A Little Comfort
|This is a variation of the Little Britches Universe, modern day with Vin, JD and Ezra as children. It follows "Refuge," which establishes how the boys came to live at North Pass Ranch after a natural disaster. "Two-Thirty-Five" also precedes this story.|
|Josiah had cautioned that this
might occur at some point, but he'd never thought about it happening in the
middle of the Wal*Mart store.
This was supposed to be a good thing, something to make Ezra more at ease with them. Chris had promised the eight-year-old a trip into town to shop for clothes as soon as it was safe. It had been delayed a little longer than he'd hoped because the flood damage had kept many stores closed and Wal*Mart had been the first to open up just this week.
What he hadn't counted on was the store's very limited supply of goods. The inventory had been altered due not only to damage to the store, but the changed demand from the flood area as well. It was stocked heavily with essential goods, home repair items and a very limited clothing line. No frills. Just the basics.
Ezra had kept his game face as they had turned into the parking lot. The little guy maintained his "nothing fazes me" demeanor, but Chris knew better. He caught the brief flash of disappointment in the boy's eyes, but that letdown would not be voiced. It wasn't proper.
And the eight-year-old was the essence of proper.
It hadn't taken long to discover that his propensity for neatness went beyond his mother's training. He was one of those kids who truly didn't like dirt. It was as much a part of his nature as his desire to have everything in order.
Josiah had spent many hours with each boy providing unofficial therapy. His observations of Vin found his laid back nature, being able to roll with the punches becoming clearer with each day that passed - despite his grief. JD and Ezra, however, had much stronger needs for order and structure.
For the five-year-old the need for order and structure seemed to be his nature - how his mind worked. Even in the short time they had been at the ranch he had often displayed his interest in figuring out how things worked.
But for Ezra, the need for structure was more than a personality quirk. It was a cry for some sense of control and stability from a child whose young life had been one of constant changes and moves.
And that need for things to be stable had just come crashing down when they reached the clothing department of a flood damaged Wal*Mart.
Green eyes blinked back tears. His breath hitched. Skinny shoulders twitched with his attempts to control the sobs that threatened.
It was too much.
He hadn't heard from his mother. He'd lost the "Aunt" who cared for him and loved him like her own. He was hurled into a new home living constantly with the conflict between what his mother had taught him about the police and what he was seeing lived out in front of him. He'd tried to help in the barn with the horses despite the fact that he hated the dirt that seemed to always cling to him. He'd put up with wearing ordinary farm clothes, even second hand clothes because he didn't want to make waves and he had the promise of nicer clothes soon. He'd even resigned himself to Wal*Mart knowing that at least he could find something that looked nice even if it was inexpensive. But now he stood here and there was nothing to choose from.
It was too much.
He couldn't stop the tears, or the involuntary sobs.
Mother would be so disappointed. He was bawling like a baby in public.
The tears flowed harder and suddenly he was in Mr. Larabee's arms, resting on his hip as the blond man carried him to the bench near the restroom. They settled on the bench out of sight of everyone except those who ventured to use the restrooms. It afforded as much privacy as he could find in the middle of a super store.
Ezra attempted to answer Mr. Larabee's quiet questions, but each time he tried, he only cried harder. He struggled against the sobs, and the ungentlemanly display, but finally he surrendered to the warm, secure embrace and let the tears flow unabated.
Josiah let out a concerned sigh when he finally found them. He had come into town with the pair and used Larabee's truck to do some errands while they shopped. It looked like he should have stayed nearby.
Chris was seated on the bench, with Ezra stretched out beside him using his thigh for a pillow. Larabee stroked the child's hair soothingly while the eight-year-old slept.
"Chris?" Josiah asked softly.
"Had a rough time," the blond replied in a whisper, not wanting to disturb Ezra. "I think it was too soon to come into town."
"There's an awful lot of destroyed property," Chris answered. "I don't think he was ready to see how bad it still is. Hell, I wasn't ready to see it."
Josiah nodded, understanding the sentiment.
"And the lack of clothing to choose from pushed him over the edge."
Ezra snorted and jerked in his sleep.
"You're fine," Chris soothed as he continued the smooth stroking of the boy's hair.
The eight-year-old sucked in a gasping breath, the remnants of his sobs, as he settled.
He was quiet for a few moments, and then his eyes popped open.
