A Seven Brothers AU (modern)
Main Character: Little Ezra
Disclaimer: I own nothing, especially not the seven and no profit is being made by this humble tale.
Robert Larabee and his wife Maggie are killed in a car accident leaving behind six sons. Josiah and Chris are awarded joint custody of the two youngest, Vin and JD by Roberts old friend Judge Orrin Travis. Nobody is aware as yet of the existence of Ezra.
Josiah, Chris and Buck are the result of Roberts first marriage; Vin and JD his second. Nathan was adopted as a baby.
The Larabee clan are just beginning to come to terms with the loss of their parents; can they really cope with any more shocks?
Author's Note: Although about the seven as brothers this story is essentially Ezracentric. All the traditional Ezra character features will no doubt make an appearance. I make no claims of this story possessing anything as exciting as a plot. Like many kidfics it's about family and home. Please note that this is a work of fiction and as such liberties have been taken with certain organisations and procedures - take events with a hefty pinch of salt!
WARNINGS: Mentions of past abuse against a child. Violence against a child ( not by any of the brothers ). A little strong language but nothing too offensive I think.
The characters' ages are:
Josiah - 25
Chris - 23
Buck - 21
Nathan - 17
Vin - 10
JD - 8
Ezra - 7
It had been three months since they had buried Robert and Maggie Larabee, side by side, the pouring rain mirroring the flow of tears from the eyes of the congregation. Many more tears had been shed since that awful afternoon but now they were beginning to mingle with the evidence of other emotions that proved that life did indeed go on; childish laughter, sibling arguments and warm praises were becoming more predominant with each passing day. Josiah hoped that they had reached a turning point, especially with the two youngest whose nightmares had become less frequent and less intense.
Vin barrelled into the large kitchen with a broad smile on his face, JD as usual hot on his heels.
"Well somebody is looking like his holiday has finally begun" laughed Buck as he prepared one of his famous gravity defying sandwiches. "Got your homework out of the way?"
"Yep." Vin stole a slice of ham from the top deck of the sandwich and avoided a playful slap from his older brother. Buck chuckled again. Vin was not a great lover of school, it was accepted that he was just not academically minded. Some of his teachers over the years had suggested that he may be a little slow mentally but the family had laughed in their faces. The Vin that they saw from day to day was intelligent, quick witted and bright and they made sure that those teachers knew it. Vin was proud that his family loved him so much but although he wouldn't admit it he often felt hurt at peoples comments. Four Corners was a small, close-knit community where everyone knew everyone else and once you had any sort of reputation you had it for life; the worse thing was, of course, that in his most frustrated moments he too believed that he was stupid. But not today or for the next two weeks. School was most definitely out and he had finally got his homework out of the way. Their parents had discussed him taking extra tuition during holidays but Robert and Maggie were determined that the children's childhoods should be just that and the older brothers were not going to change that decision; Vin worked hard and never complained so he had the same amount of homework as everybody else in his year. He had every right to enjoy his holidays. Vin cheekily grabbed two slices of cheese and split them with JD who was trying unsuccessfully to climb onto the stool next to Buck.
"So, you two want a sandwich?" Buck asked as the wobbly white bread tower finally tumbled.
Josiah and Chris sat in the family room, enjoying the oasis of calm while it lasted but neither would complain at the younger boys shenanigans; it had only been a few weeks since a sombre pall overhung the house and getting the boys to speak at all had been a chore. The two eldest brothers had spent those weeks getting the accounts in order and the transfer of ownership and custody issues sorted. At one point they thought that they would lose both their home and their brothers but Judge Travis had come through for them with flying colours and by selling off surplus land and stock the horse ranch was now in a healthy state. Both brothers had to make sacrifices to bring it all about. Josiah had given up his postgraduate training to be a psychologist and Chris had shelved his dream of becoming a cop, at least for the foreseeable future, but neither had any regrets. Family came first. It was that attitude, instilled in them by their father, that had impressed the social services panel.
By mid-afternoon JD had settled down to a nap and Vin was playing a computer game, wearing headphones so that he didn't annoy anybody. Nathan, as much a Larabee as any of the others despite his being adopted after his mother had, literally, abandoned him on their doorstep with a note asking them to raise the son she was not in a position to care for but loved very much, was reading a medical textbook determined to eventually become a doctor. Nobody doubted that he would make it. Buck was also reading although there seemed to be rather a lot of pictures of scantily clad ladies involved. It was only a beach volleyball magazine but it was still a crime to put the staples in such a sensitive place, he mused.
At first nobody took any notice of the doorbell, each assuming that somebody else would take care of it but on the third ring Josiah dragged himself away from the chess match he was playing with Chris and went to answer the door. He pulled the door open and was stunned by the sight of a beautiful blonde woman standing on the front step.
After taking a moment to recover his equilibrium Josiah's good manners came to the fore.
"Hello, Ma'am. How can I help you?"
The blonde woman smiled, although Josiah was too busy being beguiled to notice that the smile didn't reach her eyes and it took his brain a second to register that she was speaking. Her voice was southern accented and refined but any attraction in it was overshadowed by the content. In fact Josiah was so shocked that she had to repeat herself.
"I said that I would like to speak with Mr Robert Larabee. I take it that you are one of his sons?"
Josiah nodded, "Josiah Larabee Ma'am. Perhaps you had better come in Mrs...?"
"Standish. Maude Standish." Something was wrong, she could feel it. Had they been warned about her? It was always a risk but she had been sure that a man like Robert wouldn't want his precious family to know of his dirty secrets. She followed Josiah into the large family room and was faintly amused as another young man shot out of his chair like a rocket. The boy was practically drooling. 'You've still got it girl' she told herself as he introduced himself like an over affectionate puppy, Buck huh!, well never was a name more appropriate.
Before anyone could perform the courtesies instilled in them by their mother the second eldest brother entered and Maude's sense of self preservation kicked into overdrive. This one could be dangerous if crossed.
Josiah did the honours of the introductions and tea was offered and politely refused. Suddenly nobody wanted to speak so Maude took it upon herself.
"Gentlemen I fear that my visit has caused some consternation. I do apologise for any upset I have caused."
"No, no Mrs Standish, please don't apologise" assured Josiah quickly. "It's just that, well we tried to notify everybody we could think of but Dad knew so many people..."
'Knew? Past tense?' Maude had a sinking feeling, a feeling made certainty by the expressions of sorrow now displayed around her.
"I am afraid that both our parents were killed in a car accident just over three months ago." Josiah really wished that someone else would take up the reins. 'Thank you Chris' he mentally cheered as a new voice entered the scene.
"Sorry, but could we ask, how did you know our father?" Something was telling him not to trust this smooth talking woman. Then again his inner voice pretty much said that about everybody he met.
Maude was like a swan, all regal and serene on the surface but paddling like hell below the water. Her initial plans were now totally unsuitable and the blackmail that would surely have worked on the senior Larabee would be suicide if tried on these boys, at least if done directly. No, the next move would be to exit and redefine her plans, preferably over a stiff drink. She also had to tell her darlin' boy that his daddy was dead. Oh dammit; if only she had put her plan into operation six months ago, but what with Ezra being ill and a golden money earning opportunity staring her in the face, well it wasn't her face he was looking at but that was by the by. Still, if she had known then what she had found out today.
"Your father and I knew each other through shared business interests. My husband's stud farm supplied you with horses over the years. He issued a standing invitation to visit if I were in the area. Please accept my condolences on your loss, he was a fine man and although I never met your mother he would always speak very fondly of her to my husband and I." She mentally crossed her fingers that that would be enough. She stood up in preparation to leave.
"Thank you Mrs Standish, he was indeed well thought of by all." If Josiah had been empathic he would have been shocked at the spike of anger that went through her at that statement but he wasn't and so was fooled by her sweet smile and honeyed words.
Well Mr Larabee, gentlemen; it has been a pleasure to meet you all, I am only sorry it had to be under such sad circumstances. I can see, however, that he spoke not one word of exaggeration when he described the qualities of 'his boys'. Now I think I should take my leave, my flight departs soon and I have business to attend to."
Whilst Maude's taxi cab made the short journey back to her motel, her crocodile smile intact and her agile brain already setting about the task of turning the new circumstances to her advantage the others spent some time trying to remember their father speaking of her. Other than Josiah admitting a vague remembrance of a horse breeder who had supplied them with their prize breeding mare, Savannah Sun, being from the South and that Robert had made a trip down south several years previously nobody could place her. A couple of hours later she had been forgotten, except perhaps by Buck who had begun to consider the qualities of the 'older woman'
Maude Standish finished packing her suitcases and checked on the time of her flight's scheduled departure while Ezra took a shower and put on his best clothes. He had taken the news of Robert Larabee's death as he had been trained to take all unexpected news, without comment or expression. If truth be told he had no comment to make because he had nothing to say and displayed no expression because he felt no emotion. He was numb. The only part of his mothers discourse that sparked a curiosity in him was hearing that he had six brothers, and her plans for his future which if he were not so used to sudden change might have devastated him, might still devastate him if he were to dwell on them. It was quite an odd sensation, going from one to a part of six. But then he realised that since his 'father' hadn't wanted him, and mother had been very clear about that, as far as he was concerned he remained an only child.
Ezra ignored the little voice buried deeply, safely, inside that added an L and an e to that description; a very lonely child indeed. Alone when abandoned to care for himself for days on end while Mother ran a con and couldn't get him a sitter; alone amongst so-called relatives, some genuine, some not, who tolerated him because they were paid to or used him as a servant, or just plain used him ( don't Ezra, don't go there); alone in a crowd when his God given talents were being used to fleece overly confident gamblers who were sure that a child couldn't possibly be any sort of a match for them and then ridiculed as a freak when he was; alone when, on the rare occasions that he was in a location long enough to attend school, he remained friendless because of his accent or his intelligence or his mother's reputation. But no matter what the circumstances there was always one constant in his life, whether times were happy or sad or scary he was always essentially alone. Among six blood relatives he didn't think that anything would change except that this time if it all fell apart he wouldn't be able to rely on his mother coming back for him, and that scared him more than any beating he had ever had.
He didn't let any of his inner voice's insecurities show; what would be the point. She expected him to take her final abandonment in his stride; he was seven now, nearly eight and she had been equipping him for this moment since birth, each birthday since his fifth she would remind him that the time may come when they would have to go their separate ways but that she would find a good place for him to grow up. He couldn't understand, however, how a family that had rejected him once already could be that place but he knew better than to question her plans. Ever since he had developed his condition he had known that he would soon become too great a burden for her to tolerate.
That day had finally come.
He desperately wanted to cling to her and beg to be allowed to stay; to be told what it was that he had done this time that was so bad that she wouldn't be coming back for him. Why she would leave him with people that had no idea who he was, and were the offspring of a man who had never wanted him? Why was he so unlovable? Was it because he cost her money for his keep or that his 'condition' made him imperfect? Was it because he was so annoying that he inspired violence in his stepfathers, forcing her to leave before a sufficient profit could be extracted from the relationship?
The numbness that had seemed so comforting had quickly faded and the questions came to him thick and fast, but true to his 'training' he knew not to voice them; instead he nodded politely as she gave him his instructions, along with a small amount of cash in an envelope to be used for essential items and supplies until he judged that he could safely call upon his new 'family' to supply his needs, or as getaway money if things went wrong. He noticed that she didn't give him a forwarding address and presumed that he would be expected to throw himself on the mercy of the children's home of his choice. He was reminded not to let on about his diabetes until he felt secure as 'nobody wanted to be saddled with a sick or needy child'
'Including you Mother' Ezra thought silently.
It was early evening when the taxi pulled up at the bottom of the long winding drive that led to the Larabee Ranch. Maude bade the taxi wait while she led Ezra along it until they were out of sight of the driver. She looked down at her son. Funny but he had never seemed so small before, he looked almost fragile. She shrugged the notion off like a stray bug; she had raised Ezra to be strong and self reliant, but if the Larabees saw a vulnerable little boy so much the better; they would be more likely to give him a permanent home. Lord knew that she could no longer meet the twin demands of motherhood and a career, especially a career as potentially dangerous as hers. At least, based on her memories of Robert's obvious adoration of his family, they weren't likely to mistreat him. Strict discipline was one thing but fists and belts were another matter entirely. Her mind veered away sharply from the bruises and broken bones she would sometimes find when collecting him after a business trip. And she could not even bare to contemplate what her cousin James had done, had tried to force Ezra to do. NO!...no. She knew that she wasn't a good mother; not even, at times, a kind mother, but this wasn't just for her convenience, it was for Ezra's own good too; even if he couldn't see that yet. 'So why is it so difficult to let go of his hand?' she wondered.
Taking a deep breath she gracefully lowered herself to his level, released his hand and fussed randomly with the collar of his smart two piece charcoal grey suit; appearances were, after all, everything.
"Now don't forget Ezra darlin', be good, do as you are told and watch out for opportunities that can be turned to your advantage. If things don't go accordin' to plan then you have enough money to take you to your Aunt Lucy. You remember her address?"
Ezra nodded, already knowing that he would never go back there; it wasn't just the stepfathers that were mean. He suspected that deep down Mother knew that too.
"Okay sweetheart, off you go. This isn't goodbye for ever you know. Keep your skills sharp and when you are older we'll make a formidable team. You'll like that won't you dearest?"
"Yes Mother." Ezra was proud of the strength in his voice as he agreed to something he had never desired less. He didn't want to be 'a team' he wanted to be her son; he wanted her to be his mother. 'Perhaps if I promise to be extra good' he thought frantically but it was too late, she had already put his suitcase in his hand and was pushing him gently in the direction of the house.
"Au revoir Ezra" she called softly.
"Goodbye Mother" he replied, but she didn't hear him. She had already turned away; she had a plane to catch.
Dinner had been good. Josiah had proved to be an adequate, if unimaginative, cook and his simple fare did them well during the week but the weekends were best, with take-out or eat-out on Saturdays and roast at Miz Nettie's on Sundays. Nothing would ever beat their Mom's cooking though and Vin wondered if missing the little things like that was somehow disrespectful. He hoped not because it was those little things that kept her spirit alive inside his heart. The smell of her perfume, her favourite songs on the radio or the taste of the preserves she had laid down last Fall. He hoped that it was ok to use these things to remember her by, Dad too, rather than the photos that Josiah treasured or the stories that Chris and Buck swapped with each other. His memories seemed so small in comparison; how could a taste match a photo or a sound a remembered experience? JD had been the luckiest Vin reckoned as he put away the last of the washed dishes. He was at that age where he didn't quite understand, yet knew enough to know that he would still be loved and cared for and that Mom and Dad were both looking down from Heaven.
Vin wasn't so sure about that any more, no matter what Josiah said. If God was Good why did he take them away? What had they done so wrong to deserve such a punishment? Vin feared that it was because he wasn't smart enough or good enough to deserve parents like Robert and Maggie, but those thoughts only surfaced when he was especially upset or overtired. He knew that God wouldn't punish everyone just to teach him a lesson. But he still couldn't figure out why their parents? And why both at the same time?
Suddenly the chime of the doorbell broke through his maudlin thoughts and he headed toward the front door, glad of the distraction. As Vin reached the door Chris came up beside him. Vin knew better than to open it himself, especially at this time of night. The others drifted through from their various positions in the house as Chris opened the door.
Chris looked down and Ezra stared up, and up!
'Courage Ezra!' he commanded himself as he locked his pale jade green eyes with cold hazel ones; eyes which were glaring yet puzzled. Ezra considered it a good thing that he knew Death to be a skeleton in a black cloak with a scythe because if he were blond haired and in Levis Ezra would know for certain that he was facing his last moments. As it was all his skills deserted him and he froze. He berated himself for acting like a little kid whilst completely ignoring the fact that he was one. Maude had raised a survivor, a smart operator, not a child! It did no good, he still couldn't move or speak.
"Oh for goodness sake Big Dog, you're scaring the sh...stuffing out of the little mite" laughed Buck as he shoved his older brother aside. This man was even taller! But his blue eyes were friendly and sparkly.
"Hey kid, what can we do for ya?" the taller Larabee enquired jovially.
Ezra managed to unlock his vocal cords in preparation to speak, a letter from Maude held tightly in one hand. Whether it would prove to be his salvation or condemnation he wasn't sure but if the cold eyed brother was in charge he didn't rate his chances very highly. Ezra placed his small suitcase on the ground and slipped his backpack off his shoulder to join it. Holding out his now free hand and in his most polite tone he introduced himself.
"Ezra P Standish, Sir. Pleased to meet you."
Buck automatically reached out and down and shook the small hand. "Buck Larabee Son, nice ta meet ya." Buck ignored the giggles from the younger boys behind him and Chris's laugh disguised as a cough. "What can we do for you? Are ya lost?" Buck had noticed the luggage but couldn't think what would possess anyone to let a child travel on their own in the first place, unless he was running away. The child's answer only created more questions.
"Mother sent me to you. She wrote you this letter." Buck took the letter and handed it to Josiah, along with the responsibility.
Lord, just how big are these people! Ezra thought with considerable trepidation as the giant loomed over him.
"Come on in Son while we sort this out" rumbled Josiah good naturedly.
I am not your son, Ezra silently protested with more bitterness than a seven year old should be capable of, I am nobody's son. Out loud he politely thanked the one he presumed to be the oldest Larabee and stepped inside. He had a bad feeling about this and Ezra's instincts, like his mother's were seldom wrong. He regained a tight hold on the case and pack, he had the feeling that he wouldn't be staying very long.
"Vin why don't you get our new friend here some juice and cookies while Josiah sees what's what."
"Okay Buck." Vin loped off to the kitchen dragging JD with him. He'd read Buck's underlying message and wondered when he'd be old enough to stay for the good stuff.
By the time Vin had exited the room Josiah had read most of the letter; he tightened his grip reflexively on the other two pieces of paper that he'd pulled from the A4 manila envelope and Ezra tightened his grip on his suitcase in return....no, not going well at all.
The other three brothers watched with increasing alarm as Josiah's complexion at first reddened and then paled rapidly; as he finished reading his eyes closed briefly as though in pain. They waited for him to speak whilst casting glances at the small boy who had for some reason caused such anguish. As Vin came back with the refreshments Josiah seemed to come to a decision. When he spoke it was with a weariness that far belied his years.
"Vin, JD, I want you to keep Ezra company while your brothers and I have a talk in the study OK?"
"But I wanna..."
"Not now JD" instructed Vin in his 'warning voice'; the one JD obeyed without question because it always saved him from doing something stupid or dangerous.
Ezra was already planning his getaway.
"So what the hell's going on 'Siah? And who's the freaky kid?" Buck, never one to beat around the bush, jumped right in as soon as the door closed. "I'm presuming that he's related to that Standish woman who was here earlier?" At Josiah's nod Chris grinned an unpleasant grin.
"Knew it! What's she up to? Getting her brat to beg money for her?"
"IF you would let me get a word in I'll tell you" huffed Josiah, still shocked and unbelieving of the contents of the letter.
"Sorry Josiah" came a collective mumble, followed by an expectant silence.
"Well brothers, to put it bluntly, it seems that, according to Maude Standish, when Dad took Savannah Sun away from Virginia he left more than cash behind."
Josiah waited for the penny to drop and when it did he got exactly the reaction he had been both dreading and expecting.
"No way." Nathan's denial was quiet yet vehement; he shook his head negatively and crossed his arms over his chest defensively. "Dad wouldn't".
Buck's voice drowned out Nathan's as he gave full power to both his vocal range and his range of expletives, all of which could be heard quite clearly next door in the family room. JD's eyes were as big as saucers. He had heard Buck swear before but never like this! He just wished that he understood even a half of the words. Hadn't Josiah told them all never to call anyone a 'bastard'? 'cause that was the fourth or fifth time Buck had said it.
Vin looked down at his feet. He understood what was being shouted only too well and he couldn't face the boy sitting opposite him. His brother?! NO! Dad wouldn't cheat on Mom, there had to be some mistake, and anyway, this was a grown up thing. It wasn't right to say that stuff about Ezra and his Mom so's he could hear it, even if it was true that they were up to no good; he was only about JD's age for pity's sake.
"Excuse me." Ezra's soft southern accent cut through Vin's musings forcing him to meet the boy's eyes, or should he say mask? Because the other boy's face was as expressionless as that android from Star Trek. It made Vin shiver. When he had gained his host's attention Ezra continued. "Could you please direct me to your washroom facilities?"
It took Vin a second to realise that Ezra was asking to use the toilet but when he did he led the way, instructing JD to stay where he was. Vin noticed that Ezra didn't leave his baggage behind and considering the things that they could hear Buck and Chris yelling from behind closed doors he couldn't say that he blamed him. Vin went back downstairs figuring that the kid didn't want him hanging about like he was his jailor.
Ezra glanced at his watch. He should really be checking his glucose level and taking his insulin about now but he knew that he didn't have the time. He had some food in his pack, he would inject and eat later, after he was sure he was safe; safety always comes first. He was thankful that the bathroom had a window but he could see from the bulb's glow that the drainpipe was too far away for him to grasp; he would have to jump. It really wasn't too far. Putting the back pack on he leaned out and dropped the small suitcase to the ground, thanking the God's that had placed the bathroom at the back of the house out of sight and hearing.. He followed his case down and bit back a cry as his ankle turned under him. As quickly as he could he moved off into the trees and worked his way back to the road. If he turned right he would eventually reach town and be able to catch a bus to somewhere that was not here. He winced as his ankle protested but knew from experience that if it could bear his weight it probably wasn't broken. He sighed; how on earth Mother thought that those people would accept a 'little bastard' like him was a mystery. He thought that adults were supposed to acquire wisdom and common sense when they grew up.
"I'm tellin' ya Josiah, if that little shit thinks he can get away with connin' us then he's got another think comin'" Buck was almost vibrating with rage and he and Chris had been taking turns to vent their anger verbally on the situation for several minutes now. Josiah, the natural peacemaker was still too shocked to say much at all and so had let them have free rein. Nathan had had enough.
"Will you listen to yourself Buck!? Just for one damn minute will you stop and think about what you're saying?" Josiah nodded while Chris looked confused.
"What d'ya mean Nate?" asked Buck a little less belligerently but still with anger. "You trying to tell me that you believe that pair of crooks?"
Having got their normally jovial brother to at least listen Nathan pressed on. "Don't matter none if I believe it or not at the moment. What you seem to be forgetting is that whether the woman is a crook or not you're talking about the kid as though he were Al Capone. He's seven years old Buck, SEVEN according to that letter." He indicated the missive that they had all read with horror and which now sat crumpled on the desk. "Not even as old as JD. If he is conning us he's only doing what his Mama has told him to do. He's only trying to be a good son."
It was as though a bucket of cold water had been poured over the other three brothers but before they could respond to the rebuke the door opened and Vin slid in hesitantly.
'Hell' thought Josiah, 'since when did we start getting scared of each other' His hope that the kid hadn't heard them arguing about him was dashed as he saw the effects their words had had on Vin. If it had sounded bad enough to make him wary what must it have been like for Ezra.
Chris frowned angrily; 'damn brat, making us fight between us and scarin' the little 'uns'
"What is it Vin?" Nathan's voice, as always, calmed the situation.
"He's gone." Vin hoped that they didn't blame him and JD. After all you can't follow somebody into the bathroom.
"Damn" Buck's voice had reduced to a self recriminatory whisper. He could now 'hear' inside his head how harsh his tone had been and he winced at the remembered words, words that his father would have grounded him for and behaviour that his mother would have been so disappointed in. "How?"
"Asked to go to the bathroom. Should have realised that something was up when he took his stuff; just thought he didn't trust us with it."
"Wasn't your fault Vin" replied Josiah sadly. 'Dammit, was up to me to take the lead, what the heck are we going to do now' he thought as the weight of being the oldest bore down upon him.
Chris sighed and automatically took over. Josiah may have been the one they all looked to for the everyday and spiritual guidance but when fast action was needed they all, including Josiah, turned to Chris. It was the natural reaction of a pack looking to its Alpha.
"Josiah, you bring the Ram round front. Nate, you stay with Vin and JD." A single look from their blond brother was enough to quell any protest. "Buck, you take the car and go left while me 'n Josiah head to town. We don't know how well the kid knows the area, best cover both bases."
Despite their wildly differing personalities and temperaments the boys could operate like a well oiled machine when necessary.
"Chris, what about calling the police?" Nathan asked softly; he didn't want to inflame an already volatile situation but a seven year old out alone at night, and upset was not something to take lightly.
"Only if we don't find him first. Don't want our dirty laundry aired in public."
Nathan frowned. It was a cruel description for such a small and vulnerable boy but he kept quiet. Another row was the last thing they needed.
Ezra was tired, cold, hungry and hurting; a not unfamiliar situation, but never one which he enjoyed. He just could not see any other, acceptable, course of action. To stay was to court disaster and, if the blond in black had anything to do with it, possible physical injury. They would undoubtedly come after him but in the dark and dressed in dark grey as he was, as long as he hugged the tree line he should be almost invisible. There was the added bonus of being far enough out of town for any approaching vehicles to be most noticeable thus giving him ample time to hide.
Ezra, as quickly as his ankle allowed, slipped into the trees well before the vehicle passed by. He couldn't tell by the colour but from the size and shape it was almost certainly one he'd seen at the ranch. Hopefully by the time they failed to find him, gave in, and called the authorities he would be at least two bus journeys away from this miserable place; but just because that was the plan that they should come up with didn't mean that it was what they would do so he kept moving as quickly as possible. If he remembered correctly, and with an eidetic memory that was a given, there should be a suitable bus stop not too far ahead. It would be best to avoid the actual town depot, just in case. A rebellious thought flashed through his head that getting caught and finally having a life away from mother might not be a bad thing. No more conning, no more seedy, smoky poker rooms and no more violent step fathers and 'uncles'. Then an image of three very tall and very angry brothers popped into his head and the words frying pan and fire sprang to mind. A lose-lose situation if ever he'd seen one; nothing new there then. He idly wondered as he moved cautiously along whether he would qualify for the worlds youngest cynic award. Then he frowned as he realised that he shouldn't even know what a cynic was at his age. The other kids in the various homes he'd stayed in had been right; he was nothing but a freak.
After travelling for several more minutes Ezra could delay no longer and moving deeper into the trees he rummaged in his pack to retrieve his glucose monitor and insulin pen. Using the backlight on the monitor as a light source he took a reading and administered the correct dose of insulin. He pulled some fruit and crackers from the same pack and resumed walking, waiting the minimum required time before eating his meagre dinner.
"Stop here Josiah" instructed Chris after a several mile fruitless search, "and let me out".
Josiah pulled over and turned a questioning face toward his brother.
"The kid's sneaky" Chris explained "but he's still a kid; couldn't have gotten further than this even at a run unless he hitched and traffic is pretty light this time of evening. I want you to drive back slowly, as though you're still looking for him. With any luck once you pass by he'll lower his guard and run slap bang into me." The blonds grin was almost feral but it turned to disgust at the fearful look on his eldest brother's features.
"Hell 'Siah, I aint gonna hurt him! He may deserve a spanking for running away and locking up for possibly trying to con us, and sometimes I wish Dad had brought us up to believe in giving good hidings but he didn't so I won't dishonour his memory by going against his teachings now; don't mean I can't give him a bit of a scare. If nothing else it'll teach him not to wander about at night." Chris didn't voice his added fear and shame that their actions had driven a small boy into danger because the dark unknown was preferable to the Larabee clan.
Josiah breathed a sigh of relief and nodded. It made sense, as long as Chris could control his temper. And normally that wouldn't be a problem but the man was still grieving, they all were, but they each had their own ways of coping. Buck tended to push away his memories with parties and girls while Nathan immersed himself even deeper into his studies. Little JD had latched onto Buck with a vengeance. Not that Buck minded, JD had always, Josiah suspected, been his favourite; just as there was a close bond between Vin and Chris. Vin had been a concern for a while as he tended to withdraw into himself but thankfully he seemed to be handling it ok. Of course Chris and himself, being the 'adults' had barely had time to grieve at all after taking on the mantle of parenthood and the stress didn't do anything for his brother's volatile temper. At least they were all together. Or were they? If this child turned out to be a Larabee could they really turn away one of their own; take the sins of the father out on the child? God what a mess!
Chris put on a black baseball cap which hid the reflection of moonlight on his pale hair and began to journey back the way he had come. He had travelled over half a mile before he caught a glimpse of movement ahead. He pressed himself up against a tree and waited.
Ezra didn't see it coming. Even if he hadn't been tired and hurt the man had been as silent and invisible as a wraith. Once the long, strong arms clamped about him, however, his instinct for self preservation kicked in and for someone who was used to being punished severely for fighting back self preservation meant showing as little resistance as possible until a time for escape presented itself and so, accordingly, he went completely limp in Chris Larabee's arms.
Chris was prepared for a struggle,; he was prepared for screams and tantrums. What he was not prepared for was....nothing! It was disconcerting and if he were to be honest, a little frightening. With years of experience of younger siblings behind him he knew that this reaction, or should he say non reaction, was abnormal but he didn't have the time or energy to deal with it now. He was tired and had a house full of worried brothers to get back to and this little hellion had already given him enough grief. He felt his anger begin to rise up again and forced it down but it still communicated itself clearly to Ezra who felt the rough, jerky movements as he was lowered back to the ground and released from the enforced embrace that he'd been snatched up into. As soon as he had been released one arm was immediately recaptured and he could almost see the cold eyes glow at him as the man glared.
