Autumn Leaves

Helen Adams

Author’s Note:  This story takes place over about 6 weeks, from mid-November through Christmas.  It shares the elements of Little Ezra, Chris as his adoptive father, and Christmas with my previous story “Santa Claws” but it is otherwise totally unrelated.

Moved to Blackraptor October 2009

Chapter 1 --- A Deal is a Deal

How had this happened? One mistimed remark and he was engaged in menial labor.

Ezra huffed unhappily, passing the handle of the rake back and forth from hand to hand without dragging the business end over a single brightly colored leaf.   What a horrible way to spend a Saturday afternoon!    And the worst part was that it was his own fault.  

Wednesday evening after school, he had been watching the leaves swirl and blow as he took a break from his homework.  He had mentioned that the yard looked like a mess and suggested that Chris consider hiring someone to clean it up for him.   Buck and Nathan, who had come over for dinner that evening, had both agreed that he had a good idea, but Ezra had no idea how it had come about that everyone assumed his innocent comment to mean that he wanted the task.

Not that he objected to every aspect.   Chris had initially offered $25, really not a bad chore allowance at all, and Ezra had managed to negotiate all the way up to $50.   Uncle Nathan had protested the amount and Ezra’s heart had leapt, thinking he saw a way out, but unfortunately Chris seemed to be enjoying the dickering process and had smoothed his friend’s objection by pointing out that the size of his property meant that it was going to take a great deal of work to tidy up the main yard.  A professional landscaper would charge at least twice that amount to clear the space, he had said.  Uncle Buck had chimed in on the argument by pointing out that Thanksgiving was just around the corner and ‘the kid’ was probably just looking for a way to earn some spending money for Christmas.

Ezra had not honestly thought about that, and the realization that he would be able to add fifty dollars to the small stash of allowance money he had saved, and perhaps have enough to purchase decent holiday gifts for Chris and all of his new uncles, had persuaded him to stop arguing and agree to the deal.

And so, here he was.  He was not looking forward to this, there seemed to be leaves everywhere he looked.   Couldn’t Chris have invested in a leaf-blower for a yard this size?    It would have made sense, and yet, a rake, wheelbarrow and box of extra-large garbage bags were the best he had to offer.

Ezra sighed gustily, realizing that the job wasn’t going to get done any faster if he kept procrastinating.   

“Courage, Ezra,” the ten-year-old whispered.  “Courage.”


The pile grew larger as the boy vigorously raked, muttering to himself all the while.   He had created a series of colorful leaf mounds all over the yard, feeling that it would be simpler to bag them up separately after the raking was all done.   This was the last one, and the biggest.  It would probably take two garbage bags to hold it all.  

The air felt damp and the wind was coming up again.   Ezra was tired but he was afraid that if he stopped now, the treacherous wind would undo all of his hard work and make him start over again.   There was simply no way he would allow that to happen!

After a few more minutes, he stopped working, wiping the sweat from his brow as he caught his breath and looked around the yard.   It looked good, he thought, actually rather pretty with the bright red, yellow and orange leaf-mounds dotting the landscape. 

As he moved the rake and barrow over to the porch, where he had left the roll of garbage bags, Ezra eyed the gathered foliage thoughtfully.  He looked around him, taking special note of the windows that overlooked the yard.  Nobody was watching.  Did he dare?

Dropping the rake, the boy took a running start and leapt into the biggest pile, laughing gleefully as the leaves broke his fall, bursting around him in a torrent of color.   Struggling up out of the mashed pile, he turned toward another mound and sprinted towards it, pin wheeling his legs in a way that would have done an Olympic long-jumper proud as he hurled himself atop it, grinning at the crunch and crackle of the dry leaves breaking his fall. 

A pleasant earthy scent rose from the foliage as it burst outward, reminding him of the bonfire Uncle Vin had built at Halloween.  Ezra had felt that he was too old to go out trick-or-treating, so his uncles had brought Halloween to him by way of a costume party, just the seven of them attending, with a bonfire, sweet treats, bobbing for apples and ghost stories of both the silly and scary variety. 

Ezra grinned at the memory.  That had been one of the most fun occasions of his life.  He wondered whether all of these leaves were destined for a similar fate.  He hoped so.

He got up, took a few steps forward and then crouched down into a track runner’s stance, imagining himself as a world-famous runner.  With the sound of a self-created starting gun blast, he took off running and attacked another pile of leaves, then another, and another.  One minute he was a track star, the next he was a young lion pouncing on its prey.  Each grouping of leaves represented a different flight of fancy.

The final pile burst beneath him as he jumped into its center and Ezra sighed and lay back, panting and happy.  He had been having such fun that for a little while he’d forgotten all about this being a chore.  For a few minutes, he simply lay where he had landed, eyes closed, wanting to put off returning to work for just a little while longer.  

Now that he was no longer moving about, Ezra realized that the temperature was growing colder.  A low rumble overhead had his eyes popping open and he was surprised to see that dark clouds had gathered overhead while he played.

A fat drop of rain landing right in the middle of his face spurred him into action.  Struggling out of his leaf nest, he ran to get the plastic sacks.  Struggling with the bags and the oversized work gloves Chris had loaned him, Ezra quickly raked the disarranged piles back into stacks and hurried to stuff them into the bags.  The wind was picking up and his task became more difficult by the minute as the raindrops began to fall faster and faster.  

He should quit now, he thought.  Run inside and tell Chris that the rain had impeded his progress.  However, a deal was a deal and a Standish always stood by their word.  (Well . . . at least he did.  Mother would have found a way around hers.)  After all, if he had not stopped to play, the chore would be done by now and it was hardly fair to expect Chris to pay for a job that was only half-done due to his own childish impulse.  

Moving as fast as he was able, Ezra had filled up four bags by the time the clouds fully let loose.  He was working to fill a fifth when he heard his name called out from the porch.  “Ezra!   Forget the leaves and come inside!”   

It was Chris, and a big part of him wanted to obey, but he was so close!  “In a minute!” he called back.  “I have to finish.  I’m almost done!”

“Ezra, don’t be foolish.  It’s pouring out here!”

But he could not stop.  The fifth bag was now full of soggy leaves and the sixth and final pile still waited.  It was a challenge now.  Would he win or would the rain win?   “I have to finish!” he called again.  


With a sigh that did not carry over the sounds of rain and wind, Chris went inside and grabbed his coat, striding out into the wet and over to Ezra’s side, where the boy was fighting to get the final garbage bag open.  The wet plastic was whipping about in the wind and resisting his efforts. 

As he saw the stubborn but distressed look on Ezra’s face, Chris’s determination to drag his son in out of the weather faded.   The last pile of leaves was insignificant to him, but it clearly represented something important to Ezra.  If he did not complete the chore they had agreed upon, perhaps the boy felt that he would be letting Chris down.    Or, equally possible, he felt that his promised payment would be revoked if he did not complete 100% of his assigned task.   That definitely sounded like something the boy’s mother would have done to him and Ezra still carried a great deal of mistrust for the world, thanks to that woman’s lessons.

The rain had already soaked his jeans through in the few seconds he’d been outside, so Chris decided that he had nothing to lose if he stayed out awhile longer.    “Here, let me help you,” he said, dropping to one knee on the wet ground and pulling the garbage bag out of Ezra’s smaller hands, opening it for him and holding it steady. 

Ezra hesitated fractionally, and then began to stuff handfuls of leaves into the bag.   “Thank you,” he said softly.

Chris smiled, squinting his eyes against the continued onslaught of the storm.  “No problem.  I won’t even take a percentage of the profits for helping out, seeing’s how you did all the work.”

As he had hoped, Ezra smiled at the comment and began stuffing the leaves in faster and within minutes, they were finished.  Throwing a plastic tie around the neck of the bag to prevent it from opening up and ruining all their efforts, Chris struggled to his feet and hurried Ezra toward the house. 


“Whew, that storm sure came out of nowhere, didn’t it?”  Chris said as he and Ezra squelched their way into the large cement floored service-porch that separated the kitchen and back porch.  It served as a combination laundry room, supply closet and mud room, holding everything from jars of preserves to spare snow-tires in addition to the large washer and dryer.  “Weather service said it wasn’t supposed to start raining until mid-week.”

“Apparently the clouds had other plans,” Ezra replied, peeling off his sneakers and socks and casting a repulsed grimace at his water-wrinkled toes.  His entire body was soaked to the skin; the light jacket he’d been wearing no match for the heavy precipitation.  Shoving a lock of dripping brown hair out of his eyes, he wondered how he was going to get from here to his room to change clothes without getting every surface in the house wet.

Chris seemingly read his mind, for he smiled as he hung up his own wet coat and then peeled off his jeans and sweatshirt along with his socks, tossing the whole lot into the washing machine.  “Nobody here but us,” he said as he caught Ezra’s shocked expression at the sight of him standing there in his shorts and undershirt.   Fishing a recently laundered towel off the top of the dryer, he handed it over.  “Strip out of those wet clothes and dry yourself off.  We’ll just put everything in the washer, then hit the showers.  I don’t know about you but I’m pretty cold.”

Deciding that hot water and dry clothes were worth a certain lack of dignity, Ezra nodded and followed his father’s example, stripping to his undershorts.  Those were just as wet as everything else, but a gentleman had his limits!

“Thank you for your help with the leaves,” he said, swinging the large towel over his shoulders and hugging it around his body.  He felt a bit foolish now that his task was over and also a little bit worried over what Chris must think of his stubbornness in refusing to come in out of the rain.  “I was afraid that if I left them out in the storm, I’d end up raking them all over again.”

“Is that all it was?” Chris asked.

Ezra squirmed a little.  Something about the tone of the question seemed to demand complete honesty.  Shifting his weight from one foot to the other he mumbled, “I had to get it done.  We had a deal.”

Chris nodded, as if Ezra had confirmed something for him.  “I see.”  He seemed poised to say more, but a sudden shiver rocked Ezra’s form from head to toe and changed his priorities.  “Come on, let’s get you into a hot bath before you catch cold.”


Chris’s words proved prophetic.  By the time evening rolled around, Ezra was coughing and sneezing, and his temperature had risen about two degrees above normal.   Chris sent him to bed the moment the thermometer revealed his rise in temperature. 

“But I don’t want to stay in bed,” the boy whined, picking at his comforter with a sulky expression as his father tucked him in.  “Everybody’s coming over to play games tonight and I was planning to subtly interrogate them all.”

Laughing lightly at the phrasing, Chris nudged Ezra forward far enough to slip another pillow behind his back, allowing him to recline in a semi-upright position.  “Interrogate them?  What are they, international spies or something?”

“No, but I need to solve the mystery of what each of them might want for Christmas this year.”

“It’s a good six weeks yet until Christmas,” Chris reminded him.  “You’ll have plenty of chances to find that out.”

“Yes, but it’s less than two weeks until Thanksgiving and all of the best sales occur the day after Thanksgiving,” he argued back.  “I have to buy six gifts on a limited budget, so I need to make certain that I obtain the best value for my holiday dollar.”

With a chuckle, Chris told him, “You sound like a commercial.”  He reached into his back pocket.  “But that reminds me, I haven’t paid for this afternoon yet.”

Ezra’s eyes lit up at the sight of the two twenties and two five dollar bills that Chris counted out, accepting them eagerly and holding them close to his chest.  “Thanks!”

“No, thank you.    You did a great job out there, son.   A professional landscaper couldn’t have done it better, and I’d venture to say he wouldn’t have had as much fun either!”

Distracted from his newfound wealth by the words, Ezra looked up warily.  “What do you mean?”

Chris held up a finger to indicate that he should wait.  Rising from the side of the bed, he walked out of the room, returning a minute later with his digital camera.  Turning it around so that they could both see the display screen, he showed Ezra four photos of himself playing in the leaves.   Ezra blushed, having not realized until this moment that he’d had an audience.

“Rather undignified,” he apologized.  With a shamed face, he peeled the two five dollar bills away from the rest and held them out to Chris.  At his father’s confused look, he said, “I was playing when you’d entrusted me to do a job.  I violated the terms of our contract and must pay a penalty.”

He paused, coughing hard for a minute and then following the spasm up with an explosive sneeze. 

“Bless you,” Chris said, holding out a box of tissues so that Ezra could blow his nose.

Ezra balled up his tissue in one hand and with the other, again held out the money.  “If I hadn’t slacked off on my assigned task, I wouldn’t have been caught out in the rain and you wouldn’t now be forced to tend to me, or be out the cost of medical care.”

Chris reached past the hand holding the money and brushed his own palm over the boy’s forehead.  “That fever must be getting worse,” he said.  When Ezra did not respond to the quip other than to frown in a puzzled way, he sighed.  “Ezra, I’m your dad now.  It’s my job . . . my right, to take care of you when you’re sick.  You don’t owe me money for doing it.  As for you playing in the leaves, I was happy to see you having fun.  You’re a kid and that’s what kids are supposed to do.”

“But, by playing I was nearly unable to finish on time,” he said uncertainly.

Pressing the hand holding the slightly crumpled money back toward Ezra’s chest as a sign that he should put it back with the twenties tucked under the top of his comforter, Chris smiled, the expression a little sad.  “I’m not a slave-driver, Ezra.   We have a big yard and that was a big job for just one person.  I would have been fine with it if you’d stopped half-way and then finished up tomorrow.  Guess I figured you knew that, or I would have said so at the beginning.   When I went to check on you and saw you playing in the leaves, I was amazed by how much you’d accomplished in only a couple of hours.   I was going to tell you to take a break when you’d finished playing but then I got called away by the phone and by the time I got back, it had already started storming and I could see that you were a man on a mission.”

Ezra smiled a bit at being referred to as a man.  “So, you’re not mad?”

Leaning closer, Chris kissed him on the forehead.  “Not at all.  I’m proud of you.”  Feeling the heat from the child’s skin on his face, he sat back and added, “And right now I’m also a little bit worried about my boy.  Why don’t you let me put the money away in your bank and you get a little sleep?”

“I’m not sleepy,” he said, snuggling down into the soft bedding anyway.   Handing his payment back to Chris, he watched him fold it tightly enough to insert the bills into the slot in his bank - a cheerful looking ceramic pig that Uncle Josiah had picked up at a yard sale somewhere.

Chris patted the piggy-bank’s head.  “There, safe and sound.  You rest now, and in a while I’ll bring you something to eat on a tray.” 

“Uncle JD says that tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches are the perfect food to cure any ailment,” Ezra told him seriously.  “But don’t you think potato soup would work just as well?   I really don’t like the other kind.”

A grin lit Chris’s face.  “Why don’t we find out?”

Ezra nodded.  “If I make a rapid enough recovery, may I still participate in game-night tonight?”

“I think you’d better skip this one.”  Seeing his disappointed look, Chris added, “I’ll make sure the guys come visit you.  Maybe one of them will let something slip.”

He brightened at once. 

Lowering the light in his room, Chris left Ezra to nap in peace.

