Runners

By Gil Hale – corbidae@yahoo.com



Part Two


Chris let his voice trail off. He could see Vin was asleep. It reminded him painfully of watching Adam… or Sarah, tired from the disturbed nights when Adam was a baby…

The memory was, as always, an aching awareness of loss, but for once he didn’t react by pushing it violently away. He remembered the warm weight of Adam, picked up asleep, and it hurt, but not beyond bearing.

He’d loved them and he’d lost them. For the first time since they’d died, he could feel the love as well as the loss.

He sat, thinking, until he realised the night was almost over. He checked silently that Ezra hadn’t woken up to find Vin missing, but Ezra was sleeping deeply. He’d half curled up against the wall, the quilt tugged up defensively. He was reacting to the day’s events as much as Vin was—but harder to reach.

Chris swept up the glass from the study floor, and rolled it in paper for the trash. The bottle of whisky on the desk, still more than two thirds full, called to him and mocked him with his own words to Vin.

He wondered if Buck had ever realised how much shame there had been fuelling his anger that day…

He took the bottle into the kitchen and tipped the remaining whisky down the sink.


“Get yer ass outta there, I bin up two hours.”

Ezra was used to waking up to Vin’s prompting, but not in a comfortable bed with clean sheets. He squeezed closer to the wall, trying to go back to sleep and forget that JD was in hospital and they were in custody, but Vin persisted.

“C’mon, Ez. Yer wastin’ daylight.”

It was Vin even more than everything else that made Ezra want to keep his eyes shut and refuse to face the day. He knew what Vin would look like if he could see him. He could hear it in his voice. Vin was happy.

It wasn’t that Ezra wanted Vin to be miserable, or even uncomfortable. But not actually happy… not here… not under the roof of one of the most daunting authority figures Ezra had ever encountered. The way Vin was reacting to Chris Larabee threatened an upheaval of everything that had mattered in Ezra’s world for the last three years.

“Bin tendin’ t’ Chris’s horses,” Vin said.

Ezra decided it was useless to try to go back to sleep. He rolled over. Vin had been up long enough to attract some dirt, but he still looked unnaturally tidy in the new shirt and jeans.

“Ranch is big,” Vin said. “Y’ can breathe out here.”

“If Mr Larabee permits it.”

“He said t’ call him Chris.”

“I doubt if he can make it compulsory.”

Vin sat on the edge of the bed, then got up hastily and brushed the quilt down. “Y’ll like it here, Ez. Y’ liked th’ bed, ‘n bein’ clean.”

“Speaking of which, I’m going to get a shower.” It was the one place where he might get some privacy to think.

“Y’ had a shower last night.”

“And now I’m having another one this morning.” He gathered up the clothes, which were at least new and clean, if entirely banal, and refused to meet Vin’s eyes. He did pause to ask, “Has Mr Larabee had any further news from the hospital?”

“Not since last night. He’s callin’ again now.”

That prevented Ezra from spending the rest of the morning in the bathroom, which had been one of the options he was considering. He emerged relatively rapidly, and found Vin in the kitchen having breakfast—or perhaps a second breakfast.

“They’re sayin’ JD’s stable,” Vin said. “Might be outta intensive care in a coupla days. Chris says he’ll take us in t’ see him soon’s he’s got it okayed.”

“He may find that presents some difficulties.”

“Don’t reckon there’s much Chris can’t do.”

Ezra’s stomach twisted. It was the trust in Vin’s tone he couldn’t stand. They’d always known they couldn’t trust anyone but themselves. One way or another, other people conned you or let you down. What was it about Chris Larabee that made Vin trust him?

He pushed the thought, and the confused feelings that came with it, as far away as he could. “Do we help ourselves?”

Vin opened the fridge. There was fresh fruit, yoghurts, milk. Ezra had half forgotten what fresh food tasted like.

“There’s some a them flaky things,” Vin said.

“Croissants?”

“Kinda but with choc’late bits in.”

Ezra reminded himself that however comfortable this was, it was still custody… and with a most formidable custodian. Still, it made sense to eat while they could. He piled up his plate, and watched Vin demolish a chocolatine.

There was no sign of Mr Larabee. While that enhanced the pleasure of breakfast, he didn’t imagine it was a state of affairs that would last for long. They should consider their situation while they had the chance.

“You’ve been outside?” he asked Vin.

“Uh huh.” Vin licked chocolate from his fingers. Somehow over night he seemed to have lost some of his uneasiness with his surroundings.

“You’ve gained an idea of the layout of the ranch and what the access is like? Someone said yesterday it was isolated?”

Vin answered the unspoken question rather than the actual one. “We ain’t runnin,” he said. “Not this time.”

Ezra didn’t deal in absolutes, especially not over this. “I’m not saying we would definitely abscond, just that it would be prudent to keep our options open.”

Vin shook his head. “I ain’t runnin’ from Chris,” he stated. “Knew soon’s I saw him he was diff’rent. He believed us, and not many people would. He kept us outta juvie hall. But more’n that, he wanted us Ez. If you c’n think of anyone else who ever wanted us, I can’t.”

“He wants our testimony for his case. Once that’s finished, I’m quite certain any enthusiasm for our company will disappear.”

Vin licked chocolate off his fingers. “Y’know I won’t ever bet against you? I will on Chris. He’ll go th’ distance.”

“To see us free of the charges, perhaps. But then he’ll hand us back to the authorities. He’s helping us because he feels some gratitude for our actions yesterday, and because we may be useful. Once his debt is paid and we’re no more use, that will be it. After sixty days, I imagine he’ll be delighted to wash his hands of us. You can’t seriously believe he’ll want us indefinitely.” Even mothers did not want their children indefinitely, after all.

Vin wanted to hope, but he was struggling, Ezra could see that. Then Vin shrugged. “Either way, we ain’t runnin’. I’m off outside t’ help Chris with the chores. He don’t know when that Mrs Wells is comin’, but there’s plenty t’ do.”

Ezra stared after him and smothered an uncomfortable feeling that might have been hurt or resentment or even an inexplicable twinge of envy. He had, after all, learned very early in life to cut his losses. Vin’s decision that they were not running from this place had been made unilaterally, without so much as a gesture towards discussion. Ezra was deciding equally unilaterally not to limit his own options.

It was bright and cold outside. Vin and Chris were working in the barn; the horses were already out in the corral. Ezra leaned on the rail and refused to let the sight appeal to him too much. A chestnut horse, keeping a distance from the others, looked at him with what seemed like sardonic understanding.

Perhaps that was one of the new acquisitions.

“He’s called Chaucer,” Vin said, appearing without warning at his side. “Him ‘n Chris ain’t come t’ an understanding yet.”

Ezra looked at the horse with some fellow feeling. Abandoned by his female owner, who’d spoiled him while it suited her, Chaucer was now faced with the prospect of kicking unsuccessfully against Mr Larabee’s strength of will. He sympathised.

“Y’ want t’ make yerself useful?” Vin asked.

“Do I have a choice?”

“Chris says if y’ don’t want t’ work in th’ barn, y’ can use th’ time t’ walk round and get t’ know th’ ranch. But stay in earshot, case Mrs Wells comes.”

“I’ll do that,” Ezra said. He turned away from the chestnut with just a touch of regret. He was surprised at this permission. Did it mean Mr Larabee was trusting them? He hardly gave the impression of having a trusting personality. Perhaps it simply meant he was confident in the inaccessibility of the ranch.

Or that he was confident of Vin.

