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.
This is the Fourth story in the series:
Chris Larabee stepped onto the front porch of the Magnificent Seven Ranch and stretched out his sore back muscles. The morning had been long for everyone. With school starting up again tomorrow, supplies had to be purchased and that meant the entire family had to go to town on Saturday. The day had been uneventful other that some complaining done by all the boys. Chris had to laugh because Nathan was the only one looking forward to returning to school. This was also the first year JD would be going to school. He didnít want to admit to his brothers, but JD was frightened of being in school and away from the ranch all day. Josiah, Buck and Chris reassured him that he would be fine but JD wasnít convinced. Upon returning to the ranch, the boys were sent off to finish chores and to play, while Chris worked on the ranch accounts. He hated paperwork.
Sunday they all went to church and relaxed before Monday. Chris worked on the accounts again and the boys played. When Miss Nettie asked him to call everyone in for supper, he jumped at the excuse to leave the accounts for a while.
Chris took the dinner bell and rang it for a minute or two, until he saw Buck and JD exit the barn. A minute later, Vin ran from behind the barn and put his slingshot away in the barn. Ezra was sitting on the corral fence, but didnít move. Nathan exited the bathhouse. Ezra still didnít move.
Thinking maybe Ezra was sleeping, he hollered, "Supper time Ezra."
Ezra didnít move. "Ezra! Now."
"Iím not hungry." Ezra said without turning around.
"That doesnít matter. You still need to come sit with the family."
"No." Ezra quietly replied.
"Ezra." Chris warned.
"Leave. Me. Alone."
Chris started off the porch to fetch Ezra when Josiah put his hand on Chrisí shoulder. "Let me Chris. Something has been bothering him all afternoon."
"Fine." Chris stormed into the house as Josiah headed toward Ezra.
Josiah leaned his arms on the top rail of the corral and tried to see Ezraís face. Ezra turned away from him. "Youíre upsetting Chris by being disrespectful."
"Ezra. Is there some reason youíre trying to get yourself in trouble?"
"Iím not hungry! I want to be left alone! Is that too much to ask for?" Ezra looked up at Josiah trying to stay angry, but Josiah saw the sadness in his eyes.
"Whatís really wrong Ez?"
"Look me in the eye and tell me that thereís nothing wrong."
Ezra spun around to blast Josiah again and when he looked into his big brotherís eyes he only saw compassion. It was his undoing. "NothingÖ" He couldnít do it.
Josiah only had a second to realize Ezra was really upset about something before he had Ezra wrapped around his neck sobbing like someone had killed his favorite pet. Ezraís sobs were so heart wrenching, that Josiah found it hard to speak. He rubbed Ezraís back and tried to calm him down.
"Whatís wrong Ezra?" Josiah was starting to become concerned. Ezra didnít usually loose control of his emotions like this.
Ezra couldnít talk. He had thought and thought of what he was going to do or what he needed to do. He decided to push his family away, to protect his heart later, but one look at the love and concern in Josiahís eyes made his decision for him. He knew his family would take care of his problem and he needed them to help. He couldnít do it alone. Josiah asked what was wrong and he could only cry harder. He handed Josiah the crumpled letter and continued to hug Josiah tight and cry.
Josiah took the letter and asked, "Can I read it?" A nod on his chest was his answer. Josiah carefully opened the letter with one hand as he calmed Ezra with the other. He quickly scanned the letter and immediately understood Ezraís problem. He put the letter in his pocket and held Ezra a little tighter. "Everything will be okay Ezra. We will deal with this as a family, okay?"
Ezra nodded again. Josiah lifted Ezra up and carried him into the house. He settled into a chair near the fireplace in the living room and continued to calm Ezra down. After a few minutes, Ezraís tears slowed and he lifted his head from Josiahís shoulder. "Iím sorry Josiah. IÖ" Ezra tried not to cry anymore.
"Itís okay Ezra. Any one of us would be upset with this news, but rest assured, we will take care of it. Okay? No more worries. You just let Chris and me deal with it."
"Was Chris really mad?"
"Yes, but I think if you apologize and I explain why you were rude, heíll be okay. Letís go eat and then weíll deal with this problem head on. Okay?"
"Okay." Josiah handed Ezra a hanky and helped him clean up for supper. Josiah and Ezra both entered the dining room and the quiet conversation at the table stopped. Ezra went to Chris and said, "Iím sorry I was rude to you."
Chris saw Josiahís expression and how upset Ezra was and decided to ask after supper. "All forgiven Ez. Have a seat and try to eat something."
"Yes sir." Ezra sat down and for the first time in two days, actually felt hungry.
The conversations started up again and supper was a lively family affair. After dessert and coffee was served, Chris spoke. "Who still needs a bath?"
"Yuck." Was Vinís answer.
"Nate had one before supper, but Vin, JD, and Ezra still need one." Josiah said.
Chris turned to Ezra. "Yeah Ez?"
"Could I have my bath in private?"
Josiah answered, "If you help Vin and JD, you can have the bath house to yourself afterwards. Deal?"
Chris gave Josiah a questioning look but didnít say anything. Ezra seemed pleased with the deal and smiled back at Josiah.
"Well, with that settled, Vin and JD you need to go get your night shirts and head for the bath house."
"Aw Chris. I ainít dirty. Why do I have to have a bath?"
Chris sighed. "Why do you have to make a bath such a fight? I asked you to take a bath; you take a bath, end of story. Now move it before you find it hard to sit in the tub."
Vin recognized Chrisí no nonsense tone and headed to do as he was asked. Ezra helped JD and Vin with their baths while Buck, Chris and Josiah moved to the living room. Nathan went upstairs to get ready for school in the morning.
"So Josiah. Whatís wrong with Ezra?" Chris settled in his chair with his coffee. Josiah simply handed Chris the letter. "Whatís this?"
"Read it." Chris set his cup down and opened the letter. Josiah and Buck sat and waited. When Chris was finished he folded the letter and handed it to Buck. Buck quickly read and refolded the letter and handed it back to Josiah.
"When did this arrive?" Buck asked.
"Iím assuming it was in the mail on Saturday. Ezra did get the mail from the mercantile." Josiah said.
"No wonder he was upset. I guess we had better send a telegram to Judge Travis." Chris sipped his coffee.
"Do you still want to send Ezra to school tomorrow?" Buck asked.
"He should be fine for now, but we may need to keep him home in a few weeks. I think we need to let the teacher know and keep watch over him." Chris said.
The quiet voice brought around three heads. "What Ezra?"
"Vin wonít let me wash his hair andÖ" Ezra hated to tattle but he wanted to take his own bath and go to bed.
"Iíll deal with him, thanks Ezra. Why donít you gather your things and Iíll start your bath water?"
"Ezra?" Chris stopped him.
"We wonít let anything happen to you, understand? We will fight to stay together."
"Thanks." Ezra smiled and headed upstairs while Chris went to deal with Vin.
When Chris entered the bathhouse he had to laugh. JD was bent over drying his toes with his bare behind sticking in the air. He was also talking a mile a minute.
"JD shut up." Vin was annoyed. Ezra wasnít any help. Vin had figured he could skip washing his hair with Ezra helping, but Ezra had insisted. When Vin had argued and said no, Ezra helped JD out of the tub and left. Vin was scrambling to get out before reinforcement arrived.
"Kevin Tanner! Apologize to JD and stay in that tub."
Vin turned and saw Chris standing in the doorway with his hands on his hips. "Sorry JD."
"JD. Let me help you with that." Chris helped JD into his nightshirt and combed his hair. "You need another haircut little boy."
"I want to let it grow out like Vinís."
"Weíll talk about it later JD. Go find Buck. He has a story to read to you before bed."
"Okay Chris." JD left and Chris rolled up his sleeves as he approached Vin.
Chris took the soap and lathered his hands. He said, "Dunk and get your hair wet."
Chris rinsed his hands in the tub and raised Vin to his feet. He quickly added a firm swat to Vinís backside and then let go of his arm. "Dunk."
Vin cried and held his breath and got his hair wet. Chris soaped his hair as Vin cried softly. When Chris was finished scrubbing his hair he said, "Rinse." Vin immediately dunked again and got most of the soap out. When he came back up, Chris handed him a rolled washcloth. Vin covered his eyes and waited as Chris dumped warm water over his hair to get rid of the remaining soap. Satisfied that all of the soap was out, Chris stood up and got a towel. "Done Vin. Letís get you out of there and into bed."
"Iím sorry Chris."
