Fortunate Sons

By Beth

Brothers AU (Ezra, Seven)

Chapter 24

Buck tossed a bale of hay from the loft and watched it land, sending leaves, dust, and twigs in a plum. Goober barked, and moved back as Buck descended the narrow ladder. The horses stretched their necks in an effort to snatch a bite. He grabbed the orange twine and used his legs to toss the bale toward the end of the alley. He cut the strings in one motion, releasing the tightness of the bale. Now twice its size, he grabbed a couple of flakes and tossed them into the feeder of the first stall.

“Hey,” JD said, entering the barn. He wore his coat, gloves, and his boots. His long underwear was visible in the holes in the knees of his jeans.

Buck turned and wiped his brow on the sleeve of his jacket. He watched JD look into the empty stall, quickly moved passed it, and stroked his hand along the big chestnut’s neck. “Listen, kid…I didn’t—”

“—It’s okay,” JD shrugged. “Figure we just grew up different.” He licked his lips. “Can’t change how I feel, Buck. Figure you can’t either.” He shoved his hands into his pockets and leaned against the stall door.

“Still,” Buck sighed, grabbing two more flakes of hay, “didn’t mean for it to go so far.” He tossed the hay into the next feeder.


“What?” Buck turned.

“Ella’s here.”

“Didn’t think you minded her?”

“I don’t mind chocolate either, but in large quantities it’s deadly.”

Buck chuckled: “Help me finish feedin’.”


“How’re you feelin’?” Vin asked, shoving the newspapers aside as Ezra took a seat at the table.

“Better,” Ezra said, rubbing his eyes. He swallowed and nodded when Vin placed a hot cup of coffee before him.

“You gettin’ those migraines more?”

“It’s just stress.”

Vin nodded, but looked critically at him. “You get a chance to look over that shit about Ella?”

Ezra nodded and looked out the window as the familiar car was parked next to his own. “She’s here.”

Vin sighed.

“Keep Chris occupied,” Ezra stood and started walking toward the living room. “I’ll get her to open up.”


Ezra gripped the coffee cup and shrugged: “She’s an atrocious con-woman, Vin, and right now she’s backed into a corner.”

“You think this is the best way to go about it?”

Ezra rubbed his brow: “It’s the only way.”


Ezra sat at the piano, looking at the ivory keys. A lingering twinge reminded him of what had happened and what had been exposed. Cold winds shook the windows, and the fire continued to roar. He could hear Buck and JD in the basement playing pool, avoiding Ella who was trapped with Vin in the kitchen. Nathan was with Raine, having a nice dinner in Reno, and Josiah was still at his office. He and Chris would probably arrive home together.

The house was relatively quiet, except for the brief echoes of Buck and JD’s game. Ezra heard Vin excuse himself and he sighed, knowing the inevitable was coming.

“You play beautifully.”

Ezra turned and watched Ella take a seat on the sofa before turning back to look at the keys. “Chris will be back shortly,” he said, ignoring her curious looks.

Ella chuckled and straightened her skirt. “I remember your father when I was younger—he went to all the boys’ ball games, he even chaperoned Chris’ senior prom.” She turned and watched the flames flicker. “Buck looks the most like him.”

Ezra nodded, but focused on the piano.


Chris pulled the door open and was quickly hushed by Vin who stood at the top of the stairs leading to the basement.

“What’s goin’ on?”

Vin clenched his jaw: “Ezra’s talkin’ to Ella.”

Chris raised his eyebrows: “And?”

“I think she’s full of shit, an’ I asked Ezra to see what he could get out of her—”

“—Damn it, Vin.”

“You ain’t doin’ it, might as well let someone who knows a thing or two about bullshit, bullshit the bullshiter.”

“Give her some time.”

“No offense, Chris, but I’ve hunted bounties more honest than she is.”

“She’s not that bad.”

“Neither’s a rattlesnake ‘til you piss it off.”


“Do you wish you could have met him?” Ella said, looking toward the door, anticipating Chris’ arrival. She sat on the sofa, fingering the dirty cord along the armrest.

Ezra smiled and ran his finger over an ivory key. “No.”

She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “I don’t believe you.” She tilted her head and smiled, allowing the curve of her lips to crease her teeth.

“What is it you need, Ms. Gaines?”

“Come now, Ezra, I may eventually be your sister-in-law.” She relaxed her smile and flipped her hair back across her shoulder and then played with the hem of her skirt. “Doesn’t that excite you?”

Ezra turned on the piano bench and smiled. “And just what is it you’re proposing?” He raised his left eyebrow.

Ella looked toward the door and leaned against the back of the sofa. “Your mother has quiet the reputation.” She shook her foot and folded her fingers together within her lap.

Ezra nodded.

“I’ve been watching you.” She sighed and raised her brow. “You’re not like the others.” She twisted her thumbs. “Are you anything like her…your mother?”

“More so her, than my father, I assure you.”

Ella shifted uncomfortably and then cleared her throat: “I want to buy you out—your property, the stock, anything else that could be construed as being yours.”

Ezra frowned: “I hadn’t realized ranching was your forte?”

“It’s not, but…” she paused and watched him run his fingers over the keys, gently, like he would a woman’s thigh. “Your… mother’s reputation, I don’t feel your influence over this family is beneficial to Chris or his brothers…and if you are indeed a Larabee, I think you’ll realize that someone like yourself could cause harm, potentially devastating harm for those who truly love him—and his brothers.” She straightened her skirt. “You know I’m right.”

Ezra said, “How much?”

“$177,000. And the day after you pick up the money your father left you, you leave and don’t ever come back.”

“I’ll get more than that on the open market.”

“I highly doubt that. The offer I made you is extremely reasonable and I think you would be a fool to refuse it.”

Ezra chuckled: “What is it you really want, Ms. Gaines? $177,000 is a drop in the bucket for a woman like yourself, particularly after the recent loss of your mother.”

Ella shifted position and crossed her legs. “You don’t think I’m serious?”

“I don’t think my opinion matters, but if you were serious, your offer would have been twice that amount.”

“This is a ranch, and, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s not made of gold. But what does concern me is raising a family without certain influences. Your mother’s known for conning, lying, cheating, and stealing. How am I to know you won’t do the same. After all, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” She squared her shoulders and looked at him. “I’m pregnant.”

“So am I,” Ezra chuckled, “I still don’t know who the father is.”

“That’s not funny.”

Ezra’s features took on a chiseled appearance. “No,” he raised his eyebrows, “it’s not funny…but I’m not the one who’ll look rather suspicious in six months when you’re still unnaturally thin—or was that the plan?” He sighed. “Fake the pregnancy—plan a fall to lose the ‘baby’ or perhaps conjure up another scheme in order to get what you want. That’s what your good at it, isn’t it? Marrying into situations that are perfect for the picking. Accidents happen all the time on farms—we’ve seen that in abundance this summer and yet here you are, after a man who’s well respected within the community, who owns a ranch, and is about to come into a great deal of money—”

“—You’re way off base—”  

“—Am I? People who get close to you die, and if they happen to be close to people you’re particularly fond of,” he shrugged, “you burn them out.”

“What are you implyin’?” She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders.

Ezra smiled: “I’m not the one Chris and the others should be concerned about… But that’s the problem isn’t it? Your endeavors have left more than a few people with unanswered questions. Your late husband’s family for starters, a boyfriend…. And there’s a situation regarding insurance claims that are still under investigation for possible arson. Who is Cletus Fowler, Ms. Gaines?”

Ella shook her head, “You’re nothin’ but a two bit con man with an over bearing mother that you can’t trust. I don’t see how Chris an’ the others can stand to be around someone like you—particularly when you may not even be a Larabee son. What’s it like, Ezra, doubtin’ the one thing that links you to the others? Or has your mother’s trainin’ been too heavily imprinted?”

“My mother never killed anyone.”

“That’s somethin’ she may eventually rectify.” Ella sighed and pushed her back into the sofa. “You’re very calm for a man who could easily find himself singin’ for change in a dirty bar north of Reno again. Your father went to that bar…I’m sure he saw you play—and yet you never met him. Perhaps he didn’t want to meet you? Maybe he knew what you were and chose to leave you.”

Ezra clenched his jaw.

She smiled: “I recognized you that first time—when you were playing that piano… Lincoln purchased it for Chris’ mother, I guess she could play masterfully.”

Ezra nodded: “Chris will find out about the baby, and when he does, you’ll be onto your next target. My suggestion for you is to leave now, before you expose more of yourself than you already have. The cards are on the table and you’ve lost.”

Ella stood: “I never lose.”

“Everybody loses.” He looked at her. “My mother dated Elliot Riley for three years and they were married for six months—before she made off with a rather large sum of money and a notebook that belonged to the family that contained a few…secrets.” He rubbed his jaw and turned back toward the piano. “She knows who you are too, Ms. Gaines, and if I were you, I’d stay out of her way…she has a very strange way of making someone’s life extraordinarily miserable if they piss her off—and my mother doesn’t abide by murder because there’s no challenge to, and frankly, she believes it takes the fun out of it.”

