Raul's Victory
Fan Fiction

 

 

The Magnificent Seven Ranch: 
Summer Vacation

By Victory

Part I Part II Part III

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

Author Note: This is the third story in the series:  It isnít necessary to read the first two, except to get the background stories.  Because of the length of this story I have broken it into three parts for easier loading.

*************************************
Chapter #1: Prelude To Chaos
*************************************

Nathan couldnít believe how rowdy the schoolteacher was letting the class get. It was Monday of the last week of school and just this morning Chris had reminded everyone to behave. He had said, that just because there were only a few days left, it didnít mean they could act poorly. Nathan hadnít been concerned for himself; however, he knew that Vin and Ezra had something planned. He just didnít know if he should try to stop them and risk fall out, or just let them bury themselves.

"Okay class. You may have 20 minutes to run off some of your energy. Dismissed."

Cheers went up as a herd of children ran from the room. Nathan followed at a slower rate, and made his way toward his brothers. He needed to find out what sort of trouble they were about to start. He quietly snuck within hearing distance.

"How are we going to do this Vin?"

"Iím not sure yet Ez. All I know is Peterson is gonna get one last good-bye from me."

"You better make sure itís a good one and that it cannot be traced back to you or Chris will skin you alive and hang your hide over the fireplace."

"God Ez! Thatís disgusting. It ainít gonna be that bad."

"Wanna bet?" Ezra looked at Vin with a skeptical gaze.

"Well I ainít planniní on gettiní caught. Chris will be too busy chasiní JD to keep track of me."

"You donít really believe that do you? For some reason you two seem to have a stronger connection. Chris can tell when youíre up to something. Me on the other hand, I can be a complete mystery to big brother Chris. He never knows what Iím up to."

"Maybe not what, but he knows something's up."

The school bell halted the discussion and the class returned to the small schoolroom and finished their day. When the teacher finally dismissed the class, she was frazzled.

Nathan, Ezra and Vin saw Chris before he saw them. Vin shushed his brothers and Nate and Ezra watched in amusement as Vin stalked their big brother. Chris spotted Nathan and Ezra and wondered where Vin was. He approached the boys and asked, "Whereís Vin?" Suddenly Chris was attacked from behind when Vin leaped onto Chrisí back. Chris instinctively reached for his gun until he realized the Ďbandití weight nothing. He shifted his weight and brought Vin off his back and set him on his feet in front of him. Vin was giggling.

"Boy, I ought ta tan yer britches for ya. How many times have I told you not to sneak up on a man with a gun?"

"Ahh Chris. I was just funniní. ĎSides, ya didnít shoot."

"No, but I may have to change my mind on that one." Chris tried to glare at Vin but it only made the boy laugh harder. Chris really wasnít upset, he simple hated it when Vin lurked around and startled him. Chris smiled at his little brother and swiftly gave him a firm Ďlove patí on his backside.

Vin stopped laughing and rubbed his backside. "Ow! That ainít fair."

"Neither is scaring years off you older brother." Chris laughed.

"You sayiní yer gettiní old Cowboy?" Vin said while backing up.

"Old? Old? Iíll show you how fast this Ďold maní can teach you some respect." Chris said with mock threat in his voice.

Vin smiled and ran as fast as he could to the wagon Chris was using. He giggled harder when he heard Chris yell, "You can run but you canít hide."

***********

As the wagon entered the yard, JD came out of the barn screaming. He ran in front of the wagon causing Chris to halt the team of horses or run the boy down. When JD saw Chris, he ran toward him and hid behind Chrisí legs, almost knocking Chris off his feet.

"Save me Chris!"

"JD what is going on? Save you from what?" Everyone turned toward the growling coming from the barn. Chris immediately drew his gun and aimed for the barn. What he saw next made him pause.

Coming out of the barn was Buck. Hair messed up, hunched over, walking with a limp, and motioning with his hands and fingers like an animal with claws. He growled and Chris re-holstered his gun. When Buck saw the wagon full of kids, he started toward them and figured the Ďmonsterí could scare them too. Vin jumped from the wagon and ran into the barn. Ezra and Nathan motioned to each other and sat still. When Buck was close enough, Nathan and Ezra noticed Vin return with a few pieces of rope. When Vin pounced on Bucks back, Nathan and Ezra joined the fray.

Buck was knocked down and immediately realized he was out numbered.

JD saw the whole thing from the safety of Chrisí legs. When he saw his brothers pounce on the Ďmonsterí he became braver and ran over to Ďhelpí. Chris stood by and watched Buck get what he deserved.

When the dust settled, Buck was laying on the ground with his hands and feet tide. Chris walked over and motioned for the boys to move back.

"Well, boys. Looks like you took care of this scary beast right proper. Should we string him up or roast him slowly over a fire?"

"Hey Chris. Tell them to untie me. I was only funniní with JD." Buck struggled to free his hands.

JD walked over to Buck and said, "You scart me!"

"I was only playiní with ya JD." Buck again pleaded to Chris. "Let me loose!"

"I donít know Buck. JD was so frightened he ran right in front of the wagon. He could have been hurt." Chris turned back to the boys. "What do you boys think? Should we let him go?"

Before they could reply, Josiah rode into the yard to see everyone standing around brother Buck, who was tied up. He smiled and dismounted.

"Looks like I missed all the fun again."

JD ran to Josiah and jumped into his outstretched arms. "We caught us a monster ĎSiah. Vin Ďtacked him and then Ez and Nate pushed him down, then I helped tickle him."

"Tickled huh." Josiah gave JD a small tickle and put him down.

"We were just trying to decide what to do with him when you rode up. JD ran in front of the wagon as we entered the yard because he was frightened by thisÖ" He pointed to Buck, "monster. Any ideas?"

"Josiah. Would you talk some sense into them and let me go."

Ezra walked over to Josiah and motioned for him to bend down so he could whisper something into his ear. Josiah smiled and them laughed at the suggestion. He stood straight and headed for Buck.

"Ezra has the perfect solution." Josiah released Bucks feet and helped him stand up.

"Well, at least one of my brothers is compassionate." Just as Buck thought his hands would be untied, he was lifted up over Josiahís shoulder and walked over toward the water trough. "No! Josiah please." No one was listening to his pleas as Josiah dumped Buck into the water. Buck came up sputtering.

"Just you all wait. This Ďmonsterí will have his revenge."

Chris offered Buck his hand to get out of the trough. "Buck. Just remember, you started it." Chris turned to the rest of his laughing family. "Boys? I want you to get started on your chores and then get washed up for Supper." Chris smiled as everyone scattered. He turned back to Buck and smiled.

Buck was wringing the water out of his shirt. He looked at Chris and saw him smiling. Buck forgot about his current state and smiled back. "Hey Pard. Iím sorry. I shouldnít have cause JD to run out like that. Iím glad he wasnít hurt."

"Well Buck, it was funny. You should have seen his face when he flew out of the barn. I thought there was a real Ďmonsterí in there. Iím gonna go get washed up." Chris headed for the house. Buck was about to follow when he noticed Josiah smiling too.

"Itís good to see brother Chris smiling and laughing."

"Yep, Josiah, heís way too serious."

"Huh! Someone has to balance out the fact that youíre never serious."

"Hey. Iím serious about lots of things."

"The ladies donít count." Josiah walked away from Buck while he was sputtering about ungrateful brothers and revenge.

************************************
Chapter #2: Summer Planning
************************************

Supper came and went with lively conversation about the last week of school, the new string of wild horses coming tomorrow, and summer vacation. Chris decided to find out what everyone was planning for the summer. After dessert, he had everyone move into the living room and sit by the fireplace.

JD sat on the rug in front of the fireplace with his toy soldiers. Vin and Ezra sat on the stone hearth and watched JD. Buck sat in his favorite chair near JD. Nathan sat on the couch and Josiah sat in their país chair. Chris entered the room followed by Miss Nettie with coffee. Josiah, Buck, Chris and Nathan poured themselves a cup of coffee and settled down. Chris looked over at the expectant face of Ezra. Since turning 13, Ezra had been anxious to try some adult things. Coffee was one of them, but Josiah had said no while in school, because it seemed to keep him awake and even harder to get up in the morning.

Chris on the other hand, didnít care if Ezra had a cup of coffee once in a while, but Josiah was the oldest. Chris gently shook his head Ďnoí to Ezra who got the message loud and clear and didnít appear too happy about it. Josiah caught all of the unspoken conversation and smiled. He took an extra cup and filled it half way. Without saying a word, he handed the cup to Ezra. He smiled at the shocked expression and almost laughed at Ezraís response.

"Thanks Josiah."

"Your welcome. Make it last though, because thatís all youíre getting. Understood?"

"Yes sir." Ezra and Josiah both settled down.

Vin turned expectantly to Chris, and started to say, "Hey Cowboy couldÖ"

"No Vin."

"Why?" Vin whined.

"Tell me youíre not whining?"

Vin immediately stopped and said "No sir" and started to pout. He knew that above all else, Chris had no patience for whining. It would only end badly.

Chris decided to ignore the pouting and looked at all his brothers. "Boys. Summer vacation starts in four days and I wanted to know what everyone was planning for the summer."

