Singular Colts
(Little Ezra modern day AU)

by GemsPegasus

Parts 8-9 added 15 November 2005
Part 10 added 11 December 2005
Parts 11-14 added 28 December 2005
Parts 15-16 added 21 January 2006
Parts 17-18 added 27 February 2006
Part 19 added 9 April 2006
Parts 20-21 added 26 July 2006
Parts 22-24 added 16 October 2006
Parts 25-27 added 12 November 2006
Parts 28-30 added 18 December 2006
Parts 31-38 added 14 February 2007 - Completed

Disclaimer: The Seven don't belong to me. I'm only saddling them up for a 'ride' or 3 and will return them to MGM, Mirisch, Trilogy, Showtime and John Watson when we're done. "Secondhand Lions" isn’t mine either. It belongs to New Line Cinema, David Kirschner Productions, Digital Domain Productions and Tim McCanlies. I’ll return them when we’re done. No copyright infringement intended. Written for fun and enjoyment only.
AU: General "Little Ezra" tale inspired by the movie, "Secondhand Lions" and Purple Lacey’s Picture challenge. I have taken elements from The Magnificent Seven and Secondhand Lions and woven them into this tale.
For those who have seen the movie and you know what happens to the uncles, I have changed that it in my story. The mother is also a bit different from the film since I am adapting Maude’s character into the fan fiction.
There are also some twists to this AU in reference to the relationship of the Seven. Buck and Chris are brothers. Chris’s parents adopted Buck after Buck’s biological mother died. Buck was six and Chris was eight when they became brothers. The Larabees also had a headstrong daughter Maude who was four years old when Buck was adopted. Maude became estranged from her family when she ran away at the age of sixteen.
Open Fandom: Yes, once this fan fiction has been completed.
Author's Notes: "Singular" as defined by Webster’s Dictionary Online: 2 : distinguished by superiority : EXCEPTIONAL <an artist of singular attainments>
Thoughts: denoted by / /
Flashbacks: denoted by +++++++
Paraphrased from actual dialogue of the movie "Secondhand Lions" denoted by { }
Dialogue from actual film "Secondhand Lions" denoted by /// ///
Warnings: Gen. Some child abuse, physical and emotional angst, h/c, language, violence.
Feedback: Yes please, at


A wiry, white-blond, hazel-eyed man galloped his jet-black gelding through an open field of the ranch. His still-commanding voice whipped through the wind to reach the ears of his silver-haired, silver-mustached partner. The dark-blue-eyed man spurred his own dappling gray mount to go faster and drew even with the blond and the big black horse.

JD Dunne, the just-retired sheriff of Four Corners, stared out of one of the side windows of the ranch house and fondly shook his head at his friends’ antics. The aging but still-spry Dunne then walked over to the table stand at the end of the room and picked up the receiver of the newly installed cordless phone. JD knew he had time to talk since the owners of the ranch were out racing so he dialed a number from memory and waited for the person on the other end to pick up.


In the conference room of Churchill Downs, a russet-haired, emerald-eyed, well-built and well-dressed young man signed a bill of sales and handed it over to the buyer. The buyer gave the young man a cashier’s check which was placed in the inner right pocket of a dark jacket. The new owner of the thoroughbred passed the younger man a glass of Champagne and the horse breeder looked pensively into his glass. His closest family had planned to be here at this moment of celebration but their health was more important. One of his beloved uncles had been ill with a severe case of bronchitis when the time came for the trip to Kentucky. His uncle needed his other uncle to stay with him or his sick but strong-minded uncle wouldn’t rest and would probably end up with pneumonia. Other members of his family had duties and obligations, so the young man knew he would be making the trip alone.

The cinnamon-haired young man set the glass on the table when he felt the cell phone in his pocket vibrate.

A few seconds later, the young man drawled, "Hello." in a Southern accent. "Hey Ezra, its JD. Are you almost done selling that half-million dollar thorough-bred of yours, yet?" Before the emerald-eyed man could reply, JD continued, "Your uncle Buck wanted to make sure that you are getting home before your uncle Chris’s birthday on Sunday. Ezra quickly affirmed that everything had proceeded smoothly and that he should leave Louisville tomorrow morning and arrive home by early Saturday afternoon. He grilled JD about his uncle Chris’s health. Dunne laughed and reassured the young man that his uncle was recuperated enough to be horse racing Buck across the yard. A half-smile curled Ezra’s lips at the former sheriff’s words. Dimples winked as he kept thinking of home.

Home was a sprawling, horse-breeding ranch on the outskirts of Four Corners Colorado that Ezra’s uncles Chris and Buck had started twenty six years ago.

As JD filled Ezra in on what had transpired at home during the week the emerald-eyed man had been gone, the Southerner’s memories transported him to the past and how he had found a family.

Chapter 1


Twenty Five Years Ago

Eight year-old Ezra P. Standish’s left hand curled around the edge of the front, tan-color, leather seat of the red Cadillac Seville because his mother who was driving the aforementioned Cadillac had just taken a sharp turn onto a bridge. The chestnut-haired, emerald-eyed, small-for-his age child’s right hand had a hardy grip on the small suitcase in his lap. Emerald irises gazed out the window reading the signs on the road. They had passed the towns of Greeley, Ridge City, Bitter Creek and Eagle Bend Colorado. The duo was now driving into Four Corners.

"Mother, could I go with you?" asked a hopeful Ezra. This question was met with a resounding, "No Ezra you may not. My business at the Crown Hotel in Denver will be time consuming and require delicate negotiations with the owner. It is best if I go alone." Maude’s tone softened slightly as she continued, "You’ll have a wonderful summer with your uncles."

The little boy sincerely doubted it. He had stayed with ‘relatives’ and ‘friends’ of Maude before and he had never experienced a ‘wonderful’ time with any of them. Ezra mentally checked off the list of ‘uncles’ he had lived with and could not recall any one of them whose dwelling was in Colorado but he reasoned that any one of them could have moved. His curiosity piqued he asked, "Mother, which uncles will I be residing with this summer?"

Ezra was puzzled as he noted pink tinge his mother’s cheeks. Then Maude’s hands tightened on the steering wheel even though she responded with an airy, "You’ll be staying with your Uncles Chris Larabee and Buck Wilmington Larabee. /I’ll sweet talk Buck into it and he can convince Chris into it./ sped through Maude’s brain.

"Larabee...? Isn‘t that your maiden name Mother? Are these two men your siblings? I always thought you were an only child," flew from little Ezra’s lips.

The Seville had stopped for a red light, so Maude’s icy light eyes bore into round emerald irises. She hissed, "Enough Ezra. Yes, Larabee is my maiden name and yes Chris is a biological brother while Buck is an adoptive one." The red light changed and Maude shifted the automobile’s gears causing the car to glide onto the road leading out of town. She continued her narrative barely glancing at the attentive, fascinated, chestnut-haired boy sitting on the front seat with her. "I have not seen them in twenty years. I became estranged from my family shortly after my sixteenth birthday. Old acquaintances informed me that both Chris and Buck disappeared for years and have only now reappeared. It is rumored that they are rich. If you are a clever boy, I know you can discover if any of the rumors of their wealth are true. If they are true, you could also ascertain where that money is located."

Small but strong pearly-white teeth bit into a soft, full bottom lip. Ezra could hear the unspoken order in that sentence. Blonde hair pulled into an elegant, French twist nodded at the boy’s quiet reply. "This is their ranch," she stated as they entered another road.

Chapter 2

The little one read the warning off signs which were staked along the sides of the long, recently-paved driveway. Maude parked the car next to the red truck already in the yard.

Ezra was more than a little apprehensive as he stepped out of the car and then stood silently by the door of the Seville. His suitcase was set down to the side. Maude finished closing her door and took an assessing glance around her.

Wide orbs the color of jade drank in the vista before him. Puffy, white, clouds floated across the sky, skimming the top of the regal, snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the distance. Verdant woods dotted the foot of the mountains. The Rockies framed the land like towering sentinels. Ezra tore his gaze from the majesty of nature and focused on the homestead in front of him. To the little boy’s right there was a massive stable with adjacent corrals and behind the corrals lay a vast pasture. Horses ran playfully through the pasture. Besides the pasture was a path that led to a small lake. On his left was a huge garage that housed fixer-up cars and trucks. In the center of the large yard there was a sprawling, two-story plus tower room ranch house with a wrap-around porch.

A cream-colored, American Mastiff bounded off the porch steps. The big Mastiff almost knocked the auburn-haired boy off his feet when the dog’s paws landed on the boy’s narrow shoulders. The animal barked enthusiastically and snuffed at the child’s neck. "Nice lion... eh... nice canine" peeped Ezra.

Little Ezra had been so startled by the Mastiff that he didn’t hear the hooves clomping against the earth, so he whipped his head around when he heard a hearty chuckle, "You were right the first time kid," Followed by another voice. This voice was quieter as it ordered "Down, Leo." Leo gave one, last, friendly snuff then sat at the little one’s feet. "He likes you," continued the raven-haired, blue-eyed, mustached man clad in a tan-colored tee-shirt, blue jeans and work boots. The brunet man sat astride a huge white horse. Next to him, was a lean, lithe, blond, hazel-eyed, clean-shaven man clad in a light gray shirt, black jeans and work boots. The blond rode atop a massive black gelding. The big black shifted a step closer to the boy before Chris pulled more tautly on the horse’s reins.

At the gelding’s movement, Ezra unconsciously backed up until his spine almost hit the door handle of the automobile. He was fascinated by the horses but a bit fearful of them since he had never really been around them before.

By this time, the blonde woman had skirted around the car and come to stand by the russet-haired little boy’s side. Chris recognized her first, and icily said, "Maude." Buck’s incredulous "Maude?" followed. Both men dismounted and tied their mounts to the hitching post on one side of the house. Once they had turned back toward them, the blonde nodded and introduced the little one at her side, "Chris, Buck... This is Ezra P. Standish, your nephew." With a hand on the little boy’s back, she pushed Ezra forward.

Ezra held out his hand to formally shake the hands of the adult men. Buck squatted to meet the child at eye-level and extended his long arm to clasp hands with the boy. The mustached man’s larger, rough-worked hand engulfed Ezra’s in a hardy handshake. "Nice to meet ya, pard," said the man with the twinkling blue eyes and cheerful smile. Ezra responded with a serious, " It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir."

"I‘d rather you call me Buck or Uncle Buck, if it is all right with you, Ezra," answered the mustached man.

"Yes si... Buck." The tall man beamed at the little boy.

Ezra’s tension melted a little. It seemed that at least one of his uncles was a decent person. /But you must never really let your guard down. You know appearances can be deceiving,/ sped through the child’s mind. Turning his attention and thoughts away from the tall, dark-haired man, the chestnut-haired little boy extended his arm toward his uncle Chris. While Ezra had been busy greeting Buck, Chris and Maude had fought a silent duel of glares. Maude had finally looked away. The blond man tore his gaze away from his younger sister and focused on the boy. /He looks like.../ Larabee squashed the painful thought as he too squatted to shake Ezra’s hand. As a callused, tanned hand covered his own smaller, fair one, Ezra thought that he detected a fine tremor in the handshake and a flash of pain in his uncle’s hazel eyes.

Chris’s grip strengthened and golden green orbs were clear when he said, "Nice to meet you, Ezra."

Ezra’s response of "Nice to meet you, sir." was met with "Call me Chris." The little one nodded, slightly disappointed that the man had not asked him to call him uncle. Ezra buried the feeling by picking up his suitcase and then looked up at his mother.

Maude gestured to the porch. Ezra obeyed her unspoken command and walked toward the front of the house. Leo raced past the little boy onto the porch and parked himself next to a cushion-covered wooden swing. On the other side of the front door, four comfortable chairs arced around the verandah. Ezra had mounted the steps and now stood on one side of the porch, uncertain of which seat he should take. He did not want to antagonize his uncles, especially if he was going to spend the summer with them.

Before Maude could reprimand the little boy, Chris scooped up the little one and settled Ezra on the nearest comfortable chair. The blond man set the suitcase on the ground. "Why don’t you stay out here and keep Leo company while your Mother, Buck and I talk inside." Larabee commented gruffly. Chris and Maude walked into the house. Buck winked at the boy as he followed the other two adults into the ranch house. Ezra gazed at the closed door in befuddlement. None of his other ‘relatives’ had treated him so well upon meeting him. /Maybe it will be different, here,/ thought Ezra to himself. Ezra felt a heaviness on his leg. Leo had lain his head on the boy’s khaki-clad knee. The russet-haired child’s hand absently scratched behind the Mastiff’s ears while the child‘s jade eyes were glued to the door. Leo whuffed happily then stretched himself over the boy’s feet and closed his eyes instantly. When Leo moved off the little one’s leg, the dog’s snout had accidentally pushed a deck of cards out of Ezra’s shirt pocket. The deck fell into Ezra’s lap. Ezra opened the well-used deck and began to expertly shuffle the cards.

Chapter 3

When the adults came out of the house a little while later, a small, brown-furred blur zipped out the front door before it closed completely. To avoid tripping over the animal, Chris clutched at the thing closest to him, which just happened to be the chair that Ezra was sitting in. Ezra had been sitting in the corner of the chair with his head bent over a deck of playing cards that were spread out next to him in a game of solitaire.

With all the commotion, the little boy snapped his head up and hit the side of the blond man’s jaw with the top of his russet-covered head. Emerald irises rounded in fright and he stiffened because strong, wiry, muscled arms encircled him. Chris had instinctively dropped his arms around the child so that the little one wouldn’t tumble out of the chair and hurt himself. "You okay, Ezra?" huffed the fair-headed man. Meanwhile Buck had knelt down on one knee to catch Brownie who had been chewing on one of Leo’s ears. The American Mastiff placidly let the energetic, chocolate-colored Shar-Pei puppy gnaw. Buck picked up the puppy and held her with one long arm. Buck’s other arm reached out to steady both the blond man and the wary child. "I am fine, sir and I apologize for my clumsiness," replied the boy. "Isn’t your fault, Ezra." Chris groused as he released Ezra from his hold and stood up straight. Hazel eyes glared amber fire at the still-kneeling Buck and Brownie. "If that da... darn dog of Buck’s hadn’t escaped his room and dashed outside, none of this would have happened," grumbled the disgruntled man.

Both Buck and Brownie were unfazed by the blond man’s glare. The blue-eyed man was more preoccupied by the gleam of panic which had flared in the little boy’s big green eyes when Ezra and Chris had accidentally collided. Wilmington-Larabee wanted to reassure the child so his blue gaze stared squarely into jade green ones and Buck began to speak. "He... heck Ezra, Chris is right. It isn’t your fault that this squirming little lady, whose name is Brownie by the way, darted outside." Blue irises glanced admiringly at Ezra. "You’re a tough little fellow. You accidentally knocked into Chris’s iron-cast jaw and you’re still in one piece. That don’t happen too often when somebody bangs into Ol’ Chris here. I’ve seen grown men crumple against him in a fight and I’ve seen ‘em shrivel under his glare."

"Old?" growled the hazel-eyed man at his brother while Ezra swiveled his face toward Larabee to confirm Buck’s comment.

"Truly?" A shy whisper emerged from the little one’s lips.

"Truly." vowed the blond man and Buck added his own "Yup."

The moment was broken by Maude as she slid into the driver’s seat of the automobile. "Ezra, it is gratifying to observe you and your uncles getting along so well. I am certain that it will be a summer to remember."

Maude did not know how prophetic her words would be.

Ezra slid off the chair and nearly skidded on one of the playing cards. The deck had flown off the chair at the impact of Ezra and Chris’s collision and were now strewn all over the place. Both Uncles reached out to help the boy. Ezra flew down the steps, "Mother, wait..." falling from the young Southerner’s lips. His words were interrupted by the Seville’s engine purring to life. Then from inside the car, an elegantly gloved hand waved for a moment before the blonde woman drove the car down the lane. Meanwhile Buck had opened the front door of the house, put Brownie inside and admonished the puppy to behave. As the tall man was swinging the door closed, Leo slipped inside. Buck had turned to stand by Chris’s side at the same moment in which Maude had driven off. Hazel and blue eyes looked at each other, then at the speck down the road and finally at the chestnut-haired little boy standing forlornly in the middle of the yard.

Boots clomped off the porch.

Neither the blond nor the brunet man heard Ezra whisper, "Mother... wait, I want to say goodbye." The little one’s emerald irises focused on the red dot in the road. The Larabee men flanked the child on either side. Chris’s hand hovered behind Ezra‘s shoulder blades . Midnight blue eyes glanced knowingly at amber ones. Golden green ones met the gaze with a conflicted one of his own. Buck’s hand rested on Ezra’s shoulder. Chris’s rough-worked hand fleetingly brushed against the boy’s spine for a moment before the lean man stepped away from the child. The mustached man squeezed the narrow shoulder under his callused palm once and then let go. The two men headed over to the hitching post. Over his shoulder, Chris threw out, "Ezra, while Buck and I tend to the horses, why don’t you pick up all the playing cards littering the porch." The chestnut-haired boy immediately jogged back to the verandah and began the task asked of him.

Chapter 4

Ezra had carefully packed away the dog-eared deck of playing cards in his shirt pocket. The little one glanced toward the stables but saw no sign of either man. Emerald-colored irises gazed about the porch and yard until it lit upon a gorgeous Appaloosa running loose in the pasture. Eager steps led the curious child to the edge of the porch railing. A cinnamon-covered head cocked slightly to better study the equine. Suddenly Ezra turned and hurried over to his suitcase. Fast hands opened the suitcase and rapidly pulled out two things. After he had closed his valise, the boy headed back toward the horse with pencil and sketchpad in hand. Ezra used an overturned milk crate as a table and a cushion pulled off the swing as a chair. Once the child was set, he began to draw with sure, quick strokes.

When Chris and Buck returned from the barn, they found the little one engrossed in his task. A little pink tongue peeked out of the corner of Ezra’s mouth and his eyes kept darting to the Appaloosa as the pencil in his fingers danced over the paper. The blond and brunet man exchanged a look then walked around to stand between the house and the pasture. So the next time Ezra looked up he saw his uncles. The boy immediately stopped sketching and hurriedly closed the pad.

"Don’t have to stop on our account, pard," Buck drawled as he hitched one booted leg onto the Porch and leaned an elbow on the porch railing and grinned down at Ezra.

"We didn’t want to startle you. Just wanted to let you know we were back from the stables," added Chris at the same time he strode to the chair Ezra had been sitting in earlier and sat down. Larabee then stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles.

