The Way Home

By Beth

Brothers AU (seven)

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Chapter 9

Dishes clanged together, silverware rang, and pots were scraped clean as six men devoured their evening meal. Buck buttered his bread and took a deep breath, allowing some of his meal to settle before starting again. He noted JD’s excitement and newfound purpose on the ranch. Chris tentatively looked over the paperwork Ezra had put together for him, noticing the changes they could make to create a more productive ranch.

It looked promising.

“Where’s Ezra?” Chris asked, needing to ask him a few questions.

“Sleepin’,” Buck answered. “He got a call a few hours ago and then said he needed to take a nap.”

“Who called?” Chris questioned with a furrowed brow.

Buck shrugged: “Didn’t ask.”

“Pass the potatoes,” Vin said, after finishing the last of his milk.

“Who was your specialist in Massachusetts, JD?” Nathan asked, wiping his mouth with his napkin.

“Craig Hawthorne,” the kid responded. “He was good, but…” He shrugged and poked at his steak with his fork.

“But what?” Buck questioned, slightly concerned.

“I think he was an ex-hippy or something—had hair down to his ass—he looked like the old guy from Poltergeist.”

“With long hair?” Vin asked, with a laugh.

“That’s your but?” Buck chuckled, shaking his head.

“Yeah, why?”

“Damn, JD, I thought you were goin’ to say you’re goin’ blind or losin’ a foot…some shit like that.” Buck pushed his plate away and leaned back in his seat.

“This is why I didn’t want you all knowing about it,” JD replied in good humor.

“It’s better that we do,” Nathan added.

JD shrugged and finished his meal.

Ezra stepped into the kitchen dressed in one of his expensive suits and he set his briefcase and carryon bag next to the counter.

“Going somewhere, Brother?” Josiah asked, placing his elbows on the table and folding his fingers together.

“I have to fly out tonight,” came the abrupt response.

“I thought you didn’t have to go until Thursday?” Chris questioned, turning to face his brother.

“There’s been a change of plans,” Ezra answered coolly.

“I’ll drive you,” Vin offered, wiping his mouth with his napkin. Slowly he stood up and headed for the closet to grab his jacket.

“Want to take something with you to eat?” Josiah inquired.

“No, thank you,” Ezra answered, grabbing a Gatorade out of the refrigerator.

“Where’re your keys?” Vin asked with a grin. He noticed Ezra cock an eyebrow. “We could take my Hog but I doubt you’ll keep that…‘finished look’ you’re hopin’ for.”

Ezra replied with a sarcastic smile. He took a long drink from his Gatorade bottle and then grabbed his bags. Hesitantly, he tossed his keys to Vin who grabbed them in mid-air.

“When will you be back?” Chris asked, pushing the cuticles back on his thumbnails.

“Depends,” Ezra replied.

“On what?”

“Depends,” came the same mundane answer.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Buck asked softly, as Vin and Ezra left the room.

“Can’t take that long to rob a bank,” JD said, putting his silverware on his plate.

A collection of  “What” was heard around the room.

JD sat back, surprised by the looks his brothers were sending him. “He said you knew what he did for a living.”

“Robbing banks is a far cry from security breaks,” Chris muttered, getting to his feet. “And I’m a law enforcement officer!”

“We said we’d stay out of his business, Chris, and I think we should stick to that,” Buck said, watching as Nathan started clearing the table.

“Maybe what he does is legal,” Josiah commented.

Chris looked at Josiah with unbelieving eyes. “I can guarantee that robbing banks is illegal!” He stood up and rubbed his forehead in frustration. Something like this could destroy the family, collapse the ranch, and put the others in danger.

“Don’t go makin’ somethin’ out of this that isn’t there, Chris,” Buck snapped, watching Nathan’s automatic movements.

JD bit his lower lip, wishing he’d kept his mouth shut.

“Maybe he doesn’t rob them…” Nathan suggested, “maybe it’s more of a burglary?”

“And that’s better?!” Chris snapped.

“That’s what it is,” JD jumped in. “He said he burglarizes them.”

Buck rolled his eyes, wishing JD would think before he spoke, and watched his older brother pace the floor. “What are you goin’ to do?”

“I thought he did a legitimate job, Buck!”

“Well don’t bite my head off!” Buck snapped back. “You did that last night!”

“Maybe we should all take a deep breath and ask Ezra about this when he gets back. There’s no use in becoming frantic over a situation we have no control over,” Josiah spoke reasonably. “It could be something as simple as a misunderstanding.”

“He’s right,” Nathan added.

“I’ll agree to that, but if it’s true that he breaks into banks…” Chris looked hard at the faces of his brothers, “…I’ll have to ask him to leave.”

“Come on, Chris,” Buck pleaded.

“I’m the sheriff of this town, Buck…I can’t be responsible for harboring a fugitive.” Chris stormed out of the kitchen and headed down the stairs to his room.

“If he doesn’t learn to relax, he’s going to have a heart attack before he turns 40,” Nathan griped, opening the refrigerator to put things away.

“Can never be simple, can it?” Buck asked nobody in particular.

“Where’s the challenge in that?” Josiah questioned, watching his brothers closely.


Vin drove the BMW, falling in love with the car’s ability to take turns, grip the road, and speed. He’d always had a lead foot, but this was unbelievable. The new car smell hit his senses and like the touch of a woman’s skin, he was in love all over again; no wonder Ezra didn’t like anyone else driving his car.

“I’ve gotta get one of these,” Vin muttered under his breath.

Ezra chuckled softly, wishing he’d taken a cab.

“When I was nine, I was with a couple of friends who were older and we stole a car…an old Volkswagen Bug…damn thing was so noisy I thought for sure we’d get caught right there.”

“Not a wise choice, I must admit.”

“Hell, it was the only one that wasn’t locked…” he laughed, knowing he was a better mechanic than a thief.

“Did you get caught?”

Vin nodded and bit his cheek. “Got sent back into the system…stayed in a group home for troubled boys. Really stupid thing to do…send a troubled kid to stay with other troubled kids so they can all learn from each other.”

“What did you learn?”

“How to siphon gas out of fuel tanks—stopped doin’ that when a friend of mine decided to smoke a cigarette after doin’ it…took his whole face off.” Vin shook his head and kept his eyes on the road. “Guess you could say I wasn’t a bright kid growin’ up.”

“The simple fact that you quit shows great intelligence.”

“I ain’t buyin’ that shit you’re sellin’,” Vin replied, knowing he’d been a stupid kid. He didn’t expect anything special for it. “So what was the stupid thing you did as a kid? Or were you perfect?” He laughed as he asked. He took the exit to the airport hoping for some kind of an answer.

“This really isn’t necessary,” Ezra said softly, shaking his head.

“Everyone’s got secrets…some worse than others, but they’re all secrets.” There wasn’t any acusation in his tone, just understanding…he’d lived it before, and knew what it was like to be judged.

“I took a bottle of aspirin when I was fourteen,” came the unexpected response. Ezra wasn’t sure why he said it, just that he had, and he wished he hadn’t.

“A whole bottle?” Vin questioned in surprise.

“I had a headache.” He pointed to the curb. “You can drop me off here,” he said, opening the car door before Vin could bring it to a stop.

Vin watched his brother’s quick, agitated, movements. He was smart enough to know that Ezra had said something that he wasn’t ready to talk about. “You all right?”

“Fine,” came the sharp response.

“When do you want me to pick you up?”

“I’ll call.” Ezra slammed the car door shut and headed into the airport terminal. He had no desire to stick around and talk about things that he should have left buried.

