I'm a good driver.
Boys! What's the problem?
Nothing, Da. We was just starting to tell the computer about Easter and our presents and stuff.
Well, it sounded like you were arguing.
We weren't arguing.
Yes we were.
??? Sorry, Da.
JD, quit laughing. We're supposed to be serious.
But it was funny, Vin. We was arguing about not arguing. The computer can't see when you roll your eyes, Vin.
The story, JD.
Oh, yeah. We gots up real early on Easter and went to find the eggs
"It's not even light out," Chris groaned as he crawled out from under his blankets.
"I know, Pard," Buck answered from the doorway. "That's why I was up at five hiding the eggs."
Chris sat on the edge of the bed in his boxers. He rubbed his face in a vain attempt to wake up. "It's not even light out."
Buck laughed. "You already said that." He took little mercy on Chris since he had already been up since five. "You can do it, Pard. Just drag yourself across the room, get yourself a shower and I'll have pancakes and coffee waiting."
Chris looked at him. "They'll wait that long?"
Buck grinned. "Yep, I told them no huntin' for eggs until we've had a good breakfast. Right now they're both in the den sneaking peeks out the window to see if they can spot any eggs."
Chris shook his head and stood with a groan. It was way too early. And it wasn't even light out.
By the time he actually sat down to breakfast, Chris was mostly awake.
"Mornin', Chris," said JD brightly.
"Good morning," Chris responded. He looked at Vin.
Vin just sat there grinning at him.
"What's so funny?" Chris asked Vin, as JD started giggling.
Vin pointed at his own hair trying to communicate something about Chris' hair.
Chris crossed his eyes trying to look at his hair and both boys burst out laughing.
"It's sticking up all funny," said JD between giggles.
"I like it that way," said Chris, running his fingers through his hair to make it all stand up funny.
Vin snorted, making all of them join the laughter.
When they settled down, JD took a bite of pancake and asked, "Do we has to wait for Chris' hair 'fore went hunt eggs?"
"Chew," scolded Buck.
JD made a big effort to chew and swallow his bite. "Sorry."
"All right," said Buck. "And, no. We don't have to wait for Chris' hair."
Vin started giggling again.
"Eat your pancakes," growled Chris playfully.
Vin quickly stuffed a bite in his mouth, grinning as he chewed.
When breakfast was finished, Buck and Chris made the boys go wash the syrup off their hands and faces and said to meet them in the den. Moments later the thunder of little shoes on the hardwood floor resounded as the boys raced to the bathroom to clean up.
Dripping hands revealed that they had actually run them under the water as they now stood in the doorway of the den.
"Oh " said JD softly. "Vin, look!" The hushed voice gave evidence of his awe.
On the coffee table were two huge Easter Baskets wrapped in clear cellophane.
"Dad?" asked Vin.
Chris smiled. "They're for you."
"Dad, it's a basketball," said Vin in amazement. The basket itself was filled with plastic grass and candy, but the item that stood out to the boy was the brand new basketball suspended from the handle.
The baskets were identical so there would be no argument over whose was better or who got more stuff.
"Can we open it?" asked JD, experiencing the same reverence as Vin.
"Sure," said Buck.
Both boys moved as one to the table each taking a basket without any argument. They were lightning quick in unwrapping the cellophane.
JD squeezed the basketball in his package and then set it aside to discover what else was in the basket.
"Just one for now, Little Bit," said Buck as JD pawed through his candy. "And here," said Buck handing him a 3 x 5 card with his name on it. "Put this in your basket so you know which one is yours."
As Chris watched Vin, he felt that all too familiar tug at his heart. Vin stood quietly clutching the basketball to his chest as if it were the most precious gift in the world. Even for as long as Vin had been with them, the seven year old was still surprised when he was given a gift. They weren't sure whether it was because he didn't feel worthy of the gifts, or if it was because he'd had so few. Chris was torn over whether he wanted that to ever go away. While he didn't want Vin to feel unworthy or to have missed out on so much, he relished the simple appreciation and awe Vin expressed over each gift.
