Runners

By Gil Hale – corbidae@yahoo.com



Chris discovered that even Ezra could get up early if it meant going out riding. They’d been for a long stretch the day before, and though he’d had doubts—especially when the boys had wanted to take Chaucer and Peso—it had been good. He was sure Josiah could come up with some subtle reason why Vin and Ezra felt an affinity with these particular mounts. All that mattered to Chris was whether they could handle them, and they’d done that better than he expected.

He was even feeling slightly warmer towards Peso and Chaucer—he and Peso had come to an understanding, namely that Chris was the boss, after their first encounter when Peso had tried to take a lump out of his shoulder, but there certainly wasn’t much affection on either side. Vin actually seemed to like the horse, and more to the point, Peso seemed to show something beyond his normal bad temper to Vin. Chaucer, too, had been on what had passed for his best behaviour, though again, that wasn’t saying much. It was a nice change from the attitude of most of the human beings Chris was dealing with. He was getting tired of people assuming that at any moment Vin and Ezra would show some dangerously antisocial side.

His annoyance at the moment was focused on the Travis family. He’d hoped that as it was the weekend, Mary would be prepared to come out to the ranch to give Vin his lesson, but Mary wouldn’t come because it meant bringing Billy, and she wasn’t sure she wanted Billy getting to know the older boys. That had been followed by a call from Orrin, saying he and Evie would have Billy for a couple of hours while Mary taught Vin in Chris’s office, as before. Orrin didn’t say he didn’t want his grandson coming out to the ranch while Vin and Ezra were there, but you didn’t need a doctorate to read between the lines.

Then there was Buck. Okay, Buck only wanted to keep JD safe, but Chris thought that Vin and Ezra might sleep better at night if they saw for themselves that JD was recovering. Both of them were still waking up too often, and though they said nothing about it, he could guess what was disturbing their dreams. Chris had had to fight for their chance to visit JD today.

All the same, the boys were settling in. Vin seemed to fall into life on the ranch as if he’d been around for years, and even Ezra was forgot formality and called him Chris when he wasn’t thinking.

“You comin’?”

He finished his coffee and his thinking and went to saddle Pony. They had to be in town quite early for Vin’s lesson, and then they’d stay to visit JD, but he’d promised they’d go out riding first if the boys were up in time and the chores done. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Ezra stroke Chaucer’s nose and the horse almost nuzzle him, then Peso laid his ears flat and Vin had to dodge a half-hearted lunge from him.

“Bastard,” Vin said, but a minute later he was scratching behind one of the black ears, and Peso was behaving again. “Sorry, Chris,” he added.

“Peso’s enough to make a saint cuss,” Chris said, slightly surprised—he hadn’t made any sort of point of telling the boys to watch their language.

“Vin believes that it’s the way he speaks that worries Mrs Travis,” Ezra explained. “Whereas I believe it’s our less than exemplary past.”

Chris had hoped the boys hadn’t overheard that conversation; he should have known better.

“Vin, your manners were fine around Mrs Travis,” Chris said. “She just needs time to get to know you.”

“Weren’t blamin’ her,” Vin said. “It’s good she’s lookin’ out fer her little boy.”

“Very motherly,” Ezra agreed, not sounding as though he had a high opinion of mothers. “Anyway, compared to Peso, you’re a perfect gentleman.”

“Peso’s all right,” Vin said indignantly. “Reckon he’s high strung.”

They’d gone a mile before Chris and Ezra had stopped laughing at that idea, and another before Vin would speak to them again, and by then they’d forgotten everything but the pleasure of being out riding.

Be damned to anyone else’s opinion, Chris thought. It had been a good day when the judge agreed to let him take Vin and Ezra. He’d back his own judgment against all the doubting voices. In every way that mattered, these kids were okay.


JD still felt frightened every time he woke up, and when he was asleep half-understood scenes haunted his dreams. Maybe if everything didn’t hurt so much he’d be able to think, but his head ached so badly and his whole body felt broken if he moved. He did understand he was in hospital. Sometimes he thought mom would come, and that that had been just another nightmare, but mostly he knew that the aching hollow feeling where mom had been was real.

He heard what people said to him when he was awake, but he felt a long way away from it. The nurses had kind voices, and he knew they were trying not to hurt him when they did the things they had to do, but he couldn’t remember their faces; they came and went too much.

He remembered Buck. Buck had a loud warm voice and big warm hands, and the cold frightened feeling went away a bit when he listened to Buck. Sometimes he wanted to talk to Buck as well, but he was afraid of speaking, in case somehow it made him so wide awake that he had to remember whatever it was that was dark and threatening on the edge of his mind.

It wasn’t the car… He knew a car had hit him. People kept telling him that, and that he was in hospital, and was going to be just fine. He didn’t remember the accident either, but he knew that it wasn’t the horrible thing he was scared of.

It came closer now, in his dreams. He didn’t really want to go back to sleep, but he felt so tired, and it hurt worse when he was awake.

Somewhere, without quite waking up, he half heard voices that weren’t the nurses or Buck, though Buck’s was there, mingled in with them. Faces came in his dream, faces he did remember. Faces smiling at him in the gloom of a big empty building, reassuring him he’d never have to go back… never have to go back to…

The darkness was there.

The darkness was a person…

Mr Garriocci, with an ordinary face that nobody would understand hid so much bad stuff. Mr Garriocci, making him see the horrible pictures, and telling him that if he didn’t do all the things with the computer that Mr Gariocci wanted he’d have to be in the pictures like Lena and Tommy.

And JD was bad, because he’d done what Mr Garriocci wanted, and he’d have gone on doing it if… if…

His memory struggled for the names and found them. If Vin and Ezra hadn’t come…

Vin and Ezra were in the dream with him now, and they were all running, running away from Mr Garriocci. He was calling after them, telling JD all the horrible things that would happen to him, saying the things he used to say when he leaned over JD and watched the computer screen, and suddenly JD was afraid.

In his dream, he was on his own, left behind, and he was going to be caught.

He would be taken back.

Vin and Ezra were ahead and they didn’t know he’d got left behind, and Mr Garriocci was coming.

“No!” he shouted, helplessly. “No! Vin! Ezra!” He could hear Mr Garriocci getting closer. “No! You can’t make me!” he shouted at him. He struggled to run. Why didn’t Vin and Ezra hear him? He screamed their names again.


The hoarse words, the first intelligible ones to have come from JD, devastated the small group of people in the room. Ezra, who had been watching JD’s face screw up, and had known he was dreaming, realised at once what this was going to sound like to Mr Wilmington. What JD was dreaming he couldn’t imagine, but the fear in his voice was very real, and their names had been coupled with it.

Buck, who’d been relieved JD was asleep when the visitors arrived, was horrified. He couldn’t bear to hear the terror from the little boy, and the words seemed to confirm the worst of his imaginings. He jumped up, ready to throw the visitors out if they didn’t go willingly after this. “That’s it. That’s more than enough,” he said, not caring if it made Chris angry. “Get out of here!”

Chris was angry, in fact probably only one thing could have stopped that anger spilling out into a hostile confrontation with Buck, and that was Vin.

Vin stood up hastily. “Leave it, Chris,” he said. “Ain’t goin’ t’ be long ‘fore JD wakes up properly.” He turned to Buck. “He’ll tell y’ what kind a mess we got him out of, and he’ll tell y’ what’s really scarin’ him, and we can wait ’til then. JD’ll want t’ see us, and he’ll tell y’ that fer himself. Ain’t goin’ to do him no good t’ be arguin’ about it ’til then.”

His eyes met Chris’s and after a long moment Chris nodded. Without another word to Buck he turned and left the room. Vin and Ezra looked at the little boy in the bed, still restless but no longer calling out, then turned and followed him.

Buck stared after them, shaken. He’d reacted instinctively to JD’s cry; hell, he wasn’t sure now he’d been wrong. But it wasn’t guilt he’d seen in Vin and Ezra’s faces, just hurt and concern… and something in Vin Buck couldn’t help recognising. Vin had wanted to spare Chris. He’d wanted to stop this before it became a disastrous argument between Chris and a friend.