Chapter Two:   The First Interrogation

The rain had still not let up when Chris heard the sound of vehicles in his driveway.  Moving to the door, he opened it and stood on the front porch to usher his guests inside, warning them to keep their voices down as they hurried in toting beverages, snacks, and a few games. 

Once upon a time, Saturday night at the Larabee house had meant strictly beer and poker but after he had fostered and later adopted a child, the selection had grown to include soda pop (allowed only on these special nights) and board-games.  Ezra would have been more than happy to stick with poker but the men had decided to expand the entertainment selection upon discovering that the little boy was better than most, if not all, of them at cards.

“Why do we need to be quiet?” Josiah asked in a near-whisper as he removed his rain soaked coat and hung it on “his” hook in Chris’s hallway, kicking his wet shoes off as well and placing them on the wide mat laid down for that exact purpose.  “Ezra asleep already?”

“He caught the sniffles while he was out raking the leaves today,” Chris told them as the party moved into his kitchen to put away the supplies.  “Storm came up so suddenly he got caught out in it.  Damndest thing was, he refused to come in until all the leaves were bagged up and secured.  I finally went out and helped him with the last one.”

Buck frowned in confusion.  “Why would he do that?  He must have known you’d let him finish another day if he didn’t get it all done.”

“That’s just it,” Chris responded with self-directed exasperation.  “He didn’t know and I’d just assumed that he would.  He had himself convinced that he was letting me down if he stopped, and what’s more, he offered to give me back 20% of his chore money after he found out I’d seen him jumping around in the leaves.  Seemed to think I’d want to punish him for playing!”

“Man,” Vin grunted, shaking his head.  “That poor kid must have had to ask permission to breathe when he lived with his mama.  Glad to hear he felt safe enough to take a risk today.  Sometimes I don’t think he ever played a day in his life until he came here.”

Nathan shot a sympathetic look toward the hallway where the bedrooms were located.  “You want me to take a look at him?  Make sure he’s doing okay?”

“If you don’t mind, I’d be grateful,” Chris agreed.  "He had a little fever going earlier, but he took a nap before dinner and that seemed to help."

"Maybe we should go," JD said uncertainly.  "If tonight isn't a good time . . ."

Chris smiled.  “Actually, Ezra wants to see all of you.  I told him he had to stay in bed instead of playing games tonight, but I promised I’d send you guys back for a visit.”

Aww, he missed us!”  Buck said happily.

WIth a rueful smile, Chris said, “Not exactly.  He wants to pump you for information.  Or in his words, interrogate you.”

JD helped himself to a can of soda as he asked, “About what?”

“Christmas?” Nathan guessed, drawing a surprised look from Chris.  “I saw the look in his eyes when Buck suggested he was trying to earn some spending money the other day.  He went from surprised to calculating in about half a second.  Bet he knew two seconds after that how much he could afford to spend on each one of us.”

“He shouldn’t be spending his money on us,” Josiah protested.  “After all that work today, he deserves a little treat for himself.”

Vin grabbed a beer and a bag of pretzels.  “Ezra loves spendin’ money, he loves huntin’ down a good bargain, and he loves making us happy.  If he can combine all those things together and believe he’s giving every one of us just what we want on Christmas mornin’, I think he’d probably count that a real fine treat.”

Chris nodded.  “I expect you’re right.”

“Maybe when it gets a little closer, we should offer to take him Christmas shopping with us,” JD suggested. “That’s what my grandparents used to do when I was little.  I didn’t have to worry about Mom seeing whatever I got for her and it gave my mom a chance to do Santa’s shopping without an audience.”

“We used to do that with Adam, too," Chris said.  "Remember, Buck?”

The tall man nodded, looking wistful for a moment.  “He and I had some real fun going to the malls together.  It was special Uncle-time, just him and me.”

“No reason we can’t all have a bit of that this year,” Josiah said, squeezing Buck’s shoulder.   Everyone had been glad to see Chris finally healing from his grief as he settled into fatherhood once again, but the others hadn’t realized until Buck began spending time with Ezra, just how much he had also been hurting.  The always-affable man had positively bloomed with new life when Ezra had shyly asked if he could call him ‘Uncle Buck’, making him the first of Chris’s friends to be given that honorary title.   “I’d enjoy a little one-on-one holiday time myself.”

Nathan pointed out, “They don’t all need to be shopping trips.  There’s your Church Bazaar, Josiah, and the Singing Christmas Tree show down at the Community Center, and the Nutcracker production downtown, all sorts of things we could do to keep him busy.”  Suddenly realizing that he was making plans without consulting the boy’s father, he added sheepishly, “If Chris doesn’t mind.”

“Go crazy.  Spoil him rotten, if you want to!”   Seeing their questioning stares, Chris shook his head.  “The look that kid gets sometimes when I start talking about past celebrations makes me suspect he’s never had a really special Christmas in his whole life.  I want to make up for a little bit of lost time if I can, and I can use all the help you guys are willing to give.”

The five honorary uncles beamed, obviously full of plans already and Chris smiled at them.  “For now, why don’t you just go back and say hello.”

“I’ll go first and see how he’s feeling,” Nathan reiterated.  “Maybe try and work the holidays into the conversation without being too obvious about it.  I got a feeling he’d be disappointed if I made it too easy for him.”

The others chuckled, knowing he was probably right.


Nathan walked stealthily down the carpeted hallway, not wanting to make too much noise if it turned out that Ezra was sleeping.  Expecting to see the flushed face of a sick little boy, he stopped short in the doorway as he was instead greeted by the sight of bare feet and a pajama clad posterior sticking out from under the bed.  He could hear Ezra rummaging and see a light moving around, undoubtedly a flashlight beam.  

He raised an eyebrow, wondering suddenly if Ezra had been faking his illness for Chris to gain extra sympathy for being made to clear the yard.  Coughing and sneezing weren’t that hard to fake and if he’d been holding the flashlight up to his face under the covers, Ezra could have easily mimicked a fever as well.  It was a classic trick, one that Nathan could remember pulling a couple of times himself on occasions when he hadn’t wanted to go to school.

Then his suspicions faded, replaced by sympathy as he heard an explosive sneeze accompanied by a hard thump and a howl of, “Ouch!” as the force of it caused Ezra to impact his head with the bed supports.   The boy scuttled backward on knees and elbows and plunked down to sit on the carpet, rubbing his abused scalp with one hand.

“You all right?” Nathan asked, entering the room and kneeling next to him, already reaching for the Kleenex box on the bedside table.

Ezra looked surprised at his sudden company.  “Hello, Uncle Nathan.”  He obediently blew his nose into the tissue Nathan held out, then needlessly added, “I bonked my head.”

“I heard you.  What were you doing under there?”

He allowed Nathan to probe gently at his newly acquired bump for a few seconds, and then pulled away when he touched a tender spot.  “I’m fine,” he protested, then belied the statement with another sneeze.  “I was looking for my journal.”

Deciding that Ezra had done himself no lasting damage, Nathan helped him up and back into bed, pulling the covers snugly around him.  “You keep a journal under your bed?”

Ezra’s face was very serious.  “That’s my secret hiding place.  You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“Not a word.  Must be a special book if you keep it hidden.”

He nodded.  “It’s my super, super secret journal.  Even Chris isn’t allowed to see it.  I keep all my most important thoughts in it.”

“I see,” Nathan replied with equal gravity.  “I used to have something like that myself, only mine was a keepsake box.  Had a lock and I used to stash only very important things in it.”

“Like what?” Ezra asked, eyes shining.  Seeing Nathan’s dubious look, he solemnly crossed his heart with one index finger.  “I won’t tell anybody.”

In fact, Nathan would not have cared if Ezra revealed the secret.  He had long since put away the childish keepsake box, but he knew that to this little boy he was providing a show of trust that would be taken to heart.   Seating himself more comfortably on the side of the bed, he thought back.  “Well, I had a baseball that was from my first home run, and a report card with all A’s, a toy stethoscope. . .”

“Did you want to be a doctor even when you were little?” Ezra interrupted.

He smiled.  “Guess I did.  I used to steal my sister’s dolls and bandage them up.  She got mad at me because before I did it, I’d used a red Magic Marker to draw bloody wounds all over ‘em.”

Ezra laughed.  “That sounds like fun!”

“Well, I wouldn’t get any ideas if I were you,” Nathan said hastily, already imagining every dog and cat on the Larabee property covered in marker stains and bandages.  “My dad found out what I’d done and made me go without allowance for two weeks.  He took me to the store and made me use the money to replace the dolls I’d damaged.”

The boy made a face, clearly feeling that Obadiah Jackson had reacted unjustly.  “I keep a ledger in the back of my journal.  That’s what I wanted to look at.”

Nathan nodded.  “Chris told me he’d paid you for your work today.  Sounds like you did a great job out there.”

“I more than doubled my accumulated store of wealth,” Ezra announced proudly, making Nathan smile. 

“And what does a boy your age need all that money for?”

An innocent expression instantly filled Ezra’s face.  “One never knows when an outlay of cash may come in handy.  Particularly at this time of year.”

“Ah, I get it,” he replied, pretending he had only just realized.  “You want to buy Chris something special for Christmas.”

“Not just Chris!” he replied, forgetting all about his pose of nonchalance as he reverted back into the eager ten-year-old that he was.  “I have nearly $80 saved up.  That’s almost enough to purchase gifts for everyone!”

Nathan was impressed, in spite of himself.  “More than enough, I’d say.”

Ezra shook his head.  “Not yet.  I need to find a way to acquire at least forty more dollars.”

“Twenty bucks apiece?” he guessed, earning himself another smile for his rapid comprehension.  “That makes sense.  Maybe you could do a few more odd jobs to earn the money.”


Seeing a good opportunity to instill some honest values in the boy, further distancing him from the ways of his acquisitive mother, Nathan elaborated.  “You know, chores, like you did for Chris with the leaves today.  I don’t have any leaves for you to rake up but I’d be willing to pay you a little something to come by my place one afternoon and help me clean up my kitchen.  It’s getting so I can’t find anything in there.”

Ezra nodded.  “It is rather disastrous.  You have wine glasses and coffee cups mixed together on one shelf.”

Secretly wondering why that particular thing had offended the boy’s sensibilities, Nathan shrugged.  “So you see why I could use some help.  How much you think it’d be worth?  And don’t say forty dollars!  It’s not that big a job.”

The sly little smile on Ezra’s face told Nathan that he had been considering that very price.  He thought for a moment.  “Chris pays me ten dollars per week in allowance money, extra for doing jobs he considers above and beyond the call of regular chore duty, like the leaves today.”

“Fair enough.  How about I give you ten dollars to help me out, then?”

“Twenty?” he tried hopefully.

Nathan raised an eyebrow.  “Fifteen, and that’s my final offer.”

The boy’s grin was infectious.  He held out his right hand.  “Deal?”

Nathan shook hands, his own grin breaking free.  “Deal, but just for that, you get to clean out the fridge.”

“Eww,” Ezra groaned, nose wrinkling.

Nathan gave him a soft shove on one shoulder.  “It’s not that bad!  I’m not running lab experiments in there, y’know.”

Ezra’s mischievous grin came back at once.  “You may be attempting to cultivate penicillin.  My teacher says that’s made from mold.”

A deep chuckle broke free from the doctor.  “You could be right about that one.”

Ezra’s laughter suddenly turned into a cough and Nathan sat him up straighter, rubbing his back to help.  “Sounds like you may have already found a little mold out there in those damp leaves today.”  He touched a hand to the boy’s cheeks and forehead and peeked inside his nose and throat.  “Skin's still a bit warm but I don’t see any swelling or redness in your throat.  I think you’ve just got yourself a regular old head-cold.”

Looking disgruntled, Ezra sniffled and wiped his nose with another tissue.  “Then I suppose there’s nothing to be done.  I’ll just have to suffer through it.”

Nathan laughed again at his martyred tone.  “Well, maybe it doesn't have to be that bad.  I’ll be right back.”


As he left the small bedroom, Nathan found Chris lurking in the hallway.  “He’s fine,” he reassured before his friend could even voice the question.  “Just a cold.  You still have that bottle of cough syrup I gave you the last time?”

Chris nodded.  “Yeah, we only used up a little of it.  He didn’t like the way it tasted.”

“Well, he’ll be better for a dose of it, even if it doesn’t taste too good.  That cough is sounding a little wet and I’d rather not take any chances on it getting worse.”

Chris went to retrieve the bottle at once.  Nathan accompanied him, filling a glass with cold water from the bathroom tap.   “This stuff will probably make Ezra a little groggy, so the other boys may have to wait for another time to visit.”

Patting him on the shoulder, Chris said, “They'll understand.  Thanks, Nate.  I appreciate your help.”

“Not a problem.”


The minute Ezra saw the syrup bottle, he yanked the blankets up over his nose, eyebrows furrowing over his narrowed green eyes.

“Open wide,” Nathan directed, grinning when Ezra shook his head, scrunching down into his pillows and holding the blanket tighter. “It’s specially formulated for kids.  I promise it’ll make you feel better,” he coaxed, offering a small cup filled with bright red liquid.

Ezra shook his head again, revealing his mouth just long enough to say, “It tastes worse than old boots,” before quickly covering up again.

Recognizing Vin’s influence in that comment, Nathan laughed.  “Well, I know the adult formula isn’t very tasty, but it does work.”

Waiting until he pulled away the dose, Ezra lowered his blanket shield.  Putting on his most charming smile, he suggested, “Uncle Nathan, if you’ll read to me, I promise I’ll go right to sleep.  I’m sure that would be much more beneficial than cough syrup.”

The dark-skinned man smirked.  “Nice try.  I’ll tell you what, though.  You take your medicine, and I’ll read you a story while you get settled.”

Ezra considered this for a moment, then huffed out a sigh and held up his hand for the cup.  “All right.”

Nathan gave him his medicine, ignoring the dramatic gagging sounds and horrible face-making that went with the swallowing of the tiny dose.   The medicine was supposed to taste like cherries but from Ezra’s performance anyone would have thought it was the foulest of poisons.   Luckily, Nathan had grown up with five siblings and his experience had given him the foresight to anticipate the reaction and bring along the glass of water to rinse the flavor away.

“That’s a good boy,” he said as Ezra finished the water and handed back the glass.  “Now, you get settled and we'll pick out a book.  What do you want to hear?”

“We’ve been reading “Treasure Island”,” he said, pointing to the book on the shelf next to his bed.   “Chris got it for me.  He does a really good Long John Silver voice.”

Taking the hint, Nathan proceeded to read a chapter, giving a different tone to each individual character.  Ezra seemed pleased with his performance, for he listened with avid interest, his eyes shining with excitement.

“Thought kids your age only read stuff like Harry Potter these days,” Nathan commented when he reached a stopping point.  “This is a great old book.  I had it when I was a kid and that volume had belonged to my dad when he was little.”