"Now I don't know what kind of stunt you and your mother think you're pulling but I have had more than I can stand. You are going to come back with me and tomorrow we are going to sort this out but if you give me any more trouble then I'll just hand you straight over to the authorities; DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"
Ezra wondered if the man in black understood that, at this moment, the threat of the involvement of the authorities was not half as scary as the person before him but he had learned early on when to keep his opinions to himself and so replied meekly,
"Yes Sir, Mr Larabee."
The small, scared voice should have made Chris feel guilty for intimidating Ezra; should have brought to mind that Ezra was only as old as JD but it didn't. Instead he began walking back toward the ranch almost dragging Ezra behind him impatiently, oblivious to the child's attempt to step normally with his swollen ankle, resulting instead in an erratic hopping gait. Ezra for his part pressed his lips tightly together to stifle the, to his mind childish, whimpers that threatened to burst forth. Both pedestrians were thankful to see the tail lights of the stationary vehicle ahead of them, although for different reasons.
Seeing the two dark figures in his rear view mirror Josiah got out of the Ram and opened the passenger door; Chris was close enough now that Josiah could see the expression on his face and he knew better than to say anything but he frowned at the pained look on the child's face as he almost ran to keep up.
"In." Chris ordered and Josiah stepped forward to lift the small southerner into the vehicle.
"You OK Son?" he queried softly as he passed the boy's case inside.
Again with the Son, the man is either deluded or a priest. "Fine thank you Sir" he replied politely.
The drive back was made in silence, except for a call to Buck telling him to return.
The light from the large ranch house gave the building a welcoming warm glow and as he made his way up the front step, his tired struggle with his increasingly heavy suitcase disguising his slight limp Ezra couldn't help but wonder what it would have been like to have been a part of this family; to have people who cared and a place to call home.
Nathan and Vin watched as Ezra was marched to the couch between the two eldest brothers, followed by a newly arrived Buck acting as a rearguard. It was like watching a prisoner escort on death row. A mental image strengthened by the look of defeat on the little boy's features. Nathan frowned; to see such an expression on one so young was just not natural. JD, now thankfully asleep after two stories and warm milk to calm his overexcitement, was one of the most emotionally open children he'd ever met and over the years he'd seen almost every one of those emotions reflected at one time or another, from anger to grief and frustration to utter joy but never, ever, defeat....and Ezra was clearly displaying defeat....defeat and something else; something that Nathan couldn't quite place that flickered and then vanished. Ezra sat on the couch in response to the finger commandingly pointed by the 'Angel of Misery' otherwise known as Chris and Nathan saw the expression flicker again, but this time he was ready for it.
Pain! Physical pain.
"Well of course you idiot" Nathan muttered to himself, garnering a look from Vin which doubted his sanity. "What do you expect when small children jump from high places." Nathan moved forward and cast a first aider's eye over the small figure. No blood or bruises were visible. He recalled the boy staggering slightly on entering the house but that was the weight of the case ( 'and why hadn't one of the adults carried it for him?') Or was it? Maybe that had inadvertently disguised a leg injury? Maybe Ezra had used the case to disguise it on purpose? No! Surely that was too mature a ruse for a seven year old? And what on earth could be the reason for doing it in the first place?'
By the time Nathan had considered the possibilities, however, Josiah had begun to speak; he spoke in what Nathan secretly thought of as his 'preacher man' voice. Nathan recognized it as one of his helpful 'instructional' talks coupled with a 'dangerous, mustn't do it' lecture. 'Damn' thought Nathan with exasperation, 'we could be here all night'.
Ezra let the oldest Larabee talk for a few minutes, it was only polite after all, before interrupting with a question.
"Mr Josiah Sir, may I ask a question?"
"Of course Ezra, and it's just Josiah. We don't stand on ceremony here."
"So I noticed" replied Ezra deadpan whilst glancing at Buck's holey jeans and 'kiss the cowboy' T-shirt. Vin and Nathan sniggered as Buck scowled and crossed his arms self consciously across his chest. Ezra resisted the urge to smirk, it was behaviour unbecoming a young gentleman, but he was very tired and still more than a little scared and his mother's influence on certain traits in his personality hadn't always been intentional. Hoping to cut short the lecture he asked "Sir," Josiah sighed at the continuing formality, "you don't want me to be alone outside because it's dangerous and I could be attacked, yes?"
"But it is fine to stay here and listen to y'all make threats of violence against me?"
Josiah was stunned. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. Did he really think that they would act out their angry words on a child? 'He must have a very overactive imagination' pondered the psychologist part of him. 'Probably spent a lot of time alone; making up stories to attract attention leading him to over dramatize ordinary events. Have to watch out for that; won't do him or the other young ones any good if we pander to that behaviour. Then again, we are strangers to him, even if we really do turn out to be family, he could be just plain scared. It can't be natural for him to just be dumped on people he's never met before. But now's not the time to psychoanalyze the boy, a bit of reassurance is in order'
"They were only words son. None of us would ever hurt a child. The disbelieving look Ezra cast his way shook him and he wondered just what sort of information about the Larabees their new brother had actually been given; well, new brother if, of course, the documentation supplied with Maude's letter was genuine; and if it wasn't then it would go a long way to explaining the boys distrustful nature. Con artists were used to betraying folk and expected nothing less in return and it would be one of the first lessons the little southerner would have learned. Before Josiah could figure out whether he felt sorry for his new little brother or anger at the miniature swindler Nathan had pushed past him, not wanting to watch his well meaning guardian dither when the kid was obviously hurting.
Josiah frowned but stepped back as Nathan knelt in front of the couch, seeing from the puzzled faces around him that he was not the only one confused by his younger brother's actions.
"Ezra, I'm Nathan, and I couldn't help but notice that you're in pain." The others looked surprised and Chris felt a twinge of guilt that he might have been a little too rough earlier. Vin headed to the kitchen to retrieve the first aid kit just in case. Ezra managed to keep his features neutral like mother had taught him but he was concerned that he had shown enough emotion in the first place for anyone to notice. Nathan's next comment went some way to reassuring him that he wasn't losing his skills; the man was an expert.
"I'm a first aider and I hope to be a doctor some day. I noticed that you are hurting but I can't see any injury. Did you get hurt jumping out of the window?"
With the game up Ezra saw no alternative but to admit it. If he denied his injury then the man would have to examine his person and he would be found out anyway leading to punishment, no matter what the big waffling Larabee in charge said.
"Ah twisted mah ankle a little, but it's nothing serious."
"May I see? Even if it doesn't feel too bad it could still be broken."
Ezra nodded his permission and stuck his foot out, commenting with the intention to reassure. "It doesn't feel broken. Broken bones grate together and the pain is sharper. But it could be a hairline fracture I suppose..." he paused in contemplation, not noticing the serious and solemn atmosphere which grew even worse as he added helpfully "It doesn't really feel like one of those either." Ezra realised his mistake as Josiah enquired whether he'd broken a lot of bones and put his head down refusing to say another word. He made sure not to flinch as Nathan carefully removed the shoe and sock.
"Vin could you get me..." he smiled his thanks as Vin handed him the large first aid kit. Vin gave the injured boy a little grin and joked
"If'n I'd known you were going to go out the window I'd have shown you the downstairs toilet." Ezra couldn't resist giving a little smile in return before looking worried as he asked,
"I hope ah didn't get you into trouble?"
"Nah, their bark is worse than their bite" Vin reassured him nodding in his elder brothers direction.
Nathan was glad that Vin was there to distract Ezra as he gently manipulated the swollen and darkened limb. As he attempted to flex the joint Ezra hissed and glared at him but then immediately schooled his expression back to it's previous state. Nathan felt cold inside; not one single tear had escaped the pale jade eyes. JD would have been screaming by now.
"Okay Ezra, I don't think it's broken but just to be on the safe side I think we should go to the local hospital and get it X-rayed. Until then I'll put a cool pack around it; that should help with the swelling and pain, OK?" Nathan activated a chemical gel pack from the kit.
Ezra looked around the room slowly before answering. The faces were still pretty angry looking but he wasn't sure why so that made it hard to predict what the reaction to his decision would be. If he agreed to go it would cause bother but if he refused it could cause anger; either way it didn't bode well.
"I would not want to be a bother. It is late and my injury is not likely to change before morning; perhaps you would rather wait until then?"
Chris didn't understand this strange child but he didn't like the implication that he would leave a child overnight in pain. Unfortunately his thoughts made his voice harsher than he intended, reinforcing Ezra's insecurity.
"You're going to the hospital, no arguments."
Nathan winced. Good job it wasn't Chris who wanted to be a doctor; his bedside manner would prove lethal.
"I'll bring the car to the door" supplied Buck quietly. He felt awful and blamed himself for Ezra's injury. The kid wouldn't have run if he hadn't heard him ranting. Whether the boy was kosher or not he was still just a little kid.
Nathan, Josiah and Buck went with Ezra to the ER leaving Chris to watch over the young ones.
It was at times like this that Ezra became aware that he didn't have a clue how to be a child. Oh, he knew that he neither acted, felt or thought as an adult but he was pretty sure that he didn't think or behave like a seven year old either. For example, just what was he supposed to do with the cuddly toy that had been pushed into his hands; it didn't have quite the same effect as painkillers. And how did he respond to the very nice but overly friendly nurse. His experience of nursing staff was sorrowful glances and hushed whispers as they debated the source of various injuries; the cause of his 'accidents'. The diabetic nurse had been different, fun, but they'd known that nobody had caused his diabetes, it just was.
"No thank you ma'am" he replied politely as a nurse offered him a fruit drink while he awaited the strapping of his sprained, thankfully not broken, ankle. The nurse smiled and walked away shaking her head. 'What a strange little boy'. It was an opinion shared by Josiah who had elected to sit and wait with the youngster. He really wasn't behaving like any of the other young ones and Josiah, after making several abortive attempts at conversation, gave in and silently contemplated the riddle that had arrived on his doorstep. 'Lord, I wish that Mom could be here, she'd know what to do'
Most of the staff of the small community hospital knew Nathan Jackson. He was a volunteer at weekends and they all supported his ambition to be a doctor so when he approached the ER doctor on call his concerns were not brushed aside as many 17 year olds would be.
"Doctor Marshall, how is Ezra doing?"
"He's fine. The ankle was just sprained. He'll have to keep his weight off of it for a week or so though. And I don't know who has been caring for him but they could have done with feeding him up a little, he's a mite too thin." The doctor paused and eyed the young man he'd known since he was a toddler thoughtfully. It wasn't like him to look so unsure of himself.
"What's got you so worried Nathan? Josiah tells me that your little cousin is staying with you for the holidays, are you worried that his mother will be angry that he got hurt?" Doctor Marshall didn't miss the surprise that his statement caused but he didn't think it was his place to pry.
'So that's how he wants to play it' thought Nathan angrily while knowing he could do nothing to contradict the family line that had been taken.
"Actually I was a little concerned that there might be something else wrong but I don't really know what or why" He ran his hand over his close cropped hair and sighed; he knew that he wouldn't be able to put his vague feelings into words.
"Just tell me what triggered your unease and we'll take it from there" replied the doctor kindly, diagnosis was an art that came with experience.
Nathan nodded gratefully and took a moment to gather his thoughts after what had been a very traumatic day.
"Well for a start it took me a while to see that Ezra was hurting at all, in fact I think that maybe he was covering it up on purpose" He glanced over at the doctor for reassurance that he was making sense and received a frowning yet encouraging response. He continued with a little more confidence. "The worst thing though is that he hasn't so much as whimpered; not a tear, not even when I flexed his ankle; All I got was a glare and a slight hiss. It just don't seem natural to me."
The doctor sighed and gestured for them to move to a quieter section of the corridor in which they were standing. Nathan's observations echoed his own.
"There are a few possible reasons for such non responsiveness in a child, some more worrying than others but the most common is that it is a physical problem: some people are unable to feel pain at all, but the fact that he did react in some way to your touch would seem to negate that cause." The doctor sighed, he didn't want to cast aspersions on the parents of the child because they were family to the Larabees but... "It is also possible, probable in fact, that the child has learnt either by instruction or experience not to respond to painful stimuli."
"You mean abuse?" Nathan hadn't wanted to contemplate it but it had been at the back of his mind.
"Possibly; or it may be a family trait. Not all families are as comfortable with sharing their emotions as yours are Nathan."
"So what would you recommend we do?"
"I would hesitate to start throwing unfounded accusations around at this time, especially as the child is in no immediate danger since his parents are absent but I would also not like to see the issue being swept under the carpet. Keep a careful eye on him, and perhaps a little subtle questioning wouldn't hurt. And if you ever need to talk I'll be here."
Nathan left the doctor feeling a little more reassured but also knowing that he faced the daunting task of persuading his older brothers that their new addition was more than a little con-artist. And if it turned out that he was wrong and that the boy was a con and not their brother then quite frankly he didn't know where that left them all.
God what a mess!
The journey home had begun in virtual silence, apart from the numerous queries about his comfort from Nathan. Ezra didn't know which was worse, the tense silence which could still be a result of earlier anger or the oddly caring attitude which... well quite honestly was completely outside his experience or comprehension. Not having the energy to figure it out he decided to feign drowsiness; that usually worked. People seemed to relax when they thought he was asleep... or unconscious.
The very next moment, or so it seemed, someone was shaking him gently and murmuring in his ear. Ezra's eyes shot open and he instinctively moved away from Josiah's hand.
Oh the humiliation! He had let his guard down... again, as if being outwitted by 'The Angel of Death' as he had come to think of the blond Larabee in black earlier in the evening had not been bad enough. Mother had been right to discard him. He looked out of the car's side window and saw the brightly lit ranch house. He couldn't believe that he had slept almost the whole way. 'Must be the painkillers' he thought, knowing that in reality the child strength pills hardly packed a punch but his desperation to hold onto his little boy ego overruled the facts.
As soon as the trio of adults and one exasperated boy entered the family room they were confronted by Chris. Ezra's protestations that he could manage on the crutches provided had been totally ignored resulting in his being carried in like a baby, Buck having shoved Josiah out of the way to do the honours. He felt like the prize in a game of pass the parcel. And how can he read a person if they keep changing from one minute to the next; one minute Buck is calling him all the names under the sun and the next he is acting like some kind of big brother!
Any further speculation was driven straight out of Ezra's mind by the scowling visage in front of him.
"Sprained ankle" replied Nathan who, on the journey back, had decided to keep his suspicions to himself for now. The whole situation was obviously still too raw to risk triggering any more confrontations, especially if it all turned out to be a product of his own imagination. And he certainly hoped it was because the thought of an adult hitting a child disgusted him and Ezra was so small and fragile; he would break as easily as a porcelain doll.
"Well that's something I suppose." Chris would never admit it but the thought that he may have dragged a boy with a broken ankle along the road had made him feel physically sick. Bad enough to know that he had caused him extra pain by hurrying him along and that he had been too angry to see it.
Josiah was more than aware of his own failings and his failure to control the earlier situation which led to Ezra's flight would be something they all had to live with. The least he felt he could do now was make the boy feel as comfortable as possible.
"Buck why don't you take Ezra upstairs; he can have my old room. His luggage is already up there. I'm sure he must be tired."
Buck nodded and carried Ezra and his crutches up to the room that Josiah had occupied before he had moved into their parents room. They had been discussing plans to turn the unoccupied room into a study room for the younger boys but that might have to be put on hold now. It was that thought, of making room in their lives for another child, that brought it home to Buck that this was all too real; that the child whose entire world was packed into two small carriers might become their responsibility. Hell! They were only just getting used to the responsibility of Vin and JD; how would they cope with another? Would the authorities even allow them to try? Buck pulled himself out of his darkening mood and addressed Ezra as he toed the door open.
"There ya go little pard. Bet you're all tuckered out."
Ezra didn't have the heart to tell the big man that he was quite used to staying up till three o'clock in the morning either playing or watching his mother play poker. Those pills had definitely made him quite fatigued. Of course he had had an horrendously early start to his day today and had been on a rollercoaster ride ever since but it still wasn't natural to go to bed this early he just didn't have the energy to protest. Perhaps tomorrow his sharp skills would have returned.
Ezra sighed as he looked up at Buck; guilt was written all over his expressive face.
"It's really quite alright Mister Larabee, Ah didn't take offence. You were only statin' the truth. Ah am, after all, a bastard in the literal meaning of the word." Ezra's hope that his comments would reassure the man were crushed as the look of guilt turned to one of anguish. Any hope that Buck had clung to that the seven year old didn't fully understand the words he had yelled in the study were killed stone dead at that comment.
"What! No! ... I mean ..." Buck was completely thrown by this youngster. How could he be only JD's age, not even that, and yet talk like he did and actually understand the context of the words he was using. Suddenly, with a depth of perception that few gave him credit for, Buck looked behind the words and saw ... a very scared, brave and exhausted little boy. 'Bet nobody ever bothers to fight past that vocabulary of yours do they?' Buck thought sadly. He took a deep breath and began again.
"What I said wasn't right Ezra and I'm sorry I said it." The shock that flittered across the pale face tore at his heart but he kept his voice steady. "And the name is Buck ... I don't know if we're really brothers but I'd like for us to be friends."
Ezra frowned. Just what did the man have planned. For the life of him he could detect no obvious lies. Perhaps, for now at least, he should take him at his word because Lord knew he needed some allies in this land of giants, and as nice as Nathan seemed to be he was too young to command any authority. Mother had drilled into him time and time again that the ones who held the purse strings held the power.
Ezra nodded an affirmative to Buck's offer and he was surprised to see the pleasure his acquiescence seemed to bring. It resulted in a moment of shared awkwardness which was broken as Ezra, to his own mortification, yawned and Buck remembered why he had brought Ezra up to the room.
"OK Ezra, let's get you sorted and tucked up in bed and tomorrow I'm sure things will look a whole lot less scary." Buck couldn't blame the boy for the look of scepticism that settled on his new little friend's face but made no further comment.
Ezra didn't believe for a minute that there was any truth in Buck's optimism but he allowed him to ferry him to the bathroom and, after he had changed into his pyjamas, the dark green silk causing a raised eyebrow, Buck insisted on tucking him in and wishing him a good night; something that Mother only did if she had enjoyed a particularly good night at the poker tables, or was leaving him to go seduce her latest mark, in which case he would be fending for himself for at least the following day.
Once Buck's footsteps could be heard descending the stairs Ezra got out his kit and administered his basal insulin dose. He still hadn't decided whether it was safe to confide his condition in his temporary carers but if he didn't he would have to find a way to cool down the insulated pouch
Tomorrow... that would be soon enough to decide.
Buck entered the family room to be greeted by a mug of coffee being thrust into his hand. By God he needed it!
"The kid OK?" Chris's voice held concern but it was still laced with anger as if Ezra would be committing a crime if he was less than fine.
"Would you be?" Buck's look of incredulity did nothing to improve Chris's mood.
"He ran away. It's his own fault that he got hurt."
The image of Ezra's pain filled face and the memory of his own cruel words proved stronger than the rogue's usual instinct of peacekeeper.
"He was SCARED OF US! Since when was it made OK to scare little kids? If anyone had spoken like that about Vin or JD you'd have lynched them."
"JD and Vin are family" stated Chris quietly but vehemently, the implications of that sentence hanging over them for several seconds until Natha, ever the practical one, spoke up.
"We'll need to have his birth certificate checked, and we'll need to do a DNA test."
"I'll arrange a meeting with Orrin first thing in the morning; he'll be able to organize everything." Josiah was back on his own territory now, dealing with people and the minutiae of everyday life. Stressful situations tended to make him lose his temper which although it had a longer fuse was worse than Chris's own rage when it finally ignited. He pushed aside the thought as another came to mind.
"We'll need to check what Ezra needs when we go into town, he doesn't seem to have much with him and, most importantly, we need to get as much information as we can out of Ezra about his mother. She can't be allowed to just give up her responsibility like this."
"You'd send him back to HER?" Nathan's tone of disbelief was taken as a natural dislike of the idea of sending a child back to a mediocre parent but Nathan was concerned that she might have, if his fears were true, been Ezra's abuser. He knew that he wouldn't be able to live with himself if he became a party to sending him back into danger, none of them would if they knew. But he was equally certain that now was not the time for them to find out.
Of all the brothers Nathan was aware that he was the luckiest. The Larabees didn't have to take him in, not many would have and he had known nothing but love and support. Not every child was so lucky. Even if his suspicions were wrong he was in no doubt that little Ezra's life had not had the love and care in it that he had the right to expect.
Buck's exclamation of horror surprised no-one.
"God No!" he cried, not missing Josiah's frown. "No kid deserves to be treated like an unwanted puppy. This isn't the nineteenth century.
Chris nodded his agreement. He didn't know what to do for the best but he agreed that giving him back to someone who would dump him on strangers, related or not, was not the act of a responsible adult. He would have been a better parent to his child if his pregnant fiancee, Sarah, hadn't been killed in a hit and run over a year ago. He took aq deep breath, now was not the time to give in to the grief.
"Well" Josiah concluded, "I don't think that there's anything else we can do until morning so let's all get some sleep and come to it fresh tomorrow."
The brothers took their empty cups through to the kitchen, each wrapped up in their own thoughts, Chris automatically checking that the house was secure before they all retired to their rooms and attempted to either come to terms with the fact, or ignore, according to each man's instinct, that there was possibly a new permanent resident just down the hall.
Chris's last thought as he entered his room was that he wished his parents were there to help them through this. Failing that a large scotch... several large scotches would help.
Said resident slept fitfully, waking and casting his eye to the shadows in the room every time a creak or unexplained sound triggered his sense of self preservation. He kept one hand up by his pillow, under which he had placed the little derringer pistol. He knew how to use it, mother had made sure of that, but he had never had cause to fire it at anyone; he had no doubt that he would though. He had not had the gun when he had stayed with James but the next man who tried to hurt him like that would benefit from his new found skill!
There were some things that Maude had taught Ezra to do extremely well. Regardless of his age Ezra was an excellent poker player, playing either honestly or dishonestly and his eidetic memory was an ideal aid in counting cards. Ezra would never admit to Mother that he preferred to play an honest game but if the pot on the table dictated whether they would have anywhere to sleep that night he did as he was told without a fuss.
He was also a good con artist, but he was hampered by the honesty that exasperated Maude so; she had hopes of him growing out of it, though that was before he developed his 'affliction' as she called it. His dexterity and small size made him, potentially, a superlative thief but Mother looked down her nose at thievery... unless, of course, the prize was worth a little sacrificed professional pride.
However there was one thing that Maude could not teach her son because it was something she, herself, had never mastered...
The Art of early rising.
It was a problem that Ezra was currently facing as he was disturbed by the sounds of the occupants of the house beginning their daily routines... at... Ezra cast a bleary eye at the illuminated clock display... 6.30am.
Ezra glared at the numbers and dug himself deeper into the bed, covering his exposed ear to avoid the torturous sounds of somebody singing off key in the shower; and he had thought that his ankle was painful! After a few moments the caterwauling stopped and he drifted back to sleep
Thunk! .... Shake! ... poke!
All sounds and feelings that indicated to Ezra that somebody was sabotaging his slumber. Somebody small enough to bounce on his bed without breaking it.
Once again a single jade eye opened, this time to identify the soft yet solid item that had just collided with his head. Ezra was used to being woken by rough shakes and hard slaps but never in all his almost eight years had he been woken by...
A blue bunny
He ignored it. He had faced worse horrors than cuddly toys. Even at 7o'clock in the morning.
"Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!" Each piercing cry was accompanied by a complementary bounce.
"Go away." The eye glared at JD
"I hate you!"
"Ah'm devastated. Now go away.... Please" Politeness is the hallmark of a young gentleman Ezra; Maude's words, so oft said, echoed in his mind. 'She's never met JD' he thought grumpily.
JD frowned at the almost totally covered boy. Everything had been fine until last night; until HE came and spoiled everything. And now Buck was asking him to be nice to him; Buck was saying nice things about him this morning, but Buck couldn't like him because he'd said so last night... so Buck must feel like he had to pretend 'cause he was a grown up. But JD was always being reminded that he was a kid and so that meant that he didn't have to be nice to the horrible boy with the silly voice. And he was only seven which meant that as the older one he could tell Ezera what to do. What sort of a name was Ezrera anyway?
"I hate you" he repeated. "You made my Buck angry, made him say bad words."
"Go Away. What part of that simple instruction do you not comprehend?"
"You talk funny."
"That's because I possess something which you obviously do not."
"A brain. Now leave me alone. It is far too early for conversation and you are far too stupid." Ezra winced as he heard the words leave his mouth. He may have a brain, a gifted one if various teachers were to be believed but how anyone could expect him to make it work at this ungodly hour was beyond him.
"Do so have a brain. Buck says I'm really smart."
JD scowled and jumped off the bed yelling for Buck as he ran out of the room. Ezra sighed and dragged himself into a sitting position, having abandoned any hope of further sleep. No sooner was the thought in his head than Nathan made his presence known. He had seen, and heard, JD's hurried exit and smiled at Ezra.
"Being woken up by JD is pretty..."
"I was going to say startling" Nathan replied with a grin. "Thought I'd check that ankle before you get up if that's OK?"
Ezra nodded and Nathan proceeded to examine his foot with just as much care as he had shown before. Nathan was pleased to see that the swelling had reduced some although the newly emerged bruising was pretty colourful.
"I'll re-strap it after you've had your shower. I've put a chair in there so's you don't have to put too much weight on it."
"Thank you Nathan." Ezra hoped that the respectful use of the older boy's first name wouldn't be seen as rude but he could hardly call everybody Mister Larabee. Nathan's answering smile and gentle pat to his calf made Ezra's decision for him on whether to tell about his diabetes. His own instincts were not anywhere as near developed yet as Mothers but he had not known one moment of fear around this Larabee. Besides, if they decided not to keep him their knowledge of his condition would not matter.
"Yes Ezra? Was there something you wanted to tell me?" Nathan was delighted that Ezra seemed to be opening up to him.
"The thing is, I have...."
Ezra froze in mid sentence as Chris appeared in the doorway.
"Hurry up Ezra. Breakfast will be on the table in thirty minutes and I want you ready to go see Judge Travis this morning."
If Chris had lightened his tone or maybe attempted a smile things might have been different but the sharp, rapid fire instructions reminded Ezra of the consequences of misplaced trust.
Nathan frowned at his brothers timing and turned back to Ezra but he could see in the once again expressionless eyes that the moment had gone, at least for now. 'Damn Chris!'
As he heard Chris head back downstairs he tried again but without any real hope of success.
"Ezra, you were saying?"
"It was nothing Nathan."
Nathan desperately wanted to break through the protective wall that Ezra had put up but he didn't know how. Vin was the nearest to Ezra in shutting people out when he wanted to but Nathan had a lifetime of experience in coaxing the quietest of them back to the real world. He may be only seventeen but Nathan was smart enough to know what works on one child could be disastrous if used on another so he reluctantly dropped the subject for now.
Once he had showered and had his ankle wrapped Ezra had been left alone to dress. He performed his insulin ritual and slipped the spare cool pouch into his pocket. He would find a moment to hide it in their fridge later. He sighed, it would be a lot easier to admit to the truth but truth was often not welcomed or was even used to his own detriment. He remembered Cousin William deliberately increasing his insulin dose to create a hypo attack just for the fun of it or force feeding him sugar to upset his readings and get him into trouble with the doctors. No the truth was definitely to be used with caution. He finished adjusting his tie as he pushed the memories as far back as he could. He had decided to wear his other best suit; black trousers and jacket with his pale green shirt and dark green tie. Going to see a Judge was not to be taken lightly. He debated whether to slick his hair back or let it curl. On the one hand neat and tidy hair gave the impression of good grooming and good manners - the hallmarks of a gentleman, or so Mother had informed him and she had met a lot of judges so she should know. But she had also taught him to play to his advantages and to give the mark what he expects to see; and the Judge would be expecting a typical little boy, and with his hair all curly he knew, to his disgust, that he looked cute; numerous Aunts had said so.
Curly it is then.
Breakfast was everything he had expected of a house of six males, chaos. Buck had laughed at his attire and JD had seemed to take it as a personal insult that he had chosen the healthy breakfast cereal that Nathan favoured rather than the lucky charms that everybody else was having.In the midst of all the resulting furore of JD's tantrum he managed to secrete the cool pouch behind a row of beer bottles at the back of the fridge with the logical conclusion that nobody would want to drink alcohol before evening. Of course that hadn't applied to his Uncle Harold, his third cousin Billy Bob or even Aunt Belle but these men seemed different.
The trip to the Courthouse was made in two vehicles. Josiah Buck and JD in one, JD having flatly refused to ride with Ezra. And Chris, Nathan, Vin and Ezra in the other.
Ezra was feeling even more out of place than usual thanks to no-one else sharing his opinion of what was appropriate attire for appointments with judges. The only one who wasn't wearing jeans was Nathan and he only differed in that he wore slacks instead of denim. It really wasn't his own fault, Ezra told himself, in a tone that his inner voice would never dare describe as sulky. How was he supposed to know that Judge Travis was a close personal friend of the family! Of course any hope that he had of winning the man over fled at that revelation.