And there had been confidence and a challenge in his words. He believed JD would want to see them.

Troubled, Buck turned his attention to JD. Tossing and turning had sent the kid’s hair all over his face. Buck smoothed it away and took JD’s hand again. “Shh now,” he said. “You’re safe here. You wake up and tell old Buck what’s scaring you.”


Vin was relieved when Chris turned and left. Josiah had told them how Buck and Chris were friends from way back. He didn’t want Chris getting in a fight with a buddy over him and Ez, especially when time’d sort it out. It hurt to leave JD though, when he was scared, and looking kind of small and lost in the big bed.

He glanced at Ezra. Ez’d take it to heart more than Vin did himself, seeing JD like that.

“You c’n see he’s getting’ better,” he told Ezra.

“And how exactly am I supposed to see that?”

“Nurses ain’t hangin’ around. Bruises is fadin’. He’s startin’ to remember stuff.”

“It seemed an extremely painful process.”

“So’s pins and needles, but you gotta have it t’ get th’ feelin’ back.”

“It’s hardly comparable.”

“Maybe not, but I’d put money on JD bein’ up and talkin’ in a week.”

“You have no money,” Ezra pointed out, but the shocked look was beginning to fade from his eyes.

Chris, who’d stopped to wait for them, must have heard some of this, because Vin could see him shake off the last of his anger and look at Ezra properly.

“Vin’s right,” Chris said. “JD’s well looked after, and he’s recovering. I know he’s had more than enough happen to him to give him nightmares, but he’ll be awake more of the time now, and less scared once he’s less confused.”

Ezra nodded. Vin nudged him gently on towards the door. Ez didn’t like hospitals. Some great aunt or something had died having an operation, and Ez found it hard to be as confident in JD getting well as Vin was. Maybe Vin’d talk to Chris about that later; Chris knew how to handle anything, he’d have a better idea how to convince Ezra that JD was safe.

Chris didn’t drive off immediately when they were back at the Ram. “I told Mrs Wells we’d call on her today, save her coming to us,” Chris said. “We’ve got a couple of hours free ’til then. Anything you’d like to do?”

Vin looked at Ezra again. There was something they could do, if they were agreed.

“Backpack?” he mouthed.

Ezra hesitated. Like Vin, he had the few belongings that were precious to him in the backpack they’d left behind in the warehouse. It was safe there, hidden and far out of reach of any passer by, but it would be good to collect it… if they weren’t going back for it any time soon.

Chris waited, didn’t act like he was noticing them sit there and make their minds up. In the end, Ezra nodded, and Vin said, “Can we go back t’ where y’ picked us up? We got our things there. Not much, and I reckon they’re safe where they are, but we’d like t’ have them.”

He saw the sudden warmth in Chris’s expression, as Chris realised that this was another acknowledgment they weren’t going to run. Even so, he expected Chris to want to come inside the warehouse with them. It would have been very easy for them to lose him there, and Chris was no fool.

It meant a lot when Chris said, “Go on, get it,” and stayed leaning on the Ram while they went and scrambled up to their old hiding place. Vin picked up the backpack; Ezra said quietly, “We could disappear in less than a minute.”

“That what you want?”

Ezra shrugged. “I suppose the ranch is endurable.”

“Chaucer would miss you.”

“Perhaps he would. He seems remarkably intelligent.”

“The schoolin’ ain’t that bad.”

“I’ll believe it’s effective when you say ‘isn’t’.”

But Ezra was already climbing down after him, and they were back with Chris in a few minutes. If Chris had felt any doubts about trusting them, it didn’t show, except in a slight nod of satisfaction as they got back into the Ram.

“Okay. Now if I’m any judge of character, Mrs Wells will have made us a cake,” was all he said.


“You’re sure Taylor won’t be able to tell them anything?”

Varon wasn’t sure why he felt so edgy. Eli Jo would have been careful, he always was. But there was something about that man Larabee. Something predatory. He kept having the feeling that Larabee might actually hunt him down.

“Larabee’s following up the explosives,” Henderson said. “He’s not happy he was set up, but he’s the sort of guy that pisses off most of the people he meets. No reason why he should suspect you. He’s kept Taylor for some ATF link—I’ve seen the paperwork.”

Martinez looked into the room. “Message from a friend,” he said.

That meant Eli Jo. Varon didn’t really want him getting in touch at all at the moment, but if it was only Martinez cell phone it was safe enough. “Go ahead,” he said. Henderson might as well hear it.

“Someone saw Larabee just now, back sniffing around the warehouses.”

“Looking for something to do with the explosives?”

“Just lounging on that black Ram of his. Looked like he was waiting for someone.”

Varon frowned. It might not be significant, but he certainly couldn’t ignore it. He turned to Henderson. “You find out what you can, especially about why they want Taylor. Martinez, see if there’s any hint of other activity from Larabee or his group, and warn Eli Jo to keep a low profile.”

He disliked feeling nervous like this. If Larabee was any more trouble, maybe it would be worth the risk of doing something about him.


Chris’s judgment had been spot on. Nettie Wells had made a cake. She gave them a warm welcome, and seemed to have no reservations about sending Vin and Ezra out to amuse the ten year old great-niece she had staying with her.

“She likes baseball,” she called after them.

“She’s a little tomboy,” she added to Chris. “She’s grown up without a very stable home and stayed with lots of different relatives. Her poor mother’s been in and out of mental hospitals for years. I hope I’m going to be able to foster her officially as soon as I retire. I’m looking forward to it—but I’m not sorry to have someone else to wear her out.”

“Wish a few more people felt like that about the boys.”

Nettie looked at him shrewdly. “Been that sort of day, has it? It takes time, Chris. You just carry on as you are doing, and folk will come around to them. It hasn’t been a week yet.”

Chris had to remind himself of that. It already seemed much longer ago that he’d got custody of the boys. That last, whisky-soaked weekend seemed to belong to another lifetime. He let Nettie help him to a second large slice of cake, and thought he’d have to watch it. What with not drinking and having to see that the boys ate regular and reasonable meals, he’d probably put on a couple of pounds already.

Still, he might as well eat today; he was going to have to work tomorrow, and for the first time in years he regretted the loss of a Sunday at home.

He left the boys with Josiah in the morning, and went to the office to work his way through the surveillance reports on the people and places on Taylor’s list. There was useful stuff there—but not enough. Certainly not enough to get Varon; probably not even any of his partners. No sign of Eli Jo, either.

He looked at the notes he’d made. One man who featured in several of the reports as being present in locations that were being watched, had connections with Varon. Martinez. He wasn’t one of Varon’s legal partners, seemed to be something along the lines of a chauffeur cum bodyguard. The scanty information they had on him included a speculation that he might be Varon’s cousin.

He fitted one of the descriptions Vin had given Chris, and Taylor identified his picture as almost certainly being one of Eli Jo’s contacts. Nothing there that was any good for court, but it focussed Chris’s attention on the man. He’d also been seen with Henderson a couple of times. Talking to the police wasn’t a crime of course, but it all fitted with Chris’s ideas of what was going on. If he was right, Martinez might be the link who would lead them to a connection between Varon and organised crime.

He reorganised his manpower for the week ahead, giving the less promising leads to other agents and keeping his own team for twenty four hour surveillance on Martinez. He was going to have to call Buck into work the some of the time, but he decided to have that conversation from home, and was finishing up when the call came from Vin.

“Problem?” he asked. “Where’s Josiah?”

“He’s okay,” Vin said. “Just wants you t’ call in his place ‘n bring him some clothes.”

“Clothes?”

“Yeah.”

“What sort of clothes. Why?”

“Jus’ clean clothes.”

“Well, where is he?”

“In th’ shower.”

Chris decided to carry on this conversation on his way out. “What does he need? Jeans? Shirt?”

“Yep. And shorts. Everythin’.”

“How did Josiah get to need a complete set of clean clothes? And I want to know the full story this time.”

His patience was wearing thin.

“You sure?”

“Yes I’m damned well sure.”

