The Lost Boys III:
Building Slowly

by Angie

Third story in The Lost Boys series. It's kind of necessary to have read the first or this won't make a lot of sense.

The boys had been at the Travis ranch for several weeks. They had settled into a routine that was good for all of them. Every morning, the boys would awaken and do their morning chores. While JD was scattering the cracked corn for the chickens, Ezra was gathering their eggs. Vin set the table while Chris started a fire in the cook stove and put a large pot of water on to heat. Buck went with Josiah and Nathan down to the barn to help them get the horse hitched to the surrey and to put the other horses out in the corral or in the field to graze. One of them would pump water into the trough so that the animals could get a drink. There were other things and they frequently took turns with everything except the horses, Mr. Travis had decreed that only the two older boys could handle them. The boys were pretty good at cooking their own food and once Mrs. Travis showed them how, they were tending to the morning meal without help.

After breakfast, lunches for school were made and set aside. The dishes were washed, dried and put away before the boys finished getting ready for school. Of the five younger boys, JD was the most excited about school and Vin the least. While he enjoyed learning, Vin had a difficult time sitting in the hard, wooden chairs. Evie gave him a small pillow to put behind him but the kids teased him about it so he refused to take it again. The boys were fully one-quarter of the kids in the one-room schoolhouse. The older boys took turns driving the surrey to deliver them to school and pick them up afterwards.

During the day, while the little ones were gone, Josiah and Nathan had plenty to do. There were stalls to be cleaned out and fences to be checked and mended. Orin had given them a middle-aged gelding that was pretty well bomb proof to ride the miles of fences that kept the stock from wandering away. A small herd of cattle had been delivered and put on one of the better pastures to fatten up over the spring and summer months. True to his word, Orin had brought down a pair of cows for milk. Their calves had bawled and leaned on the fence until they finally accepted that they couldn't nurse anymore. JD felt badly for them. The little boy had offered to forgo his morning glass of milk if the baby cows could be with their momma again but Evie had gently explained that they were too big to be treated like babies anymore and they had to grow up to be momma and daddy cows themselves.

Evie had plenty to do during the day. She was stunned at the amount of food the boys ate, not that they gorged themselves, but just the sheer volume it took to feed seven growing boys. She had been forced to enlarge the garden, a chore Nathan willingly accepted. She made fresh bread everyday and canned whenever she could. On the weekend, when they all went into the nearby town of Four Corners, she bought any excess produce she could find and ordered canning jars by the box. It still amazed her at how willing the boys were to do anything she asked of them. Living all alone and having to take care of themselves had given them the drive to do whatever it took. One of their neighbors, Nettie Wells, brought her a bushel basket of apples that were just about overripe. Knowing that the young couple had taken on a passel of growing boys, she was sure that they wouldn't go to waste. And they hadn't, Evie had all of the boys helping her to peel and core the apples and they made applesauce and apple butter. The rich smell of apples and spices hung in the house for days and days. In contrast to what it would be in a hundred years, the school met every weekday during the spring and summer except for planting and harvesting season. In the winter, when the weather was frigid and unpredictable, they would stay home.

The horses were rounded up and brought down from the fields where they had been foraging during the winter and early spring. They were a sorry looking bunch when they first arrived, shedding their winter coats. The older boys brushed those who were reasonably gentle; the rest would have to shed out the hair the normal way. Orin hired a group of wranglers to come in and brand the animals. Knowing that the younger boys would be upset at seeing the animals hurt, it was done during the day while they were at school. The wranglers stayed in the bunkhouse and they were cautioned not to say or do anything to the boys. They worked on saddle breaking the horses, beginning as soon as the surrey was out of sight. It took longer, not being able to work all day, but the men didn't complain, it was the easiest work they'd had in a while.

Nathan and Josiah watched as Clayton Jones worked with the big bay gelding. The horse was fast and strong, none of them had managed to stay on his back for any length of time. Clay stepped into the stirrup and swung up. As soon as his weight settled on the saddle, the horse began to buck and spin. The wrangler managed to stay up for a few seconds before he was tossed. Only those standing closest to the rail heard the telltale snap of the bone. Clay groaned, cradling the arm against his chest as he tried to regain his feet. The gelding came around again, aiming a kick at the still downed man. Nathan was halfway up the rails before Josiah even realized it. Not knowing what else to do, Josiah followed the other boy.

