by Joy K

It was just past sunset when Chris stopped the truck in front of Nettie’s place. He kept the truck running while Buck went to collect Ezra. Vin and JD had both fallen asleep on the way back after they had stopped for dinner. Chris had called Nettie and she was more than happy to have her little helper eat dinner with her, encouraging them to take their time getting back.

Nettie waved to him as Buck and Ezra left the porch, and he gave her a quick wave back. Buck carried Ezra’s backpack with one hand while Ezra walked carefully toward the truck carrying a jar with both hands.

“Did you have a good time?” Buck asked quietly as they approached the truck. “Oh, hey,” he added when Ezra stopped at the back door. “Can you sit up here with us?”

“JD is in my seat,” Ezra said with a frown.

“Yeah,” said Buck. “He was mostly asleep by the time we left McDonald's and it was easier putting him in your seat rather than the middle.”

Ezra hesitated, but finally nodded his assent to ride in the front seat.

Buck opened the door and Ezra stood there awkwardly for a moment. His hands were full, he either had to put down the jar or have help up into the truck.

Buck solved the problem, grabbing Ezra by the waist and lifting him up onto the seat.

Chris could see Ezra's surprised expression in the dim glow from the instrument panel. He had long ago disabled the dome light in the truck – an instinctive response as a police officer. Dome lights made you a better target and messed with night vision.

Ezra settled for a moment on the seat as Buck climbed in beside him and closed the door as quietly as possible.

“Vin and JD are asleep and we don’t want to wake them,” Chris said softly.

Ezra strained to try and see his ‘brothers’ over the seat, but was unsuccessful.

“Are they all right?” he asked.

Chris nodded. “Just tired.”

“It didn't make them think about... the flood?” Ezra asked.

Buck and Chris exchanged glances above Ezra's head, both realizing that avoiding paint wasn't Ezra's sole reason for helping Nettie.

“We talked about it some,” said Chris. “Do you want me to hold the jar while you buckle up, or would you like me to buckle your seat belt for you?”

Ezra looked at the jar, held it tightly, then looked at Chris and nodded to the seatbelt.

Chris slowly reached across Ezra, pulling the seatbelt into place and latching it. He didn't want to draw attention to it, but he was mentally celebrating how simply fastening a seatbelt showed how much Ezra's trust had grown. Two months ago, he wouldn't have let either Buck or him anywhere near him.

Putting the truck into gear, Chris pulled out of Nettie's driveway. “What's in the jar?” he asked softly.

“Peach preserves. Miss Nettie and I made them.”

Again, Buck and Chris exchanged glances above Ezra's head. He had called Nettie by her nickname rather than Mrs. Wells, and he didn't seem to notice he had said it.

“She's going to enter them in the fair. She wants to put my name on the entry, too, since I helped her make them.” He held the jar toward Chris. “See? I wrote the labels. I told her I'd have to ask you about the fair.”

“The fair is a great idea,” Chris answered, glancing at the label before focusing back on his driving. “I think we'd all enjoy that. And it's great that you and Nettie can enter something together.”

He glanced over again, pleased to see Ezra grinning.

They rode in silence for a few minutes before Buck spoke.

“What happened to your finger?” he asked. “Is that a peach preserves injury?”

“No,” said Ezra. “I got a splinter.”

Buck shot a glance at Chris. Ezra sounded a little peeved about getting a splinter. “How'd you get a splinter?” Buck asked cautiously.

“Umm...” Ezra hesitated.

Chris and Buck waited silently, giving Ezra the time to work up to whatever he was going to say.

“Umm...” Ezra hedged again. “Mr. Larabee your cows broke Mrs. Wells' fence and we had to fix it and she shouldn't have to fix it because she's a lady, and she needs somebody stronger to help... and...and they're your cows so you should have someone fix it.”

Chris fought to suppress the smile at Ezra's JD-like rapid-fire response. He knew it was very hard for Ezra to take the chance to voice his disapproval of something.