“Okay. J’siah was teachin’ us some trick he used t’ be able t’ do on a bike. Don’t know what it was; it went wrong. Reckon he was a lot younger when he c’d do it. He ain’t hurt though. Landed in th’ muck heap. And th’ bike mostly missed it. I cleaned the rest off it; Ez don’t like muck. He did calmin’ Mrs Potter down.”

“Vin…” The warning note in his voice got through.

“I was getting’ t’ that,” Vin said, aggrieved. “See, J’siah didn’t think y’d want muck indoors, so he stripped off ‘fore he went in. He was just about buck naked when Mrs Potter come up with an apple pie. Gave her a s’prise. But it’s okay. Ez talked to her real good, and she’s still comin’ t’morrow, and she left the pie.”

There was only one thing Chris could find to say.

“There’d better be at least a quarter of that pie waiting for me when I get back.”


Buck spent Saturday night as well as Sunday at the hospital. Once JD had started to have disturbed dreams, they came more frequently and distressingly. Buck was better at calming him down than anyone else, but he was finding it harder and harder listening to the things JD was saying when he was half awake.

That bastard Garriocci deserved to have something very unpleasant happen to him, and he would if Buck ever got near him. Putting together the evidence they already had and JD’s words, he was beginning to get a nasty picture of what had gone on. The children taken from the foster home hadn’t shown symptoms of physical abuse, but they’d been very distressed and had talked about ‘nasty’ photos. Buck could hear from JD’s mumbling how nasty those photos had been, and could get an idea of the way Garriocci had bullied the kid into manipulating them on the computer for him. What kind of sick mind did someone have, to do that to a kid?

When JD was awake, he did seem more alert and aware of his surroundings, but the effect of his nightmares stayed with him. Buck couldn’t coax a smile from him, but JD wanted to hold onto him, and Buck was more than happy to be a comforter for as long as it took.

His own thoughts were troubled as well, though. He was much less sure now what JD had meant when he’d been crying out in his sleep the day before. He still called for Vin and Ezra, but it was to stop Mr Garriocci taking him back. Whatever else they’d failed to do, they’d clearly rescued JD from the hell he’d been dumped in. Somehow, in the long stretches of the night when he sat and watched JD, he found himself thinking of the look on their faces as they left.

Henderson kept dropping in, too. Buck had stopped believing it was just concern for JD. He didn’t want to think Henderson was bent—hell, he didn’t want to think any cop was bent, and he’d liked Henderson in the days when he spent time with him. But Henderson was asking too many questions.

The final straw came late on Sunday afternoon. He’d gone down for a hasty cup of coffee while JD was fairly peaceful, and Henderson came strolling up to sit next to him. He’d hardly even asked about JD before he shifted to talking about the case.

“So, I hear Minnesota ATF want Taylor. Is that some old buddy of Larabee’s? Someone told me the guy there used to be a Seal.”

Luckily Buck had been primed. “Yeah, we knew him a bit,” he said. “Mind you, that’d go for quite a few other units too. Plenty of ex-Seals about. Wouldn’t have called him a buddy though. Don’t suppose Chris had heard of him in years ’til that request for Taylor came through.”

He fended off a few other queries, and as soon as Henderson had gone he decided he’d better call Chris.

He got a politely uninformative Ezra, a less politely uninformative Vin, and finally Josiah.

“Sorry about that, brother,” Josiah said. “I didn’t really want to come out in my towel in case Mrs Potter came back—it’s a long story. Chris’ll be home any minute now; he just went past my place to get me some clothes.”

After that, Buck had to stay on the line and get the whole story. “That old bike!” he said. “I’d forgotten it was even at the ranch. So Chris got it out? Well I’m damned.”

“It’s been an interesting week,” Josiah said.

“Yeah, I’m beginning to see that.”

“Thought I might pour myself a drink after the whole muck heap experience, and turns out he’s got rid of everything except a few bottles of beer.”

That was the best news Buck had heard in a very long time. It made it easier to tell Chris later about the way Henderson was pushing the questions about the case. “Don’t know what kind of fool he thinks I am,” he finished.

“He’s the fool,” Chris said. “Reckon Varon’s leaning on him, and it’s making him take risks. Anyway, it gives you the upper hand. Maybe we can start feeding him what we want him to know. And Buck—I’d be the last person to call you a fool for standing by a friend when folk with more sense have called it a day. How’s JD doing?”

“Physically, getting better, but he’s having a hell of a time coming to terms with what he remembers about that foster home. He knows me, I think, but he’s not talking when he’s awake. It’s easy enough to make out what he’s been through, though. I… well, I think I made the wrong call over what he was shouting yesterday. Guess I wasn’t seeing past JD scared and on the streets, but…”

“But now you are.”

“Yeah.”

“You want to talk to them?”

“Think they’ll listen?”

“Don’t know, pard, but I do know I’ve never seen you back off because you might not get a polite reception.”

“Well, Ezra sounds like he can manage to tell a guy to piss off more politely than anyone I’ve ever come across.”

He could hear the amusement in Chris’s voice. “Yeah, that’s Ezra. You want him first?”

He didn’t get a chance to answer that, because Chris was already calling both the boys. “… and don’t end the call,” he heard Chris add. “I haven’t finished.”

“Mr Wilmington?”

Buck didn’t waste time on preliminaries. “Wanted to tell you I’m sorry, Ezra. I got the wrong impression the other day, and I sent you off without giving you a chance to say anything.”

“Is JD awake now?” Ezra sounded wary, but had evidently also decided to cut straight to what mattered.

“No, not properly, but I’m getting an idea what he went through in that foster home. It’s a real good thing you got him out of there.”

There was a long pause. “It’s not so easy to get someone to the proper authorities as you might think,” Ezra said. “We knew it should be done, but we couldn’t risk anyone returning him to that place.”

“Reckon that was what was most important,” Buck agreed. “You want to come and visit properly tomorrow?”

“If Chr.. Mr Larabee is happy with the arrangement,” Ezra said. “Now, I believe Vin wants to say something.”

Vin had evidently managed to hear both sides of the previous conversation. “Weren’t just JD you thought we was trouble for,” he said.

Buck answered him as directly. “No, it wasn’t. I didn’t want to see Chris let down… and I still don’t.”

“It’s Henderson and Eli Jo that Chris needs y’ to watch his back against,” Vin said. “Not us. Chris knows what we are, and he still wants us.”

It was clearly meant as a challenge, but the slight wonder Vin couldn’t keep out of his last few words was what disarmed Buck.

“Okay, Vin,” he said, more gently. “I guess he does. You take that chance he’s giving you, kid. I’ll see you tomorrow with Ezra. Now put Chris back on.”

He’d known Chris wouldn’t be able to allow him much more time off; Chris was bending over backwards to give him as much time as possible with JD, but Buck was needed. He accepted that, but his heart was heavier as he went back upstairs, because it was going to mean some quite long stretches when he couldn’t be here at the hospital.

JD’s room was only dimly lit, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust when he went in. Then he realised the little boy’s eyes were open. He sat down next to the bed.

“Buck,” JD said softly.

Buck stared at him. Those brown eyes were no longer blank or confused. JD was properly awake!

“Buck,” JD said more confidently. “I didn’t dream you.”

“Not me,” Buck said, hugging him carefully. “There, you’re not dreaming that are you.”

Small arms wrapped around his neck hugging in return. Everything else faded into unimportance. This was what mattered; this was what Buck had been waiting to see. JD really was getting better.


It seemed during the next week that life had calmed down. Chris took the boys to the office with him again on Monday morning, and let them make themselves useful helping to give Nathan a more convincing persona for the street. Chris had picked Nathan for the bulk of the surveillance of Martinez—Chris himself and Buck were probably a little too well known to Varon’s men, and Josiah’s size made him harder to disguise, though he’d have to do some stretches backing Nathan up.

Undercover wasn’t Nathan’s forte, but Vin’s advice on his appearance—”Y’ can’t be serious about those sneakers”—and Ezra’s on his manner—”I realise you can’t help being rigidly honest, Mr Jackson, but there is no need for it to be so obvious”—made him passable.