Evie was hanging up the laundry when she heard the yell and saw the wrangler on the ground. Her heart leapt into her throat as she saw the two teenaged boys going over the rails into the corral with the enraged horse. Josiah yelled, drawing the horse away from Clay while Nathan rushed to pull the man to his feet and over to the rails so he could climb out. As soon as the man was safe, Josiah sprang for the rails and got out of the way. Evie's hand went up to cover her mouth as she ran down to the corral, her long skirt billowing around her legs.

Blood was running down Clay's arm and he was grinding his teeth in pain as the other wranglers steered him to sit on a crate. They pretty much ignored the Negro boy in their midst until he pulled off his belt and wrapped it around the injured man's arm, causing him to cry out in pain.

"Get your hands off of him you little-"

"Nathan! What in the world did you think you were doing?" Evie exclaimed, cutting off the derogatory term she was certain the man had been about to use.

"The bone's broke and it came through the skin. I'm just trying to keep him from bleeding to death until I can clean and set it," Nathan explained, never releasing the pressure of his belt around Clay's arm.

"What do you know about setting bones? You're nothing but a little-"

"Mr. Taggert, finish that sentence and you can pick up your things and get off of my land. Nathan is trying to help Mr. Jones. Now, do you want him to help you or do you want your friends to help you?" Evie asked Clay, her distaste in the way they were treating Nathan clear in her voice and posture.

"I'll let him help me, Ma'am. Just make it stop hurting, kid, please," Clay said, already sweating and feeling sick from the injury to his arm.

"Josiah, run up to the house and get that herbal mix I use in Vin's tea. I need a cup of water boiled and some whiskey, if you've got any," Nathan directed the latter to the wranglers.

"Nathan!" Evie exclaimed.

"It's to clean the wound, Ma'am," he quickly explained.

Fortunately for Mr. Jones, the break was clean, the bone hadn't splintered and it didn't appear to have gotten any of the dirt from the corral in the wound. Nathan gave Clay the herbal tea with a generous portion of the whiskey before he borrowed a knife and cut the sleeve away. Evie blanched at the sight but Nathan merely clenched his teeth and went to work. Clay passed out from the pain when he poured the whiskey over the open wound. Nathan cleaned the jagged tear in the flesh and asked two of the stronger men to hold Clay while he set the bone. More than one of the men felt sick as they watched the boy take hold of the injured man's wrist and pull on it as he turned it until the bone disappeared back under the torn muscle and skin. A second dousing with the whiskey followed and Nathan asked for a needle and thread. Josiah returned with the requested materials and then headed off to retrieve the boys from school.

By the time Orin arrived home from his work in town, all of the excitement had died down. Clay was sleeping in the bunkhouse, with Nathan perched in a chair beside his bunk. Evie took her husband aside and told him everything that had happened. At first, he was furious at the boys for disobeying him, then he was angry at the way the wranglers had treated Nathan. After checking over the boys' schoolwork, he walked out to the bunkhouse to check on his ward.

Clay groaned as he fought his way toward consciousness. A cool cloth passed over his face and he sank back, enjoying the momentary comfort it brought. When he opened his eyes, he was startled to see the young black teenager leaning over him.

"I need to check the splint. Can you move your fingers?" Nathan asked. The man wiggled his fingers slowly, breathing harshly with the pain. "That's real good. It's gonna be sore for a long time but if you can move your fingers, then it'll heal up fine."

"I owe you, kid," Clay said. "If you need anything, you just tell me."

"Right now, he needs to get up to the house and eat. Josiah and the others finished your chores for you, Nathan," Orin said as he stepped all the way into the bunkhouse. The teenager popped up, looking scared.

"I ... uh ... already ate, sir. The wranglers fixed some beans and cornbread for me while Mr. Jones was sleeping. I'd like to stay down here all night, to keep an eye on him."

"You've done enough. The others can look after him for the night. Come on, son," Orin said, urging the boy toward the door.

