Ruling Day

by Angela B.

Disclaimer: I do not own either the characters or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers


This story takes place about six months after Jumping Hurdles

I do not profess to know how real custody hearings are held but I thought this would work. I apologize to anyone in the social services field if I hurt their feelings.

If you would like to write in the AU, by all means go for it. Whether it's before the death of the parents, right after or whenever.

Thanks to Chris for beta reading this and for her helpful suggestions

The three oldest boys sat around the supper table. Chris ran his hand through his short blond hair for what seemed the millionth time that night. In two days they would go before the Judge Orrin Travis. The man would dictate how they would live the rest of their lives with just a few short words. Six months ago Josiah had been awarded temporary custody. In two short days a different judge would decide whether or not that decree would become permanent.

Mary Travis, a reporter for the local newspaper and daughter-in-law to the Judge had been out to the house earlier that evening. She wanted to write a human-interest story on the boy’s lives and the upcoming custody hearing. While at the house she had taken the to time to explain to the boys the procedure that would take place in the courtroom. Mary explained how Judge Travis would review each boy’s case history, talk with all of them and then give his final recommendations as to what he thought would be best for each boy.

After Mary left the others had been sent to their rooms to get ready for bed. Nathan had stayed in the kitchen with the remaining three brothers. He argued that if he could be responsible enough to help them take care of the younger ones he should be allowed to carry some of the other responsibilities and if that meant staying up half the night worrying so be it. Josiah had pointed out that if Nathan really wanted to appear responsible he’d go to bed and get some sleep so he wouldn’t be appearing before the Judge with bags under his eyes.

Josiah looked into his brother’s deep brown eyes, "It might appear as if we let you stay up to all hours of the night," pausing a moment. "We all want to be seen as responsible," giving his brother a slight smile. Nathan begrudgingly consented and went to bed.

After Nathan left, Buck sighed and thought about the four boys upstairs in their beds. He silently corrected himself. Actually only three would be in bed; one would undoubtedly be sitting in a corner shuffling some old cards. The small southerner had arrived with very few possessions and the cards had been one of them.

After the three oldest moved back into the house the rooming situation had been changed. Josiah moved into their parent’s old room. Ezra had been moved in with Nathan, amongst a great deal of complaining from both parties. Chris took Ezra’s old room and they had redone their mom’s sewing room downstairs and made it into Buck’s room. Lately though JD had shared Buck’s room like Chris shared his with Vin. Though Vin, unlike the youngest, had never asked for comfort Chris had instinctively done everything he could to provide the extra protection without smothering the boy.

The boogie man, monster, demon terror; whatever one wanted to call it had always made appearances in the house at irregular intervals but for the last two weeks he had taken up permanent residence. This last week it seemed he had been relentless in his torture of the boys. It was taking a turn with each of the youngest. The nightmares had grown worse and the screams grew louder with each one. Though, JD was the only one who actually voiced his terror with his nightmare, it was quite obvious the other two were suffering just as badly. The only difference was they had not called out for help. Chris shook his head, just one more piece of the puzzle with those two.

+ + + + + + +

The fourteen-year-old had finally quit going to bed altogether two nights ago, stating the bed was not orthopedically correct for him and he was waking up with the backache. He didn’t fool anyone, but they couldn’t exactly tie him to the bed, though the thought had crossed Chris’ mind. They were sure he got some sleep it just wasn’t consecutively or enough. Nathan tried coaxing, cajoling and threatening the youngster to go to sleep without any success. Last night Nathan had resorted to sleeping on the floor, his way of showing support for his younger brother.

Ezra, they all knew was going to be their biggest hurdle and might be their downfall. Though it really wasn’t his fault entirely. The boy couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. He had begun believing the worst and wouldn’t be persuaded that the circumstances could turn out any different. He had become quieter these last couple of days, even more quieter than Vin. He was closing in on himself; the walls that they had all so diligently chipped away and torn down had not only been rebuilt but new ones had been erected at lightening speed.

After long minutes of silence Josiah laid his hands down on the table and rose up, "No use dwelling on things any longer. Better get to bed ourselves if we don’t want to look haggard and worn tomorrow."

The two brothers followed suit. "I’m not worried. Tomorrow night we’ll all be back here and will be having a cookout." Buck was an eternal optimist.

Chris opened the kitchen door as the all too familiar screams for help came flooding from behind the bedroom door. Buck took off at top speed with the other two following close behind. When they reached the room JD was sitting up fighting an unknown enemy for all he was worth. Buck was able to quickly wake the terrified child up.

"Shhh. Buck’s right here. I got ya. I ain’t gonna let nothing happen to you." The older one rocked the youngest back and forth soothing away the fears. Chris and Josiah left the dark haired man cradling his little charge.