"You're fine," Chris said again.
Ezra sat up and tried to smooth the wrinkles from his shirt as he gathered his bearings.
"Mr. Sanchez, you're back," he said.
Josiah nodded. "Looks like I should have stuck around. There sure isn't much here to choose from."
"Unfortunately not," said Chris.
"Can you to hang out here a little longer?" asked Josiah. "I have one more thing to do."
Chris nodded, frowning slightly as Ezra, now aware of appearances, began to pull away from him.
Ezra excused himself to the restroom, while Josiah went to find a manager and see if there was any more clothing in the back storerooms.
When Ezra emerged from the restroom, his hair was neatly combed and his shirt was mostly wrinkle free. He sat down on the bench, but not too close to Chris.
"I'm sorry, they didn't have anything," Chris said softly.
"It isn't your fault, Mr. Larabee."
"I keep my promises, Ezra," Larabee assured. "We'll get you some better clothes."
They fell into an awkward silence while they waited for Josiah to return. Chris couldn't pretend to understand Ezra's idiosyncrasies. He knew that the aloof attitude was a protective mechanism for the boy, something to keep people at a distance, but he wasn't sure about the significance of clothing to the eight-year-old. It might be part of the persona he portrayed, but the blond couldn't quite believe that what Ezra was wearing was the real cause of breaking down and crying in public. To him, clothes were clothes.
Was he taking on too much by taking in the boys? If he didn't understand Ezra, how could he be a good caretaker for him or the others for that matter? Vin needed a lot of emotional support and counseling, and Chris wasn't exactly a poster boy for dealing with emotional trauma considering how he had dealt with the deaths of his wife and son. JD needed security and while he had latched on to Buck, the rogue wasn't exactly known for continuous relationships.
"Hey guys," said Josiah as he returned, pulling Chris from his doubts. "The manager found something."
Ezra looked questioningly at the sack Josiah held out toward him.
Sanchez nodded. "It's yours."
The boy tentatively took the bag and looked inside. His eyes brightened slightly and he unconsciously clutched the bag to his chest.
"Thank you," he replied in a hushed voice.
"What is it?" asked Chris.
Josiah sat down on the bench beside them. "Well, the manager had some flood damaged merchandise in the back. Most of it isn't really damaged, in fact it wasn't even touched by the water, but they have to consider it damaged and can't sell it. We did some digging and came up with a polo shirt in Ezra's size."
Chris smiled slightly as the eight-year-old sneaked another peak into the bag.
"We'll wash it as soon as we get home," he said. "You can wear it tomorrow."
Ezra took that as the cue that it was time to leave. He stood and Josiah and Chris followed him out to the parking lot.
The long ride home was fairly quiet, with only occasional conversation from the two adults and polite, but empty responses from the eight-year-old when he was required speak.
The trip had obviously taken a toll on all of them.
Josiah and Chris could only guess at what was really troubling the boy. But neither wanted to talk to him about the devastation all along the roadside. If that wasn't what was troubling him, they certainly didn't want to bring it up. It was almost a relief when Ezra dozed off halfway home.
Arriving at the ranch, a sharp, "I can do it myself," as Josiah tried to unbuckle Ezra told both men that the nap had changed nothing.
"Hi, Mr. Chris! Hi Mr. 'Siah!" JD called excitedly from the porch, waving at them with one hand and holding Buck's hand with the other. Dobie and Sam, the two Labradors barked happily.
Vin stood beside them with a small grin on his face. Chris couldn't help but return a smile himself despite the troubles with Ezra.
"We made a fort, Ezra. You wanna come play?" JD invited.
"Not now," said the eight-year-old, "I'm tired."
Still clinging to his bag, he brushed past the boys and into the house, bringing a concerned frown to Vin's face.
Buck looked at Chris curiously knowing something had gone wrong.
"Later," the blond mouthed silently.
JD seemed unfazed by the rebuff. "Mr. Siah, come see!"
Taking Josiah by the hand, JD towed him toward the backyard. Vin looked back and forth between the house and JD, torn between his brothers.
"It's all right, Vin," Chris assured. "Ezra had a bit of a rough day, and he's a little tired. Let him rest." Chris squeezed his shoulder and Vin grinned before heading to the backyard.
After he cleared the corner, Buck asked, "What happened?"