Ella gritted her teeth and turned, only to stop suddenly and look Chris in the eye. “I hadn’t realized—”

“No, don’t ‘spose you did.” He clenched his jaw and looked at her. “I think you should leave.”


“—Now, Ella, before I do somethin’ about it.”

“It’s not what it sounded like.”

Chris stepped forward and leaned toward her: “Get out of my house.”

She could feel the heat of his breath on her jaw. She nodded, squeezed her hands together, and quickly left the room.

The screen door slammed against its frame and then her car roared to life. Chris listened to gravel crunch beneath the weight of the vehicle, and he squeezed his hands into fists. He wasn’t a fool, and he hated being treated like on.

“This ain’t over,” Vin said, moving away from the window as red tail lights disappeared.

“S’pose it ain’t.”

“What’re you goin’ to do about it? About her?”

Chris turned and looked at Vin. “I don’t know…” He turned and left the room.

Vin leaned against the wall and sighed. He looked toward Ezra who continued to sit at the piano, gently running his fingers over the ivory keys. A smile tugged at the corners of his lips. “You were in a band?”

Ezra nodded, but he didn’t look up.

Using his shoulders, Vin pushed himself off the wall. “Never figured you for the field of entertainment.”

Ezra smiled and then looked up. “Obviously it didn’t pay the bills.”

Vin chuckled: “Doesn’t have to.” He turned toward the kitchen: “If the benefits are right.”     

Chapter 25

It was a weight off his shoulders, despite the pain it caused. Chris sat at the kitchen table watching the sun peek over the horizon. He wasn’t a fool, and he knew the difference between truth and lies…but he’d been blind to Ella’s—too wrapped up in the ‘fun’ of it. He picked up his coffee cup and blew at the steam before taking a sip.

The things she had said were bad enough, but the manner in which they were spoke made his stomach turn. And Ezra had taken it as though he’d heard those very words a thousand times before. Chris twisted his cup on the table and then looked out the window. His brothers had figured her out…

Why hadn’t he seen it?

Why hadn’t he seen past the lies and the manipulation? What was it about him that blinded him to her?  

He heard the familiar stomping echo up the stairs as Vin walked up from the basement. He nodded once and grabbed himself a cup of coffee before taking a seat at the table across from Chris. Neither spoke. Vin tossed a couple sugar cubes into his coffee and then stirred in enough cream to muddy his drink.

“Who put you up to it?”

Vin shrugged and tested his coffee. “Nathan at first. He had a few concerns, an’ frankly so did the rest of us. Shit, Chris, with everythin’ that’s goin’ on… I sure as hell can’t blame you for wantin’ to get away from it all.” He looked toward the family room entrance and smiled as JD walked into the kitchen rubbing the top of his head and yawning. “Hey, JD.”

He nodded and reached for a cup and poured himself some coffee. He shuffled toward the table wearing his bright blue pajama bottoms. “Josiah snores,” he said, pouring cream into his cup, “really loud.”

Chris chuckled. “You’re a floor above him.”

“Not far enough.” JD tested the temperature of the coffee and took a sip. “What happened with Ella last night?” He looked from Chris to Vin and then back to Chris.

Vin rubbed his brow and rested his right elbow on the table.

Chris cleared his throat. “She won’t be back.”

JD nodded and then yawned. “Buck’s birthday’s comin’ up—”

“It’s Friday,” Chris said.

“Day after tomorrow?” Vin frowned.

JD stood and retrieved a brochure from a pile of papers that had been placed next to the microwave. He handed it to Chris and then retook his seat. “I was thinkin’ we could go out…invite a few friends?”

Chris smiled: “The Black Palomino Saloon, used to go there with Sarah when we were first datin’.” He passed the brochure to Vin. “Good food, good band—at least they used to.”

“Sounds good to me, JD,” Vin said, rubbing his face. “You gonna ask Casey?”

“Already did.”

“Sounds like fun,” Chris said, looking at Vin. “You got someone to ask?”

Vin shook his head. “No—an’ don’t ask why.”


“There ain’t nothin’ better lookin’ that this,” Buck said, patting his cheeks while checking his appearance in the reflection of the glass above the kitchen sink. He’d showered, trimmed his mustache and his hair. He wore a crisp dark blue shirt and Wranglers that hugged him in all the right places. He’d shined his boots, polished his silver belt buckle, and splashed his cheeks and neck with cologne.

He smelled like a Texas whore house but he looked damn good.

JD chuckled and pushed him aside. “Maybe a close second, Buck, but definitely not the best lookin’.” He’d slicked his black hair back and pulled his best green dress shirt from his closet. He wore a pair of blue jeans that gathered at his ankles and exposed just the front of his ostrich skin cowboy boots. He had chosen a green tie that shimmered gold when it caught the light.

Chris chuckled when he entered the kitchen and found his two brothers fighting over the reflective glass. “There’s a mirror in the bathroom.”

JD turned and shook his head. “Don’t need it, can’t fix perfection.”

Chris licked his bottom lip and stifled a smile. He wore a maroon long-sleeved shirt that was tucked into black jeans. Black boots and a black belt set off his classic style. The top two buttons of his shirt were undone, exposing the collar of a black tee shirt beneath.

A knock at the door caused all three men to step forward but a call from Vin stopped them. Casey entered the kitchen and smiled when a round of gasps echoed. She flattened the front of her dress with her hands and then adjusted the position of her purse.

“Well,” she said, looking at JD.

JD raised his eyebrows. “Wow.”

“Hate to say this, JD, but you ain’t the best lookin’ anymore,” Buck said, pushing him forward.

The red dress hugged her bodice and draped perfectly over her hips. She’d always hidden her figure with oversized tee-shirts and jeans better-suited for men. Her long brown hair whisked her face, accentuating her beauty.

JD stepped forward and offered his arm with a smile. She took it and followed him toward the door.

Vin shook his head. He ran his fingers through his hair and slipped his hands into the pockets of his pants. He wore a charcoal gray shirt and black pants. A white tee-shirt peek up past the collar of his shirt and a silver concho belt shimmered beneath the lights of the kitchen. He wore his worn lace-up packers, but at least he’d cleaned them. “Where’re the others?”

“Nathan and Raine are goin’ to meet us there, and Josiah and Ezra should be out any minute.” Chris grabbed his jacket and slipped it on. He smiled when he looked out the window toward JD and Casey who were talking beside the truck.

“Brothers,” Josiah said, shoving his wallet into his back pocket as he entered the kitchen. “It smells like a cologne factory in here.”

Always an imposing figure, he easily fit into the crowd. He wore a classic blue suit that lessened his size, but added to his strong features. A cream shirt softened his bulk. His hair had been spiked which added an inch to his six-foot two-inch height. It was here that Buck and Chris saw their father. Josiah slapped his hands together and smiled, exposing bright white teeth.

“We ready?”

“Waitin’ for Ezra,” Vin said.

“I’m ready,” Ezra said, slipping past Josiah as he entered the kitchen. Always impeccably dressed it wasn’t a surprise that he would be anything less. He wore a black jacket, black shirt and tie, and black slacks. His attire fit him perfectly. The custom cut suit moved, hugged, and flattered all the right places.

“Let’s go.”


The Black Palomino Saloon was an hour from Four Corners, located in a small suburb of Reno it seemed out of place among the housing comminutes better suited for mini malls and drive-up pharmacies. A rearing black horse with a white mane and tail stood at the entrance. There were no signs or arrows pointing to the place, but they knew where to go to get there.

Cars, jeeps, trucks, motorcycles, and busses littered the parking lot. A few patrons were in front of the saloon talking: men doting on their significant others and bikers compared paint jobs while cowboys joked. It was the only saloon around where ranchers, doctors, cops, bikers, cowboys, musicians, and any other person who normally wouldn’t fit came to do nothing other than listen to good, live music and eat great food. The saloon had started as a dive, but when the new owner took over it became “the place to go”. Sarah had loved it, and every Friday night she and Chris would share a table and a plate of fish and chips while drinking ale.  

The music, a combination of country and rock, echoed and unlike most bars the building was perfect for acoustics. The bands rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama” was original enough to be good while not so far off as to leave their listeners questioning their music education.

Chris opened the door and smiled at the familiar scents, sounds, and lights. He stood back as Casey and JD slipped past him with the intention of dancing. Buck was next, already looking for a potential date. Josiah had stopped off to speak with the driver of the silver phantom Harley and it was going to be a while before he was ready to pull himself away from the classic beauty. The driver, a thin tall man wearing leather chaps and a jacket to match seemed more than willing to explain every little detail about his pride and joy, and Josiah looked like a student excited about the potential of learning. Vin chuckled and slapped Chris on the shoulder as he passed him entering the saloon.