Chris was getting the knack of splitting his responsibilities, too. He’d got to grips with the idea of curriculum now. Civics for instance could be a very broad topic, and he decided it might as well include assisting the ATF. Nettie Wells continued to be helpful, and although Mary had to call off Friday’s lesson for Vin, she offered an extra one on the Thursday. They managed a couple of visits to JD that went well, and Chris mended a few fences with Buck. Ezra remained slightly edgy about the hospital, but luckily JD was making obvious progress now. The ranch was starting to feel like a place to come home to, and Peso and Chaucer were smugly getting spoilt again.

By Thursday, the results of the surveillance were starting to look promising and Chris had persuaded Buck he could spend the morning at the ranch with Vin and Ezra because Nettie was going to bring her niece for a visit to JD.

There was nothing at all to suggest the week was about to go to hell.


Thursday night, and Nathan was getting close to the end of a long day. Martinez had gone into a sleazy bar; Nathan, looking forward to handing over to Josiah, was watching the entrance from the small store opposite, while pretending to glance through the magazines. There wasn’t a lot of room in there, but he was surprised to be pushed quite rudely out of someone’s way. He looked around.

The shock was mutual, luckily.

He was face to face with Eli Jo, and their recognition of each other was instantaneous—something about holding a knife on someone must fix a face in the memory. For just a moment Eli Jo was taken aback, and it gave Nathan the seconds he needed to jump back before the man recovered and slashed at him with a knife.

The store keeper yelled at them and brought an ancient gun from under the counter. Other customers stared and drew back in alarm. Eli Jo must have realised that he could follow this attack up or get away, but not both. He turned and bolted for the door. Nathan had been off balance from the surprise and from jumping back into a pile of stacked boxes, and before he could recover people were already between him and the door.

“ATF,” he shouted, showing his badge, but although they cleared quickly, Eli Jo was gone by the time he reached the sidewalk. He hastily called it in, slightly annoyed he’d revealed his identity now it hadn’t gained him anything. Still, being recognised by Eli Jo would have blown his cover with anyone who mattered anyway. Wouldn’t have done a lot of good for the surveillance operation in general.

“You’re bleeding, mister,” the storekeeper said.

Nathan glanced down, noticing now that there was a stinging across his ribs. A long, fairly shallow cut was bleeding into his shirt. Josiah arrived as he was looking at it and deciding if it really needed stitching.

“I’m surprised at you, brother,” Josiah said. “If that cut was on my ribs, I don’t think you’d be having any doubts. I’ll take you to ER. Chris is calling things off until we’ve had time to reassess the situation, anyway. I think we can safely say that by now Martinez will know he’s being watched.”


Varon was furious, furious and apprehensive. He was angry with Eli Jo, who should never have taken the risk of entering the store, but he was much more worried that Larabee’s team had been so close.

“They’d obviously been following Martinez,” he told Henderson, “and the worst of it is we don’t know how long they’ve been doing it. That means bribing or bullying a lot of contacts—to leave town or lose their memories. Could Taylor have put Larabee onto Martinez?”

“I don’t know. It’s possible—if he wanted to know who beyond Eli Jo was hiring him, he could have traced things that far. It’s pretty clear Larabee lied about him anyway, so he must be giving them something useful. But they could have got the information from those kids Larabee’s taken in. They’ve been hanging around the streets for years.”

Varon thought about it. Wherever he looked, most of his troubles came back to one man. “How much would you say Larabee’s team rely on his leadership?” he asked.

Henderson shrugged. “Guess he tells them what to do.”

“And those boys… it’s difficult to believe they’re much threat, but Larabee has custody of them. It sounds as though he may still be holding Taylor on dubious grounds, too. Those are very much his personal arrangements, not ATF ones.”

“What are you thinking?” Henderson asked uneasily.

“That it’s time Larabee had an accident. A real one I think, a road accident. That’s a good deal harder to prove than a drive by shooting. I’ve been looking at the route Larabee takes to get to that ranch of his, and I can see a couple of definite possibilities. But I don’t want anyone involved who could possibly be traced back to me.”

“You can’t expect I’m going to…”

“I want you to find a man who will do the job, take the money and leave the state.”

He cut off Henderson’s protests. “I know the problems, but this should be the last thing you’ll need to do for me for a while. Without Larabee, they’re not going to keep going after me. We can both keep our hands clean for a few weeks until this is all forgotten. Anyway, you don’t have an alternative.”

He saw the flicker in Henderson’s eyes that meant he was giving in.

“Get someone who’ll finish the job,” Varon said. “I want Larabee off my back.”


Buck hadn’t been out to the ranch since Chris had sent him away with flying fists and bitter words six months before. The thought of that, and the painful memories of when it had been a family home, made him feel stiff and awkward as he walked into the kitchen to find Chris finishing a cup of coffee. Ezra was half asleep over his breakfast. Buck had already seen Vin out in the corral as he came in.

Chris looked up, and probably thought of the same things that were haunting Buck, but his expression was hard to read. “Coffee?” he offered

“Thanks.”

Chris handed it to him, then to Buck’s amazement clasped his shoulder before he turned away. Buck hadn’t even been sure until then that Chris remembered what he’d said and done that night, let alone that he regretted it. He realised now it had been another burden Chris had been carrying.

“Chris…” he started, and realised he had no idea how he was going to finish.

“Was beginning to think I wouldn’t see you at the ranch again,” Chris said. “It’s good to have you back”

Buck grinned. “It’s good to be here. Now, what’s the plan for how the boys spend their morning?”

“Well, there’s the bike or the horses, and they’re supposed to be doing some studying. Got a French film for Ezra. Not that sort of French film,” he added quickly. “One to help him polish up his French. Mary’s set Vin some reading; just leave him to get on with it. Gloria Potter will be in to clean up—she’s doing some extra hours for me. Now if I’m going to be on time for this meeting with Travis, I’d better go.”

“You’ll be back lunch time? I promised JD I’d be there before the physiotherapist comes at two.”

“The meeting’s supposed to be over by eleven,” Chris said. “If it overruns I’ll call you and send Josiah. I’m off now. They’re all yours.”

He put a steaming cup of coffee directly in front of Ezra—whose eyes had closed again—and went.

Buck watched with some amusement as Ezra pulled the cup closer, apparently in his sleep, bowed his head over it to enjoy the aroma, and finally, eyes still shut, lifted it to drink. He left him to it, and went outside as Chris drove off. Vin sitting on the corral rail was motionless until Chris was out of sight, then he jumped down and noticed Buck.

“Chores are all done,” he said briefly, and went inside.

Buck strolled over to the corral and went to make a fuss of Beavis. “You been missing me?” he asked, stroking the long nose. “Never mind, boy. You and me, we’re still in fine fettle. Reckon Chris and Yosemite have kept you fit, and there’s been a long and lovely line of ladies doing the same for me.”

Beavis snorted.

“Yeah, well, we’re not all geldings. Just now, there’s a very charming nurse called Julie. That girl has a real kind heart, and it’s in some lovely packaging…”

Beavis was looking over his shoulder and now whickered as if to share the joke. Buck turned around and saw Vin and Ezra, standing in a way that somehow gave the impression of their being shoulder to shoulder against him.

“Y’ want us t’ start studyin’?”

“Your vehicle is where Mrs Potter prefers to park.”

Buck sighed and gave Beavis a final pat before turning to them. It wasn’t that Vin and Ezra were overtly hostile; they even seemed quite pleased with him looking after JD. They were just wary and not particularly happy that he was out at the ranch with them.

He moved his red Pickup, in spite of the fact there was ample room for a fleet of limos, offered them some help with their schoolwork which was rejected, and found himself missing JD’s open friendliness. JD was a warm hearted kid; these two could freeze you.

Ezra and Vin shared the den to study, Ezra ignoring Vin’s mumbling over his book, and Vin tuning out the French dialogue from the screen. Buck was glad when Mrs Potter arrived.

“I’ve brought some gingerbread,” she said. “Chris is so generous in what he pays me, it used to worry me I couldn’t do more to earn it, but the boys have good appetites, and they’re certainly making the place look lived in.” She started to get out her cleaning things. “Where are the boys, anyway? They’re usually straight out here when I come, to see what I’ve baked.”

