by Kim

This is a sequel, to A New Beginning, my take on the Seven Brothers A/U challenge. A very long time ago, someone posted a challenge to make all seven of the guys brothers. Rebecca posted a fic, "The Reading of the Will," and it inspired this fic. I wanted more contention and angst in the relationship between the seven brothers- and their feelings toward their father. The premise of this fic is absolutely based on Rebecca's original premise, with the brothers meeting at the reading of their father's will and Lincoln wanting them to live together for a year. Hopefully, this one is different enough that people can enjoy them both. This is the second in a series.

"There it is, kid," Buck said, when the dirt road that marked the beginning of the Double L came into view.

JD's mouth dropped open at the spectacular view. A seemingly endless fence lined rolling green pastures that faded into dense forests, were broken by an uneven dirt road that twisted out of view behind a stand of pine. The Rocky Mountains rose into the clouds behind the ranch. JD could see tiny fences and buildings in the distance. People and livestock looked like ants moving. Blue water peeked through the trees halfway up the mountain directly behind the ranch. JD's eyes were wide and his cheeks were flushed with excitement. "It's the most beautiful place I ever saw!" he said. "Just how big is it?"

"Twenty thousand acres," Nathan replied, unable to keep the pride out of his voice. "Dad started out with a little over six hundred acres, and he built it into one of the finest ranches in Colorado."

Buck leaned forward and tapped Chris on the shoulder. "Pull up here and wait for them," he said.

Chris didn't answer, but he pulled the car over and turned on the flashers. "I'm going to get the mail," he said and slid out of his seat. JD saw a black metal mailbox with a newspaper box underneath it sitting on a metal pole at the corner of the road they were on and the dirt road.

Buck tapped JD on the shoulder and got out of the car. JD followed him quickly.

"The main house is about a quarter of a mile up this road," Buck said. "There's a bunkhouse and three barns. We've got about two dozen outbuildings scattered all over the ranch. And, over that way," he said with a flourish of his hand toward the mountain, "there's an old ghost town."

"A real ghost town?" JD asked.

"Yep," Buck laughed. "We'll take a ride over there when you're settled in."

"Cool!" JD was practically wriggling. "Hey, here comes Ezra!" he said pointing to the rented powder blue Corvette convertible, nearing them. Ezra pulled over behind them and parked. He got out and came over to where they were standing.

"Gentlemen," he said.

"This is the Double L," JD burst out. "Ain't it -?"

"Cool?" Ezra suggested.

Nathan and Buck both laughed. JD started to protest, then gave in and laughed with them. Ezra surveyed the Double L. "As abhorrent as I find it, to agree with anyone quite so ebullient, it is indeed, 'cool'."

Chris joined them and nodded at Ezra. Ezra inclined his head in response.

"There's a ghost town, Ezra!" JD declared, pointing in the general direction that Buck had pointed.

"How charming," Ezra said in a tone that Chris couldn't decide whether or not to take offense to.

Buck noticed Chris's back stiffen and his eyes narrow and put an arm around Ezra's shoulder and turned him in the opposite direction. "See that lake over there," he said. "It's full of the biggest trout west of the Missisippi."

"I had no doubt," Ezra answered.

"Hey! Can we go fishing?" JD asked.

"A gentleman does not -" Ezra started to say, but Chris interrupted him.

"Sure," he answered. "We'll all go," Chris said and smirked at Ezra. "I'm sure we have some old overalls that'll fit you, Ezra," he offered.

"Not on the grave of my sainted mother," Ezra replied, his face contorting into a horrified expression.

"Now, you told me your mother was still alive," JD pointed out.

Everyone but Ezra laughed, even Chris.

"Figure of speech," Ezra said.

"Looks like you're goin' fishing," Nathan said and slapped Ezra genially on the back. "Here's Josiah now."

Josiah pulled up in a more modest rented Taurus and got out. "God's handiwork is a thing to behold," he said, looking around.

"That's what all the ladies tell me," Buck said and laughed along with the rest of them.

"You're so full of crap, Buck," JD said.

"Now, with that, son, I am in complete agreement," Ezra said. "If that cloud of smoke is any indication, Mr. Tanner approaches.

"If you mean Vin's coming, why don't you just say so?" JD asked.

"He just did, son," Josiah said and laughed.

Vin pulled up in an old Dodge pickup. The original red and tan paint was replaced in at least a dozen spots with primer. The sheet metal was crinkled with numerous dents and scrapes. Duct tape held the passenger door closed more duct tape held heavy plastic in place of the passenger window. Blue smoke billowed out of the exhaust until Vin shut off the motor. The engine coughed a few times and finally died.

"Damn, son, you need a decent car," Buck said.

"'S'paid for and it gets me around," Vin answered. He looked around and whistled in appreciation. "That's a sight every man ought to see for himself. This all the Double L?"

"Yes," Chris answered. "Every tree, building, and blade of grass you can see belongs to the Double L."

"Gentlemen, I'm famished. We did skip lunch," Ezra reminded them. "If you don't all mind and if Vin's truck can make it, which I highly doubt, could we please go?"

Vin's eyes narrowed and his mouth tightened. He started to speak, but caught sight of Chris grinning and pointing to the dirt road. Vin's eyes flickered to the road and then back to Ezra and then the tension left Vin's face and was replaced with a genial smile. "You want to trade rides, Ezra?" he asked. "You might be able to nurse 'er up to the house, what with the way you babied that æVette all the way."

"I did not baby it," Ezra protested. "And, no, I do not want to trade vehicles. I would rather walk than set foot in that monstrosity."

"Suit yourself," Vin answered and got into his car. The ignition whined a few times before it caught in a sputter and coughed out more blue smoke. He was grinning and Chris was laughing outright, as he got into the driver's seat of the Explorer.

"You be sure to watch out that window," Buck said and pointed to the rear window.

"How come?" JD asked.

"Ezra's 'bout to get a lesson in manners, Larabee style," Nathan answered and grinned.

"Huh?" JD said.

"Just watch," Buck answered.

Ezra got back into the Corvette and turned the key. He smiled when it roared into life.

Chris turned onto the dirt road slowly and crept along until all three of the trailing cars had made the turn. Ezra was a car length behind when Chris suddenly floored the gas pedal. The wheels spun before the car shot ahead, leaving a cloud of red dust to engulf the Corvette. Chris immediately slowed down to 20 miles an hour and laughed along with five of his brothers.

Ezra was still admiring the Corvette's prowess when Chris accelerated and he was completely overwhelmed with heavy red dust. He coughed and slammed the brakes of the Corvette on and snatched his handkerchief out of his pocket and covered his mouth and nose. He closed his eyes against the dust, only opening them when he heard Vin's truck pull up in the grass beside him. He could see Josiah disappearing around the bend in the road.

"You sure you don't wanna lift?" Vin asked grinning.

"NO!" Ezra said angrily.

"Suit yourself," Vin answered and pulled out of the pasture back onto the in front of him. Another cloud of dust engulfed Ezra and the car, as Vin drove away.

Chris drove into the yard of the house and parked on an expanse of white gravel about fifty yards from the front of the house. The house was long with three stories. The front door opened onto a roof covered porch that spanned the entire front of the house and along one side. On one side of the door a two seat swing hung from the ceiling and swayed gently. On the other side four wicker chairs with small wicker tables between them stood. There were three long steps down from the center of the porch. Neat flower beds lined the front of the house on either side of the steps The house was surrounded by lush green grass. There was a corral and two barns off to the left of the house. Each of the barns had a fenced corral behind it. Another barn and corral stood off to the right of the house. And, behind it all, mountains rose into the clouds.

JD was still laughing when they exited the vehicle. It faded quickly, as he looked around. "Wow!" he said, his mouth dropping open.

"Eight bedrooms, five bathrooms and that barn over there," Buck said, pointing to the barn on the right, "has the best rec room you ever saw."

"Dad figured the best way to keep an eye on us, was if our friends wanted to be here," Nathan said. "So, he put a pool table, a big screen tv, an air hockey table and a kitchen in there. There's a bar, too."

"Your dad gave you all a bar?" JD asked, a note of disbelief in his voice.

Chris didn't miss the way JD referred to Lincoln as 'your dad.' "Well, not until I turned twenty-one. And, he kept it under lock and key, until Nathan turned twenty-one."