“You ever been here, Ezra?” Chris said, following.

“No, but I’ve heard about it.” He looked toward the bar where two men and two women wearing matching tee-shirts worked frantically to keep up with the demands of customers.

Chris pointed toward the far corner of the room where Nathan was sitting the Raine. “Looks like Nate was able to get us a table.”

Several waitresses moved throughout the crowd, they smiled as they deposited food trays onto tabletops. Unlike the bartenders, their tee-shirts were black with a rearing black palomino on the back. They wore jeans with studs on their back pockets.

The band stopped playing, they thanked the crowd and introduced the next band. It was an older group of men than the first, despite their years, their enthusiasm for the music was evident through their respect for their instruments. One man was guided onto the stage and was handed a bass guitar. He wore dark glasses that hid his eyes, jeans with holes in the knees, sandals, and a tee-shirt endorsing Riverdance. Obviously blind, his fingers moved over the fingerboard of his bass with familiar ease, and he tapped his foot with the beat. The drummer was bald. He had large brown eyes and held an unlit cigarette between his lips as he took a seat on the small stool behind the drums. He wore a blue tank and jeans that could easily compare with Vin’s after 12 hours in the shop. Grease stains, holes, and poorly attached patches marred his jeans and he wore them proudly. Another man stepped onto the stage, shorter than the others, his guitar hung from his shoulders with a narrow leather strap. He had a full mustache and beard that was just beginning to go gray. His hair was blond and pulled into a ponytail that dangled just below his shoulder blades. He smiled and waved to the crowd, a few people called out requests and he appeased them by swinging his guitar into place and starting to pick at the strings.

Chris took a seat across from Nathan and said hello to Raine. She smiled and moved with the music. She was working on a drink that had two mini umbrellas hooked to the side. Nathan drank a beer and munched on some peanuts. “You order anything to eat?” he asked, speaking above the music.

Casey took a seat next to Raine and the two women began talking while JD sipped on his cola. Buck was working on one of the women behind the counter. She was laughing and swaying her hips to the beat of the music, she laughed and reached out and grasped Buck’s arm. Chris chuckled and shook his head.

“Where’s Josiah?” Nathan said, resting his elbows on the table.

“Talkin’ to a biker about a Harley.” Chris watched the singer of the band and followed his gaze to Ezra who walked from the bar to the table.

Ezra took a seat and placed his drink on the coaster. “Buck has informed me that he may have an alternative way home.”

Chris nodded with a chuckle: “Doesn’t surprise me.”

“Chris…Chris Larabee?”

Chris turned and frowned as the blonde woman squeezed herself between two tables and walked toward him. Her hair bounced around her shoulders and she smiled as Chris stood.

“Mary Travis,” Chris said, kissing her cheek.

“Nathan, Raine, it’s good to see you both.” She pushed her hair back behind her ear.

“Join us,” Raine said, moving closer to Nathan.

Mary smiled: “No, I don’t want to intrude—besides, I’m working.”

“You’re not tendin’ are you?” Chris asked, standing back and frowning.

“No,” Mary chuckled. “I’m writing an article about the band that’s playing. I guess they just got a record deal with Sony. People love the stories about the local boys that get famous.” She turned toward the band when they started on a familiar song. She was tall, elegant, sure of herself, and content with her life. She didn’t have the appearance of a woman in search of something.

Chris introduced her as Vin walked up from the bar. He smiled, shook her hand, and then turned back toward the dance floor.

“Want to dance?” Chris said, leaning toward her right ear.

Mary smiled: “Yeah.”

Vin watched them walk toward the dance floor and the he looked toward Ezra. “Looks like we’re the only one’s goin’ home alone tonight. I’d be willin’ to put money on Josiah sleepin’ with the Harley outside… he’s still out there.” He chuckled and grabbed a handful of peanuts.

“I want to thank everyone here tonight,” the guitarist and vocalist for the band said, pushing his guitar out of the way as he grabbed the microphone. He had a deep voice, the kind best used for the blues: low, rough, and seductive. He smiled as the group of dancers stopped and clapped after they finished the last set. “For those of you who aren’t familiar with us, we used to play in a small joint just outside of Reno called Hairy Dicks—”

The crowd laughed while others cheered and clapped.

“—now, it wasn’t called that because we all had hairy dicks, but because the owner of the bar was Dick and he just happened to be a hairy bastard.”

Again, the crowd laughed and focused their attention on the man talking.

The man smiled and wiped his lips. “Now, we used to be a four-member band—”

A few people clapped.

“—some of you remember.” He pointed toward the groups. “The kid who used to play with us was a great guitarist but a few timbers fell into his path and he ended up goin’ his own way—”

The same people who had clapped before now booed.

“—I know, I know, but shit happens and folks have to do what they gotta do.”

Ezra covered his eyes with his hand like the bill of a baseball cap and sank further onto his chair. He clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut.

Vin chuckled and watched him.

“Now, I think it would be great if—before me and the boys head to California to cut our first record—if we could get the original four of us together and sing a couple songs for you all—what’do you all think?”

The crowd cheered and the band clapped.

“I saw our former singer-slash-guitarist walk across this here floor not 20 minutes ago—bet he didn’t recognize me cuz of my beard.” He laughed and pointed toward the table where Nathan and Raine sat. “Ezra, get your ass up here.”

Nathan turned and laughed as Ezra squeezed his eyes shut.

“He’s right here!” Vin said, getting to his feet and pointing.

Casey, JD, Raine, and Nathan all stood and clapped.

Ezra squeezed the bridge of his nose between his eyes and smiled tightly. He stood, removed his jacket and hung it over the back of his chair before slowly making his way to the stage. A few people slapped him on the back, others continued to clap, and some just waited. It was just another page in his book, performing, and he didn’t consider it any different than what he had done many times before…

It was all just a part of the package.

The crowd clapped and cheered as Ezra stepped onto the stage. He grabbed Nixon’s arm in a friendly grasp and leaned toward his ear when he said a few words. Nixon only laughed and removed his guitar and handed it to him.

“Ladies and gentlemen, before I hand the mike over there’s just a couple things you should know…” he turned and looked at Standish. “Don’t ask him to sing anything by John Denver—despite the fact he does an awesome impersonation.” He grinned, stretching his cheeks over white teeth as the crowd clapped. “And…and,” he raised his hands to settle them, “and make sure he doesn’t leave this stage without performing a song called White Sand.” He stood back and slapped Ezra’s shoulder.

Ezra felt his stomach drop and he smiled tightly as he moved toward the microphone. He adjusted the height, hooked the heel of his boot onto the stool behind him and leaned back. “Just to remind the band—you can’t say fuck over the microphone.” He winked toward a woman sitting alone at a table, and then began to strum the guitar.

Music had never been a focal point in his life, but he had found it enjoyable. His mother had taught him most of what he knew, and having watched her sing and play in music groups it was only natural for him to seek out the same kind of environment. It was the one place he could go and not be mocked. He knew the guitar and the piano better than he knew himself and it showed. His movements were familiar and comfortable. He had grown up singing songs by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, The Momma’s and the Poppas, John Denver, the Beatles, and anyone else who had inspired his mother. He had never fallen into the trap of popular music, even through school he found comfort in the classics, people who built the music, not those who exploited it.

It showed now, his admiration of good music and historic songwriters. His voice was an instrument, not a crutch or something to hide.

Buck took a seat at the table and folded a few napkins, placing them in his pocket. “Told ya he could sing,” he said, and then took a drink of beer. He looked toward Vin and then Nathan and Raine as they stood and walked to the dance floor. JD and Casey soon followed.

“Well if you hadn’t of flunked band you could be up there too,” Vin said, raising his glass to hide his smirk.

Buck frowned and pressed his lips together. “You, Tanner, are a pain in the ass.”

“Get some phone numbers?”

Buck nodded: “The little gal behind the counter.”

Vin smiled: “Happy birthday, Buck.”

Buck smiled: “Sure as hell couldn’t think of a better one.”

Chapter 26

Ella Gaines had disappeared. She had moved out of her apartment and left no forwarding address. It was good and bad at the same time—not knowing where a woman of her capabilities would keep herself until she gathered what she needed in order to strike.

And she would strike.

Chris looked out the window of his office and thought about running for reelection. He loved his job, but over the years he’d angered a few people. He didn’t comply with what others wanted to have done; he did what was best for everyone, even if it meant losing what he had. The election was less than a year away, and already people were asking if he was going to run again. Many offered their support, while others didn’t.

Marcie entered his office and placed a cup of coffee in front of him. She turned and walked toward the door.

“What’s this for?” Chris asked, looking toward her.

“You look like you could use a fresh cup—don’t let it go to your head.” She smiled and walked back to her desk.