As the child began to explain that he was finished with his task, a white Buick drove up to the house. A man dressed in a plaid suit stepped out of the car, saying something about his uncles being men of means and would they like to... He never got to finish his sentence because Chris and Buck drew ’Peacemakers’ from their gun belts and fired at a point above the man’s head. The man scurried back into his car and sped off. The cinnamon-haired, emerald-orbed boy stared at his uncles in wide-eyed shock and then the little one scooted further back into the shadows of the porch when the boy spied another vehicle coming to a stop in front of the house. Another man, rounder than the first got out and began a spiel about the Larabees being rich men who needed some of the gadgets, the fat man had in the trunk of his car. Once again two shots rang out, this time aimed over the rear of the car. The round man also took the hint and hurried off.

"Traveling salesmen," spat Chris at the same time he re-holstered his weapon.

" Must be new to the area, the others know to stay away unless it has something to do with horses," chuckled Buck as he too put his gun away. Ezra came forward in time to hear the words of his uncles and breathed a silent sigh of relief.

Quietly the boy asked, {"May I go inside and watch television?"} By this time, Chris stood over the little one and reached out to help Ezra up. The blond replied, {"We don’t have one."} Ezra’s irises rounded once more but he wordlessly entered the house as his uncle Buck held the door open for him and his uncle Chris followed him inside.

Chapter 5

Ezra carried his valise past his mustached uncle who cradled the handset of a black rotary telephone against his ear. Chris went on into the kitchen to prepare supper for three. Buck yelled out to his brother that last night’s storm had knocked the phone line out.

The refrigerator door closing and a grumble answered him. The tall, brunet man hung up the telephone and turned to find the little one standing still by the oversized sofa. The big man’s heart melted at the sight of the child clutching the suitcase to his small chest.

A large hand reached for the boy’s valise as the raven-haired man said, "Why don’t we put your things on the sofa and see what Chris is cookin’ up before Leo and Brownie there..." Wilmington-Larabee nodded his head as the two dogs rushed past him, "decide that our supper is tastier than theirs." Twinkling blue eyes winked at the boy while they headed into the kitchen.

Leo and Brownie had their noses buried deeply in their bowls set down by the back door. Across the room, three places were set out on a small, old-fashioned wooden table. Four matching chairs circled the table. The mustached man did a sudden u-turn and strode back to the living room. Chris who was now wearing "A kiss the chef" apron over his jeans and shirt ignored his brother and continued to slide a steak onto a second plate. The blond bend his head to the left. The child queried if that was to be his seat. At Chris’s nod, Ezra began to pull the chair out away from the table so he could sit down on it properly.

A chestnut-covered head looked over at the lean man when Chris muttered a quiet expletive and then called the child’s name. "Ezra?" A small quiver of anxiety threaded through Ezra’s,

"Yes sir?" The blond finished putting the serving platter down on the unused side of the table and then arched a fair eyebrow before replying, "First off it’s all right to call me Uncle Chris." At the boy’s understanding nod, Larabee continued, "You aren’t allergic to meat or are vegetarian are you?" Ezra’s negative answer had Chris sighing out a, "Good."

While the lean man cut the thick piece of steak on the plate in front of him in half, he asked the boy to give him the still empty plate on the table. The little one handed him the dish and was amazed when his relative slid one half of the sliced meat onto the previously bare plate.

Ezra’s mouth formed a perfect "O" when his uncle asked him if the half was enough meat for the child’s supper.

Ezra could not remember the last time someone had inquired after his sustenance.

A stunned, "Yes" was interrupted by Buck’s arrival back into the kitchen. Buck plunked a red cushion down onto Ezra’s chair. "Thought you might like a little more height on your chair, pard so I brought you the cushion from the old rocking chair in the living room." An automatic thank you fell from the chestnut-haired boy as he settled himself into the seat.

Once Ezra had done that, the tall man gently pushed the child and chair toward the table. The corners of his mustache curled up as Buck watched the blond man. //Chris is in big brother mode. We only had two steaks left in the freezer, so he’s sharing his steak with the little one. The old dog doesn’t even realize that he’s cutting Ezra’s steak into smaller, bite-size pieces. Now Ezra looks like he’s been pole-axed.// The blue-eyed man silently vowed to show the bewildered boy that the little one had family who loved him. "Peas and Cart’s, Ezra?" drawled the raven-haired man as he ladled vegetables onto the plate in front of him.

"Excuse me?" queried the little Southerner.

Chris grunted and responded before Buck could, "When Buck was little he couldn’t pronounce peas and carrots correctly. He would ask for peas and carts. He still does."

"Oh," whispered the emerald-eyed boy and then he said yes to the vegetables. As Buck spooned the "peas and carts" on the dish, Chris poured three glasses of iced tea.

Chapter 6

After the meal, Chris returned to the barn and the horses. While Ezra’s uncle Buck was cleaning up the kitchen, the mustached man rummaged a large, bright-colored flashlight out a kitchen drawer and gave it to the little one, so that the boy could make his way up to his new room. The little one assured the raven-haired man that he could settle in his room on his own but thanked the big man for the offer of assistance.

Buck shook his head and told Ezra that he would be up to the tower room later and say goodnight.

Ezra held the big, orange flashlight in his right hand, steadily lighting the way up the twisting staircase leading up to the tower room, which the uncles had decided was to be to the child’s room. Little feet climbed up the steps carefully. The boy didn’t want to take a misstep and fall down the long flight of stairs. Ezra finally reached the old wooden door that his Uncle Chris had described to him during their dinner. A strong, little hand turned the old-fashioned knob on the door and the door creaked open. Emerald irises stared in amazement at the room. Moonlight glowed through the large, curtain-less, window at the back of the room, illuminating the antique gold brass bed next to the window. A long, deep wooden treasure chest decorated with stamps of many foreign countries stood at one side of the bed. Boxes and crates overflowing with books, knick-knacks and other items were piled up next to the chest. On the other side of the bed, pushed up against the wall was a writing desk. A broken chair tilted precariously next to it, one of the chair’s leg scraped the doorframe of the door leading into a small bathroom. //Thank goodness... We have indoor plumbing,// thought the little one as he noted the commode, sink and claw-footed bathtub. A quick turn of the brass tap of the faucet revealed running water. Another flick of the boy’s wrist and the water was turned off. After exiting the bathroom, Ezra opened his suitcase which was laying on top of the dusty desk and pulled his toothbrush out of the valise. He then reentered the bathroom and brushed his teeth.

Uncle Buck knocked on the child’s door at the same time that Ezra finished buttoning his silk, blue pajama top. Indigo blue eyes scanned the room as Buck strode forward to strip the musty blanket off the old bed after a newer patch-quilt blanket and pillow was placed in the boy’s arms. "We’ll help ya clean out the room tomorrow, pard. Meanwhile I thought you’d like new bedding," drawled the man as he worked. Minutes later, the child slid into his new bed.

Chris came up to the room in time to help Buck pull the star-patch quilt over Ezra. Hazel irises glanced around and his gaze lingered on the chest for a long moment.

Buck’s hand ruffling Ezra’s hair before wishing the little one sweet dreams and Ezra’s unconscious squawk of surprise refocused the blond man’s thoughts. Dark blue and amber orbs studied the boy’s now impassive face. Both men simultaneously asked the child if he was okay. Buck apologized to the little one for touching him and scaring him. A little voice replied that he was all right and that no apology was necessary. It was just that he was unused to being ‘tucked in.’ "I enjoyed the sensation," the Southerner admitted shyly.

A grin as big as the Rockies, lit Wilmington-Larabee’s face. Chris’s wink and gruff "Goodnight, kid." echoed in the room long after the blond led his younger brother out of the tower room.

But the little one could not sleep; he tossed about on the bed for a few minutes and then sat up. Green eyes going curiously to the pad-locked treasure chest. The hand-held lantern which his uncles had left sitting on top of the chest provided enough light by which Ezra could read the names of the countries stamped all over the chest. "Monaco, Algeria, Egypt, Africa." Breathed out the boy when he knelt on the rug in front of the mysterious box. He tugged on the old lock but it didn’t budge.

His mother had taught Ezra lock-picking skills at a very early age. He got up to get his tools from his suitcase when his hand accidentally knocked loose one of the bed knobs and out rattled a key, falling onto the floor. The child fell to his knees again, picked up the key and eagerly opened the lock. Holding the lantern in one hand, Ezra peered into the chest and saw sand. Seconds later, the chestnut-haired boy’s free hand sifted through the grains of sand until his fingers brushed against something solid. Fingers curled around the edge of an antique photo frame. Emerald orbs stared at the black and white photo of two beautiful, dark-haired brides.

Chapter 7

Ezra was tracing the photograph with a slow finger when he heard the ranch house front door slam. Resting the antique photo frame on the bed, Ezra ran to the window. The child glimpsed his Uncle Chris who was clad in gray long-johns stalking across the yard. //Where is my Uncle heading and why is he carrying a plunger?// whirled through the Southerner’s brain even as his feet flew after his relative. The jade-eyed, wide-awake boy noted the bright starlight which glinted off the lake as he called out, "Uncle Chris?" Ezra spun around when he heard footsteps to his right.

Larabee passed the child and waded into the lake, brandishing the plunger about as if it was a sword.

A cinnamon-covered head dipped down ward when he felt a furry tail brush against his knee. Leo looked up at him and sat down by the boy’s feet. Ezra squatted by the dog and whispered, {"Is Uncle Chris prone to sleepwalking?"} Half the night, the boy and the dog watched the blond man fighting phantom foes. The lean man finally marched back to the house. A sleepy Ezra and Leo trailed after him.

The next morning, a drowsy Ezra followed a jaunty whistling into the kitchen and found his Uncle Buck making breakfast. Buck’s head turned and he said, "Mornin’ Ezra."

"Good Morning." mumbled Ezra around a yawn. The little one climbed into his cushioned chair and rubbed the sleep from his eyes while the mustached man put a ‘happy face’ plate in front of the boy. Two over easy egg ’eyes’, a hash brown nose and a strip of bacon mouth greeted the emerald-eyed child.

Ezra had not looked at his dish yet, he was gazing thoughtfully at the tall man at his side. //Did Uncle Buck know about Uncle Chris’s nocturnal excursions?// wondered the little one. He was about to ask his uncle when the gleam of a plain gold wedding band hanging on a thin cord around Buck’s neck caught his attention. An emerald gaze became more speculative as he continued to stare at his raven-haired relative.

Buck’s reply was lost in Chris’s entrance into the room. Chris’s grouse of ///New mattress and I’m still feeling sore in the mornings/// before he stretched and plopped into his chair. Amber eyes narrowed at Buck squatting by Ezra’s chair and questioning "Ezra?" The little Southerner had by this time seen his breakfast and responded, "Do you always have this cheerful of a disposition in the morning?" Hearty laughter boomed from Buck and a bark of mirth escaped from Chris’s lips at the child’s question.

A little while later, Ezra flanked by his Uncle Chris on one side and his uncle Buck on the other strode into the barn.

Chapter 8

The barn was big and spacious with twenty stalls all together. Ten on each side of the barn. A bridle and tack room sat at the far end of the right side of the barn. Nine of the stalls were occupied at the moment. Seven of the horses were stabled permanently at the ranch while two were waiting to be picked up by their new owners. There were two black geldings, one with a white blaze on his front; the Appaloosa; a Palomino; a bay-colored horse; a sorrel; a white gelding and two dark brown mares.

Chris and Buck introduced the child to the horses and it was love at first sight. Ezra was enchanted with the animals. He was especially fascinated by three horses. Chris's black gelding, Buck's white gelding and the Appaloosa he had seen earlier. Questions spilled from the usually quiet child as he learned how to put down fresh hay for the horses. He was a bit disappointed to learn that "Cocoa", the Appaloosa was already sold.

Larabee sat Ezra on the ledge of the door to Hawk's' box. A callused hand splayed across the boy's back and then Chris whistled to his horse. The big black wandered over and nudged the blond. The lean man grumbled good-naturedly and told Ezra to feed the animal. A delighted giggle escaped Ezra when Hawk lipped up the carrot in the child's palm. Sparkling emerald eyes met indulgent hazel ones. Once the gelding had finished his treat, Chris instructed Ezra to rub the black's neck and Ezra did. The little one was thrilled by the equine's rumble of pleasure. Chris said Hawk liked him at the same time that Buck joined them. The raven-haired man happily greeted the trio.

Buck was waiting for Ezra and asked him if he wanted to help him brush his horse's coat. A cinnamon-colored head bobbed enthusiastically. Ezra followed Buck into the stall across from Hawk's. Beau perked up his ears at Buck's entrance and took his white snout out of the food trough in the corner of his box. The brunet man asked the child a question. Ezra nodded his head tentatively. A few seconds later, Buck swung Ezra onto his broad shoulders and strode over to Beau. A Southern drawl whispered, "Hello Beau." and a little hand stretched out and petted the big white horse's nose. Beau neighed softly.

Buck's cheery "Well now that we're all getting along so well, why don't we curry Old Beau's coat?" The big man set the child down and then retrieved the brushes that they would need to curry the gelding's coat. Emerald eyes carefully observed his Uncle's movements when Buck showed the little one how to brush Beau's coat. The mustached man handed his nephew the smaller brush and watched as small hands brushed the gelding's foreleg with soft, smooth strokes. After the fourth stroke, a chestnut head tilted upward and before Ezra could ask, Buck told him that he was doing a mighty fine job. Jade irises glowed with pride as Ezra turned back to the task at hand. Wilmington-Larabee brought Ezra a stool so that the boy could reach Beau's flanks. Once the child was settled on the stool, Buck ambled to the gelding's other side and began brushing the horse's other flank. The two worked in amicable silence until Ezra broke the silence with a question. "Uncle Buck?"

"Yeah Ezra?" replied the tall man.

"How long have you and Uncle Chris had the ranch?"

"About a year, I reckon," answered the mustached man.

Ezra kept smoothing out Beau's coat as he casually asked, "What did you two do before then?"

"Well now little pard, that's a mighty long story," responded Buck.

Chris had finished his chores and poked his fair head around Beau's stall in time to hear Buck's last comment and the blond said, "And you don't have time to be telling it now, Buck. We better get to town and to Mrs. Potter's before she closes."

Chapter 9

Ezra helped his uncles put up the brushes and the stool. After they cleaned up and they were walking to the truck, Larabee explained that Mrs. Potter owned a general store in the town of Four Corners and that's where they usually bought their supplies. Chris sat Ezra in the center of the truck's front seat and then slid into the driver's side of the old, red truck. Ezra stared as his Uncle Buck patted the truck's hood and told the vehicle, "Now Lady, you're looking good but when I get through with ya, you're gonna look mighty fine."

Uncle Chris rolled his eyes and snorted, "You and your cars, Buck." when Uncle Buck climbed into the passenger side. The mustached man gave his brother a wide grin and then winked at Ezra. Buck then asked the little one if he liked cars. Ezra quietly admitted to a fascination with horses and cars.

Twinkling blue eyes met worried emerald green ones. A large, but gentle hand ruffled Ezra's hair while Buck replied that it was good then that he and Chris knew a bit about both of those things and that they would be happy to pass the knowledge along to a little tyke like Ezra. Big green eyes held indigo blue ones while a small hand tried to finger comb his mussed-up hair and huffed "Uncle Buck, I am not little nor a tyke." The child had to concede agreement to his mustached uncle's response. He and even his Uncle Chris were shorter in height and size compared to the raven-haired man.

While Chris drove, he also laughed silently to himself as Ezra and Buck verbally wrangled over Buck's choices of nicknames for Ezra. 'Tyke, squirt, short-stuff, half-pint, munchkin and were all firmly rejected. Buck and Ezra finally settled on 'pard.'

Buck explained that he, Chris and Ezra would all be living and working at the ranch together so that made them partners or 'pards', as well as family. Ezra was secretly thrilled by Wilmington-Larabee's words and gave his brunet uncle a genuine, dimpled smile. Buck's own mouth curled into an answering grin before holding out his hand which engulfed Ezra's s hand and they shook on it.

A moment or two later, the child frowned as he thought of something. When the truck stopped at a red light a few blocks away from Gloria's store, Chris looked down because he felt a little hand gently tugging at the belt loop of his blue jeans. At the questioning glance of hazel eyes, a somewhat apprehensive Ezra asked Chris, "Uncle Chris, do you concur with Uncle Buck and I? Am I your 'pard' too?" The blond man swallowed the lump in his throat when he gruffly replied that yes he did consider the child as such. Ezra beamed at the hazel-eyed man who quickly turned his attention back to driving when an irate driver behind them honked his horn as the red light turned green. Through the reflection of the passenger side window, Wilmington-Larabee's indigo blue eyes tracked his brother's white-knuckled grip on the truck's steering wheel. And Buck could feel the warmth of the boy's hand against the belt loops of his own jeans

The little one happily kept his fingers gripped around the belt loops of his uncles' blue jeans until the truck finally stopped in front of a large store on Main Street. Ezra craned his neck to curiously stare out the front windshield.

Chapter 10

Ezra found himself securely held in Chris's arms while the trio walked the long, crowded, length of the parking lot. From his new perspective, the little one was able to observe a few of the shops and stores on Main Street near "Potters." Larabee let the boy down by the door while Buck got a shopping cart. Ezra sat in front of the cart and for the first time went shopping with his uncles. It was quite an adventure. In the groceries section, Chris and Buck threw some steaks, chicken, chicken broth, tomato soup, bread, pork chops, a bag of potatoes, crackers, noodles, some ears of corn, apricots, dates, and milk into the basket. The eggs were gently placed between the steaks and pork chops. Larabee lowered his eyes to the list in one hand while Ezra gazed at his Uncle Buck when the mustached man gave him a pat on the hand and said, "I'm going to get you a surprise. Be right back." Wide green eyes looked from his Uncle Buck's disappearing form to his Uncle Chris but the blond man was staring at his Uncle Buck too.

Buck wandered out of the aisle. Hazel irises made sure his brother's broad back disappeared around the corner and then snatched a couple of lima-bean cans off the grocery shelf and hid them behind the potatoes. A throaty chuckle behind them had Ezra and his Uncle Chris whipping their heads around. A brownish-blond, long-haired, blue-eyed, wiry young man leaned against their cart. Chris straightened up, walked over to his friend and clapped the younger man's shoulder, hard. A still-laughing Vin Tanner, huffed out, "Chris, you know you still won't get Buck to eat those lima beans. He doesn't like them."