Buck and Nathan both laughed. "Luckily for us, he gave Chris a key. I don't think Dad ever found out you'd bribe us with a beer, to leave you and your girlfriends alone," Buck said.

"Who do you think told me how to get rid of you two?" Chris asked.

"Dad always was a sharp one," Nathan said wistfully.

"He figured, if we tried to keep you out, you two would find a way into it," Chris said. "So, he told me to sneak you one every so often and you wouldn't want it so bad. He was right, too."

Josiah pulled up and stopped and then Vin's junker drove into the yard. It stopped with another cloud of black smoke.

They were both laughing when they got out of their cars. "You sure know how to make a point," Vin said to Chris and extended his hand.

Chris smiled and grasped Vin's forearm the way they had in the attorney's office. "Thanks," Vin said softly.

Chris met his eyes and was surprised to find genuine gratitude and a hint of wariness there. It had only been a little joke on Ezra. Apparently to Vin, it had been much more. He found himself wanting to know why. "Welcome," he said, his eyes not leaving Vin's. The sound of the Corvette approaching caught his attention.

"Reckon Ezra ain't gonna think it's so funny," Vin said.

"Reckon not," Chris said. "Watch my back?"

"Anytime," Vin answered and Chris knew he meant it.

"Hey, Ezra? Car's lookin' a little dirty there," Buck said.

"Mr. Lara -" Ezra started to say angrily, as he slammed the door of the Corvette shut.

Chris dropped Vin's arm and interrupted. "Drop the 'misters' Ezra," he instructed. "Like it or not, we're all brothers."

"Yes, well, I for one don't like it," Ezra huffed.

"C'mon, Ez. It ain't gonna be that bad," Buck said.

"Ez? Ez?" Ezra sputtered in outrage. "My name is Ezra, not Ez. I'll thank you to use my proper name, Buck," he said heatedly.

"Does this mean you're gonna call us by our first names, Ezra?" JD asked, with a grin.

"I think it does, son," Josiah answered.

Ezra looked at them agape. "What just happened here?" he asked.

Everyone else laughed.

"C'mon," Nathan said. "Why don't you all get your stuff and let's go in the house?"

Vin grabbed an old green duffel bag out of the back of his pickup. JD got a black suitcase and a shaving kit out of the back of the Explorer. Josiah opened the trunk of the Taurus and retrived a large navy blue suitcase.

"A hand, if you please, gentlemen," Ezra said.

Chris glared at him. Buck and Nathan shrugged at one another and went to the back of the Corvette. Ezra opened the trunk.

"How long did you think you were gonna be in Denver?" Buck asked. "You got enough stuff for a year."

"A gentlemen does not travel without the proper accouterments," Ezra answered.

Buck and Nathan each took a large suitcase out of the trunk of the car. Nathan also took an overnight bag. Ezra took two garment bags out of the passenger seat. He paused to lock the car with the remote.

Buck laughed. "Good idea, Ezra. We got some mighty shifty lookin' cows over in the north pasture."

Ezra ignored him and followed the rest of his brothers into the house.

The front door opened into a massive room, dominated by a fireplace in the center of the wall that was at least ten feet long and faced the door. There was a raised brick hearth and a mantle that held framed photos of Chris, Buck, and Nathan. There was a wedding picture of Chris and Sarah and a photo of them with a little boy, the new brothers assumed to be Adam. There was a photo of Nathan with a woman.

"Is that your ma?" Vin asked Chris, pointing to a huge portrait of Lincoln and a woman over the fireplace.

"Yes," Chris said softly.

"She was real pretty," Vin said.

"Yeah, she was," Chris said softly. He cleared his throat.

Vin looked around. A brown leather sofa that would easily hold four men faced the fireplace. On one side of the fireplace, two leather recliners with an end table between them faced a leather sofa that seated three and an end table. A rectangular coffee table sat in front of the large sofa. A staircase about ten feet to the right of the fireplace led to a hallway that ran the length of the house. There were four doors along the hall, with a short hallway between the first and second doors and another short hallway between the third and fourth doors. Two doors stood at the end of the first short hallway and one at the end of the second hallways. There was also a door on the left side of the house. On the ground floor to the right of the staircase, two rooms with closed doors and a hall with a bathroom at the end. To the left of the living room area, a massive dining table with eight chairs around it. Behind that, there was a closed door a hallway and, from the sounds emanating, Vin assumed a kitchen.

"This place is -"

"Cool," Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan, finished for JD.

Everyone, including JD, laughed.

"You boys want to figure out where you're sleeping and then we'll have some lunch?" Buck suggested. "There's four empty rooms and a study that will do in a pinch."

"Which rooms are empty?" Josiah asked.

"There's the room behind the kitchen, back there," Nathan said and pointed to the closed door behind the dining table. "The room down at that end of the hall," he said and pointed in the same direction. "The middle room here," he said and pointed to the second door. And, there's a loft. But, you gotta walk up two flights of stairs."

"I'll take the loft," Vin said. "If nobody minds."

"It's all yours, son," Josiah said. "Anyone want the one behind the kitchen?"

"No," Ezra answered. "Tell me, is that a door to the outside?" he asked, pointing to the door on the side of the house.

"Yep," Buck said.

"Then, I'd like the room at the end of the hall," Ezra said.

"Guess that leaves you in the one next to mine," Buck said. "We'll have to double up on bathrooms. You and me," he said to JD, "can share this one, and Nathan and Ezra can share the one down there. Vin, the door to your room's right there," he said and pointed to one of the two doors down the first short hall. "You got your own private bathroom."

"Thanks," Vin said. "Unless you wanna walk up two flights every time you gotta take a piss, Ezra?"

"I believe, Mr. Jac - Nathan and I will be able to manage," Ezra said.

"Why don't you boys get unpacked?" Nathan suggested. "Supper ought to be ready soon."

"Divine providence," Josiah said.

"Nah, I called ahead," Buck said and everyone laughed.

Dinner was over, served to them by the cook, Mrs. Potter. She and her husband owned a store in a little town, Eagle Bend, half an hour north of the ranch. She came over on weekdays to clean and cook for the Larabee family. They'd helped her clear the table and wash the dishes and then Buck had walked her to her car.

"Why don't we all go out to the barn?" Chris suggested. "I don't know about any of you, but I sure as hell could use a drink."

"A couple, maybe three," Vin said.

Chris opened the barn door. Three comfortable couches faced a big screen TV that hung on the left wall. A cabinet on one side held stereo equipment. On the other side was a cabinet stocked with DVDs and videos. On the back wall, a dart board hung to the left of sliding glass doors that opened onto a patio that held a stone barbecue pit with two grills and a rotisserie.

On the right side of the barn, a long bar with six stools in front and three on one side stood in front of a well stocked liquor display. A large mirror hung behind it. At the other end of the bar, were a sink and a refrigerator. A flight of stairs led up to an unfurnished loft.

In the front of the barn, there was a jukebox, a regulation size pool table, and an air hockey table. Several video games lined the walls. Four comfortable arm chairs stood in front of two smaller televisions in the front corner of the barn. One television held an X Box and the other one held a Playstation II. A cabinet with a large selection of games sat between the two of them. And, to Ezra's delight, a large poker table, with eight chairs sat between the pool table and the big screen TV area.

"Cool!" JD declared, to no one's surprise.

Vin whistled, "No wonder your friends wanted to hang around here," he said.

"A veritable cornucopia of young men's delights," Ezra said.

"Let's have that drink," Chris said. "What're you drinking?"

"Crown Royal," Ezra said.

"Beer," Vin and Josiah said.

Chris got out the drinks and gave bottles of Coors to Nathan and Buck as well. He got a bottle of bourbon off the shelf and a shot glass.

"Chris," Buck said.

"I'm a big boy, Buck," Chris answered and poured himself a shot of bourbon. He drank it quickly and poured another one and then looked at JD. "Well?" he asked JD.

"I - I'm not -"

"Old enough. I know," Chris said. "Neither were Buck or Nathan, and this is a hell of a lot better reason to have a drink, than just to get rid of them so I could make out with a girl."

"I don't know, beer, I guess," JD said.

Chris tipped another mug under the tap and filled it expertly and then handed it to him.

Chris drained his second shot and started to pour another one.

Buck put a hand on the bottle. "I think you've had enough," he said.