Ezra nodded.  “We have a subscription to the Children’s Classic Book Club.  I get a new volume every month, all year long.”

He smiled. “That’s great.  You really like it, huh?”

“It’s wonderful.   We’ve read “The Jungle Book” and “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Swiss Family Robinson” so far, and they’ve all been very good.  I’m due to receive a new one any day now.  I believe this month’s selection is “Oliver Twist” but I’m not certain.”

“Sounds good.  I’ve always been a big reader too.”

Interest immediately grabbed by this crumb of information, Ezra asked him, “Any particular favorites?”

“Oh, pretty much any kind of murder-mystery or crime-solving book,” he replied.  “I just started collecting old Dell Shannon mysteries.  They’re all out of print and I just haven’t had time to scour through used book stores looking for more.”

An enigmatic look, rather comical on a ten-year-old, crossed Ezra’s face.   “Perhaps you’ll have better luck soon.”

“Hope so.”  Ezra yawned widely, his eyes blinking with sudden fatigue and Nathan patted him on the leg.  “I’d better get out of here and let you get some rest.  You get to feeling better now.”

“Thanks, Uncle Nathan," he murmured, already snuggling deeper into his soft pillow.  "Night.”

“Good night, Ezra.”

Chapter 3 --- A Revelation

The hour was nearing midnight and Saturday game night was drawing to a close. 

“Aw, crap!” JD groaned as he rolled the dice and began to hop his tiny metal terrier down the squares of the game board.  “Board Walk with a hotel on it!   That’s it, I’m dead.”

Josiah rubbed his hands together and released an evil cackle, making the rest of his friends laugh as he accepted the last of JD’s property and Monopoly money.

“Damn, if I wasn’t the banker tonight I would swear you were cheating,” Buck said.  “Two games in a row that you managed to wipe out all five of us.  You this lucky at the real Atlantic City?”

Josiah chuckled as he began neatening his stacks of property and money in preparation for placing them back inside the box.  “Unfortunately, no.  Things never seem to go my way when I’m playing for real money.  You’ll have noticed that I’m lucky to break even on poker nights.”

Buck smiled.  “Especially if Ezra is dealing.”

“I’ve never caught him doing anything he shouldn’t,” Nathan agreed, “but sometimes I have to wonder if his hands aren’t just quicker than my eyes."

Having left the game table and taken up a more comfortable seat on the sofa when he had been bankrupted out of the game, Chris shook his head in amusement at the familiar expression of suspicion.  Nathan loved Ezra dearly but he could never quite hide his distress over the skills and questionable values the boy’s mother had instilled in him during his first nine years of life.

Chris was suddenly glad that he had ordered the others to keep their voices down as he spotted the child in question wandering into the room. 

Ezra was yawning and rubbing his eyes with one hand.  In his other hand, Chris could see that he was clutching Lester, his one-legged teddy bear.  When he had first come to the Larabee home nearly a year ago, that bear and the clothes on his back were virtually the only things that Ezra had owned, and even now he was extremely reluctant to let anyone else handle the toy.  Lester spent his days beneath the covers of Ezra’s bed, tucked between two pillows where his presence could not be detected by a casual glance.   Chris never had found out how the bear had come to be missing a leg, but he did know that the boy was both deeply fond of his little stuffed friend and profoundly reluctant to have anyone know that he still slept with it.  To have him carry it out into the living room in the presence of all his uncles was telling.

“Ezra, what are you doing out of bed?” Chris asked, gathering the boy into his lap.

Hugging the little bear to his chest, Ezra snuggled close and laid his head on Chris’s shoulder.  “I don’t feel well,” he whispered.  “I keep coughing and it’s making my throat hurt.”

“Nate?” Chris called softly, bringing the doctor to their sides at once.  Nathan touched gentle fingertips to the boy’s throat and tipped his mouth open to take another peek inside. 

“Starting to get a little red,” Nathan confirmed.  He checked his watch.  “Too soon to give him another dose of that cough medicine, but a little hot tea with honey should help his throat.  Maybe a nice herbal cough drop if that cough gets any worse.”

Chris wrapped both arms securely around the small body.  “Tea sound okay to you?”

Ezra nodded, eyes blinking blearily as he took in the other five men who had all turned to look in his direction.  “Can I have a cookie with it?”

“That’s a good idea.  I’ll have one with you.  Let me just-“ 

He was halted in his intention to shift Ezra to the sofa and stand up by Buck, who waved him back with the assurance, “I’m on it.  Tea and cookies, comin’ up!”

“Thanks, Buck.”  Gathering Ezra close again, he said, “How about I just stay here for a little while, then, and keep you company?”

“’Kay,” he agreed.  He watched sleepily as the other men quickly and quietly gathered up the game pieces and food wrappers in preparation to leave.  His voice was sad as he asked, “Did I miss everything?”

Nathan reached out and stroked his hair.  “Don’t worry, Ezra, there’s always another time.  You’ll be feeling a lot better before next Saturday rolls around.  I’ll come back to check on you in a couple of days, just to make sure.”

He nodded, then looked at Vin, JD and Josiah and asked, “Can you come over tomorrow?”

“I wish I could, buddy,” JD told him reluctantly, “but Buck and I have to go out to Aurora tomorrow to pick up my new bike.”

“The Nice Rice,” the boy said, drawing chuckles from all of the men, who had not realized that Ezra had picked up on Buck’s nickname for JD’s new Kawasaki Vulcan motorcycle.  Buck had claimed that JD was too easy-going to own a bike called the Mean Streak and had promptly renamed it.

JD grinned.  “That’s right.  They didn’t have the color I wanted, so I had to order it in special.   I’ll bring it next time I come over so you can see.  It’s a real beauty.”

“I got nothing going until late in the day tomorrow,” Vin said, kneeling before them and laying his hand on the boy’s pajama clad knee.  “So, I can come play awhile, if you want.”

Dragging his heavy eyelids open all the way, Ezra said, “Really?” his tone so hopeful that it tugged at every heart in the room.


Ezra’s cheeks dimpled with happiness, even as his eyelids slid closed again.  “I look forward to it,” he whispered.

Vin grinned.  “Me, too.”

“And I’m still coming by for dinner on Monday, unless the plan has changed,” Josiah reminded him, shooting an inquiring look at Chris.

“If he’s still feeling sick, I’ll give you a call,” Chris told him, rubbing a comforting hand up and down Ezra’s arm, “but otherwise just show up around six, as planned.”

Ezra smiled but did not bother to open his eyes.  “I asked if we could have roast beef,” he said, “’Cause it’s your favorite.”

“It is indeed,” Josiah agreed. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”

Vin smiled at the sleepy boy.  “I think we’d better be going.  You need any help putting him back to bed?”

Chris looked down at the child snuggled in his arms.  “No, I can handle it, and Buck will be around for a few minutes yet.  You guys have a safe drive.”

“Night, Chris,” they said quietly, keeping their parting conversations low as they gathered their coats and left the house. 

Ezra coughed and tried to nestle deeper into his father’s embrace, abandoning the attempt with a soft sigh when that proved to be physically impossible.  Chris shushed him gently.  The room was warm but he realized that Ezra must be cold in just his light cotton pajamas, so Chris worked his way to the edge of the sofa and fished up the afghan he kept draped over the back, wrapping it securely around his son.  “You’re getting to be a big boy,” he commented as he adjusted the weight in his arms.  “Pretty soon, I’m not going to be able to do this so easy.”

The child merely yawned and made a soft noise of contentment.

Chris smiled.  His boy would only be small enough to cuddle, and young enough to permit it, for a little while longer.  He intended to enjoy it while he could.


A few minutes later, Buck returned with a tray bearing three steaming cups of tea, one laced with milk and honey, and the promised plate of cookies.  “Here we go,” he said, setting the tray down and handing Chris and Ezra their cups. Ezra roused and yawned, then scooted over to sit with his back against the arm of the sofa, keeping his blanketed legs draped across Chris’s lap.  Buck settled in the chair closest to them.  Raising his own drink, he said, “Thought I might join you in a cup before heading out.”

“Not a problem,” Chris said.  “Thanks for making it.”

“Thank you, Uncle Buck,” Ezra echoed.  He normally did not care for tea, preferring hot chocolate, but since both adults were drinking it with him he offered no protest, following Buck’s example and dipping his cookie in the liquid before he took a bite.  “They’re good this way!”

Buck smiled.  “No need to sound so surprised.  I don’t get treats like these very often, so they have to be eaten just the right way when I get the chance.”

“Do you really like cookies?” he asked curiously.

“Best snack in the world,” he said, stretching the truth just a hair.  “My mama used to get big containers of these.  You know, sort of like those tins you buy popcorn in.”

Ezra nodded.  “The kind with individual paper cups?”

“That’s the one,” he said, dramatically smacking his lips.  “Give me one of those and I’d be a happy guy.  Problem is, nobody ever does.  Not even for Christmas!   Guess they figure a grown-up man doesn’t need a whole tin full of cookies.”

He affected a sad look and Ezra smiled.  “Maybe you’ll have better luck this year.”

Buck shrugged.  “Never can tell.  Ol’ Santa Claus just might be listening.”

Chris raised an eyebrow.  “Say, Buck.  I saw one of those ab-cruncher machines on sale at the department store this week.  Maybe you should go check those out, seeing as you’re hoping to be on Santa’s good-boy list this year.”

Sticking his tongue out to make Ezra laugh, Buck helped himself to another cookie from the dwindling supply on the plate.  “Just for that, I’m going to buy you a lump of coal.”

His friend simply chuckled.

A few minutes later Buck smiled as he caught sight of the teddy bear peeping out over the top of Ezra’s blanket.  “Who’s that?” he asked.  Chris had long since told him about the stuffed toy and Ezra’s aversion to sharing it, but he played dumb.  “He’s a handsome little devil.”

For a moment, Ezra instinctively pulled the afghan higher to hide the bear, but then he reluctantly pulled it into the open and held it out to Buck for closer inspection.  “This is Lester,” he said, then offered, “He’s a professional gambler.”

Noticing that Chris’s brows twitched in surprise, Buck realized that this little tidbit had not been offered before.  “You don’t say!”  Fingering the loose stitches where the bear’s missing leg had once been, he said gravely, “Seems like a mighty dangerous profession . . . for a bear.”

Ezra nodded.  “He usually sticks with poker, but he took his chances at roulette one evening and it proved to be his undoing.”

“So to speak,” Buck said, fingering the stitches again and bringing a small grin to Ezra’s face. 

Ezra accepted his plushy friend back into his embrace with a minute sigh of relief that neither adult missed.   He hesitated a few more seconds, then curled his legs in and snuggled back up to Chris’s side.  Petting a finger against Lester’s soft face, he finally offered, “The odds are atrocious.  Mother barely escaped with her life when it was discovered that she had rigged the wheel in her own favor.  The policeman who arrested her that time gave me this bear to take care of, ‘cause he didn’t have anyone else.”

Chris frowned, hugging the child a little tighter.  He and Buck exchanged a look, neither of them having missed the reference to ‘that time’.   Not knowing just what had prompted Ezra to open up now, when he never had wanted to before, Chris asked carefully, “Was he hurt during the arrest?”

The boy nodded again.  “He broke his leg in two places when the gambling hall was raided.  The other gamblers were running from the police and they didn’t see him hiding under the table.”

“You saying they just trampled y-  . . . I mean, him?” Buck said, aghast at the idea.

He shrugged.  “They were scared.”  Scratching at the empty stitches, he said in a small voice, “I believe now that amputation may have been an extreme choice, but at the time it seemed a reasonable one.”

“How so?” Chris asked him, deliberately keeping his tone conversational.

“One of the nurses said that my leg got stepped on so hard, the bone popped right through the skin,” he whispered, forgetting to continue assigning the trauma to Lester as he shivered at the memory.  “She was cleaning it so that it wouldn’t become infected, but it really hurt and I got scared and started begging to see my mother.  Only she had already been taken away to jail.”  His voice dropped even lower.  “I didn’t mean to get mad at Lester.  None of it was his fault.”

Buck sighed deeply.  “It’s okay, Ezra, we understand.”  He had lost his mother that night, and had been scared that he might lose his leg, too.   Buck shook his head, realizing how badly Ezra must have been hurting, both physically and emotionally, to have taken out his distress on the only substantial thing left in his life.  “When was all this?”

“Long time ago.  When I was eight,” Ezra mumbled, resting his head once more on Chris’s shoulder.  

“It’s real lucky that you and Lester both came to live with Chris.  He’s got all of us around to help make sure that nothing bad like that ever happens to either of you again.”

Ezra smiled at the reassurance but did not reply.  He had drunk most of his tea and Buck swiftly rescued the cup when it started to fall from relaxed fingers as the boy fell asleep with the speed that only children seem to possess.

“I haven’t been able to get him to say three words about that bear since he moved in here, much less talk about his mother!”  Chris said with a note of wonder in his voice.  “I only knew a few general facts because of the police reports and court papers.  My God, he’s been with me since February and I had no idea he’d been through all that!   You talk to him for five minutes and manage to get the whole story.  How do you do that?”

Buck shrugged and smiled.   Adam Larabee had also always found him to be a ready confidante.  “Guess it’s just a gift.”

“It sure is,” Chris agreed with feeling.  For a moment, he held on tight to his sleeping son, wanting to erase the events Ezra had spoken of, but then he sighed and allowed the moment to lighten.  Smiling at Buck, he said, “Speaking of gifts, that was pretty smooth, working in a mention of what you want for Christmas this year.”

Buck laughed.  “I wasn’t sure if he was planning to work his interrogation skills on me or not, but I thought I’d make it easy on him.”

“Thanks, Buck.  I appreciate it.  All of it.”  Chris nudged the sleeping boy with his shoulder but Ezra was out cold.  “Can you help me get him back in bed?”

Buck beamed, happy to be invited into a ritual that was usually reserved for father and son.  “Be glad to.”  He reached out and lifted the boy into a secure embrace while Chris got up, following him back into Ezra’s bedroom where Chris quickly straightened the rumpled bedding and plumped Ezra’s pillows a bit higher than normal in deference to his cough. 

Settling the child into his bed, Buck smoothed a hand over his tumbled curls while Chris tucked him securely under the covers.  The mustached man planted a quick kiss on Ezra’s forehead and then, on impulse, did the same to the teddy bear that had helped its owner share a little of his past.  Placing the bear safely into Ezra’s embrace, Buck gave it a little pat of thanks.    “I’d best be going now,” he whispered to Chris.  “Let me know if you need anything?”

“Sure will.  Night, Buck, and thanks again.”

Giving his friend a squeeze of the shoulder, Buck left the doting father alone to think and watch over his little boy.

Chapter 4 --- A Puzzle Solved

“Heya, sport!  You must be feeling better.”