Josiah walked up the stairs with a heavy heart. He quietly pushed opened the door to Ezra and Nathan’s room to check on the two boys. After letting his eyes adjust to the darkness he could make out the form of Ezra in the far corner huddled under a mound of blankets, a light could be seen shining through ever so slightly. Walking over to the covered form he gently lifted up a corner. Ezra was feigning sleep, clutching a small flashlight. Traces of tears still visible on his cheeks could still be seen, the only telltale signs of his own nightmares. The oldest bent down and gently brushed his hand through the soft short brown hair. The simple action caused an almost unnoticed tremor through the slight body but Josiah felt it.

"It’s ok Ezra, Buck’s got JD." Josiah spoke into the dark, wanting to do nothing more than comfort his brother and knowing Ezra wouldn’t allow it.

Josiah rose stiffly and walked over to Nathan’s bed. Seeing his brother was awake he gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile.

"JD ok, Josiah?" Nathan asked, even though he had heard Josiah tell his roommate that JD was, Nathan wanted to see Josiah’s face when he said it.

"Yeah. It’ll be better starting tomorrow night." Josiah replied with an affirmative nod.

As Josiah walked out of the room he heard Nathan slipping from his bed. Turning to close the door he watched Nathan quietly lay down on the floor next to Ezra. Josiah sent up one more prayer that tomorrow night would see things back to normal, or at least as normal as they could be without their parents.

+ + + + + + +

Chris walked into his room and found Vin huddled up in blankets in the middle of the bed. The lean boy never said a word but the look in his scared blue eyes spoke volumes. "You alright there, Cowboy?" Chris asked as he sat down beside the boy on the bed. Vin could only shake his head; the screaming had scared him worse than his own nightmare.

"Yeah," he managed to whisper. Wishing he could be like his little brother and crawl into a lap and bury his face. Chris knew what his brother needed and took his younger sibling into his arms like his oldest brother had done minutes before with JD and silently held him as the tears quietly fell onto his shirt. Chris once again wished the hearing were already over. It was the reason for all the recent nightmares and behavioral changes in his brothers. Though Chris had to admit it was being especially hard for Vin and Ezra.

The fear of being torn from a safe place, from people who loved them and protected them was of great concern. The dread of being forced to live with another family was wreaking havoc on all the progress the two boys had made since being placed in their home. Having to learn new people, new rules, and worry whether they would provide safety. The thought of being loved was not in the realm of reality for two of the boys, they believed this family was their only chance for that. So much fear and uncertainty was overwhelming for these young ones who had already survived a lifetime of pain.

The next day was spent relatively quiet. Breakfast was eaten without the normal rambunctiousness and laughter that was so often acquainted with the meal. The meal was followed by the regular chores but again without the usual horseplay. By lunch Josiah had figured they had to do something to get the younger brother’s mind off tomorrow’s hearing. Stepping out onto the porch he rang the old dinner bell that his father had put up many years ago.

When all the brothers had appeared onto the porch, some with concern etched on their faces, Josiah mentally kicked himself for not thinking the boys would take the ringing of the bell as a bad sign. He hurried on with his plan.

Josiah put on his best smile, clapped his hands and announced, "We’re going to the pond for a picnic."

JD jumped up and down in excitement. No more chores and a day to play. Chris and Buck nodded in acceptance. The tall blond clapped his hand on Vin’s thin shoulders. "C’mon let’s go gather the fishing poles." Vin’s head bobbed up and down. He liked fishing with his older brother.

Buck swung the little black haired boy over his shoulder and spun around, "C’mon squirt, let’s go saddle the horses. Nathan, wanna lend a hand," he said looking over his shoulder at the senior. Nathan quickly joined Buck and JD.

Josiah looked over at the slight figure that was standing off to the side. "Well, Ezra it looks like it’s up to you and me to gather the fixins’."

Ezra merely shrugged his shoulders and headed into the house. He only got past the top step when he felt the familiar large hand rest lightly on his shoulder. A very low whisper of "I love you" floating into his hearing and stung his heart. He wished they would understand. Those words hurt because he wasn’t the kind of kid that people loved. No one before this family had even tried and he knew without a doubt that after tomorrow he would never hear those words again.

Thirty minutes later seven riders were headed for the pond located on the family’s property. JD and Buck were already harassing one another about various topics. Josiah and Nathan were discussing one of Nathan’s honor classes in which he was to write a twenty-page essay. Chris and Vin were riding silently side-by-side simply enjoying the others company.

Ezra, as a long practice rode last, bringing up the rear. He simply didn’t want anyone sneaking up on them from behind, he told himself. He silently chided himself. This after all wasn’t the old west and the bad guys weren’t pursuing them. He was so deep in thought he had failed to notice Chris and Vin had stopped to wait for him and almost ran into them, If Chaucer hadn’t been paying attention he would have. ‘How completely embarrassing, they’ve caught me daydreaming.’

"Whatcha thinking about, Ez?" the younger brother who was almost as tall as him inquired.