"It's been a long fucking day and it's gonna be a longer night," Chris snapped back. "I'll let you know when I've had enough." He pulled the bottle away from Buck's hand and poured his shot, but he left it sitting on the bar.

They drank silently, eyeing each other in the mirror, the tension steadily rising. Chris sipped his third shot. He finished and then poured another round of drinks for everyone, except JD, who's beer was only half gone.

Finally, when the tension was becoming unbearable, Chris spoke, "Guess it's time, we got down to business."

"'Bout time," Vin agreed. "Ask your questions. I ain't promisin' to answer 'em."

"Fair, enough," Chris said. "Who wants to tell us something about yourself?"

No one spoke for several minutes and finally JD spoke hesitantly. "I graduated from high school and I was gonna go to college, but mom got sick and I took care of her. She couldn't really work and I got a part time job, but money was still tight. We lived off her savings and then my college fund. She died three months ago. I - I think she tried to tell me about - um." JD looked at the bar, as he cast about for the right word. "About -"

"Him," Josiah suggested.

JD nodded gratefully. "Yeah, I think she was trying to tell me about him before she died. She started to tell me something, but she was just so weak." Tears spilled down his face. "She had a newspaper from Colorado. She handed it to me, and then she just fell asleep. She was in so much pain -" His voice broke completely and Buck squeezed his shoulder.

"We know, kid," he said compassionately. "Nothing harder than watching someone you love suffer like that."

JD gave him a grateful smile. "Mom wanted so bad for me to go to college. I didn't have the heart to tell her, I didn't want to go. I knew a lot about horses from her. And, I wanted to work with them." He looked down at the bar. "Hey," he said, looking up. "I just remembered something she said. She told me, 'Horses are in your blood, son. That will stand you in good stead one day'. I didn't know what she meant. I just figured she was talking in general. But, I think, from what the tape says, that it was after she talked to him. I guess she knew what he was gonna do."

"Probably," Chris said. "What about you?" he said to Josiah.

"I've done most kinds of work that don't involve a suit and tie. And, some that did," Josiah answered with a smile. I did a little preaching and a little traveling."

"That doesn't tell me much," Chris answered. "What have you been doing for the past, say, five years?"

"Penance," Josiah answered and took a sip of his beer.

"Penance?" Chris said and finished his drink. He poured himself another. "You want to be a bit more specific?" he asked Josiah.

"Nope," Josiah said and drank again.

Chris glared at him and Josiah smiled.

Chris's eyes narrowed. Buck spoke up. "Ezra, what about you? Got anything interesting to tell us?"

"One man's interesting is another man's dull," Ezra said and smiled broadly. "However, in the interests of Chris not bursting a blood vessel, I'll recount my life's history. I was born -"

Everyone except Chris laughed. He threw back his shot. "Cut the funny stuff, Ezra," he instructed. "I'm not in the mood."

"Pity," Ezra said without missing a beat. "It would do wonders for your disposition."

"You're right about that," Buck said.

"However," Ezra said, "I'll refrain from boring you. I attended several prestigious boarding schools in Switzerland and Atlanta. I spent four years at Duke, but I dropped out before graduation, primarily, I'm certain, to spite my mother. I've held any number of positions that did involve a suit and tie. Currently, I'm between ventures, but I manage to support myself in the style I'm accustomed to, through my gaming skills."

"You're a gambler?" Chris and JD both said. Chris, with disdain and JD in awe.

"Certainly not," Ezra said. "As a gentlemen, I abhor gambling, and as such, leave nothing to chance. I do however, ply my skill with a deck of cards, most successfully."

"I never knew anyone who played poker for a living before," JD said.

"You're not gonna know anybody who lives on this ranch, who plays poker for a living, either!" Chris snapped.

"We may share the same bloodline," Ezra said icily, "but don't believe for one moment, that gives you the right to dictate how I earn my living."

"We never had anyone -" Chris started angrily, when Vin interrupted.

"I reckon if a gambler gets you that pissed off, you ain't gonna be happy with a bounty hunter," Vin said and looked directly at Chris.

"You're a fucking bounty hunter?" Chris hissed.

JD started to say something, when Buck grabbed his arm. "Stay out of it, kid," he said with a grim expression on his face.

"I'm a good fucking bounty hunter," Vin said coldly, but his eyes blazed.

"It was nice while it lasted," Josiah said and sighed.

"What was, Josiah?" JD asked.

"Why, the peaceful, harmonious, family atmosphere, son," Ezra said. "Surely, you didn't think one civil afternoon, was going to result in seven strangers suddenly throwing their arms around one another and declaring their undying loyalty, did you?"

"I thought we'd all kinda -"

"You thought wrong, kid" Vin snapped. "We're here 'cause an old man wanted to buy off his conscience before he died."

"Easy, son," Buck said.

"I'm not your son," Vin said. "I ain't anybody's son. I'm here for one reason. 'Cause if I stick it out for two weeks, I'll have $50,000 in my pocket. And, then you can all go to hell."

"Gentlemen, I find myself in complete agreement with Vin. You can indeed, all go to hell," Ezra said and drained his drink. He took out his wallet and threw a twenty dollar bill on the bar.

"I thank you for your hospitality," he said in a voice that dripped sarcasm. "But, I believe I shall retire to my room."

"Reckon, I'll head up to my room, too," Vin said.

"That went well," Josiah said, when the two men had left the barn.

"What did you expect?" Chris demanded. "A bounty hunter and a gambler. And, we're just supposed to accept that?"

"Yes," Nathan said. "That's what dad wanted. Give 'em a chance Chris."

"Is it enough now?" Buck snapped and grabbed the bottle Chris was about to pour another shot from.

Chris's eyes narrowed, but he let Buck take the bottle.

"You didn't have any right to talk to them like that," JD spoke up, surprising everyone. "You've got everything in the world and you don't know anything about us. What gives you the right to judge any of us?"

Chris glared at him. JD's hands were shaking, but he met Chris's fierce glare with a defiant look. Chris started to say something, but Buck put a hand on his chest. "Shut up, Chris," he said, his blue eyes flashing angrily. "Just go to bed."

Chris's back was stiff and he held Buck's eyes for a minute. He looked as though he was going to argue, but finally his whole body seemed to sag and he nodded and left the barn without another word.

JD seemed to melt onto his barstool. "I just wanted -"

"It's ok, kid," Buck said and put a hand on his shoulder. "Chris is just a mean drunk sometimes."

Josiah stood up. "It's been an interesting night," he said. "But, I think I'll turn in myself."

He was halfway to the door, when Buck called after him, "You never did tell us how you made your living."

Josiah laughed and kept walking.

Chris awoke with a groan. His head was killing him. He peered at the clock on his bedside table and read 9:30 A.M. Three aspirin and a glass of water sat beside the clock. 'Nathan,' he thought. 'I might be a son-of-a-bitch sometimes, but I'm a lucky son-of-a-bitch to have my brothers.' "You don't feel lucky to have all of them," his inner voice whispered. He groaned again remembering the scene in the barn.

Flipping the covers off, he rolled out of bed and then stumbled to the bathroom. He turned the shower on and stepped inside and let the hot water wash away some of the after effects of the bourbon. After half an hour, his headache had faded to manageable. He faced himself in the mirror. "Suck it up, Larabee," he told himself. "Go out and see if you can salvage something from the mess you made last night."

"Look who's up," Buck said. "Coffee?" he offered and handed Chris a steaming mug.

Chris took it gratefully. "Thanks," he said, as he slid into a chair at the dining room table. He took a drink and swallowed and slammed the cup down, sloshing it's contents over the tablecloth. "Sugar!" he yelled.

"Sugar," Buck said, all hint of geniality gone from his face and his voice. "Nathan's orders. Drink it."

Chris gave him a look that would have been a glare, if he wasn't still hungover. "I guess you're pissed," he acknowledged.

"Now, why would I be pissed?" Buck asked. "Maybe because you got drunk, when I tried to warn you not to? Or because you insulted two guests in our home? Or maybe because you're an asshole sometimes?"

"Maybe all three," Chris said and finished his coffee. He held his cup out and Buck refilled it, adding three heaping teaspoons of sugar.

Chris sipped at it. "I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean for it to be like that."

"You never do, Chris," Buck sighed. "Can't undo it. All you can do, is try to fix it."

"I know," Chris said.