Chris lifted Vin out of the tub and dried him off. Vin started to cry again, because Chris was mad with him. He tried to stop but he scrubbed at his eyes angrily.
"What?" Chris wiped the tears away with a towel and put the nightshirt over Vinís head.
"If we keep having these problems with your hair, we will have it cut short."
"No buts Vin. I've let you keep it long because itís a part of your Indian heritage and because pa loved it so much, but I donít want to have to fight you to keep it clean ever-single time. You are old enough to take care of it. If you canít or are unwilling to take help, then we will have it cut. Am I clear?"
"Yes sir. Iím sorry I gave Ez a hard time. Iíll Ďpologize."
"Good." Chris hugged Vin close and picked him up. Vin immediately snuggled on Chrisí shoulder and they headed for the living room.
After a short story, everyone was tucked into bed. Chris was making a final check when he heard JD asking Buck a hundred questions about school. Vin was already snoring, Nate was asleep and Ezra was reading in bed.
"Lights out Ez." Chris said as he stuck his head in.
"Okay." Chris was about to shut the door when he heard Ezra say, "Chris?"
"I really am sorry about being rude earlier."
Chris sat on the edge of the bed. "I already forgave you Ezra. Josiah showed me the letter, and I understood why you did it."
"Really? I tried to think of what to do but all my ideas ended with me leaving. I didnít want that." Ezra wiped at his eyes. "Sorry."
"No reason to be Ezra. Youíre not going anywhere. We will deal with this problem head on. Okay?"
"Now go to sleep. You have to get up early for school."
Chris laughed and ruffled Ezraís hair. "Sleep tight little brother."
"Good night Chris. Love you."
"I love you too. Good night."
Ezra exited the classroom glad the day was over. He just wanted to go home. He walked over to the water pump and got a drink. As he was finishing, he was grabbed from behind. He struggled against his captor, but the person held firm around his middle and had a hand over his mouth. He saw the other children exit the school and didnít notice his distress. As the kidnapper was dragging Ezra further away, Ezra saw Chris stop the wagon and gather up his brothers. Then without a second glance they all headed in the opposite direction. Ezra tried to scream but his mouth was still covered. He struggled and finally was able to bite the hand that was in front of his mouth. He quickly screamed, "CHRIS!! DON"T LEAVE ME, CHRIS!" His sobs wracked his body and when he opened his eyes to scream for Chris again, he realized he was in his room in bed. Out of shear relief, Ezra buried his face into his pillow and cried.
Chris was startled out of his slumber by a piercing scream coming from Ezraís room. He quickly got up and went to Ezraís room. What he saw broke his heart. Huddled on his bed, Ezra was sobbing into his pillow. Chris walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. He rubbed Ezraís back and made calming sounds.
Ezra looked up and saw Chris. It took only seconds for Chris to gather Ezra into his arms and hugged him close. Ezra continued to cry and never noticed the arrival of Josiah and Buck. Chris nodded to them that everything was okay. Buck headed back to bed and Josiah got Ezra a drink before he headed back to his room.
Chris noticed Ezra calming down and handed him the drink. He also wiped away the tears and smiled down at his little brother. "You want to talk about it Ez?"
"IÖwas at schoolÖand someoneÖgrabbed me." Ezraís voice hitched with emotion.
"Itís okay. Youíre safe here at home."
"I tried to scream to you, but you just drove away without me." Ezra buried his face in Chrisí shirt again.
"Shh. It was a dream Ezra. You know I would never leave you. We wonít let anything happen to you and even if someone snatched you, we would search to the ends of the earth to find you. Never doubt that Ezra. Without you, this family would be missing an important part, that only you can fill."
"What about the letter?"
"After I drop you off at school tomorrow, Iím going to send a telegram to Judge Travis. Then weíll go from there. Okay?"
"Good. Do you think you can go back to sleep?"
"Iíll try." Ezra snuggled back into the covers and took a shaky breath. Chris tucked him in and gave him a kiss on the forehead.
"Good night Ezra."
"Night." Ezra closed his eyes and Chris headed back to his room. Tomorrow would come soon enough.
Morning came too soon for Ezra. After his horrible nightmare, he couldnít fall asleep. When he finally surrendered to sleep it was almost dawn and time to get up. Josiah called him three times to get up, before he had to shake Ezra awake.
"Letís go Ezra. Breakfast is on the table already."
"Okay. Iím awake."
"Iím not convinced." Josiah helped Ezra get dressed and downstairs. Josiah allowed him some coffee to wake up and eat.
Buck was having his own problems with JD. He was so afraid to go to school that he cried through getting dressed and would have cried through breakfast if Chris hadnít glared at him. Vin got up, dressed and did chores simply resigned to his fate. Nathan was actually excited about starting school again.
After breakfast, Chris sent boys to get schoolbooks while he hooked up the wagon. When Vin returned to the main room he saw Ezra headed into the study. Curious as to why, Vin followed. He watched Ezra pick up and read a letter that was on Chrisí desk. Vin didnít want Ezra to get yelled at but he didnít want Ezra to know he was snooping either.
The decision was taken away from him when Josiah came up behind him. "Vin go get in the wagon please." Josiah had seen Ezra reading his letter. Vin ran outside.
"Yeah Josiah?" He folded the letter and put it back on the desk.
"I donít want you to worry about this all day. Try to have a good day in school. Okay?"
"Iíll try Josiah."
"Good. Now you best get outside before Chris comes looking."
"Yes sir." Ezra headed for the wagon. Josiah sat down at the desk and picked up the letter again. How could one piece of paper cause so much stress? He knew the answer to that question in one word.
Chris dropped all the boys off at school. He brought JD into the classroom to get him settled for his first day, and to let the teacher know about the familyís new concern.
Ezra and Vin were waiting outside for the bell. Vin knew something was bothering Ezra most of the weekend and finally decided to ask.
"You okay? You been awful sad since that letter showed up."
"Iíll be okay. Josiah and Chris are taking care of it."
"Who was it from? Whad it say that made you so sad?"
"Nothing for you to worry about little brother. I really donít want to talk about it."
"Okay." Vin went off to play with some of the other kids and Ezra thought about the letter.
The letter had arrived in the mail on Saturday when they were all in town. Ezra was having a great day. He loved to shop and get new clothes, even if they were for school. Chris had sent him to get the mail and to grab some candy for everyone for after supper. With the opportunity to be away from everyone else for a little bit, Ezra was delighted to get the mail. He had sat down outside the mercantile to read the letter.
My darling boy,
Iím writing you from New Orleans and wanted to give you the great news. I have met a wonderful man whom I care about a great deal. We are planning to stop by your way at the end of September, and when we do you can meet your new father.
I also want you to join us as we travel around the world. It is high time for you to learn a proper trade and get away from those filthy cows. I know you care for your "brothers" but it is time for you to come home with me and your new father.
I would appreciate it if you didnít tell Mr. Larabee about this letter. It will be painfully clear when I arrive, that your proper place is with your mother and not with half-brothers. I expect you to be ready to leave when I arrive.
"EZRA!" Ezra was shaken out of his memories when Chris called him.
"I said have a good day and try not to fret about your motherís letter. Iím gonna contact the judge and should have some kind of answer when I pick you all up this afternoon. I told Miss Jones if there were any problems, I would be in town all day. The Sheriff will know where. Okay?"
"Good. Have a good day."
"Bye." Chris headed toward town and the school bell announced the beginning of a new school year.
Chris walked away from the telegraph office and headed for the Clarion to speak to Mary Travis. He was hoping she would do some research into Maudeís past to find something to substantiate what they all knew; Maude was a lousy mother.
The bell rang above the door as Chris entered the main office of the Clarion. Mary Travis looked up from her desk and smiled as Chris entered. She found Chris Larabee a very handsome man. She also had hopes of someday getting him to see how much she liked him. She understood he was still mourning the loss of his wife and son and even his father. Mary knew his pain. She had lost her husband a few years ago and had almost lost her son, Billy too. Now Billy lived with the Judge and his wife and went to school in a safer town. Now that Four Corners was becoming more "civilized" Mary was planning on bringing Billy home to start school in the spring.
"Mary." Chris smiled at Mary. He knew she had feelings for him and if he was honest with himself, he was attracted to her too. He just wasnít ready for another relationship right now.
"Chris. What a pleasant surprise. What brings you to town?"
"First day of school. JD was a little nervous this morning and we had some problems over the weekend."
"Letís have some coffee and we can talk." They sat and after Mary poured two cups of coffee she said, "What kind of problems?"
"Ezra received a letter from his mother. She informed him that she had gotten married and that she was coming to fetch him."