Piecing green eyes met equally intense blue ones. He straightened up in his saddle a more to be taller than his younger brother and noticed the other one responded equally by slouching just a little. ‘I wish he wasn’t able to read me so well’

"I was contemplating the lives of regulators who had the misfortune to have lived in the past. Always having to live with looking over their shoulder for trouble, sleeping on the ground, eating the horrendous taste of beef jerky and whatever else they found for their repast. Not to mention the very little monetary gain they were paid for their occupation." Ezra finished as he rode past the two other riders. Failing to notice the shocked looks on all six of his brother’s faces. Ezra had actually shared his thoughts aloud with them and they weren’t expecting that or the topic he shared.

"Repast?" Vin looked over to Chris with a confused look on his face.

"Meal," Chris answered as he started off once again.

"I think it would be cool to live in the old west. I’d want to be Bat Masterson. He wore really cool clothes and I love his bowler hat." JD chimed in as he reined in after the other horses.

The conversation of living in the old west continued until they reached the pond. The pros and cons being debated with equal liveliness. Josiah had to hand it to Ezra, the boy may not have intended to do it but he had single-handily broken the despairing spell that had settled around the family with a single thought.

+ + + + + + +

Camp, as it was, had been set up with the small fire. The air was now filled with the joyess laughter of a nine-year-old trying valiantly to dunk his twenty-three-year-old counterpart with the help of Nathan. Down a ways the other pair was trying in vain to fish in solitude. Josiah looked around for the one who, according to him, abhorred the coldness of the water and therefore stayed away from it at all costs. The oldest soon found the brother up high in the tree stretched out on a limb looking like a large cat asleep. Whether he was or just trying to avoid the others Josiah couldn’t decide, but on the off chance the youngster was asleep he left Ezra alone.

Lunches of sandwiches were had, along with potato chips, apples and cookies for desert. Following lunch Buck, Chris and Josiah stretched out on the ground for some relaxation while they watched Nathan take Vin and JD out into the pond and started a wild game of Marco Polo. Ezra sat quietly on the shore and watched, keeping his feelings hid. Or so he thought.

The three oldest watched the others with interest and laughter when Nathan fell into a hole and came up with JD attached to his back. Josiah noticed the feelings flicker across the green eyes and suddenly jumped up and grabbed the boy before he could protest. With Ezra firmly in his grip he jumped into the pond, drenching both and sending a cascade of water over the others. Buck and Chris began laughing uproariously and quickly followed.

Ezra came up spouting water and looking very indignant. "Josiah, what possessed you to think I would enjoy this…this…this baptismal of water?"

Josiah didn’t respond he just dunked the brown hair under water again. When the green eyes appeared again Josiah gave him an upraised eyebrow, daring the youngster to try and get revenge. Five minutes later Seven brothers were all involved in the Marco Polo game and all thoughts of the impending day were forgotten.

+ + + + + + +

Coming in from their ride, horses were unsaddled and brushed. Supplies were put away and the process of supper and baths quickly followed. A contented, quiet evening enveloped the group and they gather around the living room to watch a movie. The movie ended and three boys headed for bed but were stopped by their oldest sibling.

"Go get your blankets and pillows and bring them back down here." Josiah turned to the other three, "I mean everyone."

JD couldn’t hold back for an explanation. " Why?"

"We’re all going to camp out here on the floor." Josiah explained, looking at each of his brothers with that no nonsense look that brooked no argument.

"Cool!" and "Alright!" were the responses of JD and Vin. While an "Oh brother" escaped from Ezra’s lips as he rolled his eyes. "Josiah. I really…"

"No argument Ezra. Go get your stuff. Now!" Josiah knew what they needed right now, they needed to be together. All of them.

Several minutes later furniture had been moved and bedrolls and blankets were lined up in a row. Josiah had the foresight to place the fourteen-year-old between him and Chris. Discouraging any thoughts that Ezra might have had about slipping while they were asleep. Nathan and Buck were both on the ends with Vin and JD placed next to them respectively. Next to Vin was Chris then Ezra, then Josiah. That way each of the three youngsters were flanked by an ‘adult’.

After the lights were turned off and the whispering had ceased a familiar sound appeared in the dark. "Put the cards away Ezra and go to sleep." Josiah patiently demanded. The shuffling of cards was silenced and not long thereafter the soft breathing of a sleeping child joining three others. Josiah, Chris and Buck let out a simultaneously sigh.

"It’s going to be alright," Buck stated. Though inwardly he was beginning to have reservations. What were the chances that a judge would grant permanent guardianship of four boys to a single twenty-five year old brother? Even if that brother did have help from his other two siblings.

"Yeah. It’s just a hearing. No problem." Chris tried to sound convincing but like Buck he was having doubts, also. He tried to blame it on his little southern brother and the mood he’d been in but knew deep down Ezra had only voiced the fear the others held inside.

"Mom and Dad have always looked after us I don’t see why they aren’t doing it now," Josiah put in calmly. This was going to be the longest night of his life.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning was a rush as seven breakfasts were eaten, teeth were brushed, hair combed and getting everyone dressed in their Sunday best. Finding missing shoes, last minute ironing and tying ties kept Buck, Chris and Josiah busy. Nathan had taken it upon himself to keeping an eye on a certain southerner from escaping. An hour later they were on their way. It had been decided they would all go in the suburban, even though it was crowded, it was necessary. It not only let them be together for that much longer, but also, because the older ones felt the need to cocoon the younger ones in love and support as much as possible.

