The first two days of the vacation, being Saturday and Sunday, were no different than any other weekend, but then it was Monday and Ezra woke up and realised the other boys wouldn't be leaving for school. There were still chores to do, and with time on their hands the boys were expected to do more. Over the weekend it was explained to Ezra that Dr Phillips didn't believe in neglecting his charges' education during the long summer vacation. Like all the boys, Ezra would have to read one book every two weeks and then write a report on it.
"You don't have to write much, just enough to prove you read the book and understood it," Buck explained. "JD just reads to him."
Ezra could tell Buck resented this, he probably wasn't the only one, but not Ezra, who devoured books, and often read two a week as it was.
"We all go to the library ever two weeks," Josiah explained. "But there are lots of books here."
Ezra had already worked out that Josiah, along with Chris and Nathan, were also keen readers.
That first Monday, their chores were all done by noon. Ezra had instantly picked up his book and settled down on the porch to read, for it was a warm day. He'd only been there for a few minutes when Chris and the rest of his roommates came out.
"Come on Ez, we're off," Buck announced joyfully.
"Off?" Ezra looked up. "Off where?"
"Out!" Vin explained, "we don't have to be back here until six. I picked up your lunch." He held out a pail. "Come on!"
"You can bring your book," Nathan explained as he went past.
More than a little bemused, Ezra took the lunch pail from Vin, pushed his book into his pocket and followed the other boys. It didn't do to rock the boat. Go with the flow, that was always the best plan when you were in a new situation and out numbered.
Since he didn't have a watch, although he assumed someone did, otherwise how would they know when to head back, Ezra wasn't sure how long they walked but they were moving down much of the time, so he guessed they were heading toward the river. Sure enough, they made it to the bottom of the valley and the river. If Ezra thought that was their final destination he was mistaken, for Chris and Josiah then lead them up stream until the fields disappeared and they were among trees. Where they finally stopped, the river was wide, but not too deep, with trees on both sides.
Chris turned to face the others. "This place?" he asked.
"This is great," Vin told him.
With that the boys all settled on a log or bolder and got out their lunches.
"A...n't ya go...a 'at?" JD asked, his mouth full of cold beef sandwich.
"Come on Ez, pull up a rock!" Buck encouraged.
Ezra scanned the area, and picked out a suitable boulder. He carefully checked the boulder for bird poop and bugs, before he finally sat down.
"Ezra," he said softly.
"My name is Ezra, not Ez." He didn't know why he said it. Why didn't he just let Buck call him Ez? He'd been called a lot worse; his mother frequently told him he had to answer to a totally different name until she said differently.
"Sorry." Buck looked upset. "Just being friendly."
Ezra avoided eye contact, even more sorry he'd said anything, once he saw how hurt Buck looked. He continued to avoid everyone's eyes while he ate his sandwich and apple. It was as he finished the apple it occurred to him that he was thirsty and had had nothing to drink.
"Here." He looked up to see Josiah smiling at him, holding out a canteen. He hadn't even noticed the older boy was carrying one. Josiah was rubbing off the rim as he held hit out.
"I don't have a cup," Ezra pointed out meekly.
"What would you want with a cup?" Josiah held the canteen out again. "Go on take it, you're the last, so put the stopper in when you're done."
Ezra stared at the canteen, he wasn't sure what to do, he needed a drink, but he couldn't bring himself to drink from this communal container. Finally he pulled his handkerchief from his pocket, pushed the corner into the top of the canteen, tipped the container until the fabric was soaked and then used the wet end to clean the top. By the time he was done, the other boys had moved toward the river. As he watched, in total horror, they began to strip, right there, in the open, where anyone might see them, they began to take their clothes off - all of them!
He still wasn't comfortable having to bathe in front of the other younger boys and Matron, now the older boys were stripping as well! He looked away; someone shouted something and he looked back - big mistake! Josiah was not a little boy; he wasn't a boy at all!
Mortified and horrified in equal measure, Ezra got up and moved further back into the trees, where he settled on a moss covered patch of ground and pulled out his book.
"Ya coming in Ezra?" Chris yelled.
Ezra looked up - briefly - Chris wasn't that much 'younger' than Josiah.
"No thanks," he called back, without raising his head again.
He wasn't aware how long the others swam for, but he'd read three chapters when he realised they were pulling on their clothes. JD trotted up to him, water still clinging to his hair, damp patches developing on his clothes where his body was still wet.
"Did ya see me?" he asked.
"I'm sorry I was too engrossed in my book to watch anyone swimming."
"Engrossed," Ezra corrected. "It means it's a very exciting story."
"Oh, okay. Buck's teaching me t' swim - it's fun."
"I'm sure it is." If JD noticed the lack of sincerity in the statement, he didn't show it.
"Come on you two!" Chris called. "Time to head out, we're gonna go by the Clark farm."
"Yay!" JD whooped, jumping up and down, before running back to the others.
"What's at the Clark Farm?" Ezra asked as he hurried after the little five-year-old.
They walked at a leisurely pace along the river until they once more emerged into fields. Once in the sunlight, their damp clothes dried out rapidly. As they walked, not across the fields, but around the edge of them, the boys would stop every now and again and pick something.
"We pick clover for the horses," Vin explained.
Ezra didn't understand why the horses needed boys to pick food for them, but he wasn't about to ask.
Finally after about six fields, they came to a sturdy, white, post and rail fence, and stopped.
Chris turned to face Ezra. "This is the Clark place, he gets mad if he catches us on his land."
"He thinks we're all delinquents," Josiah explained.
"But he can't stop us leaning on his fence and if his horses come over to us, ain't nothing he can do about it," Chris finished.
Ezra looked between the fence rails. There in the field were the most magnificent horses Ezra had ever seen. Their coats positively shone in the sunlight. They were elegant, they were lithe and dashing and with them were foals. They were thin and long legged, with tufty tails and big black eyes. Ezra couldn't keep his eyes off them, he was transfixed. Now he wished he'd stopped to pick clover, as the others spread out and held their bounty over the fence. Vin made a low whistling noise and instantly, the closest mare lifted her head and began to amble over. One by one, they ate the clover and allowed the boys to pet and stroke them. Josiah gave some of his clover to Ezra and showed him how to feed a horse safely. He liked the feel of their soft muzzle; he liked it so much, it didn't even occur to him that an animal was eating from his hand. He wanted to touch the foals too, but while the mothers came over for their clover treat, their young stayed out of reach. As he watched, the little black colt closet to him spread his fore legs and bent his head to take a drink from his mother, that tuft of a tail shaking furiously as he did. It was a magical sight that Ezra would treasure forever.
They spent what felt like a good hour talking to the mares before Vin looked up at the sun and said something to Chris, who then announced it was time to go home. It turned out no one had a watch, they just relied on the young Texan knowing the time by the position of the sun.
That first day, Ezra was so tired he almost fell asleep in the bath, but some how it felt good to be tired. Chris led his little gang out on an expedition three or four times a week. Most days they went to the river, although not always to the same spot. Sometimes, they crossed the river and went up the valley on the far side, heading deep into the dense woodland. Ezra always took his book, he enjoyed the walks, he enjoyed the visit to the mares - and every walk ended with a visit to the mares. He got used to sharing a canteen, but he didn't swim, or join in with the games the boys played. He didn't build forts, or climb tress, he didn't play cowboys and indians, he didn't build dams, he just read his book.