Chris chuckled and tossed a file onto his desk. He opened his drawer and pulled out four wallets that had been dropped by Ezra’s attackers. He wasn’t interested in the cash, just the names on the driver’s licensees. Entering the name of on the first license into the computer he waited while the information was retrieved.


With Thanksgiving only weeks away, Raine sat at the kitchen table with Casey and Nettie devising a plan for dinner that would need to supply enough nourishment for 16 people—possibly more. Nathan was lying on the sofa, dozing, while JD and Buck were feeding the animals. Vin was once again in the shop pounding metal and Josiah was looking through a catalogue of motorcycles. Ezra had disappeared and Chris was still at the office.

The last dish—sweet potatoes or yams—was yet to be assigned. Nettie finished the grocery list while Raine continued to read ingredients. It wasn’t the type of food needed for the dinner, it was the amount of food they’d have to cook. Josiah had offered to cook the turkeys, two in all, and Nettie had promised to make her peach cobbler while Raine would make her fry-bread.

Dinner would take place at the Larabee household. It was the only place large enough for everyone to eat comfortably. Most likely the men would move to the family room and watch football while the ladies prepared the meal, it wasn’t unusual, and it worked out for the best.   

Two inches of snow covered the ground and more was on the way. Winter would be harsh this year, cattle would be lost to starving predators and the cold.

Casey smiled when she spotted Buck and JD leave the pasture. Buck stood behind the cab of the truck while the kid drove, Goober followed at a slow pace. The cattle had rushed up from the bottom half of the pasture and were now fighting for positions at the dump sites.

Buck jumped out of the back of the truck, ruffled the top of Goober’s head and then he dusted his thighs. JD parked the truck slipped out of the driver’s seat, and then blew into his hands before slamming the door shut. He fell backward after a snowball connected with his chest. Casey smiled as she watched. JD pressed his lips together and grabbed a fistful of snow. Buck threw two more before he could finish forming the perfect weapon.

Goober barked and jumped up and down like a puppy.


She turned from the window. “Huh?”

Nettie smiled: “Can you call Mrs. Travis?”

Casey frowned: “Why?”

Nettie chuckled: “Where’ve you been?”

Raine snickered: “Thinking about a particular dark haired, handsome, Larabee son? Or maybe it’s Goober that caught your attention?”

Casey rolled her eyes.

“He’s a nice young man,” Nettie said, tapping her list with her pencil. “Hell of a lot smarter than his father, I’ll give him that.”

Raine chuckled: “Really, Nettie, aren’t they all?”

Nettie raised her eyebrows and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “Sometimes, I wonder about Chris.”


JD strummed his guitar, carefully moving his fingers along the fingerboard. Every placement had to be exact and he rolled his neck when the cramps started. He ignored Ezra’s chuckle and continued. “I’m gettin’ better, you gotta admit that.”

Ezra nodded, reached for JD’s left hand and forced his index finger into the correct position. “Cradle her neck, JD, don’t choke her.”

The kid sighed and readjusted his fingers. “How come you don’t sing anymore?”

Ezra shrugged and flipped to the next music lesson. “I haven’t really thought about.”

“Shit, Ezra, you’re really good—could, I don’t know, release a single or somethin’…I mean hell, you’re one hell of a musician. It’s gotta be better than—” JD pressed his lips together and clenched his jaw.

“Better than what?”

JD rolled his lips together: “Better than what you were doin’—don’t get me wrong, I mean, I think it’s cool that you deal with security issues an’ people need that, but you’re so talented.” He paused and gently stroked the arm of his guitar.

Ezra smiled and flipped the music sheets closed. “Talent doesn’t pay the bills.”

“Yeah, but, poker tournaments can.”

Ezra chuckled: “If you win.”

“Are you shittin’ me?” he said, leaning against his chair, his guitar resting in his lap, “you kicked ass—walked away with how much money? —you could do the whole world series of poker.”

Ezra rubbed his brow and carefully placed his instrument back into the hard case.

“Has your ma ever heard you play—like you did the other night?”

Shaking his head, he closed the case, carefully snapping the latches. “Keep practicing your finger placement, you’re learning fast.” He stood and positioned the guitar within the confines of the corner. Turning, he started to walk back to the kitchen.


He turned.

“Thanks. Thanks for teachin’ me to play.”

He nodded and left the room.


“Mary Travis!” Marcie said, jumping to her feet and rushing from behind her desk.

The two women squealed and hugged before standing apart from one another.

“You skinny bitch, you look fantastic!” Marcie said, crossing her arms over her chest. “What’s your secret?”

Mary laughed and shook her head: “Coffee and Slim Fast.”

“Shit, that’s awful.” She moved to the counter and poured herself and Mary a cup of coffee. “So what are you doin’ back in Four Corners—an’ where’s that child of yours?”

Mary removed her gloves and opened the front of her coat. “Billy’s with his grandparents, we’re here having Thanksgiving with them.”

Marcie raised an eyebrow: “And?”

Mary sighed and shook her head: “I saw Chris the other night…thought I would come by and say hi.”

“You know, it’s about damn time you two saw past your overworked schedules and got together—”

“—We’re not—”

“—He’s a good man, Mary, granted he doesn’t always fire on all cylinders, but he tries—most of the time. Hell, if I were 15 years younger an’ had a good pair of runnin’ shoes, he’d have one hell of a time tryin’ to stay clear of me. Comes from good stock, that one, an’… he’s got a great ass.”

“You’re insane.” Mary chuckled and blew at her coffee.

“Yeah, but I’m married.” She chuckled and looked out the window. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

Chris slammed the door to his Blazer and then slipped on the slick surface, catching himself on the side mirror. He shook his head, dusted his hands off and walked to the building. He turned and waved as someone drove by and offered a friendly honk. He stomped his feet on the mat and looked up as he entered the room. Mary and Marcie looked at him. Marcie cocked an eyebrow and Mary smiled.

“What?” He shook his head and looked behind him. Furrowing his brow, he sighed, “What?”

“Damn your pathetic,” Marcie said, walking toward her desk. “I swear to God, if I’m ever on a game show and need to call someone for a quick answer…it won’t be you.” She took a seat and placed her cup near the phone.

Mary chuckled and turned to follow Chris into his office. She turned back toward Marcie who had lifted her foot onto her desk and pointed toward her shoes, mouthing “Nike”.

“So,” Chris said, hanging up his coat, “you want to come out and have Thanksgivin’ dinner with us?”

Chapter 27

Buck groaned. He lay on the floor with his feet elevated, the first button on his pants had been undone and his hands covered his belly. He moaned louder when he spotted Vin sitting on the sofa finishing another buttermilk roll. He could hear the ladies in the kitchen cleaning, laughing as they scrapped plates and returned condiments to their original containers. Nathan paced back and forth as his team increased their lead. Josiah sat at the computer, reading the instant messages from his son. Casey and JD had disappeared. Chris and Orin sat at the kitchen table speaking about politics. Ezra sat on the sofa with Vin, chuckling as Buck’s misery increased with every passing moment.

“Hell I ate too much,” Buck said, slowly rocking his hips to and fro.

“Burp,” Vin said, “that’s what always helps me out—think we’ve got some root-beer in there.”

“You’re an evil man, Tanner, pure evil,” Buck said, slowly exhaling.

Ezra turned as Evie Travis entered the room, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. “Deserts on,” she winked at him.

“Oh God,” Buck said.

“Peach cobbler, pumpkin pie, apple crisp?” Evie chuckled, resembling an evil cartoon character.

Buck lifted his arm and laid it over his eyes.

“Pregnancy cramps are a bitch,” Vin said, getting to his feet. He wrapped an arm around Evie. “A bit of all three sounds real good about now.”

Evie chuckled.

Buck turned and looked at Ezra. “You look satisfied with yourself.”

“I’m not the one rolling around on the floor.”

“Point taken.” He sighed and looked toward the ceiling. “So what other talent are you hidin’ from the rest of us?”


“Well,” Buck said, waiting for the indigestion to pass, “you’re one hell of a poker player, kick ass guitar player, you’ve got a great singin’ voice—which I think you should utilize a bit more. There’s a fantastic little bar at the end of town, been workin’ on Inez for years now, but she won’t have anythin’ to do with me.” He rubbed his belly. “You play piano—good from what Chris says—an’ you can manipulate numbers like Dad did his kids. So what else do you have hidden?”

“Nothing more than you do, Buck.”

Buck turned his head and looked at him. “Some talents are worth hidin’, I’ll give you that—but some,” he smiled, “need to be shared.”

Ezra laughed.


JD tossed the magazine in front of Casey. “This is the one I like.” He pointed to the three bedroom cabin. Large windows encased a great room that lead to a kitchen and dining room. A wrap around porch had been sketched onto the floor plans.

“Why a cabin?” Casey said, pulling the magazine toward her. She looked at the layout.