"She canít do that. You said Josiah had custody."
"He does. When our father died, he left all custody of minor children to Josiah and that included Ezra. I need a favor Mary."
"Could you look through your sources and see if you can find any information on Maude. She married this man in New Orleans so maybe you could get his name from another newspaper or something. Maude didnít give Ezra a name, and she specifically told him not to tell me about her coming."
"Poor Ezra. Heís finally settled in with a real family and she wants to tear him away from it."
"Well, itís not going to happen. I really believe she didnít want me to know, because pa had special documents drawn up when he found Ezra. She signed over her right to ever claim Ezra."
"Do you still have the papers?"
"Not here. Pa never trusted Maude, so he had them put in a safe place. I just sent a telegraph to the Judge and tomorrow Iíll go retrieve the paperwork."
"If Maude knew about the papers, why would she try to take Ezra now?"
"She probably figures pa would keep them further away and if she just showed up and convinced the Judge there was doubt, she could possibly get temporary custody."
"She wouldnít keep it though."
"It wouldnít matter at that point. She could simply disappear with Ezra, and it wouldnít matter who had the legal right. Sheís been able to disappear without a trace before. I wonít let it happen with Ezra."
"When is she due?"
"Sometime in the next two or three weeks. I would appreciate a heads up if she shows up though. Josiah and I are contemplating keeping Ezra out of school once she does show up. I wouldnít put it past her to kidnap him at the first available moment."
"Iíll check with a few people I know and get that information for you."
"Thanks Mary." Chris stood to leave. He turned back to her and asked, "Once all this is over, would you like to go to the Harvest Barn Dance with me."
"I would love to Chris."
"Great." Chris paused and Mary smiled.
"Itíll all work out Chris. Weíll beat her at her own game."
"Thanks Mary. Iíll see you in a couple days."
"Iíll let you know when I have something. Bye Chris."
Chris left the Clarion and headed over to the Sheriffís office. He spent the morning explaining to the Sheriff what was going on, and then they had lunch together. After lunch he headed to the mercantile to get the supplies they needed.
Ezra was not having a good day. The first day of school was usually pretty easy, but he couldnít concentrate on anything that was being said. Miss Jones had already spoken to him several times about "daydreaming" and he knew he was headed for trouble, but it just didnít seem to matter at this stage in his life.
What did it matter how he behaved in school if he was going to have to leave? Ezra knew Chris and Josiah would fight for him, but he had seen his mother pull off bigger scams. He considered running away, but the truth was he didnít want to leave the ranch. He didnít want to go with his mother. Was he a horrible child for disliking his mother so much? He hadnít thought his life was different until his father showed up and taught him what the real meaning of family was.
Pa. This wouldnít be happening if his father hadnít died.
"EZRA!" Ezra snapped out of his ponderings when he heard Miss Jones yell his name.
Miss Jones sighed. Ezra hadnít heard a single thing she said that morning. "Class, letís take lunch early today. Ezra I want to talk to you please."
Ezra sighed. "Yes Maíam."
The rest of the class gathered their lunches and headed outside. Miss Jones came over and sat next to Ezra.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"It may help you to pay attention after lunch."
"Iím sorry Miss Jones. I canít seem to focus on schoolwork. I will try harder."
"Go have your lunch and if you want to talk, Iíll be here to listen."
Ezra took his lunch and headed outside. He saw Vin and JD eating with Nathan and decided he wanted to be alone. He walked over to a tree near the water pump. He sat down in the shade and tried to clear his mind of all of the horrible thoughts running rampant through his head. He wanted to scream, shout, and cry. He was startled out of his thoughts by Jake Peterson.
"Hey boy. You get in trouble with the teacher?" Jake sneered.
Ezra didnít even look up. He didnít need this today. Why couldnít Peterson go bother someone else?
"Whatís wrong? Cat got yer tongue?" Ezra still didnít answer. "Didnít yer mama teach you no manners?"
The mention of his mother snapped his head up. The look Ezra gave young Peterson wiped the smile off of his face. Peterson decided that Ezra did the "Larabee Glare" very well and retreated.
Idiot. Ezra tried to eat but found his stomach rebelling after the first couple of bites. He bagged up the leftovers and decided to walk off some of the nervous energy.
On his second trip around the schoolhouse, Ezra noticed Jake picking on some of the younger kids. An image of a skinny little boy, being pushed into the dust by a much bigger boy flashed in Ezraís mind. For a second he was back on the plantation, where his "brothers", use to push him around. Back then, Ezra was too timid and small to fight back, but seeing Jake push another little kid made something in Ezra snap.
Ezra walked up to Jake and hit him as hard as he could. Blinded by the rage that had simmered all morning, Ezra threw himself on top of Jake and started to pound him into the dust.
The cheers of the other children brought Miss Jones out to see Ezra punching Jake over and over again. She hollered at Ezra to stop, but he couldnít hear anything except the taunts of the past. Miss Jones was able to finally get a couple of the older boys to pull Ezra off of Jake. Ezra struggled against the bigger boys until he came back to his senses.
Ezra looked at Jake and then Miss Jones. Once he had stopped fighting, the older boys let go of him. Ezra realized that he had lost his fragile control and wanted to cry. Before Miss Jones could reprimand him for fighting, Ezra turned and ran from the schoolyard. He didnít hear Miss Jones order him back and he wouldnít have cared anyway.
Ezra ran full speed until he finally found himself behind the mercantile. He sagged to the ground and let the flood of tears of frustration finally fall.
Chris came out of the mercantile and heard the sobbing immediately. He also recognized the child who was crying. As he walked toward the sound he glanced at his timepiece. It was too early for school to be out, so something must have happened. He saw his little brother huddled against the alley wall, back heaving with sobs. He quietly approached and squatted down in front of Ezra.
"Hey Little brother. Whatís wrong?"
Ezra looked up and saw Chris. For a second he thought he would be in trouble but he didnít care at the moment. He felt so alone and lost he found himself moving into Chrisí strong embrace and cried harder.
"Shh. Itís okay. Calm down Ez." Chris calmed his brother and sat down while he gathered Ezra into his lap. Ezra slowly stopped crying and finally looked up at Chris.
"Iím sorry." Ezra said so softly that Chris had to strain to hear him.
"What for Ezra?"
"IÖhurt JakeÖandÖran offÖfrom school."
"Why did you hurt Jake?"
"He was pushing one of the little kids around and the next thing I knew I was being pulled off of him by someone and Miss Jones was about to yell at me. I just had to go somewhere. I know I shouldnít have run off but I felt trapped." Ezra started to cry again.
"Iím sorry Ezra. I should have let you stay home for a few days. Itís too much to have to deal with school, bullies, and Maude. Why donít we get you cleaned up and into the wagon?"
Ezra let Chris settle him in the back of the wagon on the grain sacks and a blanket. When Chris returned a few minutes later, Ezra was sound asleep. Chris smiled. Weíll get you through this little brother.
Chris drove the wagon to the schoolhouse and talked to Miss Jones. He made sure Jake was okay and that Miss Jones knew Ezra was staying home for a few days. She gave him Ezraís work and Chris gathered the rest of the family. With a final stop to pick up the telegraph from the judge, they all headed home.
Chris sat in his fatherís chair staring at the fire crackling in the great fireplace in the living room. The house was quiet with everyone else in bed. Everyone else had been asleep for hours and Chris couldnít get his mind to wind down enough to sleep. He had heard from the Judge and that he would be in town within the week. Chris knew he needed sleep if he was going to be any good for Ezra.
Ezra. Chris couldnít imagine his life without his little brother. He smiled when he remembered the first time they found out about Ezra. He had been seventeen when his father returned from a business trip announcing that he had another brother. Pa had actually known about Ezra from the moment he was born, but hadnít told his other sons. Linc had returned from that trip angry. Chris, Buck, and Josiah didnít know what had happened on the trip until the first night back when Linc called all three boys into the living room and sat them down for a father son talk.
"Boys. I need to tell you all something very important." Linc said.
"What Pa?" Josiah had asked.
"I want to tell you about a young boy I saw while I was on my trip. His name is Ezra and heís your brother." He paused.
"If heís our brother pa, why donít he live with us?" Asked Chris.
"Is he a littler or bigger brother papa?" Ten-year-old Buck asked.
