The End of Innocence

by Angie

The next day Ezra seemed calmer. The anonymity of the mission gave him a small measure of comfort that no one would question him about what had happened to him. The homeless people were notoriously shy about physical contact, reducing his anxiety about being touched.

Chris called Josiah early that morning to let him know that they were going in to the office to help with the clean up and relocation of the groups in the damaged offices.

Ezra asked Josiah if he could call and talk to the others. He willingly surrendered his cell phone and retreated to the far side of the room to allow the man some privacy.

He called JD first. He remembered that the young agent had been the last one to reach out to him. It took him three tries to work up the courage to dial the number.

“Hey JD, it’s Ezra.” He had to pull the phone away from his ear at the excited exclamation from the youngest member of the team.

“Hey Ezra! Are you okay? You kinda had us worried what with you disappearing and all. Are you coming back to work soon? We all miss you, you know.”

Brushing tears from his lashes, Ezra listened to the boy’s questions. “I’m okay, JD. I just needed some time to work things out. I wanted to apologize for upsetting you last week. And I wanted to thank you for bringing me supper and, and for caring.”

JD’s breath caught for a minute. “Well, gosh Ezra, we all care about you. Chris, Buck, Nathan and Vin, they all been worrying themselves sick about whatever was bothering you.”

Ezra couldn’t hold back any longer, he began to cry. Josiah quietly slipped across the room and took the phone. “JD? Ezra needs to rest some more, okay? Tell Chris that I’ll call him later.” Without giving him a chance to respond, Josiah hung up the phone.

Resting his hand lightly on Ezra’s shoulder, Josiah waited for the young man to regain control of his emotions before guiding him back to the pillow and settling a blanket over him. Standish looked up at the brilliant blue eyes as he drew the blanket up close.

“Thank you, Josiah.” His voice was a mere whisper as he sank into an exhausted sleep.

JD looked up at the circle of anxious faces that surrounded his desk. “I think I upset him again. It sounded like he was crying.”

Buck squeezed JD’s shoulder gently. “I think you did just fine, son. You let him know we were all thinking about him.”

A few hours later, Ezra called Vin trusting that the sharpshooter’s voice would be softer on his ears. He was able to dial the number thru on the first try in spite of his shaking hands.

“Hey Vin.”

“Hey Ezra. It’s good to hear your voice.”

“I wanted to thank you for coming over to my place last week. I appreciated that you were there for me in spite of the way I was acting.”

“Geez, Ez! I was just worried about you. Ya don’t have to go thru it all alone. Ya got a family now. We’re all here for you. You have to know that.”

The gentle urging tone in Vin’s voice nearly brought Ezra to tears but he was determined not to break down again. He kept breathing deeply until he could swallow the knot that had formed in his throat.

“Thanks, Vin.” For several minutes they just sat, listening to the static on the line and the muffled background voices.

Finally, Vin broke the silence. “You still there?”

“Yeah, just thinking. I should let you get back to work. I didn’t mean to keep you this long. I’m sorry.”

“I got all the time you need, Ezra. You want to sit here like this, it’s fine with me.”

Vin couldn’t see the slight smile that crossed the undercover agent’s face, but Josiah did.

“Thanks, Vin. I gotta go.”

“Will we see you at the farm this weekend?”

“Hmm? What’s this weekend?”

“Chris wants us to get together and go for a ride. It won’t be the same without you.”

“I’ll think about it, Vin.”

The soft click that ended the conversation caused Vin to look up at the faces that stood around his desk scarcely breathing. He reached out and pressed the ‘speaker’ button on his phone. Ezra hadn’t known they were all listening in on their conversation.

Those two calls were all that Ezra could bear to make. He was physically and emotionally drained. Curling up on the bed and pulling the pillow over his head, Standish slept. When he wakened, Josiah asked no questions except where they wanted to eat supper. They ended up at the steak house that Vin had taken him to the week before.

