the surface of the bale. “I expected shit like this from Dad. But, I thought I had a better chance of gainin’ some respect after he died. Maybe I should have left like you an’ Nate did—abandon the ranch. Shit, maybe I’ll still do it—go to college an’ earn a degree in golf or some shit like that.”

“Buck,” Chris sighed, running his fingers through his hair. “We ran into some trouble and solved it—”

“—Do I just work here or do I have a say in the runnin’ of this ranch?” Buck turned and looked at him.

“You own—”

“—Then treat me like it. I ain’t a kid who can’t handle the bad news! I’ve more ‘an proved it! I was here, Chris, when you started drinkin’, when Nathan was in school in Philly, when Dad was dyin’ of cancer. I was the one who stayed an’ made sure the bulls were banded, the heifers moved, the cows shipped, planted the hay, rotated the damn crops—it didn’t get done on its own!

“I’ve never asked for anythin’, but I’m askin’ you now to stop this shit. I ain’t a fool, Chris, an’ I sure as hell don’t deserve gettin’ treated like one. I know JD’s horse didn’t get tangled in the fence. Who shot her?”

Chris sighed, and then leaned back against the stall door. He ignored his horse nudging his shoulder. “Ezra was blackmailed into stealin’ $3.5 million dollars and one of the men who knew about it came down here with the intention of gettin’ him to steal more.”

Buck took a seat next to the pitchfork and clenched his jaw. “What’re we goin’ to do?”

“Fuck if I know.”

“Can we go to the law—maybe Orin could—”

Chris turned and shook his head. “He’ll serve time if we do that. And I guarantee you, Buck, he won’t make it in prison.”

“Always knew the Larabee looks would get us into trouble.”

“Damn it, Buck.”

“How long ago did he steal it?”

“While he was in Seattle this last time.” Chris took a deep breath and looked across the barn.

“So the statute of limitations—”

“This is grand larceny, Buck, and it’s in Washington State, not here.”

“Hey, I’m not the one who went to cop-school, I’m just tryin’ to make sense of things like everyone else.”

“He offered to leave—I told him no, that it would be best if he stuck around.” Chris glanced toward the house and watched Goober trot from the porch to the barn in search of Buck. “I told him we’d help him no matter the cost.”

Buck nodded: “It’s about time someone did.”

Chris looked at him.

Buck shrugged, “I’ve seen his room. Shit, Chris, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out he’s the odd man out. Out of all of us, he’s the most secretive—even beats you. Shit, I’ve never seen him or heard him call his ma…an’ I know she’s still livin’. He never gets any mail. Hell, even Vin gets a post card from a few of his friends every now an’ again.” He sighed and scratched his head and then gave his dog a pat. “Don’t figure Dad knew what he was doin’ when he let ‘em go… Ezra an’ the others. I mean, hell, he fought real hard for Nathan an’ me…can’t see why he didn’t everyone else.” He looked up as Casey parked her truck next to Chris’ Blazer. JD stepped out of the house and they walked to the corral together.

Chris watched them: “Think she’s told him yet?”

Buck shook his head: “No, but she will.” He chuckled. “Nettie calls her an old soul—s’pose she’s right about that.”

“Think we’re all old souls.” Chris stood and dusted the back of his pants off, knocking leaves and stems to the floor. “Don’t say anything about this to anyone—not yet anyway.”

Buck nodded and stood. “You headed into town to speak with Ella?”


“Whatever hold she’s got on you—”

“—She doesn’t have a hold.”

“Yeah she does,” Buck said, moving to stand beside him, “an’ it’s a big one.”

Chapter 19

“Have you thought about the piece of property you want?” Nathan asked, sitting across from Josiah in the small restaurant. It was empty, except for an older couple sitting by the door. The waitress spoke with the cook.

Josiah shook his head: “I’m not sure it’s the right time.”

Nathan nodded and pushed his food around the plate with his fork. “Are you looking forward to seeing your son?”

Josiah smiled, “He wants to learn how to drive a combine.”

“He’d better be careful, Buck’ll put him to work,” Nathan chuckled.

Josiah leaned back and rubbed his thighs. “When’re you going to tell the family you’re getting married?”

Nathan rolled his eyes and looked around: “How’d you find out?”

“We work in the same office.”

Nathan nodded, “We wanted to wait until things settled down.”

Josiah smiled as the waitress cleared the table. She offered them more coffee, filled their cups, and returned to the counter to continue her conversation with the cook.

“We want to keep it quiet for a while—”

“—That’s pretty much shot to shit.”

Nathan chuckled: “Guess so.”

Josiah took a deep breath and sighed, “Did I ever tell you about my sister?”

Nathan shook his head and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “I didn’t know you had one.”

“She killed herself when she was a sophomore in college.”

“I’m sorry, Josiah.”

“I don’t like secrets, and I think we’re sitting on a barrel full.”