“You're right,” he said. “My cows, my responsibility. And if I'd known it was broken, I would have fixed it myself.” He stopped the truck in front of their garage and turned off the engine. “Is that how you got the splinter?”

Ezra didn't look at him, but he could still see a scowl on Ezra's face in the light from the security light on the garage. “I had to help her,” he said with tension in his voice. “But I'm not strong enough,” he added, his voice rising with his frustration and embarrassment. “I dropped the board. She had to hold the board because I'm not strong enough.”

Both men heard the implied “It's all your fault I looked and felt bad.” They exchanged raised eyebrows above the boy's head.

“You hammered it into place?” said Buck, nudging Ezra gently with his elbow. “That's great! I probably would have hit my thumb with the hammer. You did great.”

“Buck's right,” said Chris. “I'm sorry Nettie had to fix the fence, but I'm glad you were there to help her.”

Chris watched the eight-year-old for a moment, and then said the words that meant the world to the boy. “Ezra, I'm proud of you.”

Ezra's scowl faded, his dimples growing as he broke into a slow smile.

+ N P R 7 +

Sunday morning everyone slept a little later than normal. Saturday's work and the emotions the flood damage had dredged up had been a drain on all of them. Not to mention the restless sleep the nightmares caused.

Now they were enjoying a late breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast smothered with the peach preserves Ezra had helped Nettie make.

Chris smiled as he watched Vin eat his toast. He could see Vin's little tongue slip out and lick away the preserves that were on his upper lip, but it was the look of pure bliss as Vin savored every bit of the flavor that made him grin. Vin loved anything peach and it great to see him truly enjoying himself.

JD seemed to be enjoying the preserves as well, but he was wearing more of it than Vin. Buck occasionally reached over and wiped some of the mess off JD's face with his napkin. It was a natural movement and Chris smiled at the thought of how comfortably Buck had stepped into the role of parent. Yes, the paperwork said that he, Chris Larabee, was JD's guardian, but it was clear that JD looked to Buck to fill that position.

He looked at Ezra. The oldest boy wasn't eating. He'd taken a few bites of his eggs and toast, but was sitting watching Vin eat.

“Are you feeling all right?” Chris asked him quietly.

Startled from his thought, Ezra looked at Chris and nodded. “I'm fine.” And to prove it, he picked up his toast and took another bite.

“You're stomach isn't giving you trouble?” Chris asked while Buck and JD jabbered.

Ezra shook his head. “It's fine. I was just thinking.”

Chris nodded. “You and Nettie did a great job. The preserves are delicious.”

Ezra smiled at the praise.

“Buck, are we going to take flowers to Mama today?” JD asked, silencing all conversation.

“Yes, Little Bit,” Buck answered. “You and I will go after lunch. The other fellas can come along if they want to, right?”

JD nodded. “Do you want to come?” he asked Vin and Ezra.

Seeing both boys' reluctance, Chris intervened. “Why don't we let them think about it for awhile and decide later?”

“Okay,” JD agreed. “Can I be 'scused?”

Buck smiled. “Put your plate by the sink and wash up before you go play.”

JD climbed down, scooted his chair up to the table and carefully carried his plate to the counter. Then he trotted down the hall to the bathroom.

“Guys,” Chris said, “It's totally up to you if you want to go to the cemetery this afternoon. You don't have to go if you don't want to. Think about it a bit and let me know at lunchtime.”

Vin and Ezra nodded solemnly.

“But for now, let's finish our chores and go play,” Chris added.

Vin excused himself when Chris did, both leaving their plates on the counter next to the sink. It was Buck and Ezra's chore to do the dishes.

When the others had left the room, Ezra started putting things away. He and Buck worked in synchronicity that came with repetition. When they neared the end of the job, Ezra spoke.

“Mr. Wilmington, may I ask you a question?”

“Sure, Ezra,” Buck replied. “What's on your mind?”