"Those wild horses will need to be broke and trained for the fall roundup." Josiah said. "Iíll probably spend most of the time split between horses, fences, and kids."

"Are we going to stick to the same rotation for watching the youngunís?" Buck asked.

"Probably. It seems to work. Why?"

"Well I told the sheriff that I would help out part time in town as a deputy. Mostly evenings and nights. I can still watch the boys in the morning."

"We can work something out." Chris turned to Nathan. "Nate?"

"I was wondering if you would let me ask the Doctor if I could help him this summer?"

"As long as your chores are done each day and thereís nothing here that needs your attention, and as long as itís okay with the Doc, I think that it would be okay. Josiah?"

"Sounds good to me. I will need some help watching your brothers but we can work that out as we go along. Deal?"

"Yeah. Deal. Iíll talk to Doc on Friday. That is if we donít see him before that."

"Bite your tongue young man. There will be NO emergencies or injuries anytime soon." Chris looked toward Ezra and Vin. "Understood?"

"Why ya lookiní at us. We ainít the only ones who get hurt Ďround here." Vin protested.

"No? Maybe not, but you two are the biggest cause."

"Hurumph." Vin and Ezra said together and then giggled.

"Okay. What about you Ezra and donít say sleep."

"Why canít I sleep?"

"Because breakfast is still a family affair and the livestock like their breakfast early also." Chris answered.

"Well, if you wonít let me sleep in, then I will probably just want to hang out around here and maybe do some exploring."

"You could help Josiah train the horses. Your pretty good traininí Chaucer all them fancy tricks." Vin added.

Ezra elbowed him and tried to smile.

"What tricks would those be Ezra?" Josiah asked.

"Nothing that fancy. Just how to direct him without my hands and stuff like that."

Josiah knew there was more but he decided to watch Ezra closely for a while.

"Fine. I will warn you now though. Stay out of trouble and NO gambling. Understood?"

"Yes sir."

"Good. Vin what did you want to do this summer?"

"Stuff."

"Stuff? Could you be more exact?"

"You know Cowboy, stuff. Fishiní, swimminí, exploriní, maybe campiní."

"Yeah! I wants ta go campiní." JD yelled. He jumped onto Buckís lap and bounced. "Can we go campiní Buck, Please."

"Weíll see Little Britches."

"JD? Come here Sprout." Chris patted his knees to invite JD up. JD crawled off Buck and heard him grunt. JD ran over to Chris and crawled onto his lap.

"What Chris?"

"JD. What else do you want to do this summer?"

"I dunno. Alls the stuff everyone else wants to do would be fun. I can fish and swim and Ďplore. I can ride my pony too. Buck said Iím gettingí good."

"Thatís my pony your riding JD." Vin added.

"No heís not. Heís mine." JD crossed his arms over his chest and frowned.

"No heís not ya little bonehead. Starr is MY pony."

"VIN!" Chris said. "Donít be calling your brother names and you can certainly share your pony."

"Chris. Iím gonna need Starr to explore and fish and stuff. He cainít be available for JD all the time."

"Chris. Starrís my pony." JD whined.

Chris turned JD so he could look at his face. "JD. Vin is right. Starr is his pony."

"ButÖ" JD started to say when Chris shushed him.

"But he will share him with you. You arenít allowed to ride alone anyway."

JD started to cry. "I want my own pony." He leaned into Chrisí chest.

"Shhh, JD. Weíll work something out, I promise." Chris looked at Vin and gave him a look that spoke volumes. "Vin. You need to apologize to your brother."

"Why? For saying Starrís my pony? He is."

"You need to apologize for calling JD a bonehead. Now."

Vin was too tired to notice Chris meant NOW, so he started to argue. "ButÖ"

Chris immediately stood up and handed JD over to Buck. Vin noticed his error and spoke quickly. "Iím sorry JD." Chris moved over to Vin and gently took him by the upper arm and led him out of the room. "I said I was sorry Chris, please." Everyone sat quietly as they hear Vin protest and then three solid smacks followed by Vin crying. When the crying died down, Vin and Chris returned. Vin went over to JD and said, "Iím sorry I called ya a bonehead JD. You can still use my pony." Vin wiped his eyes on him sleeve and turned to Chris.

"Thank you. Now you can go to your room and get ready for bed."

"Yes sir. Night everyone." Vin turned and went upstairs. Chris returned to his chair.

"Itís getting late boys. JD you and Ezra need to get ready and go to bed. No arguments tonight." JD saw that Chris was serious so he just excused himself and went upstairs. Ezra paused. "You too Ezra." Chris added.

"Yes sir." Ezra reluctantly set down his coffee cup and started out of the room.

"Iíll be up in a few minutes Ezra to get you settled." Josiah added with a smile.

"Okay." Ezra smiled back and left the room.

"Nate, you can have another half hour if you want."

"Okay. I wanted to spend some time out in the work shed reorganizing it."

"Fine. Just donít be too long." Chris added as he stood up. "Well boys. Letís go tuck in the little ones."

Josiah chuckled. "Ezra would not appreciate being called a Ďlittle oneí."

"He is small for his age though." Buck added.

They ascended the stairs and set out into three different directions.

********

Josiah knocked and entered Ezraís room as Ezra was getting into bed. "All set?"

"Yeah. Hey Josiah?"

"What?" Josiah sat on the edge of the bed.

"Can I help with the horse training this summer?"

"Sure, if you tell me what tricks you taught Chaucer."

"Aw Josiah. It wasnít anything big. I just taught him to come when I called him. How to untie himself from the hitching post. How to steal some ones hat and play tag with it."

"Ha. What good are those tricks?"

"I donít know. I was bored and Chaucer is such a smart horse I could teach him almost anything."

"Then I suppose I should let you help. It would certainly keep you out of trouble."

"Trouble? Me? Josiah, I never get into trouble." Ezra smirked.

"Yeah sure Ezra. Just make sure it doesnít find you either."

"Iíll try. Good night Josiah." Ezra said as he snuggled into his blankets and pillow.

"Good night Ezra." Josiah leaned over and kissed his forehead. "Love ya."

"I love you too Josiah." Josiah stood and started to leave. "Josiah?"

"Yeah Ezra?"

"Thank you for the coffee. It was good."

"No problem Ez. Sleep tight." Josiah turned the lamp out and closed the door behind him.

*******

"Hey Buck?"

"Yeah Little Britches?" Buck had just finished reading JD a story and was tucking him in.

"Can I help be yer depty this summer?"

"My deputy? No JD. Youíre way too young for sheriff work. You can be my pard here on the ranch though."

"Buck?"

"Yes JD." Buck said with patience.

"Whatís it like in school? Iím gonna be scart."

"No you wonít boy. Nathan, Ezra and Vin will be there. They will look out for you. Besides, on Friday you get to go to school with your brothers and then Josiah, Chris and I will be joining everyone for a picnic lunch and games. It will be a good day."

"Can I ride my pony?"

"JD. You have to stop calling Starr your pony. Heís Vinís pony. When we get Vin a bigger horse you can have Starr all to yourself, but not before. You still need help and I donít want you riding without an adult. I donít want a repeat of Black Bart, understand?"

"Yes sir."

"Good. Now go to sleep. I love you." Buck kissed JD on the forehead.

"I love you too Buck."

**********

When Chris entered Vinís room, Vin was dressed for bed but was crying into his pillow. Chris walked over to him and picked him up and sat down in the rocker with him. Vin wrapped his arms around Chrisí neck and tried to stop crying.

"Shhh." Chris soothed while rubbing Vinís back.

"IÖIím sorry Chris." Vin stuttered.

"I know Cowboy. Iím sorry too. I keep forgetting that JD doesnít understand that Starr isnít his." They sat quietly and rocked for about 15 minutes before Vin spoke.

"Chris?"

"Yeah Vin?"

"Can I have a bigger horse? Iís too big for Starr anyway, then JD could have the pony all fer his self."

"Itís a possibility. Maybe we can look at the new horses coming tomorrow and you can pick one to train after itís broke."

"Really?" Vin wiped his eyes and tried to smile.

"Really. Now letís get you into bed." Chris put Vin into bed and pulled the covers up. He leaned over and kissed Vin on the forehead. "Good night Vin. I love you."

"I love you too. Night." Vin closed his eyes and Chris turned out the light and closed the door.

As Chris closed the door to Vinís room, Josiah and Buck came out of Ezra and JDís rooms.

"Boys." Chris said.

"Hey Chris? Why donít we let Vin pick out a bigger horse from the ones coming tomorrow?" Buck asked.

"That way JD could have Starr. Could solve some problems and it would keep Vin out of trouble most of the summer." Josiah added.

"I just told Vin that he could do that very thing. But donít say anything to JD yet." Chris said.

"Great! That should keep Vin and JD out of trouble. What about Ezra?"

"He wants to help with the horse training." Josiah said with a smile.

"Really?" Chris and Buck said at the same time.

"Yep. It appears that Ezra has taught Chaucer some interesting tricks, including getting himself untied from the hitching post." Josiah said as he looked knowingly at Buck.

"Well, Iíll be. I knew I kept tying that dadburn horse up but I kept finding him in Miss Nettieís garden." Buck said.