"Do you?" Buck asked. "Think about it, Chris. Before you make things any worse, you got to think long and hard."

"About what?" Chris asked.

"Don't play dumb with me. I know you too well," Buck answered. "I know you're tearin' yourself to pieces over this thing. That's why you got drunk last night. And, it's the only reason I don't kick your ass right now. You've got to decide whether you're gonna do what Dad wanted and accept our brothers wholeheartedly, or you might as well just write out a check for fifty grand and let them be on their way. Be a hell of a lot less messy and nobody'll get hurt that way."

"Our brothers. It sounds like you already decided," Chris said.

"I did. Nathan did, too. We talked some this morning. Chris, it ain't their fault. Like it or not, the only person to fault in this whole thing, is Dad." He waved Chris off, when Chris started to protest. "I loved him, too. We all did. But, he wasn't a saint. He made mistakes. And, he wanted to fix this. You're the only one who can decide, if you're gonna let him fix this one or not. If our brothers-," he looked pointedly at Chris, "can put last night behind them and decide to stay, I want what Dad wanted. I want us to be a family. So do Nathan and the kid, and Josiah, I think. You think on it, too, Chris."

"I will," Chris said softly. "Thanks," he added. He finished his coffee. "Where is everyone?" he asked.

"Nathan took Josiah, JD, and Vin on a tour of the property. Seems JD is a bit of an expert on horses himself. And, Vin and Josiah both worked on ranches at one time or another," Buck said.

"And, Ezra?" Chris asked.

"He hasn't come down yet," Buck answered. "Speaking of the devil," he said and pointed to Ezra, dressed in khakis and an emerald green polo shirt, coming down the stairs. "Looks like you'll have your chance to apologize," he whispered to Chris. "Morning, Ezra," he called. "Come have some coffee."

"Coffee, Mister -" he stopped himself at Buck's raised eyebrow. "Buck," he amended with a polite nod. "Coffee would be heaven itself."

Buck poured him a cup and slid the cream and sugar toward the seat Ezra slipped into. "Help yourself to something," he said. "There's pancakes, eggs, and bacon, fruit, and toast." He pointed to a cart that held several covered pans. A bottle of orange juice stood in a bowl of ice. Plates and silverware and cups were on the second shelf. "Nathan's got crazy hours, and Chris and I have to be out and about until the middle of the morning sometimes, so Mrs. Potter just leaves breakfast for us in here, until she sees three plates in the dishwasher."

"How very practical of her," Ezra said. He added cream to his coffee, but ignored the sugar. He helped himself to some fruit and toast and a large glass of orange juice.

"I'm gonna head out, see if I can't catch up to the others," Buck said.

Chris raised his mug toward Buck and Ezra gave him a two-fingered salute.

Ezra toyed with his food for several minutes, then sighed and pushed his plate aside. "Since the others have so kindly arranged for us to have this private moment, it seems a shame to waste the opportunity."

Chris started to speak, but Ezra held up his hand. "Let me save you the trouble, Mr. Larabee," he said. "I don't intend to sign the contract Lincoln left. I do, however, intend to remain the two weeks he mandated, in order to receive the $50,000. The time would pass far more pleasantly for everyone, if we could agree to be civil to one another."

"I'd like that," Chris said. He took a deep breath. "Ezra, I owe you an apology. I was an ass last night."

"Apology accepted, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said. "If you'll excuse me." He stood to leave.

"Ezra, wait a minute," Chris said. "Please," he added sincerely.

Ezra hesitated, but then sat back down.

"I'm sorry. I'm really sorry," Chris said. "Buck and Nathan want you to stay. And," he looked down at the table. "I do, too," he said. "I was a real ass last night. Dad threw me for a loop, not just when he told us about you, but when he started talking about Sarah and Adam. I was pissed and hurting and I wanted someone else to hurt as much as I did. Buck knew what was gonna happen, if I started drinking and that pissed me off more. It was never about you or Vin, not really. It was about me being hurt and angry and I guess, if I'm being honest, disappointed in my Dad."

Ezra eyed him steadily, but didn't say anything. "You're not gonna make this easy on me, are you?" Chris asked with a hint of a smile.

"No," Ezra answered, with a smile of his own. "What brought you to this epiphany?"

"Buck," Chris said. "He's too smart for my own good. He told me not to blame you for Dad's mistakes. I loved my father. As far back as I can remember, he always did the right thing. I never really gave any thought to what having two brothers younger than me meant. And, yesterday, I couldn't pretend I didn't know what it meant anymore. I didn't want it to be Dad's fault. I wanted to make it someone else's fault. But, I couldn't. And, that pissed me off even more. So, I looked for someone, anyone, to take it out on. You and Vin, just got in the way."

"Is this where I'm supposed to declare my undying familial loyalty?" Ezra asked.

"No," Chris answered, ignoring the sarcasm. "This is where you do what Buck asked me to do. Just think about it. From what you said about your mother, it doesn't sound like you had a lot of security growing up. No place to really call your own. The Double L could give you that. And, brothers you can count on. I know you don't believe it, but you can count on us, even me. When I'm not being an ass, I'm a pretty good man to have on your side. And, Nathan and Buck, are the finest men I know. Nathan is rock steady and all he's ever wanted to do is help people. And, once Buck decides you're one of his, it would take a stick of dynamite to blast him away from your side," Chris said. "Or a pretty girl," he added and laughed.

Ezra laughed. "Mr. -"

"Chris," Chris said. "Please."

"Chris," Ezra agreed. "I accept your apology. And, I will think about what you said." He got up from the table. "I don't think you'll find Vin, nearly so gracious," he said softly.

"I didn't think I would," Chris said and saluted Ezra with his cup.

It was after four when the Explorer pulled up, followed by Buck's pickup. Like Vin's, it was a Dodge, but unlike Vin's it was in excellent shape. Buck and JD were in the pickup. Vin and Josiah were in the Explorer with Nathan. Chris and Ezra were sitting on the front porch, a pitcher of lemonade on the table between them. Ezra's glass was half full and sitting on the table. Chris sipped out of his.

JD spilled out of the pickup, before Buck even came to a complete stop. "Oh man," he said. "Ezra, you gotta see this place. It's -"

Ezra and Chris rolled their eyes - "'Cool,' yes, we know," Ezra said wearily.

"I was gonna say amazing," JD said. "There's an old ghost town and an old church and there's a graveyard and a lake and . . .

"Take a breath, son, before you hyperventilate," Ezra said.

The others walked up and Chris noted Vin's wary stance. 'My own damn fault,' he thought.

"I suppose you gentlemen share our young adventurer's delight," Ezra said.

"The Double L is truly one of God's wonders," Josiah said.

"It was real nice," Vin said without looking at Chris. "Think I'm gonna go wash up for supper." He went inside without another word.

All eyes were on Chris. "I know," he said. "I'll talk to him after dinner. Don't know whether it'll do any good or not, but I'll try."

"All anyone can ask, son," Josiah said. He nodded at them and went into the house.

JD and Nathan went into the house and Ezra excused himself. Buck started to follow, but Chris called after him. "Hold up a minute, Buck," Chris said.

"What's up, Stud?" Buck asked and leaned against the porch railing.

"Nothing," Chris said. "Just - thanks."

Buck smiled at him. "Does this mean Ezra's staying?"

Chris shook his head ruefully. "No, but he's thinking on it."

Buck nodded. "He's a smart man. He'll come around. Not so sure about Vin," he said.

"I said I'd talk to him and I will," Chris said.

"I know," Buck said and hesitated.

"What?" Chris asked.

"Just tread easy, Chris. He's the skittish type. Don't seem like it'll take much to send him out of here before those two weeks are up," Buck said.

Chris stood up and put a hand on Buck's shoulder. "I'll walk on tiptoes," he said. "C'mon, Mrs. Potter made roast beef."

"If anything can convince them all to stay, it's Mrs. Potter's roast beef," Buck said.

"JD was right, Buck," Chris said.

"About what?" Buck asked.

"You are full of crap," Chris said and went into the house.

Dinner was a much livelier meal than the Larabees were used to. JD chatted animatedly about the tour of the ranch. Ezra proved to be an entertaining storyteller and he recounted several adventures that Chris was sure were only partially true. He just couldn't figure out which parts were true and which ones were made up. Vin was polite and he laughed at Ezra's stories, but he didn't offer anything of his own to the conversation. Chris was musing over what he'd say to Vin, when Josiah spoke up.