Ezra was sitting on the front porch steps, warmly dressed in jeans, sneakers, a thick knit sweater, jacket, gloves and a red stocking cap.  He smiled as he watched Vin lock his truck and pull a paper grocery bag from the back.  “Hello, Uncle Vin.   I’m much better today, but Chris says I have to stay put and bundle up or he’ll make me go back to bed.  I even had to wear this dumb hat.”  He reached up and fingered the cap’s cheery red and white tassel with an expression of distaste.

Vin grinned and took a seat on the step below Ezra’s.  “And you figured obeyin’ the rules was better than solitary confinement, huh?   I’d have thought that was worth a silly-lookin’ hat, too.  Where’d you get it?”

“Mrs. Potter, the lady that Chris hires to clean his house each week, made it for me.  She’s nice to me and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, so I pretended to like it and said it was very nice.  Chris doesn’t care that it’s gaudy and unfashionable, because it’s warm.”

“Yeah, he’s got a real unreasonable streak like that sometimes.  Rather have a warm healthy kid than a fashion-plate popsicle,” Vin teased.   “Besides, it ain’t that bad.”

Tugging the cap off by the tassel, Ezra held it out.  There was a look of challenge on his face, but his eyes sparkled with the anticipation of the funny sight Vin would present. 

Not one to disappoint, Vin removed his worn cowboy hat and accepted the cap.  He pulled it over his wavy hair but it was sized for a child, so it kept popping back up again, making Ezra grin.  Vin gave it a hard tug, then pulled the rolled cuff all the way down so that it covered his eyebrows, leaving his laughing blue eyes barely visible.  He bobbed his head back and forth to make the tassel wave and Ezra could not help but giggle.

Alerted to his visitor by the sound of laughter, Chris walked out on the porch and immediately smiled at the sight of Vin’s clowning.  “What are you doing?”

Wrapping an arm around his nephew, Vin gave a wide grin and plopped his flop-brimmed cowboy hat down onto Ezra’s head, tilting it back so that it would stay in place.  “Ezra and me are stylin’.  What do you think?”

“I think you’re a nut, and it’s time you both came inside.  I’ve got hot cocoa and fresh baked cinnamon rolls waiting.”

Vin made Ezra laugh again as he scrambled to his feet, pretending to shove the boy down as made a move like he was racing inside to get the snacks.  Ezra jumped up as well, grabbing Vin’s offered hand as his uncle led the way past Chris, who helpfully snatched the swapped hats off their heads as they came inside. 

“Wash your hands,” Chris ordered as coats and gloves were removed and the two playmates made straight for the waiting cinnamon rolls.

They veered toward the kitchen and obediently scrubbed up, Ezra being forced to go back and do it again after he was hit with a bout of sneezes. 

As they seated themselves at the table, Vin set his grocery bag down on a chair and helped himself to a gooey roll.  “Mmm, knew there was a reason I wanted to come out here,” he quipped, taking a huge bite.  “This’s good!  You really make these, Chris?”

Chris shrugged, biting into his own pastry.  “Me and Pillsbury.”

Ezra, meanwhile, was ignoring the food in favor of peeking under the table to try and divine what might be hidden inside the paper sack.  Frustrated by the opaque material, he finally sat up straight and picked the cinnamon roll up off his plate, methodically removing its thick sweet frosting with careful swipes of a small red tongue. 

When Chris noticed what he was doing, he grimaced.  “Ezra, what have I told you about that?  Just eat the whole thing.”

“But the frosting is the best part,” he protested.  At his father’s stern look, the boy sighed and took a small bite, washing it down with a swallow of hot chocolate.  The moment Chris and Vin were once more involved in conversation, however, he began picking at the place he had bitten, unrolling the pastry into a long cinnamon sugared strip.  When the strip broke off halfway, he put one end in his mouth and allowed the rest to dangle in a long curl down his chin.  Poking Vin for attention, he muffled out, “Ook, Uncle ‘in.  I’m a 'ire-'reathin’ dragon.”

"Look more like a puppy with its tongue hangin' out to me."

The boy grinned around the strip and Chris groaned.  “Son, what’s got into you today?   Quit playing with your food and just eat it!”

Vin laughed.  “Don’t know about dragons and dogs, kid, but I think your old man is a bull-frog today.  Croak, croak, croak.”

Ezra removed the pastry strip and took a bite, stilling grinning as he chewed it and wiped off his sticky chin with a napkin.

Chris shot his friend a glare.  “You’re a big help.”

“Aw, come on now.   He’s just having a little fun.  Shows he’s feeling better.”

Stuffing the rest of the cinnamon strip into his mouth, Ezra nodded vigorously. 

In spite of himself, Chris smiled at the boy.  “I guess so, but I still want you to take it easy today.  You finish eating that roll, the right way, and then wash up again and take your uncle back to your room.  You guys can play in there.”

“I brought you a new jigsaw puzzle,” Vin said, polishing off the remains of his second roll and pulling the mysterious bag up onto the table’s surface.  “If you don’t mind sharin’, I thought maybe I could put it together with you.”

Ezra was delighted.  “I didn’t know you liked puzzles.”

“Oh, sure.  I been doing ‘em since I was about your age.  Started doing ‘em at foster homes and such.  You know?”

Ezra did know.   The fact that Vin, like himself, had been shuffled from place to place a great deal during his childhood before finally finding a permanent home as the adopted son of Nettie Wells when he was fifteen, had allowed the two of them to bond quickly.   “Foster care places almost always have jigsaw puzzles.”

“Yep, and I was kind of a shy one back in them days.  I found that putting these things together gave me a way to hang out with the other kids without actually talkin’ to ‘em much.”

“Me, too.  Everyone else always wanted the balls and dolls and other toys.  Nobody would bother you or try to beat you up and take your stuff if you played with the puzzles.”  Ezra paused to slurp down the last of his cocoa, not seeming to notice the grim expression that had stolen over both adult’s faces at his words.  “Besides, they keep your mind sharp, so I could have them with my mother’s approval whenever I was with her.”

Chris shook his head, finally understanding why he had had such a terrible time getting Ezra to ask for anything when he had first moved in with him.  It had been as if the child was afraid of making the wrong choice when they had gone to a toy store and wandered the aisles together.  Ezra had not wanted stuffed animals since he already had Lester.  He was favorable toward card and board games but those simply hadn’t seemed like enough.  Nearly every other suggestion had been met with polite interest but no real enthusiasm.  When Ezra’s green eyes had unexpectedly lit up as they entered the aisle filled with jigsaw puzzles, Chris had been overjoyed.   It had never occurred to him that Ezra associated such things with security.  

With a deep sigh, Vin said, “Reckon that’s about the size of it.  I like ‘em for their own sake, too, though.   It’s nice to be able to make purty pictures out of a bunch of little scraps.  I got a whole collection of these at home.   Mostly like to do ‘em during the cold months when the weather’s nasty and I got a little extra time on my hands.”

Ezra smiled at him, the two of them in perfect accord.  “Me, too!”  Vin held up the puzzle so that Ezra could see the front and the boy’s smile widened.  “Timber wolves in a snow field.  It’s beautiful, Uncle Vin.  Thank you for bringing it.”

“My pleasure, kid.  Shall we?”

Hopping down from his chair, Ezra grabbed his uncle by the wrist and hauled him willingly away, leaving Chris to stare after them with a thoughtful look in his eyes.  In his attempts to gather gift information from his uncles, the boy was finally opening up about himself, and that could only be a good thing.   Ezra had not seemed to have any memory of his late-night revelations to Buck when he had awakened this morning, tucking Lester the bear away in his usual hiding place beneath the covers as he made his bed, but he had greeted Chris with a hug, which was an unusual action in itself.   They were definitely making progress.

Then, as the muffled sound of excited voices floated back from Ezra’s room where he and Vin had begun work on their new puzzle, Chris smiled.   He had a strong feeling that he knew exactly what his friend would be getting for Christmas this year.

Chapter 5 --- An Unexpected Twist

“So, what did you do in school today?” Josiah asked, settling his large form more comfortably on the sofa and resting one arm across the back. His dangling hand came to rest on Ezra’s shoulder as the boy plunked down next to him.

Trying to imitate his uncle’s relaxed pose, Ezra slouched down, lacing both hands across his stomach when he proved to be too short to drape an arm over the back of the couch. “We did some word problems for math, and studied a map of Australia, and we worked on memorizing a new set of vocabulary words, plus we had a surprise spelling test.”

“How’d that go?”

A smug expression stole over the child’s rosy face.  “Twenty-five words and I spelled them all perfectly.  I got extra credit for correctly defining them, too.  Well, all but one.  I didn’t know what ‘remedial’ meant.”

“I’m impressed,” Josiah told him, meaning it.  “You’ve come a long way in just a few months, Ezra.  I’m proud of you.”

Ezra glowed under the sincere words of praise.   His mother had never wanted to hear about his day, or cared how well he had done on a test unless it was one of her ‘practical’ tests designed to make him a convincing con artist.


While he had been with his mother, Ezra’s education had been sketchy and inconsistent. He had come to Chris proficient at math and with a working vocabulary that seemed to startle most adults, but his reading and spelling had both been very poor. He had been embarrassed to display his ignorance before Chris and the educational placement director at his new school. Even more so when the director had suggested that he begin in the third grade, since he was entering a school year already in progress, and join the fourth grade class when the new scholastic year began. Chris had started to agree, until he had seen the pleading look on Ezra’s face and taken him out for a private hallway consultation.  Ezra had promised that he would study hard and catch up with the fourth-graders, if allowed to join them. Chris had agreed to let him try, seeming to realize that with Ezra being rather small for his age, it would only worsen his self-esteem to be stuck in a room full of children one and two years younger than himself.

Before coming to live with Chris, Ezra had mostly learned words by rote rather than through schooling or the practice of having some adult regularly read to him, as he had now.  When he began a course of daily study he had been surprised to find that he enjoyed it. Suddenly, he had access to a whole new world of words and numbers, and in the final few months of the school-year he had discovered that the more he absorbed the meaning of those words, the less he felt the need to impress other people by making ornate speeches.

The fifth grade had proven to be a whole new challenge when he had begun it this past September. Life Science, World Geography and Social Studies had been new subjects for him, but Ezra had taken a liking to all of them, fascinated to find out about things he had never known existed. He had also discovered that he enjoyed the pleasant novelty of having other children around during the day. They weren’t easy to find common ground with, many of the things they liked seemed silly, but it was nice to have someone his own age to talk to and to play with at recess.

The fourth-graders had never particularly welcomed the ‘new kid’ who spent the last four months of the school year in their midst, but when Ezra had returned from summer vacation it was as if all of that awkwardness had been forgotten. He was one of them now, welcomed as a long-lost friend by two other returning students, boy and girl cousins named Raul and Inez.

He had taken to eating lunch with the cousins every day, and by now they were good enough friends that they often helped each other with difficult assignments. Their teacher had even commented on the progress each of them was showing, and being told that his spelling was improving by a teacher was satisfying, but not nearly as much as hearing those same words from a member of his family.



“It was a hard test,” Ezra stressed, hoping for more.

Josiah smiled, understanding perfectly.  “I’ll bet it was.  You’ve been doing a great job so far this year.  In fact, I think you deserve a little reward for all your hard work.  What do you say I talk Chris into letting you come out to the Harvest Fair at the community church this Sunday?  They’ll have games and food, a petting zoo, raffles and all sorts of activities.”

“That sounds wonderful,” he said, impressed by the sound of it.  “Do you think any of the activities might involve prize money?”

Startled by this unexpected question, since most children would have asked about the types of animals on display or if there would be rides, Josiah said, “Maybe a couple, I’m not sure.  Why do you ask?”

Ezra sat up and turned around, craning his neck to see if Chris was anywhere in sight.  Not seeing him, he whispered, “I’m trying to earn spending money.  Uncle Nathan’s going to pay me fifteen dollars to help him with some kitchen chores on Saturday and Uncle Vin said he’d give me another ten if I help him polish his truck.”

“I’d heard something about that, though I didn’t know the others were giving you jobs,” Josiah said, his tone implying that he was not altogether supportive of this idea.  “What about the money Chris paid you the other day for raking the yard?”

“That was almost enough, but I want to be sure I have enough to buy everybody something for Christmas, so it can be really special.”  Deciding that there was no point in being coy now that his secret was out, Ezra blurted, “What do you want me to get for you?”

Both amused and a distressed by this blatantly commercialist attitude, Josiah shook his head.  “I don’t need you to buy me anything, Ezra.  Christmas is about love and family, spending time with people you care about.  I don’t need material gifts with the wealth of spiritual ones that surround me whenever I’m here with all of you, as I expect to be on Christmas day.”

“But I have to get you something!” he protested, aghast.  “You might not think so right now, but you’ll feel really bad if you’re the only person with no presents on Christmas morning!  I don’t want you to feel bad, Uncle Josiah.”  

Ezra had found himself in that position more than once, receiving at best some cheap token that kept his caregivers – whoever it happened to be that year – from feeling guilty.  

Dismayed by the watery eyes and wobbling chin suddenly presented to him, Josiah backpedaled.  “Of course, it’s always nice to have a little reminder of your loved ones’ regard.  How about a compromise?  You save your money for yourself and the others, but make me a little something I can keep to remind me of you.  Maybe a nice ornament I can hang on my Christmas tree.”

“That’s all you want?” he asked skeptically. 

Josiah smiled.  “I have a collection of special ornaments.  Ones that my sister and I made as children, ones that I've been given by people who were special to me, or from places I've visited around the world.  A handmade ornament from you would mean more than anything you could possibly buy in a store.”

Ezra nodded, so deep in thought that he did not see the indulgent smile his uncle favored him with.  He had been sure that the display of tears would make Josiah give in and be sensible, and it had, after a fashion.  Well, if a hand-made ornament was what he wanted, that’s what he would get. 

“Dinner’s ready!” Chris called, interrupting his train of thought.

The boy leapt up, grabbing Josiah by the hand and helping him to his feet.  “Oh, boy, roast beef and potatoes and gravy!”

Mmm!” Josiah said dramatically, dipping down and flipping the startled child over one broad shoulder as he stood and strode toward the dining room. Giving the giggling boy a swat on the seat of his pants, Josiah smiled at Chris and said. “Had to make sure I got my chance at all that good food before this one darted in first and ate it all!”

“Can’t have that,” Chris agreed, lifting Ezra down from his perch and pretending to restrain him as he made for the table, which only made the child laugh more.

Ezra had already washed up before going to sit with Josiah, so there was no reason he couldn’t be allowed to sit down and eat, but both father and son loved these playful times together and happily went along with Josiah’s joke. They waited until Josiah had seated himself and filled his plate, then Chris and Ezra moved to take their own places. It surprised neither of them when Josiah put the already full plate in Ezra’s place, taking his empty one to be filled again as the boy began to eat.

When everyone had a full meal in front of him, they paused to let Josiah say a quick blessing, something the members of the Larabee household only bothered with when their friend was present.