Ezra had spent most of his life in cities but he was quite familiar with small towns too. Mother had been run out of many, dragging him along for the ride... quite literally in some cases. The town of Four Corners definitely qualified as small. The drive into the centre of town which was about three streets away from the outskirts of town revealed a schoolhouse and the small hospital that he was already too familiar with. A small parade of shops was book ended by the local library and the parish church while the opposite side of the street held more shops, the local newspaper office...the Clarion... and in the centre stood the combined courthouse and social services building. Ezra noted that it was all quite neat and orderly.
He hated it.
He knew from his seven years that it would be filled with well meaning do gooders and not so well meaning nosy parkers. He could guarantee that they would hate him as soon as they found out his background because small town people set standards that he could never hope to meet; and all townspeople knew that a leopard could not change it's spots.
He preferred cities. Mother had said that you could hide in plain sight in a city and that nobody cared about you or your past. Sometimes he wondered what was wrong with caring but he would never dare ask her. Of course she also said that in small towns people only pretended to care so that they could judge you and find you wanting. Ezra hated people who pretended because when they stopped pretending they started punishing. Ezra never forgot any of his punishments although he seldom understood the reasons for them. In one home he would do something that they said was bad and he would be punished while at another not doing the same thing would also incur a punishment. It was confusing and his Mother's lessons were little help because unless he still had the bruises when she collected him she never knew ... at least he didn't think she did... but Mother's lessons were still important because she told him so and she always did what was best for him, as any mother would... 'did she?' his little inner voice whispered. He shut the voice out. He didn't like it when he had thoughts like that, they scared him. No, mother's lessons were for his own good... and he couldn't forget them anyway; even if his memory let him he wouldn't because left to his own opinion Ezra tended to believe the best of people and he needed his mother's wisdom to avoid giving in to his weakness.
"So what d'ya think?" The sudden voice in the otherwise silent vehicle startled him.
"What d'ya think of Four Corners?" Asked Vin cheerfully. He'd been watching the expressions flitting across the other boy's face as they came into town and wanted to laugh at the look of disappointment. Vin had to admit that as towns went you could blink and miss it and he supposed that Ezra was used to much grander places but it was the people that made a place good or bad and Four Corners had good people... mostly.
"It... it's quite... um... compact." Ezra's hesitation made Vin laugh and Nathan chuckled.
"Not what you're used to hey Ezra?" Nathan was grateful to Vin for breaking the ice. He hadn't dared speak since Buck had laughed at the way Ezra dressed when he came down for breakfast.
"Mother and I have resided in many places."
"What's the worst place you ever stayed?" Vin's innocent query brought an immediate memory of cousin James but he was sure that that wasn't what the other boy had meant.
"Las Vegas" he replied almost instantly as Chris pulled into the courthouse car park, one ear on the conversation taking place while he decided just what he wanted to hear from the judge, and coming up blank and confused.
"Can imagine" said Nathan, nodding his head. "All those bright lights, noise, crowds and the hustle and bustle, must be quite scary."
That wasn't quite the reason, Ezra thought. In fact he liked the crowds and the lights were warm and pretty; and if there was any hustling it was usually Maude doing it! No, the reason he hated Vegas was that by the time they left he was usually exhausted to the point of collapse due to the many private poker games she had committed him to. Playing the freaky kid was quite the entertainment. Still he couldn't really say any of that to the nice ordinary boy so he just gave a nod and waited for Chris to help him out of the car. He did, however, notice Vin giving him a strange look. He liked Vin, he was smart, but he would have to be careful around the boy because he could see behind the words.
It was quite cozy, for what he had imagined a judges chambers to look like, unlike the man himself who looked to Ezra as being as far from the cuddly grandpa type of judge as you could get. In the old west he'd have been called a hanging judge. Ezra liked the wild west and read anything and everything he could get his hands on about the subject, much to Mother's disgust.
"Ezra P Standish at your service Your Honour."
Judge Orrin Travis raised a surprised eyebrow at the smartly dressed and polite little boy. Josiah had mentioned over the phone that he was a little different. Different indeed... but a Larabee? That was still to be determined.
"Pleased to meet you Ezra, won't you all take a seat." As they complied Orrin buzzed through to his secretary, who also happened to be his wife of forty years, Evie. "Evie could you bring us coffee for five and..." he looked enquiringly to the younger boys for their preferences. JD and Vin chose sodas while Ezra, pretty certain that he would be shot down as he had been at breakfast asked for coffee too.
"Bit young for that son" admonished Travis lightly at the same time as Nathan remarked "Nice try" Ezra sighed and asked for water... bottled. He did have some standards to maintain!
The next few minutes were spent in small talk until Evie brought the refreshments and a large plate of cookies through and took a seat of her own. She introduced herself to Ezra and was enchanted at his polite response but she frowned a little at his refusal of a cookie; the child was already far too thin in her opinion.
"Well Ezra" As the judge addressed him Ezra knew that it was time to get down to business. "Josiah has told me how you came to be staying with them and I'm sure you can understand that I need to ask you some things. Now I want you to know that you are not in any trouble and no-one is going to be angry with you over your answers. Do you understand that Ezra?"
"Yes Sir" 'Understand it, yes; Believe it? About as much as I believe in Santa Claus!' Looking at the sad expression on the face of the Judge he might as well have said his thoughts out loud. Oh! For Mother's perfect poker face.
"Boy's mother cased our place before she sent him in to con us Orrin; he had to be in on it." Ezra wondered if Chris Larabee possessed any other emotion apart from anger; that must be a sad way to live.
"Chris!" chastised Evie, shocked that he would speak like that about the abandoned boy, and while he was present too!
"Yes Chris, I think we all already know your opinion." Buck had hoped that his brother would have calmed down by now ... obviously not.
"Please boys! You brought Ezra to me so that I could meet him for myself not so that you would have an audience for your disagreements." The room quietened immediately and Ezra raised an eyebrow; 'perhaps appearances were not everything!'
Orrin Travis knew that he cut an intimidating figure, he should do because he spent years perfecting it, unlike Chris who was a natural, but children were always his weakness. It pained him every time a young person came before the bench having been failed by the system and the loss of his and Evie's only son, Steven, had made his view even more intense. Although an adult when he died a child was always a child to his or her parents.
"Now Ezra, what did your Mother tell you about your visit here?"
Ezra had already considered all his options and had decided to stick to his mother's maxim of remaining as close to the truth as possible.
"She told me that we were going to meet mah father."
"And what did you know about your father before you arrived here?"
"Only that he lived a long way from us."
"Didn't you ever wonder what he was like? Want to ask your mother what she remembered of him?" Evie's question reflected the adults collective puzzlement at Ezra's seeming lack of curiosity while JD couldn't care less and was sitting in the corner playing on his Nintendo and wishing that he could be out playing in the sun; something he would be doing if it wasn't for HIM. Vin was pretending to read a comic book but was listening to every word. He didn't know why but he liked Ezra, he had a feeling that they both saw things in a similar way.
Ezra frowned at Evie's question. "If Mother had wanted me to know she would have informed me ma'm. Besides Ah've had a lot of fathers and they're all pretty much the same."
'Now what did Ah say!' Ezra's frown deepened at the sudden exchange of 'looks' which while no doubt meaningful to them left Ezra completely in the dark about which part of his answer had upset them.
Judge Travis winced and coughed to cover his embarrassment at the child's unwitting branding of his mother as, at best a woman of loose morals, and at worst a serial wife or even bigamist.
"So Ezra" Orrin attempted to get back on track, he now understood the meaning behind Josiah's claim that talking to Ezra could prove disconcerting. "When did you find out that Robert Larabee had died?"
"When Mother came back from her visit" Ezra now switched to the version of events that he had been coached in before Mother had left him. "She had been sure that once Mr Larabee knew about me he would agree to look after me while she was occupied on important business."
"What sort of business?" put in Josiah quickly, hoping to catch him off guard and maybe hear something useful but Ezra was prepared. It wouldn't do to tell them that she was hunting husband number sis or that a child would be inconvenient, or even worse that he had become a constant inconvenience whether she was working or not.
It was then that the full force of his abandonment hit him. Until now it had been like a game, just playing a part.
"She did not confide her business dealings to me." He turned to Evie Travis and she was shocked to see that the little face was completely devoid of expression. "Please, do you have a washroom that I might use?"
"Of course Ezra" She stood and held out her hand to help him up while Josiah and Chris also stood but with a defensive stance. Ezra absently noted that both men were concerned that he was going to flee while Mrs Travis was worried that he was too young to go to the bathroom by himself. He held his emotions together like he'd been trained but it was harder to do than he had ever known before.
Summing up the situation and coming up with the same result that Ezra had Buck rose to his feet and pushed past his brothers. He gave Evie a winning smile and offered to escort Ezra. Ezra barely noticed, he just wanted to get to somewhere quiet to think; to find the logical reasons that would prove that his mother did still love him and that he WAS wanted. That like every other time when she left him she was doing it for his own good not for her convenience ... and that she WOULD come back, despite how final her au revoir had sounded.
On his arrival in the rest room Ezra turned to Buck and in a toneless voice that Buck found chilling assure him that he could manage alone; that he was not going to attempt an escape, his "I have nowhere to go" just about breaking Buck's heart.
Buck gave him five minutes, although he was joined in his vigil after only two by Nathan, before the quiet sound of sobbing became too much for either of them. Entering the room they found Ezra kneeling on the floor by the sink, heedless of the pain it must be causing his ankle, with his arms wrapped round himself for comfort.
It was instinct to join the little boy at floor level and to reach out to offer physical comfort. It was also instinct that led Ezra to suddenly cry out at the unexpected touching; he hadn't heard anybody come in, too wrapped up in his own misery and didn't connect the sudden hands on his back and shoulders with any of the people he had just left. Instead he was taken back to six months ago, to Atlanta, to James.
Buck frowned and went to clutch Ezra tighter, to offer even more support but Nathan heard the soft plea to 'stop', to 'please don't' and that it 'wasn't right' and connected the dots immediately. He snatched his brother's arms away. Buck was about to protest when he saw the look in the dark chocolate eyes and the tear that ran down his cheek. Buck didn't want to believe what Nathan's eyes were telling him and shook his head in denial, his normally upturned mouth held in a grim line but Nathan nodded and gripped his arm tighter in grief and anger.
The sudden tense silence cut through Ezra's fear much more effectively than words would have done and as his crying hiccupped to a halt he looked at the expressions on the older brother's faces and he knew without a doubt that somehow he had given away one of his most guarded secrets.
"Please don't tell" he whispered.
As soon as the plea for silence had left his mouth Ezra realised the futility of the request. Of course they had to tell. They were adults and adults had obligations. It was his own stupid fault for letting his guard down.
Both men's brows furrowed in confusion. What on earth did the poor kid have to apologise for.
"What for little pard? Buck's voice was soft but even, which he regarded as a miracle because inside he felt sick to his stomach. That a child could be so traumatised that a simple caring touch causes pain and fear, well he just couldn't comprehend it. He made sure to keep to Ezra's level but not so close as to crowd him.
"It was not fair of me to ask for your silence."
"It was natural Ezra... but we are gonna have to tell some other people; you realise that don't you?"
"Ah know." The normally soft southern accent was even softer and unusually hesitant, and it was followed by an even softer sigh before Ezra continued, "Will it be a bad place?"
"What place Ezra?" Nathan's puzzlement showed as he exchanged glances with an equally nonplussed Buck.
"When you send me away. Will it be as bad as he said?"
Both men could see where this was going now and they were not liking it one little bit.
"What did he say Ezra?" Buck was beyond speech so Nathan took over. Buck couldn't help but think that his brother would make a fantastic paediatrician one day.
Ezra looked at both men, trying to 'read' how they were taking this and was surprised that their reactions were not as bad as James had warned him. Perhaps some of the other things he had said were untrue too.
"He said that if anyone found out they would take me away and lock me up because I'd made him do a bad thing. He said they'd make sure Ah never saw my Mother again and that Ah would be punished every day."
"Son of a..." Buck cut himself off as he saw Ezra flinch at his tone.
"No-one is going to send you anywhere Ezra. You did nothing wrong; he was lying so's he could keep you quiet." Nathan was a pacifist by nature but he was prepared to make exceptions!
Ezra considered this for a moment. "You mean he conned me?"
"In a sense yes; he threatened you to make you believe something that wasn't true."
'Mother was right. I am too gullible for my own good.'
Before Ezra, or anyone else, could comment further they all heard the click clack of heels on the corridor floor heading their way; they'd obviously been gone too long.
"Oh Lord Ah look a mess" Ezra muttered as the footsteps got nearer. Forgetting all about his injured ankle in favour of his crumpled suit he automatically attempted to rise only to have the joint protest strongly making him cry out in pain and surprise.
Buck's response was almost instantaneous, his hesitation only lasting a split second; the memory of his innocent touch triggering Ezra's flashback halting his movement but instinct then kicked in. He had touched Ezra before, carried him even, but never without Ezra being aware of him; that was why he had reacted badly; the shock of the unexpected, not the touch itself. Nathan had me to the same conclusion but Buck had been nearer, and quicker. Nathan was surprised that one of the brothers he had known all his life could continue to be a mystery to him. Buck played the shallow card well but underneath was an instinctive carer. Both men smiled at Ezra's lack of fear over their attentions and Buck had Ezra standing with his support by the time the knock came at the door.
"Are you alright in there boys?" Evie's concerned voice filtered through the door. Buck looked to the others to ensure that they were ready and opened the door.
Evie knew instantly that something was amiss by the red rimmed eyes before her and the protective posture that Nathan had adopted by the little boy.
"Mrs Travis Ma'am. Just having a bit of a time out here. We'll be back directly." Buck could see Evie put her curiosity on hold as she immediately responded to the tense atmosphere with the delicacy of forty years experience as her husband's right hand.
"Of course Buck, just come back when you're ready."
Buck looked to Ezra knowing that the perceptive boy would read the question in his eyes, it was an ability that was also shared by Vin. He watched as Ezra sighed and nodded. Mrs Travis was a nice lady, Ezra had concluded; she had reminded him of his Aunt Hester who had done everything possible to make the little five year old thrust into her care one spring afternoon as happy as she could.
Getting the OK from Ezra Buck followed Evie out into the corridor.
"Aww he...heck Miz Evie..." Buck went on to tell Evie of the events in the bathroom and both had tears in their eyes at the end. "He's just a baby Miz Evie. How could anyone do that? And Nathan is still sure that he's been beaten before as well. What are we gonna do?"
It was so easy, Evie thought, to forget that these tall, strapping men were in fact not that far past boyhood themselves, and still dealing with the grief of the death of their parents, one of which may just have proved to have feet of clay.
"Don't worry Buck, it will work out. Ezra is obviously a very strong little character and at least now he's not alone." She smiled at the look of pride in the dark haired man's eyes. Oh he was committed to the boy alright, hook line and sinker. She thought quickly and soon had a course of action planned.
"Now, we'll all go back to the office and then I'll offer to take the younger ones out for a while; we can show Ezra the sights" Evie almost laughed at the expression that would undoubtedly appear on the little southerner's face at the idea of Four Corners having any sights worth seeing...he had a point she admitted to herself with a little smile. Nevertheless she continued "Our absence will give you two a chance to fill the others in. You can come and find us when you're done." None of the boys needed to hear that particular conversation, and besides she hadn't had a chance to spoil a child in quite a while. She didn't see as much of her grandson, Billy, as she or Orrin would like. The death of their only son had made every moment spent with their grandson even more precious; pity their daughter in law Mary didn't see things in quite the same way. She pushed the discontented thoughts aside.
After a facial attack with damp paper towels which had Ezra squirming like any child Nathan announced that he was presentable and the tension was shattered by childish laughter as Nathan then proceeded to give Buck the same treatment; the clownish 21 year old playing it up to the hilt.
And so it was a more upbeat quartet led by Evie that re-entered Orrin's chambers. Forty years had given the couple a working relationship that made each an extension of the other so with one glance he became aware that something was wrong and his little nod, unnoticed by anyone but Evie... and Ezra... acknowledged that he would follow her lead.
"Everything alright Mrs Travis?" asked Josiah with concern; they had been gone a long time. Chris said nothing. He was still smarting from the tongue lashing that Judge Travis had given him practically as soon as the others were out the door. But he had to admit that the man's comments had given him pause for thought. Had he really been acting so unreasonably? God he missed Dad! And Sarah. They had been the only ones who could help him see things straight. Orrin had been a pale echo of that calming yet authoritative presence of his father but it had been enough to push the ever present rage that came with his grief down to a slow simmer. All he had to do now was keep it there; and that wasn't easy because something about the kid really pushed all the wrong buttons, he was just too....something! It was exasperating!
"Everything is fine Josiah" Evie reassured the oldest sibling, not wanting to start anything with Vin and JD present. "Orrin, I can't help but think all this business talk must be very boring for the boys. I thought that perhaps they might like a little trip to the shops, and maybe an ice cream?" She smiled as the two boys in the corner of the room who seemed to be paying no attention to proceedings suddenly moved forward, JD immediately tugging on Buck's shirt, a move which coincidently pulled him away from Ezra; Oh dear! thought Evie, as if they didn't have enough problems' She could almost see the green of jealousy in JD's eyes.
"Can we Buck, huh!? Pleeese." Buck chuckled at the wheedling tone although since this whole trip was planned it was, for once, unnecessary.
"Well I think that's up to the Judge little bit." Buck played along.
Judge Travis was aware that his agreement was an assumed given but by giving it a little thought JD felt a sense of victory when he finally said yes. He kept a straight face with difficulty though as JD's expression soured a little when it was announced that Ezra would be going with them. 'Oh dear!' he thought in an unconscious echo of his wife.
As soon as the little group were out of earshot Judge Travis turned to Buck and Nathan with a concerned look on his face. A concern parroted by Chris and Josiah who had also picked up on their brother's sense of unease.
"Well gentlemen? It was pretty obvious from the way Ezra lit out of here that there was more on his mind than a need for the facilities."
The two boys sat down heavily and Buck rubbed his hand roughly through his hair. "Don't know what triggered that Judge; guess it got forgotten in the stuff that happened when we got there."
"Buck?" Chris hadn't seen the other boy so upset since the night the police had come knocking at the door to tell them about the crash that killed their parents. Buck took a deep breath and then told them what he and Nathan had learned. Nathan then took the opportunity offered by the stunned silence to add what he'd already suspected and what the doctor who'd examined Ezra's ankle had said.
Orrin Travis was not inexperienced in cases of child abuse and while he recognized that Ezra did not fit the classic profile of an abused child he had never really held to the belief that you could pigeonhole people like that. He was, however, surprised and shocked that the doctor had abrogated his responsibility and thrust it back onto a teenager's shoulders. His sad and angry ruminations were broken into by a sudden crash as a heavy chair was slammed back into the wall causing a little cascade of plaster to fall silently onto the plush carpet. He looked over, expecting to see Chris's anger in full flow but instead was witness to Josiah's distress.
Josiah was horrified. As an ex psychology student he was academically aware of child abuse even though he'd never knowingly met someone who'd suffered through it. But the moment he did, the moment he met someone that his education and training could help he had written them off as a troublemaker with an overactive imagination. Even now a little part of his brain wanted to question Buck and Nathan's conclusions and he hated himself for it! Besides, he had no doubts, not with the memory of what had lain behind those pale yet intense green eyes that first night. The look of somebody keeping dark secrets that he'd dismissed because he was too angry with the world to acknowledge that they were all victims in this situation; their lives had been turned upside down by circumstances not by a child. As his sorrow and self recrimination overtook his initial outburst of anger Josiah realised the damage he had done and he offered his apologies to the Judge who dismissed it with a wave of his hand and a small understanding smile.
All eyes turned to Chris who so far hadn't made any movement other than to lean forward in his chair and place his face in his hands. Everybody had expected his reaction to be dramatic and they were worried at his stillness. Had he so much dislike of the boy to not care about his suffering? Then with the sinuous grace of a cobra uncoiling the black clad man raised himself to his feet and stalked over to his slightly taller, slightly younger brother.
"Who Buck?" The voice was soft but anger coiled within the words like a loaded spring.
"He didn't say and we didn't dare push it." Buck was relieved to see the emotion in the eyes even if it was frightening when he got like this.
"When we find out he'll learn what happens to those who hurt kids....to those who hurt family."
Buck grinned. It was a feral smile in recognition of the promised violence but it also acknowledged Chris's acceptance of Ezra. He knew that his brother wasn't yet acknowledging his status as a biological Larabee but was still offering the abandoned child the support and protection of family nonetheless. They all nodded in agreement.
A gentle cough brought their collective attention back to the figure behind the desk. The Judge's features were schooled into a serious expression but his eyes sparkled with amusement as he informed them
"I'll pretend I didn't hear that." He paused and added, a little more seriously, "But I will be severely disappointed if the bastard arrives at his local police station in anything other than a reasonable physical condition."
The brothers grinned at the wording which left a lot of leeway for personal interpretation.
"Now boys, let's get down to business. Firstly the issue of identity; a DNA test is in order I think........"
As the men were discussing the practicalities Evie was escorting her young charges into Gloria Potter's Emporium. It was a place that JD and Vin always loved to visit. Somehow it seemed bigger on the inside than it appeared on the outside and contained all sorts of things, from bolts of cloth and skeins of wool for the crafters and dressmakers of Four Corners to art materials, DIY supplies and, of most interest today, toys and books.
Gloria Potter moved forward to greet her customers. She was always pleased to meet the Larabee children, they were frequent visitors to her home to play with her own two children, Josh who was the same age as Vin and Emily who was a year younger than JD. They had always gotten on well and even more so now that, sadly, they had the shared experience of bereavement between them, Gloria's husband having been killed in a light air plane crash the year before. And Evie Travis was a friend of many years standing. She didn't recognize the well dressed little boy with them though.
"Evie! Lovely to see you...boys good to see you again. Have you come to see Josh and Emily? Because they're at their grandparents for the week you know." Vin and JD shook their heads and Evie felt a pang of irrational jealousy that another grandmother was getting to see her grandchildren while she missed hers so much.
"No Gloria. The others have business with Orrin. We're just getting a bit of fresh air and showing our new friend around town."
Ezra recognized his cue to step forward. He could do 'meet and greet' Mother had taught him, but somehow this felt different, more personal, and he suddenly felt overcome by shyness. He blushed and ducked his head as he stretched out his hand to say hello.
Ezra Standish Ma'am, pleased to make your acquaintance."
Gloria was, of course, enchanted and JD's eyes narrowed as yet another adult fell to Ezer-rara's silly accent and posh words.
Vin chuckled silently as he spotted his little brother's reaction. He couldn't see why JD seemed to hate Ezra on sight, he found the southerner fascinating; a mystery; and Vin loved mysteries, on TV or in the movies. But he was also aware that something was happening on an adult level and that was why they'd been taken out of the office. He hoped that they weren't planning on getting rid of Ezra because despite how JD felt he wanted to keep him. He suddenly wanted him to be his brother.
While Vin was thinking Gloria was shaking the polite child's hand, a gentle smile on her face that made Ezra feel instantly welcome. 'Honestly Mother would be appalled at this sudden trusting nature' Ezra scolded himself but he still smiled at the nice lady. Evie smiled too. If anyone could put a child at their ease it was Gloria.
"I thought that perhaps the boys deserved a little treat Gloria" Evie turned to the boys. "How about each of you pick out a toy as a gift from me?"
JD reacted with all the innocent avarice of any eight year old while Vin thought it wise to check.
"Are you sure Miz Evie? You don't have to..."
"I want to Vin, now you go ahead and choose something." She knew that neither boy would abuse the offer, they were very considerate children. She turned to Ezra.
Ezra looked thoroughly confused. Not surprising since that was exactly how he was feeling.
"You too Ezra. Buck told me that you didn't have much luggage with you so I can't imagine that you have many toys."
Ezra didn't want to admit that other than his ever present decks of cards, one straight and one marked, he had no toys at all. Oh he had been given the odd gift at various places but Mother would always instruct him to leave them behind. Grifters travelled light, he understood that but it always shocked him when someone went out of their way to do something nice for him. Perhaps there was something small enough to fit into a small space in his backpack that could remain with him to remember this time.
Realising that to refuse would probably cause offence, and besides he didn't want to refuse, he nodded his assent and politely thanked her before moving down the aisle that contained all sorts of toys and hobbies. He could see that Vin was taking his time in choosing but that JD had headed straight toward some Batman action figures. He'd never seen the Batman movies but he'd enjoyed the comic books when he could get them. Returning to his own selection he bypassed the cuddly toys sadly. When he was smaller he had always wanted a cuddly toy but Mother had viewed them as a waste of space and now he considered himself too old for such comforts. The sketch books and paints and coloured pencils caught his eye but as much as he enjoyed drawing they would take up too much space. Suddenly something which he had never heard of caught his eye and he picked up the smallish square box.
Origami? He read the back of the box with growing interest, vaguely aware of Vin's arrival at his side. It seemed that origami, the Japanese art of paper folding required precision and dexterity. That would meet Mother's criteria for pastimes which encouraged the practice of techniques useful to their trade and as a bonus one could get paper anywhere and the book of instructions was small. He looked at the price which was very reasonable.
"You getting' that?" Vin saw the pictures of folded paper animals on the box lid and thought they looked pretty neat.
Ezra recognized the overture of friendship. It was rare that other children wanted to befriend him, JD's reaction was more common, but it did happen occasionally and as much as Mother had taught him to beware being conned by false friends Ezra always accepted them at face value. He was usually gone before the relationship could become firm or before he could be betrayed anyway. It was one of her rules that she never seemed to mind him breaking, almost as though she hoped to be proved wrong.
"I think so, it looks quite interesting." He bit his lower lip thoughtfully. Vin knew these people better than he did and so could advise him. "Do you think the price is acceptable?"
Vin knew how Ezra felt. JD didn't really have any concept of the cost of things but his wants were simple anyway, he wasn't one for expensive toys as a rule. Give him an action figure or a car and he was well pleased but Vin always worried about being seen as abusing peoples kindness, and he knew it was silly because he didn't ask for expensive things either. He knew how Ezra felt though so he looked at the price on the box.
"That's fine. It's the same price as my kite." Vin held up the toy he had chosen, a brightly coloured old fashioned kite with a long multi coloured tail.
"That looks splendid" Ezra complimented. He had flown kites in the past. They were easy to make and the materials could be obtained anywhere. Vin's looked especially splendid though.
Vin smiled at the compliment, it was just what he'd thought when he'd seen it. "Perhaps we could fly it together and when you learn how you could teach me to make the paper animals?"
Evie and Mrs Potter had been watching from a distance as the shop owner bagged the action figure that JD had brought to the cash desk. As JD took his bag and went to look at the comics, ignoring the other two boys and angry that nobody noticed him ignoring them Gloria turned toward Evie, curiosity plain on her face.
"It's a long and sad story Gloria and I'm afraid that for now at least my lips must remain sealed. However that little boy desperately needs some love and affection in his life."
Gloria nodded her acceptance of Evie's lack of information. Evie was a woman you could trust to keep a confidence and that was what made her a good friend.
"Well I'm sure that both Josh and Emily would welcome a new playmate. How old is he anyway? He looks quite small but he sounds older."
Evie smiled sadly. "I'm not sure he even knows how to play and he's seven although to talk to him you would think him nearer Vin's age than JD's." 'Past it even' she thought sadly. 'Why couldn't children be allowed to act their age these days'
Evie and Gloria commended each boy on his choice of gift as they had done with JD. Once the items were paid for and goodbyes had been said the little group left the shop. JD quickly reminded Evie of the promise of ice cream so they headed over to the local diner, Maise Jo's.
The large and cheerful black woman who greeted them as they entered filled Ezra with an instant sense of longing. She looked and sounded just like Floella, the housekeeper of one of Mother's more friendly ex-husbands. She had taught him to tie his shoe laces and make cookies. She had played with him and held him when he had nightmares. Even Mother had cried when they had been forced to leave Floella after husband number three found out that Mother was still legally married to husband number two.
Maise Jo wasn't Floella but she was friendly and welcomed Ezra, commenting in her own Virginian drawl that it was good to hear a familiar accent. Ezra debated whether to have the ice cream since he was supposed to avoid that sort of thing as a rule. But his reading had been a little on the low side this morning and who knew when lunch would be taken. Deciding on a compromise between what he wanted and what he should have, after all he could have asked for a healthy snack, he chose the chocolate ice cream but without sprinkles. And if his conscience pricked at him a little he ignored it, the nurse had said he could have occasional treats.
Evie chuckled at the pleasure on Ezra's face as he tasted the ice cream. Anyone would think he'd never had it before, a supposition which would have been proved false by listening to the three boys discuss the best and worse flavours of the confectionary; even JD's attitude had been put on hold as he defended mint chocolate chip, Vin's answering defence of rocky road and Ezra's declaration that one couldn't beat a decent neopolitan being exchanged happily. All agreed that vanilla was boring unless served with pie. And then they were off again on the merits of various pie fillings. Evie knew that the truce wouldn't last but was grateful for the moment.
"So it won't hurt him then?" Buck's concern at the DNA sampling procedure was obvious but Nathan put his fears to rest straight away.