"But this time, he isn't going to throw them back onto the shelf because you're going to buy them and bring them when you come for dinner tonight," replied Chris with a smirk. Strong hands rooted out the cans of lima beans and handed them over to his neighbor. Tanner shook his head ruefully and dropped them into his basket which was parked opposite of Larabee's. "And Buck will eat them, he just won't know that they'll be mixed into my famous chicken noodle casserole," added Chris. "Chef's secret, right Ezra?" A golden green orb winked at the chestnut-haired little boy. A cinnamon-colored head nodded back. Vin snorted and then pointedly gazed at the older man. Chris's answering blank look faded as the blond man realized that he had not yet introduced Ezra and Vin. "Ezra, this is our (your Uncle Buck's and my) friend, neighbor and sometimes ranch-hand, Vin Tanner." The little one extended his hand out and the long-haired man firmly shook his hand as Larabee continued, "Vin, this is our nephew, Ezra P. Standish who will be staying the summer with me and Buck."

"Nice to meet you, Ezra. Your uncles can be a handful. So, if you need me, just holler, all right?" drawled the Texan. Ezra controlled his laughter because he wasn't quite sure how his uncle would take it, but some of the laughter sparkled in his bright green eyes.

The tracker smiled at the little boy while Chris sarcastically said, "Very funny, Tanner. Let's get out of this aisle before Buck comes back and finds us here."

As the trio passed the toy aisle, Larabee slowed down and asked the little one if he wanted a toy. For a long moment, emerald irises opened wide and small pearly teeth gnawed on a bottom lip. Ezra finally whispered a bit daringly, "May I please have a book instead, Uncle Chris?" The blond man was not immune to the wistful note in the child's voice and turned into the magazine and book section of the store which just happened to be next to the toy aisle.

The loaded cart stopped in front of the children's books. Ezra's eyes lit up when Chris told him to pick out the book which he liked the best. Green orbs quickly scanned the full shelves and gleamed when they landed on one in particular. "Uncle Chris, may I please have "The Black Stallion" by Walter Farley?" asked Ezra. Larabee's lips quirked upwards when he gave the hardcover book to the boy and Ezra clutched it joyfully to his chest. Then the emerald-eyed, chestnut-haired child flashed his Uncle and Mr. Tanner a blinding smile.

Chapter 11

Buck returned at that moment, carrying a beautiful, soft-looking, golden brown comforter. Walking on the right side of the raven-haired, mustached man was another big man with gray hair and blue-gray eyes. The gray-haired man held two, big, feather-down pillows. When he saw what the little one had hugged to his chest, Buck laughed. "That was my favorite book when I was little."

"Yeah, and you told Dad that you wanted to grow up and become a jockey." replied Chris.

Two adult voices chorused, "You wanted to be a jockey?" while a little voice said, "But you're very tall and jockeys are short."

Buck Wilmington-Larabee squared his six-foot-two height and glared at the chuckling trio of Chris, Vin and Josiah. Then midnight blue irises caught the surprised look on the boy's face. A rueful grin slashed across the big man's mouth when he responded to Ezra, "You're right about that, pard so my growth spurt at fourteen took care of that dream."

The child reached out and small but strong fingers curled around Buck's sleeve by the man's elbow. Ezra earnestly told the mustached man, "You are still good with the horses and Beau loves you very much." Four hearts constricted at the little one's sincere words. Buck handed the comforter over to Chris. Then the raven-haired man proceeded to cover Ezra's hand with his own larger one, squeezed it and hoarsely thanked Ezra for the compliment.

Chris diffused the emotional moment by asking his brother about the bedding. Buck replied that it reminded him of Africa and that he thought that their nephew Ezra might like it. An excited, "You were in Africa all these years?" collided with a deep, "Nephew?"

"Africa, Algiers, Egypt, Istanbul, Monaco, etc... wherever they needed us," answered Chris.

Before Ezra could question who 'they' were, his uncle Buck was introducing him to Mr. Josiah Sanchez, a former preacher that was now a teacher at the newly built school in Four Corners. Ezra liked the man's deep, rumbling voice and he was a friend of his uncles. Josiah asked the child what grade he was in and the little boy said he would start the third grade at the end of summer. Sanchez thought //If Ezra stays past the summer, I'll be his teacher next year.// Josiah came back to the present when he heard the Larabees ask Vin and him to come and help clean out Ezra's new room... the tower room of the ranch.

Back at the ranch a short time later, Vin's Jeep and Josiah's Suburban were parked on either side of the red truck. Four men and one little boy had been busy. They had tackled the bathroom first, and now were dealing with the bedroom proper. Vin and Josiah had carried out the boxes of books and knick-knacks littering Ezra's new room while Buck and Chris had taken out the writing desk and broken chair. Ezra had carefully sorted the contents of the drawers of the writing desk into a big, empty box. Once that was done, Ezra and Buck took the bare drawers to the old garage. The raven-haired man could use the drawers for his tools.

Ezra's eyes rounded as he saw several cars and lots of auto parts housed in the building. His uncle Buck laughed and said that he liked to 'tinker' a bit. Ezra giggled in agreement and because he thoroughly enjoyed the piggyback ride that his Uncle Buck gave him on the way back to the house.

Then Chris and Buck tore off the old mattress of the antique bed. The two brothers took out the old mattress and hauled the blond man's still-good but unused one to Ezra's room. Meanwhile, the little one and Vin swept the hardwood floor where the desk and chair had been. Once that had been done, Vin and Josiah brought in a small chest of drawers that Chris had carved a few months back but still had to stain. The two men placed it where the desk had been. Ezra admired its simple beauty and gasped when Vin told him that his uncle Chris had carved it. Emerald orbs gazed at the lean man fighting the bedsprings of the old bed to fit the large mattress onto it.

Standish happily folded his socks and underclothes into separate drawers while Vin and Josiah hung dark blue curtains on the little one's window. The curtains had been a present to Josiah from his sister Hannah whom Josiah had just visited. The gray-haired man still had the curtains in the trunk of his car and gave them to Chris and Buck when the boy had asked his uncles about drapes for the window. A few minutes later Chris was slipping on the chocolate-brown pillowcases onto the pillows while Buck wrestled with a tangled edge of the comforter. On his way to the closet, Ezra stopped and gazed at the graceful gazelles abounding on the bedspread.

The little one mumbled to himself, "Africa," and then continued to the closet located at the end of the room, near the window. He had just opened the closet door and spied a Santa Claus suit hanging at the far end of the closet when he and the others heard a car honk outside.

Chapter 12

The emerald-eyed boy had just opened the closet door and spied a Santa Claus suit hanging at the far end of the closet when he and the others heard a car honk outside. Vin, who was nearest the window, poked his head out, saw who it was and then told the room in general, "It's Steven, Mary and Billy Travis."

Chris and Buck nodded and the blond man said that they were probably here to pick up Orin's horse, Cocoa, on his way out of Ezra's room. Buck followed, leaving Ezra, Vin and Josiah behind. Tanner and Sanchez were about to carry the treasure chest out but set it down again when they had heard the car. Ezra was curious about the Travis' but neither of his uncles had told him to come down with them. The little boy had been well-schooled in staying out of sight when his mother entertained company so the little one settled himself on the bed and began toying with his deck of cards.

At that moment, Brownie came into the room and snatched one of Ezra's slippers that were at the edge of the bed. Ezra chased after the dog, Vin and Josiah raced after the boy. Brownie ran out of the slightly ajar kitchen door and into the yard. Pumping little legs skidded to a halt in front of a grinning, sandy-haired man, an elegant, blonde woman and a bouncing fair-headed boy watching Uncle Chris and Uncle Buck loading Cocoa into the trailer behind the car.

"Hello, who are you?" called out the brown-haired, bearded man. Big, emerald-green irises stared at them warily.

Vin and Josiah turned the corner and a relieved rumble of "Ezra, there you are," exhaled from Sanchez's lips. Vin and Josiah now flanked the russet-haired child on either side.

"Ezra?" asked a puzzled Steven Travis.

His wife, Mary suddenly said, "Are you Ezra Standish, Maude's son?" Mary had heard rumors about Maude and her child throughout the years from mutual acquaintances of theirs.

At the emerald-eyed boy's slight nod, Steven queried a bit sharply, "Maude? Is my cousin here?" Maude and Steven did not get along.

Steven and Maude were actually third cousins because Steven's father, Orin Travis was a first cousin to Chris and Maude's biological and Buck's adoptive mother. The judge and his wife, Evie, had lived in Four Corners for a time but the judge's duty had taken them to Denver. However their son, Steven, still lived in Four Corners. He owned and ran the town newspaper, "The Clarion."

When Chris and Buck approached their relatives, Josiah and Vin left to continue to look for Brownie. Buck responded to Steven's question. "No, Maude isn't here. She left Ezra to visit with us this summer." The raven-haired, mustached man ruffled his nephew's hair and Chris's fingers skimmed over the little one's shoulder as the Larabee men stopped on either side of Ezra. Steven pursed his lips and Mary had a disbelieving look on her face.

A cinnamon-covered head tilted upward and asked permission to look for the Shar-Pei puppy that had taken his slipper. At his uncles' nods, Ezra dashed off toward the barn and met the long-haired tracker at the barn doors. Chris and Buck saw the wiry Texan shake his head no at the boy, before they, Steven and Mary headed inside the house.

Billy Travis bounded onto the front porch and sat down on one of the empty chairs set around the porch. The blond boy then opened up a pocketbook about horses and began to read.

Ezra waved at Vin as the man left in his jeep because the long-haired man was late to Mz Nettie's. Mr. Tanner should have already been mending fences as of ten minutes ago. Emerald orbs noted Josiah coming out of Uncle Buck's garage and sighed at the adult's negative shrug of shoulders. The gray-haired man strode over to the child standing in the middle of the yard. Sanchez squatted down to Ezra's level and spoke quietly to the boy for a few moments. The little one nodded and headed to the front porch when he heard a low growl floating out from under the porch on the side of the house. Ezra bent down and saw Brownie happily chewing on the stolen slipper and Leo stretched out next to the chocolate-colored puppy. Brownie's tail thumping Leo's flank with every nip of the footwear.

Ezra closed his eyes briefly, then straightened up, climbed up the step of the porch and sat down on a chair that was one over from the chair that Billy was occupying. ///"I read a lot of books too,"/// drawled a soft, Southern accent.

Hopeful, jade green eyes locked with jealous blue eyes while Billy replied, ///Oooh, I am so impressed."/// Then the blond boy went back to his reading.

Ezra tried one more time to be friendly, {"Uncle Buck and Chris told me they were in Africa."

Billy snorted, "That's what they say. My parents are newspaper reporters and they've not found any proof of that claim." Ezra thought about the trunk in his room but kept quiet about it.

The emerald-eyed boy's curiosity was aroused and he asked, "Well then, where were my uncles? Where did they get their money?"

Exasperated blue eyes glanced at the auburn-haired boy while Billy answered, "Mom and Dad figure that your uncles were bank robbers. Twenty years ago there was a slew of bank robberies in the area. The two bank robbers wore disguises and were never caught. They were known as 'the Santa Claus Bandits'."}

A shocked Ezra stared unseeingly at the blond boy as the sight of the Santa Claus suit hanging in his closet flashed through the little Southerner's mind. Ezra stood up and went into the house.

Chapter 13

While the boys were talking, Josiah had slid into the driver's side of his suburban and put the keys into the ignition and the vehicle had coughed, sputtered and had then went completely still. The ex-preacher exhaled patiently and got out of his vehicle and popped open the hood.

Meanwhile, Ezra had entered the house and had crossed the living room to the stairs leading to the tower room when he heard raised voices coming from the kitchen. Ezra stealthily peeked around the kitchen door and saw his two uncles standing side by side and facing him while the Travises had their backs to him and stood in front of the uncles.

{Uncle Chris growled at Steven and Mary, "We didn't ask for the kid but he's here now."

"How long is he going to be here?" snapped Steven.

Midnight blue eyes glared at the bearded man as Buck replied, "His mamma said she'd be back for him at the end of the summer."

Mary groused, "From what I've heard about Maude, he'll be here longer than that. What do you really know about the boy? He could be a pickpocket or something."

Steven said thoughtfully, "You could put him in the orphanage."

Behind the kitchen door, Ezra turned white and he turned to run out of the house. He did not hear his uncles' response over the roaring in his ears.

Chris and Buck scowled at their distant cousins. The blond Larabee snarled, "Whomever the boy is, however long he stays here or what we do with him is our business not yours."

Buck added his own emphatic, "Our concern."

Ezra flew out the front door of the ranch, down the porch steps and into the parked suburban of Josiah Sanchez. Josiah had left the back door of his vehicle open when he had gone to get his tools to fix some loose cables under the hood. The small, silently-sobbing child slipped under an old blanket which was in the trunk. Sanchez closed the hood, threw the tools in the back of the suburban, barely missing the blanket and shut the back door. A few seconds later, Josiah's suburban rumbled down the Larabee's driveway and onto the highway.

Billy stopped playing by the barn and stared in puzzlement at the vehicle that had disappeared down the road. //Why had the auburn-haired little boy come running out of the house like that and why did he leave hidden away in that older man's vehicle?//

Curious, the blond boy entered the house and saw his parents and the Larabees storming out of the kitchen.

"Mom, Dad, that chestnut-haired little boy took off in that big man's big black van," exclaimed Billy.

Buck and Chris froze mid-stride. Hazel and dark blue irises narrowed as they gazed upon the Travis boy while Steven asked, "Did Ezra ask Josiah to take him somewhere?"

Billy shook his head and responded, "No, the boy came running out of the house and then hid in Mr. Sanchez's auto. The big man didn't know that Ezra was in the trunk when he drove away."

Two soft expletives fell from the blond and raven-haired man's lips. Both brothers dashed out the door to their truck only to find that they had a flat tire. Chris barked out, "Your car keys, Steven."

Mary was about to protest but one look at Chris and Buck's faces had her nudging her husband and whispering, "Go with them, I'll call Mr. Wheeler to give Billy and I a ride home."

Steven nodded and as soon as the keys were in his hand, Chris snatched them and headed for the car. Buck slid into the passenger front seat next to his brother, so Steven settled for sitting in the backseat.

Mary made the phone call and then she and her son watched Chris Larabee tear down the road.

Chapter 14

Ezra wriggled out from under the blanket and emerald eyes peered carefully around the empty vehicle and out the window of the back seat. Mr. Sanchez had parked the suburban in front of a small hospital. The little Southerner found that the back door was unlocked and quickly exited Mr. Sanchez's auto. Ezra crouched and crept cautiously across the quiet street to a darkened gasoline station with an old-fashioned phone booth located on one side of the station and near a street light. The runaway child had just ducked into the phone booth when Josiah and a green-clad, tired-looking Afro-American man came out of the hospital. Josiah and the stranger got into the suburban and drove away.

Inside the booth, Ezra stood on the little wooden seat and flipped through the dangling telephone book until he found the telephone number he needed. The little one dug out the change from his pants pockets and anxiously dialed the number. A nice-sounding, female voice answered, "The Crown Hotel, may I help you?"

The chestnut-haired little boy uncharacteristically stuttered, "Maude Standish's room, please."

Norah, the hotel receptionist, checked the hotel's reservations and responded, "There's no one here registered by that name."

Small but strong hands clenched the phone in a punishing grip as the child exhaled, "Maude Simpson? Maude Stanton? Marilyn Stevenson? Madeline Smythe?" At each of the patient hotel clerk's negative replies, Ezra felt his chest tighten and his eyes blinking hard.

"Is she a relative of yours? Do you need to contact her because of an emergency?" questioned the soft-hearted receptionist.

The little one was so distraught that he answered truthfully, "Yes, she is my mother and there's an emergency with my uncles. Mother told me that she would be at the Crown Baron conducting business with the owner of the hotel."

Norah swallowed down her tears as she sadly responded, "I am sorry but that's impossible because our owner has been in Europe for the last month."

A small forehead pressed against the cold, glass pane of the phone booth as Ezra hiccupped a "Thank you anyway," and hung up the telephone.

Chapter 15

Norah was so upset by the call that she had it traced to the town of Four Corners, Colorado. On her dinner break, she contacted the authorities of that town.

"Four Corners Sheriff's Department, Sheriff JD Dunne speaking," said a cheerful voice. The hotel receptionist identified herself and explained the phone call that she had received earlier that evening. Twinkling eyes had dimmed as JD heard the lady's tale. "Thank you, for letting us know, Norah, we'll get right on it." The sheriff jumped from his chair, grabbed his hat, startling his deputy. "Casey, I am going to look for a lost and frightened little boy," he called out as he bolted out the door.

As the Sheriff's car turned onto the street, JD had rolled opened his car window to catch the fine evening breeze when he heard someone yelling his name. When he looked out his window, he saw that it was his best friend, Buck Wilmington-Larabee whom had shouted out for him. JD immediately pulled over to the side of the road and so did Chris Larabee.

Buck got out of Steven's car, met JD halfway between the cars, and quickly outlined the situation to the younger man. Dunne's sharp mind made an instantaneous connection between the little boy that had called the hotel in Denver and the Larabees.

JD interrupted his best friend mid-word and explained about the phone call that he had received. Buck's eyes lightened with hope as JD talked. They spoke for a few more minutes then headed back to their respective cars. A huge smile split Buck's face as he eased his frame back into Travis's passenger seat.

"What?" grunted an impatient Chris Larabee.

Buck said that JD might have a lead as to where the boy was and that the sheriff was going to check it out while they headed to Josiah's house. JD would call them at Josiah's and let them know if he had found Ezra or not. Steven's car had peeled down the street before Buck had finished speaking.

Josiah Sanchez was folding his laundry when he heard the urgent pounding at the front door. The big man went to open the door and found himself with a nearly flattened nose and cheekbone as two hard fists barely missed his face in their frantic greeting. "Chris, Buck, what's wrong?" asked Josiah when he saw the Larabees standing on his doorstep.

Chris detailed the situation in short, terse sentences. The blond finished up with, "Billy Travis told us that he saw Ezra hide in your suburban and then you drove away."

Sanchez ran a shaky hand over a suddenly ashen face and then grabbed his keys off the small bookcase by the door. The three men raced out to the suburban and searched it thoroughly but didn't find anything. Josiah suggested that he go out to Nathan's while the Larabees could go to the hospital, since Josiah had stopped at both places on his way home.

Buck and Chris both nixed this idea because JD was supposed to call Sanchez's house to let them know if the boy had been spotted around the youth shelter in the neighborhood of Purgatory. Dunne thought that the child might be there because of the pay phones which were near the shelter. It only made sense to have someone stay and answer the phone. Chris remembered that Josiah had a pair of walkie-talkies and suggested that they use those to communicate with one another. Josiah and Buck agreed, so the teacher stayed home while the brothers continued their search for their missing nephew.

