Under the Skin of Men

By Beth © 2005

Brothers AU (Seven, sorry folks, mostly Ezra)

Please send comments and suggestions to artwriter@operamail.com

Chapter 12

Ezra sat alone in the office, looking out the window that oversaw Seattle's cityscape. The sun was out and bore heavily onto the reflective windows and darkened streets. It didn't always rain. He fidgeted nervously with the bottom of his pant leg, his ankle resting on his left knee. The office was supposed to look intimidating, as though the person it belonged to could answer any question and cure any problem - the only thing missing was a throne and a nameplate with God carved into it.

The desk was mahogany and the top was covered with soft leather. There wasn't a computer in sight, but Ezra guessed there was a laptop shoved into one of the desk drawers. Portraits of Dr. Yakley's family decorated the wall to the right of the desk. They seemed nice, but then, most families do until the ghosts slip from the closet. And ghosts always slip from the closet.

Ezra turned when he heard the door open.

"It's good to see you again, Ezra," Dr. Yakley said, slipping off his hospital coat and hanging it next to the door. He moved across the room while rolling the sleeves of his shirt up. "How have you been feeling?'

Ezra nodded: "Fine."

Yakley smiled: "Headaches?"

Again, Ezra nodded.

Dr. Yakley took a seat behind his desk and leaned back in his chair. "By the looks of things, I'd say the headaches have increased since your last visit?" His face was drawn and reflective of the subject. "How many in the last six weeks?"

"Three," Ezra said, "but only one was enough to lay me out."

Yakley nodded and took a deep breath. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his desk. "Your blood work is normal, no elevation in cell counts - despite all the stress you've been under. However, the tumor has increased in size which I find worrisome. There's no sign of tumor being cancerous, but I won't be satisfied with that diagnosis until we biopsy the tissue - "

Ezra replaced his foot on the floor and then rubbed his thighs with his hands. "Biopsy?"

Yakley nodded and looked at his patient. "You've been postponing this surgery for a long time, Ezra, and I can't express enough how important it is to get it done. The decision has to be yours, but the longer you wait the more difficult the decision will be. You've probably had this tumor for 10 or 15 years, and it would have been discovered sooner if not for the unfortunate circumstances you went through - "

"How long do I have...before the symptoms?"

" - It's hard to tell, we see almost 12,000 new tumors every year and yours is very unusual. It's next to the pituitary gland which is why I believe pituitary apoplexy is evident, and has been evident for a very long time. One of the primary symptoms of this tumor is sudden onset headaches which you have suffered from for thirteen - fourteen years now. What I'm seeing now, with the MRI is an increase in size, and that's worrisome. If we don't operate, the tumor could hemorrhage and at that point, we're looking at an emergency and severe complications."

"Will I need to shave my head?"

Yakley chuckled and shook his head: "No. The procedure we'll use is called transnasal or transsphenoidal approach. We'll actually enter through the nasal - "

" - I don't need the details," Ezra said, rubbing his brow. He felt sick.

"You'll stay with us overnight, mostly for observation - "

"What are the risks?" Ezra clenched his jaw and waited.

Dr. Yakley took a deep breath and nodded: "There's always a risk..."

"What exactly?"

"Memory loss, possible blindness due to the location of the tumor, speech impairment, loss of motor function....death - this is brain surgery, Ezra, and there are risks involved, but Dr. Erickson is one of the best."

"If I don't have the surgery?"

"Headaches will increase in frequency and severity. Dizziness, loss of cognitive thought, blindness."

"Where would the surgery take place?"

"Dr. Erickson lives here in Seattle and in Nevada, he also has a summer home in Southern Idaho and he practices in all three states."

"He sounds busy."

"Not as busy as he used to be. He's very selective of his patients."

"Then why me?" Ezra frowned and leaned back against his seat.

Yakley leaned back. "Dr. Erickson and your stepfather, Aaron Topper, have been friends for a long time - "

"Does he know?"


Ezra nodded.

"No, but he should." Yakley sighed and shook his head.

"I don't want him to know...I don't want anyone to know."

Yakley nodded in understanding. "If, by chance, Dr. Erickson can't get it all...you may need radiation or chemotherapy."

"I thought you said it was benign?"

"It is, but we'll want to make sure the entire tumor is removed, and sometimes more extensive steps are needed."

Ezra stood and grabbed his jacket that hung from the back of the chair.


"I should go - I've got a meeting in an hour."

"Ezra," Dr. Yakley stood and walked around his desk. "Call my office when you're ready...and don't wait."

Ezra nodded, opened the door and left.


Unlike Dr. Yakley's office, the C.E.O. of Nations Bank One had overpriced nick-knacks hanging from his walls as well as covering his desk. The desk and leather bound chairs were positioned exactly as the interior decorator had placed them. There were no indentations in the carpet, even the custodian had a pattern he or she kept by hiding the knap of the carpet with the vacuum. It was a staple that every banker followed, and one that expressed power...the power to give or take away.