Vin watched him go with a new feeling of uncertainty eating at his gut. Slowly, he put the car into gear and headed home, unsure if he was going to say something to Chris or the others…he’d have to think on it first.


Chapter 10

Chris sighed when he saw the old black Jimmy truck swerve on the road just slightly. He slapped his steering wheel and flipped on his police lights. At four in the afternoon it was a little early for drunks in his small town, but maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised at who it was.

The Jimmy slowed and stopped on the side of the road just a few feet away from the irrigation ditch. Chris parked his Blazer and slipped out. His gun belt hung low on his hip, mimicking the style of the cowboys of old. He placed his hand on his hip, pushing his jacket away from his shirt, exposing his badge.

“Dale,” Chris said softly, looking inside the small truck.

“Hey, Chris,” the young man replied knowingly. “I ah…” he smiled nervously, trying to keep his composure.

“How’s Sandy and the baby?”

“Good…good,” Dale answered, rubbing his thigh. “Shit, I’m sorry, Chris.”

“When’d you start back up?” Chris rested his elbow on the mirror of the Jimmy and watched his friend’s eyes.

Dale shrugged and clenched his jaw looking out the window. “Few days ago…thought I could handle one drink—you know.” He met his friend’s eyes. “Thought I could handle it.”

Chris saw the irrigation tubes lying in the back of the truck…implications of work that still needed to be done. “Give me your keys?” He reached out and took the items that were handed to him. “Who’s your sponsor?”

“Leroy Harris,” Dale answered. He ran a hand through his red hair and rubbed his stubble-covered cheek. “You won’t tell Sandy, will you…this’d kill her.”

Chris shook his head and grabbed his cell phone and made a quick call. He looked at his friend, face stern and hard. “I ever catch you drinking and driving again, I’ll throw the book at you…no holds barred.” His voice was firm as he spoke and Dale had to swallow hard. “You’re a damn good husband and father, Dale…don’t blow it for a beer.” Chris’ eyes said more than his words as he spoke from experience. “It ain’t worth it.”

Dale slowly got out of the truck.

“You have another key to that vehicle?”

“No,” Dale answered softly.

“When you’re sober, you can come get this one from me…” Chris slipped the key into his pant’s pocket. “And I mean it, Dale, I don’t ever want to catch you drinkin’ again.”

Dale nodded slowly, realizing how lucky he was.

“Leroy’ll be here in a bit…he’ll take you home. Talk to him—that’s why he’s your sponsor. The next AA meeting’s on Friday… Be there.” Chris turned and headed for his vehicle. He sat in the driver’s seat for a moment, pretending to make a call, all the while wondering if he’d made the right decision. Dale had been there for him on several occasions—hauled him out of fights, and drove him home when he was too drunk to drive. Chris nodded and waved to his friend before driving out, hoping that his friend would make the right decision for him.

Town wasn’t busy, farmers and ranchers were trying to get their fields fertilized, crops planted, and cattle taken care of. Students didn’t have time to party—most of their time after school was spent doing work. Chris waved to people he knew as he passed them in his Blazer. He was known for being fair, while at the same time, he maintained a high level of respect within the community.

He parked his vehicle and slipped out, heading toward the front door of the sheriff’s department. One of his deputies stepped out and nodded before heading toward the bank that less than a block away.

“Chris,” Marcie acknowledged, sitting behind her desk working on some papers, “One of your brothers is in your office.” She opened a drawer and pulled out some pencils. “I’m still waiting for the electrician.” She looked up and met Chris’ eyes and a sarcastic smile appeared on her face.

“He’s your husband, Marcie…why don’t you call him and complain?”

“Because it would sound better comin’ from the sheriff,” she yelled, as Chris disappeared into his office. Marcie rolled her eyes and went back to work.


“Vin,” Chris sighed, entering his office. He hung up his jacket and moved in behind his desk to take a seat. “What’s going on?” he asked, rubbing his face with his hands.

“Ain’t heard from Ezra,” Vin answered, playing with the fraying threads on the cuff of his pant leg.

“It’s only been a week,” Chris replied, unsure if he wanted to talk about his brother in his place of employment. He shoved some papers aside and noted Vin’s silence. “What else…? You’ve been quiet since Ezra left—not that you’re ever loud…what’s going on?”

Vin stood up and looked at the titles on the wall. Chris’ diploma and degree, his nomination for sheriff, the plaque he won for pitching in the 1985 state championships. All were indications that he belonged here, this was a part of who he was. “Hell,” Vin sighed, “don’t even know if it’s any of my business.” He ran his fingers through his hair and took a deep breath.

“You want to tell me what’s going on?” Chris asked, more concerned. He leaned back in his seat and watched his brother’s movements.

“When I was takin’ Ezra to the airport last Sunday, I started talkin’ about regrets—you know—stupid things you do as a kid. Anyway, I asked him if there was anything he’d ever done…just tryin’ to get him to say somethin’ about himself that wasn’t…‘official’.”

Chris nodded in understanding; Ezra did have a tendency to be formal around everyone…even when he was ‘relaxed’. “And?” he pushed.

“Shit, Chris.” He turned sympathetic blue eyes toward his brother and ran his fingers through his long hair.

“What’d he tell you that’s got you so spooked?”

“He said when he was fourteen he took a bottle of aspirin.” Vin retook his seat and looked hard at his brother, wondering what he would say or do. Suicide wasn’t something to joke around with, and someone who’d tried it before and failed was more likely to try again…and succeed.

“Was he serious?” Chris asked, hoping Ezra had been lying.

“Why would he joke about somethin’ like that… You should have seen him after he said it, thought for sure he’d opened the door and jump out while I was still drivin’.”

Chris shook his head not understanding. “Why would he tell you something like that?” He didn’t mean to sound disbelieving, but he did.

“How in the hell should I know?” Vin snapped, getting to his feet again. “It was like one of those brain farts or somethin’—you know, when you say somethin’ before you have a chance to think it through—it just comes out.” He ran his fingers through his hair again and looked out the window. “Like Buck on a 24 hour schedule.”

Chris chuckled and nodded. He couldn’t deny that one.

“Hell, Chris, with as many sons as Lincoln Larabee had it isn’t a wonder that a few of them have some problems—JD and his diabetes, you and Josiah are both recovering alcoholics, and Nathan—I’ve never met a man more anal retentive than him…” he sighed and looked toward the plaques on the walls, “I ain’t sayin’ you had it easy growin’ up…but I think in the run of things, JD, Ezra, and me got the short end of the stick.”

“I think you can add Josiah to your list.”

“No,” Vin disagreed, “he knew him…maybe not well, but he knew him.” He looked up and met his brother’s eyes. “What about Ezra?”

“To be honest,” he sighed, “I doubt we’ll ever get anything out of him. Doesn’t strike me as a man who’s going to be open about his past…particularly if there’s a crime involved.”

“What he does, doesn’t make him a criminal, Chris…”

“Burglary is a pretty big crime, Vin—”

“Not if he’s gettin’ paid to do it—”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“I did some research—” Vin put his hand up to stop his brother from arguing, “just listen. There’s four security firms in the world that specialize in security breaks of the highest potential. He could work for one of them…”

“Is there one in New York?”

“Century Security, it’s run by three lawyers who specialized in insurance fraud. They decided to start this firm to lessen costs paid out by insurance companies. They do everything from banks, museums, to governments agencies.”

“Does Ezra work for them?” Chris asked, hoping for a good answer.

“I don’t know,” Vin shrugged, “I couldn’t find that information out—I tried to locate Maude, Ezra’s mother, and didn’t have any luck. Seems she’s ‘unavailable’ for the time bein’.”