Ezra glanced into the barn. Vin, shifting straw, looked as if he’d been here for years. He looked as if he belonged…

Ezra turned away abruptly. He began a walk around the ranch which took him most of the next hour, as he built up a mental outline of it. After he’d completed a circuit within earshot—as ordered—he strolled back to a point close to where the surrounding woodland began.

If you wanted to approach—or more importantly, to leave—by any route other than the road, there were a couple of places that had potential. This seemed to him the most promising. It would give some cover, and offer the option of returning to the road out of sight of the ranch.

He looked back. Vin had briefly kept him company while Chris went to make some calls about work, but Ezra could see them both in the corral now. He could walk back and join them, make Chaucer’s acquaintance perhaps… or he could take advantage of Mr Larabee’s apparent preoccupation and see how practicable an exit route this might be.

Vin was getting on one of the big black horses; the one with a blaze, Ezra thought, though he was far enough away that it was difficult to be sure. The horse was being distinctly ill-mannered about it. Vin and Mr Larabee would be concentrating on that for a while.

Ezra moved quietly, further from the border of the ranch and into the trees. He’d worked out in his head what would be the most likely direction to take him where he wanted to go, but he knew that there might be unexpected obstacles on the ground. He followed the most open way.

He had only gone about twenty yards when he caught his foot in something and tripped. He heard the loud ringing begin back on the ranch. He looked at the ground and saw the wire that had been concealed.

Mr Larabee had set this. He’d actually set a wire!

For once Ezra’s cool calm and collected intelligence deserted him. The noise, the fact that the place had been trapped, and the thought of Mr Larabee’s anger triggered something not far from panic. He was running before he even realised it.


Chris had not anticipated how loud and startling his makeshift alarm would be. He’d set it the previous night, using whatever he could find in the workshop, after he’d heard Eli Jo was loose. He didn’t really think anyone would know where to find the boys, even if they wanted to come after them, but he felt more confident once he’d trapped the most likely approaches.

He’d no idea the damn thing would make this racket.

The horses didn’t like it, and he was torn for the first few seconds of clamour whether to control Peso for Vin before he silenced it.

“I got ‘im,” Vin said between his teeth. He had, barely.

Chris dashed to the barn, grateful he’d put his controls there not in the house, and threw the switch. The incessant clanging and buzzing—he’d found two old bells and a buzzer, and used all three to be sure it was enough—stopped. Peso reluctantly accepted that this excuse for behaving badly was gone, and looked for another. Vin cussed him as fluently as Chris might have done himself and jumped down.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. I set some traps for anyone trying to sneak in. I think they might have caught someone trying to sneak out.”

Vin’s gaze followed his to where they’d last seen Ezra. “No,” Vin said. “Ez wouldn’t go. We’d go together if we ran…”

Chris was already on his way to the edge of the woods. You didn’t have to be good at sign to follow where Ezra had walked. He glanced at Vin and saw him read the tracks as easily as he was doing it himself.

“He wouldn’t just go,” Vin said stubbornly. “Something must have spooked him.”

“Maybe. One thing, he can’t be far ahead.”

They had to go slower than Ezra though, especially once the ground was less open. He’d been running; they found a couple of places where he’d slipped. Vin shouted. They might well be in calling distance, but Chris doubted Ezra would reply. He’d either decided to run, or he’d been considering it and the alarm had pushed him into going.

He glanced at Vin, who was quietly and rather grimly following the trail. Vin was beginning to realise that Ezra had at the least thought of taking off without him, and he was hurt and angry, even if it didn’t show much.

They came out into a slightly more open space, and could look down on the road. A small car was driving, at a very sensible pace, towards the ranch.

“Shit,” Chris said, forgetting he’d decided to watch his language. “That’ll be Mrs Wells.”

It was going to look damningly incompetent that he’d already managed to lose one of the boys.


Ezra hated bushes, trees, undergrowth, in fact any manifestations of the great outdoors. He hated Mr Larabee, Vin and himself. Most of all he hated the chest squeezing, heart pounding feeling of having run too fast in too much of a panic. He dropped to a squat to catch his breath.

What on earth had possessed him? All he had planned to do was to make sure that an escape route was possible; successful departure would have waited until he had had time for some research with maps and timetables. Of course, no sane person would have allowed for Mr Larabee’s security system. He wondered if it infringed his human rights. Probably not. Mr Larabee could always say it was there because he was concerned about intruders.

That might, Ezra now realised between painful gasps, even have been true. The thought was depressing, and much too late to be of any use.

He knew they would be following him. He had no real idea of the best way to move without leaving tracks; that would have been Vin’s responsibility. He could see the road from here, but he would be much too conspicuous on the road. Possibly, though the idea was unappealing, he could wait for darkness, but eluding Mr Larabee until then might be beyond him.

He heard Vin call out, from somewhere not that far away, and shrank further into the cover of the bushes. He felt betrayed. Vin could have misled Mr Larabee. It would not lose him anything if Ezra went.

Or perhaps it would.

Now he had finally recovered from his headlong dash, his ability to think seemed to reassert itself. Would the authorities reconsider Vin’s position if Ezra successfully disappeared? Surely not. Anyway, the person Ezra needed to think about was himself. But he heard Vin shout again, and the thought wouldn’t be dismissed. Vin had been happy this morning…

He looked down at the road. Someone had said it led to a few properties, but it seemed to have no traffic on it.

With the typical contrariness the universe generally showed, he had no sooner thought that than a small car appeared. He moved to watch it, and saw it turned towards the ranch. A visitor? More custodians? No, Vin had said something at breakfast. They were waiting for the caseworker the judge had assigned.

His experience with caseworkers was fortunately extremely limited, but he didn’t imagine she’d settle for only seeing one of her charges. She wouldn’t be very impressed with Mr Larabee’s effort at custody, and while that certainly didn’t worry Ezra, the possible consequences for Vin did.

Ezra found himself standing up and turning back in the direction he had run from. He knew how stupid this was. Mother would have been appalled. He was going to walk back for no better reason than the fact Vin might be removed from this detestable ranch and the care of the even more obnoxious Mr Larabee—and he was doing it knowing full well that he might be penalised in some very unpleasant way.

There had to be limits to what Mr Larabee could do… Vin would be there, and, temporarily, the caseworker. Maybe he could ask to be placed in the Youth Center instead, or would they put him in some adult lock up?

His feet went on carrying him back towards the ranch in spite of the fact that he could see no prospect of an acceptable outcome. He even wished their miserable existence in the warehouse could be restored. At least then JD had been full of life, and Ezra and Vin had known they could rely on each other.

“Ezra!”

He flinched. He had hoped to put off this encounter until they were actually back at the ranch and under the eyes of a third party, but his path had evidently crossed that of Vin and Mr Larabee. He held his head up and looked unconcerned, as if he’d just come back from a stroll that had somehow accidentally taken him off his planned route and for far longer than he intended.

Neither of them, not even for a moment, looked fooled.

“Vin,” Mr Larabee said. “Go on down and tell Mrs Wells we’re coming. I want a word with Ezra.”

Ezra couldn’t believe Vin would do it.

Vin hesitated, looked at their custodian. Ezra added to his current list of hates ‘people having silent conversations’. Whatever wasn’t said, it seemed to satisfy Vin. He glanced at Ezra, nodded curtly, as though he was the one with a right to feel let down, and went.

Ezra forced himself to meet Mr Larabee’s eyes. As with any predator, it was important not to show fear.


Chris waited. He’d been relieved to see Ezra coming back, and glad he’d made the decision to return voluntarily. He was reasonably sure now that Ezra had run away in reaction to setting off the alarm rather than as a result of a reasoned decision, but he held Ezra’s gaze in silence. The kid had gone off limits, probably with some thought of taking off at a later date. He needed to know Chris didn’t find that acceptable.