Looking over at the table where the others were playing penny poker, Nathan spoke, "There's some tea in that pot if he gets to hurting, give him the whole cup. It'll make him sleep. I'll bring some more in the morning."

Wes Taggert got up from the table and walked over, extending his hand to the teen, "We'll take real good care of him for you. You're alright in my book, kid."

Orin draped an arm around Nathan's shoulders as they walked back to the house. It felt good, really good, to have the respect of the others and Nathan's smile grew as he thought about it. When he got to the house, Evie had saved him some supper and desert. In spite of having eaten at the bunkhouse, he sat down and finished every bite while filling her in on how Clay seemed to be doing.

One of the mares they brought in was heavy with her first foal. Orin had a birthing stall ready for her when her time came. The mare was gentle and loved attention, she was the only horse that Orin would allow the younger boys to groom. Both of the adults noticed that Vin had a particular fascination with the mare. When he wasn't doing schoolwork or chores, he would be found in the stall brushing and talking to the horse. His hands were infinitely gentle as he moved around the swell of the foal in her stomach. One evening, Orin heard Vin giggling inside the stall. When he looked in, he saw that Vin was leaning against the mare.

"Vin?" he asked.

"It tickles," he explained. "Come and feel it!"

As he allowed Vin to guide his hands to the mare's side, he felt the movement of the foal. He had to agree, it did kind of tickle. They spent several minutes standing there before Buck came running into the barn.

"Miss Evie said for me to come down and see if you were alright. Is it time yet?"

Other than JD, Buck was the most verbally inquisitive of the seven boys. His natural curiosity led him to question everything. The teacher commented that she wished that all of the children were as eager to ask about the things they didn't know. Buck joined them at the mare's side and felt the fluttering for a minute before Orin urged them to head for the house.

While Clayton's arm healed, he spent a lot of time with the older boys and they learned a lot from him. Using his own mount, Clay taught them more about horses. When they were between chores, the three of them could often be seen standing together beside the corral watching the horses. Clay explained why certain horses behaved in certain ways and why it was important to know those things. It helped him to know what kind of horse the animal would be after it was broken and trained. Some horses were proud and aggressive, they made very poor wagon horses because they would try to bully the other horse. They were better suited to a single rider, one with a strong personality, who the horse could respect. Some of the horses clustered together and groomed each other, those were the ones he would choose to pair on a wagon tongue. Nathan, in particular, was interested in the common ailments that horses suffered. When one of the wagon team developed colic, it was Clay and Nathan who sat up all night in the paddock with him, walking him and rubbing him down with a rough cloth.

One weekend, when the boys were luck enough to get to go all the way into Denver with Mr. Travis, Ezra spotted a fancy coach coming down the street. His stomach clenched and he froze in fear as he watched it coming closer and closer. Chris noticed that the younger boy had stopped walking and turned to scold him. When he saw the stark fear on Ezra's face, he turned to look toward the coach.

"Ezra? What is it?" Chris asked.

"I have to hide!" Ezra exclaimed, just before he spun on his heel and took off running. Chris ran after him, not even daring to call out his name for fear of drawing attention to his friend. He followed Ezra all the way into the livery before he lost him. It took several minutes for him to find the small, frightened boy.

"Ezra, what's wrong? Why do you have to hide?" Chris asked as he squeezed into the corner behind the barrels with the other boy.

"I don't want her to find me."


"M-M-Mother," Ezra whispered, pulling his head down and curling into a tighter ball.

"That was your mother?" Chris asked incredulously. When Ezra didn't reply, he crept out and went to find their guardian. He paused as he passed the fancy coach, a man was lifting a girl out of it and he put her on the boardwalk before turning to help the woman down. Chris's sharp hearing picked up the family name when the couple introduced themselves to the shopkeeper, Hank and Ruth Connelly and their daughter Sarah. Relief flooded his chest and he hurried back to tell Ezra the good news. Unfortunately, he ran into Steven Travis before he made it back to the livery.

"Where are you off to in such a hurry? Did you steal something from that shop? Did you? My father puts a roof over your head and food in your mouth and you repay him by stealing! Is that it, boy?" Steven had taken hold of Chris's arm and was shaking him as he spoke.