It only took five trips to the river for JD to learn to swim, and once he did, he was fearless. His favourite game was to have one of the older boys - usually Buck - throw him into the water. Once Vin saw how much fun it was, he persuaded Josiah to throw him as well. They would shriek and squeal, spreading out their arms and legs so as to make as big a splash as possible when they landed.
As the summer grew warmer, their trips up into the woods grew less frequent and they spent most of their time at the river. Ezra got more used to his companions being naked, he began to 'notice' less and just see the boys, boys he was beginning to tentatively think of as friends. They were always asking him to join in, encouraging him to join them, but they never tried to force him or made him feel left out. It was about three weeks into the summer when the weather turned really hot, hot and humid and oppressive. That day they walked to the river by the quickest route and once they were under the trees, they didn't move. When the boys stayed at the house to play, they went bare foot, but Doctor Ben insisted they wore boots when they went out exploring.
Ezra's feet were so hot and sweaty, his boots felt like lead weights by the time they were sitting down to eat. Even before they got their food out, the others were taking off their boots; Buck pulled off his own, before undoing JD's laces. The little boy liked to say it was his boots that made him fall down all the time, but as far as Ezra could see it was just that he ran everywhere and never seemed to look were he was going. He couldn't bear the hot, heavy feeling anymore and bent over to take off his boots and socks.
"Here, give me your socks," Ezra looked up to see Nathan standing in front of him. "I'll hang them with mine."
"Yeah, if you hang them over a branch, they'll be nice and dry when you put them back on."
Ezra hadn't even noticed the other boys hanging their socks on low branches after they removed them.
"When it's sticky hot, like it is now, it's the only way," Nathan explained.
As the day drew on, it got hotter, the boys stripped off and retreated to the river. Ezra watched, and found he wanted to join them, it looked so wonderfully cool. He was so hot he couldn't concentrate on his book. Finally, he tucked the book into his lunch pail (it was too big for his pocket) and, checking there was no one around except his friends, he took his shirt off. The relief it brought from the stifling heat was only temporary, fleeting at best. The cool river water called to him. Slowly he rose and picked his way over the grass and moss covered boulders to the water's edge. He let the water lap over his feet - it felt wonderful. Bending down he rolled up his trouser legs past his knees and ventured further into the water.
He paddled along the water's edge until he came to a spot were the rocks pushed out into the stream. Climbing on top of them, he made his way out to the furthest rock, there he sat down and let his feet dangle in the water. He had been watching Vin, who was swimming under the water, trying to sneak up on Chris and Nathan, when he was suddenly showered with water as Buck shot out of the water in front of him.
"Hey there!" he greeted, flicking water from his thick hair.
"Hello," Ezra responded cautiously.
"Ez, sorry, Ezra, why don't ya come in? You can keep yer drawers on if'n you want."
"A gentleman doesn't cavort in rivers," Ezra announced.
Buck cocked his head on one side. "You ain't no gentleman, you're just a boy, like the rest of us."
"Age has nothing to do with it."
"So you reckon yer better than us?" Buck accused.
"No! No not at all ...I would never... it's just, that is to say..."
"Can you swim?" Buck asked, interrupting his stumbling attempt at an apology.
Ezra's green eyes were drawn to Buck's dark blue ones, seeing only honesty and concern. Finally he shook his head.
"Merde!" Buck exclaimed. "Why the hell didn't you say something?" Just then JD let out an ear piercing scream as Josiah tossed him into the water. "I'll teach you, just like I taught him."
Ezra looked out over the water, at the other boys having so much fun. He wasn't sure why he'd admitted it; because it really wasn't something he should do - admit to weakness, his mother would be appalled.
"Do you want me to teach you?" Buck asked again. "'Cause I gotta tell ya, Vin says it's gonna be a real hot summer and he's usually right 'bout stuff like that - you know, him being an Indian an' all."
Finally Ezra nodded. "If it wouldn't be too much trouble, I wouldn't want to inconvenience you."
"No problem, come on get your pants off an' we can start."
Orin stepped out of the car and walked around it to open the door for his wife. As she stood up, Evie took a look around. She wasn't sure what she was expecting, but the slightly shabby farmhouse wasn't it. It wasn't like any children's home she'd been to before. There were no bars on the windows, no fence or wall around it. Toys littered the front porch. There was even a well worn baseball diamond on the front lawn, with stuffed sacks for bases, bats and gloves pilled up by the house.
"Not what you were expecting?" Orin asked his wife.
"Not at all, maybe the boys here don't need us after all."
Orin looked up at the house again. "However good it is, no institution is a substitute for a family. Besides, if we take some, the good doctor will have room for more."
It might not have been his idea, but once he had agreed to the plan, Orin embraced it, and as the day they were to meet their potential new sons drew closer, he became more and more committed. Once the decision was made, they applied to be approved as potential adoptive parents. For a respected former judge, it proved to be a formality. Then they contacted Dr Phillips. He had supplied a brief outline history for each boy. The Travis' has picked out half a dozen they were particularly interested in, with the idea of adopting two or three.
"Come on Evie girl, its time to be a family again."
Together they walked toward the front door, where the surprisingly young looking doctor was waiting for them. After introductions were made, Ben Phillips took them to his office.
"The boys are still working in the garden, they'll be back any time now," he explained as they sat down. "Was the information I sent you of any use?"
"Most useful, but we were hoping you could give us some more information on one of the boys?" Evie asked.
"Of course, what ever you need to know. Who were you interested in?"
"Vincent Tanner," Orin began. "Could you just clarify his history?"
Ben sat back and smiled. "Yes it is a little confusing, isn't it? To be honest, we don't know all of it. His birth certificate tells us he was born in Texas, some little place in the oil fields. His father's name was Michael Tanner and he was killed in some kind of accident when Vin was three. His mother then took him back to her family in Oklahoma."
"To a reservation?"
"Yes, she was Comanche on her father's side."
"What about his father?"
"White, according, to his death certificate."
"So how did he end up here, in New York?"
"He lived with his mother and grandfather on the reservation until his mother died when he was five. She had some kind of tumour. He continued to live with his grandfather for another two years, before the old man died. Apparently the tribe was happy to keep him and take care of him but, the local authorities determined he should be sent to live with his paternal aunt and her husband, here in New York." It was clear from the tone of his voice, that he thought the boy should have been left were he was. "The trouble was, no one asked them if they wanted him, which apparently they didn't."
"She wouldn't take in her own dead brother's child?" Evie asked incredulously.
Ben shrugged. "They won't even acknowledge him. Texas wouldn't take him back. So here he is. Vin's a smart kid, but he doesn't like school, reading and writing don't come easily to him. It doesn't help that he hates to be inside, he'd far rather be outside, gardening, climbing trees, hanging over the neighbour's fence talking to the horses."
Suddenly there was a clamour of voices and feet, as the boys came charging past the window.
"Come on, the game is back on." Ben stood up and indicated the door. "They started it after supper last night, but had to stop when it got too dark," he explained as they headed out.
Outside, they stood on the porch and watched as the boys took up where they had left off. Clearly they had their own rules. For one thing, there seemed to be about sixteen players on each side and if the pitcher was significantly older than the batter, he pitched underhand.
"I used to not let the younger ones play with the big boys, but Chris came up with new rules," Phillips explained.
"Which one is Chris?" Orin asked.
"The slim, blond boy on third. He's a natural leader."
There was a crack as a ball was struck. It sailed away, chased by dark haired boy. When he got a better look at the boy, Orin frowned.