"Seems Ezra was bored. At least thatís his story. I personally think he did it to make bets at school, but I canít prove it."

"Did you ask him Josiah?" Chris asked.

"No. I didnít want to accuse him. Iíll find out eventually if he is. I always do."

All three brothers went to find Nathan and to send him to bed. They all tucked Nate in and then locked up the ranch house and went to bed.

**************************************************
Chapter #3: Not Just For Dessert Anymore
**************************************************

The next day dawned clean and clear. Josiah and Chris let the boys take their horses to school with instructions to stay together and to come right home. Nathan promised to watch out for Vin and Ezra. JD wasnít happy about the arrangement because Vin took Ďhisí pony. When the tantrum escalated, Chris stopped being diplomatic.

"JD. You will change that attitude right now or I will spank you and send you to your room for the day. Do you understand?"

JD nodded as tears ran down his cheeks. Chris picked JD up and held him close. "Why donít we go finish our chores JD?"

JD again just nodded. Chris put him down and they went out to work in the barn.

********

The morning at school went a lot smoother. Vin almost got into a scuffle with Jake Peterson when Peterson took Vinís dessert at lunchtime. Although Vin was upset, it gave him an idea for the perfect revenge.

"Ezra. Remember last year when JD was so sick cause he couldnít poop?"

"Vin, Iím trying to eat." Ezra said.

"Sorry. Well, the Doc gave him something to make it easier to go. Why couldnít we get some of that stuff and mix it in some of Nettieís brownies."

"Why in Godís name would you want to do such a thing?"

"Not in all of um Ez. Just in the one that Peterson steals from me regularly. He would eat the brownie and then he would have to spend days in the outhouse. No way to trace it back to us."

"Us? You mean Ďyouí donít you?"

"Come on Ez. Itís a sure thing. ĎSides you could take bets of how long it takes fer it to take effect or how many times heíll need the outhouse on Friday."

"Assuming he comes on Friday?" Ezraís mind was working on all the different angles.

"Well, if he donít show up, thatís even better. Iís wonít have ta bother with him all day."

"Okay. How do we get some of that dreadful medicine?"

"I think Miss Nettie still has some left over from when JD was sick. I could look. Then I know I could get Miss Nettie to let me help make some brownies. She always makes a smaller pan of the ones I mix up."

"Thatís because you keep licking your fingers and no one wants to eat brownies that have so many germs in them."

"I eat um and so does Chris."

"Yeah but have you ever noticed that he drinks a lot more milk with such a small brownie."

"So?"

"He doesnít like milk." Ezra said matter of factly.

"Really? He just eats it cause I made it?"

"Yes little brother. He loves you enough to risk a belly ache."

"Cool. Iíll check with Miss Nettie tonight and see if I can find that stuff."

"Okay. I think I will hold a guessing contest to see how many times young Peterson needs the outhouse."

"For a small fee no doubt."

Ezra smiled. "Yes, for a small fee. Winner takes 50%."

Ezra and Vin spent the rest of the lunch break working out the details. By the time they arrived home, all of their plans were thought out.

*********

"JD! JD!" Chris had turned around for a few minutes and misplaced JD. He walked out of the barn and saw the top of JDís head over on the other side of the watering trough. "JD!"

"Yeah, Chris?" JD looked up and saw Chris walking toward him. He stood up and wiped the mud that was on his hands, onto his pants. Chris saw the mud and scowled.

"JD. How did you manage to get so dirty in the past few minutes? I thought you were helping me in the barn."

"Iís done in da barn. I though I would help Miz Nettie pick food for dinner." JD bent over and proudly presented Chris with three very muddy carrots. "See. Iís gonna wash um."

"I see Iím going to have to build a fence around Nettieís garden so that naughty little boys wonít go digging in the vegetables. JD you know your not allowed in the garden without Nettie. Now you pulled up three very tiny carrots and have managed to get yourself covered in mud."

JD looked down at his pants and hands. He couldnít understand why adults always worried about his hands so he dunked them in the trough and wiped them on his shirt.

"JD!" Chris hollered as he grabbed JDís hands from making the shirt worse. "Donít use your shirt. Come on. Iíll get you cleaned up and then you can explain to Nettie why you were in her garden when you know better. Then we are gonna have a little talk."

JD started to cry. He knew he was in trouble when Chris started talking about Ďlittle talksí. Chris ignored the tears and washed JDís hands and face as best he could. Then they went to talk to Miss Nettie.

Nettie made a fuss about Ďnaughty little boysí and then forgave JD. They both had lunch and then Chris took JD upstairs for a Ďtalkí and a nap. After the spanking, Chris rocked JD until he fell asleep. Chris tucked him into bed and went to get something done before JD woke up.

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

After school, Nathan, Ezra and Vin headed home. When they entered the yard, they saw Chris finishing a small fence around the garden. Chris explained that the fence was to keep children and horses out. Ezra understood the reference to a horse and nodded.

Vin finished his chores and set out to ask Miss Nettie about some brownies. She said she would love help making them. While Miss Nettie looked for the ingredients, Vin looked for the medicine. When he couldnít find it, he decided to ask Miss Nettie.

"Miz Nettie?"

"Yeah Vin?"

"Can I ask ya a private question?"

"Sure sweety. Whatís wrong?"

"Well. IÖIís wondering if you had any special tea or medicine to help me go to the outhouse."

It took Nettie a minute to understand what he was talking about. "Are you having trouble going Vin?"

"Well, not really trouble. Iís just wondering." Vin didnít want to lie. That could prove fatal, but he could dance around the facts for a while.

Nettie assumed Vin was just uncomfortable asking for help so she decided to help. "I have some medicine that we used for JD when he couldnít go." She went and returned from the pantry with a small brown bottle. "Thereís not much here but it may help. If it doesnít get better, you need to let Chris or Josiah know. Maybe the doc could help."

"Okay." Nettie got a cup and poured a little medicine into it. She then went to the pantry to get milk to mix the medicine in. As she turned, Vin poured the medicine into the brownie batter he was mixing. He quickly wiped the cup out and added vanilla to the cup. The vanilla looked like the medicine and with a little sugar, it wouldnít taste bad either. Nettie turned back to Vin and poured the milk into the cup.

"Miz Nettie? Could I have some sugar to help with the taste?"

"Sure honey." Nettie added the sugar and watched Vin drink the entire cup of milk, vanilla, and sugar.

"Thanks Miz Nettie."

"Youíre welcome dear. Finish mixing your brownies and then Iíll serve Supper. You let someone know if that medicine doesnít work, okay."

"Yes maíam."

Vin finished his brownies and let Miss Nettie put them in the oven. Vin got washed up for Supper and let Ezra know that everything was working as planned.

After Supper, Chris took Vin down to the corral to look at the horses. Vin immediately fell in love with a black that had a white blaze on his face. Chris told Vin that they would break that horse first so that Vin could train him. Chris stressed that Vin needed the horse broke first before he was to get anywhere near the horse.

They both returned to the house and Miss Nettie handed Chris one of Vinís brownies.

"Vin made this one Chris." Nettie said as she handed him a big glass of milk.

Vin began to panic. He went over to Chris and took Ďhisí brownie off Chrisí plate and the glass of milk. He quickly, without a word, headed for the kitchen. He returned with a cup of coffee and a good brownie; one Miss Nettie made. Chris looked confused. He always ate one of Vinís even if it was horrible.

"I know you donít like my cooking Chris. I also know you donít like milk so you can eat one of Nettieís." Vin walked back into the kitchen to let Nettie know that he would take his brownies to school.

Back in the dining room Chris was glaring at everyone around the table.

"Alright. Who snitched?" Everyone looked down at their plates and no one fessed up. "I canít believe one of you would tell Vin I didnít like his brownies. Now I want the truth or ALL of you can go to bed early."

Ezra didnít want everyone to get into trouble so he decided to admit to telling Vin. "I did." It was very soft but Chris heard it.

"Why?"

"It just slipped out. We were talking about brownies and I let it slip. Iím sorry, but he didnít seem upset about it. He actually was surprised that you would eat something you didnít like to honor his baking skills."

"He didnít look happy a minute ago." Chris got up to find Vin. Ezra knew why Vin looked unhappy. It would have been disastrous if Chris had eaten that brownie. No one was suppose to trace this little prank back to them.

Chris found Vin and he assured Chris that he wasnít upset and that Ezra didnít mean to do it. Because no one seemed upset about the whole thing, Chris let it go. The family spent a quiet evening playing checkers or reading. One at a time Chris and Josiah sent boys to bed, until it was just them checking one last time before bed.

**********************************************
Chapter #4: Where Fortunes Are Made
**********************************************

Thursday went well for Ezra and Vin. Jake took Vinís brownie just like he always did. Ezra spent the better part of the day setting up the bets. Bets were put down and numbers were picked. Then they would watch Peterson on Friday from the beginning of school until after the picnic was over at 2:30PM. In the event that Jake didnít make it to school on Friday, all bets would be returned. Upon returning home, Ezra even got some of the men in the bunkhouse to put down bets.

*********

Chris woke early on Friday. He was excited to have the entire morning free from kids for the first time since their pa died. Before Linc died, Chris wouldnít have cared who was watching the boys because he was too grieved to see anything else but his own lost family. His fatherís death had sobered him quickly. It helped to have people to care for.