“They’re studying,” Buck said.

She stared at him in surprise. “Why, I never thought you’d be the strict one. You’ve got them down to studying already? I hope you’ll let them have a little break later on.”

Buck thought of protesting that it wasn’t his idea, but she was getting out a mop and bucket and he was in the way. He wandered off to look around. Josiah was right about the whisky. The study cupboard, which usually held several bottles, was empty.

He glanced into the spare room, wondered why only one bed there was being used, and opened the door to Adam’s old room. He didn’t think it would be in use, and it wasn’t. It was neat and rather bare, most of the toys packed away or maybe given away, but some of the wooden animals Chris had carved for Adam were still on the sill, and the bookshelves were full. He looked sadly at the assortment of books. Some were old ones that had been Chris and Sarah’s when they were kids, some were new ones bought for Adam. He even picked up one that had been his own, one of the few he’d ever had as a kid.

“We don’t go in here.”

Vin’s voice made him jump. He met the blue eyes—hard to believe they were a kid’s eyes, when they were as hard and assessing as an adult’s.

Buck said quietly, “I miss Sarah and Adam. I know how much it hurts Chris to remember them, but they were special, and I don’t want to lose the memories I have.”

Vin’s expression eased to something softer. “Chris don’t want to either.”

“I know. I hope one day we’ll be able to talk about the good times.” There had been plenty of good times. He didn’t know where the photos from then or the videos of Adam as a baby were… He looked away hastily so Vin wouldn’t see him blink the grief away, and when he turned back, Vin was gone. Buck smiled wryly, guessing his absence amounted to permission to carry on.

Things were a bit easier after that. Vin and Ezra gave up studying and came to eat quantities of gingerbread, saving Buck from Gloria’s reproaches. After she’d gone they let him show them how he tuned the bike up; they pointed out the ways Chris did it better, but it was still progress.

By then, Buck was beginning to be concerned about the time. He’d expected Chris back by midday. He went in and got cleaned up ready to leave, and Chris still wasn’t back. If he didn’t get away soon he was going to be late for JD’s physio. He wondered if Chris had called and they’d missed it, but there was no message. He called Chris’s cell and got no answer, then the office and got Josiah.

“I haven’t heard anything,” Josiah said. “Meetings do overrun—or I suppose he could have had trouble with the Ram. If you’re worried about getting back to JD, I’ll come out now and meet you on the way. You set off with the boys and you can hand them over to me. You’ll probably have to wait for me—stop in that pull in just before the highway—but it’ll save you half an hour or more.”

“Thanks,” Buck said. “I’ll call you if I do hear from Chris.”

By now, he was cutting it really fine if he was going to be there for the start of the session. He bundled Vin and Ezra into the Pickup, explaining the plan.

“Ain’t like Chris to turn his cell off,” Vin said uneasily as they left.

“It wasn’t off, he just wasn’t answering. If he’s in with Travis, maybe he left it back in his office.”

“Ain’t like Chris not to be on time, either.”

“He always calls if there’s any change in arrangements,” Ezra said.

“There’ll be some good reason,” Buck said. “Use my phone Vin, and try to get him again.”

He was driving as fast as was safe on this road, troubled by the thought of JD having to endure the physiotherapy without some encouragement. He had to slow soon, though, as he came to a stretch where the turns were sharper, and there was a steep drop to one side.

“Buck!”

He saw it when Vin did; a break in the guard rail up ahead, which hadn’t been there when he drove up this morning, and skid marks across the road from a track that ran up into the woods.

There could be a lot of explanations for it… but he was stopping now, and his heart was thumping unreasonably fast.

The boys were out of the car as rapidly as he was.

He heard himself cursing, as if it was someone else, far off.

There was absolute silence next to him. Buck stared at the smashed rail, the torn up ground and the sight he’d been dreading. Two vehicles had gone off the road, and crashed down the steep drop—and, unmistakeable even at that distance, one of the wrecks was Chris’s black Ram It was upside down, far below them, in a deep gully, and smoke was coming up sluggishly from it.

“Stay here,” he said, without looking at the boys. “Wait for Josiah.”

He felt as if he was moving on some training exercise and this wasn’t real. The broken rail sagged further as he pushed through and started to skid down the slope, speed dialling Josiah’s number as he went. All he could think was, Oh God, not now, not when he’d just started living again, please God not Chris, not now…


Chris was aware of a pounding headache and blood in his mouth. He stirred, and knew from the pain that he’d cracked at least one rib and that his left wrist was damaged. His thoughts were still unclear, but he was vaguely aware that he’d been lying here a while, waking slightly to pain and fading again. This time he got past the moment when he might have slipped back into unconsciousness, and things slowly became a little clearer.

He shifted his head cautiously. All he could see was leaves. Bushes. He must be lying in quite a thick patch of them. A large boulder was next to him, on the side where his ribs throbbed. That figured. He moved a little, and it hurt, but not unbearably. He was lying on a slope…

Suddenly it came back to him in a rush of images.

Some bastard had rammed him.

He remembered driving, remembered slamming his foot on the accelerator to leap past the brown truck which drove out at him from the shadowed turning up the track—remembered not quite making it. That reaction had probably saved his life though. The impact had been to the rear. They’d hit the Ram, but not him.

He’d crashed into the guard rail, it hadn’t held, and he’d known then he had only one hope. He was out of his belt and opening the door as the Ram began its sickening, headlong descent. He even remembered now that he’d flung himself towards this patch of cover, hoping that the Ram would shield him from view as he jumped.

It must have worked. With a bit of collateral damage.

He spat the blood from his mouth, and felt cautiously at the side of his head. There was a good lump there, but the blood on it was sticky, drying. He wondered how long he’d been here, and made the painful effort to look at his watch. Broken. So was the wrist, he suspected.

Noises outside his small world grew clearer. Shouting voices somewhere below. Vehicles above. He shifted enough to look up the slope rather than at the sky, and saw the lights of emergency vehicles. The bushes were a more effective cover than he’d really thought in that desperate moment when he dived for them; they must be hiding him from the emergency vehicles as well.

Slowly, forcing himself to ignore the pain, he edged up a little against the boulder. Bushes, rock, sky whirled sickeningly, and he had to gasp in shallow breaths to stop himself throwing up. Even the pain in his head and side couldn’t stop him staring at the scene below him as it swam into focus though. He peered through the leaves. What a hell of a mess.

The Ram had obviously somersaulted down the slope at an angle from where he’d landed. He could see it, wheels up, far below, apparently jammed in the gully, with a number of people around it. The brown truck was a burnt out wreck maybe a hundred metres above it. He’d have felt some satisfaction, only he guessed the driver had deliberately tipped it over to get rid of the evidence. Shadowy, a half picture in his memory, he thought he had glimpsed another car pulled up to the side of the trail the truck had shot out from.

They’d set out to kill him, and he’d been lucky to escape the attempt.

He edged a little further along the boulder. No one had noticed him, even with the movement. He was off the line of everyone’s attention, which was on the overturned Ram.

As he focussed rather blurrily on the people around it, he saw a familiar figure turn away from the group and begin the steep scrambling ascent of the slope.

Buck! Oh shit. He’d been due back at the ranch. Buck… the boys… what would they be thinking?

He made a painful effort, leaned towards the open space a little and found a pale imitation of his normal yell as Buck drew level across the slope.

“Buck!”

He wasn’t sure it would carry, but Buck’s head came around instantly. The astonishment on his face might have been funny in any other circumstances, but the way it was replaced by disbelief, hope, and then something that could only really be called joy, all wrenched at Chris’s heart much more than his physical pain could ever do.

Buck started to half run, half slide across to him, and Chris let himself rest. Only his legs showed outside the bushes, but Buck knew he was here now. He could give up and let Buck take care of things; the thought allowed him to him sag back with relief.

“Chris. Damn, pard, how bad is it?” Buck pushed through the short branches and crouched beside him, his expression torn between exuberance at Chris’s survival and concern for his injuries. “You look terrible—but a hell of a lot better than dead. I’ll get the paramedics down. You’re moving? Back and neck okay?” He began to ease Chris into a more comfortable position, his arm a strong and welcome support.