"Write my name, Da!" said JD. He held his basketball up to Buck. Buck took the marker, which he had used to write JD's name on the 3 x 5 card, and wrote JD on the basketball.
"Do you want me to label yours, Junior?" he asked.
Vin shook his head, clutching the ball tighter. He walked over and sat down by Chris on the couch.
It was then that Chris could see the tears in his eyes.
"Hey, Cowboy," he said softly. "What's wrong?"
"I didn't get you nothin'," said Vin sadly.
Chris put his arm around his son and hugged him tight to his side. "You weren't supposed to get me anything. The Easter Bunny brings stuff for kids."
Vin rolled his eyes. He didn't believe the Easter Bunny brought him the basketball. "It's a great basketball," he said and impulsively leaned over and kissed Chris on the cheek.
"Is it time to look for eggs?" asked JD.
It was actually light enough now to see in the yard, so the boys determined it was time for the Easter egg hunt. They wanted desperately to find the eggs that they had worked so hard to color on Saturday night at Miz Nettie's house. And it was far too hard to wait for their uncles to arrive. They reasoned that they could have another egg hunt when everyone else arrived, so Buck and Chris conceded.
We didn't tell about coloring the eggs.
That was last week, JD.
But we're talking about Easter and that was last week.
Nope. Easter was Sunday. Sunday is this week.
Huh-uh. Monday is this week. School starts on Monday. Work starts on Monday. Sunday's still last week.
JD, look at the calendar.
What day does it start with?
Sunday. Oh, I get it. But we didn't tell about coloring the eggs.
Don't sigh, Vin. I'll say it really really fast.
You always say everything really really fast.
Okay. Well, we colored eggs on Saturday, but first we cooked them so they wouldn't squish all over if we squeezed too hard, but some of them squished anyway and they were white and yellow inside and kind of springy, not all runny like they are when they aren't cooked. And we dipped them in colored water and my fingers turned blue and we colored on them with special crayons that made it so the colored water wouldn't stick to the part you drawed on. And we all made lots of them and then we had to go home and go to bed so the Easter bunny could hide eggs. How come the Easter Bunny hides eggs? Bunnies don't have eggs. Birds do. Vin? Vin? Hey, Vin, where'd you go?
Oh, well. Then we got up early and looked for the eggs.
Chris and Buck stood on the porch watching two little boys be two little boys. Vin and JD darted across the yard yelling in delight when they found an egg.
"Da! Da! Help me reach!" called JD, as he tried to reach an egg in the crook of the tree.
Chris closed his eyes for a moment as Buck moved to help JD. He was remembering another little boy crying out for "Uncle Buck" to help him reach an egg.
Opening his eyes, he found Vin looking at him with concern.
"Finding lots of eggs?" he asked with a smile.
"Well, go find some more."
"Will you help me?" Vin asked.
Chris smiled and followed his son across the yard in a search for the hidden treasures.
JD laughed as he found an egg in the birdbath. "Vin, look!" He yelled. "It's not one we maked. It's plastic and it gots something inside it!" JD shook the egg to show Vin that it rattled.
"Open it!" encouraged Vin.
"Let's wait until we find them all," suggested Buck.
"Hey!" yelled Vin as he turned and saw his pup running across the yard. "Ringo, no!" Vin chased the dog trying to recover the blue egg that Ringo had snatched from his basket.
The next few minutes looked like a circus as two men, two boys and two dogs raced around the yard. Chris was slowed a bit by the fact that his leg, while out of the cast, was still recovering. So his 'dashing' ended fairly quickly and he sat to rest on the bench of the picnic table.
Not too much later, a breathless Vin lit on the bench next to him. Vin slipped his arm under Chris' and leaned his head on Chris' shoulder.
"Did you catch him?" Chris asked.