JD shrugged and pushed himself onto the pool table, allowing his feet to dangle. He grabbed the eight ball and rolled it across the green felt. “It’s simple, and, I figure it’d look nice within the trees.”

“You picked out your land yet?”

“Kind of, Buck an’ me went lookin’ a month or so ago—the plot’s not far from his.” He looked toward the wall of pool cues. “You should ride out with me come spring.” He turned and looked at her.

Casey smiled, “I’d like to.”


Chris tucked a few of the leftovers from dinner into the back of Nettie’s truck, carefully packing snow around the turkey. He leaned against the wheel well as Nettie tossed a bag of rolls and a Tupperware container filled with cobbler onto the seat next to her.

She sighed and looked toward the pasture as Nathan helped Buck with the feeding. “Mr. Riley came out to my place the other day.” She looked at Chris. “He offered to sell me some of his land.”

Chris frowned: “What’d you tell him?”

“Said I’d have to think about it.” She rested her elbows on the hood of the truck. “Think someone’s squeezin’ him out—no guess is to who.” Nettie wiped her cheek and kicked the rubber of the tire. “Vin told me what happened with you and Ella—can’t say that I’m sorry, Chris, but that woman—”

“—I know, Nettie.” He watched Raine exit the pasture, driving the old Studebaker as Nathan opened the gate. “Haven’t seen sight nor sound of her for a while.”

Nettie turned and looked at him. “Folks around here ‘ave made the mistake of thinkin’ she’s crazy, but she ain’t. She knows what she’s doin’ an’ she’ll stop at nothin’ to make sure it happens. You an’ your brothers need to be careful.” She tipped her head slightly to the right, watching him look toward his brothers. “How’s Ezra?”

Chris frowned and looked at her. He wouldn’t lie, because he knew he couldn’t get away with it, not with Nettie Wells—the woman had been there when nobody else had. She was a good friend with a heart of stone, but pushed the wrong way she could make life hell for anyone. “He’s healed up.”

Nettie nodded: “You find out who did it an’ why?”

“Know the why, still workin’ on the who.”

She licked her lips and looked up as more snow started to descend. “Despite the shit, you’ve got yourself a good family—an’ I’m sayin’ this because I mean it. If you boys need anythin’?”

“I know,” Chris said with a smile.

“I don’t think you do.” She turned as JD and Casey exited the house. “I’ve come to think of you boys as my own—an’ the thought of somethin’ happenin’ to anyone of you makes my stomach turn. I wiped your ass when you were a toddler, Chris, so don’t try an’ bullshit me.” She took a deep breath when Casey shoved JD into a snow bank. “You watch, I’ll be plannin’ a weddin’ here come spring—on top of plantin’. Casey, get in the truck, we’ve got cows to feed.” She climbed in and rested her elbow on the window well. “I’ll be back by tomorrow with some milk, tell Josiah I’ll try and let it rest before I pull it off the top so he can have more cream.”

Chris slapped the side of the truck and took a step back. “Thanks, Nettie.” He grabbed JD behind his neck and squeezed.

Casey waved and slapped Nettie’s shoulder and then frowned after the older woman had made a comment. Nettie laughed. Her truck squealed as she turned down the driveway.

“Mary leave already?” JD asked, slipping gloved hands into his coat pockets.

“Yeah. How’s Casey?”

JD smiled: “She’s good.”

Chris chuckled and shoved him toward the house.

Chapter 28

Josiah stood at the counter looking at the array of ties. With his hands placed on his hips he contemplated metallic blue verses charcoal gray. He’d placed his coat in the crook of his arm near his elbow.

“Decided yet?” Vin asked. He dipped his chip into a tub of processed cheese and shoved it into his mouth. He looked at the silver tie and nodded toward it.

Josiah shook his head: “His mother said he needed some good clothes for school.”

“Jeans,” he said, dipping another chip into the cheese. “Figure if I were headed to school an’ needed somethin’ to wear it’d be jeans—comfortable jeans.”

Josiah turned with a raised eyebrow.

Vin shrugged: “Shit, I never went to college, but I sure as hell wouldn’t wear suits.”

“So is that what you want for Christmas? Jeans?” He dropped his arms to his sides, catching his jacket in his hand before it could hit the floor.

“Works for me.”

Josiah turned as Buck and JD entered the department store bickering about the pros and cons of organized team sports. Both men had bags filled with packages that they had professionally wrapped. Red bows and shinny paper peeked up toward the plastic openings. JD slurped on a diet cola while Buck finished another mocha.

“Find ‘im somethin’ yet?” Buck asked, flipping through a rack of shirts.

“Decided on jeans,” Josiah said, moving toward the furthest part of the store.

“What are you guys gettin’ Ezra?” JD asked, looking toward his bag of gifts. He turned to join Josiah at the jeans department.

“Hell, what’re you gettin’ Chris?” Vin said, curling his nose when he caught a whiff of a bad cologne.

“Condoms,” Buck said, grabbing a tee-shirt from a shelf.

Vin choked: “You’re gettin’ Chris condoms for Christmas?”

“Hell, I’m gettin’ everyone condoms—What’s your color choice?” Buck turned and looked at him. “What?”

“Is that all you think about?”

Buck snickered: “Got JD an instruction manual for sex—figure I’d give it to ‘im from Santa.”

“You’re evil.”

“I do what I can.” He moved toward another rack as JD and Josiah started discussing jeans. “You want to get Chris somethin’?”

Vin nodded.

“He loves shit about the American Revolution—I got him a sword last year. Don’t get ‘im any books, he’s got books comin’ out his ass, but maps, buttons, anythin’ like that he’d go nuts over. Now Nathan, he collects knifes, an’ not just steak knives, I mean throwin’ knives.” He nodded despite Vin’s look of disbelief.


“Yeah, an’ he’s good at throwin’ ‘em.” He grabbed a bright orange shirt off a rack and held it up. “What do you think…Ezra or not?”

Vin chuckled, pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose and went looking for JD and Josiah.

“What? He likes colors.”


It had been a tradition, cutting down the Christmas tree two weeks before the big day. Wrapped in scarves, heavy coats, hats, leather gloves, and thermal johns beneath jeans the seven headed out. Chris and Buck led the way. Chris sat behind the wheel of the tractor, Buck on the wheel-well beside him. JD and Vin rode in the bucket, while the others tried to maintain their hold on the trailer behind. Goober barked, moving between Ezra, Nathan, and then Josiah. The old dog wagged his tail and looked for something to chase.

Deer tracks marred the ground, followed by rabbit, coyote, and cougar. The snow shimmered white and glittered as the sun’s rays moved across the ground. The country was beautiful, mimicking a Thomas Kinkade painting.

“There,” Buck said, pointing toward a cluster of trees.

Chris nodded and steered the tractor in the direction. Vin and JD grabbed the back of the bucket, bouncing as they moved over the rough ground. He pressed in the clutch, the break, and then cut the engine.

“My legs are vibratin’,” JD said, rubbing his thighs.

Buck chuckled: “As long as it ain’t your ass.”

Vin stretched his back and inhaled deeply through his nose. “This is heaven.”

Ezra frowned, blew into his gloved hands and then shoved them beneath his arms. “More appropriately, hell frozen over.”

Goober barked from the back of the trailer, carefully watching Buck as he slipped off the tractor. Goober jumped up and down, wagging his tail, he wined until his master lifted him from the back and helped him to the ground. The old dog rushed toward the woods, limping slightly as he chased after a rabbit.

“How many trees are we cuttin’?” Buck asked, walking toward a few of the young Spruce.

“Nettie, Raine, us, Marcie, Orin and Evie,” Nathan said, grabbing the tools.

“And Mary.” Chris grabbed the axes.


“Shut up, Buck,” Chris said, handing Vin an axe.

JD gathered a handful of snow and formed it into a perfect ball. He smiled, and then tossed it at Buck. The kid laughed and ducked as Buck retaliated.

Tools were dropped as brothers ducked for cover and stocked up their ammunition. Snowballs flew like bullets through the air. Everybody had taken up a position, Vin and JD behind trees, Ezra ducked behind the south side of the trailer, while Josiah and Nathan hid behind snow covered boulders. Chris hid behind a tractor tire—smiling.

Goober returned, barking and giving Buck’s position away. Snowballs soon bombarded the western side of the trailer.

“I surrender!” Buck pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and waved it. Covered in snow, he stood, keeping his hand raised.

JD chuckled, stood, and then threw one last snowball for good measure. He opened his eyes wide and ducked as Buck charged him. Together they tumbled backward, flailing legs and arms. Josiah and Nathan walked through the snow, chuckling as the two men continued to wrestle. Buck forced a handful of snow onto JD’s face, who returned by shoving snow down the back of Buck’s coat.

Vin shook his head and fell forward after a snowball connected with the back of his neck. He turned, only to find Josiah smiling. “Payback’s a bitch, old man.”