"Heís a little brother, Buck. He is almost five years old. Iíve known about Ezra but his mother didnít like me to visit much. When I went to tell her that I wanted to be part of Ezraís life, I found out that she has been using him to cheat people out of their money. I confronted her and she told me that she didnít want him anymore and that she was going to send him to a childrenís home." Linc glanced at Josiah. Josiah had been sent to one of those places when his mother died. Linc had found him by accident. Josiah knew what the homes were like, and he didnít wish that on anyone, especially a brother of his.
"Why donít you take him Pa? We can help out when youíre busy." Josiah suggested.
"I told Maude that. She hollered until I offered her money to give me custody. It made me angry that she would sell our son for so little."
"Is he coming to live here then?" Buck asked.
"Yes Bucklin he is. Iím going to go fetch him next week. I will bring Maude the money and make her sign over permanent custody and we will have a new little boy to take care of."
"Cool. Now I wonít be da youngest." Buck smiled.
"Then letís get some rest and tomorrow we will prepare the ranch for our new boy."
Chris smiled again. They had all scrambled to prepare a room for Ezra and after their pa was gone for a couple of days, they had received a telegram telling the boys to prepare a second room. The telegram didnít say anymore, but when Josiah, Chris, and Buck met the stagecoach, Pa stepped off with Ezra and Nathan. Pa had only discovered Nathan while he was retrieving Ezra. Unfortunately, Pa had to pay for Nathan too.
"What are you still doing up Chris?"
Chris turned to see Josiah smiling at him.
"I couldnít sleep. So I came down here to think."
Josiah sat down. "Must have been happy thoughts. You had a smile on your face."
"I was just remembering the day Pa told us about Ezra and then showed up with Ezra and Nathan."
Josiah laughed. "It was a shock to find out Pa had two sons not just one."
"Two? I hate to say it, but Pa sure got around. He met your ma and never knew about you for years. He at least married my ma. There was Buckís ma, then Maude and Nathanís ma. Then he married Vinís ma then JDís ma. I always wonder how Ezra would behave if he never had to deal with his motherís influence."
"He wouldnít be the same little boy. His life with his ma defined part of his character. Where some of his habits are horrible and need correcting, she did give him strength and determination that will help him when heís a man."
"Iím sure your right Josiah. I just hope heíll get through this without feeling his mother hates him. Iím sure she doesnít, she just doesnít know anything about proper care of a young boy."
"Are you planning on going to get the custody papers tomorrow?"
"Yeah. I think since Ezra isnít going back to school this week, he can work on his schoolwork in the morning and help you and Buck with the ranch chores."
"Sounds good. Iíll be working with the horses and Buck needs to finish moving the herd into the bottom-land for the winter."
"Try to keep him busy so he doesnít think about Maude too much. The Judge should be here by Friday so I thought I would ask Nettie to make dinner for him and Mary on Saturday. Then we can talk about what to do next."
"Sounds good." Josiah stood and stretched out his back. "Well, little brother. You need to go to bed and get your rest. You are a terrible grouch when youíre tired."
"Grouch? Looks whoís talking grumpy." Chris stood and banked the fire.
"Grouch and Grumpy huh? Best not let Vin and Ezra hear those names."
"I wouldnít want to have to kill any kids before the judge showed up."
"Might look suspicious."
Josiah and Chris headed for bed. Both enjoyed the quiet banter but were still troubled about Maudeís visit. Sleep finally found both brothers in the wee hours of the night.
The week went quickly for Ezra. Chris and Josiah kept him too busy to think much about his motherís visit. The Judge was expected for dinner on Saturday and Chris had retrieved the legal documents needed to fight Maude. Ezra worked on his schoolwork to keep from getting behind and everyone seemed to help him out when he became moody or down right rude. Vin and JD helped with chores and covered for Ezra when he slacked off. Even Nathan helped.
Saturday evening came and Ezra became increasingly more agitated the closer the Judge came to the house. He excused himself a few times just to keep his lunch in his stomach. Chris and Josiah knew he was nervous and kept reassuring him that everything was going to work out. Finally Judge Travis and Mary arrived.
"Judge. Mary. Iím glad you both could make it." Josiah said.
"I wouldnít miss it for anything Josiah. I told you I would help if this happened." Judge Travis said.
"And Iím grateful. I donít know what we would do without Ezra."
"Well letís sit down a talk about our strategy. Mary found some interesting information that I think would convince Maude to back off."
"What information?" Chris asked.
"Well, I found out that her new husband, Charles McMaster, is involved in some shady business, mostly gambling and paid protection rackets. The rumors in New Orleans are if you donít pay for the protection, accidents occur."
"Convenient ones." The Judge added.
"I couldnít track down Maude at all. It seems she isnít using Standish as her last name. Maybe Ezra could help." Mary said.
"We can ask him, but I should warn you, Ezra doesnít share a lot of information about Maude. Iím not sure why." Josiah said.
Nettie entered to let everyone know that supper was ready.
"Iíll call the boys, and then we can talk to Ezra after supper." Chris stood and rang the supper bell. After everyone was settled they had a normal conversation about school and the ranch. Dessert was served and after Vin and JD were sent to bed, everyone sat down to talk about Maude.
"Ezra?" The Judge asked.
"Do you know why your mother would be marrying under a different name, and what that name would be?"
"She doesnít use Standish except with people who know me. She has a lot of different names. I could make a list. Sheís been married before." Ezra seemed a little nervous. The judge wanted to talk with him alone, so he looked at Chris who got the hint.
"Mary, why donít we go for a walk while Josiah, Buck and Nate finish the barn chores. We can give the Judge and Ezra some privacy." Chris said as he took Maryís hand.
"Sounds like a good idea. Iíd love to." Mary gushed.
"Will you be okay Ezra?" Josiah asked.
"Sure." Ezra looked down and before Josiah could leave he asked, "Judge could Josiah stay please?"
"Whatever makes you comfortable Ezra."
"Thank you. Josiah could you please stay?"
"Sure little brother." Josiah sat down next to Ezra and settled in to listen and support Ezra in any way he could. The Judge made note if this fact.
"I have to ask you Ezra. Do you want to stay here or go with Maude?"
"I want to stay here. I love my mother but she doesnít know what it means to be a part of a family. A home."
"Sheís married now, Ezra. He has money and they could take care of you."
"No offense Judge but my mother has been married four times before this. I donít believe she married him for anything except for money. I want to stay here. This is my home."
"Then I will do everything within my power to keep you right here. Iíve looked through the custody papers your father made Maude sign. They are legal and the transfer of custody to Josiah is legal also."
Ezra smiled. "Does that mean I have to call him pa?" A small giggle escaped.
The judge smiled. He was glad Ezra was laughing.
"Keep it up boy. I can still put you over my knee; legally." Josiah said with a fake sneer.
"Thanks Josiah." Ezra smiled and leaned on Josiah a little.
"For what Ez?"
"For being my father, brother and friend."
"Anytime son, anytime."
"Well, I think I had better rescue my daughter-in-law from Chris and we should be on our way." The Judge stood and Josiah walked him out.
Turning to Ezra quickly, Josiah added, "Go get ready for bed Ez, and Iíll come tuck you in."
"Okay Ďpaí." Ezra giggled as he headed up the stairs.
"Smart mouth kid." Josiah grumbled as he followed the judge outside.
Judge Travis smiled and patted Josiah on the back. "Heís lucky to have you boys."
"We feel like the lucky ones Judge. Thanks."
"No problem. I think the best course of action would be for us to confront Maude as soon as she gets here. Lay all our information out on the table and make her an offer she canít refuse."
"Hey Judge, I just convinced Chris not to shoot her, am I going to have to have the same talk with you?"
The Judge laughed. "I can see why your father left all the responsibility to you Josiah."
"Thanks again for everything Judge."
Mary and Chris returned just in time to see Josiah blushing from the Judgeís compliment. He helped Mary into the buggy and headed for the porch with Josiah. Nathan exited the barn and stopped by the carriage. "Judge?"
"If ya need any character witnesses fer what kind of ma, Maude is, let me know. I was there when Maude pa visited Maude and I saw some of the abuse Ez took."
"Youíre a brave young man Nathan. Iíll let you know. Thank you."
"Anytime Judge. I love Ezra, even if he donít think I do."
"I think he knows you love him Nathan. Some people just show it different."
"Just like Maude." Nathan stepped away from the carriage and walked over to Chris and Josiah. Both brothers put their arms over Nathanís shoulders.
"Ezra knows you love him Nate." Chris said.
"Not by my actions, he donít."
"He knows that weíre all family and even when we disagree and fight, that we stick together and love each other." Josiah added.
"Thanks guys. Iím gonna head to bed. Some of us have to go to school." Nathan dodged the slap that was aimed for his head and ran upstairs while Josiah and Chris waited for Buck to return from the barn.