"I'm surprised you have Negro boys here," he commented. "Pleasantly surprised I might add."
"Well, you'd be the only one that I've met. Officially he shouldn't be here, but what am I to do? His mother drowned when he was very young, his father was an orderly in a hospital, run by a friend of mine. He took care of a man, a man who was dying, a man no one else would touch and he got infected."
"He died too?" Orin asked.
Phillips nodded. "My friend felt responsible for the boy, but unable to take care if him himself, he asked for my help. I've seen the home for Negro orphans. Nathan is a very bright boy. He wants to be a doctor," he added with a proud smile, then the smile faded to barely disguised anger. "To send him to that place, would be to condemn him to a life of unfulfilled drudgery."
To the Travis' it was clear how passionate Phillips was, not just about the welfare of the boys in his care, but also about justice and equality.
"Why don't those three play?" Evie asked, pointing to the only boys who seemed to be spectating.
"Oh, yes, Danny, he's the one with the red hair, he sprained his ankle the other day. The little one who keeps jumping about is JD, he'd too young to play, even using Chris' rules, and the one with his head in a book is Ezra, he's not one for physical exertion."
"I don't remember reading about an Ezra?" Orin asked.
"Ezra's not up for adoption, he's only with us temporally, while his mother looks for work."
The Travis' spent the rest of the day at Four Corners. They watched the game to the end, Chris' team won. Then they joined the boys for their sandwich lunch. After lunch, they took the official tour of the home, during which they had meetings with all the boys they were considering.
"Who do you reckon they're interested in?" Josiah asked Chris as the two of them pretended to read in the shade of one of the bigger trees behind the house.
"Well, they talked to you first," Chris pointed out.
"No one is gonna adopt me, I'm too big, too ugly and too old."
Chris turned to look at his friend. "Where the hell did you get the idea you were ugly?" he asked.
"Oh come on, what girl's ever gonna look twice at me."
"Any one with half a brain, and why would you be interested in one with less than half a brain?"
Josiah grinned. "Well true, but easy to say when you can get any girl you want."
"Only until Buck's voice changes, have you seen the way the girls are around him?"
Josiah had, for some reason none of the boys understood, all the girls at their little school seemed to like Buck. "I know, how does he do that?"
"I don't think he does anything, they just like him."
"Well, them rich folk didn't talk to him."
Chris looked out across the garden; Buck was playing with JD, just like always. "Yeah, well they probably read his file. Once respectable folk find out about his Ma, they don't want to know," he commented bitterly.
Chris and Josiah were probably the only two boys in their little group who fully understood what Buck had told them when he told his story.
Buck would explain that his mother's family had thrown her out of the family home, when they found out she was going to have a baby - that baby being Buck - and the father wouldn't stand by here. "But," Buck would go on to explain. " There were no jobs, so Ma had to entertain, to get money, so she could take good care of me. We moved a lot, 'cause Ma always said it would be better in the next town, that there'd be a regular job, but there never was no jobs, and she could always make money entertaining."
The first time Buck had told his story, to Chris, he found it hard to tell the story of how his mother died. From then on, whenever he had to tell his story to a new boy in the room, Chris would always take over and tell this part of the story. They had arrived in New York State when Buck was seven, it was here that he finally got to go to school, although his mother had been schooling him as much as she could. When he was eight, a man she was entertaining hurt her in someway, Buck wasn't sure how, but the hurt was inside her. She collapsed and was taken to the hospital, where she died a few days later.
What Chris and Josiah understood was, that there was probably some mention of his mother's 'profession', and the manner of her death in Buck's file, and no respectable couple would want him because of it. No doubt the many reports of fighting and attempts to run away, before he was finally placed at Four Corners, were the reasons no one had ever shown any interest in adopting Chris either. Not that he minded, he had made his life at Four Corners as good as it could be. When he turned fifteen, he planned to leave and make his own way in the world. He had it all planned out, he wasn't going to be a bum or hobo, and he wasn't going to work in some dead end job. He was going to join the navy and see the world. There was, after all, no chance Doctor Ben would pay for him to stay on and finish high school, like he'd promised he would for Josiah. He didn't have Josiah's smarts or love of learning. There was also the was the little matter of the number of times the good doctor had been summoned to see the principal, because he'd been fighting.
As the two boys watched, the couple came out into the garden. They were looking at JD and talking to the doctor.
"He is just adorable! When we read your notes, we weren't expecting you'd have one so young," Evie commented.
"Have you made up you're mind?" Ben asked.
"I think so." Orin turned to him. "Tanner, the little one and Sanchez. The younger ones will be company for each other, Tanner will enjoy the horses and we can relieve you of the burden of having to pay to keep Sanchez in school."
"I want to take them all," Evie commented wistfully.
Orin looked at Ben. "I would have thought you'd have been pleased, but you don't look it."
"I am, really I am, but..."
"They have all made close friends here, it will be hard for them to say good bye." He looked out at Buck and JD. "However, they are young and it's a wonderful opportunity for them."
"And you're going to miss them." Evie smiled kindly at him.
"Well, we had better ask them if they want to come, hadn't we?" Orin took his wife's hand. "Could we talk to them in private?"
JD clutched Josiah's hand as, along with Vin, they entered the doctor's office. He wasn't sure why they were there, he didn't think he'd been naughty, but sometimes he forgot things. Josiah told him not to worry, and he trusted Josiah. He felt braver holding the older boy's hand, just in case.
"Boy's, you've met Mr and Mrs Travis already today, now they'd like to talk to you again," Ben explained. "So I'm going to leave you with them for a while. If you need me, I'll be in the kitchen."
Once they were alone, Orin told them about their house, about the gardens and the grounds and about the horses.
"You gots horses of your very own?" JD asked in wonder.
"Yes we do, not many at the moment, but there is plenty of room for more. If some boys were to come and live with us, they might be able to have a horse or pony of their very own. You see, boys, my wife and I have no children to share our home with and we would like it very much if you boys would come and live with us and be our sons."
A silence fell over the small room. Finely Josiah, who looked the most confused of all of them, spoke. "You want to adopt us?"
"Yes we do," Evie confirmed.
"Me, you want to adopt me?" he asked incredulously.
"Why do you sound so surprised, son?" Orin asked.
"I though... I thought I was too old now, that's all."
"You're not that old. Doctor Phillips tells me you are a very able student, he has high hopes for you."
"And if I go and live with you, he won't have to pay for me to stay here. What can I say, but yes. Getting an education is important, this is the best way to do it."
Josiah didn't sound happy, only logical and resigned.
"What about you two?" Evie asked softly.
"We can live with you and the horses?" JD asked.
"Buck likes horses an awful lot, can I go an' tell him?"
Evie looked at her husband then back at the little dark haired boy. "I'm sorry, we don't have room for all the boys here, just you three."
"No," Vin suddenly said.
"Pardon son?" Orin asked.
"I ain't goin'!" With that he was up and running from the room.
Doctor Ben looked up from his coffee as Orin Travis walked into the big kitchen.
"How did it go?" he asked.
"Josiah agreed to come, but he made it sound as if I'd just sentenced him to ten years hard labour, Vin just said no and ran from the room and little JD burst into tears - followed by my wife." He looked up with a rueful smile. "All told, I don't think it could have gone much worse."
Ben put his mug down. "I am sorry, this is all my fault."
"Just how is it your fault?"
"Because," Ben pushed his chair back and stood. "I sort of knew what would happen, I just hoped against hope that it wouldn't. Come on, let's see what we can do."