En route to the hospital, Chris and Buck's walkie-talkie crackled to life and Josiah's regretful rumble related that JD had not found the child. Two pairs of eyes became even more flinty than they already were and two strong jaws clenched even tighter.

Chapter 16

Meanwhile Ezra still sat, hunched over, on the wooden bench of the phone booth with his forehead pressed to the cool window pane of the booth. Tears rolled down his smooth cheeks and his shoulders heaved. Hiccups also punctured the air for the next few minutes. Suddenly, a small hand angrily swiped at wet cheeks while Ezra took a few deep breaths. Then the child raised his head from the window pane and squared his shoulders. Uncharacteristically-clumsy fingers yanked out a page from the telephone book. Ezra studied it and memorized it. He folded it into fourths and put it into his pocket. The little one had pushed open the door of the phone booth when he saw the swirling red lights of a sheriff's car blaze by. The boy slid back into the shadow of the booth until he was certain that the sheriff's car was a few blocks away. Ezra turned and walked the other way. Hiding in the shadows of the trees lining the sidewalk as much as he could, Ezra hurried, it was already early evening and it would be night before long and the little one wanted to leave before nightfall.

Chris braked the car suddenly and stopped. Steven's temple thumped painfully against the back window. Travis had begun to complain but was ignored by both Larabees. Buck rushed out of the vehicle only to return two seconds later and growl at Chris to get out of the now parked car. Chris barked at Steven to stay in the car as Chris slammed the car door shut. Steven muttered to himself, "One day, I'm going to give that boy a piece of my mind."

Ezra sat on a park bench outside the town bus station, stuffing some money in his pocket and dejectedly studying a paper clutched in his hands. {Buck and Chris sat down on either side of the forlorn little boy. Ezra kept his head down, eyes focused on the ripped telephone book page in front of him.

Buck tilted his head down and quietly asked, "Planning your next move? Where do you figure on going?"

Ezra's finger pointed at the map while he answered, "I am going here to area code 415, San Francisco, California."

Chris and Buck exchanged puzzled glances over the child's head. The mustached man continued talking in a deceptively calm voice, "How come you're not heading to Denver where your mamma is?"

Ezra raised his head and stared straight ahead while he replied, "She is not there. She lied. Again."

Chris leaned in closer to Ezra and brushed his shoulder against the little one's. Buck's forearm skimmed against Ezra's arm when the man gazed at his watch. Then Buck said, "Listen, pard, we know you have your heart set on going to San Francisco, but it's late. Chris help me out here."

"It sounds like Ezra has his mind made up. He might need a better map, though," responded Chris.

Buck pointed at the area code map which Ezra still held and replied, "We've got better maps than that one at the house, right Chris?"

Chris answered, "Yeah, a man needs a good map that's for sure."

Ezra admitted in a quavering tone, "I have been to the orphanage before. I don't want to go back."

Buck and Chris pounded their palms against the wooden bench and didn't even flinch. An explosive, "Maude and her lousy maternal instincts," fell from Chris's lips.

Ezra stood up a bit shakily and stated, "I think I should get going. West is this way, right?" Behind the boy, Chris nodded. Buck scowled at his brother and was about to swat Chris on the arm when the honk of Steven's car pierced through the night.

As Buck and Chris stood up behind Ezra, Chris commented, "I'll say one thing for you, Ezra, you sure rile up the relatives."

Buck caught on and tapped the little one on the shoulder. "Listen Ezra, do us a favor. If you come back to the house and stay a while, why our relatives are goin' to hate it. I'll bet that they hate it so much that they'll go away and leave us all alone."

Chris agreed, "It's crazy enough, it just might work."

Buck leaned further into the child's side and added, "Sure. Come on pard, help us out here."

Ezra raised his still-damp jade eyes to look at Chris and then swiveled his head to glance at Buck while the little one replied, "I suppose I could come back for a while, seeing how it is so important."

Chris and Buck smiled gently. Buck wrapped an arm around Ezra's shoulders and Chris splayed a hand against Ezra's back as the trio walked away from the bench.}

Chapter 17

Late the next morning, Chris and Ezra stomped up the steps of the front porch of the ranch and fell onto two vacant chairs. Buck handed out two tall glasses of cool lemonade while Steven and Mary looked on from the two chairs opposite of the ones in which Chris and Ezra were sitting. The blond man finished his drink and placed the glass on the tray table that Buck had placed between some of the chairs and then frowned at Steven and Mary. He was still angry with his cousin for driving off last night before he and Buck had convinced Ezra to come back with them. It had been a good thing that JD had driven by and had been able to give them a ride home. He turned away from them and asked Ezra, {"So, little pard, how‘s the lemonade?"}

Buck grinned to himself because Ezra was still drinking the lemonade thirstily and didn’t reply to his brother’s question right away. It had been a busy morning for the boy, Ezra had helped Chris out in the barn. They had cleaned the stalls, plus fed and watered the horses. In fact, the little one still had some hay in his hair but Buck brushed it out of Ezra’s hair with one hand as his other hand plucked the now empty glass from Ezra’s grasp.

"It was delicious, Uncle Chris," answered Ezra and then flashed a dimpled smile of gratitude at his Uncle Buck.

{Mary squeezed Steven’s hand and Steven cleared his throat before he began to talk.

"Chris, Buck. Dad and Mom loved the horse and they might have another prospective buyer for you. Dad wants you to call him midweek." He saw both brothers nod their heads but they continued to focus their attention on the boy. Travis continued, "Speaking of buyers, have you two had a chance to study the investment proposition I left you last week? Of course, you would be the primary shareholders...."

His voice tailed off as they all heard the engine of a van in the yard. Buck and Chris had risen from their chairs and drawn their rifles when Chris felt Ezra tugging at his arm. Narrowed eyes glanced down and Ezra questioned his uncle, "Why not see what he is selling? What is the use of having lots of money if you’re not going to spend some of it?" A non-committal grunt was his only answer as Larabee aimed his rifle squarely at the salesman. Buck, a few steps ahead and to the left of Chris, also had his weapon sighted on the man but didn’t fire as he saw a piece of cloth waving in the air.

Jock Steele waved a white flag from behind the side of the van while he yelled out, "Don’t shoot.... Don’t shoot. Due to the unsettling nature of our previous encounters, I changed my inventory and brought merchandise that you would be interested in." Buck cocked his head and Chris raised an eyebrow but not a word did they speak. Steele stopped waving the flag and stood up from his crouched position. His voice grew more confident as he continued, "Leather goods are something you and your growing business will need. There are also some other items in which you might be interested."

The Larabees lowered their weapons. Then, they and Ezra approached the side of the van which Jock had opened to reveal saddles, cinches, girths, etc.... Buck and Chris also noted a carefully protected, locked case nestled behind two of the larger saddles. Ezra’s eyes were glued to a beautiful, suede-colored, pony saddle. His uncles saw the little one’s fascination with it.

The Larabees knew that Ezra was going to need a saddle to learn how to ride, so the brothers exchanged glances and then Buck whispered something to the salesman. Jock beamed at the tall man. While Chris hefted Ezra’s saddle from the back of the van, Buck studied a pair of ‘Lightning’ colt revolvers which was what Steele had in the protective case. Buck nodded and began to pull out a wad of money from his wallet.

Mary began to fuss and complain about how she did not want Billy anywhere near guns as she pulled her son to her side. Chris, coming out of the barn heard her and barked, "Then leave."

Mary, whose feelings were hurt, snapped at Steven and Billy to get into their car and they left.}

Chapter 18

That night, a pajama-clad Ezra tried to read a few pages of his new book but his mind kept wandering back to earlier that day. He was still in awe and shock. His uncles had actually bought him a saddle and talked about getting him his own horse. They had mentioned a pony but it was still a horse. He had also had his very first horse riding lesson today. Ezra had ridden with both his Uncle Chris on Hawk and with his Uncle Buck on Beau. It had been frightening and exciting all at the same time. Ezra had flushed with pleasure when both of his relatives had complimented him on his riding. Then, Mr. Tanner, Mr. Sanchez, and Sheriff Dunne had come to dinner which had been quite lively when Uncle Buck had found out about the lima beans.

The little one’s eyes sparkled at the memory then his eyes landed on the closet door. Ezra put the book down on the lid of the trunk, next to the photo frame of the two brides as he climbed out of the bed and ran to the closet. He jerked the Santa Suit off its hanger and folded it up in his arms. The child then crept down the stairs as quietly as he could and snuck out the kitchen door.

Leo and Brownie had been dozing off in the living room, but as soon as they saw the boy cross the room into the kitchen, they got up and followed him.

Ezra threw a glance over his shoulder and saw that it was the dogs behind him. He sighed in relief. His uncles had not discovered him. "Now where is it?" Ezra asked himself as he looked inside the barn for the small shovel which he had used earlier in the day when he had helped his Uncle Chris. He smiled to himself as he found it and carried it outside. The boy walked to a spot between the lake and the barn. He tapped the earth with his foot, turned down to look at the dogs and asked, "This look like a good place?"

Both Leo and Brownie began digging the dirt with their paws. Ezra took that as a yes and began to shovel the earth. While Ezra dug, he explained to Leo and Brownie, {"This is something I’ve got to do because if the police or Mr. Dunne find this Santa Claus costume, the uncles will go to jail and we will be homeless."}

Brownie whimpered and Leo blinked solemnly as the little one quickly buried the Santa suit and hat.

Ezra patted the dirt one last time and threw the shovel toward the barn.

Chapter 19

A few moments later Chris, who was sleepwalking again, passed Ezra and stopped at the edge of the lake. The little Southerner softly said, "Uncle Chris?" and was about to touch the back of his uncle's forearm when a large but gentle hand caught Ezra's smaller one.

{"Don't. I tried to wake him once and he nearly tore my head off. Leave him be for a few minutes. What are you doing out here so late?"} whispered Buck as he guided Ezra away from Chris.

Minutes later, Ezra, Brownie, Buck and Leo sat around a cozy campfire set a few feet behind Chris. Ezra stared at Chris's back and then whispered, {"Uncle Buck, what's wrong with Uncle Chris?"

Buck answered, "Well, we're getting older but inside Chris still has a restless spirit. Chris in his day had more spirit than twenty men." Both Ezra and Buck looked at Chris, quietly standing in front of the lake.

The little one broke the silence as he said, "It looks like he's looking for something." Then the boy glanced at his dark-haired uncle sitting at his side.

Buck nodded and replied, "He's looking for her... his Sarah."} He then unconsciously fingered the plain gold wedding band hanging around his neck.

A soft drawl asking, "Do you look for her too, Uncle Buck?" had the mustached man stilling his movements and looking down in astonishment at his nephew.

A sad tone colored Buck's response, "Sometimes I do, but Inez has been gone a long time now." Wilmington-Larabee swallowed and looked across the lake.

Ezra's eyes sparkled with curiosity as he whispered, {"Tell me?"

Once again, Buck's gaze landed on Ezra. "You want me to tell you a story? Now?" questioned Buck. The little one nodded his head. A chuckle escaped Buck's lips as he continued, "It'll take days." Ezra arched an eyebrow at his uncle. Buck leaned his long body closer to the boy's and began to tell a tale. Ezra, Leo and Brownie all listened intently to Buck's words.

"Chris was always too restless for Texas. He convinced our folks to let us backpack through Europe, the summer after my high school graduation. It was fun and adventurous...." His uncle's story transported Ezra through Europe, from the snow-capped, majestic mountains of the Swiss Alps to the rural beauty of the French countryside. He had visited the bustling city of Paris and was now in the lively port of Marseilles. "Near the docks, there were two girls. Twins and they..." Buck's voice trailed off as he saw big, green eyes staring at him in fascination. A large hand fisted and Wilmington-Larabee coughed against his hand. Then he continued, "Well, it was our last night in Marseilles. We went out to celebrate and ended up at this Cabaret show where some fellows bought us some drinks... strong, strange drinks. When Chris and I woke up we were on a ship bound for North Africa.... We'd been shanghaied."

"Shanghaied?" breathed an awed Ezra.

Buck nodded his head, "Yeah. Right into the French Foreign Legion."

'The boy's imagination had him next to his Uncle Buck's side as they stormed a balcony tower, men streaming behind them. His Uncle Chris was already at the tower. Chris ducked and spun away from an armed assassin vaulting onto the balcony. The cutthroat lunged at the blond man, brandishing a dagger.' Green orbs widened in fright as Ezra visualized 'the sharp blade ready to strike his Uncle Chris a deadly blow. Then his Uncle Buck, who was now right behind the assassin, kicked the legs out from underneath the cutthroat. The killer crashed to the tower roof, his weapon flying over the balcony. Chris and the assassin began to wrestle on the rooftop. Buck couldn't shoot, he might accidentally hit Chris. Larabee and the cutthroat rolled dangerously close to the edge of the tower. Finally, Chris twisted away from his opponent, giving Buck the opportunity for a clear shot at the man fighting his brother. The assassin keeled over the edge of the balcony and fell off the tower. A wide grin spread across Wilmington-Larabee's face as he heard his brother's "Thanks pard," before the two legionnaires jumped into the middle of their unit which was still fighting off attackers at the other end of the tower.'

Ezra had barely taken a relieved breath and scratched Brownie behind the ears before he was once again immersed in another of his uncle's stories.

'It was dark, the moon riding high in the night sky as Buck stealthily crept toward the outermost edge of the enemy's camp. He quickly and expertly set the last explosive charge, then he ran to his mount as fast as his crouched form would allow. He leapt onto the black horse and the steed sprinted off toward the rendezvous point where Chris awaited him. He had ridden less than a couple of yards when gunfire shot the horse out from underneath him. Buck tumbled off his mount and landed face down. The dark-haired legionnaire began to rapidly crawl to the Oasis while bullets peppered the sand around him. Suddenly, he heard the explosives he had set around the perimeter of the camp begin to explode and fires quickly spread throughout the encampment. Buck rolled out of the path of the flames and continued his mad scrabbling upon the sand. A shot whizzed over his shoulder while a curse rent the night sky only to be silenced by the bark of Chris's rifle. Larabee's gun boomed three more times before quieting. The thundering hooves of Chris's white horse charged toward Buck. Chris's wiry arm stretched out and grasped his brother's sturdy, long arm and hauled Buck up behind him. Then Chris's charger was galloping his way out of the burning camp.'

Buck brought Ezra back to the present with, "We fought many battles against overwhelming odds and saved each other's lives countless times. When the war was over, we were offered commissions from the new, North African governments to help end the slave trade." The little one was again in the middle of his uncles' continuing adventures in Africa....

'"Captain" Chris Larabee and "Lieutenant" Buck Wilmington-Larabee crested the dune with their men flanking either side of them. Their horses raced down the hill, right into a group of slave traders. The traders scattered, some reaching for their weapons, some fleeing. Both Buck and Chris had drawn their swords and cut down some of the men aiming guns at them. Their men swarmed over most of the rest of the slavers while Buck and Chris slid off their horses. Larabee and his brother slashed the chains binding the slaves then fought back to back as some foolhardy traders rushed them. Chris and Buck's swords thrust and parried all of their attackers' blows. The freed slaves stared in awe and astonishment as Buck bent over and Chris flipped over Buck's back to strike down another slaver. Neither slave trader or Bedouin had ever seen anything like these two mad Americans that fought like twenty men.'

Chris interrupted Buck's tale when the blond strode up to his brother's and nephew's campfire. Larabee then asked, "Hey, what are the two of you doing out here in the middle of the night?"

Buck gazed at Chris serenely when he replied, "Just enjoying some cool night air." Ezra nodded in agreement with his Uncle Buck.

Narrowed hazel eyes studied them for a long moment, before Chris muttered, "Neither one of you has got a lick of sense. Go to bed." Chris looked down and then turned to go into the house.

Buck winked at Ezra, then both of them got up.} Ezra waited for his uncle to put out the fire before going back to the house. As Buck and Ezra walked back, Buck placed a gentle hand upon his nephew's shoulder. The tall man escorted Ezra up to the boy's room before heading to his own room.

Ezra waited until he heard his uncle's footsteps fade then he sat up on the bed Indian style. He reached out for the photo frame and softly whispered to it, "Good Night, Tía Inez. Good Night, Aunt Sarah."

Chapter 20

The next few weeks rushed by as Ezra settled into a routine. Some mornings, Ezra would help Chris with the horses. Other mornings, he would help Buck with the housework. Every morning, he and both of his uncles went riding. It was his favorite time of day, riding either on his Uncle Chris's or Uncle Buck's horse. They taught him how to sit in the saddle properly, how to handle the reins and the bridle, etc... Sometimes, Sheriff Dunne, Mr. Tanner, Mr. Sanchez or Mr. Jackson joined them for the morning ride. Ezra enjoyed listening to his uncles, Mr. Tanner and Sheriff Dunne talking to their horses after going riding. The little one learned how to clean the saddle, clean the tack and everything else he could learn about horses. Ezra also whittled wood with Uncle Chris and Mr. Tanner. He tinkered with the cars in the company of his Uncle Buck and Mr. Sanchez. He, Uncle Buck and Mr. Jackson also gardened.

One fine summer afternoon, Ezra also helped his uncles with their business. Ezra negotiated a higher price for a horse that his uncles had for sale by charming the potential buyer with his knowledge of the horse's pedigree and by outlining the horse's probable earnings if the horse were to run in any of the Stakes races scheduled for the upcoming year. From the back of the stall, JD, Buck, Chris and Vin watched in quiet admiration as the buyer shook Ezra's hand and then came to talk to Buck and Chris about buying the horse. As JD and Vin guided him out of the barn, Ezra's jade green eyes sought out his uncles and was reassured by the wink that his Uncle Buck threw him before the tall, dark-haired man returned his attention to the buyer.

Later that week, Ezra stood at the mailbox, retrieving the mail. A hand quivered with emotion as the little one recognized the handwriting on a letter addressed to him. Ezra raced back down the driveway, Leo and Brownie on his heels. He dropped the other mail on the coffee table, before dashing to his room. He didn't see his uncle Chris coming out of the kitchen but Chris saw him. The blond man sorted out the mail on the coffee table before heading up to his nephew's room.

Sitting on a side of his bed, Ezra tore the letter from his mother open and began to read:

"Dear Ezra,

How are you? Found your uncles' money, yet?

Here I am, still at the Crown Hotel in Denver..."

Ezra didn't read any more of the letter. Instead, he picked up the envelope and noted the postmark from Las Vegas Nevada. Chris stood silently in the open doorway and saw Ezra's eyes glisten with unshed tears.