Besides, he had a feeling that Ezra simply wouldn’t believe in any forgiveness that came too easily. Chris had no intention of following this episode up with some harsh penalty, but he was waiting to see whether Ezra knew he’d stepped out of line.

He didn’t expect to see real fear in the green eyes as Ezra’s control slipped. Damn. What did Ezra imagine he was going to do to him?

Chris sought for the right words, the ones that would let Ezra know that this had been a bad move but was over and done with, and that punishment wasn’t simply being postponed.

“Don’t ever run out on me again,” he said. Crime acknowledged, warning given, no more consequences. Ezra was bright; he should get it.

Ezra did. Chris saw a brief but unmistakeable flash of relief on his face, and Ezra’s nod was almost a promise.

Chris started back to the ranch immediately. “We’re keeping Mrs Wells waiting,” he said. “And I’m not sure Vin will find anything to say to her.”

“Vin would rather deal with a crazed biker than a woman he doesn’t know,” Ezra said.

“Let’s go and rescue him then.”

Vin was standing, or more accurately shuffling his feet, in front of a slight elderly lady who was standing by her car. He looked up gratefully as Chris and Ezra arrived.

“Mrs Wells?” Chris asked. “Chris Larabee. I’m sorry we kept you waiting.”

“Nettie Wells.” Her handshake was firm. “Vin tells me you were doing some tracking in the woods.”

Well, that was true, even if rather misleading. Chris invited her in, and discovered she had to inspect the place. Thank goodness for Mrs Potter. Even though she hadn’t been in today, her handiwork shone out everywhere. “Would you like to look around on your own?” he asked.

“It’s not really that sort of inspection. I just need to be sure that Vin and Ezra will be cared for appropriately, and possibly make some suggestions that will help.”

In the end, they all walked around with her, Chris answering questions and Vin and Ezra walking silently behind. Chris was uneasily aware the boys were at odds, but he doubted if Nettie Wells would realise. She was evidently an intelligent and experienced professional, but she hadn’t seen them together before.

The ranch passed muster, and she was reasonably happy with his plan for his team to supervise the boys. She knew Josiah, and Chris explained about Nathan and Buck. “Though Buck’s going to be tied up for the next few days at least,” he added.

“I know about the arrangements at the hospital,” Nettie said. “Judge Carrington thought that it would be best if I took on the other boy, John Dunne, as well as Vin and Ezra. I’m very near retirement, so my case load has been running down. I’m actually very pleased to have a little more to do.”

“Have y’ seen JD, ma’am?” Vin asked.

“No, Vin. I hope to later today, but he’s still in intensive care at the moment, so it may not be possible.”

She looked at her file. “There’s one other thing. You haven’t mentioned what you’ll be doing about the boys’ education.”

“I haven’t had any of their records yet,” Chris said. It was a good save, he thought. Better, anyway, than saying it had never crossed his mind.

“There seems to be a problem finding their files,” Nettie agreed. “But that’s no reason why they shouldn’t start straight away. They can use this time to catch up on some of the schoolwork they’ve missed. We’ll need to know where to begin, of course.”

Vin and Ezra had behaved admirably until now, but they didn’t react well to being questioned about their experience of school. Vin mumbled—a polite mumbling, but completely uninformative. What Chris could hear of it seemed to go along the lines of, “Don’t r’member ma’am. Reckon I learned what I had t’. Just don’t r’member.”

Ezra apparently thought it was clever to answer in French. Chris would have glared at him, but he thought of that momentary flash of fear he’d seen in Ezra’s eyes not long before, and left it to Nettie, who had a perfectly adequate reproving look.

“I could bring some attainment tests out with me tomorrow,” Nettie said.

Chris caught Vin’s horrified glance of appeal. “Maybe we could put anything like that off until the boys have had a chance to settle in,” he suggested.

Nettie’s expression suggested she thought he was being too indulgent. “Their education matters,” she said. “It’s not a judgment of them if they haven’t reached a particular standard, simply a way of knowing where to start to help them make progress.”

She was right of course. Chris could see that. He could also see Vin’s discomfort growing. Luckily Nettie was perceptive enough to have noticed it now and to have realised it wasn’t just a reluctance to do some schoolwork. “Perhaps we’ll begin with a less formal assessment,” she said more gently. “At least until their records come through. But I do expect you to develop some sort of plan for their education while they’re with you. And it won’t be enough for your men to teach them odds and ends when they’ve nothing better to do. They need a curriculum.”

Chris had been considering Nate doing first aid and Josiah a bit of anthropology. She was too damn sharp.

“I’ll work on it,” he said. “And in case their records don’t turn up at all…” he’d noticed a slight smirk on Ezra’s face whenever they were mentioned… “I’ll sit down with the boys and see if we can make some sort of list of what they’ve studied.”

“Good.” She glanced at her watch. “I’m sorry this will have to be a quick visit. I want to get to the hospital to see Mr Wilmington and find out a little more about John Dunne.”

“J.D.’s real clever ma’am,” Vin said.

“He’s unusually gifted,” Ezra agreed. “His ability with computers is quite outstanding.”

“I’m afraid it will be some time before he’ll be able to do anything other than concentrate on getting better,” Nettie said.

Chris took the opportunity to enlist her help. “Vin and Ezra’d like to go to visit him once he’s well enough for that. Maybe it’d be easier if I arranged it though you?”

“It would need the agreement of a number of people,” Nettie said, making no promises. “I’ll find out more today about how JD is, and then we can discuss it.”

She stood up to leave. Vin offered to carry her box of folders, but she shook her head. “Thank you, Vin, but I’m sure Chris will take it.”

Chris got the message that she wanted to have a word with him on his own. “I’ll see Mrs Wells off,” he said. “You two go and make some coffee. There’s ca… there’s fruit in the fridge. After that we’ll do a bit of science work.”

Nettie was completely unimpressed by this effort to start an education plan. “Biology of the horse?” she asked as Chris saw her to the car.

“Nope. Done some of that already. Hydrocarbons, combustion, pollution, that sort of thing. Always relevant, whatever they’ve studied.”

Luckily her mind was on other things, or she might have worked out just what he meant.

“I wanted to ask you privately how you feel the boys have reacted since you brought them here. You’ve obviously achieved something because they’re still on the premises. In fact, they seem more settled than I would have dared to hope for.”

Chris had decided he liked Nettie Wells, and that she would be an ally in helping Vin and Ezra. He went for as much of the truth as he could, leaving out the whisky and losing Ezra.

“Vin had a disturbed night. Like you might expect, the boys were shocked by JD’s accident, and Vin’s not used to a bed, or any sort of normal home. But he settled in the end, and he’s taken to the horses. Ezra… well, he’s wary, he’s not going to trust me any more than he has to. He’ll have half an eye to an escape route, but I think while Vin’s okay here, Ezra will cooperate, and we’ll just have to take that as a starting point.”

Nettie nodded, approving. “That’s good. You’re getting a more honest reaction from them than I would have expected. Judge Carrington’s arrangement was unusual to say the least, but perhaps the boys need something unusual.”

“Reckon they need what most boys need, they just never got it.”

Nettie smiled. “Well, if it’s your intention to see they have the chance now, I think we’ll get along just fine.”

Chris managed not to let out a huge sigh of relief until she was driving away. In the kitchen, the boys had found a chocolate cake.

“We had some fruit first,” Vin said. “Weren’t filling enough.”

“Did you dissuade Mrs Wells from her more ambitious education plans?” Ezra asked.