The snowball fight was on again. Ezra remained hidden behind the trailer, seemingly forgotten, and content with himself. With his hands shoved beneath his arms he waited. He peeked over the edge and frowned when he could no longer see anyone.

“Over here, Ezra,” Chris said.

Ezra clenched his jaw and squeezed his eyes shut. “Shit.”


All seven brothers were soaked to the bone by the time they walked into the house. Coats, boots, socks, gloves, hats, and a few shirts were dropped to the floor in exchange for towels, blankets, hot showers, and positions near the heaters.

The trees, all six, were left on the back of the tractor trailer.

Nettie entered the kitchen and placed the gallon jug of milk on the counter before picking up the coats, gloves, and a few hats. She shook her head and placed them in a pile near the door. She placed the jug of milk into the refrigerator.

“Nettie,” Chris said, entering the kitchen from the basement. He’d changed into some dry clothing and a yellow towel hung around his neck over his shoulders.

“Brought you some more milk an’ I’ve got a couple loaves of fresh bread in the truck.” She pulled an envelope from her coat. “Found a few pictures of Cady that I thought Vin might like to have.” She handed it to Chris and then took a seat at the table.

Chris poured himself and Nettie a cup of coffee and then took a seat across from her. “Josiah’s headed into town to pick his son up from the airport tonight.”

“That’ll be a good visit for him.” She poured some cream into her cup. “How long is he goin’ to stay?”

“He’ll leave the day after Christmas.”

“Good.” She looked at him and tapped the porcelain handle. “I’ve been thinkin’ about Riley’s offer… it’s prime ground for sugar beets, onions, and maybe rape seed. Casey’s parents left her some money...”

Chris smiled: “She’s a farmer, Nettie, it’s in her blood and it might be the best investment for her—particularly if she an’ JD—”

“—She talks about him all the time,” Nettie said, chuckling as she tested the temperature of her coffee. “By the time I was her age I had two children at my feet an’ a husband who was never home.”

“There’s not a wicked bone in JD’s body.”

“Hell, I’m not worried. He’s got a quality about him.” She heard pipes as the water was turned off. Nettie took another sip of her coffee and then replaced the cup on the table. “When Casey went to get the cows to be milked this mornin’ she spotted a dark vehicle at the end of your road. She said the lights were off, but she could see the glowing of a cigarette through the window—whoever it was stayed there for over an hour an’ then they left. I rode along the property line at sunup an’ it didn’t look they’d been out walkin’, but I found these.” She reached into her pocket and removed a baggie filled with five cigarette butts.

Chris took a deep breath. “Call me if you see anythin’ like that again, Nettie, I don’t want you gettin’ hurt.”

“Nettie,” Josiah said, entering the kitchen wearing a blue suit.

“Hey, handsome.” She turned and smiled. “You headed out to pick up your son?”

Josiah nodded and checked his wallet. “We’ll be staying in Reno tonight, then we’ll head back first thing in the morning.” He turned after Nathan patted his back.

Nettie stood. “I’m headed home, you boys be careful an’ drive safe, Josiah—roads get slick at night.” She patted his arm and then headed toward the door. “Tell Raine I said hello, Nathan.” He opened the door and walked to her tuck.

Chris watched her through the window.

“How’s Nettie?” Nathan asked, grabbing a soda from the refrigerator.

Chris sighed, looking at the baggie. “She’s good—brought us more milk.”

“Brothers, I’m off.” Josiah grabbed his keys. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He was out the door before anyone could say goodbye.

Nathan chuckled and looked toward the pile of clothing.

“I’ll take it down in a minute. You headed to town to stay with Raine tonight?”

Nathan nodded, slipping his feet into his shoes.

“Why in the hell don’t you two just get hitched?”   

Nathan shrugged: “We’ll see.” He smiled when Nettie entered the kitchen with two loafs of fresh bread.

“I’d forget my head if it wasn’t screwed on. See you boys later.” She placed the bread on the counter before leaving.

Nathan stood and slipped into his dry coat. “I’ll be back tomorrow night.”

“Josiah will probably stop by the clinic before he comes home tomorrow.” Chris rested his arm on the table and fingered the baggie.

Nathan nodded: “See you tomorrow.” He turned and left, slamming the door behind him.

Chris paused and looked closely at the cigarette butts. They were non-filtered menthols, marred with pink lipstick. His mind told him Ella, but logic told him it could be anyone.

“Hey,” Vin said, entering the room. He’d changed into dry clothing and walked around in wool socks that were a size too large. He grabbed a soda from the refrigerator and took a seat across from Chris. “Josiah head out?”


Vin nodded and noticed Nathan’s car was gone, and then he glanced to the small baggie. “Savin’ those for later?”

Chris shook his head and pushed them across the wood surface. “Nettie found ‘em this mornin’ at the entrance of our driveway. Said Casey had seen someone parked out front for about an hour while she was milkin’.”

“What’re you thinkin’?”

“One of the men who attacked Ezra in the barn, Colby McDermott,” Chris sighed, and looked to Vin for recognition. “He spent seven years behind bars for accessory to commit extortion and 2nd degree murder. He was released nine years ago for good behavior. Prior to his conviction he managed to get off for rape charges when the witness disappeared. The other three have records a mile long: armed robbery, assault—one took a sledge hammer to a guy, but the D.A. couldn’t pin ‘im on it.”

“So you think this has to do with Ezra—not Ella?” Vin looked at the lipstick. “Can’t say for sure, but I didn’t think any of those guys were cross dressers.”

“Ezra’s the one who ousted her—despite the fact you an’ Nate had your suspisions—”

“—Does she know what happened here? About Ezra an’ those men?”

“She’s been in my office, Vin, an’ she’s not a stupid woman.”

Vin sighed and leaned against the chair. “Shit.”

JD entered the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. “What’s for dinner?”

Chapter 29

Josiah stood at the luggage claim and smiled when he spotted his son walking toward him. Samuel Sanchez was 19 with a mop of brown hair that dusted his eyebrows. His face was square like his fathers, though thinner because of his youth. He stood well over six feet with the build of a running back. An avid athlete, he walked with confidence and attitude. He smiled and hugged his father before tossing his backpack to the floor.

“How was the flight?”

Samuel shrugged and walked closer to the luggage claim. “Long. Mom says hi.”

“How’s she doing?”

“She’s gettin’ married in June. The guy’s nice, but…” he shrugged and reached for his bag, “…he’s a dick.”

Josiah grabbed the backpack and tossed it over his shoulder. He and Samuel started for the exit. “A dick in the sense that he makes you obey your mother or a dick because he wears penny loafers and golf pants.”

Samuel chuckled: “Both.”

Josiah slapped his son on the shoulder and shoved him in the direction of his car. “I thought we’d go have some dinner and talk.”


They were escorted to a quiet table near the back of the Italian restaurant. The scents of garlic, tomatoes, and Italian seasonings filled the room and caused stomachs to grumble. Samuel flipped through the menu and ran his fingers through his hair.

The waitress took their order and their menus while the server brought them their drinks and a basket of garlic bread.

“How’s school?” Josiah asked, reaching for the vinegar.

Samuel shrugged: “Okay. Thinking about changing my major.” He took a drink of his soda and waited.

“To what? I thought you wanted to continue with psychology?”

Samuel shook his head and reached for some bread. “Hell, Dad, everyone starts out in psychology. I’m thinking pre-law.”

“What made you change your mind?” Josiah leaned back, and looked at his boy. No longer a child, he couldn’t help but see innocence and a life full of learning. Samuel had his mother’s eyes and his father’s facial structure. He was strong independent, and hungry for experience.

“I took a class.”

Josiah chuckled, having had the experience of going through college he understood how majors changed as much as underwear—sometimes more. “So tell me about this girl?”


The tree looked ridiculous. Ezra had argued for a theme, something to follow—white lights with silver balls—but when Buck and Vin got hold of the decorations, the idea of a theme went out the window. Seven strands of multi colored lights weighed the branched down, as well as decorations dating back to the early 1940s. Tinsel hung in clumps from branches and fake snow littered the carpet, resembling dandruff rather than snow.

It was hideous.

Worse than hideous.

Ezra shook his head as Samuel and JD argued over the angel. Raine sat with Nathan on the sofa, supervising, while Vin continued to work on getting every set of lights plugged in. Chris left the room after the doorbell rang, leaving Josiah alone on the ladder as the two youngest men in the room continued their debate over the blue angel verses the silver one.

Casey cleared her throat and pointed toward the blue. “He’s right, JD, it does add a flash more color to the tree.”

Ezra tilted his head and widened his eyes. “You want…more color on that tree?”

“Absolutely,” Samuel said, handing the angel to his father. “It’s more festive.”

Casey laughed and slipped her arm through the crook of JD’s. “It looks nice.”

“It looks like it went through decorating factory on speed.”