“From what I understand, she won’t be much help anyway,” Chris muttered, remembering some of his father’s trouble with the woman.

“I ah, dug around some more…” Vin paused and scratched his head, feeling as though he’d gone too far. “Ezra’s stepfather, Aaron Topper—lives in Reno—”

“What’s got you so fired up about this?” Chris pushed, knowing there was more to the situation than what Vin was saying.

Vin sat down and rubbed his thigh nervously. Memories of his past flooded his mind. Images he’d long hoped to forget hadn’t faded over time and he refused to go through that again…particularly when a brother could be involved. Granted Ezra wasn’t the easiest to get along with, but he was far from being an outsider…at least in Vin’s eyes. “I ain’t willin’ to take a chance with suicide, Chris…I’ve seen what happens when you don’t do anythin’—I know I’m probably over-reactin’ but—”

“Nothing wrong with being concerned for a brother.” He grabbed a pencil of his desk and tossed it back. “Feel like takin’ a drive with me to Reno?”

“Yeah,” Vin sighed, slightly relived, “I do.”

“I’ll call the others—do you know where we’re going?”

A faint smile crept on Vin’s lips. “Yeah.”


Chapter 11

Chris and Vin entered the offices and looked around. Both were feeling slightly underdressed. People wearing expensive suits walked with determined destination. Leather chairs, wooden desks, and signed paintings filled the room…nothing here was cheap.

“Can I help you?” a woman asked. She sat behind her desk and looked at the two strangers with annoyed disbelief.

“We’re here to see Aaron Topper,” Chris said, wishing for the first time he’d worn his uniform.

“Do you have an appointment?”


“I’m sorry, Mr. Topper isn’t available unless you have an appointment. Would you like me to schedule one for you?” She raised her eyebrows and sighed, waiting for the response she knew she’d get.

“Tell him that Ezra Standish’s brothers are here.” Chris’ eyes narrowed and his stance grew more threatening with each passing moment.

The woman stood up abruptly and immediately disappeared behind a door.

Vin grinned and rubbed his chin: “Did you have to scare her?”

“Be glad that’s all I did.”

“Can I help you gentlemen?” A man stepped out from behind the heavy doors that the female assistant had disappeared through. His gray hair was cut short and parted on the right. He stood tall and proud: as though he didn’t have anything to be concerned about. His clothing was expensive and well made…even his shoes had ‘specialized’ written all over them.

“Are you Aaron Topper?” Chris asked, stepping forward. He’d handle the situation.

“I am,” he answered, motioning for his assistant to return to her duties.

“We’re Ezra Standish’s brothers.”

Aaron furrowed his brow and looked hard at the two strangers. “I wasn’t aware he had any?”

“We share the same father,” Chris answered. “I’m Chris Larabee and this is Vin Tanner.”

The man nodded and motioned for Chris and Vin to enter his office. “Cancel all my appointments,” he ordered, before disappearing into his workplace.


The office was more intricately decorated than the rest of the building. Chris and Vin seated themselves in the leather chairs in front of the large oak desk and looked at the expensive décor. Cases of leather bound books lined the far wall. Carefully crafted masks hung from the walls next to the windows that overlooked the city below.

“What can I do for you?” Aaron asked, sitting in his chair, but focusing all of his attention on the two men across from him.

Chris looked hard at the man, trying to decide if he’d be honest or give he and Vin the run around. Chris decided to take the chance. “I want to know what happened to our brother when he was fourteen?”

Aaron sighed, understanding what these two men were asking. “Has something happened?” he asked, concern lined his features. He thought of Ezra as a son, and despite the fact those feelings were never returned, he’d do all he could for him.

Vin twisted uncomfortably in his seat. “He said somethin’ to me that happened when he was younger…when he was fourteen.”

“And you just happened to get concerned?” the businessman asked skeptically.

Chris leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. “He’s our brother…so yeah…we’re concerned.”

Aaron sighed and nodded his head in understanding. “Maude and I married when Ezra was fourteen. He’d been living down South with an uncle who was less than…patient with him.” He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. “After the wedding, Ezra’s mother had her son flown up so he could live with us…that’s what we’d agreed to.” He looked sternly at the two men across from him. “When Ezra arrived, I noticed some bruises on his face and neck. When I asked about them he simply said he’d been in a fight at school…I didn’t think anything of it, after all, boys will be boys, and…having seen him in action, I learned he does have a temper…when pushed.”

Chris nodded, and listened intently.

“About a month after he arrived, Ezra became sullen, quiet, and reclusive in just a matter of days. I noticed right away because normally he was very outgoing. If he wasn’t out with his friends playing their music then he was kicking his soccer ball around in the park next to the house.” Aaron smiled a moment, remembering that time. “It was a Thursday night when Maude and I went to dinner after a successful business venture I’d been involved in. When we returned home we found Ezra unconscious on the sofa. There was an empty bottle of aspirin lying on the floor beside the couch…” He poured himself a drink of water from the glass pitcher on his desk. “We, of course, assumed the worst.”

“You think he tried to kill himself?” Vin asked, slightly surprised, but noticing the man’s hands were shaking.

Aaron nodded: “At the time we did. His mother and I rushed him to the hospital where they treated him. It was a Doctor Phil Harper that took over Ezra’s treatment…as a result, he saw my pocketbook rather than the needs of his patient… He convinced Maude and I that Ezra needed to be admitted into the psychiatric hospital in which he worked for further observation.” He took a deep breath, still obviously upset by what had transpired. “At first they said he was manic depressive and then schizophrenic…hell, they pumped him so full of drugs he didn’t know his own name when his mother and I arrived for visits.”

Vin’s eyes met Chris’ and both men nodded in silent agreement. They wouldn’t repeat this to any of the others. They watched as Aaron stood up and moved toward the painting behind his chair. He pulled it away from the wall and exposed the hidden safe.

“Ezra was there for six and a half weeks,” he said sternly, trying to separate himself from the situation. He was failing. “When his mother and I arrived for the last visit…” he paused to collect himself, “I just remember that boy looking up at us…well, I just couldn’t take it. Maude and I took him home. He slept for four days after that.” Aaron looked up into the eyes of Ezra’s older brother. “We tried to get him to a hospital but…he fought us tooth and nail. I finally found a neurologist who was willing to come to the house and see him…”

“Mr. Topper, if our brother is in need of medical attention we need to know,” Chris said, wanting to get to the point.

Aaron nodded but quickly shook his head, not wanting them to get the wrong impression. He returned his attention to his safe. “Migraines…your brother suffers from what Doctor Renalds called sudden onset migraines. They hit him hard and fast, usually without warning. He’ll drop—just like he’d been hit with a battering ram… Medications don’t work…and he’s tried them all…” he paused before continuing, “After I told the doctor about the bruises around Ezra’s head and neck, he thought that the migraines may have been caused by a head trauma…but there’s also the possibility that they could be hereditary.”

“He gets them from Dad,” Chris said sadly. “He didn’t get ‘em so bad after he got older but I remember when I was young he’d be down two or three days with one.”

Aaron turned from the safe and looked hard at the blonde. “These are the medical records I obtained after suing Doctor Harper.” He let the heavy file fall to the table and land with a heavy thump. “I didn’t ask Ezra to testify at the hearing…didn’t want to put him through it at the time.” He returned to his seat and looked hard at the two brothers. Guilt continued to eat at his soul, even after thirteen years.

