The tired little boy refused to open his eyes, the lure of sleep was too
"Ezra?" the voice repeated.
With a weary sigh the eight-year-old opened his eyes and sluggishly took
in his surroundings, trying to remember where he was.
Chris Larabee was sitting on the side of his bed dressed in his uniform smiling
at the boy.
"Mr. Larabee?" Ezra asked.
"Good morning," said Chris. "How are you feeling?"
"Are you okay if I go in to work today?" Chris asked unconsciously rubbing
the boy's leg through the blanket. The last couple days had been rough on
everyone with the middle of the night hospital trip for Ezra's ulcer. He
had slept most of the day yesterday and his stomach seemed to be doing all
Ezra yawned and nodded.
"We talked to Lynn yesterday and let her know you weren't feeling well,"
Chris said referring to the boys' therapist. Dr. Lynn Ashby insisted that
her young patients refer to her by Lynn, removing the perceived barrier of
a title and making it easier for the children to relate to her. "She said
she had a cancellation Friday and you could move to that spot if you want."
Ezra nodded again. He didn't think he was strong enough to deal with Dr.
Ashby today. It was hard enough when he was feeling 100 percent. If he talked
to her today he might end up telling her something he didn't really want
"What about Vin and JD?" asked Ezra.
"They'll keep their appointments today. Buck is going to take them into town
to run a few errands and go to see Lynn," Chris explained. "I'm going to
ride in with Nathan. Miss Nettie is here and Josiah will be around when he
"Did Mr. Sanchez work last night?"
Chris nodded. "Well, if you're okay, I need to go."
Chris cocked his head and raised an eyebrow skeptically.
Ezra sighed. "I'm tired and my stomach is uncomfortable, but I'm okay," he
said not understanding why he felt compelled to tell Mr. Larabee the truth.
Chris smiled at the admission. "If you have any trouble you tell Nettie and
call me, okay?"
Chris patted his leg and grinned as Ezra snuggled into his pillow and started
to go back to sleep. Seven-thirty was a little early for Ezra to wake on
a normal day, let alone when he was feeling poorly.
Chris walked down the hall and waved at Buck and the boys. "I'll see you
guys in town."
"Bye, Chris!" JD said around a spoonful of cereal. Vin just smiled and waved
back as Chris walked out the door.
"What would you like to do today?" Nettie asked as Ezra sat at the kitchen
table eating a very late breakfast.
"Can we go see the horses?" the eight-year-old asked.
"I thought you didn't like them," said Nettie.
"No," said Ezra wiping his mouth with a napkin. "I like the horses. I don't
like to clean up after them."
Nettie smiled. The boy was honest about his displeasure over the stable chores.
"We can do that," she answered. "How would you like to help me prepare dinner?"
Ezra's eyes brightened at the suggestion. Nettie had found that the little
boy enjoyed helping in the kitchen. She wasn't sure whether it was because
he truly liked it, or if it was simply something he could do well, and was
his way of paying for their keep.
"You'll need to help me select the menu," she added.
"Certainly," Ezra replied in his much too grown up manner of speaking.
Nettie set a cookbook on the table beside him and Ezra carefully pushed his
empty plate out of the way. Together they flipped through the pages for ideas.
"Oh," said Ezra with a small gasp of pleasure, "Chicken and Dumplings."
"Do you like chicken and dumplings?" Nettie asked.
"Oh, yes, Ma'am," he replied eagerly. "And I know how to make them. Well,
at least the dumpling part."
"Perfect," agreed Nettie. "I know for a fact that Chris and Buck both love
chicken and dumplings."
"Vin and JD, too," Ezra added with a smile.
Together they decided on the remainder of the menu and decided what time
they needed to start dinner preparations, before heading out to the barn
to pet the horses.
Vin wasn't eager to go see Dr. Ashby, but he remembered to bring the picture
he had drawn this week for her. He chose to focus his picture on one of the
horses they were caring for after the flood. Peso had captured his imagination,
and the sometimes-cantankerous horse seemed to enjoy Vin being nearby as
JD didn't bring the mama doll that he had taken from Lynn's office a few
sessions ago. She was tucked safely under his pillow at the ranch. Lynn had
gently confronted JD about the theft, and told him he could bring the doll
back when he felt she would be safe, knowing that the little boy needed to
hold on to the symbol of his mother. JD enjoyed playing with the toys at
Lynn's office, so he was happy to go see her.
Their appointments went better than the previous sessions likely because
the boys were becoming more comfortable with her. Vin would still not even
mention the word flood, and JD still expressed some anger about the things
that had happened.
Buck took them to the Sheriff's office where they met Chris and walked across
the street to the diner and had lunch. JD eagerly recounted his day, while
Vin seemed content just to sit close to Chris.
"How'd it go with Lynn?" Chris asked Vin.
"Okay," the seven-year-old answered with a shrug. "She liked my picture.
She said she liked the colors."
