Magnificent Seven Seven Brothers AU

The Reading of the Will

by Rebecca

Webmaster Note: This is the original story in the "Seven Brothers" universe.


Opening the blind, Molly checked the room with a critical eye. The cleaning crew had been told to give the room a serious going over and after her little tirade last week they had done a perks of having red hair and "Do you think they will all come?" she asked her boss as he came in with a stack of papers that he deposited with a thud on the desk. She looked at him sharply, open concern in her face. These last two weeks had worn on him, aged him. She and Evie had consulted with one another, seeking to find a way to ease the pain he was denying. She hadn't liked doing it and knew he would have a fit when he found out what she had done; but Evie was right, the judge was exhausted. So while she had cleared his schedule for all of next week, Evie had talked with a travel agent about a trip to New York.

He glanced up at his secretary, she and Evie thought they were so sneaky; he wouldn't let on that he knew, but on Sunday evening when Evie handed him his packed suitcase, he would only offer a token argument. Burying a friend hurt. "No. I don't think Standish will arrive. He hasn't bothered to call and he was the only one that Linc had been worried about not showing."

"Tell you what boss, I'll bet you five dollars that they all show."

"Only five? You don't sound to sure of yourself."

"Hey boss, I need a raise. The kids took almost all my cash this morning for the Book Fair."

"I'm sure you did nothing to encourage them to buy those books."

"What can I say? They have to read and be smart because they sure aren't going to make a name for themselves in sports or music."

Orrin chuckled at the image that mention of Molly's two boys, Evan and Nick, always brought to mind. Eight-year-old twins, the boys had inherited their mother's red hair and their father's myopic eyes. With reed thin bodies that looked as though they might snap if a strong wind came through, they lacked even the basic level of grace that most children possess. She had put them in ballet hoping that they could be taught some coordination but Evan's pulled groin muscle put an end to that and gymnastics had only taught her the value of good medical insurance as first Ethan tripped and broke an arm and then Nick mis-landed a vault making the boys a matched set. Martin had decided to get his boys out of that dangerous sissy stuff and so now the boys were contentedly sitting on the sidelines reading their books as their basketball team dominated the league.

"Those are great kids you've got Molly." He glanced at the stack of sealed envelopes. "You and Marty remember that. And as far as that bet, you are on."

Molly sorted through the files and pulled out the biographies she and a private investigator had worked up on each man. It had taken four months of hard work and though Linc had seen the files he had not lived to see his dream of having all seven of his boys living under the same roof. "You know, at first glance none of these boys look much like Linc and nothing like one another, but put their photos together and you see Linc. When Chris would come in here with Linc I thought that they looked so much like each other, but the resemblance is hard to see in this picture. I wonder why?"

Attitude, Chris isn't a womanizer like Linc and he certainly doesn't have Linc's temperament, but he fills a room just like Linc did." The judge pawed at the pictures, rearranging them before continuing, "Chris looks like his mother. Has Linc's build, thin and wiry, but he has Colleen's hair and her laugh. Now that was a woman to know. I swear most every boy in town would have been in love with her except she had a temper. A real temper not like someone who has to stand in front of a mirror to practice yelling at the cleaning crew."

"Saw that did you?"

"I might be getting old, but these eyes don't miss much. And thanks." He decided to let on that he knew.

"Pardon me?"

"I ran into Ross Watson last night, he asked me where I was planning on vacationing. Imagine my surprise when I found out that my schedule had been cleared for a whole week. So where am I going?"

She blushed at the thought of him knowing that she and Evie schemed behind his back. She always tried to be dignified and professional while on the job. "My lips are sealed. Just bring me back a t-shirt."

"I always do."

"Go on. About Colleen," she would never repeat anything she heard in these offices to anyone, not even Martin; that was one of the reasons Orrin paid her as well as he did. She had known Linc, you couldn't live in the area and not know the man and she knew the three sons he had raised; she had even dated Buck before she had decided that she preferred quiet Martin with the non-roving eyes. But what she knew of the family was recent history and the files she had helped prepare on the brothers left so many questions unanswered; if she was to deal with these men effectively over the next year she needed a better understanding of them. Orrin could give her that understanding. He had been there with Linc through most of it.

"Uh-mm-m-m Colleen." He smiled at the memory. "Beautiful girl. But, I think that her momma despaired of Colleen ever getting married. Then Lincoln showed up to call on her one day. And that was it. They were so well suited for each other, she'd get mad about something and he'd smile and she'd laugh. Linc was devoted to her. Then Chris came along and Lincoln was the proudest father in town. When Colleen was expecting, Linc went to his daddy and asked to buy some land from him. His daddy would have given him the land; Linc was going to inherit it all one day anyhow, but Linc insisted that he buy it. Said that he wanted something of his own, something that he had worked for and saved to buy. Linc and Mr. Sam, his father, would work the cattle during the day and in the evenings they'd be building the house. Six weeks after they moved in Colleen was in a wreck. That wreck took her life."

Orrin looked at the picture of Chris, the only Larabee boy to carry the Larabee name. A fine boy, though you couldn't tell it the way he'd been carrying on. Maybe this Will of Linc's would do the trick. Certainly, he had seen more of the old Chris since his father's death two weeks ago than he had seen in the last three years. No, that wasn't right either. Chris was sober, but he wasn't laughing. He was angry that his father was gone and angry with himself for the way he had acted towards his father. He never laughed.

He had discussed the fact that Linc wanted all of his sons there for the reading of the Will with Chris, Nathan and Buck. Of course they knew about Vin and Ezra, and seemed interested in meeting these two brothers, but Orrin knew that Josiah and John David would be a surprise. He shook his head in disbelief at Linc's audacity. Linc had thought that he would be able to heal the wounds of his children and maybe he could if he were still alive; there wasn't much that Linc was not capable of when he put his mind to it. To reach out from the grave and do this was another matter entirely. Chris would be the key. The old Chris would be able to make this work. Could the Chris that had spent the last three years not caring about anything other than his own anguish pull it off? Orrin suspected that if he could he would heal and Linc could rest easy.

"Shred their files before any of them get here, will you hon."

"Sure thing Boss," she answered as she gathered up the pictures and the extensive research done on each of Linc's sons.

+ + + + + + +

Checking the name and address of the law firm on the envelope against the one neatly stenciled on the door, he slowed the car and began looking for a parking space. There was nothing near the office unless there was some tucked away behind one of the buildings, but he didn't have enough time to go exploring. He glanced at his watch, in a few minutes he would be late and what kind of omen was that anyway, late for the reading of the Will of the man who had fathered him. It was ludicrous, if a person bothered to stop and think, that he would even be here planning to attend the reading of this Will. The man had made it abundantly clear that he had not wanted to be burdened with yet another child. What did he expect to happen? Did he think his brothers would welcome him with open arms? Not likely. The rich stayed rich by not throwing their money away and by not sharing it with the never-before-seen bastard that just happens to show up for the reading of the Will.

Still, he argued with himself, Larabee's lawyer was the one that contacted him and not the other way around. Perhaps, he had been remembered in some way, some monetary way. Oh, how he would love to say 'fuck you' and walk away leaving a pile of money on the table untouched. If he was someone else he would do that, but he was Ezra P. Standish and P stood for prudent and a Prudent Standish took the money to pay off people with fists the size of Ohio.

Seeing nothing, he circled the block, he needed something close to the building or he would be limping before he got to the meeting. Damn Moore, anyway; at least his men hadn't touched his face. He poked gingerly at his side as he turned the corner; ribs healed he just needed to figure out a way to pay Moore before the goon decided that he needed a more lasting lesson. Couldn't the man have waited until after this meeting to find him?

Not that he expected any money, nothing to amount to much. There would be just enough to entice him to sign on the dotted line of the agreement saying that as the bastard son he would take this pittance, be grateful for it and never ever bother the rightful heirs. He would sign, after he got a good look at the men his father called sons. He had their names memorized and pulled them out of the little corner of his mind that he kept them tucked away in. Christopher and Nathan. What did they have that he was lacking? He really wanted to know and this would probably be his only chance to find out.

Alright, Ezra, once more around the block and then if there isn't a parking space then you know that God really didn't want you stopping just to satisfy your curiosity. Damn it all, he had really meant to arrive early, to sit in his car and watch as his 'brothers' walked in to get their share and then leave, never getting out of the car; well that had been his plan before Moore showed up, now he needed every dollar he could get his hands on.

His hand reached down to stroke the letterhead on the envelope. The letter, the summons, had contained a personal note from someone named Mrs. Kincaid. She had offered to get him a room, rent a car, answer any questions, and in short do anything to make this sad and tragic day less stressful. Answer questions? As though he would be so crass as to call to ask 'What did dear ole dad leave me?'

Now, Maude would have already called the lawyer up and sweet-talked him into giving her all the details of the Will. If Larabee had left him any money she would know about it and begin scheming on how to get control of it; she still insisted that she knew what was best for him and every move he made to gain financial independence she tried to counteract, like this business with Moore. He had his moments of freedom. She would go her way and he his, but whenever he had won big she would show up to remind him of all that she had sacrificed for him and as her obedient son he would help her out of any jam she had gotten herself into. Funny thing about Maude, with all her successful nights in the casinos, well-played cons, and numerous marriages to wealthy men, it would seem to reason that she should be rolling in loot. Hardly. Money slipped through her fingers as fast as she got it.

He had been very discreet in letting people know where he was heading for the weekend. If Maude got the scent of money she'd show up baying for her share of the loot. If there were no money to be had, she would take the opportunity to inform his 'brothers' of how their father had been such a cheap bastard, of how he had gotten her pregnant and refused any financial support. Her tone would be a careful mix of righteous indignation and long suffering piety. He'd heard that speech so many times before; every time he wanted something beyond what was strictly necessary she'd haul that speech out, dust it off and give it. She had it down pat and no doubt, if given the opportunity to deliver it to Lincoln Larabee's rightful heirs they, full of remorse over their father's scandalous behavior would hand over their inheritance to her eager, waiting paws. Sometimes he hated his mother, but she was all he had in the world and he had long since learned to live with her shortcomings. It was better than living alone.

He was here for one reason. He wanted to understand what was wrong with him. What there was about him that had pushed his father away and kept him away? Why had his father never cared enough about him to pick up the phone and call or to even write a postcard? Was it the circumstances of his birth?

His mother had once shown him a magazine article that showed a handsome man with hair so blonde that it was almost white, deeply tanned skin and intensely blue eyes. The man in the photograph had been smiling while hugging two boys. The article had named the green-eyed teenager as Chris and the boy with the dark skin and wide smile as Nathan. Chris and Nathan. His mother had told him there was a third son, but she was unsure of his name. He had committed the name of the ranch and the town in which it was located to memory and carefully cut out the pictures and article and hid them away in the Bible that one of his aunts had given him for Christmas.

He must have been seven the year he had decided to write. The kids at school had been joining teams that their dads coached; when they asked if he was planning on playing he had said that he didn't like baseball. He had wanted to play, but if he had he would then have to explain why his father never came to any of the games. Why he never signed a report card. Why the only picture he had of the man was cut out of a magazine. He hadn't played baseball, instead he had spent the summer practicing with the deck of cards his mother had given him, waiting each day for the postman's arrival.

He had hoped the address would be enough and after his momma had returned to the arms of her current beau he had carefully retrieved the article and pictures. He had spent one day writing a long letter telling Linc Larabee all about himself and about living with his great aunt Dorcas. He had worried about his handwriting and been upset that he had to guess at how some of the words were spelled, but his teacher had said to sound words out and so he had. He had even colored a picture of himself so that his father would know what he looked like. He had tried to keep the tone light, Mother always said folks don't like to be around whiners, but in the end he had asked why he didn't want him.

He blinked back the tears that particular rejection still caused. He remembered the kid that he had been, the one that thought he was so grown up. That child had walked to the post office and shaking out the money he had won off his cousins onto the oak counter he had asked if he had enough money to send his letter so that his father would have to sign for it; he wanted to make sure that his father received it. He had.

He still carried the green signature card in his wallet. For long months he had been sure that his father would write back to him, he had included his mother's address as well as his aunt's, but as the months turned into years he realized that he would never hear from him. That card with his father's signature had been carefully tucked into his wallet, but he had quit looking at it and now he hardly saw the card when he pulled out money or showed his license. The only time he really thought about it was when it was time to replace his wallet. Each time he had almost unfolded the card and looked at the handwriting, supposedly you could tell a lot about a person from the way they dotted their i's and crossed their t's. He hadn't looked though, just as he hadn't thrown it away. He had just tucked it into his new billfold and forgotten its existence until the next time he needed to change wallets.

He pulled in front of the office, his last time around the block. He glanced at the clock. He did not have time to circle the block again. That was his omen, time to go, he'd figure something out about Moore. He looked over his left shoulder, waiting for an opening in the traffic-whoever would have thought that a town this little would have so much traffic. Who the hell had ever heard of Four Corners anyway? Just as he was to about to pull away the brake light of the car parked directly in front of the office flashed.

He stopped breathing and watched as the woman in the car looked over her shoulder asking with her smile if she could pull out in front of him. Remembering to check the traffic before indicating she could go, he let her out and pulled into the perfect parking spot. There was even thirty minutes left on the meter; he wouldn't put any more money in, he doubted he would be here that long.

Painfully, he pulled himself from his car. Really, if he was going to make it a practice of letting people hit him then he had best obtain a car that was easier to get in and out of, something large and American perhaps. His mother would die. 'Ezra, dear, appearances are everything and American cars just don't say money.'

Putting on his 'face', the one that would protect him, keep his enemies from seeing too much of his soul, he entered the building. A woman, not cute and perky like many receptionists nor cold and efficient like so many others, sat behind a large cherry desk, real wood he noted in amazement, not veneer that was so popular in offices. She smiled warmly, coming out from behind the desk to shake his hand.

"You must be Mr. Standish."

"Yes and you are?"

"Molly Kincaid, receptionist, law clerk and chief bottle washer for Judge Orrin Travis."

"The judge?" Ezra raised his eyebrows in surprise.

"He's not a Judge any more, he retired from public service years ago and now just handles the clients he likes." She smiled brightly at him, her brown eyes studying him as he pulled off his sunglasses and carefully put them in a case in his suit pocket. "I must say you certainly remind me of your father, maybe more than the others. Something about your smile."

"Indeed." He smiled wider exposing his dimples and his gold tooth. He hoped she could not hear the sudden thumping of his heart. "And Ah must thank you for your kind note."

"You never called," she gently admonished.

"Ah had no questions."

"Not curious?"

"Not in the least," he lied.

Tapping her pen against her chin she studied him, "You know none of you look like each other. No one would ever take you for brothers, but this morning after seeing you all walk through that door, it's amazing how much you all look like him."

"You knew him then."

"Of course. The Judge and Linc grew up together and he's handled Linc's business for the last several years and I, well I've been working here for about, uhm, thirteen of those years." She seemed lost in thought for a moment a sad little smile gracing her face, "I miss him already. You couldn't find a better man if you spent the rest of your life looking. But excuse me; I know you want to go on back. Everyone else is already in the Judge's office."

Ezra glanced over at the door she indicated. He shouldn't have come, just setting himself up to be hurt. He swallowed hard. "Perhaps you could direct me to your facilities before..." before Ah enter the lion's den.

"Oh, yes. Right down that hall, last door on the left. I'll just let the judge know you're here."

She watched as he headed down the hall and then she slipped into her boss's office. Smiling at the men who were sitting impatiently, she walked up to her boss and whispered in his ear that the last of the boys had arrived and held her hand out expectantly for the five dollars the judge had just happily lost. The one that they had all but given up on had shown. She hurried back to the front desk; Standish had looked as though he was ready to bolt and she had promised Linc, in her heart, that she'd make sure that all of his boys were there for the reading of his will.


Ezra splashed water onto his face and dug into his pocket for some Tums. He ate two, willing his stomach to settle then ate a couple extra tablets just to be on the safe side. He debated the sense of going ahead and throwing up before going in to meet them. His stomach was voting for that, but he wasn't sure how well his ribs could handle it. Though he hadn't bothered to see a doctor, they asked all sorts of embarrassing things, he was fairly certain that at least one of his ribs was broken. Damn mother for bringing Moore to the game. What the hell was she thinking? She knew his reputation. She had to have known there would be problems.

He looked in the mirror as he straightened his tie. Not too bad he decided, a little on the pale side, but he doubted if anyone would notice. Time to see what Larabee had wanted with him. Probably the old man had decided that he had better right wrongs if he was going to get into heaven. His voice from the past would say, 'My dear son, I am so sorry for not being in your life when you were a child, but now on my deathbed I want to rectify that error and to make amends. Here is some money, go buy a drink with it, toast my memory and have a great life.' So, the question became, if Larabee was doling out cash in order to grease St. Peter's palm, how would this last act of his translate into American dollars?

He squared his chin as he gazed into the mirror. Now remember, Ezra, whatever happens in there, it means nothing. He had his chance. You are here to satisfy your curiosity about your brothers and if a few dollars get tossed your way you take it and run.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan heard the door open and heard Orrin greet the man that they had been waiting for, but he didn't bother to look up from the floor. A blue stain adorned the carpet in front of the desk and he had spent the last several minutes trying to figure out what it was and why Orrin hadn't replaced the carpet. Orrin had money, he could get it cleaned or replaced, but the stain remained and its existence made Orrin appear cheap.

He wished that Orrin would get this show started. He listened as the latecomer was introduced to everyone and he even managed a handshake when it was his turn, but all he really heard was the grandfather clock in the hall as it chimed the hour. The appointment was for ten and it hadn't mattered at all to Orrin that he and the others had arrived early. The judge had insisted that they wait until the last brother showed up or until the hour. All right, he was here and the hour was at hand so, please, Orrin let's get this over with. It's tearing me up to be sitting here with these strangers calling themselves my brothers and my daddy lying dead, in a hole in the ground. I need to go somewhere where I won't have to be strong for Chris and Buck, somewhere I can take the smile off my face and throw things that break, somewhere I can grieve.

The last two weeks had been such a blur. Buck had called in the middle of a busy morning, words tumbling all over one another 'Dad had a heart attack. Come home now!' He remembered hanging up the phone and calling the hospital in Eagle Bend. He had talked to the cardiologist who had assured him that while the tests were not all back that it appeared that this was more an anxiety attack rather than a heart attack. They were going to admit him overnight for observation, but would probably release him in the morning. He had debated about not going; he had patients to see and it sounded as though nothing was seriously wrong, but this was his daddy and he, the son who never did anything impulsive, had begun making a series of phone calls starting with the airlines.

The last thing he clearly remembered was that after the plane landed on the small airstrip in Eagle Bend he had taken a cab to the hospital. He had smiled the whole ride over, he was going to ask his dad to forgive him and then he and Buck were going to sit down and talk some sense into Chris and everything would be good again. He had walked into hospital with the stench of disinfectants heavy in the air and the lights burning too brightly and Buck had turned to him, his eyes, red and puffy were leaking tears. It was like being on a roller coaster and he was in that little car that had slowly made its way up to impossible heights and just as it reached the top and he was happy to have his life going so well, the bottom dropped out from under him. He was falling and falling and even though he knew that he'd survive the landing he was screaming, begging for someone to take him off that horrible ride. Seeing Buck's eyes was like that and he knew that his brother was in the little car, screaming along with him.

The staff had packed away all the equipment and the doctor came out and said all the right things and all that he could do was to go in and say goodbye before they wheeled his daddy down to the morgue. He kept thinking this has got to be some joke, some bad dream, something cause his father wouldn't die, not with things between them like they were.

+ + + + + + +

Orrin Travis took his time studying the faces of the men sitting in front of him, trying to determine the strength of their character. Of course he knew Chris, Buck and Nathan. He'd been there pacing in the hall along side of Linc when Chris had been born, had bullied his way through child services to get Bucklyn turned over to Linc's care when his momma died, and had fought Clara's family tooth and nail when they wanted to take Nathan. Good boys all three of them. Linc had done well with them although it had all but fallen apart three years ago when Chris had lost Sarah and Adam to that fire. Chris had left and Nathan had left but for different reasons and only loyal Buck had remained to help keep the place running.

Linc had been a fine man, a shrewd businessman and a good friend, but when he screwed things up he did it in a mighty big way. For example that business with Nathan should never have happened. He loved that boy more than life itself and he had been so proud of his every accomplishment. Made sure that the whole town knew of each and every shining star the boy brought home. He had been so scared when the child was young and Clara's parents were trying to take him. That's why he never formally adopted the boy; he had been terrified that a judge would look at the color of the baby's skin and give his baby to Clara's parents. He did everything he could to keep them out of court, delaying tactics, threats and bribery were the things Orrin knew about and pretended he didn't. He suspected that there were other things done that he would rather not even think about.

In the end it had blown up in his face. Nathan had gone to medical school in Alabama and there he had met his mother's family. It hadn't been some great reunion full of weeping women sweeping Nathan into their family circle. That Linc could have combated. It was more insidious than that and the evil seed that they planted fed in Nathan's own insecurities; they had asked 'if your father loves you why didn't he give you his own name?' By the time Nathan got around to asking his father that question Linc's explanation of how ruthless his grandparents had been in trying to take him away conflicted with the sweet loving family he had met and grown to love.