Chris picked up the medical file and leafed through it. He didn’t understand a lot of the terminology or medications that were forced upon his brother, but he did understand, combative, argumentative, and restraints. Just a few words that insinuated what Ezra had gone through as a boy. Chris closed the file and took a deep breath.

“He was a good kid,” Aaron said with a smile. “Your father should have taken the time to find him…he should have done everything he could have…to find him.”

Chris nodded in silent agreement. Yes, he should. 

“A boy needs his father to help him grow into the man he will become.” Aaron looked hard at Chris, knowing he’d understand the meaning. “Burn that file. I’d hate for someone with less than honorable intentions to get it.”

“Why do you still have it?” The sheriff in Chris was appearing like the sun on a cloudy day.

“It’s been in my safe since the end of Harper’s malpractice hearing.”

Chris and Vin stood up along with Aaron. They all moved toward the door before pausing, not knowing what to say.

“When was the last time you saw him…? Ezra?” Vin asked, running a hand through his long unruly hair.

The older man paused a moment, thinking back: “About four years ago,” he smiled, “saw him playing poker at a high stakes game here in town…little shit walked away with ten grand that night.” He shook his head and laughed. “Hide your cash…whatever you do.”

“Do you know what he does for a living?” Chris asked, concerned not for just Ezra’s well being but the others as well.

“I’m aware of it, yes,” Aaron admitted unhappily. “Ezra works for a company in New York… However, if you want any information about his job description you’ll have to talk to him.” He took a deep breath and motioned toward the door. “If you or Ezra ever need anything…” he let the statement fall short as he opened the door. “He’ll be your best friend, or your worst enemy,” came the soft voice. Pale blue eyes looked hard at Chris’ green ones. “Don’t forget that.”

Chris nodded and shook the man’s hand before stepping out of the office with Vin on his heels.

 “Hell,” the blonde sighed. He leaned back against the inside wall of the elevator and ran his fingers through his hair. More than anything he wanted a cigarette.

“Ain’t your fault you know?” Vin said softly. “The things your dad did.”

“Or didn’t do,” Chris replied bitterly.

Vin nodded but kept quiet. He knew Chris wasn’t in the mood to talk, but he’d be there when he was ready. 


JD cut the last bale of hay and tossed it over the side of the trailer into the feeder. Without warning, he fell back onto the rest of the hay, feeling the freedom of life for the first time in years. Buck drove the truck and pulled them slowly over the rough pasture. The horn was pressed a couple of times to warn off the approaching cattle that were late getting to their evening meal. Several trotted by, bumping and pushing each other.

JD reached over and patted the rear window and gave Buck a thumbs up, letting him know he was through and slowly they headed for the house. The dogs barked, wanting to ride in the back as they ran along the side of the trailer. JD watched as Nathan drove his car into his usual parking place and slipped out. He waved to the pair and headed inside with an armload of files and books.

Buck stopped the truck and stepped down and Goober followed, having sat in the cab with his master. “How ‘bout pizza for dinner?” he asked, looking more at his dog than JD.

JD jumped down off the wagon and kicked his boots against the wheels. The sun was making a quick descent and as a result the animals were calling it a night. Even the chickens had disappeared.

“Here comes Chris an’ Vin,” Buck said, pointing down the driveway. He scraped his shoes on the mat and headed inside with JD on his heels.

Josiah sat at the table looking over some files and drinking a hot cup of tea. “Brothers,” he said, watching as they removed their jackets and boots then left them by the door. “Eventful day?”

“Do bears shit in the woods?” Buck replied with a grin, grabbing a beer from the refrigerator. “JD pulled a calf.” He smiled, having promised he wouldn’t say anything about it. He watched as the kid’s face turned a deeper shade of red.

“It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done,” JD commented, washing his hands for good measure.

“Saved the calf and the cow—should have gone to vet school, Kid.” Buck laughed.

“Or not.”

The front door slammed shut and Vin and Chris entered with bags of take out. The smell of food filled the air and like hungry wolves on the hunt, brothers started to appear like magic. Josiah was up and gathering plates, while Buck started pouring milk into glasses. Vin sat the containers of food on the table and took his usual seat…there was too much action in the kitchen for his liking. Nathan was the last to come down, having smelled the delicious aroma of Vietnamese cooking. Silverware clanged together and chairs were scraped along the floor as everyone took a seat.

“Did you find what you were looking for in Reno?” Josiah asked.

“Yes…and no,” Chris answered honestly. He took a bite of food and wiped his mouth with a napkin, trying to avoid Vin’s look. “You ever hear of a Doctor Harper, Psychiatrist?”

Josiah’s brow furrowed and he shook his head: “Don’t recall a man by that name.”

“Who is he?” JD asked, waving his hand in front of his mouth.

“What are you doin’?” Buck asked.

“It’s hot,” JD panted.

Buck shook his head and waited for Chris to answer the kid’s original question.

“Don’t know a lot about him,” Chris answered honestly, “but I understand he was involved in a malpractice suit about thirteen years ago.”

“Hang on,” JD said, grabbing his plate as he headed into the next room.

“That boy’s been going 150 miles an hour all flippin’ day,” Buck sighed, poking at the meat on his plate.

“Wearin’ you out?” Vin replied with a chuckle.

“You and the horse you rode in on, grease monkey,” Buck snickered.

“Is Harper why you went to Reno today?” Nathan asked, leaning back in his seat.

Chris ran his fingers through his hair and rested his elbows on the table. “How much do you know about sudden onset migraines?” He looked hard at his brother.

Nathan shrugged: “There’s not a lot known about migraines in general, but like most ailments, studies are being done—”

“Nathan,” Chris pleaded, not wanting to hear about the scientific studies.

“Like the title implies, they’re a migraine headache that happens quickly and probably without warning.” He shrugged his shoulders and continued, “Like most migraines, the pain would probably be severe—”

“What causes them?” Buck asked out of curiosity. He figured the conversation was in regards to Ezra.

“I’m a GP, not a neurologist, but there are several different theories. Some think it’s diet-related, hereditary, stress related…”

“Could a head trauma cause them?” Vin questioned, scratching the back of his neck.

“Could be, but there’s no guarantee.”

JD reentered the kitchen with an empty plate and a couple sheets of paper. “Dr. Harper lost his license to practice psychiatry thirteen years ago after a malpractice suit involving 15 juveniles, and three adults.” He shrugged his shoulders and handed the papers to Josiah.

“Now, I remember this case,” Josiah admitted, looking over the papers. “Harper was taking advantage of wealthy families and using children—primarily—as his subjects. He treated them for ailments they didn’t have, causing short term memory loss for some, seizures, loss of senses, and chronic fatigue in others.”

“Wasn’t that actress’ kid one of his patients…Julie White? You know the chick in the movie about Florida immigrants?”

Five sets of eyes landed on JD in utter disbelief.

“You watched a movie about immigrants in Florida?” Buck asked, shocked beyond belief.

Josiah reached out and patted the kid’s shoulder in pride. “Was it a good movie?” he asked, having failed to see it.

“Don’t remember,” JD answered honestly, “but she was runnin’ around in a thong.”

“Now! I remember that one!” Buck gasped, slapping his hand on the table.

Vin snorted and laughed, more at Chris’ expression than anything else.

“So what’s all this about?” Nathan asked, trying to get everything back on track.

The room went suddenly quiet and attention was focused on Chris who rubbed his nose and leaned back in his seat. The aroma in the air no longer seemed appealing as his stomach turned. He pushed his plate away from the edge of the table and took a deep breath.

“This have to do with Ezra?” Buck asked, feeling as though it might.

“He said something to Vin that caused some concern—”

“What?” JD interrupted.