"Nope. Ringo ate the egg." Vin looked up at Chris. "Shell and all!" he added with awe.
"It won't hurt him," said Chris.
Vin grinned. "Buck says he'll end up with gas."
Chris rolled his eyes. "That's a distinct possibility. Maybe Ringo should play outside all day."
"Got him," said Buck as he joined the group on the bench.
"Yep," said JD, confirming Buck's statement. "We putted them in the run until we finds the rest a' the eggs." JD sat down on Buck's lap. "Da says we don't need no rootin' tootin' pups," he added with a giggle.
Vin laughed and covered his eyes in mock embarrassment.
"That would be real stinky," JD said, pinching his nose closed.
Chris just shook his head. He'd never understand why odiferous bodily functions were so funny to boys.
Good grief. He was starting to think like Ezra.
"Well, how many eggs have we got?" asked Buck.
The boys dove into their baskets and began counting.
"I gots eleven," said JD.
"I would'a had twelve," said Vin, "If Ringo didn't eat one."
"So we gots the same!" said JD happily.
"Well, that means we still have thirteen eggs to find," said Buck.
Two boys shot off the bench in search of more eggs.
Buck grinned at their eagerness. He glanced over at Chris.
"How you holdin' up?"
"My leg's a little sore," Chris said. "I just have to take it slow for awhile I guess."
"Yeah," agreed Buck, "But how are you holding up?"
Chris smiled sadly. He knew what Buck was getting at. Holidays were always reminders of Sarah and Adam and what a hole they had left in his heart when they died.
"I'm all right, Buck." He looked at his friend. "How are you holding up?"
"I miss 'em, too, Chris," said Buck. "But I'm also very happy for those two," he added, nodding towards the squealing boys.
Chris nodded and smiled. "Wonder if they'll find that one," Chris tipped his head towards the egg sitting in the flowerpot on the middle of the picnic table.
Buck laughed. "I don't know. They were sitting right here and didn't see it."
"Hey! I saw that first!" JD complained as Vin snatched an egg off of the fence rail just as he reached for it.
"Uh-oh," said Buck. "Time's up!" he called quickly.
Both boys ran back to the table. With a re-count of the eggs, Buck was pleased that there was only one 'real' egg still missing and two plastic eggs. He'd hoped that they'd find all the real eggs so they didn't have a stinky surprise somewhere in a few days, but the likelihood was that Ringo had found it before he snatched the egg from Vin.
With the egg hunt finished, Buck and Chris directed the boys back into the house and gave them their new polo shirts and slacks.
"Get dressed boys," Chris instructed. "We're meeting Josiah for Church."
The boys hurried to dress while Chris fixed his 'wild' hair. Within fifteen minutes they were on the way to church in Ezra's Jag. It was much more fun than using Chris' truck, even though it was parked in the garage.
"Why we got Unca Ezra's car?" asked JD as Buck maneuvered the sleek car around a curve.
"Because he borrowed my truck, Little Bit," said Buck. "He needed it to move a bookcase or something."
"That doesn't sound like Unca Ezra," said JD sagely.
Buck and Chris laughed. No, any hint of manual labor didn't sound like Ezra at all.
Following the service, Uncle Josiah had to answer some very pointed questions from Vin about the reasons for Easter. The boy didn't like the idea that Jesus had died and it took a long talk with his uncle to help sort things out.
Josiah promised to talk with him more if he had other questions, and told them he'd be out to the ranch after the last service.
As the family turned into the driveway at home, the boys immediately spotted Buck's truck.
"Hey, look!" said Vin. "It's Uncle Ezra."
"Yeah," said JD in amazement, "and he's early!"
As soon as the car was stopped, both boys jumped out and raced across the yard yelling greetings to Uncle Ezra. Buck and Chris followed at a slower pace, laughing as the southerner was bombarded by stories about the basketballs and the egg hunt and the dog chase.