There had been a shouting match, it took a lot to get Linc riled, but Nathan's questioning of his love had cut him to the bone. And when the shouting had ended Nathan had stormed off the ranch taking a job at University Hospital ignoring his promise to return to Four Corners and set up a clinic. Orrin was convinced that once the two stubborn men cooled off that they would find their ways back to each other. He had laughed when Linc had told him of the fight. It had been good to find out that Linc was having problems dealing with his sons, it made him more human. He had given them two months to work things out and it would have except for the fire.

Chris and Buck, you couldn't say one name without saying the other, as different from each other as night and day. After Colleen's death Linc would drop his son off with his mom and drive over to Eagle Bend. He'd have a few too many and end up at Rosie's apartment above her bar. One thing led to another and Bucklyn Reed Wilmington was born. Rosie had laughed at Linc when he offered to marry her and she had refused to let Linc adopt Buck.

About the time Buck was born Clara entered his life. A nurse hired to help with Linc's ailing mother, she and Linc began their relationship worrying about his mother's health. Gradually it developed into something more and Linc did not return to Rosie's bed. There had been some opposition to his and Clara's plans for marriage, mainly from her parents, but it had been the comments from otherwise fine upstanding citizens about the color of her skin that had finally made Clara leave town. Took him six months, but Linc brought her and their infant son home and they began to make wedding plans.

Determined that Linc have contact with all of his sons, Clara spoke with Rosie and while Rosie had always allowed Linc to visit his son, Clara convinced her to let the toddler visit them at the ranch. That was as far as it went though. Fiercely independent Rosie turned down any monetary aid Linc tried to give her. Clothes that he bought the boy were returned to the store and his money waiting on the counter on his next visit. She would give him her speech about how the two of them were just fine and that while he could visit Buck whenever he came to Eagle Bend that he was to remember that Buck was her boy. She did let Buck keep Birthday and Christmas presents as well as books that Linc would bring, but she did not let Linc dictate to her about how to rear Buck.

If Buck minded being a bastard and wearing stuff from the Good Will store he never let on. If he ever minded that first Chris and then Nathan got most of their father's attention he never showed that either. He followed Chris everywhere and Chris reveled in having a younger brother that he could actually play with. As tall as Chris, and then passing him, Buck looked older than he was and he had a raw edge that came from living over a bar and dealing with some of the scum that came through the bar on a nightly basis. It was hard for people to remember that he was the younger of the two boys.

He could tell stories that would make Chris's hair stand on end, of drug dealing, of pimps beating on whores and once of finding a dead woman in the dumpster. After hearing those stories Chris would go to Linc and beg him to get Buck out to the ranch where he would be safe, but Rosie wouldn't budge. One September afternoon, a man tried to rob her bar and shot Rosie to death. Buck came to stay with them; he was thirteen.

For years, Orrin teased Linc about his boys. At times they seemed joined at the hip, even little Nathan tagged along with his brothers and joined in some of their more hair-raising adventures. Chris played quarterback and during his senior year Buck was the wide receiver; they went to All State that year. On Saturday nights the boys could be seen cruising the town, Chris drove and Buck would talk the girls into joining them. Rosie had not been real big on book learning, so when Buck needed help catching up in school, Chris tutored him until he was making straight A's like his two brothers. They went to the same University and both excelled graduating the top of their classes. They began going to horse shows together and when Chris was twenty-eight he and Buck made an appointment with their father and Orrin outlining their proposal to begin breeding quarter horses.

Linc had been surprised, he had always figured that the boys would come and work with him. Orrin had seen it coming, Chris had needed to get out from under Linc's shadow and of course, where Chris went there went Buck.

Well, except to the altar. Chris ended up marrying the sweetest, most gentlewoman in the whole of Nevada. Daughter of a rancher she had been on a visit home from a woman's college back east when she had met Chris at a rodeo. Her father had objected not only to Chris, but also to her marrying before she completed college. His objections had fallen on deaf ears and so with Buck's help they had eloped.

Orrin's eyes fell on Chris. The man was sober, had been ever since he had come back. He was sober but the fire, the rage still smoldered in his eyes. Only the careful calming influences of his brothers kept the man still and in his seat. This meeting may be due to his father's death, but the anger in those eyes went back to the night three years ago when Chris's ranch burned.

It had been a long dry summer, not drought conditions, but a summer even more dry than usual, one that had everyone beginning to search the sky for signs of rain. Chris and Buck had gone to Mexico to look at a stallion they were considering for their breeding program. Originally Sarah had planned to go, but morning sickness was hitting her hard and so she and Adam had stayed behind. Linc was checking on them every day, mainly using Chris's instruction of watch out for them as an excuse to play with his grandson. Chris and Buck were supposed to return Thursday night but Buck had wanted to spend one more night with some senorita, and after calling Sarah, Chris had agreed. Linc had planned to ask them over for grilled steaks but he had gotten caught up in a letter to Nathan and had not gotten around to calling his daughter-in-law. That night, the incessant barking of his dog woke him. The smell of smoke was all in the air and with things being as dry as they had been alarm ran through him. Calling out for ranch hands to wake up they had jumped into pick ups armed with shovels and followed the smoke to its source. Chris's home lay in smoldering ruins.

Chris and Buck returned from their trip pulling a horse trailer. Buck later confessed that they knew something was wrong long before they pulled up over the rise. The sight that greeted them was grisly. The frame of the barn stood, the sides gone and the smell of burned horseflesh hung heavy in the air, which was good because it masked the smell of human flesh. The house was little more than ashes; Sarah's and little Adam's bodies were tucked in little bags waiting for an ambulance to take them to the morgue. People wearing white rubber gloves swarmed through the ashes searching for clues, sifting through the debris of Chris's life.

Chris had begun screaming then and he wouldn't quit. He said horrible things to his father and worse things to Buck. After the funeral he began drinking.

For three years Chris drank, taking small jobs to pay his bar tab when Linc, in desperation, cut off the money. At first, Buck tried to keep tabs on Chris, keep him from ending each day in a drunken stupor. After almost two years of Buck spending his weekdays helping Linc on the ranch and spending his weekends sobering Chris up, Buck came home with his lip split and one of his eyes swollen shut; he didn't say anything to Linc, but he didn't go back out after his brother again.

Orrin finished his reminiscing knowing that these men were waiting for some answers. "I've never been one to beat around the bush and my wife has frequently told me I need to learn tact. Figure she might be right." He glanced across the room, the eyes meeting his ranged from openly curious to disinterest. "You are all here, as sons of Lincoln Jefferson Larabee, to hear his last will and testament. Now rest assured I will read it all to you in its entirety, but it is a long dry document and so first I will tell you what he wants done and why." His eyes circled the room again; he had lost them already. The men were busy examining the other occupants of the room, some for the first time realizing that an enormous family had suddenly been thrust upon them. He gave them a moment to stare at each other and digest the news.

"Excuse me, Mr. Travis."

"Yes, Ezra isn't it?" he knew exactly with whom he was speaking. He just didn't want them to know of the extensive dossiers that he had on each of them.

"Yes suh, Ezra Standish." He wanted to look around the room, but the laughter that was building up in him would escape if he connected with any eyes that said they also saw the humor of the situation. "Am ah to understand that we aruh all sons of Mr. Larabee."


"And with the exception of Mr. Christopher Larabee," he nodded his head in Chris's direction "we aruh all, how shall Ah say it, born on the wrong side of the blanket."

Travis nodded, halfway angry at the amusement dancing in the young man's eyes and halfway grateful for it.

Ezra couldn't help it; he started laughing. Wiping at the tears that threatened, he struggled to compose himself and to answer the incredulous looks that were being tossed his way, "Ah know, Ah know. This is supposed to be a most solemn occasion and Ah am being extremely rude, mah mothuh would roll in her grave, but it just struck me that," he waved his hand around the room to include them all, "our fathuh collected bastards like other men collect stamps." He heard the growl and hastily apologized, "Ah am sorry if ah offended you Mr. Wilmington." The tall man sitting on the other side of Chris Larabee must be the other son that Linc raised. Chris, Buck and Nathan, he filed the names away for later, when he'd have the time to figure out what his father found in them, what he lacked.

"Are you ready to continue?" Orrin asked the chuckling man.

"Oh mah yes, please proceed."

Travis settled behind his desk and steepled his fingers. "Your father knew of each of you and prepared a personal letter for each of you. Suffice to say he recognizes each of you as one of his sons. Linc knew this might be hard for all of you to accept. He was not proud of his actions regarding his children and in your letters he explains said actions or in some cases inactions. He did not do this in the Will as wills become public domain. These letters are private communications between you and him. Each of you may decide on how much if any of your letter you wish to share with your brothers or with other people.

"Having said that, I must also say that he has stipulated in his will that if any son and I stress this, any son attempts to prove that another son is not the true son of Lincoln Larabee he will forfeit his entire claim to his share of the estate. Are there any questions?" He studied each face, not a one revealed the confusion that he must be feeling; in that they were all Lincoln's sons.

"It is my personal belief that Lincoln wanted each and everyone of you and that if certain circumstances had been different he would have raised each and every one of you," Travis smiled at Josiah Sanchez whose salt and pepper head almost rivaled his own, "Although I am not sure how good a father he would have been at sixteen."

Josiah broke into a large grin that threatened to split his face in half.

"Seven months ago Lincoln came to talk to me. He was extremely worried about his deteriorating relationship with his son Nathan and Chris's increasingly inappropriate behavior. He worried that Buck, in his roles of playing peacemaker and guardian angel as well as practically running the ranch himself and doing the work of three men would get hurt. He had done a lot of thinking and had decided that he had messed things up with all of you and was desperate to set it right." He stopped to take a sip of water, as seasoned as he was, having dealt with all sorts of people some of them less than savory; it was unnerving having those seven sets of eyes, so much like their father's, focused on him.

"Lincoln had been an extraordinarily successful rancher. Unfortunately that does not always translate into being wealthy. Up until about ten years ago Linc had little cash. He had enough to take care of his boys, enough to help Buck and Chris get their horse ranch started and enough to fund Nathan's schooling, but everything else he plowed back into the ranch. On my advice, ten years ago he began diversifying. He gambled in a big way in the stock market, he funded several small businesses around town and he bought and sold real estate across the state. Everything Linc did, he did well. He has left a sizeable estate to you boys. But as with all good things there is a catch."

"That catch being?" Chris's quiet voice almost echoed in the room. The Judge had told them about the brothers but had not discussed the terms of the Will; he had said that Linc wanted all of his sons together to hear that.

"Linc desperately wanted to get you all together. He had planned that after we found all of you that he would bring you all back to the ranch. He wanted to sit down and get to know each of you. This Will of his was a contingency plan. He never expected to die and thoroughly expected to mold you all into one big family. Frankly. I don't think that it can be done, but he was adamant that you were all Larabees and that blood would tell in the end."

"Chris," he used Chris's name, but he spoke to them all. "He has left each of you one million dollars provided," he paused; he knew it was a little too dramatic, but he wanted them all to hear and understand this provision. "Provided that you live together in the ranch house as brothers and run the ranch together as brothers. Linc made how he wanted things done very clear and I will give you his conditions in a moment. Assuming though, that you meet his requirements and live at the ranch and help run it, at the end of one year, one million dollars will be deposited in your bank account. One million dollars for each of you that stays for the entire year. If you leave before the year is up your million dollars will be given to the charity of your choice. In addition, if one of you leaves your brothers will each forfeit one hundred thousand of his million dollars to likewise be given to charity. At the end of the year, you may take your million and leave if you so desire. If you choose to leave you will always be welcomed back at the ranch, but you will not be entitled to share in the rest of the family holdings unless your brothers unanimously vote to allow you back into the business."

"Orrin, I worked right along side Pa for the past three years and there isn't seven million to be had unless you start selling off land and stock." Buck objected. When the second year of the drought hit he and Pa had stayed up many a night trying to make ends meet without having to dig into the reserve in the bank. If there was so much money to be had why hadn't they used it?

"You're right and wrong, Buck. When your Pa began diversifying, he worried about losing the land. He could have handled losing the money, but he wanted the land always safe from any fluctuations in fortune that his investments might bring. The ranch and Larabee Holdings are two separate entities. None of you may touch any part of Larabee Holdings until this year is past and you have committed to working with your brothers in the running of the Holdings. Stocks, bonds and all investments are frozen for one year beginning in the morning. Nothing will be bought or sold."

"Is that prudent?" Ezra made himself mad by speaking again, but the thought of money, with no one to watch over it, subject to the vagaries of the economy made him nauseous and he was nauseous enough as it was without having to worry about that money.

"No, but it is the way your father set it up. He was confident that the lot of you could quickly reverse any reversal of fortune," Orrin answered. He had wondered which of them would bring that flaw in Linc's plan up. He had thought it might be John David, fresh out of Business School, but he wasn't surprised that the gambler had brought it up. He reached into his side drawer and pulled out copies of the conditions for getting the million dollars and began handing them out.

"Read this. This is not the letter he wrote you. These are his conditions for you to follow if you plan on inheriting. These are copies, the original is part of the Will and again, it will become part of public record.

How to Earn a Million Dollars in Seven Easy Steps

1. You will live on the ranch for one entire year, that year beginning the day following the reading of my will at ten in the morning. Some of you will have to contact employers and such and some leeway will be given at Orrin Travis's discretion as to how long this will entail.

2. Each of you will have your own room at the ranch. It is furnished. If you need more it comes out of your allowance. Yes, Bucklyn there was a reason for the remodeling I've had done, sorry I couldn't share those reasons with you.

3. During this year each of you will receive an allowance of $600.00 per month for personal use, payable out of the ranch coffers. You will receive this money on the first day of each month.

4. The estate has two pickups, both in good repair and a four-door sedan. The ranch funds repairs, insurance and upkeep for these vehicles as it does for the tractor and other equipment. However, your own cars are your own and are to be taken care of by you not by the ranch even if you use it for ranch business. Deal with it.

5. There will be no hiring of housekeepers, cooks or groundskeepers. Calvin Yosemite will help with the ranch if he is needed. His involvement does not relieve any of you of your responsibility to do your share in the running of things. If circumstances dictate the hiring of additional people, you may collectively decide to do so, provided the ranch accounts are in such a state that allows you to pay for said hiring.

6. None of you are chained to the ranch, provided your work is done. I encourage you to go out, meet your neighbors, date and so forth.

7. The ranch is to show a profit at the end of one year's time.

There is one exemption to these rules and that is you Nathan. I know son that you have been resistant to starting a practice in this town. I know that decision is most probably due to our argument. Please read the letter I wrote you as I hope it will explain my actions to your satisfaction and that you will consider opening a practice here. You are needed here. Doctor Griggs is getting old and cannot handle things alone. If you choose to work with him I relieve you of the day-to-day ranch work provided you are spending your time at the clinic. I do not relieve you of the burden of living with your brothers and I am smiling here as I remember how much you loved living on the ranch and I do not believe your brothers will prove to be too great a burden. I also do not relieve you of your responsibilities in participating in making decisions concerning the ranch.

To all of my sons, I am sorry for my mistakes I can only hope that by giving you each other I can help rectify those mistakes. Even if at the end of this year you find you cannot live with each other and want no part in the operations of the Ranch or of Larabee Holdings, I hope you leave with some measure of love for your brothers and for me. If you do leave, take your money, live as well as you can and never hesitate to ask your brothers for help-that is what families are for.

With all my love,

Your Father,

Lincoln Jefferson Larabee

Orrin leaned against the window, watching as the men read. Nathan brushed tears off his face and sat motionless, lost in thought. He felt reassured by Nathan's reaction; he knew the man would read the instructions and think not only of the words but also of the love he and his father had for one another.

Josiah fingered his ornate cross as he read. When he finished the note he carefully folded it and put it in his breast pocket. He bowed his head and either prayed or fell asleep. Orrin decided the man was praying; he looked as though he would be the type to snore when he slept.

Orrin could read each and every emotion as it raced across Buck's face. Yes Pa, so they are why you added on. Yes of course, I will stay the year and I will help the others out and we will be a family. This will be good for Chris give him something to focus on other than Sarah and Adam. Yes, I will make sure Nathan comes home. I will take care of things until Chris can. Love you too Pa.

It was harder to figure out what Vin Tanner was thinking. His long curling brown hair fell into his face as he read, but Orrin could tell by the way he was mouthing the words and the length of time he took to complete the letter that he was having some trouble deciphering it all. He didn't think the man was slow, yes he had made only average grades in school, but he and Linc had talked about his school transcript and both of them had figured his lackluster grades were more a result of moving in and out of foster homes rather than in any lack of intelligence. Besides his brilliant blue eyes had been too observant for him not to be intelligent.

Ezra had been smiling slightly as he read then had paled at the last bit. Now, he sat stiff and erect in the blue leather chair. He looked as though he might be ill, but Orrin wasn't sure. He didn't look long at the face; it was so devoid of emotion that he could easily have passed for a department store mannequin and it was painful to see.

Orrin glanced over at John David Dunne. He had missed seeing him read, so he settled for watching him trying to get better looks at his brothers without them catching him at it. Buck had caught him and winked and you could see the tension melt away from the young man. He'd stay; he was desperate for a family after having just lost his mother. He would heal here.

Orrin hadn't bothered to look at Chris's face as he read. That face etched in anger and pain revealed little. His actions would reveal more. He could be the glue to bind them together or... Or he would take his brothers with him on his own little path of self-destruction.

"Before we make any decisions regarding this, Orrin. I think you need to tell us why you had the police and the FBI talking with us these past two weeks," Chris challenged Orrin.

"That's fair." Orrin pulled his chair out and sat back down. "Two months ago Lincoln got a call in the middle of the night from a voice he did not recognize. The man told Lincoln that he ought to look at Colleen's and Clara's deaths and see how they were related." Orrin looked at the men and saw that he had their attention.

"Colleen, Chris's mother, died in a car wreck. Clara, Nathan's mother died from a gunshot wound obtained when she was driving home from the hospital. Both deaths were fully investigated. It was determined that Colleen lost control of her car after hitting an icy patch on the road. There has never been any evidence to suggest that Colleen's death was more than an accident. Clara's death was attributed to hunters. No one was ever charged in her death, but like Colleen's it was judged to be an accidental death."

"The call could have been a prank, but Linc took it very seriously. He got police reports, talked to witnesses and then hired an investigator to look into Cady Tanner's death. He called me the morning he had the heart attack; Fred Holland, his investigator had committed suicide that morning. He was very agitated and wanted to see me. When he got to my office, he said that he needed for me to help sort it all out and then he started having chest pains and Molly called the ambulance. Thirty-eight minutes. It took thirty-eight minutes to get him to the hospital," Orrin spoke almost to himself. Those thirty-eight minutes had been an eternity.

"Buck made it there before us and was calling Nathan and Chris. After a while the doctors came out and told us that it wasn't a severe heart attack. More of a panic attack they said, but they decided to keep him over night for observation. They gave him something to make him sleep," Orrin's voice faltered and he took a couple of deep breaths. "Chris had shown up by then and we were sitting in the lobby waiting for Nathan to get there, he'd said that he'd catch a cab as soon as the plane landed. We were talking when people started running around. He died, had another heart attack and died. They held the body until the results of the autopsy were in. They said he'd had a massive heart attack. The doctors had said his heart was fine." Orrin quit speaking; he turned away and looked out the room's lone window waiting until he could get the trembling in his voice under control.

"In short, Dad got a phone call saying 'look at the deaths of two of the women you loved'. He did and whatever he found led him to hire an investigator to look into the death of another of his ... loves and that investigator committed suicide after making an appointment to see Dad. Then on that same day Dad gets admitted to the hospital and dies." Chris ticked off his points in a quiet voice that carried throughout the room.

"This is true. We have no reason to believe that you, any of you are in danger, but we also can't be sure of your safety either." He waited for someone to say something, but they all sat still, digesting the information. He wanted to guide them back to the matters at hand. "Do you, any of you, have any questions regarding the Will?"

"So all we have to do is live and work at the ranch for a year to get all that money?" John David did not want to think on any more deaths; he was still reeling from his mother's death last June. He could think of the Will without hurting. Lincoln Larabee was just a name, the name of a man that had left him a million dollars. A million dollars! He had never dreamed of that much money. He and his mother had scraped by on her job cleaning houses. It covered the bills, but had left no room for luxuries and she had insisted that his money from afternoon and summer jobs go into the bank to help when he went to college. With a million dollars he could have bought a house for her, a new car, good clothes. She wouldn't have had to work so hard. She would have had time to date. He sighed; he had had those dreams for years; now he wouldn't be buying her any of those things, he'd be buying her a tombstone. "Who's doing this? Staying for the year I mean?"

"I reckon I'm in. A million dollars is a lot of money for ranch work." Vin answered. This stuff about his Mother he would definitely look into and the best place to do it would be at the ranch. The other stuff about family he'd wait and see how that sorted out. He'd been introduced into too many homes, each calling themselves his new family, over the years to get excited about this new promise of kinship.