"No! I didn't do anything! Let me go!" Chris yelled as he clawed at the strong hand.

Hearing Chris yelling, both Ezra and Nathan hurried from where they were to see what was wrong. Ezra got there first and lashed out with his little boots at Steven's shin. He succeeded in securing Chris's freedom but earned a backhanded slap for his trouble. He landed on the ground and sprang back up, not timid and frightened as Steven had expected, but angry and defiant.

"You call yourself a gentleman? You are no more a gentleman than that mangy dog under the boardwalk!" Ezra shouted, shaking in anger. Steven took a step toward the boy and found himself almost nose to nose with the black teenager his father had taken in. He pulled up short and glared at Nathan. Seeing the situation going from bad to much worse, Chris bolted for the dry goods store where Orin had said he would be for a while. He looked down every aisle until he spotted the familiar clothes.

"Mr. Travis, come quick! Your son hit Ezra and he's gonna hit Nathan!" Chris shouted, causing heads all over the store to turn.

Even in a large city like Denver, the story of the judge, who had the distinction of being the youngest circuit judge in the country and who had taken in seven orphaned boys was all over the place. A crowd surged out, looking for Steven Travis. They spotted him, staring angrily at the tall black teenager. Just beyond Steven, they saw the little brunet boy with blood dripping from his split lip. Chris broke away, running to get in front of Ezra. Evie came out of another store with the rest of the boys and saw the confrontation. She grabbed JD and Vin to prevent them from rushing into the fray. She wasn't able to stop Josiah and Buck from darting across the street.

"What in the name of Sam Hell is going on here? Steven, would you like to explain this to me?" Orin asked as he slid between Steven and Nathan.

"I caught that little brat running out of the store and I thought he had stolen something. When I took hold of him to bring him to you, the other one kicked me in the shin," Steven answered, glaring at Ezra again.

Orin exhaled slowly and took a step back. He turned to look for the boys. Josiah had boosted Ezra up on his hip while Nathan was dabbing at the cut on his lip with a handkerchief. Chris was quickly explaining what had happened to Buck, complete with pulling up his shirtsleeve to show where Steven had bruised his arm.

"Chris, can you come here for a moment, son?" Orin called. He watched the blond boy looking from his guardian to the man who had hurt him before he moved. Chris came and stood beside the men, looking up trustingly at Orin. "Did you take anything from the store?"

"No, sir. I was running to get Ezra when I ran into your son."

"Why were you running to get Ezra? Where was he? Did something else happen?"

Chris looked back at the younger boy who had his face buried in Mrs. Travis's stomach. "Ezra was afraid that his momma had come to take him away. I was running to tell him that it wasn't her."

"Steven, did it occur to you to ask the boy why he was running or did you just leap to the conclusion that because he is an orphan that he must automatically be a thief?"

"No, sir, I didn't think about it," Steven said, beginning to feel the heat of a blush creeping up his face. "I didn't mean to hurt the other one either, but when he kicked me, it hurt and I reacted without thinking."

"I think you owe all of my boys an apology. You can deliver it to them at the ice cream shop in an hour. I think that Evie and I should be finished with our shopping by then."

Steven barely managed to meet his father's eyes before he looked away in shame. His fiancée moved through the crowd and came to his side. He felt her take his hand and he managed to respond to his father. "I'll be there, sir."

After his son had turned to walk away, Orin moved to check out the damage. Ezra was mostly just shaken up, his lip had stopped bleeding and was just puffy. Chris allowed him to look at the bruising on his arm. When his eyes reached Nathan's, Orin saw the teenager blanch.

"Nathan, look at me," he said calmly. When he had the boy's eye, he continued, "I'm not angry with you, son. In fact, I'm proud of the fact that you stood up for the boys. Now, let's all finish with our shopping so we can meet Steven at the ice cream shop on time."

Orin made a point of making sure that the boys weren't left alone after that. Steven did buy the ice cream and apologize to the boys, but it was an uneasy truce. Whenever his son and Mary visited at the ranch, the boys tended to avoid the man and they stayed outside. At the wedding, the boys fussed and worried over their clothes, not wanting to give Steven any reason to regret having them there. Ezra helped the others with their ties and repeatedly prompted them to behave. Dozens of people commented on what a handsome and well-mannered group they were.