As Chris and Josiah chatted over their meal, Josiah broaching the subject of the Harvest Fair to instant approval from Chris, Ezra picked at his roast beef, his mind miles away as he tried to figure out just how one went about making a Christmas ornament.  He sighed softly. He didn’t even know what kind of materials he was supposed to use. Why couldn’t Josiah have wanted a normal gift, like everyone else?

Then he smiled as he remembered that JD was coming over on Friday to show off his new motorcycle. Ezra had already planned to pump him for information on his holiday gift wish, but maybe he would also ask him for help with Uncle Josiah’s. JD Dunne retained more enthusiasm for childish things, like cartoons and video games, than any of the rest of Chris’s friends, even though he was pretty old.  Almost twenty-five, according to Buck. And JD had grown up the poor kid of a single mother. Surely, if anyone would know how to make an ornament, he would!

Appetite restored, Ezra dug in with enthusiasm.

Chapter 6 --- God’s Eyes

JD had just arrived when Ezra reached home after school on Friday.  The deep gleaming green and silver of the new Kawasaki motorcycle shone like a beacon in the bright afternoon sunlight and Ezra broke into a run, eager to see the new machine up close. 

Chris came out of the house just as his son reached the bike.  “Uncle JD, it’s wonderful!” the boy gushed, walking a slow circle around it the motorcycle and its proud owner.  “I understand why you were willing to wait those extra two weeks for the custom paint job.  It’s beautiful!”

“Thanks!” JD said brightly.  “Buck still thinks I should have gone with the red one they had in the showroom, but I saw this color in the catalogue and just had to have it.”

“Are you going to keep the name Uncle Buck came up with?”

“I don’t know, what do you think?”

Ezra pondered the matter for a moment, running his hand gently over the gleaming surface and tracing a finger over one of the silver lightning bolts painted along the side.  “I think you should.  Mean Streak suits the appearance of such a machine, but I like the Nice Rice better.”

JD laughed.  “You know what?  So do I, but don’t go telling Buck.  I’ve been making a big show of letting him think it annoys me.”

The boy nodded wisely.  “He thinks it’s fun to annoy you, but he’d stop if he thought it was hurting your feelings.”

A dark eyebrow raised.  “And how do you know that?”

Ezra shrugged, one small hand still stroking the shining surface reverently.  “I’m observant.  Ask anybody.”

Chris and JD both chuckled at his offhand comment, Chris nodding in rueful agreement with his son’s self-assessment. 

“Can I have a ride?”

“No!” Chris barked, just as JD said, “Sure!”  

The two adults looked at each other, each surprised by the other’s reply.  Ezra latched on Chris’s forearm with both hands.  “Please, Chris?  Just around the yard a couple of times?  You know Uncle JD will be extremely careful with me.   I’ve never been on a motorcycle before, and I’ve wanted to ride one my whole life!”

Sensing indecision, JD put in his two cents.  “Come on, Chris, I promise I’ll be super careful.  I’ll have him wear my helmet and hold on tight the whole time, and I’ll never let the bike get above ten miles an hour.” 

Ezra made a face at this, then instantly regained his hopeful expression when Chris said, “We-ell . . .”

By now, JD had turned his own version of the big soulful eyes on the harried father.  “I’ll only take him as far as the crossroad at the end of your driveway, then we’ll come right back.”

Pleeeease,” Ezra begged.

Chris sighed deeply.  Staring hard at JD he ordered, “Just to the crossroad.”

“Oh, thank you!” Ezra crowed, flinging both arms around his father’s body.

In spite of his misgivings, Chris laughed.  “You do everything JD tells you to, and no asking for another ride after this one is over, okay?”

“Yes, sir!” Ezra agreed happily, turning his beaming smile on JD.   

The young man grinned and shucked off the leather jacket he was wearing.  “Here, Ez.  Better wear this, just to be safe.”  The boy eagerly put on the offered garment and zipped it up, yanking the dangling cuffs up over his wrists with none of his usual disdain for ill-fitting clothing.   Chris gave him a boost onto the high back of the motorcycle’s seat and JD settled the matching green and silver helmet over his head, then turned around and directed, “Hang on tight.”

As soon as Ezra had a good grip, JD hit the ignition, smiling at the two small arms tightening as the motorcycle came to life with a great roar.   He nodded to Chris.  “We’ll be right back.”

“Don’t make me regret this,” Chris warned, nonetheless giving the excited pair a smile.

True to his word, JD drove with barely enough momentum to keep the motorcycle upright, putting along in a stately fashion as though moving along a parade route.  Chris’s home had a long winding driveway that went down to the main road on one side and curved back around to the house from the opposite direction.  

The ride took less than ten minutes to complete, but as JD chugged to a gentle stop in front of Chris and helped his passenger to disembark, Ezra’s shining eyes and huge grin made it seem that the journey had been a much longer and more thrilling one.  He latched onto Chris’s arm again.  “Did you see?  It was amazing!  Weren’t we spectacular?”

Chris grinned and ruffled the excited boy’s hair as he removed the motorcycle helmet.  “You were great, son.”  Nodding to the still-grinning JD, he said, “And so were you.  Thanks for being careful.”

“No problem.  He was a perfect passenger, a real natural on a bike.” 

Ezra beamed.  “You should try it, Dad!”

Chris started.  Ezra was bouncing in place and his eyes were huge with the rush of adrenaline his daring adventure had brought.  It was more than likely that he did not even realize that he had spontaneously used a parental appellation for the very first time.  In spite of Ezra’s comfort in calling all of Chris’s friends ‘uncle’ he had been extremely reluctant to assign a title to his new father.   It had taken long enough to get him to stop saying ‘Mr. Larabee’ that Chris had not pushed for more when Ezra finally gave in and used his first name.    Now that it had finally happened, he decided not to ruin the moment by drawing attention to the slip.  Instead he said, “What do you say, JD?  Can I take her for a spin around the driveway?”

Hazel eyes widening in surprise, JD hopped off the bike and handed over his helmet.  “Sure.”

Chris climbed aboard and revved the engine a couple of times, drawing grins from his audience.  As he rolled out and picked up some speed, JD placed a friendly arm over Ezra’s shoulders.  “He’s pretty good!”

“I didn’t even know he could ride,” Ezra said, mouth hanging open a bit.

Chris’s ride took even less time than theirs had since he was not worried about losing a young passenger, as JD had been.  “You got a good one here, kid,” he said, tossing the helmet to its owner as he shut down the bike and disembarked.  “Rides real smooth and steady and I could feel that it’s got a lot of power in that engine.  You made a great choice.”

Happy to have the endorsement of a man he respected so much, JD grinned.  “Thanks!  With the Larabee stamp of approval, times two,” he added, running a hand over Ezra’s disheveled hair, “I’m sure I did.”

“Ezra, why don’t take JD inside and show him the present that Vin brought you the other day.  You said you guys were making good progress on it.”

“Okay!”  Ezra promptly dashed inside the house with JD hot on his heels. 


Once past the threshold of his bedroom, Ezra tossed his school backpack upon his bed and proudly gestured toward the half-finished jigsaw set up on a card table by the window.  The picture was 500 pieces but the two enthusiastic puzzle-builders had finished nearly half of it already. 

“Nice,” JD commented, slyly reaching for a piece and snapping it into place as he spotted an opening. 

Ezra laughed as his youngest uncle gave him a wink and threw himself with a bounce upon the bed.  For several minutes they talked about the motorcycle, rehashing every second of their ride as JD described all of the features and accoutrements of the machine in vivid detail.  By the time they finished, Ezra was grinning.  There was no need to pump JD for information on what he should buy for Christmas.  It was obvious.  Ezra had seen a tree ornament when he and Chris had gone grocery shopping last night that depicted Santa Claus riding a motorcycle, and though JD was not a Harley rider Ezra knew that he would love it.

Reminded by that thought, Ezra suddenly blurted, “Do you know anything about making Christmas ornaments?  From scratch, I mean?”

JD paused, his mouth falling open as he mentally shifted gears from bikes to decorations.  “Uh, well, I don’t know.  I guess I probably made a few when I was a kid.  Why?”

Taking a seat next to him on the bed, Ezra sighed gustily.  “Uncle Josiah asked me to make him a homemade ornament for his tree this year and I have no idea what to do!   My teacher has already threatened to force us to make picture frames for our parents and now I have to be doubly creative.”

The young man smiled at his very put-upon tone.  The martyr forced to participate in arts and crafts when he could be spending perfectly good money on holiday gifts.   “That’s not so bad, Ezra.  You could get some plaster of Paris and make a little mould of some kind.  Or maybe an angel for the top of his tree.  All you’d need for that is an empty plastic bottle, a styrofoam ball and some paper and ribbon to decorate it.  Or you could do a God’s-Eye ornament.  That’s just sticks and yarn.”

Interest glinted in Ezra’s eyes.  “Josiah would probably like something called a God’s Eye.  How do you make one?”

“You just take a couple of sticks, popsicle sticks or whatever you have, glue them together in the center and then wind the yarn around the sticks in a pattern.    You can use different colors of yarn if you want to make it prettier.”

Ezra’s face fell.  “I don’t think we have any yarn.”

“That’s okay.  Just practice with some regular old string until you’ve got the knack of it.  I’m sure Chris would pick you up some yarn if you tell him what it’s for.”

He nodded.  “That’s a good idea but I have to buy it myself.  This is my Christmas gift to Uncle Josiah, and it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t purchase the materials for it.”

JD frowned, not seeing what difference it made who supplied the yarn.  “Sure, I guess so.  Maybe you can print out the directions for doing the patterns from the Internet.  It’s been so long, I’m not sure I remember how it goes.”

“I will,” he agreed, smiling happily now that he finally had a plan.

“So, what else have you been up to lately?”  JD asked, glancing around the room.

Ezra shrugged.  “Just school, mostly.”

“That’s cool.”  JD paused, trying to think of something else to talk about.  His gaze landed on the pillows by Ezra’s side and he perked up. “Say, Buck told me that he met a friend of yours the other night.”

For a moment, Ezra looked confused, then his expression changed to one of embarrassment as his eyes followed JD’s to the teddy-bear’s hiding place.  

Seeing the look on his face and realizing that he had blundered, JD quickly said, “He didn’t tell me what you guys talked about or anything.”

Placing a protective hand atop the still-covered pillows Ezra asked uncertainly, “You want to see him?”

“Sure, but only if you want me to.  It’s okay if you don’t,” JD said hastily.  “I know that I was always pretty picky about who made friends with Billy.”

Ezra cocked his head. “Who’s Billy?”

“My teddy bear,” JD told him.  “He was one of my best friends, growing up.  Now he just hangs around my room and keeps an eye on my stuff.”

Astonished, the boy said, “You still have a teddy bear?”

“Sure.  I mean, I don’t sleep with him anymore.  He’s a little too fragile from hugging and handling when I was a kid, even if I wanted to, but I’d never get rid of good ol’ Billy.   That bear dried more tears and heard more secrets than anybody else in my life when I was growing up.  He took good care of me, so now I take good care of him.”

Nodding his understanding, Ezra made his decision and pulled his bear out of the safe hiding spot.  “This is Lester.”

 JD reached over to take one fuzzy paw between his thumb and forefinger, shaking hands as he said, “Nice to meet you, Lester.” 

A smile tugged Ezra’s mouth at the formality.  “He’s happy to meet you, too.”   He bit his lip, slowly turning the bear around and around in his hands as he tried to decide whether to make his own confession in reply to JD’s.   Finally, he admitted softly, “Lester makes me feel safe whenever I’m scared. That’s why I keep him near when I’m asleep.”

“He chases the nightmares away?” JD said sympathetically.

The boy nodded but cringed a little.  “Does that sound babyish?”

“Of course not,” the young man told him firmly.  “My mom died when I was fifteen and even as old as I was, there were nights when I snuck Billy down off his shelf and held him.  I felt kind of silly for doing it but my mom had given him to me and it made me feel close to her.”

Ezra considered this, studying JD as he tried to picture the scenario.  It surprised him to realize that it wasn’t very hard at all.  Reassured, he said, “Can I ask you something, Uncle JD?  Something personal?”

“Sure, you can.”

Drawing the bear close to his chest, Ezra ventured. “Do you ever miss your mother?”

Seeing from his reddened face that Ezra felt uncomfortable with the question, JD replied simply, “Every day.  It’s only natural to miss your mom.”

Ezra hung his head.  “But what if your mother hadn’t died?  What if she’d been arrested, or just plain didn’t want you?  Would it be natural then?”

“It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are.  We love our moms and we miss ‘em when they’re not with us.  I’m sure your mother misses you, Ezra.  She gave up custody and let Chris adopt you because she knew he would take good care of you when she couldn’t.  It wasn’t because she didn’t want you.”

“But she didn’t,” he insisted.  “She never did, that’s why she always gave me away to whoever would take me.  She said she had better things to do than be saddled with the inconvenience of a child.   The only reason Chris even met me was that Mother had sent me to stay with her cousin Sarah while she was playing out her newest con.” 

JD nodded.  All of the uncles were aware of how Ezra had come to stay with Chris, who had been reluctant to take in a child he did not know, one the same age his son would have been.  Chris had initially accepted responsibility for the sake of his late wife, who would never have turned away a child in need, but had quickly warmed to the bright little boy with the soft southern drawl, big green eyes and mischievous smile.   By the time Maude Standish had been apprehended by the law on a long series of fraud, extortion, and illegal gambling charges, Chris had already made up his mind to fight her for permanent custody of Ezra.  He had never expected the woman to give up her parental rights without a fight, as she had.

“I know it’s hard to believe, Ezra, but I’m sure your mother does care, even if she doesn’t show it like other moms.  She wouldn’t have agreed to let Chris adopt you if she didn’t think he was a good man who would look after you and give you the life she couldn’t.”

Ezra shook his head stubbornly.  “She hadn’t even bothered to research the Larabee family enough to know that Mrs. Larabee and Adam had passed away.  She was in a hurry to leave town, so she gave me an address and a bus ticket and sent me away.  Later, when Chris decided to keep me, she gave me away like an old unwanted possession, happy that she’d found someone willing to take on the burden for her.”

“You don’t think that’s how Chris sees you, do you?” JD asked, horrified by what he was hearing.  Ezra had never spoken of these matters to him before.  “As a burden he had to take on?”

The stiff posture softened and Ezra finally stopped hugging Lester so fiercely that his stitches were in danger of popping.   “No, Chris loves me.”  He could not quite hide the wonder that statement still brought.  His voice dropping lower again, he admitted, “I just wish that my mother had loved me too, is all.  I miss her.  I don’t know why, we never even spent a traditional holiday together, but with everybody talking about Thanksgiving and Christmas and family togetherness lately, I can’t seem to stop thinking about her.”

“I can understand that.  My mom was a chamber-maid in a hotel so she almost always had to work the holidays, but this time of year always makes me miss her more than usual.   It’s okay.”