"Might be interesting having a family," Josiah boomed. Orrin glanced at the man. Not really extraordinarily tall or big, he had an aura of strength, both physical and mental. He seemed like he was a man that had seen a lot of things in his life. He'd be an interesting man to get to know.

"The ranch is my home, "Chris glanced over at Buck and then at Nathan. He owed it to his father to get this brother stuff settled and especially to find out how and why his father had died. Then he'd leave, with a million dollars he could drink until the pain went away.

"I'm staying," Buck answered. He loved the land, but more importantly he loved Nathan and Chris and maybe he'd give these others a chance. And if someone had killed their mothers and their father, were either Chris or Nathan next in line to die? His brothers needed him to watch over them.

"Orrin, I'm going to need help getting out of my contract," Nathan said. He loved Birmingham, working at University Hospital and his mother's family. This was home, though, and until he had returned he had not known how much it meant to him. Even without his brothers at his side, even without the ranch and most importantly without the lure of the money he would stay. The people in these parts needed a doctor; Doctor Griggs was getting too old to handle things by himself and the nearest hospital was in Eagle Bend a good forty-five minutes away.

"I'll put you down for an appointment at 9:00 tomorrow morning," he scribbled himself a note and then looked up at the other one. "Ezra? You in?"

"A year is a lot of time. No, Ah think not."

"A million is a lot of money," Chris replied irritated that the man was not doing as their father asked.

Ezra checked his mask making sure none of his thoughts were leaking out through the eyes and looked around the room trying to find a way to fit in. Maybe, if the offer had been made just to the other forgotten sons and to Buck, that easy smile of his was infectious; maybe then he could do it. But he couldn't do it with Chris and Nathan there; he would spend each and every day looking at them searching for what his father saw in them. He'd wake up each and every day knowing he wasn't quite up to grade. At the end of the year he would have the million dollars, but there wouldn't be any of him left. His mother would kill him if she ever found out that he threw away money, but he couldn't do it.

"Before you decide to forfeit the million dollars, let me give you the personal letters your father wrote." Orrin reached into his drawer and pulled out white envelopes thick with pages of love stuffed into them. "I don't know what is in these letters. His instructions were for me to give you them and for you to read them at your earliest convenience. There are no copies of these letters and they will not appear, in any form, in the Will; there is not even a mention of them in the Will. Linc realized that the Will would be open to public perusal and these letters are intensely personal. He did not want you to read each other's letters, nor did he want you to ask each other about the contents of the letters. If at some time one or more of you decide to discuss your letters that is fine, but there is to be no pressure on any one to do so."

Orrin gather the thick envelopes up. These letters had been his suggestion. He had not expected to ever have to pass them out and had only suggested Linc writing them as a prudent move, as protection against unforeseen tragedy.

He thumbed trough the envelopes finding the one marked Ezra. Holding the letter out he tried to lock eyes with the one brother ready to leave. The one not willing to give the plan of Linc's a chance. "This one is yours," he said.

Ezra took the letter because he could not think of a gracious way to not do so, but he felt as though he had just placed a rattler in his pocket and was waiting for it to strike. 'I wrote him once and he is just now getting around to writing me back. No and Hell no. I will not read this missive.' "Ah think it is best if Ah leave." Ezra stood up, his ribs protesting the movement and as the room blackened all that he could see were tiny points of light. He knew they were talking, protesting his leaving. He could hear Chris speaking angrily, but could not make out the words. He waited and his vision cleared and his hearing returned.

"You ok?" Nathan asked knowing the answer was no.

"Of course Dr. Jackson. Ah merely stood up too fast." He pasted his smile on making sure it reached his eyes and held out a hand, "It's been a privilege to meet you Dr. Jackson."

Absently Nathan shook Ezra's hand, noting the sweaty palm and the thin bead of sweat across the man's upper lip. "I don't think you should be leaving right now."

"Nonsense Dr. Jackson, Ah must be on mah way." Ezra turned to shake hands with Vin Tanner only to find Chris standing there. "Mr. Larabee, mah condolences on your loss." He was smiling as brightly as he could, but the man didn't return it.

"We are all going to get something to eat over at Inez's. Even if you don't want to spend a year with us you can find the time for lunch," Chris ordered.

"When you put it like that, how can Ah refuse. If you could give me directions..."

"It's three blocks, we'll walk. Are you up to it?"

"Of course." Oh, damn it all. No. He wasn't up to it. He had broken ribs and he was seriously wondering if he was going to be able to walk out to his car. "Ah need to use the facilities first, if you don't mind."

"Molly will show you the way," Chris replied. He didn't like the way the man was looking. He'd ask Nathan about this brother's health. A man that was sick could not make good decisions. He could not make the decision to throw away money, to not get to know his brothers, to not do what their dad had wanted until he was feeling better.

"Thank you. Ah'm sure Ah can manage."

Chris watched him walk gingerly out to the hall before turning to Nathan. "Well?"

"He ain't gonna make it to Inez's."

"Five says he does." Tanner smiled as he opened his wallet.

"You go by Vincent or Vin?" Josiah asked as he pulled out his own wallet.

"My friends call me Vin." Vin leaned against the wall and brushed his hair out of his eyes. He'd had it pulled back with a rubber band but had broken the thing when he, sitting in his car and using the vanity mirror had tried to work in a loose strand. It had been irritating him as of late and he was considering cutting it, he just hadn't found the time yet. "You?"

"What's in a name? Joe, Josiah, Mr. Sanchez. On the other hand, a man once called me Little Joe, I didn't like it much."

"I'll remember not to call you Little Joe."

"Play it safe, call me Josiah." The man winked at his younger brother and they both broke into large grins.

Chris checked his watch, "I told Inez we'd be there 'bout noon. She's holding her back room for us. We better head on over. Judge, would it be all right if we came back...say about one to finish up?"

The judge nodded, feeling inordinately pleased with the way things had gone. Chris was doing his work for him and he'd hate to be in Standish's shoes right now because Chris was preparing to pressure the man into agreeing to follow the dictates of the will. Smiling to himself he left the room. He'd have Molly call his one o'clock and ask him to come in a few minutes late. He made his request and then exchanged grins with Molly as Buck's voice carried in from the street to fill the small lobby.

"Boys, you are in for a treat. Not only does Inez serve up the best steaks and ribs in the state, but she is the purtiest little spitfire and--"

"And she's one of the handful of ladies around these parts not at all interested in Buck."

"Chris, I tell you, she's playing hard to get."

"Well, Buck, can you tell me how long she's going to be playing this game?"

"She loves me Chris. Anyone with eyes can see that. Hey kid, you ready to put some meat on those bones?" he threw his arm over John David's shoulder. "Say, what kind of name is John David?"

"What's wrong with it?"

"Don't get upset, kid. It's a fine name." Buck pushed the boy out the door. "Kind of long though don't you think?"

"My Momma called me John David." He scowled at Buck daring him to say one more thing about his name.

"It might of worked in a city like Boston. But kid, if you ain't noticed, you ain't in Boston. You see any pretty skyscrapers. Not around here you don't. Tomorrow I call you and yell 'Hey John David, shut the gate before the cows get out!' and by the time I've said your name half those boys are packed and are on their way to California."

"You want to call me John, that's fine."

Buck scrunched up his face thinking about it, "No, kid, I can name about half a dozen John's right off the top of my head and there ain't no call to go and make you one of that herd. Chris help me out here."

"JD." Chris obliged without hesitation or humor. If Buck was going to saddle the kid with a nickname, it had best be one that the kid could grow old with because it would stick.

"Chris...I better go and --" Nathan looked worriedly down the hall.

"Vin went to get him. If he needs you, he'll get you."

Nathan looked about surprised; he had not seen the man slip away from the group nor had he seen any sign that Chris had noticed and he had been keeping an eye on Chris. "But--"

"Nathan, let's say our goodbyes and get out of here so Orrin and Molly can have their office back."

+ + + + + + +

"Ya all right in here!"

Ezra didn't startle, but it was more a matter of not doing so because his side couldn't take it rather than being aware that Vin Tanner had entered the room. "Ah'm sorry, Ah must be holding up things."

"Nervous stomach?"

"Ah must have caught a virus." Had the man heard him throwing up? Well, at least he hadn't cried out as his ribs protested the heaving of his stomach.

"Yep." His expression said he didn't believe the man, not for one minute. "If yer finished making the acquaintance of the toilet, let's get going before Nathan gets it into his head to join us."

"It would be rather cramped in here," Ezra let Vin hold the door open for him.

"I've got five bucks on you."

"You bet on me? What sort of bet?" his eyes narrowed with suspicion.

"Making it to this restaurant of theirs."

"There is a wager on whether Ah can walk three blocks?"

"Nathan doesn't think ya can do it. And him being a Doc, he thinks he knows."

"Ah told the man Ah was fine," Ezra said irritated.

"Yep, that's what I said. Josiah, Buck and the kid say you'll get about halfway there. Chris and me think you'll make it. You ain't gonna make me lose my money, are you?"

"Ah get half of the winnings."

"Nope. You didn't make a bet."

"Ah didn't realize that you all were the sort to make wagers of this type."

"A lot about us ya ain't realized."


"Haven't what?"


"You've completely lost me."

"Don't use ain't. It sounds uncultured."

"I ain't cultured. "

"Perhaps not, but you are too intelligent to use such words."


"Break it."

"Make me."

"You'll have to do this on your own. Ah will not be staying."

"Even if we want ya to?"

"You don't know me."

"I know yer proud, stubborn and courageous."

"This is the first conversation we have ever had and you have learned this, how?"

"Yer too proud to read your letter; I picked it up out of the trash." Vin handed the letter, now torn in half, back to Ezra who sighed his displeasure at the letter's return, but put both halves in his suit's inner breast pocket. Vin continued when Ezra began walking again. They were moving slowly, but he noticed so were the others walking in front of them. "Yer too stubborn to lose the bet and yer courageous enough to try this for a year."

"Mr. Tanner, you are hard of hearing. Ah have definitely said that after this lunch Ah would be leaving."

"Best start calling me Vin."

For a moment there was quiet between them as Ezra battled the pain that the jolt of stepping off the curb caused him. Walking across the alley with their destination in sight, Ezra wondered how he was going to manage the step up, but a sudden hand under his elbow helped him maneuver the step. As suddenly as it appeared the hand withdrew and Ezra was allowed to walk up to the others under his own power.

+ + + + + + +

John David rolled his new nickname over his tongue again and again. Never in his life had anyone ever called him by anything but John David, except for college professors that called him Mr. Dunne and his boss who persisted in calling him John. It was nice having a nickname he decided as he sat between Buck and Josiah the two men dwarfing him. He glanced around the table his eyes settling on Chris.

He wondered how the man did it--make the room his home, make it appear that even though they sat at a large round table that he was at the head of that table. The man dressed in black from head to toe; black long sleeved shirt, sleeves neatly rolled up to his elbow, only slightly faded black jeans, and slightly scuffed black boots, a leather coat, duster Buck had called it, hung on the coat rack beside his own heavy brown wool winter coat that had been new when he started college.

He looked around at the others suddenly feeling horridly over dressed. He had worn his best suit, and a white dress shirt and tie. Other than Ezra in his grey suit with the soft green shirt, neither of which had been bought at Sears JD suspected, he was the only one wearing a suit. Although Nathan wore a sweater and dress slacks and Josiah wore a blazer and khakis, they were not nearly as formally dressed as he and he knew without a doubt that none of them had agonized over what to wear.

Clothes! What did he need to wear at the ranch? Jeans, he supposed, and boots and some sort of jacket and... and his bank account was low after buying plane fare. And he'd have to have money to go back to Boston and pack up his apartment and he'd have to quit and that would be fun going into his little box of an office, cubicle really, and typing up an 'I Quit' letter after clearing out his desk and deleting his mail. He'd say his goodbyes to a couple of the men working next to him and to Susan at the front desk; he'd never gotten the nerve to ask her out, but that was okay cause he figured that she'd be married and have five children before he'd find the courage to ask her out.

He was starting over. And he couldn't believe it. He had a new job working on a ranch and the thought didn't scare him. When his mother died three days after he graduated, he had taken the first job he was offered and he had been scared to death. Everyday, walking into that building he had been scared. At first he was scared that he couldn't do the work and that he'd get fired and then when he realized that he could do it and that he was bored most of the day, he grew scared that he'd grow old and die in that job without ever really living.

It wasn't just the new job, he had a new name and it didn't sound snobbish like John David. Bless mom, she hadn't realized what a burden she had given him saddling him with those names. Buck was right they were too long when said together like that. JD was the name of a man that could get things done. Dunne. He almost giggled. He glanced around to make sure he hadn't, but they were all too busy eating to notice. They weren't even talking to each other, just eating. He wondered if all the meals with his family were going to be like this.

He had a FAMILY. He'd always known he had brothers, Mom had told him about them, but they were unreal sort of like storybook characters. He knew their names: Chris, Buck and Nathan. He knew about Ezra and how his mom wouldn't let Linc see him and about how Vin's mother was a private eye looking for Ezra. His mother, Jenna, made sure that he understood that Lincoln Larabee had wanted him and did love him, but had stayed away for her sake. He hadn't understood why she had refused to marry his father, especially when she said that Lincoln Larabee was a good man. He hadn't understood when she refused to take any money from his father; there had been many times when they could have really used it. Once, when she was really tired and he'd found her crying because her back hurt so badly, he asked why they couldn't accept his father's offer of help. She had shaken her head and said that she'd explain later. She never had.

He tried to calm down and eat like they were, but it was all too much. When his Mom died, he had figured he'd be alone forever. He didn't have many friends and had only dated a few times because it seemed that spending money on himself just to have a few hours fun was wrong when there was so much they needed. He had spent his time divided between his school, his after school jobs and in the evening talking about his day with his Mom before hitting the books - he needed to get a scholarship she kept telling him. Then he had graduated and he had a job and his mother was dead and he had no clue as to how to go about making friends, getting a girl. Now, though, he had brothers and they were going to be a family and the loneliness that had been weighing down his heart was leaving him. They would think he was crazy if he burst into song, but that is what he felt like doing.

+ + + + + + +

Vin thanked the waitress as she cleared away his plate. She and another girl made quick work of taking away their plates and empty beer mugs and putting coffee cups and a couple big heavy pots of coffee in front of them. The girls had flirted with all of them as they worked, even with the kid, to JD's obvious amazement, but as soon as they had cleared the table they disappeared.

Pouring some coffee for himself and then some for Ezra, the man, sitting stiffly in his chair, had touched little of his lunch, mostly toying with the food rather than eating any of it, Vin passed the pot to Chris. Couldn't say he blamed Ezra much. While the platter of ribs Inez had brought over to them was tender, spicy and messy, he couldn't see Ezra digging into those ribs and risk getting sauce on his fancy clothes and if he did have an upset stomach he definitely did not need to be eating the ribs.

"Ya think our Pa was murdered," Vin asked without preamble.

Nathan didn't bother to look up. "I took a look at the monitor strips, the one from when he was in the ambulance, the one from in the ER and the one that he was hooked up to until late that afternoon. They were right it wasn't serious. His heart looked strong on the strips. He should not have had a massive heart attack. I talked to a colleague in Birmingham and faxed him the strips. He agreed. There were no signs, no real signs that he was about to have a massive heart attack. He was a healthy man."

"Why did they take the...what is it called... heart monitor off him? I mean it seems to me that if they are thinking a man might have a heart attack that they'd keep watching him," JD asked.

"This is a small hospital and there was a bad wreck that evening. They needed it in the ER and Dad was doing fine so they took the one he was using."

"Aren't there drugs that can cause a heart attack?" Josiah's voice rumbled across the table.

"Yes. And before you ask they found no trace of them when they did the autopsy."

"Would they necessarily show up?" Josiah persisted.

"Most would," Nathan sighed. They had gone all through this with the police and then with the FBI agents that had come by at Orrin's request.

"Did you find out anything about his investigator, the man that killed himself?" Vin asked.

"No sign of foul play. No suicide note, but the cops say that isn't as uncommon as you think. He had done several things that suicides frequently do. His bills were paid and were waiting in the mailbox. His keys were lying on the kitchen table, labeled; so that there is no question of which key opened what. The house was cleaned top to bottom. He had a suit, his sister says it was his best suit saved for special occasions only, and a white shirt both still hanging in the dry cleaner's bag on the doorknob. Shoes were on the floor by the bed and his belt, socks, and tie lying on the bed. The investigators say they think he was laying out what he wanted to wear for his funeral."

"How did he die?" Again Vin asked, his brow wrinkled in thought.

"Cut his wrists in the bathtub."

"Where was his underwear?"

"I don't know," said Chris before Nathan could answer, surprised at the question.

"Might be interesting to find out."

"Might be at that," Chris said. He looked at his brother with respect. That had been a damn fine question. He had missed that, hell the police and FBI had missed that and they were trained professionals; how did he know to ask it.

"I don't understand," JD said.

"Well, kid. The way I see it ya could look at this two ways," Vin answered after getting a nod from Chris. "First way, this is a suicide. Classic signs of a suicide and no sign of foul play. Second way, Mr. Holland has found some information for a very important client. He gets out his best suit hangs it up on the door along with a good shirt. Puts his socks and shoes where he can reach them easy, same with his tie and belt. He wants to look respectable for this meeting, might get more business swung his way if he comes across competent and professional. He strips and gets in the tub. He's soaking when someone comes in and kills him."

"No-o-o. I don't by that. No one is going to sit there and just let someone slash his wrists. He would have fought," John David protested.

"He was unconscious when he was cut."

"Still no. Someone comes up and knocks him unconscious, the autopsy will find it out."

Ezra shook his head, amused at the innocence of youth, "You make an assumption of competency on the part of the Medical Examiner. Dr Jackson, do you have any knowledge of the ME's skills in this case?" He told himself that he really didn't care how Linc Larabee died or whether his detective committed suicide. He was merely interested in getting the facts straight. Nothing could be figured out if the facts were not all in.

"Hold on Nathan. Before you answer let me finish this scenario. Holland is murdered and the killer begins looking for his notes, or his evidence, what ever. He does a thorough search, cleaning as he goes. This accomplishes two things he finds what he's looking for and the house gets cleaned getting rid of the evidence that he's been there and helping him set it up to look like a suicide."

"The underwear?" Chris asked, a slight smile on his lips; he liked the way this man thought.

"If it was in the bathroom, he was planning on living. If there wasn't any, then it was removed from the scene or he never got it out of the drawer. Both ways say he was murdered," He blushed slightly seeing all eyes on himself. He brushed the hair out of his eyes and continued. "No man that lays out everything for his funeral, a man that has made it easy for who ever has to come in and clean up after him, a man that has labeled all his keys for his family and paid the bills; no man that did those things would forget to put out nice clean briefs."

"Might Ah inquire if any notes on the case he was handling for Mr. Larabee were recovered?" He didn't care about the way they were looking at him; he was not ready and doubted if he ever would be ready to call that man father. Linc Larabee was just so damned predictable. Sure, he had handled the doling out of money in a unique manner and he must be given points for that, but he had ruined it all by tacking that saccharine spiel onto the letter. Now, he knew the price of getting into heaven - one million dollars per child. How the hell did that erase the debt of never being there? Someone explain that.

"No. No notes were recovered in Holland's office or in his house regarding the investigation he was doing for Dad," Chris decided not to call the man on his obvious decision to not acknowledge Linc Larabee as his father. It irritated him, but he could understand it. Respect was earned and just because he loved and respected his father, he was not blind; there was not a lot of evidence that he had done anything to earn his other sons allegiance and love.

"And ah suppose, you nor your brothuhs have uncovered any notes... your fathuh may have made regarding the investigation of his dead ...loves."

"We've been looking Ezra, but we haven't found them," Buck answered when he saw Chris clinch his jaw. Diplomacy was not Chris's strongest point and his brother had already decided that they were going to follow Dad's wishes. In his mind, Chris already had the others unpacked and working cattle. If any of them chose not to follow Dad's idea then Chris would hit the ceiling; Chris was pretty torn up about the way he had treated Dad and a body could tell by the way Chris was sitting, that like it or not he was going to make sure that each and every one of them followed Dad's wishes to the letter. Oh, he'd be fair and tell everyone the danger they were in, but then he'd hog tie them and keep them that way for the entire year if he needed to, just to make up for the way he had blamed Dad for his wife and son's deaths. Buck wondered if Chris was ever going to stop blaming him for making them stay that one extra night in Mexico? He wondered if he'd ever stop blaming himself for making them stay so that he could pursue that lovely senorita?

"So you think they were stolen, too?" Josiah asked pulling Buck back into the present.

Buck looked at Nathan and then they both looked at Chris. Their eyes met and held each other's; finally Chris broke the gaze and answered. "Anything that caught Dad's interest he kept a file on," humor evident in his voice, it softened his face some making him look more approachable.

"Lot's of things caught his interest," Buck interrupted shaking his head enjoying the first bit of mirth he had felt since Orrin had called saying to met him at the hospital. "Files and files and files and only Dad knew how he filed things."