Nathan sighed, “This’s a small town—”

“—Cut the shit, Nathan.” Josiah leaned forward to match Nathan’s posture. “We have one brother who’s just had the shit beat out of him, Chris’ making decisions for everyone, Buck is working himself to death, and Vin is hiding out in the shop—avoiding everyone.”

“I don’t think it’s as bad as all that.”

“It is, Nathan, and unless you take care now, things are going to get out of hand.”

Nathan shook his head, “I don’t know, Josiah… I think things are starting to settle down. We’re all finding our footing.”

“Except Ezra?”

Nathan shrugged, “He’s not—”

“—He’s as much a Larabee as the rest of us, brother, and it’s about time we started making him feel like it before were sitting around talking about what it was we did wrong. I’ve seen it, Nathan. I’ve seen where exclusion cuts people down; I’ve seen perfectly balanced people lose themselves under less complicated situations. Ezra’s in trouble. I can see it in his face and his actions, and you know it—probably more than some of us. It’s going to take all of us to help him. You, Chris, and Buck had it easy, Nathan.  You knew the man that was our father and you know this town. The rest of us are sitting with our thumbs up our asses hoping the looks of disapproval will stop. The playing field isn’t level, and it’s not going to be until we all start behaving as a family.” Josiah stood. “Congratulations, I think Rain is a beautiful woman and I think you’ll both be very happy together—and I think you should tell everyone before they find out the way I did.”

“How did you… find out?”

“The rumor mill, brother—it’ll nail you every time.”

Chapter 20

Ezra looked at the notice. On yellow paper, printed in bold was the amount due. His bloodwork, the MRI, and the appointment with the specialist was enough to make him physically ill. He held in his other hand his insurance cancellation due to his untimely resignation. At this rate, even the idea of surgery was out of the question. He moved his arm stiffly, feeling the pain radiate to his fingers.

He folded the letters and placed them in the drawer to his dresser. He glanced at the letters still contained within a plastic sleeve. Maude had always been busy, running from one husband to the next, always on the lookout for the next big catch. He retook a seat on the edge of his bed. She had taught him a lot: how to survive, how to move on.

He slammed the drawer shut and then reached beneath his mattress. The papers were wrinkled, but the deed to the property stared him in the face. The land was theirs and nobody could take it away. He pressed the papers onto his thigh and tried to flatten them with his hand.

“Hey, Ezra,” JD said, standing in the doorway, munching on a bag of chips. “You okay?”

Ezra smiled and nodded.

“The Travis’ are comin’ out for dinner.” He shrugged and looked around the room. “You need some pictures or somethin’—livin’ up the place.”

“I’m sorry about your horse, JD.” He turned and looked at the kid.

“It’s okay, Buck said it’s happened before—he’s gonna take me out in the next day or two and let me pick out another.”

Ezra rolled the papers into a tight tube and he stood. The brace hindered his movements, through normally graceful, he looked stiff. “Did you invite the charming Miss Wells to join us?”

JD shook his head and moved aside as Ezra stepped through the doorway. “I…”

“You should invite her, I’m sure they’ll be a plethora of individuals here tonight.”

“It ain’t like we’re gettin’ serious, we just like hangin’ out together.” He followed Ezra into the kitchen. He looked out the window and watched Vin toss a few items into the scrap iron pile.

Ezra chuckled and took a seat at the table.

“You think I should ask her?” JD tossed the bag of chips onto the counter and reached for a glass. “I mean, she’s cool an’ all.”

“I would imagine, JD, that she and Mrs. Wells will be arriving anyway,” he turned and looked at him, “take the chance and ask her.”


They sat together on a bale of hay overlooking the bottom pasture. A cool breeze swept their hair, sending strands across their cheeks and beneath their jaws. JD continued to sip at a soda while Casey twisted alfalfa twigs. She wore a light blue jacket and jeans with holes in the knees. Her cowboy boots were well-used and manure caked the heel and toe.

“Did you have a girlfriend back East?”

JD shook his head: “I was too busy takin’ care of my ma—she was real sick.” He swirled the can of cola and looked toward the field of cattle.

Casey nodded and tossed the twig toward the fence and watched it fall short, landing in a pile of thistle. A couple of heifers butted heads and then stuck their tails in the air and raced for the watering hole. “I almost got married once.” She shrugged and reached for another twig.

JD chuckled and turned to look at her. “I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true,” she said. She didn’t smile or take lightly her words. “It was right after I graduated; my folks were gone by then.”

“What happened?”

“Nettie didn’t like him. We met at the fairgrounds, he and his family bred Holsteins in Reno. We dated for a couple years…” she stood and walked to the fence, listening to the laughing that echoed from the house. “I got pregnant, JD.” She turned and looked at him, leaning against the wood panels.

JD nodded and then tucked his drink next to the hay bale.

“I lost the baby and he left me short after.”

“I’m sorry.”

She smiled and shrugged: “Ain’t your fault. Nettie said I was too young, but I didn’t believe her—I should’ve though.”

“I’ve made a few mistakes too, Casey.”