"You think we should send Ezra back to school next week?" Chris added.
"Itís not hurting him to stay home. Heís keeping up with his schoolwork and helping out with the chores. I would feel better if he stayed home. I donít trust Maude to just show up and leave without a fight."
"Youíre probably right. She didnít want us to know about the letter so she probably has something up her sleeve."
"Iím gonna go check on the boys and then head to bed."
"Okay Josiah. Iím gonna go check on Buck then be right behind you." Chris stepped off the porch and met Buck half way across the yard. They locked up and headed for bed after checking on all the boys. Sleep came easier for the seven brothers, knowing that the Judge would fight to keep them all together.
"He wasnít there Sir."
"What do you mean he wasnít there? All the other children are there."
"He must be staying out at the ranch."
"Are all of the brotherís at home?"
"No Sir. The other boys are in school."
"We may need to change our plans. Maybe take a different boy."
"We canít take a different boy! They would track us down and Larabee would kill us personally."
"You may have a point. Nobody would miss Maudeís Ďbaby boyí, but the others are loved." The man thought for a minute then smiled an evil sneer.
"What?" The henchman questioned.
"How good are you at ranch work?"
Vin was bored. School was always hard for Vin and this year was proving to be no different. Miss Jones let him go get a drink from the water pump and he came close to running out of the classroom. As he was getting a drink he looked up and noticed the stagecoach arrive. Vin saw a well-dressed man exit the coach. The man looked to be older than his pa. He had graying sections in his hair and was tall. He walked with confidence and power, a real Southern gentleman. Vin was about to return to his history lesson when two men approached the newcomer. They led the powerful man away from the coach and headed for the hotel. Vin wondered if this man had anything to do with the way Ezra was acting lately. Nobody told him or JD what was going on, but something was wrong. Ezra didnít even have to go to school! Doesnít seem fair. Vin thought.
"Kevin Tanner! Youíve had your drink now get back in here." Miss Jones hollered from the front porch of the school.
"Yes maíam." Vin returned to school and history. All thoughts of the Southern stranger all but forgotten.
"I saw the boy. Heís staying home because his brotherís donít trust Maude to snatch him."
"I had hoped she had enough control over the boy for him to follow the one order in the letter. It seems he doesnít obey very well."
"Could be heís been acting sick to avoid school?"
"You said it looked like he was being protected. Which is it?"
"I donít know Sir. They only hired me last week. I havenít had a chance to get close to the boy. Either heís being protected because of Maude, or because they care about him, I donít know."
"Maude told me they didnít care for him. That they were just trying to keep him away from her." The man said.
"I got the impression that Chris Larabee donít keep nobody he donít care about around for too long. And the older brother, Josiah, he calls the boy son, yet theyíre brothers."
"It seems my information from my lovely new bride has been skewed. No matter. She wants her son home and thatís all that matters. Since she signed over legal rights to him, we must find a viable illegal way to make the boy disappear. Maude and myself are headed for Europe after this and that will give the boy plenty of time to learn some manners and obedience. Stay close to the ranch and keep me informed." Charles McMaster left the room.
"I would hate to be that boy when we finally retrieve him, Jim." Frank said.
"I know what you mean. Iíve witnessed a few of his lessons on obedience and itís enough to keep me from disobeying orders." Jim replied with a shutter and headed out.
Frank headed back to his horse and his job at the Magnificent Seven Ranch.
Ezra decided that he must have lost his mind. He was finding himself wishing to go back to school. Miss Jones was a strict teacher, but she had so many other students, that Ezra could get his work done and still waste time. Not so here at home. Every time he finished one assignment or task, Josiah or Chris would immediately find him another to do. He figured he had accomplished twice as much in these two weeks at home then he would have the entire month if he were at school. If the lessons werenít bad enough, he never got a break except at lunch. Then after lunch he helped with the ranch.
Ezra didnít mind the ranch work. Mother would be appalled. All three of his older brothers were keeping him busy to keep his mind off his mother and her letter. Most days it worked, but when he would think about how much he enjoyed being out with one of his brothers working the ranch, he would find himself thinking how Maude would react to such behavior.
"Ezra? Are you finished with those arithmetic problems?" Chris asked from his desk.
"Yes." Iíve been done for about twenty minutes.
"Finish up the rest before lunch." Chris turned back to his work and missed Ezra sticking his tongue out at him.
Josiah entered the room from the kitchen just in time to see Ezraís reaction to Chris though. "Young man!" Josiah boomed.
Chris and Ezra both turned to Josiah and say his stern look. Ezra immediately hung his head and mumbled, "Sorry."
"Is all your work done?" Josiah asked.
Chris looked at Ezra and asked, "Why didnít you say you were finished?"
"What would be the point? You wouldnít let me go out and play until lunch, so I figured I would just sit here and draw."
Chris sighed. "Okay Ezra. Since youíre done todayís work, you can go out and play." Ezra was up and about to run out when Josiah added, "But you will stay in the yard."
"The yard? Does that include the barn?"
"As long as you stay out of trouble and come when the lunch bell is rung."
"Yea sir." Ezra ran out before they could change their minds.
"Whatís so funny?" Chris asked.
"I have a feeling he wishes he was back in school."
"They give the kids breaks in the morning and in the afternoon. If he were in school he wouldnít be sitting all morning like weíve had him doing for the last two weeks."
"Well as soon as Maude shows up and leaves, without Ezra, he can go back to school."
"Heíll be happy to get things back to normal." Josiah headed out to the corral to check on the hands before lunch.
Free at last, Ezra raced to the barn to work on Josiahís birthday present. It took him all summer to get as far as he was and it was getting closer to Josiahís birthday so he wanted to finish it. As he entered the barn he bumped into one of the hands.
"Iím sorry. I didnít see you." Ezra said.
"No problem young fella. I should have been payiní attention also."
Ezra looked up into the face of a man he didnít know. "Are you new here?"
"Yep. Was hired last week. Names Frank. Whatís yer name?"
"Ezra. Ezra Standish."
"I didnít think they hired boys your age. Shouldnít you be in school?"
"I donít work here. I live here. This is my home."
"Really? Which one of the bossí is yer pa?"
"None. My pa died last year. Itís just me and my brothers."
"Donít seem right not to have a pa. You have a ma?"
"Yes, but she doesnít live here."
"Why donít you live with her?"
"That is none of your business." Ezra tried to get past the man. Something about him just didnít seem right.
Frank noticed the hesitation when asked about his ma. If he hadnít known better, he would have believed he saw anger when his ma was mentioned. McMaster said the boy needed rescuing. Frank was starting to doubt that information. Frank reached out and grabbed the boy.
"Whoa, younginí. I didnít mean ta upset ya. I was jest askiní."
Ezra saw the sincerity in the manís eyes and relaxed a little. "Iím sorry. Itís just that I donít like to talk about my mother." Ezra heard the lunch bell and tried to remove his arm from Franks grasp. "I have to go."
"What did yer ma do that was so bad?" Frank held on to Ezra. He wasnít ready to let him go until he found out for sure who was telling the truth.
Ezra struggled a little harder. "I have to go. Please let go."
"Answer my question boy."
"She sold me. Made my pa pay her off. You satisfied? Now let me go." Ezra was starting to get mad.
"Sold her own son? I donít believe it."
Ezra screamed, "Iím not her son! Let me go!"
Josiah heard the scream as he crossed the yard to find Ezra. He came through the doors just in time to see Frank release Ezraís arm and see Ezra fall onto him backside. "Iím sorry." Frank said.
"Whatís going on in here?" Josiah demanded.
"Just askiní Ezra some questions. I didnít mean to upset him so much."
"Get back to work Frank." Josiah gathered Ezra into his arms and hugged him close as Ezra cried.
"Why what Ezra?"
"Why did she do it?"
"I donít know what youíre talking about Ezra."
Ezra didnít say anymore. He calmed down and wiped at his eyes. Josiah helped him up and led him to the house. Chris met them at the door.
"What happened Josiah? Ez you okay?"
"He just got upset with one of the hands."
Chris crouched down to Ezraís level and lifted his chin. "You okay?"
Ezra just nodded.
"Letís get some lunch okay?"
Ezra nodded again. Chris rose and headed for the dining room. Lunch was quiet and Josiah noticed Ezra didnít eat much.
"May I be excused?" Ezra asked.
"Sure. Go get cleaned up and weíll head out in about 30 minutes, okay?" Josiah asked.