"Mr. Standish," Mike Kimball said, entering the room with a fresh cup of Starbuck's coffee. "I apologize for my tardiness; I had a meeting that went late."

Ezra nodded and took a seat across from Mike who immediately started going through some papers. "I understand you just installed a new security program - "

" - Yes, yes, we've managed to isolate our customers' passwords online, we were having a problem with hackers getting into the system and withdrawing funds from customer accounts, but I believe that problem has been solved."

"Then why am I here?"

"Because I asked him to invite you," a man said, stepping out from behind the door to Ezra's right. Two other men followed.

Ezra clenched his jaw and took a deep breath.

"Been hiding a long time, Standish, but you had to know I'd catch up with you sooner or later." William Perkins lifted his right leg onto the edge of Kimball's desk and leaned forward, his large hands folded neatly on his thigh. "How's life on the farm?"

Ezra looked from Kimball to Perkins. "What do you want?"

Perkins smiled and shrugged. "Gratitude would be nice... you could have ended up in jail and somebody's bitch if it weren't for me." He turned and looked at his henchmen. "See boys, a few years back, Standish here was caught with his hand in the cookie jar." He looked at Ezra. "It was a mighty big cookie jar if I remember correctly... Still paying off that debt? Or have your skills at manipulating numbers gotten you out of trouble?" He reached into the canister on the edge of the desk and popped a mint into his mouth. "He was offered a large sum of money to skim the top of a lucrative business in Georgia...a graphics company, right? Owned by a Mr. Berry Whitman - a large man with a fondness for explosives." He laughed. "Damn near blew his son's head off while they were vacationing in Cuba - who the fuck goes to Cuba for a vacation?" Perkins rubbed his finger beneath his nose. "I suppose it was your mother that taught you the good shit, how to cheat a man out of his life's savings...how to pull a con with nothing but empty promises and tight lips...a trick his momma taught him - guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

Ezra pressed the cuticle of his thumb down with his forefinger and waited. His chest felt tight, as though an elephant was using him as a stool.

"I understand you're damn good at what you do...finding weaknesses in security at banks, government buildings...even prisons." Perkins smiled and bent further forward to peek at Ezra's face. "You should've seen this boy when he was a babe - pretty little thing...enough to make a man think twice about switching teams - and he's still got them fancy green eyes."

"Still looks pretty to me, boss." Colby, of Perkins' henchmen chuckled crossing his arms over his chest.

Ezra could hear his blood moving through his veins and the feverish thumping of his heart. He remembered Perkins, he remembered him all too well. "I'm here to do a job, not get on my knees."

Perkins smiled, exposing perfect white teeth. "Good." He stood and grabbed a file from one of his men and then returned back to the desk. "You see, boys, I married this boy's mother when he was...what...maybe ten - eleven. Maude was a wild thing, couldn't sit still for more than a minute - so we spent a lot of time out of state, pretty much forgetting she had a son back at the house - not that I cared any...don't have much use for kids - never did really. I wasn't as well off as I am now, so let's just say there wasn't a lot for a boy to eat." He watched Ezra carefully, knowing how to push and knowing what it would take to get what he wanted. "So he did what he had to, picked a few pockets...turned a few tricks..." He met Ezra's eyes, knowing he'd won.

Ezra didn't just feel defeated, he felt buried. He clenched his jaw and then looked at his thumb that was suddenly slick. Quickly, he squeezed his fingers around the injured appendage to hide the bloodied nail.

"You have three days, Ezra," Perkins said, tossing him a form. "You have three days to get 3.5 million dollars into this account - "

" - That's not enough time."

"It is for you," Perkins said, "you've done it before...and if I remember correctly your momma walked away with most of it - left you to pick up the tab. You should turn her in, Ezra...make her pay the price for fucking with you. If you don't do this, like I know you can...I'll call in the loan to your father's piece-of-shit-farm and I'll make sure your name gets slipped to the prosecuting attorney of the Whitman case - like I said, they'd love to have you up there." He tossed the papers in front of Ezra. "You see, my good friend Mike Kimball bought the loan from that backwater bank in Four Corners and he can call it in at any time, considering the mortgage payments are late - several months by the look of things. I've sent your employer, Century Security, your resignation - I don't want you to be a suspect once these banks realize they're missing several million in cash. Your mother will verify you're with her in the Bahamas for the duration of your stay here in Seattle - we wouldn't want your alibi to cracked, I after all, have to be protected." He tossed Ezra the copy of his resignation.

"If I don't do this?"

"You'll spend the next three to four years in the Georgia State Penitentiary for embezzlement. Mike will call in the loan for the farm and your little brother, JD, may end up with a bad bottle of insulin - maybe he'll end up with a sugared soda from McDonalds, coma sounds nice doesn't it, boys? Or maybe, just maybe, your brother Nathan can spend the next year fighting to keep his medical license. Malpractice suits can be very entertaining at times."