“I wanted you to hear it from me, not some ass from town.” She looked at him. “I really like you.”

He looked up and smiled, “I like you too.”

“A lot of the folks around here ‘ave got ideas for women, you know, and I don’t fit like that—never did.”

JD grinned, exposing bright white teeth. “That’s good though, Casey—for me anyway.”


Chris looked at the deeds while Ezra stood next to the window, looking toward the pasture. The office was slowly getting cleaned and their father’s things were being added to boxes. The papers were official, and Chris continued to stare at his new reality.

Ezra turned and grabbed a knickknack from the bookshelf.

“How’s the arm?”

Both men turned to find Orin standing in the doorway. He wore jeans and a crisp white shirt. He held a glass of wine in his left hand. Ezra stood back and quickly replaced the porcelain cow on the shelf.

“Better,” Ezra said.

Orin nodded and entered the office. “It looks like you boys are slowly making some headway with your father’s belongings.” He looked at the wall of books, and carefully traced his hand along the backs of the leather bound editions. “Evie and Nettie have chased me from the kitchen until the meal is finished, it would appear my lack of know-how has hindered their endeavor.” He took a seat at the desk and looked from Ezra to Chris.

Chris chuckled and leaned back against the leather seat his father had used. “Dad wasn’t very good at keepin’ his shit organized.”

Orin smiled: “No, he wasn’t.” He took a sip of his wine. “Have you boys thought about splitting up the property?”

Chris shook his head, “I know Dad had intended to give us all some land—”

“—He didn’t intend to, Chris, it was in the will.” Orin leaned forward. “He intended for you all to have some money and some property to eventually start your own families. I encouraged him to set the property aside for you all—not everyone was meant to be ranchers.” He looked at Ezra. “What do you think?”

“To be honest I really haven’t thought about it,” Ezra said, wincing.

Orin sighed, “It would have meant the world to your father, Ezra, knowing you would be here.”

“He had a peculiar way of showing it,” he said, turning and left the room.

Chris tossed his pencil onto the desk and sighed: “He’s—”

“—He’s got every right to be angry, Chris, and I can’t say that anyone else would handle the situation any differently—or better for that matter.”

Chris nodded, “Sometimes I hate him.”



Orin nodded: “I did too at times.”

“Josiah said he stopped by to see you?”

“We had a good talk,” Orin said, twisting the glass and watching the fluid run along the sides. “He’s a lot like his father—in a good way.”

Chris chuckled.

Evie knocked on the doorframe and smiled: “You boys want to join us for dinner or continue your discussion?”

Chapter 21

The first real cold snap had hit three days after Halloween. Barn doors were closed and wood stoves fired up. Gloves, hats, scarves, and coats had been pulled out of storage and now decorated the backs of chairs, the tops of counters and tables. Vin and Buck kept the wood stove in the basement going, while Josiah and JD kept the one fireplace upstairs cleaned and blazing.

The bred heifers had been moved to the front pastures, and the horses had been transferred across the way. Buck and JD had spent a lot of time repairing fences while Vin winterized the vehicles. Even the dogs had disappeared, spending more time in the house and in the shop. 

Nathan was busy in town. The clinic had been bombarded with cases of bronchitis, stomach flues, and colds. He had seen more children and teachers than anything else, but parents and siblings were quickly following. Josiah had found his clinic hectic as the holiday season grew near. Families struggling to keep their farms and their marriages found themselves in his office trying their best to keep their lives in order. He spent more time in town than he did at home for the first time since starting his clinic, and sooner than he expected he discovered there was a genuine need for him. Chris was back to work as well, dealing with students trying to get to classes on time and travelers arriving to stay with families. Ezra continued to clean up the financial embarrassments his father had so regularly achieved. Some were as simple as liquor bills that had been overlooked, others included personal loans.

It had been strange watching the changes occur from spring to summer, summer to fall. Work never ended, and just when it seemed to calm, a pipe would freeze, a water tank would flood, or the cows would get out. It never stopped.


Vin sat in his truck and looked the property that had been closed by a heavy iron gate. The Riley home looked out of place amongst the farms that surrounded it. Well-manicured lawns and expensive outbuildings lined the property; lawn-jockeys decorated the yard. A Mercedes was parked in the driveway in front of the doors. Snow had salted the trees and the yard.

He jumped when a man wearing a heavy coat tapped on the glass. He was tall, and despite his attire, he was heavyset. Vin rolled the window down and looked at him. “Yeah?”

The man pulled his scarf from his face and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the truck. His nose was red, and his cheeks were pitted—scarred from childhood acne. Crows feet and laugh lines marred his features. Dark brown, nearly black eyes were shadowed by the bill of his hat. “I know who you are, and I know what you’re trying to do—think it would be best if you quit asking questions for a while.” He pushed himself away from the truck and moved around the front. Once on the passenger side of the vehicle he opened the door and slipped beside Vin, warming his hands near the heater. “Roll up the window for fuck-sake.”

Vin rolled up the window and turned to look at him: “Are you Mr. Riley?”

