Raul's Victory
Fan Fiction

 

 

Magnificent Seven Ranch: 
Perceptions

By Victory

Disclaimer: I donít own The Magnificent Seven and Iím not making any profit from this story. You could sue me but any percentage of nothing is still nothing.
Warnings: If you donít believe in spanking children as a form of discipline (not abuse), then donít read these stories.
Type: Gen

This is the second story in this AU.

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Chapter #1: The Cost of Adventure
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"Vin?"

"What Ez?"

"We need to head home."

"In a minute. I want to show ya the chamber. Itís beautiful."

"If we donít head out now, weíll be late for supper and have to explain what took so long. I for one do not want Chris or Josiah asking questions."

"Itís just up ahead. Only take two minutes."

The boys went through the cave and found the cavern that Vin was looking for. The inner chamber of this particular cave was lit with natural light that made the cave look bright as day. There was a small fisher in the far wall where a trickle of water flowed freely, cascading down the smooth rocks to a small pool of water. Ezra was rendered speechless.

"Cool huh?" Vin smiled at Ezraís open mouth.

"It is most impressive. How did you find it?"

"I found it while we were lookiní fer JD after Pa died. I thought maybe he hid in here, but he didnít. Chris had a fit Ďcause I didnít wait fer him. Jeesh, you wouldíve believed that I learned nuthiní from living with my mamaís people."

"I would love to spend some quiet time here, but not now. If we donít get home, we will be dead."

"Okay Ez. Wouldnít do to get Chrisí britches in a twist." Vin moved out of the chamber with Ezra behind him. As they approached the entrance of the cave, Ezra lost his footing and fell.

"Aw hell."

"You okay Ez?"

Ezra stood up and brushed his hands on his pants. He winced in pain as his left arm brushed his body. "I think so Vin. Letís get home."

"I wonder what happened in school today?"

"We may never know since brother Nathan is home sick and can not report on our apparent absence." Ezra saw a confused look on Vinís face. "Never mind."

They walked out into the sunlight and realized they were going to be late getting home. Ezra looked at his arm and noticed a small scratch on his forearm running from his wrist to his elbow. He took his handkerchief and wrapped it around the scratch to stem the small flow of blood. Vin noticed and asked, "You okay Ez? That looks like a nasty scratch."

"Nonsense. Itís just a scratch. However, I am more concerned with the condition of our rear flanks."

Vin looked confused. "Huh?"

Both boys mounted up. Ezra turned to Vin and smiled. "I said, we best get home or Chris will know we didnít go to school and will have our hides."

"Why didnít ya jest say so in the first place. Letís go."

Their horses were spurred toward home with hopes to make it in time.

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Chapter #2: An Apple A Day
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JD was hungry. Chris had dragged him into town to do some errands. JD wanted to be home where he could play. Ever time he tried to play with something in town, Chris told him Ďnoí. Now they were in the general store and Chris was busy.

"Chris?" JD tugged on Chrisí duster.

"JD. Iím talking."

"Iím sorry. Iís hungry." JD tried his biggest puppy dog look. The storekeeper caved.

"JD, you like apples?" JD nodded. "Why donít you go outside to the front stand and get an apple?"

"Can I Chris?" Chris smiled at JD.

"Sure Sprout. Just one and come right back in here with it."

"Okay." JD ran outside to look at the apples.

"That boy has a lot of energy." The storekeeper said.

"More than youíll ever know."

******

JD looked over all of the apples and decided on a small red apple. It was perfect. He was about to return to Chris when he was suddenly picked up.

"Boy! You stealing that apple?"

JD was face to face with a nasty looking man who was missing his front teeth. His breath smelled like whiskey. JD couldnít talk he was so frightened. The man shook JD and he felt like his teeth were rattling. "Iím talking to ya boy. You stupid or something?"

JD cried.

"Maybe youíd like ta tell your story to the sheriff." JD started to kick and scream for the man to let go.

"Mister, put him down." The smelly man turned to see a very angry Chris Larabee standing with his hand posed over his gun. "I said put him down now."

"Who are you? I caught this boy stealiní an apple."

"Heís my brother and he wasnít stealing it, now put him down." Chris had stepped closer to the man and glared at him. JD was released and ran sobbing to Chris. He hid behind Chrisí legs while Chris dealt with the stranger. "Mister, I donít know who you are or why you felt it was your place, but this boy is my responsibility, not yours. You should learn to mind your own business."

"I was just trying to help." The man backed away and left quickly.

Chris turned and took JD into his arms and hugged him close. "You okay Sprout?"

JD cried hard. That stranger had scared him and he was holding onto Chris like he would disappear. Chris spoke softly to him and rubbed his back as JD cried.

"Itís okay Sprout. Youíre safe now." Chris noticed the apple JD had picked out on the floor. He bent over to pick it up and handed it to JD. "This your apple JD?"

JD turned his head and hiccupped then nodded.

"Well, letís rinse it off and you can eat it on the way home." Chris carried JD to the water pump and rinsed the apple. He then carried JD with him into the store and paid for his goods. They were about to leave when Miss Jones approached them.

"Mr. Larabee. How are the boys?"

Chris was confused. "Nathanís good. He will probably be in school tomorrow."

"And Kevin and Ezra?"

"What about them? They arenít sick?"

"No? The note I received said they were all down with a cold."

"All? Nathanís the only one who was sick. Vin and Ezra are fine."

"They havenít been in school all week. I didnít think anything of it since the note explained it."

"I did write a note, but I gave it to Ezra to deliver and sent them both to school for the last three days."

"Then they were skipping, because I havenít seen them all week. Young Danny delivered the message."

"Danny? So Ezra and Vin havenít been in school the last three days?"

"Correct."

"Miss Jones, Iím sorry. Those two were suppose to be in school. Nathan was the only one I kept home sick. Rest assuredly; all three of them will be back tomorrow. Nathan is feeling better, but I think Vin and Ezra are gonna be feeliní poorly. Maíam." Chris tipped his hat and headed the buckboard toward home. JD didnít say a thing. He knew Chris was mad Ďcause that vein was throbbing again.

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Chapter #3: Pay the Piper
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Ezra and Vin raced their horses into the yard. They both knew that they would get yelled at for riding so fast but it was better than being late. As they dismounted, Buck came out of the barn.

"You boys are late. Supperís ready. Put your horses up and make it quick, Chris is in a foul mood."

"Okay." They replied. Buck headed to the house and Ezra and Vin looked at each other.

"You think heís mad Ďcause weíre late or Ďcause we skipped school?"

"Who knows Vin. He could be upset about anything. If he does know, weíre dead."

"You could talk us out of trouble Ez."

"I doubt it. Not without lying and you know I canít lie to Chris."

"Ya. He always sees through ya." Together, Vin and Ezra headed in to wash up and for supper.

As they entered the main room, they could hear the rest of the family gathered around the table. As the door closed everyone went quiet and Chris looked up.

"You boys are late. Come and eat. Weíll talk after supper."

"Weíre sorry Ďbout beiní late." Vin said.

"After supper boys, now sit down and eat." Supper was a somber affair, with Buck telling Chris how his day was. JD piped in and told everyone about the stranger in town and how scared he was.

"You shouldíve seen it Buck. Chris scared that fella silly. One look from Chris and he was runniní away." Chris blushed. He wasnít trying to be scary, well, maybe a little bit. "Then we came home after Chris talked to the school teacher."

Chris looked at Vin and Ezra, who had looked at each other. Chris knew and they were dead.

"JD finish your supper." Chris said.

"Yes sir." Buck looked at Josiah to see if he knew what was going on and Josiah just shrugged his shoulders. They would find out after supper.

When Chris was finished eating, he stood up and said, "Vin. Ezra. When youíre finished, I want to see you in the den." Chris walked away. When he was gone, Buck asked, "Okay, what have you two gotten into this time?"

"Nothiní. We were late is all."

"Miss Jones told Chris they was skippiní school." JD added.

"You two have been skipping school?" Buck said.

"For how long?" Josiah added.

"Few days." Vin whispered.

"Ezra?" Josiah said. Ezra looked at him and tried to smile.

"We simply didnít want Nathan to feel like he had fallen behind in school."

"What?" Buck said.

"Since Nate was going to miss some school, he felt it was his brotherly duty to miss some too. Correct?" Josiah said.

"Precisely. We made the sacrifice for Nathan."

"I doubt Chris will see it that way."

"I donít." Everyone turned to see Chris standing in the doorway. "Ezra and Vin go wait for me in the den. Josiah, why donít you join us. Nate, I want you to go rest and Buck can take JD outside to run off some of his energy before bed."

Ezra and Vin left with Josiah and Chris right behind them.

*******

The lecture seemed to be dragging on forever. Ezra found it hard to concentrate and felt a little dizzy. He figured it was just exhaustion. He was brought back out of his thoughts when Josiah touched his left arm. The arm was sore and he jumped from the touch.

"You boys are confined to the ranch for the next three weeks. You know I donít approve of skipping school. Iím sure I can find something to keep you both busy for that period of time. You will come straight home from school everyday. I donít want to hear about any trouble at school either. Is that clear?"