Ezra felt his heart sink.

"When you get this accomplished," Perkins said, gathering the information he'd given Ezra, "I'll send the mortgage to your brothers...paid in full."

Ezra clenched his jaw and nodded, knowing he wouldn't, but the offer made him look good to his men...and his cohort. Perkins was a master at failed promises. He stood slowly, looked at the four men surrounding him and turned for the door. "I can't guarantee I'll get this done in three days." He turned toward Perkins.

"You don't have a choice."

Ezra opened the door and left.

Kimball turned toward Perkins: "You think he can do it?"

Perkins nodded: "Colby, you and Herb make sure he knows we mean business."

"Bill?" Kimball said, turning toward his friend.

"It's my daughter they have, Mike, and I'll kill anyone who gets in the way of my getting her back."

"Why didn't you just tell him the truth - why put him through it that way?"

"Because his older brother's a sheriff, and I don't want some son-of-a-bitch playing hero with my sister's life."

Mike nodded and pushed himself away from his desk. He looked toward the door that Ezra had gone through and then back at William. "You never...you never abused that boy...did you, Bill."

Perkins shook his head: "No," he chuckled, "I wouldn't call what I did abuse."

Chapter 13

Buck stopped the stackwagon at the entrance to the farm. He jumped out, grabbed the mail and restarted his trip toward the house. With the first load of fourth cutting hay, he could finally sigh in relief. They would finish out harvest ahead. He had a couple of days to relax - get the hay in at his leisure. The wagon creaked and moaned as it hit bumps in the road, and the hay swayed back and forth. His dog ran to greet him as he parked just outside the shop where Vin was working.

JD dismounted his horse and tied him to the fence and met Buck at the shop entrance. Vin pounded on some steel, the sounds echoed off the walls. He had his leg perched on a stool.

"Sure hope you've got ear plugs, gimpy," Buck said, tossing the mail onto a bench.

Vin shook his head and then placed the heavy hammer onto a shelf. A black smear of dust ran across his left cheek. He had tied his hair back into a tight ponytail, having gotten a small section caught in the drill press. He hobbled toward his crutches that were leaning against the wall.

"Who's chairs are those?" JD asked, stepping in behind Buck. He ran his fingers over the decorative metal.

"Walker's, he said he pay me to fix 'em up, so I took 'im up on the offer. Figure any little bit 'ill help." Vin wiped his brow with the back of his wrist and then reached for his water bottle. "I get anythin'?" He pointed toward the mail.

"Didn't look, too damn tired of bad news." Buck took a seat on an old bench to rest his knees. "Think you can come out and help me finish stackin' this hay?" he looked toward JD who was looking at the chairs.

"Yeah," JD said, "just have to finish feedin' the heifers."

Vin grabbed the mail and started flipping through it, he tossed one letter in front of JD and then another to Buck. "That one looks official." He sighed when he didn't see the check he was hoping for and went back to work on the chairs.

Buck frowned, and opened the letter. At first the words blended together, not making any sense, but he shook his head and started over, reading from the top. "Our farm loan's been sold," he said, flipping to the next page.

"What's that mean?" JD asked, wiping his hands on his pants.

Vin paused and waited.

"I don't know," Buck said, getting to his feet. He folded the paper together and shoved it into his pocket. "I'm goin' into town - if Chris shows up tell 'im to meet me at the bank." He turned and left, not giving them a chance to question.

"Hope everything's okay," JD said, standing in the doorway.

"Me too, JD," Vin said, moving to stand beside him.


"What in the hell do you mean the mortgage has been sold?" Chris asked, standing before Myra Anderson's desk.

"Chris, sit down, you're causing a scene," she said, looking toward the banking customers. She waited to speak until Chris sat beside Buck on one of the chairs in front of her desk. "I don't have any say in regards to the sales of business loans, student loans, and farm loans - your father knew that when he took the last mortgage out on the farm. I've been working with your brother, Ezra, in regards to payment options, deferments, even forbearances, but we can only do so much." She leaned over her desk and looked at the two men. "When the Bank of Four Corners was sold three years ago we had the intention of staying small, working with the farmers within the community, but things have changed. We're owned by a larger bank corporation, and one that doesn't see the need to tolerate late payments. There's more money in foreclosing than not and they only see the bottom line. I'm sorry, Chris, but there's nothing I can do."

"Why didn't you notify us?" Buck asked, slapping the letter on the calf of his left leg.

"I had no idea, not until you walked in with the letter. I just saw Ezra a couple of days ago and we'd worked a new payment plan out - there were no notices of sales on your father's loan at that time."

"Can they call the loan in, demand the full amount due because of our delay in payments?" Buck asked, looking out the window, avoiding eye contact.