“Let him finish, JD,” Nathan said quietly.

“I’m not going to tell you what he said,” Chris answered flatly. “But Vin and I found out that one of Ezra’s step fathers was one of the plaintiffs against Harper…”

“Damn,” Josiah sighed, leaning back in his seat. “He was one of the juveniles?”

Chris nodded.

“So what does that mean?” JD asked softly.

“Don’t know.”    


Vin woke early to the smell of coffee brewing. He liked the early morning hours. He could think better when life was just beginning to wake. Slowly, he slipped his jeans and sweatshirt on and then he headed up the stairs. He saw Chris sitting at the table, blindly fingering a cup of coffee. He seemed to be in another world

Vin poured himself a cup of the hot substance. He stirred in some sugar and a little bit of cream before taking a seat at the table. The silence was peaceful, not uncomfortable, and he would wait until Chris was ready to talk before saying anything.

“Sometimes I wish he were alive so I could show him what he’s done…and then there are times like this when I’m thankful he’s gone,” Chris sighed and fingered the coffee mug. “If he’d known what you, JD, and Ezra went through…because of him.” He looked hard at Vin. “It’d kill ‘im.”

Vin nodded, knowing he was getting more out of his brother than he ever anticipated.

“He was a great dad. Spent a lot of time with Nate, Buck, and I. Was always at our little league games, football practices, and 4-H meetings. Hell…” He looked up and met his brother’s blue eyes. “He even ate Buck’s experimental chocolate chip cookies.” Chris laughed. “When Dad first found out about you, he spent all his time lookin’ for you…” he sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, “I remember hatin’ you because you were takin’ all of his time away from me and the others.”

“He looked then?” It was clearly a question but for some reason it sounded like a realization.

“Yeah…he looked.” Chris nodded and returned his gaze to the black substance that was quickly cooling in his cup. “He read about your ma’s death in the paper… Wanted to go to her funeral but we had some problems here at the ranch that kept him from going. It wasn’t until a year later that he got a letter from your ma—lost in the mail—some shit like that… I remember when he got it because he sat and read it for an hour…hell, it wasn’t even a long letter. Buck and I were sittin’ under the stairs when he called Travis and told him about you. Dad said he wanted to find you and bring you home…” Chris shrugged his shoulders and sighed.

“Ma never talked about ‘im, least what I remember.” Vin turned his head and looked out the window toward the rising sun. “I ain’t gonna sit here an’ say my life was easy…but it weren’t near as bad as some kids an’ near as good others.” He turned compelling eyes toward his older brother. “I’d be willin’ to bet that JD and Ezra don’t hold your dad responsible for anythin’, but that ain’t gonna excuse the pain they went through when they were younger.”

“He’s your dad as well you know,” Chris responded.

Vin shook his head: “No…a dad’s someone who you play ball with, someone who cusses you out when you do somethin’ stupid, an’ someone who’ll teach you how to rebuild a carburetor…shit like that.” He looked back out the window and watched as the sun crept up over the land. “Lincoln Larabee wasn’t anythin’ to me.” He turned and looked hard at his brother. “But that don’t mean his sons…my brothers, won’t be.”

“Dad would have liked you…Shit, you’d probably been his favorite.” Chris smiled and drank down his cold coffee.

“I’m glad he was a good father, Chris…don’t get me wrong. But, some of us don’t got the memories you, Buck, and Nathan ‘ave got. Hell…” Vin sighed and leaned back in his chair. “Way I figure it…the differences between people like you, me, and Ezra…ain’t what we’ve lived through or the problems we’ve faced…but who stood beside us through those times.”

Chris looked at his brother and understood what he was trying to say. “Or who didn’t stand beside you,” he said flatly, knowing Vin had just revealed more than he’d anticipated. There was a long pause before Chris began again, “Buck got teased a lot in school because of what his mother did for a living. I think Dad tried to make up for that in the way he treated us. He never talked about JD or Ezra…but he tried real hard to find you, Vin. Damn near broke ‘im on more than one occasion.”

Vin nodded but remained silent. He didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Too many emotions were filling his head. “S’pose I should go out and see what I can do with that shoot latch,” he said, looking toward the stables.

“Yeah,” Chris said in agreement, knowing Vin was done talking.


Buck picked up the phone in the barn after the hundredth ring, or so it seemed. “Hello,” he gasped, having run from the haystack. A smile crept onto his lips as he listened to Ezra on the line asking for a lift from the airport. “Sure,” he replied, “I’ll be there.” He hung up the phone and smiled, thankful that his brother had indeed decided to come home.

Buck ran his fingers through his hair and smiled, thankful that he didn’t confess his concerns to the others about the possibility that Ezra had just packed up and left…never to be heard from again. He headed back to the wagon to help JD finish loading for the last feeding. Together they’d managed to bring down the last of the springer heifers and were now moving the yearlings up onto BLM land. He hoped to fatten them up before the big sale in August.

“Everything all right?” JD asked, tossing his leather gloves onto a bale of hay.

“Yeah,” Buck replied. “I have to go pick up Ezra when we get done.” He jumped up on the back of the loaded hay truck.

JD smiled and slapped the truck door before sliding into the driver’s seat.


Chapter 12

Ezra stepped off the plane and slowly walked down the exit ramp before entering the airport terminal. With his carryon bag slung over his left shoulder and his computer bag grasped tightly in his right hand, he was debating his sensibility of coming back. Was it worth it? He rubbed his eyes, pushing his sunglasses up a bit…a sad attempt to hide a colorful black eye.

Buck stood up and tossed the newspaper he’d been reading down onto the bright orange chair when he spotted his brother. People moved past him with their own agendas, not caring about anything else. They were here to see family, friends, or they were here on business. “What happened?” he asked, taking a closer look at the bruising on Ezra’s cheek.

“Nothin’ that I couldn’t handle,” Ezra replied evenly. He took a step forward but was pulled back by Buck’s strong hand. “I assure you, Mistah—”

“Buck!” came the sharp, impatient response. “My name is Buck.” He reached up and grabbed Ezra’s sunglasses before he had a chance to shy away, exposing a slightly swollen cheek and eye, ranging in colors from deep purple to a faint yellow. “Who won?” he asked, handing Ezra his glasses back.

“I did,” Ezra replied sharply, replacing his glasses on his face and heading toward the airport exit.

Buck sighed and followed his brother. Without asking, he motioned toward the car that was parked just across the way. Nothing was said as luggage was placed in the trunk of the vehicle. Buck took his seat behind the steering wheel and waited for his brother to get comfortable before starting the car and heading toward the freeway.

“How was Amsterdam?” Buck asked, trying to strike up a conversation.

“Eventful,” Ezra replied, rubbing his forehead. The past two weeks had come down on his shoulders and he was feeling the pressure at its fullest.

Buck sighed and carefully maneuvered his way through traffic. He knew by looking at his brother that he was tired…something he seemed to be a lot of the time. “I’m not real sure what it was you said to Vin…but whatever it was, scared the shit out of him.” His voice took on a soothing, knowing, tone. He wasn’t out to make his brother uncomfortable; he just wanted to understand him better.

Ezra moved uncomfortably in his seat. He rested his elbow on the door next to the window and rubbed his brow. Why had he come back?

“How long have you worked for Century Security?”

Ezra’s jaw clenched and he pressed his fingers into his temple. “I thought I asked you all to refrain from my business?”

“Robbing banks?”

“I don’t rob banks,” Ezra snapped.

“Don’t matter,” Buck said, following the road. “Chris is a member of the law enforcement community, Ezra…he can’t be associated with a criminal…neither can the rest of us.”