When they reached the office, Evie had dried her tears, though her eyes were still red and puffy. JD was sitting on Josiah's lap and while he was no longer wailing, he was still crying. He looked up when the door opened.
"Doc'er Ben, I want Buck," he sobbed.
"I know you do, don't worry." Ben reached out and ruffled his hair.
"Shouldn't we go and find his friend?" Evie asked.
"No, no need to go looking for him," Ben told her with a wink.
Right on cue, there was a pounding of feet and Buck burst into the office, not even bothering to knock.
"Buck!" JD called, reaching out his arms to his surrogate big brother.
In no more than a second, Buck had the little boy in his arms and was glaring at the adults in the room, accusing all of them of upsetting his boy.
"Josiah?" Ben spoke softly to the oldest boy.
"Take Buck and JD outside and have Chris find Vin."
"No one is going to have to leave here against his will, understand me? We'll get it sorted out - all right?"
A faint smile crossed Sanchez's face. "Yes sir."
Chris had seen Vin bolt from the house and while he didn't know what was wrong, he knew where his young friend was headed. Chris was a tall boy, with long legs, he was a good runner, but he was no match for Vin. The slight boy had amazing stamina and was as sure-footed as a mountain goat. Running down hill, he was flying over the ground, headed for the woods that lay behind the pigsties on the edge of Four Corners' land. Deep in the small copse was a large oak, the lowest branch was just low enough to allow Vin to swing himself up into the tree. Once up, he could climb almost to the top, only stopping when the branches under him began to bend and creak when he stood on them.
"Chris!" Josiah yelled, before Chris got too far away from the house.
"Doc say's bring him back, says not to worry, he'll sort it all out!"
Chris made his way into the woods and headed for the oak. He couldn't hear Vin moving head of him, but that didn't necessarily mean he'd reached the tree already. As well as being fast and sure-footed, Vin had an amazing ability to move silently when he wanted to. When he reached the big tree, Chris looked up, hoping to see some glimpse of his quarry, but the foliage was too thick.
"Vin!" he called.
There was no response.
"Come on Vin, don't make me come up there."
Still there was no response, but he could hear someone moving in the canopy above him.
"Doc wants you to come back to the house."
Chris had to smile. English was Vin's second language, and when he was upset or angry he slipped back into his mother tongue, Comanche. Kee, meaning 'no', was one of the few words Chris understood.
"Come on down, Josiah said the Doc promises to get it all sorted out."
A string of angry Comanche words came down to him from the branches.
"I don't know what all that was about, but if the Doc promised to sort it out, he will, he's never lied to us."
There was no response.
"We should give him a chance. Come down." Chris used his 'do it now' voice.
The branches creaked some more then, Chris saw a small foot, followed by a leg, appear above him. With a speed that had Chris' heart in his mouth at times, Vin descended the tree and finally dropped to the ground beside his friend. There was still a look of angry defiance on his face but he was there and prepared to trust, if not the doctor, at least Chris.
By the time they were back at the house, the others were gathered under their favourite tree. JD was clamped to Buck like a limpet, but at least he wasn't crying anymore. The seven of them settled down to await developments.
Ben Phillips waited until the door was closed and he was sure the boys were out of ear shot before he began to speak.
"Let me apologise again, I should have foreseen this. No, that's not right, I did forsee it, I just chose to put my head in the sand. This was such a good opportunity for them, I tried to tell myself they'd all be okay."
"Would you care to explain all this?" Orin asked.
"Of course. First, I need to tell you a little more about JD and how he came to be here."
Phillips had already told them the story of how he answered the front door one cold, late December morning to find a sleeping child on his doorstep. A woman was just getting into a taxi in the driveway. He'd called and waved to her, but the car just drove off. JD, as he discovered the little four-year-old was called, was sleeping, his head resting on an old carpetbag, which contained his meagre supply of clothes and toys. There was also a small framed picture of his mother and a letter. It read -
This is my son JD, his father died before he was born, and I am dying now. I can no longer care for him and do not want him to watch his mother dying. We had a last Christmas together now I leave him with you, trusting in you and God to care for him. When I am gone, I will leave instructions that you are notified. He is a good boy, and will give you no trouble. Tell him I love him and did not want to leave him, but God and the Holy Mother are calling me home and it is time for me to go.
With the letter was a birth certificate for John Daniel Dunne, a birth certificate for Rachel Mary Brown, a death certificate for Daniel Patrick Dunne - who had died from a burst appendix - and a marriage certificate for Rachel and Daniel.
JD was too young to be staying at Four Corners, but it was a Saturday, so there was no one in the county welfare office until Monday. On Sunday, it began to snow and it continued snowing for four days. By the time it had finished, the roads were all blocked and the phone lines brought down by the weight of snow. That winter was one of the worst Dr. Ben could remember. Snow after snow piled up with no thaw in between making it very difficult to get around. Then, in January, making things worse, little JD fell ill with scarlet fever.
"He'd already made friends with Buck, but when he got sick, well, I had to put him in the sick room," Ben explained. "He was afraid to be on his own, so Buck promised to stay with him. He managed to convince me that he'd had Scarlet Fever when he was little. He's just a kid himself, but he was amazing. He never left him, he talked to him, cooled him down, rocked him, helped me get water into him - Buck was the one that brought him though it, not me. Now, they are as close as brothers."
Evie had tears in her eyes again. "What happened to his mother?"
"I received a letter late in February, from a convent south of here, she died of cancer. By the time JD was better and the snow was gone, I couldn't bring myself to send him way."
"Why didn't you tell us all of this before?" Orin asked.
"JD is exceptionally intelligent, you can offer him the kind of education he deserves, I can't."
"If we had known, we might have chosen Buck, instead of Vin," Evie pointed out.
Orin looked down at his hands and softly confessed, "Buck is the 'one' we didn't want, remember?"
Evie looked at her husband and frowned, then the light of understanding dawned. "Oh yes, the one who's a... and his mother was a..."
Phillips shook his head in despair. "You're pleased I took in a Negro boy and you'd take Vin, but you don't want to take Buck?"
"Yes but, you know, it's different," Evie tried to explain.
"Why is it different, because his mother was a whore?"
"Doctor Phillips, please remember that you are speaking to my wife!" Orin admonished.
"What else do you want me to call her, a lady of the night, a soiled dove, a working girl? It comes down to the same thing!" Phillips was on his feet now, pacing. "Yes it says 'father unknown' on his birth certificate, but none of this is Buck's fault. Do you really believe that the sins of the parents are visited on the children? He's never had a father, he grew up in nomadic poverty and then his mother was brutally murdered. I think he's been punished enough, don't you? If what he did and continues to do for JD doesn't tell you all you need to know about the boy, then I don't know what will."
There was a moment of silence, then Orin stood and looked the passionate young doctor in the eye.
"You should have been a lawyer and you're wrong," he told him.
"Buck has had a father, he's had you."
"Orin, we can't split them up, they need each other."
Orin looked back at his wife. "I know dear." Then he turned back to the doctor. "Now what about young Vin?"
"He's scared of losing the only family, the only tribe, he has left. People look at him, with his fair hair and blue eyes and they see a white boy, but that quarter of Comanche makes all the difference. It's what he was raised to be, it's what he sees himself as. I don't think he really understands our world, so he's made his life here fit his world. The other boys in his room are his brothers, we are all his tribe and Chris - not me - is his chief."