JD ran inside and came back with both of their baskets of eggs from the hunt. Ezra ooo'd and ahh'd at the appropriate moments and praised their collection of colorful eggs, smiling as JD held one in his face informing him that it was the one the five year old had made for him.
Vin's shoulders drooped dramatically, and Chris moved quickly to his side and squeezed his shoulder in support.
When the boy didn't speak, Chris filled in for him. "Vin decorated an egg for you as well, Ezra, but we had a little incident with the pups earlier."
"Oh dear," said Ezra squatting down to the boys' height. "That wasn't the one that Ringo stole?"
Vin nodded sadly.
"Well, he has excellent taste," said Ezra, "picking the one you made for me out of all the others."
Vin cracked a smile.
"You know," said Ezra looking through Vin's basket, "the Easter Bunny left me a message. He said that you'd find a large blue egg somewhere near the horse trailer, and JD, he said there was a green egg for you. I don't see them in your baskets."
"We didn't look by the horse trailer!" said JD excitedly. "C'mon, Vin!"
Both boys left Uncle Ezra holding their baskets as they searched for the new eggs. Chris raised an eyebrow at the southerner and Ezra just gave him his dimpled grin.
"I found the blue one!" JD shouted. "This one's yours, Vin. Where's mine?"
"Here it is," said Vin finding the green egg by the trailer wheel. The boys swapped eggs so each had the color Uncle Ezra had instructed. Neither could resist shaking the large plastic eggs to hear what was inside.
Ezra shoved both baskets into Chris' hands and approached the trailer. "Why don't you see what's inside the eggs?" he encouraged.
"Keys! I got keys, Vin," said JD waving the Sheriff's badge key chain.
"Me, too!" said Vin, holding up his cowboy hat key chain. "What are they for, Uncle Ezra?" he asked.
"Mr. Wilmington, could you lend me a hand?" asked Ezra approaching the rear of the horse trailer.
Buck was puzzled, but moved to assist Ezra with the back door of the trailer, lowering the ramp.
"Oh! Oh! Oh!" squealed JD, jumping up and down with delight.
Vin looked totally stunned.
Hearing his name growled half under Larabee's breath brought a smile to the under cover agent's face. He fully adhered to the old saying, 'better to ask forgiveness than permission,' knowing that Chris would never agree to the extravagant gifts if he had asked permission. So instead of asking, he seized the opportunity to dote on his 'nephews' presenting the gifts and leaving Chris in a position where he could not refuse without breaking two little hearts which Ezra knew his team leader would never do. Ezra shrugged. He would deal with the 'fall out' later.
"This is why you needed the truck?" asked Buck quietly.
Ezra nodded. His smile widened as he watched the expressions on two little boys' faces... and that on the face of one big boy. JD lit up at the sight of the gift, jumping up and down squealing in sheer glee.
"Da! I gots a truck just like yours!" JD hollered.
Well, it wasn't a classic Chevy, but it certainly was red. The 'big boy' next to JD was equally excited and the mustached agent eagerly showed the five year old all the controls on the motorized Chevy truck, which was large enough for the boys to ride in. He helped JD 'drive' it out of the horse trailer so Vin could get to his gift.
Vin simply stared, his mouth hanging slightly open. He glanced at Uncle Ezra trying to confirm that the gift was really his to keep. He looked at Chris, observing the frown on his mentor's face as Chris scowled at Ezra.
Seeing Vin's uncertainty at Chris's response, Ezra looked at Chris, raising his eyebrows and flicking his eyes towards Vin.
Chris inwardly cursed the southerner for putting him in an awkward position, but more so, he cursed the circumstances that dictated a little boy looking to him for assurance that it was okay to be happy about a gift a very extravagant gift.
"What do you think, Cowboy?" asked Chris.
It was all the reassurance Vin needed.
"It's it's " Vin beamed from ear to ear as he tried to come up with a word. "Wow!"
Chris laughed. "I think that describes it perfectly. Try it out."