"And he tucked things away, all over the house, in nooks and crannies and in books," Nathan added thinking of all the books in the library. The ranch house, although large, especially since the remodeling, was not truly that exceptional until you walked into the library. There was no organization to the library; it was divided into the books already read and the books unread and although Dad could always walk right to any given book, the library was chaos for everyone else. It would take forever and a day to find that file if he had stuck it in some book.

They all reached for their coffee at the same time though only JD noticed. The cups were drained and put back in their saucers when Chris nodded slightly as though he had just made up his mind about something. "Buck, go sweet talk Inez into giving you some paper and pens. I'm sure she has something laying about."

"And some real mugs these cups are too dainty. Feel like I'm going to crush this one every time I take a sip," Josiah added his big hand wrapped around the cup all but hid it from view.

"Inez got out her best cause she knew I was coming," Buck smirked as he left the room.

"Sounds a bit smitten."

"Wants to put another notch in his bedpost," Chris answered Josiah's observation.

"Now, I don't know about that Chris. A good chunk of every letter he's written me for the last couple of years is about her. Waxes poetic about her beauty and her virtues. He might really care for her," Nathan objected.

"Pardon me, if one of you gentlemen could direct me to the facilities."

"Ezra, why don't you let--"

Ezra abruptly cut off Nathan, "Ah must admit my stomach is bothering me a bit, but Ah'm sure that it is nothing for you to worry ovuh." He stood, and turned away, determined to leave the room while he could still manage a dignified exit. Every breath he was taking was sending blinding tendril of pain across his chest making him nauseous again. A hand clamped down on his shoulder. "Ah must insist you release me," he licked his lips, tasting the bile rising in his throat.

Nathan let his hand fall to his side. He didn't like how pale the man had gone nor the slight tremors he could feel under his hand. Still, he couldn't force his brother to accept help. Yes he could; he was a doctor.

"Ezra, stop," he grabbed him by the upper arm, jerking the man back, stopping him. He expected another demand for release or given the greenish tinge to the man's face he wouldn't have been surprised for him to throw up all over the place. Nathan didn't expect the cry of pain or the sudden leeching of color from his face or the way the green eyes rolled back as he collapsed.

"Nathan?" Chris asked.

"Chris, go call 911. Josiah, help me with his clothes. Vin, I need a couple chair cushions." With fingers experienced from numerous rotations through the Emergency Room he checked his brother's airway and pulse before he began loosening his tie and undoing shirt buttons. He peeled open the shirt, "Oh shit."

"Where ya want these?" Vin, holding two cushions, dropped beside Nathan. His face blanched at the bruising he saw.

"Under his feet." Long nimble fingers unfastened the belt, loosening the pants, "I want to see if your belly's soft or if you are bleeding inside," he told his brother as he gently palpitated the bruised abdomen.

"Stop." Ezra's eyes fluttered open and his hand reached to push Nathan's hand away.

"Shh. I'm stopping. No, don't try to get up. Chris has called for an ambulance. It will be here in a few minutes."

"Ah don't want to go to a hospital." He tried to push up onto his elbows. "Ah'm fine."

"No, you are not fine." Nathan's splayed his fingers across Ezra's chest preventing him from sitting up. "You try sitting up again you're probably going to pass out again."

"Ah just need to get to mah feet," he protested. He had driven from the hotel in Eli that morning without too much difficulty. He was fine. He just needed a day or two to recuperate.

"No. I want you to lie still and give me some history. Are you taking any medications?"

"If Ah tell you aruh you going to let me up?"

"No. Have you taken anything for the pain."

"You're the doctor, figure out things on your own," he retorted, pushing against the hand that restrained him.

"Ezra, I really need to know," asked Nathan concern coloring his voice; the heart beating under his fingertips was too fast.

"Let me up," Ezra said, scowling.

Chris came back in time to hear Ezra argue. He growled out Ezra's name, but at Nathan's shake of his head, did not advance. Nathan had the situation under control and did not need him. This was Nathan's realm of expertise and unless his brother indicated that he needed his help he would stay out of the way. Besides he had never really seen Nathan on the job. He was good and that was not just big brother saying that. The easy, confidant way Nathan took over; that was a man who knew his job.

Funny, how his brother, from as far back as he could remember, loved doctoring. The rest of them could doctor a horse or cow if they had to and when Buck had been thrown and broke his arm when they were kids he had handled things all right. But neither he nor Buck was like Nathan. It wasn't just that Nathan genuinely loved working on hurt folks it was he was curious about things. Medical school had given Nathan a chance to try and satisfy some of his curiosity. During vacations their father and Nathan would closet themselves in the library only to come out for meals, discussing the things that Nathan was doing and learning. The discussions had not stopped at the library door, but had been continued over the kitchen table. While Chris was not particularly squeamish some of Nathan's medical school tales about dissecting cadavers had been bordering on the gruesome and the worms stories should have remained in the library, but that was his dad and Nathan for you. Growing up, he had often wished that Nathan would get his head out of the books and help around the ranch. Now, watching Nathan work, he couldn't imagine the man doing anything else.

"There is supposed to be some give and take in negotiations, suh." Ezra panted as Nathan's hands ran up one side of his ribcage and down the other.

"We are not negotiating, Ezra. We are waiting for the ambulance." Nathan said, debating whether he should go ahead and cut the shirt and suit jacket off or wait until the paramedics arrived. He could tell that some ribs were broken, but he would be happier if he could get a better look at the rest of the injuries. He decided to wait, without a blanket the floor was too cool to start cutting his clothes off.

"Ah don't think you understand. As Ah have tried to explain..." Ezra struggled to catch a breath, the pain in his chest was making it difficult to breathe. He collapsed back to the floor; if he could take one deep breath he'd be all right and he could explain to them, convince them to let him up. He was Ezra P. Standish and P. was for Persuasive. He could talk anyone into anything; he just needed to catch his breath. Why was it so hard to breathe? One good breath, please, he needed to explain to someone why he couldn't go to the hospital. He looked around for someone that would listen as he explained. He couldn't see anyone other than Dr. Jackson and Mr. Sanchez and clearly they weren't listening to him.

The siren could be heard and he moved struggling to pull his shirt closed. "You must..." he tried, but he couldn't get the rest of the words out. He couldn't catch his breath. Was the man leaning on him?

"Ezra, calm down." Nathan let Ezra pull his shirt back up and sat back on his heels, his hand hovering over Ezra's shoulder prepared to stop the man if he should try and get up. His breathing was too fast and Nathan began to worry that Ezra would hyperventilate. He watched with relief as the medics came in with their equipment. Now, if Ezra started going bad, he had equipment with which to work.

Chris stood along the wall and fidgeted as the two medics broke through the barrier of spectators and dropped to the floor to talk to Nathan. Never good at standing on the sidelines, he fought the urge to take over the situation and get that stubborn bastard in a stretcher and loaded onto the ambulance. He kept telling himself that Nathan was more than capable of handling the situation.

He knew his faith in his brother was well placed when the southerner lashed out at one of the medics, kicking the man in the hand and knocking the blunt nose scissors out of his hand. Holding up his hands, signaling the medics to back off for a moment, Nathan leaned forward and whispered something in Ezra's ear. Whatever he said worked because with incredulous eyes set in a flushed face the southerner became still and allowed the medics to lift him and put him on the gurney.

While one of the medics strapped Ezra into stretcher and the other man nursed his wounded hand Nathan stood up and walked over to Chris. "I think I better ride with him, keep him in line," Nathan said with a self-satisfied grin.

"What did you say to him?" Chris had been impressed by Ezra's sudden willingness to cooperate.

Nathan's grin grew, "It's a professional secret." He looked over his shoulders watching as the two medics headed out towards their ambulance with Ezra. "I've got to go."

Chris shared a look with Buck as they followed Nathan and watched the ambulance depart. "Remind me not to ever get hurt. I don't believe Nathan is very nice at times."

"Pot talking about the kettle," Buck mumbled not quiet speaking under his breath.

Chris glanced over at him, but rather than comment on the that particular truth, he asked, "Did you settle the bill with Inez?"

"All taken care of," Buck answered handing Chris his duster.

Chris slipped the duster on and began heading to the car parked three blocks away. He didn't bother looking behind him. He knew that his brothers were behind him, matching his hurried steps with their own.


Chris looked up as a nurse padded down the hall. Her sweater obscured her name badge and for the life of him he couldn't remember her name although her face looked so damn familiar.

"Hey Missy. You got some news for us?"

Thank God for Buck, Chris thought as he watched his brother wrap the diminutive nurse in a hug. He could never figure out how Buck remembered everyone. He'd tease him about knowing all the girls in town, but the truth was once Buck met anyone he never forgot their name. Years ago, Chris figured out he wasn't like that and that he'd never be any good with names. Nowadays, he settled for pretending he knew who he was talking to if he liked them or glaring until they reintroduced themselves if he didn't.

"Hey Buck, Chris," she gave Buck a peck on the cheek and then held his hand as she looked around at the others, "One of you boys needs to go settle Nate down. He's got his tail feathers in a ruffle because they are making him stand in a corner and observe."

"They're not letting him help?" Chris frowned.

"It's not a big deal, but he doesn't have privileges here. He does something then the hospital can get into big trouble. It's a formality but he can't touch a patient until he goes before the hospital board."


"Already on it," Buck dropped Missy's hand and the rest watched as his long legs ate up the distance and he disappeared behind the door to the ER's exam rooms.

"What can you tell us Missy?" Chris asked.

"Nathan said to tell you that Ezra is stable and that they will probably be moving him to a room depending on what Dr. Curtis says about his kidney." Dr. Curtis liked to be the one to talk to family; in fact he had chewed her out really bad after she told the parents of a little boy about his lacerated kidney. She didn't want to get chewed out again, but she had dated Buck and even though things hadn't worked out between them she really liked him and his brothers. Besides, they had just lost their father and didn't need to be doing any more worrying.

"He has extensive bruising along his side and hip and there is blood in his urine. It's not a lot of blood but it is worrisome. They did an ultra sound in the ER and although the kidney is bruised and swollen the ER team says they think its OK. But, Dr. Curtis is an urologist and they want him to examine Mr. Standish," she hoped that Chris or someone would explain who this Ezra Standish was, he looked familiar for some reason, but she couldn't put her finger on why?

"If he thinks it's not alright?"

"Then, Dr. Curtis will come out and talk to you," she liked the Larabee brothers and that's why she had come out and told Chris what she knew, but she was not going to get chewed out by Curtis again.

"Missy," Chris needed more information, but he felt Vin's hand on his arm and he let it pull him away. Vin was right she was doing them a favor, there was no need to try to intimidate her into giving what if answers.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan dropped the bag in a chair and draped his sweater across the back of the chair before snagging the coke out of Chris's hand. He drained it, crushed it, and tossed it over their heads into the waste can next to the TV.

"They're getting a room ready for him. He's not happy about being here, but he's medicated now and so he's not giving any one too much grief."

"Was it safe to leave him?" Vin asked, not sure of whether he was more worried that someone would harm Ezra or that Ezra would harm someone.

"Buck's with him," he swiped a hand across his face trying to wipe away the smile, attempting to look the cool professional. He gave up and explained, "Buck tried talking to Ezra but the meds hit him pretty hard and he can't keep his eyes open so Buck has a captive audience. The poor man is having to listen to Buck's Top Ten."

"Top ten what?" JD asked in all innocence.

"Buck likes women and he likes to tell about his," Nathan searched for a less crude word than the one that popped into his head and settled for, "adventures with the ladies in detail."

"Isn't that rather tacky?" Josiah asked with a hint of a smile.

"Buck changes the names and some of the details, but yeah it is tacky," Nathan answered.

"So what happened to Ezra?" Chris didn't know the man and wasn't prepared to emotionally acknowledge him as a brother, but Ezra was his father's son and that meant he was a Larabee and had suddenly became his responsibility.

"I asked him that in the ambulance and he said he had a collision. After we got the shirt off, which by the way he informed me when we tried to cut it off cost $180.00, I saw--"

"Damn," Vin interrupted in shock. That shirt cost more than what he was wearing including his boots and jacket. "I guess he doesn't shop at Wal-Mart," he quipped.

"I thought I was over-spending when I spent eighty-five on shirt a couple months ago," Nathan agreed. He ignored the incredulous look Chris was giving him. The shirt had been a necessary expense; he had been invited to a fundraiser and had been determined to dress as well as his counterparts.

"Pretty steep... what does he do for a living?" Josiah asked.

"Besides getting beat up?"

"I thought you said he was in a wreck," Chris spoke sharply. This new information sent alarm bells ringing all through him.

"He said he was in a collision. On further questioning and pointing out a few inconsistencies with his story that became obvious when we got his shirt off, he admitted that he had a collision with some fists," Nathan continued. He stole a glance at his watch. "Give them a few more minutes to get him settled and then you can go in and ask him the who, what and why. He graciously informed me that when a person says 'it's a long story' that they are trying to be well mannered enough not to say 'mind your own damned business'."

"Wears fancy clothes, gets beat up and won't talk about it. Does he deal drugs?" Chris asked. Brother or no brother he was not staying at the ranch if he was involved with drugs.

"Don't know if he deals them, but he doesn't use them. His blood work up didn't show any trace of drugs and he got really upset when Dr. Abernathy gave him morphine," Nathan cringed at the memory of the stricken look on the man's face. He had looked as though he felt betrayed when the needle slid into his hip. Didn't he understand that they were trying to help him? "He says that he can't think if he has pain medication on board."

"So how is he?" JD asked. He didn't think that Ezra sold drugs and wasn't interested in discussing that possibility; after all Ezra was his brother and surely someone that was related to him wouldn't be mixed up in anything criminal.

"He was beaten pretty badly. By the coloring of his bruises, I'd guess it happened late last night. On his left side he has two broken ribs, maybe one or two more that are cracked. He has bruises, handprints really, on both upper arms and on his forearms." Nathan flexed his right hand, holding it out for his brothers to see. "I wrapped my hand around Ezra's bicep, covering the bruises, if I had to guess, both men holding him were at least my size or rather they had hands that were as large as mine."

"Two men to hold him and one to hit, doesn't sound like a fair fight." Josiah observed.

"No it wasn't," Nathan agreed. "Ezra took several blows to the abdomen, but while he's black and blue ultrasound doesn't show damage to his spleen or liver and his belly is still soft. His back is another matter. He was kicked several times, once in the back, then along his left buttocks, thigh and hip," Nathan spoke calmly, but his hands clenched in impotent rage at the men who did the beating. He had seen so many acts of violence over the last few years that he should be immune to it, but he hadn't been able to achieve that level of detachment yet. He continued, "He was kicked five times. You can tell by the shoeprints. X-rays didn't show any breaks in his hip or leg, but sometimes breaks don't show up on X-ray for a few days. He needs to be reexamined in three days or so if he starts having difficulty walking. The biggest worry right now is his left kidney. The bruising on the kidney shows up on ultrasound and he's pissing blood. Dr. Curtis came over and took a look. He wants to keep him overnight and reevaluate him in the morning. Kidney's heal pretty good as long as the damage isn't too extensive and no one wants to open him unless he starts looking worse."

"Do you think we could go see him now?" Josiah asked.

"Yeah, but first, we have one more problem," Nathan opened up the plastic bag and after rustling through the clothes came up with Ezra's black wallet which he tossed at Chris.

Chris caught it one handed and flipped it open to reveal the South Carolina driver's license. "I'll bite, Nathan. What am I supposed to be seeing?"

"It's empty. No money, although I did find seventy-five dollars tucked up in his shoes. No money, no credit cards, no pictures and definitely no medical insurance card.


"The money, probably, but you won't get him to say. He did explain in detail, that since he doesn't believe in using hospitals, he doesn't waste his money on medical insurance. Furthermore, since we brought him to the hospital despite his protests, when it is obvious to even the village idiot that all he has is a few bruises and since we are now holding him in said hospital against his will, then we can pay the bill," Nathan shook his head and chuckled. "The ladies in admitting are standing on their heads and having cows all at the same time because he doesn't have insurance."

"Thought you said that he said morphine kept him from thinking."

"Thinking maybe, talking no," Nathan smiled, "you could almost hear the morphine kicking in. It's a good thing I've spent the last few years in Alabama or I wouldn't have a clue as to what he's been saying."

Chris listened with one ear as he examined the wallet. All he could determine from the look of the wallet was that even if it had money, it would fold nice and flat; probably, judging by the way he was dressed Ezra was worried at the thought of a thick wallet wrinkling his suit. Black, expensive, empty wallet. He pulled a folded green card out of the wallet, "What's this?"

"I didn't look," Nathan answered and then nodded his agreement as Chris slid the card back into the wallet without opening it. When he had looked in the wallet he, too had left the card untouched; somehow it had seemed old and almost sacred. He didn't know the man well enough to examine something personal and if the torn in half letter he had found in the coat earlier was any indication, he was unlikely to ever get to know the man that well.

"All right, I'll go talk to admitting and have the bill sent to the ranch. You boys go over and get with Buck and make a shopping list. He said something about the cupboard being bare. Nathan, make a list of what Ezra will need when we take him home tomorrow; we can get it when we do our shopping."

"Chris, he doesn't want to come home with us."

"He's busted up. He needs a place to stay."

"Yes, he needs a place to stay, but I don't think he wants to stay at the ranch. Maybe we should call someone for him, his mother or maybe a girlfriend."

"Nathan, I said that he's coming home with us. Besides didn't he say something about his mother being dead?"

"In the ambulance he mumbled something about needing to talk to her. We should see if the Judge knows anything about how to reach her."

"He can call her from the ranch if he wants to."

"Christopher," Nathan began in his most patient I- am-talking-to-an-imbecile voice. "If you take someone a place they do not want to be, it is considered kidnapping."

Chris dropped his hand on his too tall brother's shoulder and looked him square in the eye as best he could considering he lacked the 4 inches he needed to really look him square in the eye, "When he leaves the hospital, he's coming home with us."


"At least until his ribs are healed."

"Chris, he doesn't want to come. Haven't you heard anything he has said today?"

"I heard what he said, I just have been listening to what he hasn't said. He wants to do this. It just won't be easy getting him to admit he does."

"He's a royal pain," Nathan muttered to Chris's back, disgusted with Chris and the situation. Didn't he realize, hadn't Dad realized that you couldn't snap your fingers and make everyone one big happy family?

"I'm a bigger pain than he is," Chris retorted.

"I was talking about you."

Nathan chuckled when, halfway down the hall, Chris raised his arm saluting Nathan and Nathan's opinion with his extended finger.

+ + + + + + +

Vin had to walk quickly to keep up with Nathan as he turned down corridors that led into other corridors. Vin Tanner, he chided himself, it's not that big of a hospital and if you lose Nathan I'm sure you could find your way to Ezra Standish's room just fine. It wasn't that he was worried about getting lost, he was worried about getting lost and opening a door and seeing something he really didn't want to see.

And why, while he was thinking about it, was Nathan moving at about 100 miles per hour? Weren't you supposed to walk through hospitals? Not that Nathan was running, part of the problem was the man' impossibly long legs, but he was moving as though... as though someone's life depended on it. Vin decided that he'd watch Nathan outside the hospital some and see if he moved like that all the time.

Vin whispered out of the side of his mouth to his younger brother as they hurried along, "Think we should suggest that it might be a good idea to install some traffic lights around here?"

"I think Nathan would just ignore them."

"Yep he looks like a man on a mission." Vin watched as Nathan and Josiah turned the corner. The fact that Josiah was talking with Nathan had not slowed either man down. "I ain't running in a hospital," Vin said to JD as it became apparent they were losing ground on their brothers.

The two, by mutual agreement, slowed down. It wasn't as though Ezra was going anywhere, anytime soon. Besides they had to slow down as the corridor suddenly turned into a nurses' desk complete with nurses, doctors, patients and whole bunch of other people milling about and the people didn't get out of their way as they had for Josiah and Nathan.

They kept their brothers in sight, but gave up any hope of catching up to them when a door opened and three women in scrub suits wheeled a gurney out of the room. The woman on the gurney, pain contorting her sweat streaked features reached for them as she was wheeled by. Vin and JD backed up against the wall as the nurses aimed the gurney down the hall, running alongside it at break neck speed, the woman's screams echoing behind them.

"Nathan's led us through the maternity ward," Vin's explanation was unnecessary and given merely as a way to break the tension that remained in the wake of the woman's cries. Times like this he was very happy to be born male.

JD gave his brother a look that said I'm not that stupid, but didn't make that comment aloud. "Do you think that she'll be alright? They all looked really worried."

"I don't know, JD," Vin suddenly smiled, but it wasn't a pleasant smile; it was a lopsided grin full of mischief. "There are windows in those doors, ya can go check," he challenged.

JD rolled his eyes, "Yeah right." He started walking in the general direction that Nathan and Josiah had taken.

"Wonder why they put those little windows in the doors, anyhow?" Vin asked JD's back. "Don't seem privacy is too important around here." He followed JD around the corner. Josiah and Nathan were waiting for them by a coke machine, drinks in hand.

"Thought we'd lost you," Josiah teased.

"Nah, we just had to stop and give some expert advice to some woman fixin' to have a baby," Vin retorted.

"Come on," Nathan said. "We are almost there. I want to make sure Ezra got settled without any problems and see how he's reacting to the morphine."