"No Buck it doesn't hurt. The nurse will just swab the inside of his mouth with a cotton bud and they'll use that for testing."
"You won't be able to test for paternity because obviously Robert is no longer with us but we'll take a sample from one of you..."
"I'll do it." Buck's interruption was greeted with chuckles, he'd really taken the kid to his heart. Josiah frowned; he hoped that the man wouldn't be let down.
"Alright" Orrin acknowledged. "Buck's DNA and Ezra's will be compared and if there are enough points of similarity, alleles, in common, then we can confirm that Ezra is Buck's brother and unless you are in any doubt that you share the same father, you excepted Nathan, or that you believe that Maude might secretly be your mother" They all shuddered at the thought. "Then it will be legally confirmed that Ezra is your brother."
"What if he isn't?" Josiah queried at the same time as Nathan, who, by now, had little doubt as to the result, asked...
"What do we do about what he's gone through and will Josiah and Chris get custody?"
Orrin held up his hand to halt any further questions.
"One at a time boys. Josiah; if Ezra isn't related then he will be found a foster placement locally and the State will attempt to locate his mother to determine whether charges should be brought against her. Nathan, your question is harder to answer since I cannot foretell what decision the courts might make on the custody issue. However in all likelihood Ezra will be made a ward of court and placed in a related family setting, as long as you are willing to accept the responsibility."
All the boys looked thoughtful and speculative but the initial rejection of the idea from that first night had passed. Whether they had wanted him to or not Ezra had affected them all to a greater or lesser extent.
"What about the emotional damage and any physical damage from the abuse?" Josiah was sure that the boy would need intensive therapy.
"Well, the physical abuse will have probably long healed but he will be seen by a paediatric specialist in domestic abuse; we'll need to take him to the city for that." Nobody was sorry that the local doctor, good in his limited way, would not be dealing with the issue. "And as for the emotional damage, a therapist will be appointed by the court" Nathan winced. From what he'd experienced of Ezra he pitied the poor man or woman chosen. "And of course" Orrin continued, "The police will have to be called in" Once again he forestalled comment. "Don't worry, Ezra will not be pushed in any way, but he needs to know that we take his experiences seriously and that when he's ready to accept our help it will be there."
At the verbal or gestured agreements of the boys Orrin went on to describe the custody procedures, both temporary and permanent that would be implemented.
After all the necessary forms had been filled out and the documents that Maude had supplied were handed over for verification the boys split up, Chris and Josiah to conduct some ranch business that they had in town and Buck and Nathan set out to track down Evie and the youngsters.
Evie heard the call from across the street and as they turned and saw Buck and Nathan heading towards them JD's immediate reaction to dash across the street was halted by the simultaneous grabs of Vin and Ezra. JD glared at Ezra and pulled his arm away from the restraining grip but any words that sprang to his lips were quashed by Vin's 'look' JD waited for Buck to shout at him for doing something dangerous but neither he or Nathan had seen the small forward movement and Evie had been too distracted by waving back at their hail. Then JD waited for Ezra to tattle tale on him.
But he didn't.
Vin didn't say anything but that didn't surprise JD because Vin was his brother. But Ezzzra had no reason to not get him into trouble. He would have told if it was the other way round.
He really didn't understand the strange boy. He still didn't like him, but he was curious too, which would have surprised no-one as JD's curiosity would give a cat an inferiority complex.
JD's thoughts vanished in the presence of his big brothers. He was soon showing Buck his new Batman figure and Nathan was admiring Vin and JD's purchases. Evie gave them an update of their mornings activities and asked quietly if everything had been sorted out in the office. Buck nodded and then rocked his hand back and forth which Evie took to mean that while not completely dealt with the necessary processes had been put into motion. The rest of the morning was spent showing Ezra those sights she'd promised, noting the child's particular interest in the local library and filing it away for future reference, and buying the items Nathan had noted that Ezra seemed to be lacking including a warm jacket for the chilly Colorado evenings and some strong boots and thick socks. It may be summer but thin soled patent leather loafers just wouldn't do.
After everybody had completed their business an congregated back at the office the Judge and Josiah took Ezra aside and explained to him what had been decided, and Ezra came to the conclusion that Judge Travis wasn't a hanging Judge after all. He didn't show it but he was rather nervous that the police were going to be brought in. While he had had little contact himself with officers of the law he had heeded his mother's warnings about them; of course he had heeded his mother's warnings about Judges as well, up till now. Part of him wanted to run at the thought of Judges and doctors but he also wanted to stay and fly kites with Vin and make paper animals.
It was a dilemma.
He decided to stay pat and see how the cards fell. And as for the therapist, Mother had said that they were just legalised con artists, getting paid for making people remember things they didn't want to remember. She had told him what to do if he were ever faced with one of them.
The return to the ranch was conducted in silences interspersed with soft conversations but the tension of previous trips was no longer present.
Ezra was quite glad to be back. His ankle which had felt much better at the start of their trip was now aching badly again and he was leaning heavier on his crutches. A fact that did not go unnoticed by Nathan or Chris who, to everyone's surprise, not least Ezra's, picked him up and carried him the rest of the way into the house. Chris noted Ezra's expression of amazement and just about managed to avoid laughing. He did, however, give Buck a mock glare at the muffled giggles which came from his direction.
The first thing that hit them as they entered was the delicious smell of some sort of stew cooking. Josiah took a deep breath and as one the brothers declared
"You called boys?!"
Ezra watched with interest as a small woman with short grey hair, dressed in jeans and a floral patterned shirt stepped forward wielding a wooden spoon in one hand and a pepper mill in the other. He moved further into Chris's hold as the tiny woman descended on him. Instinct told him that this woman was not as fragile as she looked and was to be taken very seriously, and with caution. Of course his instinct also pointed out that the pleased reactions to her arrival and the sparkle in her pale blue eyes did not exactly mark her out as the wicked witch of the west. Ezra sighed. It had all been so much easier with Mother to guide him or when people reacted predictably.
"So who is this little'un" Nettie enquired earning herself a scowl from the little chestnut haired boy with the startling green eyes and the bandaged ankle. Well that explained why he was being carried but not who he was and where he came from so she waited expectantly.
Since Chris was holding Ezra in his arms he felt obligated to make the introductions. He coughed nervously and nodded at the woman who they had all known since childhood and who had helped keep their family from falling apart after the accident.
"Nettie Wells I'd like you to meet Ezra Standish. Ezra is going to be living with us, at least for now. Ezra this is Miz Nettie, she's a good friend of the family, sort of an honorary grandma." Chris found that to his surprise he didn't want to have to add the proviso 'for now' but he felt it was important not to get Ezra's hopes up. It wasn't their decision, at least not totally.
Ezra held out his small hand which Nettie took with a raised eyebrow. She returned his polite greeting but she had no doubt that there was more to this boy and more to this story than met the eye.
After greetings were exchanged and Nettie announced that lunch would be served in about twenty minutes Chris carried Ezra upstairs to freshen up. The kid was nothing if not fastidious about his cleanliness.
Once Chris had left him Ezra took a reading and noted with relief that his indulgence with the ice cream had done no great damage. He would retrieve his cool pouch during lunch. Although Mrs Wells had no doubt taken items from the fridge during her lunch preparations Ezra doubted that she was the type of person to imbibe alcohol while cooking, if at all. He checked his insulin cartridges with concern. He was starting to run low and would have to tell soon but he wondered how much more they could take. Nobody seemed to hate him anymore, except maybe JD, but that didn't mean that they didn't have a breaking point. They had already been tolerant beyond his expectations over the secret that James had assured him would get him punished if it ever came to light but other so-called carers over the years had been unable to tolerate his other less desirable qualities. Ones which these men did not yet know of.
He would wait until tomorrow. Waiting till tomorrow had worked well yesterday so he would give it another try.
Retrieving his cool pouch had been easy in the casual chaos that the Larabees called lunch but he knew that his time for secrecy was running out. He knew from past experience what the likely response would be but he also had a rare fluttering of hope in his belly that this family would prove to be different.
After everybody had finished eating Ezra found himself alone with the redoubtable Miz Nettie. In some ways he reminded Ezra of Aunt Evangeline who he had spent the summer of his fourth year with; she had been a strict but fair woman with a great love of family. Ezra had no doubt that, like his Aunt, while not the kind to hurt a child, Mrs Wells loved this family enough to make an enemy of anyone who intended them harm, age notwithstanding.
Nettie Wells was puzzled. She had been a teacher for thirty five years and there wasn't a child alive that she couldn't get a handle on within minutes of meeting them. Until now. And Chris's parting comment as the rest of the boys headed out to do their outside chores to 'remember he's only seven' seemed a little redundant since he looked no older than six at the most.
Or so she had thought
"Thank you Ezra" Nettie acknowledged as the little boy stacked the plates and bowls neatly ready to be transferred to the dishwasher.
"You are welcome Mrs Wells" came the soft reply. Nettie could tell that he wanted to ask a question but was hesitating for some reason. She finished loading up the plates and turned on the machine. She then led the boy back to the table. As they sat she watched the way he sat so rigid and still. As well mannered as it was it seemed somehow unnatural, almost Victorian.
"Was there something you wanted to ask me Ezra?" Instinct softened her normally acerbic tone.
It had been bothering Ezra since he had been introduced but he hadn't wanted to seem rude.
"Everybody calls you Miz which Ah presume is a colloquial rendition of the title Miss, although Ah suppose it could be a shortening of Mrs; however I believe I heard Josiah say Miss at one point, yet you wear a wedding band indicating that you are married. Ah would hate to be guilty of causin' offence by an incorrect use of title."
Suddenly Chris's warning became clearer. Good Lord what a vocabulary. And all in context too. The child wasn't just parroting his elders.
"That's very perceptive of you young man; I'm actually a widow...It's alright Ezra" she reassured him quickly as a look of guilt crossed his face; probably thinking he's upset me' she thought. "My Frank died a good many years ago and as much as I miss him it doesn't upset me anymore. Now to answer your question Everyone calls me Miss or Miz because I was a teacher and it sort of stuck so you call me whichever you're most comfortable with alright.?"
"Yes, thank you Mrs Wells." Ezra was relieved. Using the incorrect term of address was a terrible faux pas and Mother had taught him better than that.
Nettie had a million and one questions she wanted to ask the little stranger in the Larabee home but something, a careers worth of practice maybe, made her hold fire until she could speak to Chris or Josiah. Her time had been spent teaching in small rural schools not the big city but she had met her fair share of troubled youngsters and they had a certain indefinable quality; she was sensing that same quality now.
Ezra hated silence. Mother had explained to him that silence gave the mark time to think and that the more they thought the more likely it was that they would see any flaws or holes in the con. Of course Mrs Wells was not a mark and he wasn't participating in a con but the awkward lull in the conversation still cried out to be filled and he wasn't backward in coming forwards when the need arose.
"So, Mrs Wells, may Ah enquire what subject you taught during your career?"
Nettie smiled at the attempt at small talk. The child was obviously feeling as uncomfortable as she was.
"I taught English and History to fifth and sixth graders Ezra. Do you enjoy school where you live?"
Ezra had been taught to be cautious when answering personal questions but even if he hadn't been he would have found it difficult to explain to the retired teacher that he had never actually attended any one educational establishment long enough to form a firm opinion one way or the other. Most of his knowledge had, in fact, come from his own curiosity and love of reading.
"English and history are two of mah favourite subjects" he supplied and it didn't escape her notice that he avoided discussing his own schooling history. She let it go, it had been worth a try. She played along with the subject he was willing to discuss.
"Really Ezra, and what is your favourite book?" Her expectation of his reply had not been the average reading matter for a seven year old, he was obviously advanced for his age. Despite her raised expectations, however, his reply still managed to stun her.
"Ah enjoy the works of Charles Dickens and Jules Verne but lately Ah have been reading The Lord of the Rings...it is very exciting. I have been trying to learn Elvish but it is more difficult than French." His face scrunched up slightly at this admission of the difficulties present in being unable to learn a language that didn't exist.
'Ask a stupid question' thought Nettie in mild shock. Unless he was lying, and she couldn't think why he would, he was obviously more than just precocious, he was gifted. She wondered if the boys knew.
As if she had called them to her side Chris and Buck re-entered the kitchen. Chris hoped that the time and space they had given her to get to know Ezra would soften the blow of being told just who he might be. Buck took the lead on the next stage of their plan.
"Hey Ezra, Miz Nettie I wondered if I could steal your new friend here for a spell. Thought he might like to go see the horses; we haven't had a chance till now? How about it Ezra? Want to see a bit more of the ranch than your bedroom and the kitchen?"
"Yes please Mister Buck" he paused; remembering his manners even though his excitement at the thought of seeing horses up close made it difficult. He turned to the smiling old woman. She had seen the jade eyes grow even bigger in the little boys face as the subject of horses was raised. Now THAT was a seven year old child. "If it is alright with you Mrs Wells?" It would be a grievous abuse of etiquette to walk out on your guest.
Nettie almost choked at the looks of uncertainty and hope in those same pale eyes and knew that unlike many a child to whom the permission to leave the table was already taken for granted before it was even asked this child would really forgo his treat if she protested. It chilled her in a way that she couldn't explain but a glance at Chris told her that she wasn't the only one who had noticed. The time she took to process these feelings was mere seconds but she saw the light of hope begin to die.
"Of course it's alright Ezra. You go with Buck and enjoy yourself" The light returned tenfold. She removed two apples from the fruit bowl on the table and handed one to each boy. "I'm sure that the horses will appreciate a treat." The smile she received from the, until now, serious southern child was startling and she felt strangely privileged.
After Buck and Ezra had left Chris took the newly vacated chair and waited for the woman that he regarded as a grandmother to speak. He didn't have long to wait.
Chris had gotten permission to discuss his new charge's situation via the same kind of exchange of meaningful looks that he used to communicate with Vin. He hadn't believed Buck when he claimed that the little southerner shared the unusual trait...until now.
Sensing his hesitation Nettie softened her planned interrogation. "I won't be offended if you don't want to discuss it Chris; just want you to know that if you need any help or a friendly ear I'll be there. Just like I was for your mom."
Chris never had any doubt of that. The 'tough old bird with a heart of pure marshmallow' as their mom used to call her had been a good friend to the family for as long as he could remember. Heck, she had been Josiah and Vin's godmother.
"Don't mind telling' ya Nettie, you're family and I know you won't spread it around." Nettie didn't have many faults and town gossip was not one of them.
Nettie nodded in gratitude at the compliment and waited patiently but instead of an explanation she found herself on the end of a question.
"Did either of my folks mention a Maude Standish?"
Nettie pursed her lips and gave a little sigh. Their parents had been gone for less than four months and she didn't want to shatter their rose coloured view of their folks marriage. Then Ezra's last name came back to her and it all clicked. Seemed that those rose coloured spectacles had already been broken into little pieces.
Chris started to look concerned, convinced that he had upset the old lady. He was about to backtrack when she spoke.
"I didn't make the connection. I only knew that her name was Maude. She reached out and patted his hand in reassurance as he had the truth that he had been hoping was not real confirmed to him, and by an unimpeachable source. "You have to understand that on the whole Maggie and Robert had a wonderful marriage. They loved each other dearly and adored every last one of you. But they were only human and they went through rough patches just like everyone else."
"Did Mom know....about Dad's affair?"
Nettie nodded. "He told her as soon as he got back from Virginia. Maggie was devastated of course. She ended up speaking to me about it. I advised her to talk it through with Robert. Neither one of them was in a good place at the time. The business was going through a hard spell financially and Maggie hadn't long given birth to JD and was exhausted, what with looking after you lot and helping out on the ranch because they couldn't afford to hire in. Seems Robert allowed himself to be beguiled but even though things got pretty strained for a while both knew that what they risked losing was far more important than a stupid one night stand. I like to think that they came out the other side stronger and closer."
Nettie paused; she had a question of her own.
"Is the boy Roberts? From what I heard of Maude she was a born liar and cheat. That was something Robert found out when he caught her trying to steal his credit cards."
Chris laughed but it had a bitter edge to it. His initial instincts when she stood at their door had been right but he wished for the sake of Ezra that they had been wrong.
"We think so. She says so and she's told Ezra that...I know, like you said she lies but we've done a DNA test and we're waiting on the result. Ezra didn't balk at the procedure" Chris's chuckle was lighter this time, "in fact both he and Vin explained the testing procedure to me and Buck. Seems that Ezra is as big a fan of CSI as Vin. But there was no time that he made me think that he was deliberately conning us. If he isn't a Larabee then his Ma lied to him too."
"You do realise that he's likely not a normal little boy don't you Chris?"
Nettie hadn't come across more than a couple of truly gifted children in her career but she knew that they were not always treated well. Children below and above the norm were often discriminated against by those who felt uneasy in their presence. Plus, she had heard talk from serving teachers that she had a passing acquaintance with that Vin was not achieving academically, some even ignited her temper by claiming that he was not bright, that he was slow. When she had heard she had offered her tutoring services to Maggie, and a piece of her mind to the gossips; but then with the accident and all he had enough to come to terms with in his life. But would the addition of an exceptional child upset him even further?
Chris watched as Nettie seemed to get lost in her thoughts. He understood that because he did it a lot himself these days. When she returned to the moment he asked.
"What do you mean Nettie. I know that he's picked up a lot of long words and he's pretty canny. Wouldn't be surprised if he's already quite the con artist." Chris had a feeling that Nettie wasn't talking about the child's natural ability to read people. Perhaps she had spotted signs of his abuse?
"Chris, Ezra let slip to me that he speaks French, is reading the Lord of the Rings and attempting to learn 'Elvish' And his favourite authors include Charles Dickens."
Nettie chuckled, not only at the surprise in the voice but at the flash of warmth and pride in the normally cold eyes.
"You will have to get him tested. He may just be gifted in the one area but somehow I doubt it." She was glad that Chris didn't seem to be displaying any animosity but curious too. Chris wasn't the sort to take to small children; there was more to this than met the eye. "We also need to talk about Vin's schooling at some point Chris. I know that Maggie didn't want him to feel singled out but if you have a gifted child receiving special attention then he's going to feel pushed out instead, which is far worse."
Chris nodded and ran his hand roughly through his blond hair. When was life going to start getting easier? He didn't realise he'd said it out loud until, with a hearty laugh, Nettie confirmed his fears.
"Never Chris; but you'll never regret making the journey either." She paused, remembering that chilled feeling she had gotten when she first spoke to Ezra. "There's more you need to tell me isn't there?"
Although Chris had permission from Ezra to confide in Nettie which meant, he realised, that Ezra had somehow judged the woman and found her worthy, he still felt nervous at giving out the terrible truth they had discovered. That Ezra trusted him to handle it made the normally frozen heart that beat in his chest glow with pride. How had this nuisance of a child made his heart beat with life again and awaken feelings that he swore he had shut away after Sarah?
"You have to understand, Nettie, that Ezra's arrival came as a total shock, and...well let's just say that our initial reaction wasn't the most welcoming." He blushed at the look of reproof.
"Oh Chris you didn't?"
"I know, I know. Anyway Ezra ran and that's how he hurt his ankle but Nate noticed that he didn't react normally to the pain..."
Nettie saw the look in the second oldest Larabee's eyes...THAT look. The one she had seen rarely in her life but always twisted her heart.
"Oh Lord no!"
"Yeah....that idiot of a doctor at the hospital, Marshall, left the entire burden of watching Ezra for further signs down to poor Nathan."
"Doc Marshall hasn't been quite the man he was for a while now but I didn't think it was affecting his professional judgement."
"Well Nate didn't have to wait for long. I think it had all been too much for Ez and the little guy just broke. Thing is we're pretty positive that the abuse wasn't just violent, as if violence against a child could ever be considered just anything; we think he was sexually abused too."
Nettie had lived a long time but there were some things she would never understand and how an adult could so abuse the innocent trust of a child was, she was glad to say, one of them. She sent up a silent prayer for Ezra and for the boys who had proved willing to take on the responsibility of trying to heal the damaged little soul. She had no doubt that even if not blood Ezra had quickly become family. She had felt the same herself within minutes of meeting him.
"Has he told you who?" She doubted it. If Chris knew then he would already be on his way to teach the bastard the error of his ways.
"No, and we don't want to push him. Josiah is going to arrange for him to see a therapist and the police have been informed but we won't be speaking to them until tomorrow; he's been through enough for one day. Just thought you ought to know Nettie, just in case he breaks down again while you're there."
"Don't worry Chris, it will all work out in the end and I've got every faith that you boys will come through with flying colours."
"Please! We're all reacting so differently. Vin's already adopted him, Nathan is as protective as a mother hen while Buck is so full of guilt for his initial reactions that he'll be attempting to make it up to Ezra until he's drawing his pension, and of course he's fallen for the kid's big green eyes like a ton of bricks, which has made JD sulky and he's eying the boy up like he's the enemy."
"And Josiah?" Nettie was concerned that the eldest brother hadn't been mentioned. He was the head of this family now after all.
"Damned if I know what's going on in that head of his Nettie."
"Too much, I reckon. He just needs time to work through things. Just hope he don't take too long and that he comes to the right conclusions." Josiah's tendency to turn practical issues into abstract philosophical ideas wouldn't be of any use to his brothers...or Ezra.
Buck carried Ezra over to the stables. He enjoyed the fact that the little guy trusted him enough to allow it...of course he also realised that by allowing it the fastidious boy was avoiding getting his shoes dirty and was somewhat protected from the animals he so much wanted to see. Having been around horses his whole life Buck couldn't pretend to understand Ezra's nervousness, an emotion which was made obvious by the way he clutched a little harder at the front of the older boy's shirt. Buck checked Ezra's eyes. He had quickly found that while the pale face tended to remain expressionless the emotions were clearly visible in the delicate jade eyes. He was reassured by the anticipation and excitement that was reflected back at him.
"Now Ezra, just remember that although horses are generally gentle animals they can be frightened which can make them unpredictable."
"Like when Ah ran away from y'all?" Buck winced. He didn't think he'd ever get over those words that had made Ezra run.
"Exactly. So until you get a bit older and more used to them I don't want you to go see them without an adult going with ya, OK?"
They had reached the stables where Vin and JD had just finished their chores for the day.
"Hey Ezra" called Vin happily, "You come to see Sunny?"
Buck lowered Ezra to the ground and handed him his crutches.
"Sunny?" Ezra was excited. Despite his mother having been married to the owner of Savannah Sun and familiar with horses he, himself, had been born in Norfolk, Virginia, after mother's husband had found out about her pregnancy and had become extremely doubtful that it was a result of their relationship. Since then he had lived in a series of cities and towns where the most likely rider of any horses he had seen tended to have a police officer sitting atop them; needless to say his mother made sure that he viewed them from a distance. This was as close to the Old West that he loved reading about as he had ever got and he was about to meet the very horse who had started it all. He hoped that the family wouldn't take out their anger at his arrival on the poor horse...no, he rationalized, Savannah Sun, or Sunny as they had obviously nick-named her, was a valuable commodity, unlike himself. If they took it out on anybody it would be him. He was glad that they wouldn't hurt the horse.
Buck led Sunny out of the stall and into the sunlight where she tossed her head in pleasure at the warmth and the pleasant breeze. Vin smiled as Ezra's delight showed through, he knew how the younger boy felt; the thrill of being with the horses had never lessened for him. They didn't judge you and they didn't make promises to always be there and then die and leave anyway.
JD scowled. What was so special anyway? Anyone would think that Ezzra-hah hadn't ever seen a horse before, which was silly because they were around all the time. He kicked at the dirt in a fit of pique and noted with satisfaction that the resulting spray of earth landed directly on the bright shiny and once clean shoes of the other boy.
Ezra didn't notice his suddenly less than pristine state because Buck was showing him how to feed the apple he held to the eager mare. He giggled at the feel of the soft and rather slobbery mouth on his palm...mother would once again be appalled at his antics.
He looked down at his now empty hand and then at the horse with concern.
"Yes Ezra? Was that fun?"
"Indeed it was Mr Buck; however do you think that the horse should be eating snacks when she is already rather ...rotund?"
Vin whispered something in the seven year olds ear and a sudden blush filled both boys faces.
'Now they're keeping secrets together' fumed JD silently while Buck was just glad that Vin had saved him the embarrassment of explaining the facts of horsey life."
"That's one of the things we do here Ezra. Our mares have foals to order from other horse owners who want their own stock to have the best bloodlines."
Ezra nodded in understanding. Breeding was almost as important as appearances.
"So will they take the foal away from her when it's born." Ezra found that idea very wrong. Mother may have left him with others a lot but she always came back...well until now, but that was his own fault for not being perfect.
"No Ezra. Normally a foal won't leave it's mother until it's old enough to be on it's own but Sunny's foal is one we'll be keeping. He'll provide a male version of her bloodline. Her bloodline will carry on here with her offspring."
Before Ezra could ask any more questions a sudden bout of grumbling and cursing was heard from around the side of the stable block. Curious, the group made their way round while a ranch hand led Sunny off for her afternoon exercise. Buck had recognised the cussing voice and wanted to remind him to check when the kids were around. He had a sudden aversion to bad language in front of kids.
"Damn fool, son of a b..."
"Guy!" Buck's shout stopped the man in full flow. He saw Vin, JD and some strange kid and ducked his head in apology.
"Sorry Buck, kids. Didn't mean to kick up a ruckus. Just trying to talk some sense into this ornery mule." Guy Royal, one of Robert's longest serving employees and ranch foreman, nodded toward the creature whose reins he held tightly and who was in turn giving out a look of pure disgust.
Ezra saw Vin's expression of dislike and had to admit that he agreed with the ten year old. The tall man's demeanour was not to his own liking either; nor the mule's. But Buck seemed unfazed so perhaps they were both over reacting.
"Is that why the horse is smaller than most? Because it's a mule? It doesn't look like the mules in books Ah've read; it looks more like a horse."
Buck glared at Guy's snigger but missed JD's superior smirk. Kid couldn't be expected to know stuff he'd never seen before.
"No Ezra, Mr Royal was just saying that he was as stubborn as a mule. This is a pony; like a horse but not as big. His name is Bart, like the cartoon character" Seeing the blank look Buck wondered just what other normal stuff the kid didn't know. "He was a troublemaker like the pony."
Ezra nodded although he didn't quite understand. He found that displays of ignorance were often not well received.
"Don't think Billy's gonna get on well with Bart." Vin's softly spoken opinion was taken with serious nods of agreement by the adults.
"Yeah Buck I think you'll have to find another pony for him. This beast ain't user friendly; he's gonna haft'a go."
Ezra didn't like the look of sadness on Vin's face. "Surely you don't mean..."
Vin didn't want to confirm Ezra's, and his own, fears about the future of the pony but he wasn't sure what happened to unwanted stock himself and he feared the worst.
Buck heard the worry in Vin's question and saw Ezra's horror and vowed that no matter how useless the pony proved to be it would not be destroyed. He did wish, though, that Guy had kept his stupid mouth shut.
"Don't worry pards. Bart might be unsuitable for a nervous rider like young Billy, that's Billy Travis by the way Ezra, he's Judge Travis' grandson; but I'm sure we'll find a use for such a pretty pony."
The pony was, indeed, attractive. His coat was a beautiful shade of pale grey and the mane and tail were jet black. He looked to Ezra as though he should be on a carousel or on rockers in a little boys bedroom. He was relieved that it's independent nature had not signed it's death warrant.
The next three days went by without incident. Everybody seemed to be accepting of Ezra's continued presence, although Josiah remained contemplative and JD refused to be swayed no matter how increasingly fascinating he was finding the too old younger boy. Ezra's ankle was healing nicely and he no longer needed the crutches and was able to get about on his own. He enjoyed spending time with Vin and they flew his kite together and spent a rainy afternoon in deep concentration with Ezra's origami kit. The adults had expressed great appreciation of their gifts of folded paper frogs which were placed on the bookshelf in a position of honour. But as much as Ezra was enjoying his stay he knew that two major obstacles to it's continuation were waiting in the wings.
Ezra's DNA results were due to be delivered to Judge Travis within the next couple of days and that would change everything; unless the confession that he was planning to make tomorrow night did the damage first. Ezra could put off his admission of his imperfect medical state no longer. He was down to his last few doses and even if mother had left him a current prescription he doubted whether the pharmacist would hand it over the counter to a minor. He had decided that he would tell Nathan at bed time; that would leave him one dose for the morning.
However Ezra was to discover that the best laid plans often went the most awry.
It had been a quiet morning and Ezra had found a book in the family room so he took it up to his bedroom to read.
For some reason Ezra found that he just couldn't concentrate on the popular yet quite interesting novel. He had read about the Da vinci Code before but not from this fictional perspective. As he read the same line for the third time a familiar and unwelcome feeling crawled through his insides and he felt a moment of panic. Putting the book aside he retrieved his glucose monitor and did a finger prick test.
Knowing that his reading should give a much higher result it was confirmation that he was having a hypoglycaemic attack...a hypo. Ezra rummaged through his backpack and sighed at the lack of the glucose tablets he normally carried. He should never have trusted Mother to help him pack especially when she was in a rush. He would normally have a cereal bar or two as back-up but he had eaten them in lieu of dinner that first night and hadn't had a chance to replace them.