Chris got up and dressed. He went and woke everyone up to get ready for school. Since it was the last day and the teacher used the morning for clean up and fun and games, the boys were all up with no arguments. When Chris checked on JD, he found the boy sitting, half-dressed, in his rocker, playing with a toy. JD looked a little afraid. Chris guessed that JD was nervous about going to school.

"Hey Sprout. You going to school half nekkid?"

"Hey Chris. No." JD slid from the rocker and finished dressing. When he pulled his last boot on he turned to Chris, who was now sitting in the rocker.

"Chris?"

"Yeah Sprout?"

"Iís scared."

"Come here JD." JD sat on Chrisí lap and they rocked for a few minutes. "Thereís nothing to be afraid of JD. Ezra, Nathan, and Vin will be with you the entire time. It will be fine. Besides, Josiah, Buck and myself will be coming out for the picnic. Itís only one day."

"Is Miss Nettie cominí too?"

"Yep." JD snuggled deeper into Chris arms and put his thumb in his mouth. Chris held on a little tighter. "What else is bothering you JD?"

"Youíre gonna miss me." Chris smiled.

"I think I will be okay JD. Iím a big boy." Chris paused. "You gonna miss me?"

JD nodded. "It will be okay JD. Itís only a few hours and if anything happens all of your big brothers will take care of you." Chris decided to try a different angle. "Hey Sprout. You can do me a favor."

JD looked at Chris and asked, "What?"

"I think big brother Buck may have a hard time letting you go to school because he will miss you. Could you be a brave boy and show him that everything will be okay?"

"Sure Chris. I can do that." JD scrambled off Chrisí lap and hollered to Buck. Chris laughed out loud as he headed for the stairs.

**********

JD surprised everyone when he didnít make a fuss at the schoolhouse. Chris told him that they would be back for lunch and to enjoy the day.

The morning went quickly for everyone but poor Jake Peterson, who had a stomachache. Ezra was keeping track of how many times Jake excused himself to use the outhouse. Some of the younger kids giggled every time he went out, which made Miss Jones just a little suspicious. By lunchtime, Ezra was well on his way to making a nice profit.

"How we doiní Ez?"

"Pretty good Vin."

"What are you two up to?" Nathan asked as he startled the boys.

"Jeesh, Nathan. Warn a guy." Vin exclaimed.

"You two have been acting funny all week. What is it?"

"Nothing. How could we be up to something?" Ezra asked.

"I havenít figured that out yet, but I will."

"Lighten up Nate. We are not doing anything but enjoying our last day of school for the summer." Ezra walked away from his brothers to see if he could get a card game going with some of the older boys; secretly of course.

Nathan observed Jake moving toward the outhouse again and turned in time to see Ezra record something into a small notebook. //Iíll bet heís gambiní about something//

Nathan turned again when JD screamed Bucks name. Buck swung JD into his arms and tickled him as he, Josiah and Chris approached. Chris ruffled Vinís hair.

"Whereís Ezra?" Josiah asked.

"Off conning some poor kid out of his hard earned allowance probably." Nathan sneered.

"He knows better than to con anyone, especially in school." Josiah said.

"Well, I donít know then. Vin and him have been actiní weird all morning."

"Weird? Like how?" Chris asked Nate as he looked at Vin.

"We ainít actiní any different, then any other kid whoís done school fer the summer. Nateís jest Ďmagininí things." Vin defended.

"Well, I hope for your sake, youíre right, because I wonít be happy if you are planning mischief on the last day of school."

"I promise ya Chris, I ainít done no mischief today." Vin said.

Chris looked at his brother for a minute and got the same feeling that everything wasnít as it seemed, but until he found out what it was, he was going to keep his eyes open.

"Well, letís go eat." Chris said.

"Iíll be right behind you as soon as I find Ezra." Josiah said as he headed for the schoolhouse.

"Okay Josiah. Weíll meet you over where the food tables have been set up."

Chris, Buck, JD, Vin and Nathan went to eat while Josiah went to find his lost little brother.

********

"Boys. This game has been fun and profitable, but I must conclude it and find my brothers for our noon repast before I am missed." All of the other boys with Ezra looked confused. When their confusion turned to fear, Ezra felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.

"You are already missed young man." Josiah boomed. Ezra spun around and saw Josiah with his hands on his hips. He tried to smile but it wasnít successful. Josiah turned to the other boys and said, "Go eat boys. My brother and I are going to have a long and hard Ďtalkí."

Ezra visibly paled. "Josiah, Itís not what you think."

"Really? I think you disobeyed me, again, and were playing poker for money with your classmates in school."

"Okay, it is what you think. I just canít help myself. Itís motherís fault."

"You really should come up with a better excuse than Maude. She hasnít been the perfect mother, but you havenít been with her for a long time. Pa taught you better and I thought I had finally gotten through to you also, but now I can see that I havenít made a lasting impression on you." Josiah took Ezra by the upper arm and led him into the empty schoolhouse. When the door closed behind them, Josiah released Ezra and removed his belt.

"Please Josiah. Iíll try harder not to disobey you, just donít spank me here."

"Nope. Come here Ezra."

"Please Josiah." Ezra begged. Josiah took Ezra by the arm and delivered a severe tanning. Ezra had tried to stay still and quiet through the tanning, but after the fifth stroke, he couldnít help but move around. Josiah only held on tighter and continued until Ezra was sobbing uncontrollably.

When Josiah figured Ezra got the point, he released him and put his belt back on. He then gathered Ezra into his arms and held him until the sobbing slowed.

"IÖIÖIím s..sÖsorry, Jo.s..s..iah."

"Iím sorry I had to do that too Ezra, but you are too young to be gambling and I need you to understand that and obey my wishes. Understood?"

"Yes Sir." Ezra wiped his eyes and tried to get his breathing controlled.

"Letís go wash up and then go eat. Chris is probably looking all over for us."

********

Chris had set out looking for Josiah and Ezra and was approaching the schoolhouse when he heard Ezraís pleas and the unmistakable sound of a belt crack. Having found his brothers, Chris returned to the picnic area to eat.

"Did ya find Josiah and Ez?" Buck asked.

"Yep. Theyíll be along shortly."

Buck decided not to ask and returned to helping JD get the food into his mouth and not on his shirt. Fifteen minutes later Josiah and Ezra joined them. Buck immediately understood what happened when he saw Ezraís red eyes and how carefully he sat on the ground. Josiah got some food for them both and handed a plate to Ezra.

"Eat." Josiah said.

"Yes sir." Ezra said and started his lunch.

"íSiah?" JD asked.

"Yeah pup?"

"I was telliní Buck about how I learned all about school."

"Thatís great JD."

JD finished eating and went off to play with Vin, with Nathan keeping watch. Ezra wanted to join them, but was afraid Josiah wouldnít let him. He needed to find out if Peterson used the outhouse while he was gone.

"Josiah?" Ezra asked quietly.

"Yes?"

"Could I go play too, please?"

Josiah thought about it. "You gonna stay out of trouble?"

"Iíll try."

"Okay, but just remember to stay out of trouble or we will talk again. Understood?"

"Yes sir." Ezra stood carefully and headed over to Vin and JD. When he was out of earshot, Chris asked, "What was it this time?"

"Poker game behind the schoolhouse. Howíd you know? Or was it that obvious?"

"Not real obvious. I went looking for you both and heard what happened in the schoolroom. You think it will do any good?"

"God I hope so. I hate doing that but it scares me to death to think he could turn out like Maude."

"Heís good at it though and that will make it hard to break the gambling habit."

"Well something has to break."

"The habit or Ezraís backside?"

"Maybe both." Both brothers smiled and watched the younguns from their spot under a tree.

*********

"You okay Ez?" Vin asked.

"Iím fine. Just a bit sore." Ezra absently rubbed his backside.

"What happened this time?" Nathan sneered.

"None of your business." Ezra walked away from them to be followed by Vin.

"Donít let him bother ya Ez. Heís always like that, a real goody, goody. He never gets in trouble."

"Letís just drop it. Did you see whether Peterson used the outhouse during my absence?"

"No I didnít see im." Vin knew Ezra was trying to change the subject. "What happened Ez?"

Ezra could tell Vin wasnít going to let it go. "Josiah caught me playing poker behind the schoolhouse."

"Whew!"

"Why?" Ezra said with his hands on his hips.

"Iís jest worried that Josiah found out about that other thing."

"No. How could he? Thereís no way Peterson would assume it was us anyway. This was one of our better scams."

"True. Letís go play kick ball. We can watch the outhouse better from that side anyway."

"Lead the way." Ezra and Vin played kickball and recorded it every time the outhouse was used. By the time 2:30PM rolled around, the final tally mark was made. With the marks counted, Ezra and Vin were pleased. They gave half of the money to the winner and split the rest. When it was time to head home, Ezra and Vin were $5.00 each richer.

***************************
Chapter #5: And Lost
***************************

Ezra hated chores.