“Didn’t try,” Chris said, helping himself to a large slice of cake. A lot seemed to have happened since breakfast. “She’s right. You need to do some school work. We’ll sit down together this evening and talk about it if I’m not back too late.”

“Y’ goin’ somewhere?”

“Office. See if they’ve done anything about finding Eli Jo and dealing with the men we arrested yesterday. Nathan Jackson—the guy whose neck you helped save—is coming out to stay with you later today, while I go. That gives us three, maybe four hours, and I told Mrs Wells I’d be teaching you something educational in that time.”

“What exactly are we supposed to learn?” Ezra asked suspiciously.

“I’m calling it science,” Chris said. “Hydrocarbons, combustion, pollution is how it goes on that curriculum I’ve got to write.”

Ezra frowned, working it out. “Some sort of engine? Car engine?”

“Pollution means kicking out a lot a muck,” Vin said, following his line of thought. “Ain’t the Ram.”

“You know where my workshop is?” Chris asked. When Vin nodded, Chris tossed Ezra the key. “Go take a look both of you. First part of the lesson—find what you’re going to study.”

They went quickly, together, the morning’s trouble between them forgotten. Maybe he should have sat them down and talked about it, but he hadn’t known where to begin, and he hoped this would work instead. He’d thought earlier it would be good to give Ezra a bit of space; that certainly hadn’t panned out very well. This afternoon they’d all three work together.

He pushed the sticky plates into the dishwasher, and went to the workshop.

The boys had found it under its cover.

“Dirt bike!” Vin said.

“Antediluvian dirt bike,” Ezra corrected, but he sounded quite pleased as well. “Is it actually in working order?”

It was an ’82 KDX-200, and had been old even when Buck got it from a friend and brought it out to the ranch because he had nowhere else to work on it. In the end, Chris had been the one who spent the most time on it, and had taken it up the trails a few times. It hadn’t been touched since… since Adam was a baby, but he reckoned he’d done a good enough job back then that it shouldn’t need much work now.

It’d make a good beginners’ bike, and the boys could learn how a two stroke engine worked,

That had to be educational.


“Well, what do I expect?”

“The unexpected, brother.” Josiah was being enigmatic. It wasn’t a lot of help.

“I haven’t been out to the ranch for more than two years,” Nathan persisted. “I saw the boys for a few minutes yesterday, when I wasn’t exactly at my best. All Chris has told me is that they won’t be any trouble. But when I talked to Buck earlier he said they’re wanted on some serious charges.”

“Henderson been talking to him?”

“I think so—called him at the hospital to say he was sorry about the delay getting there yesterday and about what happened to JD. Buck still doesn’t want to believe Henderson’s not straight, though he was struggling a bit with the news Eli Jo has got out. Anyway, never mind about that. What I want to know is what to expect from these two boys.”

“Put the charges against them out of your mind,” Josiah advised. “Especially the abduction. JD’s case worker is going down on child porn charges, and I just had a call to say the foster father’s vanished now. Leaving two other traumatised kids and a ‘wife’ who hardly speaks a word of English. Sounds like Vin and Ezra did JD a good turn getting him out of there.”

Nathan could believe that; he’d seen JD run up to the older boys with cheerful confidence. He could remember very little else about them though. He’d been distracted by his own pounding headache and then the need to do what he could for JD.

“They seem to have a reputation for running away from care,” he said.

“Not easy to run from the ranch. Chris doesn’t think they will, anyway.”

“Chris isn’t going to be there.”

In the end, Rain was more help. She had nephews, and suggested he took the Playstation she kept for their visits. Her nephews were a few years younger, but the sports games would do for any age group and Nathan could always pick up something else at the store on his way.

He called Chris at the ranch and then on the cell phone before he set off, and was surprised to get no answer. The traffic was light, and he was ahead of his time turning in towards the ranch.

His first taste of the ‘unexpected’ came before he even got there. He had to brake sharply as an imperfectly-controlled dirt bike shot out of the yard, swerved up a side trail, executed a lurching turn and returned in a cloud of exhaust fumes.

He drove in cautiously. Chris, in filthy work clothes and with a black smudge down the side of his face, was giving the young rider a hand to get out of the protective gear and pass it to the other boy. Chris gestured to Nathan, part in welcome, mostly to tell him to get out of the way, and by the time he’d done that the bike was coughing out more muck, and the second boy was ready. Nathan joined Chris to watch as the bike accelerated off again. They’d clearly been doing this for a while.

The bike followed more or less the same route, until the rider went into the turn at a speed he didn’t yet have the control for. Nathan watched in alarm as the bike skidded one way and its driver tumbled the other.

“Damn it,” Chris said, starting off at a run. “I told him not to try it so fast.”

The boy was up on his feet again though, and hauling the bike up. He waved to Chris and came back safely enough, though not much more slowly.

“‘M okay,” he mumbled from a swelling mouth. Blood was trickling down his chin. “Bit m’ lip, that’s all.”

“Well, Nathan here’s a medic,” Chris said. “He’ll patch you up. Nate—this one’s Vin, and the one with a bit more sense is Ezra. They’ve both got a few other cuts and scrapes though. Vin, Ezra—go and clean up and then let Nathan fix up any damage you’ve done to yourselves. You got that?”

“I refrained from hurling myself into the dirt.”

“It don’t hurt.”

“I didn’t ask you to debate it, I asked if you understood. Nate, they’re going to get a shower and put some clean clothes on and I’d be grateful if you’d just check those scrapes are clean and so on. After that, you can do what you like with them. Oh, and give them something healthy to eat. Without chocolate in it. I need to put the bike in, get changed and go.”

The boys looked at Nathan with a complete lack of enthusiasm.

“How long you goin’ t’ be?” Vin asked Chris.

“As long as it takes. Yosemite’ll be over to see to the horses, but I expect he’ll be glad of a hand.”

He went and left Nathan to get on with it.

Nathan looked at the two wary, slightly hostile faces. He thanked heaven that Rain was as bright as she was beautiful.

“How about you get started on the showers,” he suggested, “and I’ll fix a Playstation up to Chris’s TV.”


Joe Henderson was worried. Nearly a decade of increasingly profitable compromises with his conscience seemed to be about to crash down on him. It wasn’t IA that worried him, or not so much. He’d been careful. IA might find what looked like incompetence, but they’d have a job proving corruption. No, Varon was the person keeping him awake. He’d known Varon a long time. They’d cooperated for years now. And Varon, the bastard, had kept records and photographs, more than enough to take Henderson down with him if he ever got caught out.

He had to jump when Varon said jump, but he didn’t like it. The business of fixing it for Eli Jo to get out had brought his double dealing too close to home, and now Varon wanted more.

Varon wanted to know if the ATF actually had anything on him or were just fishing. Henderson didn’t really hope to find out much, but if he wanted to keep in with Varon—and there wasn’t much option about that—he had to try.

He decided the best way was to turn up at the hospital and pay a visit to an old friend. Why Wilmington was hanging around the brat who’d got run over, he couldn’t imagine, but it made it easier to talk to him away from Larabee. He’d take some kind of gift for the kid, say the right things. Buck had known him a long time ago, and remembered him as the man he’d been before he realised how unprofitable honesty really was. He ought at least to get some idea from Buck of how the investigation was going.


It was odd, Josiah thought. You couldn’t actually see a change in Chris, and yet it felt like something was profoundly different. Chris had always been professional, had always hung on to a rigid belief in justice, but the effort had been painful—for everyone. Now the personal storm, that Chris had kept bottled down by sheer strength of will, had eased. There was something nearer calm in him today, and his idea of justice looked as if it might be regaining a human face.