"That old church over by Four Corners," he said, "do you have any plans for it?"

"No," Buck answered, and forked another piece of roast beef onto his plate. "Why?"

"Would you mind if I tried to fix it up some?" Josiah said.

"What for?" JD asked.

"Penance," Josiah said.

"Does this mean you've decided to stay?" Nathan asked.

"For a while," Josiah said. "We'll see how it goes."

"Woo hoo!" JD yelled, then slumped in his seat blushing furiously. His brothers laughed and Buck clapped him on the back.

Chris turned to see Vin's reaction and was startled to see that Vin had slipped out unnoticed.

He found Vin out behind one of the barns, leaning on the corral, watching the horses milling about. One of them came up to the fence and nosed against Vin. Vin scratched his head and murmured to him, but Chris couldn't hear what he said.

"That's Peso," Chris said. "He's looking for some sugar."

"Sorry, boy," Vin said. "Next time, I promise."

"Here," Chris said and offered Vin a handful of sugar cubes.

Vin hesitated, but then took them. "Thanks," he said and held his hand out to Peso. The horse ate them and then whinnied his appreciation and trotted off to join the other three horses in the corral.

Chris leaned against the corral, with his back to the horses. "I'm sorry," he said.

Vin met his eyes and then nodded and went back to looking at the horses.

"So, you're a bounty hunter," Chris said. "And, I'm an ass."

"Right on both counts," Vin said, without looking at him.

"I'd like to show you something, if you think a bounty hunter can afford to be seen with an ass," Chris asked.

Vin turned toward him. Chris could see a hint of laughter warring with the wariness in his eyes.

"Maybe," Vin said. "What do you want to show me?"

"The Double L," Chris said.

"I've seen it," Vin said flatly.

"Not like this, you haven't," Chris said, with a grin. "C'mon," he said and started walking.

Vin hesitated, but then followed him. Chris went to the barn they'd been in the night before and opened the door. "In here," he said and went inside. Vin took a deep breath, then followed Chris inside.

"Up here," Chris said and then started up the staircase.

Vin followed him without a word. The loft wasn't as empty as Vin had thought. There were a couple of lumpy sofas and a rectangular table with several chairs. A refrigerator stood in one corner.

Chris went to the front of the loft. "There," he said and pointed to a telescope, sitting on a tripod, in front of a huge window.

Vin peered into it. "Damn," he said. "That's some view."

"It's the most beautiful place on Earth," Chris said, almost reverently.

"Look, Chris," Vin said. "It's real nice and I appreciate you showin' it to me. But, why am I really here?"

"You get right to the point, don't you?" Chris said.

"Yes, and I'd appreciate it, if you'd get to the point, too," Vin said. "I'm kinda tired. I was thinking of turning in."

"It's not even fully dark yet," Chris pointed out.

Vin didn't answer and Chris shook his head. "Right," he said. "Look, I was an ass -"

"You said that already," Vin said.

"I know," Chris said. "But, I don't think - hell," he said. "I'm making a mess of this."

"Look, I get it," Vin said. "You drank too much and acted like an ass. You're sorry."

"Yes," Chris said, with a sigh of relief.

"I'm not JD," Vin said. "I ain't gonna get all hurt, 'cause my brand new big brother doesn't think much of me. I figure you and me can figure out a way to live in the same house for another thirteen days without making everybody else miserable."

"I don't want to figure out how to live with you for a couple more weeks," Chris said. "I-"

"Well, fuck you and the high horse you rode in on!" Vin said and turned to head down the stairs. 'Coming here was a mistake,' he thought. 'The money ain't worth it. I'll head down to the reservation and stay with Chanu for a while, until I can figure something else out.'

"Vin, wait," Chris called and hurried after him.

"What the fuck do you want from me?" Vin asked. He stopped walking, but he didn't turn around.

"I want you to stay," Chris said. "I want a chance to show you that I'm not the biggest ass on the planet. I know we got off to a bad start. I know it was my fault. I want to start over."

"Why?" Vin asked and turned around. "Why do you care whether I stick around or not?"

"You're my brother," Chris said softly.

"So what?" Vin asked. "You don't know me from a hole in the wall. And, what you do know about me, you don't like."

"You're family, Vin. You belong here," Chris said. "I want you here. We all do."

"I don't belong here!" Vin declared.

"You do!" Chris said unequivocally. "You might think I am, but I'm not a stupid man. I heard what Dad said. Your mother is dead. Dad felt guilty about what he found out about you, so, I'm betting you must have had a rough time of it. Somewhere along the line, you got into some trouble. It had to be pretty serious, for Dad to mention it. Fucked-up childhood, trouble with the law, bounty-hunting," Chris ticked off the list. "I'd say, this is about the only place you do belong."

"You don't know what you're talking about." Vin's voice was almost a whisper.

"Don't I?" Chris pressed on. Something about what he'd said had struck a nerve. "You're not a very good liar, Vin. That's the first thing you've said that I knew wasn't true."

"I don't know what you're talking about." Vin's words were defiant and his body was tense, with his fists clenched at his sides. But, Chris could see pain and confusion in his eyes.

"That's the second lie you've told me, inside of a minute, Vin," Chris said coolly. "Where else do you belong?" he asked. "Who's waiting for you when you leave here?"

"None of your business," Vin said, his voice almost a whisper.

His breathing was shallow and Chris was almost sure he'd seen Vin's lip tremble, for just a moment. 'Son-of-a-bitch,' he thought to himself. 'That's it.' "There isn't anyone, is there?" he asked, low and gentle.

"No!" Vin's voice was anguished. "There ain't a fucking person in the world waiting for me. I got nowhere to go. Are you fucking happy now?"

"No," Chris answered truthfully. "Nothing about any of this has made me happy. Do you think I got up yesterday wanting to find out I had four more brothers? Do you think I wanted to find out my father was the kind of man who could turn his back on three of those brothers? Do you think I wanted to be reminded of the wife and son I lost? That's why I got drunk last night. I don't give a shit what you and Ezra did before you came here. It was just easier to be pissed off at you two, than to admit that I was ashamed of what my father had done." He swallowed hard. "Vin, please, give us a chance. Give me a chance."

"No," Vin whispered.

"Why not?" Chris asked. Vin had already admitted there was nothing for him anywhere else. What would make a man walk away from family, a home, security? "You're afraid," Chris spoke the realization. Vin wouldn't meet his eyes and Chris knew he was right. He walked over and put a hand on Vin's shoulder and felt his brother flinch. "Easy," he said softly. "I know what it's like to be afraid life's gonna kick you in the teeth again. Losing Sarah and Adam, I thought I was gonna die, too. I wanted to die. But, I didn't. And, you didn't either. Whatever it was, you survived it. We've got a second chance, both of us. All you have to do, is have the courage to take it."

Vin had tears in his eyes when he met Chris's. "I don't know how," he whispered.

Chris laughed and put his hands on Vin's shoulders to pull him in for a hug.. "Lucky for you, you've got brothers to show you how," he said and laughed.

Vin resisted the hug for a moment and then gave in and let Chris wrap his arms around him. "If you kiss the top of my head," he warned, "I'm going to kick you in the nuts."

Chris laughed and let go of him. "C'mon," he said. "Let's go tell the others you're going to stay -at least for a while."

Vin started to follow him and stopped. "I can't," he said.

Chris turned, prepared to argue with him. But, he stopped when he saw the bleak look on Vin's face and the utter hopelessness in his eyes. "Why not?" he asked instead.

Vin turned and dropped on one of the couches, like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. Chris pulled one of the chairs from under the table and sat on it, facing Vin.

"I want to," Vin said. "Ain't been anywhere I belonged in so damn long, I can't even remember what it was like. But, I ain't gonna stay - not unless you know exactly what it is you're buyin' into. Ain't no good can come from startin' with a lie."

"You don't owe us your life story, Vin. That's not lying," Chris said.

Vin looked at him steadily. "You telling me you didn't feel like your father lied to you, when you found out about us?" he asked.

"That's not the same thing," Chris said.

"I don't tell you now, and you find out later, you're gonna feel like you got kicked in the teeth," Vin said.

Chris couldn't argue with that. "Tell me," he said.

"There's a murder charge hanging over my head in Texas," Vin said.