Ezra moved stealthily, if a little wobbly, down the stairs to the thankfully empty kitchen. He debated making a sandwich but knew from past experience that while that would settle his glucose levels he would first need a quick acting shot of sugar to temporarily bump it up out of the danger zone. His gaze settled on the cookie tin which was placed on a high shelf to keep it away from greedy children. Unfortunately it also served to make it unreachable to little boys with sore ankles. He switched his view to the snack boxes on the work surface. Vin and JD had one each and could help themselves whenever they liked with the proviso that if they ran out they would remain empty till next shopping day. A few days of no candy and a couple of tummy aches had taught both boys not to abuse the trust placed in them and since they had only just been replenished they were still nearly full.
Ezra chose JD's box; not because the boy had been an absolute pain to him but because his candy had the softer fillings which would ensure the most rapid absorption into his bloodstream. He removed a small fondant filled bar and replaced it with a dollar bill. One should never steal from one's providers unless it proved unavoidably necessary. He unwrapped the chocolate and was about to take a bite when an angry, high pitched scream rent the air.
"BUCK! BUCK COME QUICK! HE'S A THIEF....BUCK!"
JD's triumphant cry terrified Ezra and he dropped the untouched candy and ran from the room, completely unaware of the renewed twinge of pain but only too aware of the screaming of his muscles in general as they failed to draw enough energy to keep them moving. What his glucose couldn't provide was more than made up for by the adrenalin that replaced it though and he was a mere blur as he shot past Buck who was coming from the other direction.
"What's all the commotion bit?" Buck gave his little brother a quick look over to check for injury but soon realised that the boy was angry not hurt. Almost as one the rest of the brothers arrived in the kitchen along with Nettie who had been in the nearby laundry room checking for mending to be done.
"What on earth is going on?" rumbled Josiah.
JD was practically bouncing with anger and excitement. He had just known that the other kid was no good and now he had the proof! He picked up the candy bar and handed it to Buck.
"It was Ezara Buck. He stole it...I caught him."
Buck looked to Chris with a frown. Ezra knew that if he wanted anything he only had to ask. Something wasn't right.
"Where is he? Does anybody know?" Chris once again assumed the mantle of leader much to Josiah's chagrin...and relief.
"He ran past me; probably headed for his bedroom" supplied Buck who was still gazing at the chocolate in puzzlement. It wasn't even the best quality of JD's snacks.
"Damn fool child" moaned Nathan worriedly, "Shouldn't be running on that ankle; I'll go see how he is."
The others nodded as Nathan loped up the stairs three at a time. The others hadn't been discussing possible reasons for more than a couple of minutes before Nathan came hurtling into the room, a small shiny black device in his waving hand.
"Buck! Did he eat any of the candy?"
Even JD froze at the urgency in his brother's voice.
"No Nate, why? What's that?" They all stared at the thing in the young man's large hand. Buck was starting to get a very bad feeling.
Nathan pushed past everyone and began to grab bottles of coke from the fridge which he proceeded to hand out to the adults as he explained.
"It's a glucose monitor" he handed Chris a bottle and the monitor which had a series of numbers on the display screen.
"What does that mean exactly?" It rang a bell in Chris's mind but he'd never come across one before. Josiah though looked a little sick.
"It's what diabetics use to test their glucose levels." Nathan handed out the last of the drinks and then proceeded to pass out handfuls of the sugar cubes they kept for the horses.
"So you're saying that Ezra is...." Buck was stunned. How many more shocks were they going to get from this strange little boy. He didn't miss the fact that JD was clinging to his shirt. He ruffled his hair in reassurance as he waited for Nathan's reply.
"A diabetic...yeah." Nathan held up a hand to cut off the tide of questions that he knew was coming. They didn't have time for this.
"We don't have time for this. That reading was too low. He was taking the candy because he needed an instant glucose boost. But he hasn't had one and now he's in danger of going into a diabetic coma which is pretty dangerous. We have to find him right away." The only sound that came from the group was a slight whimper from JD who received another calming pat from Buck and the sound of Miss Nettie gathering their coats which they quickly shrugged into.
"What should we do Nathan?" Chris was aware that he was out of his depth here and didn't hesitate to hand over control to his younger brother.
"Well I'd like Miz Nettie to check the house just in case Ezra's still inside. You should take JD with you..."
"NO! I want to search with Buck." JD was terrified that the annoying yet now suddenly not so annoying boy would die and it would all be his fault. Nathan was about to veto his idea but Buck stepped in, he knew that JD needed to do this.
"It's OK Nate. He'll be a big help at searching on Ezra's level."
"Shouldn't we call the police to start a search? and an ambulance?" Josiah's urge to do everything by the book really wasn't helping now.
Nathan didn't waste time arguing. "Alright Buck. Now I want you all to take the coke and when you find him get him to drink as much as you can then call me. We can find him and get him to the hospital quicker than an ambulance can get here." He looked at Josiah hoping that his explanation would satisfy the pedantic man. "He can't have gotten far because his energy levels are too low so stick to the property. If he's unconscious when you find him don't try to force the liquid down him as he might choke. Just crush up the sugar and rub it on the inside of his cheek.
As soon as Nathan had given his instructions the boys paired off and were gone. Nettie said yet another prayer for Ezra as she began to search the many hiding places that the old house had to offer.
Ezra knew that he was making a big mistake but the fear of discovery was driving him on now. Unfortunately it didn't drive him far before his energy reserves gave out completely and he collapsed under a large hedge which separated the big but overgrown kitchen garden out back from the grassland beyond. Had he been there a few weeks later there might have been some fruit on the neglected bushes that he could have eaten but even then his mind would probably have been too fuzzy to register the fact. As it was there was nothing of use anyway. He should really call for help but irrational behaviour tended to be a symptom of low blood sugar and also of his natural instinct to hide when frightened. And he was very frightened. What really struck him as strange, even through his befuddlement, was that instead of wanting his mother he wanted the calm chocolaty smooth voice of Nathan to tell him that everything was going to be alright. He hoped that he would come soon as he felt so sleepy.....
Each pair of boys had taken a different direction. Josiah and Nathan had gone toward the stables; Nathan trying to concentrate and answer Josiah's questions about diabetes at the same time. He just wished that he knew more himself.
Chris took Vin down the front drive in case Ezra had attempted to get to town again. Neither spoke, they didn't really need to.
Buck was slowed by JD's limitations as they made their way into the back garden. It saddened Buck to see his mother's beloved flower and vegetable garden so overgrown but none of them had had the heart to tackle it because they would also have to tackle the memories of her too. Buck used his height advantage to look over the tops of the unruly bushes while JD was pleased that for once his small stature could prove a good thing as he saw the world from Ezra's level.
It was JD that spotted Ezra's dark red shirt and he tugged urgently on Buck's sleeve. Buck followed his gaze and then grabbed up his little brother and ran toward the seemingly lifeless figure huddled pathetically under the overhanging leaves.
A sudden sound brought Ezra back awake just as he was about to slip into the warm darkness of oblivion. He reacted instinctively at the approach of the big man who he had a funny feeling he should recognize but didn't.
Buck stopped dead at the recoil of the little body. Ezra's eyes were dull and unfocused. He was obviously confused and scared. Buck was pretty sure that he had become a stranger yet again. Buck carefully lowered JD to the ground and made another attempt to approach the little southerner but at the boy's pathetic whimper and weak warding gesture he stopped once again, frustrated and not afraid to admit that he was pretty scared himself.
"Buck?" JD's voice was low and hesitant but commanded his older brother's attention nonetheless.
"I can do it" Reading his brother's frown as doubt in his ability when it was just confusion he put a little more certainty into it. "I can Buck. Ezra won't be scared of me 'cause I'm not big like you and I can get him to drink the coke."
Buck's expression became one of hope. It was a good idea.
"Okay JD but go careful and very slowly. He's like a young colt at the moment, real skittish, and anything could set him off OK?" Buck was sure that Ezra wouldn't become violent but in his confusion he might accidentally hit out.
JD nodded, proud at being given this responsibility and the chance to make up for the trouble he'd caused. He knew that none of his brothers blamed him for what had happened and if he were honest with himself he didn't think that Ezra would either. But he blamed himself and wanted to put it right.
"Ezra? Ezra, can you hear me?" JD moved slowly toward the other boy who drew back a little but didn't show any signs of the panic that Buck had triggered. Buck looked on with baited breath; he was so proud of JD; he was a brave kid.
Ezra allowed the small person to approach him. Other children had often hurt him in the past; cousins and strangers alike but they had always been much bigger or older than him. Besides something told him that there was no danger here. Perhaps the other boy could watch over him as he slept because he really was very, very tired.
And thirsty. Which was why it seemed so fortuitous that the boy was offering him a drink. How kind.
Buck watched with relief as JD held the coke bottle to Ezra's lips and the younger boy began to drink, slowly at first, then more rapidly but with greater control. The return of the light to the jade eyes was almost miraculous.
It took a few more moments before Ezra was once again aware of who was there with him and his first coherent thought was to apologise for his deception and the resulting drama.
"Nonsense Ezra. I'm sure you had your reasons and we can discuss them later. For now let's get you back to Nate. He wants to get you checked out at the hospital." Buck and JD chuckled at Ezra's moan of disgust at the return to the clinic and JD beamed as Buck gave him a bear hug and praised him for his help in finding Ezra in time.
"I am sorry JD." JD frowned in puzzlement at Ezra's apology until he made his reason for it clear.
"I should not have taken your candy, I should have asked first but I was worried about telling everyone about my condition."
"Oh, that's OK Ezra; I'm sorry I scared ya and made you sicker..."
Before the two boys could apologise each other to death Buck moved forward and scooped the slender boy up into his arms and with JD practically running to keep up jogged back toward the house yelling for Nathan at the top of his considerable voice.
The others, responding to Buck's bellow, gathered back at the kitchen and Nettie immediately threw a warm blanket round the shivering southerner's shoulders. She didn't know whether the shivering was a result of the chill in the air or the diabetes but shivering was shivering.
Nathan was on him like a cat on a mouse but his look was not one of anger which pleased Ezra no end. In fact the only one who wore a look of anger rather than worry was Chris and Ezra had the feeling that that was how he showed his concern.
Nathan wanted to scold Ezra for not trusting them but how could he when the boy was obviously so scared of their reaction that he had rather faced the dangers of a hypo than call for help. Time to talk later.
Ezra felt the pricking of his finger and looked to Nathan for the result, as did the others. Vin winced at the sight of the process. That couldn't be much fun.
Nathan nodded his judgement that the reading was now more acceptable and Ezra closed his eyes in relief. At the others expectant looks Nathan replied. "Well I'm no expert and it's still low but I think it'll do until we get him to the hospital." Ezra nodded confirmation without opening his eyes.
Once again a part of the Larabee clan headed off to the hospital while Nettie stayed behind to look after Vin and a much relieved JD.
JD wasn't sure now just what he thought of Ezra. Perhaps tomorrow he would start again and try to get to know him. Yeah, tomorrow sounded good to him.
The nurse sighed as, for the second time in less than a week, the little chestnut haired southerner was carried into her department by one of the Larabees, the rest of the older ones hot on his heels.
"Hello boys; hello Ezra sweetie. Is your ankle worse? Nurse Renfrew leaned over him and ruffled his hair.
'Too close!' Ezra grumbled silently as she loomed over him. And then, 'Well really!' at the unasked for physical contact.
Ezra didn't answer her question and he knew that it was rude but he was tired and he still felt fuzzy, however he felt compelled to make some sort of reply so he shook his head, no, and gave her a glare for good measure.
Chris grinned at the sight of his own glare on somebody else's face. 'Atta boy' he thought proudly. The kid didn't have the menace factor but he had the pissed off look down pat. Seeing that Ezra was still so poorly though he got down to business.
"We've just discovered that Ezra suffers from diabetes and he's just had a...a...Nate?" Chris glanced at their resident medical expert.
"A hypoglycaemic attack."
Expecting the nurse to immediately set things in motion they were shocked when she said,
"That's impossible." She looked sternly at Ezra who was blinking rapidly in an attempt to keep awake. He knew that there was something important about sleepiness but he was too tired to remember. He did remember what that look on the nurse's face meant though and drew further back into Buck's chest where it was safe. The older boy was both warmed to receive such trust and disgusted at the nurse for making Ezra uncomfortable.
"I beg your pardon!?" Josiah stepped forward, his voice indignant yet without aggression, but his protective posture saying for him what his words didn't.
Nurse Renfrew was flustered at the change in the attitude of the Larabee clan. It was certainly different from earlier in the week when their harsh looks and clipped words had been directed at the boy rather than the staff. Still, it wouldn't do for them to be drawn in by the little boy's fantasies. He was obviously an attention seeker, she had even heard that he had been seen talking to the police a day or so ago and this claim proved his lack of moral character. Time to set these boys straight.
"I'm sorry Josiah, boys, but you have to understand that given his obviously malnourished state and the fact that neither we nor any of you had any idea of his medical history it would have been standard practice for the attending physician to order up a complete set of bloods which would certainly have shown whether Ezra suffered from diabetes. If it had flagged that up we would have acted immediately."
The brothers could see the certainty of experience in her eyes and hear the confidence in her voice. According to her Ezra was a liar and Nathan was mistaken or had been conned.
Ezra waited for someone to voice what they must all now be thinking; that he was a fraud, a cheat and a liar.
Nathan frowned and wondered if it was possible that he could have been so wrong, both about his diagnoses and about his new little friend. He felt all eyes on him, except Ezra's which were downcast. Right or wrong? Liar or sick little boy?
Nathan stood tall and straight and looked the nurse right in the eye. "Get the doctor ma'am, and Ezra's notes. I was with Ezra almost the whole time and I didn't see anyone take blood." He reached over to Ezra who was still in Buck's arms and gently tilted his head up to look in the glistening green eyes.
"Did anyone take blood from you while I was talking to Dr Marshall?"
Ezra's eyes grew huge. Nathan didn't doubt him. He trusted him to tell the truth and it was the medical staff that had not been believed!
"No Sir." The expression might have been one of exhaustion but the southern voice was as confident as Nurse Renfrew's had been.
Another Nurse, Molly Pike, who had been off duty that day listened and frowned. It wouldn't be the first time that Doctor Marshall had forgotten to do tests. She didn't think that interrogating a sick child was the way to go and went to fetch the relevant notes and to page the doctor.
Nurse Renfrew grimaced. How dare they look to children for accurate information and how dare they insinuate that Doctor Marshall was incompetent. He was a fine physician!
"Ezra, if you are, as you claim, diabetic then you would be aware of blood taking procedures; so why didn't you say something at the time?" His reply left her red faced and she could swear that she heard a snort of laughter come from somewhere.
"My diabetes was not the issue at the time ma'am, my ankle was. And unless I am mistaken my ankle is in no way directly connected to the function of my pancreas."
Before the humiliated nurse could comment further the young Staff Nurse appeared at her shoulder, Ezra's notes in hand and they all heard the call going out over the speaker system for Doctor Marshall to report to Emergency.
"Well Nurse Pike?" Nurse Renfrew held out her hand imperiously for the file.
Molly handed the thin document over but she had already gone through it.
"Sorry Nurse Renfrew. It seems that Nathan is correct. No bloodwork results are included and no request for them to be done has been recorded....I checked"
It was Molly's subtle way of preventing the senior nurse from covering up any medical incompetence. Unfortunately by the look of the scowl she received not subtle enough. Imelda Renfrew's ire, however, was more than made up for by the smiles of gratitude she received from Nathan, Ezra and, particularly, Buck whose eyes seemed to be sparkling just for her.
Before either family or staff could comment further Dr Marshall bustled into the room. He stopped dead as he saw the reason for his summons and the discontented looks on both visitors and staff. His stomach lurched and his heart rate increased; he had been thorough hadn't he?
"Josiah, good to see you again. What seems to be the matter? Not Ezra again I hope?" Marshall deliberately concentrated on the eldest Larabee. He was the calm one; the sensible one...the one standing furthest away from an angry looking Chris Larabee.
Ezra watched through half closed eyes. He was nearly asleep again and he wished that everyone would stop talking so that he could complete the process but...there it was again. How odd! The doctor was exhibiting some strange tells. Little indications that betrayed nervousness and even fear. They hadn't been present earlier in the week. He would have to think on it...when he felt less tired....
"Nate?" Buck looked down at the small southerner who had suddenly gone limp in his arms. "Should Ezra be asleep?"
At that all argument ceased and within minutes Ezra was in an examination room; his reading had been taken, which resulted in a concerned tut tut from Nurse Renfrew who had the good grace to look guilty after the accusations she had made.
Nearly an hour later Ezra was settled in a room on the children's ward and seemed a lot perkier although he still looked a little peaky to Chris who had been by his side the whole time. Josiah had accepted the doctor's excuse of a mix up being responsible for the missing bloods but Chris knew that if he had been the older brother he would have pressed the issue. He realised that Josiah was trying not to rock the boat but when he thought of all the times over the years that one or another of them had been brought to this same hospital, trusting that they were receiving the best care it made him shudder. Were they? Would Sarah and his unborn son have survived if they'd been taken somewhere else? Marshall hadn't been the attending physician that night a year and a half ago but was incompetence rife? He could almost feel the physical presence of his beautiful girl and their unexpected but very much wanted baby...God he hated this place!
These and other thoughts and questions swirled through his head and Ezra watched as they were reflected on the pale, too old for their years, features.
Something was upsetting the older boy, that was certain. Reading people was one of what mother called his 'God given talents' Since the doctor had reassured them all that he was only being kept in overnight for observation and to monitor his glucose levels he knew that he couldn't be worrying about his health. Perhaps Chris Larabee was scared of hospitals? It was hard to imagine the tall blond being scared of anything but hospitals were scary places and though he wouldn't admit it to anyone he was glad that they hadn't abandoned him here. Cursing himself for his curiosity and aware that Chris liked to keep his thoughts to himself but worried that staying by his bedside was causing grief Ezra dared ask a question.
Chris started as the soft southern voice drew him back from the nightmare of the memories of that night, the night some bastard took the best things that ever happened to him and didn't even stop to help or face the consequences.
"Hey Ezra, you feeling better?"
Ezra noted how smiling made the twenty three year old look his true age.
"Yes thank you Mr Chris...Ah couldn't help but notice that you seemed uncomfortable and Ah would understand if you would rather leave now that you are assured of my return to health...it can be an unpleasant experience to be in a place that makes you think bad thoughts...remembah things you don't want to remembah." He hoped that he hadn't gone too far.
Chris stared in shock and bemusement. Had he been that obvious? His first instinct was to get angry...how dare anyone feel sorry for him! Almost instantly he quashed that thought and noted with relief that it hadn't registered on his face. He quickly went back over the child's wordy statement couched in his distinctive southern drawl and realised that he had recognized a shared loathing, and an abused child would certainly have come to hate hospitals wouldn't he?, Not only that but he was willing to give him a way out despite the fact that it would leave him alone with his own bad waking nightmares. He sighed. The kid deserved to know what everybody else already knew.
"Thanks Ezra but I'll be OK and I don't want to leave you alone here."
"Ah won't run away...again"
Chris smiled. "I know you won't Ezra, we've come a long way since that first night" The look of contentment on the pale little face made his hospital nightmares fade back into the past. "Besides, after that mix-up I want to make sure that you get the proper treatment and putting up with some bad memories is a small price to pay."
"Was this where your parents died?"
Chris shook his head, not missing the fact that Ezra hadn't claimed their father as his own but unlike a few days ago he did not presume the worst. He wouldn't feel that a stranger he'd never met was related either no matter what the biology said.
"No, they died out of State. My girlfriend and our unborn child died here over a year ago...a hit and run." He appreciated Ezra's simple reply; sincere yet without that pretence at understanding that people thought they needed to portray.
"Thank you." It had always been the children who understood best. They understood the simple truth that it was a pain that was impossible to understand unless it was happening to you. He supposed that kids were used to not knowing things. He was surprised and pleased that such a precocious child didn't seem any different in some respects. And at the moment he was also glad that Ezra was more like Vin than JD as they sat there in a comfortable mutual silence. God love JD but he would have driven him crazy.
'And Ezra doesn't' a little voice in his head piped up. 'Make the most of the quiet' it teased. It was right; tomorrow was going to be a big day. There were lots of things that they needed to do but all of them depended on the result of one little test.
After the doctor had checked Ezra over the next morning he made an appointment for Ezra and his carers to meet with the diabetic nurse who visited the small hospital twice a month from the City and handed Josiah a collection of booklets and a bag with Ezra's medication. All the boys had the distinct feeling that the good doctor wanted rid of them as soon as possible. Ezra, though, was convinced by now that it was Chris in particular who the doctor was eager to see go. He couldn't really blame the poor man. Chris could be very scary indeed, his little boys imagination conjuring the blond into the role of a gunslinger from his favourite period, the Old West. The evil quack Doctor knew he didn't stand a chance as the shootist's spurs jingled and jangled announcing his ....
"I said are you ready to go Ezra?" Buck chuckled, it couldn't have been a common sight to see the wary child caught up in a daydream. Perhaps it meant that he was starting to trust them. He hoped so but he was dreading their appointment with the Judge. The one that would tell him if Ezra was his baby brother. He knew it would apply to all of them but it was HIS DNA that they were testing.
"Sorry Mr Buck, Ah was woolgathering." Mother had often accused him of such an activity but she never seemed to mind much; she saw it as good practice for organising cons. Sometimes he wondered if there was anything he did that didn't have a connection with the Con. His imagination, his eidetic memory, his people watching...speaking of which he'd noticed some other things about doctor Marshall since yesterday; he would have to remember to tell Chris or Nathan. If he was still with them later on.
There was no indication from the Judge's expression as to the result of the test; even though since it was ordered through the court he would have been the one to receive the notification.
Orrin Travis tried to gauge the mood of the brothers as they filed into his office and took their seats. Evie had already arranged refreshments, including diet soda for Ezra, and hearing about that had been a shock but they had all coped very well. It would stand in their favour if....
"Gentlemen" Vin and JD snickered at their inclusion in the adult greeting but Ezra didn't turn a hair. "I won't keep you in suspense, I have the result here" Evie passed the document to him with a smile; unlike her husband she instinctively knew what answer the Larabees were hoping for.
"Buck" The judge and all eyes turned toward the young man who was sitting next to Ezra. He put his long arm round the little boy's shoulder as he noticed the slight tremor and gave him an encouraging smile. "Buck, the test was asked to compare your DNA profile with that of the child Ezra Patrick Standish. The test has an accuracy rate of 99.9 percent. The test shows that you ARE the half brother of Ezra Patrick Standish.
Evie and Orrin beamed at the brother's reactions.
Chris grinned and released the breath he was holding.
Nathan gave a quiet "YES" and punched the air.
Vin smiled and something that had been cold and empty inside for the past few months was suddenly warm and filled again.
JD looked confused until Vin leaned over and whispered an explanation. At another question from the eight year old Vin nodded and both boys stood and walked over to where a jubilant Buck had twirled a startled little boy round until they were both dizzy.
As the initial reactions tapered off all attention turned to Vin and JD. Ezra stood silently as JD produced something from his backpack and presented it to his new little brother.
Ezra looked at the brightly coloured, home-made card which bore the words
WELCOME TO THE FAMILY
He did the only thing that any overawed 7 year old could do - he burst into tears.
Evie had fully expected it and with an innate skill she soon had a room of panicking and concerned boys calmed down and had reassured Ezra that 'yes they did want him' and that 'no Chris they weren't bad tears', at which Ezra nodded. Even if they weren't allowed to keep him he had been wanted. A feeling he had never thought to experience.
Josiah had remained seated throughout the revelation of Ezra's parentage and as the others were celebrating he had an epiphany. He suddenly saw with total clarity that what he had thought were doubts about the child's parentage, his potential willing participation in her con, and the distance he had created between them because of his doubts were not actually born of dislike or distrust; it was only with an end to the question of his status that Josiah realised that he had loved the little boy as his own that very first night, the moment he had stared into those wide pale eyes. It was the thought of him just disappearing that threatened the already fragile heart that was just starting to mend after the death of Mom and Dad. On the heels of revelation came guilt at how unwanted that must have made Ezra feel and that it would now look like he only wanted Ezra because it had been proved that he was a Larabee. Well there was nothing he could do about the past but he would fight tooth and nail to obtain custody and give the boy a future.
As the brothers calmed down and gave him a little space Ezra, clutching his precious card came face to face with the oldest Larabee, the one his future depended on; if the big man didn't want him he didn't stand a chance.
Josiah knelt down in front of the small boy so that he could look him in the eye. He needed Ezra to see the truth in his eyes.
"Ezra, welcome to the family son."
Ezra saw...apology? He couldn't think what Josiah had to apologise for, he had been exemplary in his protection of his younger siblings. More importantly he saw...acceptance. And perhaps the appellation of Son wasn't really that annoying...then again...
"Ah am not your son" he smiled at Josiah's twitch and added with an even cheekier grin,
"Ah'm your brother.
Once everything was calm yet again and the laughter and Josiah's blushes had faded the adults began to discuss the custody process. As before Vin and JD were left to their own devices in the corner but this time they had Ezra with them. Ezra, having seen JD at the Emporium with his batman figure was regaling him and Vin with a tale of how Maude had managed to inveigle them into a situation that could only be resolved by the caped crusader himself. As Ezra spun his tale Vin smiled at the thrall he had JD in. He had to admit if it were a book it would be pretty un-put-downable.
Ezra enjoyed telling the story as he'd never had such an attentive audience before. But a part of him was keeping track of negotiations a few feet away. When he heard the results his first instinct to jump for joy was immediately tempered by his sense of caution. He mustn't forget that they didn't know the real him yet and Mother had often told him that he should endeavour to be what people wanted because if they didn't get what they wanted they would throw him away. And she had been right for even she had discarded him. He had to face the truth...that he just was not a keeper. But until then he would enjoy this feeling of belonging. It would be something to look back on.
And maybe keeping a little hope alive would do no harm.
Orrin had doubted whether Josiah and Chris would want to take on another child but Evie had insisted that they would, and his wife's instincts had all the accuracy of a guided missile. So, just in case, Orrin had scouted out the chances of success if they decided to put in a claim.
He had been surprised and a little saddened that no department he had contacted were able to see themselves blocking the move. Orrin thought that it was a good job that he had never had cause to utter those thoughts out loud because they sounded very wrong. It was just that faced with a child who had been abandoned and abused, who was, in their words, damaged, and who had an ongoing medical condition, not to mention the extra tuition costs for his 'special educational needs' and who'd have thought that you could ever be considered too smart! Well in the face of all that they were almost prepared to gift wrap him and give him to the first caller. Orrin hoped that Ezra never had to learn how lucky he was to fall into the hands of the Larabees.
Without going into detail over the relevant departments unseemly haste to avoid taking responsibility the judge informed the brothers that his research had indicated a fairly smooth path involving a period of probationary custody if they decided to go ahead.
The decision was immediate and unanimous. Orrin already had the preliminary paperwork ready to sign....Evie was never wrong.
Billy Travis saw his hero, Chris Larabee, approaching from the other end of the street. It wasn't often that the whole family were together but Billy knew that they had been to see his Grandpa at the Courthouse though his Mom didn't tell him why. He broke away from his mother and ran the last few feet separating them.
"Hey Chris, guys."
Everybody said hello as Billy's mother, Mary Travis caught up with him.
"Hello boys, how did it go?" They were aware that Evie had told Mary the basic facts about Ezra's arrival and their reason for the morning's trip to the Courthouse and figured that if the Editor of the local paper knew there was no reason to keep Ezra's status a secret. It would get out eventually and then their silence would give the impression that they were somehow ashamed. Chris had told the others, well except JD who was too young to understand, about the circumstances of their Dad's affair and they all agreed that if their Mom could deal with it then so could they.
"It went fine Mary" Josiah's attitude adjustment had surprised all of his brothers but they were glad he got there on his own because otherwise they were going to have to stage an intervention; and an intervention Larabee style usually involved Chris, pain and the antiseptic cream.
Chris stepped forward and Billy noticed for the first time that concealed behind him was another boy, about the same age as JD. He narrowed his eyes as Chris put an arm around the other boy's shoulders and gently encouraged him forward.
"Mary, this is our new little brother, Ezra; Ezra Standish - Larabee." It was a decision they had come to as a family; their first. "Ezra this is Judge Travis's daughter in law, Mary, and her son Billy." He turned to the nine year old who was looking at the brown haired boy with puzzlement. "Billy this is Ezra. He's going to be living with us from now on."
Ezra stepped forward and held out his hand in greeting to Mary who took the small appendage gently and returned his handshake with a "Pleased to meet you Ezra." His "Likewise A'm sure Mrs Travis." made her want to chuckle. So polite and adorable. Evie had been right, he was a heartbreaker, his brothers hadn't stood a chance.
Ezra turned to Billy but didn't repeat the gesture, instead he mumbled a "Hello Billy" accompanied by a simple nod and retreated back amongst his brothers. He had seen a look in the older, bigger, blond haired boy's eyes that he recognized from experience...hatred...pure hatred. He couldn't think why though it wasn't uncommon for him to be disliked on sight; he turned to Vin and JD who would know the other boy and saw the definite warning in their eyes. He gave an almost imperceptible nod.
Billy Travis was obviously a bully, and he already had Ezra in his sights.