“The boys?” Chris asked, leaning heavily against him.

“They’re up the top with Josiah. I’ve got to call him. We thought you were in the Ram—they haven’t dug down far enough around it yet to find you weren’t. Hell, there’s even TV vans and reporters up there starting to do your obituary for the evening news programs.”

His words made Chris suddenly think of the advantage he currently had over his attackers. “Wait!” he said. “Tell Josiah, but tell him not to let the press know. No one up there can see I’m alive can they?”

Buck glanced up. “No—a few of them are looking at me, but I don’t think they can see you at all. If they can, it’s only your feet.”

“Call Josiah, quickly, but tell him not to tell anyone outside the team. I saw the guy who rammed me, and I know he was on one of the photos we had in from last week’s surveillance. If he thinks I’m dead, he won’t be expecting us to come after him.”

Buck called Josiah, keeping it as brief as possible so that Josiah’s answers wouldn’t attract attention.

“Tell him to send the paramedics down to get me out, but don’t let them know I’m alive,” Chris ordered. “We’ll explain to them when they get down here, and they can take me up with my face covered; that should convince the reporters.”

The effort of thinking and speaking was beginning to get to him. He paused, and fought down another wave of nausea. Buck’s arm steadied him. He lay still for a minute, grateful Buck was here. There wasn’t another man he could so easily bear seeing him vulnerable like this.

“They’re on their way,” Buck said. Chris heard the worry in his voice.

“I’m okay,” he said. “Think I’ve cracked a couple of ribs, and I expect the doctors will fuss about concussion, but I’m okay.”

The paramedics weren’t too happy with his plan, but the police had already worked out that this had been an attack not an accident, and they understood his arguments about catching the man who did it. In return, he cooperated with their straps and means of getting him up to the ambulance safely, and wasn’t sorry to close his eyes as his face was covered.

He felt Buck’s hand give his a warm clasp, then enduring the pain of being moved took all his concentration.


The best thing about Chris’s plan, Buck thought, was that it involved him going straight to the hospital. Buck called Nathan while the paramedics made their awkward way back up with their burden, and, damn, was it good to be calling with some cheerful news this time. “Chris wants you to meet him at the hospital and bring all the files from last week’s surveillance,” he finished.

“How bad is he?”

“I think he’s called it pretty accurately, from what the paramedics’ assessment was. Concussion, cracked ribs, probably a broken wrist. It could have been a hell of a lot worse. Seeing them take him up, face covered like that, brings it home to you.”

“The boys shouldn’t see it even now we know he’s okay.”

“Josiah’ll understand,” Buck said. He hadn’t actually asked Josiah how the boys were holding up, his mind had been too occupied first with the horror of what he thought had happened to Chris and then with relief and carrying out Chris’s plan. Josiah was probably the best of them to have the kids in this situation though.

Chris seemed to think so too. Buck followed into the ambulance, and, as the doors closed, quickly uncovered Chris’s face. “Tell Josiah to take the boys back to the ranch,” Chris said. “You see to things here, and come to the hospital as soon as you can. I don’t want Vin and Ezra seeing me ’til I’m cleaned up a bit.”

And less white and less visibly in pain, Buck thought. Chris still looked awful. Blood was caked in his hair and down one side of his face, his mouth was swollen where he’d driven his teeth into his lip, and you didn’t need a medical degree to see that when he took a proper breath it hurt like hell.

“I’ll take care of things,” Buck told him.

Chris raised his right hand and gripped Buck’s briefly, and then the paramedics were wanting to get going. Buck watched the ambulance ease its way through the crowd of vehicles, and turned to look for Josiah. He found him at the bottom of the trail where the ambush had come from, watching the police work on the tire tracks.

“Looks like someone else was waiting here,” Josiah said as he came up. “They hit Chris, then tipped the truck through the rails. It went up on its own when it crashed or they fired into the tank, and then they drove off in the second car.”

“Ties in with what Chris said,” Buck agreed. “If he can identify the guy, maybe we’ll pick both of them up. He’s got it all planned—that’s Chris for you—anyone could see how much he was hurting, but it wasn’t keeping him down. I can hardly believe he came out of this alive, let alone talking. Anyway, he wants me to finish up here, and you to take the boys back to the ranch… where are the boys?”

Josiah looked at him blankly. “I thought they must be at the ranch,” he said. “Thought you must have decided to leave them with Mrs Potter.”

Buck felt a sudden cold jolt of alarm. Neither he nor Josiah had actually mentioned the boys in their hasty calls. In his first, he’d been too upset to do more than give Josiah the location and the fact it was definitely the Ram that had gone over. After that, their brief exchanges had focused on the rescue efforts. Even when he told Josiah the good news that Chris was okay they’d kept it short so that they wouldn’t give Chris’s plan away to anyone able to hear Josiah’s side of the conversation. “Mrs Potter had gone. I left them here—in the Pickup—waiting for you.”

“There were police cars here when I got here, and a fire truck. I didn’t even see where you’d left the Pickup.”

The scene was too chaotic. Buck looked around trying to remember. He’d seen the gap in the guard rail… “Must have been somewhere about here.”

There was no red Pickup in sight.

Buck’s alarm grew. “It didn’t look like anyone could have survived in the Ram,” he said, trying to recall if that had been Vin and Ezra’s reaction. He could only remember their complete silence. He’d told them to stay and wait; he hadn’t been able to think beyond the need to get to the Ram as fast as possible in case Chris had survived, and he’d known that whatever had happened it would be no sight for kids. He hadn’t even looked back…

“Wouldn’t surprise me if Ezra knew how to drive,” Josiah said. They looked at each other in shared dismay.

Buck’s fear grew, becoming something close to certainty. Vin and Ezra had waited—but only until he was down the slope. Then, whether they knew much about driving or not, they’d taken off in the Pickup! The thought of them on the highway made him wince, but not so much as what next occurred to him. They wouldn’t even know Chris was okay. They’d thought he was dead, and so they’d run—and they’d still believe it.

“I’ll get an APB put out on the Pickup,” he said.

“We don’t want them arrested.”

“Okay—no contact, just to report its whereabouts to us.”

“They’ve had a couple of hours,” Josiah said doubtfully. “They could have got back into Denver and abandoned it.”

Buck realised that was probably exactly what they would have done. “Well, we’d better do something about finding them quickly,” he said. “Because otherwise, quite soon, one of us is going to have to tell Chris.”


“They did the job well,” Varon said generously. He was feeling expansive. The news story and sight of Larabee’s covered body being brought up the slope had brightened his evening. “You said neither of them had ever worked for me?”

Henderson had a slight nervous tic twitching his eye. “I called Eli Jo and checked. He knows them well enough, but he never employed them on one of your jobs. He said they were reliable. I think he’s known the driver, Yates, for years.”

The connection with Eli Jo was a pity but not surprising. He would probably have
known anyone who Henderson could have approached. It should be no problem.

Varon smiled. “Life without Chris Larabee. It’s a pleasant thought, isn’t it. Cheer up Henderson.”

“It’s all right for you. I had to meet Yates myself to get him to take the job on. Eli Jo wouldn’t risk leaving wherever he’s holed up.”

Varon gestured at the screen. “No witnesses, nothing for forensics to pick up from a burnt out truck. Stop worrying.”


Josiah ended the call, and turned to Buck. “They’ve located the Pickup. It’s illegally parked, close to the ATF building. Guess they left it where they thought you’d find it.”

“At least that means they didn’t have an accident getting there,” Buck muttered.

Ha and Josiah had had several difficult decisions to make, not least whether to tell Chris yet and whether to correct the news story that was running. In the end they’d decided to do neither. Chris needed to rest and get his injuries taken care of, and if he knew Vin and Ezra were missing the doctors would have to tie him down to get him to do either. The news story was more difficult, but it had already been out on the radio and one TV channel before they’d noticed the boys had gone, and they didn’t want to lose the chance of catching the driver of the truck.