"Yes sir." Both boys replied. Chris turned to Josiah. "Heís all yours."

"Ezra, go wait for me in your room."

"ButÖyou already confined us." Ezra said.

"Yes I did. And when Josiah is done with your tanning and Iím done with Vinís we will move on." Chris turned to Vin. "You can wait for me in your room Vin."

"ButÖ" Vin began.

Chris pointed toward the stairs and both boys went to their rooms.

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Chapter #4: Swinginí
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Ezra was not a morning person. When he was with his mother, Ezra would stay up late, usually in a saloon, and was allowed to sleep as late as he wanted. Living on a ranch took some getting use to. When he first came to the ranch with his father, he was allowed to sleep in. It wasnít long before his father insisted he join everyone for breakfast. Breakfast was at 6am, not 11am. When his father died, Chris and Josiah made sure he didnít go back to his old habits. Habits are hard to break.

"Ezra! Get up or you will be late for school!" Chris yelled through the door as he walked by. "NOW!"

"Iím up!" Ezra yelled back. //God I hate mornings//

Ezra rolled over onto his back and immediately rolled back to his stomach as the pain registered in his backside. //I must remember not to skip school again// Ezra got up slowly and dressed. It took a little bit longer because he ached all over. When finished, he looked at his reflection and noticed he was sweating. He wiped his forehead and wondered when the headache had started. //God Iím tired//

Ezra absently rubbed his left arm as he went downstairs. //It was going to be a long day//

******

Vin gingerly finished his and Ezraís chores. He felt guilty, because it had been his idea to skip school. He didnít have to try hard to convince Ezra, but he still felt bad.

He finished pitching the hay down to the stalls and took hold of the block and tackle and jumped from the loft. He had discovered that the tackle would release at a good rate when a boy of his weight pulled on it. Of course it was quite a rush. As he got heavier, the faster the tackle would move. Ezra could get the tackle to fly.

"You better not let Chris see you do that or you wonít leave this ranch until youíre Buckís age."

"Hey Ez. How ya feeliní?"

"Sore."

Vin rubbed his backside and smiled. "Yeah. I can relate."

Ezra smiled. "You learn that in school?"

"What?"

"Relate."

"Nah. I been hanginí with you so long, itís startiní ta rub off on me."

"God help us." Buck said from the door. "You two can find more trouble together. Chris could save that vein on his head if he would just keep you two apart."

"What fun would your life be brother Buck, if we didnít stir things up once in a while."

"I would have more time for the ladies."

"Youíre incorrigible Buck."

"IncoraÖwhat?" Vin asked.

"Never mind." Ezra wiped his brow again and sat down on a bail of hay. "I hate mornings. I hate chores. And I hate heat."

"It ainít hot Ez. Besides, I finished yer chores."

"Why?"

"Felt bad bout yesterday."

"I skipped school because I wanted to, not because you talked me into it."

"I know but I still feel bad."

"Nonsense Vin. I am the older brother," Ezra noticed Vin start to blush. "Thank you Vin."

"Letís go eat. Miss Jones will probably make us skip recess to punish us fer skippiní her classes."

"You go ahead. Iím not hungry." Ezra closed his eyes and leaned back against the stall.

"Nope. If you donít show up at the table, Chris will come out here and drag you inside. Come on." Buck helped Ezra stand.

"Iím not hungry." Ezra staggered in front of Buck as he pushed Ezra toward the house. Vin followed.

********

Breakfast was quickly over. Ezra only ate a couple of bites because Chris forced him to eat. All the rest of his meal ended up in his napkin.

"Okay boys, go get your books and get in the buck board." Chris said as he got up.

"Buckboard?" Vin asked.

"I am personally escorting you two to school. Nateís not up to riding yet and I doubt either of you can sit a horse."

Chris took Nathan, Ezra, and Vin to school and returned to the ranch to work. It was Buckís day to watch JD and Chris was looking forward to a few days of hard work, away from brothers.

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Chapter #5: Trouble at School
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Ezra woke with a start. //Where am I?//

"Mr. Standish! Since you can not stay awake for the lesson, you can stay after school to get what you missed."

"Maíam?" Ezra was hot and he felt awful.

"You heard me. You would think that you were in enough trouble already." Miss Jones walked back to the front of the class. Ezra just stared at her and tried to think straight, but the headache from this morning had become worse and he couldnít stay focused. Vin noticed Ezra didnít have any snappy comeback and actually looked pale. //Couldnít anyone see that Ez was sick?// He leaned over to his brother and whispered, "Ez? You okay?"

Ezra looked at Vin and nodded. He was afraid if he opened his mouth he would loose what little food he had eaten today.

"Ez. You donít look so good."

"Mr. Tanner! Do you have a problem?" Miss Jones asked with disgust.

"Maíam, I think Ezraís sick. He donít look so good."

"Nonsense. He would be fine if he stayed awake. Maybe I will suggest to Chris that he needs an earlier bed time."

"We was to bed early last night." Vin said petulantly. "Heís sick."

"I will not argue with you young man. I want you both to pay attention with no more sleeping or talking."

"But heís sick. I think he needs a doctor."

"I will not tell you again Kevin."

"Donít call me Kevin! My nameís VIN!"

"Enough! You can go stand in the corner and when your brother gets here we will all sit down and discuss your attitude."

"But Ezraís sick." Vin whined.

Miss Jones took Vin by the arm and led him to the corner. "Stand there and I donít want to hear a word out of you until Chris gets here. Understood?"

Vin wiped away a stray tear as he looked at Ezra. "You okay Ez?"

Ezra tried to smile to reassure his brother but he only had the energy to nod.

"Turn around and face the wall Kevin."

Vin mumbled something against the wall. "What was that young man?"

"I said yes maíam."

"Good. Not another peep out of you." Vin was tempted to make a chick noise just to prove his point, but decided he didnít need to be caned on top of last nightís tanning. He put his head against the corner and tried to stop the tears from becoming sobs.

********

As Chris drove into the schoolyard he knew something was wrong. All of the other children were heading home and there was no sign of Ezra or Vin. Chris headed toward the schoolhouse and saw Nathan waiting on the steps. When he saw Chris he jumped up. "Chris."

"Whatís wrong Nate? Where are your brothers?"

"Inside. There was a little trouble about an hour ago. Ezra fell asleep and Miss Jones got mad. Then Vin told her that Ezra was sick and she wouldnít listen and they argued and now Vin is standing in the corner crying and Ezra looks terrible. I think he is sick."

"Trouble follows them every minute. Go get in the buck board and I will deal with your brothers."

"Should I go get the doc?"

"Let me see if Ezra really needs one or if heís just conning us." Chris entered the schoolroom and saw Ezra sitting at a desk with his head down resting on his arms, which were crossed on the desk. He looked asleep. Miss Jones saw him enter and motioned for him to come forward. Chris saw Vin standing in the corner near the front.

"Mr. Larabee. Iím sorry to say, we didnít have a good day."

"What happened? Nathan said Ezra looked sick?"

"I woke Ezra up during our last lesson today. When I turned my back, Vin started talking to him. When I asked him to stop talking, he insisted that Ezra was sick. Now Ezra looked tired, but I had just awakened him. Vin proceeded to yell at me and was quite rude. I finally sent him to the corner, but even then he kept up with the smart comments. I was real close to taking a ruler to his backside."

Chris looked at Vin and then at Ezra. Ezra didnít look good. He turned back to Miss Jones, "Is he asleep?" Motioning to Ezra.

"No. Heís probably afraid to face you." Miss Jones looked smug.

"Hmm." Chris walked over to Vin and turned him around. He could see that Vin had been crying. "What do you have to say for your actions Vin?"

"Iím sorry I was rude, but Ez donít look good. He was sweatiní this morning and I could tell he had a headache. He ainít hardly ate no lunch." Vin wiped his eyes again. Chris smiled at his young brother. Vin was a quiet boy and hardly said two words together unless he was mad or defending his brothers.

"Let me go check Ezra. He could just be conning us."

"No he couldnít!" Vin said.

"Watch your tone young man. I wonít put up with an attitude."

"Sorry. Chris, Ezra ainít conniní us, he didnít tell no one about him feeling yucky. I jest can tell."

Chris walked over to Ezra and noticed he hadnít moved since he came in. Not even a nervous twitch. He placed his hand on Ezraís shoulder and gently shook.

"Ezra! Wake up boy." Chris shook a little harder and when he did Ezraís arm fell limply along side of his desk. "Ezra?" Chris started to become concerned. He gently took Ezraís face between his hands to bring his head up and noticed how hot he felt. "Heís burning up."

Miss Jones looked shocked. "I thought he was just faking it."

"You didnít even check!" Vin yelled.

"Vin, donít be rude." Chris rebuked.

"Sorry maíam. Iím jest worried about Ez."

"Iím sorry too Vin. I should have listened to you." Vin smiled at Miss Jones.

"Vin?"

"Yeah Chris?"

"Go tell Nathan to run for the doc."