"Yes, you'll have 30 to 60 days - usually, to come up with the money."

"How much do we owe - total amount?" Chris asked.

Myra sighed: "162, 355.00."

"Shit," Buck said, getting to his feet. He crumpled the letter in his hands and tossed it toward the garbage pail and walked toward the door.

"What about the money...the money Dad put away for us kids?"

"You can't touch it until June, even if you went through legal means... I'm sorry, Chris."

"Yeah...me too." He stood and walked toward the door.

Buck pushed himself off the tailgate of the truck and looked at Chris. "What're we goin' to do?"

"Hell if I know," Chris said, opening the driver's side door.

"I'm not lettin' that ranch get plowed under for a fuckin' Walmart, Chris - an' you know damn good an' well that's what those bankers have planned - sell it commercial."

"Get in the truck."

"Ain't you gonna do anythin'?" Buck slammed his hand against the wheel-well.

"Yeah, I'm gonna do something, I'm going to get in this truck, drive home, eat a meal and go to bed. Then I'm going to get out of bed, shit, eat breakfast, and go back to work - because that's what I do, Buck. Now get in the fuckin' truck!"

Buck shook his head but he slipped into the passenger seat. With one hand on the armrest and the other rubbing his thigh he looked out the window and watched the scenery. "Thought for sure you would've cared enough to stop this."

"How, Buck...you got 150 grand layin' around - because I sure as hell don't."

"Hell, we got land worth more than that, why can't we at least try to sell some of it to raise the money?"

"Who's goin' to buy it, Buck...Geoff - who lost a leg - remember or Tim...nobody can afford it, they're all in the same boat - shit, even Nettie's broke because milk prices are droppin' like gas prices are goin' up."

Buck sighed and pushed himself against the back of the seat. "Never figured you for a quitter."

"That's why you shouldn't figure on anything."


Chris sighed when he spotted the familiar red Mercedes parked in front of the barn. "I'll meet you inside to explain things to the others."

"Don't wait too long," Buck replied, slamming the door shut, "wouldn't want to spoil the excitement."

Ella moved out of the horse barn and waved when she spotted Chris walking toward her. "Thought maybe you and the boys could use some company," she said, slipping her hands into her back pockets.

Chris nodded: "Now ain't a good time, Ella."

"It's never a good time for you, Larabee, which could be why you always look so pissed." She smiled and walked beside him toward the corral. The moon was just appearing over the horizon and its rays glistened off the backs of the horses. "Heard your brother Ezra took a trip?"


"He's comin' back, right?" She rested her elbows on the top railing and kicked her foot onto the bottom. Not giving him time to answer she said: "I've got some news."

Chris rubbed his brow and then licked his bottom lip. "Now ain't a goo - "

" - I'm pregnant."

Chris stopped cold and turned to face her. "Is it mine?"

Ella turned, her face drawn. "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?!" she said, pushing herself away from the fence. "Of course it's yours!" She rubbed her hand along her face and started pacing in three step intervals. "How could you even ask that? I don't make it a habit of sleeping with every man I cross, Larabee, so pull your head out of your ass - do you want this baby or not?"

"Ella - "

"Don't start with me..." she sighed, stepping back, afraid he may touch her, "...I know I ain't Sarah, Chris - "

" - Don't...don't go there, Ella."

"Where else should I go...I'm just some whore you can bed whenever you please." She started walking toward her car. "I'm not blonde, or cute, or that perfect little woman you want to come home to every night. Am I Chris? I'm the second choice...or am I the fourth, the fifth, or hell, maybe I'm not a choice at all."

Chris turned and jogged after her. "Ella," he paused, grabbing the car door after she slammed it shut, "don't do anything we'll both regret."

"You already have," she said, turning over the engine. She punched the gas and sped toward town.


Chapter 14

Ezra sat on the bed, nursing sore ribs, a black eye, and swollen jaw. He must have been a sight entering the hotel with blood running down his nose, his shirt pulled from the waistband of his pants, and holes torn into his knees. Carefully, he placed the cold wet washcloth against his eye and lay back, feeling the stiffness of bloodied knuckles.

Perkins had made his point.

Three days wasn't enough time to lift 3.5 million dollars, even if he had all the equipment needed. Ezra knew it would only be a matter of time before the life he had would fade away. Everything he ever worked for seemed to disappear, and usually without warning. So why was this any different? He could not walk away from the ranch...nor could he walk away from JD or Nathan. William Perkins was a fierce individual, and he let the men he worked with know it. Everything he had said was true, devastatingly so.

Prison was not an option to consider, even if the possibilities were slim that he would be convicted. If Perkins had made the threat, he had enough information to back up his promise, if anything, the man was thorough. It would be easier to consider losing the ranch, but Nathan losing his license because of a foolish move on Ezra's part was enough to send him spinning... He swallowed and stared at the ceiling. There were a lot of things in his past he wasn't proud of, but he did help Maude embezzle money...Perkins had been right, she had walked off and left him to pick up the tab.