"Fuck," Chris said softly.

"I didn't do it. But there's a prosecutor in Tascosa, who's gonna pin it on me, or die trying," Vin said.

"Did Dad know?" Chris asked.

Vin nodded. "He believed me," Vin said, sounding as if he didn't quite believe it.

Chris studied him and then nodded. "Alright," he said. "You told me. I'm not gonna change my mind. I want you to stay," he said.

"You ain't even gonna ask me what happened?" Vin asked suspiciously. The wariness was back in his eyes.

"My dad was the best judge of character I ever met. I'm a pretty fair judge of people myself. You may be a lot of things, but you're no murderer. You can tell me or not. It's your choice," Chris said. He put a hand on Vin's knee. "I'm gonna head back," he said. He stood up. "Just one more thing. Heavy load like that, can break a man's back. Lot easier to carry, if you've got a friend - or a brother - to help you. Come in, when you're ready." He walked toward the stairs.

Vin was torn as he watched Chris walk away. Virulent memories of past betrayals flashed through his mind, while every instinct he had, told him Chris Larabee was a man he could trust.

"I was chasin' a bounty," he said and waited for Chris to turn around.

Chris smiled and put a hand on Vin's shoulder and then slipped back into his chair. "What happened?" he asked.

"I was chasing a ratfuck, named Eli Jones, in Tascosa, up 'round Amarillo. He's a real dirtbag. Got a rap sheet a mile long. Drug dealing, pimping, extortion, armed robbery, attempted murder- and that's just the shit he got caught for. He skipped on an assault charge. Bastard was pimping his woman and she tried to leave. He cut her face up. I got an anonymous tip, that he was hiding in a parking garage. It was stupid. I shoulda known better, but I'd been chasing 'im for two weeks. I was tired and pissed and I let it get personal. So, when the call come in, I never even stopped to think. I just hustled over there." Vin shook his head. "So fucking stupid! Someone I don't know, calls me and drops Eli Jones in my lap and I ain't suspicious?" He risked a glance at Chris to gauge his reaction.

Chris gave him an encouraging smile.

"I got to the garage and I knew, I mean, I knew something wasn't right. There was no one on duty in the booth and the whole thing just smelled bad. But, I started checking it anyway. I found the parking attendant on the second level, in the stairwell. His hands were tied behind his back and he'd been shot in the back of the head. He hadn't been dead very long. I checked out the rest of the stairwell, but it was empty. My cell wouldn't work, so I went outside to call the cops. They pulled up less than a minute later and the next thing I knew, they were slapping handcuffs on me."

Chris was frowning. "How did they get there so fast?" he asked. "Who called them?"

"Anonymous tip," Vin said. "Big fucking coincidence, huh?" he asked skeptically.

Chris snorted. "They don't come that big," he answered.

Vin nodded in agreement. "That's what I tried to tell them. Nobody listened," he said bitterly. "They parked my ass in Clements for seven months, no hearing, no bail, no nothing!" He leapt to his feet and kicked the refrigerator several times and then punched it with his left hand. Chris grabbed his arm before he could punch it again. Vin threw Chris's hand off and Chris grabbed him in a bear hug and lifted him off the floor and turned him away from the refrigerator.

"Get the fuck off of me!" Vin cried, struggling to break Chris's hold.

"Not until you calm the fuck down!" Chris said and threw Vin down on the couch. Vin started to get up again and Chris pushed him back down. "Stay the fuck, there," he ordered. "Let me see your hand," he said and reached for Vin's hand.

"It's fine," Vin said and pulled his hand away. He was breathing heavily and a shudder ran through his body.

"Stay there," Chris warned. He opened the freezer half of the refrigerator and rummaged around until he found a blue ice pack. "Put this on your hand," he said and threw it to Vin.

Vin glared at him, still breathing heavily, but he put the ice pack on his hand. Chris dropped heavily on the couch next to him. They sat there silently for several minutes, not looking at one another.

"I'm sorry," Vin said sadly. His whole body sagged. All the fight was gone out of him.

"Not as sorry as you're gonna be, when Nathan gets a look at that hand - and, he will," Chris said.

"I just - I." Vin rolled his shoulders and twisted his head, trying to loosen the knots in his shoulders and back. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I never talked about it before."

Chris put a hand on his shoulder and felt that involuntary tensing again. "Hate to break it to you, but it's not the first thing around here somebody kicked the shit out of. And, it seems like you've got a better reason to be pissed than we did most of the time."

Vin laughed in spite of himself. "Damn, you're good at this big brother shit," he said.

Chris laughed with him. "I'll be sure to remind you of that, the next time I piss you off," he said and squeezed Vin's shoulder and then let his hand drop. "You can finish that story now, or you can show Nathan that hand."

Vin grimmaced. "Reckon finishin' the story's a lot easier," he said, with a wry smile.

"Probably," Chris agreed.

"I was pissed, but I wasn't worried at first, 'cause I figured I'd tell my story and they'd check it out and I'd be out in a few hours," Vin said and took a deep breath. "That was before they told me they found the murder weapon in the back of my truck."

"That would make you the stupidest murderer on the planet," Chris pointed out.

Vin nodded in agreement. "I told 'em that over and over. Guess they thought I might be," he said. "I got kicked out of school in eleventh grade and I couldn't even pass the test to get in the army."

"Stupid, you're not," Chris said flatly.

"I used to think I was, but I spent a couple of years living on a reservation with an old man named Kojay," Vin said. "He taught me to hunt and fish and track. I learned a lot about myself. I learned that there's more to bein' smart than knowin' what's in a book. He's got a son, Chanu, a couple years older than me. He helped me get my GED and he helped me get my bounty hunting license."

"They sound like good people to have on your side," Chris said. "Did you ask them for help, when you got busted?"

Vin nodded. "I called 'em a couple of times, but there wasn't anything they could do. They were five hundred miles away. Chanu's got a wife and baby. Kojay's an old man. Chanu came down once. He tried to get someone to listen, but he didn't have any better luck than I did."

"I had a couple grand in the bank and they sent me what they could, but it wasn't enough for me to be able to hire a private attorney. I had to go pro bono. The District Attorney, Marshall A. Yates, kept me locked up for seven months 'cause he was tryin' to get me to take a deal. He figured if he made it tough enough, I'd plead guilty."

"How tough did he make it?" Chris asked. His stomach was in knots and his heart was pounding. He dreaded the answer.

'How much do I tell you?' Vin wondered. He studied Chris's face, searching for something that Chris couldn't put his finger on. Vin finally said, "I was a bounty hunter locked in a fucking prison with a dozen guys I put there and five hundred of their closest friends. I got the shit kicked out of me inside of a week. That's when Chanu came down. He got them to put me in protective custody, after I got out of the infirmary."

"He sounds like a good friend," Chris said.

"The best," Vin confirmed. "Yates was pressuring the warden to leave me in gen-pop. He figured I'd have to deal. But, Chanu put a little pressure of his own on the warden. Told 'im if anything happened to me, he'd sue the warden for violatin' my civil rights and then he'd go to the TV stations and say the warden was lettin' white prisoners beat up Native American prisoners."

"You're not Native American," Chris pointed out.

Vin grinned. "By the time the warden figured that out, he'd already put me in protective custody." His smile faded, "I spent the next five and a half months locked in a six by eight cell twenty-three hours a day, except for when somebody'd come offering me a deal. By the time I got in front of a judge, they were offering me five years, if I'd plead out."

"Five years for a cold-blooded execution?" Chris scoffed. "That doesn't sound right."

"It wasn't," Vin said flatly. "Yates wanted me to plead, 'cause he knew that my case was gonna get tossed the minute it went in front of a judge."

"How come?" Chris asked.

"They looked in the back of my truck before they had a search warrant. Rookie cop, didn't really expect to find anything. But, he lifted a blanket laying in the back and there was the murder weapon. Yates kept it hidden as long as he could, hopin' I'd take a plea before my attorney figured it out."

"How did your attorney figure it out?" Chris asked. "I doubt the police officer told anyone."

"Dashboard camera," Vin said. "It was all on tape. My attorney made a motion and the Judge tossed the gun. They didn't have any other evidence on me, so they dropped the charges. But, Yates was pissed as hell. He come to see me, when they were processing me out. Told me, not to get too comfortable on the outside, 'cause he knew I did it and he was gonna build a case against me, that would hold up in court, if it took him ten years to do it."