“Vin and Ezra won’t be looking at news,” Josiah said. “They think they know what’s happened. They may have heard the first broadcasts while they were in the Pickup, and that’ll just have confirmed it. By now, they’ll have gone to hide up somewhere. If we can make the arrest tonight, we can see that the true account goes out early in the morning—and pray it reaches them.”

He looked at Buck. Buck had had the worst time of any of the team, coming on the scene without warning and spending more than an hour convinced Chris was lying dead or desperately injured under the Ram, and now he was beating himself up over this. “It wasn’t your fault,” Josiah said.

“I was responsible for them. I just couldn’t think straight when I saw the Ram in that gully. The only thing on my mind was to get down there in case I could do anything for Chris. And—they didn’t say a word, Josiah. If they’d been talking, or upset, or like normal kids seeing something like that—but they just stood there and didn’t make a sound. What am I going to say to Chris?”

“I’m going to tell Chris,” Josiah said firmly.

They’d almost finished at the scene of the incident. Nathan had called a few minutes earlier, to say Chris had identified the driver’s photo, and Orrin had agents searching for a name and address. Nathan was staying at the hospital until the doctors had finished with Chris and got him settled into a room, but he didn’t think that would be long now.

In fact, he called again when they were following the last police car away.

“How’s Chris?” Buck asked urgently, as he had done every time they made contact.

“He’s okay. Very sore, quite concussed, almost asleep when I left. Orrin wants me and Buck to join Team 3 locating the man Chris picked out. He thinks you’re at the ranch, Josiah, and I couldn’t tell him different because I was with Chris when he called. Do you want to call him directly and explain what’s happened?”

“Not before Chris knows. I don’t think we can put that off much longer, but I don’t want to tell him over the phone. Buck will come to join you, and I’ll go to the hospital.”

“It’s not going to do anything for Chris’s recovery,” Nathan said.

“I know. But he still has to be told, and he might have a better idea than we have where to look for the boys.”

“What about JD?” Nathan suggested rather hesitantly.

Buck had called the hospital and talked to JD, who’d struggled through his physiotherapy on his own. Buck had just said he had to help a friend who’d been hurt. JD had understood that, and he’d been very good about having been forgotten and left to wonder where Buck was, but it hadn’t been hard to tell he was trying not to sound upset and tired.

“I don’t think we should tell JD yet that Vin and Ezra are missing,” Josiah said, getting a strong agreement on that from Buck. “I doubt he’ll be able to help us much, either. They kept in the one place while they were with him, and they won’t have gone back to it now.”

“You’re probably right,” Nathan said. “You’ll stay with Chris?”

“If he’ll have me once he’s heard my news.”

Chris was asleep when Josiah got to the hospital, and looking very much the worse for wear, although the dirt and blood had been cleaned off. The bruising was starting to come out on his face, and even in sleep his eyes were screwed up with the pain. He looked tense and restless. Being ambushed and nearly killed would do that for you.

“We are waking him regularly to check on him,” the nurse told Josiah as he went quietly back out of the room. “But if you’ve news that will disturb him, I’d be grateful if you could delay it until he’s had more rest. Maybe you’d like to go and have a coffee?”

Josiah wouldn’t have minded a coffee, but a different sort of need drove his feet along the familiar route to the hospital chapel. He felt a hollow uncertainty about how he was going to tell Chris about Vin and Ezra.

He knelt heavily in the silent room, only able to think about how much he couldn’t do—couldn’t find Vin and Ezra, or make sure they were safe, couldn’t think of how to tell Chris, couldn’t see how the news wouldn’t drive a wedge again between Buck and Chris…

Couldn’t even find words to pray, only a painful need beyond words.

The completeness of his failure seemed to mock him, but he stayed there stubbornly.


Ezra sat huddled next to Vin, leaning against the wall in the small yard of a hardware store. It was a place that was always quiet at this time in the evening, and it was close to a bar where Henderson and his closest buddies went to drink—and to meet people they wouldn’t want to be seen with.

In an hour or so, Vin and Ezra had to find a place from where they could overlook the narrow street behind the bar.

Ezra looked down at his hands, clenched around a small digital camera, and wondered why he was holding it so tightly that his knuckles had gone white. He could see Vin’s hands too, curled furiously into fists, but still shaking. He didn’t look at Vin’s face. Ezra’s own eyes kept moistening, in spite of mother’s years of contempt for such weakness, but he’d never seen Vin cry, and he didn’t now. Vin’s grief was an arid desolation, and the only thing alive in it was anger.

But even anger was better than the awful blankness Ezra had seen in Vin’s eyes when Buck first left them to go down—futilely down—to a wreck it was obvious no one could have survived. Ezra had turned to Vin. He’d expected to find him white and shocked and he did—what had shaken Ezra more was the complete emptiness of Vin’s face, as if for a moment he simply wasn’t there.

It had kicked into action a plan Ezra hadn’t even realised his mind was forming.

He’d looked down, trying not to see the Ram, only Buck’s moving figure. Buck was already a long way below, pushing through clumps of undergrowth, sliding and stumbling on the steepness of the slope.

“Get in,” Ezra said to Vin, taking his arm and pushing him towards the Pickup. “Get in! If we’re going to go, we have to go now.”

He didn’t think he could bear to stay here any longer, but it was also necessary to move fast before anyone else arrived. Vin walked stiffly towards the far side of the Pickup, without question or argument. He stopped halfway though, staring at the tire tracks in the side trail.

Ezra checked the Pickup’s keys were in the ignition, and adjusted the driver’s seat. He could do this. It was three years since the time when mother had been conning a wealthy farmer and Ezra had learned to drive on his private land, but he’d had one or two opportunities since. The thought of the highway was daunting, but not as bad as the alternative of staying here.

He knotted his hands more tightly around the camera as he remembered. The highway had been bad. But he hadn’t wrecked the Pickup, and he hadn’t attracted enough attention to bring the police down on them, and somehow he’d found his way to near the ATF building. All that time, Vin had only said one thing. When they got off the highway, he’d switched the radio on, saying, “If there’s even a chance…”

When they’d found the news program, it was clear there hadn’t been; no chance at all. They were even describing a body being brought up on a stretcher. Ezra switched it off.

Vin didn’t speak again until Ezra had pulled up. Then he’d asked, “Got th’ key for th’ compartment?”

Ezra looked at Vin’s expression and decided not to ask why, just found it. Whether Vin had known or just guessed what was in there, he had no idea. Vin took out the camera and handed it to him, and to Ezra’s shock, took Buck’s back up piece. “Locked. Needs a handcuff key,” he said. “You reckon y’ c’d pick th’ lock?”

“Maybe,” Ezra said, uncertain not just about his ability to do it but about what Vin was planning.

Vin tucked the gun inside his jacket, and got out. Ezra hesitated, then decided to let him take the lead. They walked fast, but they were inconspicuous in the clean clothes they wore now, very different from when… His mind refused to go back across the last few weeks.

“Weren’t an accident,” Vin said softly.

“What?”

“I looked at th’ tracks. It was set up. Truck to do th’ ramming, another car t’ take the driver away.”

Ezra couldn’t have this conversation walking along. He couldn’t handle the difference between the anguish that briefly showed on Vin’s face and his factual words. But it did make sense. Thinking back to the scene, it made a lot of sense.

“Must ha’ been somethin’ t’ do with th’ case, with Henderson, or that lawyer, or Eli Jo,” Vin said. “Or all three. Only one thing we can do fer Chris now. Finish them.” That was when Ezra had realised Vin had found a way of surviving.

Thinking about Vin’s words now, Ezra also realised that was one of the reasons he was clutching the camera so hard. Vin thought they could get evidence, the sort of evidence that could be used against Henderson at least, and start the card pile tumbling. That was the purpose of the camera, and presumably why Buck had had it.

“We c’n get names, times, photographs,” Vin said. “Call J’siah t’ tell him where t’ pick it up. I know his cell number. You?”

“Yes. But what if it’s not enough?”

“Y’ should’ve worked out how t’ unlock this gun by then.”