He had been caught with more than his hand in the cookie jar. The plan had been ideal - perfect to the point of faulty, and Maude had made sure the right connections had been made while Ezra punched the numbers. He was eighteen, just out of high school and cockier than Buck at a wet tee-shirt contest. It was supposed to have been the last job - the one that got them out of their predicament, the one that made sure they wouldn't have to suffer at the hands of anyone else.

The plan had failed miserably, but Maude had walked away, leaving her son to suffer the consequences. Money had always been tight, and Maude did what she could to live the life she wanted or thought she deserved. Ezra sat up and rubbed his thighs. He remembered the good times with his mother, when she was happy, but when she needed something or someone new nothing would stand in her way to get it - not even her son. And so, he was paying a debt that didn't involve just money, but promises made by others.

He looked from the phone to his hands, feeling his lack of courage sitting in the pit of his stomach. He knew if he made the right decision he could get the ranch paid off. Aaron wouldn't think twice about loaning him the money, but taking it and owing more kept his fingers cold. Everything he had ever owned had been taken, if not by the hands of his mother, then someone else.

Aaron Topper had been nothing but kind to him...and it scared him...terrified him really.

Ezra tightened his hand into a fist and chewed a hangnail from his thumb. He squeezed his eyes shut and took a deep breath. He grabbed the phone and quickly dialed a number.

The woman's voice was delicate, professional, and regrettably unfamiliar.

Ezra rubbed his thigh with his free hand: "Is Aaron available?"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Topper is unavailable. Can I take a message?"

Ezra sighed and rubbed his brow. "Would he be at home?"

"I'm sorry, I can't give out - "

" - I know the number. Does Anna still work for him?"

There was a brief pause. "Mr. Topper's taken a short break from the office...I believe he's on his boat."

"Can you estimate a return date?"

"He'll be back on Monday."

"Sir, I can take a message if you're not comfortable leaving one at his home?"

"No, thank you - there's no message." He hung up the phone and felt his gut flip. Glancing from his computer to the city lights, he slowly stood, clenching his jaw as his ribs protested. He could see six banks from his position, one of which he had secured not two years prior. He flipped the monitor to his laptop up and waited for the screen to turn, and without a second thought, he went to work.

It was a gamble, every move, every key, every clue. Looking from bank managers to C.E.O.s was no different than staring across a table with all two cards up and three down. There was always the possibility of an inside straight. Maybe that's why he loved his job so much, beating the unbeatable. Every computer program, every building, every human had a weak spot, a point that by applying the correct amount of pressure could fold them, open the doors, open the vaults.

Maude had been a good teacher, and Ezra had been an even better student.

He studied and worked harder than he ever believed he could, and in the long run it had paid off - but that work had come at a price. Step-fathers had taken advantage of him, used him to increase their holdings. Maude had let them, until they got too zealous...until they started bribing him with things he was way too young to understand. It was then that Maude would pack him up and ship him off - find someone else to bribe and con.

At times, things had gone way too far, which was why he was in the position he was in.

He looked at banks, financial institutes, and high powered corporations online, locating names, phone numbers, and addresses. Banks rarely had large sums of money on hand, so the 3.5 million he was in need of would have to come from accounts with large balances, $15,000 here $20,000 there, it would add up quickly if he did his job right.

Three days.

Three days wasn't a lot of time, not for this kind of work.

Ezra tossed the warm rag aside and looked carefully at the plans before him, taking his mind through each step. It didn't matter how he looked at it, either way he lost, even if by chance he managed to find the money. He looked at the account number the money was to be deposited in, the seemingly random numbers did nothing for him, but the consequences of failing hit him hard. He punched a series of computer keys and waited, and smiled when blueprints came onto the screen, a few more punches had numbers filling the screen of computer programs certain banks used to transfer money overseas. Everything was done using numbers.

That was his saving grace, numbers he understood, numbers he could manipulate and not feel the burden of defeat.

He would spend all night at the computer, retrieving the information he needed in order to save himself as well as his family from losing everything...

...almost everything.

Chapter 15

Vin removed the ice pack from his knee and looked at the purple coloring. It was fading, and the darker colors were giving way to putrid greens and yellows. The swelling had gone down, but it still pained him, keeping him off his feet until he got board. He could only read so many magazines, and he hated sitting in front of a TV. He could only sneak out when Nathan wasn't around.

He looked toward Buck who stared off into space, the news had just about killed him, and having to hear it a second and third time had crushed him. Hope of saving the ranch was gone, along with the realization that everything he had worked for would fade, not unlike the image he had painted of his father. JD pulled used blood-sticks apart, placing the colors into like piles of plastics. It kept him busy, while keeping him from looking anyone in the eye. Chris sat in silence, unmoving on the chair next to the door. He stared at his thumbs and waited for someone to offer an idea worth more than nothing. Josiah had found himself in his father's old chair, watching his family deteriorate in front of him. Nathan sat next to Vin, having seen to his knee and checked his mobility.