Ezra nodded, hugging his bear tightly again as he turned questioning eyes upon JD.  “Do you think Chris would get mad if I asked to visit her some time?  He might think I’m ungrateful for all he’s done, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”

“I think he’d understand.  You want me to ask him for you?”

“Would you?”  Surprise shone in hopeful green eyes.

JD smiled.  “Sure, I will.”

Nodding, Ezra put Lester back in his safe place, indicating without a word that he was finished with the topic.

Picking up the signal, JD patted him on the back. “Why don’t you go see what your dad is up to?  If you’ll let me use your computer for a minute, I’ll take a look on the Internet and see if I can find you a pattern for Josiah’s ornament.”

“Thank you.”  Surprising him, Ezra gave him a quick hug before scampering from the room.

Chapter 7 --- Thanksgiving

The weekend passed quickly for Ezra, filled as it was with a torrent of activity.   Chris dropped him off at Nathan’s home mid-morning on Saturday and the two spent a couple of hours cleaning Nathan’s kitchen, scrubbing and straightening and rearranging to Ezra’s heart’s content.  He proved to be far pickier about where everything should go than Nathan had anticipated, but when they were finished the doctor could not deny that his kitchen looked considerably neater than it had.   He gladly paid his $15 chore allowance, driving Ezra home by noon so that the boy could meet with Vin and give him the requested help polishing his truck.   Vin, too, found his helper dedicated and meticulous, well worth the promised fee. 

Bolstered by their glowing praise, Ezra asked the rest of his uncles if they had any jobs they felt might be worthy of the last fifteen dollars he was trying to earn.  JD and Josiah had nothing, but Buck offered to make up the remaining sum for Ezra’s help with sorting and addressing all of the Christmas cards that he intended to send to his lady friends.  Ezra agreed readily, not even minding when Chris joked that Buck was getting a bargain considering how huge the chore might prove to be.

On Sunday, Chris and all of the uncles went along with Josiah and Ezra to the church Harvest Fair and had a fun day participating in all of the games and activities on hand.  There wasn’t a great deal of merchandise available to buy, much to Ezra’s disappointment, but he did find some nice colored yarn for Josiah’s gift and a carved wooden ornament depicting a snowman riding a motorcycle, deciding that he liked this one even better for JD than the Santa Claus he had seen at the grocery store.

Happy to have two presents taken care of – for Josiah’s ornament was going quickly now that he had finally mastered the trick of winding the yarn in the proper pattern around the sticks – Ezra went back to school on Monday looking forward to a short week followed by a four-day weekend in honor of  Thanksgiving.

When Thanksgiving Day arrived, however, it did not turn out to be quite what Ezra had expected.  His father and uncles had all raved about the wonderful food, games and parades which filled a traditional Thanksgiving celebration, and Ezra had looked forward to it eagerly all week.  In reality, the parade proved to be little more than a commercial-filled series of bands and balloons on television, the food had spent all day in the preparation stages, and the games were nothing but an endless series of televised football games.

“What’s the matter, son?  Aren’t you having a good time?” Chris asked him, after getting up off the sofa at halftime to discover that Ezra had crept outside and was sitting alone on the back porch with his chin propped in his hands and a disconsolate look on his face.

“It’s boring,” he blurted.  “I thought that a family Thanksgiving was supposed to be something wonderful.  Everyone talks about it like it is!   When I spent past Thanksgivings travelling with Mother, even she seemed to grow nostalgic for the holidays of her childhood, but I just don’t understand why.  From what I’ve seen, it’s nothing but television and cooking!”

Chris winced.   It had been so long since he’d spent Thanksgiving with anyone other than fellow adults that he had not given a thought to how Ezra might be interpreting the day’s events.  “What were you hoping for?”

He shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I thought . . . well, I hoped maybe we could have a bonfire like we did on Halloween, using all those leaves I raked up.  And when Uncle Buck talked about there being lots of good games on Thanksgiving, I thought he meant real ones that you play.  You know, board games, or party games, or playing catch in the back yard.  All anybody’s done all day today is shout at the television screen.”

Unable to deny this observation, Chris told him, “I expect the boys would enjoy a good bonfire after dinner, if that’s what you want.  And maybe we can get a game of touch football together.  We don’t have even sides, but I expect the others won’t mind if my team has an extra player.”

Ezra smiled, this plan sounding much improved over what he had experienced thus far.  Licking at his upper lip, he suggested, “Perhaps we could have lunch first.  The house smells wonderful, but no one is eating anything, and I’m awfully hungry.”

Casting soulful eyes upon Chris, Ezra managed to somehow imply that starvation was mere minutes away.  

Chris laughed and gave him a one-armed hug.  “Well, the turkey isn’t quite done yet so you can’t pick at it, but I imagine we could find something to temporarily fill the gap.  You up for some PB & J?”

“With grape jelly?” he negotiated. 

“Sure, why not?”

Happy, Ezra leapt up and raced inside, followed more sedately by Chris.

“Anything wrong?” Vin asked as he walked inside.  “Just saw Ez tear through here like his pants were on fire.”

Gonna go have a sandwich, then play a little ball,” Chris told him.  Raising his voice to be heard above the din of conversation, he asked, “Anyone else up for a game of football?  Ezra feels we’re spending too much of this nice family holiday parked on our backsides.”

Grins spread through the room and the men willingly clambered to their feet.  Buck suggested, “Since we’re gonna have four players on one side, what do you say we make it you, Ezra, Vin and JD against me, Josiah and Nathan?  We’ll see if your numbers can beat our size.”

“Sounds fair,” Chris agreed.  “It’s only touch football, so our speed should even things up just fine.”

Before anyone could get too involved in the usual round of challenging one another’s skills, athleticism and general masculinity, Ezra’s voice called from the kitchen, “Can somebody help me, please?  I can’t get this jar open!” 

“Coming,” Chris called back.  ”You boys go get the football out of the shed and mark off the playing field. We’ll be right out.”


“You ever played this before?” Vin asked, showing Ezra where he wanted him to stand.

“Sort of,” he said, widening his stance and crouching down a bit.  “Only with my cousins, though, and some of them were smaller than me.”

Taking note of his slightly worried tone, Chris smiled.  “Don’t worry, Ezra, nobody’s going to get hurt.  All you have to do is try and catch the ball when JD throws it to you, then run as fast as you can toward the end zone.  If somebody tags you, you’re tackled and you have to stop so we can go again.”

“And when Buck’s team has the ball, you do the same to them.  Just run like heck toward whoever’s got the pig and try to tag ‘em before they reach their end zone,” Vin advised.  “And if one of us has the ball, try to get in the way of whoever’s chasing them.”

Chris grinned.  “Just try not to get run over when you do, okay?”

Ezra nodded, face already grim with concentration as he waited.  JD had won the coin toss with Nathan, and he was throwing first.  The ball flew across the yard in a perfect spiral, to be caught neatly by Vin, who took off like a shot, his lean body whipping around the lunging bodies and grasping hands of Josiah and Buck.  Making it all the way to the end zone – a clearing between two oak trees – he spiked the ball and did a comical dance that would have done an NFL player proud.  “See, Ezra?  I told you it was simple!”

“Beginner’s luck!” Nathan hooted back at him.  Accepting the ball, he fired it down the field to Josiah, who looked to make a full return on Vin’s play, but was stopped at the last minute by a lunging tag from Chris.   Two plays later, Buck managed to score, evening things up.

For most of the game, Ezra simply ran back and forth, doing his best to get in the way of Buck’s team whenever one of his own players had the ball, and cheering his father, Vin and JD on when they ran for their goal line.  It therefore came as a complete shock to him when the ball suddenly came flying straight at him.  Ezra instinctively put his hands up and just managed to catch it before it could smack him in the face.

“Run, Ezra, run!” Chris shouted when he simply stood there, looking at the ball in wide-eyed surprise.  “Towards me, come on!  One more touchdown and we win!”

The boy’s green eyes went huge as he looked up and saw Josiah and Nathan bearing down on him.  Hugging the ball to his chest, he dove under their clutching hands and took off running toward his father.  Buck was coming his way on the left side but JD and Vin popped out of nowhere and double teamed him, holding him back as Ezra sprinted past.  The child never noticed how little effort Buck put into his escape or the huge grin that plastered his face as he groaned in mock frustration at losing his chance.

Ezra charged across the yard and flung himself over the invisible goal line on his side, panting and grinning in triumph over his win as Chris whooped and lifted him up onto his shoulders, trotting out a victory lap around the other men. 

Everyone was flushed and laughing as the game broke up, trooping back inside to wash up for the dinner that Chris assured them should be just about finished.

Grubby hands and sweaty faces were scrubbed and dried, lots of laughter and congratulations flying as Josiah and Nathan went to help Chris finish up the last of the dinner preparation while everyone else got themselves combed and straightened.  Finally, all seven of them sat down before the magnificent feast of turkey with all the trimmings and joined in Josiah’s blessing and thanks for bringing them all together as family on this very special day.

The feast was long and merry and the holiday bonfire they enjoyed afterward, over slices of pumpkin pie and cups of coffee and hot chocolate, was the perfect ending to what even Ezra now felt had been a perfect Thanksgiving Day.

Chapter 8 --- Bargain Hunting

Chris Larabee moaned as his alarm clock sounded, barely awake enough to slap it quiet and register that, yes, it actually was a full two hours before the crack of dawn and he seriously was expected to get out of bed and fix breakfast for his son.  He was still trying to work out why he had been foolish enough to make that promise, when said child appeared in the doorway, asking, “Can we have pancakes?”

Struggling to get both eyes open at the same time, Chris sighed.  “How is it that I can barely get you out of bed by 7:30 on a school day, but give you a Friday when you could be sleeping in and you’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 4am?”

Ezra, who Chris now noticed was already dressed for the day in jeans and a cheery red sweater, smiled angelically.  “Because today I’m not going to school, I’m going bargain hunting!”  As Chris groaned and flung the covers up over his head, Ezra grinned and ran over to grab his arm, attempting to pull him out of the warm blankets.  “C’mon, you promised!  Uncle Buck will be here soon and after we’re gone you can go back to bed.”

Hearing Ezra employ the same coaxing tone he often used himself when their positions were reversed, Chris had to chuckle.  He flipped the covers back, sat up and captured the boy in a hug, all in a single motion.  “I love you, you know that?”

Ezra hugged him back.  “I love you, too.  Can we have pancakes now?”

The chuckle grew into a full-blown laugh at that.  Ezra was not a big eater, but when he was hungry there was no diverting him from his course.  “All right, you win.  Go in the kitchen and mix up some batter for me and I’ll be right with you.”

“Okay!”  Ezra ran to complete his mission, leaving Chris staring after him with bleary but amused eyes.


When the doorbell rang twenty minutes later, Ezra hastily forked up the last mouthful of light syrupy pancake and shoveled it in, barely pausing to chew as he gulped it down and hurried to answer the door. 

Chris let him go without a word, clinging to his half-filled coffee cup like a lifeline.  He nearly groaned aloud again when Buck came bounding in, every bit as awake and charged with enthusiasm for the day ahead as the boy who trailed along in his wake.   

“I don’t understand how you two can be so happy about this,” Chris commented with a bemused smile.  “I’d rather be shot than go shopping at 5am with a horde of bargain-crazed mothers and gadget-hunting teenagers.”

Buck and Ezra exchanged a pitying look and a shrug.  Chris just did not have the instinct for good shopping.  “Well,” Buck said with a chuckle, “I guess that’s why I volunteered to take Ezra out today instead of you.  He and I are going to find all the good deals to be had.  Bet we’ll get our shopping done without even spending all of our savings.”

“Speaking of that, do you have your money?” Chris asked Ezra.

Ezra patted his front right jeans pocket protectively.  “Yes, sir.  Can we go now?”

“You’d better ask Buck.  He might want a cup of coffee or something first,” Chris replied, reminding the boy of his manners.

Instantly, an apologetic look appeared on Ezra’s face.  “Sorry, Uncle Buck.  I forgot to ask whether or not you’d eaten breakfast.  Would you like some pancakes?  They’re very good.”

Buck gave him a pat on the shoulder.  “Thanks for the offer, buddy, but I stopped for something at McDonald’s on the way here.  I’m good to go, but you’d better wash your hands and use the bathroom before we head out.  We might be out a long time before we find another one.”

Seeing the logic in this, Ezra took off down the hallway.

With a smile, Chris said, “You know, you’ll make somebody a good father one of these days.”

Buck grinned.  “Thanks, I think.  It’s not too hard to do good for Ezra, though.  He’s a great kid.”

“He is that, but don’t let him sweet-talk you into visiting every store you come across today.  He’s real good at coaxing me into looking at ‘just one more thing’ and then browsing for an hour while he tries to decide what that something actually is.”   The other man’s grin only widened, making Chris sigh, and then laugh.  “Two of a kind, I know.  All right, then.  Just try to be back by suppertime!”

“Sure thing,” Buck promised, then smiled as Ezra returned and held up his hands to show the adults that they’d been washed as directed.  “Ready?”

Ezra grinned.  “Yep!  See you later, Chris!”

“Bye, boys,” he called, shaking his head affectionately as he was answered by a slamming door.   For a moment, he considered taking his son’s advice and going back to bed for a couple of hours, but then decided that maybe he could face the sea of bargain-hunters for just a little while.  There really were some great deals being advertised today, and he might not get as good a chance again to shop for toys without an audience.


A small pink tongue poked out between tightly compressed lips as Ezra scribbled some notes on a memo pad he had brought along.  Together, JD and Josiah’s presents had cost less than the $20 he had originally allotted for each of them.  He had found a huge tin of designer short-bread cookies for Buck priced at a mere $15, which Buck had manfully pretended not to see him buying, feigning great interest in a display of foreign teas and coffees next to the checkout line. 

A beautiful thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of the Colorado Rocky mountain range at sunset had been found for Vin, again at $15.  That meant Ezra had only spent a total of $50 where he had originally expected to spend eighty!   A grin lit his face at the realization that he had just two presents yet to buy and seventy dollars left to do it with.  

Just as wonderfully, Buck had proven to be an excellent shopping partner, never once rushing him on a decision or insisting that they had spent long enough in a store or had visited enough stores, period.   In fact, Buck himself had picked up several bargains and was well on his way to being finished. 

“How’s it coming?” Buck asked, rearranging the shopping bags he was carrying for them both.

“I have to find some murder mystery books for Uncle Nathan,” he replied.  “Have you ever heard of Dell Shannon?”

Surprised, Buck said, “Sure, my mom used to read those.  I’m not sure any of them are still in print, though.  You might have some trouble finding them at a mall.”

Disappointed, Ezra asked, “Isn’t there anyplace that would have them?”

He pondered the question for a moment, and then a grin lit his face.  “As a matter of fact, there is, if you want to get out of here.”

“Where to?”

“A little bookshop that Josiah and I stumbled across one time,” he said.  “It’s called ‘Murder by the Book’ and as the name suggests, it’s almost all mysteries and thrillers.  Mostly rare and good-condition used books.  If anybody’d have what you’re looking for, they would.”