When the family returned from school, Chris sent everyone off to finish chores. Ezra had to clean the horse stalls because of his Ďgambling problemí as Josiah put it. //Only problem was getting caught// While cleaning the stalls, Ezra over heard a couple of ranch hands talking about their Friday night poker game. Since Ezra had some money, he was going to see if he could get into the game.

"Hank?"

"Yeah Ezra?" Hank was a newer ranch hand that didnít know that Ezra wasnít allowed to play poker or to be in the bunkhouse.

"I was wondering if you would allow me to join in your game tonight?"

"Yer a little young ainít ya?"

"I may be young, but I am very good at poker."

"Okay. Yer money is just as good as any other. Game starts at ten. Most of the men are going to town, so it will be a small group."

"Iíll be there. Thank you." Ezra finished his chores quicker with an evening of poker to look forward to. By ten oíclock, everyone would be in bed so he could easily sneak out and then back in.

*******

"Chris are you sure you will be okay tonight with all the boys?" Josiah asked.

"Come on Josiah. I have watched them before."

"I know, but today was the last day of school and they are wound up. I donít want to come home and find them all shot." Josiah chuckled.

"Funny. Laugh it up big brother. We will be fine. Itís not like I canít be like the old lady who lived in a shoe."

"Old lady in a shoe?" JD asked from his spot on the rug.

Chris smiled and picked JD up. "Yep. She had sooo many children she didnít know what to do."

JD had a serious look on his face. "Whad she do?"

"She spanked them all soundly and sent them to bed." Chris said as he tickled JD.

"Aw Chris. Stop it or Iís gonna pee my pants."

"Well we canít have that now can we." Chris set JD down and watched him return to his toys. Chris walked back to Josiah and said, "Go and enjoy your evening. Buck is already in town and itís just the four of them. Besides, Nate is no trouble and I think Ezra is too sore to be much trouble."

"That just leaves them babies."

"I ainít no baby ĎSiah." JD added.

"Sorry pup. I keep forgetting." Josiah left and Chris settled down to read the paper.

********

Chris couldnít have been more wrong about being able to handle four boys without shooting someone. Dinner was fine, but afterwards, JD, Vin and Ezra started a wrestling match. They werenít too rough until they accidentally bumped into Nathan, who was reading.

"Canít you guys stop it? Iím trying to read."

"Nathan. If you want to be such a stick in the mud, why donít you go read upstairs? We are enjoying ourselves." Ezra said as he pushed Vin onto the couch.

"I shouldnít have too. You guys could read or play checkers instead of rough housing."

"Read? Yuck. Schools out Nate, lighten up." Vin said as he pushed Ezra toward Nathan.

Ezra bumped into Nate again and laughed. Nathan wasnít laughing and pushed Ezra just as JD was moving behind him. Ezra lost his balance and fell, smacking his head against the coffee table. Nathan was shocked.

"Ow! Damn it Nathan. Now Iím going to have a hell of a headache." Ezra said.

Ezra hadnít noticed Chris coming over to check to see if he is okay.

"Iím sorry Chris. I shouldnít have pushed him." Nathan said.

"No you shouldnít have." He turned to Vin and JD. "No more wrestling. Go find something quiet to do or go to bed." Chris waited until JD and Vin sat down to refocus on Ezra. "You okay Ez?"

Ezra sat up and rubbed his head. "Yeah. Iíll live."

"Good." Chris stood up and looked down at Ezra. He offered his hand and helped him to his feet. "Oh Ez?"

"Yeah Chris?"

"If I hear that kind of language from your mouth again, Iíll be washing it out with soap. Understand?"

"Yes sir." Ezra looked at his feet. //Iíll have to watch that//

Chris returned to his paper. Vin, JD and Ezra decided to go upstairs to finish their game.

*********

Around 8:30PM, Chris headed upstairs to put boys to bed. He noticed that they had all became pretty quiet in the last hour. He had heard them wrestling around a little, but as long as he didnít hear crying or furniture breaking, he didnít fuss about it.

He knocked and entered Vinís room to find Vin and Ezra playing cards on the floor. "Boys."

"Hey Chris. Ez was teaching me how to play go fish." Vin said.

"Go fish huh? It better not be poker."

"What sort of sport would that be? Vin has very little money to use for such a venture." Ezra said as he picked up his cards.

"Just make sure it stays that way. Whereís JD?"

Vin and Ezra both pointed to the bed. On top of the comforter, JD was sound asleep amidst an entire army of wooden soldiers.

"How long has he been asleep?" Chris asked.

"Maybe a half hour. We didnít notice right away." Ezra said.

"Well itís bed time anyway. Iíll take sleeping beauty to his room and you boys can get to bed also."

"Itís still early." Vin said as he yawned.

"Yep. I can see you arenít tired."

"Nope." Ezra said with a yawn.

Chris smiled. He picked JD up and started for the door. "Go to bed boys now. No more arguments, complaints, or excuses. Iím going to take care of JD and will be back to tuck you both in." Chris left and Ezra headed to his own room. Chris tucked them all in and was finishing up when Nathan headed for bed. With the house finally quiet, Chris sat for a couple hours enjoying the quiet.

*******

Around ten oíclock, Ezra got up and got dressed. He hadnít heard Chris head for bed yet, but was still pretty confident that he could get out without being seen. He snuck down the back stairs and out the door. He made it to the bunkhouse without any troubles. The ranch hands present where all new so Ezra wouldnít have to worry about getting caught by the hands that knew better. And he would be long gone before anyone who did know better, would be back.

After an hour, the hands realized that Ezra may be young, but he was a good poker player. Ezra managed to make his $5.00 grow into $20.00 before the hands had had enough.

"Boy. Are you cheating?"

"Sir I donít cheat. If you donít believe me, I will simply leave."

Not willing to let Ezra leave without a chance to get some of their money back, the game continued. Ezra was so engrossed in his lucky streak that he failed to hear Josiah return from town.

Upon hearing the excited voices in the bunkhouse, Josiah decided to peek in and see what the commotion was. What he saw made him see red.

Ezra was about to scoop up his latest pot, when he was lifted from the chair by the scruff of his neck. He turned to see the wrath of God in Josiahís eyes.

"Hey boss. Your brother cleaned us out." Hank said.

Ezra groaned.

"He did, did he? Did he also mention that he wasnít allowed in the bunkhouse and he certainly wasnít allowed to play poker?"

"No sir, he didnít. We didnít know."

"Well now you do." Josiah saw the sizable pot and said, "Boys, take what you started with from the pot. Ezra wonít be neediní it." The hands quickly did as they were told as Josiah dragged Ezra out of the bunkhouse.

"Josiah?"

"Donít even try young man. I am so mad at you right now I could spit nails." Josiah set Ezra back onto his feet and said, "Iím not going to deal with you tonight Ezra because if I did I would regret it. I want you to go get into bed, and we will be having a long talk in the morning."

"ButÖ"

"NOW!" Josiah sent Ezra running into the house with a hard swat to his backside.

Josiah tried to breath and to calm his emotions. He was about to return to the house when Hank came up to him.

"Sir?"

"Yeah Hank?"

"Hereís the money the boy started with." Hank handed Josiah $5.00.

"Thanks Hank. Let the men know that Iím not mad at them. Ezra has a way of talking himself into trouble."

"Yes sir. Good night."

"Good night Hank." Josiah put the five dollars in his pocket and headed for the house. Chris was waiting for him when he entered.

"What happened Josiah? I thought it was you coming in and it was Ezra. He didnít say anything, he just ran upstairs."

"I found him playing poker in the bunkhouse."

Chris groaned. "Didnít you just give him a tanning for that very thing this afternoon?"

"Yep. I can see it helped." Josiah said sarcastically.

"Are you going to deal with him tonight?"

"Nope. If I go up there right now, I will find myself on trial for murder. Iím going to bed. Will you make sure Ezra is in bed before you go?"

"Sure Josiah."

********

Chris found Ezra sobbing in his bed when he went to check on him. He sat down on the edge of the bed and rubbed Ezraís back. Ezra tried to calm down but his breathing was hitched. He finally turned to see Chris.

"You got your self into quite a fix this time didnít you?" Chris said gently. Ezra just nodded. "Why Ez? Wasnít this afternoons tanning enough to remind you not to gamble?"

"I donít knÖow. I jussst canít helppppp myssself."

"Well, try to get some sleep and you had better pray that Josiah calms down before he faces you."

"He hates me." Ezra whispered into his pillow.

"No he doesnít. He loves you very much. Thatís why he wants you to learn right from wrong. If he didnít love you, he wouldnít care how poorly you acted. Understand?"

Ezra nodded. "Get some sleep. I love you Ezra." Chris stood and kissed Ezra on the forehead.

"Night. Love you ttto." Ezra rolled over and tried to sleep. Chris stopped in to check on Nathan and JD then made a final stop at Josiahís room. They said their goodnights and both men went to bed dreading tomorrow.

**************************************
Chapter 6: Southern Discipline
**************************************

Ezra felt awful. He didnít sleep at all, dreading his morning visit with Josiah. He tried to think of why he got involved with the poker game after being thrashed that same day for the same reason. No answer came. It wasnít something he could explain. The whole aspect of gambling seduced him every time.