"The trip was a bust," said Chris rubbing his right temple. "The store had flood damage and didn't have the full stock yet, mostly home repair stuff."
"Jeans and T-shirts. Josiah talked to the manager and they found one polo shirt in the flood damaged stock."
"I felt so helpless," Chris said shaking his head. "He just broke down and cried."
"Poor kid," said Buck.
"Yeah," said Chris.
"What else?" prodded the dark haired man sensing his friend had more on his mind.
"Nothing," Chris said shaking his head. "I'm just not sure anymore that we're the best option for those boys."
"Well, I am," said Buck resolutely. "They need us."
He stepped off the porch to join the group in the back yard, speaking softly as he moved. "Get used to it."
+ + + + + +
Josiah was cooking dinner as Buck, Chris and Nathan sat around the kitchen table talking about the events of the day. Vin and JD were still in the back yard playing and Ezra had yet to emerge from the bedroom.
"Step into his shoes," said Josiah. "You're eight years old. You don't know where your mother is. You've been given into someone else's care and just as you start to trust that person and fit in, a flood rips your life away from you and thrusts you into a totally new situation with complete strangers. You have nothing from your past."
Chris closed his eyes. He had known all those things, but hearing them piled one on top of the other made it a lot easier to see. Ezra needed something familiar and comfortable, and in the absence of contact with his mother, that meant nice clothes. Having fancy clothes would not change anything that had happened, but the comfort and security would go a long way in helping the boy cope.
"So what do we do until we can get him some clothes?" Buck asked.
"We have a lot of patience," said Nathan.
"Mr. Buck?" JD said as he trotted into the kitchen.
"Hey, Little Bit," Buck said pulling JD onto his lap. "What's up?"
Chris smiled an invitation as Vin followed JD into the room. The seven-year-old sidled up close to the blond. Dobie, Vin's Labrador was close behind the boys.
"We went to get Ezra to play but we couldn't find him in the room," said JD.
A small surge of fear raced through all the men. Where would the boy go? Running away was something they had worried about since the boys first arrived at the ranch, but they'd thought Ezra was settling in and starting to trust them.
"But then we finded him," the five-year-old added.
Neither boy saw Buck roll his eyes and shake his head in relief.
"Where is he?" asked Chris.
Vin and JD exchanged glances. They weren't accustomed to going to the men for help with Ezra, but they didn't know what to do.
"He's in the closet," Vin said softly.
"Crying," JD added. "He won't say what's wrong. He just keeps holding that sack and crying."
Soft curses were muttered. Little eyes looked up to their foster fathers.
Buck was the first to move. "I'll see if I can help," he said. "Little Bit, will you stay in here with Chris?"
JD nodded as Buck stood and sat him on the chair they had been sharing.
He looked back as he left the kitchen and saw the five-year-old slip off the chair and move over to Chris. He smiled as the blond pulled JD onto his lap and wrapped his other arm around Vin.
Chris might be having his doubts, but the boys would take care of that.
+ + +
"Maybe I should go talk to Ezra," said Josiah as he stirred the spaghetti. "Nathan, could you take over here?"
"Let Buck," said Chris. He nodded his head to the two boys in front of him, indicating that they needed Josiah's help right now, too.
"Why is Ezra crying?" JD asked.
Chris took in a slow breath and sighed. How could he explain it when he wasn't sure himself? Simple and straightforward, the same way he handled everything else.
"Well, JD, when we went to the store today we didn't find any clothes for Ezra," said Chris.
"The store didn't have any," said Josiah.
"Wal*Mart always has clothes," said Vin.
"Usually that's true," agreed Chris, "but the store was damaged by the flood."
"Oh," said JD. The sadness in his voice made all the adults wince. The flood had stolen his mother and his home. It had taken his security and everything he had ever known, with the exception of his two "brothers." It was no wonder the word saddened him.
"They only had a few pairs of pants and some tee-shirts," Chris continued.
"What's in the bag?" asked Vin.
"The store manager and I found one shirt in the back room," said Josiah.
"Mr. Chris?" said JD softly as he looked up at the blond.
"Ezra don't even like Wal*Mart."
Vin tugged on Chris' sleeve. "Don't be mad at him. If he went to Wal*Mart, he was trying really hard to be good."