"I can do it."

"No! Send Nathan."

Vin pouted. He was old enough to run for the doc. Chris saw the beginnings of a tantrum and decided to nip it immediately. "Vin. I need you to send Nathan and then I need your help here. Okay?"

"Okay." Vin reluctantly went to tell Nate to fetch the doc. After he left the room, Miss Jones asked, "Sometime youíll have to tell me the secret to head off one of his tantrums."

"No secret." Chris said as he helped lay Ezra on the floor. He appeared to be unconscious. "Vin and I have always had this unspoken connection. I seem to know what heís thinking before he says or does something."

They were interrupted by Vin returning. "I sent Nate. Now what?"

"Go find a bucket and fill it with water from the pump. Make sure itís cold."

"Okay." Vin ran out at Chrisí command. As he was returning, Nate came running back.

"Chris. The doc is out at the James Ranch. I sent someone out after him and told them to meet us at home. Itís closer."

"Good thinking Nate. Letís get Ezra home."

Chris reached to pick Ezra up and when he took his left arm, Ezra screamed. "Easy Ez." Chris calmed Ezra down and gently rolled up his sleeve to reveal a very red and angry looking scratch. "I wonder how he got this?"

Vin spoke up. "He scratched it yesterday when we were outÖ" he stopped and blushed.

"Skipping school? Why didnít he say anything?" Chris was angry.

"It was just a scratch. Didnít hardly bleed even."

"No, not even. Well it looks infected." Chris held back any further fears to keep from scaring Vin, but he had seen grown men die from Ďjust a scratchí. Chris carried Ezra to the buckboard and made him comfortable. Ezra was in and out of it and mumbling. Chris had Vin and Nathan use the water and rags to cool Ezraís face and chest while he drove as quickly as possible back to the ranch, hoping the doc wouldnít be too late.

*****************************************
Chapter #6: The Shadow Of Death
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Chris couldnít sit still. When he had returned to the ranch with Ezra, they made him comfortable in his room. When Miss Nettie saw how sick he was, she took control. She shooed Chris out and then took care of Ezra. At first Chris didnít leave the hallway, but he couldnít sit still so he went outside and sent a ranch hand out to bring Josiah back. He paced in front of the fireplace for what seemed like hours and was answering the door for the doctor even before the man had the chance to knock. Now he found himself waiting again for word about Ezra. He was lost in thought when the front door opened.

"How is he?" Josiah asked as he hung up his hat and gun belt.

"The docís with him now. I havenít heard anything yet." Chris answered. Just then a bone-chilling scream was heard from upstairs. Chris and Josiah took the stairs two at a time and stopped at Ezraís bedroom door as the doctor came out, wiping his hands.

"Doc? Is heÖ?" Chris asked.

"I drained the infection. What ever he scratched it on was filthy. I gave him something to help him sleep and Miss Nettie is keeping cool compresses on him. We need to bring his fever down fast. Itís dangerously high."

"Will he recover?" Josiah asked.

"The next 24 hours will be the key. If we can get the fever down and keep the scratch clean, he will be fine. If the fever burns to high for too long he could die. With a fever that high, if he did live, the chances of brain damage are high. But thatís only if we canít get the fever down."

Chris squared his shoulders, "What do we need to do?"

"Miss Nettie is using cold compresses now. If that doesnít help, we will need to bring in some ice and pack him in it."

Josiah chuckled. "Ezra would love that. He canít stand the cold."

"He wonít even notice." The doc handed Chris some medicine. "Because of his age, I donít want you to give him much of this, and only if heís so restless that he wonít sleep. What he needs now is rest, plenty of fluids, and the comfort of his family."

"Count on it doc." Chris smiled for the first time since he walked into that schoolroom.

"Well," the doc stood, "I will check back tomorrow morning. If he gets worse, send for me."

"Thanks doc." Chris shook the manís hand and walked him out. Josiah went in to see Ezra.

**********

When he entered the room, he saw Miss Nettie bathing Ezra with a cool cloth. She turned and smiled at Josiah.

"Heís gonna be fine Josiah. This boy is too stubborn to die yet."

Josiah smiled and sat down next to Ezra on the bed. He noticed the sheets were a little damp and made a mental note to change them. He put his hand on Ezraís forehead and pushed his hair out of his eyes. "Boy needs a haircut."

"He hasnít had a chance to get to town since heís been grounded for what seems like forever." Miss Nettie said.

"Well, he does know how to find trouble."

Miss Nettie noticed the single tear running down Josiahís cheek. She patted his shoulder and said, "Heís tough Josiah. Heíll be fine."

Josiah wiped his cheek and smiled. "What would we do without you Nettie? Thanks."

"Iím going to go make supper."

"Go ahead. Iím not going anywhere." After Nettie left, Josiah knelt by the bed and prayed. He was so exhausted that he fell asleep.

**********

Chris entered the room to find Josiah sleeping with his head on the mattress and his hand holding onto Ezraís. He smiled despite the situation. Josiah had a special place for Ezra and although Ezra would deny it, he had a special place for Josiah too.

Ezra moaned and tried to move. The movement woke Josiah. Chris moved to the other side of the bed and noticed the sheets were wet. Josiah looked up and smiled at Chris.

"Guess I was tired."

"Itís okay. Itís gonna be a long night anyway." Chris put his hand on Ezraís forehead. "Seems a little better."

Josiah simply nodded. Chris noticed how upset Josiah was.

"Heís gonna be fine Josiah."

"I know. I donít know what I would do if we lost him." Josiah put his head down to hide the tears.

Chris moved over to his big brother and put his arm around his broad shoulders. "Hey big brother. You ainít getting soft on me now are you? You of all people know that Ezraís a survivor. We all are."

Josiah managed a smile. "Ok Ďlittle brotherí." Josiah stood and stretched. "Help me change the sheets and then we can try to get some broth into him."

"Sounds like a plan. Then you can go downstairs and have some supper."

"What about you?"

"Iíll sit with Ezra."

"Five bucks says Miss Nettie makes you eat."

Chris laughed. "Youíre starting to sound like Ezra. Besides, I never bet against Miss Nettie."

Chris and Josiah lifted Ezra and while Josiah held him, Chris changed the sheets. After the bed was dry, they dried Ezra and put him back to bed. As Josiah set him down and covered him up, they noticed Ezraís eyes were open.

"Hey there Ez. You decided to wake up." Chris smiled.

"WhereÖ?" Ezra had a glass of water at his lips immediately and he drank eagerly.

"Slowly, Ezra. I donít want you throwing it up. You need all the fluids you can get to get better."

"WhatÖhapÖpened?"

"You passed out in school because of an infection in your arm." Josiah answered.

"Infection?" Ezra was confused.

"That little scratch you didnít tell us about became infected. The doctor drained it and wrapped it."

"Iím hot."

"Thatís the fever. Ezra?" Chris answered.

"Yeah?"

"Why didnít you tell someone about scratching your arm."

"It didnít seem serious at the time." Ezra closed his eyes. "Iím tired."

Josiah stood. "Well, donít go to sleep yet. I want you to eat something. Iíll go get it."

"Not hungry." Ezra tried to roll over but Chris stopped him. He tried to glare at his brother but it didnít come out too convincing.

"Glare at me all you want Ez, but youíre gonna eat something. Then you can go back to sleep."

Chris laughed at the half-hearted attempt to scowl. His laughter was cut short by the arrival of Miss Nettie with some broth.

"What happened to Josiah?"

"Heís eating. Iíll feed Ezra and you can go eat."

"I can do it Nettie. Iím not very hungry anyway."

"I will not take no for an answer young man. You leave Ezra to me and you get downstairs and eat."

"ButÖ" Chris turned at the laughter coming from the bed. "What is so funny?"

"You." Ezra said. Chris smiled at the joke. He could force Ezra to eat but Miss Nettie could get all of them to tow the line, including Chris.

"Fine. Iím going but Ezra you better eat all that broth."

"Yes dad."

Chris glared at Ezra and then left to the sound of more laughter. However it was cut short by Nettieís declaration to eat and Ezra moaning. Chris laughed and went downstairs to eat.

************

It was a long night for everyone, but in the early hours of the morning they all thanked God when Ezraís fever broke. Ezra was resting peacefully and everyone, except Josiah, slept through the morning.

**********************************
Chapter #7: Going Stir Crazy
**********************************

"EZRA PATRICK STANDISH! Get back into that bed."

"Ah Chris. Iím not tired and I feel fine." Ezra had been gazing out the window trying to think of a way to get out of this room. He felt fine after his fever broke yesterday and he wanted out. He was a little weak but he would never admit it to anyone.

"The doctor wants you to rest for a few days." Chris took Ezra by the right arm and led him back to his bed. He covered him up and said, "I would think you would enjoy the extra sleep."

"Iíve been sleeping for almost three days now. Iím sick of these four walls. Canít I at least come downstairs and lay on the couch? Please?"

"No Ezra."

"Give me one good reason why."