"If we pooled all of our resources - "

"We'd be short $148,000," Chris said, shaking his head. "We don't have the money, Buck."

"What about, Ezra?" JD asked, looking up for the first time.

"What about him?" Chris asked.

JD cleared his throat gathering his nerve. "I don't have a problem givin' him my money - maybe he could use it to win more, he's a real good poker player - "

"Shit, JD," Chris said, getting to his feet. "There's more of a chance he'll lose the money than win any."

"But he could," Vin said. "I've seen him play, Chris, he knows the game as well as Buck knows harvest - or Nathan knows his doctorin'."

"I say it's worth a shot," Buck said, "if he comes back."

"It takes $10,000 to enter a high stakes game in Vegas, they usually have one a week starting on Fridays." Vin adjusted his knee as Nathan helped him back into the brace. "I've seen a couple of these games, Chris, an' I think Ezra's got the balls to pull it out. The winner I saw walked away with $95 grand, and from what I understand that was a slow weekend."

Buck looked at Chris: "Ezra knows numbers, Chris...I'm willin' to let him have a go."

"And what if he's out in the first round...what then?"

"Then he's out and we pack our bags and find a new place to live," Josiah said. "We've got $12,000 between us, Chris, that's a drop in the bucket to what we need - even if we sell everything we've got, it won't be enough to pay off the loan to this place, plus..." he paused, taking a deep breath, "...I know how these banks run - they'll want their money and they won't give us any time to pay off the loan - they lose money if we win."

"Didn't know this was a war, Josiah?" Chris said, standing. He started pacing the length of the living room floor.

"You'd better start thinking it is," Josiah said, "when it comes to money these companies don't care. Putting more farmers and ranchers out on their asses is just another notch on their belts - makes room for more shopping malls, apartment buildings, and corporate headquarters. If you want to keep this place you'd better start thinking outside the box, Chris, because that's the only way you're going to save it."

"What do you think, JD?" Chris asked, stopping halfway across the room.


"No, your stunt double behind you - yes you."

JD shrugged, pushed his plastic piles into his free hand, and looked up. "I think we have to let him try - I mean, hell, Chris, he's kept us on this farm for the past three and a half months because he'd smoothed things over at the bank."

Nathan nodded: "He's right." He looked toward Vin, Buck and then Chris. "We had what...fifteen days to come up with $6,000 three months ago and Ezra managed to find it - he saved us from losing this ranch. If we hand this money over to him..."

"He'll bring home the bacon," JD said with a smile.

"Does he cheat?" Chris asked, looking from one brother to the next.

"No," JD said, pulling his shoes off and placing them next to him on the floor. "He said if you have to cheat at cards you're a shitty card player and shitty card players lose. He told me that poker isn't about the cards your dealt, it's about the players."

"If he gets caught they'll throw him out - and us." Chris ran his fingers through his hair.

"If JD says he doesn't cheat, then he doesn't cheat," Buck said, getting to his feet. "I trust him."

"You're all forgettin' one important detail," Vin said, resting his knee over a soft pillow, "you ain't asked him yet... He may say no."

"He may not come back," Buck said, defeated.

"He'll be back," Josiah said, folding his hands together. "He'll be back."

Chapter 16

To a man who understood the power of numbers they were a beautiful thing. Ezra entered the last bank. He wore a blue tailored suit and a gold watch that flickered when the lights hit. His hair was pushed back, exposing his refined features. Even the glasses he wore were designed for him, accentuating the variations of greens in his eyes. He smiled toward Sylvia and took a seat across from her desk.

She was a small woman, nearly at retirement age, but she continued on knowing her time and experience was valued at the bank she had worked at for 33 years. Her hair was gray and cut short for easy maintenance, she wore glasses that would hang around her neck when she went on break.

"I'm here to transfer a few funds," Ezra said, retrieving his pocketbook from his jacket. He removed the correct information and slid it across the table toward her.

She looked at the paperwork and frowned. "This is an awful large sum of money, Mr. Haverson, only the bank manager can okay a transfer of this size."

Ezra nodded and smiled. "I understand completely." He rubbed his brow feeling the pressures of the past few days. He looked tired, he could not fake the black circles beneath his eyes nor his drawn features. He looked at her when she made no move to stand.

"Is everything alright?" she asked, putting the papers next to her computer.

Ezra nodded and leaned forward. "I'm on my way to France," he smiled, "my fiancé and I are building a home there."

"How wonderful," she said. "Have you set a date?"

"The day after the house is finished - I'm flying out today to meet her in England."

"Congratulations, Mr. Haverson."

"Thank you... Is Mr. Warner not in today?" Ezra asked, leaning forward, avoiding the camera as it rotated.

