One Big Happy Family?

By Purple Lacey

Alternate Universe: One Big Happy Family

Disclaimers: I claim no rights to the characters except the right to enjoy them. No money is made from their use; I’m just borrowing them for fun. When playtime is over I promise to give them back… well most of them anyway. Really, no one would notice if I just kept one or two, would they?

I had this idea for a new AU. I just love stories that show the guys as children, and thought this grouping might be fun to play with for a while.

This is mostly a series of vignettes that set up the universe and fill in a lot of the back story, so if you’re looking for a lot of plot you’re headed in the wrong direction (I suggest you backtrack and take a left at Albuquerque, doc). Just think of this as setting up the playground equipment ;-). This universe is open to any who might care to visit and play awhile.

My thanks to Birgitt for her suggestions and willingness to give me some nudges in the right direction, and special thanks to Jenn for her ideas, advice, and enthusiastic encouragement.

Chapter 1

“You, sir, must be completely out of your mind!” Ezra Standish’s raised voice betrayed his disbelief in the words he had just heard.

I am merely making you aware of the wishes of your late sister and her husband, Mr. Standish,” replied former judge Orrin Travis. “The terms set forth in the joint will of your sister Eileen, and Mr. Larabee’s brother Cody, are quite specific. Both of you have been named co-guardians of your nephews, and under the terms of the will you will need to move into their home and live with them for a period of not less than one year. Your wives may live with you there, but their presence is not a requirement of the will.

At the end of a year, Mr. Larabee will be deeded the 100 acre track of the original Larabee family homestead, and Mr. Standish will be deeded the 100 acre track of land that contains the Weeping River. The remaining property will be equally divided among their children.”

Chris Larabee growled his displeasure at the current turn of events, and jumped from the leather chair to begin an agitated pacing.

“Standish is right! The whole idea is completely insane. You can’t seriously believe either of us would just accept this and comply without a fight do you?”

I have no opinion on the subject. As your late siblings’ attorney and executor of their estate I am simply carrying out their instructions.” Travis informed them calmly. “You can, of course, contest the will, but I assure you it is ironclad. The penalties set out in the will if you try to break it are likewise legal and ironclad. Both properties will be sold to real estate developers in the event either of you tries to contest.

My clients wanted to secure the future of their children and chose this way of doing it. They were well within their rights, just as you are within your rights to decline. If you choose not to abide by the terms of the will, or do not remain for the entire twelve month period, then the bequests would be switched. Mr. Larabee would get the Weeping River and Mr. Standish the Larabee homestead with the proviso that neither property could be sold, or traded back to the other. My clients believed this would be incentive enough to insure your cooperation.”

Judge Travis had to use all his years of courtroom experience to keep a straight face at these words when he wanted nothing more than to laugh out loud at the understatement.

The tense relations between Chris Larabee of the Lazy L Ranch, and Ezra Standish of The Four Aces Ranch were legendary in this area. For years the two neighbors had taken every opportunity to antagonize, irritate, and generally bedevil each other. Travis knew the thought of Ezra Standish owning the homestead his Larabee ancestor had built over a hundred years earlier would infuriate the volatile blond rancher. He also knew Ezra would fight to the death for that piece of river property. The Weeping River was the main source of water for the Four Aces Ranch, and losing access to it could easily put him out of business. Cody and Eileen Larabee had known their brothers well enough to predict they would do whatever it took to keep possession of those properties in the family, including sharing living space with one another for a year.

Ezra ran his hands through his usually well-groomed hair distractedly, and shot a glance at the dark haired woman seated beside him on the leather sofa as she laid a hand on his arm in support.

“Inez…” Ezra began, covering the hand with his own.“We….”

Ezra’s lovely wife stopped his words with a smile and a finger across his lips as she told him, “Querido, it will be alright. I promise. We must think of the boys right now. They just lost their parents. They have already been through so much in their short lives. They need us, Ezra. We can not let them down. Eileen and Cody were right. This is the best way to deal with it. We can do this. We can make it work.”

“I agree,” Mary Larabee replied as she rose from her chair to wrap her arms around the waist of her own glaring husband. “Chris, you know this is the best way… the only way. Those boys need security right now. Their whole safe little world just blew up around them…again. They need this, Chris. We all know it.” Mary finished softly.

Chris wrapped his arms around his wife and dropped his head forward to rest on her shoulder, “Aw hell…I know. I just can’t….”

‘I know, love. I know. I miss them too,” Mary whispered.

Chris stood silently, drawing strength and accepting comfort from his wife for one more moment, then drew back far enough to drop a kiss on her forehead before stepping back to face the couple seated on the sofa. The two men exchanged tense looks before coming to a silent agreement. Both men nodded to each other and turned to face the older gentleman seated calmly behind the ornately carved wooden desk of the large legal office.

“When?” Chris’ clipped voice asked.

“The terms state you have one week to get everything in order, then you will be expected to take up residence,” the lawyer informed them.

Chris swept the room’s occupants with another glare, and nodded tersely. “Alright,” he ground out before taking Mary’s arm and starting for the door. “We’ll be there. If that’s all, we need to get back now. We’ve left Nettie and the boys alone long enough. Nettie can’t handle all of them on her own for too long.” With a curt nod from Chris and swift smile from Mary, they made their way to the door.

Ezra’s gaze followed the couple as they exited the office. “This could very well be a preview of hell… you realize that don’t you, my dear,” he chuckled dryly.

Inez squeezed his hand and smiled encouragingly. “It will be alright, Ezra. We’ll all be just fine. You just need to have a little faith.”

“I wish I had your optimism, my love, but I foresee very rough weather ahead.I fear we are sailing straight into a hurricane of mammoth proportions. I can only hope we survive it.”

Ezra turned to face the attorney again. “If you will excuse us, we will take our leave now. There is much to do in the next week, and I think it best to get started making arrangements. Good day, Judge Travis.”

“Good day, Mr. Standish, Mrs. Standish,” the attorney rose and shook hands with the other man and escorted them out. After the door closed behind them he returned to his office and sank wearily into the chair behind his desk.

“I hope to God you two knew what you were doing,” Travis whispered to his deceased clients, “because if you were wrong a lot of lives are going to be ruined.

Chapter 2

“It’s going to be fine, Ezra,” Inez said as she rolled over and rested her head on her husband’s chest. He lowered his arm from where it was folded behind his head as he lay staring at the ceiling in the darkened bedroom, and pulled her warm body closer.

“You are repeating yourself, my dear,” Ezra whispered.

Inez snuggled against his chest and placed a soft kiss over his heart.“I’m hoping if I say it enough you’ll start to believe it.”

Ezra chuckled softly.

“It’s the right thing to do, and you know it,” Inez continued.

A deep sigh was her only reply.

“It doesn’t have to be so bad, you know. It might take some getting used to at first…”

Ezra cut off the rest of her sentence, “Getting used to? Living in the same house as that Neanderthal Larabee? I believe you are carrying optimism too far. Indeed, you are entering the realm of complete fantasy, my dear.”

Inez sighed. “We have to try. For the boys’ sake, Ezra, we have to do our best.”

“I know… but I don’t have to like it!”

“You were friends once. Maybe this will be your chance to regain that friendship.”

“Doubtful, my dear Inez. Very doubtful.”

“Possible, my dear Ezra. Very possible,” Inez laughed.

Chapter 3


The frightened cry woke the blond haired man with a start. His feet were already on the floor and he was rising from the mattress before he was completely awake. The Larabees, and the Standishes had been taking turns staying with the children since the death of their parents. This week was the Larabees’ turn to stay. Chris threw a look at his still sleeping wife and decided not to wake her. Chris quickly ran down the hall of his brother’s home to the bedroom where a child’s disconsolate weeping could be heard. Chris entered the room to find eight year old Vin Tanner Larabee huddled in the corner of his bedroom, arms wrapped tightly around himself as he rocked back and forth. Tears ran down the child’s face as his lamenting continued.

Chris made his way across the room and sat on the carpet in front of the child, not trying to touch him yet. He knew he had to wait until Vin recognized him if he didn’t want the young child to react defensively and strike out. Although only eight years old, the boy was more than capable of defending himself when he felt threatened.

Vin had been adopted into the Larabee family only thirteen months before the auto accident that claimed the lives of his adopted parents. Vin had been the biological child of parents that were convinced the fall of the United States was eminent and that they needed to be prepared for the chaos they were sure would follow. Jeff and Cecilia Tanner had retreated to a cabin in the mountains they felt was defensible and proceeded to prepare for the coming dark days. From the time Vin was old enough to walk he was taught how to survive. His parents taught him how to shoot, and to fight. They taught him how to navigate by the stars, how to make a shelter out of whatever he could find, how to track and hunt and trap, and how to live off the land.

Vin proved an apt pupil, and mastered everything he was shown until the night his father, in a drunken rage, wrapped his hands around his wife’s throat and strangled her to death. The survival instincts that his parents had worked so hard to instill in him kicked in and sent the six year old boy running from the house in fear to hide in the forest, where he remained hidden for five days.

When he finally returned to his home he had found it deserted. He had wandered in and out of the rooms trying to find some trace of his mother but had been unsuccessful. Vin had spent the night in the house but had left the next day to return to his hiding place in the woods. He had spent most of the next twelve months living on his own, periodically returning to his former home looking for his mother. Not realizing she was dead, he had felt sure she would return for him as soon as it was safe. It was during one of these visits back to the house that the county sheriff had managed to catch him and turn him over to Child Protective Services.

When Cody and Eileen heard of the boy and all the problems he had adjusting to an urban environment, they did some research and learned the boy’s mother had been murdered and his father had been convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison. Seeing in Vin another child that needed their love, they pulled as many strings as they could find to adopt him. The first month after the adoption the child wouldn’t say one word to anyone, but had eventually adjusted and was beginning to thrive in his new family. At least he had been until tragedy had struck, taking the lives of his new parents.

“Vin? Vin, it’s Uncle Chris. I’m here, Vin,” Chris said softly.

Chris watched as the blond head jerked up and saw recognition dawn in the tormented eyes of his young nephew.

“Uncle Chris!” Vin rasped and threw himself into the man’s arms, wrapping his arms around Chris’ neck and his legs around his waist. He hung on with all the strength in his young body.“I couldn’t find them, Uncle Chris. I looked and looked, but I couldn’t find them,” the young boy sobbed.

“It’s alright. I have you, Vin. I’m holding on to you,” Chris reassured the child. “You’re safe. I won’t let anything happen to you.” Chris wrapped his arms around the shaking child and rocked him. He kept repeating the soft reassurances to the child who gradually calmed. Within minutes the exhausted child had fallen back to asleep, but still kept a death grip on Chris.

“ It’s gonna be alright, Vin. You might not believe it now, but it will be,” Chris murmured and briefly tightened his arms around the sleeping child.

He rose to his feet, careful not to wake the sleeping boy, and put the child back into his bed, gently disengaging the grasping fingers. Chris straightened the bedding the boy had thrown off the bed in the throes of his nightmare and pulled the covers up to Vin’s shoulders, tucking him in. He gently pushed the blond hair off the tear-streaked face and stood gazing down on the sleeping child for a moment before becoming aware that he was being watched.

Chris turned his head and spied the rumpled figure of nine year old Buck observing him from the doorway. Chris smiled and held out his arms to the pajama clad boy, who immediately accepted the invitation by flying across the room and leaping into his uncle’s arms.

Chris swept him up and quietly left the room, shutting the bedroom door behind him before he spoke gently, “What are you doing out of bed at this hour?”

“Is Vin alright?” Buck’s frightened voice asked. He had his head buried in the crook of Chris’ shoulder and neck so his voice was muffled. Chris could just barely make out the words.

Rubbing his hand lightly over the boy’s back, Chris tried to reassure him, “Vin is okay. He just had a bad dream. Did he wake you?”

The head of mussed black hair nodded.

“Vin’s already back to sleep. Do you think you could go back to sleep now?”

The boy’s head shook no and his hands held on a little tighter.

“Okay then. How about we go raid Nettie’s kitchen and see if we can find a snack?”

Buck nodded and continued to hold on as Chris entered the child’s room and drew a blanket from the bed to wrap around the boy. Chris carried the frightened child downstairs and flipped the light switch on as they entered the kitchen.

“Why don’t you sit here at the table while I see what I can rustle up, okay?” Chris asked, but as he tried to sit the child in the chair, the little arms made a desperate grab for his neck and tightened. For a minute he thought he was going to be strangled until he managed to loosen the grip the child had on him a little. “ It’s okay, Buck. I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to look in the refrigerator,” Chris tried to reason with the boy.


Chris sighed, not sure how to handle this. “Now what?” he silently asked himself.

Before he had to come up with an answer, Chris was saved by the appearance of the bathrobe-clad housekeeper, Nettie Wells, as she walked in from her living quarters situated next door to the kitchen.

“Is everything alright in here Chris?” Nettie asked with a yawn.

“Sorry to wake you, Nettie. Seems some of the people in this house are having problems sleeping. Buck and I thought we’d come down for a snack before going back to bed,” Chris informed her.

The older woman took in the sight of the little arms wound around his neck so tightly, and nodded her head in understanding.

“I think a snack sounds pretty good myself. Why don’t you two just sit yourselves down there and I’ll whip us up some cocoa and see what kind of cookies are in that ole cookie jar,” the woman offered.

“Thanks, Nettie,” Chris smiled gratefully at the woman, then pulled a chair out from the table and sat down with the boy.

“Thanks, Ms. Nettie,” said Buck’s muffled voice.

Chuckling softly, the housekeeper gathered the ingredients needed and quickly prepared the cocoa. Chris nuzzled his cheek against the side of the boy’s head, and gently stroked calming circles on Buck’s back while the woman worked. The luscious smell of hot cocoa soon tempted the boy and he turned his face from Chris’ neck to quietly watch Nettie as she ladled the drink into heavy mugs and then sat two in front of her waiting audience.

“Be careful, child,” she cautioned, “it maybe too hot. Take it slowly.”

Nettie sat her own mug on the table then turned to the counter and lifted the old fashioned ceramic cookie jar and carried it to the table. Lifting the lid with one hand, she reached in with her other and brought out a large chocolate chip cookie, causing a small smile to slowly make its way across the boy’s face.

“Looks like you’re in luck tonight, Buck,” Nettie teased, “I seem to recall these are your favorite.”

Buck reached out with one hand to take the offered treat, but kept the other arm wrapped around Chris’ neck.

Chris gave him a squeeze then gently, but determinedly, pulled the boy’s arms away saying, “I think you’re gonna have a hard time drinking that cocoa like this, Buck. Why don’t we turn you around so you can reach the table, alright? You can still sit with me if you want,” Chris hurried to reassure the child when he looked like he was going to panic, “I just don’t think I’m in the mood for a cocoa bath right now, pard.” Chris teased.

Buck looked back over his shoulder at his uncle and Chris saw the faint beginnings of the youngster’s normal mischievous grin.

“Don’t even think about it,” Chris warned with his own grin.

“Aw, Uncle Chris. You know I wouldn’t do that,” Buck said with an innocent look.

“Aw, Buck. I know that you would do exactly that if you thought you could get away with it,” Chris mocked dryly. Chris was gratified to hear the chuckle from the child, thankful he was bouncing back to normal. “Drink your cocoa, Buck. You need to get back to sleep.”

The three sat in companionable silence; each lost in their own thoughts, until Buck sat his mug on the table and broached the topic uppermost in his mind.

“Are we gonna have to go to an orphanage now?”

“What!” Chris said startled.

“Are we gonna have to go to an orphanage now? I mean, we’re orphans now, right? That’s what happens to orphans isn’t it? They have to go live with the other orphans at the orphanage,” Buck dropped his head down stared at his mug. “That’s what Timmy Johnson told me at school today.”

“Timmy Johnson doesn’t know what the fu…..” Chris growled.

“Chris!” Nettie interrupted and shot a disapproving look at the suddenly furious man.

Chris made a valiant effort and managed to control his temper.

“No, Buck, you and your brothers are NOT going to any orphanage. Your Aunt Mary and I, and your Uncle Ezra and Aunt Inez are going to be moving in here to take care of you boys,” Chris assured the child.“This is your home. It belongs to you and your brothers now, and you will NEVER have to leave it if you don’t want to.”

“Really?” Buck’s hopeful face turned to seek the truth in the face of the man he trusted implicitly.

“Absolutely, pard. The only place you’re going is back to bed,” Chris stated firmly.

Reassured that his world was not going to spin completely out of orbit, Buck relaxed in his uncle’s arms, reached for his mug and took a contented sip.Chris hadn’t realized how tense the little body had been until he felt the child finally relax.

Chris had loved both JD and Buck from the moment his brother and his wife had adopted them, but the mischievous Buck, with his wicked sense of humor and love of practical jokes, had always been his favorite of the two.

Buck and JD were actually half brothers, sharing the same mother but different fathers.Their mother had been a horse trainer for the Four Aces Ranch for just over a year when she had been diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of blood cancer. Knowing she had only a few months to live, the caring mother had set about securing the future of her two young sons.

After overhearing a conversation between Ezra and Inez about Eileen’s and Cody’s inability to have children of their own and their decision to adopt, Rachel Dunne had discreetly questioned friends of Cody and Eileen and observed the couple for weeks before approaching them with the request that they adopt her two year old son JD, and her five year old son Buck. It hadn’t taken Cody and Eileen long to fall completely in love with the young scamps.

The private adoption had been arranged quickly and Rachel used her remaining time to help the boys get accustomed to their new parents and adjusted to her leaving them. When she had finally succumbed to her illness Cody and Eileen had been by her bedside, each holding one of her hands, renewing their promise to take care of her little ones. They had kept that promise for three years, and with the conditions set up in their will, they were attempting to keep it even after their own deaths.

Chris wrapped his arms around Buck and gave him a hug, dropping a kiss on the top of the dark head.

“Finish up, Buck. I think I hear a bed upstairs calling your name.”

Barely a moment had passed before the sound of frantic feet could be heard running down the hall that lead to the kitchen. Five year old JD burst through the door and threw himself at Nettie, who was the first person he saw.

Dropping his head into the startled woman’s lap the child began to wail, “Buck’s gone! Buck’s gone to heaven with Mama and Daddy and left me here!He left me!”

“JD!” Buck yelped and jumped from Chris’ lap to start around the table to his little brother’s side. “JD, I’m right here. I didn’t leave you.”

On hearing his brother’s voice, JD jerked his head up and rushed toward Buck, meeting him halfway.

“You was gone, Buck!” JD cried, closing his arms tightly around his brother. Buck’s arms wrapped around the shaking shoulders and pulled the anxious boy closer.

“I woke up and went into your room and you was gone!I thought you went away like Mama and Daddy and left me. I was so scared, Buck. I don’t want you to go to heaven yet. I don’t want to be alone!” JD cried.

Chris went down on one knee in front of the two boys and wrapped his arms around the pair. The death of his parents had affected the small boy deeply, and JD had taken to clinging to Buck for reassurance. If you wanted to find JD these days you just had to look for Buck because the younger child had taken to dogging the older one’s steps. The fact that Buck never complained about this was a testament to his own emotional state.

“I’m not gonna leave you, JD. I promised you before. We go together or we don’t go at all, remember?” Buck crooned. “Uncle Chris told me we don’t never have to leave here if we don’t want to. We can stay together right here with Vin and Josiah, and Nettie. Uncle Chris, and Aunt Mary, and Aunt Inez and Uncle Ezra is gonna come live with us here. There’s gonna be even more people staying with us than before, so you aren’t gonna be alone, JD.”

JD raised hopeful eyes to his uncle and Chris nodded and said, “Buck’s right. We’re all going to live here and take care of you boys. This is your home and nobody’s ever going to make you leave here. We’re going to make sure of it. I promise you that, JD.”

Reassured, the boy lowered his head back to his brother’s shoulder and sighed with relief. For a few moments the two children remained locked together then Chris watched as JD’s little nose twitched and his attention was suddenly drawn to the smell of chocolate that still lingered in the kitchen.The brown eyes lit up and JD pushed out of his brother’s arms to look at the mugs and cookie jar sitting on the table as a smile started across his face in one of the mercurial mood changes the family was accustomed to seeing in the five year old.

“Are you having a midnight picnic?” JD asked.

Relieved the small crisis had passed Chris chuckled and said, “Kinda. You want to join us in a snack before I tuck you boys back in?”

JD’s head bounced up and down enthusiastically at the offer, causing the adults to laugh. Nettie rose from her seat at the table and retrieved another mug from the cabinet and ladled some of the cooled cocoa into it. She carried the mug back and set it on the table then drew a peanut butter cookie from the jar and handed it to JD.

Chris, meanwhile, lifted both boys and returned to his seat, settling the boys on his lap and wrapping the blanket he had retrieved from Buck’s room around both children, but leaving their arms free.

JD consumed his cookie and drank his cocoa while keeping up a running monolog on the superiority of peanut butter cookies versus any other kind. The peaceful normality began to work its magic on Buck and soon the drowsy head rested back against Chris’ shoulder.

When JD had finished, Nettie made short work of wiping hands and mouths free of crumbs and chocolate. Chris rose with the two boys in his arms, settling a child on each of his hips. He bid Nettie a goodnight, then left the kitchen and took the boys back upstairs. He didn’t even suggest that each boy return to his own room, but instead carried both boys to Buck’s room and laid them down on his bed, pulling the covers up snugly around them.

“Goodnight, boys,” Chris whispered.

“Goodnight, Uncle Chris,” the drowsy Buck replied.

“Night, Uncle Chris,” JD whispered as he snuggled up next to his brother and closed his eyes.

Chris stood by the boys’ bed a few minutes until he was sure they had both returned to sleep then made his way back to his own bedroom down the hall.

Chris pulled the covers back and crawled in next to Mary, wrapping his arm around her waist and spooning their bodies. Mary stirred and snuggled closer, but didn’t wake. Chris lay in the darkness for sometime, worrying over the days to come, but eventually succumbed to the bone-deep tiredness he had been feeling since the death of his brother and sister-in-law and sleep finally claimed him.

Chapter 4

Ezra Standish enjoyed the feel of the mid-morning sun on his face as he leaned against the white wooden fence that enclosed the front pasture. His face was creased in amusement at the antics of a group of yearlings that were romping and mock fighting in the enclosure. No matter how many times he watched this particular show it never failed to lighten his spirits.
For a moment his heart clinched at the memory of standing at this very fence with Eileen, laughing at the young creatures at play. God, how he missed her!

Eileen had inherited half the ranch from their father and Ezra the other half. She had shared his love of the animals and his dreams for the ranch. Ezra loved their ranch. He enjoyed every aspect of breeding, raising and training horses (well except for mucking stalls, but that’s what he paid his employees for, after all). He couldn’t imagine ever finding as much satisfaction in any other job, much to his mother’s chagrin. Ezra grimaced as he remembered his mother’s words on her last visit.

“I didn’t send you to Harvard Business School just to have you waste your education this way. You should be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company by now, but just look at you… a farmer! Where did I go wrong? How could you settle for this,” Maude swept her arm around to take in the ranch around them disdainfully, “when you could be making millions and being a power to be reckoned with in the business world.You should be having breakfast in New York and dinner in Paris, not moldering away in some Godforsaken backwater speck on the map doing a job a high school dropout could do. I don’t understand you, Ezra.”

Ezra hid his hurt at the familiar refrain and simply replied, “No, Mother, you never did. Just like you never understood Father,” and walked away. Maude had left in a huff that same day and he had not heard from her in the seven months that followed.

The battle was an old one, and neither side was willing to surrender the cause. Ezra’s stubborn refusal to follow the path she had laid out for him in infancy infuriated Maude. Maude’s inability to understand his natural affinity with horses and his need to follow his heart pained Ezra, and just made him more determined to show her how successful he could be at his chosen occupation.Ezra had made the ranch a successful operation, and he knew his mother would be stunned to realize just how much he actually netted in a year, but Ezra was determined to make the ranch his father had left them into the most prestigious horse ranch in the country.Nothing else would satisfy him.

Eileen had supported him completely in all he tried to achieve, understanding his need to prove the worth of his choices to their mother. Maude had not been pleased with the choices her daughter had made in life either, but it was Ezra she had pinned her hopes on and Ezra that she held to blame. Eileen had barely rated her notice. The fact that Maude hadn’t even returned for Eileen’s funeral still caused a hard kernel of rage to burn in Ezra’s stomach.

Ezra was drawn from his thoughts by the sound of a vehicle pulling into the ranch yard behind him. He turned and waved a hand at the tall black man that emerged from the dark blue Chevy pickup and called, “Good Morning, Nathan. What brings you out our way this morning?”

Dr. Nathan Jackson returned the wave and sauntered over to join Ezra at the fence.

“Morning, Ezra. I have to make a trip into the city today, and wondered if you would like me to take Josiah in for his appointment this afternoon.” Nathan offered.

“I appreciate the offer Nathan, but I believe it might be less humiliating for the boy if we didn’t have to frisk him for contraband on his return home. Unless you can stay with him at all times that is the only way to assure he doesn’t find a way to smuggle a bottle back home.” Ezra replied.

Nathan nodded sadly in agreement. Both men knew the fourteen year old was completely trustworthy until it came to one thing: alcohol. Young Josiah Sanchez Larabee was an alcoholic, something he had learned at his mother’s knee.

Maria Sanchez’s philosophy in life had been “Got a problem? Have a drink.” She had applied this philosophy to caring for her child as well, and saw nothing wrong with giving the infant boy booze as a way of stilling his cries for attention. Instead of kissing his owwies, she poured him a shot. The young Josiah had had his first real hangover before he was even four years old.

His father was a missionary that spent more time trying to minister to the peoples he was assigned to convert, than he did to paying attention to what was going on in his own home. He saw to his son’s religious education, but very little else. Consequentially, Josiah grew up believing all emotional upsets should be handled by saying a prayer then taking a drink.

Josiah spent most of his childhood without parental supervision, wandering around the villages where they were assigned, making friends with the indigenous peoples, and learning their customs and languages. He absorbed the different cultures like a sponge absorbs water, and learned to be tolerant of other people’s differences and beliefs. His devout father would have beaten him half to death if he had ever realized how much of the other people’s religious beliefs he incorporated into his own personal philosophy.

Josiah had been adopted into the Larabee household after his father had been executed for teaching Christianity in a Fundamentalist Muslim country. His mother had sunk so far into her own alcoholism by that time that the state had terminated all her parental rights and made Josiah a ward of the court.

Since joining the Larabee household, Josiah had been making great strides in controlling his urges to drink, thanks to the loving attention of Eileen and Cody, and weekly sessions with a child psychologist that specialized in treating alcoholic children. Unfortunately the tremendous grief the boy was experiencing with the loss of his new parents had caused him to backslide. Ezra had found the teenager passed out on his parent’s bed, an empty whiskey bottle clutched to his chest, the night they had informed the children of their parents’ deaths. Ezra still felt the ache that had gripped his heart at the sight of the tear-stained faced that still showed the terrible pain the boy felt even in his unconscious state.

Ezra was seriously starting to think about buying a dog trained to sniff out booze so they could locate all the bottles the child had stashed around his home and the two ranches. Ezra had no idea how the underage teenager continually managed to acquire the forbidden liquor, but somehow he always seemed to obtain it when he felt the need for it. The only sure fire way to make sure he didn’t sneak it into the house was to have someone with him at all times whenever he went to the city. They all tried to downplay the necessity to spare the boy’s feelings.

“Inez said she was going to drive him in this afternoon, so it’s already arranged, but thank you for your offer.”

Nathan shrugged off the thanks. “Anything Raine or I can do to help, you be sure to let us know. It’s a damn shame those kids have to go through something like this after everything they’ve already had to live with. Life sure hasn’t played fair with those four, that’s for sure.”

“Indeed, I’m afraid you are right, my friend. They are overdue for some good luck.”

“It’s not all bad luck for them though. At least they still have you and Inez, and Chris and Mary. They don’t have to worry about going back into the system. They could be a lot worse off.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not,” Ezra drawled. “I don’t know if you have been made aware of the conditions of Eileen and Cody’s will yet. It seems Mr. Larabee and I will be forced to share a domicile for the next twelve months. I would keep your beeper handy if I were you, Dr. Jackson, because I fear we will never make it through the entire period without bloodshed.”

Laughing the large black man waved goodbye and turned to walk back to his truck.Over his shoulder he yelled, “I better go order some more bandages, sutures, and antiseptic then.”

“Good idea,” Ezra shot back with his own wave.

Chapter 5

Ezra was having a conversation with his stable manager and a potential buyer when he heard the chorus of “Hello, Vin,” from the stable hands and the welcoming whinnies from the thoroughbred horses that usually announced his nephew’s arrival.

Since coming to live with the Larabee family Vin had discovered the love of his life… horses. The young Vin was passionately devoted to the large equines, and (to the amazement of everyone who worked with the temperamental creatures) they seemed to love him with equal fervor. Ezra had never seen anyone that possessed such natural ability when it came to handling horses. Vin could manage to calm the most fractious stallion using nothing more than his voice, murmuring a kind of sing-song wordless tune that only he and the horses seemed to understand. The most troublesome beasts to saddle would meekly duck their heads to allow the small hands to fit them with a bridle. Ezra didn’t know what power the child possessed, but was more than happy to put it to work whenever Vin chose to make an appearance at the stable, which was as often as he could sneak away from his home-school lessons.

Ezra excused himself from the buyer, and approached Vin who had stopped short at the sight of the unfamiliar man in the horse barn. Ezra knew if he wanted to speak with the boy he would have to go to him. He knew Vin would not approach as long as there was a stranger present. Although Vin had made a lot of progress in becoming more socialized, his distrust of strangers was too deeply ingrained in the boy to have been overcome so quickly.

It was partially for this reason the Eileen and Cody had decided to have Vin home-schooled. They had decided that dropping Vin into a crowded elementary school would prove too stressful to a child that was used to being on his own and felt threatened by unfamiliar faces.Since Vin was currently about two years behind other children of his age, it also allowed the child’s skills to be carefully brought up to his age level without the harassment he could expect from his peers in a public school.Mary (who was a teacher before marrying Chris) had happily agreed to tutor him, and the arrangement had worked well for the most part. The child had a phenomenal memory and a very quick mind. He would usually grasp any concept he was taught with relative ease provided you could capture his attention, something Mary found a little more difficult than in other children she had taught.

“Good morning, Vin,” Ezra greeted him as he approached. He leaned down to give the child a quick hug and noticed the watchful eye Vin kept on the buyer as he returned the hug.

“That is Mr. Grayson. He’s come to look over the stock to decide if he would like to purchase one for his new wife. He’s alright, Vin,” Ezra assured the boy.

Vin threw the man one last wary look before turning his full attention onto Ezra. “Morning, Uncle Ez,” Vin grinned expectantly.

Ezra pretended to take a swipe at the young head that was swiftly jerked back from his reach, and happily stepped into his role in the familiar game the two played.

“Ez-RA, Vin. Ez-RA. I find it hard to believe that someone with a photographic memory has such difficulty in remembering a simple two syllable name.” Ezra grinned down.

“I don’t know, Uncle Ez,” Vin smirked, “That’s a really hard name to remember. It’s just so long,” Vin finished with the little giggle Ezra had come to cherish.

When Vin had first come to them, no one could get him to respond, at least not verbally. Although he understood what anyone said to him, he never spoke or laughed. Ezra had felt like he had won the Triple Crown when he first heard that shy giggle emerge from the quiet child in response to his teasing.

Shaking his head in mock exasperation, Ezra cupped his hand around the back of the boy’s head and asked, “Did your Aunt Mary give you permission to come over here right now, or did you sneak out again?”

The young boy evaded eye contact and mumbled, “She wasn’t there, so I thought it would be okay.”

“She wasn’t there, hmm. And just what time did you check to see if she was there or not?”

A shrug of the shoulders was the only reply he received.

“Was it perhaps before sunrise… again?”

Looking everywhere but at Ezra, the young boy answered, “Maybe.”

“I see. So, in fact, Mary was probably in the house, just still in bed?”

Another shrug.

Giving a sigh, Ezra pulled out his cell phone and hit the speed dial for his sister’s home.

“Larabee residence,” the youngest household member said into the phone.

“Good morning, JD. This is Uncle Ezra. Could I speak to your Aunt Mary, please?”

“Hey, Uncle Ezra! Guess what? Vin is missing again. Aunt Mary is sooo mad!”

“Yes, I know, JD. Could you please put your Aunt on the phone,” Ezra repeated.

“Sure.AUNT MARY! UNCLE EZRA’S ON THE PHONE AND WANTS TO TALK TO YOU,’ JD yelled, causing Ezra to jerk the phone away from his ear.

“Guess what! Buck took the microwave apart again and Nettie said she was gonna nail him to the barn door, so me and Buck are gonna go build some walkie-talkies today and then we’re gonna go play army. Buck said he gots all the parts we need. We just gotta put ‘em together. Do you want to come play army with us, Uncle Ezra?”

Chuckling at the child’s chatter and glad he didn’t have to play peacemaker, Ezra graciously declined the offer, pleading work as an excuse.

“Okay, Uncle Ezra. Maybe you can play next time. Oh, here’s Aunt Mary. Bye!”

“Hello, Ezra,” a slightly frazzled-sounding Mary said.

“I believe you are currently missing something from that household, are you not?” Ezra inquired.

“Let me guess. You found Vin in the horse barn again,” Mary stated.

“Just so. Apparently our young nephew was under the impression that lessons had been canceled for the day, since he was unable to find you in the school room…when he rose at the crack of dawn,” Ezra finished dryly.
“That boy is going to drive me to drink, I swear,” Mary huffed and laughed.

“Should I drive him back?” he asked.

“No.Don’t bother. The public school is out today for a teacher’s work day, so Vin might as well get a day off as well, but you tell him we’re going to have another long talk about his school hours when he gets home,” Mary threatened.

Ezra laughed and said, “I will certainly inform him, and I will bring him home myself in time for dinner.”

“Thanks, Ezra. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Goodbye, Mary,” Ezra said then disconnected and returned the cell phone to his pocket.

“Well young man, it would seem you have been given a reprieve for today,” Ezra drawled out. He watched the boy’s head raise and the blue eyes start shining with renewed hope. “Your Aunt Mary has declared this a free day for you since your brothers are not attending school today. I would prepare myself for another lecture on the importance of school work if I were you, though. Your Aunt is most perturbed with you right now. I suppose you might as well stay and help Jake groom the horses since you are already here.”

The smile that spread across the eager face could have rivaled the sun in Ezra’s opinion. Vin wrapped his arms around Ezra’s waist in an enthusiastic hug and said a quick thanks, before dashing away to locate the stable hand he had just been assigned to help. Ezra stood looking after the child for a moment in affectionate amusement, then returned to his potential buyer.

“So, Mr. Grayson, have you found one that strikes your fancy?”