They turned one more corner and there was Buck leaning against the doorway chatting with a grey-haired nurse with a beautiful smile. Vin almost stopped in mid-step, did Buck know everyone? He certainly was on friendly terms with every woman they had met so far today. This one, though, was old enough to be his mother.

"Miss Angie, how are you?" Nathan enveloped the short buxom woman in a brief hug.

"Never better," she beamed up at Nathan. "Buck tells me that our Mr. Standish is one of your long lost brothers."

"Sure is. Hope he doesn't give you too much trouble."

"Don't worry about it, lot's of people don't want to be here. Are you going to introduce me?"

"Yes Ma'am. This here is JD Dunne, that one is Vin Tanner and this is Josiah Sanchez."

If the woman saw anything unusual about meeting all these grown up brothers with different last names she didn't show it. Instead she shook each man's hand, smiling up warmly at each man as she welcomed him to Eagle Bend.

"Where's Chris?" she asked, worry evident in her voice.

"He's trying to take care of the paperwork."

She wanted to ask how he was holding up, if he was still drinking, but she didn't; you didn't ask the Larabee boys things like that. They would just look you in the eye and smile and tell you everything was just fine. "I hope he doesn't get the ladies all in a tizzy pouring on the Larabee charm."

"Well Miss Angie maybe I should have gone down there, if they were needing charming." Miss Angie, the only person Chris has ever poured on the Larabee charm for is dead. His good mood at seeing the woman evaporated. As frustrated as he was by Chris's behavior he understood the depth of Chris's loss; he wished other people could.

"Bucklyn, you go down there and the ladies would never let you go," she reached up and patted his cheek. "You are just too cute for your own good."

Nathan cleared his throat a little embarrassed about his brother's reputation and turned to his new-found brothers, "Mrs. Angie Delaney, better known as Miss Angie worked with my Mother when my Mom worked here and then she went and joined Dr. Murdoch's staff. He was our pediatrician. She always made going to the doctors a little less scary."

"Tell the truth Nathan. You were never scared at the doctor's office. We all knew right then you were headed for medical school. Took after his mama," she patted his arm. "She was the loveliest woman, a good nurse and a really sweet soul. She would be so proud of you Nathan."

"I remember I liked to go because Miss Angie always gave us huge lollipops," Buck added with a huge grin. Going to the pediatrician and to the dentist had been secret trips that his dad insisted that they make. His mom had nothing against going to the doctor when a body was sick, but when it was healthy she always figured it was a waste of money. As far as he knew, she never realized that he was vaccinated against all the childhood diseases.

He tilted his head to the side and smiled, pretending he was listening to Miss Angie go on about Clara Jackson. Sometimes he wished people remembered his momma the way they did Colleen and Clara. Folks loved to talk about the beautiful, laughing Colleen and the sweet, caring Clara, but they never said much about his mother, not to him anyway. They never talked about how beautiful she was... and she was. They never talked how good she was... and she was. They certainly never thought she was a good mother and she was the best.

He knew how she came across to others, that his momma was horribly neglectful. They lived over her bar, she didn't take him to the doctor and she let him skip school more than he should. On the other hand, she always had time for him. Not just a pat on the back or a quick hug, but real time. They had real conversations and when they talked she listened with all of her attention and her heart and her soul. She burned almost every batch of cookies she baked, but she always let him help mix and let him lick the spoon. The house was a mess most of the time, but that was because she opened her doors to runaways who needed a place to stay. She shopped at second hand stores, but that was because she was always buying groceries for folks having a hard time of things.

He'd tell her how he loved talking to her because she listened so well. She'd joke and say a good bar tender needs to know how to listen. But she was more than a good bar tender. She was the kindest, bravest person he knew and she took real good care of him and not just him. Anyone that needed a champion and she was there. Like when DeeDee's pimp beat her black and blue his Momma had paid for her doctor's bill and then told Eddie that if he ever thought about hitting one of his girls again that she'd shoot his balls off-he'd been listening from the stairs and if his momma had known that he was up there she wouldn't have used that language. Or the time little Callie Davis found out she was pregnant and she went with her and held her hand when she told her folks. Or when Donnie Walters came in and said that he wanted to get clean and she had found a clinic and bullied the doctors into moving Donnie to the head of their waiting list.

Buck slipped back into the room to check on his brother, Ezra appeared to be sleeping so he pulled up the blanket and tucked it in covering the bruised flesh. You look as though you could use a friend, he thought. My mother, she always worried about folks. I bet she would have worried about you like she did Chris and Nathan. They never knew it, but she worried that they didn't have a mother and when she worried about my brothers I would realize how lucky I was.

Buck stepped back out into the hall, Nathan was reading Ezra's chart as Angie amiably chatted with his brothers. She turned to him and reaching up, patted him on the cheek, "You take care of these brothers of yours, Buck."

"I'll do my best," He wanted to pat the top of her head in retaliation, but restrained himself.

"I know. Listen, I have to get back to the desk and check on things. If you need anything just buzz me," she graced each man with her smile and walked down the hall, disappearing when she turned the corner.

"Nathan, is it just me or does this hospital have a lot of corners?" Vin asked as he watched the nurse disappear.

"Seems that way," Nathan answered. "History has it that there was a decision back in the 1920's to put a hospital in the area. Both Four Corners and Eagle Bend sent delegates to the legislature. See the state had grant money set aside for building the hospital and the two towns knew that having the hospital in their town meant their town would become important. The delegates from Four Corners took sick and the delegates from Eagle Bend took the grant money. Rumors flew that the Four Corners contingency had been poisoned. Nothing was ever proved. Anyway the hospital was built and built and built. Every few years another wing is tacked on or something is expanded. Thing is that there is no logic to it all. A person could get turned around in here real fast. I've done it more than once and I've been hanging out here pestering doctors for years. As soon as I got my license I started hanging out here after school," he smiled at the memory of the tall gangly boy who looked more like he belonged on the basketball court than in a hospital ward. Dr. Griggs had been the one to answer his questions, show him around the place and introduce him to other doctors. Not all of them had been interested in answering his questions, some had been too busy to worry with a kid, a few had made openly racist remarks that wounded his soul, but which he had never mentioned to his Dad or brothers. A few, though, had taken time with him, encouraging his questions and giving him things to read. Later those men had written recommendations for him, helping him to get in medical school.

"Is he sleeping?" Josiah asked Buck. Buck had continued during their conversation to block the doorway, sticking his head in every little bit to check on Ezra.

"He's acting like a two year old fighting sleep; he can't keep his eyes open and he can't keep them shut."

"When have you ever been around a two-year-old?" Nathan teased as he thrust the bag of clothes at Josiah and started to push pass Buck. He saw the flash of pain in his brother's eyes and answered his own question. Adam. Squeezing Buck's shoulder in mute apology he paused searching Buck's eyes for the forgiveness that he knew would be there. Sometimes, he said things without thinking. Buck nodded his head ever so slightly and moved out of the doorway letting Nathan go in.

"Is he worried about those men coming back and beating him again?" JD asked eyes large and round.

"No. I asked him about it and he said something about how it was done and over with. He'd been taught his lesson." Buck answered. He had tried talking with Ezra a few times in his more lucid moments, but the morphine had a strangle hold on Ezra and their conversations were short with Ezra offering little information about himself or how he had come to be in this state.

"Lesson in what?" Josiah grumbled. Last he'd looked hitting someone rarely taught them anything.

"Hey, that's all I got from him other than 'where's mah clothes,' " Buck glanced down at the bag that Josiah was holding. "You take those in there and he'll be gone. The only reason he's still in that bed is that he can't figure how to get back to his car without being arrested for indecent exposure."

"He'll stay. He needs the rest and Chris is taking care of the hospital bill so he has no reason to leave." Nathan said as he reappeared at the door. He grabbed the clothes from Josiah and carried them into the room.

"He doesn't leave much room for argument, does he?" Josiah asked no one in particular.


JD knew that he'd made some sort of mistake in offering to help with the shopping when Buck smiled at him, the grin reaching all over his face. Then Chris confirmed his fears by asking in a soft, almost gentle voice, "You sure?" He could have backed down, but he just couldn't figure out why he should stay in that car.

"Yeah, of course." He climbed out behind Josiah and went to stand on the curb looking around for Buck.

"He's over there," Nathan said, reading JD's mind and pointing to their brother who only seconds before had been at their side and was currently helping an elderly woman push a grocery laden cart out to her car.

JD frowned as his eyes followed Nathan's pointing fingered. "How did he..."

"I think he has some sort of radar for ladies in distress." Nathan answered as they all watched Buck unload the frail looking woman's groceries.

Chris watched Buck load the woman's groceries with a slight smirk on his face. When he heard the passenger door slam shut he didn't wait until Josiah had his seat belt buckled before he started the engine. He rolled down the window of the bronze Buick le Sabre and told JD and Nathan, "Don't take all day." He didn't fail to notice the puzzled frown JD still had on his face. Good. Buck would make the kid forget the events of the day.

"Nice car." Josiah eased the seat back to accommodate his legs a little better. On the way to the hospital, he had ridden in the back alongside Vin and JD while Chris had taken them on one of the most hair-raising rides he'd ever been fortunate enough to survive. Coming out of the hospital he had quietly slipped into the back with JD while Nathan, Buck and Chris had argued about who got to sit in the more spacious front. Chris had ended up driving and Buck mumbling about how all the short people should be sitting in the back and how people of decent height needed the legroom of the front. Nathan had just told Buck to shut up, that he had pulled the seat up as far as it could go. It appeared to be part of a long-standing argument. Josiah suspected that Chris rarely, if ever, let the others drive. He had closed his eyes when the bickering continued, partly because he was trying to tune them out and partly because he wanted to send a heartfelt prayer up to God asking that Chris not speed and to slow down for the hairpin-curves. God had heard his prayers and even when Nathan had hissed something to Chris that couldn't be heard over Buck's complaints and Chris's anger became something that could be felt throughout the car, Chris did take it easy on the gas pedal.

"Dad bought it not quite a year ago. At the time he told Buck that he was tired of driving a pick-up everywhere, wanted something a little more comfortable. Buck called me up, I was ... not here at the time and Buck started in about Dad getting this car; he was worried that Dad was sick and just not telling him. I guess he got the car the same time he started thinking of you four. Same time he hired an interior decorator and remodeled the house."

"Does it bother you that he started thinking about us?"

Chris kept his eyes on the road thinking about the question. "Do you want an honest answer?"

"If you can give me one."

"I don't know. The money doesn't matter. I think if Dad had said 'here is some money' and everyone took their share and left it would be easier, though."

"Easier on you. What about Nathan and Buck? Would it be easier on them?"

"You ask hard questions."

"Easy questions I can figure out on my own."

"Nathan's home is here. This will give an excuse to come home."

"What about Buck?"

"Buck needs to play brother," Chris said, thinking 'and with luck, he will latch onto one of the others and let me go and then I can leave knowing he won't be alone.'

"He seems pretty sincere to me."

"He is," Chris looked over at Josiah, quickly turning his eyes back on the road not bothering to finish his explanation aloud. 'Josiah, Buck wants to save the world, save me. I can't get him to understand that I don't want to be saved.' That was too personal and brother or not he had only met this man a few hours ago.

"What are you going to do about Ezra?"

"I don't know. Nathan has a point; I can't just kidnap him. I don't even know if I want him on the ranch. If he's doing something illegal he could destroy us all."

"Let him go then. Accept that he doesn't want to be with us and let him go."

"No. That's not an option."

After a brief pause Josiah changed the subject. "I met him once you know."

"Who? Standish?"

Josiah shook his head, "No, not him. Our father."


"He and you are cut from the same cloth, I think."

"How so?"

"The best I can remember, you look like him, but the real resemblance is in the way you act."

Chris didn't know how to respond to that so he asked, "How did you meet him?"

"I'd been pestering Mama about my father for weeks. Contrary to what people said I knew Mom knew him and where he lived. Wouldn't let her have a minute's peace. My grandfather was away, otherwise I would not have said anything, but I had a hunger, a longing to understand why the other kids had fathers and I didn't. One morning she woke me up early and told me to come on. We got in the truck and drove all day until we came to this roadside diner. I didn't want to go in, we were Mexicans and I'd seen the results of people going in where they weren't wanted and though I was big for my age I knew I couldn't take on grown men if they came after mama. You won't believe it looking at me, but she was beautiful. Not movie star beautiful, but beautiful just the same. We sat down and then a man, tall, blond and golden from the sun sat down across from us. He had this aura about him, a confidence. He was a man that owned any room he walked into. He took Mama's hand and I knew, just knew, who he was.

"Mama said, 'Josiah, hijo, este es su padre. Talk and I will be back to get you.' We talked for a while and then mama was back and he was hugging me, telling me good-bye."

When it became apparent that Josiah was not going to volunteer any more information, Chris did what he usually did not do and asked "Do you resent him for not being there for you?"

"No." Josiah turned to look out the window thinking, 'What can I say Chris, father was white and my mother was a Mexican woman fighting for the rights of migrant farm workers? How could she explain to her supporters that she had a child by a white man ten years her junior? That knowing that his daughter had not been raped and had seduced a sixteen-year-old child would kill my grandfather or push him further into the fires of religious fervor. I know mama, seduce is too strong a word. Just as I know that you fell in love with that sixteen-year-old man-child. I could see that when you looked at him when we were leaving and I heard it in your voice when you whispered 'Vaya con Dios, my love. Go home to your wife and child.' So Chris, you see it would have never worked.'

+ + + + + + +

JD wondered if his embarrassment could get any more complete. It had seemed like a good idea when he had said that he would help Buck do the grocery shopping. Certainly, it had seemed better than sitting in that car listening to Chris be quiet. Growing up he had felt sorry for kids who lived with a lot of yelling. He had always thought that it would be a very bad thing to be yelled at. Now he knew that being silenced at was worse. It had started with something Nathan said to Chris, he hadn't heard what, but he felt Chris's anger instantly and from where he sat squished between Buck and Josiah he could see the white knuckled grip on the steering wheel. Oh, he had been young and foolish then, he remembered thinking about how glad he was that Chris wasn't the yelling type.

Five minutes of quiet had him sweating; fifteen minutes had him willing to confess to anything to get it to stop. Buck had talked over the quiet, but it was still there and you could tell that Buck didn't like it any more than he did. It had gone on and on until they pulled up into the shopping center parking lot and he had volunteered to help Buck shop while Nathan looked for medicine and stuff and Chris and Josiah went to check them out of their hotel rooms.

'It had been a good idea,' he told himself that over and over. At the time he had not been able to conceive of anything worse than sitting in that car with Chris. Now he could. Now he understood that look that Chris had given him.

Buck was a maniac when he shopped. They had started out with the beer and then had moseyed, Buck's word not his, on over to the soft drinks then back to the beer and then over to the dairy aisle for two gallons of milk, butter and 3 cartons of 'be-careful-of-the-eggs-they-break JD', as though he were an idiot. Then another trip back to the beer for another six pack, chips and more chips, and then back to the dairy aisle for dip and on every aisle and in between aisles it was either a 'Hey sweet thing how are you doing,' or a hug and a kiss for every woman he met.

Then on the canned goods aisle JD discovered that Buck threw cans, he did not gently toss them so that JD could put them in the cart, but lobbed them like a foot ball and JD was certain that Buck was going to kill someone with one of those throws and that somehow he would be the one that people blamed; people liked Buck too much to find fault with his behavior.

JD looked at the over flowing cart and considered banging his head against the handle, surely it couldn't hurt any less than the headache he was getting. Buck was talking with, surprise here, another girl so JD took the opportunity to try and rearrange things and catch his breath. Twice already he had suggesting getting a second cart and both times Buck had said that there was plenty of room. Did he not have eyes?

Tuning Buck and his lady friend out JD began to think. What a day. Wake up and find I have six brothers and in a year will be a millionaire. That is good. One brother is in the hospital, not so good. That brother is probably a criminal, very bad. One brother is scary and the one that is friendly is too friendly with, oh, lets estimate -- everyone in the store...and he is crazy on top of being too friendly. Criminal brother, scary brother, crazy brother, not exactly the way to start a new life.

Let's see, what could be more fun than shopping with Buck? Jumping off a really high cliff with no bungee cord, that would be more fun. Being held hostage by a junky with an Uzi and a nervous finger, that would be more fun. Being on a 747 over the Artic Ocean with the pilot and co-pilot unconscious, that would be more fun. Swimming in the Amazon with piranha in a feeding frenzy, that would be more fun. Stopping a train with--

"Come on, kid. Quit dawdling."

"Me. Me!" Oh No! Did his voice just squeak?

"Well you're the one just standing there. We better hurry cause Chris is just pissed enough to make us walk."

"Hurry? I can't believe you are saying that. I haven't been the one talking to everyone, and I do mean everyone, that we see."

"Here put this cereal somewhere." Buck tossed a box over his shoulder.

"Where Buck? Where?" JD stopped and looked at the cart. There was no possible way that it could hold anything more.

"On top there."

"No. We need a new cart," he put his foot down.

"Nonsense. We can't get another cart."

"Why not."

"Two carts is more than a few things. I told Chris that we'd only be a few minutes because we only needed a few things. Besides with Nathan's cart it wouldn't be two carts it would be three. Can't take out that many things to Chris. Didn't you notice the mood he is in?"

"You don't think he will notice that we have more than a few things."

"Not if they are all in one cart."

"Buck, that is just plain crazy." He knew he was yelling, but he couldn't stop himself.

"Look, if we have one cart and we are late we can say that we were stuck in a long line and he can't be angry. More than that means we went shopping and he's going to be ticked off. Do you really want to sit with an angry Chris Larabee for the next forty-five minutes?"

JD stopped and thought and then yelled, "Buck, you are so full of crap!" and then he realized that lots of people were staring at him and that he had just used not so nice language. It wasn't bad language but for Pete's sake he had yelled it in a grocery store with women and children all around and he was new in town and they didn't know that he knew better and one of those manager types were going to descend up on them and ask them to leave. He'd never been asked to leave a store before and now... oh my goodness did he just scream?

"Did I startle you?" Nathan smiled at him. "I'm sorry."

Surely it was a little yelp and not a scream. Girls scream, not guys. I am never going to be able to come to town again. And if I do I will not go anywhere with Buck. "No. I'm fine."

Nathan examined the cart with a critical eye, "Getting a little top heavy there, Buck."

"Now see Nathan that just goes to show you why you had trouble with geometry."

Nathan decided to not touch that line with a ten-foot pole. No telling where Buck would take it. "Buck, we need bread. You go get it while JD and I get the vegetables. No. Come back here. You loaded that cart up, you take care of it."

For two aisles neither man talked as Nathan pulled things off the shelf and handed them to JD or placed them in his nearly empty cart himself. Finally, JD asked, "Is he always like that?"

"Who, Buck? Buck clowns around a lot, but don't ever think he's a fool. Cause he isn't. He's sharp as a tack," Nathan eased back on the intensity he knew was in his voice. "Just don't go shopping with him. That man knows everyone and folks will come clear across the store to say hello to him."

"He said Chris would be mad about us taking so much time."

"Chris, nah, Chris knows exactly how long it takes Buck to shop."

"Too long."

"No. Long enough for Chris to get over being angry with me."

JD looked across the store at the long legged man heading towards them, smiling at some people, speaking to others. Maybe he needed to do some more thinking about his brothers.

+ + + + + + +

Chris pulled into the Sleepy Hollow. He winced at the name as he did every time he saw it. Someone had tried to be cute when they named Four Corners' only motel. He wondered if they had ever read the story.

"It looks like fate stepped in and dictated our moves when we made our reservations."

"More likely that this is the only motel in town." Chris smiled. He got out and dug out a couple white plastic cards and handed them to Josiah. "You get your things and then head to Vin or JD's room. I'll run get everyone checked out, see if Ezra was here and catch up with you." He frowned at the money that Josiah dug out of his pocket. "How 'bout we charge this to the ranch's accounts?"

It hadn't taken long to get their things out of the rooms and, no, Ezra was not registered there. He must have stayed at one of the bed and breakfasts that were empty now but stayed busy during tourist season. If he wanted his things then he had better wake up enough to tell them where they were. Chris pulled up alongside the van that Josiah said was his and let the man get out to open the rear of the van. Only a few cars were left on the street and he examined the remaining cars, first finding Vin's truck and then ... and was that a Porsche. A PORSCHE in Four Corners.!!!!! If he were a betting man, he'd bet every last nickel that the car belonged to Standish. He put his car in reverse and pulled in behind Josiah's car. Shouting 'just a minute' he jogged across the street and pulled out the set of keys he had not bothered to look at. Bingo. He opened the car and looked in. The back seat had been folded down and held a suitcase and what had to be a laptop computer. He slid onto the silver grey leather driver's seat and studied the controls for a moment until he found what would be the trunk release. He popped it.

"Do you know how much these things cost?" he asked Josiah who had joined him in examining the car.

"How much?"

"I don't know. Buck will. Buck is going to be beside himself when he sees this. There is no way that Buck will let Ezra leave once he sees this car. He'll wrap his arms around it and not let go," he smirked at the thought as he got out to walk around the car and kick the tires so to speak. Buck would kill him if he saw him actually kicking anything on this car.