Chris smiled knowing that Vin was still fascinated with the process of filling
a page with color, covering it in black crayon and then etching out a picture
revealing the bright colors underneath.
"She asked me lots about Peso and Milagro and Chester."
"She did?" Chris asked.
"Yep," Vin answered before taking another bite of his hamburger.
Buck grinned at Chris over the boys' heads. Vin could be a talker when you
got him on a subject he was interested in - and the horses seemed to be a
key for him.
"Lynn didn't ask me about the horses," said JD around a French fry. "We talked
about things that make me smile." He paused to demonstrate a toothy smile.
"And things that make me frown." He stuck out his lower lip and scrunched
his nose. Returning to his regular smile, he added, "And I's supposed to
draw pictures of smile things this week."
"What about you?" Chris asked Vin.
"I'm supposed to draw something that makes me feel good," Vin said.
"What are you going to draw?" Buck asked.
"You'll think of something," Chris reassured, nudging the seven-year-old
with his elbow and smiling at him.
Vin smiled and took another bite of his hamburger.
Nettie smiled as Ezra brushed his cheek, leaving a small streak of flour.
The little boy was the essence of concentration, making sure everything was
'just right' for the recipe. The apron he wore was far too large, but he
insisted he needed it to protect his clothing.
"You've done this before," Nettie said.
Ezra nodded stirring the mixture with both hands on the wooden spoon.
Nettie grabbed the bowl as it slid, moving it back into place and keeping
it firm while he stirred. She waited for Ezra to explain where he'd made
dumplings but he wasn't inclined to talk about himself, yet.
"Mrs. Wells, may I ask you something?" Ezra asked.
"It's Nettie, sweetie."
Ezra nodded but didn't call her Nettie.
"What's your question?" she urged.
"I know that the flood damaged our school," the eight-year-old said. "But
we didn't finish the year." He stopped stirring and looked at her. "Will
we have to do it over again?"
"No, sweetie," Nettie assured. "Chris was waiting for openings in our local
school and giving you some time to get settled. With so many extra students
from closed schools, our schools in Four Corners are overcrowded, so Chris
arranged for a private teacher for you boys to finish out the year."
"A tutor?" Ezra asked.
"Me," Nettie replied.
"You're a teacher?" Ezra asked.
Nettie smiled. "I was. How do you think I became 'Miss Nettie' to half the
"About that," Ezra said with a questioning glance.
"Go ahead," she encouraged.
"Why do they call you Miss?" he asked. He hesitated a moment before continuing.
"Shouldn't it be Mrs?"
Nettie smiled at his curiosity as well as his manners. "Technically, yes,"
she said, "if you go by the definition of a married woman. But they're both
abbreviations for mistress, and meant as a term of respect. When I first
started teaching, the little ones had a hard time with my surname, so I went
by Miss Nettie. When I was married, so many people knew me by that name that
it stuck. And when I went to work with my husband, most of the deputies or
one of their siblings had been in my classes, so they just continued to call
me Miss Nettie."
She watched Ezra's young face as he deliberated over his next words. He started
to say something, but stopped himself.
"Something else on your mind, son?" she asked gently.
"I don't know if it's proper to ask," he said.
"Well, why don't you ask," Nettie encouraged, and we'll figure it out together."
Ezra rubbed his index finger on his lower lip for a moment before he spoke.
"It's just that Mr. Larabee is... kind of old..." Green eyes looked earnestly
into Nettie's seeking her approval.
She worked hard to keep her face non-judgmental... and to keep from laughing
at the thought that Chris Larabee was old. But, to a eight-year-old, anyone
over 20 was ancient.
"And I was wondering if he had been in your class...
And-I-didn't-want-to-imply-you-were-old." The last words tumbled out rapidly
without a breath.
Nettie laughed. "Child, I am old." She patted him gently on the shoulder.
"And yes, Chris was one of my students. Buck, too."
"And Mr. Jackson?" Ezra asked with a little more boldness.
"No, Nathan lived in the city. He started visiting out this way when a certain
lady named Raine started working at the Veterinary clinic. He liked it and
"And Mr. Sanchez?"
Nettie smiled at the earnest question. "No. Josiah had graduated when I by
the time I started teaching. I think he moved here his senior year of High
School. I met him at the Sheriff's Department."
"When Mr. Wells was Sheriff?" Ezra asked as he put the leftover dough on
a baking pan.
"That's right. Tom was the sheriff for twenty-four years." She fell silent,
remembering her husband for a few moments.
Ezra studied her closely, seeing that she missed him deeply. "Aunt Grace
taught me to make dumplings," he offered and then busied himself scraping
out the bowl so he wouldn't meet Nettie's eyes. The times he'd spent making
with Aunt Grace were treasured memories.
"She must be very special to you," Nettie said.