Sitting outside the courtroom Vin kept checking his watch, Chris paced, JD climbed into Buck’s lap and Ezra pulled out his cards only to have them taken away minutes later. Josiah didn’t want those cards being pulled out during the hearing. He sent an apologetic look towards his brother as he held out his hands silently demanding Ezra to fork them over.

An officer of the court soon appeared and the seven boys were ushered into the courtroom. Mary watched as the officer led the four boys whose fate hung in precarious balance through the small gate separating the older ones from the younger. It was the perfect metaphor for what they were going through thought Josiah, as he and Chris and Buck sat down behind the division in the gallery seats. A simple thing as a gate or a single sheet of paper could easily divide the family.

The other four were shown to sit behind a long table with a multitude of chairs. On the other side of the isle was another long table. Sitting at the table was Mrs. Potter, the social worker. Ezra thought it was kind of a sad situation. He liked the lady and in the past they had gotten along, but right now to his way of thinking she was the bane of their existence, the bringer of more suffering and grief.

The courtroom silence was unsettling as they all waited for the Judge to appear and rule on the outcome that would affect the rest of their lives. Finally, the side door opened and the man walked in. He was an older gentlemen but the way he carried himself told the boys he could still be an opposing person if he chose to be. Everyone stood until he was seated then they, too, sat back down. You could hear several deep breaths being taken. This was it, the moment where you thought it was live or die.

Judge Orrin Travis was not looking forward to this. He hated these kinds of rulings. From what he had read and what Mary had told him these kids before him had already traveled a long and arduous road. He had learned long ago there was no magic wand to wave and make everything all right. All he could was make his ruling and say a silent prayer that the right choice had been made.

Opening the first manila folder he had in front of him he glanced up at the fours juveniles in front of his desk. He mentally checked off each one with the documents he had gone over an hour before. Taking a mentally deep breath he folded his hands "Let’s get started"

"First we will start with Donson Nathaniel." He ordered.

Nathan stood up and clasped his hands together. "Everyone calls me Nathan," he quietly intoned. This was never what he expected in life. After being adopted he expected to live an average teenager’s live, graduate from high school then attend a medical university. After many years he would work with the underprivileged and live a long life with wonderful parents. Now his life had been turned upside down and his whole life was hinging on this one moment in life.

The Judge nodded absently and instructed the social worker, Mrs. Potter, to begin her recommendations. She quickly went over Nathan’s history, where he was born, when he was orphaned, then adopted. She proceeded to tell of his adaptability into the family and how he had adjusted. She further explained how he was excelling in school and his role he now played in the family. When she was through she sat down and glanced over at he young man, giving him a brief smile. She really didn’t believe there would be any problem with that one staying where he was.

The Judge turned his attention to Ms. Weatherly, a woman the brothers had met previously. She was a child advocate and had been assigned as the children’s lawyer.

+ + + + + + +

"Ms. Weatherly, you are the lawyer for these children?" Judge Travis asked, though he already knew the answer. He liked this woman; she fought hard for the children entrusted in her.

"Yes, your Honor." The petite red head answered as she rose from her chair.

"What is your client’s position regarding this case. The Judge asked sternly

"All four boys wish to remain in their older brother’s care." The child advocate stated simply. Now was not the time to start battling the judge. She would do that later on if it became necessary.

Judge Travis then prepared to question Nathan. Studying the information inside the folder for a moment before resting his eyes on the well-built senior.

"I see here you are the top of your class and have been awarded a scholarship to the University." The Judge asked looking straight into the dark chocolate eyes.

"Yes Sir." Nathan, unlike his younger green-eyed brother, he didn’t believe in saying anything more than one was required.

"Do you still plan on accepting the award and going to school?" he asked, continuing to study the man before him.

"Yes!" was the response from all three older brothers sitting behind the four charges?

Nathan smiled a small grin and nodded his head. "Looks that way, sir."

"Good. An education is important." The Judge still had that serious look about him but for a moment there had been a slight smile. "I understand you want to be a doctor."

"Yes sir, I’ve always wanted to be one since I was little. I like helping people and besides with six brothers having one in the family would be beneficial."

The judge nodded, again the smile flashed on his face. "What outcome concerning you do you wish to be taken today."

"Well sir, the way I see it would be best just to leave me where I’m at." Nathan’s quiet voice carried in the small courtroom.

"Oh? How’s that" the judge inquired, intrigued by this young man standing before him.

"Well, first, I figure it would be a waste of time on yours, the social worker and what ever family I might wind up with part. Not to mention the unnecessary spending of tax dollars. Then, there is the readjusting to a new environment and that could impair my grades." Looking straight at the Judge, thinking maybe those small lessons from his fourteen year old brother might come in handy, yet. "I’ll be out of school in seven months and I’ll be right back where I’m at now. So, wouldn’t you agree it would be in the best interest of everyone if I stayed where I am?" Nathan finished with a small smile.