When their waiter arrived, Ezra was gripped by a feeling of deja vu. When the waiter asked Josiah how he wanted his steak, Ezra whispered, “Not rare.”

“You say something, Ezra?” Josiah asked before answering the waiter. He noticed that Ezra looked a little pale all of a sudden.

“Not rare. That’s was got me the first night. Vin’s steak was,” Ezra blanched slightly, “rare.”

Josiah looked up at the waiter and changed his order to broiled chicken. After the waiter had taken his order and walked away, Ezra thanked Josiah.

The older man chuckled softly. “If something bothers you, all you have to do is say so.”

Ezra slept fitfully that night.

It started again, as soon as he closed his eyes. He saw the bloody, battered body thrown near his feet. The overhead light glinted off of the knife as it came down. Twisting his hands helplessly in the handcuffs, Ezra watched as his contact pressed the point of the knife into the boy’s body.

“No! Don’t!” Ezra screamed as the blood welled up and flowed out of the wound. Suddenly there were screams. The other boy was screaming and pleading for his life. His contact grinned evilly as he pressed the knife deeper into the stomach of the boy at his feet. The boy opened his eyes. His eyes so pale and blue, like Vin’s! A brief moment of shock registered in those blue eyes before the boy recovered his voice and began to scream. His body arched from the floor as the knife ripped thru his insides.

Ezra tried to turn away but he couldn’t. The boy’s eyes held him like a deer in the headlights. He tried to offer his strength to the boy as his life slipped away. While Standish fought to keep control of his stomach, they threw the other young man into the light.

His stomach muscles tightened as he realized what they had done to the boy while at the edge of the light. The boy caught sight of the body of his friend and went wild, screaming and struggling. His death was mercifully quick as one of the other men snapped his neck. The knife flashed out before the body fell and Ezra caught sight of the ropes of intestine that spilled from the abdominal cavity before the boy slipped to the floor alongside of his companion.

With an evil grin, the two men approached Ezra. He hadn’t been able to free his hands as he was so caught up in what the men had done to the two helpless teenagers. He barely registered the blows to his ribcage and stomach before the handcuffs were removed and the assault began. Before his mind shut down completely, he heard himself screaming.

Josiah fell out of bed at the first whimper from the younger man. He watched helplessly as Ezra writhed in the depths of his nightmare. The anguished cries were soft, pleading. Standish’s body was rigid in the bed as he whimpered.

Sanchez knew he should wake the younger man from the nightmare but he held back. He knew that if it wasn’t done properly, Ezra would hurt him. He knew, only too well, the power that lay in the taught muscles of the undercover agent. The nightmare rolled to its inevitable conclusion and Standish bolted upright in the bed, gasping for the air to voice his agony.

Josiah wrapped his arms around Ezra and held him until he caught his breath and found his voice.

“Josiah! Oh, God! His eyes! His eyes were so like Vin’s! He looked at me with those pleading blue eyes and, and …they cut him. The blood! There was so much blood.” Ezra dissolved into helpless sobs.

Josiah sat on the bed for over an hour before Standish went completely limp in his arms. After settling Ezra back on his pillow, Sanchez slid to his knees at the side of the bed and prayed.

“Heavenly Father, the boy has been thru an awful lot in the last few weeks. If it be your will, grant him peace. Reach out and touch his soul and ease the anguish he is experiencing. We need him, Lord, all six of us need him to come back to us whole and healed. In your son’s holy name, Amen.”


After breakfast that morning, Ezra asked if they could go back to his apartment. Josiah was concerned because Standish had yet to admit to remembering taking the pills. He hoped that taking him back there wouldn’t upset the progress he seemed to be making. Chris had told him that they had the door replaced after discovering it had been kicked in so Josiah knew he wouldn’t have to deal with that when they arrived.

Ezra noticed that the door had been replaced, but he didn’t speak of it. If he did, he knew he would have to talk to Josiah about how and why the door had been damaged and he just didn’t feel up to it yet. He moved thru the apartment silently before picking up the phone and curling up on the couch with it.