"Oh Josiah while you're here can I remind you that Vin has an appointment with the school principal tomorrow. I'm sure we can sort something out for the poor boy."
Vin blushed and hung his head in embarrassment while, out of sight of the adults Billy smirked. The older brothers winced at Mary's lack of tact, a trait that may have made her a good journalist but did nothing to endear her to the Larabees. Chris, in particular, scowled at her misplaced pity, their was nothing wrong with Vin, he was as smart as anyone where it counted; but he didn't say anything. For one thing he didn't want to start a row in the middle of the street, and for another he would have to admit that the thirty year old woman made him slightly uncomfortable. If he didn't know better he'd say she was in the habit of flirting with him. But that was ridiculous because she was, well, old.
Ezra was puzzled and as they walked along fanned out across the sidewalk, a sight which drew glances from passers by, he pondered on the reaction to Vin's appointment at the school. He had detected embarrassment and anger but no anger was directed at Vin himself which would indicate that the cause for the impending visit was not one of bad behaviour; so it must be academic yet Ezra had spent time with Vin and he was a good companion; bright, funny in an understated way and very knowledgeable about interests that they shared in common. It was something that needed investigating.
On their arrival back at the ranch they were greeted by the smell of Miz Nettie's cooking. Josiah had phoned her with the good news and she had been preparing a celebratory meal ever since. She had even phoned the diabetic nurse that Ezra was due to see so that she wouldn't mistakenly prepare anything that he couldn't eat.
Nettie's hug had embarrassed Ezra no end and from her chuckle she knew it but it also filled him with a warmth he hadn't known before this week. Ezra went up to HIS room to put away the new clothes that they had purchased for him. They had only bought the basics before 'just in case'. He had convinced himself that durable and fairly smart was every bit as good as Gap or any one of the many designer children's shops that Mother insisted on frequenting but he had drawn the line at Josiah's suggestion of dungarees and positively paled at Buck's suggested selection of Hawaiian style shirts. He had, however, accepted Vin's advice on the purchase of jeans and sturdy boots for going outside with the horses. Whilst slovenly was not acceptable practical was. He then transferred his new notebooks and pens to his new backpack ready for when he began school. He was aware that his appointment was directly after Vins so if nobody filled him in before he might be able to find out then. Whatever was wrong he wanted to help the older boy in repayment for his kindness and friendship. Finally changing his clothes and freshening up he took his reading and administered his dose; it was nice not to have to hide anymore although Josiah had insisted that all his brothers learn how to respond to his needs which would put him in an uncomfortable spotlight but he understood the thinking behind it and hadn't argued.
He then went down to eat...
With his family.
That evening was probably the most normal they had spent since Ezra's unexpected arrival. Chris and Buck were watching a movie while Nathan was, as usual, studying. JD having been inspired by Ezra's Batman story was re-enacting it with his models and Vin was sitting quietly in his room, thinking. At least he was, until Ezra popped his head round the door.
"May Ah come in?" It was only polite to request admittance but Ezra also very much respected the concept of personal space and he knew that Vin did too.
Vin looked toward the intruding voice but smiled when he saw who it was. He had half been expecting a visit from Josiah or Chris with a pep talk which to him was just another way of saying 'It's OK if you're stupid because we love you anyway.'
"Yeah sure Ez, come on in."
Ezra frowned at the shortening of his name although it gave him a secret fuzzy feeling to be allocated an affectionate nick-name; he would let it slide...just this once. He stepped into the other boy's bedroom and his eyes took in the mixture of Western movie posters and sealife posters on the walls. Vin even had a dream catcher over his bed. Vin saw the southerner looking and commented.
"That was from my friend Chanu. He's half Native American." Vin blushed at Ezra's obvious admiration. He'd have thought the sophisticated boy too above that sort of thing but obviously not. Within minutes the two were happily discussing their favourite movies... High Noon for Ezra and The Magnificent Seven for Vin and the conversation slowly came round to the subject of school.
Vin could tell that the other boy was curious but was grateful that he hadn't pressured him for information. Still, from what he'd seen of Ezra he was so much smarter than your average 7 year old probably everyone near his age seemed stupid so if anyone could understand it would be him. After all they had the same sort of problem only from different sides; and if he did react badly to having a stupid brother then it was best to get it over with. So Vin told Ezra how he wasn't as smart with his book learning as the other kids and that his appointment was to discuss keeping him back a year. He watched Ezra's face carefully for disgust but as usual the boys features were neutral, although he did frown occasionally. After Vin finished he waited for his new brothers response. It was not what he expected.
"Beg pardon?!" Anger he'd expected, disgust maybe but complete dismissal?
Instead of explaining himself immediately Ezra had a question. The answer to Vin's dilemma was obvious to him but he'd had prior experience due to his cousin Marcus. If the family were unaware of the signs they could do nothing but trust the professionals. But the school! For them to miss it...was incompetence an employee requirement here?
"Vin, could you tell me, do any of your brothers help you with your written work at all, do they read your essays?"
Vin was bemused but Ezra was obviously on to something and at least he didn't seem to have gone down in the other boys estimation.
"No...well they help by talking through the assignments with me but they feel that the actual work should be my own. And I never have anything good enough to bring home for them to read."
Ezra winced inside. He wondered if the others knew just how much this was all affecting the ten year old...probably not as they would do all they could to make things right. He was beginning to understand that that's what proper families do...it worried him slightly that he was feeling the self same impulse. Oh well! When in Rome...
"May I see some of your written work?" Vin hesitated but only for a moment before retrieving his recently completed homework. He watched as Ezra leafed through it and then felt like his whole world had been rocked on it's foundations as Ezra looked him straight in the eye and said..
"I think we should have a word with Chris or Josiah before you go to that den of incompetence that you call a school. I believe that they will need to inform the Principal that you are dyslexic.
"I'm what? Dis-what sit?...Ez, I don't like the sound of that."
Ezra winced at the look of confusion and horror on the other boy's face, a horror that he had created. He immediately sought to reassure his brother.
"It's OK Vin, it's just a way of saying that you have trouble seeing what the rest of us see when we look at words. Somehow your brain looks at things differently and you find it hard to understand what others find easy, a bit like trying to use a foreign language. But it doesn't make you any less intelligent...in fact some say that dyslexics are smarter than average."
Vin stared in shocked silence at his new brother. Could it be true? Was there a real reason that what he thought he knew in his head always got messed up when he tried to write it down? Part of him just knew that this was his answer because as much as he'd told himself that he wasn't stupid his every action proved to others that he was. But then again, Ezra, smart as he was, was only seven, younger than JD and he couldn't know everything could he?
Ezra desperately wanted to fidget or bite at his lip with nervousness at Vin's silence but to exhibit such blatant tells would be the height of amateurishness.; so he waited patiently for Vin to process the information. He readied himself to answer the questions that he knew would come.
"How do you know about dys...lexia?" at Ezra's nod he repeated the word with more confidence, "Dyslexia"
"Ah stayed with family in New Orleans whose son, my cousin, Marcus, was dyslexic. Ah was curious about it so he showed me how his writing looked. He explained what it was and how his school had tested him for it and then gave him special help; he was doing much better when Ah left."
"So can it be cured?" Vin knew the answer by the look on Ezra's face before he'd even said the words.
"No, but there are ways of making it easier to deal with."
They both sat silently while Vin came to terms with his new condition. Vin suspected that he should be terribly upset at having a learning difficulty but all he could feel was an overwhelming sense of relief that he wasn't stupid; that he wouldn't be pitied as he grew up in a place where everyone knew everybody else's business. A sudden thought hit him and he grinned.
"Yes Vin" He was really going to have to do something about the shortening of his name....eventually.
"You realise that this makes both of us special, don't ya; you with your diabetes and me with my dyslexia? "
Ezra laughed, pleased that he was taking this so well.
"Indeed." Ezra's smile fell slightly as he had a sudden thought.
"Vin"....Vin frowned at the slightly horrified expression on the southerner's face and found his own expression mirroring it as Ezra continued. "You do realise that we are going to have to inform Chris and Josiah?"
"We need a plan."
"What kind of plan? Why don't we just tell them?" Vin had the feeling that Ezra was enjoying himself; he had a bright sparkle in his eyes that Vin hadn't seen on him before ,,,but he'd seen it on Buck, usually when he was up to mischief.
"Well first we need to decide who to tell" At Vin's look of incomprehension Ezra gave the other boy the benefit of years of Maude's training.
"Telling different people results in different consequences. For example tell me what would happen if we told just Chris that the school has failed to diagnose that you are dyslexic?"
Vin snorted. "That's easy; he'll go up like a rocket. He'll rip the principal to shreds, possibly lit'rally."
"Exactly" Ezra replied with what seemed to Vin as a little too much glee but as he continued he had to admit that his brother's words made sense. "And if we single out Josiah from the herd he will no doubt dither about the appropriate action until you graduate."
"And if we tell them as a group?"
"They will all talk at once and descend into argument over who was to blame and what action to take and we will be dismissed or forgotten."
"So which is best if both are bad?"
Ezra was concerned that he actually understood Vin's question.
"Ah think that the adults should be told together, but that we must go in armed. We need evidence. Something to put in front of them that will distract them from their inevitable argument." Ezra paused and then Vin could swear that had it been possible a light bulb would have appeared above his head like in the cartoons.
"Vin, do we have access to the computer in the study? Ah've only seen the adults and Nathan use it."
"Yeah we have computer time but we only really use it for homework; well JD would use it more but Buck insists that he gets out and plays."
"JD is good with computers? And you? Are you comfortable with them?"
"JD's a regular little Bill Gates, better than any of us but I don't use it much. I prefer being with the horses.... and it reminds me how dumb I am" As Ezra's protest began to form on his lips Vin amended " How dumb I thought I was."
Ezra nodded in satisfaction. "Well then Ah think we need to request the assistance of our resident computer geek in pulling up as much information on your condition as we can."
"Can't you do it?" Realising that he sounded as though he didn't want to include JD Vin hurried to correct the mistake. "It ain't that I don't want JD to know I 'm just surprised. I would'a thought that being as smart as ya are you'd be a natural with computers...and if you're worried about getting into trouble I wouldn't let you take the blame."
"Ah know that" And he really did. It was an incredible feeling to find a true friend and although he now knew for a fact that they were brothers having his first best friend was, at least for the moment, far more important. "It's just that JD will know how your desk top is set up. Being on the move all the time Ah am more used to using mother's laptop." He hesitated and blushed slightly, then admitted "And also, Ah do not think that cutting JD out of our mission would do anything for our relationship."
Vin understood Ezra's first point but it took him a moment to grasp the second and when he did he giggled which made Ezra scowl although they both knew he wasn't really angry.
"You just don't want him calling you Ezerara again."
"We do seem to be getting on better now. To leave him out of things especially when he can be of great assistance would come across as mean."
Vin nodded, "OK then; I guess we have a plan. When will we tell 'em?"
"Definitely before our visit to the school."
"I figure straight after breakfast then. No use telling Buck or Chris anything before they've had coffee and Miz Nettie will be cooking breakfast tomorrow. She should know too; she was a teacher; she might know official stuff."
"A good idea.....just remember Vin; if they get angry it won't be at you or because of you, not even if they start shouting" Ezra's own experience had made him realise that the Larabees tended to be quite vocal and that unlike some of his more temporary guardians it wasn't likely to be personal. "None of this is your fault." It was important that his brother understood this. Ezra knew that he, himself, had been bad many times and had deserved his punishment though he didn't always know why; He also knew, however, without a doubt, that Vin was innocent of any wrongdoing.
Vin was relieved at Ezra's support. He knew that his brothers loved him but he hated shouting and anger, it scared him and he'd always blame himself for not being able to stop it. It looked like Ezra was the same.
JD was in a dilemma. The part of Ezra's story that he was now at required a penthouse apartment and he didn't have one. He wondered if it would be OK for him to transfer the action to his model castle.
All thoughts of the perils of Maude vanished at his older and younger brothers' arrival. It still made him feel weird to not be the youngest in the family but he figured Ezra couldn't help being younger than him even if he acted a lot older. At first JD hadn't liked the way he seemed older but he'd since figured that Ezra had had to be that way because he didn't have Buck and the others when he was little and suddenly he didn't envy the southerner so much. He knew that there was stuff the older ones weren't telling him but for once he didn't think he wanted to know. Then Ezra and Vin told him about Vin's possible condition and the plan of which he was such a large part and JD decided that Ezra had earned the right to be a Larabee.
"Very well gentlemen, are we clear on our plan of action; Vin, you will take point as you are the quietest and have the best observational skills" At JD's "Huh?" he clarified. "Vin's the sneakiest and he'll hear anyone coming." JD you are our most important asset so you will go in the middle for protection. Once inside it will be your job to find and print as much information as possible. Ah will make copies of the information for everyone and will watch your backs on our journey to the study. If we are caught let me do the talking. Vin while we are in the study you keep lookout....Are we in agreement?" He looked to his right at Vin who nodded and then to his left for JD's acknowledgement. JD nodded and then spoiled the effect by bursting into giggles, followed quickly by Vin.
Ezra sighed dramatically.
Their clandestine mission went without a hitch although there was a tense moment as they huddled at the top of the stairs waiting for Buck to get off the phone to some girl. They could tell it was a girl because Buck was talking in his funny voice; he called it seductive but Chris called it constipated. When the coast was clear they snuck into the study and thirty minutes later they were back in Vin's bedroom congratulating each other on their espionage skills. Ezra couldn't help but reflect that the whole thing would have had more weight if the information hadn't been stored in a Toy Story folder.
Josiah could tell that something was up, or rather that the boys were up to something. He didn't think it could be anything good since the normally ravenous Vin and the bottomless pit that was JD were picking at their food, and slowly. Ezra didn't seem to have eaten much at all, but then they weren't familiar with the too slender boy's eating habits; whether his lack of appetite was due to the stress of recent events or trying to balance his carbohydrates which turned eating into an exercise in maths; probably a little of both, and he didn't have the faintest idea what to do about it. Ezra was due to see the psychologist later that week perhaps he'd have some ideas.
Eventually no matter how they tried to draw it out breakfast dishes were cleared away and the boys looked to each other for confirmation that this was the moment. At the given signal Vin took the folder that had been resting on his lap and stood up. He coughed to gain everyone's attention and took a deep breath. Then he began.
"Josiah, Nettie, everyone. I've got something' that I need to tell ya and I'd really appreciate it if'n ya didn't blow a fuse until after I'm done."
If Vin had been worrying that he would have to shut them up he needn't have as his brothers and Nettie sat or stood in shocked silence. Vin didn't make statements; Vin was the quiet one. Chris recovered first and encouraged the blushing ten year old.
"Go ahead Vin, what do you need to tell us?"
'Well here goes nothing' thought Vin as he opened the folder and took out the sheaf of papers.
"Thing is, Ez was wonderin' why I had to go to the school so's I told him about being kept back and about being stupid..."
"VIN! How many times do I have to tell you that you're not stupid." Buck's voice was not loud but it was vehement.
"That's what Ezra said" All eyes turned briefly toward their seventh and he couldn't meet their eyes. "Ez said it was obvious that I wasn't stupid and asked to see my notebooks. He had a cousin called Marcus who had trouble with his book learning and he said we both seemed to be the same...he thinks I might be dyslexic."
It was like the eye of a hurricane...unnaturally quiet, and Vin took the opportunity to hand out the individual collections of information. Everybody looked confused at the action and then their own personal reactions set in.
Josiah paled and gripped the back of the nearest chair tightly. 'How many other ways are there that I can fail this family' he wondered.
Buck was confused, he had never paid much attention to any medical stuff but whatever it was, although it sounded pretty nasty, it didn't seem to have scared Vin so perhaps it wasn't that bad.
Chris sat quietly. He knew what dyslexia was and he'd seen Vin's written work but he'd never actually seen examples of dyslexic writing and so had never put the two together, but then he'd been so caught up in his personal grief over Sarah and then Mom and Dad... 'no excuse' he thought. 'Ezra hasn't exactly had a smooth ride since his arrival and he spotted it right away....hang on! If Ezra spotted it then what about the damn school that Vin had spent half his life at...why hadn't the professionals seen what a seven year old little boy could...'
Chris's growing rage was suddenly snuffed out before it could ignite as all attention turned toward ex-teacher Nettie Wells who after a moment's incomprehension clasped her hand to her mouth to stifle her cry and dropped gracelessly into the nearest chair.
"Miz Nettie! You OK?" Buck, as the nearest knelt in front of the, until now, seemingly ageless woman. The woman who suddenly looked every one of her seventy odd years. Nathan's reaction was immediate. He put aside his own shock and misplaced guilt at not spotting Vin's problem... he had no doubt, with hindsight, that Ezra was correct... and was at Nettie's side checking her pulse, She waved him away with a teary but grateful smile.
"I'm fine Nathan, boys, really I am. I just feel so.....Oh Vin! I'm sorry; I was a teacher for thirty five years and I should have spotted it."
"No you shouldn't Miz Nettie. You never saw my books because you didn't want what you called your old fashioned teaching to confuse me, and the advice you did give me helped me understand the subjects where the books didn't; it would have been worse if it hadn't been for you. Mom and Dad agreed with that and you offered to teach me anyway if'n they wanted it but they didn't. They trusted the school; we all did."
They all fell silent as the truth of the matter began to sink in but Vin could see that as soon as they recovered the arguing would start. Josiah was looking grim, Buck was breathing shallow and Chris was going a funny shade of red.
"We printed stuff for you all." He hoped that Ezra was right and this would distract them.
The angry words that were about to escape Josiah died on his lips as the combination of Vin's words and the paper he was holding clutched in a tight fist came together through the red haze occupying his brain.
"Wh...what? What stuff.?" He glanced down at the printouts from various websites and the photocopies of some of Vin's own writing that he'd suggested be put in to show how similar they were.
'It looked like Ezra was right' thought Vin as Josiah's attention was diverted and he sat down on the chair that his grip had come close to turning into kindling and began to read. At his actions the others followed suit; the three younger boys shared a triumphant look, watched by no-one but Miz Nettie who smiled at the success of what was obviously a diversionary tactic.
"Well, looks like the school has one hell of a lot to answer for." Buck was seething but, remembering the distress his temper had caused Ezra that night he arrived, he kept a lid on it; his voice, however, was as grim as the others had ever heard it. It was an attitude shared by the rest who were in various stages of reading the printouts.
"What are we going to do now?" asked Nathan softly. First his faith in the medical profession had been shaken by Doc Marshall's errors and now the local education system was less than he expected it to be.
"I'll obviously have to have a talk with Principal Harris, she will have to find a way to put this right; I'm sure that once she sees the truth she will want to help all she can ."
Chris glowered at his oldest brother's statement. As far as he was concerned anything less than dismemberment was too lenient; and he could already hear the gentle giant tripping over himself to be reasonable. Trouble was that the man took it too far, to the point of being completely ineffectual. 'No' Chris decided, 'what this situation needed was somebody who didn't mind showing their anger; preferably as loud and in as intimidating a way as possible. Yes it should definitely be ME who faces down the incompetent bitch.'
Ezra saw the argument coming and it was something that Vin didn't need. He was almost a hundred percent sure that none of the brothers would take out their anger on Vin but even the harsh words would hurt the sensitive boy. He wasn't quite so sure what their reaction to his own intervention might be but since this whole thing was of his doing he might as well be in for a penny.
"Y'all need to go together." Ezra had decided that the family needed the benefit of Maude Standish's advice and it was up to him to give it.
Josiah was about to shush their newest brother and explain to the boy, who was unused to dealing with family matters, that this was something that the adults needed to discuss when Buck snuck in first
"Why do ya think that Ez?"
Alright! Enough was enough!
"Sorry Ezra" Nathan commented with a puzzled frown, "But what does the Egyptian Sun God have to do with this?" Nathan realised what Ezra was protesting at but figured that a little light teasing would lower the heat a bit.
Ezra's mouth dropped open in shock, making everybody smile; it wasn't often that Ezra looked like a little boy.
"Not Ra! Ez Ra. Two syllables, d'you see?" As the others began chuckling Ezra realised that they were teasing him and unlike places he'd stayed where ridicule had been commonplace this made him feel warm. It was what he had seen them doing between themselves all week and now they had included him!
As Ezra blushed and the others chuckled Chris brought them back to the issue at hand only without that air of tension that had been building once again.
"So Ezra, why together? I mean only Josiah and I can officially make any decisions and you Vin and JD are too young to...."
"I ain't too young for 'em to muck my life up." Nobody had an answer to Vin's calm but heartfelt statement.
"I think that you need to do this as a family. Mother says that those in authority hold the power so you need to show the Principal that you together are stronger than her power and to remind her that it's the kids who are meant to be the most important part of a school, not the facilities." The brothers looked impressed but also a little confused.
"The facilities Ezra?"
Nettie nodded and answered Josiah's question.
"Your mother, Ezra, for all her faults was a very smart woman" Ezra smiled at the compliment; it wasn't Maude's fault that she was a less than perfect mother and he liked it when people said nice things about her. Nettie turned to the others who had been startled by her compliment but seeing the look on Ezra's face didn't dare quibble. Except JD who had become bored with the proceedings now that everything was calm and had begun drawing on the back of the printout in front of him.
"I don't know how many of you spotted it but one of these pieces of paper was the last set of figures published by the school detailing expenditures etc; and while large sums of money were allocated to the schools sports department and the school newspaper not one penny was given over to the remedial learning program or the request for a schools counsellor, either of which might have been some help given that they do not automatically screen for problems on registration. In fact unless, like Ezra, you come to the school after kindergarten age you don't even get place tested to see what grade you are suited for so gifted children like Ezra would get short changed too."
"It's a total mess." agreed Chris who couldn't help but wonder if Mary Travis was behind the large school paper award. She was on the parent teacher board after all.
"So we're all agreed then, we go as a family?" Buck was totally behind the idea. Having the younger ones would help Chris keep an even reign on his temper and remind the sometimes too officious Josiah just who was more important here, Vin or the system. Not that Josiah didn't think the world of Vin but sometimes 'Siah got a bit lost in the big picture.
Everybody nodded and Nathan asked "Will you come too Miz Nettie? You're family as well and you won't let 'em bamboozle us with technicalities." Nettie was only too pleased to go with the boys and if everyone thought that Chris was the danger then they'd better pray that Principal Harris behaved herself...or else.
With a couple of hours to spare until the appointment Josiah and Chris settled themselves in the study to go through the information the boys had printed off in more detail while Buck took the young ones to feed and water the horses. He kept a special eye on Ezra who was still a little nervous around the large animals and he needed to get used to them before he could learn to ride. He did seem to get on well with Bart, the pony who appeared calmer in the little southerner's presence than he was in Guy Royal's. Buck wondered what was going on with the ranch foreman; he'd changed since Robert had died. Buck's thoughts brightened as he watched Vin and JD explaining the finer points of pony care to an attentive Ezra. It looked like JD was finally accepting his new little brother...and thank God because a sulky JD was not a pleasant experience.
Time passed quickly and soon the whole family, and Nettie, were waiting outside the Principal's office. The office secretary, Mrs Roley, had the look of a startled rabbit and she sidled carefully past Chris to inform Mrs Harris of the invasion.
Betty Lou Harris greeted the Larabee clan politely enough but her brows were drawn down slightly; all together they were an intimidating bunch, especially Christopher and what on earth was Nettie Wells doing with them! Lord save us from retired do-good teachers she thought ungraciously. She never enjoyed having to keep back a pupil but the last thing the poor child needed was a misplaced sense of protection when the action she was about to take was for his own good.
"Please folks, while it's a pleasure to see you all together I do not feel it necessary to have you all here; Josiah, as the primary carer you will be the one responsible for discussing your young brother's educational needs. So if we go into my office and talk through your options and then get Vincent in to explain our reasons for his repeating the year..."
"Mrs Harris, with all due respect I do not see how you can discuss options with Josiah if you have already decided what you are going to do." Nettie Wells kept her tone light but only by sheer force of will.
"Mrs Wells, I know that your teaching career was long and distinguished but I hardly see...."
"We're aware of how much you don't see Mrs Harris, now either we take this into your office or we have this discussion in the hallway...and I guarantee that you won't like that at all." One didn't defy Chris Larabee when he used that tone unless they had a death wish so Principal Harris soon found herself behind her desk while Buck arranged chairs for everybody.
Josiah introduced Ezra to Mrs Harris and explained that he was very bright.
Mrs Harris smiled indulgently...parents, or in this case carers, always overestimated the intelligence of their families. She made a mental note to look into the shock news that the southern boy was Robert's son; she always thought that man had been too good to be true.
Chris explained, in a voice that would freeze hell itself, how within a week of meeting Vin Ezra had discovered that their brother, who they also considered bright, was in all probability dyslexic. He waited with an implacable stare for her reply.
Suddenly Betty Lou Harris wanted very much to be somewhere else, anywhere else. Surely they couldn't have missed something that important? His teachers would have spotted the signs...wouldn't they? She brought her panic up short as she realised that the Larabees were taking the advice of a seven year old boy. Really! What had she been thinking!...What had THEY been thinking!?"
"Mr Larabee I do not doubt that you want the best for your family and are proud of them all in every way but I hardly think that......" Before she could continue Mrs Roley peeked around the door.
"Sorry to bother you Principal Harris but Mr Rogers is ready for Ezra now."
Ezra looked to his brothers for direction and to get a hint of what to do for the best. Should he hold back on his ability test to seem normal or should he give it his all. One never knew which way adults wanted him to go. Somehow with that one look Chris got the look of indecision on the boy's face and interpreted it correctly.
"Ezra, you go to your test and you make sure you do your very best OK."
Ezra nodded; at least he knew what this family wanted . He was glad he didn't have to dumb down; it was actually trickier than doing well.
After Mrs Roley had escorted Ezra out of the office Mrs Harris took a deep breath and prepared to undo the damage the over imaginative boy had done. But before she could do more than straighten her blotter Vin's English notebook and a sheaf of informational sheets about dyslexia were placed before her.
"Read." Chris emphasised his command by stabbing his finger down onto the papers. The Larabees then sat back and waited for the Principal of Four Corners school to join them in the twenty first century.
Mr Richard Rogers was a very nice man and Ezra felt a little sorry for him as his face paled once again. He exchanged a glance with Nathan who had followed Ezra out of the Principals office; there hadn't been much point in staying in the overcrowded room and he didn't want to leave Ezra alone. It was all Nathan could do not to laugh out loud as Mr Rogers pulled yet another test paper out of his desk drawer.
"Try this one Ezra; I'm sure this will be more in tune with your capabilities."
"Yes sir." Ezra picked up his pen and looked down at the questions. Oh dear. It hardly seemed worth the bother and he saw instantly that the teacher realised it too.
"Or maybe this one" Rogers handed over a test which would place the seven year old with the twelve year olds.
Mrs Harris pinched the point between her eyebrows where a dull throbbing was starting up. Dear God in heaven how were they going to fix this?
Suddenly the anger she saw in all the adults present didn't seem so misplaced. If a school had let her own children down as badly as hers had done Vin Larabee then she would be angry too. The position of school principal in a town as small as hers brought with it respect and a degree of importance but it also came with a responsibility to accept the blame when things went wrong. And to think that last year they had turned down the idea of mandatory testing again because they didn't think a school with so few pupils would benefit.
"Vincent, gentlemen, I can't do or say anything that will make up for the way I and this school have failed you but I can assure you that we will do all within our power to make sure that Vincent gets all the help he needs and that this doesn't happen to any other child entrusted to our care." She watched Josiah nod as though in satisfaction but Chris's face remained angered; and she couldn't bring herself to blame him.
"What about this idea of making Vin repeat the year?" Buck hoped that the answer to his question would be a positive one. He knew that his little brother would be terribly humiliated by the action.
"There's no danger of that now" the principal confirmed, "It would do nothing but harm since Vincent's intelligence is not in question. Meeting his needs to enable him to process the work is where the trouble lies and that is down to us the teachers to change not the pupil."
The next half hour was spent in a frosty yet calm atmosphere as the adults went through the process and necessary forms needed to get Vin officially assessed and they received a promise from Mrs Harris that a special teachers meeting would be held to find out how such an error went unnoticed for so long.
Once they were sure that all the promise of violence was gone Vin and JD got bored and spent the rest of the meeting playing quietly in the corner and wondering how Ezra was getting on.
A timid knock at the door led Buck to do the honours and admit Mr Rogers and an embarrassed looking Ezra. Nathan was grinning like a cat who got the cream...and the canary.
Principal Harris's hopes that things would now get back to some semblance of normal were dashed by the look of stunned disbelief on Mr Rogers face. She soldiered on regardless.
"Well Mr Rogers, how did young Ezra do? I take it that his assessment went well enough to place him in second grade, or maybe even in third" she added in acknowledgement of the boy's probable above average intelligence.
"Ah! Actually we seem to have hit a little bit of a snag Mrs Harris."
"Snag? What sort of snag?" If the sound of Rogers' voice wasn't enough to confirm that her day just got worse the smiles of the Larabees, including the young ones, was.
"Well according to the standard test papers I had to hand and one that I had to have faxed in Ezra here should be, if going by his results, in....um...ninth grade....at least ninth grade."
Betty Lou Harris closed her eyes and wondered what she had done so wrong in a past life to deserve this.