The Judge lowered his head and held back the smile. Half of him wanted to applaud the young man’s speech. If he used that kind of reasoning now what would he be like in a couple of years?

"I will take your thoughts under advisement, young man," he said, indicating to the youth he was finished for now.

The three brothers sitting in the galleria breathed just a tad better. One down three to go. Chris watched Ezra a little closer. The boy seemed to be doing something with his hands under the table. Chris shifted ever so slightly and ducked his head a bit. He caught the other two watching him with interest. Chris rolled his eyes and motioned with his hands what his younger brother was doing.

Though Josiah had taken Ezra’s cards away the boy was now shuffling invisible cards under the table. The cards were like JD’s cap or Vin’s ragged old coat, a security blanket of sorts. The one thing that the boy could take anywhere with him and feel safe. The cards were his way of expressing emotions and feelings that otherwise were trapped inside.

The Judge put the folder aside and picked up another one. "George Daniel".

JD wanted to correct the Judge about his name the same way Nathan had but he wasn’t feeling that brave. "Yes sir." He said, copying Nathan’s manners. Maybe if he showed that he had good manners then the judge would allow him to stay. After all grownups seem to put a lot of stock in good manners.

Once again Mrs. Potter stood and gave a run down on the boy’s past and his progress since being adopted into the family a mere thirteen months before the tragedy. She reported on his recent academic advancement. JD had been allowed to skip a grade. Which was a good thing on one hand, on the other hand it had embarrassed Vin a lot. Vin had a reading problem, which slowed his learning progress down considerably. Though, Vin would never admit it out loud he was proud of his brother and humiliated by it at the same time. JD, for his part never gloated around Vin and often asked him for knowledge in other areas, like animals, smoothing damaged self-esteem, and a lot more.

The judge thanked Mrs. Potter and returned his eyes to the folder in front of him. "George, I understand you prefer to be called JD instead?" Judge Travis looked at the small boy who looked as if he was relieved of some burden.

"Yes sir!" replied JD eagerly. JD thought this man wasn’t so bad. If he knew he liked to be called JD then surely he would understand his and his brother’s desire to be with each other. He took a quick glance back at Buck and was rewarded with a smile and a nod.

Buck said a silent prayer for the boy to stay calm and not get excited as was his habit when he got wound up.

"So, JD…What do you see for yourself in the future" The Judge refused to talk down to minors. He had learned long ago that children were not only very perceptive but they could be very logical, too.

"Huh? I mean…sir?" the question had thrown JD for a loop. Then he realized the Judge hadn’t asked Nathan the question because he already knew Nathan wanted to be a doctor.

Judge Travis rephrased the question "What do you want to do when you get out of high school?"

"Oh! Well I’m going to go to college and become a computer analyst. Then I am going back and live at home and computerize the ranch. I figure by networking several local ranches and by building a website to merchandise our product, which is horses…" JD leaned forward with this piece of information thinking it was important for the Judge’s understanding. "Then by pooling our resources we can expand productivity and reinvest our money into the ranch creating a larger expenditure." JD spent the next fifteen minutes explaining to the Judge all he had planned for the ranch in order for it to grow and become an investment opportunity.

When he was done the courtroom was dead silent. "I see" the Judge cleared his throat and tried to establish where he had been before the economic lesson. "That’s quite a big project you’ve planned out."

"Oh, it’s not all my thinking. Ezra expounded…" turning and looking at his older brother with a broad smile. Ezra was always using big words and forever losing JD in a conversation but he had managed to pick up on some of the vocabulary. Ezra smiled slightly back. "On the financial growth of such a system. He’s going to do the financial part and I’m going to run the computer networking part." The young boy finished proudly.

"Ah uh." Judge Travis licked his lips and figured this would be an interesting family if given the chance to stay one. "Ok JD one more question" The judge looked at the boy standing nervously before him. "What do you want?"

"What do I want?" asked a confused JD.

"Yes, what do want?" the judge asked again.

JD shrugged his shoulders and looked exasperated. He thought maybe he wanted to know what he wanted from the guys but he couldn’t think of anything. Then a thought came to him. "I want Buck to stop putting my hat in the trash so Ezra won’t have to keep digging in the trash can for it"

This elicited several chuckles from around the room and Buck gave Ezra a contemplative smile. ‘So you’re the one’

After the laughter died down the Judge thanked JD and nodded for him to sit down.

"Next is Franklin Vincent." Shuffling around the folders as the tall, long-legged boy stood. "Vin, correct?" Vin merely nodded his head. He wasn’t going to say anything more than absolutely necessary. Can’t stick your foot in your mouth if you keep it closed was his thinking. He was determined to listen very carefully to the questions, knowing they might be different from JD’s. The same way JD’s were different from Nathan’s.