The man sighed and rubbed his nose. “This isn’t something you want to get involved in right now, son. I know who your brother is, and I know he’s smart enough to stay out of Gaines’ reach without your help. And if I was you, son, I’d stay as far away from here or Ella Gaines as you can.” He blew into his hands and looked toward his house.

“What’s she want? What is it she wanted from you?”

The man turned and shook his head. “She wants what she can’t have, Tanner, and that’s something you’ve got to wrap your head around, otherwise the next funeral you go to will be your own.” He pushed himself against the seat and grabbed a slice of beef jerky from the bag next to Vin. “Gaines ain’t crazy like some people think,” he sighed, chewing on the jerky, “she’s cruel, mean—like the slave owners you learned about in school… Ella and me never could stand each other, even when my father married her mother.” He grabbed the door handle and slipped out. He looked at Vin before pulling his scarf over his cheeks and nose. “Stop asking questions, and mind your own business.”

“My brother is my business.”

“So make sure he don’t marry her.” He slammed the door shut, opened the gate to his property, and stepped inside the complex. He turned and walked toward the house.


“We have to get this sorted out, before… before the baby comes,” Ella said, sitting across from Chris in his office. She brushed the front of her jacket and looked out the window as snow continued to sprinkle the parking lot. She could see the high school students moving across the grounds as they changed classes.

Chris looked at the photograph of his wife and son that sat at the corner of his desk.

“I know you don’t like it, but something needs to be done.” She crossed her legs and gripped the armrest of the chair. “I can’t have this baby on my own, Chris. I want to have it with you.”

Chris sighed and looked at her: the way her hair curled around her face, the perfection of her lips, the sharp shape of her cheekbones. “I’m not going to make a decision today, Ella.”

“What’s to decide?” she said, standing. She walked to the window and ran her hand along the length of the blind. “Do want this child or not?” She turned and looked at him. “I’m sure I can make an appointment and get in by the end of the week to have it taken care of.”

“Is that a threat?”

“It’s whatever you want it to be.”

Chris turned toward the door when Marcie knocked and peeked inside. “Roy just called said there’s an accident out on highway 2 near the Paxton property—said a semi was tryin’ to pass a tractor and jackknifed across the highway.”

“Shit,” Chris said, getting to his feet. He grabbed his jacket and service belt from his desk. He looked at Ella. “Come out to the house tomorrow night, we’ll talk about it then.”

Ella sighed, “Sure.”

Marcie stood back as Chris left through the front. She looked at Ella and tilted her head: “What’re you after this time…? The farm…? Chris…? The money…?”

“How dare you?”

“Listen,” Marcie crossed her arms across her chest, “I like Chris. He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s a good man, and I know about you—shit, everyone does…except him.”

Ella chuckled: “And what are you going to do about it?”

Marcie smiled and raised her right eyebrow. “I’m not goin’ to do anythin’ about it—you’ll do it all on your own, you always do.” She turned and walked back to her desk.

Ella rolled her eyes and quickly left the office.


Vin tossed his jacket over the back of a kitchen chair and rubbed his face. Snow continued to fall and he watched through the window as Buck and JD tossed bales of hay onto the trailer. The cattle and horses trotted toward the fence. The house was quiet, warm, and welcoming. Josiah’s stew continued to simmer in the crock-pot and the smell caused Vin’s stomach to grumble. He walked to the counter and lifted the glass lid that was covered with moisture and stood back as the steam escaped the confines. Meat, potatoes, carrots, and spices continued to cook and the smell was heavenly. He replaced the lid and walked past the family room and entered his father’s office.

Ezra sat at the desk, flipping through paperwork, lost in thought. His brow was furrowed, and his lips pressed into a thin line. He looked tired. The brace was gone, but he still held his shoulder protectively. His gray sweater looked warm against the backdrop of windows.

“Hey,” Vin said, moving toward the bookshelf. He ran his fingers over the leather books and then quickly slipped his hands into his pockets.

Ezra stopped and tossed the papers onto the desk. He leaned back against the chair and ran his hand over his face.

“Can I ask you somethin’?”

“Depends,” Ezra said.

“I’ve been doin’ some checkin’ around about Ella.”

Ezra nodded and then grabbed a handful of papers. “Chris has every right to remarry—”

“—I think she murdered her late husband, an’, I ain’t real sure she’s not after Chris for other reasons.”

“What brought you to this conclusion?”

“Ella dated a man who was here in town at the time Chris’ family was killed—I think she hired him to do it.”

Ezra chuckled and shook his head: “That’s a contemptible accusation, particularly if you can’t prove it.” He paused and looked hard at him. “What is it you’re asking me?”

Vin took a seat and leaned forward, folding his fingers together and resting his elbows on his knees. “I know a lot ‘bout lookin’ for folks, figure I know more ‘an most, but I’m limited because I’ve always had to work within the confines of the law…” he met Ezra’s eyes, “I was figurin’ you might be able to shed some light on her seein’ how—”

“—I’ve been on the other side of the law?” He moved uncomfortably and ran his hand over his brow. “I never imagined you would be the one to ask.”