As the sun peeked from the horizon, Ezra decided to get up and get dressed before Josiah made his visit. //Now where are those long underwear and wool pants// He didnít get a chance to find the thicker clothing before Josiah entered

"Iím glad to see you are up. We need to talk." Josiah sat in the chair by the window and motioned for Ezra to come sit on the bed in front of him. After Ezra got settled, Josiah started. "I would like you to explain to me why I found you in the bunkhouse playing poker last night when you know I would disapprove." Josiah hadnít slept well either. He didnít know how to get through to Ezra about gambling.

Ezra just shrugged his shoulders.

"I would like an answer Ezra."

"I donít know. I just donít think about the consequences when poker is involved. I see the money to be made and I donít remember your warnings."

"So youíre saying that I need to give you a lasting reminder of the consequences to this behavior?"

Ezra didnít like the sound of that. He looked at his hands in his lap.

"Ezra? Please look at me." Ezra gazed at Josiah and he could see the unshed tears in Ezraís eyes. "Ezra Iím very disappointed in you." Ezraís tears flowed freely down his cheeks. "I also know that you think because of that, that I hate you." Ezra looked surprised at Josiah as he wiped the moisture off his face. Josiah nodded and smiled. "Chris told me. Ezra, no matter how poorly you act, I will always love you. There is nothing you can do or say that would change that. Weíre family and families love unconditionally. Now I know Maude taught you different, but itís true. All of us, from Chris all the way to JD, love you, unconditionally. Do you understand?"

Ezra just nodded. He understood what Josiah was saying, but still had trouble putting it into his heart as truth.

"Good. Iíve decided what your punishment for disobeying me will be. Firstly, I want you to hand over that deck of cards."

Ezraís head shot up. "ButÖ"

Josiah put his hand up to stop any protest. "Itís obvious you are too tempted by the cards so if you donít have them, then it may remind you not to gamble. Please get them for me."

Josiah watched as Ezra went to his desk and picked up his deck of cards. He held them in his hand almost reverently before he turned back to Josiah. He slowly handed the deck of cards to Josiah.

"Thank you. Are there any other decks?" Josiah saw the shake of his head and a quiet Ďnoí as Ezra sat back down.

"Okay. Secondly, you will be confined to this room for the next two weeks. And when I say confined I mean you donít come out for anything but to eat, go to the outhouse and go to church. Understood?"

"Yes sir."

"Thirdly, after those two weeks are up, you will be working with me and the horses, but you will not leave the yard or corral area without my knowing why. Understood?"

"Yes sir."

"If you can stay out of trouble for the next four weeks, and stay away from all gambling, I will let you have your cards back. Step out of line and I may have to toss them in the fire. Understood?"

"Pa gave me those cards. Please donít burn them."

"If you behave I wonít have too. Pa gave you these cards and made you promise not to gamble with them."

"I have never gambled with those cards Josiah. I play solitaire or games with Vin and JD, but never poker or anything else for money. I keep my promises to pa."

"Good. I want you to keep a promise to me."

"What promise?"

"Promise me that you will not gamble anymore, or at least until your Buckís age."

"I donít know if I could keep that promise Josiah. Iíd hate to break my promise."

"Okay I can understand that. Letís see how the next four weeks go, and I will ask you again. By then you should be able to tell me whether you can control the urge to gamble or if we need to get you some help."

"Help?"

"Gambling is a sickness Ezra. I have seen good men gamble away everything. Their homes, family, jobs, everything is lost. I donít want that for you. I want you to take the biggest gamble of your life Ezra."

"What?"

"Trust me and Chris to teach you how to control the urge to gamble. Let us help you."

Ezra started to cry and Josiah heard a quiet, "Iíll try."

"Thatís all Iím asking."

"Okay." Josiah took Ezra into his arms and hugged him close. After a few quiet moments, Josiah looked Ezra in the eye and said, "Thereís one more matter to discuss, but I want you to get dressed and come eat breakfast first. Then we will finish this discussion in the barn. Understood?"

"Yes sir." Ezra knew what kind of discussing was done in the barn. He just hoped he could get through it and start proving to Josiah that he could make that promise to him in a few weeks.

"Good. Iíll let you get dressed and meet you downstairs."

"Okay." Josiah left and Ezra slowly got dressed. He contemplated putting on think pants to protect his backside, but he knew it wouldnít help. The barn session was going to be painful no matter what, but nothing could compare to the pain he felt when Josiah said he was disappointed.

**********

After breakfast, Josiah and Ezra went out to the barn.

"Last thing Ezra. I keep my promises and I promised you a tanning if I caught you gambling. Not only did I just spank you yesterday, but I find it didnít make an impact, so I am going to employ something that Pa did with me once when I refused to listen to reason." Josiah handed Ezra a jackknife. "I want you to take this knife and go out and cut a switch. Just remember, I make the final say whether I will use it or send you back for a different one, so if you want this whole thing over with quickly, choose wisely. Iíll be right here when you decide."

Ezra didnít know what to think. He took the knife and walked toward the grove of trees that grew near the back of the house. He entered the grove and ended up standing by the creek. He gazed into the water and saw his reflection. He quickly wiped at the tears that he didnít know were there. //How am I suppose to do this// he asked himself. He inspected a couple of limbs and discounted them for some reason. They were either too small, which would cause him to be sent back out, or so big he figured they would break his back. //Or backside// He giggled. //Great now Iíve gone mad// Ezra finally gave up and sat down and cried. He looked up quickly when he heard someone behind him. He saw Buck standing quietly, with his hands behind his back.

"Need help Ez?" Buck knew why Ezra was out here.

"Buck. I canít decide. How can he ask me to do this?"

"Pa did it to him once and he remembered to behave after that. It works too. Pa did it to me once and once is enough." Ezra didnít say anything. "HereÖ" Buck walked over to a Popular tree and cut a switch about two feet long. It wasnít too thin, but wasnít too thick. Josiah would approve. "Take this one. Chris helped me pick mine. It will hurt but this one will meet Josiahís approval and get it over with quickly."

Ezra shakily stood and took the switch. He tried to smile. "Thanks Buck." He hesitated and Buck embraced him.

"It will be okay. Once itís done you start over. Be brave little brother and march back into that barn and take it like a man."

"Iím not a man."

"Thatís exactly what Josiah is trying to teach you. Men gamble, young boys donít."

Ezra finally understood what Josiah was saying earlier. "Thanks Buck." Ezra headed back to the barn to take his punishment.

***********

Ezra laid, face down, sobbing on his bed. He had never experienced this much pain in his backside. He absently rubbed his behind and thought about the abuse Josiah inflicted upon him. //Thick pants, I should have gone with the thick pants// Upon returning to his room, he had taken off his pants and put his nightshirt back on. It would offer covering without hurting his sore backside.

Ezra didnít know how long he lay there crying, but he jumped when someone knocked on his door. He turned his head and saw Chris enter with a towel and a jar of salve.

"How ya feeliní little brother?"

"Been better." Ezra wiped his eyes again.

"I know. You did well though. Josiah tells me you made a good choice right away."

"Buck helped me." Ezra confessed.

"I know. How do you think he knew where you were?"

"Why?"

"Why what?"

"Why did Buck help me?"

"Let me put some of this salve on your backside and Iíll tell you a story."

"Not much in the mood for a story Chris."

"No? Even if itís about me?"

Ezra looked at Chris and smiled. "Okay."

Chris applied the healing salve and spun a tale of when he had disobeyed their father over and over again. The story ended with Chris having to cut a switch and Josiah helped him with the task.

"So when Buckís turn came and I knew it would, I helped him. I told him that it was now his duty to help the next brother who was facing Ďsouthern disciplineí as pa put it. I always figured it would be Nate heíd have to help, but it seems our brother Nate has a good streak that runs deep through him. He never pushed pa that far."

"Probably because of his past." Ezra mused. Ezra knew Nathan on the plantation where they were both brought up in separate homes, one white and one black.

"I reckon. Nathan learned obedience real fast I would imagine." Chris mused.

"On the plantation, before pa showed up, Nathan and I werenít even allowed to play together. Mother had told me about pa and Nathanís mother, so I surmised that Nathan was my half brother. It didnít matter to motherís current husband though. Anytime he caught me and Nate talking, even just in passing, he beat Nathan. Never laid a hand on me because I was Ďwhiteí and Nate wasnít. It always made me so mad. Pa didnít even know about Nathan until I told him after Nateís ma died. Mother was furious that I said anything and then pa came and took us both away."

"Did pa ever tell you what he had to do to get you both?"

"No. Iím sure Maude made him pay."

"He did, for both of you. I remember the last time pa returned from seeing you and had found out about Nathan. He was furious. Said he was going to talk to his lawyer about getting custody of you both. It took awhile but in the end, pa ended up Ďpayingí for custody. That was one of the happiest days of his life."

"Mine too. I know Nathan was happy to get away."

"The duty falls to you now Ezra."

"Who helped Josiah?"

"Being the oldest isnít always the best position. Josiah had to choose his own switch. He still remembers the day even though it was so long ago. I was still a toddler."

"So the Ďdutyí goes to me now?"

"Yep. Itís your duty to help the next brother who finds himself searching the woods for a switch. I hate to say it, but it will probably be Vin. That boy can try my patience most days."

Ezra giggled. "He does like to push the limits."