"I take it our Brother Buck likes cars," Josiah filed another bit of trivia about his brothers away.

"He and Dad. Get him to show you his Mustang. A '67 red convertible. A real beauty. He and Dad fixed it up. Has her named and everything," Chris stepped away from the car looking it over. It was a beautiful piece of machinery and if Buck got behind the wheel they wouldn't see Buck until he'd made a quick run up to Canada or something. 'Just wanted to check her out Chris. Listen to her purr.' Beautiful cars were just as intoxicating to Buck as beautiful women, just as intoxicating and just as irresistible.

"Think he has insurance?" Josiah interrupted his thoughts.

"Check his glove compartment, if he doesn't it's staying put."

Josiah slid into the driver's seat and leaned across to open the glove compartment. "Interesting." Josiah passed a handgun to Chris.

Chris cursed softly under his breath as he took the gun. Somehow he doubted that Ezra was planning on heading to the firing range after the meeting with the judge. He wondered what his brother was involved with and since he had a gun why hadn't he used it to protect himself.

Josiah held up a clear plastic envelope he had pulled from the glove compartment. Opening it he found the car registration, the car's insurance information and a permit issued be the State of Nevada allowing him to carry a concealed gun. He passed the envelope to Chris, "At least its all legal."

"Is there a holster in there?" Chris asked. Did he carry the gun hidden under his clothes or did he just keep it in the glove compartment?

Josiah shook his head not with bothering rechecking, then pulled himself out of the car, "Must have hurt getting out of here. Wonder why he didn't say anything?"

"I wonder what he does to own something like this."

+ + + + + + +

Vin flipped through the magazine, it was a woman's magazine, one that the nurse Angie Delaney, had dropped off along with a cheeseburger and coke. He could have done without the magazine and eaten another cheeseburger, but didn't complain; she had been real thoughtful bringing him those things.

When Chris called he would tell him not to come all the way back to the hospital just to feed him. He grinned at the thought of his brothers and the ruckus that they had made getting it all sorted out; he was fairly sure one of the reasons he had been fed was so that Chris would not come back.

It hadn't started as an argument; it had begun as a simple discussion as to which of them was going to stay with Ezra and how they were going to get everyone and everyone's cars and things back to the ranch. The only thing that they all agreed on was that in light of all the suspicious death of their father at this hospital that someone needed to stay with Ezra. All of them except Ezra that was, and his opinion hadn't counted as he was too zonked to be coherent. Through hooded eyes, Ezra had vehemently protested his stay in the hospital and the need for a jailer.

While everyone had tried to reason with Ezra, if it could be called reasoning, the kid had stepped out into the hall and pretended that he didn't know any of them, which he really didn't. Ezra had gotten really loud and had been struggling to sit up when a nurse came in. She had told Ezra to go back to sleep and let her handle things. He had said something, but between the Morphine and his accent no one was quite sure what and it had been agreed that it was probably best not to decipher that particular sentiment.

Then, on Nathan's strong suggestion that they argue elsewhere, they had gone outside, leaving a thoroughly embarrassed JD to sit with Ezra. Nathan had wanted to stay the night, but Buck informed him that he didn't believe that Ezra was too happy with Nathan at the moment and it might be better if he stayed away until the man calmed down. Buck then informed Nathan that he really needed to improve on his bedside manner and then Nathan launched into Chris once again how he couldn't bring Ezra back to the ranch against his will. Conversation could have degenerated at that point, but Chris told everyone to shut up; and everyone had done just that. It got sorted out: Buck would get food, Nathan would get the medical supplies, Josiah and Chris would get everyone checked out of the motel; and he would stay with Ezra. Before heading out to the ranch someone would call and find out if he needed anything. When they had walked back into the hospital he felt lots of eyes on him and his brothers; they needed to make a point in keeping their arguments away from prying ears. He had stolen a look at Chris who had surprised him by looking back at him; his face said it all. No more yelling in hospitals.

Every one of them apologized for making him stay, as though he were making some sacrifice by staying. He didn't see it that way. He'd much rather be here than cooped up in a car with the rest of them. 'No offense brothers, but a few of you are too big for cars; you take all the room and all the air and then complain when a fellow tries to get himself some fresh air.'

He was just fine where he was. Besides it wasn't as though he knew the area well enough to go chauffeuring people around, yet. He pulled his jacket off the room's other chair and took a couple maps out of the pocket. One was a map of the state and the other of the county; he had picked that one up at the little red house that served as the Chamber of Commerce. It had been easy to locate, sitting scrunched between Gloria's Gifts and Harding's Automotive and had still been open when he rode down Main Street looking for Judge Travis's office yesterday evening. He had talked to the lady behind the counter, paid $1.00 for the map and another four dollars for the beautifully photographed postcards of Historic Four Corners and two king sized bags of M &M's. He had tucked the postcards in his glove compartment so that he would have a reminder of the place his father had lived in and scarfed down both bags of candy before finding the motel a mile outside of town.

After checking in, he crossed the street to eat supper at a filled to capacity little diner that boasted that it had the best food in town. It wasn't the best, Inez's ribs were some of the best he'd ever eaten and he was from Texas, but the prices were cheap and he wasn't too fussy about what he ate and last night he hadn't known about Inez's. As long as it didn't moo or squawk when he pierced it with a fork, he reckoned it was edible.

He remembered seeing both Josiah and JD at the diner and wondered if they had noticed him. Josiah maybe, but he doubted whether JD saw much of anything other than that book he had his nose stuck in. He thought he had seen a horse on the cover so it was probably a western. Hope the kid wasn't filling his head with fool notions of what the west was like. Those books, too often, had it wrong.

He'd also noticed a group of men in a corner that made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. They weren't wearing signs that said 'we are bad men, beware'. But most bad men didn't bother to wear signs; they let their actions speak for themselves. He had buried himself in the menu and then while waiting for his fried chicken, he had pulled out his map and while pretending to study it, he kept his ears open. He hadn't learned much other than the men had no use for any man whose color of skin was not white and only one use for women of any color. They hadn't done anything other than talk big, but he got the feeling that these men were not just the types to talk.

Leaning back in his chair he considered his options regarding those men. Nothing he could do about them now, but if he were planning to stay in town for it might be a good idea to ferret out who they were and what they had planned. Men like that did not peacefully co-exist and he'd bet his last penny that they were up to no good. Maybe he should talk to the sheriff, find out what he knew and he should probably mention it to his brothers, definitely talk to Chris.

He glanced over at the bed; it had taken a while after the last nurse had come in and checked on Ezra, but the man had finally fallen back asleep, although he was twitching too much for it to be a restful slumber. He shrugged, it had been Ezra's choice not to take the medicine and he'd have to live with the consequences. He hoped he saw Nathan's face when he learned that Ezra had refused his pain-killer. Nathan had been right unhappy with Ezra's attitude about being in the hospital, something about not knowing what was good for him. He, himself, had never been in a hospital and the only time he had ever had to go to the doctor were the times when he had gone to get his vaccinations and those weren't anything to whine about. He guessed he'd been lucky: He had made it through childhood without any broken bones or surgeries. The one time he's had to have stitches, the doctor had done it in his office and it had been kind of neat. He had gone to school the next day and shown all his friend the cut along side his hairline; he had told them that he had almost been scalped by an Indian on the way home from school. Anyway, he didn't understand the fuss Ezra was making; he'd ask him about it when he woke up.

He turned his attention back to the map of Four Corners and soon lost himself in the names of roads. He loved maps. They told riveting stories of water cascading from high atop mountains running along valleys and then moving off to the sea. Maps told of long ago volcanoes that formed mountains and glaciers that carved the mountains and then stopped their southerly travels to form lakes. Maps spoke volumes of man's exploration of his world.

Once he'd been in a junk store, waiting on a man to come out of a drug store; he'd almost lost his man because he had become engrossed in a hand drawn map of a gold mine. That map had been put in a little black wood frame and was offered up for sale at fifty dollars. The old man that had sold him the map had been right careful to make sure that he understood that though the map was old it offered no frame of reference needed for locating a mine that probably was just some worthless hole in the ground. He hadn't cared. He had bought the thing because of the story it told.

Over the course of the evening he memorized the map of the county. He'd been interrupted once by a phone call from Chris. He'd told the man that he was fine, Ezra was sleeping and yes he had gotten supper. He may have been a little short with his brother, but Chris hadn't seemed to mind and so he had hung up the room's phone and returned to the map. This time tomorrow and he could go pretty much anywhere in the county and not get lost.

He hoped he would get the chance to stop at a fire station or hunting supply store before heading out to the ranch so that he could pick up a topography map of the area. He made a note to check the library and see what they had. Amazing what wonders those building held and how pleased librarians were when they were asked to help locate something. No telling what he could find in a library.

"Want some water?" he asked the two green eyes that had blinked open and were staring at him.

"What aruh you doing heruh?" he asked when his brain finally got it into gear enough for him to place a name to the face.

"Sitting with ya."


"Ya were being a pain in the ass, so someone had to stay and make sure ya didn't make any of the nurses cry."

"Ah have nevuh made anyone cry."

"Never in your entire life?"

"Maybe once or twice, but certainly not often enough to justify you making that assumption about me."

"Ya want some water?"

"What time is it?" He wondered how he managed to hurt more than when he had come in. He considered calling the nurses' desk for something to relieve the pain, but decided that on second thought, after the noise he'd made in rejecting the second dose of morphine that they'd probably laugh at him. Besides he needed to think. He was in a mess and needed to figure a way out.

"It's a little after eleven."

"Isn't that past visiting hours."

"After doing such a thorough job of making a horse's ass out of yerself, the nurses asked that one of us stay."

"And you got elected. Ah am sorry. Ah have intruded on your plans to reunite with your long lost family. Mah apologies."

"Yer family too."

Thinking that feigning sleep might rid him of the man, Ezra moved his arm so that the crook of his elbow covered his face, but that proved incredibly uncomfortable. Perhaps it was best to lie incredibly still until after the man left and then he could get out of bed and work some of the stiffness out of his body. The dangling tube caught his eye and he followed its path to the back of his hand. Damn, just like a hospital to put things in you that you really didn't want. He moved his leg, feeling a second tube move across his leg. No doubt about it, that one had to go. He must have really been out of it to allow them to put those things in him.

"You may leave now."

"Reckon I don't have a place I need to be."

"Aren't you going out to the ranch?"

"In the morning, when ya go."

"Mr. Tanner Ah think Ah have made mahself clear. You have bettuh things to do and Ah do not need you heruh. Doesn't it bothuh you that ah do not wish you heruh?"

"Not in the slightest."

Ezra searched the blue eyes. Finally, he sighed and settled in his bed and asked, "You are not leaving, no matter what Ah say or do, aruh you?"


"Turn your back for a moment then."

"Why?" Vin asked even as he turned around.


Vin heard movement and a soft hiss of pain, but he did as he was asked and stayed facing the window. "Ya finished?" he asked. He had a feeling what Ezra had just done and really couldn't blame him.

"Just a moment."

He heard more rustling and a genuine grunt of pain, Ezra must have moved too sharply and irritated his ribs. "Want me to get someone?" he asked with a smile.

"Not ... necessary. Ahh shit, pardon me, but that hurt."

"Ya sure."

"Just let me catch mah breath. Oh, you can turn around if you so desire."

Vin turned and the smirk left his face at the sight of blood dripping between the fingers of Ezra's hand clamped over his forearm. "Do ya need a nurse?" he asked.

"If you get a nurse they will only want to put them back in and Ah don't care to have to repeat mahself."

Ezra took a peak at his hand. It was amazing that such a little wound should leak so profusely, but it seemed to have slowed. Deciding to make use of his sitter, he asked, "Would you mind getting a cloth so that Ah might wash?"

"I'll get it, but I will call the nurse if it doesn't quit bleeding in a minute."

"Nonsense, the first question will be is why did you just stand there and watch him do that?"

"What happened to deniability?"

"If you tattle, Ah will have no choice but to make you mah accomplice."

Vin shrugged, he would probably do the same. There was something about nurses in their white uniforms that were intimidating. Vin walked over to the counter and searched through the paraphernalia for a couple of alcohol swabs. Tearing open the package he dabbed at the bloody fingers and said, "Ya know, they will check on ya."

"With any luck, it will be in the early hours of the morning and it will be fait accompli and they will have the sense to allow me to rest," Ezra replied taking the second swab from Vin Tanner's hand. He wrinkled his nose at the smell of the alcohol; he wished the man had gotten a wash rag.

Vin raised his eyebrows at the unfamiliar words, but since he deciphered Ezra's meaning he did not ask questions and filed the words away until a time he could examine them more closely. While Ezra dabbed at the blood on his arm obviously careful of the bruising, Vin glanced down at the now ruined catheter. Ezra had tied off the end with a simple knot, preventing leakage of the contents; he had tied the same knot into the IV tubing.

"Ah do not understand how our society can place such obvious sadists on such high pedestals."

"Are ya hurting."

Ezra chose to ignore such an asinine question and concentrated on finding a way to position himself that offered some relief for his backside without giving his ribs too many reasons to complain. After a couple of minutes he found that perhaps the best move was to just not move.

"So, ya ready to talk?"

"On what subject do you wish to converse?" Ezra frowned as Vin propped his feet up on the bed and leaned dangerously far back in the straight back institutional chair.

"Let's start with oh... let me ... see ... How about why ya acted like a ninny about going to the hospital?"

"Obviously you do not keep abreast of current events," he sighed dramatically and paid for his theatrics with a bolt of pain that ran across his chest. When the elephant decided to get off of him so that he could breathe, he began again without acknowledging Vin's look of concern. "Do you realize the sheer number of virulent infectious diseases that run rampant in these institutions of medical quackery?" he cocked an eyebrow at Vin, barely turning his head to get a better look at the man.

"Do ya realize the number of people that get helped here?"

"That is the spiel that the medical profession wants you to believe. The reality is that this is a giant petri dish for bacteria waiting to take over the world after having turned our bodies into sludge."

"Yer getting helped here."

"Nonsense. Ah am getting treated here. They have done nothing to make me better, it can be argued that they have made me worse."

"How's that?"

"Since being here, Ah have been poked and prodded enough to have a new set of bruises to match the ones Ah already had. Those leaches have stuck holes in me to get my blood out and have stuck more holes in me to put other stuff in," he glanced up at the IV poles. "Worse, they have abused mah body by putting things where things were not meant to go."

Vin looked at Ezra for a moment. That had been spoken in such a sincere forthright manner he almost believed that Ezra believed that and was maybe more than a little off. Then he saw the tiniest of glints in his brother's eyes and knew better. He laughed, "Ya ain't gonna tell me a thing are ya."

"Mr. Tanner, I thought we discussed your appalling choice of words."

Vin leaned back in his chair not realizing how far out of Ezra's line of sight he was moving. "I reckon I might not have yer schooling, but at least people can understand me."

Ezra winced as Vin's barb struck him hard. What schooling? He rolled in the bed to glare at Vin. "You have understood my every word," he growled through the pain that the unwise move caused.

"Do ya want me to go get a nurse?"

"For God's sake no," Ezra hissed. He eased back down on the bed. He knew his eyes were watering from that move and it embarrassed him not to be able to deal with his pain better. "Ah take it you have never had broken ribs before."

"I've been shot at."

"Ever hit?"

"No, I have better sense than to get shot."

"So do Ah."

"But not enough sense not to piss of people capable of beating the shit out of you."

"It happens."

"It's happened before?"

"Ah didn't say that. "

"No, you didn't." Vin studied the man on the bed, letting the silence thicken around them.

"So what do you do that people shoot at you?" Ezra asked; he couldn't stand silence and usually filled it with the meaningless chatter that he had perfected over the years. He was just too sore to do that now and would have to get Tanner to do the talking.

"Take bad guys to jail."

"You're a cop?" he couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice.

"Nope. I go after the folks that skip out on their bail."

"I see ... and the danger appeals to you?"

"The chase does... figuring out where a person will go ...who would they turn too...finding them." Vin stopped talking, he really didn't know this person from Adam.

The silence between them grew again. Ezra rolled his eyes trying to see Tanner; he did not repeat his mistake of sudden movement. "Aruh you asleep?"

"No, but you should be."

"Nonsense, the night is my element."

"Yer not a vampire are ya?"

No, but once, in N'awlins, I saw some."

"Lots of kids are into that."

"These kids weruh older than you."

"Being a kid is a state of innocence."

"Like John David."

"JD. Remember?"

"Is that what he wants to be called?"

"Yep. I think he does." Vin leaned forward back into Ezra's range of vision. "So, ya gonna to tell me what the lesson was about?"

"Lesson?" Ezra frowned, then remembered what he had told Buck. "Oh, yes, that lesson. Simply put, be careful with whom you play poker."

"Ya owe him money," Vin stated, satisfied that he had this one mystery solved.

"Nevuh," Ezra glared at Vin and his false assumption. "He was a very poor player who did not know when to leave the table."

"So how much did you take him for?"

"His share of the pots Ah won ...around 55,000 dollars."

Vin arched on eyebrow, but did not whistle, "Weren't no nickel and dime pots, then. So what do ya do to make the kind of money that lets ya play those games?"

"Ah am a gambluh. Ah gamble." He waited for a remark denigrating his profession and was surprised when it did not come.

"So he's pissed that ya took his money and what, follows ya down here and gets his money back."

"Ah left, he followed and seeing as he had assistants the size of Kong Ah handed ovuh mah winnings. Mr. Tanner as lovely as this conversation has been Ah must ask you to leave the room."


The dunce, why does he think? "Ah have to make a call of nature."

"How are ya going to manage that?"

"Carefully," he looked at the incredulous look Vin was giving him. "The bathroom is ovuh there. Ah plan on using it. Ah can not do so with you in the room."

"Ya can't do it at all. Ya got broken ribs. I'll get a nurse."

"Ah am not using a bed pan," he glared at Vin. "You forget Ah was doing fine this morning. If Dr. Jackson had not pulled me off mah feet--"

"It would have been something else then and he did not pull ya off yer feet. Ya fainted."

"Ah did no such thing!" He placed his hand over his broken bones (Why the hell hadn't they wrapped them???) and sat up. "If you please, suh Ah must attend these mattuhs and Ah wish for you to vacate the room."

Vin rubbed at his lower lip and considered his options and Ezra's strength. "If I go and stretch my legs for a bit, do I have yer word that ya will get back in bed when ya finish?"

"You do."

"Ten minutes?"

"Bettuh make it fifteen."

"Okay, I'll get a coke, want something?"

"Ah appreciate the offer, but Ah do not care for a thing." Mr. Tanner, how did you ever make a living at hunting down bad guys? You are far too trusting. This is a lesson that you will be the better for having learned while still young enough for it to sink in. Never believe anyone.

Ezra used the bathroom and washed his hands and his face. Now, to find his clothes. A quick search revealed his wallet and watch in the bedside stand and his clothes in a plastic bag in a small closet, his shoes next to them. He leaned against the wall. Damn it, this was taking to much time and he felt as though his brain was encased in quicksand. Think, Ezra, think.

All right they had his car key but not his car. They could open the door, but not turn over the motor unless they knew the password. That neat little gadget had cost him a bundle, but if it kept them from moving his car then it was worth it. If he could get to his car then he could get the hell out of Dodge before they came and took him away to that cow-ranch-place.

The problem was getting his clothes on without alerting any of the nurses; he didn't feel like arguing. Then he needed transportation. He'd go find an empty room to change in before Mr. Tanner returned, one less person to explain things to, and be out of the place before anyone noticed. He pulled his watch on and checked the time. He had better move a little faster than he was if he wanted out. He slipped his shoes on and didn't try to tie them; he would do that later, carrying them seemed like too much work. Then he picked up the bag with his clothes in it-couldn't someone have hung them up; they were hopelessly wrinkled. Still he was fortunate to have them. Overly enthusiastic staff members had wanted to cut the clothes off him. Luckily he had been able to prevent that.

Okay, quit pampering yourself. You need to hurry. Step one, get clothes on. Step two, find a ride. If it came to it he could visit the parking lot, but he'd rather hitch a ride. It would be bad form to borrow a vehicle when you've used your real name; misunderstandings about cars could lead to jail time. He pushed off from the wall, walked to the door, listened for movement and opened it to see Vin standing there.

"I ain't too stupid, little brother," with gentle hands he turned Ezra around. "Drop them clothes and hop back into bed before I call a nurse to check on ya."

"First, if you must insist on calling me brothuh, remembuh Ah am the elder and therefore it is you who aruh the little brothuh."

"I wasn't talking about age I was talking about size and ya are the little brother. If I was talking about age I would have said older brother." He helped Ezra onto the bed and then glared at him. "You lied to me."

"Ah was merely going to stretch mah limbs."

"You lied. I trusted ya and ya lied."

"Obviously, you didn't trust me too much."

"Why did ya lie?"

"Ah wanted out of heruh."

"I thought we went through this."

"Go to hell." He was through talking to the man. He was tired and he was hurting and he would deal with his own demons by himself.