“Everything I do is within the realms of the law,” Ezra sighed, leaning back in his seat.

“How do we know that?” Buck challenged.

“Have your brother run my prints.” The words came out of his mouth before he could stop them, having been said out of anger and frustration.

Buck ran his hand over his face and turned the windshield wipers on as the rain started to pour out of the sky.

“I’m paid by insurance companies and participatin’ venues to failsafe their facilities in regards to security breaks. So, yes, I break into companies that feel they are under threat.”

“Of what?”

Ezra looked at Buck with disbelieving eyes.    

“How dangerous is this job?” Buck asked, trying to get his brother to open up.

Ezra sighed and watched Buck’s movements. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked simply, avoiding the question.

The silence in the car was deafening as they drove home. Ezra nervously rubbed his finger and thumb together while trying to maintain some composure. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He blamed himself for the issues, he and his mouth. He was surprised to find himself wondering why Buck, and even the others, were concerned. Maybe he shouldn’t have been. Were they concerned for themselves, the ranch, or him?

He should have left, not bothered to stay and get to know his brothers.

He’d been a fool and was now paying the price.

Buck took a deep breath, knowing Ezra was uncomfortable, and knowing he had a right to know. “Vin and Chris went to see Aaron Topper.” He watched from the corner of his eye how his brother reacted.

Ezra ran his hand over his face, panicking inwardly.

That wasn’t anyone’s business.

“What happened with that doctor?” Buck decided to push his chances and continue his questioning.

“From the sound of things you already know,” came the sharp, defensive response.

“Listen,” Buck’s tone took on a harsher tone, “you’re the one that opened this can of worms…so I reckon you’re goin’ to have to be the one to put it to rest!”

Ezra sighed. Had he sabotaged himself? It wouldn’t surprise him if he had…he seemed to do it a lot. One day he’s living life high on the hog and the next he running from something he thought he’d buried. Perhaps that was the one characteristic he’d gotten from his father, only Ezra didn’t move from woman to woman…he ran from everyone.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that our ‘little’ family is as dysfunctional as lambs runnin’ to the slaughter house,” Buck sighed, and then took the exit for Four Corners. “But the one thing about this family is we are a family and we stick together. Dad, Nathan, and me helped Chris sober up…we did everything but haul him into rehab.” He gripped the steering wheel tightly. “I’m not tellin’ you this to lessen what happened to you, but I want you to understand that nobody’s goin’ to judge you…not in that house.” He ran his fingers through his hair and flattened his mustache. “When I was fifteen, I ended up havin’ a relationship with my high school counselor…to make a long story short—she ended up pregnant, had an abortion, and moved away before she could get fired. Dad found out about it and made sure my name was left out of the papers. I think he was terrified that I was just like him…maybe I am too,” he sighed, almost inaudibly.

“Spare me all the family melodrama, Buck. This has nothing to do with the rest of you diggin’ into my business.”

“Maybe,” Buck agreed, “But we do have a right to be concerned.”

Ezra shook his head in disagreement but refused to say anything. He was done arguing, or hearing ‘Lincoln’s’ side of the story.

“Just so you know,” Buck looked at his brother through the corner of his eye, “Chris ain’t real happy with your job…and I expect he’ll want a proper explanation of what you do…otherwise—”

“Otherwise what?”

“Chris ‘ill be the first to risk his life for a brother, Ezra, but he won’t risk the ranch.”

Ezra nodded and kept his gaze out the window…all the while thinking it was time to leave.   


Josiah and Nathan continued to sort out the files in Lincoln’s old office. All of Ezra’s hard work still sat in perfect piles on the antique oak desk. However, it was the boxes of old photographs, letters, and documents that seemed to consume their time.

Josiah smiled, looking through the pictures of Lincoln and his ‘claimed’ sons. Buck and Chris seemed to be inseparable. Every photo had them together, usually playing, riding horses, or playing ball. Nathan was there too, in the background…the smart one. Unlike the other two, he seemed more content with a book, or standing by his father’s side…learning. Lincoln seemed to have lived a good life—at least that was the way the images portrayed him. He smiled with his hands on his sons’ shoulders, or with them in his strong arms. Nobody lacked for love in this house.

The boys never went without.

Except for a mother.

Nathan laughed on occasion, remembering times in his past that he shared with his family. He handed a photograph to Josiah with a smile on his face. “For Buck’s sixteenth birthday, Chris bought him a condom dispenser.” He laughed along with Josiah. “I think he’s still got it hanging up in his room downstairs.”

“Were you all close?” Josiah asked, handing the picture back.

Nathan nodded: “Yeah…he never made me feel different.” Big brown eyes looked up and met hazel ones. “I was just one of his sons.” He sighed, replacing some of the images into the photo albums. “In town, I was always known as the black kid, same with school—but here, I was just Nathan…there wasn’t any reason to doubt who I was or the blood running through my veins.”

“Should there have been?”

Nathan shook his head: “No.” He reached out and grabbed a heavy manila folder. “I’m real sorry you didn’t get to know him on a personal level.” He met his brother’s eyes. “You’d a liked him.”

“I learned a long time ago, Brother, never to mourn what you never had, but to celebrate what you do have.” Josiah smiled warmly, wishing in his heart that he was in some of the images lying on the carpet, wishing he’d had the opportunity to make his father proud, and more importantly, he wished his son could have met his grandfather.

“Look at this,” Nathan said, slightly surprised by what he discovered. He handed the papers and letters over to Josiah and waited for a response.

“Answers some questions…don’t it?” He looked up and nodded, more to himself than for Nathan.


Chris tossed his pencil onto the table, frustrated with the statements in front of him. For once in his life, he was realizing that he needed some help with the ranch finances. He’d ask for help, but Josiah and Nathan were finishing with their father’s private things, JD was working online trying to build a website for the ranch, and Vin was working on a case he’d gotten.

The front door opened and the screen door slammed shut. Chris looked up and met Buck’s eyes, and then Ezra’s. “What happened?” Chris asked, looking at the bruising around his brother’s eye.

“I fell,” came the simple answer.

Chris sighed, needing—wanting, to keep his temper in check. “I’m not asking for a lot…so the truth would be nice.” He placed a hand on his hip and waited.

Ezra sat his luggage on the floor next to the wall and took his sunglasses off. “I had a payment dispute.”

“Robbing a bank?” Chris asked, his voice full of sarcasm.

Ezra squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. He returned his gaze to Chris and shook his head. “My job is legitimate.”

Chris sighed and leaned back against the countertop, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “No offence, Ezra, but your secrecy and…shall we say…duties, has me concerned.”

Buck shook his head as he moved past Chris to grab a glass of water. “Everythin’s fine…ain’t no reason to push the subject.”

“I need to know what you do, and I need verification of it…” Chris looked hard at Ezra. “No bullshit.”

“Verification?” Ezra questioned, slightly threatened.

“I won’t risk the ranch or the futures of everyone in this house by harboring a fugitive—if we have to, we’ll get you a good lawyer—”

“With what?” Ezra challenged. “The ranch is all but bankrupt.”

“I’ll contact Travis in the morning—”

“He didn’t do anythin’ wrong, Chris,” Buck snapped, slamming the glass onto the counter. He knew his brother was itching for a fight, he didn’t know why, but he knew the signs. It didn’t take much to tip Chris’ scales, but when they started to turn, there wasn’t any stopping them.

“Burglary is a felony, Buck! Not something to fuck around with!”