They weren’t, unfortunately, any closer to achieving that justice. There had been one sighting of Eli Jo, which suggested Vin’s list had potential. The agent had been unlucky though. He’d just glimpsed Eli Jo leaving, and so far the man hadn’t returned.

The other men in custody were talking, but they hadn’t much useful to say. Chris thought that the explosives expert, Taylor, was their best bet—he had an unusually nervous disposition for someone in his line of work.

“What I want is to question him somewhere well away from the PD,” Chris said, as he and Josiah drove away from there. “These men may not know much, but I’d say they know about the guy who died in custody before he could finger Varon.”

“If you take him somewhere else for questioning, that could still make him a target.”

“Yeah, but I’ve got an idea for that. I want to spin Henderson a line about us being able to trace that particular batch of C4 to its source, and needing to see if the guy can recognise some mugshots of men involved in smuggling explosives. Since we’re inventing the story, we can make sure there’s no possible link to Varon to worry them. I reckon they’d be pleased enough we’re getting distracted to agree to let us have him.”

“Might work,” Josiah agreed. “I’ll get on to working out something plausible once we’re back. Where exactly are we going?”

“Hospital. I want to prime Buck, in case Henderson asks him about it. And I’d like to be able to tell Vin and Ezra that I’ve checked up on JD personally.”

Josiah had seen Buck briefly. After Nettie’s visit, Buck had been home, showered, changed and called in at the office. He’d been restless and anxious to get back to the hospital, though, and Josiah had sent him off before Chris came in. Unfortunately, he’d also mentioned something that Josiah really needed to broach with Chris before they got to the hospital.

“JD seems to have made a deep impression on Buck,” Josiah said. “He’s feeling quite protective of him.”

“I can understand that. It’s not causing any problem with the hospital or with Nettie Wells is it?”

“Not really… but Nettie seems to have mentioned to him that she’d like to arrange for the older boys to visit as soon as JD’s well enough.”

“Yeah, I asked her to.”

“Well, I guessed that. Buck’s not too keen on it.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Even allowing that the worst charges might be dropped, there’s a lot of trouble in their backgrounds,” Josiah said gently. “Running from care, incidents in the streets, Ezra’s cons with his mother… and I suspect that Henderson’s found an opportunity to push the idea they’re bad news. JD has never been in any sort of trouble—all his problems are very recent and arise from his mother’s death. While she was alive, he was fine and doing so well at school they were calling him gifted. And he hadn’t really known Vin and Ezra for long, not much more than a month apparently.”

They were pulling up at the hospital by now, and Josiah wished he’d realised their destination in time to speak a bit earlier. The last thing he wanted was Chris already angry when they went in to see Buck.

To his surprise though, the new calm in Chris more or less won out. He wasn’t happy, but he wasn’t about to go and start yelling at Buck either.

“Know what Vin said to me last night?” he asked Josiah as they walked over to the entrance. “Said JD was a nice kid who didn’t deserve what had happened to him. As if he and Ezra do deserve the crap that’s happened to them!”

Buck clearly wasn’t the only one feeling protective. Josiah tried to find the right words that would ease the situation. “Buck hasn’t seen Vin and Ezra for more than a few minutes. Don’t think he even saw JD come out to meet them—he was on the radio trying to get our back-up. No reason why he should guess JD’d mean that much to them.”

“They did their best for JD when the adults who should have been helping him fucked up.”

“We’ll make sure Buck understands that,” Josiah said. He could see Chris was actually listening, and Chris knew as well as Josiah did that Buck’s heart was always in the right place. “Give him a chance to get to know Vin and Ezra a bit. JD won’t be able to have visitors for a while, but I’d say as soon as he’s awake he’ll want to see them. There looked to be a strong friendship developing there. I can’t see Buck refusing if JD wants something!”

“No,” Chris agreed, and quite a different expression briefly crossed his face. “He’ll want to give JD anything that’ll make him happy—’Uncle Buck’ was always a pushover.”

He didn’t add to that, but Josiah knew what he was thinking about. He wished Chris would say something as warm to Buck’s face, but although Chris avoided any argument, there was still a sort of constraint between him and Buck. It didn’t help that Buck was still not convinced Henderson was dirty.

“Henderson knows there’s a problem somewhere,” Buck said. “Called me and said as much. He’s got more reason than anyone to find out who it is.”

“You haven’t spent time with Henderson in years,” Chris said, keeping his temper better than usual. “You can’t be sure you know the man he is now.”

“And what are you so sure of? The word of two kids off the street that Henderson knew about JD’s foster home?”

“I’m sure that Varon’s men knew our ‘official’ plan, and that my back up was damned late,” Chris said.

“Henderson’s apologised for that, and I’ve told you he’s looking for the leak. Look, Chris, he was here not an hour ago, bringing a teddy bear for JD and asking after him. He’s concerned.”

“Concerned how close we are to Varon? Maybe he slipped a question or two in with his sympathy?”

“I wouldn’t tell him anything about an investigation,” Buck said hotly. “I may be sure of him personally, but I know my job.”

Chris accepted that. “Yeah, you do,” he said. “Keep it that way if he checks with you on why I want to interrogate Taylor.”

Buck nodded. “Okay. You done, now?”

“Thought maybe you could give me an update on how JD’s doing.”

Buck could do that a lot more cheerfully than he could discuss Henderson. JD was doing well; was showing signs of waking up properly; might soon be moved out of intensive care.

“The nurses say he’s going to find the next week or two very hard, so when you can spare me…”

“I’ll give you as much time with him as I can,” Chris promised. “Seems like he’s been let down by the system pretty badly. He needs someone to come through for him. And Vin and Ezra do too.”

“Don’t reckon it’s quite the same,” Buck said.

“I do.”

Josiah gave Buck the sort of look that hit as hard as a piece of two by four upside the head, and Buck did, reluctantly, get the message. But when Chris had turned to go, Buck caught Josiah by the arm. “You think Chris really knows what he’s doing? He don’t know those boys, and it sounds to me like they’ve been in trouble since they could walk.”

“I think Chris’ll be what those boys need,” Josiah said. “And maybe they’ll be what he needs too.”

Buck couldn’t hide his doubt. “I thought that last night, but Henderson put me straight on what sort of record they’ve got.”

“You’d be the last man to judge a kid by his record,” Josiah said. “Wait ’til you’ve met them, Buck.”

Buck nodded. “Fair enough. But I won’t risk JD being hurt. That kid needs someone to take care of him, and I plan to do it.”

Josiah smiled. “He couldn’t ask for anyone better, brother. You go and get back to him. And don’t forget where to turn if you need some help the rest of us can’t give.”

He hurried off after Chris. And hoped Chris wouldn’t ask what Buck wanted. Chris was on his cell phone though. “Okay, Nate. Put them both on. Vin? Yeah, if you want to ride a horse or a bike again this week, you damn well eat it. Some of it. I don’t care if it’s green. Lots of vegetables are green. Shut up, Ezra. I never heard of anyone being allergic to broccoli; anyway, if he is I’m sure Nathan can handle it. And what? Pajamas?! What the…? No, okay, Vin, I know you don’t… Look, Ezra, if I go past that sort of store, maybe…”

Josiah relaxed. It really didn’t sound as if Chris would have any spare thought for Buck, Josiah or anyone else for a while.


Vin looked at the broccoli. It didn’t look any more like food however long he stared at it. Nathan and Ezra seemed to like the stuff. Vin couldn’t remember ever eating it before, but one tentative mouthful had convinced him he didn’t want to. It was downright sneaky of Nathan to have called Chris when he said he didn’t eat that sorta food. There’d been a note in Chris’s voice that didn’t allow for argument.