"Why do ya want to leave so badly? Didn't ya hear when Chris said he was having the hospital send yer bill to the ranch? There ain't any need for ya to sneak out of here in the middle of the night."

"Ahm tired and need to sleep." He closed his eyes. He knew he was acting like a baby on several counts. But he had no way to explain. The thought of hospitals and their sick and dying and dead people terrified him. He got lost in a hospital and had trouble remembering what was then and what is now. He tried to hide from the ghosts of his past, but he couldn't.

When he closed his eyes he saw sheet shrouded gurneys with tiny blue tinged hands dangling off them and the color red dotting the white linen sheets and red fingernail polish on those tiny hands and he could hear the people. All around him he could hear disembodied voices, some crying, some screaming in pain so deep and raw that everyone knew that there souls had been ripped apart. The voices, all of them were saying it was his fault, he was the one that had kicked the ball and the people began screaming at him, telling him how bad he was and why couldn't he have been the one that died? And he could see Uncle Roger in from his construction site, heading toward him and the grieving father would pick him up and throw him across the room. He could remember hitting the wall and the sound of his arm snapping. And he remembered that she hadn't moved through any of it; she just lay there under that sheet and it was his fault that his little cousin Bethany would not play with anyone again.

Eyes opened or closed, he saw, remembered, that awful afternoon. He watched behind his eyelids as the white walls oozed blood and the normal noises of the hospital merged with those of his memory. He could still hear the crying in the waiting room and the voices of the doctors and the nurses working on his arm. He remembered how they were talking about how he was Maude Standish's bastard and how he probably didn't even know his own father and how bad seed comes from bad seed. He remembered that when they pulled his arm back into place they told him to quit crying and he remembered the sounds of sirens filling the air and someone patted his knee and told him to wait and then everyone took off running. He waited, he did, but no one came back and so he got up and walked out to the empty waiting room. His aunt was gone and his uncle was gone and his great aunt was gone and he didn't know where his Mom was and he didn't know what to do, so he left too.

He had left that place with the little, dead cousin, but he couldn't ever escape the voices telling him he was bad. He didn't need them to tell him that. He knew; good boys have moms who are there and they have fathers and they get tucked in at night and they get kisses for doing good in kindergarten and they have a room to call their own even if they have to share it. Good boys remembered not to kick the ball into the street; they remembered that cars can crunch and bump over little cousins. He knew he was bad, had known it everyday of his life, he just didn't like to be reminded of it. And hospitals made him aware all over again that he was not good, that he was bad.

He had just wanted to leave this place so he wouldn't have to listen to the voices.

Vin watched his brother close his eyes and turn his head toward the wall in dismissal. He knew that he had just lost whatever ground he had made after their talking. He probably should have helped him escape he decided as he watched Ezra pretend to sleep.


Chris leaned against the porch rail sipping at his cup of black coffee. His mind was not on the rosy sky of dawn and though he did spot the mule deer family watching him from the edge of the pinions, his mind did not register them. He was lost in a jumble of thoughts and memories.

It hurt to be back here, so many memories calling to him. The one that stood out now was of him and his dad debating the necessity of putting a pool in the backyard. It had seemed so necessary when he was ten and he had made every argument he could think of. His dad had remained dead set against it, saying that it would ruin the view. He had been so angry that his father wouldn't listen. One day when he had come home from college he had stood on the back porch and realized that his dad had been right.

Sarah had loved this place, too. When they were dating, not too long before they married and moved into gramps old house and made it their own, she would come here and sit all day with her camera and wait for the perfect shot. Later, after Adam's birth, there had been fewer perfect shots, but many more less perfect and infinitely more precious ones of: a baby taking his first steps to his father, of a toddler chasing a puppy, of Uncle Buck carrying a three year old on his shoulder and Uncle Nate showing him how a stethoscope worked.

Sometimes, he and Sarah would drive up here for dinner or something and when they would leave to go back to their home, Adam asleep in his car seat, she would start talking about the place. She loved it, maybe more than he did. She would hasten to reassure him that she loved her home, but the log and stone home, built when Chris was a baby and expanded over the years, with its meandering halls placed so that a tree wouldn't have to be destroyed or boulder dug up was far more interesting and more photogenic.

She took photos of other things too, one of him when he had poured a pail of water over his head in a desperate attempt to cool off, another of him rocking a colicky baby so that she could get some rest, or the one their son was showing her how big the fish that got away was. She had this ability to catch in black and white the heart of the moment.

His dad had several of her landscapes hanging on the walls, he had many of Adam, sleeping, crawling and running, he had her and Chris's wedding album tucked away in the library. He didn't have any pictures like the one of her laughing as she presented her burned Thanksgiving dinner or the one of her leaning against the corral watching the yearlings kicking up their heals, or the one where she had held her baby for the first time. That one had been almost totally out of focus his hands had shook so bad, but she framed it and had put it on their nightstand. Those pictures were gone, destroyed in the same fire that had destroyed his family, the one that had decimated his life.

He missed her. Her laugh, her walk, the way she'd tilt her head listening to him, the way she looked stepping out of the shower water hanging on her impossibly long eyelashes. The way she would take his hand and lead him into the bedroom and laugh when he would mock protest saying it was the middle of the day and what would the neighbors say. She would laugh at that and ask 'what neighbors', before tackling him and they would fall on the bed.

That day, the one when he had driven home, would be forever etched in his mind. They had seen the smoke from a distance and he had turned to Buck, saying that they needed to check it out after they got the stallion settled. Coming up over the ridge they had been assaulted by the stench and that is when time starting slowing for him. By the time he came upon the smoldering ruins he was seeing thing in a series of snapshots. His brain had been unable to process so much terrible information that it had taken a series of photos to remember that day. He had one shot of the doors to the coroner's station wagon being opened, another of the look on his father's face, another of tears streaking down a fireman's soot covered face and still one more of the two dark plastic bags that he knew, without anyone saying a word, held his Sarah and Adam.

He had become vicious turning on everyone, snapping and snarling. He had said abusive ugly things to his brother and to his father, and in the back of his mind he knew that Sarah in heaven would be shaking her head in disapproval at his angry, hateful words. For her sake, he tried to hold the words back and contain the hate. He couldn't do it. He hated everyone and everything. He hated every morning he woke up and found Sarah was not in his arms. He hated every night that he did not get to tuck his son in bed. He hated beautiful days because they reminded him of her laughter and he hated dreary days because those would have been the ones that she had brightened with her smile. He hated bicycles and baseball gloves and yapping puppies playing fetch with their young owners. He hated minivans with car seats in the back. Most of all he hated himself for living.

He had spent every night of that first awful year in a bottle. Drinking until his money ran out or until Buck showed up to take him home. He said things that he knew hurt Buck and his Dad and if Nathan had been around he would have hurt him also. The second year he had spent drinking and fighting. He knew he had hit Buck on more than one occasion and yet Buck had always come back until one night, he didn't remember what he said or did, but he remembered Buck's face bleeding and bruised and his eyes closed off. He had hit Buck before and Buck had always come back, but he saw those eyes that night and knew that Buck wouldn't be coming back; he'd have to go after Buck.

Thing was that Buck probably thought that his coming back when their dad died meant that he was back for good. It didn't and he did not have the words to explain that to Buck. There was too much emptiness inside him that couldn't be filled and far too many memories that taunted him here. Too many ghosts.

He poured out the coffee that had turned cold, as the sun had begun its journey across the sky. He turned to go in, he'd put his coffee cup in the sink and run down to the corral and check on the horses before breakfast. They needed to get into a routine of getting up and getting moving, but he doubted if today was a good day to begin it. Better let his brothers get settled a bit first.

"You want another cup." Buck asked as Chris came in, letting the door slam behind him.

"Didn't know you were up."

"Thought I'd get a start on the day." Buck shrugged and poured himself his second cup of coffee.

"Why didn't you come out and talk?"

"You didn't look as though you would have appreciated the company." Buck pulled out one of the chairs and sat down. His hands traced patterns in the grain of the massive pine table. "Dad did this himself, didn't want my help except when he needed it moved. It weighs a ton. Made the chairs too. Had his decorator help him decide on the color of the chairs, so that it would look right; patina bronze is what she called the color. I told him that it looked green to me. I couldn't figure why he was doing all this. All those new bedrooms, two new baths, remodeling the kitchen and building this table to seat eight. I mean it was just the two of us and even when there...even when all of us were here we'd usually eat out on the porch." He got up and rinsed his cup out and put in the dishwasher. "I'm going out to check on the horses."

"I was heading there myself."

"Then why don't you go on, I want to look under the hood of the Ford. We're going to need to take some salt out the next day or two and last time I took it out it wasn't shifting gears smoothly."

"Is this going to be an all day job?" Chris tried to tease, but it must have sounded like he was getting on Buck's case, judging by the look on his face.

"No. I just want to look. If it is something major I'll use the Chevy and work on it the Ford later."

He should have said something then. He should have said what he had always said when they were kids doing their chores - that it'd go quicker if they shared them. And it had although more often than not he and Buck had done Nathan's chores too--that boy could not keep his nose out of a book. Thing was, even with all the laughing and clowning the chores had gotten done quicker and they had not seemed so much like chores. He should have said, come help me Buck, he didn't. "I'll see you when you get finished then."

+ + + + + + +

JD stretched his arms over his head, rolled over and bolted upright when his eyes landed on the clock. Nine!! He had planned to be up hours ago. He had wanted to see everything; the house inside and out, the horses and cows and the winding road they had driven up on. And he had wanted to start the day off by helping. He wasn't a total idiot when it came to horses. He had spent enough summers cleaning out stables for rich people who didn't want to get their hands dirty and exercising their expensive horses that they forgot except on bright, sun shining, weekends. What he didn't know already, he would learn and those older, bigger brothers would never have reason to regret him coming to stay. He could be an asset to the ranch. He just needed to prove it.

Throwing on the only pair of jeans he had brought with him and a red t-shirt and grabbing his boots and a pair of socks, he ran out the room and hit the stairs two at a time. He slowed down when he hit the ground floor, momentarily confused. Buck had given them the three-minute tour when they had finally gotten to the ranch in the late evening, while Nathan had called disappeared to call someone about some meeting in the morning. It had been a brief tour, mainly letting everyone pick a room and showing them the bathrooms. He had grabbed a room on the top floor of the old wing, as Buck had called it, and tossed his luggage on the floor, traded his dress shoes for a pair of hiking boots and headed back down stairs.

They had actually planned to eat in town, Nathan had worried a little about the milk spoiling, but Buck had pointed out that as cold as it was that there was little chance of spoilage and that even the beer might be chilled by the time they reached the ranch. That had been the plan discussed as Buck loaded the trunk -- apparently he had a superior awareness of geometry needed for the proper loading of a trunk and so everyone else had been content to watch the man work. JD had to admit that by the time Buck had everything stowed nothing could slip or be crushed. Chris had leaned against the car door and smirked the whole time, merely shaking his head when Buck asked what was up.

They had driven in friendly silence and a little more comfort back to the rest of the cars as Josiah had chosen to remain with his van. By then it was dark and all the shops and offices looked empty. JD had a rental and spotted it, his eyes not registering anything else, but apparently Buck had as he was shouting 'Oh my God' at the top of his lungs. He had not even waited for Chris to turn the motor off before he was out of the car and across the street and with reverent fingers and worshipping eyes was examining a little green car parked almost directly in front of the Judge's office.

"Chris do you see this?"

"Yes, Buck I see it."

"This is a Porsche. A Porsche 911. This is Ezra's isn't it? I knew there was a reason I liked that boy. Do you know how fast this baby can go?"

"Can't go anywhere Buck."

Buck stopped his circling of the car and looked across the hood at Chris. "What did you do to it?" his eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"I didn't do anything to it. Ezra has some antitheft device on it"

Buck was around the car and in the driver's seat before Chris could finish his explanation. "This is good," he crouched down on the pavement next to the driver's seat. A moment later he looked up and said, "I'm better."

Close to thirty minutes later Buck could be heard singing a really raunchy song as he talked to his 'sweet baby'. He was on one side of the street and they were on the other; they had been banished to sit in Josiah's van when the older man had passed out cigars. Only Chris had accepted, but Buck, worried that Chris or Josiah might inadvertently damage the car had sent them away. Nathan and JD took turns jogging across the street to check on his progress.

Once a sheriff's car had stopped and a balding, pot-belly Sheriff had come around to the driver's side of the car and talked to Buck; JD had felt grey hair sprouting all along his head when Buck had answered the sheriff's question of 'what you up to Buck' with 'removing this sweet baby's anti theft device.' He hadn't been arrested on the spot and the sheriff had walked across the street to talk to Chris. Whatever Chris had said, must have done the trick because the sheriff had walked back, shook his hand, introduced himself as Mitch Harris, and welcomed him to town before driving off.

Chris had finished his smoke and gone back over to Buck. "Buck, the rest of us are getting hungry. You planning on being long?"

"Chris, good buddy, you know some things in life can't be hurried. Why don't you take the boys and get some pizza. I'll catch up."

"Catch up Buck, not beat us there. You hear me," Chris warned.

"Yeah. Yeah I hear you," Buck answered distractedly.

Chris called ahead so the pizza would be waiting, but Buck still managed to beat them to the ranch and was wiping off the hood with a soft cloth when they pulled up beside him.

"Won't get the ladies like my Betty Lou, but she is a beaut," he all but bounced on the balls of his feet, happiness evident in his every move.

"Buck, give me those keys," Nathan snapped. "It isn't enough that I have one brother in hospital. Here you are racing up these curves at night. Are you stupid? Chris, did you drop him on his head when he was a baby? "

"Leave me out of it. I'm going to warm up the pizzas."

"Now Nate, I just wanted to see how she ran. I tell you she practically flew. Hugged those curves like nothing you've ever seen," if he thought he was making Nathan feel better he was mistaken.

Nathan threw the keys to Josiah "Put these somewhere for Ezra. Preferably, out of Buck's sight. I'm going to call Emmett Griggs," he growled as he stormed into the house. The rest of them had unpacked the car and by the time they had finished the tour of the house, given by a surprisingly subdued Buck, Chris was hollering to come eat.

And so they had eaten in silence as they had at lunch. Except then the silence had been caused by hungry men wanting to eat and this silence owed its existence to tension between Buck and Nathan. Buck explained that he had left almost as soon as they did and that he hadn't driven that fast, but Nathan was having none of it and had eaten in stony silence. If it hadn't been for the smile that Josiah had given him, the one that said don't worry, JD wasn't sure if he could have made it through the meal. As soon as he had finished and rinsed his plate off he had excused himself saying he was tired and heading to bed.

At least they had all said good night to him as he had trudged out of the kitchen. Exhausted from the events of the day he watched the minutes and then hours tick away on the little bedside alarm clock, his thoughts, combined with the unfamiliar silence after a lifetime in the city, worked to keep him awake.

His mind raced with all the discoveries of the day. He ran his brothers names over his tongue testing them out. He could put faces with names and his Mom was right Chris was like King Arthur, royal and commanding. And if Chris was King Arthur was Buck the loyal Sir Kay running the castle for his brother or was he the fool entertaining the King? Josiah had to be the wise and mysterious Merlin offering sage advice. So which brother was Lancelot and of course where did he fit in, in this Camelot?

Visions of Chris, on a horse as black as night, waiting with his knights spread out beside him for some enemy hidden in the fog were his last thoughts as Morpheus dragged him into his realm; that and the promise that he'd begin the day early.

Coming down the stairs, he felt humiliated that he had slept so late and he was angry with himself. After only one day he had broken his promise to show these guys he belonged, no matter that he'd made it only to himself. He really wanted them to like him and not feel as though they had gotten stuck with him. He slowed down even further dragging his bare feet along the wood floors, suddenly reluctant to face his brothers. Yesterday everyone had been running on adrenaline. No one had slowed down and talked things out. What if Chris and Buck didn't want any help running the ranch and they resented his presence?

Running a nervous hand through his hair, he braved the kitchen. Chris sat at the table talking on the phone and intent on his conversation did not look up as JD entered the room. JD, relieved that he didn't have to face Chris, turned to Josiah standing at the island and cooking a mountain of bacon. "Sorry I over slept," JD apologized.

The big man awarded JD with a noncommittal grunt; his attention riveted on the sizzling bacon. "The trick to keep it from burning is careful observation," he said as he speared a slice and laid it on a paper towel to drain.

"Where is everyone?" JD asked.

"Buck's still down working on a truck and Nathan's on the other end of the phone." Josiah snagged another piece of bacon and flipped it just before it started burning. "How do you want your eggs?"

JD eyed the large bowl of whisked eggs and answered, "Scrambled is fine."

"Good cause that is the only kind I make," Josiah grinned. "Why don't you start opening some of these cabinets and seeing if you can find plates and get the table set. Forks and knives are in that drawer by the dish washer."

JD found the plates and began setting the table. His mother would have put placemats down, but he figured that, even if he knew where placemats were, that they'd probably look ridiculous on this table. Chris moved an elbow out of his way and mouthed 'morning' at him and pointed to a cabinet. JD opened it and found the salt and pepper shakers as well as the sugar bowl.

"Bless you Josiah, this smells wonderful," Buck's voice boomed in the quiet room as he entered the room. "Let me wash up and I'll help." He disappeared behind a door, but his voice could be heard over running water, "JD, Get some of Miss Nettie's preserves out of the pantry."

Chris, who had hung up and was busy pouring coffee, pointed towards the door next to the refrigerator. "Third shelf on the left, I think."

JD opened the door, "Buck."


"Come here please."

Buck puzzled by the tone of JD's voice went to stand beside him in the pantry. "Can't find the preserves?" he asked.

"I found those just fine," JD glanced around the room, not some little cabinet. Shelves lined two walls and a freezer the third. Enough food was in the pantry to stock a small grocery store.

"Then what?" Buck was really puzzled.

"Last night you said we didn't have any food. I pushed a cart with food stacked taller than me around the store because you said we didn't have any food. Look! There is enough food to feed an army in there," he yelled at his brother.

"JD, that's not food, that's supplies."

JD stood glaring at Buck before huge hands grabbed his shoulders and propelled him to the table. "Time to eat," Josiah said.

This morning they did not eat in silence and between bites of biscuits piled high with preserves Buck explained the necessity of keeping the pantry well stocked during the winter months. "Living out here is not like living in town. We are pretty far out. Sometimes we can't just run to the store to get a few things. I would like to say that we could depend on Nathan being able to pick us up things on his way home from the clinic, but knowing Nate we might not see him for days if he gets busy. We don't get much snow, not this far down in the valley, but there are times when its best not to be driving and during those times you had best have plenty of food on hand."

JD nodded in understanding. Buck made sense and more importantly he wasn't talking down to him. His eyes showed only serious consideration and JD could feel a chill of apprehension --- this was so very different than living in the city. What if he couldn't handle it?

Buck turned to include the other men in his conversation. "We need to check our inventory and stock up. No telling when we'll get some weather."

"You want to do that this morning?" Chris asked.

"I'm gonna take JD out riding first, see how he does. You want to come, Josiah?"

"No, I want to take a walk around first, then I'll get started on looking at our supplies."

"That ok with you kid?" Buck looked at him suddenly concerned that he'd made the plans and that maybe JD didn't want to come. He hurried to explain, "We need to look for Jack. That's Dad's dog. Use to follow Dad everywhere," his voice broke and he got up and walked over to the coffee pot, pouring himself another cup.

"That was Nathan on the phone," Chris said to give Buck some time to compose himself. "He left early to take Vin some breakfast and check on Ezra before heading to his meeting with Judge Travis."

"How are our brothers?" Josiah asked.

"Nathan said they were both tired looking. The nurses were in a tizzy. Seems Ezra pulled out his IV and his catheter," he almost chuckled at the pained expressions on both Josiah and JD's faces; he shared the sentiment. "Vin wouldn't let them wake him to put them back in unless his doctor said it was absolutely necessary. The urologist has been in and he told Nathan that Ezra's bleeding has tapered off. He's getting discharged this morning provided he stays on antibiotics and gets about two weeks of bed rest."

"What are you going to do about him?" Buck asked as he sat back down. If his eyes were a little watery no one mentioned it.

"According to Vin, he said he's a gambler and that the reason he got beat up was because he won more than some bastard thought he should have."

"Must be pretty good to drive around in a car like that," Josiah observed.

"Nothing illegal about gambling," Buck added.

"Nope," Chris replied.

"And?" asked Buck.

"Nathan thinks I should leave him alone."

"And?" sometimes, thought Buck, talking to Chris was worse than pulling teeth.

"And Nathan's going to be gone all day, meeting with the Judge and then with Emmett. Buck, you take JD out and find that dog. He's been gone too long. Josiah, get to work on the pantry, make a list of what's in there. Check the freezer too. I'm going to go fetch our brothers."

JD let a little smile creep across his lips. Having these men as brothers might be fun.


Not even bothering circling the hospital parking lot, he parked at the pharmacy across the street from the hospital's main entrance. The hospital had grown wide and not up. Now the building sprawled all over its tract of land leaving little room for parking. There had been talk about buying one of the neighboring buildings and tearing it down to build a parking garage, but so far the price the hospital board was offering the doctors and dentists for their land had not enticed anyone to sell. Consequently, if you did not arrive significantly before the start of visiting hours you had best forget finding a space near the hospital and plan on doing some walking.