"Chris is the blond boy, the one who made up the new baseball rules?" Phillips nodded. "So if Chris is his chief, what does that make you?"
"Some kind of tribal elder, I think."
"We'll take them both," Evie stated.
Both men looked back at her. "Both?" Orin asked.
"All five of them, Josiah, JD, Vin, Buck and Chris, we'll take all of them."
"Now hold on, Evie girl, five! You want to take on five boys? Where are we going to put them?"
Evie smiled. "We open up the attics. The playroom is still up there, there are four more rooms, with nothing in them but junk. We clear them out, redecorate and we'll have more than enough room." A though suddenly stuck her. "We'll have to have another bathroom put in."
Orin looked at his wife and knew she had made up her mind. This was what they were going to do, and nothing he could say would change her mind.
Accepting this, he turned back to Phillips. "Looks like we'll be taking five boys - unless... Are there any other boys we should know about?"
"Well, there are seven boys in the room and well, Ezra of course is only here until his mother returns for him, but Nathan..."
"The Negro boy, he's very close to Josiah and the others."
As appealing as it was not to break up any friendships and if they were adopting five already, one more wouldn't be a hardship, Orin could already see difficulties. Nevertheless, Evie was not to be denied.
"Of course we'll take him," she assured.
"Six boys, are you sure?" Phillips asked.
"Of course, why not?"
"Why not?" Orin echoed.
The three adults walked out into the sunshine to find the boys and give them the good news, hoping that this time it would be better received.
It didn't take long to locate them, sitting under a tree. Orin couldn't help but think they looked like a group waiting to hear a jury's verdict. As they approached, all the boys stood. Without a word being spoken, the boys formed up behind Chris; Josiah stood to his right and Buck, with JD on his hip, on his left, the others behind him.
"Boys," Orin began. "We came here to offer a home to some boys, to make a new family. We didn't understand that some of you boys already were a family. We understand that now."
"So we can all stay here?" Chris asked.
"If you want to, or, you can all come and live with my wife and I. We have a big, house, we have land, we have horses and we would really like you to come."
Chris turned his back on the adults and the other boys followed suit, forming a tight huddle. A few moments later they turned back.
"It sounds like a good deal, we'd like to come," Chris informed them.
Doctor Phillips stepped forward. "Ezra?"
"Yes sir?" The boys parted to allow Ezra to come to the front.
"You understand that you can't go with them. You have to wait here for your mother to come back for you."
Ezra looked down at the ground and nodded, hoping to hide his distress.
The Travis' had planned on bringing home three boys, so their home wasn't ready for six! It was decided that the boys would remain at Four Corners for a further two weeks, while the house was made ready. This was just enough time for them to have the attic rooms cleaned and repainted, purchase some new furniture and start work on adding a bathroom to the top floor.
The attic space was huge. At the top of the stairs was a large open area that ran the width of the house. Opening off this, were four large rooms. One room was partitioned to make room for the new bathroom. Josiah would have the small guest room on the second floor, Chris would get the newly created small room in the attic and the other four boys would be divided between two of the remaining three rooms. The last room would be used to store all the things that had been cluttering the attic, but for whatever reason, could not be thrown away.
The big central area had, in the past, been the playroom and all of Steven's old toys were still there. Together, Orin and Evie faced the task of deciding which toys were too precious to be used by their new family and which were too old, broken or too childish for them. The big rocking horse was cleaned and given a new coat of varnish, the clockwork train set was oiled, all the animals from the Noah's ark were paired up. Jigsaws were counted, game pieces checked and books dusted off. Orin picked up a particularly large book, a leather bound edition of Grimm's Fairy Tales, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. He used to sit on Steven's bed and read one of the stories each night. When he reached one of the huge illuminated plates, he'd stop, beckon his son closer before pulling back the protective sheet of tissue paper protecting the exquisitely crafted picture. At the end of the story, before he would go to sleep, Steven would always insist they went back and looked at the pictures one more time. Evie knew, just by looking, that these were memories her husband wasn't ready to share.
"It's a common book, we can get another one," she said softly.
Orin nodded and put the book to one side.
By the time the boys did arrive, there would only be two weeks before the start of the new school year. Orin and Evie had already decided that their new sons should go to the same school as Steven. Getting the school to take Nathan wasn't going to be a problem, so long as they had the space, and since it was a private school, they almost certainly would. In a time of economic depression, a private education was one of the first luxuries that families gave up, sometimes by choice, sometimes not. The Mill School had seen some lean times, but it had survived. After all, it had been educating the children of New Jersey for more than 200 years, so a little thing like a depression wasn't going to shut it down. The school had been founded by Quakers in the early eighteenth century. When - in order to receive federal and state funds - the school was ordered to give up all religious allegiances, the Mill School took the difficult decision to become a private institution. It went against their philosophy of education for all, for despite their Quaker foundation, the school was open to all denominations and indeed all faiths, but they were not prepared to compromise the principals of their founders.
Paying six sets of school fees, rather than three, was going to be expensive, but Orin assured his wife they could afford it. He explained that they would have to tighten their belts slightly, no winter vacations in Florida or spring cruises in the Caribbean and the boys would have to wear a few hand-me-down clothes. However, he figured they could manage to afford a pony and a few horses, if that's what the boys wanted. Another expense was the new car Orin knew he'd have to buy. There was just no way to get six children in their Chrysler Airstream.
He set out to locate something that could carry eight, and eventually came home with a Chevy Suburban. Evie was less than impressed.
"It looks like a van, with windows!"
"Well, technically, it is," Orin had to admit.
"And it's only got two doors, how do they all get in?"
Orin showed her the car's interior, and the split folding seats, but she wasn't impressed. "Why can't we have a proper car?"
"Because the only one I could find costs more than $2000!"
"$2000, and, it's only got seven seats and would take them two months to deliver."
Eve looked at the Suburban again. "How much was this one?"
"A little under $700."
"It's not that bad I guess. It's just so big."
Orin smiled and gave his wife a quick kiss on the cheek. "And you can keep the Airstream - I know you love it - besides, I just don't see how you're going to get the boys to school and me to the station in one car."
Evie looked at him for a moment as she considered this. On a normal morning, Orin drove to the station with Evie. He then took the train into the city, while she had the use of the car for the rest of the day, until she met him at the station in the evening. The school bus didn't serve The Mill School, so Evie was going to have to drive the boys the fifteen miles to the school every morning and the school was in the opposite direction to the town and the railway.
A grin spread across her face. "I knew there was a good reason I married you." She returned the kiss he'd given her.
Chris was worried and he didn't like that, worry distracted him, he needed to focus. A number of things concerned him; that the Travis' wouldn't come back, that they'd change their minds, after all there were lots of orphanages, with lots of boys, and girls come to think of it, who needed homes, children that didn't come with five friends. He'd spent so long, so many years, telling himself he didn't need a family, he didn't need an education, he didn't need anyone to look after him - and now he was going to get all those things he'd told himself he didn't need and he realised he wanted them! He wanted them so badly it hurt to think it might all go wrong. Outwardly he kept his composure, pretending he wasn't bothered one way or the other, He didn't want the others to see his weakness - as he saw it.
JD was beside himself with excitement; it was all he could talk about.
"What kind of pony will I have?" he'd ask.
"Don't know," Buck would reply.
"Can we still be in the same room?"
"How far is it?"
It didn't matter what he asked, or how often, the answer was the same, but it didn't stop him asking; the same questions, every day, several times a day and Buck never tired of answering, it became a habit. Occasionally he'd ask the others, but after a while he'd irritate them and they'd tell him to go and find his best friend.
Buck didn't mind the questions. It made JD happy when he answered, even if the answer was 'I don't know', it made the others happy, because it stopped JD annoying them, but mostly he liked it because it helped him remember this was real, he really was going to get adopted. Like Chris, he'd told himself he didn't care when no one wanted to take him, but he did. He liked people, he tried to make people happy, he tried not to get into trouble, but still no one was interested in him, and it hurt. Now, somebody was going to adopt him, give him a real home. He knew they didn't really want him, they just wanted to make JD happy, but that was okay. He wasn't going to complain or worry about it. It was his chance to show what a good son he could be and he was going to do all he could to make the Travis' happy and not regret adopting him along with the others.
Vin genuinely didn't care if he got adopted or not, all he cared about was staying with his friends, his family. At Four Corners or with the Travis', it didn't matter to him, so long as he wasn't alone. None the less, he found the prospect of change unsettling. Sometimes he'd worry that he wouldn't be able to find his way around the new house, or that the new schoolteacher wouldn't be as nice as Miss Foster. Somehow Chris always seemed to know what he was worried about and reminded him they'd all be there to help him.
Nathan was as surprised as Josiah that anyone would want to take him, especially that a white couple would want him. When his father died and he was told he'd be going to live at Four Corners he hadn't been too worried, partly because he was still grieving for his father and partly because he'd assumed it was a home for Negroes. By the time he realised he was the only black boy there, it was too late. There had been a few comments from some of the other boys, but Dr Ben had made it clear he wouldn't tolerate such talk and then he was placed in room seven and fallen under the protection of Chris and Josiah. After that, things had settled down. Now he was going to have to start all over again. The Travis' had assured them they would all be going to the same school, even JD, which meant he'd be at school with Josiah and Chris. When you had someone as big as Josiah and as scary as Chris could be, on your side, you didn't get bullied much, so he wasn't worried - much.
Ezra watched all his friends; he saw their excitement and their worries and wished he were going too. If Maude came back, Dr Ben could tell her were he was - couldn't he? The doctor had explained to him that he had promised Maude he would look after him, and he didn't have her permission to send him to live anywhere else. Ezra had accepted this, because he had to. Maude would come back, eventually, she always did. When? Well that was anybody's guess. Once she left him with an aunt, or at least a woman she said was his aunt, for seven months. Aunt Mona was okay, she wasn't mean to him, she fed him and washed his clothes, she made him have baths, but that was all, most of the time she just ignored him. When Maude came back, he was happy to go with her.
He was always happy to go with his mother - until now. For the first time, he started to wish she wouldn't come back. If she didn't come back, he could go to school and stay with his friends. Then he'd realise what he was wishing for and feel guilty - he loved his mother, he really did, but he didn't like her. Sometimes he'd lay awake at night and try to work out how to solve his dilemma. The solution he came up with was that he would go and live with the others and his mother would come and visit him sometimes. She's teach him to play cards and deal from the bottom of the deck and slight of hand, all the things he couldn't learn in school - and then she'd go away again, leaving him with his new family. A family who were teaching him to play and swim and have fun, a family who would let him go to school and do all the things other boys did.
All too soon, as far as Ezra was concerned, and not soon enough for JD, the two weeks were up and the Travis' were back. Miss Nettie had packed each boy's possessions. It saddened her, not only that six of her boys were leaving, but that, as much as they - the staff - tried to give their charges a good start in life, still there was so little money to share out, that the belongings of six boys fit into two small cases.
The boys had been saying goodbye to their friends for the last two days. Now, the rest of the boys gathered on the porch to watch the lucky six leave. Each boy said his farewell to each member of the staff. There had been a very sad scene the night before, when JD finally realised he wouldn't be taking the chickens - 'his' chickens - with him. He'd insisted he had to give each one a hug goodbye, luckily the chickens didn't share this feeling and the plan was quickly abandoned.
Doctor Ben was the last member of staff to say goodbye. Josiah extended his hand.
"Thank you, for everything, for giving me a chance at a future."
Ben gasped the arm of the big teenager. "You have a lot to offer the world Josiah, a kind of inner wisdom I have rarely seen before, so long as you can keep that temper in check."
Josiah smiled wryly. "Yes sir."
Ben looked down at Nathan, who was crying. "Hey there, none of that. This is going to be a great adventure."
Nathan sniffed back his tears and nodded grudgingly.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
"A doctor," Nathan answered, as he always did.
"Right, and the only way to do that, is to get a really good education - right?"
Nathan nodded again, his eyes down cast. Suddenly he found a hand in his, Josiah's.
Smiling, Ben patted him on the shoulder. "Run along with Josiah."
Chris stepped up; his expression one of determined calm. He held out his hand. "Thank you," was all he said, then he moved to walk on, but Ben didn't let go. "Chris?"
The blond paused and looked back. "Try and remember that you're still a boy. It's okay to let the grownups take the lead and worry about the others - sometimes."
Chris didn't look convinced, but he muttered a 'yes Sir', then turned away.
Vin stared Ben in the eye and said something in Comanche, then, for the first time, he translated. "It means 'you are one of the People in your heart'."
"I am honoured."
Like Nathan, Buck was crying, but trying not to, backhanding tears away as best he could. Ben cupped his hand behind Buck's neck and pulled him onto his shoulder, realising as he did just how tall the boy was getting. "It'll be okay, they're good people," he reassured. Buck nodded. "You'll all be together."
"And JD needs you."
"I know - but I'll miss you."
"I'm going to miss all of you - courage."
All the time they were speaking, JD was standing behind Buck, clutching on to his leg. Finally as Buck and the doctor separated, it was his turn. Being only five, he was making no attempt to hide his tears. Ben bent down and scooped him up.
"I don't wanna go!" JD wailed.
"Yes you do."
"No, wanna stay here wif you!"
"But Buck's leaving, don't you want to go with him?"
"Buck can stay too."
"No little one, its time you had a real home again."
"No! I love you Doctor Ben, please can we stay here!"
Now it was Ben who was fighting back the tears. "No, not anymore. Your Mama asked me to take care of you. I have to do what she'd want."
"Mamma wouldn't mind if I stay here."
"No she wouldn't, but she'd like it much better if you went to live in a big house, with a pony and had Buck to look after you."
JD didn't look convinced.
"Come on, give me a smile, it's time to go."
JD didn't smile; he just flung his arms around the doctor's neck and refused to let go. After a few moments, Ben peeled the little arms from around his neck and passed his reluctant burden to Buck.
Ezra watched all this from the library window, they had said their goodbyes the night before, talking long into the night, knowing that this night, just for once, Doctor Ben wouldn't mind. They assured him his mother would come for him soon. Now, all he could do was watch as the best thing that had ever happened to him disintegrated. His only friends were moving out of his life, forever. They said they'd write. He'd heard that before, sometimes he even got a letter or two, but it didn't last long. Even if they did continue to write, the letters would never have found him, since Maude was always moving them on, never leaving a forwarding address.
As he watched, his six friends walked down the path towards two waiting taxies and their two new guardians. When they reached the cars, all six turned and waved to the assembly on the front porch, then they turned a fraction and, as one, waved directly to him. Despite himself, Ezra waved back.