Vin’s fingered the edge of the table, the only outward sign of his nervousness. He looked down at Ezra and smiled. Ezra returned the smile and gave Vin an encouragement nod. Judge Travis took note that both the younger boys had looked towards the small fourteen-year-old for support and encouragement. What the Judge didn’t see was the silent message sent between the two. Ezra’s said ‘you’ll be fine. Chris is here.’ Vin replied back ‘You got all of us’. The brown head ducked down and studied the table with intense interest.

Once again Mrs. Potter went first. Vin’s face grew red with humiliation as she went over the amount of foster homes he had been in. He felt a slight tap on his pant leg and looked down. Ezra was giving him a look that he thought no one else saw and slightly tilted his head up. ‘Chin up Vin. You’ve got a home now’. The redness left his face and he raised his head up a little.

Chris could have leaped over the railing and hugged Ezra. He might be a pain sometimes but he came through in a pinch. Now if he’d just do it for himself.

"I see here that you like to play practical jokes, son?" The Judge looked at Vin with an interesting look that Vin couldn’t quite decipher. Jealousy, envy, or maybe curiosity. Vin wasn’t sure what the look said.

"Y...y...yes sir," Vin stammered.

"It says you don’t distinguish anyone in particular. No one is off limits, not even your principal" The judge raised his eyebrows. He had laughed in his chambers when he went over some of the jokes the young man had played. The fact that neither the teachers nor the principal was off limits had tickled the man. He would have loved to see the principal’s face when he had lifted the hood up only to find all those wires hanging loose.

Chris, Buck and Josiah all rolled their eyes, that particular prank had left Vin suspended for three days.

Vin was quick to stop the line of thinking he figured the judge was taking. "Yes sir but I don’t do that no more sir." Ezra bowed his head and silently correct the other’s grammar. Poor Vin, his grammar tended to go downhill when he was nervous.

"Uh ah…mmmmm" was the only said that came from the bench.

Vin looked over to Mrs. Weatherly who gave him an encouraging look and a wink.

"Vin…what do you see in your future?" The question came softly. The judge knew the boy was now very nervous and afraid of making a serious mistake.

Vin looked down at the table a minute then looked up, he turned his head to look over his shoulder. Turning back he looked straight into the Judge’s eyes. " Them". Though the reply was said low it seemed to resonate around the room.

"It that all you see in your future?" the Judge inquired.

"I see other things. But, first I see them." Vin swallowed. "With them anything is possible, without them nothing is." Vin looked back down at the table feeling very insecure about sharing such deep thoughts.

"What do you want Vin?" he asked already knowing the answer.

"I want to go home, sir." Vin’s answer was filled with emotion.

The Judge nodded and motioned for him to sit back down.

Everyone seemed to take a mental deep breath. The boys knew the last one was going to be the hardest one. The six boys sent up the same prayer. ‘Ezra don’t screw this up for yourself. For us’ They knew Ezra would never do anything to impair the other’s chance at going back to the ranch but if pushed to hard the boy would wind up impairing his own chances.

If Ezra felt cornered or threatened his mouth would take on a life of its own. Which often landed the kid into trouble and trouble was the last thing they needed right now.

Josiah said an extra prayer for the boy. He would never let it show but he felt more for the youngster. He believed Ezra had the ability to do great things if he could only overcome the one great obstacle standing in his way, himself.

Judge Travis moved on to the last child and silently shuddered. He hated these types of cases. The kind of case where the parents put themselves before their child. He knew of this case because he had been the one to sever Maude’s parental rights. The mother had not even showed up at the hearing to argue for the right to keep her child. The judge remembered the look on the young man’s face when it became apparent Maude would be a no-show. The youngster simply held an unreadable expression, except for the eyes. Those eyes had held so many emotions; hate, fear, anger and resolve.

The Judge looked over to Mrs. Potter, ready for brief rundown on the young man.

Mrs. Potter stood and reported how far Ezra had come since being placed with this family. His grades had gone up considerably, his behavioral problems, though still existent, were much improved. Overall Ezra was doing more than thriving, he was actually living.

Ezra stood listening with disinterest. It didn’t matter what she said or what he said the Judge would still remove him from this place where he felt secure.

The Judge finally asked him what he wanted to do in the future. Ezra gave a short speech about being a financial investor and all the minute details involved.

The judge then proceeded to ask the brown haired boy standing before him the next question. After asking three times what the fourteen-year-old wanted and getting three different answers, none of which were what the judge was looking for, the judge simply asked, "How do you feel about your home?’

Buck couldn’t help but mutter an ‘oh boy’. Ezra didn’t do well with personal questions

Ezra looked at the table then back up, "I feel that any child who is found to be in the position of needing an extraordinary care facility with exceptional people should feel very graced should they be placed with these fine folks. They will be well taken care of, the food is acceptable, the laundry is carefully done, and there are twenty-four hour counselors, discipliners, caregivers and people to hang out with. I would rate the place in overall with a nine." Ezra rolled his eyes, "There is that dreadful rule about bedtime that I think should be revoked."

The Judge saw several older ones rolling their eyes. Apparently this was a point of contention in the house.