Vin eagerly jumped onto the miniature Jeep and Chris shoved the baskets back into Ezra's hands as he walked over to show Vin the controls.
Ezra's eyes twinkled in pure pleasure. It was worth any discomfort Chris would throw his way, just to see the boys' delight.
JD was beginning to get the feel of his new sleek red truck. He was a little uncoordinated with the controls causing the vehicle to lurch and swerve, but he didn't seem to notice because he was 'driving'.
Vin seemed to be a natural with his camouflaged Jeep, the hand-eye coordination coming a little easier for the seven year old.
As the sound of laughter filled the air at Vin and JD's attempts to avoid rocks, fence posts and grown-ups, Ezra simply relished the pleasure of bringing joy to his family.
"We need to talk."
Chris' gruff words startled him.
"Inside," Chris insisted.
Ezra blew out a sigh before giving the boys a big smile as he followed Chris into the house. His grace period was up and he knew he was in for a chiding.
The door had barely closed behind him when Chris turned on him.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Chris growled. "We told you those damn cars were too expensive."
Ezra stepped back involuntarily. He had expected a little resistance, but he had not expected such vehemence. He assumed Chris would be miffed over being placed in a position where he couldn't refuse the gift, but this was way beyond miffed.
"Did you hit your head on the Lewis case, or did you suddenly get stupid and forget the spending limit?" Chris practically spat the words at Ezra.
"I didn't forget anything," Ezra growled back, growing angry at the insults. He set the boys' egg baskets on the counter. "My investments made a tidy profit this quarter and I decided to invest the money in something more entertaining."
"You're trying to buy their love," Chris accused angrily.
The undercover agent sucked in a sharp breath, before calling upon every resource he had to cover the wound and restrain himself from fighting back. He'd seriously misjudged Larabee's reaction to the "gifts" and returning tit for tat would only make matters worse.
"If you'll excuse me," he said bluntly, "I have an appointment." He brushed quickly past Chris and headed for his car.
As Ezra drove down the road to the highway, he thought about the two little boys he'd left standing in the driveway. JD seemed to accept his lame excuse, but Vin had seen through it. The older boy looked worried. He was too perceptive not to have noticed the tension.
Ezra pulled the car over and parked on the side of the road. He ran both hands through his hair trying to figure out what had just happened.
He wasn't trying to buy their love.
He wasn't. Or was he?
Just because Chris or Buck didn't think that he should spend so much, didn't mean that he couldn't or that the boys shouldn't have the best. He had the money and those boys deserved so much better in life
And Chris Larabee wasn't going to keep him from doing what he could for them.
Chris was still fuming at Standish when the sound of laughter floated into the kitchen. He glanced out the window and saw Buck help JD guide his truck around the driveway.
JD bumped into the fence post and let out a loud laugh.
Vin seemed to be much more coordinated in steering his Jeep. As he approached the part of the driveway that led to the road, the seven-year-old stopped his car and looked down the road, and then he turned his head and looked directly at Chris in the kitchen window, though he couldn't have possibly known Chris was watching him.
Chris swore under his breath, cursing Ezra for putting him in this situation in the first place. If the damn Southerner could follow the rules just once
Chris went out the back door on his way to the barn, feeling the need to work off his anger.
"Chris! Chris!" yelled JD. "Look at me. I'm driving!"
"I can see that, JD," said Chris trying to smile at the boy. "How you doin' there, Cowboy?" he called to Vin.
Vin grinned and nodded that he was fine, but Chris didn't notice the smile fade and the blue eyes track him as he made his way to the barn.
Chris grabbed some gloves and a pitchfork and attacked the first stall.
What was Ezra thinking? He knew those cars were too expensive. He had expressly told all of his friends the motorized cars were too much money for the "uncles" to spend.
Yet, Ezra had bought them behind his back.
Chris cursed again.
He wanted the boys to have the cars. But HE wanted to be the one to give them to the boys. He and Buck had already talked about getting cars for the boys next Christmas, but here it was Easter and Ezra had beat them to the punch.