“From what I understand, Mistah Larabee, you’ve already talked to Aaron—I’m surprised you didn’t find out whom I lost my virginity to as well.” Ezra’s voice increased in volume. He felt as though he’d been stomped on, as though someone had gone through his personal things without asking.

The others entered the kitchen, hearing the volume increase and feeling the tension as well.

“You didn’t leave us any choice in the matter!”

“What choice?!” 

“You’re actin’ like a child!” Chris yelled, throwing his necktie against the wall.  He looked at his brother in contempt.

“I’m actin’ like a child?!” Ezra ‘s accent thickened as he spoke. “How dare you assume that my job is any less valued than yours…dear sir?!” He stood by the door ready to bolt at any moment. “I have not ONCE asked for anythin’ from anyone here, except to stay out of my affairs!” He looked around the room to the others, wishing someone would come to his defense, but knowing nobody would. “How dare you make assumptions about me…you don’t even know me,” Ezra spoke softly. “And yet you had the audacity to go behind my back and speak with a man… who had no right tellin’ you what he did!”

Vin bowed his head…he’d over-stepped his bounds and knew it.

“You’re our brother, Ezra, we had a right to be concerned!” Chris defended.

Ezra laughed, which shocked everyone. “You’re fuckin’ kiddin’ me?!” he challenged, not believing a word Chris was saying.

Josiah watched from a distance, unsure if Ezra was disbelieving the fact that he was indeed their brother, or the concern they’d all felt in regards to him.

“Your fathah made it very clear to my mothah that I was not his son…so in hindsight…I don’t even know why I’m here.”

“Dad said a lot of shit, Ezra…hell, specially when he was mad. You can pretty much hit the nail on the head with me because I’ve been known to do it myself,” Chris stepped up to the plate. “You’re a part of this family…you might as well start actin’ like it.”

“I have not—”

“If Dad hadn’t felt responsible for you, he wouldn’t have put you in the will like he did.” Chris sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know why he never looked for you…”

“He did,” Nathan spoke up for the first time. “That’s why he hired Cady.” He looked at Vin and then Ezra. “Least that’s what Josiah and I figured while we were going through some of Dad’s old letters and papers.”

Josiah nodded in agreement: “It would appear that our father felt remorseful about the comments he’d made to your mother, Ezra. He started looking for you almost immediately after the phone call. At least, that’s what Nathan and I have come to believe.”

Ezra shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “He didn’t look very damn hard!” he snapped, watching his world come crashing down around him. He reached out and grabbed the phone book and opened it. Within seconds he found the page he was looking for and tossed it onto the table for all to see. “How hard can it be to make a fuckin’ phone call?” He looked at everyone, not just Chris. “I was less than three hours from here…for two fuckin’ years!”

Hide in plain sight, Chris sighed, that had been the first thing he’d leaned in law enforcement, and yet here…he’d failed.

They’d all failed.

“Why didn’t you call?” Buck asked, surprised by the realization, and mentally kicking himself for asking such a stupid question.

Ezra’s jaw clenched and he shook his head. “He never admitted to anyone that I was his son…he never wanted to.”

“We know your mother stole some money from Dad…maybe…” Nathan started but was quickly stopped when Ezra shook his head and grabbed the leather duffle bag at his feet.

“I’ll be back for the rest of my things when I get back,” Ezra turned to leave.

“Ah, hell… Don’t go, Ezra,” JD pleaded, sitting up in his chair. He’d been quiet the whole time, unsure of what to say. He was just getting to know his brothers, and he didn’t want to lose one now. “Chris didn’t mean what he said about your job…shit, Vin’s a PI and nobody says anything about it.” The kid looked up at his older brother, pleading for him to stay.

“JD’s right,” Vin spoke up. “What you do with your life is your business, and there ain’t a one of us here who’s got a right tellin’ you how to live it.”

Ezra nodded: “Gentlemen,” he said softly, before leaving the room.

“Shit,” Chris sighed, rubbing his face with his hands. He looked at the men sitting around the kitchen table and nodded…he knew. “I’ll go talk to him.”

“With the luck you’ve been havin’…” Buck said, raising his eyebrows, “…maybe you should let someone else do it.”

“I’ll go,” Vin said, getting to his feet. “Reckon I started this mess…maybe I can settle it.” He slipped his jacket on and was out the door before anyone could protest.

“You shouldn’t have brought his ma into this, Nathan,” JD scolded, moving toward the sink to grab a glass of water.

“He has a right to know what happened,” Nathan argued, looking at Josiah.

“Not like that he don’t,” JD bit back. “Some of us ain’t like you, Buck, and Chris…we don’t know Lincoln Larabee from a hole in the ground, but that don’t give you the right to take the only thing he’s got that’s his…”

“JD…” Buck butted in.

“No,” the kid snapped, “listen… It don’t matter what Ezra’s ma did…the only thing that mattered was what Lincoln did.” JD’s eyes pleaded for someone to recognize what he was trying to say. “Maude might not be perfect…but she’s his ma…and there ain’t a one of us who’s got the right to tarnish her…in any way.”

Josiah, Nathan, and Chris all nodded in agreement. They also realized JD was speaking about himself as well as his brother.


Ezra tossed his duffle bag into the trunk of his car and slipped into the driver’s seat. The moon was full and lit the ground with its cold light. The horses in the field continued to graze, their tails swishing back and forth out of boredom. Even at night the land seemed distant and lonely. The clouds in the sky indicated to another upcoming storm.

When he turned the engine over nothing happened. Ezra hadn’t noticed that the lights hadn’t come on, nor had his door chimed when he opened it. He sighed and rested back in his seat in defeat. A dead battery wasn’t what he needed at the moment. He hoped that one of the others had simply unhooked the cables…but his gut instincts told him they wouldn't have.

Ezra pushed the car door opened and slipped out. He wasn’t surprised when Vin stepped out from under the house porch and walked toward him.

“Need some help?” Vin asked, watching his brother lift the hood of his car.

Ezra sighed and clenched his jaw when he noticed his battery was hooked up correctly. “Come to spread more hearsay, Mistah Tannah?”

“Figure I owe you an apology,” Vin said softly, squeezing his eyes shut in anticipation of the car hood slamming shut.

“And what…shall I ask…persuaded you to come to that conclusion?” Ezra asked sarcastically, slamming the hood.

“Hell, Ezra,” Vin sighed, shrugging his shoulders. “I ain’t never been good with people an’ when you told me about taken a bottle of aspirin I thought maybe it was somethin’ serious.” He looked hard at his brother, hoping for some understanding. “It don’t matter if you tried to kill yourself or were tryin’ to medicate yourself. I ain’t never seen you take a pill…not even an asprin…an’ to think that you needed somethin’ that you weren’t gettin’...”

“I made the mistake of sayin’ somethin’…I shouldn’t have.” Ezra took the blame and placed it on his shoulders.

“It was my fault, and I’m sorry.”

“It’s a bit late for that now,” Ezra replied, rubbing his forehead.

“Chris got a call today… Bank wants to foreclose by the 28th .”


“They want 15 grand to postpone the date for six months… He won’t admit it, Ezra, but Chris needs our help. He wants to keep this land as much as anyone—”

“I don’t.” He met Vin’s eyes and kept a strong hold.

“Okay…” There really wasn’t anything left to say…was there? You can’t force someone to do something, or feel something that they didn’t want. “At least come inside until your car’s ready to go.”

“Do you think I’m some kind of a fool?”


“Then why treat me as such?”