"Yes I believe youíre right but heís not the only one, is he?"

"No sir. I donít suppose he is."

"Speaking of Vin, I need to go check on him. Somethingís up and I donít like not knowing what it is." Chris stood to leave.

"Hey Chris?"

"Yeah Ez?"

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure."

"If you could get even with someone who was bullying you all the time, but do it in such a way that that person didnít get hurt, would you be mad?"

"Let me get this straight. Would I get mad if a bully got his comeuppance?"

"Exactly."

"Probably not. Why? Did you get even with someone and are afraid I might ask you to go cut a switch?"

"No sir! Never, I will never have to do that again." Ezra rubbed his sore backside again.

Chris laughed. "Well I see you did learn something. Iíll see you at dinner Ez."

"Okay."

********

An hour later, Josiah came up to check on Ezra. Josiah found him sound asleep, face down, on his bed. He checked Ezraís backside and noticed someone put some salve on it. Feeling like someone was watching him, Ezra woke up to see Josiah watching him.

"Hey Ez. How are you feeling boy?"

"Josiah?"

"Yeah?"

"If I confessed something, would you punish me again?"

"Depends on the confession."

"How about if I make that promise first?"

"The one to not gamble again until your 18 or 19?"

"Yes."

"Okay. Complete absolution for your confession with the promise."

"I promise to not gamble anymore until Iím an adult."

"Iíll be holding you to that promise. Okay, go ahead and tell me what you want to confess."

"On the last day of school?"

"Yeah?"

"I took bets on how many times a fellow student needed the outhouse. Everyone picked numbers and I split the pot with the winner and Vin."

"Is that were you got the five dollars you used last night?"

"Yes."

"Hank gave me that five dollars."

"He did?"

"Yep. Iíll just hold onto it for a while. No more bets, okay?"

"Okay. I am sorry."

"All is forgiven. Keep your promise to me and I will forget it happened."

"Thanks Josiah."

"I love you Ezra. I will always forgive you."

"I love you too."

"Why donít we go down and have some lunch. You better put on your slippers and robe or Nettie will have a fit."

"Sounds good."

Ezra dressed and went downstairs for lunch, both feeling better on the inside.

*************************************
Chapter #7: Pieces Of A Puzzle
*************************************

"Nettie?" Buck walked into the kitchen looking for Miz Nettie. "Miss Nettie?"

Suddenly, Nettie came out of the pantry and startled Buck. "Lands sakes boy. Whatís all the hollering about?"

"Jeesh, Miss Nettie ya like ta took years off my life, scaring me like that."

"Like what? Yer the one hollering in my kitchen. What did you want?"

"I was wondering if you had any of those wonderful brownies left."

"The only ones left are the ones Vin made. If you want to risk it, go ahead."

"How bad could they be?" Buck took a brownie and took a little bite. //Not too bad// Buck decided it couldnít hurt, so he ate the brownie. "Thanks Nettie." Buck said as he left the kitchen.

********

"Nettie?" Chris walked into the kitchen looking for Miz Nettie. "Nettie?"

"What is all the holleriní about today?" Nettie said as she entered from the garden.

"I only called twice Nettie."

"You did, but Buck was also in here hollering."

"What did Buck want? Did he tell you that I needed JDís medicine Ďcause heís feeling poorly?"

"No. He came in to steal a brownie." Nettie washed her hands and went into the pantry. She returned with a small brown bottle. "Itís pretty empty Chris."

"Really? Has JD been having more trouble?"

"No not JD. Vin was in here last week asking about something to help him go, but he was acting shy about the whole topic. I gave him a small amount with some milk and sugar."

Chris thought for a minute. //Havenít seen Vin using the outhouse more than usual// "If he comes back to you Nettie, let me know." He shook the bottle. "I may have to get more of this from the Doc. Thereís not much here."

"Let me know if you do because I have to go to town and I could send the Doc out."

"Why donít you do that? That way he can check Vin out too."

Chris left Miss Nettie to prepare for town and he headed up to give JD some medicine.

*********

"Hey Ez? Whad ya do wrong?" JD was standing in Ezraís doorway looking at his older brother.

"JD go away. You arenít supposed to be in here anyway." Ezra tried to ignore JD. He had been lying on his stomach and reading a book when JD opened his door, without knocking, and started to bother him.

"Who says? I ainít the one who gotted in trouble. You are." JD was quite proud of himself. It was very rare when he could tease his brothers. He was so smug that he didnít notice Chris enter the hallway and hear the entire conversation.

"John Daniel Dunne!"

"Ut-oh." JD turned around to see Chris scowling.

"Hey Chris."

"Donít Ďhey Chrisí me young man. Apologize to Ezra now."

JD put his head down and said, "Sorry Ez."

"Good. Now go to your room."

"Why?"

"Since you find it so funny that Ezra is stuck in his room, you can stay in yours for the day. Now go."

JD ran, crying, all the way to his room. When he got there, he slammed to door as hard as he could.

***********

"What are you doing Ez?"

"Reading a book Josiah Ďsuggestedí."

"Oh yeah. Iím sorry, that seems like cruel punishment." Chris smiled.

Ezra set the book down and caught Chrisí joke. "Itís actually not too bad. Just a little heavy on morality."

Chris was going to respond, when he hear JDís door slam. He turned to deal with JD and asked Ezra, "Do you want your door closed?"

"No sir. Iím feeling a little closed in." Ezra smiled slightly. Chris knew that Ezra usually enjoyed the first few days of confinement, but after that, he became restless. Vin on the other hand, hated being confined indoors period.

"Okay. Iíll see you at supper then."

"Thanks Chris." Ezra returned to his book and Chris headed to JDís room.

***********

JD was mad. He opened his window and leaned out to hear what Josiah was saying to Buck. He was startled when his door opened. Chris was not happy.

"Young man. Iím trying to keep my patience with you because I know youíre bored and not feeling well, but I will not allow you to tease Ezra or slam this door. Is that understood?"

"Yes sir. Iís sorry."

"Good, now come over here and take this medicine."

"I feel fine now Chris." JD didnít like medicine.

"Iím glad to hear that, but youíre still taking this." Chris poured the last of the medicine in a spoon and held it for JD.

"Please Chris. It tastes yucky."

"JD." Recognizing the tone, JD took the medicine and cried. Chris gave him a hug and said, "JD. When you need the outhouse you go. Then I want you back in this room. Is that clear?"

"Yeah."

"Iíll be downstairs or in the barn if you need me."

Chris left and JD went back to the window and watched Buck run to the outhouse.

*********

Chris found Vin and Josiah in the barn cleaning out a stall for Vinís new horse.

"Boys."

"Hey Chris?"

"Yeah Vin?"

"Josiahís helping me prepare a spot for Peso fer when heís broke."

//Peso// Chris looked at Josiah who only smiled.

"Thatís the name Vin has come up with."

"Why ĎPesoí Vin?" Chris sat on a bale of hay and waited for the explanation. Vin saw this and moved to sit next to Chris.

"Iís named him Peso Ďcause it would have sounded funny to call him dollars." Vin said matter of factly.

"Dollars?" Chris was confused.

"It seems Vin thought he had to buy his own saddle, so when he asked me what kind of saddle he could get with $5.23, I explained that he didnít have to buy a saddle, that we already had one that would work."

Chris gave him a look that said, Ďand?í.

"And, since he had the dollars, he considered naming the horse that."

Vin interrupted with excitement. "Iís Ďmembered what my mama said once about in Mexico theys had different moneys. I asked Josiah what kind they had and when he said ĎPesoí Iís liked it so thatís his name."

Chris could tell that Vin was real proud of his figuring so he leaned over and hugged his brother. "Whereíd you get $5.23 anyway Vin?"

Vin looked at Chris like a deer caught in a rifle site. Josiah saw the look and decided to rescue him.

"Five of it was from a bet he and Ezra split on the last day of school." Josiah said.

Chris spun around and looked at Josiah. "Youíve got to be kidding?"

"Nope. Ezra confessed. He told me it was some bet about someone using an outhouse and he split the money between the winner, Vin and himself."

Chris turned to Vin who had returned to cleaning the stall. "Vin? Come here please."

Vin slowly made his way back to Chris. "What part in this did you play? Ezra doesnít share money easily."

"I just helped by counting the outhouse visits and stuff." Vin didnít want to admit anything.

"You told me that you werenít getting into mischief on Friday. Did you lie to me?"

Vinís head snapped up. "NO! Iís didnít lie to ya Chris honest. Ezra and me set up the bettiní on Thursday. Allís we did Friday was tally the times the outhouse was used. Honest."

Chris noticed the panic in Vinís eyes. All the boys had learned at an early age that lying was one of the things their pa was strict about. When he had died, Chris and Josiah enforced all of País expectations.

"Okay Vin. I believe you didnít lie exactly, but you were causing mischief and you also know that withholding information is just as bad as lying."

"I didnít think of it that way. Iís sorry."

"I want you to go up to your room and think about what I said about leaving out information Vin. Iíll call you for supper."

"Yes sir." Vin turned to leave before he started to cry. He stopped when he heard Chris.

"By the way Vin. Are you feeling any better from last week?"