Chris took another deep breath before responding. "I'm not mad at Ezra. Not at all. I'm upset that we didn't find some clothes for him. I wanted to make him feel better."
"Why don't you just buy them on the 'puter, like Mama?" asked JD.
"The computer?" asked Nathan incredulously. Buying online hadn't occurred to any of them, but none of them really spent a great deal of time on the computer outside of work.
"Yeah. On the inner net," said JD. "Ezra has a count."
"An account?" asked Chris.
JD nodded. "His Mama puts money in it so Mama can buy clothes at that Ralph place."
"Ralph Lawrence," Vin corrected.
"Ralph Lauren?" asked Nathan, recognizing the designer name.
"Yeah, that's it," said JD.
Chris was still back on the account. If Ezra's mother put money on the account, there might be a way of tracking her location. He frowned. That opened a whole new can of worms. While he wanted to find Maude Standish for Ezra's sake, if he did find her he was obligated to turn her in to the authorities. If she stayed in Europe, it was unlikely they'd pursue her for the crime she was accused of, but if she returned to the states before the statute of limitations ran out, she would be arrested.
What a mess. A little boy was sitting in a closet crying because his mother left him behind when she got into trouble with the law and hadn't bothered to contact him in the past month.
"Mr. Chris, are you okay?"
The blond nodded and ruffed JD's hair. "I'm fine, JD. Why don't we go wash up for dinner?"
+ + + + +
"Ezra, are you in here?" Buck asked as he walked into the boys' room.
He heard a sniff, some scuffling, and the steady thump of Sam's tail on the hardwood floor in response to his voice.
Good old Sam. Larabee's dog seemed to know just when someone needed a friend.
Sam whined and Ezra sighed.
Buck walked over and pulled the closet door open the rest of the way. He didn't miss Ezra's attempt at wiping his eyes unseen, but he held off asking if the boy was all right knowing he wasn't ready to talk.
"There you are," he said. "I was wondering if you could lend me a hand?"
Ezra looked at him with a surprised expression and then quickly hid it with his poker face. He nodded.
It was all Buck could do to hold himself back from reaching out and drawing the boy with tear reddened eyes and puffy cheeks into his embrace.
"Well, you see, I have a date tomorrow night, and I was wondering if you might help me pick out something to wear."
Ezra's eyes widened. "Me?"
"Yes, you," said Buck with a smile. "I can't exactly ask Chris something like this. He thinks black is the only color there is."
The eight-year-old's mouth twitched to a grin. "It makes it easy to match clothing."
Buck chuckled, grinning widely at Ezra's response. "Come on, let's take a look."
The boy emerged from the closet and put the Wal*Mart sack on his bed, with the old Labrador close on his heels.
The pair followed Buck to the guest room, which had in the past month become his permanent room. He'd moved all of his clothing from the bunkhouse, which was now occupied by Nathan and Josiah as well as three other deputies who had lost their homes in the flood.
Buck opened his closet door. "Well, what do you think?"
Ezra stepped forward and examined some of the clothing, feeling the texture with his right hand. "You have some nice pieces."
Wilmington sat on the bed with a bounce watching Sam nudge Ezra's other hand. "Yep. Mama made sure I dressed nice."
The eight-year-old turned his attention to Buck. The dark haired man patted on the bed in invitation.
Ezra came over and climbed up next to him. Sam followed the boy, stopping and turning three circles before lying on the floor at Buck's feet.
"We lived in a poor part of town, and Mama did her best to provide for me," Buck said quietly. "When she was little, people were mean to her and gave her a hard time about being poor, so Mama always made sure I dressed well and took pride in my appearance. You see, she didn't want her boy to go through the same trouble she did."
"Appearances are everything," Ezra said in a hushed whisper.
"Yep," Buck agreed. "I didn't have a lot of clothes, but Mama made sure what I had was nice."
He paused a moment and took a deep breath. He wasn't accustomed to talking about his past, but Ezra needed some comfort and maybe realizing he had some things in common with Buck would help.
"Mama died when I was 12. Even after I was grown and out on my own, I still bought some nice clothes. Some folks wouldn't see the sense in spending the extra money, but I guess it was a way to honor my mother and, well, I like how they feel."
Ezra nodded in agreement. "And how they look," he added quietly.