Ezra sighed and looked down at his feet, trying to find the right words.

Buck studied Ezra. He had been quiet, too quiet since breakfast started, and he'd been completely silent since JD had asked if they were going to the cemetery. He didn't want to go, Buck realized. But he was obviously having trouble verbalizing his reluctance.

“You don't want to go, do you?” Buck asked in a gentle voice.

Ezra shook his head. “But I'll go.” His body language screamed that he didn't want to go to the cemetery.

“No,” said Buck. “Like Chris said, you don't have to go.”

“What is the proper thing to do?” Ezra asked.

“Proper for what?” Buck asked.

“If... if I went with you after lunch.”

Maybe if Ezra knew what to expect, going would be more of an option. “Well, I don't know that there is exactly a proper way to do things, but most folks bring some flowers.” He hung up the dish towel and sat down at the table motioning for Ezra to join him. “It's meant to be a place to remember, so sometimes people will just stand quietly and think about how special the person was to them, things that made them laugh or smile. Sometimes people will talk to the person they lost and tell them things they want them to know.” He stopped for a moment and took a deep breath. “You don't have to go to the cemetery to remember someone, it's just a special place to remember them.”

Ezra looked thoughtful. “JD expects us to go,” he said, “no matter what Mr. Larabee says. And I don't want him to have any more reasons to be mad at me.”

Buck realized the boy was right. No matter what he said, JD would still have an expectation that Vin and Ezra would want to visit his mother and would probably take their absence as a slight.

“He'll understand,” Buck said softly.

“He shouldn't have to,” Ezra said, rushing from the room, but not before Buck could see the tears flooding his eyes.

“No one should, Son,” Buck said too softly for the retreating boy to hear.

+ N P R 7 +

Chris watched Vin as they finished some chores in the barn. The seven year old had been too quiet, obviously thinking deeply about something.

Vin sat down on a hay bale, and Chris walked over to join him.

“What's wrong, Cowboy?” he asked softly.

Vin fisted away tears.

Chris leaned down and looked him in the eye.

“Are you all right?”

“I didn't go see Mama,” Vin whispered. “I didn't know I'se supposed to.”

“Hey,” Chris said softly, “there's no right or wrong to this. If you want to go visit your mother, I'll take you. But there's no rule that says that's what you have to do. I bet you already remember your mother in all kinds of special ways. You don't have to go to a cemetery to do that.”

He paused, gently massaging the back of Vin's neck and shoulders. “I remember Sarah when I watch a sunset,” Chris offered. “And Adam when Sam howls at nothing.”

Vin smiled a little. Sometimes the old dog would just up and howl for no reason. But Chris was never the one to hush him when he howled. It was always Buck. Now he understood why.

“Maybe Sam misses him,” Vin guessed.

“Maybe so,” Chris agreed.

They were silent for a few moments before Vin spoke. “I 'member Mama when the wind blows my hair and when I smell flowers.”

Chris nodded. “See? You already have ways to remember her without going to the cemetery. We all deal with loss differently. When Sarah and Adam died I couldn't go to the cemetery. I went when we had the service, but after that I just couldn't go there. It hurt too much. But Buck went a lot. He needed to go there to remember, to cry, to pour his heart out.”

Chris sighed. “Did you know Sarah was his sister? He wasn't born into her family, but he was a brother just like you and JD and Ezra are brothers. Sarah's family took him in when he was about twelve. Buck and I became best friends and that's pretty much how I met her and fell in love.” Chris rubbed a hand across his forehead wiping away a stray hair. “Buck misses Sarah and Adam as much as I do, but he expresses himself differently than me. It doesn't mean he loved them more because he goes to the cemetery. It just means we're different.”

Chris patted Vin's knee. “It's not better to go to the cemetery and it's not better to stay home. It's better to do whatever feels right to you.”

“I love Aunt Rachel,” Vin said softly, making the transition to the afternoon plans, “but I don't wanna go.” Involuntary tears began to trickle down his cheeks again. “She wouldn't want me there.”