Ezra beamed.  “That sounds perfect!  Let’s go.”

“Hang on.  Is there anything you want to pick up for Chris while we’re still here?”

At this, the boy heaved a gusty sigh.  “I just can’t decide what to get him.  He hasn’t dropped any hints and I can’t think of anything he needs.”

“What about that picture frame you told me about at Thanksgiving, the one you said your teacher was going to have all you kids make?”

Ezra grimaced at the reminder.  “We haven’t done the project yet, but Mrs. Burke wants to take a photograph of each of us and give it to us to place inside the frame.  Chris wouldn’t want something like that.”

“What makes you think so?” Buck asked, subtly steering his young charge past a group of chattering teens and toward the mall exit.   “I’ll bet he’d love to get a picture of you, especially in a frame you’d made special just for him.”

“Why would he want that?  It’ll probably be made out of construction paper and glitter or something equally simplistic, and he has pictures of me already.  Besides, I can buy him something truly wonderful with all the money I have left!”

Buck bit the inside of his cheek, wondering how he could explain this in a way that would make sense to Ezra.  His nephew was a very sweet and sensible youngster, but at times he had a mercenary streak that simply refused to be tamped down.  Small wonder, considering his early upbringing, being taught that nothing - himself included – had any worth unless it cost a great deal of money, or could be used to make more.

“To Chris, there’s nothing more valuable in the world than the people he loves,” Buck said carefully.  “And he knows better than most because of what happened to Sarah and Adam, that a reminder of your loved ones can be worth more than anything you could possibly buy in a place like this.   Don’t you think he’ll like having a hand-framed photo of you that he can look at whenever you’re not there, to remember how much you love him?”

 Uncertain now, but still not convinced, Ezra asked, “What if I buy him a real gift and still give him the picture?  That way he’ll still have something for Christmas, just in case you’re wrong.”

A small sigh puffed from Buck’s lips.  He had tried.  “It’s your money.”

“What do you think he’d like?  Chris isn’t much of a clothes person,” Ezra said, pondering his options with a frown, baffled by the notion of anyone not liking new clothes.  “And he doesn’t wear cologne or jewelry at all, at least not that I’ve ever noticed.  I don’t want to risk buying a book he already has, and movies seem too simple.”

“Tools?” Buck suggested with a shrug.  “Most guys like tools and Chris is pretty handy.”

A thoughtful look crossed Ezra’s face, and quickly turned into a mischievous smile.  “I know!” He turned around, grabbing his uncle by the elbow and pulling him back towards the east end of the mall. 

Buck followed quickly, careful not to lose Ezra in the steadily growing crowd, curious to see where they might be headed.  He was surprised to see Ezra make a beeline for Sears and then straight back to the outdoor section.  He couldn’t help but grin when the boy stopped in front of a selection of hand held leaf-blowers.

“This one is on sale for only forty-nine fifty,” Ezra said, pointing out a gas powered model that could be worn as a sort of back-pack.  “It has two power levels, a suction feature and a changeable nozzle.”

“And you definitely know he doesn’t have one already,” Buck said, trying not to laugh.

Ezra beamed.  “Exactly!  If I buy this, I’ll still have twenty dollars left for Uncle Nathan’s gift.”

“Guess you don’t need to look any farther, then.”


On the drive home, Ezra chattered excitedly about all they had seen and done and how much everyone was sure to love what he’d got them.  A browse through the murder mystery store had turned up three of the desired novels for Nathan, at the bargain price of only $1.99 each, and Ezra was filled with the glow of satisfaction that came from having shopped well for everyone on his list, and still coming out with a few dollars left over.

When he suddenly went quiet, Buck glanced over in surprise, wondering if all that energy had finally run out and his young friend had fallen asleep.  But Ezra was wide awake and looking toward the back of the truck with a worried expression on his face. 

“What’s wrong?”

“Do parents really like pictures of their children more than any other kind of present?”

Trying to comfort him, Buck said, “I’m sure he’ll like the leaf-blower just fine, Ez.  Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s not that,” he said, his voice quiet.  “It’s just, each student is only supposed to receive one photograph, and Chris told me that he’d take me to visit my mother soon.”

Buck nodded.  “Chris told me you and he had talked about that.  He decided it would be okay, huh?”

“Yes.  He called the women’s prison on Wednesday and arranged a visit for the Saturday before Christmas.”

Suddenly, Buck understood the boy’s problem.  “You want to give your school picture to your mother, don’t you?”

Ezra nodded miserably.  “I can’t give her anything she’d really like, jewelry or beautiful clothes or designer fragrances, even if I had enough money.  It’s not allowed.   So, I’ve been thinking that perhaps she might like the picture to remember what I look like, in case she ever thinks about me.   But if Chris truly would treasure such a gift, he might be terribly hurt when he sees that picture and frame, and discovers that he’s not the recipient.”

“I told Chris this morning that he has a great kid,” Buck said fondly, “and you’re proving me right, right now.”

“Huh?” Ezra’s face wrinkled up in confusion.

Reaching over to ruffle his hair, Buck said.  “Tell you what, we’ll have JD use his digital camera to take a picture of you and print it out on photo paper.  You can make a second frame and that way, Chris and your mom will each have one.”

A look of wonderment and adoration filled Ezra’s small face as he looked at his clever uncle.  “You’re a genius!”

Buck chuckled.  “Be sure and tell your dad that, will you?  He’s sure I just get by on my good looks.”

Chapter 9 --- Preparations

On the way home, Buck had stopped at a Dollar Tree store and let Ezra pick up a couple of rolls of gift wrap, allowing him to hide the result of his shopping expedition from curious eyes.  Not that Ezra believed that his father would peek intentionally, but Chris usually hung the clean laundry up in his closet, and there was no place else big enough to hide the leaf-blower.  So as soon as Buck had dropped him off, depositing the purchases in his room for him, Ezra had gone to work wrapping.   They didn’t have a Christmas tree yet, but Ezra soon had an impressive pile of presents waiting to go beneath the branches once they did.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the little boy became increasingly awed and delighted by the festivities surrounding him.   All five of his uncles had come back on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to spend the afternoon stringing lights from the peak of the roof to the base of the house, and everywhere in between.  There were white icicle lights dangling along the ridge with stripes of red and white lights draped diagonally over the roof tiles.  Large multi-colored bulbs surrounded every window and beam, and tiny twinkle-lights draped artistically through the bushes and tree branches in front of the house.   Vin had brought over an inflatable polar bear to sit on the front lawn, Buck had added a near life-sized plastic Santa sleigh and reindeer to the roof, JD had surrounded the perimeter of the grass with large plastic candy canes, and Josiah had created a nativity scene on the side of the porch.  Nathan added the finishing touch of a large fluffy wreath with a cheerful red bow for the front door.


A week later, the entire family went shopping together for a Christmas tree.  Friendly arguments had broken out several times over what size, shape and type of tree to get, but in the end they deferred to the desires of the one child in their group.   After much searching, Ezra had rejected Scotch pine on the grounds that it was too prickly and Noble firs with the argument that they looked too bare.  He had liked the shape and texture of the Douglas firs in one lot but could not find one tall enough or fluffy enough to suit him.  At last, he had spotted a gorgeous 7 foot Grand fir without a flaw to be seen at a cut-your-own tree lot.  Luckily, Chris had foreseen this possibility and brought along a saw and plenty of cord to tie the freshly cut tree to the top of Josiah’s van. 

The next night, after the tree had been set up in the front room, whose vaulted ceilings proved perfect for it, everyone returned bearing favorite ornaments from their own collections.   Chris brought down a few treasured baubles from the attic, adding them to the many new decorations picked out by Ezra, who had no keepsake ornaments of his own.  

Dozens of decorations were hung and, like the house itself; there was not a sign of any theme to be found.   The tree branches soon sported colored balls, cheerful Santas and snowmen, spun-glass angels, a colorful rocking horse, a Rudolph straight out of the ‘60s cartoon special, a candle-wax lamb, miniature teddy bears, wooden soldiers, a singing Elvis Presley figure, a Star Trek shuttlecraft, a bird with real feathers and a smiling shimmying hula girl. 

With the addition of colored lights and a few strings of tinsel here and there, the tree became beautiful.  Long after all of the adults had gone, Ezra sat cross-legged on the carpet with his chin propped in his hands, eyes shining as he drank in the sight of his first real Christmas tree.


Throughout the month of December, Ezra’s life became a whirl of activity.  He attended concerts and craft fairs, light displays and Christmas plays, every fun holiday activity that his uncles could think to expose him to.    He was fairly bewildered by all of the fuss and dazzle but enjoyed everything immensely, loving best the simple pleasure of receiving so much personalized attention.  Staying busy also helped quell the rising tide of nervous anticipation that gripped him as the days grew ever closer to his visit with Maude. 

The hand-made picture frames Ezra’s teacher had proposed turned out to be both easier to make and of more attractive quality than anticipated, but the photograph itself had not come out at all to the little boy’s liking.  He had not been allowed to dress up, Mrs. Burke believing that most parents would prefer a casual portrait, and Ezra had been forced to smile with artificial brightness.  He just knew that his mother would hate it, and he was fairly certain that Chris would too.  

Surprisingly, Josiah had come to his rescue.  He had taken one look at the class photograph and grimaced, promptly offering to give his nephew a proper photo session using JD’s high-quality digital camera.  It turned out that Josiah was quite a good amateur shutter-bug.  He and Ezra had smuggled several outfits out of the house, unbeknownst to Chris, and Josiah had snapped a dozen pictures in settings both formal and informal, saving the images to a pin drive that JD later helped Ezra download onto his computer at home, teaching him how to resize and print the images on photo paper.

Much happier with these new photographs, Ezra had secretly gone to work making a whole series of picture frames, placing a different photo of himself inside each one as gifts for not only Chris, but each of the other adults too.  He had reasoned that if Buck was right and parents liked receiving pictures of their children, then perhaps uncles would as well.  

For his mother, Ezra had wanted a very particular image.  He had worn the navy blue suit and dark red tie that Chris had bought him for their formal adoption hearing in September, parting his hair on one side and wet-combing it into an almost painfully neat style.   He had been careful to only smile just enough to make his dimples pop into view.  His eyes looked bright and happy in the photo, not out of any design, but simply reflecting his feelings as he had imagined how pleased his mother would be with his efforts. 

He had considered printing a second copy of this image for Chris’s gift, but Josiah had advised him to go with one of the less-formal pictures.  Knowing that Chris was not a very formal person himself, Ezra had decided that his uncle was probably correct and had chosen one that had been taken outdoors, where his hair was rumpled into wild curls by the wind, his cheeks bright with cold and his eyes dancing with laughter as he grinned into the lens.  

Tomorrow was the big day.   At 2pm he and Chris would go to the women’s prison and check in, and a half hour later he would be facing his mother for the first time in months.    Patting his stomach to try and settle the butterflies already fluttering inside of it, Ezra opened his desk drawer and pulled out the pictures he had chosen for Mother and Chris.  

Seeing the two framed images side by side, portraying the version of himself that each of his parents liked best, Ezra could not help noticing the contrast between them.  Ezra P. Standish had never even imagined becoming the happy carefree boy of Chris’s photo, and Ezra Standish-Larabee could barely remember the stiff, too-perfect boy portrayed in Maude’s.   It was amazing how much difference a year had made. 

Ezra bit his lip, wondering whether Mother would approve of this new version of her son.  “She doesn't have any say in how I live now.  It shouldn’t matter what she thinks,” he told himself.     

But as he placed the pictures back inside his desk, he sighed.   It did matter, a lot.

Chapter 10 --- Maude

Inside the visiting area of the women's prison, Chris and Ezra waited.  It was a cramped austere little room with grayish-white walls, a few scarred tables and chairs that were bolted to a blistered linoleum floor, no windows and a blank faced guard watching the only door.  


Several days ago, Chris had spoken with the warden, an old acquaintance from his days with the Denver P.D., who had heartily encouraged this visit and assured Chris that as a non-violent offender, it would be possible for Maude and Ezra to conduct their visit in this room, rather than by phone through a glass paneled wall.   He had been expecting the latter and was very glad that Ezra would not have to face that particular condition.

Chris looked down at the tense child beside him.  Ezra had been a nervous wreck since the prior evening, fidgeting, fussing, having sudden miniature temper tantrums over nothing, and finally waking Chris up in the middle of the night with a hysterical nightmare that had left the boy sobbing and clutching Lester like a lifeline, unwilling to let go even after Chris transferred the boy into his own bed and cuddled him until he went back to sleep.  

This morning, Ezra had been embarrassed and apologetic over his ‘undignified display’ but otherwise solemn and unusually quiet.   “Are you sure you want to go today?” Chris had asked.  “It’s all right if you don’t.”  

The alarm that had instantly sprung into Ezra’s eyes had told him everything he needed to know.  Ezra was nervous, and maybe a little bit afraid, but he was also desperate to see his mother again and willing to face whatever came for that privilege.  

Ezra had changed his clothes four times before finally settling on a pair of neatly pressed black pants, white collared shirt and a deep green pullover sweater.  He had carefully combed his hair and brushed his teeth until he looked as neat and picture-perfect as any child possibly could look, so much like the quiet emotionally stunted young stranger who had first come to stay with Chris nearly a year ago that it was startling.   The contrast became even more apparent when Ezra had showed him the framed picture he had created, depicting that same oddly formal-looking little boy.  Ezra had quietly explained that it was a Christmas gift for his mother and that he hoped Chris wouldn’t feel bad about not being the recipient.  

“I understand, and I’m sure she’ll love it,” was all he had said, but the relief in Ezra’s eyes had nearly broken his heart.  Chris wondered, not for the first time, whether Maude Standish had any notion of just how much of a treasure she had thrown away.


A knock sounded outside the closed visiting room door and poor Ezra nearly jumped out of his skin, eyes wide, the precious photograph clutched so tightly in his hands that he was in some danger of crumpling the hand-made frame.  Chris placed a gentle hand over the one nearest him and the boy loosened his grip, offering a valiant but not quite heart-felt smile as he glanced up at Chris.

The guard opened the door and spoke briefly with the people on the other side, and then Maude walked into the room.  It was startling to see the normally immaculate and richly dressed woman in a plain blue prison-issue shirt and trousers, her face devoid of makeup, and her medium-length blonde hair simply tied into a smooth ponytail.   The guard allowed her to move forward without restraints but kept a hard and sharp gaze fastened on her, clearly ready to act if a single suspicious movement was made.  Chris likewise remained alert, knowing that this woman was a first-class pickpocket and sleight of hand artist.  He and Ezra had both been required to empty out their pockets before entering this room but it still paid to be cautious.

Ezra and Maude seemed to have no awareness at all of either the guard or Chris.  They stared at one another, each taking a couple of steps forward and then going no further as if that nonexistent glass wall did indeed stand between them.