It took most of the day to get to Millers Junction. By the time the car was pulling into the drive, JD was asleep. One by one, all the other boys climbed out of the Suburban. Buck crawled out last, turning back to lift the sleeping JD out. He knew nothing was going to wake him now, for once the boy was asleep, even a firecracker going off under his bed wouldn't make him stir. He turned around, his surrogate brother draped over his shoulder and looked at the others. All four were standing there, heads craned back staring up. Following their line of sight, Buck took in the house for the first time.
"Merde!" he swore. "We're gonna live here?"
"Yes," Orin confirmed as he came around the car to join his wife.
"Wow!" gasped Nathan.
"Which bit?" Chris asked.
"Bit?" Evie asked.
"Which bit of the house is your apartment in?"
Evie smiled. "All of it, there are no apartments, this is our house."
Chris turned to her, clearly not comprehending. "You live here? Just you, no one else?"
"Well, our housekeeper, Mrs. Potter, lives here but yes, it's just us," Evie told him.
Orin put his arm around his wife. "That's why we wanted you to come here. This house was built for a family, a big family."
"Well ya got that now," Buck stated out loud before could stop himself. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean ..." He looked desperately at his new guardians, hoping he hadn't blotted his copybook already.
"Yes we do dear, and it's just what we wanted. Why don't we go inside and find your rooms? Then we can put JD to bed."
While Orin showed Josiah his room on the second floor, Evie took the others up to the attic. While Chris, Vin and Nathan looked at the huge, open playroom; Buck and Evie put JD to bed. She watched, with a smile on her face, as Buck undressed the slumbering boy down to his drawers and undershirt, and tenderly tucked him into bed.
"Sure is a nice bed Ma'am," he commented.
The bed was only a single, but it had brass ends and was still wider than any of the beds at Four Corners. The bed was big, with a deep mattress, that was soft and smooth and didn't sag in the middle, Above the sheets lay a thick, soft, blanket with stain ribbon on the edges and above that a plump eiderdown quilt. Buck looked across the room at the other bed, which was identical.
"Is that my bed?" he asked.
"It can be, if you want, although we did think that Vin might take that one, and you could bunk with Nathan, since you two are almost the same age."
Buck looked back at JD, who was now snuggled under the fresh sheets, thumb in his mouth as if he'd always been there.
"I'd like to stay with the little guy, if that's okay?"
Orin came up the stairs behind the other boys. "Chris, you can have this room. It's a little smaller than the others, but there's a double bed and a desk." He showed Chris the room.
Chris just stared at it. Mr Travis might call it small, but he didn't; in truth, it wasn't much smaller than the room the seven of them had been sharing at Four Corners. He turned to look incredulously at the man beside him.
"Yes it's all for you," Orin confirmed. "There is a bathroom next door and another one down stairs."
Since it was already late, once they'd had a drink and a cookie in the kitchen and met Mrs Potter, they all went to bed. Tomorrow, in daylight, there would be plenty of time to explore the rest of the house and the grounds.
Ezra had thought he'd have the room to himself now that all his friends were gone. It didn't bother him, he was used to sleeping alone, he was even looking forward to it, but it wasn't to be. All the rooms were crowded, so as soon as the others were gone, JD's little bed was dismantled and removed, then four other boys were moved in. There were two younger boys and Dominic and Jack, the two older boys who had been in the kitchen and helped him on his first day. The new boys were nice enough, but it wasn't the same. There were to be no more swimming trips to the river, no more adventures in the woods, no more visits to the mares and foals. Ezra settled down that night resigned to spending what was left of the summer reading.
JD woke up in a strange bed. It felt nice, it smelled nice, but it wasn't his bed! For one thing it was much, much bigger and it didn't creek when he rolled over and he'd tried three times, so he knew this for sure. The room had been dark when he woke up, now it was getting lighter and he needed the bathroom. The trouble was, he didn't know were it was. He could see another bed on the far side of the room but it was too dark to see who was in it. However, he had faith that it was Buck. His Buck wouldn't leave him alone in a strange place. He climbed out of bed and trotted across the room. Close up he could see that it was Buck in the other bed.
"Huh?" Buck responded to the short finger poking him in the arm.
"B'ck?" JD asked around his thumb.
"I gotta go."
JD poked again. "I gotta go now!"
"Well go then."
"Don't know were it is."
Buck opened his eyes, looked around the room, remembering were he was and - finally - that JD had been asleep when they had arrived. "Right, okay, come on."
As Buck stood in the doorway while JD took care of business, Chris came out of his room.
"Hi," Buck greeted.
"Hi. Kid gonna be long?"
Just then JD came to the door, drawers still around his ankles. "I can't reach the chain."
"JD, pull up your drawers," Chris told him broadly. "Then go wash your hands."
Buck shook his head and headed in to lift him up to the basin.
Nathan and Vin were already up and dressed. Their room had glass doors that lead out onto the roof of the bay window below. It was fenced and Chris had assured the Travis' that both boys could be trusted not to do anything foolish. Chris found them out there, admiring the view of the gardens and grounds.
"Is it really all ours, we don't have to share it?" Vin asked.
"Yes, at least I think so. Come on, everyone else is dressed, we're gonna head down and see if we can find Josiah."
"Do you think we should? Are we meant to wait to be called?" Nathan asked.
Chris thought a moment. There was a clock on the wall in the play room, it said it was almost seven thirty. At Four Corners, that was a good half an hour past breakfast, but he knew some folk, especially city folk, didn't get up as early.
"I'll go find Josiah, then we'll wait a spell."
The six of them gathered in the large playroom and explored. JD and Buck looked at the train set, but didn't touch anything; Vin looked longingly at the big rocking horse but also didn't touch. It was the same for all of them, they looked but, for now, until they knew the rules, they didn't touch. Finally, at a quarter past eight, Evie Travis appeared at the head of the stairs.
"There you all are, up and dressed too. We weren't sure how long you'd sleep after the trip. Come on down, there's breakfast on the table."
The next week was a frantic affair. They learned their way around the house and grounds. They quickly learned the house rules: unless they received permission, they were to stay out of the Travis's bedroom, Mrs. Potter's room, the spare bedrooms on the second floor, and Orin's private study, they were not to run in the house and they were not to slide down the banister. They were free to explore the grounds but not go into the horse's stalls unless there was an adult there to supervise them. They were introduced to Mr Yosemite, known to all as 'Tiny', who came every day but Sundays, to tend the grounds and take care of the horses. There were a few hiccups along the way, for one thing it took the Travis' three days to work out that none of the toys had been played with. They patiently explained that all the toys, books and games were there to be used. All they asked was that each evening, they were to put everything neatly away for the night. They also had to explain that there was plenty of hot water, enough for each boy to have his own bath every day. Josiah and Orin constructed not one but three boxes, so that whichever bathroom JD used, he'd be able to reach the basin and flush handle.
What they were going to call their new guardians was as yet unresolved, the boys were unsure what was appropriate and had settled for Sir and Ma'am for now. The adults didn't want to push the matter and so had said nothing.
The second day after they arrived, Orin had to go back to work and Evie took all the boys into town to buy them some new clothes. For a start, they all needed at least three button down white shirts and a tie.
"You see boys," she explained. "Your new school has a dress code. All the girls have to wear a white apron over their dress and all you boys have to wear white shirts and ties."
As well as shirts and ties, the older boys got two new pairs of long trousers while the two youngest got knee britches and long socks. They also received a new winter sweater each. Josiah was supplied with a new winter coat, since his was now much too small for him. None of the others was yet big enough to wear his old one, but Evie would keep it until they were. Each boy was also fitted for riding britches and jackets.