"Principal Harris, it looks like we have more to discuss." Now why did that sound like a threat? She looked at Chris's eyes and read the warning not to let this child down the way she had his brother. She gave him a rather sickly smile.
"Vincent why don't you and JD take Ezra and show him around while we carry on with the boring details?" At Josiah's nod, yes, to Mrs Harris' suggestion the three boys trooped off together to explore a school that Ezra, at seven, had pretty much outgrown already.
Ezra was amazed, and grateful, that the other two didn't tease him too much and equally grateful that they did tease him a little because it made him feel less like a freak. They found themselves in the playground and were discussing how to build JD a penthouse apartment for his perils of Maude saga when Billy Travis came round the corner and slammed straight into JD. As JD staggered Billy pushed him down to the ground and sneered.
"Well look if it ain't the three dumbos, Dumb, dumber and dumbest." He laughed as Vin pushed him back and Ezra helped JD up off the ground. Vin knew that while he was on his own Billy wouldn't take it any further; he was a coward by nature but it was a different matter when he had his gang with him.
"You ok JD?" Vin ignored the taunts as he confirmed that JD was uninjured but Ezra wasn't one to hold his tongue.
"Well?" he asked a still smirking Billy.
"Well what shorty?"
"Well is thaht it? Is thaht the best you can do, because Ah have to tell ya Willy that as far as insults go thaht doesn't even rate a one on the scare meter. Perhaps you would care to try again...and this time put a bit of bite in it. Heck, even mah Mothah insults me bettah than thaht." Vin noticed that Ezra had drawn his accent out so that even a recitation of the pledge of allegiance would sound insulting.
Billy didn't know what to make of the newest Larabee but he did know that he would make it his number one project next term to make the little brat's life a living hell.
"Yeah well, you wait southern trash 'cause you're gonna get what you deserve....so there!"
"Should Ah be scared Vin?"
"Nah, he's all talk." Vin knew that Billy was actually very dangerous but he also knew that Ezra couldn't afford to look weak and he hoped that they would be able to protect their brother when school started again. He had a feeling that Ezra had a talent for making enemies. As if reading his thoughts Ezra gave him a smirk before turning back to Billy.
"Oh look Willemina there's your Mommy; why don't you run along like a good little bully."
Billy wanted to scream at Ezra not to call him that stupid girl name and then beat the tar out of the brat but he couldn't afford to upset his Mom so he bit down on his tongue and as they walked toward her car he confirmed to her that yes, he was making new friends and no they hadn't said anything about that nice Christopher Larabee. He wondered why his Mom sighed and stayed silent all the way home.
It had, Josiah decided wearily, been a very long day, and not overly productive either. In all honesty he would rather not have dealt with both Vin's situation and Ezra's gifted status at the same time because it invariably overwhelmed both the Principal and the boys. It had taken a lot of fast talking to convince Vin that he was not responsible for all the fall out that would come of the mornings revelations and a lot of reassurance to convince Ezra that he would not be sent away to the 'special academy' that Mr Rogers had extolled the benefits of nor shoved into the eleventh grade where any last hope of his having a normal childhood would vanish under the pressure to hold his own against those so much older. It had finally been decided that both Vin and Ezra would have extra home tuition until the school had liased with the educational authorities to establish a proper programme.
They left the school as they had entered it, a united family, and many sighs of relief that it was, for now anyway, behind them, were heard.
And then they bumped into Mary Travis.
She homed in on Chris like a hawk on a rabbit but this time the blond Larabee was too incensed to feel uncomfortable with her advances.
"Mrs Travis." His tone was clipped and hard. Mary looked a little bemused. None of the boys were looking particularly happy. 'Must not have gone well for poor Vin' she thought. She knew that they would appreciate her consolation on their latest family difficulty.
"Chris, I've told you, it's Mary. There's no need to act as though I were Evie's age!" She laughed lightly but it quickly died at the onslaught of harsh stares from the older brothers. She tried again.
"Have you come from the school?" She didn't wait for a reply. "I do hope that they were able to help poor Vincent" She reached out and ruffled Vin's hair before he could back away. She stepped back before the large hand of Chris Larabee could close around her wrist.
"Is there something wrong Chris? Is the situation worse than you realised?"
"Oh it's worse alright Mary" She wasn't quite sure how Buck's use of her first name was turned into an insult but it surely felt that way.
"You see, Mrs Travis" continued Chris coldly... Mary was beginning to wonder what she had ever seen in the intimidating young man..."Because of a catalogue of incompetence on behalf of the teachers at the school and the self indulgent greed of certain people on the various committees... people who divert school funds, which could be used to help the more disadvantaged or gifted pupils, into their own self aggrandizing pet projects like school newspapers; because of people like that...people like you...children like Vin fail to have their dyslexia diagnosed." Chris would like to be humble enough to say later that he didn't take pleasure in the sudden paling of the tanned face or the scared widening of the green eyes but he couldn't...and he didn't care.
"Yes Ma'am." Josiah was a touch more polite than his brother but the tone was still one of steel and Mary found the sudden urge to be elsewhere. It was an urge she immediately gave in to as with a muted and mumbled sudden remembrance of a previous appointment she made her way hastily in the opposite direction.
The next two days passed quietly and Ezra was surprised and grateful that nobody seemed to be treating him any differently now. Well Josiah kept asking for help with his crossword puzzles and he had been presented with a library card so that he could indulge his love of reading, there not being much in the way of books about the place except for some popular modern novels and Nathan's medical books. Voracious reader that he was Ezra didn't consider Grey's Anatomy preferred reading matter. Other than that and the promise of more private tuition, not a new concept to someone who travelled as much as he and Mother had done, Ezra had quite a bit of free time on his hands. Even the chores were not as arduous as in some of his homes.
But tonight was a special night. For he had heard from Nathan that every last Friday in the month the Larabees hosted a poker night. It had seemed a lifetime ago that he had had the opportunity to hone his poker skills and although he would not be playing fellow professionals he was still hopeful of an entertaining game. Because of the Larabee's generosity he still had a portion of the money his mother had given him that last day they were together. More than enough for a stake, he figured.
Ezra P Standish was not in the habit of having his god given talents laughed at..... and he didn't appreciate it.
Buck saw the look of anger in the large and rather teary jade eyes and hurriedly shushed the rest of the guys around the table. Their guest, Guy Royal and Josiah took the hint immediately but Chris needed a nudge in the ribs. Buck's words to Ezra didn't help though.
"Sorry Ezra, but this ain't a kids game; if'n ya like we can all get together tomorrow and get the board games out and maybe play a few hands of Go Fish. But poker is for adults, that's why Vin and JD are in the playroom...why don't you go join them."
Ezra was confused. The one place he was always welcome was at the poker table...well at least until he started winning too much. It was an insult to his trade to fob him off with platitudes.... and as for go fish! Still, any situation could, if handled correctly, be turned to one's advantage. Ezra had found that this was, when put into practice, one of the less infallible of Mother's sayings but...nothing ventured nothing gained.
"May Ah watch?" He settled his eyes into pathetic puppy dog mode and adopted a slightly awed expression.
About to say no Buck was suddenly swayed by the hopeful look on the normally expressionless face. It wasn't as if the little'un asked for much.
"Nobody minds if little Ez sits and watches us for a while do they?" he asked the others and was met with equally amiable affirmatives, although Guy was secretly of the opinion that the little brat ought to be sent back where he came from...something about the kid really wound him up. But he nodded anyway since he could hardly bar their own brother in his own house.
"You have to be really quiet though Ezra, otherwise you'll have to leave OK?"
"Yes Buck, thank you gentlemen for allowing me to stay."
The men at the table chuckled and got down to business. Five card stud, Jokers wild.
And Ezra watched.
By the fifth hand Ezra had spotted all of their major tells; the best player, Chris, and the worst, Josiah and how high they were willing to go before folding on any given hand.... And who was cheating.
He was ready for stage two.
After the sixth hand the men took their customary break. Those that needed to made quick bathroom visits while the others stretched their legs or refilled their glasses and snack trays. Their conversations tended to centre around the ranch and town's affairs so nobody felt uncomfortable at the presence of a child like they would if inclined to more ribald subjects. In fact he had been so quiet that they had forgotten him completely until the break.
"So Ezra, how did you enjoy the show?" Buck squatted down beside the southerner. He'd have had to hog tie JD to get him to stay this still.
"It was fascinating Buck. Though Ah believe that there are several flaws in all of your techniques. Ah feel that Ah could do bettah." The challenge was laid although he knew that none of his brothers would be the one to pick up the gauntlet.
"Say boys, why don't we let your little genius in on a hand or two. It might be a good thing for him to learn that there are some things that grown-ups are better at."
'Hooked' thought Ezra with a smile that he didn't let show. He hoped his mother would be proud of his efforts. He also hoped that his brothers went along because he didn't like cheaters, especially when they were cheating good people. Even Mother didn't cheat family ...unless they cheated first.
Chris frowned at Guy's tone. It seemed that the foreman wanted to embarrass his baby brother. He was about to veto the idea when Josiah spoke up.
"I think that might be a good idea fellas. Perhaps it'll help Ezra see the line between adult and child behaviour." 'God knows he needs to learn that there are limitations to being young and rather like this than where people could hurt or humiliate him' He hoped that his brothers got the point.
With varying degrees of trepidation the men agreed to Ezra's participation in a few hands and another small discussion resulted in them playing for money that had been appropriated from the monopoly set. Nathan, who had broken off from his studies to grab a sandwich, stopped to watch the events unfold.
He smiled. Didn't they realise yet that Ezra would do nothing that he felt might cause him embarrassment or ridicule.
Chris dealt the first hand and by unspoken consent the men played a little slower and a little quieter so that the novice player could concentrate on his hand and the rules.
They expected him to ask many questions.
They didn't expect him to win the hand.
As he drew the fake money towards his body the other players looked to Chris with exasperation, certain that he had purposely dealt Ezra a winning hand. Josiah wondered tetchily how the boy would ever learn if people kept indulging him.
Chris's responsive expression told them of his innocence and he handed the deck to Ezra to shuffle, hoping that his small hands could manage.
That's when the men knew that they were in trouble.
Nathan clamped a throw pillow over his face to muffle his laughter.
The men watched as the little card sharp played the deck like a musical instrument. They gave him reproving looks to which he responded with a cat like smile. One he'd seen Mother portray when in a similar situation.
Three hands later Ezra was left with just Guy Royal in the game. The others watched with increasing unease. Yes they had been taught a lesson...mostly a lesson on how a con artist and gambler raises a child. Which left them hoping they didn't have to face her again as they didn't want Ezra witness to their inevitable actions. But what they were witnessing now they didn't understand.
Guy Royal had begun to sweat. True he wasn't playing for real money but this vile little brat was making a fool out of him and to make matters worse this was not the hand he should have dealt himself. Something had gone wrong...The little creep knew dammit!
"I call." Royal placed his good, but not as good as it should have been, hand down and watched with mounting anger as the hand he had meant to deal himself was placed down on the table by small yet elegant hands.
"You lose Mr Royal."
Guy Royal snapped. He lunged across the baize covered table to grab the 'little bastard' who had humiliated him. Of course the move alone was enough to spur Ezra's brothers into action but actually saying the insult out loud compounded his felony.
Ezra stepped away smartly; he was no stranger to moving quickly when needs be.
"What the hell do you think you're doing Guy?" Chris was in his face as Josiah grabbed the Foreman round his middle. Royal stilled immediately, furious with himself that he had let that little hustler push him over the edge but aware of the amount of muscle and anger he was surrounded by.
He didn't answer Chris Larabee's question directly though...how could he? The kid had him bang to rights.
"I think maybe I'd better leave. I need to set a watch over Savannah Sun tonight, she has a habit of night births...sorry about that, I don't know what came over me. Not used to losing to a kid I guess...hurt my pride. I wouldn't have actually touched him..."
His words trailed to a halt as he saw the stony unwavering Larabee glare x 4.
"Ezra?" Nathan's voice was as soft as ever and held no anger or threat but it demanded an answer just the same.
"He was cheating"
"When?" Nathan saw by his brother's expressions that they were shocked but whether it was by the idea of Guy Royal cheating or Ezra spotting it he wasn't sure.
"All evening; but he can only cheat when he has control of the deck...he's an amateur."
Buck coughed to hide the laugh that wanted to escape. The disgust in the sweet southern accent was more an indication of his opponents lack of prowess than his actual crime. Josiah wasn't so amused but figured time would deal with their new brother's slightly amoral leanings. Royal, however, had to be dealt with immediately.
"Okay Royal, you got anything to say in your defence?"
"You mean you're going to take the word of a seven year old over me!?" Royal was on the verge of panic; he couldn't afford to lose this job yet...not until Sunny had her foal. The deal was all set up but she couldn't be moved yet, she was too close to delivering.
"Yep" Chris's stance spoke louder than his single word answer but he made sure that there was no doubt about the termination of Royal's contract. "You can either go now, with what you won tonight and one months pay in lieu of notice...or you can face the music when the people you work with and the town find out that you're a cheat and a liar"
"And you were outed for it by Ezra" finished Buck with an unpleasant grin.
Royal didn't reply; there was nothing he could say. As he turned to go Buck stepped protectively in front of Ezra and Chris added a final few words.
"You have twenty four hours to get yourself packed up and off this property; and don't expect a reference."
The clean up was done fast and efficiently. A little too fast for Ezra, who was convinced that he was about to be in big trouble. None of the brothers, who knew despite the lack of expression or body language that their new brother was nervous, did anything to correct the boy's assumption. They weren't going to punish him, although a talk on the proper behaviour of the under tens, heck make that the under eighteens, was in order. They realised that he was only doing what Maude had taught him and punishing him for it would only reinforce all the negative images of family life he had built up in his short life. Still, a little space to consider his actions couldn't hurt.
Ezra, however, took the initiative.
"Ah'm sorry...Ah'm ready."
"Ready for what Ezra?" Buck had a fair idea of Ezra's meaning and it turned his stomach.
"For mah punishment."
Just as Josiah, who felt that this was a good time to talk Ezra through what he'd done wrong and why they should punish him but wouldn't, opened his mouth to speak Nathan interrupted.
With a glare at his oldest brother who had his 'it's for your own good' lecture look on his face Nathan sprung to reassure the uncertain boy.
"There won't be any punishment Ezra. You didn't do anything wrong and even if you had we don't do that sort of punishment here."
"Ah don't understand; Ah made y'all fire Mr Royal."
"No Ezra" Chris clarified as he squatted down to the child's level. "Royal got himself fired by cheating us and getting caught. You may have been a bit dramatic in how you exposed him but I suppose you thought we wouldn't believe you if you just told us."
Ezra nodded and Buck added. "We were the ones who allowed you to play little pard, so we bear the responsibility for your actions. That's how families work...OK?"
Ezra nodded, bemused but relieved.
And another piece of the protective shell that housed the true little boy within it's depths was chipped away.
Next morning brought with it a retelling of the nights exciting events to the family members who had missed the action, and Nettie who had come over for breakfast and to help Josiah go over the forms he needed to fill in to get Vin the help he needed..
"Never did trust that man" stated Nettie with certainty. "But your Dad set store by him, owed him from their army days I think. But cheaters should never be trusted or tolerated.
They were all ignoring the fact that Ezra was a little quieter than usual this morning. He had become withdrawn after Josiah had informed him that a counselling appointment had been made for him for first thing. Everybody had agreed that giving the seven year old too much prior notice would only encourage him to worry. Looks like they had been correct if this was how he was just a couple of hours before. But they were aware that getting him to talk about his experiences was vital and they were sure that a professional would succeed where they had not even dared to tread.
The Counsellor's office was bright and cheery. It had obviously been designed with children in mind and had posters, pictures and other decorations in primary colours and child sized furniture alongside that for adults.
Ezra hated it. It was tacky and juvenile and he really didn't want to be here. But Josiah had insisted and so here he was, along with both Nathan and Josiah who were there, they had said, to support him. Ezra couldn't help but think that if they wanted to support him they wouldn't have brought him here in the first place. No matter. Mother had known what to do when faced with questions that might cause her trouble, although she was usually facing a judge not a medical professional...The principle, however, was the same.
"Please sit down Ezra. Would you like to play with the colouring books or the toys while we talk?"
Ezra was pretty sure that 'the rule' didn't apply to general introductions so he replied politely,
"No thank you Ma'am."
The counsellor smiled encouragingly and took a seat on a beanbag which kept her at a friendly level. He seemed like a bright child but the minimal information she had been given indicated some severe psychological trauma. She made sure that the tissues were nearby.
"My name is Ellen Carson but you can call me Ellie okay, and I'll call you Ezra." Her smile, which Ezra privately thought to be condescending, didn't waver at his monotone reply,
Ellen Carson spent several more minutes, over an hour in fact, encouraging Ezra to chat or play, both of which received polite yet firm refusals before testing the waters of his problem. It wasn't something she would normally do so quickly but with little reaction to her normal methods yet no signs of distress she had, frankly, run out of ideas.
"So, Ezra. I understand that you've had some bad things happen to you. If you can I'd like to talk about some of them."
Ezra straightened slightly in his chair. This was his cue; this was where Mother said the words that she had always told him to say if faced with a similar situation. And this was similar enough.
The counsellor sat shocked. "I beg your pardon?"
"With all due respect Ma'am Ah plead the Fifth."
She didn't seem to understand. He was sure he had it right.
"Yes Ma'am. Ah plead the Fifth...the Fifth Amendment."
For the next fifteen minutes, no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get the child to say anything else. Explaining that she was stepping outside for a few moments and that he should feel free to play until her return she went outside to the waiting brothers.
"Well Counsellor Carson?" Both boys stood and Josiah spoke up hopefully. Ellen Carson had an excellent reputation.
"He's....he's pleading the Fifth to every direct question I ask." Her cool broke a little and allowed the frustration she had kept a handle on for the last hour to seep through. "Who raised that child, Al Capone?!"
Josiah hung his head and sighed. He should have known that it wouldn't be this easy. Nathan didn't know whether to laugh at the boy's unique perspective on life or cry at his lack of trust. Instead he suggested they just take Ezra home and try again in a few weeks.
As Ezra sat in the overly decorated office, feeling reasonably pleased with the way his session had gone. Mother had been right, that answer prevented a lot of unpleasantness. His thoughts turned to a matter which he had put to the back of his mind these past few days. The doctor. Doctor Marshall. He really needed to tell Chris or Buck, maybe both, but not Josiah...the man had too much respect for authority which whilst a good thing normally was not wanted when you had to tell an adult that the person they had trusted to care for their family had been drinking on duty. He may only be seven but he knew that that was not acceptable.
Ezra got his chance later that evening as Chris and Buck relaxed while Josiah and Vin took their turn to wash the dinner dishes, JD being at a sleepover at a school friend's house. No mention had been made of Ezra's disastrous counselling session for fear of making him feel uncomfortable and annoying Josiah who had felt a little humiliated at the result of his efforts being wasted.
"Misters Larabee, Ah wondered if Ah might have a word with y'all?"
Both boys sat up straight at the formality of the question. Ezra had been increasingly less formal around them though nowhere near the normal behaviour of a little boy. This return to the overly polite, overly cautious Ezra didn't bode well.
"Sure Ezra, what's wrong?" Buck gestured for Ezra to come forward and he responded hesitantly.
"Ah meant to tell you about Doctor Marshall, that night Ah spent in the hospital...but ...everything has been so..."
"It's alright Ezra. Just tell us what's got you worried and we'll sort it out."
"Well when he saw me that day he was really up close looking in mah eyes and there was nothing, but when he checked me again a couple of hours later Ah...Ah could smell alcohol on his breath. Doctor's shouldn't drink on duty should they?"
Both men's eyes glittered with anger but they held it in in deference to their young charge's nervousness.
"No Ezra he shouldn't, not at all and thank you for telling us." Buck was getting to recognize Ezra's body language and felt that the boy had more to say. "Is there something else Ezra?"
"He's very scared of you Chris. More than everybody else is" Realising how that might have sounded Ezra blanched. "I...I didn't mean..."
"It's okay Ezra, I know what you meant" Chris kept his cool with difficulty but he refused to frighten the child who just a few weeks ago wouldn't have trusted them enough to stand this close let alone tell them something like this.
"Y'know Chris" Buck was suddenly reminded of a snippet of information himself, "I was talking to that pretty new nurse Molly Pike" he ignored his brother's raised eyebrow and disbelieving stare that questioned his brother's definition of 'talking'..." and she was saying that some folks had been concerned about Doc Marshall for well over a year now. Thought he'd had some personal problems that had him taking to the bottle but I'm sure that if they thought he was bringing his drinking into the hospital th....."
Chris stopped listening. He couldn't hear anything but the sound of his own blood rushing through his veins. His vision was blinded by the lashing rain and the flashing lights of the emergency services...
"Chris?...CHRIS!" Buck's shout brought the shocked blond back to the moment but two images remained with him.
The sight of the ambulance pulling into the hospital grounds and the frantic efforts of the medics surrounding the bloodied form that had been pulled out into the pouring rain.
And the look of terror and guilt in the Doctor's eyes as they came face to face the day Ezra was brought in.
The doctor who had been off duty the night of the hit and run.
Suddenly the two connected and made a perfect and horrific picture. Chris turned to Buck, Ezra, for the moment, completely ignored and not minding at all. The look on Chris Larabee's face was not one he ever wanted to see again but he had seen it before, on the face of his Mother when she found out about Cousin James.
"A year and a half Buck" Chris almost whispered, his voice almost unrecognizable as his own. "Tell me that the bastard's 'problems' didn't start a year and a half ago."
Buck's colour drained away as the implications of Chris's statement sunk in.
"CHRIS NO!" Buck's shout and attempted grab did no good as the man fled the house, pausing only to snatch his car keys from the hall table.
"JOSIAH!" The call was redundant as the eldest brother, along with Nathan and Vin had come running at the first sound of distress. Buck explained the situation as he pulled his boots on and instructed the others to get ready to follow Chris to his probable destination...the hospital.
Ezra stood back, hoping that he had, for now at least, been forgotten. He had been starting to feel settled here, happy even; feelings which he had never imagined would be gifted to him. But now he had ruined everything, just like he always did. He was always just that little bit too clever or that little bit too pretty, or annoying or, so it seemed, honest. There was no way they would want to keep him now and the phrase learned so many years ago rang once more in his head...
'You're not a keeper Ezra'
The words when they came, therefore, were all the more shocking.
"Come on Ezra, we've got to stop that idiot before he does something even the Judge can't undo."
Without giving him time to register that he was still accepted let alone formulate a reply Buck had scooped him up into his arms and was walking rapidly toward the truck, Josiah and the other boys just ahead of them.
They didn't pause as they spotted the open door of Chris's Ram but headed toward the obvious site of the confrontation, the ER room.
Buck put Ezra down and motioned for the younger ones to stay back with Nathan while he and Josiah moved forward. Buck sent a silent prayer of thanks heavenward that JD wasn't here for this and another prayer of supplication that they could prevent Chris from doing something that the whole family would regret...something that would tear them apart. And there was no way he was letting the sonv'abitch who had taken Sarah take the rest of his family.
The son of a bitch in question was presently pinned to the emergency room wall and was turning a rather unhealthy shade of blue as the large hand that gripped his throat tightened. Chris remembered that Sarah's skin had that same tinge to it when he had identified her body.
Judge Travis and his wife Evie, along with the nursing staff stood shocked and immobile at the sudden attack. That the couple had just come from a hospital board meeting, of which they were part of the committee, held specifically to discuss the recent lapses in medical judgement of Doctor Marshall made the whole scene even more surreal. The Judge had heard Nurse Emmet call for the police, private security being one of those budget considerations that never seemed to bear fruit, but whatever Chris had planned he feared the police would arrive too late.
"Josiah?" His question went unanswered but he soon got the gist from Buck's pleading and he almost hoped that the police would be, in fact, too late.
"C'mon Big Dog. He ain't worth it." Chris spared his pleading brother a glance before looking back into the bloodshot eyes of the monster who had destroyed his future. He grinned malevolently at the so called doctor and ignored the sudden smell of ammonia.
"You left 'em, you bastard. The one man in all the town trained...sworn, to save life and you just left 'em to die.....WHY!?" The last came as more of a plea than a demand and his grip loosened slightly to allow the man to answer the question he had wanted to ask since that night.
"P...p...panicked....D...drunk...didn't know what I was do..." The grip tightened again.
"Shouldn't have mattered, should have been instinct...to help others...to be a man and face your crime....but you're not a man, you're not even human. You're nothing but a rabid dog...and we all know what to do with those..."
"Chris, please..." begged Josiah. "I can't care for the kids alone. You do this and they'll take them away. He'll finish what he started a year and a half ago..."
"Josiah's right Chris" Evie added softly. You need to be here for your brothers now. Let the law take care of this scum." Chris almost lost his tight hold of the doctor at the venom in the normally eloquent woman's tone but it was the tug on his belt that finally allowed the grip to loosen and the sobbing medic to slide to the floor, mumbling repeated apologies to a man who was no longer listening.
Everybody in the room, which was thankfully bereft of actual patients, it being a quiet night, held their collective breath. How on earth had he snuck up on the grieving and angry blond without anyone noticing? And what would the reaction be to the boy who had inadvertently set this potential tragedy in motion?
Chris looked down at the tear stained and too pale face looking back up at him. The red haze of rage that had descended on him lifted a little.
Ezra had stood by Nathan watching the proceedings unfold; knowing that it was all his fault. Josiah's words had stabbed him to the heart. Not only could he have ruined his own chance of a family with his devastating revelation but he might have wrecked the only good thing his brothers had left in their lives. And while he might deserve whatever rough justice was metered out to him these people deserved nothing but the best because that was what they were. And it was up to him to see that that was what they got. Nobody but the doctor and himself should suffer here.
Chris looked with sadness at the tear stained face. Had he caused this? Perhaps he should make Marshall pay for this too?
"You can't touch him Mr Chris. The police will arrest you. They will have no choice."
Everyone remained still and silent. They knew that there was no way that Chris would hurt a child...and if the kid could get through to him where they had failed...
Judge Travis made a 'don't interfere' gesture toward the police officers who had entered the room quietly, with guns drawn. A nurse hurriedly filled them in and they looked at the doctor with grim expressions and a fingering of their weapons. The doctor was past caring and was whimpering with self pity and fear as he realised that his life lay in the hands of a seven year old boy; a boy who he had nearly killed with his incompetence just days before.
"I...I need to....someone has to pay Ezra. Someone has to suffer for taking her from me." Chris's calm conversational yet bemused tone made his audience shiver but Ezra had heard that sort of logic before...and at least he understood the reasons this time.
"It's mah fault that you are distressed Chris. Ah'll pay."
"Wh...what?" The bemusement had vanished and a genuine confusion tinged with horror took it's place. Surely the child couldn't be offering..."
"It's alright Chris; it's different with children, especially when they are family. The law looks away then...and you'll still get to keep the others..." Ezra's words trailed off at, not only the look of horror and anguish on his big brother's face, but the sudden change in the atmosphere around him, the sharply drawn breaths of the adults, and Nathan and Vin. He frowned...what had he done wrong now?
Chris looked to Buck and the Judge, standing shoulder to shoulder, and Evie, who was weeping silently, for confirmation that his baby brother , who had just solved a terrible mystery, and ended the career of a criminally incompetent doctor, was freely offering himself as a punch bag to appease his bloodlust. At their nods, 'yes', all Chris's anger at the pathetic excuse for a human being curled in a heap at his feet vanished and was replaced by a combination of love and anger that he had never felt before.
His love for the little boy who was willing to give up everything, including himself, for a family he had only known for a short time.
And the anger, which he held deep inside for fear of frightening the distraught boy, at every person who had played their part in causing the little southerner to think that it was acceptable to beat a child with impunity, especially if they were 'family'.
He reached down and, ignoring the slight flinch of the small body, he picked Ezra up and held him close, drinking in the clean fresh smell of herbal shampoo and linen which contrasted with the smell of fear and urine coming from the huddled killer.
"I will never hurt you Ezra, and you have done nothing wrong, do you understand?" He tilted Ezra's chin up gently so that the boy could read the truth in his eyes as his brothers gathered round them in protective solidarity.
"Judge?" Josiah's quiet query was filled with trepidation. Had Chris gone too far before Ezra's intervention?
Judge Travis understood and smiled. " I think that justifiable force was used when Christopher made his citizen's arrest, don't you Officer Perks?"
"Can't be too careful with people under the influence" the police officer confirmed as he reached down to cuff the former doctor who, he realised with a shudder, had tended his own children over the years. He was none too gentle in the application of the bracelets.
At this the Doctor seemed to recover his voice and a little of his wits.
"But you saw him! He attacked me! Nurse Renfrew" he called to his greatest supporter over the years, the one who had stood by him after his wife had left him and he had taken it so badly. "You saw what he did..." His face fell at the look of disgust on his friend's features.