The last words were so soft Chris almost didn't hear them.

“Vin?” he prodded softly, he was pretty sure what Vin was talking about, but he wanted the boy to explain his comment. When Vin remained silent, Chris pulled him into a hug.

“It was not your fault,” he said firmly.

Vin sobbed.

“It was not your fault,” Chris said again, tears filling his own eyes. “No one could have saved her, Vin. I know you don't feel like it, but you were so brave and courageous that day. You were so strong to know that you had to let her go, and you had to save yourself and Dobie. That's the hardest thing someone could do, Vin. Your Aunt Rachel is proud of you and she loves you very much. She doesn't blame you for what happened. It's not your fault.”

He continuously ran his hand soothingly down the back of Vin's head smoothing his hair and trying to calm the broken heart. He held the boy tightly and let him cry, knowing that he needed the release. “I'm sorry,” he said softly, knowing the words were totally inadequate. “I know it doesn't remove the hurt you're feeling, but I love you very much and I'm going to do everything in my power to make this your home forever.”

Feeling Vin hugging him tighter, Chris returned the squeeze. He held him tightly, grateful that he had already started looking into the possibility of adopting the boys. They each had issues to overcome, but three little boys needed security and love, and room to roam, and North Pass Ranch provided that and more.

+ N P R 7 +

“You look tired,” Josiah said as he stood next to Chris by the corral. He had just returned to the ranch from church and hadn't been privy to the morning's events.

“It's been a long morning,” Chris replied with a sigh. “JD wants to go to the cemetery to visit his mother. Vin and Ezra don't want to go.”

“And JD expects them to go?” Josiah guessed.

Chris nodded. “Haven't dealt with that one yet.”

“But you told Vin and Ezra it was alright not to go?”

“Buck talked with Ezra,” Chris said, “and I talked with Vin.” He sighed again thinking about how emotional that discussion had been. “They both understand that if they don't want to go, they don't have to go. It's up to them.”

Josiah smiled and rested his hand supportively on Chris' shoulder. “You're doing a good job, Chris.”

“Wish I didn't have to.” Chris winced, realizing how that sounded. “That's not what I meant.”

Josiah chuckled. “It's okay. I understood. You wish the boys didn't have to deal with the trauma, not that you didn't have to deal with the boys.”

Chris nodded. “Must be more tired than I thought.”

Both men watched the horses cavorting around the corral for a few minutes.

“Could you stay with Ezra and Vin for a couple hours this afternoon?” Chris asked.

“You're going with Buck and JD?” Josiah asked.

Chris nodded, unable to hide his reluctance.

“Why is it okay for Vin and Ezra not to go if they aren't comfortable with it, but that doesn't apply to you?” Seeing Chris's scowl, Josiah continued. “The boys will see your reluctance and what are you communicating to them if you go?”

“That everything I said isn't true,” Chris growled.

“And JD may think that Vin and Ezra don't care, because they didn't go and you did.”

“Dammit, Josiah!”

“It would be different if Buck wasn't here,” said Josiah. “If there was no one else to take JD...”

“I don't want JD to think his mother doesn't matter to me,” said Chris.

“Then tell him why you're not going and make sure he knows that going to the cemetery is fine.”

Chris looked at Josiah. “I'm not sure I can go through that conversation again.”

“Yes, you can,” said Josiah, “and the sooner the better.”

“I hate you,” Chris said before both men broke into grins.

“You're doing fine,” Josiah said patting him on the back as he walked away.

+ N P R 7 +

The conversation with JD was surprisingly easy. The little boy listened in five year old simplicity to Chris's explanation and accepted him at his word. He understood that people were different and that being different didn't mean they didn't love his mother. He beamed when Chris handed him a five dollar bill and asked him to buy three extra flowers when he and Buck stopped on the way, and to put them on his Mother's grave for him, Vin and Ezra.