He glanced at Ezra. They’d kind of agreed to forget the morning, but he didn’t reckon Ezra had forgotten it so much he’d rescue him from the broccoli. ‘Sides, Ezra was sulking, because he’d made the mistake of asking Nathan why he didn’t bring some decent game like Grand Theft Auto, and got a long lecture on what was wrong with that and with violent games in general.

He ate another mouthful. It didn’t get better. He didn’t really blame Nathan. Chris had been pretty clear about giving them something healthy. Nathan was all right. He’d been gentle fixing Vin’s face up; Vin had known as soon as he felt Nathan’s hands on it that he was a man who’d be a good healer.

“You ever do any horse doctorin’?” he asked as he forced in another mouthful.

“No. If Yosemite can’t do it, Chris calls in a vet.”

Seeing to the horses with Yosemite had been the best bit of the time since Chris went off. Vin liked Yosemite. The old man didn’t expect conversation, but he gave out a word of information or advice every now and then, and kind of pointed the way for Vin to get things done just right. It reminded Vin of working with his granddad. He’d learned what he needed then without having to be educated.

The thought of the school work was even worse than the broccoli. He ate another mouthful quickly, hoping that might take his mind off how he was going to explain to Chris just how stupid he actually was at that sort of learning. He wished Chris’d come home and then he could get it over with.

“That’ll do, Vin,” Nathan said, taking the plate. “Either of you know what Chris has got that’d make a dessert and doesn’t have chocolate in it?”

They had fruit and strawberry ice cream, which wasn’t bad. Nathan suggested a game of cards, and Ezra dealt off the bottom of the pack. He probably wasn’t actually cheating, just keeping his hand in, but Nathan was unexpectedly quick to spot it, and Ezra got another lecture—which didn’t bother him nearly as much as being caught out, but did bother him more than anyone but Vin would’ve guessed. Or maybe Chris. Not much got past Chris.

They went back to the den and put the TV on. Nathan didn’t know what channels Chris had or where the videos and DVDs were any better than Vin did, worse in fact. “Sorry,” he said. “I haven’t been out here in a long time.”

“Thought maybe Chris had all th’ horses because you all come out here.”

“We used to come out…” Nathan hesitated, seemed to make his mind up, and said, “We used to come out when Chris’s wife and son were alive. They were killed by a car bomb nearly three years ago. You’ll see a few pictures of them around the place, and the small room next to Chris’s was his son’s. It doesn’t get used now.”

“I’m sure if Mr Larabee had wanted us to know about that he would have informed us himself,” Ezra said, pointedly.

“Expect he would if it came up,” Nathan said. “It’s not an easy thing for him to talk about though. Anyway, that’s mostly the reason Josiah and I haven’t been out here.”

He found the TV control at last, and he and Vin agreed on watching a game. Ezra muttered things about ‘uncouth’ and ‘behemoths’ but watched covertly. Vin found it hard to keep his mind on the action though. He thought of a small photo he’d noticed on the study desk, nothing special, just a snapshot of a pretty woman holding up a toddler. He reckoned he knew now why the bottle of whisky had been there, and why Chris understood so well about nightmares.


JD felt cold and scared, and he wasn’t sure where he was. He couldn’t think clearly, and he hurt almost everywhere, especially his head. He thought he remembered someone holding his hand but maybe he’d dreamed it. Most of his thoughts were like dreams. Only now they were getting clearer, and there was something frightening just at the edge of them.

He was just beginning to find it all unbearable, when there was the feeling of someone near him again. This time he was sure it was real, a big warm hand folding around his. It felt so good to have someone there, he tried to hold onto it, but his fingers would only wobble a bit.

“JD? That’s right. You hold onto my hand, kid. Nurse!” It was a warm voice, too, strong and kind and a bit too loud. JD tried harder, and his fingers managed to curl a little into the big hand before he slid back into fuzzy darkness again.


Chris wasn’t much of a shopper, but somehow one thing had led to another. It was damn silly really, indulgent even, like the horse he’d once had that he used to bring peppermints for, but he’d decided maybe he would get Ezra pajamas. Wearing the things would be about as different from being on the streets as Chris could imagine, anyway.

Seemed kind of unfair to take something for one of them and not the other, and the fact Vin wouldn’t expect anything made it more so. Once he’d found something he thought would appeal to Ezra, he looked around and decided to take Vin a soft leather military-style jacket; it had filling for warmth and a zip out liner, and it was casual enough. He remembered he needed a second set of bike gear, and getting into the swing of handing over his card, bought a large bunch of flowers for Rain, for loaning out Nathan and the Playstation beyond the call of duty.

He hoped she was more enthusiastic about them than Nathan—he looked at Chris as if he’d grown two heads as Chris tipped his purchases down in the den.

“Yes!” Ezra said, showing more enthusiasm than Chris had seen in him before.

Nathan looked at him and shook his head. “Maybe the way to his heart’s through his wardrobe.”

“Oh, I think the way to Ezra’s heart is probably long, complicated and uphill—without many signposts. The clothes don’t hurt though.” Chris was enjoying watching both the boys. Vin was having some trouble believing Chris had brought him something he didn’t actually need, but there was no mistaking the fact he liked the jacket.

“I’d better be going then. Rain says you can keep the Play station for now. Unless you’ve bought one of those as well?”

“Crossed my mind. Don’t think I’ve bought anything but food and tack in the last year.”

Nathan picked up the armful of flowers. “Well, she’s going to be thrilled with these. Hope you realise that next time I buy her some I’m going to have to keep up to your standard! When’s our pay rise due?”

Chris walked out to the car with him. He wanted to put the bike gear away anyway. Nathan paused before he got in. “Something I ought to tell you.”

“You have trouble with the boys?”

“No, nothing like that. Just, something came up and I told them about Sarah and Adam. I’m sorry Chris. I know it wasn’t really my business to…”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s part of my life; they’d know about it sooner or later.”

If anything, he was grateful. He would have found it hard to find the words. He watched Nathan drive off, and wondered how long it was since he’d last been out to the ranch. More than a year. Maybe more than two. Sarah wouldn’t have wanted that…

“Chris! Phone!” Vin called from the door.

It was Nettie Wells, to say she’d like to come very early the next morning, because something unexpected had come up with a case she was handing over to her successor and she’d need to spend the rest of the day dealing with that. Chris had no problem with the time; he was up around dawn. It did remind him that he was supposed to be finding out about their schooling, and making some plans.

Vin, who had answered the phone and knew who’d been calling, looked at him with resignation as he ended the call. It had reminded him, too.

“It’ll be okay,” Chris said. “We’ll sit down at the kitchen table, work out what you know, and draw up something we can all live with. Go and get Ezra.”

Vin hesitated.

Chris waited. He didn’t want to ask the wrong question.

“I never been t’ school at all, not more’n a few days,” Vin said. “Was five when m’ ma died, ‘n she’d been sick for a while. Then I ran off with granda, and he couldn’t put me in school case they caught up with us. After he died, I mostly ran soon’s I was placed. Did have t’ go t’ school a few times, but they never did more ‘n say I was behind.” He paused, looked at Chris then down again. “Can’t even read,” he said. “Granda didn’t set a lot of store by books. Just so you know. I’ll go get Ezra now.”

“Hold on a minute,” Chris said hastily. “Vin—none of that is your fault.”

“Reckon if I weren’t stupid I’d’ve learned t’ read by now.”