The Judge shook his head. "That’s not what I’m asking, Ezra"

The three oldest winced at the pain they knew the question was giving their brother. Chris wanted to reach out to his brother, half of him wanted to smack him, the other wanted to protect him. In the entire time Ezra had lived with him them he had never voiced his wants or needs other than to complain about some trivial matter that really bore no consequence. When he was mad and wanted to be left alone he then said it all with those green eyes of his. Talking about himself went against his upbringing and frightened him. Fear of rejection in their brother was strong.

"Tell me what YOU want, Ezra" the judge trying again. He looked over at Mary and saw her sad countenance. The shake of her head was barely discernable. The room was silent.

Ezra turned around and looked at his three older brothers with the most pleading look in his eyes they had ever seen. Ezra never asked anything from any of them. The three men moved as one and were thru the gate and surrounding their brother before the Judge could stop them.

Buck moved to his left, Chris to his right and Josiah behind him, wrapping his arm loosely around the thin frame. Buck rested his other hand on JD’s shoulder, who in turned reached over and grasp Vin’s hand. Vin reached over and took Nathan’s all to willing hand. The judge took note of this seemingly involuntary linking of the brothers.

"Your Honor," Josiah started, "Ezra has a…a bit of trouble" Josiah was trying to phrase the problem without embarrassing his brother,"explaining his thoughts."

The Judge wasn’t going to let the boy off the hook. The Judge knew what the boy wanted but he wanted the boy say out loud what he was screaming on the inside. "He can do it. Ezra, look at me."

Ezra looked up into the piercing eyes. "I want you to start the sentence with: I want. Then I want you to tell me what YOU want. Not them." Fanning his arms toward the other boys. "You."

Chris felt badly for Ezra. But, there was no way he could help him out of this situation. He gave his brother a gently squeeze on the arm. Ezra felt a squeeze on both arms and Josiah’s arms tightened a fraction tighter around him.

Ezra looked back down at the table and in almost inaudible voice he said, " I want…I want…" shuffling his feet and clinching his hands together he tried again, "I want to go back to their residency."

"And what does "their residency" mean?’ The Judge wanted the boy to be able to acknowledge it for what it was, a home. Judge Travis was no fool and he was not hard-hearted. He understood the boy had no good memories to connect to the word. He wanted the boy to have a good connotation to connect with the word.

"What does it mean?" Ezra puzzled

"Yes, what does that word mean to you?" the Judge prodded.

"It means I got to do chores," he said, stopping to roll his eyes. "I got to do my homework," again he rolled his eyes. "It means someone’s home when I get there. It means Chris yells at me when I screw up. It’s a place where there’s laughter when Buck chases JD trying to take his hat. It’s where Josiah listens. It’s having a brother with a practical joke in mind and wants you to help carry it out…" No one missed the fact he used the word brother. "It means a lot of things. What do you want it to mean"?

The Judge shook his head mentally. The boy just wasn’t able to say the word yet but at least he knew what it meant. "I’ll take a brief recess and consider all the information I’ve gathered." The judge rose and left the room.

Ezra took the smallest step backward into his brother’s arms and felt them tighten around him. "It’s ok, you did real good" Josiah felt the others gathered around, encircling one another. Each connected to the other like a family should be.

Mrs. Potter, Ms. Weatherly and Mary quietly left the room so the seven could be together alone.

A considerate amount of time passed before the clerk called the occupants of the courtroom back to attention. The three oldest didn’t move back behind the railing and take up their previous seats. Instead they sat down in the chairs at the table, taking each one of the boys onto their laps. They would face this decision together, as brothers.

The Judge couldn’t help but notice the new seating arrangement and would have ordinarily called them on it but it seemed appropriate for the ruling he was about to deliver.

Taking a deep breath Judge Travis looked into the various expectant eyes watching him. "I have carefully gone over these reports and the recommendations of both Mrs. Potter and Ms. Weatherly. I have also taken in your responses," nodding ever so slightly towards the boys, "I have come to the only decision that makes sense for all concern." Looking right at the youngest boys he quietly gave his renderings. "I feel it is in the best interest for everyone if you, Mr. Josiah, were to take your brothers home and get them ready for school tomorrow." Seeing the stunned and confused looks on the faces before him he continued. "I hereby grant full guardianship of Era, Vin, JD and Nathan to Josiah."

A very loud cacophony of whoops and yells could be heard throughout the entire small courthouse.

JD turned with huge saucer eyes up at Buck, "Does this mean we’re brothers still."

"For ever and ever squirt," Buck replied with a huge smile plastered on his face as he picked up the littlest and swung him around a few times.

Vin didn’t say anything he just looked up into those green eyes he knew so well and grinned his lopsided grin. Chris couldn’t resist the need to grab the other and pull him tight for a hug. Running his hands through the shoulder length hair knowing he hadn’t lost the other part of soul.

Josiah clamped one hand onto Nathan’s shoulder while tightening his grip on Ezra with the other. The younger one seemed to have stunned into silence. Josiah felt the need to reassure Ezra of his place in the family. It was time to take these guys home.