Josiah tried to stay in the kitchen to give Ezra some privacy as he made his phone calls. It was the same as the day before, he called Buck and apologized, exchanging only a few pleasantries before quietly ending the call. He then moved to the kitchen and made himself a pot of herbal tea to calm his nerves.

They made lunch in the kitchen and ate at the dining table. Ezra was quiet but Josiah didn’t push him. They started watching a movie on the television. When Standish picked up the phone and went to his bedroom, Josiah held his breath. He had shoved all of Ezra’s weapons into the small vault in the closet in his room. He prayed that they would stay there.

Ezra called Nathan. He remembered the confrontation in the men’s room at the office and felt badly for the way he had reacted to the man’s gentle questioning.

“Hey, Nathan.”

“Ezra. How are you feeling today?”

“Better, a little. Mr. Ja-, Nathan, I wanted to apologize for my abominable behavior last week when I accosted you in the men’s room. I sincerely regret any discomfort I may have caused you.”

“Damn, Ezra! Can’t you ever just say a simple I’m sorry?”

“I’m sorry, Nathan.”

“Me too, Ezra. I shoulda realized something was bothering you and I know how you feel about us prying into your business all the time.”

“Yes, well as Mr. Tanner reminded me yesterday, we are becoming a family of a sort and I need to learn how to share the things that are bothering me.”

“Josiah might tell you that a burden shared is a burden lightened. We’d all like to lighten your burden, to help you deal with whatever happens.”

‘Happens, not happened’ Nathan’s choice of words was not lost on Ezra. “Thanks, Nathan.”

As Josiah watched, Ezra put down the phone and curled up on his bed. From the shaky sound of his breathing, the young Southerner was struggling with his emotions and winning.

Nathan rubbed his forehead as he pushed the ‘speaker’ button on his phone. Looking up at Chris he asked, “Does he sound better to you?”

Chris nodded. He hadn’t failed to notice the larger variety of words and the complexity of the words Ezra used when talking to Nathan. It sounded more like Ezra.

“I guess you’re next.”

Larabee looked toward his office, “I hope so.” Chris was afraid that Ezra wouldn’t call him. He had been the one to push the undercover agent. He was the one who was hardest on the team when something went wrong. He trudged down the hall and sat staring at his phone, waiting for it to ring.

Josiah ran his hand along the door to announce his presence before sticking his head in. “You okay?”

“Yeah. I think so. Mr. Jackson said something really prophetic. He said a burden shared is a burden lightened. I never knew he thought that way.”

Chris waited the rest of the afternoon without hearing from Ezra. He debated going by the apartment, they had been surprised when Ezra’s home number had come up on the caller ID when he called Buck that morning. But Josiah had asked them to wait and he had to respect that.

Ezra thrashed a little in his sleep but never quite made it all the way into the nightmare. He pushed the images out of his mind and pictured his friends instead. As the faces floated into his dream, he felt an awe-inspiring sense of peace. He knew that they had his back.


Josiah took Ezra for a long ride in the morning. They had been cooped up together for most of a week and he needed to blow the cobwebs out of his mind. The suburban bounced and ground its way up the heavily rutted logging road. There was a place Josiah wanted to show Ezra. A place he had discovered by accident one day when he had gotten lost.

As the vehicle came to a stop, Ezra looked around. They were high enough in the mountains that the clouds looked close enough to reach out and touch them. There was a run-off stream ambling across the field. As he and Josiah came to stand side by side in front of the suburban, Ezra grasped the older agent by the arm.

“Josiah! Look!”

There in the field was a small herd of deer. They moved without fear across the field to dip their faces at the stream. Josiah reached into his pocket and drew something into his hand. He slowly moved toward the deer with his arm outstretched. Ezra watched, amazed, as Josiah walked right up to the deer and let them lick the small salt block he had in his hand.