“You’re not stupid,” Chris said. “Look at me, Vin. I’ve spent my adult life having to make judgments about men—who’s got guts, who could turn out a leader, who’s quick to understand a situation, who’s basically got what it takes. You showed me yesterday you had all those things. That’s a hell of a long way from being stupid.”

Vin stared at him for a long silent moment, speechless. Chris met his eyes. He’d meant it, all of it.

“You reckon I’m a poor judge?” Chris asked in the end, not quite preventing his smile showing.

Vin’s own smile could only be seen in his eyes. “Maybe of food,” he said, thoughtfully. “That broccoli stuff weren’t fit fer human consumption. I’ll go get Ezra.”


Ezra didn’t want any more education. Mother had made sure he had an expensive one—at other people’s expense, of course—until he was thirteen. It had involved moving schools a great deal, when she’d finished with one ‘husband’ or con, or needed to remove him to play his part in some scheme. He couldn’t remember ever making a friend, but Mother had valued the appearance of a well-educated offspring.

He didn’t say any of that to Mr Larabee, just pointed out that he was sure he could pass any nationally standardised test for his age group.

“Good,” Chris said. “We’d best make sure you’re given work that’s hard enough then. Don’t want to let you get bored.”

It was lamentably clear that there was not going to be a way out of this. Ezra glanced at Vin. Surely the prospect of schooling would be worse for Vin.

“Exactly who is going to teach us?” Ezra asked.

“Well, that can be a mix of people,” Chris said. “I looked at home schooling on the internet. Seems it can be pretty flexible. Ezra, you write a list for me of what you think you know. Vin, we’ll have to start with reading, and I reckon it’s best get someone who knows what they’re doing to teach that.”

So Mr Larabee did know that Vin was illiterate. Interesting.

“You c’d teach me,” Vin said to Chris.

“I’ve got someone in mind,” Chris said. “Orrin Travis’ daughter-in-law. Mary, she’s called. I’ve met her quite a few times when Orrin’s dragged me to something social, and I remember her telling me about home schooling her boy for a while. Billy’s in regular school now, but I think Mary did some courses on teaching reading. It’s a bit late to call her tonight, but I’ll get on to her tomorrow.”

Vin looked uncertain, but still with that exasperating confidence in Mr Larabee’s totalitarian approach to arranging their lives.

“What happens if Vin doesn’t find her teaching congenial?” Ezra asked. He had known teachers be unpleasantly sarcastic to people who spoke like Vin did.

“If Vin doesn’t like her, she stops coming,” Chris said. “You made a start on that list yet, Ezra?”

Ezra sighed. However, making the most of one’s credentials—genuine or otherwise—had been another lesson on his mother’s own curriculum. In rather beautiful handwriting he began to produce an extensive list of his accomplishments.

He thought he heard Mr Larabee sigh now.

There was still some satisfaction to be had in life.


Buck was up around dawn. He hadn’t wanted to go home at all, but JD’s nurses had persuaded him to go and get some sleep: JD wasn’t likely to wake again for a while, and they could always call Buck if there was any indication that he might.

Buck had slept with his cell phone on the bedside table, and everything placed so that he could be up, dressed and out of the door in a couple of minutes. All night he’d been feeling those small fingers trying to hold on to his hand. The memory tugged at his heart. Damn, but he hated to see kids hurting. Still, JD had known he was there. He’d tried to respond. That had to be good.

He’d called Josiah to tell him about it the previous evening. He’d thought of calling Chris, but there was less baggage involved in a call to Josiah, and the profiler would pass the message on. He wondered now if he should have called Chris though. With the paperwork from the arrests finished, and Travis taking them off their other cases, there wasn’t so much to be done that he couldn’t take a personal day…

He glanced at his watch. It was early, but when was Chris ever up late?

He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t thought of the possibility of one of the teenagers answering the phone.

“Chris Larabee’s ranch. C’n I take a message?”

The way the kid spoke, as if he belonged there, caught Buck somewhere that still hurt. “Just get Chris for me,” he said.

“Ain’t sure if he’s finished in th’ shower… Chris?… He’ll be along in a minute. He says is it Buck?”

“Yes.”

“You’re the one with JD, right. J’siah says he’s waking up?”

“I’ll talk about it to Chris.”

“Okay, but listen. J’siah says JD’ll be muddled a while, like part asleep, part awake. If he has nightmares, there’s a thing y’ can do that helps. He told us, b’cause he had them sometimes when he was with us. His ma used t’ read him a poem if he had bad dreams. Somethin’ about three guys called Wynken, Blynken and Nod. Ez knew it, more ‘r less, and he used t’ say it to JD t’ help him get back t’ sleep. Reckon he might like somethin’ familiar like that, if y’ can find th’ words some place… Here’s Chris…”

There was a moment of conversation off, then Chris came on. “Buck? You wanting the day off?”

“Do you need me?”

“Shouldn’t do. Anyway, I know where to get you if I do. Go and sit with the kid.”

“Thanks, pard. Chris… You ever hear of some poem about Winking, Blinking and something?”

“Nod. Yeah. Why?”

“The kid that answered the phone…”

“Vin.”

“He said JD liked to hear it. Thought I might see if I could find a copy. Been sitting there talking to him, thought I could read to him for a change.”

There was a long pause.

“Chris?”

“Sarah used to read it to Adam,” Chris said. “I think I know the book it was in. I’ll bring it in for you.”

“Ah, Chris, you don’t have to do that…”

“It’s just sitting on a shelf, Buck. Sarah’d be glad for you to be reading it if there’s a chance it might help JD. I’ll drop it in.”

Buck heard Vin again, calling something.

“I’ve got to go,” Chris said hastily. “Nettie Wells is here. I’ll see you.”

Buck went in for self analysis about as much as he went in for cold baths and chastity belts, but he was aware of an odd jumble of feelings as he drove to the hospital. It was so damn good to hear Chris able to speak about Sarah with love instead of just angry grief in his voice. Josiah would say it ought to make Buck feel better about the boys at the ranch. Maybe it would have done if Vin hadn’t sounded like he’d been around Chris for years, not a couple of days. Buck didn’t want to see Chris put something into this and get let down. Kids with that much against them, you could hardly blame them if they took what they could get and then ran.

It was a relief to get back to JD’s room, and stop thinking about anything other than the little boy and the nurses’ promises that he really was doing well.


Josiah had expected Nathan to be at work before him; he hadn’t expected to find Chris, Vin and Ezra there as well, Chris on the phone in his office and the boys using Buck’s desk and computer.

“Buck’s taking a personal day,” Nathan said, pouring him a mug of coffee. “And Chris says Nettie Wells has okayed the boys being here. Apparently Mary Travis is going to be in later to teach Vin.”

“And Ezra?”

Nathan grinned. “Chris read his CV a bit more thoroughly than he expected and found some math at a level he claims he can do. He’s not happy.”

“Chris going to make him do it?”

“No, just make him sweat a bit I think. Oh, and more importantly, he’s planning to make that explosives guy, Taylor, sweat too. He wants us to go over to the PD and pick him up.”

They did that, and followed Chris’s script:—the late back-up ostensibly forgiven and forgotten as Henderson et al were being so cooperative over this interrogation.

“You really think he’ll be any use?” Henderson asked.

“He ought to know people in his own field,” Josiah said. “It’s one hell of a problem when that amount of C4 is being brought in. We need some sort of break if we’re going to stop the trade in explosives.”

None of those statements was actually untrue. Unfortunately, the evidence seemed to be against God being a sophist so he added a hasty prayer for forgiveness for the overall effect of a lie—and another that it worked, and Henderson was misled.