Vin bit his upper lip and sighed: “She asks about you more ‘an any of us, an’ I’ve seen her lookin’ at you when Chris ain’t around—”

“—Don’t act so surprised, Vin, I have been known to turn a few heads.”

“I think she’s sizin’ you up.” He stopped twirling his thumbs and looked at him. “Everyone in town knows who your ma is, Ezra, an’ I think Ella knows if anyone’s goin’ to figure her out it’s gonna be you.”

“Shit, do have any idea how careful I have to be?”

“I know, an’ I wouldn’t be askin’ if it weren’t for a good reason.”

There was a long pause and the room seemed eerie as both men waited.

“How much do you have on her… on paper?”

Vin smiled: “Not enough, but some. I’ll get it to you.”

Ezra nodded and looked toward the door as JD stood removing his hat and gloves. “JD.”

“Hey,” he smiled. “You, ah, still got your guitar?”

“It’s in my closet.”

“Think you could teach me to play? I always wanted to learn, but, I never had the chance.” He squeezed his gloves and wiped his nose with the back of his hand.

“Sure, JD,” Ezra said with a smile.

The kid slapped his hands together and exposed bright white teeth. “I just got my package from eBay—got a guitar an’ music.”

Buck stepped up behind him and slapped his shoulder. JD jumped, spun around, muttering something about getting his shit, and leaving Buck to chuckle. “Damn kid’s got more energy than a Labrador on speed.”

Vin smiled, “Think Casey likes guitar players?”

Buck shook his head: “Bet your ass she does.” He turned and looked at Ezra. “You play guitar?”

Ezra nodded, getting to his feet.

Buck sighed: “Do you have any idea how valuable you can be on a Friday night in town? Damn,” he scratched his jaw, “think you could teach me to play?”

Vin laughed.

Chapter 22

It wasn’t just any guitar. Ezra cradled her against his chest and gently ran his hand along her fingerboard, admiring her long and elegant neck. She had been well used and the pick guard was warn and covered with scuff marks matching that of the fingerboard. Instead of six strings, there were 12, and all of them knew the feel of fingers, picks, and the vibrations of music.

JD whistled, holding his own little guitar in his lap. “It looks old.”

Ezra chuckled and carefully tuned the instrument, carefully listening to each tone. “Where’s your sheet music?”

JD grabbed the pile of papers and handed them over. The music was simple and gave picture demonstrations of finger placement via notes. It was perfect for a beginner and something JD could easily learn on his own—but he had asked for help.

Ezra smiled and loosened up his fingers. “We’ll start with the chords.”


“What’s goin’ on?” Chris asked, slipping his jacket off and placing it on the back of a chair.

“JD asked Ezra to teach him how to play guitar,” Buck said, standing near the entry to the family room. Vin stood beside him.

“You know he played?” Vin asked, slipping his hands into his pockets.

“Knew he played piano.”

“He plays the piano too?” Buck said. “Shit, you know how many girls find that shit attractive?”

Chris chuckled and slapped Buck on the shoulder: “Guess you should have paid more attention durin’ band.”

“You were in band?” Vin said, smiling.

Buck shrugged and leaned closer to family room entry. “I flunked choir…” then he muttered, “bet he can sing too.”

Chris laughed and walked to the counter and lifted the glass lid from the crock-pot. He watched the steam disburse before taking a long whiff of the meal Josiah had prepared.

The back door creaked open and Josiah and Nathan entered, both looked exhausted. Nathan took a seat at the table and leaned against the back of the chair. Josiah took the glass lid from Chris and scolded him with a look.

“Classical Gas,” Josiah said, smiling as he grabbed the bread from the shelf.

“What?” Nathan asked, running his hand over his face.

“The music. It’s called Classical Gas.”

“It’s Ezra an’ his wasted talent for pickin’ up chicks,” Buck said, grabbing a slice of bread. He rolled it and then shoved the end into his mouth.

“He’s teachin’ JD—” Vin said.

“—Ezra plays guitar?” Nathan tilted his head in the direction of the music.

Buck rolled his eyes: “Shit.” He sighed, leaning against the counter. “When’s dinner goin’ to be ready?”

“Just as soon as you get off your ass and grab yourself a plate,” Josiah said, dishing himself some food. “I’m not the local waitress, serve yourself or don’t eat.”

Vin grabbed the gallon of milk from the refrigerator. He poured himself a glass and then served himself some food before leaving the kitchen to join Ezra and JD in the family room. He could hear them chuckle as the kid fumbled with the notes, placement of his fingers, and the general rules of handling a guitar. He mimicked Ezra’s position, and tried to listen as instructions were spoke.

Buck and the others quickly joined them, and the sounds of slurping, crunching, and forks scraping against plates, echoed.

JD sighed, frustrated with himself and the audience surrounding him. “When’d you start learnin’ to play?” he said, removing his instrument from his lap and placing it carefully within the hard case near his feet.