“More like LSD,” Samuel said, shoving his hands into his back pocket. “Gives off more illusions.”

“What in the hell do you know about LSD?” Josiah said, stepping off the ladder.

Samuel chuckled: “LSD was your generation, Dad, mine’s meth.”

“You do meth?” Buck peeked around the tree, pushing branches up and down to see through.

“No!” Samuel shook his head and grabbed a few bags filled with gifts. “Holy crap you people are strange.”

“Ezra,” Chris said, entering the room with a package. “It’s for you.” He placed the box on the floor near Ezra’s feet and then took a step back. Tilting his head he pointed toward the angel. “You guys do realize that angel is meant for a table centerpiece?”

“Told you,” JD said, shoving Samuel toward Buck who shoved him toward Josiah.

Nathan laughed and helped Raine to her feet.

“I’ll check dinner.” She patted his knee and slipped passed the men.

Casey moved to join her.

Ezra squatted and ran his fingers along the return address label.

“Who’s it from?” Samuel asked, shoving JD toward the sofa.

Ezra sighed: “My mother.” He looked up and took the pocketknife Chris handed him and sliced the tape holding the package together.

Packing peanuts dropped to the floor as he fished through the stuff. He pulled a small box from the confines and handed it to JD, another went to Buck, another to Josiah, until all the brothers had one. The boxes weren’t wrapped, just their names written in black on the tops. Ezra placed his box on the end table and opened the letter.

“Do we open ‘em now?” JD asked, looking toward Buck and Josiah who shrugged.

Josiah watched Ezra pushed himself against the davenport, rest his elbows on raised knees as he read. With a shrug, Josiah popped the lid to the small box. The others quickly followed suit.

Chris pulled a photo from the confines. It was his father, laughing at a table with friends. It was taken before he got sick, before the cancer had stolen his life. Lincoln’s smile resembled Josiah’s, but his demeanor seemed closer to Buck’s. It had been framed and encased so time wouldn’t diminish the color or its condition. Chris sat in a chair and ran his finger over his father’s face.  

Buck wasn’t sure what he was looking at until he remembered when his father came home after that weekend in Vegas, bringing with him toys and stories. He pulled the yellow stuffed bird from its encasement. It was a small version of the one Lincoln had brought him so many years before. He chuckled and held the toy, remembering a time when things hadn’t been so stressful, and when his brothers had been his best friends, and when his father had been his hero. He looked to Chris and then to Nathan.

Nathan chuckled when he pulled a napkin that had been written on from the box. The restaurant name was still visible on the edge, but his father’s writing is what caught his attention. He had always been a doodler, copying cartoons from the funny papers, or creating new ones while he spoke on the phone to salesmen. The creation was simple and purely Lincoln’s style. The cat had large eyes, small ears, a small mouth, with giant teeth. Lincoln had inscribed his name along the outline of the animal’s body. It wasn’t a big thing, but it was something Nathan had forgotten about, and it had been something Maude Standish had found enchanting.

Josiah opened his box and smiled. It was a CD filled with popular songs from the year he was born. Most of those songs had been in Lincoln’s private collection, but not all. It wasn’t about the quantity of the gift, just the meaning. There was a time wrapped up in those songs, a time when things were different and so much simpler. It had been the beginning of something that nobody had known how to start. He had never met Maude Standish, but he could see her elusiveness through Ezra. He could see for the first time what it must be like: being the only son who wasn’t “wanted”, the one whose mother caused rage rather than fond memories.

JD wasn’t sure what the meaning was behind the ring. The gold band had been warn, but the quartz crystal glistened beneath the lights in the room. He slipped it on and smiled when it fit his index finger perfectly. He didn’t really wear rings, it just wasn’t his style, and that coupled with farming made even the idea unappealing. He looked toward the tattoo that encircled Chris’ ring finger—it had been safer than wearing an object that could easily get caught in machinery. Rings just weren’t practical on farms.  

“It was Dad’s,” Buck said, nodding toward the ring. “Thought he lost it in Vegas all those years ago.” He shrugged. “He never really wore it, but he liked it—seemed to fit him perfectly so when he went out…he’d put it on.”  

“It was his grandfather’s,” Chris said.

“This should be yours,” JD said, removing the ornament from his finger and handing it toward him.

He shook his head: “Never wore rings, JD, hell, I only wore my weddin’ ring long enough for the ceremony.”

JD replaced the ring on his finger and shrugged. He looked to Vin who looked at the photograph of his mother holding him when he was just a toddler. He didn’t recognize the woman next to her, or the child she carried. When he flipped the image over he frowned. Cady Tanner had located Maude Standish; she had never said a word to anyone. He handed to photo to Ezra who could only shrug.

“I don’t know,” he said, turning back to his letter.

The photograph moved from one brother to the next. The sentiment was there, but hidden in such a way it would take them time to figure it out. Maude Standish had made it very clear, however, Ezra was as much Lincoln’s son as the rest of them. She knew he and the others had their doubts, but she had none. The articles she had given to them meant something, if not now—they would in time.

“What’s your letter say?” JD asked, tossing the empty box into the fireplace.

Ezra sighed and rested his elbows on his raised knees. “She’s getting married in April and while she was cleaning out a few boxes she discovered a few small tokens of ‘our’ pasts and thought we would appreciate a few of Lincoln’s nuances.”

“He had a few of ‘em,” Buck said, chuckling.

“She wants me to attend the wedding.”

Josiah raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to go?”

“I’ve been to several already—I won’t be seeing anything new.”

“How many times she been married?” JD asked.

“This will be her…eighth, I believe.”

Buck snorted.

“Shit,” Samuel said, shaking his head.

“Where’s the weddin’ goin’ to be?” Chris asked, placing the photograph on the table next to him.

“A cruise on the Rivera.”

Nathan sighed: “That sounds like a vacation.”

“You haven’t met my mother.”

“So,” Samuel said, “are you going to go?”

Ezra shook his head and folded the letter, replacing it into the envelope. He looked up as Casey and Raine entered the room. Casey handed JD a diet soda and she took a seat beside him, carefully looking at the ring on his finger.

“Gentlemen, we must discuss the fundaments of tree decorating.” Ezra lowered his legs and sighed. “It’s atrocious.”

“Come on now, Ezra,” Buck said, tossing more tinsel onto a branch. “It ain’t that bad.”

“And just what do you consider to be bad?”

“Well,” Buck sighed, “Mrs. Hanedy’s hair—you know, the little gal who runs the pharmacy in town—”

“—Buck,” Nathan said.

“Maybe—I don’t know, but just maybe—she don’t realize it but men ain’t attracted to women with hair that’s… well, hair that’s the color of puke—an’ not just soupy puke, I mean the whole chicken an’ gravy type puke.”

“Buck,” Ezra said, “You’re tree has puked.”

Chapter 30

It was uncanny, the resemblance between Samuel and his father, even sharing the same idiosyncrasies. Both were clean-spoken, handsome, intellectual, strong, and both shared Lincoln’s love of books. Samuel had found himself in his grandfather’s study, looking through and reading many of the leather bound editions of Twain to LeCarre. And like his grandfather, he didn’t have a genre he preferred, just a good story.

Josiah sat at the table and unconsciously turned his coffee cup while reading the newspaper. He glanced out the window toward the barn and smiled when he spotted JD and Buck helping Samuel saddle his horse. Josiah smiled, seeing his son happy.

“He’s a good kid,” Chris said, taking a seat at the table.

Josiah folded the paper. “Despite my mistakes, he turned out good.”

Chris leaned over and tied the laces to his boots. “Sometimes…,” he sighed sitting up, “…it’s the mistakes that build character.”

Josiah looked out the window and watched Samuel mount the big chestnut. “I was a mean drunk.” He looked at Chris. “And I did things I’m not proud of—”

“—Did you hit him?”

Josiah took a deep breath and pressed his lips together. He clenched his jaw and watched his son, JD, and Buck ride toward along the fence and toward the back pastures. “I did a lot of things I’m not proud of.” He looked at Chris who nodded and then bent at the waist to tie his other boot.

“I’m headed into town to check up on things—might be back late.” He stood, grabbed his service belt off the counter and then grabbed his jacket. He turned and headed for the door.


He turned with his hand on the doorknob.

“You don’t have to hit someone to scar them.”

“Sure as hell don’t.” He opened the door and left.

Josiah sighed and watched his son disappear behind the barn. He took a sip of his coffee and leaned against the back of his chair. He ran his finger along the length of the table. Slowly, he got to his feet and moved to the refrigerator where he started preparing dinner.


“So why don’t you think your ma said anything?” Vin asked, tossing a handful of bent nails into an old coffee can.

Ezra shoved another log into the woodstove and closed the cast iron door. He stood, dusted his pants, and looked toward the enormous sculpture Vin was working on. “My mother was and still is a very private person about particular parts of her past.”