If one more person told him how wonderful his 'new brothers' were, Steven Travis thought he might be moved to strangle them. The incident in town several weeks ago had caused a major argument between he and Mary. His fiancée thought he was being unspeakably rude and unfair to the boys, who only wanted to be loved. It was a very sore subject between the two. On the up side, Mary had gone to the ranch and interviewed the boys, yielding a wealth of information. Her notes revealed that Ezra's mother might have survived the shipwreck and that Josiah and Nathan might still have living family. He had secretly hired a Pinkerton detective to try to find them.

A few days later, JD came running into the house, nearly hysterical. "You gotta come, you gotta come quick! Vin says that Molly is having her baby!"

Orin dropped his napkin on the table and got up, followed by the boys. They had been waiting for the mare to drop the foal for the past two weeks. "Don't all of you go running down there. You'll scare Molly. Walk, calmly and quietly. Nathan, you might stop by the bunkhouse and see if Mr. Jones is available in case she needs a hand."

"Ezra, you and Chris stay here and help Mrs. Travis clear the table," Josiah said. Both boys opened their mouths to protest but a stern look in the older boy's blue eyes stilled their complaint. It was their turn to help clear and they knew it. Evie gently passed her hand over the back of their heads as she began to gather the napkins. The boys quickly but carefully scraped and stacked the dishes. Chris left the dining room to get the water ready.

"You don't have to do the dishes, I'll take care of them. Just clear the table and stack everything here on the counter," Evie offered.

Smiling gratefully, Chris thanked her and hurried to tell Ezra the good news. Evie sighed, it took so little to keep them happy and they were good boys. The table was cleared in record time, with all of the dishes stacked on the counter and the garbage taken out. Both boys called out their thanks as they dashed out toward the barn.

It was a long, long delivery. The foal was big and the mare was tiring as she tried to push it out. Clay had checked to see that it was turned the right way and it was, so all they could do was wait. Vin was upset at being told that he had to wait outside of the stall. He insisted that the mare wouldn't hurt him but Orin and Clay had explained that se could hurt him without meaning to. The boy was standing on a bale of hay with JD and Ezra, his chin on his hands as he stared at the laboring mare.

Late into the night, Orin sent the boys back to the house, all except for Nathan and Vin. Clay had decided that he was going to pull the foal. Nathan was allowed to help, holding her head as the rope was fed into her body and tied around the small hooves. Evie had come down to the barn with a light jacket for Vin and stayed, rubbing his tense back and covering his cold fingers with her hands. She felt the boy's muscles bunching as Clay and Orin worked to bring the foal out. When the foal finally dropped, it was too late. Clay and Nathan worked and worked, stroking the animal's ribs and trying to get it to breathe but they were unable to save it.

"I'm sorry, Vin," Orin said. The boy stared at the still form for a moment before he bolted from the barn, his soft sob barely audible. Evie rushed out after him, her mother's instinct telling her that he needed to be comforted. She found him leaning against the back of the house, tears streaming from his eyes. Wrapping an arm around him, she steered him into the house and toward the rocking chair.

It took them a few minutes to find a comfortable position in the chair. Vin was too big to be cradled in her arms like a baby. She finally wound up with him facing her, with his legs threaded under the arms of the chair. Silently, the boy cried out his grief as she rocked him and rubbed his back. By the time the others came in, he was asleep.

Orin smiled at the sight that greeted him when he returned to the house. Vin was draped against Evie sound asleep. His wife had her cheek rested against the top of his head as she dozed. She had wrapped an afghan around the boy to warm him. It saddened him that his young wife could not have children of her own but four miscarriages in three years had made her realize that it was not meant to be. Nathan had gone up to bed after cleaning up, so Orin moved to take Vin from Evie. The boy whimpered, his half mumbled 'momma' causing the man's heart to clench. Orin carried him up and handed him off to Nathan, who was coming in search of the boy.