Ezra had been silenced by that, and Vin hadn’t said any more, though now they’d already been squatting here for more than an hour. There was nothing that could be said, the hollow aching sense of loss would have swallowed the words up.

He thought about the fragments he knew of the laws about evidence, and of the way the law had mattered to…

He was glad when Vin said it was time to move.


Chris woke, disoriented for a moment by the throbbing in his head and the stiffening aches everywhere else. He lay still, careful not to move and sharpen the pain, while things fell back into place. Hospital. Admission had been a long uncomfortable stretch of being proved exactly right about his injuries, but at least the ribs were less painful now and his wrist was immobilised. Pity about his head…

He wondered if Nathan and Buck, with the help of Team 3, had managed to track down the driver of the truck. It must have been a while since Nathan left. He vaguely remembered waking up a couple of times and being asked some damn fool questions. Why wasn’t there a clock where he could see it without moving his head?

He turned gingerly so that he could see towards the side, and saw now that he wasn’t alone. Josiah sat there, head down, half dozing in the uncomfortable chair. He hadn’t realised Chris was awake. It was a moment before it dawned on Chris to be surprised at his presence, then he knew an immediate jangling feeling of alarm.

Josiah.

There could be a variety of reasons for his presence, but Chris knew instinctively what the true one was. Even in his sleep unease had been nagging at him, and there was something about the slump of Josiah’s shoulders.

“They ran,” he said aloud. “Shit. I should have known it. They ran, didn’t they?”

Josiah sat up, startled and dismayed. “Chris. How are you feeling?”

“They ran. I bet they’d gone before Buck even got down the ravine.”

“Buck didn’t know,” Josiah said quickly. “He thought the boys were with me.”

“I know he did. That’s why I didn’t think… damn it, I should have realised.”

“How could you have guessed?”

“They were too quiet. Too… not there. You wouldn’t have kept Ezra from the phone, or Vin from getting to the ambulance. I knew something didn’t feel right, but it was too hard to think past this headache. They won’t even know I’m alive, will they? They weren’t there when Buck told you…”

Josiah told him what they knew and what they’d worked out. The unease of his dreams made sense to Chris now. The boys would never have stayed there passively. If they’d thought there was any chance he was alive, they’d have followed Buck down; believing there wasn’t, they ran.

“By the time we realised they were gone, they’d already have been back in Denver,” Josiah finished. “We decided—I decided—not to put the truth out. I didn’t think the chances of them hearing it were good enough to balance out what we’d lose. Your idea seems to have paid off. Nate called an hour ago, and said they had the driver’s apartment surrounded and it wouldn’t be long before they went in.”

“I want to know if they pick the man up, even if you have to wake me up in the middle of the night,” Chris said. “What time is it, anyway?”

“Just past midnight already.”

He must have slept longer than he’d realised. Vin and Ezra would be far from anyone’s ability to find them by now, and probably had been even before they were missed. The thought of them back on the streets and believing he was dead pounded at his head.

“Chris, we’ll get the news put out tomorrow, and we’ll all be out there looking for them,” Josiah said quietly. “We didn’t want to involve the police, not until we’d talked to you, and even if they’re suffering, they’re survivors. Like I said, they were my decisions, and maybe they were the wrong ones, but…”

Josiah expected his anger, Chris realised, expected to be torn into—no, more than that, he hoped he would be, rather than Buck being blamed.

Shit. How screwed up had his leadership been these last months?

“I think you made good calls,” he said, trying not to show how much the talking was making his headache worse. “It was no one’s fault except the bastard who rammed me. No good saying ‘if’. I know Buck would’ve wanted to protect them from what he expected to see when he got to the Ram. You had no reason to guess they’d been there. I had my mind on catching the driver and finding out who paid him.” He closed his eyes, let the pain settle a little, then went on quietly. “You’re right. They are survivors, Josiah. They’ve had to survive too much, but they’ve got good at it. I just don’t like to think of them hurting.”

“We’ll find them again, Chris.”

He couldn’t struggle to talk any longer. Eyes still shut, he was aware of footsteps, a nurse coming. The pain relief was light in view of his head injury, but it was better than nothing.

“I’ll go and check in with Nathan, see what’s happening,” Josiah said quietly when she finished. He stayed a little while longer though, his hand on Chris’s arm, helping him keep a hold on things until the headache’s roar subsided to a growl. “They have each other, Chris. They’re not alone. As soon as it’s light, we’ll be out there looking for them.”

Chris made one last effort. “Tell Buck…”

“That it wasn’t his fault?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll tell him. You rest now, brother.”


It was lucky the nurses knew him so well, Buck thought. 2 a.m. wasn’t a great time to be visiting, but he just wanted to see JD before finally going home for what was left of the night.

He was still high on adrenaline from the successful bust. Chris’s plan had worked to perfection. The driver of the truck—one Samuel Yates, suspicions but no record—had been taken completely by surprise in his apartment. The only disappointment had been that he was alone. They had hoped his accomplice might be with him.

Yates had been taken completely unawares, and, faced with being identified by the ATF agent he’d almost killed, had admitted to being the driver. So far, that was all he would admit, and he was still trying to claim it had been an accident and that he’d run away from the consequences, fortuitously hitching a lift. There were plenty of holes in his story. With that and the evidence from the scene, Buck thought there was a good chance of charging him with attempted murder. When he realised that, Yates might reconsider his position, and look to arrange a deal by giving evidence about how he was hired.

It wouldn’t happen quickly, though. They’d decided to leave him to realise how much trouble he was in for a few hours, and the others had gone home to get some sleep. Buck didn’t think he’d be able to do that until he’d seen the kid.

“Buck!” It was Julie who called him softly. He hadn’t expected her to be working tonight.

“I think he’s awake,” she said. “I heard about today when I came on. You must have had a hard time between work and JD. A friend of yours was hurt?”

“Yeah. It looked bad, but he’s okay. I wouldn’t have missed being with JD if it hadn’t been an emergency. Is he awake because he’s uncomfortable?”

“No, he’s fine. He’s doing really well. Everyone’s pleased with his progress, and you can tell him I thought he was very brave about the physio. It’s just not always easy to sleep in a hospital, and although he’s been very good about missing you I think he’s feeling rather a sad little boy tonight.”

Buck was on his way before she finished speaking. The light in JD’s room was dimmed a bit, but he could easily see the kid’s downcast face—which changed the minute he saw Buck.

“Buck. You came!” he said happily. “I thought it was too late now. I didn’t think I’d see you at all tonight.” His brown eyes became just a bit solemn again. “I’m sorry ’bout your friend. Is he going to be okay?”

“He’ll be fine,” Buck said. Although there was no longer an operational need to conceal the identity of the ‘friend’ he didn’t want to tell JD it had been Chris. That would open a whole can of worms, and he wasn’t going to explain about Vin and Ezra tonight.

He wrapped his arms around JD and revelled in not having to be quite so careful with him any more. “Julie tells me you’re her bravest and best patient.”

JD squirmed a bit, embarrassed by the praise. “I pretended you were there,” he confessed. “The lady who came to get my arm working properly again, she was… well, you’d have wiggled your moustache at her. So I pretended you were doing it and that nearly made me laugh.”

“I don’t wiggle my moustache at ladies.”

“Do too.”

Buck laughed and held him close. “Well, I guess some of them must find it attractive then.”

JD made some ‘ick’ noises and snuggled close. “Can you stay for a bit?” he asked.

“Long as you want,” Buck promised. He had only one more thing he planned to do tonight, and he wasn’t really looking forward to it. Once JD settled to sleep, he was going to walk along to Chris’s room. Since he was the one heading for the hospital, it made sense for him to be the one to let Chris know they’d taken Yates. He’d thought about doing that first, but he wasn’t looking forward to the encounter and it certainly wasn’t going to hurt Chris to sleep a bit longer. Josiah said Chris didn’t blame anyone about the boys, but Buck blamed himself. He drew strength from JD’s trusting affection. It might be the early hours of the morning, after a very long day, but these few minutes with the kid beat food and sleep. Rocking slightly, he felt JD start to doze.

Continue on to Part 4 of 8