"Can he do it?" Chris asked.

Vin nodded. "The case never went to trial. So, there's nothin' stopping him from refiling anytime he thinks he can make it stick."

"No wonder Dad felt guilty," Chris said.

"That might be the only fucked up thing in my whole life, I never blamed him for," Vin said, with a wry smile.

"Why not?" Chris asked. He didn't understand how Vin could not blame his father.

"'Cause it was my own damn fault," Vin said. "I know better than to go rushin' in, without findin' the lay of the land first."

Chris digested that for a minute. "Did you go back to bounty hunting?" he asked. "Did Jones ever get caught?"

Vin shook his head no. "Yates stuck it to me again. The bastard already cost me everything I had, but that piece of shit truck, and it wasn't enough for him. He got my license pulled." The bitterness was back in Vin's voice. "I had no money, no place to live and no job."

"How the hell come Yates wanted you so bad?" Chris asked.

"The guy who got killed, Jess Kinkaid, was an off-duty deputy sheriff," Vin said. "I was lucky the cops didn't beat the crap out of me before the other prisoners did."

"Jesus, Vin," Chris said. "How long ago was all this? What did you do?"

Vin smiled humorlessly. "Eight months ago. I drifted across Texas, pickin' up odd jobs here and there. I was thinkin' about goin' back to the reservation, when I got the call from Mr. Brock. Musta been a damn good private detective your dad hired."

"I'd put money on it," Chris said. Dad only hires - hired - the best."

"I was go -" Vin yawned in the middle of a word.

For the first time, Chris noticed how really tired Vin looked. He felt a wave of protectiveness toward his brother. This kind of tired didn't happen between breakfast and the eleven o'clock news. "You look like you're about done in. Why don't we get Nathan to take a look at that hand and then turn in?"

"Yeah," Vin said and stood up. "Might as well find out for myself."

"Find out what?" Chris asked.

"Just which side of your family that temper of yours come from?" Vin said.

Chris laughed out loud. "Take a look at that refrigerator and you tell me," he said.

Vin grimmaced, "I was afraid of that. Guess there ain't no point hopin' Nathan didn't inherit it."

Chris was still laughing. "None at all," he said.

Nathan gently prodded the fragile bones in the middle of Vin's hand.

"Shit, Nathan, that hurts!" Vin said.

"It ought to," Nathan said and glared at him. For the first time, Vin could see a resemblance to Chris. "Grown man ought to know better."

Chris smirked at Vin. "Told you so," he mouthed.

"What was that?" Nathan demanded looking straight at Chris.

Chris put his hands up in mock surrender. "Nothing, bro, nothing at all," Chris said. Vin held up the middle finger of his uninjured hand and gave Chris a pretty fair imitation of the family glare.

"What do you think?" Chris asked Nathan, ignoring Vin's hand gesture.

"I think, I've got three morons for brothers!" Nathan said. "And, I ain't too sure about the other three yet. I think, that if one of those morons wants to punch out appliances, then he deserves -"

"Nate!" Chris's voice was clearly aggravated. "Is it broke?"

"No," Nathan said. "It's gonna be sore for a while, but that ice pack was probably the best thing you coulda done."

"Thanks, Nathan," Vin said. His cheeks were flushed and he ducked his head. "I appreciate you takin' the trouble."

Nathan smiled at him. "If you want to thank me, then the next time you want to hit something, pick something softer," Nathan said. He put a hand on Vin's shoulder. "If it gets to hurtin' too bad, wake me up. Could be something I missed. I'll run you over to the clinic in Eagle Bend."

"Naw, it'll be fine," Vin said. "I'm gonna turn in."

"Goodnight," Chris and Nathan both said.

Chris waited until he was sure Vin was out of earshot. "Who are you and what have you done with my brother?" he demanded.

"What do you mean?" Nathan asked, closing his bag.

"'Pick something softer.' 'Wake me up, if it hurts too bad.'" Chris mimicked Nathan. "I thought you were gonna pull out a lollipop and tell him he'd been a brave boy."

Nathan sighed in a longsuffering way. "Sometimes, for a smart man, you can be a real bonehead," Nathan said. "For your information, that was brave," he said. "Tell me, what did you see, when I was checking out his hand?"

"I don't know," Chris said and shrugged. "A better question might be, what did you see that I didn't?" he added thoughtfully.

"I saw a man who's heart was beating way too fast, when he showed me his hand. A man sitting right on the edge of that chair, with his good hand clenched so tight, his knuckles were white. That same man can't look at me when he says thank you. It makes me wonder why," Nathan said. "It also makes me want to let him know that if he ever asks me for help again, I'm not going to bite his head off."

Chris hugged his brother. "You see a hell of a lot, brother," he said.

Nathan hugged him back. "You do, too. It just takes you a little longer sometimes," he said.

At Vin's insistence, the next night, Chris told everyone about the murder charge. Vin answered the questions they had and Chris was proud that his brothers were willing to give Vin the benefit of whatever doubt they may have harbored. Things were starting to fall into place. Each of the brothers had agreed to take on some of the responsibilities of the ranch. The next week passed quickly.

Vin and JD proved to be fair ranch hands. Mrs. Potter's husband had fallen and broken his arm and she was needed at the family store. To everyone's relief, Josiah offered to do the cooking. Ezra, on discovering that Chris hated the paperwork end of the ranching business, almost as much as Ezra hated the manual labor end, offered to set up an accounting program on the computer. He had majored in business at Duke and had excelled in the computer courses he had taken.

It became apparent after a few days, that Josiah's idea of cooking, was to say the least, limited. He made Spanish Omelets for breakfast every morning. Lunch, he declared, was every man for himself. For dinner, he utilized a crock pot he found gathering dust in the pantry. Meat, vegetables, and whatever spices he decided to use, went into the pot, as soon as breakfast was over.

After breakfast, Nathan went to the clinic. JD, Buck, Vin, and Chris, along with the six ranch hands who lived in the bunkhouse during the week, spent their days, herding cattle and horses and repairing fences.

Josiah disappeared every morning, after he started supper. He returned every day, promptly at five p.m. He was invariably sweat soaked and covered in dirt and dust. Ten days after they'd arrived, Josiah drove the rental car into Denver and returned, just as his brothers and the hands were arriving back from their daily tasks, driving a Ford pickup, with temporary tags, that was in better condition than Vin's, but worse than Buck's.

"Hey, Josiah," JD called. "That truck's pretty neat, he said, looking directly at Ezra.

Ezra rolled his eyes. "A vast improvement, I'm sure," he said.

The brothers, even Ezra, examined the pickup, in a time honored ritual of men. They opened the hood, turned the knobs and pushed the buttons on the dashboard. Vin even crawled under it and checked out the chasis, much to Ezra's disdain.

"Really, Vin," he said. "Must you insist on grinding every molecule of dirt in the Rocky Mountains into your clothing?"

"Yep," Vin said, with a straight face. With the exception of Ezra, who shook his head, the others all laughed.

"This will come in handy," Chris said, wiping his hands on a rag and then stuffing it into the back pocket of his jeans.

"I had to take the Taurus back," Josiah said. "So, I decided to get something I could use to haul supplies out to the church."

"What about you, Ezra?" JD asked. "You gonna trade that fancy 'Vette in for something more practical?"

Ezra didn't answer and the air thickened with tension.

"You're not staying, are you?" Chris asked, with a heavy heart.

"No," Ezra answered. "I'm sorry. I was going to tell you all tonight, after supper."

"But, why?" JD asked, with tears in his eyes. "Don't you like it here? Don't you like us?" His voice broke and he turned away. Buck put an arm around him and spoke softly to him.

Ezra flushed and he took a half step toward JD, but Nathan put his hand on Ezra's chest. "You broke his heart, Ezra," Nathan said.

Ezra found himself feeling guilty. 'It's not my fault a foolish boy has unrealistic expectations,' he told himself. Josiah looked resigned, as if he had one more burden to add to an already heavy load. Vin looked - angry? 'Why? Vin shares my disdain for Lincoln. He should understand, I can't allow Lincoln to dictate my life.' Nathan just looked sad. 'Nathan, I understand,' Ezra thought. 'He's too good a man not to care. It's his nature.' Looking at Chris, he was shocked to find, not relief, but disappointment and regret. 'How can you care so much?' Ezra didn't understand any of this. Oh, JD and Nathan's, perhaps even Vin's reactions, he could make sense of. But, Josiah? Chris? 'I'm a stranger. We share a bloodline, nothing more.' Nothing about any of it made sense. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen," he said and went into the house.