"That, too." Buck was quiet for a few moments before he spoke again. "You know, Chris is upset about what happened today."
"I'm sorry," Ezra said quickly, his fingers twisting the bedspread material into a fist. "I didn't mean to upset him."
"No No!" Buck protested realizing the boy misunderstood him. "No, he's not upset with you. He's upset that you're upset."
"I didn't mean to " The boy's voice faded as Buck grimaced in frustration that he thought he was the cause.
"No, Ezra. He isn't upset with you or anything you did," Wilmington explained. "He's upset that he disappointed you."
The eight-year-old clenched and unclenched his fist repeatedly, watching the patter of wrinkles forming on the bedspread. Finally his hand stilled and he looked up, searching Buck's face for truthfulness.
"He wanted to get you some nice clothes because he knew that would make you feel better. He feels bad that he let you down."
"It wasn't his fault," Ezra declared. "He couldn't have known they wouldn't have a selection."
Buck smiled to himself at the boy defending Chris.
"Still, it must have been hard on you after having your hopes up."
The dark haired man sat quietly, hoping that Ezra would be able to talk about what had happened. It looked like the fabric of the bedspread had become fascinating again. The boy traced his index finger along the simple pattern saying nothing. Buck figured it would be tough for the eight-year-old to open up, but maybe he'd been with them long enough to realize that he didn't have to fear them - and that he could trust them. He watched Ezra take a deep breath, apparently steeling himself.
"It wasn't the clothes," he said softly.
Buck looked at the green-eyed boy and gave him a nod of encouragement.
"I mean that was disappointing, but " Ezra fidgeted rubbing his thumb over his fingertips furiously.
"It's okay," Buck said softly, trying to ease his obvious distress.
Ezra's hands stilled and he looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. "It's still broken." He sniffed as the tears started to fall again. "I thought it would be fixed by now, but everything is still broken."
Wilmington did what came naturally. He reached out his arm and pulled the eight-year-old against his side. When he felt the skinny arm slide around his back he accepted the unspoken invitation and wrapped Ezra in a full blown hug, pulling him on to his lap and rubbing his back in comfort.
"I'm so sorry, Ezra," he said softly. "I wish that everything was fixed, but it's going to take a very long time for that to happen." Unconsciously he rocked the boy trying to soothe the distress all the while knowing that there was some damage done by the flood that could never be fixed.
And it wasn't just the buildings. Lives had been shattered as well. JD's mother could never be replaced. Nothing could erase Vin's memories of trying and failing to save her. And it would be a monumental task to combat Ezra's feelings of abandonment from losing a woman who cared deeply for him and from an absent mother who didn't appear to have the time or inclination to contact her son.
Buck fought his own tears, hearing each sob, and feeling each shudder of the eight-year-old who had suffered too much. Larabee's dog stood and leaned against them offering his own kind of comfort to the boy.
After a few minutes Buck felt the boy stiffen as he fought to stop crying. That saddened him even more. A kid should be allowed to cry without shame, especially when he had as much as Ezra to cry over.
As suddenly as the tears started, they were gone and the eight-year-old asked, "Where are you taking her?"
The quick change of direction told Buck that the opportunity to comfort him was over.
"We're going to a western themed steak house. It has a dinner theatre and a dance floor."
Ezra slipped off the bed and returned to Buck's closet. Sam watched him closely, thumping his tail on the floor but not following.
"Does she know where you are taking her?" he asked, looking through the clothing.
"She suggested it."
Buck smiled as Ezra examined several shirts closely. The boy was in his element.
"I think you should wear the blue silk shirt with your best pair of jeans, the tan jacket and your cowboy boots. And I'd take your cowboy hat, but not wear it unless she wears one."
Buck grinned and joined him at the closet. "You're really good at this," he said.
"Of course," Ezra replied seriously.
A knock on the door jam interrupted their conversation. "Dinner's almost ready, guys," said Nathan.
"Thanks, Nate," Buck replied. "We'll be right there."
"I should wash up," said Ezra as Nathan headed back to the kitchen.
"Okay. Thanks for the help," said Buck, giving the boy a wink.
Ezra smiled briefly before heading for the bathroom, leaving Buck wondering how the boy had become so adept at picking out clothing, and about his matter-of-fact statement of his skill.