Ezra frowned and turned. He shook his head when he spotted Buck wiping his plate with his bread. Josiah salted his potatoes, and Chris finished his glass of milk leaving a mustache across his upper lip. “Don’t over think it, JD, it’s just a matter of time before it will click—besides, you have to learn the chords first.” He placed his own instrument in the hard case and then wiped the strings with a soft cotton cloth.

“But how long’d it take you before you could…you know…play good?”

Ezra chuckled: “I’m still learning.”

“Didn’t sound like learnin’ to me,” Chris said, setting his plate on the coffee table. “Who taught you to play?”

Ezra rubbed his brow. “My mother.” He winced, feeling a sharp pain behind his eyes.

“You play real good, Ezra,” Vin said, and then he belched.   

Ezra smiled tightly and then leaned back against his seat.

“So how come you’re workin’ so hard to learn how to play guitar?” Buck asked, snickering.

JD shrugged: “Seemed like a good idea.”

“Come on, kid, you ordered a guitar an’ music…” Buck cocked his left eyebrow, “This for Casey?”

“I just wanted to learn—ain’t nothin’ wrong with tryin’ to learn somethin’ new.”

“It’s admirable, JD,” Josiah said. “We should all endeavor to do the same.”

“Oh bullshit,” Buck said.

“I learned how to cook to better myself,” Josiah said, “This is something people do all the time.”

Buck rolled his eyes and shook his head: “I still don’t buy it.”

JD grabbed the sheet music and squared the corners. “I’ve always wanted to learn to play,” he shrugged and slipped the papers into a plastic sleeve before placing them within the confines of the guitar case.

“I’ve always wanted to bunji jump—”

“—Just drop it, okay,” JD said. He snapped the case closed and placed it against the wall next to his chair.

“It’s okay, JD, he’s givin’ you shit,” Vin said, leaning against the back of the sofa. “Like he does everyone else.” He rubbed his brow and closed his eyes.

Buck smiled: “What’s Casey’s favorite music?”

Vin’s cell phone rang and he excused himself.

“I don’t know,” JD said, standing.

“Come on, JD—she’s cute, bubbly, and she’s got a great fig—”

“—You know what, Buck? I don’t look at women like they’re meat!” He fisted his hands and clenched his jaw.

Ezra rubbed his temple and took a deep breath.

Buck grinned: “Have you been with a girl?”

“Yeah,” JD said, grabbing his guitar case, “lots of ‘em.”

“That’s enough, Buck,” Chris said, watching JD’s frustration increase.

“Are you still a virgin?”

JD threw the guitar case toward the door. “I’m not like Lincoln, Buck. I never slept around because I could. I chose not to, because I didn’t want to be the father of a bastard who wasn’t wanted. So excuse me if I chose to be responsible!” He wiped his jaw and walked toward the stairs.

Chris sighed and fingered the edge of the armrest. “You always have to push.”

“—I have to push?” Buck stood, his face red, clearly embarrassed. “Maybe my teasin’ goes too damn far, but I ain’t the one pushin’!” He walked from the room. The sound of the door slamming echoed briefly.

Josiah took a deep breath and slowly stood. “I’ll see how JD’s doing.”

Chris nodded and looked toward the door Buck had exited. He rubbed his forehead and looked toward Ezra. “Never gets borin’.” He stood and grabbed the abandoned plates. “You feelin’ alright?”

Ezra nodded and stood after Chris left the room. He rubbed his eyes and slowly walked to his room. He closed the door behind him. He paused, catching his breath as the pain behind his eyes intensified. Slowly, he dropped to his knees and lay on his back on the floor in front of his dresser.

His stomach twisted and he breathed through his mouth. The light of the moon seeped in through the window blinds, and he covered his eyes with his hands.


Vin entered the kitchen and found Chris at the kitchen sink scraping plates. “Nice seein’ you doin’ a little of the domestic work,” he said, shoving his cell phone into his pocket.

“Don’t get used to it,” Chris said, wiping his hands on the towel hooked to the stove handle. “You see Buck outside?”

Vin nodded: “Was headed out toward the barn.” He leaned against the counter and crossed his arms over his chest. “I ain’t one to stick my nose into other people’s business—”

“—Here it comes.”

“What do you know about Ella?”

Chris turned and said, “Why?”

Vin shrugged and licked his lips while glancing toward the floor. “I don’t like her… Seen a few folks like her an’ learned what they could do the hard way—”

“—Listen,” he rubbed his fingers over the corners of his mouth and sighed, “me an’ Ella have known each other since high school, she’s an old friend—”

“—A fuck buddy?” Vin sighed. “Don’t rightly care who you’re sleepin’ with, Chris, but I don’t want my ass gettin’ screwed because some woman’s got her claws into you. I don’t like her, trust her, or care what’s she’s got on you, but don’t act like this little fling ain’t affectin’ anyone but you, cuz it is.” He squeezed his hands into fists. “I just got a call from Sheriff Wilson over in Eagle Bend. Said he’s had his eye on Gaines for three years for an arson fire—”

“—You’re pullin’ this out of your ass, Vin—”

“—Am I?” He stepped forward. “Pull your head out of your ass, Chris, an’ start lookin’ at this with a clear head, cuz right now, you’re pluggin’ everythin’ up.”