"Yes, he's out until the end of the week."

"And nobody else can okay this transfer - I can get online to do it, but that will take a couple of days to go through being this is a new account overseas."

Sylvia smiled: "I can approve it," she sighed, picking the papers up. "We were instructed this morning not to approve any financial transfers of large accounts due to some unauthorized dealings within some surrounding banks - we're still not foolproof, I fear." She punched a few keys. "I don't know if we'll ever be able to keep those greedy thieves from getting their hands on what isn't theirs. My daughter runs a computer company outside of Bellevue and she's always getting hacked into. She said there're more than 1000 new computer viruses out everyday. Frankly, I think it's the computer companies putting them out, it's a good way to make money if you ask me - and who would ever know." She punched in a few more keys and turned toward her printer. "Because of my limited access I can't give you your balance within your new account, but you can probably check that online." She handed him the transfer slip. "The one good thing about a small bank is we don't have to worry too much about computer hackers taking money out of our clients' accounts."

"That is something of a comfort."

"Oh, you bet..." she sighed, "But we'll be online sometime next year - I plan on retiring before then though." She smiled and watched him stand. "You get a good nap on the plane, Mr. Haverson, you look like you could use it. And...congratulations on your wedding."

"Thank you," Ezra said with a nod. He turned and left the bank, carefully avoiding the cameras as he stepped out the door. He looked at his watch and walked quickly toward the meeting point.


Ezra didn't believe that people were inherently foolish, but they could be, and that's what he counted on. He braced his arm against sore ribs and continued down the sidewalk, passing businessmen, couples, shoppers, and children on their way home from school.

He had done it, accomplished the job in three days...though technically he was fifteen minutes late, and he hoped Perkins did not keep exact time. His hands shook, not from fear or excitement, but exhaustion. He could feel his heart racing due to the amount of caffeine he had ingested over the past three days. Seventy eight hours without sleep had taken its toll, and it showed.

He pushed the restaurant doors open and found the table near the back, carefully hidden behind plants. Perkins' goons stood with their backs to the table, hands clasped before them. Both bore black eyes, and one had placed a Band-Aid over his nose. Ezra had given as well as he had gotten. He moved past the two men and took a seat.

Perkins finished his steak and looked toward Ezra. "You're late - I said three days, Standish, not four."

Ezra shook his head and tossed the information he had gathered across the table. "It's done."

"It'd better be." Perkins motioned for his assistant to check the account by pulling out his computer.

Ezra heard the computer keys and he leaned his head back and waited. He felt as though he would explode, every muscle, nerve, and cell was fighting him, and he wanted to lay on the bench and go to sleep.

"He did it," the assistant said, smiling as he moved the computer so his boss could take a look.

Perkins sighed and closed his eyes, as though he were saved. He looked at Ezra. "You'll never hear from me again."

"The mortgage to the farm?"

"I'll mail it as soon as my deal is complete," he looked toward his men, "get him on a flight back to Reno, and make sure he's on it."

Colby grabbed Ezra's arm and pulled him to his feet as though he were weightless. Ezra grabbed the edge of the table and looked at Perkins.

"Leave while you still can, Ezra...I've got enough blood on my hands." Perkins watched as Herb and Colby took him by the arms and escorted him from the restaurant.

Chapter 17

Chris walked with Nathan up to the coffee stand. It was a small building, painted purple with yellow trim. A couple of recent high school graduates ran the shop. They played loud music, and spent most of their time serving their friends, but it was the only place in town to get flavored coffee.

"Mattie," Chris said, tapping on the shelf outside the window.

The young woman smiled and leaned forward, resting her elbows on the shelf. Her bangs fell into her eyes and she blew them away, contorting her mouth just so. "What can I get you?" She reached back without looking to turn the radio down. "Your regular?" She looked at Nathan and smiled. "How about you, Dr. Jackson? Why don't you try talkin' your brother into being more darin' - he only drinks plain 'ol coffee he can get anywhere - 'cept of course he likes a shot of chocolate in it - still seems a little flat though."

"Just a regular, Mattie and the same for Nathan," Chris said, resting his elbow on the narrow ledge while Mattie went to work.

"Whatever floats your boat," she said, grabbing two paper cups.

Nathan watched as several school busses went by, new recruits learning their route before the school year began. A couple teenagers played basketball in the courtyard while others had gathered at the only fast food joint in town.

"What did you want to talk about?" Nathan asked, taking his cup while Chris paid.

"Thanks, Mattie," Chris said, taking his cup after leaving a tip. He walked with Nathan toward the park. They could see Mr. Davidson using the heads of dandelions to practice his golf swing.

They each took a seat across from each other at a picnic table and Chris slowly twisted his cup while resting his elbows on the course wood.

"I have an appointment at 2:00, Chris," Nathan said, raising his eyebrows.