He watched Sam follow the boy, nudging his hand with his nose as they walked. Ezra absently scratched the dog's head.
"Atta boy, Sam," Buck said softly. "Keep working your magic."
+ + + + +
Buck made it to the kitchen before the little southerner. He glanced at the full table, noting that everything was in its place with one exception. He quickly opened a cupboard and pulled out a package of napkins knowing that it was something that made Ezra more comfortable.
Chris nodded his thanks as Buck dealt the napkins around the table like a deck of cards.
They all waited at the table for a few minutes but Ezra didnt show. JD began fidgeting impatiently and everyone looked at Vin with grins when his tummy growled.
Ill check on him, said Buck excusing himself from the table.
Well, said Chris with a chuckle, I think well go ahead and get started.
Josiah, Nathan and Chris tried to make dinnertime normal so the boys wouldnt worry about their brothers absence.
Buck walked to the boys room and peeked inside. Ezra was lying on the bed, asleep, one dress shoe on, and one sitting beside him on the bed. Hed obviously been trying to dress for dinner and the weariness of the day had caught up to him.
Buck approached and placed a hand gently on Ezras forehead. He was a little warm to the touch. He pulled up the blanket from the foot of the bed covering the eight-year-old. He could eat after he got some rest.
Keep an eye on him, Sam, Wilmington said softly to Larabees dog as he left the room.
The old Labrador thumped his tail on the floor and rested his chin on his paws.
Rejoining the others at the kitchen table, Buck sat down and filled his plate as bowls were passed to him.
Mr. Buck, wheres Ezwa? asked JD around a mouthful of French bread.
Well, Little Bit, said Wilmington, Ezra fell asleep on his bed. I thought Id let him rest.
Vin looked worriedly at Buck.
Its okay, Kiddo, said Buck ruffling his hair. Well save some supper for him. Eat up.
The seven-year-old turned to Chris for reassurance. At Larabees nod, he started eating.
Buck sighed, but tried not to let the boys see it. He was glad that Vin trusted Chris, but he wished the seven-year-old would respond to him without looking to Larabee for direction.
Josiah silently observed the dynamics. Young Tanner had definitely bonded with Chris and trusted him far more than he trusted any other adult. It was a good start. And Buck was doing well at ignoring the apparent slight. Wilmington understood that it wasnt intentional on Vins part, and that trust would come with time. The seven-year-old had a mountain of difficulties to work out including feeling responsible for Rachel Dunnes death. It was bad enough that he had seen her, but he also felt that he should have saved her. It would take a long time and perhaps a lot of counseling before he would be truly convinced that it was not his fault.
JD still picked up many of his emotional cues from Vin and Ezra, but seemed to be the quickest to adjust to their new home. While he had lost his mother, he had gained a Buck. And he still had his two brothers. It was unlikely the little guy truly understood his mother was gone forever, but for now he had his moments of grief and then seemed comfortable in his new life. He had a bubbly personality and a zest for life that was unquenchable, but that made it all the more important to watch him closely for the signs of emotional trauma that his outgoing attitude would mask.
Josiah took another bite of spaghetti. Ezra was an enigma. At times he seemed very together, able to deal with the stresses thrown at him. At other times a frightened little boy showed through the confident exterior. It was easy to see that the eight-year-old wanted to trust them, wanted to believe he was safe and loved, but the teachings of his mother and his desire for her approval meant he couldnt trust police officers. It placed a lot of pressure on the boy that he didnt need to deal with. After a few unofficial counseling sessions with Ezra, Sanchez had recommended to Chris that Ezra see another counselor one who wasnt in law enforcement. Maybe Ezra would be more open to someone who didnt represent everything his mother warned him against.
Arent you hungry, Mr. Siah? asked JD.
Oh, said Josiah. I am. I just got lost in my thoughts for a moment.
Skitty is good, said the five-year-old. Its Vins favorite.
Vin looked up as he slurped a long strand of spaghetti off his fork. When he finished chewing and swallowing it he said, Thank you for making it.
Youre welcome, said Josiah. Spaghetti is one of my favorites, too.
Vin smiled shyly and went back to finishing his dinner.