One of the smaller deer approached Ezra and nibbled at his jacket sleeve. The southerner trembled with excitement and delight as he stretched out his hand and touched the animal.

A sudden sound caused all of the animals to lift their heads and look around before bounding across the stream and disappearing into the tall grass. Josiah turned to take in the look of wonder on Ezra’s face as he watched the deer. They spent a couple of hours walking around in the field, just talking about deer and nature and simple things.

“You about ready to head back?” Josiah asked.

“Yes. I need to call Mr. Larabee and make my amends to him. Would you be willing to drive me out to his cabin on Saturday? Mr. Dunne said that they are taking the horses out and I would enjoy the opportunity to ride with everyone.”

Josiah smiled, “Sure, Ezra. I’d be glad to take you out to the cabin.”

“Thanks. And thanks for bringing me up here today, I enjoyed this.”

After making lunch together, Josiah watched as Ezra withdrew to his room to make his call to Chris. He hoped that Larabee wouldn’t upset the young agent; he had come so far in a short time. Josiah was sure that he would be able to get Ezra to agree to counseling in the very near future.

Chris jabbed the ‘speaker’ button as soon as the phone rang.

“Mr. Larabee?”

“Hello Ezra. How are you?”

“Better. I wanted to apologize for my behavior toward you in general and for last week specifically. I had no right to talk to you the way I did and I deeply regret my actions. Mr. Dunne suggested that you were having the team up to the cabin this weekend to go horseback riding. I was wondering if it would be all right for me to come up and spend the day. I would very much like an opportunity to spend some time with you, with all of you.”

Ezra ground to a halt. He had said all that he planned and a little more. His hand shook as he waited for Chris to say something.

“Mr. Larabee? Chris?”

“Of course you can come up to the cabin! We’ve been worrying about you all week! Ezra, I’m sorry if I push you a little too hard sometimes. You just have a knack for getting under my skin and bringing out the worst in me. I want to try to work out an arrangement with you. Maybe so we don’t step on each other’s toes so much. What do you think?”

Ezra sighed, “I would like that.”

They made small talk for a few more minutes before Ezra ended the call. Chris looked up at the rest of the team as they stood around the desk.

“It looks like he’s getting better.” Vin said softly.

“Thank God!” JD said as he left the office.

Josiah watched Ezra as he replaced the phone in the charger. He moved a little easier. His body language was a little more vintage Ezra. They brought out a chessboard and played for several hours that evening. When they played one game to a stalemate, Ezra decided to turn in for the night. He slept soundly until the early hours of the morning.


When Ezra awakened in the predawn hour of the morning, he realized that he had a lot to discuss with Josiah. He owed the man his life several times over. He knew he needed to talk to Josiah about the pills. He also needed to tell him about the night with the Jag and the razorblade and the nights with the gun. His only fear was that he would see disappointment in those deep blue eyes when it was all over. He only hoped he could bear it.

Josiah opened his eyes to the smell of coffee and biscuits. He stretched for a few moments before rolling out of the bed in Ezra’s spare bedroom and getting dressed. Stepping out of the room just as the food was being set on the table, he studied the undercover agent closely.

Ezra was dressed in his ‘casual’ clothes, designer jeans and an Egyptian cotton tee shirt. He had already showered and shaved, unusual, considering the early hour. Catching him watching, Standish quickly looked away. He had his poker face firmly in place, ready to do battle with his emotions.

Josiah’s heart sank. After the past week, he had hoped that he would not have to try to read thru Ezra’s mask of control. He sighed quietly and moved toward the plate that had been set out for him.

“Bad night?”

“No, I believe that my body had reached the saturation point with regard to sleep. I awoke at 5:30 and was unable to sleep any longer so I decided to make us breakfast. You have been doing most of the cooking this past week and I felt I should attempt to reciprocate.”

“Smells good. How do you feel?” Josiah caught the flash in the green eyes, a hint of emotion peeked out before he covered it.