The school was coming up on the fall harvesting break. All of the boys were excited at the prospect of having a few weeks off from school. Orin and Evie went in and met with the teacher. Mrs. Applewait was very complimentary about all five of the boys. JD was soaking up information like a sponge. He had already caught up with the other children his age and was passing them in Math. Ezra was doing very well in every subject. She was concerned that he didn't seem to play with the other children as readily as he seemed to prefer to sit and read. Vin was holding his own, just barely. It was evident to the teacher that he was having trouble with some of his letters, though he could work the numbers just fine. She had paired him with Ezra, who had an almost uncanny knack for helping. Buck was the one student who exasperated her the most. While doing passable work in class, he was also a terrible flirt. Several times, she had caught him passing notes to the various girls in the class. Chris was doing well. He wasn't at the top of his group and he wasn't at the bottom. The teacher said that he was pleasant and easygoing most of the time. She had seen brief bursts of anger, but boys teasing him or his 'brothers' had provoked them.

It was one of the only times Josiah had been really upset with Chris and proud of him at the same time. When he arrived to pick the boys up at the end of the school day, the blond boy was not outside playing with the other children. JD had run to him, almost in tears.

"Chris had to stay inside and write on the board!" JD lamented. "Cause he beat up Ryan Boxworth!"

When he entered the one-room schoolhouse, Chris was standing at the board, his arm stretched up as far as he could reach to write beneath the neatly printed line the teacher had put up for him. 'I will not fight with other children,' it read. The teacher looked up from her desk and got up to meet Josiah halfway.

"Keep working, Chris. I'll be right back," Mrs. Applewait said. "If you'd step outside, I would like to speak with you for a moment," she said to Josiah. They went out the back of the schoolhouse and she motioned for him to take a seat on the bench. "Chris was in a fight with another student during the lunch recess. It seems that another boy, Ryan, was teasing JD about being an orphan and Chris took it upon himself to punch him in the nose. I spoke with several other children and they all say that he was only defending JD but I can't allow that kind of behavior."

"I understand, Ma'am. I will tell Mr. Travis and I'll have a talk with him when we get home," Josiah had promised. They went back into the building and the teacher told Chris that he could erase the board and then he was free to go.

On the ride home, Josiah balled Chris out. "What if Travis decides to send us away because you can't control your temper? I'm not ready and neither is Nathan to work and take care of all of us. Do you want us to get split up?"

At the ranch, after supper, Josiah pulled Orin aside and told him what had happened. He didn't sugar coat it or try to make it sound better than it was, he told the truth. He also told Orin that he had spoken to Chris on the way home and that it wouldn't happen again. Orin found Chris, in the barn brushing one of the horses. He was amazed at the contrition shining from the hazel eyes. Chris told him that he was sorry for hitting the other boy and that he wouldn't do it again. He also volunteered to take on extra chores as punishment. Orin was satisfied that the situation had been taken care of, it was just that he was worried that Josiah was usurping his place as the boys' guardian.

He waited a couple of days before calling the oldest boy aside to speak with him. Josiah thought they were going to be discussing the coming harvest. He had been planning and figuring on a way that he could earn a little money without shortchanging the ranch. He was still organizing his thoughts when Orin began to speak.

"Josiah, I want to talk to you about the situation with Chris at school earlier this week. While I appreciate that you spoke to him and that he has so willingly accepted the punishment you gave him, I would have liked it if you had spoken to me first," Orin said. He saw confusion in the boy's eyes for a moment and then something like anger.

"I told you what happened."

"Yes, you did, but you also took it upon yourself to talk to Chris and to give him additional chores as punishment. While it is your place as the oldest to counsel the younger boys, it isn't your place to act as disciplinarian. That is my responsibility. Do you understand?" He saw it flare for just a moment and then it was gone but he definitely saw defiance in the face of the young man. It took him a minute to respond and Orin wondered, for the first time, if it was going to be a problem. He knew that Josiah and Nathan had problems on the island, from listening to the other boys, and he knew that as the oldest, Josiah felt that it was his right and responsibility to look after the others.

"Yes, Sir, I understand. It won't happen again," Josiah said, dejectedly.