Leo lay his head down on Ezra's knee and Brownie draped herself over Ezra's shoes. Chris cleared his throat and Ezra hid the letter behind Leo's movement and blinked hard for several moments before looking at his uncle. Chris stepped into the room while saying, "Brought you some leather gloves that will help you with the woodwork. Hope they're the right size." Then Chris handed a child-sized, cream-colored pair of gloves to Ezra.

Ezra felt their softness as he asked his Uncle Chris, "For me?"

At the same time that he asked the question, Buck entered the room, waving a large pair of new gloves and he said, "Yeah, those are yours, unless you think these would fit you better." Both Ezra and Chris shook their heads at the mustached man. Ezra looked at Chris for confirmation and the blond man nodded. A dimpled smile broke out on Ezra's face and Chris cuffed his younger brother. Buck was about to retaliate when the dogs ran out of room, barking madly at the trailers driving up the lane.

Chapter 21

Chris and Buck went outside to unload the stallions they had bought earlier that day. Ezra followed them outside. While Buck settled the first stallion in the barn, Chris opened the second trailer and then stepped back startled. The blond man yelled out his brother's name and Buck rushed out of the barn. The tall man nearly collided with Ezra at the barn door. The little one sidestepped his uncle and stood off to the side as his uncles Chris and Buck began to argue about the horse in the trailer. Ezra cautiously approached the trailer and then stood transfixed. Inside the trailer, was a handsome-looking, chestnut-colored colt.

"May I keep him?" fell from Ezra's lips. Ezra's question cut through his uncles' bickering. Both Chris and Buck noted the boy's wistful look and tone of voice.

Hazel and blue eyes met.

Ezra continued, "I will take care of him, feed him and everything."

Chris asked, "You'll take care of him, until he's all grown up?" The boy vigorously nodded his head yes and both Chris and Buck said all right.

Ezra flashed them a blinding smile.

The two men led the colt off the trailer and then handed the halter rope to their nephew. Ezra proudly took the rope and walked the colt into the barn and whispered into the horse's ear, "Don't worry, my uncles are not as bad as they seem." Buck and Chris stifled their laughter at Ezra's comment and watched their nephew bed the colt down in his new home.

Hawk and Beau whickered at the new arrival. Then the geldings happily munched the oats which Ezra had just given them. As the little one fed his colt and all the horses again, Buck and Chris watched in amused indulgence. Ezra brushed down the horse while excitedly telling the young horse everything about the ranch. Chris's smile turned into a frown when he heard the boy mention his aunts, Inez and Sarah.

Hazel eyes glared at Buck who glared right back.

Chris tore his angry gaze away from his brother, before barking, "What did you say, Ezra?" Ezra stopped chatting to the horse and gulped before turning around to face his irate Uncle Chris. Green eyes wide, Ezra began to apologize. Chris nodded and abruptly said that he was going up to the main house and then stalked out of the barn.

The little one stood frozen to the spot. Buck shook his head sadly and knelt down on one knee in front of his nephew. The big man hugged the little boy to him, one large hand gently rubbing up and down Ezra's back. He whispered, "It'll be all right, Ezra. It is just hard for Chris to hear Sarah's name. You didn't know that. It wasn't your fault." Ezra swallowed down the lump in his throat. Buck heard the boy muffle a question into his shoulder and asked Ezra to repeat it. The child brought his head up and asked if he could finish currying Hermes coat. "Hermes? I like it. Finish up what you were doing, little pard. Then, I'll have some lemonade ready for you back at the house when you're through," said the mustached man.

Ezra gave him a weak smile and then broke free of his uncle's embrace. He heard his uncle Buck leaving the stables as he turned to resume brushing Hermes' flank. As soon as he was certain that his uncle had left, the little boy buried his face in the colt's side and cried.

Chapter 22

Buck watched with growing worry as Ezra silently put the breakfast dishes away. The boy usually asked him a question or three about the horses, the ranch or the French Foreign Legion but not today.

Today he had been quiet.

He hadn’t said a word, just nodded his morning greeting. Buck returned his ‘good morning,’ verbally while Chris returned Ezra’s nod. Chris had then stated that after breakfast, he was going to pick up the stallion that had not been delivered yesterday. The mustached man had told his brother that he and Ezra would take care of the horses in the barn. Chris grunted his acceptance while Ezra looked down at his plate.

Ezra picked at the remainder of his breakfast. He cleared the table after his Uncle Buck walked his Uncle Chris outside. Buck returned to find Ezra stacking the dishes into the dish rack on top of the kitchen counter.

"Good job, little pard. You ready to see to the horses, now?"

The little one responded with a soft yes and the two headed out to the barn. Buck tried to cajole the child to smile or giggle but to no avail. Hermes’ soft whinnying and nose nudging the child’s shoulder did elicit a laugh from Ezra. Buck made a mental note to give him a bigger piece of carrot later.

They were almost done with the horses when Chris walked in with the new stallion in tow.

Hawk neighed and Chris cocked an eyebrow at Buck. A shrug of broad shoulders was his answer as Buck finished cinching Hawk’s stirrups. "I’ll be ready to ride as soon as I see to this stud here," said Chris. Buck told him and Ezra to go on ahead he’d put up their newest horse and then catch up to them.

Ezra had wondered if his Uncle Chris would go riding with them today. It was also the first time he was going to ride solo. His Uncle Buck had told him that Hermes was used to children riding him and from now on Ezra was his rider. He had proudly saddled his pony and was leading him out of his stall when he had heard his Uncle Chris come into the barn.

Now, nervously, from under his lashes, Ezra stole a peek at Uncle Chris. Chris scolded himself mentally as he noted the child couldn’t even really look at him. He jerkily took Hawk’s reins from his brother’s hands and got up onto his horse. "Comin’ Ezra?" floated to the boy’s ears as Chris and Hawk cantered out of the stables. Two strong arms lifted Ezra onto Hermes’ saddle and Buck whispered, "Better hurry and catch up with the old dog." Then Buck lightly swatted Hermes on the rump and the pony trotted out. Ezra guided his horse to the edge of a well-traveled trail where his Uncle Chris and Hawk waited. The blond man gestured for the boy and the pony to ride ahead of him. The child had slowed his mount down to a walk, all the while feeling hazel eyes upon him. Delight lit up green eyes when the little one heard Chris’s gruff, "Real good with Hermes there, Ezra."

Chapter 23

Chris and Ezra rode out to the far end of the pasture where there was a broken piece of fence that needed to be fixed. The blond man asked Ezra to hold the horses’ reins while he checked the splintered wood. Definitely time to replace that post, thought Chris to himself. Ezra was petting their mounts’ noses and then glanced up as Chris called him. "Little pard, will you get me my working gloves and the rope from Hawk’s saddlebag? Ezra scrambled up onto a rock to open the saddlebag and never noticed the snake that slithered out from under the rock.

The western rattlesnake slid closer to a still-crouching Chris. A callused hand was unknowingly put in the snake’s path as Chris’s left hand brushed the ground. Larabee hissed as he felt the bite and then froze as he heard the rattle.

"Don’t move, Ezra," he gritted out through his teeth to the boy standing immobile on the rock.

Chris’s right hand curled around a piece of the broken fence and with a lightening fast move of his own clubbed the rattlesnake on the head and killed it instantly.

He knew he needed to get help immediately. Hazel eyes glanced at Ezra still standing frozen in place. Calmly the blond ordered, "Ezra, shoot the flare gun that‘s in the saddlebag, it’ll get Buck’s attention. Then I need you to come and help me take my watch off, okay?" A shaky but determined, "Yes, Uncle Chris," was the blond man’s reply.

Little hands dropped gloves and rope into the dirt and quickly plucked the flare gun out of the saddlebag. With the slightest tremble, Ezra shot the gun and saw the orange flare light the sky. The gun then fell next to the discarded rope as Ezra rushed to his uncle’s side. It took two tries for Ezra to undo the straps on the watch but he did it. "Hold on to the watch for me, kiddo," Chris said. Chris’s left hand splayed against Ezra’s back and touched his forehead to Ezra’s when he saw the shimmer in Ezra’s eyes. "Not your fault, Ezra. Not today, not yesterday. I’ll be okay. A scorpion bit me when I was four and the scorpion died, so I’m immunized against venomous bites." A tremulous smile crossed Ezra’s lips then fell away as he caught sight of the dead reptile. Chris’s uninjured hand cupped the little one’s cheek gently.

Hooves pounding the earth, caused both Ezra and Chris to turn their heads and Buck was there taking in the situation at a glance. He had Ezra collect the gloves and rope and flare gun, then stow them away while he helped Chris mount Beau. Beau led Hawk back and Ezra rode Hermes back. They had just gotten back to the barn when Vin arrived at the ranch. Tanner told them to head to the hospital; he would take care of the horses.

The red truck had torn into the hospital parking lot, stopping right by the emergency room entrance. Buck hustled Chris inside while Ezra ran to keep up. Nathan found himself broadsided by Buck. "Rattlesnake bite," said the tall, mustached man before Nathan could even ask. The medic and a nurse took Chris into an examining room.

Chapter 24

Ezra huddled down in the waiting room chair, his head bent down so he could wipe his face unobtrusively. Suddenly a long arm circled his shoulders and hauled him onto a muscular, denim-clad leg. Damp green eyes looked up into shiny dark blue ones.

"You were real brave, Ezra," Buck said as he clasped the boy into a tight hug. Ezra’s little arms squeezed back just as hard then the child asked, "Tell me more about Africa?" The tall man knew the stories would provide a distraction for the disturbing thoughts running through his mind so he said, "Where did I leave off?"

Ezra sank back against Buck’s chest, his little legs straddling Buck’s thigh, small fingers tightly gripping the strong forearm wrapped around his middle as he answered. "No one, neither slave trader nor Bedouin, had ever seen anything like these two mad Americans that fought like twenty men."

Buck’s rich voice transported both of them back to Africa.

'Lieutenant Buck Wilmington-Larabee’s sword sliced the ropes chaining a beautiful dark-eyed handmaiden to a tree. With his free arm, the tall legionnaire tugged the veiled woman to her feet and winked at her. Abruptly, his sword arm straightened out and slashed at an armed man barreling for his brother’s back. The slave trader fell where stood. Buck tipped his kepi to the young woman and strode ahead. Inez stared at the mad American’s broad shoulders as they bumped against the other mad American’s shoulders. She watched in amazement as they fought off the slave traders and won. When the battle was over, Chris, Buck and their men escorted Inez and the other former captives back to their rightful encampment. The legionnaires returned to their fort.'

A gentle finger stroked the plain gold band hanging around Buck’s neck and whispered, "Tía Inez?" The mustached man nodded as he swallowed down the tears in his throat. Ezra nestled deeper into Buck’s chest and pressed a small cheek against his uncle’s heart. Buck brushed a tender kiss against the top of Ezra’s head before he continued with his tale.

'After she arrived home, Inez told her mistress, Princess Sarah all about the handsome, heroic Americans and their rescue.

'Sarah had been born an American too, but when she was still a small child, her archeologist parents took her on a dig in the desert. Her biological father had been killed in a desert storm. Sarah and her mother had survived the storm but just barely. A nomadic, friendly tribe of Bedouins had found them and nursed them back to health. The sheik or leader of the Bedouins had fallen in love with Sarah’s mother and married her. He had adopted Sarah as his own. He had loved his ‘daughter’ even more deeply when her mother died from yellow fever ten years later. Sarah was now a beautiful young woman whose hand was eagerly sought in marriage but the sheik had refused all suitors.

'Princess Sarah was determined to meet these men.'

In the hospital waiting room, Ezra’s face was a mask of curiosity as his uncle remembered the past.

'A few weeks later, Captain Larabee and his men were sent to Algiers. They quelled a band of cut-throats that had been threatening the seaport. At the sumptuous feast held to honor the legionnaires, Buck had been surprised to recognize the eyes of the young woman serving him his meal.

'Inez had scowled at the grinning American. She had ignored his flirting and twinkling blue eyes all night. Buck had been enchanted with the lovely handmaiden and after the feast had followed her to a Villa near the Mediterranean Sea. He had straightened up from ducking under the branch of a palm tree and had found a thin but deadly dagger pressed to his breastbone.

'Glaring onyx irises had flashed at him as he had held his hands up, palms out. "Inez, I just wanted to make sure that you made it home all right," Buck Wilmington-Larabee had placated. The ebony-haired woman had given him a skeptical look but had removed the dagger. She had just slid the weapon back into its hiding place when they both had heard hooves pounding alongside the stretch of ocean behind the Villa.

'Buck and Inez had turned and had seen two horses racing past them. The two geldings had been neck and neck. Buck knew that Chris was one of the best riders in Africa but this other person was really challenging him. Suddenly, one of the horses had crashed into the other and the two riders had tumbled into the sea. Chris had leapt to his feet, had drawn his curved knife, ready for anything or so he had thought until he had seen reddish brown tresses spilling out of a veil swept under the water. Then a lovely pair of green eyes had blinked at him from a perfectly oval face and a perfect bow of pink lips smiled at him. The princess was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.'

"Aunt Sarah?" Ezra breathed as he tipped his head up to look into his Uncle Buck’s face. "Sarah," confirmed Buck. Long legs shifted slightly, the heel of Buck’s boot scuffed the silver leg of his hospital chair. "Tell me more, please," pleaded the boy. Blue eyes crinkled and a wide grin split Buck’s face when he recalled, "When those two set eyes on each other, it was honest to goodness, once in a lifetime love at first sight."

A thoroughly enthralled Ezra whispered, "Then they got married?"

"Getting ahead of the story, little pard," Buck responded while he patted the little one’s arm. Ezra bounced impatiently on his uncle’s knee and a chuckle escaped the mustached man’s lips.

'Protecting the Sheik, his family, household and property, Chris and I got to know Sarah and Inez pretty well, even though all our visits were chaperoned. Couple of months after we had been stationed at Algiers, our unit was called away to a neighboring town to repel marauders. Well, that night a rejected suitor of Sarah’s, a powerful sheik in another part of the country, kidnapped Sarah and Inez.'

"What did you and Uncle Chris do?" exhaled Ezra as he twisted around and stared wide-eyed at his Uncle Buck. Briefly, dimples winked at the child, and then the Larabee storyteller began the story once again.

'On a midnight raid, we stormed the sheik’s palace, cutting down everybody and everything that got in our way. Chris and I found Sarah and Inez ready to slit their wrists rather than be forced to marry the sheik and the captain of his guard in the morning. We cried out their names to stop them. The girls spun around, their daggers clattering to the floor.

'My sword clanged to the floor too, as I ran to Inez, scooped her up in my arms and kissed her until we were both breathless. Chris did the same with Sarah.

'When we returned to Algiers, Chris and I were prepared to elope with Sarah and Inez but Sarah’s father was so grateful for his daughter’s safe return that he gave us his blessing to marry Sarah and Inez. Chris and Sarah, Inez and I were married a few days later.'

Ezra gulped air but before he could ask what happened next, Josiah, Vin and JD ran into the waiting room, wanting to know about Chris. The little one reluctantly slid off his uncle’s knee when Buck asked him to move. Buck stood up and told the others all that he knew.

Right then, Nathan emerged and announced that Chris was sleeping peacefully at the moment. They had administered the antivenin and it seemed to be working. There had been some concern about the venom traveling to Chris’s heart because he had been bitten on his left side but his heart was fine. Though, the doctors wanted to keep him hospitalized for a few days, just in case of allergic reaction to the antivenin. Buck knew his brother wouldn’t like it.

After Ezra and Vin visited with a now awake Chris and left to get something to eat in the cafeteria, Buck stayed behind. The tall man told his brother that he would stay in the hospital voluntarily or Buck would personally tie Chris to the hospital bed. The blond man scowled and tried to argue, but the determined set of his brother’s body finally made him agree to stay. Buck’s body slumped slightly against the chair when Chris’s stubborn eyes closed again in sleep.

Twenty minutes later, he and Ezra headed back to the ranch. Small hands fisted the belt loops of Buck’s jeans. Ezra’s voice piped up at a red light, "Uncle Buck was Uncle Chris really bitten by a scorpion? The scorpion actually died?"

"Yeah, he was bit by one and dad said it died about an hour after it bit Chris."

Ezra’s mouth formed a perfect "O".

Chapter 25

Several days later, Buck and Ezra picked up Chris from the hospital. Nathan had said that he would drop by the ranch later. The healer had also asked Buck if he could play Santa Claus again this year, the hospital "Christmas in July "party was scheduled for next week. The tall man said yes. Buck then asked the medic if it was all right to stop and eat breakfast before they headed for home. Nathan said yes. The dark-skinned man hid his smile as Chris answered, "Good because he was hungry for something other than hospital food."

On the way out of the hospital, Ezra spotted a water fountain at the corner of a side corridor. Small fingers tugged at his Uncle Buck's sleeve. Buck stopped bantering with his wheelchair-bound brother and gazed at the boy. Ezra asked permission to get a drink of water. Before Buck could reply, Chris gave him permission. The little one dashed to the fountain to get his drink. Rounding the corner, he almost collided with an ugly, plump woman. She spied Buck and Chris passing the corridor and whispered in a conspiratorial tone, "Those Larabee brothers got all their money by being hit men for the mob." Ezra, wide-eyed, slowly backed away from the lady. Once she was out of sight, Ezra ran to catch up with his uncles...

Buck pulled the little one into the seat of the truck before he settled Chris in on the truck's passenger side.

Buck drove the truck straight to Yosemite's Diner just off Main Street. Ezra stared at the huge basket of homemade honey biscuits that the waitress had just put on the table. Uncle Buck flirted with the waitress while Uncle Chris gazed out the window. The blond man swiveled his head and his voice cut through Buck's chatter. "We want one strawberry-banana blended juice, one black coffee and one coffee with cream." Betty returned with the drinks a couple of minutes later. Chris grabbed the juice off the serving tray and set it in front of a bewildered little boy. Ezra's thought of "how did Uncle Chris know about…" was interrupted because Chris suddenly said, "Strawberry-banana is still your favorite, isn't it Ezra?" The little one nodded. Buck hid his smile at Chris's silent sigh of relief.

Four noisy teenagers entered the diner. Betty stiffened as she recognized Anderson, the leader of the 'Rebs' and three of his gang, Sid, Darcy and Frankie. They swaggered by the Larabee's table. Anderson spitefully knocked Ezra's juice off the table and then jeered, "Baby spilled his drink" and at the same time Sid pinched the waitress's backside. Betty squeaked and jerked away. "Apologize," was growled in unison by Buck and Chris as the furious brothers stood. The leader of the gang sneered, "Who do you think you are?" The gangly teenager then shoved Chris. Momentarily ignoring a stupidly smirking Sid, Buck said, "Don't kill the kid Chris, we got to think about Ezra."