"I feel fine. I ainít been sick." Vin said.

"No problems at all?"

"Nope."

"Okay. Go on then." Chris looked puzzled.

"Whatís wrong Chris?" Josiah asked.

"Iím not sure Josiah but Iíll figure it out soon enough."

"Whereís JD?"

"In his room."

"Really?" Josiah raised an eyebrow.

"He wasnít feeling good and then I caught him teasing Ezra, so I sent him to his room."

"Could be a quiet afternoon if Ezra, Vin and JD are stuck in their rooms."

"Whereís Buck?" Chris asked.

"Not feeling well. Heís camped out in the outhouse."

Chris got quiet.

"What are you thinking?" Josiah mused.

"I want to go talk to Buck." Chris left the barn and Josiah behind to think. There was something going on and all he had to do was put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

************************************
Chapter #8: The Whole Picture
************************************

Dinner was quiet. Everyone noticed that Chris was deep in thought. Josiah had questioned him and only got one-word answers from him. Buck hadnít felt like eating, but he still sat with his family, while Ezra, Vin and JD didnít speak at all except to ask for something. Nathan was curious about the whole scene.

Miss Nettie entered with desert and handed out seven pieces of warm apple pie. She also poured the four oldest brothers a cup of coffee and some milk for the three youngest. Half way through desert, Chris spoke.

"Boys." He knew he had their attention. "We have a puzzle and I want to see what everyone else knows."

"What kind of puzzle brother?" Josiah asked.

"I wonít know that until I can see the whole picture. There have been a few things going on around here that Iím puzzled about."

"Like what?" Buck asked.

"Like what happened to JDís medicine if no one else has been sick?"

Miz Nettie spoke up. "I gave that to Vin last Thursday because he said he was having a problem going to the outhouse."

Chris turned to Vin. "Well? You told me this afternoon that you havenít been sick."

"I havenít." Vin said. "I asked Miz Nettie a question. I never said I was sick."

Chris looked at Nettie with a question. "Well, I suppose that is true. He never came right out and said he was feeling poorly. I just assumed since he was acting so shy, that he just didnít want to talk about it. I did give him some of the medicine though, and he drank it."

Chris looked back to Vin. "Did you drink the medicine?"

"No sir." Vin put his head down and resisted Chris when he tried to lift his chin.

"Vin, look at me." Vin looked up. "If you didnít drink the medicine, then what did you drink in front of Nettie?"

"Milk and sugar."

"I saw the medicine in the cup when I poured the milk in."

Chris looked at Vin. Knowing what Chris was asking without a single word, Vin sighed. "I dumped it out and changed it with vanilla."

"Why?"

"I wasnít sick." Vin simply stated.

"Okay. Weíll come back to that." Chris turned to Buck. "Now Buck was fine until after lunch and then he couldnít stay out of the outhouse he was so sick. We all had the same thing for lunch. Why did Buck get sick?"

Miz Nettie laughed. "Probably from eating one of Vinís brownies."

It wasnít missed when Vinís head snapped up. "Buck, did you eat a brownie?"

"Yeah. It tasted fine. Come to think about it, I did get sick shortly after eating it."

"Iíve eaten Vinís brownies. Iíve never gotten sick." Chris turned to Vin. "Do you want to tell me what was in those brownies?"

"No." Vin whispered.

Chris spun around. "What?"

"Yaíll know my brownies is bad. Why did ya eat it Buck?"

"Why wasnít I supposed to?"

"Just Ďcause." Vin pouted.

"Vin, I think I see the problem." Chris turned to Nettie. "Where you two making these brownies when you gave Vin the medicine that Vin dumped?"

"Yes. You donít think that medicine could have gotten into the brownies by accident do you?"

Chris turned back to Vin. "Was it an accident?"

"No sir."

"What!" Nettie, Buck, Nathan, and Josiah yelled at the same time.

"My next question may sound ridiculous, but why?"

""Why what?" Vin asked.

"Why would you want to do this?"

"I didnít mean fer nobody here ta get sick."

"It happened though Vin. Who were you trying to get?"

Vin chewed his bottom lip for a few minutes.

"I want an answer Kevin."

Vin knew he had to confess now. Chris only called him Kevin when he was in big trouble. "I was tryiní ta get even with a bully at school."

"So you gave this bully one of your brownies?"

"No sir. He stole it. I figgered he got whatís cominí ta him iffen he steals somethiní that ainít his."

Chris had to keep from laughing. He actually agreed with Vin. "Did you know he was going to steal it?"

"Not fer sure. He steals my desert everyday. It was Ö how did you say it Ez?"

"Good odds." Ezra supplied before he took a bite of his desert. Ezra was trying to keep the fire from his end of the table. //I am so glad I confessed to Josiah//

"Ezra?" Chris waited for Ezra to look at him. "I take it your betting was based on this bully using the outhouse?"

"Yes sir."

"And you saw nothing wrong with what the two of you did?"

"I saw nothing wrong with Vinís logic. That bully was causing Vin grief everyday. Most days Nathan and I could keep them from fighting and some days we couldnít."

Chris remembered a few of those fights. "Go on."

"It was Vinís idea and it was a good one. No one really got hurt and the bully deserved what he got."

Chris looked at Josiah. "Was this some of what you saw on Friday? With the gambling?"

"I didnít know about the bet on Friday until Saturday. Ezra confessed to taking the bets but he didnít tell me about what exactly the bet was." There was a pause.

Chris spoke. "He had asked me how I would feel if a bully got his comeuppance."

"What does comup..ant mean?" Vin asked.

Josiah smiled. "It means that the person got what they deserved."

Vin turned back to Chris. "What did you tell him?" Vin was curious whether he was in trouble or not.

"I told him that as long as that person wasnít hurt, seriously, then I would be okay with it."

"Really?" Vin was shocked.

"Knowing that, would you please tell me what you did and to who?"

"I put JDís medicine in the brownies. Just mine though."

"Is that why you and Ezra were talking about brownies and he snitched on me?"

"I never snitch." Ezra said indignantly.

"Ezra?"

"Yeah Josiah?"

"Be quiet." Josiah said with a smile.

"I didnít want nobody to get sick but the person who deserved it."

"Who?"

"Jake Peterson." Nathan added.

Vin put his head down.

"Peterson? That boy has caused problems all year." Chris said with disgust.

"Ya donít got ta tell me. Half the time he lied ta the teacher Ďbout who started what, and Iíd get in trouble."

"I think it is time to have a talk with Jake Petersonís pa." Josiah growled.

"Yer not mad I done it?" Vin asked.

"Vin. I wish there could have been another way, but considering the boy probably wasnít hurt badly, and he did steal the brownie, I canít be too angry. I do wish you boys had come to me or Josiah and let us know the problem had gotten so bad, but sometimes a bully just needs a dose of his own medicine." Chris laughed.

"Donít ya mean JDís medicine, Cowboy?" Vin added.

"Donít get cheeky little brother. Iím not going to punish you this time because it was a harmless prank, but I donít want to hear of anymore Ďpranksí for the entire summer. Clear?"

"Yes sir." Vin answered.

Chris turned to his family and added, "That goes for all of ya."

"Hey. I never do that sort of stuff." Nathan complained.

"I bet Mr. Jackson couldnít think up such creative pranks."

Josiah cleared his throat and looked at Ezra. "It was a figure of speak Josiah. I promised you, no more gambling."

Satisfied, Josiah turned to Chris. "So is that the whole picture?"

"God I hope so. Vin and Ezra have been very busy. They obviously donít have enough to do." Chris added with mischief.

"Maybe more chores?" Josiah added when he saw that Vin and Ezra thought they were serious.

Not to be left out, Buck added, "I think you should give them the yucky chores."

"Hey! I have already been punished, severely I might add." Ezra said.

"I thought you said you wasnít mad Cowboy?" Vin said sadly.

Josiah, Chris and Buck shared a look and then burst out laughing.

"Not funny." Ezra said. "May I be excused?"

"Go ahead Ezra." Josiah said and continued to laugh as Ezra returned to his room.

"I agree with Ez. You guys ainít funny. May I be excused too?"

Chris just nodded his head because he was laughing so hard.

"Can I go out to the corral or do I have to go back to my room?"

Chris composed himself. "Stay out of the corral and away from the wild horses. Okay?"

"Yes sir." Vin ran out the door before Chris could change his mind.

"Well boys. Iím still not feeling 100% so Iím going to go lay down on the couch and read the paper." Buck left the room.

"Can I go too Chris?"

"How do you ask properly JD?"

"May I please be excused?"

"Yes you may, but I want you to stay inside. Itís almost time for bed."

"Aw I wanted to go check the kitties in the barn." JD pouted.

"Not tonight JD. You can play with your toys and keep Buck company." Chris added.

"Okay." JD scampered off to find Buck.

Josiah looked at the evil grin on Chrisí face. "That was mean."

"What?" Chris asking innocently.

Nathan giggled. "May I be excused?"

"Yeah go ahead Nate." Josiah said and watched Nathan leave the dining room. "You had better go check on Vin. No telling what that boy could get into unsupervised."

"I trust him to not disobey me, at least tonight." Chris stood and left Josiah laughing at his brotherís antics.

Part II


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