Easter was not supposed to be a big gift holiday. What the hell were they supposed to do to top this next year?
Why couldn't Ezra listen just once?
Chris grimaced as his words came back to haunt him: "You're trying to buy their love."
He closed his eyes. He didn't mean that. He was angry and knew exactly what words would cut Ezra to the quick. And he had wasted no time in hitting him where it hurt.
Setting aside the pitchfork and gloves, Chris blew out a big sigh. Ezra was wrong in buying the gifts and presenting them without permission, but so was he in hitting the southerner with a low blow. The infamous Larabee temper had run amok again.
He waved at the boys as he made his way back to the house. This time he didn't miss it as Vin's eyes followed him the entire distance, filled with wariness and concern. He nodded to the seven-year-old, and Vin returned his attention to his jeep, without any enthusiasm.
Chris growled another curse under his breath. He owed a helluva lot of money to the swear jar. He entered the house, washed his hands in the mud room sink, before going into the kitchen, picking up his cell phone, and punching the button for Ezra's phone.
Ezra fumbled for his cell phone as he sat on the side of the road. He groaned when he saw Chris' ID. Evidently he had cut and run too soon and Chris had more to say about his stupidity and his shallowness.
Or maybe something was breaking on a case.
Being a responsible ATF Agent was hell at times like this.
Ezra sighed, and then answered the phone.
"Hello," Ezra said curtly.
"Where are you?" Brief and to the point. Larabee was never one to waste words.
Or cell phone minutes.
"Does it matter?" Ezra snipped.
"Of course it does," growled Chris. "I can't come and talk to you if I don't know where you are."
Ezra raised his eyebrows in puzzlement. The idea of Chris not knowing where he was seemed just fine to him right now, but something about the tone of Chris' voice made him concede.
"I'm at the entrance to the highway."
Chris was startled at Ezra's response. He should have easily been halfway back to Denver by now.
"Will you meet me at Jake's? I've got something to say, and I don't want to say it over the phone," said Chris. "I hate these things," he muttered.
Ezra's natural inclination was to blow Chris off and avoid further turmoil, but he knew that would just drag it out longer. Meet with Chris, let him blow up and get it over with, so they could get on with life.
"I'll be there," Ezra replied. He clicked off the phone and shook his head. He was a complete idiot setting himself up to be raked over the coals again.
Chris let Buck know that he had an errand to do at Jake's as he headed out. When he arrived at Jake's Truck Stop, he was relieved to see the Jag in the parking lot. He'd heard the hesitation in Ezra's voice, and truthfully, he wouldn't have blamed him if the southerner had not stuck around, certain that Ezra thought he was going to lay into him some more.
Larabee entered the restaurant and glanced around. Spotting Ezra, he headed towards the table, not missing the fact that Ezra was sitting in a defensive posture. He had his back to the wall so he could see anyone who was coming at him. Chris wondered if Ezra consciously made that decision because of the coming "confrontation" or if it was simply a self-preservation habit from being undercover so often.
The agent's poker face was in place and if it weren't for the hesitation on the phone and the defensive posture, Chris wouldn't have been able to tell that Ezra was stressed.
Chris sat at the table, taking the chair to the right of Ezra. He ordered a coffee and tried to gather his thoughts. He wasn't big on apologies, but he really wanted to sort this out with Ezra, not only for the boys' sake, but also for all of them.
"Ezra, I'm not big on apologies "
"I have nothing to apologize for," said Ezra defensively.
Chris closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. He let out a sigh. "Not you, Ezra. Me," said Chris impatiently. "Will you hear me out?"
Chris winced inwardly at the surprise on Ezra's face.
Ezra gave him a nod.
"Sometimes I'm a little hot headed and forget to think before I act."
Chris looked at Ezra, and almost snorted. He had that amused half-grin on his face at Chris' last comment.