Ezra nodded, but kept focused on the bowl, his body language clearly indicating
he didn't want to say more. Nettie was pleased that the eight-year-old had
gifted her with a piece of his past, realizing that it was probably offered
in trade for her mentioning of her husband. It was only a name, but clearly
important to him.
They worked in silence for a few minutes until she noticed him guarding his
stomach with one hand and rubbing his right temple with the other.
"Mrs. Wells, may I go rest for a few minutes?" he asked.
Knowing that it was hard for Ezra to admit he needed to rest, she agreed
readily. "Yes. I think that's a fine idea. Vin and JD will be back in an
hour or so, and I'm sure they'll want to play." She handed him a damp towel
to help wipe some of the mess off his hands while she untied the apron.
"Thank you for your help, Ezra."
"You're welcome, Mrs. Wells," he replied politely.
"Ezra, I would like it very much if you would call me Miss Nettie, or Mrs.
Nettie if you feel more comfortable with that."
"Mother told me," he paused at the unexpected tightness in his chest, "Mother
told me to always call people by their formal names."
"And that is a very polite and courteous thing to do," said Nettie. "Manners
are something to be proud of. But I'm giving you permission to be less formal
Ezra looked momentarily distressed, but in the blink of an eye the look was
gone. "I'll try," he said softly, wanting to please the adults around him.
Nettie realized that he wasn't ready to make the jump from formal to familiar.
"Ezra," she said softly, looking into his eyes, "You call me Mrs. Wells,
Mrs. Nettie, Miss Nettie - whatever you feel comfortable with. You go rest
Ezra nodded in relief as he quickly left to wash up before taking a nap.
"Okay, boys," said Buck, "How about if we do something nice for Chris?"
He pulled out of the grocery store parking lot as they were starting to go
home after their errands.
Both boys nodded eagerly. "What are we gonna do?" asked JD.
"Well, the weather hasn't been too cooperative lately, and Chris hasn't had
the time to wash his truck, so what do you say we get it washed for him?"
"That'd be good," said Vin. He had noticed the dirt that had accumulated
on the truck.
"Where are we goin'?" asked JD as Buck turned into another parking lot not
too far from the store.
"To get the truck washed," said Buck.
"Where's the buckets?" asked JD.
"This is an automatic car wash," Buck answered. "It does all the work for
you. All you have to do is ride through."
"Really?" asked Vin.
Buck looked at him in the rearview mirror and grinned. "Really." It was a
pleasure to see the seven-year-old willingly participating in conversations.
Four Corners was a small town, but it did have a few amenities, including
a two-screen movie theatre that was open on weekends, and the brushless car
wash. The car wash building was solid concrete block. The structure itself
hadn't been changed since the business opened in the 80's, but the washing
mechanism had been updated a few years ago. There were no bristles, just
long cloth strips that washed the car as you drove through.
Both boys were excited to see how it worked as Buck paid the attendant and
followed his directions to the entrance. They watched as two workers sprayed
the front and back of the truck and rubbed the bumpers with cloths on sticks
that looked like brooms.
"Here we go," said Buck. The truck gave a slight lurch as the track at the
wheel propelled it slowly forward. He smiled as he glanced at the boys who
were both looking out the windows with enthusiasm.
Both boys jumped at the sound of the jetted water hitting the sides of the
front of the truck. When it reached the windows covering them in a steady
stream of soapy water, JD started to cry.
"It's okay, Little Bit," said Buck. It's just the water."
Buck's words did nothing to soothe the fear and JD's crying became louder.
"Mama!" he cried.
Vin didn't have time to comfort JD as the next phase of the car wash cloaked
the truck. The long strips of cloth laid over the windshield and the side
windows blocking the view totally, not that there was anything to see except
Vin caught his breath as the sudden feeling of being trapped overwhelmed
"It's okay, it's just the cloth washing the truck. It'll be done in a minute,"
he soothed, reaching his hand over the seat and touching JD's leg. He couldn't
reach Vin because he was directly behind Buck and scrunched against the door
despite his booster seat.
The rinse water hit the windows and JD wailed even louder and began screaming
in fear that the flood was coming again. Vin was panting hard, struggling
to breathe, and then he started yelling, "I want out! I want out!"
Panic reigned in the back seat of the truck, while Buck was stuck in the
front, unable to hold either boy.
"Easy, Vin," Buck cooed. "We'll be out in a minute. You're safe. It's just
the car wash."
But his words fell on terror-deafened ears.
The forced air hitting the sides of the vehicle brought even more screams,
but mercifully, in a few seconds they were rolling out into the sunshine
again. Buck felt relief, but it was only momentary.
Vin, in sheer flight instinct unbuckled his restraints and bolted out of
"Vin!" Buck yelled as the boy fled toward the street. He had a split second
to decide to leave the frightened JD in the back seat as he dashed out of
the truck to grab Vin.
"No!" Buck screamed as Vin darted blindly into the road. There was no way
he could reach him before the oncoming car. His breath caught as tires squealed
and brakes screeched.