All six boys stood excitedly at the barn door as they were introduced to two horses.
"This is Bud," Orin led out his own horse out, a big bay with a white blaze. "But as gentle as he is, he's too big for you boys to ride, except for Josiah."
"This is Pandora," Evie led her own, much smaller grey. "You other boys are going to learn on her, if you want to - no one has to."
Orin had put Bud back in his stall and now approached JD; he knelt down so that he was at the little boy's eye level. "Since Pandora's a bit too big for you, as soon as we can, we're going to borrow a pony for you, but you can have a go on her until it gets here - okay?"
"I get a pony of my own?" JD asked in wonder.
"You do, yes." JD grinned up at Buck, as Orin stood. "If you take to it, if you like riding, we'll get horses and ponies for all of you in due course," he promised. "Have any of you ever ridden before?" he asked.
Chris and Josiah raised their hands, then Chris looked around for Vin, whom he knew could ride. Talking about riding was one of the few things that got Vin really animated. The lithe Texan was nowhere to be seen. Spinning around, he finally spotted him half way down the barn, talking to a horse they hadn't been introduced to.
"Vin!" he hissed, hoping to call him back before one of the Travis' saw him.
Unfortunately, it was too late. "Vin, son, come away from him," Orin called firmly.
Vin didn't move as both Orin and Chris headed toward him. He was speaking in Comanche, and snorting into the horse's nostrils, as the big blaze faced black nuzzled his open palm.
"Come away now boy, that horse is dangerous."
Vin didn't move or stop what he was doing.
"Vin, come away!" Chris commanded.
"He's lonely," Vin said softly, not moving at all.
"That was my son's horse, no one but him ever rode him, no one has ridden him since. He's a one man horse."
That first morning, over breakfast, the boys had been told about Steven and how he died. "We are not replacing our son with you, we can't. But this is a family house and we love children. If God had blessed us, we would have had more, but it wasn't to be," Evie had explained. "Now I know why, it was so we would give a new home to boys who'd lost their own."
"Sir?" Chris began.
"Vin, he's got a way with horses, his grandfather taught him, Indian ways. Maybe he can tame him?"
Orin looked on as the horse dropped his head onto the boy's shoulder, eyes half closed as Vin began to stroke his neck.
"I haven't seen him that calm since Steven last..." Evie admitted as she came to stand beside her husband. "Maybe we should let him try?"
"I don't know, Peso is so unpredictable."
"We did buy him in Texas," Evie reminded. "Maybe he's been waiting for another Texan?"
"Maybe? Okay, you can ride him, but not alone, ever - deal?"
"Yes sir," Vin promised, keeping his voice calm and soft, despite his joy.
After a week of doing nothing much but read, the day Ezra had been waiting for finally came - he was going to school. Ezra was placed in the same class Vin had been in, with the same teacher, Miss Foster. Sarah Foster was dedicated to her career and the children in her care. Still comparatively young, she hadn't lost her idealism. Under her gentle and understanding tutelage, Vin had made huge progress, having come to her class almost illiterate, he had left it with a reading age that was only a year and a half behind his peers. Ezra walked into the classroom for the first time with his stomach in a knot of anticipation. He used all his mother's teachings to watch the other children and copy them. He didn't know the words to the pledge of allegiance, but he copied the other boys and managed to fake it. Their first assignment was to write an essay entitled 'What I did in during the summer vacation'. Ezra thought long and hard about what he was going to include and what to leave out. In the end, he was still writing when Miss Foster told them it was time to finish.
"Goodness that is a long story," she commented.
Ezra was worried he'd done something wrong. "It is too long?" he asked.
"Of course not, I look forward to reading it."
"But I am not finished," he protested.
"It's alright, you wrote the whole time." She could see he wasn't happy. "You can take it home and finish it, if you want to?"
"Thank you, Ma'am."
The next subject was math. After setting the problems, Miss Foster walked among her class, checking their progress and stopping to help when it was needed. When she reached Ezra, she found he was once more working on his essay.
"Ezra, I know I said you could finish your story, but we are doing math now. So please put it way and do as I asked," she instructed firmly.
"I have completed all the problems on the board," Ezra explained, showing her his math book.
Sarah scanned the multiplication problems. He had indeed completed all the work and not only had he got them all correct, he'd even done it neatly.
"Ezra this is excellent work, please continue with your essay." While I work out some more challenging work for you.
Vin sat at the breakfast table, running his finger around his collar for the twentieth time.
"Vin, dear, leave the collar alone," Mrs Potter admonished, yet again.
Vin sighed and put his hand down. The collar was so stiff and tight it felt as if it was strangling him. "Yes Ma'am."
"I know it's stiff right now, but that's because it's new, once I wash it a few times, it'll soften up some," she assured. "Buck, how're you doing?"
"All done." Buck admired his handiwork. A big serviette tied around his neck covered JD's new school shirt and his cuffs were rolled up past his elbows. "No breakfast is getting on that shirt."
JD just beamed, Mrs Potter had made pancakes, and he didn't care what he had to wear, so long as he got fresh warm pancakes and syrup.
The Mill School was not large, just one class per grade. It was housed in a collection of buildings clustered around the old mill that gave it its name. The first floor of the old mill was given over to the school's meeting hall, and each school day began with a twenty minute prayer session. The whole school gathered in silent contemplation, occasionally someone would speak, as the spirit moved them. At first, the boys found this a little unnerving and JD found it very hard to sit still and silent for so long, but within a couple of weeks, they were used to it and Josiah found it becoming the highlight of his day.
Vin's fears about his new teacher melted away when he met Mr Proctor, a tall, slim, softly spoken man in is sixties. Infinitely patient, he was respected, even loved, by the student body. He quickly recognised Vin's intelligence far outstripped his ability and set to work, giving him the extra help and encouragement he needed.
All the boys were placed in different grades, except for Buck and Nathan, who were in the same grade. Nathan was the only coloured boy in the school, but there was a coloured girl in grade one, with JD and a half Chinese girl in grade ten. Some heads turned, but nothing was said. Buck was his usual friendly self and the two of them fitted in with the other children quickly.
Within three weeks, all the boys felt at home in their new life. They wrote to Ezra and Doctor Ben every Sunday and they, as promised, even sent pictures.
Ezra took his letter, and despite the chill wind, sat outside on the porch swing seat to open and read it. There was a drawing by JD, it was hard to tell what it was, but he could just make out the scrawled letters at the bottom 'me and my pony'. As well as the letters from all the others, there were photographs. As he looked at the big house, the gardens and the pictures of each of his friends, sitting on a horse or pony, he felt his eyes fill with tears. His life wasn't terrible in any way, but he just ached to be with his friends again, their absences had left a huge empty hole in him and it hurt. It was already October, Halloween was approaching and still there was no word from his mother. Ezra put the pictures back in the envelope and tucked them in his pocket. Then he looked around and sighed. This was going to be his life, this was where he lived and he was never going to see his friends again.
Ben came out on to the porch and sat down beside him.
"Missing them?" he asked, as Ezra backhanded his tears away.
"Me too." The kindly doctor looked down at the boy and smiled. "It'll get better, you'll see." He put his arm around Ezra's shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. He didn't mention Ezra's mother. He was beginning to doubt she would ever return.
For once, Ezra let himself lean into the offered hug and took comfort in it.