"Okay, so I'm hotheaded a lot. Look, I know how much those two boys mean to you. And I "
Chris rubbed his hand across his face. This was a lot harder than it should be.
"I've been " Chris cursed half under his breath, "Being sidelined by this broken leg has made me feel useless. Like I'm not pulling my weight raising those boys."
"Mr. Larabee "
Chris held up his hand to forestall any comment from the southerner. "And when I saw those cars, hell, Ezra," he shook his head, "I lashed out when I shouldn't have. What I said to you was a low blow and it's not true. I know what those boys mean to you and what you mean to them. You're not trying to buy their love. Hell, you couldn't buy their love. Vin and JD hold their love right out to you with open arms."
He looked at the undercover agent to try to get a read on whether Ezra was hearing him.
Ezra suddenly found his water glass very interesting, choosing to watch the water slosh as he swirled it around, unable to meet Chris' gaze. He cleared his throat and hurriedly took a sip of water in a meager attempt to control his emotions.
"I wasn't trying to buy their love," he said softly.
"I know, Ezra," Chris acknowledged readily. "I'm sorry. I was wrong to say what I said. I've never questioned your motivation."
Ezra finally made eye contact.
"Just your judgment," Chris added.
The southerner smirked and Chris grinned.
They stopped talking while the waitress refilled their drinks, giving both of them a few moments to think.
"Private party, boys, or can anyone join?" Buck asked as he walked up to the table.
Chris hesitated. He didn't want Ezra to feel like they were double teaming him. Besides, it wasn't Buck who had yelled at Ezra.
Ezra didn't say anything but he straightened up in the chair and his arms involuntarily crossed his chest. The defensive posture was back.
Buck played with the edge of his mustache waiting a few seconds for an answer. When neither man said anything, Buck pulled up a chair and sat down. "I just wanted to make sure y'all were in one piece and I wanted to toss in a little of the Wilmington perspective. Besides, Uncle Nathan and Uncle Josiah are with the boys learning how to drive."
Both men remained silent, so Buck filled in the blank space. "See, I figure that you need the benefit of my vast experience."
"And that would be?" asked Chris.
"Thought you'd never ask," said Buck with his trademark smile. "Hear this, Ez. You see, once upon a time, not so long ago Uncle Buck Wilmington purchased a very expensive gift for his wonderful nephew."
Chris closed his eyes and shook his head. Leave it to Buck.
Ezra raised his eyebrows, expressing his interest in Buck's story.
"What did you purchase?" he asked.
"Don't matter," said Buck, his eyes darting over to Chris. "Let's just say it was over the limit and Chris wasn't happy about it." Seeing no argument from Chris, he continued. "But that wasn't the worst of it. You see, it wasn't just Chris who was unhappy with me, it was Sarah. And Lord help the person who got Sarah Larabee's dander up."
Chris chuckled softly, knowing the truth of Buck's statement. Sarah had a very Irish temper, and she had let Buck have it full force.
Seeing Chris and Buck's interplay helped Ezra relax slightly.
"You see, I was just the doting uncle, and I had no clue that there were implications beyond me giving Adam a simple gift."
"It wasn't a simple gift," Chris interrupted.
"Geez, Chris. I had the money. I liked it. I bought it," said Buck.
"I know. That was the problem," said Chris.
"Let me tell the story," scolded Buck.
"Ez, see you are like I was."
"I beg your pardon," protested Ezra.
Buck laughed. "All right, let me rephrase that. You are the single man, the doting uncle with money to burn. You see something you like; you buy it for the boys."
"They've had nothing," Ezra said softly.
That simple statement stopped everyone cold. It was the thing that gnawed at each of their hearts. The boys had very little in their early lives. Every day they seemed to find something new that they took for granted that a child would know or recognize; yet Vin or JD may not have experienced it.
"I fail to see what is wrong with giving them a little happiness."
"That's what we all want, Ezra," said Chris, "but that happiness is from being a family, not an extravagant gift."