Chris smiled later when Buck had told him that it took JD nearly fifteen minutes to pick out just the right flowers for Chris, Vin and Ezra. The little guy truly understood that Vin and Chris and Ezra cared about his mother even if they didn't go to the cemetery.

When JD and Buck returned, Josiah and Nathan were busy in the kitchen preparing for an outdoor barbecue dinner, while Vin, Ezra and Chris got the horses ready.

The boys enjoyed a late afternoon of horseback riding in the pasture behind the house. Both Vin and Ezra had proven to be good riders for their ages and were allowed to ride a couple of the gentlest horses. JD was too small to ride a full size horse on his own, but seemed entirely happy to switch back and forth riding with Buck or Chris. The pasture was a happy place with barking dogs and laughing boys.

“It always amazes me,” said Nathan as he stopped on the porch with a bowl of salad.

Josiah smiled and nodded from the grill. “Children have an ability to adapt and adjust. One moment there are tears, and the next...” he waved a hand toward the boys. “Sometimes I wish adults could adapt as quickly. Burgers are almost ready. I kinda hate to call them in.”

“Looks like you don't have to,” said Nathan. “They're headed back.”

Josiah smiled. Chris had a great sense of timing.

Within minutes three boys rushed passed them on their way to the house.

“Chris says to hurry and wash up,” JD hollered Josiah and Nathan as he ran by.

“They're putting away the horses,” Ezra added as he hurried past.

“Did you have fun, Vin?” Josiah asked.

Vin nodded. “I was gonna help with the horses, but Chris said to go wash up.”

Nathan and Josiah chuckled as the last boy disappeared into the house.

+ N P R 7 +

Other than a few nightmares, the next few days passed without incident. The boys settled into their tutoring routine with Miss Nettie, while the men worked their shifts for the Sheriff's department. Their weekly appointments with Dr. Ashby went fairly well considering the upheaval from the weekend. It was after dinner on Thursday when Vin approached Chris with the question.

“Are we going to go help Mr. Davis again on Saturday?”

Chris paused for a moment, trying to get a feel for what Vin felt about going back. “Do you want to?”

Vin nodded. “I don't like seeing the broken houses, but I don't like it that Tim and Terry don't get to see their dad. If we help them, then their family can all live together.”

Chris smiled. “I'm proud of you, Vin. I think it's great that you want to help Tim and Terry in spite of the things that make you uncomfortable.”

“They need to be with their dad,” Vin said with conviction.

“Are you sure it won't bother you too much?” Chris asked pulling Vin onto his lap. “There are other people who will be there to help them move in this weekend.”

“We told them we'd help,” said Vin.

“Do Ezra and JD want to help, too?” Chris asked.

Vin shrugged. “JD does, but I don't know about Ezra. He might want to help Miss Nettie again.”

“Alright,” Chris said. “I'll ask them, and I'll ask Buck and see who wants to go with us, but you and I will plan on going Saturday."

“Okay,” said Vin.

Sensing a bit of reluctance, Chris said, “You can change your mind if you want.”

“No,” said Vin firmly. “I want them to be able to be together.”

“Alright, then,” Chris said. “You go get your pajamas on and I'll ask the others.”

+ N P R 7 +

The house was quiet, but his stomach wasn't. It was churning with the leftover adrenaline from his nightmare. He'd had a few of them since the flood, but not as vivid as this one. The blond shook his head as he sat in his recliner in the darkness. It was three-thirty in the morning and he wasn't in any hurry to go back to sleep. He didn't want to relive the destruction of the flood, or hear the people screaming for him to save them. He knew the voices weren't real and that it had not happened that way, but that didn't lessen the involuntary fear response.

He'd expected the boys to have nightmares after helping Virgil's family. And he'd even thought that Buck might have one as well, but it didn't occur to him that Vin asking if they could go help again would spur such a frightening nightmare for him.

“Mr. Larabee?”

Ezra's soft voice startled him.