"Iíll give you more than one. Firstly, the doc wants you to get sleep and you canít do that downstairs. JD alone would keep you from getting any rest. Secondly, I know that the second I turned my back you would be outside. We donít need you catching a chill."

"I said one GOOD reason." Ezra mumbled under his breath.

"What was that?"

"Nothing. Iím bored. Thereís nothing to do up here." Ezra pouted.

"Go back to sleep."

"Not tired."

"Fine." Chris stood up to leave. He looked down at his brother and could tell it was going to get harder to keep him resting as the day progressed. "Are you hungry? I could have Miss Nettie bring you a snack."

"No thanks." Ezra replied sarcastically. "She would bring some vile tasting concoction that is suppose to be good for me. Yuck."

Chris laughed at the face Ezra was making. "Suit yourself." Chris was almost to the door when Ezra called him back.

"Chris?"

"What?"

"Maybe you could let JD come up and keep me company."

"JDís taking a nap."

"A nap? How come?"

"Itís been a long couple of days for all of us Ez. JD hasnít been sleeping well, so I put him down for a nap. It was either that or I was going to shoot him for whining me to death. Now if you donít want a snack, then I suggest you rest. If you behave yourself, Iíll see about letting you rest downstairs tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?" Ezra whined.

"Tomorrow and not before. Understand?" Ezra nodded. "I mean it Ezra. Stay in bed."

Ezra just nodded again and rolled over with his back to Chris. Chris decided to go and check on JD and then he could finish working on the ranch paperwork. After he left, Ezra rolled back over and kicked off the blankets. He lay there with his arms crossed trying to think of something to do. Suddenly he remembered that his mother had given him a deck of cards on her last visit. She had said they werenít a present but Ďtools for the tradeí. He retrieved the cards and sat back on the bed. He pushed all the covers out of the way and began to shuffle the deck. After about fifteen minutes of shuffling he started to play solitaire.

*********

JD woke from his nap feeling rested and ready to go. He put his boots on and headed out to find Chris or Buck. When he walked by Ezraís room he heard a funny sound. He opened the door and peeked in to see Ezra playing with cards on his bed. Ezra noticed JD and smiled at his baby brother.

"Come on in JD."

JD ran and bounced on the bed, messing up Ezraís current game of solitaire. JD stopped and looked at Ezra waiting to get yelled at and was surprised to see Ezra smiling.

"Donít worry about it JD. I wasnít going to win anyway."

"Okay. How ya felliní Ez?"

"Iím fine JD. However, our over protective big brother wonít let me up."

"Chris?"

"Chris." Ezra though maybe he could get JD to help him ease the boredom. "Hey JD?"

"Huh?"

"Could you do me a big favor?"

"What? Iím big I can help."

"Iím kind of hungry. Could you go downstairs and get us some cookies."

"Miss Nettie donít like us to eat cookies in bed."

"I can sit in the rocker. Chris wonít let me go downstairs or I would do it. Please JD."

"Okay. Iíll have Chris get them."

"No JD. Iím afraid if you tell Chris he wonít let you eat any because it would spoil your dinner."

"Okay. Iíll try." JD bounced off the bed and headed down the back stairs toward the kitchen.

JD managed to sneak into the kitchen and climb up to the cookie jar and got two cookies before he bumped into a plate on the counter and it crashed into the sink. JD stuffed the cookies into his pockets and started to climb down. He got back to the chair, when Chris entered the kitchen to see what the noise was.

"JD what are you doing?" He noticed the broken plate in the sink and the guilty look on JDís face.

"It was an accident." JD said as his bottom lip began to quiver.

"What were you doing climbing on the counter JD? You could have been hurt." Chris lifted JD off the chair and set him on his feet. "Well?"

JD shrugged his shoulders. Chris looked on the shelf where JD was and noticed the cookie jar.

"Were you trying to get a cookie JD?" JD just nodded. "If you had asked me, I would have gotten it for you."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Really." Chris opened the cookie jar and handed JD two cookies and then grabbed one for him self. "How about some milk?"

JD nodded in between bites of cookie. Chris went into the pantry and brought out a glass of milk and set it on the table. He then lifted JD into a chair in front of the snack. "When youíre done Sprout, just leave the glass on the table and come get me, okay?"

JD nodded. Chris ruffled his hair and went back to his paperwork. As soon as Chris left the room, JD guzzled his milk with the last cookie and headed upstairs. He entered Ezraís room and smiled.

"I done it." He pulled out both cookies and handed them to Ezra.

"I donít need both of them JD. You have one."

"Itís okay. I had two downstairs. Chris caught me gettiní the cookies but he didnít see these two in my pocket soís he gave me two more and a glass of milk. Iím sorry Ďbout the milk Ez."

"No problem JD, I donít like milk." Ezra moved to the rocker and ate his cookies while JD bounced on the bed.

*********************************
Chapter #8: Hide And Seek
*********************************

"Want to play a game Ez?"

"What game were you thinking of?"

"I donít know. How Ďbout hide an seek."

"I donít know JD. The last time you played hide and seek, you were Ďlostí all day. You fell asleep in your hiding place and no one could find you."

"But Iím not sleepy now. I had a nap."

"Iíll play with one stipulation."

"Whatís a stipÖiÖlation?"

"A condition. A rule."

"Oh. Okay."

"That I get to hide, and you have to count while covered up in my bed."

"But I canít count very high."

"You donít have too. I will set my alarm clock to go off in five minutes, and when it rings you have to come find me. Okay?"

"Okay." JD scrambled under the blankets and tried not to giggle. Ezra set the clock and quickly made his escape down the back stairs. He knew that Chris would be checking on him soon and this may give him a few extra minutes of freedom.

***********

Chris returned to the kitchen to check on JD and noticed the empty milk glass but no JD. He decided that he would check and see if JD was upstairs with Ezra before he checked outside. Upon entering Ezraís room he noticed ĎEzraí curled up asleep with the blankets over his head. He smiled as he remembered Ezraís words about not being tired. He was slowly leaving the room when he heard a small giggle. He looked around the room to see if JD was hiding in here. Then it occurred to him that the lump in the bed was a little too small to be Ezra. Going on a hunch, he pulled the blankets back to reveal a giggling JD.

"Hey Sprout. What are you doing in Ezraís bed? And where is Ezra?"

"Shhh Chris. I donít know where Ez is. Weís playing hide and seek. Heís hidiní and Iím Ďposta wait til the clock rings to go find him."

Chris looked at the alarm clock and noticed that Ezra never pushed the button to start the timer. "Well JD, I think youíve waited long enough. Why donít I help you look?"

"Okay, but the stiplation was I wait for the ring."

"You mean the stipulation?"

"Thatís what I said, stiplation."

Chris had to laugh at the serious face JD was giving him. "Well letís go find that lost brother of yours and then Iím gonna have a very necessary little talk with him about obedience."

JD was only five, but he heard his pa say Ďa necessary little talkí before and it only lead to one thing. "Chris?"

"What Sprout?"

"Youíre not gonna necessary little talk me are ya?"

It took Chris a minute to realize what JD was talking about and then he smiled. "No Sprout. You didnít do anything that would make me Ďtalkí to you like Iím gonna Ezra."

"Good." Chris laughed and finished searching the entire house. Not finding him anywhere, Chris figured Ezra was outside and it wasnít going to go easy for him, if he was.

**********

Ezra spent about fifteen minutes with his horse and then decided he had better hide better. He went out to the side yard where Nathanís work shed was. The shed was locked with a padlock because Chris and Josiah were letting Nate practice with some harmless chemicals. Nathan was working with the doctor after school on Fridayís and after chores on Saturdayís. Ezra had picked the lock many times to get away from Chris or Josiah. Sometimes he just went in there to get away from everyone for some peace and quiet.

Ezra picked the lock and went inside. Nathan was a very tidy young man and he liked to know where everything was. Ezra on the other hand, liked to mess with Nathanís head. During his little visits to the work shed, he would move things around. Nothing to dramatic, but enough to drive Nate crazy. This time he decided to switch the ingredients in two of the bottles to see what would happen.

As he was doing this, he heard JD hollering for him. Time to leave and be found, before Chris sees him. Ezra exited the shed and made it to the back door before he was grabbed and spun around. He looked up into the very angry face of Chris Larabee.

"Hi Chris. I was just getting some fresh air."

"I remember telling you to stay in your room and get some rest, didnít I?"

"Yes, butÖ"

"No buts Ezra. Why do you feel it necessary to disregard everything I tell you? You were close to death only two days ago."

"I feel fine now."

"I think itís time for the two of us to have a very long and necessary little talk."

"Now? You said I was suppose to rest. How am I suppose to rest after one of your little talks."

Chris led Ezra back up to his room. "You should have thought of that before you conned JD into playing hide and seek."

"I didnít con him. Hide and seek was his idea."

"And who decided on the Ďstipulationsí, huh?"

Ezra groaned. JD must have been found out. He didnít fault his baby brother. The boy just couldnít keep a secret to save his life. It was worth a try though. "Would it help if I told you I wasnít bored anymore and I would like to rest now?"

"You can rest when we are finished."