“M-Mr., … Josiah, there are things that I need to discuss with you. I would, however, prefer to wait until both of us have had a chance to enjoy our repast and perhaps share a cup of coffee.”

“Okay, if that’s what you want, pass the pepper mill, please?”

An hour later, the meal consumed and the dishes loaded into the dishwasher, Ezra sat on the far end of the couch and faced Josiah. The look of dread was plain in the tight set of his shoulders and the way he wrapped his left hand around his right wrist to still the nervous fidgeting.

“When I awoke in the mission, you asked me if I remembered how you came to be in my apartment last week. Only too clearly do I remember the events of that night. I had driven to three different pharmacies across the city, persuading the unsuspecting clerks to refill the prescription for the pain pills that the doctor gave me when I was discharged. I sat at that table and took every single pill in all four bottles. I was determined to go to sleep and never wake again.”

“I heard you enter the apartment. I, I was afraid, I was afraid that you would stop me. My gun was on the nightstand. I remember reaching for it.” A slight smile crossed Ezra’s face for a moment. “Mother would never have forgiven me for blowing my head off. That was what stopped me before, I kept hearing her voice at the funeral, mortified that I had disfigured myself.” The bitter chuckle that escaped his throat was tight with sadness.

“That’s what I thought about. She wouldn’t be upset that I was dead, as long as I looked good lying in the casket. Is that crazy or what? Anyway, I remember that you took the gun from me and I was relieved, Josiah. I couldn’t do it with the gun, I tried twice before.”

Josiah shifted uncomfortably on the couch, he knew that he would have to tell someone that Ezra had tried to take his life, he needed to talk to someone. The real question was could he do it without revealing the deep, dark secret that he and the young man shared.

“I also considered slitting my wrists. I remember reading where exsanguination is supposed to be fairly painless aside from the obvious incision.” His thumb ran nervously across his wrist as he remembered the feeling of the cool razorblade against his skin. “Then the image of those boys, …”

“Easy now. You don’t have to go thru this right now.” He reached toward Ezra and let his hand rest on the back of the couch near the southerner’s shoulder. “Take a minute and catch your breath.”

Deep shuddering breaths followed for several moments. Then Ezra resumed his narrative.

“The image of Mr. Tanner’s steak was what finally got to me. He eats beef nearly raw, did you know that? I lost my nerve and my supper at the same time.” Again with the wry chuckle and slight grin.

“I also contemplated taking my beloved automobile to the bottom of a ravine. I drove for hours until I found a place where I could, where I could end it all. But, I was afraid that I wouldn’t die. I was more afraid of being paralyzed or disfigured in the crash. Kinda conceited of me if I do say so myself.”

Josiah shook his head. “No, son, not conceited. It takes a brave man to continue to face his demons. It’s easy to die and escape them; it takes a lot of courage to get past them and go on living.”

“Your theory is good up to a point, if you had not gotten here when you did, I would have been dead on Saturday morning.”

“You sent out your plea for help, Ezra. Probably didn’t even realize you were doing it. You told JD that you couldn’t take it anymore. He said you actually clung to him for a while, do you remember that?”

Finally, a puzzled look crossed Ezra’s face. Slowly he began to shake his head. “No, I pushed him away. I remember pushing him away.”

“But not pulling him in? JD said he turned to tell you goodbye and you pulled him to your chest and clung to him. Scared him so bad that he stayed outside your apartment for a half hour trying to figure out what had happened.”

“You reached out, Ezra! You were screaming for help and we just didn’t get it. Finally, you latched onto the one person who wouldn’t misunderstand your need. You need to talk to someone about all of this. You can’t keep all this bottled up the way you do everything else.”

A horror stricken look crossed Standish’s face. “You said you wouldn’t tell anyone!”