Trying to salvage the situation, Orin spoke again, "It's my job to take care of you too, son. You did a fantastic job of taking care of yourself and the others on the island but you don't have to do it all alone anymore. You're a young man, you should be growing and learning and getting ready for the rest of your life, not having to care for six boys who aren't related to you."

"They are as much my brothers as I am your son!" Josiah said, coming to his feet angrily. "I plan to take care of them as soon as I can get a job and support them!"

"Josiah, that didn't come out the way I meant. I only meant that you don't have to do it all on your own. You deserve a chance to be a kid too. I'm not trying to take your place with them."

Fear coursed through his veins and Josiah realized that he was pushing his guardian's limits. Taking a deep breath, he blew it out slowly. "I'm sorry. I ... I-"

Orin stepped closer and debated whether or not he could get away with hugging the emotionally confused teenager. He remembered that his own father wasn't overly demonstrative with his affection. Deciding that the benefit outweighed the possible harm, he slipped an arm around Josiah and pulled him in close. He could feel the boy's body fighting an almost instinctive need to pull away while still wanting and very much needing that reassuring touch. Orin held on a few seconds more before he let go.

"It's over and done with. Is that clear?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," Josiah answered.

At each desk in the schoolhouse, the children had a stack of their graded papers. Orin was busy praising Chris and Buck while Evie was making appropriate exclamations over JD's papers. Ezra and Vin waited patiently for their turn to show off their work. Suddenly, Orin noticed that the blond boy's eyes were focused on something behind him. Turning, he saw the dark-haired girl and her parents coming in. He had met Mr. Connelly a few times, at church mostly, but he didn't realize that Chris had noticed Sarah. He saw the shy smile that lifted the corners of Chris's mouth and the slight blush that colored his cheeks.

While the adults were commenting on Ezra and Vin's papers, Chris managed to casually move to lean against the wall near the Connelly girl. Sarah smiled at him, before her mother called to her and she had to go back to look at something on one of her papers. Chris edged closer, watching Sarah as she explained something about her History test to her mother.

Orin resolved to invite the Connelly family out to the ranch for supper some time soon so he could get to know them. He could see that Chris was sweet on the girl. Evie whispered softly in his ear, "They make a cute couple, don't you think?"

They mingled with the other families who had also come to meet with the teacher. Most of the children begged off and were outside running and playing. Evie spotted a familiar face and made her way to the other woman.

"Mrs. Wells, it's nice to see you again. And this must be your niece, Casey. JD talks about her all the time," Evie said.

"Well, if your boy talks anywhere near as fast as that girl, I don't know how you get a word in," the woman said, throwing a fond look at the little girl. "This one even talks in her sleep."

"I wanted to thank you again for the apples. The boys and I put up several quarts of applesauce and apple butter. I'll have Josiah bring you some, if you'd like?"

"It's not necessary, Mrs. Travis. I know you surely got your hands full with seven boys and a man in the house. It's just me and Casey at my place so we always have extra, thankfully," Nettie said.

"My husband is planning a big get together after the harvest. Would you and Casey please come? I'm sure she would enjoy having some other kids to play with."

"I'll do that. And if your boys have nothing else to do, my old pecan tree has dropped more than I could ever hope to use. You're welcome to all that they can pick up. I can even rustle up some beans and cornbread to feed them if they want."

"Thank you for the offer, I'll talk to the boys," Evie said as she prepared to go out and check on the boys. She spied JD, dodging and weaving his way across the room until he appeared at Casey's side. Immediately, he was begging her to come out and play hide and seek with the other children.

It was late in the afternoon by the time they returned to the ranch. The boys were tired from all the running and playing. Orin and Evie had invited several of the local families to join them for a big gathering after the harvest was finished. The boys agreed to go over to Mrs. Wells' place after church on Sunday to pick up the excess pecans. When the wagon rolled to a stop near the barn, Orin looked over his shoulder. Josiah had Ezra tucked under one arm and JD sprawled against his leg. Nathan had Chris and Vin using his thigh as a pillow. Buck was leaning against the corner, with his head tipped back and his mouth hanging open as he snoozed.

"Alright, gentlemen, let's get this wagon unhitched," Orin called, waking all of them at one time.