"Please Chris. You know I get into trouble when Iím bored, and I did warn you."

"I donít think so Ezra. Youíre not talking your way out of this. You have two choices."

"What choices?" Ezra sat on his bed and waited for Chris to give him a way out.

"You and I can have this talk now, or I can leave the talking up to Josiah when he gets home. So what will it be?"

"Some choices." Ezra crossed his arms in front of his chest. Ezra had to think fast. He didnít want a spanking at all, but he didnít have a lot of choices. Normally he would go with waiting for Josiah, but Josiah wasnít such an easy touch anymore. However, if he waited he had a better chance of there being some sort of distraction later. Besides, Chris was angry and he didnít want to be on the receiving end of an angry Chris wielding a belt.

"Iíll wait for Josiah, please."

"Really? What are you up to Ez?"

"Nothing. I would just like to be able to sit until dinner."

"Have it your way, but if you leave this room again, WE will be having that talk before Josiah does. Understood?"

"Yes."

"Good." Chris left the room and headed out to round up JD.

Ezra lay back on his bed dreading the next couple of hours. Maybe he should have gotten it over with. The waiting may kill him.

****************************************
Chapter #9: The Big Bang Theory
****************************************

Nathan was excited as he entered the yard. The doctor had given him a new compound to experiment with and he couldnít wait to try out a few things. He quickly dismounted and put the new compound in the shed and locked it up. He took care of his horse and hurried through his chores. He knew he could be in a little trouble rushing through his chores, but it was worth the risk. Besides, Nathan was the Ďgoodí brother who hardly ever caused any problems.

Nathan was finishing up when Buck and Josiah came in off the range.

"How was school today, Nate?"

"Good. I got something new from the doc. I canít wait to see what kind of things it will do."

"Just be careful. We donít need you blowing yourself up."

"I will. Jeesh. Sometimes you guys treat me like a kid. Iím old enough to get married if I wanted."

"Ha. Old enough by otherís standards, but Iíd like to see you use that theory on Chris. Hell, Iím 19 and he still treats me like the kid brother." Buck said.

"Yeah Buck, but he doesnít have to worry about you ever getting married. It wonít happen." Josiah jeered.

"Ha Ha. Laugh it up Josiah, but why would I want to deprive all those lovely ladies of my animal magnetism."

"Donít you mean Ďmaggot-tism, Bucklin." Everyone turned to see Vin lead his horse in.

"Hey, you watch it there little brother or Iíll have to tickle ya." Buck lunged at Vin, but Vin avoided him and giggled as he hid behind the barn door.

"Hey Vin? What took you so long to get home from school? Nathan beat you home." Josiah asked.

"He beat me Ďcause he was ridiní fast the whole way. I werenít in no hurry to get home ta chores and beiní grounded." Vin took his pony and started to remove the saddle.

"Hey Vin, I didnít mean to upset ya, I just wanted to make sure you donít get into anymore trouble."

"Iím sorry Josiah. I just had a rough day at school. Iím glad itís Friday, but Iím not lookiní forward to all the chores Chris has picked out. Ez lucked out by gettingí sick. He ainít got to worry Ďbout being grounded fer another few days."

"Donít worry Vin. Being cooped up in his room is worse than being grounded. Donít ya think?"

"Yeah probly." Vin finished with his pony and Buck and Josiah headed to the house. Nathan went to his work shed.

Buck wasnít even half way to the door when it flew open and JD ran to him. Buck swept him into his arms and hugged him.

"Hey Little Britches. How was your day?"

"Good. I played over near the water trough in da morniní and made mud pies."

"Mud pies? Did you save any for old Buck?"

"Ya canít eat mud Buck."

"Oh." Buck smiled. "What else?" They walked through the door and Chris met them as JD finished his day.

"Then Chris washed all the mud off and made me take a nap." JD scowled and Buck laughed. He looked toward Chris and asked, "Howíd you get him to take a nap?"

"It was a nap or I was gonna shoot him. He chose the nap."

"Smart boy." Buck tickled JD.

"Buck! Stop Iís telliní ya somethiní"

"Sorry." Buck put JD down and took off his gun and hat. Chris caught Josiahís eye and motioned for him to join him out on the porch.

JD filled Buck in on the game of hide and seek, while Chris talked to Josiah.

*********

"He really chose to wait for me?"

"Yep. I think he was hoping that there would be enough distractions with everyone home, that he could get lost in the shuffle."

Josiah sighed and sat down. "I donít know Chris. He shouldnít ignore what you tell him, but does a tanning make an impact? I was thinking of a different punishment."

"Like what? Confining him to his room just makes him think of new ways to get out without getting caught. Grounding him doesnít affect him much, because he doesnít like to wander off like Vin does. You could make him do Ďmenial laborí but not right now, with his recovering from that infection."

"I know."

"Josiah, I have no problem dealing with him if you want. Iím actually glad he didnít choose me at the time because I was so angry I probably would have hurt him."

"Iíll think about it. Is he joining us for supper?"

"He shouldnít, but since he was out playing hide and seek all afternoon, he can join the rest of the family at the table."

"Sounds good to me. Iíll go deal with him, then weíll come down for supper."

"Sounds good. Iíll check on Vin."

***********

Chris found Vin in the barn sitting with one of his schoolbooks. He smiled when he saw Vin sitting concentrating on what he was reading. His tongue was out and he looked like every word was a struggle, which it was. The teacher had discovered that Vin wasnít learning as well as the other children. At first she thought he was too dumb to learn but quickly realized that Vin was a very smart little boy. If you read the story to him, he could answer all of your questions. For some reason he couldnít comprehend the written word, which made his handwriting horrible also. The teacher spent extra time with Vin to help him with his letters and reading. It was taking a while but Vin was starting to learn with the help of his teacher and family.

Chris cleared his throat to get Vinís attention.

"Hey Chris. Iís jest readiní."

Chris sat down next to Vin and smiled. "This one of those special books she sent for?"

"Yeah. The letteriní is different. Itís different colors and I can read them better. They donít swim all over da page no more."

"Thatís great. You hungry? Supperís almost ready."

"Yeah a little."

As they both stood up, a great explosion was heard. Chris and Vin ran out of the barn and saw Nathan brushing himself off in front of what was left of the work shed. The shed had collapsed and was completely flat and smoking. Josiah, Buck, Ezra, and JD ran to Nathan to make sure he was okay.

"Nate You okay?" Chris asked.

"Yeah. I donít know what happened. Nothing I mixed should have caused this." He motioned toward the ruined shed.

"Iím just glad youíre okay."

"Yeah. Iím fine. I realized something was wrong as soon as they chemicals mixed. I simply ran as quick as I could."

"Iím starting to think that you arenít ready for this kind of experimenting if this is what happens."

Nathan was shocked. "But Chris, it was an accident. I didnít mean to blow up the shed."

"No Nate. From now on youíll have to do these experiments in town with the doctor supervising."

"Chris. I canít do that. The doctor is always busy. He only lets me work with him on Fridays and Saturdays. Please Chris."

"No Nathan. What if it had been JD or Vin who got in there and messed with something? They wouldnít know enough to run like you did. Iím sorry but itís too dangerous."

Chris headed into the house. "Supperís ready. Letís get washed up and eat. Weíll clean this mess up after supper."

"Josiah? Could you talk to him please? It was just an accident. Those two chemicals shouldnít have reacted that way."

"Iíll discuss it with him Nate, but I doubt he will change his mind. Iíve seen that look."

"Thanks." Nathan headed upstairs quickly so that no one would see his tears. He felt foolish for reacting like a baby, but he was disappointed.

*********

Outside Josiah was about to go inside when a hand stopped him. Josiah turned to see Ezra swallow hard. He was about to say something when Josiah stopped him.

"Forget it Ezra. We still need to have our discussion about obeying Chris."

"Thatís not what I was going to say." Ezra said indignantly.

"What then?"

"Is Chris really going to keep Nathan from doing his experiments?"

"You heard him. Those chemicals were not supposed to be this explosive."

Ezra chewed his bottom lip. "They werenít."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, Chris told you I snuck out today."

"Yeah?"

"Well, I snuck into Nateís work shed and switched a couple of the things in the bottles. I didnít think they could do this." He motioned toward the ruined shed. "I didnít mean for Nate to almost get hurt." Ezra wiped away a stray tear. 

Josiah knelt down in front of Ezra and said, "Why?"

"I was bored. I didnít mean any harm Josiah. Iím sorry." Josiah gathered Ezra into his arms and let him cry. When he stopped crying, Josiah spoke. "You need to tell Nathan and Chris what you did. Then you need to face what ever they decide as proper, how do you like to say, remuneration?"

Ezra smiled. "Okay. You believe me that I never meant to hurt Nathan?"

"Yes Ezra. It was an accident, but it never should have happened. After supper we will be having a long talk, but right now I want you to go up and apologize to Nate and tell Chris. Understood?"

"Yes sir."

"Good."

******************************************
Chapter #10: An Unexpected Guest
******************************************

The sun shone brightly through the curtains in Chrisí bedroom. Saturdayís were a more relaxed day from ranch work. The work still needed to get done, but they could leave most of the work to the hands for the weekend.