“Ezra,” Maude said finally, her southern-accented voice low and gentle.  “You’ve grown, and you’re lookin’ so rosy and fine, I hardly recognize you.  It appears that Mr. Larabee has been takin’ good care of you for me.”

The child gulped.  “Yes, ma'am.”  He held out his gift, hesitantly.  “I . . . I brought you somethin’.  A Christmas present.”

She blinked, looking openly surprised for a split second before the emotion was shuttered behind an expression of bland curiosity.  “Really?  Well, that’s most kind.  It’s always polite to take a gift when you go visiting.  It’s good to know that you haven’t lost sight of your manners since I last saw you.”

As she accepted the frame, Ezra’s gaze dropped.  “I made it for you.  You don’t have to like it.  I just . . . I just thought maybe you might want it, in case you don’t have anything better to look at in your . . . in your . . . current accommodations.”

The woman’s lips twitched into a small smirk at her son’s diplomatic avoidance of the word ‘cell’.  She looked down at the picture and her façade of disinterest cracked enough to allow a warm approving expression to fill her lovely blue eyes.  “It’s a very handsome portrait,” she said softly, ghosting a fingertip over the image.  “You look very grown-up.”

“You like it?” he asked hopefully.  “You want to keep it?”

“Of course, I do,” she told him.  Her expression grew soft, surprising Chris considerably.  She looked at her son and smiled, reaching out to touch the brown curls that were fighting valiantly against the neatly combed styled Ezra had forced them into.  “How could I not want a reminder of my darlin’ boy?”

The familiar endearment was too much for Ezra.  His eyes flooded with tears and he stepped forward, throwing his arms around Maude’s narrow waist.  Chris suddenly found himself blinking back tears of his own when he heard the child choke out, “I love you, Mother.”

Maude looked startled and strangely lost as she carefully wrapped her arms around the boy and kissed him on top of his head.  “There, there, darlin’.  Don’t cry.  You’ll make your beautiful face all red and splotchy and that just won’t do.”

He stepped back, brushing away the tears with the back of one hand and giving a wet sniffle.  “Yes, Mother.”

Chris cleared his throat, a part of him feeling intensely sorry for Maude and another part hating her for her inability to respond in kind to Ezra’s declaration.  “Maybe we should sit," he suggested abruptly.  "The warden only gave us a half hour.”

“Of course,” Maude replied, looking relieved at the interruption.  She held Ezra’s hand as the three of them took seats around one of the tables and for a few minutes they exchanged simple pleasantries, Maude asking after Ezra’s schooling and general health and tutting sympathetically at the news that he had recently suffered a cold. 

Ezra tried to tell his mother about all of the things he had been doing for Christmas, but each time he began to grow excited in the telling, he would look at her and grow solemn again. 

Chris tried to keep the conversation rolling but he was not much of a talker to begin with, and soon the three were left sitting in a somewhat uneasy silence.    When the guard cleared his throat, indicating that time was nearly up, it caused a wash of guilty relief to sweep over all three visitors.

“Take care of yourself, Maude,” Chris said coolly.

“And you, Mr. Larabee,” she returned, as dignified as if she were sitting upon a throne, attired in satin and diamonds.  “Thank you for bringing Ezra for a visit.  I truly have appreciated this opportunity.”

He raised an eyebrow.  “It was the least I could for my son.”

Maude winced just a hair, the slight emphasis Chris had put on the family relationship clearly scoring its intended point, but she nodded acceptance of his words.   Turning back to Ezra, who was watching the two adults warily, knowing that something was going on but not able to decipher the silent subtext behind their exchange, she favored him with a genuine smile.  “I’m so glad you came, darlin’.  I can’t tell you what good it did me to see you, and how much I’ll enjoy having this lovely picture to look at every day.”

Ezra smiled, looking pleased but a still a bit uncertain.  “I’m glad you like it.”  As the guard came forward, Ezra gave Maude a second quick hug.  “Goodbye, Mother.  Merry Christmas.”

“Goodbye, sweet boy.  You be good for,” she hesitated, then gave Chris a nod and said, “for your father.”

“I will.”  He smiled, stepping back to lean against Chris’s strong body and accept the arms that instinctively came forward to enfold him.  

As the metal door closed firmly between them, once more shutting him out of his mother’s world, Ezra stared at its cold dark surface, a strange enigmatic expression on his face.  Finally Chris asked, “How do you feel?”

The boy shook his head.  “I don’t know.  I feel too many ways at once.  I can’t put a name to it.”

“I can understand that.”

The guard soon returned and asked that they follow him back to Reception to pick up their things and check out.  

As they stepped outside into the clear cold afternoon air and made their way toward the parking lot, Ezra reached over and grasped Chris’s hand. 

“You want to stop someplace and get some food?” Chris asked him, hoping to jar Ezra from his contemplative mood.  “You didn’t eat much at dinner last night, or at breakfast this morning.”

Glancing up, he replied, “No, thank you.  Can we just go home now . . . Dad?”

Chris’s heart felt as though it was swelling to twice its normal size at that hesitant but deliberate address.  Ezra had called him Dad once before, but it had been an accidental slip during a moment of excitement.  This was very different and he could see that Ezra was holding his breath, waiting to see how he would react.  Gently swinging their clasped hands between them, Chris said, “No place I’d rather be, son.”

The boy’s happy smile was all the response he needed.  As they walked to the car and drove away from the prison, Ezra never once looked back.

Chapter 11 --- A Merry Christmas to All

As if his visit with Maude had released some long-restrained joy within him, Ezra had thrown himself into the final days of Christmas preparation with abandon.   He had helped everyone wrap gifts (pretending not to be searching for sneak-peeks of his own), assisted Chris and Nathan in baking enough Christmas cookies to feed an army, delivered dozens of gift baskets to the needy with Josiah and Vin, and built a snowman big enough to rival a professional basketball player with Buck and JD when the clouds delivered a bounty of frozen play material on the morning of Christmas Eve.

The boy did not say a word to anyone about his visit to the prison, but it did not escape any of the uncles’ notice that Ezra had started referring to Chris as ‘Dad’, calling him by that name at every opportunity, as if anxious to make up for lost time.   Chris had filled them in privately and it was obvious to anyone with eyes that he was fairly bursting with pleasure over his new title.  


Late on Christmas Eve, long after Ezra had been sent to bed, Chris pulled a pile of brightly wrapped gifts out of his closet and placed them in a sack for transportation out to the tree.  He was surprised and a bit dismayed to find Ezra wide awake and sitting on the carpet, a blanket wrapped around his pajama clad form as he sat with his legs pulled up and Lester balanced atop his knees, both of them appearing to be studying the brightly lit Christmas tree.

“Ezra,” Chris scolded softly.  “You shouldn’t be out of bed!  What are you doing in here?  Did you have another bad dream?”

Realizing that Chris was assuming from Lester’s presence that he was in need of comforting, Ezra hugged his plushy companion and offered his father a bright grin.  “Lester and I just wanted to see for ourselves whether or not Santa would really show up on Christmas Eve.”  Eyes sparkling with fun, he pointed to Chris’s gift sack and whispered in Lester’s little round ear, “Look, boy, there he is!”

Chris laughed.  “Don’t you know that good little boys, and bears, are supposed to be in bed asleep when Santa Claus arrives?”

The grin widened.  “I know, but I couldn’t sleep and I wanted to look at the tree again.  I didn’t think you’d be too mad if you caught me.”

Settling himself on the carpet next to the tree, Chris began pulling gifts from his sack and placing them under the tree branches.  “No, it’s okay.  No peeking before tomorrow, though.  Your uncles have all promised to be here to exchange gifts by noon.”

A tiny pout clouded Ezra’s face.  “That’s an awfully long time from now.   Couldn’t we each open one gift tonight?”

Eyeing the pile of presents that Ezra had already placed under the boughs and noticing for the first time that there were more than the expected six, Chris gave him a curious look.  “What have you been up to, son?”

Ezra grinned again and scrambled to his knees, digging out a thin present wrapped in candy cane paper.  Holding it triumphantly outward, he said, “This one’s for you, Dad.”

Chris once again felt his heart melt at the unfamiliar address.  Knowing he would have to watch that, lest he become a complete pushover, he nonetheless replied, “Well, I guess one gift apiece wouldn’t hurt anything.”

The child’s attention shifted eagerly toward the stack of gifts Chris had uncovered.  “Which one?”

Chris considered the gifts for a moment, then pushed himself back up to his feet.  Holding up a finger to indicate that Ezra should wait a moment, he returned to his bedroom and came back carrying a large flat object with a red ribbon tied to one end. “How about this?  Should keep you busy until everyone arrives tomorrow.” 

Ezra gasped.  “A sled?  You got me a snow sled!”  Nearly snatching it from his father’s hands he examined every inch of the smooth wood and fiberglass toy, mouth gaping open with delighted surprise.   “It’s wonderful!”

Happy to see his gift so well-received, Chris laughed.  “I’m glad you like it.  I couldn’t figure out how to wrap it, so I’d figured on giving it to you in the morning anyway.”

Eyes shining, Ezra set the sled aside, sitting Lester atop it as a comically lopsided passenger while he leapt up and hugged Chris.  “Thank you!”

Chris returned the hug.  Thumping the excited boy lightly on the back, he said teasingly, “Since you’ve got your early present, can I open mine?”

“Oh!”  Scrambling back to his spot, Ezra once more picked up the thin red and white striped package and thrust it forward.  Suddenly shy, he mumbled, “I hope you like it.”

“I know I will,” Chris reassured him, certain that he would love it, whatever it turned out to be, if only for the pure pleasure of knowing that Ezra had chosen it for him.  Carefully working one fingertip under the tape holding down one end of the paper, he popped the wrapping open.  He recognized what it was before he had even managed to get the gift all the way out of the paper, having just seen a similar object two days ago.  “You made me a picture!”

Ezra nodded, nibbling his lower lip.  “I wanted to tell you on Saturday, but I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.  Uncle Nathan and Uncle Josiah and all of the others will be getting similar gifts, but this one is just for you.  Uncle Buck told me that parents like pictures of their children better than any other kind of present.”

“He’s right,” Chris said, clearing his throat when the words emerged a bit huskily as he looked at the image presented to him.  It did not escape his notice how very different this picture looked from the one that had been presented to Maude.   The formal and timid-looking young stranger had been left behind, emerging like a beautiful butterfly from its cocoon to become this rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed child who had happiness and enthusiasm for life virtually bursting from every feature.  It touched Chris deeply to realize that his own love and attention, and that of five friends who were as close as family, had been responsible for causing this transformation. 

Watching him dash away a sudden mist of tears, Ezra’s hopeful expression fell.  “You don’t like it?”

“Ezra, I love it,” he said, sniffling back the tears and smiling at the perplexed expression on the child’s face.  “Haven’t you ever cried because something made you so happy that you couldn’t hold it inside?”

Understanding filled Ezra’s eyes, but then a slight frown furrowed his brow as he glanced back under the tree.  “You don’t think everybody’s going to cry when they get their pictures, do you?  That isn’t exactly the effect I had anticipated.”

Chris burst out laughing, reaching out to ruffle Ezra’s hair.  “Some of them may cry, you never can tell what us sentimental old folks are going to do, but I think most of the boys will be all right.  Besides, if things get too embarrassing in here, you can just cool everybody off by dragging them outside to play in the snow.”

Ezra grinned at the reminder.  “Maybe I’d better go to bed now.  If I go to sleep, then I won’t have to wait as long to try out my new sled.”

“Smart thinking,” Chris approved, giving him another hug.  “Sleep well, son.”

“Night, Dad!” he said brightly, giving the sled one last adoring look as he scooped up Lester and ran off to dream dreams of snowy hillsides and a happy family Christmas.



The reality of Christmas day surpassed Ezra’s wildest expectations.  All five of his uncles were delighted with their gifts, showing the pictures off proudly to one another and assuring Ezra that the items he had purchased were exactly what they wanted most.  Nathan happily assured the young giver that he did not have any of the three new novels already, Buck immediately helped himself to a handful of cookies before passing the tin around to everyone else, Vin whistled in admiration over the scenery on his jigsaw puzzle, and JD and Josiah promptly hung their new ornaments in prominent places on the large family Christmas tree, Josiah making a special point to tell Ezra how much he appreciated the craftsmanship of his hand-made decoration.  Chris received considerable ribbing over his new leaf-blower, the men teasing that he would no longer have any excuse for sitting on his backside and letting his yard disappear under a pile of debris every fall.  Ezra just grinned at the teasing, delighted to have succeeded in surprising his father.

Everyone oo’d and ah’d appreciatively over Ezra's brand new sled, Chris being forced to intervene when Ezra and JD were overheard contemplating whether or not a snow-sled could be fastened by tow-bar to the back of a motorcycle, and Ezra was fairly dazzled by all of the toys and gifts he received. 

One of Vin’s gifts received an especially delighted reaction from Ezra when he opened the large box his uncle presented and found a Discovery store remote-control dragon, complete with walking, screeching, and fire-breathing special effects.  “You remembered!”

Vin grinned.  “Yep!  Hear tell dragons like cinnamon rolls best to eat, so you best lay in a good stock.” 

The other adults looked puzzled, except for Chris who merely favored the two grinning cohorts with an indulgent shake of the head.

With more toys and gadgets filling the house than one little boy could possibly play with in a single day, all of the big boys happily joined in, trying out whatever caught their fancy until the whole family eventually went outside to indulge in a grand snowball fight. 

JD, Vin, Buck and even Nathan were taking turns with Ezra, sliding down the large hill behind the house on Ezra’s new sled, while Chris and Josiah chose to sit on the back porch with cups of hot Irish coffee in their hands, just watching the fun.

"Many, O Lord my God, are your wonderful works, which you have done, and your thoughts which are toward us cannot be recounted to you in order. If I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered.”

Chris glanced at Josiah, “Bible?”

He smiled.  “Psalm 40, Verse 5.  It just struck me as appropriate.  Remember last year?”

Chris nodded.  He did remember.  A year ago, this holiday had been quiet and understated, the six friends simply meeting up at a local tavern to enjoy a meal and exchange a few small tokens of the day.  None of them had imagined that this year would find them all immersed in the wild happy free-for-all of a child’s dream Christmas.  Of course, a year ago, Chris had never expected to find himself the loving father of a remarkable little boy.

“This is the best Christmas I’ve had in years,” he said softly.  “Maybe the best one ever, simply because I truly appreciate how much of a gift it is.”

Draping a burly arm over his shoulders, Josiah gave him a squeeze.  “You deserve it.   Merry Christmas, my friend.”

“Merry Christmas, Josiah.”  With a smile, Chris set his cup down and stood.  “What do you say we go join the rest of the kids?”

Josiah’s broad grin was dazzling.  “Lead the way, brother!”

Soon the bright sparkling sounds of laughter filled the crisp winter air, marking the passage of a wonderful Christmas Day.