Nathan watched the interaction with a smile of his own. The boys were becoming more comfortable with them every day. And despite their stresses they seemed to be fairing well physically. Vins appetite was improving after the first rocky days together. His reaction to the trauma of the flood and losing JDs mother was to retreat inside himself and that meant he had not eaten unless practically being forced. As hed started coming out of his shell his appetite had improved dramatically. JD had never lost his zest for food, but like many boys his age he had an aversion to anything green. Ezra seemed to be the most finicky of the three. He ate fairly light and if the food was something he didnt want, he played with it. He was quite adept at pushing things around and making it look like he had eaten. Somehow in spite of their exposure to the bacteria in the floodwaters, and despite their high stress levels, the three boys had managed to keep from getting sick.
Im done, JD announced.
All right, said Buck. Why dont you and Vin pick out a video to watch? That way we wont wake Ezra up playing in your room.
Okay! the five-year-old agreed eagerly.
If youre done, you can get down, Chris said to Vin.
Vin smiled and scrambled after JD.
Nathan, said Buck quietly, You might want to take a look at Ezra. It could be just from the stress of the day, but he felt a little warm to me.
Jackson nodded. So much for not getting sick. He put his empty plate in the sink and headed for the boys room, with Chris following him.
Entering the room, he moved to the rollaway bed where Ezra slept. The bed was a step up from the couch cushions they had started with that first few nights at the ranch. The addition of a third bed to the bunk beds already in the small room ate up much of the play space, but none of the boys was willing to sleep in a separate room, so the rollaway had been the compromise. It could be folded up and moved aside until bedtime, allowing a few more square feet of floor space.
Nathan put his hand on Ezras forehead, noting the flushed cheeks. Definitely a fever, but it didnt feel too high.
The eight-year-old suddenly jerked away from the touch.
Its all right, Ezra, said Nathan soothingly. Im just checking for a fever.
Im fine, the boy claimed.
Does your stomach hurt? Jackson asked.
No. Im fine.
Ezra Larabee had a way of saying his name that made Ezra want to tell him the truth. He didnt understand why, just that when Chris used that tone it was time to stop misdirecting.
The eight-year-old sighed. I suppose my stomach is bothering me some.
Uh-huh, said Nathan feeling the glands in Ezras neck. How about your throat?
It doesnt hurt.
Ezra shrugged. Its not bad.
Nathan nodded. Im going to go get the thermometer and some Tylenol. Ill be right back.
Chris sat down on the foot of the bed and put his hand reassuringly on Ezras leg. Its okay to tell us when youre hurting, he said softly. I know you think youre being a bother but youre not.
Ezras eyes widened slightly. How did Chris know what he was thinking?
You cant help it if youre sick. No one can.
The boy nodded in understanding and lay back on the pillow. He felt very tired and his stomach was feeling disagreeable.
Here we are, said Nathan. Hold this under your tongue, he added placing the thermometer under Ezras tongue.
The boy tolerated the fussing quietly.
When the gauge beeped, Nathan read, 100.6 Thats not too bad. Lets keep you warm, make sure you get a lot of fluids and rest. Well keep an eye on things.
Do you think Vin and JD will get it, too? Chris asked.
Nathan shrugged. Hard to tell, but it would probably be a good idea to keep them away from him until were sure.
No! said Ezra sitting up quickly. I cant. They need me.
Chris squeezed his calf. Its all right, Ezra. Buck and I will watch them and take care of them if they get scared.
The eight-year-old locked eyes with the blond, not willing to give up what he deemed to be his responsibility.
And well watch you, too, Chris added in almost a whisper. He looked around the room before deciding what to do. How about if we roll your bed into my room? Just until were sure Vin and JD wont get sick.
Nooo, Ezra said softly, but the alarm in his voice struck both men hard and it wasnt just fear of leaving Vin and JD. It was that old terror that the boys had expressed their first weeks at the ranch.
Chris fought back his anger. Whatever had caused this wariness of adults was not Ezras fault and he didnt want the boy thinking he was mad at him.
Ezra, I just want you close by so I can help you if you need anything, he said softly.
You might get sick, the eight-year-old protested, but Chris and Nathan both knew that was just an excuse.
Chris was unwilling to force Ezra into an uncomfortable situation. After a few seconds he came up with a last suggestion. How about if we move your bed into the office?
Ezra looked at him warily.
We could leave the door open in both the office and this room, so we can all hear if anyone needs anything.
Okay, Ezra said softly. He rubbed his temples wearily.