Taylor was edgy, fidgeting and half-convinced that they were taking him somewhere to eliminate him. He whimpered in relief when he realised he really was being taken for questioning. Bizarrely, he seemed even more relieved when he saw Chris Larabee. That wasn’t the effect Chris usually had.

“Don’t send me back there,” Taylor begged him. “I know you’re straight. They’re not. I don’t want to be offed if they think I know too much about their dealing.”

“Do you know about it?” Chris asked.

“Will I get protection?”

“Depends if we think you’re worth it.”

Taylor started to talk, so fast he was tripping over his words. He’d been employed by Eli Jo, but he liked to know the background to a job; he’d managed to follow Eli Jo a couple of times in the following days; he could tell Chris everywhere the man had been and who he’d met. It didn’t come out as straightforwardly as that, but Josiah could sort out the useful parts well enough.

“What about Henderson?” Chris asked.

“He’s bent.”

“Proof?”

Taylor wilted. “Not what you’d call proof. Everyone knows. Get in with him right and you’re never going to get busted. Eli Jo said we needn’t worry about the cops, he had them on the payroll.”

Hearsay evidence in these circumstances was useless except as another confirmation of what they already believed.

“Don’t send me back,” Taylor pleaded again.

Josiah glanced at Chris.

“We’ll keep him,” Chris said.

Taylor slumped back in his chair, relieved. He didn’t pay any attention when they left the interrogation room. His only interest seemed to be staying well away from Henderson.

“So how do we go about keeping him?” Josiah asked.

“I’m going to tell Henderson that the ATF in Minnesota want him.”

“Minnesota?” Josiah felt he’d missed something somewhere.

“Guy I served with in the Seals is a team leader in the ATF there. If I ask him, he’ll request we send Taylor, and he’ll provide me with the appropriate paperwork. Henderson won’t have any reason to question that, or to suppose we’re really planning on hanging on to Taylor. Get some coffee sent in for him now. We’ll need him to start working on identifying some faces.”

Back in their own office, things were quiet. Ezra was sulking silently over a trigonometry problem, and Chris had given Mary his room to work in with Vin. Chris sent Nathan along to Taylor with the first batch of photos. Josiah wandered over to look at Ezra’s math paper.

“You want a hand with that?”

“I don’t believe Mr Larabee intended the torture to be ended so easily.”

“Well, now, it does seem you were a bit creative in writing down what you’d studied.”

“I was composing it for a man who created a section of curriculum for the dirt bike.”

Josiah could see the tiny quirk at the corner of Chris’s mouth. Chris gave him the slightest of nods. Josiah sat down next to Ezra. “Let’s see, son. I think we need to revise using inverse functions…”

Ezra sighed, but he didn’t refuse the help. He was quick to understand where he’d gone wrong, and although Josiah was sure nothing would have made him admit it, it was clear he got a certain amount of satisfaction out of finally solving the problem.

Chris sat at Nathan’s desk, trying to get his Minnesota buddy on the phone. Josiah could see his attention, as he waited for connections, was on the open door of his office, but it was impossible to make anything out from the murmur of voices in there. At least Mary seemed happy enough now with what she was doing. She’d been so uptight when she came in that it had exasperated Chris, though he’d kept it polite, perhaps remembering she was doing them a favour.

Josiah thought it was understandable. All Mary knew was that the boys were in custody. Plenty of women might have been uneasy about what to expect teaching a boy Vin’s age with serious charges against him—not everyone could know him at a glance like Chris seemed to have done. Vin had been so painfully shy of her though, and his muttered answers had been so polite, that she’d begun to thaw even before they started the lesson. As far as Josiah could see, they were getting on fine, and the official time for the lesson had already passed.

Mary must have realised it shortly afterwards. She finished quickly. “I have to pick Billy up,” she explained. “I hadn’t noticed the time. I’ve given Vin plenty to study at home, and I brought this…” She handed Chris a DVD which Josiah recognised as the film of Romeo and Juliet starring Leonardo di Caprio. “You can count that towards their literature.”

“Thanks,” Chris said. “You okay with Nettie’s suggestion, that Vin has a lesson every other day?”

“Yes, I think that should be fine. I’ll look forward to seeing you, Vin.”

Vin’s almost inaudible thanks followed her as she hurried out, and he went to sit on Ezra’s desk. Chris closed the door after her.

Ezra looked up. “That wasn’t very chivalrous of either of you,” he said, evidently still smarting from the math Chris had given him. “It would have been gentlemanly to have seen her to her car and carried her books, Mr Larabee.”

“Why? She’s young and fit. I don’t mind doing it for Nettie Wells, but…”

Ezra muttered something about Nettie that sounded to Josiah as if it contained the words ‘withered old crone’.

Chris heard it too. “You’ve got a very limited idea of chivalry,” he said. “Look it up and you’ll find it involves showing some courtesy to a woman just because she is a woman, and especially if she’s elderly or in need. I don’t think those ancient knights restricted it to ones with a nice ass.”

Vin and Ezra looked at one another and started to laugh.

“How perspicacious,” Ezra said.

“She know you think she’s got a nice ass?” Vin asked.

It had never occurred to Josiah that that was the corollary of Chris’s words. He smothered a grin, and decided you had to admire Vin and Ezra’s nerve.

Chris glared at them both as their laughter became immoderate. “I’m thinking Ezra mucking out the horses and Vin eating two sorts of green vegetables for dinner,” he warned. “Josiah, my office. Let’s get some street maps sorted out so Taylor can pinpoint locations.”

“Are our hours of study over?”

He’d only known Ezra for a short while, but Josiah was already thinking how like him it was to push it. Chris glanced at his watch. “You can finish with the math now. Go online on Buck’s computer, and see what you can find out about the Spartans—the Ancient Greek Spartans, that is.”

“The Spartans?” Josiah asked as he followed Chris.

“They had an interesting approach to discipline,” Chris said, in a voice that was evidently meant to carry.

Much more softly, he protested to Josiah, in the privacy of his office, “I’ve never even noticed her damned ass.”

“I believe you, brother,” Josiah said. “Now where are those maps?”


Buck’s personal day stretched to a second, and then it was the weekend, but time had become oddly stretched and distorted for him. There were long periods of waiting and watching, but JD was waking up more and more, and everyone kept telling Buck he was making great progress. He guessed it must be true, because JD had been moved to his own room now, and the medical staff were less ever-present.

Didn’t seem like JD knew much of what was going on, but his eyes focussed on Buck’s face, and Julie, one of his regular nurses, said he was distressed if Buck wasn’t there when he woke.

“He’s listening to you, too, even when his eyes are closed,” she said. “I love the poems you’re reading to him. It’s a beautiful book.”

Buck had recognised the book when Chris dropped it in a couple of days earlier. It had been a favourite of Sarah’s, and the poems had been wonderfully illustrated. As soon as he saw it, he could hear her sitting on the edge of Adam’s bed, reading aloud. His eyes met Chris’s and he knew they shared the memory, but neither of them had known what to say.

Buck thought JD did have nightmares, or perhaps moments when he remembered something of the accident. He didn’t move much, but his face screwed up, and sometimes he muttered unintelligibly. Buck would start softly reading, and after a few minutes it seemed JD would settle a bit.

Chris was bringing the other boys into the office again today, and he wanted to bring them over to the hospital. Seemed like everyone but Buck had already agreed, and Buck hadn’t wanted an argument. He still wasn’t too sure about it though. The foster home had clearly been bad, but it must have been rough for a little boy like JD on the streets as well, especially with older boys who were already in trouble with the law. Must have been frightening for him…

If he seemed frightened or disturbed by their visit, there wouldn’t be another one.

Continue on to Part 3 of 8