“I won’t say anything to the team but you need to talk to someone about the suicide attempts. You need to get back in control of your feelings. That doesn’t mean putting them behind that wall you’ve built up inside where you keep all your hurts and disappointments. Control was taken from you, ripped away and you were hurt. You have to talk about it with someone who can help you work thru it.”

“Can’t I just talk with you about it?” The gentle pleading tone in Ezra’s voice tore at Josiah’s heart.

“For now, you and I can talk about it but you need to find someone else, a professional, to talk to. Now, I want you to promise me something.” When Ezra nodded, Josiah continued. “If you ever feel like you’re losing control that you will call me. Day or night. Undercover or not. You have to promise to call me and tell me exactly how you’re feeling. And, you have to answer me honestly whenever I ask.”

At first, Josiah thought he would refuse. Committing to revealing his emotional state would take a tremendous amount of trust from the man who appeared to trust no one. And then, finally, Ezra nodded.

“I think I can do that.”


They got out of Josiah’s truck in Chris’s driveway and walked to the house. After Ezra’s sometimes-violent reactions to being touched, the others were hesitant to get close to him. Josiah privately had asked each one of them to make sure Ezra was looking at them before they touched him for a while.

It was good for the team to be together again. Ezra took JD for a long walk to talk to him about what had happened the week before. It had been difficult to admit that he had contemplated suicide. The young agent promised that he wouldn’t tell the others.

The rest of the day was spent in an easy camaraderie as the men settled into their old routine. Taking the horses out for a long ride in the mountains was healing for them all.


Ezra privately found a counselor to talk to about what had happened to him. It was harder than he ever imagined it would be to openly discuss what had happened. Gradually, he reached a point where he could say it aloud without being overcome by shame or anger.

His relationship with the other members of his team improved gradually as each made more of an effort to interact with him without becoming angry or hurt when he sometimes pulled away. Between Josiah and JD, any anger that might have been directed toward the undercover agent was quickly diverted before harsh words were exchanged.

Three months later

Ezra summoned Josiah to his apartment. They had all noticed that the southerner was struggling with something after receiving an envelope with a newspaper article from someone in the FBI office. Standish had actually trembled as he scanned the article before excusing himself from the conference room.

That evening, Josiah read over the article. It told of the deaths of four men in a high-speed crash outside of Chicago. There were pictures of each man at the bottom of the page.

“I don’t understand, Ezra. Who are they?”

Ezra took the paper and pointed to the last two photos. “These are the men who took me to the factory. The ones who …” He stopped when Josiah nodded. “Is it wrong for me to feel glad that they’re dead, Josiah?”

The older man regarded Ezra. “If it is, then let’s both be wrong together!” He threw his arms around the smaller man’s shoulders and slapped him on the back resoundingly.

Ezra asked Chris if they could get together at the cabin that weekend. He had something he needed to discuss with the team and he thought they would be more comfortable at their safe retreat.

Ezra explained that he needed to confide in them what had happened to him. He asked them not to ask any questions or make any comment until he had completely finished. It was a slow and agonizing process for the southerner. He paced in the room for a while as he assembled his thoughts. When he was finally able to articulate what had happened he was greeted by stunned silence.

Ezra studied the face of each man in the room. He saw no judgment, no revulsion and no condemnation. Vin was the first to make it to his feet, rage contorting his face. He wanted to hurt something! He stormed out of the cabin and across the yard. From the window, Ezra watched as Vin kicked the metal trash barrel repeatedly.

The sharpshooter barely felt the pain that raced up his shin as he kicked the barrel. That someone could do something like that to another person enraged the young man. He had seen it happen in the group homes where he had been sheltered before taking off to be on his own. There were always larger boys who preyed on the smaller ones. He had had to fight to protect himself once or twice. Vin reacted to the injustice the only way he could, he kicked the barrel again.

Buck was next, joining Vin in brutalizing the trash barrel. Nathan walked out to the kitchen and began making coffee. A few moments later the sound of the healer’s fists pounding on the butcher-block table echoed in the empty room.