Chris sighed, and listened as Buck entered the house and slammed the door behind him. The echoes of heavy footsteps moving down stairs caused Chris to groan. “Son-of-a-bitch.”

“What are you goin’ to do?”

Chris turned and looked at him: “I don’t know, Vin. I have no fuckin’ clue.”


Josiah opened JD’s bedroom door and watched the youngest dig through a drawer. “You all right, JD?”

“Didn’t realize virginity was a disease.” He didn’t look up as he flipped through old pictures and trinkets.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Josiah pushed the door opened and took a look around the room. New York Mets banners hung above the curtains, posters of female tennis stars hung above his bed, and his dresser was covered with framed photos of his mother.

Josiah stepped forward and grabbed one of the framed pieces. He smiled, seeing a dark-haired woman holding her son. She looked happy, despite her situation. They looked to be at a park, sitting in the grass not far from the swings. JD hung around his mother’s neck, his dark hair blending with hers. He didn’t look a day over five. “Do you have any idea of how proud your mother would be?” he looked up and caught the kid’s eyes.

JD clenched his jaw and nodded. “I lived it, Josiah.” He paused and took a seat on the bed. “I never wanted to do that to anyone—leave them with a child. Momma was young…but she never said a mean thing about him, you know… she never said nothin’.” He looked out the window toward the pasture filled with cattle. “We never had much, but we always had just enough—even with me bein’ sick as I was.” He shook his head. “Do you have any idea how expensive insulin is?” He turned and looked at Josiah.

Josiah shook his head.

JD chuckled. “How could you?” he said, returning his gaze toward the cattle. “Momma worked two jobs—an’ she still couldn’t get insurance. She paid for specialists with her own money—the pharmacist gave us syringes when he got overstocked, an’ he let her pay for my insulin with post dated checks.”

Josiah entered the room and took a seat in the chair next to the closet, and he listened.

“I saw her struggle… an’ I was the reason why. Never wanted to do that to anyone, ya know?” JD clenched his jaw.


He turned.

A smile tugged at Josiah’s lips. “You’ve managed to hold onto something most give away at the drop of a hat, and by doing so you’ve honored your mother and all her hard work. You were never a mistake, JD, and I have a feeling you meant more to your mother than you’ll ever understand.”

JD nodded: “Maybe.”

“There’s no maybe, JD. As a father, I know.”

Chapter 23

Buck entered the kitchen rubbing his eyes. His hair stuck up in places, and he’d missed a button on his shirt. He filled a cup with hot coffee and took a sip before looking out the windows to the farm. The sun was starting to peek and the horizon glowed red.

“Red sky at night, sailor take flight, Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning,” Josiah said, grabbing a cup from the cupboard. “How’re you feeling?”

“Shitty,” Buck said, taking seat at the table. He grabbed the paper that had already been read and flipped to the sport’s page.

“You going to speak with JD?”

Buck nodded and then grabbed two sugar cubes. He dropped one into his cup and he sucked on the other. “Thought he could handle it as a joke—didn’t figure on it goin’ so far.”

Josiah nodded and grabbed a breakfast bar. “He has a respect for his mother that should be the norm, but instead we’re all guilty of self gratification that has involved the degradation of others.”

Buck frowned.

“Sex,” Josiah said, “many men, me included, have found it a part of our masculinity to—”

“—Just say it, Josiah: the more women we fuck the more manly we are?” Buck chuckled, “Maybe you’re right, maybe not, but it’s the only thing I’m known for. Never could break a horse like Chris, fix shit like Nathan, or ranch like dad—but I got around more ‘an he did. Guess it’s the only thing I am good at.” He stood, walked to the sink and dumped his coffee. “JD’s a good kid… Guess I shouldn’t be surprised that dad fucked him up as well, huh?”

Josiah shook his head. “It has nothing to do with Lincoln—but it does with a young man and his very noble convictions.”

“It ain’t normal.”

“Our father sired seven sons from seven different women—and we’re the ones we know about. In all reality, Buck, there could be more. So, if you don’t mind, explain to me what normal is?”

“I can’t.”

Josiah nodded: “Then what are you so upset about?”


JD waited until Buck left to enter the kitchen. The house was quiet except the humming of the refrigerator. He glanced out the window toward the fields and saw Buck tossing hay from the flatbed trailer. Vin and Ezra’s vehicles were still parked by the shed and Goober lay by the gate waiting for Buck to finish.

The sky was dark and the trees swayed. A storm was coming. He grabbed a cup of from the cupboard and shuffled his feet toward the coffee maker. The smell was bitter, but he savored it.