"Sure." Ezra stood and headed upstairs. As soon as he closed his door he buried his head in his pillow and sobbed. Why? was all he thought.
When Josiah knocked and entered 30 minutes later, Ezra was asleep. Josiah noticed the tear tracks and decided to let Ezra sleep. He pulled a quilt over Ezra and kissed his forehead. "I love you little brother." Josiah whispered. He quietly left the room to find out if Chris was staying close to the house or if he needed to.
As he came down the stairs, Chris raised an eyebrow at Josiah. "Whereís Ezra?"
"Sleeping. He went upstairs and cried himself to sleep." Josiah sat down heavily with a sigh.
"What upset him so much?"
"I donít know. Frank had hold of his arm when I entered the barn, but Ezra was screaming at him. Iím gonna have a long hard talk with the man though."
"Maybe I need to talk with Frank, because you might kill him."
"I wouldnít kill him Chris, just hurt him a little." Josiah smiled innocently.
"Sure you would." Chris stood up and headed out to find Frank. He turned back toward Josiah, "Iíll stick close to the house if you want to finish that fence line."
"I probably should. If nothing else, it will keep me from killing a ranch hand."
"You go fix that fence, Iíll talk to Frank and Ezra can finish his nap." Chris headed out and after staring up the stairs, Josiah followed.
Chris found Frank in the barn cleaning out the stalls. They spoke and Chris advised Frank to stay away from Ezra and Josiah until Josiah calmed down. Chris had been puzzled by Frankís questions.
"Josiah seems to be very fond of the boy." Frank said.
"Frank, I donít know what you heard, but we all love Ezra. Josiah especially. They may be brothers, but Ezra goes to Josiah with all of his troubles and loves this family very much. We would all be lost without him."
Frank had agreed to stay away from Ezra and asked Chris to apologize to Josiah and Ezra for him. Chris agreed and checked on Ezra, who was still sleeping. Chris decided to work on the woodpile until Ezra woke up.
Ezra was dreaming.
"Why donít you give this Mr. Larabee the boy Charlene? You never wanted him."
"It has paid to have a small child on occasion, James."
"Well, his pa wants him and heís getting old enough to cause problems too."
"Heís only four, James. Heíll learn with some training what to say and what not to say."
"Youíre too soft on the boy. He would learn faster with a strong arm."
"He may not be my son, James but he is my nephew and I will not beat him. He will learn."
"What about the other boy?"
"The Negro boy?" James nodded. "Linc doesnít even know about him. Patrick sold his mother and plans on getting rid of the boy and his father soon too. Linc will never know about Nathan Jackson."
"That brings us back to Ezra. Why not let Linc pay for his son? You could get rid of the boy and make some money at the same time."
"It would serve the fool right. He canít even tell the difference between me and Maude."
"Give the man some slack Charlene. He met Maude and had his fling and never knew about Ezra. If she hadnít died giving birth to his son, she would have told him and let him be a part of the boyís life."
"He disgraced my sister! She never should have had his bastard child, but she wouldnít listen to me. Now Iím saddled with the consequences of their transgression."
"Then let Mr. Larabee pay to have his son. Nobody knows heís not yours. Everyone thinks Charlene died; not Maude."
"I would have to say, that it has been nice having people treat me with respect now that Ďsheísí gone. ĎSheí was the one that daddy loved best. It just made sense when Maude died in childbirth, to take her place. Everyone expected ĎCharleneí to disgrace the family and all this time it was Maude."
"The family still has its illusion, you have a new identity, and now you can make some money off of the boy. Sell him to his pa."
"James. I think youíre right. Itís high time for me to get rid of my sister Maudeís mistake. Auntie Charlene is gonna make a bundle selling that boy, and maybe even his half brother too."
Both ĎMaudeí and James left the room to send word to Linc Larabee. Nobody noticed the small boy behind the door with tears running down his face.
Ezra woke with a start and wiped at the tears that were running down his cheeks. He decided that now was the time to share his horrible secret, before Maude could get a hold of him. He had to find Chris.
When he came downstairs, Ezra saw no one. He heard someone chopping wood so he headed outside to the woodshed. Chris was so involved in chopping that he didnít hear Ezra approach. He jumped when Ezra spoke.
Chris looked up and saw Ezra. The nap didnít seem to help with the tired boysí appearance. He wasnít getting enough sleep at night. Chris also noticed the fresh tears in his eyes. Chris set down the ax and wiped the sweat from his face and chest.
"Did you have a good nap?" Chris asked already knowing the answer.
Chris saw the tears roll down in earnest. Chris opened his arms and smiled. "Come here."
Ezra didnít hesitate, but ran into Chrisí arms and sobbed. Chris didnít understand why he was upset, and he would find out later, but he just held Ezra to make him feel safe.
"Why donít we go inside? Itís getting chilly out here, especially with no shirt on."
Ezra let himself be led into the house. Chris released Ezra and put his shirt back on. Chris called Nettie and asked for some coffee, two cups. After they were settled with two cups of coffee, Chris asked, "Are you okay?"
Ezra shook his head.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Ezra nodded. Chris waited. After what seemed like forever, Chris heard the whisper.
"Josiah wonít want me anymore."
"Ezra, Josiah and all of us love you very much. We will always want you. No matter what." Chris hugged Ezra close.
"You may not feel that way after I tell you the truth."
"The truth about what Ezra? You could tell us you were a murderer and we would still want you and love you. I need you to understand that."
"My heart knows it but I canít convince my head."
"Then tell me the truth, from your heart."
There was a pause. "Maude isnít my mother." There he said it.
"You are Maudeís son, Ezra."
Chris didnít understand. "Yes. I am Maudeís son, but Maude is dead. The woman calling herself Maude is really my Aunt Charlene. They were twins. My real mother died when I was born. I only found out right before pa came to get me. Even he didnít know and now you wonít want me." Ezra started to cry again. Chris gathered him up into a big hug and smiled. Once Ezra calmed again, Chris said, "Ezra. We will always love you. We will always want you, and I already knew about your mother and her twin sister trading places."
Ezraís head snapped up. The question in his eyes was plain as day. "How?"
"Pa knew as soon as he meet ĎMaudeí that it was Charlene. He loved your mother Ezra. When you love someone that much, you can tell them apart from another, even a twin. Pa was upset about your motherís death and about the switch, but he decided that as long as Charlene gave you to him, he wouldnít say anything about the switch. That was how he got her to sign the custody papers. He paid her off as a thank you for taking care of you as she did. She kept you, even though you werenít hers. Somewhere in that cold heart of hers, she does love you. She is your aunt."
"If pa knew and you knew, then how come she wants me back again?"
"All I can figure is she either convinced her new husband that we stole you from her or she has some con planned. I do know, that she doesnít have a legal leg to stand on. She signed papers in front of a lawyer admitting that she was your aunt not your mother."
"Does the Judge know about the papers?"
"Heís seen the custody papers. I had hoped I wouldnít need to show him the proof, but he needed to understand why pa had a special condition on your name when all the paper work was done. I had to show him the proof."
"If he knew, why did he ask me if I wanted to go with her?"
"Because he wasnít allowed to tell you about Maude. Itís in the agreement that no one was allowed to tell you about Maude and Charlene until you turned 18."
"But I already knew. I heard her and James talking when I was just a little boy."
Chris smiled. Your still are our little boy, he thought.
"Will there be a problem because I know?"
"Good question. I donít think anyone knew you over heard the truth. Maybe we should just keep it in the family until your 18."
Ezra smiled. "Are you encouraging me to lie?"
"No! Just donít volunteer any information, like you always do."
Ezra giggled. It was good to hear him laugh. Ezra hugged Chris tightly and whispered in his ear, "Thank you. I love you."
"I love you too Ezra." Chris returned the hug and then released Ezra. "Why donít we ride up and check on Josiahís progress then head into town to get your brothers?"
"Iíll go saddle up the horses." Ezra left and headed for the barn feeling better than he did in a long time.
Chris sat for a few minutes and watched his cleaver little brother head outside. Oh the tangled webs we weave.
"What news do you have for me?"
"Sir. I think that the boy is happy where he is."
"I donít pay you to think Frank. I pay you to get close to Maudeís boy."
"Well, I talked with the boy and observed how the family interact and they do love each other; greatly."
"Maude said they were only keeping him out of obligation." McMaster sneered.
"Not to disagree with your Missus but Ezra is happy and loved. They donít Ďput upí with him out of some obligation to their dead father. They really love him. They are also very protective of him. Since I arrived, the boy hasnít been out of sight of at least one of the three oldest brothers. They have been helping keep his schoolwork up at home and comfort him when heís upset."