Chris rolled over and bumped into someone. For a fraction of a second, he wondered where he could be if there was another person in his bed, but he dismissed it when he recognized who it was. He propped his head on his hand, leaned on his elbow and stared at his brother. It was rare for Vin to wake at night and crawl into bed with him. It was usually JD.

The special connection they had was working as Vin began to wake up feeling like someone was watching him. He opened his eyes slowly and saw Chris looking at him. He smiled and said, "Morniní cowboy."

Chris raised his eyebrows and smiled. "Cowboy! You always did have a death wish little brother."

Vin giggled and rolled over onto his back and stretched like a cat.

"What brings you to my warm bed in the middle of the night?" Chris moved to get up and stopped when he saw a serious look on Vinís face. Vin didnít answer right away. "Whatís wrong Vin?"

"Bad dream." Was all Vin said as he got up and headed back to his own room.

"Vin? You want to talk about it?" Chris stood to follow Vin. When Vin stopped and turned to look at Chris, there were tears in his eyes. Chris immediately embraced him and held him close. It was then that Chris smelled the faint odor of urine. He noted that Vin was dry, but probably changed before he came in last night. "That must have been some dream. Why donít you tell me about it?"

Vin just nodded and looked at Chris. He saw acceptance of what happened and slowly started to tell Chris about the dream. "Iís at the grave where papa was buried and I heard all these noises all around me and then I was cryiní for papa and when Iís near the grave a handÖ" Vin paused to swallow back his tears.

"Itís okay Vin. It was just a dream."

Vin took a deep breath and continued. "A hand came up and grabbed me. I screamed and Ö" Vin looked at Chris, "I wet the bed." He whispered and let the tears fall again.

Chris held him close. "Itís okay Vin. It happens to all of us."

"Even to you?"

"When I was a little boy, like you, it happened sometimes and Pa was always there telling me it was okay. I could even tell you about Buck wetting the bed only a couple of years ago. He was 17 at the time."

"Really? Was he upset?"

"Yep. But Pa still told him it was okay. Accidents happen."

"Ya think you could help me change the sheets Ďfore Miz Nettie sees Ďem?"

"No problem. I think you need a bath too though."

"Yuck. Iím dry now."

"Yes you are dry, but you still have the stink on ya."

Vin smelled his nightshirt and frowned. "I hate baths."

"All little boys do."

"I bet Ez didnít." Vin giggled.

"I wouldnít make that bet. Letís get you washed up." Chris lead Vin down to the bath house and set him up in a small tub of warm water. With instructions to use soap, Chris left Vin to deal with the wet bed. JD was up running down the hall when Miss Nettie stopped him as she came out of Vinís room. She had the soiled sheets rolled with some others to hide the Ďaccidentí from the rest of the family. Chris smiled and kissed Miss Nettie on the cheek. The simple ĎThank youí from Chris held all of the understanding either of them needed.

Chris got himself dressed and retrieved clothing for Vin. After checking on Ezra, who was still sleeping, and sending JD out to pester Buck in the barn, he returned to Vin. Dried and dressed, both Vin and Chris sat at the breakfast table minutes before Buck, JD, and Josiah came inside.

"Ezra still asleep?" Josiah asked as he sat down.

"Yep. Iím letting him sleep because he will need the rest to go see the doctor this afternoon. Whereís Nate?" Chris said.

"Outside trying to salvage something from the shed." Chris simply nodded and resumed his breakfast. "Chris?"

"No, Josiah."

"I think we need to discuss what happened last night."

"Not here."

"In the Den then." Josiah stood up and walked toward the Den expecting Chris to follow. Chris sighed and followed Josiah out.

*******

"I wonít change my mind Josiah. I keep thinking about what could have happened if Vin or JD had picked that lock or figured some other way in. Itís too dangerous."

"There has to be a better solution then punishing Nathan. It wasnít his fault."

"I know it wasnít his fault and Iím not punishing Nathan." Chris said with irritation.

"But he feels like you are. Do you realize that he cried himself to sleep last night?"

"What?"

"He was so upset, that he fell asleep sobbing. How many times has Nathan sat in his room and suffered through some injustice because of something that wasnít his fault? He tries to be the strong older brother, but I think we sometimes forget heís still a boy too."

Chris sat down and sighed. "I didnít know Josiah."

"Do you still trust him?"

"Of course I do? What kind of question is that?"

"You trusted him to keep the little ones out of the shed before, and he did. Ezra is old enough to know better. So do you still trust Nathan to keep JD and Vin out?"

"Yes." As soon as he said it, he knew Josiah had won this argument. Josiah just smiled. "Fine! If he wants to rebuild the shedÖ"

"With Ezraís help." Josiah added.

"With Ezraís help, then he can keep doing his experimenting, Iím telling you now Josiah, if this happens againÖ" He left the threat open.

"Thanks Chris. I know Nathan will be happy."

"Hurumph. And I called you the softy."

Josiah laughed. "Well, brother. We all have our strengths and weaknesses."

"Sure Josiah. Lets go finish breakfast before I change my mind again."

**********

When Josiah and Chris returned to the table, Ezra had joined them. Chris smiled and sat down. "Morning Ezra. How are you feeling?"

"Iím fine." Ezra groused.

"Iíll be taking you to town after lunch to see the doctor."

"Ah Chris. Iím fine. What do I have to go to the doctor for?"

"Ezra." Josiah warned.

"Ezra. I will not argue with you. You will be going with me after lunch and if you donít behave Iíll just shoot you."

JD piped it. "Better jest go Ez, he was gonna shoot me yesterday." Everyone at the table laughed; everyone but Chris.

"I get no respect around here." Everyone laughed again. After they resumed eating, Chris turned to Nathan, who looked sadder than usual.

"Nate?"

"Yeah Chris?"

"Iíve changed my mind about your experiments. If you want to continue them, you will have to rebuild the shed and put a new lock on it. Ezra will help you."

"What? Why?" Ezra exclaimed.

"Ezra. You are the reason the shed blew up. You will help Nate rebuild and you will not go in the shed again without permission. Am I clear?" Josiah said.

"ButÖ"

"I said, am I clear?"

"Crystal." Ezra pouted. "May I be excused?"

Josiah looked at Ezraís plate and noticed he hadnít eaten much. "No you may not. I want you to finish your breakfast."

"Iím not hungry."

"Did I ask you if you were hungry? Eat!"

Ezra picked up his fork and tried to will the tears to not fall in front of everybody.

********

"Well, Chris. That arm looks much better. Has he been resting?"

"Sure Doc. When I tied him to his bed."

"That bad huh." The doctor laughed.

"Excuse me, but Iím still in the room." Both men looked at Ezra and smiled. The doctor patted Ezraís knee and said, "Sorry Ezra. Itís just a habit. Youíll just tell me youíre fine."

"I am fine."

"Yes Ezra, you are, but you would say you were fine if someone tore off your arm."

Ezra scowled at the doctor and turned to Chris. "Can we go now?"

"All set Doc?" Chris asked.

"Yep. Heís all yours until the next time heís Ďfineí."

"Thanks Doc." Chris and Ezra headed out of the building and walked toward the buckboard. As they pasted the saloon, Ezra heard a familiar voice. //Mother?//

Chris heard the same thing and groaned inwardly. //Just what we need, Maude.//

"Ezra. Stay here."

"Chris. I was raised in saloons."

"No you were dragged through them for selfish reasons. You are still too young to be in saloons. Besides, Josiah would shoot me if I let you."

"And the bad side of that would beÖ?" Ezra said sarcastically.

"Keep it up young man. Stay here." Chris entered the saloon and was soon exiting with Maude behind him.

"My baby boy! How are you Ezra darling?"

"Mother. What brings you to Four Corners?"

"Why you my dear. I was planning on heading out to see you as soon as I was finished here."

"Did you leave anyone with any money?" Ezra said with a sneer.

"Ezra." Chris warned. He didnít like Maude either, but she was his mother.

"Iím sorry Chris."

"Certainly Ezra dear."

"Maude. We were just heading back to the ranch, would you like to join us?"

"That sounds wonderful." They gathered her luggage. "How are you Ezra dear?"

"Iím fine Mother."

//Sure Ezra. Sure.// Chris thought. It was going to be a long weekend.

****************************************
Chapter #11: The Way Things Are
****************************************

Saturday afternoon could only be described as organized chaos. When Chris and Ezra returned with Maude, Josiah and JD were the only two people happy to see her. Josiah had always found Maude quite attractive, and enjoyed some harmless flattery to keep her appeased. He was cautious around Maude since their father died. Maude was the only person who could cause problems for him if she ever contested custody of Ezra. Josiah believed that Ezra needed this family to grow into the man their father had hoped for. Maude had other plans.

Maude only did things for one person; Maude. She had actually only planned on staying one night. She had a con she wanted to try in Colorado and was hoping she could convince Ezra to join her. In the past, she had no problem leaving him with relatives and only hesitated for a moment when Lincoln wanted custody. She saw it as freedom from a Ďmistakeí. With Lincoln dead, she had been scheming for the last 8 months to figure out how to get Ezra back. No easy task with six very protective brothers watching her every move.