“Are you alright?” Chris asked, seeing the boy standing in the door way back lit by the hall night light. “Come here,” he added.

Ezra walked over to the recliner and stood next to it.

“Did you have a bad dream?” Chris asked.

Ezra shook his head. “I had to go to the bathroom and I heard someone in here.”

“Sorry about that,” Chris said. “I didn't mean to disturb your sleep.”

“Did you have a bad dream?” Ezra asked uncertainly. His question was punctuated with a wide yawn.

“Yes, I did,” Chris admitted. He pulled Ezra into the chair and felt his heart warm when the boy didn't stiffen or struggle against him.

“Are you okay?” Ezra asked.

Chris wrapped his arms around his unexpected comforter.

“I'm okay,” Chris affirmed. “Sometimes it's just hard to forget.”

Ezra nodded. He understood that. “Was it about the flood?”

Chris wondered over Ezra's questions. Maybe being half asleep and the darkness of night removed some of his inhibitions. He wasn't normally this forward.

“Yes, it was about the flood,” he answered honestly. “I guess thinking about going to help this weekend stirred it up.”

“Miss Nettie said it was okay to not do something that makes you feel bad,” Ezra said, not realizing he was calling Nettie by her nickname. “Maybe you could go help her Saturday instead.”

Chris smiled in the darkness. Here was an eight-year-old little boy comforting him, when it ought to be the other way around.

“I could,” Chris agreed, “but I promised Vin I would take him. I'll be okay. Thank you for worrying about me.”

They were silent for a few minutes, the darkness allowing Ezra to be comforted without worries of appearances.

“Miss Nettie says that I should go help if I want to. She says that some things are still broken, but some things are fixed. She said if we were going to help again this weekend and I wanted to go, she'd come, too.”

“Do you want to?” Chris asked.

Ezra chewed on his lip for a moment, then nodded. “If you go.”

Chris squeezed him. “Some things we do are difficult, but we're stronger for them.”

Ezra nodded.

“However,” said Chris, “I don't think either of us is going to be strong tomorrow if we don't get some sleep.”

“Can't we stay here?” Ezra asked with another yawn.

Chris reached over to the sofa, just barely able to snag the edge of the afghan off the back. He pulled it over and spread it over the two of them. Ezra didn't ask for much, and he wasn't about to deny him a little comfort.

It was only a few minutes before he felt Ezra completely relax in his arms, and it wasn't much after that when he nodded off into his own dreamless sleep.

+ N P R 7 +

“And this is Tim and Terry's room,” JD said excitedly as he showed Nettie through the Davis's house. “Me and Vin helped paint it.”

“It's very nice,” Nettie affirmed as JD tugged her toward the next room, followed closely by Vin.

Ezra was outside, carrying a small box from the back of the truck to the house. He wasn't sure what was in it, but it said boys' room on the top of it.

Josiah picked up a box and handed it to Chris, watching Ezra enter the house.

“How'd you get him to come?” he asked.

“I think Nettie had more to do with that than me,” Chris said, shifting the box for a better grip. He had told Josiah about the late night visit with the eight-year-old.

“I'd venture a guess that some late night conversation helped, too,” Josiah said. “Sometimes you can see more clearly in the dark of night.”

Chris watched him walk away, mulling over the comment, but knowing Josiah was right. Sometimes the cover of darkness allowed the freedom to share and face things you wouldn't in the light of day.

“Are you just going to stand there,” said Buck with a chuckle, “or are you going to carry that box inside and help a family get a new start?”

Chris smiled, knowing exactly what Buck meant. They had assisted in rebuilding Virgil's house, and were helping move the family into their home, giving them a new start. But more importantly, they were rebuilding the lives of three little boys and giving their own family a new start.

“Lead on,” he said to Buck. “The quicker we unload, the sooner we get home.”

“Can't wait, Pard,” Buck said with a smile. “Home's a good place to be.”

The End

Next: Simmering
North Pass Ranch Index