"Those cars are not that expensive," Ezra protested.
"Yes, they are," said Chris. "We priced them. We were planning to get them for the boys for Christmas."
Ezra met Chris' eyes. He just gained a little more understanding of what had happened. By giving the boys the cars, he had robbed Chris and Buck of the joy of doing so.
"And Easter is not a big gift day," said Chris.
"Any day is a good day to give the boys a gift," Ezra countered.
"Ezra, you gave them five hundred dollar cars," said Chris.
Ezra shrugged as if to say, "So what?"
"And we gave them a basket of candy and a basketball," said Buck.
Ezra's head snapped up, an expression of guilt flitted across his features. "I I didn't mean " Ezra stammered, "I didn't mean to make it look "
"That's not it, Ezra. I don't care that my gift was dwarfed in comparison," said Buck.
"It's what the hell do they expect us to do next Easter?" asked Chris.
Ezra nodded, understanding that his gift was setting the wrong precedent. "I'm sorry. I didn't think about the ramifications. I just wanted "
"To see their faces light up," finished Buck.
"Just like any good uncle would want," added Chris.
Chris took a sip of his coffee. Setting the mug on the table, he continued. "Ezra, we have a spending limit for the boys' sake. Vin and JD are good kids and right now they don't ask for much. While we want them to have everything in the world, that wouldn't be best for them. What's best for them is to focus on relationships, not things."
"Have you ever just sat and watched them play?" asked Buck. "They'd rather play with sticks and cardboard boxes than any fancy toy as long as one of their uncles or Chris or I are playing with them."
"Do you want me to take them back?" asked Ezra sadly.
"No," said Chris without reservation. "This isn't about punishing you OR the boys. We just need to come to an understanding so the next time, we won't have a problem."
Next time. Those two words were more of a relief to Ezra than anyone could imagine. The southerner, like the two waifs, was just beginning to understand real family. And today he was learning that messing up big time didn't mean you were out.
"So," Chris concluded, "the spending limit stands."
Ezra nodded, "And I will endeavor to stick to it." He looked Chris directly in the eyes. "And should I want to spend more, I'll speak to you first."
Chris smiled and nodded in agreement.
"Hold on there, Pard," said Buck to Chris. "This discussion isn't over."
He leaned back in his chair. "We've finished the 'uncle' portion, but we haven't dealt with the 'boss.'
"Excuse me?" asked Chris.
"Ez crossed the line with the big gifts. Uncles do that sometimes," said Buck. "But you need to sort out a different line."
Chris frowned, not following where Buck was headed.
Buck sighed dramatically. "He doesn't get it, Ez."
Ezra exchanged glances, seeing that Buck was giving him the opportunity to speak his mind. "I believe what Mr. Wilmington is referring to "
"Buck," interrupted Buck.
"Yes," said Ezra, rolling his eyes at the rogue. "What Buck is saying is " Ezra stopped. He wasn't accustomed to being at a loss for words, but then he wasn't accustomed to dealing with family issues in this manner. "When I am in the office, I am Agent Standish. When I am with the boys I am Uncle Ezra."
Chris still looked puzzled.
Buck slapped him on the back. "Uncles don't take orders, Boss."
There was silence as Chris finally realized what they were hinting at. He sighed. "You'd think I'd be a little better at the "uncle" stuff having dealt with Buck all this time. All right, I'll do my best to not try to order you around if you do your best to stick to our limits."
Ezra nodded. "And I'll at least discuss it with you if I have a disagreement with it."
Chris laughed. That was all he could ask for.
"Well, all right then," said Buck. "Now, Uncle Josiah and Uncle Nathan are back at the ranch learning how to drive from two little fellas, and I don't know about you, but I've got a hankerin' for deviled eggs."
Chris looked directly at Ezra. "You coming?"
Ezra smiled. "I believe my appointment has been cancelled."
"Good," said Chris. "Let's get back. I have a feeling I've got two short people to apologize to."