Awe-struck, Ezra watched his uncles as they fought with the gang members. Chris shot out a powerful arm and fisted Anderson in a tight chokehold. His uncle snarled, "Chris Larabee. I've fought countless small wars on three continents. I've led hundreds of men into battle with everything from horses and swords to artillery and tanks. I've seen the banks of the Nile and tribes of natives that no white man had ever seen before. I've won and lost a dozen fortunes. I've killed many men. I've loved only one woman with a passion, a flea like you could never understand. That's who I am. Now get out of here." The blond man then dropped Anderson to the floor.

Meanwhile, Sid had drawn a knife on Buck who twisted the teenager's arm and the weapon flew from the youth's fingers. The tall, mustached-man's, "Your teenage hormones get you into a world of trouble" floated across the diner. Sid crumpled to the floor as his jaw met Buck's hard right hook. Frankie backed out of the entrance of the diner and took off. He was smart enough not to want to tangle with those two angry men. Darcy and Anderson weren't so intelligent and drew their own knives. Anderson went after Chris again and Darcy after Buck.

The fight spilled outside into the parking lot. Anderson slashed his blade wildly at Chris. The blond weaved and twisted away from the enraged teen. Chris spun and grabbed Anderson's weapon arm. Larabee knuckled a little above Anderson's elbow joint. The teen screamed with pain. Chris then planted his forearm on the gang leader's triceps muscle. Anderson fell to his knees the knife falling uselessly from his hands. With his free hand, Chris caught the weapon mid-air.

Chris yelled, "Buck!" Buck looked over at his brother as the blond threw Anderson's blade toward him. The mustached man caught it easily. He handed it over to JD who had just arrived on the scene. The tall man had taken Darcy out by sweeping the teen's leg out from underneath him. Darcy had folded when Buck had mirrored Chris's moves with Anderson.

Betty and Ezra stood just outside the door of the diner and watched the former legionnaires battle the teenagers. Ezra's eyes were round but sparkled when his Uncle Chris winked at him.

Yosemite pressed charges against the teenagers. So, JD arrested Anderson, Darcy and Sid as Chris, Buck and Ezra headed home.

Chapter 26

Steven Travis knocked on the Larabee's front door. "They're not home yet, Mary," he told his wife standing next to him. Their son, Billy fidgeted on the porch steps.

"Can I go see the horses in the barn?" whined the youngest Travis. Mary waved him off as she answered her husband.

Billy tore off for the barn. Blue eyes widened in excitement as he noted that there was a new horse in one of the stalls. He slowly approached the stall but Hermes kept backing away further into the recess of his box. Even though Billy was cooing at him, Hermes ears pinned back and his nostrils flared. Billy didn't pay attention to Hermes movements; he was too busy unlatching the stall door. Hermes barreled through the opened door, out of the barn and into the wide-open pasture.

Billy began to chase the pony when his parents yelled at him. He didn't stop but his father's longer legs let Steven catch him by an ear. As his parents were scolding him, a small blur raced past them. The blur was shouting for Hermes to stop. Buck and Chris stopped at the edge of the Travis' family circle. The Larabee brothers quickly ascertained what happened. Billy and Mary wilted under the combined glare of both Buck and Chris. Mary and Billy slunk off to the car while Buck stayed with Steven and Chris followed Ezra to the pasture.

Chris found Ezra staring enraptured at the scene in front of him. A small smile tugged at Chris's lips at the sight. Hermes romped in the green fields. The colt's rump would momentarily flash by Hawk's flank before Hermes leapt playfully at Beau's tail. Hawk snorted softly and Beau chewed his grass placidly while they let the pony play. "He's having fun," Ezra breathed.

Chris felt the boy bump up against him, looked down and replied, "Yeah, he is. He's happy. How about you? Are you happy?"

The blond man's heart beat with joy at Ezra's affirmative answer.

By the time Chris and Ezra returned to the house, Steven, Mary and Billy Travis were gone.

The older brother really didn't want to know why his younger brother had that mischievous gleam in his eyes, so he didn't ask. Whatever Buck had done to get their cousins to leave was all right with Chris.

Chapter 27

A nice breeze blew, cooling the men and the boy that sat on the porch. Leo and Brownie sprawled by Buck and Ezra's feet. Buck was cracking another joke when both he and his brother heard the rumble of a motorcycle coming into the yard. Chris rose stiffly and went to greet Frankie. The blond stopped opposite the teenager and waited. Leo had trotted alongside his master, growled warningly at Frankie then sat down on his haunches.

Frankie ran a hand nervously through his dark wavy hair, the teen's Irish accent thickening as he stuttered out an apology. During the past year, the Larabees had helped the orphaned teen settle into a new town, had even gotten him an after school job at the Potters' store but he had started hanging out with Anderson and his gang. Frankie had quit his job and drifted away from the Larabees. Today, when Anderson and the others had provoked the fight in the diner, he had fled the building but he had stayed nearby. Frankie had seen what had happened in the parking lot. Sharp hazel eyes had bored into the youth's eyes as the two men and the boy drove away from town. Frankie had thought long and hard all day. He knew he had to talk to the Larabees, especially to the elder one. He squared his shoulders, and kick started his bike. Now Frankie stood in front of Chris, awkwardly asking for forgiveness. The teen sighed in relief when he felt the blond's comforting grip on his shoulder and heard the horse breeder's words. They walked toward Uncle Chris's woodcarving shed.

Meanwhile, up on the porch, Ezra gawked at his Uncle Chris and the teenager. Curiosity spilled from Ezra's voice as he asked his Uncle Buck, "Who is that teenager? What do you think he's telling Uncle Chris? What is Uncle Chris telling him?"

Buck stopped scratching behind Brownie's ears, took his glance off the front yard and gazed at his nephew. "Don't know what Frankie said, but I think Chris is giving him 'another chance'."

"Another chance?" queried Ezra. Buck explained how they knew Frankie. Ezra hung his head and breathed, "I made him mad. Will he give me another chance?"

The mustached man wanted to smack his brother upside the head as he gently grabbed narrow wrists in his large palms. Buck implored Ezra to look up at him. With big green eyes gazing into his serious blue ones, Buck assured him, "Your Uncle Chris is a stubborn cuss, but he'll give you another chance. It's just sometimes he gets so sad, he gets mad and you just have to help him not be sad any more. Heck, I've made him mad, hundreds of thousands of times and I am still here aren't I?"

Ezra cocked his head and considered his Uncle Buck's words along with the memory of the huge grin and sparkling hazel eyes his Uncle Chris flashed him in the pasture when Ezra had answered yes that he was very happy here.

Brownie had jumped out of Buck's lap and into Ezra's causing the boy to laugh and then nod at his Uncle's words. The boy vowed to himself that his Uncle Chris would give him 'another chance'.

Brownie had twisted around with her back on Ezra's lap. She wanted a tummy rub and the child obliged her as he skimmed his fingers along her belly. While he was busy with Brownie, Ezra said, "Uncle Buck, you never finished your story about you, Tía Inez, Uncle Chris and Aunt Sarah."

"You want to hear more about our adventures? You believe them?" responded Buck as he leaned into Ezra's side. Big eyes fixed him with a stare at the same time that Ezra told him that it was a good story.

After glancing at Chris and Frankie still talking quietly by Chris's wood shed, Buck thought it would be a good time to spin a tale.

Chapter 28

Before Buck could begin his story, both he and Ezra heard the ring... ring... ring of the telephone. Buck rose to go inside the house and answer the phone. Ezra and Brownie followed him.

While the mustached man got the phone, Ezra got Brownie’s water bowl and filled it with fresh water. The little one grinned to himself as the puppy began to noisily lap at the bowl. Ezra went back out to the living room, picked up his sketch pad and pencil from the coffee table. He pretended to draw while actually listening to his Uncle Buck’s conversation. It sounded like his uncle was talking with Mr. Jackson

"Hey Nate. JD broke his hand and Vin fractured his ankle? Are they okay, otherwise? Good. You and Josiah try to get some sleep while you keep our accident-prone boys company, all right? Yeah, we’ll see them in the morning." Buck listened intently for a few more minutes. Then he said, "I’ll talk to Chris about it. Night Nate."

Chris had come in a few minutes earlier and had caught the tail end of the conversation. "What do you need to talk to me about?"

Buck explained that Vin and JD had been in a car accident. JD had broken his hand and Vin fractured his ankle. They would be all right eventually but they needed the Larabees to do them a big favor. Tanner and Dunne had entered the calf-roping event in Eagle Bend’s rodeo next month. They wanted the prize money to help pay Nettie Wells’ mortgage but that was now out of the question.

"JD and Vin want to know if we can take their place at the calf-roping event. We were Junior and State Champions at one time. Vin and JD will even pay the entrance fee. What do you say, Chris?"

Chris’s hazel eyes sparkled with the idea of the challenge. He replied, "Well it’s a good thing Frankie will be helping out at the ranch again, so you and I can practice. We’ll talk more about it in the morning."

Buck whooped.

A dazed Ezra dropped his pad and pencil. He stared at his uncles. His little forehead creased in puzzlement. Questions whizzed through the boy’s mind. Rodeo? Calf-roping? Uncle Chris and Buck... Champions?

Chris ruffled Ezra’s hair before saying, "Night, little pard. I’ m beat."

Ezra murmured, "Good night."

Buck replied, "No wonder you’re tired Chris, you’ve been busy terrorizing doctors and nurses, beating up teenagers and chasing horses. You’ll feel better tomorrow." Chris chuckled tiredly and headed up to his room. Buck squeezed his brother’s shoulder as the blond passed him.

The dark-haired man then herded the still bemused little one to his room. On the way upstairs, Ezra asked his uncle about the calf-roping. His answer was that they would sort it out in the morning. Then the child asked his Uncle to continue the story of his and Chris’s time in Africa. Buck agreed to tell him, once Ezra had settled into bed.

The now pajama clad boy was tucked into bed and green eyes looked expectantly at the man sitting at the foot of his bed.

Chapter 29

Buck began. ’The next couple of years were some of the happiest we’ve known. It was perfect... except for one thing...’

Buck’s voice trailed off and a still wide-awake Ezra replied, "The Sheik." His dark-haired uncle nodded and patted Ezra’s leg, wrinkling the blanket covering the child.

The born storyteller continued, ’The sheik hated Chris for stealing Sarah away from him. He put a price of ten thousand pieces of gold on your Uncle Chris’s head. Assassins came from miles around. Your uncle Chris and I defeated and evaded a lot of them but they were always around. Then Chris and I left the legion. I became a guide leading caravans across the desert. Chris became his father-in-law’s Captain of the guard. We still saw each other frequently. One time the four of us made plans to meet each other at the big bazaar outside Algiers but it didn’t quite go as planned. Inez and I were delayed by tourists on the way to the bazaar.

’At the bazaar, Chris and Sarah were attacked by assassins. Chris had barely ducked a dagger flying straight at his head, Sarah had thrown Saffron into an attacker’s eyes. She had then pivoted in her husband’s direction but the way was cut off by three burly men. Sarah turned and ran in the other direction toward an arched tunnel. The blond man’s sword cut down the men blocking the path to his wife. A slim, strong hand grasped Sarah’s hand and Chris tugged her up onto a horse. He then jumped onto the black horse and they galloped into the tunnel. A few seconds later, Chris and Sarah’s horse flew out of the tunnel, chased by more assassins. The horse loped across the bazaar, Chris’s sword flashed above his head and he cut the line holding a vendor’s goods. Blankets, baskets and wooden crates crashed down on the pursuers behind them. They escaped but Chris and Sarah knew their luck would run out, sooner or later.

’There was only one thing to do. So, one day an assassin led Chris bound in chains into the sheik’s fortress to claim his fortune, the ten thousand pieces of gold. The sheik laughed in glee while his men piled bags and bags of gold upon the assassin’s broad shoulders. The men were then ordered to take Chris to the notorious dungeon of one thousand, three hundred and eighty seven tortures.’

Ezra unconsciously hissed out, "What?" and his green eyes glowed angrily. He crawled out from under the blanket, scooted closer to his Uncle Buck and tilted his head up to look intently into Buck’s face. "What kind of avaricious miscreant betrayed Uncle Chris to the sheik for money?" Ezra asked indignantly.

A mischievous smile lit Buck’s mouth and eyes as he replied, "Well, I would."

Ezra’s face cleared as he whispered, "It was a con."

The mustached man’s eyes still sparkled as he responded, "Yeah, it was a trick. When we were in the dungeon, I drew my sword and slew all the guards without dropping a single bag of gold."

The little one arched an eyebrow at his Uncle. Buck thought it was scary how much Ezra looked like Chris when he looked at him like that.

"Uncle Chris didn’t help at all? Why wasn’t there a price on your head? What happened to the Captain of the guard that wanted to marry Tí Inez?" quizzed Ezra.

"The Captain of the guard had been killed in a border skirmish. The sheik didn’t really care about me. He just wanted to get rid of Chris. Your Uncle Chris helped to take out the guards in the dungeon. When the fight was over, we split up. Each knew what the other had to do." Buck said.

Chapter 30

Ezra now sat Indian-style on the bed, his little knees bumping his Uncle’s thigh. Buck still sat at the foot of the bed with one leg bent off the bed and his other leg crossed underneath the bent leg. A big, tender hand made to tickle Ezra’s tummy but the little one leaned away and said, "No. Uncle Buck. What did you two do after the fight?"

Buck fell back into storyteller mode. ’High in his opulent bed chamber, the sheik slept. He awoke with Chris’s sword across his throat. The sheik was terrified. Chris just lowered his blade. He moved from over the sheik’s bed. "Defend yourself," Chris cried as he threw a sword to the side of the sheik. The sheik picked up two blades and slashed at the former legionnaire. Chris thrust and parried the blow. Larabee and the sheik fought all across the room. Finally Chris made a lightening lunge and gained the upper hand. He then held the tip of his sword to the sheik’s throat. The sheik cowered crouched against the wall. The blond jumped onto the edge of the balcony and said, "I held your life in my hands and I have given it back to you. Next time, your life is mine." Chris then pivoted around and leapt off the balcony’s edge. The sheik ran onto the balcony and peered over it. He saw Larabee, an assassin and a pack horse galloping away from the fortress. From that moment on, the assassination attempts stopped. Some said it was because the sheik was afraid that Chris would return and kill him. Others said because Chris had spared his life, the sheik did the honorable thing and let his enemy live.’

Ezra’s eyes were round as he asked, "So that’s how you got your money? The gold from the sheik?" Before Buck answered, he caught a glimpse of his watch. "It’s late, kiddo. I better turn in now, so I can be awake at the breakfast table or your Uncle Chris will have me for breakfast," the twinkling blue-eyed man joked. He then tenderly scooted the little one under the covers and ruffled Ezra’s hair as Ezra sleepily said, "Night Uncle Buck."

Ezra thought of why his uncles had run a con compared to why his mother usually ran one. How she would use him in the scam. The child felt moisture gather in his eyes. He blinked quickly a few times while grabbing the photo frame from its resting place. Ezra stared at his aunts for a long time then hugged the picture to his chest and pleaded for the women to watch over his uncles. He put the frame back and finally fell asleep.

Chapter 31

A week later, Ezra met Nettie Wells for the first time.

She had a gruff demeanor. Ezra was a bit nervous of her and on his best behavior. She had given him another slice of homemade peach cobbler and he had flashed her a shy smile of thank you. Nettie returned his smile and then swatted the back of Vin’s head as he tried to steal another piece of cobbler from the platter that Nettie held. "You’ve already had three slices, Vin," she scolded. JD wanted to laugh but he had a mouth full of pie. JD’s eyes twinkled merrily at the long-haired man. Vin frowned at him as the old woman continued, "We don’t want you turning into a giant peach, now do we?" Ezra began to giggle at the mental picture that popped into his mind at Nettie’s words.

Buck and Chris entered the kitchen and asked, "What’s so funny?" They had been setting up the corral so they could practice for the calf-roping event. Both men were glad to hear Ezra’s laugh. The child had been awfully quiet and a little withdrawn these past few days and it had worried the brothers.

A now chuckling, JD burst out, "Vin as a giant peach." The brunet and blond man just stared at the laughing trio sitting at Nettie’s kitchen table, then blue and hazel eyes glanced over to the woman shaking her head in fond exasperation.

She answered the question in their eyes. "Vin ate three slices of cobbler and tried to steal another piece when I gave Ezra a second slice. I swatted Vin’s hands and told him we didn’t want him becoming a giant peach." Confusion cleared from the brothers’ eyes and their laughter mingled with their nephew’s and friends’ for the next few minutes.

Finally, everyone except Nettie left the kitchen. Casey brushed past Vin hobbling on his crutches as she went into help her aunt with the clean-up. She squeezed JD on his uninjured arm as he moved past her onto the porch.

Ezra and his uncles were already at the corral when JD and Vin hit the porch. At that moment, Josiah drove his new Suburban into Nettie’s driveway and parked it next to the Larabees’ trailer. Josiah, Nathan and Frankie got out of the vehicle and headed to the corral.

The trio saw Buck sit Ezra atop one of the corral posts. They heard Buck and Chris both tell the little boy not to move from the corral post until either one of them came for him. Ezra promised he wouldn’t move. Before the brothers mounted their horses, Josiah and Nathan promised that they would stay by the little one’s side during the practice. Buck and Chris thanked them, and then the Larabees and their mounts headed to the area behind the gates of their corral. Vin and JD settled into two porch chairs which now sat outside the corral. The long-haired Texan held a stopwatch in one of his hands. Josiah leaned against one side of the post while Nathan who had just arrived flanked the other side of the post.

At first, Ezra was uncomfortable with sitting on the corral post but then his excitement began to build and he forgot all about the rough feel of the post against his corduroy clad legs. Green eyes watched Frankie open a gate and saw a calf running around the big corral.

After a few minutes, the teenager opened another gate and Hawk came loping out into the corral. Uncle Chris twirled a rope and tried to lasso the head of the calf.

He missed.

A scowl creased Chris Larabee’s face. He threw the rope again and this time caught the horns of the calf. Chris dimly heard JD and Frankie’s whistles of appreciation. The blond nudged Hawk with his heels slightly and the horse and rider angled the calf a little more to the left exposing the steer’s hind legs to Buck and Beau. Frankie swung the gate and Beau raced into the corral. His rider slid off him and dashed over to the calf. Buck wrestled the wriggling calf down to the ground. He almost got kicked in the chin by one of the calf’s hoofs but he managed to jerk back and avoid it. He then quickly finished tying up the steer’s hind legs with his own piece of rope.

The tall man stood up with a flourish and faced his partner. Both men and their mounts now faced each other and Vin called out the time.