“Guess I can’t blame her—I wonder though why my ma never said nothin’ about it.” He took a seat on the bench and watched Ezra look through the tools. “What was in your box?” He rubbed his thighs, spreading dirt over the denim.

“She sent me a pick.”

“Like a guitar pick? Or a toothpick?”

Ezra turned and raised an eyebrow. “A guitar pick, with a note to keep practicing.”

Vin chuckled: “She heard you play?”

Ezra ran his hand along the bench that held coffee cans full of screws, nails, tacks, washers, bolts, and anything else that Lincoln would have purchased in bulk and needed extraordinary amounts of. “On occasion,” he said, looking out the window toward the pasture as Buck, JD, and Samuel finished their ride. “She enjoyed her music…but she enjoys spending money more.”

Vin nodded and then positioned himself on the edge of the bench. Carefully, he separated a handful of steel wool and started scratching the surface of the sculpture.

“What are you creating?” Ezra turned, crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the shelf.

“This,” Vin smiled and stood, “is my tribute to every son-of-a-bitch who ever screwed with my life.”

Ezra chuckled and raised his right eyebrow. “The base?”

“Lincoln Larabee—notice the balls?”

Ezra snorted and laughed: “You going to point that out to Chris and the others?”

“Hell no, figure Josiah ‘ill read somethin’ philosophical into it an’ Chris ‘ill think I built it to keep the birds from shittin’ on his truck.” He dusted a long wing-shaped arch with his hand and stood back. “I wasn’t real good at book learnin’ in school, but I liked art, mechanics, an’ woodshop. Never could draw nothin’ but stick horses, but I liked to use color an’ shapes.”

“It’s quite alive, Vin—the movement, fluidity. And yet it’s… ambiguously strong.”

“So, you’re an art buff too?”

“God no,” Ezra said, pushing himself off the counter. “But I’ve known a few aficionados.”

Vin sighed and ran his hand along another curve of his sculpture. “I came this close to gettin’ married.” He held his thumb and index finger about an inch apart before continued to rub the polished metal. “I have a thing for brunettes—leggy ones.” He chuckled and paused, only to turn and look out the window.

“What was her name?”

“Charlotte. She showed up at the office where I was workin’ wanted someone to locate her mother—she gave me some long spiel about bein’ adopted.” He shrugged and slipped his hands into his pockets. “Shit, we were together six months.”

“What happened?”

“She was married, had two kids with another on the way.  She told me she was pissed at her husband for cheatin’ on her so she used me to get back at ‘im.” He turned and looked at Ezra. “Still have the fuckin’ ring in a drawer in my room—can you believe that?” He shook his head and turned back toward his sculpture. “Seen some shitty things in my days, Ezra, an’ I ain’t even hit 30 yet.”

Ezra nodded and looked out the window as Samuel unsaddled his horse. He stepped forward and slapped Vin on the shoulder and walked toward the door. “Maybe it’ll get better.”

“Yeah,” Vin sighed, “maybe.”


Samuel packed his luggage and chuckled when he spotted his father slipping into a brown heavy jacket. “You even look like a rancher now.”

Josiah smiled and his duffle bag. “At least I’m more relaxed now, you have to admit.”

Samuel nodded and grabbed his own coat and his bags. “Ready?”

Josiah pressed his lips together and left the bedroom. “When do classes start back up?”

“The second,” he said, entering the kitchen. He nodded toward JD and Vin. “I’m going to stay with mom for a couple days before I go back.”

“She picking you up at the airport?”

Samuel nodded and grabbed a banana from the fruit bowel near the sink.

“You guys headin’ out?” Vin asked, pushing the newspaper away from the edge of the table. He turned toward the door as Buck entered, his jacket was dusted with flakes of snow that quickly melted. His nose was red, matching his cheeks.

“Colder ‘an a well digger’s ass out there,” Buck said, rubbing his hands together before grabbing a cup from the cupboard.

“The flight leaves tonight, so I won’t be home until tomorrow sometime—”

“—Take a cell with you, just in case.” Buck poured himself some coffee. “Chris wanted to be here to say goodbye, but I guess someone tried to drive through the high school gym at four this mornin’, an’ Nate had to rush down to the clinic, Mrs. Thomas went into labor this mornin’.”

“Anybody hurt in the accident?” Josiah asked.

Buck shrugged: “Won’t know ‘til Chris gets back.”

“You do realize it’s an abomination to arise before daylight,” Ezra said, moving toward the coffee maker. “Who made this?”

“I did,” Buck chuckled.

Ezra groaned but poured himself a cup. He turned and leaned against the counter.

Samuel sighed and adjusted his grip on his suitcase. “It was good meeting you all.”

“Study hard when you get back to school,” JD said and then took a bite of his toast.

“You’ll have to come back this spring and help out with all the plantin’, guaranteed to keep you busy.” Buck poured a small amount of cream into his cup.

Josiah’s disappointment was evident through his eyes, and he walked through the motions of getting ready to say goodbye to his son. Taking one step at a time he smiled, chuckled, and commented like a good father. He didn’t want Samuel to go, though college was the best place for him, it just didn’t seem right. He had a good visit, and they had gotten along, despite their rocky past.

Carefully, Josiah placed his hand on Samuel’s shoulder and squeezed. “We should get going.”

Samuel nodded and said his goodbyes and expressed promises to come back during the summer break. He was growing into a good man, despite his troubled and painful youth. He was beginning to see his father for the man he could be, rather than the man he was.

Samuel opened the door and left, his father following close behind.

“Think Josiah’s havin’ a hard time with this,” Vin said, watching them through the window.

Buck nodded and then refilled his cup. “Sam ‘ill be back, think he’s got ranchin’ blood in his veins.” He took a seat at the table and reached for the newspaper. “He’s a good kid, Josiah should be proud.”

“Why do you think he only had one kid?” JD said, grabbing the playing cards from the counter and shuffling to start a game of solitaire.

“That’s not for us to assume,” Ezra said, leaving the kitchen.

Chapter 31

Chris tossed his service belt onto his desk and looked out the window as the sun started to descend. The snow shimmered gold in places. He smiled, watching Mary cross the street with Billy. They met Orin and Evie at the front of the small restaurant and then slipped inside. Mary turned and looked toward the sheriff’s office before entering. Chris sighed and turned when his office door was opened.

Marcie adjusted her grip on her purse. “I made more coffee, figured you’d be here a while, and John’s goin’ to bring over a sandwich for you from the deli.”

“Thank you.”

“Roy said the boy never knew what hit him.”

“Doesn’t make it any easier.”

“Go home—it’s the day after Christmas, Chris, you should be with family.” She sighed, and closed the front of her coat. “Call me if you need anything.” She turned and headed for the door.

Chris nodded, placing his hands on his hips. “Marcie?”

“Yeah,” she said, returning to the office.

“Any faxes come in for me today?”

“On your desk.” She turned and left.

Chris sighed and then took a seat, smiling when he noticed the steam coming off a fresh cup of coffee. He rubbed his face and flipped the file open. The stat reports were more detailed than he had expected. Ezra’s attackers had essentially disappeared after working under the tutelage of William Perkins. They had served their time and evaded the law ever since.

He lifted the file and moved it toward the computer when a small envelope slipped out. It was sealed. Chris tossed the papers aside and opened it, carefully pulling the sheets of paper from the confines.

The script was rough and at time difficult to read, put the point was there. The letter contained detailed information about all of the Larabee sons at poignant times in their lives: The fire that killed Sarah and Adam, Buck’s heartbreak over Elise’s unfaithfulness—something he never mentioned; Nathan’s painful rejection letter into Harvard Medical School; the death of JD’s mother; Josiah’s history with his ex-wife; even Vin’s stay in juvenile hall, and Ezra’s stepfather William Perkins. The details were vivid, so much so they scared him, and Chris clenched his jaw as he flipped to the next page.

 It was a warning written by someone with very little education, but they knew enough to include parts of their lives that could crush them. There was no mention of Ella, but Chris’ gut clenched and he knew without positive proof that she was behind it.

Nobody had dared to sign it. Chris sighed, folded the letter and pulled his tin garbage can from beneath his desk out into the middle of the floor. It was empty. He pulled a lighter from his pocket and lit the letter on fire, carefully watching it burn. He opened the window as the smoke thickened, and watched a dark car from across the street flash its lights and pull from its parking spot across the road. The driver’s side window was rolled down and a cigarette was tossed into the street before the driver sped away.

He turned and watched the black soot float within the confines of the circular can.

Chris picked up the phone and dialed. “Buck?” There was a pause. “Get the horses out of the barn, an’ then take Vin with you an’ ride the property line.” He sighed, listening for a moment. “And Buck…take the hardware with you.”

The End

I know, what a crappy place to end it, but if I didn’t I’d still be writing the next 100 pages. I’ll try and hurry and get the next one done! Would love to hear what you think!!

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