“Hey, JD,” Vin said, stepping beside him. He poured himself a cup of coffee and leaned against the counter. “Everybody gone?”

JD nodded and dumped a packet of sweetener into the black substance. “Ezra’s car is still here. I think I heard Chris leave early.”

Vin grabbed a roll from the bread box and moved to take a seat at the table. “Ella’s comin’ over for dinner—that’s what Chris told me anyway.”

JD sighed and then nodded. He looked around the room. “Do you like her?”

“No,” Vin said, before taking a bite of his role.

“You want to take a minute and think about it?” He moved around the kitchen counter and took a seat at the table.

Vin shook his head and then took a sip of coffee. “What do you think of her?”

JD shrugged: “She’s pushy.”

Vin smiled and turned to watch Buck leave the pasture, the trailer bouncing behind the truck. Goober barked and wagged his tail following behind. Age was catching up with the old dog, but despite stiff joints he did his best to keep up. Vin stood and dusted the front of his pants. “I need to talk to Ezra…” he turned toward the door leading to the family room, “You goin’ to talk to Buck?”

JD sighed: “Yeah.”


Vin knocked on Ezra’s bedroom door, not having found him in his usual place: Lincoln’s office. “Ezra?” He paused, listening as the front door was slammed shut. “Ezra?” He clenched his jaw and slowly twisted the bedroom doorknob.

The room was heavily shadowed and the curtain fluttered against the breeze entering through the narrow opening.

“Shit, Ezra,” Vin said, stepping into the room and knelt beside Ezra who lay on the floor in front of his dresser. He rocked his knees from side to side in short slow motions. His left arm lay over his eyes. “Ezra?”

Ezra clenched his jaw and sighed. “What?” His voice was harsh, dry, and painful.

“You been here all night?”

Ezra lowered his arm, exposing dark circles beneath red eyes. He looked miserable: his skin was pale and his features drawn.

“This one of those headaches?”

Ezra sighed and covered his eyes with his arm again: “Yeah.”

“Want some help gettin’ into bed?”


Vin sighed, brushed the back of his hand against the right side of his mouth, and looked around the room. He grabbed a blanket off the bed and tossed it over Ezra. “You want me to call Nathan? He might have somethin’ that ‘ill ease the pain?” He squatted and rested his arm on the bed while he waited.

Keeping his head as still as possible, Ezra rolled his lips together. “No…thanks, Vin.”

Vin stood, moved to the window and closed it. He pulled the curtain closed and turned to leave the room. Pausing at the door he turned and looked at Ezra. He sighed and pulled the door nearly closed, he left it open just enough to peek through on occasion.


Ella entered the office and sent Marcie a smile.

“Back at ya, toots,” Marcie said, crossing her arms over her chest, she leaned against the back of her chair.

Ella knocked on the office door and entered before being invited. Chris sat at his desk, filling out paperwork. He looked up and tossed his pencil aside. He ran his fingers through his hair before leaning back.

“Thought I might come by and see if you’d like me to bring somethin’ for dinner tonight—”


“You invited me, remember?”

“I just want to talk, Ella, that’s it.”

“You’ve made your decision?”

Chris rubbed his brow: “I want to talk about it, Ella, but not here.” He stood and walked toward the window. “You can’t keep doggin’ my heels every damn day lookin’ for answers I can’t give you.” He turned, crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the wall.

“You don’t want the baby?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to.” Ella stood and pushed the front of her jacket closed. “I’m not stupid, Chris. I know when I’m being brushed off.”

“You’re not bein’ brushed off. I’m askin’ for a little more time. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m dealin’ with more than just this at the moment, an’ I’m not about to make any decisions that could affect the rest of my family because you’re makin’ unreasonable demands.”   

Ella clenched her jaw and pressed her lips together. “Unreasonable demands?” She raised her eyebrows. “I had no idea that my unreasonable demands were less valuable than your half brothers’ needs.” She turned and grabbed the doorknob. “I’ll be out at the ranch and we can discuss this then. I want an answer, Chris, no more bullshit.” She opened the door and slammed it against the wall as she left.

Chris sighed and rubbed his eyes. When he looked up he spotted Marcie leaning against the doorframe.

“That woman’s sleepin’ with the devil.”

“Damn it, Marcie.”

“I’m just voicin’ my opinion, but you can’t sleep with the devil an’ not expect to get burned, Larabee.” She pushed herself off the wall. “You’d better make a decision an’ soon because she’s not goin’ to wait for you or anyone else.”

Chris sighed and stopped her before she could step out of the office: “What do you think?”

Marcie smiled and shook her head: “Doesn’t matter what I think. But I’m not the one with six brothers, a ranch, the position of sheriff, an’ the possibility of losing it all if I make the wrong decision.” She slapped her hand on the wood frame of the door and walked to her desk.

Chris turned and watched several high school students walk across the street. A gust of wind blew leaves and dead grass into the parking lot. Rain drops speckled the window. He turned back toward his desk and looked at the piles of paperwork that needed his attention.