Ezra’s eyes had widened when his Uncle Chris’s first rope throw had missed the calf’s head and when the calf had almost connected with his Uncle Buck’s chin, he had gasped out loud and almost fallen off the corral post.

Only Nathan’s fast hands steadied him before he could fall.

Ezra heard Vin call out a time. He saw the twin frowns upon his Uncles’ faces and saw them nod to Vin and then to each other.

The rest of the day had been spent watching his Uncles practice.

Ezra had eventually ended up sitting in the empty chair between JD and Vin.

Chris, Frankie and Josiah were loading up the horses into the trailer for the ride home when Buck squatted down in front of a beaming Ezra. "Well, little pard, what do you think about calf-roping?"

Ezra answered him honestly. "I would be more proficient at being a ‘header’ like Uncle Chris. I am not strong enough to be a "heeler" like you and rope the steer’s legs together."

A flush of pink tinged Buck’s cheeks as he replied that Ezra was a strong boy and would grow into a strong man. Ezra changed the subject and asked, "Did Tía Inez ever see you calf-rope?"

A bittersweet smile tugged at Buck’s lips. The big man answered, "Yeah, she did. Her folks had a farm with cattle and I helped her dad out a few times. One time my father-in-law and his neighbor were having a friendly competition and we had ourselves a calf-roping event.... We won," he replied to the unspoken question in the green eyes staring at him.

The little one asked softly, "Uncle Buck, what happened to Tía Inez?"

Buck swallowed back the lump in his throat. He responded just as quietly, "She was killed while visiting her folks. There was a raid on the village by a warring, neighboring tribe and they slaughtered everybody including women and children. I was going to meet up with them a few days after Inez’s pa picked her up but I was delayed because my horse got a bruise in his leg. I arrived to find the village in smoldering ruins..."

A small hand pressed tenderly against his cheek stopped Buck’s now hoarse voice. A trembling, "I’m sorry" spilled from Ezra’s lips. The little one took a deep breath and blinked back the moisture in his eyes.

Buck’s large hand engulfed the small one against his cheek, gave his nephew a tremulous grin and a "Thanks, little pard."

At that moment, Chris shouted at them. "Why are you two still dawdling over there?"

"Just talking about calf-roping," replied Buck as he straightened up, taking Ezra’s smaller hand within his own and walking the boy over to their truck and Chris.

Chris glared at them suspiciously for a few moments but then shrugged his shoulders and slid into the truck’s driver’s seat.

Later as they fed the horses in the Larabees’ barn, Ezra asked his Uncle Buck two more questions. "After Tía Inez...?" The child’s voice trailed off at the sad look in his Uncle’s face.

"I rejoined the legion," Buck responded.

Ezra’s curiosity had him asking this next question, "What happened to Aunt Sarah?"

His usually jovial uncle was very serous. "That’s Chris’s story to tell. If you want to find out then you’re going to have to ask him." Ezra just gave him an ‘Are you crazy?’ look and went on feeding a carrot to Hermes.

Buck softly closed the door to Beau’s stall and waited so he could walk Ezra back to the house.

Chapter 32

During the next couple of weeks, something new was added to Ezra’s routine. He began to practice lassoing with his Uncle Chris and Vin. Every afternoon, the little one diligently threw a rope around the practice heads of the sawhorses. Uncle Chris had explained to Ezra how ‘headers’ learned to rope calves by first learning how to lasso sawhorses.

One afternoon, Chris ‘borrowed’ Buck’s newest cowboy hat. The hat sat proudly on the head of the practice sawhorse. Vin smirked to himself when he saw it.

Ezra flashed his gold tooth grin when he caught the hat on his first attempt.

His Uncle Chris patted him on the back while Vin whooped. Buck had just gotten home from the Potters’ store when he saw what Ezra had roped. Buck sputtered, "My hat. How did you...?" Then Buck caught the mischievous look on his brother’s face. "Chris, you old dog, you did this," Buck hollered as he chased Chris around the yard.

Both Ezra and Vin broke out laughing. They laughed until their sides hurt.

Chris and Buck also laughed as they tussled playfully.

Green eyes met sapphire blue ones then Ezra and Vin pounced onto the unsuspecting brothers, causing a wrestling free for all. Finally a truce was called when the foursome heard the snickers of their horses coming from the other side of the yard.

A short time later, a freshly-bathed, pajama-clad Ezra recounted his day to his aunt’s picture. The sound of the front door swinging open had Ezra putting the picture back in its place and peeking out of his window. He saw his Uncle Chris head out for one of his nocturnal walks.

Ezra bit his lip thoughtfully and then made up his mind. He slid his feet into his slippers and grabbed the extra blanket off his bed. The little one followed his Uncle out to the lake. Uncle Chris stood there at the edge of the water, his body and gaze facing the water. Tonight though instead of fighting invisible enemies, the blond stood with his arms akimbo.

The child stopped behind his Uncle Chris and carefully placed the extra blanket he had over his Uncle’s forearm. The blond man clad only in long-johns plucked the blanket from his arm and draped it over his shoulders. "Thanks Buck," Chris began to say as he turned around and stopped as he saw that it was his nephew behind him instead of his brother.

"Ezra?" Chris said.

Ezra gulped and tried to speak but the words wouldn’t come.

His Uncle spoke again, "What’s the matter? You need to talk to me? Just spit it out, Ezra."

The words rushed out from Ezra’s lips. "Uncle Chris, what happened to her? What happened to Aunt Sarah?"

Hazel eyes locked onto Ezra as the child trembled. The blond man couldn’t quite tell if it was from fear or from the cold. Long legs had him standing in front of the child in two steps. "Don’t want you catching cold," the blond man huffed as he wrapped the blanket around the boy. Then hunkering down to Ezra’s height, he quietly answered Ezra’s question. "Sarah died in childbirth, our son, Adam died with her."

Tears pooling in his eyes, Ezra breathed out, "What did you do?"

His Uncle Chris replied, "I went back to the only life I knew. I went back to the legion. Buck was there too and for the next ten years there was always another war to fight. Then Buck almost died and he needed more medical attention than he could get in Africa, so we came back to the States and settled here. And here we are."

Ezra gripped the blanket’s edges with his fingers and said, "The stories about you and Uncle Buck in Africa are true aren’t they?"

Chris was stirring a small campfire to life and looked over to his nephew. "Does it matter?"

Ezra’s eyes blazed at him as he replied, "Of course it matters, all I have ever heard from my mother are falsehoods."

The blond mentally berated himself for his thoughtless question. "The stories are true," Chris responded.

Ezra sat himself down on the log closest to the fire and gazed at his uncle’s profile when he asked his next questions. "Courage, honor, family, faithfulness, loyalty, friendship, love are true? They are ideals worth believing in and fighting for?"

Hazel eyes glowed with conviction as Chris patted Ezra’s back and said, "Yes, they are."

A small hand clutched at the larger one next to him and squeezed hard. "Are Uncle Buck and you going to help me emulate those ideals, so I can grow into a fine young man?" Ezra asked.

His Uncle Chris sucked in a breath and then exhaled, "You may not be here that long."

The boy stated that he’d probably be with them the rest of the summer. Then Ezra in a hoarse voice added, "You’re my Uncle. I need you to stay here and be my Uncle. What about Uncle Buck, the horses, the dogs? They need you too. I know you miss Aunt Sarah very much but if you go, we’ll all miss you very much." Damp green eyes gazed into moist hazel ones as Chris’s long arms enfolded Ezra in a hug.

In the shadows by the lake, Buck smiled as he heard Chris’s gruff, "You win. I’ll stick around and be your Uncle but don’t expect me to be happy about it."

Ezra burrowed closer into his Uncle in response

Chapter 33

After the rodeo, the Larabees celebrated their first place finish in the calf-roping event with a Sunday Barbeque. The proud Uncles also wanted to celebrate Ezra’s second-place finish in the Jr. Novice lassoing event. A beaming Buck was showing off Ezra’s silver lasso plaque to a suitably impressed JD. Chris turned a steak over in the grill and grinned as Ezra, who was sitting at the picnic table sketching, blushed at JD’s words of praise.

Chris recalled how Ezra decided he wanted to enter the event. They had been at the Potters’ store when they had run into Mary and Billy Travis. Billy had boasted about how he entered the Jr. lassoing event. Billy had made an offhand remark about Ezra being a city boy and not knowing how to lasso and ride like the boys who grew up in the country. This had caused a determined light to sparkle in Ezra’s eyes and he had marched up to the sign-up sheet posted in the Potters’ store. Ezra glanced at both his Uncles who nodded encouragingly at him and Ezra entered as one of the contestants.

In the competition, Ezra had bested Billy Travis. Billy had come in sixth out of twelve contestants. The boy that had won the event was Chanu, the nine-year old son of Kojay who was friends with both Vin and Josiah. After the event, Chanu had provided Ezra with some helpful tips for next year.

Chris’s grin dimmed as he also remembered how Ezra had hid in Hermes’ stall once they had gotten home from the awards ceremony. Ezra had thought that he and Buck would be furious with him because he had come in second place instead of first. The brothers had finally figured that out after a long and frustrating hour of trying to get Ezra out of his horse’s box.

Hermes had sensed his boy was upset and became very protective of him, not allowing the adults to get near Ezra until Ezra was calm enough. Finally Chris and Buck were able to convince their nephew to come out and then proceeded to soothe Ezra’s fears a bit more when they showed him their bronze lasso plaques from their first rodeo.

Josiah asking about a certain marinade brought Chris back to the present.

Ezra was now tossing a ball back and forth between Leo and Brownie who were wagging their tails in happiness. Nathan was sitting the potato salad upon the picnic table. Rain and Casey were behind him chatting about Nettie’s blue-ribbon pies. As a surprise, Nettie had baked a blueberry pie for Ezra. It was his favorite pie. Now they just had to keep it out of Vin’s reach. Buck was now keeping Vin busy with a debate about their favorite football teams.

At the end of the meal when the pie was brought out, Ezra became speechless when he discovered it was for him. The little one sat on the bench of the picnic table flanked by both his Uncles and had been chattering away with JD across the table from him about the horses when Nettie and Casey set the blueberry pie down on the table before him. A startled Southern drawl questioned, "For me?"

When he heard the choruses of "Yup, yeah, yes, all yours Ez, I’ve got my peach pie," Ezra’s lips formed a perfect "O" of surprise. A couple of seconds later he buried his face into his Uncle Buck’s side. One of Buck’s arms came around to hug his nephew around the shoulders and Chris began to rub soothing circles on Ezra’s back.

"What’s wrong, Ezra?" Chris and Buck both asked at the same time. The other adults were exchanging worried glances.

Ezra finally looked up and glanced around the table. Eyes sparkling, he said, "It is just that no one has ever done this for me before. Thank you."

Nettie had cut the pie into sections already so all Casey had to do was serve it. She was going to serve the boy of the hour first but he insisted that she serve the others first.

Later that night, as he was coming out of the bathroom, Ezra acknowledged to himself that he might have had a dollop too much of ice cream on his slice of pie. He smiled to himself at the memory. His sharp ears once again caught the sound of the front door opening. Ezra thought it was his Uncle Chris out for one of his nightly walks. The child went to the window and peered out, to his surprise it was not his Uncle Chris but rather his Uncle Buck.

"Why is Uncle Buck going to the barn in the middle of the night?" a curious Ezra thought to himself. He grabbed a flashlight from his desk and stealthily followed his Uncle. Ezra squatted down next to Hermes’ stall.

Green eyes peeked through the slats and saw Buck get a flashlight from the tack room and then his uncle opened a trap door near the entrance of the barn. Buck’s form vanished from Ezra’s sight. The child crept ahead cautiously, eager to satisfy his curiosity. The thud of the big, red flashlight on the barn floor plus the four, thick stacks of money that followed it onto the ground froze the boy in his tracks.

Ezra blinked, looked around and jumped into the loose hay nearest to him. From his hiding place, Ezra watched his Uncle Buck emerge through the trap door. The big man then closed the door, gathered the money and flashlight into his hands and returned to the house.

The child jumped up from his hiding place, dusted himself free of hay and strode over to the trap door and put down his flashlight. Using both hands, Ezra wrestled the trap door open, grasped his flashlight and climbed down the wooden ladder. When his feet hit the ground, he turned around to face the room and stared. Chests and piles of money filled the room. A beam of light hit the chest of money nearest to Ezra. Before he knew it, the child was in front of the chest, still staring at the money in confusion. A small hand unconsciously fingered a fat wad of bills.

Barking from above the open trap door had Ezra twitching slightly and swinging the flashlight up toward the door. Leo and Brownie looked down at him. "Does this money look stolen to you?" tumbled from Ezra’s lips.

Chapter 34

All the next day, Ezra was distracted. He kept shooting troubled glances at his Uncles when they weren’t looking. While in the garage with his Uncle Buck and Josiah he had knocked over one of the toolboxes, scattering wrenches and screwdrivers everywhere. When Ezra had been in the wood workshop with his Uncle Chris and Vin he had accidentally nicked himself with a knife. After checking that Ezra was all right except for the cut on his left hand, Chris silently bandaged up his nephew’s wound. The blond then sent Ezra up to his room to rest.

Chris and Buck did not get a chance to talk about Ezra’s strange behavior until after supper because they had potential buyers coming all afternoon.

Both men missed their little pard helping them out with their buyers but Ezra’s health came first. The little one slept through supper so Buck kept Ezra’s plate warm by putting it on the hotplate which was on the kitchen table. The Uncles peeked in on a still slumbering Ezra before heading to their own beds.

A little while later, Ezra’s stomach growling woke up the child. Ezra padded downstairs, into the kitchen and found his supper on the hot plate. He smiled at his Uncle Buck’s hastily scrawled note at the side of the warming device. Ezra placed the note in the pocket of his robe. Then he grabbed an oven mitt and lifted his meal off the hot plate. He slid into his chair and ate his supper. He was drying off his plate when he heard the rumble of a car engine coming into the yard. He set the dish and dish towel down on the counter and strode into the living room.

Ezra looked out the window and blinked in shock.

It was his mother, Maude.

Chapter 35

She was with a man he didn’t recognize but that was all right, she was here to see him. Ezra hurried over to the front door, opened it and stepped out onto the porch where he awaited his mother.

Maude looked up at the sound of footsteps. She finished mounting the porch steps and stood in front of her son. The blonde spoke Ezra’s name in a way that let him know it was all right to call her mother so he did.

She then introduced the man at her side. "Ezra, this is Guy Royal." The dapper yet sneaky looking man shook Ezra’s hand. "It’s nice to meet you, Ezra. Your mother has told me so much about you." Once the man greeted the boy, the man sat down on one of the porch chairs. Maude motioned Ezra into the chair next to Guy’s and then she sat down in the chair next to Ezra’s. The blonde woman stated, "Guy owns a casino/hotel in Las Vegas now but he used to be a detective around here twenty years ago."

After Ezra made a polite comment to Mr. Royal, he asked Maude a question. "What happened to the business deal with the hotel in Denver?"

"It didn’t pan out darling, and I ended up going to Las Vegas," Maude replied.

The endearment alerted Ezra to be more on his guard than he already was.

Maude’s next words enforced it. "Ezra, I’d wager you discovered where your uncles hid all that money."

Green eyes glanced into another pair of green eyes as Ezra queried sharply, "Why do you want to know?"

Royal was the one that answered. "As your mother said, I was a detective. There were these "Santa Claus" bandits that committed bank robberies twenty years ago. The bandits were never caught but I have been gathering evidence these past few years and the thieves are your Uncles."

Maude nodded and said, "I’ve seen the evidence, it is your uncles all right."

Ezra immediately said, "No, you are wrong."

Guy insisted, "They used shotguns, they wore disguises, stole all that money, shot innocent people..."

Ezra shaking his head no, interrupted with an earnest, "No, not them. It can’t be. What about Tía Inez and Aunt Sarah? I have a picture of them."

Guy and Maude exchanged glances over the boy’s head.

Then Maude replied, "Inez was one of the thieves who were killed in a shootout with the law."

"Sarah was the one driving the getaway car when it crashed. She was fatally wounded but your uncles abandoned her, drove off in another car and left her for dead," Guy Royal added.

The hopeful look on Ezra’s face fell into a crestfallen one as he listened to everything that his mother and Mr. Royal said.

Guy continued, "I know this hurts, Ezra but they’re criminals and they lied to you."

Maude stood up at the side of Ezra’s chair, one of her fine-boned hands rested on her son’s shoulder. She spoke, "As soon as we found out, we came to get you and take you away. I want you to tell Guy where the money is and then we’ll go pack your things."

Ezra raised his bowed head, glared and suspiciously asked, "Why do you need to know where the money is?"

Once again, Royal responded, "Because it doesn’t belong to them. It’s stolen money. It’s probably hidden right outside here, close by? Why don’t you show us around the place? Let’s take a walk."

Guy Royal, Ezra and Maude walked off the porch into the front yard. Guy was still talking. "Ezra, your mother and I are partners and we have enough seed money for a business but we need money for the operating expenses. We could turn your Uncles in for the reward money but they’d go to prison."

Maude cajoled, "Since your Uncles obtained that money illegally, we have just as much right to it as they do. We can have a successful business and a stable home. It is what we both have always wanted. So where is it? Just tell us." Ezra stopped mid-stride and gazed around the yard. Royal and Maude did the same thing, then Guy took a few steps forward.

The child suddenly gazed up at his mother and excitedly said, "Uncle Chris and Buck didn’t rob any banks! They were in Africa."

"Africa?" Maude queried skeptically.

Green eyes shining, voice certain and unwavering, Ezra kept on. "They were shanghaied to the Foreign Legion and had adventures for twenty years. They could not have committed any bank robberies!"

Guy turned around and said, "Ezra, you don’t actually believe that do you?"

The boy’s tone of voice did not change as he replied, "Yes I do."

Maude lost her temper and hissed at her son. "You? Usually you are a Mr. doubting Thomas. Guy has actual evidence and you believe your Uncles’ fabrications about Africa?"

Ezra repeated, "Yes I do." And Maude was stunned by the utter conviction on Ezra’s face and in his tone of voice.

Royal strode back to where Maude and Ezra stood. Patting Maude’s shoulder, Royal suggested that she go back to the porch while he and Ezra talked near the barn.

Chapter 36

Once Maude had turned her back to return to the porch, Guy Royal manhandled Ezra to the barn. Ezra stumbled and nearly fell twice but he kept his feet. The two stopped at the edge of the open barn doors. Royal snapped, "We getting warmer?" The hand gripping Ezra’s shoulder in a bruising hold tightened. The sudden punch to his stomach caused the child to groan involuntarily.