"Ezra darling. Why donít you come back on the road with me? We could be living the life of luxury in 6 months."

Ezra had been dreading this talk with his mother. He may sometimes feel that he isnít treated fairly here, but he loved his brothers with everything he had. He didnít want to leave. Even if Chris made him live in the storm cellar in the dead of winter, he wouldnít want to go back to the life Maude offered. His father had given him the most precious give he could; the love of a family.

"Mother. I love you, but I have no desire to travel with you and be your pawn in your cons."

"Not a pawn, Ezra, but my partner. You are a man now and you should have more than a piece of this dusty little territory."

"This Ďdusty little territoryí is my home Mother and I like it."

"Like it! I taught you better than this." She gestured toward the ranch with disgust. "I raised you for greatness."

"Raised me? The barn cat takes care of her young better than you! You dropped me off with any relative that you could find unless you needed me for a con." Ezra spun to walk away from his mother and ran into Josiahís chest.

"Ezra. You shouldnít talk to your mother that way."

Ezra was too angry to hear the warning in Josiahís statement. "What way is that Josiah? The truth?"

"You should still show the proper respect. Please apologize."

"I will NOT apologize." Ezra tried to move away from Josiah but Josiah took a firm hold on his shoulders.

"Ezra." Josiah warned.

"No Josiah. You can whip me to one inch of my life and I still wonít apologize."

Josiah wasnít prepared for such and outburst and Ezra ran to his room. Josiah was speechless. He looked toward Maude who still wore a mask of indifference. "Iím sorry Maude. He shouldnít talk to you that way."

"No Josiah. It was my fault. I obviously failed as a mother. I was only raising him the only way I knew. If that was wrong, then Iím glad I left him with Lincoln all those years ago." She tried to smile as she stood. "Iíll be leaving on tomorrows stage Josiah. I never should have come."

"Nonsense. Even if it doesnít seem like it, Ezra needs to see you. Youíre his mother."

"What kind of mother does all the things Ezra just accused me of?"

"He was upset and he will apologize."

"My boy is stubborn Josiah, as Iím sure you already know. He may never apologize and Iím not sure he should have to. You all have taught him to be honest and forthright. Something I couldnít teach him. Heís turning into a fine young man."

"Why donít you tell him that Maude? It could go a long way in building bridges that have been burned in the past."

"I donít think he would listen." Maude stood and walked to her room. After the door was closed, Josiah headed to have a serious talk with Ezra.

No one should talk to their mother the way Ezra did and he was going to make sure Ezra understood that. He approached the bedroom door and stopped at the sounds of sobbing coming from within. Josiah felt his heart break with every anguished cry from Ezra. He softened his approach and opened the door.

Inside, Ezra was face down on his bed, screaming into his pillow. Josiah could see his back heaving with the sobs that tore through Ezraís slight build. Ezra was in pain. Not a physical wound, but an emotional one. He sat on the bed next to Ezra and gently rubbed his back.

"Shhh. Iím sorry Ezra. Just let it all out." Ezra tried to compose himself and thought he had succeeded until he turned and saw nothing but understanding in Josiahís eyes. The tears were renewed and Josiah gathered Ezra into his strong arms. Ezra held on for all he was worth and cried. Josiah continued to rub his back and speak encouraging words to him.

After about 10 minutes, Chris came in quietly to see what was going on. He saw Josiah sitting on Ezraís bed rocking with Ezra crying on his shoulder. Chris simply came in and sat on the other side of the bed and rubbed Ezraís back also. He smiled at Josiah, but no one spoke.

Ezraís sobs died down to hitching breaths and then evened out in sleep. Chris smiled. "Heís exhausted." He whispered. "What happened?"

"Maude." One word. No other explanation needed.

"I hate what she does to him. No boy should dislike his mother. Doesnít she care what these visits do to him?"

"In her own way? I suppose she does." Josiah gently lay Ezra down and covered him up. He tucked the blankets up to his chin and brushed the hair from his face.

"He needs a haircut." Chris said.

Josiah laughed. "I said that while he was sick. I think maybe Monday after school Iíll take him for that haircut.

"Sounds good to me. That way I can work out on the range and YOU can watch the Sprout."

"I thought is was Buck's turn on Monday?" Josiah said with a smile.

"Actually it is. You take Ezra for that haircut, and Buck can watch baby brother."

"Sounds like a plan." Josiah said as they left Ezraís room and shut the door.

"What sounds like a plan?" Buck boomed.

"Shhhhh!" Josiah and Chris shushed.

"What?" Buck whispered.

"Ezraís having a nap." Chris said.

"A nap? You threaten to shoot him too?" Buck smiled.

"No. He got into it with Maude and he cried himself to sleep."

"Oh. So what is this plan?"

Josiah smiled. "We decided brother Buck, that on Monday, you can watch JD and pick Nate and Vin up at school."

"What about Ezra?"

"Josiah is going to get him from school and get him a hair cut."

"Heíll like that. Heís been complaining about being grounded for so long that his hair is starting to get as long as Vinís." Buck smiled.

"What about Vin?" JD said from behind his brothers. They all turned around and saw JD rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

"Hey Sprout. Did you have a good nap?" Chris picked JD up and they all headed downstairs.

"Speaking of Vin. Where is he? If JD was napping and Ezra is now, whereís Vin?"

"Heís outside helping Nathan rebuild." Chris said.

"I thought Ezra was suppose to be doing that?" Buck asked as he set JD down. "Go ask Miss Nettie for a snack JD." Buck gave JD a playful swat on the backside as he ran into the kitchen.

"Well, I needed something to keep him busy and helping Nate will keep him out of trouble."

"Famous last words." Buck laughed. Chris and Josiah went out to finish chores and Buck entertained JD until supper.

***********

Ezra woke for supper and was polite to his mother but didnít go out of his way to talk to her. After the meal, he tried to escape to his room but Josiah suggested he go sit outside and talk to his mother because she would be leaving in the morning.

There was strained silence until Maude broke into Ezraís thoughts. "Ezra dear, Iím sorry. I didnít mean to upset you this afternoon. I just miss you."

"Do you miss me or what I can do for you?" Maude didnít answer. "Thatís what I thought."

"Ezra, I am who I am. Thatís the way things are."

"And I am who I am. I like having a stable home with my brothers. I still miss father, but they make it easier. If I left, I would miss them all too much and I fear I wouldnít be any good to you."

"I could teach you how to hide those emotions Ezra. We had started that before you came here."

"Yes you had. And father taught me that itís okay to show your emotions. It doesnít make you weak mother. They make you stronger because you share yourself with the bigger picture."

"And that is?"

"Family mother. I like being part of this big family. And for me, thatís the way things are."

Maude decided to change the subject. "I will be leaving tomorrow morning. I have asked Josiah if he could bring me in when he heads to the church early. I would like you to come too, so I can say good-bye before I leave."

"Does the stage leave before church?"

"I do believe it leaves about the same time service starts, but Josiah said you could go a little late to say good-bye. That is if you would like."

"Yes mother. I would."

Maude stood and started back to the house. She turned and said, "I am proud of you Ezra. You are my son and I love you, even if I donít always tell you." She walked away and entered the house.

Ezra sat stunned for several minutes and was brought out of his shock by Josiahís voice calling him in for bed. Ezra slept well with the knowledge that his mother did indeed love him.

*************************************
Chapter #12: Saying Good-bye
*************************************

Early Sunday morning found Josiah up preparing for his sermon and trying to get Ezra out of bed early enough so he could eat before they left.

"Ezra. Time to get up if youíre going into town with me to see your ma off." Josiah stuck his head into Ezraís room and found the bed empty. When he came in further, he found Ezra straightening his shirt and vest. Josiah smiled at him and Ezra smiled back.

"Good morning Ezra."

"Josiah. You should really say Ďearly morningí because there is nothing Ďgoodí about mornings."

Josiah laughed. "This is the day the Lord has made Ezra. And all things made by God are Ďgoodí. Miss Nettie has our breakfast ready so letís go."

"Very well." Ezra headed out of the room.

"Donít you want your suit jacket?"

"I suppose, since mother always says Ďappearances are everythingí."

"Not everything little brother." Josiah hugged Ezra close, which made Ezra scowl.

"You are wrinkling my shirt Josiah."

"Many pardons Ez." Josiah laughed as Ezra brushed himself off as if he was suddenly very dirty.

Josiah and Ezra joined Maude for breakfast and were about to leave when Chris came down the stairs.

"Boys. Maude it was nice to see you again. Donít be a stranger." Chris was screaming Ďdonít ever come backí, as he was being polite.

"Mr. Larabee. Please take good care of my boy and I will write to you my new location when I get there."

"Sounds good." Chris turned to Ezra and Josiah. "I will see you two in church. Josiah, do you know when the stage is suppose to leave?"