"You sound like you admire their family."
"I do sir. I wish when my pa had died, I had had someone half as kind to me when I was a boy."
"How do you explain his disobeying his mother about not telling Mr. Larabee about her letter?"
Frank laughed. "Well, sir, he didnít disobey her. He told Josiah about the letter, not Chris. He is very clever, but honest."
"Yes sir. I heard stories about some of the younger brothers antics. Ezra likes to gamble, and this summer, after Josiah took a switch to the boy, Ezra promised not to gamble again until he was grown up."
"And has he kept this promise?"
"Yes sir. However, I would bet he worded the promise with a loophole. He is a clever boy."
"Do you think he would be a help or a hindrance to our plans in Europe?"
"Honestly?" McMaster nodded. "I think he has learned a great deal from his pa and brothers in the last 8 years. Heís hard working. He keeps his promises. He is very loyal and above all else, heís honest. He has learned right from wrong and I get the impression from him, that he doesnít appreciate Maude and her cheating ways. I honestly think he would be impossible to break, and you would have to break him in order to change him."
"Iím too old to break in a boy. I need to think this out. Stay at the
job until I tell you otherwise Frank."
"Yes sir." Frank left his boss feeling like he helped young Ezra.
Charles McMaster decided to see for himself whether Ezra was happy or not. He rented a horse and headed out toward the Magnificent Seven Ranch. It was a beautiful spread with massive trees reaching for the sky. The air was clean and clear and McMaster found himself inhaling the fresh mountain air. As he approached the yard to the massive ranch house, he observed two smaller boys carrying wood in a cart toward the house. They were talking and laughing with each other until they noticed him. McMaster smiled as the older boy said something to the younger boy that sent him running into the barn yelling for ĎBuckí. Moments later, a young man with a mustache came out of the barn to greet him as he dismounted.
"Can I help ya mister?"
"Yes perhaps you can. I was told in town that this ranch might be interested in breeding stock. I raise prime bulls."
"Well, I can see if Chris wants to talk with ya. Why donít you come on in." Buck turned away from the stranger and waved a black boy over. "Nathan, please take MrÖ" Buck paused. The stranger said, "Thornton. William Thornton."
"Please put Mr. Thorntonís horse up." McMaster handed the reins to the boy and said, "Take good care of him Boy."
"I will and I ainít no boy."
"Nathan!" Buck rebuked. "Be polite or weíll talk later."
"Ainít no boy Buck."
Buck smiled and then turned to Nathan. "I know you ainít little brother, but you will be respectful."
"Yes sir." Nathan sneered at the stranger and led the horse away.
Buck turned back to the stranger and said, "I apologize for my brother Mr. Thornton, heís a little touchy about people assuming heís hired help."
"Completely understandable. It was my mistake." McMaster assumed the boy was the other child Maude had told him about. The one born to one of Jacksonís slaves.
McMaster/Thornton followed Buck into the house. He was almost run down by the longhaired boy from the yard as he ran past him into the house. He heard the bellow before he saw the source.
"Kevin Tanner!" The longhaired boy stopped in his tracks. McMaster watched as a tall blonde man dressed all in black, entered the room and glared at the boy. This man looked more like a gunslinger, than a rancher. He reached the now still boy and gave him a quick swat as he admonished him to Ďwalk, donít runí. Buck cleared his throat and Chris looked up to see the stranger for the first time.
"Chris. This is Mr. Thornton. He sells breeding stock."
Chris approached and smiled. "Pleased to meet you Mr. Thornton. Names Chris Larabee. I apologize for my brotherís behavior." Chris looked at Vin and motioned him over. "This is Vin. He would like to apologize for his behavior." McMaster noticed the man in black holding the young boys shoulders and adding a small amount of pressure to communicate his wishes. It must have worked too, because Vin made his apologizes and was allowed to go back outside.
"Come on in and have a seat. Would you like some coffee?" Chris asked McMaster.
"Coffee would be great." McMaster was admiring the room he was led to. The high ceiling and large fireplace made the small room look bigger than it was. There were three chairs and a couple of couches around a low oak table. An older lady with grey hair entered with a tray of coffee and cookies. She handed McMaster a cup and a plate of cookies.
"Thank you maíam." Chris and Buck leaned in for a cookie and Nettie slapped their hands.
"Ow Nettie. Whad ya do that fer?" Buck asked as he rubbed his hand.
"Guest first. Mind yer manners."
McMaster chuckled. Chris and Buck looked sheepishly at their guest. Chris spoke, "Miss Nettie runs the house. She thinks she runs the family too."
"I heard that Christopher." Was heard from the next room.
"She would be correct in that assumption. We would all be lost without her." Ezra breezed through.
Chris motioned Ezra over.
Completely out of character, Ezra sat on Chrisí lap as introductions were made. "Mr. Thornton. This is our brother Ezra."
Ezra put out his hand and shook the strangers hand. "Pleased to make your acquaintance Sir."
"What a well mannered boy. How old are you?"
"I am thirteen."
"Going on 30." Buck mumbled.
Ezra smiled. "Youíre just upset because my vocabulary is bigger than yourÖ" Chris quickly put his hand over Ezraís mouth to stop the frequent comparison between Ezraís vocabulary and Buckís prowess. The family knew the statement was made in jest but never in polite company. Ezra removed Chrisí hand and smiled innocently. "Big toe is all I was going to say Chris."
Chris didnít look convinced. "Go finish your chores before your mouth finds you some trouble." Ezra stood as Chris gave him a playful swat to send him on his way. Ezra shook the strangers hand again and excused himself.
"Iím sorry about that. My brothers are usually better behaved around company." Chris said.
"No problem. I had brothers and our father never corrected them when they acted badly."
"Well, they were all raised proper, but boys will be boys."
"Any sisters Mr. Larabee?"
Chris smiled. "Nope. Our father had seven fine boys, no girls. Miss Nettie is the only lady in the house."
"And still they all seem to have manners. Very commendable."
"Thank you. I like to think that strangers would see that the boys are well behaved and loved, but Iím afraid most see the misadventures of little boys." Chris paused then asked, "What kind of breeding stock do you sell Mr. Thornton?"
They spoke of business for about 30 minutes and only stopped when JD entered the room. He walked over to Buck and climbed into his lap. He looked upset as he buried his face in Buckís shirt.
"Hey Little Bit. Whatís wrong?" Buck asked.
"Mr. Thornton. This is our youngest brother JD." Chris said.
"Heís so young."
"Heís five Mr. Thornton." Buck added.
"Five? I would have guessed three at the most."
"He may be small but he certainly makes up for it with determination." Chris smiled.
"And stubbornness." Buck added.
"I not studdern." JD protested as he sat up.
"Then tell me whatís wrong?"
JD motioned for Buck to lean down so he could whisper it in his ear. Buck tried not to laugh at JD, as he Ďwhisperedí for the whole room to hear that he had to go to the outhouse but Vin and Ezra told him there was a monster in the hole.
Chris smiled despite himself. Buck stood up with JD and excused them from the room. "Iíll take care of this one."
"Just remember Buck. Josiah should be entering the yard anytime now with a wagon. No chasing children around the yard."
"You wound me Chris." Buck laughed all the way out the door.
"My apologizes again Mr. Thornton. Things have been crazy around here for a couple of weeks."
"If you have a card with your name and address, I can contact you if we need any breeding stock in the near future. We actually have all we can handle at the moment."
"I understand. I hope to hear from you in the future then." Chris and McMaster stood and Chris walked him to the porch. Once there, Chris sent Ezra after his horse and the shook hands.
"It was a pleasure to meet you Mr. Larabee. You have a fine ranch here."
"Thank you Mr. Thornton, but the ranch is only secondary to my family. Without them, the ranch is nothing."
"Again, it was a pleasure."
McMaster walked to his horse and took the reins from Ezra. Ezra quickly looked to see if anyone could hear and they smiled at McMaster and offered his hand.
"Mr. Thornton, if that is your name, please inform my mother that I am happy here and that I do not wish to leave. It would save her time and money if she would just leave it alone. Good day." Ezra started to leave but McMaster gently stopped him.
"How did you know?"
"The accent was a dead give away. But even had you disguised it somehow, I recognized the brand on your bag as the same on the letterhead of the letter my mother sent me."
"You are a clever boy. I could give you everything. Money. Power. You would be my heir."
"As appealing as that may sound to you Mr. McMaster, I have more than money or power could ever give me."
"And what is that?"