Inside the barn, the sound of his boy had Hermes’ ears twitching. The growing colt ambled away from his food trough and stuck his head out of his stall.

While Hermes moved to unlatch his box door as Hawk had taught him, Guy ranted away. "We can be friends or we can be enemies. I have had a run of crappy luck lately. Now some bad people want to cause a lot of trouble for me. I need that money and I know it’s close. A snot-nosed kid like you isn’t going to stand in my way. So kid, friends or enemies?" Neither a flicker nor a glance of Ezra’s eyes betrayed the fact that the man had his feet planted upon the top of the trap door.

Ezra glared at Guy Royal and then a smirk curled the boy’s lips as he taunted the man, "Defend Yourself." Then Ezra with all his might kicked the man in the upper thigh. A surprised and hurt Royal released his punishing grip on the boy.

Ezra ran away as fast as he could. He was rounding the garage heading toward the house when Guy Royal tackled him from the side. The angry man tussled with Ezra finally pinning the child to the ground. Terrified green eyes glanced toward the ranch then to the face of the enraged man on top of him. One of Guy’s hands held Ezra’s arms down. The other hand continuously slapped and hit Ezra’s face. Royal was wildly shouting, "Where is the money? Tell me where it is."

Ezra was the first one to feel the ground shaking and to hear the thundering hooves pounding the earth. A moment later, Guy Royal heard and felt it too. The man peered over his shoulder. His grip on Ezra slackened and then he froze at the sight.

Hermes, with his eyes narrowed, ears pinned back, and nostrils flared was charging hard at him.

Ezra barely had time to wriggle free from Guy’s grasp before the colt barreled into the man. Hermes bit and nipped at Royal. One of the colt’s hooves soundly thumped the writhing man’s side. Another of the horse’s front legs stomped on Guy’s arm. Guy Royal’s screams and Hermes’ squeals had Maude, Buck and Chris running out of the house.

Buck and Chris had their rifles with them and stopped in their tracks as they took in the scene. Ezra was trying to calm Hermes down and get the colt away from the man lying on the ground. Chris and Buck’s jaws clenched as they saw the hand-sized bruises marking their nephew’s face. Buck went over to help Ezra with Hermes while Chris ordered Maude to go inside and call 911."

Maude went to make the call after ascertaining that Guy Royal was not dead. The blond man muttered, "It might still be a possibility," as he strode over to Buck, Ezra and Hermes.

He saw the unshed tears brimming in the child’s eyes and Buck patting their nephew’s back. He knew the rage that was in his brother’s eyes was reflected in his own but they had to quell it for now. Hermes stood at Ezra’s side and sniffed his boy. Chris thought about shooting the man lying on the ground but decided that would frighten Ezra too much.

Once Chris reached them, Buck said, "Ezra’s bruised and shaken up but he’s physically alright otherwise." Chris pointed to Guy Royal and barked out, "Ezra, did he hit you?" At his nephew’s nod, hazel eyes hardened and Chris glared at the prone man on the ground.

The eldest Larabee grunted, "This coward needs a lot of stitches."

Chris and Buck crouched down next to Guy and whispered softly, "You’re lucky the horse got to you before we did."

Royal closed his eyes against the heat of the glares he received from both brothers.

Ezra petted Hermes with his uninjured arm and praised him. "Hermes, you are a singular colt. Thank you for protecting me." He then pressed his forehead against the horse’s flank. His Uncles heard him when they were straightening up.

Buck cocked an eyebrow at Chris. Chris’s response to Ezra’s words was to splay a callused hand on Ezra’s back and say, "Ezra, you are pretty exceptional yourself, so it is only fitting that your horse be as well." The child beamed a gold-toothed grin at him and one at Buck when the mustached man chorused his agreement to Chris’s statement.

Buck and Ezra were able to settle Hermes back in his stall without any problems.

Nathan was the senior paramedic on duty that night. The medic bustled off the ambulance, concern plainly etched in his face. After the situation was explained to him, anger warred with concern. Nathan had the other paramedic, Conklin attend to Royal while he treated Ezra. Jackson didn’t understand how Maude could choose to accompany Guy Royal to the hospital while she completely ignored her son and the trauma he had just gone through. Ezra refused to go to the hospital so the senior paramedic led the little one to his room, tucked Ezra into bed and sat with him until Ezra fell asleep. Buck and Chris had trailed Nathan into Ezra’s room. Chris had shushed Buck when Buck cracked a joke about Ezra looking like a rainbow. A tired Ezra chuckled and then his breath evened out. The three adults tip-toed from the child’s room and let him rest. Nathan instructed the Larabees about the bruising on Ezra’s body and about the cut on his left hand.

The brothers profusely thanked the medic before he left.

Buck gave Nathan a ride back to town.

Chapter 37

Days later, Ezra had just finished brushing Hermes’ coat when his Uncle Buck and Uncle Chris entered the stall. The child turned his still bruised face toward them. Chris gazed at a point above his nephew’s head when Buck sorrowfully said, "Finish packing yet, Ezra? Your mother will be coming from the hospital soon. You can wait for her on the front porch." Ezra nodded slowly.

The trio strode silently out of the barn and into the house.

The boy trudged up the stairs. He only had one item left to pack. Ezra placed the photo frame of his aunts between his two best shirts and then clicked the suitcase shut. He reluctantly carried the suitcase from his bedroom to the side of his chair on the porch. The child glumly shuffled his pack of playing cards until he heard the spurs of his Uncle Chris’s boots stop in front of him.

The little one tilted his head up and gazed at his Uncle’s serious face. "Ezra, did you know your mother was coming?" fell from the blond man’s lips.

The boy shook his no and verbally answered the same but he added, "I was thinking about her that day." Ezra didn’t say he had mostly been thinking about the money he had found in the room under the barn and wondering how his Uncles had truly acquired it.

Chris said, "So that was the reason you were so distracted that day." At Ezra’s affirmative, the blond man nodded to himself and then said he was bringing out a glass of lemonade for Ezra.

The child smiled at him in gratitude then went back to shuffling his cards.

Ezra and Chris drank their lemonade in silence. A few minutes after his Uncle had taken the empty glasses back to the kitchen; Maude arrived driving a blue Cadillac which she smartly parked at the edge of the driveway and the yard. Guy Royal, swathed in bandages that made him look like an Egyptian mummy, sat in the passenger seat.

Maude got off the car as Chris stepped onto the porch once more and Buck was coming around from the back of the house.

Leo and Brownie, who were lying across the porch steps, blocked her path. Then the dogs barked angrily at the blonde intruder. Maude haughtily ordered them with a, "Do not be impertinent." This did not stop Leo and Brownie from barking and snarling at the blonde intruder. However, a soft-spoken command from Chris had the dogs quieting instantly.

The woman then turned her attention to her son. "You all packed?"

A stoic, "Yes" was her answer.

She responded, "It’s time to leave."

A few steps into the yard, the blonde turned to look at her brothers and said, "Hope Ezra was not too much trouble."

"We managed," Chris grunted.

Both Chris and Buck inclined their heads toward the Cadillac. Buck spoke up first, "What are you going to do with Royal? The man has no business being near our boy."

The eldest Larabee reinforced his brother’s words with his own, "A man like Royal has no reason to be near Ezra."

Their sister replied, "Of course not. I am going to drop him off in Las Vegas." She pivoted around on her heel and began to walk to the car.

Ezra did not begin to walk again. He stood quiet and still for a few moments.

Moist green and hazel eyes locked gazes. "Uncle Chris, take care of Uncle Buck and Hermes for me until I return next summer," Ezra said.

His Uncle Chris hugged him and murmured into his hair, "Will do." Ezra slowly backed away from Chris.

The little one turned to Buck and told him. "Uncle Buck, take cake of Uncle Chris and Hermes." Buck nodded. Ezra continued talking, "Thank you for the stories."

"Glad you liked them." And another hug for Ezra was Buck’s response.

Ezra unwillingly stepped back, took a long, memorizing look at his Uncles while words continued to spill from his lips. "Thank you for everything. This summer has meant so very much to me."

Maude’s impatient call of Ezra’s name made the child turn and begin to trek to the automobile. Leo and Brownie chased after the boy until they caught up to him. The dogs’ sad whimpering had Ezra stopping for a moment so he could scratch behind their ears one last time.

Ezra finally climbed into the back seat of the car. Ezra’s gaze never wavered from the sight of his Uncles and the dogs still in the front yard as his mother drove them away from the ranch.

Back in the front yard of the Larabee Ranch, Buck broke the silence, with a, "She doesn’t deserve Ezra. We can talk to Orin..."

Chris uncrossed his arms and interrupted his brother’s plea with, "I’ve already called him but he’s out of the country on an extradition case. We’ll talk to him when he gets back."

The mustached man had another thought, "Maybe she’d sell him to us. How much money do we have?"

The blond man sighed wearily, "It wouldn’t be legal. The law would take Ezra away from us. Orin will help us bachelor Uncles figure out a way to gain legal custody of Ezra. We just have to be patient for now." Buck grunted in reply and then headed for the garage.

Meanwhile in the Cadillac, the child had turned his focus forward and noticed they were nearing the bridge. Ezra asked, "What is our destination?"

Maude said, "I already stated it was Las Vegas."

The little one clarified his question, "I mean after we return Mr. Royal to Las Vegas."

The blonde woman glanced at the bandaged man next to her before responding, "Guy is going to need a lot of care and attention."

From the backseat, a horrified Ezra stared at the back of his mother’s head. Then he glanced out the window, bit his lip and made a decision. Small but nimble fingers twisted an inside door handle and the back door clicked open. Ezra dove out of the open door and rolled down the grassy embankment at the end of the bridge. The child got up, dusted himself off and began to run down the bridge back toward the ranch.

Maude shouted Ezra’s name and slammed on the brakes of the car several seconds after her son threw himself out of the Cadillac. When she slammed on the brakes, Guy Royal hit the windshield with a violent thud. Maude yelled for Ezra to stop and caught up to her son when he tripped and fell onto the bridge. She clamped Ezra’s shoulder in a vise-like grip and hissed, "What are you doing?"

A defiant Ezra met her angry visage. Words flew from Ezra’s lips. "You are leaving me alone in Las Vegas while you continue your association with Mr. Royal. You are still going to be his partner, even after everything that has transpired. Has he assaulted you yet, Mother?"

Maude’s eyes narrowed as she hissed that it was none of Ezra’s business.

A concerned Ezra continued, "You always think that the next con will be the perfect one and you will have the riches you deserve. What if one of your marks catches on to your scam and limits your options of escape?"

Maude’s anger deflated at Ezra’s words. To Ezra, his mother’s next words sounded more like she was talking to herself rather than to him. "Right at this moment, I have no viable option but to be Guy Royal’s partner, at least for now," Maude whispered out loud.

She was startled by Ezra’s reply. "Perhaps you do not but I do." His hand covered her hand still gripping his shoulder and squeezed it gently.

His green eyes wide and imploring, Ezra pleaded, "Mother, do something for me, for once. Do something that is best for me. Please."

Back at the ranch, Chris sat on the porch and whittled, Leo and Brownie idled at his feet, Buck had his head stuck under the raised hood of their truck parked at the side of the house. Suddenly the dogs took off running down the driveway. "What in tarnation?" Chris muttered to himself and looked up from the wooden horse in his hands. The wooden horse and the paring knife clattered onto his chair as he saw what had caught the dogs’ attention.

Buck banged his head against the hood when Chris shouted his name. "What in da..." Buck began but bit off the rest of what he was going to say as Ezra happily strode into the yard.

Leo and Brownie were dancing around the boy’s legs.

The mustached man dropped his wrench into the toolbox and high-tailed it to Chris’s side.

The Larabees halted a few inches away from their nephew.

Ezra put the suitcase down on the ground away from the dogs surrounding him. He then gazed at his Uncles and said, "Now if I am going to live here, there are going to be some conditions."

"Conditions?" Chris queried.

Ezra nodded, put his arms akimbo and began, "One: You two have to be around until I graduate High School at least, preferably college. You will both have new responsibilities, PTA. Boy Scouts, Little League, the works."

Buck looked at Chris. Chris groused good-naturedly, "Sounds like we don’t have much choice." Then the blond man glanced at his brother and a half smile curled his lips.

Ezra kept on speaking, "Two: You both have to take better care of yourselves, eat more vegetables including Lima Beans Uncle Buck and less meat."

Both Buck and Chris grunted.

Buck wondered aloud, "If the Potters’ store doesn’t carry all the school supplies you’re going to need, I wonder if there is a traveling salesman that sells school supplies in this area?"

Ezra emitted a small chuckle at his Uncle’s question before adding, "Three: No more dangerous adventures. No fighting teenagers, no taunting bulls at rodeos."

Jade green eyes glared at both his Uncles. Ezra had not forgotten the incident which occurred after his Uncles had won the calf-roping event at the Eagle Bend Rodeo. He and Sheriff Dunne had been on their way to congratulate them when he had seen Uncle Buck and then Uncle Chris yell at a humongous bull. The bovine was attracted to the bright red shirts which the Larabees wore. Buck and Chris were able to scramble out of the charging animal’s way in time and other rodeo cowboys were able to corner the bull into a locked chute. The Larabees had distracted the bull so others could pull an injured rider out of harm’s way. Ezra had learned that fact later in the day. But the boy had still not forgotten the terror of seeing the men in danger.

Chris and Buck put their hands up in mock surrender and then put them down.

The blond man grumbled, "Ezra, you are not the only one who sets conditions and rules around here." Chris’s hazel eyes twinkled when he asked, "Got it?"

Ezra bobbed his head yes.

Buck stretched out one of his long arms toward Ezra and a wide grin split his face when he whooped, "Welcome home, Ezra." He heartily clapped Ezra on the shoulder as the child reached his side. The mustached man also grabbed Ezra’s suitcase. The child grinned at him and strode ahead of his dark-haired Uncle. Chris had scooted up the porch and opened the front door wide. The blond man ushered Ezra into the house with a loving pat on the back.

Ezra answered the phone as it rung. "Hello, Sheriff Dunne."

+++++++End Flashback+++++++

Chapter 38 – Epilogue

Present Day

Ezra answered the phone as it rung. "Hello, Sheriff Dunne."

JD caught Ezra up with everything which had been going on at home. Ezra had assured the retired law officer that he would be home for Uncle Chris’s surprise birthday party.

The Southerner quickly changed into casual clothes and caught the earliest flight out of Louisville to Denver. Ezra then drove the Jaguar XJ12-CV2, which he and his Uncle Buck had restored from Denver to Four Corners because Four Corners still did not have an airport.

As he turned into the familiar driveway, he smiled his gold-toothed smile and hoped his ‘surprise’ had not arrived before he had.

When he reached the newly built covered garage attached to one side of the house, Ezra’s sharp green eyes noted that Josiah’s Suburban, Vin’s Jeep, Nathan’s Volvo, JD’s Suzuki Uncle Buck’s Chevy truck and Uncle Chris’s new Dodge truck were already parked. The Jaguar purred into her regular spot between the Chevy and the Dodge.

Before he entered the house through the kitchen door, Ezra made a detour to the barn to visit his beloved horse, Hermes, who had turned 27 this past winter. The pampered, retired gelding neighed a loud greeting when he saw the young man enter his stall. Ezra quickly fed and petted his horse. He had also petted Ace, the chestnut horse he currently rode when he was home.

Leonora and Fudge who were Leo and Brownie’s descendents also wanted attention. Once Ezra finished scratching under their chins, the dogs fell asleep on the loose hay near the barn doors.

Ten minutes later, Ezra walked into the kitchen and nearly bumped into Nettie Wells. The feisty, eighty-five year old woman still baked delicious pies. The aroma of apple-cinnamon pie, Uncle Chris’s favorite filled the air. Ezra apologized for almost knocking her over. The woman replied "No need for one, now go on in there. They’re waiting for you."

Nettie tilted her head toward the living room. Ezra nodded and strode into the crowded living room. Ezra moved through the room stopping along the way to greet friends and family until he reached his Uncles at the opposite end of the room. Casey, Rain, and Frankie stepped away from their friend as he continued his way to Buck and Chris.

Ezra finally breached the circle of his family’s closest friends surrounding his Uncles. Wide smiles wreathed Josiah, Nathan, Vin, and JD’s faces as Ezra hugged and wished his Uncle Chris, "Happy Birthday."

Buck’s own grin could have lit half the state when he clapped Ezra on the back. These words tumbled out of Buck’s mouth, "Best present you could give him is having you home safe and sound, pard." The white-blond man stepped away from Ezra and cuffed his younger brother on the back of the head. Chris said, "Shut up, Buck."

The six men started peppering Ezra with questions about his trip to Louisville.

Vin handed Ezra a beer. Ezra proposed a toast. "In her life, my mother made many errors. But once by sheer chance, she did something right. Maude left me one summer with her two estranged brothers. It was here in the most unlikely of places that I found a family. I found a home. To Family. To finding a Home." Ezra raised his beer bottle and clinked it against his Uncle Chris’s and his Uncle Buck’s bottles.

A few minutes later, everyone heard the noise of a big eighteen wheeler truck rumble into the ranch’s front yard. Ezra led his Uncles and everybody else outside.

His ‘surprise’ had arrived.

At the edge of the horse rail, Chris and Buck stood motionless and speechless as they saw the red flag with the lion emblem on it flutter against one side of the trailer. The trailer doors slid open. The Honor Guard of The French Foreign Legion astride their mounts leapt out of the trailer, encircling two saddled horses without riders.

The Honor Guard Commander called out for ‘Lieutenant’ Buck Wilmington-Larabee and ‘Captain’ Chris Larabee to come forward and claim their horses.

Ezra gently pushed his Uncles forward. Once Buck and Chris neared the legionnaires, Chris recognized the Commander as the youngest member of the last unit he had commanded while still in the Legion.

Chris grinned at the stir he caused among the crowd by mounting the gray horse. Buck mounted his black horse. As they rode by the legionnaires, they thanked them. Once the last man was thanked, they pivoted their mounts around and raced to the meadow.

Ezra and Ace joined them in their race.

After they reached their destination, the three men ground tied their horses.

It was now time for a birthday ritual.

Buck, Ezra and Chris lay down on their backs, opened their shirts to the bare skin underneath so they could get a tan, tilted their heads back and described what the clouds in the sky looked like.

Ezra laughed at one of his Uncle Buck’s descriptions.

Ezra spotted a cluster of seven clouds and whispered, "My family, my home."


If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that GemsPegasus would love to hear from you.


This website is maintained by Donna and Barb
email us
with corrections and additions