“Damn you take everythin’ personal,” Vin sighed, running his hand through his hair. “Did you ever stop to think that maybe…just maybe, you’re not alone in this? I can’t tell you what to feel or how to act, Ezra, and I sure as hell don’t know what it’s like to be you.” He looked out over the pastures, noticing the way the moon’s light glistened off the backs of the animals. “But you can’t blame Chris and the others for Lincoln’s lack of parenting skills.”

“I never said I did.”

“You never had to,” Vin bit back.

Ezra sighed and leaned back against the hood of his car. “You can’t tell me you’re not pissed at him…for the bullshit you went through as a kid?” It was an honest question that deserved an honest answer.

“Hell,” Vin sighed. He kicked his foot up and rested it on the bumper of the diesel truck. “Never knew that Lincoln Larabee was my father until a year ago when some jackass PI came to my door saying the SOB wanted to get to know me… Shit, how in the hell was I supposed to react to that? Ma died before she could say anythin’ about him and then I was in and out of the system until I was 18…so yeah, I’m a little bit pissed at Lincoln Larabee!”

Ezra crossed his arms over his chest and looked at the ground…wishing he knew what to say.

“I ain’t gonna judge you, Ezra…way I figure it, nobody’s got that right. But it goes both ways…you can’t be judgin’ them either.”

“I haven’t—”

“You have, Ezra, and you know it!” Vin snapped, standing up straight. “You blame Chris, Nathan, and Buck for havin’ a father, you blame Josiah for gettin’ to know him, you blame JD because he wanted to, and you blame me because I don’t give a flyin’ fuck about him.”

Ezra chuckled and shook his head: “So you’ve got me all figured out.” He shrugged his shoulders and stood up. “Tell me, Mistah Tannah, what’s the difference between the bastard who wanted the chance to get to know his fathah…and the one who didn’t?”

Vin shrugged.

“Nothin’,” Ezra answered. He moved around to the side of his car and popped the hood. “Forgive me for being, slightly pessimistic, when it comes to the Brady Bunch.” He motioned toward the house, while pulling out a set of jumper cables from his trunk. “I have no doubt that you’ll…fit right in.”

“That ain’t what I was gettin’ at and you know it,” Vin sighed. “Don’t you want anythin’ out of this?”

“Yeah,” came the sharp response, “the million dollar prize…only I don’t know if I can afford it.”

“You can’t afford not to try,” Vin said softly. “Whether you like it or not…we’re your family, and we have a right to get to know you.”

“Do you really want to?” Ezra challenged. “Does Chris, Buck, and Nathan really want to know how bad their fathah fucked up?”

“Don’t make the decision for ‘em,” Vin pleaded. He looked hard at Ezra, and saw more than brother in turmoil. “It’s a long hard road, but most of us are willin’ to walk it…at least for a while.” He ran his fingers through his hair and scratched his chin. “I ain’t askin’ you to tell me all your secrets…God knows, I’ve got plenty of ‘em as well.”

Ezra placed his hands on his hips and looked toward the road. Unwilling to face his brother, he reluctantly nodded, more for himself than Vin. “Sometimes…” he sighed, speaking softly, “…it’s easier to leave before gettin’ thrown away.”

“I know…” Vin said, looking up and meeting Ezra’s eyes, “…I know that more than you realize.”

Ezra nodded, averting his eyes. He rubbed his forehead, feeling the pressures of the past few weeks resting on his shoulders. He never saw or heard Vin grab his belongings out of the car.

“Come on,” Vin said, placing a hand on Ezra’s shoulder. “It might not be what we always wanted,” he looked toward the house, “but it’s closer to any home I’ve had before.”

Ezra nodded and slowly followed Vin toward the house.

At least they’d give it a try.


Chapter 13    

Chris rinsed his cup in the sink and set it in the dish rack. The early morning sun was peaking up over the horizon and the roosters were making their presence known by croaking out their usual song. He hoped today would be like any other. He wasn’t sure what Vin had said to Ezra the night before, but he suspected it was something both men knew more about…perhaps more than anyone else.

The lights in the horse barn flickered on and Chris knew Buck was already up and feeding, like most ranchers and farmers…he worked all the time…didn’t know how not to—unless there was a woman around. Chris chuckled to himself and shook his head. Buck had a way about him, there wasn’t any doubting that.

It was hard to look at his brothers and see his father’s failure. Lincoln had been an idol for so long in Chris’ eyes that it tainted his outlook on life at times. It had always been difficult trying to live out from under the stigma of his father’s reputation…maybe it was something he was still trying to compensate for. When he went to college he wanted to become a law enforcement officer. He wanted to punish people for crimes, but over time that desire had lessened…maybe that had to do with age. Chris understood now that things weren’t in black and white, most of life was lived in the gray.

Chris slipped his jacket on and headed outside, needing to get to town to cover his sick deputy’s shift. It was hard to think that the family was complete, not when so many had perished. Josiah’s mother had died several years ago, and Ezra’s…who knew where Maude was. Chris ran his fingers through his hair, thinking about Sarah and Adam, wishing they’d had the opportunity to get to know all of his brothers. She would have broken down those walls, all those hard feelings they harbored toward their father…she would have made them feel at home. Chris didn’t know how to do it. He was the one that made sure everyone was in line, the one who made the rules and enforced them.

He didn’t know if he could keep his family together.

How could he, when he could barely keep himself in one piece?


“Hey, boss,” Marcie said, tossing her lunch onto her desk. She removed her coat and hung it on the rack.

Chris nodded in acknowledgement but continued flipping through the file cabinet. “How in the hell do you find anything with this filing system?”

“What are you lookin’ for?”

“The Spikes file… He’s up for parole this June,” Chris answered, still flipping through the files.

Marcie shook her head and moved to where her boss was standing. She opened the filing cabinet next to the one Chris was looking though and pulled out the file.


“I think you should check about some glasses,” Marcie commented, pointing to the label on the file cabinet that read ‘2003 parolees’. “I do actually update the files on occasion…” she headed back to her desk, “…that is what you pay me for.”

Chris rolled his eyes and headed for his office.

“I’m still waiting for the electrician.” Marcie tapped her pencil on her desk, waiting for a response. She picked up the phone and dialed her home number. Then, without warning, she held the phone outward.

Chris shook his head and grabbed the handle to his office door. “He’s your husband, Marcie.”

“Well I can’t get him off his fat ass,” she complained.

“Marcie,” Chris warned, looking toward his assistant.

She looked up and smiled knowingly.

“I don’t want to hear about it…if he doesn’t get his ass down here by tomorrow morning, I’ll find someone else.”

Marcie smiled: “Was that so hard?” She said, holding up the phone so her husband could hear. “Did you hear that, darlin’?” she spoke into handset.

 Chris sighed in disbelief and stepped into his office.


Chris took his seat and tossed the file onto his desk. He ran his fingers through his hair and looked up when his office door was opened. “Ella?” he said in disbelief. 

She stepped through, wearing a fur coat. Her curly brown hair fell around her shoulders, embracing her face with a subtle hug. Her large brown eyes danced in the soft light of the room and she smiled warmly. “It’s been a long time.”

She looked almost the same.

Chris smiled and leaned back in his seat. “Yeah,” he said softly, “it has.” He wasn’t expecting the flood of old feelings to rush to the surface. Ella had been an exciting time in his life, when he didn’t have many responsibilities. She’d been wild, unpredictable, and full of energy…he quietly wondered if she’d changed.

She turned and closed the blinds. “You have any plans?” she asked, allowing her coat to fall to the floor. Her naked form glistened under the soft lights.

Chris chuckled: “No, I don’t.” She hadn’t changed.

The End

Under the Skin of Men