Buck had been hard pressed to hold his reaction inside. With all the pain that Ezra had endured in his life so far, to have something like that happen was incomprehensible. That any one of them would check into a hospital under another name to avoid the others finding out enraged him. Just under the rage came the horror of what it would have been like if one of them had found him after he had killed himself.

The thought of Vin or JD finding him in the apartment left him breathless. When he thought of the damage something like that would have done to the team, he was angry with Ezra for a moment. And then he considered what he had gone thru with Chris after his family died. Alcohol could be just as lethal as a bullet. When Buck jumped to his feet, it was with the intention of working out the rage he felt at himself for getting angry with Ezra.

Nathan was upset with himself. He had seen the warning signs in the younger man and had completely missed them. That Ezra had tried, not once, but several times to end his life without anyone realizing upset the ex-medic deeply. He had seen traumatic stress cases in the military. Young men came home from Desert Storm and killed their wives and then themselves. Sometimes, there were suspicious deaths that the military covered up that were later found to be suicides. It was right under his nose and he missed it! He slammed his hand down on the butcher-block table again and again.

JD’s reaction was completely opposite. He felt tremendously relieved that Ezra had finally explained why he had tried to end his life. The question had plagued the young man for the past couple of months. He had worried about his friend until he nearly made himself sick over it. “I’m sorry, Ezra. I didn’t realize. I wanted to ask you about it before but I didn’t want to upset you.”

Chris made a move to go and comfort JD but Josiah held him back, he wanted to see if Ezra would be able to deal with JD’s reaction. Ezra watched as the tears filled the youngest agent’s eyes. ‘Upset me?’ he wondered. Suddenly, his eyes widened.

It came to him in a flash of pain. Ezra remembered how close he had come to telling JD what he had tried to do. The anguish and fear had been so deep that he felt like he was drowning. At the same time, he couldn’t bear to burden the kid with his problem. His mother’s voice had been ringing in his ears. ‘Keep your feelings to yourself, Ezra dear, no one else cares how you feel and they will only make fun of you.’ He remembered JD standing in the door looking at him. His mind replayed the moment that he had seen the hand the kid offered just before he had pulled him into the crushing embrace. He had sought comfort from the most vulnerable member of the team.

“JD, no, I only meant to apologize for frightening you with my emotional response. I didn’t mean to burden you with more worry!” Ezra crossed the room and pulled JD to his feet and wrapped his arms around him. “I’m sorry! I should have confided in you the reason for my behavior. I just wasn’t ready.”

Josiah glanced at Chris for a moment. He could tell that the leader was uncomfortable with the information. Larabee’s hazel eyes were carefully hooded as he watched JD and Ezra.

Chris felt his stomach tighten as Ezra had told them what had happened. Years of preconditioned response rolled over him as he looked at the emotional scene before him. He had immediately understood when Standish had said he felt ashamed. Hard on that realization came disgust. It was engrained in him from the locker rooms of his youth. Macho young men who were too strong to ever allow something like that to happen to them, he recalled.

His throat tightened as he mentally kicked himself. Ezra hadn’t willingly allowed it to happen! He had been handcuffed, beaten and then brutalized. It was an attack of cowardice by the men who sought to destroy his friend. As he watched JD and Ezra clinging to each other he shoved all of his earlier conditioning aside and allowed anger to surface, flushing his skin and tightening his hands into fists. He was proud of the man who had endured all that and had not surrendered to the darkness. Chris privately wondered if he could have dealt with it as well.

Chris waited until Ezra released JD before he stood. He walked over and offered Ezra his hand as he put his arm around JD and ruffled his hair. “No one else has to know about this. You just have to tell us what we can do to help you.”

After a couple of hours, they were almost like their old selves. They avoided discussing what had happened. In the afternoon they went out for a ride. Ezra enjoyed the feeling of control he had on the horse. He felt safe among these men. Josiah had been right about him having their unquestioning support.