"A home. A family. The Magnificent Seven Ranch makes money Mr. McMaster. It has power to change the world, and I am one of its heirs."
"You could have the best of both worlds Ezra."
"I like this world thank you. My brotherís may be an uncivilized lot, but their mine. I love them. Please convince mother to leave me be. She never wanted me so I donít understand why she changed her mind now."
"It was my idea, Ezra. I wanted someone to leave my organization to. When I found out she had a son, whom she wasnít raising, I wanted you."
"You could choose any boy in the city from a childrenís home and have a more responsive Ďsoní, because my heart is here. That will never change."
"I understand that now. Maybe when your mother and I return from Europe we will see about giving you another brother."
"Good God. I have enough problems now." Ezra smiled. "I wish you luck on your quest."
"Thank you Ezra." McMaster mounted up. He hesitated a moment and then asked, "Would it be okay if we send correspondence?"
"As long as there are no more letters saying you are coming to fetch me, yes, I would like to hear of your travels with my mother."
"Thank you Ezra. I will have your mother send a telegram to the circuit Judge about her withdrawal for custody."
"Good bye Son." And with that, Charles McMaster rode out of the yard.
Ezra entered the house prepared for battle. No one knew it yet, but life was about to get back to normal. It would take a few more days for Maudeís letter to get to the Judge and then to Chris and Josiah, but he wanted to go back to school. //Did I just think that// Chris was sitting in front of the fireplace thinking when Ezra entered.
Chris turned around and saw the determination in Ezraís eyes. //Ezra is ready to fight for his freedom// "Yes Ezra?"
"I want to go back to school on Monday."
"Okay." Chris waited for the reaction.
"Iím tired of being home and stuckÖ" Ezra stopped. "What did you say?"
"I said okay. You can go back to school on Monday."
Ezra tilted his head and looked at his older brother. "Whatís the catch?"
"No catch Ezra."
"You know something. What is it?"
"Who me?" Chris tried to look innocent. It didnít work.
Chris decided to change the subject. "Did Mr. Thornton get off okay?" Chris sipped from his coffee cup.
"What did you hear?"
"Then why donít I believe you?"
"You calliní me a liar Ez?" Chris tried to glare at Ezra.
"Thatís exactly what Iím calling you. A liar." Ezra knew Chris was teasing and went right along with it.
"Why you little brat." Chris reached for Ezra who laughed as he ran out the front door with Chris right on his heals. Chris stopped on the porch and watched Ezra run to the barn. "You can run, but you canít hide." Chris yelled.
"And you told me not to chase kids around the yard."
Chris turned to see Buck laughing at he antics. He glared at Buck, which only made him laugh harder.
"House full of funny people. Thatís what I have." Chris grumbled as he went to sit next to Buck on the porch. "What did you do with our younger brothers?"
"Which brothers are you referring to?"
"The ones who made up a monster."
"Oh. Well, Vin said it was Ezraís idea. Ezra said it was Vinís idea. JD said Vin told him about the monster but said it was Ezra that told him. You still with me Chris?"
"Just tell me what you did with Vin and Sprout. I know where Ezra is."
"JD used the outhouse and is playing with the kittens in the barn."
"Heís in the outhouse." Buck smirked.
"How come that sounds bad?" All of a sudden Chris could hear pounding and screaming coming from the outhouse. "What did you do?" Chris was up like a shot headed for the panicked cries coming from the outhouse.
"He ainít hurt. I just jimmied the door to keep it shut."
"Buck. Heís terrified of closed spaces." Chris was angry.
"Iím sorry Chris, I forgot."
Chris opened the outhouse and found Vin curled in on himself sobbing. He bent down and slowly touched Vinís shoulder while speaking softly to him. "Hey little brother. Youíre okay. Come on out."
Vin looked up and reached for Chris. He held on tight as he sobbed on Chrisí shoulder. "Shh. Itís okay. I have you and youíre fine." After Vin was calmer, Chris asked, "You okay now?"
Vin nodded. "Iís scart that I couldnít get out." Vin hiccupped.
"I know. Iím sorry the door got stuck."
Vin pushed himself up to look at Chrisí eyes. Chris saw, anger? "It didnít get stuck. Bucklin made it stick. Iffin I was bigger enough Iíd beat him up fer it too."
Chris had to laugh. Buck had a stricken look on his face. "Tell you what Vin. Iíll let ya have a try at him in sayÖ10 years. Okay?"
"Heíll be old as you then. Iíd rather ya tanned him good."
"Buckís too old for a tanning Vin and 29 isnít old."
"Seems old ta me." Vin put his head back down on Chrisí shoulder. Buck leaned over to look at Vin, only to have him turn his head away.
"Iím sorry Vin. I forgot you donít like small locked places. You scared JD too you know and he forgave you. Could you forgive me? Please?"
Vin thought about it. "Okay. But I ainít forgettiní. When Iím bigger, Iím calliní you out."
"Deal little brother." Buck leaned over and tickled Vin until he giggled.
At dinner Chris told Josiah that they needed to talk about Ezra going back to school. Josiah was against it, but he was open to what Chris had to say.
"Whatís your proof Chris?"
"Josiah, I know it sounds hard to believe, but the proof will be here at the beginning of the week."
"And you know this becauseÖ?"
"Iíll tell you then. I know Ezra will be safe in school now. Maude wonít be coming."
"Well, if youíre sure, Iíll trust your judgement."
"Good. I think we need to round up children for an early bedtime so we can all go fishing tomorrow."
"Fishing? You sure you donít have a fever?"
"Iím fine Josiah. Itís gonna start getting to cold to fish or do anything, soon so I thought we could enjoy our Saturday as a family, with a picnic and some fishing."
"Sounds good to me."
Saturdayís fishing trip seemed to relax everyone. Vin and JD noticed that Ezra was back to being his same annoying self, and they were glad. They assumed it was because Chris and Josiah were allowing Ezra to go back to school. Both Vin and JD personally couldnít understand why anyone would want to go in the first place.
Upon returning from their day at the lake, all little boys were scrubbed and tucked into bed. Then all the big boys took baths and headed for bed. For the first time in over two weeks, everyone sleep straight through the night.
Sunday morning, they all headed for church and Chris was reconsidering being happy about normal behavior. As normally happens, Vin and Ezra had to be separated and threatened until their last chance was up. JD fell asleep after whining about being bored. Nathan mooned over Rain and didnít hear any of the sermon and Buck flirted with the ladies in front of them. Good thing my gun is by the door, Chris thought.
As the family was headed out of the church and toward the carriage, the Sheriff hollered to them.
"This telegram just came for you."
"Thanks." Chris opened it and read the wonderful news. He smiled and handed the telegram to Josiah. Instead of going to the carriage, Chris steered everyone toward the hotel to celebrate. As they passed the Clarion, Chris knocked for Mary and the Judge to join them.
Josiah handed the telegram to Ezra and gave him a hug and kissed him on the forehead.
"Not in public Josiah." Ezra scowled at Josiah and then smiled.
At the hotel, Chris told the Judge and Mary what had happened and they were amazed. The telegram only said Maude had decided to withdraw he petition for custody and that she was leaving to see Europe with her new husband and that she would visit Ezra when they got back.
That evening, with everyone asleep, Chris sat in front of the fire thinking. He was brought out of his thoughts when Buck entered. Buck looked at the clock and smiled at Chris.
"Iím a little old for you to be waiting up for."
"Iím not. I was just enjoying the quiet."
Buck came and sat down next to Chris. "Hey Chris? How did you know Maude was going to change her mind?"
Chris smiled and reached into his pocket and pulled out a sketched photo of a man. Buck recognized him as the salesman that was at the house Friday. "What has Mr. Thornton have to do with this?"
"That is a sketch that Mary found of Mr. Charles McMaster. Maudeís new husband."
Buckís eyes got big as saucers. "What?"
"Yep. He waltzed right in here fishing for information on Ezra. I asked Ezra before he went to bed how he knewÖ"
"Ezra knew too? How?"
"He said he recognized the brand on McMasterís bags as the same one on the letterhead from his mother."
"You donít know the half of it. Ezra confronted him and asked him to tell his mother to leave him alone. Then McMaster offered him the opportunity to become the heir of his organization."
"And Ezra turned it down?"
"Flat out. He told McMaster that he was an heir to this organization, but even if he wasnít he had family and a home and they were more important than all the money in the world."
"Home." Buck sighed.
"Home." Chris agreed.
At the top of the stairs, leading from the great room to the upstairs, Ezra smiled and whispered, "Home," as he headed to bed.