Chris stepped out of the sedan and stretched, oddly reluctant to go in there and fetch his brother. He never had been hesitant to do a job that needed to be doing. He had always been confidant of his abilities, but now he was bereft of that confidence and felt awkward going in to speak as a brother to a man he did not even know. Girding himself, as though preparing for battle, he walked into the building.

He nodded politely and tipped his hat (Buck would be proud of the effort) at the nurses clustered around their station. He did not recognize any of them, although they seemed to know him and one pushed away from her chair and came around the cubicle obviously intent on stopping him.

"Mr. Larabee."

He knew he should have been friendlier, but he had made up his mind to talk with Ezra and she was impeding his progress. "Yes," he managed to not snarl.

"Mr. Tanner is in the nurses' lounge and wanted to talk with you first thing."

He concentrated on softening his face into something a little more agreeable. Buck had often told him when he scowled he frightened people. "Where?"

"First door on the right," She stood watching him walk away. He wore a blasted coat so that she couldn't see much other than the ends of the coat flapping behind him, but she could appreciate the fluid grace with which he walked. She giggled as she sat back down and she and her co-workers exchanged guilty looks and burst out laughing - they were professionals after all and should not be getting this much pleasure from watching a man walk.

+ + + + + + +

Vin glanced up from his assortment of vending foods and the orange juice a cute nurse had given him. "Finally made it. About to send out a search team."

"That what you having for breakfast?"

"Nah, breakfast was hours ago. This is mid-morning snack," he offered Chris some chips, which he declined.

"You wanted to talk?"


"Don't what?"

"Don't push him."

Chris dropped the bag of clothes he had brought for Ezra in a chair, thinking that he should have brought something for Vin also. Oh well, he could get showered and changed when they got to the ranch. He glanced at Vin's snack and almost gagged at the odd assortment of food Vin was snacking on. He didn't gag, he didn't even comment on the mixture of sweets, sours and salts. Instead he shrugged out of his coat and put his hat on the chair beside him. Why hadn't he left the thing in the car? He had managed to not wear it for three years and this morning his hand had just reached out and grabbed it. Wonder, how it got on the coat rack anyhow?

Comfortable, he reached past the chips and grabbed the pickle. They had those in vending machines? "You got something to tell me." It was a statement not a question.

Tanner finished swallowing his chips and took a swig of orange juice. Scooting his chair back he leaned back in it and propped his legs up on the table. "Had me an apartment once, me and two of my buddies. Ground floor, near the garbage bins. There was this yellow tabby that had kittens hidden away somewhere nearby. I left food out for her to keep her out of the bins, kinda worried that she'd get trapped in it and the truck would come and pick her up with the garbage. I was hoping to catch her and her babies, go get 'em spayed, maybe find 'em a home. Never could get near her, she was that wild. This here is from the one time I did manage to catch her," he pointed to a pair of diagonal lines running up the inside of his right forearm, "I thought I was going to need stitches."

He finished the carton of juice and tossed it into the can. "One night I heard a noise and there she was with five of the scrawniest little kittens ya ever saw eating the food I'd left out on the patio. They started coming with her after that and when my roommates were out I'd turn off the lights and wait for her and her kittens to stop by. After a couple weeks, she came one night with only two of those kittens. A few days later it was just those two boys stopping by. One night it was raining somethin' fierce and I cracked the patio door open and waited. When they came in I made a mistake. I frightened them. I forgot that they'd never been held, never been around people. I just saw those two wet kittens and I made to grab them. One took off out the door: I kept putting food out, but he never came back. The other ran down the hall into my bedroom. It took me weeks to get it to come out from under the bed when I was in the room and even longer before he'd let me pick him up to pet. Ended up a real good cat, good mouser use to bring me presents. He liked riding in cars. Gave him to a girlfriend when I moved. Saw her about a year later, he came right up to me and jumped in my lap." He looked up at Chris, his eyes deadly serious, "Ya scare him, trying to get him to do things yer way, and he'll leave. Don't lunge for him."

"Thanks for the pickle," Chris grabbed his things and the paper bag and walked out of the room and on down the hall.

Vin returned to his snack.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah finished cleaning up the kitchen. He grabbed a coke from the fridge, his hand only hovering for a moment over a beer can. He did not need a beer he sternly told himself as he closed the refrigerator door. Popping the top off the coke he grabbed his coat from where he had thrown it earlier and walked out to the back porch.

Funny, how alcohol affected him. It wasn't that he drank every night or that when he did that he always drank to excess. It was just that when he did drink too much he was mean and violent; he didn't think of himself as a mean or violent man and so he had to ask himself, did the alcohol change him or did it strip the veneer away and expose the real Josiah. Thankfully, he had never hurt anyone, not seriously anyway, but he scared people. Had scared Nancy so much that she had moved out; she had her children come with her to move her things out and that had hurt. As though he would ever hurt her. She had blamed herself, telling him she was sorry, that she loved him and that she wanted what was best for him, but that she couldn't give him what he needed to stay sober. Her children had glared at him as she gave that tearful speech, thankful, no doubt that their mother and he had never wed.

Six months they'd lived together. They'd known each other three years before that. And out of all that time he had gotten drunk only a handful of times ... listen to yourself, he told himself sternly. When you scare someone, when you drink and cannot remember what you said or did in the morning, when the woman you love leaves you, then you have to face the facts. You drink too much.

She had left and he had taken a leave of absence from the clinic. He couldn't decide if they were happy that he was taking some time off or if they were disgruntled that they had to pick up the slack. Either way he couldn't blame them. He was leaving them shorthanded. The clinic needed every councilor carrying a full load if they planned to make any headway in healing the ills of the masses. Still, Nancy worked there too and even though she hadn't told anyone why she had moved out the tension between the two of them must have been hard for everyone else to deal with.

This Will of Dad's was a godsend. He would have a year to decide what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. It was obvious he couldn't go back to that clinic, but he could still council if he wanted to do so. The question was, did he want to do that? He'd figure that out. First, though, he had to figure out what these brothers of his meant to him and to his future.

Whether this grand experiment worked and forged them into a family depended on Chris, he thought; it was obvious that Nathan and Buck would follow wherever he led. He wondered if Chris also had a drinking problem. Nothing in his behavior last night indicated that alcohol might be a problem. Nothing in his behavior, but a man would have to be blind to miss the looks between Nathan and Buck when Chris reached for his second beer and the relief in both of their faces when he switched to sodas later. If Chris did drink too much, would he be able to hold them all together or would he drive them away?

He closed his eyes and prayed. He wasn't sure what to pray for except for the strength to make it through the day. After a moment he opened his eyes and looked around and seeing the glorious day the Lord had made, he gave thanks.

"Utterly unbelievable," he said to himself as he followed a well-worn path to a stream. He had lived in many different places and had seen many wondrous sights, but for the life of him he couldn't think of any to equal the beauty and wonder of the land he was walking. The stream ran rapidly along, splashing the white smooth stones that lined the bed. He walked a little further along the stream startling birds that angrily rebuked him for his invasion of their paradise. He apologized profusely to them, but continued to walk.

He hadn't gone that far, but the sparsely wooded land had almost hidden the house from his view. He decided to leave the birds to their business and head back to the house; he wanted to walk down to the stable and see the horses. It had been many years, but once he had ridden and loved it. Hope it was one of those things that you didn't forget, like bike riding. Though to think about it he wasn't sure if he could ride a bike now if his life depended upon it. Maybe he had better pray to remember how to ride, the Lord loved for His children to ask for His help.

The horses had been turned out to pasture so he gave the stable only a cursory examination, noting the neatness of the tack room, the clean bedding and the absence of flies. He walked back out into the sun and up to the fence. The horses watched him with more curiosity than wariness and though they occasionally lifted their heads to return his stare, his slow deliberate movements reassured them and they continued grazing. He watched them move about the pasture in long easy strides and a long forgotten voice began pointing out the faults and merits of each of them.

Caught up in the sight of the horses he was not aware of his new companion until a large head pushed under his hand. The largest dog he had ever seen sat beside him, tail thumping gently on the ground. "Hey boy," he spoke softly so as not to break the mood and the thumping quickened. He rubbed the massive white head and the dog leaned into his hand. "I guess you must be Jack." The dog insisted that his ears needed special attention by way of answer. Josiah knelt down beside the dog and was offered a paw. He didn't know much about the different dog breeds, but once he had dated a lady that bred and showed Great Danes and he had accompanied her to several shows, he thought that Jack must be a Great Pyrenees; he'd have to ask someone.

His fingers ran through the dog's coat and were met with matted hair and caught twigs. "You look like you could do with a good brushing," he stood up and gestured for the dog to follow him to the barn. "Did I ever tell you I was once considered a fairly decent barber?"

+ + + + + + +

Chris didn't bother to knock he just pushed the door open. If he managed to surprise Ezra it didn't show in his face. "Thought they wanted you in bed."

"They did and then they insisted that Ah wake up so that Ah could tell them how Ah slept last night and they did all sorts of invasive procedures which Ah endured with stoic strength and as soon as they finished making me bleed they told me to get some sleep. Then no sooner than Ah had shut mah eyes intent on following their instruction, but another one of those Amazons in scrub suits came in with the premise that Ah provide her with ... urine. Ah don't know how you view these things, suh, but Ah did not want her assist me in any way and certainly not with one of those devices ...To move the story past a few unpleasant details, Ah have come to the conclusion that it is preferable to stand and meet whomever walks in that door on mah feet rathuh than wait on mah back." He motioned Chris to the chair. "Please be seated. Do not feel you need to stand on mah account."

Chris tossed his coat and hat on the bed and placed the paper bag on the table before sitting down. "Word is they're planning to release you shortly."

"Yes, Ah believe Ah have done mah time."

"Got any thought about where you're heading."

"Ah suppose Ah'll return to Las Vegas," he said thinking, "I've got to find a game if I plan to keep Moore happy."

Chris considered his brother, wondering how to convince him to come and live at the ranch. The man, standing behind the chair in a short hospital gown and an equally short robe managed to look as though he was posing for the latest in hospital wear. Faint shadows under his eyes and the tightness with which he grasped the chair betrayed his attempt to look relaxed and normal. He was stubborn: stubbornly looking normal when he had to be in pain, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge Linc Larabee as his father or the rest of them as brothers, stubbornly resisting coming to the ranch. What was he supposed to do?

"Vegas is a long drive," said Chris as he crossed his arms in front of him and scowled. He looked at his brother and thought 'especially for someone with broken ribs. You won't make it no matter what you tell yourself.'

"Ah can in mah car," Ezra answered the skepticism in Chris's voice and the matching look on his face.

Ezra let go of the chair, breaking eye contact with Chris. He went to the bed and sat down on the edge. "What's this?" he asked prodding at the brown sack as though he expected something to jump out.


"Mah clothes?" he glanced at the bag, frowning at the thought of them wadding up one of his suits to make it fit into the bag.

"Actually, it is my clothes." Chris opened the bag and pulled out a blue running pants and coordinating jacket, a large white t- shirt completed the out fit. "We couldn't get the locks on your luggage opened so I brought this."

"Ah'll make sure it gets returned to you," said Ezra, he kept his frustration hidden thinking, 'Why couldn't they have just hung up his suit from yesterday and brought him a clean shirt? Even wrinkled it was preferable to what Chris Larabee had brought and he wouldn't be bothered with the need to return it. And they had his luggage? Surely they left it with the car.'

Chris almost left then. Nathan had spent the morning on the phone lecturing him about the legal and moral repercussions if he forced Ezra to the ranch and then Vin had warned him against cornering the man. How the hell was he supposed to reach a man that had already made up his mind not to listen? He wanted to throw up his hands in frustration and leave, but he was hit by a dark premonition. If he let their brother walk away, they would never see him again. They would never hear from him unless it was to read about him in the paper: the article would either be about him winning big in Vegas or his body being found in an alley. For God's Sake, the man carried insurance on his car, but not on himself; how could anyone think that he would take care of himself?

If he let his brother leave the hospital alone, there would be no letters exchanged. There would be no phone calls in the evening. There would be no occasional vacations to the ranch. If he were allowed to leave he would be gone. Vin was right though, lunge at Ezra and he would be out the door. To catch a feral cat he needed a trap in which to hold him until he could be tamed.

"Ezra, come out to the ranch. At least until you are on your feet."

"No. Thank you for asking, but ah have obligations elsewhere."

"You don't have a job. Are you married? Do you have children?"


"Are you an addict?"

"Ah am not foolish enough to ever begin to take drugs," he said puzzled. He couldn't believe that Chris had asked that.

"Not drugs. Are you addicted to gambling?"

"Ah am a gambluh. It is how Ah make mah living," he answered. It was the truth. He was not addicted to gambling, he made a living by gambling and by helping mother out with her occasional cons. He glared up at Chris, "Ah am not addicted to it."

"How do you know you are not addicted? Have you ever tried to leave?"

"Why would Ah leave such a lucrative business?"

"Oh I don't know ... to get away from people using you as a punching bag for starters."

"A misunderstanding, nothing more."


"Pardon me?"

"You heard me. You are going to end up dead if you keep dealing with people who can do this."

"We all end up dead." He tried to glare back at the man, but he was tiring. He needed to get out. He pulled the clothes to him and shook out the pants. Why wouldn't the man leave? He needed him gone so that he could figure out how to get the pants on without crying out from the effort.

"Sit down Ezra and listen to me. Hear me out," he took the pants out of Ezra's hands, tossed them on the bed and sank into the chair waiting for the right words to come to him. He couldn't find them. Why couldn't he have Buck's gift for making people feel at ease? Finally he just started talking, "I told Josiah, last night, that it would be easier if Dad had given us the money and had not included this one year family reunion into the mix."

"Yes, we would be gone and you would have the ranch and--" he was horrified at the bitterness he heard in his own voice.

"Is that what you think?" Chris spat out. "That I want you gone so I can have the ranch?"

"It is your home."

"No, it ... was ... my home." Chris bolted out of the chair and paced around the room burning off steam so that he could sit and talk rationally. He was angry but not angry enough that he had missed the almost imperceptible flinch Ezra had made when he had jumped out of the chair. "One day ... maybe... I will know you well enough to show you my home."

He sat back down and glared at the stranger across from him. "I am here because Dad ... LOOK AT ME EZRA ... Dad ... OUR father asked us to do this. I am staying the year because of him; I owe Dad that. One year and then I am gone."

"That is what you are doing. Fine. You owe him, fine. Ah do not owe him anything." Ezra spoke between clenched teeth, his voice husky with anger.

"No. I guess you don't owe him," he reluctantly admitted. He knew his father. Knew him to be a loving and caring father, but the man sitting on the edge of the bed all hunched over and holding his side in obvious pain did not know that man. "I know he wanted you, searched for you."

"Shut the hell up!" his voice was low and dangerous. He slid off the bed, ignoring the bolt of pain that action caused and walked over to the window, "The truth is if he wanted me he could have found me."

"He tried." Chris followed his brother to the window.

"Ah wrote him. All Ah wanted was for him to write me back and he couldn't be bothuhed."

"I'm sorry." Chris did not know what to do or say to ease the hurt and rage in that voice.


"You needed him. I am sorry he wasn't there."

"Don't be. Ah'm a much stronger man than Ah would have been if Ah had him to lean on."

"Then why are you so afraid?"

"Of what?" he was not afraid. He had learned to handle his fears long ago. He turned to face one of his biggest fears. His face hard and remote. He was determined to show nothing though inside behind his barriers he was throwing and breaking everything in sight.

"Of me, of Josiah and JD and Buck and Nathan and Vin. You are shaking in your boots at the thought of us."

"You are mistaken. Ah merely am not interested in you."

"If you were not interested, you would not have come yesterday."

"Idle curiosity, nothing moruh."

"You are lying. I see it in your eyes. You wanted to meet us and now that you have you are going to run off with your tail tucked between your legs," he reached over and wiped at the lone tear that had escaped his brother's control and was rushing down his cheek. "You are running off and when you can't run any further you will remember this meeting and you will hate us for not keeping you just like you hate Dad for not keeping you."

"Why is what Ah think so important to you? Why do you care if Ah'm there working at the ranch with you or in a casino winning a fortune?"

Chris locked eyes with green ones so like his own. He whispered, "You owe me."

"Ah do not see how you can make that claim." He wanted to step back out of Chris Larabee's personal space, but he had nowhere to go. He could hear his heart beating loudly in his chest and wondered that Chris could not hear it also.

"I remember you. Do you know that?" asked Chris, thinking of what Vin had said in the lounge: Offer a feral cat a tidbit and maybe he'll follow you through the patio door.


"I do. Do you want to hear about it?" asked Chris. He came close to whispering 'Please take the bait' but he waited silently for Ezra's response.

"Yes," the word snuck out of his mouth as a whisper. He didn't want to hear anything, there were too many years of silence, but, for the life of him he could not keep from speaking that word.

"Come, sit down on the bed. I'll sit over here and tell you why you owe me." He didn't lose eye contact as he waited for his brother to settle on the edge of the bed. He knew that all that movement had to have set his ribs on fire and that sitting on the bed hurt his rear, but his brother's face did not register any of that pain, he doubted if it even existed at that moment for Ezra. His older, deeper pain overshadowed all else.

Reaching behind him he dragged the table to him and sat on it so that he was at about the same height as Ezra and so that their knees were only a fraction of an inch apart. He didn't want to crowd his brother, but was scared if he didn't keep some sort of contact that he would lose him.

"I have these memories of Dad, of him rocking Nathan and crying. Mama, that would be Nathan's mom, had died and the house was so quiet. He'd rock Nathan to sleep and put him in his bed. He would sleep on one side of Nathan and I would sleep on the other and when on the nights Buck stayed over, he'd put Buck in bed, too. I would wake up and he'd be at the window, just standing. Sometimes, he would hold me so tight that it would hurt, but I knew that it was because he was so sad. One day the Judge and Miss Evie came over and took Nathan and me to spend the night at their home. They said Dad was going to get away for the weekend."

"Ten days later Dad came back and holding his hand was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She never moved in with us and yet she was always there. One day I told her she was getting fat. She didn't get angry, she just laughed. One day Dad told me I didn't have to go to school. He had me and Nathan put on our church clothes. He said he was going to take us to meet our new brother. You were so little... premature. We came every night to look at you through a glass window. I remember picking Nathan up to see you and a nurse bringing a stool out for Buck the times he came. Finally, you were brought home and I watched as your mom put you in the crib. She wouldn't let us come in because you were too little. She told me I could pick you up when you were bigger. Anyway, one day Dad took me and Nathan and Buck out, I don't remember where and when we came home you were gone." Chris stopped talking. It had been a bad time. There had been a note and an empty safe and Chris had told Buck to take Nathan to the kitchen. He had stayed in the doorway afraid to leave his daddy and afraid to stay. He had stood there crying, not understanding why his Daddy was throwing things, helpless to ease his father's pain.

"Ah don't see how this means Ah owe you," Ezra insisted, his voice little more than a whisper.

"You owe me the chance to get to know you. You owe me the chance to see what kind of man you grew up to be."

"Ah believe that you will be disappointed by what you find."

"I believe that a man that I could be disappointed in would not worry about me being disappointed."

Ezra hunted for the lie in Chris's face and eyes; he looked for 'the tells' that would expose the deceit. In the back of his head his mother's voice warned him of a scam; to not forget he had to stand up on his own two feet, that he could not trust the good intentions of others. There was a con, there had to be: life had taught him that much, but he couldn't find it.

"Ah will make you mad," he tried again.

"Hell, everyone makes me mad. Brothers get mad at each other, they get over it."

"Ah'm not a morning person."

"I make people nervous. "

"I like to play poker."

"So do I."

"You won't win if you play with me."

"Your cocky."

"Ah'm honest."

"We'll see."

"Don't cry when I win your million off of you."

"Didn't want it anyway."

Ezra leaned back on shaky arms. "If you tell anyone in this institution this, Ah will have to deny it and plot some suitable revenge, but Ah really don't believe Ah am up to driving to Vegas today."

"I don't think Buck's ready to let the Porsche out of his sight. If you leave now you would have to take him with you."

"Ah suppose Ah must stay and let him get ovuh his infatuation."

"Let's get you dressed so we can get out of here."

"Ah have been dressing mahself for years. Why don't you wait out in the hall?"

"You ever dressed yourself with broken ribs?"

"As recently as yesterday."

"You are a stubborn cuss."

"Yes, so Ah'm told."

Chris stepped out the door and glanced at his brother leaning against the wall. Seeing him there, propping up the wall, he knew that Tanner was the reason that no one had interrupted his talk with Ezra. "He's getting dressed."

"Might take a while."

"Yep, that it might."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra sat on his bed frowning. How was he supposed to wear $400 Italian black dress shoes with a blue running suit? He would die of embarrassment. Would it be dreadfully insulting if he wore his own wrinkled suit instead of Chris Larabee's offering? He looked at the assortment of clothes and decided the better question was: how was he going to get dressed?

The End