Do you feel up to eating anything? Nathan asked gently.
The eight-year-old shrugged.
Why dont you come to the kitchen with me and try some toast and juice? While were doing that, Chris can move your bed.
Ezra nodded and slipped off the bed. He gathered his balance and moved slowly toward the kitchen. Sam stood and stretched with a grunt, arching his back and shaking, before following his boy.
Chris shook his head. The old Labrador seemed to sense when someone needed comfort. He made quick work of folding the rollaway bed and moving it down the hall to the office.
The night passed uneventfully. Vin and JD slept in the same bed, feeling a little more insecure without Ezra in the room. They may have had nightmares, but had apparently comforted each other. Ezra slept through the night with the help of some Tylenol. It seemed that only Buck and Chris had difficulty sleeping.
In the morning Buck took Vin and JD to Four Corners with him to visit the Sheriffs Office and to pick up some groceries. Chris remained at the ranch with Ezra. He let the boy sleep until almost eleven when he woke on his own. While the boy moved around sluggishly, it didnt appear that his illness was serious. He ate a good breakfast before moving to the couch in the den to rest.
After Chris finished the dishes, he went to the den and invited Ezra to come into the office. The boy followed him, surprised when Larabee turned on the computer in the room.
Have a seat, Ezra, he said nodding toward the computer chair.
Ezra raised an eyebrow in question, but climbed up in the chair.
Vin and JD told us last night that sometimes you shop for clothes on the internet. I thought maybe we could give it a try.
Ezra smiled. He hesitantly reached for the mouse and started the Internet connection. He glanced at Chris, and seeing no disapproval, he typed a web address into the search bar.
Chris leaned against the wall, with a smile of his own. He watched Ezras fingers fly over the keys as he logged into the website and typed in his password. He went to his account status page and looked at the information. Ezra turned and looked at him.
It says I have $250 credit. It was more of a question than a statement.
Your mother puts money in the account for you? Chris asked.
Well, lets take a look at what you want to get.
Ezra pulled up a page showing his past purchases. If its all right with you, Id like to replace some of the things I lost.
Chris nodded. He watched as Ezra expertly pulled up the items he wanted and added him to his online shopping cart. The boy was smiling truly smiling.
When Ezra had compiled his list, he showed it to Chris.
All right, Larabee agreed. Make sure to change the shipping address.
Oh! Ezra quickly maneuvered to the proper page to change the address. He had to ask Chris for the postal code, but he remembered the house number.
Is it all right? Ezra asked.
Chris looked over the order once more. It was hard to imagine a little boy spending nearly $250 on clothes, and he had only ordered a few outfits.
Well, Id suggest just one change, he said.
Ezra looked at him expectantly.
Chris pointed to a line in the order. If you give up a couple pair of socks, I think wed be able to expedite the shipping.
Ezra beamed. He quickly made the change and at Chris nod, he placed the order. His new clothes would be here in a matter of days.
Thank you, Ezra said sincerely.
Chris smiled at him.
Three days later three boys vied for position in front of the mirror. Chris and Buck had been pleasantly surprised to find that Ezras purchases had included a pale blue dress shirt for Vin and a red shirt for JD. Now the three were in their new clothes, trying to see themselves in the mirror. They had been invited to dinner at Miss Netties and wanted to look their best.
Ezra finally backed away, letting Vin and JD look at their new shirts.
Ezra, Chris said softly.
The eight-year-old looked up at him with a contented smirk.
That was a very nice thing you did. Chris said wrapping his arm around Ezras shoulders.
Theyre my brothers, Ezra said simply.
Chris felt a skinny arm slide behind his back and he hugged the boy tighter. It wasnt a big move for most people, but for a little boy who was afraid to trust, it was huge.
Lets go, boys, Chris said. We dont want to keep Nettie and her chocolate cake waiting.
Cake! yelled JD. Oh, boy!
He scrambled out the door followed closely by Vin.
They know nothing about being fashionably late, said Ezra as he slipped away from Chris to follow them.
Larabee laughed as the boy nearly ran after them. Apparently the lure of chocolate cake superceded fashionable lateness.
He smiled contentedly as he followed the boys. They had a long way to go, but had made major strides toward settling in at North Pass Ranch. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, theyd become a family.
Next: Long Distance