"If itís on time, it will pull out about 10 minutes after service is suppose to start. Ezra will join the rest of the family at that time."

"And if itís late?"

"Ezra?" Josiah prompted.

"If the stage is late I will say good bye to mother and be at the church before you are all finished the first hymn. Acceptable?" Ezra said with irritation.

"Good. Then we will all see you there." Chris said.

********

The ride into town was pleasant. The weather was clear and bright. Summer was still a few weeks away, but the days seemed longer and milder. Ezra never enjoyed the wintertime. Being from the south, he didnít adjust to the cold very well.

Josiah dropped Ezra and Maude off at the stage depot. After reminding Ezra to watch the time, he headed to the church.

"Ezra dear. Why donít we head over to the saloon and wait there?"

"Iím not allowed in the saloon mother. The stage will be here soon."

"Nonsense. The stage still has 45 minutes before itís scheduled to arrive, and Iím thirsty."

"We can go over to the hotel and get some lemonade."

"I want to go to the saloon and I want you to accompany me."

"Mother. I told you I am not allowed in the saloon."

"Well, what Chris doesnít know wonít hurt him." Maude took Ezraís hand and started to lead him toward the saloon.

"Mother." Ezra pulled his hand away from Maude. "Even if you could guarantee that no one would find out, which you canít, I still wouldnít go. I respect Chris and Josiah more than that. They have good reasons for the restriction."

"Good reasons! Huh. I let you stay with me in the saloons when you were younger."

"Only when it was to your benefit Mother."

They were in front of the saloon and Maude pushed Ezra through the doors. He hollered, "Mother. I cannot be in here."

Jake the bartender saw the commotion and saw Ezra struggle to get away from the women that he was with. Jake knew that Ezra wasnít allowed in here, but he also didnít allow anyone under 16 into the bar. As he approached the two, he could here Ezra telling his Ďmotherí that he needed to leave. //Chris will be happy to hear Ezra listens//

"Maíam. Ezra isnít allowed in here. I must ask you to leave."

"Nonsense. Iím his mother and I still have some say in the matter. I am waiting for the stage, this is where I choose to wait, and I want my son with me."

"Maíam. Josiah and Chris would have my head if I let him stay in here."

"I will take the responsibility."

"Mother. I donít want to stay in here. You stay. Iíll just go to the church. I can say my good byes now." Ezra tried to leave but Maude stopped him by grabbing his sore arm. She got real close and said something to him that Jake couldnít hear. Ezra paled slightly and sat down.

"Maíam?" Jake said.

"I will take responsibility." Maude then dismissed the bartender by turning away from him.

"Iím sorry Jake." Ezra said quickly.

"Ezra. I expect you to sit there and be the perfect gentleman. No more of this nonsense about saloons being off limits."

"Yes Mother." Ezra tried to look comfortable, but he knew if Josiah saw him he wouldnít be able to sit until his next birthday and he wouldnít ever see the town again.

Maude pulled out a deck of cards and started to shuffle. "Letís see if you still have any of the skills I taught you before you came to this dusty town."

Maude dealt the cards and Ezra reluctantly played, and lost every hand. Maude was appalled. They played for close to an hour before they heard the stage come into town. They exited the saloon and walked across to the stage depot. Ezra kissed his mother good-bye and watched the stage leave.

He turned around and ran directly into Chris. He had his fists on his hips and looked angry. It was at that point that Ezra realized he was late getting to the church.

"Hey Chris. I was just on my way. I didnít realize it was so late." Ezra tried to smile.

"Maybe you didnít realize it was so late because you were sitting in the saloon the whole time."

"I can explain that too. I didnít want to go in but mother dragged me in."

"And how hard did you fight?"

"Honest Chris. I told her I wasnít allowed and if you donít believe me, ask Jake."

Chris looked at Ezra. "Okay. Letís go talk to Jake." Chris took Ezra by the arm and led him to the saloon. They both entered and went up to Jake.

"Hey Chris." Jake said nervously.

"Jake. I would like to know why Ezra was allowed to remain in the saloon when both of you know Josiah and my wishes on the subject?"

"Nothing I could do Chris. That woman forced Ezra in here and when he kept protesting, she whispered something into his ear and then he settled down. She kept saying that she was his ma and she had the right."

"I see. And Ezra told her he wasnít allowed?"

"Yep. He probably would have ran out but she had a good grip on the boys arm. I donít know what she said to make him stop fighting, but he did try. Werenít Ezraís fault. He even said that he respected your wishes about him no beiní allowed in a saloon."

"Really?" Chris looked at Ezra who was blushing and looking at his feet. He turned back to Jake and smiled. "Thanks Jake. Iíll see ya later." He turned and led Ezra outside.

Chris could tell by the way Ezra was walking that he was mad. Mad that Chris hadnít believed him. He stopped in front of Ezra and said, "Ez. Iím sorry I didnít believe you, but I am very proud of you. You tried to stand by what I wanted and that took courage."

Ezra kept his head down. His anger slowly became shame and he didnít want Chris to see the tears glistening in his eyes. Chris lifted Ezraís chin and say the tears. He embraced Ezra and held him close.

"I am so sorry Ezra. Iíll try to do better next time, okay?"

Ezra wiped his eyes and smiled at Chris. "Okay, but I hope mother doesnít listen to you."

"What? I donít know what you mean?"

"You told her to come back soon and to not be a stranger. Well I could do without another visit from her for a long time."

Chris laughed. "I agree. What you donít know is I was screaming on the inside for her to never come back." Chris sobered. "I donít like what her visits do to you. We love you very much Ezra, just remember that."

"I love you all also."

"Well, we had better get back to the church before Josiah blows his top. Heís probably preaching the worse sermon ever because heís wondering where you are."

"Just make sure he knows I wasnít in the saloon because I wanted to be. Iím tired of tannings."

Chris laughed. "Canít blame you there." They walked back to the church in time to see the congregation leaving. Chris thought Josiah preached a real short message this morning. As the thought occurred to him, a very angry Josiah exited the church and zeroed in on Ezra and Chris. Ezra noticed the look first and quickly hid behind Chris. Chris saw him a second before he reached for Ezra.

Chris put his hands up to stop Josiah. "Easy Josiah. He had a good reason for being late."

"Late!" Josiah roared. "Try never showed up."

"We were on our way. How come the message was so short?"

Josiah took a couple of deep breaths to calm him self down. "How could I concentrate not knowing what Maude was doing? I half expected her to kidnap him. I was worried."

Ezra came out from behind Chris. "I tried to get here on time, but I got held up."

"And where were you held up?"

Ezra looked at Chris and Chris said, "The saloon."

"WHAT! EZRA PATRICK STANDISH Iíll have yer hide."

Ezra hid behind Chris again. All they both heard was, "I didnít want to be."

Chris smiled. "Take it easy Josiah. Would I be this calm if Ezra was in the wrong here? No. I checked with Jake and Ezra had no choice." Chris looked around and saw people watching them. "Why donít we move this explanation inside?"

"Fine. Thatís where everyone else is. I ordered them not to move. I probably scared them to death."

"Well, letís go see."

***********

When Chris, Josiah and Ezra entered the church, Buck, Nathan, Vin and JD were all sitting quietly talking. They hadnít moved.

"Boys. Iím sorry I hollered earlier. I was just concerned about Ezra."

"Itís okay Josiah. We have been having a very good talk." Buck smiled.

"Hey Ez. What happened?" Vin asked.

"Mother happened." Ezra sat and closed his eyes with a sigh. He just wanted to go home and to forget the last week existed. Chris told Josiah what Jake had said and everyone was quiet for the whole story. When the story was out, Chris suggested they head home for lunch. Chris drove the buggy with everyone but Josiah and Ezra. They followed in the buckboard. Halfway home, Josiah broke through the silence.

"Hey Ezra?"

Ezra opened his eyes. "What?"

"Jake said you fought Maude until she whispered something into your ear. What was it?"

Ezra looked ashamed. "If I tell you, youíll just get mad. I want to forget about motherís visit."

"How about if I promise not to get mad?"

Ezra thought about it. Josiah always kept his promises. "Very well. Mother told me if I didnít stop struggling, that I would find it necessary to pack my bags, because she would hire the best lawyer to have me removed from your custody."

Josiah was mad. Furious actually, but he hid it. "Oh Ezra. You should know that we would have fought her. Judge Travis is on our side and her life style is hardly the type any child should have to grow up in."

"I know all that Josiah, but I have seen good intentions and love beaten by greed and money. Mother may or may not have won such a battle, but she would have hurt this family in the process. I figured it was worth the trouble I would be in to keep that from happening."

"Iím very proud of you Ezra and I love you very much. I would fight to the death to keep you. I vow to you right now that I will never let you go."

Ezra could see the love shining in Josiahís eyes. The feeling of love and acceptance were overwhelming.

"I love you too Josiah. I never want to be any other place but with you and the others. I have finally found what it means to be family, and I would fight to the death to keep it also. Thank you Josiah."

Josiah put his arm around Ezraís shoulders as then rode the rest of the way home secure in the bond of family.

The End


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