"I am afraid I saw nothing Mr Marshall." The use of the title Mister was not lost on the doctor and he crumbled into silent misery while Nurse Renfrew wondered how different things might have been had she not been so accepting of his drinking problem. She had really thought he had gotten it under control. She acknowledged to herself that she still counted the man as her friend but she also knew that he had to face up to his actions. She would be there for him but though it tore at her to deny him this support he had to learn that he couldn't abrogate his responsibility to others, or to himself. As he was led away her attention was soon diverted by those who did need her immediate help...and who she had failed because of her own misplaced loyalties. She turned immediately to Chris and Ezra as the boy mumbled
"Chris...I think I need a candy bar."
Chris had cried out his grief...'at last' thought Josiah. The abscess of anger had been lanced by the nights events. Of course the man had made sure that nobody had seen him but the evidence in the red rimmed eyes was obvious. It had taken hours for statements to be given and Ezra to be treated, although his blood glucose level hadn't dipped to the point where he'd have to be kept in overnight, and, except for Buck who had gone to collect JD from his friend's house before he heard the news from elsewhere...small town gossip had a life and speed of it's own; the rest of the family returned home tired but somehow energized by events.
Chris knew that he would never be able to forget his horror at both his own actions and Ezra's offer but, unlike Josiah who seemed to want to talk it out, he knew instinctively that they all needed time to pull themselves together. And Ezra needed to have his inclusion in their family reinforced. And maybe he knew a way.
Ezra woke after a fairly short but peaceful sleep and wondered if he still had a place here. Oh they'd assured him last night that he was one of them. That he was wanted, but daylight often brought a harsh clarity. He completed his ablutions quickly and went down to face the music...no point in putting off the inevitable, well not unless their was a potential profit involved, and in this case he was aware that for good or ill the die was likely already cast.
"Morning Ezra!" Well the multiple cheery greetings boded well anyway. They all went back to their breakfasts at his returned good morning, except JD who, upset but not angry at missing the action asked what he considered the most important question involving the dramatic events,
"Hey Ez, is it true that Chris made Doc Marshall pee his self?" The others groaned at the question and Chris intervened to spare both their blushes.
"Ezra, we thought you might like to pick yourself out a pony after breakfast."
Chris didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the look of pure astonishment that settled onto the normally neutral features."
"Me? For me?"
"Uh huh." From watching the boy interact with the horses and ponies Chris was fairly certain which one he would pick. He had been concerned at the pony's suitability after comments that Guy Royal had made but Yosemite, who knew more about horses than any man he'd ever met had confirmed that not only had the pony been absolutely fine with both himself and Ezra but he had his suspicions that it's attitude toward Royal had valid foundations. It made Chris even more certain that the right thing had been done by firing the cheat. However there was no denying that Bart was quite a character and not suitable for Ezra to learn to ride on...but after he was proficient, well Chris had the feeling that they would make a great pair.
Ezra, of course, headed straight for Bart's stall. He had his argument hastily, but hopefully convincingly, prepared, and it was a shock when Chris and Buck accepted his choice without a qualm. He could see the look of concern on Josiah's face but the big man didn't interfere as he knew that the horses were not his domain and he trusted his brothers to see that no harm came to their youngest.
"You'll have to learn on a less frisky mount Ezra but if'n Bart is the one you want then he's yours. He's certainly not suited to Billy; Josiah's already convinced Mary to choose another. Of course until you learn to ride all you'll be able to do is learn to take care of him but...."
"That's the most important part, right?" Buck smiled at Ezra's interruption. It was nice to see the kid had his priorities right.
"That's right Ezra. A well cared for pony is a happy pony. And I'm sure that Bart is going to be a very happy pony indeed." Buck frowned slightly at the way Ezra scrunched up his nose in distaste; he was learning how to read the enigmatic child but it wasn't easy. "What is it Ezra?"
Only Vin had spotted Ezra's tell and he was the only one who looked unsurprised at Buck's comment. He had a fair idea what had bothered his little brother too and grinned.
Ezra didn't want to seem ungrateful, but ponies lived for a very long time and...well he just couldn't let his magnificent steed suffer such an indignity, even if it got him into trouble.
"Does it have to be Bart?" The voice was small yet firm but the adults were puzzled. They thought he wanted this particular pony.
"You can choose any pony you want Ezra, it doesn't have to be this one, I just thought..."
"No Mr Chris!" Ezra hurried to correct the impression he'd given. "Ah want him, Ah really do...Ah mean does he have to be called after a silly cartoon character...Ah watched it and while Ah could see the humour Ah do not feel that it does mah pony justice." He lifted his little chin in defiant support of his voiceless friend.
"Oh I see" Chris tried not to laugh at the look of intensity on the little southern face. These were important issues to a seven year old. "Of course you can call him whatever you like, although he may take some time to get used to it."
"Byron" stated Ezra immediately.
"Byron?" queried Josiah wonderingly while Vin and JD just looked confused. "Why Byron little brother?" He hardly thought that the name of a Victorian English poet was an appropriate name for a child's horse. Ezra's answer, as usual, made perfect sense...well to Ezra anyway.
"It would be cruel to rob such a fine steed of his reputation for independent and rebellious thinking yet Bart is quite a mundane name for such attributes and requires knowledge of popular culture to get the analogy; whereas Byron is a classic author with a fitting reputation for one such as mah friend."
"Reputation?" Buck's brain was starting to hurt but he figured that there must be some sense here somewhere...and he liked the name Byron...but a poet!?
Chris and Josiah had gotten it immediately and were smiling broadly. The others joined in as Ezra concluded his reasoning.
"Indeed. Lord Byron had quite the reputation among his peers and a famous quote describes him in much the same way as Mr Royal described Bart...It was said that Lord Byron was 'Mad, bad, and dangerous to know." At that Byron, as if giving his approval, gave a loud snort and tossed his head up and down.
"Guess that's that then" said Buck with a wink at Chris. "Looks like the family has TWO bad elements.
As the family fussed over the newly named pony Josiah hoped that neither Mary nor Billy had minded making a new choice...no of course not, Mary was concerned about the safety of her son and Billy...well Billy was a good kid and would understand completely.
Mary Travis was at her wits end. While she had been disappointed that the pony chosen for her son was deemed unsuitable, Billy, being a sensitive child, would not take well to an overly active pony and she had agreed with Josiah that another selection should be made. But Billy had his mind set on Bart and it would be some time before the stubborn child would forget his hurt; not that she could give in, as she so often did, on this issue...safety being paramount. Mary sighed; it would be so much easier if she could get Chris to explain this to him. Billy idolised the second eldest Larabee and Mary couldn't deny, to herself anyway, that she had encouraged his attentions. It was something she now regretted as it gave her son another reason to sulk and whine. She couldn't help but think that she had had a lucky escape there. The man was obviously besotted with her but she had seen and heard another side to him these last days...and she had even heard that he had attacked Doctor Marshall. Well, perhaps he had cause on that one...after the information that one of her reporters had brought her. But still, it was an unprovoked attack...and why did he have to do it a whole five days before the next issue of The Clarion was due out.....perhaps she ought to bring out a special...
Guy Royal sat in the bar nursing his second beer of the day. It wouldn't do to lose it and get drunk now...though God knew he had a good enough reason. If he ever got his hands on that little brat he'd...He stilled the thought; anger and business made bad bedfellows and he had big business to conduct today. In just a few hours he would have the first half of his payment for Savannah Sun and her foal. Then all he had to do was wait for the damn mare to deliver and sneak back onto the property he should never have been kicked off in the first place...little bastard...and if Daddy Larabee had left him anything decent in his will then this wouldn't be necessary....Damn Larabees....Bastards...
The next couple of days passed quietly with Ezra taking to horse riding like a duck to water and politely refusing the opportunity to learn some facts of life and witness the birth of Sunny's foal. Chris had to bite his lip as Ezra commented, with a tone that he suspected was pure Maude, that "Ah know where mah morning egg comes from too Mr Larabee but Ah have no desire to witness it's production" From the horrified looks on Vin and JD's faces, having taken the whole egg laying process for granted, it looked like they'd be eating a lot of cereal for the next few weeks.
That evening Sunny delivered a healthy bouncing, well wobbly, baby boy whose official name was to be Savannah Sundance. The family celebrated with Josiah's chilli which he assured everyone contained no eggs.
On the fourth day after 'the incident' as they had taken to calling Chris's hospital confrontation, Vin, Ezra and JD accompanied Miz Nettie into town to do the weeks shopping. It was the first time that Ezra had gotten a chance to just wander and get his bearings. The first time that nothing important or official was on the immediate horizon to cause him or his brothers worry.
So the boys, left in the ten year old's care at the local playground while Nettie shopped nearby could be forgiven for letting there guard down. It wasn't until it was too late to move away that the trio found themselves surrounded by Billy and his gang...five boys who were all at least a year older than JD and as big, if not bigger than Vin.
Vin immediately stepped in front of his younger siblings to protect them...and Ezra just as quickly stepped back round him so that they stood side by side, JD performing the same action on Vin's right. Ezra knew what it felt like to face bullies alone and he would not allow that to happen to his brother and best friend.
"Well, well, if it ain't Dumb, Dumbe...."
"Y'all used that one already Wilbert, y'all wanna try again?" Billy didn't know which angered him more, being cut off by the little southern brat, being called another stupid name or the fact that he distinctly heard one of his own gang snigger behind his back.
"Why should I care what the Larabee bastard says, smart mouth." Billy looked to 'his boys' who flanked him, presenting a formidable sight. You didn't mess with 'The Four Corners Panthers' and Billy told his soon to be victims just that.
They were meant to be afraid. They weren't meant to laugh but Ezra just couldn't stop himself and once he started Vin and JD, despite their caution, couldn't help but join in. They knew that it wasn't Ezra's real laugh, that it was just for show, because his real laugh was a gentle giggle but it was just as infectious.
Billy was red with anger and humiliation and the other members of the gang were shuffling nervously. They couldn't really start anything in public view...and to be honest none of them had been happy with the name that Billy had chosen, but they had to do something and wasn't their leader, who was standing like a stranded fish on a hook, supposed to be the one to tell them what to do? In the end Billy's second in command spoke up.
"Shut up small fry, like you could do better."
"Well Ah could hardly do worse...um....?" His expression and tone made the other boy realise that the new kid didn't know him.
"Marlon" the youth muttered self consciously; he was always getting flack for his name....it was almost as bad as Ezra.
"Now you see Vin?" Vin didn't but he played along and nodded, as did a thoroughly confused JD. Ezra continued, having caught the rest of Billy's boys attention, all of whom were now ignoring their leader's not so subtle gestures to attack, "That is a name that befits a leader of a gang."
"Marlon?" asked Marlon with a squeak, but he stood a little taller and straighter.
"Indeed. Marlon Brando was one of the most noted actors of the last century. His tough guy image was emulated by many but he was seldom bettered.
Perhaps Marlon wasn't such a bad name the owner of the monika mused as another boy asked the original question, to Billy's humiliation.
"So what about the gang's name, can you do better?"
"Well Ah would have thought something' short and catchy but nothing that had violent overtones..."
"We want violent...that's the point stupid" Billy sneered, desperate to get back his rapidly slipping control but the others were curious. This kid was weird but smart and if he knew something they didn't...
"Go on" instructed Marlon with confidence.
"It just seems to me that you already have a reputation where it counts with your fellow students but it would be silly to have a name that would call the attention of the authorities...and your parents." That hit home as Ezra knew it would. Most kids couldn't afford to get on the wrong side of their parents.
"So what would you suggest?" Another unnamed member asked politely and Ezra smiled.
"Ah would suggest something modern yet able to pass as a simple boy's club. Something like 'The Corners Crew' Eyes widened and impressed looks were exchanged.
"Sounds cool" admitted Marlon and all but Billy nodded.
"You can't take this little bastard's advice. He's the bastard Larabee."
"Think you'll find that the bastard in our family is Chris" put in Vin calmly and added "And he's proud of it."
Another of the gang, the brawniest, stepped forward, pushing Billy out of the way. "Heard he took down the Doctor creep who killed his girl. That cretin treated my little sister last month...my Mom's still shaking at what he could have done." The other boys nodded. Their appreciation for Ezra went up another notch as JD piped up
"Yeah and Ezra helped him."
"You liar" yelled Billy but rather than the agreement he expected from his gang he was met with head shakes.
"I heard that from my uncle, he's a cleaner at the hospital." Another traitor spoke up.
"Look just get him, can't you see he's stirring up trouble" Billy was desperate now but his 'friends' gave him a dismissive glance before turning to the Larabee boys and giving them a 'let's call it quits' shrug. As they moved off a voice could clearly be heard saying
"Marlon and the Corners Crew...I like it"
Billy, now outnumbered three to one spat at Ezra, and missed, turned tail and stalked off.
"Nice." said Vin with a smile while JD gazed in awe.
"Ah thought so. Divide and conquer...it's a classic."
"You know he'll come back at ya some day don't ya?"
"They always do Vin. But we'll be ready."
"Yeah we will bro'" Vin confirmed.
Ezra watched Savannah Sun as she tended to her foal. He saw the obvious love the creature had for her young and wondered why his mother couldn't have those feelings. He used to ask himself why he wasn't good enough to be her son; what had he done wrong since his birth to make her reject him. But these people hadn't rejected him. Both those related by blood, and that hadn't ever made a difference before, and those who had simply gotten to know him, like Miz Nettie and The Judge and his wife. Gloria Potter and her children who he had met today and hadn't been anything other than nice. They had all accepted him, even with his diabetes, like Sunny had accepted Sundance, or Dancer as he'd quickly come to be called...what was it with these people and name shortening! It was only mother and her family that had rejected him...Could the blame lie with her?
Ezra cut the thought off...he wasn't ready to face that yet. There was something he was ready to face though. Well maybe not ready but he knew it was something he had to do and even if the authorities didn't believe him he knew that he would never have more support than he did at the moment. And perhaps, with the hospital incident still fresh in their minds nobody would overreact. He really just wanted to forget all about it but what if there were others out there like himself...but who had no-one to stand up for them like he hadn't. Until now
Chris looked up from his perusal of the stock records and froze. Ezra had 'that look' The look they had come to associate with distressing news. He gave Buck, who was perusing his own kind of reading material...a classic cars magazine, a nudge. Buck immediately gave Ezra his full attention. Josiah saw the interaction from the cooker where he was preparing a stew and, turning off the heat, wandered over, as did Nathan who purposely left the two younger boys to the computer game that they were immersed in.
"What is it Ezra? Is something wrong?" Josiah may have been slow to pick up on reading Ezra but he wasn't an idiot. Whatever the child had to say was important and he knew that they had to be totally supportive from the outset.
Ezra shook his head, no, but suddenly found himself tongue tied...a most unusual occurrence he pointed out to himself silently. Nathan caught his eye and held the gaze giving him the strength that he needed to continue.
"J...James Portland Bradley the Third." Ezra almost whispered.
"What about him Ezra?" The name sounded familiar to Buck and as Chris asked his question the reason came to him.
"He's that high flying lawyer that was on TV last month...defended the actress accused of killing her agent. It seemed like a sure thing but he got her a not guilty."
The others nodded their remembrance and looked back to Ezra who was looking even more nervous than before.
They knew of him. They knew how powerful he was. Would they still believe him? As a gambler Maude had taught her son when to fold and when to trust his hand. Now was not the time to fold.
"C...C...Cousin James. Mother sent me to stay with him when she went on a business trip"
For business trip they all read con but they didn't interrupt the boy. They really had no idea why he should be upset by his own cousin.
"He...he was the one who....who..."
The brothers felt like the temperature had dropped to minus zero in the room yet they felt a boiling heat spiralling up from within them. But they had all learned their lesson. So they left it to their gentlest, Nathan to approach the hesitant boy who was twisting his hands in distress at not being able to finish.
"Ezra" Nathan knelt and took Ezra's hands in his large ones, stilling their motion. "You have to say it Ezra; we have to be sure that we haven't misunderstood. But you're not alone now...never alone again."
Ezra looked into the chocolate brown eyes and saw nothing but love, just like Sunny and her foal.
"Cousin James Bradley was the man w...who...m...molested me. M...Mother tried to confront him but h...he knew too much about her. He has too much power. He owns the town, the judges, the police...he owns it all."
'God' thought Josiah. 'No wonder he doesn't trust authority'. Out loud he reassured Ezra "Well Ezra, we know someone who he doesn't own and Judge Travis knows more important people than he does. Don't worry son, he'll sort everything out."
"And if he doesn't" added Chris, with that strange glint in his eye that sent shivers down the spine if you were the target of it, "well if he doesn't then Cousin James can expect a little visit."
Buck nodded his agreement and made a note to remember to tell the judge the probable consequences of failure. Nothing like a little incentive. Not that Orrin would need much of that...in fact he'd probably be right beside them as they had their 'talk' with the paedophile bastard...little kids!....and your own cousin! Buck wondered just how many times a soul could go to hell for his crimes.
Josiah was on the phone to the Judge immediately while Chris put a tired but relieved Ezra to bed. Yet another demon faced and still they kept him. Perhaps this dream would have a happy ending after all he mused as he fell asleep.
"Yes Judge...I understand....No we won't, but if it all falls through....Damn right. Well okay then...yes....yes....no, we'll keep it quiet our end, at least for now. Right, and goodnight to you Orrin."
Josiah had noticed Chris begin to bristle at the one end of the conversation that he was hearing so as he put the phone down he held up a restraining hand. He then went on to tell them of the results of the Judge's investigation of James Bradley that he'd begun after hearing the details from them two hours before.
"Okay guys. It looks like we have to tread carefully here..."
"I knew it, the bast..."
"Chris! Shut up for five seconds can't you!" Josiah hoped he got his information out before his brother lost it completely. "Orrin did some checking and ran into the federal authorities. Seems that Cousin James is already under investigation on suspicion of corruption. Now the guys in charge of the investigation are delighted that Ezra has spoken up as they've been having their suspicions about his activities around kids but they have no proof. They say that once the other parts of the investigation are over then Ezra's accusations will play a major roll in bringing him down but given time they can also take a lot of others with him on the other charges. Orrin says that they're looking at a couple of months and that he's under surveillance so no kids are in danger."
None of the brothers were happy at the situation but they had to concede that the potential result was worth the wait. As did Ezra when they told him of their findings next morning. In fact he took it calmer than they did. The explanation came with the comment, a la Maude, that 'The key to a successful con is all in the preparation'
Ezra read the same page for the third time but he just couldn't concentrate. He'd taken a reading and everything was fine so he really couldn't think what had him feeling so unsettled. He looked across at Vin and saw that he was feeling the same. JD on the other hand was happily drawing and listening to his music via his headphones, just enjoying being with his brothers. They knew that Nathan, in the study, was so caught up in his work that they could send a marching band through the room and he wouldn't blink.
Yet something was definitely amiss. The boys wished that they could talk to Chris or Buck but they were both out letting off some steam after the past few weeks turmoil; and Josiah had been dragged along too. Ezra went back to his book and Vin to his origami crane.
Vin and Ezra's heads shot up, attracting the attention of JD who removed his phones but remained silent at Vin's gesture. Vin was about to call out to Nathan to see if he was alright when they heard muffled voices and feet on the stairs. There was no way that was Buck or Chris. Buck couldn't do quiet if you paid him and Chris would have no need to.
Ezra's instinct for self preservation seemed to have grown to encompass his brothers because with a mouth zipping gesture he whispered to JD "Wait until it is safe and then contact Chris or Buck, they will be at Inez's bar, you know the number?"
JD was terrified but he nodded. Inez's was a regular haunt and he'd been taught the number just in case of emergencies.
"Then get out and run to safety." added Vin.
Before he could protest JD found himself shoved into the closet and the door closed. He listened to the voices on the other side.
Almost as soon as both boys had moved away from the closet door the bedroom door flew open and Guy Royal and two other men burst in, each grabbing one of the small bodies.
"Thought there were three brats?"
"JD usually has a sleep over on a Friday." Guy Royal had spent long enough working with the Larabees to know their routines and when he'd seen the three eldest in Inez's saloon he'd known that tonight was the night.
"What have you done with Nathan?" cried Ezra who had never known such a feeling of fear before. He hadn't even been this scared for Mother during her cons.
Royal laughed unpleasantly. "Don't worry about him kid. He's studying how to treat a concussion...at least he will be when he wakes up." The others laughed at their paymaster's joke. He didn't care whether the laughter was genuine, just that they followed orders.
"Okay boys, here.." he handed the men sets of cuffs. "Cuff 'em to the radiator and let's get on with this."
"What are you doing? We ain't got anything worth stealing?" Vin was terrified for himself and his brothers but he couldn't understand what the man was after. Then Royal answered him and his blood ran cold.
"You kidding Vincent? You have some prime horseflesh out there and now that she's had her foal we get a double deal. Must admit I didn't plan to do it this way but just calmly loading 'em up and driving them off isn't an option when you've been fired...Is it brat?" He spat the last out and accompanied his words with a resounding backhanded slap to Ezra's cheek. Vin struggled at the unprovoked attack but he couldn't free himself.
Jed Jones didn't like hitting kids and chivvied his boss along. Royal nodded and checked the cuffs before following his men out. As soon as they were sure that they were alone Vin whispered loudly.
"JD, you okay?"
JD opened the closet door and ran out, tears streaming down his face. His tears and Vin's concerned look turned to shock as with a hitch and a twist Ezra's cuffs fell to the floor.
They were about to ask how but then realised that the answer was obvious.
"Maude!" they exclaimed together and Ezra gave them a bloody grin, his lip bleeding where Royal's ring had caught it.
Ezra moved to his mattress and pulled something they couldn't quite make out from underneath. He put the item into his pocket and they saw him draw a deep breath.
'You can do this Ezra, have courage. This is no different to escaping from one of mother's paramours or a con gone wrong' he told himself mentally and tried to ignore the helpful little inner voice that pointed out. 'Yes, but usually you are running away from danger not into it.'
Ezra only knew that after his brothers the most important things in Ezra's life were his pony and Sunny and Dancer. If it hadn't been for Sunny he would never have been born. Ezra put aside his inner voice, he didn't have time, his family needed him!
"JD Ah want you to wait until we leave the house and then go check on Nathan. They have probably tied him up. Call Buck and Chris from the study and then either get out and head to town or if Nathan is indisposed lock yourselves in the room and don't open it for anyone but family okay?"
JD nodded. "What are you and Vin gonna do?"
"We're gonna try and stop 'em taking Sunny, or at least delay 'em until the guys get here" supplied Vin and with that the two boys were off and sneaking down the stairs.
"Dammit I thought you said she'd be easy!" Jed didn't appreciate the vicious bite he'd just received to his arm from the increasingly fractious animal who was not cooperating with the men who had just taken her foal from her. She recognized the smell of one of them...the bad man. She thought he had gone.
Vin and Ezra snuck along the side of the stable block. They wouldn't be going anywhere in the horsebox that they had brought with them, thanks to Vin's trusty penknife. They could, of course, prepare another vehicle but that would take time...and that was what the boys were trying to buy.
JD crept into the study and then ran over to his conscious but cuffed brother. He took off the gag and grabbed the phone.
"JD...you have to get out...where are Vin and Ezra?" JD explained as he dialled and Nathan's fear grew. He tugged uselessly at the cuffs and listened as JD told Chris, who was straining to hear over a boisterous Friday night crowd, what was going on. His eyes flew wide as he grasped the rushed and teary speech.
"Put Nathan on JD" he demanded. "Nathan?"
Nathan spoke into the receiver held in front of him.
"No Chris they're metal cuffs and I don't have the key....They're out there trying to stop Royal....Okay but hurry. No I'm fine, just a bump but I'm worried about the boys. Okay see ya soon." Nathan looked at a scared JD and tried not to think that a kid not much older than him and another younger were out there alone.
"It'll be okay JD. Chris and Buck are on their way."
The amount of swearing that was coming from the driver's cab of the horse trailer was impressive and the crooks were on the alert. Four slashed tyres didn't just happen. They knew that someone was out there but try as they might they couldn't find the culprits.
They failed to look up.
Vin and Ezra knelt on the stable roof watching as the bad guys searched. Ezra checked his watch using the backlight. Buck and Chris should be on their way by now. Both boys listened carefully as the men discussed their plans and they knew that their time had run out.
"Say Royal, why don't we just get rid of these beasts and get out of here. I know a man who can find us a ringer and alter it's identity tattoo."
Royal was aware that his plan was fast going down the pan and he was prepared to grasp at straws.
"What's in it for you?"
"Fifty percent." Jed knew that he had his former boss.
Fifty percent of a fortune or a hundred percent of nothing. It was hardly a choice. "Get the rifle and be prepared to hightail it out of here. Bo!" he called to the other man, who hadn't heard the change in plans. "Get the spare trailer now."
Jed gave Royal a 'what the' look but nodded as Royal explained the need to leave no evidence. And deadweight was faster to move than a kicking biting few hundred pounds of fury.
Vin had tears in his eyes as they descended from the roof but Ezra was focused just like Maude had taught him. Vin's eyes widened in shock as Ezra produced his small but lethal derringer.
"Ah will distract our miscreants while you lead Sunny and Dancer to safety" Vin was about to protest and point out that he was the older brother but Ezra anticipated the move.
"Sunny will have no hesitation in trusting you, even through her fear." And Vin couldn't deny it but how could he let his little brother put himself in danger...he couldn't. But then without another word Ezra vanished from his sight and he had no choice but to play his part.
Vin snuck into the back door of the stable and waited for Ezra to lure Jed and Royal away from Sunny's stall. He could see a nervous Dancer in the next stall down.
"What was that?" Jed's head shot round at the unexpected thunk!
"Probably just Bo."
"Nah, Bo'll be a while yet."
Another sound made itself known from just outside the stable and Royal grinned. He motioned to Jed and they cautiously exited the building. As soon as they had gone Vin approached Dancer and led him to his mother who calmed at the sight. Vin soon had both horses following quietly in his wake toward the back doors.
Ezra was standing in the light of the trailer's headlights with his back to the stable supposedly fiddling with the vehicle's front grill
"Well, well lookee what we got here Jed...a little brat all ready for a beating."
Neither man believed their eyes as the boy turned around but their bodies were smarter than their brains and they froze in place at the sight of the pale small hand holding the pretty pearl handled baby gun...a baby gun that they had no doubt had lethal baby bullets in it.
Royal was the first to regain his power of speech and he made good use of it.
"Now kid...don't be hasty. You know there's no way you are going to pull that trigger." Trouble was that Royal wasn't sure at all. This was one weird kid and he wouldn't put anything past him.
Jed wasn't so hesitant and as soon as his body was back under his control he moved forward to grab the kid who was obviously bluffing with a fancy toy gun.
"Owwwww" Dammit to hell you little bastard." Jed dropped to the ground as Ezra's shot hit just wide of the area his mother had told him to aim for resulting in a bullet embedded in his thigh. Unfortunately it gave Royal his chance and Ezra found his weapon flying from his hand as a large pair of rough hands yanked him off the ground and threw him through the air to land with a sickening thud against the stable wall. He felt a terrible pain in his shoulder...heard himself scream and then only had time to make out what seemed to be an avenging angel dressed in black descend on his tormentor before the darkness claimed him.
Buck and Chris screeched to a halt at the top of the back road to the part of the house where the stables were situated. They could hear the police sirens behind them as they moved forward to confront the man who was running blindly towards them.
"Got 'im" Buck yelled as he tackled the scrawny youth to the ground.
Chris moved on relentlessly. If anyone had hurt his little brothers then hell wouldn't be enough of a punishment. He started when a figure leading a horse and foal came into view.
Vin didn't take long in explaining the situation and then they both heard the pop of a small gun carry on the night air, close enough to be heard over the sirens.
And Chris was running.
He saw a man on the ground clutching his leg and whimpering. He ignored him as he saw a far worse vision.
His baby brother hitting the wall and screaming out in pain. The child who took pain in silence had been hurt so bad that he'd cried out.
This time he let the red mist take over.
It took three sheriff's deputies and Buck to pull him off of Guy Royal and only the soft sobbing of a southern accented voice brought him back into the moment. He looked down at the unconscious crook and the Sheriff nudged the body with a steel toecap.
"He'll live. You did good Chris, now go to your brother."
Ezra regained consciousness long enough to be reassured that everyone and the horses were okay and then he gave into the peaceful blackness once again.
Chris held his baby brother and cried tears of relief that they had gotten there in time. When Ezra was better they were going to have to explain to him that being a child didn't involve owning guns and shooting rustlers...he was taking his Wild West fascination a little too far. But for now he was just grateful to have his family intact.
The locum doctor who was hoping to fill the now vacant position on a permanent basis gave his patient one final check before releasing him. Ezra's dislocated shoulder had been reduced and his broken wrist, injured in the same impact had been cast and he would be quite sorry to see the boy leave. His last poker night in the janitor's office had been an outstanding success thanks to the tips he had gotten from the strange but likeable child.
As the nurse wheeled a protesting Ezra to main reception...hospital procedure was such a pain.... Six individuals were waiting as patiently as they ever did...which was badly.
"Hey Molly" Buck greeted the nurse he had dated three nights in a row...a record.
"Hey Buck, guys...think I've got something of yours here."
"Yep" Buck beamed as he lifted a for once non protesting Ezra into his arms. "We're taking our little brother home."
Ezra smiled....and that said it all.
Author's Note: Hope you enjoyed my little tale. It's a place I may revisit from time to time. I think there's always room for more little Ezra fics out there. And Cousin James will need to be dealt with but until then thanks again for reading.