+ + + + + + +

That evening a small celebration had spontaneously broke out at the ranch. Ice cream and cake had appeared out of nowhere. Laughter and joy filled the large house. Josiah sat back contented as he watched the other wrestling, chasing and simply annoying one another for just the sake of it. Putting these boys to bed would be easier than it had been in a long two weeks. Or maybe not, considering the amount of sugar two already hyper boys had inhaled. Josiah silently smiled. It wouldn’t matter; they were a family once again.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and Chris were in the study going over plans for the ranch. Josiah was in the living room reading a book when he heard the soft padding of footsteps. Looking up he found Ezra walking across the room. "What’s wrong, Ezra?" Concern filling his voice, maybe Vin wasn’t the only one who inhaled too many sweets.

"I just need a drink," Ezra answered as he went into the kitchen and came out a minute late with a glass of milk.

Patting the spot on the couch next to him Josiah watched as the brown haired boy sat down cautiously with his glass. The oldest took note of the young chiseled face that seemed to have aged over the last six months. While Vin and JD had let their emotions be known and had occasionally cried. Josiah didn’t think Ezra had ever let those emotions out the so-called box. Josiah reached over and took the glass from the slender fingers and placed it on the coffee table.

Josiah proceeded to wrap one arm around the youngster and pulled his upper body onto lap. With the other hand he attacked the sensitive ribs and began an all-out tickling assault.

Buck and Chris, hearing the laughter, stuck their heads out of the office and watched as Ezra let out peels of laughter as he begged Josiah to stop. Assured that all was all right the two went back into the office smiles on both faces.

Josiah finally quit the attack but continued to hold the boy in his arms. A few moments later the brown hair buried itself into the crook of the large arm that held him securely. Josiah never heard a sound, never felt more than a small quiver ran through the body, but the wetness coating his arm told him everything. Six months of fear and anxiety were finding their release.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra woke to find himself in what used to be his parent’s king size bed. Sitting there a moment he recalled the events of the previous night. How one moment he had been laughing uncontrollable and the next crying like some little kid. Humiliation washed over him as he crawled out from beneath the covers. He noticed he was still dressed in his jeans and t-shirt. He listened carefully at the closed door knowing he was going to be bombarded with gales of teasing from the others. Instead he heard absolute silence.

Opening the door he walked down the stairs and ran into Buck and Chris coming from the laundry room. Chris’ arms loaded down with clean clothes. "Hey, Ez. You want something to eat?" Chris asked casually.

Buck answered for him. "Sure we do, right kid," he said with his trademark smile, ruffling the brown hair.

Ezra looked around before asking what he was sure was going to be a dumb question. "Where is everyone?"

"They’re at school," the blond answered, quickly catching the panicked look in the green eyes.

"They left already!" Panic swallowed the boy; one of the previous conditions of the temporary guardianship had been that the boys attend school. "I… I’m sorry. I’ll be ready in just a minute. I promise." Ezra turned to hurry out of the room only to be caught in Buck’s grasp and pulled into a backwards hug.

"Easy there Ez. It’s alright. We decided it was best to let you sleep in and catch up on some of that elusive sleep you’ve been needing lately." Buck turned the boy around so he could look into those eyes and assure his brother everything was fine. "Besides it’s to late to be going to school now, anyways.

Ezra swallowed uneasily, "It is?"

"Yeah Ezra it’s past two o’clock. The boys will be coming home soon." Watching the disbelief fly across Ezra’s face he decided a little diversion was needed. "So what do you two want for lunch?" he asked, throwing Buck an unspoken message ‘Josiah was right, he’s still on rocky footing’

Still holding onto Ezra, Buck swayed gently side-to-side, "I want some of those Cheese enchiladas that we have leftover." Looking down at his brother he squeezed slightly before asking, "That sound good to you?"

Ezra could only nod in agreement. They had to know what a baby he had been last night and they had yet to ridicule him about it. Furthermore they had let him sleep in and miss school. He had yet to fully understand these men who were constantly doing the opposite of what he expected. On the other hand, he thought, it wasn’t quite as unsettling as it had been in the beginning.

Buck and Ezra helped Chris get lunch fixed and the table set before sitting down to eat. Both the older ones watched as the young one ate hesitantly at first then picked up the pace. Smiling at one another they, too, dug in to their food.

When Buck and Chris had finished the ranching business the night before it was almost eleven o’clock. They had come out to find Ezra asleep in Josiah’s arms, having cried himself to sleep. Josiah, with the help of his brothers, had managed to stand up still cradling Ezra. He decided it would be best if Ezra slept in the big bed with him, that way they wouldn’t disturb Nathan’s sleep. The oldest hadn’t fooled the other two. They both knew Josiah needed to be close to Ezra. They had hushed the other boys this morning and had let Ezra sleep on.

Chris, Buck and Ezra spent the next couple of hours working in the barn until the four showed up. Watching his six brothers heading into the house Josiah stepped back listening to loud cacophony of noise being made and smiled to himself. It was a good to have a family.

The End

Comments to: