It's Not Easy

by KT

AU - Lost Lambs

Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.

Authors Note: This story is a bit of PWP, slice of family life and is set in the Lost Lambs AU that started with Gathering the Flock. This short story first appeared in the Euro 2002 Gathering Zine. Thanks go to Helen for proof reading it for me.

"Catch it JD!" Vin yelled as the ball Ezra had just hit, sailed over his head toward the little five year old.

JD squinted up at the ball and reached out his hands as if to catch it. But he lacked the hand-eye co-ordination to actually have a chance at catching it, the ball missed him, it was a good foot wide and at least two feet too high, as he just stood there with his arms up.

"Oh JD!" Vin fumed. "Well don't just stand there, go get it."

JD obediently turned around and ran after the ball as it rolled down a slight bank and under a briar bush. He stopped and studied the bush. The ball was under it, he could see all right, but he could also see all the thorns on the tangle of branches protecting it. The briar bush was one of the plants he wasn't meant to touch. He tuned back to look for Vin; Vin always knew what to do. But Vin was talking to Ezra, who was making practice swings with the new bat Chris had made them. The bat was made for all three boys to use but, in truth it was much too long for JD, just as Vin's glove that he let Ezra borrow, was too big for him to use. Seeing that Vin was not going to help he knelt down beside the bush and reached it. The thorns snagged his shirt and he could feel them poking into him. JD was about to give up when he heard Vin yelling again.

"C'mon JD, what's takin' ya s' long?" he enquired.

More than anything JD wanted to be included in the games the big boys played. Now Ezra was living with them, Vin liked to play with him. Ezra was thirteen, but he wasn't that much taller than Vin, although he wasn't so skinny. When he first came he had been sick and it had taken a few weeks for him to get better and settle in. Now however, he was relaxing a bit more, he liked to play baseball with Vin, and to go riding. Ezra rode Lady, one of the brood mares who hadn't foaled that year. Chris and Buck liked to give their mares a year off every few years, believing in the long run they would be able to breed for longer and produce better, healthier foals. Judge Orin Travis had loaned a pony to Vin. Ben was a dark bay, standing about 14 hands and aged 16. He had once belonged to the judge's grandson Billy. Billy was now 15 and away at boarding school, he had long outgrown the faithful Ben, but the Judge had been loathe to sell the pony, and even though the horse was getting on in years, he was happy to loan him out to a good home. Vin had been learning to ride every day since Doctor Jackson had said he was finally recovered from the abuse and malnutrition he had suffered at the boy's home, the same home where Ezra had become so ill after being locked in a rat-infested cellar.

Vin was a natural horseman, he made rapid progress while Ezra was still recuperating and since Ben was old and reliable, Chris and Buck had reluctantly agreed they could go out riding on the ranch alone on occasions. ‘On occasion’ proved to be almost every day, sometimes with their fishing poles, leaving JD behind. Despite his pleading for a pony of his own, JD was too young and much too small to ride alone. Even for a five year old JD was small, having been born prematurely and suffered from very poor health in his first few years. He was not much bigger than most children at least one, or one and a half years younger than him. Buck tried to take him out with him on his big grey as often as he could, but with summer having arrived and the school holidays started it was the busiest time of year for Chris and Buck in the sheriff’s office. Especially as they doubled up as mountain rescue workers and even on occasion volunteer firemen.

JD re-doubled his efforts to retrieve the ball, but he was forced to lie flat on his stomach and push his whole arm in. The thorns snagged the shirtsleeve that was too big anyway and pushed it up his arm as he wiggled to reach the ball. Now if JD had stopped to think, he might have got a stick and tried to get the ball with that. But, JD was only five, and even though he was very bright he was eager to impress Vin and Ezra and get the ball out quickly. The thorns tore into the delicate skin of his small arms but he hardly noticed as his short fingers finally closed over the ball and he pulled it back to him. Standing up he waved the ball over his head in triumph.

"Well don't just wave it, throw it!" Vin shouted.

JD ran up to the top of the little bank and threw with all his might. The ball went approximately three feet. He ran forwarded and tried again. Five times he threw the ball a few feet and then had to run after it and try again. Vin got more and more exasperated. He wanted Ezra, who was so much older to like him, at the same time he felt duty bound to play with JD, but JD was an embarrassment at times, he was just too small to play proper games. He didn't say anything but JD knew Vin was cross with him, because he couldn't catch the ball or throw it.

"Sorry Vin," he said apologetically, as Vin finally gathered the ball up from his last ineffectual throw.

Vin’s anger died then and there. JD really was trying and it wasn’t his fault he was so small. He had overheard Buck talking to Doctor Nathan, Nathan had said how lucky JD was to have survived to be five, that even though he was very healthy now, he had nearly died when he was a baby and how he would most likely always be small.

"’S all right, ya tried ya best, you okay?" Vin eyes the small tear on JD’s shirtsleeve.

"Uh-hur, where do you want me to stand now?" he asked looking up at Vin through his bangs.

"Why don’t you stand here?" Ezra suggested from behind them.

JD looked around at Ezra, standing in front of the large oak tree that served as a catcher, or at least to stop the balls flying straight past the batter toward the small lake. Ezra smiled and held out the bat.

"Really?" JD asked excitedly, already running up to Ezra. "I c’in have a go with the bat? Honest?"

"Master Dunne, if I had not meant it I would not have said it," Ezra assured as he moved back from his position to stand behind JD.

JD took the bat, which wasn’t just too long for him, but much too heavy, and hefted it up to swing at Vin’s pitch.

"Ya ready JD?" the skinny, longhaired boy asked from the pitcher’s mound they had built themselves.

"YES!" JD bellowed.

"Well all right, here it comes."

Vin pitched a low, slow ball that he hoped would be easy to hit. But low and slow is just as hard as fastballs, and nearly as hard as curve balls, which Vin couldn’t do yet. The ball went much closer to JD’s body then Vin had intended and a bit too high, more like shoulder high than waist high. In a desperate effort to hit it, JD stepped back and swung with all his might, the heavy end of the bat picked up its own momentum and swung him around, the bat still travelling in an upward arch until … it impacted with the side of Ezra’s face!

Ezra staggered back, instinctively putting his hand up to cover and protect the wounded area. JD, bat still held aloft, ran up to him.

"I’m sorry Ezra, please I’m sorry…sorry…sorry…"

"Put the damn bat down," bellowed the aggrieved teen.

"What?" JD just stood there the bat still up turned in his grasp, waving erratically.

"The bat boy, put it down." Ezra stated.

Before JD could react Vin appeared and pulled it from his grasp.

"Jeeze JD, the one time we let you bat you hit Ez with it!"

"I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, I won’t do it again…I…" Tears welled up his huge hazel eyes.

"No, I am sorry for yelling," Ezra began. "You were just trying to hit the ball, I should have stood back, it was a shock that is all, I …" Ezra didn’t get any further as he pulled his hand away from the side of his nose, a nose that already felt twice its normal sizes. As he looked, he realised his hand was covered in blood.

"Ezra, I think yer bleeding," Vin stated rather superfluously.

"No? Really? You think?" Ezra ground out sarcastically.

Blood was now flowing freely both from his nose and mouth. JD stared horror-struck as Ezra spat out a long steam of blood, his face blanching white.

"I… I..." With that Ezra turned and walked quickly toward the house.

"You stay here," Vin instructed JD firmly, as he ran toward the barn to find Chris.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra suddenly found his legs felt shakey and much to his chagrin, he had tears in his eyes as he stumbled to the sink in the kitchen, where he finally gave up trying to catch the blood that flowed freely from both nose and mouth. He wasn't sure how long he stood there, all he knew was it hurt, it hurt a lot!

"Ezra?" Chris came running in with Vin hot on his tail. "Come on son, let me see," Chris coaxed gently, turning the battered face toward him. "Lord! That little guy packs a punch don't he?"

"It's a big bash," Ezra's lip was beginning to swell.

Chris sent Vin to fetch a bucket of well water, while he tried to stem the blood flow.

"Um sorrly fer crysing," Ezra said wiping the tears away, truly ashamed of his weakness.

"Don't, it's the shock, that's all, perfectly natural. Now hold still while I see if I can work out what we're dealing with, son."

Ezra wasn't used to this, his mother claimed the sight of blood made her ill, for as long as he could remember he had to look after his own injuries. If he complained or cried he was told he was making a fuss or being a baby.

The house had running water, it came from a spring high on the hillside behind the house, but the well, that was still in good order beside the barn, offered ice cold water. Vin ran as fast as he could, only briefly looking around for JD; that he didn't see him didn't surprise or worry him, the small boy was probably sitting behind the oak where they had been playing.

Chris used the icy water to make cold compresses to help slow down the swelling and stop the bleeding, both from Ezra's nose and from the cut inside his mouth, made when his cheek was slammed into his teeth. Ezra calmed down and regained his normal composure, but his face was swollen and bruised, his eye closing, his swollen lip distorting his speech - which to Ezra was the most humiliating thing about the whole business. Vin stood quietly in the doorway as Chris calmed and ministered to Ezra. Chris might not have told him he could call him 'dad' or 'father', but he thought of him like that, and he took a son's pride in watching his 'father' minister so competently and calmly to his friend. If anything Ezra was closer to Buck than Chris, not that he was particularly close to either of them. A small part of Vin was glad Ezra preferred Buck, he knew he shouldn't mind sharing Chris, but he didn't want to, he wanted the only father he had ever had all to himself.

+ + + + + + +

Buck had had a very hard day in the office; first a bunch of loggers had crowded the store, and they became aggressive when Gloria Potter couldn't serve them fast enough. Then he had to sort out a row between two motorists who had had a coming together outside town. At lunchtime he had to drive all the way out to Kirkby's, mill because old George was convinced someone had stolen his truck, again. It turned out the truck was actually in the shop having a new gasket fitted; the old man's memory wasn't quite what it had been. Without getting any lunch, he when straight back out to the logging camp to sort out a reported theft. When he returned he still had a mound of paper work - hardly his strong suit. Now he was coming home all he wanted was a meal and a chance to put his feet up and spend some time with JD. He found he missed him terribly when he was away from home. Not that he didn't miss the other two boys, but JD was his brother, blood kin, his last connection to his mother.

He walked into the house to find Ezra laid out on the sofa with a folded dishcloth on his face. Before he could ask what was going on, Chris walked in carrying a bucket followed by Vin. Between them, Vin and Chris told the tale of the baseball bat and the five year old. Buck gingerly lifted the cloth and winced.

"Son that is not a pretty sight, but I've see worse." He looked up at the others. "So where's Babe Ruth?" he asked.

"Still outside but the tree," Vin explained as Chris put a new compress on Ezra's face.

Buck looked at the others and realised they had done nothing about JD. He knew that ever since Ezra joined their slightly unusual family, JD had been feeling insecure about his place in the household.

"Oh Chris!" he hissed at his friend as he turned on his heels and headed out.

He looked around the tree to find the bat but no JD, searching further afield he finally found his brother sitting behind the barn, watching Tsar, their stallion, prancing around the field. JD was holding his toy horse Pony in his hand. When JD first came to live with Buck after the sudden death of their mother, he never let the wooden horse go, holding it at all times. Slowly he had learnt to put it down when he needed two hands, mainly to eat. When Buck had been injured, he had placed Pony in his brother's hand so he wouldn’t hurt and little by little he learned not to need it so much. He still carried Pony everywhere, but mostly in his pocket. Now the toy horse, which in JD’s mind took away his pain, was firmly back in his hand, clutched fiercely. Buck stood next to JD, back to the wall and slid down until he was sitting next to the distressed little boy.

"It's a big bat, isn't it?" he asked quietly.

JD nodded, not looking his brother in the eye.

"Ezra's gonna be alright you know, he won't look so pretty for a while but he'll be fine."

"I didn't mean to do it I'm sorry I wouldn't hurt Ez honest I just wanted to play as well I…"

"Shhh JD, hush, it was an accident, that's all; just an accident. Was Ezra mad at you?"

JD shook his head. "He said it was his fault fer standin' too close."

Buck silently thanked whoever had taught Standish to be a gentleman. "There, you see, if Ezra knows it was an accident, what are you worried about?"

JD just shrugged and put his head down.

"It’s not easy is it? Being the youngest, the smallest, you want to do all the things Vin and Ezra do but you can’t, not yet."

JD looked up wondering just how come Buck knew all this. He was still wondering, when Buck reached over and pulled JD on to his lap.

"I’m yer brother, I’m meant to understand," Buck explained before JD had even asked the question. "Vin used t' play with you didn’t he, and now he wants to play with Ezra all the time?" JD nodded, still gazing up at Buck. "Just like you like to play with Vin because he’s older than you and bigger and he can do stuff, right?"

JD nodded and then leant forward to rest his head on Buck’s chest.

"I ain’t gonna say it will all be alright Little’n, coz I can’t and I promised I wouldn’t lie to ya, but I can promise it will get better, and what ever happens you will always have me, I’m yer brother and that will never change, okay?"

He rubbed his hand up JD's small arm, alarmed to find it produced a wince of pain from the boy.

"JD did ya hurt yer arm?" he asked.

JD knew he wasn't meant to go near the briar bush and he didn't want to get into trouble.

"No, it's all right." He snuggled closer to Buck hoping his brother would forget about it.

Buck wasn't convinced, especially when he felt JD stiffen when he hugged him.

"JD show me your arm." He sat up a little and pulled the boy off his chest.

JD's head was down, his dark bangs hiding his equally dark eyes. Eventually he held out his right arm to his brother. Buck gently pushed up the shirtsleeve he could now see had several rips in it and an ominous rust-coloured stain. The little forearm before him was covered in scratches, several had bled and at least two were still bleeding.

"JD, what happened to your arm?"

JD shrugged. "D' no."

"JD." There was a clear warning in Buck's voice.

That warning was all it took. JD broke down and told him all about the ball and the bush and how he knew it was wrong, but it was his fault the ball went under the bush and as he saw it, he had to get it out.

"Oh come here." Buck lifted JD onto his shoulder as he stood. "I know you had to get the ball out, but next time use a stick, okay?" JD nodded. "Now you know why I told you not to touch the briar bush don't you?"

"'M sorry." The little voice was filled with remorse and fatigue.

+ + + + + + +

Once back at the house Buck, with JD in his arms, sat down on the coffee table opposite Ezra, as he lay on the sofa. He didn't need to ask Chris to bring the necessary items to clean up JD's arm; he was already fetching them. It would have been easier to do it in the kitchen but Buck wanted the two older boys to see it. Vin, still standing against the wall, looked on in horrified guilt as Buck held JD and Chris gently cleaned the scratches, making the little boy wince and whimper. Finally he had to know what happened to JD so he asked.

"The ball he was chasing rolled under a briar bush," Buck explained.

Ezra finally reacted, pulling his cold compress of his face and turning to look at the source of the whimpering. Just then JD's resolve left him completely and he began to cry as Chris applied the peroxide to his cuts and scratches.

"I didn't know. I'm sorry," Vin offered, coming closer.

"I know, JD told me he was in a dip," Buck assured.

"But I should not have let him out of my sight." Ezra stated, the cold compress having reduced his swollen lip some, watching JD intently as he was held securely by his brother, while Chris continued to make his arm feel like it was on fire.

"'S not yer fault Ezra. I'm sorry JD." And with that Vin ran from the room.

The adults exchanged looks before Chris returned to cleaning JD up.

"I'll talk to him when I'm done here," Chris assured.

"Despite…" Ezra began. "…what Vin says it was my fault, I am the oldest, I should have watched over young Mister Dunne more attentively. I failed in my responsibility and I apologise; it will not happen again."

Ezra really did feel responsible, even he was the more injured party. He had always been a loner until now, having responsibility for others was something new to him, he hadn't even been aware he was responsible for JD and Vin, until he watched Chris clean up JD's arm and suddenly felt he should have stopped JD running after the ball. He had found himself not only in a family - a new and bewildering experience - but also as the oldest sibling. He wondered if it was worth it, in return for a roof over his head, good food, protection, stability, friendship and just maybe, one day - love. Actually when he thought about it, it was a very small price to pay, hardly worth worrying about. But, as he was beginning to find out, being the eldest wasn't easy.

"Them's fine words Ezra, but watchin' little'n here is a full time job fer two or even three people, so don't you worry too much, 'cause I guarantee this is not the last time he's gonna get into a scrape," Buck explained. "How you doin' Ezra?"

"I am sure I will recover, given enough rest." A gentleman didn't let his infirmity show, but there was no point getting injured if you didn't get out of as many chores as possible, not to mention being waited on hand and foot for as long as he could spin it out.

Buck couldn't suppress a smirk. "Oh I'm sure you’re right," he assured.

Just then Buck felt JD tense up as Chris finished by applying a bandage to the worst two scratches. Looking down JD watched as Chris tied off the bandage, finally he pulled his eyes away from his own arm, to look at Ezra's battered face.

"Is you gonna be all'd right Ezra?" he asked. "Do you need 't hold Pony?" He held out the treasured horse.

Ezra was well aware how JD felt about his horse and was deeply moved by the gesture, especially as he was hurting himself.

"I am recovering very well thank you, JD, and I do appreciate the offer, but I will be all right, so you keep Pony."

"'K." JD smiled, he didn't really want Ezra to have Pony, but he felt he should offer, since he still felt responsible. The only person he had freely given Pony to, had been Buck, as he lay unconscious and bleeding in the forest. "I'm sorry I hitted you, I won't ever use the bat again," JD said looking down sadly.

"Nonsense you can…" Ezra began.

"No," Buck stated. "you won't." Both boys looked up at Buck with surprise; it wasn't usually Buck who was the strict one. "That bat is way too big fer you, I will make or better still have Chris…" he glanced at Chris, now standing at the door, "…who is a much better carpenter… make you a smaller bat, a JD size bat."

"Really? My own special bat?" JD asked, already bouncing in anticipation, his sore arm forgotten.

"Yup, your very own, but," he frowned at JD, "it will take some time, so you will have to be patient, okay?"

"Uh-uh, I can wait, how long? Will it have my name on it? Can I play with you Ezra if I have a bat of my own? Can I? Please?"

"Yes JD you can play," Ezra assured wishing he wasn't laughing becaues it hurt his face.

+ + + + + + +

"Hi there champ." Chris sat down on the front step.

Vin just sat there staring out at the setting sun. As Chris watched him he couldn't help noting how thin Vin still was. Nathan said he wasn't clinically malnourished any more, but he was very, very thin. Like this, alone, still, unresponsive, the memories of the Vin they had first met came back, the half starved, hurting, vulnerable Vin, not the healthy, growing, lively boy he was becoming.

"You feeling guilty, feeling like this is all your fault?"

Vin nodded almost imperceptibly.

"It isn't you know, it was just an accident, two accidents. Accidents happen, bad things happen, we can't always stop it or see it coming, we just have to deal with it." Chris waited to see what Vin's reactions would be. He waited a long time. Finally Vin said.

"JD was kind to me, he slept with me to make me feel safe, he gave me Snow, and I was…I have been…I didn't want to play with him anymore."

Chris knew Vin had been ignoring JD in favour of Ezra. It was only natural, Ezra was only three years older than Vin, JD was five years younger. And he had been having so much fun with Ezra; Chris had ignored the way JD was being left out.

"I know, it's not easy to be the one in the middle, is it? You feel like yer being pulled in two directions. I think what you have to do is, remember that if you go riding with Ezra you have to make some time for JD that day as well, maybe Ezra will as well, but especially you. Is that fair?"

Vin finally turned his head to look at Chris, and nodded.

"You always had fun with JD didn't you, before?"

Vin nodded, there were games he and JD had played, that he could never play with Ezra because the sophisticated southern boy would think them childish, but he had enjoyed them.

"Chris, am I a bad person?" Vin asked, now looking into Larabee's eyes imploringly.

"Come here." Chris held out his arms as Vin scooted over. Once held in a secure embrace, Chris lay his hand over Vin's heart. "This heart Vincent Tanner, is the truest, goodest heart I ever met. You are not a bad person and you never could be. You're just human that’s all, just like the rest of us. This is a family, not like most families I know, but it is ours and just like any families we have problems and we make mistakes, but we learn from them and that's what makes us strong."



"Will we be a family forever, even when me and JD is all growed up, an' Ezra too, even if Ezra has t' go away?"

"Why would Ezra go away?" Chris asked some what puzzled.

"You said his mamma just left him behind, what if she came back, he'd have t' go with her wouldn't he?"

"Maybe, but I don't think she is coming back, and even if she did the judge might not let Ezra go with her, if he didn't want to."

"I hope Ezra chooses us, I like having two brothers."

Chris smiled to himself. "Yes. We'll always be a family, no matter where we are, no matter how far apart we are, no matter how old we get."

Vin laid his head against Chris’ chest, feeling reassured and safe. "Good," he said, with a contented sigh.

The End

Feedback would be welcomed to