"I've got to call Andrew," Chris said grimly. And, he followed Ezra into the house.

"Yes, Vin, JD, and Josiah will be staying."

"No. I don't think there's anything any of us can say, that will change his mind."

"We got off on the wrong foot, but I thought he'd put it behind him. He really seemed to enjoy it here. "

"Think about it. If you have any ideas at all, call me. We still have four days."

"Alright, Andrew, thank you for your time. We'll be in on Thursday, at nine, to sign the papers."

Chris hung up the phone. 'I'm sorry, dad,' he thought sadly.

Andrew Brock buzzed his assistant. "Jackie, bring me the Larabee file," he said. A few minutes later, she brought the file in.

"Will there be anything else?" she asked.

"No, that's all, thank you. Lock the outer door, when you leave, please," he instructed.

"Good night," Jackie said and closed the door.

"Now, let's just see what your father saw," Andrew said and flipped to the private detective's report on Ezra.

An hour later, he picked up the phone.

"Wonder what it is?" JD's words gushed out of his mouth. An enormous package had come, labeled with Ezra's name. It was eight o'clock in the morning, and Ezra was still in bed, so, when the delivery van had arrived, Chris had signed for it and sent JD to awaken their brother.

JD was fairly dancing with excitement and all of the others were curious. Ezra, however, refused to hurry his morning routine. JD had tried twice, to no avail, to get him to hurry. "A gentleman, doesn't hurry, son," Ezra had informed him.

Finally, thirty minutes after JD had shaken him awake, Ezra lesiurely descended the stairs. He noted the large package in the center of the room and headed for the dining room, only to be interecpted by Chris.

"Ezra, if you don't open that package, JD's head is gonna explode," he said. "And, I'll tell you right now, you're gonna clean it up."

Ezra sighed in a long-suffering fashion, and said. "Very well, Chris. Far be it for me to be the cause of such a calamity." There was a card attached and Ezra carefully removed it and read it. He walked around the package, studying it.

"Who's it from, Ezra?" JD demanded. "What is it?"

Ezra rolled his eyes. "Perhaps, you could tell me, JD," he said. "Your psychic powers may work better than mine.

"We'd all know, if you'd just hurry up," JD said. "And, you did read the card, so you know who it's from."

"Mother," Ezra said and continued eyeing the package.

"How come your mom is sending you stuff here?" JD asked. "Hey, how'd she know you were here?"

"She's his mother, JD. He probably called her," Buck said.

"No," Ezra said. "My mother is an amazing woman. She may actually have psychic powers."

His brothers laughed.

"You study on that any harder," Nathan said, "you might accidentally get that degree from Duke."

"Heaven forbid," Ezra said in mock terror and tore the paper. A set of Louis Vuitton luggage was revealed.

"Wow," JD said. "That's pretty nice luggage. How come she sent it to you?"

"It's my birthday," Ezra said.

"How come you didn't tell us?" JD asked. "We coulda had a party."

"With balloons and cake?" Ezra asked with false sincerity. "Please," he said in his normal voice. "I am twenty-seven years old. I don't have birthday parties."

"Pity," Chris said, with a wide smile. "It would do wonders for your disposition."

Ezra looked startled and then gave him a two-fingered salute.

Ezra was alone in his room, the night before they were to give Mr. Brock their final answers. He thought over the days since he'd come here. His brothers were fine men, all of them. Of course, hearing about Vin's trouble had given him pause, but after living with the man for nearly two weeks, Ezra was certain that Vin was not a murderer. 'The only thing, you've ever murdered, Vin' he thought to himself, 'is the English language.'

He wandered about his room, thinking about leaving tomorrow. He was surprised to realize, that he was going to miss this place - and his brothers. 'When did I start thinking of you as brothers?'

He touched the small pile of gifts, on the dresser. They'd given him a party anyway. Each of them had produced a gift, from their own personal belongings. It was a tradition, Chris had informed him. Growing up, Lincoln had given each of the boys extravagant gifts, and Caroline had decided that they would give each other gifts of the heart. All of them laughed, when Buck recounted several stories of dubious gifts, when they were angry at one another.

Josiah, it turned out, actually could cook in something other than a crock pot. He'd baked a delicious yellow cake, with chocolate icing. He'd given Ezra a wellworn Bible. Chris had some talent as a whittler and had produced a small horse, he'd carved. Much to Ezra's chagrin, JD had gifted him with his Raven's cap. They'd all laughed over that one. Nathan gave him a book of Colorado wilderness photos. Buck had made them all laugh, when he'd produced a Hawaiian shirt, that was at least three sizes too big. "Women love men in Hawaiian shirts," he'd said. Vin had given a medicine bag. Ezra touched each of the gifts, letting his fingers linger over each one. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He was appalled at the blatant sentimentality he saw. 'Remember why you're here,' he told himself. 'Tomorrow, you'll receive fifty thousand dollars. And, then you can be on your way. No ties, no encumberances.'

His phone rang.

"Hello, darling," Maude said. "Did you get the luggage?"

"Hello, mother," he answered. "Yes, thank you. It's very nice."

"Appearances, are everything, darling," Maude said. "You'll need to bring good luggage with you. Bring it all, even if you don't need it."

"Bring it where?" Ezra asked.

"Why here, to New Orleans, of course, darling. Tomorrow, you'll get your money and then you can leave that provincial ranch. You can come here and spend some time with your mother," Maude said.

"How did you know about the money?" Ezra asked.

"I do have my resources, dear," Maude said. "That's not really important. What matters, is that you are getting the money tomorrow. You don't have to stay on that dreary ranch anymore."

"It's hardly dreary, mother," Ezra replied. "In fact, it's rather charming."

"Charming, dear? I hardly think so," Maude scoffed. "It's a ranch, darling."

"Yes, it is a ranch," Ezra replied. "It's a lovely ranch. And, my brothers are very good men."

"Brothers?" Maude asked. "Cowboys," she corrected.

"I'm not discussing this with you any further," Ezra replied angrily. "Thank you for the luggage. I have to go now." He hung up the phone.

"It will only be a few more minutes," Jackie said, when the Larabee brothers filed silently into the lobby.

"Thanks, Jackie," Chris said. The brothers took seats.

Several minutes passed and then Jackie ushered them all into the office. Josiah, Chris, Buck, Nathan, Vin, and JD, all signed their contracts and handed them to Mr. Brock.

"Thank you, gentlemen," he said. "Now, if you'll have a seat, I'll give Mr. Standish his check and have him sign this release, and then, you'll be free to go."

All eyes turned to Ezra. "Thank you, Mr. Brock," he said and stood up. "But, I don't believe I'll be needing that check, after all."

"You mean, you're gonna stay?" JD burst out. He was beaming and Ezra was certain if he was a puppy, he'd have lost control of his bladder.

Ezra started to chastize him for his exuberance, but instead said simply, "Yes."

The brothers shook his hand and congratulated him and Ezra found himself caught up in their excitement. He was grinning from ear to ear when he handed Mr. Brock his signed contract.

"Oh man," JD said. "This is so cool."

"Is it too late to add a codicil, Mr. Brock?" Ezra asked.

"I'm afraid so," Andrew answered. "What kind of codicil did you have in mind?"

"That he," Ezra said and pointed to JD, "never be allowed to use the word, cool again."

Everyone laughed, and then the brothers left to celebrate.

Andrew Brock dialed the telephone.

"Hello," Maude Standish answered.

"It's done," Andrew said.

"And, Ezra?" she asked.

"Agreed to spend the next year living at the Double L," Andrew said. "How did you manage it?"

Maude's laughter was like the tinkling of wind chimes. "A mother knows her son, dear," she said. "I hope you'll come to see me soon. It's been ages since you were last in New Orleans."

"Too long," Andrew said. "Goodbye, now. I have another client coming in."

Maude hung up the phone. She picked up a glass of champagne and walked to the piano, that no one played, but looked splendid, and picked up a picture of Ezra. "Happy birthday, darling. I love you," she said and toasted him with her glass.

The End
(For now)