Chris took a deep breath and nodded. "Ella's pregnant."

Nathan chuckled and shook his head: "You can't blame anyone but yourself for that... Don't you want it?"

"I asked her if it was mine."

Nathan sighed, rested his elbow on the table and rubbed his brow. "How'd she take it?"

"I haven't heard a word from her in two days."

"I can't blame her for that," Nathan said, and then tested his coffee.

Chris took a deep breath and then started pealing shards of wood away from the tabletop. "Ella...she's got this...thing about Sarah."

"Hell, Chris, most women would. Sarah was the love of your life and nobody's going to replace her - "

"It's more than that, Nathan..." he took a deep breath, wishing he could wash his hands of it all, "Think for the first time I can see Dad's point of view on things."

"You mean with Ezra?"

Hesitantly, Chris nodded. "I don't know if this child is mine - shit, I don't even know if she's pregnant - we used protection."

"It only takes one, Chris, not the entire arsenal," Nathan said. He took a sip of his coffee and then wiped his upper lip dry. "I don't know what to tell you...maybe you should talk to Josiah - he might be able to give you more insight."

"I'm talkin' to you, Nathan. Hell, you know me better than anyone else."

"And I know you'll do the right thing. I'll admit, I don't much care for Ella, but she's managed to pull you out of a three year funk, maybe you should give her an opportunity to shine. She may surprise you."

"That's what I'm afraid of." Chris rubbed his forehead and sighed. "I don't trust her, Nathan. She's turned Buck off completely, and Vin avoids her if he can. She was askin' questions about Ezra the other night?" he frowned and shook his head, "I just don't trust her."

"She can't be after the farm."

"I don't know, Nathan...but she's after somethin', I can feel it."

"Then you'd best make a decision about what you're going to do, and make it fast."

Chris nodded, stood, and then dumped the coffee he hardly touched to the ground. He recapped the lid and tossed it into a nearby garbage can.


Chris turned and looked at his brother.

"I'll stand behind you whatever you decide to do because you're my brother, not because the decision was a good one or a bad one."

Chris nodded and slowly started walking toward his office.


"Sir?" the airline attendant shook his shoulder gently, waking him from his slumber.

Ezra jerked back and immediately rubbed his eyes. "Sorry," he said, looking at the empty seats surrounding him.

"We've arrived in Reno, would you like some help out with your belongings?" She smiled, standing back as he collected himself.

"No, no thank you." Ezra ran his fingers through his hair and watched as a clean up crew started at the front of the plane. "How long ago did we land?"

She smiled: "About 15 minutes ago. I'm sure your luggage will be ready for you at the claim - do you have someone meeting you here, I can make an announcement over the speakers and have them waiting for you."

Ezra shook his head and grabbed his computer satchel from the overhead compartment. "No thank you."

"Have a good stay in Reno."

Ezra nodded and tried to pat down the wrinkles on his jacket as he exited the plane. He could hardly remember getting on the plane, much less how long he had been asleep. He knew the flight lasted at least three hours, and over all he did feel more refreshed. It was a three hour drive back to the ranch, and Ezra gathered his wits and headed toward the parking lot. He'd been escorted to the plane without having had the opportunity to pick up his belongings at the hotel. He had been fortunate enough to carry his paperwork and computer with him.

It was not busy, and the traffic was even lighter as he made his way across town and onto the freeway. His little Beemer had roared to life and it felt comfortable being in the familiar leather seats. He grabbed a CD from the compartment and slipped it into the player, hoping the sounds of music would keep him awake.

Too tired to think if he would be welcomed back to the ranch, he pushed the cruise control button and hoped for the best. It would not be easy, but then, arrivals never were. He understood their mistrust, and the uncertainty. For some reason, Ezra knew he would always be seen as the outsider, the brother that may or may not be blood. It was easy to believe he was not. He just seemed...odd, in comparison to the others. They fit in, seemed to mesh where he did not. Perhaps it was his upbringing, the situations he had been involved in, the unfortunate circumstances of his birth.

He didn't blame his mother, she did the best she could with what she had. Lincoln had decided before Ezra's birth that he wasn't the father...but if he wasn't, who was? Maude wasn't shy about being with men, and she never had been. Ezra remembered that, and he remembered it all too well. They had come in all shapes and sizes - she only had one requirement...a thicker pocket book than hers. A few had been nice, others tolerable, and then there were the ones that he couldn't stand. Perkins had brought up a part of Ezra's past he did not wish to reflect on, but it was there, staring him in the face like a judge at trial. And he hated himself for it, for allowing himself to see only what he did not do right, instead of seeing himself as a child without options.

Ezra rolled the window down and let the wind blow through his hair, and the coolness of it eased some of his tension. He was not like the others, tainted in ways they would not understand he made his way toward home...

...Hoping above all else they welcomed him back.


NEXT: Fortunate Sons